Chapter Three: Uneven Ground
Peter watched as the stars became brighter as the sky got darker. Soon, they would be too numerous to count. A smile came to Peter’s gray muzzle as he remembered stargazing with his mother. It wasn’t that long ago, but to Peter, it seemed like forever; especially since he would never do it with her again. His smile faded again as a tear fell from one of his turquoise eyes, staining his dark gray fur.
“There you are,” a feminine voice said behind him. “What are you doing?”
Peter looked up at the zebra foal standing next to him on the carpet of lush grass. Her name was Leia. Only hours ago, Peter and she were strangers. “They sky is so full of stars,” Peter said in his equally young voice. “I had to come and look.”
Leia raised her black and white, striped head to look at the sky. Her brown eyes sparkled in the starlight. “It’s very pretty,” she said. “As much as I’d love to stay out here, Mom doesn’t want us out at night. We could be ‘fair game for predators’ or something along those lines.”
Images of claws, fangs, and a cheetah’s forelimb flashed through Peter’s head. Though he was a lion cub, he had his own reasons for doing as the zebras did. He followed Leia to where her mother, Fina had just lain down.
Fina smiled and shook her head. Her stiff stripped mane barely moved. “It’s way past your bedtime, little girl.”
“I know,” Leia said, settling next to her mother. “I’m sorry. I was just excited.”
Fina smiled at her; then at Peter. “I think you two have had enough excitement for one day.” She kissed Peter’s scruffy forehead, and then licked Leia on her cheek. “Goodnight.”
As Peter laid his head down, he decided that Fina couldn’t be closer to the truth. He had had enough excitement for one day. If he could call it “excitement.”
* * *
“Garoe,” Manzi started. “I’d like you to meet my friends. Well, actually most of them are my cousins.”
“How are ya?” Taiche asked with a smile. “I’m Taiche. Scout in training.”
“No you’re not!” Mifi protested.
“Mifi, don’t argue,” Ruka scolded his little brother. “Just go say hello.”
Mifi eyed Garoe with a strange expression. “Um, hello,” he croaked. He didn’t like the looks of the newcomer. Why is his hair in his face? And what’s he been eating? Mifi wondered. Oxygen?
“I’m Ruka and this is my little brother Mifi. We’re sure our dad will let you stay. He’ll be back from patrolling the territory sometime tomorrow.”
“If he’s in a good mood.” Kenobi swaggered to the front of the group. He seemed to be speaking to Garoe, but he looked at the ground.
“Aww, come on!” Manzi said. “He’s always in a good mood.” She turned to Garoe. “Sorry about Kenobi. He’s probably just hungry.”
“We all are,” Mifi said, his stomach growling loudly.
Manzi ignored him and looked around. “If they ever come back, I’ll introduce you to my sister and her ‘boyfriend.’”
“Neona and Tibali!” Taiche laughed. “Now if there was ever a match made in heaven…”
Ruka smiled before he turned back to Garoe. “What’s your name, buddy?”
Garoe didn’t reply at first. The friendly faces of the excited cubs overwhelmed him. “I—I’m Garoe,” he said, finally.
“Great name!” Ruka said.
“Boys! Manzi! Dinner time!” Tanari called from the top of the hill. The hunt was obviously successful. It usually was.
Mifi bolted up the hill as fast as his little cream-colored paws and stubby legs could carry him.
“Coming!” the other cubs shouted back.
“Hey, Mifster, wait up!” Taiche called, breaking into a run.
Kenobi was already eating. He’d walked away from Garoe and the others just after the strange, mud-colored cub’s name was mentioned. The last thing Kenobi wanted was for Antonio to accept the stranger into the pride. Kenobi at least wanted Antonio to accept him as a son; he’d looked up to Antonio as a father for so long. But, as of late, he wasn’t having much luck. If Garoe came between them… Kenobi didn’t want to think of it.
He scowled as the others joined him. Kenobi took another huge bite of gazelle muscle so he couldn’t speak his mind about Garoe in front of the lionesses; especially his mother.
Kenobi loved Naomi more than he loved anyone else. She ate next to him, her copper coat, even in the dark, shimmered under the stars. Naomi’s white underbelly wrapped around the back of her neck and was traced by a long, thin, brown stripe. She smiled at Kenobi and winked one of her brilliant red-brown eyes. Kenobi smiled and winked back.
“Hey, Mifi, slow down,” Taiche said before he took a mouthful of meat. “Save some for me.”
“And me,” Manzi said.
“And us,” Ruka said, looking down at Garoe.
“I have a small tummy.” Mifi’s reply was barely audible because of his full mouth.
“I wouldn’t know,” Dafini said, nudging her son playfully. “You eat almost as much as your father.”
Mifi looked up. “That’s a joke, right?”
Dafini kissed his little muzzle. “Eat as much as you want, sweetheart.” Then she turned to Garoe, who was hanging back. Dafini padded over to him, picked him up by the scruff of his neck, and set him down by the gazelle. “That goes for you, too.”
Garoe looked up to her and smiled. “Thanks.” Then he ate. He ate so much, slowly at first, then gulping it down. The others, even the always-hungry Mifi stopped to watch him.
Shani was right. Manzi thought to herself. He was starved.
After dinner, the cubs settled in with their parents. Neona and Tibali finally returned just before dinner was over and helped themselves to whatever was left.
Tibali was Taiche’s older brother. A dark brown mane ran down the back of his tawny neck and flopped between his ears, almost covering his bright green eyes. He settled in next to Taiche between their Lumina’s, yellow paws.
Neona, Manzi’s albino sister, slept next to her by Tanari’s side. Though Neona never would admit it, she snored next to one of Manzi’s crimson ears.
Ruka slept next to Dafini, nestled into her sandy fur while Mifi and Garoe slept in her strong, gentle arms.
Kenobi watched them all from Naomi’s paws. His young aunt, Naomi’s sister, Zolta rested her brown head on Naomi’s back. She cracked an eyelid as she stirred in her sleep, revealing a green eye.
Kenobi turned back to staring at Garoe. He growled in his throat. Garoe had earned Dafini’s favor… not good. Why could he do that in two hours when it took my mother and me a week? Antonio accepts me too, but only as a member. Will he really let Garoe stay?
“Hey!” a feminine voice whispered in Kenobi’s ear.
Kenobi was startled but he was careful not to wake Naomi. He looked at two indigo eyes staring from a creamy, spotted face. “Chee!” he whispered sharply. “Where were you? Mom and Aunt Zolta were worried.”
Chee was a chion, the daughter of Naomi’s mother and a strange cheetah who simply called himself “Rogue.” He hadn’t been seen since Chee’s birth, but she was his spitting image. “Sorry, I should’ve told you all first,” Chee said, bobbing her head back and forth, stamping her paws as if she couldn’t stand still a second longer. “Likku came to me before dawn this morning. She told me about this waterfall and this hollow log, it was so AWESOME you have to come next time. I just couldn’t wait to go!”
“Obviously,” Kenobi mumbled under his breath.
“And on top of it all,” Chee continued excitedly, almost forgetting to whisper. “Nala was there, and prince Simba himself!”
“Whoa, whoa! You were in the Pridelands? And you met the prince?”
Chee nodded and flicked her striped, white tipped tail. “I’ve met him a couple times before. He’s loads of fun! Doesn’t act like a prince at all. And I’ve known Nala for ages.”
Kenobi thought he would like to meet the prince. But instead of saying it aloud he said, “You’d better save the rest of your story for Dafini and Mom. You’ll need a good excuse.”
Chee giggled quietly and then said in her “mysterious” tone, “I’m full of good excuses.” With that, she bid Kenobi goodnight and found herself a bed of tall grass. She liked the challenges of uneven ground.