When the enemy came running across the plain, their ululations shattering the village stillness, their feet trampling the high grass, Zola was behind her hut, looking at a lioness cub that was looking at her.
She heard her mother’s cry, her father’s war shout, and then her big brother’s.
She heard the curses on their lips, and when she peeked around, the two of them were already engaged in fierce battle.
Her mother shouted her name, over and over, and then she screamed.
And then she stopped.
There was dead silence for a long moment, then the clustering chant of the enemy’s victory song, as they set her people’s huts on fire.
The lioness cub turned and ran into the tall grass to hide, and without knowing why, but sensing that she should, Zola ran after it.
Stopping, the cub turned and looked at the girl, and the girl stood and looked at the cub.
Behind her, the fires raged, and the smoke billowed and unfurled, rising high into a bright blue sky with a westering sun.
Zola felt her cheeks grow wet, and a sound escaped her that was somewhere between a sob and a scream, and the smells of burning flesh and acrid, bitter smoke filled her nostrils.
She fell to her knees, and covered her face with her hands.
As she keened, doubling over, she felt the brush of a rough touch on her hand, and peeked through wet fingers to find the cub lapping at her tears.
With trembling hands she reached out, and the cub took a step back, cautious, but she moved slowly, and somehow felt her lips begin to smile, to reassure it.
The cub waited, and its breath quickened as her hands wrapped gently around its sides, and she lifted it, cradling it in her arms.
It made a small sound deep in its throat, and snuggled close.
She heard voices; the enemy was looking through the high grass to see if any escaped.
Zola stood up, and ran deeper, into the trees surrounding her village clearing.
Surely, they would see the trampled grass, and follow her, but she could do nothing about it.
Just as she slipped behind a wide trunk, they emerged, moving the grass aside with the hafts of their spears.
“There is nothing here. We got them all.”
“Shall we cut trophies for ourselves?”
“I will not. I don’t like them, not even enough to carry around their parts to display, but I don’t think they’ll stop you.”
The second man sighed. “On second thought, no. I just wish to leave here. The fact that they are all dead now satisfies.”
“Then let’s be on our way.”
They left the clearing, and Zola seethed, her tears flowed afresh, hot on her flushed cheeks.
Her breathing was harsh, and her heart beat faster.
The lioness cub, sensing the change, looked up at her.
For a long time, they looked into each other’s eyes, and something seemed to transpire between them.
The cub sighed, and looked away, looking to get down.
Zola set it on the ground, but it didn’t run away.
“We have no one, now.”
The cub stared.
“It’s just you and me, and we must guard each other.”
The cub yawned and stretched.
“I am called Zola.”
The cub came toward her, looking up. Zola had gone on hunts before with her father, despite the protests of the men, and she’d never seen a lioness act this way, much less a cub.
“Clearly, something has happened to you. Are your parents gone as well?”
She shook her head, laughing at her childish expectation.
The cub came closer yet, still looking at her.
She sighed, not wanting to do what she did next, but a strong feeling of connection compelled her.
“What shall I call you?”
The lion cub was at her feet, looked down, and looked up again.
“You bow before me, to do honor. I will call you Folami.”
She lay down, at the cub's eye level, and it touched its nose to hers.
Zola touched its ear with a fingertip. “You are Folami, ‘honor me.’
It nipped at her finger, drawing blood, and she snatched it back, sucking the droplet that pooled on the tip.
“Blood seals all covenants, Folami. You are mine…”
She stood up, stretched, and began to walk into the tall grass, away from the smoke and ashes and smoldering flesh of her people, her mind already beginning to reel with thoughts of revenge, the lioness cub trailing in her wake.
“…and I am yours.”