In Your Place
Akasare woke up, feeling a horrible pain in his head. Okay, he thought, I’m in pain, so I’m alive. He opened his eyes, almost immediately shutting them to avoid the harsh light. And it’s morning, so I made it through the night. Alright, what next? Think! He slowly opened his eyes again. He moved his legs, feeling them sear with pain. Gods, what did I do last night? He slowly rolled over, his lips almost touching a sleeping lioness’s face. He stood up quickly, all pain forgotten. He stared down at Asari in disbelief. Oh, gods, what did I do last night?
Suddenly it all came back to him. He’d been with Dingane. They’d decided to go for a walk for . . . something. And Dingane, he’d insulted Asari. That’s right; they were talking about the hunts. “I still can’t believe how much you enjoy that,” he’d said. “Still, I have to hand it to you. You more than make up for what that pathetic little lump of fur that Mpande calls a daughter brings home.”
“You take that back,” a voice had said. Then Akasare had realized it was his.
Dingane had turned back towards him slowly. “What was that?” he’d said in a low, dangerous voice.
“She’s not pathetic. She’s worth at least ten times as much as your lazy carcass.”
Dingane had slashed Akasare across the face. Akasare hadn’t cried out in pain, he’d simply looked slowly back up at Dingane. “I’m sorry,” said Dingane quietly. “I must have misheard you.”
“I said what I meant to say. She’s not pathetic, she’s one of the best hunters we have in this damned pride, and you know it.”
Dingane had dealt him another blow, this time across the other side of his face. “For some reason, I still keep hearing these horrible words coming out of your mouth. You need to watch what you say.” He’d turned away, letting the matter drop.
Akasare hadn’t wanted to drop it. “You know damned well it’s the truth. I’d rather see her than that ugly pile of crud you call a face any day.”
He’d gone too far. He’d known it instantly. And if he hadn’t, Dingane’s raging paws had told him so in the next second. A fight can last a long time under only two conditions: both of the fighters are either novices or exceptionally good at it. The fight had lasted only a few minutes, but for an entirely different reason. To Akasare, Dingane was a god of war. He’d been defeated before he’d even started. Dingane had at least been pleasant. He’d knocked out Akasare quickly enough, and had the mercy to keep his claws sheathed the entire time. Or at least, most of it.
But what the hell is Asari doing here?
Akasare thought wildly. He stared at her beautiful, sleeping body, her chest
heaving up and down rhythmically. He wanted to wake her up, but he didn’t know
what she would do. He knew what he wanted
to do, especially as how they were utterly, thoroughly alone. But they were by
the lake. Mpande always made his rounds around the lake. Akasare grimly
recalled what he’d been told by Dingane if Mpande found him doing any “damned
foolish” things with Asari. Akasare would have a bit of his mane given the
funeral rites, maybe a toe or two with it, because that’s all they would find
of him once Mpande was done with him. He’d only been at
Akasare decided to buy himself time and get a drink from the lake. His head still throbbed slightly, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the fire he experienced when he woke up. He bent down to lap up the water, trying to remember when Asari could have even come. He couldn’t remember seeing her last night. He couldn’t remember any of last night; he assumed he’d been given some nice warm milk by Dingane and hadn’t woken up until now. With any luck, he hadn’t done anything stupid. He finally stopped drinking and stared down into the water, shocked by his reflection. Two deep cuts ran across his face, one starting just right of his right eye, the other starting just under the left side of his chin, both of them meeting on top of his nose. It wasn’t his first scar; he’d gotten plenty in training. But they’d just been little ones mostly, nicks here and there. And none of them had ever been on his face. He stared down at the two slightly overlapping gashes, thinking of the scar that would form. He suddenly hoped Asari wouldn’t mind. Where did that come from? He looked back at her sleeping body and decided to wake her up.
He walked over to her and gently nudged her head with her nose. She gave a slight moan. He couldn’t help it. He gave her a lick on the cheek. Asari opened her eyes halfway. “Morning,” Akasare said.
Asari smiled. “And I thought you couldn’t teach lions how to tell time.”
Akasare lied down with a laugh. “What are you even doing here?”
Asari’s smile grew wider. “You mean you don’t remember?”
Akasare’s eyes widened in horror. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“Uncle Dingane beat you up. It looked pretty bad. It seemed a shame to wake you up. I didn’t know what you’d be like.”
Akasare looked away, embarrassed. “Oh. You saw.”
“Yeah. Daddy sent me to go get you two.” She looked at his face with concern and traced the two gashes with a paw. “Does it hurt?”
“Not that much.”
She nuzzled him. “I heard why he beat you, too.”
Akasare’s heart leaped into his throat. “You—you did?”
“Mm-hmm.” She kept nuzzling him. “Thank you.”
Akasare could feel himself becoming very hot. He wanted to return Asari’s affection, to nuzzle her back, to drape his leg around her, to kiss her again. He also wanted Mpande to not come around and find him with Asari in a very awkward and extremely difficult to explain situation. Asari, however, showed no signs of letting up. Akasare tried desperately to think of some way to get away. He finally said, “You hungry?”
Asari finally stopped nuzzling him. “You’re enough.”
Akasare laughed. “No, really.”
“Really,” she said seductively.
“Well, maybe just a little.”
“Alright. I’ll go get us breakfast, how about that?”
Asari smiled. “Just one kill. We can share.”
“Alright.” Akasare walked away before he did anything he would regret.
“I’ll be waiting!” she called after him.
He went in search of a herd, his claws sliding out and his teeth becoming bared as his thoughts wandered to the hunt. This was what he was made for. He loved the kill, the wonderful feeling of adrenaline as it rushed through his body, the sweet smell and taste of blood as he bit into the prey and broke their neck, or tore out their throat, or slashed through their legs and went to work on them while they could only flail helplessly, or any of countless ways he’d learned to kill. He remembered every single way. He was mildly surprised how quickly his brain could shift from love-making to killing.
He came upon a herd and crouched low into the grass, his claws digging involuntarily into the dirt. He was standing on top of a hill, looking at a magnificent herd of antelope, all of them grazing, completely unperturbed. It just wouldn’t do to leave them that way. He leapt from the grass and rushed the herd, a vicious smile on his face. The antelope began to run as soon as they saw him. They were too late; they always were. He thought of how Asari would be so pleased by this gift. He lost concentration. He leapt at an antelope and hit it wrong, barely catching the hind legs on their flanks. The antelope had to be given some credit. Despite two hundred pounds of extra weight it tried to keep running. After a few steps and Akasare’s digging his claws ever deeper into the beast, it stumbled and fell. Akasare immediately leapt up and drew back his paw to slash through the neck. A sudden yell stopped him.
Akasare looked around wildly, trying to find the source of the voice. There seemed to be no one. The voice spoke again. “Please, don’t do this. I have a mate with a foal on the way.”
Akasare stared down at the antelope in disbelief. “You—you can talk?”
“Of course we can talk. We’re not the dumb beasts you predators always think we are.”
Akasare raised his paw again, but hesitated. It didn’t seem right to kill the animal now. He’d hunted plenty of times, but none of them had ever spoken. He looked at the antelope’s face, the antelope’s eyes fixed with fear on his claws. It was beginning to shake uncontrollably with fear. Then it did something Akasare never expected it would do. It relieved itself right then and there, the urine splashing onto Akasare. He jumped back, then advanced on the animal in anger. He didn’t know how fear seemed to tell the body what to do, not the brain. In his eyes, the animal had done it on purpose. He drew his paw back, intending to kill it. “That’s enough.”
“No! Please! It was an accident!”
“Please!” Akasare swung his paw back just a little farther. The antelope flinched, then cried out in pain. “My legs!” The antelope was actually crying.
Akasare had been trained to kill, kill, kill. He’d killed plenty of antelope, plenty of other prey. But this . . . this was different. The kills always seemed to just be food, just something there to serve. They had no feelings, no emotions. Akasare had never killed something that pleaded. It changed everything. As he looked down at the crying antelope, its hind legs still oozing blood, Akasare felt something he never had before. It didn’t seem right to kill the antelope. It didn’t just seem not right, it seemed absolutely, completely wrong, on so many levels. He slowly lowered his paw. “I . . .”
“Damn it, stop toying with me! If you’re going to kill me, just do it!”
“I don’t want to.”
“Stop lying and act!”
Akasare almost killed the antelope after it used that command. It was amazing how deeply one word could be etched into a mind if it’s used constantly during training. “I really don’t want to hurt you.”
The antelope gave a groan as it mistakenly tried to move its legs. Blood came forth with the movement, destroying what clotting had built up. Akasare wanted to do something. The antelope wept bitterly. “I’m going to die. I’m going to die, and she’ll never see me again. And my foal . . .”
Akasare hung his head. “I’m sorry. I—I didn’t know.”
“A lot of good your sorrow does me now!”
“But . . . I want to help you now.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s a riot. A lion helping an antelope like me.” The antelope laid his head on the ground. Akasare didn’t have anything to say. He lied down next to the antelope. The antelope’s muzzle shone with tears, even though his eyes had stopped. The antelope finally spoke again. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be acting like this.”
“You’re sorry?” Akasare said incredulously. “Why should you be sorry at all? It’s my fault you’re like this.”
The antelope gave a bitter laugh. “You’re forgetting. You acted the way you predators should. But I’m not.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“We’re not supposed to talk to you during hunts. It’s drilled into us as a foal. But I did it anyway. And look where we are now. . . . I mean, think about it. What if this happened everywhere? Would you really want to eat anything?”
“Well . . .”
“You wouldn’t. So just kill me like you’re supposed to and I’ll lie here like the dumb beast I’m supposed to be, and your can take me back to your den and feed your cubs and watch them—watch them grow up . . .” The antelope let out a sob. “Oh, my son . . .”
Akasare stared down at the pitiful sight. He didn’t understand his feelings. He’d never felt anything remotely like this, except when he was with Asari. And when he was with her, it felt completely different, not this cheerless void he felt now. It didn’t seem right. The poor animal had a mate, and a son. He didn’t need to die. He shouldn’t die. Akasare hardened his jaw. He wouldn’t kill it. “What’s your son like?” he asked gently.
“He’s not here yet. But I just know it’s a boy.” The antelope smiled a sad smile. “I was going to be so happy.”
“I’m not going to kill you.”
The antelope turned his head to stare at Akasare, grimacing in pain. “What do you mean, you aren’t going to kill me?”
“I don’t want to.”
The antelope laid his head back down. “Yeah, so you maim me and then decide to leave me here. Real nice.”
“I want to help you.”
“The way to do that would be to just kill me. Do you have any idea how much pain I’m in? And my mate . . . she’ll think I’m a coward. . . . I am a coward. I don’t want to die.”
“Fear of death doesn’t make you a coward.”
“Both my parents have been eaten. They went without a fuss. Why can’t I?”
“You’re not always like your parents.”
“Yeah? Bet you you’re just like yours.”
“I . . . I don’t know who my parents are. I never met them.”
“Never?” The antelope was incredulous. “Everyone knows their parents.”
“Not me.” Akasare stared at the antelope, but didn’t see it anymore. He was something completely different, a lion and a lioness staring at a tiny little den, their faces blurred. “I—I’ve always thought that someday they’d find me. I mean, I’ve found Dingane, and Sicwele . . . but they’re not my parents. And I’ve always hoped that someday they’d find me, and take me home. . . . And there’d be this little den where I used to sleep, or maybe I’d sleep with them . . . And they’d show me around, and take me to everywhere that I loved to play. And maybe I’d even have a brother or a sister.” The image faded away to be replaced by the antelope again. “It’s all I have of my parents.”
“You didn’t have to go back to see what stinking hyenas had left of their corpses.” The antelope groaned in pain again. “Barely anything left on their bodies . . .” Akasare didn’t know if the antelope was gritting his teeth in pain or memory. “Oh, how it hurts . . .”
“You’ve said that plenty of times now, but’ve done nothing.”
“What do you want me to do? Anything. Just ask it.”
“What? I couldn’t. I thought you just said you didn’t want to die.”
“I don’t. But the thoughts . . . if you had any idea what I’ve done, you’d do it out of mercy.” The antelope smiled weakly. “Besides, the pain would go away.”
“But . . . but that would be murder.”
“Not murder. Hunting. Just do it now. Before I change my mind.”
“I just can’t. How would I live with myself? Knowing how your mate would feel?”
“Look, I’m no different than any other antelope you’ve killed. I am no better.” It sounded like a rote response. “If I don’t do this, I place myself above the herd.”
“Just do it.”
The antelope suddenly leapt up at Akasare, his teeth bared and aimed poorly at Akasare’s head, prepared to take a bite out of it. Akasare reacted by reflex, slashing through the antelope’s throat before he realized what he was doing. He finally stopped himself much too late, his claws already soaked with blood. The antelope fell to the ground, his eyes closed. Akasare felt horrible. He had a mate, and a foal on the way. And now he’s dead. I’ve been training for this? He felt—empty.
“Aka?” came a yell.
Akasare grabbed the antelope by the neck and began to drag it back to Asari. If she’d been looking for him . . . He didn’t know how long he’d been gone. Long enough, definitely, for her to be extremely worried. Hunting was just an exercise for him, something that required no thought. She probably thought he was dead, or worse, maimed.
“Aka?” Akasare dropped the antelope with a start. He turned to see Asari, her face concerned. “Is everything alright.”
“Yeah. Fine. Here, eat.” Asari rubbed against him, purring as she walked by. Akasare hardly noticed. Asari bent her head to the carcass. Akasare watched her tear off a strip.
“Aka,” she said after she swallowed, “don’t you want any?”
“No. I’m not hungry anymore.”
“And why not?” boomed a voice. Akasare turned to see Mpande striding towards them, proud head held high. “After you’ve done all that work to bring it down?”
“It’s—it’s not quite like that, sire.”
“Oh? Something we need to know about?”
“No, sire. I just—I need to think.”
“Of course. I’ll be with my daughter. I’m sure she has a lot to explain about last night.”
Akasare walked away, barely hearing Mpande’s last sentence. He felt horrible. He’d murdered someone, someone who had done nothing to harm him. He knew this was what he’d been trained to do. But was it really worth it? He knew what Dingane would say. He’d just say that Akasare’d get used to it. But it didn’t seem right. Not at all. His feelings for the antelope didn’t have words. All he knew was that he felt awful.
“Akasare?” Akasare’s head jerked up as Mpande cut through his thoughts. He turned to see the blind lion walking toward him.
“I thought you were with Asari, sire.”
“I was. But you seemed to need my company more than her.”
“I’m fine, sire.”
“Are you really, Akasare? You don’t seem happy.”
“I—I’m not, sire.”
“And why is that?”
“I murdered someone.”
“What?” Mpande was livid.
Mpande softened again. “Akasare, that’s hunting, not murder.”
“He had a mate! And a foal! Who am I to judge if he lives or dies?” Akasare was angry, and he didn’t know why.
“Akasare, what happened?”
That low, rumbling voice of Mpande’s slowly brought calm to Akasare’s mind. “I—I screwed up hunting. That’s bad enough right there. But when I was going to kill him . . . he begged me not to.”
“Yes, sire. And then, he said he did want to die. He jumped up at me and I killed him. I shouldn’t have. I feel awful, sire, and I don’t know why. I didn’t want to kill him.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know why?”
“I—I felt it was wrong. I don’t have any name for it. He was injured. It just—I felt it was wrong.”
Mpande thought about it. “Akasare, it’s good to feel that way. It’s called pity. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Then why does it feel so bad?”
“You feel bad because you feel their pain. But that’s no reason to shut it off. It’s one of the most precious things you can have. But the antelope . . . Akasare, you had to kill him. It just couldn’t happen any other way. You did the right thing.”
“How could I possibly have done the right thing?!”
“Akasare, it was your place to kill him. It was his place to die. Neither of you could help that any more than you could help being a lion. Yes, I know he had a foal, and a mate, but tell me, would you have felt any differently about killing him if you hadn’t known?”
“I—I guess so,” Akasare admitted grudgingly.
“He was not supposed to speak to you. He wasn’t supposed to make a sound. I know it seems cruel, but it has to be this way. It has been this way for countless generations; it’s the only way we know. If all of them begged for mercy, we would only have one of two things: all of us dying out through starving, or all predators just being that: killers, without any sense of how killing could be wrong.”
“Isn’t there any other way, sire?”
“No. They must give themselves up, so that we can eat. In return, we provide their grass when we die, so in a sense, they are compensated by eating us, as we have done to them. I hold this kingdom together in a delicate balance. As much as I would like to, however unjust it may seem, I can’t shift that balance. Chaos would occur, tearing down what I’ve worked so hard to maintain. They must accept their place, just as you must accept yours.”
There was a pause. “That’s it, sire? I just have to live with it?”
“Akasare, you did not murder that antelope. You served your purpose, just as it served its own. You did nothing to be ashamed of. It only would have been worse if you hadn’t acted. Think about it. If you had left, what would have happened? That antelope would have been an easy meal for another predator that was less fussy about how their food pleaded. You did it a kindness.”
Another pause. “If you say so, sire.” He paused again. “No other way?”
“None. . . . I know what you’re thinking, Akasare. But you can’t stop hunting. Like it or not, but we’re dependent on you, and the other hunters. You are the best we have. You must take your place. It will hurt for some time, I know. But you must get over it.”
Akasare sighed. “Yes, sire.”