"Come on, Thrushsong. You need to keep up your strength." With the air of one who left no room for argument, Spottedheart prodded the tidbit of rabbit closer to her sister.
Thrushsong merely shook her head and huddled into her fur, eyes half-closed.
"Thrushsong," Spottedheart growled, lashing her tail. "If you do not eat, you will die."
"Then let me," Thrushsong muttered. "Others need food more than I."
"Stop being stupid," said Aura, a bite of impatience in her voice. The young dappled she-cat stood at Thrushsong's side alongside Spottedheart, golden eyes narrowed. "You have kits who need just as much food as you."
The tabby trembled where she lay. "Stop it!" she cried. "Leave me alone!"
Skypaw felt her heart twist in pity. Thrushsong had been so...different...since Flamefur's death. She was always close to wailing in misery whenever Flamefur's name or his kits were mentioned.
It's almost as if she's ashamed to carry them, she thought, her brow furrowing. But why? Was it because they never were mates, officially?
"Thrushsong," said Spottedheart, looking her sister dead in the eye. "I. Am. Not. Leaving. Until. You. Eat."
"You'll be waiting for a long time, then."
Skypaw heard Aura give a weary sigh. "Go, Spottedheart," she mewed. "I'll see if I can coax her. You need to take Jaggedpaw out hunting, remember."
The dappled warrior affirmed with a small nod. "Good luck getting this stubborn badger to eat," she murmured. The tip of her tail brushed gently against Thrushsong's cheek as she moved away, assurance that she didn't really mean the words—yet whether her sister took offense to it or not, she gave no sign. Her eyes were dull, fixed upon the ground.
Skypaw heard pawsteps behind her and half-turned in surprise, but relaxed when she recognized who it was.
"She's really troubled." Larkflight sat down beside her, his brown tabby pelt brushing reassuringly against Skypaw's gray. "And very un-Thrushsong."
Skypaw nodded mulishly in agreement.
"Do you know why?"
She shook her head. "I don't want to wander in her memories now," she added, turning to meet Larkflight's sparkling green gaze. "She's...well, she's troubled enough without somebody eavesdropping on her thoughts."
"I suppose." Larkflight absently plucked at the rotted, moss-coated wood on the ground.
Skypaw spared a glance at the sky. "Nearly dawn," she murmured, stifling a yawn. She hadn't been able to sleep—Nightmares had been haunting the edges of her dreams—and she didn't want to give Mapleshade the satisfaction of seeing her terrified all over again. "Suppose I should ask Cherrypelt what she wants to do today." She spared a glance at her mentor as she spoke. Curled beside her brother, who rested beside Hollythorn sleeping beside her kits, the pale ginger she-cat was deep in dreams, hopefully painless and good. Many cats had been having bad sleep and frequently jolted awake yowling in fear of flames, or crying in misery for those they had lost.
"Not yet." Larkflight entwined his tail with Skypaw's. "Let them sleep a little longer."
A few moments passed in silence. Finally, Skypaw gave a troubled sigh—it was not lost on Larkflight, who turned to frown sternly at her. "Blaming yourself again?"
"You read my mind," Skypaw muttered.
"Impossible—you and Jayfeather do that well enough." Larkflight turned to face her, earnest concern flashing like tiny fish in his eyes. "Would telling you to let the matter go be in vain?"
"Yes." Skypaw pulled away from Larkflight to stand and stare back. "But I can't let this go. I should have been able to avoid this." Anger and sorrow sharpened her words, and it took a great deal of effort to keep her voice low. "Look at us now, Larkflight. We're scavengers—the code died in the fire like Birchfall and Flamefur, and we hardly have the right to call ourselves Clan. We're stealing, Larkflight. Stealing food from WindClan in the heart of leaf-bare. ThunderClan has hardly ever had to steal prey, not since the time of the old forest."
Larkflight, to his credit, refused to display any surprise or puzzlement he felt at Skypaw's beyond-age knowledge. Perhaps he was used to it by now. "Times change," he insisted. "They always do."
"But for the worse?" Skypaw shook her head restlessly, imitating Larkflight in kneading the ground beneath her in stress. "We should not be driven to be thieves. ThunderClan's honour..."
"...can be set aside until we are back on our paws," Larkflight answered. "What is honour if there are no cats to uphold it? Do you want us to starve?"
Skypaw growled through gritted teeth. "You sound just like Lionstar."
"He's just as reluctant as you to scavenge prey from WindClan. You know that."
"I know I know that. It doesn't mean that it makes it any less difficult."
There was a long pause after her words. After a moment, Larkflight whispered, "This is more than the code at stake, isn't it?"
Skypaw was silent, refusing to grace him with an answer. But he persisted, dratted tomcat. "This is about your WindClan friends." His voice held no scorn, merely observation.
"So what if it does?" she shot back, with a lash of her tail.
"Skypaw..." She heard the frustration in Larkflight's voice, no matter how hard he tried to squash it down. "The code says that—"
"I know what the code says!" Skypaw snapped. "Defend your Clan, even with your life. You may have friendships with cats from other Clans, but your loyalty must remain to your Clan. The very first law of the warrior code that we learned."
"So uphold it."
"I am upholding it!" That one, at least—the second law might as well be ash.
"No, you're not." Larkflight took a pace forward. "I'm not questioning your loyalty, Skypaw; that, I just want to make clear. But you're starting to get into your head that your friendship with Boundwind matters more than feeding your Clanmates."
Skypaw lashed her tail. "I'm not. We're friends. But I put my Clan first." Yet even as she spoke, she thought that she felt the faintest spark of doubt rise in her soul.
"Do you?" Larkflight's voice was extraordinarily patient.
"Of course." Skypaw felt anger quaver in her words. "Who forewarned the sickness coming to the Clan? Who foretold the bear? Who saved the lives of the elders during the fire?"
"I don't need a retelling of the great events you saved us from in the past," Larkflight said as evenly as he could. "You have loyalty to your Clan when there are times of peril, as any warrior should. But the warrior code insists that we have loyalty in any situation, big or small."
"And stealing prey is a show of loyalty, is it?" Skypaw didn't mean to sound venomous, but her words were bitter.
Larkflight's ears flattened. "Feeding your Clan is!"
"I'm not letting my relationship with Boundwind get in the way of keeping my Clanmates alive!" Skypaw lashed her tail towards Thrushsong and Aura—mercifully, the queen was finally starting to nibble at the bit of rabbit that lay before her. "Who caught that rabbit on WindClan soil? Thrushsong and her kits aren't going to die thanks to my loyalty."
"Great StarClan..." Larkflight broke off in frustration he no longer made an effort to conceal.
Skypaw drew breath. "Great StarClan what, Larkflight?" she hissed. "StarClan isn't going to hear you...or me, or Lionstar, or Jayfeather, or any other prayer that we send to them. They'll be staring down at us in disappointment and shame that we've been driven to steal."
"There's no other way, Skypaw! You know this!"
"If we're so willing to set aside our honour, why not set aside what pride we have left and ask the Clans to help us instead of stealing their food and hurting them, starving them? The only outcome of stealing their prey is going to result in war, and that's the last thing we need after our territory's been destroyed!"
"Look, take it up with Lionstar, not with me! I'm not the Clan leader!"
"Then stop acting like you are!"
"Me, acting like a Clan leader?" His voice hardened in anger. "Me? What in the name of StarClan have I done to make you think that, Skypaw?"
"Oh, I don't know...reminding me of the code, reminding me that there's no other choice, warning me that my friendship with Boundwind and Rabbitfur is starting to get in the way of feeding my Clan like a true warrior should..." The words grew bitterer and bitterer, scalding her tongue. "You might as well exile me right now and be done with it, Larkstar."
His eyes were round with disbelief. Then they narrowed and he growled, "Must I repeat myself to you, Skypaw? You can be so...so stubborn and kitlike sometimes, you know that?"
"Stubborn? Stubborn? And kitlike, you say? How, exactly, am I kitlike?" Skypaw felt the fur rise along her shoulders. She had never felt angrier in her life. "You have no fox-dung idea what I have to go through every fox-dung day—I never had a proper kithood, I never had an ordinary life like you were blessed with from the start, I never had the ease of utterly no responsibility because oh I'm Skypaw daughter of Dovewing and kin of Firestar the most legendary ThunderClan cat after Thunderstar himself, and because I'm kin I must be great and perfect and live up to every and all expectations thrust upon me to honour the legacies that I burden! You and your littermates never had that same kind of expectation haunting you from day one, you and your littermates never have a single day in your life troubled by prophetic dreams or a destiny prophesized by our ancestors, and you have never had to have to act twice your age just to get through every fox-dung day!"
Then she stopped, drawing a deep breath, trembling with the effort. Larkflight just gaped at her, finally lost for words.
"And you have the nerve," Skypaw hissed at last, "to call me stubborn, disloyal and kitlike."
"Don't." That bitterness was sharp on her tongue, so sharp she was amazed her mouth wasn't full of her own blood. "Just don't, Larkflight."
"Leave me alone, Larkflight. Just...just leave me alone."
It was only after he had quietly padded away that Skypaw sank onto her haunches, feeling more exhausted than she had ever felt, and more miserable than could be accounted for.
More than that...Larkflight's words haunted her. The doubt inside of her slowly grew stronger. She shook her head restlessly, trying hard to clear the thoughts that raged inside her aching head.
Boundwind, she thought, angrily, furiously. What in the name of StarClan does he have to do with anything? Stupid, stupid birdbrain. I'm not reluctant to feed my Clan because ofhim, I'm reluctant because it's wrong. It's stealing. ThunderClan is stealing. In her head, the words didn't sound much better than spoken aloud. They offered no comfort in any way, just made her feel worse. And it's all my fault. I shouldn't have let Mapleshade get into my head. Shouldn't have been scared of the Nightmare. Shouldn't...no, I should've been able to foretell the fire. Why couldn't I foretell the fire? Why couldn't I have saved my grandfather, saved my Clanmate whose life I owe?!
The rage boiled inside of her—no longer aimed at Larkflight, but at herself. I'm such a birdbrain myself—a complete and utter idiot. I'm not worthy of carrying such power. I can let dead cats scare me and Nightmares get into my head and distract me from my purpose. I shouldn't even have a purpose. I'm such a failure. I should be saving lives, not letting them slip past me like fish in a stream! She lashed her tail. Firestar wouldn't have bungled this if he was still alive and he had been given these powers of Time. I know he wouldn't have. Why does he find me worthy? I'm not even a warrior and I can't carry any sort of responsibility, let alone destiny!
Sudden fear filled the depths of her gut, heavy and cold like a river stone. If I can't shoulder responsibility, then how can I ever become a warrior? More than anything, Skypaw wanted to earn her name, wanted to be a proud member of ThunderClan. But how can I be proud when we steal? How can I carry a warrior's name when I don't deserve it? How can I be destiny's champion when I struggle against what I'm prophesized to stand against?
She shook her head, angrily, miserably. I might as well just leave. The Clan is probably better off without me.
She felt a pelt gently brush against her flank. Dully, Skypaw glanced towards the touch, and found herself looking into the unblinking eyes of Aura. Without much thought, the young apprentice guessed that Aura knew about everything that had just happened.
"Should you leave," said Aura softly, "the Clan will perish."
"No. It'll be better off."
"It won't be. Flamefur's death was a terrible tragedy, but it was his part to play in life."
"His part to play in life was to die?" Skypaw felt the bitterness returning.
Aura gave a small sigh. "Every mortal's part to play in life is to die, Skypaw," she said. "It is what makes us who we are. But our destinies, our fates...those are to live."
"And what a wonderful fate we're living now."
"This is why the Clan needs you more than ever, Skypaw."
"Why me? They have you. You're already trained."
"Trained? I'm far from trained—I just bear the knowledge of knowing what to do, but even I make mistakes." Aura sat down beside Skypaw. "You may feel like you are alone and burdened, but you do not understand just how fortunate you really are, to bear only one Quarter of the Four—to live your life in true service to the code."
"To watch my Clanmates fulfill their part in life and die. Some service."
"Young Skypaw, service is more than just feeding your Clan, upholding the warrior code and remaining faithful to those who depend upon you. It is more than upholding old values, timeless legacies and impeding destinies."
Skypaw blinked in confusion. "It is? But that's...that's everything a Clan cat has done since the beginning."
"There are services that cannot be put into words or expressed in a pact of honour—services that you only feel right in your heart. To do what you believe is right, without need of proof or a code—essentially, to have faith. It is what keeps the stars alive and burning bright and the sun that climbs over the horizon every day to bring light to a darkened world. Should any being have faith, be it for themselves, for others, or for their virtues, then they know how to live." Aura curled her tail over Skypaw's flank. "Flamefur had faith. Birchfall had faith. All the cats who died to the sickness had faith, and all the cats in this Clan have faith in you. They do not blame you because of this. It is something that the Dark Forest lacks, and what resulted in their defeat all those years ago."
Skypaw lowered her eyes, unsure what to say, how to answer.
"ThunderClan has lost its honour by stealing," she murmured at length. "Honour is all the virtue that a Clan needs. It's what gives us the right to show our faces at a Gathering..."
"Honour can be lost," said Aura dismissively. "Pride can be forsaken, legacies can be tainted and strength can wane and be broken. But faith...true faith is impossible to destroy. When one believes in oneself, they can do the extraordinary—for both good or for ill." She gave a soft, soothing purr. "So long as ThunderClan holds fast its faith, then it is a Clan who I am willing to protect and serve."
Skypaw realized something. "Did SunClan ever have faith, Aura?"
"No," the she-cat answered, as calmly and as readily as though she had long been awaiting the question. "They lost their faith long before they were even formed. My father saw faith as folly, and raw power as the true strength in oneself. Thus I left and journeyed to the Clans who do hold the virtues a true Clan cat should uphold."
High above, the sky was paling, and the stars were winking out. Far in the depths of the ruined forest, a blackbird trilled a wavering melody.
"Larkflight," Skypaw murmured, her stomach churning. "Oh...I was so cruel to him." Guilt scorched her throat. "I should find him, tell him—"
"He understands already," said Aura gently. "But your Clan needs you now, Skypaw. Life must go on."
"Anything?" Lionstar's eyes glittered with anxiety, even a trace of hope.
Skypaw stared hard at her paws. Cherrypelt merely gave a small sigh and shook her head. "Not a mouse-tail, Lionstar," mewed Mousewhisker sullenly.
"Great StarClan..." The golden tabby sank wearily onto his haunches, head bowed low. After a moment, he turned to Ivypool and asked, "Is a hunting patrol out?"
"Yes, Lionstar," the deputy answered promptly. "They should be returning soon. Hopefully with fresh-kill."
"WindClan?" Cherrypelt murmured, and Ivypool grimly nodded.
Lionstar flicked his tail, the troubled expression not yet leaving his eyes. After a moment, he said, "A border patrol?"
"Lionstar," Patchwhisker interrupted, taking a pace forward to further gain attention. "If we're starting to steal from territories, would it matter to start stealing from ShadowClan as well?"
Skypaw flattened her ears at the mere thought of more thieving. It made her sick and queasy to the stomach—and from ShadowClan in particular...her first battle had not left her mind so quickly, and she shuddered to think of the retaliation ShadowClan might give if they discovered intruders stealing from their own territory.
She couldn't have been more relieved to hear Lionstar growl, "No. Stealing from one Clan is enough."
"Stringy rabbits are hardly going to be enough to keep the Clan alive!" Patchwhisker argued, lashing his tail. "And it's hardly going to help Poppyfrost's leg mend or Thrushsong's kits grow either!"
"Excuse me," Lionstar said darkly, rising to his paws to meet his son's gaze. "I recall that I am the leader of this Clan. A Clan leader's word is law. Best you remember that."
Patchwhisker's eyes flashed, but even he knew better than to provoke the Clan leader—let alone continue to challenge his own father. He reluctantly dipped his head and backed down. Skypaw softly let out the breath she had been holding in.
"How is Thrushsong, by the way?" Cherrypelt mewed.
"She's eating, slowly," Lionstar murmured. He let out a short, angry sigh. "It's about time that she got over Flamefur's death and started being sensible. She has kits on the way. She needs to keep up her strength."
"I'm still trying to understand exactly how Thrushsong could be carrying kits at all," mewed Ivypool, disdainfully twitching the tip of her silvery tail. "We never saw Flamefur and Thrushsong spending time together, or sharing tongues in the way that a mated pair should, even share a piece of fresh-kill together as often as a pair in love would!"
"Maybe because they never were mates," Skypaw suggested quietly. "And that we might have seen, but not noticed."
"Thrushsong never really did show much interest in males," Patchwhisker reflected. "We all just grew to live with it."
"No matter what happened in the past, she is pregnant now," Lionstar meowed decisively. "Nevermind the rest of our Clan. We already have four growing kits to feed, Poppyfrost's leg isn't going to mend if she doesn't keep up her strength, hungry and weary warriors, and three apprentices, one who is close to completing her apprenticeship." Skypaw's ears burned—she hadn't forgotten her unruly thoughts the former morning, her doubts and her misery; at the moment, thinking of taking a warrior name was the last thing on her mind, and that she wanted to think about. "And the Gathering is in a few nights," Lionstar went on. "We must look our best despite the tragedy."
"Lionstar," mewed Cherrypelt, "should we head out again, look for more prey?"
He shook his head. "Save your strength. Rest for a little while, then take a few other cats and head out to patrol the borders. Act like nothing out-of-the-ordinary is happening, and keep on the lookout for herbs, especially comfrey for Poppyfrost. Jayfeather can't get enough."
"Of course, Lionstar." The patrol disbanded and left their leader to discuss matters with Ivypool.
Once out of his earshot, Cherrypelt leaned close to Skypaw. "Do you know if there is any comfrey that survived the fire?" she whispered. "And that Jayfeather doesn't have already?"
Skypaw gave a small, tired sigh. Using her abilities didn't help with her internal struggles, just reminded her of them—but seeing the sense behind her mentor's words, she obediently closed her eyes, grasped her growing power of insight and searched the territory. Was there any to be found? "There's a small patch growing by the stream on the WindClan border, near the shore," she mewed at last. "It's very small, though. I don't think it'd be much use to Jayfeather at the moment. And there's plenty of mallow leaves on the shore." Mallow was in high supply, comparatively, as it grew on the shore and had avoided much of the fire's greed.
"Mallow...mallow..." Cherrypelt frowned, struggling to recall what mallow was used for. At length she mewed, "Well, I'm sure Jayfeather would appreciate any herbs that we uncover. We'll take the long route through ThunderClan territory. Swing along the shore and make our way to the stream."
Skypaw nodded dully. Her stomach rumbled.
"You must be hungry," Cherrypelt murmured kindly. "Go on, then. There might be a bit of rabbit left from yesterday's hunt."
Skypaw nodded and quietly padded away from Cherrypelt's side. She wove amongst her Clanmates, clustered and crowded into the small, cramped space of the abandoned Twoleg nest as they were. She saw Dewclaw lying with Whiteblaze, Dustfoot and Moleclaw, discussing methods of how to continue to search the wreck of their territory for any prey that might have survived or returned. Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw, with their mentors Spottedheart and Amberheart, were absent—Skypaw recollected that they had left for battle training that morning. Berrynose, Runningleap and Cinderheart were in WindClan territory at that very moment, stalking prey that did not belong to them. Jayfeather was with Poppyfrost, trying to change the makeshift splint on her leg without causing the former queen too much agony. Yellownose stood beside his mother, whispering soothing words to her and stroking the soft, reddish fur on her shoulders with the tip of his gray tail.
Suddenly unsure what else to do, Skypaw padded over to the small, sheltered corner that had become the temporary medicine den. Jayfeather barely glanced up at her approach; he was so engrossed with removing the splint.
"How are you, Poppyfrost?" Skypaw murmured, upon reaching them.
The she-cat grimaced and mumbled around the piece of bark she had in her mouth, "Lousy."
"She's growing stronger, though," Yellownose insisted. "She'll pull through. Cinderheart turned out all right, didn't she?" Yet Skypaw clearly heard the note of anxiety he was so desperately trying to hide, and almost heard him speak the thought aloud: But Cinderheart had all the medicine that she needed.
"I'd appreciate it," growled Jayfeather, "if the two of you would please shut up for the time being." Carefully he pulled away a strand of rush that had been used to bind the splint into place. Poppyfrost tensed at the seemingly gentle touch, and bit down hard on the bark, squeezing her eyes tightly shut.
Skypaw's heart twisted. After a moment, Poppyfrost eased in her nest, panting a little. Her eyes were dull and glazed with pain—more than the physical. "Is there anything I can do for you?" Skypaw whispered, aware how fruitless her words seemed to sound.
Poppyfrost shook her head, ever so slightly. "Anything she needs, either Jayfeather or I can give her," Yellownose answered, grief sharp as flint and anger even sharper visible in his gleaming eyes. Skypaw wasn't sure if it was completely directed at her. "She's in good paws, Skypaw." There was an air of finality to his words that prompted Skypaw to bow her head and quietly pad away.
Her gaze wandered to where Hollythorn lay with Moleclaw beside her. The pair had become even closer since the fire, and they watched their kits like a hunter watched his prey. The kits had more or less recovered from the shock of the flames, and even had the energy to tussle every now and then. They were doing it now. Clawkit and Ravenkit rolled vigorously over the floor, batting at each other's heads with feather-soft paws tiny as pebbles. Owlkit and Graykit watched the action with wide, eager eyes.
At length, Clawkit ended up pinning his sister triumphantly to the ground. "I win!" he squeaked.
"No fair!" Ravenkit yelped. "Frostpaw taught you how to do that!"
"You should've had her teach you that as well, then," Clawkit mewled smugly as he scrambled off his sister. "It gives me the advantage in battle!"
Ravenkit pushed herself back to her paws and crossly shook her head and ears. "But we're not doing battle now," she protested. "We're just playing!"
"A good warrior is always prepared," Graykit put in from the side, defending his brother.
"Quite right," Clawkit agreed, with an emphatic nod.
"Well, we weren't prepared for the fire," grumbled Ravenkit. "Look where it got us." She shivered, suddenly morose and cold. "It's horrible being here. The forest is scary. I want to go home." Skypaw saw familiar pain flicker in Hollythorn's and Moleclaw's eyes, but they didn't say a word.
"Ravenkit, we are home," Clawkit mewed quietly, padding over to her side and brushing her cheek with his small brown nose. "Just until we can go back to the hollow. It's quite exciting being out in the forest, isn't it?"
"No," Ravenkit sulked. "It's wet and mean."
"A warrior has to be strong and brave, remember? And we're all strong and brave—especially you, Ravenkit." Clawkit's words were full of affection, and such a small offering of hope and companionship made Skypaw's own heart warm. Watching the kits grow, learn and mature was always a joy, even in these dark times.
"All the other apprentices will be jealous when we tell them that we got to see our territory moons early!" Graykit added, with a swish of his short, fluffy tail. "Besides, Moleclaw says that the forest will be all better by then. It'll be newleaf and that's when all the grass will grow and the blossoms will come out on the trees."
"All the trees are dead," said Ravenkit.
Owlkit shook her head and blinked imploringly at her siblings.
"Owlkit's right," Graykit mewled. "The forest isn't dead. It'll recover."
Skypaw stared in astonishment at the kits. By now she had long suspected that though Owlkit couldn't speak in the way that many cats could, somehow she could communicate just as effectively with her siblings, getting her points across and her opinions expressed and understood. It seemed to be the clearest with her sister, but her brothers clearly appeared to be able to understand Owlkit, too.
"When it does, all the prey will come back, too," Clawkit mewled. "Then we can stop eating yucky rabbit." He wrinkled his nose. "It stinks all gross."
Skypaw gave a small sigh and turned away, continuing to pad aimlessly amongst her Clan. Clearly the kits were noticing the change in prey as well—and though it calmed her a little to know that they disliked the taste of it, it showed that the knowledge of ThunderClan, the well-known guardians and upholders of the warrior code, so blatantly breaking the second law was even impacting on the younger generation not even assigned mentors or knew how to hunt.
Eventually she found Aura, sitting with Ferndust—and Larkflight. Skypaw stopped, her stomach starting to churn with obvious unease. They hadn't spoken, shared a meal or even slept near one another since their argument. Now she had no idea what to even say to him, much less apologize.
Even though he should be apologizing to me, she scowled, a bitter thought still echoing in her head. Accusing me of disloyalty...we're already being disloyal. Being stubborn...I'm not stubborn! Since when have I been stubborn? And kitlike...the nerve of him! He's being kitlike...
Before she could think anything else, however, Aura looked up and called, "Skypaw! Good to see you—come and join us!"
Larkflight and Ferndust looked up—Ferndust's warm green eyes shone with affection and welcome; Larkflight's...well, his expression was a mixture of many. Skypaw didn't want to dwell too deeply in it. She felt significantly uncomfortable—but yet her paws were moving on their own accord, taking her to their sides, and setting her down beside the young tortoiseshell she-cat with the knowledge beyond StarClan.
"How are you today, Skypaw?" asked Ferndust. "I heard you cry out in your sleep last night."
Skypaw flattened her ears. "Yes, I'm fine." Fire-ridden dreams plagued her as much as they plagued everyone else. When she felt Larkflight's gaze rest on her, she shot him a look, and he quickly looked away.
Ferndust was not one to miss subtleties. She looked between them, then asked, "Did something happen?"
"No," answered Skypaw and Larkflight in unison.
Ferndust rolled her eyes and sat up. "All right. What happened?"
"Nothing!" Skypaw defended, with a lash of her tail.
Ferndust twitched an ear. "Look, Skypaw—I knew both you and Larkflight all the way back to when we shared the nursery together. I think I know you just as well as I knew my brother. So please, the pair of you—stop pretending to know absolutely nothing to what you both clearly know about." Her expression softened. "The two of you are friends, and very good ones at that. It's very unlike the pair of you to hold any argument between you."
"Your meaning?" Larkflight prompted impatiently.
The silver tabby shot him a narrowed-eye stare. "Just stating the obvious."
"And the obvious?" growled Skypaw. She really didn't want to do this right now.
Ferndust rolled her eyes. "Honestly! The two of you are like kits!"
"Oh wonderful, you as well!" Skypaw was on her paws before any of her friends had time to blink, and her words were bitter all over again.
Ferndust blinked, baffled. "What? Me...what?"
Skypaw lashed her tail. "What are you going to say next? That I'm disloyal and stubborn and that I'm betraying my Clan because I know a few WindClan cats?"
Larkflight stood up. "Skypaw, I did not mean—"
"Then what did you mean, Larkflight?" Skypaw snapped. The fur rose along her spine. "What did you mean? Tell me that! Tell all of us that!"
"I didn't mean anything, Skypaw!"
"So your words were empty."
"So you said that you didn't mean the words, and yet you did." The words were growing painful to say. The taste was almost unbearable. "If you pardon me, I'd say you're not making much sense at the moment."
Larkflight's expression hardened. "Well, neither are you, really."
"Oh, no, of course I wouldn't make any sense. Why would I make any sense? Especially to you, of all the mouse-brains in the world!"
The dark brown mottled tom straightened. "I've had enough of this." He made to move away, but Skypaw blocked his path.
"Oh, no you don't—you had your turn. Now it's mine." Throwing the words over her shoulder, she stalked away from that confounded tom, back through her Clan, as far as she could from him. Larkflight, at least to his credit, refrained from a futile attempt at calling her back. She'd just keep walking.
One problem after the other, Skypaw thought blackly. Like life couldn't get any worse.
When the night of the Gathering came, Skypaw considered requesting to stay behind—but she was determined not to give Larkflight the satisfaction of seeing her hold back from confronting WindClan. Staying behind would seem to him like she was trying to prove a point, and she was absolutely determined not to sink so low.
Jayfeather wasn't coming tonight, which made the ThunderClan cats rather uneasy. Without a medicine cat to keep the peace and assure a side in a council, especially after breaking the code, things could quickly get out of paw very quickly. They wouldn't have a medicine cat's say if any accusations flew—and ThunderClan would be weak, weaker than they already were.
Lionstar had chosen carefully who he would take to the Gathering tonight. Many were still mourning for their lost Clanmates, and Thrushsong wasn't to leave the Twoleg nest. It had become plainly apparent that she was carrying kits, even more so when she was so thin. Like a good sister, Spottedheart had willingly chosen to remain behind to look after her and keep her eating—Cinderheart had been given the small honour of looking after Jaggedpaw through the night. Yellownose was in no fit state to go; losing his close brother to the flames and his mother being seriously injured still held him in a state of shock. Moleclaw decided to remain back to keep an eye on the kits he had come to adopt as his own, though he affectionately demanded from his own two kits that he wanted to hear all the news that they could lay their paws on when they returned. Foxleap, Hazeltail, Seednose, Blossomfall and Bumblestripe had decided to use the calm, clear night to try and find prey—in their own territory; they stoically refused to hunt in WindClan territory on the night of the truce.
Skypaw walked alongside Cherrypelt as the ThunderClan cats slowly made their way along the shore. Around them flooded their Clanmates. Larkflight padded near the front with his sister and brothers, and Ferndust with her former mentor, Toadstep. Aura kept up easily with Lionstar and Ivypool. It occurred to Skypaw just then how much Aura had grown in body, and it was easier to associate her great wisdom and knowledge than it had been when she had just been two moons old and on her way to the Gathering for the first time.
"Are you nervous?" her mentor asked quietly.
"I would be as well," Cherrypelt added softly. "It's leaf-bare's height—tensions are naturally high in the Clans at this point. Lack of prey and the cold makes a warrior's claws sharper and his personality frostier. Be careful what you say and who you speak with tonight, young one."
There were butterflies in Skypaw's stomach. "Cherrypelt...I'm not scared about the Clans' general moods because it's leaf-bare. I'm scared because we've broken the code. I'm scared that WindClan will know and declare war on us. I'm scared because our reputation is tainted."
Cherrypelt's eyes softened. "Yes, I know. But Lionstar will make things right. He's a good tom. You'll see."
"I hope so. I don't want to enter battle again so quickly." Fighting the bear had been enough to put Skypaw off fighting for the rest of her life. The next battle would be too soon.
Cherrypelt rasped her tongue affectionately over Skypaw's ear. "You're a fine young warrior, Skypaw," she mewed. "I've trained you well—and, more importantly, you've learned well. You've come very far from being that humble, timid little apprentice whose mind wandered during the first fortnight of her training."
Skypaw ducked her head a little bashfully. "Guess we all grow up in the end," she mused quietly.
Cherrypelt nodded. "That we do."
Soon ThunderClan arrived at the tree bridge. Just beyond, Skypaw could pick out the distant mews and voices of many cats on the Island. "We're the last to arrive," she said.
"Then we'd best be quick," mewed Lionstar, overhearing.
One by one the cats quickly crossed over the tree bridge and landed on the soft, sandy shore. Skypaw was getting rather good at it—she didn't slip once over the crossing, and landed well. Jaggedpaw even managed the crossing without too much difficulty, but he climbed carefully down from the end of the tree rather than making a jump onto the sand. It hurt him to make any leap, although he was a fine hunter and pounced very well. Cinderheart gave him a murmured praise and brushed her tail against his flanks.
Soon the last cat was over the tree bridge, and Lionstar led the way through the stiff, dead ferns, scorched black by the heavy frosts, and into the clearing beyond.
Within, Skypaw noted an air of tension about the clearing immediately. The Clans kept mostly to themselves. Only a few went and spoke with others—but the most noticeable thing that Skypaw realized was that WindClan had turned their gaze on them. And it was far from friendly.
"They know," Skypaw whispered to Cherrypelt, her throat tightened in fear. "WindClan knows."
Cherrypelt said nothing, but curled her tail tightly over Skypaw's flanks and drew her far away from the unfriendly crowd. Lionstar briskly made his way through the crowd of cats and leapt up to a low branch of the Great Oak. Reedstar and Tigerheart gave him small nods of greeting—but Sedgestar flattened her ears, and lashed her tail once.
"Skypaw?" Frostpaw appeared at Skypaw's side, her voice soft and quavering. "I don't like this Gathering. Everyone's...everyone's horrid."
Skypaw glanced down at the uneasy apprentice and leaned in close. "Stay near me or Amberheart. Don't go near WindClan—go and find Duckfeather, if you like." She had caught a glimpse of the creamy-furred she-cat, sitting as usual with her friends Tangleheart and Pikefang, and a few other RiverClan warriors.
As Frostpaw moved away, sticking close to Amberheart's side, Ferndust appeared beside her with Toadstep in tow. Skypaw regarded her presence with a single twitch of her ears, that old bitterness starting to rise in her throat. She forced it down and told Ferndust stiffly, "Thought you were with Larkflight."
The tabby frowned impatiently. "Whatever happened between you two, I'll leave you two to figure it out," she said shortly, and quietly. "But know that I'm your friend, Skypaw. Don't turn me away, too."
Skypaw gave a small sigh. "All right, then."
"Thank you." Ferndust spared her a small purr, and then murmured softly, "I think WindClan knows."
"Yeah, they do." Skypaw felt sick.
"Sedgestar looks like she's going to rip Lionstar's ears off." Ferndust kept her eyes low, but her voice was urgent. "And the worst thing is, she has perfectly good reason to. I wish I'd stayed at home."
Skypaw didn't say anything. Her tongue felt like lead. Yet over Ferndust's eartips, she caught a glimpse of Boundwind, sitting with Rabbitfur and Chasefire, speaking lowly and shooting ThunderClan frequent glances. She forced down the urge to go and say hello to him.
Soon the Gathering began—Sedgestar gave the rallying yowl, and the Clan cats settled and turned their ears and eyes to the Great Oak. The deputies and medicine cats lined up on the tree's huge, bulbous roots. But as Skypaw made to move forward with Ferndust, Toadstep's shoulder barred the way. "No," murmured the older warrior, eyes glinting with caution. "Stay back, near the edge of the clearing. Things are going to get ugly—and I don't want you two in the thick of it."
Skypaw and Ferndust nodded in unison. They wanted nothing more than to leave. They backed away and sat at the very back of the Clan group. Cherrypelt and Toadstep went and sat a little further on. Soon Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw came to join them. Seemed Amberheart and Cinderheart were thinking along similar lines as they.
"Where's Aura?" whispered Ferndust suddenly.
Skypaw looked around urgently. "She's beside Larkflight." For now, her anger with the mouse-brained tom was at the back of her mind. Unease with WindClan took precedence, and she couldn't help feeling relieved that Aura, at least, was beside somebody she trusted and who trusted her back.
As the last pangs of soft chatter died away, the Gathering began.
"Who will speak first?" asked Reedstar.
Before any other Clan leader could speak, Sedgestar lifted her head, and her eyes glittered with open, unconcealed rage.
"I will," she spat, and WindClan murmured its assent.
Skypaw felt the knots in her belly tighten. She pressed harder against Ferndust.
Sedgestar wasted no time. "Clans," she yowled, her voice carrying over the Island. "There are prey-thieves among us!"
Caterwauls rose up behind her words. "RiverClan hasn't touched your stinking rabbits!" a warrior—probably RiverClan, Skypaw thought—cried out, and his outburst was met with agreeing meows and yowls from his Clanmates. Lionstar said nothing. He sat still on his branch, eyes shadowed.
"Nor has ShadowClan!" growled Lakepelt, far across the clearing.
"Can ThunderClan say the same?" Sedgestar turned, mock-imploringly, to Lionstar. "I notice that your Clan was not the first to deny my outcry—despite how closely you follow the warrior code." Her words dripped with scorn.
Skypaw, and the rest of ThunderClan, waited tensely for her leader's response.
Lionstar lifted his head and answered, "We continue to follow the code as always, Sedgestar."
"You do?" Sedgestar's tail bristled. "Then recite it, Lionstar! Recite it for all of us to hear, and speak it without hesitation, without guilt!"
RiverClan and ShadowClan were muttering, confused—surely ThunderClan, good and righteous ThunderClan, devout followers of the warrior code, would have never sunk so low as to steal?
"I recall," growled Lionstar, "that this is a Gathering—not a warrior's ceremony."
"But you don't deserve to call yourselves warriors!" Sedgestar snarled. Her whiskers trembled, her ears flattened. "You and your rogue excuse for a Clan have been trespassing on our territory, stealing prey!" Her words were met with agreeing yowls of anger from WindClan.
After the outburst died down, Reedstar turned to Lionstar. "Is this true? Have ThunderClan been stealing prey from WindClan?"
"There is no prey to be had in what is left of ThunderClan territory," Lionstar answered as evenly as he could manage—but Skypaw knew that inside, he was just as scared as she was. "I presume you know about the fire."
"We know about it," said Tigerheart, with a fierce glare in his golden eyes. "But so long as your filthy paws haven't been touching ShadowClan prey..."
"Why WindClan, I wonder?" a voice called out—and Skypaw knew instinctively that it was Heathertail, WindClan's deputy. Her words were laced with open hate, and the expression that she wore was filled with rage—rage mostly directed towards Lionstar in particular. Something happened between them, long ago, Skypaw realized. Something that they're never going to forget or forgive... "Why WindClan, Lionstar?" She said his title mockingly, in the same way Skypaw had when arguing with Larkflight. It made her sick to the stomach all over again.
Lionstar glared at Heathertail. "I speak to your leader, not to you," he growled.
"Then speak to me," Sedgestar interrupted. "Answer her question—why WindClan? Do you think that just because you were born to Crowfeather and are a half-Clan rogue, you are entitled with the rights to hunt WindClan prey?"
"Half-Clan rogue?" yowled Dovewing, leaping to her paws with a lash of her tail. "You challenge a warrior for his lineage when we all owe our lives to the mightiest leader of the four Clans, who was not even born in a Clan?"
"Firestar, at the very least, was noble, and followed the warrior code to the very end," snarled Sedgestar. "I cannot say the same for his kin when they are graced with such power."
"I've wielded more power than you could dream of," Lionstar growled through gritted teeth.
"Your disregard to the warrior code insults me," Sedgestar hissed. Her eyes glittered with rage. "Prey-thieves have absolutely no right to call themselves a Clan. You are no better than rogues, all of you!"
"What is ThunderClan coming to, I wonder?" Hookclaw yowled, springing to his paws. "You begin by bringing rogue kits into the Clan—accepting outsiders, as always to be expected from you and your half-bred Clan—" Ferndust barely restrained a furious, pained hiss. "—and now you steal from WindClan, whom you owe lineage to. And you yourself, Lionstar! Your birth never should have happened—it was outside both the warrior code and the medicine cat code in every way!"
Yowls both enraged and agreeing broke out—cats leapt to their paws, shrieking at the Great Oak, shrieking at one another. The glint of claws was seen in the moonshine. Skypaw stared in dismay at the four Clans...and Hookclaw sat back, apparently satisfied with the chaos that he had contributed to.
But that wasn't what made Skypaw scared. It was because high above, the Dark Forest was smiling.
At last, there was silence, and Lionstar spoke in his defense.
"I am ThunderClan, and ThunderClan alone," he spat, his golden tabby fur bristling. "And taking prey has nothing to do based on who my father was. It is because otherwise, my Clan will starve—and I will do everything in my power to ensure that they live to see the next newleaf. If it means breaking the code, then so be it."
"And you think we'll just do nothing about it?" hissed Sedgestar. "Oh, I may owe my life to you, Lionstar, but my Clan matters more than what happened long ago when I was just a squealing kit. I may have journeyed with you to find and free the lake, may have fought alongside ThunderClan when the Dark Forest rose all those seasons ago, but those are just memories—they are nothing more, and I owe them, and you, no loyalty." Her claws slid out and dug into the tree bark. "You had best watch your borders, Lionstar. I will not rest until you pay for what you have taken from WindClan, in blood."
Lionstar met Sedgestar's gaze without any fear. "Then you will be having many sleepless nights, Sedgestar," he answered, his voice strangely quiet.
Thunder boomed overhead, and the moon was lost behind a veil of swirling black clouds. A chill wind raced over the Island, rattling the pines and the branches of the Great Oak. But it was nothing as to how Skypaw felt—the chill clawed at her bones and froze her blood. The chill of fear, and the grim reality as the truth sank in.
ThunderClan and WindClan were at war.