A Lion’s Mate by Eve Langlais
Warning: The beginning, like many a famous animated movie, starts with the death of a parent. If you want to skip it, head to Chapter One. If you want to experience the event that shaped the heroine, then continue reading.
The bear must have been hidingamongst the icy pillars. They filled the room, liquid crystal sentinels, some of them wide enough to hide a rather large ursine.
They should have smelled it, and yet, there were so many scents. The moist steam hinting of something acrid. Fetid with a bit of rot.
It lumbered into view suddenly, its fur more a dingy gray than white, clumped on its mottled body, one of its eyes lame from a previous battle.
“Fudge.” Wasn’t the word her mother used, and it shocked Arleen.
“Mama?” If her mama were dropping f-bombs, Arleen should be scared.
“Stay behind me, fluffykins.” The name Mama had given her when she was just a baby and arrived in the world with a full head of hair.
The bear rose on two hind legs, roaring, menacing even while emaciated. It had massive paws, bigger than her head, jagged yellow claws, and a mean attitude.
Mama let out a warning noise.
The bear didn’t seem impressed. Judging by the marks on his body, he’d fought for the privilege to stay alive this long. Even if his teeth appeared few and far between, the ones that remained could easily crunch their bones. Arleen bit her lip so she didn’t whimper.
Mama muttered, “Take cover, fluffykins.”
Hiding sounded like a good idea. Arleen tucked behind a column of ice, so cold she knew better than to touch it—her skin would stick. She waited for her mother to join her. Maybe they could sneak out of the cave using the pillars as cover.
Her mama chose to face off with the bear. Fearless when it came to danger. Mama shifted, her loose clothes accommodating the sudden shift in size and fur. The sleekness of the brown hair had her grimacing at the reminder of her own coloring, more like the bear than her family.
Mama dropped into a fighting stance, shorter than the bear, narrower too. But she was fast.
She dodged the swiping paw. Up. Down. She kicked. None of the blows were hard enough to truly incapacitate, but it caused the bear to stagger back.
Arleen glanced past the bear to see a steaming crevice. Mama had a plan. She would save them.
Her foot slipped, and she staggered. The bear swung at that exact moment, and its giant paw connected. Mama slammed against a pedestal holding a box. It wobbled but didn’t fall—the treasure they’d come to see. Arleen really didn’t care what was in the box anymore, because Mama slumped and didn’t get up, even as the bear charged for her.
“Mama!” Arleen shrieked and bolted from cover, which drew the bear’s shaggy regard. It took a step towards Arleen and roared.
Upset, Arleen flipped to her other shape and roared right back.
It wasn’t as impressive, and only pissed off the polar bear.
It charged Arleen, and she froze, fear turning her into a statue. She was too small to fight it. Her only option was to outrun it.
She darted for a column, racing behind it, only to scream as the bear rammed it. It cracked, chunks of ice falling from overhead—jagged spears.
Bolting from her column, she moved to another, but the bear followed, ramming its shoulders into the icy support, causing a shower of frozen chunks to rain. It hurt.
Arleen covered her head, running blindly now, panic making her move.
Until there was nothing but a chasm in the floor, no columns. And when she whirled, the bear advanced on her. Slowly. It knew it had her.
She tried to be brave like her mama, a warrior. She faced it with small, hairy fists.
Its mouth opened wide, exhaling humid death. And then…Mama was there! Hands linked so that she might club it. The force of the blow had the bear shaking its head. It reared on hind legs.
Mama expected it and was already leaping and slamming down with her fists. The bear staggered, close to the steaming crevice in the floor. Mama hit again, and again, her face grim with determination.
Arleen began approaching as her mother wound up for a final blow that would topple the polar giant.
Whack. The bear teetered on the edge and lashed out, its reach lengthening past what Arleen would have expected. The claws slashed across her mother’s chest. Deep gouges that bled.
Arleen saw the shock on her mother’s face. They both missed the second wild swipe from the bear, the one that hooked Mama’s ankle. It dragged her off the edge without a single shriek.
Arleen screamed for her as she scrabbled to the edge.
She peeked over. “Mama?” She whisper-cried the word as she stared down. The slit in the earth could have been a few feet or bottomless, she couldn’t see far enough to tell. No bear. No mother. Nothing but a rising cloud of steam.
Still, she waited by that crack for hours, looking and listening until she finally realized that Mama was gone. Arleen was alone.
Panic hit her, and she whirled to run, but tears blinded her. In her mad dash, she crashed into the pedestal, her hands not managing to stop her from smacking her face off the box sitting atop it. Her lip split, and her chin dropped hotly onto the stupid thing that’d brought her and her mom here. A special trip for just the two of them.
A nightmare that now had her sobbing and blubbering while bleeding. She grabbed the box, ignoring the electrical jolt and threw it.
It hit the ground and skidded, its passage clearing the swirling mist.
“I hate you!” she yelled. The box had killed her mother.
She stalked over to it and lifted her foot. She would smash it to bits so no one else ever came looking for it.
But as her foot hovered over the box, she hesitated.
The carved wooden square had begun to glow. It lit the unreadable inscriptions on its surface, the keyhole shining the brightest.
She pressed a bloody finger to it. She didn’t have a key. She wished she did, because according to the legend her mama had told her, the box had magic inside. Maybe the kind that could bring her back.
Arleen grabbed the glowing box and wondered if the lock could be picked. Maybe the fact that it glowed was a good thing?
She hugged it close and wished: I want Mama. She wanted to feel loved and protected. To feel safe rather than sad and alone.
Arleen wanted to go back to the carefree happiness she’d enjoyed just that morning. Exhausted, she fell asleep, wrapped around the box.
She woke curled up on the ice, a pretty container in her arms. It would look even nicer on the pedestal.
She placed it atop and then centered it.
It was her duty to protect it, and was the only thing she remembered…
Until the day the people came and broke the curse.