"Okay, apprentices! Listen to my every word. You must obey my commands, and do what I say."
Blood roars in my ears as I crouch, bringing myself as close to the ground as possible. My ears flatten as I brace myself, looking forward to focus. Nothing could distract me - not at this very moment.
"You're all ready. Good! On my command... jump!"
I hear scuffling along the ground from the other apprentices. I also move as I prepare to leap. You have to aim high, Swiftpaw. Jump as high as you can! I rear up and push as I hard as I can off the ground.
For a moment, all I can feel is air. Then, I feel the ground touch my hind paws with a soft thump. I fall onto four paws, standing to wait for the next command.
"Good work." My mentor's the one controlling this training, and I can see him pacing up and down the row of apprentices in front of me. His tail flicks, and his gaze flickers on me for a moment before looking away. "Swipe!"
For a heartbeat, I feel a pang of disappointment. He said nothing. Is that bad? However, I force myself to shake it from my mind. Swipe, Swiftpaw, swipe. I raise a front paw and bring it across the left, imagining that I am attacking an enemy warrior. Take that!
My paw rests back to the ground as the next command is given: "Okay, roll!"
I stiffen for a moment. Roll? I pause, confused, until I remember. That's right! Fircloud mentioned it the other day. I drop to the ground - onto my back, exposing my tummy. I'm about to move to the side, when -
"Swiftpaw!" Fircloud. My heart sinks. His voice doesn't sound friendly - he sounds displeased, like I made a mistake. Immediately, I sense of dread came over me.
I've failed. I've let Fircloud down. How am I ever going to be a good warrior if I keep on making mistakes?! I jump back up to a standing position in alarm as the pale gray tom approaches me.
"You need to get down quicker to the ground, Swiftpaw," my mentor mews as he approaches me, his voice quieter now. "When you hesitate, your enemy will take advantage of that. You have no time to waste."
I nod at his words, feeling the insides of me burn. I made a mistake! I hear sniggering nearby - possibly from the other apprentices - as well, and it just makes the feeling worse. And those other apprentices are probably laughing at me now.
"Go back to your position, Swiftpaw. We're going to do this again. I didn't get up to where I wanted to."
I nod, feeling guilty as I get into a crouch again. I feel guilty as Fircloud's words replay in my head, and I feel as though I've hurt everyone else with my hesitation in acting.
If I'd moved quicker, this wouldn't have happened. The other apprentices don't make mistakes! Why am I making them?
"Okay, you all ready? Three, two..."
As the call starts again, I brace myself once more. I narrow my eyes in concentration, waiting for the signal. I can't fail again. I won't fail again.
I can't let myself do that. I need to be perfect... I can't be making mistakes.
My name rings through the air, and as I hear it my eyes blink open. All my denmates are sleeping - I can see them in the gloom of the night. It's dark outside, so for a moment, I wonder who is calling me. It's not dawn yet. Why -
"Swiftpaw!" The same voice mews, more frustrated this time. "I warned you yesterday that we were going on the dawn patrol. Get out of there and get ready." A shape appears at the entrance of the den. Unsurprisingly, it's none other than my mentor, and he's glaring at me.
My ears suddenly start to burn. Great StarClan, I forgot! Feeling frustration course through me, I hurriedly get out of my nest. Carefully, I step around the other apprentices as I leave the den, not wanting to disturb their slumber.
As I leave the den, I pass Fircloud. "Sorry," I mew apologetically as I pass the pale gray tom and into the main area of the GorseClan camp. I've never been up this early before, and I shake out my fur as I reflect on how quiet it is. It's never this quiet during the day.
Fircloud grunts in response. This only worsens my negative thoughts. I should've remembered that I was on the dawn patrol. I could've prevented this. Fircloud's probably really angry at me.
"I'm just going to fetch Grasstail," Fircloud mews. My ears twitch as I look up: my mentor's talking to a she-cat that I recognize as Heatherleaf. "He's slept in again." I hear him pause, before adding: "Swiftpaw, join Heatherleaf. Once I've gotten Grasstail, we're off."
"Yes, Fircloud," I mew, my voice monotone as I pad over to Heatherleaf and sit down beside her. My tail drifts over my paws, and I lower my head, wanting to go off into thought.
"Swiftpaw." Heatherleaf speaks, her voice soft. I jerk out of my thoughts, feeling annoyed. "I can see you're annoyed at yourself for not getting up in time."
My ears flick irritably. Why did Heatherleaf have to bother me about this? I don't reply, and continue to stare at the ground.
"Everyone does it," the brown tabby went on. "I did it a lot as an apprentice myself. My mentor was always getting annoyed at me!" At the end of the sentence, she purred, obviously finding the memory good.
I, meanwhile, did not feel the same way. I just felt guilt. I let my Clan down.
"All right." My head turns as I hear Fircloud's voice. The gray tom looks annoyed. Grasstail follows behind him, the warrior blinking sleepily. "All of us are here. Let's get this patrol over and done with, shall we?"
Without waiting for a reply, I jump back onto four paws, thankful for my mentor's return. Heatherleaf can leave me alone. Right now, I don't want her advice. Fircloud, meanwhile, flicks his tail, signaling for us to move off. I follow him obligingly and look at the ground as the four of us leave camp.
I drift off into thought, and the negative thoughts start coming back. Don't ever do that again, Swiftpaw. You can't let your Clan down. Ever.
"Okay, GorseClan!" A voice rings through the air. "All cats going to the Gathering tonight, gather below the Boulder now!"
At the call, my head raises, and I get onto my paws. Tonight, I'm one of GorseClan's gathering representatives, and my paws tingle with excitement.
Maybe this time, I'll give more of an effort to talk to cats from the other Clans.
It's only my second time getting selected for the patrol. I feel pride, knowing that I got chosen: going to the Gathering, for GorseClan cats, is a privilege to be earned. However, I can't help but feel a sliver of doubt. There are better cats that could've been chosen for the Gathering than me. Redpaw's always better at training than me. Why isn't he going?
"You right there, Swiftpaw?" As I hear my name, I jump. Fircloud is moving past me: he's also on the patrol. "You seem... thoughtful today."
I straighten up, trying to suppress the feeling of self-doubt that is now starting to bubble up inside of me. "Y-yeah," I stammer. "I'm just a little nervous. I want to talk to the other apprentices this time. Last time, I was -"
Fircloud cuts me off. "Yes, I know, you hid behind me for the entire Gathering because there was more cats than you thought there would be." The tabby then flicks his tail. "It's better for you to talk to other apprentices, anyway. It's helpful."
I frown at Fircloud's vague comment, and contemplate it as he moves further into the small group of GorseClan cats. What do you mean, helpful? It won't be helpful if nobody wants to talk to me. Another wave of self-doubt hits me, making me hurt inside. I don't want to be a loner.
"I have faith in you, anyhow." Fircloud breaks me off from thought, nodding his gray head. "It's natural for one to be scared at their first Gathering. Many apprentices would have done what you did. Don't be so disheartened, Swiftpaw, lighten up."
Sounds like you have more faith in me than I have in myself, I think, not feeling any better as I glance back up at the Boulder. Our leader, Furzestar, looks as though she's ready to go: I see her looking at the last few stragglers getting ready to join the patrol.
"We're all here, are we?" Furzestar's voice is inquiring, her eyes darting around as she crouches. I watch as her eyes rest on a dark tom, the Clan deputy. "Ravenfeather, is everyone here? I certainly do not want to be late."
"Everyone's here!" Ravenfeather's voice calls up from the crowd, and I see his amber gaze look at Furzestar for confirmation. She nods back at him, before she nimbly leaps down from the Boulder.
"Okay, GorseClan!" Her voice is loud, and the cats that are talking fall silent. "We are now ready to go to the Gathering. I'll lead on out, and everybody else who is going, follow."
Furzestar pads out of the camp entrance, a spring in her step as she goes out. Ravenfeather is quick to follow, as well as a fair group of warriors.
A nose nudges me in the shoulder. "Come on, Swiftpaw, let's not get left behind." It's Fircloud again: I can tell from his voice. Quickly, I duck my head in shame, and start padding quickly out of camp, cheeks burning as a result of my failures.
Sorry for me letting you down, I think to my mentor, as I narrow my eyes, falling into the steady rhythm of pawsteps as my Clan and I head to the Gathering.
I pad into the Hollow, where the three Clans gather every moon to share news, behind my mentor. We appear to be the last Clan to arrive, but nobody seems in a rush to start: the leaders of OakClan and ReedClan look like they'd rather talk to each other than to everyone else. We pause, in a group, as Furzestar surveys us for a moment.
"You may go," she tells us firmly," her pale tail flicking. "Go get yourself settled and socialize. Beechstar and Carpstar do not seem like announcing news in a hurry today."
The rest of my Clan in front of me breaks off immediately into the Hollow. Fircloud is included in that: he sweeps right past me. "Remember, Swiftpaw, get yourself out there," he mews to me as he joins the group of warriors moving in.
I hesitate, watching my mentor go, before I join the last few cats going in. My mentor is right, and I know it: after last time, I knew that I actually wanted to put some effort in.
I bound into the Hollow and look around. All I can see around me is cats that I don't recognize: OakClan and ReedClan cats, talking. They won't want to talk to an annoying apprentice like me, I think, as I ignore them, going past them without a second glance.
I stay around the outside, looking for cats without any luck. All the other apprentices that I have seen are talking to other apprentices or warriors, too. I don't bother to go and disturb them. That's... not a good idea. I feel a bit hopeless, worrying that this Gathering is going to turn out like the last one, when a lonely blur at the edge of my vision catches my eye.
I turn around to see a golden-brown shape turned away from the crowd. They're alone, which strikes me as odd. Tasting the air, I figure out that they're a tom, and the scent of OakClan reeks off of them. I frown slightly: OakClan cats have no trouble socializing. Beechstar and his Clan always have endless fortunes.
So why is this cat sitting out here, all alone?
It's as if the tom senses my presence, as I see him turn towards me warily. His eyes although giving a sense of trepidation, also have a look of surprise. "Hello," he says softly, as he continues to stare.
"Uh, hi?" My mew comes out sounding rather awkward. "What's you name?" I take two steps closer to the young OakClan cat, who winced at my words. I tilt my head in curiosity, wondering whether I did something wrong.
"...I don't know if you want to know that," he mews slowly, as he awkwardly shuffles slightly in my direction. That's when I notice it: one of his front legs isn't there. There's only a very small stump where it's meant to be. I almost look away in surprise.
"...You're going to be like the rest of them, aren't you?" The OakClan cat asks sullenly, giving me a sad look. From this, I get the impression that this happens to him often. A wave of pity sweeps over me. Poor cat.
"Wh-" I stammer, almost lost for words, before I manage to pull myself together. "Wh - how did you lose your -"
"I never had it. I was just... born like this. No pain involved with this stump whatsoever." The tom looks lightheartedly at his so-called 'stump'. "Other cats don't seem to like it, though. They seem to think I lost it while doing something stupid." He frowns slightly at his own words. "Not surprising, really."
Getting a good impression of this tom, I decide to join him, sitting down next to the young cat. His eyes still bear a slight look of surprise as I join him. "Not scared of yet, I see? Well, you will be soon." He gives me a grimace, and a slight hesitation, before continuing: "My name's Missingpaw."
I almost choke. That's - "That's a horrible name," I splutter, looking awkwardly away. "How could -"
Missingpaw gives me a sad look. "Yeah, I know, I've got this before. But I suppose you get used to it." The apprentice frowns slightly, before turning back to me. "I don't think I ever caught your name."
"The name's Swiftpaw. Swiftpaw of GorseClan," I meow, trying to sound better than I actually feel. Guilt starts to sweep over me. Did I make him feel bad?
It's almost as if Missingpaw can read my thoughts. "Look, it's fine. You weren't to know," he mews. He looks down awkwardly. "You seem almost... insecure."
I lower my head awkwardly. How does he know? I look away, almost feeling too ashamed. At the edge of my vision, I see Missingpaw try to crane his head around to look at me, almost losing his balance. "Come on," he prompts, as he regains it. "You can tell me."
For an OakClan cat, he is rather nice. "I... I guess you can say that. The insecure thing, I mean. It never feels like I'm good enough."
"But you have nothing to stop you." Missingpaw meets me with his blue gaze. "You don't have cats staring at you wherever you go. It'll probably take me longer to become a warrior due to this." He looks at his stump, and then continues. "Swiftpaw, you're being too hard on yourself. If your Clanmates are any like mine are, you shouldn't have to worry. You've got to let yourself down and let yourself make mistakes."
I blink. "You make yourself sound older than you are," I mew in surprise, shuffling my paws.
Missingpaw looks away. "One thing useful about my stump, I guess. I have to get used to it." He shrugs, and bends down to lick it. "I make mistakes all the time. Every apprentice does. I've seen enough to know that." He glances back at me, and nods. "Don't take your mistakes to heart. Be yourself. Everyone will appreciate it."
I smile. I feel a little bit better. "Thanks," I whisper, glancing up to see the three leaders jumping up onto the Gathering Log. The Gathering is beginning, I think, as I pick up Furzestar's pale shape on the Log.
"You're welcome," I hear Missingpaw whisper, as I hear Furzestar's welcoming call, being a beginning to this moon's Gathering.
"Okay, apprentices! Listen to what I say. Do as I tell you to do."
I bring myself into a couch. I've heard this all before, and I know how it goes. I just have to work on my technique, that's all. My eyes narrow, my gaze set on Fircloud, who's giving the commands, and I focus in. It's been a half-moon since the Gathering, and I want to show him how much work I've been doing since then.
"All ready? Good! On my command... jump!"
I hear scuffles - not just from the other apprentices, but from my own paws. I leap high in the air, feeling nothing below my paws for a moment, before I make contact again. A muffled noise sounds as I lover back onto four paws.
"Nice work." Fircloud is pacing in front of us as usual. His eyes meet mine for a moment, a knowing gleam in them. "Swipe!"
I imagine that there is an enemy warrior in front of me. My right paw lifts into the air, my claws unsheathed as far as they can go, as I bring it across my body with a swift movement. I them lower it back to the ground again.
"Well done. Now, roll!"
This time, I know what to do. Quick as a snake, I drop low to the dusty ground. For a moment I roll across the ground, keeping my limbs tucked up neatly next to my body to prevent an enemy warrior from attacking my belly fur. Once the movement is done, I quickly rise back to my paws, and glance up at Fircloud.
The pale gray tom is pacing in my direction. He locks eyes with me, and gives me a nod, a hint of a smile on his face. My heart soars. I'm improving! "Much better! Next, duck!"
The training session continues like this. My movements feel strong, confident, fluid. At the end, when Fircloud finally stops us, my muscles are burning. He then comes over to me. "You did a really got job today, Swiftpaw," he mews.
"Thanks!" I beam at my mentor. "I felt the difference."
"That's good! It's means you're learning," Fircloud purrs. "There's still a few minor things you need to work on, of course, but they'll come with time. We still have a few moons together before your warrior assessment yet, but you'll certainly get there."
At first, I feel deflated that my work isn't perfect. But then, he says some nice things as well, and that makes me feel better. I give him a nod. "Okay, Fircloud. Will we work on that tomorrow?"
"Sounds like a plan," Fircloud meows, nodding back. "Also, keep up your confidence. I like this new Swiftpaw I'm seeing." He pads away to deal with the other apprentices, and in that moment I realize that what Missingpaw said at the Gathering was right - that I did have to let myself go.
It's okay to be flawed. That's how we learn, and how we grow. You just have to accept it.
Thank you, Missingpaw.
I thought of this idea two years ago (in 2018) as a way to help myself, and others, find a little bit of self-acceptance. It's hard for a lot of people to do, and I know I still struggle with it sometimes. I just wanted to write a story of a cat finding a little bit of self-acceptance in themselves, so they can be the best cat that they can be. You can find that spark too, and be the best person you can be! <3
edit 31 May 2020: we have a sequel featuring a warrior swiftpaw! Feeling
I don't have a lot to say, but feel free to leave a comment if you would like :) I don't mind a good comment <3 All I wanna say is thanks for reading, I appreciate it!