reprieve

With bones weary, a lion shuf­fles along the bank of a nar­row stream, seek­ing a gap to cross with­out get­ting wet. His gait is unsteady and laboured. A lop­sided clump of hair frames his face, edges dark­en­ing along the mane. The gamut of scars he wears — from light scratch­es that have fad­ed in the sun­light to deep­er wounds that are still heal­ing — add depth to his coat, and speak of the bat­tles he’s survived.

He doesn’t make the jump. His back paws dip in the water but he walks on with­out shak­ing a leg. With a pen­sive nose raised high, he explores the bound­ary of his territory.

Sets of eyes watch him as he trots. They keep their dis­tance at first, then more pairs join the fur­ther out he goes. Before real­iz­ing it, he finds him­self amongst a clan of hye­nas, scat­tered and curi­ous and very alert. They grad­u­al­ly cir­cle and close in.

He tries to assert dom­i­nance by chas­ing one at a time. Even when he man­ages to grab one by the mouth, five oth­ers are ready to bite his back. He knows he’s trapped and tries to flee, but he’s forced to turn and fight each time they catch up.

He flips one over, sinks his teeth in, draws blood, caus­es a yelp. It does noth­ing to slow them. They’re not coop­er­at­ing to bring him down, they’re com­pet­ing against each oth­er for every bit of flesh, sinew, and bone on his body.

It’s your time, old man. No one can say nature is cru­el when you’ve lived this long.

Exhaustion sets in. His turns become less sharp. Eventually he resigns him­self to sit­ting on his haunch­es and snap­ping lan­guid­ly at the pain, only run­ning a few weary steps when anoth­er bite tugs too hard on his skin. He fights, but can’t stop the inevitable.

But you’re so young.

A lioness hears a com­mo­tion in the dis­tance. What sounds like an end­less cho­rus of whoops and gig­gles may turn out to be an easy meal to steal. She trots towards the sound until a roar cracks the din. Not a mea­sured, steady growl, but one cut short by…something.

40 years has been long enough.

Her pace increas­es until she breaks into a stride. She rec­og­nizes her pride­mate among the flur­ry, with mouth agape and spit­tle flying.

The hye­nas don’t notice until she clos­es the gap and tram­ples one with her front paws. It rolls away with a fran­tic growl, break­ing up the inces­sant bay­ing that filled the air. She briefly gives chase then turns to the group again.

Knowing they don’t have the num­bers to take on two adults, they scatter.

Not today.

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