Bronzepaw placed his left paw in front of his right and drew himself forward slightly, careful not to make the slightest noise. Ahead of him, a mouse was nibbling on a tiny seed, oblivious to his presence; its scent drifted from upwind and into his nose, making his mouth water.
With another pawstep, Bronzepaw came even nearer to the mouse. He pressed himself flat to the ground, and bunched his leg muscles, ready to pounce...
The mouse looked up, startled, as his tail brushed a stalk of grass. Hissing a curse, Bronzepaw leaped forward and stretched his paws, trying to trap his prey between them -
- he landed with a muffled thump and another curse. The mouse had let out a squeak and vanished into the bramble patch ahead of them. He streaked after it, ignoring the hooked thorns tugging at his fur and leaving painful scratches. Ahead of him, a thin tail disappeared into the ferns.
He increased his speed, bursting through the last of the brambles, and... rammed into a mass of fur.
"Ouch! Watch where you're going!" a voice snapped. "Is this your mouse?"
Shaking his head to clear it, Bronzepaw jumped back, wincing. "Yes, and I was about to catch it, until you got in the way!" he snarled. "Give it here!"
The cat turned to give him a contemptuous glance, and his heart sank. It was Blackstar.
"It's not polite to speak to your leader that way, apprentice," Blackstar mewed coolly.
"I-I'm sorry, Blackstar. I did not realize it was you. I thought it was... er... someone else." Bronzepaw dropped his gaze to his paws, feeling flustered and humiliated. Stupid mouse.
"Are you saying that you would treat any other cat like that?" The huge white cat inquired icily, examining one of his black front paws. "Rowanclaw, for example? No, don't answer that. You're in charge of searching the elders' pelts for ticks every day, for a moon. No help will be given from the other apprentices."
"Wha-" Bronzepaw started to protest, but quickly snapped his mouth shut before he landed himself in even more trouble. His pelt bristled with fury, but he did his best flatten it in a show of humility. "Yes, Blackstar. May I go now?"
"Yes. Take this to the elders. Your duty starts today. Also, inform the other apprentices that there is no need to help you." Blackstar hooked the dead mouse lying on the ground - Bronzepaw had only just noticed it - and tossed it to the apprentice. Then he left, swishing his tail carelessly, without a backward glance.
Bronzepaw stared at the mouse, feeling his eyes burn. He could imagine the gleeful look on Yewpaw's face, the pity in Jewelpaw's eyes, Blackpaw's disbelief, Jadepaw's contempt... why did Blackstar have to do this? All he'd done was make an innocent mistake!
"Bronzepaw! Did you catch that mouse?" He'd forgotten about the rest of the hunting patrol. The brambles rustled behind him, and Bronzepaw turned around to see his sister pushing her way through. "Ugh! These things are horrid. Oh, you did catch it. Why the glum face?" She peered curiously at him. "Did it bite you or something?"
"Um... I accidentally ran into Blackstar, and I was a bit rude because I hadn't realised who it was, and... well, he put me in charge of cleaning the elders' pelts for a moon, with no help," Bronzepaw whispered. "Just don't tell anyone else, okay? They'll find out soon enough."
"Oh, Bronzepaw!" To his surprise, Blackpaw pressed her muzzle to his shoulder and curled her tail around his. "Why are you such an idiot?"
"Am I interrupting something here?" The sneering tone belonged to none other than Scorchfur. Blackpaw stepped away from her brother and glared at the warrior.
"No, you're not. I was just speaking to my brother, is that a crime?"
"Not at all." Scorchfur's lip curled. "It just looked like... never mind. You young apprentices wouldn't understand."
"Well... you looked a bit intimate, if you get my gist." The dark grey tom's meow was dripping with malice.
"What?!" Blackpaw screeched. "You sick creep of a cat! How dare you?!"
Bronzepaw's eyes widened in shock. "What are you talking about? She's my sister!" he exclaimed. "We would never..." the sentence trailed off awkwardly.
"Just shut up." Blackpaw gave Scorchfur one last glance full of contempt, and beckoned to Bronzepaw with her tail. "Come on, let's get back to the rest of the patrol."
"Aw, don't be mad, little apprentices! I was just having a bit of fun," Scorchfur called after them, his voice falsely sweet with honeyed tones. Bronzepaw curled his lip without turning around and followed his sister.
"Where have you been, you two? And where's Scorchfur?" Kinkfur demanded as soon as they reappeared in the clearing where the hunting patrol agreed to meet.
"I was chasing a mouse," Bronzepaw explained, cutting across Blackpaw, who had opened her mouth to speak. "And we met Scorchfur on our way back." He suddenly realised that he'd left the mouse back in the clearing with Scorchfur... oh, well. Maybe the warrior would take it back for him.
"He made some stupid comment about Bronzepaw and me being mates, and I gave him a small piece of my mind," Blackpaw added, not seeming embarrassed in the least. Bronzepaw ducked his head, feeling his pelt heat up under Kinkfur and Jadepaw's stares.
"What a mousebrain," Kinkfur sniffed. "I never liked him. Come on, let's get back to camp, and dig up your prey. Did you catch that mouse, Bronzepaw?"
"No." he replied quietly, deciding not to mention Blackstar. "But I did catch a sparrow earlier. I'll go get it."
"Go ahead, we'll meet you back in camp. You too, Blackpaw, you can go get your prey. I expect you to report to your mentors, all of you." Kinkfur ordered. Beside her, Jadepaw snorted very softly, but the tangle-furred she-cat didn't seem to notice.
Blackpaw headed off in the direction of the RiverClan border, while Bronzepaw retraced his steps from fifteen minutes earlier, towards the lake shore. Behind him, he heard Jadepaw and Kinkfur making their way back towards camp, and sighed dejectedly; with his luck, Blackstar would probably already have told everyone about his humiliation.
Wrapped up in his own miserable thoughts, Bronzepaw almost missed the spot where he'd buried the sparrow. He stopped and dug up the bird from the moist ground, shaking off his paws with disgust when stray feathers got stuck to them. The job was quickly done, and soon he was heading back to camp, the limp prey clutched in his jaws.
"That's a nice sparrow, young'un," Tallpoppy meowed approvingly as Bronzepaw dropped it on the fresh-kill pile.
"Thanks," he answered, feeling surprised. He was rarely complimented by the elders; he rarely spent much time around them, to be honest. They seemed old and boring, as well as in constant need of a good wash. Especially Cedarheart.
Tallpoppy chuckled. "You know, that was a subtle hint that I wanted to eat it. If you're going to be spending the next moon around us elders, you're going to have to be a little more refined." There was no reproaching in her voice, however; she sounded merely amused.
"Sorry." Bronzepaw ducked his head and pawed the sparrow in her direction. Then he suddenly stiffened, realising what she'd said. "You know about my punishment?"
"Of course, Blackstar already told us," Tallpoppy replied. At the same time, a voice said behind him, "What punishment?"
Bronzepaw's heart sank. He reluctantly stood and faced Jewelpaw. "Er, I accidentally ticked off Blackstar and he made me take care of the elders for a moon," he mumbled, not quite meeting her stare.
"Oh. It's all right, I'll help you," she mewed cheerfully. "Working together is more fun than doing it by yourself, right?"
He looked up, startled. There was no trace of amusement or scorn or pity in her eyes. She genuinely seemed ready to help Bronzepaw with his chore, which made him feel even worse. "Actually, Blackstar said I can't have help," he muttered, even softer than before.
The sparkle in Jewelpaw's eyes faded. "Oh. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," Bronzepaw said quickly. "I mean, thanks for offering and everything. I'd love it if you'd helped me - I mean, I wouldn't want you to get in trouble like me, or have to waste your time, but I - what I meant was, I'd appreciate your company, or I would have, if Blackstar -"
"Oh, stop it," Jewelpaw interrupted, laughing. "You're rambling. I get what you meant, all right?" She stood and flicked his ear with her tail affectionately. "Sorry, but I have to go. I'm on hunting patrol now."
"Okay." Bronzepaw shivered involuntarily when she touched him, then immediately hoped she hadn't noticed. "Thanks for talking to me, Jewelpaw."
"You're welcome! Good luck with that punishment." She gave him one last cheerful wave with her tail before bounding off to join the patrol waiting by the entrance boulder. Only now did Bronzepaw realise that this whole time they'd been talking, all four of those cats had been watching - including, to his embarrassment, Yewpaw, who narrowed his eyes calculatingly. He turned around, expecting to see Tallpoppy still on the other side of the fresh-kill pile with her sparrow, but of course she was long gone. The only sign of her ever being there was a small pile of bird bones lying neatly on the ground.
Bronzepaw looked around the clearing, tail twitching slightly with annoyance. Who else had heard, or at least seen, his conversation? Littlecloud was sitting outside his den, spreading out herbs to dry. He looked completely focused and didn't look like he'd been paying attention. Good. There were a couple of warriors who were dozing next to their den: Tawnypelt, Rowanclaw, Dawnpelt, and Tigerheart. It was their whole family, he noticed suddenly. The sight gave him a familiar pang of jealousy, but he was used to it; his only family had been Blackpaw and Snowpaw, ever since he was born, and it didn't hurt as much as it had before.
The only other cats out were Blackpaw, Moonpaw, and Ravenpaw. The three of them were sharing tongues by the apprentice den, but they were too far away to have heard. As he looked, Blackpaw looked up and beckoned for him to join them with her tail. He shrugged gloomily and pointed at the elders' den with his nose. She drew her ears back and wrinkled her nose, then went back to grooming herself. He knew her well enough to know that was all the sympathy he was getting.
He sighed and trudged over to the elders' den, tail drooping. Just before he entered, though, a voice called, "Lighten up! It's not your execution!"
"What?" Bronzepaw looked around for the source and saw Dawnpelt, staring at him with amusement.
"Come on, Bronzepaw! You'd have to do the chore anyways. Who knows, maybe they'll tell you some stories!" she purred.
"Whatever," he grumbled, resuming his walk. Just before he entered the den, he steeled himself with a huge sigh, then went in.
The inside of the elders' home was much dimmer than the clearing. As Bronzepaw's eyes adjusted, he gradually made out the forms of Tallpoppy, Cedarheart, and Whitewater lying next to each other in a corner.
"Ah, here comes the poor, misunderstood apprentice," Tallpoppy purred to Cedarheart. "Such a terrible chore, cleaning our pelts. Are you planning to do it without mouse bile?"
Bronzepaw let out a wordless snarl as he stomped outside again.
Blackstar sent out the sundown patrol later than usual; the sun was already half-hidden behind the trees as Oakfur, Crowfrost, Shrewfoot, Blackpaw, and Bronzepaw made their silent way to the ThunderClan border.
Bronzepaw fell into step at the back of the patrol with his sister, wishing Toadfoot was there. Oakfur and Crowfrost were senior warriors, and they seemed gruff and intimidating to him. Shrewfoot was a little warmer, but they still weren't her apprentices, after all. She treated them with a certain frostiness that made even Blackpaw, who was usually unfazed by the attitudes of other cats, more subdued.
"I'm cold," he whispered into Blackpaw's ear when they rounded a thicket of brambles side by side.
"Deal with it," she hissed back. "I was out all day with Blackstar, we were hunting birds. I'm sick of pine sap so much right now, if I have to climb one more tree, I think I'll -"
"Stop," came Oakfur's quiet voice from up front, silencing Blackpaw. "I can scent a ThunderClan patrol. Get into trees so that you can see the border, but make sure they can't see you."
Blackpaw muttered an obscenity under her breath as she very reluctantly followed Oakfur's orders. Bronzepaw chuckled to himself and followed her into the canopy of a medium-sized pine. He settled down on a low branch, masked by a clump of needles; the bark was uncomfortably sticky, and he itched to lick his paws, but refrained, knowing that the movement might give away their presence to the ThunderClan cats.
Speaking of ThunderClan... the patrol Oakfur had scented emerged with a very loud rustle from the bushes. It was obvious that the four cats weren't even bothering to conceal themselves. Stupid idiots, Bronzepaw thought to himself. They were being so careless - strutting around like they owned the forest, oblivious to ShadowClan's presence.
"They haven't come by yet," one of them remarked. It was a very pale grey tom with a stripe down his back; Bronzepaw vaguely remembered that his name started with a "B". Was it Buzz-something? Buzzstripe? Bramblepelt?
"You're right, Bumblestripe," a grey she-cat replied. He remembered both of them in a flash: Bumblestripe was the one who had chased away his mother! And the she-cat, Dovewing was one of the Three! What was her power, though? Something to do with ears... "I can't scent them."
"I can." A golden brown tabby tom stepped forward and sniffed the stale ShadowClan scent markers. "These scents are old, but there's a fresh scent... I think they could still be around!"
"There's three of them," the fourth cat - a pale ginger she-cat with startlingly green eyes - pointed out calmly. "Oakfur, Shrewfoot, Crowfrost... your skills at hiding aren't what they used to be, I see. Didn't you notice the wind change?"
Even from his high position, Bronzepaw could hear Oakfur's growl as the small brown tom sprang neatly out of a neighbouring tree. "I was wondering how long it would take you to realise that you bumbling fools aren't alone in this forest, Sandstorm."
Bumblestripe let out a yowl of outrage, but Sandstorm silenced him with a flick of her tail across his muzzle. "We do not care whether you see us or not, because your patrols are too weak and small to attack us anyways. Three cats, Oakfur? Really? With eight apprentices? ShadowClan is really losing its touch."
"Eight apprentices who could take down any of your warriors in one strike - one on one," Crowfrost put in smoothly.
The golden tom's eyes flashed, easily visible in the rapidly descending twilight. "I don't see any of those apprentices here right now," he sneered. "So it looks like your claim will go unproven."
Bronzepaw stiffened, and he heard Blackpaw twitch behind him. This was clearly their cue to come in with flaming claws - Oakfur just needed to give them the signal...
"I think it's ThunderClan that's losing its touch if you're stupid enough to believe we came on a patrol on your borders with only three cats!" It was Shrewfoot who snarled this.
Sandstorm and the others only had time to exchange confused looks, before Blackpaw leapt out of her branch with a yowl. She landed squarely on Bumblestripe, who had padded right up to the scent-line; their pine was right above the border. Bronzepaw followed her with his own yowl, aiming for Dovewing.
Unfortunately, after seeing her Clanmate knocked down by the jet-black apprentice, Dovewing had the foresight to jump out of the way. However, she didn't quite make it; Bronzepaw managed to twist his tail enough so that his paws still slammed into her shoulder.
Both Bumblestripe and Dovewing let out yowls of shock and pain as the siblings attacked them. Bronzepaw clawed at all the fur he could reach; his ears were flattened, and his pelt was fluffed up to twice its normal size. He spotted an opening in Dovewing's weakened defense and sank his teeth into her left ear.
Shrewfoot and Crowfrost barged into Sandstorm and the other tom before they could come to the rescue. Oakfur hung back for some reason, but Bronzepaw paid him barely any attention; Dovewing had managed to free herself from his grip and lunged at him with extended claws.
The tussle was just getting heated up when a voice yowled, "STOP!"
All four pairs of fighting cats froze and stared up at the slope on ThunderClan's side of the territory. A large, brown tabby tom had appeared, flanked by two other cats - Bronzepaw's heart sank as he recognised Bramblestar. The other cats were unfamiliar: a grey tom with gleaming amber eyes, and a white warrior.
He quickly sprang away from Dovewing as Bramblestar snarled, "What in StarClan's name is going on here?"
"The ShadowClan cats provoked us," the golden tom answered immediately. His opponent, Crowfrost, opened his mouth in a snarl, but Bramblestar silenced him with a look.
"Did they, now?" The ThunderClan leader slowly began to descend to the "battlefield", the two cats following on his heels. "And you took this as an excuse to rip out some of their fur?"
"They left us no choice, Bramblestar." Sandstorm gestured to Shrewfoot with her tail, who shrunk back into the shadows, scowling. "We traded a few insults, then two of their apprentices -" she pointed at Bronzepaw - "attacked us."
Bramblestar frowned, looking around suspiciously. "I see only one apprentice."
Bronzepaw glanced at Bumblestripe, confused. Hadn't Blackpaw been there a moment ago? But the grey tom was also looking around with a puzzled expression.
"There was another cat," the golden tom meowed quickly. "A black she-cat. Maybe she hid when she saw you coming?"
"You must really be blind, Brackenfur," Oakfur sneered as he stepped out into the open, on ShadowClan's side of the border. "It was me who was fighting Bumblestripe before Bramblestar came. I sent her back to get reinforcements, which should be arriving soon."
"No, you weren't!" Bumblestripe protested. "I swear, Bramblestar, she was there, and then she disappeared -"
"Enough." Bramblestar silenced everyone with an imperious glare. "I believe both sides are at fault here, so I will let you ShadowClan cats go with only a warning. Attack one of our patrols again, when unprovoked, and we will make sure you pay for it."
"You've promised that a million times before," Bronzepaw heard Shrewfoot mutter under her breath. But she and Crowfrost reluctantly retreated to their side of the border. He followed her quickly, shooting one last glare at Dovewing, who met it coolly.
"See that this doesn't happen again." Bramblestar flicked his tail. "Dewpaw, Cloudtail, go back to camp and tell them we don't need reinforcements. Sandstorm, Brackenfur, Bumblestripe, Dovewing, keep marking the border. I'll make sure these ShadowClan mousebrains leave, since they don't seem to be smart enough to know not to trespass on our territory." His lip curled at the end of the sentence.
Oakfur let out a rumbling, wordless growl, but he conceded defeat nevertheless. With a jerk of his head, signalling for the rest of the patrol to follow, he turned tail and vanished into the gloomy pine forest.
Bronzepaw hesitated before following him. He knew, despite Oakfur's cover up, that Blackpaw was still here; Bumblestripe was an idiot, but he still would have know that he was fighting a black she-cat apprentice rather than a brown tom who was also a senior warrior. A suspicion formed in his mind as to what had happened, but he wanted to make sure.
"Aren't you going, apprentice?" Bramblestar's mew startled him so much that Bronzepaw almost jumped straight up into the air.
"Y-yes, Bramblestar. Just, um, thinking." With an embarrassed shrug meant to make him look harmless, Bronzepaw retreated down the path to his camp. He made a big show of picking up the pace until he knew he wouldn't be seen anymore, due to the darkness; night had truly fallen by this time. Then he stopped and listened, checking for pawsteps. He wouldn't put it past Bramblestar to try and follow him, to make sure the ShadowClan cats had truly left.
However, the forest was completely silent. He couldn't hear the patrol ahead of him, nor the ThunderClan cats behind him.
"Blackpaw?" he whispered, straining his ears for a response.
Sure enough, Bronzepaw heard the soft pawsteps of his sister somewhere in the darkness, coming from the direction of the border. "I'm here, Bronzepaw," she meowed softly. Just when he thought she must still be invisible, he saw a patch of darkness moving ahead of him. A moment later, a pair of green eyes blinked at him.
"Blackpaw? Are you still invisible?" he asked.
She snorted. "No, of course I'm invisible! That's why you can see my eyes, mousebrain!"
"Oh." Bronzepaw immediately felt stupid. "Well, what happened? What did you do? Can you control your invisibility?"
"Quiet down, someone might hear us!" she hissed. "And no, I can't control it. It just sort of... happened. One moment I was fighting Bumblestripe, and then suddenly Bramblestar appears and I freak out and somehow disappear. You guys were looking right through me, it was pretty funny. I had to be quiet, though, I think Dovewing heard me moving around behind her."
"You actually moved around? Without anyone noticing? That's so cool!" Bronzepaw couldn't help feeling jealous of his sister's new power, although she still couldn't control it, apparently. "So how did you stop being invisible?"
"I just kind of wished my fur to be there again," Blackpaw explained simply. "And by the way, I don't think I'm really invisible... something weird happens - my eyesight gets sort of distorted, like whenever I move around, I see what's around me at a slightly different angle. It's really strange, and it hurts like the Dark Forest." She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again, wincing, as if to prove her point. "Trust me, it's not as great as it seems."
Bronzepaw shrugged. He still thought it was amazing that she had this special power. "Do you know if there's a prophecy or something about you?"
She glanced around nervously before answering. "I really hope not. To be honest, Bronzepaw... I never really believed in StarClan. I mean, it just seems kind of ridiculous to me... dead cats in the sky? Seriously? And that's where we all go when we die? And then the Dark Forest! I don't think there's an afterlife when we die, Bronzepaw. At least, I hope not."
"But what about the Great Battle? And you just said your eyes hurt like the Dark Forest!" Bronzepaw exclaimed. He couldn't believe Blackpaw had never accepted StarClan. Of course it existed - Littlecloud had told them himself about the Great Battle, and how he sometimes received omens or signs or even prophecies from StarClan, and how if an evil cat died, it went to the Dark Forest. It seemed a perfectly logical explanation.
Blackpaw flicked her tail irritably. "Well, I'm just not sure. If they prove to me that they exist, then of course I'll believe in them. But for now... I'm not convinced. Yet."
Bronzepaw shook his head disbelievingly. "All right, Blackpaw. But we should get back to camp. They'll probably be wanting an explanation from us."
"You're right. Let's go." She started running down the trail without waiting for Bronzepaw to follow. Grumbling irritably, he followed her through the forest, wincing as several brambles scratched his back; the tender skin beneath his fur immediately started to ache. He decided to see Littlecloud as soon as he got back, and to ask him about StarClan while he was at it: maybe they could send an omen to Blackpaw so she'd believe in them?
They trotted into camp well after most of the ShadowClan cats went to sleep. Only Blackstar and the elder apprentices, along with their mentors, were out; clearly there was going to a nighttime training session. Blackstar, however, headed straight to Bronzepaw and Blackpaw.
"Where were you?" he growled to Blackpaw. "You arrived well after the rest of your patrol."
"We got held back by Bramblestar," Bronzepaw put in quickly. "He just wanted to give us one last warning, since we're apprentices and he thought we didn't know not to cross borders. Not that we crossed them, anyways."
"I see. Well, you'd best be off to bed. We have a full day of training tomorrow, Blackpaw," the leader meowed.
"Yes, Blackstar," Blackpaw replied obediently. Clearly, she was too tired to engage in her usual arguments with the leader, which Bronzepaw often enjoyed watching.
"Um, Blackstar, I think I got some scratches on my back," Bronzepaw mewed hastily, as Blackstar was padding away to leave. "Can I go see Littlecloud?"
Blackstar sighed. "Go ahead. And by the way, don't forget your punishment tomorrow."
Bronzepaw winced and ducked his head. "I apologise for that, Blackstar."
"Of course you do," Blackstar rumbled. "Now, off with you, or I'll extend the punishment to two moons!" He flicked his tail, and Bronzepaw promptly scurried off.