Chapter 5 – The Way Out

So many trees. The cubs had never seen this many. And shrubs, thick shrubs, carpeting the ground. Greenery
everywhere, a dense labyrinth of vegetation. All kinds of strange howls, calls and chirrups sounded from the
heavy canopies.

"Whoa!" Chumvi gasped. "What is this place?"

Simba looked up at the mysterious, mist-shrouded treetops in amazement.

"My dad said it's called the jungle. He said it's no place for lions."

The other three looked at Simba apprehensively.

"But it looks so cool," Chumvi whined. "Nothing like the Pridelands."

"We don't know anything about this place," Tama added. "It could be dangerous." Her ears picked up as another
alien noise resonated from the trees.

"We only need to know one thing," mused Nala. "How to get home."

With a casual glance in all directions, Chumvi hummed to himself, as if deep in thought.

"I say we go this way," he finally declared, gesturing.

"Nah," Simba walked up to Chumvi's side. "I say… the opposite way to what he said."

"What? Why?!"

"'Cos the last time we followed you we ended up stuck underground!"

Chumvi launched himself at Simba.

"It was you who tripped me!" he growled, friskily. The fighting pair rolled around in the background as Nala and
Tama came together and attempted to bring some sense to situation.

"We came out this way," Nala said, pointing in the direction of the tunnel. "So… we should follow it back the way
we came?"

Tama nodded her head in agreement. "Over ground this time though!"

Calling the battling boys to attention, they started to push through the vegetation in the direction agreed.

"Stay close to each other," Tama warned. "It'll be easy to get split up here."

The bush seemed to grow thicker with every passing moment, and the faint sun that had once managed to peek
through the foliage had now entirely disappeared. The only light that remained was an eerie blue hue cast by the
moon.

The little cubs were edgy. From the gloom of the undergrowth a hundred eyes seemed to be fixed on them,
watching their every move. They themselves could barely make out their own paws in front of them. The scrub
was taller than them now, and though none of them dared admit it, they were all quite uncertain as to the direction
they were even going in anymore. The ground was tricky to traverse too; every so often, a cub would momentarily
disappear down an unseen pit, or fall in a sticky mud pool, or was wrapped up in prickly vines.

On top of this, they were exhausted. They had already walked such a long way, for such a large part of the day, and
were now faced with this assault course.

"Oww!" wailed Chumvi as another vicious thorn ragged on his fur. "How much further?"

He was not alone in his frustration, and it was conceded that respite was desperately needed.

"We should take a break here for a moment."

The shattered cubs fell where they stood, panting and licking their aching paws.

"Mheetu's been alone for so long," Nala said quietly. Her eyes began to tear up again, guilt growing inside her. She
still felt as though she had done little more than abandon him.

Tama sat up higher on her haunches.

"He's probably safer than we are," she reassured, peering into the darkness suspiciously. "I don't think we should
stay here too long."

Tama's fears were right – unbeknown to them, they were being tracked. A few minutes earlier, their clumsy movements
had alerted a hunter. A master of the jungle. A creature from the trees, that sprang down to the earth like a whisper.
Its green-gold eyes piercing through the shadows as it stalked the four of them. Its pursuit was patient and its
movements were near invisible.

Unaware of the threat that tailed them, the cubs grudgingly rose to their paws once more and continued. The toil was
worse than ever, and their pace slowed to a laborious crawl, but they soon found that the plant growth around them
began to thin out, and became easier to navigate through. The sense that they were reaching the outskirts of the jungle
would have been a blessed relief had they not been too drained to feel any real kind of enthusiasm. The fact that several
minutes had passed since Simba and Chumvi had even argued was a testament to just how much of their spirit had been
sapped.

They eventually did reach a break in the trees, the cold full moon in plain view. The ground had become dustier and less
clogged with shrubbery, but their route was now blocked – a wall of rock stretched before them. The four gasped at the
sight of the latest obstacle – it was a rock that looked much to them like the great sandy rocks of the Pridelands, so this
at least gave them some fleeting hope. There was little other choice for them - it would have to be climbed. They could
see small ledges and regions that jutted out to climb upon, but it would be no easy feat, especially with them being in
the state they were.

"I'm not sure I can climb right now," Chumvi complained, licking his bloody, battered paws.

"We have to," urged Simba, in spite of his own doubts.

Nala took initiative and gingerly started her own ascent, awkwardly making purchase on the first few ledges, before missing
her next mark and falling back down to the earth onto her back.

"Nala! Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," she groaned, catching her wind for a moment.

"This… is impossible!" said Chumvi, pawing away loose rock from the crumbly looking face, searching for a starting point to grip.
As he looked up, the summit seemed to extend further and further away from him. He took a hard gulp.

"Just think guys," Simba started. "The Pridelands are on the other side of this rock."

His rallying call was going unheeded though – behind him a sinister figure had revealed itself from the undergrowth.

"Simba! Behind you!" whispered Nala, frozen in fear.

Simba looked over his shoulder, and nearly jumped clean out of his fur. He sprang over to the others. There in front of them,
the lissom shadow stepped stealthily into the pale moonlight, its rosette painted fur bristled and limbs taut and muscled.

"It's a… leopard!" Tama mouthed, sound barely escaping her.

The leopard took two more floating steps closer and revealed her glistening maw, her lips retracting to show the cornered
cubs the full menace of her jaws. She released a guttural snarl that cut through the night air and whip cracked around their
ears. The cubs clustered closer together, shivering and terrified, unable to evade or flee this time.

Dipping her shoulders, and with her gaze unwavering, the hunter coiled her powerful limbs, ready for the fatal surge towards
her victims.

She took off, flying through the night, soundless and forceful, leading with her vicious fangs and extended claws. The cubs closed
their eyes, waiting for the blow to come.

Sounding a pained growl, the leopard was intercepted in mid-flight, and knocked to the ground with a thud. The cubs dared to peek
through their eyelids.

"Mom!" Simba screamed, overjoyed.

There indeed his mother, Sarabi, stood. The powerfully-built royal lioness shielded the cubs, facing the downed leopardess. She let
out a threatening scowl.

"You dare touch them!"

The fallen leopard uneasily regained her footing, and with a malevolent sneer, thought better of challenging the much larger foe, and
instead skulked back off into the depths of her jungle dwelling, favouring an injured leg.

Mufasa, Sarabi's mate and the king of the Pridelands, soon arrived behind her.

"Come on, let's get them home," she said gently to him, having regained her usual calm.

The spent youngsters were carried back to Pride Rock, tattered and bloody, finally at the end of their perilous journey.

Nala awoke with a start. Much to her surprise, she was home. She stretched out for a moment, before a terrible fear entered her mind.

"Oh no! I fell asleep!" she cried to herself. "Mheetu!"

What had she done?! She had not told anyone about Mheetu… and he was still down there, all alone… and it had been a whole day!
She began to well up, raising herself and sprinting out of the cave and into the sunshine.

"Hi sis!"

Sat in front of her at the entrance, with a big grin on his face, was her little brother Mheetu. Nala had never felt so glad to see anyone
in her life. She raced up to him and squeezed him warmly.

"I found a way out!" he declared with pride.

The size of her brother's heroism dawned on Nala.

"You got help for us?!"

"Uh-huh!" her brother nodded. "All by myself!"

Nala laughed, her heart full with joy and relief. She was back safely at home with her little brother in her embrace. A darker thought began
to grow though...

"I guess I'm in a lot of trouble, huh?" she muttered.

Mheetu laughed softly.

"For what?"

"I got you into all sorts of danger… and then… I left you all alone."

He chuckled again.

"It wasn't your fault, sis. It's not your fault we got trapped and had to find a way out. And it isn't your fault that we were attacked and I got
stuck by myself." He leaned in closer to whisper. "I think it was that silly hare's fault!"

The two shared a giggle, feeling closer and happier than ever before. Nala swelled with pride to have such a brave young cub as her brother,
and savoured this moment with him.

"Everyone else is outside," Mheetu smiled. "If you want to play?"

"Sure thing, Mheetu," Nala answered, and they walked out together to meet their friends once again.

So there we have it, hooray! I love a mushy ending. A Mheetu mushy ending. :D The first thing I have written in many years, so nice to have some motivation back! This was a fun little story to write, and made so worthwhile by your lovely comments. So thank you muchly for those.

I am unsure as to whether to give this particular story another going over, or move on to book two... the original idea was to write three books of this kind of length/style. I have future plans for it though. Would love to comic-ize it! Any ideas you may have, I am all ears! Any cubs you really like that weren't included, for example?

But maybe a little break first either way - I have in fact now got a lot of reading to be getting on with! :D

PS: Wouldn't it have been cool if they had released a little animated series about the cubs' adventures? I think it would have, it was in fact that very thought that inspired me to write this!

Many thanks again though,

Kal! :D