The cries of a child awoke Kioja from a sound sleep. She raised her head, the breeze ruffling the long strands of her incoming ‘mane’, and swiveled her one good ear, trying to pinpoint where the sound was coming from. Beside her, Jangwa stirred, yawning as he came awake at her sudden movement.
“What is it, Kioja?” he asked, voice still slurred with sleep. “Whatsa matter?”
“I hear something. Be quiet for a moment,” she replied, her eye alert and darting around. Had a pridsister come out this far to whelp a litter?
The white cub next to her went still, eyes widening with fear and coming awake fully as if doused by cold water. If he was spotted in the ‘monster’s’ company, his father would skin him alive. The Misborn were forbidden for him to interact with, and Kioja was very clearly one of them; it was why any time they spent together had to take place so far away from the prying eyes of the pride. Nighttimes was easiest, since King Kirai slept then, caring not where his son did, and thus Nusu could always let him go off to be with Kioja if he wished. Such was how it had been tonight – he had opted to sleep with Kioja rather than his mother. Nusu certainly didn’t begrudge him that nor get jealous. But Kirai… if anyone saw and told Kirai, Jangwa was dead. So the very idea that someone else might be nearby filled his young heart with blackest dread.
After a minute or two of tense silence, both young lions rigid with the need to flee – but fearing picking the wrong direction and running right into the one they sought to avoid – when the sound came again. A thin, reedy wail. It was filled with terror and was immediately joined by a second, almost identical cry. Two cubs, then, Kioja decided. To the west. If they went the opposite direction, they should be alright. She nudged Jangwa to his feet, instructing him to keep low to the ground, and make as little nose as possible. They had taken the first steps away when a new sound came to her ear: A deep male rumble, growling harsh.
“Shut up! Shut up, you filthy little horror!”
The little twin cries cut off, and Kioja could imagine the angry voice shaking them. Anger filled her. Which of her foul uncles was abusing a couple of babies? Stones, it could even be her own father, for all she knew, the bastard. She changed course, slinking towards the commotion, Jangwa hissing at her to come back. She whispered over her shoulder for him to stay back while she went to have a look. He crouched down into the grass, looking scared and forlorn, eyes huge in the darkness. She felt a twinge at leaving him, but she didn’t want to risk him if she got caught, since it would go worse on him than her.
As she neared the spot the sound came from, she sank to her belly, inching her way forward and dragging her fur through the dirt and rocks and grass. A few meters ahead of her, looming above on the rise of a hill, stood the large bulk of Parara, the moron serving as Kirai’s muscle. In front of his paws squirmed a ragged bundle of white, obviously the cubs he’d tossed there after shaking them. They made tiny mewling sounds, and Parara snarled again for them to be quiet. “Shut your… your…. mouths, or I swear by the Stars above I’ll shut them permanently!” He made a flinching move forward, as if to strike, but wavered and wobbled, as if unable to make himself do it. He let out a bellow of frustration, then turned his head to the sky. “Holy Spirit In The Sky! Hear me! Take this child, this Misborn scrap of flesh – take it back from whence it came! End its sorry existence, and take it back!”
His words startled Kioja – a Misborn? It was then that she realized where they were: Duni’s Hillside, the place the pride left Misborns, in the hopes that She and the Great Spirit would reclaim those born… different. Anger suffused her body, and had she been of a size to do so, she would have killed her uncle where he stood, but as it was, she could only watch as he gave the cubs one last shove of his heavy paw, and then left, abandoning them to what he knew would be certain death. He left them to starve, to fade away in the cold and the dark, as if they didn’t matter, as if they didn’t live. Her body trembled with all that stifled rage, and she hated her people as she never had before. She’d never had to witness this cruel practice herself, and now that she did, she determined that here it would end.
As soon as she was sure Parara was long gone, Kioja stood up and trotted to where the white pile lay. It was kicking about feebly, and from size and smell, she knew they had to be newborns. Newborns! As she looked them over, she realized she was using the wrong pronoun -- they were one animal. One animal, but two heads. Yes, definitely a Misborn then, and it explained why Parara had talked of it in the singular, rather than the plural. She bent down to snuffle at the child, and felt movement beside her, on her blind side. She jerked to look at what was beside her, but it was only Jangwa. “Thought I said to stay back there?” she snapped. She wasn’t really angry at him, but it came out that way through her feelings about what she had seen.
Jangwa ignored her tone, his eyes glued to the squirming body of the two-headed baby. “What… where…?” He looked up at Kioja. “Why did Uncle Parara leave it? It’ll die out here!” His eyes were sad and pain-filled, surely mirroring Kioja’s own. She sighed in a huff.
“He’s a jerk, and a judgmental ass, that’s why.”
“But… But it’s just a baby!”
Kioja looked at her cousin. The little white cub had tiny tears in his eyes, as he looked at her. She patted him on the head with one large paw. “Don’t worry, we won’t let it die.” She bent down again, nudging the child with her nose to roll it over on its side. Well, it was a ‘he’. Or maybe it really was a ‘them’? Both heads seemed to move independently of one another, crying at different times and looking different directions – except once they’d focused on her, whereupon they both squalled at her in tandem, mouths large ‘O’s of wailing need. She understood about babies, and they were telling her what she already knew: they needed milk.
She gently eased them back onto their belly, and probed on their back from a place to pick them up from. Their scruffs were out, since she feared too much pressure on the bifurcated spine would snap it, so she settled on wrapping her mouth as softly as she could around their whole midsection. Jangwa tilted his head at her.
“Where you going to take it? Won’t the pride just put it back out here again if we go to them?”
Good questions, and like him, she knew other lions weren’t the answer. Well, how about some non-lions, then? She’d hung around the hyena clan a few times, and they seemed to have less of an issue with Misborns than the lions did. Oh, they still didn’t like them or feel comfortable around them, but they weren’t so outright hostile as the pride was. She moved in that direction, Jangwa keeping close to her heels, asking over and over where they were going. She couldn’t talk around the cubs she carried, and he’d figure it out on his own soon enough, so she settled for bumping him with her hip and frowning at him. The message was clear: “keep your voice down, I can’t answer you, fool”. The rest of the walk was quiet, Jangwa running ahead to scout the way once he’d made the connection with the direction they were taking. Kioja let him do it, simply because lions didn’t sleep near the clan – so he wouldn’t be seen anyway – and because she knew he needed to feel useful.
The grumbling sounds of snoring and yipping greeted her ears soon enough, and once they heard her and Jangwa’s pawsteps, those of the clan on sentry duty came out to greet her. They bowed to their Crown Prince, giving him their proper obeisance first, as always, then turned to Kioja and what she held. They were taken aback at the sight of a two-headed newborn lion, but they recovered quickly, guessing at what Kioja wanted in regards to it. They led her to where a female slept, her own babe huddled close to her stomach, and woke her. Little explanation was needed, and although her face made a moue of distaste, she allowed Kioja to put the cub next to her, where he immediately sought out and clamped onto a teat. Thanking her, and promising to come back often to see the cub, Kioja and Jangwa took their leave of the back. They had done all they could, and now it was up to nature and fate if the child lived long enough to be weaned.
And survive they did.
Although not yet an adult herself, Kioja chose to become a mother to the two-headed child, and when it became apparent that each head was indeed its own individual personality, she gave them each a separate name. The stronger and more dominant head she called Yeyuka, and the weaker became Bonyea. She took them in as her once they were able to eat solids, and raised them as best an outcasted young lioness could. Despite initial misgivings about their chances for living past their first birthday, the pair thrived under her care, and saw more than just one year pass for them. For her part, Kioja liked being a ‘mother’. It had a different feel to it than being friends with someone did, and since as time passed, Jangwa could be with her less and less, it also helped ease the ache of loneliness she felt at his absence. The twins weren’t all fun, though – like all kids, they got into trouble, and they absolutely hated that they couldn’t go down to mingle with others their age.
“It’s so stupid!” Yeyuka would whine. “We’re not that different from them! It’s just not fair!” And of course, as always, Bonyea would nod his agreement with his brother.
No matter how much Kioja stressed to them that the pride hated anyone who didn’t have the correct number of limbs – or heads – the two sulked every time it was explained. For a pair raised by a lion with similar irregular features, and for whom it was a normal thing, this was hard to swallow. Why was everyone so judgmental, when they had been taught not to be? On the occasions he could get away to visit, Jangwa found himself badgered mercilessly by the twins to ‘tell Mom it isn’t so’, and he hated that each time, he had to say it was so. It didn’t help that he wasn’t all that much older than the twins, and so they thought he should automatically side with them. He couldn’t. Kirai was too dangerous for it to be know the twins existed.
“But we want a friend!” was Bonyea’s complaint, and it wasn’t an unreasonable request. Not in the slightest – it had always been Kioja’s own wish when she was younger, after all, and now it was what she longed to be able to give her sons. Perhaps, for once, the Great Spirit listened to Kioja’s prayers, because it was not long after the twin’s fourth birthday that a friend did indeed appear.
Kioja had left the Yeyuka and Bonyea in the care of ‘granny’ Nusu, and had headed down towards the place the hyena clan had once camped. Some time ago -- after having given away Kioja’s brother to another kingdom as a Betrothal -- Kirai had driven them all out, he and his brothers chasing them away to try and avert some stupid prophecy or some such nonsense. Now, the area they had once called home was a scattered refuse pile where the pride threw their leavings: old bones, hunks of inedible gristle, tough hides, feces, and the like. But the pride was also wasteful of meat as well, and more often than not, Kioja could scrounge up meals for herself and her charges simply by picking over the stinking piles. Nusu and Jangwa brought what they could, but Kirai was a tight-fisted ass and sneaking food off into the hills was always sure to bring down his attention, which was something Kioja and the twins couldn’t afford. So the refuse piles it was, and as long as she kept in mind it could be worse – she could starve – she didn’t mind so much that her meals came from others’ leavings.
To get to that particular area, Kioja always had to pass by Duni’s Hillside, and though she had always spared a look on its crown, she never found another cub there. Nusu told her Kirai had forbidden the practice as ‘silly’, and instead had ordered mothers to kill outright any Misborn cubs that didn’t die at birth as a way to ‘teach them to not bear such mutants’. Sometimes Kioja found their tiny newborn bodies in the same pile she searched for food, and it always stabbed her right through the heart to see them there. Every time was as hard as the first, and she made it a point to take them away and bury them in a nice section of grassland nearby; these children weren’t garbage, and shouldn’t lie in eternal rest among it.
Today was no different, and Kioja spared a look at Duni’s Hill as she passed, but today the sounds she always pricked her ear to listen for came not from the Hill, but from some distance away, towards the border. Heart in her throat she galloped to where the cries were issuing from, and gasped at seeing a little white cub pinned by its tail under a rock. The child’s face was a smeary mess of tears – both faces, that is, for it had another half-formed face jutting from its left cheek – and upon seeing her the child called out plaintively for her, begging for help and crying over and over that he'll be good, that he'll stop doing whatever it was he did that made his mother leave him out here.
Kioja, surprisingly, knows who this child is: it was Kauleni, the poor thing born to her uncle Poteze via a terrible forced mating on another Misborn lioness called Lipize. Nusu had told her about it, saying King Kirai had ordered that Kauleni was not to be harmed, that his mother had to raise and keep him, as punishment for breeding Poteza. Kioja had hoped that Lipizi would come to love her son, and perhaps give him a good home, but it was clear now that was not the case. Kioja felt deep anger than any mother could do this, even as she felt pity for the same female for how the child was conceived. It wasn’t fair to either Lipizi or Kauleni that things had been so, but still – Lipizi had been Misborn, and so should know the pain of being one, of the ostracization, and so Kioja couldn’t forgive how easily she fell into everyone else’s shunning of them, or how she had so callously left her son here to die.
Once freed, Kauleni clung to Kioja so hard she couldn’t remove him and had to walk home with him wrapped around her foreleg, wetting her fur with his weeping. She spoke softly to him the whole way, letting him know she would not abandon him like his mother had, but she knew that any trust he would give her would have to come in time. The emotional scars would surely be deep, even in one so young and barely weaned. They surely must.
Kauleni slowly unwound from her leg once he was among the twins and Nusu, and hid himself in the fur of Nusu’s belly, squeaking in fits and starts as she licked her rear end, the only piece of him still sticking out. The twins wanted to see him, wanted to know what was going on, wanted him to not be a ‘baby’, and luckily for Kioja’s wits, Jangwa chose that moment to come for a visit, and Kioja shoved them on him. “Go play with these two, would you?” she asked, and Jangwa didn’t argue. He could see the cub underneath his mother, and hear the frustration in his friend’s voice, so he went, dragging a reluctant and whining Yeyuka and Bonyea with him.
Many hours later, after constant soothing and coaxing, the little boy dared poke his head out. But he kept his face – his second, dead face – hidden in Nusu’s fur. Like Kioja, he had only one working eye, and he kept that trained on her, wide and terribly sad. Knowing her had to be hungry, Kioja again left to scrounge up some food, taking the twins with her this time so Jangwa could get a reprieve, and they whine the whole way about being left out of meeting the new child their mother had brought home. Kioja explained to them as best she could, and they were horrified at what had happened to little Kauleni.
“Now you see what I mean when I say the pride is cruel to Misborns like us? This is what they consider ‘mercy’, so only imagine what they would do to you,” she said gravely, and for the fist time, her words sank in. They said no more on the subject, and when they returned to the small cave they all lived in, Yeyuka and Bonyea didn’t press or fuss, simply asked if they could come near Kauleni, if they could hold him. “Only if he wants you to,” Kioja and Nusu warned them, and surprisingly, he did. Maybe he found it easier to relate to someone else roughly his age, ones who also shared a similar sad physical situation.
Whatever the case, Kauleni clung to Yeyuka and Bonyea for the next week or two, holding their paw with his own even while they ate or slept. Oh, he eventually warmed up to Nusu and at Kioja and came to care for them as deeply any child can, but clearly the twins were the ones he trusted most and wanted to be around. On their part, the twins seemed to mature before their mother’s eyes, and they were careful with their new baby ‘brother’, even as they excitedly showed him how to play all sorts of games. It made Kioja and Nusu smile to watch them as they chased each other around the grass or climbed trees or pushed one another into the lakes and streams. Kioja never let them out of her sight if she could help it, but she kept her distance, letting Kauleni heal in his own way, at his own pace, among those he picked to share company with, and she felt no jealousy at the fact that it was the twins he mostly did it with – she knew she was an ‘adult’, and it had been an adult that had betrayed him before. It would take time for him come to trust her the way he did his new ‘brothers’. And what mattered right now was one simple thing:
The twins had gotten that friend she had prayed for them for.
LOOKIE AT THIS -- Rinja posted another portion for you all! HUZZAH! I hopes it satisfies!
As a side note, I suck at infant lions at the best of times, and doing a two-headed one was murder. Turned out all wonky and weird. Dammit.
**DAMN MY EYES! Forgot to say: Kioja is about 6/7 years older than Jangwa, and is about 13/14 when she finds the twins. Just so ya know how old she is in the picture here. :3 (She's about 17/18 when she finds Kauleni)
Kioja, Jangwa, Yeyuka&Bonyea, story, and all art © me.
Please do not copy, alter, trace, or reproduce in any way, shape, or form without written permission from me. Thank you.