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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