Chapter 2 –
I don’t know how long we sat there and stared at each other. The fact that his eyes were so bright scared me; it meant he was close to Shifting. And then I got mad.
When I was 8, a lion snuck into my house and killed my mother. People always said things like ‘time heals all wounds’, but they were wrong. My mother was gone, and it still hurt just as much as it did nine years ago. And now I was trapped in a room with my worst enemy.
I held myself steady and didn’t blink. Blinking or looking away would tell him that I accepted his dominance over me, and that was one thing I’d never do. Sarai snarled soundlessly. She didn’t blink either.
Then the lion spoke, and his rough voice sent shivers down my spine. “What’s a little wolf pup like you doing so far from home?”
Anger and frustration burned through my veins. The last couple of hours had been hell for me and he wanted to play games? I didn’t know why the coyotes had put us in this cell together, but I was three seconds away from strangling him.
I bared my teeth at him instead. “Excuse me?”
It looked like someone had lit a flame in the center of his golden pupils, but his voice stayed soft. “You could tell me, for instance, why the coyotes have captured one of the supposed greatest hunters in North America. I thought wolves were above such… unintelligent creatures.”
“I’m not telling you anything,” I snapped. “So don’t even bother.”
He made a strange rumbling sound in the back of his throat that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. “If they plan on keeping you alive, they should bring food,” he said, ignoring me. “But I wouldn’t count on it.”
I closed my hands into fists so I wouldn’t be able to strangle him. “Gee, you think? Because everything about this just shouts ‘yes, we’re trying to keep you alive’.”
He sighed. “I knew you would fall to pieces.”
My head started pounding, and I bit back a whine as I rubbed my temples. Stupid coyotes with their stupid drugs putting me in a room with a stupid lion. Again, I heard Justin in my head. “You need to get that drug out of your system before trying anything, so get some sleep. Escape once your head is clear.”
I sighed. “Just stop talking to me and be quiet. If you make one wrong move, Simba, I swear you will regret it.”
“Because that’s mature,” he muttered.
I ignored him and leaned back against the wall. I didn’t close my eyes – I wasn’t that stupid – but I relaxed my gaze and forced my breathing to even out. It would have been better if I could actually fall asleep, but half-assed meditation was probably the best I could do considering everything that had happened.
He was quiet, but I didn’t fool myself into thinking that I had actually managed to intimidate him. Lions didn’t get intimidated.
There wasn’t a clock in our cell, so I don’t know how long I stayed zoned out, but by the time I started to wake myself up, my headache was gone and my hip didn’t feel sore at all. Granted, I was thirsty, hungry, and stiff from staying in one position for a couple of hours, but other than that, I was doing remarkably well for a prisoner.
Since the lion was still slouched against the far wall with his eyes closed, I took a second to size him up. There were no chains around his ankles, but that was probably because the coyotes would have a hard time finding ones that he couldn’t break. His breathing was still just as erratic, and I frowned. The coyotes obviously weren’t taking very good care of him, if the state of this cell was anything to go by. Someone couldn’t vomit or bleed that much without help. I was still having a hard time trying to fight my gag reflex the smell was so rancid. But I didn’t get the sense that the torture was having any real effect on him. He wasn’t scared, and he didn’t seem crazy. Instead, he was just contained. And angry.
It was nighttime outside and there wasn’t any light in our room other than the weak moonlight filtering through the bars on the window, so I had a hard time making out his features. He was maybe a year or two older than me, and his black skin looked gray with exhaustion. His hair was short, cut close to his scalp, and he was a whole lot bigger than me in both directions. That wasn’t difficult to do since there were 6th graders that were taller than me, but the lion just seemed to take up more space. He wasn’t some super-bulky muscle-man, but he was no twig. Even completely relaxed, he looked fit and he obviously spent some time maintaining all of those muscles.
His size isn’t that much of an advantage, Sarai said. All we would need to do is hamstring him. If he can’t run, he can’t chase us.
I rolled my eyes at her optimism, but she was right. In the end, he would bleed and hurt just like anyone else. The key would be to get in and get out before he snapped me in half. No pressure.
My assessment of the lion complete, I turned my attention to the cell. Now that I felt better, I didn’t see any reason to delay my escape.
The lion spoke without opening his eyes, and I was proud of myself for not tensing in shock. “It’s no use,” he said grimly. “Do you really think I would still be here if there was any way out of this room?”
I resisted the urge to growl at him. But I hadn’t thought about it like that. Sitting in front of me was what probably used to be a healthy teenage, male, African lion. If he couldn’t get out of this room, then what were the chances I could?
I heard someone walking towards our room and smiled. Apparently, my chances were pretty damn good.
“Well I just thought of the perfect plan,” I replied sweetly. “You can follow me if you want. Or you can stay here and die. I don’t really care.”
The lion frowned and opened his mouth to say something when I reached for Sarai and Shifted. With her superior night vision, she could see the confusion and shock on the lion’s face easily. He had no idea what I was going to do. Hah.
As the door knob turned, Sarai stepped out of the useless shackle. Stupid coyotes. They should have realized that my wolf’s ankle was a lot skinnier than mine. The pants I had been wearing slipped off of her back legs easily, but the t-shirt stayed where it was. Sarai felt ridiculous, but she didn’t have time to wrestle out of it.
The door opened, and Sarai leapt through, slamming the coyote back. The alpha was right behind him, and he jabbed a cattle prod at her. Sarai dodged it and grabbed the shaft with her teeth. She felt it crack under the strength of her jaws, and she yanked her head to the side, flinging it behind her. The alpha snarled and lunged at her, but Sarai ran past him down the hall.
The alpha yelled, “Get ba-” before there was a loud crunch, and his voice died.
Sarai glanced back to see the lion, still in human form, running after her. “How is this a plan?!”
I grinned, and Sarai kept running.
Sarai was built for speed, which was exactly what we needed. Her smoky coloring was more silver than gray; it wouldn’t hide us, but we weren’t looking for stealth tonight.
All of the coyotes we saw were human, but Sarai just knocked them aside. Surprise was still on our side, and she didn’t want to waste that by attacking them when we could be running away.
The lion stayed remarkably close as Sarai ran down a different hallway that led to the door we had originally been brought through. For a second, I panicked. The door was closed and Sarai didn’t have hands to open it.
Luckily, the lion did. When we got to the door, it only took him a half of a second to fling it open, and then we were out.
The stars were bright, and the moon’s song vibrated through Sarai’s head. But she ignored it and the gravel road leading away from the house. It’d be way too easy for the coyotes to follow us on that, so instead, she ran straight for the forest. The lion followed her and crashed through the underbrush as he tried to keep up. I just rolled my eyes.
After the t-shirt Sarai was still wearing snagged on a bush for the 8th time, she stopped running. Enough of this, she snarled, and she started to pull it off.
The lion stopped next to her and leaned on his knees as he panted. After a second, he finally managed to wheeze, “That doesn’t count… as a plan.”
Sarai finally managed to get the t-shirt off of her head, and she shook gratefully. We got out, didn’t we?
It was hard to hear over the lion’s labored breathing, but Sarai’s ears perked all the same. Something was running towards us.
Apparently, the coyotes weren’t too keen on letting us go.
Sarai nudged the lion’s leg, and he jerked at the same time I said, What are you doing?
He hasn’t tried to kill us yet, Sarai replied, glancing behind her before looking back up at the lion. If we leave him here, he’ll just be recaptured. I know that he’s the enemy, but no one, cat or wolf, should be locked in a cell against their will.
There wasn’t anything I could say. I didn’t like it, but that didn’t stop it from making sense.
To my surprise, he understood Sarai’s body language. Muttering a curse, he leaned down and picked up the shirt she had discarded, before gesturing to us. “After you.”
Sarai loped forward, making sure the lion stayed close. Even though we were running as fast as the lion could go, it didn’t take long for the coyotes to catch up to us. I wasn’t as worried about that as I probably should have been. Neither was Sarai.
Mercenary coyotes worked in packs, so that was how they hunted. Luckily, I knew a thing or two about hunting in a pack. As the weaker of the two of us, they would target the lion first. But because I knew how they would hunt, I also knew exactly how to counter them.
Are you sure we can’t just leave him here? I asked, even though I already knew the answer. If we pull ahead of them now, they’ll never be able to catch us.
No one deserves to be hunted by such worthless scavengers, Sarai said firmly.
Sarai dropped back to stay closer to the lion as the coyotes started to flank us. She ignored them. The real attack would come from behind us, and like clockwork, she heard the strides of two coyotes suddenly accelerate.
Time for a little payback, she growled.
Sarai sat back on her haunches to slow down and twisted to slam her shoulder into the first coyote. She sank her teeth into the big muscle on its shoulder and ripped, feeling blood coat her tongue. Then she sprang away, chasing the second coyote that was still after the lion. With a leap, she knocked it off its feet, scratching its back and sides with her claws before running back to the lion. Maiming the coyotes was easier than killing them, and it also took a lot less time.
Several other coyotes tried to attack the lion, but Sarai intervened every time. She broke bones and ripped off ears, tore skin and muscle and clawed at eyes. Blood covered her muzzle, and she had scratches and bites all over her, but Sarai continued to fight. As she protected the lion, she never made a sound. The only things that gave her away were the strangled yips of her victims.
The coyotes may have been paid to kidnap us, but they were ultimately cowards. After Sarai had crippled nearly half of their pack, they backed off.
With a sigh, Sarai resumed her journey, leading the lion through the dark forest. The adrenalin from all of the fighting was wearing off, and Sarai was beginning to feel tired and sore. We had to eat and sleep soon. But first, Sarai wanted to get as far away from the coyotes as possible. Just because she had scared them off of the original hunt didn’t mean they wouldn’t try to come back.
We ran for another half mile before the lion fell to his knees with a crash. Startled, Sarai stopped. Since the coyotes had fallen back, she hadn’t really paid attention to him. He was gulping in deep breathes as if he had forgotten how important air really was. But what worried me was how hard he was shivering. Sure, it was a little cold, but it wasn’t that cold. Sarai took a step forward, sampling the air around him. He wasn’t even sweating. We had been running for two and a half miles through the forest in the dark. That wasn’t exactly easy. By now, he should have reeked with sweat.
Crap, I muttered.
What do you want me to do? Sarai asked.
Find a shelter, I said. After all the work you put into getting us out, it’d be a pain for him to die now.
Sarai sighed and looked around. This wasn’t the best place to stop, she pointed out.
Well, he didn’t really give us much of a choice. What about that bush over there? It’s got thick leaves to keep him out of sight.
Sarai trotted over to inspect the bush. There was a perfect wolf-sized spot for her to curl up in. I hate to break this to you, she said slowly, but I don’t think he’s going to fit there.
He would if you dug it out a little bit.
She growled softly. This is just for tonight, right?
I promise we’ll find a better den tomorrow.
Sarai huffed and started to dig. I am not built for this, she grumbled. After a couple of minutes, she had excavated the original hole to be a little more human sized. It’d be a tight fit, but it was better than nothing.
The lion hadn’t moved. In fact, I would have been surprised if he was still totally conscious. He had used too much energy running away, energy he clearly didn’t have. He needed food and fast.
With a sigh, Sarai walked over to him and nudged his arm gently. He didn’t jump like the last time. Now that Sarai was closer to him, she could feel the heat emanating from his skin.
Sarai grabbed his sleeve and tugged insistently. Instead of crawling in the direction she was pulling him like any other sane person would have done, he stubbornly tried to get back on his feet. Idiot. After a few seconds of painful struggling, he managed it. Sarai tugged on his sleeve again, and he followed her on unsteady feet. Once he was in front of the bush, he paused, and Sarai nudged his leg encouragingly. He didn’t move.
Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get him in there, Sarai pointed out.
It was my turn to grumble. Fine.
The lion had dropped my shirt back where he fell, so Sarai trotted over to it. At the time, I had no idea why he even bothered to grab it, but now I suppose I was grateful. As a Shifter, you got used to nudity pretty quickly, but I never liked it.
Sarai Shifted, and for a second, it felt like my stomach had bottomed out. I stayed still and took deep, even breaths as I tried not to pass out. Too many Shifts with too few calories. Once I was sure I wouldn’t faint, I pulled the big t-shirt on. It hit me about mid-thigh, giving me some illusion of modesty.
I shivered a little as I walked back to the lion. Now that I didn’t have fur, I had to admit that it was a little cooler than I thought.
The lion didn’t seem to notice my change in shape, or if he did, he didn’t care. That wasn’t good.
“C’mon,” I said, not unkindly, but not very patiently either. Standing next to him made me feel small, and I didn’t like it. “There’s space for you to sleep under the bush.” I tugged on his sleeve like Sarai had done, and eventually, he crouched down.
“Under the bush?” His voice sounded wispy and frail.
“Yeah,” I replied, trying to ignore the concern that twisted in my gut. “The dead leaves underneath will keep you warm. Well, warmer.”
The lion sighed, but started to crawl under the bush without any fuss. Once he was in place, I shoved the extra dirt Sarai had dug up against his arms and legs. It felt cold now, but in the long run, the dirt would help trap the heat of his body and keep him insulated.
With the lion in my make-shift shelter, I walked around for a few minutes, picking all of the wild dandelions I could see. The entire plant was edible, although the leaves were better cooked. I didn’t care. The lion needed as much food as I could cram down his throat. Calories were calories, and he wasn’t in a position to be picky right now.
There was a cost to being a Shifter, and that cost was energy. All Shifters had an increased metabolism which helped us change shape and still be able to stay on our feet. But when food wasn’t available, you had to learn how to make do.
I went back to the bush and dumped my armful of dandelions next to him. To my surprise, his eyes were still open.
“Eat these,” I told him. “They won’t taste very good, but they’ll keep you alive.”
He glared at me, and I rolled my eyes for real this time. Yes, I went to all of the trouble to get you nice and warm under a bush so I could poison you. Because that made sense.
I snatched up one of the dandelions and picked off the leaves before shoving them into my mouth. God, these were bitter. My cramping stomach tried to remind me that I needed food too, so I forced myself to swallow. The stem was a little sweeter, and the flower would have tasted better if I had the time and the energy to peel off the green stemmy bit, but I didn’t. Once I was done, I looked back up at the lion. “Satisfied?”
“What about you?” He murmured, but he obediently leaned over and grabbed a dandelion.
“I’m going to try and find some more food,” I told him, smirking as he grimaced at the bitterness of the flower. Good. That would help keep him awake. “I won’t be far. Keep eating and don’t fall asleep.”
I got up and walked away before he could reply. Circling our shelter would accomplish two things: finding food and laying down a strong scent signature that marked the bush as my territory. The latter wouldn’t do anything to protect us if one of the coyotes found it, but it would warn away normal animals. I didn’t feel like getting into a pissing contest with some adolescent beaver.
Looking for more edible plants kept a lot of my focus on the ground, but I also paid attention to the sounds around me. I didn’t like getting caught by surprise more than once. So I kept my ears sharp as I looked for dandelions and maybe a patch of wild raspberries, although that was probably wishful thinking. It was only May. Far too early for raspberries.
I’ll have to tell Justin that all of those stupid foraging lessons finally paid off, I thought as I paused, inspecting a large patch of weeds. Breaking a little stem off, I held it up to my nose. Yup, lambsquarters. I started picking.
My education wasn’t what one could call normal. I had been homeschooled for my entire life, so I never had to worry about high school cliques and who your date was for homecoming. I still learned normal things, like how to add and how to write a grammatically correct sentence. But I also learned stuff that would make a normal high school girl – or boy – faint.
Thanks to my uncle Justin, I could survive off the land for weeks if I needed too. I knew how to gut a fish and skin a deer without a knife. I knew how to light a fire and make a semi-permanent shelter by weaving tree branches together. I knew how to make sure that water was safe to drink. My younger self had never been very fond of these survival lessons. Luckily, Justin was a patient teacher.
Apparently, lambsquarters was supposed to taste a lot like spinach, but to me it just tasted like any other big, leafy, green thing. I kept munching as I walked around, wincing occasionally as I stepped on a sharp twig or rock. My feet were not as sturdy as Sarai’s paws. After I had gathered another big armful of assorted edible greens, I made my way back to the lion’s bush.
His pile of dandelions was much smaller, and I nodded to myself. Good. And he was still awake. Even better.
I added the various weeds I had found to his pile and sat down, pulling the long hem of my shirt around my legs to form a little tent. With the sigh of one resigned to his less than palatable fate, the lion reached for the other plants and kept eating. I did too.
“Why are you doing this?” He asked softly.
I swallowed and replied, “Because we both need food.” I liked the idea of staying alive, thank you very much.
He frowned, his golden eyes glinting in the darkness. “That’s not what I meant.”
I knew what he meant, but I stayed quiet. Maybe if I didn’t respond, he would stop talking.
He opened his mouth anyway. “Why are you helping me?”
And there it was.
He wanted a reason, and he probably felt like he deserved one, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know why I was helping him. Maybe I liked feeling useful. Maybe I didn’t want to see the coyotes win. But there was no way I was going to tell him any of that.
“When you’re done eating, you should try to sleep,” I said. My stomach wasn’t nearly as full as I would have liked, but the lion needed to eat more than I did, so I wrapped my arms around my legs and turned my attention to the forest.
I could feel the lion glaring at me but I ignored him. There was nothing stopping the coyotes from sending out another hunting party, and if they did, I wouldn’t be caught unaware twice. Sarai’s senses were a little better than mine, but I didn’t have the energy to Shift, so I was the one stuck with keeping watch.
The lion finished eating a few minutes later. Even though I could tell he didn’t want to fall asleep so close to me, his exhausted body gave him no choice. Soon, his breathing was deep and even.
I let my awareness expand and focused on the forest around me, absorbing the natural sounds so I would know when something was wrong. Sarai settled in the back of my mind, just as alert. And if my eyes snuck down to check on the lion sleeping next to me, it wasn’t like there was anyone there to see me. Besides, I always looked away just as quickly.
The problem, I decided, was not me, it was his face. With a strong jaw, defined nose, full lips, and eyelashes as long as my thumbnail, he was just hot, in a completely masculine ‘there is no mistaking that you are male, please rip your shirt off and continue glaring at people’ kind of way. It was far too attractive for my liking. His face should have been outlawed immediately, along with the rest of his tall, muscular body.
The much bigger problem with his face was that I recognized it. And that just confused me even more.
This lion wasn’t just any enemy. He was the Enemy, with a capital E. There was only one pride of African lions in the United States, and after my mother was killed, Justin made sure that I could recognize all of them.
Darius Ardeshir, the Heir of the Pride and sworn enemy to the Pack, grunted a little in his sleep.
I should have killed him the second I recognized him. Sarai could have torn his throat out, and I’d be halfway back to Justin’s pack by now. But instead, I just kept watch over him like some demented bodyguard.
For all of his growling and glaring, he hadn’t done anything to me in the cell. He never even moved from his corner. And as we were running away, there were no calculating glances, no moving suspiciously to try and get behind me. He didn’t do anything to make me think that he was planning to kill me. Not one damn thing.
He was a lion and I was a wolf, and he just followed me into the forest. That… that took guts. I’m not sure I would have been able to do the same thing if our roles were reversed.
Now that I knew who he was, his presence at the coyotes’ safe house was less of a mystery. Kidnapping the Heir of the Pride was ballsy, but if the end game was blackmail or extortion, it made sense. Darius was a pretty big somebody. But me? I was just Aleksi’s daughter. The only value I had was that my mate would become the next Prince. Why kidnap me?
My leg started to go numb, so I shifted a little and winced at the sting of returning circulation. I would give him until dawn to sleep, and then I needed to find a better shelter. The coyotes had been starving him for days, and a giant pile of flowers wasn’t going to help much in the long run. He needed meat, which meant that the second I had him settled somewhere safer, Sarai needed to go hunting.
I sighed and glared down at him. Simba didn’t even twitch. Killing him would be easy compared to the difficult task of keeping him alive. Hopefully, he would be worth the effort.