A meerkat clan waited on the hillside for the emergence of the queen's only child.
The queen, Sticktail, had birthed two stillborn children due to the hardships of the dry season. But her third child had survived and its strength was seen as a good omen. A new pup meant that the members of the clan, reduced by predators during the drought, could see proof of their vitality.
Sticktail's pups were usually allowed to leave their burrows at three weeks old. This morning marked the time for the emergence ceremony. The queen positioned herself next to the east-most burrow entrance. Beside her waited her eldest daughter. The queen's mate and his attendants moved further afield. They occupied less likely tunnel entrances from which the pup might emerge. Lower ranking members spread out to every entrance on east and south sides of the hill. The crowed rustled. Clan members traded whispers.
Everyone agreed it was fortunate that the queen's pup survived and doubly fortunate that the boy showed his mother's strength, intelligence, and calm demeanor. Many meerkats had already begun to refer to him as 'the new king.'
A young male named Darkeyes from a previous litter waited with the others for the pup to emerge. He did not feel grateful. He did not think the new child was his future king. He felt jealous that so much respect should be paid to one who had done so little.
Darkeyes turned his back on the entire burrow and surveyed the lands below the hill. He sighed. His father, one of the king's attendants, overheard him.
“Why sad today?” his father whispered.
“Because,” Darkeyes said, “this new pup is growing big already.”
“Yes, he is,” his father agreed.
“And he's smart.”
“Yes.” His father stopped watching the crowd and the burrow entrances. He turned to his son. “Is that a problem?”
“I'm not big. I'm not smart. I'm not best at anything. Everyone else is best at something. Others are strong. Others are brave. Others are quick. The other meerkats my age can lead sometimes but not me. Never me. I'll never be best at anything.”
The boy and his father looked out in different directions as his father, Wideback, tried to think. It was true that his son was not the strongest or fastest. Where would the young, growing meerkat find his place?
They waited. Occasionally, Wideback turned toward the clan to see if the new pup had crawled into the open.
In time, they heard a scrabbling in the dirt. Wideback turned to a nearby tunnel and saw that their newest pup had elected to emerge toward them. Other males, including the leader, crept closer to watch. Soon the pup stuck his head into the sunlight. He squinted as he adjusted to the brightness. The queen began to walk towards the gathering crowd.
At that moment, young Darkeyes started to bark. He sounded angry.
“Stop that,” said his father without looking at him. “You'll scare the pup.”
His son continued to bark an alarm. It was a sound that went to the nerves of every meerkat. It was a signal to be used only in emergencies out of great distress or a need to pass warning. Wideback took a few steps towards his son.
“Stop it,” he called to the boy. “Just because you don't like the pup is no reason to frighten him.”
“Shut up your runt,” said the queen's mate, not too far behind.
Wideback glanced at the current king of the clan, his cousin. He was not too impressed. His cousin was a strong male but Wideback had been the leader once, too. Then he looked to the three-week-old pup, who had hesitated at the lip of the burrow. He felt pity for the king's only surviving son. He turned his attention to his own boy, Darkeyes, who was being disruptive. He strode out a little farther and followed his son's gaze.
A moment later, Wideback started to bark.
“What are you ...?” The king hopped forward. Other males rushed closer to see.
“Look in those bushes,” said Wideback. He gestured to a feline shadow in a line of young guarri shrubs. “It's a serval.”
Slowly, the figure took shape in the eyes of the other meerkats. When they saw it for what it was, they began to bark and hiss. The serval, fully grown and large enough to hunt meerkats, remained cover but its eyes and part of its spotted, black and yellow coat showed through the leaves. At this distance, it would not be able to pounce on them without a long run. Had it taken them unawares, it would surely have sprinted up to kill a young meerkat, perhaps even the new pup as it emerged from the burrow.
Now that the clan had roused to the alarm, they were in good position to fight. Several of the largest meerkats streamed to the front of the crowd. The smaller ones began to retreat toward the burrows.
At the mouth of the nearest entrance, the boy who had started the alarm met with the pup. His father watched them. The boys sniffed each other. The pup seemed to take a liking to Darkeyes.
“Get back in.” The king stepped forward to push his pup back into the burrow. Wideback moved to intercept him. For a moment, it seemed that the two males would fight. But the king focused past Wideback to his pup as it met with Darkeyes. He could see that his son was making a friend. He nodded and held still. The older meerkats waited. Other males and females streamed past to harass the serval. Eventually, Darkeyes led the pup back into the burrow.
“Yes, well, that was rightly done, boy,” called the ruler.
“So trustworthy,” said the queen. “Just like your father.”
Queen Sticktail gazed upon her mate's attendant. Her mate snorted and turned his back. He let the queen proceed first down the tunnel toward her pup. Then he ordered the youngest males and females to the front to fight the serval.
In the burrow, Darkeyes lay down next to the pup. The queen crept in next to them a minute later.
“You turned out to be a good one,” Sticktail said to the boy, not the pup.