|Preceded by: |
|Delve||Succeded by: |
Leader: Birchstar--Golden tom with blue-green eyes
Deputy: Fallowheart--Brown tabby tom
Medicine Cat: Bramblewing--Golden-brown she-cat
Darkwing--Black she-cat with gray streaks
Furzecloud--Pale gray she-cat
Reedtail--Golden tom with short, fluffy-tipped, tail
Crowclaw--Dark gray tom
Mossfang--Tortoiseshell she-cat, expecting Birchstar's kits
Mousefoot--Golden she-cat with dusky brown feet
Flowerpaw--White-and-ginger she-cat with long tail
Frostcloud--Pure white she-cat
Wind howls and snow is blown into the eyes of two cats, struggling against the torrent of air and frozen ice pushing them back.
"Mossfang," growls the tom. "Get into that oak tree over there."
The she-cat, a tortoiseshell with pretty blue eyes, bowed her head. "They're coming, Birchstar! I don't think I'll make it!" Her voice is weak, her eyes wild.
The tom, his golden fur flattened against his muscular body, shoulders his mate forward. "Go, Mossfang." Mossfang stumbles forward, and Birchstar urges her onward, murmuring encouraging words that are drowned out by the wail of the wind.
Mossfang reaches the hollow oak and collapses, heaving. She is oblivious to the rough wood splintering her flank, her only thoughts are those about her coming kits.
"I don't know what herbs to give you," Birchstar whispers, giving his mate a reassuring lick, "but you'll be fine without them."
"Just don't give me poppy seeds," Mossfang rasps affectionately, then begins to pant, her flanks moving heavily and her breathing harsh.
Mossfang begins to yawn, but cuts herself short, muttering a few words that mean nothing to Birchstar, for he is reciting a short list of herbs that he can remember.
"Borage for...milk, that's it, and comfrey...no, comfrey isn't used in kitting..."
"How much longer?" gasps Mossfang.
"It will be over soon," Birchstar whispers, and as he says it, two kits slither onto the rough wood bottom of the hollow tree. Birchstar siezes one by the scruff and lifts it toward him, while Mossfang purrs her amusement.
Birchstar hurriedly licks the reddish she-cat's fur the wrong way to warm her up, and then licks her between the ears, nudging her towards her mother. The kit Mossfang begins to groom is golden, with peculiar spots speckled across his pelt.
"He looks like a little leopard," purrs Mossfang. "Let's name him Leopardkit."
"And Russetkit for this one," Birchstar adds, as Russetkit is bowled over by Leopardkit, vying for the best spot for milk.
"They're perfect," mews Mossfang fondly, her eyes beginning to droop with exhaustion.
"They're ours," agrees Birchstar.
"Leopardkit? Are you awake?"
"Yep. Do you want to explore?"
I glanced both ways - and followed my sister out of the AshClan nursery, my claws snagging on some of the reeds. My sister's eyes glowed with excitement, and her dark fur was puffed out, her tail waving.
"Come on," Russetkit hissed animatedly. She gestured with her tail, and we crept towards the river.
"Let's catch fish!" I exclaimed delightedly. Russetkit cuffed my ear affectionately.
"Of course we can't!"
"But the Clan needs more fresh-kill!"
"Let's make our own camp!" Russetkit beckoned me, and we started dragging reeds toward a small open space between two trees next to the river.
Russetkit's claws shredded the long grasses on the marshy land, piling them up into one large nest. The walls of the little camp were built up, larger and larger, until the sun was peeking above the sky, its pink fur straying across the sky.
Russetkit gave a sleepy sigh, and curled up in the nest. "I'm going to catch some fish," I told her, and hopped over to the bank of the river, which was just mouse-lengths away. Russetkit gave no response, so I assumed she was as tired as I was.
A black shadow rippled over the water, and I jumped back, frightened. A small silver fish flicked into the water, and I scooped my paw toward it, feeling its scaly skin flash past my pad. I reached out with my other paw, so I was standing on my hind legs, and smashed the fish between both paws.
The fish went limp, and I slapped it against the rock to make sure I had completed the kill.
Dumb minnow, I thought as the fish slipped out of my grip and back into the river, where its small body was floated down the rapidly moving river.
The sun was past the horizon when I nestled up against my sister, two tiny and battered fish at the foot of our nests. I was exhausted, but I was with my sister, and we were content.
"Momma, can we go to the elders?" Russetkit chirped.
Mossfang beamed fondly at us, her amber eyes unfocused. "Of course, dears," she mewed, her voice weird. Russetkit didn't seem to notice it - so I disregarded it, and followed her to the elders' den.
Frostcloud was sitting inside the den, drawing her paws over her ears. Her bright blue eyes sparkled as she looked up at us, and she mewed happily, "Kits!"
Russetkit and I settled down right in front of her, so that she would see she had to tell us a story. This earned a laugh from Frostcloud.
"You want a story, right?" she asked, and laughed again when we nodded in unison. "All right...how about when big, scary FlameClan drove out CinderClan?"
"We haven't heard that one!"
"Now," Frostcloud says, beginning to speak, "this was a very long time before I was born, before the time of Shadystar's leadership. The territories were our old ones, by the Twolegplace, with big, towering oak and redwood trees that stretched, high into the sky, piercing the clouds so the clouds only floated on the tops of the trees..."
"I thought this was about FlameClan driving out CinderClan?" Russetkit asked, tipping her head to the side. I nodded.
"But we haven't heard this story before," I added hastily.
Frostcloud chuckled. "I'm just setting up the story! Anyhow, the Clans' territories were being destroyed, and that is why we had to move here. But FlameClan went to battle with CinderClan!"
"Was it massive?"
"Did CinderClan die out, and then have to be rebuilt by the other Clans?"
"No, no, of course not, Leopardkit. And, no, Russetkit, the battle was very small - if it can even be considered a battle at all! The FlameClan cats were much, much stronger than the weak CinderClan cats - they were practically starving to death out in their forest. FlameClan just had to chase them away, and they hid near Twolegs, feeding off of little, stray dogs!"
"That's horrible," Russetkit mewed.
"Terrible," I agreed.
"Eventually though, two warriors went to retrieve them, and they found CinderClan and brought them back."
"That's so cool," Russetkit said.
"Yes, now, I'm sure your mother is wanting you back at your dens, it's getting late!"
"But it's only sunhigh!"
Frostcloud purred as Mossfang came in, and dragged us back to the nursery. My fur got all muddy. Blech!
"G'bye, Frostcloud!" I called after the retreating white pelt. "We'll see you tomorrow!"
"I'm sure you will," she purred. "I'm sure you will."
"Whoa, hold up!"
Russetkit crashed into the golden she-cat, whose blue eyes were very amused. "Sorry, Willowsplash!"
Willowsplash smiled, shook her head, and padded towards the river, where her mate, Ripplebelly, was staring into the swirling water. Both flashed out identical golden paws at the same time, and both snatched out silvery fish.
"Good job," mewed Birchstar approvingly, as he paced behind the fishing cats.
"That's going to be me one day!" I told Russetkit.
"No, it's going to be me!" Russetkit argued, and she hopped on me. We rolled close to the river. Ripplebelly's tail flicked out to stop us, but we both tumbled right over it - and into the river.
"My kits!" Mossfang hurtled out of the nursery. Russetkit and I both bobbed in the swirling current, the cool water soaking our fur.
"Thanks for cooling me off!" I told my sister, and she grinned.
"Someone, get them out of there," Mossfang said frantically, searching the banks for a stick. "Willowsplash, Rippleberry, Scorchpelt, do something!"
Willowsplash padded over to our mother and laid her tail on the queen's shoulder. "They have to learn to swim some day," she soothed.
"But not now!" wailed Mossfang. She scrambled toward the river and stretched out a paw. Russetkit and I paddled happily, oblivious to her franticness.
"Kits! Birchstar, your kits are in the river!"
Birchstar gave a loud chuckle. "They've got to learn some time!"
"But not now," repeated the anxious queen.
"Relax," insisted Birchstar. "They're kits, they're AshClan, they're swimmers!"
"I think you should go see Bramblewing," Birchstar said firmly, moving away from us and steering his mate towards the medicine cen, where the golden-brown medicine cat was padding out of her den.
"Oh, congratlations, Birchstar, your kits are swimming!" exclaimed the pretty she-cat, then spotted our worried mother. "Oh. Oh, goodness. Come on, dear, let's get you some poppy seeds."
"Thanks," mouthed Birchstar good-naturedly as Bramblewing cast an amused glance over her shoulder.
Meanwhile, the cool water had smoothed Russetkit and my pelts until we're like fish, swirling through the water. Russetkit looked ready to dive, so I quickly dunked my head under the water to beat her to it.
At first the water flooded into my eyes and made me want to shut them tight, but when I got used to them I found I could see, very clearly. A bit farther downstream, a small whirlpool-type thing pulled the water toward it into a swirling vortex, and I was sure that fish were huddled up in the hole.
I gestured with my paw toward the hole when I looked at Russetkit, who was bobbing beside me. Bubbles escaped from her mouth, and I saw her head disappear as she went up for air.
It was then that I became conscious that my supply of air was rapidly decreasing, and that if I didn't get more soon I might drown. I resurfaced, and heard a loud splash before water doused my ears and Russetkit, giggling, sank beneath the water.
By the time Birchstar forced us out of the water, the sun was sinking below the horizon and Mossfang was snoozing in the nursery, the poppy seeds having knocked her out.
Russetkit and I were yawning as we trudged to the nursery, soaking but content.
"I love being AshClan," Russetkit said as our eyes drooped.
"Me too," I agreed.
Russetkit and I went swimming again, accompanied by Flowerpaw, one of the apprentices.
I think she likes playing with kits, because her green eyes shimmer. She's the only apprentice, and her mentor is my father, Birchstar.
After Russetkit and I clambered out of the stream, Flowerpaw taught us how to fish - stand at an angle, so the sun doesn't cast your shadow over the water. Then, once you see a fish, hook it in your claws and draw it out of the water, slamming it against a rock to make sure it's dead. Then, you can drop it in the fresh-kill pile, or, if you're trying to catch more fish, add it to your own pile.
Most cats, Flowerpaw told us, fish with their mentors, or friends.
Or, in Russetkit and my case, siblings!
"Your mother might be worrying about you," Flowerpaw warned as Russetkit and I splashed around in the shallow wend of the stream.
"She always worries about us," squealed Russetkit, as she got a pawful of water in her face. She scrambled up onto the bank next to Flowerpaw with her eyes tight shut, deflecting any water.
"She loves you," Flowerpaw contradicted.
"She loves us a lot," I agreed, attempting to share a glance with Russetkit, but failing - she still had her eyes shut tight. "Hey, Russetkit!"
She finished my sentence with her eyes open. "Let's go sleep in our den."
Flowerpaw padded after us, curious. "Your den? But the whole camp is like one big den, with individual little places for cats to sleep. How can you have your own den?"
"It's more of our own camp, really," explained Russetkit, throwing a glance over her shoulder. We scampered happily towards the two trees supporting our camp. Flowerpaw sped after us.
"It's gotten bigger!" I crowed.
"Hm," remarked Flowerpaw, padding around it. "Do you want help making it stronger?"
"Sure!" Russetkit and I replied at the same time.
"Well," Flowerpaw began deliberately. "Perhaps, if you make this tree here one of the walls...and then you reinforce it there with some sticks, you could cover it in moss, or reeds, and then make a sort of playwall..."
I jerked up, my paw flailing and hitting Russetkit on the side. She immediately awoke, and peered around with wide, reflective eyes.
"Leopardkit?" she asked blearily.
"Do you hear that?" I whispered.
"Hm?" She still seemed half-asleep. "What...?"
"That voice! Right there!"
"Hmm....no..." Within moments she was snoring again.
"Leopardkit, come on!"
I apprehensively creeped out of the nursery, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. "W-Who's there?" I tried to sound brave, but my voice rose to a squeal.
"My name is Olivesplash," the voice of a she-cat mewed, and a shape stepped out of the darkness and into the moonlight.
Her pelt was as black as night, but on her chest was a large tortoiseshell patch. Her eyes were a bright, pale green.
"I'm here to give you an omen," Olivesplash told me.
"An omen?" I inquired. "Shouldn't that go to Bramblewing?"
Olivesplash laughed. "No, little one. This is for you alone. You are special, Leopardkit. You have the power to choose a different path - to make a different choice. It is all part of your destiny."
"Then can't I change my destiny if I don't like it?" I asked, tipping my head to the side. This she-cat was very confusing.
"It's not that easy," Olivesplash mewed, trailing off. A voice came from Birchstar's den - the sun was rising.
"I have to go," Olivesplash whispered, "but I'll be back soon."
But the black she-cat was fading. "Just remember Leopardkit - you can change anything you put your mind to."
I hopped after a butterfly, Russetkit bounding behind me.
The butterfly's fragile, delicate wings, were black, all the way around, with vibrant red splashes, staining the wings like blood. White streaked the upper half of the butterfly's wings like snow, and its body was as red as its wings. Six black, spindly legs were tucked under its small, narrow body.
Russetkit lunged passed me and snagged the butterfly's wings. "Wait!" I cried after her. "Don't kill it!"
Russetkit stopped, her paw still raised, and cocked her head at me. "Why not?"
"Because it's not prey," I stressed. "StarClan shouldn't will this hopeless little creature to death!"
"It's just a flutter--"
"Butterfly," I corrected. "It's a butterfly."
Russetkit's ears flattened. "We used to do everything together, Leopardkit. It's just a butterfly."
My eyes widened. We weren't having this conversation! I was growing more and more paranoid by the day that she had heard my conversation with Olivesplash, but whether she really had or not still haunted my mind.
"I'm going to go back to the nursery," Russetkit said, turning away from me. "I'm hungry."
"Save it for later, Leopardkit," growled Russetkit. She growled softly again. "See? That was my stomach. I'm hungry." Her 'stomach-growling' had fooled nobody, but the cats in camp were looking reproachfully at us.
I dragged my head away from her retreating figure, and sat on the damp, marshy land by the river, watching the water churn hungrily past. Flowerpaw came and sat next to me, her green eyes searching mine.
"Leopardkit? What's the matter?"
"I'm not feeling so great, Flowerpaw," I mumbled.
"I feel a swim always helps with discouragement," the apprentice suggested. "Want to swim in the big pond with me?"
"Isn't that out of camp?" I asked glumly. Flowerpaw grinned.
"Of course not! Well, sort of, but--I mean, your father's Birchstar, he's not going to keep you in camp for a moon--"
"I'll go!" I replied. "Just let me get Russet--" I trailed off, seeing Russetkit's ginger tail flick through the nursery and settle beside our mother, her eyes closed tightly.
"Is it her?" Flowerpaw asked quietly.
"Yes," I responded. "We've never fought before."
"You've only been with her two moons," said Flowerpaw jokingly.
I followed Flowerpaw secretly out of camp, and, just a few mouse-lengths from the entrance, was a huge pond, with reeds, and rocks, and pebbles, and fish, fed by a gurgling brook. The little pond was surrounded by trees and leafy grasses and herbs.
"Won't someone follow us?" I asked hesitantly. Flowerpaw's smile faltered for a moment, but then she brightened, as though remembering something.
"Nope! No one goes here before sunhigh."
Flowerpaw took a running leap and dropped into the water. I jumped after her.
"Oh, and, Leopardkit? The water's a bit cold."
"Where have you been?"
"F-Flowerpaw t-took me to the pond," I stammered, my teeth chattering.
"That apprentice is the most irresponsible, unsensible, and selfish little she-cat I've ever had the misfortune to meet!" snarled Mossfang. "She's an idiot! A...a...a frog-brain, a fox-heart!"
"Calm down, Mossfang," soothed Mouseheart, the other nursery queen. "Flowerpaw's a good cat."
Mossfang faltered, and retreated into the nursery. "I--I--"
"Leopardkit, be a dear and go get Bramblewing, could you?" Mousefoot asked kindly. I nodded quickly, and stumbled out of the nursery to go get Bramblewing.
"Is it our little miscreant?" teased the medicine cat, her eyes glimmering with amusement. I hung my head.
"Well, little flipper-paws, what would you like?"
"It's happening again...Mossfang's....episodes," I murmured. Bramblewing nodded, picked up a few herbs, and brushed past me, mumbling around her herbs and over her shoulder,
"Stay outside of the nursery, would you, please?"
"Of course!" I called after her. I sat between the tall grasses in front of the medicine den, and watched the warriors bustling around camp.
Suddenly, I was bowled over and felt my head crash against a hard rock. My ear was flat against the ground as I rolled, and I felt a sharp pain on the side of my face, as well as clawed paws pummeling my flank.
"You...you...you fox-heart!" yowled a voice, a familiar, normally rebellious one. "How could you leave me at home?"
"You didn't think I'd want to?" shouted my sister, still raking my side with her claws out.
"No," I choked. "I mean...yes...I mean, no, I--Russetkit, let's talk!"
"Talk!" Russetkit scoffed hysterically. "Talk!" She began to laugh, derisively, and I was forcibly reminded of my mother, just moments before.
"You're acting like Mossfang!" I spat, and wiggled out from under my flailing littermate.
Russetkit's blows grew limp, weak. She staggered back from me, tears welling in her eyes. "Like...like Mossfang?" She turned, unconsciously, her paws carrying her toward our little camp.
"No!" I cried after her. "No, Russetkit, wait!"
But she had gone. I reached into the air, rearing on my hind legs, and swiped at an invisible enemy.
At once, my vision swam, and I tumbled back onto the ground, narrowly avoiding the rock, my convulsions hidden by the tall, waving, careless grasses.
I could see three bands in front of my eyes...each with different scenes playing out.
The first one, the lowest one, was me and Russetkit, chattering together like starlings with the one-winged butterfly flopping, attempting to fly at our paws. We were talking...walking...our voices mingling together.
I pulled my gaze away to the middle scene. I was pleading with Russetkit, my eyes wide. She stood over me, her own eyes cold and merciless. She was refusing me, rejecting me. The butterfly, completely dead, lay forgotten on the ground beside us, and one of its antennae was caught in Russetkit's fur.
The top band, the last scene, was me and Russetkit as we had been, as we were now. Arguing.
I retracted my paw, pulled it back, and the visions vanished. As I looked around at my surroundings, I touched my face. My paw and head fur were wet, as though I had been swimming, but just with my head and paw.
Olivesplash's words came back to me.
You can change your destiny.
I really could.
I had powers.
Russetkit sat next to me, her nose twitching in disgust. Her tail flicked mine, and her ear wiggled.
I scooted to the right, away from my sister. She followed me, determined to irk me. I moved until I was sitting right next to my father in the circle, but Russetkit kept shifting to the right, until she was squashing me against our father. He stared down at the two fo us in disappointment.
I padded away, my tail low to the ground, while Birchstar purred over Russetkit.
Life was so unfair.
Russetkit got all of the attention when I was the one with powers. She used to be the rebellious one, always getting the two of us into trouble, we'd be in it together. We did everything together.
But not anymore.
Now it's just me - Leopardkit the miscreant, begging for attention and moping in the medicine den, wallowing in self-pity and hoping to get attention from the pretty medicine cat. Getting everyone thinking that I'm in love with Bramblewing.
I'm not a miscreant, and I don't want attention. I don't mope in the medicine den, and I'm not self-pitiful. Bramblewing doesn't give me any attention, she treats me like an equal.
And I'm not in love with her!
Instead of hiding in the tall grasses today, I sit next to the river, in Russetkit and my camp, and listen to the rain pounding on the roof of the small den.
The rain's rhythm was unchanging...a throbbing song. The river swirled past me, and I imagined I could see faces in it...the faces of my mother, father, sister, Willowsplash, Rippleberry, Bramblewing, Frostcloud....Mousefoot and Snownose...Darkwing...Scorchpelt...Fallowheart...all of AshClan, disappointed, elated, distressed.
And it struck me.
I could change this.
I could, couldn't I? I had the power, I just had to flip my paw into the air and I'd be able to change Russetkit's attitude, and Birchstar's disappointment with me...
I scooped at the air, and the visions came over me once more. I curled up in the den and watched as the different possibilities played out before my eyes.
I was talking politely to Russetkit and watching surprise and a bit of awe spread over her face, and Birchstar was nodding his approval over my head infuriating Russetkit.
Russetkit and I were fighting, wrestling in front of all of the cats...two more images branched off of this one, one of Russetkit standing triumphantly over me, the other of me in her position.
Russetkit was shoving me, and I raced out of her grip and into the nursery. I sheltered there with my mother, who curled around me and soothed me with reassuring words and pleasant licks.
It's obvious which one I chose.
"Are you ready to face the consequences?" Olivesplash whispered to me. "Are you willing to pay for this choice?"
"It's all right, you're young, it won't be much," Olivesplash said reassuringly. I nodded, and was back next to Russetkit.
I felt her powerful shoulders hit me and I tumbled to the paws of my father, who stared at me in concern. I raced over to Mossfang, who was standing at the entrance of the nursery, her eyes brimming with worry. I heard Birchstar's thunderous voice scolding Russetkit in front of the whole Clan, and felt a small flicker of satisfaction.
I quickly quenched it. Russetkit and I were siblings, this shouldn't be happening.
Olivesplash's voice mewed in my ear, "Offer up some fresh-kill, Leopardkit. Catch and offer."
I nodded, feeling Mossfang's soft fur around me, her scent enveloping me, a safehouse.
Russetkit stomped in, her fur dripping, but looking somewhat-happy. "Father told me to stay in camp for a quarter-moon. He said I can only go in the water once a day, and only before sunhigh, and I can't catch any fish."
"Are we friends again?"
Russetkit gave me a smile, and I was surprised this was the same cat who had shoved me moments before. Something else must have changed.
"Yes, yes we are."
(A/N: I know that was a bit odd, but it will be explained later [hopefully!])
Mousefoot yawned. "I'm hungry."
"I can get you something!" Russetkit and I said at the same time. We both laughed.
Things were pretty much the same between us, now, except...there was almost a border. Something different...but the same, over all.
"Let's get her a trout!" I said to Russetkit, and she nodded. We bounded towards the monstrous fresh-kill pile, and snagged the silvery fish with her claws. I picked up its head in my teeth, while Russetkit held its tail, and we trotted back to the nursery.
"Such obedient kits," exclaimed Mousefoot to our mother, who nodded, smiling.
"My little swimmers," she mewed fondly. Russetkit and I beamed.
At five moons old, we were both very anxious to become apprentices. Flowerpaw was the only apprentice so far, and we were excited to have a denmate of the same age for the first time.
Flowerpaw was fishing when we pranced up to her, her green eyes dark with concentration as she stared, hard, at the water.
"Are you looking for pike?" chirped Russetkit. Flowerpaw tore her gaze away from the water, and nodded.
"I think we should go to the elders for a story," Russetkit decided, and beckoned me with her tail. "C'mon!"
We hurried over to the elders' den, where Frostcloud was sunning herself just outside the entrance. Her white fur gleamed, she had just groomed herself.
"Hi, Frostcloud!" I greeted, and Russetkit did the same.
"My favorite kits," mewed Frostcloud, flipping herself over onto her stomach.
"We're the only kits," Russetkit replied.
"Of course," Frostcloud said, pretending to remember, her eyes glittering with amusement.
"Can we hear a story?" I asked.
"What would you like to hear?"
"About the Ancient Clans," breathed Russetkit, and I grinned.
"Yeah! ThunderClan, and WindClan and ShadowClan. And the awesomest - RiverClan! We're just like them, right?"
"Yes," Frostcloud said. "Now, settle down, and I'll tell you about the four Clans."
Russetkit and I settled down together, and my sister twitched her ears in excitement.
"Now," Frostcloud began, "some say these four Clans are real, some say they were mythical. I, personally, believe the latter, but your father begs to differ! Imagine these cats: ThunderClan, the brave, the strong, the cats with a certain disregard for rules...WindClan, the swift, the speedy, the cats with an undying pride...ShadowClan, the sneaky, the wily, the cats with cunning like foxes...RiverClan, the swimmers, the fishers, the cats with ability to match our ancestors...each of those Clans' traits live in all of us."
"I'm more RiverClan than anything," I said. "RiverClan are the best."
"Yes, well, listen to this..."
"Calm down," soothed Bramblewing.
Mousefoot let out a wail. "It hurts!"
"Mossfang - could you get her some borage, please?"
Russetkit and I had been told to cover our eyes in the corner of our mother's nest, so I shoved my face into her moss. I coudl feel Russetkit's whiskers wriggling next to me, brushing my cheek. Abruptly, they vanished.
"Russetkit?" I hissed.
"Whoa," she breathed. She put her face next to mine again. "I saw a kit!"
"But we're supposed to be hiding our faces," I protested.
"We're not two moons old anymore," Russetkit said crossly, sitting up, but facing away.
I followed her. "Mossfang knows, she just doeesn't want us--" I'm cut off by a loud shriek. "I don't think it's going too well."
"Russetkit, if I see you looking around again, you won't be apprenticed for another moon!" Mossfang's voice cut through the air, and Russetkit rolled her eyes as she turned around again.
"She can't just send us outside?" she asked. "It'd be easier than not being able to watch."
"Why would you want to?" I inquired. "Mossfang?" I raised my voice. "Can we go outside?"
"Be quiet, Leopardkit."
I slouched, turning back to my sister. My gaze left her eyes and roamed the small bit of camp we could see through the gaps in the woven walls of the nursery. Birchstar was pacing, with Fallowheart at his paws. Mousefoot was having his kits.
Three raised voices reached my ears, high-pitched mewls. "The kits!"
Russetkit and I both turned in time to see a dappled brown kit and a tortoiseshell being tucked close to their mother's belly, while a third, a black and white tom, stumbled blindly around the nest before crashing into his sisters.
Russetkit and I laughed. "Can we play with them?" Russetkit asked.
"No, of course not," scolded Mossfang. "Go play outside."
"I wonder what their names are," I said curiously as we padded into camp. "I think Dapplekit would be a good name for the brown one."
"Or Honeykit," suggested Russetkit. "And the tortoiseshell could be Spottedkit."
"When Mousefoot's ready, we could tell her our name suggestions."
"We could tell Fallowheart," I mewed.
"Good idea," repeated Russetkit. "Fallowheart!"
The tom poked his head out of the nursery. "Yes?"
"We've got a few names for your kits that you might like," Russetkit called.
Fallowheart stepped out of the large den. "Okay, what are they?"
"Well, there's a tortoiseshell, a mottled or dappled she-cat, and a black and white tom, right?"
"So," I continued, "we were thinking Spottedkit for the tortoiseshell, Pinekit for the tom, and Dapplekit for the dappled she-cat."
"Good names," congratulated Fallowheart, "but we've got them for the tortoiseshell and the black and white kit. Maplekit and Toadkit. I like Dapplekit, however, and we haven't named her yet."
Russetkit and I exchanged an excited glance.
Fallowheart ducked into the nursery, and returned a moment later.
"Dapplekit it is!"
I stared nervously at my new mentor, Crowclaw, whose blue eyes were like chips of ice. His gaze seemed to pierce right through me, and I pressed close to my sister. She grinned.
She had been given Darkwing, Crowclaw's sister, as a mentor, and Darkwing was known to be one of the nicest cats in the Clan. Of course, the cat with the powers gets the evil mentor, and the perfectly normal apprentice gets the nicest mentor. Life is quite unfair.
"You're going to the Gathering tonight," Crowclaw mewed stiffly, staring past me. His eyes were on Willowsplash.
"Okay!" I tried to sound cheerful, but with Crowclaw's gaze on my fur, it was hard to make sure I wasn't doing something wrong. I felt that any wrong step...any move would set him off.
"Come on, Russetpaw! We're going to the Gathering!" Darkwing said brightly. Russetpaw was bouncing on her paws, and she flicked my ear with her tail.
"Why aren't you excited?" she whispered.
"Crowclaw doesn't seem to like me," I replied, and watched as our father began to announce the cats going to the Gathering. Of course, we were going with our mentors, but Fallowheart was staying to be with Mousefoot and the kits. Mossfang and Frostcloud were coming, along with the other elder, Snownose. A few more warriors accompanied us, and we were off!
Crowclaw didn't bother trying to tell me to keep up to him - we both knew I wouldn't be able to. He had strong, hard muscles that rippled beneath his glossy pelt, and his legs were powerful. He barely struggled for breath as he ran, unlike Russetpaw and I, who were both panting.
I grinned at Russetpaw as she slowed, almost tripping over a fallen branch. We were right at the edge of a large meadow, fringed by colorful flowers that were mere shadows in the dimness. Birchstar signalled to us with his tail to wait, and we filed up behind him in two rows.
Two other leaders were silhouetted impressively against the moon, sitting on a large black rock. Birchstar jumped up beside them, and the Gathering began.
"FlameClan has nothing to report," mewed a massive cream-colored tom curtly at Birchstar's questioning stare. "But we have a new apprentice - Greenpaw."
"Greenpaw! Greenpaw!" chorused the three gathered Clans.
"Prey is running well," finished the tom.
"If I may go next," rasped a heavily pregnant tabby she-cat.
"Snowstar! I thought you were due soon," called a cat from the audience.
"I am," replied the she-cat, Snowstar. "But I believe I can make it here and back in enough time. If not - Timberleg is here to help me."
She gave a swift nod to a dark brown she-cat who was conversing quietly with Bramblewing and two toms, probably the FlameClan medicine cats.
"Anyhow," continued Snowstar, "CinderClan's prey is as fast as ever, but that is not slowing us down. We are fast and focused, and are having no trouble catching our prey." She gave a pointed glance to the massive tom, who looked mildly affronted, but said nothing. "We have no new apprentices, but Palmpaw is now a warrior, with the name of Palmpelt."
"Palmpelt! Palmpelt!" I joined in the cheer as a shy, sandy she-cat ducked her head.
"That is all."
Birchstar, lastly, stepped forward. "AshClan has gained two new apprentices, Russetpaw and Leopardpaw--" Birchstar waited for the cheering to die down before continuing. "And three new kits, Dapplekit, Maplekit, and Toadkit."
"Mousefoot beat Reedblossom," whispered a voice, and there were giggles amongst the queens.
The Gathering broke up, cats began to talk to each other. The leaders remained on the rock, but the FlameClan leader turned his back to the throng to imply that no cat was welcome to break into their conversation. The deputies, FlameClan and CinderClan, were chatting with their warriors and pairing up some apprentices.
"Come on!" Flowerpaw gestured to Russetpaw and me, and pushed us over to Palmpelt. "This is my friend, Palmpaw--I mean, Palmpelt."
"Hi," greeted the new warrior.
"This is Russetpaw," introduced Flowerpaw, "and Leopardpaw. They're Birchstar's kits."
"Nice to meet you," Palmpelt said politely. She turned back to Flowerpaw, and mewed, "Flowerpaw, Nutpaw wants to talk to you."
"But what about--"
"I can occupy them for a few moments." Palmpelt smiled as Flowerpaw flashed her a grateful grin.
"So. New apprentices. When were you apprenticed?" Palmpelt inquired.
"Just today," chirped Russetpaw. "But we've been waiting for ages."
"It'll seem like ages until you become a warrior, too," Palmpelt said wistfully. "But it's worth the wait. More patrols, more prey, more privileges...no apprentices or kits interrupting you in the dirtplace..."
Russetpaw and I shared an amused glance.
"Anyways, who are your mentors?"
"Mine is Darkwing. She's great!"
"Darkwing was on her last few moons of apprenticeship at my first Gathering," exclaimed Palmpelt.
"And mine is Crowclaw." I guess Palmpelt recognized my unenthusiastic tone, for she purred sympathetically.
"He may look a bit grumpy, but I'm sure he's all right on the inside."
I wasn't so sure.
When it was time to go, Russetpaw and I waved goodbye to Palmpelt with our tails, and hurried after our leader and mentors. Flowerpaw caught up to us just outside of camp, and she looked breathless.
"What kept you?" I asked as we ducked into the camp.
"Nutpaw." Flowerpaw attempted to roll her eyes, but was given away by her grin. She was...in love?
"You like this Nutpaw, don't you?" Russetpaw scrutinized. "FlameClan or CinderClan?"
"Is he from FlameClan or CinderClan?"
"FlameClan," replied Flowerpaw dreamily. "He's big and strong, and his pelt is as bright as the moon..."
"Okay, we get it, this Nutpaw's great," snapped Russetpaw, suddenly in a temper. She huffed all the way to the apprentices' den.
"What's up?" I whispered to her. "Aren't you happy for Flowerpaw?"
"Leopardpaw," Russetpaw said as she turned over to me. "For one thing, having a mate or falling in love with a cat from another Clan is against the warrior code. And can't you tell she's being a cheat? She goes and sneaks you out of camp, pretending she likes you, and then runs off with another cat - a FlameClan cat, for StarClan's sake! Plus, she's a total...total...ugh, she acts like she's so...!" Russetpaw trailed off into an annoyed silence.
"I don't like Flowerpaw," I admitted. "Honestly."
"Then who do you like?"
"I'm not telling you!"
As we continued to banter, I felt as though I truly was a normal apprentice.
"Lower you rear end," spat Crowclaw, pressing my bum to the ground with a paw. His claws slipped out and into my fur, and I squealed.
"You're a wimp," my mentor snarled, stalking to the other end of the clearing. "You will never be able to hunt forest prey. You will be reliant on water prey, and you. Will. Die."
"Slide your paws forward."
I did as he asked, and felt a flicker of satisfaction and the disappointment in Crowclaw's eyes. He was hoping I would fail. I'd show him!
By the time we went back to camp, it hit me. I could change my future, I could make Crowclaw not my mentor!
Olivesplash's voice, absent for the past few moons, whispered in my ear. It would have a bigger consequence...she warned.
I swiped my paw into the air when Crowclaw's back was turned. He was scraping his claws angrily against a tree. Huh.
At once, I fell backwards and began to shudder, the bands swarming my vision.
The first one was Darkwing, beaming with pride, while Russetpaw was pushed around by Crowclaw, coming back from each training session bloodied and bruised. No one noticed. That was out of the option, I couldn't sacrifice my sister for my own happiness.
The second was me with Willowsplash, but I quickly foresaw my training interrupted by her pregnancy. No...
Third was me with Furzecloud. She didn't look too happy at getting me for an apprentice, and was shooting envious glares at Darkwing. Russetpaw might be in danger of the pale gray she-cat's wrath.
Reedtail, Scorchpelt, Ripplebelly. All three of the toms as my mentors seemed to put Russetpaw in danger, as though they were all in love with Russetpaw's mentor, and would do anything to get past Russetpaw to her mentor. None of these would do.
The only one that was possibly was Willowsplash, but I might not be able to have a temporary mentor during the time she gave birth to her kits and moved to the nursery.
I sighed, and unhooked my paw, falling back to the ground. Crowclaw was just turning around.
"Three more fighting sessions, with me," he barked.
Later that night, Olivesplash visited me in my dreams.
"Leopardpaw...there's something I must explain."
"What is it?" I asked patiently.
Her green eyes stared worriedly at her paws as she plucked at the grass. "I haven't fully explained your powers."
"Will you ever be able to?"
"Yes, but even I don't understand them fully. I'll do my best, though.
"When you...attempt to change your fate...well, you know that you'll always have a consequence, or a price to pay, right? For example, you just tried to change your mentor, but because of the changes, you saw your sister possibly getting hurt. That wouldn't be the consequence, it's part of the choice. The consequence is much bigger the bigger the choice. Your mentor would affect your whole apprenticeship. The price to pay...would have been quite large, and you'll notice them as you train and things...over the moons...and you'll find that you probably won't want to use your powers."
"I don't, really," I blurted. "I don't think...I don't think these powers really...I mean, they make me seem a bit abnormal, but I don't use them. I've only used them twice, once with Russetpaw that one time, and once with Flowerpaw." With Flowerpaw, I had said something I wished I could take back. I took it back, and everything turned out great. The price - refusal of something enticing. I had put it off for a couple of moons, but attempted to change something and found I couldn't. I had the consequence looming over my head.
"Of course you don't, Leopardpaw, you're a good cat. But some might abuse your powers, if they figure out you have them."
"Like Crowclaw," I mused.
"Like Crowclaw," repeated Olivesplash. "Anyhow, onto the explanation. You see, the only way you know how to get to the alternate decisions is to hook your paw into the air - the way you first figured it out. This could, of course, be difficult, during a fight, if you accidently submerge yourself, but we shouldn't worry about that because it is highly unlikely.
"But you don't just need to hook your paw in. You can do your head, your tail, your hindpaws, anything. But submerging your whole self...that's quite dangerous. You risk not being able to get out..."
"Of the decisions," explained Olivesplash. "The....the deeper you go, the more body parts you...well, let's use an example. If you put your head in, you would go 'deeper'. You put more of yourself in, so you get more out of it. You can see more possibilities, and have a larger choice. If you submerge two paws...it won't be as big as your head, of course, I mean, it's sort of a measure of body mass versus..."
"Well, anyway. And, as you know, you can't make another choice until you pay back the previous." Olivesplash's gaze grew alarmed, and she threw a glance over her shoulder. "I'd best get back to StarClan, I don't things are going so well..."
"Goodbye!" I called after her fading form. "I hope to talk to you soon!"
"Goodbye, Leopardpaw..." Although I couldn't see her, I could still feel her breath stirring my ear and her cool, fresh scent wrapping around me.
I woke up to screams.
"Badgers!" wailed a voice. I saw Russetpaw's formerly sleepy form jerk up, her head brushing the top of our den. She gave a soft yelp, and Flowerpaw woke up soon after.
We three apprentices raced out into the middle of camp, yowling the alarm as the massive animals lumbered their way into the camp. Birchstar burst from his den, Mossfang at his side. Fallowheart, Ripplebelly, Scorchpelt, and Darkwing scrambled from the warriors' den, with Crowclaw close on their heels. Willowsplash led Furzecloud and Reedtail in an attack.
The moon was sinking towards the horizon, soon to be replaced with the sun. The badgers, with their white-striped faces, and berry-bright eyes glittering with malice. Their clunking paws were massive, their faces swinging from side to side. On the end of each huge paw were long, curved claws that glittered wickedly.
Birchstar flung himself on the nearest badger and began to shred its ears with his claws. The badger gave a loud roar and threw him off. His body splashed into the water.
The surrounding cats stared in dismay as the badgers (now joined by three or four more, swelling the pack to almost ten) swarmed the camp.
"Russetpaw!" yowled Fallowheart, leading a few cats onto the nearest badger. "Go for CinderClan!"
Russetpaw's green eyes were wide with shock. "I--"
"Go," I insisted. "We need them."
Russetpaw gave me a frightened nod and hared away.
"Leopardpaw, Flowerpaw, defend the nursery! Leopardpaw--I mean, Ripplebelly, defend the elders!"
"We have almost no cats left to fight!" wailed Flowerpaw as we clawed at the advancing badgers. I sliced one in the nose and it howled in pain, taking a cautious, and somewhat wary, step back. Flowerpaw and I swiped at one's eyes and sent it tumbling into its fellows.
"Keep it up," Birchstar called, shaking out his pelt as he scrambled up a tree.
"What are you doing?" I yelled. The branch beneath my father quivered. He couldn't be--
He jumped, landing right on the back of a lumbering badger. It bellowed, and bucked, attempting to throw him off, but he held on tight, sinking his claws into the rolls of fur and skin at its neck and burying his teeth in its ears.
Mossfang was scrambling around to safety, swiping her tail out of each coming badger's grip, racing away from each badger that took a step nearer to her. Why wasn't our mother fighting?
We were slowly being overwhelmed. "Where's Russetpaw?" I muttered to Flowerpaw, who pushed her head into the nursery to make sure the queens were all right. There was a brief gap in the fighting, in which Birchstar and Fallowheart were ushered to Bramblewing in dire need of medicine.
"All good inside," reported Flowerpaw, ducking back out as a badger clunked up to us. I nipped at its paws while Flowerpaw swiped with trained blows.
It then hit me that I had only had three training sessions prior to this one. I had become an apprentice the day before. Lucky for me, Crowclaw had given me the most basic of trainings, almost as though he knew this was going to...to happen...
I stretched my paw up to claw the badger's ear as Flowerpaw raced underneath it, biting its underbelly. Dangerous move, Flowerpaw.
At once, I was on the ground, by body shaking. No!
I didn't hear the rest of Flowerpaw's sentence, for the bands, the alternate possibilities, as Olivesplash had called them, were swimming through my vision.
I didn't bother looking at them, I just lowered my paw and felt myself being swept up into reality--
And into the claws of a badger.
Everything was hazy around me...
The scents mingled together, confusing, different, changing constantly as presences changed, cats moved, cats left, cats came...
When I finally realized where I was, my heart almost stopped.
I was a prizoner of war.
I was in CinderClan.
I was a hostage.
"Where am I? Let me go!"
"Let me go!"
"Leopardpaw, stop! You're safe."
It was a familiar voice, one that dragged me out of my groggy stupor. Green eyes and dark russet fur swam into view...it was Russetpaw.
But why was she here? Had she been captured by CinderClan too? What was--
"Leopardpaw." The first voice came again. "You're overexerting yourself."
"Calm down," soothed Russetpaw. A dark brown she-cat moved into my line of vision. Timberleg? "This is Timberleg."
I let out a weak moan.
"Is he all right?" asked Russetpaw, concerned. "We're only a few sunrises past six moons, we were made apprentices the sunrise before last."
"Wh-what happened?" I questioned. Russetpaw sighed, and sat down by the mossy nest in which I was splayed. Before my sister began to speak, I looked around at my surroundings - a high, arching den with divets in the walls to store herbs, almost stacked, like the alternate possibilities. The CinderClan medicine den.
"Well," Russetpaw mewed carefully, "as you know, we were...attacked. By, um, badgers, and....it didn't turn out so well, for either of our Clans." She must have seen my eyes widen in dismay, for she hurried on. "Our camp is a bit torn up, but our warriors are working to fix it, and no one's...well, those who are injured aren't in any pain."
"How many are dead?"
"Two," Timberleg announced, padding back into the den. She mouth was a grim line set into her face like stone. "Sunbranch from CinderClan and...and Scorchpelt."
"Scorchpelt?" I said weakly. "Scorchpelt?"
"Yes." Russetpaw dipped her head. "A badger got him, right on his spine. He would have felt no pain, Leopardpaw."
"This is all my fault!" I cried.
"How can it be? You fought for your Clan. There's nothing that you did wrong."
"She's right," added Timberleg, which made be growl softly.
"Anyone else injured?"
"Well, you know, normal battle injuries, scratches, wrenched claws, torn ears, bitten tails, nipped hindpaws, ripped pads..." From Russetpaw's rambling, I could tell that something was wrong - someone else was hurt.
"I--Frostcloud. She's blind."
Frostcloud, the old she-cat who had always told us stories as kits, who was always friendly and always defended us against Snownose, the crabby elder. Frostcloud, whose brain was buzzing with the tales of the past, the mythological Clans, and the stories of great cats, long forgotten. Frostcloud, who had watched over us when Mousefoot's kits were preventing her from moving or doing anything besides sleep and eat and Mossfang was in one of her delirious rages.
She didn't deserve any of this.
"But--she didn't--she doesn't deserve--what--why--"
"Don't overexert yourself," repeated Timberleg. "Calm. Down."
"Frostcloud's vision was already failing," reported Russetpaw quietly. "But she said that the two of us - with our vivid pelts and bright eyes, were always bright spots in the blur of camp life that confused her eyes and blotted her sight. She remembers our pelt colors, our eyes....but most important of all....is that she's still alive."
"Alive but disabled," I whimpered miserably.
"Alive," Russetpaw said firmly. I directed my next question at Timberleg.
"When can I leave? I want to go back to my Clan."
"You're not strong enough," Russetpaw told me. She glanced up at Timberleg. "Is he?"
"Enough to get back to his camp. He might have to stop at the border, though."
"Then let's go," I said. "I'm tired of lying here."
Russetpaw gave a short laugh, and stood up. I followed her example, and stretched my legs, moving out of the den and into a dense, hot forest with a few vines here and there, but it was relatively the same type of trees as was in our land. Palms dotted the beach, and I could just make out the swirling blue waves of the...ocient?
"What's that called again?" I asked Timberleg, gesturing with my tail to the water. "An...ocient?"
"Ocean," corrected Timberleg. I nodded.
"Will I ever be able to swim in it?"
"Probably not. Unless of course, we are polite and allow you on our land to swim in the ocean. But it's possible you'll get swept away, and Twolegs come there quite often. It wouldn't be a good idea, we have to stay in camp for days when the Twolegs come."
"Now, let's get you back to your camp."
We began the long walk. Because of my recovery, I was unable to run, bound, leap, or trot like I wanted to.
We were joined by Ripplebelly and Darkwing, both of whom had suffered severe scratches, but were all right now. They had poultices clotted on the dried blood, but were padding confidently onward as strongly as I was.
After the long hike back to camp, Birchstar told me to rest in one of the mossy nests placed out in the open. I was too tired to argue against it, and wanted nothing more than to collapse, and sleep under the rising stars of Silverpelt.
"O-Olivesplash?" I stammered, opening my eyes to see blackness. My surroundings slowly swam into focus.
I wasn't standing in our usual meeting place in StarClan, but on a rocky outcropping in the middle of a swirling lake. Torrents of water raged around me, and the rock on which I was standing suddenly grew slippery. I dug my claws into the hard formation, and got a better look at the rest of the area.
Trees bordered the far-off edge of the body of water, with long, dark hanging branches that swept over the churning lake below. Leaves dotted the sparse branches.
Olivesplash appeared next to me. "Leopardpaw."
"Olivesplash?" I asked hesitantly.
"Leopardpaw," Olivesplash repeated. "Leopardpaw...stare down at the water beneath you." I lowered my eyes and stared into the depths. "You have a mission, Leopardpaw."
"What is it?" My reply was automatic.
Olivesplash's eyes gained a faraway look, and her voice took on a slightly hazy, prophetic tone. "Find yourself, Leopardpaw."
"F-find myself? Like...m-my soul?"
Olivesplash turned back to me, her eyes clear again. She gave a soft laugh. "No, Leopardpaw. Your inner spirit. Your...it's hard to explain."
"Seems like everything is these days." My voice was dry.
"You won't be able to find it easily," the StarClan cat warned. "It will be hidden within the possibilities, eluding capture like this water."
"Why can't I just...you know...grab it?" I asked.
"It's not that easy," Olivesplash said sadly.
"It never is."
"No," Olivesplash replied with a grin. "It never is."
Dapplekit and Maplekit's eyes were as wide as an owl's. They peered over the edge of their mossy nest into the center of the camp, watching as their mother wailed over their brother's dead body.
Toadkit, born sickly, was dead.
His black and white patched pelt was clean and groomed, and he smelled sweet and fresh, due to the herbs Bramblewing had covered him in. Mousefoot and Fallowheart looked heartbroken as they stared at their small little tom.
"Toadkit?" Maplekit asked tentatively. "Mousefoot, will Toadkit come back to play with us, ever?"
Mousefoot slowly shook her head.
"Is StarClan too good for us?" Dapplekit squeaked. "Is that why Toadkit got to go? Because he was better than us?"
Fallowheart swept his tail around his daughters and licked them on the head. "Toadkit and you two are the same level of goodness. All cats in StarClan have terrific spirits...and so do you."
"Does that mean we get to go to StarClan?"
"Not yet, little ones."
"But I want to be with Toadkit!"
"Toadkit might visit you," Mousefoot said numbly. "He...he might, right?" She directed her question at Bramblewing, who avoided her gaze. It was unlikely that Toadkit, so new to StarClan, would ever spiritually contact his parents and littermates.
"Is he better in StarClan, Fallowheart?"
"Is he not sick?"
"StarClan healed him," I said as Fallowheart and Mousefoot tore their gazes away from their kits, unable to, or unwilling, to answer their questions about their brother's death.
"So he's all better?"
"That's good," she said uncertainly. "Should we go back to the nursery, now, Momma?"
The four tottered away.
I settled down outside of the apprentices' den. Maybe I could change this...get Toadkit better before he died...
I reached into the air with my paw, then shoved the other paw in to widen the...possibilities, I suppose.
At once, they began to appear, one by one as always, before me, and I was in front of them before my body hit the ground. The voices of my Clanmates disappeared around me.
Toadkit, playing happily with Maplekit, playfighting....but where was Dapplekit? In the nursery, vomiting and coughing, Toadkit's curse settled upon her.
Maplekit and Dapplekit and Toadkit playing by the river...climbing over each other...then Dapplekit and Maplekit tumbling off of their brother and into the river, swept away by the powerful current.
All three kits playing in the large oak next to the water, discovering Russetpaw and my makeshift camp and clambering through and over it, then all three falling into the river and being killed.
A similar situation as the one above it, but this one involved Ripplebelly scooping them out of the river, and then their parents yelling at them, sending them running away...never to be found again.
Dapplekit and Toadkit eating some fresh-kill while Maplekit found writhing maggots in her's...and, unknowing of their rotten-ness, eating the maggots and suffering from severe bellyache...and...eventually....death.
All three littermates playing in the shallow river near the rocks, until a particularly large fish washes into them and slams two against a rock. I turned away at that one.
"Stupid possibilities...to many to choose from...all involve one dying," I muttered as I resurfaced.
And found the whole Clan staring down at me.
My powers were revealed.
Of course, no one knew what that meant, they just took my convulsing and shivering and twitching as a sign of illness and confined me to the medicine den for half of a moon.
No more training with Crowclaw for me!
An awkward silence settled between us like the snow that was threatening to come earlier than usual this year.
"So...how's...um, your training coming?"
"Well...you know me, I'm stuck in here." I gestured with my tail to the medicine den. "When there's not even anything wrong with me."
"What was that, anyway? I mean, what were you doing?" Russetpaw narrowed her eyes.
"I--nothing," I replied.
"I'll tell you later," I said, shuffling my paws.
"Fine," Russetpaw said.
"How's your training coming?"
My sister brightened considerably as she delved into a lengthy chat about her hunting and fighting techniques and how great of a mentor Darkwing was.
"And she let me climb that big tree near the large...the large pond." Even though I had changed that, Russetpaw faltered as though she remembered what happened between us when Flowerpaw took me to the pond. I hastily changed the subject.
"Have you explored the whole territory yet?"
"StarClan, no! It's massive! Darkwing wants to wait until you're better, too. That way we can explore it together. Apparently, it's a tradition that apprentices do, take a three or four day journey around the whole territory. It sounds so much fun," enthused Russetpaw, sweeping her tail around her paws.
"I've done it," a voice said. Flowerpaw entered the medicine den, her plumy tail brushing the high ceiling. "It's magnificent. Your father took me."
Russetpaw and I exchanged an astonished glance, before remembering, of course, that Birchstar was Flowerpaw's mentor.
Flowerpaw sat down, pressing into Russetpaw and forcing her to scoot over. Flowerpaw grinned. "Don't tell me you haven't been, Russetpaw?"
"Of course not," Russetpaw replied, drawing herself up. "I wanted to wait for Leopardpaw!"
"So noble," Flowerpaw said, turning away. She left, quickly.
"I hate her," Russetpaw said. I laughed.
"Me too, sort of."
"But you do sort of like her, right?" I couldn't answer that question.
"Swipe! Kick! Bite! Scratch! Hindleg rear!"
I followed Crowclaw's rapid orders as quickly as I could. I reared on my hindlegs and batted at the sticky leaf-form that Crowclaw had erected for my training.
I unsheathed my claws and swiped at it, kicking it in what I supposed would be the belly if it were a real cat.
"Don't shred it," snarled Crowclaw. "It took me forever to make!"
"Sorry!" I cried as he narrated the battle, as he so often did.
"The enemy is closing around you, four to five cats surround you and press you against a tree. You see no way out, and if you turned and fled up the tree - well, that would be cowardly and they would drag you back down. What will you do, Leopardpaw?"
"Charge for the center cat," I decided without hesitating. Crowclaw always would charge for the center cat despite the stupidity of that decision.
"Good," Crowclaw congratulated reluctantly. "Then what?"
"Slither underneath him, raking his underbelly with my claws and flip him, then swipe out with my front at the two flankers, taking them out, then bite the other two hard and run away to aid my Clanmates."
Crowclaw must have detected the motononous repetition in my voice, for he gave me a new scenario.
"One cat, larger than you by far, is pushing you up against a rock. Of course, it's a boulder, so you can't climb it. What do you do?"
"Attempt to hold of this cat until StarClan strikes him dead. The nearest boulder is in the Meadow," I explained. Crowclaw angrily shook his head.
"You frog-brain! You can't fight this cat, and StarClan won't kill him for you!"
"There's no other option," I said frankly. "If I can't fight, I can't flee--"
"Ah, but you can!"
Crowclaw continued to lecture me, but I tuned it out until he ran out of steam and decided to take me hunting. He left his sticky leaf-figure in the training hollow.
Russetpaw and I were splayed lazily in the sun, dozing. The water tugged at our tails, attempting to sweep them downstream, but I was content.
The only sounds were the birds chirping and some cats tromping through the undergrowth across the CinderClan border, far...far...away...fish splashed in the water, but everyone was too pleased with the fresh-kill pile to hunt.
Despite the approaching leaf-bare, the fresh-kill pile was stocked well with forest prey, fish, and reptiles. Every cat had eaten their fair share and more, and everyone was sleeping in the sun. It was rare for the time of year, and the season, but of course, no cat was complaining. Warmth was always valued towards leaf-bare.
We were all aroused by Birchstar's call, and we blearily padded towards the meeting place. Dapplekit and Maplekit were still teary-eyed from the loss of their brother, and Mousefoot refused to leave the nursery. Fallowheart promised he would tell her everything.
"Cats of AshClan," announced Birchstar, "it is a great day, as you know--" Pleased murmurs rippled through the Clan. "Yes, yes, quiet down. So, I have decided to treat all of you to a few days at the Falls!"
Flowerpaw let out a pleased yowl, and was soon joined by the rest of the cats. Dapplekit and Maplekit perked up their ears from where they were sitting outside of the nursery, and began to whisper excitedly to each other.
"For those of you who don't know, kits, apprentices, some newer warriors, the Falls are a cluster of pale rocks at the lake in front of the hills. There are a few coves as well as tide pools for the kits to play in, and there is a waterfall for the more daring of the warriors." Birchstar's gaze swept over us all. "Who would like to come?"
"Me! Me!" chorused the whole Clan. Birchstar beamed. "Then let us go!"
Bramblewing hurried to gather some supplies, and I hurried over to Russetpaw. She had been sitting beside Darkwing.
"Isn't this exciting?" I burst out.
"Yes!" squealed my sister. "I can't wait!"
"Afterwards," Darkwing said, her eyes sparkling, "maybe we can take that trip around the territory."
"Oh, yes!" Russetpaw and I slapped tails.
Once everyone was ready to go, Birchstar led us on the long walk through the foliage and trees, pointing out landmarks along the way to the newer cats.
Maplekit and Dapplekit were perched on top of their father, Maplekit on Fallowheart's head and Dapplekit on his back. Dapplekit was batting at her father's swishing tail.
The walk to the Falls took half of the day, so by the time we arrived it was a bit past sun-high. But the sand-colored rocks and the clear blue water were so enticing, that Russetpaw and I broke away from the group once in sight and dove for the water. We could hear our parents laughing after us, and, turning our heads, we saw even Mousefoot cracked a smile.
The water was cool as it swept between our fur, and little minnows flicked past our eyes as we dove beneath the surface.
"This is great!" I yowled as my head broke the surface.
And great it was.
We stayed at the Falls until sun-high the next morning, when we began the trek back.
Russetpaw, Darkwing, Crowclaw, and I took a different route, however, and went south towards the rolling hills.
"These are the hills," grunted Crowclaw, who, evidently, was in a sour mood. "They are hilly."
"Oh, cheer up," teased Darkwing, and turned to the two of us. "The hills are were some of the greatest battles between FlameClan and AshClan have ever taken place. For example, over here was where my father, Shadystar, lost his eighth life. I remember this battle - I became an apprentice that very day."
Her eyes shone as she remembered the event. "I was the first to scent FlameClan, but, not knowing their scent at the time, I didn't tell my mentor - Frostcloud. We kept patrolling (yes, in those days, we patrolled all the way down here), and I shut my trap about it. Then the first attack came."
I tore my gaze away from Darkwing for a moment, and continued walking. Crowclaw was moping at the back of our four-cat group, his sour expression still plastered on his face like the water on his fur. He twitched his ear to tell me to turn around, and I warily turned my head and refocused on Darkwing.
"We had to fight like the mythical ThunderClan," crowed Darkwing. "It was terrible, though, we almost lost three warriors. We did lose one...the deputy, at the time, before Birchnose. Her name was Foxflight, and she used to be FlameClan. Her own former mate killed her, in vengeance, I suppose. Cloudfur." Darkwing's tale ended in a snarl.
We headed back into the trees, and were at the Meadow, the Gathering place, by the time the moon rose into the sky like a pale sun.
"We can sleep here," Darkwing said.
"We might get attacked," contradicted Crowclaw shortly.
"No Clan can attack us in the sacred area of StarClan," exclaimed Russetpaw.
"Yeah, well," Crowclaw grumbled. We settled down, though evidently my mentor was unhappy about it.
He was unhappy about everything.
"What are you doing?"
I hesitated before replying. "Hunting...?"
"Not everything's a question, Leopardpaw. Bring me back two squirrels," snapped Crowclaw. "Now."
I stumbled, startled for a moment, before nodding shortly and hurrying away, sliding through the dense forest, away from the large pond. I opened my jaws to scent the air - and tasted nothing. I put my nose to the ground and shuffled forward, attempting to pick up a scent.
"You idiot, you look like some mangy Twoleg dog!" snarled Crowclaw from the sidelines, where he was creeping through the undergrowth. Burrs were tangled in his fur from his attempt to slide, unknown, through the wild woods. I was still on the beaten path where the Clan ran to the Gathering, and where many cats hunted. Nuts littered the edges of the way.
I picked my nose off of the ground, and was about to make an indignant reply before I caught a whiff of a squirrel's scent. Close, but far enough that I would have to run a bit to keep up with its hops.
I was mouse-lengths behind the oblivious little creature when I heard Crowclaw's voice - loud, angry, and not a good sign.
"Who are you?"
The squirrel must have been slightly stunned by his voice as well, because it froze for the longest time I had seen a squirrel freeze. I reached out my paw and snagged its tail. It squeaked, but I dragged the newly killed prey toward me and hurried toward Crowclaw.
My mentor had his paws on either side of a scratched and bleeding little blue-gray she-cat with dull green eyes, whose struggles were growing feebler and feebler as Crowclaw snarled into her face.
"Stop!" I tried to sound commanding but my voice came out as a squeak, and Crowclaw swung his face around, sneering.
"Think your words will stop me, Leopardpaw? You can't get the leader to come here quick enough to stop me from chasing this intruder," he snarled the words into the little she-cat's face, "off of our territory."
"But I can stop you from killing her," I said bravely, and swiped a paw at Crowclaw's flank. He laughed loudly, but flinched slightly.
Crowclaw turned his head as a blackbird called, and in the moment that he was swinging his head, I darted to his other side. He spat, and gave a yowl when I jumped on top of him.
My claws dug into his shoulders, and I tugged him off of the she-cat. She continued to quiver as she lay on the ground, her eyes fluttering closed. I shoved Crowclaw away from me, and bounded over to the she-cat, bending over her concernedly.
She blinked her eyes open, and waved a paw feebly. "I'm not going to attack you," I whispered. "I'm not going to hurt you."
She moaned. I picked her up by the scruff and began to drag her. She made no attempt to walk, just let herself be dragged through the forest. Crowclaw growled from across the path, and slunk into the trees, his dark gray tail trailing through the dust.
"Come on," I urged around a mouthful of fur. She groaned.
When we got to the river bank, I slid her onto my back, staggering under her weight. I let the first wave wash over my paws before plunging in.
The water only went up to my belly fur when I slogged across the river, preventing the she-cat from getting wet. Her tail flicked when it touched mine, and I jerked forward. The edge of the river bank seemed to be getting no closer, and it was almost a relief to get out of the water (me, out of the water!).
I let the she-cat fall to the ground and began to drag her toward the camp, pushing through the dangling reeds and fronds and pushing myself into the camp, with the unknown cat trailing behind me.
"There he is!"
I was surprised to hear Crowclaw's voice. How had he gotten here before me? I was moving quickly, and he had moved away from the camp - I had seen him.
"Leopardpaw. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Birchstar's loud voice hit me like a wave.
Birchstar's golden-brown pelt gleamed like the sun as he padded up to me, his voice growing dangerously soft. Darkwing and Russetpaw were watching fearfully, Frostcloud was hushing Snownose's angry mutters, and Mousefoot's eyes were wider than an owl's.
"Crowclaw," Birchstar threw a glance over his shoulder, "informed...us....that you had attacked a helpless she-cat and attempted to drive her out of our territory."
"I didn't attack her! I have her right here, and she needs to be treated immediately!"
"Ha," snorted Crowclaw. He stalked up to my father. "He's just bringing her back so that the sun shines in his favor."
"Why would the sun shine in my favor?" I asked.
"It's a figure of speech," spat Crowclaw.
"Why would he--you, go through all of that effort?" Birchstar directed the question at me. I bristled. This was my own father!
"I didn't attack her! She needs to be treated now!"
"You'd be a fool if you believed that mouse-brained apprentice," sneered Crowclaw. Birchstar turned, his gaze resting on Crowclaw.
"That 'mouse-brained apprentice' is my son," growled Birchstar. "You are quite close to being stuck on apprentice duties for the next few moons. I believe him."
The she-cat groaned again, and Bramblewing hurried out of her den, herbs stuffed in her mouth. She spilled her supplies onto the ground next to the injured cat, and shot at me, "Get cobwebs!"
I dashed to her den and grabbed a large wad of the sticky white material. Bramblewing carefully unraveled it from my paw and set it on the ground beside her.
"Can you lick the blood off of your fur?" Bramblewing asked the she-cat. She groaned.
"Guess not. Leopardpaw, lick some of the blood off of her fur - clean her scratches."
I did as I was told, grimacing at the icky tang in my mouth. Bramblewing needed an apprentice to do these things.
Bramblewing began to apply poultices onto the scratches, and then laid the cobwebs over them. The she-cat sighed in relief, and let herself be carried into the medicine den by Fallowheart and Ripplebelly.
"Your name will be Cinderpaw."
A moon later, the newly named Cinderpaw was repaired and ready to begin training. She had accepted Birchstar's offer to become an apprentice of AshClan, and had already begun to enjoy swimming - which, of course, was a necessary ability for an AshClan cat.
Cinderpaw touched noses with Fallowheart, sealing the ceremony. I hurried over to her, about to congratulate her, but Crowclaw pushed me aside with a welcome just about as warm as leaf-bare.
His gaze was cold and his eyes calculating, but he attempted to make his voice caring as he simpered, "Hello, Cinderpaw, I was the one who found you."
"I was the one who brought you back to camp," I interjected, but was pushed over by Crowclaw. The dark-pelted warrior was obviously trying to win this she-cat's affections for some evil scheme of his.
"I was the one who found you, Cinderpaw."
"I brought you here! He tried to stop me!"
Cinderpaw just rolled her eyes with an annoyed, "Toms."
Crowclaw recoiled, as if she had raked him across the face with her claws. As a senior warrior, he had never been insulted by someone as low-ranked as a new apprentice. Not even his own apprentice (me) had gone this far to disprage him.
"Cinderpaw, wait!" I didn't realize I had called out until Cinderpaw turned, her head tipping to the side and her green eyes slightly calculating.
"Yes?" she asked, her voice cool to the point that it was almost cold.
Suddenly, I wasn't sure what I wanted to say. If I could replay this moment...no, it wouldn't be worth it. Or...or would it?
"I'll remember this day until I die," Crowclaw growled, muttering threats to Cinderpaw under his breath. "You will never forget--nor will I--the day---"
I swiped the air, and felt myself falling, experiencing the similar sensation of the air brushing my fur towards my feet and my back being pumeled by the wind.
But it stopped, all in a moment, as the new possibilities appeared, one-by-one, before my eyes.
In the first, I hadn't approached Cinderpaw at all, and was watching as Crowclaw tried to purr his way into her heart. Huh. That would not be good.
The second - Cinderpaw and I chattering like starlings near the large pond, content and happy...and together. Seemingly a good choice.
The third was horrible, so horrible I can't even believe StarClan had conjured it. Me, standing triumphantly over Cinderpaw's body with blood on my paws and muzzle. No.
It was the first time I had heard another voice while in these...possibilties, and at first I was startled, but relaxed as I recognized Olivesplash's voice.
Leopardpaw, don't. Don't. Crowclaw is watching you. Cinderpaw is too. The price is small...but large.
I wanted to heed Olivesplash, but something told me no, don't. Take a chance.
Cleaning the elders' bedding for a moon, once every seven sunrises.
A choice I would take to be with Cinderpaw.
I chose it.
The first thing I saw when I awoke - Crowclaw's malicious blue eyes leaning over me, his lips curled back into a leer.
"I saw what you did, Leopardpaw. You just changed your future."
His words from moments before hit me.
I will never forget.
And Crowclaw never would.
My powers - he knew about them.
And he would do everything he could to thwart me.
"I told you," Olivesplash said reproachfully, her pale green eyes glittering. "You shouldn't have done it, Leopardpaw." She frowned, and opened her mouth to speak, but I cut her off, feeling a wave of numbed frustration surging up inside of me.
"I didn't mean to, all right? At least now I know I'll be happy with Cinderpaw."