The Loneliness of Lions by Sarah Philpott

Once, when Arawn was a boy, his mother told him a story from her homeland. He remembered it vividly, as it was the first—and only—piece of her culture she gave to him before she died. It was the story of a man exiled from his people and a beast driven out by his own kind, and how they hunted each other across the plains.

Arawn thought of this story as his meager fire provided little warmth against the winter chill, the breeze dancing easily between the trees and stealing whatever warmth Arawn managed to gather as he lay against a tall, pale birch tree, the bark digging into his back through his leather coat. He thought of that little tale as he sat on the mossy earth hard with ice and looked out into the swamp’s hazy horizon, the light from his fire giving only so much visibility as the monster in the water stared at him, eyes unnaturally reflecting the flicker of flames.

The little one, as he named her, was a pup of a much more dangerous creature—a Marshland-Woman. She was pale skinned, the same shade as the dead birch trees that lined the edge of the marshland, with hair as black as the shallows she lingered in, and though he could not tell where the waters ended and her hair began, there was no hiding the youth in her features. She had yet to sing, to try and lull him into waters that would prove fatal even without the little one to eat him whole. Of course, as a Mountain-Man, Arawn was fairly immune to such soul songs, and he wondered if the little one knew that, if it was cunning that stayed her hand, or if she was just curious and had no inkling as to the danger she was in.

At first, Arawn had hoped that by ignoring her, the little one would either go away or attempt to attack him, and he could forget his mother’s stories, forget the sadness in her voice as she told him of a forbidden part of her, her culture and heritage locked away by a husband who, despite all their disagreements, would die defending her. Arawn shoved those memories away, still staring at the little one, but she didn’t fade back into the shadows like he wanted her to, nor did she speak like he wished she would, and there was nothing he could do while she stayed in the icy waters.

Arawn knew better than to think himself the stronger predator, not here, not in this place. He was a Mountain-Man. His hunting grounds were where his jet black skin faded into the shadows of the earth, where the horizon stretched for miles and miles and he could see as clearly as any hawk in the sky, where his people built kingdoms into the caves and the walls were lined with gemstones. Where his mother built a garden out of jagged rock and green spread wherever she went, where she smiled softly as she sang songs in a foreign tongue. Where his uncle burned everything down and Arawn fled like a coward to the Dying Lands.

It was the little one’s movement that jolted him away from such thoughts. She crept ever closer, bit by bit, and in response he turned his full attention on to her. She stopped, ducking a smidge back into the water, but to his surprise, the little one did not look away. They stared at each other, the winter air bouncing between them as the sky braced for a yet unbroken storm, and while they were both predators, both monsters, Arawn was the older of the two, tempered and tested, and the Marshland pup was the first to break contact. Her eyes shifted to his fire, turning to a harsher orange, still reflecting the small flames that had taken far too long to make.

The little one turned her gaze back to him, and once more she began to creep onto the bank, eyes never leaving his. The icy earth cracked under her weight, and the little one looked down and blinked at the noise, head tilted as she dug her fingers into the mud and moss and leaves, hair swaying with the winter breeze and dripping with the marsh waters, and when she looked up at him, her eyes were wide and gleeful, grinning like something amazing had happened. Arawn stared, unsure what to do, because a part of him wanted to chase the little one off, teach her that no one was safe and the swamp would eat her alive if she thought so, but it had been so long since Arawn had an interaction that was not marred in malice, in the intent to harm and to hurt, and at his lack of reaction, the little one climbed farther onto the bank.

As he watched her, Arawn debated if her obliviousness was planned or not. It was how his people hunted after all, misdirection and charisma and using their words as hooks to fool even the wariest of travelers. As far as he knew, the little one was lulling him into a false sense of security so that she could use his arrogance against him. And yet… logic and heart told him otherwise. No Matron or Mother would ever risk a pup near a Mountain-Man, and no experienced hunter would ever willingly get so close to another predator.

Too easily, Arawn remembered his mother’s tale, spoken in a hushed voice as she weaved her hands through his hair. It sounded odd as she told it, as if her story was meant for another language, as if the tale resisted her translation and despised her for it. It was sad—that, Arawn remembered vividly—a tale of long nights and failed hunts and starving in more ways than one.  There’s nothing more dangerous than a lion exiled from its pride, his mother had said as she ended her story, and no creature more lonely.

The little one used the fire as a hurdle between them, ensuring he was never out of her sight, proving a hint of intelligence, and Arawn wondered if he was the lion or the man. 

It didn’t matter, and Arawn cast all thoughts of the past away, hoping that this time they would stay in the depths of his heart where he would not have to remember. He looked out once more to the faded horizon of the swamp, where the black of night melded into the shadows of trees and light was swallowed by the winter waters, and still there was nothing to be found but the cold. There should have been a Matron, or a Mother, or at the very least another Marshland-Woman, someone to watch over the little one as she explored the swamp.

She was staring at him, and her quiet awe was unnerving, eyes wide and shifting as if she was memorizing his face, as if there were some great beauty to be found. Perhaps there was, perhaps his own eyes reflected the light of the fire, as orange as the flames between them, the same shade as his father’s. Arawn tensed under her gaze; she should have been afraid of him, or at the least wary, because he could have, and should have, drained the little one dry the moment she exited the safety of the water. A Marshland-Woman would keep him sustained for months, compared to a Plains-Person, whose blood lasted a week, or simply hunting animals every day. She was an opportunity he could not afford to waste. But. But.

Arawn had been an older brother once. His younger sister had toddled behind him, looking like a miniature version of their mother, and he had loved her more than anything.

The little one reached out to the flames, and before he could think better of it, Arawn said, “That’s a bad idea.”

The words sounded poor in his mouth, like pebbles or the dripping of rain on pond water, as if his lips were too small for the syllables, and Arawn had the feeling he would never be comfortable speaking Marshlander. He missed his own language as much as he missed his home, missed the way it felt like thunder against his tongue, the way it bounced off walls and boomed in caverns, the little jabs and barbs woven into every sentence. But there was no one to speak it with now.

The little one flinched her hands away when the heat nipped at her fingers, and she glared at him, as if he were to blame for the fire’s bite. Arawn nearly laughed at her indignation before smothering the emotion with prejudice. He could not afford to get attached, and the little one could not afford such a friendship. Arawn should scare her away, teach her that only her own kind was safe, that outsiders could not be trusted.

But Arawn could not remember the last time he had shared a fire with someone, and he had never been good at following shoulds anyways. There was little harm in letting her play with the flames, so long as he remembered she was just as dangerous as he was, so long as he remembered his mother’s story and the way it ended, with the man clawed open and the lion given a fatal wound. The man should have been more careful, and the lion too, but all things crave companionship, she had said in the dark, during a time that felt like a thousand years ago instead of the ten it actually was. We hunger for it, like we hunger for water and food and warmth, and when a person is starving they will do anything to satisfy that hunger. A lion in a famine will eat their own kind, a deer dying of thirst will go mad and take its herd with it, and a man who is dying of isolation will befriend anything, even if it kills him.

The little one threw leaves into the fire pit and watched them burn, eyes wide with wonder. After every batch turned to ash and smoke, she turned to look at him, grinning with sharp, sharp teeth, utter joy upon her lips, and he wondered if the Marshland-Women had fires. He knew they had hot springs in the center of the swamp, where the ice could not reach and green remained even in the heart of winter, but only the oldest of Matrons were allowed there, whose hair had long turned white and once-smooth skin had been wrinkled for decades. They were the most dangerous of the Marshland-Women. If a Matron took him by surprise, their songs could, and would, lead him to an early grave. Luckily, they seemed content to leave him alone, so long as he stayed to the edges and left the occasional offering before winter.

Arawn watched as the little one experimented with the flames. The fresher the plant matter, the brighter they burned, and she had a knack for finding the few orange and red leaves still left among the browns of mud and long dead foliage. Every once in a while, her fingers would get too close and she would shake her hand away, hissing at the fire in rebuke. Arawn wondered if the little one would keep her awe of the world, if she would keep her warmth and openness, or if she would become like the rest of her kind, cold and distant and unreadable.

He wondered if he would ever return home.

Arawn closed his eyes, despite the possible danger, and grounded himself in the now, in the hardness of the tree he was leaning against, in the soft rustle of branches as they swayed to the wind, the pressure of the winter breeze as it danced between the earth and sky, the lapping of swamp water against ice and moss and roots. The smell of his fire, laced with the sharpness of the cold, the crackle of wet logs and the crinkle of leaves as they shriveled and burned and turned to smoke. He was alive, and in the present, and no matter how much his grief threatened to drown him, Arawn would persevere, for even without a kingdom he was still a prince, and princes did not cry.

Arawn opened his eyes, and standing before him was the little one, her hair highlighted by the fire as if she wore a crown of light. For the first time, her eyes were unobstructed by the flames, and staring back at him were the greenest eyes he had ever seen. They were the same shade as his mother’s garden, vibrant like green things, growing things, the color of spring. They were soft, not quite sad, and without a hint of pity, but there was a heaviness to them, a weight he could not explain. The little one held out her hand, and at the edge of her fingers was a leaf the color of his eyes, orange as a setting sun, oddly alive compared to the dead and dying colors around them.

Against everything life had taught him, against every rule that governed the Marshlands, against even his own judgment, Arawn took the leaf. The little one smiled at him, but it was not blinding in its intensity this time; this smile was smaller and yet far warmer. Look, her eyes seemed to say, there is death, yes, death and grief and sorrow, but here is a pretty thing, a lovely thing, and see that all is not lost.

“Thank you,” Arawn said as he tucked the leaf into his leathers, and it took him a moment to realize he had spoken the words in his language, instead of hers, but the little one gave him a nod all the same, and retreated back to the fire, crunching on leaves as she went and grinning at the sound.

The little one started talking, babbling really, warming her long fingers around the fire with her eyes flickering in the light as she moved around to avoid the smoke. Arawn was grateful for the distraction, even if she didn’t know it. He listened to the odd little language she spoke, not a hint of Marshlander in its vocabulary, not a hint of any tongue he knew, and Arawn knew a comfortable amount of all the Five Dialects, enough to calm enemies and say hello to friends and not get cheated by opportunistic merchants with no morals.

As if sensing the intensity of his gaze, the little one stopped talking, and her hands pulled away from the flames. There wasn’t any fear in her eyes, but he could see weariness, as if she expected him to… do something. What, he didn’t know, but she was waiting.

“Go on,” he said, this time in Marshlander, and little one beamed at him, returning to her babbles. Arawn could so easily imagine her words, the stories she was likely telling, the beautiful and wonderful things she had seen that day, and Arawn had to remind himself that he would not get attached, that he would not see the dead in the living, no matter how much he wanted to. That he could not handle one more loss.

He wondered if the language was real or not. If perhaps it was some religious dialect that never made it past the hot springs, but then, if she could understand Marshlander, why not speak it in return? Arawn didn’t know enough about the Marshland-Women, or their culture, to make a proper deduction. All the same, it was a pretty language, and her words settled like sunlight on skin, filled with love and excitement and enjoyment for life beyond surviving, and yet, he could hear a touch of sadness in her babbles, not quite the pebbles of her people or the thunder of his.

She did not sound like the Women of the Sea, with words like waves, long and deep as they crashed against the mouth like the sea upon the shore, whose speakers were very similar to the Marshland-Women as they lead sailors into the deep never to return. The little one did not move her mouth like they did, speaking as if they might move the ocean with their commands, a moon-like quality to their conversations, waxing and waning but always there as they demanded attention and admiration and respect.

It was different from the language of the Woodland Huntsmen, words spoken like whispers, scattered and tossed like leaves on the wind. Their conversations always had a bit of tension, a feeling of malice hidden behind their apparent softness, words that crept as silently as the creatures they became in the dead of night, and one was never quite sure what was lurking behind those easy-going smiles and booming laughter.

It was a far cry from the Plains-People, whose words were as ill-formed as their peace-making policies, words that fought from the belly up. Their language scratched at the throat, spiky like grass, and just as persistent as they lingered in the mouth, greedy for more, and yet, it was still the language of his mother’s tongue, who always sounded so strong and so sure, who would bend to her husband’s commands with grace like grass in the wind but remain unbroken and untamed up until the day she died.

To describe her words, the language she spoke, Arawn knew not how. The little one looked at him with her green eyes that reflected the orange of the fire beside her, filled with warmth and joy and contentment. It was a shade of emerald he had never seen amongst the living, even in his ten years traveling and trading with merchants of all the Five Peoples, and Arawn knew the description he was thinking of.

Her language was the garden of what had once been his home, where the rain sang a lullaby of old memories and forbidden games. Where Arawn and his sister would trail their mother as she talked with advisers and workers and servants, pretending not to notice the children in her shadows. Each word that tumbled from the little one’s mouth was a fallen petal, flower, or stalk that his mother had so carefully grown and gifted freely, despite knowing how precious the green was. An ache settled in his heart, a desperate wish to go back in time, to play in the gardens with his sister or mother once more, to have his father pretend not to smile, and for him to place his hand on Arawn’s shoulder and tell him he would be a kind of king the people had never seen before, but such a wish was as impossible as it was to return the dead to life.

Arawn turned his gaze back toward the swamp, looking once more for a Marshland-Woman to appear, wondering when they would notice that their little one had slipped the nest. It might improve his relationship with the Matrons if he kept an eye on her, at least until someone came to collect her… though knowing the Mothers, it could just as easily end with him dead. They were fickle on a good day, but loyal to them and theirs, and despite the fact that he was an outsider, he was technically theirs. They would not have accepted his offerings if he wasn’t. So Arawn turned back to the flames, and he placed his grief and anxieties back into the depths of his mind, where they belonged. He could not afford to show weakness, not even in front of the little one, for she was still a predator, same as him, and the fact she had gotten so close the first time was worrying.

The little one moved with grace as she tossed leaves into the fire, dancing round the smoke and spinning barefoot as she made the ice beneath her feet crunch in tandem with burning logs. His mother would have loved her, loved her awe at the world and her soft babbles and the grins that were ever so blinding. It was hope that killed the lion and the man, his mother had said, and upon hearing the sadness in her voice, Arawn, even as a naive little boy, knew it wasn’t just a story. Hope and hunger and fear. The man reached out, but it was too much too fast, so the lion responded in kind. The man died quick and the lion slow, but they died all the same, so far away from home.

“I need a name for you,” Arawn mused, and while it was to himself more than anything, it was still in Marshlander, just in case the little one wanted to respond. He was not getting attached; it was just rude to keep calling her the little one, and he had been raised better than that.

“Ataegina.” It was her own name that flowed from her mouth, startling him, for Arawn had not truly been expecting a reply. She laughed at his face, smiling with sharpened canines, teeth that mirrored his own impressive set. The sound bounced across the swamp water, and for a moment, the marshland was anything but empty.

Ataegina pointed to him, and babbled once more, asking him with words he did not yet understand. When he did not say anything, she pointed to herself. “Ataegina,” she said, then once more pointed to Arawn, who now understood what she was asking.

“My name is Arawn,” he told her, mildly confused because she could clearly understand the language of the Marshland-Women but for some reason was unable to reply with it. Perhaps it was a social custom he was unaware of? He watched as she mouthed his name, and before she could launch into more babbles, he asked, “Where is your Matron?”

Ataegina responded with a soft giggle and a shrug, a hint of smugness in her face, clearly pleased with herself. Slipped the nest indeed.

A small hiss drew both of their attention, and though he was alarmed at the sudden sound, Ataegina was not. Arawn berated himself for not paying attention to his surroundings, right hand curled around an obsidian dagger, but no soul songs came forth, no pale woman leaping from the shadows of the swamp to drag him under the black ice. It was an older Marshland-Woman who had made the sound, standing waist deep in the water, and her black hair showed hints of ash, signaling a soon-to-be Matron. Judging from their similar faces, he assumed the older one was either Ataegina’s mother or sister, and she looked as tense as Arawn felt.

Her grey eyes flicked between him and the little one, narrowed in what looked like annoyance, but Arawn could see the soft worry, the fear, and so he made his body relax, letting go of his dagger and keeping his hands where the Matron could see them. Marshland-Women had impressive reach, and if the Matron thought he was a danger to Ataegina, nothing would stop her from attempting to tear him apart. He’d win, so long as he stayed on dry parts of the swamp, but the moment she got him into the water it would be over.

He briefly wondered why he had not sensed the elder Marshland-Woman as she made her judgments on what to do. Arawn should have noticed her long before she got so close, and if Ataegina had been a trap, it was one he would have fallen for. That would not be happening again. All it took was one mistake, one lapse in judgment, and death would follow.

Ataegina, unaware of the danger he possessed, beckoned the elder of the pair to join them near the fire, still smiling, bursting with the need to share her excitement. The Matron’s eyes softened just a smidge, exactly like his mother’s used to after fights with his father, and Arawn doubted he would see the little one again after this. The Marshland-Woman then turned to look at him, questioning, and Arawn shrugged in response, still trying to appear as non-threatening as possible, and her eyes narrowed further.

The Matron most certainly knew who and what he was. She would never let Ataegina get this close again, and while he would miss the little one, he did not mourn this fact. There was no room for friendships between races in the Marshlands, the Dying Lands as called by outsiders, and it would kill Ataegina one day if she didn’t learn it. The little one seemed to realize this, looking back at him with those sad green eyes, as if asking him to intercede on her behalf. As much as it pained him, Arawn did nothing, for it was not his place to do so. He was not attached, could not afford to be, and it would be better for the both of them to forget and move on.

After another hiss, this one much more stern, Ataegina hesitantly started to head back into the water, her shoulders hunched and fingers curled into fists, though her face remained stoic, as if she did not want to cry before either of them.

“Ataegina,” Arawn called, and she paused, while the Matron was once more tense with the potential to move. He slowly pulled out the orange leaf, holding it out, and Ataegina looked at the leaf, then at him, then at the Matron, who beckoned her to come into the water. He still wondered if he was the lion or the man, if this was too much too fast, if he would die so far away from home they would never find his bones.

Ataegina walked away from the bank, much to the despair of the Matron, whose intake of breath was filled with unspoken fears, whose body was ready to leave the safety of the waters in a moment’s notice. Ataegina’s eyes were oddly solemn as she stood before him, with a gaze that was far too old for such a little thing, and Arawn held his breath when she reached out. Ataegina placed her hand on the leaf, and just for a moment their fingers touched, the orange between them a contrast compared to paleness of her skin and the darkness of his, warm and kind and a gesture of trust he was not sure the little one understood the depth of. She smiled at him, a touch of sadness in her expression, before she took the leaf and returned to the Matron.

He watched as Ataegina slunk into the black depths, leaving a trail of ripples in her wake and cradling the leaf close to her chest as if she might lose it. Arawn turned his gaze to the Matron, giving only the smallest of nods as the Marshland-Woman lingered in the shallows, in the space between the light of his fire and the shadows of the night. The Matron stared at him with eyes that reflected the orange of his flames, much like Ataegina’s had only a little while ago, her gaze mean and cruel and sharp—and grateful.

“A mother’s gratitude to you,” she said in Mountaineer, and Arawn flinched at the sound of his own tongue on the Matron’s lips, staring in shock at the Marshland-Woman while he pretended the ache at the back of his throat was because of the cold. She did not smile at him, nor did she snarl or glare, her face impassive as she stared, but she dipped her head in what could be called a nod. Unlike Ataegina, when the Matron sank back into the depths, she left no ripples in her wake.

It was some time before Arawn pulled his gaze away from the water. The land was quiet; the trees rustled as the wind danced between the branches. His fire crackled, small and not very warm as it persisted against the wet chill of winter, but terribly alive compared to the dark of night. The birch he was leaning against dug into his back, the moss at his feet was hard with ice, and the cold nipped at his exposed skin without mercy. Arawn was a prince without a kingdom, a man without a family, an exile with no way to return home… but for this one moment, he felt content in the solitude.

He could return to his ghosts in the morning

Sarah Philpott is newly emerging writer from Virginia. She won a creative writing award for her penmanship from Hollins University, where she will declare as a creative writing major in Spring 2019. She has been a student at The Muse Writers Center for 7 years, and was published in her high school literary magazine. Sarah enjoys writing many styles of fiction including flash fiction, short stories, novellas, and has begun working on a novel series. While Sarah primarily writes fantasy, she also likes to dabble in all genres. In the future Sarah hopes to publish her first novel with many more on the way.