Chapter Twenty-Nine: Lords of the Plain
"Manzi!" Shani shook his mane. "It's starting to drizzle! I knew we should've taken cover after that thunder clap."
Manzi blinked against the shower of rain. "How much further is it?"
"There's a tree up here."
"You didn't answer me."
"It's probably just another minute away." Shani looked over his shoulder at Manzi. His eyes were wide and pleading. "Can't we take shelter until the storm blows over?"
Manzi sighed in defeat. "Okay." Shani trotted under the tree almost before the word left her mouth. "These rainy season storms never last long, anyway."
Shani gently blew through his nose in a zebra sigh. "Thank you."
They waited for a short while, maybe 20 minutes, but to Manzi, it seemed like forever when the rain finally stopped. The sun was nearly over the horizon when the last drops stopped falling.
"It's over, Shani," Manzi said. A drop of water fell on her nose. She wiped it away with her paw.
"Finally!" Shani shook his mane again. "Now we should be able to find - "
Shani jumped and Manzi lurched forward. She caught herself before she hurdled over Shani's neck.
"What is it?" Shani whispered.
Manzi leaned over Shani's back to get a better look. She thought she saw two brown lumps lying in the grass. One was copper one was the color of dry mud. "I think I see them!"
"Over there in the tall grass." Manzi jumped down from Shani's back. "I'll go get them. Wait here."
As Manzi trotted to Kenobi and Garoe, she heard Shani mutter, "Déjà vu," behind her. She silently agreed with him.
"Hey!" she said, nudging Kenobi's shoulder with her paw. He and Garoe were snuggled together for warmth. Kenobi's fur was damp to Manzi's touch, but not drenched. The tall grass had bent over from the rain, keeping them mostly dry.
Kenobi mumbled and turned his head to face Manzi. His eyes were still closed. "Five more minutes
Garoe, who was on Kenobi's other side, woke with a start. His gaze was afraid and intense when he looked up, but it softened when he saw Manzi. "Hello," he said, slowly getting to his feet.
"Good morning," she answered, smiling and pretending not to be excited. "Would you guys like to come back to the pride, now?"
Garoe nodded. "Yes. I would, very much." Then he looked down at Kenobi. To Manzi's surprise, Garoe shoved both forepaws on Kenobi's shoulders and shook him awake. "Wake up!"
Kenobi jumped to his feet. "Okay! I'm up, I'm up!" Then he looked at Manzi. "You made it!" He yawned.
Manzi nodded. "I sure did!" Then she yawned.
Kenobi yawned again. "Who won?"
"Does she really need to answer that, you little renegade?" Shani snapped behind Manzi. "We won," he paused and yawned, "of course!"
"Where's Murali?" Garoe asked.
"Yeah," Kenobi said. "And where's Saka, and Qymaen, and Noah, and Peter?" Then he yawned.
"Antonio will answer " Manzi paused and yawned " everything when we get back to the pride."
"Okay," Kenobi said around a yawn.
Shani yawned again. "Stop that! All of you!" he shouted.
Manzi nudged him. "Shani's just teasing."
Then Garoe yawned.
Shani yawned. "Ugh! All of you get on my back so I don't have to look at you anymore!"
Manzi laughed. "Whatever you say, Shani."
* * *
Manzi expected Antonio to scold them when they got to the pride. She saw him watching them, standing with the lionesses, the cubs, and Zareb the Wanderer. The strong, golden lion was smiling. And he was waiting the morning sun reflecting off his strong shoulders.
For the first time in her life, Manzi felt like she was a true friend a hero even if she did disobey Antonio.
When they were almost at the pride, Naomi, Kenobi's mother, ran to them. "Kenobi!" she cried. Manzi had never heard the copper-colored lioness so happy and relieved.
Kenobi jumped down from Shani's back and ran to his mother. They came together and rolled in the grass, wrapped in a hug. Naomi kissed Kenobi's nose. "I thought I'd lost you."
Kenobi smiled at her. "It's great to be back, Mom. I'm sorry I "
"Forget that, now," Naomi said. "What matters now is that you're safe and you're home."
Manzi saw Antonio look at her and raise an eyebrow. "Indeed," he said. Manzi cringed and smiled sheepishly.
"Garoe." Everyone turned to Zareb's strong voice. "Come here."
Garoe climbed off Shani's back and walked slowly to the strong zebra stallion.
He must feel so small, Manzi thought.
Peter, too, answered Zareb's call and stood beside Garoe.
Zareb looked at each of the cubs before he spoke. "Your parents Ethro, the Lord of the Northern Plain and his Lady Norina were my greatest friends. They were friend to every peaceful creature on the plain. They protected them from those that sought to do them harm, like Murali's kind.
"Ethro and Norina are no longer with us in the flesh, but they watch over us from the stars. I know they are proud of you, Garoe and Peter. Because of you both of you the Plain is safe from the threat of the Dark Liger Murali. You are both still very young, and no one expects you to rule or protect the Northern Plains at this time. However, you have already accomplished a great task before you have even succeeded your parents' legacy. You will succeed them in time, but for the present, you shall remain here until you have matured. I already see so much of your parents in you.
"Peter, you remind me so much of your mother. You are strong willed, courageous, and kind.
"Garoe, you remind me of your father. You too are kind and courageous, but you are also understanding. A great leader always listens before he speaks.
"Until the two of you are old enough to rule the Plains, I will be their guardian as I have since I found Ethro had joined the Great Spirit, rest his soul. I am sure you will both be great Lords of the Plain, just as your parents before you."
Peter and Garoe bowed at the same time.
"Thank you, sir," Garoe said.
"Um, Zareb, sir?" Peter asked.
"If it's all right, I'd like to go back to stay with Leia and Fina."
"They are zebra's, Peter."
"Yes, I know. Jabari promised to protect me and teach me how to be a lion. I think I could benefit from also learning the ways of the grazers."
Zareb nodded. "Granted. You indeed have wisdom beyond your young lifetime, Peter."
Then Peter looked at Garoe. "Don't worry. I'm sure I'll be able to visit often."
"Often right!" Shani interrupted behind them. Everyone looked at him. Shani suddenly turned away in embarrassment. "I I mean, Fina's my aunt. She comes though here a lot."
Peter nodded. "Perfect!"
"Come, Peter," Zareb said. "I'll take you to them."
"Just a minute, please, Zareb sir. I want to say goodbye."
Peter gave Garoe a tight hug. "Take care of yourself, brother."
"Thank you. You, also," Garoe replied.
Then Peter ran to Manzi. He looked up at her since she was still on Shani's back. "Thanks for everything, Manzi!"
"And thank you, Peter. I hope to see you again, soon."
"Me three!" Noah exclaimed. The cheetah cub bounded out of the tall grass and jumped on Peter. He wrestled him to the ground and tugged on his ear.
"Hey!" Peter said. "Noah, I don't know you that well!"
Noah laughed. "I'm a cheetah with baby blue eyes, a crazy sense of humor, and energy issues. Come on, Peter, how much more do you need to know?"
Peter shook his head and smiled. "I'll miss you, Noah."
"Same here, uh
what was your name again?"
Peter raised both eyebrows.
Noah laughed harder and pounded Peter's shoulder. "Just kidding, Peter!"
Antonio came up behind Peter and smiled down at him. "I'll miss you, too, Peter. It was good to meet you."
"You too, Antonio. I won't forget you."
Peter turned when Zareb called his name. "I need to go. Bye!"
Peter and Zareb left with a chorus of goodbyes following them.
After they left, all the cubs of Antonio's Savanna Pride surrounded Manzi and Shani, showering them with questions.
"Where did you go?" Ruka asked.
"Was it a big fight?" Taiche asked.
"Aren't you hungry?" Mifi asked.
"Aren't you exhausted?" Tibali asked.
"Weren't you scared?" asked Neona, Manzi's albino sister.
Then Chee jumped on Shani's back. Shani and Manzi both started. The energetic, spotted cheetah/lion put her face so close to Manzi's, they were touching noses. "Is it true that you saw Murali? Was he as big and mean as I've heard? Did he really have silver skin and black blood? What about that creepy reptile and the masked cheetah?"
"Whoa! Whoa!" Manzi and Shani said at the same time.
"Get off my back, Chee!" Shani said. She did.
"Come on, Manzi!" Chee said. "Give us all the gory details! What happened?"
Manzi looked at Shani. He smiled. "Hey, Noah, you wanna help?" Manzi called.
Noah jumped onto Shani's back. He cleared his throat and sat down. Eyeing everyone with his eyes squinted, he said, "It was the longest, darkest night of my life
So don't expect me to go on for more than a few minutes, 'cause I'm exhausted and I might just crash right here!"
Manzi, Shani, and Noah's story took much longer than a few minutes to tell, but Noah was asleep before it was finished. Fortunately, he'd jumped down from Shani's back and lay in the grass before he started snoring.
When Manzi finished her story, she noticed Garoe standing on the small hill, under Manzi's favorite tree. Manzi and Shani slipped away while the cubs carried on their own conversations about the story and Chee put her own twists on it.
Shani stopped at the base of the hill and Manzi jumped down from his back. She stretched and then looked up at him. "You'd better get some rest, Shani."
Shani snorted. "Rest? Fat chance, Manzi. I'm still high on adrenaline. Besides, I'm starving. You're the one who needs to rest."
Manzi suddenly noticed how tired she was. Her legs felt wobbly. She looked up to where Garoe was sitting by the tree. "I'll be with him."
Shani nodded. "Have fun. Take my advice and take a nap. I'll come wake you up when the lionesses bring in something for you to, um, eat."
Manzi licked his muzzle. "You'll always be my best friend, Shani. No matter what happens."
Shani licked her over her forehead and she giggled. "Same here, Manzi. Same here. See you later!" He turned on his haunch and trotted to another hill to graze.
Manzi watched him go. Then she walked up the hill to where Garoe was sitting. She sat beside him. "How are you, Garoe?"
Garoe nodded and smiled. "I feel very good, Manzi. The best I've felt in a very long time."
Manzi smiled back. "That's good." They sat in silence for a moment. Then she asked, "So, no hard feelings about what Kenobi did?"
Garoe smiled again. Then it broadened. Suddenly, he started laughing. Manzi's heart leapt in her chest. It was the most beautiful sound she'd ever heard.
"We had that conversation back in Murali's prison," he said. "Otherwise, waking his up this morning was plenty of revenge for me."
Manzi laughed with him. "You guys are friends, now?"
Garoe nodded. "Yes." He stopped laughing and looked at her. "I have many friends now. Thank you, Manzi."
Manzi nuzzled him playfully. Then she lay down in the grass and rested her head on her paws. "You're welcome, Garoe. When I'm done napping, how about a game of tag?"
Garoe lay down next to her and looked at her. He brushed his mane away from the eye that had always been covered by it before. Manzi was surprised, but that eye looked just the same as his other eye so gray it was nearly colorless. "I would love to," he said. Then he winked at her. "I will warn you, I'm very fast."
Manzi closed her eyes and smiled. "We'll see about that, Garoe. We'll see about that."