A black-and-white she-cat hurried through the falling rain. The ground was unfamiliar, but she sought only a safe place to have her kits. Another spasm rocked her thin body, and she stopped, exhausted. Curling under the shadow of a bush, she waited. There was nothing else to do.
"Hawk." She touched the brown tabby tom with her tail. "Patch." She smiled at the black-and-white she-kit, so like herself. "And what about you, little one?" She gently licked the smallest: a silvery tabby she-kit. "How about... Song. Yes, that's perfect. Welcome to the world, my precious kits."
The she-cat tensed. A cat was approaching. No, more than one, four or five. She knew this moment would come, but her kits were only a moon old. Why so soon? She had scented the cats as she hunted alone. They traveled in groups, hunting or scent-marking. She had never strayed beyond their markers, and neither had they. So why were they here now?
"Mother?" Hawk's golden eyes were wide with curiousity. "What's wrong?"
She smiled. So much like his father. "Nothing my dear," she said, sweeping her three kits under the large bush with her tail. "Just stay here and remain quiet."
The she-cat stepped in front of the bush, ready to face the cats. And defend her kits with her life.
The first cat to emerge was a large, handsome tabby tom. The spring sunlight glinted on his brown fur, and his muscles rippled smoothly. The she-cat tensed. If all the cats were like this strong tom, she stood no chance. But she had to try. For her kits. For Oscar. I won't let your kits die. You gave up your life for us, and I will do the same.
But the tom, and the three cats who followed him into the clearing, didn't look evil. Stern yes, but not mean. He parted his jaws, then frowned. Before he could say anything, a small she-cat, her sleek ginger fur glistening, stepped in front of him.
"Who are you?" she snarled.
The she-cat's fur fluffed up. "I did not come into your territory. Why have you come here?"
"Stand back Fireflower," the brown tom said. His voice was deep and gruff, yet had a musical lilt to it. The she-cat thought she could listen to him talk forever. Snap out of it, she shook herself.
"We do not wish to hurt you. Perhaps we might even help," the tom continued, as the ginger she-cat stepped back. "I am Pinestar, leader of WaterClan. What is your name?"
The she-cat hesitated. Then she looked into the tom's steady golden-brown gaze, and knew she could trust him. "Maribel."
"Maribel," he repeated. "Not a clan name."
Maribel twitched her ears, not sure what he meant. "Sorry," the tom said. "I suppose you've never heard of us. WaterClan, TreeClan, and LightningClan?"
She shook her head. "Please," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "Don't hurt my kits."
The cats did not look surprised. They had smelled the milk-scent on her.
"We would never hurt them," promised Pinestar. "Maribel," he said, "How would you like to join WaterClan?"
Maribel glanced backwards. Song's head poked out of the bushes. They will be safer with more cats around. She looked at the cats. "Okay."
Songkit burst out of the nursery with her brother and sister at her paws. "We're gonna become apprentices!"
Hawkkit pounced on her and rolled her over. Though he was only six moons old, he was already much bigger than both his sisters, especially Songkit.
Patchkit and her mother walked out of the nursery more calmly. They looked exactly alike, with the same shimmering green eyes and ebony-ivory fur.
"Songkit," Maribel said disapprovingly. "Let me groom your fur. It's all out of order."
Songkit sighed as her mother tried to smooth out her tufty tabby fur. Fireflower, the deputy of WaterClan, walked past just then. Songkit felt her mother tense. Maribel didn't get along with any of the cats well; she was definetley not a clan cat, but she and Fireflower barely tolerated each other.
"You know," Fireflower said to her mate, the easy-going Rivertail. "I can't believe that cats who weren't even born into WaterClan are becoming apprentices. I certainly wouldn't want to mentor them."
Maribel's teeth bared, but she had no need of defending herself. Pinestar stalked over to Fireflower and muttered something in her ears. Fireflower's eyes flashed, but she nodded respectfully at her leader.
Pinestar walked over to Maribel. "Maribel, how about we go into my den and discuss possible mentors for your kits?"
Maribel smiled, but Songkit saw a trace of sadness in her eyes. "All right. Be good," she told her kits.
As the two cats walked away, Patchkit and Songkit giggled. "I bet Pinestar's gonna be our new father."
"Says you!" Hawkkit scoffed. "She-kits! They think everything is romance."
"We do not!" exclaimed Patchkit hotly. "I don't think Fireflower and Rivertail have any romace."
Songkit purred cheekily. "They're polar opposites. Who would you pick as a mentor?"
"Pinestar!" exclaimed Hawkkit. "He's awesome, even if he does get all moony around mother."
"Ha! You admitted it," crowed Patchkit truimphantly.
"Did not," said Hawkkit, who never liked to say he was wrong. "What I meant was..."
"Whatever," Songkit said, flicking her tail on her brother's nose. He sneezed. "I would like anyone who's a really good hunter and fighter."
"Then you might as well have Fireflower," pointed out Patchkit. "I want someone really nice, like Applewhisker or Orangenose." She looked towards the two best friends, who were sharing tongues outside the warrior's den.
"It doesn't matter," Hawkkit muttered. "No one wants to mentor us anyway."
Songkit frowned. "That's just Fireflower's opinion, and what does she know?"
"She is the deputy," pointed out Patchkit. Songkit shot a glare at her. "Oh look!" she exclaimed. "The elders are out. Maybe they'll tell us a story."
Songkit watched her siblings go. She turned towards Fireflower. The she-cat's piercing yellow eyes seemd to ridicule her, and she looked down at her paws. Their mother had told them how they came to WaterClan, so the way the other cats treated them was no mystery. But Songkit didn't understand why they couldn't trust her. She had been brought up in WaterClan, it was the only home she ever remembered. Why couldn't they accept that?
Turning, she saw Maribel coming out of Pinestar's den. For once, she looked happy. Her leaf-green eyes sparkled as she walked over to Songkit. "You three are getting excellent mentors," she said. "Pinestar was very kind about it."
Songkit smiled at her mother, but on the inside, she knew Pinestar had only wanted to be nice to Maribel. There was no way good warriors wanted to train a loner's kits.
"Hey Songkit!" A cheerful voice called. She turned to see the two older apprentices, Troutpaw and Bluepaw walking towards her. "Excited?" asked Bluepaw.
Songkit beamed. The apprentices never treated her any different than others, in fact, they seemed to like her a lot. "Yep," she said, her old energy coming back. "My mother talked to Pinestar about our mentors. I think they're gonna be good."
Troutpaw beamed. "We've already gotten you three's nests ready."
"Your nest is next to mine," Bluepaw purred. "Just ask me anything you want to know about being an apprentice."
"Thanks," Songkit meowed. She admired the beautiful blue-gray she-cat, and enjoyed her brother's joking personality too.
"WaterClan, please gather beneath the High Branch to hear what I have to say." Pinestar's call rang out across the camp.
"That's my cue," Songkit said. Anxiety prickled in her paws.
Troutpaw swept his tail across her flank. "You'll be fine."
Hawkkit and Patchkit were seated besides their mother. Patchkit's tail was wrapped neatly around her paws, and Hawkkit's brown tabby pelt shone. Songkit self-conciously licked her own silver coat as she sat besides them.
Pinestar began the ceremony. He called up Patchkit first. The black-and-white kit walked regally towards him. Pinestar stared at her for a second, and Songkit realized he saw Maribel in her. Then the leader shook himself.
He gave Patchkit Applewhisker as a mentor. She ran to touch noses with the light brown she-cat, eyes shining delightedly.
Hawkkit recieved Rivertail as a mentor. Fireflower's ears flattened as her mate touched noses with his new apprentice.
"And finally, little Songkit," Pinestar said. Songkit bristled. I'm not little! Not anymore.
Songkit ran the whole way till she was seated at Pinestar's paws. "Songkit, you have reached the age of six moons. It is time for you to begin your warrior training. From this day till you recieve your warrior name, you will be known as Songpaw. Your mentor will be..." His eyes scanned the clearing.
"Fireflower." Songpaw's heart plummeted. What? Realizing everyone was waiting, she licked Pinestar's shoulder, then hastily brushed noses with Fireflower. The ginger she-cat's eyes were furious, and her tail was bushed up.
She didn't join in the cheering. In fact, barely half the clan did. Songpaw could feel tears brimming in her eyes, but tried to focus only on her mother's proud voice.
"Hawkpaw, Patchpaw, Songpaw!"
Songpaw blinked sleepily. She wasn't in the nursery. Where was she? Then her apprentice ceremony came rushing back to her. She stood and stretched.
Troutpaw was asleep in his nest, his gray tabby flank rising and falling with each breath. Bluepaw and Patchpaw were out on dawn patrol; Songpaw had watched them leave earlier in the morning.
As she stepped outside, she saw Rivertail and Hawkpaw heading out of the thicket tunnel. Fireflower's voice came from behind her, and she jumped.
"There you are," she snapped. "The other apprentices left ages ago."
Songkit snapped back without thinking. "Not Troutpaw. He's still snoring his life away." She felt bad for insulting the friendly gray tom, but Fireflower really got on her nerves. "May I have some fresh-kill first?"
"Make it fast," hissed Fireflower.
Songpaw walked over to the fresh-kill pile just as Troutpaw poked his head out of the apprentice's den. "Hey Songpaw," he meowed.
"Hi," she said. Feeling guilty about her comment, she pushed a plump squirrel towards him. "Want to share?"
"Sure," he said. Sinking into a luxurious stretch, he lay beside her. "Where's everyone else?"
"Well, considering the rest of the clan woke up hours ago, they're all busy with training, tours, and patrols." Seeing hurt flicker in Troutpaw's blue eyes, she flicked her tail across his back. "Don't worry," she meowed. "I barely beat you."
"Ugh," she said, standing up. "I have to go. See you later."
"Good luck," Troutpaw purrs. "More squirrel for me."
"Mouse-brain." Songpaw batted his ear and walked towards Fireflower."What are we doing today?"
Fireflower glared at her. "We're taking a tour of the territory."
"Okay," Songpaw said. Not as fun as hunting or fighting, but I'll take it.
A tingle raced through her. Not even Fireflower could put her down today. She was finally an apprentice.
Songpaw was eating a vole besides the fresh-kill pile. She'd been tempted to take the giant rabbit she had caught herself, but taken it to the elders instead. Cloverleap and Eaglewatch had been very praising, and that was enough.
She had been an apprentice for half a moon, and was getting used to Fireflower's rude comments. She knew she was gaining her mentor's respect though. The ginger she-cat no longer put her down when she did better than Patchpaw or Hawkpaw. Instead, she nodded at Songpaw, and Songpaw knew that was as close to praise as she'd ever get.
"Gotcha!" Songpaw shrieked as something pounced on her tail. She turned to look into Hawkpaw's golden eyes.
"Very funny," she said crossly, licking her ruffled chest-fur.
"Sorry," Hawkpaw smirked. He sat down and took a huge bite of the vole.
Songpaw scowled at him, but it was impossible to stay mad at Hawkpaw for long. Especially considering she'd been picked to go to the Gathering tonight. "Jealous that you aren't going to the Gathering?"
"Shut up mouse-brain," he said, but his eyes were warm. "Tell me and Patchpaw all about it, okay?"
Songpaw nodded. She, Troutpaw, and Bluepaw were going tonight, as well as Maribel, Fireflower, Rivertail, Orangenose, Silverdapple, Streamslip, Greengaze, Dazeflight, and of course, Pinestar. Her belly was tight with nervousness as Pinestar led the clan out of the camp, leaving Applewhisker and Duskclaw in charge of guarding it.
"It's okay," Bluepaw meowed. "The Gathering is lots of fun."
"Yeah," said Troutpaw. "Especially when you get to talk with other cats. But never reveal anything about WaterClan."
Songpaw nodded, and stuck close to the two older apprentices as they paused on the hill leading down to the Meeting Field. Then Pinestar flicked his tail and the WaterClan cats streamed down the hillside and into the broad field, littered with chattering cats.
Songpaw paused. All the scents and sounds were a whirlwind in her mind. Strange pelts flashed in the moonlight, unfamiliar voices came from all around her.
Then Troutpaw was by her side. "See her?" he said, flicking his tail towards a large cream she-cat perched atop Leader's Rock. "That's Violetstar, leader of LightningClan. And that," he said, pointing to a smoky gray tom who was touching noses with Pinestar. "Is Sootstar, the leader of TreeClan."
Songpaw nodded, studying the two cats. Then Bluepaw laid her tail along Songpaw's withers and guided her through the maze of cats over to where a group of young apprentices were playing.
"Watch this!" boasted a large tabby tom. He raced up the side of a tree, then did a back flip and landed on all four paws. His brilliant yellow gaze caught Songpaw's, and she looked at her paws.
"Say," he said, walking towards the three WaterClan cats. "I don't think I've seen you before."
"I'm Songpaw," she said, before Bluepaw could introduce her. Much as she liked the she-cat, she could be a bit smothering.
"Songpaw," he repeated. "I'm Bushpaw."
"Nice to meet you," she meowed.
A sleek dark ginger tom walked up to them. "Hey Bluepaw," he purred.
Bluepaw's ears twitched in annoyance as she meowed a greeting. Troutpaw went over to talk with the two LightningClan apprentices.
"Those are Violetstar's daughters," explained Bluepaw, ignoring the ginger tom, Stickypaw. "The cream one is Mallowpaw. She's training to be a medicine cat. And the pale brown tabby is Sleetpaw, cause of her white paws. She's a really good fighter."
Songpaw nodded. "The Gathering's starting," called Troutpaw.
Sure enough, the cats were grouping around the Leader's Rock, separating into individual clans. Songpaw went to sit beside Bluepaw and Rivertail. Fireflower nodded to her from the foot of Leader's Rock, where she sat with LightningClan's deputy, Roseleaf, and TreeClan's, Brackenclaw.
The Gathering began. Violetstar stepped towards the front of Leader's Rock. "LightningClan is doing excellently. Our prey abounds in new-leaf, and our kits and apprentices are growing strong. We do have one sad thing to report though. One of our elders, Redscratch, died in a brief case of greencough."
Though the leader said it lightly, Songpaw realized that both she and Roseleaf looked tired; certainly not cats who had been thriving on the prey-rich new-leaf. She'd heard of greencough before, but had never seen more than a little whitecough or kittencough in her own clan yet.
Pinestar stepped forward next, his brown tabby coat rippling impressively. "WaterClan is doing well. Our warriors have been full enough to patrol the borders more," he added, shooting a glance at Violetstar. The cream she-cat bristled. "On a brighter note, we have three new apprentices in our clan. Patchpaw, Hawkpaw, and Songpaw, who is here at the Gathering today."
All the WaterClan cats and most of the TreeClan cats called out her name, but Violetstar flicked her tail at any LightningClan warriors who cheered; she was obviously still cranky at Pinestar.
Songpaw flattened her ears against her head, embarrased. Bluepaw gave her a lick on the cheek to reassure her.
Next came Sootstar. Though the tom was shorter than the other two leaders, he had a quiet assertiveness about him that made the field grow quiet. "TreeClan also grows strong," he meowed. "We have a new apprentice as well, Bushpaw."
Songpaw glanced at the brown tom, and he met her gaze. His fur didn't even ruffle as the other clans called out his name, he just lifted his chin proudly. How arrogant, Songpaw thought to herself.
"Sadly," Sootstar continued, "Bushpaw's sister, Hawthornkit, never made it to her apprenticeship. She was killed when a badger attacked our camp."
Bushpaw's head and tail drooped, and Songpaw suddenly felt sorry for him. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to lose Patchpaw or Hawkpaw.
After Sootstar was done making sure every cat knew TreeClan was strong as ever after the badger attack, the Gathering ended and the cats began to mingle again.
"Hey Songpaw," called a voice.
Songpaw turned, an odd hope flaring inside her chest that it was Bushpaw. It wasn't. "Hi Sleetpaw," she meowed cautiously, staring at the older apprentice.
Sleetpaw's cream-tipped tail twitched in amusement. "Come on, I won't bite. Want to come wrestle with the other apprentices?"
"Sure," Songpaw purred. She spotted Bluepaw and Troutpaw deep in conversation with Mallowpaw. Stickypaw and Bushpaw wrestled near them. Stickypaw was sleek and fast, but Bushpaw wasn't as clumsy as his large frame suggested. As the two she-cats approached, he sent Stickypaw rolling.
"Hello," he boomed in a voice surprisingly deep for a new apprentice.
"Hi," Sleetpaw said. Before Songpaw could greet the handsome tom, she was whisked towards Bluepaw and Mallowpaw by Sleetpaw. "What are we talking about?" Sleetpaw elbowed her way into the circle.
"Hi guys," meowed Mallowpaw, touching her sister's shoulder with her tail. Even with her pure cream coat, she didn't look much like Violetstar; she was lightly built and small. "We were discussing my medicine cat training."
Troutpaw nodded. "It sounds cool, but I'd much rather be a warrior." The other cats purred their agreement, and Mallowpaw shrugged.
"Well, Honeydusk is an excellent mentor, and I find it a worthy way to help your clan." Songpaw detected a trace of defensiveness in her voice.
"Is that Honeydusk?" Songpaw asked to break the stiffness. She pointed with her tail towards a pale golden tabby.
Mallopaw nodded. Just then, a cry rang out across the Meeting Field. "WaterClan, we are leaving!"
"Let's go," Bluepaw said. The three apprentices meowed farewells to the others.
"By Songpaw!" called Bushpaw. His fur ruffled. "And Bluepaw and Troutpaw," he added hastily.
Luckily, the older apprentices didn't notice, and Songpaw waved her tail at Bushpaw to show she heard.
When they arrived back to camp, Songpaw slipped into her nest. Patchpaw and Hawkpaw pestered her eagerly with questions. Though she was tired, she did her best to answer them till her siblings tired. Then she drifted off to sleep.
Songpaw raised her head. Despite her exhaustion, after the excitement of the night, she was having trouble going to sleep. She slipped out into the moonlit clearing and padded softly across the silent camp. I'll just take a little walk.
"Where are you going?" Songpaw jumped as she heard Duskclaw's voice. The dusty brown tom emerged from the shadows, where he had been on guard.
"Oh, just for a light walk. I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep." Duskclaw nodded and let her leave.
Careful not to go near where Applewhisker was stationed, she crept through the woods, enjoying the cool night air on her fur. She was heading towards the unmarked border, where WaterClan's territory ended, and no other clan's started. Maribel told her kits that she had stayed there before joining WaterClan.
Songpaw stood at the border. The woods ended here, and the ground sloped gently downwards onto a grassy plain. Beyond that, she could see the faraway Twoleg dens where no cat ever ventured. Suddenly, she stiffened. Had she heard something?
The sound came again, unmistakably one of a kit. Songpaw stood bristling. It was somewhere out in the plains. Without thinking, she trotted out of her territory. Pausing every few steps to listen, she made her way towards the sound. Now she could smell them, kits, and a she-cat.
"Oomph." Suddenly she was on her back looking into a pair of fierce gray eyes.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Songpaw struggled in the she-cat's strong grip. "I'm sorry. Really, I mean no harm."
The she-cat let her up. They studied each other. She was small and black, but very intimidating. "You have kits here, right?"
The she-cat's ears flicked, but she didn't say anything. Songpaw blundered on. "It's okay, I won't hurt them. My mother was in the same situation with us. That was before WaterClan took us in. I'm Songpaw, an apprentice right now. What's your name?"
The she-cat was watching her keenly. Her gaze dropped to her paws. "Shadow. I am not one of you."
"What do you mean?"
Shadow took her deep breath, her thundercloud-colored eyes filled with sadness. "You wouldn't want to listen to me ramble on."
Songpaw was now fully awake, the events of hte Gathering forgotten. She curled her tail around her paws. "Try me."
Shadow sighed. "All right, but don't say I didn't warn you. What I meant was, I'm not a clan cat. I'm not even a loner. I used to be a kittypet, but they never liked me, and treated me badly. When I became pregnant, I knew I couldn't stay there. So I left. It's been a long journey, dogs, monsters, evil Twoleg kits, even a fox which I had to escape. But now I have my kits, and nothing is going to hurt them."
Songpaw stared at the determined queen. Though she seemed confident, Songpaw saw her bones jutting out, and realized it must take a lot of energy to feed and protect a family by yourself. "Would you like to come to WaterClan?" she asked. "We all take care of one another."
Shadow shook her head. "I've never met other cats who've been friendly to me. Besides, I'm pretty sure clan cats only appreciate others of their own kind."
"That's not true," Songpaw said, though it was, at least partly. "Pinestar accepted my family into WaterClan." Seeing the doubt on Shadow's face, she quickly added, "But you don't have to think about it now. Just consider my offer. One second. I'll be right back."
She turned and ran into WaterClan's territory. Scenting the air, she quickly located and killed a mouse. Wrinkling her nose, she thought, Not as good as fish, but it'll do.
Shadow ate hungrily. "This is delicious."
Songpaw smiled. "In a clan, the queens are fed by the warriors and apprentices. We all take care of each other."
"Where have you been?"
Songpaw turned and saw three tiny, furry outlines in the grass. Shadow tensed, then relaxed. "Songpaw, these are my kits. Flower, Emerald, and Night." Songpaw studied each kit. Flower was a light ginger tabby, with a sweet expression and wide yellow eyes. Emerald and Night were black like their mother, the only difference being that Emerald's eyes were green while Night's were dark blue.
"Flowerkit, Emeraldkit, and Nightkit," Songpaw murmured softly. Shadow looked at her, and seemed to understand.
"You think they would have a better life in WaterClan." She wasn't asking a question.
Songpaw looked at her paws. "It's not that you aren't good enough, nothing like that. This isn't a pity offer. But with other cats to watch them, and hunt for the family, you'll be able to relax more."
Shadow nodded. "What you say is practical, but I still don't know if I'll be able to adjust. I am a friendly cat, honestly, but living on my own, caring for my kits, it's been hard."
Songpaw nodded understandingly. "My mother is the same way," she said. Maribel wasn't as friendly as Shadow, but... "And she joined WaterClan," she finished, ignoring the thought.
Shadow curled her tail around her kits. "Can I let you know tomorrow? I mean, if you can come see us."
"Of course," Songpaw said happily. She'd find a way to escape Fireflower for a few minutes. "Bye now!"
"Bye!" Shadow and the kits chorused. Songpaw turned and hurried back into the woods, and slipped into camp. Duskclaw nodded at her, and she hurried to her nest before he could smell the strange scents on her pelt.
"Yeow!" Songpaw woke with a large paw in her face. "Hawkpaw!" She plowed into her brother's belly.
"Sorry," he muttered sleepily. Hawkpaw wasn't a morning cat. Patchpaw stood in the entrance of the apprentice's den, grooming her shiny fur.
"Good morning," Bluepaw said, stretching. Her blue-gray pelt flashed in the sunlight. Troutpaw was dragging a rabbit from the fresh-kill pile. He gave them a nod.
"I just have to give this to the elders and I'll join you," he said as the others made their way to a squirrel Patchpaw had selected.
All the apprentice were soon gathered around the fresh-kill, chattering eagerly. "Guess what?" Bluepaw meowed. "Troutpaw and I are having a hunting assesment today."
"Really? That's great. Good luck."
"Thanks," Troutpaw said. "I'll bet I catch more prey than you," he said to his sister.
"You wish," she said, whipping her tail across his nose.
"Oh please," Hawkpaw said. "Fighting is my thing. I can take any of you down!" He looked geniunely puzzled when all the others burst out laughing. "What?"
Songpaw watched as Bluepaw and Troutpaw headed out of the camp with their mentors, and Patchpaw and Hawkpaw had gone of too. Then she slipped out of the camp, avoiding places where WaterClan cats hunted or patrolled. She spotted Fireflower leading a patrol to the river to fish, and adjusted her course to avoid them.
Finally, she was out of the woods and in the grassy field. Shadow was waiting for her. "You came back," the she-cat purred. Her kits played in a clump of weeds nearby.
"Of course I did," Songpaw said. She meowed a greeting to the kits, who were staring up at her with wide eyes. "Well, did you decide?"
Shadow looked sad. "Songpaw, your offer is very generous, but I think we're fine on our own. The clan sounds like a wonderful place, but..." She trailed off.
Songpaw swallowed her disappointment. "I see. That's fine. If you ever change your mind, WaterClan's camp is just in those woods, in a sheltered valley."
Shadow gave her a grateful look. "Thank you. Good bye Songpaw." The two she-cats touched noses, and Songpaw gave each kit a lick.
"Be good you three."
"We will," chirped Emerald. Flower and Night bobbed their heads.
Taking one last look at the small family, Songpaw turned and padded into the woods. "Songpaw?" A gray head poked out of a bush.
"Troutpaw! Aren't you on your assesment?"
"Yeah," he mewed. He walked out of the bush, dragging a squirrel with him. He began scraping a small hole at the base of the tree to bury his prey.
"Okay, well, I don't want to bother you, so I'll just be going," Songpaw told him.
"Sure," he said. He added rather shyly, "Maybe later we could go for a, you know, a walk together?"
"All right," Songpaw said, a little puzzled. "See you later." She headed back towards the camp.
"Where have you been?" Fireflower stalked towards her. "Rivertail and I are going on a border patrol, and you need to come as well."
"Sorry," Songpaw said quickly. The last thing she wanted to do was anger her mentor.
The three cats headed out, towards the border on the edge of the territories. Songpaw's fur prickled uneasily. I hope we don't see Shadow.
As they approached the border, a strange scent reached Songpaw's nose. It wasn't Shadow's, or even a cat. With a jolt, she realized what it was. "Badger!"
Fireflower and Rivertail raised their heads. "You're right," Rivertail exclaimed. "And it's recent."
"We'd better mark the border and hurry back to camp!" Fireflower said. "Come on!"
Songpaw crouched in the tall grass, her eyes focused on the mouse. Though she knew she was only dreaming, it seemed so real, she could almost taste the warm prey.
Suddenly, a bloodcurdling shriek split her dream in two. She leaped to her paws and ran outside the apprentice's den, Patchpaw on her tail. In the early dawn light, she could make out a black shape running towards her.
"Songpaw! It's Flower." The cat stopped talking when she saw all the WaterClan warriors staring at her with sleepy, curious, and hostile eyes.
"Shadow? Flower!" Songpaw noticed the limp bundle of ginger fur in Shadow's jaws. "Put her down."
"What is going on?" Pinestar came out of his den.
"Songpaw? Who is this cat?" Maribel walked over to her daughter.
"I- This is Shadow. She's a loner. I met her-"
"Excuse me, but that's not the problem here." Their medicine cat, Lilystem, elbowed her way to the front. She pressed her ear against the little kit's chest. Night and Emerald watched anxiously from between Shadow's legs.
Lilystem raised her head, and her green eyes were clouded with sorrow. "She's dead." Shadow's wail of grief cut through Songpaw's heart like a claw. Maribel looked on with pain in her eyes, like she wanted to help, but didn't know how. After a few seconds, the wailing stopped.
Pinestar's tone was softer now. "What happened?"
"We were attacked by a badger." For the first time, Songpaw realized that Shadow's dark coat was stained with blood. "I tried to protect the kits, but..." Her head and tail drooped. Maribel pressed against her. Though the two she-cats didn't know each other, Songpaw sensed an instant connection; they had so much in common.
"Lilystem, please ready this kit for burial." Pinestar turned to Songpaw. "How long have you known these cats?"
"Only a day," pleaded Songpaw.
"Yeah right," smirked a dusky brown tom called Willowclaw. He looked at Fireflower, his littermate, for approval, but the ginger she-cat didn't take her eyes off her apprentice. "I'll bet Songpaw just wanted another loner for a friend."
Songpaw's fur prickled with anger. Patchpaw and Hawkpaw, who had come out of the apprentice's den with Bluepaw and Troutpaw, bristled too. But Maribel flinched. Songpaw felt a spark of irritation. Why is she so sensitive?
Raising her chin, Songpaw declared, "I did offer Shadow a place in the Clan, but she didn't take it. Pinestar," she turned imploring eyes to her leader. "Will you please let her in, if she wishes? They need protection."
Pinestar hesitated. He turned to Fireflower. "You're the deputy. What do you think?"
Fireflower scowled at Shadow. Then her golden eyes met Songpaw's, and she saw no hatred or malice in them. "Let them in."
"Very well," Pinestar said. "From now on, Shadow, you will be known as Shadowpelt. StarClan honors your bravery and independence, and we welcome you as a warrior, and queen, of WaterClan."
"You're supposed to lick his shoulder," whispered Songpaw.
Shadowpelt dipped her head to lick Pinestar's shoulder. Songpaw and the other apprentices started the cheer. Only a few other cats, like Maribel, Fireflower, and Applewhisker joined in. The others remained stonily silent, hostile despite the pitiful little body laid out in the clearing.
"There is no time for a further vigil," Pinestar said. "Cloverleap, Eaglewatch, you may take the body out." The two elders stepped forward and picked up Flower's body.
"May I come?" asked Shadowpelt softly.
Cloverleap's eyes softened. "Of course."
Shadowpelt buried her nose in Flower's soft fur and walked out of the camp. Pinestar named Emeraldkit and Nightkit, in an attempt to cheer them up, and then went into his den. Greengaze and Streamslip, two senior warriors, followed him, as well as Fireflower.
"New additions to the Clan. Well, I suppose that could be good," Silverdapple mewed. The pretty silver she-cat had recently moved into the nursery, expecting Stormflow's kits. "Come along little ones," she said to Nightkit and Emeraldkit, who were standing forlornly in the middle of the clearing. "Let's get you and your mother a nest."
Songpaw was grateful for the queen's friendliness, but she feared the rest of the clan was less than appreciative of the newest additions. With a sigh, she lay down. it was too late to go back to sleep now.
"Hey." She raised her head. Troutpaw lay down beside her, so close they were almost touching. "We didn't go for that walk yesterday." Songpaw was about to meow a joke, when she noticed Troutpaw looked geniunely hurt.
"I'm sorry. The clan was so busy with the badger scent yesterday... there was no time."
"Right." Troutpaw dropped his gaze to his paws.
Desperate to cheer him up, Songpaw nuzzled his shoulder. "How about we go right now? It's a beautiful sunrise, and we could hunt a little too."
Troutpaw's blue eyes lit up. "Okay." The two apprentices climbed to their paws and headed out of the camp.
Sunlight filtered through the leaves above and dappled the two cat's silver coats as they headed towards the river. Songpaw felt strangely content, even with all that had happened. She and Troutpaw walked along in amiable silence. When they reached the river, Songpaw sat down with her tail wrapped around her paws, watching the crystal clear sky-colored water flow past. Troutpaw trotted to the bank and stood poised, one paw in the air, eyes intent as he searched the depths of the river.
Then, in one fluid motion, he shot his paw into the water. A silver fish was thrown into the air. It's scales flashed in the sunlight for one split second, then Troutpaw caught it in his jaws and shook it.
"Nice catch," Songpaw meowed, impressed. Troutpaw's ears pricked with delight.
"Want to share?" He lay it down in front of her.
"Sure, thanks." The two cats lay side-by-side, enjoying the fresh-kill.
"Hey!" A voice cut through the silence. A patrol of LightningClan cats stood on the other side of the river. "What are you doing?"
Troutpaw's ears flattened. "We're on our own territory," he snarled. "And we didn't steal any of your miserable rabbits, don't worry."
A reddish she-cat Songpaw recognized as Roseleaf, the deputy, stepped forward. "They're only apprentices, Rabbitfoot," she told the gray tom who'd yelled at them. "They're not doing any harm."
The tom gave a curt nod. "Fine," he growled. "But stay on your side of the river." The LightningClan cats turned and vanished.
Songpaw turned to Troutpaw. "LightningClan sure is edgy towards us."
Troutpaw nodded. "It must be what Pinestar said at the Gathering. I was going to suggest a swim, but we'd better not."
"It would only aggravate them more," agreed Songpaw. "Let's be getting back." Just then, she spotted a water vole nibbling on a plant near the edge of the river. Flicking her tail to silence Troutpaw, she crept towards it, then pounced. It was a perfect kill, neat and swift.
She turned to find Troutpaw gazing at her, his blue eyes unreadable. Self-conciously, she picked up the vole and said, "We can take this back to camp, since we've eaten."
They headed back, chattering about training, and Troutpaw caught a sparrow, too. Pinestar nodded at them as they deposited their fresh-kill. "I'm going to join Patchpaw," Songpaw said.
"Bye," Troutpaw mewed. He touched his nose to her flank, and Songpaw felt a tingling in her paws. Wierd. She padded over to her sister, who was stretched out beside Bluepaw.
"Where've you been?" The gleam in Patchpaw's eyes showed that she knew perfectly well where Songpaw had been.
Fur prickling, Songpaw shrugged. "Out on a walk." Bluepaw and Patchpaw exchanged glances. To change the subject, Songpaw asked, "How is Shadowpelt settling in?"
"Silverdapple has been helping her, and so has Maribel," answered Patchapw. "But I don't know if she really feels at home yet, especially with what happend to Flower."
"I'll go see her," Songpaw decided. She entered the nursery and gasped. "Silverdapple! You've had your kits."
"Shh," Lilystem said. "You can see her, but be quiet." Stormflow stood next to his mate, slowly rasping his tongue over her dappled gray coat.
"What are their names?" whispered Songpaw.
Shadowpelt walked over to her. "Flykit, and Flowerkit." She said the last name casually, but Songpaw saw how much it meant to her by the look in her eyes.
Silverdapple smiled. She looked tired, but happy. "That's right." She nudged the small bundles near her. "Flykit is the dappled tom, and Flowerkit is the dark gray one, like Stormflow." The tom's eyes shone with pride.
"Will they be able to play with us soon?" asked Emeraldkit.
"Not yet my dears, but soon." Shadowpelt herded her kits back into the nest. As the queen lay down, her gray eyes met Songpaw's. "Thank you Songpaw. This is where I belong."
Nightkit lifted his head. "Me too!"
Songpaw lay in her nest, cozily aware of Bluepaw sleeping beside her. She replayed her walk with Troutpaw over and over again in her mind, till at last she fell asleep.
"Songpaw!" Fireflower's slim shape was outlined against the entrance to the apprentice's den. "Come on. Rivertail, Hawkpaw, you, and I are going to the training pit for fight-training."
Songpaw stretched. "Okay. Can Patchpaw and Applewhisker come too?"
Fireflower nodded curtly. "Sure," she mewed. "Tell them while I organize the patrols." The deputy turned, pausing to rub noses with Rivertail, and headed to the middle of the camp.
Songpaw walked out of the den and joined Patchpaw, Hawkpaw, and Maribel beside the fresh-kill pile. Though her kits were apprentices now, Maribel always made sure their bonds were strong as ever. Songpaw suspected this was because of the time she'd been without a Clan.
"Hello," she said, lying beside her mother and nibbling on the thrush. Maribel pushed it towards her. "Patchpaw, you and Applewhisker can join Hawkpaw and I for some fight-training."
"Great," Patchpaw said, leaping to her feet. "I'll go tell her." She scampered over to Applewhisker, who was lying with Dazeflight and Orangenose.
Hawkpaw yawned and rubbed his cheek against his mother's chin. "I'd better go find Rivertail. Bye mom."
"Bye," Maribel meowed.
"What are you doing today?" Songpaw asked her.
Maribel turned away, looking distinctly embarassed. "Pinestar and I are going hunting," she muttered. "For the Clan."
Songpaw arched her eyebrows, about to point out that it was new-leaf and there was plenty of prey, but decided not to. "Okay, have fun!"
"Great session Patchpaw!" Applewhisker called.
"Nice moves, Hawkpaw," meowed Rivertail.
"Let's get back to camp," Fireflower said. Songpaw felt a prickle of disappointment, but then her mentor turned and stared at her with yellowish eyes. "You're doing well, Songpaw."
"That's the first praise she's ever given you," Patchpaw whispered as the apprentices trailed behind their mentors.
"It's not the first praise you've deserved," Hawkpaw added.
Songpaw smiled. "Thanks guys, but I don't mind Fireflower anymore. She's a great mentor, always challenging me to do better."
They entered the camp. Fireflower turned to them. "You can rest the whole day," she said. "Then we'll go on an evening patrol."
"Sounds good," said Hawkpaw. He selected a thrush from the fresh-kill pile. "I'm ready for some rest after beating Patchpaw a thousand times in a row."
His sister cuffed him on the ear with her paw. "No way."
Songpaw spotted Maribel and Pinestar coming through the entrance. She was about to nudge Patchpaw when she noticed how they looked. Maribel's eyes were pools of sadness. Pinestar's face was hard, and he strode towards his den without a word, leaving Maribel to put the prey on the fresh-kill pile. Patchpaw, Hawkpaw, and Songpaw watched as their mother walked into the nursery; she and Shadowpelt had become good friends.
A few minutes later, the black queen walked outside. "Hi Songpaw," she said. "Your mother is watching Emeraldkit and Nightkit so I can go on a walk and stretch my legs. Want to come?"
"Sure," Songpaw meowed. They headed outside. Songpaw was sure her mother had confided in Shadowpelt what had happened with Pinestar, but she didn't dare ask.
They walked till the LightningClan border in companionable silence. Songpaw gazed out across the river. Shadowpelt's head shot up. Her nostrils flared, and she opened her jaws to take in a scent. Her gray eyes grew wide. "No!" She turned tail and charged through the woods back to the camp.
"Shadowpelt!" Songpaw sniffed the air. All she could smell was WaterClan scent markers, and... the scent of an unfamiliar cat. Her hackles raised. This smell had a sinister tinge to it, and she wondered what had happened to Shadowpelt to make her fear it.
Dread creeping through her, Songpaw whirled and raced back to the camp. Shadowpelt could be in danger!
The cats of WaterClan had settled for a lazy afternoon. The hot late new-leaf sun was making everyone drowsy. Songpaw ignored the dirty glances she got as she burst into the camp, yelling Shadowpelt's name.
Rushing towards the nursery, she peeked inside. Shadowpelt was huddled in her nest, her body curled over her kits. Silverdapple looked on worriedly. She shrugged at Songpaw.
"Shadowpelt?" The black she-cat raised her head. "Is anything wrong?"
She took a shaky breath. "No, everything's just fine. There for a moment I just... I can't explain Songpaw, I'm sorry."
Songpaw gave the queen a reassuring lick. "All right. But if you ever feel like you need to tell someone, I'll be waiting."
"Thank you," Shadowpelt meowed, her eyes gentler than Songpaw had ever seen them. "After losing Flower, I'm just a bit paranoid, that's all."
Songpaw nodded uncertainly. "Okay." Stopping to greet Silverdapple, Flykit, and Flowerkit, she walked out of the nursery towards her friends. Bluepaw and Patchpaw were stretched out side-by-side, while Troutpaw and Hawkpaw lazily batted a ball of moss back and forth.
"What happened?" asked Patchpaw.
Songpaw shrugged. She couldn't tell her sister when she didn't understand it herself. "Nothing, really."
Hawkpaw gazed up at the sky. "It's practically greenleaf now. I could go for a swim." He glanced at the others.
Bluepaw and Patchpaw looked uncertain. "But LightningClan-"
"That's a great idea!" Troutpaw interrupted. "Come on guys, the river really belongs to us. I mean, we fish in it, why can't we swim in it?"
"We can," protested Patchpaw. "But not without a warrior, and not with tensions so high between us and LightningClan."
"Well, we're going," Hawkpaw meowed. Both toms turned to Songpaw. "Do you want to come?"
"Um, sure, why not?"
The water was cool and refreshing as it shoshed around Songpaw's legs. She waded in a little deeper, careful not to slip on the pebbles that lined the riverbed. Hawkpaw and Troutpaw jumped in, creating a splash that soaked Songpaw's pelt.
"Hey," she protested. She struck out against the riverbed and began swimming. Other clans didn't understand WaterClan's fascination with the river, but Songpaw couldn't understand how they lived without it. She ducked underwater and outstretched her legs, smashing into Hawkpaw's legs. As she surfaced, Hawkpaw was spluttering and gagging.
"Tidal wave!" shouted Troutpaw. He brought his thick tail down on the water, sending a spray of droplets into Songpaw's eyes, then jumped into the air and caused a huge wave of water to knock the others off their paws.
Laughing, they swam a bit more, then climbed out of the water, water streaming off their pelts. Songpaw lifted her head. Just for a second, she'd thought she'd caught a whiff of... there it was again! She wasn't imagining it.
"Shh," she said, putting her tail in Hawkpaw's mouth. "LightningClan."
Troutpaw's eyes widened and he sniffed the air. The apprentices began following the scent. Suddenly, Songpaw saw them. She, Hawkpaw, and Troutpaw dived behind a clump of reeds and watched.
Roseleaf was at the head of the patrol. After her came Rabbitfoot, then a ginger-and-white she-cat Songpaw remembered was Flamepatch, and finally... Songpaw's heart stopped when she saw Sleetpaw bringing up the rear. How could she fight her own friend? Then she steeled herself. Sleetpaw was in an enemy clan. WaterClan came first at all times.
"Let's go," whispered Troutpaw. "We need to bring a patrol to fight them."
"Why can't we do it ourselves?" asked Hawkpaw. The tip of his tail twitched, and his golden eyes gleamed.
"We're apprentices, and we're outnumbered. We don't have to explain why we were at the river. Let's just get help."
"Okay," Songpaw said. She turned and raced through the woods with her friends.
"Pinestar!" Songpaw skidded into the clearing, stopping abruptly. Hawkpaw and Troutpaw slammed into her.
"What is it?" The brown tom appeared. He seemed to have gotten over whatever happened between Maribel and him, though as he passed her his back stiffened. She only watched sadly.
"LightningClan is crossing into our territory!" yelled Troutpaw. "We've got to send a patrol to stop them!"
"I'll bet they're prey-stealing," spat Hawkpaw, lashing his tail.
"In greenleaf?" Pinestar frowned. "Violetstar's up to something. Fireflower," he called to his deputy. "You, Orangenose, and Duskclaw go with these apprentices." He turned back to them. "Will that be enough cats?"
Troutpaw nodded. "There's only four LightningClan cats we saw. If there's more, one of us will come for help."
Pinestar nodded. "I'll have another patrol ready."
Bluepaw and Patchpaw had just come out of the apprentice's den. I'll bet they regret not coming swimming now, Songpaw thought as she raced back out of the camp. Hawkpaw pounded at her heels and Troutpaw's pelt flashed in front of her. She could here Fireflower and the other warriors running too, this was their territory and they had no need for stealth.
Near the river, Troutpaw froze. He raised his head and nodded. "They're still on the bank."
Peering through the brush, they could see the LightningClan cats, standing alert. They must have heard us coming. Just as Roseleaf opened her mouth to say something, Fireflower yowled, "Attack!"
Songpaw raced into the clearing, her claws unsheathed. She slammed into Rabbitfoot, but she quickly realized she'd bitten off more than she could chew. The gray tom swiped his claws down her flank. She let out a yowl of pain. Troutpaw leaped onto Rabbitfoot and together the two apprentices drove him into the river, slashing out with their claws. The tom turned and scrambled onto the fallen log, his paws slipping and sliding in his haste to escape.
"LightningClan, retreat!" yowled Roseleaf. She stood by the log, waiting till her cats scrambled on. Then she spat at Fireflower, "You'll regret this." With that, she was gone.
The WaterClan cats watched till the patrol was out of sight, then turned and headed home. "You all did well," Fireflower meowed.
The three apprentices smiled at each other. Songpaw purred and rubbed against Hawkpaw's cheek. Then she turned to Troutpaw. "Thanks for your help against Rabbitfoot," she said.
His eyes glowed. "No problem."
"Songpaw, can you wait for a second?" Fireflower asked as they reached the camp. After the others cats were gone, her mentor sat down. "Songpaw, I'm not big on apologies, but here goes. I'm sorry I doubted you so much. I didn't know how great you and your littermates really are. No cat can doubt your loyalty to WaterClan, and I... was wrong."
Songpaw stared at her mentor, speechless. "T-thank you," she stammered. Fireflower nodded briskly and walked into the camp.
Songpaw stayed a moment longer. Then she heard voices. Her ears strained to make out who it was. Maribel and Pinestar. She crept towards the noise. The two cats stood beneath an oak tree, facing each other. Pinestar looked furious and Maribel looked miserable.
"I'm sorry Pinestar, but I'm leaving the Clan."