Kuwinda rushed back to Pride Rock, the savage downpour of rain soaking her fur as she ran. The very muddy ground beneath her paws crumbled, sinking with each step.
Her chest beat violently, pumping heated air through her lungs. Their strained, heart-pounding grasp scratching at her throat, nearly strangling the poor lioness.
It had been a week since Kopa had taught her to hunt.
As she arrived at the peak of Pride Rock, she saw the figure of a lioness, beautiful and proud, along with a mandrill, old and wise. They conversed, sheltered from the heavy rain by overhead boulders, covering part of the summit, though their conversation made no sense to Kuwinda.
"Don't worry, Nala." Rafiki waved his hand down, towards the floor. "I will check on Kion when I have time." He looked away from the sitting lioness, clenching this staff with two hands. "He will be going through...difficult times soon."
Nala breathed calmly, a level of stress and worry vented from her throat. "Thank you, Rafiki. Her tail began to wiggle once more, the little puff of fur at its tip dusting the damp floor. "He's been acting strangely at night recently, having weird dreams." Nala explained, though the wise mandrill already knew her findings.
"I can understand your concern, my queen." He stretched his arm outward, slightly knocking the staff in his hand to the floor. "A mother worries for her children." Using the strength of the staff, he brought himself to his feet. Slowly crawling up, he turned to leave, until...
Kuwinda rushed towards the lioness, her fur so damp, so soaked that Nala couldn't tell what was caused by rain or tears. The young lioness pounced towards Nala, her body shaking violently through the heavy rain, before landing at Nala's paws, uncontrollably sobbing.
Nala nudged Kuwinda's head with hers. She was soaked, cold and a complete wreck.
"Kuwinda? What's wrong?" Nala brushed her paw across Kuwinda's spine, resting the young lioness' head next to hers. Kuwinda's tears poured through Nala's creamy fur, soaking the older lioness' chest as she nestled her head there.
"He's gone!" Her cries made it nearly impossible to comprehend what she was saying. "Kopa's gone!" She brushed her face through Nala's chest. By now, Rafiki was beside them, stroking the young lioness' back, his primate hands brushing through her thick, rough fur.
"What happened?" Nala queried. Her calm, maternal voice soothed Kuwinda, forcing the lioness' heavy, emotion-rich breaths to cease. Her entire body relaxed enough to speak in detail.
"I don't know." She removed her head from Nala's chest, sitting firmly upright as she spoke. Kuwinda seemed to relax, her mind focused on the events leading to this moment, no matter how heartbreaking, and confusing, they may be. "He seemed... scared, regretful."
Nala stared at the younger lioness, confused and intrigued.
"Why?" She noticed Kuwinda's face drop, consumed in troubled thought. The slight whimper of sadness murmured through her lips.
"That night we spent together." Kuwinda's breathing intensified, fear shot across her eyes. "We didn't just take shelter together." Her lips trembled.
Nala, on the other hand, thought about what Kuwinda was saying, and within seconds, she had figured out what the lioness was hinting towards.
"You mated with him?" She pulled her head back. True, it wasn't irregular for a lioness to mate with a rogue lion. Hell, that is how Kopa was conceived to begin with. But Kopa wasn't a rogue lion per se.
"It felt right at the time…." Kuwinda became lost in thought. Thoughts of her love, or old love now. His smile, the attractive aroma embedded in his mane, that soft, fluffy pillow that she loved to rest her head on that night. "He made me feel special like no other lion had before."
She remembered how kind he was, not using her, or just seeing her as a fling, but something so much more. Every time she thought of him, a small, nearly unrecognisable feeling of pride, hope and warmth illuminated from within her stomach. Or was it something else?
From out of nowhere, Rafiki burst into the conversation once more.
"Wait!" He approached Kuwinda, the winds blew stronger as he approached. The rain surrounding them subsided, leaving only a dim, faint spot of sunlight surrounding them.
"Rafiki?" Nala turned her attention to the mandrill, who stood in front of Kuwinda. A worried, yet sparkling, enlightened look adorned his face.
Rafiki ignored her, turning to Kuwinda instead. "Lie down a minute, Kuwinda." He waved his hand to the floor, steadying himself with the staff he held in the other. As commanded, Kuwinda laid down on her side, revealing the soft, lush, creamy fur on her belly. Nala looked on, curious with a hint of knowledge on what Rafiki was doing.
"Wait, were you in heat a few days ago, Kuwinda?" Nala's heart skipped a beat.
"I think so..." Kuwinda replied. With the recent rise in temperatures in the Pridelands, plus the excitement and shock of Kopa's return, she had kind of lost track of her oestrus cycle.
Nala gulped, staring at Rafiki, who in turn looked at her. Without speaking a word, Rafiki approached Kuwinda. He took a deep, concentrated breath before placing his hand on the lioness' stomach. As he did, she felt the same, strange, otherworldly sensation she had been feeling, this time stronger. Her mind flickered with memories of Kopa. From the first time they met as cubs until now and every dark and dim day in between. He brought her so much hope, so much care. So much love.
The skies around them cleared. The storms that thundered throughout the afternoon dissipated. A burst of brightening, pure light illuminated Pride Rock, nearly blinding Kuwinda, who seemed to lay in its centre. As she tried to look up towards its origin, her stomach seemed to shudder. The slight, minuscule tremor seemed to split into two, causing her tail to shoot back in between her legs. The silent, yet steadily building thunderous hums echoed across the skies.
As the light started to dissipate, she noticed the outline of the clouds above her. They had taken the form of lions, but none that she recognised. The clouds themselves seemed to ignite with a strange, unknowable energy. She turned to Rafiki for answers, but he just stood there. His hand still rested on her stomach.
Nala cowered nearby, watching the events unfolding before her in bewilderment, shock and fear. She knew what this meant, just as much as Rafiki did. After all, she had been through this once before.
"It can't be!" Nala stared up at the clouds, her heart beating faster every second. His eyesight shot towards Kuwinda, lying terrified on the ground. Her eyes darted across the sky, watching every spectral lion above them.
"What's happening?!" The young lioness’s voice rumbled, croaked with fear. Her eyes widened as she stared upwards, forcing her breathing to skyrocket once more.
Within seconds, the clouds faded. The storms that battered the sky had resumed their bombardment of life-giving water. Rafiki's mind returned to this world as he let go of Kuwinda's stomach. The lioness, soaked in fearful, unknowledgeable tears, pleaded for answers from the wise mandrill. Nala, already knowing, approached Kuwinda, embracing her in a maternal nuzzling.
Rafiki let out a single, concentrated breath, before speaking a set of words that would forever shape the Pridelands, and beyond. Words that would bring so much pain to the young lioness, but eventual comfort and peace.
Nala rushed into the lion guard lair, her head flicking side to side as she scanned the lair's surroundings. She noticed the shimmer of her son’s golden fur besides the rest of the guard.
"Kion! Lion Guard!" Nala beckoned, halting just before the resting guard. Her breathing intensified as she lowered her head, recovering her strength. After a few moments of rest, she continued. "We need your help!"
"What's wrong mum?" Kion raised his head, his auburn eyes gleaming in the shallow sunlight as the rest of the guard awoke. Jicho fluttered down from her perch, landing with a gentle, elegant thud as Kwaheri did off his branch, landing beside her with a loud thud.
"Yeah." Beshte turned to the queen. His friendly if inquisitive smile glanced her way. "What's the kerbubble, Nala?"
The lioness's ears dropped. The news she held brought a lot of pain, discomfort even. She knew that Jicho and Kwaheri especially would be affected by it.
"It's Kopa..." She took a deep gulp of air, trying to hold her calm, maternal voice in balance. "He's disappeared, ran away!"
Jicho gasped, her feathers rattled by this revelation. Bunga, on the other hand, came down from his laughing high, rolling his eyes at the news.
"Who cares?" He flicked his claw to the side. "It's not like he was gonna stay anyway."
"Bunga!" Fuli arose from her slumber, her sharp green eyes slicing through the air towards the annoying honey badger, a flush of anger consuming her mind. "Shut up!" The honey badger did as he told, silencing as Nala looked on, her attention swaying between the gathered group of animals.
"That's not all." Her tone did not change. "He may be the father of Kuwinda's cubs."
"Wait! Kuwinda's pregnant?!" Beshte queried. His small, flabby ears stood on end, understandably shocked at the news he was hearing. The other members of the guard also shot up. Jicho understandably started to panic, her feathers rustled up.
"Oh no! We have to find him! NOW!" She started to flap around the room, panicking at the thought of Kopa's health, and safety.
Arising from his resting position, Kion approached Ono. A sense of duty overcame him. He stood proud and fierce as he glanced over to Ono, who stretched his wings out as he fluttered out of his nest.
"Ono, take a look!"
"Affirmative!" The egret saluted the lion cub before taking off to the sky. Though as he flew out the opening in the lair's roof, Jicho shot past him. She mumbled to herself.
"Got to find him. Got to find him." The eagle flew into the sky, her sharp eyesight scanned the landscape, hoping to see the dark-maned lion somewhere, anywhere.
From out of nowhere, a bright, blinding light shot through the opening in the lair's roof. The sound of a powerful, air-crackling roar echoed throughout the air. It sent a shiver through everyone's spine. Not long after, Jicho returned, even more fearful than before.
"Everyone! We need to move!" She flew slightly above them, the bright light only now started to fade, the roar silencing as the light faded in the sky.
"Why? What's going on, Jicho?" Nala shouted up, still a bit confused as to what was going on. Kion ran over to the others, concerned about the developing situation.
"That was Karimu's roar. I'd know it anywhere!" The eagle began to cry, with joy? Relief? She began to fly away, towards the southern area of the Outlands.
"Okay, Ono? Lead the way!" Kion ordered. Ono shot to his wings, flying up out of the lair's roof to allow the guard to follow the emotional eagle. As Ono flew up, Kion turned to the rest of his team, and his mother.
"Don't worry mum. We'll find them and bring Kopa back." Turning to the rest of the Guard, he smiled, ready to lead them with their familiar battle cry.
"’Till the Pridelands End..." The guard all called, sprinting out of the lair as one. Kion led the way, followed closely by Fuli who covered his left side. Bunga galloped at his right, followed closely by Beshte. Kwaheri even joined them, grasping his staff as he passed it, using it to lunge himself forward with every leap. "Lion Guard Defend!"
As the guard ran across the Pridelands, Nala watched from the lair's entrance. Just like every time she saw her son running off into danger, she felt her heart drop in her chest. "Stay safe, son." She whispered. Concern ebbed through her heart. She couldn't believe Kopa would just run off like this. But if Karimu was still alive, would he even care about Kuwinda anymore? Was she just a fling? A distraction from his pain? Surely not.
No! Kopa wasn't like that, Was he? She was certain he would return, he wouldn't give up on Kuwinda, even if he did find Karimu. He wasn't like any other lion. He was the Heart of the Pride, a legend across the savannah. It would be a risk, a gamble, but then again, Kopa was always a gamble.
If anyone could share their heart, it would be Kopa…