This is the last chapter of "Watching Shadows" that will be posted here. If you want to read more, you will need to either wait for the published version or join my Patreon.
The savanna foliage swayed with the wind as Sigumba darted in and out of sight, chasing whatever insects caught his eye. Mauja kept her eyes upon the cub, and her other senses tuned to any possible approach. The sun had rose and set many times since she had found him. Sigumba was growing fast, but he was still largely helpless.
"What am I going to do with him?" Mauja rested her head upon her paws, ears twitching at every sound in the area. She couldn't take him back to the pride as she would have her own cubs. He was just too small. She remembered smaller cubs that had not made it passed their first moon among the pride. If only other felines were as advanced as we are. But no... She sighed. His mother and every other idiot tries to raise their cubs on their own. Cubs need the protection of the group.
Do they? That's strange, it seems there are plenty of those less-advanced felines around. Seems to work for them. Maybe a cheetah needs to be raised a cheetah.
She shivered at those thoughts. But... maybe that's the best thing to do. If I stay here, he'll be found. It doesn't matter who finds him. She sighed. He's not a lion. They'll kill him. So leaving... leaving will at least give him a chance. Still, where would we go? It's not like there's a pride somewhere of all kinds of felines we can join.
A throat cleared behind her.
Mauja stood and spun, coming face to face with her mother. Her ears folded back and her tail lashed as her heart sped up. "Hello, Mom."
Pamoja's expression twisted into disappointment. "Tengwa said you had a son. We expected you to have rejoined the pride like the rest of us by now." She looked passed Mauja to Sigumba. "But now I believe I know what has kept you. Where are your cubs, daughter?"
Mauja hung her head. "They were stillborn. Mother I know you're disappointed, but –"
"Of course I am." Pamoja closed the distance. "Though not because you lost your cubs. It happens." She looked her daughter in the eye. "You cannot keep him. The guards will kill him, if our pride sisters don't first. What were you thinking?"
"Hello?" Sigumba came up and curled around Mauja's fore-legs. "You look like Mau –"
"Sigumba be quiet!" Mauja shifted so he was safely behind her. "What did I tell you about strangers?"
"But you're talking to her." Sigumba made a face. "So she's not a stranger."
Pamoja chuckled and leaned down. "He does have a point. What were you saying, little one?"
"Are you sisters?" Sigumba looked delighted to be talking to someone new for a change. "You really look alike."
Pamoja gave a laugh that would have put a hyena to shame. "Well, you are certainly a charmer, aren't you? No, little one, I'm her mother. Thank you for the compliment."
"You're welcome." Sigumba grinned then darted out from behind Mauja and raced around them. "Do you want to play? Please?"
Mauja gave her mother a hard look. What will you do now? Since you just said he's a dead cub walking? She could barely hold back the growl she felt rumbling in her chest.
"Not now." Pamoja glanced at Mauja. "We have some grown-up talking to do. Why don't you go back to your game, OK?"
Sigumba folded his ears back and frowned. He huffed, but nodded and took off back into the grass.
"What was that?" Mauja hissed through her teeth. "Mother how dare you? Sigumba thinks you like him now."
"When did I say I don't?" Pamoja shook her head. "Daughter, it's simply the fact he is living on borrowed time. Your intentions were honorable, likely your grief played a big part of it, but... you can't keep him. And you knew that from the start. So.." She narrowed her eyes. "How dare you?"
Mauja folded her ears back and hung her head. "He doesn't deserve to die." She scuffed the ground with a paw. There's nothing else to do. "Please, don't tell anyone. We'll be gone soon."
Her mother's jaw dropped. "Gone? Mauja you can't be thinking of going nomad."
"What else is there, Mother?" She drew herself up to her full height and narrowed her eyes. "I won't kill him, or let anyone here do it."
"Males come and go, Mauja." Pamoja's gaze was cold. "Even were he your own cub, he would leave once he was grown."
"And when he is, I'll come home. When he can stand on his own, I'll come back."
"And just where will you live in the meantime?"
Good question. Where? Nomads don't get accepted by other prides. Unless... Mauja looked in the direction of the setting sun. "I'll go to the land of Askari." She smirked. "Who knows? I might even meet Father there."
"He's dead, Mauja!" Pamoja snarled, obvious pain in her eyes. "No one could go far as mangled as his leg was. He's dead, and you will be too, chasing after cub's tales."
"It's my choice to make."
"And here is mine." Pamoja turned away, her tail lashing at her sides as she curled her lip back. "I will say nothing until next sunset. After that, I tell the guards. So if you are going to leave, begone before then. Should you find 'Askari's land', don't bother coming home."
"Mother!" Mauja lifted a paw to follow. "Mother!"
"Where she going?" Sigumba came up beside her. He looked up with a frown and folded ears. "I thought we were gonna play."
"She had to go." Mauja bumped her head against his. "And so should we. Come on, time for sleep."
"Aw!" Sigumba pouted. "But it's not even dark yet."
"It's close enough, now come along." Mauja looked over her shoulder and blinked back tears. Good-bye, Mother. At least Pamoja had given them time. She would have to be content with that. But what if she changes her mind? She would have to have a back-up plan. Once she had the cub tucked into a thicket, Mauja considered her options.
I could leave now. Tonight. But the pride would be up and about after dark. She'd be far more likely to run into someone before she could escape. How could she even the odds? Then she remembered the night she had lost... the night she had found Sigumba. Once more she saw his mother's body slide under the water, only to be snapped up by the crocodiles. Even a full-grown male doesn't dare challenge them. She slowly stood, careful not to wake the sleeping cub, and made her way to the river.
Mauja stopped on the bank. She kicked the largest rock she could see into the water. The thunk-splash echoed in her ears. Her heart raced as she waited for a sign. The only movement was the flow of the river. "I... I know you're there." Using common speech felt like walking through mud.. "Please, come out, Lords of the River. I need to speak with you."
The water churned and a large crocodile surfaced, its yellow eyes chilling in their gaze. "What words could one such as you seek to share with the likes of us?"
More crocodiles rose to the surface, swimming around their spokesperson, their eyes as cold as his.
"I need to beg safe passage through your river."
"None pass freely. If you get to the other side by grace of skill, we accept defeat. Food comes too hard to waste opportunities."
Mauja's heart sank. "That... that is sound logic. But..." She struggled to find the words. Should the guards come, even just one, she had only one chance to save Sigumba. She felt her stomach twist as she realized the only thing she could offer. "But when I seek to pass, there will be better opportunities behind me." No need to say they won't follow, right? Surely they would not risk death for one lioness? "Let me pass, and they will be yours."
The flow of the river and the faint splash of his fellows was the only sound for several minutes. Then the crocodile met her gaze. "Pass then, when the time comes. Just remember to expect in others the honor you find in yourself."
"Thank you." Mauja ducked her head. "I must be going, but I appreciate your honor and understanding. Good hunting."
"No." The crocodile grinned. "Thank you."