I watch as the two new kits of Brightflower, Marigoldkit and Mintkit, are being carried to their final resting place by their scruff. They're kits! They shouldn't be dead yet! A couple of kits scamper over to see what is going on, especially the older ones. "It shouldn't be like this," I whisper. Darkkit and Whitekit are barely three moons old. Brokenstar can't make them into apprentices now! Tangleburr startles as Brokenstar calls yet another Clan meeting. I know what the queen is thinking: Will Brokenstar apprentice my kits this time? None of the kits in the nursery are supposed to be apprentices; they have to wait at least another three moons.
I remember when Mosspaw and Volepaw were being carried back to the ShadowClan camp. Something seemed to be repeating itself. Featherstorm was devastated when her two young sons were carried back, bloody and limp, and refused to eat or speak for days. Blizzardwing also was heartbroken, but instead took his grief and anger out on Yellowfang, Wetkit, Brownkit, and Brokenstar. He never was the same once his only sons died, and was found dead on the RiverClan border, along with some other warrior we didn't recognize.
As Brokenstar leaps up the Clanrock, his deputy pads over to sit next to it, and Runningnose steps out of the den another rock has made. I sit next to my friend, Tangleburr, who's kits are being apprenticed. The leader clears his throat and announces, "Today we have the making of three new apprentices!" Tangleburr tries for a smile but it ends up looking like she's being tortured. Giving her a hopeful smile, I place my tail soothingly on her spine, as she watches nervously with Nightpelt, her mate. She leans over and tells me, "They shouldn't be apprenticed yet! I'm so scared for them. What if they die horribly like Volepaw, or Mosspaw?"
"Don't mention those names in front of Featherstorm," growls Nightpelt. His battered pelt is fluffed out in anger. "She still hasn't gotten over the death of her, what is it now, three kits?" I know why he's angry: he's afraid his three kits are going the same route as Badgerpaw, Mosspaw, and Volepaw. The dark brown she-cat is sitting behind us, eyes staring vacantly into the distance. Oh boy, I hope she isn't losing her mind, like Brightflower did. We still haven't managed to safely retrieve Brackenfoot's body from WindClan territory.
"We also have a new warrior to introduce," continues Brokenstar, his bent tail swishing occasionally. "Darkkit, Whitekit, Foxkit, and Dawnpaw, come up!" Three kits bound up excitedly, their tiny legs dangling as they struggle up the Clanrock. Eventually Blackfoot has to help them up, while Dawnpaw merely hoists herself up, looking a bit nervous. "I'll start with Dawnpaw." Turning to the ginger she-cat, he says, "I, Brokenstar, leader of ShadowClan, call upon my warrior ancestors to look down on this apprentice. She has trained hard to understand the ways of your noble code, and I commend her to you as a warrior in her turn. Dawnpaw, do you promise to uphold the warrior code and to protect and defend your Clan, even at the cost of your life?"
Dawnpaw's face brightens as she replies, "I do."
Brokenstar's smile grows as he says, "Then by the powers of StarClan, I give you your warrior name. From this moment on you will be known as Dawncloud. StarClan honors your intelligence and dedication, and we welcome you as a full warrior of ShadowClan." I stare at Nutwhisker, who's sitting right next to me in confusion. Since when did Brokenstar care so much for Dawncloud? As I ponder this, the cats around me start cheering the warrior's new name, and I join in. After all, it's so nice to see new warriors in the Clan, just not so young. It's only been three moons since Dawncloud's apprentice ceremony.
"Now we have three new apprentices!" Brokenstar continues. "These kits have reached the age of apprenticeship, and therefore are ready to become apprentices." Tangleburr's kits are squirming with delight; they are too excited to think about the dangers of fighting so young. "Foxkit, Whitekit, and Darkkit, from this day on until you become warriors, you will be known as Foxpaw, Whitepaw, and Darkpaw. Foxpaw, your mentor will be Finchflight. He is a seasoned warrior, and will prove to be an excellent mentor.
"Whitepaw, your mentor will be Fernshade. She is a formidable warrior, with all the skills necessary to turn you into a true warrior. And Darkpaw, your mentor will be Scorchwind. He is an excellent tom, and will be mentoring you in the ways of the warrior." I can't help but join in. These are my friend's kits. Why shouldn't I be congratulating them for being patient for six moons and the time it takes to get through a ceremony? No, not six moons. They've only waited for three moons. I'm surprised they didn't go to Brokenstar when they were only one moon old and demand he make them warriors. Nevertheless, it's a wondrous thing. Darkpaw, Foxpaw, and Whitepaw all grin excitedly. They're tiny, their stubby legs and tail only beginning to grow out. Whitepaw hasn't even been weaned yet. What is Brokenstar thinking?
I'm sharing tongues with Nutwhisker after telling him I'm expecting kits. I'm so happy that these kits are ours to raise, and ours to enjoy. Nothing can possibly disrupt this happy moment. I don't have an apprentice yet, but there will be later times, when I can have the joy of training my very own apprentice. I have time; I'm not old. Nutwhisker often tells me I'm as old as Ashfur and then I slap my tail across his face because no, I am not! We're still good friends, and obviously mates, and maybe I can stay in this forever . . .
"Foxpaw! Foxpaw! No! What happened?" I perk up as I see Tangleburr rushing to a tom holding a limp ginger she-cat . . . oh no it's Foxpaw! Foxpaw has been hurt! I run over while calling to Nightpelt and we run to see that Tangleburr's daughter has a big gash in her side, along with a cut on her throat. Finchflight gently lays her down, and we see he has a big wound still pouring blood on his head, with several tufts of fur pulled out and a deep gash in his leg. "It was foxes," he growls. "Foxpaw took most of the damage, she's still alive, look at her chest, but she might not make it." Nightpelt nods and takes the ginger she-cat to Runningnose.
Ashheart is next to go into the den, her pelt all soaked with blood and blood dripping from a place close to her neck. Clawface follows, his pelt all matted and with cuts all over. "You're gonna kill yourself if you keep doing this," Nightpelt mutters. His brother simply rolls his eyes and waits in front of the den. An overwhelmed Runningnose sighs in exasperation, then curses when he sees more cats coming in.
"Great StarClan, what happened?" he asks, gathering cobwebs to stop the bleeding on Foxpaw. Clawface looks up and replies, "Foxes, duh. Then when we were carrying back Foxpaw some idiot accidentally crossed the WindClan border!" He pointedly glares at Boulder, who has a fresh nick on his ear and a couple slashes that aren't too deep.
"How was I supposed to know? The scent wasn't very clear, and you know WindClan scent isn't distinctive!"
"No, it's ThunderClan scent that isn't distinctive! Now you might cost us an apprentice."
"Well that isn't my fault, isn't it? I wasn't the one that decided to take on a fully grown fox, much less both of them. Besides, I never told Foxpaw that foxes weren't that strong."
Finchflight thrusts his face towards the gray tom. "I told her cubs and younger foxes weren't that strong! Not fully grown foxes! That stupid she-cat doesn't know the difference between cub and fox!" At that point, Tangleburr leaps onto Finchflight, snarling "Don't you dare call my daughter stupid!" Nightpelt jumps into the fray, trying to pull his mate off the black-and-white tom. While trying to pull the cats off one another, somebody shrieks, and I slip in a pool of blood. At the bottom is Finchflight, with a deep wound from his throat to his shoulder. Runningnose mutters a few swear words before dragging a whimpering Finchflight into his den.
"I have two wounded cats to treat," he grumbles. "Thanks a lot, ShadowClan!"
I can't think straight. Is this the world my kits will grow up in? But they can't. They can't live in a world full of everlasting violence and non-stop fighting. They can't live in a world of crowfood scavenging and constant death and pain. They need peace, love, true hunting, and above all, a wise leader who can mold its Clan into a feared Clan, by strength and faith in the warrior code, not by violence and bloodshed.
"Another beautiful she-kit!" Runningnose whispers in my ear as I strain to get the last kit out. I'm exhausted, in pain, but it's been worth it so far. Two she-kits lie at my belly as the last one tries to come into the world. Runningnose asks Nutwhisker, who's outside, to fetch a stick for me. "I'm fine," I manage to say before another wave of pain rolls over me and I let out a bloodcurdling yowl. Our medicine cat tosses me the stick. "Yeah right. Bite down on that." I do, and it doesn't splinter, but shows signs of cracking, and more pain starts washing over me before a tom is placed right next to me. "It's done," the gray-and-white tom murmurs. "You have three kits."
"Call Nutwhisker in," I tell him as I push the kits towards my belly. They are so perfect, so fragile, and they're Nutwhisker's—and mine. Nutwhisker rushes in as Runningnose tells him he has two daughters and a son. "Oh, Russetfur, they're perfect," he meows, purring as he observes each of them. "Whaddya wanna name them?" His fur brushes against mine, his purrs in sync with mine.
"How about you name one she-cat and you name the other?" He nods.
"And we'll both name the tom." He prods the tabby she-cat, who was the first to come out and was the most painful for me to get out. Her legs are a bit longer as she shoves her way to my belly for milk. "That one's Tallkit. I don't care what her warrior name is, but she's Tallkit for now." Now it's time for me to decide on a name for this mottled she-cat pushing up against her sister. Her brown fur reminds me of the dirt around what Hal used to call the "apple" trees that the Twolegs planted. "That's Applekit."
Nutwhisker gently butts me but doesn't argue. "Applekit it is then."
The kits shove each other away in a chance to be closest to my belly. Tallkit, is of course, succeeding, while Oakkit has trouble. Poor Applekit is stuck in the middle of it, but I just laugh. I will help Oakkit and Applekit, but I remember when I was like that, pushing against Terra and Bronze, safe and cozy in Rye's belly. Then Rye and Hal argued, and in the end, Terra was on the ground, blood still gushing from her neck wound, her eyes still in shock as if they were still attacking her. At that moment Bronze and I demanded who killed her. We dared not look at the blood staining the mottled fur or the pool of red lapping at our paws. At that moment, as Rye was about to speak, a glint flashed by, and Rye . . . she fell. Dead, like my sister.
But now, I have a new family. New friends. New kin. I don't have to live out on the streets, looking out for myself and only myself. I can look after my kits and my mate. I can have friendships, and I can trust other cats. I can be myself, not a suspicious ally cat in ShadowClan. The thought is hilarious, and I nearly burst out laughing the second I first thought it. ShadowClan isn't what it used to be. Cedarstar was a noble leader, wise and fierce. Our strength, our reputation came from following the warrior code and being skilled fighters. Raggedstar was naive, and I don't care what anyone says, he was the worst in my opinion. With Brokenstar as leader, though, pfft, he makes his dear old father look like a gentle tom!
Whatever. Right now I'm not worried about the future my kits will have. Right now I'm in the moment with my precious kits and Nutwhisker and breathing in the scent of Tallkit, Applekit, and Oakkit. Now they've calmed down and actually started suckling milk. My tail curls around them. "They are perfect, Nutwhisker," I whisper to him. "And guess what? They're ours." Our peace is disturbed by a horrifying scream, one that doesn't sound like it came from a cat. My mate leaps to his paws, fearing the worst. Best-case scene, Brokenstar has died, though that's highly unlikely. Worst-scene, Foxpaw has died, which would break my heart and Tangleburr's heart.
I'll let you decide what happened. Whatever happened, though, has the power to rock my Clan to its very core.
I slip out through the dirtplace tunnel so that the others don't see. Quietly, where nobody can see or hear us, we have gathered moss, and sneaked out to find the elders. We have to be stealthy; if Brokenstar finds out what we're doing, he'll have our fur. Next to me, Brownpaw is frowning. "Are you sure we're doing the right thing?" His brother, Littlepaw, shoves him. "Of course, you toadbrain! The elders can't take care of themselves, that's why we're doing it for them."
"Quiet, all of you!" a voice hisses. "Do you want Brokenstar to find out?" Brownpaw and Littlepaw both shake their heads quickly, and a gray tom steps out of the shadows, with a skinny brown tom next to him. "Good. Now where are the elders located?" Whitepaw looks up and sniffs the air. I do the same, and pick up a faint scent to the right of where we are. Flicking my tail in that general direction, Flintfang nods and leads the way right to where the elders are located. Clawface and his apprentice follow, while the others kind of stay to the back, unsure of this. I bound to the front, determined to see my father after he was sent unceremoniously to the elders. "You're too weak," he snarled when Nightpelt refused to leave. "You can't keep up in a fight, and you're out of breath half the day. You're useless. Go, or I'll make you." My mother told me Brokenstar usually wasn't this harsh in sending cats to the elders.
Nightpelt pokes his head from the ferns. "They brought moss!" A brown tabby head and a gray head also pop out. "Good," mutters Ashfur, a gray tom. "My back is sore from the damp moss and I hate scratchy moss. Clawface nuzzles his brother while Flintfang licks his mother. It seems like what Ashfur describes as "the good old days." Sometimes I wonder if it would be worth it to go back to the way it was back then: a Clan backed by the warrior code, feared for their warriors' reputation as highly seasoned fighters. Ashfur told us ThunderClan told their kits to stay away from our borders. Apprentices from any Clan were told not to patrol the borders unless competent in battle. Now . . . now we're just a Clan that seems doubly strong on the outside, but on the inside, we're rotting. I'm six moons old now, and even I can tell.
"It's good to see you again," Nightpelt purrs, jolting me out of my thoughts. "How's training?"
"Horrible," I grumble. "Brokenstar doesn't give us decent food. I'm starving! And I can barely keep up in battle training." Nightpelt flashes his claws, and I know he's thinking about Foxpaw's death. I poked my head into Runningnose's den day after day, hoping that she would get better, and to get a glimpse of her. It was me who screamed when I saw the glaze in her eyes, screaming as she wouldn't wake up, wouldn't move, wouldn't do anything. Scorchwind had to drag me out of the medicine cat den personally and calm me down. How embarrassing. At that moment, Ashfur drops a finch at my paws. "Have this," he meows. "We have enough thanks to Nightpelt and Finchflight."
Nightpelt scratches at the earth, a growl rumbling in his throat. "I'm not old, Ashfur. However, in your case, I'd think twice about saying that." Ashfur playfully hisses. "Who you calling old?"
Oh, Ashfur. I haven't been here in so long. I miss settling down and listening to him talk about the old ShadowClan, the one where Cedarstar led. In the old days, we were highly respected. Now Ashfur tells me we are no better than rogues. He told me so much, and I miss it all. "I grew up with Silverflame," he told me. "She was one of the oldest elders and hunts with StarClan now. But she was my best friend and my mate." "Wow," I told him. "So what was she like." Right now all I can see is how fragile he has become since I last came. His fur is duller than ever, his eyes losing their shine and excitement they used to have when he told me stories. Words don't come to him as easily, and he has a hard time seeing things. Soon, he too, will hunt with StarClan and join with his beloved mate.
"Tell us another story, Ashfur!" yowls Littlepaw, bouncing around on his paws. "Tell us another story!" Ashfur shifts around, moaning for a bit before settling down. "Fine," he murmurs. "One story before I go to sleep.
"I'll tell you the stories my elders told me when I was a kit."
When I was a kit, one moon after my birth, Marshstar died, the day after his deputy Speckleleap died. He was unable to choose a deputy after moonhigh, and there was a great uproar about who was going to be leader. Ryefleck was chosen, though she was unpopular. She had come from Twolegplace as a pampered kittypet, and still seemed to act that way. She never hunted and was being fed instead of fetching the fresh-kill herself. Yet her mind was skilled at strategy. Ryefleck could determine where the best place to attack was. She could tell if we could win a battle and was extremely talented in battle. But she, like many other kittypets we had taken in, refused to believe in StarClan. And she refused to go to Highstones to receive nine lives, instead of training everyone in battle tactics and choosing both Houndnose and Eaglespot, her two kits, as deputies.
Houndnose's father's father, Swampberry, who was getting to be pretty old, told me that when he was a kit, a cat named Flowerstem rose up to be leader of ShadowClan. She chose a wise, but older cat named Stemflight for deputy. Stemflight had his faults of course: he was sometimes rash and impulsive, he didn't quite believe in StarClan, and was notorious among the she-cats for— Hollyflower nips at his tail. "Keep it appropriate, Ashfur!" she hisses. He rolls his eyes and continues the story. Ah, but a younger cat named Ripplepaw always wanted to be deputy. He and his sister Sparrowpaw schemed on how to kill Stemflight and install one of them, or at least Flashthroat as deputy. They both admired and envied Flashthroat, as she was stronger, more skilled, and more cunning than the both of them combined. She knew her stuff.
A moon after Ripplescar and Sparrowfeather became warriors, Flashthroat and Stemflight got into a fight. Flowerstar tried to help, but she was on her eighth life and ended up losing a life. Now she was on her ninth and final life. But Stemflight, oh he oozed out his life, is what Swampberry told me. Swampberry told me his mother covered his eyes to shield him from the gore.
Ashfur continues to tell stories and makes it all the way to Ripplestar becoming the leader and Sparrowfeather becoming the deputy. He tells the story of how Ripplestar attacks the other Clans at the Gathering and is almost done. So, StarClan is angry at him, okay? So they send down this burst of great lightning, and he barely held on. He asked Finchstar to help him when— The elder's eyes bulge as his sentence is cut off, and he slumps to the ground. Littlepaw and Brownpaw jump back in shock, while Whitepaw noses him cautiously. "Is he dead?" he quietly meows. Hollyflower places her ear on his chest. "He's breathing, very quietly, but breathing. Something's wrong with his heart . . . I can't quite place it. He needs Runningnose to come here, and quick."
"I can do it." Everyone turns to look at me as I speak. I'm nervous, but I steady my voice and look directly into their eyes. "I'm fast, I'm very convincing, and I'm very sneaky. My dark fur will help hide me from Brokenstar." They all nod, some of them reluctantly. As I pelt off, I can hear my father muttering under his breath, "I should've gone. She wouldn't have to risk her life then." But I wouldn't be able to cope without you, I retort in my mind and sneak back in through the dirtplace tunnel. Blackfoot and Boulder are snoring away at the entrance to the camp. Great StarClan, can they snore! They probably don't hear the crunching of the leaves under my paws, but Runningnose does. He runs out to greet me.
He sniffs up some gooey liquid before leaning in and whispering, "Darkpaw, what are you doing here? You're not supposed to be back yet!" I think what my response is going to be, before remembering that there's no time to think.
"Ashfur's collapsed, his heartbeat's not normal, come help!" The words tumble out of me before I can stop myself. I shouldn't raise my voice, yet I do. However, the toms' snoring drowns out any other sound, and Runningnose has to ask me again before he nods and walks out the dirtplace tunnel. Wetpaw meets us halfway; his voice is so loud and shrill I bet you three mousetails he scared off all the prey within twelve tail-lengths. "Hurry up! Ashfur could be dying for all we know!" Runningnose rolls his eyes but quickens his pace.
Finchflight raises his head. "Good, you're just in time." He nods at the gray elder, whose chest is barely rising. Runningnose presses his ear to Ashfur's chest. "You're right, Darkpaw," he mutters. "Something's wrong with his chest. I could use chamomile and foxglove seeds, but I'm worried the seeds will do more harm than good." His face turns dark. "If used improperly the seeds can cause heart failure, and he will surely die."
Poolcloud hisses at him. "Don't scare the poor kit!" I'm not a kit! I think. By the ways of Brokenstar, I'm officially an apprentice. And they've told me six moons old is when one becomes an apprentice. So there, Poolcloud! The gray-white-tom hisses at her. "Don't you think I know what will and won't scare them? They've been through way more than some of you have, so shut your mouth."
Featherstorm moves in front of her denmate. "Take that back," she growls. "Take it back, or we'll see how much blood you can leak." Before a fight can break out, Ashfur blinks open an eye. "What's going on?" he murmurs.
"Ashfur!" I embrace him gently, and soon he disappears under a pile of apprentices. Runningnose carefully lifts each of us off. "Don't place his chest under too much pressure. I'll get some chamomile, see if that helps." We bounce around before Nightpelt and Hollyflower send us back to camp before our disappearance becomes suspicious. Clawface and Flintfang lead the way back to the camp as Blackfoot and Boulder are just waking up. Damn, they can sleep . . . and snore. They've probably scared off all the prey from here to Highstones, but I don't dare say so. Usually, punishment for being rude to the deputy or the "senior" warriors is staying with the elders for who knows how long.
Badgerpaw bounds up to us. "How'd it go?" he whispers. "Did Ashfur tell you any stories?" We nod before Brokenstar calls yet another Clan meeting. "Let all cats old enough to fight gather beneath the Clanrock for a Clan meeting!" the brown tabby yowls. Cats pour out of their dens, some reeking of crowfood, others smelling like herbs. Damn, do these cats ever lick their freaking fur? Brokenstar grins as he tells us what some of his warriors are eager to hear: "We're invading WindClan."
I sigh as the Gathering commences. Brokenstar hasn't yet told us the plan; he's only been discussing this for like the past five sunrises. Yep, he's got something in his mind. Out the corner of my eye, I see two RiverClan apprentices that weren't there before: a black-and-white she-cat and a dark gray she-cat. They nervously come up to me, their eyes filled with awe and wonder. "Are you new?" I ask, from where I'm standing with Wetpaw. Both of them nod tentatively as a bunch of other apprentices run into us. "Careful!" hisses the gray she-cat.
"Sorry, Sinkpaw!" jeers what seems to be the oldest: a light gray apprentice slapping her tail across the other's face. "But behind every fat she-cat is a beautiful one, and you're in the way."
"I'm sorry, Rubblepaw, but I don't have time for your nonsense!" retorted the RiverClan she-cat. She got in the light gray she-cat's face. "You must've been born on the Thunderpath, 'cause that's where most accidents happen. Like you." An untidy-looking white-and-gray tom leaps in between the now tussling apprentices, picking them off each other. His face clearly looks like he's been harassed by their fighting multiple times.
He turns to them both with a strict look on his face. "Silverpaw, Runningpaw, please stop your fighting. It's getting to both your parents!" The way his eyes burned meant he wasn't kidding at all. "Apologize. Now." Instead of listening to the tom, they shrug and run off in separate directions.
Wetpaw and I both run up to them, where they're hiding among a group of ThunderClan apprentices. "Did you see that?" whispers Silverpaw with a look of glee. "That look on his face?" A black tom looks up, confused, while a brown tabby nods eagerly. "Amazing, Silverpaw! That was sooo believable!" Before I can express my confusion, Wetpaw asks, "What the hell was that all about? First, you're all shy and then you're fighting and now you're laughing? What kind of a damn thing is this?"
Silverpaw and the brown tabby giggle and try to stifle it before they burst out into laughter. Runningpaw, however, frowns and calms them down before grinning herself. "We 'cause' fights among ourselves so the grown warriors get annoyed. Some of the younger warriors get into it too, ya know? It's really fun, but we've never done it with the ShadowClan warriors 'cause our moms told us ShadowClan wasn't to be messed with, right? So it's mainly ThunderClan and RiverClan and WindClan." She tips her head and asks us our names.
"Wetpaw," my friend replies. "That's Darkpaw beside you." I smile and look around. "Are you new though? I haven't seen you two around."
It's the gray she-cat who answers. "No, we aren't, this is our third Gathering. But I guess we either stayed to our own groups or just haven't gone to the same Gatherings." Her dark gray pelt blends in with the shadows as she points out some of the other apprentices. "That over there is Robinpaw, Runningpaw's sister. Over there is Silverstream I think? And that's . . . Hey, is that Smokestorm?"
"No, silly!" A dark gray tom appears out of the shadows. "I'm Fogshine. That's Smokestorm!" The she-cat sighs. "Those two are impossible to figure out. Oh, and I'm Shadepaw." She waves to the brown tom. "That's Dustpaw. Beside him is—"
"Let the Gathering begin!" yowls Brokenstar. I roll my eyes. Every single Gathering I've been to, he's the one who starts every single freaking time. We're the best Clan, but come on, you're just making the others hate us. He clears his throat and begins with, "StarClan has truly blessed us. We have more cats than ever. Unfortunately, we do not have enough food or land to sustain us. So, Tallstar, would you be so generous as to give up some of your lands to ShadowClan?"
Shadepaw rolls her eyes. "That would be like if RiverClan would be willing to give up Sunningrocks to ThunderClan." She scoots closer. "Whaddya think of him? I think he's a bit too . . . big-headed for his own good." I nervously check around me for signs of his senior warriors. Speaking ill of Brokenstar can lead to exile, torture, or death, if you were lucky. Otherwise, you'd get a combination. Luckily nobody can hear me unless I yell what I'm about to say.
"Brokenstar's kind of a terrible leader."
"Not in the sense that he's a weak leader or an inexperienced one."
Runningpaw shoves me. "Quiet! I wanna hear our leader's response." Tallstar had heard Brokenstar's plea for land, and he steps forward, clearly not happy about giving up his land.
"I'm not giving up any of my Clan's land," he snarls, and a cheer rises from the WindClan cats. "You may say you do not have enough food, Brokenstar, but I can tell as well as you do that your apprentices are thin and gaunt and starving while you are plump and well-fed. Tell me, how tall is your fresh-kill pile?"
Brownpaw leans over and whispers, "It's about twenty Blackfoots tall. Have you seen him? He's huge!" Dustpaw snickers while me, Runningpaw, Robinpaw, and Shadepaw try not to giggle. He continues as Brokenstar rambles on and on about our problems. "That fresh-kill pile is like sacred or something. Apparently, Brokenstar is the leader of StarClan." Unfortunately, a white tom hisses for us to be quiet, and Dustpaw groans.
"Whitestorm is such a bore," he grumbles. "He never lets us have any fun." Whitestorm pads over and cuffs the brown tabby on the ear. "I heard that," growls the warrior. "Don't insult your elders. And of course I let you guys have fun!" Shaking his head, he returns to where he was, and starts chatting with another cat I don't know, a gray she-cat who seems to be his mate or something.
Dustpaw shrugs, then fixes his attention on Crookedstar, who is speaking now. The RiverClan leader glances nervously at Tallstar and Brokenstar, who are now glaring at each other. Clearing his throat, he begins. "RiverClan has prospered. Skyheart has given birth to three healthy kits, Icekit, Duskkit, and Pinekit. Unfortunately, she took ill with greencough afterward and was too weak to fight it off. She will be remembered by her littermates and her mate, Reedtail.
"Onto happier news. Whitepaw has become a warrior, and is now Whiteclaw." Cheers erupt from around the clearing, except from some of the ShadowClan cats. "Also, Mistyfoot has just given birth to four kits: Reedkit, Primrosekit, Perchkit, and Pikekit." With that Crookedstar steps back, and Bluestar takes the center.
"Frostfur has just given birth to Lionheart's kits: Brackenkit, Thornkit, Brightkit, and Cinderkit. And Dustpaw and Graypaw have been made apprentices." Dustpaw is seen with another cat, a tortoiseshell with a big bushy tail. Another cat is standing with a big tom with a floof around his neck. All four toms are understandably happy. A cheer rises from the ThunderClan cats as both Dustpaw and the other apprentice, which I assume to be Graypaw, stand looking proud of themselves. The Gathering concludes with the leaders wishing each other well, and we head back to our respective Clans.
Shadepaw and Silverpaw both wave back at me. "See you at the next Gathering!"
"You too!" As they walk out of earshot, I mutter, "If Brokenstar doesn't kill me first."
I blink my eyes open, and then I see two kits toddling around a figure being carried by two others. "Whassagoinon?" I ask groggily. Badgerpaw, with his back to me still, answers with, "Finflysdeaddidyourhear . . ." and then started snoring. Shrugging, I drag myself into the courtyard to meet with my mentor, Scorchwind, who has a toad for me.
"Don't tell Brokenstar," he says, winking. He tosses me the fat piece of prey, and we walk to where the training area is, a secluded section of forest not too far from where the elders are. "Okay. Now, today you will be learning the half-turn belly rake. Flintfang and Badgerpaw will be training with us as well."
I nod, then wonder if Scorchwind has any other cats around to show me. He explains, however, that today he'll be seeing if I can figure it out on my own. "You're a bright apprentice," he adds, smiling. So I'm alone, I guess. I have to fight Badgerpaw, who's been an apprentice slightly longer than I have—only a moon—and learn the half-turn belly rake. Yeesh. So much pressure. Half-turn belly rake, I think, trying to evaluate this complex turn. Flintfang's with his apprentice now, and Badgerpaw is riled up, excited to fight.
"Come at me!" he chirps, bouncing around. "You wanna fight? You wanna fight?" His mentor gives a purr of amusement and tells him to stop wasting his energy on being a toad. The striped tom sighs and lunges forward. It's a belly rake, I tell myself, but with a half-twist. So I dart underneath him and turn to swipe at his exposed underbelly, but he loses balance and falls on me. "Get off, you lump of fur!" I hiss, and he struggles to his paws.
Scorchwind frowns as he replays what I just did. "Not quite," he finally says. "Try again." This time, I manage to get out before the tom squashes me; however, I've landed on my back and Badgerpaw is able to pummel my belly. I've been through two more tries before Scorchwind decides to teach me the move properly. "All right. Flintfang, why don't you stand over there? Pretend you're about to pounce on me. The gray tom gets down low as if he's going to crush his opponent.
Suddenly, before Flintfang has even twitched a muscle, the ginger tom darts forward on his side, slipping underneath his opponent's belly and giving it a couple pokes with his paws before swiftly darting out the other side. "Wow," Badgerpaw murmurs. "He makes it look so easy." I nod, in awe of my mentor.
"That's how you do it," he purrs, satisfied. "Now go on, try it." This time, Badgerpaw gets to try it out on me. I brace myself, looking as though I'm going to run forward any second now. He darts underneath me, so I drop on him, careful not to suffocate him with my weight. "Hey!" he complains. "Not fair!"
"Well, in battle, am I supposed to let you rake my belly?" I argue.
"That's enough," meows Flintfang, eyeing both of us sternly. We practice the move until we're sore all over from being squashed underneath each other. By the time we're done, I can barely walk back to camp. There, I crash into my nest, sending moss flying all over. My brother growls at me and shakes off the stray bits of moss, before turning around. Littlepaw snuggles close to me. "So," he meows. "Scorchwind make you train till you faint again?"
Badgerpaw yawns. "He tried."
Whitepaw groans that he needs sleep for tomorrow's practice, and we all settle down before slipping into a peaceful sleep.
"Are you ready?" Wetpaw asks me. I nod, trying not to shake too much. Brokenstar has decided it's time for us to go attack WindClan. In my mind, I'm already thinking of the things that will go wrong. Cats are going to die. I'm scared that I'll be one of them. "Hey. It'll be fine," he murmurs. All I'm doing is nodding, hoping that this is a dream. "I'm just scared."
Scorchwind brushes his tail down my back. "I'd say you're crazy if you said you weren't." After seeing my face, he adds, "But you're going to be fine. You're not going to die. Tangleburr would kill either me or Brokenstar if you did." I just nod. Couldn't even eat a mouse. Some warrior I am! My mother tried to get me to eat more, but I refused. Being the nervous wreck I am, I just rocked back and forth while waiting for the order to move out.
Nightpelt runs up to me and nuzzles my cheek. "You'll do fine. Remember all the moves Scorchwind taught you, and try not to kill any cat unless you absolutely have to. Even then, try not to kill apprentices, kits, and queens. Oh, and elders." He noses me one more time. "You'll be fine."
"Move out!" cries Brokenstar. The cats that are going, which is half the camp, plods to the entrance, shoving each other as we try to get through the bramble exit. Somebody forgot to rid the entrance of thorns this morning, and by the time all of us get through we look like half cat, half hedgehog. One by one we duck under the tunnel that leads to WindClan territory and pop onto the open moor.
Running across the moor feels exhilarating. Many of us have never seen this part of the territory, and for many of the younger cats running is all we feel like doing. The older cats have to run to catch up with us, and one by one, we slow down so Brokenstar can address us. "The time has come!" he cries gleefully. "WindClan will be destroyed once and for all." Besides me, I can feel Badgerpaw fidgeting. Our first battle . . . something we've all dreamed of since we were kits.
Slinking through the grass is hard. It's not like the undergrowth back home, where we can slip silently through the grass and the marsh and the brush. This grass is scratchy and crunchy and overall not good for being silent. It's no wonder by the time we get to the entrance that a panicked tortoiseshell cries, "Invaders! Invaders at the border!" Blackfoot lunges forward and pins her down while Boulder runs off, leaving behind a gray tom that is already dead. He must've just gotten his warrior name. He can't be more than twelve moons. Running over, I see an apprentice bounding towards me. "Robinpaw!" I whisper, my voice hoarse.
She stares at me in shock, then it becomes anger. "You! I thought we were friends!" With that, she lunges at me.
"No—I can explain!" I wail as I dodge her claws. She spins around and hisses, "Then do so before I kill you!"
We hide inside the medicine cat's den. I quickly explain what's going on, how the whole Clan is being forced to attack WindClan even though only a few of them really support Brokenstar's idea.
She nods. "Will you fight against them?" I shrug helplessly. "I can't defy Brokenstar."
Robinpaw drags me by the scruff outside, and harshly meows, "Then you are no better than he is." Stung, I turn around and bite her tail. When she finally shakes me off, I growl, "I thought we were friends, Robinpaw." Robinpaw looks hurt but I turn my back on her. What a foxheart. Wetpaw rolls past me, tussling with a young WindClan tom that looks very wiry. "Hang on," I whisper and jump on. The tom gives a shriek of surprise and tries to throw me off. Eventually, he arches back and I let go, afraid of being dropped.
"Darkpaw! What the hell were you thinking?" Brownpaw gasps. "You could've been squashed!"
"I did it for your brother, you mouse-brain!" I snarl back. He shrugs and leaps back into the fray. I do the same, tussling, tugging on tails, trying not to die . . . kind of monotonous if you ask me. If monotony was described as fighting for your life by doing the same things over and over again.
"WindClan, retreat!" A cry sounded from a black-and-white tom. I saw him at the Gatherings. This must be Tallstar, leader of WindClan. A tortoiseshell runs out from the nursery, her belly wobbling. In her mouth is a gray tom. Whitepaw makes a motion to attack but Scorchwind restrains him. "We must not attack the helpless." My brother sulks before noticing more cats running out. Apprentices knock aside in their collective dash for the entrance, while two elders are falling behind, only to be supported by other warriors. The tortoiseshell queen I saw earlier breaks the gorse barrier and runs off, while that young warrior is supported by a tabby tom. Probably the same one that tussled with Wetpaw.
Everyone has left . . . everyone except Tallstar. Panting, he turns to our leader and growls, "This isn't the last of WindClan, Brokenstar." Brokenstar hisses, "Wherever you run, I will find you." With that, the WindClan leader runs into the night.
"No! No!" I scramble over to find Fernshade sobbing over a tiny little body, with Flintfang's tail wrapped around her. Oh no . . . it's Badgerpaw! A lump forms in my throat; a fear of mine has come true. I've lost a friend, and Fernshade has lost her only son . . .
Flintfang is murmuring into the tortoiseshell's ears, words that I can't make out. This wasn't supposed to happen. Badgerpaw was supposed to make it back, safe, and we would celebrate. Now Flintfang might become an outcast. What will happen? I don't wanna think. I just want to run back to Tangleburr . . . to Nightpelt . . . become a kit again, safe and sound.
Our Clan walks back, some still pumped up, some somber. It's a mixed group that greets the cats waiting in camp. Nightpelt and Tangleburr run forward to nuzzle me and Whitepaw, while Newtspeck pulls her three kits towards her. Meanwhile, Oakkit, Applekit, and Tallkit all peer out from their mother's belly to see the commotion. And . . . oh no, Badgerpaw, how small he looks. Never was big, but he looks smaller now. Wolfstep runs out, his face stricken with anger and grief. "I heard!" he wails, scrambling to his son's side. "I heard from Flintfang. Is this him? Is this my son?"
"Our son," murmurs a quiet Fernshade. She's no longer sobbing, but her mate now is. He suddenly turns and snaps, "Why didn't you help him!" Flintfang backs away, while Runningnose flinches. "He shouldn't have died! He should've stayed in the nursery until he was old enough!" He marches away, muttering something about talking to Brokenstar, and Fernshade is begging him not to, and Flintfang and Runningnose are glaring at the tabby's back. Shaking my head, I head over to where Brownpaw and Whitepaw are. My brother motions for me to go away, and all I hear are horrible sobbing noises and I'm just wishing I can curl up into a ball because all I want to do is not listen to the pain all these cats are going through I want Badgerpaw here I want him I want him this isn't right this isn't fair what is going on.
I fell asleep next to Whitepaw after what seemed like forever wallowing in my own grief.
Something pokes me. "Wake up, Darkpaw." Scorchwind is prodding me, and Whitepaw. He leads us outside, away from prying ears, and points us to where the elders are. "They've moved again. I suggest talking to your father for guidance, if necessary." I nod, but Whitepaw shakes his head and walks back inside the den. At first I thought he was going back to sleep; instead he is leading out a still shocked Brownpaw.
At the site, the elders curl around Brownpaw, trying to comfort him while everyone else are either muttering curses under their breath or staring out into the distance, as if remembering something from their past. "Why are you staring like that?" I ask, poking Hollyflower playfully. She gives me a sad smile.
"Because once upon a time, ShadowClan followed the warrior code. Once upon a time, we were feared for our strength in following the code, not strength in murder. Our leaders were proud but noble. There was no 'northern wind' chilling our hearts. We were just a proud Clan. But now . . ." She shakes her head in disgust. "What is there to be proud of?" I agree. Brokenstar is destroying our Clan from the inside out. What will be left of the once mighty ShadowClan when he finally loses his ninth life. I don't want to think about that. There probably will be no ShadowClan left by then. Brokenstar will be the leader of nothing except his loyal followers. The rest of us will have starved to death or run off.
Hollyflower must have sensed my thoughts because she runs her tail along my back. "Don't worry, Darkpaw," she meows. "Brokenstar can't last forever. He will be struck down." But when? I wanted to ask. When will Brokenstar die? When will our Clan recover?
"So, tell me." Finchflight's voice interrupts my thoughts. "What exactly brings you here?" I shift my paws uncomfortably, trying to think of a way to change the subject. I do not want to talk about Badgerpaw's death. Not at all. Luckily, Scorchwind comes to my aid. "How are you?" he asks, shooting a glare towards Finchflight, who only glares back.
Featherstorm, who's finally been sent out, shrugs. "Nightpelt does a lot of the hunting; most of us are so old that we simply can't hunt anymore." I look over the elders, and realize that most of them are pretty old. Ashfur is the oldest, his joints aching perpetually. Hollyflower and Finchflight are not far behind, with probably only Archeye or Mudclaw being older than they are. But they're dead, so the two siblings are second-oldest, and they complain of one thing or another constantly, but they mean well. Even Poolcloud is starting to feel it. The only two that are still somewhat able to function are Featherstorm and Nightpelt. Once they are gone, who will take their place? I don't see any cat growing old enough to retire any time soon.
We leave, and the first thing we see is Dawncloud shrieking at a cowering yet angry Brokenstar. "My kits are dead, Brokenstar! What were you thinking?" Etched on her face is pure fury, and another tom stands beside her . . . Finchflight! Where did he come from? I move closer, hoping to catch a glimpse of their conversation. Scorchwind glares disapprovingly at me but flicks his ears and turns away as the argument continues on.
"They are warriors, Dawncloud, and they should be trained to fight! When ShadowClan is strong and feared again--" Brokenstar begins, but he is cut off by the raging mother.
"I don't care, Brokenstar, I don't care! The only thing we'll be is dead if you don't stop! My kits weren't even apprentices when you sent them out to fight! You'll be the cause of our fall, Brokenstar." With that, she whips around and storms off in anger, Finchflight joining her soon after, before stumbling a bit, and collapsing. Dawncloud screams and turns around, nudging at her mate. Actually, wait, it was more like falling on top of him and just shoving him.
Scorchwind nudges me away from the scene. "It's rude to stare, Darkpaw," he murmurs, but I can tell he, too, was both engrossed and disgusted at what he was seeing.
We hold the vigil for Finchflight that night. Brokenstar doesn't join us, but I can tell where he is by the sound of his voice. Loud. Demanding. Everyone can hear him. Everyone.
"I'm not going to join!" he rages, his fur spiking up. Whitepaw and I are peeking at the two of them, their fur bushed up, snarls on their lips, and words spilling out shrilly. "Why should I care?"
Dawncloud screeches and leaps at him, only for Brokenstar to dodge. She brushes herself off and retorts, "He was my mate, Brokenstar! You, of all cats, should know how I felt! How I feel! How I still feel!" At this, his icy exterior melts, and he backs away, slowly, his face giving way to fear instead of anger. Back, and back, and back, as the golden she-cat corners him, and we watch on in intrigue. What is going on?