Chapter Twenty-One: Decision
Manzi's eyes locked on Katan's furious green gaze. His massive, sharp mouth came for her. She braced herself. Suddenly, Katan was knocked away.
"Antonio!" Noah shouted. He sounded half-relieved and half-enthusiastic.
Soon, two lionesses ran to Antonio's aide.
"Mom!" Manzi cried.
"They can handle it," Shani said behind her. "Get on."
Manzi reluctantly decided to trust him and leave the fighting to her mom, Aunt Dafini, and Uncle Antonio. "I'll show you where to go, Shani."
Noah sat behind Manzi as the cantered on Shani into the forest. They found the big zebra stallion and the scruffy, gray cub Peter, keeping Calypso at bay.
"Good work, Peter!" Noah praised after Manzi whispered an introduction.
"Don't thank me," Peter said. He took his eyes off the captured caracal for a moment to look at the strong zebra who was standing over him. "Thank him…Zareb the Wanderer."
Manzi heard a smack as Shani's mouth fell open. Then she felt a shudder go down to her tail. Whether it was fear or awe, she didn't know. Zareb's cold blue eyes found hers and she looked away for fear she would get lost in their mystery.
Zareb spoke with a rumble in his chest that seemed to shake the trees. "It was a dangerous thing you did, young ones."
Manzi stared at the ground and felt Noah and Shani doing the same.
Zareb continued like a correcting father. "It is also a noble thing you did. You were willing to put yourselves in the path of danger for the sake of your friends." Then he looked down at Peter. "I bring word from your family, Peter. And from Jabari."
Peter looked up. "Are they-?"
"They are safe under Jabari's eyes. He was not hurt badly and he will recover fully in three dawns. You can return to them once your brother Garoe is safe."
"Until tonight, sir, I didn't know I had a brother."
Zareb sighed sadly, though his hard expression didn't change. "Your parents found they could not keep you together when Saka Sefu and Qymaen the Serpent started tracking them. They separated you for your protection, you going with your mother, and Garoe with your father. However, Ethro of the North was injured in a fight with the bounty hunters. He knew he could not keep Garoe safe, so he left him on Antonio's territory, where he knew Garoe would be able to find help. I discovered Ethro's body three moons ago and knew what had happened."
Peter nodded sadly and sniffed. "I never knew him."
Zareb's muzzle turned into a small smile. "You are much like him, Peter. In time, you and your brother will become guardians of the North. Like Ethro-Lord of the Plain."
Manzi was surprised when Shani spoke. "Excuse me, sir, um, Zareb the Wanderer," he stuttered. "But we failed. Our friends are still, like you said, in danger. We're back where we started."
"Maybe so," Zareb said, "but all is not lost. It is still within your reach to bring your friends home. This caracal has agreed to guide a rescue mission to Murali's den in the outskirts."
Calypso's bright green eyes narrowed. She bared her teeth at Zareb fearlessly. "Only because my Qymaen is in danger, zebra."
"I will lead the mission."
Manzi turned when she heard Antonio's strong voice and Spanish accent. She watched him stand beside Zareb and look down at Calypso. She swallowed, pinned her ears back, and hunched to the ground in submission.
Antonio growled at her. "I don't trust you."
Zareb turned to him. "She will take you on a straight path, Antonio. If she does not, she will answer to me."
Calypso muttered, "I'm not afraid of you."
Dafini lunged from behind Antonio and roared shortly in Calypso's face. "You should be, desert lynx. If you lead us astray, you'll answer to me, as well."
Antonio looked at Dafini. "You're coming, love?"
Dafini smiled at him. "Of course, I am. And don't try to force me to stay home. I'm going."
"And so am I," Tanari said. She stalked into the clearing and swung her head so her crimson bangs fell away from her eyes.
"Thank you, sister," Dafini said. "Lumina and Naomi can watch the pride while we're gone."
Manzi smiled at them when Tanari winked at her. Suddenly, behind her, she heard a cheetah running. She sighed in relief when she saw it was Liam. The tall, green-eyed cheetah bowed when he saw Zareb.
"Greetings, Wanderer," he said. "I came to be sure Antonio arrived safely. It's an honor to meet you here."
"Liam the Messenger," Zareb said. "Jabari is in the western hills with a zebra mother and daughter. He is injured and deserves word of what has transpired here." Zareb proceeded to give Liam a message to take back to Peter's wounded protector.
Liam bowed when Zareb concluded. "If you assure the safety of my cheetah friends back at the Savanna Pride, I'll leave right now."
Zareb nodded his great head. "I will. Go with speed, sprinter."
Liam bowed once more and ran to the west.
"Be careful!" Dafini warned after him. "We fought off a huge, white creature back there and he escaped."
Liam stopped and turned around. "Was he hurt?"
"Only his forepaws and neck."
Liam nodded. "Katan might look invincible, but he's no good when he's hurt. I'll watch out for him." Without another word, he started running again to deliver Zareb's message.
"Shani," Antonio said. Manzi and Noah bounced an inch off the young zebra's back as he jumped under them.
"Take the cubs, along with Peter, back to the pride."
Manzi spoke before Shani could answer. "But, Uncle Antonio! Garoe and Kenobi are my friends! I can't just wait while you and Mom-"
Antonio's blue-green eyes were stern. "That's an order, Manzi. Go now!"
"Yes, sir," Shani turned around while Manzi protested in his ears.