On deviantART, this chapter was featured by JessaMar
as a Daily Deviation 2019-02-04.
“What did I do wrong?”
The tall savanna grass hissed in the wind around her as Mauja caught her breath beneath the stars. The sound reminded the young lioness of her elder sisters' cruel laughter. How do I tell them I lost the litter? What will they say when they learn I'm not just a freak, but that I can't even be a mother?
Unlike her pride mates, Mauja bore two markings below each of her blue eyes. Her mother claimed her father's face had been marked the same way, drawing a female's gaze to his green eyes. Ajamu had been driven out by the current males before Mauja was born. Some of her sisters shared his green eyes, some even shared her blue, but none shared the markings. They often teased her they had never seen such on a female.
Maybe that's what went wrong,
she thought, her lip curling up in disgust. Maybe these stupid dots mean I'm more a male than a female!
Like prey startled too soon, all her hopes and dreams were gone. Mauja lay beside the still forms of her first litter, unable to process the reality staring her down. They had not ceased to kick, that she could remember. The births had been painful, yes, but not a struggle. Yet the four small bodies lay motionless. The lioness licked each cub a final time, but though still warm, there was no breath, no life to be found. How could this happen?
The stench of blood lingered in the air from the untouched afterbirth. I should deal with that before the prospect of a free meal draws scavengers.
Mauja felt her lip curl again. Right then, she would have welcomed the fight. Anything would be better than this awful emptiness.
When she could look no longer, Mauja nudged both the corpses and afterbirth into a pile then walked away. She ambled aimlessly through the grass, her thoughts chasing each other around her mind like a cub with its tail. She would never watch hers play now. Over and over she prowled her memory in hopes of sniffing out the mistake that had cost her her cubs.
The scent of water reached her nose and her thirst pushed all other concerns to the side. She chose not to dwell on how long she must have been lost in her thoughts to come this close to the river. Right then she needed a drink. Maybe once my throat's cool, I'll figure out how to tell everyone...
She reached the riverbank and dipped her head, the lapping of her tongue all she heard until a sharp crack shattered the silence. Mauja crouched and growled, her tail whipping as she faced the newcomer.
“Oh, relax will you?” Tengwa's voice came out exasperated. Not that Mauja remembered ever hearing it any other way. “It's just me.” Seconds later her elder sister stepped into the moonlight dragging a prone form. “Stupid fools.” She dropped a cheetah carcass beside the river. “Father was never this thoughtless.”
Mauja was eager for the distraction from her morbid thoughts. “What are you talking about?”
“One of our wonderful
guards was so kind as to dispatch this predator.” Tengwa curled her lip in disgust. “He just couldn't be bothered to dispose of it. Not like attracting scavengers near helpless offspring that must be left unattended while their mothers seek out substance would have any negative consequences.”
The guards, the males of the pride, were something Mauja usually ignored. Males served their purpose, but there was no good getting attached to one. Males come and go, but we remain forever.
At least that's what she had always been taught, and thus far in her short life, she had not seen a reason to question it. Her own brothers had been driven out. The breeding that had resulted in her stillborn litter had simply been a rite of passage.
Mauja flinched, her eyes darting back the way she had come. She had done no better than the guard. Leaving the proof of her failure like that might cost one of her pride mates their
Before she could say anything, her sister added, “So it fell to me.” Tengwa dragged the carcass a bit further down the bank and let it slide down into the river.
No sooner did the body hit the water than the surface churned and dark scales glinted in the moonlight. What the young lioness had taken for old logs turned out to be crocodiles.
Mauja swiftly backed away from the bank, her thirst no longer as great a concern. I can't believe I forgot!
She cursed herself and her distracted thoughts.
Tengwa looked her over through suspicious eyes. “You've had your cubs.” She snorted. “About time. Congratulations.”
Mauja muttered a thank you, eyes still on the settling water. I've got to get my head together. So I lost the cubs.
Her throat seemed to close up on her. It... it happens.
Tengwa followed her gaze. “Would you grow up? I had to get rid of it as soon as possible...” She looked back at her and sighed. “Oh, no. Not this
again. Look, it had to be done. Our cubs come before hers; they're likely already dead anyway.”
“That's not what I was thinking, thank you!” Mauja fought back a snarl. Her tail swished as her pain found a target.
“Oh really?” Tengwa smirked. “Then what was on your mind that you looked like a cub the first time its denied milk?”
“I...” She couldn't say she'd lost the litter, nor could she admit she had forgotten the crocodiles lived in this part of the river. It was no secret the other lioness thought her an idiot. I prove her right enough as it is.
Tengwa didn't wait for her to answer. “That's what I thought.” She clicked her tongue. “I almost expect you to start eating grass. Your kindness is going to get you in trouble someday. Well, see you around. My cubs need to eat, and moonlight's wasting.”
Mauja stared after Tengwa then hung her head. She sighed and left the river. She retraced her steps, intending to right at least one mistake. The snarls that reached her ears before she had covered half the distance told her it was too late for that. She turned away, letting her paws carry her wherever they would.
Her mind went to the cheetah, the mother who was now food for the crocodiles. Then once more to her own lost cubs. A mother loses her cubs,
she thought, throat tight. Cubs lose their mother. Get over it, Mauja! That's simply how it is.
Just then, her paw came down on something soft and giving. She jumped back as a loud hissing filled the air. Her ears came up in surprise once she saw the source of the noise.
A spotted cub with long gray fur down his back crouched at her feet, hissing and spitting with his fur on end. The display would have been impressive, had his scent not betrayed his fear.
She chuckled then sobered. You poor thing.
“Shh,” she said in a soothing tone, reaching out a paw and pulling the cub close. “Shh, I'm not going to hurt you.” She licked the top of his head once, then again and again until his breathing slowed down.
“Not alone!” He snuggled tight against her. “Is not alone!” He repeated the phrase over and over, even when she asked him for his name. He only stopped when he found her milk-swollen teats and started to nurse.
The feeling of the cheetah cub feeding shifted something in the lioness. What am I doing? I can't... the kindest thing to do would be to...
But Mauja couldn't bear the thought of him lying still. It would not be safe to stay here. If the males found his mother's scent and came looking... Mind made up, she pushed him away from her belly and lifted him up in her jaws.
He did not protest, going limp just as lion cubs would.
She carried him until she found a thicket and crawled inside. The lioness lay down and released him, smiling as the cub went right back to his interrupted meal. “I cannot keep calling you 'the cub'. You need a name.” She thought of what he said when she found him. That would do. “Sigumba,” Mauja said softly, testing it out. Yes, that will work nicely.
The lioness found her gaze going to the stars above as she considered the mother cheetah and her own stillborn litter. I do not know your name, but perhaps... perhaps you nurse my children as I nurse yours.
She looked back down at Sigumba. You will grow strong, little one. Males come and go, but when you do, you will be prepared. I promise.
Thank you Koray Birenheide, for the review on your stream and the feedback. If you haven't already, go check them out!