A young tortoiseshell she-cat quietly padded among the shining lights. Mewing uncertaintly, a pair of silver kits stumbled behind her on slender, lithe limbs. The she-cat mewed soothingly, but there was no soothing their terror. One of the kits gave a small squeak and licked it's paw vigorously, nursing a scar that would never heal.
"Where in the name of the Clans have you been?" a pair of luminous, burning orange eyes narrowed dangerously in the shadows. The tortoiseshell didn't wince.
"Things have changed. Rules have twisted. There wasn't anything for it,” she shrugged. The orange-eyed cat hissed.
"Don't be stupid. We both know that something's not right,” she growled, stepping into the light to reveal a thin, gray body. The other she-cat glared defensively, standing her ground.
"I lead these kits to StarClan. That's all,”
The skinny gray she-cat hissed, unsheathing her claws instinctively. The tortoiseshell backed away, not wanting to fight.
"Look, it was for the good of the Clans. You're not my mother or my leader. You can't tell me what to do,” she persisted. An understanding look answered her excuse.
"You interfered with the living world, didn't you? Look, don't lie to me. I know you sent him to save her. I know you did it so he wouldn't hurt. I know you love him, and I know how foolish it all is. I've been through the hopelessness of it all, and now she will too. It's against the rules. Look at me, my friend. No StarClan cat should intefere with the living, but I can tell you one thing. Thanks to you, maybe Fireheart will now be happy,”
A gray blur of speed bolted across the harsh, bare leafbare ground. The air buzzed with tension, although there was no reason for fear. Cinderpaw was going on an adventure, not to fight lions.
Excitement prickled down her spine, warming her blood like a Greenleaf day despite the frozen ground. This was her first chance to help her Clan! Finally, Fireheart had stopped being such an oh-so-responsible mentor and left her by herself. Now she could do what she wanted.
I think... She thought to herself pleasantly.... I think I'll go and catch some prey. It was no good going exploring if it didn't help the Clan. All she wanted was the become the best warrior she could be, and that wouldn't happen without practice. Keeping her senses alert, she practised the crouch that Fireheart had shown her. He'd been pretty good at it, and there was no point in denying that her heart did a secret, embarrassing little flutter whenenever he hunted anyway.
Spotting a depressingly skinny blackbird, she assumed the familiar stalking crouch that she'd learnt a few moons ago. Fireheart hadn't shown her how to hunt blackbirds, but it couldn't be much different from robins.
"Is that the best you can do? No wonder! With Fireheart as a mentor, you can't be expected to hunt any better than a blind pigeon,” a sneering voice shocked her. Cinderpaw watched in frustration as the blackbird fluttered away with a warning squawk. A dark gray tabby warrior watched, amused.
"Fireheart's a good warrior, and I'm learning as best as I can,” she argued, her fur fluffed up. Darkstripe smirked.
"Anyway, I have better things to do than talk to a kittypet-lover. I'm going..,” he sneered, but Cinderpaw interrupted.
"I do not love Fireheart. Who told you that?" Cinderpaw snapped, her face fur feeling warm. She hoped that Darkstripe wouldn't be able to tell that she was lying. Well, she wasn't. Well, maybe she did like him. But not love him. It wasn't as if she was going to live her life revolving round him and devote herself to raising litter upon litter of his kits. But he did give her this joy-bubbling feeling inside...
"Phsh. Any cat could tell you love him from a Thunderpath away. Admit it, you'd die for that kittypet fluff,” the warrior mewed slowly, his eyes glittering as if he was enjoying every word. Cinderpaw glared at him. It wasn't any of his business whether she loved any cat! Then she calmed herself down, remembering that it didn't matter what Darkstripe said. He was a mousebrain.
"So, where are you going?" she changed the subject, amusing her Clanmate greatly.
"To tell Bluestar that Tigerclaw has a message for her. Apparently, there's something by the Thunderpath. It's none of your bussiness, and if I hear that you've been over there, I'll tell Tigerclaw. Do you hear me?" he hissed. Cinderpaw already knew that she was going.
"I said, do you hear me?" he growled.
"Yes, Darkstripe,” she ducked her head and picked up her run again, not bothering to even say goodbye to the older tom. A sharp pain made her squeak, and she vaguely noticed a nettle on her paw. She shook it away and carried on running.
"Cinderpaw?" Fireheart's voice almost made her stop, but she remembered her resolution not to let him get in the way of her life.
"Almost there,” she panted, resisting the urge to stop. If she didn't get to the Thunderpath soon, then the "something" that Tigerclaw wanted to show Bluestar might go away. And she'd have missed it all to get some rest. All she had to do was keep on going...
"I must go now, Fireheart. But remember, I'm always with you,” a beautiful tortoiseshell she-cat nosed his ear gently. Fireheart dipped his head sadly, but his insides were turmoil. His heart raced frantically. If Spottedleaf had come to him all the way from StarClan to warn him about Cinderpaw, then she must be in serious trouble.
I thought I told her to wait! he thought angrily, calling his apprentice's name as loudly as he could manage . His only reply was the hush of the wind. Picking up speed, the warrior began to run in the direction of the Thunderpath. A sudden cry of pain made his blood freeze.
"Cinder..,” his voice trailed away as a tiny speckled gray kit with huge green eyes limped into view. Her head was bent over one of her paws, and a high-pitched wailing escaped her tiny mouth. Fireheart let out a growl of frustration. Cinderpaw was in trouble, and here he was, stuck with looking after a naughty kit. It should have been in the nursery, and now the warrior code said that he had to help the disobedient youngster back to the nursery. He imagined Tigerclaw's face if he had to admit that he'd abandoned a kit in need.
"Why aren't you in the nursery, anyway?" the warrior demanded angrily. The tiny she-cat squeaked in fright.
"Mo...ver? Brindleface?" she squealed for help. Fireheart sighed. He'd heard all about Fernkit, Brindleface's new she-kit. There was no doubt that she would need a very courageous mentor. Flexing his muscles impatiently, he scooped her up with his teeth and carried on running.
"Cinderpaaaw!" he gave a muffled call. Her flowery scent hit him slowly, and he could smell that she wasn't hurt. So had Spottedleaf been lying? He shook his head quickly. Why would Spottedleaf lie to him?
Panting, the ginger tom reached the line of trees just beside the Thunderpath. He could make out to familiar dark shapes behind the wall of green. Fireheart didn't even have to sniff at the air to know that he was in the prescence of Tigerclaw and Darkstripe, the two cats that trusted him the least in ThunderClan.
"She'll be dead as Redtail by the time sunfall comes today. You mark my words, Darkstripe,” a familiar muttering made Fireheart's ears prick. Fear seeped through his veins. There was no mistaking Tigerclaw's ominous mew. Now he knew for certain that Tigerclaw was a traitor. But why did he want to hurt Cinderpaw? Curious, he crept closer.
"Bluestar might choose that kittypet as a deputy before the plan goes ahead. You saw how impressed she was when he..,” Darkstripe's voice was cut off by a distant growling of a monster.
"Huh. Even Bluestar would know better than to choose such a hopeless youngster - a kittypet hopeless youngster - as Clan deputy. Besides, she has her doubts about his loyalty. Do you think I've worked this out wrong?" Fireheart's belly clenched at his words. A fire of anger overpowered him and he longed to run and sink his teeth into Tigerclaw's throat. How dare that traitor speak about him like that? But he didn't dare move, because Cinderpaw needed his help, and she was in danger somewhere near here. Did Tigerclaw have her trapped somewhere far away? Why had he chosen her?
"Someone's coming, Tigerclaw. It's a she-cat. It must be Bluestar,” Darkstripe hissed. Fireheart tensed, waiting for his leader, who apparently doubted him so much, to appear. A distant roar of a monster suddenly grew louder. Fireheart's head snapped up in alarm as a silver creature with four monstrous paws began to thunder into sight. He imagined a sickening crunch of flesh and bone as a cat was struck by a beat such as this. It was a good thing that there weren't any apprentices near here. But...
"Cinderpaw!" he breathed in horror.
"There!" a familiar scent filled her nostrils. The acidic tang of the Twoleg Thunderpath almost made her choke, but she forced herself forwards. A flame-coloured warrior stared at her in amazement, his jaw wide open. Cinderpaw felt her fur flush with pride. She had impressed her mentor with her running! Across the stretch of too-hard stone, she saw the Clan deputy, Tigerclaw. He too looked surprised to see her, if a little unhappy.
"Get back!" he growled. Confused, Cinderpaw sped up and ran towards him, eager for a surprise. What would she find? She was so close to seeing the mystery that was too secret for even grown warriors to know. The rough, unpleasant rock of the Thunderpath grazed her paws, but she was so close...
"No!" a flash of fiery fur flared in her direction. To her surprise, Cinderpaw felt Fireheart's weight bowling her over, knocking her off her paws. The two cats tumbled over. Limbs flailed confusingly as Cinderpaw felt herself land with a thud a mouse-length from the Thunderpath. The roar of a passing monster was all she needed for an explanation.
"What did you think you were doing?" Fireheart demanded. His fur was fluffed up, and his green eyes were glittering with anger. Cinderpaw lifted her head indignantly, pulling herself to her paws.
"I heard there was something important by the Thunderpath, and I came to see, that's all. No big deal,” she retorted. Fireheart glared at her.
"I thought I told you to wait by camp, so we could go hunting with Graystripe and Brackenpaw. What made you think that you could just come here and ignore what I say?" he sounded angry, but slightly relieved too. Cinderpaw realized with shock just how close she had been to being crushed by that monster.
"Don't turn this on me! I told you not to come here,” the dark tabby growled, glancing at Tigerclaw for approval. The huge tom looked furious.
"If it hadn't been for Fireheart, that monster would have killed you. I'm going to have to speak to Bluestar about this,” Tigerclaw hissed.
"It wouldn't have killed me! It would've ruffled my fur, and maybe broken a bone or two. But I'd have lived,” she protested, not willing to give in so easily. Darkstripe stared at her in shock. No cat spoke to Tigerclaw like that!
"Haven't you taught your apprentice anything, kittypet? Didn't you tell her not to answer back?" Tigerclaw demanded. The ex-kittypet looked like he wanted to answer back himself, and Cinderpaw wished that she could stand up for him. But that would have caused more trouble for them both.
"Come on,” Tigerclaw growled.
"Let's see what Bluestar has to say about this,”
The young warrior glared at his apprentice as they padded back to camp. Didn't she know better than to disobey him so much? Now Tigerclaw would waste no time in telling the whole Clan what a bad mentor he was. There was no doubt that Dustpaw and Longtail would bask in the opportunity to gossip about Cinderpaw's blatant disobedience. Sandpaw probably would, too.
"Hey, what's happening, Fireheart?" a familiar gray cat bounded energetically up to him. Fireheart scented RiverClan mixed carefully with his friend's own ThunderClan scent. His amber eyes looked troubled, revealing wheere he had been.
"Silverstream,” Fireheart muttered in realization. Graystripe dipped his head shamefully, glancing at Tigerclaw to see if he had heard. He hadn't. Relieved, Graystripe beckoned the ginger warrior with his tail, eager to explain more. Fireheart shook his head, and carried on padding slowly after Darkstripe.
"Something's wrong, isn't it?" his friend muttered, probably reading Tigerclaw's unusually happy mood.
"You'll see,” he muttered. Cinderpaw glanced guiltily at him. Fireheart refused to meet her gaze. What had she been thinking, almost killing herself like that? And more importantly, what had Tigerclaw's "surprise" been? Had it been meant for Cinderpaw? Had there even been one?
"Tigerclaw, what is it?" Fireheart's heart sank as Bluestar padded up to greet them.
"Here, we have a disobedient apprentice and a kittypet that couldn't mentor.,” Tigerclaw hissed, but Bluestar interrupted him coldly.
"Kittypet? Has Fireheart been sneaking off to be fed by Twolegs?" she demanded coldly. Her ice-blue eyes were hard and disapproving.
"No... not as far as we know, anyway. But he hasn't been able to teach this apprentice anything. She didn't even know how to obey Darkstripe's orders. Instead, she ran out into the Thunderpath and was almost hit by a car in an attempt to come and see something we needed to show you,” he mewed. Cinderpaw lowered her head in shame. Bluestar blinked.
"What was this message that you had to show me?" she enquired. Fireheart watched his Clanmate curiously, noting with satisfaction how annoyed he was that Bluestar wasn't paying any negative attention to himself.
"Oh, uh... it was... a...uh..,” Darkstripe spluttered. Tigerclaw glared at him, and answered smoothly;
"We scented RiverClan on ThunderClan territory. It's stale, but they shouldn't have been there at all,” he mewed. Fireheart tried to read Bluestar's emotions, but couldn't.
"Did you recognise which warriors it was?"
"Yes. I mean... no. I mean..,” Darkstripe looked unsure.
"No, the scents were too stale. Anyway, it's starting to rain now. There's no use trying to find out. We should bring it up at the Gathering later. That can happen then. For now, we need to deal with this disobedient apprentice,” Tigerclaw mewed. Satisfied, Bluestar turned to Cinderpaw.
"And what gave you the idea to go an investigate, despite Darkstripe's orders?" she demanded.
"Sorry doesn't compensate for the life that was almost lost due to your own disobedience. Going to help Yellowfang does,” she replied. Cinderpaw glanced miserably at the ground, and Fireheart almost felt sorry for her.
"So, what's my full punishment?" she mumbled.
"I will reconsider sending you to the Gathering later, and you'll have to help Yellowfang in the medicine cat's den for a half-moon. Other than that, you were only curious. There's no real harm done,” she decided.
"When do I start?" the fluffy gray she-cat mewed quietly.
"Not now; you're too shaken. Go and rest, and start tomorrow at sunrise,” the Clan leader turned to Fireheart.
"I didn't mean..,” he blurted out. Bluestar silenced him with a flick of her tail.
"You did nothing wrong. I heard you telling her to wait at camp, and you've been doing a good job with keeping her under control other than this. I will not be punishing you. In fact, I am grateful to you for saving her life. That is the measure of a true warrior; saving Clanmates, not killing other Clans. Go now, and eat. Then get some rest. You'll be coming to the Gathering later,” Fireheart breathed a sigh of relief. Cinderpaw looked a great deal happier too.
"Thankyou Bluestar. But I haven't hunted yet. Could I go and hunt for the Clan with Graystripe, then go and rest?" he suggested. Bluestar's eyes narrowed dangerously. She wasn't happy with being told what to do. Fireheart realized with a pang of regret that she still didn't trust him completely. The blue-gray she-cat had accused him of sneaking off to Twolegs! What sort of reliable warrior did something like that?
"Very well,” she nodded her head after a long silence.
"So, is it okay?" Graystripe demanded as he padded away from a furious Tigerclaw.
"Still for hunting?" Fireheart replied happily, forgetting about Bluestar's mistrust. After all, he'd saved his apprentice. Surely that was a step to trust.
"... and I have to help Yellowfang. For a half moon,” she finished her tale. Brackenpaw twitched his ears sympathetically.
"That's pretty bad. But you should have..,”
"Don't you tell me that I should have listened to Fireheart, or Darkstripe. Everyone's saying that. As if you wouldn't go and have a look if you were in my place!" she snapped, annoyed. It wasn't even as if she'd done anything that bad. For StarClan's sake, she'd nearly died! Shouldn't everyone be treating her like a hero for surviving?
"Hey, I didn't mean it like..,”
"Sure you didn't,” she closed her eyes and tried to block out the world. But, yet again, she was distracted.
"Did you see Fireheart in trouble? Oh, his face! He was like "oh StarClan help me! Bluestar's angry with me! I want my Twolegs!" Honestly, I don't know why Bluestar hasn't kicked him out of the Clan yet,” Dustpaw was purring loudly as he followed a pale ginger apprentice into the den. Cinderpaw lifted her head, furious. How dare he speak about a warrior like that?
"Shut up, Dustpaw. He's got more courage than you ever will. I didn't see you saving my life at that battle. And StarClan help me if I'm wrong, but I seem to recall Fireheart being the one to bring WindClan back, not you,” Sandpaw snapped. Cinderpaw felt a twinge of discomfort. It was obvious that Sandpaw had feelings for Fireheart. But did he like her back? Her heart felt heavy as she imagined having to watch the two of them growing close, and sharing tongues, and having kits...
"I was too busy fighting to know that you were in danger, and you know perfectly well that we weren't given the chance to save WindClan. Why d'you suddenly want to stick up for that soft kittypet all of a sudden?" Dustpaw growled. Cinderpaw couldn't help but listen to their quarrel.
"He's not a kittypet any more than you are,” she hissed, and began to explain all the warrior things he knew how to do and he had done before. Swiftpaw entered the den noisily half-way through her speech, his eyes glittering.
"Is Brightkit your kin, Brackenpaw?" he asked excitedly. Cinderpaw sat up, confused.
"Yes,” she meowed slowly.
"I asked Brackenpaw, not you,” he muttered, but his eyes were still bright. Brackenpaw glanced at his sister, nervous. What was Swiftpaw on about?
"Because she's really clever. She killed a mouse and almost caught a pigeon earlier,” he explained. This was all Cinderpaw needed to understand.
"You love my kin? Because..,” she exclaimed, but was silenced by a glare from Dustpelt.
"You don't know the meaning of the word love, Cinderpaw. Not if you think that it's possible. Come to think of it, Sandpaw could do with an explanation of the word too,” he growled, and settled down to sleep. Sandpaw sighed and padded to the opposite side of the den from Dustpaw. Swiftpaw muttered something unintelligable and backed out of the den. Brackenpaw was already asleep, his body tangled so that his paw was ledged behind an ear.
Cinderpaw closed her eyes, longing for sleep to claim her.
"Goodnight, Fireheart,” she whispered. In her mind, he mewed a fond reply.
And his shining green gaze was the last thing that crossed her tired mind before sleep finally devoured her vision.
"If you had a kit, what would you call it?" Graystripe persisted. Fireheart threw him an exasperated glance. All his friend had been able to talk about all day was kits, and RiverClan, and she-cats. Well, one she-cat. Silverstream.
"Depends,” he shrugged, not wanting to talk.
"Say it was a she-kit,” the gray warrior suggested. Fireheart rolled his eyes.
"What's happening, Graystripe? Is Silverstream..,” horror flooded him as he anticipated what could be happening. The Clans could be faced with a very serious problem now. What if Silverstream was having half-Clan kits? Would Graystripe have to fight them and kill them one day? Would he leave ThunderClan? Would they run away from the Clans together?
"No, no. But, say, one day..,” his voice tailed away.
"Don't even think about having kits with her, Graystripe. It will only end with bloodshed. Do you want that?" he growled. His friend's burning amber gaze did not meet his own.
"If I were you, I'd call my kits Not-Going-To-Happen-Kit, and Forget-About-It-NOW-Kit,” he advised. Graystripe's eyes glazed over, as if he was living a memory that Fireheart hadn't shared.
"I'd call them... Gazekit for a she-cat. And Stormkit for a tom,” he murmured, and Fireheart knew that he was imagining the kits that could have been his.
"Gazekit isn't a Clan name,” he protested, unsure of what to say.
"How would you know?" Graystripe snapped, then looked horrified for what he had implied. Any other day, Fireheart would have been hurt beyong repair. But today, he didn't mind so much. His own mind was too full.
What if he did have kits? What would they look like? If they had been with Spottedleaf, there probably would have been a beautiful tortoiseshell she-kit in the litter. She was such a special, rare cat. There one minute, gone the next. There would never be a cat like her in his life. That litter would probably be of a single kit; a rare and beautiful occurance. She would have probably named it after some kind of herb, or some cat she loved. Maybe she would have let him decide. He would have called their kit Forestkit. But there would be no kits with a cat that was gone.
He wasn't exactly oblivious to Sandpaw. If they did have kits, she'd probably want two or three. Sandpaw had been a single kit of the litter. A very special miracle. But she was a bit of a miracle without being a single kit... Anyway. She'd want to have two or three, because she knew what it was like to be lonely. The apprentice had only really had Dustpaw for company for countless moons, and she wouldn't wish the same on her sons or daughters. They were likely to end up with some kind of dark ginger kit. He'd like to call that one Flamekit. If they had a paler kit, he'd call him Moonkit.
Then there was Cinderpaw. Fireheart thought of his annoying, disobedient, and not to mention young apprentice. A moon ago, he'd rather take a monstrous ShadowClan she-cat as a mate than her. But now, he saw how eager and life-filled she was. Caring and determined. While his thoughts ran darkly, hers were free and unencumbered. He wasn't really oblivious to her any more, either. If they had a kit, he'd call it... Cinderpaw would know best.
"Silverstream says she'd call a she-kit Thunderkit. It's not allowed to name a kit after a Clan, but she says she'd do it to show the rest of her Clan who she really is. If it grew up, I'd make it's warrior name Thunderstream. Like ThunderClan and RiverClan put together. But I'd have to be RiverClan leader for that. And for a tom, she said she agrees with Stormkit, but she's scared because her father's first name was Stormkit and then he broke his..,” Graystripe chattered eagerly. Fireheart nodded in places to show that he was listening.
But really, he wasn't.
All he could think of was Spottedleaf, Sandpaw and Cinderpaw.
Sandpaw, Cinderpaw and Spottedleaf.
"Well, what do you want?" a pair of orange eyes glared at her. (AN- The prologue was set in the future, so Yellowfang is still alive in this part of the story. The tortoiseshell she-cat actually changed the past by going back and telling Fireheart that Cinderpaw was in danger, not the present. Sorry for the confusing-ness.) Cinderpaw lowered her gaze, not wanting to seem rude.
"I've been sent to help you, Yellowfang. Not to whine about some tiny injury..,” her words were cut off by a deep, throaty purr. Surprised, Cinderpaw saw that the medicine cat had found her words funny. She was purring! Yellowfang, purring! This would be something to tell Brackenpaw for sure.
"You know me well, youngster, but I don't even know your name,” Yellowfang mewed, pulling a nasty-smelling herb from one of her neatly arranged piles of plants. The fluffy she-cat stared at it. Would Yellowfang make her eat it?
"Bee stole your tongue, apprentice?" the pale gray medicine cat growled. Cinderpaw remembered that she was expected to introduce herself.
"I'm Cinderpaw,” she said hastily. Yellowfang looked understanding all of a sudden.
"You're that mousebrained fool that almost got hit by a monster, aren't you?" she sounded disapproving, making Cinderpaw almost feel obliged to apologize. But she held her tongue, knowing that there was no need to say sorry to any cat. Except maybe Bluestar and Fireheart.
"Huh. And I thought you were okay, as well. Well, that just goes to show how wrong you can be. So, do you know what this plant is?" she pushed forward a green herb with a purple flower. From somewhere in her memory, Cinderpaw managed to summon a name.
"Ca... no, watermint,” she corrected herself. Yellowfang nodded.
"What about this one?" she indicated with her paw to another green plant with a white, bell-shaped flower. Another name materialized in her mind, but she wasn't sure how in the name of StarClan she had ever known it.
"This one?" it took a little longer to recognise the meagre pile of coloured plants.
"Yarrow,” Yellowfang looked impressed, if a little grudging. Cinderpaw felt a surge of joy as she realized that the ex-ShadowClan medicine cat hadn't been expecting her to know any of these plants. She'd actually done well!
"Who was your mother?" Yellowfang mewed after a long silence. The small gray apprentice looked at her, surprised.
"Frostfur,” this impressed the skinny gray cat even more greatly.
"That fussing lump of pretty fur. StarClan knows how this one turned out alright,” she muttered to herself. Cinderpaw felt a storm of anger boiling up inside her. How dare this cat insult a good warrior like that?
"Frostfur never did anything to hurt you," she exclaimed, and stalked out of the den before Yellowfang had a chance to reply. In her anger, she didn't see Swiftpaw before she strode straight into him.
"Watch it," he hissed, pulling himself from the ground.
"Oh, sorry, Swiftpaw! I didn't see you,” she mewed in surprise, backing away.
"Oh yeah, kittypet-lover? Well, you won't see me tonight either. Because I'm going to the Gathering!" he crowed loudly, his pale amber eyes glittering. Cinderpaw wished she could reply with some kind of cutting remark but she knew that there would be no changing this annoying mouse-brain. Let him think he's leader of the forest, Cinderpaw thought to herself. It's not as if he matters.
"Hey Fireheart! Where have you been all day? You know, Tigerclaw says that you're away far too much for his liking,” an unpleasant mew made Fireheart's pelt prick. It seemed that, no matter how hard he tried, he'd never be able to shake himself loose of his kittypet roots.
"I've been hunting,” he muttered, wishing he'd brought some prey back with him from his visit to Princess. His littermate seemed happy as a kittypet, and had forgotten everything about him except his name. Nevertheless, it had been a pleasant surprise to know that he still had kin left.
"Have some respect, youngster. Fireheart just saved a ThunderClan cat's life. I would have expected better of you than to talk to a warrior like that, Dustpaw. Now, go and fetch Sandpaw and we can go hunting,” Whitestorm's familiar reprimanding tone made him feel like he was going to burst with pride. Dustpaw's amber eyes gleamed with envy as he padded off to find Sandpaw.
"Would you like me to come with you, Whitestorm?" Fireheart blurted out, not wanting to let Dustpaw spend more time with Sandpaw. He must like her a lot! He realized with a pang of distress. But then, why did he care? Sandpaw was mean. Even if she had become nice to him since he saved her life, she was cruel and she had everything she needed in Dustpaw. The pale ginger apprentice used to treat him like crowfood! Why should he care about her?
"I think I can manage, thankyou, Fireheart,” Whitestorm nodded graciously, not seeming to understand. Half disappointmed and half relieved, he padded up to join a group of chatting cats by the den entrance.
"Hi, Runningwind,” he mewed. The lithe brown tom murmured a greeting, then turned to listen to Frostfur.
"...and of course that wouldn't have been okay, but you wouldn't have believed how polite she was! If I hadn't know better, I would've said she was a ThunderClan warrior. Oh, hello, Fireheart,” her eyes glowed as she greeted the ginger tom.
"Good evening, Frostfur,” he mewed politely.
"Oh, hello Fireheart. Thankyou for saving that little trouble-making kit of mine,” she replied, her tone not changing but her eyes soft with gratitude. Fireheart felt awkward, and was glad that Cinderpaw wasn't here, or else she would have been embarrassed that she'd been called a kit by her mother in front of so many warriors. Fireheart remembered saving her and her littermates when they really were kits. She hadn't been so talkative back then! She had still been quite pretty, though.
"Any warrior would have done the same,” he dipped his head, embarrassed himself. It wasn't as if he wasn't used to attention; as an apprentice, he'd barely been able to escape the spotlight half the time. But Frostfur never gave praise lightly.
"Huh! Fox dung to that. You did well, youngster,” Mousefur snorted briskly.
"Yes, you did do well. Not any warrior would have run across the whole forest, coincidentally calling his apprentice's name, then oh-so-accidentally turned up at the exact spot his apprentice was about to run into a monster. Not any warrior would have that sort of skill. And don't you think it's funny that Cinderpaw, who would do anything for Fireheart, was the cat that he saved? Don't you think that it would be just so easy for her to tell the world how he'd saved her, and no cat would know that he didn't do anything of the sort?" an angry voice called. Fireheart looked in amazement to see Sandpaw watching him, her eyes full of sadness. A long silence followed her speech.
"Tigerclaw was there,” an anonymous voice growled. But all Fireheart could think of was Sandpaw, and how despairing she looked, and how much he wished he could replace her misery with a never-ending happiness.
"Are you calling me a liar?" a loud yowl made every cat turn their heads.
"I thought I told you to help Yellowfang,” Fireheart hissed. but Cinderpaw didn't look ashamed.
"I did help her. I'd really rather you'd spoken to me about this in private, Sandpaw. That way, we could have worked something out,” Fireheart couldn't help but admire Cinderpaw's calmness towards the hostile apprentice. She had every right to tear Sandpaw's ears out for an accusation like that! Of course Cinderpaw hadn't made up the story of how he had saved her! She probably didn't think of him as more than a mentor. Swiftpaw was probably the special cat for her. Fireheart knew that if she really did love Swiftpaw, she'd end up admiring Tigerclaw and joining in the taunts.... no, Cinderpaw wasn't like that. Anyway, she was certaintly growing up from being a scatterbrained young apprentice. Only a noble warrior showed as much patience as she did.
"Worked something out? Yeah, right. I can see that happening,” Sandpaw snorted, and stalked away. Fireheart tried to follow her.
"Are you coming to rub it into my face now?" she hissed, not turning to face him as she strode further from the clearing.
"No, listen to..,”
"Say what you like, kittypet. I'm not listening,” she growled.
"Go back to where you belong, kittypet, and take your mousebrained, foolish little shadow with you! Nobody wants you here. You don't know what it means to be a warrior! You're just a kittypet who's pretedning to be a hero!" she screeched, finally losing her temper. Fireheart stared at her. He felt like he was breaking up inside. No words could have hurt more than that. She could have called him crowfood, or a mousebrain, or even a traitor. But that... that was too much.
"Why do you hate me so much?" he growled.
"You think I'm happy. You think I've got everything I need in Dustpaw. Well, I don't. But you'd never understand that. You're too pampered, too spoilt,” she hissed. Fireheart stared at her, and she glared at him. The two cats stood, utterly alone, by the gorse tunnel. Fortunately, the cats of the Clan hadn't waited around to hear their argument.
"You're fine with him! What do you mean?" Fireheart wasn't even sure what the argument was about any more.
"Don't tell me you're blind, too,” she spat.
"But... I don't want to hurt you, Sandpaw. You mean more to mean than anyone. You know that. Come back,” he mewed, silently willing the ginger apprentice not to run further. His heart thumping, he nuzzled her ear affectionately. She pulled away.
"Maybe I meant something to you, once. But now you love your apprentice,” her green eyes were cold, expressionless and blank. Like all the happiness had been washed away.
"I never said anything of the sort!" furious, Fireheart turned to go. How could she turn on him like this? Every cat knew that she loved Dustpaw. This must be a trick they worked out together, he thought angrily. They're probably laughing their paws off at this very moment! Fuming, he hauled himself over to the warriors den, not meeting the eyes of any amused Clanmates.
He was too wrapped up in his anger to notice a small gray shape limp past him into the medicine cat's den.
He was too late to hear Cinderpaw's cry of pain.
The pain was like fire.
That was all the world was. Red-hot, all-consuming flames of torture. Searing her, scorching every hair on her pelt, shooting through her body like lightning bolts. Forcing her body into spasms.
A pair of amber eyes burned into hers, and claws like dog teeth scraped at her pelt. They weren't really there, of course. But they had been.
The agitation was too much to bear. There was no way for her to choke any words. No way to request an end to her agony.
She wondered if Fireheart was near. She wanted to see him again before it was all over. But the thought of her mentor brought another aching pain inside, because she knew that he loved Sandpaw. From StarClan, she would be condemned to watching them grow up together and have kits.
"Yellow...fang..." she forced the words out, dragging herself into the medicine cat's den. This was the only hope she had left. If Yellowfang wasn't there, then she'd rid herself of the pain in the only way she knew.
Cinderpaw burst into the medicine cat's den.
It was empty.
"Fireheart," she choked. There was no reply.
Desperate, she hauled herself over the the crack in the rock where the herbs were kept, and scraped out the contents of the lowest section. A withered yellow plant, a black berry with green flecks, and a tiny red berry spilled onto the dusty ground. The fluffy she-cat took her choice immediately. She knew it was time for her final words, and she knew her time was drawing to an end. There was no time left to waste.
It's all over, she thought. No more playfighting, no more starry nights, no more battles. No more friends and enemies to make me purr and wail. No more sunny days spent with my mentor.
"I... I love you, Fireheart," he couldn't hear her, but she didn't care. StarClan could hear her. That was all that mattered. Taking a last gulp of fresh air, she chewed the berry.
"Fireheart, get up," a voice demanded. Fireheart opened an eye wearily. The den was still dark.
"What is it?" he murmured, pulling himself from his moss as quickly as he could manage. The young warrior's head was swimming with exhaustion; the sun hadn't risen.
"We don't have to get up yet, Graystripe," he snapped, settling back down to sleep. The cat that had woken him screeched again.
"Yes, you do. And that's an order," shocked, Fireheart recognised the voice of his leader. But this could not be his leader. Bluestar had always been ageless, strong and dignified; her emotions were usually unreadable. Before him, stood an elder. She was shrivelled and drooping. Her gaze was blank and haunted, as if she'd just watched a death. This cat was not Bluestar.
"Who are you?" he whispered. The cat's tone did not change as she replied;
"Bluestar." Fireheart shot out of his moss, his heart racing.
"What happened?" he growled, unsheathing his claws instinctively. Had there been an attack? A death? He tensed as he imagined what could have possibly changed a fierce warrior into a shrivelled elder overnight.
"Come," she beckoned with his tail to follow. Shocked by her transition, he followed her into the medicine cat's den. There was already a huddle of cats gathered at the entrance. Whitestorm was among them, and he dipped his head respectfully as Fireheart padded past him. The scent of blood hit him before the sight of a mangled gray body.
"No," he gasped. Before him, an apprentice lay unmoving and beaten. Huge patches of her fur were missing, revealing bruised, raw and beaten skin. Huge cuts ran along her slim frame. The worst of them started at her neck and followed down to her left flank. Her front legs lay at awkward angles.
"Cinderpaw!" he groaned, recognising the cat instantly.
"What happened?" the tom snarled, scanning the huddle of cats expectantly. Yellowfang glanced up at him, but was working too fast to reply.
"It was Tigerclaw. He attacked her in the night. She fought him off, and he landed in the river. Brackenpaw found his body. He must have drowned..." Whitestorm's voice was cut off by his own furious interjection.
"What happened to Cinderpaw?"
"Tigerclaw attacked her, and she made her way in here. Yellowfang was out finding supplies, and she tried to end the pain," Fireheart frowned. Cinderpaw had spent a session in the den with Yellowfang, but surely she didn't know enough to heal herself.
"Forever," Bluestar explained. Dread flooded through him. Cinderpaw had tried to kill herself to get rid of the pain. And she probably wasn't going to survive it.
"Is she..." his voice choked up. She was so young. She couldn't die. She couldn't leave him behind.
"She's alive, but she's in what medicine cats call a coma. Anything could wake her. Or she could die before that," Yellowfang explained grimly.
"Don't go, Cinderpaw. Hang on, for me. For the Clan. Hang on in there!" he mewed softly, nuzzling his apprentice gently. She didn't move.
"Fireheart, you were right. Tigerclaw is a traitor. StarClan lied to me. They told me he was the right choice. They lied!" Bluestar's voice rose. Fireheart would have been delighted that she believed him any other night, but not tonight.
"Her heartbeat is slowing," growled Yellowfang. Fireheart felt his own heartbeat increasing rapidly.
"Don't go, Cinderpaw. The Clan needs you," Fireheart whispered. He heard an angry snarl from somewhere far off, and he knew that Sandpaw had been hurt by his words to Cinderpaw. He didn't care. Sandpaw had hurt him too many times.
"And I need you too," his words were quiet murmurs, but they carried more emotion than any heartfelt speech. A wail of sympathy and grief rose from the group of cats watching. He glanced round, and saw Willowpelt's mouth open into another wail of mourning. A tiny kit, standing between her mother's paws, joined it. Frostfur and Brackenpaw, who were watching intently from the front of the gathering, gave their own murmurs of grief. Yellowfang shook her head sadly, and they all knew what it meant. They had been too late to save Cinderpaw.
"Why did he kill her?" he whispered, fury boiling up inside him. Tigerclaw had killed his apprentice, because he had known how much it would hurt him. He'd known it before Fireheart had, and now it was too late.
"There's still a chance, Fireheart. A very small chance," Yellowfang was rarely sympathetic, but it was clear in her voice now. He dipped his head thankfully.
"She walks with StarClan now," his heart was heavy. It felt like he was tearing up inside. Wanting to grieve alone, he pushed his way out of the den. And began to run.
The wind tore at his face, and his muscles ached. But his heart was on fire. He would never see Cinderpaw again. Never.
"Come back!" he called helplessley, staring at the endless stretch of stars above him. Desperate to get closer, he padded up to a smooth elm tree and placed his front claws as high as he could manage. Finding enough grip, the ginger cat pulled himself as far as he could, and hesitantly tested out one of the slimmest branches. It bent because of his weight, but held him. Padding along it, Fireheart closed his eyes and let the wind lick his face. Starlight bathed his fur.
"Can you see me, Cinderpaw?" he whispered. There was no reply. As he opened his eyes, a soft, loving voice breathed in his ear.
"Go back to her, Fireheart," there was no mistaking Spottedleaf's mew. He gazed at the stars above.
"But she's gone, Spottedleaf. I lost her like I lost you," he murmured. There was no reply but the whispering of the wind.
Fireheart knew that he could not ignore StarClan's will. Summoning up his last scrap of courage, he leapt from the tree. His paws thudded painfully against the ground, but he didn't stop running towards the camp. StarClan wanted him to go to Cinderpaw, and he would. He would be the one to bury her. He would be the first one to say goodbye for the last time.
"Fireheart, I'm so sorry! I just heard," Graystripe's voice greeted him first. The ginger warrior shrugged, not slowing down.
"CINDERPAW, I LOVE YOU!" he finally let out what was inside him. He called in despair, pushing past any cats that offered sympathy or explanation. Yellowfang stared at him in amazement as he entered the medicine cat's den.
"Come back," he pleaded. The mangled gray shape lay still, as ever.
But one eyelid fluttered open.
"I... I love you too," she didn't know if it was a dream, and she didn't care. In this way, she would see Fireheart before it was all over.
"Don't go, Cinderpaw," a pair of shining emerald eyes gazed down at her. That was all the strength she needed to survive. This was what would take the pain away. Not berries, not death. Fireheart.
"Sandpaw..." she breathed. Could this be a trick? A lie? Was he just trying to make her want to live?
"We're not meant to be. She's pretty enough, but that's all. You, Cinderpaw, care about more than yourself and me. That's what makes you beautiful," he sighed. Joy flooded through her.
"I'm ugly. I'm scarred and ugly. You won't want me," she tested. The tom shook his head.
"I thought I was going to lose you today. Do you think I mind if you're pretty or not?" he demanded. She shook her head slowly.
"Don't you dare do that again. Ever," Frostfur surged forwards and lathered her pelt with licks. She squirmed, embarrassed.
"I'm not a kit!" she protested. Frostfur purred quietly.
"You're always my kit, Cinderpaw. That's how it works with queens and kits," she mewed. Horrified, Cinderpaw glanced at Fireheart. He looked amused, but not replused.
"Bluestar, I think she's earned her warrior name. Quickly, give it to her before she gets into more trouble!" Yellowfang rasped. The blue-gray leader shook her head.
"When she's ready, Yellowfang. But for now, she can make do with moving back into her own den," Bluestar didn't sound remotely relieved that the apprentice had survived. Her tone was bland and sickeningly bare. Tigerclaw's treachery had shocked her out of her old self.
Cinderpaw sighed. It seemed that no matter how much they tried, ThunderClan would always be in trouble.
Cinderpelt padded slowly through the forest, the grass tickling her belly. Sunshine streamed through the gaps of the canopies, warming her pelt wherever it touched her. Birds sang energetically, each projecting their own unique melody. A pair of tiny kits meandered excitedly between her feet, mewing loudly. A flame-coloured tom was pressed close to her side.
"It's almost time that these two were apprenticed," the tom mewed quietly. Cinderpelt blinked affectionately at her mate and licked his ear. He returned it.
"Who do you think their mentors should be?" she prompted gently.
"I was thinking that we could bend the rules a little, and have you mentor Graykit," he admitted, a glint of mischief lighting up in his eyes. Cinderpelt glanced at the biggest of her litter. A pair of bold amber eyes stared straight back at her.
"As long as that's what you believe is right, then you are right," she replied softly.
"You won't mind if your foster mother mentors you, will you, Graykit?" the leader nudged his best friend's son. The solid gray kit squirmed with embarrassment, but was distracted by a playful attack by a fluffy white she-kit.
"I'd love it!" the tom-kit choked through a mouthful of fur, wagging his stumpy little tail eagerly, as if to prove his point. The two kits tumbled across the forest floor, batting each other wildly and yowling battle-cries.
"Graystripe would have been proud of him," Cinderpelt murmured, watching her adopted son wriggle under her own kit's pin. Pain washed over the flaming tom's emerald eyes.
"I didn't mean..." she mewed hastily, but Firestar interupted her.
"No, you're right. He would have been so proud of Graykit. If only he hadn't..." his voice trailed away. Cinderpelt thought in anguish of how Graystripe had left the Clans to be with the kit's mother, Silverstream, after Crookedstar discovered them together. Cinderpelt had been forced to adopt their only kit, and loved him like her own.
"Mother, when is it time for Streampaw's warrior ceremony?" her second kit - the one that was hers by blood - mewed eagerly. Cinderpelt crouched down till she was the same height as her daughter, and found herself looking straight into her own eyes. Bright, shining and inquisitve. She was dimly aware of Graykit as he trodded away to investigate a patch of green herbs.
"Morningkit, I won't lie to you. I don't know if Streampaw will ever have her warrior ceremony. But I want you to be a brave, noble warrior just for her," she murmured, pain stabbing at her. There had been only one kit in her first litter, Streamkit, whose dazzling blue eyes were sightless.
"I will," the white she-cat lifted her head. Cinderpelt thought that she had never seen a kit so young look so much like a noble leader in battle. She gave her youngest kit a quick lick. Morningkit squirmed uncomfortably, making Firestar purr.
"Promise me, Morningkit. Don't ever betray the Clan, unless your heart guides your paws. Do you understand me?" her voice grew more urgent as she sought her daughter's gaze once more.
"Of course! I'm going to be such a good warrior that even the greatest leaders will be scared of me. Can I go and catch a mouse, now?" her kit mewed impatiently. Firestar shot her a warm look as their smaller kit scampered away, stumbling slightly on her tiny legs.
"She's just like you were when you were younger," he noted. Cinderpelt purred.
"But she's got your purr, and your courage," she reminded him. Firestar nuzzled her affectionately.
"I remember when you were just like our daughter. A tiny kit in the nursery, eager for her share of adventure," he murmured.
"I can't say I remember much from when I was her age. " Cinderpelt sighed softly.
"It's a shame you never got to have a proper adventure. I hope Morningkit and Graykit do. Streampaw never will," the flame-colour tom's voice was heavy with emotion. Cinderpelt saw the pain in his eyes; both of them had suffered greatly when their first kit was blinded by a swooping giant of a bird.
"I've had my adventure, Firestar. You're all the adventure I ever wanted," the fluffy gray she-cat mewed. And with that, they padded onwards into the forest, living the fiery love that was once only glowing embers...