Sandpaw reluctantly polished off a fish. It was her and Dustpaw's third day in the RiverClan camp, and she had to eat something, no matter how disgusting that something happened to be. Her leaf-green eyes strayed to the RiverClan cats assembling in the clearing. By now, she knew most of their names.
The purpose of this Clan meeting was to send a patrol to ThunderClan and inform them of their apprentices' predicament... and negotiate for the pair's safe return. Sandpaw's ears flattened as the meeting went on, and the four cats on the patrol were chosen: Leopardfur, Beetlenose, Sedgecreek, and Silverpaw. Mom must be going wild, Sandpaw fretted. First Dad, now me... she must be sick with worry.
"Hey," Dustpaw mewed. Sandpaw glanced back at him; he had started speaking to her again, but he kept his sentences short, the tone dull. Sandpaw couldn't blame him. After all, she was the one who'd gotten them into this mess, rushing over to declare vengeance on Redtail...
...whom apparently hadn't been killed by Oakheart. It's simple, then, she thought. Some other RiverClan cat killed him. Tigerclaw must have been mistaken. Her claws curled into the earth, tearing at the soil. Which means they're still my enemies.
"H...Hi," came a soft, shy mew. Sandpaw looked up to see Mosspaw trotting toward her, her sleek tortoiseshell-and-white pelt gleaming in the sunlight. "I... I just..." the younger apprentice stammered, then finished, "I wanted to thank you for defending me the other day. I thought ThunderClan apprentices would be frog-brains... but you're not."
"Well, I thought all RiverClan cats would be mouse-brains, and guess what? They are!" Sandpaw replied. Mosspaw looked stunned, but Sandpaw smiled, shouldering the surprised RiverClan apprentice. "I was joking. Well, mostly. Some of you are okay."
Mosspaw smiled weakly and went on quietly, "Heavypaw, Shadepaw, and Silverpaw are all siblings. But I was an only kit. And... my parents died last leaf-bare." Her eyes closed briefly, as though she were sucking all the pain that had leaked out in her last sentence, back into her.
Sandpaw felt a pang of sympathy for the RiverClan cat. She still couldn't believe that her father was gone, but she couldn't evenimagine what it would be like if she lost Brindleface, too.
"Mine, too." To Sandpaw's surprise, it was Dustpaw, keeping his expression carefully neutral.
Mosspaw blinked sympathetically at him, with the nod of one sufferer to another. "I'm younger than the others," she added. "So... sometimes they pick on me."
"What mouse-brains," Sandpaw muttered. Then she realized Mosspaw could answer a question that had been gnawing on her. Forcing herself to swallow her pride, she asked, quickly and (she hoped) almost tonelessly, "What do you think will happen when they visit ThunderClan? What will they ask for?"
Mosspaw sighed, her amber gaze dropping to her paws. "I don't know. Prey, maybe. But now that they've got you... they'll want something back, for sure."
Hours passed, long, nearly unbearable hours, during which the two ThunderClan apprentices huddled together in the sea of fishy-smelling RiverClan cats. Sandpaw felt homesickness creeping in on her like vines of ivy; the RiverClan camp seemed strange and forbidding, and at least half of the Clan kept shooting her hostile glares.
Finally the patrol returned, heads held high and eyes narrowed. Sandpaw's heart began to pound as they assembled in the center of the camp. What happened? What?
Crookedstar leaped up to RiverClan's meeting-place, which was called - apparently - the Tallwillow. The water-loving Clan gathered quickly beneath the spindly willow tree, buzzing with excitement over news about their hostages. Sandoaw's ears strained forward, drinking in every word, and Dustpaw looked just as keen.
"We met a ThunderClan patrol near the steppingstones," Leopardfur began. "Apparently, it was a search party for the missing apprentices." She shot a glare at the pair, which they both effectively ignored. "We almost came to blows, but in the end we managed to negotiate. Beetlenose?" She dipped her head to the big black tom.
He stepped up with a nod and continued, "In the end, we agreed to two pieces of prey for every day they've burdened us."
"Barely enough to cover what they've eaten," sniffed an old gray elder Sandpaw had come to know as Graypool.
"They refused to eat fish for the first few days," Sedgecreek purred, eyes glittering mischieviously.
Sandpaw's first thought was What? and then several swear words, accompanied by digging her claws into the ground. Her second thought was (after the sudden burst of outrage had subsided) I'm going to be in so much trouble. She glanced desperately at Dustpaw and hissed, "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
He nodded, his eyes glinting with determination. "We need to escape."
Sandpaw's eyes swept across the camp, searching for an escape route. "But Sandpaw..." The camp was totally surrounded by water; in fact, her captors had had to drag she and Dustpaw across a swift channel of water, deeper than she could stand, to take her into camp. "Didn't you do this the day we got here?" She gauged the width of the channel, wondering if she could jump it. "Hey, mousebreath!"
Sandpaw's head snapped up, but it wasn't Dustpaw this time. It was Shadepaw, her accusatory yellow eyes inches from Sandpaw's face.
"You're one to talk," Sandpaw snapped hotly, anger already surging up inside her.
Dustpaw put in his two whiskers' worth, amber eyes narrowed dangerously. "Ever smell your own breath, fish-eater?"
Shadepaw let out a low growl, her muscles tensing, but then she struggled to regain composure. "Well, your Clan will never come for a pair of frog-brained kits like you," she leered.
Sandpaw crouched, every muscle straining to leap forward and tear this insolent foxheart to shreds.
Shadepaw continued, "You're not even worth the prey we demanded. We should ha - "
Enough is enough! As if they were one, Sandpaw and Dustpaw sprang at once, claws out and swinging. Sandpaw swiped Shadepaw's cheek; the dark gray apprentice snarled and hurled herself forward, tail bushing out like a pinecone.
Sandpaw bit her tail, but the RiverClan apprentice slashed her side. Dustpaw battered at their enemy's shoulders. Shadepaw sliced open his nose. And suddenly they were a whirlwind of fur and claws, screeching and yowling as they scuffled on the muddy earth.
"ENOUGH!" It was Beetlenose. The big black warrior towered over them, amber eyes flashing angrily, long claws curved into the ground. The apprentices started, and Shadepaw scrambled out of Sandpaw's grasp, crouching with a furious spit on the damp ground.
"Back to the prisoner den. Now," Beetlenose growled. "Shadepaw, you are not to go near them again. Blackclaw and Whiteclaw, guard them!" He beckoned over two sturdy, broad-shouldered toms, one smoky black and the other dark gray.
Sandpaw's heart sank. If there was the tiniest chance they could escape before the scuffle, it was now gone.
The days passed slowly, agonizingly slowly, as guard after guard (they eventually let the number fall back to one) took their place in front of the dismal little den that was their prison. Sandpaw was becoming accustomed to RiverClan scent clogging her nostrils, the feel of slimy fish in her mouth. There was the occasional visit from Mosspaw or Dawnkit (accompanied by Sedgecreek), but that did little to break up the days. She began to wonder if ThunderClan would ever reclaim their wayward apprentices, or if they were just going to be left there forever.
It was the third day after the patrol had went to inform ThunderClan that it happened.
It was just another humdrum day (and at humdrum, think totally miserable), when it happened. Sandpaw's head was on her paws, and Dustpaw's back lined up with hers - almost like old times, but there was still the shiver of tension between them, and Sandpaw suspected gloomily that there would be for quite some time. She was straining to see around their current guard, a dark brown tom named Loudbelly, whose bulk was filling almost the entire den entrance.
Then, all of a sudden, a piercing scream ripped through the quiet. "CROOKEDSTAR!" Shadepaw burst into the camp, panting, amber eyes wild. Sandpaw barely had time to enjoy the frantic look on her face before she burst out her next sentence: "ThunderClan is attacking!"