All characters belong to me, and are not to be used without my explicit permission. All emails may be sent to conor0191@aol.com.

 

Two Weeks. Maybe.

 

            “Two weeks. Maybe.”

            That was my sentence. Two weeks would be the penalty, if I was good. That is, if you can consider a disease a crime.

            I looked up at the mandrill. “Okay. And the bad news?”

            She smiled down at me sadly. “It’s good that you feel that way about it.”

            “Look, Mir,” said Lakino to the mandrill, “are you sure?”

            “I’ve told you, sire,” said Mir. “She shows all the signs her mother did. And from the first symptom, it only took two weeks.”     

            “She collapsed. It was probably—heat exhaustion, or something.”

            “You aren’t out for a day with heat exhaustion. Sire, I am sorry, but I don’t see how this could be anything but her mother’s illness.”

            “It has to be something else,” protested Lakino. “Cheka can’t be dying.”

            “I’m sorry, sire. I couldn’t help her mother. I don’t think I can help her either.”

            “I’m still waiting for the bad news,” I said brightly.

            Mir sighed and turned to me. “You’re free to move about as you want. I’d honestly encourage doing whatever you want. But there will be a relapse. And after that . . . well, the decline progresses . . . rapidly.”

            “Mir,” said Lakino, “couldn’t we—”

            “Lakino, you heard the shaman’s orders,” I said. “Do whatever I want, and Afriti may care.”

            “I don’t think she—”

            “She’s perfectly correct sire,” said Mir. “She only has days to live. And after the relapse, she is not to move. I’m hoping that will slow the sickness. But in the meantime . . . sire, I encourage giving her whatever she desires.”

            “Even—”

            Anything, sire. I’m sure you understand.”

            I smiled. Of course Lakino understood. He honestly is one of the most caring animals I know. And Mir can manipulate him however she wants. It’s wonderful, seeing Lakino know he’s being pushed into something, but still do it anyway. He’s a pretty willing king, and a decent one at that. He’ll do everything he can achieve something if he decides he’s going to do it. Of course, Mir had just made up his mind for him. So . . .

            “Yes. I understand, Mir.”

            “Good, sire. I want to know as—as soon as she—relapses. You’ll know where to find me.” She walked out of the den. It still makes me wonder, a little, about how she can be so humane about death. She’s seen plenty die, but it still hurts her; she’s said that. I’d think she’d have gotten used to it, kind of like Majadi. But that’s just me.

            Lakino watched her go. Five years here had barely changed him. I’ll never forget the day that he came. The old king, Mfalme, had attacked without warning. I have no idea why. If he’d waited, he’d have seen Lakino was nothing but nice and good. But he attacked.

            And, in short, that was the end of Mfalme.

            Right after the fight, Lakino walked in, blood covering his paws, with a little around his jaw. I still don’t know how he killed Mfalme. Lions generally prefer to strangle, but Mfalme would never have let that happen. I really don’t want to think about it. Mfalme was, after all, my father.

            Lakino came right into the den after it, plenty of cuts in various places, and scared the daylights out of me. Rather, he scared Mom, which scared me. She hid me behind her, trying to protect me, and I stupidly had my head poking out from behind her leg. (I was a five-month-old cub. What do you expect?)

            Lakino said to the den, “You can keep your cubs. I won’t hurt them.”

            Old Waka, mat she rest in piece, said, “You won’t kill my Bahati?”

            Lakino shook his head. “No.” And that was that. No one died, except Mfalme. I didn’t really like him, anyway. Life was much better for me and the other cubs under Lakino. We got first pick at the meal for once, instead of having to wait for Mfalme to eat his fill.

            I know some say this isn’t right, or natural, and yes, I know that we’ll have more lionesses than we used to because of it. But I lived, so I’m fine with that. We weren’t that big of a pride, anyway. If you don’t like the policy, you can wait for the next rogue to show up and kill Lakino.

            I laid my head down on the stone floor of the den. No matter how perky my attitude was about death, my body was exhausted. I wholeheartedly hoped Mir was wrong about my death. It just seemed that she couldn’t be right.

            I remember how my mother died. It hadn’t been pretty. It hadn’t been nice at all for me, though she insisted she felt fine. She said there was no pain. If Mir really was right about me, I hoped she wasn’t lying about that. If Mir was right. It just seemed impossible.

            Majadi walked into the den in her happy, morbid way. If anyone could put a light side on this, it was her. “And Mir’s conclusion?” she asked Lakino.

            “She has two weeks,” said Lakino, his regret seeping into his voice.

            “Huh.” Majadi walked over to me. “Two weeks, huh?”

            “Yeah,” I said.

            “How you feel?”

            “Tired.” I looked up at her and smiled.

            She grinned, too. “You can sleep when you’re dead.” I laughed.

            “Majadi!” rebuked Lakino.

            “Well, it’s true!” she protested.

            “Do you really think that’s the nicest thing to say right now?”

            “Lighten up. It’s only death.”

            Lakino shook his head. None of us really understood Majadi’s apathy about death. She laughed at funerals, made back jokes to old lionesses at the mouth of death’s den. I was fairly sure she’d go happily and without a fuss.

            Besides, if anyone would make my stay easier—if I died—it was her.

            “You want anything?” Majadi asked.

            “An antidote,” I said. Despite my happy, devil-may-care attitude, glum realization had begun to sink in.

            “Death.”

            “I guarantee, if you use death, you’ll never, ever die.”

            “Point.” I yawned, stretching. “Gods, I’m hungry.”

            “You haven’t eaten for four days,” she pointed out.

            “That might do it.” I began to walk out of the den. “Time to eat. Want any, Lakino?”

            “I’ve eaten. And I have to be king now. No more playing Daddy.” He smiled at me, his sadness still obvious. “You sure you should be hunting?”

            “Lakino, I’m dying, not handicapped.” I continued out toward the herds, Majadi following me.

 

 

 

            Dying didn’t make me savor the carcass any more than I had. Same buffalo. Majadi dug in next to me, the two of us gulping down our kill. She nicely gave me the intestines that she knew I preferred. It didn’t really bother me that it was because I was dying.

            “So what’re you going to do now?” asked Majadi.

            “I dunno,” I said. “Why? You have something you want to do?”

            Majadi shook her head at my ignorance. “Cheka, I can’t believe you. You’re being given full reign of the kingdom.”

            “What?”

            “Do you really think there’s a single thing Lakino’s not going to let you do? He’d make you his queen for the rest of your life if you wanted.”

            I smiled as I took a bite. “I don’t think Umo would be too happy with that,” I muttered through my mouthful.

            “T’hell with Umo,” said Majadi happily.

            “Maybe then I’d have company when I got there.”

            Majadi laughed at that. “Seriously, though, Lakino would let you get away with murder. Probably even literally.”

            “I’m just dying.” The words still sounded false to me. There was no proof of anything. Just a blackout. I felt fine. Death was no closer than it ever had been to me. “It doesn’t give me any special privilege.”

            “It practically gives you the kingdom. Just ask Lakino ‘jump’ and he’d say ‘how high?’”

            I looked down at the carcass, feeling guilty, and hurriedly began to eat again. I didn’t want to ask anything special of Lakino. It would feel like extortion. The words “Lakino” and “father” were identical in my mind. I may have had ties to my true father, Mfalme, but they were nothing compared to what I felt for Lakino. I never called Lakino “Dad,” that would be a horrible breach of tradition; only Prince Bahati and Princes Msasi were given that honor. But everyone knew the title was there, for every cub.

            There had been that time that everyone thought that Lakino would follow tradition and make Bahati leave. Bahati had reached maturity, and we were all certain he would be run out of the kingdom any day. We knew Lakino would make it soft as possible for Bahati, but it would happen nonetheless.

            We all knew why it had to be done, in theory. It’s said that the gods would plague the prides that did not send out the young males and welcome in the ones who kill the king. The cubs would be deformed and ugly. It might be true, but I don’t know for sure. All we knew was that we didn’t want to try it.

            Of course, another possible reason is just plain selfishness on the part of the kings. They have all of us to themselves, and they prefer to keep it that way. This is a pretty unlikely reason; having all the father-son bonds torn apart as soon as the son decides to take a chance with a lioness. But it’s always been that way. Maybe it’s instinct. I don’t know.

            But despite the possible repercussions, none of us wanted to see Bahati go. True, we all enjoyed Lakino’s touch when our times came around, but just because Bahati was chosen by a lioness instead of Lakino was no reason to kick out someone as sweet as him. So we worried and worried and worried and stayed as far away from Bahati as we could when heat rolled around, as soon as he turned three. We didn’t want to take any chances.

            But Bahati began to take the stress badly. He knew the time was coming, and yet it never came. He was scared to death, and more than once we heard him wake up, breathing heavily, and leave the den, his eyes tearing up. Sometimes one of us would go with him to comfort him. Sometimes not. Never Lakino, though. He sleeps like a log.

            Finally, Bahati could take it no more and went to Lakino and asked him, tears beginning to brim, “Father?”

            Lakino looked up from his rest, knowing “Father” instead of “Dad” wasn’t something good. “Yes?”

            “. . . Father, when are you going to send me away?”

            “Away?” Lakino repeated, confused.

            “Yes. Please, just don’t drag it out anymore.”

            The entire group of us in the den went silent as we all stared at Lakino. It was going to happen, right there, right now. Gods knew we didn’t want to see it, but we couldn’t look away. I remember thinking Lakino might just say something like, “You can stay if you behave with the lionesses.” Some kind of middle ground.

            Realization dawned on Lakino and he said, “You don’t need to go.”

            I don’t know how it’s possible, but the den got even quieter.

            “Father?” whispered Bahati.

            “You’re not leaving,” said Lakino firmly. “Not while I’m king.”

            Bahati just broke down right there. He launched himself at Lakino and started weeping and going “Ohdadohdadohdad—” Lakino didn’t know what hit him at first, then wrapped a foreleg around his adopted son at almost the same instant every other one of us got the urge to go outside to take a good, long drink.

            I love Lakino for that day as much as any. I couldn’t just exploit him because of my malady now. Majadi might not have a problem with asking him for whatever she wanted, but not me. I might push it a little, but I couldn’t just do that to Lakino.

            “Majadi, it just wouldn’t feel right,” I finally said.

            “Suit yourself.” She dug into the carcass again. I ate opposite her, my mind quickly wandering nowhere. Majadi suddenly asked, “Do you remember it?”

            “Your mom’s passing.”

            I swallowed though my mouth had no meat in it. Majadi was one of Lakino’s cubs, not Mfalme’s, and had barely been around for—it. “Yeah,” I said uncomfortably.

            “Well, what happened?” she asked after it was apparent that I wasn’t going to volunteer anything else.

            “She just couldn’t move that much. It happened pretty fast. One day she was able to walk and . . . and then . . . she couldn’t.”

            “She died? That was fast.”

            “No. She just couldn’t walk. It took too much to even stand up. . . . They cleared out the den for her, and they wouldn’t even let me back in. Some others went in . . . but not me.”

            “Why not?”

            “They didn’t—she didn’t want me to see her that way. We all just stayed out of the den for four days . . . And then they took her out of there. They tried to keep me from seeing but,” I said with a shrug, “you know how cubs are. And that—thing . . . well, it didn’t look anything like a lioness.”

            “Wow,” said Majadi. I went back to eating, trying to focus all my attention on the task. That horrible, ugly thing that was my mother . . . Lakino had felt it was his fault; it had come so soon after he came. I had only seen her for an instant after she died. I wasn’t even present for the funeral; they said that my mother didn’t want me there. I don’t know if she said that or not, honestly.

            “Didn’t you get it too?” I asked, suddenly hopeful.

            “Me? I was sick, yeah.” Majadi laughed. “They put a death watch on me, too, remember?”

            “Oh. Right.” I took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. “Is that where you got your . . . uh . . .”

            “Death-worship?”

            “Yeah,” I said, looking back down to the carcass. It just didn’t seem right to mention that part of Majadi. It seemed like something horrible, like devil-worship or feelings toward another lioness. It just wasn’t right. I was sorry I breached the topic.

            “Yep,” said Majadi unconcerned. “About that time. Is there really any reason about fussing when you go?” She finally seemed to notice how uncomfortable I was. It may have been the first time he noticed anyone feeling bad about it. “I’m just the same girl you’ve known all your life, Cheka.”

            “It’s just . . . awkward.”

            “What? ’Cause I’m more at ease with something than the rest of you?”

            “I guess.” I didn’t really know. I looked back up at her, feeling slightly guilty.

            Majadi smiled. “Look at yourself. You think any amount of kicking and screaming is going to stop you from going?” I didn’t answer. “Really,” she asked, “if life ain’t just one big joke, why are you dead?”

            It was a good question. I had no answer.

            “Although, I’d like to try to get out of death,” she mused.

            “Majadi, everyone dies. Nobody lives and gets out alive.”

            “Oh, you’re just saying that because no one’s ever done it before.”

            “You’re nuts.”

            “No, think about it. What if someone managed to go through life, and not die? Huh?”

            “That’s stupid. Everyone dies.”

            “But no, think about it. What if they didn’t die, but they didn’t live either?”

            “Majadi, you’re alive, or you’re dead. It’s that simple.”

            “Think of it as a kind of third way out,” she insisted.

            “I’m thinking you ate something that didn’t quite agree.”

 

 

 

            I walked into the den that night, and was surprised to find no staring, nodding at me, or whispering. Information usually spread at lightning speed in a closed community like ours. I imagined that the den would have gone quiet as I walked in with Majadi. Instead, the lionesses just looked up as we came in, then went back to talking. It was no more than a passing glance.

            “Weird,” I said.

            “What?” asked Majadi.

            “Uh, nothing.”

            “Feeling bad?”

            “Feel fine.”

            Majadi hmphed and went to lie down next to her mother. I was going to lie down next to Bahati and Waka when I heard Lakino call out, “Cheka.” I turned to see him just outside the den. I got up and walked toward him.

            “Yes?” I asked him.

            “Walk with me, please,” he said. I did. When we were away from the den he said, “I haven’t told anyone about your . . .”

            “Death?”

            “I wish you wouldn’t call it that.”
            “Lakino, I’m going to die. It’s quite simple. One of these days I’m going to just not wake up, and that’ll be that.”

            Lakino was shaking his head. “I know you can’t be serious about the way you feel. You’re being forced onto the same path as your mother. It’s not right.”

            “Yeah, but I know I’m gonna die.” I shook my head with a halfhearted chuckle. I paused. “It just doesn’t seem real.”

            Well . . . when you feel like it . . . when it sees ‘real’ enough . . . I’ll let you tell them.”

            “Lakino, I don’t know if it ever will seem real. I mean, look at me. I’m not dying, mo more than you are. I’m healthy, I’m in good shape, I can beat you two out of three falls—”

            “Only because I let you, missy.”

            “Yeah?” I tackled him to the ground, catching him by surprise. I placed both of my forepaws on his chest. “One out of three.”

            “There’s a thing called old age, and it’s getting to me.”

            “Great. We can go together.”

            “Cheka, please don’t say that.” He reached up to my face and caressed t gently. “You’re a very special lioness,” he said seriously. “I want your last days to be special, too.”

            “Then why the hell am I here with you?”

            Lakino laughed. “Get off me!” he said, pushing me.

            “Just do one thing for me,” I said as he got up.

            “Name it.”

            “When there’s that relapse—if there’s that relapse Mir said would happen—could you tell them then? You know, about the two weeks.”

            “Course,” he said. “Whatever you want.”

 

 

 

            Of course, since the pride didn’t know anything about me dying, the next few days were normal. Same old hunting every day, half the time not even catching anything. Same old conversations in the den about the various races in the kingdom and who said what about who. Same wondering just how long it was until heat. Same old hateful glares from Imani.

            Let me explain about that. Imani didn’t mind me too much up until we went hunting together the first time. It was my mistake, all my mistake—but I still feel she could have avoided it. I broke cover too early and forced her to move. She didn’t have enough time to judge and went for a buck that was too strong. She managed to get her leg broken, and I lost my kill, too.

            Now what I don’t get is hwy she hates me so much. I made a mistake, and I said I was sorry, several times, in the most insistent fashion. So the leg didn’t heal perfectly, so she limps a little bit. So? It was one of the first times I was hunting, same for her. I think it’s just because Imani’s dependence on me now and everyone else to get food. Or maybe she just hates me for the heck of it. I don’t know. But she hates me. She also feels that my guts are too privileged to remain inside me, and has offered to remove them on numerous occasions.

            Like I said though, life goes on. And every few days, usually something interesting happens. If it had been birthing time, someone would have been having cubs. Mating season, one or more of us would have slipped into the throes of heat. Any other time it’d be outside the pride: some species getting annoyed at another, one of our cubs brining another carnivore home to play.

            So of course, something’s going to come up. Either that or I’d drop dead, one of the two. And considering the pain and the shock, I’m glad I wasn’t the one who did.

 

 

 

            We were dragging Bahati along for a hunt, Majadi and me. It was mainly for Bahati. Both me and Majadi had hunted yesterday, we were full. Bahati was running on empty. So, of course, someone had to get if for him, because the prince sure as heck wasn’t going to shift his lazy backside to hunt.

            “I mean, think about it,” said Majadi. “If you can’t get a lioness, you won’t eat. We’re always the ones who get the food.”

            “How many times are we going to have this conversation?” groaned Bahati.

            “Every single time.” Majadi looked over at me and we both grinned. And it just brings up so many wonderful thoughts, doesn’t it? Starving you to get what we want . . .”

            “I’m the prince, Majadi.”

            “Hey, you got lucky. Raja thinks you should be dead.”

            “Raja thinks everyone should be dead,” I observed. The old lioness was a firm believer in the old ways, where a rogue would kill every cub that wasn’t his when he became pride leader.

            “Not everybody,” said Bahati. “Almost everybody.”

            “Close enough. You two would have been dead,” said Majadi.

            “Are you kidding? I would’ve beaten the crap out of Lakino.” Majadi laughed at my statement.

            “You couldn’t touch Dad,” dismissed Bahati.

            “I could certainly touch you. And if you haven’t noticed, Lakino’s getting old. Like, wheezing, groaning, ‘when I was your age I walked uphill to the waterhole both ways in heavy rain’ old.”

            “Leave off Dad,” said Bahati in a tone that definitely didn’t match my joking.

            Majadi and I stopped and turned to look at Bahati. “Something I said?” I asked.

            Bahati looked away. “He’s not that old.”

            “You had the talk, didn’t you?” asked Majadi casually.

            “It’s—it’s not fair. Why should Dad have to die? Why should . . . it’s not fair, having someone come here and kill him.”

            “Don’t forget, you’re next,” said Majadi. “I’d be worried about—”

            “Majadi, shut up,” I said.

            “But—”

            Shut up.” I looked over at Bahati. “Look, Lakino is going to get run out by a rogue. That or killed. It has to happen.”

            “Why?” demanded Bahati. I could tell that he had asked Lakino the same question. I probably had the same answer.

            “It just does. It happened to our dad, remember? Lakino was one of those rogues.”

            “Dad is different.”

            I didn’t know what to say. Majadi definitely didn’t know what to say. This was a sensitive subject. Every king always lived in fear of the time that a rogue would come to take their pride. Sometimes they would fight the rogues off. Other times they turned coward and ran.

            No matter what way you looked at it, though, Lakino’s time was coming up. He’d fought off two, and neither one had happened in my sight. From what Mir said, I never would see a fight now. But seeing the fight is something I definitely didn’t want. It would be a horribly gut-wrenching experience, not knowing if Lakino would live or die, or what seemed still worse, would simply turn his back on us, running from any further punishment.

            “It’s going to happen whether you want it or not,” said Majadi. “Isn’t it nicer to know when you’re gonna die?”

            “I’m worried about Dad, not me.”

            Majadi opened her mouth to talk, but I gave her my piercing shut-your-yap glare. “Bahati, the chances of that happening any time soon are pretty small. You don’t need to think about it. Think about now.” Bahati still didn’t look like he was cheering up.

            “Look,” said Majadi, “how about you pick out the meat today. Just show us and we’ll take ’em down.”

            “I don’t think that’d be the smartest thing to do,” I said.

            “Why not?” she asked. “Just think of it as a gift, Bahati.”

            “For what?” asked Bahati.

            “Does it really have to be for anything?”

            “I . . . guess not.”

            “Well, come on!” Majadi started off toward the hunting grounds for today, practically bouncing. I had to admit, it was rather forced, but it was a way to get Bahati’s mind off the topic. That was Majadi, blunt as always.

            Bahati and I headed after her. “Is that really the reason?” Bahati asked me.

            “Oh, she’s just giving you gifts to try to seduce you.”

            “What?” he asked, startled.

            I giggled. “Gullible.”

            “What?” he asked. I started off after Majadi.

            A few minutes later we came up on the hunting ground, Majadi already there, crouching low in the grass. I pushed down on Bahati’s neck firmly, making him crouch next to me. Typical out of practice male.

            Majadi turned to look at us. “See any you like?” she asked Bahati. She nodded toward the herd. Antelope, I saw. I hated antelope. Too gamy. Bahati, however, didn’t mind. Besides, it was him we were hunting for.

            “How about that one?” asked Bahati innocently.

            I looked where he was pointing. “The, uh, old one down there?”

            “No, he looks too stringy. The one next to him.”

            “That big beast of an antelope?”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “The one that’s maybe three years old?”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “With the big horns?”

            “Did I pick the wrong one?”

            “No, no, it’s fine. Majadi, let’s go.”

            No, it wasn’t alright. Yes, when looking for a kill, you did separate the mighty from the weak. You didn’t exactly pick the mighty, though. Plenty of lionesses had been injured when bringing down a buck that was a little too big and strong. But we could do this with the two of us. If we were lucky. We’d just have to be careful. Throwing my life around wasn’t exactly something I wanted to do.

            “He can pick ’em, can’t he?” asked Majadi.

            “We’ll be fine. Just be careful. Really careful.”

            “I’ll take point.”

            “Why would you want to do that?”

            “Because you’re sick.”

            “I’m perfectly fine.”

            “I’m taking point.”

            “You’re nuts.”

            “Hellz yeah.” She began to silently stalk forward. “Come on.”

            I followed. This was her hunt now. She was calling the shots. I was expected to follow her lead. If I didn’t, the entire hunt could be turned into a bloody, gory mess.

            “Three,” she quietly counted. I quickly fixed my gaze on the target. “Two . . . One . . .”        We both rushed. Immediately the herd was thrown into chaos. I dove in, something I’d only done twice before. I usually caught one on the rear. It was madness to try to grab one in the middle. There was so much chaos that you were begging for an injury.

            I pressed forward, trying to keep sight of the buck we wanted. I finally got a good shot at him and saw Majadi leaping for him in midair. Maybe one second went by where I could se that before my vision became blocked again and I heard a scream. It wasn’t an antelope’s cry, it was a lioness’s shriek. I nearly stopped dead with the realization of what happened. I tried to get to Majadi, the flood of antelope passing by quickly, too quickly for me to know where I was going.

            Finally the last antelope thundered away and I rushed as quickly as I could to Majadi. It wasn’t until I got to her other side that I saw the wound.

            “Oh, gods . . .”

            “Cheka—help . . .” she pleaded.

            “It’s okay,” I said. “It’s going to be okay.” Bahati ran up. “Go get Mir,” I snapped.

            “But—”

            Now!” Bahati ran off, and I looked back down at Majadi. Her face was contorted by the pain, breath coming in short spurts. The antelope had gored her cleanly in the chest. “Shh . . .” I said gently, pressing the back of my paw to her face tenderly.

            Majadi grabbed my foreleg with her forepaw, digging her claws in. Her face was completely terrified as she whispered, “I don’t wanna die, Cheka . . . I don’t want die . . . I don’t wanna die . . .”

            I froze, feeling her claws dig in tighter, a bit of blood trickling out of her mouth, unsure if I did so because of the pressure or the realization of what she said.

            “Cheka . . . help . . . It hurts . . . I can’t breathe . . .”

            I did my best to calm her, stroking her cheek gently as I felt her claws dig in deeper. I don’t know if it worked at all; that terrified look never disappeared. By the time Mir came, it was still there, though she had gone.

 

 

 

            The den was unusually quiet as I came in for the night. Bahati had run to get Lakino after he’d brought Mir back. Lakino had quietly told me that I should go back to the den. And he would stand the vigil until the funeral the next day.

            Almost immediately, I wished I had stayed. I wandered into the land, not knowing what to do. I forced myself into a stream and tried to get all of the blood off, stopping when I decided I’d had enough. I walked the rest of the way to the den, only to find that they were almost waiting for me.

            The hushed silence was awful. I knew immediately that Bahati must not have been the quietest when he told Lakino about what happened. The shock of the accident still hadn’t quite worn off; I hadn’t had the anguish creep in yet. I know that all sounds logical and coherent, but I swear to all the gods that I wasn’t. My paws thought for me, simply leading me back to my normal spot in the den, my head swimming with chaos and shock that Majadi was dead, truly dead. I wasn’t helped at all by the lionesses’ stares.

            I liked down in my corner. Part of my head said I was responsible for this happening, that Majadi was dead because of me. Another part said that was nonsense, that I had done my job and it was an accident; no one could have foreseen it. Another blamed Bahati for picking that kill; he had enough experience to have known better than to pick that one. Still another part went over my memories of Majadi, almost inaudibly quiet now, but slowly growing louder.

            I saw a set of paws place themselves in front of my face. I looked up to see Imani staring down at me with her usual hateful glare. This time, though, there seemed to be a little more venom behind it. “So,” she said, “you did it again.”

            “Please shut up,” I half-whispered, laying my head back down, pressing my ears flat against my head.

            “You did it again!” she said, louder than last time, so that the whole den could hear. “What, wasn’t one time good enough for you? It’s bad enough with you already ruining all the hunts, but now you’re at this again?”

            I didn’t respond, simply closing my eyes. I felt a single tear slide down my cheek.

            “But really, what does it matter?” asked Imani. “Maim a lioness here, kill one there, what does it matter? You don’t even care!

            “I didn’t mean for this to happen,” I said quietly.

            “Oh, no, of course not,” she said sarcastically. “No one ever means for this kind of thing to happen, never ever! Just a horrible accident.” I glared up to see her sneer. “So who else is on your list? I’m sure we’d all love to know. Or are you just so damn incompetent that—”

            “Quiet, Imani,” said Raja. I was surprised to hear the elderly lioness speak up.

            “Why should I? We’re all thinking the same thing! She killed Majadi.! She’s a danger to everyone when she hunts—”

            “She is one of the finest hunters we have,” said Raja coldly. “And so was Majadi. Mistakes happen.”

            “They’ve happened two times too many—”

            Silence.” Imani immediately fell quiet. “Your injury is no reason to still hold a grudge against Cheka. She has apologized, and you have done nothing but spit in her face. You should be ashamed. Imagine the grief she must be going through.”

            “Oh, shut up, old hag,” said Imani haughtily. “The only thing you’re good for is telling cubs stories.” Raja snarled at her. Imani ignored her pointedly and walked out of the den.

            “Don’t listen to her,” said Raja quietly. “She’s always been a fool.”

            I ignored her and turned over to my side so I stared at the wall. I felt like shit. I didn’t know how to feel; even then, not yet a day after it happened, my memory of Majadi’s death was blurred and twisted. I just stared at the wall, losing track of time.

            On impulse I stood up and headed for the den exit. “Cheka?” I heard someone say. “Where you going?”

            “I’m gonna see Lakino,” I said. It seemed like a good excuse.

            “You sure you don’t want someone?”

            “I’m fine,” I insisted, heading off into the savannah.

 

 

 

            Oddly enough, I did find my way to Lakino. I guess I wasn’t paying any attention to anything and walked there. I didn’t realize I had until I heard him speak. “Cheka? You alright?”

            My head snapped up and I noticed him for the first time. Bahati sat next to him, both of them staring at me. I could see Majadi’s body behind them, blood all around her. I suddenly realized I still hadn’t bathed properly; the stream that I’d thrown myself in to get what I could of the blood off hadn’t removed all of the crimson stains.

            “I—I guess I just came out here,” I said quietly.

            “You, uh . . . you just want to sit?” Lakino asked.

            “Okay.”

            And I sat. I stared at Majadi’s body. I couldn’t help it. Though someone had closed her eyelids, those fear-filled orbs still wandered to the top of my head. She had seemed so young. A year younger than me, I remembered. She had been in the prime of her life, and now she had been cut down by fate, never to truly live. She’d been a wonderful friend.

            “It’s not your fault,” Lakino said. I found I was crying. I’d never been this spaced out in my life before. Something was very, very wrong with me.

            “She didn’t want to die,” I said. I looked up at Lakino. “She didn’t want to die.”

            Lakino nodded gravely. “No one does.”

            “Lakino, she said she didn’t want to go. But I’d have—I’d’ve thought that if anyone could have . . .”

            Lakino frowned. “Bahati?” he said quietly.

            “Yeah, Dad?”

            “Would you mind leaving us alone for a while?”

            “Go ahead.” Bahati stood up and headed off to where I knew there was a waterhole.

            “Cheka,” said Lakino softly, “I know you must be shocked about what happened. But that was an accident.”

            “I should’ve led. She didn’t have to lead.” My eyes couldn’t help wandering back to her body.

            “She didn’t have to jump. She didn’t have to start right then. She didn’t have to do a dozen little things she did. But she did do them, and it’s not your fault.”

            “I know,” I said. “I just keep thinking that if I did something—”

            “Cheka,” Lakino aid sternly. I looked back up at him. “It’s not—your—fault.”

            I sighed. “I know.”

            Lakino nuzzled me gently. I turned my head into his mane and cried quietly, and felt him place a foreleg somewhat across my back. I didn’t know how long we were like that. I missed Majadi. I didn’t want to realize that I’d never see her again.

            I finally removed my head with a sniffle. I looked at Lakino and saw him smile. “I’m here for you,” he said gently.

            “Lakino, she didn’t want to die.”

            “I know—”

            “Doesn’t that mean it’s going to be worse for me. She—she loved death and . . .” I didn’t know quite what I was trying to say.

            Lakino brought me close to him again. “Shh. Just don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine. Don’t think about it.”

            I stayed the night there with him, both of us standing vigil for Majadi, Bahati coming back later to join us.

 

 

 

            The next morning I felt better. The shock was gone, though the aching void it had left was filled by painful memories. I knew I’d never see her again, but it wasn’t quite as bad as before.

            Lakino went back to get the lionesses from the den while me and Bahati stayed and watched the body, alone with it for a few last minutes. We didn’t have anything to say that hadn’t already been discussed the night before. All three of us had talked until I had fallen asleep. When I woke up, Bahati was snoring. It looked like the only one that had stayed u all night was Lakino.

            The pride came out and we had a beautiful funeral for Majadi. Lakino is a wonderful speaker when the occasion’s right. It definitely was for this. Everyone cried. When it was over, I kissed Majadi one last time and headed back to the den with the rest of the pride. There was no need to guard her now. Her body was given to the kingdom, a meal for the first hungry predator that found her.

            The next two days passed quietly. I kind of wish something had happened. I couldn’t help but lie in the den those two days, just reflecting on death. Do not do this if you want to be happy. Especially not if you have days to live. The others just marked off my sad thoughtfulness to Majadi’s death.

            I finally decided to try to be happy on the second day. I smiled, I laughed, I told jokes, no matter how forced it was. I finally held Lakino up to his word and spent the night with him. I tried my hardest to forget about my situation.

            The next morning I woke up and kissed Lakino gently on the cheek. It woke him up, too. “Sleep well?” I asked.

            “Slept great.” He licked me back. “It’s a pity you fell asleep so soon.”

            “I think we were up half the night,” I said with a smile. “I could go for a little now, though.”

            Lakino smiled. “Greedy little minx.”

            “Eh. It’s a habit.”

            Lakino chuckled. “Well, I need to be king now. I know it’s hard, but restrain yourself.” He stood up, stretching. “Come on, back to the den.”

            I trotted to catch up with him, then continued walking by his side on the way back. I couldn’t help feeling happy with Lakino next to me. I mean, yeah, he was Umo’s mate, but just knowing that he cared enough about me to do that . . . I rubbed myself against him, purring.

            “Cheka,” he reprimanded playfully.

            “I love you, Lakino,” I said, nuzzling him.

            He smiled. “I love you, too.”

            “You just love everyone.”

            “Just lionesses.” His face slowly lost his smile. “Cheka, are you alright?”

            “Huh?”

            “Majadi was close to you. I know it doesn’t help for something like that in a time like this—”

            “Let’s not talk about that,” I said, looking away.

            “I’m sorry,” said Lakino. “I’m just worried about you.”

            “I know. I—I just . . . just . . . I . . .” It was hard to breathe.

            “Cheka?”

            I stopped walking, my legs feeling weighted as I dragged them. I stumbled and fell, breathing becoming harder and harder. I felt as if I were unable to move, simply lying on my side, Lakino crouched down in front of me, eyes wide, panicking.

            “Cheka, can you hear me? Cheka—”

            Darkness crept in on my vision, his face fading away.

 

 

 

            I slowly came to consciousness, wishing I was still asleep. I felt my body trembling uncontrollably. “Being in pain” was an understatement. I finally opened my eyes. I was in the den. It was completely empty.

            “I think she’s awake.” It was Lakino’s voice.

            “Lakino . . .” It hurt to talk. I felt the trembling grow worse.

            “Just stay still, Cheka.” It was Mir’s voice. The shaman walked in front of me and crouched down. “I know you have to be in a lot of pain right now. I’m going to give you some herbs that’ll take away the pain.

            “It . . . hurts . . .” I can’t explain how much pain I was in. My whole body felt like it had fire coursing through it, searing every bit it could reach. I began to cry. I wanted to die. Anything was better than this.

            Mir walked out of my view and then stepped back in. “This’ll hurt,” she said.

            “No,” I said urgently.

            “This is for the pain,” said Mir. She opened my mouth with her hands and quickly placed a small ball of herbs in my mouth, then slammed it shut, all of this before I could react. I screamed, unable to open my mouth due to Mir’s apparently stone-hard grip. I screamed nonetheless. Moving anything was awful, and the pressure on my mouth wasn’t helping. One hand went to my throat and began to massage it. I screamed louder.

            “Shh,” said Mir softly. “I know it hurts. Swallow. Come on, swallow.”

            I didn’t swallow voluntarily. Mir’s rubbing did it. The herbs went down the wrong way mostly. I coughed and spluttered, not helping my pain at all. Mir continued to rub while forcing me to keep still. They went down again, the right way. Mir let go after a few more rubs.

            I took full advantage of being let go. My mouth opened wide and I screamed my loudest, tears pouring from my eyes. Mir backed away from my writhing body and I caught a glimpse of Lakino and Bahati before my eyes screwed shut. Everything hurt. Moving only made it worse. Screaming only made it worse. I only moved and screamed more from the pain. I screamed obscenities as loud as I could to anyone and everyone who could hear me.

            I finally calmed down after a long time. I stopped moving completely. I simply couldn’t anymore. I was too exhausted. I felt weak and anemic. The only thing that continued was my crying. I don’t know how much time had passed.

            Mir came forward again, more herbs in her hand. “I know this hurts, Cheka. But there’s no other way. This will help.”

            I glared up her. “To hell with you,” I whispered savagely, moving my mouth as little as possible.

            Mir smiled sympathetically, her grief obvious in her eyes. “You’re going to want to swallow this. I’m sorry about this. But unless you do, I’m going to have to force it down again.”

            She held out her hand, one ball in it. I kept my mouth firmly shut. Mir sighed and. Once again, forced the ball into my mouth and shut it again before I could react. Suddenly I wasn’t quite as exhausted; I found the energy to moan and writhe again as Mir eased it down my throat with my help this time. I just wanted her to stop. I wanted it all to stop.

            I forced myself to lie still on the floor. The pain was still overwhelming. “The first had a sedative,” Mir explained gently. “It’ll give time for the second to work. Just try to relax.”

            I couldn’t relax. It was impossible. The pain coursed through my body, never ceasing. “I want to die,” I whispered. “Please, just kill me now. I don’t want to wait. I want to die.”

            Mir shook her head. “That is one thing I cannot do.” She stood up and walked out, telling Bahati and Lakino, “Just leave her alone. Come on, out.”

            I heard the sound of paws shuffling out with Mir’s feet. Mir’s herbs were mercifully quick. A few minutes later, I felt myself falling asleep.

 

 

 

            Not only were Mir’s herbs quick to take effect, they were undeniably potent, too. When I came to, the pain was just a memory. It was dark everywhere. I could see I was in the den, but there wasn’t any light at all.

            “Anyone there?” I whispered. It didn’t hurt.

            “I am.” It was Bahati.

            I tried to raise my head to look at him. I found it took all my strength to do just that simple motion. I felt an ache begin in my neck. “I can’t move,” I told him.

            “Just relax. Don’t try. Are you in any pain?”

            “Not compared to what I was in.” I closed my eyes miserably. “Bahati, I’m dying.”

            “I know. Dad told the pride. . . . Cheka, I’m so sorry.”

            “It’s not your fault . . . s’pose it’s Mom’s. Least I don’t have a cub, right?”

            “Not for lack of trying,” said Bahati, trying to smile.

            “Instinct,” I said. “It’s all it is.” I sighed. “How long do I have?”

            “Five days,” said Bahati. “You were out all yesterday.”

            “Just five . . .” I couldn’t run. I couldn’t hunt. I could barely move. Five days as a prisoner to my weakness.

            “I’m very sorry, Cheka. If you’d told us . . .”

            “You’d have done something. I . . . I should’ve . . .  I didn’t want to believe it.”

            “That’s what Dad said.” Bahati looked down at the ground. There were a few of Mir’s herb balls there. “I’m supposed to get you to eat these.”

            “All of them?”

            Mir kept giving them to you after you were out. She came in to check on you earlier and gave me these.”

            “How long was I asleep?”

            “A day and a half. You want to take these?”

            “Not really.”

            “Mir said to get her if you wouldn’t. They’re for pain.”

            I sighed. “Alright.” Bahati knocked the little balls over to me, then placed them in front of my mouth. My tongue snaked out and swallowed each ball one by one. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as before.

            “Hungry?” Bahati asked.

            “Starving.”

            “They’re getting something right now for you.”

            I closed my eyes again and tried to relax. “You mean they’re getting of their lazy butts and working?

            The joke didn’t go over too well. “We’re all trying to help, Cheka.”

            “Even Imani?” I asked sarcastically.

            “Uh . . .”

            “Figures,” I said.

            “I’m sure she’s worried.”

            “She can go to hell,” I said, opening my eyes again.

            Bahati sighted. I knew he didn’t approve of Imani’s behavior toward me. None of the den did. “Anything I can do?”

            “Not unless you have a cure.”

            Bahati frowned, then his ears rose up eagerly. “I could sing.”

            I laughed out loud, the laughter quickly being cut off by coughing. It hurt to laugh. “You want to put me in more pain than I am now?” I asked feebly.

            “Sorry,” said Bahati.

            “’Sokay.” I sighed. “Go ahead. Something happy.” Bahati was quiet. “What?” I asked.

            “I . . . I don’t really know if it’s appropriate—”

            “I’m sad. I want to be happy. It’s appropriate.”

            “—but there’s one song. I made it after your mom . . .”

            There was a pause. “That was years ago,” I said in a hushed voice.

            “I got to see her. And she wanted me to remember her.” He seemed almost ashamed to be saying this. “Just as a last wish. I don’t know if you’d like it . . .”

            I bit my lip. I had never known what my mother had gone through. I wanted to hear it, but what Bahati might have put it in . . . “Go ahead,” I finally said.

            “Alright,” he said quietly. He drew himself up as he always did before he sang. He began in a low, melancholy tone,

 

“Turn away

Oh please just turn away from me

Bring me all my favorite toys

But send away the girls and boys

Oh please just will you turn away

From me?

 

“Turn away

Oh please just turn away from me

My fur is falling out in clumps

I’ve got these awful, ugly lumps

Oh please just will you turn away

From me?

 

“Turn away

Oh please just turn away from me

I’m a monster and I know it

I can’t hide it, I’ll still show it

Oh please just will you turn away

From me?

 

“Turn away

Oh please just turn away from me

 Shouldn’t ever have been seen

I almost wish I’d never been

Oh please just will you turn away

From me?”

 

            I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” said Bahati. “I just . . . I’m sorry.”

            “Am I really a hideous monster?” I whispered.

            Bahati shook his head. “Your mother . . . she wanted me to be honest. You saw her when she died . . . she wanted you to come in, but we couldn’t let you. We didn’t want you to catch anything.”

            “Am I going to turn into a monster?”

            Bahati smiled kindly at me, his eyes doing anything but that. “I hope not. Really.”

            He wanted to leave, I could see that. “I think I’ll try to sleep again,” I said, trying to excuse him.

            “Alright,” he said. “I’ll . . . I’ll let you rest.”

            “Okay.” I closed my eyes once again and lied still, hearing him pad out of the den a few minutes later. I felt, more than ever, that there was no hope for me.

 

 

 

            Mir came in the next morning and gave me my herbs. She began to ask me the usual sick questions: When had I last eaten, was I in pain, how did I sleep. She carefully inspected me as I half-lied through her questions. I honestly didn’t know when I’d last eaten, the only thing I answered truthfully. I told her the pain was fine, I slept wonderfully, I felt a little better, and although I was a little thirsty, I was fine.

            Mir looked at me and smiled. “You don’t need to lie.”

            “Yes, I do.”

            Mir crouched down in front of me a few pokes and feels later. “I have bad news,” she said.

            “What, I’m going to die slower?” I asked testily.

            “You’re pregnant.”

            I stared up at her. “You’re joking,” I said quietly/

            “You’re showing the early signs. I thought I saw it yesterday, but I couldn’t be sure.”

            “I’m not pregnant.”

            “I asked the lionesses, and you should be on the last part of your period right now.”

            “It’s running a little late. That’s all.”

            “And it could be. Your illness might also be affecting it. But that doesn’t explain how your stomach has expanded to the typical point of one-month-pregnancy.”

            I lowered my head back to the ground. I simply lied there, Mir standing up from her crouch. “I can’t be pregnant,” I finally said.

            “I am sorry about it,” said Mir. “Who is the father?”

            “Prolly Lakino.”

            “Lust Lakino?”

            “Prolly not Bahati. I think it was Lakino.”

            “I can tell him for you, if you want,” she offered.

            “Why’d you even have to tell me?” I asked angrily. “What makes you think I want to know? Do you think I’m going to be happy that some little cub is going to die with me?”

            “Would you rather have died not knowing it?”

            “Yes!” I said vehemently. This was one thing that I didn’t want to know. The last thing I needed was more guilt. Damned monkey!

            “But would you rather die without Lakino knowing it?”

            “Ye . . .” I stopped. Lakino. I hadn’t even thought of him. This was his first cub with me. His only cub for me.

            “He cares for you very much, Cheka,” said Mir. “Most likely more than he would for a normal lioness. You are like a daughter to him. Your illness has affected him deeply. It’s reduced him to tears at times.”

            “I’ve never seen him—”

            “He doesn’t want you to feel any worse, Cheka. I think he may already know about your pregnancy, or at least think of the possibility. And he’s very worried about you. About how you’re handling all this.”

            “I’m fine for being dead,” I said bitingly.

            Mir sighed. “Don’t you think that you’re being selfish at all? This is his cu—”

            “I have a right to be selfish!” I yelled. Mir stepped back as I yelled, surprised by my outburst. It hurt to yell, but I did anyway. “I’m going to die, and it’s not fair!” I tried to get up and chase her out of the den, but I couldn’t stand.  Pain coursed through my legs as I tried. I fell back to the floor with a whimper.

            “Cheka, you’re going to hurt yourself,” warned Mir.

            I laughed bitterly. “More than I’m hurt already?” My whole body throbbed from the outburst.

            “Please,” said the mandrill, “just think about it. It’s Lakino’s cub, too.”

            “Get out.”

            Mir got up and walked to the mouth of the den. She turned around. “Cheka . . .”

            “Don’t you dare tell him! Get out!”

            Mir left. I lowered my head to the ground. I could feel the beginning of another headache and knew I’d be wanting more pain herbs soon enough. Pregnant. Wonderful. Gods damn you for having me, Mother.

 

 

 

            I was left alone for the next few hours. Bahati came in once to give me my pain control. He tried to make conversation, but I wasn’t very talkative. I just liked on my side, staring at the wall, watching the sunlight on it slowly fading away, and thinking that nature had too many stupid metaphors.

            There’s a lot you can think about when you’re stick. I’d learned that before. You think of the few flowers you could find in the savannah, the beauty of a sunrise rippling across the grass, the joy and thrill of hunting, long naps with the sun heating your stomach while the ground warmed your back. Above all, you thought of how wonderful it would be to get back to all of that. It was more than depressing. I wanted to die as quickly as possible, but Kifa insisted on taking her own sweet time. I couldn’t hold back the tears.

            No one came in to visit me. I thought that Bahati might have warned them off. Maybe Mir had, too. I wanted someone, but I didn’t want to talk. Maybe just someone to sit and stare at the wall with me. There wasn’t really anyone too close to me in the pride. Majadi had been the closest. The little jerk had managed to get out of this.

            The sun set. I found myself resisting the urge to sleep in preparation for a night hunt. I couldn’t fall asleep later when I wanted to. I felt exhausted. I cried.

            Lakino came in during the middle of the night. I stayed still and closed my eyes. He lied down next to me. I heard a quiet thump and smelled an odd, yet slightly familiar odor. Mir’s pain herbs. He’d come in to give them to me. I still stayed “asleep.”

            Lakino stayed still by my side. I wasn’t quite sure what he was doing. Probably staring. I felt him trace a hesitant paw over my side. It felt so different than it had the last time we were alone. He kissed the top of my head gently, his breath and tongue seeming delightfully over-warm. He nuzzled me quietly.

            “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “You’re going to get better . . . I don’t want you to die.”

            “Lakino . . .” The sound of my voice surprised me. A slight, ugly rasp had entered it.

            Lakino fell silent. I felt him stiffen beside me. Finally he said, “I didn’t know you were awake.”

            “I can’t sleep.” I tried to clear my throat. When I spoke again, the rasp remained. “I just can’t.”

            “I—I’m worried about you, Cheka.”

            “I know.”

            “I love you very much.”

            I smiled. “Umo probably wouldn’t like to hear that.”

            He chuckled at the mention of his mate. “Umo . . . she’d understand.”

            “You know how jealous she is. What we did must be killing her.”

            “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

            “Nympho.”

            “I try.”

            There was a quiet lull in the conversation. Lakino pawed at Mir’s herb balls. “Here, eat these.” I did so reluctantly. They were rough on my throat. Even though Mir had coated them with blood, it didn’t help the taste that much. “We have some fresh meat outside. You want to try it?”

            Gods, did I want to try it. I felt as if I hadn’t eaten in weeks. “Yes.” Lakino brought it inside. I started to eat. It took an immense amount of effort. I could barely lift my neck to reach it. I was only able to take a few bites before my jaws were sore and tired. I collapsed, the pain and effort becoming too much.

            “Cheka?” Lakino was by my side instantly. I moaned. I could feel the pain throbbing again. I could see Lakino frowning. His eyes were tearing up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It was a bad idea. I’ll take it back out—”

            “Hungry.”

            “What?”

            “I’m still . . . hungry . . .”

            Lakino frowned, then took a bite out of the carcass and chewed. A few moments later he put his mouth next to mine. He opened his mouth and I saw what he intended. Mouth-to-mouth feeding. It was messy, slightly uncomfortable, and still somewhat painful. But it fed me. Lakino must have been extremely bored by it, or disgusted. I wasn’t too fond of it either. He cleaned me after we finished eating. The pain balls had began to work again by then. It felt wonderful to feel his tongue going over me. Though I was sure it wasn’t anything romantic to him, it felt that way to me. His warm breath felt wonderful compared to the cold, hard floor of the den.

            He lied down beside me after he was finished cleaning me. I wanted to return the favor, but I was exhausted. He just smiled down at me. “You’re going to get better.”

            “I’m tired.”

            “I’ll leave you alone,” he said, standing up to leave. I didn’t want him to go, but it seemed wrong to ask him to stay. He left me, smiling back before he did. As I watched him go, I realized I completely forgot about his cub.

 

 

 

            I woke in the middle of the night. My pain was beginning to act up again. I saw more herb balls in front of me and quickly gulped them down. They went down rougher than last time. My throat felt sore and bumpy. Bahati’s song came to me. “Awful, ugly lumps.” I sighed and laid my head down again on my foreleg. Maybe it was me, but honestly, it felt like there was a lump under my pelt. I moved my head.

            There was.

            It was a trick of the light. I was delirious from my pain. I was starting to imagine things; suggestions of others were becoming real to me. I tried every excuse I had, but that lump stayed there. I hesitantly nosed it, then licked it. I could barely feel a bump there, but it seemed huge to me. I couldn’t fall back asleep. Instead, I just stared at that bump.

            Hours went by.

            I swear to any and all gods that there are that it stayed the same size. I wanted to believe that more than anything. Yet there was a definite change in its size. It was bigger—almost double the size, at least to me—by daybreak.

            My eyes had teared up watching it, countless thoughts and memories flying through my head. I missed Lakino. I missed Bahati. I missed Majadi. Gods, I wanted someone. Anyone. I felt so lonely. There really was no one left for me. My mother had left me. Majadi had left me. Soon I’d be leaving, too. There was nothing I could do to stop it.

            I’d never felt so helpless.

            I nosed the bump again. The fur around it was loose. A lot of the fur. I ran my face against it; it was the only way to touch it. It hurt to much to my other foreleg. Fur came free. Not all of it, but still enough to expose something I’d never seen before. Bare skin.

            I couldn’t take it anymore. I was dying. I was wasting away, and there wasn’t anything I could do to avoid it. I was sick of it! I grabbed my pelt in my teeth and ripped out a whole clump of fur. It came out so easily. My tender, pink-white flesh showed underneath it, pale from never seeing the light. The sight only spurred me on as I grabbed again and ripped, and again. I didn’t care that my whole body coursed with pain. I didn’t care that some of the fur wasn’t ready to come out. I ripped and tore until I could no more. At long last I lied back and screamed, tears streaming down my face.

            Bahati rushed in. Apparently he was the one on my death watch. He stood staring at my body, fur all around it. “Cheka?” he finally asked.

            “If you had any decency, you’d kill me now!” I hissed. The pain was agonizing. I had never felt worse in my life as I writhed on the floor. Bahati ran out and returned a few minutes later with Mir. I snapped at the monkey and she slapped me, just before she pried open my mouth and forced down a couple more of her balls. Needless to say, it only hurt more. I snapped at her again and swore at the both of them. Mir ushered Bahati back out.

            I crawled after them as fast as I could, screaming at them. Other lionesses appeared, staring at me in horror and disgust. I got practically nowhere; my body refused to move. It was only a few minutes later that I could scream and shout no more, my mind fading into unconsciousness.

 

 

 

            The first thing I head when I came to was “She’s awake.” I opened my eyes to see Bahati in front of me. “Cheka?” he asked quietly.

            “It hurts,” I said quietly, my voice having even more of a rasp to it.

            Bahati looked over to the side. I tried to move my head to see where, but it hurt too much. It almost hurt too much to talk. Tears streamed down my face. Mir came into my view and crouched down.

            “Cheka, we just forced down four herbs about five minutes ago. I can’t give you any more. Five is enough to risk throwing up, and it’s the last thing we need. You’re undernourished and dehydrated. If those don’t help, there’s nothing more we can do.”

            “I want to die,” I said quietly.

            Mir looked away. I could see tears in her eyes. “I know.”

            “Please,” I begged. “Please, just do it. It hurts so much.”

            “I cannot,” she said. “I took an oath, Cheka. I will not harm an animal.”

            “Mir, it hurts . . . oh, gods, it hurts it hurts it hurts . . .” Mir gently stroked my head. Her touch felt like fire. I jerked away, crying out in pain. Mir stepped back.

            “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” She turned to Bahati. “We just need to leave her alone.”

            “I’m going to lay with her,” said Bahati.

            “Just don’t disturb her,” said Mir. She left.

            The den became dead silent. I could hear Bahati’s breathing. He finally spoke: “If you want to talk about anything . . .”

            “Talking hurts.”

            “Oh. Right.”

            Time went by. My body ached. Mir said she gave me something for the pain. Maybe she had, maybe it was working, but the pain still remained, throbbing constantly, spiking whenever I moved. I didn’t know how long had passed. I’d lost track of any kind of time. Bahati simply stayed with me, excusing himself once “to urinate.” I laughed at that and almost immediately regretted doing so. But really who doesn’t just say they have to take a pee?

            I’d done remarkably little for both urination and defecation. That ended today, though. You wouldn’t believe how much I wished I could keep it in. It began to pain me more and more, begging for release. Of course, I tried to stand up. Of course, I couldn’t. So, of course, that was the time I decided to burst. Bahati knew when it happened; I screamed as loud as I could. It felt as if it were fire. I tried to hold it in, but it only hurt more. Bahati was by my side, asking what was wrong, but I couldn’t talk, not then. I won’t bother you with the details. I know you’d find them disgusting.

            By the time I was finished, I couldn’t have been more embarrassed. My hindquarters were covered in what I’d spewed out, and my insides ached like you couldn’t imagine. Bahati left, saying he’d get Mir, and for a split second I saw his face and the disgust on it.

            Mir came a little later. She silently moved what she could out of the den with those paws of hers. The stench still lingered behind, though. It smelled awful, and my underside was soaked. I couldn’t blame Bahati for wanting to get out of the den. After Mir washed herself off, she came back in with a few of those herb balls for me. I didn’t feel like swallowing anything.

            “Do you feel like talking?” asked Mir gently. My silence was answer enough for her. “Eat theses. It’ll make you feel better.”

            “No,” I croaked. The yelling had turned my throat raw.

            “Here, come on,” said Mir. She opened my mouth and nursed them down. I didn’t scream and flail as I did before. I couldn’t. Moaning was it. My eyes leaked agonizing tears of fire. I sobbed pitifully. “Shh,” said Mir quietly. “Just relax . . . just relax . . .”

            She finally took her paws off me. She waited for me to stop crying and lie still before she finally left. I wanted it end. More than ever, I just wanted it all to end.

 

 

 

            I suppose I dozed off. I didn’t wake until the next day. I felt exhausted, weak, drained. I saw Lakino in front of me. He was asleep. I don’t know why, but I noticed the pain at that point, or rather, how it had—well, it hadn’t disappeared. Lessened, I suppose. But it was better.

            I couldn’t move. I was too weak for that; I couldn’t even squirm as I did before. I could barely speak. I said to him in barely a whisper, “Lakino.” It hurt my throat. My voice came out rough.

            He didn’t wake. I wasn’t surprised. I could barely hear my voice myself. I tried again, but he didn’t even twitch. He didn’t wake until some while later. He looked over at me and smiled. “Been awake long?”

            “No,” I said. I had to repeat myself as he leaned closer.

            “Can I get you anything.”

            “No.”

            “You want Mir?”

            “No.”

            “You’re not that hard to please, are you?”

            I coughed. I suppose it was the equivalent of a laugh. It made my throat hurt even more. “Water.”

            “Sure. I’ll get some right now.” Lakino bounded out, stopping to pick up an emptied half-gourd that Mir must have left. A few minutes later he was back, and immediately ran into the problem of how I was supposed to drink. He lifted my head with a paw, placed his muzzle under mine, then slid the water over by feel, then lowered my head into it. It was a good idea, but there was the minor issue of me breathing. When I began to splutter, Lakino immediately took my head out, water spilling everywhere.

            “Uh . . . sorry.”

            It was one of the strangest things I’ve felt, that cool water on my bare skin. It was somewhat soothing. My thirst hadn’t gone. Lakino stared down at me for a moment, thinking before he stepped just outside of the den and called out, “Hey, Raja, come here.”

            Lakino walked back into the den, Raja behind him. I could plainly see the disgust on the older lioness’s face, though whether it was from the smell I was now oblivious to of from my appearance I was all too aware of, I couldn’t tell you. She may have seen me staring; she did her best to hide her discomfort. She followed Lakino’s directions and held the half-gourd in her jaws as Lakino supported my head to let me drink.

            It helped. I had trouble lapping up the water, but it was enough. After a few minutes I stopped, exhausted. I tried to stare into the water and get a glimpse of my reflection. There wasn’t enough light. All I saw was a dark shadow, my golden eyes being the only clear thing in the bowl.

            “Are you done?” asked Lakino.

            “Yes.”

            “What’d she say?” he asked Raja.

            “Ef,” she muttered through her mouthful.

            “Alright. Set that down over there. Cheka, I’m gonna set you down. Nice and easy. There.”

            “May I go, sire?” asked Raja.

            “Yes. Thank you.”

            I heard Raja leave. Lakino lied down in front of me, his mouth smiling, but his eyes worried. He started to ask a question, but I could barely hear him. Before I knew it, I had drifted back off to sleep.

 

 

            I woke to find Bahati and Lakino in front of me. My eyes wandered behind them to see several other members of the pride were behind them. I blinked, trying to clear up my sleep-vision. “Is this some kind . . . of party?”

            Lakino smiled. “She’s awake,” he said, apparently to the rest of them. They crowded toward me. There was an awkward silence. Lakino broke it: “They all wanted to come in and—and say goodbye.”

            “We all wanted to come in before,” said one of the younger lionesses. She was almost full-grown; by her voice I could tell it was Kinda. “Lakino wouldn’t let us in. We woulda come a lot sooner, honest.”

            “Lakino, why?”

            “Oh, so you can string together full sentences now?” he said with a smile.

            “Lakino . . .”

            “Alright. I was just—worried, that’s all. I didn’t want this to spread.”

            “And we told you it wouldn’t,” said old Raja.

            “So they forced their way in here, despite my insistence that their ugliness would disturb the patient,” said Lakino.

            “Okay,” said another lioness, Umo, “you’re not getting any for a month.”

            “Your loss.”

            There was a quiet silence. I knew they were all staring at me, though I could only see about half of them. “I thought you were all . . . staying away from me . . .” I said. It still hurt to talk, but not quite as much. I could only say a few words before needing a breath.

            Someone hit Lakino in the head. “Hey, I apologized!” he protested.

            “Do it again,” I said. Smiling hurt.

            Bahati did it. “Hey, stop!” Lakino said.

            There were laughs. I smiled a little more. It wasn’t the only laugh we had. The conversation turned to happy memories, things we all could laugh about. They were all in there, all of them except Imani. I didn’t really care or notice. She hated my guts.

            I didn’t say much as they talked, just speaking up now and then. I usually wasn’t heard, but they shut up if they saw I was trying to talk. They loved me, I knew that, and I loved them. I wished I had longer. It wasn’t fair. I tried not to think about it, thought; I just wanted to bathe in their cheerfulness. Despite my attempts, once again I slowly fell asleep.

            I woke again later. Hours had gone by; I could see the setting sun. The pride had left. Lakino had stayed, along with Bahati, at least from what I could see in my limited field of vision. Bahati had fallen asleep, his mouth open, a little puddle spreading from his mouth. Lakino was staring at me, frowning. He forced a smile when he noticed my eyes were open. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

            “The pain’s better.” It was only a shadow of what it had been. It did nothing for my mobility; I couldn’t move at all. I felt so weak, so exhausted.

            “That’s good to hear. Need anything?”

            “I don’t want to try . . . any more water.”

            “Alright.” Lakino’s smile slowly and unconsciously faded. “I love you, Cheka. Very much.” He looked away, shaking his head. “Mir said she was trying to find something. There’s plenty of things we haven’t tried yet—”

            “Lakino . . .”

            “Huh?”

            “I love you, too. . . . I want you to know . . .  to know that before—”           

            “You’re going to be fine, okay?” he said.

            “Lakino . . . I’m going to die. . . . I understand . . .” Lakino said nothing. “I’m happy. . . . I liked these last . . . few days with you.”

            “Just hang on,” he said, forcing that smile back onto his face. “You’ll be fine.”

            He didn’t want to believe otherwise, I could see that. Most of all he didn’t want me to admit it. He loved me, he’d always love me. He’d watched over me since I was a cub and Mom passed. I was proud to have a father like him. Our love would never be anything like his and Umo’s, I knew that, nor was I sure that I wanted it to be. He was my father, just as I was his daughter.

            “I love you, too, Lakino.”

            He hesitated a moment, then nuzzled me. It burned. He stopped as I gasped. “Sorry,” he said. He looked away.

            “It’s not your fault.”

            There were a few moments of silence. Then the thought sprang unbidden into my head: “Lakino?”

            “Hm?”

            “Could you bring . . . Imani?”

            “You want to see Imani?

            “Yes.”

            “Cheka, there’s no need—”

            “Lakino, please.”

            He sighed. “Alright. I’ll get her.” He stood up and left. I fell into a half-asleep stupor as I waited. It seemed to take forever. Finally I became aware of Imani standing in the entrance to the den. Lakino stood behind her.

            “Can we be alone?” I asked. Lakino didn’t seem to hear my whisper. He hesitated a moment, then woke Bahati and led him out. I stared up at Imani.

            “What do you want?” she asked, her voice sharp.

            “I don’t know,” I admitted.

            “It reeks in here.” She made no effort to disguise that fact, or that she believed my body to be hideous.

            There were a few moments of silence before I told her, “I’m dying.”

            “I’m not an idiot.”

            “You didn’t come . . . come with all the others . . . earlier . . .”

            “You think I care if you die?” she said, lowering her face to my level. “You have ruined me. I don’t care if you go.”

            I didn’t know what I had expected. Had I wanted her to come in, crying and saying she was sorry for the awful way she had treated me, that she would mourn my passing? Why had I even asked for her at all?

            “You won’t miss me.” It was a statement.

            “Not one bit.”

            “You won’t even . . . think about me . . .”

            There was a pause. “My leg aches every night,” she said bitterly. “More when it’s cold. Every morning it’s practically limp. You think I can’t forget about what you’ve done to me?”

            “But not me.”

            Her face was unreadable. It twisted as she said to me, “I hate you.”

            I felt—relieved. I can’t explain it. But I felt so relieved. “I don’t care . . . for you . . . much either . . .” I closed my eyes, exhausted. I just needed to rest . . . just a little nap . . .