|River of Ice||Succeeded by:|
Petalkit's Clanmates fled their territory as the cruel SunClan leader Amberstar captured it in his hunger for power. The MoonClan cats retreated across the river and over the moor, believing Petalkit drowned in the water. Unbeknownst to them, the kit survived, and became lost in enemy territory on her own. Separated from her Clan, her kin, and everything she knows, Petalkit must find a way to return to her Clan, and retake the territory that it rightfully theirs. It will take great courage and determination to complete this journey, but she will not be alone.
Leader: Ravenstar - short-haired black tom with a silver tail-tip; amber eyes
Deputy: Nightfern - black tom with a white splash on chest; green eyes
Medicine cat: Roseheart - tortoiseshell she-cat with amber eyes
Silvershade - silver tabby she-cat with green eyes
Stonegaze - dark gray tom with blue eyes
Robinbreeze - brown she-cat with amber eyes
Mistpool - pale gray she-cat with blue eyes
Pinefur - reddish-brown tom with green eyes
Needlewhisker - black tom with unusually long whiskers; green eyes
Palecloud - white she-cat with blue eyes
Lightheart - pale yellow she-cat with amber eyes
Marshleaf - diluted tortoiseshell she-cat with yellow eyes
Mudleg - pale ginger tom with darker paws
Badgerscar - heavily scarred black-and-white tom with green eyes
Smokesight - dark gray she-cat with blue eyes
Pebblerain - spotted silver tabby tom with blue eyes
Quailsong - gray tabby tom with blue eyes
Owlgaze - golden tabby she-cat with amber eyes
Blizzardpaw - white she-cat with yellow eyes
Ashpaw - gray tabby tom with blue eyes
Antpaw - black tom with amber eyes
Cinderpaw - speckled gray she-cat with green eyes
Sagepaw - light brown tabby tom with amber eyes
Lakepaw - black she-cat with two white paws and blue eyes
Shadowleaf - black tabby she-cat with green eyes (adopted mother to Darkkit, a black she-kit; Icekit, a silver tabby tom-kit; and Petalkit, a dappled gray-and-white she-kit)
Frostflower - white she-cat with blue eyes (mother to Jaykit, a gray tom-kit; and Snowkit, a white tom-kit with black ears
Streamsong - dark brown tabby she-cat with blue eyes
Silentrunner - black tom with green eyes
Dawnheart - orange tabby she-cat with amber eyes
Leader: Amberstar - dark ginger tom with amber eyes
Deputy: Lionstrike - golden she-cat with green eyes
Medicine cat: Berryleaf - mottled brown tom with blue eyes
Sparkheart - pale ginger she-cat with green eyes
Leopardspots - spotted golden she-cat with amber eyes
Appleshine - russet she-cat with green eyes
Foxfang - red tom with amber eyes
Yellowfur - yellow tom with green eyes
Fogheart - gray tom with blue eyes
Skyleap - white she-cat with blue eyes
Myrtlenose - tortoiseshell she-cat with green eyes
Sagebreeze - gray she-cat with green eyes
Adderstrike - dappled golden tom with amber eyes
Spottedpelt - spotted gray tom with sky-blue eyes
Shimmerfall - silver she-cat with blue eyes
Gingerbreeze - orange tabby tom with green eyes
Flowerblaze - gray-and-white she-cat with amber eyes
Sandfall - very pale ginger tabby she-cat with green eyes
Sootcloud - gray tom with blue eyes
Orangedawn - calico she-cat with green eyes
Flamepaw - orange tabby tom with green eyes
Brightpaw - calico she-cat with blue eyes
Firepaw - russet tom with amber eyes
Scorchpaw - brown tabby tom with amber eyes
Blackpaw - gray she-cat with black paws, ears, and tail-tip; green eyes
Dapplewing - tortoiseshell she-cat with green eyes (mother to Mousekit, a brown tom-kit; Emberkit, a pale ginger tom-kit; Grasskit, a light brown she-kit; and Shrewkit, a dark brown she-kit)
Nettlefang - gray tabby she-cat with amber eyes
Goldengaze - yellow tabby tom with amber eyes
Leader: Briarstar - tortoiseshell she-cat with amber eyes
Deputy: Mapleblaze - pale brown she-cat with yellow eyes
Medicine cat: Thornstrike - brown tabby she-cat with green eyes
Thistleheart - golden she-cat with green eyes
Oakfall - reddish-brown tom with green eyes
Mossfur - black she-cat with one white paw and gray eyes
Fernpool - speckled gray she-cat with green eyes
Brackentail - brown tabby tom with blue eyes
Graytail - gray tabby tom with sky-blue eyes
Daisynose - white she-cat with yellow eyes
Elmwhisper - tall, light brown tabby tom with amber eyes
Cricketleap - gray-brown tabby she-cat with yellow eyes
Cedarheart - tawny she-cat with amber eyes
Cherryfur - reddish tortoiseshell she-cat with green eyes
Juniperleaf - black tom with green eyes
Birchdapple - silver tabby tom with white paws and tail-tip; green eyes
Ivyshade - dappled gray she-cat with blue eyes
Poppyspring - tortoiseshell she-cat with hazel eyes
Blossompaw - dappled gray she-cat with white chest and paws; green eyes
Aspenpaw - ginger-and-white she-cat with green eyes
Smallpaw - small black tom with blue eyes
Tansypaw - light gray she-cat with green eyes
Acornpaw - light brown tom with amber eyes
Thrushpaw - pale ginger tom with green eyes
Laurelheart - golden tabby she-cat with green eyes (mother to Beechkit, a light brown tom-kit; Rootkit, a dark brown tom-kit; Adderkit, a golden she-kit; Hollykit, a black she-kit; and Lilykit, a pale gray she-kit)
Browndapple - mottled brown she-cat with a graying muzzle and milky amber eyes
Mothfur - very pale dusty ginger she-cat with a white tail-tip and green eyes
Sapstream - yellow tom with amber eyes
Leader: Rainstar - gray tabby she-cat with blue eyes
Deputy: Batwing - dark brown she-cat with amber eyes
Stormwatcher - gray tabby tom with blue eyes
Hawktail - mottled brown she-cat with a russet tail and green eyes
Hailshadow - silver tabby tom with blue eyes
Wrenflight - light brown tabby she-cat with a white chest; amber eyes
Gorsewind - gray tom with amber eyes
Hareleap - brown tom with green eyes
Flickerwing - dark calico she-cat with amber eyes
Doveheart - pale gray she-cat with blue eyes
Falconclaw - dark gray tabby tom with yellow eyes
Quietbreeze - black she-cat with green eyes
Sparrowleap - brown tabby tom with amber eyes
Haytail - yellow she-cat with green eyes
Curlear - gray tom with blue eyes and unusually curled eartips
Beecloud - pale ginger she-cat with very dark ginger stripes and paws; amber eyes
Rabbitstep - gray-brown tabby tom with green eyes
Tanglespirit - long-haired pale brown tabby she-cat with white paws and matted fur; amber eyes
Duckwing - yellow tom with a darker muzzle, ears, paws, and blue eyes
Eaglepaw - ginger-and-white tom with yellow eyes
Heatherpaw - pale gray she-cat with green eyes
Breezepaw - dark brown she-cat with blue eyes
Ryepaw - brown tabby tom with yellow eyes
Starlingpaw - black tom with green eyes
Lizardpaw - very pale brown tabby she-cat with a short, thin tail and amber eyes
Flintpaw - dark gray tabby tom with blue eyes
Honeypool - dappled tortoiseshell she-cat with a golden tail-tip and amber eyes (mother to Birdkit, a brown she-kit; Weaselkit, a spotted gray tabby tom-kit; and Waspkit, a black tom-kit with two white paws)
Wolfblaze - gray she-cat with blue eyes (mother to Wildkit, a black tabby tom-kit with blue eyes)
Sheepfur - white she-cat with yellow eyes
Cats Outside Clans
Belladonna - tortoiseshell she-cat with green eyes
Wind - mottled gray tom
Ravenstar gasped for breath as his head broke the surface of the river. Water slopped into his mouth and he choked, striking out blindly for the shore. Freezing rivulets trickled into his eyes, blurring his vision. His grazed pads, once stinging and throbbing, were completely numb in the icy river. He could feel his energy fading, his willpower crumbling, his body and mind starting to give up.
Just stop struggling, a voice whispered. It will all be over.
No! he thought furiously, beating back a wave of exhaustion.
A foggy shape appeared in front of him, hovering over the water. Stars fluttered at the cat’s glowing white paws, reflected in her eyes, which had once been a vibrant green. Now, in death, they were drained of all color.
You can see me again, the cat whispered. You will. Come with me.
No, Ravenstar thought again, more quietly this time. His bravery was falling away, leaving him as trembling and vulnerable as a newborn kit. I won’t… I won’t come.
Ravenstar, please, the cat pleaded.
No! he shouted silently. It’s not my time yet!
The cat closed her eyes and faded into the sunlight. With a whimper, Ravenstar sank through the water and stopped with a bump at the bottom. He couldn’t even feel the sharp stones digging into his pads.
He closed his eyes, waiting for StarClan to come take him.
Teeth met in Ravenstar’s scruff, carrying him out of the darkness. He floated up, up, up, still not daring to open his eyes, and could feel a cool breeze ruffling his wet fur. Distantly he heard a cat’s voice calling to him… it sounded like Featherfall, but it couldn’t be, Featherfall had died, moons ago…
“StarClan?” Ravenstar called warily, opening his eyes.
A blurry shape swam above him; gradually, the world came into focus, and he saw the water-slicked gray pelt and green eyes of a cat staring down at him.
“Featherfall,” Ravenstar breathed.
Suddenly sound blasted back into being; Ravenstar’s muffled trance vanished abruptly, and the noise of rushing water and yowling cats bombarded his ears. Ravenstar winced, scrambling to his paws to locate the source of the sound.
“I’m not Featherfall,” meowed the gray cat over the turmoil. “It’s me, Silvershade. You’re here, Ravenstar. You’re alive.”
Ravenstar was hit with a sudden surge of weariness so strong his knees buckled. “Where am I?” he croaked.
Silvershade studied her leader with concern. “Do you remember anything? SunClan, the kits, anything?”
Foggy memories floated up in Ravenstar’s consciousness. Three kits, fur plastered to their sides with water, wailing in high, thin voices as a current dragged them downstream… cats yowling… SunClan snarling… Ravenstar diving into the river…
“Icekit,” rasped Ravenstar, “and Darkkit and Petalkit… did they get out? Are they safe?” He staggered in a circle, scanning the marshy riverbank for his three kits. All around him, cats were streaking away from the river, water streaming down heaving flanks as they ran. Ravenstar spotted a black she-kit dangling from the mouth of a brown tabby warrior; Darkkit was safe. He whipped his head around, searching for his other two kits in the crowd. There was Icekit; his silver tabby coat stood out like a splotch of snow against the dark gray fur of the senior warrior Stonegaze.
Now for Petalkit, Ravenstar thought, his gaze sweeping the landscape in search of his small, gray-and-white-furred daughter. Her dappled pelt was nowhere in sight. Panic started bubbling in his chest, rising like the cold rapids of the river. “Petalkit!” he called, a note of worry slipping into his voice. “Petalkit!”
Ravenstar felt Silvershade’s presence at his shoulder before she said anything. “Ravenstar.” Her mew was soft and gentle through the chaos.
Instead of anchoring him, this made Ravenstar even more agitated. He whirled around to face her, terror exploding in his chest. “Where is she?” he demanded. “Where is Petalkit?”
The look on Silvershade’s face was awful. Sorrowful and pitying, gently caring… Ravenstar knew exactly where his daughter was just from one glimpse.
“She’s gone, isn’t she,” Ravenstar meowed flatly. “She’s gone.”
“Ravenstar,” Silvershade began, stepping forward and resting her tail on his shoulder.
“No!” Ravenstar snarled, ducking away from her touch. “I’m not leaving until we find Petalkit!” He stalked back toward the river, scanning the surface for a struggling kit. But the water was smooth and indifferent, and no cat broke its current. The other bank of the river was empty of life; the waterlogged ferns and dripping reeds revealed no small kit standing among them. With a roar of fury and frustration Ravenstar charged for the water, intending to throw himself into the river and swim across to comb the grass on the other side, but a lithe silver cat blocked his way.
“Get out of my way!” shouted Ravenstar, attempting to shoulder the cat aside.
Silvershade, however, remained strong. “No,” she meowed, her voice as eerily calm as the icy stream.
“I have to -- go out and -- and find -- ”
Silvershade looked up into his face. “Ravenstar, I saw her swept downstream. No cat could have reached her, she’d reached the rapids.”
“You didn’t even try, did you?” hissed Ravenstar. “You just watched as my daughter was carried away on the river, and you didn’t even try to save her.”
“That’s not how it happened,” Silvershade protested, but Ravenstar talked over her.
“She probably clung onto one of the rocks, she’s a smart kit, she’d be able to find calmer waters,” he muttered feverishly, pacing back and forth. Silvershade matched his every move. Whenever he tried to dart by and run down to the river, she was there. Whenever he tried to force his way past, she held strong. “Just get out of the way!” he roared. “I know she made it, she did, she can… she should have, she should have made it.” The last words came out as a whisper. He stared miserably into the swirling icy water. “How could StarClan take her so early?” he whispered. “How could they take her from me?”
“I’m sorry, Ravenstar,” Silvershade murmured. “She should have led a long and wonderful life.” She gazed across the water. “She is with her mother now.”
Ravenstar glanced up sharply. His mouth formed one word, but he caught himself and said another. “M -- ah, Birchleaf. Yes. Hopefully she will… take care of Petalkit.”
“We will remember them both,” Silvershade mewed quietly, “and keep them in our hearts every day.”
A pang of guilt echoed inside Ravenstar, ringing sorrowfully around a void of darkness and grief. It was a jagged black wound that had been festering beneath the surface since his mate’s death, and now it was ripped open once more, this time by the loss of his daughter.
“Why have StarClan done this to MoonClan?” Ravenstar gazed up at the sky; clouds muffled the sunlight. “Why have they done this to me?”
Silvershade’s flank brushed Ravenstar’s own as she sat down next to him. “I wish Mintfrost was here,” she whispered. “She always knew what to do.”
The name caused another wave of despair to crash over Ravenstar. “Me too,” he admitted. More than you’ll ever know.
Silvershade watched the rushing waters for a heartbeat more, then stood and turned around. “We must return to the Clan. They are waiting by the horseplace.”
“Already?” Ravenstar murmured.
“Yes, Nightfern w-w-went ahead and t-took everyone to the barn,” Silvershade informed him, her teeth chattering as a sudden gust of wind swept freezing spray from the river over them. “W-was that okay?”
“Yes,” Ravenstar meowed quietly. He glanced back at the river, expecting to feel a stab of fury, but all he felt was sorrow. Tail drooping, he turned and followed Silvershade up the hill, away from the icy river that had taken his daughter away from him.
“Help!” Petalkit coughed, slapping the water with her paws. “Hel -- ” The rest of the word ended abruptly as she slipped under the surface again.
She emerged, spluttering and choking, a few tail-lengths away from the place she’d sunk. Desperately she looked around for anything she could hold onto; a vine of ivy, perhaps, or a large rock jutting into the water…
“Ha!” she gasped, spotting a root reaching out into the river like a long brown snake. She floundered toward the root and sank her claws into it, trying to keep a firm hold on the slippery surface. Slowly and shakily, she hauled herself out of the river. Her claws burned as they took on her weight, and a stiff wind nearly blew her off the root, but Petalkit managed to climb up onto the top of the root. She tottered forward and collapsed in a sodden pile on the riverbank.
I have to keep moving, she thought dimly. Ravenstar said that’s how you stay warm. A wave of exhaustion swept over Petalkit, but she staggered to her paws and padded back and forth, trying to get her blood moving. Remembering Shadowleaf’s advice, she licked her fur the wrong way, fluffing it up. The MoonClan queen had said that this kept a cat warm; Petalkit recalled Shadowleaf’s gentle tongue rasping over her ears and felt a stab of worry. Where was the Clan?
Petalkit stared across the river, into the mist that was rolling across the moorland. The hills were empty of all life, and she couldn’t scent a thing on the breeze. “Ravenstar!” she yowled across the water; her small voice echoed loudly around the unfamiliar territory. Petalkit winced and glanced around, but no cat seemed to be nearby. “Ravenstar!” Petalkit called again. “Shadowleaf!”
All she could hear was the sinister bubbling of the river flowing by, lapping hungrily at her paws.
Petalkit shivered and backed away a few paces. She never wanted to see another river again.
And at that moment, rain began to fall from the sky.
* * * * *
Petalkit crouched under a dripping clump of ferns, narrowing her eyes against the lashing rain. She’d never been so cold in her life. Being born in the middle of leaf-fall, her kithood was going to be colder and rainier than anyone else’s.
I wonder what my siblings are doing.
Where were they now? Toiling up a steep slope in the pouring rain? Sleeping out in the open? Had they even made it out of the river alive?
Petalkit shuddered. Will I ever see them again?
Her mind shied away from the answer, although the inevitable truth sank into her bones with the raindrops, making her cold beneath her soft pelt.
The sudden wet slapping of paws on leaves startled Petalkit out of her thoughts. Heart thundering, she pulled farther back into the shadows of her fern shelter, peering through the leaves. It sounded too heavy to be any type of prey, but too light for a badger or a fox… this was a cat.
“Do you reckon Amberstar cares if we eat the shrew?” a gruff voice spoke.
“What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him,” grunted another cat.
“Don’t, Adderstrike,” a female voice broke in. “He’ll scent the prey on you.”
“But if we catch more,” the cat called Adderstrike countered, “then that’ll mask it.”
“And what if we don’t catch more?” the she-cat pointed out.
“With all of your chattering, we won’t!” a fourth cat meowed sharply.
“Sorry, Bramblepath,” muttered Adderstrike and the she-cat together.
Petalkit got the distinct impression that Bramblepath was rolling his eyes, although she couldn’t see the patrol just yet. “Now let’s fan out, and hopefully we can find something to take back. Those screeching MoonClan cats scared away all the prey.”
A bolt of rage seared underneath Petalkit’s fur, along with a creeping sense of worry that had been lingering in her mind ever since Ravenstar had told the Clan to flee. She had been caught up in the excitement, running alongside Icekit and Darkkit, thinking that this was all a fun adventure… that was what Shadowleaf had told her, anyway…
She’d been so stupid, so naive; how could she have believed that for a second, with the scent of her Clanmates’ fear in her nose, with the urgent commands of Ravenstar and Nightfern, and the yowling SunClan cats approaching? She’d thought it was all a game, and her siblings did too… Icekit and Darkkit had been watching a beetle scurry along the ground while panicked cats rushed around them… they’d wanted to play with Ravenstar, but Shadowleaf had said he was busy, and they had been pouting about it. Pouting, as terrified MoonClan cats screamed in agony and enemy warriors streamed after them.
And then the river was in sight… Icekit had crept too close to the water, and the ground gave way… it was a horrible thing to watch, but Petalkit couldn’t pull her eyes away. He plunged into the water, and Darkkit dived in after him, to save him. But Petalkit couldn’t. She couldn’t bring herself to leap into the icy depths after her siblings, so she lingered on the shore… but suddenly the ground was crumbling beneath her paws, too, and she was swept along after them.
The absence of warm black fur next to her was more pronounced than ever as Petalkit sheltered under the ferns. She wished desperately for Shadowleaf’s calm presence, and thick fur to bury her nose in while a soft voice convinced her everything would be okay. She wished for Ravenstar to be standing guard next to the nursery, so she could look out through the brambles and see his powerful shoulders outlined against the sky and know that she was protected. She wished for the small warm bodies of her siblings; Darkkit’s black fur and Icekit’s silver tabby pelt, tucked next to her in the soft curve of Shadowleaf’s embrace.
But none of that was here, in the cold and wet forest.
“Shhh,” hissed a female voice. Petalkit jumped; she’d forgotten about the enemy warriors! Once again she scolded herself. She couldn’t be so naive anymore; she had to learn to survive alone, despite the pain it caused her.
“I hear something,” the she-cat whispered.
“Where?” asked the voice of Adderstrike, now hushed and curious.
“In that clump of ferns,” the she-cat murmured.
Petalkit’s heart lurched. They know I’m here!
“I hear breathing,” muttered Adderstrike.
“Sounds like a kit,” the she-cat agreed. “You don’t think --?”
“ -- Someone got left behind?” Adderstrike finished. “Perhaps.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” the she-cat mewed sadly. “Do you think we should -- ”
“Never,” replied Adderstrike.
“We should see -- ” the she-cat started, but Petalkit didn’t hear anything else, for she had just sprung from her hiding place and dashed away into the forest.
“Hey!” shouted Adderstrike. “What was that?”
“That,” the she-cat responded, “was the kit.”
“Should we follow it?”
Petalkit didn’t need to hear any more. She’d abandoned her only hiding place, and rushed off into unknown territory, pursued by two warriors of an enemy Clan! And moments ago she’d promised herself not to be rash. But she couldn’t do anything about it now. All that mattered was getting away from the warriors.
Petalkit raced through the undergrowth, taking the most difficult paths that would be hard for any cat to snatch her from. She shoved her way ruthlessly through the brambles, ignoring the thorns that ripped through her fur. She was running blindly, not knowing or caring which direction she was going, only that her path was pointed away from the cats behind her.
Suddenly, two things slammed into Petalkit simultaneously; an unfamiliar scent in the back of her throat, and a paw pinning her to the ground.
Petalkit gasped; all the breath had been knocked out of her. She writhed beneath the paw, but every attempt to get away failed.
“Ah ah ah,” a voice said, and Petalkit looked up at the sound. Her capturer was a tortoiseshell she-cat with narrow green eyes that glowed through the rain. “Where are you running off to, little kit?”
“Let me go!” Petalkit demanded, kicking and clawing at the paw on her chest.
The tortoiseshell she-cat stiffened suddenly. There was a crashing sound, and the two warriors pursuing Petalkit burst out of the bushes in front of them.
“What are you doing with that kit?” Adderstrike blustered. From Petalkit’s position on the ground, she saw that he had a dappled golden pelt with a white underbelly. His female companion had gray tabby fur.
“Ah,” the tortoiseshell meowed. “Is she --?”
Petalkit shook her head frantically at the rogue.
“Oh,” the cat said calmly. “What are you doing out here… er… Silver?”
Petalkit blinked once and mewed, “Sorry, mother. Me and… Ice… were playing but I went too far.”
Adderstrike snorted. “Like we’ll believe that. This kit came from our direction, she has MoonClan scent on her.”
“She probably ventured too close to the scent markers,” the rogue meowed easily. “Now she knows not to.” She laid her tail on Petalkit’s shoulders and steered her around. “Come along.”
“Hold on!” Adderstrike spat. “You’re not taking that kit anywhere until I see proof she’s yours.”
The tortoiseshell’s eyes glinted challengingly. “All right then. Sweetie, come out, it’s safe!” she called into the undergrowth.
Slowly and warily, a mottled gray tom-kit edged out of the bracken behind her. Relief flooded Petalkit; it seemed sheer luck was on her side.
“Mother?” the kit asked. “What’s going on?”
“Ice,” the tortoiseshell meowed to him, “I’ve found Silver. She was poking around on the moorland.”
With one glance the tom had sized up the situation; intelligence glittered in his dark blue eyes. “Ah,” he mewed. “Silver, there you are! I was worried.” The stranger padded up to her and brushed his cheek against hers.
Adderstrike looked quite deranged. “What -- that -- that kit’s MoonClan!” he spluttered. “The scent -- that’s MoonClan -- ”
“Ah, got a nose, have you?” the tortoiseshell remarked sharply. “Now if you’d excuse us, we should be on our way. I have a feeling this storm is about to get a lot worse.” As though StarClan had been listening, thunder rumbled in the distance. Petalkit instinctively drew closer to the rogue.
“Come on,” the warrior she-cat meowed to Adderstrike. “We should get back to camp. This is a useless argument.”
Adderstrike glowered at the rogue. “I don’t know, Sagebreeze,” he muttered. “These cats seem like trouble.”
“And you know what we do to troublesome cats,” Sagebreeze replied coldly. “It is likely that they know too. MoonClan certainly knows.”
Petalkit flinched. It was a tiny movement, and for a horrifying second it seemed as though Adderstrike had caught it. Luckily, the rogue’s kit acted swiftly.
“Got it!” he declared, pinning something down with his paw. “Now I can’t call you a flea-pelt anymore.”
“Thanks,” Petalkit whispered.
“No problem,” he replied, turning to his mother and saying loudly, “Mother, I’m hungry.”
“We’ll get you two some food,” the rogue told them. She stared at the SunClan cats with evident dislike. “Hopefully we won’t run into these rabbit-brains again.” With her tail she drew both Petalkit and the gray tom closer to her flank, and led them away from the SunClan cats.
* * * * *
“Thank you,” Petalkit mewed again, as the mottled gray tom-kit passed her half of a mouse.
“It was nothing,” he mumbled around a large bite.
“You’re too modest, Wind,” the tortoiseshell meowed. She was sitting at the edge of the clearing, perched atop a rock. “That was some very quick thinking.”
“If they took me… I don’t know what they’d do,” Petalkit murmured, shivering slightly.
“I saw it happen.” Wind’s mother spoke without turning around. “From up here, I saw all of it. I do not know much of the Clans, but I knew that MoonClan was fleeing. And SunClan was chasing them out.”
“Did you -- did you see anyone -- ” Petalkit swallowed. The words were hard to get out. “D-did anyone…”
“Die?” the rogue finished. She hesitated. “I didn’t see anyone die.”
“But?” Petalkit demanded, sensing the hesitation in the cat’s voice.
“But I did see a black cat in the river,” she admitted. “A large black cat, with a silver tail-tip. He went underwater. I didn’t see what happened.”
“No,” Petalkit whispered. Was that my father? Was that Ravenstar that she saw, sinking in the water?
She’d continued to tell herself that she’d be reunited with her Clan. Through the pouring rain, she chanted it silently. When lightning split the sky, the mantra echoed inside her head. When she was climbing out of the river she told herself to keep going, because she would see them again.
Now… What if there had never been a chance? All along, had she been reciting empty words, feeding herself lies?
“Am I right to assume that you are indeed MoonClan?” the tortoiseshell cat asked, breaking the silence.
“Yes,” Petalkit whimpered.
The rogue had turned around at last, and there was sympathy in her green eyes as she continued. “I’m sorry about what happened. I do not understand why those groups of cats are so insistent that they tear each other apart.” She stared down at her paws. “Or why they harm any cat who sets paw on their land.” She looked up again, and her eyes were shimmering. “What is your name, little one?”
“Petalkit,” Petalkit answered quietly. The name my father gave me.
“Petalkit.” The rogue tested the word on her tongue. “My name is Belladonna. I have lived in these woods my whole life, just outside of Clan territory. Wind is my son, my only kit.”
Wind dipped his head to Petalkit, who nodded back.
“If you are MoonClan,” Belladonna meowed, “then your Clan has traveled far away. I saw them retreating over the moor. At first light tomorrow we must set out and find them.”
“Oh,” said Petalkit, surprised, “you don’t have to -- ”
“Do you hear yourself?” asked Belladonna. “Refusing help when you need it most? Sounds just like the Clans. Tell me, how well do you think a little kit like you would fare on a long journey in the rain, alone, in enemy territory?”
Petalkit stared at her paws. “Not -- ”
“ -- Well,” Belladonna finished, getting to her paws and walking toward Petalkit. “You’d be crowfood in seconds. I’m coming with you.” She glanced up at the sky; the sun was almost completely behind the horizon. “You two should get in the den; I’ll join you in a moment.”
Petalkit glanced at Wind, hoping for some instructions. She didn’t see a den anywhere.
“It’s underground,” he whispered, tipping his head toward a hole in the forest floor. “Don’t worry, it won’t collapse,” he added, seeing Petalkit’s doubtful expression. “We’ve reinforced it, come see!” He dove into the tunnel.
Petalkit stuck her head into the cool semidarkness. Her whiskers didn’t even touch the sides of the tunnel; it was larger than she’d realized.
“Come on!” Wind’s voice echoed alarmingly loudly back to her from somewhere up ahead.
Shivering, Petalkit placed her forepaws into the tunnel, surprised to find that the dirt floor was packed and smooth. Then came her hind legs, and at last her tail. Petalkit took a deep, shuddering breath; her muzzle was full of the scent of earth. I don’t want to die down here!
Suddenly there was a flare of light; startled, Petalkit slammed her eyes shut and dropped to the ground.
“Jumpy, aren’t you?” came Wind’s voice. “You can come, it’s safe.”
Slowly, Petalkit opened her eyes. There was a round hole in the den roof, letting the last rays of sunlight dapple the earthen walls. The den was circular, with mossy nests pressed against the walls in a soft green ring. A shallow scoop had been dug underneath the hole in the roof; another circle. The rain outside had lessened, but drops from the trees above were dripping through the hole and into the scoop in the ground.
“Do you like it?” Wind inquired, bouncing from paw to paw. “It was my idea! The hole in the ceiling lets in light as well as water for our supply, it gets stored in this scoop so you can drink without leaving the den! Oh, and the smooth floor was my idea; Mother tells me stories about Twolegs, and in one of them they were smearing around gray mud with a flat stone. So weird, I thought, but hey, it works. I’ve always thought that Twolegs are smarter than they look. Oh, and did you notice the walls?” He gestured proudly toward them; there were branches protruding from the cavern floor and up to the ceiling, where they vanished into the earth. “These keep the ceiling from crashing down on us, and rocks along the bottom -- ” He pointed again “ -- keep the walls from crumbling into the nests! I took inspiration from Twoleg dens. Is that weird?”
Truthfully, Petalkit did think it was a bit weird, but admiration outweighed it. “No, I think it’s great!”
“Mother called it weird the first time I thought of it, but now she doesn’t complain, we’ve got a good setup here,” meowed Wind conversationally, giving his chest fur a brisk lick. “Come on, pick a nest, any nest. Just not that one, that’s mine.” He padded over to the nest farthest away from the tunnel and curled up with a contented sigh.
Petalkit chose the one next to him, which gave her a clear view out of the hole. The sky was slowly starting to darken, and a sprinkling of stars glowed down into the den. Petalkit could hear the whisper of wet leaves as the forest rippled in the wind.
Great StarClan, that kit is smart, she thought, glancing over at Wind, who had already closed his eyes. He would be a great asset to the Clan.
What are you thinking? she demanded herself silently. Wind is a rogue! And I think he likes it that way! I’m so silly. They’re helping me, not joining the Clan.
A shadow fell across the den; Petalkit saw Belladonna padding over to the hole. With a glance over her shoulder at the kits, she settled down outside of the den, standing guard when she thought that Wind and Petalkit were asleep. The rogue mother’s eyes held infinite gentleness, and Petalkit was overwhelmed with gratitude. These cats were helping her and asking for nothing in return. She wished she could pay them back somehow.
Just before Petalkit slipped into dreams, she looked up at Belladonna. Her figure was sharply outlined against the moonlight, her fur as black as Ravenstar’s, and Petalkit could almost imagine that it was her father standing right outside of the den, guarding her.
Yowling and snarling broke the crisp morning silence like a bone snapping. Petalkit jerked awake, leaping to her paws. Wind stood next to her, his fur bristling. Petalkit could hear his heart thumping through his pelt, and hers sped up to match its pace.
“What -- ” she whispered, but Wind interrupted her.
“Foxes,” he breathed, his face alight with terror.
“Belladonna!” Petalkit gasped.
“We have to help her!” Wind charged up the tunnel.
“No!” Petalkit cried. “Wind, you can’t! You’ll be killed! They’ll swat aside a kit like you without a thought!” Indecision prickled in her paws, but another yowl from Belladonna sent her streaking out of the den.
Horror flooded Petalkit like the icy water of the river. She felt as though she was drowning all over again, and this time there was no root to save her.
The foxes were massive. Russet pelts blazed like blood against the sunlight; snapping teeth and huge claws were everywhere at once, tearing and ripping at anything within reach. Petalkit saw the lithe tortoiseshell shape of Belladonna ducking and swerving among them, narrowly avoiding a death blow to deliver her own to the side of the vixen’s neck. But the wound, which would have bested a warrior, only made the fox shake her glossy red head, spraying beads of blood across the clearing. Belladonna twisted her head around to see Petalkit frozen with fear, watching the battle. “Go!” she yowled. “Run!”
Petalkit felt like she was watching the earth crumble under Icekit’s paws again… and Darkkit willingly throw herself into the water… Petalkit had been frozen, unable to help, terrified that she would be killed or do something wrong, and she was in that moment now, this time watching Belladonna fight two foxes alone, unable to do anything.
Suddenly, a cat dropped from the trees in a blur of brown fur. It latched onto the vixen’s back, tearing at its shoulders with sharp claws. The fox howled in pain and bucked, trying to throw the cat off, but it held strong. “LeafClan, attack!” the cat screeched.
Petalkit watched in wonder as five more cats plunged out of the trees, their pelts slicked with mud. They surrounded the foxes, growls rumbling in their throats. The vixen lashed out with a paw, catching one of the warriors on the side of the head; he stumbled away but righted himself, tail whipping back and forth. “Run away, fox dung!” the cat hissed.
The dog fox whined and backed away, and the vixen barked harshly at him. But faced with the dark eyes and sharp claws of six warriors, they both turned and fled into the shadows.
“That’ll show them,” snarled the brown cat.
Petalkit hardly heard; she was glancing around wildly for Belladonna. The brave rogue she-cat would gallop up to her, and they’d laugh and thank the warriors together, and Wind would be safe at her side once more…
Then she saw it. The bundle of dusty mottled fur at the edge of the clearing.
“Belladonna!” Petalkit gasped, racing over to her. The rogue stirred at the sound of her name and lifted her head feebly.
“I told you to run,” Belladonna whispered.
“I couldn’t move,” Petalkit whimpered. “I’m sorry…”
Belladonna blinked softly. “Take care of Wind.” She took a shallow breath, wincing. “I’m sorry our time together was so short. I wish I could have gone with you on your journey.”
“Don’t talk like that!” Petalkit ordered, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “The warriors saved us, we can get herbs -- we need cobwebs -- ” She pressed her paws against the ugly wound on Belladonna’s neck, and she could feel the rogue’s pulse fluttering weakly. “No, stay awake! Belladonna!”
There was the sound of small paws beating on earth as Wind sprinted to his mother’s side. “Mother!” he cried.
Belladonna shifted her gaze to him. Though her eyes were glazed, love glimmered inside them. “Wind,” she murmured. “My smart, handsome kit. You will live a long life… you will be much more than I was.”
“No!” he wailed. “No, don’t say that! We can fix you, we can get herbs, I saw goldenrod -- ”
Belladonna placed her paw on top of his. “We both know that this is beyond the help of healing herbs. I just want you to know… I love you, Wind. You are talented, and you have so much potential to be more than… just a rogue.” She locked her eyes with Petalkit’s. “You know what I mean. You two must go, together.”
“I’m not leaving you!” Wind argued, nosing his mother’s paw. “Petalkit, get cobwebs, that’ll staunch the bleeding -- ”
“No,” Belladonna mewed. It could have been the dawn sunlight, or the reflection of dewdrops, but Petalkit thought she could see the glimmer of stars in the rogue cat’s eyes. “Go.”
“I love you, Mother,” whispered Wind. “I don’t want to go.”
“I’m not giving you a choice,” Belladonna breathed. Her eyes closed. Her chest rose once, twice, and was still. The forest suddenly felt deathly silent. Petalkit sank to the ground, removing her trembling paws from Belladonna’s wound. The fur was dark and matted with blood, Petalkit noticed, but she was numb to everything now, except for the horrible emptiness inside of her.
“Hey!” a cat shouted. “Kits!”
Petalkit stared at Belladonna’s face. Her green eyes were closed, her expression peaceful, as though she was asleep. But the thickening stench of death betrayed her.
Why didn’t I get to know her? Petalkit wailed silently. I should have, I should have!
She glanced over at Wind; his face was buried in Belladonna’s rapidly cooling fur. His gray pelt was blurry through her tears.
He must be feeling a thousand times worse than me, Petalkit thought sadly. I didn’t know her… and she was his mother.
Now he’s completely alone.
“Oh, StarClan,” a voice breathed behind her.
Petalkit twisted her head around and saw a gray tabby tom standing there, an expression of horror in his eyes. He transferred his gaze to her and mewed, “Was she your -- your mother?”
Petalkit hesitated. She didn’t know much of LeafClan’s relationship with MoonClan. But the patrol had saved her and Wind from the foxes.
They didn’t save Belladonna, a little voice whispered inside of her. Nobody could.
Eventually Petalkit decided to be honest. “No,” she meowed truthfully. “My… my mother is dead. But Wind…” She swallowed back the lump in her throat and continued. “... Wind is Belladonna’s son.” She rested a paw gently on the dead she-cat’s eerily still flank.
The gray tabby tom dipped his head and turned to Wind, still crouched over his mother’s body. “I’m sorry for your loss.” His eyes shimmered with sorrow. “I wish we could have done more to help.”
Soon the rest of the patrol had gathered around Belladonna, breathing heavily, their fur spattered with mud and blood. A calico she-cat stood next to Petalkit, shaking her head. “We did not know this rogue,” she mewed quietly, “but we mourn for the loss of her life. May she find good hunting, swift running, and shelter when she sleeps.”
Petalkit shivered as the words of the ancient warrior tradition trickled over her like raindrops. Wind still hadn’t lifted his head from Belladonna’s side.
“Poor kits,” murmured the brown cat who’d been the first to attack the foxes.
“Should we take them in?” whispered the calico. “They can’t possibly make it on their own.”
Cats all around them dipped their heads, and before Petalkit processed what was happening, she was picked up by the scruff of the neck, and saw that Wind was, too. She and the little tom dangled limply from the mouths of the warriors, not knowing or caring where they were being taken. Their thoughts were dwelling on Belladonna, who lay cold and still in the clearing.
* * * * *
Petalkit felt tufts of soft moss around her as she was gently set down. She could feel the shadows dappling her pelt but didn’t open her eyes. Unfamiliar scents swirled around her and she burrowed deeper into her new nest, determined to shut out the world until she was ready to face it.
Is this what it’s like to be blind?
She suddenly felt another warm pelt touching hers and breathed in Wind’s scent. She could hear him breathing rapidly, as though he’d run a long way. A leg kicked against her flank; he was thrashing in his sleep. Still not opening her eyes, Petalkit shoved him away and he curled up tighter, whimpering. Feeling a stab of pity, Petalkit reached her head forward and gave his back a tentative lick. He softened at her touch; encouraged, Petalkit kept licking until his breathing slowed, rasped into a purr, and at last deepened. She sank back into her nest, and slowly, the sluggish shadows behind her eyes pulled her into sleep.
* * * * *
“Mother!” a voice cried, shattering the silence of the den. Petalkit’s eyes flew open and bright sunlight seared them. Blinking rapidly, Petalkit stumbled over to Wind, who was crying out in his sleep.
“Mother!” the kit called again, his paws twitching. “Mother!”
“Can you shut up?” a new voice rasped.
Petalkit jumped. The voice was coming from the back of the den that they were in, where the shadows gathered more thickly. There was a flash of white as a pale-furred kit staggered out of the darkness, shaking his head. He stared blearily at Petalkit. “That kit is making so much noise I can’t hear myself think,” he complained, “let alone sleep! Shut him up already.”
A surge of anger coursed through Petalkit’s veins, making her feel hot beneath her pelt. “He just lost his mother,” she snapped.
The kit’s hostile expression suddenly became more curious. “Oh, the rogue kit,” he meowed. “You’re his sister, right?”
“No, I’m not,” Petalkit responded tartly. “His name is Wind, and my name is Petalkit.”
“You’re from a Clan?” the white kit asked, sounding surprised. “I’m pretty sure we haven’t lost any kits recently.”
“Not this Clan, mouse-brain,” Petalkit hissed. “I’m from MoonClan.”
“MoonClan!” the kit exclaimed. “That explains your weird scent.” He wrinkled his nose as though he’d just tasted crowfood.
Petalkit’s supply of witty comebacks appeared to be empty. She settled for growling at him and stalking back to her nest.
“My name’s Whitekit!” the tom-kit called as she padded away. “Bye, MoonClan cat!”
Petalkit whipped around to glare at him, then curled up in her nest again. The den around her was made of brambles that blocked out almost all of the sunlight, reminding her of the close-growing pine trees around her camp. She’d never had the chance to venture outside of camp, except for when they had been chased out… and everything just spiraled down from there…
“Hello,” a new voice interrupted her painful thoughts. Petalkit glanced up and saw the gray tom who’d carried her away from the foxes standing in front of her. His pale blue eyes were darting back and forth across her face as though he was trying to figure out who she looked like. “I’m Graytail… I never found out your name. What is it?”
“Petalkit,” Petalkit answered, lifting her chin a little higher.
Graytail’s eyes widened. “You’re a Clan cat? What were you doing on LeafClan territory? How did you even get so far? What Clan are you from?”
“MoonClan,” Petalkit replied proudly… then remembered MoonClan’s current status. Her tail drooped. “I didn’t mean to come here. SunClan drove us out of our camp.” The chilling certainty settled into her bones; now she was sure what had really happened. MoonClan, her Clan, had been driven out like unwanted rogues. “They chased us to the river, and… my brother fell in. My sister went to save him but I fell in too, and…” Petalkit shook her head. “I think they all thought I drowned. But I climbed out of the river, and I didn’t know where I was… I think I was in SunClan territory? There was a patrol. They chased me but Belladonna -- the rogue, Wind’s mother -- took me away. She helped me, gave me a den to spend the night, promised to help me find the Clan. And then the foxes -- ” She shuddered, unable to say any more.
Graytail’s eyes glistened with emotion. “I’m so, so sorry,” he whispered, resting his head on top of hers. Petalkit stiffened; it was instinct to pull away from a cat of another Clan, but right then she needed someone’s fur to hide in.
“Graytail!” a sharp voice broke in. A black she-cat with one white paw was striding over to them. Her eyes were gray like chips of stone. “Did I just hear that MoonClan was driven out?”
“Yes,” he replied anxiously. “By SunClan. I didn’t think Amberstar meant his threat.” He shook his head faintly, and his eyes wandered the forest apprehensively. “An entire Clan. They drove out an entire Clan.” Graytail closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. “I just can’t believe it.”
“We never should have underestimated SunClan,” muttered the black she-cat, her tail lashing back and forth. Petalkit backed nervously away from her; she seemed like a formidable opponent, and Petalkit could see the tips of her claws glinting from her paws, moments from being unsheathed. “Amberstar is a menace. Something needs to be done.” She glared into the trees.
“Calm down, Mossfur,” Graytail soothed the angry warrior.
“Calm down?” spat Mossfur, her tail bristling like a black pinecone. “SunClan could be attacking us next! I need to talk to Briarstar.” With that abrupt sentence, Mossfur spun around and stalked off toward a cluster of moss-spotted boulders, where a familiar she-cat was crouched over a pile of fresh-kill.
Petalkit’s breath caught in her throat. Belladonna?
It was impossible -- yet there she was, her tortoiseshell coat shiny and warm in the weak sunshine filtering through the clouds.
It’s not Belladonna, she told herself, determined to be sensible. But still her heart leapt into her chest and she unconsciously took a few paces forward. She did not call out, but approached quietly, ignoring Graytail’s efforts to steer her away. Soon Petalkit was right in front of the tortoiseshell; the she-cat’s head was bent over the prey pile as she prodded a vole.
Just look up, Petalkit begged her silently. Just look up and be Belladonna, let the foxes have been a dream…
The she-cat must have felt someone watching her, because her ears pricked and she glanced up from the fresh-kill pile.
Disappointment dropped like a stone in Petalkit’s belly as the cat’s surprised amber eyes met hers. Wrong color, Petalkit thought bitterly.
Why do I even care this much? Petalkit wondered furiously. Why do I miss a rogue I hardly knew as though she was my mother?
Petalkit took in a sharp breath. That’s why. I needed a mother, and who did I choose but an unfamiliar rogue. Petalkit swallowed and blinked back the moisture in her eyes, forcing herself to focus on the cat in front of her.
“Who are you?” the cat asked her, looking utterly bewildered.
Petalkit glanced at the tumble of boulders behind her; the curtain of dripping moss over an opening in the mound was still swaying, as though a cat had just left. An image of the large stump in MoonClan’s camp flashed into Petalkit’s head. This was the leader’s den, which meant this cat was…
“I am Briarstar of LeafClan,” the tortoiseshell meowed, tipping her head to one side. “Why do I not know you?”
Petalkit stared at her paws, unable to meet the leader’s eyes. Even though there was warmth in their amber depths, Petalkit couldn’t help but feel a bit intimidated. The only leader she’d ever encountered was Ravenstar, and that was her father. She was at a loss for words.
Luckily, Graytail came to her rescue. He dipped his head politely to Briarstar and panted, “She’s Petalkit of MoonClan. Her Clan has been driven out!”
Mossfur, whose mouth was open, glared at Graytail; Petalkit suspected she’d wanted to tell her leader herself.
Shock flared on Briarstar’s face, replaced quickly by dark fury. Hatred smoldered in her eyes as she growled, “Tell me what happened.”
Graytail glanced at Petalkit. “Maybe she should tell you,” he suggested. “She knows more than me.”
Petalkit shrank back, shaking her head. Speaking to Briarstar had been daunting enough before; now the LeafClan leader was furious. She wanted to curl up and hide like a baby mouse.
Briarstar seemed to be making a massive effort to control herself. Her ruffled pelt smoothed, her claws retracted, and her voice was steady as she meowed, “Just tell me what you remember.” But Petalkit could see her eyes narrowing as rage began to consume her.
Okay, Petalkit thought nervously, I’ll just say everything really fast so she won’t get mad at me and then I’ll hide behind Graytail. She glanced uneasily at Mossfur, who also looked quite dangerous. I’ll have to make sure I hide on Graytail’s left side, away from her; I don’t think she’d attack her own Clanmate, but then again, I don’t know this Clan.
Taking a deep breath to banish the last of her nerves, Petalkit began her story. Briarstar’s unblinking amber eyes burned into her fur the entire time, not moving from her face once. “M-me and my s-siblings were playing,” Petalkit stammered, trying to conjure up every detail of the memory. “We wanted to play with father, but he was busy… that’s what Shadowleaf told us. I could smell fear-scent all around, and then snarling… and…” Petalkit closed her eyes as the sour scent of fear swept over her again. “A bad smell, and I heard someone yowl, ‘It’s SunClan! They’re attacking!’” Petalkit shivered. “We ran to the river and the Clan swam across, but Icekit fell in and then Darkkit followed and I fell too… I was washed away… it was so, so cold… but I climbed out.” A note of pride entered Petalkit’s voice, a brief spark of warmth igniting in her chest. “I ran into a SunClan patrol but Belladonna saved me, and I met Wind, and then… all the foxes…” Petalkit took in a shaky breath. Don’t let me cry in front of a Clan leader! she begged StarClan, but they didn’t seem to be listening. Briarstar’s concerned face swam before her, blurring into splotches of brown and gold. “I don’t know when I’ll see them again,” Petalkit whimpered. “Icekit and Darkkit and Ravenstar and Shadowleaf…”
“Great StarClan!” Mossfur swore. “This is Ravenstar’s kit?”
Petalkit nodded; it was time to run and hide behind Graytail now, but her paws seemed to be rooted to the ground. She wanted to crumple into a heap and sob until she had no more tears left to shed, but her legs couldn’t even buckle. She just stood there, rigid with shock and pain at the truth of her own words, that she might never see any of her kin again.
“One moment,” Briarstar mewed to Graytail and Mossfur, who nodded respectfully. The Clan leader padded into the shadows of her den, where they heard swears echoing off the stone walls. “Snake-hearted mange-ridden dung-eating fleabags!”
Petalkit blinked, startled, but also felt a bizarre urge to laugh. She glanced at Mossfur, who was muttering a few angry words under her breath. Icekit would like that! she thought, amused for a moment as she recalled her brother’s tendency to eavesdrop on the warriors’ conversations, especially when there were insults involved. Then she felt a pang of sadness and fear -- she might not ever see him again.
Petalkit glanced up; Briarstar was padding back to the watery sunlight, looking distinctly ruffled. “I apologize for my outburst,” she meowed formally. “It’s just a lot to get over. No Clan has ever been driven out before.” She shook her head disbelievingly. “I must tell the Clan.” The tortoiseshell she-cat scaled the tumble of boulders in two fluid leaps and split the silence with a thunderous caterwaul. “May all those cats old enough to catch their own prey gather beneath the Mossrock for a Clan meeting!”
All around the clearing, cats were emerging from the shadows. They padded from dens, melted from shady ferns, crept out from behind trees. Soon there was a large crowd gathered around the Mossrock. Most of the cats closest to it noticed Petalkit standing there, Graytail at her side. Suspicious murmurs made her hunch her shoulders and flatten her ears.
“Is that a kit?”
“Who is that?”
“Why is she here?”
“Cats of LeafClan,” Briarstar yowled, “I am sure you have noticed the new kit standing before you. This is Petalkit, Ravenstar’s daughter, a MoonClan cat.”
Surprised mews gusted through the crowd. Finally one cat was brave enough to call out.
“Why is she here?”
Briarstar’s intimidating amber eyes locked on the cat. “Because I have terrible news.” She bowed her head. “SunClan has driven out MoonClan.”
The Clan let out a collective gasp. Every cat began to talk at once, panicked voices rising up and out of the camp.
“Out of the territories?”
“Are we next?”
The last question sent a ripple of fear through the crowd. Petalkit felt the icy water of the river seem to close over her head again as their fear-scent started to drown her. Graytail pressed his flank against hers; she looked up at him and saw that his jaw was set and his eyes were firmly fixed on Briarstar, waiting, like every cat, for her response.
“I cannot say which Clan will fall next,” Briarstar meowed, “but I can assure you that whether it is CloudClan or LeafClan, we will all be in danger. Because of this we must stay vigilant. Patrols -- ”
Petalkit was suddenly aware of another cat sidling up to her; she turned and saw Wind edging nervously toward her right flank. “Wind!” she hissed out of the corner of her mouth. “What are you doing here?”
“Moral support,” he grunted, looking as though he needed more moral support than he could spare. But still, he sat down next to her, a warm and breathing kit, and a wave of comfort washed over Petalkit. She felt like she was in the nursery again, with the soft fur of her siblings against her sides, and no SunClan warriors prowling the bushes.
Suddenly Petalkit jerked back to reality; Briarstar had said her name! What had she said?
“I’m Wind,” Wind offered from beside Petalkit; he seemed to be paying more attention than she was. His earnest blue gaze met Briarstar’s evenly, and she gave him the smallest of nods. A small flicker of jealousy passed through Petalkit; it seemed that Wind had captured Briarstar’s attention.
Why am I jealous? she wondered. I don’t want a Clan leader’s attention, especially after hearing her swear like that. Amusement chased away her envy, but it was quickly swallowed by the familiar fog of gloom that had succeeded all of her emotions since the river had snatched her away from her Clan.
“Wind,” Briarstar repeated. She studied Wind closely, as though he was a particularly interesting battle plan. Petalkit pushed away another twinge of jealousy. “I can see why your mother named you that,” the Clan leader meowed, partly to herself. “Your eyes are darting all over… your mind is running like the wind.”
The Clan shifted uneasily, Petalkit included; she had no idea where this was going.
“Wind,” Briarstar said suddenly, “can you guess what I am thinking?”
Wind glanced at Petalkit nervously and shrugged.
“I’m thinking,” Briarstar continued, “of making you two apprentices for the time being.”
Petalkit blinked, sure she hadn’t heard right. The Clan seemed to be feeling the same way; disbelieving yowls were echoing all around the camp.
“They’re not old enough!”
“How can we trust them?”
“Stop!” Briarstar commanded. The Clan’s shocked yowling subsided into mutters. “They are innocent kits who have done nothing wrong. They have every right to apprenticeship as Clanborn cats.”
Petalkit looked at Wind, wondering if he was feeling the same way as her. She was surprised, however, to find that his eyes were shining with excitement.
“You’re not seriously considering this?” Petalkit murmured.
“Why not?” Wind asked. “You heard what Mother said; I have to be more than a rogue. I accept!” he called loudly.
His words were met with silence, in which Petalkit could hear the blood roaring in her ears. In her mind, a furious battle was taking place.
Is it wrong -- it’s disloyal to my Clan -- my birth Clan -- I can’t be a LeafClan apprentice -- I don’t belong here -- I want MoonClan back --
The other side of her mind was crying, Yes! I can be an apprentice and learn everything so I can find my Clan and save them!
You’re a traitor to MoonClan!
But what about Wind?
Belladonna meant for him to join MoonClan, not LeafClan!
But this is only temporary!
Again Petalkit felt like she was clawing her way up the root, trying to drag herself out of the rapids that were her thoughts. A raindrop splashed onto her nose. Startled, she stumbled backward, treading on the paws of a warrior behind her.
“Sorry! Sorry!” she squeaked, hastily scrambling away from him. She squinted up at Briarstar, whose head was turned to meet the coming wind.
“Rain,” the Clan leader meowed softly, so only Petalkit could hear her. She stared down at Petalkit. “Have you decided?”
Another couple of raindrops speckled Petalkit’s head. She shivered, hating the cold wetness that trickled through her pelt. “Yes,” she rasped. “I will train as a LeafClan apprentice until I am strong enough to find my Clan.”
Briarstar dipped her head. “You have chosen wisely. In a quarter-moon you shall be made an apprentice alongside Wind.” She regarded the gray tom again. “This meeting is over; you are dismissed.” With a grim sort of finality, she jumped down from the Mossrock and vanished into her den.
“Do you think she liked me?” Wind asked Petalkit as they padded back to the nursery.
Petalkit glanced back at the Clan leader. She had chosen a vole for herself and was eating slowly in the shade of the Mossrock; her eyes appeared to be roaming the camp, but Petalkit noticed they kept flickering back to her and Wind… mostly Wind.
“I don’t know,” Petalkit answered carefully. “She did seem to be staring at you a little bit.” Like you’re more special than me, a bitter thought whispered, but she pushed it away.
“Well, she’s obviously noticed my dashing good looks,” Wind meowed, puffing out his chest and changing his thoughtful pace to a strut. “We should meet the rest of the Clan!”
Petalkit rolled her eyes and followed him away from the nursery, to a fallen log at the edge of the camp. Petalkit couldn’t see what was so special about it, until they got closer and she noticed that the log was slightly elevated, making way for the entrance to a den.
“Should we go in there?” Petalkit whispered nervously.
“Why not?” Wind asked absentmindedly; he appeared to be examining the craftsmanship of the den. “You know, this isn’t the best way to make a den,” he mumbled, running his tail over the rough wood. “The log could fall, if there was a big rainstorm.”
“Well, thanks for putting that thought in my head,” a voice rasped from the shadows. “Especially when rain is on the way.”
“Sorry,” Wind called, glancing at Petalkit with a shrug. “Just thinking of your safety.”
“Safety, my tail!” snapped the cat. “I’ve never heard your voice before, unless you’re Whitekit and you’re putting on another terrible impression of the deputy.”
“I’m not Whitekit,” Wind replied. “I’m Wind. I’m a rogue kit. Briarstar has let me into the Clan.”
“Temporarily,” Petalkit added quickly.
“And who are you?” the voice asked. “Are you another rogue?”
Petalkit sighed. “No,” she responded. “I’m a Clan cat. Briarstar introduced me at the meeting, remember?”
“As a matter of fact, I don’t,” the cat told her. “Too old to leave the den often.”
“Can we come in?” Wind asked politely.
“You may come in,” the elder corrected him.
Wind shrugged and padded forward into the darkness. Petalkit took a moment to compose herself, then followed.
As Petalkit’s eyes adjusted to the light, she saw that the owner of the raspy voice was a grizzled old she-cat with mottled brown fur reminiscent of Briarstar’s. Her graying muzzle was twisted into a lopsided smile and her milky amber eyes examined Petalkit and Wind closely.
“Pretty little thing, aren’t you?” the old she-cat coughed. She sighed wistfully. “I used to be a beautiful young cat like yourself, but…” She gestured to her matted pelt. “Not anymore!” She looked at Wind. “And you’re a handsome kit, aren’t you?”
Wind shrugged, but he looked pleased with the compliment. Petalkit rolled her eyes.
“Hey, Mothfur!” the old she-cat called. “Come see the new additions to the Clan!”
“New additions?” grumbled a new voice from deeper in the den. A dusty ginger she-cat shuffled out of the gloom, scrutinizing Petalkit and Wind with sleepy green eyes. She turned to the elderly brown cat who had first talked to them. “Browndapple, what have I said about waking me when I’m napping?”
Browndapple waved away the question. “That isn’t important; we have to meet these youngsters. We haven’t been properly introduced, have we?” she meowed to Wind.
“We have, at least,” Wind replied. “My name is Wind, remember?”
“Ah,” the she-cat rasped. “I remember. And you,” she mewed, turning her amber eyes on Petalkit. “What is your name?”
“Petalkit,” Petalkit whispered. She felt uncomfortable under the elder’s piercing amber stare, which seemed to be scanning her face like Graytail’s did.
“A Clan cat!” exclaimed Browndapple. Recognition flashed in her eyes, but she didn’t elaborate.
“I’m from MoonClan,” Petalkit told her. “We got driven out, and they left without me.”
Mothfur seemed to take interest in her for the first time. “Say,” the other elder mumbled, “you look a whole lot like -- ”
“Who are your parents, little one?” Browndapple interrupted, flicking her tail so that it caught the side of Mothfur’s face.
Petalkit glanced suspiciously at the elders, then exchanged a look with Wind. His brow was furrowed -- he hadn’t missed it, either.
“Ravenstar and Birchleaf,” Petalkit replied, a little warily.
“Why would they leave you behind?” asked Browndapple, looking confused.
“They thought I drowned in the river,” Petalkit told her bluntly.
“Oh, that’s awful!” Browndapple gasped. “Did they leave the Clan territories?”
Petalkit hesitated. She had no idea how far her Clan had traveled, and how fast. Just thinking of it made her want to chase after them; with each second that ticked by her family got farther and farther away.
“I think they did,” Wind answered for her.
Annoyed, Petalkit whirled on him, her fur bristling. “You don’t speak for my Clan!”
Wind raised his eyebrows. “Belladonna saw them retreating over the moor,” he meowed coolly. “I believe that is the extent of your territories, correct?”
He knows I don’t know the territories, Petalkit thought mutinously, waiting for Browndapple to respond instead. Luckily, the elder took the bait.
“Yes,” Browndapple confirmed. “CloudClan lives on the moor; perhaps they encountered MoonClan and are sheltering them.”
Petalkit hadn’t thought of this before. A spark of hope flickered to life in her heart; maybe she did have a chance to reunite with her Clan.
“But CloudClan have been a little edgy lately,” Mothfur pointed out, shifting into a more comfortable position on the spongy moss floor. “I don’t think Rainstar would take an entire Clan in.”
“I can’t see her turning away a cat in need,” Browndapple countered.
“But this is a whole Clan,” Mothfur argued. “Many mouths to feed, and more than CloudClan can handle in a rainy leaf-fall like this. Most of them probably can’t help hunt, if they are wounded and tired.”
Petalkit’s tail drooped, her excitement vanishing instantly at the elder’s sharp words. Why did every cat seem so determined to believe that MoonClan was lost forever?
Not every cat, Petalkit reminded herself. Just Mothfur.
But the elder’s doubtful voice had already wormed its way into her head, poisoning her hopeful thoughts. “I don’t think Rainstar would take an entire Clan in.”
Wind’s voice had joined Mothfur’s in Petalkit’s head. “I think they did… that is the extent of your territories, correct?”
Petalkit buried the words under a deluge of bitter thoughts. I hate his stupid rational thinking, everyone thinks he’s so special, nobody looks at me when I’m standing next to Wind, the great intelligent rogue kit who thinks that my Clan has left for good…
“I’m going to meet the rest of the Clan,” Petalkit snapped, turning and marching out of the elders’ den. She could feel Wind’s intelligent blue gaze singeing the fur on her back and was determined not to turn and meet his eyes…
Petalkit strode toward the nearest den, a woven bramble one tucked between two stumps. A wiry golden she-cat was washing herself just outside the entrance, and she glanced up when she saw Petalkit approaching.
“Hello there,” the cat meowed in a friendly voice. “Petalkit, right?”
Petalkit nodded nervously.
“I’m Thistleheart,” the she-cat continued. “How are you feeling?”
Petalkit tipped her head to one side questioningly.
“You know.” Thistleheart licked a paw and drew it over her ear. “Your Clan is far away and you just watched a cat be torn apart by foxes, so I figured you’d be a bit down.”
Petalkit winced at the she-cat’s painfully blunt words… but they were true.
That doesn’t mean I have to like it, Petalkit thought grumpily.
“Didn’t you have another gray-furred companion?” Thistleheart asked, changing the subject. Petalkit blinked gratefully… and then realized what she was asking. Wind again. Everyone’s so interested in him.
“Oh, Wind?” Petalkit mewed, cringing as she heard her own scornful tone. She cleared her throat. “Wind’s talking to the elders. Browndapple and Mothfur, I think.”
Thistleheart looked slightly amused. “Don’t like him much, do you?”
“No,” Petalkit said quickly, “no, I like him -- ”
“You like him?” Thistleheart inquired, putting a little more emphasis on the word “like” than Petalkit thought necessary.
“No, no, no!” Petalkit meowed hastily. She scowled at the she-cat; Thistleheart seemed to know exactly how to push Petalkit’s buttons. It was infuriating, although she couldn’t help but find the she-cat a bit funny. Petalkit sighed. “His mother’s dying wish was for him to join the Clan with me.”
Thistleheart raised her eyebrows. “MoonClan or LeafClan?”
“MoonClan,” Petalkit replied firmly. “But we’re just going to train as apprentices here to get our strength up so we can find my Clan again.”
Thistleheart regarded her with interest, then dipped her head. “I hope you succeed,” she responded.
Petalkit offered her a tentative smile, and she received one in return.
I hope I succeed.
* * * * *
A paw prodded Petalkit in the side. Growling, she kicked at it with her hind paws, and a familiar voice complained, “Stop, that hurts!”
Petalkit reluctantly opened her eyes and saw Wind standing over her, nursing a scratched paw. She felt a pang of guilt and mewed, “Sorry, sorry…”
Wind shrugged. “Who cares? Anyway, there’s much more important things than a scratched paw!” His energy seemed to return; he hopped from paw to paw in excitement and burst out, “We’re getting our apprentice names today!”
In spite of herself, Petalkit’s heart gave a happy little jump. Every kit looked forward to their apprentice ceremony, and that included Petalkit. The shadows of her grief stayed to the sidelines, whispering and chattering as she pushed against them. She would have one shining, perfect day, and it would be today.
“Come on, you’d better wash yourself, your fur is a nightmare,” Wind meowed, licking his chest fur smooth. His coat was already sleek and gleaming, but every so often he turned around to brush an invisible speck of dirt off his fur.
Trying not to feel offended, Petalkit started to smooth her rumpled pelt. Soon her fur was just as tidy as Wind’s… except for her the hairs on the top of her head, which stuck out like clumps of gorse. One glance at Wind and she saw he had the same problem. Stifling a mrrow of amusement, she padded over and swiped the whole thing flat with one lick of her tongue. Wind looked surprised at the gesture and returned it.
Not a moment too soon, they heard Briarstar’s yowl echoing around the camp. “May all those cats old enough to catch their own prey gather beneath the Mossrock for a Clan meeting!”
Petalkit and Wind exchanged an excited glance and trotted out of the nursery together. Apprehension tingled in Petalkit’s belly, like her insides were full of butterflies. The Clan had already gathered around the Mossrock, where Briarstar sat bathed in sunshine, watching the kits come forward. A bolt of terror shivered through Petalkit; who would be her mentor? How long would they be staying with LeafClan before departing? Would she --
Petalkit shook away the dark thoughts with an irritable twitch of her ears. She forced herself to focus on the ground below her paws as she padded forward and sat down in front of the Mossrock, next to Wind.
“Psst!” Wind hissed in her ear.
“What?” Petalkit asked quietly.
Wind jerked his head at another kit sitting next to them; Whitekit, the tom who’d told Wind to shut up. Petalkit felt a strong surge of dislike as she took in his arrogant stance and glittering blue eyes.
“Is he becoming an apprentice, too?” Wind whispered.
“Hopefully not,” Petalkit grumbled, “but I think he is.”
Wind snorted, then froze. “Shhh!” he shushed her. “Briarstar’s starting the ceremony!”
Petalkit and Wind turned back to the Mossrock, fixing their eyes on LeafClan’s tortoiseshell leader. Petalkit glanced furtively at Wind; was he reminded of Belladonna as Petalkit was, seeing Briarstar perched proudly atop the Mossrock?
“Cats of LeafClan,” Briarstar announced, “We have recently taken in two kits from outside the Clan. One, Wind, was formerly a rogue, living with his mother before foxes attacked.” She paused, allowing her eyes to rest briefly on Wind’s mottled gray pelt, then continued. “And the other Petalkit, who was a part of MoonClan before they were cruelly driven out by SunClan.”
What does she mean, was a part of MoonClan? Petalkit asked herself furiously. Does she think I’m making LeafClan my permanent home? Or that finding MoonClan is hopeless?
Well, Petalkit told herself fervently, she has both answers wrong. I’m not a LeafClan cat, and I will find MoonClan again.
“We also have a third kit with us,” Briarstar was saying, “who has reached the age of six moons and is becoming an apprentice. Whitekit, please step forward.”
Whitekit took a step forward as asked, his white fur glimmering gold in the midmorning sun.
“Whitekit, from this moment on you shall be known as Whitepaw,” Briarstar declared. “Your mentor shall be Brackentail. I hope he will pass down all he knows on to you.” A brown tabby tom with blue eyes -- Brackentail, Petalkit assumed -- padded forward. “Brackentail, you received excellent training from Alderpool, and you have shown yourself to be brave and loyal. You will be the mentor of Whitepaw, and I expect you to pass down all you know to Whitepaw.” As the sacred words shivered in the morning air, Brackentail touched noses with Whitepaw, and the excited apprentice walked over to stand beside his new mentor.
“Wind, come forward,” Briarstar commanded, her gaze locked on the gray tom. Wind pattered forward, his head held high. “Wind, you were not born into this Clan, but I shall honor your mother’s wish by making you a warrior apprentice of LeafClan. Wind, from this moment on you shall be known as Windpaw.” Briarstar hesitated, taking a deep breath. “My mentor Appleleaf taught me everything I know, and I shall now pass these qualities on to you. Windpaw, I shall be your mentor.” Briarstar descended from the Mossrock and touched noses with a stunned Windpaw. Then, she turned and scaled the Mossrock once more.
“Lastly, Petalkit stands before us,” Briarstar meowed, “thought to be drowned in the river as MoonClan fled from Amberstar’s ruthless Clan. I have seen the river take the lives of fully-grown warriors, and I know it must have taken immense strength and willpower to survive.”
Petalkit felt lightheaded. Strength and willpower? Me?
“Petalkit is on a journey to find her Clan,” Briarstar continued, “and this is her next step. Petalkit, from this moment on you shall be known as Petalpaw. Your mentor shall be Thistleheart. Thistleheart, you received superb guidance from your mentor Mothfur, and you have shown yourself to be clever and determined. You will be the mentor of Petalpaw, and I expect you to pass all you know on to her.”
Stunned, Petalpaw stumbled forward and touched noses with Thistleheart. The golden she-cat winked at Petalpaw and stepped back, gesturing with her tail for Petalpaw to stand next to her. Petalpaw obliged, and lifted her chin to the sun; she wasn’t just a kit anymore, she was an apprentice.
“That concludes our meeting,” Briarstar finished, bounding down from the Mossrock. She approached Windpaw, who looked thrilled. “Shall we go take a tour of the territory?”
“Yes!” Windpaw yowled, following his mentor out of the camp.
Petalpaw stared after him enviously. He had been given the Clan leader as his mentor, and he didn’t seem to realize what a big deal it was. Petalpaw hunched her shoulders. Why does everyone think Wind is so special?
“You should look happier,” Thistleheart meowed as the golden she-cat padded around to stand in front of Petalpaw. “You’re an apprentice! It’s your first day! You get to explore the territory!”
“I’m not a LeafClan cat!” Petalpaw burst out. “Everyone is acting so normal, like I’ve grown up in this Clan and am finally getting a mentor and that I should enjoy it but I can’t when my Clan is gone!” Petalpaw gaped, realizing what she’d snapped at her new mentor. She slapped her tail over her mouth and shrank back a few steps. “Sorry,” she began, but Thistleheart talked over her.
“You’re not a LeafClan cat,” Thistleheart growled. “I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that I felt that way. I am well aware of the precarious position your Clan is in right now, but I don’t think you should spend your time pouting!”
Petalpaw’s ears burned with embarrassment and shame. She hung her head as Thistleheart continued.
“You should show some compassion for your rogue friend; he just lost his mother and thank StarClan someone is valuing him for his remarkable qualities, and here you are, moaning and groaning that he’s more special than you! I think a good, brisk patrol around the territory would get you into a more positive attitude, and changing the bedding in Briarstar’s den would be adequate punishment for your rudeness.” With that, Thistleheart whirled around and stalked toward the camp entrance, flicking her tail in a gesture for Petalpaw to follow.
Whitepaw passed her, brushing her shoulder so that she almost toppled over. He winked. “Looks like someone’s got into a spot of trouble with her new mentor,” he drawled, holding his head and tail high as he followed his mentor, Brackentail, out of the camp.
Loathing and annoyance surged through Petalpaw as she curled her claws in, digging dark furrows into the muddy earth. She wanted to slash that smug look off his face, but guilt from Thistleheart’s lecture bubbled up inside her. She couldn’t let her anger at Whitepaw and her jealousy of Windpaw interfere with the first day of her apprenticeship.
I wonder if Icekit and Darkkit have gotten their apprentice names yet, Petalpaw thought, feeling a pang of longing as she imagined herself standing beside her siblings in a shining threesome, receiving their mentors from Ravenstar as his amber eyes twinkled proudly down at them.
Then Petalpaw shivered -- and it had nothing to do with the wind. Were Icekit and Darkkit even alive? Had they made it out of the river?
Petalpaw stared fearfully up at the sky. It was partly cloudy through the interwoven branches of the oak forest canopy, and the warriors of StarClan were nowhere to be found. An odd feeling settled over the camp, like a storm was about to break, and Petalpaw glanced over her shoulder, having the sudden suspicion that some cat was standing right behind her. But nobody was there.
“Petalpaw!” Thistleheart’s voice shook Petalpaw out of her stupor. She blinked, then bounded out of camp after her mentor.
The golden she-cat was working her claws impatiently in the grass. “There you are!” she exclaimed exasperatedly. “I thought a fox must have gotten you.”
Petalpaw flinched; the word immediately conjured up a painful storm of memories… Dusty tortoiseshell fur, stained with blood… Wind wailing to the sky… A void of emptiness, sucking all hope into its depths.
“I’m sorry,” Thistleheart meowed unexpectedly. She gave the top of Petalpaw’s head a brisk lick. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Come, let’s get going. There’s a lot of territory to cover.”
Petalpaw nodded in agreement and followed her mentor as she wove through the forest, introducing her to the landmarks and explaining the borders.
“We share borders with CloudClan and SunClan,” Thistleheart informed Petalpaw as they padded along. “CloudClan’s territory goes from the other side of the river to the horseplace.”
“What’s the horseplace?” Petalpaw asked, stopping to sniff a fern pungent with LeafClan scent.
“It’s a place where Twolegs keep these big hoofed animals called horses,” Thistleheart explained, shaking her head faintly. “No clue why they do that, but that’s Twolegs for you. Horses… well, think of them as bigger, stronger, faster deer. Sometimes they leap over sticks with Twolegs on their backs.”
“Bizarre,” Petalpaw remarked. “I wonder why?”
Thistleheart shrugged. “Who knows? Anyway, this is the training area.” Thistleheart waved her tail at the small hollow around them, framed with twisted oak trees. She nosed the muddy ground; shallow paw prints were embedded in the earth. “Oakfall and Aspenpaw must have just left; she’s going to be taking her assessment soon.”
Petalpaw nodded and surveyed the training area. Countless cats of LeafClan had trained here, and it was likely she would, too.
But for how long?
“Keep up!” Thistleheart called. “To the Thunderpath next!”
“The Thunderpath!” Petalpaw cried. Shadowleaf had told her about those! Big, stinky rivers of hard black stone, littered with Twoleg rubbish… they sounded awful. And the monsters that roamed it, with their glaring yellow eyes and unnaturally shiny pelts, never leaving the path for some odd reason, sometimes striking an unlucky cat who wasn’t fast enough to cross in time. Petalpaw wasn’t sure she wanted to go near one.
But soon they had reached it; an ugly black scar slashed through the trees at the northern border. Choking fumes spewed from the dark stone and Petalpaw retched, staggering backward.
“That’s terrible!” she yowled, her voice echoing strangely off the silent black path. Where are the monsters? she wondered uneasily, taking a tentative step forward to touch the Thunderpath with her paw.
“No!” Thistleheart screeched, running up and clamping Petalpaw’s scruff between her teeth. The LeafClan warrior dragged her backward through the brush as a roaring sound rose in her ears.
A terrifying creature, vast and glittering, was pounding down the Thunderpath. Petalpaw’s jaws opened in a silent scream as the blinding white monster charged right past her, roaring in fury. Its round black paws kicked dirt into Petalpaw’s face and she screwed her eyes shut and flattened her ears. Then, it was gone, speeding off in the distance as quickly as it had come.
“What were you thinking?” Thistleheart snarled. Petalpaw couldn’t answer; she was trembling too hard to think straight, cowering under the stare of the furious warrior and the memory of the raging monster. “You could have been killed! Even the smallest kit knows not to go so close to a Thunderpath!”
“I’m sorry!” Petalpaw cried. “I didn’t know, I didn’t see a monster, and I didn’t think -- ”
“Yes, that’s right,” Thistleheart growled, “you didn’t think. You gave into your curiosity and look where it got you!” The golden she-cat began sniffing along Petalpaw’s spine. “Are you hurt?”
“N-n-no,” Petalpaw stammered, her fur still bristling with fear.
“Thank StarClan. Then what were you thinking?” Thistleheart demanded, her eyes flashing dangerously. “Never get so close to a Thunderpath without having proper experience with crossing one! Monsters sprint faster than any cat alive. Not even the fastest CloudClan warrior could outrun one. And what’s worse, monsters don’t even seem to get tired! I have no idea how they do that! But the important thing is, they’re deadly, and you should keep your distance.” Thistleheart sighed, a little shakily. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
Petalpaw nodded mutely and stood up, her legs trembling. She tottered after her mentor as Thistleheart led the way back into the forest.
“Normally we’d patrol the SunClan border,” Thistleheart meowed, “but as they’ve moved on to driving out other Clans, that’s not going to be the safest option for you today, especially after the Thunderpath.” She narrowed her eyes and stared into the trees. “See that birch tree?” she whispered. Petalpaw nodded. “Well, it marks our border with SunClan. Just stay far away from there if you’re out alone.”
Petalpaw shivered. Across that invisible border of scents lay the lair of the Clan that had driven MoonClan out; the Clan that had separated her from her family and nearly drowned her in the river. Heat surged through her pelt and she realized her claws had unsheathed. Heart pounding, Petalpaw sheathed them again and shook out her prickling fur. Thistleheart had moved on, and she didn’t want to be stuck near the SunClan border.
Or do I? The thought whispered in her mind. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for me to run into a SunClan cat… I’d rip their pelt off… and their tail… and bite them… and…
Horror tingled through Petalpaw. Was she seriously thinking of killing another cat? It was against the warrior code…
But wasn’t driving out MoonClan against the warrior code, too? the sinister voice in her head whispered again. Once the dust settles, who will care if rules were broken? SunClan destroyed my Clan, and I want them to pay.
Once again she felt sick. Filled with shame at her vengeful thoughts, Petalpaw hunched her shoulders and ran after her mentor.
“How was your first day?” asked Windpaw as Petalpaw padded into the camp.
Weariness dragged at her bones, making each pawstep feel like she had to lift each leg out of sucking mud. “I don’t know,” Petalpaw groaned, and it was true; so many emotions were jumbled inside of her that she had no idea which one summarized the whole day. Angering and scary and exciting…
“Let’s get some food,” Windpaw suggested. “It’s been a long day.”
Petalpaw nodded in agreement and followed Windpaw to the fresh-kill pile. The absence of frogs and lizards made a pang of homesickness ring through her heart; the pine forest that MoonClan resided in was full of them. Instead Petalpaw nosed through the selection of furred and feathered prey, choosing a mouse for herself -- at least that looked familiar. Windpaw grabbed a vole by the tail and together they padded over to the shelter of some ferns to eat.
“How was your tour with Briarstar?” asked Petalpaw.
“Cool!” Windpaw mumbled around his bite of vole. “She showed me around the territory and we practiced stalking techniques!” He swallowed, then added, “Did you know that Thistleheart is Briarstar’s sister? It’s true! And the medicine cat is their other sister; Thornstrike, I think.”
“How did you know that?” Petalpaw asked, surprised.
“Briarstar told me,” Windpaw meowed nonchalantly. “How about you, what did you do?”
“Just explored the territory,” Petalpaw answered. “Oh, and I almost got hit by a monster on the Thunderpath.” Her casual tone just barely concealed the note of fear in her voice as she recalled the memory.
Windpaw’s whiskers twitched but his eyes showed concern, like he didn’t know whether to be upset or amused. Eventually he replied, “That’s not good; are you okay?”
“Yes,” Petalpaw responded. “It was scary, though.”
“I’ve been to the Thunderpath once,” Windpaw meowed thoughtfully, tipping his head to one side. “Smells awful, doesn’t it? And the monsters… did you know that they carry Twolegs in their bellies? And the Twolegs get out again, totally fine… So strange, isn’t it?”
Petalpaw nodded as she bit into her prey. “Twolegs are weird.”
“Hello,” a new voice broke in. Petalpaw and Windpaw glanced up simultaneously to see a ginger-and-white she-cat with green eyes pad up to them, a finch clamped between her jaws. “You’re the newest apprentices, right? Except for Whitepaw, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Windpaw replied breathlessly. “Yeah, I’m Wind -- er, Windpaw, and this is Petalpaw. Want to eat with us?”
“Sure,” the ginger-and-white she-cat agreed, sitting down next to Petalpaw. “I’m Aspenpaw,” she introduced herself. “I’ll be taking my warrior assessment soon, along with Acornpaw and Thrushpaw -- they’re my brothers -- so we won’t be sharing dens and duties for long. Anyway, I just wanted to meet you; how are you settling in?”
“Great!” Windpaw responded instantly. “Clan customs are so interesting; Briarstar taught me all about them on patrol.”
“The warrior code keeps us safe,” Aspenpaw mewed, nodding solemnly. “And StarClan watches us from above.”
Windpaw hesitated for a heartbeat. “I d -- yes, they do.”
“My father is up there,” Aspenpaw breathed, staring up at the sky. “I’ll meet him there one day.”
My mother is up there, Petalpaw thought. I’ll meet her there one day.
Windpaw glanced at his paws. “I guess my parents are up there too, then.” He shifted, looking slightly uncomfortable. “I’ll be right back,” he mumbled. “I have to… make dirt.” Ducking his head, Windpaw stood and slunk out of the camp.
“What was that all about?” Aspenpaw asked.
“I don’t think he believes in StarClan just yet,” Petalpaw told her honestly. “He was a rogue when I met him, and his mother was, too. He just needs some time to adjust.”
Aspenpaw nodded in understanding, then asked, “And how are you settling in?”
Petalpaw thought for a moment. She didn’t think she would ever completely fit into this Clan. She didn’t know any cats yet. And her family was far away.
“I’m doing okay,” Petalpaw answered quietly.
Aspenpaw smiled faintly. “I’m sorry about what happened to your Clan,” she murmured. “I didn’t think that any Clan would drive out another, even SunClan, but they did. You’ll find them soon.”
For the first time Petalpaw met her gaze. “You think so?”
“Yes,” Aspenpaw replied firmly. “You just need some time to train and grow stronger.”
“Hi,” a familiar voice meowed. Windpaw had returned.
Aspenpaw stood up. “Thank you for letting me eat with you. I’ll see you later -- right now I have to go deal with Browndapple’s ticks.”
Windpaw looked disappointed. “We hardly got to talk at all!”
“Blame Oakfall,” Aspenpaw told him. “He’s my mentor; he assigned me the task. Anyway… bye!” She dipped her head and trotted away toward the Mossrock, where she then disappeared into a crevice on the opposite side from Briarstar’s den.
“Windpaw,” Petalpaw began, “we should go pick out our nests in the apprentice den.”
Windpaw nodded listlessly; he was staring off into space.
“Windpaw,” Petalpaw repeated a little more forcefully. “Do you know where it is?”
Windpaw flicked his tail at a den covered by ferns on the other side of the clearing, next to the nursery.
“Thanks.” Petalpaw stood up and arched her back in a stretch. She took a few wavering steps toward the apprentice den, then stopped and turned around. Windpaw was still staring blankly at the Mossrock.
Petalpaw twitched her ears in annoyance. “Are you coming?” She didn’t want to meet the other apprentices by herself.
“Y-yeah,” Windpaw mumbled. He shook out his pelt and blinked rapidly, as though coming out of a trance. Once he seemed a little more alert, he padded after Petalpaw as she led the way toward the apprentice den.
“How many apprentices do you think there are?” Petalpaw asked nervously, wondering how many times she’d have to introduce herself.
Windpaw gave a noncommittal grunt.
Petalpaw wrinkled her nose. “How about mentors?” she pressed. “Who do you think their mentors are?”
Windpaw shrugged. “How would I know?” His path had started to waver, veering toward the Mossrock.
Petalpaw dragged him back on course with her tail. “How old do you think they are?” she tried one last time.
“I don’t know.”
Huffing, Petalpaw stormed into the apprentice den, accidentally stamping on some cat’s tail.
“Hey!” the cat yowled indignantly.
“Sorry, sorry,” Petalpaw meowed quickly, jerked backward. The cat whose tail she’d stepped on was a light brown tabby tom; his amber eyes smoldered with anger as he whipped his tail back toward his body.
“Don’t you care where you’re putting your big clumsy paws?” he demanded.
Petalpaw flattened her ears, a little taken aback by his rude words. She half-glanced at Windpaw, hoping that he would come to her defense, but he was staring listlessly into space again, and she was on her own.
“It was an accident,” Petalpaw growled. “And if you don’t act nicer, I’ll be stomping my paws on more than your tail.”
The light brown tom raised his eyebrows. “Interesting,” he remarked coolly. “I’m Acornpaw.”
Petalpaw raised her chin. “I’m Petalpaw.” After a brief hesitation she added proudly, “Of MoonClan.”
“Ah, I heard about that,” Acornpaw replied briskly. “I’m sorry about your Clan. But you’re here now, so pick out a nest. Away from Tansypaw’s, mind you, as she thrashes around quite a bit.”
A ripple of some odd, uneasy feeling passed through Petalpaw’s belly, as though she’d eaten sour prey. She glanced uncertainly at Acornpaw, who had begun to chat with a green-eyed, pale ginger tom.
“Did you see Smallpaw in training yesterday?” Acornpaw scoffed. “He couldn’t catch a mouse if it wandered right into his claws!” His ginger-furred companion guffawed heartily. Petalpaw felt another pang of that sour feeling as she watched them imitate Smallpaw’s hunting stance.
Petalpaw glanced at Windpaw again, sure that he’d show some sort of reaction. A shadow crossed his face and a faint frown tugged at the corners of his mouth, but he said nothing and padded to the back of the den, where two other cats were curled in nests of moss.
“Hello,” Petalpaw mewed tentatively; the cats were mere lumps of fur, one black and one pale gray, rising and falling with shallow breaths.
The gray she-cat lifted her head, opening large green eyes. “Hello,” she murmured. “You’re Petalpaw, right?”
Petalpaw dipped her head. “Yes… and you?”
“Tansypaw,” the cat responded softly and rested her chin on her forepaws again. Her gaze darted furtively to Acornpaw and his friend, then back to Petalpaw.
The other cat had woken up, too; he was a black-furred tom with blue eyes like Windpaw’s. When he spoke, it was in an excited voice. “New cats!” he exclaimed. “Petalpaw and Windpaw, right?”
“Yes,” Petalpaw mewed. Windpaw nodded dazedly.
“I’m Smallpaw,” the black tom told them. “Have you picked out your nests yet?”
“No,” Petalpaw mumbled.
“Well, there’s one next to -- over there,” Smallpaw muttered, gesturing with his tail to a vacant nest a few mouse-lengths from Acornpaw’s. “The other two are here, behind me and Tansypaw.”
Suddenly Windpaw spoke. “Hey, is that Aspenpaw’s brother?” he asked, pointing to Acornpaw.
“Yes,” Smallpaw mewed in a small voice. “Very funny, isn’t he?”
Petalpaw felt a stab of pity for Smallpaw as she watched Acornpaw and his ginger friend laughing uproariously at some rude joke Acornpaw had made.
“That’s his brother Thrushpaw,” Tansypaw whispered. “The ginger one.”
Acornpaw had turned around was meowing to Petalpaw, “Do you want to claim this lovely nest?” He pointed at the one next to his with his chin. “It has a layer of feathers at the bottom.” He smiled dazzlingly at Petalpaw, whose thoughts fizzled out into blankness.
I’m turning into Windpaw! she thought harshly. Stop that!
“It seems you’ve caught Acornpaw’s eye,” Tansypaw muttered bitterly.
“Never a good thing,” Smallpaw sighed, curling up in his nest again and tucking his tail over his nose.
Petalpaw glanced nervously at Acornpaw, who was still smiling. His amber eyes fastened onto hers like claws. He wasn’t bad-looking, Petalpaw conceded, but…
She looked back at Tansypaw and Smallpaw, hunched over in their nests, shoulders slumped. What had Acornpaw said about them, again? “Tansypaw thrashes around quite a bit… Smallpaw couldn’t catch a mouse if it wandered right into his claws!”
Her mouth was filled with a sour taste not unlike crowfood. But Acornpaw was smiling still, smiling pleasantly, welcomingly, inviting her to be his friend.
Petalpaw took a few halting steps toward him, then stopped. Her heart was pounding loudly in her ears.
First impressions are everything, Petalpaw thought. And first choices determine your path.
“Come on,” Acornpaw laughed, “don’t tell me you’re a scaredy-mouse like Tansypaw!”
That did it. Petalpaw finally identified that sour feeling in her gut; guilt. And shame. And revulsion. Setting her jaw, Petalpaw straightened and unsheathed her claws, feeling them prick the mossy floor. “I am not a scaredy-mouse,” she meowed strongly and clearly. “And neither is Tansypaw, nor Smallpaw.”
“I was just kidding,” Acornpaw said hastily. “I didn’t mean it, come on -- ”
“My nest,” Petalpaw declared, “Is right here.” She padded over behind Tansypaw and Smallpaw and sat down defiantly.
Acornpaw narrowed his amber eyes; in spite of herself, they still seemed to freeze her in place and make her mind go blank and fuzzy. But Petalpaw wasn’t going to be mean to Tansypaw and Smallpaw for no reason. She had decided which side she was on, and it wasn’t Acornpaw’s.
Petalpaw looked at Windpaw, expecting to see him striding over to her and selecting the nest next to hers, but he was padding in the other direction, toward Acornpaw. Disappointment and disbelief bubbled in her belly; why would her curious, intelligent, sensible friend want to associate himself with cats like Acornpaw?
“Windpaw!” she called, unable to conceal the hurt in her voice. “Where are you going?”
Windpaw shrugged and turned to Acornpaw. “Whose nest is this?” he asked, pointing with his tail to the nest beside his new one.
“Oh, that’s my sister’s,” Acornpaw meowed. “Aspenpaw. Have you met her yet?”
“Yes,” Windpaw replied happily, curling up in his nest.
Understanding shot through Petalpaw; Windpaw wasn’t choosing the nest because he was near Acornpaw, he was choosing it so he could be closer to Aspenpaw! But somehow that didn’t make Petalpaw feel much better.
A mew from Tansypaw snapped her back to reality. “Thank you,” the gray she-cat murmured, “for choosing us.”
“It’s just a nest space,” replied Petalpaw, embarrassed.
The gray she-cat shrugged. “Sort of.”
Petalpaw hesitated, but Tansypaw didn’t elaborate. Instead the gray cat curled up tighter, squeezing her eyes shut.
It’s not even dark yet, Petalpaw thought, frowning. She stared at the small huddled shapes of Tansypaw and Smallpaw, then at Acornpaw, who was stretched out languidly in his nest as his ginger brother talked. Windpaw was listening to them with little interest in his sky-blue eyes.
“I’d better get to changing Briarstar’s bedding,” Petalpaw announced to nobody in particular. She glanced at Windpaw. “I’m leaving now, if you don’t know what that means.”
“You do that,” Windpaw murmured, staring at Aspenpaw’s empty nest.
Petalpaw’s ears twitched in annoyance; it was hard enough to stand next to Windpaw as every cat marveled at his intelligence and good looks, and now even Windpaw himself wasn’t paying attention to her! Letting out a sharp hiss, she stalked out of the den and across the camp to the Mossrock.
The curtain of moss over Briarstar’s den still dripped with moisture from the previous night of rain, and Petalpaw glanced into the shadows nervously. Was she supposed to enter? Would it be rude if she went in without announcing her presence?
“Hello?” Petalpaw called warily into the gloom, just to be safe. “I-I’m here to change y-your bedding, Briarstar.”
“Briarstar is on patrol right now,” a deep male voice echoed from the depths of the den. “But you may enter.”
Petalpaw hesitated; would it be stupid to go into a shadowy den with what sounded like a strong warrior inside, alone?
“I don’t have all day,” the cat added dryly.
“Sorry!” Petalpaw mewed quickly, summoning her courage and pushing past the dripping moss. She stumbled into the den, then straightened, confused. Where’s the cat?
Suddenly there was a glint of light; Petalpaw could see black paws with long white claws pulling a mossy stone away from the ceiling, letting a shaft of afternoon sunlight flare against the den walls. The light revealed a black tom with leaf-green eyes sitting next to a disheveled nest.
Petalpaw let out a startled squeak. “Oh! I didn’t know Briarstar -- ” She clamped her mouth shut, feeling embarrassment scorch her pelt.
“What, had a mate?” the cat asked sarcastically. He licked a velvety black paw and drew it slowly over his ear. “Well, she does, and that is me.” He allowed himself a little smirk before continuing. “I’m the luckiest cat in the world… aside from being badgered by our newest apprentice.”
Petalpaw scowled. She hadn’t been badgering! All I did was come in here to change Briarstar’s bedding!
“Sorry,” Petalpaw meowed instead, keeping her indignant thoughts to herself. “Can I change the bedding now?”
“I don’t know, can you?” the black tom asked, widening his eyes at her.
Petalpaw rolled her eyes and bit back a sharp retort as she padded over to the pile of dusty bedding and began rolling it up. Memories of watching the older apprentices in MoonClan doing the same surfaced in her thoughts as her paws worked vigorously, finally scooping up the moss and tucking it under her chin. The other bundle of bedding she grabbed in her jaws, and with a proud flick of her tail she carried it out of the camp.
Petalpaw didn’t know where the dirtplace was; she figured Windpaw probably knew, he seemed to know everything, but for now she settled on dumping the bedding in the forest. She tucked the dirty moss under a fallen branch and then returned to camp.
The black tom was still sitting in the den, his eyes mere green slits in the sunlight. Petalpaw glanced at the empty cave floor with a lurch of nervousness in her belly; she didn’t know where to get new moss!
Petalpaw hesitated for a moment, and the black tom still said nothing. He was watching her intently, and the fur along her spine prickled. It felt like he was judging her, studying her, to make sure she was a suitable apprentice.
I don’t want to ask him where to find moss! Petalpaw thought. I’ll find my own.
She whipped around and slunk out of the den, glancing furtively left and right. Only a few cats -- she recognized Mossfur and Graytail -- were lounging in the clearing, but to Petalpaw it felt like the whole of StarClan were watching her, waiting for her to make a mistake.
It’s just gathering bedding! she told herself harshly. Why are you so scared?
But every gaze that flickered her way for a heartbeat seemed to hold judgement, every eye that met hers rolled, and to Petalpaw it felt like she was failing an assessment. If she couldn’t prove herself to be a good apprentice, how would LeafClan ever accept her?
Petalpaw inhaled sharply. How could she be such a hypocrite? She had snapped at Thistleheart for thinking of her as a LeafClan cat, and Windpaw for saying that her Clan was long gone… and now she herself was thinking along the same lines: that MoonClan was far away and she was settling in to life in LeafClan.
I’m not a LeafClan cat! Petalpaw thought furiously. I’m a MoonClan cat! MoonClan!
I’m the only MoonClan cat still in the territories.
The thought dizzied her for a moment. Fear shrilled through her pelt at the realization, but she also felt a warm surge of pride; she alone remained where her Clan had fled; she alone had survived when her Clan had fallen…
Petalpaw shivered as the thoughts hissed and boiled in her mind. She shook out her pelt, trying to get rid of them, to clear her head. All that matters right now is getting moss.
Suddenly a brilliant idea exploded in her head. She’d been so mouse-brained; how had she not realized it? Triumph surged through her veins, and she felt slightly silly for getting so excited about collecting moss, but she had found a solution to her problem, and she was proud of herself. Petalpaw turned around and faced the Mossrock, which was rich with thick green moss. The rocks outside of Briarstar’s den were blanketed in it! Purring, Petalpaw started scraping pawfuls of moss from the side of the Mossrock, away from the entrance to the den. It came off in great swaths like a green pelt, leaping from the rock as willingly as a cat chasing a frog.
“What are you doing?!” a voice demanded, echoing deafeningly across the camp. Petalpaw froze in the action of reaching for another mossy rock. She heard swift pawsteps beating the earth behind her and flattened her ears. She couldn’t be sure if the cat was coming to her, or someone else… but she squeezed her eyes shut anyway.
“What in the name of StarClan is this?” the cat roared. Petalpaw flinched; they were right behind her.
What did I do wrong?
“Oh, Mossfur,” a lower voice chided, “you don’t need to make a big fuss, let’s just -- ”
“This is what happens when we bring rogues into the Clan!” Mossfur snarled. Still not opening her eyes, Petalpaw heard the swish of fur in the air as Mossfur stalked around her. There was silence, suddenly, and a shadow had fallen across Petalpaw, chilling her to the bone. Warily she cracked her eyes open a slit, and what she saw made her jump.
Mossfur was sitting right in front of her, her face a few mouse-length’s from Petalpaw’s. The warrior’s deep green eyes burned with anger as she hissed, “What -- in StarClan -- are you doing?”
“Gathering moss,” whispered Petalpaw, taking a step back. Her hind paws sank into her pile of moss, and she could feel Mossfur’s scorching gaze piercing her own.
“Taking from the Mossrock is forbidden,” growled Mossfur. “You should know that by now.”
Stung, Petalpaw spat, “I don’t know, okay? I just got here a quarter moon ago, for StarClan’s sake!” Trembling, she took another step back, and her claws squelched against the pile of moss she’d collected. Oh, StarClan, what have I done?
“Mossfur,” Graytail chimed in, padding over, “you don’t need to be so harsh.” He turned his sky-blue gaze on Petalpaw, who shrank back even further. “But you shouldn’t take moss from the Mossrock. It’s a sacred object, like the Starlake. It has been here, undisturbed, growing moss, since the Clans were first formed.”
Petalpaw gritted her teeth. She didn’t see what was so important about a big boulder covered in moss, but she did know about the Starlake. It was a shimmering pool at the bottom of a cascading silver waterfall, where the medicine cats met every half-moon and the leaders received their nine lives.
I guess every Clan has some place sacred to them, Petalpaw conceded, feeling her bristling fur lie flat. “I’m sorry,” she meowed. “I didn’t know that it was special.”
Mossfur snorted and turned away. “Well, see to it that it doesn’t happen again.”
Alone with Graytail, Petalpaw felt her body relax. Angry cats like Mossfur and sarcastic ones like Briarstar’s mate made her jumpy, but Graytail seemed like the most easygoing cat she’d met in the Clan so far. She felt safe enough to ask quietly, “What’s so special about the Mossrock?”
Graytail’s eyes glittered. “You have a lot to learn about LeafClan, little one.”
Anger seethed beneath Petalpaw’s pelt but she nodded. It was true. But that didn’t mean she had to like it.
“The Mossrock,” Graytail began, “is the den of the first leader of LeafClan, who was a rogue named Leaf. He formed LeafClan in a time of great peril, when the forest dried up and no rain fell from the sky. No rivers ran. The one you fell in was just a dusty streambed with a trickle of water at the bottom, and the Clans fought over it. The Starlake became a puddle.”
Petalpaw shivered. She couldn’t imagine the grand, shining Starlake, the place closest to StarClan, as a muddy puddle on the ground.
“But,” Graytail continued, “the morning dew clung to the Mossrock at the crack of dawn, Leaf discovered, and so his thirsty Clan had something to drink. They lapped the dew right off the moss, and managed to cling to life until leaf-bare brought the rain back.”
Petalpaw swiped her tongue around her jaws. Just hearing about the Clan suffering from thirst made her mouth go dry, and she glanced around for a puddle to drink out of. Then, she remembered the story, and turned to the Mossrock. But instead of a welcoming clump of soaked moss, all she saw was an ugly bald patch of flat gray boulder, all the moss torn like fur from skin.
That was me.
Horror pulsed through Petalpaw. I destroyed the Mossrock. LeafClan’s sacred place. I might as well have sprayed fox dung all over the Starlake.
“I’m sorry,” Petalpaw whimpered, staring at the blank wall of rock. It looked like an ugly wound, a gray gash in a green pelt.
What have I done…
“Just don’t do it again,” Graytail meowed, a note of sharpness entering his voice. Petalpaw nodded miserably and remained where she was as Graytail padded away.
I’m sorry! she screamed silently, her eyes stinging. I didn’t know!
Graytail was right. She had a lot to learn about LeafClan.
And she was right. She wouldn’t ever be able to do so.
Gulping back a sob, Petalpaw gathered up her moss and began plastering it to the Mossrock, filling in the empty patches. Green flecks rained down around her and dirt built up under her claws but she kept working, pressing the moss against the stone until it stuck. Every so often she glanced fearfully at the camp entrance; how long would it be before the patrols returned? She had to finish before they did!
Petalpaw worked until her claws ached and her hind legs stung from stretching up so much. At last, she stepped shakily back and admired her handiwork; it was hard to tell there had been anything wrong with the moss.
Maybe Briarstar will never find out.
The thought sounded too good to be true. Of course Mossfur and Graytail would report her mistake to the Clan leader… and then Petalpaw would be exiled… away from Windpaw and her training…
Suddenly there was a rustling sound toward the camp entrance. Petalpaw jumped, startled, and darted behind the Mossrock just as the border patrol padded into the camp.
“How was it?” Petalpaw heard Graytail ask the patrol leader, a pale brown she-cat.
“Quiet out,” the she-cat replied. “Not a sniff of SunClan on our side of the border, thank StarClan. I was having second thoughts about taking Blossompaw -- ”
“I was fine,” a higher voice interrupted; a small gray-and-white she-cat padded out from behind the patrol leader.
“Anyway,” the light brown she-cat continued, “things look pretty peaceful, but it smells like more rain is on the way.”
Petalpaw gasped. Rain would dislodge the clumps of moss she had so painstakingly replaced! She buried her head under her forepaws, wishing she could just wake up and find that everything had been a dream, starting with the foxes. She would wake up in the round den she shared with Windpaw and Belladonna, and they would go looking for MoonClan in the morning…
That’s how it should have been, she thought bitterly.
Suddenly she heard a small thumping sound. Heart lurching, Petalpaw risked a glance around the corner of the Mossrock and saw that a strip of green moss had fallen from the side of the boulder.
Was there enough time to grab it? She could just whip out a paw and hide the moss… and no cat would know what had happened… no cat would know of her most recent failure…
But it seemed that StarClan was not on her side, and there was a pattering of small paws on earth as the gray-and-white apprentice, Blossompaw, bounded over to the Mossrock, only a tail-length or two from Petalpaw’s hiding place.
“What in StarClan?” Blossompaw exclaimed, prodding the ball of moss with her paw. She whirled around to face the light brown she-cat from the patrol. “This came off the Mossrock!”
Petalpaw squeezed her eyes shut and curled her claws in. They were moments away from discovering her mistake. Please don’t touch the Mossrock… please don’t touch it…
“Wait!” rasped a new voice, and there was the sound of uneven pawsteps as a cat hobbled quickly across the camp. Petalpaw recognized Mothfur’s voice. “Could this be a sign from StarClan?”
“You’re not a medicine cat,” the light brown she-cat pointed out, but she did sound troubled. “Shall I fetch Thornstrike?”
“She’s gathering herbs,” Blossompaw mewed.
“What’s going on?” a smooth voice interjected. It was the tom from the leader’s den, Briarstar’s mate!
“Moss has been stripped from the Mossrock, Juniperleaf,” the light brown she-cat meowed.
“Stripped from the Mossrock?” Juniperleaf echoed. “Why would any cat do that?”
A surprised chorus of meows greeted his words. “I didn’t think of it like that before,” the light brown she-cat admitted, sounding alarmed. “Do you think one of our Clanmates did this?”
“Why would any cat do something like that?” Blossompaw asked, bewilderment in her voice.
“This has happened only once before,” Juniperleaf murmured darkly. “When claws of night scarred the ancient stones…”
“You’re not saying…?” whispered the light brown she-cat, her voice trailing off.
“The last time our camp was attacked, it was by MoonClan,” growled Juniperleaf; Petalpaw gave a jolt of surprise. She was sure Ravenstar had never attacked another Clan’s camp! Not her father, the gentle tom who twitched his tail for his kits to leap on, her father, the cat who stood guard outside the nursery every night? Surely that wasn’t true?
“They aimed for the Mossrock,” the light brown she-cat agreed. “Longear told me when I was an apprentice.”
“They slashed their claws through the moss,” Blossompaw had picked up the story, “and left long marks along the stone. The Mossrock still bears the scars, but we won the war.” The apprentice gave a little gasp of fear. “Do you think that Petalpaw did that?”
“She was out gathering moss, last I saw her,” Juniperleaf meowed.
“Moss?” the light brown she-cat demanded, striding over to the Mossrock. “Like the moss attached to the Mossrock?”
Petalpaw’s heart thundered with terror. She hadn’t known about MoonClan’s attack on LeafClan! She hadn’t defaced the Clan’s sacred place on purpose! And now they were about to discover the ugly scar on the rock she’d tried to fix!
There was a swiping sound, like claws through fur, but Petalpaw knew it was claws through moss. She swallowed and edged a little farther away.
“Great StarClan!” the brown she-cat swore. “Look!”
Anxious murmurs gusted through the small group of cats.
“What happened to the Mossrock?” wailed Blossompaw.
“Mapleblaze?” an ominously familiar voice broke in. “What is this?”
Briarstar! Terror shrilled through every hair on Petalpaw’s pelt. She wanted to run, but she seemed to be rooted to the spot.
“Someone has ripped the moss off the Mossrock!” yowled Mapleblaze.
“What’s going on?” a small mew sounded through the chaos.
Petalpaw felt relief seep through her bones. Windpaw would surely see reason, he’d calm them all down…
The entire crowd had silenced at his voice. An inexplicable feeling of apprehension strengthened inside of Petalpaw as the tension crackled in the air between the LeafClan cats and Windpaw.
They think he did it!
“What’s going on?” Windpaw repeated, his voice carrying clearly through the forest.
“W-Windpaw,” Briarstar stammered, “did you have anything to do with this?”
“No,” Windpaw meowed slowly. “What happened?”
“Someone ripped up the Mossrock!” shrieked Aspenpaw.
Dread weighed Petalpaw down again. If Aspenpaw was there, Windpaw’s intelligence would be reduced to nothing, and there was no way she’d be able to get out of trouble.
“It may have been an accident,” Graytail suggested.
Petalpaw heard the swish of fur as Mapleblaze rounded on the gray tom. “And how do you propose that happened?” Her tone was scathing.
“Some cat,” Graytail explained, “could have been collecting moss, and she didn’t know that the Mossrock was special.”
Juniperleaf inhaled sharply. “Petalpaw!” Petalpaw heard a whooshing sound as his tail slashed through the air. “She was gathering moss for our bedding, Briarstar! I’ll bet she collected it from the Mossrock!”
“And then she tried to put it back together,” Graytail reminded him.
“Then it isn’t a sign from StarClan,” Briarstar meowed, her voice emotionless. “It was just a mistake made by an apprentice who does not know our customs.”
Petalpaw felt foolish. Briarstar’s words, although not spoken to her directly, jabbed her like thorns. Of course I don’t know your customs! she thought furiously. I’m not a LeafClan cat!
“Where is Petalpaw now?” Briarstar asked.
“I have no idea,” Juniperleaf admitted. “She probably heard us and ran off.”
“Well, please bring her back,” Briarstar meowed. “Being alone in the forest right now, with SunClan so hostile, could cost her her life. She has promise. I would be disappointed if SunClan had taken her from us.”
Pride and fury battled in Petalpaw’s heart; warmth from Briarstar’s praise clashed with anger at being discussed like a foolish kit. And through it all was a tremble of fear.
What will they do to me?
She ran from the LeafClan camp, tearing through the territory, ignoring the pain as she crashed through the brambles. With every beat of her heart, the same words echoed in her head.
I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it!
She hadn’t known that the Mossrock was sacred! She hadn’t known that it was forbidden to make a single mark on it! She was MoonClan, through and through, with the pure warrior blood of her father Ravenstar running in her veins.
What she wouldn’t give to see him again…
A pale tree trunk flashed out of the corner of her eye and she skidded to a halt. Heart pounding, Petalpaw glanced back at the silver birch tree that marked the SunClan border. She was two fox-lengths into enemy territory!
Petalpaw glanced furtively around, slipping into a crouch. With no proper training, she couldn’t tell if she was doing it right, but all she cared about was getting across the border and back home.
It’s not my home!
“Hey!” shouted a voice. Petalpaw gasped and whirled around, catching a familiar scent.
A brown tabby SunClan cat was stalking over to her, his amber eyes narrowed. “What are you doing on SunClan territory?”
Petalpaw fought to control the rage roaring inside her.
Just stay alive!
No! Every SunClan cat must suffer!
Just get out of here!
“It was an accident,” Petalpaw meowed in a strangled voice. “I didn’t mean to cross the border. I was angry and just ran.”
The cat’s gaze softened; it seemed that uncontrollable anger was something he could sympathize with. Maybe she could charm her way out of this one…
Suddenly pain exploded along her side without warning; screeching, Petalpaw stared incredulously at her wound. Bleeding claw marks scored her pelt. Shock mingled with anger as her belly churned, and she turned to face the tom, but the tabby apprentice was already moving. He launched through the air and rained blows down on her head. Through the haze of pain, Petalpaw saw him dart back and come in again, striking her hind leg as swiftly as a snake.
Petalpaw blinked the blood out of her eyes and tried to focus. As the SunClan cat charged again, she jumped out of the way, feeling agony shoot up her leg as her left forepaw twisted against the ground. But Petalpaw had evaded his attack, and that was what mattered.
She shifted, still not turning around. She would wait until the time was right to leap into the air and land on his back when he came running again…
But as she leaped, sharp claws met her in midair, and the brown tabby tom brought her to the ground like an escaping bird. Petalpaw flailed her paws feebly, but the older apprentice still did not free her.
“StarClan help me!” she gasped.
Suddenly she remembered something: her sister Darkkit’s favorite trick when they play-fought outside the nursery. She would go completely limp, as though she’d given up, and once her enemy -- usually Icekit -- relaxed their grip, she’d power up with all her strength, throwing her opponent into the brambles. Whether the simple trick would work on this SunClan cat, Petalpaw wasn’t sure, but she had to try.
Petalpaw let herself go limp, all the fight seemingly draining out of her as she slumped under the apprentice’s weight. The tabby tom’s claws retracted slightly, and Petalpaw seized the heartbeat’s advantage; she bucked, throwing the tabby tom off and into the bushes.
Thank you, Darkkit, Petalpaw thought gratefully, breathing hard. She blinked at the SunClan tom’s unmoving body. He wasn’t moving, he wasn’t breathing… had she killed him?
That wouldn’t kill him, Petalpaw told herself before she could take a step in his direction. It’s probably a tr --
She didn’t even have time to finish the thought when the brown tabby leaped to his paws and sprang at her, claws flashing. Instinctively Petalpaw dropped and rolled out of the way, stumbling to her paws on the apprentice’s other side. She turned around again, facing the apprentice, but she was too slow. He cannoned into her chest and pinned her to the ground, his paw raised high over his head, claws unsheathed, ready to slash her throat.
I’m going to die, Petalpaw thought. I’m going to fall at the paws of a SunClan cat, just like my Clan. I’m no stronger than they are.
Petalpaw closed her eyes. I’ll never see Windpaw again. I’ll never reunite with Ravenstar, Icekit, and Darkkit until the day they join StarClan.
Suddenly the paws forcing her to the ground vanished. Stunned, Petalpaw scrambled to her paws. The brown tabby tom was backing away, avoiding her gaze. She glanced behind her and saw only empty forest, and smelled only their two scents. Why was he letting her go?
“Why -- ” she began, but her voice faltered as he finally met her gaze.
“I can’t,” he whispered.
Petalpaw took a step back. “Can’t what?”
“I can’t kill you. I won’t.”
“Well, it’s against the warrior code,” Petalpaw pointed out, her mouth dry. She took another few paces back, worried that the enemy apprentice would come to his senses and attack.
“Amberstar has little regard for the warrior code,” the tom meowed quietly. He glanced fearfully into the trees of his territory, as though the SunClan leader might be listening. “I shouldn’t even be talking to you, I should be ripping your pelt off, like Amberstar wants me to!” He stared at her, intensity burning in his amber eyes. “But I won’t kill another cat.”
He lingered there for a moment, apparently lost in thought with his flaming eyes still fixed on her face, then whirled around and streaked into the forest, deeper into SunClan territory.
Petalpaw’s heartbeat pulsed loudly in her ears as she staggered backward over the LeafClan border. The adrenaline accompanying her fight with the SunClan apprentice suddenly drained out of her, and her wounds started to throb. She was aware of warm blood trickling down her flank as she stumbled through LeafClan territory, pushing through the brambles that led to the camp. Once or twice Petalpaw glanced over her shoulder, afraid that the SunClan tom was chasing her, but only saw her own blood spattering the leaves she’d brushed against.
Finally the entrance to the camp was in sight; Petalpaw limped faster, ignoring the pain shooting up her twisted left forepaw. She could see Mossfur’s black pelt rippling in the stiff leaf-fall breeze and let out a cry of relief, half-running, half-tripping toward the LeafClan cat. Mossfur’s ears pricked at the sound and her green eyes met Petalpaw’s.
“Great StarClan!” the LeafClan she-cat yowled. “Where have you been? What happened to you?”
“Mossfur?” A gray tom pushed his way out of the leaf tunnel. Graytail’s sky-blue eyes widened disbelievingly when he saw Petalpaw dragging herself toward the camp. “What happened?”
“I don’t know.” Mossfur sounded worried. “She hasn’t said a word, I’ll fetch Thornstrike -- ” With that, the she-cat sprinted into the camp. “Petalpaw,” Graytail murmured, “what happened to you?”
“You should see the other cat,” she croaked, her mouth forming a painful smile. It was a lie; she had come off a whole lot worse than the well-trained SunClan apprentice. She’d barely been able to land a blow on his sleek tabby pelt.
Graytail inhaled sharply. “Was this a SunClan cat’s work?” he hissed.
Petalpaw nodded, wincing as the scratches on her neck stung. “I met an apprentice by the border,” she explained. “He was about to kill me…”
“You fought off a SunClan apprentice?” Graytail sounded impressed. “With no proper training? Good for you!”
“No!” Petalpaw rasped impatiently. “He was about to kill me, but he let me go.”
Graytail’s expression changed from impressed to incredulous. “I don’t think any self-respecting SunClan cat would let you leave alive.” His eyes darkened. “They have abandoned the warrior code.”
“But this cat didn’t!” Petalpaw insisted. “He didn’t kill me!”
Graytail’s eyes narrowed. “Petalpaw, are you honestly defending the Clan that drove MoonClan out?” he demanded.
Petalpaw ducked her head, feeling shame wash over her. How could she insist that the SunClan cat had made a noble choice when his Clan had separated her from her family and her home? What would her father say about that?
But he acted against Amberstar’s orders. The thought crept into Petalpaw’s head. He refused to kill me.
Suddenly paws pounded the earth around Petalpaw as four cats surged toward them: Briarstar, Mossfur, a golden she-cat, and Windpaw.
“What happened?” Briarstar asked, staring at Petalpaw with horror in her amber eyes.
“She was attacked by a SunClan apprentice,” Graytail told the Clan leader. “She claims that he refused to kill her and let her go.”
Briarstar’s brow furrowed. “That doesn’t sound like the SunClan I know.”
“You don’t really know them,” Petalpaw rasped, surprising herself.
“And you do?” Briarstar challenged. “You know the Clan that drove out your own? You understand them?” Her amber eyes blazed with fury.
Petalpaw hunched her shoulders in a small shrug and avoided the tortoishell she-cat’s gaze.
“I thought so,” Briarstar growled, nudging the golden she-cat forward. “This is Thornstrike, my sister and medicine cat. She will tend to your wounds while I discuss this with the Clan.” Then the LeafClan leader whipped around and stalked through the leaf tunnel, calling over her shoulder, “Come, Windpaw!”
Windpaw glanced back at his agitated mentor, then turned and rushed to Petalpaw’s side. “You fought a SunClan cat?” he whispered, his warm scent wreathing her face. “Did you win?”
“No,” Petalpaw admitted quietly. “He let me go.” She blinked wearily, and Windpaw’s concerned face blurred in and out of focus. His eyes looked like twin pools of sky; she was drowning in them. As Petalpaw slid into unconsciousness, his blue eyes morphed into amber, flickering like a veil of fire over a lake. His fur shivered and turned to a brown tabby pattern, then steadied. Behind her closed eyelids, Petalpaw saw the SunClan apprentice dip his head to her, carrying her into a world of dreams.
* * * * *
Petalpaw awoke to the rustling of leaves and the pungent scent of herbs in her nose. She blinked, her eyes adjusting to her dark surroundings. The rock ceiling of a den arced overhead, disappearing into the gloom. Petalpaw turned her head slowly; her neck was stiff and the wounds on her neck crackled like leaves underpaw. She glanced at it; it was covered in fluffy white cobwebs that held a drying herbal poultice in place. She examined the rest of her wounds, all of which were bandaged with cobwebs and smelled of herbs. Her left forepaw was still sore, but it was clasped firmly between several sticks and reinforced with more cobweb bindings.
Where am I? she wondered, wincing as she slowly pulled herself up into a sitting position. The moon was half-full as it glowed through the den entrance, which was draped in moss.
Am I in Briarstar’s den? Petalpaw shifted to her other side and saw a slightly darker shadow shifting around in the den, bent over several piles of leaves. Petalpaw sniffed the air cautiously. The air was heavy with the scent of herbs and flowers, but she couldn’t detect Briarstar’s scent.
“Hello?” Petalpaw called, or tried to call -- her voice was raspy and jagged. “Hello?”
“Ah, you’re awake,” a brisk voice meowed. The dark, catlike shadow moved into the moonlight, and Petalpaw recognized Thornstrike, LeafClan’s medicine cat. “You lost quite a bit of blood, and you were out for a while. How are you feeling?”
Petalpaw blinked slowly. Her brain was fuzzy as she tried to keep up with the conversation. “Okay,” she croaked. “I’m really thirsty.”
“Of course you are,” Thornstrike murmured, padding forward with a dripping ball of moss in her teeth. She set it down in front of Petalpaw’s muzzle. Petalpaw flinched. The sight of the moss ball made her sick; it reminded her of her mistake. Her destruction of the Mossrock.
“I can’t take this,” Petalpaw protested, her voice cracking.
“Yes, you can,” Thornstrike replied firmly, shoving the moss ball closer to Petalpaw’s face. “You have to drink.”
Petalpaw batted it away feebly with her uninjured forepaw. “I don’t deserve it,” she muttered.
Thornstrike’s eyes narrowed. “You made a mistake, that’s all. But this is moss from the forest. Even if it wasn’t, and it was from the very boulder that shelters us right now, I would still give it to a wounded cat if I had nothing else to give.” She paused. “But I do, and you will drink it.”
“I destroyed your sacred place!” Petalpaw whispered. “It’s just as special as the Starlake!”
Thornstrike gave Petalpaw a gentle lick on the head, which startled her. “You didn’t know. You were born into a different Clan. You hadn’t been told not to.”
“I didn’t know about MoonClan’s attack, either!” Petalpaw blurted.
Thornstrike’s eyes darkened. “How did you find out?”
“I heard Blossompaw, Mapleblaze, and Juniperleaf talking about it,” Petalpaw mumbled, flattening her ears. She glanced nervously up at the medicine cat and asked, “Did Ravenstar attack your camp?” She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.
To her relief, Thornstrike shook her head. “This was many seasons before your father came to power,” she meowed. “My mother, Browndapple, was just a kit, but she remembers the event with clarity. This is the story she told me.
“MoonClan’s leader was named Shadestar. He led an attack force that breached our camp walls and streamed into the heart of our Clan. We were utterly destroyed, and watched fearfully as Shadestar climbed to the top of the Mossrock and gave us his list of demands. He demanded hunting rights on our territory, and access to the river we shared with CloudClan. He also wanted us to bring ten pieces of prey to their camp every moon.
“Our leader, Sorrelstar, refused to back down. She asked that Shadestar step down from the Mossrock and leave us in peace. But Shadestar refused on the grounds that he needed prey to feed MoonClan’s kits, which had survived through the cold weather. Then he said that if we didn’t agree to his demands, we would feel MoonClan’s wrath. With that, Shadestar raked his claws through the Mossrock, leaving jagged scars that took a long time to heal, both externally and internally.
“Luckily,” Thornstrike sighed, “Our relationship with the current MoonClan is friendly. We believe in second chances, and MoonClan has proven to be more than deserving of one. Ravenstar is a noble leader. I’m sorry that your Clan had to face such a terrible fate.”
“We’re going to bring them back,” Petalpaw declared, lashing her tail. “I am going to find my father and my siblings, and we will return.”
Thornstrike blinked at Petalpaw. “I wish you luck on your journey,” she meowed, “but for now you must focus on resting. That SunClan cat gave you some pretty nasty wounds.”
“Yes,” Petalpaw agreed, twisting around to examine the scratches on her flank. She settled back into her nest with a sigh. That SunClan cat had etched more than scars into her skin; the memory was burned into her mind as well.
But the memory didn’t seem to focus on the blood and the pain… Petalpaw’s mind had latched onto the image of the apprentice’s face, and remembered his words…
“I can’t kill you. I won’t.”
Maybe, Petalpaw thought, sinking deeper into her mossy nest, there is no such thing as a bad cat. Everyone is both good and bad, both light and dark… Maybe reasoning with Amberstar isn’t impossible.
An image of Shadestar scraping deep claw marks into the Mossrock appeared in her head.
There has to be some shred of goodness inside every cat, Petalpaw thought desperately, almost pleadingly. She glanced at Thornstrike, who had gone back to sorting herbs. There has to be some part of Amberstar that would heal over harm. She stretched her muzzle forward and lapped at the dripping bundle of moss, relaxing as she felt the water droplets bathe her tongue. We all want the same things: safety, food, water. If we go about it the right way, we won’t have to fight. Why can’t any cat see that?
Petalpaw closed her eyes with a tiny sigh, tucking her tail over her nose. Behind her eyelids she saw amber eyes again, coming closer and closer through the shadows. Then they closed, and the darkness swamped Petalpaw and tugged her into sleep.
* * * * *
Petalpaw was running through the forest, the wind tearing at her pelt. She glanced breathlessly over her shoulder and saw a brown tabby tom chasing after her, his amber eyes alight with laughter. Petalpaw leaped over a fallen log and swerved around a tree, heading toward a shimmering silver pool.
Petalpaw skidded to a halt before the Starlake, spraying pebbles into its silver-and-black depths. Ripples expanded outward from the places they’d disappeared, lapping gently at her paws. She stared down into the Starlake, and her own face, shivering on the surface of the water, gazed back at her: a young, gray-and-white dappled she-cat with pale green eyes like moonlit mint leaves.
She lifted her head at the sound of pebbles crunching and saw the brown tabby tom sit down next to her at the shore of the Starlake. He too paused to take in his reflection, mysterious and amber-eyed in the shallows of the sacred pool.
Petalpaw glanced down again at her own reflection, and was startled to see that it had changed. The cat staring back at her had paler eyes, longer ears, and lighter fur. But the resemblance between them was unmistakable.
“Mother?” Petalpaw whispered, her breath ruffling the surface of the pool. The cat’s face, however, remained untouched by the ripples as she nodded.
“Mother -- Birchleaf -- I -- ” Petalpaw stammered, lurching forward. Her paws splashed in the shallows of the Starlake, frantically trying to touch her mother’s face. “Birchleaf -- ”
The cat’s eyes narrowed to pale green slits and her expression became guarded. Petalpaw jerked backward, startled at the change of mood. Had she done something wrong?
“Mother, don’t go!” Petalpaw cried, her voice echoing across the silent Starlake. She stared desperately into the water, searching for Birchleaf’s face in the silver ripples, but her mother had vanished. Petalpaw threw back her head and let out a yowl of grief and frustration that pierced the night sky like claws.
Suddenly she felt warm fur brush her own, and she looked down, surprised. The brown tabby’s tail was resting against hers, and his expression was sympathetic. Petalpaw’s heart raced, but she didn’t move, she hardly breathed.
Then the tom spoke, and his voice was a chorus of all the cats she knew, harmonizing as one.
“I know what it’s like to have your loved ones taken away.”
His words belonged to Windpaw, wailing for his mother; Belladonna, snarling in defense of her son; Graytail, screeching in grief on the battlefield; Browndapple, whispering her memories of Shadestar’s attack; Ravenstar, searching for his kits -- so many cats, all unified in one statement. And through it all, the voice of the SunClan apprentice.
“I will not hurt you, Petalpaw.”
Petalpaw took a few tentative steps closer to him, then sat down. She looked curiously up into his face, into his amber eyes.
Suddenly he stiffened. The eyes staring down at her lost their softness. His body was rigid, his fur bristling. He seemed to register how close together they were standing, and moved backward. The tom regarded her coldly, and with a ripple of unease she saw his claws slide out, glinting at the edge of the Starlake.
“Look,” Petalpaw tried to say, “I didn’t mean…” But her voice didn’t work. Her mouth was dry. Her mind was blank. Her paws wouldn’t function. She was stuck in one place as the apprentice approached her, his lips drawn back in a threatening snarl.
“Stop!” Petalpaw failed to shout. Her paws scrabbled uselessly against the pebbles as the SunClan tom came closer.
When the apprentice was close enough to touch her, he moved. In one fluid motion, he grabbed her by the scruff and flung her into the Starlake.
The cold water stabbed at her like icy teeth, wave after wave rolling through her bones. Already her mind and body were shutting down, however much she fought to stay afloat. Her last glimpse before she sank under the water was of the SunClan tom stalking away, glancing only once back at her with tear tracks glittering on his face.
Petalpaw woke from her dream with a start, her heart lurching as she felt streams of cold water trickling down her pelt. Had she been lifted out of her nightmare only to land in another?
But as her surroundings snapped into focus, she realized with a sigh of relief that she was in the medicine den, and the water trickling down her fur was from the light drizzle of rain misting the camp outside. Petalpaw sat up, gingerly testing her injured forepaw against the ground. The pain had dulled to a quiet throb, but the rest of her wounds still stung a little under their cobweb-covered poultices. She gave a hiss of annoyance. Will my wounds delay my training? And my search for MoonClan?
“Petalpaw!” a voice exclaimed. Her heart leaped at the sound; it was Windpaw. She looked around and saw him sitting at her side, shielding her from the worst of the rain that the breeze was blowing in. His blue eyes sparkled. “How are you feeling? Thornstrike was just teaching me about herb poultices; the ones on your wounds are oak leaves and marigold. Being a medicine cat is so weird!”
“I missed you too,” Petalpaw purred with amusement. She hesitated. “My wounds are feeling… better… and my paw doesn’t hurt as much!” She grimaced as she staggered to her paws, feeling lightheaded. Petalpaw lowered her head and stared at the ground as she waited for the feeling to pass. Once it had, she straightened again and turned to Windpaw. “Where’s Thornstrike?”
“She’s out gathering herbs, and had me watch you,” Windpaw meowed casually, but there was a note of pride in his voice. “Why, did you need something?”
Petalpaw glanced around furtively and whispered in a confidential tone, “I was wondering if you could take me on a walk around camp? Just so… you know… I can get used to actually using my legs again…”
“I don’t know,” Windpaw mumbled, glancing at her wounds with a wince, “I don’t want you to reopen anything…”
“Just once around the camp?” Petalpaw wheedled.
Windpaw rolled his eyes. “Fine. Come on.”
Beaming, Petalpaw tottered unsteadily over to Windpaw and he offered his shoulder for her to lean on. Shaking her head, she pushed her way out of the medicine den and into the main clearing. A stiff wind nearly blew her off her paws and she paused, her unsheathed claws gripping the ground for balance. Windpaw stayed close to her side, blocking the wind and rain from reaching her. Petalpaw shot him a grateful look and continued to hobble along the perimeter of the camp at a slow and tentative pace, making sure to keep her injured forepaw elevated. They rounded the corner and approached the other side of the Mossrock, where a sodden pile of fresh-kill lay in a puddle. Petalpaw wrinkled her nose and saw Windpaw do the same.
“Fancy a drowned vole?” he chuckled, and they continued on their way.
The clearing was empty; it seemed that all the LeafClan cats were huddled in their nests, out of the rain. The only cat Petalpaw could see was a dark brown cat standing guard at the camp entrance. Petalpaw inhaled sharply; her mind immediately leaped to the SunClan apprentice, but that didn’t make sense, he wasn’t LeafClan, why would he be guarding the camp? As they got closer, Petalpaw realized that the cat was actually Mapleblaze, and her light brown coat was drenched so it looked several shades darker than its actual tone. Petalpaw relaxed, and she tried to ignore a small stab of disappointment. What was wrong with her?
As Windpaw was leading Petalpaw away from the camp entrance, a voice came from behind them. “Hey! Petalpaw! Windpaw! What are you doing?”
Petalpaw and Windpaw turned simultaneously. Thornstrike was hurrying toward them, a bundle of earth-speckled roots in her jaws. When she had reached them, she dropped the roots on the ground and stalked up to Petalpaw. “What are you doing out in the rain?” the medicine cat demanded. “Petalpaw, you should be resting, not scampering through the mud! Look, your bandages are already coming off!”
Petalpaw glanced at her flank. The cobwebs were dangling from her belly fur, and the poultice was running down her side in green rivulets. Now she could see the healing scratches; they were deep and vicious, but in the cold rain the pain had dulled. She opened her mouth, about to tell Thornstrike, but the medicine cat was still talking.
“Windpaw, you should have known better than to let her walk around like this!” Thornstrike snapped at the mottled gray tom. “I leave for a moment and you’re both prancing through the clearing! Petalpaw shouldn’t be using her forepaw yet, it won’t get better if she’s putting her weight on it all the time!”
“It isn’t Windpaw’s fault…” Petalpaw mumbled, flattening her ears.
“Go back in the den,” Thornstrike spat. “Windpaw, you can fetch some mouse bile and tend to the elders’ ticks. Be careful, Mothfur gets very cranky on rainy days.”
Windpaw muttered a few curses under his breath as he trudged toward the medicine den to retrieve the mouse bile. Thornstrike watched him go, her green eyes narrowed in annoyance. Petalpaw sidled away from her. Unfortunately, the medicine cat noticed, and meowed, “You’re coming back to the medicine den, too. I’ll need to reapply the poultice to your wounds.” She paused, examining Petalpaw’s scratches. “Although,” she conceded, “they do seem to be healing nicely. You should be out of the den in a few days, so long as you rest that paw.” Her eyes flashed with those words, and she picked up her bundle of roots again. Then she flicked her tail in a come gesture and started toward the medicine den.
Petalpaw limped quickly after her, wondering in exasperation how far ahead of her in training Windpaw would be when her wounds finally healed.
* * * * *
Six sunrises had passed since the day Windpaw had taken her on a walk through the rain and had faced a long scolding from Thornstrike. The medicine cat had examined Petalpaw’s wounds and pronounced her well enough to return to her apprentice duties.
“Let me know if they start to hurt again,” Thornstrike instructed an impatient Petalpaw as she sorted juniper berries.
Petalpaw nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes, I will, thank you!” With that, she was out of the medicine den and ready to start training again.
Excitement bubbled up inside Petalpaw as she shifted from paw to paw on the damp, springy forest floor. The rain had let up at last, and she was desperate to train as hard as she could with Thistleheart to make up for all the lost time. She watched the entrance to the warriors’ den intently, waiting for her mentor to appear. Petalpaw had languished in the medicine den for long enough; now it was time to learn how to hunt! She lashed her tail impatiently when Thistleheart finally emerged. Come on, faster!
Thistleheart padded over and surveyed her apprentice with amusement. “Someone’s excited,” she commented. “Well, you should be; you’re going to be hunting today!”
Petalpaw barely held in a squeal of enthusiasm. Finally it felt like she was progressing!
“Come on,” Thistleheart meowed. “We’re going to the training hollow. You’ll be able to train with Windpaw there.”
Petalpaw nodded and followed her mentor out of the camp. Together they trekked through the forest and between the twisted oaks that framed the training hollow. Windpaw and Briarstar were already there; the LeafClan leader was studying her apprentice as he pounced on a leaf.
“Hello,” Thistleheart greeted her sister briskly. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Briarstar dipped her head in agreement, not taking her eyes off Windpaw. “It is indeed,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Keep your tail still!” she called to Windpaw. “If that was a real mouse it would have heard you already.”
Windpaw nodded and adjusted his stance, keeping his tail immobile and straight over the ground like a hovering snake. Petalpaw watched with growing fascination as her friend slithered forward and leaped, piercing the leaf with his thorn-sharp claws. Then a pang of worry interrupted her amazement; Windpaw already seemed so much better than her at hunting! What if I never catch up?
“All right, Petalpaw,” Thistleheart meowed, breaking into her worried thoughts, “it’s time to begin our lesson.”
Petalpaw sat down and curled her tail around her paws, locking eyes with her mentor. Determination burned in every hair on her pelt, fueled by a frantic sort of desperation. I have to learn everything so I can get on with my search for MoonClan! I have to learn it now!
“Okay,” Thistleheart began, “tell me what prey you can scent.”
Petalpaw glanced at her mentor uncertainly. Just like that? It seemed so sudden… was she really ready for this? Petalpaw looked at Windpaw and Briarstar, who had stopped practicing and were watching her expectantly. Petalpaw felt like ants were crawling through her pelt and she shrank under the burning gazes of the three other cats. How was she supposed to scent anything when she was so conscious of the six eyes locked on her?
“Any day now,” Thistleheart growled, flicking her tail irritably.
Petalpaw gulped and tried to focus. She opened her mouth, letting the scents of the forest bathe her tongue. It was difficult to smell anything, as the recent rainfall masked everything, but Petalpaw thought she could detect warm, musky odors underneath it. “Shrew?” she mewed timidly, her eyes darting questioningly to her mentor. Thistleheart nodded and jerked her chin in a go on gesture. Slightly encouraged, Petalpaw parted her jaws again and inhaled deeply. The shrew scent was stronger now, and she could smell something else nearby…
“Rabbit!” she whispered, her fur spiking with excitement.
Thistleheart dipped her head in acknowledgement. “Yes, it is rabbit,” she conceded, “but the scent is stale. Compare the rabbit scent to the shrew. How are they different?”
Petalpaw sniffed the air cautiously. “The shrew smells stronger,” she mumbled, feeling that she was doing a poor job of explaining the difference. “The rabbit smells… farther away. Like it’s not there anymore.”
“Good enough,” Thistleheart grunted. “Now that you can scent, let’s work on stalking techniques.” The LeafClan cat dropped into a low crouch, her eyes narrowing. “This is the best way to hunt a mouse. Keep your pawsteps nice and steady, and as quiet as you can; a mouse will feel your steps vibrating through the ground before it even sees you, so move slowly and deliberately. If there is a breeze, use it to your advantage; only move when the breeze ruffles the leaves. That way, your prey will think nothing’s wrong. Just make sure to stay downwind, so your scent is blowing away from the prey.”
Petalpaw blinked and nodded, rapidly repeating the information in her head. There were so many parts she had to remember… how was she going to keep track of it all?
Steady, quiet pawsteps, that way the mouse won’t hear you, use the wind to your advantage, but stay upwind -- no, downwind -- of the prey… Petalpaw recited the words to herself as she watched Thistleheart’s demonstration.
“Make sure your crouch is balanced,” her mentor instructed. “If I’m leaning too far left, my pawsteps will be uneven, and the mouse will run away. Creep slowly over the ground, make sure your tail doesn’t swish any leaves, and when you are within range, pounce!” With that, Thistleheart lunged forward and pinned a twig to the ground, startling Petalpaw. The golden she-cat sat up again and added, “Here’s a tip: I recommend leaping the moment your prey isn’t alert. If the mouse is nibbling a nut or nosing the ground, you’re good. But if it looks like it’s about to scuttle under a bush, wait until it relaxes.”
Petalpaw nodded and ran through the list of commands in her head. Balanced crouch, slow movements, keep your tail still, and pounce when it’s looking away…
“Now I want you to try,” Thistleheart commanded, “with this leaf.” She nudged a limp oak leaf toward Petalpaw. “Remember: crouch, stay low, come forward, and pounce!”
Petalpaw lowered herself into a hunter’s crouch, desperately trying to recall everything her mentor had said. Her left forepaw twinged a little when she pressed it against the ground, and she winced slightly as she pulled herself forward.
“Remember, keep your crouch balanced,” Thistleheart called. “You’re leaning to the right a bit.”
Petalpaw nodded firmly, gritting her teeth. She could feel the first prickles of frustration worming through her pelt as she pressed against her left paws. Pain throbbed dully through her injury but Petalpaw was determined to get this right; her entire training depended on one simple crouch!
“Better,” Thistleheart remarked, her tail twitching back and forth.
A bolt of frustration sliced through Petalpaw’s belly, leaving her hot and breathing heavily through her teeth. With a muffled hiss she sank lower and started to creep toward the oak leaf, her eyes narrowed to slits. Her tail lashed behind her as she prepared to pounce -- but then a large paw pinned it down.
“Keep your tail still,” Thistleheart reminded her, letting go and stepping back. “Now… leap!”
Petalpaw hesitated for a heartbeat, then bunched her hindquarters and sprang, diving through the air like a hawk going after a mouse. She landed a few mouse-lengths short of the leaf but was able to snag it in one swift lunge.
“Pretty good,” Thistleheart admitted. “Next time, don’t hesitate for so long; the prey will have time to flee.” The golden she-cat lifted her chin to the breeze and sniffed. “That shrew you scented is nearby; do you want to try hunting it?”
“Really?” Petalpaw gasped. “What if I miss it? It’s leaf-fall, we can’t afford to be losing prey -- ”
“If you miss it, I’ll catch it,” Thistleheart promised. “But shrews are tiny anyway, it won’t be too much of a loss.”
Petalpaw stared at her mentor with wide eyes. Anxiety prickled along her spine; she wasn’t ready for this! She’d never caught a single piece of prey in her life! But Thistleheart remained silent, watching and waiting for Petalpaw to begin.
Nervously Petalpaw scented the air; she detected the shrew’s scent on the breeze again, and it seemed closer. Her ears pricked at the quiet sound of rustling, and she whipped her head toward a tuft of tall grass cradled between the roots of one of the oak trees. The dew-laden stems were shivering, and Petalpaw sensed the rapid blood-beat of prey. She dropped into a crouch, taking a few moments to adjust her stance and straighten her tail, then silently began to creep forward.
Petalpaw’s belly fur barely brushed the leaf-mold as she slunk toward the unsuspecting shrew. Her claws slid out to prick the ground as excitement flashed through her pelt, but she retracted them and managed to calm herself down.
Ready, Petalpaw thought. One… two… three!
On three, Petalpaw pounced. The shrew gave a shrill squeal as it sensed the cat whistling through the air toward it, but Petalpaw had pinned it down and killed it with a strong bite before it could flee. She gingerly lifted the small warm body in her jaws and turned, facing her mentor with barely suppressed glee.
I did it! I did it! I actually caught something, I can’t believe it!
“Great job!” cried Thistleheart. Petalpaw lifted her chin proudly, the shrew still dangling from her teeth as the corners of her mouth curved into a grin. From Thistleheart, that was extravagant praise.
“Nice catch,” Briarstar commented. Pride thrilled through Petalpaw’s veins like warm fresh-kill on a cold day. LeafClan’s leader had praised her catch! For the first time since her arrival, Petalpaw felt a sliver of warmth, as though she was curled up among family again; it was a tiny flicker of belonging.
Maybe I can fit into this Clan after all. The thought emerged in her head like a tentative shoot sprouting from the soil, testing the sunshine on its new leaves. With it came a quiet ripple of something like hope. Petalpaw latched onto the feeling, fixating on it, drawing strength from it. A sort of fiery desperation filled her belly; she would do anything to get the LeafClan cats to like her, trust her, value her.
Perhaps the incident with the Mossrock had been forgiven after all. Nobody would remember Petalpaw’s claw marks in the boulders when she battled SunClan with them, tracked down prey in the worst of weather, and developed friendships within the Clan. Petalpaw would be trusted at last. And then I can find MoonClan again, and maybe LeafClan will help me bring them back and fight for their territory.
“Let’s get back to camp,” Thistleheart meowed, interrupting Petalpaw’s thoughts. “You made very good progress today, and you deserve a meal. Make sure to take that shrew to the elders before you eat anything, though.”
“I will!” Petalpaw mumbled around her prey. With a jubilant wave of her tail she sprinted up and out of the hollow, charging back to the LeafClan camp.
She burst through the leaf tunnel, nearly bowling over a very startled-looking Graytail. “What’s wrong?” the gray warrior panted, his hackles rising as he searched Petalpaw’s face for answers.
Petalpaw ducked her head, embarrassed. She had been so excited about her catch that she’d blundered into camp like she had the whole of SunClan on her tail.
“Nothing,” she mewed, her voice muffled. She dipped her head to Graytail as she passed him, then broke into a run again when she had reached the clearing. She streaked toward the elders’ den with her paws thrumming magnificently against the earth, beating her pride through the forest like thunder. She skidded to a halt in front of the fallen log, then ducked under the log’s arc and padded into the den.
“Is that more prey I smell?” rasped Browndapple. The ancient brown she-cat shuffled out of the gloom and sniffed at the shrew. Her cloudy amber eyes scrutinized Petalpaw closely. “Ah, it’s the Mooncat! This your first catch?”
Petalpaw gently laid the piece of prey at the elder’s paws. “Yes,” she mewed modestly, giving her chest fur a brisk lick.
“Who is that?” came Mothfur’s voice from deeper in the den.
“The MoonClan cat, Petalpaw,” Browndapple called back. “She’s caught her first prey.”
At those words, Mothfur limped into sight to stand by her companion. The pale ginger she-cat sniffed haughtily as she inspected the shrew. With a snort, she nudged another piece of prey in front of her; a large rabbit. Mothfur eyed Petalpaw, then looked down at the two pieces of fresh-kill lying side-by-side; the shrew looked pitifully small next to the impressive rabbit.
Petalpaw flattened her ears. Why was Mothfur determined to make her feel ashamed of her catch? And who brought the rabbit?
The answer to her question padded out of the shadows just as the thought entered her head. The cat’s ginger-and-white pelt glowed like clouds in the sunset as she stared at Petalpaw in surprise. She glanced down at the two pieces of prey, then back up at Petalpaw, a look that lingered between apologetic and pitying in her green eyes. Petalpaw’s eyes narrowed as she felt anger blaze through her like fire; it was irrational anger, untameable and untouchable in its ferocity, mingling with a sour churning in her belly -- jealousy.
The two she-cats stood there for a moment, each acutely aware of the tension crackling between them. Then Aspenpaw spoke.
“So… you brought something for Mothfur, too?”
A bolt of rage seared through Petalpaw’s veins, though she couldn’t quite figure out why.
“Yes,” Petalpaw replied coolly, although under the aloof mask she was clenching her teeth. She tried to ignore the fact that her shrew was about a quarter the size of Aspenpaw’s rabbit.
“Hey, it’s not just for her!” Browndapple protested, flashing a quelling look at Aspenpaw. Petalpaw blinked at the elder gratefully; the old she-cat was trying to lighten up the situation, and Petalpaw appreciated that.
“Well,” meowed Aspenpaw awkwardly, “see you around, then.”
“Yeah,” Petalpaw said shortly, “see you…” Never, she added silently.
Aspenpaw offered her a nervous half-smile, then turned and pelted out of the elders’ den. Petalpaw checked to make sure that she had really gone, then slumped against the ground with a huge sigh of relief.
Browndapple watched her curiously. “You’re welcome.”
“Thank you,” Petalpaw responded hastily. She glanced furtively at the shrew and the rabbit lying at the elder’s paws, feeling a pang of disappointment. She’d been so proud of herself… only to have Mothfur and Aspenpaw ruin it. And Petalpaw couldn’t confide in Windpaw; the second Aspenpaw’s name was mentioned he would immediately go all moony-eyed and take the ginger-and-white she-cat’s side no matter what Petalpaw told him.
“Listen,” Browndapple murmured, “Mothfur’s old and cranky, she takes joy in others’ misfortune, especially young cats, and she’s excellent at creating awkward environments.”
“What an intriguing description,” growled Mothfur from the depths of the den; the old she-cat had retreated the second Aspenpaw had left. “Could you repeat that? Apparently I’m too old to hear.”
“You’re absolutely wonderful,” Browndapple informed the old cat, and lowered her voice when she turned back to Petalpaw. “Not every cat catches something on their first day of training, and you did. You should be proud of yourself. And remember, Aspenpaw’s been training for nearly six moons; she’s practically a warrior already. It was just pure bad luck that this happened. You’ll be catching rabbits like that in no time.”
Petalpaw smiled ruefully. “I wish I could believe that.”
“You will!” Browndapple insisted. “With more training, of course you’ll get better. And soon you’ll be the one bringing in fat rabbits for mangy old Mothfur to eat.”
“Ah, now you’re attacking my appearance,” grumbled Mothfur. “And you said I was the one who takes joy in others’ misfortune.” She let out a hoarse mrrow of laughter at her own joke.
“Go on, eat something of your own,” Browndapple sighed, settling down into her nest. She snagged the shrew on her claws and pulled it toward her with a wink at Petalpaw. “Thank you for the prey.”
“You’re welcome,” Petalpaw mumbled, dipping her head. She padded out of the elders’ den with one last glance at Browndapple, who was eating the shrew. A warm flame of pride ignited in her chest as she watched the elder enjoying fresh-kill she had caught. The contribution made Petalpaw feel slightly closer to LeafClan; although it was not her birthplace, and it was not her home, she had earned at least one cat’s friendship.
Petalpaw whirled around to face her opponent, panting. In the exhilaration of the fight both cats had gotten carried away, and fur dangled from patches of skin on their pelts; one gray-and-white, one a darker, mottled gray. Breathing hard, Petalpaw and Windpaw regarded each other as they padded in an evenly-spaced circle, each readying themselves for the other to attack.
It was Windpaw who made the first move; the gray tom launched himself at Petalpaw in a flurry of forepaw blows, most of which Petalpaw evaded. She cuffed him around the ear and when he reared onto his hind legs to combat her attack, she dropped to the ground and slithered beneath his belly. With a small, “Uh oh,” Windpaw was kicked away, landing with a thump on the muddy ground.
Petalpaw sprang to her paws. “Ha!” she crowed. “You may think you’re tough, but you’re a big ball of softness inside!”
Windpaw growled at her good-naturedly. “Well, you fight like a snake-heart!”
“At least snakes are clever,” Petalpaw pointed out, leaping as his gray paw narrowly missed her flank. “You have fluff for brains!”
“Enough banter!” Thistleheart ordered, but she sounded like she was trying to hide her amusement. “Petalpaw, I want you to try the back-kick on Windpaw again, you’ve got the motion right but you need to work on your timing -- ”
Suddenly there was the sound of paws thumping against the ground. A small black tom charged into the training hollow, spattering mud everywhere. Petalpaw, Windpaw, and Thistleheart glanced up in alarm as he raced toward them.
“What is it?” Thistleheart demanded, her fur starting to bristle.
The black tom looked up at Petalpaw’s mentor; it was Smallpaw. “Briarstar’s calling a Clan meeting,” he gasped. “She wants every cat there.”
Thistleheart’s bristling fur lay flat again. “Well, don’t sprint at us with that urgent expression on your face,” she meowed crossly. “I thought there was something wrong.” She glanced uneasily into the trees, then shook out her pelt. “Come on, then,” she told Petalpaw and Windpaw, and they followed her out of the training hollow.
“What do you think the meeting is about?” whispered Petalpaw. If anyone knew, she figured Windpaw did; he seemed to notice everything.
To her disappointment, he shrugged. “No idea,” he admitted.
Petalpaw was stopped in the middle of nodding by a sharp pain in her paw. She jerked backward in alarm and lifted her foreleg. There, in the middle of her pad, was a thorn, the pointy tip like a fang buried in her skin.
“What is it?” Windpaw asked at her hiss of pain.
“Just a stupid thorn,” Petalpaw grumbled, shaking out her paw. The thorn was still there.
“Here, let me get it.” Windpaw bent his head and began licking the soft skin around the thorn until it caught on his tongue, then yanked it out in one swift motion. Blood trickled down Petalpaw’s pad but Windpaw removed all trace of it with one swipe of his tongue.
“Thanks,” Petalpaw mumbled.
“No problem,” Windpaw mewed, spitting the thorn out on the ground. “Thornstrike taught me a few things while you were healing from your wounds.”
“How long were you there?” Petalpaw asked disbelievingly.
Windpaw shrugged, and Petalpaw could tell that despite his attempt to sound casual, he had been deathly afraid for her. “Just a few nights,” he replied, giving his chest fur an embarrassed lick. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Warmth tingled through Petalpaw’s fur. She was honored to have some cat outside of her family care for her; it was like a sign from StarClan, telling her that she was on the right path to acceptance into LeafClan.
A yowl from Thistleheart up ahead shattered the precious moment. Petalpaw and Windpaw exchanged a glance and hurried after the LeafClan she-cat.
They burst into the main clearing, gasping for breath from their run. The rest of the Clan had already assembled beneath the Mossrock, where Briarstar was standing, fur rippling in the wind. Petalpaw glanced at the ugly blemish in the otherwise smooth green moss with a wince.
I did that. Is every cat looking at it? Is every cat looking at me, knowing that I did it?
Petalpaw lowered her head and stared at her paws as she and Windpaw padded over to sit among the crowd. Her pelt prickled as Briarstar’s gaze scorched her fur like fire, and a wave of relief swept through her as the LeafClan leader swept her eyes over the other cats instead.
“LeafClan,” Briarstar began, “as you all know, the Gathering is imminent.” Petalpaw looked up, surprised at the melancholy tone in her voice. She noticed a glint of white among the green moss, and with a spark of alarm realized that Briarstar’s claws were unsheathed, gripping the Mossrock. Petalpaw snuck a glance at Windpaw; from the expression on his face, he had not missed this fact either. Petalpaw shivered as a shadow seemed to fall over her, like a bird of prey was swooping down from above. She looked furtively over her shoulder at the sky, but the clouds were empty. Still, worry prickled in her paws, and she turned her attention back to Briarstar.
“This is going to be a momentous Gathering,” Briarstar announced grimly. “It will be our first one without MoonClan present, and Amberstar will have to answer for his crimes.” Her brow furrowed. “I want LeafClan to appear as strong as possible in front of the other Clans, to show SunClan that we are not afraid of attack.”
“LeafClan! LeafClan!” a few cats called, their voices splitting the silence.
Briarstar took a moment to nod in approval of the cats who had yowled, then continued. “We must not let SunClan think us weak, though a large group of warriors and apprentices will be remaining behind -- it would be just like Amberstar to launch a sneak attack at a Gathering, and I want to be prepared.” Her fierce amber eyes swept the crowd, reminding Petalpaw of the SunClan apprentice.
I can see him at the Gathering! The thought popped into Petalpaw’s head all of a sudden. Then she took a step back and considered it. Why am I excited? she wondered, shaking her head in disbelief. He practically clawed me to shreds!
I’m just excited to rip his pelt off, Petalpaw told herself firmly. Ah, but the Gathering truce… I can’t break it. Rolling her eyes at her own stupidity, Petalpaw looked to Briarstar once more.
“Mossfur, Cricketleap, Graytail,” Briarstar was listing the cats attending the Gathering. “Cedarheart, Poppyspring, Ivyshade, and Thistleheart. Thistleheart, Poppyspring, Cedarheart and Graytail; you may bring your apprentices. We must show SunClan the true strength of LeafClan!” With that last yowl, Briarstar leaped down from the Mossrock, ending the meeting.
I’m Thistleheart’s apprentice! Petalpaw remembered, excitement bursting in her chest. So that means… She whirled around to meet her mentor, who was padding toward her. “I’m going?” Petalpaw cried.
Thistleheart nodded gravely. “This will be a great opportunity to show SunClan that you’re strong, healed, and ready to fight back.”
“Surely even Amberstar won’t attack at a Gathering?” Windpaw mewed, joining the conversation.
Petalpaw curled her lip. “Of course he would,” she snarled, her hackles rising at the mention of SunClan’s cruel leader. “When I meet Amberstar, he’s going to wish he’d never been kitted!”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll die of fear,” Windpaw meowed sarcastically.
Petalpaw shot him a glare through slitted eyes. Her excitement had faded to be replaced by rage, which pounded hotly through her veins. Amberstar had driven out her Clan, a patrol had tried to abduct her, and the apprentice had attacked her. Petalpaw let out a soft growl and unsheathed her claws, digging them into the muddy ground as though it was an enemy pelt. It all started with the SunClan cats. Everything -- all of this is their fault.
“Petalpaw?” Thistleheart’s voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away, reverberating inside of Petalpaw’s empty mind. It took Petalpaw a second to register her mentor’s words. With a massive effort she managed to stifle her anger, balling it up and slipping it into the darkest part of her heart, where it would lie dormant for seasons, but all the while she’d be aware of it growing, through snarls and hisses and slashing claws… growing in the burning silence of her quiet rage.
“Petalpaw?” Thistleheart repeated, sounding distinctly worried now.
Petalpaw blinked at her mentor as though coming out of a trance. She glanced down at her unsheathed claws, straining against the ground, and shuddered. Her own anger scared her; it was best to lock it up and stow it away, it wouldn’t do her any good now.
“Sorry,” Petalpaw mewed. “Just… lost in thought.”
Thistleheart sighed. “Well, don’t act that featherbrained in front of SunClan. We have to present LeafClan’s best qualities tonight.”
“Tonight?” squealed Petalpaw, taken off-guard. “I thought there was more time -- tonight -- I thought I had a few days -- the moon is full already --?” Her mind was racing ahead of her words, and her sentences were sporadic and unfinished… How could the Gathering be tonight? She wasn’t ready; she’d only been an apprentice for a few days, she’d barely had any training, and she hadn’t caught anything since that shrew on her first day hunting --
“Relax,” Windpaw meowed easily, resting his tail on her shoulders. “You’ll be fine. It’s only one night.”
“Actually, I think you need to take this more seriously,” Thistleheart contradicted the mottled gray tom, beginning to pace back and forth. “SunClan has tortured the other Clans for long enough; it’s time we took a stand. We have to be strong!” Her eyes shone with passion and her tail slashed through the air behind her. “Petalpaw, Windpaw, I want you for some extra training. Now,” she added, when Petalpaw and Windpaw said nothing.
Petalpaw felt a twinge of apprehension in her belly as she followed her mentor out of the camp again. Her first Gathering was approaching, and not only was she going as a member of another Clan, but it was going to be the first Gathering in history without MoonClan present -- and her family. Petalpaw’s head drooped and she dragged her paws wearily as the realization hit her. She’d never felt so far away from home.
* * * * *
Petalpaw shivered in the cold night breeze. The branches of the trees around the LeafClan camp were outlined sharply against the rising moon like black claws reaching toward the sky. Every shadow seemed to hide hostile enemies, every falling leaf mimicked the sound of pawsteps. Petalpaw leaped at every sound, and she wasn’t the only one.
Windpaw stood beside her, his gray fur fluffed up against the cold. Petalpaw could feel the tenseness in his body running from his trembling ears to his unsheathed claws. He too twitched at the small noises in the forest, and when Graytail stepped on a twig behind them, he practically cleared the trees in one massive jump.
Petalpaw pressed her flank against Windpaw’s, grateful for his warm presence. The cats attending the Gathering were assembled at the camp entrance, waiting for Briarstar to lead them to the Great Tree, where the event took place. Unfortunately, it felt to Petalpaw like they were waiting forever, and the whole Clan was on edge as the same thought crossed every mind: Will SunClan attack us?
Finally Briarstar emerged from her den in the Mossrock. Her tortoiseshell fur shone ash-and-silver in the moonlight as she crossed the clearing and padded to the head of the group. Petalpaw heard a sharp intake of breath from Windpaw, and knew what he was thinking; Briarstar’s appearance was reminiscent of Belladonna’s, Windpaw’s dead mother. A quick series of images flashed brutally through Petalpaw’s head at the thought: foxes with snapping teeth and hooked claws, slashing at a lithe she-cat who snarled back.
A quiet meow from Briarstar yanked Petalpaw out of the painful past and into the frightening future.
“LeafClan, follow me.”
The leader’s soft voice struck Petalpaw as ominous, but she obediently followed Briarstar into the forest, Windpaw at her side.
They traveled for a while through the unnerving darkness. The night made LeafClan’s territory become a completely different world. It was unrecognizable in the shadows; every stump and berry bush had no meaning, for landmarks seemed warped in the moonlight. Only the screech of an owl split the uneasy silence, causing Windpaw to give a little jolt.
“We’re here,” came Graytail’s voice from behind them as the group slowed and eventually stopped. “Look down; can you see the Great Tree?”
Petalpaw looked down and gasped. The ground fell away in a steep cliff, dropping into a muddy hollow surrounded by oak trees much like the training area in LeafClan territory. Except this was bigger; much bigger. A stream wound around the perimeter of the Gathering place, its water glowing mysteriously in the moonlight. And all around, Petalpaw saw cats. So many cats! The silhouettes moved about the hollow in small clusters, some drinking from the stream, some grouped around the Great Tree, others mingling at the edge of the clearing. Petalpaw staggered backward as the scents overwhelmed her. SunClan and LeafClan and a grassy scent she took to be CloudClan -- but no MoonClan, she realized with a pang of loss.
“I can’t go down there!” Petalpaw gasped, taking a step back. Her belly lurched as she stared in astonishment at all the cats milling about in the hollow. “There are so many cats!”
Even Windpaw looked nervous. “What do I do once I’m there?” he fretted. “Do you just talk or play or what?” He kneaded the ground with his paws, tearing pawfuls of grass out of the earth and scattering them everywhere.
“Just mingle,” Graytail told him. “But don’t interact with any SunClan cats. Just CloudClan. It would be safe to interact with MoonClan, but -- ” He broke off with an awkward glance at Petalpaw, who ducked her head. It was agony to hear MoonClan mentioned so casually in any conversation when they were gone, gone, gone.
“Come, LeafClan!” Briarstar commanded, plunging down the slope toward the crowd of cats. Petalpaw struggled to keep up with the swift tortoiseshell she-cat; the leader’s strides carried her almost three times farther than Petalpaw’s. Petalpaw scampered hastily after her.
“Thank StarClan,” meowed a voice from the Great Tree; a gray tabby she-cat, her fur drenched in moonlight, was perched in one of the lower branches. Her blue eyes examined Briarstar and the LeafClan cats closely. “I’ve been quite anxious to get on with the Gathering. I have urgent news to report.”
“I believe we share the same news, Rainstar,” Briarstar replied briskly, bounding over and leaping onto the branch next to the gray tabby’s. Her piercing amber eyes sought out a cat in the crowd, who was padding toward the Great Tree with great purpose in every pawstep. “Amberstar,” Briarstar greeted him with an edge to her voice. “Care to join us?” Her polite words thinly concealed a boiling vat of anger.
“Unless it is beneath you, like the rest of the code,” Rainstar hissed in a display of open hostility.
Amberstar paused in his trek toward the Great Tree to stare up at her. His pelt reeked of SunClan scent. Petalpaw flattened her ears and slid out her claws. It was unbearable to be so close to the cat who’d driven out her Clan, the cat who’d banished her family, the cat who’d ruined everything. Petalpaw’s head spun as she glared at Amberstar, praying savagely to StarClan that he could feel the pain of her eyes burning into his skin just as her kin had suffered the agony of his claws.
“Now, Rainstar,” Amberstar purred in a silky voice, “don’t be so rude, the Gathering hasn’t even started!” He scaled the tree with ease and sat down in the crook of his own branch. Petalpaw noticed it was several tail-lengths above Rainstar and Briarstar.
Arrogant fox-heart! she thought darkly.
“Now it has started,” Amberstar continued, his cunning amber eyes darting from Rainstar to Briarstar. They looked like pools of fire against his dark ginger pelt.
“Not quite,” Rainstar meowed, standing up. She turned to face the SunClan leader, tilting her chin to meet his eyes. “MoonClan has not arrived.”
“It’s just like Ravenstar to be late,” Amberstar commented, looking particularly unbothered as he licked a paw and drew it lazily over his ear.
Rage pulsed like flames through Petalpaw’s blood. She slipped into an attack crouch, her fur bristling, ears burning, eyes stinging. “Just give me another reason,” she growled quietly, “just give me one more reason to leap at you right now and rip your StarClan-cursed head off!”
She felt Windpaw’s tail curl rest on her shoulders as he tried to calm her down, but she only had eyes for Amberstar. The rest of her vision blurred, leaving only the SunClan leader in sharp focus. She could feel a scream building in her throat, and wanted to leap on him and thrash and claw, but she couldn’t even move.
There’s a truce, she reminded herself. No attacking at a Gathering.
Petalpaw sucked in a deep breath of frigid night air and sat down. Someday, she vowed, he will pay for what he did. But for now, I must pay attention.
Petalpaw blinked the hot, stinging tears out of her eyes and tried to focus on the leaders without anger. Rainstar’s tail was twitching irritably as she meowed to Amberstar, “Well, that’s the problem. We both know -- we all know -- that MoonClan is not late. In fact… they will not be coming at all.”
“Oh, really?” sneered Amberstar. “What do you mean by that?”
Come on, Briarstar, say something! Petalpaw thought fiercely, digging her claws into the ground. If you can’t use your claws to tear his ears off, use your words to hurt him!
If I was up there… Petalpaw’s mind filled with the image of herself -- significantly more beautiful and muscled -- standing atop the Great Tree, hurling insults at Amberstar until he whimpered like a kit and returned MoonClan to their territory. Savage delight burst through Petalpaw like the triumphant cry of an eagle, but soon she remembered that the scenario wasn’t real. Just another wish. Exhaustion swept over her. I want to go home. Not to LeafClan territory; to the pine forest of my old camp. MoonClan’s camp.
But that would never happen now.
Briarstar was standing now, facing Amberstar with her lips drawn back in a snarl. “She means that you and your dirty band of rogues have driven out MoonClan!” the LeafClan leader yowled.
Elation thrilled through every hair on Petalpaw’s pelt. But as she glanced around, she saw that cats everywhere were lowering into attack crouches, growls rumbling in their throats. Uneasily Petalpaw pressed herself closer to Windpaw, and together they took a few sidling steps away from the snarling cats. A SunClan warrior with gray fur and icy blue eyes hissed at them, swiping his paw through the air. A bolt of terror shot through Petalpaw as though an icicle was plunging into her belly and she scrambled away.
Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance as SunClan slowly closed in on the LeafClan and CloudClan cats. Petalpaw looked around wildly as a shadow fell across the hollow; the moonlight was struggling to filter through the heavy stratus clouds moving in from the horizon. Her heart galloped in her chest as she whipped around, searching for Windpaw. A sudden flash of lightning threw a blaze of white light up and around the hollow, briefly illuminating her friend’s dark gray pelt. He was cornered by a SunClan tabby, scrabbling against the side of the hollow as he tried and failed to escape.
Petalpaw charged toward him, knocking a few cats aside in the process. A few raindrops speckled her pelt and she glanced up at the sky; a fork of lightning split it in two, as though the clouds were cracking into pieces.
“Cats of all Clans!” Briarstar was screeching. “We cannot fight at the Gathering! Control yourselves!”
But it seemed only a pawful of cats heard the LeafClan leader over the wind, which was starting to strengthen. Petalpaw searched the hollow desperately; she’d lost Windpaw! Please, StarClan, let me see! Send more lightning! she pleaded.
At her silent plea, another bolt of lightning crackled through the sky, tendrils of pure white energy lancing outward like claws. She caught sight of Windpaw again; he was darting to one side as the SunClan cat lunged at him. Terrified, Petalpaw pelted toward the fighting toms and rammed her head into the SunClan cat’s shoulder. The cat, caught off-guard and unbalanced, crumpled to the ground, giving Windpaw a few precious heartbeats to flee.
Petalpaw looked up to face her opponent and gasped.
The SunClan apprentice!
Recognition flashed in his amber eyes. “Oh, it’s you,” he meowed, his bristling fur lying flat.
Petalpaw stared at him in disbelief. Did he think she wouldn’t attack him? What a mouse-brain!
Several heartbeats passed. Five. Then ten. Neither cat moved nor spoke as the battle raged around them and thunder roared in the clouds. Lightning lit up the sky, throwing demonic shadows against the muddy wall of the hollow behind the SunClan cat. Cats yowled and fought around them, but Petalpaw felt as though she was frozen in time. The action around her blurred and faded, and the sounds of battle quieted. All she was aware of was the SunClan apprentice, still staring silently into her eyes, and the rain hissing down on their pelts.
“You fought well,” the apprentice growled at last.
“Not really,” Petalpaw responded. “No training.” Her heart hammered against her ribs.
The brown tabby regarded her with something like curiosity in his eyes. “You’ve had some training now, I expect?” he queried.
Petalpaw lifted her chin. “Yes. And I’ll have you know I’m not bad at it.”
The SunClan cat nodded. “I didn’t think you’d be.”
Petalpaw felt an odd prickling in her paws. Was this enemy cat complimenting her? Feeling a little flustered, she ducked her head and busied herself with giving her chest fur a few licks, so she wouldn’t have to meet his eyes.
“I’m Scorchpaw.” The words were barely audible over the storm.
Petalpaw looked up at him warily. Is this all another trick? she wondered, taking a cautious step back. He was looking at her expectantly, his tail neatly folded around his paws. He certainly didn’t look as though he was going to attack… but that could be part of the trick, Petalpaw realized.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” The apprentice -- Scorchpaw -- sounded exasperated. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Surprised, Petalpaw meowed, “And why is that?”
Scorchpaw shrugged and looked away as another flash of lightning illuminated them. “I just don’t want to.” He lifted his chin and stared at her with a challenge in his amber eyes. “What, do you want me to tear off your pelt?”
“No,” Petalpaw replied. She took another step back and closed her eyes to the screaming and the thunder and the stinging rain.
“I’m Petalpaw,” she whispered, then turned and sprinted away, not staying to witness his reaction. She was determined not to glance back, determined to run on ahead and get back to camp, but for some reason she did. She twisted her head around to look over her shoulder and saw Scorchpaw staring after her, his amber eyes glowing through the lashing rain.
“Petalpaw, what is wrong with you today?” Thistleheart demanded, springing back to let Petalpaw stagger to her paws and shake the earth clods out of her pelt. “You’ve been in your own little world for the whole training session, get your head in the game.”
“Sorry, Thistleheart,” Petalpaw mumbled. She had been trying to focus, she really had! But it was difficult when the only image that appeared in her head was of a pair of amber eyes…
“Did you hear a word I just said?” Thistleheart snarled; startled, Petalpaw leaped backward as she found her mentor’s green eyes a mere mouse-length from her own. The paler gold flecks in them seemed to burn like fire, mimicking her mentor’s frustration.
Petalpaw lowered her head in shame. “Sorry,” she mewed again. “I’ll pay attention now.”
Thistleheart sat down, curling her tail around her paws. “Look, if there’s something bothering you, you can tell me.”
Petalpaw looked down at her paws. I doubt you’d be so considerate if I told you what -- who -- was on my mind.
“Nothing,” she lied. “I just didn’t sleep well. I think I might have had a thorn in my bedding.”
“Well, you can change it out later,” Thistleheart told her, standing up once more. “Let’s see that duck-and-twist move again. Remember: be light and nimble as you spin, then lash out with your front paws, claws sheathed for training.”
Petalpaw blinked and nodded, sinking into a defensive crouch. She tried to clear all thoughts from her mind as Thistleheart stalked toward her. Focus! Petalpaw scolded herself. Focus!
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
Petalpaw jerked back to reality just in time to dodge out of Thistleheart’s path. Hastily she spun on her hind paws, flinging out her forepaws desperately. They sliced through thin air as her mentor evaded the attack with ease. Thistleheart turned and stared at Petalpaw through narrowed eyes; her disapproval was painfully obvious in her twitching ears and frowning muzzle.
“Petalpaw, I’m disappointed,” Thistleheart meowed heavily. “You showed such promise; where has your fighting skill gone?”
Petalpaw gazed at her mentor in wide-eyed dismay. It would be better if the golden she-cat had been angry; but this unbearable feeling that she’d let every cat down was a thousand times worse. It weighed her down as though she’d swallowed rocks, and churned her belly just as much.
“I’m really sorry,” Petalpaw whispered fervently.
“Look, Petalpaw,” Thistleheart sighed, sitting down again, “I can’t train you if you don’t try. Something’s on your mind, and I want you to figure it out before we continue. It’s obviously bothering you.”
“It’s nothing, really,” Petalpaw told her mentor earnestly. “I just…” She scrolled through the selection of excuses in her mind and came up empty. With a defeated sigh, she sank back on her haunches and stared miserably into the forest.
“Is the battle bothering you?” Thistleheart asked shrewdly.
Petalpaw’s head snapped up and she stammered, “No, no, that’s not -- I mean, it’s not what it -- I wasn’t -- ”
“Relax,” Thistleheart soothed her. “It scared every cat: the breaking of the truce, the storm… the important thing is, it’s all over now.”
Petalpaw’s tail twitched in frustration. It wasn’t the battle itself that was interrupting her training, but the event in the battle, when she’d come face to face with the apprentice… Scorchpaw… she knew his name now…
Despite the thoughts rampaging around her brain, she nodded along with Thistleheart with an air of detached obedience. Thistleheart sighed again. “Let’s try that duck-and-twist one more time, and then you can grab something to eat. After your meal, you can go hunting. Bring back at least three pieces of prey.”
“Yes, Thistleheart,” said Petalpaw blankly.
Her mentor rolled her eyes. “Get into position.”
Petalpaw dutifully slipped into a defensive crouch, readying herself for Thistleheart’s attack. I will focus this time, she vowed. Duck, twist, slash! She recited the instructions over and over, beating back the thoughts of Scorchpaw and the battle. She saw Thistleheart’s muscles tense under her dappled golden pelt and prepared to fight. With a challenging yowl, her mentor dashed toward her. Petalpaw’s heart lurched as she ducked out of the way, twisted around, and battered her mentor’s hind legs as the LeafClan cat charged past her.
Thistleheart swerved around, panting. Her green eyes glowed triumphantly. “Great job!” she praised Petalpaw. “It feels nice to end on such a good note. Now go get some fresh-kill for yourself, then hunt until you have three pieces of prey to bring back.”
Petalpaw nodded and trotted out of the hollow. Pride warmed her heart beneath her gray-and-white pelt. She had finally succeeded, even when the ground was muddy and her mind was fuzzy and her thoughts were full of Scorchpaw…
Too late, Petalpaw realized her mistake. No! she thought frantically, as thoughts of the SunClan apprentice started murmuring and shifting around, waking up from their brief rest during training.
No! Petalpaw commanded again. Stop! She gave a defeated sigh and stared at the ground. There has to be some way to stop this…
Suddenly Petalpaw caught a warm, musky scent on the breeze. Her ears pricked and she instinctively dropped into a hunting crouch, feeling pleased that she had finally mastered it. Petalpaw sniffed cautiously again, and the scent of the mouse filled her nose and mouth. It was close! A shivering clump of ferns caught her eye, and she detected a rapid heartbeat pattering within them.
I’ve got you now, she thought, creeping closer. With a great leap she pinned the mouse to the ground and killed it with a swift snap to the neck. Then, she kicked earth over it. I’ll pick it up later.
I’ll just hunt now, Petalpaw decided. It seems to distract me. The forest air smelled of rain-scented leaves and it cleared all thoughts of Scorchpaw from her mind. Her paws squished quietly against the wet leaf-mold on the ground as she padded through the forest, jaws parted to scent the air. Being alone, even in her own territory -- not her own territory, LeafClan’s, she corrected herself -- was still unnerving after the fight with Scorchpaw and then the Gathering. My first ever Gathering, and it ends with a fight.
Suddenly Petalpaw smelled a familiar scent, from her first day of training after her injuries -- rabbit. And it wasn’t stale this time, either. She dropped into a crouch and tried to remember Thistleheart’s instructions. I don’t think she taught me how to catch rabbits yet! Petalpaw realized. She huffed in frustration. Well, I have to feed the Clan… I’ll try…
With a shiver of nervousness Petalpaw scented the air again. The rabbit scent was difficult to perceive, as the breeze was blowing in its direction, blowing her scent toward it…
Fox dung! Petalpaw thought with a hiss of frustration. The rabbit will have scented me by now! Abandoning her attempt at stealth, she broke into a run, not caring that the sound of her paws slapping against the ground would frighten all the prey around her. If the rabbit was already aware of her, she might as well try to capture it with speed.
The rabbit’s scent grew stronger and sharper as Petalpaw sprinted through the forest. She caught a flash of white as its tail disappeared into the undergrowth. Gritting her teeth, she smashed through the brambles, her pelt tearing as it got tangled in the thorns. I need that rabbit! she screamed silently. StarClan, let me catch that rabbit! I need to show the Clan I can do it!
Determination burned in every hair on her pelt as she streaked after her prey. But her old wounds and new thorn scratches were stinging, and she could feel a dull throb starting to creep up on her left forepaw. She could feel herself slowing down, and see the rabbit pulling ahead.
A piece of fresh-kill is outrunning me! she thought furiously, forcing herself to go faster. What would Mothfur have to say about that? Aspenpaw could catch it, why can’t I?
“Go!” she screeched out loud. “Go, Petalpaw, for StarClan’s sake!” She hurled herself desperately at the rabbit; her claws grazed its hindquarters and it kicked at her face, raking her cheeks with surprisingly sharp claws. With a yowl of shock and pain she fell backward, and the rabbit vanished into SunClan territory.
Petalpaw sat there, blood streaming down her face, for what felt like an eternity. Silently she suffered, feeling utterly defeated, embarrassed, and chastened, by a rabbit! The scratches on her face stung like fire and she scrubbed at them with her paws; when they came away, they were speckled with her own blood. She wanted to scream. Here was more proof that she didn’t belong here, that Aspenpaw was better, that Windpaw liked her more, that Mothfur was right and Browndapple was wrong…
I am a failure, she thought miserably, resting her head on her forepaws. Her wounds radiated heat that matched her anger. Beaten by a rabbit. How can this day get any worse? She glared up at the sky, daring the universe to jinx her. Come on, StarClan! she taunted. Give me a badger, or a fox, or a --
“Hello,” meowed a muffled voice.
Startled and mortified, Petalpaw jerked her head up and leaped to her paws, wincing as her pads stung. She was staring into the amber eyes that had haunted her dreams and waking thoughts alike.
-- Or a SunClan apprentice named Scorchpaw.
He held a rabbit -- the rabbit, Petalpaw realized, humiliated -- in his jaws. Scorchpaw set it down and studied her, his expression puzzled. “Why -- ”
“Why do I keep running into you?” Petalpaw wailed, interrupting him. “Why does StarClan do this to me?” Petalpaw stared at the sky, caught up in a whirl of fury and bewilderment. “Thanks for separating me from my Clan!” she spat at Scorchpaw. “Thanks for all of this -- this -- ” Her words became mangled in a choking sob.
“What happened to you?” Scorchpaw interjected, looking at her face in apparent concern.
Petalpaw touched the bleeding claw marks. “Stupid rabbit!” she hissed, her hackles rising defensively. “Don’t laugh at me!” she ordered when a smile twitched at the corners of the apprentice’s mouth.
“Sorry,” Scorchpaw mewed. “Why are you… raging?”
Petalpaw slumped to the ground. “You’d never understand. Now, go away.”
“Oh, actually,” he mumbled, “I was… waiting for you to come out here.”
Petalpaw lifted her head in surprise. “Why would you do some creepy thing like that?” she demanded. “Waiting to finish me off when you were too weak to do it before? Well, here’s your chance.” I don’t think I could fight him off anyway.
“Well…” Scorchpaw sounded distinctly embarrassed. Intrigued, Petalpaw watched him closely, which made him back away a few paces. In spite of the ridiculous situation, Petalpaw felt a small flame of pride; bedraggled as she was, bested by a rabbit and at the mercy of a more experienced cat, Scorchpaw seemed to fear her. Why is that? she wondered curiously.
“Go on,” she prompted him, interested to hear more.
“I don’t know.” Scorchpaw shrugged. “I mean, it was weird… because I wouldn’t kill you… and then we met at the Gathering… and I couldn’t not think about… I kept messing up in training…”
Petalpaw interrupted his babbling. “Me too,” she admitted. “I mean, I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened, and it affected my training.”
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you!” Scorchpaw confessed, then pulled back, giving his chest fur a few embarrassed licks. “I tried to put you out of my mind, but you kept coming back…”
Petalpaw stared, stunned into silence, unable to speak or move or do anything except think, What?
“So… yeah,” Scorchpaw finished lamely, scuffing his paws on the ground. “I just… wanted to see you.”
“You can’t,” Petalpaw meowed, and her voice sounded so cold it hurt. She had to be harsh; she was convincing herself, too. “We both know that. We could never -- ” She cleared her throat as her voice started to waver. “We can’t be friends. Our Clans are enemies. Your Clan is my enemy.” She recalled Amberstar’s insolent amber gaze. Scorchpaw is nothing like him, Petalpaw’s thoughts whispered, but she pushed them away ruthlessly. “Your Clan drove out my family! That’s the reason I’m here and not with MoonClan! I hate, have hated, and will hate every single SunClan cat to ever walk the earth!”
You’re lying to yourself, her thoughts murmured.
Petalpaw closed her eyes, not wanting to see Scorchpaw’s reaction. She could practically feel the waves of hurt coming off him anyway. “It’s the only way,” she whispered. “It’s the way it should be. It’s for the best.” It sounded painfully obvious that she was trying to convince herself as well as Scorchpaw, and she turned away. “I’m sorry. But I hate SunClan, and we can never be friends.” She put an almost unbearable amount of venom into the word never, so much that her own cruelty scared her.
“But I’m not like the rest of them!” Scorchpaw whimpered. “I promise -- Petalpaw, you have to listen -- ”
“I don’t have to listen!” Petalpaw screamed, flattening her ears as hot tears trickled from her eyes and into the scratches on her cheeks, making her face sting. “I hate SunClan! I will never forgive them!”
“I’m not like them,” Scorchpaw repeated softly, pleadingly. “Please, I’m not.”
I know that, she thought. Don’t you get it?
But all she said was, “Good luck with your hunting,” as she padded back to LeafClan territory.
This time, she didn’t look back.
Petalpaw carried two mice, both swinging from her jaws by their tails. Windpaw held a small robin, and Brackentail -- Windpaw’s mentor -- had caught a squirrel. A glow of pride surrounded the three cats; the hunting patrol had been successful.
Petalpaw dropped her mice carefully on the fresh-kill pile, then whirled around, scanning the camp for other tasks to do. There! Petalpaw thought triumphantly, spotting Thornstrike laying damp herbs out to dry nest to the Mossrock. Petalpaw made a beeline for the medicine cat, her paws pounding rapidly against the earth. Thornstrike looked up in surprise to see Petalpaw panting in front of her, an eager expression on her face.
“What is it?” Thornstrike asked, setting down a bundle of pungent-smelling leaves.
“Can I help you with that?” Petalpaw puffed, making note of Thornstrike’s herb-drying method. Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed a sodden pile of dock leaves and started spreading them out on the rocks like Thornstrike had been doing.
“Petalpaw, be careful with those!” Thornstrike warned her.
Petalpaw waved her tail. “I know!” she chirped back, and her voice sounded unnaturally cheerful, as though only a false layer of sweetness would hide the bitterness she’d been pushing away for so long. She could feel the heavy thoughts of regret and anger slowly closing in on her mind, which she’d been keeping busy with an endless supply of tasks.
Nope! Petalpaw thought, her cheery inner voice revealing a splash of venom as she confronted the memories. Nope, not listening, not listening, I’m sorting herbs right now --
“Petalpaw, slow down!” Thornstrike gasped, and Petalpaw was jerked back to reality; she had accidentally shredded a dock leaf while beating back her unwanted thoughts.
“Sorry,” Petalpaw apologized, quickly discarding the useless leaf. She hastily snagged another bundle of dock on her claws and started spreading it out diligently, her thoughts disappearing with the monotonous work.
Soon she had finished. Petalpaw stepped back and licked her paw, drawing it over her ear to rid herself of the leaf scraps clinging to her fur. “Is there anything else I can do?” Petalpaw inquired.
Thornstrike was staring at her, concern shadowing her green eyes. “Petalpaw,” she meowed hesitantly, “is everything… okay?”
“Yes, why wouldn’t it be?” The words tumbled out of her mouth automatically. She cocked her head and shot a questioning look at the medicine cat.
“You’re acting… odd,” Thornstrike murmured, the crease between her brows becoming more pronounced as she studied Petalpaw. “Are you feeling alright?”
“Yes,” Petalpaw replied impatiently, working her claws in the earth. “I’m allowed to be happy and hardworking, right?”
Don’t think about it, she was chanting silently as her paws ripped up the grass in front of her. No Scorchpaw, no no no… Don’t think about it… Don’t think about him…
“Yes, of course,” Thornstrike meowed hurriedly, “but that isn’t what’s happening. You’re fidgety, you’re flighty, you’re ultra-focused on every little task you do… Did something happen?”
Petalpaw sighed and relaxed her paws, which sent a stab of fear through her; whenever she freed her mind from the bonds of work, it immediately jumped to Scorchpaw… In spite of herself, regret swamped Petalpaw as she thought of the brown tabby apprentice. Was I too quick to dismiss him? she wondered. Should I have listened? Should I still be trying to make up for that one meeting?
“Just…” Petalpaw gave a small shrug. She wasn’t sure how she could explain the issue to Thornstrike in a way that didn’t give away her meetings with Scorchpaw. “I said no to an… opportunity,” Petalpaw meowed vaguely, hoping that it sounded believable. “I turned down an offer from a… friend… and I’m trying to forget it.”
The look on Thornstrike’s face was a little too understanding, but all the medicine cat said was, “I’m sure you made the right choice. Loyalty to your Clan is all that matters.”
Petalpaw nodded at the medicine cat’s wise words. She’s right, Petalpaw thought. Scorchpaw is just another cat, and I’m not loyal to him. I’m loyal to MoonClan only.
But she had been starting to feel something like loyalty toward LeafClan; she’d been contributing prey and hard work to their cause, and it was hard to dismiss that so easily. How would Petalpaw fare in a world with MoonClan back, when she had spent time with LeafClan? Could she be loyal to both Clans without breaking the warrior code?
“That reminds me,” Thornstrike meowed, “Briarstar was asking for you. I think she wants to discuss when you’ll be returning to MoonClan.”
True excitement surged through Petalpaw at the mention of her Clan. Hope filled her belly with feathers as she nodded her thanks to the medicine cat and trotted around to the other side of the Mossrock, where Briarstar’s den was located.
“Can I come in?” Petalpaw called into the gloom, desperately praying for Briarstar to answer.
“Yes,” the LeafClan leader replied.
Petalpaw took a moment to compose herself, flattening her bristling fur and trying to maintain a mask of cool tranquility. It was difficult. Though her excitement had banished all thoughts of Scorchpaw, they had been replaced by a stampeding horde of mental screaming, voices filled with joy and anticipation at the prospect of finding MoonClan again. The faces of her kin flashed through Petalpaw’s head: loving Ravenstar, mischievous Icekit, thoughtful Darkkit -- what she wouldn’t give to see them all, right now.
Don’t get your hopes up, Petalpaw warned herself. She could feel her heart beginning to swell with hope, and tried to tamp it down. It may be many moons before you see them again.
Petalpaw closed her eyes briefly as the words carried forth a surge of pain. After all she’d been through, she refused to believe that her Clan was dead. They had risked too much and traveled too far to give into despair.
I have to believe it will turn out okay.
With that last determined thought, Petalpaw stepped into Briarstar’s den.
The LeafClan leader was sitting up in her nest of moss, her ears pricked and eyes alert. Juniperleaf lay next to her, his paws stretched out in front of him as sunlight dappled his sleek black coat. Thistleheart was seated a respectful distance away, and she blinked welcomingly at Petalpaw as she came in.
“Thornstrike sent me,” Petalpaw squeaked, feeling a little intimidated by the group of powerful warriors. “She said you wanted to talk to me about finding MoonClan?”
“Yes,” Briarstar confirmed. “You’ve been making good progress in your training, even though it’s only been a moon and a half. You’ve been working very hard recently, and the Clan thanks you.”
Petalpaw dipped her head, grateful that the LeafClan leader had acknowledged her diligent work without asking probing questions as Thornstrike had. Even though she still hadn’t caught a single rabbit -- she was acutely aware of the scratches on her face as this thought passed through her head -- she’d proven herself a loyal member of LeafClan, even if her place was only temporary.
“I think you’ll be ready to leave within the moon,” Briarstar finished, wrapping her tail around her paws.
“Really?” Petalpaw couldn’t hold back a gasp of astonishment. “Thank you, Briarstar!” Her pads tingled with excitement. Within the moon! I’ll be leaving within the moon!
“Have you thought about the cats you’d like to take?” Briarstar asked.
The question caught Petalpaw off-guard. She hadn’t thought of that; whenever she considered her journey ahead, she’d always pictured just herself and Windpaw, trekking over the moorland toward her Clan. Does Briarstar want me to take other cats? If so… why?
“I’ll take that as a no,” Juniperleaf remarked, breaking the long silence. Briarstar flicked her tail over his ear in a Be quiet! gesture. He ducked away, whiskers twitching in amusement.
Petalpaw shifted uncomfortably. “I haven’t really thought about it,” she mumbled, embarrassed. Why wasn’t I planning so far ahead? “I guess I just thought me and Windpaw were going.” The second the words left her mouth she realized how foolish it sounded. There was no way two apprentices with barely a moon’s worth of training would make it all the way to MoonClan and back, wherever they were.
Briarstar smiled understandingly. “I know. But it wouldn’t be safe, traveling alone. Pride doesn’t fill any bellies, remember that.”
Petalpaw looked at her paws in shame. “I know.”
Juniperleaf gave an incredulous snort, and Briarstar smacked him lightly with her tail. “Choose a warrior to accompany you,” the leader suggested. “I’d like to come, but I have a Clan to run.”
“There’s no way I’m coming,” Juniperleaf declared, pressing his flank against Briarstar’s. “I belong right here.”
“Well, I wasn’t thinking of inviting you,” Petalpaw muttered. Luckily, only Thistleheart seemed to hear; her mentor’s mouth quirked into a reluctant smile.
“By the way,” Briarstar added, “you should know that Graytail asked me if he could come. I don’t know why, but if you have no objection, he can come with you.”
Petalpaw nodded. “Graytail it is,” she decided. She looked curiously at Briarstar, wondering what Graytail’s motivation was. The gray warrior had comforted her after Belladonna’s death and stuck firmly by her side when she had first met the rest of the Clan. Was he simply just propelled by compassion? Or was there something else?
“I’ll go tell him,” Thistleheart meowed, standing up.
“Actually,” Briarstar contradicted her, “how about you stay? Juniperleaf, you can go tell Graytail.”
Juniperleaf shot a mutinous look at his mate. “And why is that?” he demanded.
“Because, mouse-brain,” Briarstar purred, rasping her tongue over his ear, “I’d like to talk privately with Thistleheart and Petalpaw, if you don’t mind.”
Juniperleaf nodded reluctantly and stood up, shaking scraps of moss off his pelt. He looked suspiciously at Petalpaw, then brushed past her on his way out of the den.
Once the black tom had gone, Briarstar leaned closer to Petalpaw and murmured in a confidential tone, “Petalpaw, I wanted to speak to you about a topic that other cats would not take very well.” The LeafClan leader hesitated, and in the silence, Petalpaw’s heartbeat increased. What was Briarstar saying? She can’t know about Scorchpaw, right?
“It has come to my attention that a SunClan cat has been repeatedly crossing the border,” Briarstar whispered. “I don’t know who, but it’s the same scent every time. I’m afraid that SunClan is sending a spy into our territory.”
Petalpaw’s belly lurched. Does she mean Scorchpaw? Great StarClan -- how many times did he wait on the border for me to come?
In spite of herself, she felt a little trickle of pleasure that a cat would do all of that, risk sparking a war, just to talk to her. Then she realized what she was feeling and immediately started scolding herself. You can’t be his friend, remember? You can’t ever be associated with cats from SunClan, not in that way.
“Why are you telling me this?” Petalpaw stammered, trying and failing to hide her nervousness.
Briarstar and Thistleheart exchanged a glance. Finally Thistleheart spoke. “Because…” She stared into Petalpaw’s eyes and took a deep breath. “Because we found your scent always nearby.”
Petalpaw’s heart flapped madly in her chest like a bird struggling to escape from a cat’s grasp. They know. The thought rang through her head, but she was numb with shock. And just like physical wounds, it would take a moment for the pain to set in. It would hit… now.
Petalpaw stumbled backward, slammed with a sudden surge of guilt and shame that overpowered every other emotion. Her defenses dropped away as she tried to argue against herself, telling herself that she’d done nothing wrong… but she had. Petalpaw couldn’t deny it. She’d broken the code and betrayed her Clan by meeting with an enemy cat, and she had nothing to say in her defense. Petalpaw was exposed under the two glares, green and amber, of the LeafClan cats.
It was terrible, the feeling of being untrustworthy… Petalpaw had worked so hard to fit into the Clan that wasn’t hers, tried to learn the unfamiliar techniques, and tended to all the elders whose stories she didn’t know… and what was it all for? She’d thrown it away; Thistleheart and Briarstar knew about Scorchpaw, and they knew about her.
“I’m sorry,” Petalpaw whispered. “I didn’t do anything…”
Briarstar’s eyes narrowed. “Tell us what happened.”
Petalpaw bowed her head, unable to look the LeafClan leader in the eye. “It was the apprentice that attacked me,” she mewed in a small voice. “I told you that he let me go, and you didn’t believe me. But he did, he let me live.” Petalpaw cleared her throat, then continued. “We met again at the Gathering, and we didn’t fight. He said his name was Scorchpaw.”
Thistleheart gave a quiet murmur of dread. “Oh no…”
Petalpaw whipped her head up to glare at her mentor. Why is she making it worse? Petalpaw thought furiously. It’s already bad enough as it is without her making me feel guiltier!
“Go on,” Briarstar prompted her, flicking her tail over Thistleheart’s muzzle.
Petalpaw reluctantly resumed her story, remembering what event lay ahead: their meeting on the border, when she’d lost her temper with Scorchpaw and stormed away. “He was waiting by the border a few days later when I was chasing a rabbit. He said…” Petalpaw’s cheeks burned with embarrassment as her voice trailed off. I really don’t want to talk to the Clan leader about this!
But Briarstar was watching her expectantly, so Petalpaw squeezed her eyes shut and soldiered on.
“He said he couldn’t stop thinking about me,” she whispered as fast as she could, as though getting the sentence out quickly would keep the awkwardness at bay. It didn’t work; her face felt as though it was on fire as she kept talking. “We talked, but I yelled at him. I said that we couldn’t be friends, and I left.” Petalpaw let out a shaky sigh. “And that’s all.” When neither Thistleheart nor Briarstar said anything, Petalpaw looked up nervously. Did I make them angry?
To her surprise, Thistleheart’s eyes blazed with pride. “Petalpaw, you showed true loyalty to both LeafClan and MoonClan when you turned him down,” her mentor declared. “You did what was right.”
Taken aback by this unexpected praise, Petalpaw gave her chest fur a few quick licks. “Th-thanks!” she replied, her voice quavering a little. But blanketing her pride was a shadow of doubt. If I really did the right thing, Petalpaw thought, why did it feel so wrong?
Briarstar’s expression was more stern than Thistleheart’s, but she didn’t look as furious as Petalpaw had expected her to be. “Thistleheart is right, you did make a wise decision in ignoring Scorchpaw. But you did make a mistake. You should not trust any SunClan cats, for even the least-threatening are conniving and cruel. I suspect that your friend Scorchpaw may be a spy, and using you to get closer to LeafClan and find out our weaknesses.”
“He’d never do that!” Petalpaw protested automatically.
Briarstar raised her eyebrows. “After leaving him, you still defend him?” the tortoiseshell she-cat challenged, her amber eyes glinting dangerously. “Despite choosing your Clan over that apprentice, you still defend him to us?”
Petalpaw felt hot under her pelt. Why am I defending him? she demanded herself. If Briarstar is right, then he’s just another traitor to the warrior code, and I was a fool to trust him.
But Petalpaw couldn’t believe that Scorchpaw was a spy. He’d seemed sincere in their past three meetings: about refusing to kill her, about how she was progressing in training, how he couldn’t stop thinking about her…
Was it all just one big lie? Petalpaw thought. Did he pretend to like me because he knew I felt… Ugh. I must be the biggest mouse-brain in the forest to have believed him.
“Sorry,” Petalpaw sighed. “I’d never do anything to hurt LeafClan, nor MoonClan.”
Briarstar nodded. “I know you wouldn’t. But you might do it unintentionally, by trusting the wrong cats. No SunClan cat can be trusted while Amberstar is leader. Ever since he rose to power, his paws have traced a path of shadows and bloodshed. I believe he intends to use his growing Clan to swallow up the entire forest.”
“LeafClan will not be conquered,” growled Thistleheart.
“Never,” Briarstar agreed. “Although our future is looking grim. With MoonClan gone, Amberstar thinks that we will be easy targets. He’s already expanded SunClan’s borders into what was previously MoonClan land. SunClan must be stopped, and bringing MoonClan back will increase our chance of winning the war.”
“The forest has always held four Clans,” Thistleheart meowed solemnly. “MoonClan must return.”
“In a half-moon, you shall begin your journey,” Briarstar told Petalpaw. She lowered her voice so Petalpaw had to strain her ears to hear clearly. “Keep it quiet, all right? We don’t want SunClan to find out what we’re planning.”
Petalpaw nodded firmly. “I won’t let you down, Briarstar.”
“And stay away from Scorchpaw,” the leader added, as Petalpaw started to leave. “Remember, trust no cat from SunClan!”
“I know,” Petalpaw replied, a little uncertainly. With one last glance over her shoulder at Briarstar and Thistleheart, she padded out of the den and into the clearing.
It was the golden hour when she emerged from Briarstar’s den; the light poured through the camp like honey, sweet and yellow, bathing the rocks. The Clan was mingling in the main clearing, little groups of cats stretched out on the boulders, under ferns, and at the fresh-kill pile. Petalpaw spotted Windpaw rolling on his back in the leaf-mold, his gray belly turned toward the sun. It was certainly the warmest day Petalpaw had ever experienced, and she knew that it would likely be the last one until newleaf. Leafbare was approaching fast.
Petalpaw found a sunny patch of grass and sat down. Thoughtfully, she surveyed the camp; all the LeafClan cats, from the tiniest kit to the oldest elder, were sunning themselves, each face turned toward the sky, determined to soak up every last ray of sunshine.
Are all Clans like this? she wondered, curling up on the grass. The green stalks tickled her nose and she sneezed. With their cranky elders and mischievous kits and naive apprentices? Groups of cats who all live by the same code?
Isn’t SunClan just like LeafClan, or MoonClan?
Amberstar is the true problem, not SunClan itself. He’s the cat I have a quarrel with.
But we’ll stop him, Petalpaw vowed, when MoonClan returns.
Watery sunlight bathed Petalpaw’s soft gray-and-white coat as she sat in silence at the camp entrance. The air was cool and crisp, and it stung Petalpaw’s nose as she took a deep breath. One solitary bird was twittering in the branches above, its lilting voice mimicking Petalpaw’s fluttering heartbeat.
Today, she thought, fluffing out her fur against the gentle morning breeze. Today we leave!
Petalpaw felt a surge of impatience as she sat alone, waiting for the sun to rise and the LeafClan cats to start emerging from their dens. Her tail lashed back and forth in anticipation, stirring up the dewy leaves on the ground. Finally the day to embark on her journey to find MoonClan had arrived, and every cat was still asleep!
For a heartbeat Petalpaw was tempted to barge into the apprentice den, shake Windpaw awake, and streak out of the camp toward the moor. But no, she had to wait for Graytail to wake up; Briarstar had nominated the LeafClan warrior as the patrol’s leader. Petalpaw gave a small huff of annoyance. Why couldn’t she lead the patrol? She knew MoonClan’s scent better than anyone, and it was her quest. Adding Graytail to the party was Briarstar’s way of ensuring Petalpaw and Windpaw’s safety, but she couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated.
Petalpaw worked her paws in the grass, tearing up great swaths of the green stalks and scattering them everywhere. She couldn’t sit still, it was impossible! With the day growing steadily brighter as time passed, Petalpaw was filled with a sense of urgency. Every second I waste hanging around for Windpaw and Graytail to wake up, MoonClan gets farther away!
Finally, Petalpaw saw Windpaw’s mottled gray shape emerge from the apprentice den. The young tom’s jaws split in an enormous yawn as he arched his back in a luxurious stretch, his tail quivering. After a quick wash, he bounded over to Petalpaw, his blue eyes shining. “Hi!” he greeted her. “Ready to go?”
Petalpaw nodded. Looking at Windpaw, with his gleaming gray fur and excited expression, she was overcome with happiness. He looked just like the intelligent kit she’d met almost three moons ago, innocent and carefree, with a mother who loved him and a big den to enjoy. There was no Aspenpaw out here for him to focus on; instead, his sky-colored eyes rested on Petalpaw. He was here, just like in the short moments they’d had together before joining LeafClan. Fully in the present, an active part of the dawn forest just as Petalpaw was. Two friends, outlined against the sun, ready for their journey ahead.
“Is Graytail awake?” Windpaw asked.
“No,” Petalpaw sighed.
“Ah.” Windpaw glanced at the warriors’ den in exasperation. “Lazy furball.”
Petalpaw gave a mrrow of laughter. “Say that to his face and he’ll claw your ears off.”
“At least then I won’t be able to hear him screeching at me,” Windpaw pointed out, humor twinkling in his eyes.
Petalpaw snorted with amusement. “True!”
Soon, Graytail padded out of the warriors’ den, his fur matted and speckled with scraps of moss. At a look from Petalpaw, he seemed to realize how closely he resembled a hedgehog and started grooming his pelt until it lay flat again. Then, he joined Petalpaw and Windpaw at the camp entrance.
“You two are up early!” Graytail remarked, his words becoming slightly muffled as he yawned. The gray warrior blinked the sleep out of his eyes. “Why don’t you visit Thornstrike for some traveling herbs while I try to wake up?”
“Traveling herbs?” Petalpaw repeated, disgusted. “Why can’t we just have prey?” Before MoonClan had been driven out, she’d watched the oldest apprentices consume the sharp-smelling leaves before their long trip to the Starlake. Every single cat who ate them wrinkled his or her nose, and that was enough to tell Petalpaw exactly what they tasted like.
“Prey will fill your belly, but not for very long,” Graytail informed her. “We don’t know how far we might be traveling, and these herbs will take the edge off your hunger.”
“All right,” Petalpaw grumbled. She stood up and shook out her pelt, spraying dewdrops everywhere. “Come on, Windpaw.”
Windpaw nodded, and the two cats proceeded toward the far side of the Mossrock, which held Thornstrike’s den. From the morning sunlight filtering through the crevice in the rocks, Petalpaw could see the medicine cat’s golden pelt moving around in the dappled shadows. The sharp smell of dewy herbs stung her nose on the breeze, but she padded in anyway.
“Hello?” Petalpaw called tentatively. “Graytail sent me and Windpaw for traveling herbs.”
Thornstrike looked up from where she was counting a collection of sweet-smelling leafy stalks, her brow furrowed. When she saw Petalpaw and Windpaw standing there expectantly, she meowed, “Oh, sorry. Just checking up on the supply of catmint.” She nudged the bundle of leaves in front of her. For once the scent was enticing, but Petalpaw knew that it was too important to eat; catmint was one of the only cures for greencough, which always swept through the Clans around leaf-bare.
“The stock is getting rather low,” Thornstrike continued in a worried voice, “and that’s a problem, with leaf-bare approaching.” She glanced darkly at the dwindling stack of catmint, then shook out her pelt and turned back to Petalpaw. “What is it that you wanted?”
“Traveling herbs,” Petalpaw repeated.
“Ah, yes.” Thornstrike nodded in understanding. “Today’s the big day. How are you feeling?”
Petalpaw blinked, a little surprised by the question. “Uh… excited,” she mewed awkwardly. “But a little nervous, I guess.” She shifted uncomfortably; why did she have to examine her heart and list every emotion to the medicine cat? Doing so added vulnerable to her inventory of emotions. Petalpaw scowled. I’ll keep my thoughts to myself, thanks.
Suddenly she felt a warm tail rest gently on her shoulder, giving her a silent chiding as well as expressing amusement. Petalpaw turned to look at Windpaw, seeing that his face reflected that. She sighed quietly through her nose and turned back to Thornstrike as the medicine cat dropped a bundle of herbs at her paws.
“Sorrel, daisy, and burnet,” the golden she-cat explained as Petalpaw cautiously unrolled the leaf wrap in which the traveling herbs were contained. “They will give you strength and reduce your hunger as you travel. Best to eat them quickly,” she added with amusement in her voice as she looked at Windpaw, “they taste foul!”
Petalpaw glanced at her friend; Windpaw had already shoved the traveling herbs in his mouth, and was spluttering and choking on the bitter leaves. “It’s disgusting!” he warned her, his words almost unintelligible around the herbs. He screwed his eyes shut as he continued to work the leaves around in his mouth, which didn’t bode well for Petalpaw’s experience with them.
Reluctantly she bent her neck and picked up the herbs. In one swift movement, she snapped them up in her jaws, flinching at the taste. Luckily, she swallowed them quickly, and didn’t have to suffer for long.
“Blech!” Windpaw complained once they’d finished. “That’s the worst thing I’ve eaten in my life!”
Thornstrike laughed. “Tell Graytail that his herbs are waiting for him here when he’s awake.”
“We will,” Windpaw promised, his eyes glinting mischievously. “I’ll make sure he enjoys them properly… tell him to eat them nice and slow…”
Petalpaw gave Windpaw a shove. “Mouse-brain,” she purred. He leaped out of her way and hared out of the den, cackling. Rolling her eyes, Petalpaw followed him. Together, they trotted toward the entrance to the camp, where they sat down and stared out of the leaf tunnel, into the forest.
The sunlight was slowly strengthening as it rose, and the warmth felt pleasant on Petalpaw’s pelt. Her heart was full of hope. She had Windpaw next to her and MoonClan ahead; what more could a cat ask for?
There was an “Oomph!” from Windpaw; Petalpaw whirled around and saw that a ginger-and-white she-cat had cannoned into his mottled gray flank. Petalpaw unsheathed her claws, ready to slash at her friend’s attacker, but when the cat pulled away she realized it was just Aspenpaw.
That didn’t make her retract her claws, though.
“I’m going to miss you!” Aspenpaw cried.
Windpaw looked like the whole of StarClan was shining around him. “I’ll miss you, too,” he replied happily.
Petalpaw scowled and dug her claws into the earth to keep herself from raking them across Aspenpaw’s perfect pelt. The one time I get Windpaw all to myself, she has to interfere…
“Well,” Aspenpaw meowed, sounding a bit embarrassed at her outburst, “you will come back to LeafClan, so I guess it’s not as bad as I thought, saying goodbye.”
“What do you mean, ‘you will come back to LeafClan’?” Petalpaw demanded, shouldering her way between the two cats. “Windpaw, you’re joining MoonClan!” Right?
Windpaw glanced at Aspenpaw, then at Petalpaw. “I guess,” he responded with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
Petalpaw’s heart dropped like a stone. All of her earlier hope vanished as she stared at Windpaw. She couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “You guess?” she repeated. The hurt in her voice was obvious, even to her own ears. “What does that mean?”
“It means, I like it here,” Windpaw retorted. “Is that so bad?”
Yes! Petalpaw screamed silently.
“Belladonna wanted you to join MoonClan!” Petalpaw hissed instead. At least… that’s what I thought she meant.
“You don’t know what my mother wanted!” Windpaw snarled. “She’s dead!” His voice cracked.
“I know that!” Petalpaw shot back. “And with her dying wish, she wanted you to join my Clan!”
“Why not LeafClan?” Windpaw retorted. “Why is MoonClan so much better than LeafClan?”
Petalpaw was at a loss for words. With an angry lash of her tail she whipped around and stalked away. Fury and confusion made her head ache. The day had started out so wonderful, with the fresh morning air and the prospect of adventure… Why did Windpaw have to ruin it? Petalpaw was looking forward to traveling with him until now. The second Aspenpaw showed up, he forgot all about her.
What a surprise, Petalpaw thought bitterly. She sank her claws into the cold, indifferent earth with a small growl. No cat would look at her beside Windpaw, and Windpaw wouldn’t look at her beside Aspenpaw. The only cat who she’d ever seemed to captivate was Scorchpaw.
Petalpaw had worked so hard to bury the confession she’d silently made under a deluge of tasks. Drown out the secret, keep it, hide it. But as her thoughts of Windpaw darkened, Scorchpaw’s face emerged from the depths of her mind, and with it, her confession.
I miss him.
There. There it was, Petalpaw’s secret in all its unworthy, disloyal glory: she was missing a SunClan cat. And she had a hunch that he was missing her, too.
But she had chosen to be loyal to LeafClan, the Clan that saved her, the Clan that took her in, the Clan that gave her a home and a mentor.
But now a new notion of LeafClan was brewing in Petalpaw’s mind: it was the Clan that had chosen Windpaw, the Clan that had Aspenpaw, the Clan that insisted on having their warrior lead her mission.
The Clan that Windpaw chose over her.
Petalpaw inhaled sharply. She remembered Windpaw’s demand: “Why is MoonClan so much better than LeafClan?”
Because it has me, Petalpaw thought bitterly. I always thought it was going to be you and me, in MoonClan. Together.
But you don’t want the same thing as me.
And just like that, Petalpaw’s good mood soured. She ducked her head, staring forlornly at her paws.
I can’t do anything to change your mind.
I’m on my own.
* * * * *
Graytail padded at the head of the patrol, his strides long and purposeful. Petalpaw hurried after him, occasionally reaching his side, then realizing she was undermining his leadership and slowed down. Windpaw was trailing at the back of the pack, his pawsteps faltering and uncertain. Every once in awhile Petalpaw would feel a tingling sensation on her back, and knew that Windpaw was watching her, but she never turned to face him. The wounds of his betrayal were still raw.
As they traveled, the sun rose higher in the sky. Soon it was directly above their heads, passing in and out of the patchy clouds. The group had almost reached the small stretch of grassland that gave way to the river. No cat except Graytail had uttered a word.
As though the thought had summoned him, Graytail glanced back at Petalpaw and Windpaw and remarked, “You two are being quiet. Did something happen?”
Petalpaw gave a noncommittal grunt. Windpaw said nothing, but she heard a rustling of fur and knew that he had shrugged.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Graytail continued, sounding amused. “Giving each other the silent treatment?”
Petalpaw nodded firmly. She assumed that Windpaw had done the same.
“How are you feeling about finally getting to find MoonClan?” Graytail asked Petalpaw, taking another valiant stab at conversation.
Petalpaw’s emotions were so jumbled, she couldn’t even answer. The excitement that surged through her body was dampened by worry for her Clan; anger fueled by fear and annoyance rained merciless blows down on her hope, which was slowly shrinking; and the familiar ache of loneliness still remained from her first day away from MoonClan.
But all she said was, “I don’t know.”
An awkward silence met her words. Windpaw still had said nothing so far, which was unnerving; he was usually pretty talkative. Then Petalpaw remembered the last time he had spoken, and she curled her lip. Maybe it was better if he kept his mouth shut. Maybe the silence would give way to forgiveness.
They continued onward through the trees, until Petalpaw could see a strip of tough, faded grass beyond the forest. And just behind that was a shiny silver ribbon that sent chills down Petalpaw’s spine.
“Here at last,” Graytail announced, bounding onto the grass. Petalpaw followed, the brittle stalks pricking her pads. The minor discomfort was nothing compared to the sudden gust of fear that swept through her as she saw the river.
The memory of nearly drowning pierced her like a claw. Cold water pressing in on her from all sides, the relentless current, waterlogged fur and the feeling of hopelessness… Petalpaw was frozen in place, staring at the river. Her mind was determined to relive the whole event in vivid detail, no matter how much Petalpaw struggled against it.
Gasping for breath but choking on water.
Trying to swim for the bank but being pulled away.
The inescapable cold, heavy and unrelenting.
Mind and body shutting down.
The feeling that she should just give up.
“Petalpaw!” Graytail’s voice sounded like it was coming from far away. Petalpaw blinked dazedly and stared into his sky-blue eyes, which were only a mouse-length from hers. His gray-furred face showed concern. “If you want to sit down, go ahead -- ”
Ravenstar’s face flashed in her head, followed by Icekit and Darkkit. The image strengthened her resolve.
“No,” Petalpaw rasped, digging her claws into the ground so hard that her legs trembled. “Keep going.”
Graytail didn’t look convinced. “Are you sure?” he asked anxiously. “You seem unsteady -- ”
“I’m fine!” Petalpaw snapped, hobbling forward with stiff legs. Being so close to the rushing silver-black water made every hair on her pelt stand on end, but she had to keep going. MoonClan is on the other side, she told herself.
“Okay,” Graytail meowed, although his voice betrayed his uncertainty. “I’ll go first. Find the shallowest place farthest from the rapids. Boulders and logs help, too.”
Petalpaw could barely watch as the gray LeafClan warrior padded up and down the riverbank, scanning the water for a safe way across. There was a boulder breaking the current, but upon closer inspection Petalpaw realized that it was slick with algae. It would be difficult to find a pawhold on it. She shuddered, imagining slipping off the rock and crashing into the water all over again.
And this time I might not be so lucky. The thought sent icy tendrils of terror through her pelt. Her nose was full of her own sour fear-scent, and she took an automatic step back.
A splash made her head jerk up in alarm. Graytail was floundering in the shallows, his gray fur turned black by the water. Petalpaw’s heart lurched and her mind immediately flew to Icekit; the ground had literally crumbled away under his paws and plunged him into the river. Darkkit had leaped in to save him without hesitation, but Petalpaw had remained on the riverbank, too scared to do anything.
Did Graytail need her to save him? Was this her chance for redemption?
But the LeafClan warrior had struggled across, and was pulling himself out of the water with shaking limbs. Once he’d made it to solid ground, he turned and waved his tail. “Just d-do small, s-s-slow steps!” Graytail called, his teeth chattering from the cold. “Dig your claws into the bottom if y-you c-c-can!”
Petalpaw glanced at Windpaw, unsure if she should go first. But the gray apprentice was already moving, splashing quickly into the river. Petalpaw took in a sharp breath as she watched his reckless charge across the pebbles. The current dragged at his fur, but he gritted his teeth and wrapped both forepaws around the algae-covered boulder. It looked like he was going to make it…
Then there was a loud splash; Windpaw’s paws had slid right off the slippery boulder, and the current had snatched him in its claws. Petalpaw watched in horror as the apprentice was carried downriver, gasping and flailing with his paws.
Petalkit stood, frozen in terror and disbelief, as Icekit stumbled forward. A huge section of the muddy riverbank split off and slid into the water, taking her brother with it. Her heart hammered in her ears, echoing in her empty mind. Shock made her numb, not quite realizing what had happened was real.
Darkkit screamed and plunged into the icy river after their brother, whose silver tabby pelt blended in with the rapids. Petalkit watched in horror as her sister’s black fur vanished underwater. Still, she didn’t move, she couldn’t move, she couldn’t even breathe… She was aware she had to save them, but she just couldn’t make herself jump in…
And suddenly the ground was giving way under her own paws, just as it had done with Icekit; with a shriek of fear she was free-falling for a heartbeat, then smashed into the frigid water and sank, her whole body numb and disbelieving.
I should have jumped in to save Icekit, Petalkit thought, feeling shame drag her down with the current. Hopelessness weighed her down like stones, pushing her toward the bottom of the river. This is how StarClan is punishing me. I didn’t save him, and now I will share his fate.
Petalkit closed her eyes, aware of nothing but the roaring in her ears and the deep, soul-taking cold that was all around her, that had entered her heart.
I should have been brave, like Darkkit.
But I’m not.
Petalpaw’s heart thundered in her ears as the memory replayed itself again. She had been tormenting herself for so long because of her failure to save her siblings.
But maybe she had another chance.
A chance to be brave. To leap willingly into a river of ice.
To save another cat.
“Help!” Windpaw’s voice was growing fainter as the current dragged him away.
A blaze of anger ignited in Petalpaw’s chest. This StarClan-cursed river will not take another cat from me!
Chest heaving, Petalpaw raced toward the river before she could talk herself out of it. With a flying leap, she launched herself into the freezing water, with her worst fear surrounding her on all sides.
Numbingly cold water swirled around Petalpaw, closing in on her.
Cold, cold, cold.
It was terrifyingly familiar, the feeling of being trapped in the river; she was reliving her past all over again, but it was real.
But this time, she had chosen it. The world gave her a chance, and she took it. She stepped into the noble role that Darkkit had fulfilled without a thought.
“Windpaw!” she coughed, struggling to keep her head above the rushing water. “Windpaw!”
“Petalpaw!” Her friend’s cry was faint, nearly lost in the turbulent waves. “Help!”
Petalpaw moved her numb limbs, trying to swim. It’s just like running, she told herself. Kicking out with her hind legs, she started forward. This time, the current was on her side; it pushed her downriver, toward Windpaw.
Water closed over her head as she neared the rapids. In a panicked burst of bubbles, she surfaced again, spluttering and choking. Frantically, she scanned the water ahead for Windpaw and saw the gray tom paddling madly for the shore. But the rapids were strengthening, and it was clear that his adrenaline was fading as the cold hopelessness Petalpaw knew so well stole through his veins.
“Windpaw!” Petalpaw shouted, her voice echoing above the roaring rapids. “Don’t give -- ” Freezing water slopped into her mouth, cutting her off. She coughed and spat it out, only to have the current drag her under again.
In a flurry of furious kicks, Petalpaw’s head broke the surface again. Gasping for breath, she looked around wildly for Windpaw; she’d lost sight of the gray tom when the river pushed her under! “Windpaw!” she called hoarsely, and this time, her voice was barely audible over the snarling rapids, even to her own ears. “Windpaw!”
Suddenly, Petalpaw spotted him again; he was clinging to a log jutting out from the riverbank. His gray fur streamed behind him in the current as he held on determinedly. With a yowl of relief, Petalpaw launched herself toward Windpaw. She extended her claws and sank them into the opposite side of the log, so that she was finally face-to face with her friend.
“Petalpaw!” Windpaw croaked. His blue eyes were glazed with exhaustion. “I can’t -- move -- ”
Just then, a shudder ran through the log. It creaked ominously, dipping briefly below the surface. With a burst of terror, Petalpaw saw a hairline fissure forming in the bark.
“Windpaw, crawl out!” Petalpaw ordered, her voice shaking. “The log is going to -- ”
Before she finished the sentence, there was a tremendous crack as the log snapped like a twig. Petalpaw watched in horror as the bank got farther and farther away, as she and Windpaw shot downriver.
A thundering roar was swelling in Petalpaw’s ears, drowning out every other sound. White foam hissed against the log as the rapids jerked them violently around. Petalpaw’s claws ached from digging them into the damp bark for so long, but she held on grimly. Surely the river had to calm down sometime? Maybe the rapids would give way to a calm pool?
But no; every second that passed the rushing sound grew louder, reverberating in Petalpaw’s cold, wet ears. Her chest was filled with an inexplicable feeling of dread, as though her body knew that something terrible lay ahead when her mind did not. She felt herself press her belly closer to the log and knew that she was screaming for Windpaw to do the same, but she couldn’t hear her voice over the frothing water and Windpaw certainly couldn’t, either.
Petalpaw glanced over the top of the waterlogged bark to gaze at Windpaw. His sky-blue eyes met hers, and his mouth formed words that she could not hear. But she thought she saw him say Thank you.
“I’m sorry, Windpaw,” she murmured back, knowing that he couldn’t hear her. “If we die, I want us to die together.” She unhooked her left forepaw from the log and reached out toward Windpaw. He seemed to understand, and removed his right forepaw. Then, paws touching, they faced the river ahead. It fell way abruptly, as though it was cascading off the edge of the world. Petalpaw saw Windpaw close his eyes, but she kept hers open and stared straight ahead. If she was going to die, she wanted to face it with her head lifted and her eyes meeting death’s stare. She was Petalpaw of MoonClan, and she did not run from anything.
Suddenly she was weightless, free-falling through the air. The wind and spray stung her face, but she held strong. All around her, shining silver water gushed from the river and off the cliff, carrying her and Windpaw with it.
Then a glittering pool full of stars rushed up to meet her, and Petalpaw’s world faded to black.
* * * * *
Petalpaw sat at the edge of the midnight-black pool, gazing at the ripples that shivered outward from her submerged paw. In reality, the water was shallow -- silver crescents moving over inky blackness -- but in the world of the unseen, of the stars, it was infinite.
A cool, gentle breeze ruffled Petalpaw’s soft fur. Funny; she had the notion that she had been in pain recently, and had fear and adrenaline coursing through her veins, but there were no blemishes to be found. Her gray-and-white pelt was unmarked. And the wetness she’d remembered was gone, too. She’d been so sure that her pelt had been plastered to her sides only moments ago, yet now it was dry.
Petalpaw whipped around as the whisper shot past her ear. But there was no cat standing behind her. Slowly, warily, she turned her attention back to the pool. It must have been her imagination…
Petalpaw lashed out behind her with her back legs, but her unsheathed claws sliced through thin air. A sense of foreboding started to envelop her. Her eyes darted back and forth across the clearing dappled with light and shadow.
“Hello?” Petalpaw called cautiously.
The wind was picking up, howling in her ears. Hidden in the sound of rustling leaves, Petalpaw heard the voices again.
“Petalpaw, Petalpaw, Petalpaw.”
They were murmuring her name, hundreds of cats who came before, the glow of their eyes and the colors of their pelts lost in the shadows of legend. Petalpaw withdrew her forepaw from the glimmering lake and started to pad along the shore.
In the crunching of pebbles, her name was chanted.
In the whispering breeze that ruffled her ear fur, she heard her name.
In the ceaseless lapping of the water at her paws, the name Petalpaw was spoken by hundreds, thousands, of voices.
“Who are you?” Petalpaw asked, her voice trembling. “What do you want? Why am I here?”
Suddenly the pool flared with pure white starlight; blinded, Petalpaw dropped to the ground in a defensive crouch and blinked, waiting for her vision to return. As the glowing rays exploded outward, the chanting voices became deeper and stronger, until the repetition of her own name felt like ominous claps of thunder.
Finally the light faded, and the voices quieted. The silence seemed more deafening than the noise, and Petalpaw looked up, afraid of what she might find before her.
A pale gray-and-white she-cat stood with an air of easy grace in front of Petalpaw. Her eyes were light green and shone with stars.
“Petalpaw, my daughter,” the StarClan cat whispered.
Petalpaw’s heart pounded in her ears and she took a step forward, then another, until all four of her paws were submerged in the icy black pool. “Mother?”
The cat dipped her head. “I have come to deliver a warning,” she meowed gravely. She nodded at the starlit pool, which shivered as an image swirled to life in its depths. Petalpaw watched with bated breath as flames flickered under the water, burning amber and gold. They cut a giant swath through a forest of pine trees made from shadows, until there was nothing left but ashes falling from the sky and blanketing the ground. But when Petalpaw squinted her eyes just so, she could see two shivering seedlings emerging from the withered landscape. An entire forest followed, and it looked as though the fire had never happened.
“What,” Petalpaw gasped, “what -- ”
Petalpaw’s mother flicked her tail, and the image was swallowed by shadows once more. “The sun consumes all,” she murmured, and a trickle of ice slipped down Petalpaw’s spine. “But beyond the death of the flames, the moonlight strengthens, and we will be safe once more.”
“Mother, what do you mean?” Petalpaw demanded, splashing closer and disturbing the eerily still water. “Birchleaf! What do you mean?”
A veil of mistrust swept suddenly over her mother’s eyes. “You have much to learn about your past, young one,” she growled. “But you shall find it all in your future, provided that you’re brave enough to face it.” She turned away, her tail slashing violently and stirring up a flurry of stars. “Now you must go back.”
“Back where -- ” Petalpaw started to ask, but her mother’s glowing form was already fading. So was the scene around her; the pool and the shadowy trees and the ominous voices. Then a howling wind swept over her, filling her ears like the rushing of a waterfall -- the waterfall --
Petalpaw’s eyes snapped open. There was a deafening roaring in her ears, and her pelt was slicked to her flanks as she was battered by water. She stumbled backward and looked up in astonishment. She was below a silvery waterfall, the very one at the Starlake in her dreams. A log was wedged between the cliff and the boulders on the ground, cleaving the waterfall in two. Petalpaw flattened her ears and took another step back, only to submerge her paws in water. She whirled around, spraying droplets everywhere. She was on a boulder beneath the Starlake’s pounding waterfall!
All the memories came rushing back. Leaping into the river after Windpaw, the frigid current dragging at her fur, digging her aching claws into sodden wood, plunging down the waterfall, and sliding into unconsciousness as she crashed to the ground…
Ow. As the lingering adrenaline faded, Petalpaw’s head started to throb. There were so many wood splinters caught in her cold, damp fur that she felt like a hedgehog. She flexed her legs experimentally, then gasped as a stab of pain shot through her paw. She’d torn a claw clinging to the log, and the rest of her body was bruised and aching.
Suddenly, her belly lurched; Windpaw! What had happened to him? Panicked, she whirled around, scanning her surroundings for her gray-furred friend. The usually smooth and serene surface of the Starlake was littered with floating twigs and scraps of bark from the log, but there was no sign of Windpaw.
“Windpaw!” Petalpaw called, her voice hoarse and raspy. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Windpaw!” The name echoed back to her through the empty forest. Her harsh, ragged breathing ruffled the water as she clambered down the boulder and landed with a splash in the shallows. Petalpaw staggered forward, pebbles rolling under her paws as she emerged from the Starlake. She stumbled onto the beach -- a narrow strip of rocks -- and sat down. Chest heaving as she sucked in huge breaths, Petalpaw surveyed the Starlake.
The water was filled with bobbing shards of wood, and some rained down from the log, which was still lodged in the boulders at the waterfall, splitting it in two. The land around the Starlake looked undisturbed, almost peaceful, as though it was unaware of the log and the cats that had crash-landed in its midst. A sodden chunk of wood lay at the edge of the sacred pool -- Petalpaw squinted at it -- it almost looked like a cat…
Petalpaw gasped. She leaped to her paws, ruthlessly forcing her way through the pain, and limped rapidly across the pebbly beach toward the “lump of wood.” As she got closer, she realized that it wasn’t wood -- it was muscle and bone and fur, linked together to create a cat, and that cat was Windpaw.
With a choking cry, Petalpaw tripped over a stone and collapsed beside her friend’s body. There were several scrapes on his flank from the rocks, and a scratch across his cheek where Petalpaw assumed a twig had slashed his face, but aside from that, he seemed to be okay. Petalpaw rested her head on his side, relief coursing through her veins as the steady sound of his heartbeat filled her ears. He was breathing, he was alive!
“Windpaw!” Petalpaw whispered in his ear. “Wake up! Windpaw, we made it!” A lump in her throat prevented any other words from getting out.
His ear twitched, his flank contracted, his paws jerked… and his sky-blue eyes fluttered open.
“Petalpaw,” he croaked.
“Windpaw,” she mewed.
With a wince, Windpaw lifted his head and dragged himself into a sitting position. He coughed up a mouthful of river water, then cleared his throat. “Are we… are we dead?”
“No,” Petalpaw responded. “We’re alive, at the Starlake.”
Windpaw nodded weakly. He shifted slightly to meet her gaze, and Petalpaw was startled to see that they were filled with shame. “I’m sorry for earlier,” he meowed quietly. “I just… LeafClan has felt like home to me. Every cat has been so nice.”
Petalpaw tried to dismiss a pang of jealousy. They had only just survived a fall into the Starlake and already Windpaw was bringing up the cause of their recent argument! But, Petalpaw reflected, he was apologizing for it…
“MoonClan is good, too,” Petalpaw assured him. “You’ll see, when we get there.”
Windpaw opened his mouth, about to reply, when a yowl interrupted him.
Petalpaw and Windpaw looked up simultaneously at the noise; perched on a boulder at the top of the waterfall was Graytail, his silhouette outlined sharply against the overcast sky. The gray tom spotted them at the edge of the Starlake and began leaping nimbly down the tumble of rocks beside the waterfall. He landed in a shower of pebbles and broke into a run, sprinting across the beach toward Petalpaw and Windpaw. Petalpaw’s heart rose at the sight of him; although he appeared soaked to the bone, he looked relatively unscathed.
“You’re okay!” the LeafClan warrior purred, embracing each cat in turn. “How in the name of StarClan did you survive?”
“The log protected us from the impact,” Windpaw meowed practically just as Petalpaw answered, “StarClan wanted us to live.”
Graytail glanced back and forth between the two cats, amusement in his eyes. “Whichever one it was, you’re alive, and that’s what matters.” He rested his muzzle briefly on Windpaw’s head, and Petalpaw’s friend looked startled at the fatherly gesture. Graytail then took a step back and cleared his throat, sounding much more formal. “Let’s get your injuries looked at and get cleaned up; then we can keep going.”
Petalpaw nodded blankly; her mind had returned to the meeting with Birchleaf at the Starlake, when her mother had spoken mysterious words that almost sounded like a prophecy…
“The sun consumes all. But beyond the death of the flames, the moonlight strengthens, and we will be safe once more.”
It couldn’t have been a prophecy, Petalpaw told herself unconvincingly. I’m no medicine cat.
But still, the thought lingered, and it stayed with her as Graytail examined their cuts and bruises and picked splinters out of their fur. It hovered in her mind as the gray warrior left to catch fresh-kill for them, and remained when he returned with a squirrel for them to share. She itched to confide in someone, but Windpaw didn’t believe in StarClan and she didn’t know Graytail very well yet. Besides, he was a LeafClan cat, and this was MoonClan’s problem.
As the group set off again, Petalpaw’s shoulders were slumped under the weight of the secret she was carrying. She knew that some of the burden would be lifted if she told Windpaw and Graytail, but she was determined to manage on her own. She was Petalpaw of MoonClan, and she was… she was…
Petalpaw’s jaws split open in an enormous yawn as Graytail led the way toward the moor. Tired.
With a belly full of warm fresh-kill and a dry, fluffy pelt, Petalpaw could have curled up right then and there on the tough moorland grass. But MoonClan was ahead, and she wouldn’t dawdle any longer.
Petalpaw parted her jaws to scent the air. The breeze wafted the smell of damp earth and grass toward her, but there was no trace of MoonClan. Instead, an odd scent she’d encountered only once before filled her nostrils. CloudClan! We must be in their territory.
“Do you think CloudClan will have seen MoonClan?” Petalpaw asked Graytail hopefully.
“I’m not sure,” Graytail replied. They had reached the crest of the hill ahead, and rolling plains extended before them. Petalpaw scanned the waves of golden grass intently, but no cat silhouettes moved through the windblown stalks. Worry churned her belly. Had MoonClan gone so far that she couldn’t even see them on the horizon?
“Should we ask CloudClan about them?” Windpaw suggested. “Maybe MoonClan is sheltering there.”
“Rainstar didn’t mention anything like that at the Gathering,” Graytail murmured doubtfully. “I think she’d have said something if MoonClan still remained in the territories.”
“But the fight ensued before Rainstar had a chance to say anything else,” Petalpaw pointed out. She cringed; it was very clear from her voice that she was trying to convince herself of this.
Something crackled behind Petalpaw; she whipped around and swept the grass with a burning glare, but nothing seemed amiss. There was empty space where she’d expected a cat to be. Slowly, warily, she turned back toward the group, hurrying a little to catch up.
“Have you scented MoonClan yet?” Windpaw asked.
Graytail shook his head ruefully. “Not a whiff.”
Petalpaw sighed and looked down at her paws as they trudged onward. Again, her ears pricked as she heard a quiet rustling in the grass to her left, but when she twisted around to examine it, she found the golden stalks rippling innocently in the breeze. A growing sense of unease was enveloping her, and she had just opened her mouth to confide in Graytail when a familiar scent reached her nose.
It was stale and faint, nearly washed away by the recent rains, but it was still there. The smell of damp, boggy earth and sweet pinesap, of warm, breathing cats that Petalpaw knew.
“MoonClan!” she yowled, triumph surging through her like fire. Her heart exploded with long-dormant emotions: hope, happiness, the feeling of victory, and love, love for every Clanmate she had not seen since SunClan’s attack, love for every patch of ferns in the camp, love for every lick that Shadowleaf and Ravenstar had given her. With a screech of joy, Petalpaw streaked ahead of the patrol, following the unwavering path of MoonClan scent over the hills.
Her paws flew over the ground effortlessly as she sprinted, her fur flattened by the wind and the scent of her Clan in her nose, a scent she’d thought she would never smell again. Her mouth opened and a gleeful caterwaul rose from deep inside her, echoing across CloudClan’s territory.
“Ravenstar!” she shouted. “I’m here, Father, I’m here!” She knew it was no use screaming for her Clanmates, but the urge welled up inside her all the same. “I lived, Father!”
She stood there for a long moment, listening to the receding echoes of her calls. As they died away into the distance, a chilly wind swept over her back, making her fur stand on end. The back of her neck prickled, and she turned around swiftly, claws unsheathed. But there was nobody there.
“Let’s follow the trail!” Windpaw meowed, bounding up to her.
“Shh!” Petalpaw hissed sharply, flicking her tail over his mouth. She lowered herself into a crouch and gestured for Windpaw to do the same. He obliged, a rather puzzled look on his face.
“Did you see -- ” he began, but Petalpaw lashed her tail furiously and he fell silent again.
“I keep hearing something,” Petalpaw murmured in a low voice. “Something in the grass, always behind me…”
“Probably just the wind,” Windpaw muttered, but he didn’t sound so sure.
“You don’t think that SunClan followed us out here, do you?” Petalpaw asked quietly, feeling icy fear trickle down her spine.
“How could they know that we’re out here?” Windpaw pointed out.
“Hello?” Petalpaw called into the rippling grass. “I know you’re there, come out.”
“Nobody will fall for that,” Windpaw whispered, pressing himself closer to Petalpaw’s side.
“Hello?” a familiar voice mewed tentatively. “It’s me, Scorchpaw.” Petalpaw gasped as the SunClan apprentice’s brown tabby pelt emerged from the golden grass. He padded up to her, his amber eyes uncertain as they darted around her face. “You’re leaving to find MoonClan?”
“Who is this SunClan mange-pelt?” Windpaw demanded, rounding on Petalpaw with an uncharacteristic look of anger on his face. “Do you know him?”
“Yeah, a little,” Petalpaw stammered, edging away when she saw the open mistrust in her friend’s now stormy blue eyes. “H-he’s the apprentice who attacked me by the border, and fought you at the Gathering.”
“In other words, he deserves to have his pelt ripped off!” Windpaw snarled, unsheathing his claws and arching his back.
“No!” Petalpaw cried before the gray tom could launch himself at Scorchpaw.
Windpaw stopped, surprised. “Are you defending this SunClan fox-heart?” he asked incredulously.
Petalpaw looked down at her paws, recalling Briarstar’s similar words. “Despite choosing your Clan over that apprentice, you still defend him to us?”
Yes, Petalpaw thought in frustration. I wish I knew why. I wish I wouldn’t.
“Yes,” Petalpaw mewed aloud. “Scorchpaw refused to kill me on three separate occasions. I believe he can be trusted.” Scorchpaw blinked at her gratefully; her heart fluttered a little in spite of herself. Feeling heat burn her cheeks, she looked away and cleared her throat. “But what are you doing here?” she asked the SunClan tom.
Scorchpaw glanced at his paws. “I… I heard you were leaving to find MoonClan,” he admitted. “And… I wanted to come.”
The ensuing silence was broken by Windpaw’s derisive laughter. “Ha! Why would a SunClan cat like you want to bring MoonClan back? You’re thriving off their territory, the land that you stole.”
“I was not a part of that raid,” Scorchpaw told him, “nor did I agree with it. SunClan has abandoned the warrior code. Some have even begun to doubt their belief in StarClan.” He turned his blazing amber gaze on Windpaw, who looked uncomfortable at the mention of their warrior ancestors. Then he looked at Petalpaw. “Berryleaf is treating his first greencough patient of the season, and I fear that it will spread among the Clan and hit us harder than usual, as we are falling apart.”
Sympathy flooded Petalpaw as the SunClan tom finished his tale. “I’m sorry,” she mewed softly. “Who’s sick?”
“My mother, Dapplewing,” Scorchpaw replied heavily. “She is nursing a second litter of kits; we aren’t sure if any of them have caught greencough yet.” He sighed. “There is nothing for me in SunClan. But if we bring MoonClan back, we could overthrow Amberstar and heal my mother.”
Petalpaw nodded, but Windpaw frowned. “Why would you leave if your mother has greencough?” he asked disbelievingly. “Wouldn’t you stay by her side?” His voice cracked, and Petalpaw knew he was thinking of Belladonna, who had died at his paws, protecting him to her last breath from a fox attack.
Petalpaw looked at Scorchpaw expectantly. The brown tabby tom meowed quickly, “I don’t trust Amberstar to take care of her. The sooner we get MoonClan back, the better. And honestly, I just want to get away from my Clan.”
“And your sick mother,” Windpaw added coolly.
Scorchpaw glared at him. “Just because you’d make a different choice if you were me doesn’t mean I have to!”
Windpaw gave a contemptuous snort and pointedly turned his back on the SunClan apprentice, who gazed at Petalpaw with pleading eyes.
“I know you said we can’t be friends,” Scorchpaw mewed, “but I want to help you. Please. I can help hunt, and fight off foxes -- ” here he raised his voice with a glance at Windpaw “ -- and I’m a good tracker, one of the best in my Clan!”
Suddenly, Graytail ran up to them, interrupting the conversation. “Who are you?” he demanded of Scorchpaw.
“Scorchpaw of SunClan,” the brown tabby apprentice responded, dipping his head formally. “I’ve come to join the expedition.”
“Don’t even try, snake-heart,” Windpaw hissed. “Petalpaw isn’t going to fall for your honeyed words. She’s smarter than that, she’s smarter than you.”
Petalpaw shrank beneath her pelt, her ears hot. “Windpaw,” she mumbled, “maybe we should let him come.”
“What?” Windpaw burst out, whirling around, his blue eyes ablaze. “You can’t trust a SunClan cat! Have you forgotten what they did to your Clan?” Beneath his anger was a tremble of hurt and fear, but Petalpaw was too furious to care.
“No cat trusts him!” she yowled. “Why don’t you give him a chance?”
“SunClan cats don’t deserve chances,” Windpaw growled. “They’ve proven themselves unworthy of redemption.”
“Trust has to be earned,” Graytail meowed in a less hostile voice, but his fur was bristling.
“I’ve earned your trust!” Petalpaw snapped. “Windpaw and I came from outside the Clan, but you took us in anyway!”
“That was different,” Graytail protested, but Petalpaw kept going.
“Why? Because he’s SunClan?” she challenged the LeafClan tom. “MoonClan attacked your camp, and you still trusted me!”
“That was a long time ago,” Graytail argued. “It wasn’t relevant -- ”
Petalpaw slashed her tail through the air. “I trust Scorchpaw. And he will come with us to find MoonClan.”
There were no more arguments. Windpaw and Graytail padded away side-by-side, muttering darkly under their breaths. Petalpaw watched them go, a prickle of annoyance still lingering in her twitching ears and tail. She heard the rustle of fur as Scorchpaw approached her and sat down.
“Thank you,” the brown tabby tom murmured, “for giving me a chance.”
Petalpaw avoided his gaze. “Hopefully it was worth it.”
“You can trust me,” Scorchpaw insisted, reaching out and resting his dark brown paw atop her white one. Startled, Petalpaw jerked her paw away, and she didn’t miss the hurt in Scorchpaw’s amber eyes.
“Sorry,” she meowed hastily, “I just…” She shrugged. “Let’s get going,” she suggested in a brisker tone, trying to sweep away the awkwardness. It didn’t work, but Scorchpaw obediently got to his paws and followed as she led the way along the trail of MoonClan scent. All the while, she was acutely aware of his presence at her side, and knew that he was staring at her, but she refused to meet his gaze and focused on the path ahead.
“Do you think we should ask CloudClan if they’ve seen MoonClan?” Petalpaw asked nobody in particular.
It was Windpaw who answered swiftly, “Yes. It’s the rational thing to do, it’s unlikely that an entire Clan passed by and they didn’t even detect them. Plus, Ravenstar probably asked for help, but if Rainstar denied or accepted his request we have yet to find out.”
Petalpaw blinked in bewilderment at the gray tom, whose mouth was moving rapidly as he blurted out streams of unnecessarily complicated words. “Normally I’d marvel at your intelligence, but what in the name of StarClan was that?” she demanded her friend.
Windpaw sniffed haughtily, which was odd; he was normally quite modest, unless he was making a joke. “Showing you that I know what I’m talking about,” he responded primly.
Petalpaw rolled her eyes. “I know what you think of Scorchpaw,” she groaned. “But you will learn to trust him, just as I did.”
“I suspect that your friend Scorchpaw may be a spy, and using you to get closer to LeafClan and find out our weaknesses.” Briarstar’s warning rang in her ears as she said those daring words. Did she trust Scorchpaw? What if the LeafClan leader was right?
She didn’t want to believe it.
Windpaw’s reply was a disbelieving snort as he turned his head away from Petalpaw. “All I’m saying is that you’ve only known him for three days. You can’t judge a cat well in that window of time. What has he done? Saved your life?”
“Well, yes -- ” Petalpaw began hotly, but Windpaw talked over her.
“Have you forgotten the wounds he gave you?” Windpaw spat. “The pain, the delay in your training? He was prepared to kill me at the Gathering!”
Petalpaw looked at Scorchpaw. “Were you?”
“No!” Scorchpaw meowed, sounding surprised. “I don’t fight to kill like my Clanmates!”
“Ha! Don’t believe a word of it,” Windpaw growled. “He’s lying right to your face, can’t you tell?”
“Great StarClan!” Petalpaw swore, rolling her eyes. “Calm down, would you? I’m sorry, he’s normally not like this,” she mewed to Scorchpaw.
“Don’t apologize for me!” Windpaw hissed. With a stab of alarm she saw his unsheathed claws glinting in the pale sunlight.
“We can’t fight like this!” Petalpaw protested. “Finding MoonClan is more important!”
Windpaw glared at her through slitted eyes, then whipped around and stalked back to Graytail.
“I’m really sorry,” Petalpaw apologized again once he had left. “I don’t know what his problem is.”
Scorchpaw shrugged. “It’s okay. I’m used to cats not trusting me. After all, who would like a SunClan cat?” His words were bitter as deathberries.
“I would,” Petalpaw meowed without thinking.
Scorchpaw turned his astounded gaze on her. “Really?”
Petalpaw glanced away uncomfortably, realizing the implication of her words. “Yeah,” she mumbled.
“But we drove out your Clan,” Scorchpaw mewed, guilt and shame heavy in his voice. “Why would you like us?”
Petalpaw glanced furtively around to make sure Graytail and Windpaw were out of earshot. Then she whispered, “I don’t like all of SunClan. I like you.” She looked shyly at the brown tabby tom. “You aren’t like them. I only give second chances to the cats who deserve them, and you’re the only cat I’ve met who does.”
“Th-thank you,” Scorchpaw stammered, his normally confident voice wavering a little. He took a hesitant step forward so that his face was a mouse-length from Petalpaw’s. Her heart thundered wildy in her ears as her eyes darted all over his face; there was a splash of pale fur on his cheek, how had she not noticed that before?
Suddenly, a yowl from Graytail broke them apart. “CloudClan patrol, heading this way!”
Petalpaw turned away from Scorchpaw and trotted over to the gray LeafClan tom. Together, they gazed out over the ridge to see three dark silhouettes slithering up to them through the grass. Petalpaw tasted the air and the scent of CloudClan bathed her tongue. She couldn’t recognize any individual cats, though, and consulted Graytail. “Can you tell which cats they are?”
Graytail sniffed thoughtfully. “Only one,” he told her. “Hailshadow, a senior warrior. I’ve seen him at Gatherings.” He squinted at the trio of approaching CloudClan cats. “I believe that small cat beside him is his apprentice, Heatherpaw. She’s about… Scorchpaw’s… age.”
Petalpaw didn’t miss his brief moment of hesitation. Her tail twitched in annoyance, but she kept her mouth shut and waited for the CloudClan cats to arrive.
Soon they did, the silver tabby tom at the head of the patrol stopping in front of Graytail. The smaller cat -- Heatherpaw, Petalpaw guessed -- skidded to a halt in a flurry of pale gray fur. “Intruders!” she hissed, her green eyes narrowing in a ferocious glare. “Trespassing on CloudClan land, are you? Feel my claws!” Tail lashing furiously, she leaped over Graytail and onto Petalpaw’s back, sinking her teeth into Petalpaw’s flank.
Petalpaw screeched in shock and pain and rolled, crushing the older apprentice beneath her. Despite the fact that Heatherpaw was smaller than her, she was wiry and quick like a snake. The light gray she-cat snapped at Petalpaw’s ear. Blood streamed into Petalpaw’s eyes and she snarled in rage, retaliating with a swift strike to the CloudClan apprentice’s left hind paw. With a howl of agony, Heatherpaw ripped herself free of Petalpaw’s claws and rammed her head into the younger cat’s shoulder, knocking Petalpaw down.
“Say goodbye, flea-pelt,” Heatherpaw growled.
“Heatherpaw, by StarClan, stop!” grunted a male voice. The silver tabby tom sank his teeth into Heatherpaw’s scruff and dragged her away from Petalpaw.
“But they’re trespassing!” Heatherpaw protested, trying to twist out of the tom’s grasp.
The silver tom dumped her in a mutinous heap on the ground. “A true warrior always listens to a cat before she attacks,” he chided her sternly. He turned to Graytail and dipped his head. “I apologize for my apprentice’s rash behavior,” he meowed formally. “She’s a little impulsive, and the threat of SunClan has the whole Clan on edge.”
Petalpaw staggered to her paws and glared at Heatherpaw. Her cheeks flamed as she recalled how easily the older apprentice had beaten her. And in front of Windpaw and Scorchpaw, too!
“See to it that it doesn’t happen again,” Graytail replied, his voice lacking the hostility that was burning in every hair on Petalpaw’s pelt. “We wanted to speak with you.”
“About what?” the third cat, a pale ginger she-cat with dark stripes, demanded.
“We’re searching for MoonClan,” Graytail informed the CloudClan warriors. “We were wondering if you’ve encountered them at all.”
The silver tom shook his head. “We’ve caught traces of their scent outside the border,” he admitted, “but we’ve never seen nor heard them passing by.”
Disappointment made Petalpaw’s heart drop like a stone. “How?” she asked petulantly. “A whole giant Clan moved right through your territory and no cat noticed?”
Heatherpaw’s fur bristled. “We scented them outside our territory! They veered around us, for some reason.”
“And no cat approached them?” Petalpaw spat.
“No,” the silver tabby tom admitted. “We were so busy preparing for an attack from SunClan that we didn’t pay much attention. But we did send a patrol into MoonClan territory before the Gathering, to check if our suspicions were correct; that one Clan had been driven out.” He bowed his head. “We were right. MoonClan was gone.”
“Did you -- did you find any dead cats?” Petalpaw asked, her voice trembling as the thought entered her head.
Please say no, please say no…
The silver tom shook his head. “No, thank StarClan.”
Petalpaw let out a deep sigh of relief and relaxed, sheathing her claws. My kin are alive, then, she thought.
“Well, we should be off,” Graytail meowed after a brief moment of silence. “We will see to it that MoonClan is returned!”
“May StarClan light your path,” the silver CloudClan tom called as Graytail turned away.
“And yours,” Graytail replied.
Petalpaw craned her neck to look at the overcast sky. The sunlight was muffled by thick gray-and-white clouds, but she knew that StarClan was up there.
StarClan, if you’re listening, please let us find MoonClan. Please let me find my family.
* * * * *
The patrol continued to follow the path of MoonClan scent, Graytail padding at the head. Every once in a while, the scent would waver and vanish, causing terrified thoughts to rampage through Petalpaw’s head, but they quickly picked up the trail again.
Petalpaw’s heart thundered as she sniffed a sprig of gorse. Caught on the rough leaves was a tuft of black fur… familiar black fur. Her father’s scent, although so stale it was almost nonexistent, clung to the dark hairs. Petalpaw shrieked, startling a rabbit out of a nearby thicket, and Graytail rushed up to her.
“What is it?” he demanded.
Petalpaw brushed her cheek against the tuft of fur. “This is Ravenstar’s!” she exclaimed breathlessly, relishing the feathery touch of her father’s fur and his comforting scent wreathing around her. Petalpaw closed her eyes as the gorse leaves tickled her face. With Ravenstar’s scent in her nose, she could almost imagine that she was back in MoonClan’s camp, padding up to her father in the leader’s den as Icekit and Darkkit batted around a ball of moss.
Life was so simple then. Petalpaw missed it.
“We’re on the right track, then,” Graytail meowed. “Good eye, Petalpaw.”
Petalpaw’s chest swelled with pride. She gave the tuft of fur one last nuzzle before scampering after the rest of the patrol.
Scorchpaw fell into step beside her. She was very aware of his presence; the closeness of his brown tabby pelt, the gentle breeze as he padded swiftly forward, his amber eyes occasionally flashing her way. But she was so full of joy that it was difficult to be uncomfortable, even around Scorchpaw.
“What is it like?” Scorchpaw asked suddenly.
Petalpaw looked at him curiously. “What is what like?” she asked.
Scorchpaw glanced at her. “Being the only member of your Clan left here while everyone else is driven out.” There was a note of guilt in his voice.
Petalpaw shrugged and stared at her paws as they continued to walk. “It’s a little scary,” she confessed. “And weird, I suppose, knowing that my kin is far away and that it’ll be a long time before I see them again.” If I ever do.
Scorchpaw was silent for a heartbeat. “I’m sorry SunClan did that to you,” he whispered.
Surprised, Petalpaw met his gaze. “You’re talking about SunClan as if -- ”
“ -- I’m not a part of it?” Scorchpaw finished. “Yes. I feel no kinship to my Clan, except for Dapplewing and her new kits. I am ashamed of my leader.”
Maybe he can join MoonClan, Petalpaw thought, then immediately cursed herself. What are you thinking? He’s SunClan! No cat will ever trust him. You yourself don’t even know him that well! You can’t just invite every new cat you meet to join your Clan! Great StarClan, Petalpaw, get a grip!
Suddenly, Petalpaw bumped into Windpaw; the mottled gray tom had stopped. “What was that for?” Petalpaw complained, rubbing her nose with her paw.
“Shh!” Windpaw hissed sharply. His head swiveled around and she could see his sky-blue eyes darting back and forth. “Don’t you hear that?”
Petalpaw strained her ears. All she detected was the wind rustling the grass. “No…” she meowed slowly, but she sank into a defensive crouch all the same. “What?”
“All I hear is the wind,” Scorchpaw commented, sweeping the grassland with his amber gaze.
Windpaw snorted. “Of course you do.” He fell silent, ears pricked as he listened. “I thought I heard something moving in the brush over there.” He gestured to a patch of gorse with his tail.
“Probably just prey,” Scorchpaw meowed dismissively. “We should keep moving.”
“It sounded bigger than prey,” Windpaw protested, turning pleading eyes on Petalpaw. “You have to believe me.”
Graytail seemed to realize that the rest of the patrol wasn’t following him, and padded back. “What happened?” he asked.
“I heard something in the bushes,” Windpaw explained darkly, studying the gorse with suspicion in his glinting blue eyes. “It sounded like a cat…”
“You don’t think SunClan followed us, do you?” Petalpaw asked nervously, her fur prickling as she glanced at the gorse bush. The tiny yellow flowers on it now reminded her of sinister eyes, and every rustling leaf sounded like pawsteps.
“Us?” Windpaw scoffed. “No. But…” He glared at Scorchpaw through narrowed eyes. “They could have easily followed him…”
“I wasn’t followed,” Scorchpaw meowed, sounding alarmed. “At least, I think I wasn’t.”
“You think?” Windpaw snapped. “That’s really encouraging, thank you!”
“Calm down,” Graytail soothed him. “Let’s check the bushes, and then we can keep going.”
Petalpaw sidled closer to Scorchpaw as the two gray toms stalked up to the bush, Windpaw tense and stiff-legged, Graytail calm but alert. Together, they nosed the tough gorse stems aside and peered into the shadowy heart of the bush. With twin screeches of alarm, Graytail and Windpaw withdrew simultaneously as a russet shape rocketed out of the leaves, straight for Scorchpaw’s throat.
Petalpaw shrieked in shock and terror as the red-furred cat bowled Scorchpaw over, bringing the apprentice to the ground with a painful thud. The cat peeled back his lips in a terrifying snarl and yowled, “Traitor!” Froth flew from his yellow teeth, speckling a stunned Scorchpaw.
“Leave him alone!” Petalpaw cried, charging at the cat. She flung herself at his flank, clawing furiously. She could feel every rib beneath the russet cat’s thin pelt, and the scent of SunClan filled her nostrils as she bit down on his foreleg.
Windpaw was right! The thought flew through Petalpaw’s head as she leaped away from the SunClan attacker. SunClan was following us!
“Traitor!” the red cat screamed again, facing Scorchpaw with his tail bristling and amber eyes rolling. “Fight for SunClan or die, mouse-heart!”
“I will be doing neither,” Scorchpaw retorted bravely, lunging at the SunClan warrior. Petalpaw watched, chest heaving as she caught her breath, as Scorchpaw’s claws tore through his Clanmate’s bloodstained fur. The red tom howled in agony and retaliated with a hefty blow to the cheek that barely missed Scorchpaw’s face.
The two toms broke apart again, staggering back as blood dripped from their wounds and onto the springy moorland. “Why are you doing this?” the russet SunClan tom demanded, circling Scorchpaw. “Why do you fight against your Clan?”
“I reject SunClan, Foxfang!” Scorchpaw snarled.
Foxfang jerked backward, as though he had received another blow. “Why?” he asked furiously.
Scorchpaw straightened. “The attack on MoonClan wasn’t right,” he declared, his voice carrying loudly and clearly across the grassy hills. “Amberstar has forgotten the warrior code. He is a worthless excuse for a leader!”
Petalpaw stared at Scorchpaw in wide-eyed amazement. The tom was abandoning his Clan! She glanced furtively at Graytail and Windpaw to gauge their reactions; both cats looked stunned and disbelieving, perhaps a little chastened. Petalpaw’s heart soared with pride and triumph. They didn’t think Scorchpaw was trustworthy, she recalled. But now, it’s like they’re seeing him for the first time.
See, Briarstar? Some SunClan cats can be trusted!
“MoonClan’s territory will feed Dapplewing and the kits,” purred Foxfang in a deceptively silky voice. “Amberstar is leading us to glory.”
Scorchpaw glanced at Petalpaw, pain in his eyes. “No, he’s not,” he meowed firmly. “He is leading us to endless bloodshed and battles. Now leave.”
“I don’t think so,” Foxfang sneered, flicking his tail. At the signal, three more SunClan cats leaped out from behind the gorse bush, each with glinting white claws and teeth. Petalpaw backed up a pace, feeling Windpaw and Graytail slowly do the same beside her. They were evenly matched in numbers, four versus four, but the SunClan cats held the true advantage; skill. Three apprentices and a warrior against four seasoned warriors was not a fair fight. Petalpaw eyed the SunClan cats nervously as this thought entered her mind.
We don’t stand a chance against them, she thought despairingly. Every step I take to find MoonClan is thwarted by stupid SunClan!
Petalpaw glanced at Windpaw. “We have to fight.”
Windpaw sighed, looking utterly defeated. “I’ve looked for escape routes,” he muttered, “and it’s useless. They’ve surrounded us.”
Petalpaw blinked at him. “Then when we fight, will you fight by my side?”
Windpaw gazed at her, his blue eyes warm. “Of course.”
“We all will,” Scorchpaw added, pressing his flank against Petalpaw’s. A faint scowl creased Windpaw’s face, but the mottled gray tom nodded determinedly.
“Then let’s fight,” Windpaw growled. With a fearsome screech, he launched himself at the nearest SunClan cat, a white she-cat with blazing blue eyes. The SunClan cat roared with rage as Windpaw landed on her back, causing her legs to crumple beneath her. On Petalpaw’s other side, Scorchpaw was tussling with Foxfang; the two toms were rolling on the ground, snarling and tearing at each other’s pelts. Graytail leaped in to aid Scorchpaw, and the pair of toms, LeafClan and SunClan, worked together to drive Foxfang backward.
Now there was only Petalpaw left without an opponent. The blood roared in her ears as a tortoiseshell she-cat stalked toward her, hackles rising and tail bristling. Petalpaw hesitated; every tortoiseshell cat she saw reminded her of Belladonna. Could she really intend to draw blood from this cat when it would only rouse terrible memories and terrible guilt?
The decision was made for her as the SunClan tortoiseshell launched herself at Petalpaw, spitting. Lists of battle moves swirled around in Petalpaw’s head, but all of her mentor’s teachings vanished as Petalpaw acted on pure instinct. As the tortoiseshell aimed to drop squarely on Petalpaw’s back, Petalpaw scrambled out of the way and heard the SunClan she-cat land heavily on the ground.
She’s clumsier than me, Petalpaw noticed. That could be use --
All the breath was knocked out of her as the tortoiseshell rammed her head into Petalpaw’s flank. Wheezing desperately, Petalpaw staggered backward as the she-cat strode toward her. “Enjoy StarClan, MoonClan scum!” the SunClan cat snarled, her teeth flashing as her jaws closed around Petalpaw’s throat.
In response, Petalpaw lashed out with her hind legs, catching the tortoiseshell in the stomach and heaving her away. The heavier cat landed with an audible grunt and lay unmoving on the ground.
Ha! Petalpaw thought. Now you can be winded!
She knew she had to act fast, before the SunClan cat got her breath back. With a swift prayer to StarClan, Petalpaw sprinted at the tortoiseshell and jumped on top of her, sinking her claws into the she-cat’s back. Blood welled up around her claws as the SunClan cat screeched in pain, bright red against dusty brown. The scene was familiar…. Painfully familiar…
Petalpaw stared down in horror at the defeated she-cat. Her thoughts flicked to Belladonna, lying helpless after the fox attack. Then back to the SunClan cat below her, at her mercy.
She remembered her rage, her fury at Amberstar, her longing to flay his skin in strips and line her nest with his fur. But all of that savagery was gone, evaporated.
I’m not like Amberstar, Petalpaw thought. I do not kill other cats.
Petalpaw sheathed her claws and leaped off the SunClan cat, who tilted her head to look at her.
“Why are you sparing me?” the tortoiseshell rasped. “Finish me off, weakling.”
Petalpaw’s belly churned. She shook her head. “I’m not going to kill you,” she whispered.
The SunClan cat stared in astonishment. “That’s the most mouse-brained thing I’ve ever heard,” she croaked. “Are you a warrior, or not?”
“I live by the noble warrior code, as all true warriors do,” Petalpaw announced. “And the code forbids us from killing other cats.”
The tortoiseshell turned her head away, as if she couldn’t bear to face Petalpaw. “Go ahead, play the hero,” she sneered. “But that’s not always going to work… you’ll have to kill one day.”
Petalpaw shuddered and backed away. “Never,” she mewed, her voice trembling at the thought. She turned and scanned the battlefield to see how her friends were faring, trying to banish the ominous words from her mind.
Windpaw and Graytail were fighting side-by-side, forcing the white she-cat into the gorse thicket. With their identical gray pelts and furious blue eyes, they looked like father and son.
A few rabbit-hops away, Scorchpaw was dodging Foxfang’s attacks, each one feebler than the last, as though the red SunClan tom was giving up. Petalpaw took a moment to watch their battle, admiring Scorchpaw’s skill.
Suddenly, a heavy weight slammed into her back. Startled, Petalpaw crashed to the ground, her muzzle scraping against the hard earth. Blades of grass poked at the wounds on her neck as she twisted her head around to see a familiar golden tom standing over her. It was Adderstrike, from the day that Petalpaw had crawled out of the river!
Recognition flashed in the tom’s eyes and he chuckled. “Ah, what did you say your name was, again? Silver?” He bent his neck so that he was hissing right into her ear. His putrid breath bathed her muzzle; it stank of crow-food, as though the SunClan cats had been putting little effort into hunting and went for rotting prey instead. “I know you’re no rogue kit, you’re Petalkit of MoonClan!”
“Figured that out, haven’t you?” Petalpaw panted through gritted teeth.
“And your Clan left you behind,” Adderstrike crooned. “Precious Ravenstar and all your little Clanmates left, didn’t they?”
Hot rage stabbed through Petalpaw. She had shown mercy on the tortoiseshell, but Adderstrike deserved none. His taunts rang in her ears as Petalpaw clenched her jaw.
“I doubt they even noticed you were gone -- ”
Petalpaw finally snapped. “For MoonClan!” she screeched, raking Adderstrike’s belly with her hind claws like she’d done to the tortoiseshell she-cat. Unfortunately, Adderstrike was ready for it, and evaded the attack with little effort.
“You aren’t getting away that easily,” Adderstrike hissed. “Soon there will be no MoonClan cats living within these borders.” He raised a paw high above his head, claws unsheathed and glittering. Petalpaw gave a small, shaky sigh. This was it. She had no more battle moves, no more clever schemes, no more energy to spend.
I’m sorry, she thought to the stars. I disappointed you. I didn’t get to MoonClan. After fighting, falling, and nearly drowning, MoonClan is still so far away.
Suddenly, the weight holding her down vanished. Stunned, Petalpaw stumbled to her paws and looked around for her rescuer. Scorchpaw was clinging to Adderstrike’s back, clawing out great tufts of golden fur. As Petalpaw watched, transfixed, Windpaw joined the fight and started nipping at Adderstrike’s hind paws. He and Scorchpaw were harmonious in battle, as though they’d trained together their whole lives. There was no sign of the quarrel that separated them, no jealousy or mistrust. At that moment, Scorchpaw and Windpaw were on the same side.
Together, they overpowered Adderstrike. The SunClan warrior spat furiously and lashed out with a forepaw, but he seemed to realize that he was outnumbered. His Clanmates -- the white she-cat and the tortoiseshell -- had already fled. Now it was just him and Foxfang against Petalpaw, Windpaw, Scorchpaw, and Graytail.
With one last ferocious snarl, Adderstrike backed away and streaked after his running Clanmates. Windpaw cheered. Heartened, the trio of apprentices turned to face Foxfang, whose eyes rounded with worry. As Petalpaw, Scorchpaw, and Windpaw stalked forward, Foxfang’s eyes darted back and forth frantically, as though he was looking for an escape route. Scorchpaw lifted his chin and strode in front of Petalpaw and Windpaw, so that he was face-to-face with Foxfang.
“Leave,” Scorchpaw ordered coldly.
Foxfang tried to sneer, but his eyes flashed with nervousness. “Scorchpaw, you don’t understand -- ”
“Oh, I understand plenty,” Scorchpaw growled, taking another step forward with his teeth bared. “And you should understand that if you want to live, you’ll get out of here.”
Foxfang hissed in fury, but he reluctantly lowered himself into a submissive crouch. “Fine,” the russet tom spat. “You win. But don’t get comfortable, flea-pelt. Amberstar doesn’t take betrayal lightly.”
“Then go,” Scorchpaw commanded, lashing his tail.
Foxfang glared at him, then whirled around and raced after his accomplices. Petalpaw watched him go until he was just a small red dot on the crest of a faraway hill.
We won. Petalpaw blinked, hardly daring to believe it. “We won,” she repeated aloud.
“I don’t know why you’re surprised,” Windpaw joked. “I have superb fighting skills.”
Scorchpaw looked at him. “No, you really do,” the brown tabby told Windpaw seriously. “The way you unbalanced Adderstrike? You’ll have to teach me that one!”
“I’m just happy to be alive,” Petalpaw sighed, leaning against Scorchpaw. He stiffened, and so did she; she pulled away quickly, feeling her face burn.
“Is every cat okay?” Graytail interjected, saving Petalpaw from having to come up with a new subject. The gray tabby warrior was examining Windpaw’s scratches with concern.
“I’m fine,” Windpaw meowed impatiently. When he saw Graytail flinch, he added hastily, “No, I really am. The wounds are shallow.”
Graytail nodded, then turned to Petalpaw. “How about you?”
Petalpaw stretched each leg cautiously; no pain there. The wounds on her flank and neck stung like fire, but she lied, “I’m good. I just need some rest.”
Graytail dipped his head in acknowledgement. At last, he faced Scorchpaw. Graytail scuffed his paws self-consciously and cleared his throat. “Scorchpaw,” Graytail began hesitantly, “I -- I’m sorry for not trusting you. But you fought as bravely as any warrior, and you did so against your own Clan. You have earned my respect.”
Scorchpaw purred. “Thank you.”
Petalpaw tried to hide her smile. “Should we keep going?”
“Let’s rest first,” Graytail decided, “and get our wounds cleaned up. You fought with great courage, and you must be exhausted.”
“I’m not,” Windpaw meowed quickly.
Petalpaw rolled her eyes. “Go rest, mouse-brain. We all need it.”
Windpaw gave her a cheeky grin and bounded after Graytail as the LeafClan tom searched for a resting place. Petalpaw sighed and followed, Scorchpaw padding at her side.
Although the day felt brighter, and a warm glow of victory surrounded all four cats, Petalpaw was still aware of a shadow hanging over her, as though something bad had yet to come.
The sun consumes all. But beyond the death of the flames, the moonlight strengthens, and we will be safe once more.
Petalpaw shivered at her sudden melancholy thought. She shook out her pelt, trying to rid herself of her mother’s cryptic warning. They had defeated a SunClan patrol, and they were on their way to MoonClan!
But somehow, even with a heart full of hope, Petalpaw knew that darkness lay ahead, waiting for her to meet it.
Well, she thought, lifting her chin as the breeze ruffled her fur, then I’ll be ready.