Bronzepaw's fur was prickling uncomfortably again. He desperately wanted to reach over and lick it smooth, so that his shoulder blades would stop itching already, but he knew that he couldn't; the trespassing RiverClan patrol that they were stalking would be alerted to their presence, and their chance to capture them would be lost.
He was crouching behind an elder bush with Moonpaw and Tigerheart. In the young pine tree above him, he knew that Rowanclaw was waiting on a wide branch. Jadepaw had already been sent to camp for reinforcements, in case this whole setup was really a RiverClan ambush.
"Hey, Minnowtail," a dark brown tabby tom called out. "How much farther do we have to go?"
The dark grey she-cat who was trying to break through a thick bramble bush stopped, and scowled at the tom. "Be quiet, Hollowflight! There might be ShadowClan cats around, and we can't let them know we're here!"
Too late for that, Bronzepaw thought, rolling his eyes slightly. These RiverClan cats were so stupid; with all the noise they were making, it was a wonder ThunderClan wasn't trampling in to investigate.
"But how much farther?" Hollowflight persisted. "And by the way, I think we took the wrong path. The way looks clearer up there."
Bronzepaw carefully turned his head to peer through the elder leaves, trying to see what Hollowflight was pointing at with his tail. Sure enough, the tom was indicating the very clear, well-trodden, scent-marked path that led straight from the RiverClan border (which was around twenty tail-lengths away) to the ShadowClan camp.
"Shut up!" Minnowtail snapped. "Go do something useful, like telling Pebblefoot and Mosspelt to get their lazy butts over here!"
"Fine," Hollowflight muttered. And then, in a voice so quiet that only the nearby ShadowClan cats could hear him, "stupid she-cat."
Moonpaw had to stifle a laugh. Hollowflight started trudging back through the dense undergrowth at the edge of the forest, heading towards two cats sitting on the edge of the Thunderpath.
Tigerheart snorted. "Poor Minnowtail, struggling through brambles. Don't they know anything about ShadowClan's territory? The only undergrowth is along the RiverClan border, and parts of the lake! It's ThunderClan where all the thorns are!"
"Well, if they knew what our territory was like inside, we'd be in pretty bad shape," Bronzepaw observed. "So let's just thank StarClan that they're too stupid to ever send spies in, or something."
Moonpaw opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment, Minnowtail stopped moving, her ears pricked. She tasted the air; Bronzepaw could see her eyes narrowed in concentration. Then, suddenly, they widened, and she screeched, "SHADOWCLAN ATTACK!"
Hollowflight, who was returning with his two Clanmates to where Minnowtail was standing, stopped and gaped at her in surprise. Bronzepaw twisted his head around to see what Minnowtail was looking at, and his heart leapt with joy: the reinforcements had arrived!
Blackstar, Toadstep, Tawnypelt, Kinkfur, and Blackpaw lined the slope in front of the RiverClan warrior. "Fancy seeing you here, Minnowtail," Blackstar sneered. "What brings you to this stretch of woods? Looking for some prey to steal?"
"N-no! Not at all! We were just... we needed to fetch Littlecloud!" Minnowtail blurted out.
Tigerheart flicked Bronzepaw on the shoulder with his tail. Bronzepaw looked around and mouthed, What?
We need to outflank them, Tigerheart mouthed back, gesturing with his tail in a circle. Follow me.
Okay. Bronzepaw slowly got to his feet and began to run in a low crouch after Tigerheart; they were aiming to be behind Hollowflight, so that none of the RiverClan cats could escape. Bronzepaw wasn't sure what they'd do with the captured cats, but Blackstar would surely think of something.
Meanwhile, Rowanclaw jumped from his tree and padded over to Minnowtail.
"We don't believe you," he sneered. "If you wanted to talk to Littlecloud, then you'd have sent Mothwing and Willowshine."
"But - but -" Minnowtail stammered, backing away slowly. "They're sick! Really sick! That's why we need Littlecloud's help!"
"Then why did you send four cats, instead of one?" Blackstar inquired coldly. "Looks to me like you're trying to spy on us, or steal our prey."
Tigerheart, Bronzepaw, and Moonpaw were almost done their flanking maneuver. To Bronzepaw's dismay, he noticed that Hollowflight, Pebblefoot, and Mosspelt were beginning to back away, as if they were planning to flee as soon as ShadowClan attacked. We need to stop them!
"We see you back there!" Kinkfur called suddenly. Everyone turned to look at the three retreating RiverClan cats. "Get back here, now, or else we'll chase you to your camp, and then some!"
"RUN!" Minnowtail yowled as loudly as she could.
Pebblefoot and Mosspelt didn't need telling twice; they turned tail and ran. Hollowflight hesitated for a moment, but then he also started to run back to RiverClan territory.
Fortunately, Tigerheart had managed to lead his interception group in time. He leaped out of the undergrowth behind which he, Bronzepaw, and Moonpaw had been hiding and yowled, "Stop!"
Bronzepaw hurriedly leaped out too, stopping right in front of Pebblefoot. The grey warrior skidded to a halt, his eyes wide, and just barely missed slamming into him.
"You're surrounded," Rowanclaw snarled to Minnowtail, who was now looking positively terrified; her ears were laid flat on her head, and her tail was lashing. "You can come to our camp quietly, or we can drag you there by your tails!"
"I don't think so," someone hissed.
Bronzepaw spun around - and felt his heart go cold. Mistystar had just emerged from the bushes on the other side of the Thunderpath... and there were at least ten RiverClan warriors with her. Rowanclaw had been right; this was a trap, except it was bigger than just a simple spy-mission-turned-border-skirmish. This promised to be a full-on battle.
And for the first time in his life, he was truly afraid.
Blackpaw gasped as Mistystar emerged from her hiding place with the rest of her warriors. It seemed like the whole of RiverClan was there - almost twice as many warriors as ShadowClan had. If this turned into a battle, then she didn't even want to imagine how badly they'd get thrashed.
"Why are you here, Mistystar?" Blackstar yowled to the enemy leader. "Why are your warriors trespassing on our territory, and why have you brought so many with you?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Mistystar snarled. "We're here to claim the land that is rightfully ours!"
For some reason, Blackpaw felt herself relax a little. Some part of her mind believed, for some reason, that Mistystar was here for her. That their little family would be split up entirely, one sibling in each Clan except WindClan.
"What land?" Blackstar asked incredulously. "We took no land for you, and our borders have remained the same as they have since our Clans first came to the lake!"
"It's not enough!" With a flick of her tail, Mistystar signalled for her warriors to start advancing; they entered the forest in a single, menacing line. "As leaf-bare comes, the fish grow ever smaller and thinner, and eventually disappear entirely! For the last season-cycle, we were able to catch enough land prey to sustain us, though barely; now, we know that it cannot be enough! Our Clan has grown, and it needs food in its stomach!"
"But our Clan has grown, too!" Blackstar pointed with his tail to Blackpaw, Jadepaw (on his other side), Moonpaw, and Bronzepaw, who were still at the edge of the treeline, caught between the two groups of RiverClan cats. Blackstar felt a flash of worry for her brother. What would happen to him if the RiverClan cats did attack?
"If you take the territory that is rightfully ours, then we will starve, rather than you! I will not let that happen!" Blackstar continued, his tone cold. "We will fight you, regardless of the odds, to defend ourselves!"
"Very well," Mistystar growled. She was close enough now, only ten or so cat-lengths away, that they could hear her. Bronzepaw, Moonpaw, and Tigerheart had retreated slightly to the side, so that they had a more-or-less clear path to their Clanmates. "RiverClan, attack."
The RiverClan warriors gave a screech of anger, and lunged forward - ShadowClan responded with yowls and hisses, and readied themselves for defense - Blackpaw began to run to her brother -
The sheer power of the voice made every single cat present stop in their tracks, and look around to see who had spoken. Bronzepaw winced and flattened his ears, wondering what cat could have yowled so loudly that they stopped an entire battle with one word.
"Who are you?!"
Blackstar's challenge made everyone's heads snap towards him, or more precisely, toward where he was looking. The white leader's narrowed gaze was fixated on a cat that was standing on a slight slope, which he knew led down to the bank of the lake.
The cat was extremely unusual. It was a pale grey tom with very dark blue eyes; they sparked with anger, visible even from his distance, around twenty tail-lengths away. His fur was sleek and shiny, but it also seemed to flicker and glimmer with silvery flecks, that looked a lot like stars.
His paws seemed to be shrouded in mist, and his bulky outline kept fading in and out of focus. If Bronzepaw didn't know better, he'd think it was a cat from StarClan. But StarClan didn't come into the living world, especially when the sun was still in the sky...
"I am Heron," the cat rumbled. His deep voice seemed to carry to each and every cat as if he was only a few mouse-lengths away from them. "And I command you to stop your battle."
"Who are you to meddle in our affairs? This is a Clan dispute!" Mistystar padded forward until she stood at the base on the slope. Bronzepaw looked around and saw that Blackstar was reluctantly following her.
"I know exactly what this is," Heron growled. "This is not a Clan dispute, Mistystar; this is your way of trying to show that RiverClan is not as weak as everyone seems to think, and that ThunderClan alone does not rule the four territories. You seek to prove that you do not need to listen to anyone, whether it's Firestar, Bramblestar, or the whole of StarClan itself, and that you are free to make your own decisions."
Bronzepaw could only see Mistystar's back, but she had stiffened visibly. "I-I don't know what you're talking about."
Blackstar gave a hollow laugh. "I never would have expected Mistystar, of all cats, to be intimidated by our ThunderClan friends. Congratulations, you've now become a real leader."
"And you!" Heron rounded on Blackstar. "How dare you allow her to go through with this? How dare you put the lives of warriors and apprentices at risk, just to show that ShadowClan never gives in?"
"What?" Blackstar sounded startled. "But the warrior code says that you may not kill -"
"I know what the warrior code says," Heron interrupted. "But if I had allowed this battle to continue, as the Icy ones wished, then there would be more than one death tonight. And that would shake your Clans, and your so-called destinies, to the core."
Bronzepaw heard a sharp intake of breath from behind him. He twisted his head sharply and saw Blackpaw, sitting only a cat-length behind him. Her eyes were wider than a robin's egg, and she was staring at Heron with a mixture of anger and fear.
The mysterious grey tom's voice brought Bronzepaw's attention back. "So be glad that I interfered... and let this not happen again." Heron's narrowed gaze swept over every cat, lingering very, very briefly on Blackstar, Mistystar, Bronzepaw, and Blackpaw. Bronzepaw shivered under the cold stare, but it was already gone.
"But -" Mistystar started to speak, but with a flash of light, the tom disappeared.
Small conversations immediately started to break out amongst the cats; the battle was entirely forgotten in the wake of Heron's appearance. Bronzepaw turned to face Blackpaw, intent on asking her what she thought about all of this, but she suddenly screeched, "LOOK!"
Everyone's heads whipped around to look at the slope again - had Heron appeared again? - but instead, Bronzepaw saw more cats... the strangest cats he'd ever seen.
They were running along the ridge that formed the top of the small hill, ignoring the Clan cats clustered below. They smelled of ice and a familiar herb that Bronzepaw couldn't place, and most of them seemed to have brown pelts - although they were smeared with bright colours.
Unbidden, a memory surfaced: Blackpaw, describing the strange cats that her patrol had seen on the RiverClan border. He could almost hear her voice echoing through the moons that had passed. "Two had their fur all colored with berry juice, and their scent was unfamiliar. One had sparkly see-through paws. And one was obviously a RiverClan cat."
And then another memory, this time of Littlecloud telling him stories when he was still a tiny kit:
"The Tribe of Rushing Water is your home, little ones. Your mother came from there."
"Tell us about the Tribe, Littlecloud! Please, please, please!"
"Oh, all right, just a little, then. Well, those cats are very different from us. They have different ways of talking, hunting, even sharing prey."
"How do they hunt?"
"They smear their pelts with mud, to blend in with their surroundings, which are also mostly grey and brown. Then they go out in groups..."
Bronzepaw snapped back to the present, and peered closer at the group of cats still running parallel to the lake. Their pelts were covered in mud! And the coloured streaks were berry juices, just like Blackpaw had described to him.
These could even be the same cats that she'd seen before!
"They must be cats from the Tribe!" he gasped. The group of cats, around ten or so, had already reached the Thunderpath. They ran down the grey stone fearlessly, seemingly unhurt by the rough surface, and before any of the Clan cats could do anything more than call out, "Wait!", they had rounded a corner and were gone.
Blackpaw felt like she was frozen with shock. She couldn't twitch a single muscle; only her eyes were following the berry-cats as they disappeared from everyone's sight.
Bronzepaw had padded to her side, and his eyes were worried. She turned to look at him, silently asking the same question that was being echoed all around them.
"Listen, Blackpaw, do you remember a few moons ago, when you told me your patrol saw a couple of strange cats, one with stars on their paws like Heron, and two with berry-coloured pelts like the cats we just saw?"
"Of course! But I thought they were just random loners!" Blackpaw interjected. Her mind was whirling as fast as the wind... "This means that they're an organised group of cats! Which means they might be a threat! And it's very likely that Heron is connected to them, and he's a dead cat! Only... But... I thought StarClan didn't exist!"
"No, just wait! I mean, yes, it does exist, but Blackpaw, I think those cats are from the Tribe! Remember what Littlecloud told us, about how they smear their pelts with mud?"
"He didn't mention anything about berries, though," Blackpaw replied with a frown.
"Well, maybe they changed their traditions or something. But what if those cats are from the Tribe? What if they're looking for us?" Bronzepaw's voice had lowered to a whisper. "I think we need to meet them! Maybe they have some answers, about who our parents really were!"
"And about the prophecy!" Blackpaw gasped. "You're right, we have to meet them!"
"But how?" Bronzepaw looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping, but everyone else was busy in their own conversations. Even Blackstar, Rowanclaw, Mistystar, and Reedwhisker were huddled in a group, discussing something.
"We'll figure it out later. But what I'm the most confused about is Heron. Did he have anything to do with them? Does he know about the prophecy? Is he really a dead cat?" She hesitated. "I mean, I thought StarClan wasn't real... it just seems too illogical... and it's not like they've ever sent signs: a dream that Littlecloud had could be just a dream, a random coincidence, or something... I need to speak to Mothwing."
Bronzepaw blinked. "Mothwing? Why?"
"Because she doesn't believe in StarClan, you dolt!" Blackpaw exclaimed. "Didn't you hear at the last Gathering, how Willowshine was the only one talking about signs from StarClan with Kestrelflight? Mothwing wasn't anywhere near her! She was talking to Mistystar!" And she'd also heard Troutstream and Grasspelt grumbling that Mothwing should just stop being a medicine cat, if she didn't have a connection with their ancestors...
"That doesn't mean she didn't get a sign, let alone that she doesn't believe in StarClan," Bronzepaw reasoned. "Maybe -"
His sentence was cut short when Blackstar yowled, "This has gone on long enough! ShadowClan, let us return to camp!" Turning to Mistystar, he added in a normal meow, "And let's just drop this issue about land, all right? There are more important things to worry about."
Mistystar looked surprised at how civilized Blackstar was being - even Blackpaw was startled - but she made no comment on it. "Fine." Raising her voice, she called to her own cats, "This will be discussed at the next Gathering! RiverClan, we're going home!"
As the two Clans started to disperse, Blackpaw lost sight of her brother in the tangle of cats. However, she was too lost in worries and speculations to take much notice. Who were those cats, and what do they have to do with StarClan, the Tribe, Heron, and my powers?
The falling darkness gave no answer.
A/N: Hmmm, only 1 review for the last chapter. Maybe I'm doing something wrong? In any case, I'm afraid my update schedule will have to change to 1 chapter every 3 weeks, as I have a beta now, and it takes time to proofread chapters.