Chapter Ten: Memories
“Hey there, Garoe,” Manzi said. It was after dinner. She’d found Garoe sitting under the same tree as before. He was looking at the stars. Manzi sat beside him. “What’cha doin’?” she asked without taking her eyes off the stars.
“Stargazing,” Garoe answered.
“Oh.” Manzi paused for a moment. “I thought you were really brave during that chase. I think you probably saved our skins, at least until Antonio showed up.” Manzi turned to look at him and was nearly startled when she saw him doing the same.
“I knew there was danger.” Garoe looked down at his silver amulet as he spoke.
Manzi had never paid much attention to it before. It was raw silver to be sure. It had a black, jagged swirl on its center and it hung around Garoe’s neck by a black cord.
“Where’d you get that?” Manzi asked.
Garoe looked back to the stars before he answered. “My father told me it was a gift from my mother. It warns me of danger.”
Manzi was almost afraid to ask her next question. But she did. “Where are your parents?”
Garoe looked down for a moment without lowering his head. Then he looked back at the stars. “I do not know where my mother is.” He looked Manzi in the eye. “My father… he abandoned me.”
Manzi felt tears in her eyes. She remembered when her own father left the pride after a quarrel with Antonio. “Why?” she asked Garoe.
Garoe closed eyes and shook his head. A tear trickled out of the corner of his uncovered eye. “I am not sure. I think… to protect me.”
“What are you talking about?” Manzi blurted, crying herself. “How can abandoning you protect you? What kind of father was he?!”
Garoe unexpectedly flashed an angry glare at Manzi, something she’d never seen. Then, Garoe looked away.
“I’m sorry,” Manzi said after a while. She moved closer to Garoe.
He did the same.
They stayed there for several more minutes, in silence.
* * *
“Blast you, Saka!” Qymaen growled, pacing the jungle floor. He spat Saka’s name with distaste. Qymaen was on edge enough as it was. Now, Saka was going to come back in the dark?
Qymaen had good night vision, but his nerves were in high gear.
He was about to dismiss a wafting scent as a figment of his imagination when a loud rustling in the bushes grabbed his attention.
Instinctively Qymaen pounced at the sound. To his surprise, he made physical contact. He and the other body rolled uncontrollably through the brush. They stopped with Qymaen on top, pinning the other on its belly, as he stood over its back, his paw pressed on its head.
“Identify yourself, intruder!” Qymaen barked.
“Get off me!” the feminine voice shot back. She flipped herself over and kicked Qymaen off. Both animals circled each other, not daring to turn one’s back to the other.
Qymaen saw that his opponent was a caracal, smaller than him, easily defeated as far as he was concerned.
The caracal narrowed her glowing green eyes and bared her teeth. She lowered her front half down, in a fighting stance. “Ya wanna have a go?” she snarled.
A memory snapped to the front of Qymaen’s mind…
“We’re friends, right?” Qymaen smiled as he spoke in his young voice.
“You bet!” the caracal kitten replied. “Let’s play!”
“I’ll beat you!” Qymaen taunted.
“Not if I can help it!” the caracal lowered her front half into a play bow. “Ya wanna have a go?”
“Calypso?” Qymaen asked in disbelief.
The caracal stood erect in surprise. Her large, tufted ears swiveled forward as she cocked her head in confusion.
“Is it really you?”
The caracal seemed even more confused. “Who are you?”
Qymaen looked earnestly at the caracal, growing more and more certain. “It’s me: Qymaen.”
The caracal gasped, raising her head, revealing a hooked claw hanging from a vine around her neck. “Qymaen?”
Qymaen nodded, breaking into a smile.
Calypso beamed and ran to him. “Oh my gosh! It’s you! What are you doing here?”
“What do you mean ‘me?’” Qymaen asked, so excited he could hardly stand himself. “What are you doing here?”
Calypso laughed, rubbing against the cheetah for a moment. “I don’t know.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” Qymaen said.
“It’s so good to see you!”
“Nini tukio huku?”
Qymaen and Calypso looked up at the voice to see Saka. He stood with a wildebeest calf carcass at his feet.
Qymaen, slightly embarrassed at what Saka may have seen, quickly explained. “This is Calypso, Saka. We’ve known each other since we were cubs.”
“This is the first I’ve heard of that.” Saka snorted. He didn’t give Qymaen a change to reply. “What’s she doing here?”
“Well, I actually was just trying to find out.” Qymaen looked at Calypso.
Calypso shrugged. “I was just looking for food.”
“Aren’t we all?” Saka asked sarcastically, his reptilian eyes glancing at his dinner. He bent down and ripped off a huge mouthful of the wildebeest.
“But what are you doing so far away from the desert border?” Qymaen pressed.
Calypso looked away from Qymaen and walked in that direction.
Qymaen, curious, and sensing what was going on, followed her.
“Yeah!” Saka’s vibrating voice shouted after them. “You two go work this out. Don’t mind me!”
Qymaen looked over his shoulder and glared at him from under his skull mask. “Shut up.”
Saka responded by scowling and ripping off another bite. He crunched loudly and while the meat stained his dark amber scales with more blood.
Qymaen flicked his tail with annoyance as he ambled after Calypso.
The caracal stopped near a clearing. The moonlight streaked her reddish-tawny pelt. “The desert wasn’t good to me after you left, Qymaen,” she said. She turned to face him. “After I heard rumors you were dead, I had to look for you.”
“I’m all right.” Qymaen’s smile was visible under his mask.
“But you have enemies.” Calypso looked away. “Murali, his bodyguard Katan, Zareb the Wanderer.”
Qymaen snorted at the names. “Zareb doesn’t bother me. He’s just a bloody zebra.
“But he’s a powerful, bloody zebra,” Calypso said, her glowing green eyes looked with Qymaen’s amber eyes. “He could kill you as easily as a lion could.”
Qymaen chuckled and shrugged his tall shoulders. “The only reason I pick on him is because Murali hates him for scarring his ‘beautiful’ face.”
“Murali? You still work for that Dark Liger?”
Qymaen’s eyes shifted nervously. “Well, occasionally.”
“Qymaen, he’s dangerous!”
“He doesn’t scare me.”
“Then, why do you work for him?”
Calypso’s question surprised Qymaen. He didn’t know how to answer. “I am sorry I left,” he said finally. He rubbed his chin over Calypso’s smooth brow. “But after my father died, I was an outcast.”
“Because of ‘the serpent,’” Calypso finished. “I know.”
Qymaen knew she referred to the strange, jagged stripes that bordered his tail. They were so thick; they only left a small, curving shape on the side of his tail that was the same color as his fur. The serpent marking was as much a sign of evil as it was rare. Only three cheetahs in recorded history ever bore it. Qymaen was one of those three.
“Just because you have it, doesn’t mean you need to stand for it,” Calypso continued.
“No one else seems to think that,” Qymaen said before he changed the subject. He looked at Calypso. “I am glad to see you, Calypso.”
Calypso rubbed against Qymaen’s chest. “As am I, Qymaen. As am I.”