Authors: Erin Hunter
The indigo sky stretched over the moorland, holding in the night’s chill.
Wind stirred the heather and set the hillside rippling.
Between the low bushes, feline shapes, their fur slicked flat by the breeze, streamed down the slope.
Among them, a tabby queen kept pace with a young tom.
“Are you sure you are ready for this?”
“I’m ready,” the tom answered, his green eyes flashing in the moonlight.
“You’re my eldest, Fallen Leaves,” the queen whispered.
“The first of mine to face the ordeal.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“He was trained well!” a low voice called from behind.
“Even trainin’ can’t prepare a softpaw for rain!” growled another.
Fallen Leaves glanced up. “But the sky’s clear.”
“I smell rain on the wind, I tell you.”
Murmurs of alarm spread among the other cats.
“The sky’s clear!” Fallen Leaves insisted as he stepped out from the swath of heather and halted. The moon lit his ginger-and-white pelt. His Clanmates crowded at his heels, their tails flicking. Beneath his forepaws, the slope fell away steeply. Here, moons of wind and rain had flayed the moorland, peeling away the earth until the stone beneath lay bare, a wall of jagged rock amid the rolling heather.
“Good luck, softpaw!”
Fallen Leaves bounded down the cliff and landed lightly on the sandy earth at its base. His mother scrambled after him. “Take care!”
Fallen Leaves brushed muzzles with the queen. “I will see you at dawn,” he promised.
Ahead of him, a black gash opened like a wound in the cliff face. The fur along his spine lifted. He had never been inside.
Only chosen cats entered the Cave.
He padded forward, feeling the darkness swallow him.
There must be some light to show the way! He struggled to crush the fear thrashing in his chest like a landed fish.
The tunnel will take you to the cave, his tutor’s voice echoed in his mind. Let your whiskers guide you.
His whiskers shivered, alert to the slightest touch, steering him along the narrow passage.
Suddenly, pale light glowed ahead. The tunnel opened into a cave. Its arching walls glowed in the weak moonlight that filtered through a gap in the roof. The sound of rushing water echoed around the rocks.
A river? Underground?
Fallen Leaves stared at the wide stream that split the sandy floor in two. Its black water glimmered dimly in the half-light.
A croaking mew made the young tom jump. He jerked his white muzzle up to see who had spoken and his eyes narrowed as he saw a creature crouched on a high ledge, lit by moonlight pooled on the cave wall.
Was this Rock?
The creature’s pelt was like moleskin, the fur gone except for a few tufts along his spine, and his sightless eyes bulged like eggs. His long, twisted claws flexed on the smooth branch that lay at his paws. The branch was stripped of its bark and, even in this light, Fallen Leaves could see claw marks etched along it, a crowded series of straight lines scar-ring the pale wood.
This must be Rock.
“I can feel your surprise,” the blind creature croaked. “It pricks my pelt like gorse.”
“I—I’m sorry,” Fallen Leaves apologized. “It’s just I did not expect—”
“You did not expect a cat could grow so ugly.”
Fallen Leaves froze with embarrassment. Had Rock read his mind?
“A cat needs wind and sun to shine his fur and good hunting to trim his claws,” Rock went on, his mew rasping like stones on stone. “But I must stay close to our warrior ancestors; those who have taken their place beneath the earth.”
“And for that we thank you,” Fallen Leaves murmured respectfully.
“Don’t thank me,” Rock growled. “It was a destiny I was bound to follow. Besides, you may not feel so grateful to me once your initiation has begun.” As he spoke he ran a long claw over the lines scratched into the smooth branch. A second scratch crossed some lines, but not all. “The uncrossed lines mark the cats who went into the tunnels but did not come out.”
Fallen Leaves stared at the dark holes lurking like mouths at the edge of the cave. If they did not lead to air and safety, where did they end up? “Which tunnels did they go into?”
Rock shook his head. “I cannot help you. To become a sharpclaw, you must find your own way out. I can only send you on your way with the blessing of our ancestors.”
“Can’t you give me any advice?”
“Without light, you will have only your instincts. Follow them and if they are true, you will be safe.”
“What if they are not true?”
“Then you will die in darkness.”
Fallen Leaves squared his shoulders. “I’m not going to die.”
“I hope not,” Rock mewed. “You know you are not allowed to return to this cave? You must find a tunnel that leads straight back to the moor. Is it raining?” he asked suddenly.
Fallen Leaves stiffened. Should he mention the tingling in the air that hinted rain might come? No. Rock might tell him to go back the way he had come and wait until another day.
He couldn’t put off becoming a sharpclaw any longer. He wanted to do this now. “The sky is clear,” he promised.
Rock ran his paw once more over the lines etched in the branch. “Then begin.”
Fallen Leaves eyed the tunnel beneath Rock’s ledge. It seemed larger than the rest, and appeared to slope upward.
Up to the moorland, high above? This was the way he would choose.
Heart pounding, he leaped across the river and headed into the bone-chilling darkness.
By dawn I will be a sharpclaw. His pelt bristled. I hope.
“Look out!” Lionpaw lashed his tail. “ShadowClan warriors behind us!”
Hollypaw whipped around, her black pelt standing on end.
“I’ll take them!”
Lionpaw glanced at his brother. “Scent anything, Jaypaw?”
“More warriors coming!” the gray tabby warned. His blind, blue eyes were round with alarm. “Prepare for attack!”
“We’ll ambush them as they come through the camp wall!”
Lionpaw ordered. He jerked his head toward Hollypaw. “Can you handle those three?”
“Easy!” Hollypaw rolled onto her back then sprung to her paws, claws glinting in the afternoon sun.
Lionpaw darted forward and crouched behind the prickly wall of thorns. “Quick, Jaypaw! Beside me!”
Jaypaw scooted over and dropped into an attack crouch.
A tabby warrior trotted through the entrance.
“Now!” Lionpaw screeched. He hurled himself at the warrior. Jaypaw scrambled between the enemy’s paws. With a grunt of surprise, the invader tripped and tumbled onto his side. Lionpaw was on him in an instant.
“Enough!” Squirrelflight’s sharp mew rang around the small clearing.
Lionpaw stopped pummeling Brambleclaw’s back with his hind legs and stared at his mother as she hurried through the gap in the bramble wall. “But we’re pretending ShadowClan are attacking!”
Jaypaw skidded to a halt. “We’d almost won!”
Brambleclaw got to his paws, shaking Lionpaw off. “Good ambush,” he purred. “But you know you’re not meant to be playing here.”
Lionpaw slid to the ground. “It’s the only good place to practice a surprise attack,” he mewed sulkily. He looked around the half-finished den; its bramble walls jutted out from the side of the warriors’ den. Once branches had been pushed over the top to form the roof, an opening would be made to join the old den with the new one.
Hollypaw padded toward them, leaving her imaginary foes behind. “We’re not getting in anyone’s way,” she pointed out.
She fluffed out her fur against the wind. Newleaf sunshine had taken the chill from the hollow, but the afternoon had brought with it a breeze from the mountains that reminded Lionpaw that leaf-bare was less than a quarter moon behind them.
“What if every apprentice decided to practice their battle moves here?” Squirrelflight demanded. “The walls would be broken in no time and all Birchfall’s and Graystripe’s hard work would be wasted.”
“We need to expand the warriors’ den before you and the other apprentices become warriors,” Brambleclaw added.
“It’s already too crowded.”
“Okay, we get the point!” Jaypaw lifted his chin. His fur was ruffled and bits of leaves were sticking out of his pelt.
“Look at you!” Squirrelflight licked Jaypaw roughly between the ears. “You’ve made yourselves filthy,” she scolded, “and we’ll be leaving for the Gathering soon.”
Lionpaw began to wash the dried leaf-dust from his chest before his mother started on him.
Jaypaw ducked away from Squirrelflight’s tongue. “I can wash myself, you know,” he complained.
“Leave them be,” Brambleclaw meowed to his mate. “I’m sure they’ll smarten themselves up before we leave.”
“Of course we will,” Lionpaw promised. There was no way he was going to let the other Clans see him looking like a hedgehog. This would be the first Gathering the three of them had attended together. “We’ve been looking forward to this for ages. Haven’t we, Jaypaw?”
Jaypaw flicked his tail. “Yeah, right.”
Lionpaw flexed his claws. Why did Jaypaw have to be grumpy all the time? This would be his first Gathering ever.
He must be looking forward to it. He had missed the last two, once as a punishment and once because his medicine duties had kept him in camp. Lionpaw knew his littermate well enough to know how important it was to be able to do what the other cats did, despite his blindness—and that included going to Gatherings.
“Hurry up! Out of here, before Firestar notices!” Squirrelflight ordered, herding her kits toward the gap in the wall.
“Go and find something on the fresh-kill pile. You’ve a long night ahead.”
Lionpaw’s tail pricked with excitement at the thought of the Gathering. He could almost smell the pine scents of the island.
But Hollypaw’s eyes glittered with worry. “I hope the other Clans don’t pick on us again. Do you know if Millie’s coming? Perhaps she should stay behind this time.”
When Graystripe had returned to the Clan two moons ago, he had brought with him his new mate, Millie, a kittypet whom he had met while the Twolegs held him captive. He had trained her as a warrior and in return she had helped him make the long, perilous journey to the lake in search of his lost Clan. Her kittypet roots made her an easy target for the other Clan’s jibes, and she wasn’t the only ThunderClan cat who was taunted for not being Clanborn.
“Millie can take care of herself,” Squirrelflight pointed out.
“Besides, the contest seemed to have smoothed things over a bit,” Brambleclaw added.
“But for how long?” Hollypaw mewed. Lionpaw knew his sister had never been entirely convinced that the daylight Gathering would heal the rifts between the Clans. The four Clans had competed in friendly contests to test their skills, pitting their apprentices against one another in an effort to put aside growing distrust and border tensions. Lionpaw remembered the day for a different reason, though: He and the WindClan apprentice Breezepaw had fallen into an old badger set and nearly suffocated in choking sand before Jaypaw had found them.
“You’re always fretting about something,” Jaypaw snorted at Hollypaw. “It’s like living with an anxious owl.”
“Newleaf is here now,” Squirrelflight pointed out. “There’s more prey running around, so the Clans should be less prickly.”
Hollypaw glanced at Jaypaw. “Some cats are still prickly even with a full belly!”
“Hush.” Squirrelflight nudged her with her nose. “Go and eat.”
“I was only telling the truth!” Hollypaw started forward, but Jaypaw barged past her. She let out a yelp, glaring after Jaypaw, who was already halfway to the medicine den. “He nipped me!”
Lionpaw’s whiskers twitched. “You can fight off three ShadowClan warriors single-pawed,” he teased. “But one nip from your brother and you squeal like a kit.”
Her soft tail flicked his nose. “You’d have squealed, too!”
“I haven’t squealed since I left the nursery!”
Hollypaw narrowed her eyes mischievously. “How about I nip you and see how brave you really are?”
“You’ll have to catch me first!”
Lionpaw darted away, Hollypaw pounding after him.
“Here!” He skidded to a halt beside the fresh-kill pile and tossed a mouse at Hollypaw as she caught up. “Nip this instead.”
* * *
The full moon floated in a clear blue-black sky. Ahead, the island rose from the lake, its trees lifting brittle branches to the stars.
Lionpaw walked beside Hollypaw, following his Clanmates along the pebbly shore. He glanced at Jaypaw again. His brother was padding beside Leafpool, nose twitching as he scented the unfamiliar ground. Occasionally, Leafpool’s flank would graze Jaypaw’s, steering him around sharp stones or protruding roots.
Should he warn Jaypaw about the tree-bridge? It was sur-prisingly slippery; Lionpaw had almost fallen off on his first crossing.
Hollypaw mewed beside him. “It’ll be good to see Willowpaw.”
“Willowpaw?” he echoed distractedly. There was only one apprentice Lionpaw was hoping to see at the Gathering: Heatherpaw, the pretty WindClan apprentice with smoky blue eyes. He let out a small sigh.
“What are you thinking about?” Hollypaw nudged him.
“You’re moons away.”
“Er, Jaypaw,” he mewed quickly. “I was wondering if he could make it over the tree-bridge.”
“Don’t let him hear you say that,” Hollypaw warned.
Lionpaw suddenly felt cold water seep over his claws.
Firestar had led them onto the marshy shore at the edge of RiverClan’s territory. Sandstorm picked her way after him.
Brambleclaw and Squirrelflight padded beside Millie and Graystripe while Birchfall and Dustpelt followed, talking quietly. Hazelpaw was listening to her mentor while Berrypaw dodged from side to side, sniffing among the clumps of grass as though any moment he might flush out prey.
“This is RiverClan territory,” Hollypaw hissed, reminding him that hunting on another Clan’s territory was forbidden.
“I know,” Berrypaw retorted. “But there’s no harm in looking.”
“So long as you just look.”
Graystripe let out a loud purr. “Firestar?” he called. “It sounds like Hollypaw’s preparing to challenge you for leader-ship.”