Chapter Eleven: News From the North
Manzi woke by Garoe’s side. She rubbed her eyes with her white toes. I must’ve stayed under here with Garoe all night! she thought. As she watched the other cubs playing below her, she realized she’d slept in late. She looked to her left and gently nudged Garoe awake. Manzi smiled at him. “Good morning.”
Garoe yawned. He slowly opened his uncovered eye. He smiled at Manzi before he got to his feet and stretched. “Are we still here?” he asked.
Manzi looked up at the leaves shading them. “Yeah,” she giggled. “I guess we are.”
“There you are!”
Manzi and Garoe turned to Shani’s voice. He sounded relieved.
“Chee wanted me to find you. She said to tell you that the Cheetah Gang should be here soon.”
“Cool!” Manzi said. Then she looked at Garoe. “Do you think you’ll come with me?”
“I might,” Garoe said. “I will think about it.”
“Okay. Come on, Shani. Let’s go for a little jog.”
Shani nodded and knelt down so Manzi could climb onto his back. “I overheard Kenobi this morning, Manzi.”
“Oh?” Manzi asked as Shani broke into a trot.
“He’s not too happy about… you know, Garoe.” Shani gestured with his head.
“I know. I saw them the yesterday. I don’t know why he’s so upset. I wish I knew.”
“Well, he’s gone as far to make a joke to Ruka about hiring that cheetah, what’s-his-name, to ‘get rid of him.’”
Manzi gasped. “You’re kidding!”
“I thought he was… none of the cubs took him seriously, either. But then, I got to thinking.”
“You mean, he might be serious?” Manzi slid forward onto Shani’s shoulders as he stopped.
“I’m not sure. I just have a funny feeling.”
“Uh-oh,” Manzi said.
“Yeah, I know, it can’t be good—”
“No!” Manzi laughed and swatted Shani’s striped shoulder. “Not that. That!” Manzi pointed down into the valley. She saw five spotted yellow and copper colored cheetahs running toward them. “They’re here.”
“Whoopee,” Shani grumbled.
Manzi decided to forget Kenobi’s threat for now. “Let’s go, Shani!”
Shani sighed, but he turned on his haunch and ran down the hill back to the pride. He and Manzi stopped where the other cubs were playing.
“Hey!” Manzi called. “The—”
“The Cheetah Gang’s here!” Chee yelled excitedly, finishing Manzi’s sentence.
All the cubs stopped playing at once as the cheetahs came into view.
Antonio got up and went to greet them, his curly, copper mane swaying as he walked. He stopped in front of the cheetahs as they did.
The tallest cheetah with a golden, spotted, well-groomed coat, stepped out from the front of the group. Giving Antonio a bow of respect he said, “Greetings, Antonio.”
Antonio smiled. “Hello, Liam. Chee invited you, I presume?”
Liam nodded, closing his green eyes for a moment. “Yes.” Then he lowered his voice.
Manzi couldn’t hear him from where she stood, but she saw Antonio’s smile turn into a frown. He looked over his golden shoulder at the cubs and Shani. Then he turned back to Liam with a smile.
“Your band can play with the cubs as long as you stay near the pride.”
Liam nodded again. “Yes, sir,” he said, stamping his front paw for emphasis. Then he turned to his group, the shaggy hair between his ears and on his neck blowing back when he turned into the breeze. “You heard Antonio. Go on!”
The other four cheetahs jumped for joy.
Manzi forgot about Antonio’s frown. She jumped off Shani’s back and ran to the older female cheetah and the littlest cheetah. “Hey, Kamaria! Mala!”
Kamaria perked up as Manzi called her name. She wasn’t as tall as Liam, but she was about the same age. Her smooth, light copper, black speckled coat glistened in the sunlight. A tiger tooth hung on a gold chain around her neck, lying against her cream-colored chest. Her brown eyes sparkled when Manzi came over. “Hey, there, Manzi! Long time no see.”
“I know!” Manzi said. “We really need to get together more often.”
The littlest cheetah, Kamaria’s little sister bounded over to Manzi. “Hi!” her little, high-pitched voice said.
“Hey, Mala!” Manzi greeted.
Kamaria ruffled Mala’s brown, fuzzy baby fur on her head. It made her look like she had a mane. She giggled and pushed Kamaria’s paw away. “Stop that!”
“Sorry.” Kamaria smiled, flicking her tail.
Suddenly, two younger, male cheetahs ran behind Kamaria.
“Hey, Kami!” called Kiran, Liam’s younger brother. He tossed his cream colored baby fur that had somehow survived into his adolescent stage. “We’re gonna go hang with the boys.”
“I’m with Kenobi!” the smaller cheetah said as he ran past, a streak of golden fur.
“Hey, Noah!” Kiran called as he chased after him. “I thought I was gonna play with Kenobi first!”
Noah laughed. “You gotta catch me first!” His tiny, Simba-like hair tuft blowing in the wind.
Kamaria laughed as the boys took off. “What can you do with them?” she sighed.
Mala bent into a play bow. “Come on, Manzi! Let’s go find some butterflies!”
“You got it!” Manzi said. “We’ll ride on Shani.”
Shani snorted in surprise and protest, but he bent down to let the cubs on.
Just as Manzi was helping Mala get on, she heard the familiar rumble of Antonio’s voice.
The crimson cub turned her head as she boosted Mala all the way onto Shani’s back. Manzi watched Liam walking beside Antonio away from the pride.
“Hey Manzi,” Shani said, still kneeling. “Aren’t you getting on?”
Manzi glanced back as it him for a second. “Uh, you, Kamaria, and Mala go ahead; I’ll catch up. I forgot something.”
“See you then,” Kamaria said.
Manzi turned to make sure she was alone before she quietly followed Antonio and Liam into the tall grass. It became hard to see, but Manzi checked her position by following Liam’s white tail tip.
Finally, the two stopped. Manzi crouched down, hiding behind a brown stone, and listened.
“You said you had news,” Antonio said.
“Yes,” Liam replied. “News from the north.”
Manzi heard Antonio’s breathing quicken for a moment. “Murali?”
“I’m afraid so. He’s sent out mercenaries.”
“Qymaen and Sefu?”
“No. I saw them.”
Liam sounded surprised. “How?”
“They tried to catch my cubs, particularly the one I adopted.”
My niece, Manzi, found him alone in the savanna and brought him to the pride. She calls him Garoe.”
“Garoe…” Liam sounded as if he were pondering the name.
Antonio continued. “Qymaen tried to make a deal with me. If I gave him Garoe, he would leave my territory alone.”
“It’s not like him to make an easy deal,” Liam said. “Why does he want Garoe, I wonder?”
“I think Murali wants him. I think Garoe might be Ethro’s son.”
“Ethro?” Liam sounded taken back. Manzi heard him shuffle his feet. “No one’s heard from the Peaceful One in months. Not even Zareb the Wanderer. What makes you so sure?”
Antonio exhaled through his nose. “Garoe wears the necklace of Ethro’s mate, Norina. And he has Ethro’s mane and pelt.”
Liam made a strange huffing sound. Manzi crouched lower. “Of course! Murali’s held a grudge against Ethro for more than 70 moons.”
“Seventeen seasons,” Antonio confirmed. He growled in his throat. “Ethro banished Murali’s family to the outskirts of the desert as when the Dark Liger was a cub. Now that he is in power, Murali will strike. I think Qymaen and Saka is his first advance.”
“It makes you wonder what he’ll do next, especially when Qymaen goes back empty handed.”
Manzi was in shock. That cheetah and his lizard thing were after Garoe. And Murali wants revenge on Garoe’s father? Why would he do that? The idea was beyond her.
Sensing that Liam and Antonio were closing their meeting, Manzi slowly turned around and started to stalk back through the grass.
She bumped into Kenobi… and Noah.