A keening wail rose from the grey she-cat who had been grooming Greypaw. She shouldered her way up to the center of the clearing to stop disbelieving in front of the lifeless red tom. Whitestorm followed her, his ears low, and wound his tail through hers. She pushed her face into his white chest, shoulders shaking. Two smaller cats also forced their way in, one a brownish tan color and the other a pale ginger. The tan one crouched beside the body, overwhelmed by grief, while the ginger burrowed her nose in Redtail's fur.
"Redtail is my mother's littermate," Greypaw murmured, "Dustpaw and Sandpaw are his kits."
The tabby that had carried Redtail's body walked to the bottom of the High Rock, his powerful muscles rippling under a myriad of old and new wounds. He lifted his head, a trickle of blood dripping from a fresh slash across an old, broad scar on his snout. "Cats of ThunderClan!" he called. An unnatural hush fell over the clearing and every cat awaited his word. His chest swelled under their gaze. "Our patrol was set upon by RiverClan at the Sunningrocks. We were outnumbered. Redtail fought with honor, but the deputy Oakheart pounced on him from behind. Be assured, he received justice swiftly, at my claws."
Bluestar walked forward. The tips of her ears barely came up to the tabby's massive shoulder, but the noble confidence with which she held herself caused all eyes to shift to her. "Oakheart killed Redtail?" she repeated.
The tabby nodded. "RiverClan has taken much from us this day," he said lowly.
Bluestar bowed her head, grief rolling off of her in a silent wave. "Then, we… thank you, Tigerclaw, for avenging him," she meowed. Tigerclaw moved aside as she padded up to the body of Redtail. She, like the cats of his family, quietly bent to lick his fur.
"What are they doing?" Firepaw asked Greypaw.
Greypaw regarded them sadly. "Sharing tongues, before he goes to join StarClan," he explained. This did nothing to help Firepaw understand.
More cats started to move in, but they did not stay for longer than a moment before rotating with the cat behind them. Greypaw stood.
"Wait. Am I supposed to-?" Firepaw asked, scrambling to follow. Greypaw halted him with a flick of his tail.
"No, you didn't know Redtail. Stay for a moment, I'll be back," he said. Firepaw eased back onto his haunches. He couldn't help feeling a little guilty for not participating, but mostly, he was relieved to be staying put. Greypaw gave the body of Redtail a few respectful licks, then nuzzled his head under his mother's chin. She blinked at him, but otherwise remained somberly reposed.
"They'll stand vigil with him until the morning," Greypaw informed, returning to Firepaw's side. The ginger tom looked up, taking note that while the sun was low in the sky, it wouldn't be dark for a while yet. "Come on, I'll show you around camp."
Firepaw followed as Greypaw walked in a loop around the clearing, pointing things out with his tail. "That really wide bush over there makes the warrior's den. Behind all those brambles is the nursery. Past the medicine den, in that fallen log, is where the elders live."
The two apprentices approached together. The grass around the elder's den was bright and lush, still holding some moisture from the morning dew. Firepaw sniffed curiously and caught the scent of mouse wafting from inside. "Dustpaw and Sandpaw must have brought the elders their catch before… before everything happened," Greypaw supposed. They stepped through a hole in the bark.
Patches of moss were scraped together in piles, some of which cats were occupying like beds. Greypaw dipped his head respectfully in greeting, and Firepaw quickly copied.
"Willowpelt's son," meowed one of the toms affectionately. "You brought the newcomer to meet us."
Another elder harrumphed, not bothering to turn around and face them. "You'll have to excuse Rosetail," the tom apologized, "She's forgotten her manners. I'm Smallear." He indicated a brown tom a stump tail, then a grizzled she-cat with a cloudy eye, and a graying tortoiseshell queen, introducing, "This is Halftail, One-eye and Dappletail."
"Hello, Firepaw," they greeted. Halftail continued, "You're only missing Patchpelt right now. He went to sit vigil with Redtail. It's a hard thing to outlive a brother, especially one much younger than you are."
The other elders nodded in agreement. "Redtail would have made a fine leader someday. Bluestar will be reluctant to name a new deputy tonight," Smallear added sadly.
One-eye reminisced, "I remember when Bluestar was made deputy."
Dappletail tilted her head to the side. "It was just after she lost her kits," she said, "Such a shame."
"They were the healthiest litter in moons," One-eye agreed, "But perhaps that's why we lost them. Their strong little voices must have led the fox to the nursery."
"Who do you think she'll chose as the next deputy?" Halftail meowed.
Rosetail flicked her tail irritably, grumbling at the wall, "As long as she does it before moonhigh. It wouldn't do for her to break all the clan traditions in one day."
Smallear gave Firepaw an apologetic glance. "There are some obvious candidates," he submitted. Firepaw's gaze wandered back into the clearing as the elders continued to speculate. He saw Tigerclaw's ears swivel at the mention of his name. The massive tabby coolly began to wash his paws.
As if on cue, Bluestar jumped up onto the High Rock. "All cats old enough to catch their own prey, join here beneath the High Rock for a Clan meeting!" she called. Firepaw turned out into the clearing, with Greypaw and the elders filtered close behind. He tried not to let it bother him when Rosetail positioned herself as far away as possible.
"A new deputy must be appointed," she announced, "But first, let us give thanks to StarClan for the life of Redtail. Tonight he sits with his fellow warriors among the stars." An approving murmur spread through the crowd.
Bluestar continued, "Since Redtail was also responsible for Dustpaw's training, I will need to appoint him a new mentor. Dustpaw, Darkstripe, step forward."
The two cats emerged from the crowd to join her beneath the High Rock. "Darkstripe, you are ready for your first apprentice. You had a fine mentor in Tigerclaw, and I expect you to pass on the skills that you have learned to Dustpaw."
Darkstripe looked down at his new charge with apparent enthusiasm, but Dustpaw's eyes were dull when he dutifully stretched his neck forward to touch his nose to his new mentor's.
"And now I shall name ThunderClan's new deputy," Bluestar continued, "I say these words before the body of Redtail, so that his spirit may hear and approve my choice."
Firepaw glanced curiously at Tigerclaw. He was staring up at the High Rock with hunger in his amber eyes. "Lionheart," Bluestar meowed, "will be the new deputy of ThunderClan."
"Lionheart! Lionheart!" the crowd chorused. The golden tabby strode proudly to the bottom of the High Rock, lifting his chin towards his leader so she could bend down and touch noses with him. Firepaw looked again at Tigerclaw, whose expression had shifted into level indifference. If he was disappointed, it didn't show.
Bluestar jumped down from the High Rock and cats began to throng forward to congratulate the new deputy. Greypaw flicked his tail across Firepaw's shoulders as Tigerclaw gave the golden tabby a nudge so powerful that it knocked him off balance. "How about I show you where we sleep, yeah?" he suggested. Firepaw had to tear his gaze away from the hearty show of affection being showered on Lionheart by his clanmates. He couldn't help thinking back to his own half-hearted reception not too much earlier. Was this the kind of loyalty and warmth he could look forward to in the future?
Greypaw trotted over to a sunbleached stump at the edge of the clearing and indicated a thick cluster of woven ferns just to the side of it. Firepaw followed him inside to find more clumps of dry moss like the ones serving as beds in the elder's den, one of which distinctly carried the scent of Greypaw. "The den's pretty empty now compared to how many apprentices we used to have. So you have your pick," he meowed. A few other beds appeared to be claimed, though Firepaw was not yet familiar with the owners of each cat-scent. He stepped into the one to Greypaw's right. The only scents clinging to that moss were old and faded.
"I think I'll take this one. And then, I want to try and meet the rest of the clan," Firepaw said.
Greypaw wiggled excitedly at his side. "Sure thing," he agreed, "You're really going to like it here, you'll see."