In the Dawn's Light is a fanfiction story by A Friendly Lion.
“Hi there, King Hodari!”
“Shouldn’t you be with your mother, Magharibi?”
“Hodari, there’s trouble with the dogs again.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Enjoy your walk.”
“I plan to.”
King Hodari II responded to the greetings and gripes of his pridemates with hardly a thought. Though he cared deeply for each and every one of them, he was not one to express it, especially not early in the morning when he sought nothing but a restful stroll to banish all traces of somnolence from his being. He knew he was not looking his most kingly at the moment- his mane lying in sepia ravels atop his head and around his neck, his flanks covered in earth where he lied upon the floor of his den during his slumber, and his eyes, usually limpid orbs of ochre, cloudy and turbid with lingering fatigue. However, he happened to be worrying very little about his appearance. Let them behold the enervate slouch of the posture of their esteemed, venerable, august potentate. For the time being, it did not bother him.
Hodari had lost his father only one month prior when a savage buffalo had charged and killed him. The pride’s formidable huntresses had been sent out to deal with the problem, and had done so accordingly . . . at the loss of their illustrious leader, Uzoefu. Burdened by dolor, Hodari’s attempts to lionize the surviving huntresses for their laudable defeat of the brute had all been rather halfhearted. He could cope with, and had handled in the past, two successive demises within the group, but it was rather more taxing when the deaths were that of his kin and the pride’s most prominent figure except for Hodari himself. In response to his sorrow, Hodari had become more reserved and closed off, speaking to others exclusively when his duty as ruler called for it. Since then, he had improved in that he replied to basic salutations and the like, but he still felt rather hollow inside.
Having shaken off his well-meaning subjects, he strode down the hill on which the lions of the xeric region known as the Drylands had made their home when his grandfather, King Hodari I, reigned. Hodari Senior had been the first king of the pride, settling in a stretch of grassland with a few local lionesses after undertaking a famous trek through the Imeatuka Desert. Perhaps, Hodari thought to himself, he should have considered more carefully the place where he would begin his pride. A place without buffaloes and dogs and lions who require their king to be the most extroverted hail-fellow-well-met lion in the entire savannah.
The veld spilled out ahead of him, yellow and parched by the lucent white face of the sun. The horizon was flat and distant, completely unchanged in color from the area where Hodari stood. It was all the same- dry, desultory, and dead, or at least on the way there. The only glimmer of life was the shining outfall of the Mkondo River, the light dancing off its pellucid waters. Hodari could see various ungulate species gathered upon its pebbly strands, their hooves caressed by the shallow waves that rolled lazily towards the land before sliding back into the mere once more. As he observed, an eland calf plashed the waterhole with lanky limbs, snorting in surprise when liquid sprayed upward into his nostrils.
With a soft sigh, Hodari drifted deeper into the grassland, the tall stalks brushing his golden coat. In the spring, if a smattering of rain happened to bedew the area, their touch was as gentle and light as the caress of a fledgling wing, but the lack of precipitation has stolen every trace of softness from them. Each plant jabbed at his pelt like the claw of an enemy lion, burying themselves in his fur and digging into his skin. Frustrated, he snapped at one long spray as it neared him, realizing to late that it belonged to a thorn-bearing shrub. Spitting the sharp barbs out of his mouth, he batted at the bush in a rage, prompting more prickles to engulf themselves in his flesh like the stingers of bees. He knew that he was being quite impractical, which was very out of character for him indeed. However, he had been driven to his limit by his own mental recollections of recent events. With his forepaw he delivered a dozen hefty thwacks to the brier, letting pain and misery control his actions.
“King Hodari?” queried a shy voice. Burning with dwindling anger and humiliation, Hodari turned around slowly and faced the animal who had spoken. It was, as he knew it would be, Kubali. No other lioness in the pride spoke in such a non-confrontational manner, even to him. Kubali almost always entered a conversation ready to agree with those she was speaking to. She was a young lioness a summer young than himself, unassuming and decorous, with a coat of dusty russet. Hodari rarely took any notice of her except to mark her as loyal and unostentatious, not entailing the need for any observation. Now, gazing at her, he realized for the very first time that her eyes were an unusual color: carmine red, almost pinkish around the pupils. They were, at the moment, wide and soft, brimming with gentle curiosity. “Yes, Kubali?” Hodari questioned, trying to assume some semblance of his standard regal comportment. He quickly placed his raised forepaw on the ground, biting back a hiss of pain as the soil forced the thorns embedded in it deeper into his dermis. Though there was little he could do about his mane, which had flopped about his head during the brawl with the thornbush until it rested in limp, knotted tufts, he allowed his claws to slide back into the fur of his toes and raised his muzzle regally, hoping to salvage some of his dignity. Straightening up, he glared back at her with eyes that challenged her to comment about his undignified actions. Kubali did not respond to his efforts to the sudden change in his bearing. She merely observed him silently, a soft concern sparking in her stare like the sun shining through a cloud. She took a hesitant step back, and Hodari watched as her gaze drifted from the shrub to his own face. “Are you all right?” she inquired, speaking rather uncertainly.
“Fine. I’m fine,” Hodari replied curtly, turning away. “Just taking a walk.” He began walking away from her, slowly at first, his stride lengthening with every step he took. A red-hot coal of shame blazed inside of his heart, the heat radiating outwards to the very tips of his hair. I’m a king. I can’t fall apart like that, least of all where any of my subjects could see!
He was so preoccupied with his own wrathful thoughts about himself that he did not at first notice the soft tread of lion paws behind him. Upon perceiving the sound, he spun around in a swift gyration and fixed Kubali with an appraising glance. The lioness did not appear at all abashed at being caught following the king. Hodari wondered whether she had not been trying to conceal her step, but dismissed the idea. He thought he had made it quite clear that he wanted to be alone. “Well?” he growled at her. “Why don’t you go home?”
“Can I walk with you?” she requested in response, stepping closer. Hodari stared at her for a long moment. She appeared entirely serious, though he could not imagine how. Why would a lioness want to walk with a grouchy king who had done nothing but sulk and deliver orders for the past month? His brow furrowed, and he squared his shoulders decisively before replying. “No.”
He had expected her to agree immediately, as was her wont. She surprised him by raising a black eyebrow, seeking further information. While he debated whether or not to offer her any, a hare popped up from a hole in the ground, practically between his paws. Her ears were very long and her brown eyes very round, both intimations that she was a daughter of Hodari’s leporine assistant, Sikiza. Connecting this, Hodari recalled that he had left the hill before listening to Sikiza’s report- no doubt the older hare had sent his kin off to find him.
“King Hodari, sire!” the hare squeaked chirpily. “Sikiza sent me-”
“I know he sent you,” Hodari interrupted wearily, hoping to speed the conversation along. “Anything I should be worried about?”
“The dogs, sire, they’re hunting in the Plains again. Setting up boundaries. My father thought it was important!” the hare explained rapidly, twitching an ear. “It is. Thank you,” Hodari told the small animal, flicking a claw to dismiss her. She vanished back into the hole as he raised his head and gauged his location. So those accursed rodent-faces are hunting close to our home again. If they are, they’ll be trying to do it discreetly, hanging around the edges of the grassland. He reasoned that the best places to check would be the areas that the patrols had not touched upon recently. The eastern areas, then. I’ll need to handle this now, or they’ll be invading. “Kubali, with me,” he told the lioness as an afterthought, realizing that he might require assistance.
“Are you going to see if you can catch any of them?” Kubali asked, trotting alongside him as he started towards the periphery of the dry, vegetation-covered land known as the Kavu Sana Plains.
“Yes. And I might need the extra claws. Are you worried?” he queried, wondering what to do if she answered with an affirmative. To his relief, she denied, and the rest of the journey passed in peaceful silence.
After a short time, the ground felt rather less dry beneath his paws, a sure sign that they were nearing the edge of the plains. Hodari knew that this meant he would soon be detecting traces of the intruding dogs, and his claws sprang into view in a sudden burst anticipation. If the dogs refused to leave- which they almost certainly would- there would be bloodshed. Regrettable to risk an injury, but at present, Hodari was so fed up that he rather thought a fight might allow him the opportunity to vent his emotions with tooth and nail. As for Kubali- well, it was likely that a dozen dogs would be too much for him to handle alone. He doubted that she was a skilled fighter, but perhaps she could make herself useful.
He sped up slightly and passed her by, directing a covert glance in her direction. She was slouching slightly, her shoulders slumped and relaxed and her neck held low. Though her face was partially hidden from view, he thought he detected a suspicion of a smile tugging at the corners of her muzzle. Was she afraid or eager? Most likely it was the former, from what little he knew of her. He hoped her fear would not be a hindrance, should she be experiencing any. Having another lion along should be an asset to him, and unless Kubali proved to be debilitating, he would not be sending her back.
Hodari stiffened as the pungent odor of the dogs entered his nostrils, emanating from a plant a short distance ahead of him. The hare had not been mistaken- the dogs were setting boundaries, claiming the territory as their own. “This will not do,” he growled aloud, forgetting momentarily that he was in the company of another. “We’ll take care of it, King Hodari,” Kubali assured him, stepping forward and kicking dirt over the scent marker.
“What do you think you’re doing?” a nasal voice growled. Hodari raised his head in surprise as a pack of wild dogs emerged from the grass, hackles raised and teeth bared. There were about ten of them in all, each with a different pattern of black, tan, and white upon their coats. The dog who had spoken was a lean female with ridiculously outsized ears and an unprepossessing pink scar meandering over her muzzle. She was, Hodari supposed, the alpha female in the pack, which likely meant that the tall male dog standing beside her- a far more attractive specimen with a handsome, unscathed face- was her partner.
“We’re taking a walk in our territory,” Hodari replied smoothly, nudging Kubali aside with a shoulder so that he could stare directly into the eyes of the leaders. “Can’t reclaim it now,” snapped the female, bristling.
“It’s not reclaiming it if it was never yours,” Hodari retorted, leaning closer and inhaling her foul breath.
A growl rumbled deep in her knottily-muscled chest, low and gravelly. Sensing that she was not about to turn tail and flee, Hodari hefted a forepaw, and, with one fluid slash, brought her to the ground. She issued a sharp yelp of surprise as he clubbed her over the head, blood running from her jaw where her claws cut into her thin lips. Her legs buckled beneath the force of the swing, and she crumpled as if she had been knocked out. However, there was no denying her consciousness, as a stream of curses and anathemas known only to the species of dog poured from her bleeding mouth. Spraying crimson saliva onto the earth, the dog’s brown eyes were charged with the fury and hatred of a superior bested in front of those she commanded. “Kigaga!” the male dog cried as his mate staggered to her paws, but the female ignored him.
“What are you waiting for?” she shouted at her pack. “Fight back for our land!” She, as well as two gangly male dogs with absurdly lank legs, began approaching us with baleful slowness, teeth bared.
“Kigaga,” the male dog repeated, his tone slipping into one of reluctance.
“Don’t be a coward, Mpatanishi,” Kigaga growled in reply, the bitter words slipping through her exposed teeth like acid.
Muscles tautening, she sank into a tense pounce as Hodari readied himself to swat her out of the air. He sensed a conflict was brewing, despite Mpataishi’s evident hesitance. Eyes raking over his opponents, Hodari began devising a strategy with which he hoped to emerge unscathed from the brawl. He quickly decided that if he broke the neck of the leader in his teeth and perhaps crushed the smaller dogs beneath his paws, the others might be too shocked and frightened to put up much of a fight. Then the territory would once more be untroubled by intruders. Sweeping a strand of his mane out of his eyes so as to clear his vision, he allowed a rough snarl to grate in his throat, bellicose and primitive.
“Wait,” Kubali interrupted suddenly, slipping between Hodari and Kigaga in a motion as fluid as the nearby Mkondo River.
“Move, Kubali,” Hodari grunted, stepping forward with utter confidence that she would step aside.
He met her rubious gaze in shock, his brow crumpling in surprise and confusion. It was quickly replaced by irritation, which he did not bother to mask when he replied. “Move. If you don’t want to fight, run, but don’t get in my way.”
“No,” she answered. “Hodari-”
“Move!” he interrupted, voice swelling into a harsh bellow. His blood was liquid fire in his veins, coursing through him and heating every inch of his being with anger. He realized at that moment exactly how much he wanted a fight- with Kigaga, with Kubali, with anyone but himself.
“Better get out of the way, slouchy lion,” spat Kigaga in a tone laced with frustration. “Boss lion and I have business to discuss.”
“Both of you take a step back. Fighting isn’t going to help,” Kubali declared, still planted between them. Her countenance was firm, brimming with resolution. Silence followed her proclamation, with the dog pack exchanging surprised glances. But just as Hodari opened his mouth to say something cutting, Mpatanishi, the male leader, walked around Kubali before seating himself beside her. He faced his mate and family, so all that Hodari could see of his head was the back, but his voice carried all the information Hodari might have gleaned from his expression- determination, calmness, equanimity. “She’s right, Kigaga. We don’t need to fight.”
“What?” Kigaga questioned, glowering at him. “Mpatanishi, why do you pledge your support to the lion?”
“We don’t need to fight,” Mpatanishi repeated. “We don’t need this land, Kigaga. You have us stay here because you want a fight with the lions, but the rest of us don’t.” “The rest of us!” parroted one of the one males, his voice high-pitched with incredulity.
“Not the young boys,” Mpatanishi acknowledged, and from behind Hodari saw him incline his head. “Shindani and Ogofyo, you’re too rowdy for your own good.” Hearing this, the two younglings spread their mouths in submissive grins, indicating that they were not going to stand against their leader. Shock flooded Hodari- would they really just back down like that? Clearly Kigaga was of a different mind.
“Cowards. I have cowards for sons and a mate,” she snapped, glaring at Hodari, Kubali, and Mpatanishi.
“They aren’t cowards. Your mate just knows when its not best to fight,” Kubali explained gently yet firmly. “No blood needs to be shed today. Fighting isn’t necessary- it rarely is. If you fight, you’ll be driven out, and you might lose someone you care about. Just stand down and none of us will leave with wounds.” “We will,” Mpatanishi agreed, striding past his pack and into the grass. Before the waving stalks obscured him from view, he turned and gestured for them to follow him. Ignoring his beck, Kigaga continued to stare at Kubali. But when she spoke, her words accepted rather than challenged. “I will bring my family out of the plains. But you let us have the Inchi Valley, in the desert.”
Before Kubali could speak, Hodari stepped past her and answered himself. “As we always have.”
With a final nod, Kigaga turned and departed, her pack quickly trotting after her. In a matter of seconds they were gone, swallowed by the grass. When the final piece of grass had stopped trembling after being brushed by a dog’s tail, Hodari faced Kubali, trying to convey the many questions he had for her. However, he could manage only disbelieving silence as he tried to decide whether he should be angry or pleased. “Are you mad?” she asked finally, the clear light of dawn dancing over her fur and she lifted her head and meet his eyes.
“Not really. I mean, I don’t think so.” He felt uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
“You don’t think so?”
“Well, I’m quite surprised, actually,” Hodari admitted, shaking his head slowly. “You see, I thought I rather knew you. And I never thought you were the peacemaker type. I never really thought . . . well, I never really thought you were the type to stand between an angry king and an angry pack of dogs.”
“You thought I was a coward?” Kubali questioned, a note of pique entering her tone. “Or do you think I am one now, having ensured that we avoided a fight?” she pressed, when he did not immediately respond.
“Neither,” Hodari decided after a moment of consideration.
The answer seemed enough to satisfy her, and she dropped her gaze from his, studying with mild interest a small black beetle making its way over a stone. “I’m glad, because I’m not. I just don’t like fighting. In fact, I find it futile.”
“Futile?” Hodari queried, finding himself curious to hear more.
“Yes. Most the time, another solution can be found, if we just look for it,” she explained, starting back in the direction of the pride’s hill. “I don’t know if that makes sense to you, being a king and all,” she added and he hurried after her. “It doesn’t, really,” he confessed, feeling rather ashamed to say it. Determined to defend himself for his lack of understanding, he rapidly continued, each word almost burying the last in his haste to explain. “We must defend our land, you see. Sometimes we need to fight for that. Sometimes there isn’t another way.”
“I don’t agree. We didn’t need to fight back there,” Kubali replied, taking larger and larger steps in an attempt to match his pace.
“I suppose I thought we did.”
“You might not have. You might have just been letting your anger control you. That’s what happens in the case of most land disputes, that’s why you tell yourself you have to. You don’t,” Kubali insisted emphatically.
Hodari could think of no reply to this, so he lapsed into silence, staring at her as she walked. She was far more intelligent, far more thoughtful, than he had ever suspected her of being. She wasn’t just a lioness with poor posture who agreed with anything and everything- she had principles. He wondered why he was so surprised to figure this out; perhaps because she never really made much of an impression on him. She had now.