She slipped through the darkness on silent feet. The horned moon above helped camouflage her form as she slinked through the tall grass without a single blade quivering to mark her passage.
The savanna night was as still as the pool of water up ahead. She wasn’t able to see or hear it but the increased moisture in the air tickled her whiskers and the scent of the multitude of beasts who’d been there before her filled her senses.
Tonight she was interested in only one creature, a young injured impala. She had her eye on it for days, ever since she saw it stumble over a fallen tree. It was limping and struggling to keep up with the herd. Tonight she was going to take it down, but not here.
The watering hole was sacred ground, neutral territory, where all animals could come to drink in peace. Drinkable water was too scarce for them to fight over. She’d wait until the small herd moved on. She could wait, she was patient.
She stalked through the grass, stepping out of the shadows and onto the bank of the pond. Her eyes reflected in the moonlight as she lowered her head, keeping her eyes trained on the impala not six meters away. She lapped at the water, watching as the impalas realized she was there. They lifted their heads as one and stared at her, waiting for her to make the first move.
She shuttered her eyes before turning and leaving. Playing with her prey was foolish but she took joy in toying with them. As she padded through the tall grass she made enough noise to wake a flock of birds nesting amongst the blades. As they flew away with raucous cries the herd of impalas took off, their instinct to flee greater than their need for water.
This was the opportunity she’d been looking for. She took off after them, keeping low to the ground, though her tail whipped through the air. The herd was much faster than her but she counted on that with the expectation the injured impala couldn’t keep up with them any more than she could.
She wasn’t wrong. With a swift leap, she grabbed the injured animal by the throat and squeezed with all the strength in her muscular jaws. She dragged it to the ground as it struggled, kicking out at her with its last breath. She easily avoided its death throes.
Within a minute, it was all over. She released the dead animal and stood panting over it. It was an otherwise healthy impala, unlike the very young or old she usually captured. This was a good kill and she was proud of it.
Her hunt hadn’t remained unnoticed by other denizens of the savanna, though. Her ears picked up the cackle of a hyena pack less than half a klick away. She needed to secure her prey before they reached her.
The impala weighed more than she did but she was used to hunting and moving large kills. She grabbed a hold of its throat once again and began dragging it to the nearest tree. It looked like an impossible task for the small leopard but she was strong and determined.
Her strong jaws sunk deeply into the neck of the dead animal. She leapt onto the trunk of the nearest baobab tree, her powerful front legs and claws digging into the bark. She scrambled up the tree, hauling the impala’s body along with her. The nearest branch was nine meters above her and she could hear the hyenas snuffling at the base of the tree, giggling and yipping. She concentrated on reaching the branch, ignoring the strain in her muscles and jaws. She was not going to drop the impala and give the scavengers below a free meal.
She pulled herself and the impala into the wide crotch of the baobab tree, tugging and pulling at her kill until it was secure. She stared down at the small pack of hyenas on the ground beneath her. Their eyes glowed yellow in light of the moon behind her and she counted six of the ravenous beasts. She growled a warning at them. This was her territory and they weren’t welcome.
They howled and laughed, taunting her. The high pitched sounds drew her ears back flat against her head. She stood up and roared.
It got very quiet at the foot of the baobab tree. The leopard relaxed and laid down on top of her meal as she listened to the pack of hyenas slip away into the darkness, leaving a waning trail of barks and chortles to mark their departure.
Her sharp ears picked up the ominous sound of thunder in the far off distance. She sniffed the air but there was no hint of wind or rain in it. She leapt from the tree. The hyenas may have gone, but they could be back. She slithered through the grass as if she was one with it. Her spots and stealth making her invisible to anything watching.
She loped through the grass, knowing exactly where she was going but taking a circuitous route in case something was tracking her. When she reached a mound of boulders hidden within a thicket of acacia trees she let out a sharp mew.
Two cubs, less than three months old, tumbled out from a crevasse between the rocks, one as spotted as her mother and the other as black as the night. They plowed into the leopard, meowing and grunting as they pushed their heads against her and nuzzled her.
She licked the tops of their fuzzy heads before swatting them lightly away from her. She rumbled at them and turned tail, expecting them to follow her.
She led them to the baobab where she’d stashed her prey. The black male scented the fresh kill on the increasing wind and clambered up the tree without urging. The leopard gave the smaller female a nudge with her nose to get her started and soon she was clawing her way up as well. The leopard followed her offspring to the crook in the tree. She found them tearing into the impala, growling and snarling as they ripped into the soft underbelly of the antelope. She rumbled in satisfaction as she watched them feed.
She lapped up blood that spilled down the side of the tree, waiting for the cubs to eat their fill before she filled her stomach. It didn’t take them long since they were still so small. The two cubs crawled out onto a thick branch, their bellies distended from gorging themselves. They made little satisfied noises that made the leopard grumble with contentment.
She tore mouthfuls of the flesh with her strong jaws, swallowing it down, barely tasting the tender meat. She hadn’t fed in days, waiting for right opportunity to bring down a sizable enough prey to feed her and the cubs.
She was concerned about the female. She wasn’t thriving and was nearly half the size of the male. She’d lost young ones before and it was always hard. She didn’t want to lose this small female if she could prevent it.
She lifted her head in mid-bite. There was something in the air, something coming. She turned and looked west. The horizon was lit up like the rising sun but it was too early for dawn and not in the east. She sniffed the night and a wisp of acrid smoke furled around her whiskers like spider silk.
She leapt to her feet with a roar, startling the two younglings. The male rolled over and got his paws settled underneath him but the female had a harder time at it. The leopard reached over and grabbed the cub by the nap of the neck and scrambled out of the tree. She could hear the male behind her, struggling. She trusted him to be strong enough to keep up with her but the female wasn’t.
Fire was one of the deadliest things on the savanna. It spread quickly, fueled by the dry grass, and burned out slowly with nothing in the way to stop it. The leopard had seen one once before when she was a cub and the destructive power of it had stayed with her.
Panic flared across the savanna as fast as the fire as other residents realized what was coming and tried to out run it. Hundreds of impala and gazelles leapt past her, their thin legs carrying them out of the danger more quickly than she could move. She could hear other animals migrating eastward, the herds of zebras and elephants made the ground shake, while monkeys, mongoose, snakes and smaller vermin skittering through the grass. The other carnivore were there, too. The cries of the hyenas were hard to miss as were the roars of the great lions. She tried to ignore them all and concentrate on the cub hanging from her mouth and the one she hoped was still behind her. She was fast enough to avoid being trampled, but he could be hurt.
The sky was as light as day and smoke crept through the grass like a predator. She couldn’t feel the heat of the fire yet but she knew it was only a matter of time.
She headed directly to the watering hole. The cubs could swim and they’d be safe from the fire within its shallow depths. She’d worry about herself once they were secure.
She reached the edge of the pool and dropped the female on the bank. She licked the cub across the face before pushing her into the water with an swat on the rump. The cub mewed for a moment but then began to swim. She swam out to the middle of the pool to a waterlogged limb. She dug into it with her claws and hung onto it.
The leopard watched just long enough to see that she was going to make it before turning tail and heading back toward the tree, looking for her other cub.
The fire was close enough she could feel the heat of it through the thick veil of smoke. It lit up the night but didn’t make finding the cub any easier. She called out to him, hoping he’d hear her over the crackle of the flames and the stampede of animals.
The smoke created false shadows and trails and she got turned around and confused. Soon she was surrounded by flames and she still hadn’t found her missing cub. Her heart raced and she panted, trying to get enough air to breathe but ending up with lungs full of smoke. She was on the verge of collapse when she heard it: a tiny mew from a pile of rocks off to the south of her.
The fire already swept its way through the area leaving behind blackened ground and fiery embers. She slowly picked her way around the worst of the still smoldering grass, her paws blistering from the heat. She growled low in her chest but kept going despite the pain. Her cub needed her.
When she reached the rocks she chuffed, both to get smoke out of her lungs and to let the cub know she was there.
The rocks rumbled and moved. The leopard took a step backward as the little black male dug himself out from under the rocks and sand. He looked up at her, his eyes shining in the light of the flames surrounding them. She leaned down and pressed her muzzle against his side, reassuring herself that he was alright and drinking in the scent of him. Her heart filled with pride at his survival instincts. If they could make it to the watering hole, he’d be alright.
He mewed and she licked him across the top of the head before grabbing him by the scruff of the neck to carry him to safety. She turned to leave only to realize she didn’t know which way to go. The fire had altered the landscape and the smoke hide any markers she could use to find her way back to the pond.
She raised her muzzle to the sky, trying to scent water. The only things she could smell were byproducts of the fire. Ash swirled around her catching in her whiskers and making her coat as dark as the fur of the male in her grasp.
A stray breeze parted the smoke and she saw the crescent moon above her. It gave her direction and settled the panic within. She turned and let its light guide her. She stepped gingerly, the pads of her feet a mass of blisters, but the need to protect her young was stronger than her pain.
The moon lead her straight into the fire. She pulled back away from the flames, fearing for her life and that of her cubs. She walked around the the perimeter of the flames, hoping to find a safe opening down to the water. There wasn’t one.
By this time her lungs were burning from breathing in smoke and her legs were trembling. She knew she had very little time left to save the black male. They’d made it this far and she wasn’t about to let him die now.
She couldn’t get a running start due to her injuries but there was enough power in her legs to make a leap of faith through the flames and into the water on the other side. With a running start she could easily clear five meters and from what she could see between the flicker of the flames, the watering hole was less that two meters from the flames.
She meowed around the cub in her mouth to check on him. He mewed back at her, assuring her that he was alive. She tightened her grip on him, her teeth digging into the rolls of flesh at his neck yet she didn’t draw blood.
She sucked in as much polluted air as she could into her screaming lungs and pounced, her back legs springing her through the fire and into the water on the other side. She slid as she hit the bottom of the pond and she scrambled to remain upright and not drop the cub.
The water brought relief to her burns and the sight of the female cub, still valiantly clinging to her branch, brought her even more comfort. The leopard paddled over to her, carefully draping the male over the log. He promptly slid off it and landed in the water with a splash. Before his mother could react, he reached the side of the limb and clawed his way onto it, settling beside his litter mate.
The leopard licked the female in greeting, murmuring at her. The cub mewed as her mother licked her damp fur. The leopard smoothed down the male’s wet coat, continuing to make comforting noises at her offspring, as she tried to ignore the pain in her lungs and her increasing inability to breathe.
The fire was all around the watering hole and the winds were picking up, drawing the smoke over them. She pushed the heads of the cubs down, close to the water so they wouldn’t inhale too much of the deadly fumes.
It was too late for her, though, and she knew it. She panted heavily as her breathing became even more labored. Each breath she took felt like something was clawing its way out of her chest. She licked the cubs one last time before swimming to shore.
She walked up onto the bank and looked over she shoulder at her cubs. They were clinging to the deadwood and staring at her with wide, scared eyes. She let out a weak roar of reassurance before stepping into the fire to meet her death head on.
The last thing she noticed before the smoke inhalation and flames consumed her was a rumble of thunder above and the promise of rain in the air.