Mudpelt was on watch with Streammane. It was almost a full moon, only a few days after the Gathering. Leaffall was just beginning, and the leaves had begun to turn orange on the trees. Mudpelt stifled a yawn. Ripplestar had doubled the watches, and the whole Herd practiced drills of what to do if the camp was invaded at all hours.
He narrowed his eyes. He thought he saw movement across the River, towards Fourstones. Yes, it looked like the black shapes of many horses! He motioned to Streammane to look. She peered across the River. Her eyes widened, and she nodded at Mudpelt.
Ripplestar had decided it would be best if the enemy didn't know they were alerted to their presence. Mudpelt woke the elders, Fishleap in the nursery, Swanwings, Nighthoof in the apprentices' den, and Ripplestar silently while Streammane woke the warriors.
Mudpelt and Swanwings locked eyes, getting strength from each other's gazes. Then Swanwings helped Fishleap and the elders into the River on the StoneHerd side.
Ripplestar led a patrol into the River to fight the invaders in the water, and Mistyfur led a patrol to defend the camp. Ripplestar gestured to Mudpelt that she wanted him on her patrol. He joined Splashstream, Streammane, Frogleg, Waterpearl, and Toadnose. Mudpelt greeted Toadnose and Waterpearl silently, hoping his friends and family would make it through this.
Ripplestar signaled with her head for them to go, and they silently waded into the River. The horses reached the deep middle and waited, heads barely above the water. Mudpelt caught the scent of the intruders. It was TreeHerd. He felt happy for an opportunity to rip some fur off of the TreeHerd horses. He had been furious when Rowanstar had accused Ripplestar of stealing his horses.
He saw the TreeHerd horses milling at the edge of the River, unwilling to enter the flowing black water. Finally, one horse stepped in and the rest followed. They were trying to be silent but failed miserably, making loud splashes. Mudpelt noticed with a flash of satisfaction that they were very unaccustomed to the water.
When the first horse reached the deep part, it started to weakly swim. Ripplestar pushed herself under the water. She kicked his legs from under the surface, making him cry out in pain and surprise and flounder. The other horses paused, but before they could do anything the WaterHerd horses burst up and attacked. Toadnose, who was bulkier than Mudpelt, ran to shallower water and reared up at a dark brown mare.
Mudpelt submersed himself and struck at a brown stallion who was trying to swim across in the confusion. The stallion splashed around, trying to regain his balance. Mudpelt pushed up from the bottom and burst out of the water, pawing and biting the stallion. The stallion neighed in fear and pain. It turned and started flailing itself back away from the WaterHerd camp.
Mudpelt felt a kick and looked to see a dark mare rearing up at him. He fought her off, then another stallion, but there were more and more TreeHerd horses. There were so many that some slipped past the WaterHerd patrol in the River or went around them. How can we stop them all? Mudpelt thought desperately.
Mudpelt just kept fighting, biting one horse, kicking the legs out from underneath another, until he felt he couldn't go on. Finally, the flow of TreeHerd horses stopped.
"Back to the camp! Defend the camp!" Ripplestar neighed.
The patrol splashed out of the River and flung themselves into battle. Mudpelt saw Nighthoof struggling to fight a shaggy brown stallion. The stallion dodged Nighthoof's kick and came down hard with his front hooves. Mudpelt ran at the stallion and bit his shoulder. Mudpelt tried to get a good bite on his shoulder but came up with only a mouthful of fur. The stallion turned to him and reared up. Mudpelt reared to meet him and they clashed in a flurry of teeth and hooves.
Nighthoof darted in to give the stallion a kick to unbalance him. Mudpelt felt his opponent faltering and lashed out. They both fell onto all fours again, but Mudpelt and Nighthoof stood side by side, forcing the stallion to back away until he turned and ran. Nighthoof turned to Mudpelt, his eyes filled with the thrill of his first battle. Mudpelt saw the TreeHerd horses losing ground, getting forced back to the River.
Finally, Birchfall neighed, "Retreat, TreeHerd!"
The TreeHerd horses turned tail and ran.
Ripplestar turned to her Herd, her eyes shining. "Victory is ours!"
The horses reared and whinnied with exhilaration.
Ripplestar looked over the Herd, taking into account the injured horses. "Silverstream, Frogleg, and Splashstream go make sure they've left our territory."
They nodded and galloped away.
"Now we must find the dead and help the wounded. Tomorrow morning the dead TreeHerd horses will have to be taken back to TreeHerd. For now, put them by the edge of the River," Ripplestar neighed.
Mudpelt felt the adrenaline fade from his body. He staggered, suddenly exhausted. He looked around to find his loved ones. He saw Swanwings leading Fishleap and the elders back to their dens. Waterpearl ran up to Fishleap and Swanwings, and they all touched muzzles. Nighthoof, who had a long scratch down his side, was with Toadnose. Nighthoof's father licked him as if he were a foal. Mosstail and Beaversplash were side by side. Mosstail was unhurt, but Beaversplash had a bite wound on his flank that was bleeding heavily. Mudpelt was impressed he had fought his former Herdmates and not run away with them. Mistyfur was directing the horses to take care of the TreeHerd bodies, two stallions.
Mudpelt looked over his shoulder to examine his own wounds. He had a kick mark on his chest that throbbed and a bite mark on his shoulder that was bleeding heavily.
Swanwings came up to him and looked him over. "That bite looks serious. Go to my den."
Mudpelt meekly nodded and limped to Swanwings' den. Swanwings chewed up some marigold and rubbed it onto his wound. Mudpelt winced, the juices stung.
Swanwings stepped back. "That should be good. Try not to do anything strenuous and come back if it starts bleeding again."
Mudpelt stepped out to let the next hurt horse in. He heard a mournful neighing and looked around. The patrol sent to make sure TreeHerd had left had come back, and they were dragging a horse in between them. Mudpelt went up to the body. It was Streammane! Her body was wet and muddy, her eyes gazed blankly away.
Silverstream walked up to him, her eyes full of sadness.
"What happened?" Mudpelt demanded.
"Streammane was on your patrol, she must have been kicked in the head when she was underwater," Silverstream replied sadly.
Mudpelt stared blankly in shock. That could have been me, he thought, horrified.
Goosefeather raced to Streammane's side. She had been his mother. He shook his head slowly from side to side and pressed his nose against her fur. The sun was just starting to rise, and Streammane's blue roan pelt was tinted orange.
Mosstail also came up and pressed her nose against her former mentor's fur.
Ripplestar ordered a watch and let the rest of the Herd sleep, even though the sun was rising. Mudpelt pressed against Mistyfur with the other warriors around him and slept.