The icy wind whirled snow into Fireheart's face as he struggled down the ravine toward the ThunderClan camp, the mouse he had just killed gripped firmly in his jaws. The flakes were falling so thickly that he could scarcely see where he was going.
His mouth watered as the prey-scent of mouse filled his nostrils. He hadn't eaten since the previous night, a grim sign of how scarce prey was in leaf-bare. Hunger clawed at his belly, but Fireheart would not break the warrior code: The Clan must be fed first.
A glow of pride briefly drove off the chill from the snow that matted his flame-colored coat, as Fireheart remembered the battle that had taken place only three days before. He had joined the other ThunderClan warriors to help support WindClan when the moorland cats were attacked by the other two Clans in the forest. Many cats had been injured in that battle, so it was even more important for those who could still hunt to bring home prey.
As Fireheart pushed his way through the gorse tunnel leading into the camp, he dislodged snow from the spiky branches above, and he flicked his ears as the cold lumps fell on his head. The thorn trees around the camp gave some shelter from the wind, but the clearing in the center of the camp was deserted; all the cats preferred to stay in their dens to keep warm when the snow lay this thick. Broken tree stumps and the branches of a fallen tree poked above the covering of snow. A single line of pawprints crossed from the apprentices' den to the bramble thicket where the kits were cared for. Seeing the trail, Fireheart could not help remembering that he was without an apprentice now, since Cinderpaw had been injured beside theThunderpath.
Trotting across the snow into the heart of the camp, Fireheart dropped his mouse on the pile of fresh-kill near the bush where the warriors slept. The pile was pitifully small. Such prey as could be found was thin and scrawny, hardly a mouthful for a famished warrior. There would be no more plump mice until newleaf, and that was many moons away.
Fireheart was turning away, ready to go back on hunting duty, when a loud meow sounded behind him. He whirled around.
Shouldering his way out of the warriors' den was the Clan deputy, Tigerclaw. "Fireheart!"
Fireheart padded through the snow toward him, respectfully lowering his head, but conscious that the huge tabby's amber eyes burned into him. All his misgivings about Tigerclaw flooded through him again. The deputy was strong, respected, and an outstanding fighter, but Fireheart knew there was darkness in his heart.
"You don't need to go out hunting again tonight," Tigerclaw growled as Fireheart approached. "Bluestar has chosen you and Graystripe to go to the Gathering."
Fireheart's ears twitched with excitement. It was an honor to accompany the Clan leader to the Gathering, where all four Clans met in peace at full moon.
"You had better eat now," added the dark-coated deputy. "We leave at moonrise." He began to stalk across the clearing toward the Highrock, where Bluestar, the Clan leader, had her den; then he paused and swiveled his massive head to look back at Fireheart. "Just make sure you remember which Clan you belong to at the Gathering," he hissed.
Fireheart felt his fur bristle as anger flared inside him. "What makes you say that?" he demanded boldly. "Do you think I would be disloyal tomy own Clan?"
Tigerclaw turned to face him, and Fireheart tried hard not to flinch at the menace in the cat's tensed shoulders. "I saw you in the last battle." The deputy's voice was a low growl, and his ears were flattened against his head as he spat, "I saw you let that RiverClan warrior escape."
Fireheart winced, his mind flashing back to the battle in the WindClan camp. What Tigerclaw said was true. Fireheart had allowed a RiverClan warrior to flee without a scratch, but not out of cowardice or disloyalty. The warrior had been Silverstream. Unknown to the rest of ThunderClan, Fireheart's best friend, Graystripe, was in love with her, and Fireheart could not bring himself to wound her.
Fireheart had done his best to talk his friend out of visiting Silverstream their relationship went against the warrior code and put both of them in grave danger. But Fireheart also knew that he would never betray Graystripe.
Besides, Tigerclaw had no right to accuse any cat of disloyalty. He had stood on the edge of the battle, watching while Fireheart fought for his life against another RiverClan warrior, and turned away instead of helping him. And that was not the worst accusation Fireheart could make against the deputy. He suspected Tigerclaw of murdering the former ThunderClan deputy, Redtail, and even planning to get rid of their leader herself.
"If you think I'm disloyal, tell Bluestar," he meowed challengingly.
Tigerclaw drew back his lips in a snarl and dropped into a half crouch, sliding out his long claws. "I don't need to bother Bluestar," he hissed. "I can deal with a kittypet like you."
He stared at Fireheart for a moment longer. Fireheart realized with ajolt that there was a trace of fear as well as distrust in the blazing amber eyes. Tigerclaw wonders how much I know, he thought suddenly.
Fireheart's friend Ravenpaw, Tigerclaw's own apprentice, had witnessed the murder of Redtail. Tigerclaw had tried to kill him to keep him quiet, so Fireheart had taken him to live with Barley, a loner who lived near a Twoleg farm on the other side of WindClan's territory. Fireheart had tried to tell Ravenpaw's story to Bluestar, but the Clan leader refused to believe that her brave deputy could be guilty of such a thing. As he glared at Tigerclaw, Fireheart's frustration returned; he felt as if a tree had fallen and pinned him to the ground.
Erin Hunter is inspired by a fascination with the ferocity of the natural world. As well as having great respect for nature in all its forms, Erin enjoys creating rich mythical explanations for animal behavior. She is also the author of the bestselling Warriors and Seekers series.