The desert is perilous ground, Hero remembered explaining that to his last litter of pups when they were small, governed by the sand and the sun, assisted by the wind and the weather. We are temporary residents in our homeland, hunted by fellow survivors of the dunes. There is danger at every turn. So, be careful. Keep your snout to the wind and your whiskers perked.
At the time, his moon old son Fiery had asked why the other creatures hunted them, the meer. He wondered why the creatures couldn’t share the desert in peace.
Ash had answered simply, her tail raised with high spirits. “That is the way of life. One of the truths of the desert.”
“But how will we survive?” Fiery had pressed. “If everything wants us dead.”
“We care for each other. It’s why we live in groups, its why the Truths are what they are. ‘Night is Death’. ‘The Desert is Life’. ‘Family is Survival’.”
The memory sent bitter pangs of regret through Hero’s paws as he grappled the trunk of a tree. His forepaws held the parched bark of a bare baobab, his four long, blunt claws clinging for purchase. The big male swayed, his amber gaze locked into the distance, the black circles around his eyes keeping the harsh afternoon light from blinding him. The sun silhouetted his tan and brown brindled fur as he peered at the horizon. He sniffed the slight, stagnant breeze.
Hero’s nostrils flared as he detected the faint trace of another meer family’s scent. As soon as he mapped the direction it came from using his vantage, he turned tail and scrambled down the trunk.
Three moons had passed since the jackal attack on the Blazes burrow, and besides Ash, only one other of their number was missing. Fiery had never made it inside the burrow. Core, the acting dominant female, assumed that the jackals got him. Hero refused to believe that. Ash’s sacrifice was meant to save her pups, her former mate knew that she would be devastated if Fiery had drawn his last breath the same night as she.
Without Ash, Hero was adrift and lost. He didn’t know what to do and he could hardly preform the necessary duties of a dominant male. His scent marking was half-hearted and when he was on sentry duty he was distracted. And he couldn’t take Core as a mate, not when he didn’t love her, meaning that the Blazes were without a future. Until a new dominant male could be found, and the hope for new life rekindled, the mood of the gang would be dour.
Hero was determined to find Fiery. He had left the Blazes with the promise to return with a dominant male in tow. Fiery was the obvious choice, he was loyal and honest, and brave just like his mother. Hero was going to bring him home, as his last act being a leader.
Hero wasn’t sure if Fiery would be found amongst this enemy family. He didn’t recognize the scent, meaning that it couldn’t be the Zeros that he was approaching. Still, Hero crept with caution. He darted from shrub to shrub, the dust drying out his cracked paw pads. His belly fur brushed the sand and his dark tail tip hovered just over the scrunching, short-trod grass. Eventually he spotted movement in the undergrowth and darted into a bramble thicket.
Three pointy faces, the tops of their narrow heads flat and limbs stocky, trod from the shadows of the bush. They chirped and called to each other as they picked through the grass and scratched at the topsoil. They were scrawnier than usual, but then it was the wet season. Two were males and one was a female, Hero registered from their scents. One of the males was skinnier than the other, with a lanky form and sinewy muscles. The other was heavier with ember eyes. Hero’s gaze followed the latter male, hope making his heart rattle. Could this be his son?
From a distance, Hero could not differentiate the male meer from any other with orange eyes. He watched as the male ranged nearer to the large female, based on her size and surety he guessed that she was the dominant female of this family. The skinny male glared, brown eyes huge with jealousy as the ember-eyed one nibbled the female’s shoulder fondly. She produced a pleased chirp, almost a churr, before moving away. The male turned to trod after her and Hero glimpsed a small, jagged pelt marking on his flank. His fur bristled with excitement. It was Fiery!
The skinny male rushed to shadow the female, leaving Fiery to lag. As the female and male disappeared between a low-slung shrub and a bushy-maned hedge Hero saw his chance. Just as Fiery took a step he erupted from the thicket. Thorns prickled his pelt and lodged in his tail, but he didn’t care. His only worry was for Fiery.
Fiery stared at him as if he were the legendary first meer of the desert, Star himself. “Father?” He whispered, jaws ajar and whiskers stiff.
Hero shared scent with him, rubbing his cheeks to Fiery’s. “Of course, it’s me! What’re you doing here? We’ve been wondering about you.”
“Oh.” Fiery shuffled his paws as he pulled back from Hero. “I couldn’t find you all, after the attack. One of the jackals drove me away. I was terribly lost and couldn’t scent any meer, anywhere, until the Scavengers found me.”
“The Scavengers.” Hero tasted the name. “I haven’t heard of them before. So, that’s the lot you’ve been holed up with.”
Fiery’s eyes shone as he lifted his chin. “Yes. And did you see that female I was with? Her name is Shine. She’s asked me to be her mate! I’m to be the dominant male of the Scavengers!” His chest swelled and he danced on his paw tips as he studied Hero, waiting for a reaction.
Hero’s heart fractured and for a moment all he could hear was the relentless pounding of his heart. Listlessly, he glanced above, searching the sky for ariel threats. The evening had set in, bringing with it wispy clouds, scuttling too quickly to be holding any life-reviving liquid. The storms of the wet season were still some moons off.
His gaze was captured again by Fiery as he murmured. “I love her, Hero.” Hero swallowed hard as he gazed at his son, remembering when he was a pup. He was grown now, over two seasons old. He realized that he couldn’t ask him to return to the Blazes, to take up the mantle of dominant male with a partner whom he didn’t love. Not as he loved Shine.
Though he had completed his mission to find Fiery, the sour taste of failure that he hadn’t succeeded in finding a replacement for himself, flooded his mouth. His tail trembled but he hid it by wrapping it over his flank. He looked at the crouching and desparate Fiery, despite being an adult he longed for his father’s approval. Hero did what Ash would have done, gave it to him.
As the breeze carried the sweet aroma of Fiery’s new family to his twitching black nose, Hero forced his whiskers to perk. “Good, son.” He said, voice overflowing with genuine affection. More than anything he wished Fiery joy, though he also wished that he could’ve found happiness among the Blazes. “I’m happy for you. We all are.”