The moon was a sliver in the sky, only dimly shining on a winter night. Darkness clung to the snow-covered forest below; deep shadows lying beneath the bare, black branches. Through thick swathes of snow a young cat struggled forward. Her head barely cleared the surface of the cold, white substance, and her brown, silver-striped coat was plastered to her sides, revealing a jutting ribcage. She had been running for many suns and moons now, relying on instinct and a darker resource...one that the kit tried hard to ignore.
She took another faltering step, her paws numb. I have to get help. She thought faintly. Her next paw-step slipped, and she fell into the icy drifts, weakly shivering. Through half-closed eyes, she stared up through the bare arms of the trees. The sky was dark and clouded, the claw-like moon half covered. She struggled to stand, but there was no strength left in her thin, bony legs. After pushing herself for moons, she had finally reached the end. I can’t die here…I can’t. Mom, Cloud...someone help me...I need...to…
Her vision was fading, her thoughts drifting away. Slowly, the white snow was engulfed in darkness.
For a moment, the kit did not know where she was. She dimly recalled collapsing into the snow, but it seemed she had somehow survived. For the first time in what felt like forever, the kit did not feel the constant ache of hunger in her stomach. A warm draft ruffled her fluffy coat. Cat scent drifted on the breeze, tickling her nose. Opening her eyes, the kitten found herself in a clearing, the encircling trees heavy with leaves, and the sound of prey rustling around her. Where am I? Wasn’t it winter?
The she-kit struggled to her paws and looked around, confusion clouding her thoughts.
“Do not be afraid.”
The kitten turned quickly to face the speaker, claws unsheathed and fur on end. A beautiful tabby cat stood before her, fur seeming to radiate light. The she-cat’s blue eyes were like deep pools, and the kit found herself drowning in their calm depths.
“Where am I?” the kit managed, and felt a prick of surprise. Her voice should have been rough from misuse.
“You are safe.” The she-cat said, ignoring her question. “You have died, however there is still much for you to do, if you are willing to return.”
The kitten staggered backwards, blue-green eyes wide.
“I’m dead?! Wh-what do you mean?!” Heart thumping with fear, her thoughts became scattered, I can’t! I told myself I wouldn’t die until I’d found them again! She stared up at the tabby desperately, “I need to go back! Let me go back, now!”
Blue eyes soft, the she-cat mewed,
“It is within my power to do just that. Use this life wisely...I cannot do this again. Will you keep this promise?”
The clearing was blurring, the strange cat’s words growing faint.
“I will! Just please...I need to find them...need…” Her head was spinning now, and she stumbled.
“Rest kit. Help is here.” The she-cat bent her slender neck forward and touched the kit’s forehead. Warmth spread through her body, and she closed her eyes.
“Is she dead? Her body is cold!”
“Where did she come from?”
“Quiet, both of you! She’s obviously a lost kit. There’s no scent of any clan on her...We best bring her back to camp. Lightstar will know what to do.”
The kit slowly opened her eyes, blinking against the sudden bright sunlight. As her pupils narrowed, adjusting, she made out the outline of three silhouettes. Her vision cleared. The largest silhouette was a ginger tom, his fur flecked with white. The two smaller shapes were a young silver she-cat and a brown tabby tom.
“Hello kit, where did you come from?” The ginger asked gently.
The kit's first instinct was to run from these strange cats as fast as possible. However, the moment she attempted to stand, her legs gave out and she toppled into the snow once again. The ginger extended a paw in concern, but the kit hissed in fear, and he withdrew. All three strangers stared in shock.
“Well she’s not very friendly is she…” the young tabby mewed, but the silver one shushed him.
“We do not wish to harm you.” The ginger soothed, attempting a reassuring smile. The kit eyed him suspiciously. After a few long moments of hesitation, she pushed herself into an unsteady sitting position. Opening her mouth, a thin wheeze escaped, and she lapsed into a coughing fit.
The silver she-cat flattened her ears, letting out a worried mew.
“We have to get her to Deeplake. She can barely speak! ...it could be greencough.”
The ginger nodded firmly, bending down to address the brown kitten. “We’re going to take you back to our camp. I’m sure that you will be cared for there. We have prey and warm dens.”
“What?! But she’s a loner! Or a kittypet! We can’t take her back to camp. If she has greencough it could spread, and she looks like she’s almost old enough to be an apprentice anyway-”
“Hush Volepaw! Now tell me, what does the Warrior Code tell us about kits?”
“...All warriors must protect kits, be them loners, kittypets, or from other clans...but Robinfire-”
“Whether she is nearly an apprentice or not is irrelevant. This is a very young cat in need of help, and an honorable warrior will assist.”
“I apologize, Robinfire…” The tabby mumbled, looking away.
The kit listened to this exchange in mystification. What are they talking about? Warrior code? Camp? Clans? She couldn't comprehend it. Her thoughts were pushed away by wave of hunger, and she swayed, trembling. The ginger, Robinfire, steadied her with a comforting paw, and the kit could do nothing to protest, only wishing that her head would stop swimming. The ginger warrior grabbed her by the scruff and tried to lift her, then gestured to Volepaw to help her onto the tom’s back instead.
“Can’t be a kittypet this one.” Robinfire commented, “she’s far too thin even for her size, and she smells of the forest.”
The kit hung limply as she was carried between the thick oak trunks. The snow had melted somewhat as the sun rose, large clumps clinging to the floor here and there. Lying across the strange tom’s back, strips of sunlight warming her pelt, the kit felt a hard lump forming in her throat, as they she were on the verge of tears. Why, she had no idea, but something about the situation seemed...familiar.
As they walked, the two younger cats conversed in lowered tones, breaking into the kit’s trance.
"She must be only a few moons younger than us!"
"She really is the right age to become an apprentice…”
"I suppose that means she can't be from another clan. No kit would be stupid enough to try exploring another clan's territory when they’re so nearly an apprentice."
"Than where did she come from? I saw a scar above her eye when her fur shifted...wonder where she got it?"
"Maybe we'll find out?”
“We could ask…”
The two cats fell silent, and the kit felt a prick of irritation, but then again, she knew how curious they must be. All the same, she wished she could tell them to stop talking about her as if she couldn't hear.
It was not long before the kit became overpowered by the smell of cats. She had not scented this many all together since…she shivered at the memory, her heart beginning to pound. She could only hope that these cats were as friendly as Robinfire. The forest was beginning to thin up ahead, and sunlight reflected off the white snow. Dimly, the kit remembered that it had been night-time when she had collapsed. How long was I asleep? She recalled the beautiful she-cat’s words in her dream, ‘…you have died…if you are willing to return....’ Did I die? Was I brought back?
The four cats pushed their way through a bramble barrier, twigs scraping the kit’s pelt. When they emerged, she couldn’t help but stare in wonder at the camp. Great rocky walls rose on all sides, forming a circular trench in the ground. Bushes, bare in winter, draping over the sides of the walls, hanging down into the clearing. There were many cats, all looking curiously at the newcomers, and yet more were emerging from bushes and woven bramble dens. A few elderly toms were peeking out from a den woven into the branches of a fallen tree. The tree stretched across one half of the clearing, looking as though it had fallen off the edge of the wall and become stuck at some point in the past.
“Robinfire!” A voice drew the kit’s attention to the edge of the clearing. A majestic white she-cat with sharp green eyes emerged from a cave at the top of a jutting ledge. A pathway of fallen rocks led up to the ledge, and the white she-cat slowly descended the pathway as she called, “What is that you’re carrying?”
Robinfire gently bent, allowing the kit to slide off his back onto the snow-covered floor. She wrapped her tail around her paws in a weak attempt to protect herself from these unfamiliar cats. Her paws were numbed to the cold by now. The ginger tom replied,
“It is a kit, Lightstar. We found her half dead in the forest, near the Windclan border. It seems as though she traveled a long distance to get here.”
The white cat’s eyes regarded the kit with sympathy, and the kit turned, licking her fur awkwardly, uncomfortable under the green gaze. However, she made sure to keep eye contact. If this was the leader, she could not afford to show weakness. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the white she-cat, Lightstar, jump down the last of the tumbled rocks and gracefully pad across the clearing.
“Is it a lost Windclan kit?”
“I do not smell any trace of Windclan on it.” Robinfire replied.
Lightstar nodded before returning her gaze to the kit.
“Greetings. What is your name?” the leader asked gently.
The kit did not reply immediately, eyes scanning Lightstar for any sign of ill intent. When she detected nothing, she cleared her throat, determined not to cough. She straightened, swaying on weak paws, and replied hoarsely.
“My name is River.”