This is dedicated to and written for my mother, who is and always will be the fiercest lioness I know.
She not only gave me the gift of life, but gave me another priceless gift: she nourished me with stories and words from a young age, and always made sure our bookshelf was overflowing with dragons, villains and imagined worlds. It is thanks to her that I can write, and it is thanks to her that I weave new worlds from the void.
The Lioness In Winter
There was once a lioness who lived in a cold, dry land. Her mothers and fathers many litters back had been Rexes and Reginas of their pride, but she was far from her birth land, and her pride brothers and sisters lived far from her lair.
One summer night, her mate left. At first, the lioness was distraught. She had two cubs to rear; how was she to hunt and defend her lair without her mate’s help?
Many moons passed. One summer, then two summers, then three. The lioness grew accustomed to hunting alone, and found, to her surprise and delight, that she was strong. The Great Lion Beyond The Sea seemed to smile upon each of her hunts, and her cubs grew strong too, with thick, glossy coats. She found that she was stronger than she had been with her mate. Perhaps I was meant to hunt alone, thought the lioness. But she knew this to be untrue: one look at her cubs, and she knew she would never feel alone again.
The lioness worried about her cubs sometimes, as all lionesses do. She worried that they would grow sick and weak; she worried that they would fall to a poacher’s snare; she worried that they would not find a mate who was worthy to hunt beside them. Two female cubs are no mean task, she found herself thinking, as summer after summer passed and her cubs were nearer to being full-grown lionesses.
The trouble began after one unnaturally long, hot summer. The creatures of stream and vale, the grass-eaters and the tunnel-diggers, were pleased with the long summer, but the lioness was not. She had a longer memory than those creatures, and she knew that the summer should not last for so many moons. She feared the winter would be cruel and lean.
When the last of the fiery red autumn leaves had fallen, long after the largest moon of the year, the Long Winter began. Never had the land seen such a heartless, bitter winter. The grass-eaters fell like shrivelled leaves, and had little more flesh on them than the leaves under several paws of snow. Even the corpse-eaters did not fight over the fallen, so meagre was their flesh.
The lioness knew that her cubs were doomed to fall just as the autumn leaves had fallen, if she did not think of a way to save them. She, too, grew weaker with each moon, and knew that their days were numbered.
An unexpected visitor gave the lioness a ray of hope on a cold, bleak morning that was bleaker and colder than most. It was a shaggy grey wolf of the black forests in the far north, who was a very long way from home indeed.
“What brings you to these lands, Wolf?” asked the lioness.
“Our lands are barren, and the pack starves, Lioness,” said the wolf mournfully. “The deer and rabbits fall to the frost, wrapped in ice so we may not even eat the remains. I came south in search of better hunting, but I see that it is not so.”
The lioness knew that her lean frame was testament to the poor offerings of her land. She also knew that she and her cubs had to find new hunting lands or they would all be crushed by the cold fingers of winter before the ice melted.
“Wolf, I have an idea. You may think it strange, but it may help my cubs and your pack survive this winter.”
The wolf’s ears pricked up at that. He was a sensible fellow, which was why his Alpha had sent him south to scout.
“I would hear this strange idea, Lioness,” he said.
The lionesses’ cubs were newly awake, and they bounded out of the lair to investigate the strange, earthy wolf-smell. Their amber eyes grew round and large at the sight of the wolf, but they did not show any fear, nor did they run back into the lair. After all, they could smell no fear on their mother, and if she was unafraid, they would be too.
The lioness outlined her plan, silently asking the Great Lion Beyond The Sea to breathe life into her words, for the lives of her cubs hung in the balance.
“Wolf, as you see, I have two cubs, almost full grown. The land here is poor in the Hunt, for the grass-eaters here have succumbed to this winter and grow fewer with each sun-path. It is warmer in the far south, where winter does not touch the land, and the grass-eaters are fat and plentiful.”
The wolf was very interested to hear what the lioness would say next, so he did not interrupt, although he had many questions.
“The journey to the far south is perilous,” the lioness continued. “Many prides of lions live here, and they will not treat a wandering pack kindly. It may be that they will not allow you to pass. Yet that is the only way to the far south, and your pack and my cubs will all enter the Shadowlands before the rivers flow again if we do not reach the far south. My thought is this: travel to the far south with me and my cubs – your pack and my family. I will speak with the prides that we meet on our journey south; either I will win us free passage, or I will persuade them to join us on our journey.”
The wolf considered this for several long moments. “This idea of yours is passing strange, Lioness. Wolf and lion do not hunt together.”
The lioness was not going to give up so easily. She also knew that no wolf with half a tail of self-respect would readily agree to hunt with lion before some show of protest.
“The way south is treacherous, Wolf. Even if your pack fights the ten score prides from here to the White Cliffs, you will lose at least half your pack doing so. In the forests between the White Cliffs and the far south are fearsome hunters like you and I; tigers, great serpents that will swallow a cub whole, and spiders large as your paw that will cripple you with one bite. There is strength in the numbers of pack and pride: you wolves know this best of all.”
The wolf pawed at the ground, considering the truth of the lionesses’ words.
“Your words carry wisdom, Lioness, no matter how strange they might be. I will bring your message to my Alpha. Look for me on the new moon.”
The wolf sprinted away, and after a few breaths the lioness and her cubs could not tell snow from wolf.
The new moon came and went, and the lioness and her cubs grew ever leaner. The lioness instructed her cubs to eat her remains and journey south, should she enter the Shadowlands before them, but they refused. The next new moon brought more aching hunger – and howls.
The howls of ten score wolves, lean, grey and solemn, flying across the biting, cold ground on velvet paws. The lioness told her cubs to stay in the lair; if the wolves brought tooth and claw instead of friendship, she would sell her life as dearly as possible before they touched her cubs. The wolf who had turned up on that cold, bleak morning greeted her as an old friend, in the way of wolves, and the lioness knew that her words had gained favour with the Alpha.
“We were delayed, Lioness. The way here was not easy, and other hunters did not grant us passage through their lands willingly. My Alpha will speak with you now.”
The Alpha of the pack padded forward on enormous paws. The lioness had never seen a wolf so large, nor so dignified.
“Lioness,” the Alpha said, in a voice that sounded like boulders crashing, “Well met. Grey Shadow has told me of your idea. It is strange, but it is also good; let us seek the south together.”
“Well met, Alpha,” the lioness said. “May the Hunt be plentiful, and the summer long.”
After gathering her cubs, the lioness left their lair with the pack. From then until the next new moon, they crossed the lands of many lion prides. All wanted to challenge the pack at first sight, but all decided to travel south peacefully with the pack after the lioness spoke with them. All were hungry.
Wolf and lion soon found that they hunted well together. No grass-eater could escape the speed of the lions as well as the cleverness of the wolves. By the next new moon, pride and pack were less lean and weak, and their coats were growing glossy again. New cubs in pack and pride were birthed once more, and there was much rejoicing.
When the frozen lakes of the pack’s home lands began to weep, pride and pack had finally reached the far south. All creatures in the far south feared and respected the strange friendship of the lion and the wolf; the tiger, the serpent and the spider all kept their distance.
One balmy afternoon, the Alpha lay next to the lioness, feeling content. The Hunt had been good the night before, and his youngest litter was strong and healthy.
“Regina,” the Alpha said, “You have my thanks and the thanks of the pack for saving lion and wolf from the Shadowlands. The Great Lion Beyond The Sea has smiled upon our journey, and pack and pride grow strong and numerous in this new land.”
The lioness watched with joy as her cubs, now no longer cubs but full-grown lionesses, wrestled with lions from the pride, of which she was now Regina.
“The Great Lion Beyond the Sea has been merciful and generous to pack and pride,” the lioness agreed, yawning (you must not think the lioness rude for yawning; among her kind, yawns are not rude at all, and are part of a friendly conversation). “However, it was His doing and not mine that saved pack and pride from the Shadowlands.”
The Alpha watched, amused by the sight of his cubs wrestling and playing with lion cubs. It was good.
“Tell me, Regina,” the Alpha said, “Would you have suggested this journey south, this strange friendship of pack and pride, had it not been for your starving cubs?”
The lioness considered the question. She had not given much thought to the what-ifs; she could not imagine life without her cubs – her lionesses, now. They had much to learn still, but they had many summers to learn, and she had taught them all she could of life and of the Hunt.
“I cannot say, Alpha,” the lioness finally replied. “I think it is unlikely, and the winter would have one more fallen hunter in its cruel grasp, had I not my hungry cubs to feed.”
The Alpha’s ears twitched slightly. He laughed a wolf laugh, which sounds terrifying if you are unaccustomed to wolf laughter.
“It is good, then, that your cubs have so fierce and wise a mother. For you have shown that nothing, not even famine, death, and winter, can come between a lioness and her cubs.”
The words were sweet to the lionesses’ ears, and she realized, as she watched her lionesses wrestle in the warm southern sun, that the wolf’s words were true. Nothing could come between this lioness and her cubs.