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There were silent stalkers in the tall grass. They blended in perfectly, their sleek golden pelts melting into the grass around them. Their bellies barely scraped the ground as they advanced on their target. A large herd of wildebeest was situated where there was rich, green grass. One of the stalkers gave an almost unnoticeable signal that meant attack. The leader went first, flanked by the others, right towards an old female. The whole herd bolted, sending chaos throughout the wildebeest. The hunters gained ground on their victim, who was lagging behind. The leader tripped the old cow and she went down with a loud thud. The leader suffocated the animal while the others held it down. When it was dead, the leader let out a loud roar, saying “Pride, come and feast on our kill.” Slowly, other lions came out of the brush towards the carcass. Young little cubs bounced around the lioness’ paws. It was a big day for the little cubs. It was the first time they would be eating meat.
“It’s really chewy,” I said. I was looking up at my mother, noticing that her lips were stained a deep red.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” my brother, Cameroo, said smugly. “Dotani told me yesterday.”
“Yeah. Like the heir to the Pride would ever say something to a young cub.” Dotani said from across the kill. His mane was starting to thicken, but it was still very small. I rolled my eyes and returned to the kill. I tried it some more, and it was really good. After I had my fill, I stepped away and accidentally bumped into the Pride’s healer, Ottagu.
“You ate a lot for a little cub,” she whispered, her eyes smiling at me. “You’ll be a strong little lioness when you grow up.” She licked the top of my head and walked away. Ottagu was a small lion; she never had the strength to be a Hunter, so she took the position of Healer. I knew I would certainly be a Hunter, but my sister . . . not so much. My sister was the smallest of our litter, and the frailest. Half the time she sits in the shade of a tree, her coat a dull yellow. Ottagu gives her strengthening herbs all the time, but after three months, she hasn’t gotten better. Eagla is almost destined to be a Healer. I was lost in thought until someone pushed me hard.
“What was that for?” I growled, showing my teeth.
“You were in lala land,” Fundi snarled. Fundi is Dotani’s younger brother, so if anything happened to Dotani, Fundi would become the Lead Lion. Envy and jealousy had been Fundi’s teacher, so he was very mean, especially to little cubs like me.
“Next time, don’t just stand there, move out of the way.” He walked off into the tall grass, disappearing in mere seconds. I turned around and walked over to my mother.
“I saw what Fundi did to you. You were very brave, Aeropi, for standing up to him. He is nothing but jealousy with a lion’s pelt.”
“You are right,” said a lioness’s voice. It was Emanni, the Lead Lioness. “My son is very cruel. I believe my mate will kick him out sometime soon. He is a bad influence to young cubs.” She looked down at me. “Oh, and by the way, Bata is going to have cubs in a few months. You know her, sister. Make sure she is a good mother.”
Mother smiled. “I will.” She looked at a female whose belly was slightly bigger than the rest of the Pride. Her gaze then turned back to me. “You’ll have little cousins soon. You can teach them how to play-fight and be a cub.” She bent down and nuzzled me, a purr rising in her chest.
“But what about Eagla and Cameroo and Chiki?” I asked.
“They’ll help too, but I have a feeling that they’ll attach to you.”
Months passed, and soon I was training to be a Hunter. I watched as they worked together as a group. I was still too young to take part in an actual hunt. So when I wasn’t observing them, I practiced moves to take prey down. It was tiring at first, but I soon adjusted. Ottagu was teaching Eagla about different herbs and other things that Healers talk about. Dotani taught Cameroo and Chiki on how to be a male lion. Both of my brothers were starting to grow manes and their muscles rippled under their gold pelts. All four of us were much bigger, and I was the biggest. Mother sometimes treated us like cubs, but the rest of the Pride treated us like adults. And then, there were Bata’s cubs. Moshkii and Sutara both adored me. They always wanted to hear all the stories of the Creator or different animals. But there was one story that always amazed them.
“A long, long time ago, there were creatures that walked on two feet and had fur only on their head. They lived in a land called ‘Egypt’ and their leader was called the god-on-earth, or the Pharaoh. He reigned over every person and when he died, they laid him in giant hills. There was one Pharaoh that decided that he should have a giant burial hill, larger than any one before him.
“ ‘My final resting place,’ he said, ‘will be the greatest and largest Egypt has ever seen!’ So he sent his men to work. They dug stones from a mountain and stacked them on top of each other. It was slow work, and it took over twenty Cycles to finish it. When the Pharaoh died, they sealed the hill and left. Some say that the great Pharaoh’s hill still stands today. It catches the sun’s rays when it rises above the hill. Many say it’s a beautiful sight.” (By the way, a Cycle is equal to one human year.)
“Wow,” Sutara murmured.
“How did they build such a thing?” Moshkii asked. He always asked questions.
“Us lions never know,” I replied. “It may have been magick.”
Moshkii opened his mouth to ask yet another question, but his mother butted in.
“Time to go to sleep,” Bata said. Both cubs groaned. They walked over to a tree and layed down under it. Bata looked at me with warm eyes.
“Thank you for entertaining the cubs,” she thanked me.
“You’re welcome.” I didn’t care. The cubs were fun to entertain.
“They both like you. Sutara kept saying to me, ‘Mother, I want to be like Aeropi when I grow up.’ You know, you could be a excellent mother.”
The comment made me embarrassed. “Thanks,” I mumbled.
“No, I’m serious. Your rite of passage is coming up soon, and after that, you have permission to have cubs.” Bata looked at me intently. I never seemed to notice that my aunt was blind in one eye until now. Her left eye was cloudy and it didn’t move much.
“Well, I’m really tired. G’night, Bata.” I licked the side of her face, which is the lion way of kissing. She licked my face and then walked away towards her cubs. I walked over next to Eagla, who was muttering in her sleep. I layed down and closed my eyes. Me? A cub-mother? Maybe when I’m older. But not right now. I fell asleep after that.
”Aeropi, wake up,” someone whispered. A paw prodded me on the shoulder and I woke up. I looked up and saw Solari, the Lead Hunter.
“Your first hunt is today,” she whispered. “The Hunters have to get up early so that we can get to the rendezvous point and get on with some hunting.” We left as soon as everyone was up. There were six of us: Solari, Chewi, Bata, Mother, Mika, and me. We slunk off into the tall grasses and started to stalk a herd of antelope. We got close and as soon as Solari gave the signal, we bolted out of the cover, right for a male antelope. It was faster, but we had more stamina. When it tired out, Chewi tripped the antelope and we rushed over to hold it down so that it could be killed. I looked at Solari.
“You must make the killing bite.” Solari said. She held the head down while I grabbed the neck of the antelope. Warm blood filled my mouth and I bit down harder. The life slowly ebbed out of the buck. When it was dead, the Hunters congratulated me. I was finally a true Hunter. I was now a full member of the Pride. Mother was crying.
“You’re a big lion now,” she said, holding back tears. “I can’t believe that two Cycles ago you were as big as my paw.” She rubbed my neck.
“Mother, it’s okay. Don’t cry.”
She sniffed. “You’re finally grown up.” I saw Cameroo, Chiki, and Eagla come out of the tall grasses. Eagla was beaming and both of my brothers were happy for me.
“I’m so glad you’re finally a Hunter,” Eagla said. “You were destined for it.” Was it just me, or was there bitterness in her voice?
Chiki was purring. “Congrats about becoming a Hunter, Aeropi!” His mane was pretty thick. I knew I was going to have to say goodbye to them soon.
“That’s a nice kill,” Cameroo said. “It’s a really big buck.”
There was a sudden roar that shut everybody up. Tyhar, the Lead Lion, had joined us. His dark mane glittered like stone in the harsh noon sun.
“We have a new member in our Pride. Aeropi, you are a full member and after today, you have my permission to breed.” After this, his deep voice was suddenly sad. “I also have to say that I am stepping down and letting my son, Dotani, take my place as Lead Lion. We are also sad to see the parting of Chiki and Cameroo.” In an instant, he suddenly took on an aggressive pose. His hackles rose and he bared his teeth at Cameroo and Chiki. They growled back at him and then took off in the other direction. Tyhar shook his mane and then looked at Dotani. He cleared his throat.
“My reign as the Lead Lion of the Grassland Pride will be peaceful and bountiful. The Creator will look upon us as prize lions. You may eat now.”
I dug into the carcass. I felt good because I helped my Pride by giving them food. Although I miss my brothers, I can’t think about them right now. I have to think of my Pride.
A Cycle passed and the Pride was still well fed. It was the dry season, but since part of our territory is the river, we snacked while we drank. Dotani was a very good Lead Lion, and he had a mate, whose name was Kicha. She was expecting his cubs. And the funny thing is that Kicha and I became friends as soon as she came to our Pride. One day, we were lying under a tree to escape the blazing African heat.
“You know, I think it’s time for you to have cubs. You’re three Cycles old and that’s the perfect time to start breeding.” Kicha shifted her paws; her stomach was really big.
I sighed. “Well, I don’t know. What was it like?” I looked at Kicha expectantly.
“I’m not giving any secrets away except that you feel like a new lion after,” she replied. I started laughing.
“Now that sounds exciting. Hey, guess what happened to Sutara on that hunt that other day?”
“What happened?” Kicha asked.
“Well, let’s just say that she got kicked by a wildebeest and I think she may have broken her shoulder.”
“Ow, that has got to hurt.”
“Yeah. She was yowling all the way home. You know I love her, but she was annoying me.”
“Yeah.” We spent the rest of the day talking. Night soon dawned and the rest of the Pride settled by the large tree where Kicha and I were laying by. As soon as everybody was sound asleep, I crept off. I headed towards a star-picture that’s called The Jumping Lion. There was a patch of land that no Pride claimed in that direction. Kicha called it “Lion’s Point.” As I reached the unclaimed hill, I noticed that there was a male sitting on the hill. He wasn’t facing me. He was staring up into the stars. I approached him, but suddenly, a twig snapped under my paw. He turned around and snarled. He was a pale gold, but his mane was a very dark honey-brown. He was the same age as me.
“Who are you and why are you here?” he growled.
I kept my tone even “My name is Aeropi. If you’re wondering why I’m here, I’m just going for a walk.”
“What Pride are you from?” the lion asked.
“The Grassland Pride,” I replied smugly.
“Oh. Wait, why do you smell really good?” he asked.
“Why don’t you come down here?” It was that time of the year, and the pale lion knew it.
“How about you come over here. Will that work for you, sweet Aeropi?”
I nodded and joined him on the hill. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Tagorr. I’m from the Serengeti Pride. Or I was . . .” We started to talk about random things, and after a while, I brushed up against Tagorr. He was strong, yet very gentle. If I had cubs, I wanted him to be their father.
“Do you want to make sure that the Creator is okay with this?” he asked after a moment’s silence.
“Yes. It would be very bad if He wasn’t okay with it.” We both looked up at the stars.
“Oh great Creator,” we whispered in unison. “Please bless our bondage and our courtship. In the name of The Maker of All, please accept us.” As soon as we stopped, something whizzed in the sky. It was a shooting star. The Creator had heard us. I looked at Tagorr, who was smiling.
“This is going to get interesting, fast,” I whispered.
For the next week or so, I stayed with Tagorr. After my time had ended, we said our goodbyes. We were both crying. I knew I was going to have his cubs.
“I’ll miss you, Aeropi.” Tagorr said. He licked my face.
“Our cubs will be very healthy and strong. I feel it. Goodbye.” I licked his face. I looked at his pale fur one last time and started to walk towards my Pride.
I returned to the denning place. There was a dead zebra that everyone was digging into. As I came nearer, everyone looked at me. Dotani was not happy.
“Where were you?” he asked. “You snuck out and you didn’t return until a week later.” I edged towards the carcass and started digging in.
“I’m a Pride member.” I said between zebra meat. “I have the right to have cubs.”
There was an eerie silence after what I had said. The chomping of meat, done mainly by me, was the only sound. I looked up with a questioning look. Gladly Kicha broke the silence.
“Oh, well. Come here and see the new cubs.” She beckoned me with her tail. I followed her into a cave that had been carved under the tree. Kicha was bursting with happiness.
“They came while you were gone. There are two females and one male. The little female that has the grass tied around her neck is the heir.” Kicha layed down next to her cubs and started to lick them. They squeaked in happiness and headed towards her belly. It hit me that it would be me suckling cubs in a few months. Kicha looked at me.
“These three will be happy to have playmates,” she said. “Here, come and lay down next to me.” I did as she asked and she started pointing out each of them.
“The male is named Shuta. He looks like his father. The smallest is Yuma. And the one that’s the heir is Zobani.” I nodded as she pointed them out.
“That’s really great. Oh, how’s Sutara?”
Kicha winced. “She did break her shoulder and Eagla said she will have permanent damage. There goes her career as a Hunter.”
I shrugged. “She was helping her Pride. Potential prey kills the most lions. At least it was only her shoulder. It could’ve been worse.”
Kicha gave in. “You’re right.” She stared at her cubs. “Aeropi, you’re going to be a cub-mother! You really listened to me! Oh, I’m so excited.” The next few months went by fast. I started to go on fewer hunts than ever before. The cubs inside me grew and it was soon very noticeable that I was going to have cubs. Yuma, Shuta, and Zobani also grew and they liked having my company. Kicha always joked that we should a Pride storyteller. Like Sutara and Moshkii, they loved the story of the giant burial hill.
“Auntie Aeropi, why did they build them?” Yuma asked.
“Like I said earlier, we don’t know. It was their way of life.” I replied. I noticed Kicha heading towards us. She stood next to me.
“It’s time for bed,” she said. All three of them mewled in protest. But after a bit encouraging from Kicha and me, they gave in. They still slept in the cave under the tree. As we settled down, Kicha looked at me with expectant eyes.
“They’re coming soon, aren’t they?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe tomorrow. Wait, what about your cubs?” Kicha’s tail swept the floor.
“Let them spend a day with Auntie Sutara. They still need to work on their speech. Let’s just say that Shuta mispronounced a word and it turned into a really bad word.”
I laughed. “Which bad word?”
Kicha lowed her voice even more, just in case the cubs were faking to sleep. “Assai.”
I gasped. “Well, they’re just cubs. They learn from their mistakes. Can I get some sleep? I’m totally exhausted.” I closed my eyes and I was out like a light.
I woke up to a sharp pain in my side. Kicha was already awake. The cubs were gone, probably with Sutara. She started coaching what to do. The day went on. It was past noonhigh when the first cub came. It was a male, and it was squealing bloody murder. It was dark when the last one came out. In total, there were five cubs, a very large litter. There were two males and three females. Their names were Beylah, Uusaggi, Trega, Rawri, and Nani. Kicha’s cubs stared at the squealing lumps of fur that were my cubs.
“They’re really small,” Yuma commented.
“We were that big when we were newborn cubs?” Zobani asked.
Kicha was purring. “Yes. You were that small.”
“Really?” Shuta asked. I could see that Shuta wanted to ask another question, but their mother ushered them off to bed. After they were asleep, Kicha padded up to me.
I looked at her. “I’m really worried about Rawri,” I said. He was the youngest of the litter and the runt. I could plainly see that his siblings were getting more food and he was barely getting any.
Kicha sighed. “If the Creator wants him to come back to him, then Rawri will go up into the clouds.”
“I guess.” Sadly, the Creator decided to bring Rawri to the Cloud Savannah. We buried his body near the river, since it was custom. I mourned him, but I focused my attention on my remaining cubs. When they were a month old, Kicha came pelting into the den, her fur standing on end.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“Some rouge males,” she replied, “ and they’re trying to take Dotani’s place!” Her voice rose into a loud whine. We hid in the darkest corner of the cave, just in case the males decided to come in here and kill our cubs.
“Are they going to leave?” Yuma whispered. Her eyes were very wide in the darkness. Outside, there was the sound of roaring and fighting. I winced every time I heard howls of pain.
Kicha looked down at Zobani. “Zobani, you’re going to have to be very brave. They know that you’re the heir, and they’ll target you.”
Zobani nodded. The fierce determination in her eyes made her look much older than she was. “I know, Mother.” When the sun was just about to set, the fighting died down into a few angry growls. Kicha and I left the cubs to see what had happened. The first thing that I noticed was the smell. I wrinkled my nose at the overwhelming stench of fresh blood. Bright drops of crimson blood were splashed over every blade of grass. I looked up. Three unfamiliar males were starting to mark their new territory. Kicha stifled a gasp of horror. Dotani was lying dead in the grass. His lower jaw had been brutally broken, and the fur around his neck was a bright scarlet. I looked passed him and saw that there were also two lionesses lying dead in the grass. I could see from where I was that one of them was Chewi, noticeable by her dark brown fur, but I couldn’t tell who the other one was. One of the males finally noticed us. He padded up to us. He was limping, and he didn’t want to put any weight on his front left paw. He was battle scared even though he was only a Cycle older than me.
“Who’re you?” he growled. His voice was very deep.
“I am Kicha and this is Aeropi.”
The scarred male nodded. “ ’The proud one,’ and ‘she who scars.’ Very interesting names.” I had no idea that my name means ‘she who scars.’ Mother had never told me this. I was going to ask Kicha something when another male walked up to us. He looked just like Chewi, with a dark brown pelt and a black mane. He had green eyes, which were very rare with lions.
“I am Socahtoa,” the male said. “Since I was the one that delivered the killing blow, I will become Lead Lion. Since you have much land, we will split it up between us three. We will still be called the Grassland Pride.” He motioned with his tail for us to come with him. We followed him without a complaint. He came up to Chewi and the other dead lioness. I stopped dead in my tracks. There was no mistaking who had died. She was a powerful lioness, with muscles that rippled under her shiny golden pelt. There was a line that started at the base of the tail and ended in a point above her eyes. My eyes welled with tears.
My mother was dead.
I slowly walked up to her. Her spine had broken, and her death would have been swift. I layed down next to her and nuzzled her.
“Mother,” I whispered, “I’ll miss you.” I gave her one last lick and stood up. Eagla stood next to me.
“I’ll miss her too,” she whispered. I hadn’t noticed that my sister had become much more mature since she became a Healer. But all of a sudden, a rage filled me. I needed to know who killed her. My vision was lined with red.
“Who did this?” I asked. No one answered, so I repeated it, only louder. “WHO DID THIS?” My voice came out as a loud roar. When the last of the males moved forward, I was on to him in three bounds. I was inches away from his face. My teeth were bared, and I shook with fury.
“Why did you do this?” I growled. “She didn’t deserve to die!” The male finally looked me in the eye. He was a pale gold, and his mane was a dark honey-brown. His golden eyes took me in. But I knew who it was.
“How could you?” I whispered savagely. Tears ran down my cheeks. The red haze in my vision grew.
“She was in my way,” he replied. His voice held none of the tenderness it had when we first met. It was rough and savage. Some ancient instinct rose inside of me, and I raised my paw with claws extended. The lions behind me seemed to hold their breath. My paw came down as fast as a cheetah. It came in contact with Tagorr’s cheek and it started to wind its way towards his neck. As soon as I pulled my paw away, he came at me with his own paw. I threw my head to the side. His thorn-sharp claws dragged down the side of my face and down towards my throat. But he didn’t end there. Tagorr’s claw wound its way on to the side of my flank. It felt like there were a thousand grass-fires on my pelt. When he pulled his paw away, I staggered backwards. I could hear someone say something, but it sounded far away. As I faded away into the shadow-world, there was only one thing I could think of.
I had lived up to my name.
I woke up sometime later to Eagla and Ottagu cleaning out my wounds with moss. I looked at Eagla with tired eyes. She looked almost as old as Ottagu in the fading sunlight.
“She’s awake,” my sister said.
“What happened?” I asked groggily. All I could remember was my paw coming down on Tagorr and his claws digging through my flank.
“You went into the shadow-world. You haven’t woken up in a week.”
My eyes widened. “A week?”
Ottagu nodded. “We thought that you wouldn’t come out of it.”
“What happened to the rest of the Pride?” I asked.
Eagla looked at me with solemn eyes. “Chewi and Mother were buried. The territory was split up, but they are waiting for Tagorr. He has lesser injuries than you, but his are starting to become infected.”
“And Kicha?” I questioned further.
“Right here,” she said. I smiled as she came right next to me. She nuzzled the side of my face that wasn’t scarred.
“So how are you?”
Kicha shrugged. “Okay. I’m so sorry about your mother.”
I nodded. “It’s okay.” I had a burning need to ask something. “Kicha, what happened to the cubs?”
She took a shaky breath. “Since Shuta, Yuma, and Zobani were Dotani’s cubs, they weren’t spared. But since your cubs were fathered by Tagorr, they were allowed to live.” I shivered at the name of the father of my cubs. Ottagu noticed me.
“The lionesses decided that it was the best if you were separated from your cubs. I’m sorry, Aeropi, but it’s for the best,” the elder Healer said. But her solemn face brightened. “But you do have another chance. Socahtoa has decided to make you his Lead Lioness.”
I blinked a few times. “Me?”
Kicha nodded. “He thinks you are brave, and that your name suits you.” I looked at Kicha.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’ve decided to become Nakti’s Lead Lioness,” she replied.
“Nakti?” The name didn’t sound familiar.
“He was the scarred male that first confronted us.” She purred happily. “He may be tough on the outside, but he’s a little kitten on the inside.” I laughed. Maybe Kicha and I could both have good lives.
And that was true.
After my scars healed, Socahtoa gladly named me his Lead Lioness. Nakti named Kicha Lead Lioness also. Sutara had decided to become Tagorr’s Lead Lioness because she couldn’t hunt anymore. I grew old with Socahtoa and had many cubs with him. Our Pride prospered and survived. The blow that Tagorr gave me has left me scarred, but I am proud of it. I am Aeropi, She Who Scars, and have become a stronger lioness from what has happened in my life.