Skypaw and Ferndust emerged from the ferns, and almost immediately Skypaw knew it was going to be a much less awkward Gathering. Every Clan but ShadowClan had arrived now, but even so, the clearing was packed. Cats cheerily mewed and chatted to one another, sitting in informal groups and speaking about Clan matters. A large knot of apprentices were playfully wrestling under the Great Oak.
Beside her, Dustfoot's eyes lit up. "Ah, excellent!" he mewed. "They don't know I'm a warrior yet." His tail lashed in anticipation as he and Whiteblaze raced each other towards where several RiverClan and WindClan apprentices were gathered.
Skypaw purred with laughter, as did Ferndust. "They'll find out soon enough," she mewed to her friend. "Then they'd better watch out."
Ferndust breathed in deeply. "Shall we go and find Duckfeather and her friends?"
"Why not?" Skypaw let her gaze wander the clearing. Around them, ThunderClan cats streamed onto the grassy earth, letting out chirrups of greeting and brushing muzzles with known Clan cats. "Then we can go and see how our friends from WindClan are doing."
She remembered Boundwind and Rabbitfur and Thistletail. They had all been so nice to her. She missed Longfur, even though she had only met him once, and hoped that he was hunting well in StarClan alongside Crowfeather and Onestar. Skypaw sidled behind Ferndust until the silver tabby paused and meowed happily, "Hey, Duckfeather! Over here!"
"Ferndust!" purred Duckfeather, rising to her paws and brushing muzzles fondly with the ThunderClan warrior. "It's so good to see you!" She turned her friendly eyes to Skypaw and added, "And can this really be Skypaw? You've grown so much since I first saw you!"
Before Skypaw could respond, Pikefang grunted, "Hmph. Still looks like a kit to me."
"Charming to see you again, Pikefang," Skypaw returned as she trotted forward to brush muzzles fondly with the friendly RiverClan she-cat.
Duckfeather stepped back. "Meet my friends from RiverClan," she invited Skypaw and Ferndust, gesturing to where several RiverClan cats were now rising to their paws, friendliness shimmering like tiny fish in their eyes. "This is Tangleheart," she mewed, flicking her tail towards a handsome, long-furred tawny-brown tom who dipped his head briefly to Skypaw. "Though his heart's certainly nowhere near as tangled as his fur can get!"
"Only if I've been dared to walk through rushes!" Tangleheart retorted. "Because his denmate thought it would be funny for him to try and catch frogs in his long fur!"
"Whatever," Duckfeather casually dismissed. She wove her way between two fit young tomcats. Brushing her tail lightly over each of their flanks, she mewed, "This is Thornfoot and Smolderfur. They're our youngest warriors."
"However," Thornfoot added imperiously, "we've been warriors for moons longer before Ferndust became one."
"Stop boasting," Smolderfur, obviously his brother, mewed as he gave Thornfoot a gentle shove. "I knew Robinwing should've named you Boastkit by the way you never seem to stop bragging!"
"I can't help it!" complained Thornfoot, rounding his eyes like a kit would to his mother. "It's not my fault that RiverClan is the best Clan..."
Skypaw and Ferndust rolled their eyes.
"It's true, though," Duckfeather passed lightly. She flicked her tailtip over a brown tabby tom, who had strange grayish eyes, and mewed, "This is Grayeyes. Now he and his littermate Whitefur were warriors for four seasons before you were even born, Thornfoot."
"So? Then we were the next warriors after you," said Smolderfur.
Skypaw glanced at first Grayeyes and then Smolderfur and mewed in confusion, "That's quite an age gap."
"Yes." Grayeyes heaved a troubled sigh. "In the past, RiverClan has had difficulty with kits. Twolegs kept poisoning the stream and the kits played in it. They came back with the most frightful sores and cuts to their paws and faces."
Skypaw gasped. "That's awful!"
"Those were grim times for RiverClan," added Ferndust somberly. "I only heard the nursery stories, though. The poisoning of the streambed there was really bad for the cats of RiverClan. It pretty much straightaway killed off any youngling who entered the poison. The poison lingered for a while in the fish, too. The pregnant queens ate the fish..."
Skypaw nearly clapped her tail to her mouth in horror. "Oh, no, the poison didn't...?"
"It did," Duckfeather murmured, and her eyes shimmered with grief. "The kits were stillborn when the queens kitted them. Dark days for the Clan indeed. So much that the queens didn't want to try again until much, much later...and until they had finished grieving for their lost kits first."
"Over the many seasons that have passed since the Dark Forest battle, because of this incident there have only been a small amount of new warriors compared to the growth and steadiness of the other Clans," Thornfoot mewed. "But even though we're a small Clan, we're a very strong Clan. We still haven't been defeated in battle!"
"I defeated you the other day," Smolderfur reminded him. "You wanted to take my fish so I shoved you into the stream."
"I remember," Pikefang laughed. "You came out looking as drowned as a dead duck!"
The momentary sadness and grief was lifted and Skypaw let out an amused purr. The conversation shifted to easier topics until she heard WindClan arrive, and she flicked her ears forward as she saw several familiar faces almost at once.
"Come on!" she urged Ferndust. "Let's go and say hi!"
"We'll see you later," Duckfeather purred. "I'm going to see if I can't find a few more in ThunderClan."
Skypaw quickly sought out her friends in WindClan and they spotted her. They had gathered in that same place she had first met them in, and she raised her tail in greeting as she bounded towards them.
"Boundwind! Rabbitfur! Thistletail!" she mewed, and Ferndust lifted her tail in greeting too. The WindClan cats glanced up at the sound of their names and broke into easygoing purrs as they rose to their paws and fondly brushed muzzles with the two ThunderClan she-cats.
"It's good to see you again, Skypaw," Boundwind mewed as they sat back down. "How fares ThunderClan?"
"Since the sickness we've pretty much recovered," Skypaw mewed politely. "You?"
"We miss Longfur," Rabbitfur conceded. "But we're fine now. The rabbits run, and though it's getting colder we don't give one mousetail about it."
"It's good to hear," said Ferndust.
Boundwind suddenly looked past Skypaw and chirruped, "Hey, Hawkflight!"
A passing lithe brown she-cat glanced towards him. Skypaw noticed that an apprentice strode at her side and realized it must be her own. They glanced at each other, and then padded over.
"Skypaw, Ferndust," Boundwind mewed, "this is my sister, Hawkflight, and her apprentice, Chasepaw."
Skypaw mewed a greeting to the pair of them. Hawkflight slightly dipped her head in acceptance of her words, though her eyes, a beautiful sparkling shade of green, were guarded and cautious. Chasepaw narrowed her eyes at Skypaw, as though sizing her up, but said nothing.
"It's nice to meet you," Ferndust offered. "I'm Ferndust, and this is Skypaw."
"How long have you been in training?" Chasepaw mewed suddenly.
"Uh...three and a half moons," Skypaw replied.
Chasepaw puffed out her chest. "I've been in training for five and a half. This is my last Gathering as an apprentice."
"That's great!" Skypaw mewed, genuinely pleased for her.
Hawkflight gave Chasepaw a stern glance. "You'll become a warrior when you're ready to, not when six moons have passed since you received your apprentice name, young Chasepaw," she said firmly.
Chasepaw bristled her brown fur indignantly. "I'm the best apprentice in the whole of WindClan! I can beat any of my littermates at training!"
"Who are your littermates?" Skypaw asked.
Chasepaw pointed them out in the crowd. "Gorsepaw and Earthpaw are over there," she mewed. "They're training to become warriors, just like me, though they can't beat me in training anymore. I'm bigger than both of them! And my sister Lightpaw is over speaking with the medicine cats. She's Kestrelflight's apprentice," she added with pride in her voice, gazing at her sister fondly.
"So she's training to become a medicine cat," Skypaw commented.
"Has Jayfeather got himself an apprentice yet?" asked Chasepaw curiously.
Skypaw shook his head. "But I'm sure he'll find the time to mentor one, one day. There are lots of kits in the Clan to choose from."
"One of our queens, Furzefur, has just kitted," Thistletail mewed conversationally. "Though because our apprentices are nearly finished training, it'll mean there won't be many apprentices in the Clan for a while."
"Who's the father?" asked Ferndust.
A bit shyly but also proudly, Boundwind claimed them.
"Congratulations!" Ferndust purred at once, giving Boundwind a friendly flick on the shoulder with her tailtip. "You must be so happy!"
"You kidding?" commented Rabbitfur incredulously. "He was jumping around the camp as though he had eaten all of Kestrelflight's catmint in one sitting, declaring the news to the entirety of the Clan." She jumped to her paws and promptly did a demonstration. "I have a kit!" she squeaked. "I have a kit! Two kits! Yes, I've got two kits! Two wonderful kits!"
Skypaw and Ferndust laughed, as Boundwind self-consciously shuffled his paws, but he too purred in humour. "I...I was a bit overexcited," he commented. "I mean, who isn't, when they hear their mate's safely delivered kits into the world?"
The bracken rustled at the edge of the clearing and Skypaw pricked her ears. "I think ShadowClan's here."
"Ah," said Thistletail, and he narrowed his eyes.
Sure enough, the Clans parted to make way as ShadowClan entered the clearing. Tigerheart strode at its head, his head held high and his golden eyes gleaming. At his side stalked Hookclaw, who was a little less pleasing to the eye. Skypaw felt a nervous shudder run down her spine.
Three familiar faces sudden broke away from the group and headed towards where Skypaw's Clanmates and former denmates were gathered. The knot of WindClan apprentices they had been speaking with glanced towards where the ShadowClan apprentices headed towards them, and let out mews of greeting.
"Lakepaw, Waterpaw and Grasspaw," Skypaw commented.
"I wonder how long they've been in training for," Ferndust mewed lightly. "They started a moon or so after I did. Maybe they're not even apprentices anymore."
Skypaw glanced towards the Great Oak. Tigerheart had leapt lightly onto his allocated branch and was mewing formally to Lionstar, Sedgestar and Reedstar. He did look very leader-like, dark tabby fur cleaned to perfection, ears flicked forward and voice civil and neutral but not hostile. Perhaps ShadowClan had been gifted with a good leader, though it'd be hard to forget who his grandfather was, and his own father's madness.
After a while the Gathering commenced, and the chatter fell silent as the cats gathered around the Great Oak to listen to the Clan leaders.
Lionstar went first. "Things go well in ThunderClan," he meowed. "We have four new warriors. Stormbreeze, Larkflight, Whiteblaze and Dustfoot."
The four indicated young warriors puffed out their chests with pride, and the Clans called their names. Skypaw couldn't help but glance at Larkflight. He glanced at her for a moment, suddenly looked sheepish and glanced away just as quickly. Stormbreeze, noticing this, gave him a playful shove.
"We have recovered well since our sadness in losing many of our warriors and elders to the sickness," Lionstar continued. "Our kits grow and we prepare to face the fast-approaching leaf-bare." He sat back, gesturing for Sedgestar to speak.
She did so. "We have little news to share, other than joy. One of our queens, Furzefur, has kitted a healthy brood."
Pleased purrs rang around the Clans. Sedgestar went on. "Their names are Nettlekit and Silverkit."
Skypaw sought out Boundwind in the crowd. When he glanced at her, she mouthed, "Nice names," to him. He looked pleased, and the pair turned their attention back to the Great Oak.
Tigerheart was the next to speak. "ShadowClan thrives in the wake of the sickness," he meowed, his voice ringing clearly out over the gathered Clans. "Three ShadowClan apprentices have taken their warrior names: Lakepelt, Watershine and Grasstuft!"
So they had become warriors after all. Skypaw called out their names with the Clans as the three indicated warriors puffed out their chests with pride.
"We have two new apprentices, too," Tigerheart added. "Cedarpaw and Nightpaw."
Skypaw glanced around in surprise. She hadn't seen the two apprentices tonight, but now she saw them. Cedarpaw's gray spotted fur was soft and downy, but her eyes were hard and very golden. She looked strong. Nightpaw's black pelt was shiny and glossy, and her pale blue eyes were half-closed in pleasure.
Reedstar had nothing to report, and so the Gathering concluded.
As the Clans prepared to leave, Skypaw quickly slipped through the crowd, reaching the newest ShadowClan apprentices. "Congratulations on making it to your first Gathering," she mewed.
The nearest, Nightpaw, glanced towards her. She looked startled for a moment, and then purred shyly and mewed, "Thanks."
"I'm Skypaw," Skypaw mewed.
"I'm Nightpaw," she replied. She waved her sister over and added, "This is Cedarpaw. We only became apprentices a few days ago."
"We got to come to the Gathering because we're the only apprentices in the Clan now," Cedarpaw boasted proudly.
Skypaw flicked her tailtip. "I'm the only apprentice in the Clan now. Not for long! Next moon there'll be two more apprentices. So how was your first Gathering?"
"Pretty busy," Nightpaw conceded. "We got shown about by our mentors a lot. We met a lot of ThunderClan cats, though."
"Who did you meet?" asked Skypaw.
"We met the new ThunderClan warriors," Cedarpaw said. "And Moleclaw and Cherrypelt, and...what were their names again? Amberheart and Dewclaw and...Runningleap, I think."
"Cherrypelt's my mentor," Skypaw mewed proudly. "Who are yours?"
"I've got Hookclaw as my mentor," Cedarpaw declared. "Nightpaw only got Gingerfleck."
"Only?" repeated Nightpaw indignantly. "She's a great mentor! And she's Hookclaw's sister, and our grandfather's half-sister. Hookclaw's a grump."
"He takes a bit after his father," Cedarpaw said conversationally.
"Who was his father?" asked Skypaw, feeling unease twisting in her stomach.
"Oh, my mentor, Hookclaw and Smoketail are Rowanstar's kits, so they're kin to Tigerheart, and kin to us," Nightpaw explained. "Odd, isn't it, that Tigerheart chose his brother to be his deputy? Maybe because Hookclaw's a strong warrior."
"What are you two doing, dawdling around?" The two ShadowClan apprentices jumped around guiltily and Skypaw felt anxiety flash over her as she realized that Hookclaw had materialized behind them. The ShadowClan deputy's eyes flashed annoyance.
"ShadowClan is leaving," he growled. "We're not waiting around for a pair of gossiping apprentices."
"Sorry," Cedarpaw mewed meekly to her mentor. She glanced at Skypaw and said, "I'll see you around."
"Goodbye!" Nightpaw mewed cheerfully as she and Cedarpaw quickly bounded after their departing Clanmates.
Despite herself, Skypaw called goodbye after them. They were nice apprentices, she decided. Then she realized that Hookclaw was leering over her and she nervously stepped back.
"Don't think I haven't forgotten," he growled, his voice cool and menacing.
Skypaw felt nervous, but she straightened. She was growing bigger now, almost full-grown, and she met Hookclaw's gaze steadily. "Nor have I," she returned.
Hookclaw flattened his ears. "You'll pay for what you and Dovewing did."
"Rowanstar was mad," Skypaw stated icily. That same strange fury that she had felt fighting Rowanstar had returned, driving away all her former fear of the ShadowClan warrior. "You were foolish to follow him."
"Don't you speak that way about my father!" hissed Hookclaw.
Then Skypaw heard pawsteps behind her and heard a familiar voice meow firmly, "She was right to call him mad."
Skypaw glanced over her shoulder to see Cherrypelt flank her apprentice defensively, her cool gaze meeting Hookclaw's. "He was old, Hookclaw, and only fools followed him into that pointless battle. All that was gained from that was injuries, scars and grudges."
Hookclaw lashed his tail. "Don't think I haven't forgotten what she did to him." He glared at Skypaw with great dislike and growled, "I'll see to it that we square it out one day. An eye for an eye..."
Then he turned and stalked after his departing Clanmates. Skypaw felt a cool shiver of fear run down her spine, the fury abating.
Cherrypelt glared after Hookclaw for a moment longer before she brushed her tailtip lightly against Skypaw's flank. "Come on," she said. "Let's go and find our Clanmates."
"Ouch!" Skypaw gasped. She was pinned onto her back by firm paws. Claws pricked her skin and the she-cat who leered over her brandished white fangs, lashing her tail in eagerness.
"All right, all right, you won!" Skypaw mewed. "Now get off me!"
Frostkit let out a yowl of triumph as she sprang backwards. With a sigh, Skypaw pushed herself to her paws and shook grass from her fur. Frostkit paced excitedly near her, tail flicking to and fro.
"I beat you," she declared. "I can beat anyone!"
"You can't beat me," Jaggedkit said scornfully, flicking his black-and-white tail dismissively. "So you can't beat anyone, can you?"
Frostkit purred and dropped into a crouch. "Do you want to bet on that?"
"Hey, hey, don't kill yourselves before you can even become apprentices," Skypaw chided, intervening between the pair of them. "You two are meant to be helping me sort moss, remember? When you're an apprentice you don't have as much time for messing around, and particularly not on a chore."
Frostkit and Jaggedkit sheepishly nodded and straightened up. "Sorry for jumping on you," Frostkit mewed, though she sounded mischievous and not at all apologetic.
Skypaw sighed and fondly flicked Frostkit with her tail. "If you want to become the best apprentice ThunderClan has ever seen, you both need to get your act together and fulfill your commitments," she told them sternly. "You currently promised to help me sort through the moss. What do you need to do?"
"Sort through the moss," said Frostkit and Jaggedkit in unison.
"Good. Let's get on with it, then."
Skypaw watched the two kits return obediently to the pile of moss that she had gathered from the forest that morning, and begin to sort through it, separating rougher, drier pieces of moss from the softer and cleaner sprigs. She looked around the camp. It was evening now, and there was a general content atmosphere in the camp. Looking around, Skypaw spotted Hollythorn and Moleclaw sunning themselves together just outside the nursery in the last patch of sunshine that spilled into the hollow, fondly watching the younger kits tussle together in the grass.
How old are they now? Skypaw wondered. Frostkit and Jaggedkit were fast approaching their sixth moon at five moons and three weeks of age. They had been three moons old when Ravenkit, Graykit, Clawkit and Owlkit had been born. My goodness...two moons and swiftly approaching their third. How quickly they grow up!
Flamefur and Yellownose were having a discussion with Spottedheart and Dustfoot about what was the best tactic to ambush WindClan warriors.
"You can hide in the long grass and wait for them to approach, or do a crazy jump from a tree, attempt to clear the stream and land on an unsuspecting WindClan warrior on the other side," Yellownose mewed. "Which way is the best way?"
"Trees," insisted Spottedheart, with a lash of her tail. "You lure the WindClan cats into the trees first before you attempt to jump on them."
"But they'll never go into the trees," Flamefur argued. "So that's why you hide in the grass and ambush them then!"
"They'll see you hiding in the grass!" Dustfoot commented. "Particularly with a pelt as bright as yours, Flamefur. So what you have to do is, as Spottedheart says, lure them into our territory—"
"We won't let them walk on our territory, thank you!" Yellownose meowed indignantly.
"You don't," explained Spottedheart patiently. "Which is why you lure them into the trees, and then ambush them..."
Turning her attention away from the conversation, Skypaw glanced towards where she saw a large group of senior warriors—Mousewhisker, Hazeltail, Dovewing and Bumblestripe, Foxleap and Blossomfall—were happily tucking into some fresh-kill that the hunting patrol had brought back. Lionstar and Cinderheart lay on Highledge, enjoying a moment of peace and amusedly watching their daughter argue with Flamefur and Yellownose.
Brambles rustled at the edge of the clearing and Jayfeather emerged from his den, carrying old bedding in his jaws. Aura slipped out behind him a moment later. Skypaw stared at her friend for a moment. She looked so grown up now, and Skypaw realized that she was as old as Frostkit and Jaggedkit were now; five moons, three weeks. How much her body had grown in her near-four moons of staying with the Clan!
"The mallow will drown in a particularly high tide tomorrow morning if you don't get to the shore quickly enough, Jayfeather," Aura was mewing. "And in a few hours Mousewhisker will complain of bellyache. He's eating a tough thrush."
Jayfeather sighed and flashed a sharp blue-eyed glance at Mousewhisker, locating the warrior easily by sound and smell. "Why do some of these warriors act like mouse-brains? Even the senior warriors?"
"He was hungry," Aura commented. "I'll go and keep the kits company so they don't get into trouble later on, and I'll take a poppy seed for Hollythorn. She might have a nightmare tonight."
Jayfeather nodded. "Help yourself. For once we actually have plenty of poppy seed."
Aura nodded and vanished back into the medicine den. Skypaw purred to herself and returned to her chore. Aura had settled in so well with the Clan, and they in turn had accepted her. She spent a lot of time with the kits but also with Jayfeather, using her gifts of insight to inform him the status of his herbs while saving him the time to go and check for himself. As a result, Jayfeather got a lot more things done and he was generally less irritable.
"That looks good," she mewed to Frostkit and Jaggedkit, noticing their piles of soft, springy moss. "You sort moss well. You'll have no problem completing your chores cleaning out dens when you're apprentices."
Jaggedkit purred with self-satisfaction. "Great! Can we do anything else?"
Frostkit looked slightly disappointed at her brother's statement. Purring, Skypaw mewed, "You don't need to do anything else for me; I can manage from here. But if you want to do something else kind for me, you can go and give some fresh-kill to the elders. I'm sure Squirrelflight, Birchfall and Briarlight will be willing to tell you a story if they have a good fat rabbit to chew on."
Frostkit's and Jaggedkit's eyes lit up and they hurried away to the fresh-kill pile. Skypaw glanced after them, feeling a slight glimmer of sadness at Jaggedkit's fast-paced hobble. His crooked paws looked worse than ever as he grew older, but he never mentioned or was downhearted by them. On the contrary, he was more than determined to prove himself as a warrior to the Clan.
I'm glad that he believes Briarlight to be a positive influence, she thought as she began to gather up the moss. He'll become a stronger warrior because of his injury.
"How are you going?"
Skypaw glanced up quickly to see Cherrypelt standing beside her. "Great!" she mewed around her mouthful of moss. "I'm just on my way to clear out the nursery now."
"When you're done with the nursery, you can get something to eat and go to bed," Cherrypelt mewed. "You've worked hard today."
Skypaw nodded. "Thank you, Cherrypelt." Her claws ached from the countless times she had rapidly scrabbled up into the tree and her legs throbbed from dropping down constantly on unwary cats below, in the surprise tree-ambush technique that Cherrypelt was teaching her to master. But she was proud of her aches. Soon, with a bit more training, they wouldn't ache anymore and she knew she'd be strong. And I don't have to have insight to know I'm going to be great at it!
She carried the bundles of moss over towards the nursery, but before she could set it down and mew a quick greeting to Hollythorn and Moleclaw, she was suddenly knocked over by a barrage of flying paws and shrill mewls of triumph.
"Got you, ShadowClan!" a shrill mew declared.
"Oof!" Skypaw gasped as a squirming bundle of kit crashed onto her chest, knocking the wind from her. Tiny claws hooked into her fur, pinning her down onto the grass. Ravenkit proudly declared, "We caught you!"
Great StarClan! Am I going to spend the entire afternoon being attacked by kits?
"That's enough now," a voice chided, and Moleclaw was suddenly over Skypaw and gently sweeping the kits off her fur. They mewled their complaints as he gently shooed them away, giving Skypaw enough time to push herself back to her paws.
"My hero," she commented to Moleclaw.
He purred and flicked his tailtip to the four kits. "Now, little ones, is that any way to treat a Clanmate? Jumping on them?"
"Frostkit and Jaggedkit jumped on Skypaw," Graykit mewed.
"So why couldn't we?" Clawkit added.
"Because I think two large kits were enough for one day," Moleclaw told them, though his voice was light-hearted. "Besides, Skypaw is cleaning your nests. If you want her to make it nice and soft and comfy for you then you'd better not jump on her any more or she might sneak a beetle into it."
Skypaw inwardly laughed. She was feeling tempted now that Moleclaw had suggested it. Catching Hollythorn's eye, the queen smirked and gave her a wink.
"Don't worry," she assured Moleclaw. "I'm all right."
Moleclaw purred. "They can jump all over you when you're not busy," he said.
Skypaw gathered up her moss again. "They could help me," she suggested to him. "They could have a competition to see who can gather the most ferns and feathers and anything else soft and comfortable they'd like to have in their nest."
Their eyes brightened. "I'll bring the most!" Ravenkit declared.
Owlkit indignantly shook her head and seemed to say, "No, I'll bring the most!"
"You won't be able to beat me!" Clawkit yowled.
"Yes, I will! I'll bring so much that you'll be really jealous!" Graykit yelped, and he took off across the clearing, closely followed by his littermates, with their little tails streaming behind them.
Hollythorn purred with laughter. "Well, that'll keep them busy for a while," she meowed. "Good thinking, Skypaw."
"They didn't actually hurt you, did they?" Moleclaw mewed, regarding Skypaw. "Because I'd think my sister trained you a little better than that."
"You needn't worry, I'm fine," Skypaw assured him, well aware that her normally shiny dusky-gray fur was smeared with grass stains and a bit of dirt. "They didn't hurt me."
"They're large enough to, those little rascals," mewed Hollythorn, with a wearisome roll of her eyes. "They're such a pawful! I'll be glad in another season-length when they're apprentices and they'll be off my paws."
Skypaw glanced up at Moleclaw, suddenly intrigued. "They seemed to treat you like their father."
Moleclaw shrugged. "I treat them a little like my own kits," he conceded. "It's...it's been hard, I guess, since Mapleleaf..."
He sighed. "Well, she's gone, and I've tried to make the best out of the situation. Frostkit and Jaggedkit were motherless, and Hollythorn took them in. Graykit and Ravenkit and Owlkit and Clawkit were fatherless, so I took them in. It seemed only right to."
"And they're learning well from your stature," Hollythorn praised him. "You're just like another Snowfoot to them." Her voice was etched with a faint sadness as she remembered her deceased mate, but there was genuine warmth in her voice as she rose to her paws and gave Moleclaw a friendly nudge. "I'm glad that they can have you as their fatherly example."
Aura padded over, a poppy seed held in her mouth. Hollythorn and Moleclaw inclined their heads respectfully to her, and the tortoiseshell kit did the same.
"You'll need this for tonight," she mewed as she gave the poppy seed to the queen. "It's best to have dreamless rest this evening, I think."
"Thank you," Hollythorn mewed. "That's very kind. It might help me rest a bit more through the night as well. Those little kits of mine...restless sleepers, the lot of them!"
Skypaw purred and slipped into the nursery, her moss once again safely bundled in her jaws and beneath her chin. It was peaceful and quiet in here, with all its inhabitants outside. Even here she could hear the sounds of pounding pawsteps over the earth and the excited shrieks and mewls of the kits as they searched for soft ferns and feathers and scraps of spare fur, and the gentle murmur of chatter that went on just outside between Aura and the parents of the six kits.
As Skypaw worked, clearing out Hollythorn's old nest, she found herself remembering her own happy times in the nursery, when she was just an innocent young kit here, the only thing that worried her being what games she could play the next morning, or if her favourite piece of fresh-kill would be on the pile or not. When she had the company of her mother.
Skypaw found herself purring softly as she remembered the way that Dovewing had snuggled her deep into her long, soft belly fur and wrap her fluffy tail protectively around her. Being born in the cold of leaf-bare, she had needed warmth much more than her older denmates Branchkit and Fernkit, as she was much younger and smaller than they were. When there was a leaf-bare storm and she had whimpered with fright, Dovewing had cuddled her and reassuringly told her that the scary storm would pass, and if it wasn't enough to soothe her, then she would tell her a story of what she did as a kit.
Skypaw moved slightly to one side and dumped the moss near the entrance to the den.
As she did so, she felt her tail swish over something in the ground.
Skypaw glanced over her shoulder towards the dent in the earth, and felt her heart skip a beat. Wait a moment...I think I know what it is! She hurried to investigate it, wondering if all these moons later, it was still there.
It was. The scratch marks that she and her denmates had made when they were kits and denmates, living and surviving in the heart of leaf-bare. Skypaw stared at them for a moment, memories welling up in her. She could hardly believe she had forgotten about them.
They were so tiny...Branchpaw's and Ferndust's were larger than hers, as she was four moons their junior. Her four other denmates had larger claw marks, too; they were still visible, small but steady. How old had they been when they first did this? Skypaw realized that she mustn't have been more than a moon old...
Gently, she touched the marking.
Everything vanished around her and she felt the ground shift beneath her. For a moment, Skypaw felt as though she were falling, had lost her balance, been knocked unconscious or something...
Then her vision cleared. Skypaw opened her eyes and stared around her. Everything hadn't changed...and yet it had changed. She was still in the nursery, but it was very cold. Her breath came out in billows of icy air. The brambles that formed the den were tough and brittle and the outsides were coated with shiny frost. Skypaw looked down at the ground and realized that there were no scratch marks in the earth.
The colours...they were too bright and dark in some places, and when Skypaw looked up, she realized that the brambles were shaking as a wind buffeted them. Visual echoes followed their every movement.
A memory, Skypaw realized in amazement. I've returned to another memory.
The last time she had done this, it had been three weeks ago, during the apprentices' hunting assessments, moments before Larkflight had caught the catmint-eating shrew. She had seen Ivypool and Blossomfall hunting that blackbird in the pine thicket. Gone back to the past, so far back that they were just apprentices, and old ThunderClan warriors she thought dead were alive.
But what memory was this?
Skypaw suddenly saw the brambles rustle abruptly at the mouth to the nursery, and suddenly three snowflake-covered bundles burst into the den. Skypaw stared at them in near-amazement. She recognized them. She recognized them immediately.
That's me! she thought, astonished, staring at the smallest kit, who was only a soft dusky gray in colour, covered in thick kitten fluff, with bright blue eyes. That's...that's me when I was just a moon old! Beside herself were two larger, older-looking kits who looked less perturbed by the coldness that whirled outside. One of them was a bright silver tabby she-cat. The other was a handsome brown-and-white tabby tom.
Ferndust and Branchpaw...when they were kits. When they were Fernkit and Branchkit! Skypaw stared at her old denmates, nothing short of amazed. And behind them is...that's my mother! Dovewing!
"Inside, quickly!" Dovewing was urging, as she nudged Skykit quickly into the den. "It's far too cold for a tiny kit like you to remain outside."
Skykit shivered beneath her soft, fluffy fur and mewled meekly, "But we were having fun!" Skypaw started at the sound of her high-pitched kitten mewl. This is so bizarre...
"Pelting your denmate with snowflakes is not fun!" Dovewing mewed sternly.
Fernkit fluffed up her pelt indignantly. "It wasn't as if we were planning to bury her under all the snow outside."
"Definitely not," Branchkit agreed solemnly.
"I wasn't necessarily thinking of you," Dovewing commented darkly just as the brambles rustled again. Suddenly, four more kits bounced into the den, every one of them completely peppered with snowflakes. An irritable Cherrypelt slipped in after them, wearily shaking her head.
Skypaw jumped as more memories cascaded back into her mind. That's right! My mentor used to share my den with me. All of her kits were my denmates, too! They were all older than me by three moons, one moon younger than Branchkit and Fernkit...
"If you want to freeze into an icicle out there, then go right ahead!" Cherrypelt hissed crossly, shaking snowflakes from her whiskers. "But do it when I'm not around to be your mother in the nursery!"
Skypaw watched the minute versions of Cherrypelt's kits, each fluffy, bright-eyed and mischievous, scrambled into the nursery, purring with amusement. They seemed to have been playing in the snow-covered clearing outside. Skypaw had forgotten what the Clan's newest warriors had looked like as kits, but she could recognize each and every one of them.
Stormkit pouted. "But Mother, it's really big out there, and really cramped in here!"
"It's also very cold outside," said Cherrypelt sternly. "What would your father say if he saw his daughter and sons frozen stiff?"
"He'd probably say 'no need to be so frosty, kits; let's play a game'!" Whitekit suggested, and his littermates purred with laughter. Cherrypelt, exasperated, rolled her eyes at Dovewing.
"There's plenty of room in here for games," Dovewing mewed, drawing back to stand at the edge of the nursery with Cherrypelt. "You are not to leave this den until morning. It's going to get very cold outside, too cold for little kits."
"Yes, Dovewing," the kits mewed solemnly. Skykit nodded.
Larkkit turned eagerly to his denmates. "What should we play?"
"Hmm..." Dustkit was looking thoughtfully over his brother, and then he commented, "Let's play 'chase the lark'!"
"I hate that game," said Larkkit. "Why am I always being chased?"
The kits laughed. "Because you're a lark, Larkkit!" mewled Stormkit in exasperation.
"Let's do something else and give Larkkit a break," Fernkit mewed. "What if we made up our own game?"
"Oh, please," sighed Whitekit. "You and Branchkit are always the best at making up games."
"That's because we're the oldest," Branchkit teased. "Anyway, we could try to invent a game that needs seven kits."
"So we're not playing ShadowClan versus ThunderClan?" whined Dustkit.
Skykit flicked her tailtip indignantly. Skypaw could remember all too well the thoughts that had flown through her mind back then. It's not fair how the others are all bigger and stronger than me! They invent all the games that suit them and not me.
"No," Branchkit said. "We can do that tomorrow. We should do something that Skykit can take part in."
"She's really small," said Dustkit. "She should grow a bit bigger before we do any more scuffling games."
Skykit huffed. "I'm not that small!" she complained. "I'm still very strong!"
"We never said you weren't," Fernkit soothed. Her eyes brightened. "I know! We could have a quiz!"
"A quiz?" echoed Whitekit, sounding confused.
"We test each other on facts about our Clanmates," Branchkit explained. "And facts about animals, and the forest, and animals..."
Skykit sighed. "I don't know that much," she muttered.
"So you'll learn," Fernkit encouraged. "Come on, Skykit, give it a go! It'll be fun! You'll get to know lots of interesting facts about our Clanmates...and even about your denmates."
Skykit perked up a bit at this. "I'll probably be really stupid at this, but I'll try," she offered hesitantly.
"That's great!" Larkkit purred. "I'll probably be stupid at it, too."
"Because you're a birdbrain," said Dustkit cheekily.
"I am not, dust-head!" Larkkit shot back at his brother.
"No squabbling!" Branchkit interrupted. "That's rule one of the quiz."
"There are rules?" asked Whitekit curiously.
"There are now," said Branchkit. "One; no squabbling. Two...uh..."
"No cheating," Fernkit decided. "And three...have fun!"
"Those are rules I can follow!" Stormkit announced. "Let's start! Who'll go first?"
"We have to all agree to the rules," Fernkit chided. "And you have to prove that you agree to them."
"How?" Skykit mewled.
Branchkit came up with the idea. "Like this." He unsheathed his claws and scored them deep into the ground. The kits stared at the gauge marks as though they had suddenly turned into yew berries. Seeing their confusion, Branchkit elaborated. "It's your mark," he explained. "If you agree to the rules and agree to play the quiz, then you put your mark on the ground. Cross it over each others to show that you accept their acceptance, too."
"Like this," Fernkit mewed, catching on, and she scratched her claw marks right over Branchkit's.
"Oh! I think I get it," Stormkit announced. She unsheathed her own claws and scratched them across Fernkit's and Branchkit's. "There. I agree to the rules and to the quiz."
"I agree!" Skykit mewled. Though her claws were small, she scratched them deep into the dirt, overlapping her three denmates'. Skypaw shivered as she saw herself doing that, placing her mark permanently into the nursery, agreeing to the rules of a game that they had invented in the cold of leaf-bare in their den.
Then she watched as Larkkit, Dustkit and Whitekit all agreed and scratched their claw marks over their denmates'. Seven sets of scored claw marks, scratched deep into the earthy floor of the nursery. Skypaw saw it, and she remembered, recalling the way that she had felt so included, so special and privileged to have placed her mark there, alongside the older kits'.
"Right," mewed Fernkit. "Let's begin."
The memory dissolved into darkness and Skypaw, with a gasp, opened her eyes. She staggered backwards from the claw marks.
She had seen. She had remembered.
So many moons had passed since that day, the day when she placed her claw marks beside her den mates'. The day when Skypaw had felt so included, when she was so small and helpless and young. One of those few precious memories she had stored when she knew Ferndust and Branchpaw as denmates.
She realized that she was still stunned by what she had seen, by the memory she had seen.
Does Ferndust remember? she wondered. Do any of them remember? Larkflight? Stormbreeze? Whiteblaze, Dustfoot?
She had forgotten, and she had been the youngest. Perhaps they had forgotten it, too. For them, at the time, it seemed so meaningful, and then it was not...but now Skypaw realized that those seven scratch marks crisscrossing one another in the earth meant something more. It meant their friendship. That they'd always be friends, always be denmates, always be there for one another.
And she realized how much she remembered, and missed, Branchpaw.
How could I have ever forgotten this? she thought, stunned and unhappy.
Slowly, she returned to her work, though she found that perhaps reliving certain events and memories that had happened in the past was not something that she wanted after all. The first time, it had brought confusion. The second time, grief. What would it bring the third time? She found herself dreading to know.
It was everywhere. It thrummed around her. Pressed at her pelt, clouded her mind, stifled her senses. Skypaw couldn't shake that terrible feeling of danger.
She stared around her. Where were the others? They had been behind her a moment ago. Then all of a sudden the feeling of danger grew bigger, grew stronger. Everything suddenly seemed unsafe. Every flickering shadow. Every crack and rustle in the drying, deadening undergrowth that enfolded her. There was frost on the tree bark, frost on the ground, and a feeling of icy fear that crawled beneath her fur.
That was when she began to hear the growl. It was huge and deep, seemed to swallow her up, rumbled in her ears like thunder. She heard the pounding footsteps. Something huge...something enormous...was approaching her. Skypaw spun around and let out a horrified shriek as she watched the creature emerge...something out of a nightmare. Something with she had never seen before, but something her inner wise awareness informed her immediately of.
It was a huge and dark brown shaggy creature, three times bigger than the biggest dog, with a massive maw and gigantic fangs. Red eyes focused upon her. Huge claws, ten times longer, thicker and sharper than a badger's, dug into the earth. When the creature rose up on its hind legs and roared as though the ground itself was screaming, and the sky was breaking into a thousand pieces, it was as tall as the trees.
Skypaw's eyes flew open in time to her herself gasp, "No!"
She calmed when she found herself staring into the flashing golden eyes of Aura. The kit was standing right beside her, one paw planted firmly on her shoulder, urging her to be still.
Skypaw trembled. "What...what in the name of StarClan was...?"
"Danger," Aura said quickly. "You saw danger, did you not?"
The apprentice sat up abruptly. "Where am I? Where are we? Where is it?" she hissed, well aware that she was trembling in terror. She spun around, searching, realizing that she was in the apprentices' cave, the cavern that she had had all to herself for the past three weeks.
"Calm," Aura urged, and her voice pierced through Skypaw's panic. "You saw a danger, and you saw a threat. You must calm down, and you must focus upon this dream."
"I don't...I don't want to see it anymore!" Skypaw whimpered.
"You must, for the sake of your Clan!"
Aura's voice was like a thunderbolt to her senses, and slowly Skypaw began to calm down.
Reluctantly she brought the memory up. The memory of the huge creature, the creature like a thousand nightmares, with huge claws and fangs and burning red eyes, that was by far the biggest danger that the Clans would have to face in the history of ever.
"It was...it was leaf-bare," she murmured quietly, remembering the frost. "Though it was only just beginning. About...about a quarter moon into it." Her eyes flew open and widened. "That's...that's only half a moon from now! Half a moon before it comes!"
"Two weeks," said Aura decisively. "Two weeks...that should be enough time."
Skypaw breathed hard. "The last time I glimpsed death coming to the Clans, I was..."
"You glimpsed one week into the future," Aura said. "Now you have glimpsed two weeks. You are growing stronger, Skypaw, and I know that you are ready."
"Ready for what?"
"Ready for the next part in your training, something which I have observed growing in you, something I realized that I needed to teach you when your ability to enter memories increased." Aura flicked her tailtip against Skypaw's flanks and she said, "It is time for me to teach you how to use Time. When you know how to, then you will be ready to face the terrible threat that is to come to the lake. The enemy that can be fought...but always feared."