The moon, bright white and round as an egg, rose high above the lake. The night was unusually clear, and countless stars glimmered and glittered like chips of ice in the raven-black sky.
Skypaw stood and watched it, feeling an unusual but satisfying contentment running through her. She flicked her tail and wondered how she had missed such beautiful little pleasures life offered her.
She looked over her shoulder at the camp. They were busy, but there was a content air around them, too. Peace at last—for a few days, blissful peace. Many cats were staying in the hollow, but they did so gladly, eagerly asking their kin and friends to tell them what happened at tonight's Gathering—Lionstar was going to mention their great defeat of the bear. He was not going to mention Skypaw's abilities; only that Aura forewarned them and Skypaw had come up with the idea of trapping it.
Which was somewhat true. Aura knew the bear had been coming, but she was teaching the Clan to look to Skypaw. She would not always be there to guide them when she eventually took Rock's place as Guardian.
So who is coming to the Gathering tonight? Skypaw reflected, testing her insight. Brief images of cats flashed before her eyes. She purred softly to herself—she was growing better and stronger at using her power, just as Rock, all those moons ago, had predicted.
Ivypool swam amongst her Clanmates, informing who and who wasn't to go. Mousewhisker, Seednose, Flamefur, Yellownose, Blossomfall, Bumblestripe, Thrushsong, Spottedheart, Amberheart, Dewclaw, Toadstep, Poppyfrost, Moleclaw, Jaggedpaw, Frostpaw, Skypaw, Cherrypelt and Aura were all to come to the Gathering tonight.
Skypaw felt a touch of disappointment that neither Ferndust nor Larkflight had been invited this evening. She and the mottled brown tom had become quite good friends—closer than they originally had been—after the bear's death. She headed over to them, unsurprised to see similar disappointed expressions written on their faces, and promised, "I'll tell you everything that happens tonight."
Ferndust nodded. "You'd better," she threatened playfully.
"Aura's going to the Gathering?" Larkflight looked interested. "It's been four moons since she has..."
"Aura's over six moons old now," Skypaw reasoned, "and she has as much right to be at the Gathering as any of us. She's been a member of ThunderClan for well over a season-length, and things seem to have quietened down more or less in ShadowClan." Privately she hoped that she would meet Nightpaw and Cedarpaw again.
She glanced over her shoulder as she heard protesting mewls echo across the clearing.
"I can clean myself, Father!" Frostpaw was protesting loudly, ducking beneath Moleclaw's sweeping tongue.
"Oh, be still!" he meowed patiently, pinning his daughter's tail down on the ground and starting to clean her blue-gray fur more firmly.
Jaggedpaw snickered where he stood nearby, but his expression changed to that of horror when Moleclaw glanced at his son and said, "You next."
Skypaw, Ferndust and Larkflight stifled mrrows of laughter.
"I can remember being that impatient when my mother was doing that to me, before my ceremony to apprenticeship," Skypaw mewed—the memory seemed so old now, and she realized exactly how far she had left her kithood behind.
"So can I," said a warm and familiar voice.
Skypaw glanced over her shoulder and raised her tail in greeting as her parents made their way over to her. Dovewing greeted her daughter with a gentle touch of the muzzle, and Bumblestripe fondly brushed his tail against Skypaw's flanks.
"You nervous?" her father asked.
Skypaw shook her head. "Why should I be nervous?"
"Hello, Skypaw?" Larkflight prompted. "You just killed a bear!"
Skypaw purred. "Thank you for the encouragement."
"You'll tell me everything that happens?" Dovewing meowed, a touch of envy glimmering in her pale golden eyes.
"Of course I will," Skypaw assured her.
Ferndust sighed. "You know," she said, "it makes me irritated, exactly how many cats there are in ThunderClan. Everyone can't go but they want to!"
"If each Clan took all their cats there'd be no room on the Island for them," Skypaw commented.
"Then the RiverClan cats can swim around the bank and listen at the same time," Larkflight suggested, earning mrrows of laughter from the assembled cats.
Skypaw looked ahead. Lionstar was saying a quick farewell to Cinderheart before he flicked his tail commandingly and moved towards the thorn barrier. "Look! We're heading to the Gathering!" Excitement thrummed in her belly and she quickly rose to her paws. Glancing back at her mother and friends, she called a farewell, before she and Bumblestripe bounded towards the rest of the group.
Skypaw felt glad that today, after two whole moons, she wasn't going to be going as the only apprentice to the Gathering. She fell into step beside Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw, who were both looking immensely excited and terrified at the same time.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," Skypaw forewarned them in an undertone as ThunderClan slipped one by one through the thorn barrier into the cool, shadowy forest beyond.
"I know," said Frostpaw softly. "I mean, why should we be afraid? We killed a bear before we were even made apprentices. A bear! No other apprentice can claim to have done something that cool while they've been kits."
"Technically you should have been made apprentices before," Skypaw reasoned.
Jaggedpaw shrugged. "I just want to meet the other Clan cats."
Skypaw felt an odd sense of responsibility descend on her. "Shall I show you around when we get there? I have got a lot of cats I want you to meet..."
They were at the Island at last. Skypaw, having done this several times before, pulled herself up onto the tree-bridge and swiftly made her way over the shining, shimmering water below. She jumped onto the sandy bank and turned around. Half of ThunderClan still had to cross, including the apprentices.
Jaggedpaw was the next to climb, and Skypaw stifled a sudden nag of worry. There were times and places for twisted paws...and the bark of the dead tree was always slippery. It was hard enough for a cat with straight paws to move across. Then the tree trembled as a protective Spottedheart jumped up after him, her eyes flashing concern.
"I don't think I'll need help," said Jaggedpaw as politely as he could manage. He took a few wobbly steps forward and almost at once shot off the side. Instantly Spottedheart lunged, seized Jaggedpaw's scruff, and carefully set him back onto the log.
Skypaw breathed a small sigh of relief.
"Thanks," Jaggedpaw mewed grudgingly, looking embarrassed.
He slipped and fell over the side several times, but Spottedheart wordlessly and continuously pulled him back over, careful concentration visible in her face and eyes. At last Jaggedpaw prepared to leap down from the tree. He landed clumsily, but he straightened up at once. Noticing Skypaw nearby, he discreetly shook his forepaws, mouthing ow.
That must've hurt, Skypaw thought sympathetically, thinking of how painful it would be to land on jagged feet.
Soon the rest of ThunderClan had crossed—Jayfeather with his usual surprisingly careless ease. Aura, though she had only crossed the tree-bridge once before and nearly slipped that time, had also safely crossed and landed on the shore.
Skypaw purred. "Congratulations on surviving this time."
Aura purred as well, clearly remembering her near-fall four moons ago. "It's been a while," she conceded, "but I think that the Clans will accept me a little more than they did when I was a kit."
"Do you know why Lionstar invited you to the Gathering? Some cats in ShadowClan are still...well, they still believe in Rowanstar's...madness." Skypaw recollected Hookclaw with a slight shiver running up her backbone. She nervously forced her dark dislike of the ShadowClan deputy away.
"He believes me to be a part of ThunderClan now," said Aura simply. "So I will be as much a part of ThunderClan as I am permitted to be."
"You could have asked to become an apprentice."
Aura shook her head. "I said this to you on the day that Hollythorn's kits were born; I am not meant for the life of a warrior, or even a medicine cat—I am burdened, with four Quarter Tigermarks weighing on my shoulders. I cannot lift a claw to fight, and nor can I spend my life in a medicine den like others."
"You were barely seen out of it when there was that epidemic of greencough," Skypaw reminded her as around them the Clan began to move into the Island.
Aura chuckled. "I worked hard, yes, but it drained me greatly. I don't feel as though I can repeat a feat like that again."
Skypaw glanced over her shoulder. Spottedheart and Amberheart, proudly leading the two newest apprentices, now appeared at her side. Cherrypelt appeared on Skypaw's other and murmured, "You ready?"
Skypaw nodded. "Yes."
"Good." Cherrypelt's eyes gleamed pride and caution. "Don't get into any trouble." She disappeared into the ferns.
Skypaw nodded vaguely after her mentor. She heard pawsteps thud nearby and glanced at Amberheart, who was flicking her tailtip eagerly. "You must be so proud, being mentor, especially to one as fiery as Frostpaw," Skypaw mewed, unable to resist a glance at her denmate.
Frostpaw bared her teeth playfully, lashing her tail. "Amberheart's teaching me how to kill foxes!"
"No, I'm teaching you how to collect moss for the elders," Amberheart corrected, much to the amusement of Frostpaw's brother.
"Come on," said Skypaw eagerly. WindClan was here first this time, and she couldn't wait to meet Boundwind again. She swiftly led the way through the ferns, a suddenly overexcited Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw hurrying behind her.
Emerging into the Island was now a familiar sight, but for the two new apprentices, they stared and stared, amazed beyond words. Skypaw stifled a small chuckle—she could remember how amazed she was the first time, and that was with two Clans in the clearing. Spottedheart and Amberheart murmured something in their apprentices' ears before they disappeared, presumably to go and share tongues with WindClan. The lean, swift warriors of the moorland were rising, tails flicking, to meet and greet ThunderClan.
Skypaw soon spotted Boundwind and Rabbitfur off to one side, chatting with a pair of WindClan apprentices. She beckoned for Jaggedpaw, Frostpaw and Aura to follow, and led the way across the clearing over to them.
Boundwind was the first to notice her. "Skypaw!" he greeted warmly, heaving himself to his paws and touching noses with her.
"It's good to see you again, Boundwind," Skypaw returned. "And you, Rabbitfur."
Rabbitfur blinked warmly but said nothing.
"Who are the new apprentices?" asked Boundwind. Then he paused and looked more closely at Aura, only to mew in surprise, "My goodness, can this be...? You look so different..."
Aura purred and bashfully dipped her head. "Four moons is a long time."
"It is, isn't it? How old must you be, now...six moons?"
Aura consented, and Boundwind purred. "So you are an apprentice of ThunderClan at last."
"No," Aura corrected. "I am not an apprentice—I am still a guest. I have my other reasons for being in ThunderClan. However," she continued, over Boundwind's surprise, and stepped back to reveal Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw more clearly, "we do have two new apprentices in ThunderClan."
Boundwind blinked and dipped his head. "Then I welcome you to the Island...?"
"Frostpaw, and this is my brother, Jaggedpaw," Frostpaw introduced. Skypaw wasn't altogether surprised to hear a note of caution in Frostpaw's voice. They were speaking with WindClan cats, supposedly their enemies.
Skypaw looked past Boundwind and Rabbitfur. She could recognize these two cats. "Lightpaw and Chasepaw, am I correct?"
"Chasefire, thank you." She puffed out her chest. "I'm a warrior of WindClan now."
"That's great news!" Skypaw mewed, remembering that Chasefire had been in training for nearly six moons the last time she had met her. "How fares WindClan?"
"Well enough," Lightpaw mewed politely. "How does the prey run in ThunderClan?"
"The frost has been heavy..." Not to mention sharp... "...but there has been enough fresh-kill to go around," Skypaw responded. For a moment she wanted to tell—no, to boast—to the WindClan apprentices about the bear. Then she decided not to. I'll let Lionstar tell that to the Clans himself.
She heard voices sound nearby and glanced over her shoulder to find a large knot of ThunderClan cats, Moleclaw, Dewclaw, Blossomfall and Bumblestripe, chatting with several WindClan cats—Hawkflight and Thistletail, Skypaw recognized, and others her insight told her of, Ashclaw, Wingfeather and Earthpaw...well, Earth-something now...
Skypaw glanced back towards the WindClan cats as Lightpaw mewed, "How long have you been in training now, Skypaw?"
"Four and a half moons," Skypaw replied. And haven't I changed in those four moons of passing...
She remembered something. "How are your kits? Nettlekit and Silverkit, right?"
Boundwind was pleased. "I'm glad that you remember! One moon old and growing up fast, causing more mischief in the Clan than all the apprentices put together. They're weaned now—they quite enjoy the taste of rabbit meat."
Skypaw was about to reply when the ferns rustled, announcing the arrival of RiverClan. She was pleased to spot Duckfeather almost immediately, and after saying a quick farewell to the WindClan cats, she led the way over to her RiverClan friends.
Duckfeather was accompanied by who Skypaw recognized to be Pikefang, Tangleheart and Smolderfur, and as usual, the pale white she-cat was warm and welcoming to Skypaw. She recognized Aura almost at once and greeted her warmly, too.
"New apprentices?" she asked keenly, spotting Jaggedpaw and Frostpaw.
"ThunderClan never stops growing," Pikefang muttered darkly under his breath.
Tangleheart shushed his Clanmate and cuffed him over the ears, earning a giggle from Frostpaw before she introduced herself and Jaggedpaw to the RiverClan cats.
"This is your first Gathering, then?" asked Duckfeather. "Well, welcome to the Island! These here are my Clanmates, Tangleheart, Smolderfur and Pikefang."
Skypaw watched as the ThunderClan apprentices became acquainted with the RiverClan warriors, and saw with a touch of pride that they were losing their fear and immediate hostility of the other Clans.
"They're settling in well, aren't they?" commented Aura.
Skypaw nodded agreement. "It's wonderful, having a bit of peace," she said.
Aura purred, but her eyes were distant. Skypaw guessed that the peace wouldn't last for too long.
When ShadowClan arrived Skypaw, to her small delight, spotted Cedarpaw and Nightpaw. She quickly said goodbye to the RiverClan cats, told Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw that she'd be back in a moment, and padded over to where Cedarpaw and Nightpaw stood, looking slightly lost. Their mentors, including Hookclaw, had disappeared.
"Hi there," Skypaw greeted them. They glanced around. Their ears flicked forward and their tails swished side to side, happy to see her again.
"Skypaw, isn't it?" Nightpaw tried to remember her name.
Skypaw nodded. "How fares ShadowClan? Did you have a busy moon of training?"
Cedarpaw slumped. "Busy as busy can get," she admitted. "Hookclaw likes training me hard."
"Same with Gingerfleck," Nightpaw mewed, "but I've learned heaps from her! I know how to defend myself when I go into battle! Have you fought in a battle before?" she asked suddenly.
"My first was a moon or so into my training."
Nightpaw's eyes widened. "Oh, that's right! You're the apprentice who blinded Rowanstar, weren't you?"
Skypaw frowned at her. "What's that meant to mean?"
"Just...saying," Cedarpaw said quickly, cuffing her sister curtly with her tailtip. "I mean, we were only young kits at the time when Rowanstar came back to camp and he had half his face clawed off..." She shook her head. "I hope that he sees brightly in StarClan now."
Presuming that he is in StarClan, Skypaw thought to herself, but she forced away the melancholy thought and mewed, "You don't want to go into battle until you know that you are ready. To my memory, you've only been in training for one moon, and I could barely hold my own against Hookclaw."
But look how far I've come, she thought to herself, with a small tingle of pleasure and pride. She felt her powers stir within her, flowing through her veins, hers for as long as it took for her to deal with the real, approaching menace.
It was shortly after Skypaw said farewell to the two ShadowClan apprentices, who sauntered off to try and spot the newly-named WindClan warriors, that she heard a rallying yowl echo from the Great Oak.
"Let the Gathering begin!" Tigerheart yowled.
He's been ShadowClan's leader for two whole moons, Skypaw realized as she went to join her Clan with Aura padding behind her—Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw were still chatting keenly with Smolderfur and Pikefang. Looking at the dark brown tabby, standing upon one of the great branches of the Oak beside Sedgestar, Reedstar and Lionstar, she couldn't help but notice how leader-like he looked—as proud and as valiant as any other leader. It was hard to imagine that Tigerstar had been Tigerheart's grandfather.
Soon Skypaw and Aura managed to find a place beside Spottedheart and Cherrypelt. Upon arriving, Spottedheart leaned over and murmured, "Where's Jaggedpaw?"
"With Duckfeather and her friends," Aura supplied.
Spottedheart flicked one ear disdainfully at the thought of her apprentice speaking with RiverClan, then turned away. Skypaw caught Aura giving the warrior an exasperated stare, and she rolled her eyes behind the dappled she-cat's back. Stifling a snicker, Skypaw turned her attention towards the leaders.
It was Sedgestar who led the Gathering that night.
"We have three new warriors!" she declared proudly. "Chasefire, Earthstorm and Gorsebriar!"
Skypaw saw the three new warriors puff out their chests, and she joined in with the other Clans as they chanted their new names. They're good names, Skypaw conceded in her head. Reminds me of WindClan's tireless energy. For a moment, she wondered if she was now the oldest apprentice attending Gatherings—and was shocked when she realized that she was. It struck her that soon, perhaps in a couple of moons, she'd come to the Island with her own warrior name.
But what will it be?
"We heard strange noises from the border a few days ago," Sedgestar continued, glancing at Lionstar. "The noises came from your territory. It would be wise to increase patrols around the northern border."
Lionstar let out a rumble of amusement.
"The threat was taken care of several days ago," he said, sounding as though he were being modest, but trying very hard not to boast—and Skypaw could hardly blame him. How many other Clans had taken down a bear with no fatalities, or even any casualties?
Sedgestar blinked, surprised. Then she nodded and said, "I am glad to hear it."
"It's quite the tale," Lionstar purred. "What came to ThunderClan wasn't just any ordinary creature. It was something called a bear—and trust me, it was about as terrifying as the Dark Forest invasion all those seasons ago."
"Please," scoffed Reedstar. "What could possibly be as dangerous?"
"Let me explain, and I tell you that I do not exaggerate—the bear was enormous, as tall as the trees when it reared onto its back legs. Its claws were huge, much larger than that of a badger's, and its bite far more lethal and crushing, big enough to swallow a warrior whole. If you had seen it, then I assure you that you would have been scared—when I first heard about it, I was, too," Lionstar added, after a moment.
"That's ridiculous," said Tigerheart, twitching one ear. "Nothing like that could ever exist. StarClan forbid!"
"StarClan can't do anything—they're weakening, in case you've noticed," said Jayfeather irritably, from the foot of the Great Oak. "Notice why the medicine cats don't go to the Moonpool at half-moon anymore?"
Dewtuft nodded. "The connection has been damaged since the Dark Forest attack," she mewed, carefully contradicting her leader. "If threats are coming to the lake, then I don't think StarClan will have the strength to stop it."
"And the bear is dead, anyway—we do not always need StarClan's strength to protect us," Lionstar added, a little smugly. "Our eldest apprentice, Skypaw, devised a trap and with the help of several other warriors—" His gaze lingered on the ones who were attending in turn. "—we managed to trap and kill the creature. Indeed, before Jaggedpaw even became an apprentice, he and Frostpaw snuck out of the camp, and was the one to cause the avalanche of rocks that crushed the beast."
The said apprentices puffed out their chests and looked indescribably proud. Skypaw noticed that Chasefire, Earthstorm, Gorsebriar and Lightpaw, who was seated with her mentor Kestrelflight at the base of the Great Oak, stared at the newest ThunderClan apprentices in amazement and envy. Cedarpaw and Nightpaw were simply stunned.
Astonished and impressed whispers rang around through WindClan and RiverClan. ShadowClan was worryingly silent, and when Skypaw glanced at a few of them—who she recognized to be Gingerfleck, Applefur and Grasstuft—she saw that their eyes were narrowed and thoughtful, and their gazes frequently darted to Aura.
The dappled apprentice-aged she-cat didn't seem to be bothered. "Let them stare," she commented in an undertone to Skypaw. "What good will it do them?"
"Well said," muttered Cherrypelt, throwing them a heated glare and making them turn away.
But Tigerheart had caught on. "Did Aura have any part in this?" he inquired. His gaze swept around and suddenly fell on her. "I see that she has come to the Gathering tonight as well."
Aura twitched one ear, unfazed. "I am of age this time," she countered coolly.
Tigerheart was about to respond when Lionstar interrupted him sharply. "Yes, her insight proved valuable in warning us where the bear would approach us from," he snapped. "But it was our warriors who constructed the trap, our warriors who led the bear to it, and our warriors who defeated the bear."
"I only gave them a nudge in the right direction," Aura agreed, with that maddening but oddly satisfying calm.
More worried and impressed whispers...but Skypaw noticed an old gleam of hunger flash in Hookclaw's eye. He leaned over and muttered something to Dewtuft, who frowned, nodding slowly. She flicked her dark gray tail thoughtfully.
"ThunderClan is strong on its own," Lionstar told the Clans. "We are truly fortunate to have such talented apprentices in the Clan. Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw began their training late, as the bear threat delayed their apprenticeship ceremony, but it has not delayed their enthusiasm in the slightest."
The Clans yowled their names appreciatively, and Duckfeather, who was seated beside them, murmured another word of congratulations to them. Frostpaw nodded. Jaggedpaw ducked his head bashfully.
Lionstar stepped back, signaling that his turn to speak was at an end. Tigerheart was silent for a few moments, and then he stepped forward, stating only that ShadowClan was prospering, and though leaf-bare had settled in the pine forest, the prey continued to run and the training of the apprentices was going well. Reedstar declared that a new litter of kits had been born in RiverClan, and murmurs of congratulation went up amidst the three other Clans at this.
"Is that all, then?" asked Sedgestar.
Reedstar nodded. "I've nothing else to say."
"Then the Gathering is at an end," concluded Tigerheart, and was the first to leap down from the oak's branches. Immediately he turned to quietly speak with Hookclaw and Dewtuft—and Skypaw couldn't help but glare at the three of them.
"Don't," warned Cherrypelt in an undertone, as she gently brushed past Skypaw and turned the gray apprentice away. "There is no need to stir old rivalries now, Skypaw. Hookclaw isn't an evil cat—but he is one who doesn't know the full meaning of 'forgive and forget'."
"So it would seem," Skypaw muttered darkly, and instinctively she curled her tail protectively around Aura's flanks. The dappled she-cat didn't even try to shy away from her at the gesture, understanding its subtle meaning.
Cherrypelt did, too. "They wouldn't dare try and attack us again."
"They had better not, over me," scowled Aura, letting out her frustration in one sweep of her tail. "Or else it might have been better never to have joined ThunderClan at all."
"Don't be stupid," said Skypaw. "The Three and I would've been lost without you. We might not even have been around if not for you and your teaching!"
Aura considered this. Then she purred and said, "You're becoming as insightful as I am, Skypaw. You speak moons beyond your age."
Skypaw purred at the words, but before she could respond, she suddenly heard a familiar voice whisper her name. "Skypaw!"
She turned around and spotted Boundwind watching her, urging her silently for her to go to him. She hesitated for a moment, and glanced at her mentors for approval.
"Go on, then," mewed Cherrypelt. "But don't be long—we need to get back to a thorough training schedule and that includes getting as much sleep as you can before training in a few hours."
"He wants to say his congratulations for your success," Aura stated. "I'll wait for you on the shore, if you want."
"Thanks—I won't be long!" Skypaw quickly darted away from her friends, and approached the handsome WindClan tom.
Almost immediately, Boundwind was at her side and he curled his tail with hers. "Did you really trap and kill a—a bear, was it called?" he asked with such kitlike eagerness in his bright eyes that Skypaw laughed.
"I did," she soon said as modestly as she could. "But Aura did help with making plans for it..."
Boundwind beamed. "Why am I not surprised? That sounded incredible! I only wish that I had been there to see it happening."
"Thanks, Boundwind," said Skypaw appreciatively, as she and he broke apart and stood at a more formal distance from one another. "You would've been great at leading the bear to the stone-crushing place—Runningleap was fast, but the bear was pretty quick, too!"
Boundwind was almost immediately concerned. "Is he all right?"
"He's fine," Skypaw assured him. "He didn't come tonight because he was just a bit tired. The bear nearly got him more than once! And our leader wasn't exaggerating when he was describing it—if anything, he was understating it."
Boundwind was sympathetic. "Strange to think that these kind of creatures exist elsewhere in the world beyond the lake, isn't it?" he wondered aloud. "I wonder if the Twolegs had anything to do with it...?"
Skypaw shrugged. "Twolegs are crazy. Any cat knows that."
"Point," Boundwind purred.
"Hey, Boundwind! Hurry up, would you?" Hawkflight stood impatiently beside a pair of WindClan warriors, her tailtip flicking. "We're leaving!"
"Coming, sister!" Boundwind called back to her. He glanced at Skypaw and added, "Good luck for the future, Skypaw!"
"Tell your kits I said hi!" Skypaw mewed to him. He raised a tail in farewell and hurried towards his own Clanmates. Then she turned around, ready to return home.
Aura had promised her a few weeks of peace. Skypaw found herself willing to forget her powers and just become ordinary and mortal, like all the others. To train hard in the ways of the code and to become the best warrior that she knew that she could become. She felt joyous contentment burn in her veins as brightly as flame as she hurried to her Clanmates' sides and followed them from the Island.
"Good morning," Skypaw mewed politely, wriggling into the elder's den.
Squirrelflight drowsily blinked open faded green eyes. "Hmm? Who's there?" she rasped.
"It's just me."
"Skypaw!" Briarlight put up her head and purred a welcome. "Hello! It's been a while since you've come and visited us."
"Chores bring me here, I'm afraid." Skypaw set a large bundle of moss down at Briarlight's paws, and glanced sideways to where a bundle of gray-streaked brown tabby fur was rising and falling rhythmically. "Is he asleep?" Skypaw asked, taking care to keep her voice hushed.
Squirrelflight nodded. "And I was, until you came along," she added blearily.
"Oh, shush," Briarlight purred, giving Squirrelflight a nudge with her muzzle. "You sleep too much."
Squirrelflight let out a rusty purr in response. "Not nearly as much as you eat!"
Briarlight flicked one ear. "You know perfectly well that the new exercises Jayfeather's given me consume a lot of energy!"
"And a good thing that they do, or else you'd never be sleeping," Squirrelflight countered.
Skypaw softly purred to herself as she began to clean the nearest nest, scraping away the old, stiff moss and bracken in preparation for the softer, springier offerings the forest had granted the camp. It felt good to be doing some normal apprentice duties again, after what felt like forever of danger and supernatural teachings. She didn't regret it, but it did get overwhelming after a while.
"Want some help?" Briarlight offered brightly.
Skypaw shook her head. "I'll be all right," she said. "I really should be doing this myself now."
"You certainly should," frowned Squirrelflight. "You're nearing the end of your training. A few more moons and then you'll be a warrior."
Skypaw softly breathed out. "One moon is a long time..."
"It'll fly past—you'll be having another assessment soon, I daresay," commented Briarlight, as she relaxed back into her nest. Birchfall slept on.
Skypaw nodded grimly as she finished cleaning out Squirrelflight's nest. "Cherrypelt wants to assess my skills—and I don't think she'll be content with anything less than perfection."
"I wouldn't be content with anything less, either," Squirrelflight rasped. "Less chatter and more nest-building please, Skypaw. I want to get comfortable."
"Be silent, you old fleabag—she's doing her best," Briarlight chided.
"Fleabag, me?" Squirrelflight's eyes widened in mock hurt. "I thought you were my kind and loving denmate!"
Briarlight purred. "Ever heard of tough love, my friend?"
Skypaw felt another flash of plain, blissful contentment run through her. At last, normal camp activity. The elders were bickering, the apprentices were training, the warriors were squabbling about the cold and patrols and how Stormbreeze snored at night—followed by an indignant comment from said cat—and how fast Hollythorn's kits were growing. They were fast nearing their fourth moon in age.
As Skypaw added new padding to Squirrelflight's nest she thought, not for the first time, about Owlkit. A stab of worry entered the young gray apprentice, and her blue eyes became thoughtful. In her life, Owlkit had still not said a single word. Jayfeather was proving true about Owlkit's silence, that she would never speak. But Owlkit was just as bright and as energetic as her sister and brothers.
Skypaw wondered why Owlkit was so quiet. Since when had any Clan had a mute warrior amongst them? Cats were vocal animals—that much was true. How could Owlkit lead a full life if she could only do half the things a warrior did?
But the warriors said similar things about Jaggedpaw, she remembered. And now look at him—he's doing so well in his training, delayed as it is, and with his disability, too.
In the quarter moon that had passed since the Gathering, life had gone on, for once naturally, without any threats, without any dangers. The frosts of leaf-bare were thickening and food was starting to become scarce, but Skypaw faced this without fear. She was the kit who had been born in the midst of one of the harshest leaf-bares that the Clans had ever known, who had not been expected to survive, but who did more than that...
An icy wind rattled the brittle stems of the honeysuckle bush where the elders curled under, and Squirrelflight let out a distasteful spit. "Curse leaf-bare's chills!" she hissed. "Are you done with that nest, Skypaw?"
"Just about," Skypaw answered as she tucked in a bit more bracken amidst the moss. "Here you are." She stepped away, and watched as Squirrelflight circled and then curled up in her freshly-made bed. "I made it extra-padded for your comfort."
"Hmm..." Squirrelflight wriggled around a little, making herself comfortable, before she mused, "Better than those new apprentices' efforts, I daresay. They came back and lined my nest with wet brambles. Brambles! They could've had the courtesy to make them dry, but no..."
"I was perfectly happy with Jaggedpaw's nest," Briarlight countered.
"You're perfectly happy with Jaggedpaw's everything!"
"And so should you, old furball!"
Similar talk between the two elders bickering with one another about anything and everything went on for the length of Skypaw's chore. Soon her paws were aching from kneading nests together, but then the task was done and Birchfall, who had been roused long enough for Skypaw to clean and change his nest, was once again curled up asleep, his thin body fluffed up from leaf-bare's penetrating chills. Briarlight was curled up beside him, sharing her warmth. Even now, many seasons on, Briarlight still looked as energetic and as full as a senior warrior.
"I'll ask Ivypool if she can get some cats to pad the den a little more," Skypaw offered. "When Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw get back from their training, they'll attend to your ticks."
"Where are you off to?" grumbled Squirrelflight, scratching her shoulder.
"I have to clean out the nursery now while the kits are outside, enjoying a fine leaf-bare day."
"Kits!" snorted Squirrelflight grouchily. "Did you know that Clawkit and Ravenkit found it most amusing to put a beetle in my nest the other day?"
Skypaw purred. "I did hear about that."
"Their mother! She did nothing, nothing about it!" Squirrelflight pouted. "Me and Leafpool did things like that all the time when we were little ones, and Sandstorm gave me such a telling-off, even though Leafpool was the one who did all those things!"
"I'm afraid that it's just too hard to believe who is the more mischievous one—calm, thoughtful Leafpool or energetic, jump-into-anything Squirrelflight," Briarlight commented.
Squirrelflight narrowed her eyes. "Don't get me started on what trouble you and your littermates caused when you were little kits..."
Skypaw said farewell to the elders and quickly backed out of the den before she could be distracted further by another squabble. As she stepped out into the clearing, her paws sank into cold frost and she shivered. Frost falls had grown heavier recently and sometimes, late at night, there had even been a bit of snow falling on the forest rapidly emptying of food.
Many cats were out hunting and on patrol, though a fair number remained. Skypaw saw Dewclaw and Moleclaw having a discussion about the treetop-training exercises, Berrynose eating some fresh-kill with Blossomfall and Rosepetal, Stormbreeze and Patchwhisker seated with Lionstar, Ivypool, Toadstep and Mousewhisker and having what appeared to be some kind of debate about fish and RiverClan, and her own friends, Larkflight and Ferndust, slumbered in a dry patch outside Jayfeather's den, Aura with them. The remains of a squirrel and a blackbird lay between them.
Skypaw headed over to them. "Anything interesting happen in the few moments I spend in the elders' den?" she asked.
Ferndust shrugged. "Nothing much...but you missed a bit of fresh-kill."
"Sorry—we were hungry," Larkflight mewed apologetically.
Aura narrowed her eyes. "Hungry? Greedy, more like."
"Says the one who ate half a blackbird all by herself," Ferndust teased.
"How are the kits?" Skypaw interrupted.
Aura nodded towards the far wall, near the dirtplace tunnel. "See for yourself. Hollythorn has turned her back on them for a moment."
Sure enough, Skypaw could see several distinct little bundles of fur creeping towards the dirtplace with villainous intent. She saw Ravenkit pause, flick her white-tipped tail commandingly, and then the four leapt as one beneath the bristles, only to dart out a moment again mewling with laughter, followed by a very irate Seednose yowling, "Get out of my sight, you little rascals! You wait until I get my paws on you—you'll wish you'd never been born!"
Skypaw stifled a mrrow of laughter.
"What happened?" asked Larkflight.
"The kits placed burrs in Seednose's tail while she was in dirtplace," Aura explained. "And now they have tried to pull them out again."
"Oh!" Ferndust tried to sound reprimanding, but failed when a light of amusement flashed in her eyes. The four friends watched the kits scamper past, little tails waving in the air shrieking with laughter, and Owlkit's eyes bright with it. They shot straight back to Hollythorn and eagerly told their mother what mischief they had caused that day. She looked completely exasperated at this, and called Moleclaw over.
"Did you suggest this?" she asked of him.
"Me? No!" Moleclaw attempted to look innocent.
"Moleclaw even brought us the burrs!" Clawkit chirruped happily. "And he told us how to get them to stick in tails!"
Hollythorn gave Moleclaw a look. "Tell me why I shouldn't report you to Ivypool," she said.
"No need—I overheard," said the deputy. She had silently appeared beside the queen and the tom, but her blue eyes sparkled with laughter. "Moleclaw, I thought better of you!"
"I think you should get on with your duties," whispered Aura at Skypaw's side.
Skypaw jumped, and then remembered. "Oh, right! The nursery."
"Snowfall is rolling in—you'd better get it done now," Aura said.
"I know, I know—I've actually known since this morning."
"I'm not surprised," said Ferndust. "Could you possibly tell me if the patrols will return with lots of food?"
"They'll return with enough," Skypaw told her friend.
"Good—because I'm getting hungry," Ferndust mewed.
"Hungry? You've just had food!" Larkflight protested.
Ferndust licked her lips. "No, I haven't. Not nearly enough, at least."
Aura rolled her eyes as Skypaw moved away. "And they call me greedy!"
Skypaw opened her mouth obediently, tasting the air. "Nothing on our side of the border," she reported.
Cherrypelt nodded approval. "And I don't detect anything, either. ShadowClan's been quiet now that leaf-bare's settled in. I don't think they'd be stupid enough to risk another attack."
"And if they did, I'd rip them apart," Yellownose mewed.
"Oh, please," Spottedheart frowned at the younger tom. "What would you know about ripping apart other cats?"
"That sounds awfully savage," Jaggedpaw added.
"Don't worry—we don't actually rip warriors apart," Skypaw told the younger apprentice. She flicked her tail commandingly. "Come on! There are some thrushes just up ahead—Jaggedpaw can show us what he's learned so far in hunting."
"I've only been training for just under half a moon," Jaggedpaw protested.
"So?" Spottedheart gave her apprentice a friendly shove. "Apprentices can catch plenty of prey after half a moon of training."
"After a moon of training," Skypaw told Jaggedpaw, as she led the way into the thinning forest, "I was on my sixteenth kill. I had been counting."
"Sixteen?" Jaggedpaw repeated enviously, and he flicked his tail in frustration. "Why can't I be as good as you? Is it something to do with your power?"
"Nothing to do with my power—I couldn't even...well, I wasn't as attuned to it back then," Skypaw replied, slightly uncomfortably. She hated talking about her abilities amongst her other cats—she didn't want to think she was boasting.
Cherrypelt, mercifully, changed the subject. "Where are the thrushes?"
Skypaw paused and flicked her tail to her right. "Just down the bank and over the dead blackberry bushes," she reported. "They're foraging together, and very alert. We'll have to be careful how we tackle them."
"You sound like the patrol leader," Jaggedpaw mewed.
"That's because she is—and it'll be your turn soon enough," Yellownose mewed, and sighed. "Lionstar's new training ideas...he seems to be coming up with them all the time."
"Just like Firestar," Skypaw mewed absently.
Cherrypelt flashed her apprentice an odd look for a moment, and then memory flashed in the elder she-cat's eyes. "Ah, yes—I can vaguely remember his ideas when I was a kit. No need where you get your knowledge from, little one."
"Stories," said Skypaw automatically, which was partially true—she had heard plenty of times from the elders about Firestar's reign. "Now are we hunting or aren't we?"
"Of course, O Mighty One," Yellownose meowed, bowing deeply. "Where shall we begin?"
Spottedheart cuffed him.
"You can start by going around the bushes and positioning yourself behind the mossy tree stump," Skypaw instructed, the orders coming naturally to her tongue. She had long learned to overlook these odd little flashes of wisdom. "Cherrypelt, go with him." It felt strange, instructing her mentor around, though Cherrypelt took it in her stride. It was part of Lionstar's new training exercises to let apprentices command patrols—including their mentors—to improve their confidence and judgement. "Spottedheart and Jaggedpaw, go down on the other bank, but keep quiet—Jaggedpaw, if you follow Spottedheart pawstep for pawstep, you'll end up tripping into a gorse bush; sorry for the bluntness. When you come to the dead holly, stop and go on the opposite side Spottedheart will walk. Then you'll be all right to get ready to ambush the blackbirds."
Jaggedpaw stared at Skypaw in astonishment. Then he slowly shook his head and mewed, "I have no idea what to think of you..."
"Then don't think—just go with it," Cherrypelt recommended. "It's easier." Skypaw stifled an amused snort.
Jaggedpaw stared for a moment, and then followed Spottedheart into the undergrowth.
"What about you?" Yellownose asked.
"I'll climb the tree above them and ambush the one that'll get away," Skypaw told them. "Sorry—one will get away when you slip, Yellownose."
"Gee, thanks," Yellownose huffed, though he was already bounding lightly over the snow with Cherrypelt right behind him. When the undergrowth stopped rattling, Skypaw slipped after them.
Hunting sessions had been rather like this—but they had been more successful and bountiful. Skypaw had stretched her abilities—steadily increasing in their strength by the day—to their limits. She concentrated solely on using them for hunting and providing her Clan with fresh-kill. It was growing easier to plan out hunting and catch the prey more efficiently than they ever had done in the past before, and Skypaw found that she was being invited on more and more hunting patrols.
She stifled a small, sad sigh. It was unfair, sometimes, how much the Tigermark influenced her life. It seems to be all I know, she thought to herself. I wonder how the Three are coping with the loss of their powers—Jayfeather in particular. It's been a long time since he's lost the last echoes of his Tigermark of Time.
But since the great battle with the bear, Skypaw had been drained, exhausted, spent of her abilities. But now, half a moon since the incident, her energy had returned, as had her strength, and all that was left of the incident with the bear were the memories and a large pile of stones that had been shifted over the bear's corpse. The landmark had been named Triumph Rock.
Soon she came to the clearing and she swiftly climbed up the tree. Her senses told her that the other cats were already in position, and that in a few heartbeats, Cherrypelt was going to sneeze and raise the alarm of the thrushes below, foraging amongst the frost. Skypaw swiftly headed to the end of the branch and crouched there, trying hard not to slip on the ice-covered bark that pressed uncomfortably on her belly.
Suddenly there was the faintest of sounds echoing from the bracken, and the thrushes jerked their heads up in unison, gazing at the place where Cherrypelt had stifled her sneeze.
A breeze passed, rattling the branches. Skypaw eased herself a little further, and stopped when she felt that she was going a little too far. She could feel a twig slowly bending under her weight. Any moment, it was going to snap. Carefully she tried to prise her body off the twig enough for it to stop moving, though her muscles ached with the tension of holding her body just above the branch.
Below, she saw a pelt flicker in the shadows, and a soft, muted pawstep. They were closing in on the thrushes.
A few seconds later, Skypaw watched as in unison Yellownose, Cherrypelt, Spottedheart and Jaggedpaw jumped from the bracken. One of the thrushes trilled an alarm call and leapt into the air, wings unfolding. Cherrypelt leapt at it and swiped at its wings, knocking it to the ground. Jaggedpaw was on it a split second later, wrapping his twisted forepaws around it and hugging it to his chest before finding its neck and snapping it.
Spottedheart clawed out a few tail feathers from the other thrush, already leaping into the air. Yellownose was leaping at it, but his hind legs slipped on the frosty ground and his swipes went wide, missing the thrush by a fair amount. However, he had panicked it into the treetops—and it was there that Skypaw leapt, catching the thrush squarely in the chest. Clutching the struggling bird in her claws, Skypaw let her body fall.
Straight into a soft, snowy drift.
It was very cold, and a feeling like ice seeped into Skypaw's fur, but drawing a quick breath, she bit down on the thrush's neck, killing it instantly and painlessly, before she clawed her way out from the icy drift and emerged with her prize.
Shaking flakes from her pelt, she told the assembled patrol, "Well done—a little messy, but we're all cold and tired, and our hunting skills aren't nearly as sharp as they usually are."
"Sorry," Yellownose mewed meekly.
"I'm not saying it to you," Skypaw frowned. "I think out of all of us, Jaggedpaw did the cleanest kill yet." She turned and blinked warmly at Jaggedpaw, who ducked his head and purred proudly to himself.
"Your first kill!" Spottedheart gave Jaggedpaw a friendly lick over the ears. "Well done! You can tell your sister all about it."
"Frostpaw's already caught her first," sighed Jaggedpaw. "A squirrel."
"Bah—squirrels or thrushes, they're fresh-kill, and that's what's important," Cherrypelt meowed. "We all did well today—and thanks to Skypaw's insight, both thrushes are now ours to take back to the fresh-kill pile tonight. I think we've all done enough for one day."
"You have your father's fighting skills," Skypaw praised.
Frostpaw puffed out her chest. "And my mother's wit!" she added.
"Yes, and her wit," Amberheart mewed, a little wearily, as they entered the camp with snowflakes flurrying around them in a wild whirl. "Aren't you tired at all?"
"Nope," Frostpaw purred, her eyes sparkling. "Can we go to Triumph Rock? Please? Please please please?"
"No," Ivypool frowned, with a commanding flick of her tail. "I want you to go into your den and warm up—quickly! It's only growing colder."
"I wouldn't advise you to challenge the Clan deputy," Amberheart told her apprentice. "And I, for one, agree with Ivypool. Run along."
"Is Skypaw coming?" Frostpaw challenged.
"I'm going to take some fresh-kill to Jayfeather," Skypaw explained. She felt tired—she had had a hunting assessment a few days ago, and a few days into her fifth moon of training, leaf-bare only growing colder and colder, she knew that she was expected to do more and more work, and carry more and more responsibility on her shoulders, particularly as the Clan's senior apprentice.
Though she admitted to herself she'd rather go straight to the apprentices' den, particularly as the snowfall was now growing progressively heavier. The training session she had had with Frostpaw this afternoon had sapped her of a lot of her energy—Frostpaw certainly was turning into quite a fighter, though Skypaw herself was becoming more or less formidable.
"Oh." Frostpaw turned away. "Come to the den soon, though! I want to tell you about this massive badger that I saw yesterday morning!" She bounded across the snow-flecked clearing, nearly deserted of life.
Ivypool shook her head. "Your apprentice, Amberheart...doesn't she ever drain you?"
"All the time," Amberheart admitted ruefully. "Any advice?"
"When I mentored Stormbreeze, she was just like Frostpaw—all energy and no sense," Ivypool purred. "But find Frostpaw's strengths, and then work them—work them so hard that she'll be too tired to do anything else. Only when she feels proud of that strength will she have any enthusiasm to master her others."
Amberheart brightened. "Thanks, Ivypool. Are you coming to the warriors' den?"
"Not immediately, sorry—need to speak with Lionstar to arrange patrols and sentry duties for tomorrow. In this constant snowy weather, no cat should be out in this for more than a few hours."
Skypaw dipped her head in silent farewell to the Clan deputy and Amberheart, before she bounded across the clearing towards the fresh-kill pile. A few sodden pieces of prey lay there, already stiffened from the freezing cold, though Skypaw managed to uncover what appeared to be a sorry-looking wren and a stale finch. They'll have to do, she thought. The warm kills have to be given to the kits. Can't have them falling ill in this weather.
Crossing the clearing, Skypaw could only think of mid-leaf-bare, the time when Dovewing had kitted her. She had been so small and feeble that no cat had thought she could survive such icy weather. But instead, perhaps protected by the Four—by Destiny in particular—she had survived, pulled through, encouraged by her denmates and protected by her mother's warmth. She hoped that the kits who now resided in the nursery possessed the same strength, and that they wouldn't become ill.
When she entered the medicine den, she immediately heard Jayfeather rasp sharply, "Get out!"
"A fine way to greet your supper, Jayfeather," said a gentle, reprimanding voice—Aura's. Skypaw paused, surprised, at the scene that she had just walked into.
Jayfeather was seated just beside Aura, his face already twisted into a thoughtful and irritated scowl. Aura sat near him; the curious thing about the situation was that two small kits sat in front of the pair of them—Ravenkit and Owlkit.
"What's going on?" Skypaw asked, puzzled, her voice muffled around the dead animals she was carrying. She put them on the ground so she could speak more clearly. Ravenkit and Owlkit turned around, startled. Jayfeather glanced up, irritated. Aura was, as always, completely unsurprised.
"They're not sick," Aura assured Skypaw, soothing the apprentice's abruptly restless thoughts. "But they have something that you might be interested in hearing about."
Skypaw padded forward. "What is it?" she asked, more gently this time, aware that the young four-moon-old kits were now near her.
Ravenkit and Owlkit shared an uneasy glance. After a moment, Ravenkit mewed shakily, "She...doesn't want to tell..."
Skypaw blinked, puzzled. "Owlkit doesn't want to tell me what?"
Owlkit looked away quickly, her fur rippling on her spine. Ravenkit mewled, more forcefully, "It's Owlkit's business, not yours!"
"Little Owlkit, this may concern Skypaw just as much as it may concern me," Aura said gently, her voice coaxing. Owlkit slowly looked back at her, and Aura continued. "Remember that Skypaw is gifted in these sorts of things too. Jayfeather and I aren't the only cats who have special dreams."
"Special dreams?" repeated Skypaw curiously. Then it hit her, and she glanced at Owlkit. "You've had a dream?"
Owlkit shyly nodded. "She says yes," Ravenkit announced.
"I think we all know what a nod means," Jayfeather frowned. "You don't need to translate that for us."
Ravenkit fluffed up her black fur indignantly. "So?" she challenged. "I can say what I like, when I like, what I like..." She frowned. "Wait, I already said that, didn't I?"
"Never mind what you've already said," Aura mewed. "But do you think Owlkit could repeat the special dream for Skypaw?"
Owlkit hesitated. She shared another glance with Ravenkit. Skypaw felt a flash of curiosity run through her. Ravenkit was...well, she was translating what Owlkit wanted said, but was unable to say. Is there something unusual between them? she wondered. Something that I haven't noticed before?
Whatever it was, it'd have to wait. Ravenkit turned back and mewed, "Owlkit agrees. But only if Skypaw promises not to tell any other cat."
"I won't," Skypaw assured them at once.
Owlkit looked at Skypaw, and the apprentice found herself drawn to the little tawny-and-white she-kit's gaze. It was...she flinched when she saw something deeper within the little kit. She bore an expression that Skypaw knew she had seen before. It only took her half a moment to realize what she was seeing—wisdom. Wisdom in the eyes of a kit who obviously had seen something far beyond her moons of life.
Skypaw glanced at Aura quizzically, and her thoughts were confirmed when the young tortoiseshell nodded and mewed, "You see correctly, Skypaw." She turned back, the matter closed, and prompted, "The dream, please, Owlkit." Without turning around, she added, "Jayfeather, those pieces of kill are for you."
"I'm not hungry," grumbled the medicine cat.
"Eat," Aura encouraged gently. "You still need your strength."
There was a pause, and then Jayfeather heaved himself towards the fresh-kill. Skypaw turned her attention back to Owlkit, as Aura prompted kindly, "Go on, Owlkit. You have nothing to be afraid of."
Owlkit was quiet for a moment, before she turned to Ravenkit. The little black she-kit turned to Skypaw and mewed on cue, "Owlkit had a dream this morning, and she saw very strange things."
"Strange?" Skypaw echoed.
Owlkit nodded. "She saw fire," Ravenkit continued. "It was climbing through the tree branches as though it were Thrushsong. It was devouring everything in its wake. Ashes went up into the air and stained the ground. It surrounded the camp. She heard a lot of yowling..."
Owlkit suddenly ducked her head, breathing hard as though she had just relived it. Ravenkit turned to her sister and curled her white-tipped tail protectively around her sister's little tawny flanks. Then she turned back to Skypaw. "There was water, too," she added softly. "Owlkit thinks it was because of the snow."
Skypaw frowned, biting her lip and exchanging a worried glance with Aura.
"Do you think...?" she murmured.
Aura sighed. "It seems to be," she said. "I have long dreaded this day to arrive."
"What day?" Skypaw demanded.
"The day a harbinger foretells a doom," Aura mewed. "Owlkit's words bring a promise. It seems, Skypaw, that the reign of peace is over now. We must be prepared—something is coming to the Clans. It could be as clear as what she has described it to be. Or it could be something else entirely different, but meaningful."
"Flamefur...?" Skypaw suggested.
"Possibly...though I don't see how he could have anything to do with it. Why would he blaze through the forest?"
Skypaw tipped her head thoughtfully to one side. "Bluestar's prophecy...Firestar's prophecy..."
"Only prophecies," said Aura. "This, Skypaw..." She frowned. "I fear that this will be..."
One of your trials. The words were unspoken, but Skypaw clearly understood her mentor's meaning.
She felt a shiver of fear run down her back. The smell of embers seemed to taint the air already.