Snowkit wailed and buried her nose in her paws. If cats could have cried, she would have. It was stupid, she realized, to go back without someone else, and even stupider to go through the grass. She had no idea what the territory looked like or how to get anywhere. Now, she was lost in the middle of a large territory, with no hope of any cat knowing where she was or coming to look for her. She should have gone along the path to reach the stream, not gone plunging through the tall, unknown grass. There would be no rescue, no cat to come running to save her. She was alone in a large, intimidating world.
After some time, she stopped wailing and looked up. The last traces of her trail, both the ones in front and behind her, had disappeared completely, with no trace whatsoever to lead her back to camp. Wails threatened to overcome her again, but she straightened, pulling herself together. There was no time to be weak. She had to find her way back to camp and apologize.
As she stared around, she realized that she had absolutely no idea where to go. This was a quite large problem. She needed to know where to go, do she could make it back to camp. She needed a plan, a direction to follow.
Choosing a direction at random, she padded off, forcing her way through the tall grass. The way was difficult, her cut paws providing an even harder obstacle than the grass.
She began getting faint from lack of water, her vision blurry and her paws clumsy. She thought longingly of the clear, cool puddle in camp, where she could drink whenever she wanted. She hoped she was nearing the stream, even the top of a large hill to look around.
The ground flattened out, and the scent of WindClan seemed to be getting fainter, but she ignored it. This was probably just an area in the middle of the territory where the warriors hunted less often.
As the sun began setting, she finally spotted a flash of sunlight on water. With a cry of delight, she raced forward, thinking she had found the stream at last. As she neared the water, however, she saw that it wasn't clear and crystal-like, as she had thought. It wasn't even a stream.
Instead, she saw a muddy-brownish pond, with dirty reeds floating just beneath the surface. She flinched away from the disgusting sight for a second, but her overwhelming thirst took hold, and she drank a few mouthfuls. It was disgusting, but it was better than nothing. She forced herself to take one more mouthful and stood up, looking around.
As she shook the mud from her whiskers, she spotted something else on the other side of the pond. It looked like a bush planted on a long, brown pole. She bounded around the pond, and padded towards it. She saw claw-marks on it, but had no idea what they might mean. She circled it, gazing upward at the thing. She searched in her memory, and then finally found something. Eagleflight and Sandfoot, the elders, had told her about a tree once. The description of it fit the image in front of her perfectly - a brown stick, only much bigger, with a large, leafy bush on top. So this is a tree Snowkit thought with wonder. She looked up at the tree, examining it thoroughly.
A leaf rustled behind her, and she whirled around, tiny claws extended. A flutter of quick pawsteps circled the tree, and then stopped. Snowkit watched the place where she had last heard something, listening intently.
Suddenly, the wind was knocked from her, and she went flying through the air. A heavy something landed on top of her, and a voice hissed, "Well, what do we have here?"
Gasping, Snowkit wriggled around to face upward. She found herself gazing into the face of the ugliest cat she had ever seen. He was black with a white forehead, his yellow eyes glittering with spite. His face was twisted in a snarl, and one ear was ripped wide open. A large, half-healed scar slashed across his face and across his nose.
"Oh, it's a kit. Hello there," the tomcat growled aggressively in her face. Snowkit was frozen with fear, his claws poking into her neck. If they had been extended to their full length, they would have sunk right through her neck fur and she would be lying there, dead. She couldn't see any way out of this situation. It would probably end with the tom biting her neck and leaving her to die, just like he should have done when he leaped.
She laid there, the cat staring down at her, his yellow eyes narrowed in thought, until the stars were beginning to appear, and he still had not made any move. His eyes had lost some of their evil glitter, and he looked like he was thinking harder than before. All Snowkit could think to do was to stay completely still and hope that she would make it out of there alive.
As the crescent moon rose in the inky black sky, the tom finally moved. He sat back and gazed at her through slightly less narrowed eyes than before. Snowkit slowly sat up, but jumped when a purr suddenly burst from him. "Well, you can stay still for a while," he meowed in a much nicer, amused voice.
Snowkit crouched warily, trying to make sense of it all. Finally, she opened her mouth to speak. "Who are you?" she squeaked, her voice high-pitched and terrified. She swallowed, attempting to control her voice.
"Me? I'm called Stragger," the cat meowed, "I'm what you Clan cats call a rouge."
Snowkit blinked, surprised. So this was a rogue. Sandfoot had told her what a rogue was, although she had made them sound a lot more vicious. "Is this your territory?" she asked, and was glad to hear that her meow had returned to normal.
"Yes, it is," Stragger meowed, padding over to the tree, "This is the edge of it. I scratch trees to mark my territory, unlike you Clan cats, and I'm quite sure you saw the claw-marks."
Snowkit nodded. Now, she knew why the marks were there. Stragger had clawed them to mark the edge of his territory.
"Do you want to come back to my den with me?" Stragger asked her.
"Sure!" Snowkit replied gratefully. She did need a place to rest, and she was getting very hungry. She doubted that she could find her way back to WindClan territory, anyway.
Stragger slipped off through the shadows of a bush, and disappeared. Scared she would lose him, Snowkit hurried after him. Stragger padded up a small rise behind the bushes, then into a thick stand of trees. Snowkit caught up with him, looking around.
"What is this place?" she asked. "This? Haven't you seen a forest before?" Stragger stared at her, and then looked back at the moorland. "You must be from WindClan, right?" Snowkit nodded. "Well, you know a tree, right? Well, this is a forest, which is a large group of trees and bushes."
Snowkit padded behind Stragger as he went deeper into the forest, wondering for the first time in her life if she didn't have the best Clan ever. This was the first time she had seen a tree, let alone a forest. Was she missing something about the world?
"Here we are!" Stragger meowed, startling Snowkit out of her thoughts. They had arrived at a large, grassy clearing beside a clear, sweet-smelling river. A tree stump lay next to a hollow, mushroom-covered log near one side, with a sandy strip of land beside the river. A small hole opened in the bottom of a large, sturdy looking tree in the exact center of the grassy clearing. Clumps of flowers stood here and there amongst the grass, around the log, and beside the river. Reeds grew on the opposite side of the river, which was splashing and swirling cheerfully. Through a gap in the leaves above their heads, Snowkit could see a few stars, shining brightly in the black sky. She looked around at Stragger, who was watching her almost warily.
"What do you think?" he asked quietly, his yellow eyes glimmering in the soft light from the stars.
"It's wonderful," Snowkit purred happily.
If cats could blush, Stragger would have done so. He looked down at his paws, and licked his chest to cover up his embarrassment. Snowkit padded over to the hole and peered inside. It looked rather dark, and she didn't like going underground very much.
"Is this where we sleep?" she asked Stragger. "Yes," he replied, pushing past her and entering the hole. With more than a little trepidation, Snowkit followed. It was dark, dirty, and a little wet in the hole. Snowkit was unhappy that it seemed to slope steeply downward, but brightened when it leveled out after about a tail-length and began to climb after a few more pawsteps. Stragger led the way confidently onward, and they began to climb in steep spirals. Snowkit followed with a growing suspicion.
She called ahead to Stragger, "Stragger? Are we climbing up the tree from the inside?"
Stragger's voice echoed back to her in the tunnel, "Yes. I'm glad to see you're a bright kit." Snowkit glowed with the praise, padding forward with a slight spring in her step. Stragger didn't seem like the type to give out praise easily.
After a few fox-lengths, they emerged onto a large branch. Looking up, Snowkit gasped. Huge branches provided a way up to the top, like stepping stones in midair. Above the branches, a woven platform made of sticks provided the main den, laden with moss. Two branches heavily burdened with leaves arched over the den, providing shelter from snow and rain.
Stragger leaped up through the branches, with Snow following close behind him. As they emerged, Snowkit glanced up at the leafy branches. She would miss sleeping beneath the stars.
Noticing her glance, Stragger padded to the edge and meowed, "Look, I know WindClan sleeps beneath the open sky, so I could take the leaves away if you wanted."
Snowkit stared, her mouth hanging open, while Stragger reared up onto his hind paws and grabbed a branch. Using his weight, he swung the branch around to a small loop of vine in the floor. He hooked the branch through the vine, pulling on the ends to secure it. He did the same with the other one, so that Snowkit could see every star in the sky.
She shut her mouth, and then glanced towards Stragger. After opening and closing her mouth for a few heartbeats, she managed to say, "Thank you."
Stragger purred. "No problem," he meowed. Padding over to a soft pile of moss, he raked it together with his claws, forming a nest. He nudged Snowkit into it, and she sat down, sniffing the moss. "This will be your nest," he meowed, then turned and leaped into his own nest, on the far side of the platform. "Sleep well," he meowed, his voice heavy with exhaustion.
Snowkit purred, but couldn't get comfortable. Stragger seemed all right, but he was a rogue. He didn't know her, or any cat she knew. He was a stranger, but she didn't think she could live without him. She knew instinctively that he wouldn't kill her in the middle of the night, and would give her something to eat in the morning. She had no idea why she trusted him, but she needed him at the moment. He had saved her life.