"Watching Shadows" has was my 2016 NaNoWriMo Project. I failed, and now it's 2017's Camp NaNoWriMo Project. The first three chapters will be posted here, and the rest of the WIP chapters will be available on my Patreon as I revise the old ones and write new ones.
The tall savanna grass hissed in the wind around the young lioness like cruel laughter as she caught her breath beneath the indifferent stars. Gone. All her hopes, her dreams, gone. Mauja lay beside the still forms of her first litter, unable to process the reality staring her in the eye. How could this happen? She had felt them kick for days now. The births had been quick. But the four small bodies, wet from birth, lay motionless. The lioness licked each one a final time, but there was no breath, no life to be found. "What did I do wrong?"
The stench of blood lingered in the air. The afterbirth waited to be dealt with. If she didn't do something soon, scavengers would be her next problem. Mauja couldn't bring herself to care. Right then she would have welcomed the fight. Anything would be better than this awful emptiness.
At last, she could look no longer. She nudged both 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. Over and over she searched her memory, hunting for the mistake that had cost her her cubs.
The scent of water reached her nose, and her suddenly dry throat drove out all other concerns. 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 the only sound. 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 walked into the moonlight, dragging a prone form under her. "Stupid, thoughtless fools." She dropped a cheetah carcass beside the river. "Genius, seriously."
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 come and go, the saying went, but we remain forever. Her own brothers had been driven out, as males always were. Males served their purpose, but there was no good getting attached to one. At least that's what she had always been taught, and thus far in her short life she had not seen reason to question it. The breeding that had led to the disappointing development this evening had simply been a rite of passage.
Mauja flinched, her eyes darting back the way she had come. She had not considered that drawing scavengers could mean danger for her pride mates and their cubs.
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, her pain finding 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 turned away from the river, letting her paws carry her wherever they wished. How do I tell them I lost the litter? That I'm not just a freak, I can't even be a mother?
Mauja bore four markings upon her face, two beneath each eye, unlike her pride mates. Her mother claimed they came from her father, who had been driven out by the current males before she was born. Ajamu's had apparently drawn attention to his eyes "like leaves upon the trees". Some of her elder sisters had the same, or had eyes like hers the color of the clear sky. They had confirmed that she shared his markings, though they had often teased her since they had never seen them 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! Just then her paw came down on something soft and giving. She jumped back with a growl as a loud hissing filled her ears Which came up in surprise as the growl died away 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 limb just as cubs were supposed to.
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.