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The Darkest Hour, Page 2

Erin Hunter

Most of all, Fireheart recalled his dismay and disbelief as he crouched beside his leader on the riverbank, and realized that she had sacrificed her last life to save him and all of ThunderClan from the dog pack.

  As he bore Bluestar’s body home, with the help of Mistyfoot and Stonefur, he kept pausing to scent the air for fresh traces of dog, and he had already sent his friend Graystripe to scout the territory on either side of their trail, searching for signs that the dogs had caught any of the ThunderClan cats in their desperate race for the gorge. So far, to Fireheart’s relief, they had found nothing.

  Now, skirting a bramble thicket, Fireheart set down his lifeless leader once more and raised his head to drink in the air, thankful to taste only the clean scents of the forest. A moment later, Graystripe appeared around a clump of dead bracken.

  “Everything’s fine, Fireheart,” he reported. “Plenty of broken undergrowth, but that’s all.”

  “Good,” Fireheart meowed. His hope rose that the dogs that had escaped the fall into the gorge had fled in terror, and the forest once again belonged to the four Clans of wild cats. His Clan had lived through three terrible moons, when they had become prey in their own territory, but they had survived. “Let’s keep going. I want to check that the camp is safe before the Clan comes back.”

  He and the RiverClan warriors took up Bluestar’s body again and carried it through the trees. At the top of the ravine that led down to the camp entrance, Firestar paused. He briefly remembered the early morning, when he and his warriors had followed the trail of dead rabbits that Tigerstar had laid to lure the dog pack to the ThunderClan camp. At the end of the trail they had found the body of the gentle queen Brindleface, slaughtered to give the savage dogs a taste for cat blood. But now every thing seemed peaceful, and when Fireheart tasted the air again he could detect only cat scent coming from the camp.

  “Wait here,” he meowed. “I’m going to take a look.”

  “I’ll come with you,” Graystripe offered instantly.

  “No.” It was Stonefur who spoke, flicking out his tail to bar the gray warrior’s way. “I think Fireheart needs to do this alone.”

  Flashing a grateful look at the RiverClan deputy, Fireheart began picking his way down the ravine, his ears pricked for any sound of trouble ahead. But the strange silence still reigned over the forest.

  As he emerged from the gorse tunnel into the clearing, Fireheart paused to glance warily around. It was possible that one or more of the dogs had never made it to the gorge, or that Tigerstar had sent ShadowClan warriors to take over the camp. But all was quiet. Fireheart’s fur prickled with the strangeness of seeing the camp deserted like this, yet there was no sign of danger, and still no scent of dogs or ShadowClan.

  To be sure the camp was safe, he rapidly checked the dens and the nursery. Memories came unbidden: the be wilderment of the Clan as he told then about the dog pack, the heart-pounding terror of the chase through the forest with the breath of the pack leader hot on his fur. At the foot of the Highrock, listening to the wind whispering through the trees, Fireheart thought back to the time Tigerstar had stood here, boldly facing his Clan as they discovered the true depth of his treachery. He had sworn undying vengeance as he was sent into exile, and Fireheart was sure that his blood thirsty attempt to set the dog pack on the cats of ThunderClan would not be his last attempt to fulfill his oath.

  Last of all Fireheart prowled cautiously through the fern tunnel to Cinderpelt’s den. Glancing through the entrance, he saw the medicine cat’s healing herbs neatly ranged beside one wall. The strongest memory yet flooded over him, of Spottedleaf and Yellowfang, who had been ThunderClan medicine cats before Cinderpelt. Fireheart had loved them both, and grief for them swept over him again to mingle with his grief for his leader.

  Bluestar is dead, he told them silently. Is she with you now, in StarClan?

  Retracing his steps along the fern tunnel, he returned to the top of the ravine. Graystripe was standing on watch while Mistyfoot and Stonefur gently groomed the dead leader’s body.

  “Everything’s fine,” Fireheart announced. “Graystripe, I want you to go to Sunningrocks now. Tell the Clan that Bluestar is dead, but nothing more. I’ll explain every thing when I see them. Just let them know that it’s safe to come home.”

  Graystripe’s yellow eyes brightened. “On my way, Fireheart.” He spun around and tore off through the forest, heading for Sunningrocks, where the Clan had gone to hide while the dogs were following Tigerstar’s trail of rabbit blood to their camp.

  Stonefur, crouching beside Bluestar’s body, let out a purr of amusement. “It’s easy to see where Graystripe’s loyalties lie,” he remarked.

  “Yes,” Mistyfoot agreed. “No cat ever really thought he would stay in RiverClan.”

  Graystripe’s kits had been born to a RiverClan queen, and for a while he had gone to RiverClan to be with them, but in his heart he had never left ThunderClan. Forced into battle against his birth Clan, he had chosen to save Fireheart’s life, and the RiverClan leader Leopardstar had banished him from her Clan. Her sentence of exile, Fireheart reflected, had freed the gray warrior to return to where he truly belonged.

  With a nod of acknowledgment to the RiverClan warriors, Fireheart took up Bluestar again, and the three cats maneuvered her body down the ravine and into the camp. At last they could lay her down in her den beneath the Highrock, where she would remain until her Clan had said farewell to her and buried her with all the honor that such a wise and noble leader deserved.

  “Thank you for your help,” Fireheart meowed to the RiverClan warriors. Hesitating for a moment, knowing only too well the significance of his invitation, he added, “Would you like to stay for Bluestar’s burial ceremony?”

  “That is a generous offer,” Stonefur replied, showing only a flicker of surprise that Fireheart should admit members of a rival Clan to something so private. “But we have duties in our own Clan. We must be getting back.”

  “Thank you, Fireheart,” meowed Mistyfoot. “That means a lot to us. But your Clan will think it’s strange if we stay. They don’t know, do they, that Bluestar was our mother?”

  “No,” Fireheart told her. “Only Graystripe. But Tigerstar overheard what you and Bluestar said to each other on…on the riverbank. You must be prepared in case he chooses to reveal it at the next Gathering.”

  Stonefur and Mistyfoot exchanged a glance. Then Stonefur drew himself up, his blue eyes gleaming defiantly. “Let Tigerstar say what he likes,” he meowed. “I’ll tell RiverClan myself today. We’re not ashamed of our mother. She was a noble leader—and our father was a great deputy.”

  “Yes,” Mistyfoot agreed. “No cat can argue with that, even if they did come from different Clans.”

  Their courage and determination reminded Fireheart of their mother, Bluestar. She had given them up to their father, Oakheart, the RiverClan deputy, and the two cats had grown up believing that they had been born in RiverClan. At first they had hated Bluestar when they learned the truth, but this morning, as she lay dying on the riverbank, they had found it in their hearts to forgive her. In the midst of his pain, Fireheart was relieved beyond words that his leader had been reconciled with her kits before she went to StarClan. He alone of all the ThunderClan cats knew how much Bluestar had suffered, watching them grow up in another Clan.

  “I wish we’d known her better,” Stonefur meowed sadly, as if he could read Fireheart’s thoughts. “You’re lucky to have grown up in her Clan and been her deputy.”

  “I know.” Fireheart looked down sorrowfully at the blue-gray she-cat lying so still on the sandy floor of the clearing. Bluestar looked small and helpless now that her noble spirit had left her body and gone to hunt with StarClan.

  “May we say good-bye to her alone?” Mistyfoot asked tentatively. “Just for a few moments?”

  “Of course,” Fireheart replied. He padded out of the den, leaving Stonefur and Mistyfoot to crouch down beside Bluestar’s body and share tongues with their mother for the fi
rst and last time.

  As he skirted the Highrock he heard the sound of cats approaching through the gorse tunnel. Hurrying forward, he saw Frostfur and Speckletail creep timidly into the clearing, hesitating in the shelter of the tunnel before they dared venture back into the camp. With the same wariness, Brackenfur and Goldenflower followed.

  Pain stabbed Fireheart’s heart to see his cats so wary of their own home, and his eyes sought out one warrior in particular—Sandstorm, the pale ginger she-cat he loved. He needed to know that she was unhurt after the crucial part she had played in luring the dog pack away from the camp.

  Fireheart spotted his nephew, Cloudtail; the white warrior was carefully escorting Lostface, a young cat who had suffered terrible injuries from the dog pack before they attacked the camp. Next Cinderpelt came limping through the entrance with a bundle of herbs in her mouth; and pushing eagerly behind her were Bramblepaw and Tawnypaw, the two newest apprentices, who were also Tigerstar’s kits.

  At last Fireheart saw Sandstorm padding along beside Willowpelt, while Willowpelt’s three kits bounced around them, happily unaware of the crisis their Clan had endured.

  A purr swelled in Fireheart’s throat as he ran toward Sandstorm and pressed his muzzle into her flank. The pale orange warrior covered his ears with licks, and when he looked up at her he saw a warm glow in her green eyes.

  “I was so worried for you, Fireheart,” she murmured. “I couldn’t believe the size of those dogs! I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

  “Nor have I,” Fireheart confessed. “All the time I was waiting, I kept thinking they might have caught you.”

  “Caught me?” Sandstorm pushed away from him; the end of her tail was twitching, and for a heartbeat Fireheart thought he had offended her, until he saw the sparkle in her eyes. “I was running for you and the Clan, Fireheart. It felt as if I had the speed of StarClan!”

  She paced into the center of the clearing and looked around, her expression clouding. “Where is Bluestar? Graystripe told us she was dead.”

  “Yes,” Fireheart replied. “I tried to save her, but the struggle in the river was too much for her. She’s in her den.” He hesitated before adding, “Mistyfoot and Stonefur are with her.”

  Sandstorm turned to him, her fur bristling with alarm. “There are RiverClan cats in our camp? Why?”

  “They helped me pull Bluestar out of the river,” Fireheart explained. “And…and she’s their mother.”

  Sandstorm froze and her eyes grew huge. “Bluestar? But how—”

  Fireheart interrupted her by pressing his muzzle against hers. “I’ll tell you all about it later,” he promised. “Right now I have to make sure the Clan is okay.”

  While they were speaking, the rest of the Clan had appeared through the gorse tunnel and begun to gather in a ragged circle around Fireheart and Sandstorm. Fireheart spotted Fernpaw and Ashpaw, the two apprentices who had begun the race to lure the dogs away from the camp. “Well done, both of you,” he meowed.

  The young cats let out a purr. “We hid in the hazel thicket where you told us, and jumped out as soon as we saw the dogs,” mewed Ashpaw.

  “Yes, we knew we had to keep them away from the camp,” Fernpaw put in.

  “You were very brave,” Fireheart praised them. Once again he remembered the limp body of Brindleface, the apprentices’ mother, murdered by Tigerstar. “I’m proud of you—and your mother would be proud, too.”

  Ashpaw shrank, suddenly looking like a fragile kit. “I was terrified,” he admitted. “If we’d known what the dogs were like, I don’t think we’d have dared to do it.”

  “We were all terrified,” Dustpelt meowed as he came up and gave Fernpaw a gentle lick. “I’ve never run so fast in my life. You two did brilliantly.”

  Though he praised his own apprentice equally, the warmth in Dustpelt’s gaze was all for Fernpaw. Fireheart managed to hide his amusement. The brown tabby warrior’s affection for her was no secret.

  “You did well, too, Dustpelt,” Fireheart meowed. “The Clan owes thanks to all of you.”

  Dustpelt held Fireheart’s gaze for a moment before he gave him a little nod of acknowledgment. As he turned away, Fireheart spotted Cloudtail gently guiding Lostface past and stopped them to ask, “Are you okay, Lostface?”

  “I’m fine,” the young she-cat replied, though she glanced around nervously with her good eye. “Are you sure none of the dogs got this far?”

  “I checked the whole camp myself,” Fireheart told her. “There’s no sign of any dogs.”

  “She was very brave at Sunningrocks,” meowed Cloudtail, touching his muzzle to Lostface’s shoulder. “She helped me keep watch from a tree.”

  Lostface brightened. “I can’t see as well as I used to, but I can listen, and scent.”

  “Well done,” Fireheart meowed. “You too, Cloudtail. I was right to rely on you.”

  “They’ve all done well.” That was Cinderpelt’s voice; Fireheart turned to see her limping toward him with Mousefur just behind her. “There was no panic at all, not even when we heard the pack howling.”

  “And every cat’s okay?” Fireheart asked anxiously.

  “They’re all fine.” The medicine cat’s blue eyes glowed with relief. “Mousefur tore a claw when she was running from the dogs, but that’s all. Come on, Mousefur, I’ll give you something for it.”

  As Fireheart watched them go, he realized that Whitestorm had appeared beside him. “Can I have a word with you?”

  “Of course.”

  “I’m sorry.” Whitestorm’s eyes were full of an guish. “I know you asked me to take care of Bluestar when we were fleeing from the dogs. But she slipped away from Sunningrocks before I realized she’d gone. It’s my fault she’s dead.”

  Fireheart narrowed his eyes at the older warrior. For the first time he noticed how exhausted he looked. Although Whitestorm was the senior warrior of ThunderClan, he had always seemed strong and vigorous, his white coat sleek and well-groomed. Now he looked a hundred seasons older than the cat who had left camp that morning.

  “That’s ridiculous!” Fireheart insisted. “Even if you had noticed that Bluestar had gone, what could you have done? She was your leader—you couldn’t have made her stay.”

  Whitestorm blinked. “I didn’t dare send another cat after her—not with the pack loose. All we could do was sit up in the trees around Sunningrocks and listen to the howling….” A shudder ran through his body. “But I should have done something.”

  “You did everything,” Fireheart told him. “You stayed with the Clan and kept them safe. Bluestar made her own decision in the end. It was the will of StarClan that she died to save us.”

  Whitestorm nodded slowly, though his eyes were still troubled as he murmured, “Even though she had lost all faith in StarClan.”

  Fireheart was aware of the secret they shared, that in her last moons Bluestar’s mind had begun to give way. Shocked to the core by the discovery of Tigerstar’s treachery, Bluestar had begun to believe that she was at war with her warrior ancestors. Fireheart and Whitestorm, with Cinderpelt’s help, had managed for the most part to keep the knowledge of their leader’s weakness from the rest of the Clan. But Fireheart also knew that Bluestar’s feelings had changed during the last moments of her life.

  “No, Whitestorm,” Fireheart replied, thankful that there was some comfort he could offer the gallant old warrior. “She made her peace with StarClan before she died. She knew exactly what she was doing, and why. Her mind was clear again, and her faith was strong.”

  Joy tempered the pain in Whitestorm’s eyes, and he bowed his head. Fireheart realized how devastating Bluestar’s death must be for him; they had been friends throughout a long life.

  By now the rest of the Clan had crept into the circle around Fireheart. He could see the traces of their terrible experience still in their eyes, along with fear for the future. Swallowing uncomfortably, he realized that it was his duty now to calm those fears.

heart,” Brackenfur asked hesitantly, “is it true that Bluestar’s dead?”

  Fireheart nodded. “Yes, it’s true. She…she died saving me, and all of us.” For a moment he thought his voice would fail completely, and he swallowed hard. “You all know that I was the last cat on the trail to lead the dogs to the gorge. When I was almost at the edge, Tigerstar leaped out at me and held me down so that the pack leader caught up to me. He would have killed me, and the dogs would still be loose in the forest, if it hadn’t been for Bluestar. She threw herself at the dog, right on the edge of the gorge, and…and they both went over.”

  He could see a ripple of distress sweeping across his Clan mates, like wind stirring the trees.

  “What happened then?” Frostfur asked quietly.

  “I went in after her, but I couldn’t save her.” Briefly Fireheart closed his eyes, remembering the churning water and his hopeless struggle to keep his leader afloat. “Mistyfoot and Stonefur from RiverClan came to help me when we had been swept clear of the gorge,” he went on. “Bluestar was alive when we got her out but it was too late. Her ninth life was over, and she left us to join StarClan.”

  A yowl of grief came from somewhere among the circle of cats. Fireheart realized that many of the cats had not even been born when Bluestar became leader, and losing her now must feel as if the four great oaks of Fourtrees had been torn up overnight.

  He raised his voice, forcing it not to shake. “Bluestar isn’t gone, you know. She’s already watching over us from StarClan…her spirit is here with us now.” Or in her den, he thought privately, sharing tongues with Stonefur and Mistyfoot.

  “I would like to see Bluestar now,” meowed Speckletail. “Where is she—in her den?” She turned toward the entrance, flanked by Dappletail and Smallear.

  “I’ll come with you,” Frostfur offered, springing to her paws.

  Alarm shot through Fireheart. He had hoped to give Mistyfoot and Stonefur as much time as possible with their dead mother, but he suddenly realized that apart from Graystripe and Sandstorm, no cats even knew that the two RiverClan warriors were in the camp.