The mouse sat at the foot of the silver birch tree, half-hidden amongst the thick tangle of green-leaf undergrowth. Plump with a glossy brown coat and beady black eyes, it would be the perfect dinner for Dappledfur in the nursery. It lost in concentration, nibbling away at a pinecone. An easy catch. Theoretically.
Robinpaw dropped to a hunter's crouch. He studied the mouse carefully from a distance, calculating its movements and trying to plan the best way to approach it. He could feel his mentor's eyes burning into him and he took a few deep breaths to calm himself before going in for the kill. He had practised this a million times; it should be as natural as breathing by now. He could do this.
Carefully making sure to keep his belly from brushing the ground, Robinpaw emerged from his hiding place. So far so good. He could feel his confidence increasing as he crept stealthily across the forest floor.
Then his tail brushed against some pine needles.
The mouse looked up in alarm and began to scurry back to shelter. Robinpaw took chase but his paw got caught in a tree root and he fell clumsily, a pile of limbs and fur on the ground.
"You mouse-brain!" Owleyes hissed, lashing his tail in annoyance. "That was pathetic!"
Robinpaw felt his fur prickle with humiliation as he picked himself up, shaking the pine needles from his pelt.
"You're an embarrassment," Owleyes continued, his lip curling to show his teeth. "Can't even kill a mouse!"
"Sorry," Robinpaw mumbled, bowing his head in shame. The rest of the patrol had caught up by now and had gathered around to watch the scene that was unfolding. He could hear Sandpaw - one of the other apprentices - stifle a giggle and wished that the ground would just swallow him up now.
"Sorry doesn't catch prey," Owleyes snarled. He stalked closer to his apprentice, fur bristling and claws unsheathed. "I've been trying to teach you for months and you haven't learnt anything." Quick as a flash, the older warrior moved to pin the smaller tom to the ground. Robinpaw groaned under the weight of the other tom. He struggled to free himself but to no avail.
"Useless piece of crowfood," Owleyes spat in Robinpaw,s face, digging his claws into the other cat's belly before finally releasing him. The larger tom then stormed off further into the shadows of the forest, signalling for the rest of the patrol to follow him.
Robinpaw lay on the ground until he was sure that the rest of the patrol had left. He could feel his eyes pricking with tears and felt his whole body burn with embarrassment. His mentor was right; what kind of apprentice couldn't even catch a simple mouse? He had let his Clan down.
"Hey," the soft voice came from the other side of the hollow.
Startled, Robinpaw whipped around to find Ashcloud. The longfurred grey tom sat amongst a patch of grass, his tail tip flicking uncomfortably. The young warrior must have stayed behind from the rest of the patrol.
"Leave me alone," Robinpaw snapped, quickly turning to hide his face.
Ashcloud ignored him and padded over to sit beside the apprentice. The two of them had never talked much and Robinpaw did not know what to expect. He flinched away when the warrior's fur brushed lightly against him. If the other tom had to bully him with more taunts, he swore he would run away and become a kittypet.
But Ashcloud just flicked him gently with his tail. "Don't worry about Owleyes - he's just in a mood because Poppyflower won't be his mate. It took me ages to catch my first prey."
"That's not true," Robinpaw protested. "You caught a rabbit on your first moon of apprenticeship."
Ashcloud shrugged. "You'll get there soon."
"No I won't!" Robinpaw cried in dispair, twisting around to face the other tom. "I'm older than you - I've been an apprentice for twelve moons and I still can't do anything!" By now, he could feel hot salty tears stream down his face but he was past caring.
"That's not fai-" Ashcloud started to protest but the smaller ginger cat cut him off.
"Yes it is! I'm not cut out for being a warrior! Nobody wants me here. I'm going to leave ShadowClan and become a kittypet."
Ashcloud was full of sympathy as he leaned over to nudge the distressed tom. "No," he said firmly. "You're not. I'm going to take over as your mentor."
Robinpaw didn't understand why the young warrior was being so kind to him when the rest of the Clan treated him like dirt. They didn't even know each other. "I already asked Nettlestar to switch my mentor but he said no."
The long-furred cat sighed and got to his paws. He started making his way after the rest of the patrol, leaving Robinpaw sitting alone and defeated sitting in the middle of the hollow. However, he paused for a moment before disappearing into the bushes.
"Meet me here at sundown and I promise you'll have your warrior name by next moon."
Moonlight slipped through the branches of the trees overhead, dappling the forest floor with silvery light. The only sound to be heard was the rustling of the undergrowth and the faint chirp of a faraway cricket. Robinpaw felt a rush of nervousness as he clambered through a bramble thicket and out of the ShadowClan camp. He wasn't even sure why he was doing this. It was surely just some elaborate joke that Ashcloud had made up to humiliate him. It would be easier to just run away and find some nice two-legs to care for him.
Yet, the small ginger apprentice kept going until he reached the place where he had planned to meet Ashcloud. Creeping over a tree root and down a small slope, he found the hollow to be completely deserted. Robinpaw felt a flash of dread. This was not a good sign.
Just as he was about to flee back to his den, a clump of bracken nearby twitched and a long-furred grey tabby tom emerged.
"Sorry I'm late - Rosepetal kept asking me where I was going," he apologised breathlessly.
"Its fine," Robinpaw assured him quickly. "Thank you for doing this for me."
Ashcloud shrugged. "No worries."
They sat in awkward silence for a moment before Ashcloud cleared the rest of the distance between them. "I want you to show me your best hunter's crouch."
Robinpaw felt self-conscious and embarrassed as he lowered himself to the ground. He was uncomfortable with Ashcloud's blue gaze on him and it made him clumsy as he tried to slink forwards as stealthily as he could. "Like this?" he asked doubtfully.
Ashcloud was kind. "Not bad at all," he mewed. "Just try to keep your tail still and your belly off the ground."
Robinpaw did as he was told, making an effort to lift his stomach up and keep his tail from twitching with nervousness. It felt weird knowing that he was being tutored by a cat who was three whole moons younger than him. The pressure to impress made him feel sick and he could feel his legs starting to shake with worry.
"Just relax," Ashcloud reassured him, brushing his tail over the ginger apprentice to steady him. "You're not half as bad as you think you are."
Gradually, Robinpaw began to relax as Ashcloud demonstrated stalking techniques for him and helped him to practise pouncing on leaves. He felt lighter on his paws and ten times more confident than he had ever been with Owleyes as his mentor.
Then a faint scratching sound caught their attention.
Two tail lengths away, a small shrew was scratching at some tree roots. Its grey coat made it almost invisible in the dim night light, but Robinpaw could make out the movements of its tail.
"Go get it," Ashcloud encouraged.
Robinpaw shook his head. "I can't do it."
"Of course you can," his breath warm on Robinpaw's ear as he nudged the small apprentice forwards.
Trying to ignore the anxiousness gnawing away at his stomach, Robinpaw crept forwards. He remembered his tutors advice, concentrating on keeping his tail from swishing back and forth, making sure not land too heavily on his paws.
Then he pounced.
For the first time ever, he felt the warm body of his prey beneath his paws. He was so shocked when the shrew gave a loud squeak that he almost let it escape into the forest. With a swift nip on the neck, Robinpaw killed his first catch and carried it over to where Ashcloud sat.
The grey tabby tom's fur gleamed in the milky dawn light and he purred with pride.
"See. You can do it, Robinpaw."