Mudpelt paced up and down the Riverbank, looking across and wishing he could see his sister. Waterpearl also paced a bit farther down.
Where is Swanwings? he wondered desperately. If TreeHerd has hurt her, I'll hunt them down.
Silverstream looked on worriedly and Mistyfur pressed against her for comfort. Fishleap snorted and pawed the ground.
"Why can't we just go and take her back?" Fishleap suggested impatiently.
Mudpelt was tempted to agree, but he knew it was rash.
Reedstar shook his head. "We've got to give her a little more time before we go charging into TreeHerd's camp. She might be perfectly fine."
Mudpelt could barely hear Silverstream whicker, "But she might not be."
Mudpelt agreed with her. They should do something. Mudpelt suddenly saw a white shape flying towards them. It might have been a bird, but every horse's eyes were glued on it. It got larger and larger until they could see it clearly.
"Swanwings," Silverstream called joyously.
Swanwings landed and was instantly surrounded by family.
Mudpelt nudged her. "Don't ever do that again."
Swanwings blinked embarrassedly at them. "I'm so sorry. I was just so tired after helping them I had to sleep."
Mudpelt was called away when he heard Reedstar neigh his name.
"I'm leading a patrol on the border with SwiftHerd. I want you to come."
Mudpelt nodded, and followed Reedstar as he called over Fishleap and Mosstail. Mudpelt felt a jolt of pride to see his daughter. Mosstail had recently been made into a warrior.
Mudpelt called his apprentice, Nighthoof, over. Nighthoof was turning into a formidable opponent in their training bouts. Mudpelt was confident that his apprentice could handle any SwiftHerd threat.
Nighthoof's eyes gleamed with excitement.
"Let's go," Reedstar neighed. The patrol cantered away toward the Great River.
They had crossed the Island and were cantering to the border when they heard a howl. They stopped dead. On the hill in SwiftHerd territory was a medium gray shape. Mudpelt felt every fur on his pelt prickle in fear.
"It's all right," Reedstar steadied the patrol. "It's just one wolf."
The wolf howled again and more wolves appeared from behind it.
Fishleap pinned her ears and neighed a challenge. Mudpelt counted five wolves. There were five horses as well, but Nighthoof was only an apprentice and Reedstar was on his last life.
At some invisible signal the wolves trotted down the hill and surrounded the patrol. The horses formed a circle facing out at the wolves. One wolf suddenly leaped at Fishleap, but she reared and came smashing down with her front hooves onto its head. It backed away whimpering.
A huge wolf leaped at Reedstar, but Reedstar was too slow to rear and the wolf knocked him over backwards. Both the horses' and the wolves' formation broke as the patrol turned to help Reedstar. Mudpelt leaped to help him, but stopped when he saw a wolf run at Nighthoof. He ran at the wolf, rearing up. Nighthoof came to his side and they both faced the wolf. The wolf started to back away, but them another came, snapping at Nighthoof and giving the other wolf new courage.
Mudpelt didn't know if they could make it out of this, but as he stomped at the wolf he heard a neigh and looked up. A SwiftHerd patrol! Runningwind, Tumbleweed, Windmane, and Gorsefur charged down the hill. At first the wolves snapped at the horses, but soon they saw they were outnumbered and ran off.
Mudpelt looked around at the WaterHerd horses. They all had bad scratches, but Reedstar could barely stand. He had a huge wound in his chest, and Fishleap and Mosstail supported him on either side.
Mudpelt stepped forward to address the SwiftHerd patrol.
"WaterHerd thanks you for your help. Without you, we all would have died. We are in your debt."
Tumbleweed, a lithe brown stallion, stepped forward to acknowledge his thanks.
"Wolves are a threat to both our Herds. Now you should get your leader back to your camp."
Tumbleweed signaled with his nose and the patrol galloped back to SwiftHerd territory.
Mudpelt turned back to his Herdmates. "Tumbleweed was right; we need to get Reedstar back to camp. Fishleap, you're the fastest. You need to get Swanwings and get her to fly out to us."
Fishleap nodded and Mudpelt took her place supporting Reedstar. She galloped away toward the camp.
The patrol made slow progress, but had gotten to the Great River when they saw Swanwings in the sky. She skidded to a stop with herbs in her mouth.
Reedstar trembled as he stood, his eyes glazed over. Swanwings fed him the herbs.
"These will give him enough strength to get back to the camp where I can dress his wounds," Swanwings explained.
When they got to the camp the moon had risen. Mudpelt and Mosstail helped Reedstar into the medicine horse den. Mudpelt walked out, limping. The long journey back had inflamed his wounds. He could tell Mosstail was hurt as well by the way she walked stiffly. Mudpelt saw Nighthoof come up to him.
"Go get some rest," Mudpelt ordered. "I know you've got wounds but Swanwings is busy right now."
Nighthoof was intercepted on his way back to his den by Splashstream and Toadnose, who desperately licked his wounds.
Mistyfur trotted up to Mudpelt and Mosstail and licked them both.
"I was so worried," she whickered.
Silverstream and Waterpearl came over to see Mudpelt as well.
Finally, Mudpelt made his way to where the warriors slept and fell asleep.
Mudpelt woke to a horrible neighing of fear and grief. He forced open his eyes to see most of the Herd gathered around something. Swanwings was standing outside her den, looking frozen with shock.
"What is it?" he asked Swanwings.
Swanwings looked at him, her brown eyes full of sadness. "He's dead."
"Reedstar," Swanwings choked out.
"No," Mudpelt felt as if his world was spinning away. He pushed his way through the horses and saw Reedstar lying there, his palomino coat golden in the moonlight. Reedstar had been the leader since Mudpelt was a colt! He touched his muzzle to his leader's fur, breathing in his fast fading scent.
Mudpelt backed away. Swanwings came up to him.
"I need to treat the wounds of all the horses that fought the wolves," she neighed.
Mudpelt nodded and went to find Fishleap, Mosstail, and Nighthoof. Swanwings treated their wounds but Mudpelt hardly felt the sting of the herbs. He felt numb. He left the medicine den and found the Herd standing around Reedstar. It was custom to sit vigil for a dead horse you were close to all night, and almost the whole Herd sat vigil for Reedstar.
May StarHerd accept you, Reedstar, Mudpelt thought with a glance at the sparkling stars above them.
In the morning, the elders took away Reedstar's body to bury it. Rippletail and Swanwings went to MoonTree for Rippletail to earn her name.
Mudpelt had been declared unfit for patrols by Swanwings because of his wounds, so he stood and rested in the shade of an oak tree.
When the horses returned from the MoonTree at about sunhigh the whole camp was full again. The horses were all silent when they trotted in.
"I have received my name from StarHerd," announced the newly named Ripplestar.
The Herd crowded around her, whinnying congratulations. Mudpelt saw Mistyfur come up to him and he lipped her mane affectionately.
"I wonder who she'll choose as her deputy," Mistyfur neighed.
Mudpelt looked around. "Waterpearl, maybe? But he's getting old. Maybe Streammane?"
Mistyfur nodded. "Maybe. But I don't know if Streammane would want to be the deputy."
"That's true," Mudpelt replied. "Splashstream?"
Mistyfur snorted. "No way! Splashstream is way too snappy. Though she would be happy to order every horse around."
Mudpelt nickered in amusement.
Ripplestar walked up the Grasshill, and the already gathered horses fell into silence.
"I say this before StarHerd so they may hear and approve my choice. Mistyfur will be the new deputy of WaterHerd."
A ripple of approval went through the gathered horses. Next to Mudpelt, Mistyfur had frozen.
"Congratulations," Mudpelt neighed.
Ripplestar walked down to Mistyfur.
"I…I never would have dreamed…I didn't…thank you," Mistyfur sputtered.
"You'll be a great deputy," Ripplestar neighed.
Mistyfur took a deep breath. "Thank you, Ripplestar. This is such an honor."
Ripplestar nodded, her eyes twinkling, and went to her new den.
Mosstail ran up. "Congratulations!"
They touched muzzles, Mistyfur gazing fondly at her daughter. Silverstream and Waterpearl came up and said their congratulations. Mudpelt felt that although Reedstar had left them WaterHerd's future looked bright. Reedstar would be a great new leader and Mistyfur was exhilarated at the chance to be their deputy. He fell asleep breathing in Mistyfur's sweet scent.