The thrush had its back turned to where Skypaw crouched. Narrowing her eyes, the gray apprentice took a step forward, taking great care to sift her paw very slowly through the dry leaves, just like how Cherrypelt had shown her.
Nearby, Larkpaw watched with baited breath. He wondered if Skypaw was going to be able to catch something as skittish as a thrush after just a moon and a quarter of training.
Cherrypelt and Icecloud watched from where they crouched, obviously wondering the same thing. Rosepetal wasn't with the small group today; she had wrenched her leg when she took a bad fall from the trees and was undergoing treatment from Jayfeather, though Aura assured Skypaw that the sleek ginger she-cat would make a complete recovery.
The thrush suddenly jerked up its head and listened intently. Skypaw froze, hoping that her soft gray fur would blend with the dappled, broken shadows from the tree branches rapidly thinning of leaves. Had she made a sound? Or was the thrush just being cautious?
A moment later, the thrush resumed its task of searching amongst the fallen leaves for any insects.
Skypaw slowly put her paw down through the leaf litter again, her eyes never wavering from the small, speckled brown bird. It was scrawny; the leaf-fall was beginning to affect the juiciness of prey and food was becoming harder to find. But it would do for the fresh-kill pile.
She had come within pouncing distance of it when suddenly her paw cracked against a twig.
The thrush whipped around and shrilled an alarm call, spreading its wings. Mouse dung! Instantly Skypaw pounced, her paws outstretched, as the thrush spread its wings and desperately tried to take to the air. But Skypaw hooked her claws into the bird's tail and dragged it down. It writhed desperately amongst the leaves until she slammed her paws down on its thrashing wings and quickly snapped its neck. Its eyes glazed and the body stopped moving.
"Sorry," Skypaw apologized, glancing back at Cherrypelt. "That wasn't very clean."
"It doesn't matter; you caught the thrush when I thought you were going to miss it," said Cherrypelt, with a relieved purr. "It's good to see that your mind's back in your training again. Where did you go for a few weeks?"
Skypaw purred as she proudly picked up her thrush. It was her sixteenth kill. She had been counting.
"Well done!" Larkpaw quickly jumped out from the stiffening bushes and ran his tail affectionately along Skypaw's flanks. "You're becoming a great hunter, Skypaw! Soon you'll even be able to beat Hazeltail!"
Skypaw purred. "Thanks, Larkpaw."
The mottled brown-and-black tom was shaping up quickly into a great hunter as well. He and his littermates had been training for over four moons now, and had already taken an assessment, and passed, only two weeks ago. Even though the forest was steadily thinning of juicy prey, he had managed to unearth a plump mouse and a small, well-fed starling to take to the fresh-kill pile.
"Should we head back to camp?" asked Icecloud.
Cherrypelt paused thoughtfully. "They could do some more hunting," she decided. "Any extra prey is welcome for the fresh-kill pile."
Darkness slammed over Skypaw's vision.
What? What happened? Where am I? Skypaw whirled around. Had she been struck on the head by a falling branch?
Then everything cleared. Oh, good, I'm back, Skypaw thought as she found herself back in the forest. But she didn't instantly recognize where she was. She wasn't with the others. Where'd they go?
Suddenly she heard a rough voice growl just behind her, "Follow me. We're close now."
Skypaw whipped around, and her eyes widened in shock. Pelts flickered amongst the trees; pelts she instantly could recognize from the Gathering.
That's Pinenose...and Rowanstar...and Grasspaw! Around the three ShadowClan cats, more warriors prowled. ShadowClan...they've invaded! They're heading towards the camp!
"Remember, you don't kill," Rowanstar growled. "A short, fast battle, to make sure that ThunderClan knows we aren't to be messed with. That should send a clear message into Bramblestar's thick head of his." He turned around. "Starlingwing, Gingerfleck, can I trust you two to bring Aura?"
The two warriors, one ginger, one tawny, nodded shortly.
"And be cautious; ThunderClan has the Three."
"What about Lionblaze?" whispered Pinenose, her eyes shining.
Rowanstar unsheathed his claws. "Leave Lionblaze to me."
Then darkness crashed down over Skypaw's vision, and she blinked open her eyes, realizing that not a single second of time had passed in the time it had taken for her insight to tell her of the future.
"Should we head up to the abandoned Twoleg nest?" asked Icecloud.
"Let's head down to the shore; I want to see the lake," argued Larkpaw.
Hunting? How could they be thinking of hunting? Fear flashed through Skypaw's pelt as her mysterious awareness immediately told her that ShadowClan was already on the move, though they hadn't reached ThunderClan territory yet. They still had a chance.
"ShadowClan's invading!" Skypaw cried.
The three cats whipped around, as though stung.
"What are you talking about?" Larkpaw asked, his eyes wide.
"They're coming, I know they are!" Skypaw said, wondering how on earth she was going to persuade the patrol. None of these cats knew about her power, her destiny. Why couldn't Amberheart or Fernpaw have been with them? "ShadowClan are heading towards the forest, and they're going to try and take Aura!"
Icecloud stared at her. "What are you talking about? How do you know this?"
"It's...I just know!" snapped Skypaw in complete exasperation. "Aura will know, too. We have to get back to the camp and warn the others!"
Cherrypelt exchanged a puzzled glance with Icecloud.
"Should we believe her?" mewed Icecloud.
"We should at least give her a chance," said Cherrypelt decisively. "Her mother is Dovewing, after all. Perhaps she bears a few of her abilities."
You have no idea, Skypaw thought, flexing her claws. She was Skypaw; she was born with a Tigermark of Time. She knew that she had been forewarned, and that she could protect Aura. Perhaps Aura already knew and was telling the Three as she spoke. "Please, I know it sounds a bit crazy, but you have to trust me," she urged.
Perhaps Larkpaw saw the desperation in her eyes. "I think we should trust her," he put in. "Rowanstar was looking at Aura unusually at the Gathering three weeks ago. And ShadowClan are sneaky."
Icecloud nodded, a slight frown creasing her face. "All right. Skypaw, we'll trust you. Where are the ShadowClan cats coming from?"
"They'll skirt wide, head across the stretch of grass and come around by the lake. A smaller patrol will go through the forest and ambush the hollow from above," Skypaw quickly listed off, everything coming naturally to her without a second thought. "Applefur and Ratscar know the territory better than any other ShadowClan cat and they'll be the ones leading the smaller patrol. But they'll be formidable, and outnumber us if they manage to separate the patrols."
She shivered with fear as she remembered earlier that morning Lionblaze had sent out many hunting patrols. Now that she came to think of it, Aura had said quietly to Lionblaze to keep the strongest warriors behind. She had known...
Icecloud, Cherrypelt and Larkpaw were all wearing stunned expressions. They looked as if they were about to ask how she knew. Skypaw knew that she'd have to explain to her mentor later. "Look, I know this," she insisted. "See if you can distract the smaller patrol of ShadowClan warriors. I'll run back to the ThunderClan camp for help."
For a moment Cherrypelt stared at her apprentice. Then she nodded, determination flashing in her eyes. "Okay, Skypaw. Run as fast as the wind. Let nothing slow you."
Skypaw gave a quick nod of thanks to Cherrypelt, then turned and ran into the forest.
How come I didn't realize earlier? she thought, cursing inwardly. Great StarClan, I've been hunting all morning! Why didn't Aura tell us that the ShadowClan cats were going to invade?
Skypaw's paws thudded hard on the ground as she raced through the trees. Vaguely she wondered what was going to happen to their prey. Probably buried and returned for later. Anyway, at the moment, prey was the last thing on her mind.
A bramble snaked around Skypaw's foot, bringing her crashing down onto the ground. Snarling in frustration, she dragged her paw free with the sound of ripping fur, and quickly scrambled to her feet, a dull ache rising in one of her legs. I'll never get back to the hollow in time!
She didn't have to. Skypaw whirled out from the trees and promptly crashed into a sturdy tabby tom. Dizzy, she fell back, to hear a familiar voice meow with surprise, "Skypaw?"
"Lionblaze!" Skypaw shook her head briefly and urgently met the golden warrior's gaze. "ShadowClan are attacking! They're going to invade the camp; they're going to try and take Aura!"
And Rowanstar's going to try and kill you, added a wild, frenzied voice in Skypaw's mind.
Lionblaze looked astonished for a moment, and then growled, "Aura said the same. We set out at once."
We? Skypaw looked over Lionblaze and became aware that there was a vast patrol of cats just behind the mighty golden warrior. Toadstep, Fernpaw, Foxleap, Seednose, Blossomfall, Flamefur, Stormpaw and Ivypool were standing behind Lionblaze.
We might stand a chance...but Rowanstar brought many of his warriors. There may not be enough.
She unsheathed her claws. There'll have to be.
"Can you fight?" Lionblaze asked quietly and urgently. "Where's the rest of your patrol?"
"They've...gone to ambush the smaller ShadowClan patrol..." Skypaw became aware that now her breaths were coming in gasps. "But...they'll be...outnumbered..."
Immediately Lionblaze turned around. "Seednose, Stormpaw, Ivypool! Go and assist Cherrypelt's patrol; find them, now!"
At once the three warriors turned and sped off into the trees.
"Fernpaw," Lionblaze continued. "Run back to the camp and get more warriors. Let Bramblestar know of the situation, and make sure that Aura is hidden."
The dusky gray tabby apprentice nodded, and wordlessly, she turned and slipped into the trees, her paws swiftly carrying her back to the hollow.
"Skypaw, lead us to where the ShadowClan warriors are," Lionblaze mewed, firmly meeting her gaze. "I know that you can do this."
"What are you talking about, Lionblaze?" meowed Foxleap, sounding puzzled. "You're making it sound as if Skypaw already knows where these ShadowClan cats are."
Skypaw looked steadily at Foxleap. "I do," she said simply, before she turned and shot away in the forest with Lionblaze, Foxleap, Toadstep, Blossomfall and Flamefur pounding after her.
As she ran, Skypaw heard Blossomfall meow, "How do we know that these two aren't playing a joke on us? They could be leading us into a stupid prank."
"Trust me, this isn't a prank," said Toadstep from behind Skypaw. "And if I were you, I'd put a bit of faith in Aura and Skypaw."
Skypaw felt a flash of affection for Toadstep and his loyalty to her. She prayed that she would not fail ThunderClan.
I won't. Skypaw grew determined as she ran, her fear fast being left behind as she raced down towards the shore with the patrol racing behind her, their paws drumming steadily on the ground. Not with Time on my side. Not while I bear the Tigermark.
She knew that the ShadowClan cats had reached the border now, and were splitting up. Rowanstar was leading his cats wide along the shore, hoping to surprise the ThunderClan cats.
Well, we'll surprise them, won't we? Skypaw thought, with fierce satisfaction.
She burst through the foliage and landed on the pebbly shore, the stones rolling beneath her paws. Quickly Skypaw straightened up and looked further down the shore. She couldn't see any ShadowClan cats yet. But they'd be here any moment.
"Where are they?" Blossomfall hissed suspiciously behind Skypaw.
"They're coming," said Skypaw. She glanced back at the tortoiseshell she-cat. "They think they're going to be secret when they launch the ambush."
"But we can surprise them," Lionblaze decided. He glanced at Skypaw. "Has Cherrypelt taught you how to attack from the trees?"
Skypaw nodded. "But I only got the hang of it a few days ago."
"Good enough. Blossomfall, Toadstep, go with her," Lionblaze instructed. "Flamefur, Foxleap, come with me. We'll see if we can't lure those ShadowClan warriors into the trees and startle enough while we wait for reinforcements."
Skypaw gave Lionblaze a confirming nod, and then raced quickly behind Blossomfall and Toadstep as the two silently broke away from the group and raced into the trees line that overhung the shore. Feeling unfriendly eyes prickle her fur, Skypaw glanced at Blossomfall, and met her gaze.
She knew that her aunt wanted to know what was up with her, and why she was behaving the way she was, how she knew these things. But instead, Blossomfall just lowered her eyes and leapt towards the nearest tree, sinking her claws in deep and pulling herself up into the branches.
"This tree, Skypaw," Toadstep mewed nearby. Skypaw glanced towards where he crouched at the roots of a mighty sorrel. She raced towards it and jumped, sinking her claws into the bark, and using all her strength to drag herself up into the branches.
Toadstep swiftly climbed up beside her. He nudged Skypaw onto a branch that was well concealed by autumn leaves and overlooked the pebbled shore. Skypaw gripped onto the branch, her tail held out to help her balance, and glanced towards Toadstep. The lean black-and-white warrior had already clambered onto another branch nearby.
Barely a moment after the leaves stopped rattling, Skypaw smelt a foul and recognizable stench fill her scent glands. ShadowClan!
A moment later, her heart pounding in her throat, Skypaw saw a lean, russet warrior with a silver-flecked muzzle emerge like a shadow from the trees, meeting Lionblaze's stare boldly.
Right beneath Skypaw, she watched through the leaves as countless warriors emerged after Rowanstar, all calmly taking up positions along the shoreline, their eyes gleaming and claws glinting in the sun. There are too many, Skypaw thought with dismay. Besides Rowanstar, there were six warriors, and the Clan deputy, Pinenose.
"You think you can take all of us on, Lionblaze?" Rowanstar sneered.
Lionblaze took one bold step forward, his gaze never wavering from the enemy ShadowClan leader. "No, I don't. Any cat who hopes to defeat eight warriors by him or herself is a fool."
Skypaw flashed a glance through the foliage, and saw Blossomfall's tortoiseshell fur mingling almost perfectly in with the leaves. Her eyes were glinting and narrowed with determination.
"It doesn't matter," Foxleap added, taking a calm step to stand beside Lionblaze, even though Skypaw could see the fear flashing in his eyes. "More warriors are coming. You'll find that your little patrol in the woods is being taken care of as we speak."
Rowanstar's eyes widened for a moment, surprised by the news, and then he narrowed his gaze, glaring heatedly at the three warriors who stood before him. "Aura's knowledge is to be shared with all the Clans," he hissed. "And with ShadowClan in particular."
"What makes you so determined to have Aura over in your Clan particularly?" demanded Flamefur, his fur bristling.
"ShadowClan will not share Aura's gift, and particularly not the Clan leader," Lionblaze added, looking with great dislike at Rowanstar. "I thought you would have been a little smarter than that. You want Aura's wisdom for yourself."
"Snake-heart!" hissed Pinenose, her fur standing on end. "How dare you speak for yourself! You murdered Russetfur!"
Lionblaze's gaze glinted with fury. "Her intentions were to kill Firestar. The forest would have been destroyed if she had slain him. You do not speak for yourself either, Pinenose. What would have happened to the lake if Firestar had been killed by Russetfur? Tigerstar would have destroyed the Clans long ago."
"Enough!" snarled Rowanstar. "I will give you one more chance, Lionblaze, before I give the order to attack. Give us Aura, and we will leave ThunderClan unharmed. Surrender her, and we will leave ThunderClan in peace."
Flamefur snorted skeptically. "And we're supposed to take that fox dung into account? ThunderClan are true warriors, and we will not be intimidated into giving up Aura!"
Rowanstar's eyes gleamed. "Then I'll look forward to seeing your blood splatter the stones, warrior. Pinenose?"
"He's all yours, Tigerheart," purred the ShadowClan deputy.
In a flash, a dark brown warrior had broken ranks and leapt at Flamefur. The dark ginger tom was knocked off his paws, and Tigerheart pinned him down with thorn-sharp claws. With a yowl of rage, Lionblaze leapt onto the dark tabby, but instantly drew back as suddenly the ShadowClan warriors all charged forward. Foxleap unsheathed his claws and leapt onto Pinenose.
Flamefur sprang onto his paws and swiped a hefty blow at Tigerheart, but the dark tabby, ex-Dark Forest warrior was swift and nimble on his paws. He easily dislodged Flamefur and threw the ginger tom onto his back, momentarily exposing his underbelly. It was enough. A lighter brown tabby tom suddenly leapt out from nowhere and seized Flamefur by the scruff, while Tigerheart slid out his claws completely and prepared himself to crash down on Flamefur's belly.
"Now!" Toadstep yowled from nearby, and he, Skypaw and Blossomfall pushed themselves from the tree branches, plummeting down towards the writhing mass of ShadowClan. One of the warriors looked up and prepared to yowl a warning to his comrades, but then Skypaw had landed squarely on top of him, knocking him over and forcing him onto the stones.
Without hesitating, Skypaw raked her claws across the tom's face, and he yowled with pain.
"Smoketail!" Skypaw heard a she-cat yowl nearby, and as Skypaw whirled around to confront her new enemy, claws suddenly pricked her tail and dragged her roughly off the ShadowClan warrior. With a hiss, concealing her own terror, Skypaw whipped around and raked her claws across the warrior's cheek. She yowled and let go, but suddenly paws slammed into Skypaw's sides, forcing her down.
"Skypaw, wasn't it?" a strange she-cat hissed in Skypaw's ears. "What's a moon-old apprentice doing in battle?"
Skypaw spat. "Defending my friend!" With all the strength she had, she forced herself up, dislodging the she-cat's paws momentarily. Instantly Skypaw threw herself at the ShadowClan warrior, slashing her claws as hard as she could through the warrior's fur.
Then she heard a tom growl nearby, "I've got your back, Olivenose." Suddenly Skypaw felt herself roughly being dragged up into the air by her scruff. The next, she was being shaken from side to side and thrown roughly across the pebbles. She landed heavily and rolled to absorb the impact. She knew that she couldn't be down for more than a few seconds, even though her senses were fluttering here and there and her body was aching.
Smoketail. Abruptly she knew the name of the warrior who had shaken her. He loomed before her again, but now her training was coming back to her, and swiftly Skypaw leapt out of the way and kicked hard towards Smoketail's belly. He yowled and fell back, and Skypaw whirled nimbly on one paw, striking his muzzle with a numbing blow.
Hissing, Skypaw pushed forward, ready to start attacking savagely, but then another she-cat—Olivenose—suddenly appeared nearby, and Skypaw yowled in pain as claws raked through her fur, tearing the skin. A feeling like fire raced up her shoulder and she fell back into a defensive position.
Olivenose cackled wickedly. "Not much of a warrior, are you, kit?" She lifted her claws.
Instantly Skypaw made a decision. If she tried to move, she risked opening a greater wound down her side, which could be fatal. If she stayed where she was, she would obviously be clawed. So she pushed herself forwards at Olivenose, throwing herself against the she-cat's chest.
With a grunt, Olivenose fell back, her claws clumsily slicing and tearing a tuft of Skypaw's fur instead of flesh. Skypaw hissed, lashing her tail, and she began to strike Olivenose as hard as she could, energy flooding through her body, her claws ripping clumps of fur. She let out a hiss of satisfaction as she felt her claws rip through skin.
Suddenly a head slammed into Skypaw's side, completely winding her. With a yowl Skypaw fell back, only to feel a stunning blow across the forehead. The next moment, she was pinned down beneath a tabby tom with fur the colour of stone. His eyes blazed as he withdrew his paw, coated with Skypaw's blood. She felt it run wet and hot down the side of her face.
"You dare attack my brother, little kit?" hissed the tom. Skypaw noticed his claws for the first time. They were long and sharply curved, facing straight down, and looked menacingly sharp. "You'll find out the hard way what happens with kits who anger the wrong warriors." He drew back his claws.
Then suddenly Skypaw heard a furious screech.
"Hookclaw! Get away from my daughter!"
The next instant, Dovewing had slammed into Hookclaw's body and thrown him off Skypaw, sheer rage radiating from the gray she-cat's pelt. With a howl, Hookclaw scrambled to his paws, preparing to defend himself, but Dovewing was faster. With a wild screech she sank her teeth hard into his ear and jerked back her head, and the tom yowled as his ear was torn open.
Thundering pawsteps nearby told Skypaw that reinforcements had arrived at last. She pushed herself to her paws to discover Fernpaw racing down the slope, closely followed by Snowfoot, Dewclaw, Berrynose and Whitepaw. With a yowl of fury, the apprentices leapt at the warrior Smoketail, and Berrynose was onto Olivenose and raking his claws down her spine. Snowfoot and Dewclaw raced into the fray. Nearby, Dovewing was viciously slashing and biting at Hookclaw.
"Skypaw!" Dovewing yowled, as she dealt a strong blow to Hookclaw's head. "Let's see if we can make this fleabag squeal for mercy!"
Skypaw leapt back at once to aid her mother. Hookclaw was quickly recovering and struck the she-cat a hefty blow in the side. Dovewing gasped and fell back, blood streaming from a gash in her flanks. Hissing with satisfaction, Hookclaw leapt at the ThunderClan warrior.
But in a flash, Skypaw lashed out with her own claws and raked them as hard as she could down Hookclaw's sides. He yowled with surprise and whirled around, claws ready, but Skypaw swiftly dropped into a crouch, as Cherrypelt had shown her many, many sunrises ago, and pushed herself up as Hookclaw was momentarily unbalanced. She lashed her paw and claws through the air as hard as she could, and struck Hookclaw several nasty scratches on his chest. He gasped and fell back.
Only to be tripped up by Dovewing as she knocked his legs out from under him. With a hiss, Dovewing sank her teeth deeply into Hookclaw's leg and held him while he thrashed desperately over the pebbles. Skypaw slashed at his shoulders, face, flailing legs, anywhere that would draw blood, until the tom begged for mercy.
Dovewing let go of his leg with relish, and struggling to his paws, mother and daughter watched as Hookclaw fled the scene, pounding back towards his own territory.
A wild screech behind Skypaw made both she-cats whip around. The battle was being won; the ThunderClan cats were fighting as ferociously as LionClan. Whitepaw and Fernpaw worked together to bring down Smoketail, who suddenly squealed as a wound was opened up near his throat and fled after his brother. Berrynose sent Olivenose reeling with a blow to her head that made her fall back, though the creamy warrior's fur was matted with blood. Foxleap and Flamefur crouched back-to-back and fought aggressively against Tigerheart and a cream-furred she-cat who Skypaw suddenly knew to be Tigerheart's sister, Dawnpelt. Snowfoot, Toadstep and Blossomfall smoothly tackled down the brown tabby tom, Sparrowtail, and Pinenose, the black-furred deputy. Toadstep, snarling, pounded across the pebbles to Berrynose's aid.
Then Skypaw watched as Lionblaze and Rowanstar fought.
Though Rowanstar was many seasons older than Lionblaze, the russet tom was still formidable, and his eyes were burning with battle fury as he slashed his claws savagely through Lionblaze's fur, intent on wounding the golden warrior as much as possible. Lionblaze moved with the speed of a striking snake, and his claws slashed and lashed out into Rowanstar's pelt many times. Their eyes locked and with screeches and hisses, they rose up on their hind paws and battled like dancing hares.
"Lionblaze!" cried Dovewing, starting forward.
Suddenly Rowanstar's forefoot lashed out, and his claws glinted for a moment in the sun. Then they slashed into Lionblaze's throat.
The golden warrior looked surprised as he fell back, gasping, blood welling at his neck. Satisfied, Rowanstar dropped onto all fours and snarled, "You deserve this, Lionblaze. The blood of one deputy, exchanged for another. It is fitting that you go to join StarClan in this way."
Skypaw looked on in horror, expecting Lionblaze to suddenly sink to the stones, his eyes dull and lifeless.
But he didn't.
"Rowanstar!" a voice roared from the trees, and suddenly, to Skypaw's astonishment, Jayfeather nimbly leapt down the bank, herbs already in his jaws, his blue eyes blazing with a mixture of rage and terror as he raced towards his dying brother.
"It's too late, blind fool," snarled Rowanstar.
"Nothing's too late!" Skypaw hadn't even realized she had been running until she wildly screamed those words. Rowanstar whipped around but Skypaw was already leaping at the ShadowClan leader. Driven by rage, she furiously slashed her claws through Rowanstar's torn fur, finding a new kind of strength she didn't realize that she possessed before. As Rowanstar whipped around to deliver a blow, Skypaw swiftly rolled out of the way. Every movement he made seemed to move in slow motion, her fury driving her on. She slashed at his paws and clawed at his eyes until suddenly Rowanstar howled and dropped away, one paw raised to shield his face protectively.
Skypaw arched her spine, hissing. That strange awakened fury continued to pulse through every hair on her body. "You will not touch him again, you mange-pelt!"
Rowanstar looked up, and Skypaw saw the great wound she had made upon his face. One of his eyes was torn and bleeding. The other burned with rage. To her claws driven by grief, he had lost half his vision. He curled back his lips in a snarl, but then his voice faltered. Skypaw, without looking behind her, knew that every single standing warrior of ThunderClan had approached behind her, flanking her, their eyes gleaming with hatred.
"You monster," whispered Fernpaw.
Skypaw looked towards where Lionblaze crouched. He was still breathing, though they were harsh and ragged. Beside him was Jayfeather, already pressing moss and cobwebs to his brother's throat to stop the bleeding, his blue eyes frantic.
Aura. Skypaw knew that the kit had sent the medicine cat running as fast as he could to the lake. She knew that Lionblaze would receive the deadly throat wound. And it was thanks to Aura's wisdom and insight that Lionblaze's life would be saved.
"Leave," spat Dovewing. "Your warriors have already fled."
"Aura belongs with the right Clan," growled Whitepaw, his claws glinting in the sun. "You were willing to murder one of the saviors of the lake to further your own ends. You are no better than any Dark Forest warrior."
"Saviours!" hissed Rowanstar, pushing himself unsteadily to his paws. He threw a dirty look at where Jayfeather and Lionblaze crouched, and then to Dovewing. "You Three are nothing anymore, nothing! What did Lionblaze ever do for ShadowClan? He killed Russetfur, all those moons ago! Or don't you remember?"
"Lionblaze saved your Clan," snarled Dovewing, her voice stiff with fury. "He destroyed Shredtail and saved the remaining lives of Blackstar! Without Lionblaze, ShadowClan would have been destroyed!"
Rowanstar narrowed his eyes. "Such power has no place by the lake," he rasped. "You speak of a danger?" He let out a strange, rasping cackle as he began to stumble towards his own territory, ThunderClan drawing a wide berth around him. "This kit speaks of a danger? Her knowledge will make ShadowClan strong. Never again will we be weak."
"ShadowClan never was weak," growled Toadstep, his tail lashing. "But now you are. A Clan is only as strong as the mind and the sense of its leader. Get out of here, and never think of returning again."
Berrynose's claws slid out. "Or we will kill you."
"Kill me, then!" laughed Rowanstar. "Kill me! I will only come back! I have many lives still flowing in my veins." His one remaining eye sought out Skypaw, and she could see the malice and hatred that was burning in his gaze. "And you, apprentice. I will make sure that you will be punished for what you did to me."
Skypaw unsheathed her claws, her fear gone, the strange fury still thrumming in her heart. "I'll be ready."
"You'd better be." Rowanstar turned away and bounded across the pebbly shore, heading back after his defeated warriors to his own territory.
Toadstep looked after Rowanstar. "Berrynose, Whitepaw, go and make sure that filth gets back to his own territory," he spat. The warrior and apprentice followed, their fur still bristling on their shoulders.
"But Lionblaze..." Blossomfall's voice was thick with worry as she stared at the wounded ThunderClan deputy. "Jayfeather, will he...?" her voice trailed off.
Jayfeather didn't respond for a few moments. Then he looked up and mewed quietly, "He'll live. Only just."
"What about the role of deputy?" Fernpaw asked, her eyes round with worry.
Lionblaze stiffly looked up, his eyes glazed with pain.
"Oh, I'll survive," he said hoarsely. "It'll take a little more than a clawing to the throat to take me away from ThunderClan so soon."
He unsteadily rose to his paws. Jayfeather took one side of his brother, and Toadstep quickly ran to support Lionblaze's other side. "Fernpaw," Lionblaze rasped, "You'll need to help Jayfeather tonight. Many cats are injured."
Fernpaw nodded. She had a torn ear and a scratch to her cheek, but otherwise she seemed pretty much unharmed. As for Skypaw...she winced as she felt the full intensity of her injuries and wounds. The blow to her head, the clawing she had received to her sides...she felt slightly dizzy, and leaned slightly against Dovewing for support. The mysterious anger had finally subsided.
"But...how did you know to come here, Jayfeather?" mewed Snowfoot softly, staring at Lionblaze. "If you had come any later, our deputy would be dead..."
"Aura," Jayfeather answered softly.
And a prickling silence fell.
Skypaw heard something drop just in front of her. She opened her eyes slightly to see the limp body of a mouse lying at her paws.
"Thanks," she murmured wearily, bending her head to take a bite.
Aura sat down beside her. "I hope you are all right," she mewed.
"I've...been better," Skypaw admitted, sounding exhausted to her own ears.
Wearily she looked across the camp. There had been so many injuries that Jayfeather had to move most of his patients outside, with the most serious cases within. The kits had looked on with horror, and Bramblestar had been shocked to discover how seriously his deputy had been wounded. Toadstep, after his own wounds had been swiftly treated by Jayfeather, went and reported to Bramblestar privately in his den.
Thrushsong, Patchwhisker and Spottedheart had been terrified for their father. Restlessly they had paced outside the medicine den; Spottedheart had gone to fight the patrol that had been sent to ambush the hollow, and had returned only with a torn ear and a bitten forepaw, but she wasn't deemed a 'serious case', so she wasn't permitted inside. Nor was Snowfoot. Cinderheart, however, refused to let Jayfeather shut her out and so she went into the medicine den anyway. For an odd reason, Jayfeather let her stay, even though she didn't bear Cinderpelt's memories anymore.
"You received quite a battering, but you survived," Aura commented. "And I wondered how your battle with Rowanstar would go. Torn by grief, thinking that Lionblaze was doomed to die, you fought Rowanstar with all your might, for both my name and Lionblaze's." She dipped her head. "I am honoured."
"Don't be." Skypaw leaned over and fondly licked Aura's forehead. "You saved Lionblaze's life, and you protected ThunderClan. Without your insight, many cats could have been really badly hurt. Lionblaze probably would have died."
Aura lowered her eyes. "I couldn't let him fall. Not now, when the Clan is soon to be in need of a leader. Bramblestar is strong and wise, but he is the oldest cat in ThunderClan. He cannot lead us for much longer."
Was he really the oldest? He was older than Whitewing...a lot older...he had to be, yes. Skypaw lowered her eyes, already distraught at the very thought that Bramblestar could soon be leaving the Clan, for good.
She looked up towards the nursery. Snowfoot and Hollythorn lay just outside, their tails intertwined, and watched their small kits explore the clearing with wide eyes. Frostkit and Jaggedkit proudly led the way, their tails high, while a weary Mapleleaf lay with her brother, Runningleap, and Yellownose and observed them near the fresh-kill pile.
Skypaw frowned. Aura had been correct; the four kits had all been named to Aura's predictions; Graykit, Owlkit, Clawkit and Ravenkit. Aura had also been correct in Owlkit's unusual silence. Like an owl.
The small little she-kit had never mewed or cried, and when her siblings began to open their eyes and play and scrabble together in the nursery, and then let out into the clearing for the first time, Hollythorn had begun to worry when still, Owlkit was silent. Jayfeather had examined the kit over and then told her mother and father that Owlkit was never going to speak.
Skypaw knew that Owlkit wouldn't be at too much of a disadvantage; she was very beautiful, bright-eyed, every sense alert and healthy; she played happily with her brothers and sister, and got up to all the usual mischief of a week-old kit. But her continued silence made the older warriors doubtful about Owlkit's future.
"We can't have a warrior who cannot speak," Birchfall had predicted ominously.
"Why can't we?" Snowfoot had challenged the elder in defense of his daughter. "Owlkit is just as bright, and as sharp, as any of my kits. So what if she cannot speak? She knows how to listen and to smell and to understand commands."
"But how can she be a true warrior if she cannot ever train an apprentice, or speak in Gatherings, or cry a warning to her Clanmates if a patrol is suddenly attacked? If she cannot even lead a patrol?" asked Flamefur, who had come over with a squirrel in his jaws to present to the elders. "She cannot become a warrior. That much is simple."
"Like Jaggedkit cannot become a warrior?" Snowfoot had growled. "Jaggedkit will become a warrior. He is Moleclaw's son. He has the stubbornness of Berrynose and the heart of Lionblaze."
Skypaw returned to the present. She watched as little Jaggedkit tottered after his sister, barely noticing the strange lurching way he moved, as he waved his tail to one den to the next, proudly explaining to the four small kits behind him what they were called and who were allowed to enter them. She found that her gaze was being drawn to Owlkit. The small tawny-and-white she-kit looked excited and thrilled, her ears pricked and her eyes bright, as Jaggedkit paused and gestured with one twisted paw towards the thorn tunnel.
"That's where you go if you want to explore the forest," he declared. "Though kits aren't allowed out of the hollow until you're six moons old and an apprentice." He turned smugly back to the kits and purred, "You'll have to wait a very long time, little ones."
"Why? That's not fair!" wailed Ravenkit, her fur bristling with indignation.
"We want to see the forest!" complained Clawkit.
"The forest's very dangerous," said Frostkit sincerely, looking at the younger kits. "If you go out there, you'll get your pelt clawed off by the mean cats who live around the lake!"
"Like what happened to Father?" squeaked Graykit, his eyes round.
"Yes, like what happened to your father," said Frostkit sympathetically. "But warriors are strong. They always recover. And then they go out to fight for their territories once again!"
"My father's the strongest cat in all ThunderClan!" declared Ravenkit, puffing out her white-splashed black chest with pride. "And I'm going to be just like him!"
"No, you're not! I am!" yelped Graykit.
"No, me!" insisted Clawkit.
Skypaw watched with concern as Owlkit said nothing, though she looked as though she wanted to. Her eyes were bright with indignation.
Jaggedkit laughed. "No, none of you can go out, I'm afraid. We can't, either, though we'll be out of the nursery three moons before you will be!"
Skypaw was distracted for a moment from the kits when she suddenly felt Aura nudge her side. "Wake up," murmured the wise tortoiseshell she-kit. "Bramblestar's approaching you."
Skypaw quickly looked up to see the dark tabby warrior striding towards where Skypaw lay. Quickly she pushed herself to her paws, wincing as she felt her wounds protest, and dipped her head respectfully to Bramblestar.
"No need for formalities," said Bramblestar quietly, waving his tail. He sat down before Skypaw and meowed, "I just want to say that I heard everything about the battle, from Toadstep and Cherrypelt."
Skypaw sat down. "What did they say about me?" she asked apprehensively.
Bramblestar let out a hoarse purr. "Afraid you're in trouble, Skypaw? You're far from it. Cherrypelt informed me that you alerted the patrol that ShadowClan was invading." Then his gaze narrowed. "But ShadowClan took their time long enough for you to run halfway back to the hollow, and then down to the lakeside. In that time, without once seeing the Clan or knowing their plans, you successfully alerted Cherrypelt, Icecloud and Larkpaw of the ambush patrol that was already in the forest, led by Applefur and Ratscar, as you predicted, and they, along with the hunting patrol they bumped into in the forest, managed to drive away those ShadowClan cats."
Skypaw hesitated. She guessed what was coming.
"As well as that, Toadstep informed me that you fought like TigerClan when you saw Lionblaze lying wounded and injured," Bramblestar continued, sounding puzzled now. "You leapt at Rowanstar, despite being injured yourself. You attacked him and blinded him in one eye when he nearly killed Lionblaze, who's meant to be the invincible warrior." He tipped his head to one side and concluded, "I don't need to have Aura's wisdom to know that you're more than ordinary, Skypaw."
Skypaw sighed. He had guessed it. Of course he would have, after first learning about the abilities of the Three. She glanced at Aura, but the small she-kit simply nodded and meowed, "It is all right to tell Bramblestar. He is more than ready to comprehend."
"Tell me what? So you already knew?" Bramblestar frowned slightly.
"Yes." Skypaw nervously tucked her paws beneath her, but she spoke clearly but quietly to Bramblestar. "I...I have been chosen."
"Chosen?" repeated Bramblestar softly.
Skypaw nodded. "The danger that's coming to the lake...I'm the one who's meant to fight them. I've been...I have a power, like the cats of the Three. Like my mother. It's still growing stronger, still developing, but I...I'll soon be able to see into the future. Like Aura. I can walk in memories and sense their thoughts."
Bramblestar looked astonished for a moment. Then his eyes half-closed and he murmured, "Of course...you being Dovewing's daughter and all..."
Then his voice grew firm. "How many others know?"
"Not many. The Three, and three others. Toadstep, Amberheart and Fernpaw."
"The cats who were with you when you first found Aura in the woods..." Bramblestar looked carefully at Skypaw. "To be so powerful means the danger that is coming to the lake is powerful. Are there...are there any more like you, in the lake?"
He glanced at Aura. "Is she here to help fight this danger?"
"No." Aura looked levelly at Bramblestar. "I am the new Guardian of the Clans. My insight does not allow me to fight. I have no strength to raise a claw against my enemies. I am here to teach Skypaw when she is ready to learn. The gift of insight must be grasped when it is ready to be held."
Bramblestar looked a bit nonplussed for a moment. Then he simply shook his head in confusion and rose to his paws.
"I take it that you wish for your power to be kept hidden?" he checked.
Skypaw nodded. "Yes, Bramblestar. Until the Clan is ready to know." Ready to comprehend, as Aura constantly said. "Besides, I think it would be unwise to draw attention to myself, particularly since Rowanstar now has a murderous grudge against me."
Bramblestar looked concerned. "Is it safe for either of you to be here?"
Aura nodded. "As long as ThunderClan is willing to keep us here, within this Clan, beside the lake, then we will be protected. I know that in time, we will become more than accepted." Her gaze shadowed. "And that we have more urgent and pressing matters to worry about than ShadowClan. Danger is coming to the lake, and it is coming fast. We must all be prepared for it, for it is the enemy that cannot be seen, but can be fought."
Skypaw was confused. She had a feeling that she should know what the cryptic message meant.
So why was she so certain Aura wasn't talking about SunClan, or the Dark Forest?
Why was she so certain Aura was not talking about her father?