Zira didn’t know whether to hit Kovu or clutch him to her and never let go. In the end she did both; Kovu received a strong wack on the bottom and a fierce, almost suffocating nuzzle. Zira picked him up in her mouth and took him into the cave, where she dropped him unceremoniously into what served as his sleeping place. Kovu landed, with a slight “ooh” of pain, on his still stinging behind. He looked up at his mother, unsure of what to do or say, wondering if he was going to receive further punishment. Zira gave him a look of both anger and sadness. Without a word, she stalked away.
“Mother?” he called timidly after her. She turned back to him with a low growl that was not at all encouraging. Nevertheless, Kovu took a deep breath and blurted out the first thing that came to mind:
For a long moment Zira said nothing, and Kovu silently cursed himself for giving such a small, inadequate apology. As he struggled to find the words to better express his remorse, she sauntered back over to him with and unreadable expression on her face. Kovu gulped at her approach. He fairly shook with relief when he found himself being nuzzled and licked with a ferocity of feeling such as his mother had never shown.
“Oh Kovu, Kovu,” she whispered, shaking herself. “I thought I had lost you forever. My precious one. My little prince.” She took his face in her paws and shook it, almost violently. “Don’t you ever do that to me again! Do you understand? Do you?” She loosened her grip as Kovu gave a little nod to show he understood. “Good.” She nuzzled him again and gave him a little smile to show he had been forgiven. With anyone else, Zira held her grudges; only Kovu, her beloved son, could melt the icedaggers of her anger. When so gentled by the warmth of motherly love, one could see she was really quite a beautiful Lioness, if you took the time to look. Her pelt was light gold, tinged almost red by the deep, bleeding colors of the setting sun. Though she was malnourished, like the rest of the Outlanders, the outlines of muscles and curves of her body could still be traced. The distinctive, dark-brown stripe on her forehead only added to her appearance. She walked gracefully out of the cave, heaved a sigh, and lay down, letting her eyes lazily scan the horizon. It had been a long time since she had felt this much at peace. But then, she reflected Shikenta always did that to her. Despite her somewhat infuriatingly enigmatic nature, she somehow infused a calmness into Zira that was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.
She was almost nodding off when she heard the soft padding of paws. Opening her eyes, she smiled at Vitani, her clever young daughter. Vitani cautiously went up to her mother, and then gave a quick nuzzle.
“Mmmmmm... Vitani, dear, could you -”
“Yes mother,” Vitani said, anticipating Zira’s request. “I like watching out for my little brother... unlike some people,” she snarled, with the dagger-eyed glare she had inherited from her mother. It was cast on Nuka, who stood outside the cave, his head hung low in shame. Zira growled, then sighed.
“Ohhh..... come on then Nuka... but don’t expect -”
Nuka leaped in, and, on the verge of embracing his mother, stopped dead cold by his mother’s look of disapproval. “I understand,” he said woefully, hanging his head again as he walked timidly past her to his customary sleeping place. Impulsively, she went over and gave him a quick, rough lick. “If you ever let that happen again....” she didn’t need to finish. Before Nuka could utter his joy at be forgiven, she swept away to a darker corner of the cave, and began to pace meditatively. Nuka and Vitani exchanged incredulous glances. There mother was in a rare mood, indeed.
“Mother?” Vitani had poked her head up from where she and Kovu both lay snuggled close to each other. “Aren’t you going to sleep?”
“In a while, dear,” Zira murmured with a distant look in her eyes. Vitani started to ask another question, thought better of it, and shot a withering glance at Nuka, to whom the same idea had occured. He mouthed the words “You’re not the boss of me,” and scowled, but he heeded her silent warning and slowly drifted off to sleep.
Vitani yawned, snuggled closer to the warmth of her dear little brother’s body, and fell asleep to the swishing sound of the wind, and the soft, barely audible padding of Zira’s pacing paws. * * * *
Zira closed her eyes, not to sleep, but to remember. She tried not to - there were so many painful memories in her life - but they came rushing upon her, and she had no choice but to succumb to them. How different, how simple things had been then. How twisted and ugly they had become.
Zira had come from a struggling pride of lions on the edge of where the Serengeti touched the jungle. For all Zira new, the pride was disbanded now - and good riddance if it was, she thought bitterly; she had found nothing there but misery and loneliness. She remembered her mother vaguely, as one who smiled rarely and laughed even less, and she knew, through some childish intuition, that her mother was ashamed of her. Why, she had never known. She just knew it was so, and that all the other lionesses kept their cubs away from her, and that she got lost and sometimes her mother never came, that she was ostracized and looked down upon by everyone. Of her father she remembered even less. Whenever she tried to conjure up his image, all she saw was a flash of redbrowngold, followed by a black as dark as a starless night. She didn’t care anyway. As soon as she was old enough to hunt on her own, she ran away. She had probably done her mom a big favor. Mommy dearest probably jumped for joy......
Realizing this train of thought was getting her nowhere fast, Zira blinked a few times to clear her misting eyes and thought about the thrill, danger and hardship of being on her one. Dancing at the out rim of the mysterious leopard territories, scavenging when desperate, stalking when not, doing what she had to do to survive. Letting of go of bitterness, forgetting her pain, and just -- living. It was strange, but, even though she was lonely, being on her own, wild, free and independent - well, it was a good life, however unorthodox for a lion.
She had continued on this way for some time, living like a leopard without a territory, when one day her luck changed. She was stalking a wounded impala, intent on her work. Just a little closer..... yes, yes... Zira’s muscles tensed for the kill -- and a golden, spotted leopard flashed in her vision, pouncing on the prey before she made her move. Cursing herself for thinking too much with her stomach, she crouched low and hoped the powerful-looking male wouldn’t see her. Her breath caught in her throat as she gazed at him. She had never seen a leopard up close. He was ... beautiful.
Zira felt her face grow warm at the thought, and thanked her lucky stars that she was not yet in heat, or she might have done something inappropriate. It was so long, after all, that she had been around any male cat........
No, she suddenly realized, that wasn’t even it. It wasn’t a sexual feeling. Looking at him was like looking at a dusk incarnate, like looking at a sunset or gazing into a perfect, starry sky. All these things brought her rare moments of pleasure and wonder at the true beauty of life, and his graceful appearance affected her in the same way. Nevertheless, she was quite literally dead meat if he caught her; half-starved as she was, she was in no condition to fight her way out of this situation. Of course, she thought, angrily, the wind would have to be blowing my sent in his direction. Just my luck. Geesh. I may as well walk out and bare my throat.
He was sniffing the air suspiciously, even as his prey convulsed in its final dead throws. He fed hastily, looking about him sharply, and, as Zira heard the familiar yipping laughter of those horrible hyenas, he quickly dragged the carcass up to a nearby tree, wedging it between the branches. Zira was impressed; even a young impala was heavy, and to have moved so quickly with that heavy burden.... now she was even more certain she couldn’t fight her way out of this one. Now she could only wait, and hope something else distracted him before he found her hiding place.
With a snarl, he pounced on her, and then backed away staring at her in surprise and growling angrily.
“What are you doing here, daughter-of-the-pride?” he spat at her. “Come to spy on a big bad leopard have you?” he jeered. “I’ll teach you to violate a leopard territory.” “No, no I.... Zira backed up, edging out her claws and trying to make herself look tough as he circled her almost teasingly. He suddenly swiped at her, she ducked, but fatigue made her reflexes slower, and she felt a claw rake down her forehead. She yowled in pain as he closed in for the kill ---
“Ziabe! No!” said an authoritative voice. Both big cats turned to find its owner.
For the second time that day something incredulous stole Zira’s breath away.
The cat was black, so black she looked almost blue. From head to toe, she seemed made of shadows, or of pieces of the night. Her eyes, narrow slits in a dark, dark face glowed emerald green in the dimming light. The break in her inky blackness was made by three reddish scars that went from her face to the muscles of her shoulders. It looked as if some one had a huge paw along her body. One of the scars grazed over her eye, and only added to the intimidating uniqueness of her appearance. The male cautiously approached her.
“Clan-born,” he said in a formal tone, “you know as well as I do that there is no love lost between the leopard and the lion. Why--”
“I know this lionesses, hunter-in-the-sun. At least,” she amend “I have seen her around the water hole from time to time. She is like us, and she is desperate, starving and--
“The water hole!? Why didn’t you tell anyone? We have a right to --
“The water hole is open to all, you know that,” she said, circling around him, “And as for keeping others informed, well, I’m not about to make the rounds to every leopard territory from here to India and back again telling all ‘Beware, there is a weak, half-starved lioness about!’” Soft laughter began at the back of her throat and worked its way out. She sidling closer to him, almost purring; he seemed almost entranced.
“But she-” he protested weakly.
“Oh, Ziabe, look at her. Look at her. Do you honestly think she’s a threat?”
Ziabe looked at Zira, who had been staring, wide-eyed at the two as she took in their words. His gaze traveled from her miserable face to her trembling flanks to the ribs that protruded so much he could count them. He felt a tiny stirring of pity in his heart.
“No,” he admitted grudgingly.
“Then let me tell her of the lion-pride nearby,” he saw Zira’s eyes light up, “and she will be gone before you know. Now, be at peace, hunter-in-the-sun.” He looked at her for a long moment, and then, putting his face very close to hers, said “And you as well, stalker-in-the-night.” He nuzzled her face, and then the two slid into a fuller embrace, rubbing the length of their sides against each other as only cats can. He left swiftly, silently, and did not look back.
The great black female turned to her. Zira felt a twinge of apprehension, but reminded herself that this stranger had just stood up for her.
“Uh... I... I want to thank you,” she said, venturing a weary smile, “No one has ever done anything so nice for me.”
The nightling cocked a brow. “Not even your own kind?”
Especially my own kind,” Zira said bitterly
“Then you have no wish to join the pride I spoke of?”
“Oh, no, no, I do, I do wish to join them,” she hastened to assure her. “Oh, please just tell me how to get there and I’ll never bother you again.”
The black one chuckled, “Oh, it is no bother,” she said, “there are so few things that unnerve Ziabe that it was a pleasure to watch. He’s always going on about the dangers of lions, the brutality of lions... me, I say live and let live. As long as you’re not bothering us, why should we feel the need to pass judgement on you?”
“Well... thank you... I um... excuse me, this is a bit forward but...... is this, this Ziabe....... your mate?”
“Oh, no. At least,” she added, grinnig wickedly, “not yet.” Zira grinned back.
“Well...” the nightling’s tone changed abruptly, and in a matter-of-fact manner, she proceeded to give the lioness simple directions to what she now knew to be called The Pridelands. Zira thanked her earnestly once again, and turned to go, but before she left she could not resist just asking one more question.
“What... who are you?” she whispered.
The nightling smiled. “I have so many names she said. They call me leopard, black leopard, shadow, nightling, stalker-in-the-night, panther, black panther, clan-born.... and the Ghost of the Forest.” Zira giggled at this last name.
“Oh,” the black leopard cocked her head, “What’s this?” she moved closer to Zira, Can it be,” and now her face was quite seriously “you don’t believe in ghosts?”
Zira felt a little shiver run down her spine. Suddenly, it wasn’t a bit funny.
“I call myself Shikenta,” she smiled. “Now go, quickly, before I start liking you too much.”
Zira obeyed, but she paused, an called back to Shikenta “I owe you one!”
“Yes,” said the mysterious voice as the form melded back into the shadows of
night, “Yes, you do.”