Skypaw was evidently puzzled when she opened her eyes to find Jayfeather's muzzle only a few mouse-lengths from her own. "Awake at last," he muttered, his paws patting down something soft and sticky on her belly.
Skypaw winced. Every part of her ached, ached to StarClan. "What...happened?" she mumbled, her tongue feeling very heavy.
Jayfeather tsked impatiently. "Hold still," he grumbled. "It's taken me most of the morning to patch you up."
Patch me up? Skypaw glanced down at her underbelly—almost immediately to gasp in horror, her ears flat against her head. Great StarClan! she wanted to screech, but the words were frozen in her throat. Huge claw marks were visible through her torn underbelly fur, scarring deep into her skin, running down the length of her chest to her gut. How in the name of StarClan did I get these?!
"Rather remarkable," Jayfeather mewed conversationally, as with expert paws he wrapped bindings of cobweb over her underbelly fur. "These cuts are very deep—I'm fairly certain they're going to scar, but what do I know? I'm not a seer like you and Aura—and that blow to your head, one of the worst I've seen in all my seasons of service as a medicine cat of ThunderClan." He tsked impatiently again. "Didn't I tell Lionstar not to fight with WindClan?" he growled, half to himself. "But no...all the warriors went into battle, clashed against WindClan and got themselves scratched up halfway to StarClan, for the sake of one rabbit."
Skypaw frowned, trying to clear her head. "What happened?" she asked again.
Jayfeather glanced at her. "You don't know? Don't remember anything?"
Skypaw twitched her ear. "Not really, no."
"Oh, wonderful...just what I need." Jayfeather lashed his tail once and briefly turned away from her. "Aura! Over here, now."
Aura? Skypaw's ears flicked forward in recognition. Aura! The tortoiseshell with the memory...no, the knowledge, of StarClan and beyond...A moment later, the young she-cat appeared at Jayfeather's side, and her clear golden gaze met Skypaw's blue.
"Awake at last," she purred, sounding amused.
"I don't feel well," Skypaw mewed quietly.
"I'm not surprised," growled Jayfeather. The blind medicine cat's eyes sparked with irritation, to conceal with anxiety that was building inside of him. "She's awoken with no recollection of what happened to her. Memory impairment if I ever saw one."
"Concussion?" Aura's mirth died a little. "The blow to her head was harder than I formerly anticipated."
Skypaw frowned. "Wait..." She struggled to rise, and Jayfeather hissed in frustration as the cobweb started to come undone. "I was hit on the head?" That had to explain that aching, pulsing pain in her skull. "By who?"
"A WindClan warrior by the name of Boundwind," said Aura, sitting down beside Skypaw. "And another WindClan warrior, Chasefire, gave you the cuts to your stomach." She tipped her head to one side. "Are you sure you don't remember anything of the battle?"
Skypaw was about to answer a whole-hearted 'yes' (and within she asked herself, There was a battle?) when she paused. Wait a moment...she could remember something. It was faint...but it was something. It was Larkflight, jumping over her. He was hissing at something, yowling that that something wasn't going to hurt her. What was he doing in whatever we were doing before...?
"I can remember Larkflight," Skypaw mewed quietly.
Aura gave a small nod, rose to her paws and left. Skypaw stared after her in puzzlement for a moment, and then glanced at Jayfeather. "What's she doing?"
"What do you think, mouse-brain?" Jayfeather rolled Skypaw onto her back and set about repairing the cobwebs. "Now don't move, else I'll have to pin you down to the ground. Do you want your cuts to get infected?" He sounded weary and stressed.
It took a few moments for Skypaw to become aware that there were cats lying all around her. She slowly began to recognize them. Poppyfrost rested just a little way away, whimpering a little with her hind leg stretched out and fastened with splints to keep it straight. Cinderheart stood beside her sister, gently murmuring encouragement and running her tail up and down her shoulders. The light caught on a cut on her cheek. Berrynose lay near his mate, watching her in between licking at the cuts on his shoulders and muttering something about getting his back on Wingfeather.
There were more cats lying here and there in the abandoned Twoleg nest. Foxleap was with Cherrypelt, dozing as she swept his tail rhythmically up and down his russet shoulders. Stormbreeze was flexing her leg, occasionally hissing in pain. Moleclaw, looking tired, was curled up in a ball beside Hollythorn. The kits scrambled all over him despite him having a torn ear and a scratch on his side. Dewclaw sat beside Amberheart, speaking quietly and wearily with her. She nodded at something he said, looking just as exhausted. Lionstar was perched in one of the remaining rafters in the Twoleg nest's roof, looking out over the snow-coated forest that lay beyond.
Battle, mused Skypaw, as she watched Mousewhisker limp past with a mouthful of wet moss. There was a large amount of fur missing here and there on his body. I must have fought in it. She frowned. Then I received a blow to the head. That can't be good...I can't remember much of the battle...only Larkflight jumping on Boundwind and kicking Hawkflight away...
She paused, surprised at herself. Wait a moment. I knew who they were, when I didn't a moment ago! Hope flared inside of her. Maybe I just need a few moments to recollect my thoughts...
"Skypaw!" a familiar voice chirruped, sounding relieved. Skypaw looked past Jayfeather to see a mottled brown-and-black tom padding stiffly towards her, eyes bright with worry. "You're awake!" He crouched down beside her. "Are you all right?"
Dimly Skypaw recollected that he had asked that question one too many times. "I'm all right," she murmured. "But what about you? Are you hurt?" The battle between him and Boundwind had been fierce.
"Not as badly as you." Larkflight's nose gently touched against Skypaw's cheek. "You passed out on the way back to the abandoned Twoleg nest. I had to carry you." His voice wavered a little.
"Gently, now," a voice interrupted, and Aura appeared at Larkflight's side. "She's only just awoken and she feels a little woozy. Her memory's a little shaky, though it's trickling back, slowly."
"It's getting faster," Skypaw murmured. She could start catching snippets of the battle—yes, there was a battle, between ThunderClan and WindClan near the stream, in the icy snow. She could remember attacking Thistletail who was mocking Jaggedpaw and Frostpaw. She could remember ramming her shoulder against Wingfeather and knocking her off Berrynose. She could remember running, panic-stricken, through the forest, terrified and desperate to find her Clanmates. And then...and then...
The battle with Chasefire came back in full force. Skypaw groaned as her stomach suddenly ached, the gashes searing in memory of Chasefire's claws.
"Easy, easy," Aura said quietly, placing a paw on Skypaw's shoulder. "It's just a memory, remember." Her voice was calm and firm. "Just a memory. Remember that you are here, and now. In the present."
Skypaw blinked. She nodded. "Yes, I know I'm in the present."
"Good." Aura stepped back. "Make sure that you remember that."
Skypaw frowned quizzically. "Why would I think otherwise?"
"To use Time Manipulation so much—to let it control you, rather than you controlling it as is the way it should be..." Aura's eyes shadowed a little. "One may forget where they stand in the place of Time's tendrils."
Time Manipulation. Skypaw could remember using that, too. A lot. She could also recollect that she had used it almost without thought. A small chill crept down the length of her backbone. So she hadn't, in those times, been in control of her own power. The thought of the power controlling her scared her.
"But it's all right." Aura was sounding pleased. "You have a great mastery over your abilities for one so young, Skypaw. You just need a few moments to recover. Time is still yours to command. You are strong, very strong indeed. Your Tigermark cannot control you."
Skypaw gave a small nod. "I hope it doesn't."
"It won't. It can't." Larkflight's eyes twinkled with amusement. "You're too stubborn for that, Skypaw."
Skypaw gave a small mrrow of laughter, despite the pain that quickly followed. "I guess I am after all."
Jayfeather muttered something about young cats never making up their minds and firmly pressed some more cobweb on Skypaw's chest.
"A hunting patrol's returned!"
Almost immediately the attentions of the ThunderClan cats gathered in the abandoned Twoleg nest was caught, and a few cats even rose to their paws to look eagerly towards the run-down entrance of the temporary camp. Skypaw herself looked up from her corner of the Twoleg nest where she lay beside a few other badly injured from the WindClan battle. Hard to believe that almost a whole quarter moon has passed since I had Chasefire's claws ripping through my underbelly.
Jayfeather had assured her that so long as she kept resting and didn't go picking fights with any more WindClan cats, she'd make a full recovery, though she'd have the scars forever. In a small way, Skypaw was proud—no warrior should make her way through Clan life without a few scars. However the wounds were slow in healing, especially in the cold and the lack of prey.
But food is on its way. Skypaw shivered in anticipation. I hope.
The hunting patrol had been small, only made up of Whiteblaze, Yellownose and Runningleap—but even before they entered the Twoleg nest, Skypaw knew that they had been successful in some small way. Whiteblaze heralded the return. From his jaws swung a pair of red-breasted robins. Yellownose followed, carrying a squirrel by its bushy tail. Runningleap was last, carrying a shrew and a sparrow.
Skypaw's eyes widened. She hadn't seen so much fresh-kill in ages.
"A successful hunt!" Briarlight, from where she lay beside Squirrelflight, eagerly licked her lips. "A very successful hunt!"
The kits' eyes were wide and they mewled with delight as they scrambled over Hollythorn's back. "Squirrel!" yelped Graykit. "Look, Mama! Squirrel!"
The fresh-kill were set down in the centre of the Twoleg nest, and for a moment, Skypaw was thrown back to the memory of the fresh-kill pile in the hollow. Her heart ached. She missed sleeping in the apprentices' cave, waking up each morning to find Lionstar standing on Highledge, Ivypool on the rotted beech ordering patrols, elders making their way to the dirtplace, kits squealing and mewling in play...
"I was starting to wonder if we'd ever find food again," Patchwhisker commented.
Lionstar frowned. "That's hardly enough to feed the Clan," he observed, sounding worried. "But you three did very well." The three warriors briefly dipped their heads in acknowledgement of the praise.
"We'll head out again," Runningleap promised.
"Take more with you," Lionstar meowed, "now that food is starting to slowly return to the forest." Immediately several warriors jumped to their paws, tails lashing in enthusiasm. "Ivypool, arrange the patrols." The deputy nodded and approached the cluster of cats gathering near the entrance to the nest. "Hollythorn—" Lionstar spared a glance at the queen. "—you and your kits can have the squirrel. The rest need to be given to the elders, Thrushsong and Poppyfrost." The Clan nodded in rueful agreement. Their own stomachs were rumbling, but they had to feed the young and old, and the most seriously injured, first.
Skypaw spared a glance at the injured warrior, who was looking guilty. "I shouldn't be fussed over," Poppyfrost muttered. "So many others need that kill more than I..."
"Nonsense," frowned Skypaw. "You need to eat for your leg to mend."
Poppyfrost gave a small sigh. "Skypaw, is my leg ever going to mend?"
Skypaw nodded emphatically. "Of course it is. Cinderheart healed all right from her broken leg, didn't she? And you will, too. You're her sister. Already she's helping you get through it. Your leg doesn't hurt you anymore, does it?"
"No..." Poppyfrost's whiskers twitched. "Only because the cold keeps it numb."
"Well, they're not going to change their minds," Larkflight mewed, flicking an ear. "You're going to get something to eat. So tough." Poppyfrost laughed at that.
Soon the prey was divided up. The squirrel was given to the kits, who were tumbling over themselves in joy of the thought of sleeping with full bellies. They were looking alarmingly thin, and Hollythorn was relieved that she could feed her kits at last. The two robins were passed to the elders. Squirrelflight investigated her robin and commented that it was a little scrawny and it'd be tough—Briarlight answered that she'd better eat up or she'd eat her robin, too. The shrew was given to Thrushsong. Spottedheart then sat right beside her sister, clearly not going to leave until the soon-to-be mother ate her share.
Soon Cinderheart trotted over with the sparrow for Poppyfrost. Before the she-cat could even say a word, Cinderheart had set the piece of prey down and mewed, "I really don't want to get all Spottedheart with you, sister, but I might have to if you even think about trying to give another cat this sparrow."
Poppyfrost lashed her tail. "Others need—"
"Others will get," Cinderheart scowled, not leaving any room for argument. "But you need it now." She nudged the sparrow with her forefoot. "Eat it, Poppyfrost."
Poppyfrost rolled her eyes but obligingly bent her head to nibble at the sparrow, plucking at the feathers with the tips of her claws. "You sound just as bossy and grumpy as Jayfeather now," she commented absently.
Cinderheart rolled her eyes. "Yes, well, having your mate as the Clan leader who's also the brother of said medicine at does have its habits," she mewed. She glanced towards the Clan cats, clustered at the edge of the Twoleg nest. "I'm going to go hunting," she said. "And if I come back and find that you haven't eaten that sparrow..."
Poppyfrost shot her sister an oh-come-now look. "And how were you planning to punish me?" she inquired. "Deny me my share of the fresh-kill that's brought in? Assign me extra patrols? I'm immune to both those things, dear sister."
"Yes, well, I'll find something," Cinderheart assured her. With a flick of her tail, she turned and padded swiftly to Ivypool's side.
"She will, you know," Larkflight commented absently to Poppyfrost. "And I'll be your Spottedheart, if you like."
Poppyfrost mrrowed with laughter and bent her head. "Okay, okay, I'm eating it, see?"
Skypaw gave a soft purr of laughter, even though something was clawing at her insides, and she was so hungry that she was tempted to creep out of the nest and do some hunting for herself. The only problem was, her underbelly hurt whenever she tensed her body, and stalking therefore was going to be a problem.
Curse Chasefire, she thought darkly, lashing her tail once.
Larkflight glanced at her in concern. "Are you all right?"
Skypaw rolled her eyes at him. "Is that going to be your favourite set of words from now on, Larkflight? You've asked me that question more times than I can count!"
"Sorry," the mottled warrior mewed sheepishly. "I'm just worried about you." He gently leaned against her. "I want to make sure you get well."
Skypaw gave him a look. "You sound exactly like Cherrypelt when she talks to Foxleap."
Larkflight's ears flicked forward at the implication. "What? I...I do?" He flushed beneath his fur, his whiskers tingling with embarrassment. "Sorry! I just..."
Skypaw gave an exasperated sigh. "Don't be," she mewed, giving him a friendly shove. "We're friends, remember? You're allowed to be concerned about me. Just...don't go overkill with it."
"Overkill? But there's nothing to kill!"
Poppyfrost let out a small mrrow. "I think I can see kits on the way between the pair of you," she whispered slyly.
Skypaw and Larkflight whirled around to stare incredulously at Poppyfrost. "Nothing of the sort!" Skypaw exclaimed. "I'm not even a warrior yet!"
Poppyfrost rolled her eyes. "But I can still see it happening in the near future."
"The distant future, you mean," frowned Skypaw. "I still have to worry about completing my training." She'd been an apprentice for nearly two season-lengths. Cherrypelt had even told her that when her fitness and strength was recovered, she'd have her final assessment.
"Because as far as I'm concerned, fighting ShadowClan was one assessment, fighting the bear was another, and fighting WindClan was just one more," her mentor had said. "A hunting assessment probably would be best, since you excel in the fighting side of being a warrior. As formidable as Lionstar back in the day he was a warrior."
"That's right...you're nearly finished your training as an apprentice!" Larkflight's eyes shone with that kitlike excitement all over again. "Gosh...hard to believe all the way back to when me and my littermates, you and Ferndust were all sleeping in the warriors' den, discussing warrior names." He tipped his head to one side. "I can still remember what we called you."
"So can I," Skypaw mewed. "Skyheart."
"Skyheart?" repeated Poppyfrost. She mulled over the word, and then nodded. "That's a good name."
"I don't know...I feel like it's a little too noble."
Larkflight chuckled, his whiskers twitching. "You'll always be noble to me," he assured her. "And no matter what Lionstar calls you, you'll be Skyheart in my eyes."
"Wow," muttered Rosepetal, staring at the hollow in dismay. "We have a lot of work to do."
"No mousetail," Toadstep agreed dully. "But it'll have to be a start."
Skypaw stifled a small sigh as she looked around the hollow. The snow had blanketed everything, made it seem fresh and new and flawless, but there was a prominent absence of foliage. The bushes had been burned away, and the fallen beech was just lumps of charred wood under the snow.
She felt her father's tail brush against her flanks and glanced up into Bumblestripe's eyes.
"We'll get there," he promised.
"Right." Ivypool, who was in charge of the reconstruction task, turned around to meet the gazes of the ten cats who were with her. "Lionstar wants to have significant progress by this evening," she mewed, "and he wants us back in the hollow come newleaf. I think most of us want out of the abandoned Twoleg nest by now."
"What are we going to use to build our dens with?" inquired Whiteblaze. "The forest isn't exactly sprouting brambles left and right."
"We'd have to go all the way to the north border to get decent brambles and gorse," Bumblestripe added, "and that'll take all of the day."
"But I can help with the time scale of things," Skypaw pointed out.
"Exactly," Ivypool nodded. "I want half of the patrol here, clearing away snow and remains that can't be used to remake the dens. The other half makes their way up to the north border, gathers as much material as they can, and returns to the hollow. If everything goes according to plan, we'll be able to start making the dens by tomorrow."
"But we'd need heaps," protested Rosepetal. "Much more than five cats can carry on their own."
"Aura had an idea," Ivypool explained. "In the same way that we bundle moss together to carry it, we can do the same with brambles."
Foxleap spat disdainfully. "I'm not hauling a whole bunch of brambles underneath my chin, thanks—no matter what a cat with wisdom beyond StarClan recommends."
Ivypool rolled her eyes. "Not under our chins," she mewed, with surprising patience. "If we can bundle the brambles together, but leave a few tendrils out to drag it by, we can gather enough brambles to make several dens with, in one journey's worth."
"Think of it like really large distractions in The Bear Trap," Skypaw mewed to the slightly confused patrol. Seeing them glance at one another, she elaborated. "You know how we bundled branches and brambles together, and dropped them onto the bear to slow it down? What Aura suggested and Ivypool is saying is that we kind of do the same thing, but just with brambles. We bundle it all up together in a big gathering, and drag it over the ground, instead of just taking one tendril at a time."
Now the patrol was looking thoughtful. "That could work," Cherrypelt conceded.
"So long as we don't get ourselves entangled by thorns," muttered Dewclaw.
"All right." Ivypool looked among the cats. "Skypaw, of course, I need you to go to the border with Dewclaw, Foxleap, Bumblestripe and Rosepetal." The indicated cats gave small nods at the mention of their names, and at their assigned duty. "Whiteblaze, Toadstep, Cherrypelt, Amberheart and Frostpaw, you'll be staying behind in the hollow with me."
Frostpaw looked disappointed. "But I want to go to the north border!" she protested.
"You'll go one day," Amberheart assured her apprentice kindly. "It's not as if the border's going to go scampering off anywhere."
"It might," the young apprentice guessed mutinously.
Ivypool softly mrrowed with laughter, but then her mew became firm and curt. "Let's move, ThunderClan."
It seemed after Ivypool had given that order, all Skypaw had done was move.
As leaf-bare went on, the sky was always stony-gray and occasionally there was a fresh snowfall. The prey was very slowly beginning to return to the sparse, scorched woodlands, though sometimes Lionstar sent patrols far up to the north borders to try and scavenge for food. He also sent out cats regularly to try and scavenge for any herbs that might be surviving the heavy frosts that could be used to help aid Squirrelflight's painful joints and Poppyfrost's leg. It was healing badly, Jayfeather said, and if he didn't get a proper sheltered area and medicine for Poppyfrost then she would be crippled for the rest of her life. Cinderheart and Berrynose were often the ones to lead the herb-searches, but their efforts were more often than not fruitless.
Skypaw knew that she should be resting more—Jayfeather and Larkflight both insisted that she take it very easy—but she was also full aware that now, more than ever, her Clan needed her and her abilities of Time. She could just see grim times lying ahead before the leaf-bare was over, and she wanted her Clan to be back home in warm, snug dens, Poppyfrost's leg to be mending, and eventually the dark reddish tabby to be back on her paws and hunting with her sister, as she always had done before the fire. Not to mention that Thrushsong seemed to grow bigger by the day, and Jayfeather didn't want the kits to be born outside the security and warmth of the hollow.
Is it because he and Lionblaze came into the world that way? Skypaw wondered.
The days seemed to blend, becoming one unfathomable length of time. Skypaw's injuries were mending slowly but well; the cold helped prevent infection from setting in, one of the very few boons of leaf-bare, and which admittedly Jayfeather was grateful for. She worked hard, making frequent journeys up to the north border. The frozen brambles were stubborn, twisted and tangled, but they were perfect for making dens with. Once, while uprooting a particularly stubborn series of thorny tendrils, Foxleap had happened upon a sheltered little grove of yarrow whose outer leaves were only lightly blistered by the cold. Skypaw had rushed them back to the temporary camp.
Somehow, Skypaw sensed that the fifth morning of repair work had arrived, and today Ivypool had assigned her on camp duty. The dens were starting to take form; a secure nursery had already been made, pressing up against the remaining and surviving roots of the fallen beech, and it was almost ready for a cat to actually inhabit the place, though it was still very drafty. The medicine den was being remade, and a new elder's den was taking form at the edge of the hollow, conveniently closer to the dirtplace than it had been before.
While working with her mentor in padding up the last few holes in the nursery with pebbles collected from the shore—a productive idea from Aura—they got into the conversation that Skypaw had half been hoping, yet half feared, to hear.
"When you are strong enough to start hunting at your best, we'll have your final assessment. It's about time."
Skypaw was so startled she dropped a few pebbles she'd been carefully holding in her paws. They thudded soundlessly on the thin, mushy layer of frost beneath her.
"R-really?" she mewed.
Cherrypelt gave a small purr. It shone out of the corners of her deep amber eyes. "Yes, really," she answered. "It's about time that you took on a warrior name, started serving the Clan to your fullest potential."
Skypaw tipped her head to one side. "And I haven't already?"
"Oh, what am I saying? Of course you have...but there's very little left for me to teach you, and all the rest comes with experience of being a warrior." Cherrypelt calmly resumed pushing pebbles into the rewoven nursery. "It's not like you really need a mentor anymore, Skypaw. You've grown up."
Skypaw flicked her tail as she thought back to her kithood. Cherrypelt, for many moons, had been present in the nursery, even then—and suddenly it made her frightened at the thought of Cherrypelt not being a mothering model. It'd been that way since she'd open her eyes on that frosty leaf-bare morning nearly a whole year ago.
"I've grown up," Skypaw repeated dully.
Cherrypelt mrrowed. "Suddenly not so keen to become a warrior? I thought that was all an apprentice dreamed about."
Skypaw didn't answer. In truth, now that the event was almost on top of her, the thought of taking on a warrior name, to be burdened with more expectations and responsibilities than she felt she had carried as an apprentice...it frightened her as much as the bear had done. Her apprentice name was comfortable, familiar, a part of her soul and mind. She didn't feel ready to give it up, not just yet.
"Wh-when I'm strong enough," she answered as vaguely as she could.
Cherrypelt looked concernedly at Skypaw for a few moments, before she simply nodded. "See if we can finish padding the nursery before Ivypool calls for us to return to the Twoleg nest," she mused, her thoughts mentoring all over again. "Thrushsong's getting closer and closer to kitting Flamefur's little ones by the day."
She gave a small sigh. "Let's hope he's watching from StarClan."
StarClan...Skypaw thought back to the time when she'd just been a younger apprentice, stayed behind from a Gathering, looked into her mother's memory. Then I was called into StarClan territory, she thought, suddenly recollecting that morning she'd slept in Jayfeather's den. He'd received some kind of omen during the Gathering. And I met with three of the greatest ThunderClan cats who ever walked the world.
It had been many, many moons since last she'd seen them, or even heard from them. Had they forgotten her?
No. Skypaw's fur prickled. But I've forgotten them. A pebble rolled from her paws and thudded back onto the snow.
Cherrypelt spared her a concerned glance. "Skypaw," she mewed, seriously. "Are you okay? Are you wounds bothering you?"
Skypaw shook her head. Wordlessly she picked up the pebble and slotted it carefully into a small space between the curling coarse tendrils of bramble.
The light was starting to fade by the time Skypaw and Cherrypelt heard Ivypool's rallying yowl. They tucked the pebbles just into the mouth of the nursery. "Almost there," Cherrypelt mewed, sounding satisfied. "We'll have it all done tomorrow, I'm sure of it. Well done, Skypaw." Her tail brushed lightly against Skypaw's flanks
Skypaw nodded but said nothing. Her thoughts were elsewhere. She hardly noticed that they were on their way back to the abandoned Twoleg nest for the evening until she heard a familiar yowl interrupt her thoughts.
"Do you think we'll ever be home before leaf-bare ends?"
Skypaw jumped and glanced quickly towards the speaker. She relaxed when she recognized Whiteblaze's black-flecked snowy fur. "Of course we will," she answered in all certainty. "I know we will. Thrushsong will be in the new nursery even before we attend the next Gathering."
"Really? That soon?" Whiteblaze's eyes filled with hope. "That's really great!"
To be sleeping in a warm den again? Yes, it will. "How did Frostpaw find the north border?" Skypaw asked, suddenly recollecting that Whiteblaze had been with the group of cats heading up on foraging duties, and the apprentice had finally gone and explored that far up into ThunderClan territory.
Whiteblaze purred with amusement. "She's such a bright little thing," he chuckled. "But so eager! Just like what I heard Squirrelflight was—to have heard Birchfall tell it, at least—back in the day when she was an apprentice badgering Bramblestar."
"I can remember the stories," Skypaw nodded, though she could suddenly see the images happening before her mind, in an unfamiliar forest territory, back in the time when cats she'd seen dead still lived and breathed. She blinked the memories away and mewed, "Did you gather many brambles today?"
"Enough," Whiteblaze answered modestly. "Aura's idea of bundling the thorns together was really good, don't you think?"
"Yes, it was," Skypaw said absently. At that moment her wounds gave an uncomfortable twinge, and she winced involuntarily at the stings pummeling her belly.
"Skypaw, you okay?" Whiteblaze's eyes rounded with concern. "Your wounds?"
"A bit," Skypaw muttered, straightening and forcing the pain away. These are my moons. I thrive in the leaf-bare. It was these snows in which I was born. I should be strong."Don't worry about it, though, I'll be fine."
Whiteblaze twitched an ear. "Chasefire scratched you up real good," he commented. "But you scratched her up just as much in return. She's probably still lying around in her nest, eh?"
Skypaw shrugged. She tried not to think about WindClan too much since the attack. Whenever she did, the faces of her WindClan friends turned enemy swam in front of her mind—and she was still uncomfortable and ridden with guilt at the thought of Boundwind and his starving kits. They'd...they'd make it through the leaf-bare, right?
Was I really prepared to kill two innocent WindClan kits to ensure that Hollythorn's survive? The mere thought of sacrifice made Skypaw queasy. Please, let there be enough food to get Nettlekit and Silverkit to newleaf...
"You know," Whiteblaze put in, again jolting Skypaw from her thoughts, "to hear Larkflight tell it, you fought like a warrior."
No. I fought like a tiger. "I'm not one yet."
"But you will be soon. I hope you're having your final assessment soon!"
Skypaw shook her head. "I hope not."
"What?" Whiteblaze stared at her in amazement. "How could you even say something like that? Every apprentice wants to become a warrior! They're always clamouring for it..."
"Well, I'm not every apprentice," Skypaw answered shortly. She sighed and gave in to her troubled thoughts. "Back when I was a younger she-cat, still carefree and still learning, before the bear, before fire, before WindClan, becoming a warrior was what I longed to become, what I had hoped from the moment Bramblestar named me an apprentice. The pair-hunting assessment that I did with you and your littermates, it was incredible—" That was also the day that I learned about my gift to walk in memories, too... "—and I was glad I passed. I was that much closer to becoming a warrior. But now..." She heaved another sigh. "Now I don't feel ready. The moons have flown by so fast, and I can...I just want a moment, just to think, just to muse over all that's been and all that is to come. Just to prepare myself."
These words, she relayed to Aura several hours later, when they had managed to slip away from the abandoned Twoleg nest and go for a walk through the frozen forest. More than anything, Skypaw needed the young she-cat's council.
"Young Skypaw," Aura mewed, after Skypaw had fallen into a troubled silence, "when one says that they don't feel ready...they are more ready than they know."
Skypaw huffed. "I gathered that much."
"I know." Aura's words were steady. "But you haven't learned to accept those words yet."
"So you're telling me that I should become a warrior? Jump up and down with excitement and beg for that assessment to come round as soon as possible?"
Aura purred with laughter. "Perhaps not that enthusiastically," she replied. "All that I advise for you, young one, is to look into yourself and find that quiet, calm understanding, that thoughtfulness you learned during the closing days of your kithood, that wisdom that comes of being a bearer of a Tigermark of Time. Then, ask yourself: you may not feel ready, but are you ready to take on the mantle of responsibility expected of you in this Clan?"
"I am," Skypaw answered without hesitation, "but yet, I'm not." She looked pleadingly at Aura. "Do you understand?"
Aura slowly shook her head. "Too much, Skypaw, too much. I understand this just as well as I understand many things." They paused in the snow, at the roots of the scorched husk of a birch, and Aura turned her pale amber eyes to the troubled apprentice. "But you needn't worry about Clan life, not for a little while longer."
"Dreams, Skypaw. Tell me, when you last slept, what did you see?"
Skypaw flattened her ears. "I'm not going there."
The previous night, when Skypaw slept, she had returned to the Dark Forest. She had awoken in the strange, eerie woodland, looked about the decomposing ferns and bare tree trunks, and turned her eyes to the stars. There were none. Uneasy, she had ventured into the forest, searching for the border to StarClan.
Then voices rang through the trees: the last voices she'd wanted to hear.
"We're growing stronger by the day." In the same clearing Skypaw had stumbled upon all those moons ago, were the same cats that she had seen there. There were five of them, speaking in low, hushed voices—voices cold and calculating, voices that heralded the dark days that lay far ahead.
It was the lean, black tom who had spoken, and sparing a glance at his companions, he spoke again. "By now, SunClan numbers well over fifty. Rogues and loners come to us by the day, and each batch proves to have a few stronger souls than the others."
The spectral tortoiseshell-and-white she-cat who sat across from him twitched one ear scornfully. "And you think you're strong enough to launch a return attack on the lake?" she inquired.
Breezepelt hissed at her. "By the starless nights, of course not! But we are more than strong enough to destroy SkyClan." He turned to the ragged-furred gray tom who stood beside him. "All that is needed is the order, Silverhawk. What say you?"
Wait a moment...Skypaw felt horror flood through her. I don't remember dreaming beyond this...And yet her memory still had more to show her. Had Aura known?
Silverhawk flicked the tip of his tail thoughtfully. "The prospect of seeing a Clan destroyed is a delightful one," he said softly. Then he raised his voice. "However, by destroying SkyClan we merely add more spirits to bolster the ranks of StarClan. StarClan will prove to be a challenge for the Dark Forest alone. We have next to no apprentices to aid us, as they so willingly did all those moons ago."
"The very few who are loyal to you will not betray you," Breezepelt growled. He lashed his tail once. "Did I betray you? I was proud to be trained by Tigerstar and Hawkfrost, and I am proud to carry their memory in life."
"And so you should," snapped Mapleshade, bristling. "Else you're unworthy to even be in the Dark Forest."
"I have given you no reason for you to think of me unworthy," Breezepelt answered coolly. "Which is why I continue to stand in the Dark Forest." He flexed his claws. "I am still strong. I am not weak."
"Nor am I," Redwillow hastened to add.
"Listen to them," Thistleclaw sneered, turning to Mapleshade. "Groveling to us, like they expect praise."
"They are useful, however," Silverhawk frowned. "Too useful to be disposed of, at this current time. At least we are getting results, something that Breezepelt has always been apt at doing." The black tom struggled to contain a flush of satisfaction. "SunClan is growing stronger, even without the need of the daughter."
"The daughter." Mapleshade flattened her ears. "I don't even know why we still speak of her. She is not worthy of our ears."
Skypaw restrained that familiar chill that crawled down her backbone. She feared right then for Aura's safety.
"She protects ThunderClan with her power," growled Redwillow, lashing his tail. "If not for her insight, the bear would've destroyed ThunderClan, the Clan of destiny." He jeered the word. "And the fire—in fact, ThunderClan might have been destroyed many times over, or weakened to the point when we could've destroyed the Clans without effort."
"And where's the fun in that?" Thistleclaw asked.
"No matter." Silverhawk rose to his paws, and silence descended upon the group of Dark Forest cats. "The Clans will be destroyed this time—StarClan's link to the mortal world, severed forever. No Ancients will come to help them—no dead cats. We grow stronger as they grow weaker." With glittering eyes, he surveyed his surroundings. "Even if the Tigermarks have, once again, favoured ThunderClan, we will defeat them. The Three are no more. Their powers are lost and they are weak. We will take down the Clans, one at a time—there is still one great event that will unfold, of course."
"RiverClan will be destroyed for good this time," growled Mapleshade, bristling. "And I want to make sure I see all those kits dead."
Skypaw's jaw dropped in horror.
"You will, you will," Silverhawk assured her. "The poison will weaken all the RiverClan fleabags, of course—you could walk right into the camp and kill them for yourself, if you like."
"Of course," Breezepelt pointed out, "that would let the Clan cats know that we're returning."
"As if they didn't know already," snapped Silverhawk. "Have you forgotten so soon Jayfeather's declaration: we are on our own? Has it ever crossed your mind that if a cat of sheer power suddenly appears amidst the Clans, there is surely something afoot that will need such power, more power than has ever been had before? It will be a sign that we are not destroyed. We will return. We are returning, piece by piece, until soon not even Aura or that weak-minded fool Skypaw will be able to defeat us."
Skypaw started at the mention of her name—so abruptly that she brushed against a fond of bracken and gave away her location. The eyes of the five Dark Forest cats whipped around.
"Spy!" hissed Mapleshade, leaping to her paws. "Spy!"
Skypaw turned and fled, but not before Mapleshade's terrifying yowl had rang through the forest: "Kill it! Kill her!"
It was mere moments before suddenly Skypaw had been forced to halt as the shadows moved, a pair of fire-bright eyes blinked awake, and the Nightmare stalked out from the underbrush with a wild, frenzied snarl.
It wore the shape of a tiger.
"Poison," Skypaw choked, as she pulled herself from the memory and found herself standing in the snow. "That same poison that the RiverClan cats told me and Ferndust about, at an older Gathering...that poison that made the kits sick and the pregnant queens birth stillborns...it's coming back to the lake and RiverClan is in danger!"
Aura flattened her ears. "I had feared this..."
"But the Dark Forest..." Skypaw felt herself shaking badly under pelt—the same way that she'd jolted awake after her vision of the bear coming to the lake, Aura standing over her. "I think Mapleshade is going to kill the RiverClan kits and apprentices herself!"
She closed her eyes. "Why did I forget about it this day? Why?"
"The Nightmare," growled Aura, her fur bristling. "I know it found you. You escaped the Forest, but the Nightmare stole away most of the memory. It made you think that you had merely entered the Dark Forest in a terrible dream, but discovered nothing worth knowing. Just like SunClan, the Nightmares are gaining strength."
Skypaw shook her head frantically. "That can't do, Aura! If the Nightmares can stall my abilities of memory, then I might as well have no power at all!"
"The Nightmares feed off uncertainty and fear," Aura meowed. "You feel both in the Dark Forest—in that realm, they are at their strongest."
Skypaw drew a deep breath, trying to control the racing thoughts in her mind. Duckfeather, Tangleheart, Pikefang...they'll all be in danger as well! "I have to get down there—I have to help them!"
Aura nodded. "You will. Rest tonight, and run tomorrow. I will alert Lionstar of the dangers at once."
As the apprentice turned to leave, she heard Aura call out. "Skypaw!"
Skypaw glanced over her shoulder.
"You are," Aura declared, "if you believe you are, no matter what your beliefs may be."