Author's Note: I bet you all thought I abandoned this! Haha, I suppose I nearly did. I've had this chapter half-written forever, oscillating between wanting to be completely original and using material from the book. Ultimately I have directly lifted quite a lot for this section, particularly towards the end. There are a lot of subtle differences in characterization, though, and some overt scene changes that I hope set it apart enough. This chapter in the original does such a great job of establishing the world and characters that I had a hard time trying to reinvent the wheel.
Also, I absolutely love writing Lionheart. He is not quite the same here as he is in the book, but I find it interesting to have him be entirely meritocratic in his judgements and interactions with others. He's stern but fair, and this makes him a great teacher. You can bet he has some words with Tigerclaw after the apprentices leave.
Firepaw rose early the next morning, his belly grumbling. The night before he had taken his first wild meal from the fresh kill pile. Saliva pooled in his jaws as he thought of the intense savory flavor. His old food wasn't even comparable.
He tried not to linger too long over his choices before he picked up a bird and brought it to the tree stump in front of the apprentice's den where Ravenpaw was lying, staring unblinkingly at a rabbit between his front paws.
"Good morning!" Firepaw greeted cheerily.
Ravenpaw flinched slightly but looked up at the greeting. "Ah. Hi, Firepaw. Sorry I didn't meet you sooner, I was…" He trailed off, pushing the rabbit back and forth in the dirt.
Firepaw waited a moment to let the other cat finish his thought. But as the pause stretched out it seemed that Ravenpaw had entirely forgotten he was even speaking. Trying not to feel ignored, Firepaw hunched over to take a bite of his bird. The gamey flavor was so intense that it made his nose start to run. "Must be amazing to get up every day knowing you might get to hunt these," he said conversationally. With an absent flick of his tail, Ravenpaw acknowledged the comment and let it pass by unanswered. Cats were beginning to move around camp, grabbing breakfast, stopping to talk to one another, and finding spots to gather and share the morning sun. Ravenpaw watched them with a nervous energy that started to put Firepaw a bit on edge.
"Do you, uh, know any special hunting techniques? I've been practicing stalking, but I'm not totally sure I'm doing it right," Firepaw tried again. Ravenpaw just kept kicking the rabbit back and forth, and staring into the middle distance.
Firepaw scuffed at the ground and sighed in resignation. He hadn't really seen Ravenpaw since he had passed out on the High Rock earlier, so he had been excited to finally talk to him. The two of them were denmates now, and would be training together, so he hoped that he would be able to make friends. But it made sense if Ravenpaw was still a little shaken and distracted. Firepaw probably wouldn't want to talk either if someone he knew had just died. He wondered if Ravenpaw saw it happen. He wondered what it was like to be in the battle, fighting skilled warriors from another Clan. Clearly ThunderClan's enemies were fierce. A normal cat would have turned tail the moment Tigerclaw came back into camp carrying a body. Why didn't he?
"…Who's your mentor?" Ravenpaw meowed, almost absently.
"Oh! Um," Firepaw fumbled to reply. The other apprentice still wasn't looking at him, so he wasn't quite sure that he was being addressed. "I don't know if I have one, actually. I remember Dustpaw got a new one yesterday. Am I supposed to have one?"
With that unexpected answer Ravenpaw's focus finally shifted, and he whipped around to stare. "What? Of course you have a mentor," he said. A hot flush spread Firepaw's pelt and he began to panic slightly. "All apprentices have a mentor," Ravenpaw continued, "Bluestar must have had one in mind, even if she didn't announce it. Are you sure you didn't just miss her saying…?"
Lionheart began to pad towards them purposefully from across the clearing, causing Ravenpaw to fall silent. Despite the misgivings his short conversation had raised, his eagerness to embark on his first full day in the Clan quickly displaced his unease. "You will all be training with me today," Lionheart told Firepaw as he reached them. Firepaw couldn't help bouncing a little in place. "See to it that Greypaw is awake," Lionheart ordered.
Firepaw dashed inside the apprentice den to shake the late sleeper. Greypaw shooed him off, stretching unhurriedly as Firepaw stood beside him and goaded him to move faster. Their scuffling woke Sandpaw, who had returned from the vigil with her brother at sunrise, and her angry hissing finally was enough to chase Greypaw out. After he had gulped down a quick breakfast, the apprentices headed over to meet with their mentor, who was accompanied by Tigerclaw.
Ravenpaw had been oddly jumpy on the whole walk, but when he saw the second warrior he shrank back, then turned tail and fled. Tigerclaw's brows knit in confusion. The big cat moved to give chase, but Lionheart stopped him with his paw. "He endured his first battle yesterday," he advised, "You know Ravenpaw has always been timid. Give him some time to process what happened."
"But he ran when he saw me," Tigerclaw growled.
"You were at the battle too, and in charge of his training. He's probably worried about how you'll evaluate his performance," Lionheart reasoned.
Tigerclaw snorted disdainfully. "That kit is a coward. He fell back long before I ordered a retreat."
"Thus proves my point," Lionheart said. Surprise overcame Tigerclaw and he laughed darkly in agreement, but something in his eyes still seemed uncertain. He shook his broad head to refocus before settling his gaze on Firepaw.
"Today we are going to show you the territory, so that you know where you are allowed to go, and where you are not," Tigerclaw said, "I trust that you will not make straying into enemy territory a habit just because it worked out for you one time."
Lionheart gave Tigerclaw a sidelong look. "He will learn our customs, I am sure," he meowed. Then, looking directly into Firepaw's eyes he said, "Or he will leave."
The challenge issued, Firepaw straightened his spine and held his gaze steady. "I won't disappoint you," he promised. Lionheart seemed pleased by this response, and dipped his head in acknowledgement before turning to start jogging.
"Come on, then," he beckoned, Tigerclaw falling in step beside him. Greypaw gave Firepaw an impressed look before bounding after his mentor, and Firepaw raced to keep up.
They left through a gorse tunnel on the other side of camp, to pass through a sandy hollow. Lionheart told him it was the training area for apprentices, and that he would be expected to report there first thing in the morning unless instructed otherwise. They continued on into the forest. This area was densely wooded, with massive oaks and hickories towering over intermittent ashes, birches, and cherry trees. The leaf litter was still damp from its recent emergence beneath the frosts.
Firepaw was so absorbed in his surroundings that he nearly ran into the older cats when they slowed down in front of him. Lionheart motioned patiently at the ground a couple tail-lengths in front of him. "That's a Two-leg path. They sometimes like to walk their dogs along here. Can either of you smell anything?"
Firepaw tasted the air. He did smell both Two-leg and dog, but the pungent odors of leaves and dirt and wild animals were overwhelming him, and he couldn't tell how recent they might be.
Greypaw meowed, "A Two-leg walked his dog here, but it was earlier in the day, when the sun wasn't as high in the sky. He crossed back over this path already, so we shouldn't see them."
"Very good, Greypaw," Lionheart praised. They passed over the sharp stones lining the path to the other side of the forest.
The composition of trees was very different across the path. Pines stood in unnaturally neat rows, clustered in groups of the same height. The forest floor was completely bare of undergrowth, and littered with layers of needles that formed a spongy bed. The Clan cats seemed uneasy here, and so Firepaw felt himself start to get a little unnerved.
"The Two-legs put the trees here. Once they grow big enough, they use foul smelling-creatures to cut them down, and then take them to the Treecut place that lies near here," Tigerclaw explained.
"Will we see them?" Firepaw asked.
"No, not for a few more moons," Tigerclaw answered.
Lionheart gestured with his tail. "The Two-leg place you came from is that direction. But today we'll be going the other way."
Eventually they came to another Two-leg path and crossed back into natural forest. But, to Firepaw's confusion, the anxiety in the Clan cats did not diminish. "We're approaching RiverClan territory," Greypaw whispered, "Sunningrocks is over there."
Firepaw gazed at a treeless mass of boulders. "Is that where the attack was yesterday?" he asked, unconsciously matching his volume to Greypaw's.
"Yes," Tigerclaw answered quietly, anger hot in his amber gaze. Firepaw felt the fur along his spine raise. This was a place where cats had died.
Lionheart stopped by a flat grey rock. He too kept his voice low and measured. "This the the RiverClan boundary. Breathe deeply, and memorize the scent."
Firepaw obeyed, and the scent of unfamiliar cats washed over his senses. There was a different quality to the smell than the scent ThunderClan cats carried, it was less like wood and sap and more like fish and mud.
"Yes, remember that scent well. It is strongest here at the boundary, as their warriors have scent-marked the trees around here." With that, Tigerclaw lifted his tail and sprayed his own scent to overlay it.
"We'll follow this boundary line, as it leads to the Fourtrees," Lionheart meowed.
Firepaw wanted to ask what the Fourtrees was, but felt uncomfortable speaking when the other cats were being so careful around the border. He followed dutifully, trying to move as silently as possible, but grew increasingly sheepish as he knew he was making twice the amount of noise as the other cats. They crossed a shallow stream, keeping their paws dry by jumping from the larger rocks across the pebbly riverbed.
By the time they reached the Fourtrees, Firepaw felt utterly exhausted. His breath was coming in shallow gasps and his paws were aching so much they were nearly numb. He nearly fell over from relief when Lionheart and Tigerclaw stopped at the brow of a bush-covered slope. Down below, in the dazzling light of the midday sun, stood the tallest oaks in the forest, their budding crowns reaching almost to the top of the steep slope. Beneath them was a large boulder.
"This is the Fourtrees, where all of the Clans gather to meet at every full moon," Lionheart explained, "WindClan lives in the territory beyond. You won't be able to catch their scent today, since the wind is blowing toward them. But you'll learn it soon enough."
"We'll patrol the ShadowClan border on the way back," Tigerclaw added.
Greypaw looked around him conspiratorially, murmuring to Firepaw, "The elders say the cold winds from the north blow over ShadowClan cats and chill their hearts." Lionheart cuffed him over the ear for sharing the superstition, but didn't say anything to the contrary.
Firepaw frowned. "Why are there so many Clans?" he asked, "Wouldn't it be easier if you all shared territory and prey?"
Tigerclaw growled deep in his throat. "That is traitorous talk, kittypet."
"It is our Clan loyalty that makes us strong," Lionheart interjected, "The Gatherings are important because they allow the Clans to come together in peace for one night. But you must understand that longer alliances bring more trouble than they're worth."
Firepaw nodded, though he wasn't entirely sure he understood.
They kept moving, this time away from the sun as it sank in the afternoon sky. The cats grew quiet again as they followed close to the border. New cat scents filled Firepaw's nose, these ones smelling of swamp and moss. Then, he heard a deep and ominous rumbling. He glanced uncertainly at the other cats, but they did not slow down.
"What's that?" he asked. The trees ahead were growing thinner, letting in a broad band of sunlight. A dark, acrid stink came over him, and he had to stop and scrunch up his nose. The rumbling was getting louder, a ceaseless roar that made the ground tremble and ached in Firepaw's ears.
"This is the Thunderpath," meowed Tigerclaw, who seemed smugly satisfied with his distress. In front of them stretched a grey path like a river, cutting its way through the forest. The hard gray stone stretched ahead of him so far that the trees on the other side seemed blurred and tiny.
Firepaw leaped back, fur bristling, when a gigantic monster roared past. The branches of the trees flapped in the wind that chased the speeding monster. He had seen paths like this before near his old Two-leg home, but never this wide, and never with monsters so swift and fierce.
"Scary, aren't they? But it keeps the ShadowClan cats on their side of the border. And the monsters don't stray from the path, so you'll be fine as long as you don't go too close," Greypaw said reassuringly.
Firepaw nodded, his heart still thundering madly in his chest.
"It's time we returned to camp," Lionheart said, "You have seen all our boundaries now, but we'll avoid Snakerocks, even though the way around is longer. An untrained apprentice would be easy prey for an adder, and I expect you're getting tired, Firepaw."
Firepaw couldn't help feeling relieved. He was quite tired, and hungry, and just a bit overwhelmed by all that he had seen today. He fell in behind Greypaw as the cats turned away from the Thunderpath and headed back into the heart of the forest.
It was well into the evening when they returned through the gorse tunnel into ThunderClan camp. Fresh-kill was waiting for them. Firepaw and Greypaw took their share from the pile and brought it to the tree stump outside their den. Dustpaw and Sandpaw were already there, working on their own dinners.
Sandpaw stiffened when Firepaw approached, leaning to her side so that she was facing away from him. "It's the kittypet," she murmured lowly.
Dustpaw sneered openly at him. "Enjoy the food that we caught for you," he said.
"Are you two still on hunting duty?" Greypaw asked innocently. "We've been patrolling all day. You'll be glad to know all is safe."
Dustpaw snorted, "I'm sure the other Clans were terrified when they smelled you two coming."
"They didn't dare show their faces!" Greypaw retorted, unable to hide his anger.
Sandpaw flicked her tail, twisting her neck around so she could look at Greypaw. "We can ask them tonight. We're going to the Gathering," she boasted.
"You are?" Firepaw asked. "Wait. I thought everyone went."
Sandpaw turned back around, pretending as though he hadn't spoken. Dustpaw laughed at his ignorance. "No, mouse-brain. Only a few apprentices and warriors are chosen to go the Gathering. It's a great honor you know."
Firepaw couldn't help feeling a twinge of envy. These apprentices were actually going to meet the other clans tonight! But he was also glad that he wouldn't have to make the trip out there again. It had been a long walk.
A loud call from Bluestar made Firepaw look up. He watched several of the Clan warriors and elders gather in the clearing. It was time for the Clan party to leave for the Gathering. Dustpaw and Sandpaw leaped to their feet, and trotted off to join the other cats.
"Bye Greypaw!" called Sandpaw over her shoulder, "Have a nice, quiet night!"
The assembled cats stalked out of the camp entrance in single file, with Bluestar at the head. Her fur glowed like silver in the moonlight, and she looked calm and confident as she led her Clan to the brief truce between old enemies.
Firepaw stared disconcertedly after Sandpaw. "She's acting like I don't exist," he complained.
Greypaw frowned, kicking the dirt in front of him. "They'll come around to you being here. Sandpaw just thinks she's better than everyone and everything, that's all."
"So does Dustpaw, I take it," Firepaw noted. Greypaw yowled with laughter.
"Heh heh. Yeah, he does," Greypaw agreed, his whiskers twitching.
They spent the rest of their meal talking about their day and the things they had seen. When they had finished, Greypaw wandered over to Firepaw and began to groom his head. Together they washed, sharing tongues as Firepaw had seen the other cats do when he first arrived. Then, tired after the long trek, they pushed their way into their den. They settled down in their nests and quickly fell asleep.
The following morning, Greypaw and Firepaw arrived early at the sandy hollow, creeping out before Sandpaw and Dustpaw had woke. It promised to be a warm day. The leaves on the ground proved too enticing for Greypaw to resist, and he scooped them into the air and leaped after them. Firepaw joined in, batting and chasing with abandon. Ravenpaw showed but did not participate, choosing instead to sit like a sullen, dark shadow in the corner of the training arena. As he curled his tail around his paws, Greypaw stopped playing.
"Aw, Ravenpaw, cheer up! I know you don't like training, but you can still have fun before our mentors get here!" he meowed.
Ravenpaw looked down at his tail. "I… I just don't want to hurt my shoulder again."
"Your shoulder?" Firepaw asked. He looked closer, and sure enough there was a crusted line parting the fur there.
Tigerclaw emerged from the bushes, growling "A warrior should suffer his pain in silence." As Lionheart followed closely behind him, Tigerclaw added, "You need to learn to hold your tongue." His gaze burned into Ravenpaw's and the apprentice shrank backwards into his fur.
"Someone's grumpy," Greypaw muttered under his breath.
The exchange had seemed to concern Lionheart as well, but he let it pass by. "Today we are going to practice stalking. Now, there is a big difference between creeping up on a rabbit and creeping up on a mouse. Can any of you tell me why?" he asked.
Firepaw had no idea. Ravenpaw seemed to have completely lost his ability to speak. Seeing this, it was Greypaw who answered. "Because a rabbit will smell you before he sees you, but a mouse will feel your paw steps through the ground before he even smells you," he recited.
"Exactly, Greypaw!" Lionheart said proudly, "So what must you bear in mind when hunting mice?"
"…Step lightly?" Firepaw suggested.
Lionheart looked approvingly at him. "Quite right, Firepaw. You must take all your weight into your haunches, so that your paws make no impact on the forest floor. Let's try it!"
Firepaw watched as Greypaw and Ravenpaw immediately dropped into a stalking crouch.
"Nicely done, Greypaw!" Lionheart commended as the two apprentices began to move forward stealthily.
"Keep your rear down, Ravenpaw, you look like a duck!" Tigerclaw snapped. He whirled on Firepaw. "Let's see you do it."
Firepaw glanced at Greypaw who winced at him in sympathy, then crouched down and began to creep along the forest floor. He felt himself fall instinctively into the right position, and as he stepped forward, as silently and lightly as he could, he felt a glow of pride that his muscles responded so smoothly.
"Well it's obvious you've known nothing but softness!" spat Tigerclaw. "You stalk like a lumbering kitty pet! Do you think dinner is going to come and lie down in your food dish and wait to be eaten?"
Firepaw sat up quickly as Tigerclaw spoke, taken aback by his harsh words. He listened carefully to the warrior, determined to get everything right.
"His pace and forward movement will come later, but his crouch is perfectly balanced," Lionheart pointed out.
"Hmph. Better than Ravenpaw I suppose," complained Tigerclaw. He cast a scornful look at his apprentice. "Even after two moons of training, you're still putting all your weight on your left side."
Ravenpaw looked even more dejected, and Firepaw couldn't stop himself from blurting out, "His injury is bothering him, that's all!"
Tigerclaw whipped his head around and glared at Firepaw. "Injuries are a fact of life. He should be able to adapt. Even, you, Firepaw, have learned something this morning. If Ravenpaw picked up things as quickly as you, he'd be a credit to me instead of an embarrassment. Imagine, being shown up by a kittypet!" he spat angrily.
Firepaw felt his fur prickle with discomfort and anger. He couldn't meet Ravenpaw's eyes, so he looked down at his paws.
Dark disapproval flashed in Lionheart's eyes. He seemed ready to say something, but Greypaw cut across him, meowing, "Well, I'm more lopsided than a one-legged badger." He broke off his careful stalking to stagger comically across the clearing. "I think I'll have to settle for hunting stupid mice. The won't stand a chance. I shall just wander up to them and sit on them until they surrender."
Ravenpaw almost laughed, looking down at his paws to hide his amusement from his mentor.
Lionheart raised his chin. "Perhaps you all might fare better if you were to try out stalking for real," he proposed.
All three apprentices looked up brightly.
"I want each one of you to try catching real prey. Ravenpaw, you look beside the Owltree. Greypaw, there might be something in that big bramble patch over ther. And you, Firepaw, follow the rabbit track over that rise; you'll find the dry bed of a winter stream."
The three apprentices bounded away, even Ravenpaw finding some extra energy for this challenge.
With the blood pounding in his ears, Firepaw crept slowly up over the rise. Sure enough, a streamed cut through the trees ahead of him. In leaf-fall, he guess it would carry the rainwater away from the forest and into the great river that cut through RiverClan territory. Now it was dry.
Firepaw crept quietly down the bank and crouched on its sandy floor. Every sense felt on fire with tension. Silently he scanned the empty stream for signs of life. He watched for any tiny movement, his mouth open so he could pick up the smallest scent, his ears twisted and straining forward.
Then he smelled mouse. He recognized the odor instantly, remembering the one he had first followed into the forest. Wild energy surged through him as he thought of finally catching one, but he remained motionless, trying desperately to pinpoint the prey.
He picked up the rapid pulsing of the tiny mouse heart, and then a flash of brown caught his eye. The creature was scrambling through the long grass the draped the edges of the stream. Firepaw shifted closer, keeping his weight on his haunches until he was within striking distance. Then he pushed back hard on his hind paws and sprang, kicking up sand as he rose.
The mouse raced away, but Firepaw was quicker. He scooped into the air with one paw, there it onto the sandy streambed, and lunged on top of it. He killed it quickly with one sharp bite, its hot blood gushing into his mouth in exactly the way he had imagined it would.
Firepaw exalted, carefully lifting the body between his teeth and returning with his tail held high to the hollow where Tigerclaw and Lionheart waited. He had made his first kill. He was a true ThunderClan apprentice now.