Ravenpaw knew he had to find an escape quickly: His eyes flickered briefly from Tigerclaw, silently scouting out the route to camp, then back again. Another moment passed, the tabby never breaking eye contact with his frightened apprentice. When he finally glanced down at the body of the deputy, Ravenpaw pushed off the ground with all the strength he could manage, ignoring the throbbing in his shoulder as he bolted past Tigerclaw.
Without a single glance over his shoulder, the dark tom raced directly back to the camp, not slowing down until he reached the familiar gorse tunnel. He paused inside the camp, catching his breath as a fluffy gray cat approached him.
“Ravenpaw?” the bigger apprentice asked. “Where’s Tigerclaw? And Redtail?”
Bluestar had stepped forward, watching him intently. “Yes, where are they?” She leapt onto the Highrock and demanded of the trembling apprentice, “Speak, Ravenpaw.”
He lowered his gaze, fixing his amber eyes on the ground below as he moved to stand beneath Bluestar. He spoke with all the volume he could summon, but his throat stung as he declared, “Redtail is dead.”
“He can’t be,” he heard Bluestar murmur quietly to herself. “How did this happen?” she asked so that the whole Clan could hear.
Before Ravenpaw could respond, a pitiful wail rose from Dustpaw and a loud, deep voice sounded behind him, saying, “After Redtail called to retreat, Oakheart lunged at him.”
The apprentice turned around to find his mentor standing at the camp entrance, the bedraggled body of Redtail lying next to him, bloodied from the battle and the wound that killed him.
His voice was confident and proud as he continued. “I managed to take Oakheart’s life as he was gloating over his victory.”
Ravenpaw couldn’t hear the rest of Tigerclaw’s cover over the increasing ringing in his ears, nor could he watch, as the daylight seemed to be dimming to nothing. He was aware only of the ground falling from underneath him as his consciousness slipped away.
When he opened his eyes next, he was curled up in a nest of soft moss. He saw Spottedleaf hurrying about her stores of various herbs, a concerned air about her as she sorted through them. He let out a feeble cough, breaking the silence and making the medicine cat aware of his waking state.
“Oh,” she mewed, pausing in her chores to turn to the injured apprentice. “You’re awake. Good.” She padded up to him and sniffed at his wounds, paying special attention to the shoulder wound that he now felt as a dull throbbing. “You’re going to be fine,” she told him, “but you’ll need rest. I’d like to keep you around camp until the wound has closed.”
Ravenpaw nodded. He didn’t mind being excused from training for the while, especially one-on-one training with Tigerclaw.
He felt bile rise in his throat and his breath hitch as the events of the morning came flooding back. As he forced his breathing back to a normal pattern, he mewed to Spottedleaf, “That would be fine.”
“But for today, I need you to keep still and let that shoulder heal.”
Both cats startled as a familiar call echoed around the clearing: “Let all those cats old enough to catch their own prey gather here beneath the Highrock for a Clan meeting.”
Bluestar’s voice was pained, but not frail, Ravenpaw observed. She was obviously grieving her deputy but she wouldn’t allow such a loss to weaken her.
The tortoiseshell medicine cat left the den without a word, and the apprentice followed, but stopped at the den’s entrance. He was limping heavily and his muscles felt as though they were tearing with every move he made. He seated himself just outside, keeping his weight on his left side where his scratches were healing easily. His gaze followed Tigerclaw as he took a position near the base of the highrock, a mere tail length from where Redtail once stood during Clan meetings. It was almost as if—
Ravenpaw hadn’t the time or energy previously to consider Tigerclaw’s motives, but now he knew without a doubt: Tigerclaw expected Bluestar to make him deputy now.
In front of Tigerclaw, Dustpaw still lay with his nose pressed to the deputy’s limp body. Ravenpaw had returned from the battle around sunhigh, and now the moon was beginning its ascent—had the tabby apprentice moved in all this time?
His thoughts were broken as Bluestar spoke. “Redtail was an honourable deputy. He served our Clan well for many moons, and he would have made an exceptional leader.” Her eyes flickered to Redtail and his mourning apprentice before she continued. “I say these words before the body of Redtail, so that his spirit may hear and approve my choice.”
He looked back at his mentor whose amber eyes flashed with the same hunger they portrayed moments before he murdered the ThunderClan deputy.
“Lionheart,” announced Bluestar, “will be the new deputy of ThunderClan.”
The dark warrior's expression remained unchanged, not allowing a flicker of disappointment to show, as he approached his Clanmate with a congratulatory nudge. Lionheart purred and his eyes shone with pride as he accepted his position, moving to sit beneath the highrock.
Ravenpaw breathed a sigh of relief, but froze momentarily as Tigerclaw’s gaze passed over him.
“Redtail was also mentor to Dustpaw,” Bluestar mewed before the gathered Clan could disperse. “There must be no delay in his training; I shall appoint his new mentor immediately. Darkstripe, you will continue Dustpaw’s training. You had a worthy mentor in Tigerclaw, and I expect to see you pass on the skills you have been taught.”
With an overconfident glimmer in his yellow eyes, Darkstripe strode over to the grieving tabby, who lifted his head only to touch noses with his new mentor, as custom dictated. He turned back to the deputy and flicked his tail respectfully.
Ravenpaw shrunk to the ground as his mentor appeared without a warning. Spottedleaf was a short distance behind him, hurrying toward the little black apprentice.
“He’s up,” Tigerclaw said gruffly to her, as though he was not, in fact, awake and listening. “Is he ready to start training again?”
Spottedleaf placed a delicate paw in front of the injured tom protectively. “He won’t fully recover for days,” she explained, failing to cover her agitation. “I’d like to keep him around camp meanwhile; he can stretch his muscles running errands for me.”
The warrior looked back at the cowering apprentice before turning and walking away.
“I’m glad you’re feeling well enough to leave your nest,” she mewed gently. “Bluestar has told me she thinks you’re ready for the Gathering tomorrow night, but it’s up to us to make sure you’re ready to make the trip.”
His amber eyes widened. His first Gathering! After a moon of training he was finally allowed to meet the warriors and apprentices of the other three Clans of the forest under the truce of the full moon.
It was growing late, and Ravenpaw found himself growing tired as Spottedleaf told him of her first Gathering as a medicine cat apprentice, speaking with nostalgia of her nervous excitement, and adding fond words about her former mentor. She eventually trailed off, and teasingly scolded the apprentice for staying up and not resting as he should, then curled up comfortably in her own mossy nest.
Sleep for Ravenpaw was at first difficult to come by. His shoulder ached and each time he began to drift into an uneasy slumber, he recalled the events of the day and the exchanged glance between himself and his power hungry mentor. For a short while he drifted away into a dream, but woke up trembling when he felt Tigerclaw’s teeth buried in his neck.
Spottedleaf was sleeping nearby, but either his movement or her instinct woke her up, and she gave him poppy seeds to numb the pain in his shoulder she believed was causing him trouble—and perhaps it was, but Ravenpaw knew he couldn’t tell her the real cause. What would Tigerclaw do to him if he didn’t keep quiet? What would Tigerclaw do to the Clan if he did? Such questions lost their importance as the effects of the poppy seeds took place.
Shortly after sunset the next day, Graypaw appeared at the entrance to the medicine den, a chaffinch dangling from his jaws. Cautiously, he carried it in and dropped it at Ravenpaw’s feet. “Spottedleaf wouldn’t let me in to visit you yesterday,” he mewed. “I had to sneak by her after training just now.” He nudged the fresh kill closer to his friend. “I caught it myself. You’re welcome to the first bite.”
Ravenpaw blinked gratefully—though he felt a prick of envy that his friend had been out hunting while he was helping Spottedleaf sort herbs and checking the elders for ticks—before leaning down to begin his meal. “What else did you catch today?”
“Just a couple mice,” Graypaw replied. “We only did a bit of hunting today, after battle training. I can’t believe you get to go to the Gathering tonight,” he said through a mouthful of prey.
“If Spottedleaf lets me,” Ravenpaw corrected.
“Maybe Bluestar should bring me in your place.”
The older apprentice purred with amusement. “You became an apprentice days ago; I’ve been one for nearly two moons.”
A familiar silhouette was standing in the fern entrance when Ravenpaw looked up. “Bluestar’s calling for warriors going to the Gathering,” Spottedleaf informed him. “Do you think you can make it to Fourtrees and back?”
He scrambled to his feet, his injury forgotten in the midst of his excitement—not only was this his first Gathering, but none of his fellow apprentices had been to one yet. But his heart sank when he thought of Dustpaw who would have been joining him were he not still recovering from the loss of his mentor. Despite their differences, Ravenpaw would never have wished such a thing on any cat. Although the body had been removed early in the morning, he knew Dustpaw would still be crouched beside it were it still in the camp.
Spottedleaf kept by Ravenpaw’s side as they left the camp with their Clanmates, leaving Whitestorm in charge with Darkstripe and Runningwind for assistance. He stumbled once while climbing the ravine, but the she-cat pressed her flank against his to help him balance.
ThunderClan was the last to arrive, and Ravenpaw and the medicine cat filed into the clearing beneath Foutrees behind their Clanmates. When Tigerclaw padded by, she urged Ravenpaw to follow him, but he refused and started in another direction before she could question him. Without a friend or a mentor to stick by, he felt smaller than ever in the crowd of Clan cats. He hadn’t expected to feel so helpless at his first Gathering; it was an event to celebrate for every other apprentice.
When he spotted a familiar face—Halftail, a ThunderClan elder— he made himself as comfortable as he could nearby. The old tom was sitting with elders of the other Clans, and a young ShadowClan tom was listening to their conversation intently.
Ravenpaw narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the little tom even smaller than himself. He had a thick black coat and a white stripe running down his face. And he looked young as though he’d only very recently become an apprentice.
“You’re awfully small,” one of the elders, a thin gray queen, commented to him, clearly having thought the same as Ravenpaw. “How old are you?”
“Six moons,” he said quickly.
“Small for six moons.”
The ThunderClan apprentice inwardly agreed. He too was small for his age, but not so small he could be mistaken for a kit.
Before the conversation could continue, a yowl sounded from across the clearing. Looking up, Ravenpaw spotted four cats sitting atop the Great Rock. Among them he recognized Bluestar, and the RiverClan leader with his twisted jaw, Crookedstar. The other two he soon realized were ShadowClan and WindClan’s leaders: Brokenstar and Tallstar, respectively.
Each leader had their turn to speak, reporting births and deaths. Bluestar announced Lionheart as her new deputy while RiverClan introduced theirs as Leopardfur. Ravenpaw recognized the spotted she-cat as a warrior he’d fought at Sunningrocks.
The last to speak was Brokenstar, a young leader who had only recently replaced his father Raggedstar in his position. “ShadowClan is growing,” he announced. “We have new mouths to feed with each passing moon, though it is not with pride that I ask this favour of you.” He turned from the gathered warriors to the leaders sitting on the Great Rock beside him. “We do not have enough prey to keep every member of our Clan well-fed: We would be grateful to any Clan that grants us new hunting territory.”
No one spoke for a long moment. Territory was fought over constantly, but to admit weakness in shortage of prey and to ask for new hunting grounds like this was unheard of.
Bluestar broke the silence. “Brokenstar, I am sorry to hear of your Clan’s suffering, but we cannot afford to give up any territory.”
The black and white tom, Tallstar, agreed. “Surely you understand, we need prey as much as your Clan does.”
With a respectful nod, the ShadowClan leader responded, “I understand, but I hope you will reconsider.”