Hey, Wollow speaking. There's nothing much to be said here, but special thanks to Steppy's Never Meant To Be for inspiration. Enjoy the story!
Efflorescence - the state/period of flowering
Ephemeral - lasting for a short time
Crepuscular - dim, resembling twilight
Evanescent - fleeting
Labyrinthine - twisting and turning
Reassemblage - coming back together
Pyhrric - successful but with heavy losses
Mellifluous - sweet sounding
Dalliance - a brief love affair
Amaranthine - undying
part one - efflorescence
The wisteria trees that surrounded our camp had been in full bloom for a few sunrises. They draped over the dens in a spectacular explosion of purple flowers. Fallen petals scattered around the camp, creating a soft purple carpet under our feet. The last of the winter snow had melted a moon ago, and the cold temperatures vanished along with it. Now the birds' melodies rang through the air once more, combining with our flowers to beautify the land.
The beautiful spring sights, however, did not excuse us from training.
Cherry nudged me awake before dawn rose. Her sharp yowl jolted me from sleep, and I had to blink a few times before my eyes began functioning properly. Fuzzy sleep was still fading from my head, but her voice rang clear.
"Get up already. Elzora and Nascha are already in the training grove."
Cherry, as talented as she was, refused to be outdone by the leader's kits. That was pretty hard, as they had been training since they were essentially newborns. Not only did they learn hunting and fighting, but they were also taught leadership, confidence, and manners. The latter sounded pretty boring, but they had been living pampered lives since their birth. Every cat was jealous of the leader's kits, and for a good reason.
I groggily shook the sleepiness from my head and stood up shakily. I waited until I was sure my paws could support me, then padded out of the den after Cherry. Mist hung in the air, not yet burned off from the slowly climbing sun that had just peeked above the horizon. The shadows gave everything a bluish tint, and the bright flowers that surrounded the dens didn't seem so bright in the pre-dawn light. Or lack thereof.
Cherry's reddish tail flowed behind her as she dashed out of camp down the winding trail that led to the training grove. Our domain was covered in every type of flower imaginable, from the white blossoms that covered the side of the path to the nearly-fallen cherry blossoms above us. The shadows the many trees cast were long and dappled Cherry's pelt like the petals dappled the ground.
I slowed as we approached the training ground. As Cherry had said, Elzora and Nascha were already standing under the large tree that we used for training. It was the tallest tree in the forest, and its branches stretched out above most of the nearby woods. Next to the aristocratic she-cats stood Magnolia and Onyx, the Champions tasked with training the Cadets. The Champions were some of the highest-ranking cats in the group. Unlike the Aristocrats, they earned their titles not by birth but by performing brave and heroic tasks. Cherry aspired to be a Champion someday, but I was content with staying an average cat for now. I probably wouldn't have the skill to become a Champion anyway.
"Torrent!" Blizzard called my name from the other side of the training grove. My brother was less serious than Cherry. He was less serious than most of the Cadets, except for maybe Raven. Raven wasn't a slacker (she was actually an excellent fighter), but she was constantly joking and playing pranks on the rest of the cats. Our trainers hated it, calling it 'not acceptable behavior for a young Twilight Hunter'. I considered it hilarious.
I trotted over to my brother, sitting down next to him and gazing at Magnolia and Onyx. They were uninterested in the two of us, turning their attention instead to the absence of Lark and Raven. The siblings weren't quite morning cats, so it was to be expected, but the trainers seemed surprised by it anyway.
We waited a few moments before the two Cadets came. Lark was slightly out of breath due to his lack of stamina (and the fact that it wasn't yet sunrise), but the pair sat down between Cherry and me.
As soon as the siblings were both seated Magnolia began speaking. "Today we will be working on herb identification. Not every one of you will be a medic, but you will be all tested on it in your final assessment to determine your role."
I heard a slight groan from Blizzard, but it was quickly suppressed after a glare from Onyx. Magnolia picked up a few bundles of herbs from beside her and placed them lined up in front of her.
"Each of you will get a bundle and you will sort it into three piles. Herbs for cuts and scrapes, herbs for coughs and fevers, and herbs for other injuries. After this activity, we will go herb hunting together."
The lesson continued as usual, complete with sarcastic comments from Blizzard and a toad in Cherry's fur from Raven. I wasn't the biggest fan of herbs and healing, mostly because I was terrible at it. I never understood how the medics could stay calm in an emergency and remember all those herbs, even under so much stress. I admired them but definitely wasn't envious of their job, although they were higher-ranking than your average warrior or hunter.
When the sun rose directly above our heads, we headed back to camp for a small meal. Cats clumped together in their small groups, whispering about the day's gossip while gulping down their prey. Cherry followed Elzora and Nascha towards the leader's den, but she was careful not to get too close as not to anger them. I sat with Blizzard, Lark, and Raven, gulping down a plump mouse. Spring not only brought beauty, it also gave us fat prey. I was careful to watch for maggots, eating with Raven, but other than that I could say relaxed (for once).
"Look," Lark whispered to me, flicking his tail towards the two princesses, who were entering the Great Den. "I think the Council is meeting."
This was definitely true, as I spotted Onyx and Magnolia, along with the rest of the Champions and Aristocrats, heading towards the Great Den as well. Council meetings occurred at the beginning of every season, but they also met in times of need or crisis. This did not seem anything like a time of need or crisis, with the trees in efflorescence around us.
part two - ephemeral
Cherry woke me up before dawn again. This time, it was also before Elzora and Nashca. She padded briskly out of the flowery camp and toward the training grove, stepping quickly and purposefully. The sky was still a dark purple, but tinges of pink were sneaking into the pre-dawn sky. She had a lot of energy, considering it wasn't even dawn yet. Still groggy with sleep, I followed her to the training grove, where Onyx and Magnolia stood. They seemed even more tense than normal, and every once and a while exchanged whispers with each other. Their tails twitched nervously every one and a while.
Their whispering abruptly stopped when Cherry and I entered the grove. Onyx's gaze never left us as we sat down in front of them, but eventually, it dropped and they continued their whispering. I could only make out a few words, something about "scouts" and "on our borders".
The rest of the cats slowly arrived. Cherry gazed at Elzora with a smirk on her face. Elzora glared back at her. She hated to be outdone, especially by a common-born cat.
Elzora and Nashca definitely knew what was going on, as they had been in the Council meeting. They too exchanged many whispers. Elzora glanced at Cherry once and a while, a haughty expression on her face. Cherry returned the glance, her narrow eyes even more so.
When Lark and Raven arrived in the grove, the whispering stopped for good this time. Onyx stood up and began speaking, his gaze falling upon each of us in turn.
"Today, we will be practicing battle tactics," he meowed, his voice meaningful. "We are at peace right now, but you never know when you might need them in the future."
Cherry glanced at Magnolia, who gave her a sharp nod. Cherry's mouth dropped open for a second, but she quickly closed it and listened to Onyx's orders.
"Divide into groups of four. The first group to reach the end of the other's side wins. No claws, no deaths by blunt force trauma. I hope you are capable of training without injuries."
Even Onyx's tone betrayed the fact that something was wrong. The tom was usually uptight, but his voice was even more choppy than usual.
The training continued on, the air swimming with tension. Even Blizzard could tell something was wrong. Battle training had always been minimal, and always designed for dealing with a fox, badger, or dog. We had never used tactics against cats before.
When we were finished with that training session for the day, we padded back along the flowery trails toward the camp. The sun hung above our heads, casting short shadows beneath us. It followed us to the two lines of dens that made up our camp, with the Great Den and leader's chamber at the end of them. I had always wondered how they got those cherry trees to grow around the Great Den. It gave it an important, regal look.
We continued our daily routine, sitting down and sharing a couple of rabbits between the four of us. Blizzard insisted on being the one to gnaw on the legs, and eventually, the rest of us complied. I glanced up from the juicy rabbit to see the leader, Astor, heading up to the Great Rock that stood in front of the Council meeting chamber, followed by a group of Aristocrats and Champions, as well as his daughters.
Raven nudged me excitedly. "Look!" Her muzzle was tipped toward the Great Rock where Astor stood. "The group is gathering!"
I noticed Cherry standing close to the bottom of the rock. Her expression was far from excited. My sister's face was twisted with worry and fear, seeming out of place in the world of petal-coated streams. She paced back and forth, eventually sitting down directly in front of the rock. I saw other cats following, then Elzora sounded a yowl that we all knew meant meeting time.
We abandoned the rabbit and loped across the camp to the Great Rock, sitting beneath it in the ever-growing cloud of cats. Astor sat on its peak, flicking his tail impatiently. As soon as the majority of cats had joined the cluster, he began speaking.
"As you may have noticed, our Council met yesterday." His confident yowl echoed off the beautiful garden we stood in. "We were discussing a rather... troubling matter."
Blizzard's face looked even more excited. Cherry was the opposite. It almost seemed like she might explode with fear at some point. She clearly knew most of what was going on, but that made it worse.
"Another group has moved into the territory near ours. They have not yet crossed the borders, but our scouts report that there are many cats there and their numbers threaten ours."
Blizzard nudged me. "They might accelerate Cadet training!" His mew was quickly punctuated by a glare from Scarlet, a she-cat sitting near us. Raven's expression was neutral, while Lark seemed slightly scared by the news. I still wasn't sure how I felt. They might not pose a threat to us if they're just living on our borders, but if they cross them...
"The Council has voted to take immediate action. We will be scouting out their lands, numbers, and any plans they may have, as well as attempting to send a diplomatic visitor to them. We must also prepare for battle."
Even though we all knew it was coming, Astor's last words sent a ripple of surprise through the crowd. The Twilight Hunters hadn't faced a war in twelve seasons because every nearby group knew of our strength and power. The cherry trees that surrounded the Great Den had been planted forty seasons ago, a sign of our long-lasting power. No cat had the nerve to challenge that. Or so we thought.
Astor dipped his head as a sign the meeting was over, then the Council members padded off the rock. I spotted them returning to the Great Den, likely having another meeting.
It seemed the peace of the spring was ephemeral.
part three - crepuscular
Tension hung in the air like fog for the next few days. We practiced our battle moves every day now, and even Blizzard started to take it seriously. The Council met every day, probably discussing the incoming threats. Mealtimes were often silent, the air thick with unspoken words. From what we heard from Elzora and Nascha's conversations, scouts were constantly checking both the other group's territory and the border. There was talk of sending spies or threatening them with an army, though to our knowledge no action had been taken.
Cherry had calmed down and was now constantly rambling about strategies and what she thought the Council should be doing. Her desperation to become a Champion was pretty clear. She would probably make a good one, seeing as most of her strategies had at least some ground. She often instigated debates with Nascha, insisting we should send spies to see how large their armies were and what they were planning.
The most memorable early-morning training session was our probably five hundredth battle lesson in the last few sunrises. Nascha and Cherry were arguing, as always, and Onyx was telling them to shut up and start fighting with claws instead of words (but not with claws, or deaths by blunt force trauma), as always. Cherry's newest point was that we knew next to nothing about them, which was true. Listening to the debate eventually bored me (and Magnolia told me to get off my lazy butt and start training), so I began a practice bout with Lark.
We sparred, getting into a rhythm of swipes and dodges, with the occasional leap or roll thrown in. It was oddly silent, as neither of us really yowled or hissed when fighting. I imagined what it would be like in a real battle, where a misstep wouldn't just cost me a bit of reputation, but my life. Any lack of focus and I would die.
In this bout, lack of focus only caused me to get pinned to the ground easily by Lark. Magnolia gave me a disapproving look, strutting over slowly.
"Concentrate! One wrong move and you will pay with your life on the battlefield."
I started another bout with Lark, managing to win this time. We were both decent fighters, though nothing exceptional. Raven was as nimble as a squirrel and usually planned four moves ahead while still managing to concentrate. How she did it, I don't know.
When the training was over Cherry padded up to Lark, Raven and I. "That stupid royal she-cat won't listen to my common sense."
I rolled my eyes. Cherry got rather involved in many debates, and never was satisfied until she proved her point. It got quite annoying after a while.
"If the Council won't do it, I'll do it myself," she continued, pacing back and forth. Her tail lashed rhythmically, as it always did when she was annoyed. She padded off through the clusters of blossoms that had once seemed peaceful, but now just echoed with the promise of the war.
Raven shrugged and headed back towards the camp. Lark and I followed the jet-black she-cat a few paces behind, our steps light and nervous. No matter how much we pretended not to care, all the Cadets were worried about the battle. Lark, Raven, Cherry and I, at least. Blizzard was questionable. A rustle sounded in the bushes behind us and I broke into a run. Raven and Lark had the same reaction, bolting through the flowery woods and back to the camp, gasping for breath.
Cats had already started eating around us. The Council was presumably having another meeting, because Nascha and Elzora were nowhere nearby. Lark picked up a squirrel for us to share and we padded over to the stump by the Cadets' den, where Blizzard was already gulping down a large mouse.
Lark dropped the squirrel on the ground and we all sat down, nipping at its flesh halfheartedly. I glanced around the camp for Cherry, but she was nowhere to be found. Maybe she was just still out there. She surely would return for our second training session, right? Cherry valued her training more than any of us, even Nascha or Elzora. The two daughters of the leader always acted like they already knew everything. Lark and I tried to do well in training, but we just weren't as good or invested in it as the others. Blizzard just plain didn't try, while Raven usually didn't really care. She was probably good enough to pass her final assessment right now.
The sun had crept down in the sky a little bit more when it was time for training again. Lark, Raven, Blizzard and I padded out of camp in a small clump, trotting down the trail created by Twilight Hunters long ago. Thousands of pawprints had walked this path before us, and now the land of our ancestors was being threatened. We think.
I glanced nervously around the training grove. Cherry skipping the meal at sunhigh wasn't unheard of, but Cherry skipping a lesson... It hadn't even started yet, why worry. Even Nascha seemed concerned. I knew the she-cat cared about Cherry at least a little more than her haughty sister, but I doubt either would miss her much.
We continued waiting in the training grove because the trainers wouldn't start the lesson if a cat was missing. Even Magnolia and Onyx started whispering about Cherry's disappearance. Eventually, Onyx held his tail up as a signal for us to stop talking and start listening. "It appears we have a missing Cadet. As you know, skipping training is not tolerated in any way, shape, or form. Cherry will be tracked down and punished. In the meantime, Magnolia will work on ambushes with you."
Magnolia split us into two groups. Nascha, Raven and I were ambushing Blizzard, Lark, and Elzora. The three of them, along with Magnolia, would hide in the woods somewhere and our group would track them down and ambush them. It was a task we'd done many times before, but always with the intention of attacking a fox den or badger sett.
The war was scary.
We had to wait until we heard Magnolia's yowl to start the search. Raven whispered attack strategies to us, suggesting that we split up and search, but Nascha cut her off.
"We are looking for Cherry."
The words took me by surprise, but also seemed oddly expected. We set out, not to track the waiting Cadets, but to bring Cherry out of the crepuscular shadows that seemed to have taken her.
part four - evanescent
Raven and Nascha were a few steps ahead of me, trotting quietly along the path that lead to the border. The oaks and maples towered over the sides of the well-trodden path, creating a sense of isolation from the rest of the forest. We padded towards the border quickly but quietly, careful not to attract the attention of our trainers or the other group. When we reached the heavily patrolled line, full of scents from our scouts and guards, Raven hesitated before jumping across after Nascha, who had leaped over it eagerly. I followed close behind us, careful to make my pawsteps even more inconspicuous than before. This group had an odd scent, like rain and fresh leaves. A few more flowery scents stood out, most likely the scents of the scouts that had come before us. This group didn't seem as careful or confident as us. Their scent intertwined with prey's in a way that made me think most of these cats were just hunting, and their border was barely scent-marked.
The scent that stood out most to me, however, was Cherry's. It was well-masked, but I knew her scent by heart. She had clearly crossed the border and headed into the heart of their territory, though she had intentionally made her path winding and difficult to follow. Looking back, we should have done that. The trainers were probably on our trail by now. I knew Onyx had stopped at the border and gone back, most likely to alert Astor, our leader.
We continued through the other group's territory. Nascha walked confidently ahead of us. As a royal, she often felt entitled to do what she wanted. Her royal status, however, did not entitle her to walk in this group's territory. Raven was more careful, having smothered some of her scent in dried leaves earlier. I spotted the glint of her unsheathed claws, ready to fight any cat who challenged us.
A light drizzle began, making tapping sounds on the leaves above us. It washed away not only our scents, but the scent we were following. I glanced up at Nascha inquisitively, not daring to make a sound in case we were heard. She just continued along in the general direction the now-faint scents led, determined to find Cherry. We followed her, though Raven looked at me skeptically once. It seemed like she wanted to get caught.
The scents began to get thicker and stronger, weaving closer and closer together. The group's scent was fresh and clear, like the forest after rain. One of the scents seemed stronger than the rest...
"It's more of those flower-scented cats," an unfamiliar voice announced. I looked up and saw the speaker, along with four other cats in her patrol, all smelling strongly of the enemy group. Nascha's apparent wish had been fulfilled. We had been caught.
Raven whipped around, immediately leaping at a mottled she-cat. Her silver claws tore a nick in the larger cat's ear as she twisted away from a swipe. Eventually, the older she-cat managed to pin Raven to the ground, leaving the rest of the cats in the patrol glaring at us suspiciously.
"Golden will want to see this," the apparent leader of the group meowed. The tortoiseshell she-cat that held Raven released her, but it was clear we were not free to go. Nascha had been watching the whole thing in shock, but quickly snapped out of it when the patrol began moving. The cats cringed away from us a little, which was surprising. We were just a small group of Cadets who could easily be beaten by five adults. The more I thought about it, however, the more sense it made. We had been sending scouts here for the last few days. Most of them had only short, quarter-sunrise missions, though some lasted a day or more. A few of those scouts hadn't returned yet or came back a day or two later and rather battered. They knew we were here and what we were doing.
The three of us walked alongside the patrol of five, our legs trembling and our fur puffed up. The once-peaceful land of towering trees seemed a lot less calm after what had happened. The raindrops trickled uncomfortably down my face as the rain began to intensify. The drops began to pound on the leaves above us, creating a rather annoying tapping sound that echoed in our ears and through our heads.
Eventually, I spotted a large clearing ahead. A bramble barrier had been woven around it out of the surrounding bushes, less graceful than our wall of rose bushes. It was functional, however, and didn't require constant attention. One of the main chores for kits and Cadets was to tend to the gardens in camp and around the territory. Most of the cats had to help at some point, but it was mainly the Cadets who had to place cherry seeds in small holes around the camp or make sure the roses grew in the right direction.
As we walked through the bramble barrier, I noticed that this group didn't have any of the haughty decorativeness of the Twilight Hunters. Their dens were plain and simple, built into the roots of oak trees and woven off of the bramble walls. They didn't seem concentrated on making their camp intimidating or impressive. It was more practical, seeming unfinished in places. A few dens looked half-built or hastily made, and cats milled around carrying brambles or sticks and leaving them in piles.
Of course, they had just moved here.
We were led into a den that seemed less well-constructed than the rest. It was large, though. The bramble walls stretched nearly as wide as the dens that an Aristocrat or Champion might live in, but the ceiling was probably half as high. Inside lay a few hastily-made nests, some prey bones... and Cherry.
Nascha immediately bounded over, looking delighted. Cherry looked both horrified and happy at the same time, letting Nascha lean her head against her fur.
"Are you okay?" Nascha asked, slightly breathless, her black fur spiked a bit in worry.
"I'm fine. You?" Cherry replied, a smile breaking out across her face.
"Fine as well," Nascha said, regaining some of her confident stance and tone. "We need to get out of here."
Cherry nodded in agreement. Raven stepped up to the two, pricking her ears in interest. "They must be keeping some of our scouts here too. I thought I saw Adder in one of the other dens."
It seemed our moments of peace and preparation were evanescent.
part five - labyrinthine
A night passed, full of whispered plans and panic. None of us could sleep if we wanted to. We made sure the guards couldn't hear a word, though I suspected that tom who was here for about a quarter-day had heard at least a few of our murmured plans. At sunrise, we would leave. Our plan was not the most graceful or strategical, but we were desperate and starving. We weren't used to sharing a couple of scrawny voles a day, but at least they fed us.
A bird's note trickled into the tense silence of the den. Another joined in, and soon the air was full of song. Raven padded quietly over to the weak spot in the back of the brambles she had discovered, quickly nipping off a few branches. Nascha squeezed through first, attempting to shrink her large form through the gap in our prison. She ended up with a few scratches but silently signaled for Cherry to come through. I went next, followed by Raven. We crept along the edges of the camp, careful not to make a sound.
Silence, however, did not prevent us from being seen.
A yowl of alarm rang through the camp, others joining it. We all jumped, startled by the yowl and fearing for our lives. I stood frozen with fear for a second, but then bolted in a random direction. The others had the same idea, all sprinting in different directions. Their camp was chaos, a mess of cats young and old milling around the half-finished dens.
I spotted Raven's lithe black figure slip out of camp out of the corner of my eye. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that she probably wouldn't be caught once she was outside this mess of cats. If she made it, which hopefully would happen, the Twilight Hunters would know of our capture.
I jolted out of my thoughts about Raven when a cat lunged for Cherry, who was racing beside me. She tumbled onto the ground, rolling for a bit before being held fast by a larger cat's paws. Without thinking, I leaped for the cat holding her down. Her surprise allowed me to send her tumbling down, but she was strong. She held me on the ground, her grip impossible to escape. I looked up to see a dark brown face twisted with rage, her amber eyes burning.
"Go!" I yowled, glaring at my captor. She raced away, weaving through the sea of cats. A few tried to capture her, but she was too fast, and quickly got away. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Cherry's reddish-brown pelt disappear into the forest. Another cat safe. Nascha was wrestling with a cat about her size, though she had the advantage due to being well-fed from her royal position. She threw him onto the ground and ran out of the camp, not looking back at me. This allowed me to return my full attention to the cat holding me onto the ground, and she did not seem happy.
Another cat padded over, grey with faint stripes. He looked less angry than the golden-streaked she-cat who held me down, but he definitely wouldn't be letting me go. He gave my captor a sharp look and she immediately let me go, keeping a watchful eye on me to remind me that I was not free to go.
I was led into a large den that held four other cats, all of which I recognized to be Twilight Hunters. I recognized Silver and Sparrow, two of our best spies, along with a tortoiseshell whose name I couldn't quite place and a scrawny tabby. All of them looked hostile and did not seem happy that they were getting another denmate.
I immediately regretted sacrificing myself for Cherry. This den seemed even more well-guarded than ours, having two guards posted inside and two guards on the entrance. There was little chance of getting out of this one, and even if I did I'd probably be thrown right back into it by the well-muscled cats that made up this group. I eventually gave up on figuring out a plan and just slumped in my uncomfortable nest and drifted off to sleep.
My dreams were fleeting and unclear, full of flowers and cherry trees. I was running toward our camp, toward home, but every time I took a step it got farther. The dark brown she-cat was holding me down, a den made of stone walls with no exits, everyone else living happily while I suffered. None of the faint images I remembered from my dreams were pleasant.
I regretted saving Cherry instead of myself. It was selfish, but so was I. Maybe Cherry could have escaped this den where I lay awake, drifting in and out of dreams. Maybe if I had rescued myself, I could have made a patrol to rescue Cherry. Maybe I could not be stuck in this den. Maybe I could only have to worry about my training and whether I'd catch enough prey that day.
I couldn't decide who I was more angry at, myself or my captors.
The cats in the den seemed to have long given up hope of escaping, which discouraged me even more. If our trained spies couldn't escape this prison, how could I? Desperation and selfishness flitted around my thoughts, anger at myself for saving Cherry, anger at myself for being so selfish.
My prison encased me for four sunrises, though I could hardly keep track of the days. The guards changed four times a day, each one as stoic as the last. In the back of my mind, I hoped that one of the guards would be friendly and let us free, but it was a desperate one and I ignored it most of the time. My denmates were just as unfriendly, occasionally whispering to each other but otherwise silent. They were as hopeless as I was, and one of them was sent out nearly a moon ago. How long had they been there?
My mind twisted through the labyrinthine paths of the future, but I couldn't any way out of this prison.
part six - reassemblage
Many weary sunrises passed, each one taking a bit of my hope with it. Our captors milled around happily outside, bringing in piles of prey while we fed off their scraps. Their community seemed very different from ours, lacking the rigid organization and strictness we had back home. Their trainees were much more free than our Cadets, milling around the camp, talking and joking. They didn't have the prim system of Champions and Aristocrats, instead having four captains who commanded the rest of the cats, with a leader commanding the captains. It was much more military than ours, but it seemed more relaxed. Of course, none of this mattered, because I was their prisoner and probably would never be let free. One of their captains, Golden, often came over to check on us. From what I heard her say and do, I assumed she was in charge of defense and prisoners. She still scared me after the time she caught me and held me down, but I liked her mate, Creek. He was also a captain and seemed to take pity on us. I had a special hate for the emotionless guards who stood in and outside our den, never speaking a word. They stared us down, hatred in their gaze.
Despite the odds against me, I still remained that ever-fading hope that we'd get out of here, that we'd get home. The other cats in our den didn't share that hope, having resigned to lying in their nests all day. I still didn't know what they were going to do with us or how we could ever escape, but in the back of my head, I believed we would return home somehow. Somehow.
That somehow came twelve sunrises after our capture. From what I heard of the discussions going on outside our den, the group was trying to secure their borders. Apparently, more of our scouts had been detected, though none had been captured. Yet. If they could capture our best scout, there was no way that every one of our others could evade them for too long. It was only a matter of time until they figured out what was going on and declared war on us.
Judging by the way the sun filtered through the woven leaves of our prison, it was about sunhigh when they attacked. The first battle cry rang through the camp, raising alarms everywhere. Our guards moved to the entrance of our den, claws unsheathed, but it was no use. Nascha came bursting through the leaves of the den, followed by an entourage of warriors. The former prisoners' faces were shining with expressions of delight as they raced out of the gap the warriors had left.
I followed, giving Nascha a thankful smile. I raced out of the den, side by side with the captured scouts. Nascha and her warriors followed us, dealing with any cats who attempted to trail us. We raced across their territory like our lives depended on it (and they probably did), home growing closer with every step. I thought about nothing but the cherry trees leading up to the Council's den, the blossoms that covered the ground, the ivy winding around the tree the Cadets' den stood against.
The scents of home flooded my senses as we crossed the border. The well-nurtured flowers of the Twilight Hunters' territory seemed to be welcoming me home, and I felt like I was absorbing the joy they radiated. Now that we were in our own territory, our pace slowed. Nascha quickened her steps so she walked beside me, which she had never done before. I had always assumed she was just as snooty as her father or sister, but the time away from home seemed to have transformed her.
"I finally lead my first mission," she meowed excitedly, pride shining in her eyes. "Sorry I was never friendly to you before this. Speaking with 'commoners' is 'not acceptable behavior for the heir to the Twilight Hunters'."
That was why she was so stuck-up? I probably should have realized it before, but I wasn't the best at reading other cats' emotions. I had never been good with other cats in general, preferring to hunt alone. I didn't mind the company of Lark or Raven, but I was never the most social of cats.
The flowers got thicker and thicker as we reached the camp, twisting and turning from the wildflowers that grew around the edge of our territory to wisterias to the cherry trees that surrounded it. My face became brighter with every step closer to camp. To home. When the rosebushes that protected our dens came into sight, I immediately bolted into the entrance, the refreshing scents flooding my senses. Cats milled around my home as usual, though I sensed a little tension in the air. Lark and Raven were training by our den, while Blizzard meowed to Cherry about how WONDERFULLY EXCITING the war was. As soon as Cherry spotted Nascha and I she raced over, giving us both a lick on the head. Cherry was quite tall.
"How did your first mission go?" Cherry asked Nascha, beaming. "Any news about the cats there?"
"Calm down," Nascha muttered, though her eyes sparkled as much as Cherry's. "I'm an Aristocrat. I'm supposed to be royal and snooty." It was clear she was not, as she broke into a purr immediately after the words fell out of her mouth.
"And Torrent," Cherry meowed, turning her amber gaze toward me. "Thank you for sacrificing yourself for me."
I stood there awkwardly, not quite knowing what to say. I didn't tell her about how much I'd regretted my sacrifice afterward, or my slight, irrational anger at her for being free. Instead, I replied with a practiced refrain I had often heard Lark and Raven purr to each other. I envied their bond.
"That's what littermates are for, right?"
Honestly, most of the delight in my voice came from my freedom, not our reassemblage.
part seven - pyrrhic
As grateful as I was to be out of that prison, life in the camp was not the same as it had once been. Training continued and the routine stayed the same, but everyone was so nervous about the war. There was no way to fall back into the robotic tendencies we had once had, with our rigid training schedule. It was as if someone had thrown a pebble into the once-still waters of our group and sent ripples across the pool that was the Twilight Hunters. Our gardening duties came to a halt as every moment of our day was dedicated to training or a few wispy moments of rest.
Cherry was much quieter now, training harder than ever. I suspected she was trying to make up her disappearance to Magnolia, Onyx, and the rest of the Council, though she never told me outright. Raven trained harder than before, too, and her pranks were a thing of memory. She was often as serious as my sister in dangerous situations, and we were definitely in one now. Blizzard was uncharacteristically serious, mostly the same but minus the eye-rolling and jokes at training sessions. Lark, however, was the same as always, and it was relieving to have one familiar cat in this chaos. He his calm and kind self, still training well, but not unusually so.
I hadn't been involved in any action since the raid, but the Council brought me to speak at one meeting. They asked questions about the scraps of information I held about the other group, and I told them everything I knew. I told them about the four generals, their war plans, their guard shifts. They had received some information from Cherry and the others, but I had been kept there for a dozen sunrises. I didn't express any of the genuine care I had for some of the cats. Not a word about Creek's kindness or the sympathy I felt with them on rare occasions.
Most of this, of course, faded when I thought about my capture. The emotionless guards, mysterious leader (I thought I heard the name Hazelnut thrown around, but I wasn't sure). Golden's anger, the vicious warrior who had captured me. The Council told me that our patrollers were repeatedly finding their scent over our borders, prey killed in our territory, and direct signs of defiance and antagonism. I nodded respectfully to everything they told me, though I wish I knew more. I was dismissed shortly afterward and returned to the endless sessions of battle training.
Everyone was on edge after the threatening gestures were announced to the rest of the group. Cherry trained and trained and trained, at mealtimes and at night. Her lack of sleep showed through, and it was clear she was exhausted. Raven, too, trained whenever she could, but I suspected that she was more sensible about sleep. Blizzard shut everything out and tried desperately to continue on with life as normal, but his feeble attempts at jokes weren't the same. Elzora still strutted around with her muzzle in the air, smirking at her knowledge and Council status. Lark and I stayed together most of the time, both of us filled with fear. We both followed along with the harsher training Magnolia and Onyx gave us, went with the tighter schedule, trying to appear as if we weren't so scared.
But we were.
Although Magnolia and Onyx's stories and training sessions scared me, they could never prepare me for a real battle. The first real battle of the war came exactly seven sunrises after my release, when they attacked our camp.
I recognized some cats through the whirlwind of battle but never bothered to register who they were in my mind. Fighting was the only thing of my mind, gaining some chance of survival. We had been told to always fight together, seven Cadets back to back. Lark, Raven, Cherry, Nascha, and I obeyed this, but Blizzard fled at the first sight of claws and Elzora went and joined up with the "real" fighters. In this battle, everyone fought. Scouts, medics, patrollers, hunters, guards, Aristocrats, Champions. There was nothing of the practiced, organized battle lines of warriors that we had been taught. It was a mess of cats, pelts of all colors swirling together in a flurry of claws and teeth.
The remaining Cadets and I stood in a nervous circle, ready to claw any cat that came near. No cat approached us for a while, causing me to breathe a sigh of relief, but eventually, a group of cats approached us. I immediately recognized their leader. Inferno, a tortoiseshell general who specialized in stealth missions, according to the meeting I had overheard. She lead a group of cats, weaving through the crowd to head for Astor and Rasha, who were fighting in a group with their guards. The guards were excellent fighters and few cats lay a claw on Astor and Rasha, but an assassin approaching from behind could easily kill them. Nascha motioned toward them with a claw and we reluctantly moved forward to face them.
Lark and Raven immediately stuck together back-to-back, ready to protect each other. Cherry and Nascha did the same, claws ready to fight any cat who got near. I stood in the middle, hoping desperately no cat would attack me. Of course, that was a hope, not reality. Inferno herself leaped for me, raking her claws down my side and tearing my ear. Fear pulsed through me, all my instincts screaming run.
And so I did. I fled from the she-cat, running and running until I reached the edge of the camp, where I collapsed on the ground, pain rushing through my body. I didn't quite faint, for I could still see a fuzzy mess of torn fur and blood where the battle raged, and I could still feel pain. I felt a cat lean over me, smelling faintly of leaves and flowers.
"Come along," she murmured. "I can heal you."
And so I did. Away from the battle, away from the blood and pain and fear, away from everything. I leaned on her shoulder and we padded out into the forest toward the edge of the Twilight Hunters' territory. I had escaped, survived, but my injuries reminded me that this was a pyrrhic victory.
part eight - mellifluous
The yowling and shrieks of battle faded as the strange she-cat and I padded away from the fighting, away from the camp, away from it all. We were silent, the only noises the wind in the trees and the rustle of our paws in the leaves and flowers, which slowly thinned until we exited the Twilight Hunters' territory. Missions outside of our group's territory were rare and would never be entrusted to a Cadet like me, so it was odd to be crossing the scent marks for the third time in my life. This time, though, I was moving into the unclaimed territory beyond our borders, land of vicious, lawless rogues. Or so I was told.
The two of us came to a den, far less luxurious than the flowery ones I lived in as a Twilight Hunter. She led me inside, letting me lie on a bed of moss. She picked up an assortment of herbs and berries and began picking out the ones she found useful, much like our healers. I had never trained to be a healer, but I recognized some of the scenes wafting from the leaves and flowers. She picked up a stalk of what I presumed to be marigold, chewing it up and placing it on my wounds. She picked out a few more herbs, most of which were unrecognizable to me, covering me in leaves and petals by the time she was done.
"Eat these," she murmured, placing a couple poppy seeds in front of my muzzle. "I'm Belladonna," she murmured. "I lived with the other group you've been fighting, and I too am tired of all this war."
How did she know?
I lapped up the poppy seeds, my wounds still stinging. I didn't feel any more drowsy than before, though I doubted it was possible to be sleepier than I already was. The she-cat - Belladonna - gazed down at me with a smile, sitting near the edge of her simple, practical den that smelled of herbs and flowers.
"I was once part of the group you were at war with," she meowed warmly, "but I've been building this den since we moved here. I never liked the war, so I was planning on leaving when I got the chance. Now seems to be the time." The she-cat purred
My world was growing fuzzy, Belladonna's face fading and my thoughts drifting off into wispy nothingness. My dreams were torrential and blurry, battle cries ringing in my ears as I slept. Nothing was clear, though I could easily tell that death was everywhere I looked. Everything whirled around, yowls sounding through the air and blood splattering everyone. I cried out, all the pain and death and blood overwhelming me, a sea of blood steadily rising and rising and rising-
And then it all vanished as Belladonna shook me awake. When my eyes shot open, she gave me a comforting lick to my head, a concerned look in her eyes. "You cried out in your sleep," she meowed. "The poppy seeds were supposed to guarantee a peaceful sleep... Are you okay?"
I nodded, my mind still drowning in all the blood and cries of pain, unable to shake off the terrible scene in my dream. I took a few deep breaths, trying to cling to reality. There was no pain here, no screeches and no blood. Only Belladonna and I. I don't know why exactly, but I immediately took a liking to this kind she-cat. It was hard not to, of course, when a cat picks you up in the middle of battle and heals your wounds.
Belladonna was nothing but kind for the three sunrises I spent in her den healing. She woke me from my frequent nightmares, brought me herbs and prey, and talked to me about everything that had happened. She, too, happened to hate the group that had captured me. She told me of their greed for territory and vicious leaders, how much blood had been shed on their claws before then. I never spoke of the Twilight Hunters, still feeling slight guilt for abandoning them. It was better than staying there, I told myself. I would have died in that battle if it weren't for Belladonna.
And I listened. Belladonna and I stayed together even after my wounds were healed, leaping through the wild forests, free from the pretentious gardens and strict rules of the Twilight Hunters, free from the bloodshed and chaos that she told me of in the group she once lived in. The war was behind us, the fear was behind us, all we cared about was dashing through the woods and meadows unbound by any regulations or war.
When the sun started to fall and we finally got tired, we'd head back to the den and feast on the prey we caught the day before. We curled up in our mossy nests, not thinking about any past or future, just the present and each other. The two of us fell asleep chatting about our old lives, exhausted by the day's hunting. We woke up when we wanted, not following the rigid schedule I once stuck to as a Cadet. No Cherry woke me up before dawn, no Magnolia or Onyx to train us in the early morning light.
Our lives were joyful and simple, the forest prey easily feeding the two of us. My nightmares eventually faded, my scars healed, the aftermath of the battle floating away with the breeze. I was happy, and that was what mattered. The two of us grew closer and closer, spending every second we could together. We met few other cats in our time together, and they rarely bothered us, keeping to their own business as we kept to ours.
We spent a moon together living in that den, weaving through the forests and meadows, caring only for each other. The past faded from my mind, a wispy memory of what once was. Our home was in the reflections of the now-plentiful leaves in clear pools, the butterflies that flitted around the meadows lazily, the mellifluous birdcalls that rang through the air.
part nine - dalliance
Our happiness continued, sunrise and sunset, my world consisting of Belladonna, her den, and our moonlit walks in the forests. I kept my mind in the present, and our talk of our old lives faded away during the happiest moon of my life. We raced through the flowers that seemed so much more authentic than the lavish gardens of the Twilight Hunters. The wispy late-spring breeze carried petals through the air, and we dared each other to leap up and catch them. The blooms only grew as the days lengthened and time progressed. The fleeting moments of dusk were our home, the fading colors of the sunset painting the scenes beautiful colors. The clouds' shadows dappled her fur, tinting the rich brown shades of orange and pink. It reflected on my dappled fur as well, a rainbow of warm, happy colors.
The petals were not the only thing that drifted into our land on moonlit nights.
The moon had been a shadow on the night I left the Twilight Hunters, not even a wisp in the sky. It had grown to full and was beginning to fade again that night, though it still lit up the world as Belladonna and I strolled, casting faint leaf-shadows under the trees that we wound through. The cover of the night prevented me from detecting them at first as we took our nightly walk.
We had made it quite a few strides from our den, the glow of the moon illuminating the path back through the forest we knew so well. A stream trickled faintly in the background, our planned destination that night. I never learned to swim, though Belladonna promised me that she'd teach me once we reached it. We never did, and I remained incompetent in the water, for we never took that path again after that.
Our only warning that they were coming was a crack of a twig and a hiss by one of the she-cats. They melted out of the shadows soon after that, their stealth plan ruined. The two pairs of eyes glared at me from the dark, the nearly-full moon behind me illuminating them. One green, one amber. Belladonna whipped around as soon as they came into view, meeting their gazes steadily.
No cat had spoken my name for days. Belladonna and I agreed not to use it, a reminder of everything I left behind. We had not decided on a new one yet, though we were thinking of ideas. We could never think of something meaningful enough.
The darker of the she-cats stepped forward, her gaze full of anger and green fire. Her dark fur ruffled in the summer breeze, and I finally recalled her name. What was Raven doing here? And the she-cat behind her was my sister. Cherry. I had worked long and hard to forget them, to erase everything I had left behind from my memory. I still felt shimmers of regret now and then, but I quickly squashed them as soon as they came.
"Where have you been?" Her voice wavered a bit at the end, no hint of the playful, pranking cat she had once been able to be detected. She was scarred, much more than before, a long gash running down the side of her face, twin slices in one ear, the tip of the other torn off messily.
Belladonna stepped in front of me, separating me from my former denmate. I stepped beside her and gave her a glance, like I could handle this. I knew I couldn't, and my paws itched to take me away from her and everything my old life had contained.
"You abandoned us when we needed you most," she hissed, her voice dripping with anger. "The war is worse. We lost Lark." Raven's voice was full of tears and anger, ready to claw me to death from grief.
I forced myself to keep a straight face. Lark was a Cadet of the Twilight Hunters. He was behind me. He didn't matter anymore. Lark was a thing of the past I had vowed to abandon. Better him than me, right?
None of these thoughts helped to comfort me. I forced myself to stop feeling, to care only about Belladonna and myself. I threw any sadness out of my mind, crushed it under a huge boulder like the one just outside our den.
Raven still stood in front of me as I wrangled with my emotions. Her glare pierced me and sliced through my fur, staring right into my mind. Her gen eyes threw me into her sea of anger and grief and I struggled to bring myself to the surface, to take this into my control.
Cherry stepped forward behind her, equally enraged. "Blizzard is dying. Nascha is struggling to command an army and win with war. Raven and I are fighting with everything we have to save our group. And you are running off with some strange she-cat and ignoring it all."
Her words cut deeper than I cared to admit, though Belladonna stepped in front of me and led me away from the two Cadets as I breathed a sigh of relief. I could still feel their gazes on my back as we padded back to our den, the moonlit stroll punctuated by this encounter.
We never spoke of it again, though it tossed and turned in my mind as I fell asleep. The nightmares returned, though I pushed them away as soon as Belladonna woke me. Lark. Blizzard. Cherry. Raven. Even Elzora and Nascha's cries of pain rang through my ears as I slept, drowning me in blood and tears.
Belladonna made up for it.
We still ambled through the forests day and night, though we avoided the stream and the path that would have brought us to it. We squashed the memories together, speaking only of the bright weather, plentiful squirrels, and waning moon that lit our strolls.
We forgot of the encounter eventually. Or at least, she did. It lingered in my mind along with the guilt that fogged my thoughts late at night. It remained in the back of my mind, though, and I forced myself to think only of our dalliance.