Mudpelt walked into the nursery, nickering silently to himself when he saw Fishleap's expression of impatience. He knew Fishleap always had limitless amounts of energy, and being trapped in the nursery for so long had been torture for her. Whitefoal was sleeping on the soft mossy floor and Goosefeather was playing in the River.
Fishleap spun around when she heard Mudpelt enter the nursery. They touched noses.
"How are you?" Mudpelt asked.
"Bored," Fishleap admitted. "But Whitefoal makes it all worth it."
Fishleap looked lovingly down at her son.
"Are you going to the Gathering tonight?" Fishleap asked him longingly.
Mudpelt knew she wished she could join her Herd at the Gathering.
"Yes," Mudpelt said a bit guiltily.
Waterpearl stepped into the nursery. "There you are, Mudpelt. Mistyfur wants you to go on patrol with Splashstream and me."
"Coming," Mudpelt neighed. "Bye, Fishleap."
The patrol splashed across the River. The full moon shone high overhead, and the water was the only sound in the night. Mudpelt was excited to see TreeHerd's new leader. He hoped the new leader was as good as Rowanstar had been.
At least, before the sickness, Mudpelt thought.
WaterHerd trotted into Fourstones, where they were the last ones there. Ripplestar and Mistyfur trotted straight to the place where the leaders and deputies stood. Mudpelt found a place next to a SwiftHerd stallion. He was the usual light brown of SwiftHerd horses.
"Hi," he whinnied. "I'm Windmane."
Mudpelt nodded at him. "I'm Mudpelt."
"Have you seen the new TreeHerd leader yet?" Windmane asked. "He's the one talking to Blossomstar."
Mudpelt looked for Blossomstar's light brown dappled coat. He found her and looked at the stallion next to her. He had been here as TreeHerd's deputy many times, but Mudpelt had never really noticed him. He was a brown stallion, but slightly dark.
"What's his name?" Mudpelt asked.
Windmane answered eagerly. "Birchstar. I know because I was on the patrol that met him when he was on his way to get his name from StarHerd. Every horse has to cross through our territory to get to MoonTree. Tumbleweed said…"
Mudpelt rolled his eyes as Windmane kept talking, and finally just blocked him out. Typical SwiftHerd! Windmane looked pretty young and inexperienced.
Mudpelt finally interrupted him. "Who's their new deputy?"
Windmane paused. "I don't know."
He was about to start off on another story when Ripplestar called the Gathering to order.
"Fishleap has had a colt, Whitefoal," Ripplestar reported. "WaterHerd is very strong."
Blossomstar and Icestar both reported that their Herds were well.
Birchstar stepped forward. "Rowanstar has died. He caught an illness and couldn't fight it off in his old age."
"He was a great leader and he will be missed by all of the Herds," Blossomstar neighed.
"I hope that you will make wiser choices," Ripplestar neighed to Birchstar, her eyes cold.
Mudpelt felt himself agreeing with her. It was hard to forgive Rowanstar for attacking them.
Birchstar stiffened, but turned away. "My deputy is Ashwood."
Mudpelt looked to see a dark brown stallion standing next to Mistyfur.
The rest of the Herds reported their news, and when they were finished Icestar closed the Gathering. The horses gathered in groups with their Herdmates. Mudpelt noticed Beaversplash was shunned by the TreeHerd horses, some even pinned their ears at him. Mosstail tried to comfort him, but Mudpelt could see he looked saddened. Beaversplash was looking like a WaterHerd horse already. Even though the Riverweeds they ate took a while to get used to they made the WaterHerd horses' coats glossy and helped them keep the water out.
Mistyfur cantered close to him on the way back and Mudpelt was glad of her warmth. He felt her love when he looked into her eyes, and he felt completely content.