PART TWO: AHADI’S LEGACY
CHAPTER 1: PRESENTING THE PRINCE
The early morning sun reflected in Akase’s eyes. Ahadi looked into their beautiful fire and whispered “penda.” She smiled and nuzzled him, then kissed her two sons as if the four of them were alone in a private kingdom of love.
But they were far from alone. Next to them sat Shaka and Avina with their young daughters Sarabi and Elanna to welcome in the dawn. And spread out across the plain in their tribes were all the works of Aiheu in their splendor—the solemn elephants, the tall giraffes, the lithe zebras, all standing side by side, rank on rank, row on row.
Through the gathered hosts walked Rafiki. Those near him drew back and cleared the way. He blessed them with signs of Aiheu’s love, touching the very young with outstretched fingers, and also the very old with his palms.
Rafiki forded the boulders that protected the base of Pride Rock. Up, up the winding trail he climbed until he reached the promontory of stone where destiny awaited, and as the world held its breath, he approached the two princes.
“So we have come full circle,” the mandrill intoned, stepping forward and burying his arms in Ahadi’s mane to enjoy a moment of closeness. He smiled as a strong but gentle paw patted his back. “I remember how your father worried that I would drop you. Instead of a tragedy he saw a miracle.” Rafiki thoughtfully stroked his chin whiskers. “Perhaps today we will see it again. Have you made your decision?”
Ahadi lay his paw on small Mufasa and nodded gravely.
“I touch your mane,” Rafiki said with deep respect. “Incosi aka Incosi.” He sprinkled Mufasa with dust and powdered Alba and anointed his brow with Chrisum. Then he picked up the small golden treasure, took two steps to the end of the promontory and held him up.
For a brief moment nothing happened. Then the clouds parted and a shaft of light broke through, lighting the cub like a kiss of joy. Rafiki trembled, holding the cub into the light. “Aiheupenda,” he said, tears filling his old eyes and running down his cheeks. “Don’t forget your old friend—or your new one.”
Through the shouts from the clamoring crowd a voice of sweetness whispered through the light. “I will not forget you.”
Some thought they heard the thunder roll. Others said it was a mighty wind. But all the crowd bowed in respect and awe felt the presence of God, and they fell to the ground bowing, scraping and calling in their own tongues the words of worship each according to their own belief. But Rafiki did not hear them. Taking the tender baby to his arms, he kissed him. “May the wind blow kindly on you. May the sun shine brightly on you. May the gods take you to their heart.”
Reluctantly, he lay the cub down by Akase. Small Taka looked up expectantly, his eyes full of innocent curiosity. With a smile, but some regret, Rafiki cuddled the cub under the chin and felt the hum of his happy purr. “This will be the wise one,” Rafiki whispered. “He would have made a great king.” As he stroked the cub he looked up thoughtfully. “While I am here, let’s see if Elanna or Sarabi will rule. A wand of wood is first to bow before the queen.”
Ahadi shrugged. “Time will tell. Love will find a way.”
Rafiki looked up. “And what riddle is this?”
“It’s not a riddle. I want my son to choose when he comes of age.”
Rafiki shook his head. “Sire, that’s very dangerous. You are inviting trouble.”
“But if love will go where it will, why should we try to interfere? Can’t the gods work their own magic? All we do is make life more complex. I don’t like it—I’ve seen what it can do.”
Rafiki looked at him long and hard. “Didn’t your mom and dad love each other?”
“I see. Then what are you telling me?”
Ahadi looked down, embarrassed. He would tell no one about Moshana’s private grief. “I’m telling you that the gods can do what they do and I won’t oppose it. But there shall be no betrothal. I’d rather not say why.”
Rafiki relented, smiled and hugged his neck. “You are a hopeless romantic.”
“Let us then pray for love.”
Rafiki took his rattle and shook it. Looked up into the sky. “Little prince, in love you were conceived and love shall be your guide.”
CHAPTER 2: LEARNING THEIR LESSON
Ahadi loved to play with his young sons, but he also took time to see to their education. Some lessons were fun, like stalking and pouncing. Others were less fun, but equally important.
Mufasa was always good at stalking and pouncing, and he held his own wrestling with his brother Taka whom he almost always beat. But Taka could listen to hours of the Chronicles of the Kings and the Law of the Pride while Mufasa would start to squirm and follow the distant herds with his eyes.
Ahadi found Taka a thirsty sponge, and flattered by the rapt attention he got, he drew on all the learning of a lifetime and told him many wonderful and strange things on the inspiring setting of the promontory.
“The words of wisdom are sometimes hardest to hear,” Ahadi said. “N’ga and Sufa, the sons of Ramalah ignored their father’s teachings, and it would bring them to grief. For a father teaches out of love, and to reject his teachings is to refuse his love. It’s the same with us, my sons. I would not have you come to grief....” Ahadi paused, glanced at Mufasa who was wrapped up in his own daydream, winked at Taka, and kept right on going in the same voice. “And it was in this time that a certain lion cub watched the plains for wildebeests, dreaming of the day when he would have no more lessons to learn. And doing so, he stuffed his head with dead grass instead of knowledge.” He added with some emphasis: “Isn’t that so, Mufasa??”
Taka laughed and rolled about, singing, “Dead grass, dead grass, nyah-nyah-na-nyah-nyah!”
“What’s so funny??” Mufasa looked at Taka with irritation, but his father scowled, and he looked down embarrassed.
“Taka, what were we talking about?” Ahadi knew he could rely on him.
“There were these two brothers N’ga and Sufa. They were very famous. One day N’ga got into this fight with Sufa over this girl. Not just any girl, because she was white as clouds and magic, see, and if one of them married her, their kingdom would be great. But she was one swell number, and they both wanted her to marry them. So they went down by this lake (and this is the really neat part)--they fought all day and all night without stopping. And they fought the second day.”
He began walking around Mufasa as he talked. “They fought all the third day. They didn’t sleep either. They fought for five whole days and nights, cause she was such a babe, and they were so stubborn that neither one would give in. And on the fifth day, they both fell asleep at the same time. And while they were asleep, the girl sneaked out and married a magic lion with powers like hers, and boy did N’ga and Sufa feel like a couple of idiots!”
“Good job!” Ahadi nuzzled Taka. “And such a unique interpretation.”
Mufasa looked dejected.
“Come here, Muffy.” Ahadi pulled Mufasa over with his paw and nuzzled him. “I wish you could play all the time if that’s what you really want. But you need to learn the skills of leadership. Besides, while I learned these lessons from my father it was a special time for us to spend together. Enjoy this time while it lasts, and make the most of it.”
“I try. Really I do.”
“I know. But remember that I don’t love you for how smart you are or how strong you are. I love you because you’re my sons. Whatever gifts Aiheu gives you, you need to make the most of them, and that takes education. Understand?”
Ahadi smiled indulgently. “Why don’t you two go play for a while.”
The cubs gamboled away, but Ahadi shouted, “Whoa! Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Muffy and Taka ran back and gave their dad a quick kiss.
CHAPTER 3: TAKA’S “LITTLE PROBLEM”
Taka was wrestling with Mufasa, a game he always enjoyed though he rarely won. He was making one of his better efforts, knocking one of Muffy’s back legs from under him and nearly throwing the larger cub. “You’re going down!” he cried.
“No I’m not!”
Mufasa redoubled his efforts, but Taka was full of confidence and in rare form. The smaller cub strained hard, keeping his focus and working on shoving the other back leg askew.
Suddenly, with victory so close, Taka stopped and stepped back one pace. Mufasa took advantage of the moment to seize victory, shoving him to the ground and sitting on him. “Gotcha!”
“Let me up!” Taka said.
“Not till you say ‘Uncle!’ Besides, I hate to say it but you let me win.”
“Let me up!” Taka said excitedly. “It’s happening again! The noise!”
Akase who was nearby padded over quickly and shoved Mufasa aside. “Run along, Honey Tree. I’ll handle this.”
“Oh Mom,” Mufasa said, hanging his head. “I didn’t bite him. Really I didn’t.”
“I know,” Akase said quickly. “Taka, Honey Tree, do you hear that buzzing in your ears again?”
“Yes, Momma! Please, make it stop!”
Though Taka was a bit too large, Akase still seized him by the back of the neck as if he were a newborn and carried him into the cave. Mufasa did not understand, but knew he was not to follow them or he would get a cuffing.
Ahadi understood all too well what was happening. He left his seat on the end of the promontory and ran to the mouth of the cave where Mufasa sat trying to hear something—anything—to explain the mystery.
“Taka is feeling a little sick,” Ahadi said gently, shooing his son away.
“Will he be okay?”
“In a few minutes. He always is.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know. I wish I did.”
Taka, who was already a spindly little cub, looked all the more frail as he stood with trembling legs on the bed of grass. His mother had prepared him a safe haven in the back of the cave, and its purpose would become all too clear.
“Mom?” the cub asked in a weak voice.
“I’m here, Honey Tree. It’s going to be all right.”
“I feel so…I feel…”
“What, my son?”
“Purple,” he stammered. “Lots of them and they are…”
Taka’s mouth opened in a silent snarl, then he collapsed on his side. His legs stood out at full length and his back stiffened. Then the slight tremor in his limbs turned to an all out thrashing. His body convulsed and contorted with a wild-eyed expression on his face that could be rage or fear. Through his explosive breaths, a slight whimper came.
Akase watched helplessly, tears running down her cheeks, trying to touch him with a paw but afraid to do so. “My baby! My poor baby! Come back to me! Aiheu heal your precious little body!”
The lioness agonized over the suffering of her son. She never really knew if the bouts were painful for Taka could never remember anything when he awoke. He only knew he felt tired. Indeed, he had strained against the chains of earth with the strength of a mad beast. Without the protection of the straw, he would probably get hurt.
Akase did not have the heart to tell him of his problem. She thought it better he never know. But she knew, as did her mate, that Taka could never be the next king. Whether it was more merciful to tell him or not, she didn’t know.
CHAPTER 4: WHATEVER THE LIGHT TOUCHES
The next morning, Ahadi rose earlier than was his custom. Stealthily, he crept over to where his twin sons lay side by side, and with the most careful nudge touched Mufasa. The cub shifted but did not rouse. He pressed again, a little harder, and stirred Mufasa from his sleep. Muffy looked up a little surprised and irritated, but Ahadi touched his mouth with his paw and silently jerked his head about. His interest piqued, Muffy struggled to his feet quietly and began to follow his father out of the cave.
Taka, who was a light sleeper, felt a cold place on his back where it was warm before. He grunted and pushed himself back toward a brother that was not there. Sleepily he felt around with a paw, then looked about and just caught a glimpse that he was missing something important.
On stealthy paws, he stirred himself and crept out onto the platform that served as his spectacular front porch. There in the light of the early morning sun sat father and son. Mufasa leaned against his father, gold rimmed in the splendor of daybreak.
“Why wasn’t I invited?” Taka wondered. He wanted to bury himself in the fragrant softness of his father’s mane and enjoy the sunrise. For a moment, he considered snuggling up on the other side. Then Muffy said, “What’s up, Dad?”
“Shhh! You’ll wake Taka.”
Taka enjoyed secrets, so he crouched in the doorway where he could see and not be seen.
“See what the light touches,” Ahadi purred softly. “That is the boundary of my kingdom. I sit here sometimes and look at it and it humbles me. So many peoples depend on me, and I must put their needs above my own. But it has been wonderful. It is always wonderful to be needed, especially when you always do your best to meet those needs. Someday you will know that feeling when I am gone, for I have chosen you to follow me.”
“Me?” Muffy looked genuinely surprised. “Whoa, neat!”
Taka gasped. “No! It’s not fair!” formed on his lips, but no sound came out.
Muffy said, with some difficulty, “But Taka has always been the smart one. I thought sure he’d be King. He knows everything.”
“Not everything, son, though he is very bright. You’re bright too, though you need to apply yourself more in your studies. I brought you out here in the hope that you would work harder if you knew what was at stake. What you are learning is the wisdom of our people. You are the future king. As long as you know how to be a good king, you will have lionesses who can chase wildebeests.” Ahadi sighed deeply. “The decision was not easy. Don’t tell Taka just yet. Right now, it’s our little secret.”
“Why is it a secret, Dad?”
“Because as you say, Taka is smart. He tries so hard. If he knew he would not be King, he may be discouraged and waste the talents that Aiheu gave him. Much as you were tempted to do.” He looked deeply but not judgmentally into Mufasa’s eyes. “You know I speak the truth, don’t you. You are very clever when you want to be.” He sighed deeply. “This should have been a happy occasion. Instead it breaks my heart. I wish I had a kingdom to give each of you, but I don’t.”
“Why can’t we cut it in half. He can take that half, and I’ll take this?”
“That’s very kind of you, Muffy, but it won’t work. Hunting would be poor in a smaller kingdom. Accept fate--the whole kingdom belongs to both of you, but you will be King, and he will not. That’s why I taught you the story of N’ga and Sufa. If you always fight and can never agree, the prize will often go to another. If you love Taka, and I know you do, you will say nothing for now. I want to tell him in my own way when the time is right. I will be gentle.”
“I see.” Mufasa said thoughtfully, “I want to be King someday, but I sure feel bad about Taka. I won’t tell till you say it’s OK.”
Ahadi smiled. “Maybe you have to work harder on your lessons, but you have a good heart. That was my greatest hope, to leave this world without worries or regrets. When I think of you as King after me, I feel no worries or regrets.”
For a moment, Taka was very angry, but his anger soon changed to hurt. Head bowed and ears flattened, he sneaked back to the warmth and comfort of his mother.
CHAPTER 5: NO TIME FOR NAPS
“Minshasa, cloud white, borne upon the breast of the savanna like a dream of love. Who that bears the mane shall look upon her visage and remain unsmitten? Minshasa, the voice of tender longings. Minshasa, beloved of the gods. Beware, my sons, her awful charms!”
-- RAMALLAH, FROM LEONID SAGA, “D” SECTION, VARIATION 1
Akase was worried about Taka. She had a mother's sensitivity to how her own cubs felt, and she knew Taka was not feeling well. He moped about, and at times he would not meet her eyes. At other times he would pace restlessly and stare into her eyes as if he were trying to see something deep inside.
Even Ahadi could tell something was amiss. He nudged the small cub playfully with his nose. “Something got you down, Taka?”
“You can tell your Dad. I know--how about a nice story? You know, one of the Great Kings of the Past. Have I ever told you about Moko Greatmane?”
“Yes sir.” Taka sighed deeply. Ahadi started to say something, but Akase silently shook her head and mouthed, “No.”
Ahadi gave his son a warm lion kiss on the cheek. “I love you, son. You know there is nothing you can’t tell me when you’re good and ready.”
Taka looked up pitifully. “Do you, Dad? Do you still love me?”
Ahadi bit his lip. “Oh gods. Don’t you know?” Deeply affected, he stared at the cub for a while, then wandered off a few steps to sit facing the distant mountains.
Akase was a little sharp. “What on earth made you say that? Of course he loves you. Look how you hurt him!” She softened her tone. “Honey tree, what ever made you think he didn’t love you?”
“Well I....” Taka could tell her the truth, but she would know he had spied on his father. He struggled with the burden for a moment, then said, “I was just asking, that’s all. I’m sorry.”
Quietly, Taka went over a secret list of every foolish thing he’d ever done, wondering which one condemned him to be second place for life. Was it the time he sneaked away without telling Mom? Was it the time he pulled that practical joke on Uzuri and she got so upset with him? Maybe Uzuri told Dad, even though he’d begged her not to? Should he have the nerve to ask? No. Of course not. He was not even supposed to know anything about it. Besides, after his Dad told Muffy his decision, it would be too late to change anything.
It was nearly noon, time for Taka's nap, but Mufasa gamboled up like a box of rubber balls, so full of cubhood enthusiasm that he was about to burst. His mood was contagious. "Taka, you just gotta see this!"
"Gotta see what?"
"What is it, son?" Akase purred. "Another hedgehog? A meerkat perhaps?"
"Well, it's--" His tail twitched. "Yeah, a meerkat."
"What's so great about a meerkat? We see them all the time," Taka said, sulking. "It's almost noon. It's hot enough to melt your brain, if you had one."
"But this meerkat is DIFFERENT," Mufasa said with a sly wink. Taka saw the way Mufasa's tail twitched, something that always happened when he told a lie. He half-smiled with a toothy, wry grin.
"Different, eh?” Taka was shaken out of his self-pity. “Well, I guess so. Is it okay, Mom?"
"If you're back soon. You’ve been kind of under the weather today."
Almost before she could finish her sentence, Mufasa and Taka bounded off like a shot, startling a flock of noisy guinea fowl into a conniption. They headed through the deep grass of the plain, stopping once in a while to stand up above the grass like furry jack-in-the-boxes.
Deep in grass though they were, young Sarabi saw them fording the broomsedge and knew there must be something up worth seeing. She hurried across the rocks and plunged into the green waves. Before long, she joined them, panting.
"So what's up?" Sarabi asked.
"Oh, nothing," Mufasa said. "We were practicing--stalking." His tail twitched.
"Every time you're up nothing," Sarabi said, "You're up to something."
"We are going to look at--a meerkat," Taka volunteered.
"A meerkat?" Sarabi asked, a little unconvinced. She saw his nose twitch, a sure sign that he was lying.
"Well, this one is different," Taka said.
"Then I want to see, too," Sarabi said.
"Good work, lame brain," Mufasa half-snarled. He cuffed Taka soundly on the cheek. Taka growled and cuffed him back. These were done with the claws in, like the well-bred lions they were, but they started wrestling full-tilt.
Muffy was stronger, and he fought cleanly. Taka was a determined opponent, and before long he started snapping at ears and tails. As the fight threatened to turn really ugly, Sarabi started running little circles around them, distressed.
"Stop it! Stop it right now!" Sarabi was highly indignant. "We'll never see that stupid old meerkat at this rate--if there ever was one."
She had no effect. The snarls began to sound more serious. Taka was losing, as he usually did, but he wasn't giving up. "Say Uncle!"
"Not till you--ow!--stop calling me names! Just cause you're bigger than I am doesn't make you smarter!"
Sarabi shouted, "I'll tell your mother if you don't stop! You're both lame brains sometimes."
"We're just funning," Mufasa said, on top.
"Yeah. We didn't mean anything," Taka said, wiggling out from beneath, and giving Mufasa one last hard swat with his claws out.
Sarabi looked Taka over, and seeing a small spot of blood on his right ear felt very motherly, began to clean it with her tongue.
Taka could always count on her sympathy, but he wanted to look more grown at the moment. "Doesn't hurt."
"Oh, it's nothing. Really."
"Yeah, really," Mufasa said, cleaning a nasty cut on the back of his paw by himself. "Well, if you insist on coming, there's this honey badger near the forest. He's white--whiter than clouds. He must be one of the nisei! If we catch him, he’ll have to give us what we wish for!"
“Neat!” Taka said. “I’ve never seen a real nisei before! So what are you going to wish for, Muffy?”
Mufasa smiled an embarrassed smile. “That’s why I wanted you to come. I want you to sit with me when I join the great kings of the past. Dad wants me to be King when he dies.”
“I heard him. I was hiding behind a rock when he told you.”
“You shouldn’t spy on people,” Mufasa said sternly, but he added, “Maybe you won’t be a king in this life, but if you get your wish, you’ll be a king when you die.”
“Really?” Taka was in transports. “You’d do that for me? What a neat idea!” He nuzzled Mufasa. “You’re the best! And you said wanted to give me half of the Pride Lands. I heard you.”
“Yeah. But it’s not going to happen, so don’t tell anyone I said that.”
“I won’t. It doesn’t matter now, but it was really neat. You’re the best, Muffy!” He laughed and took a swat at his brother. The two of them got into a wrestling match, giggling and squirming. Both of them did their utmost, but as usual Mufasa quickly won, pinning Taka.
Mufasa had to smile a little inside. He was glad he didn’t wish for something selfish. Still holding Taka down, he said, “Look, when Dad tells you I’m the new King, you act surprised. You’d better. You know he’d cuff you good for spying on us.”
"I want to be where Taka is," Sarabi said. "Either I get to sit with Taka, or I'm telling on both of you!"
“That’s going to be my wish,” Taka said. He squirmed out from under Mufasa, went and nuzzled her. “Now what are you going to wish for?”
Sarabi gave Taka a quick tongue touch on the cheek. “You’ll find out.”
With this settled, the three cubs headed toward the burrow at the edge of the acacia grove.
CHAPTER 6: THE BURROW
The entrance to the burrow was a forbidding black hole. Mufasa started to enter it, but the opening was barely large enough for a regular cub to squeeze in properly, not really enough to maneuver in. "Oh great. I'm too big. I guess we're going to have to call the badger out here." He poked his muzzle in deeply. "Hello in there!"
There was no reply.
Mufasa's ears went back and he got a determined look in his eyes. “Come out, badger. I can hear you breathing in there, so I know you’re in there.”
They waited several moments. Nothing happened.
“Let’s go,” Sarabi said. “Looks like he’s a no-show.”
“Wait. I think he’s holding out on us.” He yelled down the hole, “I'm Prince Mufasa—I’m going to be King someday and THEN you'll be sorry! If you want to get free, you’ll have to bless me and my friends!"
They could indeed hear the sound of muffled breathing coming from the depths of the tunnel. Carried by the walls of the burrow, it sounded loud like the sound of the sea in a shell, and it was quick, almost urgent and upset. They didn't know if he was afraid or angry.
"Maybe he's deaf, Your Majesty," Taka said with a laugh. "You pulled me all the way over here for a hole in the ground? I bet it's a rabbit. A scared little rabbit! And YOU called ME a lame brain!"
"But there was a white badger here, honest!" Mufasa looked at Taka, then at Sarabi. "You do believe me, don't you? I mean, does this smell like a rabbit to you??"
Taka sniffed carefully of the opening. He'd never smelled a honey badger before, but he knew it was not a rabbit. It was strange and pungent, and full of possibilities. "I've come this far," Taka said. "If I'm going to get my wish, I guess I have to go in there."
"You'll never do it," Mufasa said, looking at the dark hole with a barely repressed shudder. "He sounds really angry. Besides, it's dark in there, and you're afraid of the dark."
"Says me, that's who!"
Taka was deeply stung. He looked over at Sarabi’s expression and his stomach knotted. He looked at the hole and knew what he must do.
Sarabi could see the fear and cuddled up next to Taka. "Don't do it if you don't want to. I sure wouldn't."
"That's cause you're a girl," Taka said, but he looked at her kindly. Then he faced the dark hole. "I'm not afraid of the dark. I'm not afraid of the badger. I'm a lion, and lions aren't afraid...” He looked over at Muffy. “...no matter WHAT their brothers think."
With stooped shoulders and head held low, Taka angled down the steep passageway. As he reluctantly headed down the dark shaft, inch by inch, he kept talking. "We're not going to hurt you. We just want you to give us a wish, see? There are three of us, so that’s three wishes." The sound of breathing from the depths grew faster, as did Taka's. “Three wishes ought to be real easy for someone like you. I mean, what’s three wishes for a real Nisei?” Silence. “Please say something. Anything.”
"Hey Taka," Mufasa said, "You don't have to do it.” He stuck his head in the hole and said, “I'm sorry I called you a dim wit."
"It was lame brain," Sarabi said.
"Whatever." Mufasa snapped. Then his face fell. "Hey Taka, come back. I was only funning about you being afraid of the dark." He grew impatient. "Taka, I SAID I WAS SORRY, all right?? Now come out of there or I'll tell mother!"
“Don’t block up the hole,” Sarabi said. She listened carefully at the entrance. “What’s he doing down there?”
“How should I know? Hush.”
They heard Taka's voice from the depths of the tunnel. It was distant, thin and stammering. "We don't want to hurt you. You see, my brother Mufasa is going to be King when he grows up, but I’m just his brother. He had this idea that if I could sit with....”
There was a low rumbling from the depths. It sounded like a growl.
“Please help me. I’m scared. It's so dark in here." It was Taka. Mufasa and Sarabi did not know if he was talking to the badger or to them. Mufasa tried to push his way down the hole.
It was a tight fit, and he realized he wouldn’t be much help. He started digging.
“Don’t!” Sarabi pulled him back. “It will cave in!”
“But he’s in trouble.”
“If he gets buried, he’ll really be in trouble.” She looked in the opening. “Taka, are you OK?”
“Is that you, Sassie?”
“Please come out. If you love me, come out.”
“In a minute.”
“Not in a minute! Right now!”
The sounds of breathing quickened again. There were some sounds of movement. Then silence. After a moment, Mufasa looked at Sarabi. "I didn't think he'd do it. Either he's very brave or very stupid."
"He's not stupid," Sarabi said firmly. "If you hadn't called him stupid, he wouldn't be down there! Just because he's smaller than you are doesn't mean he's stupid." She called out more loudly. “Please come out! You’re scaring me!”
Just then there was a loud, menacing growl and a cub's shriek of agony. "I'm going! Oh Gods! Let me go! Let me go, you’re hurting me!" They could hear Taka trying to back out.
Muffy started digging furiously. “Taka!!” Dust flew from his paws, and he managed to work his head in. “Hold on: I can see your tail! Come back a little more. Give me half a length!”
Mufasa grabbed at the tail and pulled with all his might. Sarabi grabbed Muffy’s tail, and trying not to hurt him too much gave a yank. Taka came stumbling out of the hole backward, his face covered in blood, and one of his eyes protruding from its socket. The white badger came out after him, but saw the other two cubs raise the fur on their backs and snarl. Thinking twice about its options, it reluctantly went back in its hole.
Taka laid on the ground shivering. "Oh gods! It hurts! Somebody help me! I want my momma!"
Mufasa stared at the unseeing eye in a pool of blood. It took a moment for him to tear himself away from the horror and move. "I'll get Mom--no, I'd better get Rafiki." He started off, then stopped. "No, he'd have to come back here. Can you walk, Taka?"
Taka struggled off the ground and began to limp. Blood dripped down his face and onto the grass. "I'll try. Is it very far?"
"No. Just follow me."
CHAPTER 7: THE PROPHESY
“Three things there are which cannot be called back. The spilled wine, the sped arrow, and the spoken word.”
-- MENELAEUS OF NAXOS
It was a long trek to Rafiki’s home in the baobab tree. In the hot sun, the blood began to cake in Taka’s fur, and flies mercilessly swarmed around him. His gait was unsteady, and try though he did, his bravery could only stretch so far.
“You shouldn’t have gone down there,” Sarabi said.
“I know that now,” Taka said. “But nobody told me I was going to get mauled.” He looked over at her, his terrible wound almost too much for her to bear. “What would you have done?”
“Well, we could have threatened him. We could have said we’d fill in the hole and he’d be stuck there.”
“He would have digged out,” Muffy said.
“Dug out,” Taka corrected.
“Whatever. Anyhow, I would have peed down the hole. That would teach him.”
“A typical male reaction,” Sarabi said with a pout. “You can be so crude.”
Taka half smiled. “I wish I’d thought of it.” A spasm of pain quickly crumbled his smile and he gritted his teeth. “How much further is it?”
“Just a little more,” Mufasa said.
“That’s what you said the last time.” Taka began panting uncontrollably. “It hurts. Do you think he’ll have something for the pain?”
“He has stuff for everything,” Sarabi said. “Don’t worry, Taka. Everything will be all right.”
“How much further is it?”
Sarabi got ahead of him and looked into his face. His good eye did not seem to focus. She realized he was following the sound of Muffy’s feet. “You must keep going,” Sarabi said. “Do it for me.”
Loss of blood and the pain was sending Taka into shock, and he was getting weak in the limbs. “Sassie, I don’t think I can make it. If I die, don't forget me. Promise you won't forget me.”
"Don't say that! You're not going to die! You can make it. You have to!" She leaned into him. “Taka, did you hear the one about the two wildebeests and the zebra?”
“Well there was these two wildebeests, and one said to the other, ‘I bet I can get that zebra to laugh before you can. So he went to the zebra and said, ‘Watch this!’ He stood on his head and stuck out his tongue. But the zebra didn’t laugh. So you know what the other wildebeest did?”
“What wildebeest? I don’t see any.” He stumbled and lay still in the grass.
“Get up, Taka! Come on, you got to keep going!”
She nudged his flank with her nose, prodded him with her paws, and even tugged on his ear. “Get up!”
“You have to!” She nipped his leg.
“Ow!” He looked directly at her.
“Get up or I’ll nip you again.”
Muffy put his snout under Taka and pushed. With a little help from his brother, Taka stood again and began to stumble along. “I can see it from here. Oh thank God.”
Rafiki saw the blood spattered cub and gasped. "Oh gods, Taka, what happened to you??" He ran to his favorite cub and hugged him. Then he held up his hand on one side of Taka's head, then the other. "No sight on that side. This is bad. Very bad. But perhaps I can fix it."
Rafiki got some moistened Alba and squeezed it on the ground. The dust became mud, and he took this mud carefully in his hand. “These are badger marks. If I couldn’t see it, I could sure smell it.” He shook his head. “What on earth possessed you to play with the badgers? You know they are dangerous.”
“It was a white badger,” Taka said. “A nisei. I wanted to get a wish.”
“Oh I see.” He frowned. “You don’t know the difference between a spirit who smells like honey and a badger who smells like a badger? So you wanted a wish, did you?”
“It was my idea,” Mufasa said. “When we died, I wanted my brother to sit by me with the great kings of the past.”
Rafiki softened. “Noble sentiment indeed. But all living things are precious to Aiheu. He gathers them all to himself and sits them where he will, not according to bravery or strength of body, but by the immortal Ka.” He washed his hands in a basin. “If your Ka is full of love and wisdom, it does not matter if you are smaller than your brother.” He patted Taka. “Courage, little one."
Taka gnashed his teeth. His good eye closed tightly and his ears went back.
Rafiki was gentle with the lion cub. The cool mud surrounded Taka’s damaged eye, not hurting as badly as he thought it would. Then with a press of his paw, the mandrill popped the still-intact eye back into its socket, then with infinite care he took water from a gourd dipper and washed away the mud a few grains at a time. “Don’t squint. It makes my job harder.”
When all the blood was washed away, and the eye was clear, Rafiki got a twig of Dwe’dwe and broke it in half. A single drop of resin came out, and he skillfully ran it the length of Taka’s cut, pressing the sides of the wound together carefully with his fingers. He blew on it a few times to make sure the wound would stay closed.
Asumini brought a gourd of water for Taka. She added some herbs for building blood, relieving pain, and a small pinch of Tiko Root for good measure to prevent infection. Finally she added some honey. “It won’t taste good, but it will feel good.”
Taka found the mixture bearable, but he was terribly thirsty after losing so much blood in the heat. And it did feel good.
It seemed like an eternity to Sarabi before Rafiki was finished. She worked up the courage to ask, "Will that eye work again?"
The question made Rafiki nervous. He was afraid of the future, as afraid as any shaman. But he kept his composure and went to work. From a high fork of the tree he got his scrying bowl, added a bit of water to it from a skin bottle, and peered into the reflection of his face.
A wind came out of the west and stirred the water. It carried with it the odor of decay. The ripples died down, and he gasped. "Wait, something appears. It tells me...."
"What?" Sarabi asked impatiently.
Rafiki stared into the water as one possessed. “This is not good.”
A sudden gust of wind swept through the small group, sending the bowl and water careening over. The stench of death was almost unbearable, and Taka looked about into the strange wind. Then he let out a shrill squeel of fear, staring at a shadow in the grass. A shadow without an owner.
Rafiki spotted it too and gathered the three cubs protectively against his sides. The shadow approached and they heard the crunching of pawsteps in the grass, though they saw no blades bend.
“You stay away from them!” Rafiki shouted, clutching the cubs more tightly. “Come no closer! In the name of Mungo! In the name of Pishtim! In the name if Aiheu himself!”
The shadow stopped short but made no sign of retreating. “The little monkey wants to know the future,” a deep, cold voice spoke. “Listen well, Taka, son of Ahadi. The road is long and hard for you. Those who smile to your face bare their teeth as you leave. Friends come from unlikely places, then abandon you in your hour of need. He who is first to touch you shall beget your doom, and she who gives you love shall let it turn to hate. Anger is your only salvation. Arm yourself with cruel hate. Take what is yours, for it shall not be freely given.”
Taka tried to hide behind Rafiki, crouching low and trembling. “No! It’s not so! Rafiki, tell me it’s not so!”
“Don’t listen to it!” Asumini shouted. “It’s a makei! Don’t listen to it! Don’t listen to it!”
“You shall know soon enough,” the voice said mockingly. “Are you as tasty as you are beautiful? If I were a crocodile, I would find out. Perhaps I will be there to watch when it happens.”
Asumini felt beside her on the ground, never once taking her eyes off the shadow. As she looked harder, she thought she could see two glowing eyes. With urgency she groped for a small pouch before the look could transfix her and rob her of her will. Her fingers closed around the pouch.
She flung the pouch. It appeared to strike something.
“Damn you, witch!” the dread voice cried. “It will not be a quick death! It will be slow and painful!”
“Leave us! Now!”
“Slow and painful!”
The shadow disappeared and the wind died to a hush.
Mufasa was horrified. "Is this really going to happen? Can’t you stop it?"
Rafiki was as weak as a newborn kitten. He crawled over to the cringing Taka. “Don’t be afraid, my son. The dirty liar has crawled back into his lair—may he rot!” He stroked the trembling child and wept. “I love you! Poor little Fru Fru! You must love, always love, the way I love you! Hate is the destroyer—part from it and save yourself.”
Taka started to cry. "Do they really hate me?"
"No, Taka," Mufasa said firmly. Then he looked a little embarrassed. "We all love you, even if you do get in trouble all the time."
"But what if it's right?" Sarabi asked.
"It’s all lies," Mufasa said. He went to his brother and draped his paw over Taka's shoulder. "There--I'm the first one to touch you. I'm your best friend, so you don't have to worry any more."
"And I'm the one that loves you most," Sarabi said aloud, not caring who heard it for once. "When we grow up, I'm going to marry you." Without thinking, she touched Taka's face with her warm tongue. The taste of blood reminded her of her mistake. "Oh Taka, are you all right?"
Taka stared at her, then tilted his head. He smiled. "I can see you! I can see you with both eyes!" He nuzzled her affectionately. "You would never hurt me, would you, Sassie?"
"Never! Not in a million years."
Taka gave her a weak lick. "We will always be together, I promise. You did mean it--about marrying me--didn't you?"
"Yes, Taka. That was going to be my wish."
He smiled. "I just know I'm going to catch it when I get home, but it was worth it. Really. Will you walk home with me?"
"Of course I will," Sarabi said.
"Dad won't spank you," Mufasa said. "You don’t spank someone when they’re hurt. You know, you REALLY should have come out when I told you to. Maybe you’ll listen next time."
“Yeah.” He looked at Mufasa closely. “Does it show? Do you think Mom will notice?”
Muffy looked at him carefully as if he were trying to make up his mind, but it was no contest. “She’ll notice all right. I think it’s going to leave a scar.”
The three cubs bounded off as quickly as Taka could keep up. Rafiki had crawled to the wall of the baobab where he rested his head and wept. “Poor little child! Don’t let them hurt him! Please don’t let them hurt him! I would give him the blood of mercy! I would die for him!”
“Darling, are you all right?”
“Who cares, my love! Is Taka all right??”
“Do you think he is?”
“Penda, I’m afraid the shadow is no liar. Evil, yes, but no liar.”
“I know,” Asumini said. "But sometimes it is in the telling that things come true. You did not pray for guidance first--you left yourself unprotected. Evil spirits just wait for chances like this. They speak their piece, filling innocent little heads with foul thoughts to stir up trouble. Sometimes silence is the wisest prophesy of all."
Rafiki hung his head. "I am so ashamed. Can't I undo it? Is there nothing I can do?"
“There is always something you can do. And I’m sure you’ll find it.”
“And what about you?” Rafiki said. “It threatened you.”
“We all have to die someday.” She put her arms around him and kissed him. “It’s how you live that truly matters.”
CHAPTER 8: THE TOKEN
It is difficult, if not impossible, to hide a fight from parents with a hunter’s instincts and an excellent sense of smell. Taka saw the pain in his mother’s eyes as he described the incident in the badger hole to her, and felt mixed sadness and gladness. It was a strange kind of gladness that warms the heart when tears and sympathy spring from love. She pulled him to her side and began to nuzzle him and kiss him.
His father Ahadi left early without much to say. Secretly, Taka had hoped he’d feel a little guilty for making Muffy his heir, and reconsider whom is the bravest of the two. Instead, all Ahadi did was say, “I’ll be back.”
Akase kept the wound clean with her tongue, but even so it began to be stiff and throb with each beat of his heart. Taka began to moan as the pain made each movement painful. He wanted to rest, but he could not sleep but the most fitful of naps.
“How long is this going to hurt?”
“I don’t know, son.” Akase began to lick the wound again tenderly. “I’ll see if Rafiki has something for the pain.”
“I can’t stand it anymore,” Taka said. “Please see what he has. My whole face is burning. I have a headache.”
“I don’t know where Zazu went. I’ll have to send your father as soon as he comes back.”
“Where has dad gone?”
“I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. Try to rest again.”
“I hope he comes back soon. Real soon.”
“So do I.” He closed his eyes and tried to sleep again.
Sarabi came by. “How is he?”
“Is he hurting?”
“Yes, the poor dear. As soon as Ahadi comes back, I’ll send him for Rafiki.”
“I’ll go,” Sarabi insisted. She did not word it as a question, and without waiting for a reply, she headed for the distant baobab tree.
Taka’s fragile sleep was fraught with dreams. His legs jerked, and his mouth and ears twitched. “It’s so dark in here,” he muttered. “Let me go. Let me go!” Akase didn’t know whether or not to wake him. But the decision was soon made by another.
“Son, wake up!”
Taka rolled over and opened his eyes. He saw the large hazel eyes of his father looking down on him. He was dusty. A trace of blood was on his lips, and his nose had been scratched and was bleeding. Taka started.
Looking down beside him, he saw the white badger stained crimson with blood.
“He won’t hurt you again.”
“Dad, you’re bleeding.”
“Am I?” He half-smiled. “I think he got a little desperate when I found his secret exit. Is it my nose?”
“Yes.” Tears began to roll down Taka’s cheeks. “I love you.”
“I love you too. You do believe me, don’t you?”
Taka ran and buried himself in Ahadi’s mane, kissing his wounded nose and nuzzling him. “I'll always believe you! Anything you say!" The cub cooed happily. "Promise we’ll always be friends. Promise?”
“Better yet, I’ll swear it.” He smiled broadly. “You feeling better, champ?”
“Now do you want that story?”
Just then, Yolanda walked up. She glanced at Taka’s face, and before she could catch herself, said, “Oh my God! What happened to him??”
Taka quickly hid his face in horror.
Taka yawned, then sat up, blinking at the bright light streaming into the cave mouth. He ambled over to the entrance, squinting. The pain in his left eye still made him wince, but it was better than it was two nights ago.
Looking about, he spied Sarabi and Elanna having fun while Yolanda watched them comfortably from the shade of an acacia. Little Zira came up behind Yolanda, making the supreme effort to leap over her, but collapsing in a heap on her back.
Taka laughed. “Look at the little frog!”
Sarabi looked around. “Hey, Taka! Are you OK? Wanna play tag?”
Taka ambled over slowly and sat down. He sighed deeply. “I can’t. Rafiki said I have to stay out of the dirt for a week till my eye gets better.”
He stuck his lower lip out in a pout, trying to imitate Rafiki. “Keep da eye clean Master Taka or id’dll get een-FECK-ted.”
“Now Taka,” Yolanda purred with a mild hint of reproof. “Rafiki is only trying to help. You should appreciate what he’s done, saving your eye, and giving you all those herbs for the pain.”
“I know. I’m just bored, Aunt Yolanda. I can’t do nothing!”
“You can’t do ANYTHING.”
“Yeah. That’s what I said.” He scratched some dust up with his back paw and harrumphed. “Stupid old badger! Why did he have to scratch my eye anyway! All I wanted was his stupid blessing! I mean, he could have at least faked it or something!”
“Getting angry doesn’t change what happened,” Yolanda said. “Besides, he died for his crime. You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
“You always take up for the ones that act bad,” Taka complained.
“You’re right, you know. Remember the cub that got in trouble by the watering hole? I said I wouldn’t tell on him if he tried to act better.”
Taka looked down, embarrassed. She nuzzled him gently and he rubbed along her side. “Yeah. I guess it works both ways.”
Elanna brightened. “Hey! We can play ‘King’s Command!’”
Sarabi perked up. “Yeah! You don't have to get dirty to play that.”
Taka looked at Yolanda. “Can I?”
“Sure, I think so.” She nuzzled him gently. “Go ahead.”
“Yeah!” The cubs gamboled off to the shade of some nearby bushes. They lined up in a rough group.
“Who’s gonna be the king?” Elanna asked.
“Let Taka do it!” Sarabi said.
“I’ve never done it before,” he said, looking down. “I’m not sure I know how.”
“That’s ‘cause Muffy always gets to do it,” Elanna said. “But he had to go to see Rafiki this morning. His stomach was hurting cause he ate too much last night.”
“That’s NOT funny, Sassie!” Elanna elbowed her sister roughly. “Cut it out!”
“Okay, okay. But it’s not the first time. One of these days he’s going to explode!”
“I’ll do it!” Zira said.
“You’re a girl,” Sarabi snorted. “You can’t be king. I still say Taka ought to do it!” She smiled at him beguilingly. “For me?”
“Okay. Uhh, lessee...” He squinched his face in thought, then grinned. “King commands you to raise your right forepaw.”
The girls complied. “That was easy,” Elanna said.
A gleam appeared in Taka’s eyes. “King commands you to put your paw down.” They did that too. He grinned, and continued. “King commands you to wave your tails.”
They did, Sarabi giving hers a little flick at the tip each time she waved it.
“Stop waving your tails.”
Sarabi and Elanna kept waving, but Zira dropped hers.
“Aww, come on!”
“The king didn’t command,” Taka smirked. “You’re out, Zira.”
“Phooey!” She growled, scuffing sand angrily with a forepaw. “I don't care! Mufasa’s going to be the real king, anyway; he wouldn’t trick me like that!”
“Come ON, Zira,” Elanna said sharply. “Just wait till we’re done, then you can try again.”
“I don't want to play anymore!” Zira glared at Taka furiously. “I don't want to play with YOU anyway, you creepy little one-eyed freak!”
There was stunned silence as Taka’s chin began to tremble. “I am NOT a one-eyed freak!” he stammered. “You take that back!”
“Freak, freak, Taka’s a freak! He thinks he owns the world, but he’s just a snotty-nosed one-eyed cry baby!”
“STOP IT!” Taka shouted, tears beginning to stream down his cheeks. “Just ‘cause I got cut doesn’t make me a freak! At least I’m not a stuck-up prissy butt like you!” He sprang up and ran, a wailing cry trailing out behind him as he fled across the rocks and vanished behind an outcropping.
Zira fell silent, looking down in shame. Elanna looked stricken, but the anger left clear tracks on Sarabi’s face. She got up and slowly walked over to Zira. “You’re the little snotty-nosed freak! You’re just lucky I’m a lady, or I’d rearrange your face!”
“I didn’t mean to make him cry. I just got mad. You understand, don’t you? I mean, he can be so--”
Yolanda meandered over. “What is going on, here?!”
Sarabi growled, startling Yolanda. “Zira made fun of Taka’s eye ‘cause she got out! She called him a snotty-nosed one-eyed cry baby and a freak!”
Now it was Zira’s turn to sniffle as the lioness glared at her. “But I didn’t mean it! I was just mad!”
“You go inside, young lady.” Yolanda said softly but firmly. “I’ll talk with you later.”
Yolanda stroked Sarabi with a paw. “Calm down, honey tree. Tell me where he went.”
“That way, toward the cistern.”
Yolanda padded quietly around the side of Pride Rock. Pride life was communal, but lion cubs, like other children, need some places to be alone from time to time. The cistern was an ideal location.
Even before Yolanda could see him, she knew where he was. She could hear Taka’s gentle sobs, and her heart sank. He was sprawled on the edge of the spring, paws over his face. “Honey tree,” she purred, drawing near and nuzzling him.
“Go away!” He sniffled loudly. “Leave me alone!”
“Come on, honey tree. It’s Yolanda.” She licked him with her warm, moist tongue. “Shh, it’s all right.”
“It will never be all right.”
“It will take some time, my child. But never say never. Zira is very sorry she hurt your feelings. She really wants to make up, and she will apologize.”
“You should have seen her,” Taka said, shaking. “She hates me!”
“Nobody hates you. Zira has a temper, but she also has a big heart.”
“There you go again.”
“Yes. Taking up for those in the WRONG. And honey tree, she was in the wrong. Having that scar doesn’t make you a freak.”
“Oh yeah? I saw how you looked at me the other night. You think I’m ugly. You think I’m a freak, just like everybody else!”
“Oh, hon!” Yolanda’s eyes stung. “I didn’t think you were ugly! I think you’re beautiful!” She began to groom him. “When you love someone, really LOVE them, you get all knotted up inside every time they get hurt. If I came back from the hunt limping--let’s say I had a broken leg--how would you feel? Would you think I was ugly? A freak? Would you hate me?”
“Oh no! Never!”
“Or would you maybe take in a deep breath and say something like, ‘Oh my gods, what happened to your leg?’”
Taka looked at her in stunned silence. He swallowed hard and tears--compassionate tears--welled up in his eyes. “Do you really love me, Aunt Yolanda?”
The lioness took him by the scruff of the neck and padded over to a corner. She laid down, setting Taka beside her and grooming him. “There are lots of people that will say they love you lots of times. Then there are people who get off their haunches and show you.” She filled his fur with the scent of lioness love. “How does the eye feel, honey tree?”
“It still hurts, but it’s getting better.”
“Good. Now come on, Your Majesty. After your bath, let’s see if I’m still as good at ‘King Commands’ as I used to be.” She grinned mischievously. “I betcha you can’t get ME out.”
Taka grinned back. “Betcha I can!”
She laughed warmly. “You’re on!”
CHAPTER 10: CORBAN!
Avina was always a free-spirited lioness. She enjoyed hunting with her Pride sisters as much as any other lioness, but she also liked to try her skill at stalking prey alone like a leopard. She was uncommonly good at it, as good in single hunting as Uzuri was at leading a group hunt. So even though she married the King’s brother and should be setting a good example for the others, she continued to make solitary forays into the savanna.
To keep from disrupting the night’s hunt, she would stalk by day. Spoiling the evening stalk for the other lionesses would be unforgivable. But hunting by day only increased the challenge, and she relished each kill she could win for the Pride as she showed it off proudly. “I did it by myself, and in broad daylight,” she would boast. The others did not mind as much as might be expected. They enjoyed a good meal as much as she, and Avina always sang out cheerfully, “Dinnertime!” It was her open invitation to whomever wanted to dine on the results of her labors.
With Sarabi and Elanna in the care of their Aunt Akase, Avina went blithely into the tall grass, blending her golden body into the gilt colors of the savanna. Sarabi would be fine playing with Taka, and Muffy would content himself with a few words from Elanna. And few words there would be, for while many thought Muffy would end up marrying Elanna, there was no magic the way there was between Taka and Sarabi.
Avina ghosted through the fields on quiet paws, seeing all and being seen by none. Her pride in her own skills was evident, and well she had reason to be proud.
A herd of Hartebeests did not even hear her approach, though they were rather uneasy, stopping from time to time in order to listen. Hartebeests had a feeling about such things that makes them very hard to stalk.
Ears down, tail down, and legs moving in perfect oneness with the rhythm of the earth mother, Avina kept her eyes on the herd and gradually, methodically closed the gap, stopping from time to time as a head looked up from grazing to glance about.
Chuckling inside, Avina knew that she would have a sure kill. There was a buck on the outside of the herd that she had picked out. He was old, and chances are he would be slower than the rest. She kept on concentrating, contemplating, and closing the gap until a rush was forced upon her.
A Hartebeest looked up and saw her. Without waiting for a reaction, Avina sprang out of hiding, sprinting with all the speed Aiheu gave her toward the old buck.
Indeed, he was slower than the others. The herd opened like a large blossom, but she ignored everything but her target. It was a very private matter staged in the middle of a large herd. Her strength flowed, her courage rose, and the buck was coming closer, closer, ever closer.
The hartebeest changed direction, but so did she. Avina cornered tightly and cleanly, and even managed to gain a little on her target. “You are mine!”
With all her might, Avina sprang as she had sprung many times before. Up and forward she came, rising to loop her strong arm around his neck and pull him over.
But she missed. “Damn!”
A strong hoof slammed her cheek. In an instant, her great strength left her. Tumbling out of control, she rolled to a stop. There, stunned and breathless, she writhed in agony, clutching at her face, and letting quickly go when it burned like fire. She tried to cry out, but her jaw hung open crookedly and all that came out was a dull, wordless shriek. Anger and disappointment quickly gave way to terror at her predicament. She desperately needed a friend. Someone, anyone. There was no one. As she lay on the ground, she wondered if she might die there alone.
“No,” she insisted, summoning all her strength to pull her wounded body from the bonds of gravity and stand once more.
When she could struggle to her feet, she felt something drip from her chin. Blood and saliva were dripping profusely from her battered face, out of the corner of her mouth. She started to panic.
Gasping, she fought to think clearly through the muddled haze. “I have to get to Rafiki,” she thought. Unsure where she was, she lost valuable time trying to focus on the distant horizon and find the baobab tree. “Aiheu abamami—Lord, give me strength.”
She began her long march in the hot sun. Her useless jaw seared her with each step, and she fought to keep her eyes focused.
Avina was staggering across the grassland, lamenting her crushed face and the death of her happiness. It was a foolish accident, one that she never should have had, and since she was on a solo hunt there was no one to help her. She had leaped for a hartebeest, and all was well until she felt almost like someone had grabbed her ankle and pulled. The hartebeest struck her in the cheek, burying her under a mountain of pain.
She tried once to feel with a paw to see what had happened. The tip of a shattered jaw had stuck through the skin. It was like a sharp dagger, covered with her lifeblood. “Oh Gods,” she thought. “My face! My face--is gone! It’s gone!” She wondered what she looked like, and what she would do if the pain did not lessen.
What would Shaka think when he saw her? He would still love her, for he was a good and gentle lion, but her beauty was gone forever. And most likely she would never hunt again. What a foolish waste! What a stupid thing to do! And that is if she even lived to see him again. All of her cleverness, all of her boasting and bragging was now a reproach to her. “What a fool I was!” she thought. “What an idiot among fools!” Now she would be a charity case, an example that parents would hold up to their daughters when they acted recklessly.
She staggered forward, trying to hold her head up. It was not easy. Her neck was strained, her panting dried out her throat, and her eye was running on the side where she had been kicked. “Keep going, girl,” she thought. “I can’t stop. I have to find Rafiki. Please, gods, let him be home!”
The sun tormented her. Flies were gathering in hosts to plague her, and she could not raise her paw to swat at them. In fact, she could barely raise her paw to step forward.
Her eyes began to go out of focus, and she could not compensate. The world was growing darker, and the image of distant trees began to sway and shimmer. “No, I can’t die! I have two cubs! I have to get home! I have to get home!”
Blood had covered her chest, running down her legs. The smell of it entered the side of her nose she could still breathe through. Surely it had traveled other places by now.
There were footsteps in the grass around her.
“Who is there?” The words came out almost unrecognizable as speech so she painfully and slowly uttered. “Who...is...there??”
It was a hyena voice. “Help me. I’m the wife of the Prince Consort.” The words burned like fire. “If you...get me to Rafiki...my husband will...reward you. Imagine...all you can eat!”
“That’s what I’m imagining right now.”
“No! Don’t do this! In the name of God!”
“Nothing personal, dearie,” the voice said. As if at a signal, a hunting party came out of the grass and attacked her.
CHAPTER 11: BORDER PATROL
It was Shaka’s turn to do border patrol, a job he didn’t like thought he didn’t really hate it either. It did take away time he could be spending with his family. He would have been playing with Sarabi and Elanna, but instead he was defending the Pride Lands against enemies that rarely ever show up.
Young Isha padded along beside him. Her companionship kept him from going stir crazy on the long walk. While Isha was not exactly royalty, she was his half sister and was a lot like her father. Shaka as an older brother felt especially protective of her and was flattered that she would travel the boundary with him.
He amused her by remembering the long passages of the Leonid Saga he had memorized as a youth from his father. Shaka was good at reciting verse, and he was a living encyclopedia of lore and ceremonial prose. He sang in his rather good voice one of his favorite songs.
“Moko Greatmane was a great cat,
And a great big cat was he,
He climbed up over the mountain pass
to see what he could see,
As the cat climbed up, all the rain climbed down
and the wind was blowing fast....”
“Hello there!” shouted Zazu. “Sorry to interrupt Your Highness, but there are hyenas on the eastern meadow! They’ve killed something.”
“Thanks,” Shaka said. “I’ll get on it.”
“Can I watch?” Isha said.
“MAY I watch,” Shaka corrected. “You MAY if you stay back.”
He was looking for a little excitement anyhow. Chuckling to himself about the impression he’d make on the hyenas, he loped across the savanna and plunged through the reeds. “Let them hunt on the Pride Lands, eh? Not as long as I’m on the job.” His easy but massive lope made up the distance rather quickly. Isha on her gangly legs kept up as best she could.
At last they spotted them, eating quickly as if they knew it was a matter of urgency.
He roared at the hyenas. They growled, but withdrew from the carcass and stood back a few yards. “Stay here, Isha.”
“What is it?”
“The color! My Gods, it’s a lioness!” He sniffed the air and began to tremble. “Oh no! Please God! Please no! Please God!”
He ran over, his heart in his mouth. He didn’t know for sure until he got close enough to turn what remained of the face with his paw. The final look of horror still hung on Avina’s shattered face. He stumbled back a few steps and began to wretch, losing scraps of his last meal in the grass. “Oh Aiheu, help me!”
As soon as Isha found her voice, she began shrieking, nuzzling the fur on Avina’s one intact haunch. “Vini! Vini! No!”
For a moment, his grief and rage were competing like two jackals fighting over a rabbit. For the vital moment, rage won out. His eyes red with hate fixed on his target. “The dirty bastards! I’ll kill the dirty bastards!!”
He took out after the hyenas at full tilt. For a lion, his onslaught was something terrible to behold. But he was built for power, not for speed, and was unable to catch up with the lighter-built hyenas the way a lioness might have. Instead, he kept up with them.
The scavengers flew across the savanna swiftly as evening swallows. They put on one final spurt and with great relief crossed the border into the elephant graveyard where their grounds began.
They stopped for a moment to look back—a foolish mistake. Shaka kept coming. He ran over the invisible line that delineated his authority. He half-ran, half-stumbled down the slope and into the dusty realm of the dead. Finally, one of the hyenas stumbled over a pile of bones and headed to a terrifying stop.
Shaka pounced, and in one horrifying arc covered the distance to the unfortunate hyena. The scavenger found himself trapped under the awesome weight of Shaka’s front paws. The lion leaned back or he would have crushed him at once. He had other plans, and merely kept the captive gasping in a tight embrace of rage.
Shaka was on top of him very quickly, bearing the hyena’s small body down with crushing weight. “You killed my wife! You ripped out my heart, and I will rip out yours! I give you a moment to pray to your god.”
Before he knew what was happening, Shaka was surrounded by hyenas on all sides. They seemed to materialize from the dust and emerge from the skulls and caves.
“Let him go!” said Amarakh, the ruling Roh’mach. “You are trespassing on our lands. You are holding one of my people.”
“He’s a murderer!” Shaka narrowed his eyes at her. “He killed my wife in cold blood, and he was on my land! She had two cubs, Amarakh. Two cubs that won’t have a mother coming home tonight! She was alive when they ripped her! Alive!”
“I will investigate it. I know him. He’s a trouble maker anyhow, and you can be sure I will punish him if he’s guilty.”
“IF??” Shaka looked down at the trapped hyena. “I saw him over her body. Zazu saw the kill. You tell her. TELL HER, VERMIN!”
The trapped hyena squealed in fear. “Somebody help me!”
“You can’t extract a confession to a murder by death threats.” Amarakh glared back. “This is my land, and I give you my word we will investigate within the customs of our law. But you must let him go. Leave—now!”
“I do not believe you.”
“You are not in a position to negotiate,” Amarakh said. “Leave at once. I will see your brother the King tonight. We will talk.”
“You are right,” he said. “You are absolutely right. I am NOT in a position to negotiate.” Shaka looked up at the sky. “Aiheu abamami!” he cried in his deep grief. Then he quickly dropped his head and bit with tremendous force, snapping the hyena’s neck and almost severing his head. The body twitched spasmodically before collapsing with eyes staring sightlessly into space. A deep gasp whispered through the assembled throng. Then with bitter rage, the crowd closed in on Shaka.
Isha watched the living wall of hyenas cover him. She watched horrified as he flailed about for a moment, managing to inflict grievous wounds on a couple before falling. The lion rose once again for a moment. For just that moment Isha could see Shaka's bloodied face. His glance met hers for a moment as he shrieked, “Run, Isha! Run!”
Tearing her eyes away from the carnage, she bolted toward home and safety.
One of the hyenas looked at Amarakh. “Shouldn’t we kill her before she tells the others?”
Amarakh cuffed him--hard. “Will I have Roh’kash abandon us as murderers? Do you not know the law, Skulk?”
“I know the law,” he hissed. “When a lion crushes your skull, you die. How many more must die, Roh’mach?”
CHAPTER 12: IT WAS AWFUL!
Sarabi, Elanna, Mufasa and Taka were playing outside the cave. Isha pushed past them and did not answer their greetings.
Ahadi was in the cave discussing something with another adult. Isha came in wild-eyed, panting, at full-tilt, and tried to interrupt. Of course she had interrupted before but this was different. She was hysterical.
Ahadi looked about. “Namabi, your daughter needs you. Please see to her.”
The lioness came and began to push Isha along with her nose. “Come on, Honey Tree. Tell me all about it. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Isha regained her tongue at the last moment and looked back at the king.
Ahadi looks about. “He’s not here, Honey Tree.”
“HELP! IT’S SHAKA!”
“Isha, calm down and tell me what’s wrong. Is Shaka in trouble?”
“Oh, it was awful! So awful!”
The cubs tried to hear what was goin on, but couldn’t make out more than the name Avina. “The girls” had no idea of what had happened to their mother. Zazu was afraid. He tried hard not to show it.
There were some voices from the cave. Urgent, upset voices.
Suddenly the cubs scrambled as Ahadi came bursting from the cave. “To me! Pride Rock, to me!”
The lionesses came from every direction at the urgent tone of his summons. Ahadi looked down at the four cubs. “Zazu, take them in the cave.”
“Sire, what’s wrong?”
“Yes, Sire. Isha, come along now.”
“No. She is leading the way.”
The hornbill ushered the other cubs into the protection of the stone hallway and as soon as they were a safe distance away, Ahadi told the lionesses what they had guessed all along. “We are at war. The red of tomorrow’s dawn will be painted in blood!”
The party of lions reached the boundaries of the elephant graveyard, still shaking from what they saw of Avina. Waiting for them there was a large group of hyenas, and in front was Amarakh.
The lions showed fangs, daring anyone to bother them.
“Come no further,” Amarakh said. “This is the start of our lands and the end of yours. You know the law.”
“I know the law,” Ahadi said, stepping across the border and toward the chief. “Do you know the law? The law says my brother’s blood has bought me passage.” Ahadi went to the spot where the turf was flattened and smeared with blood. A few strands of mane clung to the grass. The lionesses stepped across the line and came to his side.
Amarakh scowled, but glanced from side to side to make sure she was protected. “He took the law into his own teeth and killed one of ours on our own land without a trial. We offered to hold an inquest, a fair trial by the law of our people. But he turned us down and killed a male whose wife is pregnant.”
“So you murdered him!”
“We couldn’t wait for him to kill others! He was too dangerous to place under arrest!”
“No doubt he was dangerous after his wife was ripped alive! We have seen the evidence.”
“We had not, Sire. We could not be sure, and we could not wait to be sure.” Amarakh motioned for Fabana to be brought forward. “Here is the dead male’s wife.” One of her eyes had been clawed out and healed with a brutal scar. She cowered, whimpering before the mighty King.
“If you would have revenge,” Amarakh said, “let all the people see that you fight honorably with her, one on one. Let them see that you have given her the FAIR chance to defend the honor of her family.”
The quaking hyena female stammered, “Have mercy! I am with child!”
Ahadi looked at her with some pity. “Now you know what it feels like to lose someone you love. The Roh’mach is courting death to toy with my sympathies like this, but she has won this round. You will not be harmed.”
But Ahadi looked sternly at Amarakh. “Because your people have killed my brother, and because his wife was basely murdered, you are Corban on penalty of death. No more shall you scavenge on the Pride Lands. Not until the last of the group that killed Avina is dead.”
“But my Lord, we will all starve!”
“Perhaps a few hungry nights will motivate you to enforce your own laws, Amarakh. Besides, this is not such a bad spot to scavenge. You never know when an elephant might show up to die.”
Yolanda cried, “I say kill ‘em all—NOW!”
“Enough!” Ahadi said. “How many more cubs must lose a mother before the sun sets?” The lion then looked back at Amarakh. “It is up to your Roh’kash if you survive. You will get no help from me.”
She held up her head and stared back. “You mock me because you are powerful, and I am but a hyena. But the gods know I must be fair to my people as you must be fair to yours! Grief has blinded you, impaired your judgement and robbed you of your wisdom.”
Ahadi said slowly and deliberately, “Weren’t you the blind one, Amarakh? The guilty reeked of Avina’s blood. Was it so hard to give up even one of them for ripping her alive? Have you never been in love?”
Amarakh looked down. “Yes I have.”
“And still you did not forgive my brother. Be glad I do not make you tell his daughters what happened. That punishment is mine for I let her hunt alone. I will have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Ahadi turned and left with the lionesses trailing behind. “Aiheu abamami,” he stammered. “Give me the strength to say the words!”
“I’ll tell them,” Yolanda said gently.
“No. But bless you for asking.”
Behind them a hyena voice began chanting, “Might makes right! Justice fails! Might makes right! Justice fails!”
Two joined, then three more. Within a few moments the greater part of the clan was shouting in unison. Above its roar Amarakh’s lone voice called out, “Silence! Silence! We’ll all be killed! How many more must die??”
The hyenas went right to the edge of the border calling louder and louder. “Might makes right! Justice fails!”
Yolanda drew up alongside Ahadi and asked, “We could have finished the hyenas. Why didn’t you didn’t give the word?”
He sighed deeply. “Old Madu once told my dad that he would live a short but happy life..that I would face troubles but would prevail over them if I had character. Obeying my father’s laws is my only hope.”
“Maybe he’s wrong. Hasn’t Madu ever been wrong?”
“Yolanda, what a good friend you are.” He walked into her side and let her rest her face in his mane as they strode together. “I only hope I will not die before my sons have had their mantlement. If I die before Akase, promise me that you will look out for her.”
“I promise,” she said. “But I’m sure you will outlive us all.”
One afternoon, Ahadi heard the signal that there were trespassers in the pride lands. Ahadi came to the promontory and looked out at the distant approaching band of hyenas. He was not sure what was on the wind, but he had a good idea what was about to happen. He sent out a delegation of lionesses headed by Uzuri to confirm his suspicions.
One of the hyenas, surrounded by the others, whimpered, his ears drooping and his tail hanging limply.
The lionesses fell in around the hyena guard, walking at a distance but still menacing with their strong, lithe bodies looming like giants around them. The prisoner began to shudder. “I didn’t want to hurt her! I swear!”
One of the lionesses glanced over at him and scowled, showing her fangs. “So, you’re the little wretch that killed her! I’ll make you pay for that meal, scum!”
Amarakh said. “The King alone will pass judgment on the prisoner. The King alone!”
Of course, ringed by so many powerful lionesses, Amarakh’s shouting was so much empty noise. She began to feel apprehensive herself.
Ahadi stood on the promontory next to Rafiki. The prisoner caught sight of them and began to squeal and yelp, struggling against the hyenas that held him fast. “Oh gods! Don’t do this! I’m innocent! Let me go! Oh gods, he’s going to kill me!”
“Quit whining like a pup!” Amarakh said. “We have our dignity. Face him the way you faced Avina.”
“Amarakh!” he shrieked. “I didn’t do it! Let me go! In God’s name, let me go!”
Ahadi watched the agony in the hyena’s eyes. “There goes the most unfortunate of creatures,” he said to Akase. “I expected an arrogant buck and instead I got a terrified boy.”
Ahadi had been told the usual lioness tales as a cub about the nasty poachers. He saw this little adolescent whimpering and begging him to let him live one more minute. He saw the looks on the faces of those who brought him. The disturbing quality about this is that it flew in the face of all he'd heard about hyenas. He saw the worst and the best at a glance.
“What is going on?” Rafiki asked. He looked at Ahadi curiously, but the Lion King sat immobile, as if carved of stone. The mandrill felt a touch behind him and turned to see Yolanda, her normally soft features now hard edged with anger. She bent and whispered softly in his ear. The mandrill began to tremble as he heard the details of first Avina’s, and then Shaka’s death. Looking at the shaking hyena before him, he realized what was happening and moaned softly.
At the base of Pride Rock, two more lionesses appeared, flanking the prisoner on either side as he scrabbled up the slope, babbling incoherently between choking sobs.
The hyena tried to hold himself steady as he reached the top of the path, but when he turned to see Ahadi sitting silently in the mouth of the cave waiting for him, he began to whimper again. He’d seen what happened to his companion, and he trembled like a leaf. “Roh’kash, help me! Help me!”
Rafiki watched in horror.
“This is Gur’mekh,” Amarakh said. “He called for Avina’s life. His jaws are stained red with her blood. We bring him to your justice.”
Gur’mekh looked into the face of Ahadi. He could see death in his eyes. His knees began to buckle, and he urinated on the cave floor. “Roh’kash, help me! Help me!”
Ahadi came over to him. Quietly, without malice, he purred, “I do not want to kill your immortal Ka. Aiheu will decide. I give you a chance to admit your guilt.”
“Have mercy! Oh gods!” Gur’mekh fell on his back, soiling his fur in the urine as he began to paw at Ahadi. “I don’t want to die!”
“I know, but that is not an option. You will have a chance to be right with your God. Now tell me Gur’mekh, they didn’t torture it out of you, did they? Are you guilty as they say?”
Gur’mekh’s chin trembled. “Please spare them,” he stammered. “Forgive the others. I talked them into it. All my fault. The Roh’mach didn’t know—I swear. All my fault. And I’m sorry. So sorry!”
“It’s good that you’re sorry. Your friends are glad as well, for I will not punish them. Now don’t you feel better for telling the truth?”
“I thi-think so. Yes.”
“Now then, I want you to think really carefully. I can make it swift and nearly painless. But the gods may not think you have suffered enough. Or you can suffer now and die forgiven.”
Gur’mekh tried to think clearly. The enormous towering bulk of the lion before him and the certainty of his own death clouded his reason, and worse he had to pronounce the instrument of his own death. “I don’t know,” he cried. “I don’t know!”
“But you must know, Gur’mekh. When you do something, be it good or bad, there are consequences. I would not want to face God after an easy death. I would take my punishment now, but it is your decision.”
Gur’mekh’s jaw began to tremble. “Roh’kash,” he stammered, “Great Mother, help me!” He gasped for air, his heart pounding. “I want to be sure. Hurt me bad. Hurt me bad.”
Ahadi looked around. “Take the cubs outside. Far away. Cassie, you may want to leave as well.” Ahadi glanced at Rafiki, but the mandrill could neither move nor answer.
One by one the lionesses got up and herded their cubs before them. Even Mufasa and Taka had to leave. Gur’mekh watched one lioness who had to carry her tiny cubs one by one in her jaws. As she moved them, she counted off the last remaining moments of the hyena’s life. Cubs with their whole lives ahead of them. Gur’mekh would have given anything in that moment to have been one of them.
Time dragged by as the young and fearful walked away. Soon there were only a few adult lions, two mandrills, and all of the hyenas, none of whom budged. Gur’mekh kept silently repeating his prayer. “Roh’kash, Great Mother, save my spirit. Roh’kash, Great Mother, save my spirit....”
Finally, Ahadi nodded gravely. “You ripped her alive. If you would find peace, I will have to return in kind.” He looked upward. “Oh gods, look down on your child. Witness his suffering and accept his atonement.”
“If you do this, do you promise you’ll forgive me? Promise?”
“I promise, son. While you can, go as far as you can. Your friends will have to drag you the rest of the way.”
“I understand.” Gur’mekh shut his eyes and whimpered. “Help me, Mother Roh’kash!!!”
Ahadi swept his abdomen with his outstretched claws. The flesh parted with a crisp sound like a gnu plucking a mouthful of grass.
In a private hell of pain, Gur’mekh shrieked all the air from his lungs, gasped in and shrieked again. His cries were deafening in the confines of the cave. Hyenas winced. Gasping, he lay curled tightly about his shattered abdomen, shuddering as blood seeped into his fur and his inner secrets showed through the five parallel wounds. Was this what she felt before she died? Was this what Avina endured? No wonder the lion was so stern.
After the initial shock, he stretched out as well as he could and looked down at the damage. Gur’mekh then looked around at the others and their expressions of horror. His glance fixed on one young female and his mouth moved, but the initial wave of pain was too great and all that came out was a thin, reedy squeal.
Every eye was fixed on him, and he tried to redeem one last bit of pride for himself. With small wordless utterances of agony, he tried to struggle to his feet. The weight of his belly tugged at the deep gashes and he began to yelp as tears ran down his face. His paws slipped from under him and he fell.
Sitting on the rocks Isha heard the heart rending cries of pain. She put her head down and put her paws over her ears to drown out the sound.
Gur’mekh gasped for air, foaming at the mouth and shuddering on the floor. His mangled, bleeding entrails were laid open to the horrified audience of hyenas. The Roh’mach had to look away, covering her face with a paw. Ahadi looked at his paw red with Gur’mekh’s blood and glanced again and the unfortunate wretch gasping out his life.
“Help me!” Gur’mekh hoarsely cried. “Can’t get up!”
The hyenas could not stir. They were planted like trees. Ahadi looked down with the gentleness of a lioness moving her cubs and took the back of the hyena’s neck, lifting him upright. “Can you walk?”
“I’ll try.” With all the courage he could muster, he took a few hesitant steps, his abdomen exposing bits of bleeding entrails. As he stumbled forward, blood streamed down his hind legs and left crimson tracks. “Roh’kash, great mother, my spirit longs to nurse at your side.” He gasped, struggling to finish the prayer of confession. “Forgive me. Brother Sun, Sister Moon, do not shine on my transgressions. Shine only on my good deeds. Let my debt be paid.” Tears began to flood his cheeks. “Oh gods, it hurts!”
With each beat of his pounding heart, blood fled his broken body. He moved one paw at a time, crawling toward the promontory. In his wake were a string of bloody pawprints. The crowd parted in horror as the ripped hyena made his torturous journey into the arms of death.
“Did that make you feel any better?” Amarakh asked, shuddering with emotion. “Maybe you want to save us the trouble of dragging him off. I’ve never tried Hyena myself, but you might have a taste for it.”
“Watch your tongue!” Ahadi said.
“Might makes right!” a couple of hyenas cried half-heartedly, “Justice fails!” They looked about at the huge lions that surrounded them and debated whether to speak further or be silent.
“Don’t fight,” Gur’mekh said. “Let it end here.”
“Can I help, Gur’mekh?” one of the hyenas asked. “Do you need anything?”
Gur’mekh looked up into the eyes of the horrified hyena. “Pray.”
“I will pray for you,” Yolanda said, tears running down her cheeks. “Why did you kill Avina? Why?”
He looked at her. “Mistake,” he said, gagging on a stream of his own blood and drool. “Wrong. I was wrong.”
Gur’mekh’s agony was so great that his head swam. He stumbled, and some of the hyenas rushed to prop him upright. Reduced to a bare crawl, he had to will each step up the promontory. Rafiki had to look away.
Ber drew close, no more malice in his tone. “Pray, Gur’mekh. While you still draw breath, pray. Roh’kash is coming for you.”
“Roh’kash,” he weakly stammered. “Great mother…” His breath came in short, swift pants and he gagged, coughing a pink river of fluid out of his airway. “Pain!”
Gur’mekh began to wretch up bloody scraps, wincing with the effort but helpless to stop. His moans were broken by fits of gagging. Each fit squeezed more pain out of his shattered body. Retching again, he shrieked, “God, let me die!”
One of the hyenas offered to push him off the tip of the rock but he gasped, “No! No!” Gur’mekh looked up into the sky. “Help me please!” He began to wretch up some bloody scraps, wincing with the effort but helpless to stop. His piteous moans were broken by fits of gagging. “God, let me die!”
The king came out to the end of the promontory. Gur’mekh looked up and saw Ahadi’s large, sad face. He looked into those eyes and saw the goodness and sorrow Ahadi felt for him.
“Please don’t drop me,” he asked in his desperation. “I’m afraid.”
Ahadi reached down and whispered, “You’re the bravest creature I’ve ever met. Relax, son—it will be over soon.”
Gur’mekh smiled weakly and exposed his throat. “Say good bye to my mom?”
“If I can.” The lion took it gently but firmly, kissing away the burden of his mangled body. In a few moments his eyes closed and a look of serenity came to his face. Ahadi held Gur’mekh off the end of the promontory for one moment, then released him. His body tumbled through empty space in an oddly graceful unfettered flight to the waiting meadow grass. Gur’mekh had found peace at last.
Ahadi glared at Amarakh and told her curtly, “He may be forgiven, but you are not. This boy died bravely but you were a coward, letting the crowd run free rather than trying to stop them. Then you insulted me in my own house, and you expect mercy? Be glad we have the law—it’s all that keeps me from killing you myself. Now get out, all of you!”
“We will take the body and leave, Sire.”
“No, Amarakh. Leave the body. I want you out quickly—GET OUT NOW!” He roared loudly and terribly, and the hyenas beat a hasty retreat.
Ahadi’s head bent low. The light wind stirred his mane, but otherwise he sat still as a stone at the end of the promontory. Several moments passed without a sign, without a response. Then when Rafiki felt he must say something or burst, he approached the lion. Ahadi looked up.
The young mandrill looked into Ahadi’s face, deep into his eyes. The depth of sadness clung to him like wet grass.
“Go ahead, my son. Call me a tyrant. I won’t be angry.”
Rafiki continued to look searchingly into Ahadi’s large eyes. “You’re grieving for him, aren’t you?”
“I just saw another death. Killing the boy did not bring back Avina or my brother.”
“You did what you had to do,” Rafiki said, looking at the forepaw still stained red with hyena blood. “Like it or not, you are king.”
“King,” Ahadi said disparagingly. “Because my father was a king and he died. Shaka was all I had left of my family. Even Sarabi and Elanna have each other. Now I have no one.” Tears welled up in Ahadi’s eyes and he moaned softly. “I’m alone!”
“As long as someone loves you, you’ll always have a family.” Rafiki put his arms around Ahadi’s soft mane and held him.
CHAPTER 14: ONE OF THOSE DAYS
Rafiki gazed up at the expanse of blue above him, wondering what he had done to anger the gods. Nothing had gone right that day. Climbing down the bole of the tree that morning, he got a sharp splinter in his palm. He managed to extract half when it broke off under the skin. The spot burned, despite the medicinal balm he had rubbed into it, and it would likely become infected. Grumbling, Rafiki had made his way to the water hole with a handful of gourds, intending to fill them for later use. He had filled perhaps half of them and had paused to soothe his aching palm in the cool water, when movement caught his eye. The gourd he had just filled tipped over, dragging the others with it. He flailed at them, but too late. The gourds had been tied together, and the weight of the full ones dragged the rest down into the depths. Despairing of diving in after them, he looked for replacements, but there were none. There would be frequent trips for water ahead.
As the evening stalked in, he gave up and headed home. As he climbed up the trunk, he glared at the rough spot where he had acquired the splinter and avoided it. Reaching the lower branches, he sighed gratefully and made his way over to his favorite spot. As he sat, he felt a terrible stinging. Yelping in pain, he leapt up and flailed wildly at his backside. An echoing sting bolted up his arm, and his palm opened. A yellow and black hornet buzzed about his head angrily before streaking away to find a safer perch.
Rafiki’s eyes watered as he eyed his puffing palm, then examined his wounded backside. Great. Now BOTH hands hurt, as well as his seat. There was no way to sit or lay that was not painful except on his stomach. And he was almost afraid to try it. Finally, cursing inaudibly, he flopped onto his belly, crossed his arms, and laid his head upon them.
Asumini descended from the upper branches warily. “What’s going on? I thought I had a water buffalo trapped in here with me.”
He snorted glumly. “No, but from the feel of it, my rear will be as big as one before long.”
She laughed and embraced him, kissing his cheek. “I’ll make a poultice for the stings. Oh, smile, Rafiki! How can you be so down on such a fine evening?”
"What's so fine about it??"
“Because I am carrying your child.”
Rafiki was silent for a moment. He swallowed, feeling a lump in his throat as he looked into the shining eyes of his young wife. His pain was forgotten in the magic of the moment. "Oh, Asumini! Are you sure?"
“Does it please you?”
“Oh gods!” He embraced her and rocked her gently from side to side. “Bless you! Maybe a little Asumini, or a little Rafiki....”
“What do you want most, my husband? A son or a daughter?”
“Yes!” He kissed her. “Son or daughter regardless, it shall be beloved, just like the mother!”
CHAPTER 15: PENDA
Asumini knelt by the the stream to wash her face in the clean current. It was a long walk from the baobab, but she dared not risk the soft mud around the rim of the water for a chance at some murky water.
She heard a few light hoof taps and looked around at the small group of impala that surrounded her almost before she knew it. The forest of legs and long scimitar horns was very intimidating though she knew they ate only plants.
“Look!” one of the calves said, “It’s Rafiki!”
“No, daughter. Don’t bother the little monkey.”
Asumini looked about. “I’m Rafiki’s wife, little fellow. It’s all right.”
The calf gamboled over. Asumini had to force herself to get used to being approached by large animals, and though the calf was very young he still outranked her in size and strength.
“Did you know I got another tooth coming in?” he asked, opening his mouth wide.
Asumini took a peek inside. “So you do! You keep getting much bigger and I’ll have to ask you how the weather is up there!”
He laughed. “Silly monkey!”
The mother came over and nudged the calf aside. “I’m sorry he bothered you, Ma’am.”
“Oh it’s all right. You have a fine son there. One day he’ll grow up to be a great…”
Just then the lookout said, “Lion!”
As quickly as they came, the impala splashed through the stream and scrambled up the other side. It was short of a full-fledged rout, so they seemed to understand it was not a hunt. Still it payed to be safe.
Uzuri pushed through the reeds and looked about. “Oh, there you are! Rafiki said I’d find you here.”
“I was just cleaning up,” Asumini said, splashing her face a couple of times in the disturbed water and shaking off her hands.
“Oh I didn’t want a favor. I just came to ask you about the little visitor.” Uzuri drew close, looked at Asumini closely, and smiled. “I hear the light is in your eyes.”
Asumini smiled self-consciously. “Word travels fast around here.”
“Especially with a husband that’s as proud of you as he is. You’re very lucky.”
“I AM lucky,” Asumini said, hugging the lioness around the neck. “You came all the way out here to congratulate me?”
“That…and to discuss business. It’s never too early to choose a good midwife.”
Asumini smiled, amused. “I’m probably the first mandrill to have a lioness for a midwife.”
“And you’re getting the very best,” Uzuri said, grooming her forepaw and examining it intently. Then she stretched and went to the water for a quick drink. Of course with lions even a quick drink takes a very long time.
“Who is it?” Asumini said.
“Me of course.” Uzuri looked up and smiled. “I said you’re getting the very best.”
Rafiki was grinding a little bonewort for his aching joints when Ahadi came by with Taka and Mufasa in tow. “I just heard the news,” Ahadi said with a wink. “You old devil you, you’re still going strong!”
“What happened?” Muffy asked.
“He’s going to have a cub!” Ahadi said.
“Correction,” Rafiki answered. “My WIFE is going to have a cub. Uh…baby.”
“Well all right!” Mufasa said. “I’ve never seen a little whatever-you-are.”
“He’s a mandrill,” Taka said. “That’s a forest dwelling monkey.” Taka looked at Rafiki in the eyes as if he were trying to find something there. “A baby, huh? I guess you’re really excited.”
“No kidding! It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to old Rafiki…something I thought I’d never have…a child of my own.”
Ahadi nodded. “I want to see a little whatever you are as soon as he or she gets here.” He started off into the grass. “Let’s check warthog kopje.”
Mufasa fell in line, but Taka stayed back. The king noted this and did not call for him—he trusted Rafiki completely with his sons.
“I’m glad of the company, little Fru Fru. Would you like a story?”
“Not right now,” the cub said. “I want to know about the baby. Is it really the greatest thing that happened to you?”
Rafiki was about to say yes before he saw the look in Taka’s eyes. “Well it’s one of the greatest things that happened to me. I remember when I first met Asumini and when I saw my first lion and the day my old master said I was ready to be a shaman and made me a totem out of clay. I still have that.”
“How about me? Am I on your list at all?”
Rafiki studied the cub. “Oh, somebody I know is a little jealous.”
“You said I was the son you never had. Now you’re going to have one and I’ll be out.”
“Oh heavens no!”
“You said it was the best thing that happened to you. That’s what you said!”
Rafiki sighed. “Do you mind if I ask you a very personal question? Tell me Fru Fru, if you knew your mom and dad were caught in a brush fire, overcome by smoke, and you only had time to pull one of them to safety, which one would you save?”
Taka was visibly upset by the question. “I’d save both of them.”
“But what if you couldn’t? Which one couldn’t you do without?”
Taka got indignant. His hackles raised and his tail lashed. “That’s mean! You shouldn’t even SAY that—it might make it happen!” He turned three times in a circle and said, “Aiheu abamami!”
“There’s a reason why I asked that.” Rafiki took the pouting cub in his arm and began to cuddle him until his hackles lowered and his scowl softened. “Taka-penda, sometimes you can love two people so much that you can’t choose which one you like the best—or which one you would save.” Rafiki drew close and kissed Taka. “You like Asumini, don’t you?”
“And she treats you like her own son and gives you treats and scratches behind your ears, right? Well she loves me too and I love her and I love you and you love her. You see when the three of us are together, everyone feels loved and nobody feels left out. When our baby comes, the love will grow to surround the four of us.”
Taka realized the point Rafiki was making and he relaxed. “The five of us. You love Muffy too, right?”
“Sure I do. Absolutely. And your little friend Sarabi and her mother and your mom and dad as well. Lots of people. But there are some things I save for the two of us, like that extra piece of tiko root and a very special favor I’d like to ask of you.”
“Be very sure before you say yes. Twins are almost never heard of among our people, and she will have no neighbors of her own kind. Do you know how happy I would be if you would be a brother to our child? It would mean so much to me.”
Taka cracked a grin. “I can do that!”
“I knew you could,” Rafiki said, kissing him again and rubbing under his chin. “Now how about some tiko root and a good story?”
Asumini had gotten used to some of the odd quirks of living with Rafiki. She knew that in the middle of a quiet afternoon her husband might straighten suddenly and say, “Visitors are coming.” The silent tread of a lioness was a study in quiet even when she was not on the hunt, but Rafiki once explained he could feel the approach in his thoughts. He called it their ‘wind’ for it stirred him unseen the way the wind stirred the trees to dancing. Therefore she was not surprised when he left her to peel fruit alone and got his pouch. “We have guests.”
Uzuri was walking upright and looking very regal. Yolanda had a pained expression on her face and looked supremely uncomfortable even though she had no limp.
“Hodi, mwenzi! What can Rafiki do for you ladies?”
“It’s that time of year,” Uzuri said. “We’ve had our first casualty.”
The mandrill shook his head. “The huntress is now the prey, eh?” He took his walking staff and strode over to his suffering friend. Yolanda had four lumps on her back, the work of a Jambazi. Those little flies were the horror of lions everywhere, laying eggs against their skin. The larvae would burrow into the flesh and cause painful welts as they fed and grew.
“You’ll be glad to know I have some brakana root,” the mandrill said quietly, rubbing Yolanda under the chin and behind the ears. “It will not be painful this time.”
Yolanda sighed with relief and straightened. “Well, monkey, have at it!”
Rafiki knew Yolanda was allergic to the acrid marjou pulp he rubbed into the coats of most of the Pride Rock lions to rid them of insect pests. She found dealing with the Jambazi more tolerable than sneezing and runny eyes. He took a small plug of the root and chewed it in his back teeth to work up some soothing spittle, something he despised because his tongue and cheek would go numb for an hour and the freshest fruit would taste like mud and grass.
He carefully spit a portion of the matter into each of the four holes and rubbed it in lightly with a fingertip. “Well now, we’ll let that stand for a bit to do its work. And how are my lovely girls getting by these days?”
“Fine, fine,” Yolanda said. Rafiki was not surprised that Uzuri was quiet—she was a lioness of few words. “We’re doing much better since Isha stopped making such a…”
Uzuri put her paw over her mouth quickly and dropped it back down.
“Whad were you thaying aboud Itha?” Rafiki asked, having seen the gesture.
“Oh, I was going to say soemthing, but it went right out of my head. Poof!” She looked back at Uzuri awkwardly and saw her nod with approval. “How long till the sores are ready?”
“I cad ged dem dow,” Rafiki said. “As you cad dell, id workth fathd.” He spit out the yellow-tinged saliva and rinced his mouth out with water from a gourd. “Thdupid thduff gedth by mouth all cwazy.”
He leaned into her and with his thumbs pressed on each of the four wounds. Almost before Yolanda knew it, Rafiki put four small maggots on the ground. “Bye bye, liddle wormth!” He took a rock and crushed each one slowly, savoring the look of righteous indignation on Yolanda’s face. “There, Honey dree. All gone!”
Yolanda came and nuzzled Rafiki until he blossomed into a smile and hugged her around the neck. “I’m not sure what you get out of doing this for us, but I’m so glad you’re our friend.”
He kissed her large golden face and said, “I lub you doo.”
The two turned and started to leave, but Rafiki indelicately tugged on Uzuri’s tail. “One momend, hund misdress. I need do see you alone.”
“Is there a problem?” Uzuri asked as soon as Yolanda was out of range.
“Whad dis aboud?” Rafiki asked, putting his hand in front of his mouth in the sign. “Old monkey nod drusded wid segreds of da pride sisders?”
“Not when they are sealed with a paw,” Uzuri said frankly. “It’s nothing personal, but the initiated never discuss the secrets with outsiders—even the king.”
“And why is dad, by fred?”
Uzuri smiled enigmatically. “You don’t understand the ways of the hunt sisters.”
“What is dere do undersand? Your skills? Your doughds at de momend de prey dies? Covering up when someone does someding foolish?”
Uzuri shook her head. “What I do, I flatter myself I am good at doing. Just as you are good at what you do. There are things you do not tell me about the deep secrets of shamanism…and there are things I do not tell you about the hunt until the blood is on your cheek. Please don’t take it wrong—you’re a very sweet little monkey and a good friend. In many ways you are very like a lion. It may comfort you to know you know more about the sisters than the king himself.”
“Yes. We tell you about our injuries. We do not discuss our mistakes with just anyone, and when you can talk again, remember not to gossip.” She slyly smiled. “Agweed, my fwend?”
“Wewl my dear,” Rafiki said, laughing, “Agweed!”
CHAPTER 17: ONE WITH US
Rafiki determined to lock the secrets away in his heart of hearts and not even discuss them with Asumini. Still on the verge of experiencing the miracle of birth, his inquisitive mind turned to the mysteries of death—and those who brought it. Death was what he spent his career trying to defeat—and yet he had given his heart to those that lived to perfect it. Over time he had come to accept their art as the quest for life rather than death, something brought clearly home to him when he saw cubs nursing at their mother’s bellies and admired the mysterious alchemy that turned red blood into white milk.
Not knowing this secret part of his friends’ lives grew more and more uncomfortable, and once too often he had witnessed the paw on the mouth that stopped a wonderfully brief glimpse through the curtain of reeds separating the world of the huntresses from the world of the healers.
Never a rash monkey, Rafiki was considered something of a dull fellow and a spoil sport by those of his own kind that never understood his devotion to duty. They would never have thought him capable of what he planned—he was surprised at himself. He had covered his odor with a tea made from moss and acacia root. He had discovered a crack in the side of Pride Rock overlooking the plateau where the Hunt Sisters had their private baraza.
He had become a spy.
The crack in which Rafiki had hidden himself was uncomfortable and home to insects and salamanders. He wondered during the long wait if any snakes lived off a diet of salamanders, but the prospect did not overcome his desire to learn. So he clutched his cloak of leaves around him more tightly and silently prayed, “Aiheu abamami.”
Isha was the first to appear, her eyes glowing coals in the light of the evening sun. If Isha did not find him with her uncanny senses he would probably be safe.
She did not have to wait long before Yolanda showed up. Rafiki was delighted by the arrival of the second lioness and strained to hear if they said anything.
“So,” Yolanda said cheerfully, “you’re back from leave. How was it?”
Isha sighed contentedly. “Not too bad. I’ve had better and worse.”
“Come on, girl! Give me the quick run through!”
Isha giggled. “That’s what he gave me. If you MUST know, that rogue Baratu—if that IS his name—is all talk. But his technique is like a song with one note. The one redeeming factor is that he could hold that note for quite a long time.”
Yolanda chuckled and sprang on Isha, wrapping her paws around her neck and trying to push her down. “You’re going down!”
“I’m tired,” Isha grunted, “but I can take you down ANY day!”
Rafiki smiled and watched the two huntresses wrestle, but he noticed how quickly they stopped when Uzuri arrived. Isha and Yolanda both came running over and gave her a quick nuzzle. “News?”
“Plenty. You’ll hear about it in the baraza.”
When the last of the lionesses came, she had with her King Ahadi. It seemed he was the one outsider welcomed there, but his role was a brief one.
“We await your blessing,” Uzuri said.
“Aiheu abamami. You go with the King’s blessing and his gratitude.”
Ahadi nodded at Uzuri, then smiled at his mate Akase before he turned and left.
A period of silence followed as Ahadi made his way back to his cave, but when he was out of hearing range, Uzuri touched her mouth with a paw and flipped it away—the gesture was clear. “Ok girls, circle up!”
Yolanda said, “Look who’s back!”
Isha smiled and looked about. “Well, let’s say my vacation is over and it’s time to rest up from it.”
Uzuri chuckled. “Who is going to be cub setter for the night?”
“Matulu,” someone said.
“Are there any confessions?” Uzuri asked. “Any sins to offend the gods we need to clear up before we do this thing? Anyone? Oh come now, have you all been good?”
“Oh I was GOOD,” Isha clucked. Just ask “Baratu!”
“I just might,” Uzuri said with a sly wink. She smiled at her come-back and looked about. “Our scouts have sighted a herd of tommies in the western meadow between the stream and anteater kopje. We’re going to take the low trail single file till we reach the fallen…”
Just then a cricket hopped off the wall of the crack and landed between Rafiki’s eyes.
At once all the lionesses looked around.
“Who said that?”
“It was not a lion”
“Then it must be an outsider!”
“What are we going to do??”
Uzuri said “I’ll handle this.”
The hunt mistress looked every inch the part as her hackles raised, her ears laid back and her ivory daggers were exposed. “Come out! If we have to find you it will be much worse!”
Rafiki could feel his heart pounding in his chest and his breath hissing in and out. There was no way he could remain undetected for very long with the pride sisters at full vigilance and with a trembling voice he stammered, “Please don’t hurt me!”
On quaking limbs the monkey stepped out of his hiding place and dropped his cloak of leaves. “I meant you no harm.”
“What were you doing in there??” Uzuri snapped.
“Collecting salamanders, maybe?”
The hunt mistress drew close to him, eyes narrow with irritation but a hint of pity in her voice. “We’ve been friends too long for a polite lie. This ground is for those who have the blood in their cheek. Now tell me what you were doing in there.”
Tears welled up in Rafiki’s eyes. “I didn’t mean to upset you, I swear. I wouldn’t hurt you for anything.”
“I know that,” Uzuri said, but her stare was unremitting. “Go on. Out with it.”
“I don’t understand,” Rafiki said. “I spent my life studying the art of healing, of preventing death. But death is the one thing I do not understand. I know it is a part of life, but I only know it in my head, not in my heart! It took my mother from me. It stole my best friend. I don’t want to spoil what you have—I only want to see the truth with my own eyes and make my peace with it!” He reached up with a trembling hand and wiped his eyes. “Ladies, my friends, I have given my life to you. I have bound your wounds and rubbed your aching shoulders. I have pulled your thorns and your ticks. I have loved you. Do not hate me for being a curious old monkey. I fear that worse than dying.”
Uzuri’s ears slowly raised and her hackles lowered. Still her voice was strained with urgency. “Rafiki, no one may know a little of the mystery and live. Since you cannot forget what you saw, you must learn the whole truth. You must master your fears and become one with us.”
“I’m not afraid,” Rafiki said.
“The night is young,” Uzuri said. “Fear awaits you before the dawn.”
CHAPTER 18: A FLIGHT OF EAGLES
Rafiki clung tightly to his mount as Uzuri led the hunting party through the tall grass. He felt the taut, powerful body of the hunt mistress negotiate the uneven ground with only a regular rise and drop of her shoulders to spoil the effect of floating.
Uzuri made subtle signals with her tail and ears and the turn of her head. No matter how quietly he tried to whisper questions, she only ever shook her head and went “sssh!”
Even the comical site of a monkey bobbing on a lioness’ shoulders like an oxpecker bird on a rhino did not make the hunt sisters lose their concentration. The “wind” the mandrill felt when he could sense the approach of guests surrounded him more like the current of a rain-fed river. Their attention to her signals made them one large creature of a single mind and soul and the mandrill felt a slight euphoria at the strength of it running through his nerves.
He looked up for prey only to be lashed by Uzuri’s tail—a truly powerful rebuke with a force as severe as any whack his mother ever gave him for disobedience. At once he crouched back down and contented himself with a peek between the ears. If he felt like crying out, he bit his tongue.
The long walk continued as the moon drifted among the stars. Rafiki was sore from riding and he whispered ever so quietly, “I need to pee.”
“Not now,” Uzuri hissed.
“Yes now,” Rafiki said.
“Pee on my back and I’ll whack you again.”
Rafiki was wishing he were somewhere else—anywhere else—when he felt Uzuri stop and crouch lowly. He forced himself against her back as tightly as he dared, staying out of the way of her signals and breathing as silently as he could.
The pride broke into three pieces. Two groups of lionesses disappeared into the darkness on either side and a large group remained in the middle with Uzuri. This central group advanced ever so slowly.
Rafiki looked with the eyes of a day creature until in the moonlight he saw ahead of him the silver rimmed silhouettes of Thompsons gazelles in the meadow.
He imagined that they could feel the “wind” as well as he and saw their heads raise and lower as they shared the duty of guarding the herd from surprise attack. How they stood there so alive! How they were faced with such threat of death! His heart began to pound as it had done in the crack while he spied on the hunt sisters. Only now his pulse raced with anticipation of the attack to come. He was in that moment more alive than he had been the entire day before.
He could feel Uzuri’s heart throb as well through his sore legs. She was focused on the conflict ahead, waiting for just the right moment.
An antelope looked up. “Oh-WI-JI!!”
With a mighty thrust, Uzuri left the cover of the tall grass and launched herself into flight. As Rafiki hung on for dear life, he felt the bunch and spring of the life beneath him and heard the gallop of the mighty cats around him.
As if it were happening slowly, the herd of antelope turned like a flock of birds in a strong wind, then blossomed outward like a huge tan and silver flower, spreading in panicked disarray to give the lions no clear target.
Uzuri locked her attention on one of the beautiful creatures and turned in its direction. The other lionesses followed her, straining against gravity and wrestling with the earth. The antelope floated before them, its legs rising and falling with a strange and desperate sort of beauty. Rafiki watched in awe. And then he could feel Uzuri’s wave of determination and knew the moment had come.
Again the “wind” was right. She thrust herself into the air, her forepaws outstretched, and wrapped herself around the gazelle.
The thud and jerk tossed Rafiki against the sides of its horns where he bounced and sailed upside down and headlong into the unforgiving grass to collide and roll to a stop.
A couple of antelope missed him by a hand’s breadth and Yolanda leaped, the wind of her passage disturbing his hair. Rafiki looked around, then struggled to his feet. Surprisingly he was in good shape after his fall.
“Bring the monkey!” Uzuri shouted. “Quickly!”
The old mandrill scrambled as best he could over the uneven grass to where the lionesses, winded and excited, held down an antelope.
“Earn your blood!” Uzuri commanded.
“Kill it? Me? But Uzuri!”
“Do it now! You chose this path when you hid in the crack. Now you must walk it to the end.”
In a panic, Rafiki looked around. He saw a large rock—about as large as he could lift. “Aiheu abamami,” he gasped, hefting the rock with a grunt. He then waddled over to where the beast lay staring up at him wild eyed. “Honest to God I am sorry for your death,” he stammered. Then he lifted the rock and with a cry of “God forgive me!” thrust it down with a thud.
For a long moment there was silence.
“He did it,” Isha said. “I didn’t think he had the guts.”
“He is one of us,” Uzuri said. She took some blood on her paw. “Repeat after me: With this red mark upon my face I pledge my oath of loyalty.”
“With this red mark on my face,” he gasped, “I pledge my oath of loyalty.”
“May this red blood become red fire if I dare break my confidence.”
Rafiki looked around nervously. “May this red blood become red fire if I dare break my confidence.”
She drew close and touched Rafiki’s left cheek, then his right cheek. The blood was warm and acrid. He straightened his back with pride despite the aches in his limbs.
“Remember to be silent when you get home.” She reached up with a paw and touched his lips, then touched her own. “Now give thanks for the life of the buck.”
Rafiki looked at the creature whose life he took and then looked at his hands. “Go into the eternal light. You are free now. Do not resent us our daily sustenance for we respect you.”
Uzuri nodded. “Aiheu abamami!” Then she roared and as she did the other lionesses joined her until the sound echoed across the distant kopjes.
Each of the hunt sisters came and nuzzled him. The hunt mistress herself came last and nuzzled him and kissed him between the eyes. “The stars rejoice in heaven for you have come of age.”
Rafiki straightened despite his back stiff with many years of labor. “It’s about time.”
Uzuri smiled. “How do you feel?”
“Well, in the chase I felt like an eagle in flight. So fast before I have never gone!”
“And to be a hunter?”
“I felt no joy in killing this creature. But I see now with open eyes what was hidden from me.”
“And what did you see? Death?”
“No doubt. But there was something else. There was a sort of joy.”
“The flush of victory?”
“No. It was not victory. It was gratitude. I am grateful to Aiheu that you will live another day. And I am grateful to you all for sharing this with me. I love you all, so much my heart could burst! I want to shout it for the whole world to hear!” Rafiki lifted his arms and looked up into the sky. He shrieked a piercing “LALALALALA!” and beat his chest. The lionesses joined him, looking up into the sky and roaring again. It was a fiersome noise. “I am Rafiki! I am one of you!!”
Yolanda looked at the mandrill and shook her head. “I know the custom, but he could never open the carcass and take the heart.”
Uzuri nodded. “My little hunter, you may designate someone to have the honor in your place.”
“Not so fast,” the mandrill said, flush the elation of his new bond. He pulled a flint knife from his pouch. “I came here to understand, not to designate.”
With remarkable skill he cut the antelope’s belly from his crotch to his breastbone, then reached in, sinking to his shoulder in the warm, musky carcass. “It has to be here somewhere.”
“What a monkey!” Uzuri said, impressed. “Can you bring it out?”
“I feel something coming out,” Rafiki said weakly. “Oh gods, I can feel it!”
“Pull! Cut and pull!”
“I think I got it!” he gasped, pulling his arm out as his stomach heaved. “I give this heart to the true huntress who made…who made this whole thing…oh gods!”
“He’s going to lose it!” Yolanda said.
“Are you ok?” Uzuri asked.
“Just a minute,” Rafiki stammered. “I’ll get something for it and I’ll be ok.”
The mandrill reached into his pouch for tiko root and pulled it out. His hand and the tiko root was covered with gore. “Oh gods! Precious Aiheu!”
The pride sisters looked away as Rafiki doubled over and spilled his dinner in the grass.
When the time came round for Asumini to give birth, Uzuri stood by her as she endured the pains of labor, whispering terms of endearment to her and nuzzling her softly.
Rafiki was busy with his chants and preparations, sealing the doorway of his baobab against evil spirits with a thin line of crushed charcoal made of burned alba. He put a tiny pinch of Camelthorn bark on a tiny flame and watched with approval as the scented smoke rose in a gray cloud. “Aiheu my oldest and best friend, I burn for you my precious incense to please you. I count it no loss if only I may hear my baby cry. Please let the child be well…and the mother.”
Ahadi listened for a moment, then pushed his large face against the mandrill. “Lord of creation, bless this little monkey whose heart is bigger than a lion’s. He gives and gives and I pray that he shall receive something blessed.”
“And bless my lion,” the mandrill said, wrapping his arms around the king’s large neck and kissing him. “Once I held you in my arms and showed you off the promontory. So small and so sweet you were, with dust and syrup on your brow.” Rafiki tenderly fingered his velvety ears and brushed his mane soothingly. The gesture was as relaxing for him as it was for the king.
A yell of pain brought him out of his trance. “Asumini! Uzuri! Oh gods, is it happening??”
“Good news!” Uzuri said. She appeared to them, her fur slightly tinged with crimson, then came and nuzzled Rafiki. “Congratulations father. Aiheu has blessed you with a daughter.”
Rafiki froze, unable to speak.
Uzuri whispered in his ear. “That means you can go in and see her now.”
“Oh!” He hurried forward and went to his wife’s side. She lay quietly, a sheen of perspiration on her forehead, but her face was aglow with pride as she motioned to the wet bundle of fur she held close to her chest. “Look at her,” Asumini whispered, smiling. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Rafiki nodded, stroking her cheek gently. “Just like her mother.”
Ahadi peeked in. “Oh look at the little nisei!”
Rafiki leaned forward, kissed Asumini’s forehead gently and held her hand. “What shall we name her?”
“Penda,” she said with a smile. “For you said whether the child is a boy or girl, it would be beloved. So ‘beloved’ she is.”
Mufasa and Taka stood outside impatiently. “Let US see! Come ON, Dad! DAAAAD!!”
Ahadi looked outside and touched his mouth with his paw. “Speak lowly, the little girl needs her rest. We will see her later, when the mother is ready.”
CHAPTER 20: THE FEVER
Asumini devoted most of her time to caring for Penda, no longer gathering herbs or seeking out rare objects. Consequently, Rafiki found himself pushed to the limit of his endurance to get her enough food and still provide for his practice. As a result he got very little sleep, but when anyone came to call, he never complained. He understood that Asumini was equally tired.
His attempts at being a good father could not accomplish much with such a small infant. Mostly Rafiki’s help was restricted to holding the baby long enough for his wife to care for her own needs. So when Penda reached the ripe old age of two weeks, her father asked if he might make the overnight journey to gather Alba from a nearby forest.
Three days had passed with no sign from Rafiki. An exhausted, ill Asumini looked through the few remaining supplies in Rafiki’s private cache. “Let him come,” she stammered, dipping her finger in some red pigment and painting an eye of Aiheu on the wall of the baobab. “Did you forget us, husband?”
Her true thought had turned more to injury or death, but she tried to push that to the back of her mind. It was always dangerous for him to journey outside the Pride Lands where his special status was not recognized and he was prey for any hungry carnivore.
“If only I could hear his voice,” she sighed, looking at her sleeping baby. “Your father is late. I don’t know whether I will scold him or kiss him.” Instead she broke down and wept. “Come home, Rafiki! Come home to us!”
Just then, as if by her command, a distant cry of “Asumini!” was heard. She looked up, dried her tears, and rested her hand against the wall as she trudged to the door. “Is that really you??”
Rafiki tossed away his staff and ran the remaining lengths to the tree, scrambled up quickly, and threw his arms around her.
“Oh gods, it’s good to be home! My darling, my life, my own! Dedou caught me on his lands and he detained me for two days in his village.”
Asumini burst into tears and began to kiss him repeatedly.
“Dearest, he did not hurt me. He found out who I was and insisted that I stay and tell stories of the Pride Lands at the council of elders and…”
Asumini began to cough at the excitement of the moment. She pushed away, trying to stop the fit as best she could with some djuma.
“What is wrong with you?” Rafiki asked. He bounded over and felt of her forehead. “What’s wrong, darling?” Rafiki kissed her and hugged her tightly. “Gods! You’re burning up! I go away and right then everything comes uprooted.”
She smiled thinly. “Well, I do feel tired...”
“I cannot imagine why. You only do the work of three people.” He carried her to their soft bed of leaves and lay her down gently. Quickly mixing a broth with some water and Senophalix, he held the bowl while she drained it slowly. “Relax, beloved.”
“But your work....”
“My work can wait. You are what matters to me, not staring at this old face in a bowl of water.”
She reached up and stroked his cheek with a finger. “It’s a beautiful face.” A smile crossed her features. “I cannot die of the fever. It’s not my destiny.” Closing her eyes, she drifted off into an uneven sleep.
Rafiki spent the day trying to bring her fever down. Many of his preparations would give her relief for a few minutes, but then the heat would surge back full force. He began to fear the effects of mixing so many remedies in one person’s body and in desperation went to bringing gourds of cool water to wet her face and fan her.
With no one to help him, he hugged Penda to his chest as he sat beside Asumini and continued to try cooling her as minutes turned into hours. All the time she thrashed and moaned in the grip of the sickness. Day became night and he worked through the sparce moonlight, fanning her, wetting her down, and checking her fever.
In the early hours of the morning, her temperature soared to new heights, and Rafiki began to feel the teeth of panic nibbling at his mind. “How much more can she stand?” he thought. Her skin was burning hot to the touch, and she shifted and shook in the grip of chills. Time and again he knelt and forced a few swallows of water down her throat to ward off dehydration.
The sun had risen, and the day was clear and beautiful, but he paid it no heed as he kept up his vigil. Penda had long since tired and was sleeping comfortably on her father’s lap. Rafiki peered at her blearily through reddened eyes, and smiled at the contented look on her face. Sitting up carefully, he laid her gently by her mother’s side and made his way across the tree to get another gourd of water. Staring at the gourd for a moment, he struggled to remember what he wanted to do with it. “It’s for her,” he thought for a moment. “She needs it for something.”
He leaned against the bole of the baobab, his eyes closing of their own volition. Just a moment, and then he would pick up the water. Just a moment...
He opened his eyes slowly and peered about, confused. Sitting up, he groaned as the muscles of his back voiced their protest. Rubbing his eyes, he stared, blinking, at the gourd before him. The sun shone in, its reddish light brightening the east.
His eyes snapped open and he stared in horror. The sun was rising! He had fallen asleep for hours!
“Asumini?” Rafiki hurried down and across the tree, swinging under a low branch to find his mate’s bed lying empty. Penda’s absence was also felt; the child was nowhere in sight. Rafiki made a quick scan of the tree, followed by one of the ground below. Nothing.
“Oh God, no! NO!”
Turning, he scrambled down the trunk of the baobab and cast about frantically in the tall grass for some sign of their passage. Finding a depression in the grass, he saw a rough trail of broken stalks heading away from the baobab. He sprinted off down the track, unmindful of the pain in his knees, kicking up dirt as he ran. “ASUMINI! PENDA! Please Gods, let them hear me!”
He skidded to a stop, nearly falling as he saw the grass thrashing ahead. A tawny head emerged and turned to look at him. “Rafiki?”
“Ahadi! Thank the gods!” The mandrill ran to him, panting. “My wife is ill with fever; I fear she has wandered off and taken Penda with her.”
Ahadi started. “How long has she been gone?”
“I don't know. I fell asleep like an old fool, and when I woke up, she had vanished. It could be several hours; I don't know.”
Ahadi eyed his friend; the exhaustion on Rafiki’s face was plain to see. “You just drove yourself past your limit. I’ll help you find her.”
Rafiki slumped, quivering. “Thank you, Sire. Do you think you can track her scent?”
“There’s no need for that. I can see her trail clear enough.” Ahadi’s eyes narrowed as he eyed the grass. “The trail is fairly fresh; I would say not more than an hour old.” Turning, he made off at a rapid pace, just slow enough that Rafiki could keep up. The grass began to thin out, replaced by thicker greenery. Small bushes and shrubs dominated the ground ahead, and Rafiki heard faintly the gurgling sound of running water. Ahead, Ahadi slowed and began to push his way through the dense underbrush. Thorns and branches tore at his beautiful mane, snatching away tufts of hair in painful tugs, but these he ignored, bulling his way through.
As they reached the water’s edge, he suddenly halted. Rafiki nearly collided with his haunches, which filled the gap in the brush and blocked his view of the water. He heard a gasp from the lion and hopped about, trying to peer over his bulk. “What is it?”
“Great Aiheu,” he heard Ahadi stammer. “Oh gods! Oh gods!”
“What?!” Rafiki shouted. He began to force his way in between Ahadi’s massive shoulder and the thorns, but the Lion King shifted and blocked him off. Ahadi turned himself around carefully and sat in the gap.
He took a shaky breath and looked at Rafiki unsteadily. “Do not go in there, my friend. There’s nothing you can do.” The lion looked away and blinked rapidly.
“Nothing I can do?”
“Her fever must have driven her down here to bathe in the cool river water."
“Is she dead? Where’s Penda?”
“It looks like a crocodile attack,” Ahadi finally said. “Asumini was wounded but got away from it. I’d say she died later from loss of blood.” He rubbed at his eyes with a paw. “Of Penda, there is no sign. The crocodile must have found her easier prey.” He looked away.
Rafiki stared at him, feeling the blood drain from his face. “The makei! He said it would happen! Great Aiheu, he led her here!” The mandrill’s staff slipped from his fingers and he crumpled to the ground.
SCENE 21: TRUE FRIENDS
When the moon rose later that evening, orange and full in the night sky, it found Rafiki sitting silently in the naos of the baobab, his medicine pouch clutched in his lap, staring silently at the paintings on the tree’s side. The branches moved slightly in the night breeze, making strange shadow shapes on the wall, and giving the paintings an eerie lifelike quality.
Reaching into the pouch, he pulled out a small bowl filled with a whitish paste. “Deadly Euphractus,” he thought. “So the shaman makes his last prescription. Something to relieve suffering in the heart.” He dipped his finger into the bowl and scooped up a small clump. In tiny doses, it would relieve cramps, but he had enough on his fingertip to kill an entire pride of lions. “So it has come to this,” he murmured, staring with unfocused eyes at the paintings. He rested his gaze on Asumini’s portrait, then closed his eyes and with a trembling hand lifted the paste towards his mouth.
Sighing again, he lowered his hand and spoke without turning. “Please leave. I can not help you right now.”
“It is none of your....” he whirled, intending to drive away the owner of the voice, but stopped when he saw Uzuri sitting quietly behind him. “Oh, hello.”
“My wife and daughter died today,” he said simply. “I am in mourning.”
Her eyes gleamed in the moonlight as she gasped in surprise. “Oh, gods! Both of them?? Rafiki, I’m so sorry!” She moved closer until her foreleg was touching his shoulder.
“It’s quite all right, my dear. Thank you.” He patted her forepaw. “Things like this happen. It’s life, I guess. Good or bad, we can all die at any time.”
She looked at him for a long moment. “You seem to be taking it rather well.”
“Yes, well, as a shaman, I’ve learned to accept death in one form or another. It happens. We should not fight it; we should prepare for it.”
Her eyes focused on him sharply, and she frowned. “I would think instead that we should try to enjoy life all the more for it.”
His lip trembled and he turned away to face the wall again. “Perhaps you should go.”
As he shifted, she spied the paste on his finger. “What’s that?”
“Oh, just something to help me feel better.”
Uzuri sniffed at it. An acrid odor burned her nostrils, and she flinched. She drew back, the muscles at the corner of her jaw tightening as she looked at him. “Why don’t I try some? It will make me feel better too.” Quickly, she bent and touched the paste with the tip of her nose.
The response was immediate. Rafiki sprang up as if shot. “Don’t lick that off!” Desperately, he seized a gourd of water and splashed the end of her nose, rinsing away the paste that had stuck there. Picking up a soft leather cloth, he dried it carefully. He bent and sniffed it closely, his own nostrils twitching intently, then shook his head and repeated the process.
While he was drying her nose a second time, Uzuri flicked a paw out and slapped the bowl away. It clattered over the edge of the baobab and dropped silently through the air to shatter on the roots below, spraying the ground with white death.
Rafiki observed this silently as tears began forming in the corners of his eyes. “It will take me three days to collect that much again,” he said. “Please be a good girl and leave me alone.”
She looked him directly in the eyes. “Make up your mind. Should I be a good girl, or should I leave you alone?” Flopping to the floor on her side, she motioned to him with a paw to join her.
He saw that the hunt mistress was also crying. He fell to his knees and buried his face in her side. “I’m so alone! All alone!”
Uzuri nuzzled him, and he grabbed tightly around her neck and sobbed on her soft fur. If he hugged her too tightly, she didn’t complain. She stroked him with her pink tongue, wiping away the salty tears. “You are not alone.”
“My dear friend,” Rafiki sobbed. “I knew you were special the first time I saw you.”
Uzuri stayed with him. Every moment she was off the hunt, she spent trying to bring Rafiki out of his shell of severe depression. She would tell him stories and groom him like a cub. She even searched out special things for him to eat, though she recognized very little of what was in his diet. A few eggs, a few fallen fruits that she learned to recognize. By and large, he had little appetite, but she would cajole him to eat. He would stare vacantly, but rub her soft fur with his arm as she talked. When she could not be there, his faithful friend Taka gave up time from cubhood games to snuggle against him and prevent him from doing anything rash.
Finally after a week, he turned to look at her, meeting her gaze completely. “I have made a decision.”
“I have decided to live.”
She nodded, purring. “A wise decision.”
He stopped her as she rose to go. “Thank you, Uzuri. The gods will bless you for what you have done for me. You will have your reward in Heaven.”
“That’s nice to know. However, I intend to wait a while to collect. See you do the same.” She nuzzled him quickly, the turned and headed into the dry grass, the brown stalks parting before and then closing behind, whispering together in the warm breeze. Rafiki stared after her for a moment, his white hair floating about his face, then turned and went inside.
CHAPTER 22: HAMMER AND TONGS
Six moons came and went, working a marvelous change on Muffy and Taka. Their cubhood spots were long gone, and they had grown in size and agility. Pride members began to treat them less like cubs and more like young lions, and with that new found respect came new expectations.
In their cubhood games, they had built up a repertoire of reflexes and moves that would serve them well as adults. But there were moves reserved for serious combat, moves they would need to defend the Pride Lands from intruders and rivals. Though Ahadi tried to put some fun into learning, this was no game.
Ahadi knew too well that a lion should know his strengths and his weaknesses. In Mufasa, Ahadi saw strength and endurance. For this reason, Mufasa easily mastered the forward thrust his father taught him, coming up on his hind legs and pushing out and in with his massive forepaws. Taka was small but quick, and his father taught him the haunch seize first off, instructing him to dip low to bite the back leg and throw his opponent over. But of course there were defenses against these attacks, and they had to learn them too. A lion with only one strategy would never be king for very long.
Yolanda, who was quite a powerful lioness, helped Ahadi with his demonstrations. It looked much more violent in actual practice than it had in teaching. Mufasa and Taka watched spellbound and horrified as Yolanda and Ahadi went at it hammer and tongs. They didn’t growl or roar, but even in their dignity the raw power of aggressive fighting was all too clear. Of course, Ahadi and Yolanda were careful not to really hurt each other. They retracted their claws and did not bite down hard, but they used a great deal of strength, and the smell of sweat was on the air.
Sarabi ambled over by Mufasa, trying to look casual. “Be careful with him Muffy,” she whispered. “You know you’re stronger. You don’t have to prove anything by hurting him.”
“Don’t worry, Sassie. He’s my brother.”
“Then you’ll try not to make him look too bad?”
He smiled. “You really like him, don’t you?”
“Yes.” She gave him a quick tongue touch to the cheek. “Thank you, Muffy. You’re a real sweetheart.”
“Not to mention a real hunk,” Elanna said, flirting.
Winded, Ahadi and Yolanda finally stopped. Ahadi pushed his mane out of his eyes and said, “Of course (pant), you realize (pant) that there would have (pant) been a winner (pant) and a loser if this (pant) had been real.”
Yolanda nuzzled him. “Incosi (pant), I touch your mane.”
“I (pant) feel it.” Ahadi took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “OK, my sons. You try it.”
The two brothers stood up and faced each other. Taka took a deep breath and began circling Mufasa slowly. His head bobbed, weaving an irregular pattern as he looked for an opening.
Mufasa lowered his forequarters and shifted around, keeping the bulk of his body facing Taka. The speed with which Taka could dart in and grab a haunch was frightening, and he dared not expose his vulnerable back legs.
Taka frowned. “Fine then,” he thought. He resumed circling, pacing himself, his breath going in and out rhythmically. Then he took a short, quick breath.
Muffy read the signs correctly and jumped back just in time. Taka pounced on empty grassland, his paws scrabbling for purchase.
Ahadi nodded gravely but said nothing.
Looking around, Taka saw Muffy smiling at him tauntingly. Baring his teeth angry, he began flailing at his brother wildly. Startled, Muffy methodically countered one blow after another, blocking Taka’s sweeps with his forepaws. With a guttural moan, Taka felt panic set in as he realized he was probably going to lose--again. He glanced at Sarabi, trying to read her expression.
That moment was all Muffy needed. He cuffed Taka hard enough to tip him off balance. Before Taka could draw in another breath, Muffy’s heavy weight was bearing down on his chest, pinning him to the ground. “Say uncle!”
“No!” he gasped, fighting for air as he struggled futilely. Muffy was too strong for him.
Taka struggled hard, but Muffy was too strong for him.
Taka could not bear to be humiliated like this, not in front of Sarabi! He saw Muffy’s leg within reach of his jaws.
“I--said--NO!” His teeth buried themselves in Muffy’s leg. As Mufasa jumped up, bellowing in pain, Taka darted out from under him and came out swinging with all of his might. A forepaw struck Mufasa under the chin, making his teeth click together painfully.
“Cut it out, Taka!” Mufasa backed away, his forehead furrowed in anger. “Don’t make me get rough with you.”
“Give me your best shot,” Taka whispers arrogantly. “I know you’re being careful with me. After all, you’re a real sweetheart.”
“And you’re a real fool.” His eyes narrowed. He closed with Taka, grappling. Taka swung at his legs, trying to hook them out from under, but Muffy blocked the move quickly. Circling again, Taka slid in and tried at another angle, only to meet the same result. Fear crept in as he felt his strength waning. In desperation, he cheated again, going for a leg hold with teeth bared.
“No!” Mufasa struck at him claws-out with all his might. Taka went sprawling to the ground. “Try that again and I’ll knock your fool head off!”
Taka wobbled to his feet, took a couple of unsteady steps, and sat down again. He rubbed his face with a paw.
Sarabi wanted to rush over and comfort him, but she knew better. It would make a bad situation worse.
Muffy saw the look on Sarabi’s face and thought about the promise. He looked at Taka and saw the dazed expression on his face. “Taka, are you OK?”
“I’ll live.” He rose unsteadily and shook his head.
Ahadi sniffed of the cut on Muffy's leg. He looked over at Taka and frowned. “Some wrestling match.”
“He cheated,” Elanna said. “I saw him do it twice.”
Ignoring them, Taka paced away slowly, wincing at the throbbing in his cheek where Mufasa's powerful forepaw had struck him. He whacked at small stones with his powerful paw, muttering words his mother did not teach him under his breath.
Wending his way around the face of Pride Rock, he lay down in his favorite resting place, on a ledge under a jutting overhang of granite which shaded him nicely. With some trepidation, he raised a paw to his face and touched it gingerly. Bringing his forepaw before him, he was relieved to find no trace of blood.
He glanced over to see Sarabi gracefully make her way onto the ledge with him. He smiled listlessly. "Hey, Sassie."
She padded up to him, glaring. "Don't 'Hey, Sassie,' me. What did you think you were doing?!"
His smile vanished quickly. "What are you talking about?"
"Were you trying to kill yourself? Let me see your face." She started to examine the swollen cheek under his scarred left eye, but he jerked away.
"Don't worry about me. I would've won that stupid fight if he hadn't cheated."
Her eyebrows lifted. "He cheated? Taka, you bit his leg! I'm surprised he didn't knock your fool head off!"
He narrowed his eyes, glaring at her. "Yes, I appreciate the support, Sarabi." He added mockingly, "Oh, Muffy, take it easy on him, he's not strong like you are." He spat. "I don't want him to LET me win, I want to BEAT him! Just once, I'd like to be better at something!"
“But you are better at something,” she said. "I don't want to see you get hurt, that's all." Her voice wavered as she fought back tears. "I'm sorry if my love is getting in the way of that tiff with your brother." She turned and headed away.
Taka froze. "Sassie, wait!" He watched as her form continued away down the path. "Oh, God, it's happening!" he cried.
He ran after her, got out ahead and blocked her path. Sarabi stopped, startled.
“I’m sorry! Please, I’m sorry!” He began to beg, pleading desperately. Falling on his back, he pawed at her. “I love you! Please don’t leave me, Sassie!”
She saw the sheer terror in his eyes, and felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She forgot her anger.
“I had to try and win,” he stammered. “If I lost all the time, you might not love me anymore. I’m a loser, Sassie. Not that I don’t try hard to win. Really I do!”
“Is your head full of dead grass?” Sarabi took her paw and held up Taka’s chin so that he looked her in the eyes. “I love you because you’re sweet and clever and very cute. That won’t change because Muffy beats you at wrestling.” She kissed him with her warm tongue and nuzzled him. “I am a little disappointed that you cheated, though. I’ve always thought you were above that.”
“Oh.” He didn’t know whether he liked that remark, but he loved her. Kissing her cheek, he said, “I’ll love you till the day I die. Longer, even. They will see two stars side by side and know it is us.” Without shame, his eyes filled with tears. “My love must be stronger than fate itself if it’s to survive. My body may be weak, but Sassie, my heart is strong.”
"Taka, it’s that prophesy again. I can tell it. When will you learn to trust me?” She stroked his face with a paw.
"I believe your goodness is so strong that you can beat this thing, but you heard the rest. ‘He who is first to touch you shall beget your doom.'" He looked down. "Muffy was the first one to touch me. He's going to kill me, Sassie."
“That’s foolish. He loves you!”
"You knew he was too strong for me. We're gonna get in a fight one day, and he's going to lose his cool and kill me." He turned his gaze to the vast savanna which stretched before them.
Sarabi was horrified. "Stop talking like that, you're scaring me!" Moving close to him, she nuzzled his head gently. "Taka, maybe your head IS full of dead grass. Muffy loves you. He needs you. He’s your brother. Rafiki was wrong. He said so himself."
Taka half smiled. “Yeah, he did, didn’t he! You really think we can beat this thing? The three of us?"
She kissed his cheek gently. "Of course." She rose, switching her tail. "You stay here and rest, Taka. I'll be back in a minute."
"Okay." He lay his head on his forepaws slowly and shut his eyes.
Sarabi hurried down the path to where it joined the promontory at the front of Pride Rock. Padding across its smooth surface, she entered the cool recesses of the main cave. As her eyes adjusted, she saw Mufasa sitting nearby, licking his wound gingerly.
"Muffy, I must talk to you."
"Sure." He smiled at her.
"It's about Taka."
His face fell. "Hey, I tried to go easy on him, but when he bit me, I saw red.”
“I know, and I’m not upset with you.” She sighed. “It’s that prophesy again.”
“You two had another fight?”
“No. Well, yes, but that’s beside the point.” She sighed again. “Don’t be upset, Muffy, but you know that business about the one that touched him first bringing about his doom?”
“Yes. But....” Mufasa’s eyes broadened. “Oh gods, don’t tell me he thinks I’m going to whack him??”
She looked at him closely. "You wouldn’t, would you? Promise?"
"For gods’ sake!" He blinked at her, surprised. “You think it too?? Of course I promise! He’s my brother!” He shook his head. “What AM I going to do with him, Sassie?”
"Tell him. He needs to hear it from you more than anyone else."
Nodding, he started away.
Poor Mufasa wanted to ask his parents for help, but the whole thing embarrassed him too badly. He resigned himself to handling Taka “the usual way,” which meant humoring his moods, no matter how ridiculous they are, and being careful to remind him that he’s loved.
He finally got his chance later that day.
Taka was resting on the end of the promontory. It was his favorite place to sulk when he felt like the whole world was out to get him. The scale of the view helped put his problems into perspective in the great pageant of life.
“What?” Taka didn’t bother to turn around.
“I just saw Sassie.”
Taka turned around that time. “What did she say??”
“Not much.” Muffy tried to keep his tail from twitching. Apparently he was successful. “She was upset. She looked a little depressed, so I asked her what was up.”
“Oh gods, here it comes.” Taka drooped.
“She was watching us fight, and she thought about the prophesy. You know, the part about the first one that touched you would beget your doom.”
“Oh?” Taka gave him his undivided attention. “And what did you tell her?”
Mufasa smiled, but a tear rolled down his cheek. “I told her you’re my brother. I’m sorry I hit you so hard. You bit me, and I went crazy. You know we both love you, Sassie and I. She worries about you. In fact, she's always telling me how she’s going to marry you when you get older." Mufasa swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. "You don’t know how lucky you are, Taka. I got the kingdom, but you got Sassie."
Taka smiled at him, a real smile, now. "Yeah, I guess I am. She's really beautiful, isn't she?"
Unable to reply, Mufasa merely nodded.
Taka looked at him closely. “Why Muffy, you’re jealous….”
“Come off it.”
“No, you really are.” Taka smiled an amused smile. “Gods! You’re jealous of me! And all this time….” He rose briskly, stretched his legs, and came running over to Muffy. He nuzzled him and put his forearm around Mufasa’s shoulder. “You must think I’m crazy.”
“No. Well, not much.”
“Sometimes I feel crazy. Dad always has it all together. He always knows the score.” A tear ran down Taka’s face. “Help me fight this thing, Muffy. If the three of us work hard, we can beat the prophesy. We can. You’re good inside; so is Sassie. We’ve got to be good to beat it.”
Muffy swallowed hard, then said, “Don’t worry. We’ll be really good.”
CHAPTER 23: LIONESS FEVER
“....And it was that Aiheu the Beautiful, having made the World of Ma'at (soil) gave it to his spirit children for a dwelling place. And they praised him, for the land was very comely. But in the first days, which were called the Days of Ka (spirit), some were not as happy as Aiheu had wished.
"What has this land to do with us?" they asked. "The sun does not warm us. The waters do not cleanse us. The wind does not cool us. How can this be our home when the grass does not stir beneath our feet?"
“So Aiheu took ma'at (soil) and mixed it with maja (water) that it may be shaped. And for those ka that desired to know pleasure, he clave them to bodies which he formed from the mud, breathing into their nostrils the breath of life, that so long as they should draw breath, they should be part of the World of Ma'at, and that the sun would warm them, the water would cleanse them, and the wind would cool them. These and many other pleasures he gave them for a birthright, but he also gave them a warning. For pain is the brother of pleasure, and those who are of ma'at must accept pain with the pleasure.”
---- THE LEONINE STORY OF BEGINNINGS, Variation D-4
Rafiki awoke with stiffness in his lower back. At his age, he was frequently sore in the mornings and had to take an herbal preparation to get himself back in the thick of things. Because the medicine had to be fresh and moist to work, he had to make up individual doses as needed. That meant working while tired and sore. Still, Rafiki did not complain. For one thing he lived alone, with no one to complain to, and for another, he was a shaman and accepted what life brought him as gracefully as he could.
Soaking in a water-filled gourd, some bonewort would loosen the tightness in his spine. He carefully removed just enough to do the job. It was followed by Senophalix bark and Timnophia root for pain. But the final ingredient was a powder made from Alba, a red flower. It did not grow nearby, and he had to trade to get it. The small cache of this drug was nearly exhausted, and he put in a little less than was his custom. He had requested some from the apes that lived in the forest near his baobab.
The other mandrills thought Rafiki a bit strange. They didn't understand his need for the flower, but they happily raised the fee to what they thought he could afford. For that reason, precious time that could be spent serving others was spent collecting large bundles of herbs and other notions for payment.
Mixing the ingredients into a paste with his bowl and antelope bone, he downed the bitter mixture with a frown, and quickly took some water and honey to purge his mouth. Perhaps the medicine did not work immediately. Yet he felt better at once, knowing that help was on the way.
While he waited for relief, he settled down for his morning prayers, which always began with thanksgiving, then ran through the name of every lion on the Pride Lands whether they were ill or well, and ended with a modest request to "Remember old Rafiki who trusts in you."
Breakfast was a simple affair. Mango was his favorite, followed shortly by ripe Kannabia. Honey was not easy to come by, since he'd grown old enough to make climbing a problem. Besides, even at the best of times, there was an element of luck involved. So he put only a few drops of honey on the fruit to season it, and ate his breakfast. Perhaps in the next life, there would be honey enough for his sweet tooth, which only grew stronger with age. He felt he would know sooner rather than later, a fact brought home by the silver hair that reflected in his scrying bowl.
Only after breakfast was over and he'd rubbed his teeth with the chewed end of an acacia twig did he start out on the day's business. Alba was waiting for him--the apes said it would be waiting for him in three days, and the time was up. They were robbers, but they were never late. One, two, three hard-won bundles of roots and leaves were sprinkled with water, wrapped in Rattasia leaves, and secured with long acacia thorn pins. The barter was gathered up with the care it deserved to ransom the modest stash of tiny red blossoms that waited for him in the forest.
He was about to leave when Mufasa came in. Muffy was a year and a half old, and the beginning of some ruff around his ears and neck showed that he was coming along on schedule.
“I had almost forgotten our appointment.” Rafiki put his bundles of herbs aside. “Trouble sleeping, I believe? Loss of appetite?”
“And don’t forget depression. I’ve been down before, but now I’m really down for the count.”
“I see.” Rafiki put his ear to Muffy’s chest. “Breathe in. Good. Now let it out slowly.” He tapped Muffy’s chest a couple of times with his knuckles. “Once more.” The breathing seemed to agree with him. He felt the radial pulse alongside his neck and winked. “Soon enough, I’ll have to use the arm. This old mane will be in the way.” Mufasa smiled proudly. “So tell me, how is Taka?”
“The cough all gone, I take it?”
“Yes, Rafiki. I made sure he took all his medicine. None of that hiding the herbs under his tongue and spitting them out when I’m not looking.”
“How did you manage that?”
“I rubbed his throat till he had to swallow.”
Rafiki laughed. “He’s just a big cub. And Sarabi?”
“Oh, she’s fine.”
Rafiki looked surprised. “Whoa there! Your pulse is jumping like a Springbok!” The mandrill looked Muffy in the eyes. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had the fever.”
“Lioness fever.” Rafiki rubbed his chin whiskers. “And you got it from Sarabi, I think. Does Taka know?”
“No, uh--I mean....”
Rafiki shook his finger at Mufasa. “Don’t hide from me behind those little lamb eyes. I know what I see.” He looked in Muffy’s eyes and sighed deeply. “You got it bad, son.”
Mufasa glanced away. “This is terrible!” He looked back slowly. “There must be a cure for it. I won’t betray my own brother. You must have something for falling out of love.”
“I don’t even have anything for falling IN love. But tell me, does Sarabi love YOU?”
“Well she’s my friend. Of course she loves me.”
“You know what I mean. I mean lion fever.” Rafiki was thoughtful for a moment. He remembered Ahadi’s break with custom and already he could see the danger ahead. “Tell me, has she ever given you those little hints? You know, the feeling that you’re being stalked, and any minute she may decide to charge?”
“No. I—well she—no. No. She’s so struck on my brother. Oh Rafiki, sometimes I get the feeling I wish I were an only child. I love Taka, really I do, but Sassie is on my mind all the time. I can’t be weak, not with my brother’s girl. Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?”
“Maybe a nice swim in the cold spring.” He popped Muffy on the flank. “There’s nothing wrong with you that your own conscience and a little time can’t fix. But keep your eyes open. You must also be fair to Sarabi. What she wants is important too. And I think you are selling yourself short that way.” He smiled toothily and added in a whisper, “If you can’t give both of them what they want, choose the girl. What she don’t got, you don’t need!”
CHAPTER 24: A SIGN OF POWER
Six moons had passed since Muffy’s chat with Rafiki. He and Taka had grown in strength and size. This miracle was made all the more evident by its speed. There was no difference from day to day, but a clear, sharp memory of passing under a low branch was no insurance against a bump on the head. The brothers, the sons of the King, were attracting the attention of the others with their strong, comely appearance.
Mufasa's pride was all out of proportion to the straggly pioneering hairs that made his head and throat look somewhat shaggier than the rest of his body. But that was matched by the pride of his parents Ahadi and Akase. Ahadi insisted that he was equally proud of Taka, and Taka wanted desperately to believe it.
Taka had a dark mane, something most lionesses consider very attractive. Often his mother Akase told him that happiness was more important than power, and if he had to choose one, go with happiness. Taka saw the sense in this. He was often unhappy, but he believed in his mother and in her love. And to a degree, he believed Sarabi loved him though they were more prone to more arguments than talks in recent days. Little did he know that Sarabi had set out that day to prove her love in a very meaningful way.
Zazu glided upon the thermals that wafted gently upward from the ground below. His eyes roved restlessly, scanning the grassland far beneath him, cataloging everything he saw for later reference, should it prove useful to the king. Dipping the leading edge of his wings, he descended slowly, arcing around the great spire of Pride Rock to come to a graceful halt at the base of the promontory. As he headed inside to report to Ahadi, he noticed Mufasa and Rafiki at the point of the promontory, having an extremely animated discussion. He chuckled to himself at the pinched look of concentration on Mufasa’s face.
“Oh my, looks like it’s time for mantlement rehearsal again.” Ruffling his feathers in amusement, he waddled inside, leaving the mandrill and lion to themselves.
Rafiki motioned with his arms energetically. “Ah! No slouching. Straighten up, there...yes. Head up!” he exclaimed, jerking his chin up at the lion.
Mufasa raised his chin up until he was nearly looking skywards. “Like this?”
“No...” Rafiki reached out and took hold of Mufasa’s head, feeling the huge jaw muscles playing under his fingertips as he turned his head slightly. “Hold your head just so, son.”
Mufasa stood, unprotesting as the mandrill turned his head this way and that. In his mind’s eye, he saw the assembled host stretched out on the plain before him, all come to see his great day. His chest swelled with pride, and he unconsciously raised his chin higher.
Rafiki responded with a tap on the nose. “No, no, now you look arrogant. Lower your nose....” His forearms flexed as he pulled Mufasa’s head down with his fingertips. The fringes of his new mane tickled the palms of Rafiki’s hands. “Lower..ah-HA! That’s it!”
Afraid to move, Mufasa’s eye rolled in its socket to look at Rafiki. “My neck hurts.”
"Ahh, you'll only need to sit that way for short while; just until your father finishes his speech."
The majestic pose vanished as Mufasa crumpled, looking aghast. "WHAT? Aww, c'mon, Rafiki, you know how Dad gets when making a speech...." He groaned and buried his head under his forepaws.
“Nonsense. Your father only says what needs to be said, and no more.”
“Yeah, but he takes so long to say it!”
Rafiki grinned. “If this is the worst ordeal you deal with in this life, you should rejoice, son. All right! Head up!” A shadow flitted overhead as they resumed their exercises, and Rafiki saw the blue-white form of the king’s majordomo heading back out over the Pride Lands. His eyes followed the bird for a moment, but then his attention was drawn back to his reluctant pupil.
Zazu soared in an ascending arc, the air slowly dragging away his speed as he climbed rapidly. He glanced around quickly to make sure he was unobserved, then grinned to himself. He had a little free time before he was to meet with Boga Kwitu, the elephant Incosi, and he intended to make the most of it. Tucking his wings, he tilted in mid-air and dropped like a rock. The soft whisper of the wind in his ears became a deafening roar as the ground rushed up at him. His wings flicked out and he leveled out perhaps two feet over the ground. He laughed joyfully as he sped over the tops of the waving grass, the slender stalks only a blur beneath him as he arrowed over the ground. In the back of his mind, the ever present voice nagged at him, reminding him of the dangers of flying this low. There were several predators agile enough to snatch him out of the air and drag him to earth forever, only to find out too late he was the king’s advisor and corban. Nevertheless, it was the one vice he had picked up from his obnoxious brothers, and he took the opportunity now to indulge in it shamefully.
A break in the grass appeared ahead; one of the many paths the lions used traveling to and from the water hole that lay nearby. As he flashed overhead, he caught a glimpse of a tawny shape moving along the path, but was past before he could identify the figure. He started to turn back, but a glance at the sun reminded him of his appointment with the elephants. Sighing, he lifted a wing and climbed gracefully away, turning southwest.
Far below, Sarabi trotted along the tunnel-like pathway that countless generations of lion paws had worn in the grass. A smile graced her young features, but it was partially obscured by the limp and dangling form of the hare she clutched carefully in her jaws. She floated through the grass like a spirit, humming to herself in a pleasant tone as she walked, switching her tail from side to side and slapping the tip against her flanks gently in time to the music she was making. Unable to voice her happiness, she kept up with the song in her head.
“Moko Greatmane was a great cat,
And a great big cat was he,
He climbed up over the mountain pass
to see what he could see,
As the cat climbed up, all the rain climbed down
and the wind was blowing fast....”
Sarabi smiled and glanced up at the sky overhead. Do you see me, Father? she thought. Aren’t you proud of me? I wish you were here today. She mentally berated herself for being so moody. Her father might not be here, but there was someone here who loved her just as much. Changing direction, she angled around the base of Pride Rock and headed towards a rough and tumble pile of stone a short distance away. Nearing it, her skin tingled with excitement as she saw the silhouette of the young lion in the small cave.
Taka lay quiescent inside, enjoying the coolness of the stone as it seeped into his belly, his legs sprawled awkwardly to allow more of his underside to contact the rock beneath him. His eyes tracked restlessly, observing the minutiae of everything before him. The grasslands below rippled restlessly in the breeze, echoing his mood. Lately, things were...all wrong, somehow. Everything Muffy said seemed to irritate him to the point he felt like cuffing his brother across the nose. And Sassie...his pulse leaped at the thought of her. Reflexively, his claws extended and scraped the stone, leaving dull scratches in the gray surface. Crossing his forepaws, he lay his head upon them and watched as heat lightning played on the horizon.
His ear twitched as it picked up a faint swishing noise. Lifting his head, he looked around to see Sarabi padding toward him, her forepaws curling inward and then flicking out gracefully as she set them down. “Hey, Sassie,” he said, brightening. He raised an eyebrow at the dangling form that she carried in her mouth. “Whatcha got?”
Sarabi neared him and laid the hare at his feet, then stepped around him. She rubbed against his side roughly, catching him off balance and nearly sending him careening into the cavern wall. "For you, Fuzzy Love,” she purred, circling around and rubbing up the other flank. “Something special." Halting in front of him, she sat and smiled, her amber eyes twinkling in merriment.
"Huh?" Taka looked at the battered hare, then up at Sarabi’s enigmatic expression. He glanced down at it again, then swallowed. "Uhh, Sassie?"
"Thanks for the snack. But it looks like an ordinary rabbit to me."
She cocked her head and grinned. "Really?"
The tone in her voice made him look up sharply. He opened his mouth to ask her what was going on, but froze, staring.
On her left cheek, slowly drying in the afternoon breeze, was the reddish-maroon pawprint of a lioness.
"Oh-ho!" He brightned and rubbed his cheek against hers. Sitting back, he drank in her features, unable to contain his happiness.
"Look at my beautiful lioness! My huntress!" He nuzzled he cheek again, and she responded, slowly licking his ear and sending a wave of feeling down his back. He bent and rubbed his face against her rib cage. “I can hear your heart beating, Sassie.” She trembled, her eyes closed as he dreamily worked his way back. “The brave heart of a huntress. And the proud, strong haunches of a true lioness, crying out for love!”
Her eyes shot open abruptly and she whirled, a forepaw whipping out and smacking him across the face. “Don’t touch me there! We’re not pledged yet.”
He rubbed his stinging cheek with a paw, his eyes watering. “I wasn’t going to VIOLATE you. Lighten up, girl. We’ll be pledged soon enough."
"But not yet."
"What's wrong with it?” He drew away and looked at her. “Are you ashamed of me or something?!"
"No! Are you trying to prove something?! Look, I just don’t feel right about this. You need to respect my feelings."
“And I have none, eh?” he shot back caustically.
“Well obviously you have ONE, and you need to cool it.” She spun and stalked away, her tail lashing furiously. Taka stood motionless as he watched her form recede. He looked over at the hare’s carcass, which still lay where she had left it. He walked over to it and nosed it disinterestedly.
“Great going, idiot,” he muttered.
The Mantlement Ceremony was all that Ahadi and Akase seemed to talk about--all everyone seemed to talk about. Soon their sons would be lions, helping defend the territory and helping raise the next generation of leaders.
Taka would have his share of honor as Prince Consort, and yet there was no doubt that everyone of every species would be staring at the future King. Taka's Mantlement was the last big step that the public would take interest in, and he had to endure it in the huge shadow of his brother.
Immersed in this thought, Taka sat alone on the point of Pride Rock and looked down on the wide savanna below, now occupied by a few wildebeests, but soon alive with bowing and scraping subjects looking on their King-to-be. And that what's-his-name brother of his--the one with the scar. Only recently had the other lions begun to talk to him without staring at the eye. He'd long passed the stage where those who were dying to know more about it could ask, "How are you feeling?" or "Can I help?" Now it was as healed as it would ever be, and they had gotten used to it. But along with the familiarity came the rumors--mostly true--about how he was marked, and the nickname Scar. Oddly enough, no one blamed Mufasa in the least for what had happened to Taka's eye. Instead they wondered who would be stupid enough to go into a badger's hole in the first place. Everyone knew how badgers act--that is, everyone with common sense.
"Hey, Taka!" said Mufasa, sitting alongside. "Thinking about the big day tomorrow?"
"Well, you don't look too happy about it."
"I'm just fine," Taka said firmly. "I can't help the way I look."
"Yeah, right." Mufasa hopped up lithely and sat on the other side of Taka to look him in the eyes. "What's your problem? I mean, it's your big day too. Everyone who's anyone will be there to look at your new mane. Besides, the babes dig it! I mean, without a mane you're just another kitten."
"You must think I'm really stupid," Taka said. "Who's going to care about me? Half of them don't even know who I am. I'm just that kid with the funny-looking eye."
"You help protect the Pride Lands," Mufasa said. "That's important. And hey, if something happened to me, you'd have to be King." He made a sweeping gesture with his paw over the empty savanna. "They all know that. And they know they better treat you with respect, or they'll have to answer to me."
Taka stared at Mufasa right in the eyes, something that made his brother feel uncomfortable. Mufasa could almost feel Taka looking right through him, examining his bones and sinews. He was looking for something he could remember from long ago, from days when friendship could be taken for granted in the innocence of early cubhood. "Would you miss me if I died?"
"Of course I would," Mufasa said, a little irritated. "What kind of stupid question is that?"
"Don't call me stupid! I hate it when people call me that!"
"I didn't call you stupid," Mufasa said, backing back. "What is your problem, anyway? Go ahead and sulk--that's all you ever do now. But you watch yourself tomorrow. You're the son of the King, and you act like it. I don't want you spoiling my Mantlement, understand?"
"I understand clearly. I won't spoil YOUR Mantlement, brother."
On that word, Taka left the point of the rock and headed down quietly.
Sarabi was lying half-asleep in the shade of an acacia tree when Taka walked by. Her keen senses were stirred by the light tread in the grass. She looked up quickly, then relaxed her ears. "Oh, it's only you, Taka."
She frowned. "Not another one of those moods again. Get a little fuzz on your neck and you lions take yourself soooo seriously." She took a half-hearted swat at him. "Tell me, Taka, will you be like that when I get you alone? Smile if you think wicked thoughts."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Smile if you think I'm sexy."
He looked away. "Cut it out, will you?"
In a sultry half-purr, she added, "Smile if you think you'll live through the first night."
He broke into an embarrassed grin which he tried to hide behind a paw.
"Optimistic little devil, aren't you?" She nuzzled him affectionately. "I like that much better. I hate it when we fight."
"So do I," Taka said. "I should let you have your way more often."
Sarabi's eyes narrowed to slits. "I don't want to have my way more often. I mean we should agree to disagree. Don't patronize me."
"I didn't mean it that way."
"Then how did you mean it? I'm not stupid you know."
"I know." Taka licked his paw and tried to groom what there was of his mane. It was a nervous habit. "Sassie, let's never fight again. I was thinking about the prophesy. I've been thinking about it a lot lately."
"I don't believe in it," Sarabi said firmly. “I thought we had that settled.”
"Still, you can't blame me for worrying. I mean we never used to fight before that stupid thing with the badger." He licked his paw again and began to nervously rub at the other side of his neck.
"Please don't do that," Sarabi said.
"Don't do what? Oh...." Taka put down his paw. "Do you think you'll always love me? I mean, Rafiki said sometimes we make our own destinies. If we work hard, we can change them."
Sarabi nuzzled him. "There are times your own mother couldn't love you," she said. "This is not one of them. Forget the prophesy--I liked you better the way you were, when you trusted me."
"I trust you now," Taka said, beginning to groom his mane again. "I don't think you'd ever WANT to hate me. But you saw what happened to Rafiki’s mate and his daughter. You were there—you know what the makei said. And it happened just the way he said. This place has been cursed, Sassie. And if we stay here long enough, we’ll be cursed too.”
“What are you saying?”
"I'm coming of age, the time when a lion goes out into The Big World to make his fortune. Other than food and water, I have one need. Love, Sassie. Right now, Mom and Dad still love me. Maybe not as much as they love Muffy, but they do. And you love me, don't you?"
"Yes! How many times do I have to tell you??"
"Once," Taka said quietly. He put his left paw on her shoulder. He could feel her tremble. "It's time we stated our intentions. I want you."
"You are not of age," Sarabi said. "Not in their eyes at least. It is corban. They would never agree to this."
"Then don't ask them to," Taka said. "If you will always love me, pledge to me. I won't ask more until you come to me of your own free will. But we'll go away together. We'll leave tonight at high moon."
"I’m honored, really," Sarabi said. "But how are you so sure you will want me as your lioness? I mean we’re friends, but do you really know what you want?"
He put his left paw on her shoulder once more and let it fondle her strong, shapely form. "Our love could move Heaven and Earth," he whispered seductively. "It would spread like ripples in a pond, growing, spreading, deepening. You know I want you. When you look at me, when you touch me, I want you. Sarabi, look at me. You know I want you."
She felt his eyes meet hers. It was what lionesses call ‘The Look’.
"I believe you."
“And how does that make you feel?”
She tore herself away from The Look and glanced down at the ground. "You will be Prince Consort. It is foolish to go away when you are wanted here. It is safe here--out there in The Big World it is so uncertain. We have to think about our children."
"There is only one certainty I want," Taka said with barely suppressed passion. "Before the gods, before the stars, before the assembled host I swear to give you my protection, my love, and my comfort forever." He looked at her pleadingly, like a small cub who's afraid of the dark. "Come on, Sarabi. Say it."
She started to hold her paw out to touch his. It trembled. She put it down. In the intensity of the moment she could not speak.
“Sassie, you’ve always loved me haven’t you? Can’t you remember the words?”
Sarabi’s eyes misted up with tears. “Oh Taka, what’s gotten into you??”
A painful moment passed. Taka's face changed visibly--it was like watching him die. "I understand," he said. "You are only a small lioness in a big world. How could you hope to fight destiny?" His ears laid back dejectedly and his tail hung limply. “It would be better for all of us if I left. I want to be remembered with some kindness—maybe a little regret for what might have been. And it might have been fine, Sassie.”
He trotted off into the bush without another word. Sarabi watched him draw further and further away until he was a small speck of tawny among the brush. Panic seized her, and she found her tongue. "Taka! Wait! I'll do it!" Apparently he did not hear any voices but those in his head. "Taka!"
Though his essence still hung in the air, he was gone. Tears began to roll down her cheeks and she roared with pain.
CHAPTER 26: FRIENDS IN UNLIKELY PLACES
Taka was leaving the Pride Lands without even the traditional blessing. He had never learned to hunt, secure that he would always have a home. Now he left for the river valley. He took a small comfort knowing where he was going he would need no hunting skills, and no place to rest his head. Perhaps with the kings of old among the stars he could look down and see his beloved across the vault of heaven. Would she marry? Would she have beautiful cubs whose smiles warm the very heart of Aiheu? Would she remember his love through the years?
Finally he stood on the brink of the river valley. On the threshold of death, his life blood coursed through his veins and his heart beat like a hammer. Not far from where he stood was a sheer drop-off, the kind of place where a lion could fall and fall without suffering on the craggy slopes, and then just stop. Just stop--what a thought. Would it hurt? Would it have time to hurt? Would it make a difference how he landed? He would know very soon.
“Lord Aiheu, creator of the universe, I stand far from the rest, alone for I am dying. Forgive the many hurts I have caused. The night is coming when the breath you gave me will return to the heavens.” He dropped his formal prayers, and cried, “Gods, help me! I’m afraid." His chin trembled and tears began to roll down his cheeks. "Let it be quick. Aiheu abamami!” His legs tensed for the final spring into oblivion.
Just when he was about to plunge to his death, he heard the death cry of a gazelle, and turned. He could see a lone hyena panting, pulling the hide off a fresh kill. Through his deep grief, he felt hunger. Even if he chose to die, he must not die hungry. “Aiheu provides.”
Glad to experience one last pleasure before he died, he ran to the kill, baring his teeth. The hyena, a female, backed back. He glared at her, the first hyena he'd ever seen close up. Something about her took him by surprise. Down one side of her face were horrible scars, and the eye was missing. He stared at the horrible wound, stunned by the thought that in this way she was just like him, only she was blind on one side. And somehow he noticed how she was staring at his eye. For several quiet moments, they stood there and looked at each other.
"I have young, my lord," she said at last. "Have pity on poor Fabana. When you are gone, we must go on living."
"Indeed," he said. "There is enough for all. I am...." he hesitated to say it aloud. "I would rather not die hungry."
"What happened to yours? Your old man do that?"
"Your eye. You lions think we are crude," she said. "Not good enough for the Pride Lands. But we don't drive off our sons into the cruelty of the unknown. We love them. Tell me, stranger, have you ever heard of a hyena jumping to his death?"
"No, I don't think I have." He quickly changed the topic. "You say you're a mother. Where are your cubs? They must eat too. I won't hurt them. I'm only a danger to myself these days."
"I can tell." She called softly behind her. "Shenzi. Banzai. Edward. It's all right. Come on out."
Three pups came out of the brush and stared at the lion. Taka had never seen young hyenas before. The small female looked as their mother must have once.
"My name is Taka," he said quietly. "Don't be afraid." He lay his large bulk down like a huge sphinx. When he looked less threatening, the pups came over and cautiously sniffed of him. “So this one is Edward. What does it mean?”
“It is the name of a man. He saved me when I was a pup. My parents were killed in a brush fire. Feel along my neck.”
Taka carefully ran his large paw along her throat. He felt a gap where there was no fur.
“The collar,” she said. “I was tied to a tree with a rope. That’s something like a vine, but stronger.”
“Then he was cruel to you?”
“No, but his dog was. One day name calling was not enough, and the whelp did this to me.” She turned her scar to face Taka. “I killed him. That’s why the man drove me away. But I do not forget that he saved my life, so I named my first born Edward.”
“You have saved my life. I’m not sure I could work up the nerve a second time.” He looked at her pleadingly. “Please do not drive me away.”
"Your troubles aren't not so bad,” she said. “Many lions come through this just fine. Someday you will find security and love."
"But I already had, or I thought I did. You don't know how I have suffered."
"When you have eaten, tell me."
Taka attacked the carcass with desperation, but after the first few bites took the edge off his hunger, his wisdom took over. He stopped while there were still some choice portions and insisted that Fabana finish it.
“My father, Ahadi—you’ve heard about him, haven’t you?”
“He’s the Lion King, isn’t he?”
“That makes you the Prince then?” She gasped.
“No, Prince Consort.”
“Oh, that explains a lot.” She shook her head. “I didn’t think a prince would want to kill himself. I take it you don’t get along with your brother?”
“Actually I like my brother. He’s not very clever, but his heart is in the right place.”
She clucked her tongue. “Then that leaves one possibility. You have a girl. I bet she’s stiffed you for the Prince, hasn’t she?”
“No.” He had quickly denied it, but it didn’t seem that impossible. “This isn’t just any lioness and it isn’t just another girl problem.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“Yes, but there’s a curse behind this. The mandrill shaman Rafiki was treating me for this eye problem when he tried to tell my future.”
“Rafiki!” She stopped eating. “Lord, honey, you just got to tell me all about this. A curse, you say?”
For well on an hour or more he poured out his heart to her, and as he did, he watched her nod her head gravely once in a while. It made him cry to tell it, but they were tears of healing, and he felt much better.
Out of lion manners, he waited to hear her story. But she would not talk of herself much. One thing she would say—Jalkort, the father of her cubs was dead, killed unjustly for the murder of the Princess Avina. “He ate after she had died, but of all the foolish things he’s done, he did not murder your Aunt. Someday I must face the King and plead his case.”
“Though he is already dead? What will you accomplish?”
“He was my husband.”
“You are a romantic,” Taka said, kissing her cheek. “If I was in trouble, I wouldn’t mind having you on my side. Perhaps I can arrange a meeting.”
Fabana felt compassion for Taka and taught him all of the pass phrases and signs that would let him pass safely through her lands. But most importantly, she gave him some advice that would change his path forever. "I know the mandrill of which you speak. He told my fortune too. He said that I would meet friends in unexpected places, but they would turn on me in my hour of need. You have not turned on me. My advice is to forget the prophesy--it is a piece of nonsense that has cost you dearly. Apologize to your lover. Kiss your mother. Make your father proud of you. And remember old Fabana. If you do become King someday, teach your children that we all have a heart and soul under our different hides.” She pulled her pups close to her. “Lift the ban for their sakes."
CHAPTER 27: THE CONFRONTATION
Sarabi was in tears when Mufasa found her. He nuzzled her affectionately and turned to face her when she looked away. "Sassie, tell me about it."
"It's Taka. He's gone."
"What do you mean by gone?"
"Gone. He's left the Pride Lands. He begged me to come with him, and I thought about it. Now I wish I had. He's out there alone, Muffy! He's kind and gentle, but he doesn't know a thing about life in The Big World."
It came as a complete surprise to Mufasa, though he believed her at once. "Did he say where he was going?"
"No. He just left."
"Sassie, don't cry. I know how much you love him. We all love him. Maybe when he cools off, he'll come home."
"Do you think so? Do you really think so?"
"Yes. But it may be a long while. He's a proud lion."
She looked down. "What will I do? I always thought it would be Taka and I--just the two of us and our cubs. What's left for me? I will grow old alone and unloved like poor Barata."
Mufasa felt a lump gathering in his throat. "Sassie, I'm going to tell you something, and it's going to sound awful under the circumstances." He looked her in the eyes. "I didn't want to get in my brother's way. But things have changed, and I have to say this or I'll burst."
"Is it what I think it is?"
"Probably." He nuzzled her gently. "Oh gods, Sassie, I feel like such a wretch! Like the lowest thing that ever crawled out from under a stone. But I love you. I've always loved you. There were times I would have given anything if you loved me instead of Taka. But I don't want to lose my brother or hurt him in any way. All my life I’ve felt like I was being torn in two directions. I can’t bear to lose both of you. Don't hate me for being truthful."
"I don't." She nuzzled him. "I've always known how you felt. You can't hide a thing like that."
"Maybe you don't love me the way I love you. At least you like me, don't you? I mean, I'll make sure you always have what you need. I'll take care of you. If you'll be my mate, I'll do anything for you--anything."
"Even forgive Taka?"
"You make it sound so hard. He’s my brother. I want him to come home."
"I need time to think about it," Sarabi said.
Mufasa nodded. "Of course."
Excusing herself, Sarabi rose and padded away slowly. She wandered through the tall grass of the savanna alone with her thoughts. Everything had been simple once. Love had been a cub once, but now it was a lioness. A lioness who chooses as she wills the lion to desire and the lion to pity.
Now she was acutely aware that her love for Taka was a beautiful sisterly love, but one that did not need or even want to be expressed in passion. On the other hand, Muffy stirred feelings in her that were new and a little frightening, but very wonderful. Ever since Rafiki had whispered his advice to her, Sarabi said nothing to Mufasa but observed him carefully. She was flattered, honored, and even a little sad to think how he yearned for her but said nothing. Now he was gentle and kind, and he came to her with honest longing. She could hardly resist. She hardly wanted to. She desired him as she had never needed Taka, and it filled her with shame. Shame that if anyone had worked to earn her love, it had been Taka. Shame that her love could not be earned. Shame to think how her yearning for Mufasa would destroy him when he found out.
Pity for Taka filled her. She strained to tell the difference between pity and love. Was there really such a gulf, that her heart so quick to cry at his bumps and scrapes could not beat in time with his? Is it really so different to be with one lion or the other? Can she not learn to love when her wild heart is tamed with vows? Could she feel the heat of his ardor and not be warmed by it in the least?
She tried to think of Taka coming to her in the shadows, flush with the expectations of his wedding night. She heard his quiet voice with an edge of passion asking, “Are you ready, beloved? Are you ready?” She imagined herself looking into his eyes the way they looked the last time he saw her, deep and longing. “I am ready.” Her heart raced, but it was fear, not desire. “No, I’m not ready!” she said aloud. “I don’t want him! Not that way! Oh gods, he would know!” She collapsed in the grass, sobbing. "Aiheu help me, I love them both, but I don’t want to crouch with Taka—I’d almost rather die!" She opened her eyes, seeing the savanna through a blurred film of tears. She blinked as a shadow passed overhead. Looking up, she saw Ahadi's majordomo gliding by.
She hunched over, praying he wouldn't see her down here, crying like a hungry cub. With relief, she saw him heading away towards the river. She felt lucky; his sharp eyesight rarely missed anything on the ground.
She started to head back home, but paused, thinking. His sharp eyesight rarely missed anything, even Taka! He could find Taka! Galvanized into action, she burst from her hiding place and sprinted after him, trying to keep him in sight. "Zazu! Wait!"
High above her, the hornbill sped toward the river, the wind whistling past his ears dulling any sounds that might have reached him. Gliding down to a smooth landing, he paced over to the river's edge, eager to begin his noontime ritual. In a quiet spot in the shade of the reeds, he took in a deep breath, stretched his wings, and dipped one foot in the water. “Sheesh!” He pulled out his leg quickly. “Perfect.”
He backed up a few steps, took a flying leap, and after a few powerful strokes of his wings, folded and dropped like a stone into the cold water.
“Ooo-hoo-HOOO!” He splashed about until he got used to the frigid tide. It felt good in the oppressive heat. Singing, he splashed about, soaking himself from his primaries clear through to the down.
Your eyes are driving me cra-zy,
Pluck a dai-sy,
Ask it if I am true.
“You’ll pull off the fragrant petals,
And watch as each one settles,
I love you so, and off we’ll go,
To a paradise made for two.”
A goose with her goslings watched with harmless amusement. One of the goslings swam over and had to stare a little more closely.
“Who? What?” Zazu shook off his head and looked at the youth. “Oh, I’m just tidying up.”
“I thought you were in trouble.”
“Hardly.” Zazu laughed.
The small ball of feathers looked back unblinking.
“Was there something else?”
“Gee, that’s a big beak. What are you?”
“I’m a hornbill.”
“I like hornbills.”
“Thank you.” He smiled. “Best run along or you’ll get splashed. Hornbills do a lot of that”
Pushing along the bottom with his feet and flapping his wings, Zazu made it back to the bank with a great deal of effort. He fanned his wings to shake off diamond droplets, and began to use his beak with surprising finesse to preen his feathers. The show was over, and the gosling went back to its mother to fish for prawns.
It was nearly time to gather the mid-day news for Ahadi. In return for his services, Zazu lived a safe life. He could pick the choicest fruits from the trees where predators made their stealthy living, for he was corban--off limits--to all who would enjoy a well-fed hornbill.
When he was nearly dry enough to take off, a lioness came out of the bush. “Zazu! Thank heavens you’re still here.”
“Sarabi! Good morning.”
“It’s NOT a good morning,” she said with distress. “When you make your rounds, tell me if you see Taka. He’s run off, and I’m worried about him.”
“Run off, you say? That whining little imp? I didn’t think he had the nerve.” He rubbed his eyes. “I wouldn’t worry about him. He’ll come back when he’s had a taste of the bush.”
“Zazu! I know you don’t like him, but you do like me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. I value your friendship highly.”
“And you like Mufasa, don’t you?” She didn’t even wait for an answer. “Listen, it’s important for Muffy and I to know where he is. Besides, that would be some real news for the King. Akase is going crazy worrying about him.”
“I’ll get right on it.”
Zazu spread his wings and in a moment he was up beyond the tops of the trees, headed off to make his rounds.
CHAPTER 28: THE MANTLEMENT CEREMONY
The next morning, the green plain of the Pride Lands was covered by zebras, antelopes, elephants, giraffes, and many other peoples who pushed and shoved for the best position. Zazu, the King's majordomo, strutted about nervously. He had never spoken before such a huge audience before. King Ahadi looked drained, though he kept up appearances. Queen Akase had a difficult time sitting still beside her husband. She stared into space.
Sarabi and Elanna were wards of the queen, and were invited to sit with the royal family. It was especially a comfort for Sarabi to be next to Akase and smell the familiar smell of her milk mother.
“Zazu,” Sarabi asked quietly, “Have you seen Taka?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve put out word all over, but I’m afraid he’s long gone.”
“Oh.” She bowed her head.
“Even Gopa the stork hasn’t seen him, and nothing escapes Gopa. But I can fly out past the boundary if you wish. After the ceremony of course.”
“It won’t be necessary.”
Akase motioned her over and nuzzled her affectionately. “You are such a comfort to me. You were his milk sister, and how many times as I nursed you I thought of you as my own little girl, as if I had carried you.”
“I felt it,” Sarabi said, resting her head on Akase’s shoulder. “Tell me the truth--should I have gone with Taka?”
Akase purred. “No, my child. It is sad enough to lose a son without losing a daughter. And I feel you will be my daughter before the day is out.”
Mufasa got the nod from his father, and started out toward the end of the spur to meet the crowd. But first he paused by Sarabi and smiled to see how gentle she looked leaning on Akase. “My last cubhood thought will be of you,” he said. “And the first thought as a lion will be of you. Sassie, would you rest your head on me some time?” She looked deep into his eyes and her chin trembled. “Muffy,” she purred, “My beloved.”
Mufasa walked to the end of the promontory. A brief, dim memory came back to him. “Old Rafiki,” he thought. “Was I so small that he could hold me up?” He smiled, and looked over the crowd. It was good to be back where it had all started.
Zazu shouted, "Long live Prince Mufasa, son of King Ahadi!"
The crowd bowed and scraped. Zebras whinnied, elephants trumpeted, and antelopes stomped their hooves. It only stopped when Zazu spread his wings.
The King met his son at the tip of Pride Rock. "Let all within the sound of my voice know that my son is coming fast on the path of his forefathers. Look, he bears the sign."
Mufasa reached over and symbolically nipped his father’s neck. As Ahadi had done before, Mufasa wept.
Akase took Ahadi's place. "Look down o gods and bless my son who is now a lion." She shuddered visibly. "And bless my son Taka, wherever he is. Hear a mother’s prayer and have mercy on him. Mercy!"
A hush fell over the sward. The zebras looked at one another and the elephants shook their head. Akase stood on the tip of the Pride Rock with a certain dignity, but a deep sadness that bowed her head and stooped her shoulders. They waited for her to say something, anything. One of the zebra mares nuzzled her foal. The leopards bowed their heads and Bhetu the bat-eared fox howled mournfully. Ahadi came out and kissed his mate, leading her back to a sanctuary of private grief. Zazu dismissed the crowd with a quick blessing, and they stalked quietly away, aware that something very bad had happened.
Mufasa left the peak, and headed back to the cave where he had spent his cubhood. "So I am a lion now."
"You are my lion now," Sarabi answered. She came from the deep shadows to meet him. He gathered his nerve and put his paw on her left shoulder. She answered with a deep purr. It could only mean one thing.
Mufasa said "Before the gods, before the stars, before the assembled host I swear to give you my protection, my life, and my comfort forever."
She trembled and nuzzled him affectionately. "Till the last beat of my heart, to the last breath I sigh, our lives are one, so help me gods."
"Bless you, Sassie. I'll love you forever."
“Let us go someplace alone,” Sarabi whispered.
“Right now?” Mufasa whispered back. “Are you sure you want this?”
“Yes.” She kissed him. “Once Taka needed me, but now he needs something I can’t give him. I hope he finds it.” She nuzzled him and added, “Let me be selfish, Muffy. Let me think of myself for once. Give me what I need. Love me. Press close to me. Make me happy.”
“Sassie,” he whispered passionately. “To love you for a moment and then die, I would have no regrets.”
Mufasa nodded at his parents and Ahadi winked back. “Have fun, kids. There’s a nice walk to the mirror pool in the cleft of the rock. You could watch the fish swim.”
When Mufasa led his timid new wife out of the cave, Ahadi whispered to Akase, “Thank the Gods. Sarabi is a good lioness, and she has made the right decision. Taka is a good boy, and clever, but he is so immature. Besides, it’s just like Rafiki says--Muffy really loves her.”
“Did he tell you that too? He’s a meddlesome old ape, but he has a heart from the gods.” She shook her head. “I hate to agree with you, Hawdy, but you are right about Taka.” She sighed. “Do you ever think we’ll see him again?
“Probably not while we’re alive. He’s proud, that one. Proud and stubborn.”
“Then go after him,” Akase said.
“Go after him? Where? This is no antelope hunt. His tracks cover every square paw of the Pride Lands. I’m not a god, Cassie.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” she said in a feeble attempt at humor. “But if you don’t look for him, I will.”
“Cassie! You must be careful! I can’t have you leaving the Pride Lands. I’ve already lost a son—must I lose his mother as well?”
“Then come with me.”
“I’m not sure it will do any good. But we owe him that much at least.”
Just then, Zazu came excitedly into the cave. "Good news, everyone! You'll never guess!" He bowed deeply. "Your Majesties, Taka is coming back! I've spotted him in the brush and he's headed this way!"
“That is good news for us,” Ahadi said. “I only hope it will be good news for him.”
CHAPTER 29: SARABI’S NEWS
Over the next few days, Rafiki watched helplessly as his relationship with Taka went from bad to worse. Taka was a great favorite of Rafiki’s, and even when most of the lionesses did not like the dark-maned prince and Zazu addressed him with open contempt, Rafiki kept trying to prove that his heart was steadfast. Still, for Taka, all of Rafiki’s friendly overtures seemed like plots against him.
The loss of Sarabi caused the frayed ends of Taka’s sanity to begin unraveling. Rafiki had to avoid Taka completely to avoid an “accidental” injury. And since Taka was pacing about like a thing possessed, it became harder and harder to avoid those confrontations and still do a shaman’s job.
Sometimes Taka prayed, often beautifully. Other times he cursed God and defied the universe. In that sense, he was being torn apart from the inside, raising love from hate and hate from love. In a timid way, Rafiki sought to bolster the strength of the good fighting within him. Once when Taka was deep in prayer, Rafiki slipped down on his knees beside him and offered him some jerky.
“I love you, my precious boy. Remember when I used to tell you stories? Remember how I would stroke you and give you extra treats?”
Taka looked at him fiercely. “Leave me alone! Have you no pity??”
“Pity born of suffering. Pity born of death and despair. Pity that only one who has suffered can understand. But I have loved, too. Loved you and cooled your fevers and rubbed your sprains. Don’t reject me, little Fru Fru. Don’t put a thorn in my heart!”
“Don’t call me that!” he snarled. “My name is Scar, remember? It’s what everyone calls me. It’s quite difficult to forget; just look at my face, and you’ll have no problem remembering!”
Rafiki passed a hand over his own face, wizened and deeply lined. “And am I so different? We have each been marked with pain, for all to see. But I bear my marks proudly, for they were borne of love.”
Taka’s fierce expression crumbled. Turning, he walked into a corner of his cave and flopped down, sobbing. “Oh gods, I wish I were dead!”
Rafiki fell upon him, rubbing his mane and kissing his cheek. “Not my little boy! Don’t say that, Fru Fru! You know how it hurts me. I saved you once. I told you to live forever! You must live! You must live forever!”
A soft paw reached up and draped over Rafiki. “Remain a moment. I could use some company now.” In that moment, Rafiki felt perfectly safe and very loved.
There were moments like that, and then there were other moments, dark ones when Rafiki feared for his life. Still, he had promised Ahadi and Akase that he would take care of Taka, and as long as Aiheu held breath to body, he would.
Taka’s loss of Sarabi was too much for him to accept completely, and he constantly watched for opportunities to get her alone. Such chances were few, for Muffy fawned on her day and night, smitten with a love both deep and selfless. And Sarabi was not the passive subject of his advances. She nuzzled her mate for no other reason than the way the his eyes shone in the moonlight, she played games of hide and go seek with passion at stake, and she would lie against him with her head buried in the softness of his mane. When the lionesses would talk as they gathered for the hunt, her every other word was Muffy this and Muffy that. Their attraction was healthy and strong, and those who knew her said she would have the light in her eyes soon enough.
Once Sarabi enjoyed Taka’s company. Now she tried to avoid him. He had met her at the watering hole and begged her to come away with him. Once he’d waited for her to come back from the kill and put his paw on her left shoulder in front of the other lionesses. She was terrified that Muffy would overhear some of his remarks and try to satisfy the demands of honor. Taka misunderstood her warnings as concern for “their relationship,” and began to block out the evidence of her strong attraction to Muffy. To him, she was trapped in a marriage she did not want, trying to protect her true love from the wrath of a jealous husband or outraged gods.
Sarabi tried to disenchant him from that fantasy. He only believed more strongly than ever in her love. A brave, fragile thing of beauty that would try to turn his affections to another rather than have him killed by his own brother. At first it was easy for Taka to cling to this story and make his rejection bearable. In a way, it made her more beautiful and desirable to him, and he suffered greatly over it.
Then one day her love for Muffy took tangible form inside her. She came to him that morning, nuzzled him, and said, "Good morning…father.”
“I’m not your father.”
She smiled. “Of course you’re not my father. But you are someone’s father.”
With joy he kissed her. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, my lover. I have to tell everyone. I want the whole WORLD to know it!"
Ahadi and Akase were the next to know, but then she went to tell Taka she was with child. This was more of a duty she had to perform, and she took no joy in it.
Taka took one look at her, then looked away. It was as if he could sense the words before they were spoken. "Go ahead. Say it."
"I see. I thought so." He stared silently at the ground for a moment, then looked at her. “So you are with his cubs. Where has the time gone.”
“I hope you are glad for me.”
“I could be glad for us, Sassie. They could be our cubs.” He reached out with his left paw and touched her shoulder.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that.” She backed up. “Muffy would use you for a throw rug. Besides, I’m expecting. Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Taka, it’s over between us. Can’t you see that?”
“Because your child is forming inside you? Sassie, it could be our child. I love you so much, and I would love your cubs so much. I can’t just give up on you. No one has ever loved you the way I do. I cannot blame Muffy for wanting you. I couldn’t blame any lion for wanting you. But you loved me back. I waited for you, I prayed for you, I was prepared to turn my back on family and friends for you, even the gods themselves.”
She was shocked. “Don’t you fear the gods?”
“The gods?” Taka uttered a short, mocking laugh. “If there are any gods, they hate me. They have let this curse eat away at me and done nothing to stop it. NOTHING!” His eyes bored into hers. “You are my god now. You and the child inside you. I would worship you. I would bring you sacrifices. Sassie, look at me! Look me in the eyes and try to tell me you don’t want me! You can’t!”
“I can! I’m not going anywhere with you. I love you like a brother—a spoiled little brother that has his good moments. I thought I could also learn to love your breath on my cheek, but it will not happen. Muffy is the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing I think of as I fall asleep. When he touches me, I tremble. When he makes love to me, I am drunk with joy. Just talking about it makes me want him! But you never made me feel that way.”
His jaw clenched. “I don’t want to hear this.”
“You NEED to hear this! He and I are in love. I pitied you, and wanted to make you happy. But you are aggravating, dependent, selfish, and obnoxious, and those are some of your LESS irritating qualities. If I’d married you, that would not have changed. But thank the gods I narrowly escaped making the biggest mistake of my life!”
Taka took in a short gasp. The dream was shattered forever. He gaped at her, unable to speak for several seconds. “Well then,” he said bitterly, “it seems I ran away at a very convenient time. I hope you two will be happy together.” He started away.
“Wait, Taka! I don’t know what made me say those awful things.”
“What awful things, Sarabi?” He gave her a withering glance. “Things like you were the one that loves me? Things like when you grew up you wanted to marry me? And that little crack about how I wouldn’t survive the wedding night. Well I almost didn’t.” She backed away a step as he stalked towards her. “While his breath perfumed your dainty little cheek as you so delicately put it, I was planning my own death.”
She put a paw to her mouth, horrified.
“You didn’t know why I ran away, did you Sassie. I ran away to blot you out forever. I thought you were worth a little plunge off a cliff. Now at least I know why I didn’t.” He nodded to himself. “Some higher power spared me so I could learn the truth! You weren’t worth it! I’d rather crouch with a dead cow than straddle you!”
She cuffed him across the face. “Why don’t you go find one! Get out!”
“You’ll wish you left me in the badger hole,” he said, turning in a huff. “I swear you will!”
CHAPTER 30: THE ULTIMATUM
Mufasa carried himself with a certain dignity. He never begged nor pleaded, yet he got everything he wanted. Perhaps that is what Sarabi liked in him. Perhaps she liked a firm paw and a touch of mischief.
Taka looked into the waters of the cistern in Pride Rock where the rain would collect in pools. The face that peered back at him was the face of a whiner, a pleader, an underdog. Maybe that’s why Sarabi did not want him. Maybe he could get what he asked for if he stopped asking.
The small fish seemed to taunt him, swimming about slowly as he looked down into the crystal recesses of the stone. His steady lapping set up rings that spread across the surface, breaking up his reflection. Still, he could see another tawny feature coming up beside him. Even before he looked up, he knew his timing was excellent.
“The water is fresh as a spring rain, Sarabi.”
“Taka, it’s you.”
He looked up and smiled warmly. “Aren’t you looking beautiful today.”
“Well, uh, thank you.”
He looked back down and resumed drinking. She joined him in a moment when it was obvious he was not about to leave. From time to time he looked over at her, then he finally stopped drinking and wiped his muzzle with a large paw. “I was just thinking about the old times. You were always so protective of me. It used to make Muffy so angry when you’d fawn over me. I didn’t know how fond he was of you. If I had, I wouldn’t have taken you for granted. I would have been better to you.”
“Well that’s in the past now.”
“Is it?” He smiled disarmingly. “I still make you feel uncomfortable. I miss having you look in my eyes without feeling like something bad is going to happen. You have beautiful eyes. God, how I miss them.” He cast his glance away. “Now we almost never talk, and you’d always rather be someplace else doing anything else. Sassie, I miss you. You are my milk sister. I’d just want to know that you could still like me.”
“Of course I still like you. Look, I know I made you upset and you said a lot of angry things. But I still want to be your friend, and if you’d behave yourself, I wouldn’t be afraid to show it.”
“Afraid??” Taka caught himself, laughed self-consciously, and said, “Why my dear Sassie, there is not a lion worthy of the name that could look at you and not feel his heart race a little. That’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just that your eyes are fresh flowers wet with morning dew. When I see them, they make me happy. I love the way you look, the way you smell, the way you move. Who doesn’t?”
“You’re very sweet, Taka,” she said guardedly. “But there are other lionesses in this Pride that are equally pretty. You should meet one and get to know her well. I want you to be happy the way Muffy and I are happy. I really do.”
“Yes there are other lionesses,” Taka said softly. “Someone may think they are as pretty as you, but Sassie, there is one kind of beauty they lack. Not one of them has ever cried when I was hurt. Not one of them ever showed me kindness. Not one of them came to me in my dreams. It was only you, always you. Muffy has been a good brother and you have been a good friend. But gods, every time he makes love to your beautiful soft body, I want to die. I just want to die!” He bit his lip so hard that a small drop of blood stained his fur.
“Taka!” she said firmly. “Get a grip on yourself! When you find yourself a lioness, we can be friends again. Friends, Taka, the way we were as cubs. When you act like this, you frighten me. I don’t trust you anymore. If you want a lioness to love you, you have to love her and make her feel special. Find someone that needs to feel special, and fill that need.”
“You just don’t get it, do you?” Taka stalked away. “I can’t get you out of my head. Sassie, you’re killing me from the inside.”
Taka settled into the shadow of a kopje to find respite from the sun, and he started to stretch out for a nap. Then another lion passed by. It was Ahadi.
“Walk with me, son.”
Ahadi headed slowly, silently up the winding trail that led to the promontory on Pride Rock. Instead of going into the cave, he headed up the finger of stone and at its peak sat in regal silence. Taka reached him shortly and sat next to his father.
“Lay your head on my mane,” Ahadi purred.
Reluctantly, Taka did so. “Why did you want to see me?”
“I’m your father. Do I need a reason?”
Apparently he did not, for they sat together for a long while as the faint breeze stirred their manes together. A few soft clouds sailed by on an azure sea, and borne up on silent wings, a fish eagle lofted by majestically, undisputed lord of the air. For a few moments, two kings in their own right saw each other; the eagle dipped his wing, and Ahadi waved his paw. Taka began to relax as his tensions slowly ebbed away on the wind. He could hear his father’s steady pulse under the deep mantle of soft fur, and feel his sleek ribs rise and fall with the tides of his breath. It was a safe and comfortable feeling that stirred sleeping memories from the shadows of his mind.
“Once I said that you could tell me anything when you were good and ready.” Ahadi nuzzled Taka gently. “I have grown weary of waiting, son. You are troubled, trapped by your own feelings. You need to start confiding in me.”
“I’m fine. Really I am.”
“It must be terrible to suffer as you have suffered for Sarabi.”
“But father, I’m not suffering for Sarabi.”
“You’re not?” Ahadi sighed. “Muffy used to twitch his tail when he lied. You always wrinkle your nose. A father knows these things. Now I ask you, do I sound angry?”
“But I do sound worried, don’t I?”
“I am very worried. Your mother and I want you to be happy. We also want Muffy to be happy. It’s getting harder to wish you both what you want, when all you want is what Muffy has.” Ahadi took his large paw and gave Taka a pat. “He loves you, son. He’s your brother. I’m happy for him, and I want you to be happy for him. And what’s more, I want him to be happy for you. Do you know what I’m trying to say?”
“I think so.”
“Son, I love you. You were always so wise and sensitive. Whomever you marry will be fortunate. She will treasure every moment with you, my son. You think about romance and dream about it, but these are only shadows. Step into the light. Sarabi has talked with your mother and I, and we know all about what you’ve been up to.”
Taka stiffened. “Oh my gods.”
“Don’t worry. She hasn’t breathed a word to Muffy and neither shall we. She didn’t want to hurt you. In fact, she’s very sad about the whole situation, and she feels guilty for disappointing you. Akase and I are both convinced you should find yourself another lioness as quickly as possible.”
“But I don’t want another lioness. She’s all I ever wanted. She was my kingdom. Muffy had one, but he had to take mine too.” He began to cry. “She loved me, Dad. She said so.”
Ahadi sighed and touched his cheek with his tongue. “It will be easier on you at your age if you have an outlet for all these strong, new feelings. I understand how you want Sarabi, but son, you cannot have her. Grieve for your loss--go have a good cry over it, then go on with your life. Elanna has had her eye on you for quite a while. If you would just open your eyes, you’d know that. And you might want to talk with Rafiki and see what the spirits have to say--and don’t tell me how he has it in for you, I don’t want to hear it.” He turned to face Taka eye to eye. “I’m going to give you three moons—a whole season. You have that long to become serious with someone else.”
“If you don’t, I’ll have to take action to protect Muffy and Sassie from constant harassment. You’ll get a commoner’s mantlement and I’ll send you off into The Big World.”
“I mean it, too. It would hurt your mother and I, but we have others to think of besides ourselves. Muffy is a good lion, and he will be your King someday. He has a right to expect loyalty from his own brother. If you can’t give it, you must go out in The Big World, where you’ll either be responsible or be carrion. Taka, you’re not a cub anymore. You need to grow up.”
CHAPTER 31: THE QUESTION
A week had passed. For Taka it was an awkward time, fraught with frustration and embarrassment. He began to talk to different lionesses, but he found discouragement at every corner.
He had seen Ajenti lounging in the sun and shyly drew near to her. "Jenny, do you mind if I make a personal observation?"
"To me? I didn't think you knew I was alive."
"Why Ajenti, what a thing to say!"
"Look, go ahead and propose to me. Get it over."
Taka was shocked. "Jenny, what made you think that??"
"You've hit up every lioness in this outfit. Sooner or later it was bound to come to my turn. Everyone knows you're stuck on Sarabi."
In his desperation, Scar decided to be equally frank. "Look, I'll put it to you this way. You're a beautiful lioness. Any lion would be crazy that didn't notice that. I could learn to love you as much as I loved her. Maybe more. So maybe you don't love me either. Father told me—and this had BETTER not run the gossip trail—that if I didn't find a mate in three moons, I would be out of here. Do you know what that means?"
"Yes. It means you would be somewhere else."
"Do you want that on your conscience??"
"No. I don't want to take full credit. I couldn't have done it without your help." She shook her head. "Look, you had it made here. You drove poor Sarabi away by your constant irritating habits. You are among the most annoying creatures I've ever met, and I've hunted warthogs!"
"Please!" He bowed his head in shame. "Ajenti, I could make you a princess! I could give you comfort and children! I would be with you night and day seeing to your every need!" He looked her in the eye. "Don't decide right away. Take a few hours to think about it."
"I don't need a few hours. No."
"Just like that? Just like that sentence me to banishment and death? Have you no heart, Ajenti??"
"Yes, I have a heart," she said softly. "I'm going to tell you how to beat this thing."
"You have a plan??"
"Yes. Ask Elanna to marry you. She's stuck on you. You wouldn't even have to beg."
"I could never!"
"Now who's crazy?? She's beautiful. I hate to say it, but she's even prettier than I am!"
"She's also Sarabi's sister! Oh gods, if she turned me down she could make my life a living hell! They keep no secrets from each other!"
Ajenti sighed. "It's either that or out you go. Now I'm going to do you a favor. I'm going to pretend this conversation never took place. Have a nice day."
"Have a nice day while the offer stands."
Taka bowed his head. "Yes ma'am." He turned to go.
"Taka?" she called after him.
He looked about quickly. "Yes, Jenny?"
"How is your father doing?"
"Fine, I think. Everyone is asking me that."
"He's not been himself lately." She came up and nuzzled him gently. "I hope you will ask Elanna. I think she will be good for you—and I think you will be good for her. And thanks."
"For proposing to me. I know how you must feel."
CHAPTER 32: FEELING UNWELL
Taka felt uncomfortable around his parents because of what he thought they had been discussing behind his back. But while his mother acted perfectly normal, his father had acted really strange, not just with him but with everyone. Taka began to wonder if Ahadi had other problems. Indeed, some of the lionesses came to him wanting to know what was wrong with the King.
Ahadi was cranky and prone to disagreement. Akase made excuses for him, saying he was just “under the weather.” She urged him to see Rafiki, but he just dismissed her concerns as a lot of “foolish nonsense,” and asked her to be a “good little thing.”
Taka was too preoccupied to really notice his father’s health. He had padded quietly into the small grassy patch by the southern face of Pride Rock when he saw Muffy lying on his back next to Sarabi. They had not spotted him, so he froze and listened.
“Little cubs, are you in there?” Mufasa asked, running his paw gently down Sarabi’s abdomen. Her leg started kicking and she giggled.
“Cut that out, you wicked lion!”
“I’m your husband. I can touch you anywhere I want.”
“Well I’m your wife, you know. It works both ways.” She cuffed him lightly in the ribs.
“Ow! That hurt!”
“I’ll make it feel better.” She kissed him and began to fondle his mane with her paw. “What did I ever do to deserve such happiness?”
Taka’s heart came into his mouth. He ran from the meadow, plunging through the shrubs and breasting the tall savanna grass. The evil sun of midday scorched him with fire. Everything was ugly. All that was real was his hate. Hate for the creature that his brother had evolved into. Hate for Sarabi. Hate for life itself.
In his flight, he flushed out a rabbit. With a couple of strides, he closed the distance, and he sprang on the hapless creature, pinning it to the ground with his large paws.
In ice cold terror, the rabbit stared up into the red eyes of rage. “Oh gods,” it murmured. “Oh gods. Please let me go! Please!”
“He thinks he’s so cute, touching her there.” His eyes narrowed. “I’ll kill him. So help me God, I’ll kill him!”
The rabbit trembled violently in the suffocating embrace of Taka’s paws. “I’m not much of a meal. Oh gods, I’m going to die! Oh gods, oh gods! Please don’t hurt me!”
“Do you know what I do to scum like that? Dirty sneaking filth that steals what is rightfully mine?” Taka moved his face to within an inch of the rabbit. His breath, pregnant with lion scent, colored his every word. “I wait for the right moment, then I rip them like a gazelle.”
Taka closed in. The rabbit barely had time to shriek before it was stove clear through by lion fangs. Taka raised his head, tossed the blood-drenched trophy up and let it fall lifeless into the grass. “Like a gazelle! I’ll rip him open, so help me!”
The next morning, Akase awoke to an unpleasant sound. She thought she heard a leopard’s raspy cry. Only pride members were allowed on Pride Rock between sundown and sunrise unless the king himself gave them leave.
Akase looked about for her husband. He had left his spot and was wandering around in the cave. The sound came again—it was Ahadi. He gasped for air, then suffered another coughing spell. His gait was unsteady and when he looked in her direction it was as if he didn’t see her.
“Hawdy? My love? You need to see Rafiki!”
“Dirty little creeps! Hunting on our land! I’ll teach you! You’ll never come back when I’m through with you!!”
“Hawdy?? Oh gods, what’s wrong??”
“Get them out of here!” he said, coughing. “Get them--out of-- here! I don’t want them near the cubs!”
“Get what out of here?”
“Just get them out of here!” He staggered back against the wall of the cave coughing so hard he could barely breathe. A thick mucous came form his nose and the corners of his mouth and his eyes were red and wide with panic. With his back covered, he looked from side to side. “Cassie! Stand by me! I’ll protect you!” He shot out a strong arm, claws out. “Take that, you little bugger!” At that moment he posed a very real threat to her safety, and though she wanted to comfort him, she backed up a few paces from his powerful arms.
“My love,” she said pleadingly. “Please stay there. Don’t move. I must go for help.”
He swiped out again, losing his footing and falling to the stone floor with a thud. He continued to paw the air weakly. “Not safe! The cubs! I…” He began to cough again. “…cubs!”
Akase took her paw and patted his face. “Hawdy, darling! It’s all right! You’re safe.”
“Safe?” he said, his eyes not focusing well. “Where’s Akase? Cassie? Where are you, Cassie?”
“I’m right here, honey tree.”
“I have to drive hyenas off the Pride Lands.” His breath was raspy and shallow. “I’m so tired. Hyenas—they always seem to know when I’m tired. Let down your guard for one minute...” He began to cough so hard he gasped for air between fits.
“Please lie down. The hyenas are gone. Mufasa chased them out.”
“Mufasa? He’s a good boy. Where is he?”
Akase ran to the entrance of the cave. “Zazu! For God’s sake, come quickly!”
The hornbill was usually what he called “fashionably late,” showing his importance by never hurrying more than he absolutely had to. But he heard the anguish in her cry and fluttered in at once.
“What’s wrong, Your Majesty?”
Ahadi looked up. “We must rest here for a moment. Got to get out of the sun—I’m so hot. Taka, you go on without me.” Ahadi turned to face Zazu. “What do they think they’re doing? Isha, your cubs are muddying the water hole again!”
“Oh my Lord,” Zazu whispered. “I’ll fetch Rafiki.” The hornbill headed out right away, as fast as his wings would carry him.
Akase lay next to Ahadi’s burning skin and kissed his cheek. “I love you, darling. Help is on the way. Can you hear me, Hawdy? Do you know who I am?”
Ahadi began to pant quickly and shallowly, but he moved his large paw on top of Akase’s. “I think I’ll take a nap, Cassie. Will you stay by me?”
“Always, honey tree! Always!”
“The wildebeests,” he muttered. “All that sunlight—we are—Isha, not the cubs again….” He began to cough spasmodically. “Help me!” (cough) “I…” (cough) “…AIR!”
“Oh gods!” Akase sobbed. “Don’t die! You can’t die! Breathe, Hawdy! BREATHE!”
CHAPTER 33: TAKING A WALK
It seemed to take an eternity for Rafiki to reach the cave, though the did the best he could. Rafiki arrived out of breath with a small pouch of powdered Chi’pim and his staff.
Rafiki took some water from the cistern and then mixed the leaves in it. It was not an easy job—the powder did not want to mix well and it floated on the surface like a dry layer of dust as his fingers pinched and stirred and pinched again. Besides, his hands were shaking so badly he could hardly work.
When he had some success getting a pale yellow hue to the water he thought it looked rather like urine and smelled rather like rotting meat. Still the lion had to drink it.
Perhaps an indicator of just how sick he was, Ahadi did not resist when the foul smelling broth was poured under his lips. He lost quite a bit of it in his drool, but he got some down—perhaps enough to do a little good.
Rafiki checked the king’s eyes, even pulling up a little on his eyelids. He stuck his thumb in the corner of Ahadi’s mouth and felt around, not a safe thing to do with a feverish lion. Then he parted Ahadi’s chest mane and put his ear to the skin to listen for a while. He heard the rhythm of the heart, but he was listening for the tides of his breath.
Rafiki’s face was grave. He took Akase to the back of the cave and quietly asked, “Has he had trouble sleeping lately?”
“And muscle stiffness?”
“Did Zazu tell you about that?”
“No. I’m afraid not. It’s just that I rememberd something. Stiffness is a symptom of Koh’suul.” Rafiki added in a whisper, "When he comes to himself, take him across the savanna to the edge of the forest."
"The most appropriate place. The broth I gave him will bring down the fever, and he'll have a couple of hours of clear thinking. But my dear, you must hurry. He does not have long."
"Oh gods, no!"
"Hsssh!" He put his arms around her neck and patted her shoulder. “He’ll hear you.”
"You're a shaman," she whispered, but every bit as urgent as a scream. "Can't you do something? Anything? I can't let death take him from me! I just can't!"
He looked in her eyes, pulling down the lid gently with his thumb. Then he nodded gravely. "Don't worry, my dear. In his own way Aiheu has shown you mercy.” He silently traced a circle around her right eye with his fingertips and touched her under the chin. He wanted her to know she would soon look on the face of God and call Him by name. “Two, maybe three days alone and then you will be with him forever.”
"Oh." She nodded, and warm tears trickled down her cheeks. “I understand. Aiheu is merciful. But if I could have only seen my grandchild first. You must send my love to the child.”
“I will. I promise.”
“And my sons. Muffy will survive, but Taka will grieve too hard. You must make sure he eats well and gets some sleep. Use your herbs if you must, but hold him together.” A great sob racked her. “There is so much we haven’t done! So much living left to do! It’s not fair!”
“I know it’s not.” Rafiki gently wiped away her tears. "Say good bye to no one, not if you really love them. You must not drink from the common watering hole or the stream till you have crossed the meadow. You must not stop to relieve yourself until you have found the place. I will even have to purge this cave before it is safe." He kissed her. "Is there anything you want me to tell Mufasa?"
"No, just say good bye for me." She sighed. "Poor Taka, I would not live long enough to say what is in my heart. Promise me you will try and look after him. He is so dependent. Promise me you'll look after him."
"I promise I will do what I can."
The lion stirred. "Whispering about me behind my back, Cassie?" Ahadi looked up, much improved.
"I was just telling Rafiki about the surprise. You haven't felt well, and now that the medicine is helping you, you can take a little trip with me to see something special."
"Yes, I am much improved. I won't have to be dragged out, and that is a pleasant surprise. Don't think I didn't know. Death has been stalking me--now it rushes in for the kill." He regarded her gently. "He gave you the marks of Aiheu. I take it that we’re in this together?"
"As always." She nuzzled him gently.
“A short life, Madu said. Well, the old boy was right again. But I wasn’t afraid for myself—I worried about you. I felt so guilty to let you love me knowing I would break your heart.”
“And I had no guilt? Begging you to love me when I could have died in birthing? It matters not what might have been. We’re going to be together always. No more guilt, my darling. No more guilt for either one of us.”
Ahadi said, “One last confession so I may die forgiven. Rafiki, you must tell Taka that I made a mistake.”
“Once I killed a badger. It was not male as I had said. She had pups.” He sighed. “She attacked my son only to protect her children. I was trying to prove that I loved Taka, and I broke one of my own laws. I cannot face Aiheu with this on my conscience.”
“I’ll tell him.” A tear rolled down Rafiki’s face. “I’m sure you die forgiven. I touch your mane.”
“I feel it. And friend, tell him to keep looking. He’ll know what that means.”
“I will.” Rafiki took a small flint knife from his pouch. He approached Ahadi and took a few strands of his mane, cutting off a short lock, kissing it, and putting it in his pouch. Then he placed the marks of Aiheu on Ahadi. “It is time, my king. It is time.”
The great lion pushed himself up by his forepaws, wavering unsteadily as he came to a sitting position. Eyes flickering, his head dropped forward slightly, as if studying something interesting on the cavern floor. After a long moment, he glanced up at Akase, desperate to retain a last shred of dignity, even now. “Cassie…would you walk beside me? I’d appreciate it.”
Akase nodded, the meaning clear enough to her. The lioness walked over and stood beside her husband, placing her shoulder next to his and allowing him to lean on her for support. Slowly, Ahadi’s haunches lifted until he was standing beside her, muscles quivering for a moment. A low groan escaped him, and his brow furrowed with frustration, ears laying back.
“Try it. You can do it.” Akase’s voice was low, gentle. “Just move like I do.” She placed one forepaw before her, and after a moment, Ahadi picked up his near forepaw and moved it forward in a step, his body leaning into it as he mirrored her movement.
The queen nodded and paced forward another step. “Now you do it.”
“I can do it.” His other forepaw glided forward carefully.
“Yes, you’ve got it, love.” Her eyes gleamed with fresh tears as she kissed his cheek. “Are you ready. Hawdy?”
Ahadi nodded, his whiskers lifting slightly as he returned the lick. “No turning around this time.”
“No turning around, beloved. This time we go as far as we want.” She nuzzled his mane tenderly, then lifted her head. “All right, let’s go.” She paced off, slowly, and Ahadi followed along, his bearing noble even in his weakened condition. He was a king to the last.
CHAPTER 34: WHERE THERE’S SMOKE
With a heavy heart, Rafiki gathered dead grass from the savanna and made a pile of it in the middle of the cave. He put ferns on top of it and a sprinkling of powdered Alba. Then he took a clay pot, and emptied from it a few glowing coals on the tinder.
The coals satisfied their great hunger, raising a cloud of smoke that quickly filled the cave with its bitter incense. The smoke sought the heavens, but it found the ceiling of the cave and spread out gray fingers to feel for an opening. At last it found the door, and began to rise free into the sapphire sky.
"Fire! Fire!" It was Taka. He rushed into the cave, coughing and wheezing at the smoke. “Is anyone in here?”
"You must leave," Rafiki said.
"You foolish ape! What do you think you are doing?? Have you lost your mind?? When Mom and Dad see this, they will cuff you senseless!"
"They will never see this," Rafiki said. "It was the Koh'suul. Flee. You are in great danger here."
"Koh'suul?" Taka's eyes widened. "But that’s fatal. You mean Dad is dying? Does Mom know?"
"Akase has gone with him."
"Hffff!” He stiffened up. “She was well. I saw her this morning. She was well! What do you mean she has gone with him? Without telling me?? She’ll catch it too! Where is she??"
"You cannot see her. It would be death to you. I'm sorry, but she had it when I got here. Death had already placed his mark on her."
"But I must see her!" He pounced on Rafiki and held him to the floor of the cave with his paws. "Tell me where she is or I'll crush the life out of you!"
"Your mother made me promise to care for you. If you must kill me, you must."
Taka looked confused, sad, and finally released Rafiki. He turned and sat facing the wall. “Sassie doesn’t love me. My brother doesn’t love me. The gods don’t love me. All I had left was here. Now I’m alone. They are killing me one small piece at a time. This time they killed my heart.” He trembled. “I walk, I speak, yet I am dead inside. Dead.”
"There must be something I can do," Rafiki said, getting up.
"Haven't you done enough?"
"That's not fair, Taka. When I was young, my mother died of Beh'to. Before the end, she was banging her head on a tree, trying to force the headache out. I watched her die in the most dire agony. That's when I knew I must be a shaman. I would never have to feel so helpless again.”
“Then why not help them?”
“I cannot heal every wound. Sometimes all I can do is say something of comfort to the Ka when these bodies crumble."
"Then say something comforting to me."
He stroked Taka's mane. "I think about the prophesy. I think about it a lot. Oh, I knew where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do in a year, in five years, in ten. Now I am committed to fight this thing. All my hopes and dreams have been turned upside down. In this way we are alike, my friend. Our dreams are over. The morning has come and we awake to face reality in the light of the sun. Let us find something real in the sunlight, something that pleases us, and hold on to it. All else is vanity."
"You are a foolish ape," Taka said. "But even a fool may say the right thing at times."
With that, Taka stalked quietly away to some secret place to be alone. His absences had become more and more frequent as his life fell apart. The loss of his father was a terrible blow, but after the death of Akase he was never the same again. Mother she was, friend, and ally. It would be fair to say she was his conscience, his goodness, his faith in the gods. All of these things and more.
Hours passed with no sign of him. Mufasa and Sarabi in the midst of their deep grief gave him some thought and tried to find his private world of brooding depression and nuzzle him. They could not find him, but Yolanda would later say that a one eyed hyena and her brood was sitting next to him near the elephant graveyard as he wept like a baby. No one believed her story—it was too improbable. She must have seen poor Ahadi. Even though Yolanda said it was a dark maned lion she saw.
A hyrax picked his way slowly across the rough surface of the kopje, tiny ears flick flicking at every nuance of the world around him. Freezing into statuesque stillness, he paused momentarily, then eased his way to the ground, grunting slightly as the cool savanna grass tickled his belly. Nosing about carefully, he sighed and began nibbling a few tender shoots.
The noise returned, startling him, and he glanced fearfully at the two golden forms lying together in the grass. The wind shifted, and a quiet giggle reached his tiny ears.
Sarafina laughed again lightly as Ugas ran his paw over her swollen belly again. “Stop it! That tickles!”
The older lion grinned and kissed her cheek. “You look beautiful.”
“I look like a zebra about to foal. Look at me! I’m huge!” Fini groaned. “Everyone will know soon.”
A frown darkened Ugas’ pleasant features. “Is that bad? This is our love given form and a life of its own. It’s a part of me that will always be with you, even when I’m gone.”
“I’m not afraid to have cubs, my love. Especially not yours. But when the sisters notice, it’ll be ‘Who’s the father?’ all day long...what am I going to say?”
He drew back, ears flattening in chagrin. “Are you ashamed of me? Will they think you couldn’t do better?”
Sarafina licked his cheek in a kiss. “No, Honey Tree! Of course not....” A playful grin surfaced. “I just want you all to myself.”
“And I want you. When are you going to leave that stodgy old pride of yours and come live here?”
“They are NOT stodgy, you rascal!” Fini giggled. “I can’t leave them, Ugas...they’re my family.”
“But you carry part of MY family, now. Will you at least bring the cubs to visit?”
“If I can, yes. Why not?”
“I’d like that. Oh Aiheu, I hope you’re carrying the son I long for.”
She touched his face wonderingly with a paw. “What if they are all girls, Ugas?”
“I need a son, but male or female, I will love our children.” He kissed the tip of her nose.
“I was hoping you’d say that.” She smiled gently. “I’ve got a funny feeling about these...”
CHAPTER 36: UZURI AND FINI
The rising sun lit the land in crimson splendor, a gentle riot of color to match the sound of the birds as they heralded the dawn. The sound of it drifted down through the tree branches to the lionesses below as they padded slowly home, their shadows cast before them as if eagerly tugging them towards the rocks that lay ahead.
Uzuri glanced about absently, more out of habit than necessity as she checked her group to make sure no one was lagging. It had been a difficult hunt, one which had yielded little but frustration and fatigue. All the same, she realized that neither her skills nor those of her sisters were to blame; all had performed flawlessly. Some days the prey just got away. Mentally shrugging, she didn’t let it bother her; Aiheu obviously had other plans in mind for that particular animal. There would always be another hunt.
The group proceeded on in companionable silence as the day strengthened around them, growing pleasantly warm amid the tall grasses of the savanna. They paused to drink at the local waterhole, then eagerly made their way to the monolithic shape of Pride Rock nearby.
Beesa greeted them with a low grunt of welcome as they ascended the shaft of stone that was home. “Any luck?”
“Not this time. The gazelle we saw yesterday were nervous all night, and we never could get into proper position.” Uzuri flopped down, exhausted. “It wasn’t meant to be, I guess.”
Beesa nodded, then spoke in a low whisper. “Fini’s back.”
Uzuri immediately snapped to full alertness. “Where is she?”
“In your cave.”
The hunt mistress got up quickly and nuzzled the other lioness. “Thanks for telling me.”
Uzuri padded hurriedly past the other lionesses who were busy settling down and grooming each other, easing work-fatigued muscles into relaxation at last. She nodded politely to Yolanda as she passed, acknowledging the other lioness who was busy telling Akase about a wonderful looping maneuver she had managed to pull off. “I had that fellow in my claws, I tell you! If the wind hadn’t shifted just then...”
“Oh sure. Blame it on the wind.”
Yolanda blinked. “Ajenti, oh daughter of mine, you’re supposed to agree with your mother even when she’s wrong, remember?”
“Oops.” Ajenti grinned. “‘Zuri, you going to rest? You look worn out.”
“In a minute.” Uzuri left the others behind and wended her way about the rocks to the cave she shared with her sister. Overlooking the valley below, it offered a splendid view while remaining out of the direct sunlight. While any lion was welcome to sleep in the main cavern where Ahadi and Akase slept, Uzuri and Sarafina preferred the cave where their mother Niobe had borne them years ago.
Warm memories enveloped her as she entered and saw her sister stretched across the floor. “Hello, Fini.”
“Hi, Zuri.” The other lioness yawned comfortably. “How was the hunt?”
“A disaster. We didn’t get anything last night.” Uzuri drew alongside and lay down next to her sister. “It was rather lonesome as well. You were missed.”
Sarafina pawed the rock self consciously. “Sorry. I’ve been away.”
“I noticed. We could have used your help.”
“Uh, I’d just slow you down.”
“You don’t have to pounce to participate, girl. You can flush game as well as any two lionesses.”
“I feel like two lionesses," Sarafina said quietly. "You know I’m a stalker, not a beater. Don’t patronize me.”
“Then don’t lie to me. I know why you were gone.”
The lioness’s face sagged, her ears flattening. “You do?”
“How can you hide it?”
Sarafina looked away, ashamed. “I know. I look horrible.”
“You look beautiful.” Uzuri leaned close to meet Sarafina’s gaze. “You have the light in your eyes, Fini. We can all see it. We have for some time.” Uzuri purred deeply and nuzzled her sister. “It shines from within, Honey Tree...you can’t hide something like this.”
Sarafina turned to face her, her face openly frightened. “Zuri, what will they say? We’re not betrothed or anything...but I do love him. And I love my cubs.”
“Then don’t worry. They’ll have a wonderful mother, and a proud father, whomever he is. And they’ll have an aunt who will see they’re properly schooled in how to hunt.” Uzuri raised her chin assertively. “And I’ll have words with any lioness who sees fit to question it.”
“Oh Zuri!” Sarafina nuzzled her sister warmly. “Thank you for being here.” She sighed and looked again at herself for what seemed like the millionth time. “I just hope they don’t all make a fuss. What am I going to say?”
Uzuri was wondering how to reply to that when Ajenti poked her head in. “I just heard the news! Oh how wonderful!”
Sarafina smiled tentatively. “Yes, it is, isn’t it?”
“I’ll say! Can you believe it? Sassie’s going to have cubs!” Ajenti grinned and sprang off.
Uzuri blinked and looked over at Fini. “I think you’ll have a little time to think about it, now.”
CHAPTER 37: THE LIGHT IN HER EYES
“Then Herod told them ‘Go to Bethlehem and search for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I may go and worship him as well.”
-- MATTHEW 2, VERSES 7-8
As weeks passed, Sarabi began to show evidence of the life inside her. The other lionesses would coddle her and hang on her, suggesting male and female names. Among the most favored choices was “Shanni” for a female and “Simba” for a male. Simba was Ajenti’s idea, and it was an instant favorite. Never once did Taka wonder if it would be a male. He felt it was his destiny to fight an uphill battle until he gasped out his last breath. It would be male just to spite him.
Seeing the “light in her eyes” made him ill. It was the mark of Muffy’s passion—his brother’s final insult. He would look away when she passed to avoid seeing her in that condition. Once he sought to drown his sorrows in a night of loveless passion, but he was soundly rejected, even when he offered to take the vow. Once he was caught staring at Isha who was known to sun herself on the rocks in the most liquid poses of feminine beauty. His jaw trembled and his tail lashed from side to side as he dared to make love to her with his eyes. Yolanda, who was suspicious of Taka anyhow, spotted clear evidence of his aroused state.
“Taka!” she harshly whispered, not wanting to alert Isha.
“Oh my gods!”
“Practicing for the wedding night, are we?”
“Yolanda, it’s not what you think it is!” he urgently whispered.
“I know exactly what it is and what it’s used for.” She drew closer. “If she found out, she’d break your lustful little carcass into tiny pieces.”
“She would understand,” Taka said quickly. “After all, you’ve been jealous since we broke up.”
“Night before last when you excused yourself from the hunt.”
“I was sick!”
“You were love sick. Oh baby, the things you did weren’t in the talk my father gave me. Which one did you like best--naughty bunnies or the wildebeest’s revenge?”
Her eyes grew wide. “You dirty little liar!”
“A dirty little liar is no worse than a dirty little snitch. Just try me and see if I won’t.”
The Isha incident was never referred to again. Indeed, Taka was wont to behave himself in public. And with Sarabi’s child coming closer to the sunlight every day, he stepped up his nocturnal dealings with the hyenas and took a whole new interest in the royal family.
Taka always seemed to have a new confidence when he returned from these mysterious trips. He began to walk with a cocky swagger. And as if to rub in his fearlessness, he even called Isha, “Hey gorgeous!” Sarabi would have done better to remember the rest of the prophesy of the makei. Beneath his attempts at rakish charm, Taka was wearing the armor of cruel hate. He was planning to take what he wanted, for it had not been freely offered.
Everyone experienced mixed joy and sadness when Sarabi gave birth. The male cub was named Simba and his small sister was named Shanni. Shanni was weak and tiny, and she never even tasted her mother’s milk before she went to join the gods. Simba was strong and handsome, and he had enough strength for two cubs. His large paws and well formed features were admired by the relatives and close friends that caught first sight of him.
On the fourteenth day of Simba’s life, he was to be presented to the public. Each of the first thirteen days had been like a thorn in Taka’s heart. Simba looked so much like Mufasa. Muffy had filled Sarabi with his pollution and brought forth this likeness to rub in his hold over her.
Taka woke from a nightmare on that fateful fourteenth day. To make it even more memorable, he barely had time to make a dash for the small cave where he hid when the humming started. The second time he awoke his back legs were covered with urine and he was sore from clawing at space. He sneaked to the watering hole to wash himself as the sun was just starting to make headway against the early morning sky. Many animals saw him rush past, staring at him because it was a day when they could see a lion and live to tell of it. Taka tried not to meet their eyes, pushing past a crowd of bontebok and nearly stumbling into a dim-sighted rhino. Clearly he would not make it back in time for the ceremony. Not that he wanted to attend it anyhow, but he was not yet ready to move against his brother.
The warm sunlight backlit the mandrill as he walked through the crowd of animals, stretching his shadow out before him in a wavering line. Rafiki nodded and smiled at the familiar faces as he made his way through the throng, the creatures parting before him in a living wave. Reaching the foot of Pride Rock, he began climbing the steep rocks carefully, finding a grip easily in the time worn stone as he ascended.
His arm curled up and over, laying flat upon the surface of the promontory as he hauled himself up. Gaining his balance, he lifted his head and saw the hulking form of Mufasa sitting there, awaiting him. The wind ruffled Mufasa’s mane lightly as a smile spread across his face. Rafiki grinned back at him, setting his staff down and embracing his old friend. The two stood there for a moment, then they both turned to look behind Mufasa.
Sarabi lay quietly, her forepaws wrapped around the small furry bundle that had become the center of her universe. As Mufasa came to stand beside her, she nuzzled him, burying her face in the soft tresses of his mane. Their purring blended in a soft rumble as they looked down at what their love had brought forth into the world.
Rafiki stepped forward slowly and peered interestedly at the cub nestled next to Sarabi’s chest. The tiny head turned and looked up at him, the young eyes open now and staring up at him with a wonder that delighted the mandrill. Sarabi smiled at him and nodded, and he picked the cub up gently, feeling the child’s purring in his hands as he held him to his chest. He looked up as Mufasa and Sarabi for a moment, then turned and headed toward the end of the promontory. Reaching the end, he looked with awe at the assemble throng of life which spread before him. The sight took his breath away, and he held the cub out for all to see. “May the wind blow kindly on you,” he said softly, as the crowd below burst forth in jubilation. “May the sun shine brightly on you. May the gods take you to their heart.”
As if in answer, the clouds above parted, a brilliant shaft of light shining down directly upon him, dazzling his eyes. A golden nimbus surrounded the cub he held in his hands, and he stared in wonder and joy as the animals below knelt in reverence.
At last, he lowered the child and held him for a moment, then returned him to Sarabi’s loving arms. She smiled radiantly and nuzzled him. “Thank you, Rafiki.”
Mufasa nuzzled his son once more, then turned and descended the rocks carefully, his good mood fading. He had an unpleasant visit to make.
Some distance away, a small mouse lay flailing madly at the empty air in panic, her tail trapped in between two enormous claws. Taka stared across the gap between himself and the rodent, feeling as though he had been set aflame. Slowly, he turned the mouse this way and that, noting idly how the light glinted off the beady black eyes, now spread wide in panic.
“Life’s not fair, is it?” he queried the struggling mouse. “For you see, I...well, I shall never be king.” He uttered a grunting laugh, then looked at his captive in mock commiseration. “And you..will never live to see the light of another day.” Chuckling lowly, he spread his jaws, fangs gleaming in the morning light. “Adieu.” He closed his eyes and extended his tongue expectantly, preparing to savor the delightful crunch the rodent would make before she was swallowed whole.
A voice which had begun to annoy him increasingly of late spoke from behind him. “Didn’t your mother tell you not to play with your food?” Zazu glared at Taka, who lowered the mouse, sighing with exasperation.
“What do you want?” he rumbled.
“I’m here to announce that King Mufasa’s on his way,” Zazu informed him gleefully. “So you’d better have a good excuse for missing the ceremony.”
Taka’s claws flexed angrily, and he felt the mouse struggle free of his grip. The creature scurried across the floor into a crack and was gone. “Oh, now look, Zazu, you’ve made me lose my lunch,” he growled angrily.
Lunch became the least of his worries after Mufasa’s arrival.
“Sarabi and I didn’t see you at the presentation of Simba.”
Taka looked at his brother with an expression of utter contempt. “That was today? Oh, I feel simply AWWWful.” Stretching, he drew his claws down the rock face with a screech that set Mufasa’s teeth on edge. “Must have slipped my mind.”
Zazu stepped forward, emboldened by Mufasa’s presence. “Yes, well, as slippery as your mind is, as the King’s brother, you should have been FIRST in line!” Zazu glared at him. His belligerence vanished quickly as he dove away, Taka’s fangs clicking together in the empty air where he had been.
“Well, I was first in line,” Taka shot back acerbically, “until the little hairball was born.”
Mufasa felt his blood boil. “That hairball,” he rumbled dangerously, “is my son, and your future king.”
CHAPTER 38: ANOTHER CHANCE
Taka emerged from the cave seething, his tail lashing angrily as he swatted rocks out of his path with a powerful forepaw. His own brother had challenged him, by the gods! And in front of that idiot Zazu, no less. Taka groaned and collapsed in a clump of bushes, hiding his head under his forepaws.
Rafiki found him there a few minutes later. “Taka? What are you doing hiding in here?”
“What does it matter to anyone now what I do? They have their prince,” he said, biting the word off savagely. “They don't need me anymore, do they?”
Rafiki slipped in and tentatively laid an arm around Taka’s neck, relaxing when the lion made no move to disengage. “Ridiculous. Of course you are needed. Simba will need his mother and father more than anything. But there will come a time when he need someone else to talk to. His uncle.” Rafiki turned Taka’s head to face him. “You are special, Fru Fru. He will share things with you that he will never tell anyone else. You’ll be his best friend, and his most trusted confidant.”
“How can you be sure of this?” Taka looked at him.
“Because, I have my own nephew. Or have you forgotten?” He tapped Taka’s nose gently with a forefinger. “You.”
The lion blinked, chastened. He looked into Rafiki’s eyes for a moment, then smiled, a real smile, the first one Rafiki had seen from him since the death of Ahadi and Akase. “You’re right. By the gods, I’m going to see him right now!”
Shortly after, Sarabi was surprised to see his brilliant green eyes blinking timidly at her in the gloom of the cave. “Sassie?”
He fidgeted nervously. “Can I...I was wondering if I could...see him?”
“See him? You could have done much more than that, had you been here this morning,” Sarabi said icily. “Why bother now?”
His ears fell flat and his whiskers drooped as he stared at the ground. “I was wrong,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He turned to leave, his tail dragging in the dust.
“Wait!” Sarabi looked at him for a moment. “Come here.” She shifted her foreleg as he slowly padded over to where she lay, exposing the sleeping cub to his questioning gaze. Taka stared, captivated by the tiny form.
Simba lay quiescent in his mother’s care, the morning light shining in and gleaming on the little whiskers that poked from his muzzle. He twitched and moved slightly as he dreamed peaceful cub dreams, enjoying a peace Taka longed to return to. Taka bent his muzzle to the cub, filling his nose with scent of his nephew. Making the lightest of contacts, he nuzzled Simba with his nose. “Gods, Sassie, he is beautiful, isn’t he?”
Sarabi watched him wonderingly, seeing him as she had not seen him since cubhood, his eyes aglow with utter delight. “Yes, he is.” She licked the tiny form, eliciting a belated wriggling from her son. “He’s going to be a great king someday.”
A terrible pain wrenched at Taka, and he closed his eyes tightly until it passed. The light seeping in became cold and dull, and he sat up, looking down at the object between Sarabi’s paws. “Oh, yes. He looks so much like his father.” He glanced disinterestedly at the cub’s face, the words falling upon his own ears like so much dead grass. Whoever the cub looked like, it had nothing to do with him. His eyes flickered coldly as he peered at Simba. “You will live an interesting life.”
He turned lithely and paced out.
Though he had no doubt all along the cub would be male and an heir to the throne, seeing Simba with his own eyes was the final cement on his resolve. The cub was innocent, unaware of the resentment in his Uncle’s heart. And he was expendable.
Oddly enough, it was on this day that Taka first noticed how much Elanna was like her sister Sarabi. Only Elanna did not avoid him. In fact, she would speak to him without even being spoken to. She came to him smiling and asked, “Isn’t he a dream? I just know you’re going to spoil your little nephew.”
“Of course.” He looked in her eyes and half smiled. “But it’s a shame he didn’t have his mother’s eyes. Shaka’s daughters all had beautiful eyes.”
She smiled shyly. “Well Ahadi’s sons aren’t so bad looking either.”
“Hmph!” He straightened a little and began to groom his mane. When she left, he watched her till she disappeared in the tall grass.
Ahadi’s name brought back a stinging pain that finally overtook his good mood. And a little shame began to creep into the darkness of his heart as the wondered what Ahadi and Akase would think of his plans. Simba was the grandson they did not live to see. No doubt they would have loved him. For a moment, but only for a moment, he reflected on the small cub gilded with the glory of sunrise who wanted to divide the kingdom with his brother. “No, Muffy,” Taka said under his breath. “Dad was right. There can only be one King in this land.” The mood brought mist to his eyes. “Father, if only you had chosen me. Damn Rafiki! Damn the nurse that gave him milk! Someday I will kill him, but not all at once. I’ll destroy him a little bit at a time the way he destroyed me.”
The words of hate hardened his heart. He drew away to the lair of the hyenas to bring news of Simba’s birth and to plan his death.
CHAPTER 39: THE ACACIA WAND
Rafiki approached Mufasa and Sarabi with a smile on his face but panting heavily. “Why must you live up here? If Aiheu had meant you to climb, he’d have made you a monkey, not a lion.”
“Well you’re a monkey,” Mufasa said with a shrewd smile. “What are YOU complaining about?”
“About being an OLD monkey,” the mandrill replied. He hugged Mufasa’s mane, then kissed Sarabi between the ears. “Now little one, look up here.”
When Rafiki shook his rattle, the small cub looked up and flailed out with a paw. “Mroww!”
“You said it, boy! I’m gonna find you a girl!”
Sarabi nuzzled tiny Simba. It was hard to believe that the small golden cub would oneday be a lion like his dad. A lion in love.
The ape ran his fingertips along a peeled acacia wand and chanted lowly, “Hiya ho! Hiya ho! M’kumbisi na Kalo! N’gonyama lipo ka, chumba mochi nami sa!”
With a great show of ceremony, he went among the lionesses. In Kuma’s litter were three females, and Rafiki gently wafted the branch over all three. Nothing happened.
Kuma crossly said, “You went too fast and held the branch too tightly. Try again and do it right this time.”
Once more he passed it over the three cubs. He held the branch between a thumb and forefinger very loosely and moved it very slowly, but to no avail.
Then he went to Sarafina and saw her twin daughters. The branch passed over Lora without so much as a twitch. But when it moved over the other female, it jumped.
“There she is! And what is the name of the new princess?”
Rafiki smiled. “Lord Rainbow’s mate! And isn’t she beautiful!” He reached down and patted her and the other cub as well.
“My daughter a queen!” Sarafina asked, “What is Lora’s fortune?”
Rafiki knelt, passed his hand over the cub, and rubbed his fingertips together. Then he closed his eyes and hummed. His eyes opened quickly. With a supremely uncomfortable look on his face, he patted Lora and said, “Who knows what the future may bring?”
“What is it??” Sarafina asked.
“Fini, do not ask.”
“I thought you were my friend, Rafiki! Can’t you see that I must know?? I’m her mother and I must know.”
Silently, Rafiki took his finger, traced around one of the cub’s eyes and touched under her chin.
“No!” Wide-eyed, Sarafina pushed the small cub next to her warm body. “No, she can’t! Pray for her--pray that the gods will spare her life!”
“I will pray for her, of course.” Rafiki took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “Visions of future are for the weary and despondent who seek something better. Never seek the future when you are happy. That is when you should cling to the present.”
“I suppose you will want to perform the ceremony now?” Mufasa said.
“By all means,” Rafiki answered with superstitious dread. “Lord Aiheu rest your father’s ka among the stars, but he had scorn for betrothal ceremonies. And I don’t have to tell you what unhappiness he might have spared a certain someone.”
“Let’s not speak of my brother,” Mufasa said quickly. “This is a happy occasion, and I won’t have his ill mood spoiling it.”
“Oh Ulambe, he pooped again,” Sarabi sighed. “He’s just starting to go on his own, but he doesn’t know to go outside.” She sighed again, her face reflecting the tiredness of a new mother. “I could sure use some help.”
“I’m a bit busy with other things, but I think a certain young hunt mistress would do nicely.”
“What?” Sarabi smiled shrewdly. “Are you volunteering her?”
“She’ll decide to give her time gladly--of my own free will.”
Sarabi had to smile at the witty comeback, but she answered seriously. “That’s a big job if her heart isn’t in it. I know Zuri, and she’s obsessed with hunting.”
“Yes, a little TOO obsessed. I think this will do her good, and besides I want to see what her cubs are like before I die. Sarabi, give her a little push. Hint around a bit. Show her what having a family can be like.”
“And scare the girl?” Sarabi smiled mischievously. “I thought you wanted her to have cubs!”
Uzuri stalked slowly into the cave, her reluctance clearly mirrored in her face. “Sarabi?”
“Over here, Honey tree.”
“Oh.” The young hunt mistress lowered her head and looked to the side. “I know you’re much better at it and all, but on the off chance you needed a little help—however unlikely—I guess I could do a few things from time to time.”
“Oh you sweet thing! There are so many things I need done, and there’s only so much I can do.”
Uzuri’s ears flattened. “Well—uh—what kind of things?”
“Sometimes I need to get away—to stretch my legs. Sometimes I need him cleaned up a little. And his little movements need some help.”
“You need help moving him? I’d be afraid of dropping him—or holding him too tight.”
“Not carrying him. You know, his little movements. At that age they don’t go unless they get stimulated. He’s starting to go on his own, but he still needs a little help.”
“That’s what I said, Honey tree.” She took Simba by the neck and moved him out to the middle of the floor, nosed aside his tiny tail and began to lick his backside.
Uzuri gnashed her teeth and the hair on her back began to stand up. “Every time?”
“Till they get old enough,” Sarabi said. “Come on, little guy. Poop for mommy!”
Simba complied. What Sarabi did next made Uzuri’s claws extend and press against the floor of the cave. The hunt mistress was used to blood and gore, but some things could still make her look away and cringe.
"Maybe I had better never HAVE cubs!"
Sarabi said, "You will fall in love. You will want your mate badly. He will please you to no end. Then the cubs come along--small, wet, smelly, covered with stuff polite folk do not speak of in public. And you will thank Aiheu for their lives and love them forever."
Just then Simba stood up unsteadily, then he began to toddle over toward Uzuri.
“Lay down,” Sarabi said. “He wants you.”
“I have no milk.”
“That’s not what he’s after. Lay down.”
The hunt mistress settled to the floor of the cave, lying on her side. Simba stopped, watched her for a moment, then toddled on over, sniffing of her belly, then snuggling down next to her.
“Oh my!” Uzuri said reverently. “Look at those tiny little paws! They have little claws and everything!”
“And they are sharp little claws.”
She took her own large paw and traced the curves of his small, soft body. “Isn’t he precious!”
“And he likes you. He can be rather shy at times, but he knew his Auntie when he saw her.”
Uzuri purred, stroking the cub. “You know what, little guy? I think your Auntie Zuri loves you.”
Sarabi smiled back. “Just like one big family.”
Sarafina came and settled next to Sarabi and began to groom behind her ears. “We are one big family, Sassie. And one day your little boy and my little girl are going to make us grandparents.”
“Don’t rush it,” Sarabi said with a wry smile. “I can wait a while.”
“Tell me about it.” Sarafina watched her daughters wrestling with each other as Simba tried to break into the middle of the game. “If I could take this moment and bury it like a carcass, I would. And when the winds grow cold and the stars fall one by one I would dig it up and look at it and it would still be fresh.”
“Yeah,” Sarabi said with a longing sigh, but she winked and added, “I wouldn’t mind digging it up in a moment when the little darlings start misbehaving.”
“They don’t misbehave,” Fini said. “They just have high spirits.”
Just then Fini heard a snarl and looked about in time to see a fight brewing among the cubs.
“High spirits,” Sarabi said with a wry grin.
“Don’t rub it in, Sassie.”
Simba began growling and snarling, flailing at Nala with claws out. Nala made no motion to tell on him, handling herself with bravado. Clearly she could handle herself.
“All right!” Fini said firmly, “Stop that or we’ll have to go home!”
“It was his fault,” Nala said. “Why did you have to have a boy anyway??”
“Not guilty,” Sarafina said, a little scandalized. “Simba is Sarabi’s son.”
“But you’re the Mom, not Sarabi!”
“Sarabi is a mother too. And other lionesses are mothers and have cubs of their own.”
“Really. I was a cub once and I had a mother too.”
Nala laughed. Clearly her mother was joking. But Lora looked around with her large blue eyes and tilted her head in thought. “You know, that kind of makes sense. Taka’s big, but he has a mother.”
“Did he tell you about his mother?” Sarafina asked, clearly interested.
“No, but I saw her. She’s a hyena.”
Nala laughed harder than ever. “Silly Lora! Hyenas can’t be mothers!”
Sarafina smiled patiently. “This is going to take a while.”
Simba and Nala were on either end of a bit of wildebeest hide playing tug of war. Just as Simba was ready to win with one last yank, Nala let go and he went rolling onto his back. Mufasa and Taka saw them and the dark maned lion said, “Just like his father, a sucker for a pretty face.” Mufasa laughed nervously, not sure if the joke was a compliment or an insult. In the back of his mind, Mufasa was seriously considering exile for his choleric brother out of safety for his family. The only thing really stopping him was Sarabi—he had promised her that he would forgive Taka, and he never broke a promise.
“Penda Simba,” Mufasa softly intoned, lowering his face so his son could rub against his chin. “Daddy’s going to mark the line, so you be a good boy while I’m gone and keep Nala in line.”
“Yeah, right,” Nala said. “None out of two isn’t bad.”
“Hey!” Simba said, glaring at her. Then just as quickly he smiled and looked up. “Dad, can I come with you?”
“But TODAY is ‘someday’!”
“Yeah. I was pouncing on Ulambe’s tail and she always says that someday I’m going to regret it.”
“And she cuffed you one good!” Nala said with a laugh. “You got him there! Today must be someday!”
A broad grin spread across Mufasa’s face. “What do you know, it IS someday! Well, fall in behind me and don’t go straying off.”
“Me too!” Nala said.
“Well, uh,” Simba said, “you’re a…”
“Friend?” Nala said. “Surely you weren’t going to tell me I’m a girl. I know that.”
Simba looked down, but Mufasa came to his rescue. “Nala, Honey Tree, It’s going to be a lot of male to male stuff.” He slyly winked at Simba. “You know, boring stuff. And we might be gone an awfully long time so you’ll be skipping your naptime and midday nursing.”
“But if you want to come, I’ll mark the big trees and you and Simba can mark the bushes, ok? Come on, cubs—let’s go!”
“Well,” Nala said, “maybe tomorrow.”
The large lion strode off into the tall grass with Simba bounding along behind. They walked quite a few links before Simba would confide the reason for his supremely good mood. “You sure pulled a fast one on Nala! Long walk, skipping the nap and nursing. Boring stuff—male to male.”
“But it is, and you will.”
“What?? I thought you were kidding!”
Mufasa laughed deeply. “Someday—and that’s today—you’ll learn that being King is not all fun and games. You should never try to fast-talk your old dad.”
Since the birth of Simba, Taka had been made one plan after another to get rid of his young rival to the throne. Each in turn was discarded for one reason or another. Then finally he had a plan that just might work, one that relied on his hyena allies. Surely fate had guided him to them! And if fate guided him to the hyenas, fate must also decree that he would be King of Pride Rock. King at last!
Taka slowly paced up the rocky slopes of Pride Rock. Silently he practiced his elegy for young Simba. “A gentle, beautiful soul crafted from the deep love of his parents, whom the sun and moon smiled upon, and the stars called their friend!” He shook his head. “A beautiful soul crafted from the beautiful love of his parents, now borne to the heavens untimely. The other day, he came to me and said, ‘Uncle Scar, why don’t you have a child of your own?’ And I took him close—thank the gods I did—and told him that I did have a son. Or at least in my heart I did.” Again, he shook his head. “He said, ‘Uncle Scar, it’s so sad that you don’t have a child of your own!’ And I took him close....’” He stopped and a tear rolled down his cheek. “Oh yeah, that should wring tears from their hearts. I wish I’d thought about biting my tongue before! Sheer poetry of grief!”
He stood on the promontory. “It is with great sadness that I look into the sky tonight. For the heavens will shine a little brighter with his star, but my heart will be darker from this emptiness inside that only Simba’s sunshine could fill.” He looked down at the imaginary audience of lionesses, then placing a paw across his brow in great pain, he stared blankly at the distant horizon. “Oh gods, how low my heart sank when I found his little body....” He smirked. “Speak of the devil, there’s the little furball now....”
Taka realized what he’d just said. “Oh my gods! IT CANNOT BE!”
“Cannot be what, Scar?”
“Oh, Sarafina!” He chuckled, holding his paw over his heart. “I thought I saw a cloud-white eagle. That would have been an omen.”
“I didn’t know you were into shamanism.”
“There’s a lot about me you don’t know.”
With that, Taka turned and slinked off of the promontory. “Of all the idiotic, contemptible, STUPID FOOLS! I should NEVER have sent Keth on a job like that! Even Shenzi tried to warn me, but no, Keth begged me, pleaded with me! ‘Oh, let me, let me!’ I’ll throw him in the thermal pool--that ought to warm his heart!”
Taka glanced out across the savanna again and sneered. There was Zazu, escorting His Highness the Furball. The lion’s eyes honed on Zazu like twin rapiers. He would have a little fun with Lord Stuck-up when the time came. Oh, yes...
Taka resumed his nervous pacing, seething inside. All Keth had to do was take his boys in quietly, overwhelm Mufasa and Simba, and sneak out. A simple plan. He had gone over it with them several times, and Keth had always said, “Simple! No problem! All we gotta do is run circles around Mustafa-”
“MuFAsa,” Taka would say, patiently.
“Whatever. Meanwhile, me and two other of my boys’ll take care of the cub.”
Keth would look at him blankly. Every darned time! So Taka would explain it again. “The river, you fool! You don’t want to be caught eating a lion cub. You throw him in the river for the crocodiles. After you take care of Mufasa. My gods, what part of that is so hard to remember??”
“Yeah, okay, fine, don’t tie your tail in a knot.”
Taka sat on a small patch of grass that had established itself in a pocket of the rock. With one of his claws he was idly making marks in the dirt. “Next time I see you, Keth, I’ll demonstrate each of the steps on you. Circles, snatching, ripping you from top to bottom, and yes, CROCODILES!”
Taka had been sure that by high sun, he would be ready to ascend the throne. Now the only thing he would ascend was the stony sloped path that led to his favorite resting spot, high above the ground. Taka sighed again and looked back across the rolling plains. The imbeciles had been spotted as soon as they crossed into the Pride Lands by that triple cursed Zazu. Gods, his eyes missed nothing! Mufasa had sent the bird back to escort his beloved hairball home while he dealt with the intruders.
Taka gnashed his teeth. At least he wouldn’t have to discipline the hyenas himself--his brother was taking care of that. “Another day, another plan,” he sighed.
“But what if they betrayed me??” The thought almost made his blood freeze. Mufasa was a large lion--a very large lion. Chances were good to excellent that he would end up with several more scars at least. Then would come banishment--or death. And death would almost be a mercy because he had no hunting skills. The best he could hope for would be a scavenging existence among the hyenas.
“If he attacks me, should I run at once, or try to fight first?” It was a dismal choice, and there was no certainty that the lionesses would accept him if he DID beat Simba in combat. They might rise up against him as a group.... Angry and frustrated, he swatted an offending bone out of his path and stalked across the rock ledge.
“Hey, Uncle Scar! Guess what?”
Taka froze, then resignedly looked around. “I despise guessing games,” he muttered.
Simba missed this and trotted up, grinning from ear to ear. “I’m gonna be King of Pride Rock!”
“Oh, goody,” Taka growled. “I can hardly wait.”
“My dad just showed me the whole kingdom,” the cub said, trotting to the edge of the cliff and looking out over the immense expanse of grassland. “And I’m gonna rule it all,” he said proudly, chuckling at his good fortune.
While he was bragging, Taka’s eyes gleamed like diamonds, hard and cold. He began to fantasize. The cub stood on the brink of the cliff, his paws placed delicately on the rough edge of rock.... Taka could creep over silently, draw back a forepaw and swat the cub with all his might. Then he could watch as Simba sailed outward, a scream trailing from his throat as he tumbled down, down, down....
He shook his head. Too risky. Too many questions would be asked, and there would be no answers. Instead, he dredged up a weak smile as Simba glanced at him. “Yes, well, forgive me for not leaping for joy.” Taka shrugged apologetically. “Bad back, you know.” He turned away and flopped to the ground rather ungracefully, ignoring the brat for the time being.
At least until he heard footsteps behind him. Taka gritted his teeth as Simba flopped across his neck, nuzzling his ear. “Hey, Uncle Scar? When I’m king, what’ll that make you?”
“A monkey’s uncle.”
Simba giggled delightedly and rolled away. “You’re so weird!” he laughed. Uncle Scar never ordered Simba around, or tried to make him wash behind his ears, or anything. In fact, he pretty much left Simba to do as he wished.
Taka rose and shook himself, then walked lazily over to the other side of the ledge. “So,” he said over his shoulder. “Your father showed you the whole kingdom, did he?”
Taka wondered at this. “He didn’t show you what’s beyond that rise on the Northern border?”
Simba’s face crumpled, his ears flattening dejectedly. “Well, no. He said I can’t go there.” The cub looked decidedly put out.
A new hope gladdened Taka, and he had to fight to hold a stern expression. “And he’s absolutely right!” he ad-libbed. “It’s FAR too dangerous; only the bravest lions go there.” He let the bait dangle invitingly, looking away at the horizon.
Simba bit hard. “Well I’M brave! What’s out there?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Simba, I just CAN’T tell you.” He looked the other way, avoiding Simba’s hurt gaze.
Taka looked at him paternally. “Simba, Simba, I’m only looking out for the well being of my favorite nephew.” He raised a paw and caressed the cub’s head lovingly, feeling the shape of the skull underneath. One tight clench of his paw....
Simba wriggled delightedly under his uncle’s touch. “Yeah, right. I’m your ONLY nephew.”
Taka smiled. “All the more reason for me to be protective!” His smile faded and he shook his head again, looking stern. “An elephant graveyard is no place for a young prince.” He slapped a paw to his mouth as if to stop himself. “Oops!”
Simba was not just excited, he was ecstatic. “An elephant WHAT?! Whoaaa!” A look of total mischief fell over his face and he looked eagerly towards the dark area across the grassland.
Taka moaned. “Oh dear, I’ve said too much! Well, I suppose you’d have found out sooner or later, you being SOOOO clever and all.” His grin twisted as he drew Simba to him. “Oh just do me one favor,” he added softly. “Promise me you’ll never visit that DREADful place.”
Simba was silent for a moment, then smiled innocently. “No problem.”
The grin on Taka’s face was genuine. Taka could read his eyes like a book; the little snotnose was certain to visit the graveyard at the first opportunity!
“There’s a good lad. You run along now and have fun.” He brushed Simba away and watched him trot off. “And remember...”
Simba stopped and looked at him curiously.
“...it’s our little secret.”
The cub grinned and sped off. Taka watched him go, the smile on his face curdling into something else entirely. He rose and stretched, claws extending to their full length, looking dark and smooth, then relaxed, watching as they sank back partway and stopped, the tips still showing, gleaming razor sharp in the afternoon light. Nodding, he shook himself briskly and set off down the side of the rocks.
He had a little visit to make.
Mufasa paced slowly along the edge of the Pride Lands, sniffing warily at the air. The sky had begun to darken from blue to crimson orange in the west, and the moon was wakening to its full glory. But Mufasa paid scant notice to the beautiful sight, his mind fixed on the sinister tumble of rock and bone that lay some distance away.
The graveyard had a certain fascinating quality to it, and he felt the same lure that young Simba did to plumb its mysteries. It was a hotbed of smoke and mists which arose from the ground in huge shadowy gasps that choked off breath and made eyes water. He wondered why the elephants would find such a dismal place to go meet Aiheu.
Besides, there were also the hyenas to consider....
His hackles rose at the thought of them. He had followed Zazu’s directions and intercepted a group of the miserable creatures a little ways inside his territory. At the sight of his approach, they had hesitated momentarily, as if considering, but the enraged bellow that had broken from his throat decided them, scattering them in panic and sending them fleeing back to their own homeland. Mufasa had let them go, allowing them to warn the others that The King was on guard.
He had plenty of ground to cover before he could go home. So after leaving a few signs of his passing, he tore himself away from the realm of the dead and padded off silently.
He had not gone far when a strange scent made him freeze in his tracks. He looked down and in the dim light saw what looked like lion tracks. He sniffed carefully.
A strange lion!
Another male had dared intrude on the Pride Lands! The tracks led out of the savanna and towards the graveyard. His cubs had been in danger--his home had been violated! Growling with rage, Mufasa turned and lumbered rapidly over the ground, eyes never leaving the trail in front of him. He reached the invisible boundary of the Clan, balked for a minute, then plunged ahead. Hyenas were one thing; lions another. Such an act dared not go unpunished.
He wended his way among the bones and ash, flicking his paws disgustedly as he stepped through a puddle of vile muck too wide to leap. Gods, what a miserable hellhole!
Mufasa skidded to a halt as Zazu shot past and nearly submerged himself in the stinking morass that the lion had just traversed. The hornbill sighed in relief as Mufasa looked on, astounded. “What in the world are--”
“Sire! You have to hurry! Simba’s in trouble!”
Mufasa’s jaw snapped shut and he stared at Zazu. “What?”
“Quickly! Follow me! Oh, this is awful!” Zazu rose, dripping, and flapped away towards a twisted rock formation several lengths away. Mufasa padded after him, noting that the pawprints of the lion led that way also. And mixed in with them were--
His eyes widened in alarm as he saw the twin sets of tiny pawprints, clearly leonine, scattered among the bigger ones.
His ears pricked up as he heard a distant shriek of terror. “Nala!” Galvanized, he leapt ahead, following the trail of prints around a corner, through a narrow stone gap, and finally into a cave. He blinked as he saw Simba and Nala, huddled under an old ribcage festooned with dried skin. The object of their fears were the three hyenas that now stood with their backs to Mufasa as they closed slowly on the cubs. One he recognized as Roh’mach Shenzi, and a silent snarl spread his lips apart in a deadly grimace.
Ahead, Simba growled roughly, the small sound echoing in the confined area.
“What? That was it?” Shenzi giggled and bent close. “You can do better than that. Come on, big boy.” She bared her teeth and bent towards the terrified cubs, preparing to rip out his throat, when the room was filled with a fierce roar. Something powerful struck the side of her head, sending her and her brothers sprawling. Looking up, she saw Mufasa, cuffing her brothers aside effortlessly, his roar drilling through her head and paralyzing her with fear. Another swipe of Mufasa’s paw landed her brothers beside her, and his huge head loomed over her, eyes glowing with a killing rage.
“Oh please don't hurt us!!”
“Uncle, Uncle,” Banzai cried in desperation.
Simba and Nala stood transfixed, limbs shaking in the fatigue of terror as the king berated the hyenas and sent them bolting in blind panic. Simba writhed in shame as he recalled his own puny roar. He ambled forward slowly, looking up at Mufasa with great reluctance. “Dad, I--”
He shrank away as Mufasa glanced at him, eyes blazing furiously. “You deliberately disobeyed me!”
“Let’s go home.” He turned to go, glancing around. “I want to leave before we run into the other....”
The king fell silent as he stared back at the way they had come. The ground was marked by the prints of the two cubs, his own, and the tracks of the three terrified hyenas. But where the deep pawprints of the intruding lion had been, there was now only smoothly packed earth, marked only by time and the winds.
CHAPTER 45: THE PROPOSITION
The King was enjoying a rest when Zazu came in thoroughly panicked. “Sire! You have to hurry! Simba’s in trouble!”
“Quickly! Follow me! Oh, this is awful!”
Simba and Nala were huddled under an old ribcage festooned with dried skin. It was the farthest place they could retreat, but it was clearly not enough. Nala silently mouthed the words, “Aiheu abamami.” She wondered how much it would hurt, and what being dead would feel like. Simba’s small body against hers trembled. She watched the three menacing faces grow closer. An odd contest went through her mind. Should she struggle in hope of an almost impossible escape? Should she just submit and hope for a quick death?
Simba growled. It was his idea of a roar. Poor boy, trying desperately to live! She would not submit! She would struggle and maybe leave a scar for the hyenas to remember them by.
“What? That was it?” Shenzi laughed. “You can do better than that. Come on, big boy.” She bent down and prepared to crush the life from him when suddenly a loud roar shook the cavern. It was Mufasa. Big, beautiful, fierce Mufasa whose powerful love had become an equally powerful rage. “Oh thank Aiheu!” Nala stammered, but the sound was lost in the ensuing melee.
“We’re going to make it,” Simba said, giving her cheek a lick. He had not kissed Nala since he was a moon old. Now, somehow, it was all right.
Taka shook his head slowly and rubbed his temple with a forepaw, trying to massage away the headache that had formed there. “I’m surrounded by idiots.”
He looked down his nose at Fabana’s brood feasting on the zebra haunch he had tossed to them. How did they stand it in this hellhole? There they lay, stuffing themselves happily, wonderfully oblivious to how much more their lives could be, if only....
He shifted and angrily swatted a stone away, listening to the sharp CRACK as it ricocheted off the granite columns around him. If only.... His whole existence seemed to be made of ifs. IF he had been picked to be king instead of Muffy...IF Sarabi had not spurned his affections...IF that hairball had not been born.... His anger rose to the surface and he glared hotly at Shenzi. “Pfahh. Some Roh’mach! Two defenseless cubs! And you let them get away.”
“Defenseless?!” Banzai indicated his torn rump. “I’d hate to see them when they’re ready for a fight!”
“He’s right.” Shenzi returned Taka’s glare. “It wasn’t exactly like they was alone, Scar.”
“Yeah! What were we supposed to do?!” Banzai chewed and swallowed a huge chunk of flesh, belching horribly. “Kill Mufasa?” The three hyenas laughed.
Taka’s eyes flared as his mind began working, coming to life with terrifying speed. A huge grin spread across his face as he leered over the stone ledge at the hyenas, who grew suddenly silent at his gaze.
Taka stood and stretched, luxuriating in the feeling. He bounded from his perch to land quietly in front of Shenzi. Banzai and Ed scrambled away madly, and Shenzi could only stare, spellbound, at the apparition before her. Taka met her gaze, his eyes burning with an inner light, matching the phosphorescent green hue of the methane pits around them, each fueled by its own inner decay. Steam hissed from a nearby thermal vent in a white exclamation of heat, and she bit her tongue to keep from shrieking.
Taka saw the fear on her face and drew close. “Calm, my dear,” he purred. “You have nothing to fear from me. Through me your people will find salvation.”
Shenzi’s trembling stilled, her eyes widening. Had not Roh’kash herself said, “I will send you a sign. From thine enemy will come deliverance; your greatest fear shall be your greatest hope.” Shenzi had despaired of ever seeing the sign in her lifetime. Now she fell before Taka, her eyes misting. “Roh’kash ne nabu! Praise God!”
Taka bent and kissed her forehead. “Rise, Shenzi. Rise before your new king. For I swear to you: by the sunset tomorrow, I will release you from this torment.”
“It will not be easy. I will need your help.”
“Of course!” But the Roh’mach’s ears perked up at that. “Messiah or no, he still needs us,” she realized. The thought turned in her mind slowly, a dark and tantalizing morsel that made her grin. Perhaps this was another sign from Roh’kash Herself. The Mother of All would not lead her children out of despair only to lick the paws of a lion, even such a one as Taka. Oh, no. Something greater beckoned, and Shenzi saw a vision of herself at the tip of Pride Rock, much as Gur’mekh had before her. She could feel the wind caress her as she looked out over the green savanna, pups playing at her heels, with all the kingdom bowing before her in homage. She smiled, genuinely this time, and nodded to Taka.
“Whatever assistance you need, you have but to ask.”
The lion grinned again, and turned to look at the assembled host of hyenas who had silently gathered behind him. He scanned their ranks, only half noticing, his thoughts centered on the spire of Rock that lay across the plain.
“It appears the great Mufasa is willing to risk life and limb to save his son, even to the extent of coming into the graveyard alone. Did you note this, Banzai?”
“Did you note it most carefully? Did you really?” Taka peered at him interested, a dangerous gleam in his eyes. “And what conclusion did you draw?”
Banzai swallowed. “Uhh, he wasn’t worried about himself? Just Simba?”
“Brilliant! I shall make you a warlord in my new army.” Taka laughed, a strangely empty sound. The lion looked around at the desolation, the age old kingdom of bone and stone that the hyenas had existed in for years, and spat. He lifted his head and stared again at the finger of rock where his brother lay sleeping without a care in the world. Taka’s claws extended slowly and raked across the stone at the thought of Mufasa snuggled close to Sarabi, sharing her warmth, or even greater comforts....
He gritted his teeth and willed the vision away. It went easily enough; it had tormented him many times over the past few months, and it waited with infinite patience, knowing it would have its chance again.
Taka looked up at the crescent moon overhead. “The time has come to break free from the mud and climb to the heights. The curse that has harmed me all my days must and shall be dispelled. I am through RE-acting. It is time to ACT. And you, my brother, had best be prepared.”
Nala sulked next to her mother. Sarafina had tried to cheer her up without success. Ever since the incident in the outlands, she had moped about and pitied herself.
“Are you ready to talk about it?” Sarafina asked.
“Talk about what?”
Nala sighed. “I’ts not fair. I’m being punished twice.”
“Oh?” Sarafina’s ears perked up. “I gave you a cuffing, but I haven’t brought it up since. I thought you’d learned your lesson.”
“Not by you,” Nala said. She took in another deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “By Mufasa. He grounded Simba. Now he can’t go anywhere without Zazu or Scar for a whole moon.”
Sarafina smiled patiently. “And how does that hurt you?”
“We can’t play hide and seek. We can’t play capture the bone. I mean, how are you going to hide with a big lion hanging around watching you? All I have to do is find Scar and there he is.”
“And you want to change that, right?”
“Why don’t you go see the king?”
“Will you take me to see him? Please??”
“Take you? No. But I’ll be glad to let you go by yourself. You’re going to be a Pride Sister someday, and then a Queen. It’s time you learned how the system works.”
Mufasa was speaking with Uzuri in hushed tones when Nala came shyly into the cave. Nala stopped and turned to leave.
“Hey there, Nal. Does your mother know you’re here?”
“Do you need something?”
Nala looked at Uzuri and back at Mufasa, her ears going back. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Uzuri smiled. “Come on, Honey Tree. I can wait. I have till tonight to solve my problem.”
“Well,” Nala said, looking down. “It’s just... I can’t...”
Mufasa came over and nuzzled her softly. His eyes were soft and glowed warmly. “Sweetheart,” he said quietly, “what can I do for you?”
She looked into those eyes. “Please, will you please not make Simba wait a whole moon before he can play with me? We can’t play hide and seek with Scar around. Please, Sire, if I’m with him, isn’t that good enough? I won’t let him get in any trouble. I promise!”
“The way you didn’t let him get into trouble in the elephant graveyard?” He smiled with only a hint of reproach.
“I’ve learned my lesson. Honest! I don’t want him to die. Please, just let us go play together. Scar is such a spoil sport, and Zazu is--well--Zazu.”
Mufasa laughed. “You know something, Honey Tree? If the answer could be yes, it would be yes for you.” He nuzzled her. “My little milk daughter, I love you so, and I sure love my son. But would I be loving him if I taught him there were no unpleasant consequences for misbehavior? You know I can’t do that.”
She looked down. Then she looked back into Mufasa’s large hazel eyes of love. “Yeah, I guess so. But could you maybe give him a week off if he doesn’t get into trouble? You know, time off for good behavior?”
“For you I will. This has been hard on you, and I’m sorry.”
Then suddenly Scar came wild-eyed. “Come quick! Simba is in trouble!”
Mufasa’s face fell. He turned and ran off, quickly leaving little Nala far behind. She ran a few steps, then realized panting that she could never hope to catch up with the terrible stride of a panicked lion so she stopped and watched him disappear.
“...but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.”
--SHAKESPEARE: HAMLET: ACT I, SCENE V
It was the end of the world. Or close enough not to make a difference, anyway.
The thought raced through Simba’s fear maddened mind as he sprinted down the length of the gorge, his short legs flailing madly as he fought to keep ahead of the maelstrom behind him. The ground shook under his feet, sand spraying into his eyes as the leading edge of the wildebeest stampede began to pass by him on either side. Sharp hooves dug into the ground inches from his face, and he flinched away, scrambling madly to keep from being trampled. He glanced up at the bleating wildebeests and stumbled, paws flailing as he fought to keep his balance. He regained his footing and continued, tides of air rushing in and out of his lungs as he strained to keep ahead of the onrushing herd.
Ahead a dark shape hove into view; a twisted and gnarled remnant of a small tree, withered and half dead. Simba lunged for it, scrabbling up the old wood to the top. The one remaining limb swayed and creaked dangerously as he made his way onto it, tail flicking from side to side rapidly in an effort to stay balanced. One foot slipped, and his haunches slid out from under him. His front claws scored deep wounds into the old wood as he felt himself sliding over the side.
“Oh gods,” he thought, “I’m gonna FALL--”
His claws finally caught, and he laboriously hauled himself atop the limb, clutching it with fearful strength as he saw the wildebeest flowing past him like some insane river, their bleats and bellows of panic punctuating the constant thunder of their hooves.
High above, Zazu passed over the edge of the gorge wall and dipped his wings, plummeting into the crevasse as he scanned the ground rapidly. Squinting through the dusty haze, he saw the cub perched on an old limb and flew to him, fighting to keep his altitude in the roiling air.
“Zazu, help me!”
“Your father is on the way!” Zazu shouted. “Hold on!”
“Hurrrrry!” Simba screeched, as he slipped again, feeling the limb creak again under his weight.
Zazu shot away towards an overhanging ledge where Mufasa and Taka were sliding down the slope, paws scuffing in the dirt for purchase. Ascending, he flew to Mufasa’s side and pointed with one wing. “There! There, on that tree!”
Mufasa looked and felt his blood freeze up. Sweet Aiheu... ”Hold on, Simba!” he bellowed.
A passing wildebeest bumped the tree, shaking it with a loud CRACK! that all of them heard. Simba screamed in sheer blind panic as he felt the tree shift again, and saw splinters poking out from a break in the wood. Closing his eyes, he began to rapidly recite the prayer his mother had taught him when he was still nursing at her side:
God bless us all, from king to cub
All members of my pride
The kings above will show their love
And take me to their side
My star will shine with Aiheu's grace
Amid the midnight sky
There to stand and guard the land
Forever when I --
His voice stuck on the last word, his head shaking in mute negation as tears began to run down his cheeks. “Oh God, I don't want to die!”
Mufasa stared for a second, then clenched his jaw and leapt from the perch on the ledge, flinging himself into the stampede below. Taka and Zazu watched disbelievingly as they saw him weaving in and out between the panicked creatures with infinite grace. Zazu watched in horror, Taka in absolute glee.
“He’s going to get himself killed,” they thought simultaneously.
It was a dance of survival as Mufasa swerved among the jostling bodies armed with hooves, horns, and unstoppable speed.
Swept along in its irresistible crushing tide, Mufasa struggled to find Simba in the dust.
Next to him, a hapless gnu stumbled. Quickly she was overwhelmed and fatally battered, her dying shriek piercing Mufasa like a thorn. "No time to be afraid," he thought. "I must find him!"
Looming ahead was a branch. Dangling over certain death was a hysterical cub. "Simba!"
Zazu flapped about, near insane with panic. “Oh, Scar, this is awful! What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” He looked at Mufasa again, missing the look of annoyance that swept Taka’s features. The hornbill straightened as Taka raised a forepaw. “I’ll go back for help!! That’s what I’ll do, I’ll go back fo--”
Sudden dark descended as Taka backhanded the bird, sending him smashing into the rock wall with an audible crunch. Taka glanced at him, wondering if he had killed the idiot, when he saw the slow rise and fall of Zazu’s chest. Unconscious, then. He raised a paw to finish the job when he was distracted by a cry from below.
Mufasa grunted in pain as he was slammed backward, sprawling in the dirt. Raising his head, he gaped in horror as a wildebeest collided with the old tree, breaking it with a final rotten crack. Simba was flung up and away, screaming as he tumbled through the air, legs flailing desperately as he saw the ground rushing up at him--
--to be replaced by Mufasa’s jaws. The lion leapt through the air, catching Simba gently and bearing him off towards the side of the gorge. He dodged a cow, and sidestepped another--
--his rear foot slipped. A bull came rushing from the dust, ramming him with terrible force, eliciting a roar of pain as he felt the horns tear his side. Simba was flung unceremoniously away and landed amongst a sea of pounding hooves. Afraid to move, he sidestepped desperately, watching the bull as it passed overhead, feeling the thrumming under his feet. A warm grip surrounded him, and he felt Mufasa’s breath upon him again as he was swept up in his father’s jaws.
Mufasa ran through the deadly flood, the rumbling shaking him to the core, and the smell of sweat, fear, and dust pouring in with each gasp.
"Help me! Please, God, help me!"
He looked for a ledge, however small. Working his way to the edge, he considered trying to ride it out, but he was grazed by horns. One more inch and he would have been gored!
Finally he saw a place. He leaped, sat his child down, and grabbed for purchase.
He was rudely ripped away as a group of wildebeest crashed into him, bearing him off into the dust.
“DAD!” Simba screamed, horrified. He searched the ground desperately, his eyes continually drawn by the passing wildebeest. Nothing. And nothing. And still nothing. Oh gods, where was he?!
Mufasa’s legs hurt, his heart pounded, and his lungs were about to burst. He managed to see an exit. "Oh gods!"
A rumbling roar tore at the air as he launched himself through the air, slamming into the rock wall of the gorge and driving the air from his lungs. He paused a minute, then scrabbled his way up the slope, fighting for purchase. He began to slip down ever so slowly, and desperately fought the pull of his own weight. "Help me! God help me!"
Taka paced slowly along the gorge wall, observing the turn of events. This was not supposed to happen, not at ALL. Not only had Simba escaped injury, but his oaf of a brother had fought his way clear of the stampede and was making his way to safety even now.
A whisper spoke in his brain. “And what happens when he finds out about the surprise that he was supposed to have?”
“I don’t know,” Taka muttered.
“Yes you do. He’ll finish you. You have to kill him NOW, before it’s too late!”
“No! I’ve messed things up enough already.”
“Would you rather die? This goes far beyond banishment, imbecile. This is treason. Kill him!!”
Taka stood uncertainly at the edge of the cliff, watching as Mufasa dragged his way up, unaware of the shadow which pooled behind him, black as midnight despite the dust which obscured the sun’s rays. He felt a sudden urge to plunge into the herd below and end this insane dance once and for all. No more pain.
Snapping out of his reverie, he looked to see Mufasa just below him. The huge muscular legs scrabbled desperately for purchase, finding none.
“Brother!! Help me!”
“Ohh, so now it’s ‘brother,’” Taka thought, a red haze of hatred obscuring his vision. “Fat lot of good all that strength does you now, eh?”
Taka glared at the lion below him. He had a vivid memory of Mufasa’s rage as he shouted, “Is that a challenge?”
At the time, he’d meekly said, “Oh, I wouldn’t DREAM of challenging you!” Now he not only dreamed it. It was within his grasp. For a while he enjoyed the feeling of power. He gloried in the turn of the tide.
Taka lunged down, burying his claws knuckle deep in Mufasa’s forelegs. Mufasa shrieked in pain as he felt the needle sharp claws tear into his flesh. Warm blood began to run down his legs as he stared into Taka’s face, uncomprehending.
Taka’s face split into a grin. Slowly, visciously, he intoned, “Long live the king.”
Mufasa looked pleadingly at Taka. Only then did he realize that Taka hated him and wanted him dead. His jaw trembled.
He was ripped from the wall and flung outwards, the sky and ground exchanging places rapidly, a shriek of horror following him down, down into the living torrent.
The air blistered and rippled nearby, several wildebeest shying away as Mano plunged into the canyon, crying out soundlessly as he saw Ahadi’s son vanishing into the stampede. He ran towards the spot, passing through several animals.
He padded up slowly, peering through the swirling dust as the last of the wildebeest shot past. Tears sprang to his eyes as he saw the magnificent body lying in a bloody sprawl at the base of the tree which had borne Simba up long enough for Mufasa to rescue him. Mano saw that Mufasa was mortally wounded. He came close and nuzzled the torn face, which responded slowly. Mufasa painfully lifted his head, eyes dawning with recognition as he saw the white lion standing before him. The silver-blue eyes looked kindly into his amber ones as he felt the pain slip away.
“Sleep, my friend.” Mano kissed his cheek and bore the great head to the ground with his paw. There was a moments hesitation, then the broken body breathed its last and was still.
There was an electric feeling of anticipation in the air, and suddenly Mufasa’s Ka was before him, whole and magnificent, untouched by pain or worry. He shook himself uncertainly, feeling the tingle upon his skin of the spirit which stood before him. He lowered his head and extended a forepaw. “Incosi Mano. I touch your mane.”
“I feel it.” Mano nuzzled him gently. “You must come with me.”
Mufasa moved to join him, but was stopped short as he beheld his son coming through the dusty air, crying his name. “Simba! I must go to him! I must go to him!”
“No!” Mano restrained him with a paw. “You must NOT go to him. You have gone down the left fork, and he is headed down the right. But I will find a way out for him.”
THE END: PART TWO