"Are we ready to start the Gathering?" A large, dark brown tabby tom who was sitting in the giant oak at the centre of the clearing, had stood up. "Or do we need to, once again, wait for our tardy ShadowClan friends?"
Somehow, Blackpaw thought he used the word "friends" in the loosest possible terms.
Blackstar strode over to what must be the Great Oak and leaped lightly up into the leafy canopy, so that even his white pelt was masked in the shadows. "ShadowClan is ready to start. I don't think we can say the same of ThunderClan, though... chattering like an army of squirrels, although they arrived only moments before us." He curled his lip at the tom.
"Who is that?" Bronzepaw whispered from beside her.
"That's Bramblestar, the leader of ThunderClan!" Toadfoot whispered on the other side of Blackpaw, making her jump; she hadn't noticed him. "The grey she-cat is Mistystar, leader of RiverClan, and the brown tabby is WindClan's leader Onestar. The deputies are sitting at the base of the tree. There's Reedwhisker - the black tom from RiverClan - and the grey she-cat is Ashfur from WindClan, and the ginger menace is Squirrelflight of ThunderClan. Of course you know Rowanclaw."
"Why is Squirrelflight a menace? She looks all right to me," Blackpaw said cautiously.
"Quiet down! The Gathering's starting!" Snowbird hissed at them, turning her head to glare. Blackpaw ducked her head and clamped her mouth shut, choosing instead to look around at the other cats.
The Gathering was quite clearly divided. A bunch of small, scrawny cats who must be from WindClan huddled on the right side, casting mistrusting glances at everyone else. In the front and centre was a familiar crowd of ThunderClan cats; Blackpaw was already starting to recognise their scent. To the left, then, were the RiverClan cats. They seemed the most relaxed; sleek and muscular, with a fishy scent. She saw a couple of smaller cats, probably apprentices, talking to Yewpaw and Jadepaw, and immediately felt a stab of jealousy. They got to meet strange cats, while she was huddled at the centre of the ShadowClan patrol! It wasn't fair!
"That's enough. Let us begin," Onestar spoke from his forked branch. He sounded tired, as though this happened every Gathering. Blackstar quickly looked back at the four leaders, wondering if she'd missed anything they said. From Onestar's comment, she guessed the answer was no.
"Yes, enough bickering. Would you like to share your news, Onestar?" Mistystar asked politely. Blackpaw immediately liked her; she had a soft, kind voice, even though her hard blue eyes seemed wary of the other three leaders.
Onestar dipped his head and stepped forward, so the moonlight illuminated his pelt. Blackstar and Bramblestar gave each other glares, but stepped back so that the attention was on the WindClan cat.
"WindClan has prospered this greenleaf. We have two new apprentices: Robinpaw and Rabbitpaw." He gestured with his tail at two cats, barely older than kits, who sat at the front of the WindClan group. They were a very dark brown she-cat with blue eyes, and a grey and white tom with a strange ginger tail-tip. Both sat up straight and erect as everyone's gazes turned to them. A few cats called out greetings, but before Blackpaw could decide whether to join in, they had stopped. She noticed with a jolt that the cats looked tiny, barely older than kits. Was that what she would look like, too? Frightened and scared?
"Prey has been plentiful, and there have been no illnesses. Our borders are well guarded, and only a few Twoleg dogs have travelled across the moorland. We are ready for leaf-fall." Onestar dipped his head and stepped back again. Blackpaw glanced at the WindClan cats again and wondered at whether what he said was entirely true; the cats looked too skinny if the prey was plentiful. As if reading her thoughts, Toadfoot leaned down and whispered, "What a load of foxdung. It's obvious there have been a lot of Twoleg dogs running around; they look skinnier than ever."
"Hush!" Snowbird hissed again. "Listen!"
Mistystar had stepped forward this time. "RiverClan has also had a good season," she began. "The fish are running thick, and the Twolegs are all but gone. There was a small incident involving a bad rabbit that probably ran over from WindClan territory, but Mothwing successfully dealt with the resulting illness of one of our elders, and everyone is as healthy as ever." She twitched her tail ever so slightly, as if she wanted to add something more, but then seemed to decide against it and stepped back into the shadows. Blackpaw glanced over at the RiverClan patrol again and decided that Mistystar wasn't lying; they certainly seemed well-fed.
"Thank you, Mistystar." Bramblestar's eyes gleamed in the moonlight as he stepped out into the open. He had powerful shoulders and a fierce, inscrutable face; Blackpaw shivered slightly as she looked at him. He looked exactly like an older Tigerheart. Somehow, she knew that she would not want to cross him in battle. The hooked claws that dug into his tree branch looked wickedly sharp.
"ThunderClan is as strong as ever. Our borders are guarded, prey is adequate, and our lives are plentiful. There have been one or two incidents with ShadowClan trespassers -" he looked pointedly at Blackstar, who only curled his lip - "but our ThunderClan patrols drove them away successfully. We are strong, and ready for the upcoming leaf-fall and leaf-bare." He dipped his head almost mockingly at Blackstar and stepped back again. Blackstar returned the gesture, and also went forward, so that all four Clans could see him. Blackpaw felt a thrill of pride, and awe - he looked at least as big as Bramblestar, and he was twice as scary, too, with all his battle scars. She felt proud that this cat was her leader.
"I'm glad that this season has been quiet for all of us, considering the events of last leaf-bare," he meowed. "ShadowClan is doing better than ever. We have seven new apprentices. Yewpaw, Moonpaw, Jewelpaw, Jadepaw, Blackpaw, Bronzepaw, and Snowpaw, please step forward." He narrowed his eyes with pleasure as shocked murmurs and whispers rippled through the Clans.
"It can't be!"
"That's too many!"
"Where did all those cats come from?"
"Ten, now, with the three others!"
"...must be recruiting rogues..."
Blackpaw sat up straight and kept her chin high, meeting the challenging and accusing gazes of every hostile warrior. Her paws trembled, but she was not afraid. They couldn't do anything about it, could they? They were just jealous that ShadowClan had all these apprentices. Finally, we are besting the others, she thought gleefully. And they don't like it.
"Blackstar?" Bramblestar hissed. "Where did all these kits come from? We were aware of those four -" He flicked his tail at Ivytail's kits - "but the others are new. Whose are they?"
"That is none of your concern," Blackstar said smoothly, "and even if it was, we are not obliged to tell you anything of our Clan secrets."
The ThunderClan cats turned to the apprentices, bristling, their expressions hostile. One of them, a large golden tom, was looking straight at Blackpaw with intense dislike. She desperately wanted to shrink back into the safety of Leopardstep's fur, but instead she forced herself to meet his gaze defiantly. Her arrogance was rewarded when the tom looked away uncomfortably.
"At least tell us who their mother is," Mistystar broke in. Her voice was more patient, but she also looked troubled. "That isn't asking too much, is it?"
Blackstar gave a low, rumbling growl. "It is. But I shall tell you anyway. Their mother died when these kits were born. She identified herself as a cat from the Tribe."
Yowls of shock and anger erupted with fresh force from the other three cats. WindClan joined ThunderClan in glaring at Blackpaw and her Clanmates, and even RiverClan didn't look quite so content anymore. Several cats had gotten up and were pacing anxiously.
"From the Tribe?" Mistystar repeated. "You mean, the Tribe of Rushing Water?"
"How many other Tribes do we know of?" Blackstar hissed.
"Then we must return them to their rightful home!" Bramblestar yowled, so that everyone could hear. "It is unfair to be keeping them away from their kin, especially when they may be missed and searched for!"
"Stop lying through your teeth, Bramblestar. You're just worried that ShadowClan will finally have more warriors than your precious Clan," Onestar spoke up coolly. "However, he brings up a valid point. What right do you have in keeping them away from their rightful home?"
"This is our home!" Blackpaw yowled. The cats around her flinched with surprise; even she was startled at her own audacity. "Stop talking about us as if we weren't here!"
The clearing fell silent as the cats realized that she was challenging the four leaders. An expression of disbelief crossed Onestar's face.
"Do you often let your kits speak out of turn?" he asked Blackstar.
"I'm not a kit!" Blackpaw objected. Blackstar flashed her a glare, then whipped around to face Onestar.
"At least our apprentices can speak for themselves, unlike your frightened, cowardly rabbits. And I don't see what right you have to be taking away our cats. You heard Blackpaw; this is their home, and they don't sound as if they're in a rush to leave anytime soon." His tone was one of forced calm, although Blackpaw could hear the threat in his voice that meant he was very, very angry.
"Wait!" A ThunderClan cat spoke suddenly. Everyone looked around curiously at the very pale grey tom with black stripes, who was visibly trembling at the unexpected attention. "I think I know whose cats they are. Two seasons ago, there was an... ah... trespasser on our territory. In the darkness, I did not recognise her as a pregnant queen, otherwise I would never have driven her away. But I did, and she headed toward the ShadowClan border." He paused and flicked his ears anxiously. "It was a grave mistake, but I still think that the kits should be rightfully ours."
"That's a load of foxdung!" Olivenose jumped to her feet, yowling. Blackpaw made to spring to her feet and tongue-lash the arrogant ThunderClan tom, just to give him a piece of her mind, but something held her down by the tail.
"Please, Blackpaw, don't! There's already too much trouble here!" Snowpaw had appeared out of nowhere, and she was stepping on Blackpaw's tail, her expression pleading. Next to her, Bronzepaw also looked slightly worried.
"I can't just let that stupid tom get away with that! What kind of excuse is that, anyways? He drove away our mother! What right does that give ThunderClan to us?" Blackpaw snarled. "Let go!"
Snowpaw let go reluctantly, but Blackpaw hesitated to start shouting. She wanted to see how Blackstar would react first.
"Bumblestripe," he said, slowly and deliberately. Everyone quieted down to hear what he would say. "You are an arrogant fox-heart who doesn't deserve a mousetail, let alone the title of warrior."
"What?!" Bramblestar yowled. "How dare you insult our warriors like this?"
Mistystar also sprang to her feet. She raised her voice loudly enough so that everyone could hear her. "Enough! I have decided on a compromise."
"Pray tell," Onestar mewed sarcastically. He alone of all the leaders had remained sitting calmly on his branch. Once again, the warriors and apprentices stopped talking to hear what Mistystar had to say.
"What Bramblestar said has a grain of truth in it. If the queen was truly in their territory, and if they had given her a chance to stay with them, perhaps these kits would have been raised in ThunderClan," Mistystar began. "That didn't happen, of course, but it seems unfair that ShadowClan gets three extra apprentices, just because of one simple mistake that anyone could have made. Therefore, I think that ShadowClan should give up one of the kits."
"NO!" Blackpaw howled with rage. "You'll NEVER split us apart!"
"Quiet down, Blackpaw!" Tawnypelt and Lynxpaw had suddenly appeared behind her, and with the combined efforts of them plus Bronzepaw and Snowpaw, they were trying to restrain her. "Stop making the situation worse! This could be the only way to peace!"
"Peace!" Blackpaw spat. "What about my own inner peace? They're not taking us!"
"We only require one cat," Bramblestar meowed, his eyes glittering with malice. "I think we'll take... that one." He pointed at Bronzepaw with his paw.
"No way!" Bronzepaw immediately stopped trying to keep Blackpaw down; now he, too, was on his feet. "What are you doing?! You can't just decide our destinies for us!"
Blackpaw looked around wildly, trying to see if anyone else was agreeing with Bramblestar and Mistystar's cruel plan. A few cats looked visibly worried or upset, and the WindClan cats seemed to be muttering to themselves and throwing the ThunderClan cats occasional glares. But most were glaring at ShadowClan with hostile approval. The horrid monsters wanted to see this happen, even if it meant splitting up siblings.
"Bramblestar, no. Think of how you and Tawnypelt felt when you were split up." To everyone's apparent shock, Blackstar's voice now held a desperate note. "Look at what you're doing to the apprentices. You can't. It's cruel and heartless and wrong." Onestar nodded in agreement, his expression visibly shocked at the new development.
Pain seemed to flash across Bramblestar's face, but a moment later it was replaced by a vicious look. "You're one to talk," he snarled. "I think we've decided."
"Wait! Take me instead!" Snowpaw lunged so that she stood in front of all the ShadowClan cats. All four Clans turned to look at her with a mixture of irritation and surprise. "Don't take away Bronzepaw. Take me."
"What? No! NO!" Blackpaw yowled. "Snowpaw, they'll kill you!"
But no one was listening.
Bramblestar regarded Snowpaw coolly, then nodded. "I think she'll do."
"Please! Bramblestar, don't do this!" Littlecloud bounded up to stand beside his apprentice, despite his frail legs. "You're being utterly unfair. They don't deserve this."
"Yes, Bramblestar. I think I know how they feel." Jayfeather had spoken up for the first time, from his position near the edge of the ThunderClan group. His sightless blue eyes turned to stare straight at Snowpaw, Bronzepaw, and Blackpaw. "There has to be another way."
"Be quiet, Jayfeather," The golden tom hissed, glaring at the medicine cat. "You of all people should know that ShadowClan deserves this."
"Lionblaze!" someone gasped. "How could you?!"
Lionblaze shifted uncomfortably, obviously regretting his words. But it was too late; individual arguments started to break out between the cats as they argued about the decision that had been reached.
"That's enough. I think this Gathering is over. Snowpaw, come with me. You're a ThunderClan cat now," Bramblestar growled, springing from the tree. "All the other ThunderClan cats, follow Squirrelflight."
Blackpaw finally managed to break free of Tawnypelt and Lynxpaw, and she dashed over to her sister. "Snowpaw," she whispered. "Why?"
"I had to," Snowpaw murmured guiltily. "I couldn't stand to see you and Bronzepaw separated. I think I can deal with a few ThunderClan cats, don't you? I'll survive, don't worry."
"I know you will. But I still wish you could stay with us. Those horrible ThunderClan warriors had no right to do this," Blackpaw growled fiercely.
Snowpaw leaned back slightly, sadness making her eyes glisten. "I'll miss you, Blackpaw."
"Snowpaw!" Bronzepaw appeared from behind Blackpaw. He buried his nose in his sister's fur. "I'll miss you."
"I love you, too. All of you," Snowpaw whispered sadly. "But I have to go. Bramblestar's waiting."
"Take care, Snowpaw." Littlecloud walked up and touched his former apprentices on the flank with his tail. "Maybe you'll still get to be a medicine cat apprentice."
"I doubt it. They probably won't trust me." There was a trace of bitterness in her voice; it was strange, for she was usually so soft-spoken. "But... just don't forget me, all right?"
"Don't worry. We never will." With great reluctance, Blackpaw took a step back, motioning for Bronzepaw to do the same. Together, they stood side by side, watching as their sister was swallowed by the shadows. The last couple of ThunderClan cats brought up the rear of their patrol, casting more hostile glances at ShadowClan.
"Blackpaw." Blackstar had approached, his tail drooping slightly. As she turned, Blackpaw saw RiverClan and ThunderClan giving ShadowClan looks of distrust as they left, but she couldn't care less anymore. "I honestly should punish you for your insubordination, but I won't. You've lost enough tonight."
Blackpaw was touched by her leader's compassion; usually he was so cold and distant. "Thank you, Blackstar," she whispered, burying her nose in his chest fur. "You're like a father to me."
Blackstar stiffened with surprise, and for a few moments he seemed to be frozen in shock. But he quickly recovered, and even managed to wrap his tail around Blackpaw.
"It'll be all right. Don't worry," he said, in a failed attempt at being comforting. "You'll still see her."
But as Blackpaw turned to meet Bronzepaw's anguished gaze, she knew what they were both thinking. No matter what happened now, their world would never be the same. Nothing would. For they had lost their sister.