Shattered Sky | Chapter 21 of 35

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CHAPTER 14

Alderheart crouched in the bushes beside the small Thunderpath that separated ShadowClan territory from RiverClan. Sparkpelt and Ivypool were by his side, while Lionblaze, a tail-length or so away, was keeping watch in case any rogues were patrolling on the ShadowClan side.

Two nights had passed since Violetpaw’s visit to ThunderClan. Clouds were covering the moon, casting a welcome darkness over the trespassing patrol. The only sound was the faint creaking of branches as a breeze wafted through the trees.

“Do you think Violetpaw is close enough to Darktail?” Sparkpelt whispered, sounding doubtful. “Would he really tell her when the patrols go out?”

“Yes, does she really have that much influence?” Ivypool added. “She’s an apprentice, for StarClan’s sake!”

“I believe her,” Alderheart responded, keeping his voice low. “She told me that a patrol goes by at sunset, and then another at moonhigh. Besides, she doesn’t need Darktail to tell her that—if she keeps her wits about her, she can see it for herself.”

Ivypool nodded slowly, her blue eyes gleaming in the dim light. “After all,” she murmured, “this isn’t a real boundary anymore, now that Darktail holds both territories. There’s not a lot of need for regular patrols.”

“True,” Alderheart responded. “Besides, I trust Violetpaw. She may be an apprentice, but there’s something very capable and serious about her.”

“Yes.” Ivypool sighed out the word. “She reminds me so much of Twigpaw.”

All the cats were silent for a moment; Alderheart knew that his Clanmates were remembering the young cat, sharing in his grief for her.

Then behind him, Alderheart heard Lionblaze spring to his paws. “Look! Across the Thunderpath!” he hissed.

Alderheart saw three dark shapes emerge from the bushes on the RiverClan side. His muscles tensed as he tasted the air, not sure at first which cats were heading toward him over the hard surface of the Thunderpath. Violetpaw’s scent flowed between his jaws, and Alderheart relaxed as he recognized her and saw that she was leading the two ShadowClan elders, Oakfur and Ratscar.

Both the old cats let out huge sighs of relief as they reached the bushes and flopped down beside Alderheart and the other ThunderClan cats.

“Good job, Violetpaw,” Oakfur meowed. “The plan worked!”

“Great StarClan!” Ratscar huffed. “I thought that mange-ridden Darktail would catch us for sure.”

“Shh!” Sparkpelt warned them. “We still have to get you safely through ShadowClan territory.”

“Rest for a few moments, and let’s have a look at you,” Alderheart mewed.

Though there was little light, he could just make out the skinny shapes of the elders and see claw marks scored across their sides. The sweetish scent that rose from them told him that some of the wounds were infected, and he remembered Juniperclaw telling him that Darktail made Puddleshine save all his herbs for the Kin.

“I’ve chewed up some marigold,” he told them as he began to dab the pulp on Oakfur’s wounds and then Ratscar’s. “That should help, and I’ll see to you properly tomorrow in camp.”

Oakfur sighed and gave a wriggle of pleasure as the healing juices sank into his wounds. “That feels great, youngster,” he rasped.

“I caught some mice for you,” Ivypool added, dropping one in front of each of the elders. “Eat up quickly, and then we can go.”

The elders didn’t need telling, gulping down the prey in huge mouthfuls.

It’s like they haven’t eaten for a moon, Alderheart thought, disgusted at the state of these honorable cats who had served their Clan so well.

“Is this how Darktail treats elders?” he asked Violetpaw, who was standing close by, her eyes shining with triumph at the success of her first mission.

Violetpaw shrugged. “Darktail always lets the strongest cats eat first. And they’re not allowed to share any prey unless he gives permission.”

Alderheart remembered that Darktail had done the same in the gorge when he and his rogues had claimed to be part of SkyClan. He must have been lying through his teeth when he said he and his rogue friends wanted to be part of a Clan. He just wanted to collect Clan cats to follow him and live by his twisted rules.

“Are you up for the journey through ShadowClan territory?” he asked the elders. “It’s a long way, and it might be dangerous.”

“We sure are,” Ratscar assured him.

“Yes,” Oakfur added. “Anything to get away from those crow-food-eating rogues!”

Alderheart gave each of the old cats a bunch of traveling herbs that he had brought with him from ThunderClan to give them strength for the rest of their journey. Then, while they licked them up, he turned to say good-bye to Violetpaw.

“You’ve done brilliantly,” he meowed. “You’re a brave cat, Violetpaw.”

The young she-cat ducked her head, embarrassed. “I just want to help,” she murmured.

“You’ve certainly helped us,” Oakfur told her. “More than we can ever thank you for.”

Ratscar echoed his Clanmate’s thanks. “We’ll be seeing you again, I hope,” he mewed.

“I hope so,” Violetpaw responded. “Alderheart, I’ll try again three nights from now.”

“Okay,” Alderheart agreed. “But be careful.”

“I will. Good-bye for now, and a safe journey.”

For a moment Alderheart wanted to ask Violetpaw about Needletail, but he stopped himself, knowing that, with every heartbeat that the apprentice delayed getting back to Darktail’s camp, she put herself in more danger.

“Good-bye,” he called softly after her as Violetpaw raced back over the Thunderpath and vanished into the bushes on the RiverClan side.

Lionblaze took the lead as the patrol set off toward ThunderClan territory. Alderheart and Sparkpelt flanked the elders, one on either side, while Ivypool brought up the rear.

The elders were shaky on their paws, and progress was slow, though at first the forest was silent, with no sight or scent of any rogues. Lionblaze led them along the edge of the trees, where the going was easier as the undergrowth thinned out toward the lake.

Alderheart was just beginning to hope that they would get home without any trouble, when suddenly Lionblaze halted. “Fox dung!” he hissed.

“What?” Alderheart craned to see past Lionblaze’s muscular form.

A little way ahead, he spotted two cats crouching on the narrow strip of pebbles that separated the forest from the lake. Both of them seemed to be focused on a hole in the bank.

“It’s Cloverfoot and that mangy rogue Nettle,” Ratscar growled. “It looks as if they’re hunting.”

Sparkpelt nodded. “There could be voles in there,” she murmured.

“And if they’re waiting for them to come out, they could be there all night,” Lionblaze meowed with an irritated twitch of his tail. “We’ll have to take a route farther away from the lake.”

Alderheart suppressed a sigh as they set out again, heading deeper into ShadowClan territory. This is more tiring for the elders . . . and there’s more chance of running into rogues.

His belly began to churn with fear as they made their way through the trees. In this part of the forest, pines had shed their needles over the ground, and while the smooth covering made walking easy for the elders, there was little cover if they needed to hide from a patrol.

Oakfur and Ratscar would never manage to climb a tree, Alderheart thought, wishing that they could move faster, but knowing that the elders were doing the best they could.

At last the pine trees began to give way to oak and beech, and Alderheart realized that they were approaching the border near the clearing where the Twolegs built their pelt-dens in greenleaf.

Perhaps we’re going to make it after all, he thought.

They were heading down a slope toward a thick bank of ferns when Sparkpelt raised her tail in warning, then leaped onto a tree stump to get a better view of what lay ahead.

“Rogues patrolling!” she reported in a whisper. “Roach and another cat I don’t recognize. I thought I could pick up their stink.”

“Head for the ferns,” Lionblaze ordered calmly, as Alderheart spotted the two rogues’ shapes slinking through the shadows a few fox-lengths away. “And for StarClan’s sake, be quiet!”

Sparkpelt and Ivypool bundled the two elders down the slope and into the shelter of the ferns. Alderheart and Lionblaze followed, keeping low with their belly fur brushing the ground, hoping that their movement wouldn’t disturb the fern fronds and give them away.

“We must be close,” Lionblaze whispered. “I can smell the ThunderClan scent markers.”

Just as he spoke, Ratscar let out a hollow cough. From behind them, Alderheart heard Roach’s voice. “Loki, did you hear that?”

“Fox dung!” Ivypool snarled.

For a few heartbeats Alderheart was frozen, unsure what to do. He could feel the rogue cats’ paw steps vibrating through the ground and knew that within heartbeats they would be discovered.

“Sorry—it’s my fault,” Ratscar rasped. “Leave me and go on.”

“No cat is leaving you,” Lionblaze said firmly. “Alderheart, you lead the elders over the border. I’ll give the rogues something else to think about.”

“No!” Alderheart protested, panic surging through him. “What if they work out what we’re doing and use that as an excuse to attack ThunderClan? It’s all going wrong!”

“They won’t—” Sparkpelt began.

“Then what if they call up more of Darktail’s cats? You’ll be way outnumbered.”

“Alderheart, have you got bees in your brain?” Ivypool’s eyes glittered with menace. “Lionblaze has us to help him. Now go!” She followed up her words with a violent shove to Alderheart’s rump.

Realizing how stupid he was being, Alderheart urged the elders into motion, crawling swiftly through the ferns. ThunderClan scent flowed over them as they crossed the border. At the same moment, Alderheart heard yowling and screeching break out behind him. His paws tugged him back toward the fight, but he knew that his duty was to see the elders safely into the ThunderClan camp.

“Welcome to ThunderClan,” he meowed. “Let’s go.”

Cats poured out of their dens as Alderheart and the elders pushed their way through the thorn tunnel and into the stone hollow, alerted by the joyful caterwauling of Sorrelstripe, who was on watch. Rowanstar and the ShadowClan cats surged across the clearing, surrounding Ratscar and Oakfur, who were almost knocked off their paws by their Clanmates’ enthusiastic greeting.

“Take it easy,” Alderheart protested, pushing his way through to the side of the two old cats. “They’re injured and weak. They should spend tonight in the medicine cats’ den.”

Reluctantly, the ShadowClan cats gave way, allowing Alderheart to lead Oakfur and Ratscar to the medicine cats’ den and pass them over to Jayfeather and Leafpool. His legs were shaky with exhaustion, and he wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep, but he knew that first he would have to report to Bramblestar.

His father was waiting for him as he emerged past the bramble screen and back into the camp.

“Good job,” Bramblestar mewed approvingly. “But where’s the rest of the patrol?”

“We met some rogues,” Alderheart explained, his pelt beginning to prickle all over with guilt. “Lionblaze and the others stayed to fight them off, while I got the elders across the border.”

Bramblestar’s ears pricked forward. “Many rogues? Do I need to send a patrol?”

“We only saw two, but—”

Alderheart broke off as more cats appeared from the thorn tunnel. A flood of relief struck him as he recognized Lionblaze in the lead, closely followed by Sparkpelt and Ivypool.

“Are you okay?” he asked, running toward them.

“We’re all fine,” Lionblaze replied.

“You didn’t think those flea-pelts could hurt us, did you?” Ivypool demanded. “That strange cat—what did Roach call him? Loki?—seemed as if he’d never had a fighting lesson in his whole life.”

Sparkpelt let out a small mrrow of laughter. “We soon chased them off! I’ve never seen cats move so fast.”

To Alderheart’s relief, he realized that his Clanmates only had a few minor scratches to show for the skirmish with the rogues.

“Do you think they realized we were rescuing the elders?” he asked.

Lionblaze shook his head. “I told them we were on patrol and stepped over the border by accident,” he explained. “They seemed to accept that.”

“Not that we had much time for talking,” Ivypool added, examining her claws.

For a few moments Alderheart basked in thankfulness for the news. I can’t remember how long it’s been since the Clans had something to be happy about, he thought. And now we do. We’ve rescued our first cats from the rogue camp!

Then he remembered that not every Clan could share in their triumph. WindClan was still absent.

I wonder what’s happening, up there on the moor. . . .

“That sore is healing nicely,” Alderheart meowed to Ratscar, dabbing a new dressing of marigold on the elder’s hind leg. “You’d better come back tomorrow, though, and let one of us check on it again.”

The old cat was looking much stronger and healthier now that he had spent several days in the ThunderClan camp. Alderheart couldn’t see his ribs anymore, and his brown pelt was glossy and well groomed.

“I’ll do that,” Ratscar mewed, “and I can’t tell you how grateful we are, me and Oakfur. You know, back in the rogues’ camp, Puddleshine did try to help us, but he had to sneak around Darktail. That sorry excuse for a cat didn’t want Puddleshine doing us elders any special favors.”

“Special favors!” Alderheart felt a sudden jolt of outrage. “Helping sick cats is what a medicine cat is for. It’s not a favor!”

Ratscar let out a huffing breath. “Try telling that to Darktail. You know,” he continued, “I can’t believe how bad things were in that camp. The worst mistake I ever made was not leaving with Rowanstar.”

“Why didn’t you?” Alderheart asked.

Ratscar shrugged. “I was angry with him for decisions he made while he was ill—but now I know what bad leadership really looks like.”

“Have you told Rowanstar that?”

“No,” Ratscar replied, ducking his head in embarrassment. “Things are still a bit . . . cool, between us.”

“Then maybe you should,” Alderheart advised.

Ratscar left the den, promising to think about what Alderheart had said.

While he tidied away the herbs he had been using, Alderheart reflected on how well their plan was working. On his second meeting with Violetpaw, she had brought out Snowbird and her two kits. They had settled into the ThunderClan nursery, where there was a bit more space now that most of the injured RiverClan warriors were healed.

Even so, the camp was still hopelessly overcrowded, and tension was in the air. Squirrelflight had suggested once again that they should move some cats out to the abandoned Twoleg den, but no cat wanted to go, and Bramblestar finally had to admit to his worry that they would be vulnerable there if the rogues attacked.

Raised voices sounded from outside the den. What now? Alderheart wondered with a sigh.

He padded out from behind the bramble screen to find Rowanstar and Mistystar standing nose to nose, their legs stiff and their ears laid flat.

Alderheart groaned. Not this again!

“I don’t know why you’re dragging your paws over this,” Rowanstar was meowing, his voice tight with fury. “It’s obvious we should be attacking the rogues now. Any cat can see that we outnumber them, and your precious RiverClan warriors are nearly healed!”

“Yes, but if we attack, Darktail might kill the RiverClan prisoners he still holds,” Mistystar said.

Rowanstar lashed his tail in frustration. “I’m nearly ready to go and attack them by myself,” he growled. “It’s—”

Just then, Bramblestar padded up with a nod for the other two leaders. Alderheart noticed that each of them tried to relax, as if they didn’t want to be seen arguing in front of him.

“We need to discuss this,” Bramblestar announced, then turned and headed for the tumbled rocks. When he had reached the Highledge, he raised his voice so that it rang out over the stone hollow. “Let all cats old enough to catch their own prey join here beneath the Highledge for a meeting of the Clans!”

Before he had finished speaking, cats were crowding out of the dens and into the clearing. Snowbird and her kits appeared at the entrance to the nursery along with Leafpool and Daisy. Graystripe and Millie, with the two ShadowClan elders, sat outside their den, while Squirrelflight and Jayfeather, with a couple of the RiverClan warriors, looked up from the fresh-kill pile.

Alderheart noticed that most of the ShadowClan cats were clustered around their leader, except for Tigerheart, who was sitting beside Dovewing, with Ivypool looking watchful on her sister’s other side.

“Oakfur, Ratscar, Snowbird, we are glad to see you—and the kits, of course—safe here in ThunderClan,” the Clan leader began. “This is your home for as long as you need it. It’s good that the plan to smuggle cats out of the rogue camp is working, but clearly we can’t go on like this forever.”

“You can say that again,” Rowanstar muttered.

“We need to find a way forward,” Bramblestar continued. “It’s time to think about our next steps.”

Mistystar, who had been sitting near Alderheart outside the medicine-cat den, rose to her paws. “I know you’re talking about an attack,” she meowed. “But I can only support that when we’ve gotten all of my cats out. Any other plan is too risky.” She lashed her tail once. “And that’s final.”

Several other cats sprang to their paws as she spoke, yowling their objections. For a few moments it seemed as if the meeting would break up into knots of arguing cats. But then Lionblaze spoke up.

“It seems obvious to me,” he stated, dipping his head politely to his leader. “For all of us to be able to agree to an attack, we need to rescue the prisoners. And right now, we’re only getting two or three cats out each time. Besides,” he added, “so far we’ve taken elders, a queen and kits—cats we expect Darktail not to miss. No offense,” he finished, with a nod to the ShadowClan elders.

“None taken,” Oakfur responded. “That’s pretty accurate.”

“We know from Ratscar and the others,” Mistystar went on, “that Darktail keeps the prisoners guarded at all times. It would be too difficult for Violetpaw to sneak them out—and even if she did, Darktail would notice they were missing right away. He might have assumed Ratscar and the others simply ran off, but he would know we were up to something if we started smuggling out the prisoners.”

“That’s all true,” Tawnypelt meowed. “It sounds like we need a plan to get all the prisoners out at once.”

Murmurs of agreement rose from all the cats in the clearing.

“But how are we going to do that?” Cloudtail asked.

“We’d have to sneak into the rogue camp,” Tigerheart mewed thoughtfully. “And somehow incapacitate the guards . . .”

“Incapacitate Darktail,” Snowbird put in from where she sat outside the nursery. As all eyes turned toward her, she added, “He’s very controlling. He knows everything that goes on in the camp.”

“Even with Darktail out of the way,” Ratscar added, “you would have to be prepared to fight. The cats who are loyal to Darktail wouldn’t just let you stroll out of camp with the remaining prisoners. If nothing else, they’d be terrified of what Darktail would do to them when he found out.”

For a moment, the cats were silent. Alderheart thought he saw Snowbird shudder.

“All right,” Bramblestar said after a moment. “Let’s assume we would be ready to fight. How could we incapacitate Darktail and his closest allies?”

Alderheart listened as cat after cat chimed in with suggestions.

“We could lure hungry dogs to RiverClan territory!”

“Or lure the cats under a tree and drop rocks on their heads!”

“Maybe if we could just catch ourselves an eagle—then we might be able to . . .”

Alderheart sighed, hardly listening anymore as the suggestions became more and more ridiculous. Then an idea slipped into his mind. He rose to his paws.

“I have a plan,” he announced, raising his head so that he could see every cat. “I’m supposed to meet Violetpaw again tonight. . . .”

The sun had gone down, but the last traces of scarlet still streaked the sky as Alderheart and Mothwing slipped silently through ShadowClan territory until they reached the small Thunderpath that formed the border with RiverClan. They crept underneath a bush and settled down to wait.

“I wonder if Violetpaw will bring any more cats,” Mothwing murmured. “I almost hope she doesn’t.”

Alderheart nodded agreement. “Every cat she gets out adds to the risk that Darktail will notice what we’re doing. We need to concentrate on the prisoners now.”

Full darkness had fallen by the time Alderheart spotted the small shape of Violetpaw emerging from the bushes and racing across the Thunderpath. He poked his head out of the bush.

“Over here!” he whispered.

Violetpaw padded up to him and slid underneath the bush to crouch by his side. “I’m sorry,” she mewed. “I couldn’t bring any other cats. I’m not sure any more which ones I can trust not to give me away to Darktail.”

“That’s okay,” Alderheart responded. “We’ve got a new plan now.”

Rapidly, he explained to Violetpaw what had happened at the meeting, and how they had decided it was vital to rescue the prisoners all at once.

“Mistystar won’t attack until all her cats are safe,” Mothwing added when he had finished.

“But it’s going to be dangerous.” Even though they needed Violetpaw desperately, Alderheart knew that he had to warn her. “Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?”

Violetpaw gazed at the two medicine cats, her eyes wide and resolute. “Tell me what you want me to do,” she meowed.

“We can’t get the prisoners away until we deal with Darktail and his guards,” Alderheart continued, “and they have to be out of the way for a good long time. So you’re going to put them to sleep.”

Violetpaw stifled a mrrow of surprise. “But how?” she breathed out.

“Here.” Alderheart pushed a small leaf wrap toward Violetpaw’s paws. “This is poppy seed. There’s enough here for eight cats, and you should try to make sure they get at least three seeds each.”

“Are you sure you can feed them to the rogues without Darktail noticing?” Mothwing asked.

“I think so,” Violetpaw replied. “I’ll hide them in some prey.”

“Good,” Mothwing mewed. “This is—” She broke off, hesitated, then went on, “We really appreciate you taking this huge risk. RiverClan will never forget what we owe you.”

“It’s the least I can do,” Violetpaw told her. “RiverClan isn’t the only Clan with cats they love among the prisoners.” She looked down at the poppy seeds. “How long will the cats who eat this be asleep?” she asked.

“It depends on their size and how much they eat,” Alderheart told her. “But it should keep them quiet for half the night, at least.”

Violetpaw nodded grimly. “Okay. Consider it done.”

Alderheart gazed at the young cat, reflecting on how serious she was, and how she had needed to grow up so quickly. She’s so different from Twigpaw. I wonder what would have happened if I’d been able to convince the leaders to let us keep Violetpaw in ThunderClan, back when they were split up at their first Gathering. She’s seen so much since that day.

But Alderheart quickly pushed away any regret, telling himself it had all worked out for the best.

If she weren’t living among the rogues, we wouldn’t have a cat to help us, he told himself. And she’ll have a good life when we win—and we will win. I can’t let myself believe any differently.

He and Mothwing watched Violetpaw as she padded determinedly back across the Thunderpath, the leaf wrap of poppy seeds clamped firmly in her jaws. “That’s a brave cat,” Mothwing murmured.

When Violetpaw had disappeared into the undergrowth, the two medicine cats rose and headed back toward ThunderClan.

Alderheart was remembering the moment, soon after he’d first found the kits, when he had touched his nose to Twigpaw’s and promised himself he would make sure she had a good life.

How did we ever get from there to here?

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Nicely written. I cried when Needletail died ;(
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batool
thanks i was looking for a website like this to read i just want that could make the full screen best regards
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