Chapter Eight: Prideland
“I hate the forest,” Saka growled. “You can never tell where the next attack will come from.”
“We stand a better chance of surviving here than in that lion’s territory,” Qymaen retorted. “It’s easier to stay hidden, anyway.”
“What are you afraid of?” Saka asked with mock sympathy. He stopped and Qymaen slipped past him.
“Not now, Saka.”
Qymaen stopped in his tracks and raised his head.
Qymaen slowly turned to look at him. “Murali’s far from here. Besides, we’re not out of time.”
“Murali would never come himself. He’d send someone. Even then, he doesn’t know where we are.”
“Maybe not. But he could make an educated guess,” Saka said, looking over his shoulder for effect.
Qymaen started walking again as Saka moved past him. “Just find a place where we can bed down,” the masked cheetah said. “I’m exhausted.”
“I’m hungry,” Saka complained.
“You probably wouldn’t be hungry if you just ate that food you got instead of burying it with river rocks. Why do you do that, anyway?”
“Seems like a waste of energy to me.”
“Well, I don’t think I would’ve known someone was gettin’ into it if those rocks didn’t bonk together when those cubs were rooting in it.”
“Why didn’t you eat them?” Qymaen growled.
“Not hard enough. Our other quarry was with them!”
“I thought you wanted to take him alive!” Saka shouted.
Qymaen caught a rustling out of the corner of his eye. He shushed Saka.
“What?” Saka whispered harshly.
Qymaen shushed him again and listened. Sure enough, he heard something moving on the other side of the ferns. “Stay here,” Qymaen said, walking off silently. “I’ll be right back.”
“Watch your back,” Saka warned. “It could be one of Murali’s spies.”
Qymaen didn’t answer.
The cheetah stalked forward, ever listening. Even though it was the middle of the day, the thick canopy of leaves made it seem like night, except for the beams of sunlight that weaved their way through the gaps and touched the ground.
Qymaen stopped to listen again.
As he turned back, Qymaen thought he caught a scent in the air, but it was gone before he could identify it.
“Anything?” Saka asked in his vibrating voice.
Qymaen shook his head and sighed. “Whatever it was, it’s gone now. Stay on alert, anyway.”
“How long are we staying here?” Saka asked.
“Just long enough for me to regain my strength.”
“Good. I’m going hunting.” Saka started to walk away. Then he stopped and looked over his shoulder, cocking his hat to shade his yellow, reptilian eyes from a line of sunlight. “Unless of course, you… need me.”
Qymaen glared at him. “I can take care of myself, Saka. The only reason Murali paired you with me was to make sure we got the job done.”
“Whatever you say.” Saka smirked before he ducked under a low branch and disappeared, slipping silently into the thick foliage.
* * *
“Come on, Kenobi!” Chee said, dancing around the copper-colored cub. “Your mom said it was okay! Let’s go! If we don’t go soon, Maverick and Likku will wonder where I am!”
Kenobi looked past Chee and saw Garoe napping in Antonio’s paws. He groaned. “I guess I’ve got nothing better to do. Is anyone else coming with us?”
Chee looked at the rest of the pride. They were either sleeping in the shade, away from the noonday sun, or getting ready to sleep. Chee shrugged her creamy-yellow shoulders. “I guess it’s just you an’ me.” She looked past Kenobi’s shoulder as she said, “Unless Shani wakes up and follows us with Manzi on his back.”
“I heard that,” Shani said from his place in the shade, a few yards off. He cracked an eyelid. Manzi was sound asleep on his back, away from Neona’s snoring.
Chee bounded over to the zebra. “Are you goin’, then?”
Shani yawned. “That depends on where we’re going. I’ve already gotten into trouble following cubs today.”
“Relax, Shani,” Kenobi said, swaggering up beside Chee. “Chee wants to take me to the Pridelands. You can graze the whole time, if you want, and we’ll head back to be in time for dinner.”
Shani gently blew through his nostrils, a zebra sigh. “If you say so.”
“Excellent!” Chee jumped in the air.
Shani and Kenobi shushed her.
Manzi stirred, but she was still asleep.
“Oh, yeah. Right!” Chee whispered. “I’ll be super quiet.”
The sulfur pit, you will, Kenobi thought.
When Kenobi and the others got to the Pridelands, a vast, lush plain territory and home to the landmark Priderock, Maverick and Likku were waiting for them.
“Maverick!” Chee shouted with joy. She pounced on the slim, gray lion who was a little older than she was. Chee’s enthusiastic greeting nearly scared Maverick out of his skin, even though she’d done it to him countless times.
Chee gave Maverick a vigorous noogie, sending his already wild, white mope of mane into a tangled mess. Being her boyfriend had its disadvantages.
Likku giggled. She was a LeCheegre cub, a mix of lion, cheetah, and cougar genes. Smaller than her best friend Chee, but with as much mischief, and fewer spots. Likku shook her dark brown head as she laughed, her brunette bangs flopping. “Settle down, Chee-girl! You’ve scared poor ol’ Maverick enough for one day.”
Maverick smiled as Chee finally pulled away. “Well, ‘poor ol’ Maverick’ hasn’t had enough of his favorite girl for one day.”
Chee giggled with an embarrassed smile. She punched Maverick’s shoulder playfully. “Oh, stop it.”
Kenobi cleared his throat. “Where are we going?”
Chee answered as she rolled over on the grass to scratch an itch. “We’re goin’ to that waterfall place I told ya about. You’ll love it!”
Likku nodded. “But we need to wait for Simba and Nala first.”
Shani’s eyes got wide. “You mean the Simba? The prince?”
Chee nodded vigorously, though she was on her back. “None other.”
“Duh.” Likku rolled her bright green eyes.
Shani bit his lip.
Kenobi turned to see a golden yellow cub bounding toward them. He looked young and healthy, a large smile on his face.
Following the cub closely was a sand-colored female cub, who was equally excited.
Simba and Nala. Kenobi knew.
“You’re here!” Chee exclaimed, running to meet the new arrivals.
“Sorry we’re late,” Nala said. Her voice, though feminine, held a confidence and strength that Kenobi couldn’t help but notice.
“Mom insisted on giving me a bath before I left,” Simba groaned, rolling his red-brown eyes. “I’m just gonna get dirty again. And she messed up my mane!”
What mane? Kenobi almost asked aloud after he examined the top of Simba’s head. There were a few strands of golden hair that were longer than the rest, but hardly enough to pass for a mane. Especially in the presence of Kenobi’s thick, black tuft of mane or Maverick’s white, flop of hair. Even Shani’s gray, scraggly mane seemed more impressive.
“Oh, Simba!” Nala scolded. Then her blue-green eyes turned to Kenobi. “Who are you?”
Kenobi caught himself smiling and felt his heart flutter as he answered. “I’m Kenobi, from the Savanna pride. Chee asked me to come along.”
“Oh. I’m Nala.”
“And I’m Simba!” Simba cocked his head, ears flopping for a second, and smiled. “Hey, you look like my uncle Scar!”
“Simba!” Nala said through her teeth. “That was mean!”
“I’m not tryin’ to be mean. It’s true! Look, Nala!”
Kenobi, suddenly uncomfortable, lifted an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”
Simba seemed a little sheepish as Nala continued to glare at him. “It’s just your mane and your eyes look like his.”
“Oh.” Kenobi shrugged.
“Guys!” Chee called impatiently. “Are you comin’ or what?”
“We’re waiting!” Likku said.
“Be right there!” Nala ran to them with Simba and Kenobi close beside her.
“I can’t wait!” Simba shouted, almost in a singsong voice, leaping into the air as he ran.