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Prologue (Flameheart)

The peaceful woodland was quiet and at rest. Mice nibbling their meals and settling into their nests, all the while the trees awakened. Wings spread and took to the sky, sharp, motionless eyes looking for the lingering prey for the taking.

Out of the trees and into the open. The moon turned the lifeless rocks of the clearing a shining silver. Making for a beautiful view of the forest that hardly anybody would ever see. The rocks broke away onto a path of stepping stones. Making for an uncertain way across the black depths they poked out of and stood above.

The river below swirled, bubbled, and foamed. Completely black, it would travel until it gave into the roaring, gaping depths of the gorge nearby. Crossing the shore beyond the stones, the ground becomes soft underpaw. You can hear the frogs croaking, screaming, and singing.

The marshy lands of those who need to live in a wet area, with no dry ground. Being slick underpaw, the prey inhabiting the area could easily escape the predators that lurked about in the reeds. The soft ground will eventually sink down, going back down into a deep ring of water. One with land in the middle.

This is the home of many, many cats. Swimmers, the catchers of fish. Built and born to survive in the marsh that most would consider unlivable. They loved the marshy lands, the taste of the fish that came from the pools of water and the swirling river.

These cats were large, with hulking muscles that made them have super strength. Giving them the power to swim against river currents effortlessly.

These powerful cats, call themselves RiverClan. Tonight, in RiverClan, under the stars and bright moon. A magical event is about to take place. Something referred to as 'The Miracle of Life'.

"Blueflower's kits are coming!"

Chapter I (Pumpkintail)

Smokepaw felt the cold snow that had fallen last night brush against her belly. Crouching in the undergrowth of the RiverClan territory, she put one paw in front of the other gingerly, worrying that the thick white powder will crunch under her feet. She’d been stalking a water vole for a while now, inching closer and closer, biding her time and waiting for the right moment to strike. Her nostrils flared as she sucked in the smell of the water vole. Good prey was hard to find in leaf-bare, and she had to seize the moment. She knew that her mentor, Spottedclaw, was watching from somewhere, examining her every move. She had to make a good impression.

The water vole scurried through the snow. Then, it stopped and sat up, holding a freshly dug out seed in its tiny paws. Smokepaw licked her lips, thinking of the juicy water vole meat, but immedietely chased the thought away, knowing the water vole would most likely serve as food to one of the queens

Without any more hesitation, she burst out of the undergrowth and launched herself at her prey. Her claws grabbed onto the water vole’s body. She sank into the snow, bowling over, trying to hold the brown creature in her paws for long enough to finish it with a swift bite. Once the deed was done, she spoke.

“Thank you, StarClan, for this prey,” she meowed solemnly to the sky before picking up the water vole with her teeth. Suddenly, the branches of the tree above her shook. Before she could look up, Spottedclaw landed elegantly on the ground a tail-length away from her, a satisfied expression on her face. Smokepaw grunted, realizing that her mentor had watched her all this time without her knowing. However, it solidified the belief in her that she still had much to learn.

“A good catch,” Spottedclaw nodded approvingly. “Now, let’s get back to camp. Your paws must be freezing off after all that stalking in the snow.” Smokepaw lifted her tail proudly and followed her mentor back to camp. Every cat knew that Spottedclaw was not one to overdo it with praise, but that just made Smokepaw value her approval even more. Besides, Spottedclaw told her that she felt this leaf-bare was remarkably cold, but it’s not like Smokepaw could agree or disagree. It had been the elder Hayshine who told her that the gray apprentice’s mentor was especially grumpy this time of the year, so whether the calico deputy’s statement held any truth remained to be seen.

Spottedclaw and Smokepaw pushed through the thick grass and bushes that formed the border between the RiverClan camp and the rest of the territory. As Spottedclaw padded off to speak to some of the senior warriors, Smokepaw walked over to the fresh-kill pile and dropped her catch on top. The pile looked pitifully small compared to what she remembered from when she was a kit, prancing around the camp with her sister in tow during greenleaf. A howling snapped her out of her thoughts.

“For StarClan’s sake! Why aren’t there any apprentices around when you need them?” a voice shouted from the elders’ den. Smokepaw couldn’t stop her eyes from rolling. She turned to look at Spottedclaw, who had turned after the noise too.

“Smokepaw, could you-“

“Going,” the apprentice mumbled, stalking off towards the elders’ den. When she poked her head in, a foul stench immediately flooded her nose. She couldn’t help but gag.

“Oh, Smokepaw,” she heard a familiar voice speak to her. Blinking, the gray she-cat saw her sister, Mudpaw, pressing a dripping piece of moss to Ripplefrost’s back.

“Is that mouse bile?” Smokepaw questioned. Mudpaw only nodded. Smokepaw let out a deep sigh. “Well, that explains the stench.” She watched Ripplefrost huff.

“Back in my days, the apprentices were given a moon off hunting and patrolling if they dared to raise their tongue against an elder,” he rasped, his short rant immediately followed by a dry cough.

“Should I ask Birchpelt to give you some catmint?” Mudpaw asked, still rubbing the wet moss. Ripplefrost shook his head.

“I have endured so much in my days as a warrior, a little cough won’t put me down,” he retorted. Hayshine purred in amusement from another nest. 

“Pay no mind to Ripplefrost’s gloom. If everything were up to him, we would all be moping across the forest instead of running,” she joked. Smokepaw heard Duckwing and Bloomnose stiffle a laugh. Ripplefrost glared at his denmates for a brief moment before turning back to Smokepaw.

“What about you? Will you just stand there, or help your sister?”

Sighing, Smokepaw grabbed another patch of wet moss that Mudpaw had left at the entrance and pressed it to Ripplefrost’s other side. The brown tabby finally seemed to relax.

“Oh, yes, much better,” he mumbled. “Smokepaw, Mudpaw, had I ever told you about how I swallowed a live minnow when I was an apprentice?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Smokepaw lied.

“Oh Yes! Yes! We would love to hear it, Ripplefrost! ” Mudpaw purred delightfully. Smokepaw inwardly rolled her eyes. Suck up, she thought.

Mudpaw’s head snapped towards her, giving her a half-angry, half-confused look, as if she could hear her thoughts. Confused, Smokepaw stared back, until Mudpaw eventually looked at her paws and mumbled something Smokepaw couldn’t hear. The elders seemed to notice the shift in the atmosphere.

“Hey, you two have done enough for us,” Hayshine meowed awkwardly, trying to sound encouraging. “Why don’t you go outside and have a meal?”

Ripplefrost opened his mouth to protest, but he was immediately silenced by Hayshine’s look that told him she wasn’t just saying it for no reason. Smokepaw glanced at Mudpaw as she was padding out, but her sister was looking down in front of her paws and wouldn’t meet her eyes. 

Outside, she spotted Mudpaw’s mentor, Shellfire, make their way towards them. He stopped before his apprentice and shook his dappled pelt to get rid of the snow in it.

“Are you up for hunting?” he asked the brown she-cat, who nodded, eyes brightening. As she followed her mentor, Smokepaw suddenly got an idea in her head.

“Hey! Wait! Can I... come with?” she blurted out. Shellfire glanced at her.

“Only if Spottedclaw’s okay with it,” he meowed. Smokepaw shook her head.

“She won’t mind,” she promised. “After all, the Clan needs prey now, right?” The senior warrior seemed to weigh the dark gray apprentice’s words in his mind before eventually nodding.

“Very well. Come,” he said, waving his tail. Smokepaw padded up next to her sister, prepared to make conversation. Mudpaw seemed to go back to her usual self.

“So,” she started, “Ripplefrost quite a grump ain't he?” Mudpaw let out a purr of amusement.

“He is,” she agreed, “but if he heard me say that, he would claw my ears off!” The two sisters shared a laugh. 

Bounding across the RiverClan land, Smokepaw realized that the territory seemed oddly quiet. The branches still rustled and birds still chirped, but it felt as if something was missing. She slowed down and started looking around, stretching her ears to hear what she was looking for, even though she didn’t even know what it was.

“Smokepaw! Are you coming?” Shellfire called after her, a few fox-lengths ahead.

“Yeah!” she called back, bursting into a sprint to catch up with her littermate and the dappled warrior. 

“That’s strange,” Shellfire remarked. “We should be nearing the river, but I can’t hear it.” Smokepaw strained her ears to listen, but she couldn’t hear anything either. She darted ahead, ignoring Shellfire’s cries of protest. She skidded and slid across the snow-covered forest floor. She came closer and closer to where the river was, and yet, she still couldn’t hear anything. Suddenly, she didn’t feel the soft snow under her paws, but a cold, hard surface.

Without warning, she heard a creak and then a soft cracking noise. Before she could realize what was going on, she felt someone pull at her scruff, dragging her back. She let out a surprised yelp, just as the snow-covered ice beneath her broke into pieces. 

“Be careful!” Shellfire glared at the young apprentice. “If I hadn’t pulled you back in time, you’d be swimming down there with the fish.”

Panting, Smokepaw turned to look to where she stood a few moments ago. Beneath the cracked ice that now had a hole in it, she could see a dark, murky water flowing underneath.

“Is that...?” she trailed off.

“The river!” Mudpaw exclaimed, eyes wide. Shellfire stared at the opening in the ice, eyes clouded with thoughts. Smokepaw shuddered. Had she really almost fallen into the icy depths?

Then, a sickening, sinking feeling twisted her belly. The river... was frozen. She felt her stomach twist and heart sink. How are we going to feed ourselves now that the river is frozen?

Chapter II (Flameheart)

Mudpaw sat down, her amazement cut off by the creeping feeling of being sick to her stomach. She didn't know what what causing it, but it was like it was wrapping into a ball to flip her stomach over. The feeling of dread covered her shoulders and seeped into her nerves.

"How are we going to feed ourselves now that the river is frozen?" She looked over at Smokepaw, who was still staring down at the ice. "I'm sure we can find other ways to hunt, Smokepaw. The ice has to thaw in due time!"

Smokepaw jerked her head up, whipping around to Mudpaw. Confusion in her gaze. "I didn't say anything, Mudpaw." The brown apprentice tilted her head, confused. Of course Smokepaw had spoken, she had heard her!

Mudpaw stood back up, confused. "Yes you did! You were just worrying about how we were going to eat now that the river is frozen-" The brown she-cat swung her head around to her mentor. "-Shellfire! You heard her, right?" Shellfire looked between the two, hesitant, then shook his head.

"Afraid I didn't, Mudpaw: You must be tired. You did sleep properly last night, right?" Mudpaw's head was spinning now, had she been caught up in worrying about this cold leaf-bare that it was affecting how she slept? Maybe it was just me. She shook her head, trying to make it clear.

"I slept fine," She insisted. "Maybe it was just me. Sorry." She then looked back over towards the river. The rushing water had been trapped in semi-thick ice. Cutting off a good water source, and blocking them off from the fish below. "Do you think it'll snow now that it's gotten colder?"

"Most likely," Shellfire nodded, lifting his head to the sky. "The sky will turn grey, and you'll wake up one day to snow covering the forest. It'll be beautiful: trust me." Mudpaw tilted her head, trying to picture snow. The elders always said it was like a white soil that covered the grass and trees.

"Will it be like the soil?" Mudpaw looked down, dragging her paw across the soft earth below her. Shellfire had said that the soil was for plants. A blessing from Starclan for herbs to grow from and thrive. So that RiverClan wouldn't suffer from sickness.

The water is a gift given so we do not thirst, She recited silently. and a special gift so we can have food that the other Clans can't: the fish. "Not quite." Her mentor interrupted her thoughts, Mudpaw looked up at him. She waited for further explanation as to what the tom meant. "It's... Softer, in a way. It packs down under your paws and becomes firm. Very noisy in hunting, but we can use it as practice for stalking. So it's not all bad."

Shellfire stood up. "That being said, we came out here to hunt. Now that the river is frozen, it'll most definitely snow. If we want some full bellies to tough it out. We start now, and hunt as much as we can before the prey flees to their dens. Come along." Her mentor beckoned the two to follow him with a sway of his tail. Bounding forward with strong legs from ages of running across the marshy territory.

Mudpaw took a glance back over at her sister, then bounded off after him. With more sloppy paw coordination than he had. She always found herself to not be as sure when stepping out onto the territory. Being old enough to finally be outside, but being too young to be outside alone was a strange point in life.

"Here we are." Shellfire's voice cut through her thoughts. "I trust you two already know how to hunt, let's hunt and meet back here. Don't stray far from the trees." They were hunting in the patch of trees today? How odd. Guess we should be used to hunting in the trees rather than the water, with the river freezing over and all.

. . .

While the hunt was far from perfect, Mudpaw could still come into camp boasting a bird and a squirrel that she had found near the base roots of a tee. She didn't look to see what Smokepaw had caught, but she was sure that it was also something good. This was to feed the clan after all,Shellfire had taught her: So long as you bring back something to feed your clan with. You had accomplished something good.

Head high and jaws stuffed with feathers and fur, the apprentice marched over to the fresh-kill-pile. Dropping the two pieces of prey onto it without a care.

"You did pretty good." Shellfire's voice startled her. "With Smokepaw's stern mentor, I don't know about her. But I'l be taking you to the gathering tonight. No questions, no protests. Go rest up." Mudpaw was left hanging with her jaw wide open as the tom padded off. Shock and excitement tingling in her fur, fear gripping her shoulders and anxiety coiling in her belly.

The Gathering was a sacred time of peace for the four clans: once every full moon, the leaders of the four clans would choose a select few warriors, who could also invite their apprentices if they had one, and they would travel to the special Fourtrees under a truce to share the news of the activity in other clans. Shellfire had explained the event to her in full detail while they were in one of the many sessions he took her out on to just appreciate the territory around her.

It was an honour to be chosen to go. Especially since Mudpaw and Stormpaw hadn't been training long at all. Then Shellfire's words rang in her ears again. With Smokepaw's stern mentor, I don't know about her. Was Spottedclaw really that mean?

Uncertainty joined the emotions pulsing through Mudpaw's body. Do I want to attend my first gathering without Smokepaw? I hope she'll be able to come...

Chapter III (Pumpkintail)

“Spottedclaw isn’t mean,” Smokepaw huffed before taking a bite out of the squirrel her sister had caught. She lifted her head, chewing contently, until she realized her denmate, Copperpaw, was staring at her with confusion written on his face. She gulped down the meat.

“I didn’t say anything,” Copperpaw meowed after a few moments. He himself had a small thrush under his paws. 

“You... didn’t?” Smokepaw frowned. “Then who did?” The dark ginger tom shrugged.

“I didn’t hear anything,” he told her. Smokepaw felt her paws itch. If Copperpaw hadn’t said anything, then who had? Come to think of it, the voice she heard was suspiciously close to Mudpaw’s, but Smokepaw’s sister was nowhere in sight, probably padding around outside while her littermate and her friend shared a meal in the apprentice’s den that seemed cozy in the cold leaf-bare. Then, her thoughts swirled back to the calico deputy.

Spottedclaw wasn’t mean. She wasn’t even that stern. She was merely fierce and sharp-tongued, very much unlike Shellfire, her sister’s mentor. The dappled tom was a senior warrior who preferred to keep his claws clean of blood belonging to other warriors. He was a patient and good-hearted, which is why Creekstar had chosen him to mentor yet another apprentice.

Spottedclaw, on the other hand, was eager to fight and nothing could top the love she felt towards RiverClan. Swift and nimble in battle, she expected the best from her apprentice, and that’s what Smokepaw tried to give her. But even beneath Spottedclaw’s sharp tongue and fierce nature, she was a brave deputy who served her Clan above all else. 

Smokepaw was snapped out of her thoughts by the sound of pawsteps outside the den. She glanced up to see Mudpaw’s brown face pop into the den.

“Hey! I’m going to the Gathering!” she purred happily. Smokepaw blinked in surprise.

“You are?”

“Yeah! All we have to do is convince Spottedclaw to let you come too,” she added. “Come on!” With that, she disappeared outside. Smokepaw turned to Copperpaw who waved his tail to wordlessly let her know he didn’t mind if she left. Meowing a quick bye to the younger apprentice, she followed her sister.

She emerged outside. Mudpaw was waiting for her, the tips of her long fur already damp from waiting in the frost-covered camp. When she saw the gray apprentice come out, she stood up and bounded towards where Shellfire was already talking to Spottedclaw. Smokepaw followed in tow.

“I don’t know,” she heard her mentor say, her voice concerned. “Aren’t they a little bit too young, Shellfire? I don’t know how keen I am on my apprentice going to the Gathering.” 

“I believe Mudpaw is responsible enough to be around other Clans,” Shellfire responded calmly. “I took Smokepaw hunting today after she returned. She’s mature enough.” When he saw the deputy wasn’t convinced, he quickly added; “Besides, if anything bad happens, you can tell Creekstar I made you do it.” Mudpaw stepped forward.

“Please, Spottedclaw!” she begged. The deputy’s yellow eyes flew from Shellfire to Mudpaw to Smokepaw. She let out an exasperated sigh.

“Very well,” she meowed finally. “I’ll take you to the Gathering, Smokepaw, but you better be on your best behavior.”

The gray apprentice felt her heart leap with excitement. The Gathering! She was going to meet the other Clans and show them just how skilled she was already. Spottedclaw made her grind out her best performance every day, and she finally felt like she could show others all that she’d learned. She glanced up to see the sun setting. She glanced back at the group of cats around her, only to see Spottedclaw was doing the same.

“Well, we’d better get going,” she meowed. She walked into the middle of the clearing in the camp. Her strong, edged voice rose from her throat.

“Let all cats old enough to catch their own prey gather here! It is time for a Gathering.” As the cats circled around the calico deputy, the she-cat listed off the names of the cats that were to attend. Finally, while gazing at Shellfire, she meowed Mudpaw and Smokepaw’s names. Smokepaw felt someone brush against her pelt.

“It’s going to be your first Gathering,” a familiar voice purred. Smokepaw turned around to face Otterwhisker, her father. The sleek gray-brown tom was among the cats Spottedclaw had named moments ago. Smokepaw felt warmth spread in her chest.

“I’m going to sit this one out,” another voice purred. Blueflower, Smokepaw and Mudpaw’s mother padded over to them and gave her daughters each a lick on the ear. “Creekstar isn’t feeling so well, so I’d rather stay here.” Smokepaw felt confusion cloud her thoughts.

“What’s wrong with Creekstar?” Mudpaw beat her to the question.

“Birchpelt reckons it’s whitecough,” Blueflower explained. “Probably - hopefully - nothing serious, but you can never be too careful.”

“And lastly,” Spottedclaw spoke, “I’ll be the one leading you and speaking on the Gathering instead of Creekstar. Our leader hasn’t been feeling well, and the duty is mine tonight. Let’s get going before it gets dark. We don’t want the other Clans thinking we’re making them wait.” With that, the calico deputy started padding off towards the edge of the reed-rimmed camp. The other cats followed right behind, and Mudpaw and Smokepaw were at the very end with the elders. 

Smokepaw felt the soil under her paws change to cold water. The stream they’d discovered before, the one that was frozen, had been far thinner than the wide river that surrounded the RiverClan camp from both sides. Smokepaw was glad that the cats could swim through while the water was still flowing, regardless of how cold it was. 

She emerged through the reeds on the other side, shaking the freezing water from her pelt. If she wasn’t careful, her wet fur would turn into icicles. Suddenly, she was glad that her fur was thick enough to keep her warm. In that moment, she wasn’t jealous of her father or mentor who both had short, sleek fur.

Once they left the river behind them, the cats marched further through the territory to arrive at Fourtrees, Spottedclaw in lead. The calico she-cat had carried herself elegantly and confidently, as if she was already a leader. Light on her paws, the deputy jumped over a fallen bush in her path.

Rumor had it that none of Creekstar’s deputies could last longer than six moons. If the talks about the curse of the RiverClan leader were true, then Spottedclaw had a lot to be proud of, for the Gathering marked the seventh moon of her deputyship.

Slowly, the trees started thinning, and the undergrowth grew scarcer and scarcer. Smokepaw squinted to look ahead, hardly recognizing the shape of four trees in a clearing in the dark. She followed her Clanmates down a slope. The silhouette of Fourtrees grew ever closer, and strange smells hit Smokepaw’s nose like a wave. Sniffing, she recognized the smell of moors and rabbits that came from WindClan. Then, she smelled their neighbors, ThunderClan. Their scent reminded her of oak trees and fresh dew. Finally, she scented the almost stench-like smell of swamp and mud that must’ve been coming from ShadowClan. She could recognize every cat in her Clan by scent, but she doubted she could even remember what the other Clans smelled like. Sure, she’d been patrolling before at the borders, but stale marks were nothing like the smell of real, living cats righr in front of her.

Spottedclaw stopped, not far from their destination. She lifted her tail and glanced at RiverClan. Then, she spoke.

“We’ve arrived.”

Smokepaw felt excitement bubble up inside her. The fact that she was about to be at the Gathering didn’t properly sink in until she could see and smell all the cats that have gathered at Fourtrees. At last, the RiverClan cats closed the gap between them and the others and joined the clearing. Smokepaw sat down next to Mudpaw back with the apprentices from other Clans. She watched as her mentor gracefully leapt onto the rock that sat in the middle.

“Greetings, Spottedclaw,” Ravenstar meowed. Frogstar scoffed.

“You’re the last one here,” he remarked. “Where’s Creekstar?”

“Creekstar has business to attend to,” Spottedclaw meowed, leveling ShadowClan leader up and down with her gaze. 

“We are all here now,” Fleetstar said. Smokepaw could see that the black-and-white leader’s belly was swollen with kits. I wonder how she’s handling being a mother and a leader, she thought. 

“Yes,” Ravenstar nodded. “Then... Let the Gathering begin.”

Chapter IV (Flameheart)

Mudpaw felt her legs shaking, her fur was standing up. Her jaw was snapped shut, and her eyes were wide. All her senses were tingling with fear and wonder. As though she were playing a game of catch with a friendly fox. Still intimidating, but she had to trust that she was safe. Shellfire had told her over and over again that the clans met under a full moon truce every gathering. They had to trust that no warrior from another clan would dare break the ancient tradition.

Ignoring the voices from the north of the clearing, Mudpaw spotted some cats huddled in a circle, around her size. Excitement bubbled up in her chest, and the apprentice raced over without a second thought. "Hi! I'm Mudpaw, From Riverclan- What's your names?" The group stared at her for a minute. Making a brief tension, before one of the cats perked up- A gray tabby.

"I'm Featherpaw, from Windclan." He began to nod to the others. "The brown tabby is Applepaw, the two over there are Larchpaw and Larkpaw, from Thunderclan." He then directed his gaze to a yellow tabby. " And that's Mallowpaw. From Shadowclan." Mudpaw open her mouth to speak again, but was cut off by a booming voice from the top of the clearing.

"Let the gathering begin!" Panic flashed under Mudpaw's fur, where did she sit? Did she just stay where she was right now? The apprentice hurried to sit down and look up, pricking her ears to hear what each leader had to say.

"I'll start." The Windclan leader straightened up, Fleetstar, she could remember being told the she-cats name. "Windclan has been experiencing some rogue issues," She began. "It appears that there's a group of rogue cats coming into our territory and stealing prey." The leader swung her head around, glaring at two of the other leaders, her eyes sharp with suspicion. "That's our current theory."

Frogstar straightened up noticeably, stiff at the indirect accusation. "Apart from that, we're doing well." She finished, Fleetstar sat back down. The Shadowclan leader quickly took her place.

"Shadowclan has also caught the scent of a group of rogue cats." Frogstar quickly spoke. "But we haven't noticed much stolen prey, ourselves." His ears flattened, and he let out a low hiss. "They must know that Shadowclan will not practice restrain on filthy outsiders! If rogues or loners dare set a claw on our prey, we'll make them die a slow and painful death!"

Mudpaw flinched, wasn't it dishonourable to kill a cat? Even worse to make sure they're in pain the whole time? She looked around, trying to find the gaze of her mentor. There's too many cats here. The sound of the Thunderclan leader speaking was merely a background noise, until a howl split the air.

"Unless you filthy lizard-eaters are stealing my prey and using the scented rogue to cover it up!" Fleetstar snarled, tail now lashing in annoyance, her eyes slitted with fury. "The prey is rightfully Windclan's, it's to feed our kits and elders, not for the other clans to get fat off of!" Frogstar's back fur was now spiked, his back arched as though he were preparing to swipe at Fleetstar. Ravenstar sat back on her haunches just behind the standing leaders, looking between the two helplessly.

"Enough!" Spottedclaw's voice burst through the tension. "You can sort out your problems in your own time, but this is a gathering. you two should be ashamed for trying to start a fight. Settle. down." The last part came out as a venomous growl, daring the two to make the first attack. Fur still spiked, Frogstar slowly sat down, he stayed straight up and tense. Fleetstar stared at him for a moment, attempting to mask her fury. The Windclan leader swallowed once, then sat down herself, leaving a tension thick enough to bite into lingering in the air.

"Now then," Spottedclaw herself sat down, as well. "If you're done quarreling over rabbits and hares, then Riverclan has some good news to share." She began. "Leaf-bare is doing us well, for starters. We haven't had much struggle keeping everyone satisfied with their hunger." The Deputy then looked back out at the crowd. "We also welcome Mudpaw and Smokepaw to their first gathering as apprentices!"

There was silence.

Oh no. . . Mudpaw felt the heat of embarrassment seep into her pelt and weigh down her shoulders. Her ear tips went hot. The apprentice wanted to hide in her nest and disappear forever! "Do you not appreciate Starclan-given life?" A tom's voice cut through the air. She looked back up, one of the deputies now stood from his place below the leaders.

"Don't let your fresh quarrels get in the way of celebrating the future generation of the clans! Cheer for the new apprentices, they're waiting-" He paused for a moment, then added lightheartedly: "-They've already been announced, we have to embarrass them a little bit!"

The tension was watered down a bit, with murmuring cats. Mainly with things like. 'there he is' and 'typical Blossomwhisker'. Eventually, there were some awkward chants. Trying to lighten up a bit. "Smokepaw. . . Mudpaw. . . Smokepaw. . . Mudpaw. . ."

It didn't help the tension between the clans much. Of course two Riverclan apprentices wouldn't be enough to set aside prey-thieves. Disappointment weighed in Mudpaw's belly like a boulder. So much for a first gathering! The apprentice thought miserably. Spottedclaw's ears were pressed against her head, even Mudpaw could make out her fury in the moonlight. "Well, if you have nothing else to announce. Then Riverclan will be leaving you to your own quarrels!"

With that, Spottedclaw didn't hesitate to jump down and cry out for the Riverclanners to follow her. Mudpaw looked over at the group of apprentices she had approached when the gathering started. Their eyes were now wide, the group had split and now sent suspicious glares to one another. Clan before friendship, right.

As the group made their way up the slope, Mudpaw was now more easily able to pick out Smokepaw from the rest. Relief made her feel not as heavy, and the brown she-cat bounded over to her sister. "Rough gathering, huh?" She tried to lighten the mood, but her sister just stared at her for a moment with cold eyes.

"Yeah." She finally answered. "Maybe next time you'll think before trying to get too friendly with the other clans." Shocked, Mudpaw stumbled, almost stopping completely.

"Excuse me?!" She hissed.

Smokepaw narrowed her eyes. "You heard me. You saw how the other clans acted! They're all self-absorbed and looking for a fight. But there you are chatting away with who could be our enemies!" Mudpaw gasped, ears pressing flat against her head. You wouldn't know if they're our enemies!

"Yes I would!" Smokepaw came to a full stop, whirling around to face Mudpaw. Had she spoken out loud? Mudpaw opened her jaws to argue, but saw that they were now in the back of the group.

"Let's finish this later." She murmured, shouldering past Smokepaw to catch up with everyone else. She's just as upset as I am about the other clans not taking kindly to our announcement. Mudpaw tried to reason. And it's late, we're all tired. I'm sure she'll feel better tomorrow. . .

Chapter V (Pumpkintail)

Smokepaw did not feel better. She did regret yelling at her sister, but she couldn't help but feel it was a little justified. After all, the other apprentices didn't hesitate to abandon her as soon as tensions got high. Didn't she see that she could make better friends in her own Clan?

She stretched and yawned, then crawled out of the apprentice's den. Mudpaw was eating a fish near the fresh-kill pile. As soon as she spotted Smokepaw, she averted her gaze. The gray she-cat sighed and padded towards her.

"Hey," she said, picking a water vole and sitting down next to her sister. Mudpaw didn't respond. She's really not making it easy. "I'm sorry for yelling at you yesterday," Smokepaw said, trying to sound confident. "I don't like that you're talking to the other Clans, but... I shouldn't have been so harsh. You should be friends with whoever you please." With that, Smokepaw looked at the ground, feeling truly embarrassed for the first time in her life. Mudpaw looked up, and a small purr rumbled at the back of her throat.

"I forgive you," she meowed with her mouth full. Then, she swallowed. "It was a tough Gathering, but we won't let that stop us from becoming the best warriors we can be, right?" she added playfully. Smokepaw felt herself purr too. Suddenly, she heard Spottedclaw from the other side of the clearing.

"Smokepaw!" she called, padding towards her. She glanced at Mudpaw next to her. "You too, Mudpaw. I'm leading a patrol to check the borders with Shellfire. You two better come." With a flick of her tail, she turned back to other cats, assigning patrols for the day.

"Stormsong, Quickleap, Otterwhisker, Rainstream, Shellfire, Ashpaw, Herbpaw, Smokepaw and Mudpaw will go on to patrol the borders with me," she said in a booming voice. "The tensions are high between the Clans right now, so we better check that certain codebreakers didn't get any ideas." She signalled with her tail for cats to follow her. Leaving her unfinished water vole where it was, Smokepaw scrambled to catch up with her mentor as they set off towards the WindClan border. Otterwhisker slowed down to get closer to his daughters.

"So, what did you think of the Gathering?" he asked, his amber eyes glittering. Smokepaw instinctively glanced at Mudpaw, who seemed less-than-happy.

"It was fine," she sighed.

"It was interesting," Smokepaw said flatly. Otterwhisker's whiskers twitched.

"Come now," he said, "you can say it was a disaster, but... They kind of always are, you know," he mewed, looking at both of them. "There's no reason to feel sad. Perhaps the other Clans didn't care you became apprentices, but RiverClan sure does."

Smokepaw felt pride warm her chest, but Mudpaw still looked a bit disheartened. Noticing this, Otterwhisker spoke again.

"Hey, Mudpaw. Have you ever seen a deer?" he asked. Mudpaw's ears perked up.

"No," she meowed curiously.

"Oh, they're a bit silly, really, they always look like this," he said, mimicking a deer's googly-eyed confused expression. Mudpaw let out a mrrow of laughter, and even Smokepaw snorted a little. Suddenly, she felt grateful that her father was such a caring cat.

"Here we are now," the voice of her mentor interrupted her thoughts. Smokepaw watched the frost-covered moor. She shuddered, thinking about being out in the open all day. Suddenly, a strong smell of WindClan hit her nose - not only of their scent on the border, but actual cats.

"Well, hello there," an oddly familiar voice said. A tall, fluffy white tom with WindClan written all over him sauntered into her view, followed by a gray tabby apprentice and a few other cats.

"Blossomwhisker," Spottedclaw nodded, "patrolling your borders?"

"Naturally," Blossomwhisker lashed his tail, eyes never leaving Spottedclaw's, "had to make sure you fish-eaters didn't get any ideas." His words were harsh, but his tone was playful, and his smooth fur and relaxed posture suggested he was only joking. Spottedclaw chuckled. Blossomwhisker? This is the tom who stood up for us at the Gathering!

"RiverClan? Crossing borders under my watch? What a thought," Spottedclaw retorted, tail lashing from side to side. She wasn't being aggressive, but Smokepaw knew she wasn't much for jokes. Blossomwhisker only purred in response.

"Of course. I'm sure once you become Spottedstar, you will raise RiverClan cats into being just as fun-loving and open-minded as you, Deputy," he purred. Spottedclaw snorted, but behind her, Otterwhisker's fur bristled as he pushed his way to the front.

"Don't talk to us like that," he mumbled, slightly agitated. Blossomwhisker stared at Otterwhisker for a few moments, as if surprised to see him. Then, he shook his head.

"Come now," he mewed, "it was only a joke."

"Hey!" the gray tabby apprentice next to him stuck his head out to the front, looking at Mudpaw. "I was at the Gathering, remember?"

"Quiet, Featherpaw," Breezestorm, a WindClan warrior, said, flicking her tail. Blossomwhisker shrugged.

"It's fine," he said, "my apprentice can make friends. That's allowed, you know?" He turned back to Spottedclaw. "It was a nice chat, but we have a border to patrol. Be well." With that, he turned around. Featherpaw gave Smokepaw's sister one last look before following his mentor. Mudpaw gazed after the WindClan apprentice, amusement and a bit of something else in her eyes. Smokepaw's whiskers twitched with amusement.

As soon as the group made its way back to the RiverClan camp, Smokepaw heard an angry yowl from the center of the clearing. The apprentice exchanged glances with her sister, and they both rushed to see what was happening.

In the middle of the clearing stood Reedfang, hackles raised and fur bristled. He was standing over what Smokepaw soon realized to be crow-food. It seemed like the rotting remains of a trout, but she couldn't be sure. Spottedclaw caught up with them at last.

"Reedfang," she growled, "what is this?" At this point, nearly every cat in the camp seemed to be watching.

"We found this hidden under a bush by the river!" Reedfang snarled. "Me and Splashfur, that is. Someone clearly didn't want us to find it."

"What does it mean?" Leafsplash called from the crowd. Spottedclaw closed her eyes.

"It means what I feared," she hissed. When she opened them again, they were pure fire. Reedfang looked around, his dark brown tabby pelt spiked. What he said next sent shivers Smokepaw's spine.

"What it means," he snarled, "is that someone has been stealing our prey!"

Chapter VI (Flameheart)

Mudpaw felt her blood run cold at the announcement, her mind flashing back to the events at the gathering. Chills ran down her spine at the thought. Rogue cats really are on our territory! Fear clawed at Mudpaw's chest, making her body weak and shaky. She felt the weight of anxiety settle on her back and shoulders. Rogue cats are dangerous!

"Yeah!" Smokepaw spoke up, looking over at Mudpaw. "They're nasty fighters too." Mudpaw met her sister's gaze, confused. Was speaking out loud really becoming such a problem for her? Then she looked around, noticing the stares of her clan mates. All of them were looking at Smokepaw like she had just killed a fox and ate it in front of them.

"Who are you talking to, Smokepaw?" Their mother, Blueflower, questioned. Mudpaw realized that her sister had been the one to break the shocked silence around the clearing. Their mother shook her head, "Whatever, it doesn't matter. We need to focus on the rogue cats, they were enough to cause problems at the gathering. Now they're stealing our prey. I say we discuss what to do with them."

"Simple," Spottedclaw hissed, moving from her place and into the middle of the camp clearing. "These rogue are causing problems for all the clans. We need to get rid of them as soon as we possibly can." Her icy gaze swept across the clearing, daring any of the Riverclan warriors to try and challenge her authority. However, nobody spoke up. Mudpaw could understand why: The tension was thick enough to rip down and eat like prey, and she even felt stuck in place thanks to the deputy's intimidating gaze.

"Now, now, Spottedclaw." A raspy voice shattered the silence once again, as Creekstar crept over to join her. "We need to be patient about this." The deputy whirled around to face her leader, eyes wide in cold fury.

"We may not have time for patience, Creekstar!" She snapped. "These rogue are causing trouble for all the clans, we need to get rid of them now! Now!" There was a tense silence between the leader and deputy, before Creekstar's lip curled into a snarl, his normally calm eyes narrowing into small slits.

"Spottedclaw, you will not go after those rogue cats until I say so! No sooner, no later. I am your leader, and that is final! It's too dangerous right now, and we can't rush into a fight." He swung his head around to face the rest of the clan. "No Riverclanner is to go after those rogue! That's final! clan dismissed." There was a moment of silence, then the clan of cats began to disperse. Still shaken, Mudpaw darted over to her sister.

"Well that was..." She blanked, what would be a word to describe this situation that she knew? Mudpaw had heard a lot of words from the elders. Some of which she weren't allowed to say. It still infuriated her thinking about it, how was she supposed to know that 'rat-dung' wasn't something an apprentice should say?

That was maggot-filled rat-dung." Smokepaw finished for her, the words made Mudpaw gasp.

"Smokepaw!!" she squeaked. "We're not allowed to say those words!!" Her sister only scoffed when she said that, looking away from Mudpaw.

Then she heard her speakIt doesn't matter if we're allowed to or not.

But, Smokepaw never spoke. Her mouth never moved, she was speaking without saying a word. Unless... Smokepaw Mudpaw thought towards her sister. Smokepaw, look at me! I'm not talking! Look!!

Chapter VII ~ Pumpkintail

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