For my son, Joshua, whose smiles kept me happy as I wrote,
and Vicky, my editor, without whom Fireheart
would never have become a warrior
Special thanks to Kate Cary
Orange flames lapped at the cold air, throwing sparks up into the night sky. The firelight flickered across a wasteland of ragged grass, making silhouettes of the Twolegs huddled there.
A pair of white lights appeared in the distance, heralding the approach of a monster. It roared past on a Thunderpath that rose high into the sky, filling the air with sour fumes.
At the edge of the wasteland, a cat moved, its eyes glinting in the shadows. Pointed ears twitched, then flattened against the noise. More cats followed one by one, onto the filthy grass. They carried their tails low and sniffed the bitter air with their lips curled.
“What if the Twolegs see us?” hissed one of the cats.
A large tom answered, his eyes like amber disks reflecting the firelight. “They won’t. Their night sight is weak.” As he padded forward the flames lit up the black-and-white fur on his powerful shoulders. He held his long tail straight up, sending a message of courage to his Clan.
But the other cats crouched low against the grass, trembling. This was a strange place. The noise of the monsters battered their sensitive ear fur, and the acrid stench stung their nostrils.
“Tallstar?” A gray queen flicked her tail uneasily. “Why have we come here?”
The black-and-white tom turned to the she-cat. “We’ve been driven from every place we’ve tried to settle, Ashfoot. Perhaps we can find some peace here,” he meowed.
“Peace? Here?” Ashfoot echoed in disbelief. She pulled her kit toward her and sheltered it beneath her belly. “With fire and monsters? My kits won’t be safe!”
“But we weren’t safe at home,” meowed another voice. A black tom pushed his way forward, limping heavily on a twisted paw. He held Tallstar’s amber gaze. “We couldn’t protect them from ShadowClan,” he spat. “Not even in our own camp!”
Anxious yowls rose from some of the cats as they remembered the terrible battle that had driven them from their home in the uplands, at the edge of the forest. A young apprentice wailed, “Brokenstar and his warriors may still be hunting us!”
The cry alerted one of the Twolegs around the fire. It stood unsteadily and stared toward the shadows. At once the cats fell silent, crouching lower; even Tallstar lowered his tail. The Twoleg shouted into the darkness and flung something toward them. The missile flew over their heads and exploded in a burst of thorn-sharp pieces on the Thunderpath behind.
Ashfoot flinched as a shard grazed her shoulder, but she stayed silent, curling her body around her terrified kit.
“Keep down,” hissed Tallstar.
The Twoleg at the fire spat on the ground, then sat back down.
The cats waited for a few moments before Tallstar stood once more.
Ashfoot stood too, wincing at the new pain in her shoulder. “Tallstar, I fear for our safety here. And what will we eat? I can’t smell any prey.”
Tallstar stretched his neck and rested his muzzle gently on the queen’s head. “I know you’re hungry,” he meowed. “But we’ll be safer here than back in our old territory, or in the Twoleg fields and woods. Look at this place! Even ShadowClan wouldn’t follow us here. There’s no scent of dogs, and these Twolegs can hardly stand.” He turned to the black tom with the twisted paw. “Deadfoot,” he ordered, “take Onewhisker and see if you can find anything to eat. If there are Twolegs, there must be rats.”
“Rats?” spat Ashfoot, as Deadfoot and a smaller brown tabby bounded away. “That’s no better than crowfood!”
“Hush!” hissed a tortoiseshell beside her. “Rat meat is better than starving to death!”
Ashfoot scowled and dipped her head to lick her kit behind its matted ears.
“We must find a new place to settle, Ashfoot.” The tortoiseshell went on more gently: “Morningflower needs to rest and eat. Her kits will be born soon. She needs to be strong.”
The lean shapes of Deadfoot and Onewhisker emerged from the shadows.
“You were right, Tallstar,” called Deadfoot. “There are rat scents everywhere, and I think I’ve found somewhere we can shelter.”
“Show us,” Tallstar ordered, gathering the rest of his Clan with a flick of his tail.
Cautiously, the cats padded across the wasteland after Deadfoot. He led them toward the raised Thunderpath, the firelight making their shadows loom against its huge stone legs. A monster roared overhead and the ground shook. But even the tiniest kit sensed the need for silence and trembled without crying out.
“Here,” meowed Deadfoot, stopping beside a round hole, two cats high. A black tunnel sloped down into the ground. A constant stream of water trickled into it.
“The water’s fresh,” Deadfoot added. “We’ll be able to drink it.”
“We’ll have wet paws day and night!” Ashfoot complained.
“I’ve been inside,” the black tom told her. “There’s some space away from the stream. At least we’ll be safe from Twolegs and monsters.”
Tallstar stepped forward and lifted his chin. “WindClan has traveled for long enough,” he declared. “It’s nearly a moon since ShadowClan drove us from our home. The weather is turning colder, and leaf-bare will be here soon. We have no choice but to stay.”
Ashfoot narrowed her eyes but said nothing. Silently she joined her Clan as, one by one, they filed into the shadowy tunnel.
Fireheart shivered. His flame-colored fur was still greenleaf-light; it would be a few moons before it was thick enough to keep out cold like this. He shuffled his forepaws on the hard earth. The sky was finally growing light as dawn crept slowly in. But even though his paws were cold, Fireheart could not suppress a glow of pride. After many moons as an apprentice, he was a warrior at last.
In his mind, he replayed yesterday’s victory at the ShadowClan camp: Brokenstar’s glittering eyes as the ShadowClan leader backed away, hissing threats, before fleeing into the trees after his traitorous companions. The remaining ShadowClan cats had been grateful to ThunderClan for helping them to get rid of their cruel leader, and for the peace ThunderClan had promised them while they recovered. Brokenstar had not just brought chaos to his own Clan-he had driven the whole of WindClan from their camp, right out of Clan territory. He had been a dark shadow in the forest since before Fireheart had left his kittypet life to join ThunderClan.
But for Fireheart, there was another shadow troubling his mind: Tigerclaw, ThunderClan’s deputy. Fireheart shivered as he thought of the great ThunderClan warrior who had terrorized his apprentice, Ravenpaw. In the end, Fireheart and his best friend, Graystripe, had helped the frightened apprentice to escape into the Twoleg territory beyond the uplands. Afterward, Fireheart had told the Clan that Ravenpaw had been killed by ShadowClan.
If what Ravenpaw said about Tigerclaw was true, it was best if the ThunderClan deputy believed his apprentice had died, for he knew a secret Tigerclaw would do anything to conceal. Ravenpaw had told Fireheart that the mighty tabby warrior had murdered Redtail, the old ThunderClan deputy, in the hope that he would become the new deputy…which, eventually, he had.
Fireheart shook his head to clear it of these dark thoughts and turned to glance at Graystripe sitting beside him. Graystripe’s thick gray fur was ruffled up against the cold. Fireheart guessed he was looking forward to the first rays of sunshine too, but he didn’t say this out loud. Clan tradition demanded silence on this night. This was their vigil-the night when a new warrior guarded the Clan and reflected on his new name and status. Until last night, Fireheart had been known by his apprentice name of Firepaw.