Part One: Hunt
There was really no hope for the antelope from the start, but that didn't stop it from trying. It plunged through the marshy grass of the moist grassland, kicking up clots of mud that splattered the faces of the lions hot on its trail. Gasping for breath, a ragged lioness with creamy tangelo fur sprinted briefly ahead of the rest, only to skid on the slippery earth, her paws, already swathed in a coat of damp soil, flying out from under her. She struck the ground hard, her broad head thankfully being spared by a stretch of verdant grass as the other lionesses whipped past her.
Sliding to a rough halt that sent a wave of muck flying over the fallen lioness, a muscular female looked down with blazing eyes the color of dried blood. "To your paws, Chokozi!" she commanded, stressing this with a sharp blow to the mud-spattered haunches of her companion. She had not bothered to sheathe her claws, unwilling to pardon Chokozi from injury, though she knew that it would further hinder her fellow huntress's progress. She took a brief moment to admire the glistening crimson liquid as it slowly rose to the edges of the wounds before overflowing and cascading down Chokozi's legs and over her tail.
Chokozi stifled a cry and jerked herself upwards. "Yes, Your Majesty!" she choked out. Digging her hind claws into the earth as deeply as she could, she first stumbled, then charged forward, barely managing to catch up with the others. She attempted to ignore the debilitating wound on her haunches as she pursued their quarry, a wiry male with a slender frame. He darted over a river that Chokozi recognized- usually limpid, it was now turgid and murky due to a rainstorm that had struck the night before. She vaulted over it just it time, landing with her hind paws in the water but mustering the strength to drag them free.
Katili ascertained that Chokozi was refraining from showing her pain before lunging after her. As the queen of the Vurugu Pride, it was her duty to confirm that none of the members displayed any signs of weakness. Fortunately, Chokozi was a resilient huntress who knew good and well what would happen to her if she slacked off as a result of a little scrape. Satisfied, Katili broke into a steady sprint, her paws thumping against the earth and her claws ripped out tufts of damp grass. Putting on a burst of speed until she was moving at a breakneck pace, she surged past four other lions, landing herself a position closer to the lead. As the river loomed closer, the powerful muscles beneath Katili's russet coat jerked and tautened as she prepared her leap. With a harsh grunt, she propelled herself into the air, catching a glimpse of the roily waters below, roaring like a pride of hungry lions.
Moving more rapidly now, flecks of blood flying behind her, Chokozi coiled her body back and pounced, stretching her legs forward as far as she was capable of. To her own surprise, they found their mark. The antelope gave a sharp bawl of terror and her claws raked his shoulders, hind paws scrabbling for at his rear. Her assigned mate, an amorphous male named Gwafua, snapped at the buck's flanks. The reedbuck made a bold attempt to gain speed, striking the ground fiercely with its hooves, but this was a costly error. The earth, damp and peaty, provided little support, and it gave way beneath the antelope's sharp foot. This provided an opportunity for the pride to besiege it, burying its agile form beneath a wave of heavy bodies and flashing claws. Its narrow head, jaws stretched wide open in a wail of pain, struggled to rise above the horde, but it was no use.
With a final yell, the antelope dropped down, its legs giving out beneath it. It was not yet dead, but the brunt of their task was complete. Several hunters were quick to end the creature's life as its inner fluids began to mix with the mud that it lay on. Try as she might, Chokozi could not suppress a twinge of pride. Today, at least, she would not be forced to endure the expostulations of her pridemates. She had been the first to catch claws in their prey, so none would remember her clumsy fall, despite the scratches on her haunches that were, at least, beginning to congeal.
Around the time that the life spilled out of the reedbuck, Katili loped over to it and surveyed the kill, shoving aside two of the lions who had helped take the antelope down. She narrowed her large eyes, but seemed to approve. Bending down, she sank her teeth into the ginger coat of the reedbuck and gouged out a chunk. All at once, the rest of the pride began scrambling for their own portions. Soon, several angry fights broke out, lions savagely lashing out at each other for a mere shred of meat. Gwafua gestured Chokozi forward insistently before shoving Katili aside, voraciously tearing at the reedbuck.
Katili reared up and aimed a flurry of blows at the capacious space between Gwafua's broad shoulders, her claws raking down his back. Blood welled up, but the wounds were not as deep as they could have been, for Katili was now occupied with a reedbuck. Snarling brutishly and baring her bloodied teeth, she dug her claws into the antelope's belly and perforated it. Ragged flaps of skin hung over the wound, concealing the meat within, before Katili shoved her head into the gaping wound, emerging with her face soaked in blood, the fur on top of her head slicked flat with the liquid, and a wad of glistening pink coils crushed between her teeth. She swallowed the intestines, her eyes glowing with vicious rapture.
Soon, little remained of the antelope but a few slabs of meat and bloodstained grass. Gwafua lapped at the glistening vegetation as several of the lionesses lifted the residual strips of flesh and muscle and began dragging it back to the cubs, who awaited their return deeper within the marshlands. Alone and relatively exposed, the little ones were always in some degree of danger, but their fur was almost always coated in wet earth that disguised their scent and helped camouflage them from other predators. They came tumbling forward, pushing and shoving, as their parents tossed them the meat. The rowdy, muddy group instantly began battling for a bite, raspy growls issuing from their throats and tiny paws battering each other's ears. Chokozi rolled her eyes, but Gwafua watched them fondly.
Katili watched the frenetic devouring of scraps with a certain degree of pleasure. These cubs were no puling butterflies. They knew what they wanted and were fighting like adult lions to get it. However, Katili rather hoped that more cubs would arrive soon. The time seemed about right- it was mid-winter, ensuring that any pregnant lioness would be delivering her cubs during spring, when food was plentiful. Her eyes roaming among her pridemates, finally coming to rest on Chokozi and Gwafua. Katili had never doubted her decision to partner the two, but she now felt as though they should be getting on with starting a family. I'll have a word with Chokozi, Katili decided, stepping over to the pair.
"Chokozi," she boomed boldly, straightening up with her tail swishing and her jutting muzzle lifted high into the air. "I am going to speak with you. Gwafua, you may remain." Ears back but head ducked respectfully, Chokozi agreed. She and Katili silently padded to a fern patch, where the former waited expectantly.
"You know how important it is the cubs are," Katili began, gesturing towards the corybantic group of young ones engaging in frenetic battles for a mouthful of meat. "We need the biggest, strongest cubs we can have. Now, you and your mate should really have started to contribute cubs by now."
Chokozi’s expression registered discomfort. “Well, I. . . I like Gwafua enough, but we’re not very close, and to allow. . . first pregnancy, then cubs. . . And I just don’t think I’d be a good mother, Queen Katili.” Inwardly, she cringed. Here she was, the foul-tempered lioness who couldn’t hunt much better than a cub, refusing to serve her pride in the one way left that she could. They would all disapprove, at very least. Well, let them. She waited apprehensively, almost defiantly, for Katili’s reply.
"Not very close?" Katili's angular face betrayed cold incredulity as she gazed into Chokozi's green gaze. "When did you get it into your head that partners have to be close, eh? You think I give a scrap of putrid carrion about Onevu?" Carefully keeping her face hard and pitiless, she willed herself to forget the strange feelings of warmth she had begun to experience when in her own partner's company. Maybe I like him better than Chokozi likes Gwafua . . . but that's no excuse for her to neglect her pride.
"I suppose I just don't want cubs," shrugged Chokozi. "We have plenty, and others will bear more- Pasua shall, you shall. . ." Her indignation was swelling, and she wordlessly warned herself to curb her tongue.
This was the wrong thing to say. By the time Chokozi was done talking, Katili's eyes were brown slits in her head. Her temper erupted, her voice rising to a roar that was easily heard. "That is not how we think in this pride, Chokozi!" Her claws gouged ragged lines in the earth, and for an instant it appeared as though she would lash out at her pridemate. But quicker than a cheetah can change direction, Katili's tone shifted to one dripping with dulcet sarcasm. "You'll be wanting to stay home from the next hunt, I imagine? Let those nasty scratches that your mean queen gave you heal. You needn't stress about it, I'll pay no heed to any objections. I truly insist." Though she originally enjoyed it, she quickly grew weary of the mocking and hastened to conclude her verdict. Slowly, the fluidity of her speech faded until each word was cold and biting. "And of course, since you won't hunt . . . you won't be putting any of the pride's hard-earned meat into your indolent mouth."
Far too late, Chokozi made an effort to rectify her mistake. Forcing her expression into one of almost histrionic penitence, she submissively lowered her posture. She considered reminding the queen that hers had been first claws to strike the antelope, as this would almost certainly provoke another scolding. Instead, she spoke quietly. "Just didn't want to raise weaklings, my queen. Afraid I wouldn't be as- as fine as mother as you are."
Hearing this, Katili relaxed, her pointed shoulders slumping back. But even as she considered withdrawing her punishment, part of her mind was aware that she was being flattered. Abruptly she stiffened, her spine straightening and her lips drawing back to expose her gums. Though her first instinct was to begin shouting again, another option occurred to her, and she decided to follow through with it. "Weaklings? From you?" she practically purred, her voice little more than a silken whisper. Her eyes widened in false surprise, brow lifting until the skin atop her head furrowed. "Now, Cho-ko-zeee," she drawled. "How could such a thing happen? No, I just can't believe it. I'll be hoping to see some nice, healthy cubs joining that bunch." Lazily, she flicked her tail in the direction of the brawling young lions. However, an unpleasant thought suddenly crossed her mind. If she doesn't eat, will she be able to have healthy cubs? Katili was not quite sure, but she had a suspicion that a malnourished mother would not help speed up the growth of cubs. Quickly, she reached a decision. "And of course, if I hear that you are expecting, you'll be welcome to your share of food."
"Yes, my queen," mumbled Chokozi, her eyes bitter but her voice resigned. "Is that all?"
"It is," Katili concluded firmly, turning away. She started closing the distance between herself and a tall, dark-coated lion- Onevu- but halted before she reached him and twisted her neck around to glare at Chokozi. "Remember all that I said."
Once the queen was out of earshot, Chokozi gave a low, rumbling sigh. Her eyes wandered automatically to Gwafua, who was lapping blood off of his paws, often casting covert glances towards the obstreperous mass of cubs. Acutely aware of what she had to do, she headed towards him, trying not to sulk as she did. "Hey, Gwafua?" He glanced up, looking startled. "How'd you feel about. . . you know, beginning a family."
She observed him carefully, noting wryly that if his eyes stretched any wider they would pop out of his skull. Finally, he spoke. "A family?" Another glance at the cubs, then back to her, a nascent smile tilting the corners of his broad muzzle up. "I think that's a wonderful idea, Chokozi. And just think- the queen will probably approve, won't she?"
Oh, I'm pretty sure she will, Gwafua. "Yeah. So, we'd better start trying for cubs."
It seemed her prediction about his eyes had been wrong. They grew wider still, until his murky irises were nearly impossible to see and his pupils were huge dark pools. "Start- already? I thought we could perhaps think this over for a few days."
"The sooner we do the better. The queen will be most pleased. And if I have to have cubs, I'd like mine to be the first this spring," Chokozi grunted.
Now the golden lion's brows furrowed. "You don't have to do anything, Chokozi. And they'll be our cubs."
"Yeah, yeah. But cubs are important, aren't they? We have to make the pride nice and large." The words sounded lame to her own ears, and she gave up entirely. "Look," she snapped. "We should have cubs. I say I should have them as soon as possible. You up for it or not?"
For a moment, Gwafua seemed even more wounded, but he rapidly composed himself. "I most definitely am," he accepted.
Part Two: Intruder
Pasua ambled along beside her leader, who was moving at a steady lope. It difficult was for a bulky lioness such as Pasua to keep up with Queen Katili's sinuous form, but she was managing with a racket of heavy breathing, her tongue hanging from her mouth whenever she paused. Patrols always exhausted Pasua, and today was no different. She hung on best she could, desperately waiting for her deliverance.
Chokozi, traveling on the opposite side of Katili, was struggling almost as much as the sturdy brown lioness, wheezing for breath. Though usually in good physical shape, her underbelly was now distended, round with her cubs, which were due to arrive in about a week. She scanned the horizon with some desperation, trying to take her mind away from the frequent stirring inside of her- a feeling that she had yet to become used to, and, frankly, to appreciate.
Abruptly, Katili halted, her claws tearing the tussocky grass. Pasua trudged right passed her before stumbling to a rough halt and awkwardly scooting backwards, coating her rear end in marsh mud. Such clumsiness would ordinarily earn the oafish lioness a stinging slash on the muzzle, but for once Katili was not focused on the errors of her pridemates. Her blood-colored eyes were trained on the horizon, and her nostrils were flaring, drawing in the scents around them. It did not occur to Pasua to question this, so she waited silently for them to continue moving. However, instead of proceeding forward, Katili dropped into a crouch, her ropy tail slowly swishing from side to side. Chokozi followed suit somewhat unsteadily, emerald eyes darting this way and that. "Queen Katili?" she breathed, sniffing the air but detecting only a mix of lion scents that she assumed to be the pride's, carried by the wind. But no, there was something wrong. . . the scents were unfamiliar, bearing hints redolent of woodland, heavier than that of the Vurugu Pride's. Automatically, her muscles tensed, her upper lip curling back to expose her pale yellow teeth.
Slowly and deliberately, Katili slunk forward. "Follow me," she ordered, her voice a harsh whisper. "I saw a lion appear on the slope." Chokozi obeyed silently, willing herself not to slip. Her claws extended further, and she prepared to lash out, waiting for Katili's move.
Suddenly, a tawny head popped into view, peering down at them from the hummock with clear green eyes. Katili wasted no time. Fury surged through her at the sight of a strange lion dancing along the edges of her territory, and she charged towards the offending animals, not blinking despite the wind that stung her eyes as she ran. The lion caught sight of her and spun around, churning paws ripping apart the grass. Katili pursued her at breakneck speed, seething with rage and indignation. You think you can run? You just messed with the wrong queen. She might have shouted her thoughts at the invader, but she knew that she could not waste her breath on meaningless insults. It was always satisfying to see an enemy's reaction to any of the many gruesome threats that she kept under her claws, but it would be much better to just carry them out without the pointless words.
Chokozi barreled after Katili, but almost was almost instantly out of breath. Spitting and snarling her frustration, she launched herself forward, claws tearing through the tuft, churning the earth with a fury. She managed to speed alongside Katili, then, feeling her haunches begin to give out, flung herself at the invader. She writhed ungracefully in the air but managed to ram into the lioness from above, allowing her full weight to hit her.
The full weight of a pregnant lioness forcing the breath from her lungs, the lioness dropped to the ground, her face burying itself in the umber mud. She started to raise her head, spitting out clots of damp earth. Pain spiked through Chokozi's belly, along with the unpleasant sensation of movement. She staggered off of the lioness instinctively, keeping her eyes trained on her.
The lioness wrenched herself free just in time to be bowled over by Katili. The queen was frothing at the mouth as a result of the exertion, saliva bubbling at her lips. Her muscular chest heaved with every choppy breath that she took, and the skin of her muzzle was creased with anger. She pinned the lioness beneath her, one paw on her throat and the other raised with claws extended. She glared down at her victim, an alarming sight. But when she spoke, it was in a voice of utmost placidity, entirely inflectionless. "Chokozi, my friend, how should we welcome this unexpected visitor?"
"I am Mbele of the Gheiri Pride," the lioness gulped, speaking around the razor claws pressing into her throat. "I come-"
Looking bored, Katili slammed her paw into the side of the the lioness's neck. Mbele gasped in pain and shut her mouth, staring at Katili with dazed green eyes. "I was asking my faithful companion. Chokozi?"
Chokozi glared down at the intruder with anger, an emotion that was driven primarily by pain. "Your Majesty, my advice would be to kill her, then slash up the body and leave it as a warning to any others."
Part Three: Battle
Katili's claws drummed a tattoo on the skull of the reedbuck from the previous day's hunt. The intruder had been dealt with quite nicely, and now she was free to relax. She was sprawled in the center of the marshes, encouraging the ferocity of the cubs.
And among those cubs were two new additions. Tetemeko, golden-furred and green-eyed, tumbled along on his wide paws, his over-sized head swaying from side to side, sometimes taking his body with it, gamboled about jubilantly. His brother, swifter and smaller than he, darted around him, a blur of dull brown fur. Chokozi watched them, couchant atop a smooth stone, occasionally twitching an ear.
Katili's claws hovered over the bone for a brief moment as she surveyed the flame-colored cub with narrowed eyes. Her eyebrows lifted appreciatively as they lighted upon the young one's shoulders, where the sun danced over his dense coat as the thick swathes of muscle rippled and rolled with each frolicsome movement. Her gaze did not drift to the brown cub- she had eyes only for Tetemeko, the larger. Contented, she spread her jaws wide in a yawn, her long pink tongue curling upward and her forepaws reaching forward in a stretch. Relaxed, she turned her wide head to Chokozi and smiled almost benevolently, yet there was a faint underlay of patriotism. "Just look at your son," she purred, flicking her tail in Tetemeko's general direction. "And you said you didn't want any."
Chokozi did not reply. Her forest-colored eyes were fixed on the duplicate pair that glittered from Tetemeko's broad face. Not blue, so permitted to live was he. The same privilege was granted to nimble Chemchela, whose eyes flashed yellow. Not so with her second-born, her only daughter, whose eyes were the color of a dry season sky. She had been an unusual fluke- not the oldest, but the largest, not a male, but the strongest, adroitly shoving her brothers aside to complete for milk, sharp little teeth visible. Despite herself, Chokozi had a favorite out of the litter.
Fate struck the daughter hard. Tufani, as she had been called, had opened her eyes after her third day of life- and there they were, the limpid azure orbs that sparkled with vitality, marking her for death more clearly than any claw marks could. The sign of weakness she had been branded with could not be ignored. Chokozi had done as she was supposed to do. Nobody remembered the female anymore, not even her own father. Perhaps, they probably thought, they'd only been imagining that wriggling tawny puff of fur- she hadn't let any come close enough to look, as Gwafua's now-solitary ear could prove. And Chokozi had done the right thing. At least, this is what she told herself. But she was not persuasive, nor articulate, nor a skillful liar.
No, she always screamed back. I did what was expected of me! Not the right thing, not the right thing. . . she was not weak, the pride, the queen. . . they're. . . they're. . . She could never bring herself to finish this thought.
Snapping herself free of her thoughts, she lifted one shoulder in response- she had to acknowledge the queen's words. "He'll grow big and strong, and Chemchela even faster. I. . . owe them to you, Your Highness."
"Do not allow me all the credit, Chokozi," Katili laughed, lifting a paw into the sunlight and scrutinizing her claws. "And besides, I now owe my future cubs to you." Gracefully, she rolled onto her side, revealing her cub-swollen belly to Chokozi. "I think there are three. That would make sense, I suppose. Onevu came from a litter of three."
Mother talk didn't suit Chokozi, so she changed tack. "Heard anything more about that lioness we found?"
"Not yet," Katili replied calmly, but a spark of bloodlust glinted in her eyes. "I sent out a patrol just this morning to see if they could follow her tracks. In all honestly, I should have done it sooner, but fortunately there hasn't been rain to wash away any prints or scent."