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Warm shafts of sun shine streamed through the canopy of leaves and flickered over Fireheart's pelt. He crouched lower, aware that his coat would be glowing amber among the lush green undergrowth.
Paw by paw, he crept beneath a fern. He could smell a pigeon. He moved slowly toward the mouth watering scent until he could see the plump bird pecking among the ferns.
Fireheart flexed his claws, his paws itching with anticipation. He was hungry after leading the dawn patrol and hunting all morning. This was the high season for prey, a time for the Clan to grow fat on the forest's bounty. And although there had been little rain since the new leaf floods, the woods were rich with food. After stocking the fresh-kill pile back at camp, it was time for Fireheart to hunt for himself. He tensed his muscles, ready to leap.
Suddenly a second scent wafted toward him on the dry breeze. Fireheart opened his mouth, tipping his head to one side. The pigeon must have smelled it too, for its head shot up and it began to unfold its wings, but it was too late. A rush of white fur shot out from under some brambles. Fireheart stared in surprise as the cat pounced on the startled bird, pinning it to the ground with his front paws before finishing it off with a swift bite to the neck.
The delicious smell of fresh-kill filled Fireheart's nostrils. He stood up and padded out of the undergrowth toward the fluffy white tom. "Well caught, Cloudpaw," he meowed. "I didn't see you coming until it was too late."
"Nor did this stupid bird," crowed Cloudpaw, flicking his tail smugly.
Fireheart felt his shoulders tense. Cloudpaw was his apprentice as well as his sister's son. It was Fireheart's responsibility to teach him the skills of a Clan warrior, and how to respect the warrior code. The young tom was undeniably a good hunter, but Fireheart couldn't help wishing that he would learn a little humility. Deep down, he sometimes wondered if Cloudpaw would ever understand the importance of the warrior code, the moons-old traditions of loyalty and ritual that had been passed down through generations of cats in the forest.
But Cloudpaw had been born in Twolegplace to Fireheart's kittypet sister, Princess, and brought to ThunderClan by Fireheart as a tiny kit. Fireheart knew from his own bitter experience that Clan cats had no respect for kittypets. Fireheart had spent his first six moons living with Twolegs, and there were cats in his Clan that would never let him forget the fact that he was not forest-born. He twitched his ears impatiently. He knew he did everything he could to prove his loyalty to the Clan, but his stubborn apprentice was a different matter. If Cloudpaw were going to win any sympathy from his Clan mates, he was going to have to lose some of his arrogance.
"It's just as well you're so quick," Fireheart pointed out. "You were upwind. I could smell you, even if I couldn't see you. And so could the bird."
Cloudpaw's long snowy fur bristled and he snapped back, "I know I was upwind! But I could tell this dumb dove wasn't going to be hard to catch whether he smelled me or not."
The young cat stared defiantly into Fireheart's eyes, and Fireheart felt his annoyance turning to anger. "It's a pigeon, not a dove!" he spat. "And a true warrior shows more respect for the prey that feeds his Clan."
"Yeah, right!" retorted Cloudpaw. "I didn't see Thornpaw show much respect for that squirrel he dragged back to camp yesterday. He said it was so dopey, a kit could have caught it."
"Thornpaw is just an apprentice," Fireheart growled. "Like you, he still has a lot to learn."
"Well, I caught it, didn't I?" grumbled Cloudpaw, prodding the pigeon with a sullen paw.
"There's more to being a warrior than catching pigeons!"
"I'm faster than Brightpaw and stronger than Thornpaw," Cloudpaw spat back. "What more do you want?"
"Your den-mates would know that a warrior never attacks with the wind behind him!" Fireheart knew he shouldn't let himself be drawn into an argument, but his apprentice's stubbornness infuriated him like a tick on his ear.
"Big deal. You might have been downwind like a good warrior, but I got to the pigeon first!" Cloudpaw raised his voice in an angry yowl.
"Be quiet," Fireheart hissed, suddenly distracted. He lifted his head and sniffed the air. The forest seemed strangely silent, and Cloudpaw's loud meows were echoing too loudly through the trees.
"What's the matter?" Cloudpaw glanced around. "I can't smell anything."
"Neither can I," Fireheart admitted.
"So what are you worried about?"
"Tigerclaw," Fireheart answered bluntly. The dark warrior had been prowling through his dreams since Bluestar had banished him from the Clan a quarter moon ago. Tigerclaw had tried to kill the ThunderClan leader, but Fireheart had stopped him and exposed his long-hidden treachery to the whole Clan. There had been no sign of Tigerclaw since, but Fireheart felt icy claws of fear pricking at his heart now as he listened to the stillness of the forest. It seemed to be listening too, holding its breath, and Tigerclaw's parting words echoed in Fireheart's mind: Keep your eyes open, Fireheart. Keep your ears pricked. Keep looking behind you. Because one day I'll find you, and then you'll be crow food.Cloudpaw's mew broke the silence. "What would Tigerclaw be doing around here?" he scoffed. "Bluestar exiled him!"
"I know," Fireheart agreed. "And only StarClan knows where he went. But Tigerclaw made it clear that we'd not seen the last of him!"
"I'm not scared of that traitor."
"Well, you should be!" hissed Fireheart. "Tigerclaw knows these woods as well as any cat in ThunderClan. He'd tear you to shreds if he got the chance."
Cloudpaw snorted and circled his catch impatiently. "You've been no fun since Bluestar made you deputy. I'm not hanging around if you're just going to waste the morning trying to scare me with nursery tales. I'm meant to be hunting for the Clan elders." And he dashed away into the brambles, leaving the lifeless pigeon lying on the earth.
"Cloudpaw, come back!" Fireheart yowled furiously. Then he shook his head. "Let Tigerclaw have the young mouse-brained idiot!" he muttered to himself.
Lashing his tail, he snatched up the pigeon and wondered whether to carry it back to camp for Cloudpaw. A warrior should be responsible for his own fresh-kill, he concluded, and tossed the pigeon into a thick clump of grass. He padded after it and flattened down the green stalks to cover the fat bird, wishing he could be sure that Cloudpaw would return and take it back with the rest of his catch to the hungry elders. If he doesn't bring it home with him, he can go hungry until he does, Fireheart decided. His apprentice had to learn that even in greenleaf, prey should never be wasted.Warriors #4: Rising Storm. Copyright Â© by Erin Hunter . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Rising Storm by Erin Hunter
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