Laughter rang out through the SunClan camp, like music to Strongpaw's ears. It had been so quiet ever since the GreenClan soldiers had taken up residence around the territory; he had begun to think things would never be the same. But today, in the cool leaf-fall air, they appeared to be just fine. The elders talked and complained like usual. Queens called to their wrestling kits, telling them not to go too far.
The sound of apprentices talking brought him back around to his friends. Hazelpaw and Brookpaw were arguing, as usual. The two sisters could bicker over the slightest things; once they had debated about who had more tabby stripes in their fur, which was useless as far as Strongpaw was concerned, since they were identical. If he hadn't known them since they were kits, he would never be able to distinguish one from the other, and sometimes he still switched them up.
Today though, they were actually discussing something worthwhile. The GreenClan cats.
"We should revolt against them," Hazelpaw said fiercely."They have no right to treat us like this."
Brookpaw, as usual, was more even-tempered. "They haven't done anything yet. All they do is require a small portion of our prey."
Frostpaw, Strongpaw's brother, joined in the conversation. "Exactly! Why should we pay them to keep us coralled like a herd of horses? We're just giving them more power over us."
Frowning, Brookpaw said, "They haven't inteferred with our own Clan life though. Isn't that worth something?"
Caught between the two sides, Strongpaw thought about it for a moment before replying. "I just don't know, Brookpaw. How are we warriors if we let the GreenClan cats patrol us like this? We don't let BreezeClan or IceClan sit outside our camp. We don't feed them prey. These are nothing but a bunch of rogues claiming to be a Clan, and yet we let them walk all over us."
"But that's just the thing," said a voice from behind them. They all turned and froze as they saw Hollystar, the SunClan leader, standing there. "You're not warriors," she continued. "You're apprentices. And as apprentices, it's not your duty to make these decisions." She sighed, motioning to the GreenClan cats parked just outside the entrance to the camp. "You think I'd let this happen if I thought we could stop it? It's useless to even try. They outnumber and overpower us. If this is the price I have to pay to keep the Clan safe, then I'm willing to make the sacrifice. What's a little pride when compared with life?"
Everything, Strongpaw thought, but he didn't say it out loud. Would he really want his Clanmates to die fighting for freedom? Brookpaw was right in a way; the GreenClan cats had placed very few restrictions on them. It would be stupid to risk their lives for almost nothing. And yet... This felt horribly wrong. He was sure Viperstar and his cronies wouldn't accept this as the final solution. They would demand more. Also, what about the fast approaching leaf-bare? How would they feed themselves and the GreenClan troops?
The other apprentices must have been thinking the same things, but they said nothing, only nodded at their leader. Hollystar gave a tired sigh. "Hopefully this will all just be over soon."
"Hopefully," murmured Hazelpaw, staring at her paws.
Once Hollystar was gone, the arguing began anew.
The next morning dawned gray and drizzly. It was the kind of day that made Strongpaw want to curl tighter into his nest and never wake up. The dampness soaked into his fur and made his movements slow and sluggish when he finally staggered out of the apprentices' den and towards the fresh-kill pile. A heap of soggy creatures stared back up at him, and he wrinkled his nose.
"Someone needs to go hunting," observed Hollowpool, a skinny brown she-cat. "This fresh-kill isn't fit to eat."
Nearby, their deputy Honeybird nodded. "I'll go ask Hollystar about a hunting patrol, though I doubt anyone's too excited about going out in this weather."
Strongpaw watched her go, then turned back to his den and sat down in the entrance, partially shielded from the rain. The others were awake by now. Hazelpaw and Brookpaw shared tongues together, and Frostpaw was stretching luxuriously. His blue eyes widened in dismay as he looked past Strongpaw to the outside of the camp. "It's raining?" Disappointment colored his tone.
"Be glad it's not snowing yet," said Strongpaw.
"Yeah but- How will we get out in this weather?"
"Who cares how we'll get out?" Hazelpaw asked, licking a paw and drawing it across her forehead to smooth her silvery fur. "Unless it's for hunting, you couldn't drag me out of here."
Turning red under his pale pelt, Frostpaw stammered, "Right, but if you did want to go out..."
Puzzled, Strongpaw wondered why his brother was acting so strange. Something was obviously up. But before he could try to figure out what it was, they were interrupted by a commotion from outside.
All four of the apprentices raced out of the den and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, trying to piece together the situation. "What's going on?" hissed Brookpaw.
"I don't know," Strongpaw said, scanning the camp. Hollystar and Honeybird were standing together in the middle of the camp, along with two senior warriors, Rosebud and Seedtail. Five unfamiliar cats were facing them. No, wait, they weren't unfamiliar. He recognized them as some of the Greenclan warriors that had been monitoring the camp. But they had always stayed outside, keeping to themselves. So what were they doing inside the SunClan camp, standing there like they owned the place?
"How can I help you?" Hollystar said stiffly. The gloomy skies turned her blue eyes to gray and caused her inky pelt to glisten. Despite the gray hairs on her muzzle and the fraility of her frame, she looked imposing and in authority, like a true leader.
The GreenClan cats didn't seem to notice. One of them, a brown tabby tom with cruelly glittering golden eyes, stepped forward. "Hollystar, I presume?"
"Correct. And you are?"
"Slasher," he said.
The leader's eyebrows went up. Honeybird voiced Strongpaw's thoughts out loud. "I thought GreenClan was a true Clan? That isn't a warrior name."
"GreenClan is not only a true Clan, it is the only Clan," he said, not bothering to explain his name. Pausing to let that sink in, he continued, "From now on, there will be no SunClan, IceClan, or BreezeClan. Just GreenClan. You can choose to join peacefully, or face the consequences."
As if on cue, a clap of thunder shook the ground beneath them. Fright coursed through Strongpaw despite himself. Surely Hollystar wouldn't agree to this?
The leader looked torn. "You cannot just ask me to give up my Clan like this."
Slasher curled his lip at her, revealing gleaming white teeth. "It will be your own burial if you don't. We have numerous forces, and we aren't afraid to use them to get what we want. Either way, SunClan will fall. You have till tomorrow at moonrise to come up with your answer."
When the camp was illuminated by lightning next, there was no sign of the GreenClan cats. Only SunClan warriors, confused, scared, and lost.
"What do you think Hollystar will do?" asked Brookpaw helplessly.
Hazelpaw looked too tired to even argue. "What can she do? Either way we'll lose."
Barely glancing up from where he was slumped in his nest, Strongpaw said quietly, "But doesn't it matter how we lose? Wouldn't you rather die a warrior's death then just be beaten down by the likes of Slasher and his so-called 'warriors'?"
"Maybe we'd rather take the hero's road, but who would protect the kits and elders then?" pointed out Brookpaw. "We have all those things to take into consideration."
"I just don't know anymore," Hazelpaw said. She looked so sad that Strongpaw longed to comfort her. He leaned forward and touched his nose to her shoulder, and she gave him a tiny smile.
Brookpaw watched them with arched eyebrows, and Strongpaw pulled back hastily. Hazelpaw flushed and changed the subject. "What do you think the GreenClan cats will do to us once we become part of their 'Clan'?"
Hope colored Brookpaw's leaf-green eyes at her sister's words. "Maybe that's all they want. A really big Clan. Maybe things will go back to normal."
Wasted words. They all knew that wouldn't come true.
"Hey," said Strongpaw, frowning. "Where's Frostpaw?"
Shrugging, Hazelpaw said, "Maybe he's out training."
"Yeah right." Concern touched Brookpaw's features as well. "We're not supposed to leave camp till Hollystar makes her decision. If he's out there..."
He tried to keep down the fear rising in his throat. "Maybe he's just gone for a walk. The GreenClan cats can't punish him for that, can they?"
The silence was reply enough. Strongpaw raced out of the den. He had to find his brother.
Soggy leaves cluttered the ground, stuck together in brownish-orange clumps and swirling with the mud. Thanks to the incessant rain, the air was chilly and moist. Shivers ran through Strongpaw's body as he loped through the woods, his senses alert for any sign of his brother.
He had been lucky to slip out of the camp without the GreenClan officers seeing. Getting back in might not be so easy, especially with Frostpaw. And he would find Frostpaw.
How he would do it was a harder task. The damp ground made it extremely hard to pick up a good trail. When he finally did pick up a whiff of Frostpaw's scent, it was extremely close to the BreezeClan border. What is he doing here?
The sound of laughing and talking reached his ears. He followed it till he could make out two cats, sitting together in a hollow. Crouching behind a bush, he strained to make them out.
One was Frostpaw. He'd know his brother's white pelt anywhere. And the other...
With astonishment, Strongpaw realized the other cat was a BreezeClan she-cat. He had seen her at Gatherings before; her name was Carrotpaw. She was a pretty ginger with white paws and amber eyes, and she was giggling and curled up against Frostpaw's side. The way they looked at each other...
Strongpaw couldn't surpress a gasp of astonishment. Carrotpaw didn't notice, but Frostpaw's head jerked up. He met Strongpaw's eyes, and horror filled his face. Hastily pulling away from the BreezeClan cat, he mewed something softly to her. She nodded and touched her nose to his, then loped towards her side of the territory.
Knowing it was futile to hide, Strongpaw stepped out from behind the bush. For a long time, he and Frostpaw just stared at each other. Then they both started talking at once.
"You followed me!"
"You broke the warrior's code!"
"How could you?"
The last sentence was spoken in unison.
"You didn't trust me," Frostpaw quavered, but Strongpaw knew from the guilty look on his face that his brother could see he was the one in the wrong.
"I didn't trust you? I didn't trust the GreenClan warriors! That's why I came to find you. But instead I see you snuggling up with a BreezeClan cat, when your own Clan faces so much trouble." He put as much disgust as he could into the last few words.
Rage coalesced with shame on Frostpaw's face. His blue eyes burned strangely in his pale white face as he stormed over to Strongpaw till they were face-to-face. "We're not the only ones in trouble! Carrotpaw says GreenClan is doing the same thing to BreezeClan. Maybe we could work together-"
"That's called disloyalty. It's not our problem." Vaguely, Strongpaw was aware that Frostpaw's words rang true; maybe the Clans stood a better chance if they united. But he was too angry to care.
Now Frostpaw was just as enraged. "We're fighting for the warrior code, not just ourselves! We all share the same problem: GreenClan!"
"Then what about IceClan?" taunted Strongpaw. "Face it Frostpaw. Carrotpaw's the only reason you're worried about BreezeClan. That's selfishness too, okay? Don't make me the bad guy here."
The tom's face fell. When he spoke again, his voice was filled with despair. "I love her Strongpaw. I can't help it."
Though he wanted to stay mad, Strongpaw found himself unable to. He took a step forward and brushed his tail along Frostpaw's flank. "I know, man. But we have to put SunClan first. Think of all the lives depending on us to protect them. The kits, the elders, the queens."
A defeated look appeared on Frostpaw's face. He shook his head miserably. "You're right. I know you're right. But... You can't understand what it feels like to be separated from the cat you love, just because of your Clans. I mean, Hazelpaw is in SunClan, and I'm happy for you both-"
"Hazelpaw?" interrupted Strongpaw. His face felt oddly hot. "Why would you bring that up?"
The hint of a smile tugged at his brother's lips. "It's obvious that you two are crazy about each other."
"Yeah right," he snorted. Then, "Really? You think she likes me?"
"I know so," Frostpaw said confidently.
"Look, I can't tell you how to run your life, and I wouldn't want to. But you're going to run into trouble this way Frostpaw, especially with the GreenClan cats closing in." He froze. "No... You couldn't want-"
To his relief, his brother seemed shocked at the prospect. "Want to join GreenClan so I could be with Carrotpaw? Of course not. I'm not that selfish. That would be a horrible thing to wish for."
Feeling ashamed for even having considered the option that Frostpaw could be a traitor, Strongpaw nudged him gently. "Good. Okay then. I trust that you won't get yourself killed. Live your life." He locked gazes with him. "I'll love you no matter what."
"Thanks Strongpaw," Frostpaw said softly. "That means a lot to me."
Side by side, the two brothers headed back to camp.
When evening fell, the air was so thick with tension you could practically feel it. Electricity made Strongpaw's fur stand on end. He tapped one paw, then the other, waiting for Hollystar to emerge from her den and address the Clan.
"What do you think they've decided?" Hazelpaw fretted.
Glancing at her, Strongpaw recalled his brother's words and felt a pleasant flush color his cheeks as he observed how pretty she was with the sunset's light on her tabby fur. Then he shook away the feeling. There were more important things at stake now.
Brookpaw and Frostpaw joined them. Frostpaw held a giant squirrel in his jaws, unusual nowadays, as leaf-bare closed in, and made even more unusual by the GreenClan warrior's hogging all the food.
Hazelpaw's eyes widened as the white tom set the prey down. "All that for us?"
"Yep," Frostpaw said. "Dig in."
A shiver ran through Brookpaw's slender frame. "This might be the last meal we ever eat as SunClan cats."
A wave of emotion threatened to overwhelm Strongpaw as he thought back to all the happy memories the word "SunClan" held. Waking up to the milky scent of the nursery, afternoons spent listening to the elders' stories as lightning crackled outside and rain poured down from the skies, playing outside in the warm sun with his friends, the list went on and on. Was it about to be ended forever?
Just then, every cat in the clearing froze. Honeybird exited the leader's den, followed by Hollystar. The leader climbed to the top of Leader's Rock and summoned the Clan.
Those who were not already outside, eagerly awaiting the news, came rushing out. Strongpaw's mentor, Sweetberry, sat down near them. Her gray-blue eyes were filled with worry, and she glanced at her apprentice sympathetically. "It'll be okay," she whispered. "The warrior code will survive no matter what."
He wasn't sure about that, but he just nodded and gave a brave smile. There was nothing else he could do.
"Attention, cats of SunClan," Hollystar began. The leader had a tired expression in her eyes. Dread threatened to choke Strongpaw as he waited her verdict.
"I am giving up."
Instantly, a chorus of dismay and anger rang out across the clearing. Cats were on their feet, yowling harsh words and insults at both their former leader and GreenClan.
Hollystar waited for silence before continuing. "However, that doesn't mean you should."
The Clan's response was clear: Huh?
"Honeybird has agreed to take over leadership of SunClan if you want to put up a fight," she said. "I shall escape while I still can. I don't want to join GreenClan. But I can't do this anymore. Good bye."
While they watched with stricken eyes, Hollystar turned and raced away into the woods. Strongpaw strained to hear the sounds of a scuffle that would signal the GreenClan cats had captured her, but there were none. He swallowed hard and refocused his attention on Honeybird.
The deputy climbed onto Leader's Rock gingerly. Her amber eyes were sad but determined. "I know I'm not an official leader. But we need a leader. If you will join me in fighting GreenClan, I will do my best to ensure the name of SunClan graces the world for as long as possible."
Slowly, the cats came out of the trance they had been put in by Hollystar's sudden departure. The blast of agreement and support nearly threw Honeybird off the rock.
"Honeystar! Honeystar! Honeystar!" Strongpaw started the chant, and it quickly caught on. He watched with pride as the she-cat's eyes widened.
"Good," she said. "I don't know when I'll be able to recieve my nine lives, but with this life I have, I'll serve my Clan to the best of my ability."
The SunClan medicine cat, Hollowbelly, voiced what Strongpaw was sure the whole Clan was thinking. "No one could have said it better, and no one is more worthy of this position than you."
The newly-named Honeystar smiled at the plump tom. "Thank you, Hollowbelly. And now I need to appoint a deputy. I choose Seedtail. You have served SunClan faithfully for many moons, and I trust you shall do the same under these... harder circumstances."
"I will do my best," said the tom, dipping his head courteously.
Everyone broke out into cheering. "Seedtail! Seedtail! Seedtail!"
A cold voice broke through the happy aura. The hairs on the back of Strongpaw's neck stood up. He knew who it was before he turned around. Slasher.
The tom was surrounded by about a dozen GreenClan warriors. They didn't look like a battle patrol, but he felt his claws unsheathe anyway. Eventually, this war would come to fighting. It would only be a matter of time, and they needed to be prepared.
"Well, isn't this a pretty picture? Your leader defied us by running away, but you're in much more trouble. You will fall, Honeystar. You and your pathetic band of wannabees."
"You're the ones who want to act like a Clan without knowing the first thing about it!" Strongpaw blurted out loud. All eyes turned to him in surprise, and his pelt turned to fire. Trying to hide the fact that his legs were shaking, he said, "You have no right to accuse us!"
A crooked smile of grotesque amusement crossed Slasher's face. "Oh really? Smart words for an apprentice."
Frostpaw's pelt brushed his from the other side. "Don't get in trouble, Strongpaw," he hissed. "It's not worth it."
"We don't answer to you, nor your leader," Honeystar said. "We declare war on you. SunClan will never fall to you."
"That's what you think," Slasher replied scornfully. He nodded to the rest of his cats. "We'll make you live in fear. You cannot drive us out; there are too many of us. You'll live your lives in fear. Rest assured, your lives will be short. When the time is right, we will strike."
Though she must have been just as scared as any other cat, Honeystar didn't even flinch. "We shall be ready."
Slasher narrowed his eyes, turned, and left the camp with his group of cats. Their threat hung in the air like a poisonous cloud. Brookpaw moaned and sunk to the ground in despair. Hollowbelly and Seedtail, faces grave, followed Honeystar into her new den. Clumps of warriors stood together, heads bent, discussing what SunClan could possibly do.
"War," Strongpaw repeated. "How can the Clan survive a war in leaf-bare against all of GreenClan?"
"We have to," said Hazelpaw stubbornly. Her jaw was set, and her eyes were determined. She looked so pretty it made his heart pound. Stop that, he told himself firmly. There's no time for she-cats right now.
And yet he couldn't resist. "Hazelpaw? Want to go for a walk?"
She gave him a funny look. "A walk? With all those GreenClan cats around?"
I'm such an idiot! "Uh..."
Laughing gently, she reached up and touched her nose to his. "It's okay. Some other time?"
"Right. Sure- I mean..." But she had already vanished into the apprentices' den. His nose tingled where she had touched it still, and he felt like he was made out of clouds. However, when he looked up and saw Frostpaw regarding him with one part happiness and one part regret, all that fell away.
Why does life have to be so hard all of a sudden?
Little did he know that this was only the beginning.
Strongpaw padded wearily over to the fresh-kill pile and collapsed into it. Nearby, his mentor Sweetberry was talking with Rosebud and Waterstreak worriedly. The Clan was low on food, and high on injured cats, due to increased attacks by GreenClan. The "warriors" were ruthless, aiming to kill in all of their ambushes. Brookpaw was in the medicine cat's den with a broken leg after Slasher had sent a log rolling down a hill after her one day as she was hunting.
"How can we keep going like this?" Hazelpaw wondered softly. She looked so crushed that he stood and wrapped his tail around her.
"We have to," he murmured into her thick silver fur.
Overhead, the moon had risen in the dark sky. When Hazelpaw finally pulled away, she said softly, "I'm going to sleep. See you in the morning."
Strongpaw nodded absently; something else had caught his attention. A pale shape was heading towards the entrance of the camp. Frostpaw! What's he doing out?
Scrambling to his paws, Strongpaw followed his brother out of the camp. Horror filled his belly as Frostpaw made a beeline for BreezeClan territory. He couldn't let this happen! It was too dangerous. Breaking into a run, he yelled, "Frostpaw! Stop!"
The tom froze and turned. "Strongpaw? Stop stalking me!"
"Frostpaw, you can't go. You just can't. I can't lose you. Please. We have to stick together."
The shadows of the trees above cast eerie patterns across the tom's pale white face, illuminating the torn look in his blue eyes. But he seemed to steel himself, and shook his head. "I'm sorry Strongpaw," he said, a note of desperation in his voice. "But I love her. I have to make sure she's okay."
"Forget Carrotpaw!" Rage suddenly overtook Strongpaw at his brother's stubborness. Why does he care so much about a she-cat anyway? Don't I mean anything to him anymore?
"Look," he said in a more reasonable tone, fighting to keep his cool. "If Viperstar finds you with a BreezeClan she-cat, he'll kill you for breaking the warrior code."
Frostpaw peeled his lips back in a snarl. "Like Viperstar knows anything about the warrior code. I'm going Strongpaw, and you can't stop me." He darted forward, pressed his cheek to his brother's, and, without another word, disappeared into the night.
"Frostpaw!" Strongpaw yelled, but his cries were swallowed up by the stillness.
Dragging his tail helplessly in the dirt, Strongpaw began to make his way back to the SunClan camp. He paused under a tall oak tree, leaning against the trunk. He felt like without it, he would be sucked into an endless abyss of darkness, and would never see daylight again. How could StarClan let this happen to the Clans? What were they thinking?
That was when he heard the first cry of pain. "Frostpaw!"
"No." A blood-stained body. "No." Coming closer, he could see that the pelt under the scarlet liquid was white. "No, please no." The stench of death hitting him at the same time as the familiar scent of his littermate did, his knees buckling, sinking to the ground. "No! No!"
A cold and unforgiving moon, staring down at him, when, several hours later, he came to. Tears still caking his face. The knowledge that he had failed the one cat he would have died for.
The burial went by in a blur for Strongpaw. Anger filled his Clanmates' vision as they talked of revenge. The start of the war, they said. They planned counterattacks and plotted strategies. Battle patrols were assembled. Fight-training was doubled.
Strongpaw sat back and watched without much hope. The battle for him was already over. He had lost his brother, the cat he loved more then anything.
It was the next day. The vigil was over, and he was feeling empty and hollow inside. That was when Hazelpaw came over. "Strongpaw," she said gently.
He met her green eyes listlessly. "Yes?"
"It's not over yet. You have to fight for him. This wasn't what he would have wanted."
Ordinarily, he would have lashed out at any cat who mentioned Frostpaw to him. But this was different. She was different. "Thank you Hazelpaw," he whispered, touching his nose to her ear. She linked her tail with his.
"The war has only begun."
To be continued...