SKYCLAN LEADER CLOUDSTAR—small pale gray tom with white patches and very pale blue eyes DEPUTY BUZZARDTAIL—ginger tom with green eyes MEDICINE CAT FAWNSTEP—light brown tabby she-cat WARRIORS (toms and she-cats without kits) NIGHTFAR—black tom APPRENTICE, OAKPAW QUAILHEART—dappled gray tom STOATFUR—orange-and-white tom APPRENTICE, TANSYPAW WEASELWHISKER—brown-and-ginger tom APPRENTICE, ACORNPAW FERNPELT—dark brown tabby she-cat MOUSEFANG—sandy-colored she-cat APPRENTICE, SNAILPAW RAINLEAP—silver tabby she-cat with blue eyes APPRENTICE, MINTPAW APPRENTICES (more than six moons old, in training to become warriors) OAKPAW—gray tabby tom ACORNPAW—light brown tom SNAILPAW—dark brown tabby tom TANSYPAW—cream-colored she-cat MINTPAW—pale gray she-cat QUEENS (she-cats expecting or nursing kits) BIRDFLIGHT—light brown tabby she-cat with long fur and amber eyes HAZELWING—orange tabby she-cat with green eyes (mother to Webkit, a pale gray tom; Hatchkit, a dark gray tom; Emberkit, an orange she-cat; and Mistlekit, a silver tabby she-cat) ELDERS PETALFALL—rose-cream she-cat with green eyes STARLINGFEATHER—dark brown tom with amber eyes HAWKSNOW—brown tabby tom speckled with white THUNDERCLAN LEADER REDSTAR—dark ginger tom DEPUTY SEEDPELT—gray she-cat with darker flecks MEDICINE CAT KESTRELWING—dark brown tabby tom SHADOWCLAN LEADER DAWNSTAR—creamy brown she-cat DEPUTY SNAKETAIL—brown tabby tom MEDICINE CAT MOLEPELT—small black tom WINDCLAN LEADER SWIFTSTAR—dark gray tom DEPUTY MILKFUR—creamy white tom MEDICINE CAT LARKWING—silver-and-black tabby she-cat RIVERCLAN LEADER BIRCHSTAR—light brown tabby she-cat DEPUTY SLOEFUR—black she-cat MEDICINE CAT ICEWHISKER—silver-gray tom
“Are you just going to watch it?” meowed Buzzardtail, twitching his nose. The sturdy ginger deputy went to the trunk of the tree and peered up. “Or are you hoping it will find its own way to the fresh-kill pile?”
Cloudstar snorted. “I’ll leave that one for the apprentices to catch.” He lifted one paw and rubbed it behind his ear. “My old bones are enjoying this sun too much to go chasing about in the trees.”
“What’s that nonsense about old bones?” Buzzardtail demanded. “You’re barely older than I am, and I’ve certainly got a few more chases and battles in me.”
Cloudstar stepped around his deputy and headed for a patch of pale green ferns. “Ah, but I’ve been worn down by the burdens of leadership,” he teased.
There was a rapid thud of paw steps as Buzzardtail hurtled after Cloudstar and swiped him over his haunches, claws sheathed. “The only burden you’ll have is those kits of yours keeping you awake once they arrive. I heard Birdflight tell Hazelwing that she’s going to let them sleep in your den to give her some peace.”
Cloudstar purred. “They’ll be welcome,” he mewed. “I can’t wait to meet them.”
Buzzardtail rolled his eyes. “You might not feel that way when they start pulling your tail and chewing your whiskers.”
“I don’t recall you putting up much of a fight with your three when they wanted to play!” Cloudstar reminded him. Snailpaw, Tansypaw, and Mintpaw were apprentices now, strong and good at climbing trees like all SkyClan warriors, but Buzzardtail had been as soft as honey with them when they were born.
Buzzardtail grunted. “Just you wait. Chasing that squirrel will seem easy compared to looking after kits!”
The sound of a twig snapping distracted them, and both cats stared into the bracken. A blurry shape was just visible through the green stems. Cloudstar opened his mouth to taste the air. “Is that a ThunderClan patrol?” he called.
The ferns parted and a speckled gray face appeared. “Cloudstar? You wouldn’t be chasing squirrels into our territory, would you?”
Cloudstar snorted. “Of course not, Seedpelt. SkyClan cats know how to respect borders.” He spoke lightly, but he wasn’t about to let the ThunderClan deputy challenge him for no reason.
Seedpelt nodded and stepped through the bracken until she was less than a fox-length from the SkyClan cats. She stretched out her neck and sniffed.
“Our border marks are in the right place,” Buzzardtail growled.
Seedpelt opened her blue eyes wide. “Of course they are,” she purred. “I wasn’t accusing you of anything, Buzzardtail.”
“For once,” muttered the SkyClan deputy.
“Is everything all right, Seedpelt?” called a voice from beyond the bracken.
“Fine, thanks, Nettleclaw,” Seedpelt replied without taking her eyes from Cloudstar. More quietly, she asked, “I trust all is well in SkyClan?”
“Yes. Is there a reason why it wouldn’t be?” Cloudstar felt his hackles rise.
Seedpelt’s eyes glinted. “It’s not often I find the leader and deputy forming their own patrol. Rich pickings for rival Clans wanting a fight, I’d have thought.”
“We’re not frightened of you,” Buzzardtail snarled. He took a step forward, but Cloudstar held him back with a twitch of his tail.
“Don’t let her get to you,” he warned his old friend. “Seedpelt, I’ll grant you the respect of not watching where you set your border marks, but we will not tolerate a single ThunderClan paw on our territory.”
Seedpelt bowed her head. “We wouldn’t dream of it, Cloudstar.”
Cloudstar twitched his ears, indicating to Buzzardtail that he should follow, and the two cats headed into the trees. As soon as they were out of earshot of the ThunderClan patrol, Buzzardtail spat, “What was that furball going on about, telling us we’re an easy target for rival patrols?”
Cloudstar shrugged. “Seedpelt was just trying to distract us from the fact that her patrol was closer to our border than they should have been. That clump of ferns has always been a barrier between the territories, and ThunderClan patrols are supposed to leave their marks on the far side.”
Buzzardtail stopped in his tracks, his fur bristling. “They were lucky we didn’t claw their ears!”
Cloudstar kept walking. “I’m sure Seedpelt was shocked to find us there, and she knows we’ll be checking for ThunderClan scent marks from now on.”
Buzzardtail stomped behind him, still muttering. “Those ThunderClan cats think they can hunt where they like. If Duskstar hadn’t given them that strip of SkyClan territory to start with, they wouldn’t walk all over us as if our scent marks meant nothing. I know he was our leader, but really, it was a mouse-brained decision.”
Cloudstar gazed into the trees on the far side of the border. They grew more densely there than in the rest of the SkyClan, mostly oaks with thick trunks and gnarled, heavy branches that bent low to the ground. He hadn’t been born when Duskstar made the startling announcement at a Gathering that he would surrender part of his territory to ThunderClan, but the decision still sat uneasily with his Clan. “Duskstar had his reasons,” he meowed to Buzzardtail.
“What, that he had bees in his brain?”
Cloudstar shook his head and tried to imagine himself in Duskstar’s place, worn down by constant battles over a line of trees with old, fragile branches, while the sheer volume of leaves made it too easy for squirrels and birds to hide. “This part of the forest offered better hunting for ThunderClan warriors than for us. And he knew that ThunderClan queens had recently had several litters of kits, and their need for food was greater than their territory could provide. We may be rivals, but there have always been five Clans in the forest. If one is in danger of starving to death, it is our duty to help them survive.”
“That’s not part of the warrior code,” growled Buzzardtail.
“No, but obeying your leader is,” Cloudstar pointed out, keeping his tone light. “Thanks to Duskstar, in fact. You remember he was responsible for this part of the warrior code? And right now, your leader is ordering you to return to the camp to see what the hunting patrols have caught for us!”
As soon as Cloudstar and Buzzardtail wriggled under the brambles that surrounded the SkyClan camp, four tiny shapes hurtled across the hard-packed earth. “Cloudstar! Hazelwing said you’d teach us a battle move! Please?”
Cloudstar gently disentangled himself from the flurry of gray and orange pelts. “You seem to be quite good at pouncing already,” he mewed.
An orange tabby she-cat hurried over. “Kits! Kits! Leave poor Cloudstar alone!” She turned to Cloudstar, her green eyes apologetic. “I’m so sorry. I d ...