The black tom had had this dream before. It was a dream of a forest, one that he had never visited in his waking life, and whose silence was unnerving to a cat who had grown up surrounded by Thunderpaths. As the dream took shape around him, he felt pine needles beneath his paws, and musty scents filled his nose. A thick bramble wall enclosed the clearing he stood in. It was swollen here and there by dens that seemed to have been woven into it. Cats squeezed in and out of them. Some crossed the clearing; some stopped to talk to one another; others padded eagerly toward a pile of prey at the far end, sometimes walking right by the black tom as if they didn’t see him. Because they didn’t. He wasn’t really there. He’d seen these same cats each time he visited the dream, and he was learning to recognize their pelts. Now a brown tom with white splotches and light blue eyes carried a bundle of fragrantsmelling leaves toward one of the dens. A skinny old tom slid out to greet him. “I’m glad you’ve come.” The old cat nudged him inside. “He’s been coughing all night.
” At the other side of the clearing, a tortoiseshell she-cat murmured anxiously to a large ginger tom. A pure white she-cat watched, her pelt ruffled. Behind them, three young cats shifted their paws uneasily. The dreaming tom pricked his ears. These cats have never been this worried in their lives . and they don’t know what to do. Anxiety was fluttering in his belly. Why did he dream of this place? What did it mean? As he wondered this, the forest blurred around him. The ground seemed to shift beneath his paws; then suddenly it fell away, and he swirled into darkness. Stars spun around him until, with a jolt, he felt solid ground beneath his paws again.
Soft green meadows rolled away from him on every side. Above him, a wide blue sky stretched to the distant horizon. More cats. The dreaming tom blinked as he saw ranks of cats lined before him, their pelts sparkling with starlight and their eyes flashing eagerly. They were staring straight at him. His belly tightened with alarm. “How . how can you see me?” A black she-cat stepped forward and dipped her head. Her fur was sleek, her frame wellmuscled, as though she’d never known the hardships of hunger or cold. “Don’t be frightened,” she told him softly.
“We mean you no harm.” A broad-shouldered dark tabby tom joined her. “We need you to do something for us.” “What can I do?” The dreaming tom stared at her. “I’m not like you cats. ” “You take care of those around you, don’t you?” the black she-cat asked. “I do what I can to ease their illness and heal their wounds.” The she-cat blinked slowly. “A cat who cares for others is special to us,” she mewed. “That is why we chose you to be our messenger.
” “Strangers will come to your home,” the broad-shouldered tabby chimed in. “They will need your help, just as we need it.” Puzzled, the dreaming tom frowned. “And you need me to give them a message?” “Not exactly,” the black cat meowed quickly. “But let these strangers guide your paws.” The dreaming tom’s gaze drifted past the she-cat to the starry cats gathered behind her. Their eyes were fixed on him, burning with need. He backed away, his heart quickening. Why had they chosen him? “I don’t understand.” “Please!” The black she-cat’s mew was tinged with fear.
“If you don’t help . ” Then her voice trailed away, and the vision of the starry cats and meadows began to dissolve into darkness. In its place the dreaming tom saw the forest clearing once more. But the bramble walls were torn, the dens ripped open. The tortoiseshell she-cat lay at the head of the clearing, blood oozing from wounds scarring her pelt. The three young cats he’d seen stumbled past. One collapsed, a gash showing across his belly. The old tom lay panting beside shredded branches. A brown cat was sitting nearby, so thin that his bones showed though his thin pelt. His pale blue eyes stared desolately at the fallen cats as though he were frozen to stone by their suffering.
With a jolt, the dreaming tom woke. The first thing he felt was the weight of the small tom-kit sleeping in the curve of his belly. He lifted his head and blinked into the darkness, his heart pounding. The kit whimpered and twitched, clearly having a dream of his own. He wondered, just for a moment, if it was a similar dream. “Rest, little one.” The tom leaned down and soothed the kit with a soft lap of his tongue. His dream lingered, unsettling him. If you don’t help . The black she-cat’s frightened words stuck in his mind.
He tried to tell himself it was just a meaningless voice in his head. And yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was important. He’d dreamed of the brambled clearing before, but his dream had never shifted to the dark place of starry cats. He wondered if it meant something. As the kit quieted and relaxed once more into deep sleep, the tom stared into the shadowy night. Dreams are just dreams. He tried to dismiss it. But this dream had felt too real to be ignored. CHAPTER 1 Worry pricked at Tigerheart’s paws as he bounded between the pines, moving so fast he barely caught their scent. I have to reach Dovewing.
He leaped over ragged roots, his tail slapping against tree trunks and his legs battering the long grass. His pelt prickled with anticipation, and his belly fur tingled with nerves. He always grew tense when he got too far away from ShadowClan. It was still struggling to rebuild itself in the aftermath of the rogue leader Darktail’s meddling—first tempting away its younger members, then challenging Rowanstar for the leadership. ShadowClan had turned on its leader and chosen to follow the rogue. Rowanstar, Tawnypelt, and Tigerheart had abandoned the camp to Darktail and his “Kin,” and Darktail had proved himself even more brutal and vicious than Tigerheart could ever have imagined. Many ShadowClan cats had died or gone missing. Then RiverClan suffered as Darktail took his war to them. Eventually, all of the Clans joined together in fighting back, but even now, Tigerheart could not let himself relax. He was constantly worried that danger was out there somewhere.
Today, though, his biggest worry was that Dovewing wouldn’t wait for him. He skidded down the slippery rise and jumped a ditch. The sun was starting to sink. I miss her. I got too used to seeing her every day, he admitted to himself. When Darktail’s rogues had driven them from their Clan, Tigerheart, Rowanstar, and Tawnypelt had sought sanctuary with ThunderClan. Living beside Dovewing every day, he’d felt the love he’d once tried to leave behind flaring anew. At first she’d kept her distance, but he knew that her old feelings had been stirred, just as his had been. And when they were sent on a quest to find Twigpaw, they grew closer than they’d ever been. After ShadowClan had reclaimed its old territory, they’d made an agreement to meet—whenever they could—in the dappled glade on SkyClan land, just beyond the place where the ShadowClan and ThunderClan borders touched.
Tigerheart knew he was being disloyal to his Clan. He had told Rowanstar that he was going to patrol the border, and instead he was meeting Dovewing. The lie still felt sour on his tongue. Dishonesty was the last thing his Clan needed right now. Rowanstar had lost confidence in his leadership, and with so few cats, the whole Clan was stretched to its limit just keeping up hunting patrols and border patrols, let alone fortifying the camp against harsh leaf-bare weather. Food was scarce, and the shattered dens were still not ready for the first snow. Rowanstar needed his support now more than ever. Tigerheart had been trying his best to restore his Clan’s confidence by backing up his father’s decisions and setting an example for his Clanmates, as their deputy. But the strain of such responsibility was tiring. Being with Dovewing let him forget his troubles for a while.
With her, there was no need to carry the weight of his Clan. He could let the burden slip from his shoulders and simply be himself. Once he reached her, the anxious tingling in his paws would disappear. Ears pricked, he rounded a bramble patch and crossed a stretch of withered ferns. His heart quickened as he imagined Dovewing scanning the forest, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. A purr rumbled in his throat. He was nearly there, the misty forest air slicking his pelt. Please still be waiting! He raced up the slope to where the trees thinned. Ahead, sunshine seeped through the mist and lit the sheltered glade. Beyond the bracken he saw pale gray fur.
His heart soared. Dovewing. Two days apart had been too long. He crashed through the damp undergrowth and scrambled to a halt beside her. Her eyes flashed with relief. “You came.” Dovewing thrust her muzzle into his neck fur. She was trembling, and he thought he could hear a note of worry in her mew. She was silent so long, apprehension spiked through Tigerheart’s fur. “Did some cat find out about us?” “No.
” Dovewing’s ears twitched nervously. “What is it, then?” Tigerheart stared at her blankly. What could be so bad that she couldn’t find the words? “Something’s wrong. I can tell. ” Have you stopped loving me? He braced himself. “I’m expecting kits.” Kits? Shock numbed him. “Mine?” He wasn’t thinking straight. “Of course yours!” Fury flared in Dovewing’s eyes. She lifted a paw to bat at his muzzle.
He barely felt it. He was too shocked by what she’d said. Kits . our kits! He took a deep breath to gather himself—the last thing Dovewing needed was him gawking at thin air. “That was a dumb thing to say. I’m sorry. You just . took me by surprise.” Then the tingling of joy he’d been starting to feel began to fade. “Have you told Ivypool?” Dovewing had always been close to her sister.
“Ivypool barely talks to me these days. I think she suspects I’m seeing you.” She stared at the ground, her eyes full of sadness. Alarm rippled through Tigerheart’s pelt, and his breath quickened. How could they hide their relationship now? What would this secret do to ShadowClan? It was already so fragile. Cats were bound to take sides in a scandal like this. And the fallout might destroy the uneasy peace that had passed for unity since the rogues had left. He saw the expectation in Dovewing’s gaze shrink to disappointment as he stared at her wordlessly. His thoughts were spinning, but he had no idea what to say. She looked away.
“This makes things so much harder, doesn’t it?” Tigerheart shook his head. Having kits with Dovewing was something he’d dreamed of, and yet . “It’s bad timing, Dovewing. Our warriors are losing respect for Rowanstar. And they keep looking at me, like I’m supposed to take his place.” “Is that what you want?” Dovewing stared at him with wide eyes. Tigerheart shifted his paws, trying to find the right words. “ShadowClan is weaker than it’s ever been. They need a leader they can believe in.” Dovewing inhaled sharply.
“And that leader has to be you?” “I don’t know.” Tigerheart stared at the grass beneath his feet. “I’m trying to support Rowanstar, but that might not be enough.” “What about me?” Dovewing’s mew caught in her throat. “What about us?” Tigerheart felt his heart breaking. There must be an us. I’ve struggled too long without you . “I love you, Dovewing. I will always love you. We can sort this out, I promise.
” Raising his head, he cleared away the choking thoughts of Clanmates and responsibility and gazed at Dovewing. He could see her belly growing already and imagined the tiny kits inside. A purr broke from his throat. Our kits. He weaved around her, letting his purr throb through his whole body and hers. “Our kits will be beautiful and brave. They will grow into fine warriors.” As he spoke, hope flickered in his chest. Perhaps this was meant to be—perhaps these new kits would help restore ShadowClan to its former strength. “You can join ShadowClan with me.
We could be together. There would be no more hiding or lying, and we could bring up our kits in the same Clan.” It seemed the perfect solution. His belly tingled with apprehension, but he hoped that she would be excited about raising their shared kin in the pine forest. It might take her a little while to get used to ShadowClan’s ways, but she’d be so well cared for, he knew she could be happy there. He knew they could be happy there. His thoughts were tumbling so fast over one another, he hardly felt her freeze. Only when he pressed his muzzle against her cheek did he realize that she’d become as stiff as stone. “I can’t do that.” She stared at the ground, defeat heavy in her gaze.
“I know it will be hard, but Dovewing, it might be the best thing for the kits.” Tigerheart tried to catch her eye. “The best thing for us.” And for ShadowClan. Slowly she lifted her gaze. Fear shimmered in her eyes. “I wish I could believe that,” she began haltingly. “But . I’ve been having dreams.” “Dreams?” Tigerheart struggled to understand.
Dovewing wasn’t a medicine cat. She’d lost her special powers moons ago when the Dark Forest had been beaten. “All cats have dreams.” “Not like these.” Dovewing’s gaze glittered unnervingly. Whatever she was about to say, she believed strongly. “These dreams mean something. I can feel it.” Tigerheart’s pelt prickled with alarm. “Are they .
bad dreams?” “I dream of the ThunderClan nursery. I’m alone in the camp, and I’m watching the nursery from the clearing. Something feels wrong, so I go to look inside.” The fur along her spine lifted as she remembered. “It’s empty. The nests are old and tattered, and shadows are creeping from the corners. They swallow the floor and the nests. I run outside, but the shadows follow. They reach through the entrance like dark flames and lick the walls, growing darker and stronger until the whole nursery is lost in blackness.” As she spoke, Tigerheart felt like he could see everything she described, so clearly.
He had to shake his head to chase the images out of his head. “It’s just a dream,” he told her, not sure if he believed it himself. Dovewing drew away. “But it’s not!” Her mew was taut with fear. “I have it again and again, and every time I do, I wake up filled with dread because I know it’s a sign.” Tigerheart blinked at her. The fear in her eyes was real, but he tried to tell himself it was just because she’d been worrying about this by herself for so long. She could share the worry with him now. “Have you asked Jayfeather or Alderheart about it?”