THE MEETING Edit
THE NEXT few days barely gave Brightpaw any time to think about Poppypaw and her supposed "rebels", as Kestrelheart decided to occupy her time with battle training. A quarter-moon after Brightpaw had been invited into the rebel group, Kestrelheart woke her up far before dawn, while her denmates were still peacefully tucked in their nests, snoring.
"What?" Brightpaw wearily opened her eyes to see her mentor's frowning face and pointed muzzle hovering over her.
Kestrelheart sniffed. "Battle training." Her mottled brown pelt was gray in the shadows. Her amber eyes glittered like honey.
Honey - poisoned honey.
"Oh no, not again," Brightpaw complained as she slowly stood up. It was cold; she buried her paws into her rocky nest in a weak attempt to remain warm. "We did battle training yesterday, and the day before." It was true.
"We practiced sparring with each other, but not with cats living in the lower camps," Kestrelheart snapped. "We're going to learn the fighting technique today, if we have to assist each other in battle later on."
"Fine, fine," Brightpaw muttered resentfully. Her mentor always had an excuse ready for extra training. Especially while my denmates are still asleep.
Kestrelheart led the snowy-white she-cat down a coiling tunnel. It wasn't before long that Brightpaw recognized where the tunnel separated into four seperate paths. To Brightpaw's disappointment, Kestrelheart selected the first path - the brightest one. She hid her disappointment as she followed the mottled brown she-cat down the tunnel. She'd been hoping to see Poppypaw, Icepaw, Cloudpaw, any of the rebels today.
Kestrelheart's chosen tunnel emerged into a wide clearing, much larger than the camp Poppypaw and her rebels resided in, and dimly lit by a long gap in the ceiling, where sunshine poured out through.
"They should be here any moment." Kestrelheart settled down, swishing her tail.
Who should? Brightpaw glanced around, detecting stale scents scattered across the clearing. As her green eyes scanned the rocky ground, she noticed a few things: the various places where blood splattered the floor; vicious, long claw marks in the wall; and several other signs of a recent battle where she stood.
Brightpaw shuddered, shaking out her white fur.
Would she have to fight other apprentices, or perhaps even seasoned warriors, with claws unsheathed? She'd never seen such a violent training session, but it was possible.
"Are my denmates coming?" the white she-cat finally asked Kestrelheart, wondering if that was what her mentor had meant by "they".
A distinctive scraping noise told Brightpaw the mottled brown warrior was sharpening her claws on some stone.
"You know," Brightpaw edged, a little impatiently. "My denmates. Ripplepaw and Cherrypaw and Eaglepaw and Littlepaw. The usual."
"Oh, them," Kestrelheart replied carelessly, lifting her paw to examine her newly sharpened claws. "Yes, they'll be coming, but they aren't going to battle you. The upper camp - that's us - will be sparring against the lower camp."
Brightpaw's nose twitched. Usually, the tunnels were windless and dry, but there was a slight breeze now, carrying the fresh scents of a few other cats.
Those scents were shockingly familiar.
She turned to Kestrelheart just as Poppypaw emerged from a wide gap carved in the opposite stone wall, followed by Icepaw, Cloudpaw, Flamepaw, and Owlpaw.
The rebels? Brightpaw was dimly aware of her jaws gaping in surprise and the five apprentices approached, eying her curiously. An older warrior followed - a pale gray tom with green eyes who seemed slightly older than Kestrelheart.
Poppypaw shot Brightpaw a warning glance. The message transferred clearly said, Don't give us away. We don't want a punishment.
Brightpaw gave a quick nod and backed away.
"Hawkshade," Kestrelheart greeted the pale gray tom, stepping forwards with her chin raised. "You came." Her gaze scanned the older warrior's pelt with what seemed to be contempt.
"Of course we came," the pale gray tom rumbled, his voice much lower than Kestrelheart's. "This training session was ordered by Fernstar." His green eyes widened innocently. "I couldn't defy the leader's orders, could I?"
"No, you couldn't," Kestrelheart mewed smoothly.
What's going on? Brightpaw mouthed at the nearest apprentice - Cloudpaw.
The dark gray tabby tom jumped a little, seeming startled that he'd been addressed. I don't know, he signaled in return with a shrug.
"Where are the other apprentices?" Hawkshade demanded.
Kestrelheart waved her tail dismissively. "They're late, what else?" she mewed scornfully. "They haven't arrived yet. Their mentors must be going too soft on them."
Occasionally it seems like Kestrelheart's the strictest mentor an apprentice can get, Brightpaw mused.
Another cat approached, and this time Brightpaw recognized him as Emberpelt, Cherrypaw's mentor. His dark ginger pelt was hidden in the shadows, but his green eyes glowed with annoyance. "We're not late," he hastened to add.
Kestrelheart rolled her eyes as Ripplepaw, a tortoiseshell she-cat, a little, light brown she-cat, and a dark brown tom with white splotches stepped into the dim light. "All right, if you're quite finished with skulking around in the shadows," she muttered, then raised her voice.
"Today, we'll be practicing battling in different terrain - " she gestured to a cluster of boulders in the back of the clearing - "and against cats from different regions of the territory."
So we won't be practicing forest-cat techniques? Brightpaw wondered. Those would be useful, if we ever move to the woods - but then, when Fernstar makes up his mind, he doesn't change it.
"Kestrelheart, Hawkshade, and I will be assigning partners," Emberpelt announced. His eyes raked the apprentices in the clearing. "You will win once you have pinned your partner down for three moments."
"We want you to memorize each other's tactics," Hawkshade concluded.
The three warriors began to move among the huddled apprentices, dividing them and pairing them up with a cat of the opposite camp.
Brightpaw was paired with Icepaw. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Littlepaw nervously facing Owlpaw, Eaglepaw stalking towards Cloudpaw, and Ripplepaw snarling at Poppypaw. Cherrypaw and Flamepaw glared at each other, hackles bristling and tails lashing.
"Claws unsheathed," Kestrelheart called. She and the two other warriors had moved the the corner of the clearing. "Ready?"
Brightpaw barely had time to gather herself together before the mottled brown she-cat yowled, "Fight!"
The white she-cat glanced around wildly. Where's Icepaw? The silver-and-white tabby she-cat had vanished while Kestrelheart was speaking.
Before she realized what was happening, she sensed eyes blazing into her white pelt. A moment later, Icepaw exploded out of the shadows, taking advantage of Brightpaw's confusion to grip the younger apprentice's back. The tabby she-cat scored her claws down Brightpaw's flank.
Yowling her defiance, Brightpaw twisted out of Icepaw's grasp and sprang backwards, nearly colliding with the wall behind her. I'm not used to sparring in such little space! Though the clearing was wide, her usual battling grounds were vast and huge. Some could contain the warriors and apprentices of three entire camps!
Icepaw attacked again. Brightpaw immediately realized that the lower-camp apprentice was using speed rather than force like Brightpaw had been instructed to. A new idea formed in Brightpaw's mind. I tire her out, rather than attempting to pin her down by force! She began to back away. Icepaw followed, dodging Brightpaw's feints and slashes.
However, Brightpaw had underestimated her opponent. The white she-cat sliced her claw over Icepaw's muzzle. The silver-and-white tabby she-cat whirled out of range and pounced, trapping Brightpaw to the stone.
As Icepaw backed away, Brightpaw glanced around. Poppypaw had already defeated Ripplepaw and Cloudpaw was pinning Eaglepaw. Cherrypaw had already retreated sulkily to a corner; she clearly had been beaten, as well.
The only upper-camp cat who had defeated her opponent was ironically Littlepaw. The small, creamy-brown she-cat stood a tail-length away from a grumbling Owlpaw, an enthuatistic purr rumbling in her throat.
"Nice job," Brightpaw mewed to Icepaw.
The silver-and-white tabby returned her grin. "You too."
Brightpaw's heart felt considerably lighter after a few more rounds of practice. The final round, she slipped under one of Icepaw's swift strikes and unbalanced her with a sweep of her forepaw. She promptly pounced on the silver-and-shite tabby, pinning her down for three seconds.
"Woah!" Icepaw panted as Brightpaw released her. "That was a great move! I didn't see that coming."