I have to muffle Sawyer's squeal of fear as I strain to get a closer look at the beast. His mane buffets in the wind. I want to tell the cats in the clearing, the one he is looking at, to run away, to save themselves, but they do not fear the lion. It seems as if they admire him, revere him.
Like a wave they whisper his name, louder until it is incomprehensible, again and again they call his name, "Raja, Raja," they say. He gives a grumble of approval and they move closer to him, they are vying for his attention. He says a few words in the same strange tongue that the cats gathered around him speak, but then he says something that I understand.
"Sunstripe, come here."
My breath catches in my throat. He called my name and he spoke my tongue perfectly. His eyes rake the edge of the clearing and settle on the bush I am hidden behind.
"Come here, Sunstripe, you are being honored."
Sawyer whispers that I shouldn't, I wouldn't, I can't, I won't. But I do, I step free from our hiding place and reveal myself to the group of cats.
They begin to speak in loud voices filled with what I can imagine is anger. I was told to leave, I remember, I must tread with caution.
"Come here, Sunstripe," the lion tells me, and I do, he is a lion for StarClan's sake and he can easily kill me with a swipe of his claws. His lion claws.
He says a few words to the cats assembled, then leads me away, out of sight, out of earshot, and he tells me, "Sunstripe, the Lion Pride welcomes you."
"Lion Pride?" I ask. But he only stares and stares at me and asks me from where I hail and so I tell him, "I was born in ThunderClan."
He merely chuckles. "Oh, your name does sound Clan. Long ago a pride of lions called themselves a Clan and I believe your lore says that they founded Clans, true?"
I am forced to recall memories of kithood. Sitting in the elders' den with my mate and listening to their tales and their knowledge. "Yes, that is true," I say.
"Yes, well, a pride is nearly the same as a Clan, but not every member lives in the same place. Leaders and other important members of the Lion Pride live in the Lion Camp, but there are other camps where lots of other cats live."
I stare at him. A lion, of all things, is explaining the strange cats with the strange tongue and now the strange traditions.
"Sunstripe, my name is Raja. Be careful, my name is a closely guarded secret. Telling the Lion Pride my name would result in punishment. As long as you keep my name to yourself, you may live and thrive within the Lion Pride."
But, I tell him, I do not know the tongue or the traditions or any cats.
"I hear that you saved Malaya today," Raja tells me, "so you know her. Go from there."
But the tongue, I protest. And personally to myself I think what about Sawyer?
Raja only turns back towards the cats waiting and beckons me to follow. I feel a strange tugging like I am forced to, so I follow. He motions for me to sit, so I do, and in the strange tongue he tells the cats something and they all protest.
But a tom is shoved forward, and I recognize Kartik, the burly tom who told me to leave. In a heavy accent he tells me, "I am Kartik. I lead the Lion Pride. You will stay in the Bramble camp. You need to learn our tongue and our ways, so I am assigning you a mentor." He searches the crowd, locates a cat, and turns back to me. "Balaji also knows your tongue. He will lead you to the Bramble camp."
When he calls Balaji's name, a young-looking tom pushes his way through the assembled cats. He looks small, but I do not begin to deny the power contained within his muscles. He shoots me a dirty look and walks straight out of the Lion Camp.
I catch Sawyer's eye as I race to catch up to Balaji, and all I see contained within their depths is anger.