Daughter of the Sun

Gatherer

Chapter Six
GATHERER


The night of the Gathering came and undoubtedly, Skypaw was feeling nervous. Who wouldn't, for her first Gathering?

But she wasn't just feeling anxious about meeting the other Clans. It was the fact that a two-moon-kit was accompanying the apprentices and warriors. By now, Skypaw had been training for nearly a half-moon, but she knew enough of the code to know that kits were meant to stay behind in the Clan when it was time for a Gathering at the Island.

Since Bramblestar had proclaimed that Aura was staying in the Clan, the young kit had caused no trouble, and was so unnervingly quiet at the best of times that many of Skypaw's Clanmates had taken to staying away from the kit. In the nursery, Frostkit and Jaggedkit were very eager to learn about their new Clanmate, but Hollythorn watched somewhat apprehensively and Mapleleaf regarded Aura with uncertainty.

Unfazed by all this, Aura had settled quite well into Clan life.

The only cats who would even speak to her were the Three, Skypaw, Fernpaw and Amberheart. Toadstep didn't seem to know what to do with Aura and decided to simply stay away from her altogether.

Now the night of the Gathering was here, and the Clan was tense and excited, waiting to hear who would go or not to this extremely important Gathering. Skypaw crouched outside the apprentices' den, and Aura, who sat sedately beside her, surveyed the cats with mild indifference.

"They are uncertain what is to happen at the Island," she commented. "But I know that there will be unrest and trouble nonetheless, should Bramblestar choose to comment on my coming to the Clan."

"He will," said Skypaw, taking a bite of the mouse she was eating.

Aura nodded. "Yes, he will, as I am coming."

Skypaw glanced in confusion at Aura. "You do realize that you unnerve anyone who you speak to? You're far too wise for your age."

Aura let out a soft mrrow. "I cannot help the way I think and act; my power is a part of me, and I am a part of the power," she mewed. "One day, Skypaw, you will, too."

Skypaw looked up as pebbles clattered on Highledge. Lionblaze emerged and bounded lightly down the rockfall, and the talk in ThunderClan ceased, as all eyes turned to the sun-golden warrior.

"Bramblestar has made his decision," he yowled, "on who will accompany him to this Gathering."

Their eyes lit up and they listened in mounting excitement.

"Jayfeather and Aura, of course."

The medicine cat looked up from the mouth of his den, shrugged, and went back to grooming a knot in his tail. Aura remained completely expressionless, even when several pairs of eyes flashed nervously towards her.

"Toadstep, Rosepetal, Larkpaw and Fernpaw."

The four cats let out self-satisfied purrs.

"Seednose, Lilyflower, Amberheart, Snowfoot and Dewclaw."

The five young warriors exchanged thrilled glances, though Lilyflower, still not overly convinced that Aura should have stayed, flashed the small tortoiseshell kit another glance.

"Mousewhisker, Runningleap, Foxleap and Cinderheart."

Lionblaze's voice warmed as he spoke his mate's name, before he continued.

"Dovewing, Ivypool, Stormpaw, Cherrypelt and Skypaw," he concluded.

Skypaw felt a nervous jolt when she heard her name mentioned, though fortunately nobody really looked towards her. That means that Berrynose, Whitepaw, Dustpaw, Poppyfrost, Hazeltail, Icecloud, Blossomfall, Father, Moleclaw, Lionblaze's kits, Flamefur and Yellownose won't be going. She could see their faces, some indignant, some just plain disappointed, others angry.

Spottedheart frowned, lashing her tail. "Why do you and Cinderheart get to go?" she complained, her dappled fur bristling. "You're not taking one of your kits!" Beside her, Thrushsong looked slightly embarrassed but disappointed nonetheless, and Patchwhisker agreed on what his sister was saying.

"I cannot argue with Bramblestar's decision," frowned Lionblaze sternly, narrowing his eyes at his daughter.

"Yet he chooses to send his son to the Gathering, and not any of the deputy's kits," Patchwhisker growled, his eyes mutinous.

"No fair!" A protesting squeak came from the nursery, and Frostkit and Jaggedkit appeared, looking just as indignant. "Why can't we go to the Gathering?" Jaggedkit complained. "Aura gets to go and she's as old as we are!" He flashed an envious glance to where Aura sat, still quiet and calm, beside Skypaw.

A moment later, Mapleleaf appeared just behind them and, looking ruffled, quickly swept her tail around them, and murmured, "Come away, kits, you're interrupting the deputy."

"But it's not fair!" wailed Frostkit, as she was led back into the nursery.

Skypaw stifled a sigh. Yes, it truthfully wasn't fair that Aura was to go to the Gathering. But the kits were too young to understand. They weren't born with great maturity as Aura had been, and it would be too confusing to try and get the kits to understand at such a young age.

"Berrynose." Lionblaze's voice was crisp as he addressed the oldest warrior in the Clan. "I hope you understand why I ask you to remain behind. We need someone experienced and wise to watch the hollow."

Though Berrynose looked discontented, he dipped his head respectfully to the deputy nonetheless.

More stones clattered down from Highledge as Bramblestar leapt down from the rockfall. Skypaw looked sympathetically at Bramblestar. Poor tom. He's so old now. It won't be long before he goes to StarClan. He's older than Whitewing! But the strength in his eyes was evident, and his gaze clear and bright. "Prepare yourselves," he called. "We leave."

Skypaw stood up, her body a bundle of nerves. "So it begins," she muttered under her breath.

"So it begins," agreed Aura, as she stood up.

Skypaw looked incredulously at Aura. "You're never frightened, are you?"

Aura blinked, that sense of mysterious calm still surrounding her. "I know the worst that could happen at the Gathering I am to attend. And I know the best that could happen. And I know all in between." She let out a small sigh. "It does grow wearisome, bearing such knowledge."

"Is that how Rock feels? Completely burdened?" Skypaw mewed, feeling a small twinge of sympathy for Aura.

Before Aura could reply, Skypaw heard pawsteps thud lightly on the ground nearby, and looked up to see Cherrypelt approach her.

"Are you ready?" Cherrypelt asked her apprentice.

Skypaw nodded.

"Good. Come on, then." Cherrypelt's gaze lingered for a moment on Aura, and her mouth opened, as though she were about to speak. In the end she thought better of it and walked towards the thorn barrier, with Skypaw and Aura padding just behind.

Fernpaw came and joined them halfway. "You two nervous?" she mewed.

"A bit," Skypaw conceded.

"I was nervous at my first Gathering," Fernpaw admitted. "Some of the Clans really frightened me—particularly ShadowClan! But they're okay once you start talking to them. They like to look mysterious and imposing."

"And when you get over RiverClan's fishy scent," Aura added sedately.

Fernpaw nodded. "Yes, that too."

Out of all the cats in the Clan, Fernpaw was the apprentice who was never quite as ruffled by Aura's uncanny wisdom of the Clans. When Skypaw asked her how she did it, Fernpaw simply said, "I treat Aura like a wise elder. She has the mind of one, but a younger body."

A really young body. Skypaw glanced at Aura's very small tortoiseshell frame, at the kit fluff that covered every inch of her, and couldn't imagine treating her like a wise elder.

"Stay close to us," Fernpaw advised Aura kindly. "Not all of ThunderClan is comfortable with your presence. The other Clans may be uncertain of you. They may even break the truce and try to harm you."

"What would be the chances of that happening?" demanded Skypaw.

"The connection to mortals and StarClan is faint," said Aura calmly. "The truce may also begin to be disregarded. Do not worry, Fernpaw; I will not be harmed by tooth or claw tonight."

I hope so, Skypaw thought, as she slipped behind her Clanmates through the gorse tunnel and out into the forest.

By now leaf-fall really had settled in, and leaves spiralled gracefully down from the branches, coming to a gentle rest on the forest floor. Bramblestar and Lionblaze, who led the group of cats, now broke into a swift run, racing through the trees, with the Clan pounding just behind. Jayfeather ran alongside Cinderheart, who with the lightest of brushes, guided the blind medicine cat around snaking brambles and jutting roots. The other apprentices were mewing excitedly about what they imagined the Gathering was going to be like.

Skypaw, at first, was worried that firstly she wouldn't be able to keep up, and then that Aura wasn't going to. But the kit, despite her small size, kept up remarkably well, racing confidently behind her and Fernpaw.

Cherrypelt slowed her pace until she was racing alongside Skypaw. Skypaw looked up into her mentor's warm amber eyes and knew that she was just as excited about the Gathering as she was.

"Remember," Cherrypelt murmured in Skypaw's ear, "the other Clans may use your inexperience at Gatherings to try and find out ThunderClan secrets. I'm not asking you to be hostile to them and close-guarded; that's not a way to make yourself popular. But just be careful what you say."

Skypaw nodded.

"I'll keep an eye on her, if you want," Fernpaw offered nearby.

Cherrypelt glanced at the light tabby she-cat, nodded, then lengthened her stride until she was running alongside Moleclaw again.

Soon, after running nonstop through the forest Bramblestar slowed, and they came crashing out onto the pebbly shore. Skypaw emerged from the line of foliage and felt her eyes widen as she looked at the night-darkened landscape around her. A full moon slowly rose, casting moonbeams across the rippling dark surface of the lake. Distantly Skypaw could make out dark indigo outlines of gently rising slopes, and tiny pinpricks of golden light that were coming from what Aura quickly muttered to be Horseplace.

"Keep moving, remember," muttered Snowfoot from just behind Skypaw, brushing lightly past.

Skypaw realized that the crowd of cats was now walking along the shore. Quickly she turned and padded after them, Fernpaw and Aura nearby.

Amongst the mass of different pelts, Skypaw saw Amberheart walking alongside her friend Seednose. The gray she-cat flashed Skypaw a reassuring glance, before turning away.

Who are the leaders of the Clans again? Skypaw wondered, as she caught up to Dovewing and walked beside her mother. There was Rowanstar of ShadowClan, and...Sedgestar of WindClan, and Reedstar of RiverClan.

"How far away is the Island?" she asked Dovewing.

"A fair walk," replied her mother. "But we keep up this pace and we'll arrive in good time."

"Can you hear who's at the Island already?"

Dovewing pricked her ears and listened for a moment. "RiverClan," she mewed eventually.

Fernpaw's eyes brightened. "Oh, good! I'll be able to meet Duckfeather and Troutstream again."

Dovewing narrowed her eyes at Fernpaw, who purred and assured her, "We're friendly to one another, but not close friends. Don't worry, I promise you that my loyalty is completely with ThunderClan, and should battle come between us and RiverClan..."

Her claws unsheathed.

Dovewing let out a purr. "That's good to hear, Fernpaw. We confront RiverClan very little, compared to WindClan and ShadowClan, as we're on the opposite sides of the lakebed."

The gray she-cat glanced at Aura. "I don't suppose I need to tell you about what to expect at a Gathering?"

Aura shook her head. "And I'm sure I'll enjoy it, Dovewing. I thank you for your concern to me." Her eyes narrowed. "What I will say is to be cautious of speaking too much of me to ShadowClan. Particularly to Rowanstar."

"Why?" Fernpaw asked.

Aura shook her head slightly. "He may choose to believe that my knowledge will be used as an ultimate weapon against or for his Clan." A strange glint suddenly came in her pale gold eyes. "That was the reason why I left my old Clan. I saw the darkness in their hearts. In my father's heart."

"Who was your father?" asked Skypaw quietly.

"I will speak of it later," Aura said. "When I am ready."

Skypaw hesitated and wondered if she should try and delve into Aura's memories. Then she remembered the furious way that she had snapped at Jayfeather at his attempt, and thought better of it. She didn't want to agitate her. She was a kit, after all.

Briskly, with gentle chatter, ThunderClan walked along the outskirts of the lake, and soon the Island came into sight. Excitement throbbed in Skypaw's belly. This was the time when she would meet other cats of the Clans. She would learn of their tactics, and the way that they thought, and the strengths of each of the Clans.

I wonder if the nursery stories are true. That RiverClan always fight in water to win their battles. That ShadowClan hunt at night and use the darkness to their advantage. That WindClan use the tactics of the very ancient tactician called Graywing the Wise. Running down slopes with the sun behind them, using old fox burrows in their territory to confuse their opponents...

Soon the tree bridge came into view. It was pretty rotted now, having been felled countless seasons ago, but it was still strong, and cats could still walk safely across it. Bramblestar demonstrated this by leaping lightly onto the slimy bark and walking amongst the knotted stumps that used to be branches. Lionblaze confidently leapt up behind his leader and wove after him.

One by one, Skypaw watched as ThunderClan warriors strode across the tree bridge. They helped each other along the way. When Dewclaw suddenly lost his footing, Snowfoot lunged forward, grasped his scruff, and heaved him back. As Stormpaw carefully walked across the bridge and stumbled, Ivypool leaned forward and nudged her apprentice back onto the centre of the trunk. Jayfeather crossed it with apparent ease, despite being blind, and in a single moment was waiting on the sandy shore beside Lionblaze. Some cats were just plain showoffs, Seednose for one. She leapt onto the tree bridge and practically glided across it, her paws barely touching the bark, and was on the other side in heartbeats. With a purr, Lilyflower bounded after her with the same grace and ease as her sister.

Then it was Skypaw's turn. She felt nervous, suddenly anxious. What if she slipped and fell into the water?

Perhaps sensing her tension, Dovewing meowed quietly, "Don't worry. Just grip with your claws and move slowly and carefully, and you'll be fine."

"I'll be right behind you," offered Cherrypelt.

"Thanks." Skypaw obediently unsheathed her claws and leapt onto the tree. It wobbled dangerously beneath her and she quickly dug her claws into the rotted bark. As she cautiously moved forward the tree trembled again, and Cherrypelt was just behind, waiting and watchful.

Carefully, making sure she was gripping the bark securely before she dared move, Skypaw moved across the tree bridge. Several times she thought she'd fall into the dark, shiny water below, but each time she caught herself quickly. Cherrypelt didn't need to intervene at all, and suddenly Skypaw was in leaping distance of the bank. She sprang and landed lightly on the shore.

Cherrypelt landed just after her. "Well done," she praised.

Skypaw purred her thanks and turned her attention back to the other end of the tree bridge. Aura and Fernpaw were next to cross. She felt anxiety return to her belly. Would Aura be all right getting across? She was so small; her claws wouldn't be strong enough to hold her weight if she made a wrong step.

Aura leapt. She scrabbled for a moment, found a foothold, and pushed herself up onto the tree bridge. Skypaw could see her usual sense of calm gone, excitement flashing in her eyes, and for a moment, she thought that Aura looked like what she should be; a two-moon-old kit, who was given a rare privilege to go to a Gathering.

Fernpaw gracefully leapt up after her, and as Aura carefully wove between the stumps and decayed branches, the apprentice was just behind her, ready to leap forward and grab Aura should she fall.

Halfway across, Aura stiffened, her paw about to touch the bark. She carefully withdrew it from the area she had been about to touch, and moved it somewhere else. Skypaw wondered if she had foreseen herself slipping off the tree if she had put her paw there.

Suddenly the tree trembled wildly as, slightly impatiently, Foxleap leapt up onto the trunk. The tree bridge shook and Aura gripped on tightly, but she suddenly slipped. Instantly Fernpaw lunged forward and caught Aura by her scruff before she could plummet into the water.

Her muscles straining, Fernpaw pulled Aura back onto the tree trunk, and waited until the kit had dug her claws into the bark and was moving again before following. Skypaw let out a sigh of relief when Aura finally leapt down from the tree bridge and landed on the shore.

"I thought you were trout food for a moment there," Skypaw greeted.

Aura let out a shy purr. "I didn't foresee that one coming," she mewed.

Fernpaw landed beside her with a surprised look on her face. "You didn't?"

"The future sometimes has endless possibilities," replied Aura. "I was wondering what was going to happen to me the first time I cross the tree bridge. I could sense Foxleap's impatience."

The said russet warrior landed lightly on the bank nearby, threw Aura a narrowed-eyed look, and stalked up the area of the bank where Cinderheart and Stormpaw sat.

Soon the last warriors had crossed. Bramblestar gave a small nod and pushed his way through the curling fronds of bracken. ThunderClan fell in behind him. Skypaw felt exhilaration flood through her as she shouldered her way through the stiffening ferns, leaves crunching beneath her paws, until suddenly—

—she emerged into a wide, spacious clearing ringed by trees and dominated by a centre Great Oak. The huge, low branches were perfect for the Clan leaders to sit on, the large, bulging roots serving as seats of honour for the deputies and medicine cats. Skypaw knew that Lionblaze would now seat himself there until the day he retired or, most likely, became Clan leader.

Though there was only one Clan here, Skypaw could see many, many cats. Different shimmering hues of gray, brown and golden, mingling into one smooth colour, as RiverClan warriors left and right rose to their paws and trotted forward to greet ThunderClan with raised tails.

"It's almost bizarre to see rivals purring at us," said Skypaw.

"You get over it," Fernpaw said simply. Her eyes were busy searching the crowd, until at last they fell on someone. Fernpaw raised her voice. "Duckfeather! Over here!"

A cream-coloured she-cat glanced her way. Her eyes brightened and she trotted over to where Fernpaw was standing. A couple of RiverClan cats followed her.

Skypaw suddenly felt Aura tense at her side. "And so it begins," she murmured.

"Fernpaw!" the RiverClan she-cat meowed. She and Fernpaw brushed muzzles briefly, and then the she-cat stepped back. "You're looking well."

"Likewise," purred Fernpaw. She gestured with her tail to Skypaw and Aura. "May I introduce to you the Clan's newest additions?"

The she-cat's eyes turned, and Skypaw was surprised to see such friendliness glimmering in the she-cat's, Duckfeather's, gaze. Behind her, a dark tabby tom stared at Aura in surprise.

"Is that...a kit?" he gasped.

The three RiverClan cats were now staring at Aura. Skypaw glanced at her friend, concerned, to see Aura look down at her paws.

"Is she even meant to be here? Is that allowed?" asked the third RiverClan cat, a dark gray tom.

"Hush, Pikefang," said Duckfeather impatiently. "But is this true, Fernpaw? Is she just a kit?"

"Yes," Fernpaw said reluctantly. "But you'll find out more about Aura when the Gathering begins."

"Aura? So that's her name?" Pikefang narrowed his eyes at Aura. "Why is she here at the Gathering?"

"You just heard Fernpaw; you'll find out more when the Gathering begins," snapped Skypaw, her tail lashing once.

Pikefang glanced at Skypaw as though noticing she was there for the first time. "And who's this? Not another kit?" he meowed.

"No, this is Skypaw; she's our newest apprentice," Fernpaw introduced.

Duckfeather let out a purr. "Then welcome to the Gathering, Skypaw! Who's your mentor?"

"Cherrypelt," said Skypaw proudly. She pointed her mentor out; the ginger she-cat, along with Mousewhisker and Ivypool, was sharing tongues with two sleek-furred RiverClan warriors.

Duckfeather flicked her tail. "That's good. I know Cherrypelt; she was a runner in the Dark Forest battle, long ago, wasn't she? She's a good cat."

"I know. She's the best mentor ever."

"Better than Toadstep, even?" Fernpaw had a pretence look of hurt on her face.

"Well, as good as," decided Skypaw.

Duckfeather chuckled. Her long, furry tail brushed against the dark tabby tom's back, the one who had first pointed Aura out. "This is Hollowflight," she mewed.

Hollowflight inclined his head slightly to Skypaw.

At the mention of his name, Aura's head suddenly snapped up, and Skypaw felt that sense of calm radiate from Aura's tortoiseshell fur again.

"Once you were with the Dark Forest, weren't you?" she asked.

Skypaw saw shock flash across the RiverClan warriors' faces, and inwardly she purred at their confusion. They certainly weren't expecting Aura to be like this, were they?

"Y-yes, I was," stammered Hollowflight, still stunned at the mature, calm way Aura spoke. He gave himself a small shake and stared at Aura. "How did you know?"

"I just did," replied Aura sedately.

Pikefang muttered something that sounded suspiciously like 'impertinence'.

"And you chose to rebel against your Dark Forest mentors, to protect your Clan," Aura went on.

Hollowflight nodded, narrowing his eyes. "They betrayed us. They said that they were making us better warriors. We were fools to believe them."

For a moment, Aura continued to gaze at Hollowflight, as though considering him. Then she meowed, "Beware darkness, Hollowflight. They contain the shadows of your past."

Hollowflight looked confused. "Wh-what?"

At that moment, there was the sudden sound of crackling bracken, and Fernpaw lifted her head quickly. She sniffed the air, and then announced, "WindClan is here."

They were? Skypaw quickly peered around Fernpaw's form to watch the lean-bodied WindClan warriors enter the clearing.

Skypaw immediately knew that she would be able to recognize a WindClan warrior from a RiverClan warrior anyday. The RiverClan warriors were sleek-furred and round-bellied, fat on the fish that they fed on through the seasons to last out the cold, harsh leaf-bare. The WindClan warriors were skinny, long-legged and coloured constantly in shades of browns and grays. Their fur looked as sleek as the RiverClan warriors', but not as shiny.

The leader of WindClan was a light brown tabby she-cat, who trotted towards the Great Oak while her warriors fanned out behind her, all spreading out to greet the other Clans. Three apprentices bounded excitedly towards where the older ThunderClan apprentices were gathered.

"Let's go and meet them," Duckfeather invited, glancing back at Skypaw and Aura. "Are you two coming?"

"Why not?" Skypaw leapt to her paws and swiftly followed Fernpaw and the RiverClan cats. Suddenly, the clearing seemed a lot larger and noisier. There are just so many cats...and these are only some from each Clan!

Aura walked beside her, her calm air returned and her chin held high, though already she was attracting stares from all over the clearing. "They are curious, undoubtedly, but soon their curiosity will be sated," she murmured quietly to Skypaw, as though the kit sensed her concern.

Skypaw brushed reassuringly against Aura's small, dappled flank. "And they're all going to get a big surprise."

Soon Duckfeather paused beside where a group of young WindClan warriors were just settling down. "Mind if we join you?" asked the RiverClan cat politely.

A mottled brown-and-ginger tom swept his tail invitingly to the grass. "Go ahead."

"Thank you." Duckfeather sat down, and Pikefang and Hollowflight seated themselves either side of her. Skypaw, Fernpaw and Aura remained standing.

"So what are your names?" asked a brown-and-white she-cat, who sat beside the mottled tom, and eyeing Skypaw and Aura inquisitively. "I don't believe I've seen either of you at a Gathering before."

"This is Skypaw and Aura; they're recent additions to ThunderClan," mewed Fernpaw. "Skypaw, this is Rabbitfur,—" Her tailtip flicked to the brown-and-white she-cat. "—Longfur,—" She gestured to the mottled brown tom. "—Boundwind,—" A blue-gray tom with a white underbelly nodded to Skypaw. "—and Thistletail." A small gray-and-white tom dipped his head courteously to the young ThunderClan apprentice.

"Aura," mewed Longfur curiously, looking closely at the small tortoiseshell kit. "That's a very interesting name."

"It's not a Clan name," noted Boundwind, sounding surprised.

Thistletail glanced quizzically at Fernpaw. "Who is she, if she's not with the Clans?"

"I am with the Clans," meowed Aura (Skypaw once again sensed the Clan cats' surprise at hearing such a mature voice coming from such a young kit). "But not with the Clans you are familiar with. I left my old home and came here, and I believe that I like this place better."

Pikefang frowned as he looked at Aura. "You didn't tell us you came from a different Clan altogether."

"So you weren't born in ThunderClan?" Rabbitfur's ears flattened.

"No, I was not," said Aura, unruffled, and very calmly. "But I am with ThunderClan now."

Thistletail snorted. "Typical ThunderClan, always picking strays up from the borders."

Fernpaw flashed with anger. "We do not pick up strays! How dare you!"

"Thistletail, remember the truce," said Boundwind firmly, narrowing his eyes at the young warrior. "Apologize to ThunderClan."

Thistletail looked up, extremely embarrassed, and mewed in a small voice, "Sorry."

Fernpaw kept her gaze cool. "Think before you open that big mouth of yours next time," she said.

"Is everything all right?" Skypaw glanced over her shoulder to see Toadstep approach, his eyes shining with concern. He glanced at Fernpaw, and she forced her fur to flatten, and she nodded to her mentor.

"Yes, everything's fine," she mewed.

"Ah, Toadstep," said Hollowflight, flicking his tail at the black-and-white warrior. "Care to join us?"

"Greetings, Hollowflight, Duckfeather, Pikefang." Toadstep inclined his head to each RiverClan warrior in turn, and then mewed, "I can't stay long. Furzefur told me that Heathertail's been made deputy. I wish to congratulate her."

"She's been made deputy?" Duckfeather sounded pleased.

"There's not a more deserving cat," purred Fernpaw, her earlier hostility forgotten.

"We have a new deputy, too," commented Skypaw, remembering. "Lionblaze."

Boundwind nodded. "Of course. I'm sorry to hear that Squirrelflight finally stepped down."

"She was growing old," said Toadstep. "It was her time to join her sister in the elders' den."

"May she have many moons of peace," said Longfur formally. "Tell her I said hi."

Skypaw nodded and watched as Toadstep walked away.

Suddenly Aura looked up, her eyes shining. "Ah, ShadowClan have arrived at last," she declared.

Sure enough, a moment later, a new large group of cats came into the clearing, headed by a magnificent tawny-brown warrior. Though his muzzle was gray, his eyes were burning and bright, and he strode confidently amidst the Clans who yowled and chirruped greetings as he strode past. As Skypaw and her friends had moved to a place near the Great Oak, she watched as the ShadowClan tom padded up to where Bramblestar and the RiverClan and WindClan leaders (Reedstar and Sedgestar, Skypaw remembered) were gathered at the roots of the tree.

"Rowanstar," meowed Sedgestar. "I'm glad you've arrived."

"I hope you haven't been waiting long," Rowanstar replied formally.

"Not at all," said Reedstar. "How have things been in ShadowClan?"

"Come on," murmured Fernpaw, in Skypaw's ear. "Let's see if we can go and find some ShadowClan apprentices to meet before the Gathering starts."

Skypaw nodded. She said farewell to the RiverClan and WindClan cats, who said goodbye in response, and then she, Aura and Fernpaw disappeared into the crowd.

The air was thick with different scents that made Skypaw's head spin. She had never smelt so many scents in one place. But Fernpaw moved with confidence amongst the many different pelts until suddenly, within moments, she heard Fernpaw call out, "Lakepaw! Hey, Lakepaw!"

As Skypaw slipped past a burly-shouldered cream-and-gray tom, she saw Fernpaw trotting towards where three apprentices stood at the edge of the clearing beneath the shade of one of the pine trees. They looked up and their gazes brightened as they recognized Fernpaw's approach.

"Fernpaw!" one of them yowled in greeting. "How fare things in ThunderClan?"

"Wonderfully; we have a new apprentice and new kit to the Clan," Fernpaw replied graciously, stepping aside to reveal Skypaw and Aura. The three ShadowClan apprentices' eyes widened with curiosity.

"A new kit?" stammered a rough-haired gray tom, staring at Aura in surprise.

"But what is she doing here, then?" a silver tabby she-cat narrowed her eyes suspiciously at Aura. "She looks like she's only two moons old."

Before Fernpaw could reply, or Skypaw, Aura suddenly lifted her clear gaze and stepped forward, and the three ShadowClan apprentices' eyes widened with surprise. They can sense her wisdom already, thought Skypaw.

"You are true in your words, Waterpaw," said Aura, nodding to the ShadowClan she-cat. "I am only two moons old. But you will all find that though I am two moons old in body, I am not two moons old in mind."

She turned to the gray-haired tom. "My presence has unnerved you, Grasspaw, as it has unnerved so many others," she mewed calmly to him. "But I promise you that all will be made clear in time, when the leaders rise on the branches of the Great Oak to speak. My name is Aura, and I have come to ThunderClan."

The ShadowClan cats weren't exactly sure what to make of Aura's little speech. They exchanged nervous glances, while Skypaw purred with laughter inside at the shock on their faces. Fernpaw sat down and curled her tail over her paws, looking contented.

"Um...well...my name's Grasspaw," mewed Grasspaw nervously. He flicked his tail to Waterpaw. "And this is—"

"Waterpaw, I know," Aura replied patiently. "And your brother is Lakepaw. I know many things, apprentices. So it would be wise of you to not treat me because of my age of my body, but because of the age of my mind."

Again, the ShadowClan cats were left stumped.

"And this is Skypaw," added Fernpaw, in the uncertain silence. "She's the Clan's newest apprentice."

Skypaw dipped her head. "It's nice to make your acquaintance."

Waterpaw nodded, her eyes narrowing into slits. "Likewise."

"How long have you been in training?" asked Lakepaw.

"Half a moon," replied Skypaw. "Well, almost half a moon now."

At that moment, a yowl rang up around the clearing, drowning out the gentle babble of conversation between the gathered Clans. "We gather here beneath Silverpelt, commanded by the truce of the full moon!" called Bramblestar.

"Come on," muttered Fernpaw, trotting past Skypaw. "Let's go and find good seats!"

Quickly Skypaw rose and followed her friend, mewing a quick goodbye to the ShadowClan apprentices as she and Aura left. Already the Clans were moving towards the Great Oak, where Skypaw could see Bramblestar standing on one of the branches. Beside him crouched Rowanstar. Above, nestled amongst the foliage, stood Sedgestar. Sitting on a branch low to the ground was Reedstar, his black pelt glittering in the light of the stars and moon high above.

Soon Skypaw found a place beside Cherrypelt. Quickly she sat down, and Aura immediately seating herself close to Skypaw, her gaze focused firmly on the Great Oak. Behind her, Skypaw could hear surprised whispers from the ShadowClan cats who sat just behind them. Almost protectively, she flicked her gray tail around and curled it lightly over Aura's flanks.

"No trouble?" breathed Cherrypelt.

"None," replied Skypaw softly.

"Though trouble is soon to begin," Aura murmured, though she sounded unafraid.

"Reedstar," meowed Bramblestar, turning to the sleek black tom. "Would you like to begin?"

Reedstar nodded, standing up on his branch. "We are well in RiverClan," he meowed, his voice ringing clearly around the suddenly-silent clearing. "The fish continue to swim in the rivers and streams and minnows in the shallows of the lake. One of our kits was sick with a cough, but she is recovering well."

A sympathetic titter went up around the other three Clans. A sick kit was always bad news.

"We are well prepared for the leaf-bare that is to come," Reedstar concluded. He sat down and curled his tail over his paws, and nodded for Rowanstar to speak next.

The ShadowClan leader heaved himself to his paws. "We are well in ShadowClan also," he said. "Leaf-fall's chills have affected our pine woods very little. Some of the Twolegs in the nest in the forest have been walking in our forest lately, and they bring a dog." His eyes narrowed in distaste. "Nasty little brute. But they keep the dog tied on a leash, so it bothers us very little. Prey continues to run well, despite the cooling temperature." He sat back down.

Sedgestar spoke next. "We, too, have had trouble with dogs," she meowed solemnly. "The Twolegs muster sheep further uphill. Their black-and-white dog attacked a patrol of warriors who were scouting the border, and in the attack, Gorsetail, our deputy, was badly injured."

Shocked whispers rang around the Clans.

"Though Kestrelflight has assured me Gorsetail will recover," Sedgestar went on, "he will not be fit to continue as deputy of WindClan, and so he has decided to retire to the elders' den when he leaves Kestrelflight's care."

"Gorsetail! Gorsetail!" Longfur and Boundwind led the chant for their former deputy, and soon the other Clans joined in.

When silence settled over the Clans again, Sedgestar went on. "Heathertail is the new deputy of WindClan."

Skypaw looked over a RiverClan warrior's shoulder to see the new deputy of WindClan proudly puff out her chest from where she crouched on a bulging root beside a small black she-cat. The Clans called Heathertail's name. Skypaw noticed, however, that Lionblaze did not join in. He regarded Heathertail with a mysterious dislike. What happened between them?

When the cheering died down, Bramblestar heaved himself stiffly to his paws and began. Aura stiffened beside Skypaw, and the apprentice curled her tail tighter around the tortoiseshell kit's flank. ThunderClan cats threw a few anxious glances towards their young visitor before flicking their attention back to the Great Oak.

"Things go well in ThunderClan," Bramblestar began. "To begin, we too have a new deputy. Squirrelflight has finally stepped down, and Lionblaze has filled the role as second in the Clan."

"Lionblaze! Lionblaze!" Cinderheart proudly led the chanting. Lionblaze lifted his head, the moonlight catching on his tawny golden fur. He looks very majestic, Skypaw thought to herself. Heathertail glanced at Lionblaze and narrowed her eyes, and didn't join in the calling of his name just like Lionblaze hadn't called hers. What did happen between them? Skypaw wondered.

"We also have a new apprentice," said Bramblestar. He turned his warm golden gaze to where Skypaw crouched. "Skypaw."

Skypaw felt the gazes of many cats sear her pelt. She puffed out her chest as Heathertail had done, looking proud to be here, amongst the Clans. And then agitated whispers appeared almost instantly, as cats instantly saw Aura.

"A kit?"

"A kit?"

"What's a kit doing here?"

"I told you I saw a kit before."

"Where is she?"

"There, beside that new ThunderClan apprentice."

Now all gazes were turned to Aura. She remained completely passive, gazing firmly up at her leader.

Rowanstar whirled around on his branch, scowling at Bramblestar. "Care to explain why there is a kit here in a Gathering for warriors?"

He spat the word 'kit' contemptuously.

Bramblestar flattened his ears. "I was about to begin."

He turned his attention back to the Clans. "We have a new addition to ThunderClan, as well as a new apprentice," he said. "You have now seen her. Her name is Aura."

"That's not a Clan name," hissed Reedstar, his fur bristling. "So she must be a rogue kit!"

"Or a kittypet," the black she-cat added, who crouched on the roots of the Great Oak beside Heathertail. She narrowed her sharp green eyes as she stared at Aura.

"Aura is not a kittypet, Pinenose," hissed Lionblaze, his fur bristling. "She is a traveller."

"Please," sniffed Pinenose. "Since when have kits travelled? They stay close to their mothers."

"Silence," Rowanstar ordered sharply to his deputy. "Let ThunderClan's leader explain why there is a kit at the Gathering."

Bramblestar frowned slightly at the ShadowClan leader, before he continued. "What has intrigued me to bring Aura to the Gathering is because of her unusual ability. Aura knows more than StarClan."

Shocked meows rang around the clearing. "That's impossible!" a bristling WindClan warrior yowled at Bramblestar. "She's only a kit!"

"She's not even from the Clans!" added a RiverClan she-cat.

"It's not impossible!" Skypaw glanced around in surprise as she saw Duckfeather suddenly leap to her paws, her creamy fur bristling with indignation. "I met Aura before the Gathering began. She may be young in body, but her mind exceeds the wisdom of any elder in the Clans!"

"And it's true, she knows a lot!" added Grasspaw, rising to his paws and staring defiantly at the deputy. With a sweep of his tail he indicated Waterpaw and Lakepaw. "She knew our names before we could even tell her ourselves."

Jayfeather lifted his blind eyes to look out over the Clans with an unseeing gaze. "I have spoken with Aura," he rasped, rising to his paws. "Bramblestar speaks true, I assure you. Aura has knowledge of the past, and of the future. She has power, as do Lionblaze, Dovewing and I."

"So are you saying that she's part of the Three?" demanded a burly WindClan warrior.

"No, Boulderstep," Lionblaze responded, frowning in his direction. "She has an entirely different destiny which she alone decides. But she has been gifted with great wisdom and knowledge and she has proven this to ThunderClan."

And to me, Skypaw thought with a shiver, as she remembered about her own power, and why Aura was even here.

"I don't know," said Sedgestar doubtfully, looking curiously at Aura. "She seems too young to be wielding such power."

"Then let her speak," growled Boulderstep.

"Yes, let her speak!" added Pinenose quickly.

All eyes turned to Aura again. As though she had been expecting this all alone, Aura calmly rose to her paws.

"You view me with surprise," she meowed, her voice ringing clearly around the clearing. Surprise rippled through the three other Clans at the sound of her voice. "You do not believe that I wield such wisdom, and I can understand. Why would a two-moon-old kit from another Clan know so much?"

She spoke directly to the Great Oak now, letting her gaze flicker over each Clan leader in turn. "But this is the truth, Sedgestar, Rowanstar and Reedstar. I do wield vast knowledge, some as ancient as time itself, some that is yet to come. My name is Aura, and I come to these four Clans."

She turned around to speak to the warriors who clustered around her. "I was once part of a Clan that none are familiar with," she went on. "SkyClan, an ancient Clan that once shared the old forest alongside the four today, prospers thanks to the deeds of ThunderClan's earlier leader, Firestar. I grew up near this Clan, and I learned Clan traditions, customs, rituals and ceremonies.

"But the Clan I lived within intended to use my knowledge as a weapon, a tool for their own ends. So I left, and I journeyed far from that Clan. I travelled far north to the lake, where I knew my knowledge would be critical for the future of the Clans."

For a moment, silence held. Then Heathertail mewed softly, "Are you saying that we are in danger?"

Aura looked steadily at the new WindClan deputy.

"In grave danger," she affirmed quietly.

Skypaw hesitated. Is she going to mention me? I thought we agreed to keep it secret...

"I ask you all to be more vigilant than ever," Aura continued. "Memories will resurface. Pasts will return. We must all gather our strength, and brace ourselves for the coming storm."

She seated herself beside Skypaw, but the stares of the frightened and stunned Clan cats lingered.

Bramblestar gave a small nod.

"She is to stay with ThunderClan," he meowed quietly.

Reedstar, Rowanstar and Sedgestar glanced at Bramblestar, their gazes incredulous.

"If what this...kit...speaks of is true," said Rowanstar slowly, "then all the Clans are in danger. We all deserve her knowledge."

Skypaw saw hunger glittering in his eyes, and in a flash, she remembered Aura's earlier words: He may choose to believe that my knowledge will be used as an ultimate weapon against or for his Clan.

Bramblestar flattened his ears. "Aura is to stay with ThunderClan," he repeated firmly.

"But...what is this great threat?" murmured Sedgestar, her eyes round.

"Is this something to do with the Three again?" Reedstar shot Lionblaze a look. "Is that why you decided to make Lionblaze your deputy now? So that your Clan has the invincible warrior to lead it?"

Jayfeather rose to his paws, his eyes blazing blue fire.

"This has nothing to do with the Three," he hissed.

Beside him, the medicine cats looked uncomfortable.

"Dewtuft," said Rowanstar sharply, turning quickly to his medicine cat. "Have you had any warnings from StarClan about this?"

"Have any of you had any kind of sign?" asked Sedgestar.

Kestrelflight bowed his head. "I have had no dreams or signs, Sedgestar."

"There have been none," reported Dewtuft.

Willowshine shook her head. "Nothing, Reedstar."

Jayfeather gave a disdainful snort. "You all know as well as I do that StarClan can hardly reach us anymore," he growled. "The spiritual presence in the Moonpool is nearly gone; the Dark Forest made sure of that when they began to destroy StarClan. The spirits of the warriors breaking through for the battle ripped the connection apart and it's barely recovered. StarClan cannot help us."

Terrified mews rang around the Clans at this statement. Skypaw flashed a quick glance at the Clan leaders. Sedgestar was speechless. Reedstar's mouth was open in shock. Rowanstar simply flashed Aura a look that Skypaw, this time, could not mistake. There was definite longing in his eyes.

He wants her knowledge for his Clan, Skypaw thought, with a small shiver of fear.

Aura knew this, too.

"So Rowanstar has chosen a darker path to this," she murmured. "I am glad that Bramblestar is as wise as I had hoped. I came to the correct Clan."

"Then who can help us?" called Hollowflight, his voice afraid.

"If StarClan doesn't watch over us, then who will protect us?" cried a very pale gray she-cat who crouched near Snowfoot and Boulderstep, her blue eyes blazing terror.

Jayfeather slowly lifted his head and gazed into her eyes.

"No one," he murmured softly. "No one but ourselves."

He lifted his head to the sky. In unison, so did the other cats. No clouds covered the stars or the moon. Skypaw felt a shiver creep down her spine. Either StarClan agreed completely with what Jayfeather was saying...or they had no power to send clouds to cover the sky anymore.

"The first time, Ancients and StarClan warriors helped us survive, as did the power of the Three," Jayfeather meowed. He lowered his blind eyes. "Now, this time, we are alone. We can expect no help from the dead when the new danger comes. We are all on our own."

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