"Skypaw, you need to wake up! What did I just say to you?"
"Um..." Skypaw hesitated, and shifted her paws in embarrassment. "I don't know. Sorry."
Cherrypelt gave an impatient sigh. "What do you do when you are hunting birds?"
"You..." Skypaw frowned, thinking for a moment. "You...keep your pawsteps light, right?"
"You keep your pawsteps light anyway, for whatever you're hunting," frowned Cherrypelt. "What do you do to hunt the bird? What is a bird's weakness?"
Relief shot through Skypaw as she remembered this answer. "Hearing. It can't hear very well."
"Good," mewed Cherrypelt. "So what do you do when you're hunting birds?" she prompted.
"Um..." Skypaw paused again, desperately trying to recollect what Cherrypelt had just shown her. "You...you keep your movements light, and, er, and supple, and you move swiftly and silently towards the bird. It doesn't have a good sense of smell, either, so you don't have to be as alert about your scent as you would with mice or rabbits."
"Finally," said Cherrypelt, with a weary sigh. "Skypaw, that took the longest time for you to reply to a question—indeed, for you to process the question itself—in the history of apprenticing. Are you all right? You're never this absent-minded."
Skypaw's insides knotted uneasily, but she simply mewed, "I'm fine. I just haven't been sleeping well."
"You said that yesterday." Now Cherrypelt was looking concerned. "And the day before that, when you accidentally missed a vole. You've been learning for half a moon, Skypaw, and since a few days into your apprenticeship your concentration has really been quite vague!"
She padded towards Skypaw and rested her ginger tail comfortingly over Skypaw's soft gray fur. "What's going on, Skypaw? What are you even dreaming about?"
Skypaw felt nervous. She hadn't been training well; that much was true, at least. She had blundered constantly, barely listened to what Cherrypelt was saying, and didn't speak as much to the elders anymore. Sometimes she even forgot to bring mouse bile to use on their ticks. But it wasn't because she wasn't motivated. It was because she was too busy thinking of other things. Like the Dark Forest.
It felt terrible, bearing the knowledge that the Dark Forest was rising again, that Scourge, the leader of BloodClan whispered only in terrible tales that queens told to their kits to stop them from straying too far, was going to assist in their second coming. Skypaw hadn't told anyone in the week that had passed. She felt too afraid to share the knowledge, afraid that the spectral warriors would come for her.
She hadn't slept well. She jerked awake constantly at every little noise, afraid that the Dark Forest warriors had found her, that they had discovered she was spying on them down in the hollow. That would probably explain her newfound clumsiness that was the main topic for friendly teasing with the other apprentices.
"Just...bad things," mumbled Skypaw.
Cherrypelt tutted sympathetically. "After the Dark Forest battle, I kept having nightmares of events I had gone through—and I was just a messenger," she explained, running her tail soothingly over Skypaw's back. "In fact, for several moons after the Dark Forest warriors were defeated, all the cats who had fought and survived woke with really terrible nightmares. I could hear them yowling in their sleep, crying the names of cats who had died. And everyone was really morose at Gatherings."
She sighed. "Let's hope that the new leaders can bring about a new age for the Clans."
Skypaw glanced quizzically at Cherrypelt. "Who are the new leaders of each of the Clans?"
"Sedgestar, I remember, is the leader of WindClan," Cherrypelt mewed. "Reedstar of RiverClan, and Rowanstar of ShadowClan. They all fought in the Dark Forest battle, and they've kept their Clan together after the previous Clan leaders died."
Skypaw sat down opposite Cherrypelt. "Who were the old Clan leaders?"
"My goodness, they ruled their Clans until their dying breaths," said Cherrypelt, shaking her head slightly. "Blackstar was once the leader of ShadowClan. Did you know he once was Tigerstar's deputy, back in the old forest?"
Skypaw's eyes widened, and she shook her head.
"But he was a noble cat, a proud leader of ShadowClan, and led them well for many, many years," Cherrypelt conceded. "From WindClan there was Onestar. Now he was an interesting tomcat to explore his past. He was Firestar's friend once, when Firestar and Graystripe went to bring back WindClan all those countless seasons ago. Have you heard the nursery story?"
Skypaw nodded. What kit hadn't heard the tales of Firestar?
"Tallstar led WindClan to the lake, and Onestar wasn't even deputy when Tallstar was on his last life," Cherrypelt went on. "But on his last night alive, Tallstar called Brambleclaw, Firestar, and Onestar to his makeshift den, stripped his old deputy Mudclaw of his duties and made Onestar his second. Then Tallstar died; and Onestar, as deputy, was meant to succeed his old leader."
Skypaw was puzzled. "Why did Tallstar cheat Mudclaw out of becoming leader?"
Cherrypelt shrugged. "Who knows? Tallstar was thought to have had a dark and bloody vision about Mudclaw if he was allowed to become leader of WindClan. There's another story that Tallstar was secretly suspicious of Mudclaw for moons." She chuckled suddenly. "A third story is that Mudclaw was plotting to kill Tallstar with a band of conspirators in WindClan, and that Tallstar, realizing this, decided to cheat Mudclaw out of becoming leader when he passed."
Skypaw snorted. "That's ridiculous. Dovewing says that it was because Tallstar didn't think that Mudclaw, while a loyal deputy, wasn't the right cat to lead WindClan. And he wasn't, was he? He tried to kill Onestar before he could receive his nine lives at the Moonpool."
Cherrypelt twitched one ear. "Hmm. It was a bit sad really, when Onestar became leader. Firestar was his very close friend for seasons upon seasons, but the moment that Onestar claimed the post of leader in WindClan he abruptly broke the friendship. Even though Onestar could be mouse-brained at the best of times, he was still a loyal and ferocious leader of WindClan until he died.
"Then in RiverClan. Mistystar was already fairly aged when she succeeded RiverClan's even older leader, Leopardstar. Some cats in RiverClan were doubtful of Mistystar becoming leader of RiverClan; her mother was Bluestar."
Skypaw was amazed. "A ThunderClan cat?"
"Yes. Bluestar had to give Mistystar and her brother Stonefur to RiverClan because there wasn't enough food in ThunderClan territory for them to survive on, and so she could become deputy of ThunderClan," explained Cherrypelt.
Skypaw was shocked. "She gave up her own kits to become ThunderClan's deputy? That's awful!"
"Not when you think about who would have become ThunderClan's deputy otherwise," said Cherrypelt grimly. "At the same time, a young warrior calling himself Thistleclaw was more than ready to take the post of leadership after Sunstar."
Skypaw's eyes widened in undisguised alarm and horror. Thistleclaw. She had seen him, just a week ago, in the Dark Forest, plotting with other dark warriors to overthrow the Clans!
"Skypaw, are you all right?" asked Cherrypelt in great alarm.
"Oh, yes, fine, just...surprised that Thistleclaw was Bluestar's competition," Skypaw said, which was partially true. She hadn't realized that Thistleclaw had been ThunderClan once.
"You know, I really think you're not well," Cherrypelt said, genuinely concerned for her apprentice. She rose to her paws. "I think you need to go and speak to Jayfeather about your nightmares. If it's starting to interfere with your training then this is serious."
"I'm fine, really," Skypaw told Cherrypelt earnestly, but wincing internally at the lie. She wasn't fine, and it was only going to grow worse. I'll just have to try harder in training, she thought. "Besides, I don't think Jayfeather would have any medicine for troubling dreams."
Cherrypelt hesitated, as though she was going to say something otherwise, but ended up just shaking her head slightly and mewing, "Come on, let's get back to camp."
Skypaw was walking in the forest, where the leaves were turning red and gold with leaf-fall. The air was pleasantly cool on her face, and she soon broke into a jog, and then a run, racing through the woods.
Beside her, Lionblaze kept up effortlessly. "You're quite fast, Skypaw! You'll even be able to beat Runningleap soon!"
Skypaw purred, her shoulders pumping as her paws thudded on the crisp fallen leaves. "I hope so!"
A fallen tree loomed ahead. Skypaw and Lionblaze cleared it with ease. As they landed on the ground, Skypaw glanced over her shoulder to make sure the rest of the group was here. Toadstep leapt lightly over the fallen tree, with his apprentice Fernpaw just behind. Amberheart brought up the rear, her pale gray fur dappled dark silver by the shadow of tree branches above.
The warrior was about to speak, when suddenly her burning gold gaze drifted past Skypaw, and her mouth half-opened in surprise. Following her gaze, Skypaw turned back to the front, to notice a small dappled kit standing calmly amidst the fallen leaves. She was watching the patrol with a knowing gleam in her eyes, as though she had expected them to come.
Skypaw abruptly jerked awake from the dream to discover that sunlight was already spilling through the apprentices' den. It was empty. Guiltily Skypaw shot to her paws, wondering why nobody had come and woken her up, and after hastily giving her pelt a quick groom, slipped outside.
The camp was mostly deserted. The first cat which Skypaw saw was Jayfeather, who was just reentering the camp with a bundle of mallow in his jaws. He stopped irritably as Frostkit and Jaggedkit suddenly exploded out of nowhere. With shrill squeals of laughter, they hooked their tiny thorn-sharp claws into his gray tabby pelt and tried to pull him to the ground.
"Die, evil cat!" yelped Frostkit, clinging on tightly.
Calmly Jayfeather gave himself a thorough shake, easily throwing Jaggedkit off. He turned around and shrugged Frostkit down from his shoulder. Glaring at the kits, he growled around his mouthful of mallow leaves, "Do that again, and you'll be cleaning the stale moss from the elders' den for the next moon."
"You can't do that!" squealed Jaggedkit indignantly, pushing himself awkwardly into a standing position. "We're not apprentices!"
"You can't boss us around!" Frostkit yelped, backing up her brother.
Jayfeather leaned close to Frostkit. "Try me," he suggested.
The brambles to the nursery suddenly rattled and Mapleleaf exploded out. Her eyes fell at once on her kits and she called, "You two! What are you doing outside! I'm very sorry about this, Jayfeather," she added apologetically to the medicine cat. "I hope they haven't been bothering you?"
Jayfeather barely stifled a sarcastic snort. "Keep a closer eye on them next time," he growled, padding back to his den. Frostkit and Jaggedkit guiltily padded back to their mother, who was looking stern.
Skypaw looked around. Her gaze fell on Fernpaw, who was lying and sunning herself near the rotted beech. She quickly bounded across the clearing to where the apprentice lay. "Where's Cherrypelt?" she asked.
Fernpaw looked up, her eyes glinting. "Look who's up at last, lazybones."
"I didn't mean to oversleep," Skypaw mewed. "I'll have to apologize to Cherrypelt. Has she been waiting long for me?"
"No. She left on the dawn patrol."
Dismay dragged at Skypaw.
"Don't worry," Fernpaw said reassuringly, noticing Skypaw's sudden despair. "Cherrypelt wanted you to sleep in this morning and catch up on your energy. She'll be back to train you soon." She looked envious for a moment. "I wish I had such a nice mentor. Toadstep likes waking me up in the StarClan-accursed hours of dawn day after day, and has done so for over four moons!"
Skypaw looked sheepish as she sat down beside Fernpaw. "Cherrypelt's just concerned because I've been sleeping badly. I wish she wouldn't make such a fuss over me."
"The only fuss Toadstep makes over me is when I miss a piece of prey," said Fernpaw, looking annoyed. "Then he rants on and on at me so I have to go and find another piece of fresh-kill so I can stuff it in Toadstep's mouth to shut him up."
Skypaw purred with laughter, feeling better. "Where is Toadstep, anyway?"
"Out on a hunting patrol with Squirrelflight, Patchwhisker, Spottedheart and Ivypool. Stormpaw's with them." Fernpaw drew a tongue over her paw and cleaned her ear. "Toadstep wanted me to have the morning off. I twisted my paw yesterday in combat training and Jayfeather recommended I go easy."
"So Toadstep does give you a break," Skypaw noted.
Fernpaw shrugged. "Occasionally."
"Since you seem to know where all the other cats are, where are the rest of the apprentices?" asked Skypaw.
"Battle training. Larkpaw, Dustpaw and Whitepaw are having mass combat training with some of the other warriors and their mentors." Fernpaw paused thoughtfully for a moment before she mewed, "Rosepetal, Poppyfrost and Berrynose are with them, along with Icecloud and Thrushsong. They're doing that big battle-practice thing, where they're each trying to get to some point on the opposition's team while defending their own."
Skypaw sheathed and unsheathed her claws enviously. "Wish I could start doing that. That sounds fun!"
"Not fun when you don't know how to defend yourself," remarked Fernpaw. "Give it a few moons. You'll be taking part in it soon enough."
"Yeah, with the apprentices, now warriors," grumbled Skypaw.
"Who knows," Fernpaw shrugged, "maybe those two rascals Jaggedkit and Frostkit will be doing the combat training as well."
"They're four moons younger than me," Skypaw pointed out. "I really doubt it."
The warriors who were still in camp began to appear here and there. Yellownose and Flamefur were again bickering about something or another as they worked on the extension to the warriors' den with Dewclaw and Moleclaw. Snowfoot and Seednose were just coming back in from the forest, dragging long tendrils of bramble after them.
"That should be enough," meowed Moleclaw. "At least, for the morning's work."
"I hope Bramblestar lets us go hunting after this," mewed Seednose as she released the bramble and flicked a tongue around her lips. "I've been working my paws off all morning doing chores."
"Same here," Snowfoot sighed. "I swear I must've picked up so many thorns in my paws you'll have to call me Barbfoot."
"As long as we get this task done first," said Dewclaw sternly. "Give me that tendril."
Gradually Skypaw lost her guilt at having slept in so late, and she and Fernpaw enjoyed their rare free morning together, sharing tongues and commenting on how they thought the apprentices were managing. Just as Skypaw was considering going over to the fresh-kill pile and getting something to eat from last night's remains, the thorn barrier suddenly rustled and Squirrelflight's hunting patrol returned, each bearing at least one piece of prey.
"Ah, good," mewed Fernpaw, eagerly scrambling to her paws and shaking out her fluffy pelt. "I was beginning to wonder when they'd get back."
Skypaw followed her as the sleek apprentice trotted to the fresh-kill pile. The mouthwatering aromas made her teeth itch. Some of the kills were so fresh their blood was still warm. As she was picking out a shrew and Fernpaw a young thrush, the thorn barrier rustled again and the dawn patrol finally came back.
"Cherrypelt!" Shrew still swinging from jaws, Skypaw quickly bounded to where Cherrypelt padded beside Spottedheart. Her mentor glanced around at the sound of her apprentice's voice, and after saying a quick farewell to Spottedheart, turned and walked towards her apprentice.
"Did you rest well?" asked Cherrypelt.
Skypaw nodded, setting down her shrew in order to reply. Guilt was squirming in her belly again. "Yes, I did. Sorry, I shouldn't have. We were meant to be training."
"No. I wanted you to rest and catch up on your strength," said Cherrypelt sternly. "As far as I'm concerned, your health matters more than your progress in training. You look much better than yesterday, anyway. Well rested."
Skypaw decided to agree with Cherrypelt on this. "What are we going to do in the afternoon?"
"Well, I could take you to the training hollow and run through those combat moves I taught you a few days ago," began Cherrypelt thoughtfully, but at that moment Skypaw heard pawsteps sound behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to see Lionblaze approaching.
"I've just had a word with Squirrelflight," said the big golden warrior. "She wants me and a few others to head up to the north borders of ThunderClan territory. We haven't been up there in a long time and there's no telling what could be up there. If you don't mind, I'd like to take Skypaw along."
Skypaw was surprised, and glanced up at Cherrypelt questioningly. Cherrypelt hesitated, also slightly surprised.
"Any particular reason why Skypaw can join you?" she mewed.
Lionblaze shrugged. "Amberheart and Toadstep and his apprentice are coming with us. I just thought it would be good for our youngest apprentice to get to know her territory a bit better."
"I suppose that makes sense," Cherrypelt conceded. "And I am tired after the patrol. We circled from ShadowClan territory to the lake and then all the way back to the abandoned Twoleg nest. I'd welcome the chance to put my paws up for a bit."
Skypaw felt excitement thrum through her. "Up to the north border?"
Lionblaze nodded. "Have a bite to eat and then let's head off. It'll probably take up most of the afternoon. There's a lot of the border to check and re-scent."
The forest truly looked beautiful in leaf-fall. Already the ground was coated with a layer of crisp golden leaves that crunched underpaw, and the air had a crisp tang to it. Skypaw inhaled deeply, drinking in the wonderful forest scents that the cool air gave her. "Everything smells so fresh!" she mewed to Fernpaw.
The apprentice nodded. "I remember leaf-bare, even though I was just a kit when it came around. Everything was covered with snow and frost and it was so cold! But it was also beautiful. I loved playing games with Branchpaw when we were kits, always seeing who was the first to spoil the soft, powdery snow." She purred at the memories, her eyes shining.
"Hey!" snapped Toadstep from just up ahead. "Maybe less sentimental nostalgia and more focus on where we're going!"
The patrol was veering off into the trees. Yelping a quick apology, Fernpaw and Skypaw quickly fell back into place at the rear of the patrol.
"Keep your minds on your task," Toadstep said sternly to the apprentices, before turning back to the front. "It'll do no good to us if you're always so airheaded."
"Oh, don't be such a grump, Toadstep!" Amberheart purred, giving the black-and-white tom a friendly nudge. "They've never been this far up in ThunderClan territory. And it's leaf-fall!" She suddenly broke away from Toadstep and pounced on a particularly large dead maple leaf, and purred as it let out a loud crackle beneath her. "Lighten up and have some fun!"
"Pouncing on leaves like a kit, Amberheart?" remarked Toadstep skeptically, narrowing his eyes at the gray she-cat. "What's gotten into you?"
Amberheart looked shrewd for a moment. Then wordlessly, she scooped up a pawful of dead leaves and flung them into Toadstep. The tom stepped back with surprise while Amberheart purred, waiting for him to fling a pawful of leaves back.
He obliged. With a small growl, he scooped up a pawful of leaves and flung them back at Amberheart, who skillfully rolled away, sending more leaves flying. Lionblaze leapt out at Amberheart from nowhere, a pawful of leaves ready for release, and caught the she-cat squarely in the face.
"Hey, Lionblaze! Eat leaf mould!" Fernpaw charged at Lionblaze and bowled the golden tabby over. As Lionblaze shook Fernpaw off, sending leaves everywhere, Skypaw, with a small mew of laughter, pounded towards Toadstep and then skidded to a halt, sending a spray of dead leaves everywhere.
"Hey, Skypaw! Catch!" Amberheart popped up out of nowhere, flinging two pawfuls of leaves into Skypaw's face. Quickly the she-cat ducked, and with a purr of laughter, charged at Amberheart. With a meow of surprise, Amberheart scrambled backwards, tripped over a hidden tree root, and tumbled down the slope with dead leaves whirling around her.
"Quick! Toadstep's getting away!" Fernpaw suddenly gasped. The black-and-white tom was suddenly haring up the slope, his paws crunching on dead leaves.
"After him!" Skypaw decided, charging after Toadstep. With a purr of approval, Fernpaw joined her in Toadstep's flight, while Lionblaze turned back to go and help Amberheart.
The trees whirled by, the leaves forming a dappled pool of colour, flashing past Skypaw's vision. She focused her senses on Toadstep who was just beyond, beginning to scramble up a tree.
"No, you don't!" yowled Fernpaw. She threw herself up at the tree without slowing down, hooked her claws into the bark, and began furiously pulling herself up after Toadstep.
Skypaw slowed to a halt at the base of the tree. "Get him, Fernpaw!" she cheered.
Toadstep was just a black-and-white speck amongst the trees branches. For a moment he looked down at Fernpaw, amused, before suddenly he raced along a tree branch and leapt straight off it, and into the branches of another tree, a nearby birch.
"Come and get me if you dare!" Toadstep yowled to Fernpaw.
Her eyes narrowed with determination. "We'll see about that," she said in challenge to her mentor. She pulled herself onto the same branch Toadstep had previously been on and raced along it without breaking stride. She leapt off at the last moment and landed on a nearby tree branch on the same birch tree as Toadstep.
"Turning into a squirrel now, Fernpaw?" Toadstep asked innocently. "I thought you could sink no lower..."
Fernpaw crouched playfully in the branches. "Say that again."
In a flash Fernpaw hurled herself across from one branch to the other, paws outstretched for Toadstep, who looked astonished that she could leap so far. Her forepaws slammed squarely into Toadstep's chest, knocking him clean off the branch with Fernpaw, being carried by the force of her jump, falling with him. For a breathtaking moment, Skypaw watched them fall, horrified that they were going to hurt themselves. Then both cats landed in a large pile of fallen leaves at the foot of the birch, muffling their fall, and a moment later both cats rolled out, uninjured and purring with laughter.
"You look like a hedgehog!" Fernpaw teased.
Toadstep glanced self-consciously at his rumpled fur and promptly shook it out. "You look worse," he replied to his apprentice.
Fernpaw rolled her eyes, and gave herself a shake.
Paws pounded on the ground nearby and the three cats looked back down the slope to see Lionblaze and Amberheart quickly racing back up towards them. Amberheart's fur stuck out everywhere and was matted with burrs and twigs.
She narrowed her golden gaze playfully at Skypaw. "I'll get you back for that!" she promised.
"If you can catch me," Skypaw teased.
"Well, if you really are going to run from Amberheart, please head towards the border, as we still have a duty to do," commented Toadstep. "I'd advise you to run now, Skypaw. She's coming for you."
Amberheart was prowling slowly towards Skypaw and preparing to pounce. With a small shriek, Skypaw raced away across the leaves, and with a hiss, Amberheart raced after her.
Paws pounded behind Skypaw as she raced through the leaf-dappled forest, weaving in amongst the trees, leaves flying out behind her. She let out a mrrow of sheer joy and laughter. This had to be the best day of her life, the day when she could just forget about everything and relax, and be herself.
Wait...Without slowing pace, Skypaw brought back the memory of her dream. It had been so vivid, so real, that it could be happening right now.
It was happening right now, Skypaw realized. She didn't feel any surprise when suddenly Lionblaze was racing at her side, laughter glittering in his golden gaze.
"You're quite fast, Skypaw!" he mewed, his long legs allowing him to effortlessly keep up with Skypaw. "You'll even be able to beat Runningleap soon!"
Runningleap had been aptly named; he was as fast as the wind.
Skypaw let out a purr, knowing what she was going to say. "I hope so!"
She and Lionblaze rounded a bend, and the fallen tree loomed in view. Skypaw flicked her ears, knowing that she was going to leap and clear it. She pushed off just before she ran into the bark, and she and Lionblaze soared over the fallen trunk to land lightly on the other side.
Skypaw slowed and looked back over her shoulder to make sure that the others were following. They were, of course, but she sensed that she needed to do this, just like her insight had foretold her to. Fernpaw, her twisted paw apparently giving her no trouble, was next over the fallen tree, and then her mentor Toadstep followed shortly after. Amberheart jumped the tree last, landing breathlessly beside Skypaw.
For a moment, Skypaw wondered if Amberheart was going to exact her revenge there and then. Amberheart opened her mouth to speak, but then her gaze slid past Skypaw, focusing on some point just behind the gray apprentice. Her mouth half-opened.
Skypaw followed Amberheart's gaze, wondering if what she had seen in her dream would be there now.
It was. The very small young tortoiseshell-and-white kit was standing calmly amongst the fallen autumn leaves, the sun catching on the complexity of her pelt in many different shades of orange and brown, ginger and black. But her eyes were the most unusual thing about the kit's appearance. They were a very pale gold, yet they seemed to have a lot of depth.
Immediately, Skypaw knew that this was no ordinary kit. Was this her gift of insight that told her this?
In puzzlement at the calm way the kit stood before them, gazing at each in turn as though she had expected them for hours, the patrol said nothing for a few moments. Then Lionblaze took a few pawsteps forward.
"Greetings, little one," he meowed. "You seem to be a long way from home."
The kit tipped her head to one side.
"Farther than you could believe," she replied.
Her voice didn't contain the usual high-pitched mewling of young kits, even though Skypaw realized this newcomer could hardly be a few days older than Frostkit and Jaggedkit. Her voice was...mellow, she decided. Mature.
The patrol looked surprised at her steady words.
"What is your name, kit?" asked Toadstep.
"My name..." The kit seemed thoughtful, pondering this question. Then she mewed, "Yes, my name. You may call me Aura."
Aura, thought Skypaw. An unusual name.
Amberheart seemed puzzled. "You seem...awfully mature."
Aura let out a soft mrrow. "Of course. I expected you to be surprised with my presence. My father has that way with some cats as well." She turned to the Clan cats and continued calmly. "I have journeyed very far, Clan cats, to stand where I stand now. But I know that I have come to the right place, and my timing is crucial to the future."
The future. Skypaw wondered with a shiver if this kit knew of the Dark Forest's plans.
"Where exactly did you come from, Aura?" asked Fernpaw.
Aura blinked calmly at the older apprentice and said, "From another Clan. For some time in my life I lived in a Clan, where there is woodland and where there is a great canyon of stone. Where there is a Twolegplace nearby, and lost kittypets roaming on the strange hard stony paths."
Clearly, no cat had a clue what she was talking about. Even Lionblaze looked completely bemused.
"And you...journeyed all the way from there to here?" checked Toadstep, sounding slightly skeptical and regarding Aura with dislike. "I find that hard to believe. A kit your age wouldn't even be able to make the journey alone."
He frowned. "You did come alone, didn't you?"
"Of course," said Aura. "I do not travel with many. Once, I did. But too many clouds my senses for travelling. So I came to the lake where I know that you need my help, because I know that there are grim tidings for the future."
Again, no cat knew what to say to this. Eventually Lionblaze simply shook his head in stunned disbelief and meowed, "Where is your mother, kit? Is your family just in the hills nearby? If you are lost we can return you."
Skypaw guessed that Lionblaze thought the kit was just telling a wild story. But she found herself believing this little one, Aura. She spoke with such sincerity, and there was some deep thoughtfulness in her eyes that made Skypaw think there was a much older cat looking out through the body of a two-moon-old kit. Perhaps this unnerving effect was occurring with the other members of the patrol.
"Oh, my family is very far away," said Aura calmly. "Many search for me, but they will not find me. They believe me to have become lost, but I left them because I sensed the darkness in their hearts. I have come to ThunderClan so that I may protect you with the knowledge I must wield."
She looked steadily at Lionblaze. "Before you turn me away I would advise you, Lionblaze, to at least bring me to your hollow and let me speak to all three of you, in person." Her pale gold gaze suddenly swept to Skypaw. "And you, of course, Skypaw. We have many things to discuss."
Surprise flashed through both Lionblaze and Skypaw, and both exchanged startled glances. The patrol looked equally as astonished that Aura, who looked barely old enough to be out of the nursery alone, spoke with such careful maturity and wisdom, knowing the names of the Clans, and about the Three, and about what they believed to be just an ordinary ThunderClan apprentice.
But Skypaw knew right then that Aura knew about her power.
"Well, I..." Lionblaze hesitated, shifting his paws a little uneasily amongst the fallen leaves. "It's too late for you to head home, wherever your home is," he decided. "I'll take you to Bramblestar and see what he'll—"
"Not to Bramblestar," said Aura quietly. "I need to speak with the Three, and with this apprentice." Her tail flicked to Skypaw. "If I do not, then I may be sent on my way before I can depart my knowledge to them."
Fernpaw adjusted her position until she was standing near Skypaw. "Why do you want to speak with Skypaw?" she asked curiously. "Is it because she's Dovewing's daughter?"
Aura let out a soft mrrow. "Oh, so much more than that, young Fernpaw. But it will take too long for us to explain here. A fox is going to pass by here soon enough, and I believe it is best that we return to the hollow before night settles in."
Almost right on cue, after Aura's words, the patrol heard a distant fox bark.
"I...guess that we can take you to the hollow, at least," said Lionblaze, still clearly stunned at Aura's astonishing wisdom. "And you wish to speak with the Three? I'm sure that you will be able to talk to us, and to Skypaw—" he flashed Skypaw a puzzled, questioning glance, before turning back to Aura "—before Bramblestar decides what happens with you."
Aura gracefully dipped her head. "Thank you, Lionblaze. That is all I ask of you, for now."
Slowly the patrol began to head back to the hollow. Toadstep brought up the rear, as did Amberheart, and meowed softly to Aura, "But why to ThunderClan, kit? Why are you here in ThunderClan?"
Aura turned and looked directly into Toadstep's eyes. "Because ThunderClan is the Clan that has been chosen for this," she said calmly. "ThunderClan is the Clan of destiny. That has been proved many times over, with first Bluestar, and then Firestar, and now the Three, Firestar's descendants. A great power has been bestowed in ThunderClan's heart, to rival the coming dangers. Now I am here to protect your Clan with my gift of insight until the chosen apprentice can wake her dormant abilities, and use them to the same extent as do I."
"Apprentice...?" Lionblaze glanced over his shoulder, first at Aura; then his gaze slowly slid to Skypaw, who walked next to him. Nothing but astonishment and question glimmered in his dark amber eyes.
"I was going to tell you," murmured Skypaw apologetically. "But it didn't feel right at the time."
Lionblaze's mouth remained open, as if he were about to speak. Then he simply frowned, darkly.
"You have got a lot to explain to me, Jayfeather, and your mother—and the rest of the Clan—when we return to the hollow, young one," he growled.