PART THREE: THE DARKNESS
Part Three is dedicated to the memory of Baraku the lioness who died at the Nashville Zoo
as this section was being edited, May 3, 2000. May you rest in peace, golden huntress.
“Mufasa's death was a terrible tragedy; but to lose Simba who had barely begun to live.... For me, it is a deep, personal loss. And so it is with a heavy heart that I assume the throne. Yet, out of the ashes of this tragedy, we shall rise to greet the dawning of a new era in which lion and hyena come together, in a great and glorious future.”
-- TAKA’S ELEGY
Nala was trembling. Several minutes had passed since Taka’s breathless news that Simba was in trouble. Mufasa had followed Taka to the gorge at a pace Nala’s short legs could never hope to match, so she was left totally alone and afraid.
“Please let Simba be all right,” she prayed in a trembling voice. “Mano don’t let him die. Minshasa, don’t let him die! Please, Aiheu, PLEASE don’t let him die!”
That she might be in danger herself never crossed Nala’s mind. She gave a few seconds thought to her mother’s instructions—to always be in sight of her escort—but she dismissed the idea. She would stay.
The sun was shining with a vengeance and across the plain the slender strands of grass seemed to dance, not from the wind but from the waves of heat. She panted under the its brutal onslaught, wondering if she should find a tree and take cover. A quick look around told her that there were no trees nearby, and if she left she might lose sight of Taka when he returned. Though the angry golden eye of N’ga stared at her, draining her strengh, she remained at her post, watching for something…anything…to break the suspense.
The tension builded as she considered just what trouble Simba could be in. Perhaps he fell. The gorge was deep and treacherous. Was he too close to the edge? Did he slip? Was he going to live?
She debated making the long trek to Vigil Point. She had only been there once before, but vividly remembered the way. She remembered how the huge crevasse made her weak in the knees when she looked over the edge. Indeed, if Sarafina had not been there to steady her, she might have fallen in. Surely to Aiheu he had not rolled broken and bleeding to the bottom?? Not the anointed prince??
Only once before had Nala seen a dead lion. Old Betolu had promised Nala a story, but Nala found her still asleep—or so it seemed. Betolu did not arouse at the gentle prodding of her paw. She was cold and had begun to stiffen, a feeling Nala had come to know from being around kills. To see a lion as dead as a butchered antelope deeply disturbed her. Was Simba cold and stiff? Had some jackal torn his small body looking for sustenance? No, Aiheu couldn’t possibly permit it!
Nala thought she saw a movement in the distance. She stared through the waves of heat at the approaching mass, first able to tell it was a lion. Then to see he was alone. As he drew closer, she saw it was Scar.
Her mind was full of questions. Why was he alone? Why wasn’t Mufasa with him? Was he in the gorge looking after Simba? Why didn’t they bring him back with them, even if he were—unthinkably—dead. The look in Scar’s eyes as he drew closer did little to reassure her. He was walking slowly, something that irritated the little cub as she had to cover a great distance largely on her own. But she could not wait. She had to know.
She began to walk faster, then as a sense of panic overwhelmed her she began to run. “Scar! Scar, over here! Is everything OK??” The lion hardly noticed the panting cub until she stood right in his path and gasped, “Scar, where are they??”
“Nala, my child?”
“Is he OK? Where is Simba? Where is Mufasa? What happened??”
Scar looked down at her and quietly intoned, “Honey Tree, there’s been an accident.”
She swallowed hard. “Did Simba fall off the edge?” She searched Scar’s large, dark eyes. “Is he alive?? Where is Mufasa?? Is he with Simba??”
Scar’s chin trembled. In perhaps the one genuine regret he’d felt, he steeled himself to shatter her hope. “Be brave, girl. Remember you’re a young lioness.”
“I don’t want to be brave! Why are you looking at me like that??” She watched a couple of tears run down Scar’s face. “He’s dead, isn’t he??”
Scar took in a deep breath, held it a second, then let it out in a sigh. “They are dead, Nala. Both of them.”
“Both of them??” Her ears went flat. “Both of them??”
Scar looked down. “How will I ever tell the others??”
“No, they can’t be! They just can’t!” She ran in a tight circle. “Mano, don’t let them be dead!! Mano, Minshasa!! Aiheu!! Not both of them?? No!! I asked you to take care of him! Didn’t you hear me?? No, they can’t be dead!!”
Scar solemnly stopped her with a paw and tried to cuddle her. She would not be consoled.
He looked at her with genuine pity. “I wish it had been me, but what happened is what happened and it can not be altered by all the tears in the world.”
“Liar! Liar!” Nala was in denial. “It’s a lie! I don’t believe it!”
For a moment, an awful moment, Taka took her literally. Did she know something? But of course not--she had thought they were still alive, so she could not have suspected the truth.
“I know how you loved them. Let it out, Nala. Have a good cry and you’ll feel much better. No doubt your misery will have good company tonight.”
Taka resumed his slow journey toward Pride Rock, his gait stooped, his ears lowered and his tail drooping. Nala took a few steps to follow him, but her small body was seized by the enormity of her double loss. Grief had brutally cuffed her stomach. Racked with sobs, she slowly realized the truth and accepted it in all its bitterness. “Siiiiimbaaaaa!!” All sorts of vile questions tore at the edges of her mind. How badly did it hurt? Did they scream? Did Scar see it happen? Was it quick? Then for a moment they were all shoved aside by the memory of piling into Mufasa’s soft mane while he laughed deeply, wonderfully, and so tenderly for such a large lion. Oh Aiheu, how she wanted to feel that way one more time…. How BADLY she wanted it!
Birds still sang in the trees. Clouds still wafted across the sky. A gentle breeze still caressed the grass and stirred it in waves of serene detachment. But the old world she thought would last forever had abruptly ended.
The evening sky was turning soft and purple, and the promontory spread a long dark shadow across the plain. If that had been an ordinary day, the pride sisters would have gathered to ask the king’s blessing for the hunt. Instead the huntresses gathered somberly and silently atop Pride Rock.
Uzuri looked to Scar for the signal to begin. As leader of the pride sisters it was her duty to lead the memorial service, a task clearly beyond Sarabi. Scar slowly nodded.
“I remember Mufasa,” she said slowly and haltingly. “For such a large lion he was once so very small. So like little Simba. They were very alike at that age, so small but full of life...” Her chin trembled and she began to sob. “Sarabi, I can’t! I just can’t!”
The queen rose and went to her, nuzzling her while her own face was awash with tears. “Honey Tree, you loved him. And he loved you too. He spoke so highly of you.”
“Bless you,” Uzuri choked out. “Sweetheart, I’m always here for you. If you need anything, just ask me.”
Elanna, the queen’s sister, came forward. “May I say a few words for you, Zuri?”
Uzuri nodded silently and backed away with Sarabi.
“My king did not die defending his territory,” Lannie said. “My king did not die on the hunt. He gave his own life to save his son. While I have never seen Mano face to face, I have seen through Mufasa…my old playmate…all the proof I needed to know such spirits can and do exist. And when I look at the night sky, I know that he and Simba will both be there watching over us. It is not to grieve for them that we have gathered here tonight. It is to to grieve for Sarabi and Scar and for each one whose heart has been pierced with a thorn. Mufasa and Simba are in a better place, and we will see them again.”
Taka stepped forward and nuzzled Elanna. “Well said, my dear. And every word of it true. Now as fate has thrust on me the burden of leadership, I too shall speak my piece.”
From her privileged position Fabana watched the solemn lion delivering his elegant eulogy with mixed pride and grief. “Look at the poor dear. With all he’s suffered at Mufasa’s expense, he finds time for tears. There is a truly good creature, and he will be a truly great king.”
“Yeah,” Shenzi said, trying her best to suppress a smile. She regarded her mother’s innocent faith with barely suppressed amusement. “He’s a saint, I tell you. A real saint.”
Scar nodded and looked at Fabana. It was the signal to advance. “Yet out of the ashes,” he continued, “we shall rise to greet the dawning of a new era, in which lion and hyena come together in a great and glorious future!”
Hyenas by triads and ranks emerged from their hiding places, slinking down the rocks and crawling from ravines and gullies, eyes gleaming ferally in the faint light of the crescent moon which hung over the Pride Lands, looking for all the world like the scythe of the reaper come to claim his own. The lionesses and their cubs looked at the advancing hoarde with horror. Still they understood by Scar’s reaction that they were not to attack.
Nala huddled against her mother, struggling to understand her loss. No longer would Mufasa call her “honey tree” and tell her stories of the great kings of the past. And her friend Simba was gone forever--no more games, no more words, no more anything. In the depths of her grief, she wished she had let Simba win at wrestling just once. Now she would never get another chance.
“How bad did it hurt?” she asked her mother.
“Huh?” Sarafina grunted, looking away from the glowing eyes of the hyenas. “What was that?”
“How bad did it hurt?”
Sarafina was a huntress and had seen her share of death. Shaking with emotion, she weighed her words carefully and said, “He was so surprised, he didn’t feel much pain. I mean, before he had time to think, they’d have been all over him.” She felt warm tears run down her face. “The poor little angel!” She began to fondle Nala with a paw. “If it had been my little girl, I’d have died! Just died! Don’t you ever go near that place, or I’ll cuff your behind! Do you hear me, Missy??” Sarafina nuzzled her and kissed her.
“Oh, Momma!” Nala began to sob. “I won’t go there! I promise!” She added in a near whisper, “But can’t we go see him one last time?”
“No!” Fini kissed her again. “You don’t want to remember him the way he looks now. You really don’t. Besides, that’s just his body. Everything you loved--his humor, his kindness, his love, has gone to be with Aiheu.”
“I’m glad he’s with Aiheu,” she said, “but don’t you go. Please?”
“I’m not in a hurry,” Fini said. “I want to see my little girl grow up and become a great huntress.”
“But not a queen, I guess.”
Fini stroked her and wept. “Who knows? Maybe there is another little cub out there waiting to be your husband someday. He’s very lucky, I tell you.”
Nala looked up to her mother. “Do the gods know everything?”
“Yes, my girl.”
“Then why did they say we were going to be mates? That he was going to be king?”
Sarafina tried to hide her shock and not just blurt out, “I don’t know.” It was a disturbing question, one she had begun to ask herself. At the moment there were a lot of things she did not understand. Shenzi looked about and met her eyes for a moment making the hackles rise on Sarafina’s back and her tail lash. Could the gods have a purpose for this? Were they asleep?
“Maybe they changed their mind for a reason.”
“Or maybe he’s not dead.” Nala looked at her mother intently. “Maybe he’s just hurt real bad. We ought to go find him.”
“Honey tree! Don’t torture yourself! And don’t bother Sarabi with this. If she heard you say that it would be a thorn through her heart.”
“But doesn’t she want him to be alive?”
“Of course she does. We all do. But it’s not going to happen.”
Beyond the gorge lay the thorns, and beyond the thorns lay the land where even thorns would not grow. It was the desert, the place of lost hopes.
The wind blew slowly but steadily across the face of the dunes, carrying a light misting of sand with it as it blew into Simba’s face, making him squint, his eyes burning. There were no rich earthy smells of life--it was the sterile smell of solitude.
A faint whistling sound caught his ears, and as he topped a rise, he saw the skull of a small animal, bleached white in the sun and picked clean by vultures. No jackal would come to that forsaken place. Simba blinked at it for a moment, peering into the eyesockets, and seeing the clean white interior polished by the grit-laden wind. He could see himself lying there. Perhaps his turn would come over the next dune, or beyond that range....
He padded slowly down the soft face of the dune, floundering in the soft sand for a moment before regaining his footing. The hot wind gusted again, driving needles of grit into his face and bringing no relief from the heat. “I deserve it,” he thought. He couldn’t imagine what being trampled to death was like, but surely it had to be worse than lying on the sand to sleep and never wake up. “Dad, come for me when I die. I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
Simba shook his head and gasped, breathing rapidly. Struggling through the sand, he began to run, mindlessly fleeing the thoughts that tore at him, wishing he could only find a place to lay for a moment and rest. Heart pounding, he fled across the featureless face of the desert, just one more golden speck in that vast sea of sand.
The ground abruptly firmed beneath him, and he was scrambling across the hardpan, the bed of a long forgotten lake, now rough and unyielding in the sun’s merciless onslaught. He slowed, panting hoarsely, unable to continue at the rapid pace, padding slowly across the ground. The heat hammered at him from the firm sand, the imbedded salt deposits glittering like a spray of diamonds caught in the earth. The glare blinded him, and he slitted his eyes, paws quietly pat-a-pattering against the hardpan.
And then something glimmered far ahead.
Simba sat, shading his watering eyes with a forepaw as he fought to see, his thirst-swollen tongue hanging limply from his mouth. It shimmered invitingly, a quicksilver gleam at the edge of his vision.
Water. Oh gods, WATER!!
He rose and padded towards it rapidly, then began to trot. Soon he was running, his tired and dangerously overheated muscles running off some unknown inner reservoir, the sweat-matted fur on his forehead flying as he ran, oh gods it would taste so good, he wouldn’t even slow down, he would just sprint full tilt into it, splashing happily as he drank, he would roll in it, he would....
He slowed, his eyes gaping in disbelief as he saw the edge of the water begin to recede from him, the shoreline backing away as he came closer. Padding to a stop, he gaped at the glimmering lake ahead, wondering what was happening. His mouth fell open and he uttered a dull croak. “Uh?”
High above him, an answering croak returned from a soaring vulture. Its mate heard and responded. Soon they were joined by a third, and then others as the avian sentinels began to circle in cold anticipation.
Simba stood unaware of this, his mind trembling on the edge of awareness. He broke into a shambling run again, moaning as the waterline receded again...again...small islands of sand appeared in the water, slowly growing in size till there were only remnants of the sparkle that had deceived him.
The cub arrived on the spot where the beautiful lake had been to see only more sand. Dry, hot sand. He had discovered the how cruel the desert could be. His jaw began to tremble as tears came to his eyes.
Running was no use. Soon he would be back with his father. He stumbled on a few more steps, then toppled, the hard desert floor catching him with a dull thud. Simba laid on the sand, paws stirring weakly in restless motion as the heat drew at him. Tears cut clean courses through the dusty fur on his cheeks as he lay quiescent, unable to fight anymore, waiting for the end to come. “Mother!” he cried weakly. “Mother!”
A terrible weight clutched at his chest as he thought of her. He would never see her until her time came in the years to come. Nala was always such a good friend. Did she know he was dying? And after Scar told the pride of what he had done, would she even care? Sarafina was always so kind to him, like an aunt. And Uncle Scar--oh how disappointed he had looked! His brother lay dead. Simba’s father. Sarabi’s husband.
He sobbed again.
CHAPTER 3: MUFASA IS DEAD?
Rafiki came running up Pride Rock. He saw the hyenas and did not know what to make of it. Trying not to meet their eyes, he rushed into the cave. It was dark…he looked around for something, anything to reassure him. He saw the large dark silhouette of a lion. “Mufasa, there are hyenas on the rock! I heard the cry. Who is dead? Old Maloki?”
“No. Not old Maloki.”
“Taka?” Rafiki looked more closely. His eyes had begun to adust to the dim light. “Is everything all right? There are hyenas on Pride Rock! Does the king know?”
“I am the king,” Taka solemly intoned. “My brother is dead. So is Simba. There was a stampede in the gorge.”
“Oh my gods!” The shock made him weak in the knees. “Aiheu, I have lived one day too long!”
“Death comes to all lions,” Taka said philosophically. “Mufasa died trying to save his son. No doubt their stars will shine brightly.”
The old mandrill nodded but was unable to speak. In fact he could barely stumble out of the cave. He saw Sarabi, her head hung low and her ears fallen flat. “Sassie, is it true? Tell me it isn’t true!”
She turned to look at him, her jaw trembling. “Rafiki, how good of you to come.” Her strength failed her and she could not choke back a sob.
Rafiki fell to his knees, put his arms around her neck and wept on her shoulder. “My precious little girl. Oh, my heart breaks! If only it could be me instead, I would ransom them with my own death.”
Sarabi turned and touched his cheek with her tongue. “You are an ape, and yet you are also a lion. You must say prayers for me, old friend.”
“Indeed I will, Sassie.” He kissed her. “Morning and evening, and night.” He placed his hand on her brow. “Oh gods, let your hearts be moved. Take pity on her in her time of loss. Open your arms of love and feed her with the blood of mercy....”
“Rafiki,” said a hyena. “The King wants a word with you—right now.”
The mandrill looked up in shock. He tried to pull himself together. “Did you say the King?” He took up his staff and tried to stand as straight as he could, but it was a little harder just then. He was escorted into what was now Scar’s cave and faced Taka and his guards.
“It is a sad duty I ask you to perform,” Taka said. “You once said my road would be long and hard. Now I am King, but I cannot enjoy it. It is an obligation I must fulfill, and I seek divine guidance to carry out the job wisely and well. Give me your blessing, shaman.”
Rafiki stood closer to Taka. He did not know, of course, that his brother’s blood was on his paws. But when he looked into Taka’s eyes, he saw no sadness. He saw only the glint of triumph there, and it made him feel ill. The little cub that he had once loved so much had turned into this bitter, spiteful creature. It was all Rafiki could do to speak calmly. “This blessing I bestow,” the mandrill intoned. “May the gods in the heavens give you what you richly deserve. May you find as much inner peace as you are entitled to. And may you receive mercy in the measure you bestow it.”
“I’ll choose to take that as a compliment,” Taka said, patting Rafiki’s cheek gently, then giving him a blow that sent him into the wall. “You twisted little ape. How dare you look down on me when your little fortune telling game brought me to this!”
Never before had Rafiki known the icy fear of prey looking into the eyes of death. His heart pounded as the amber fire from Taka’s narrowed slits transfixed him. He knew his next minute of life was uncertain.
“Fru Fru,” he said in a trembling voice, “do you really think this is all my fault?”
“DON’T CALL ME THAT!” Taka roared, stepping closer till his nose nearly touched Rafiki’s face. The mandrill could feel the angry wind of death blowing across him in bursts. “To think I actually loved you once. You, the author of all my woes! Well I am king now and I don’t have to look upon your ugly painted face anymore. You are banished. And next time we meet…” Taka added in slowly, precisely measured words, “…you will surely die.”
The lionesses watched Rafiki’s exit from the cave. It was the final injury on top of all grief. Only Elanna, who could see no evil in Taka, thought there must be a good reason for his banishment. She went into his cave humbling herself, laying on her back and reaching out. “I touch your mane.”
“I feel it. Rise up, my dear.”
“Your heart is dear to me, even when it is broken. I know you have never noticed me before, and I could endure it then. But not while you are so alone, so terribly alone.”
“And you have come to comfort me?” Taka was genuinely moved. He saw in her trusting eyes the love that once Sarabi had born for her. Risking all, he reached out and touched her shoulder. She sighed deeply and did not turn away. “In my darkness a sun has risen. Even the darkest night welcomes a dawn.”
“The dawn of our future,” Elanna said. “I will make it a happy one.”
Scar nodded. “Tonight my brother lies dead by his son. The day we first make love must be a happy memory. Return in three days, and I will pledge myself to you.”
“Incosi aka Incosi,” she said. Then she mouthed the word, “Beloved.”
Coming from a lioness, the phrase was liquid light, a thing of beauty. A light shone in a corner of his soul he thought would be eternally dark. “I love you,” he whispered. “If only I’d known it sooner.”
The first night without Mufasa’s comforting presence was the hardest for Sarabi. She slinked quietly to the spot where she had spent so many blissful nights pressed against his beautiful body. His scent still hung in the air, and closed her eyes, clinging to that one last trace. “Oh gods, help me!” she cried, falling to the ground sobbing.
That evening her own sister had practically thrown herself before Taka, even after he had brought hyenas into the Pride Lands. Hyenas had murdered her parents! After that, she could not bring herself to speak to Elanna. Now her dear friend Rafiki was confined in house arrest. She had no one to turn to for comfort and had to weep alone. Only Aiheu stood between her and total isolation.
There were exactly forty paces to the end of the promontory. On the forty-first she could find an end to suffering. One extra step into the arms of love, and all the things she wished she could say to Mufasa and Simba would come pouring out before them as sweet as fragrance from the nighttime jasmine. But what a cruel blow it would be to those she left behind! Sarafina and Isha would have to drag her battered body to the jackals and watch as her flesh was torn from her by small, sharp teeth. The double tragedy would become a threefold loss. After weighing the consequences, she accepted her fate and chose the path of duty. Her life, worth living or not, would go on.
Elanna had considered her own path of duty. Her heart was pierced with thorns over the anger of her sister and the disapproval of the Pride Sisters. It would have been simple to turn away from Taka and stay in the good graces of her friends. But she had watched Taka’s struggle with depression and frustration wear away at him and take his joys away one by one. His first love had rejected him, and his parents were dead. Now his brother was dead, and he had to turn to the hyenas for comfort. She wanted to love him, to comfort him and give his life meaning once more. And hoping against hope that he would find solace in her love, she had dared to offer herself to him completely and openly.
Sarabi had asked her to choose between her sister and her lover, to give up happiness and cubs of her own, and share Sarabi’s loneliness forever in return for acceptance by the Pride.
“It’s not fair!” Elanna prayed fervently. “I love her enough to die for her and right now I should be by her side, but she won’t have me! She loved him once--how can she blame me for needing him so? She doesn’t understand, God. What can I say that will make her listen??”
Taka stole quietly to her side and nuzzled her. “So sad, my darling?”
“Hold me,” she said, as tears ran down her cheeks. “Let me feel you near me.”
Taka kissed away her tears and began to stroke her with his paw. “I’ve never seen you more beautiful than you are right now. Such a kind heart, capable of such compassion.” He looked at her with a tenderness uncommon to him. “If I’d known how you felt before, things might have been very different now.”
“Does it matter?”
Taka rested beside her feeling her comforting presence. He closed his eyes and could see Mufasa and Sarabi with little Simba resting in their favorite spot. Next to them, Elanna nursing a small Taka and a small Lannie. Taka loved Mufasa once, as he had once loved Sarabi. If only he had stopped striving after a vain dream and seen the potential in Elanna long ago! Under the circumstances, Taka felt his deeds were justified, but still he wondered if there was more he could have done to purge the curse that poisoned Mufasa’s heart and alienated his childhood love. The nagging doubt that he was partly to blame for began to eat away at him, and he felt contaminated--dirty in ways that no water could wash clean.
Oh to have felt clean again! He would have been content with Elanna’s sincere and unblemished love. And there would have been no hyenas in the Pride Lands earning him the undying hatred of the pride. The price he paid to rule was too high, but it was final and there could be no refund. Opening his eyes once more to the sobering truth, he kissed Elanna’s cheek and sighed deeply. “You are the one and only good thing that’s happened in my life. You must never die.”
“I won’t,” she said soothingly. “Now go to sleep, dear.”
The hunt was going well. A herd of gazelles were completely unaware of the bringers of death. Uzuri nodded, and her pride sisters spread out in a pattern of her own design, ready to advance. The moon was kind--just full enough to see by, but not full enough to betray the lithe lionesses in the tall grass.
Uzuri’s ears flattened back and her tail twitched. Instantly her pride sisters tensed up, ready for action. They waited for the signal to rush....
“Now I got you!” shouted a hyena, darting between the lionesses and the gazelles in pursuit of a bolting hare. The gazelles looked around and fled.
“Damn!” Uzuri yelled.
The hyena closed on the hare and with a snap, he had snatched the life from the small body. Bearing his trophy proudly, he trotted back across the meadow toward Pride Rock.
The King was lying down napping when he got a rude nudge from Uzuri. “Look here, we have a problem.”
“We do indeed,” Taka said grumpily. “Never do that when I’m asleep!”
“Those--friends of yours--just spoiled our chances of pulling down a gazelle or two for a lousy rabbit! We can’t have them running wild while we’re hunting! You’re King--do something!”
“Well I just might, since I AM King. Not that you’d know it from the level respect you show me.”
“This union will work. I didn’t say there wouldn’t be any problems at first. What we need is more cooperation. Something like a mutual hunt. That’s it--you get together with Pipkah and plan something you can all pull off together.”
“But sire, our cultures are so different!”
“That’s why I’m putting an expert in charge. You will justify the faith I have in you, hmm?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“That’s all I ask of anyone. Now run along and let me get some sleep.”
He closed his eyes and rolled over. Clearly, the subject was closed.
Simba stirred in the cool morning air, feeling with a paw for his mother’s comforting presence. He opened an eye and glanced around. The awful truth dawned upon him that for the first time in his life, he was completely alone. As far as he could see all around was featureless sand.
He rose, stretching, and groomed himself in the pre-dawn quiet. Then he padded slowly across the dunes, his face turned towards the darkened western sky, the gentle breezes of twilight ruffling his fur and tickling his whiskers with cool fingers.
But the cool did not last long. In moments his shadow awoke in front of him, harsh and outlined in red. He glanced over his shoulder to see the sun heaving its crimson bulk above the horizon. The temperature began to climb steadily as it rose higher in the sky, the cold dry winds becoming hot dry winds, the rays of the sun beginning to pierce him with anger and spite.
Simba fought new enemies: tiredness tugged at him, hunger gnawed at him, thirst sucked the life from him and hopelessness weighed him down. The one thought that kept him going was his refusal to die on the sand.
Panting in the dry air depleted his moisture. A sweat that did not cool him matted his fur and burned his eyes. He longed to feel firm earth beneath his feet again. The soft give of the sand made walking more difficult. His small feet scrabbled for purchase on even the smallest of dunes, and he had to struggle up one side, then slip down the other. He had daydreams about soft fragrant grass wet with morning dew, and stopping by the cistern to drink the cold, fresh water that collected from the rain.
His gait became unsteady. He stumbled along, unsure why there should be anything better to the west than there was to the south or north. He couldn’t go east--that he could NEVER do. The east was where his heart lay. The most desirable and inaccessible of things. His mother’s soft fur, and Aunt Uzuri’s quiet voice that said so much in so little. Perhaps someone was eating fresh meat. His stomach began to knot up and growl. Overhead the sun stared with its one hateful eye, willing the life from him step by step. And still each breath sucked precious moisture from his small body. In the sky, vultures circled slowly, meeting his gaze with undisguised eagerness as he fought to remain standing. He stared at one, and watched its outline separate into two, then slowly recombine as he fought to keep his fragile grasp on consciousness. He felt his legs collapse and the shock hitting the ground. “Aiheu,” he moaned, the sand rasping dryly against his cheek in a deadly caress. “Help me, Aiheu. I’m dying.”
He put his paw across his face and surrendered. Everything went dark....
“Pumbaa, come ON,” Timon groaned. “The ground’s as dry as a bone, now; we’re not gonna find any more bugs out here.”
“I don’t know...” Pumbaa’s voice was filled with doubt. “We found that beetle a little while ago, remember?”
“‘A little while ago?!’ That was two hours ago! I’m fried!” Timon continued to gripe as the foraged listlessly among the cracked and dried flats. A brief rain had sprung up this morning, the dry ground greedily soaking up the moisture and driving the insects out in droves. The meerkat and warthog had delighted in this banquet, at least until the sun emerged again. The insects had vanished with the water, the ground drying into the haphazard mosaic that lay before them, baked hard now in the glaring sun.
Sighing, Timon leaned down to try again when faint movement caught his eyes. He skittered up Pumbaa’s back to perch atop his head, shading his eyes in the glare.
“H-Hey!” Pumbaa, laughed. “That tickles!”
“Hush!” Timon squinted. “A-HA! Buzzards!”
Pumbaa grimaced. “Ewww! I hate buzzards.”
“Pumbaa!” Timon tapped his friend’s head reproachfully. “We do not speak ill of those who might show us where to find some goodies.”
“They might be giving us a pointer on where we might locate a leftover culinary delight!” Timon’s stomach growled in anticipation.
“Awwww!” Pumbaa looked downcast. “I was hoping they might show us where to find some food.”
The meerkat sighed. “Just head thataway.”
Pumbaa trotted off obligingly, heading towards the circling birds, who were beginning to descend, a sure sign that whatever they had been stalking was about to expire. Fresh meat! Timon shook the rough mane on Pumbaa’s shoulders with glee. “Oh boy oh boy! We’re gonna eat right today, pal, just you wait!”
Pumbaa halted suddenly, nearly sending Timon overboard. “Why do I have to wait?! Who says YOU eat first?!”
“No, no! Just forget it and head for the buzzards before they get the good stuff!” Timon seized Pumbaa’s ears and flicked them, kicking his heels into the warthog’s neck. “YAHHHH!!!”
Pumbaa accelerated, a horrendous war cry of his own issuing from his mouth as the two charged into the pack of jostling birds, sending them scattering in disarray, feathers flying as they squawked an indignant protest back at the two. Ignoring this, the duo checked around themselves for any malingerers, then relaxed, Timon chuckling at the sight.
“I love it!” Pumbaa snorted in mirth. “Bowling for buzzards!”
Timon guffawed. “Gets ‘em every time!” He proceeded to brush himself off as Pumbaa examined the carcass that lay at their feet. “Uh-oh. Hey Timon! You better come look. I think it’s still alive.”
The meerkat drew up involuntarily. “Yeesh!” Steeling himself, he meandered over, trying to look nonchalant. After all, Pumbaa WAS watching.
“Allrighty, whatta we got here?” Bending low, he sniffed the air carefully. The scent filled his nostrils; something exotic, but vaguely familiar. But alive, he could tell that much. Shrugging, he wriggled under the paw that covered the creature’s face and strained, lifting...
...and saw the soft furry features, the whiskers, and the tip of one ivory fang protruding over the lower lip. His blood ran cold as he dropped the paw, staggering back in terror.
“Jeez, it’s a LION!”
“I knew it. I just knew it!” Timon said with disgust. “I knew if we carried him to water, you’d want to feed him. And if you fed him, you’d want to keep him. Do you know what lion cubs do? Huh, DO you??”
Pumbaa looked at Timon with mist in his gazelle eyes. “No, Timon. What do they do?”
“They get bigger. It doesn’t happen all at once, see, but one day you’ll wake up....” He straddled and expanded to make his point. “....and there will be this greaaat biiiig lion as far as the eyes can see! He won’t be little and cute then, but he’ll still be our problem.”
“Keep it down, Timon. He’ll hear you!”
Timon glanced around anxiously. “Yeah. And I bet he’s hungry, too!”
“Now there you go again! He’s only a little kid, and he’s so sad and lost and helpless!” Tears began to spring up in Pumbaa’s eyes. “Just because you’re smarter than I am doesn’t mean you’re always right. I mean, not always, you know.”
“And I suppose you got it all figured out?”
“No. But while we’re wasting time figuring it all out, that little guy needs our help!”
Once in a while Pumbaa said something that made Timon stand up and take note. “All right. Answer me this, then. Let’s say we keep him. Down, Pumbaa, I said IF we keep him, what will he eat?”
Tears misted up in Pumbaa’s eyes again. “If we DON’T keep him, what will he eat?” A tear ran down the warthog’s cheek. “I gotta live with myself, Timon. Don’t make me choose between you and him. Please??”
“You can’t walk out on me!”
“I can’t walk out on him! You’re a clever fellow and you’ll always land on your feet. Look at him, Timon. He’s dying. He needs me.”
Adopting a lion cub was a big decision, and it took Pumbaa a lot of discussion and a great deal of pouting to overcome Timon’s reluctance. What Aiheu did not give the warthog in eloquent speech, he made up for in sheer determination. And when Pumbaa really made up his mind and looked at Timon with his gazelle eyes, he usually got his way.
All in all, the benefits outweighed the disadvantages, Pumbaa figured; they would have to raise a youngster (a task Timon especially loathed), but the return on their investment would be enormous. Simba would make a terrific bodyguard and a good friend. Besides, Timon would not have to endure Pumbaa’s pleading looks.
“OK,” Timon said at last. “I’m going to regret this, but we’ll keep the kid.”
CHAPTER 7: ENTER ZIRA
The days following the botched hunt dragged by slowly under the weight of frustration and anger, with lionesses and hyenas shooting dirty looks each time they passed, then glancing suspiciously back. In that emotionally charged time, Zira kept to herself, considering ways to combine two hunter peoples into an effective force. Most thought she might as well try to bring the sky to the waterhole, but she passed off their doubts with a sniff and went on. She knew she could do this if any lion could--she had great faith in her own genius even if no one else did--and a stubborn streak every bit as wide as Taka's. Uzuri was only too glad to pass this problem off to the young, arrogant lionesses--it was one less thing for her to worry about, and if Zira failed, at least she wouldn't be blamed THIS time. So Uzuri left Zira alone with her plans.
Plans that the lioness brooded over with each free moment she had. The failure of the hunt was disturbing, yes, but there would be others, she reflected one afternoon. Settling herself down for a much needed rest, she mulled over the thought of vindication over and over. Other chances to set things straight with the hyenas and expunge the embarrassment brought to the pride by their interference. Only one thing stood in the way.
Zira's muddy brown eyes deepened to a troubled maroon color as she conjured up the king's image in her mind. Taka had never been prepossessed to help any other group of animals before. Why now? And, more to the point, why those nauseatingly repellent hyenas? Why lions should stoop low enough to ally with another predator species was enigmatic enough, but couldn't Taka have chosen something more useful, like hunting dogs? More useful, and less smelly, at least.
Shrugging inwardly, she heaved a sigh and cradled her chin upon her forepaws, one claw idly toying in the dirt before her. Another reason to detest the loathsome animals; Taka had allowed the hyenas to run rampant within Pride Rock, and the whole residence had begun to reek of their scent. Accordingly, most of the lionesses had begun sleeping outside, excepting Sarafina, who had Nala to look after. With her junior status in the pride, Zira had ended up with the least desirable selection of sleeping places, and it was only sheer luck that she stumbled upon the shallow cave a short distance from the Rock. She had spent her last few nights there, and not a few lionesses had wondered just where the aloof Zira disappeared to when it was time to sleep. One glance at her removed the temptation to ask, however; Zira was notoriously short tempered, as well as long minded. Even the smallest offense was stored away in her memory, to be brought out again when it suited her, like fruit from a bitter harvest.
She shook her head irritably, forcing the though of her pride sisters from her mind and concentrating on the task before her. Privately, she began to wonder if all this wasn't a colossal waste of time. Working with those mangy brutes looked to be well nigh impossible; better to have Taka rout them and send them running. It certainly wouldn't hurt his popularity...not that it could get much lower at the moment...and besides, it might give the new king some much needed confidence. After all, he wasn't that bad looking, and with the right attention, he just might--
Zira's eyes narrowed as she cut the thought off. "Get a GRIP, girl," she muttered. She sat up, her nose twitching at the air and confirming what her body already knew. Her seasons had been coming pretty regularly for several moons now, and although she had not yet sought the company of a mate, she thought of Taka and began to smile. “Why not?”
"The lioness Zira wishes to see you, Sire." Dur'lach sniffed disdainfully.
"Yes yes yes," Taka snapped irritably. "Admit her; I don't have all day."
The hyena stepped grudgingly aside, gazing flatly at Zira. "The boss said you can come in, but don't take too long. He's a busy fella."
"I'm QUITE aware of what the 'Boss' said," the lioness hissed. "Now do get out of my way, fleabag." Without waiting for a reply, she shouldered the hyena aside roughly and pushed her way into the cavern. "I touch your mane, Incosi," she intoned, dipping her head.
"I feel it. What is it you wish to speak to me about, eh?" Taka examined one of his forepaws idly. "This hunting thing, perchance?"
"Yes, Sire," she nodded. "I was on the first hunt together. I've thought over what I've seen and considered the reports of the others." Zira's voice faltered slightly as the king's eyes bored their brilliant emerald gaze into her own.
She flinched. "Well, Sire, calling it a joint effort is a joke. Neither group consulted the other on what each was doing beforehand, and no attempt at cooperation was made, even to salvage the situation." Zira sighed and twitched her lips. “It was a total disaster.”
“I see.” Taka licked his paw and began to groom his mane. “And what do you suggest we do about it?”
“Hyenas don’t understand the way we hunt. We should select a few of the best hyenas and show them some of our hunting techniques. Let them train others.” She glanced sidewise at the hyena guard behind her. “Although I wouldn’t teach them EVERYTHING, if you ask my personal opinion. It always helps to have a few secrets of your own.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Taka said dryly. “Do you have a recommendation as to how we might best achieve this?”
“On the next hunt, I would send out equal parties of hyenas and lionesses, after the hyenas are shown a few of the basic maneuvers. I think we’ll have a better chance of actually catching something that way, and it will probably be safer.”
He nodded. “Very well then. Is there anything else?”
Zira looked over her shoulder at the hyena hesitantly. “Well, yes...”
“Well? What is it?”
“I’d like to speak to you about it alone, if it’s all right.”
He shurgged. “In light of recent events, I prefer to keep my business in public. My bodyguards have expressed a concern for my safety.”
Zira blinked in surprise. “You don’t think I’D try to hurt you, do you?”
“Now, my dear, don’t jump to conclusions. I merely seek to avoid the appearance of favoritism is all.”
“I see.” Somewhat mollified, the lioness swallowed nervously. “Well...this is rather personal, Sire.”
“No need to worry.” He smiled at her ingratiatingly. “Everything said here is kept in strict confidence, and that includes my guards.” He cocked his head and peered closer at her. “Are the other lionesses teasing you again? I know how much you despise that.”
“No, no, it’s not that.” She seated herself, curling her tail around her haunches. “I...well, Sire, I’m in my season, you know...”
“I noticed,” he said, his tone dry again.
“Well,” Zira stammered, “I-I, I know you picked Elanna as your mate and all, and she really is quite a wonderful person, but I was wondering...if maybe...?” Her eyes tilted up to peer at his as her voice faded out, the question hanging between them.
Taka studied her expression for a moment, one eyebrow arching. And then he began to laugh softly. “Oh, now, isn’t this interesting?”
Zira’s ears flattened in embarrassment. “Sire?”
“Oh, you do intrigue me, dear. You show no interest in mating all this time, and now that I am in power, you wish to crouch before me?” He snorted. “I am not THAT naive. I picked a mate that loves me for who I am, not WHAT I am. Perhaps you should peddle your influence elsewhere.”
The hyena guarding the cavern began to chuckle lowly. “Yeah, hon. Don’t listen to him. I got a yearning to do you myself. Who knows, after you’ve had me, you might never go back to lions!”
“Shut UP,” Zira said, her voice shaking. Looking back at Taka, she tried again. “Sire, you must believe, I didn’t ask you just to--”
“Oh, spare me the excuses,” he rasped. “I may be..how did you say...a ‘one eyed freak’, but what I do see, I see very clearly.” He turned away. “You are dismissed. Dur’lach, show the lady out, if you please.”
“Sure thing, boss.” The hyena paced up beside Zira, giggling. “Don’t take it so hard, sweetcakes. I may be small, but I’m GOOD!”
Zira bared her fangs at the hyena, a low growl issuing from her throat. Eyes stinging with tears, she bumped the laughing guard out of her way and ran for the exit.
Uzuri sighed as she looked across the rocks at her hunting party. “Oh, gods,” she thought. “This is never going to work.” For once she felt thankful her mother was safe with Aiheu. “This would have broken her heart.”
Assembled in front of her were her huntresses: Sarabi, Isha, Yolanda, Ajenti, Zira, and Beesa. Uzuri had intended for Sarafina to join them, but the lioness had uncharacteristically begged off, asking to remain at home with her daughter, Nala. Uzuri had queried her lightly on this, but had not pressed the matter; when it came to hunting, none of her lionesses were slouchers, least of all Sarafina. She had readily consented and substituted the young Zira in Fini’s place. But Uzuri would have much rather have had Sarafina’s experience along for what lay ahead of them tonight.
She glanced over at the other half of her hunting party. Supposedly chosen for their hunting prowess, the six hyenas she had been assigned did not do much to comfort her. At the present moment they were busy arguing among themselves about a particularly nasty fight they had witnessed a few months back.
Clearing her throat, she stepped forward. “Excuse me. If you’re quite finished...” At her penetrating stare, the hyenas subsided slowly. “We’ll be hunting in the northern meadows tonight. Now, as you are unfamiliar with our hunting tactics, I wanted to go over a couple of things that I thought-”
“We can’t eat tactics,” one of the hyenas quipped. “I need red meat and lots of it. I think could eat a whole lion!”
The other hyenas erupted in a gale of raucous laughter. Uzuri set her jaw and endured it until it subsided, then looked at the one who had spoken. “I take it you are Pipkah?”
“Yes, I’m Pipkah, but you can’t take it.” Some of the other hyenas nearly went into fits at this jibe. Others hid their faces and groaned.
Uzuri blew out her breath in frustration and turned to Isha. “I give up. We’ll just have to hope they know what they’re doing.”
Isha stared hard at Pipkah as Uzuri passed by her, muttering. The young lioness glanced back at Uzuri, noting the peculiar set of her head. She envied the hunt mistress’s powers of concentration; already the incident was put behind her as Uzuri began running attack patterns and possible hunting sites through her head.
But for Isha, the insult was not so easily forgotten. As the hyena started to pass her, she stepped in front, blocking his path. She stared at him, sniffing him carefully.
“Hey, watch the merchandise lady!”
She smiled sweetly. “I just wanted to remember you. You’re the hunting party leader. Pap Kuuh is it, or Pip Kahh?”
“Pip Kahh is close enough.” He smiled. “Well, good. I worked hard for this position, and I’m glad to get some recognition.”
Isha’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, definitely. We’ll hold you responsible for their actions. If we make a good kill tonight, you’ll be rewarded appropriately.” She moved next to them as they walked, her breath soft in his ear. “And if one of your people injures one of mine, you will also be rewarded appropriately. I can’t eat tactics, but I think I could eat a whole hyena.” Without waiting for a response, she trotted ahead to rejoin the other lionesses.
Pipkah watched her leave, hatred evident on his face, but a hatred tempered with fear. He turned to see the other hyenas looking at him curiously. “What’re you guys mooning at?! Spread out for cryin’ out loud!”
He saw that the hyenas moved in one of Uzuri’s well known sweep patterns. Barely discernable at this distance, the supple forms of lionesses glided though the savanna, moonlight gleaming off their pelts. Noting the direction of their travel, Pipkah looked and saw the small group of antelope that huddled together, drowsing the night away in the security of numbers.
Down below, Uzuri was also eyeing the antelope.
The hunt mistress paused, one forepaw lifted, frozen in statuesque beauty as she assessed the situation. Without taking her eyes from the herd ahead, she flicked her left ear twice, as if deterring a particularly bothersome fly. But the nuances of the motion, lost on one unfamiliar with the hunt, were crystal clear to her sisters. Isha saw the signal and immediately complied, stealthily widening her distance from Uzuri by approximately two body lengths. Uzuri repeated the motion on the opposite side, and Sarabi mirrored the maneuver to her right. The other four lionesses, despite being out of sight on her flanks, were doubtless adjusting their positions as well.
As Uzuri resumed creeping toward the antelope, she wondered if the hyenas were even in the correct positions on the far side of the herd. She could only hope; her instructions had been terse and precise, but even the simplest of commands were often lost on those imbeciles. If only one of them got out of position, the whole group might not catch anything-
She berated herself for letting her thoughts wander so; there was work to be done. Rising slightly, she flicked her tail, and the lionesses slowly began closing on the herd.
Pipkah gritted his teeth at the wait. Why in blazes hadn’t the idiot lioness started the attack yet? Mother of All, the antelope were practically in front of him! He eyed the herd greedily, salivating at the sight of the meaty forms that slumbered away, ignorant of his presence.
Finally, he spat in the dust. “I’m going to starve before we catch anything with our “tactics.” He glanced over at the two youngsters next to him. “Losara, Makh’rish: see that youngling over there?”
The two looked at the antelope and spied the small calf lying beside it’s mother. “Yes.”
“That is your target. Res’shakh and I will pick off the mother. On my signal we rush them. Understand?”
Losara nodded, her eyes shining with admiration at his leader’s daring, but Makh’rish looked nervous. “S-Sir? Aren’t we supposed to wait until the lions signal us?”
“Are you questioning my authority? Or would you rather follow that hairy wretch instead of your own kind?”
“N-No sir,” she stammered.
“Then be silent and obey me.” Pipkah looked back at the antelope a moment longer, then nodded. “GO!!!”
The hyenas bolted forward, legs flying under them as they propelled themselves towards the herd. Pipkah grinned with exhilaration and gave out a high yodeling laugh of joy. “YAHHHHH!”
The herd of antelope exploded into sudden motion, startling Uzuri and raising her hackles. “What in the…”
The sound of hyena laughter drifted to her, and she snarled deep in her chest. “Those fools! I KNEW this would happen.” She glanced at Isha and Sarabi. “Let’s go, but for gods’ sake be careful.” Rising from her crouch, she led the lionesses in a silent rush towards the group of antelope, who were still milling about in a panic. They had only seconds left to act and still have a chance, she knew, but as soon as the herd got organized and began to flee, all was lost.
An enormous cloud of dust was raised by the panicked antelope as they stirred about. The hyenas charged into the herd, sending the frightened animals crashing off in the direction of the lionesses.
A fearful cry of pain arose from the swirling debris, along with the sounds of a fiercely pitched struggle. Another cry arose, clearly leonine this time.
Young Losara lay on her side, coughing and panting heavily in the swirling dust. She shook his head, trying to clear it, and moaned as the world seemed to spin crazily. A terrible weight held her to the ground, and she fought to pull her hindquarters from beneath the furred form-
She glanced over at the slumped body atop her and grinned. She had done it! By the gods above, she had pulled down an antelope on her first hunt! Grinning, she wiped away the dirt from her face, imagining the praise her father would heap upon her!
She froze as the dead antelope moaned and coughed fitfully. “Great Aiheu,” it grated, “what happened?!” She stared, eyes bulging in horror as the “antelope” raised it’s head and looked at her, the features of a lioness clear in the bright moonlight.
Ajenti groaned again as she tried to shift her weight and get up. Her whole left side throbbed painfully, and the dust floating about made every breath burn in her lungs. She collapsed back to the ground, moaning as her abused body complained fiercely. “I’m getting too old for this.”
Pipkah emerged from the settling dust, cursing at the top of his lungs as he saw the form of Losara half-buried under the lioness. “You IDIOT! I’ve seen dung-beetles with more brains than you, and they could hunt better, besides! What in Roh’kash’s name were you thinking?!”
Losara’s eyes shone with tears as she huddled under Ajenti’s bulk. “I-”
“Oooops, I forgot. Thinking requires a BRAIN, and you aren’t equipped with one, are you?!” Pipkah turned and scratched at the dirt with his rear paws, showering the young hyena with sand. “That’s what I ought to do with you, kiddo! When your father hears about this, I promise you he’ll-”
He was cut off as he beheld the hunt mistress emerging from the dust, eyes blazing with unrestrained fury as she took in the downed form of Ajenti lying atop Losara. She paused for a minute, then stalked towards the young hyena, who began scrambling madly, trying to push Ajenti’s bulk away.
“Oh gods! I’m sorry! It was an accident, I swear!” She began sobbing uncontrollably as Uzuri drew near. “It was all dusty and noisy and I thought she was the antelope, I mean they’re the same color in the dark, oh please don’t DO IT!” She tucked her head against her chest, shaking with fear as Uzuri stopped next to her. The lioness looked down at her for a moment, wrapped in a terrible cloak of silence. Lion and hyena held their breath, waiting for the blow to fall.
Uzuri walked over to Pipkah, who was still cursing softly under his breath. Lighting fast, she drew back and struck him in the face, sending him sprawling in the dirt.
“Great Roh’kash!” Pipkah picked himself up slowly, blood running from his torn cheek. “Why did you hit ME?! SHE’S the one who ruined the hunt!”
Uzuri looked at him coldly. “She made a MISTAKE. You were CARELESS.”
Taka was a lion who inspired pity for a while, then contempt and finally anger. Uzuri had pitied him once. She had reached the stage of contempt during his difficult adolescence. Now she had reached the point of anger, a white hot anger that could swallow up the moon and the sun and make the rivers run red with blood. She was headed to the eastern meadow, ready to leave and never come back.
Being hunt mistress was her sense of belonging, her identity. Uzuri was beautiful, but she always saw herself first as a good provider and a leader. That night by siding with Pipkah, Taka had stripped her of all she held dear. She felt naked and ashamed and very angry. If he did not appreciate her talents, she would find someone who did.
Uzuri had no idea where she would go. Indeed, the world beyond the Pride Lands was unknown to her and fraught with danger. The intimate knowledge of her home that made her such a fearsome huntress would be gone. She would see only what was in front of her nose.
As she calmed down, her reckless courage failed her and she felt very vulnerable and small. Could she leave her sister Sarafina and young Nala? Could she spurn Ajenti’s sage wisdom, Beesa’s compassion and Yolanda’s gentle advice? And then came the terrible thought of losing Rafiki’s matchless devotion.
She realized she could never turn her back on those she loved. And the void her anger left behind filled with fear. Glancing about, she saw a large pair of eyes glowing in the moonlight.
“Oh gods, no!”
She backed back. It was a male lion! She turned and started to run.
“Leave me alone!” She ran madly toward her territory and safety.
“Please, come back! I’m not going to hurt you!”
“Leave me alone!”
She ran blindly into some hedges and got tangled. It only stopped her forward progress for a moment, but that was long enough for him to catch up.
“I’m too old for this,” he complained, wheezing. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll protect myself!” she snarled defensively. “Let me go! I don’t want to cause trouble, but I’ll fight if I have to!”
“I don’t want you to fight,” the lion said soothingly. “You came on my land and almost walked into me. Won’t you at least introduce yourself?”
“Sorry,” she said stiffly. “I’m Uzuri. Glad to meet you. Can I go now?”
“Sure you can,” he said gently. “Run away if you must, but don’t tell them I harmed you. At least tell them the truth, and be sure you get my name right.”
“I don’t know your name.”
“You never asked me. I’m Ugas.” He smiled bashfully.
“I’m sorry. I’m not always this rude--uh--Ugas.” She relaxed. “Are you the King here or a rogue lion?”
“I’m King here.” He drew near enough to reach out and touch her with a paw but he made no move to do so. His large, beautiful eyes swept over her face in a search for understanding. “Uzuri, you look depressed. Is everything quite all right?”
“I’m fine. Just fine.”
“Your words say you are fine, but I see something in the way you’re standing, the set of your ears, even the way you look at me. It’s as if your whole being is crying out for help.” He sat like a sphinx and began to idly groom his mane and said matter-of-factly, “You were thinking of running away.”
“How did you....says who??”
“Don’t be upset, my dear.” He smiled pleasantly. “You can confide in me. That’s the best part of meeting a stranger--you can say anything that comes to your mind. I’ve lived a long life--maybe I’ll have the answer you’re looking for.”
“No, it’s nothing, thank you.” She licked her paw nervously but looked into Ugas’ eyes and his warm, fatherly smile. “Well, yes,” she said at last. It felt good to admit it. “Our King is dead and now his brother is ruling the Pride Lands. I’m sure he means well, but he’s....”
“But you can’t stand him. Mufasa was a good friend. Scar is...how shall I put this...acting like himself.” He shrugged. “So are the rumors true? Are hyenas really living on Pride Rock?”
“Yes! Oh gods, it’s awful!”
“And terribly unfair to you, hunt mistress. I hear your first joint effort was a disaster.”
“It sure was!” She gasped. “How did you know that??”
“I have eyes and ears all over. Even Zazu.” He saw her expression of shock, but only nodded and began to examine his claws. “Don’t look so surprised. His mother lives here, and she’s a first-class gossip. And then Mufasa used to always do border patrol with me before ‘IT’ happened.”
“You walked the line together?”
“He’d nod at me, and I’d nod at him. He never said much, but when he did speak, it was always something worth hearing. And the first day he wasn’t there, I had this horrible emptiness inside.” He sighed. “I didn’t realize Simba was dead too, not for several days. Taka didn’t tell me anything, and Zazu hasn’t been back.”
Uzuri hung her head. Tears began to run down her cheeks.
“You poor dear thing,” Ugas purred, reaching up with a paw and wiping her face.
She looked into his gentle eyes and saw genuine compassion. “You really liked Mufasa, didn’t you?”
“Yes. And the child, too, for I have no son of my own. I used to think Mufasa was so lucky.” A tear slid down his cheek. “You’re a parent. Surely you understand.”
“I understand, but I’m not a parent.”
“You’re not??” He looked surprised. “As beautiful as you are?”
She looked down, embarrassed. “You flatter me.”
“Oh no, my dear. You are beautiful. And when you cry, the beauty goes all the way through.” He lifted her chin with a paw and looked into her sad eyes. “I bet a smile would have the same effect.”
“I don’t have any smiles left.”
Ugas kissed away the new tears. “You pierce my heart with a thorn, child. Taka is so full of hate--I’ve seen it when he walks the border. He glares at me and shouts, ‘This land is mine! You want it, but you’ll never have it!’” He nuzzled her. “There is no hate in me, Uzuri. Come with me and I’ll see if I can find a few smiles left. Meet the others--they could be your pride sisters.” He watched for her reaction, but when she said nothing, he added, “I’m offering you freedom, my dear. Freedom and friendship.”
“You’re very kind, but not now. I have family there.”
“Bring them with you. Don’t go back to Taka--it’s not safe while he’s there.”
“Thank you, but it’s my home. There’s more at stake than family and friends. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yes. Do what you feel you must.”
She sighed. “Well, it’s time for me to make my report. You’re such a kind lion, Aiheu would listen to your prayers. Say a prayer for me.”
Ugas nodded. “I will. Take care of yourself, dear.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Call me Ugas,” he said, rising and touching her cheek with his nose, then kissing her lightly. “Come back to me.”
“Any time you want to see me. Any time at all. That goes for your friends as well.”
She felt of his cheek with a paw. “Yes, I might just do that.”
Ugas hummed to himself as he trotted through the grass. His mind wandered back to Uzuri and the short time they shared, and he smiled despite himself. “Lovely Uzuri,” he thought dreamily, “what was Aiheu thinking when he fashioned you? Was he singing his favorite song? Was he in a good mood?”
Ugas had known many lionesses over the course of his life, but there was something about this one. The way she looked at him made him want to frisk about like a cub. He closed his eyes and summoned up the image of her face again. "Uzuri," he whispered.
He tried to imagine what her smile was like, but her pervasive sadness was too strong. “I will make you smile,” he thought. “I’ll devote my life to it. The magic of your smile would cheat death itself, and I’d be young again!”
"Daydreaming again, you old goat?!"
Ugas started and opened his eyes to see the lioness glaring at him through the scrub bushes that lined the path he had been following. "Adhama, what are you doing here?"
"Making sure you do your sentry duty this time." She emerged from the cover and stood face to face with him. "I found hyena tracks not twenty lengths from our kopje last night, Ugas! What have you been doing out here, napping??"
He drew himself up to his full height, his neck arching in indignation. "You know full well I was patrolling! If it wasn’t for me, Sis, this pride wouldn’t even exist!"
"Oh, THAT'S for certain!" Not intimidated in the least, she paced forward, forcing him back a step. "I know all about your 'efforts!' They've produced a rather large pride, in case you haven't noticed. A pride which needs to be fed, protected, cared for, and LOOKED AFTER! Why can't you be more like your brother was? Now THERE was a responsible lion."
Ugas groaned. "Not again, please!"
"Kazi was out here from well before sunup to well after sundown, patrolling the land and defending us against our enemies."
"And he died of exhaustion. Is that what you want me to do?"
“At least he died with honor. I'm glad he didn’t live to see you like this!" Her jaw trembled as she wheeled about and stalked off a short distance, her head lowered.
Ugas stood still a moment, then slowly padded over to her and nuzzled her cheek. "Addie, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snipe at you."
She raised her head and blinked back tears. "Yeah, right."
"I'm serious. I just-"
"Ugas, I know you loved him."
He took his paw and gently wiped away her tears. “I’m trying, Addie, but I’m just not my brother. He was always better at fighting, better at tracking, but I had the personality. Well my charm won’t work on rogue lions and wild dogs. I’m having to be someone I’m not, trying to support a double burden on old shoulders, rising early and resting late, patrolling this whole land by myself. No son to help me, and now no brother.”
“There are many lions who never had a brother. Do they complain? No--they are glad just to have a home and a family.”
“But they are young, Addie. They still have their health.” He looked down. “I’m near the end of my path, old girl. I should be able to pass some of the load to another. Instead I have to spend my final days tired and afraid. Always tired and afraid. I have aches where I didn’t think I had bones, and every time I think about making that long trek, my heart skips a beat.”
Adhama took a shaky breath. "Are you just giving up, then? What are you saying to me, brother?”
Ugas looked at her intently. “I’m not giving up. Tonight I met someone that may help us. If I can work my will, she’ll be my wife and mother of my son. A son, Addie!”
“Mother of your son?” She looked at him skeptically. “Kazi fathered nothing but daughters, and so have you. It looks like you’d stop trying.”
“I CAN’T stop trying. Don’t you know what happens to old lions who have no son?” He looked pleadingly into her eyes, then turned and trudged away, his head and tail hung low. “There are lots of rogues out there who would swap their whiskers for this place,” he muttered. “I won’t let them drive me off. I’d rather die here in one brave gesture than starve slowly. I love my daughters, but if only Aiheu would give me a son! Merciful God, help me!”
Uzuri crept back to the Pride Lands with a knot in her stomach. Ugas’ offer began to sound ever better as the ominous shadow of Pride Rock began to loom over her. “Aiheu abamami,” she muttered, taking the trail up the stone to where Taka was waiting.
Before she even walked into the cave, Taka said, “So you have a problem with Pipkah, I hear?”
“He’s a royal pain, Scar.”
“Need I remind you who’s really royal??”
“Well then.” Taka pulled himself up straight and tried to sound commanding. “Let’s work things out. If you don’t want to hunt with Pipkah and his group, you don’t have to.”
“Thank you VERY MUCH, Sire.”
“Just make sure you get enough food for all, because they get first choice.”
“They are willing to hunt for their share, but you seem to think it’s unwise.”
“But Sire...surely you don’t expect us to...we’ll starve!”
“Not when you’re motivated by hunger to learn some courtesy.”
“No buts, Uzuri. Pipkah tells me Fini threatened his life, and you went along with it.”
“We spoke in anger. You didn’t see what they did!”
“I didn’t have to. Everyone’s talking about it. Now there are a lot of hungry eyes looking to you for food. Go scrounge up something like a good girl.”
Uzuri was stunned. She numbly nodded her head, turned and left. For a third time, she remembered the kind words Ugas spoke to her: “There is no hate in me.” Never had he seemed so kind as by contrast with Taka.
Uzuri went about shouting “Baraza!” which is to say, “meeting!” It was like any strategy meeting might have begun before the hunt, but it had a very important purpose.
By ones and twos the lionesses arrived. Soon they were all together, except for Elanna whose absence was both expected and painful.
“Aiheu abamami,” Uzuri muttered as she nuzzled each of the lionesses from Yolanda, the oldest, down to the newest huntresses. It was an order dictated by tradition. But there was a tenseness in the air, so strong it could be prodded with a paw like water.
“Taka has laid a burden on us,” she spoke slowly. “Now we must hunt for ourselves and for the hyenas. It seems they are afraid for their safety.”
“Damn straight!” Isha said. “And well they should be!”
Ajenti, who was usually more democratic, said, “It’s time to cut King Droopy-Drawers down to size.”
“The hyenas are on his side,” Uzuri said. “We must solve a major problem tonight. Our cubs must eat, and so must we.”
“I say I could acquire a taste for hyena,” Ajenti said.
“This talk is dangerous,” Yolanda said. “They could be spying on us.”
“Let them get an earful,” Isha said. “I heard Fini’s joke about the accident. But I believe we really could kill them one or two at a time tonight without alerting the others. By the time the news got out, there would be too few of them left to fight us.”
“And have you forgotten about Taka?” Uzuri said.
“Leave him to me,” Isha said. “I’ll kill him myself.”
“My gods!” Uzuri’s hackles were raised. “Do you mean commit murder? What about Elanna? She’s Sarabi’s sister, for God’s sake!”
“Don’t remind me,” Sarabi said with understandable bitterness. “That’s all that keeps me from marking her. She’s a disgrace to her people, fawning on that hyena-kissing brother-in-law of mine. As far as I’m concerned, the moment Muffy died, he was out of my family.”
Uzuri looked around at the other lionesses. “Don’t you know the gods would judge us if we just butcher him like a gazelle?”
“Can we possibly be any worse off?” Sarabi insisted. “Maybe the gods will judge us if we DON’T kill him!”
“Some of us have small cubs,” Sarafina said. “Nala might get hurt--or killed. I don’t think we should rashly jump into this.”
“I agree,” Uzuri said.
“You would,” Ajenti said and spat. “You’re her sister.”
“And I’m not yours??” Uzuri said, stepping in front of her and glaring into her eyes. “Aren’t we ALL sisters here? I didn’t say that we shouldn’t overthrow him, just that Sarafina was right. We can’t be rash. We won’t have to kill him if we can get rid of the hyenas. He wouldn’t dare fight all of us.”
“All right, so how would YOU get rid of the hyenas.”
“I’m not sure yet. I’ll think of something. In the meantime, we have to bide our time.”
“Until what?” Ajenti looked around at the others. “Until we’re so hungry we’re too weak to fight?? I’ve seen a lot in my lifetime, but I never thought I’d live to see Uzuri turn coward!”
Uzuri cuffed her across the face--hard. “You take that back, Missy! We can’t fight them while we’re fighting each other! Pull in your claws and apologize!”
Ajenti tried to think of something angry to say, but the more she looked into Uzuri’s face, the more ashamed she felt. “Sorry,” she half whispered. “No one thinks you’re a coward. But it’s a dirty shame not to strike now.”
Uzuri nuzzled her. “One day we’ll cleanse the land of shame, I promise you.”
Upset by the bad news, they hunted very poorly. They missed a Duiker that was practically waiting to die, and tempers flared. Blame enough for three prides was quickly exchanged in low but angry hisses. Uzuri needed all her powers of persuasion to calm them down and refocus their energies on the quarry and off each other. And though it took most of the night, they finally found an old zebra and managed to kill it.
Ajenti was sent to call Taka and the others. “Fresh kill, My Lord,” she said to Taka, her bitterness concealed by a forced smile.
The hyenas ran to the site while Ajenti and the cubs merely trotted. There was no reason to run after Taka’s edict. So while the lion cubs sat and stared in misery, the hyenas feasted. And they feasted and feasted.
Lisani nudged her mother Beesa. “When are we going to get our turn?”
“Soon, dear. I hope....”
“That’s what you said last time.”
Beesa was hoping against hope for her daughter’s sake that something would be left at all. But the hyenas finished off the carcass and even began to crack the bones for marrow. Lionesses began to grumble. If ever they had hated hyenas, that moment was the all time high point of their rage. Somewhere in the melee a hyena pup shrieked.
Uzuri noticed the pup running from the carcass, sobbing. Fighting down her bitterness, she went after her; a child had no business running about the savanna alone, leonine or not.
Drawing up alongside, she asked, “What’s wrong? Don’t you like zebra?”
“Leave me alone!”
“What’s wrong? Hey, little girl, I'm not going to hurt you."
The pup looked up into Uzuri’s eyes. At once she relaxed. “I know. I’m a seer like Shimbekh.”
“Really?” Uzuri felt an odd sensation as the child looked at her.
"Yes. I wish I wasn’t!"
Uzuri nuzzled her. “I’m not a seer. Come on, little one. Tell me why you’re so sad."
Makhpil looked up. "Don't you think I can tell how much you lions hate us? Night and day wishing we were dead! All of us!"
"Heavens, child, don't say that! I don’t wish you were dead."
"You’re not like the others. But just a minute ago, one of them...." she pointed--"was thinking...." Makhpil drew up close and in a whisper of supreme embarrassment said, "Get out of my way, brat! I ought to send you straight to hell.” She looked down and wept.
Uzuri stirred uncomfortably. “Some of them are upset now. We had trouble on the hunt. We love our cubs the same way your mother loves you. When they have to go hungry, we get upset and sometimes we say things we don’t mean. But I don’t want you to die.”
Tears streamed down her face. "I don’t want to be here! I want to go home! I want to go far away and never come back!”
Uzuri comforted the child, holding her close with a paw and nuzzling her. "Hon, it's not your fault. I know one lion that’s going to have a lot of explaining to do when Mano gets a hold of him. But you do what’s right and someday when you face your god, you won’t have anything to be ashamed of. So why don't you get something to eat, OK?"
“I wish you were Roh’mach,” Makhpil said, rubbing against Uzuri’s cheek.
Just then, an adult hyena trotted up. “Is everything OK, Makhpil?” She looked suspiciously at Uzuri.
“Everything’s fine,” Uzuri said quickly, patting Makhpil with her large paw. “She just found out that the innocent often suffer along with the guilty.”
The female looked straight into Uzuri’s eyes with a peculiar stare that made her feel like her fur had fallen off leaving her naked. Then the hyena relaxed. “I’m sorry I doubted you. You were kind to my little girl, and I won’t forget that.”
“How did you....” Uzuri smiled shyly. “You must be Shimbekh. You’re the seer, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. I’ve heard my share of insults today. This unholy and unnatural union will lead us only to sorrow.”
“Don’t get me wrong, but if you’re unhappy here, why don’t you just leave?”
“We can’t,” Shimbekh said. “This thing has divided families down the middle. We’re trapped here to the bitter end, and it will be bitter you know. Death will grow fat on our misery, and pups will cry in the night for their parents but no one will answer them. Don’t judge my clan brothers too harshly. They have been misled, filled with false promises and foolish notions. They are expecting a golden age. They will find something very different.”
“Did you foresee this with your powers?”
“Uzuri, when the truth comes out, sisters will fight brothers and children will fight parents. And not just hyenas will know death, my dear.”
“To a lesser degree, yes. At least one of your own will die--I have seen it. And what is a seer to do about it? I can make them listen, but I can’t make them believe.” She sighed. “Don’t you think I know about the plan?”
Shimbekh sent Makhpil back toward the kill with a pat of her paw. “Run along, girl.” And as soon as they were alone, she drew close to Uzuri. “You know, the plan to kill the hyenas off one by one and make it look like an accident.”
“Don’t worry, hon. I’ve told no one about it. But we have to talk. There are hyenas good and true that would shed their honest blood to drive out Shenzi and cleanse the land of shame.”
Uzuri remembered saying almost the same thing to her pride sisters. She touched Shimbekh’s cheek with her paw and whispered, “When the last battle comes, fight by me. You and Ber and any willing to join you. I swear to you that there will only be two kinds of people that day--friend and foe. Understand?”
Ugas trudged slowly along behind Adhama with an ache in his right shoulder that made him grimace slightly with each step. But it had been worth it to see Uzuri's sweet face. They neared the kopjes that served a home for the pride, and the old lion sighed and pushed through the edge of the grasses, emerging into a small clearing where the pride lay.
Lionesses lay scattered about in various spots, but they quickly straightened up nervously as they spotted him. Ugas had been very temperamental in recent days. Conversation dulled and fell silent as he paced past the group and settled onto the ground. His hip twinged again and he groaned.
A cub skittered past him, giggling, and he glared at her from under lowered lids. One of the lionesses hurriedly sat up and called softly. "Alyssa! Come back here!"
The cub slid to a stop and slowly crept back towards her mother under Ugas’ gaze. She glanced at him quickly, then she looked away when she encountered his stare.
Ugas saw the visible fear in her face and felt a thorn pierce his heart. "Alyssa?"
The cub came to an absolute standstill.
"Alyssa. Come here, Honey tree." He beckoned with a forepaw.
Slowly, trembling, she inched forward until she stood beneath his immense bulk. "Yes, sir? I’m sorry."
Ugas stared wonderingly at the shaking cub. "Sorry for what?”
“Whatever it is I did.”
“Did you just do something naughty?”
“I...uh...don’t think so, Sir.”
“Daddy will do nicely.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy.” She looked back at her mother and back at him.
“Don’t you want to give your old Dad a kiss?”
“I guess so.” She edged carefully forward, stretched out her neck and touched his foreleg with her tongue, then darted back a couple of feet.
“Honey tree?” He looked at Agavi. “Vivi, what’s wrong? Doesn’t she love me anymore?”
“She loves you,” Agavi said soothingly. “We all know you’ve been depressed since your brother died. And those aches and pains and now that crick in your spine. I know that a lot of noise and prodding makes you upset, so I told her not to disturb you.”
“Upset?? Since when have my children ever make me upset?? Maybe I like to be disturbed!”
Adhama said, “Let me field that one, hon.” She looked piercingly at Ugas. “Lately, everything makes you upset. You snap at us all the time and think we’re supposed to rub your shoulder all the time and say ‘poor baby’ and ‘there now, that’s a good fellow.’ Well it’s taking its toll on your popularity, as if you haven’t noticed!”
Ugas snarled. “Since when have I snapped at anyone??”
Adhama said, “Oh, that’s a tough one.” She frowned. “Shame on you, carrying on like this in front of the children!”
Ugas sat down, nonplused. “Well, maybe I have been a little....” He glanced over at little Alyssa. “Oh, the poor dear!”
He went to the cub. When she shrank from him, the pain that drew his face was not from his shoulder. “I love you, Lissie.”
Alyssa's jaw trembled and she almost cried. "I love you too, Daddy."
"There's my girl!" He rolled over on his back, scooped her up with a paw and when she stood trembling on his stomach for one moment, pulled in his back legs and arms, lifting her up wriggling on a pedestal of four paws. He began to pump her up and down. "Three baby bunnies a hopping around. Three baby bunnies hop over the ground. If you keep hopping, you'll never start stopping, but you'll get away from the hound!" His legs shot out straight, tossing her into the air. She fell giggling with a sound plop. His stomach was not as firm as it used to be, but he hid his discomfort. He held her to his chest and nuzzled her softly, kissing her with his warm, pink tongue and grunting with pleasure when she kissed him back and rubbed along his soft mane. “I’m never going to be gruff with my little girl again! I promise!” He nuzzled her, then looked over at the other cubs who were watching him closely. “And that promise goes for the rest of you too! Come here, you little scamps! Rides for everyone!”
The other cubs rushed over and mobbed the two of them. Ugas rolled about laughing as a crowd of cubs tickled him, pounced on his tail and tugged at his mane. “Oh, I love you all so much! I could just eat you up!” He would be bouncing bunnies for a long, long time before he got a rest.
Alyssa's mother watched Ugas rolling about, bellowing laughter at the cubs around him. Nudging Adhama with her paw, she asked, "What's got INTO him? You'd think he was young again!"
Adhama smiled. "Young again? Don’t you mean alive again?"
“Up we go!” Ugas cried, hoisting another giggling cub. “Now let your Daddy catch his breath....”
CHAPTER 13: ALL CHOKED UP
Taka did not prove to be a popular ruler. His unpopular standing was for far more than the coming of the hyenas, though they were universally despised. His insecurity was overwhelming, and he sought to fight all threats real and perceived with savage force. Still under it all, Taka wanted to be liked. He would sometimes whisper a tender word to a lioness—wanting only a friendly reply--only to be rebuffed or simply ignored. At those moments he was most dangerous, for he would sometimes fly into a rage in frustration and hurt. Soon they learned that he could be placated by simple pleasantries, and they would return his greetings and agree that the weather was indeed fine today. But the very deep resentment crept out through their tone of voice, and he eventually stopped trying to speak with them rather than wince at their insincerity.
When Taka had been ruler of the Pride Lands for a year, he celebrated it quietly, not wanting to draw much attention to the date.
Taka crept up the side of Pride Rock and stalked into the cave, a badger dangling from his jaws. Elanna looked up expectantly. With the excitement of a puppy about to be fondled, Taka closed the remaining distance with ears erect and tail twitching. He dropped the gift at her feet.
"Happy anniversary, my darling Lannie!"
"Oh look, a badger!" Elanna rose and rubbed him sinuously full length. Then she raised on her hind legs and put her arms around his neck, rubbing his face with hers and bearing him lovingly to the ground where she panted in soft leonine laughter. "You didn't forget!"
"You'd better eat it while it's still warm."
"Forget the meat, my husband. Have I told you lately that I love you?"
"Every day. It's what wakes me up every morning and it's my lullaby every night." He kissed and fondled her. "Oh gods, I love you more than life itself!"
A pair of brown eyes watched this from outside the cavern. Attracted by the smell of the badger's blood, Zira stared silently at the lion and lioness embracing and felt the old pain rise once more to the surface. A simple refusal could have been accepted readily enough, but Taka's outright disdain for her had crushed the lioness's spirit. Numbly, she sat and stared in at the happy pair, her heart crying for some touch, some other paw in the night to stroke her fur, some other voice to whisper in her ear and take her worries away.
The sibilant rasp of fur on stone sounded, and she turned to see one of the hyena guards approaching her. "What'd you think you're doin'? Ain't nobody permitted to see the king after dark 'less it's an emergency, or you got somethin' to eat." He sniffed the air doubtfully, perhaps catching a slight whiff of Taka's badger. "Um...you don't have somethin' to eat...do you?"
The lioness stared at him for a moment, her fur tugging gently in the cool breeze that coursed over them. Then she smiled slightly, her eyes glinting maroon in the low light. "No, I don't...Dur'lach, aren't you?"
He straightened noticeably. "That's me."
Zira nodded slowly. "I remember your name well..." A small smile toyed with the corners of her mouth, making her whiskers twitch. "You made quite an impression on me the last time I met you."
Dur'lach stared at her for a moment. "Ohhh, yeah, you're the chick who was comin' on to the boss! Yeah, I remember you." He chuckled and nodded. "Even if the big guy ain't too keen on you, I might be."
The lioness's smile was as brittle as a pelt left to dry in the sun. "No, thank you, although I appreciate the offer." She shook her head. "No...I was a bit angry with you that day, and I merely wished to make amends, you see."
"Amends." Zira's smile shook, but she held it in place forcibly. "To apologize."
Dur'lach did his best to look noble, and failed. "Oh, sure. Don't worry about it."
She shook her head. "I can't help but worry about it. You see, I was asked to help solve the problem of how best to bring the lions and hyenas together, you remember." Her tail tuft stirred restlessly. "I mean, we hunt together and all, yes, but there's more to it than that. No one LIKES anyone else on the other side."
He nodded slowly, his attention span beginning to run short. "Yeah. That's a pain, I guess. Well...I'd better get back--"
"So," Zira said, cutting him off, "I figured the least I could do was help out by maybe sharing a kill with someone else." She eyed him for a moment. "And as the king's guard, you deserve it more than anyone else I can think of."
"You got somethin to eat?"
"Put it like this...when you see it, you'll be dying to get this down your throat." She grinned at him companionably. “Come on and I’ll show you where it is.”
Dur’lach grinned back, but then his expression dimmed. “I can’t leave my post. Is it too big to bring here?”
She nodded. “Besides, why should the others get something they don’t deserve? You earned it.” She flicked her head to one side, beckoning to him. “Come on. It won’t take long. Besides, no one will bother disturbing Taka if they think you’re on duty.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” The hyena smiled and joined her as they slowly made their way down the slopes of Pride Rock. “You know, for a lioness, you’re not so bad.”
She smiled back at him. “I have my moments.”
They journeyed out into the savanna in companionable silence, the grasses whispering around them as the lioness forged ahead, the hyena following behind. Zira led her companion down a well-used hunting path, with only an occasional pause to hunt about for a landmark.
A short while later, she glanced around and nodded. “Ahh, here we are.” She pulled a rabbit from the bushes. “Nice and fresh.”
“I thought you said it was too big to move! There’s not enough for both of us here.”
“That’s ok. I’ll get my satisfaction watching you.”
In one large bite, Dur’lach ripped away half of the rabbit and swallowed it. The warm blood felt good going down. He then grabbed the other half, shook his head to position it right, and started to swallow it in a large gulp.
WHACK! Zira’s forepaw smashed into his throat claws out, sending the hyena reeling backwards. He stumbled and fell, his chest hitching spasmodically as he fought to regain his breath. All he could muster was a deep gurgling sound. The meat was lodged in his throat, pinned there by bits of shattered rib and legbone.
Zira’s eyes sparkled a deep crimson as she regarded him with amusement. “Something wrong, honey tree? Didn’t your mother teach you to chew every bite fifteen times before you swallow?”
The hyena’s eyes bulged as he stared at her in disbelief, a thick dragging sound emerging from his chest. His mouth gaped open, trying to take in air. Staggering to his paws, he lowered his head as if trying to cough, a thick runnel of saliva and blood drizzling to the ground. Dur’lach thrashed his head from side to side, then stared at Zira again, seeming to plead with her for his life.
“Oh, don’t get so choked up about it,” she purred, her eyes lidded as she watched his movements grow feeble. “It’s just the two of us now. You and I and our love. Let me crouch in the grass for you. Make love to me, honey tree.” She knelt on the ground and moved her tail alluringly to the side. “Take me to paradise, big boy! Make me scream out your name in a frenzy of passion! Hahahaha!”
The hyena lurched to one side, trying to run back the way he had come, but made no more than three or four steps before his forelegs folded under him and he crashed to the ground, settling in a sad heap as Zira ambled over beside him. His paws began to dig at the dirt, leaving deep furrows in the ground. A thin rivulet of blood trickled from the side of his mouth as the scratching became weaker. Finally a slow spasm ran through the pitiful creature’s body before it relaxed slowly, eyes glazing as they stared up sightlessly at their executioner.
Zira sat quietly beside the body, her tail flitting from side to side behind her as the night insects around them resumed their monotone buzzing. Humming softly to herself, she ran a paw slowly down the hyena’s side, feeling the short, coarse fur underneath her paw pads. “Maybe you can catch me later. Good night, Honey Tree. Sweet dreams.” Her claws, always partly extended, like Taka’s, left a series of parallel lines along the gray, spotted fur.
A low crooning sound sounded out over the night air, an old lullaby that had once lulled a young cub to sleep. The words floated into the night, joining with the buzzing of the insects and the whispering voice of the wind.
Simba pranced delightedly about the muddy path, splashing the water with his big paws and laughing at the pretty rainbows they made in the air, the droplets catching the light in an explosion of color before they fell back to earth.
Abruptly, another burst of color emerged before him. The cub’s face was mesmerized by the fluttering wings of the butterflies which leapt up from the jungle floor, swirling around him in a living carousel of glittering beauty. Entranced, he watched them flit about aimlessly, giggling at the sight of the tiny creatures. Playfully, he batted at one.
His paw flicked out with deadly accuracy, striking the insect and cuffing it to the earth in a crushing blow. Chagrined, Simba looked down worriedly as the insect struggled to move, but its wings were broken and it was now missing a couple of legs. Concerned, Simba got Pumbaa to look at it.
“What should I do?”
“Don’t eat it, kid. They’re bitter.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean—it’s going to die. I broke its wings. Is there something I can do to fix it? Can YOU fix it?”
Pumbaa stepped forward, crushing it with his hoof. “That’s all I can do. It would have suffered.”
Simba looked horrified. “Pumbaa,” he asked, very disturbed, “when you hurt something--by accident for instance--does God punish you if you’re really, really sorry?”
“I guess it depends on how bad you hurt them, and how sorry you really are.”
“What if you hurt them really bad? You know, like maybe they died or something? But it was an accident and you were really sorry?”
Pumbaa looked at him suspiciously. “Hey, little guy, this friend that did the hurting—did you know him well?”
Simba’s whiskers trembled slightly. “Uh, no. I was just wondering.”
“Well that’s good. But the way I see it, this person you don’t know should apologize for what it is they did. And if that person was a lot like you—you know, nice and kind and thoughtful—I think God would not hold it against them.”
“Yeah.” He nuzzled Pumbaa, then goaded the warthog into a wrestling match.
As the day wore on, however, Simba found many moments to reflect on the conversation. Deeply troubled, he padded quietly away from Timon and Pumbaa that evening as the stars began to emerge into the sky. He made his way quietly to his favorite spot; atop a rotted tree stump near a muddy washout.
The cub padded slowly through the dead undergrowth, broken stalks and twigs showing clearly that he had passed this way before many times. He leapt lightly to the top of the stump and craned his head up to look at the reason he came here so often. A small break in the triple canopy foliage overhead offered an unobstructed view of a swath of stars that he had come to know well.
Pumbaa eased through the buses to the opening the cub had made and peered through, wondering why Simba wandered off to this desolate clearing. As he caught sight of the cub, he drew back, embarrassed; Simba’s face was stricken as he searched the heavens above.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” He opened his mouth again, but all that emerged was a choked sob.
Timon clambered up Pumbaa’s back to perch atop his head. “Well? What’s he doing-” His jaw shut with a snap as he saw Simba hunched on the stump, head buried under his forepaws and bawling hoarsely. “Aw, jeez...” He slid down Pumbaa’s snout, preparing to run over to the cub, when Pumbaa flicked his head, sending the meerkat sailing back behind to land on his broad back. “Whattya doin’?”
“No. Let the little guy alone.” Tears ran down Pumbaa’s cheeks. “He’s a little guy with a big problem.”
A few evenings later Uzuri was meeting with the pride sisters to discuss the approach for the night’s hunt.
“Tonight we’ll come into the Southern meadow. There is a group of Tommies down there and if we move fast, they’ll still be there if those hyenas will shut up and keep out of our way.”
“How will we approach them?” Ajenti asked.
“We’ll use the double blind method. You take the right side with Yolanda and Isha will come with me on the left while Fini leads the rest of you around through the wadi to wait for the signal.
“Sarafina is sick,” Ajenti said. “Remember?”
“Okay. Then Yolanda can lead that group.”
“And who will that leave on the right with Isha?”
She struggled to concentrate. “Oh, Beesa can do it. I don’t care. Let’s just do this thing before the darned gazelles go home, OK?”
Uzuri paced away nervously. She was in her season, a time in her life that could make her feel very special or very alone.
She sat down and sighed deeply. Rafiki was confined to the baobab or she would have asked his advice on what to do. Maybe he had some kind of herb to find her lost powers of concentration and dull the empty feeling inside of her. The temptation to push past the guards and plead for help was great.
Still she could not risk two visits in such a short time--it might arouse suspicion. She sighed deeply again.
Then she remembered who she could turn to for advice. Ugas was just across the Western Border. She had not accepted his invitation to come back, but this would be the time. He would dispense more of his fatherly advice and compassion.
“Beesa, I don’t feel good. You lead this hunt the way we’ve planned, OK?”
“Sure, hon.” She drew close and whispered, “You got yourself a Honey Tree out in the bushes?”
“Beesa, you should be ashamed!” She added in a whisper, “Girl, I wish!”
“There’s been a rogue male sighted to the south. Maybe you two will hit it off.”
“Beesa!” Uzuri groomed one of her paws nervously. “I’m not selling myself to the highest bidder. Still, thank you.”
Her remark was casual, but her inner turmoil was great. A lioness’ natural drives are as strong as a lion’s. Aiheu did not make them to rebel against the natural order of things, so she found herself at odds with her own body, a conflict that left her no place to run.
Making sure no hyenas followed her, she went to the east and finally slipped into the neighboring territory. “Ugas? Are you out there?” There was no answer and she realized just how disappointed she was. “Ugas??”
“Uzuri!” a rich voice said at last. The lion hurried over, his face beaming. “I’ve waited for you. I thought you’d forgotten me.”
“I see you haven’t forgotten me,” Uzuri said. “Thanks.”
“You’re unforgettable,” Ugas said. “I enjoyed our talk, but I’d like to get to know you a lot better. Can you stay a little longer?”
She bowed her head. “You said if I had a problem I could come to you. Does the offer still stand? Can I tell you anything?”
“Anything at all, my dear. I’m so glad you came back--I’ve been really worried about you.”
“I don’t know what to do anymore. I can’t hunt with those hyenas--well most of them. Some of them aren’t half bad, but that Pipkah--ugh!! And their Incosi is a she-devil!!”
“You didn’t come here to talk about hyenas.”
“You’re very perceptive for a male.”
He laughed. “It doesn’t take much perception to tell what’s bothering you.”
She cleared her throat self-consciously. “Well, uh, yes. Ugas, I’m so alone and confused!”
Ugas smiled sweetly. “Uzuri, you’re not alone now. And perhaps you’re not as much confused as you are frightened.”
“Frightened of what?”
“Frightened of this.” Ugas drew close and touched her cheek with his nose, then kissed her lightly. “Simple closeness. Letting your feelings show. Do you have a consort?”
Uzuri looked at him timidly. “No. Why?”
“Because all I could think about for the last moon was your beautiful, sad face. I wanted to kiss away your tears forever.” He nuzzled her, and though surprised, she did not pull away. “I’ve never seen your smile. I bet it’s beautiful.”
“You’re toying with me.”
“I’m too old for subterfuge and subtle gestures. Now let’s see that smile. Think of something happy. Like maybe fresh antelope.” He looked into her eyes deeply. “Not good enough? Then imagine the look on Taka’s face if he caught us making passionate love behind Pride Rock!”
She tried to look away before the smile covered her face. Hiding behind a paw, she felt like slinking away, but he looked around her camouflage and said, “Oh, it IS a pretty smile. You should do it more often.”
“I know. Quite wicked. And if you can pardon me for dreaming out loud, I really would like to make passionate love to you. You make me tremble.”
Uzuri shoved him with a paw. “You aren’t serious!”
Ugas looked at her pleadingly. “I was never more serious. When you get to be my age, you see more and more yesterdays behind you and fewer and fewer tomorrows ahead.” He sighed. “I have no son to inherit my kingdom. I was almost desperate enough to form a loveless union, and then you came. Uzuri, I could love you. I could love you with my whole heart, my whole being. You’ve awakened feelings in me that I thought were dead. Am I selfish to want both a son and a little happiness before the sun sets on my life?” He waited a while for her reaction, but she stood unmoving, staring at him.
He bowed his head. “I’m sorry. I still feel like the same young lion inside, before the evening aches and pains settle in. Sometimes I forget that I’m just an old fool.”
“Ugas, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean....”
“No need to apologize. Why would you want a broken-down has-been like me when you’re so young and beautiful? I wasn’t always old. There was a time when I might have lured you away from that lonely lifestyle and made you happy. Please tell no one you saw me this way out of respect for the Ugas that once was.”
He turned and trudged away, his tail hanging limply and a distinct slump to his face and ears.
He turned and looked at her, tears.
“Only if you will pledge to me,” she said.
“And tie you down to an old carcass? How long could I make you happy?”
“However long it would be is that much more than nothing. And I could give you sons.”
“You just pity me. I shouldn’t have begged you. Maybe it’s better that I go now before you do something out of pity that we’ll both regret.” He turned and trudged away again.
“I don’t pity you, Ugas. I want to give you a son. My world is slowly crumbling around me--I need your love. Come back and I’ll prove it to you. You’re a dear, sweet creature and I’ve been thinking about you since we met--all the time.”
He stopped and looked back. He straightened to full height and looked like a real lion again. “Please Uzuri, I have feelings. Don’t say that unless you really mean it.”
“I never say what I don’t mean.”
Trembling, he stalked over to her, his gaze locked into hers, and he held out his left paw to touch her shoulder. “Before I lose my nerve, I’m going to say it!” He drew in a breath, let it out in a sigh, then 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 purred and nuzzled him. "Till the last beat of my heart, to the last breath I sigh, our lives are one, so help me gods."
He took his large paw and fondled her cheek. “I’ve only seen you twice. Once for an evening. And once more for the rest of my life. Bless you, Uzuri! You’ll never be lonely again, and you’ll never feel regret or hopelessness again. Come, let me show you around your new home!”
“My new home?” Her smile dropped. “This is foolish. I can’t be your queen! I have responsibilities and family. They need me!”
“Uzuri! Oh gods, what are you saying?”
“I’m sorry, Ugas. Our vows have not been sealed, and it’s best that I leave now.”
“No, you just can’t!” He ran in front of her and stared at her with wide eyes. “Please, Uzuri! Beloved! Can’t you at least stay with me as you can get away? I want you by my side always, but if you can only visit, don’t renounce our pledge! I’ll always be here when you need me. I didn’t want to beg before, but I’m begging you! Uzuri, I’m begging you!”
“Ugas, please don’t!”
Tears began to stream down his face. “If you leave me now, never come back. You remind me of too many things I’ve lost--youth, beauty, hope.”
“Ugas, don’t cry!”
“Why shouldn’t I?? If it bothers you, go tend to your responsibilities and you won’t have to watch.”
“Fine.” She turned around, her nose slightly lifted and began to trot away. But after a few steps, her head lowered and her ears drew back. A tear ran down her cheek. “What am I doing??”
She whipped about and ran to the old lion, nuzzling him desperately. “Forgive me, darling! Forgive me!”
Ugas nuzzled her face, then rubbed against her neck, walking slowly along her and letting his tail stroke her under her chin. “Since you stumbled into my life, you’re all I think about. You’re the first thing I want to see in the morning, and the last thing I want to see at night. I want to fill my senses with you!”
She sighed deeply. “I’ve never felt this way before.”
“I thought I’d lost you, but when you came back, I knew it was our destiny to be together.”
“If it is our destiny, then it must be so.” She nuzzled him passionately and purred. “Ugas, make love to me.”
The morning sun painted Pride Kopje with golden optimism. Uzuri missed the shelter of her old cave, but she delighted in the feel of Ugas’ mane and felt very safe with his strong arm around her. Still, it was time to go, and she gently and quietly worked her way free of her lover’s embrace and got to her feet without waking him. For three days she had craved his closeness and whispered a thousand loving names in his ear. For three days her grief and loneliness had been lost in his love. But the light of dawn was revealing more to her than the savanna. She could see clearly that her sisters would miss her, and they were suffering for lack of her leadership.
She considered waking him to whisper farewell, but thought better of it and silently trudged away.
Ugas felt cold, and opened one eye. “Uzuri! Are you leaving without saying good bye?”
She looked around. “Ugas, beloved, you looked like a sweet little cub lying there. I didn’t want to remember you sad. But even the best dream has to end, and it’s time for me to go.”
He stood quickly. “But you’re taking my heart with you! When it crosses that boundary, it will cease to beat! Uzuri, have you learned nothing in these whole three days? Nothing at all?”
“I must head home--there are others counting on me. But someday when things are better for my pride, I will come back to stay. Till then, remember what you agreed to--when I have to leave I will leave. You agreed, remember?”
“I remember, but....”
“But I’ll be back, love, and we’ll take up where we left off.”
“Please hurry. I’m not getting any younger.”
“None of us are, Ugas.” She ran back and nuzzled him. “Don’t worry if your heart leaves with me--I’ve left mine with you. It will always be with you, wherever I go.”
CHAPTER 16: THE DROUGHT
The Pride Sisters said One-who-makes-rain must be wrestling with the sun, for rain came down heavily while the sun continued to shine. The light of the greater eye sparkled off the drops like a galaxy of stars, a happening wonderous enough to even make the sedate elephants stop and look up from their browsing. Such a rare occurance was regarded as an omen—change was in the wind. Indeed, they were sure it was an omen for it was the last rain before the period they called ‘Taka’s Drought’ and its waters were the last to swell the brook and fertilize the ground, and its breezes were the last to cool the earth for many cycles of the lesser eye.
That last rain was a heavy one, and it took a while for the sun to bake the remaining water out of the soil and dry up the grass. Dry spells were frequent on the savanna and only to be expected, so for the first week no one was alarmed. Still, the sun had emerged triumphant and One-who-brings-rain was nowhere to be found.
A week later, some of the lionesses remarked on it before the hunt. But after a whole moon without rain, hunting began to suffer. “It was an omen,” they began to say.
What exactly the omen was saying was spoken of only in the greatest secrecy and in the lowest whispers. They had all seen the light from he heavens when Simba was held up on the promontory. Everyone knew that Simba was chosen by the gods for the next king. If he had been meant to die, they would never have shined down on him. Where were the gods and why did they not protect the cub?
Taka refused to call the dry spell a drought. Indeed, it was unwise to cross him with any news that may have been bad or taken badly. Uzuri took upon herself most of the decisions a king would have made. Indeed, most of the time it was better to risk asking forgiveness than to risk asking permission. All of the lionesses knew Scar was clever, but he had little common sense about things.
There was no Madu to guide Taka. Even Zazu’s wisdom was of no use as he had no more flights over the savanna and no more news to report.
In his blindness to what went on, Taka relied upon the reports of the hyena observers. That the hyenas were fiercely loyal to Shenzi did not occur to him. Surely they would never be foolish enough to lie to him….
Little did he suspect Shenzi had her own agenda.
Amarakh quietly stalked toward the cistern to drink. With the noon sun bearing down on her with a vengeance, she felt certain Shenzi and her friends would be napping in the shade. It was an unaccustomed timidness from the Rohmakh, the great leader whose word was binding on all who heard it. She was afraid—very afraid.
Amarakh had by the hardest held onto her position as Rohmakh even if it had become only an honorary title. For letting Isha run back and tell the lions about the death of Shaka and Avina, Amarakh was seen as a has-been by some, and a never-was by others. Never mind that she was once greatly respected for her wisdom and compassion. Shenzi, by contrast, had given them Pride Rock. Only a trusted few knew she had been responsible for the death of Mufasa, but they all knew she was a favorite of Scar and had managed to gain them the best land for days around. Amarakh was clever enough to have come up with such a plan, but she had principles and honor, something that all Shenzi’s scheming could never take away.
The hyeness looked into the pool of water and squinted for a moment as the sun overhead was reflected into her eyes. She could see the difference in her face, the tired eyes and bleak expression that even through her dignity cried out for relief.
She drew in a sharp breath as a second face appeared alongside her.
“Don’t call me that. I’m not your dearie.”
“Because you’re the Rohmakh?” Skulk met her eyes. “Shenzi and I were having a talk about you. And we were figuring that you should take a rest from the cares of office. I mean, as it is we all do what Shenzi says anyhow, so why not pass on the title and relax a bit, take life easy.”
“Pass on my title to Shenzi??”
“You say that like it’s terrible.” Skulk drew closer. The tips of his fangs showed and his eyes narrowed. "Amarakh, sweetie, do you know what would happen to you if we held a hearing about your fitness for office? Brought out all the wonderful things you accomplished with Shaka and Avina and Gur’mekh? Oh yes, and that little matter of Isha being allowed to stroll home to bring every lion within a day’s march down on us? That could be very nasty.”
“Are you threatening me?”
Skulk drew close enough to almost touch her nose. “I never threaten. I only give advice. Now then, you can take it or leave it, but I wonder how your family would feel if you were to be—well—publically rehabilitated for your errors? I just wonder.” He kissed her, a gesture that made her gag. “Of course if you passed on your title, it could result in a nice honorable retirement for you, and then who would bother with an investigation about something gone with the past? Not Shenzi. Something to think about, eh Mari?”
“Asleep on the job again?” Krull barked at one of the hyena sentries. He peered at the now wide-awake hyena who cowered with fear. “Do you know what Shenzi will do to you when she finds out?”
“Do you know what THE KING will do?” boomed Taka. The lion pushed Krull aside. “You are suspended from hunting for three days. And that means no EATING either.”
The hyena guard looked at the lion with fear and loathing mixed, then looked back at Krull as if pleading for mercy. “Yes…your Majesty.”
“Carry on, then,” Taka said. The lion motioned for Krull to come aside with him. “That was a security matter. Why was it not brought to my attention?”
“Well sir,” Krull started.
“Well SIRE” Taka said firmly. “You may have had your own way of doing things when you were stuck in the eastern hellhole, but you are on my territory and I am your king.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. It’s just…”
“Why do I hear an ‘it’s just’ when ‘Of course, Your Majesty’ all by itself would have done nicely?”
“Well, Sire, I don’t want to make Shenzi angry at me either. She didn’t want me to bother you with little details, not with you being King and all. I mean, sir, uh, Sire, you have a lot on your mind and…”
“And being bypassed by my own guards is one of those things. But it’s going to stop, do you hear?? It’s not like I blame you—I need to talk to Shenzi.”
Shenzi saw the lion approaching her and could read his angry expression. She rose, sidled up to him and nuzzled him. “Taka, dear,” she started. “How good to see you, sweetie.”
“I am your king,” he reminded her.
“Of course you are, and a fine one. I only thought of you as family. After all, I’ve known you since I was a small pup.”
“So has Sarabi,” he reminded her.
“But we believed in you when nobody else did. Mom was a loser, a second rate, she was nothing.”
“Don’t speak of her that way! She’s a saint!”
“Yes, but was she treated like one? No. And how about you? We saw the king in you when you were rejected by Sarabi, when you were bent on self-destruction, when you were rejected by your own kind. Can you forgive me if I think of you as family? As a dear Uncle?” She looked at him with her large eyes. “If the truth be known, with my poor father Jalkort sent to the heavens before my birth I always looked to you as the father I never had. Must I call you Sire and Your Majesty when it’s just the two of us?”
He looked at her. “Of course not. You, your brothers and your Mom. But in public, they must show me respect.”
“That’s more than fair.”
“Very well then.” He looked at her, struggling as if to remember something. “There is something I wanted to see you about.”
“Of course,” Shenzi said, stroking his forearm with her paw and lying her face against his mane. “It’s been a while since we had a nice chat.”
“Mother was just saying how much better she liked it before you were king.”
“She got to spend more time with you. Now she’s rather lonesome most of the time. She loves you like her own son, and it might be nice if you found a little time to spend with her.”
“Actually, I was here to talk about…uh…you say she’s lonesome for me?”
“It would mean a lot to her.”
“Well then, I’ll see her right now. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Taka strode off with a self-satisfied smirk, not realizing that yet again Shenzi had won another battle in the war of attrition.
The hyenas assembled to see Amarakh give away her title to Shenzi. An official translator was chosen for Taka because the ceremony would be performed in hyannic. Mobrik was polite, soft spoken, and handsome, and he could give any translation that Shenzi approved of the ceremony and do it with such conviction and honesty that Taka never questioned once his position as supreme ruler of the united peoples.
Cheerless but with her dignity intact, Amarakh approached Shenzi and waited through the obligatory blessings of the priest. Then she touched the back of her neck with a paw and backed back quickly enough that it appeared to burn. Tight lipped, she grumbled the words, “Kohl marchik tu kalamai dubrekh, Shenzi u flukau.”
Mobrik whispered in Taka’s ear, “I celebrate her success and pass the burden to Shenzi with confidence in her worthiness.”
“That was a short phrase to say all that,” Taka said.
“We have a very concise language, Your Majesty,” Mobrik said without missing a beat.
“That was a rather short ceremony.”
“If we were very large and important creatures like you, we’d devote more time and eloquence to it, no doubt.”
Amarakh turned, her ears drooped and her tail hanging low, and walked away from the new Rohmakh. Her mate and pups fell in behind her as she went to seek refuge from the eyes of the the clan.
Taka intercepted her. “How does it feel to give up the burden?”
“I have much more time for my family,” Amarakh said listlessly.
“Well, a little more time anyway. Shenzi was already doing most of the work by now.”
Amarakh looked at Taka and said, “You should know the feeling, you poor fool. Just be thinking about what you’ll say when it’s your turn!”
Taka’s eyes narrowed with rage. “How DARE you!” Still, when she walked on past, he couldn’t think of anything more to say to her long-suffering face and he did not pursue it.
“Rohmakh Shenzi!” Skulk cried as Shenzi danced about exultantly, bouncing up and yammering excitedly. “Rohmakh Shenzi, dubrekh kal roh!” the crowd answered. And Amarakh strode away silently with her husband’s body resting gently against her own.
Uzuri was both proud and worried. Ugas’ love had taken on life within her. For a while she could conceal her pregnancy, but as days turned into weeks, the other lionesses began to talk behind her back that she had the light in her eyes.
Finally when the changes in her weight and balance began to affect her hunting, there was no need to pretend any longer. Her sister Sarafina was chosen to confront her because of her own daughter Nala. No one would dare imagine that Taka was the father of Nala, nor would they speculate about Uzuri and Taka--it was just too awful to think about!
Sarafina thought of a dozen different approaches and discarded them one by one. Finally, she saw her sister alone and had worked up the nerve.
Nuzzling Uzuri gently, Sarafina purred, “I’m so happy for you, Sis.”
“About what?” Uzuri said tensely. “Have you heard some good news that I don’t know about?”
Fini laughed gently and kissed her. “No, Sis! I don’t see how you couldn’t know about it. There’s a miracle happening inside of you.”
Uzuri did not speak. Sarafina squirmed in the tenseness of the moment. “Look, Sis,” she said at last, “you have a heart full of love. I know how fond you were of Nala, and how you liked to groom her and play with her. And I used to pray that you’d fall in love and have children of your own. Let me be the Aunt that spoils the kids. Confide in me, Sis. Please? Don’t shut me out of this part of your life--I didn’t shut you out.”
Uzuri looked down shyly. “How many times did you practice that speech?”
“A dozen times at least. Only because I love you so much. Hon, you don’t ever have to be alone, not as long as I’m around.”
Uzuri drew close and in a near whisper said, “Pray that at least one is a male.”
“I guess so--but I thought you’d want all daughters. You know that sons are a heartbreak when they have to leave. Unless you’re a queen, anyhow.”
“And who says I’m not a queen?” Uzuri smiled.
“Oh my gods! Not--HIM??”
Uzuri thought for a moment, then burst out laughing. “You mean Old Droopy Drawers! Shame on you for even thinking it!”
Sarafina breathed a relieved sigh. “You had me worried, girl! If you’re a queen, then that time you were gone for three days...you weren’t really sick!”
“I was in season and left for three days. Now I’m pregnant.” Uzuri glanced at her out of half-closed eyes. “You know, with your ability you should have been hunt mistress instead of me!”
“Now, Sis! Spare me the sarcasm and tell me all the details!”
“Well all the details is a bit much--right now anyway--but he’s a king and yes we’re married. He’s a little older but he could charm the thorns off an acacia. He’s sweet and gentle and....” She drew close to Sarafina’s ear and added, “....remarkably entertaining!”
“Oh you little devil!” Sarafina said with a squeal of delighted approval. “Does he have a brother?”
“Don’t you WISH!” Uzuri purred, examining her claws and meeting Sarafina in a sly sidelong glance. “When the time is right, our son will go meet him and take his place as prince. Then he’ll be king someday. Of course that can be postponed indefinitely--I’m having too much fun. Besides, I love him. He’s just like a lonely cub. When you see him, you want to protect him and make him feel happy.”
“I’m so glad for you, Sis! But you’re not going to leave us, are you?”
Uzuri’s pained expression left no doubt how she felt. “When things get better. But right now I’m not going to leave you in the lurch.”
“I love you, Sis. I might just come with you. Little Nala too.”
“Fini,” Uzuri purred, nuzzling her. “My happiness would be complete. But tell me about your mane event.”
“He’s a rogue lion. I don’t want to say too much right now, but we’ve seen each other as often as possible. He’s a little older too, but very sexy. I don’t know what’s best--youthful enthusiasm or the wisdom of age....”
Uzuri giggled. “NOW who’s the little devil!”
Pumbaa and Timon were walking through the forest with Simba tagging along at their heels. Every day for a lion cub is full of new discoveries, but Simba’s friends were especially prone to throw him a curve just when it seemed like he had them figured out.
The day was going slowly, however, and other than a few extra things to eat, there was not much worth staying awake to see. Simba yawned and started to flop down, when suddenly a tall bird stepped out of the brush. “Can you dig it?? The gruesome twosome!”
“Sefu!” Timon cried with obvious pleasure. “Hey, what’s shakin! Good to see you!”
“Good to be seen!” Sefu oggled Simba. “Who’s the cat, cat?”
“That’s Simba, no lion!”
“Oooh, good comeback!”
Sefu timidly patted Simba on the head, then took Timon aside. None too discretely, he said, “Hey cat, he’s the deluxe model. Comes with large protective devices called ‘folks’ that eat Meerkats for less than this, you dig?”
“The little guy’s in trouble. We found him on the desert.”
“What’s the story?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he wants to talk about it.”
“If it’s cool with him, it’s cool with me.”
Smiling broadly, Sefu stalked over to Simba on his lanky legs. “Yo, cubby! I’ve always wanted to be this close to a lion and live to tell about it. So have you always been this small?”
Simba thought for a moment, then he saw the mischievous look in Sefu’s eyes. “Oh, I get it!”
Timon said, “This is one hip hawk. One ravin raptor. One absurd bird! You ought to hear him groove.”
“What’s groove?” Simba asked.
“Show him, Sefu!”
Sefu waved his wings. “Just like that? Before the good vibrations?”
“Good vibrations?” Simba was confused.
“Yeah. Cloud nine. Seventh heaven. Peace, love and the distinct absence of major irritation.”
“Oh! In the groove!”
Simba thought. “How do you start good vibrations?”
“You think about your favorite things. When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad. I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad!”
“Just don’t sing it,” Timon said quickly. “Once was more than enough!” The meerkat thought a moment. “What you’re saying is that you CAN’T do a groove from a cold start.”
“Well give me room! I need space!”
Sefu stood atop a log that acted as an impromptu podium. He looked into the sky and began to sway slightly. “Oh, I can feel it coming, cats! It’s coming!”
Simba looked with fascination as the bird began to recite. Softly at first, but later with more volume and confidence:
In the dark heart of the forest
Where the apes and leopards roam
Is a bright spot that’s like paradise
And it’s there I make my home.
Kick back on a fern bed and listen
And I’ll tell you of subjects and kings,
Elephant nights and antelope days
And legions of magical things!
Simba was fascinated. Sefu stopped, and Simba asked, “How does it end?”
“The story is being written. It comes from the top of your head, from the depths of your heart. You just open your mind and listen to the voices in your head. Listen to the wordless chatter of the leaves. Jump right in when you can. Timon, you add some to it.”
Timon stepped forward and threw out his arms. “Give me space to live, and dig it.”
In the dark swirls by the riverbank
Rides a leaf that’s swept in thrall
It came from places dark and drear
And answered to the call!
Sefu listened carefully, and looked thoughtful. “Profound and very....very....uh....depressing. Let’s hear from the boy.”
Pumbaa pushed the reluctant Simba forward. “You can do it! Just make your mind a complete blank!”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Timon griped. “You’ve had plenty of practice.”
“Now hush!” Sefu said. “Let him have at it.”
Simba looked awkwardly at his paws and cleared his throat.
There’s a lizard on the baobab
There’s a snake upon the grass
He thought a few moments, and making the supreme effort, burst out with:
There’s a danger in the jungle
But I’m not afraid to pass
There’s a loud cry in the silence
There’s a strange scent in the winds
I’d be scared and yet I’m really not
All because I have my friends
“Groovy!” Sefu said. “Dig the chubby cubby--he’s a natural! What he ain’t got ain’t hot!”
Sefu gathered Simba under his wing. “Look here. You keep working on it, and some day you’re going to go places. There’s a spot out there for you. A spot for good lyricists. You do the words, and I do the little black dots.”
“Little black dots?”
“Do you really think I could?”
“Think? THINK?? You got IT, kid! I could make you a star!”
“A star? Me??” Simba’s ears flattened in fear. “I’m too young to die!”
“What?!” Sefu blinked. “No, kid: WE’LL be killin’ THEM. With an act like ours, we’ll SLAY ‘em!”
“Now hold on a minute here!” Pumbaa said. “That’s OUR boy!”
“Are you holding out on me, Pumbaa? You want to be his manager?”
“Not his manager!” Pumbaa said gruffly. “His father! I’m going to make sure he’s taken care of.”
“Okay, okay.” Sefu tapped a foot thoughtfully. “How does a flat rate followed by residuals grab you?”
“I don’t mean that kind of care. I mean love!” Pumbaa looked a little embarrassed. “Hey, I love the kid. I don’t want him to write songs unless it’s what he wants to do.”
Simba looked at Pumbaa. Then he looked back at Sefu. He stalked back to the warthog. “Maybe later, huh?”
“Sure, kid. Whatever floats your boat. I still think we could have made an awesome team.”
Sefu disappeared as quickly as he showed up. Simba looked at Timon with puzzlement. “Is he real?”
“That’s just him. Part philosopher, part musician, all mental case. But he’s really an all right guy when you get to know him.”
“So are you, Uncle Timon. You too, Pumbaa.”
Pumbaa smiled broadly. “Thanks!”
Often a flood began with a few drops of rain, and a fire began with a few small sparks. The first few times Simba felt discomfort after a meal, he thought nothing of it. But finally as days passed into weeks, eating became an exercise in frustration for him. It finally got to the point where he had to be nagged by Pumbaa to eat enough to get by.
He was growing thin. Pumbaa looked at his ribs and said, “Hey, it’s not right for a young fellow not to be hungry like that.” He took Timon aside. “I’m worried about him.”
Finally even Timon became worried. He felt of Simba’s forehead and asked him to stick out his tongue. Everything looked fine, even when he peered at the whites of Simba’s eyes. Though he was no healer, Timon decided that it was probably nothing to worry about—just a childhood disease.
In fact Simba’s appetite kicked in when Pumbaa uncovered a whole nest of Cleoptrid Beetles. They were large, crunchy, and actually had a taste that appealed to Simba. While Pumbaa and Timon were very hungry, they were so glad to see their friend actually eating like his old self that they let him have his fill, even though he ate every last one.
It wasn’t very long until the nausea came back. “Maybe I overate,” Simba said. “I need some water to wash this down. Or I need something.”
“There’s a stream not far from here. Come on.”
“No, Timon. I don’t think I can make it.”
“Do you want to up chuck? Hey, we won’t watch, will we Pumbaa?”
“Just let me....” Simba’s face was a picture of suffering. He coughed, then wretched. “Oh no,” he stammered. Another great heave nearly bent him in two. His meal came up, mixed with a few spots of blood. “Help me! Oh gods, help me!”
“What can I do?” Pumbaa was in despair. “Can I get you anything?”
Simba fell on his side and curled up. He wretched repeatedly, splattering the ground with the rest of his meal. But the contractions did not stop.
“Is it gas?”
“Pumbaa, with you, everything is....” Timon looked at the pain in Simba’s eyes. “We have to do something!”
“Let’s pray,” Pumbaa said.
“It’s been so long. I wonder if God still knows I’m here.”
“There’s one way to find out.”
Timon put both of his small hands on one of Simba’s paws. “Don’t you leave me, pal! God, give the little guy a break. He’s had a hard time of it, and he needs something Pumbaa and I can’t give him. Give us a clue. I mean, even if I could help, I don’t know how.” He started as Simba’s paw quivered in his hands, the cub’s muscles flexing with the force of his exertions.
Pumbaa began to cry. “Look at the little boy, God! He’s hurting. Make him stop hurting, please?”
Simba broke out in a sweat. He still retched, though nothing came up but a yellowish drool.
Timon looked up at the sky. “Look, God, I don’t mean to rush you or anything, but if you don’t do something quick, it’s going to be too late! Geez, he’s only a little kid! He deserves a fighting chance.”
A rustling in the underbrush startled them, and they turned to see two hyenas step out slowly, scenting the air. The bigger female stepped forward and spoke, stumbling slightly in the common language. “We take care of him.”
“Hey, you’ll have to kill us first!”
“You’re Timon, are you not?” The male saw by his startled expression that he must be right. “We here-” He shook his head and tried again. “We are here to help you with the sick child. You were the one that asked God to give the child a fighting chance, aren’t you?”
“You could have overheard us. That’s not a miracle.” Timon did not trust them. “Get lost before my buddy here stomps you flat.”
The male fixed Timon with his gaze, stilling the meerkat as he stared into the deep set eyes of the hyena. Sparkles winked on and off in there, a dancing firelight of silver as the hyena spoke softly. “There is nothing whatever to fear from us."
Timon answered back, "I'm not afraid."
"We trust we will have your full cooperation."
Timon nodded. "If there's anything I can do for you, just let me know."
The male said, "You will introduce me to the child."
"Sure. Simba, these are two good friends of mine. They have come here to help you."
"Who are they?" Simba asked, cringing from another spasm.
"I don't know," Timon said, looking puzzled. “I must have forgotten their names.”
Simba cringed away from the huge hyenas as they moved closer. "I am Gur'bruk, and this is my bak’ret Kambra. We are--how you say--healers. We were sent by Minshasa, the lioness of white hair. You know her, don’t you?"
Simba’s eyes flickered for a moment, but another spasm of pain wrenched at him, and he simply moaned.
"I don't know any white lionesses," Timon said, puzzled. "But hey, I'm glad she sent you."
Kambra sniffed of the spots on the ground. “This is bad. We must act now.”
“I could have told you that.”
Gur'bruk frowned at Timon, and the meerkat silenced. Then Gur’bruk had Simba lay on his side. "Look at my eyes, son. Can you tell me what color they are?"
"Sure. They're brown."
"Are you sure? Are you very sure?"
"Well I--no, they're green. No wait, they’re blue. Hey, how did you do that?"
"I will tell you in a minute. But right now, what color are they?"
"They're still blue but there are little white things--oh, it's the sky! I can see the clouds move!"
“Very good. If you look at the clouds, some of them are shaped like things you know.”
Kambra was feeling over Simba's body with a paw. Though she was barely touching him, it was clear from her face that she was concentrating very hard.
"Look past the clouds,” Gur’bruk asked. “Are there birds in the sky?"
“Yes. Lots of them.”
Kambra’s roving ceased as she stared intently at a spot on Simba’s side. Nodding, she glanced up at Timon and winked. Then she looked at Gur’bruk oddly for a moment, and turned back to Simba.
"Are all of the birds the same?"
“Every one?” Gur’bruk cocked an ear slightly. “How about the one in front?”
"I see it now. Most of them are black, but the one in front is red."
"That is your pain, Simba. See it fly away? He takes your pain with him. He is going far away, and he is not coming back. Do you feel the pain smaller?"
Simba's tense features softened. He had a relaxed smile. "Oh yeah. Oh that feels better! Make the bird stay away."
“I promise you we will. I had a little ban’ret like you in the past. When he hurted, I play the bird game with him. It made him feel better.”
“Where is your boy now? All grown up?”
“He go to died,” Gur’bruk said.
“That’s so sad. Gur’bruk, there are dark clouds in the sky now. It looks like a storm coming.”
“Yes, I feel it” Gur’bruk’s eyes misted up and a quiet tear trickled down his cheek. “His name was Gur’mekh. Simba is a pretty name. What does it mean?”
“I think it fits you maybe.”
Timon moved forward as Kambra nosed Simba’s side again, her tongue flicking out for a second. “Hey! What’re you DOING--” He stared, gaping in astonishment as Kambra drew back and then plunged her muzzle inside Simba, her nose disappearing into him as if she were penetrating her reflection at a water hole.
“Oh my gods!” Timon wavered drunkenly and sat down hard, head swimming as he watched the impromptu operation in progress. There was no blood, and Simba certainly gave no sign of pain as he continued to stare into Gur’bruk’s eyes. Kambra pulled suddenly, and out came a pink growth which she discarded in the brush. Sitting back, she sighed satisfactorily. “All done.”
Timon glared at her suspiciously and ran over to Simba. Gritting his teeth, he felt around gingerly under the fur, expecting to find the matted wetness of blood and the ragged edge of a wound in his side.
Instead, he found nothing. he began combing through the soft fur, poking at the firm hide of the cub. “Where’d ya hide it?!”
Simba giggled slightly at the touch, and Gur'bruk smiled. “The game is over now. How do you feel, young ban’ret?"
Simba got up and shook off. "I feel hungry!"
Gur’bruk nuzzled him, as did Kambra.
Timon breathed a sigh of relief and grinned at Kambra. "I could just kiss you if you didn't eat carrion."
"I could just kiss you back if you did not eat the grubs."
"Good point." He patted her and pecked her cheek. "We owe you one."
“Owe me one what?” She thought for a moment. “Oh it’s a figuresque of speech.” She looked at Timon closely. “Now listen, old ban’ret. Fate the path goes--if you--how you say ‘ta’kher ohvi gabrukh....’” She stopped, putting her paw on his face and concentrating. “Your charge will find a glorious destiny,” she said in flawless Suricati.
Stunned, he dropped back into his native tongue. “I’d believe it. He’s a great kid.” Timon scratched behind his ear and shifted uneasily. “Tell me the truth: will the problem come back?"
"What is he eating?"
"Grubs and beetles, mainly."
"Oh gods! That's what caused it. You have to teach him how to hunt. Or at least how to scavenge."
"Scavenging we can do, but I'm no carnivore."
"Bugs are not what Roh'kash meant for lions to eat. You must change his lifestyle, at least a little. There are some herbs you can try to stall the problem, but someday you'll have to let him be what he was born to be, a hunter."
“I guess so. But hey, where did you guys come from? I mean, you’re not from around here, are you?”
“No.” Kambra closed her eyes and sighed. “But where we came from, we cannot go.”
Timon fell silent as he looked at her, recognizing a kindred soul of one who has been cast out. Yet he knew somehow that this was much more than a simple outcast before him. Gur’bruk came to stand beside Kambra, kissing her face and nuzzling her neck. Timon regarded them soberly, seeing the comfort they took from one another, but there was an evident look of sadness on their faces that was at once noble and poignant.
Reverting to common speech he said, “Look, why don’t you guys stick with us? I mean, we don’t have a home either. Not really.”
“We go where Roh’kash sends us, like the restless wind.”
“In a way, so do we.”
Pumbaa looked at them wonderingly. “Will we ever see you again?”
“If you need us once more, you will see us.” Without explanation, he looked up and said, “Yolanda, we paid the debt.”
The two vanished back into the undergrowth in a quiet rustle of leaves. Timon and Pumbaa stared after them for a long moment, until they were distracted by a cough behind them. They turned to see Simba rising unsteadily on all four legs, a look of disgust on his face as he spat into the dust.
“Yech! My mouth tastes like five day old pond scum!”
“Must’ve been something you ate,” Timon said dryly. “C’mon, kid, let’s go get some water.”
From the concealment of the lush undergrowth, Gur’bruk and Kambra watched the trio meander away, the cub leaning against Pumbaa’s shoulder as Timon perched on his head, directing the way to the water hole. Gur’bruk blinked as his thoughts raced unspoken to his mate. “Do you think they’ll be all right?”
“They’ll be fine.” She smiled at him. “Have faith, love.”
“I trust Roh’kash implicitly. THOSE two...”
“...are fulfilling their destiny. Just as the cub will one day, with their help.” She looked after the odd trio, her smile fading. Gur’bruk felt an odd feeling emanating from her, something akin to awe. He looked at her curiously, and she met his gaze, her eyes shining. “I told the meerkat the child was destined for great things, and he is. When I removed the growth, I was caught up in his Ka. He’s the one true king! And he is the anointed.”
“The anointed? What are you saying??”
“He bears the mark of Duhbrek. Roh’kash had chosen him from his birth to bring freedom to the captives and mercy to the oppressed.”
“And we were sent to save his life!” Gur’bruk closed his eyes and muttered, “Thank you, Lord!”
She fell quiet, trembling. “Yes. We have paid the price. Husband, he has set us free!”
“I think so, dear. But we must wait on the Lord. Roh’kash will send us a sign.”
“What kind of sign?”
“I don’t know. But when it happens, we’ll know.”
Just then they heard a rustling in the undergrowth. “Muti? Maleh?”
Gur’bruk gasped. “My gods, it’s the sign!”
Kambra cared nothing for signs. She shrieked, running to Gur’mekh’s ka. As tears streamed from her eyes, she rubbed him and smothered him with kisses, yipping a string of wordless utterances that were wrongly called “hyena laughter” by those who did not understand. Raising up on her back legs, she wrapped her forearms around his neck, pushing him to the ground and nuzzling him desperately. “My precious little boy!” she finally choked out between her sobs. “Gur’bruk, it’s him!”
All of the other lionesses plagued Sarafina for details about Uzuri’s pregnancy. The only thing she would say is, “She has a husband.”
Uzuri’s condition was evident to Taka, and he watched her progressing pregnancy with dread. He was afraid the lionesses would abandon him and leave him to feed all those hyenas himself. And when it was only him and his wife, he knew chances were good to excellent that they would hunt lions.
Elanna was no less distraught, but for different reasons; she feared that Taka was being unfaithful. This suspicion, never voiced aloud, still hovered between them like a Makei until the birth of Uzuri’s cubs. Elanna went to see Uzuri and Sarafina, and she cooed and fondled the cubs with undisguised delight. They were not at all like her husband, something she secretly thanked Aiheu for as she kissed Uzuri on the cheek. “I hope you’ve found your true love,” she said discretely. “I know I have.”
Uzuri, who was not entirely blind said, “Their father loves me the way Taka loves you--completely. He will be pleased to know he has a son.”
“Two sons,” Elanna said.
“Togo and Kombi.”
“I wish you’d had a daughter. It’s going to be hard when their mantlement comes.”
Uzuri looked at her intently. “Can I trust you?”
Sarafina shook her head ever so slightly in disapproval, but Uzuri either did not see it or did not care. “They have a future. Not here, but they do have one. But tell no one--it’s our little secret.”
“Not even my husband?” Elanna said.
“Especially not your husband,” Uzuri said. Then realizing how it might sound, she quickly added, “He’d give anything for a son. I don’t want to rub it in--you know how melancholy he gets. And Lannie, this must be hard on you too. I’m so sorry.”
Elanna nodded. “As long as I have my Taka, I can get by.” She was on the verge of tears. “I can understand how some people might dislike him. I know there are a few that wish to harm him. Love hasn’t turned me into a complete fool. But Uzuri, there are times when we are alone when he can be beautiful and gentle and witty and so full of love. Under all that fear and rage, there’s a little cub that just wants to feel safe and loved. And no matter what he ever does or ever becomes, my destiny is to love him and protect him from all the hate in the world. They all think I’m crazy to feel that way about him. You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?”
“No, hon.” She thought about Ugas, and for one moment she could understand what Lannie saw in him. “How’s Sarabi taking this?”
Tears ran down Elanna’s cheeks. “We hardly speak anymore. This little talk is more than I’ve heard from everyone else for the last moon. Only Taka ever speaks to me anymore. My own sister will turn her head to keep from looking in my eyes. Oh gods, Uzuri, I’m all alone in the world! What would I do if something happened to him??”
“It’s unfair,” Uzuri said. She patted the ground with her paw. “You’re not that alone. Come here, Lannie.”
Elanna laid by Uzuri quietly, with her side along the ridge of Uzuri’s back while she nursed her cubs. She felt her breath come and go, and felt the gentle tenor of the pulse in her neck. She listened to the cubs feeding and to the soft sounds they uttered to each other and to their mother. Her stress began to work itself out and in a few minutes, Elanna got up much improved and kissed Uzuri’s cheek. “I’ve been carrying on like a mad jackal. Someday Aiheu will reward you for being my friend. Can I come back sometimes?”
“Any time you want.”
Elanna hurried back to her husband. Full of peace and love, she snuggled alongside his warm body and nuzzled his dark mane.
“My, you’re in a good mood,” Taka said, fondling her with a paw. “Your fit of depression seems to be lifting.”
“And it’s not coming back, I think.” She nuzzled him again. “Uzuri’s children are quite beautiful, aren’t they?”
“I have yet to find out,” he said crossly. “I couldn’t even get near her today. You’d think those lionesses had never seen a cub before. I shall have to make a formal inspection in the morning.”
“Good. That means I have you all to myself tonight.” She began to groom him lovingly and nuzzle him until at last he had to smile.
The next morning, Sarafina came in to see Uzuri. “Here he comes,” was all she said or needed to say. Uzuri felt her stomach tighten up with fear as the long-dreaded confrontation approached.
Taka entered her cave. “Good morning, hunt mistress.”
“Good morning, sire.”
Taka approached the twin cubs and looked at them. He smiled and touched each of them with his tongue. “You are blessed, Uzuri. Twin sons.”
Uzuri nodded as Taka sat down, his tail flicking back and forth.
“I was young and fresh like them once,” he said. “Before I was marked, and life took it’s toll on me, there were people that thought I was cute. Remember, Uzuri?”
“You were a cute cub. I remember.”
He fondled her sons with his paw. One of them reached up and swatted at him and Taka had to laugh. “Look at them. They are too young to know I’m ugly. When I kiss them, they don’t want to slink away and rub it off in the grass.”
“You don’t look that bad. People are just afraid. Afraid of you and afraid of the hyenas. Maybe you have this unique kind of thing with them. Maybe they like you. But they don’t like us. They make it painfully clear that all we’re good for is hunting. Don’t take my word for it--just ask them.”
“It’s too late to change that now.” He sighed and his shoulders sagged. “I will never live to see them gone, just as I will never live to be forgiven for bringing them here. I don’t think they like me any more than they like you, but they bow and scrape before me, seeking favors. They’ll kill me when they get the chance. Every time I pass one of them, I wonder, ‘will it be you?’ And every night the same dream reminds me that each day may be my last.”
“Oh gods, how awful!”
He examined her face carefully. “So you’re not amused by my plight?” He purred. “You have a kind heart, just like your mother had.” He put his paw on hers and gave her a gentle pat.
Uzuri was surprised. She met his glance directly, and the kindness in his eyes was genuine. While he was in such a good mood, she sought her heart’s desire.
“Sire, when you were born you weren’t breathing. I saw Rafiki breathe life into you with his own mouth.” She put her other paw on his. “Can’t you find it in your heart to forgive him? It would mean a lot to me. Please?”
He heaved a sigh. “Of all else, I could forgive him. But for trapping me in this life of pain, I cannot.” He winced at the thought. “And what’s worse, I am too much of a coward to undo it. If I could just go to sleep one night and never wake up....” He sighed as a tear rolled down his cheek, then kissed the cubs once more. “I do tend to run on like a fool, don’t I?” He rose and turned. His shoulders slumped under the weight of the world as he trudged away.
Sarafina hovered protectively near Uzuri and her cubs. “Phew, thank the gods that’s over.”
Uzuri looked at Sarafina and sighed. “Will things ever be well again? There’s some kind of curse on this place--I can feel it.”
“That’s why you wanted Rafiki back, isn’t it?”
“One small reason, Sis. One reason among many.”
“You’re rather fond of him, aren’t you.”
“Aren’t we all.”
“But you especially.”
Uzuri looked at her from half-lidded eyes. “Where’s this leading?”
Uzuri purred. “There’s so much goodness and kindness in his heart. Of all the people I’ve ever known, he’s the most like Aiheu. He loves everyone.”
“That may be. But he adores you.”
“Come on, Fini!”
“You can ‘come on Fini’ till Pride Rock crumbles to dust. I’m telling you that monkey thinks the sun rises and sets just for you.”
“So he adores me! What’s wrong with that?”
Sarafina smiled sweetly. “If he wasn’t a mandrill, I’d say he’s sweet on you.”
“Fini, you should be ashamed of yourself!” She laughed. “He’s just very demonstrative.” A troubled look came across her face. “That’s just part of being an ape,” she said as if she were trying to convince herself. “Ask anyone.”
Later that day as Taka rested on the tip of the promontory watching the wide savanna below he saw the ungainly approach of Gopa the stork. Gopa landed a great flapping of wings and bowed. “I have your daily report, Sire.”
Taka looked down at Uzuri, who lay sunning herself on a rock below with her cubs nursing peacefully. “Gopa, where are all these new children coming from? I have cubs practically running out of my ears!”
Gopa bent down and almost whispered, “Who do you THINK brought all those cubs? The stork? Well it certainly wasn’t me.”
Taka looked at him askance. “What the devil are you talking about?”
“Forget it,” Gopa sighed.
CHAPTER 22: LOOKING FOR LOVE
The announcement of Uzuri’s pregnancy was a thorn in Taka’s side, made all the more evident when her children finally arrived. He felt as if the lionesses were deserting him, perhaps even preparing to run off and join other prides. His mate, Elanna was no less distraught; at first she saw the pregnancies as evidence that Taka’s late night excursions were more than just simple “patrols.”
The sight of the newborn Togo and Kombi reassured her; the cubs had none of the earmarks of her husband. Even the scent was wrong, and she secretly delighted in the knowledge that Taka was hers. That evening she snuggled alongside his warm body, nuzzling his dark mane.
“Uzuri’s children are quite beautiful, aren’t they?” she said dreamily.
“I have yet to find out; I couldn’t even get near her today,” he said crossly. “You’d think the lionesses had never seen a cub before.” His eyes darkened. “I shall have to make a formal inspection in the morning.”
“Good. That means I have you all to myself tonight.” She nibbled on his ear, sending shivers down his spine.
“Don’t try to distract me. You know what I mean.”
“Yes love, I do. Now let me show you what I mean.” She kissed his cheek as the night drew gentle shadows around them.
The next morning, Uzuri felt a cold wave of fear sweep over her as Taka entered her cave. “Good morning, hunt mistress.”
“Good morning, sire.” She looked on with astonishment as Taka touched the twin cubs with his tongue. “You are blessed, Uzuri.”
For the first time in her life, Uzuri was at a loss for words. She nodded numbly as Taka sat down, his tail stirring restlessly as he watched the tiny cubs wriggle and roll about at their mother’s belly.
“I was young and fresh like them once. Before I was marked, and life took it’s toll on me, there were people that thought I was cute. Remember, Uzuri?”
“You were a cute cub,” Uzuri said. “I remember.”
“Look at them. They are too young to know I’m ugly. When I kiss them, they don’t want to slink away and rub in the grass.”
“You don’t look that bad,” Uzuri said, forthright even then. “People are just afraid. Afraid of you and afraid of the hyenas. Maybe you have this unique kind of thing with them. Maybe they like you. But they don’t like us. They make it painfully clear that all we’re good for is hunting. Don’t take my word for it--just ask them.”
“It’s too late to change that now.” He shook his head. “I will never live to see them gone, just as I will never live to be forgiven for bringing them here. I don’t think they like me any more than they like you, but they bow and scrape before me, seeking favors.” He sighed. “They’ll kill me when they get the chance. Every time I pass one of them, I wonder, ‘will it be you?’ And every night the same dream reminds me that each day may be my last.”
“Oh gods, how awful!”
“So you’re not amused by my plight? You have a kind heart, just like your mother had.”
He spoke to her so tenderly that Uzuri dared address him unbidden.
“Sire, when you were born you weren’t breathing. I saw Rafiki breathe life into you with his own mouth. Can’t you find it in your heart to forgive him? It would mean a lot to me. Please?”
With a great sigh of resignation, Taka said, “Of all else, I could forgive him. But for trapping me in this life of pain, I cannot. And what’s worse, I am too much of a coward to undo it. If I could just go to sleep one night and never wake up....” He sighed deeply, then reached down and kissed the cubs again. Taka half laughed. “I do tend to run on like a fool, don’t I?” He silently turned and padded away.
Later, as he lay upon the peak of Pride Rock, his majordomo, Gopa the stork, flew in with a great flapping of wings. “I have your daily report, Sire,” he grated.
Taka peered down at Uzuri, who lay sunning herself on an outthrust rock below, her cubs nursing placidly. Zira lay beside her, the pronounced swelling of her abdomen unmistakable. “Gopa, where are all these new children coming from? I have cubs practically running out of my ears!”
Gopa blinked, the wattle under his neck shaking gently as he glanced down at the lionesses, then cocked his head at Taka. “Who do you THINK brought all those cubs? The stork? Well it certainly wasn’t me.”
Taka looked at him askance. “What in the devil are you talking about?”
“Forget it,” Gopa sighed. “You want this report or not?”
When Togo and Kombi were first born, they slept most of the time, and they moved around very little. But by the age of three moons they never stopped moving, and everywhere they moved trouble followed close behind.
It must be understood that Uzuri was a strict mother. Around her, the twins were as good as gold--even better. She used to brag about how well-behaved they were to the other lionesses. Most of the time they would listen patiently and nod. There were a few times, however, when their patience ran thin. Times when someone else’s cub would misbehave and Uzuri would look at the mother with a superior attitude and say, “Togo and Kombi would never do a thing like that.”
The love Uzuri felt from her pride sisters was well-earned. No one would dare compromise her happiness by telling her what they thought of Togo and Kombi. At least not aloud.
One day, an outraged Isha was chasing them when Sarafina innocently stepped in the way. Togo and Kombi hid behind her trembling and Isha barely stopped in time to avoid crashing into the three of them.
“What’s wrong here??” Fini demanded. “Isha, remember your low boiling point!”
“Where is the mother of those--PERSONS??”
“I’m her sister. I’ll handle it.”
“Well, you asked for it. These two little hellions....” She bent close to Sarafina’s ear and while Togo and Kombi huddled behind her for protection they strained to hear what she was saying.
“No, I’m not! I caught them in the act!”
“I’ll take care of them, Isha. It won’t happen again.”
“Well it had BETTER not!”
“I’m sorry,” Togo said, sniffling. “We’ll be good from now on.”
“I’ll give them a good talking to,” Sarafina said.
“I sure hope so. That mother of theirs ought to cuff them more often.”
Kombi began to bawl. “We were just funning! I’m sorry, Isha.”
“Well, OK I guess,” she said, somewhat mollified. Isha could not stand to see cubs cry, even Togo and Kombi.
When Isha walked off, her dignity defended, Sarafina glared at the twins. “What am I going to do with you two??”
Togo and Kombi pleaded with all their charm and hound-dog expressions of remorse for her not to tell Mom.
Sarafina softened a little. “Kombi, don’t you understand that a joke isn’t funny when people get hurt? I like a good joke as much as anyone, but when you love someone you should respect them and try to think about how THEY are going to feel when they find a fully-grown.... Well, you know what I mean.”
“I’m sorry,” Kombi said, tears coming to his eyes.
“And you, Togo. I know you probably didn’t start this, but you went along with it. That’s almost as bad. You love Isha, don’t you?”
“Yes ma’am.” Togo was the shy one and he looked like he wanted to crawl under a rock.
“Do you think what you did was the best way to show it?”
“No ma’am.” He began to wail and huddled up tight against her. “She’s really mad at me, isn’t she?”
“Yes, but she’ll get over it. Look, we’ll forget it this time. But you have been warned.”
For the rest of the day at least, Togo and Kombi were as good as two Nisei, but whenever Kombi had to pass Isha, he’d look at her suspiciously and change direction. By contrast, when Isha awoke from her mid-sun nap, she felt something warm and soft snuggled against her, and she fondled Togo with her paw. Kombi, sitting off a discrete distance, watched uncomfortably. Isha jerked her head ever so slightly and grunted. Then Kombi stirred himself and gamboled over, a relieved smile on his face. He rubbed his small back and tail under her chin and over her strong neck. “I really am sorry. Please don’t stay mad at me.”
“I really should, you know.” She nuzzled Kombi and kissed his cheek. “I hope you learned your lesson.”
Uzuri also stirred from her nap. “Fini, where are the boys?”
“Oh, around and about.”
“That’s not good enough. Nothing must happen to them, Fini. Not just for my sake, but for their father’s sake.”
She stretched and yawned, then quickly began to search Pride Rock for her children. They were not in the small cave where they liked to play. They were not by the cistern. Still, there were several places left where they MIGHT be. Oh if only Zazu were on the job, they would be properly supervised. Zazu loved children though he often had an odd way of showing it. Gopa didn’t really give half a minnow for the children. “Smelly, noisy things,” he would croak with irritation. “They really should be hidden away till they’re old enough to behave themselves.”
And then Sarafina had an odd thought. She knew Togo almost better than he knew himself, and she led Uzuri to Isha’s rock. And there, snuggled to her side, were Togo and Kombi.
Uzuri breathed a relieved sigh. “Look at them, Fini. Isn’t that sweet! They’re just a pair of little angels!”
Sarafina quickly bit her tongue to keep from laughing. “They’re a pair, all right.”
CHAPTER 24: SHIMBEKH
Among the hyenas, there were several seers, but few that could compare to Shimbekh. She was said to have the ear of Roh’kash, and her words were never taken lightly.
Without Rafiki to give his guidance to Pride Rock, Taka relied on her judgment to make all his important decisions. Of course, this was of great interest to Shenzi, who saw in it a way to secure control over Taka and virtually rule the Pride Lands.
Shimbekh was always surrounded by questioning throngs, for everyone wanted her wisdom. But her personal friends were few. Like most seers, she never married. The dark and frightening aspects of the future were a large obstacle to her being seen as a friend. And for most hyenas, Shimbekh and the future were inseparable, as if the unseen had taken on a familiar form to stalk among them.
Makhpil, a shy but talented seer was only an adolescent. But she clung to Shimbekh for comfort. Her own parents were afraid of her, though they had no reason to be. So Shimbekh was both mother and father to Makhpil, and Shimbekh loved her appropriately. They had both faced the future, and it could not come between them.
Prophesy is a two-edged sword—it cuts both ways. Shenzi, at first unable to make Shimbekh lie, convinced her to tell only the truth that helped the hyena cause. A half truth is like a half carcass; it can be dragged twice as far.
Both Shimbekh and Makpil knew that a seer who lied was a seer no more. The gods would take the truth from those who would not use it. And for a long time, Shenzi only encouraged Shimbekh to manipulate the truth for it would be a shame to lose her rare talent. Somehow Shimbekh’s personal feelings never entered into Shenzi’s mind, and Shimbekh was all too aware of that.
Then came a time months later when Shimbekh had made so many compromises that Shenzi could blackmail her. Shenzi wanted Shimbekh to come to her private quarters, this time without Makpil. And when she had her alone, she said, “You will tell Scar that it is folly to leave Pride Rock. You will tell him that the day he attempts to go, he will die.”
“My Lord Roh’mach, the gods do not say it. A seer is a servant of the Lord. To lie is blasphemy.”
Shenzi smiles coyly. “Is it really blasphemy when the greater good depends on it?”
“You mean YOUR greater good depends on it.”
“Whatever.” Shenzi comes up beside her and pats her lightly on the cheek. “I wouldn’t want to be you Honey Bun, not when Scar finds out how far you stretched the truth.”
“On YOUR orders.”
“Little old me?” Shenzi smiled wickedly. “Would I ask you to lie to my King? For shame!”
Shimbekh said “You wouldn’t dare tempt the gods.”
“Oh yes I would. Taka’s superstitions are his downfall. I believe in what works, and this works. Play the game by my rules, and you’ll have no reason to frown. Refuse me, and you won’t be ABLE to frown.”
Shimbekh said, “Well I have one prediction for you. This path leads toward defeat. You do not scratch dirt at the gods and profit by it.”
“Are you threatening me??”
“No. You threaten yourself. We all pay for our own sins, Roh’mach. I will pay for mine, but you will pay for yours.” The seer looked at her closely before going. “I will pray for you.”
“You just do that. But first, you see Scar.”
She walked out. Going in to see the King, she bowed deeply. It took all her nerve to keep from trembling. “My Lord, King of Kings, I have something to report.”
“It is Pride Rock, Your Majesty. It is the source of your life. If you flee, it will mean your death.”
“Oh?” Taka’s ears perked up. “My death?”
“Yes, Sire. Game is scarce, and rain is sparse, but if you are faithful and remain, the rain will fall and the game will return.”
“Good! Very good! And I was just talking with Shenzi about moving. You tell her what you told me, my girl!”
“I will, Sire.”
Shimbekh bowed deeply and left his cave. Stepping out into the savanna grass, she wondered what would come of this. But she did not have a clue. The future was a sense, like hearing or sight was to most hyenas. Suddenly, as if she had gone deaf or blind, she had only the present moment for the first time in her life.
The feeling of isolation terrified her. She looked into the sky and tried to concentrate. “Please, o gods, don’t forsake me! Please don’t forsake me! She made me do it. She made me do it!”
She felt panic, and ran back to her cave where Makhpil awaited her. How she would tell her, Shimbekh did not know. But before she could say a word, Makhpil looked into her eyes. “It’s gone,” she said balefully. “What have you done, Shimbekh?? What have you done??”
CHAPTER 25: THE EXODUS
The heat was oppressive. Taka was standing on the promontory of Pride Rock to catch a slight breeze. It had not rained in weeks, and the sun had cruelly scorched the ground. It was as if Aiheu himself had been angry with affairs and decided to show it. Rafiki watched the land dry up, but he was confined and could only rarely intercess for a few drops. The waterhole was just a muddy little remnant in the middle of the cracked, dry plain. It was patronized by elephants, who were not overly afraid of lions. They trampled the mud into the water and left it almost unsuitable for drinking.
Khemoki, Incosi of the zebras, led his people in for a drink from the shrinking pool. Filling the view were a series of elephant backsides forming an unbroken wall.
“Ahem!” Khemoki said. He waited a moment longer. “Ahem!!!”
There was no response.
He tapped with his hoof impatiently, then nudged one of the backsides. “Madam, do you think you could move your bilious gray carcass and let me drink??”
The elephant stirred, but when she looked around her expression was anything but helpful.
“Put a cork in it, sweetcheeks.”
“I say!” He looked around in a huff. “Whinny, old girl, did you hear that? We don’t have to stand here and be insulted! We can jolly well find us another water hole out of this God-forsaken neighborhood.”
“Hear hear,” one of the zebras cried. “Good show, Milord.”
The Pride Lands were desolate. The songs of birds had long since gone from the trees. What few animals still trudged across the parched grassland stirred up dust in their wake. Vultures cruised the skies in search of prey where eagles and flamingos once soared. And still it did not rain. There were no clouds. There was no hope.
Taka waited for news from Gopa the stork. Gopa had none of the charm or polish of Zazu, but he was extremely thorough.
When the large bird arrived with all the grace of a wounded flamingo, he bowed and said, “Sire, the zebras, have left the Pride Lands. The Incosi decided that grazing is better to the north, and besides it’s too dangerous with the hyenas and lions together. To be precise, Khemoki called them ‘That demmed rabble.’”
“Didn’t you try to stop them??”
“No, Sire. I only report the news, I don’t make it.”
Yet another irritating fowl had made Taka’s short list. “One of these days,” he thought, “I’m going to wring that long neck of his.”
No more zebras. That joined with the fact that the Wildebeests were gone and the antelopes had skipped out left the land in a sorry shape.
Beesa was out in the hot sun of midday with some other lionesses. They were risking their life with each stone they overturned with their paws, hoping to capture a lizard or snake that may hold body and soul together. Isha, panting, looked up into the cloudless sky. The sun beamed back with a vengeance. “Aiheu, why have you forsaken us? I think I’m going mad.”
The insufferable heat made the image of distant trees ripple like reflections in a pond. When the wind did blow, it stirred up dust and made little difference in the feeling of discomfort.
Beesa heard something rattle in the grass. She froze, held up her paw, crouched and sprang. “Ow!” She bit at the large rat that had latched on to her paw. Only when its head was crushed in her powerful jaws could she work the sharp incisors out of her flesh.
“Look,” Isha said. “Sis caught something! It’s a big rat. Look how big it is!”
“Correction,” Beesa said. “It caught me.”
“Still, it’s big enough for you--ahem--and maybe a lucky relative?”
“Yes, Isha. Some lucky relative like my daughter. She gets the whole thing.”
Uzuri said, “Beesa, I’ve always thought of you as a second mother. Would you adopt me?”
“Me too,” Isha said. “The least you could have done was eat it yourself. Then I could have called you selfish and resented you.”
Beesa licked her paw to clean the wound. Then she took up the rat and trotted back toward her home on Pride Rock. Her paw was not very sore. If the gods were with her, her hunting would not be affected.
Lisani saw her mother and ran to meet her.
“It’s a rat,” Beesa said proudly. “It’s all yours.”
“Ewww! A rat!”
“You should be glad to get it. The little bugger tried to eat me first.” Beesa sighed and said, “Look, if you promise to eat some of it, I’ll make a special effort tonight to get you something really nice, OK?”
“OK, I’ll try.” She tried a bite, found it was not so bad, then famished fell on the rest of it. When she finished, there was nothing but some skin and bones left. “Mom, I wouldn’t even mind another rat right now. I’m still hungry.”
“I know, dear.” She began to groom her little girl. “Just remember, when things can’t get worse, they can only get better.”
CHAPTER 26: THE WAGES OF SIN
Uzuri sat quietly, trying to ignore the constant gnawing in her stomach as she watched the progress of the setting sun. As the top of the crimson disk sank below the level of the treetops, she rose and padded over to Isha.
"Gather the party." She looked at the sky hopefully. "We'll try again tonight. Maybe Aiheu will yet show us mercy."
The younger lioness shook her head as she stood. "Not as long as that fool makes us stay here," Isha growled.
"Shh! I'm not sure if that's treason or blasphemy, but hold your tongue. Taka's spies are everywhere!"
"Treason or not, it's the truth." She trudged away slowly, her tail dragging dejectedly in the dust as she headed off to rouse the other lionesses; it was time to hunt.
Uzuri sighed as she stared after her. The trouble was that Isha was right. Taka's refusal to allow the lions to leave Pride Rock and seek out more fruitful hunting grounds was going to be the death of them. Already some of them were beginning to show signs of emaciation, their ribs standing out clearly against their pelts, once sleek and shiny but now dull and drab from the lack of nutrition. Shaking her head despairingly, she rose and crossed over to where the others now stood assembled.
Sarafina rose to greet her. "Uzuri," she whispered urgently. "I've got to talk to you."
"Of course." She looked at her curiously. "What is it, Fini?"
"We can't go on like this much longer. Why are we getting ready to hunt?"
"You want to eat, don't you?"
Sarafina snorted. "Of course, but I don't want to die for my supper. All we found on our patrol this morning was a small herd of elephants. You more than anyone should know how hard it is to cut a calf out of the herd and put it down."
"We don't have to worry about that," Uzuri said firmly. "To hunt elephants is corban, by my own decree."
Sarafina looked at her for a long moment. "Then what are we left with? Picking off the rare straggler who happens to come wandering through? We can't depend on that."
Uzuri sighed deeply. "I know," she said tiredly. The lack of food was beginning to take its toll on her; her energy waned more and more each day. "So what do YOU suggest?"
"Ajenti!" Sarafina called. "Come here a moment. Tell Uzuri what you told me last night."
Ajenti grinned. "I had the most wonderful idea while we were out scouting a few days ago." She broke off, coughing raggedly.
"By the way, I don't want you coming with us tonight," Uzuri said worriedly. "You sound terrible."
"I do? Great!" Ajenti snickered at the look on Uzuri's face. "You see, I've been faking that cough for the past couple of days."
"I'm going to play sick and stay here while you go hunting. I plan to sneak out a couple of hours after high moon."
"Just where do you think you can go?" Uzuri asked. "There's nothing to eat for miles around."
"I'm not going for food, I'm going for help. I'm going to see Rafiki." Her face sobered. "Maybe he can ask the gods to help us; Taka certainly isn't going to."
Uzuri sucked in a sharp breath at the audacity of this. "Do you know what will happen to you if you get caught? We’ve been ordered not to see him on pain of death.”
Taka's sharp voice cut through the air. "If you're quite done chatting, ladies, it's well past sundown. You're late for the hunt."
Uzuri raised her voice. "Yes, Sire." Lowering it to a hoarse whisper, she looked at Ajenti. "Stay here, for now. Pretend you're sick, like you've been doing, but don't leave tonight. We'll discuss this when we get back."
Ajenti bowed her head. "Yes, ma'am."
Uzuri and Sarafina joined the other lionesses who milled about restlessly, anxious to begin the hunt. After checking that everyone was present, she led the group in to Taka's cave. The King lay in the threshold, grooming himself silently as they approached. Clearing her throat, she said, "Milord, we ask for your blessing."
Taka looked up and nodded. "Aiheu provides. Thanks be to Aiheu."
"Aiheu provides," she responded. She turned to leave, but stopped. "Taka, why do we continue this farce? There is no food to be found! I implore you, let us leave here and find better hunting grounds."
He looked up sharply. "No! We will remain here. This drought will not last much longer. The seer has foretold it."
"If we don't leave soon, the jackals will glut themselves on lion meat!" Uzuri humbled herself before him. "Taka, please reconsider. Do you think your father would have taken the word of a seer over the cries of his people?"
"I said we stay!" he snarled. "You overstep your authority, hunt mistress. I will NOT be compared with my father, Lord rest his soul. Now be off before the prey escapes."
"Yes, Sire," she said through gritted teeth. She turned and led the group away.
The young of the elephants were the subject of repeated near-suicide attacks by lionesses because there was little else to eat. Finally over the loud protests of the other lionesses, Uzuri had forbidden attempts on them because it was a senseless risk. Once in a while, a great while, an animal would pass through the Pride Lands bound elsewhere and they would catch it. Even when they were lucky enough to bring down a large animal, it proved almost not worth the trouble because the hyenas would move in.
Hyenas were not welcome on the hunt, for they were not as skilled as lions. They chatted too much-something Uzuri could not tolerate. Not that any of the hyenas did much hunting anyhow. One of the major topics of conversation as they gathered for the hunt used to be how to get rid of the hyenas. That was until they began to suspect spies from Shenzi were everywhere, and it was not a foolish suspicion. One of them, Skulk, was particularly quiet on his feet.
Hours later, the moon's pale light painted a small group of elephants. Beesa's pulse raced as she saw a youngster that had strayed too far from the group. Gauging the distance, she decided that she might just be able to cut it off and out of the herd. She began to drool at the thought. Gods, all that meat...the pride might be able to get a halfway decent meal after all. She started to move in, but paused, uncertain, remembering Uzuri's warning. Then the sight of her daughter gnawing on the scrawny carcass of that hideous rat sprang unbidden into her mind. Beesa had been shocked as she realized she could easily count her daughter's ribs simply by looking at her side. That decided her.
"Aiheu provides," she whispered. Easing forward through the dying grass, she slowly began to stalk the young elephant.
Uzuri had already sighted the elephants a few moments earlier. She began to softly call out orders, shifting the inverted V pattern of their normal sweep for prey to a left oblique, herself at the head with the others staggered out on the opposite side away from the elephants. She turned her head, intending to shift Beesa over into the trail spot, and stared at the empty grass where a lioness should have been. "Beesa?"
Malaika gasped. "Oh gods, Uzuri, look!"
Uzuri's head whipped around, looking over at the spot where Malaika was staring, open-mouthed. "What the...."
There was an elephant cow coming up quietly behind Beesa. Uzuri shouted, "Beesa! Look out!"
Beesa turned around too late, her eyes widening as she saw the elephant charge. She shrieked as the elephant tossed the lioness's four hundred pounds into the air like a rag doll, then brought down her front feet on her with a snapping sound.
"Close ranks!" Uzuri shouted. The lionesses ran to Beesa and formed a circle around her, driving back the elephant. Trumpeting loudly, the cow gathered her calf to her side and joined the herd as it began to lumber away cautiously.
"I'm stove through," Beesa gasped. "Isha?"
"I'm here, honey!" Isha drew near to listen to her sister's faint words.
"Take care of my Lisani. Promise me."
"I will, honey." Tears flooded Isha's eyes. She nuzzled Beesa and kissed her. "I promise. I love you, Beesa. Pray for me.”
“I will, sis.”
“Oh Beesa, why did you do it?"
"I promised." Her face contorted in pain. "You must bring Lisani something special. Tell her it's from me." She gasped. Blood began to drain from her mouth. "Isha?"
"I'm still here."
Slowly, painfully, Beesa raised her paw and caressed Isha’s cheek. "Save yourself." Her arm fell as her last breath went out in a long sigh.
"Oh gods!" Isha looked at the body with its horrible wounds. “My sister,” she stammered. “She’s dead. What are we going to tell Lisani?” She glanced from face to face at each of the lionesses. “Why did that elephant have to kill her? Why? Why??”
The lionesses stood silently for a moment, unwilling to take the next step which they knew was necessary. Finally, Uzuri stepped forward. She bent down and gently kissed Beesa's cheek. "Aiheu abamami." A tear rolled her face and splashed silently on Beesa's fur. “Pray for me, Beesa.”
She retreated as Malaika stepped forward, followed by Sarabi. One by one, Beesa's hunt sisters came forward to bid her farewell. Finally, only Isha remained. The lioness stood immobile, looking down at her sister's body. She bent to kiss her cheek, but crumpled, sobbing, beside the still form. "Oh gods!" She tilted her head up and roared at the sky, giving vent to her grief as the other lionesses joined in, the eerie sound echoing back from the cliffs.
Back at Pride Rock, the hyenas heard the cry. They came to Taka for an explanation, but he had none. “It doesn’t sound good,” he said.
Finally, the lionesses came trailing in slowly, eyes cast down and filled with tears. Taka looked from one to another uncertainly as they approached.
"Uzuri? What's wrong? I heard a cry."
Uzuri looked at him crossly. "Count us, Your Majesty. What do YOU think?" She shouldered past him roughly and sat down, her face quivering as she fought for control.
Lisani came gamboling up to the hunting party. She butted up against Isha, purring happily as she greeted her aunt. "Isha, where's Mom? What did she get for me? A zebra?" Her face began to drop. “Another rat?” She saw Isha’s tears. “Nothing at all?”
Isha's jaw trembled. "Lisani, Honey Tree, I want you to be a brave little girl. Very brave. Your mother....” She began to sob. “You’re going to stay with me now."
Lisani stared as she took in the pained expression on her aunt's face. Looking around, she saw it mirrored on the others as they sat, staring at nothing.
“Is she hurt?” She went to Uzuri. “Aunt Uzuri, what’s wrong??”
“Oh my poor baby!”
Suddenly realizing that the worst had happened, she ran back to Isha and huddled against her warm body, bursting into tears. "I want my mommy!” she shrieked. “Aunt Isha, I want my mommy!"
Isha held her close with a paw. “We all want your mommy, but she’s gone.”
Kh'tel, one of the hyenas asked, "Am I to take that poor Beesa is dead?"
"You ARE to take it," Uzuri said sternly.
"Well then, the body is corban for a moon. That is the duration, isn't it?" With barely suppressed excitement, he said, "Pray tell, where is the body? We wouldn't want to trespass."
Uzuri showed her fangs. "You sure wouldn't! ‘Cause if you touch her, you will be our next meal!"
"Your Majesty," Kh'tel protested. "I merely tried to follow leonine custom. I resent these vile accusations."
"I'll show you vile accusations!" In a moment, Uzuri sprang on the hyena, pinning him to the ground. Other hyenas moved closer, threatening, but she barked, "Come one step closer and I'll kill him!"
"I forbid you to hurt him," Taka shouted. "Let him go!"
"Beesa is dead, and it's all his fault! Him and his kind! He doesn't touch her. Let the jackals have their fill, but I'll kill the first hyena that touches her!"
"I know you're upset," Taka said. "I'm sure you know you're overreacting here. We don't want a war, now, do we?"
Hyenas glared at her. Lionesses glared at the hyenas. It was a tinderbox just waiting to burst into flame.
"Let him go," Taka said sternly. "I'd hate to have to MAKE you let him go."
"You mean just you and I? One-on-one with no outside interference?" Uzuri had a fierce light in her eyes that froze Taka's blood. Clearly she could make good on her threat. "Are those your terms, Sire?"
Taka was clearly at a disadvantage. He squirmed inside, trying to think of something, anything, he could say and not live to regret.
Elanna said, "For the sake of the Gods, you two, concede the point. Let the hyena go, Uzuri. In return my husband will not punish you." She looked at Taka and half smiled. "Tell her you’ll let her go, dear. She’s reasonable."
Taka nodded. "Yes, yes. Elanna speaks for me. We're all friends here. We just have our misunderstandings." He stared at Uzuri. "Don't we, my dear?"
"Yes, Sire." She glared down at the still-trapped hyena and said, "We're all friends here." She kissed the hyena right on the end of the nose with a long, wet, drooling lick that made him gasp and sputter. "Mmmmm. Don't try to eat things that bite back, Hon. You might get invited to dinner."
When Kh'tel was released, he ran in blind panic from the cave, wiping his nose in the grass and trembling.
Elanna would speak with the hyena guards to pass the time. That they did not tell her the whole truth or that they lied to her did not seem to matter. In fact, what they said at all did not matter, as long as they said it to her and tried to smile.
She would try to entertain them with stories, but there came a point where she began to repeat herself and despite their polite smiles she knew she was boring them. Such was the depth of her desperation that she let them do so and kept on talking.
Then one day she was very upbeat and greeted Skulk with a rush of affection that made his hackles stand up. “Hello, sweetie!”
He stared at her in disbelief and swallowed hard. “Hello, your majesty.”
“You’re so cute when you try to be prim and proper.” She laughed emptily. “You know something? I have a little hunting advice for you. Never hunt moon hares when you’re really hungry.”
“Moon hares?” Skulk tilted his head and stared. “Is that some sort of lion slang?”
“No, silly.” She kissed his cheek, causing him to back up a step. “Moon hares. They come out at night and shine like the moon. I saw them dancing in the moonlight and I ate one. It was very good but when I swallowed it, the light came out my eyes, my ears, and my nostrils. So I couldn’t hunt anything else. They could see me coming.” She giggled. “I was so light on my feet. I went up the promontory, you know, and then I jumped. And I floated and floated down, down, down.”
Skulk sniffed, picking up an odd scent. A look of understanding came over his face. Then for a brief moment he felt genuine pity for the huntress.
“Why don’t you take a little nap, dear?” he said tenderly.
“But I need some company.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be here. You just lay down all nice and comfy and I’ll snuggle up, ok?”
“Aren’t you the sweetie!” she said, flopping down on the cool floor of the cave. Skulk came and lay against her back and closed his eyes.
Simba seemed ignorant of the fact that he was growing like a weed. His rough and ready play was cute once, but nature took its course, and the inevitable happened. One day he was playing with Pumbaa and gave the warthog a playful whack that sent him reeling. Pumbaa shook his head and tapped his ear with a forefoot as if to set his brain back in its socket.
“Hey, are you all right?”
“Nothing a good nap won’t fix. But please to remember to retract your claws, and watch that right cross, little guy.” Pumbaa sat back and regard the young lion, noting the lanky form and the smooth interplay of muscles across Simba’s shoulders that was becoming easily visible. “Really, you’re not such a little guy anymore.”
Timon had long since stopped playing with Simba, and directed his lighter moods into word games and riddles. Timon looked at Simba appraisingly. “When will you be grown up, and how big will you be?”
Simba furrowed his forehead in thought. “When I’m three, I’ll be a grown up, but I won’t get any bigger when I’m two and a half. I don’t know how big I’ll be.” He looked up at the angle he used to take to peer into his mother’s eyes. “Gee, I guess I’ll know when I’m two and a half.”
Simba was a work in progress. Every day, his potential unfolded like an opening flower, but there was one particular day when it really became real to him. He was playing with a tortoise near the water’s edge, batting it around playfully and finally knocking it into the creek. He came to the water, still rippling with the splash, but even then he noticed something odd about his reflection. Waiting until it stilled, he took in a deep breath and let it out in a shout of delight.
"Timon! Pumbaa!! Check it OUT!" He reached back with a paw and trembling with joy stroked the first russet hairs of his emerging mane. "Look, it’s happening!"
"What, what?" Timon looked up from the pursuit of a lovely red beetle, annoyed at the interruption. "WHAT’S happening??"
Simba was prancing around so quickly that they couldn’t see what the big deal was. "Look guys, just LOOK!"
"Hold it! What is it, kid?"
"Look at my mane, guys! I got a mane coming in!"
Pumbaa stares, entranced. "Wow! You really DO have a mane coming in!"
"Yeah!" Simba grinned again. "Cool!"
Timon smiled, but uncertainly. "That's nice and all if it’s your thing, but what's the deal about manes, anyway?"
Simba looked at him as if Timon had asked him for the reason behind breathing. "What's the big deal?? A mane is...." He thought a moment. “Well the girls dig it.”
His euphoria faded rapidly as he pondered the odds of a girl noticing him at all. The lion population of the jungle was notoriously small; currently, it was running at exactly one. He regarded the wall of greenery around him with sudden dislike; it seemed cloying, the scents of rotten vegetation and flowers abruptly nauseating.
“Girls! Oy!” Timon looked at him and shook his head. “Girls are trouble. Nothing but trouble. I mean, what girl ever took care of you the way we do?”
Simba thought a moment. “My mother.”
“Oh. Good point.” Timon looked down at his feet and shuffled them in the dust. “Well you know what I mean.”
“Nala, too.” Simba took in a deep breath and let it out. “You know, we had this funny hornbill named Zazu. He used to watch out for us, and one day he said that Nala and I were—uh--I think the word was betrothed. It means we were going to be married someday.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“I said that was really weird. I mean, she was my best friend.”
A look crossed Simba’s face as if someone had punched him right in the stomach. He turned around and looked back at the water. “Good old Nal. I guess she has another boyfriend now.” His lips tightened as a tear of regret ran down his cheek and splashed in the water, leaving little silver rings. “Gods, I wish I could see her one more time. And my mother.” He knelt and looked at his visage in the water again. “I’m so alone!”
“Not that again,” Timon said with a sigh. “How many times do I have to tell you--you have us. We’re your family, kid. We won’t let you down.”
Pumbaa suddenly erupted into tears, surprising everyone. "Ohhh, now you're gonna leave us!"
"What??” Simba looked around. “Leave you??”
Timon looked around. “Leave us??”
Pumbaa said, "When your mane grows in, it means your grown up, right?"
Pumbaa bawled with renewed vigor. "You’ll want to leave the nest! You won’t want a daddy anymore!"
"What’s that got to do with it? I mean, we lions don’t go off alone unless we HAVE to. Well, I don't wanna leave.” He looked at them apprehensively. “You...you guys won’t kick me out, will you?"
“Heavens, no!” Timon said earnestly, patting him. “We’re a gleesome threesome! I mean, hey kid, we, like, love you.” His face drew down in a set expression. “There. I’ve said it.”
Simba regarded him silently for a moment, overwhelmed. “Well, I, like, love you guys too. There, I’ve said it back.” Simba smiled craftily and shouted, “Everyone into the pool!” Before Timon and Pumbaa could budge, he sprang, launching his body, now weighing well over a hundred pounds, into the air over the pond, sailing down to belly-flop into the water in a tremendous geyser that showered his companions. Pumbaa shrieked with glee, rolling delightedly in the muddy bank. His friend, however, was not so amused.
Timon stood trembling, legs akimbo, his fur utterly drenched with mud and water. He uttered an incoherent growl as he gritted his teeth and shook his fist at Simba. “Oy! What IS it with you guys?! Are you part frog, or what?!”
A small toad near the water’s edge emitted a small croak.
Timon glared hotly at it. “Aw, shaddap!”
CHAPTER 29: MOST WONDERFUL OF CALAMITIES
Taka’s espousal of Elanna had come when he was supposedly mourning his brother and Simba. But one day there came the most wonderful and yet frightening change in him. He came in to see Elanna as she lay in the cool of the cave. The blistering heat had soaked his golden body with sweat, and taken the fire from his eyes and the joy from his heart.
That’s when a small miracle happened. “Husband, I know that there is not enough food to go around. But there is someone that wants to join the pride.
“Someone I know?”
“No, not yet.”
“We have so little as it is. Male or female?”
“I don’t know.”
“You talked to them, and you don’t know? Was it a cub or something?”
“Or something,” she said. “I sensed the change in my body a few days ago, but today I’m sure. Taka, you are very clever, but you haven’t seen the light in my eyes?”
“The light in your eyes?” The hair on his back stood up. “You mean I’m going to be a father?”
“Please don’t be upset with me. We’ll have to stretch things a little, but we’ll make it somehow.”
“Upset??” Tears came to his eyes and he nuzzled her, fondling her ears and cheek with his large paw and kissing her. “I love you, Lannie. My dear, precious girl. Upset?? I’m delighted! Oh gods, I’d almost forgotten there was beauty or laughter in the world. Lannie, I will give you sons and daughters. You will fill the world with beauty.”
She kissed away his tears. “Go tell the world.”
He came running out to the end of the promontory of Pride Rock and shouted, “Listen, all of you! Elanna is with child!” He practically danced like a cub. “I’m going to be a father!”
Taka felt this small life would love him the way he loved Ahadi. The rest of the Pride Lands be cursed, this small treasure of his beloved would be his, fully his, and he would worship it. Be it male or female, it would be heaven and earth for him, even God. Surely there would be no unfairness in Taka’s heart. If he had twin sons, the kingdom would be divided upon his death. Never would he inflict on his own the pain and suffering he felt. And he decided something else as well, something dark and sinister. For the safety of his own, the day Elanna gave birth would be the day Rafiki died. He gave explicit instructions on this to his hyena guard. The curse would not live on in his children.
There was no parade of lionesses coming to congratulate the happy pair. Only a few hyenas came by to fawn on him, seeking to ingratiate themselves. He despised this—it made the missing lionesses all the more obvious.
Then came Fabana. She squirmed with delight. “I told you not to die, didn’t I? I told you that love would come, and it has.” She stood up on her hind legs and put her rough arms around Taka’s mane and kissed him. “I’m so happy!”
Taka purred deeply, kissed her with his large tongue and stroked her gently with his large paw. “I wondered when you’d come. You’re the first one I wanted to tell about little Fabana.”
“Little Fabana!” She kissed him again. “Aren’t you the big sweetie! Yes you are!” He chuckled and rolled over like a big cub, batting at her lightly with his huge paw.
CHAPTER 30: TIES OF BLOOD
A dead hornbill lay where it had died on top of Pride Rock. Taka found the bird as he began his morning patrol, and he paused for a moment “Zazu, is this how it ends?” A few red spots showed the bird had been snagged by a hawk and managed to get away, only to die later from loss of blood.
When Taka carefully flipped over the carcass, he saw that it was not Zazu. Still to see an otherwise healthy bird laying dead from a sudden and unexpected blow made him thoughtful. He remembered that he owed his life to a quick and heroic act at birth, then he was plucked from a badger hole by his brother just in the nick of time. That both of the people who helped him ended up severely punished did not bother him. It was the narrow creek that separated life from death, one that could easily be crossed in a single bound—though no one ever jumped back. He shuddered as he walked, thinking of his own death for the first time since he stood at the brink of the gorge.
He stepped on something and a long, thin body whipped up and struck him in the side. Taka shrieked and bolted a few lengths before he dared look back. It was not a snake, only a branch.
Long past the point of just forgetting the whole train of thought, Taka was faced with planning for the future when he would be no more.
That he would have a son someday, he was sure. What to call the son? That was usually the mother’s job, but he would insist on N’ga—the sun—for most of Taka’s life he had been Sufa—the moon—round and large as the sun but always outshone by far. “Not my son,” Taka said. “He will be respected. He will be obeyed. He will be LOVED and anyone that doesn’t love him will answer to ME.”
There was the possibility that Nala would be N’ga’s mate. Of course, it would have to be Nala—the dipping of the branch said she would be queen someday, not that she would be Simba’s queen. It was possible that some force beyond what he could see or touch had anointed her, but even if it hadn’t the others would believe it and their allegiance would be secured.
Figuring that out was the easy part. Getting Nala to like him and his unborn son was another matter. “I’ll have to put on the old charm,” Taka said with a conceited snicker. “Seems I learned more from a dead hornbill in one hour then I learned from Zazu in a whole year.”
Only two and a half moons after Elanna married Taka, she began having contractions.
Taka came running into the cave. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m in pain. Something is wrong! Terribly wrong!”
Just then he noticed the blood. He is in a panic. “You’re not due for two phases!” Looking about helplessly, he shouts, “Midwives! Come quick!”
Sarafina and Isha come quickly. They took one look at her, and they were grim. “We need herbs. Your Majesty, Rafiki has always helped with these things. We really can’t do much without him.”
Rafiki was banished from the pride lands but that did not stop Taka from sending for him.
When Rafiki showed up, Taka bowed before him, closing his eyes tightly. “No matter how you feel about me, you must save the child. In whatever God's name you believe in, you must save the child! "I'll do anything, anything! You can go free. I'll make sure you never have to work hard again! Oh God, do you have a heart of stone??"
Rafiki asked, “How long has she been in pain?”
“About an hour.”
“An hour?” He buried his face in his hands. “Oh Lord, so little time, and so much I must do.”
“What do you need? I’ll send help with you. Take Sarafina—ride her back if you need to. But hurry!”
But did not even get to leave the cave before Isha, bearing a small dead cub, went past.
"Put him down!" Taka said. “Rafiki is here! He’ll think of something!” The lion turned to stare at the mandrill wild-eyed. "Rafiki, do something! Anything! I’ve not been kind to you of late, but you loved me once!”
“I love you still.”
“Then save my cub!!"
No longer was he the mighty Taka. Once again he was little frightened Fru Fru needing a favor.
Rafiki picked up the infant and hugged it. Tears came to his eyes. “So tiny. So beautiful. Such a waste.” Rafiki looks at Taka with some pity. "The ka is already with the gods. It can not return."
Isha touched Taka with her tongue. "Bayete. We must take it to the eastern meadow."
“Wait,” Taka said. “Let me see my child.” With pain etching his face, the dark maned lion drew close to the tiny premature cub. As gently as a whisper, his large paw turned the small, limp body around where he could see the face. “A son.” His chin trembled and tears welled up. “You saved me. Breathe into him! Make him alive again!! Use your power, please??” Through the grief came a stab of rage. Taka charged and cornered Rafiki into a recess in the cave wall. “I asked you nicely, dammit! Now you will save my son or I’ll rip you alive!!”
“I can’t,” Rafiki said. “I couldn’t bring my own daughter back from the dead. Will killing me help?”
Taka stared at him for a while, his breath making his nostrils heave. At last his head slumped under a burden of grief. "Leave my sight. Go!”
“I am not unmoved,” Rafiki said. “I do love you and I feel your pain. Let me see if....”
Sarafina, with genuine pity, told Taka, “You will have no more heirs. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, right. Now leave me. All of you!”
He had a short period of grief where he went out on the promontory under the stars. “Ahadi! Father! I am lost! I wish I could believe in you!” He sobbed, then cried, “If there is a God, please help me!”
Fabana crept stealthily out onto the point and sat by him, resting her head on him. She did not say a word--she did not have to.
He roared. The lionesses took it up. There was no doubt what it meant.
Just then Taka felt the odd sensations that portended an attack. "Damn! I can't even grieve in peace! If there is a God, why can’t I have my dignity now??"
Taka’s legs buckled. He collapsed and began to twitch. Elanna looked and saw her husband’s predicament. She tried to drag herself over to him and tell everyone to get away, but she hadn’t the strength.
Of course the hyenas were watching. They were puzzled by his strange behavior—some felt it was the extremity of his grief, but others were suspicious of something more sinister.
The next day, Nala headed to the cave to get her lessons from Taka himself. A lesson that would no doubt be sweetened with food from the king’s private stash.
She found Taka sitting morosely in the corner as Elanna lay sprawled on the floor with a couple of hyenas in attendance. The healers were trying to get her to eat unpleasant herbs and drink bitter potions when her stomach would hardly hold down choice meat.
One of the hyenas glared at Nala. “What are YOU doing here??”
“I’m here for my lesson,” she said.
“But what about my lesson?”
“Get lost or I’ll teach you a lesson!”
“I’ll handle this,” Taka said impatiently. “Look, Nala, the prince is dead. There will be no more lessons.”
Nala gasped, laid back her ears, then came to the king and rubbed against him. “I’m sorry, Uncle Taka.”
“I’m not your Uncle!” he said firmly. “I’m your King! Remember that!”
She quailed. “Yes, sir.”
“Now go play in the creek or something.”
“May I come back tomorrow?”
Taka’s brow furrowed. “No you may not come back tomorrow! Get out and stay out till I call for you!”
Life around Pride Rock had taken on an odd, cyclical nature, brought on by Taka's equally odd behavior. Always notoriously short tempered, his rages took on a new magnitude after the miscarriage that was frightening in that they were brought on by the most insignificant of actions. The lionesses began to steer clear of his path, and even Elanna was careful in the way she spoke to her husband on some days. The lion strode through the Pride Lands like a dark maned storm, and when he began to take long walks in the night hours, Elanna was perhaps the only one who did not feel some sense of relief at his departures. The tension level dropped considerably in the king’s absence, reaching its ebb upon his return when it began to climb once again.
Taka's sojourns were often aimless, with the implied excuse that he was 'inspecting the borders' or something else to that effect. His walks indeed often took him to the edges of his land, and he saw to it that the occasional shrub or tree was marked to keep up appearances, but border patrol was the last thing he was concerned with. These walks were not meant to keep intruders out, but to keep his sanity in, before the constant stress and strain of keeping the pride and the hyenas from each others throats drove him to utter distraction.
Over time, Taka began to frequent an area to the west of Pride Rock, a small group of rocks that was upthrust from the savanna earth in a loose jumble of stone. Hardly worthy of any more designation other than a landmark, to call it a kopje would have been laughable. Whimsically, he called it his 'thinking place,' if for no other reason than to give it a name, and more often than not a particularly stressful day would send him out to his thinking place to sit by himself, ponder the stars, and attempt to seek out his emotional balance again.
After a heated debate with Shenzi and Yolanda that took perhaps half the evening to resolve (the lionesses had grown quite testy upon finding hyenas in their new sleeping places, while for the hyenas, the novelty of sleeping on Pride Rock had worn off), Taka excused himself and set out over the savanna, dismissing his guards for the evening in an attempt to find some small bit of privacy. The quiet voice of the savanna breeze lulled him, and the tension of the day slowly began to drain from him as he thought fondly of his own private rock. A small smile teased the corners of his muzzle, and he broke into a trot, anxious to curl his lanky form atop the small kopje and enjoy a few peaceful moments alone. Topping the final rise before his goal, the lion froze in place, staring, his jaw slightly agape.
The moon, still rising, shone from over his shoulder, its silver beams alighting upon the dusky fur of the lioness that lay perched atop the rocks, her eyes reflecting twin points of crimson light that held him transfixed. Her tail, the tuft twirling about languorously, moved in a gentle arc that never quite touched her sides. Lighter colored belly fur gleamed at him demandingly, arresting his attention until the soft voice caressed his ears.
“Hello, Sire. I’ve been expecting you.”
Taka blinked, his stunned expression rearranging itself into annoyance. “Zira? What are YOU doing here?”
“Waiting for you.” Her eyes lidded themselves, muting the glimmering wonder within. “I was beginning to worry.”
“Well, you needn’t have bothered. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I AM a big boy, you know.”
Her whiskers twitched slightly in a smile. “I’m well aware of that.”
“Don’t patronize me,” Taka snarled, stalking back and forth slowly. “How long have you been spying on me out here?”
“I’ve been FOLLOWING you out here for almost a moon.” Her tail flickered again. “I’ve never SPIED on you. As soon as you settled down, I’d leave, and wait by the path until I heard you returning.”
His eyes narrowed to slits. “And who’ve you told about this?”
“No one.” Her smile flashed softly at him again. “It’ll be our little secret.”
“I should think not.” The lion snorted, his brow furrowed thunderously. “I have no need to share my private life with anyone.”
“Then why’d you take a mate?” she said with sudden bitterness. “Come off it, Taka...you have as much a need to share your problems and confide in someone as anyone else. Becoming king didn’t make you a god, even though you’re almost as unreachable as one.”
“So we’re back to THAT again, eh? I told you, I HAVE a queen--”
“I NEVER wanted to be your Queen, you idiot!” Zira’s voice shook as the words tore at her throat and heart. “I didn’t ask you to share my time with me to try and get power, or a nicer sleeping place, or even a better place at the kills. If I want those, I’ll get them myself, my OWN way.” Her eyes locked on his, violent crimson to brilliant green. “I want a father to my cubs, one who understands how much more important his family is instead of his position or how much land he has. THAT was why I never wanted Mufasa. I wanted you.” Her eyes brimmed with tears, then overflowed, staining the fur dark on her cheeks.
“You could turn them to tears of joy.”
Taka stared at her for a moment. “I-I can’t,” he stammered. “Elanna would never understand--”
“Oh gods,” Zira moaned. “Taka, I’m not trying to take her place. I don’t want to replace her.” Her voice weakened. “You don’t even have to love me, really...I can feel enough love for both of us. I’ve heard you both talking about cubs. Well, I want that, too. I want to have children, children that I can watch grow up, and know that they’re safe in their father’s care. I know Elanna would give you this if she could. Now give ME a chance. I am fertile ground, a place where cubs can grow and blossom like jasmine. Cubs, Taka. YOUR cubs. Your son!” Her voice dropped until it was nearly a whisper, barely heard above the wind. “You need a son to take the burden of your old age. I’m offering you an heir. Is that so wrong?”
His emerald eyes held her in their gaze. “Are you being serious with me? Are you really willing to warm my belly if I belong to another? Just to bear my cubs?”
Zira glanced up at him quickly, her whiskers trembling. “If that’s the only way I can have you.” She looked down and growled weakly, “Don’t tease me, just tell me yes or no.”
Taka paced over quietly and nosed one of her paws where it lay draped upon the rocks. “I would not toy with someone willing to share such a secret with me.” He smiled slightly. “Even if I AM a one-eyed freak.”
“Taka...you know I didn’t mean that--”
“I know,” he said, cutting her off softly. “We say things in the heat of anger that we do not mean, and yet they have a grain of truth. Look at me.”
She turned away.
“I said LOOK at me!”
He roughly turned her face to look into his. His nostrils flared strongly as he drew in her scent, rubbing his cheek along the top of her forepaw. “Do you want this? Not the idea of it, but THIS?”
She looked at him unflinchingly. “With all my heart. I know I’m no Elanna, but I’m just as real. I have the same hopes and dreams. You don’t have to be beautiful to fall in love.”
“You’re beautiful and you know it,” Taka said, a deeply disturbed look on his face that could be either anger or repressed passion.
“Am I beautiful? Do you really think so?” She began to paw his face and touch him with her pink tongue. “Tell me again that I’m beautiful! Even if I’m not, I will be! Oh Taka, I love you!”
Taka’s ears laid flat and he began to pant. “I love Lannie--I always will. And yet girl, when I look at you, I want to take you down. I want to fill you with sons. I want to drink from your spring and fill my senses with your beauty.”
“Then do it! Fill me with sons! Stand over me, press close to me, make love to me! I’ll do anything, I’ll be anything, but please don’t reject me! Please??”
“The very thought shames me,” he said quietly, “but now you make it sound like a duty, not a crime. So if you want me, you shall have me, but I warn you the hunter shall claim his kill and finish every scrap!”
“You have caught me,” Zira said, her chin trembling. “Finish every scrap! Leave nothing for the jackals!” She flexed her forepaw, caressing his cheek, the claws so like his making tiny furrows in his dusky fur. “My pleasures are for you.”
“I want them,” he said, his breath coming in shallow gulps, “I want all of them!”
“You have them,” she said. Uncurling, she rose to her feet and leapt lightly down to stand beside him, rubbing his lanky form full length, a deep, throbbing purr unrolling from her chest. “Come, then. Let us hide from the eyes of night.”
As a lover, Zira was a master of her art. She sought to please Taka in every way, filling him with her intoxicating fragrance, teasing him to distraction, then taking him to heights of pleasure that made his head swim. Where Elanna was the queen of Taka’s heart, Zira possessed his body, enlisting all his hidden exotic fantacies to make him a slave of her pleasures. She did all the things that “good” lionesses only spoke of in naughty whispers. He would come to her quietly, not wanting to make Elanna sorrowful, but she would soon overcome his shame with promises of ecstasy.
“Taka, let’s try something.” She whispered some words excitedly in his ear.
The lion giggled nervously. “Come on, girl! Be serious!”
“I AM serious!”
“But it would never reach!”
“It would if you knew the secret.” She whispered something else in his ear.
“You must be kidding,” he said, his jaw dropping.
“Let me prove it to you.”
“Sure thing, Honey Tree. Let’s have a go at it.”
“Yes, lover. Set me on fire, then let me snuggle into your mane and listen to your star lore. I love the sound of your voice and the way you make every ordinary thing seem so special.”
“I’d better not.”
“Because I might fall in love with you.”
Zira moaned and her eyes tightly shut. “You say that like it’s so awful. To love the mother of your son!”
“We had clear expectations from the start. Do you want what I offered you or do you want another?”
Zira’s chin trembled and she stroked his face with her paw. “I guess I’ll have to love enough for both of us. But Taka, always remember how you felt when you loved Sarabi so desperately. Whatever you feel, or don’t feel, I will love you till my heart stops and my eyes grow dim. I love you, darling, and that love will make your son beautiful.”
“Don’t cry,” Taka said, kissing her cheek softly, then rubbing her full length and pressing on her hip with his paw. “Let’s drown our sorrows in pleasure. Crouch with me.”
CHAPTER 32: A FLOWER FOR ELANNA
Elanna headed stealthily into the grove of trees that held on to a trace of their green because of a spring. It’s attraction to her was not an animal to kill, but a different kind of prey, a flower that grew by the water.
Taka it seemed was fond of plants himself, but for a far different reason. He would often come home to Elanna fragrant with mint and damp from bathing. Though he told Elanna it was a treatment suggested by a hyena healer, she could detect enough of Zira’s scent on him through the mask to know he’d been enjoying her pleasures. She never spoke of it openly, afraid to lose what of him she still possessed.
As Taka had sought consolation in the body of another, Elanna had a secret source of strength. Once when she had been very ill, Rafiki gave her a herb to calm her fears and raise her low spirits. Elanna had learned how to recognize it and had spotted where it grew. Wild genetian gave her the courage to face her lover still musky from exploring her rival in ways he had once reserved for her. Wild genetian made her able to look at Zira in the eye without either tearing at her or sobbing at her feet.
The only problem with wild genetian was its maddening trait of losing its effectiveness. She had to take larger and larger amounts of the plant to have the same effect. She had to use larger doses just to get by, to sleep, to exist.
She had to be careful to keep Taka from following her and to conceal her wanderings from the hyena spies. She knew if word of her trips to the spring got out that they would come to an end. What would she do then? Where would she turn for strength?
The inviting bubble of the water would have tempted her for a drink, but she had only one thirst and she must satisfy it before all others.
Glancing about she sought the shiny green leaves and pink blossoms of her prey.
Yes, it had grown more scarce. Just the day before she had to hunt for nearly an hour to find enough to placate her jangled nerves. She knew she had a long hunt ahead of her, something she could ill afford.
Late that evening Elanna stumbled in to see Rafiki, something she did at great risk to herself. Trying to force a calm voice, she said, “Rafiki, old friend, I’ve been a little depressed.”
“It’s so good to see you again, my dear.”
“Thanks, but about my depression—I need help.”
“No talk, my friend. I just need some wild genetian. Trust me, I know my herbs.”
“Ah, so you want to be the shaman now? Well, I may have one or two flowers.”
“One or two?” She glanced at him frantically. “I need more than that.”
“More than that?” He looked at her suspiciously. “Girl, what have you been up to?”
“I asked you for help. Can you help me? The patch by the wadi is all out...where can I find more??"
“I can’t help you. The only thing to do is to stop.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“You'll stop one of two ways-breaking the habit or dying. Just stop. It's hell but stop. Or you will die.”
“You know where everything is! Tell me where to find it!”
“No, I can’t.”
"If you love me."
"I love you---but NO!"
“Tell me or I’LL KILL YOU!”
She pulled back her paw to swipe him claws out…then stopped, retracted her claws, and stroked the mandrill’s cheek softly. Tears began to stream down her cheeks. "I’m not myself today. I haven’t been for a long time.” She let out a long sigh. “I once brought down a water buffalo by myself. Now a pretty little flower has me by the throat. Good Lord Aiheu, I’m being destroyed by a FLOWER!"
The mandrill stroked her. “Tell me how long you have been taking it.”
“Oh, I’m not sure. Several moons, I think.”
“Several moons??” He sighed.
“Is that bad news?”
Rafiki looked away. “My dear, it finally makes sense to me. I wondered why you had that miscarriage.”
She gasped, as if an impala horn had stove her through. “Oh God! Good Lord Aiheu! That means I killed Taka’s son! It’s my fault—all my fault! What if he finds out?? Swear you’ll never tell him! Swear it, Rafiki!”
Rafiki put his arms around her neck. “I swear. I’d never tell him, my dear. But it’s not all your fault. The heart loves whom it will, and you gave yours to someone who needs all your strength, but has little to give. I can only imagine what you have gone through, and why you might look for something to ease the pain.”
She looked intently at him. “I won’t speak ill of my husband,” she said quietly, “but loving him has not been easy. If ever I become one of the Nisei when I die…”
“Don’t SAY that! You’re a good girl! A good, good person!”
“If I am a good person, it is because I gave up everything for him. Now I will give up this for him—if I died he would have no one.”
Rafiki kissed her. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
In a private paradise behind Antelope Kopje, Zira gasped under Taka’s trembling body, the dark centers of her eyes turned to tiny dots by the approach of passionate fulfilment. “Oh gods, yes! Yes! Oh gods, YES!”
In a private hell behind Elephant Kopje, Elanna’s trembling body was being pinned down by Uzuri so she would not run from her phantoms. “They’re going to get me! They’re going to get me! Oh gods!! Make them go away!! Zuri, make them go away!!”
Zira took a playful swat at Taka after some particularly rough sex, then giggling, she rolled on her back, sighed deeply, and closed her eyes to drowse.
Elanna after a particularly violent episode of halucinations, began to weep and rolled on her back exhausted. Only she did not dare sleep. Uzuri stayed by her side while Taka stayed by Zira’s side.
Five days had passed. Five days in which Taka had given no thought to the consequences of his act, or even tried to look five minutes ahead. Then the flush of his lionhood had been exhausted and even Zira’s tempest of desire gave way to the quiet after the storm. They had lived on love, but needed something in their bellies and a return to routine.
Taka guiltily stalked to the entrance of his cave. “Lannie! Where’s my girl!”
A few moments passed without a sound or movement.
“Lannie? Honey Tree? It’s your husband.”
At the word “husband” he felt a stab of remorse. Poor Elanna, how she had suffered for his sake and this is how he repaid her!
Finally a weak but presentable shadow of the lioness he pledged to came to the mouth of the cave. “Welcome home, dear.” She came and nuzzled him.
He was fragrant from mint and damp from bathing and unable to really look her in the eyes. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t see how bloodshot and tired her eyes were. Still he could sense that was something wrong, though he couldn’t figure out quite what it was.
“Are you all right, my dear?” Taka asked. “You look a bit worn down, and your eyes...”
“It was just a cold. I’m already getting better. Really I am.” She nuzzled him. “Tell me, honey tree, do you ever regret that you took me for your queen?”
“What a thing to say! You have been everything to me—mother, sister, lover, friend—my whole world and all for no good thing that I have done to deserve it.” He stroked her with a paw, more guilt stabbing him at that moment than ever did over his brother’s death. "You know I love you, don't you, Lannie?"
She looked at him. "Yes, in your own special way, dear. I'm sure you do or I couldn't go on. Promise you’ll never leave me."
“I promise, Lannie. I promise.”
CHAPTER 33: ZIRA’S NEWS
A moon had passed. During that time Taka could barely meet Zira’s eyes directly, and he fawned upon Elanna, showering her with affection. The lion would appear at dusk on occasion with a savanna hare, sitting back with an exhausted smile as his beloved devoured his efforts with evident relish. The hares were getting harder and harder to find, and the ones he did manage to catch were poor specimens, but Elanna never complained, but rather exclaimed over how wonderful it was, and “oh, Taka, you shouldn’t have, you’re going to spoil me rotten.” In truth, the poor little animals were rather tough and gamey, but it was a small lie between the two of them that both were aware of, one obscured by the purpose of such gifts.
Then little by little Zira began to seek Taka out again, sending him meaningful glances and carefully hidden hints that she wanted to see him alone. This resurgence of her interest in him brought out mixed feelings…eager anticipation and self hatred.
When the tension was too much for him to stand, he decided to talk—just talk—with Zira and sort out his feelings once and for all. So the next time she motioned for him to come away with her alone he did so, knowing he had an unpleasant surprise in store for her.
Instead she had the surprise. “Taka, my lover, it’s been one moon since we made love.”
“And the time has come again? Zira, about that….”
“The time has NOT come again!” She sprang on him, nuzzling his face and pawing his mane with a mixture of pride and affection. “I’m carrying your cubs, my darling!” She began to nuzzle him desperately, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I wasn’t sure before, but I’m sure now. You wanted to name your son Fabana…now you shall have your Fabana! Tell the world!”
Taka nuzzled her briefly and touched her with his tongue, but he was strangely somber. “The world will know soon enough.”
“Honey Tree, what’s wrong? Aren’t you happy?”
“Yes, Zira. I am very happy. Your son will be the next king and I will love your cubs. But I need time to break this gently to Lannie. She’s rather fragile right now, and I’m afraid the news would kill her.”
Zira’s face fell and she looked down. “You’re ashamed of me, aren’t you?”
“Not you. Not my cubs. I’m ashamed of myself. Zira, you deserve someone better, someone you don’t have to sneak about with in the reeds.”
“Then you really don’t love me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then you do?”
“I didn’t say that either.”
The lioness’ brow furrowed, a hard glint in her amber eyes. “Taka, you’re the father of my cubs. What ARE you saying?”
“I’m saying I’m ashamed of myself. I’ve hurt everyone that’s ever loved me. First Sarabi, then Elanna, and now you. Everyone thinks the curse is a joke, that I’m a foolish, superstitious lion.” His lip curled as his tone grew bitter. “If you don’t know the truth by now, you’ll never figure it out.”
Zira stroked his mane with a paw. “I will never leave you. And as much as it pains me, neither will Elanna. Forget the curse. You have brought life into the world—you should be happy.”
“You’re right,” Taka said, kissing her again. “I need a male heir. I hope there’s one in there.”
“If there’s not, we’ll simply try again.” She smiled wickedly and added, “And even if there is, we’ll try again anyway!”
CHAPTER 34: CANDLE UNDER A BUSHEL
The name Nuka was chosen by Taka himself against the time honored tradition of a mother’s choice. Zira’s son would not be Fabana, an obvious ploy to hide his fatherhood from Elanna till he was ready to break the news. Indeed, when Nuka was born she had to content herself with a rather late afternoon visit from the king when the other lionesses had left for the hunt.
She was bitter when he first stalked into the cave, but her heart quickly melted when she saw Taka like an overgrown cub with joy. Indeed, she had to work to keep him from accidentally hurting the tiny male with his enthusiasm. The thought of Zira’s pregnancy had unnerved him, but to actually see the tiny cub and know his life had been passed on in him brought out a sense of wonder in him that he had not felt in a long time.
"Who do you think did it, Lannie?"
"Hrm?" Elanna blinked rapidly and lifted her head to see Uzuri peering at her amusedly. "What did you say?"
"I didn't know I was THAT boring." The hunt mistress nosed Elanna and pawed her idly. "Why don't you get some rest, hon? You look exhausted."
"I'm fine," the queen insisted. "I was just distracted. What did you say, now?"
"I asked you about Zira's cub."
"Yes. I asked you who you thought his father was." Uzuri smiled wickedly. "Who do you think it would take to satisfy Miss Sourpuss herself?"
Elanna rubbed her forepaws along the earth moodily and glanced up at Pride Rock. "I don't know, really...he favors her looks in a lot of ways." Her ears laid flat and her stomach began to tense into a knot. She knew all too well who Nuka’s father was. "He has really pretty eyes, did you notice?"
Uzuri nodded, peering at her friend knowingly. "Not at all like Taka's."
The queen looked up sharply. "What do you mean by that?"
"I'm stating a fact," Uzuri said calmly. "I'm also telling you to get some rest and quit worrying about it, Lannie. If nothing else, Taka makes it clear how much he loves you."
"Am I THAT obvious?" Elanna's ears lay flat in embarrassment, but she also secretly craved the tiny chance Nuka was not her mate’s love child.
"Not really. I'm the only other one you talk to about it besides yourself." Uzuri licked her own cubs tenderly as they lay sleeping beside her, then lifted her head and eyed Elanna sternly. "From the impersonal point of hunt mistress, you're exhausted, distracted, and totally unfit for duty in ANY capacity. I'd sooner go out alone than try and take you with me on a hunting maneuver."
She nodded slowly, her jaw quivering slightly. "And from the personal point of view?"
"From the personal point of view, I'm worried about a friend who's giving too much of herself and then thinking its inadequate." Uzuri nuzzled her companion's shoulder, feeling the tenseness in the muscles beneath. "Lannie, for your own sake, take some time out and let the world take care of itself for awhile."
Elanna smiled faintly. "I'll do the best I can, I promise."
Uzuri laughed and kissed her friend's cheek. "Lannie, it's not another duty for you to perform. Either you relax, or you don't."
"Okay, okay, I get the point." The queen pawed Uzuri's face gently. "Thanks...I owe you for this." Straightening, Elanna left the hunt mistress to nurse her cubs and trotted out, humming softly to herself. Pausing momentarily outside the cavern entrance, she turned and headed downslope, turning and breasting the grasses at the base of Pride Rock as she headed round its side. Offset in one of the rear areas of the mountain was a rough and tumble pile of rocks, beneath which Zira had selected her sleeping spot as well as the place in which to bear her cub. Elanna decided she would visit the lioness again, perhaps exchange a few words and see how well the reclusive new mother was doing. Perhaps that was her problem, she thought. A queen should always be interested in the well being of her pridesisters. As huntmistress, Uzuri found it a practical necessity to make sure her hunting mates were all in top condition, yet she never made it seem like a duty, but more a personal thing; the hunt mistress's care for their health extended beyond the obvious self interest into a personal concern for her friends.
A queen ought to have the same duty, Elanna decided, only it shouldn't just be a duty to her, either. Maybe if she proved to the others that she wasn't aloof and uncaring, the tense silence which descended upon them whenever she passed by might at least ease up, if not disappear entirely. What she would do to hear a cheerful hello from her pridemates again! And maybe just to see something on her own sister's face, to see Sarabi smile at her again and to lie together in the sun as they used to...for that, Elanna, decided, she would give anything.
Her thoughts dissolved as she heard a familiar voice issuing from Zira's cavern. Pausing for a moment, Elanna crouched down and crept a bit closer until she could make out the words clearly. Her ears flattened as she recognized her husband's voice, and the lower, more sibilant tone of Zira.
"...do see that I keep my promises, don't you? Your son, Taka...your son, and the future king."
"He does look quite the lad, doesn't he?" A low purr rolled out of the cavern. "But I can't name him my heir...not now, at any rate."
Elanna swallowed thickly, her heart pounding in her ears. "Aiheu, no! No! I’d hoped…." Her voice was a faint whisper, barely heard above her own breathing. "Oh God! Oh my God!"
"Why not?" Zira's tone was sharper now. "He's your son. You have the right to do whatever you want, as you said yourself. You're the king."
"Do you think Elanna would accept him?" Taka's voice had grown acerbic as well. "As a regular child, yes. But not as my heir. I couldn't ask her to do that."
"Then don't ask! You're the king!"
"Yes, I am! But she is also my queen!"
“Your queen is whoever you choose!”
“And I’ve chosen her! You know I love her, Zira. I’ve grown to appreciate you and all you do for me, but I’m not going to hurt that girl for ANY reason. That is non-negotiable, impossible, not going to happen.” The lion’s tail swished about behind him angrily. “I will discuss this no further.”
Zira glared at him a moment longer, then dropped her eyes to stare at the ground sullenly. “As you will.”
Elanna broke away, turning about and running back toward Pride Rock, her vision shattering into a bright prism of colors as she fought her tears. Several hyenas stared at her curiously, but none dared comment before her as she loped up the slopes of her home and entered the welcome darkness of the cavern she and Taka shared.
There she collapsed to the stony floor, her frame shuddering as she gave vent to a series of harsh sobs that welled up from within. “Oh gods, Taka, why? Why did it have to come to this?”
The faint chuckling of the hyena guards outside trickled into her ears, and she buried her muzzle under her paws, blotting out sight and smell, her ears laying flat against her head. Oh, to close off the world and feel no more pain!
A soft touch at her shoulder startled her into awareness. “Lannie?” Lifting her head, she saw Taka standing over her, his features consumed in worry. “Lannie, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
“I’m worried about you,” she said, her voice wavering unsteadily. “I don’t know what’s happening anymore.”
Taka shook his head, misunderstanding her comment. “You needn’t worry, my love; I can handle the headaches and the fits as long as they don’t get too bad.” His haunches folded under him as he sat down, his eyes clouding for a moment. "Damn that ape! I bet he'd have something for me, but do you think I'd let him know I was sick? Hell, if I die, Lannie, you have him killed at once so he won't be around to gloat about it!"
The intensity in his eyes sent a shiver coursing through her, and she looked away. “I wish you wouldn’t talk about that. I don’t like to think about what would happen if you died.” Her tail stirred restlessly behind her. “You’re all that keeps those hyenas at bay. Do you think they’d really listen to me if you were gone? Don’t you hear the way they talk about me when they think we can’t hear them? They’re ALWAYS out there, listening to us!” A choked cry escaped her, and she clawed the stone before her in frustration. “I HATE them!”
“If I ever found out one knew, I’d kill him.”
Elanna peered into his eyes deeply. “My love, there are some secrets you have not shared with me. You can tell me anything—really you can.”
“What kinds of secrets?” The lion backed up a pace. “Have you been listening to the nasty rumors about me?”
“No, my love. No. What I heard, I suspected for my own reasons, and it was your own words that confirmed it.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She drew near and nuzzled him softly. “I saw your son today.”
Taka froze, his hackles raising, his ears dropping, and his tail lashing. “My son?”
Elanna nodded. “I want you to be there for him, as your father was there for you. Teach him what a king must know to rule wisely and kindly.”
“Do you plan to go on seeing her?”
“If I didn’t know you still loved me, I would have taken a nice long walk on the promontory. I heard what you told her, and I forgive you.”
Taka’s head drooped. Tears flooded his eyes and his chin trembled. “I don’t deserve you, Lannie. If you’ll have me, I’ll never do it again.”
“You mean crouch with Zira?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not if you don’t say it.”
“All right! I’ll never crouch with Zira again! I swear!”
“You’d BETTER not.” A brief flicker of jealous rage lit her eyes, then she softened and came close, nuzzling him and kissing his sad face. “If you’re not satisfied with my performance, tell me what it is you want and I’ll try to give it to you.”
Taka sobbed. “She loves me as much as she could love anyone else besides herself. But that’s not very much. I don’t want you to be like her. I don’t want you to move or talk or make love like her. She offered me a son, Lannie. She caught me when I was weak and I strayed. Never again, Lannie! Never again!”
“Then we shall speak of it no more.”
Taka looked at her intently, oddly, and almost frantically. “Oh no!”
“No? What’s wrong?”
“Send them out.”
“What?” She turned to look at him and felt the fur on her shoulders rise. Her mate sat at an odd angle, his forepaws pushing at the floor feebly in an effort to rise. “Taka, what’s wrong??”
“Send them out!” His head twitched, and he lurched to his paws with an effort, saliva drizzling from one corner of his muzzle. He stared vapidly around at her, eyes unfocused, and uttered a thick gargling noise.
“Oh gods!” Elanna sprang away from him, trotting to the cavern mouth and growling at the surprised guards outside. “Go out to the promontory until we send for you.”
“But lady…I mean, ma’am—“
“I said GET OUT!” The lioness aimed a swipe at him, claws out, and the frightened hyena loped away with a yip, his companion following. She watched to make sure they were out of sight, then trotted hurriedly back inside, eyes scanning the dark cavern frantically. “Taka, love? They’re gone…I sent them away.”
Her heart sank as she saw her mate lying on his side before her, his limbs splayed out in an ungainly sprawl. A puddle of urine soaked the fur on his hindquarters, and his dusky mane was dank with sweat. His eyes seemed to stare at her, glassy and far away, like the eyes of an antelope after the kill, seeing a world that the living would never touch.
“Oh, Taka,” she whispered brokenly, padding over and lying down beside his forequarters. “Why us, love? Why are we made to suffer like this?” Tenderly, she curled a forepaw underneath his head, supporting him, and laid her chin down upon the matter fur of his mane. Her breath blew a gentle furrow in the fur beside his ear, her voice barely more than thought carried upon the tides of air within her.
She ran her other forepaw along the muscles in his shoulder, feeling them quiver under her touch. “Oh gods, what will I do if you die? You can't die! Please Aiheu, don't let him die on me--he's all I have...." Her voice trailed off as fresh tears coursed down her cheeks, soaking the fur there in dark streaks. The lion in her embrace shivered slightly, then untensed, his form relaxing in her grip. Lifting her chin, Elanna waited patiently, the light within the cavern growing dimmer as the evening approached and the sun’s light stole away on stealthy paws. Shadows shifted and twisted, growing together until they blotted out all form, and the only sensation was the lion cradled before her, his fur against hers, the pitch of his breathing slowing and becoming normal as he dropped into a real sleep.
The sensation in Elanna’s foreleg where it supported Taka’s head had long since vanished, but she ignored the discomfort, leaning down to kiss his muzzle lightly. “Thank you, Aiheu, for not taking him this time.” The lion lay before her, in silent repose, his expression much as she remembered it from their childhood.
The sight of his paws twitching brought a slow, sad smile to her face. “Dream, my love. Dream of good days.” Her eyes glistened, but she held back the pain; it was a familiar one that she knew how to deal with, for even with her lifemate in her embrace, she was isolated by his illness. She might speak of anything in the world, and her mate would remember nothing after waking up. “I have every right to hate you. But gods, I love you! I love you so much!”
“Awright, Simba. Ya ready?”
The lion nodded and raised a forepaw.
“Okay.” Timon squinted his eyes to slits, and Pumbaa did likewise. “Three...two...one...GO!!”
The heavy paw swung down, slamming into the rotten wood and sending splinters flying in a spectacular detonation. Insects and grubs of all kinds sprayed through the air, falling upon the heads of the three companions in a bizarre rainshower as Timon hooted with obvious delight. “WAHOO! You hit a gusher, Simba!”
“Thanks.” The lion grinned at his friend as Timon waded in. “Geez! Leave some for me, willya?!” Simba pounced forward and snuffled up a mouthful of the squirmy bugs, chewing with relish.
“Me?!” Timon planted his hands on his hips in righteous indignation. “Look at you, big mouth! This from a guy who eats a whole nest of termites and comes back asking for seconds!”
Pumbaa snorted and lifted his head. “Reawwy guys,” he said, chewing around a mouthful of chittering beetles, “it’s impowite to tawk wif your mouf full.”
Timon wiped saliva from his face busily. “Thanks Mom,” he shot back. “Do you serve towels with your showers?” He picked the remains of a half-eaten beetle from his face, then popped it in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Hmmm....not bad.”
“What’s a shower?”
“Something you only take when it rains.”
“Cool it, guys!” Simba lifted his head and sniffed warily, nostrils twitching in agitation. “I smell something funny.”
Pumbaa blushed and lowered his head. “Sorry.”
“Not you. This smells great!"
“Hey!” Pumbaa grunted indignantly. “It’s not MY fault--”
“Shhhh! Concentrate.” Simba turned and paced slowly around for a minute, scenting the wind. “This way. C’mon!” He padded off into the dense jungle, the swish and swaying of small branches the only sound of his passing. Warthog and meerkat looked at each other uncertainly, then followed.
Simba pushed quietly through the undergrowth, pausing every now and again to scent at the air. The smell was tantalizing, filling his head with tingles of pleasure. Gods, the scent was alluring! It seemed so strange...and yet familiar all at once. Like...like...
Simba stopped again, sniffing deeply of the air as Timon looked at him curiously. “What’s WITH you, kid?”
“Can’t you smell it?”
Timon sniffed. “Ech. Smells like a brushfire.”
The thought sparked something in Simba’s mind, but he couldn’t quite place it. “Never mind. Let’s go.”
The three wended their way among the ferns for a few more minutes, the scent steadily increasing as they went. Timon perched precariously atop Pumbaa’s head as they followed, straining to see ahead, but the only thing he was permitted to see was the lazily waving tip of the lion’s tail ahead. He sighed and rested his chin in his hands, grumbling.
Simba came to an abrupt stop, and Pumbaa scrambled to avoid collision. Timon, caught unawares, sailed from atop the warthog’s head to smack solidly against Simba’s rump, bouncing to the ground in an ungainly heap.
“Hey! Why don't you watch where you’re goin’--”
“SHHH!” Simba peered ahead. The plants were thinning slightly, and he saw a faint glow from ahead. The scent was stronger than ever. “Check it out, guys.”
The three crept closer, stopping at the edge of a clearing. Timon and Pumbaa peered agitatedly at the sight before them, unaware of their companion’s rapture.
A small area of the jungle had been cleared to the dirt, the soft loam of the forest scraped aside to the hard dirt underneath. A strange hedge of sorts ringed the clearing, odd for the fact hat it appeared to be made of dead limbs and sticks rather than live plants. Peeking through the holes in the hedge, the three saw the twisting and writhing shape of an enormous bonfire in the center of the clearing. Around it stood what appeared to be large bushes made of the same dead sticks. And around the fire paced strange animals of a type that Simba had seen only rarely. They reminded him of monkeys, somehow, what with the way they walked on their hind legs, but the funny thing was their skin. Simba snickered in spite of himself. “Lookit that, fellas. They don't have any hair!”
“Like they need it,” groused Timon. “Those are people, Simba, remember? I told you about people. They’re as noisy as badgers and twice as mean. We better get outa here.”
“Oh, man,” Simba breathed. He had spotted the source of the scent. Over the fire stood a couple of sticks, and on them was perched an enormous antelope, sizzling and spitting in the flames. His tongue rolled out and he licked his lips slowly, never taking his eyes from the meat. “Oh gods, I would give my whiskers for a taste of that.”
Pumbaa shook his head, then glanced to one side, where the humans were hoisting up another animal by the hind legs to cook. His eyes widened in horror as he saw the tusks of a warthog protruding from the snout. “Yeesh! I’m outta here!”
“No, wait.” Simba licked a forepaw and slicked back the fringe of mane on his head and shoulders. “I want to make a good first impression.”
“Are you crazy?” Timon said. “They’ll hang you right next to the pig.”
“I don’t see how. I’m stronger and I’m faster. And all I want is the meat. They won’t follow us to get it back.”
He roared fiercely and strode forward, splintering the wood boma as he shouldered his way through. A second roar sent the humans running, jabbering excitedly as they ran into their huts.
“Hey, that was easy enough! Come on, fellows! Let’s eat!” Simba padded over to the fire, wincing at the heat, and peered upwards, wondering how to get the antelope down. Glancing about, he saw the gleam of the firelight from the eyes of the people hidden in the huts and grinned.
His grin faded as they emerged, the light now glinting off the tips of spears, all pointed at him. “Uh oh!”
The lion turned and bolted, rear paws spurting up dirt as he ran for the hole in the boma. A whirring sound filled the air, and spears began to fall around him, their sharp tips whickering evilly through the air as they passed. Bursting through the gap, he shot away into the jungle. “C’mon, guys! RUN FOR IT!”
Warthog and meerkat followed obligingly as the humans emerged from the encampment, jabbering furiously and waving their weapons. A hissing sound filled the air, and a spear blurred past Simba to bury itself in a nearby tree, quivering angrily. Redoubling his speed, he crashed through the undergrowth, ripping vines and sticks asunder as he fled. Pumbaa ran alongside, Timon astride him and waving his arms wildly.
“Come on fellows!” Timon yelled mockingly. “Let’s eat!”
Pumbaa panted as he struggled to keep up with the terrified lion. “I think the natives are restless.”
“No damned kidding!”
CHAPTER 36: JURISPRUDENCE
Now this is the law of the jungle
As old and as true as the sky
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper
But the wolf that shall break it must die
-- The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling
Elanna’s growing lonliness had clung as tightly to her as the tawny color clung to her fur. That particular night Taka was far afield and the pride sisters were out hunting, and Zazu was asleep. Indeed the pride sisters never spoke with her and Taka spent more and more time just sitting alone in a world of his own imagination. As the long hours went by, Elanna glanced at whom she considered her fellow prisoner. Finally she had to speak or burst.
“Zazu. Zazu! Wake up, Zazu!”
“Wha—who—uh—Elanna? What’s wrong??”
“Oh nothing. Well, everything, but what am I going to do about it? I’m only one lioness.”
Zazu sighed again. “Is my favorite girl depressed again?”
“That shouldn’t surprise you.”
He stretched his wings as far as he could in his confined area, then shook himself. “Wouldn’t it help if you let me out? Come on, Lannie, please do what you think is right.”
“You know I would. I don’t dare cross him, Zazu.” She came closer. “He doesn’t have very long. I feel it. When he’s gone, I’ll let you out.”
Zazu slumped. “You say he’s dying?”
“I don’t know. But his little spells are coming more often and they are worse and last longer. I don’t dare mention that. He’s under enough pressure as it is. Besides, what good would it do to tell him?”
“I wouldn’t know, I’m sure.”
Suddenly Zazu looked up. In his solitary confinement, he cultivated his sense of hearing, his only contact with the outside world. “They’re coming back. I can’t see the moon, but isn’t this a little early?”
Elanna’s ears pivoted, then her head looked from side to side. “Yes, it must be them. Something’s wrong.”
“How can you tell?”
“They’re trotting. They’re in a hurry.”
Elanna did not expect to be spoken to. She was shocked when Zira came running into the cave ahead of the others. “She’s a liar! Fini’s a liar! Don’t believe a word she says—I’ll tell you what happened!”
Right behind her came Sarafina and several other lionesses. “My queen, that little witch almost killed me! Don’t let her get away!”
“Lies, all lies!” Zira shouted, hiding behind Elanna. “I didn’t do it! She’s lying! She doesn’t like me—she never liked me!”
“You’re right about one thing,” Sarafina spat, “I don’t like you! Come here and I’ll show you! Come here if you have the guts!”
“Hold on!” Elanna shouted. “What’s going on here??”
“Let me tell you,” Zira shouted excitedly, “I’ll tell you what REALLY happened!”
“Shut up you little liar!” Sarafina shrieked. “Shut up or I’ll shut you up!”
“YOU’RE the liar!”
“Come HERE and say that!”
Elanna roared. “Why don’t you BOTH shut up! I want to hear ONE AT A TIME.” She looked around at the other lionesses. “Go wait outside, and I don’t mean right outside. I want to hear their story, then I will speak with each of you separately.”
Uzuri looked about at the others. “I didn’t see it, but Fini is no liar.”
Matombe said, “You’re Fini’s sister, of course you’d say that.”
“Well you’re Zira’s mother.”
“My daughter didn’t do it. She would never pull such a stupid stunt.”
“And mine would never lie about a thing like that.”
“I saw it,” Isha said. “With all due respect, Matombe, Zira was cutting up on the hunt. She was trying to pay Sarafina back for catching her with in a lie.”
Matombe exploded. “Are you calling my daughter a liar??”
“Zira’s been CAUGHT in lies before. She’s ADMITTED lying before. I’ve NEVER known Fini to lie. That’s all. That, and I saw Zira do it. It’s that simple.”
“She WAS acting strange,” Yolanda said. “Zira might have been up to mischief.”
“And you would tell LANNIE-POO that??” Matombe came within half a length of the Yolanda’s nose and looked about to cuff her. “Don’t you understand? Don’t you ALL understand?? If we don’t put up a united front against LANNIE-POO and KING DROOPY DRAWERS they’ll divide and conquer?”
“What does this have to do with justice?” Uzuri demanded.
“Take in the big view,” Matombe said. “I’ll handle my daughter. But I’ll be damned if MRS. SCAR is going to pass judgement against one of us—ANY of us.”
“But she’s guilty,” Isha said again.
“Not half as guilty as YOU will be if you go along with THEM.”
Uzuri looked around. “I can’t believe this! You’d do this to my sister?”
“I’ll handle my daughter,” Matombe said. “Fini will get her apology if she’s owed one.”
“IF she’s owed one?” Uzuri asked.
“She’ll get an apology,” Matombe said grudgingly.
“That will be so helpful,” Uzuri spat.
“Look,” Matombe said. “If we’re all silent, it will be Fini’s word against Zira. Then LANNIE-POO will have to drop it—it’s the law.”
Sarabi bared her teeth. “Quit calling my sister Lannie-poo!”
“I thought you two weren’t speaking.”
“Maybe we’re not, but that’s none of your damned business! Look, you, you’d better control that daughter of yours or I WILL go to ANYONE that will.”
Sarafina sat still, her chin trembling. She was not allowed to speak as one by one the pride sisters testified before Elanna.
"I was confused. My attention was on the bontebok, and all I did was spot Zira out of the corner of my eye.”
"I was pacing the left wing on the hunt; I was watching so-and-so. Sorry!"
"I must have missed it; I got blinded by dust."
“I have nothing to say. I didn’t pay attention to Zira or Fini.”
“I heard Fini and Zira screaming at each other, but I didn’t see why.”
“Sure Zira is high spirited, but my daughter would never do anything like that!”
“My sister is no liar. But I didn’t see.”
“I really don’t know what’s going on, I only know they were arguing.”
When she could take it no more, Sarafina burst into tears and ran sobbing from the cave out into the night. All of the lionesses but Zira and Elanna bowed their heads in shame.
Elanna looked out over the hunt sisters, very distraught. “So it’s Fini’s word against Zira’s. One against one with—no witnesses—and now I have to pass judgment. Case dismissed. I hope you’re all very proud of yourselves.”
“I AM innocent,” Zira insisted.
“Why don’t you just shut up!” Isha shouted.
The following night they were gathering for the hunt baraza. Zira was a little late as usual. She saw the sour faces looking at her, particularly Sarafina’s. “Well, what are YOU looking at??”
Uzuri came forward. “You’re not coming tonight.”
Matombe said, “Wait, I had a talk with her! She’s not going to cause a problem tonight.”
“That’s for damned sure. She won’t cause a problem for the next seven nights—I’m suspending her from the hunt for a phase of the moon.”
“Seven days??” Matombe shouted. “Who do you think you are??”
“I’m Sarafina’s sister, you black-hearted opinionated self-centered pile of zebra afterbirth!”
“Zuri!” shouted Sarabi. “What a thing to say!”
“Just wait, Honey Tree. I’m only warming up!”
“I don’t have to take this!” Matombe said.
“You have one alternative!” Uzuri moved forward, shoving her with a paw. “Are you challenging me?? You know what I do to antelopes so I suggest you butt out and let justice take its course. You may dish that crap out on Elanna, but you won’t foist it on me!”
Matombe turned up her nose, called her daughter, and left with Zira.
There was a moment of stunned silence. Uzuri looked at the other pride sisters. “Well, what are YOU looking at? SOMEONE has to take care of my sister. I can see you’re no help so I guess it’s up to me."
The other lionesses could not meet her eyes, all except for Sarafina whose love and pride made her want to burst.
“Look, I didn’t mean to cause trouble here,” Fini said. “I’d just as soon drop the whole thing.”
“Not me,” Uzuri said. “The sentence holds. All right girls, let’s move out.”
Distraught from the hopelessness of her situation, Uzuri sneaked out to see Ugas. He would remind her of all that was beautiful and kind and soothe her heartache.
Indeed, the moment she caught sight of him, her heart was filled with joy. “Ugas!”
“Uzuri, my angel!” He nuzzled and pawed her. “How hungry you look. Please come dine with me, dear.”
“I’m not here to stay long, my love. I just had something to tell you.”
“By any chance, is this about cubs?”
“Twin sons?” His eyes grew large. “Twin sons?? Are you serious??”
“Wasn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yes, Uzuri! Yes!!” He practically wiggled with joy. Ugas came up on his hind legs and sprang at her, wrapping his arms around her neck and wrestling with her. She was smaller but had youth on her side. She held back some of her great strength to keep from overwhelming him all at once. And when she felt him beginning to tire, she finally let him push her to the ground. As she lay with her back pillowed in the soft meadow grass, he stood over her and tickled her chest with his nose. Looking into her beautiful eyes with his warm smiling face, he said, “Go retrieve your sons. I want to look at them, smell them and nuzzle them. They will know their father loves them, and Uzuri, we’ll be a family at last. A family!”
Her face lost its smile. “I can’t,” she said. “I must go back, beloved.”
“But why? Think of our sons, Zuri. Don’t they need my love too? I would raise them to be Princes and they would get respect they will never have out there.”
“Don’t be upset, my love.” She reached up and fondled his neck, following his mane down his broad chest. “Someday we will come to you. Someday we’ll be a family.”
“When?” He drew his face down to almost touch hers. “What time I have left, I’d like to spend with you. When you’re gone, I don’t live, I only exist. Don’t you think I’ll make a good father?” He saw her tears start. “Oh, honey tree, I didn’t mean to make you cry.” He kissed away her tears. “I was so lonely tonight. Must you go now? So soon?”
“Not right this moment, anyhow.” She patted the ground beside her with a paw and Ugas lay next to her. She pushed her face into his soft mane and put her paw on his chest, feeling the tides of his breath and the reassuring rhythm of his heart. Her tears began to flow freely. “You poor, dear thing! I feel awful about this. You must think I’m a terrible wife.”
“That’s a foolish thing to say,” he said, putting her paw in his powerful jaws and giving it a little squeeze, then stroking it gently with his warm, pink tongue. “You know, I’m tempted to play on your guilt, but I won’t. I want you to stay, but not out of guilt or obligation. I want you to need me the way I need you.”
“But I do,” Uzuri said. “I swear it.”
Ugas glanced over at her. He fondled her cheek with his paw. “If you think one day you’ll wake up and have nothing holding you to Pride Rock, you’re mistaken. It will never be easy to leave.” He pulled his paw back. “You’ll keep finding one more reason to wait. It will always be one more week, and the weeks will turn into moons. But I’m old, Uzuri, and when I’m dead all the tears in the world won’t bring me back.”
“I thought you weren’t going to play on my guilt,” she said.
“I’m not. I just have this terrible dread that when you’re gone I’ll never see you again.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said with a deep sigh. “Nothing will keep us apart, dear. You’re the only lion I’ve ever loved, and the only one I ever will love.” She got up and shook off. “I’m sorry, but I have to go. My cubs are hungry.”
“Our cubs,” Ugas reminded her.
“I know.” She nuzzled him. “Darling, I will come back. I promise you.”
“I love you. Never forget that.”
She looked back at him sadly. “I love you too. Wait for me.”
Nuka tried not to look into his mother’s eyes as he made the supreme effort to recite his passage. “N’ga and Sufa, the twin sons, lived in….”
“Twin sons of WHOM?” Zira asked.
“His NAME, Nuka. It’s part of your memory verse.”
Nuka looked down. “I guess I forgot.”
As patiently as she could, Zira said, “It begins with ‘rah’.”
“Rah?” He stared at her blankly. “Rah?”
“And ends in ‘lah’.”
Zira winced. “There’s a ‘mah’ in there somewhere, son.”
“RAMALAH!” she finally exploded. “For God’s sake, don’t you know who Ramalah is??”
“Their father?” Nuka said, tears puddling in his eyes.
“Oh for Aiheu’s sake, don’t cry.” She wiped away his tears with a kiss. “Look, Nuka, I know this is hard on you. Not everybody is as quick as your father at picking this up. But you’re the heir apparent, the eldest son of the king. So you try again and again till you get it right, and if you want it badly enough, you will get it right.”
“But I do want it if it makes you happy! I’m trying, Momma! Really I am!”
“I know you are.” Zira sighed. “But listen to me, Nuka; you owe your very life to my own hard determination. If I had given up trying after a few failures, you wouldn’t be here. I’d never ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself, understand? If knowing your star lore wasn’t important, do you think I’d spend all this time beating it into you? Now take courage in knowing you came from a long line of hunters, thinkers, and fighters. Their spirits live in you and if you only believe hard enough and try long enough, you can do anything. Now son, focus! Remember your father—remember me! Let our strength flow into you and tell Momma all about N’ga and Sufa!”
In a broken voice, Nuka stammered, “N’ga and Sufa, the twin sons of…Rah-ma-lah…fought for three long days beside the river, but neither could pre…pre…VAIL!”
“YES! That’s IT! You’re almost there!” She nuzzled him and rubbed him with her paw. “You and I will learn the last part together, and then I have a special treat for the ladies. You are going to tell them the story from memory to open our hunt baraza! Your Mom will be so proud of you!”
“Proud enough to burst. Now let’s take it again from the top….”
That evening as the sun snuggled against the horizon and the skies were set aflame, Zira came to the baraza, a gathering before the hunt. She nudged Nuka into the middle of the circle, to his young eyes a forest of legs ascending into pairs of green-glowing eyes. He shrank down and looked very small and frightened.
“So what do you have for our opening thought, Zira?” Uzuri asked.
“My son Nuka is going to tell you the story of N’ga and Sufa.”
The cub squirmed with discomfort.
“Come on, son.”
Nuka sat, scratched behind his ear, and started haltingly. “N’ga and Sufa, the twin sons of Ramalah, saw the coming of the white lioness Min-sha-sa and she was very desirable. And each thought to himself, ‘I want her to be my mate,’ and so they fought over her for three days by the river, though neither could prevail. And so…”
“Go on, son.”
Nuka froze. His ears went back and his hackles started to raise.
“You can do it.”
Uzuri said, “Very impressive. He’ll learn the rest with time.”
“No, Hunt Mistress, he knows it. He can do this! Come ON, Nuka! You did it for me just a moment ago!”
Nuka looked around in a panic. In a moment of extreme agony he blurted out, “So they shared her fifty-fifty and yea verily she was the mate even unto both of them.”
There was shocked silence for a second. Then Isha started to giggle. Yolanda began to belly laugh, and before long all the pride sisters including the staid Uzuri had lost control. Only Zira sat there sternly, a scowl on her face fit to cuff the whole world.
“Come with me,” she said tartly, grabbing Nuka by the nape of the neck and carting him off.
Zira paced in a circle around the devistated cub. “Till you get this right, you will eat, drink, and sleep N’ga and Sufa. They will be the first thing you hear when you wake up and your lullaby when you go to sleep. Do you realize that I’m not hunting tonight because I cannot face the pride sisters?? DO YOU??”
Nuka huddled into a little ball and trembled. Zira looked at him, then her face softened. “Nuka, Honey Tree, being the heir apparent is a heavy weight for those little shoulders to bear. But you MUST learn your star lore. It’s not just stories, it’s our heritage, our law, our place in the great plan. When you are feeling frightened and alone, you can take strength from the courage of your ancestors, but only if you remember them and so make them a part of you.”
Just then, Taka showed up. “Hello, squirt!”
Taka nuzzled Zira, the most affection he’d shown her since his confession to Elanna. “Why don’t I take him aside and give him some lessons.”
“See what you can do with him,” Zira said, touching his cheek with her tongue.
As Nuka followed Taka to his private resting place, he was gripped with fear. His father’s love was unconditional, not something he had to earn as he did with his mother. He really did not look forward to appearing stupid in front of such a master of stories.
“Now then,” the lion said, “we begin with the story of Taka and Nuka.”
The cub’s ears perked up. “Is that how come I got the name Nuka?”
“Repeat after me,” Taka intoned. “Taka got tired, so he invited his son Nuka to lay beside him.”
“Taka got tired,” Nuka said before he forgot it. “So he invited his son Nuka to lay beside him.” He sat and scratched behind his ear. “I hope it’s not a long story.”
“That’s the whole story, Nuka. It’s a story about us.” And with that the lion laid down and patted with his paw. Joyfully, Nuka scrambled to his side and laid with his face buried in his father’s rich black mane. “You must overlook your mother’s impatience,” Taka said with a yawn. “She just wants what’s best for you. Right now it’s best that you relax. That lesson is very important.” And with that, Taka cuddled Nuka with a paw until he fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
CHAPTER 39: BENDING OF THE BRANCH
“The Nuka Issue,” as lionesses would call it ever since, started out with a casual remark that Ajenti made about the newborn cub Kovu. Kovu was much larger than Nuka when he entered the world, and he looked very handsome for a small, squeeling mite. Ajenti pointed out in front of the others that the cub had a regal bearing, that he was destined for great things. She didn’t even say the word “king,” but the first currents of doubt about Nuka began to stir. Several things about Zira’s son had been troubling—despite his enthusiasm, the unofficial heir apparent had been a slow learner, socially maladroit, and very lank and spindly. And it was in that atmosphere that Zira, stung by any doubts they might have had, said, “If you don’t think he’s a true prince, we’ll prove it! Then you’ll be sorry!”
Taka scowled at her remark at once. He knew it could lead to nothing but trouble. But since Zira herself had brought it up, the offer once made became a commitment. After all, EVERY prince had to receive the approval of the gods sooner or later….
“Let it be so,” Taka said aloud. Then he whispered into Zira’s ear, “Whatever happens is no one’s fault but your own.”
Rafiki was banned from the pride lands and Taka did not trust him. So for lack of a true shaman, the king sent for the hyeness Makhpil, a very respected medium. “Now my dear, we want you to perform a little ritual to secure the reign of my heir.”
“I don’t know leonine rituals, and besides…”
“There’s not much to know. It’s a mere formality, a nothing. You merely take a branch and hold it over Nuka’s head, and when I say a few words, you dip the branch up and down. Try to make it look like the branch moved itself.”
“But isn’t that dishonest?”
“It’s ALWAYS dishonest. Well, that is to say, for some reason it always dips over the king’s favorite. And if this little spectacle goes right, it could be your first official act as my new advisor.”
Most of the lionesses were surprised when the arrogant, overbearing Taka announced he would have his heir confirmed by the Gods. A few continued to insist that he would back out at the last moment under a technicality. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Yolanda said even as Makhpil came out of the cave bearing a slender acacia wand gingerly, trying not to impale her lips with the spines. “Look, they’re using a hyena,” Yolanda said to Ajenti. “We all know they owe him a favor. Watch—just WATCH and see if it doesn’t dip for Nuka right away.”
“Quiet,” Ajenti said. “He’ll hear you!”
“Let him! I’ll believe it when Rafiki tries it.”
Ajenti looked upset. “The gods would strike her dead if she mocked them! She wouldn’t dare!”
A hush fell over the crowd as the hyeness approached the cub. “O Gods,” Taka intoned solemly, “In what we are about to do, let the mandate of heaven be clearly expressed.”
“Here comes the lightning bolt,” Yolanda quietly whispered.
“Please!” Ajenti whispered back.
Taka looked around in their direction. Yolanda tried to look innocent, and she did not meet his eyes.
“Stretch forth the wand,” Taka said.
Makhpil held the acacia branch over Nuka. The cub looked up expectantly, pleadingly, expecting an accolade. After all, was he not the prince?
Makhpil could not move. Her whole body started to shudder.
“Do it,” Nuka whispered. No one ever knew if he was speaking to Makhpil or to the gods. A moment passed, then another. Nuka looked about at his father. “Can’t we get the monkey, Dad? She’s not a shaman, she’s just a mind reader!”
“Stay there son,” Taka said gently, then he looked hard at the hyeness. “Let her do what she came to do.”
Makhpil rose and walked as one in a trance and hovered over the newborn Kovu. The branch was yanked from her mouth, cutting her lips with a thorn. “Oh!” she exclaimed, surprised by the strength of the reaction. “Who grabbed it?”
“It was the gods!” Yolanda boomed.
Makhpil was herself once again and she looked over at Taka’s scowling face and Zira’s shocked, crazed eyes. “I don’t understand! I knew what to do, but…”
“It’s Kovu!” Yolanda exclaimed. “Long live Kovu!”
The lionesses looked at one another and nodded in agreement. “It’s him,” some of them whispered. “The gods have spoken!”
Nuka fell on his back and flailed his paws at the heavens. “Please, give me another chance! Please, Aiheu! I’ll learn my star lore, I promise!! Please don’t abandon me!! Please, God, give me another chance!!”
Zira looked down at him. “Everyone’s watching. Get up from there.”
“But Mom! Let her get the branch again! If I work REALLY HARD…I mean, I’m the King’s son! Please make her get the branch and try again! PLEASE!!”
“Shut up. I won’t have you squeeling like a dying rabbit.”
“Shut up NOW, Nuka.”
As the sun sank lower in the sky on Nuka’s worst day, the cub sat alone on the end of the promontory sobbing. He could not show weakness in front of his mother.
Taka came silently and sat next to him. Nuka started to leave, afraid of being embarassed, but Taka stopped him with a paw. Nuka looked up into his father’s face and saw tears there too. “Dad, you’re crying.”
“On this spot my brother was told he would be the next king. I heard my father from the cave and I remember how I cried. My mother comforted me—Zira has a little less patience. She does love you, but her heart is like a herd of antelope, lots of thoughts all going in different directions. But listen to me, son, my heart is one and when you want someone to cry on, I will always be here. We are made of the same dust, you and I, both children of sorrow. Perhaps you will not be king of Pride Rock, but I have reserved one kingdom for you, a kingdom that Kovu will never inherit.”
“I will be your kingdom, and all I ask is that you rule over me with love. Come close—I want to feel you next to me.”
Nuka snuggled against him as his father’s paw cuddled him. “I love you dad.”
“I love you too.”
CHAPTER 40: TO STEAL A LIFE
As mate of the former Roh’makh, Ber’s loyalty was always suspect. He was never involved in major decisions of the clan, and he spent most of his time on guard duty where Shenzi felt he couldn’t get into trouble.
Still, Ber had his informers among those loyal to the old order, those who believed something wrong—or perhaps evil—lurked behind Shenzi’s power. Other guards noticed how many of the hyenas walked past Ber, stopped momentarily, and seemed to whisper something.
Shenzi had heard her share of reports about this, and had decided once and for all to see where Ber’s loyalty lay. “I wonder what he’d do with a really important secret,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “Skulk, he’d suspect you. But have one of your command—someone trustworthy but not well known—run a little errand for me. I have a message to deliver.”
Nala was wrestling with her mother just before the hunting baraza. She was excited about the possibility of hunting soon beside her mother with the pride sisters. For now she was a cubsitter, but soon she would take on a role as huntress that her sleek body was meant to play.
Ber quietly slipped over to where they were and said, “Hsssh!”
“Fini, keep it down!” he hissed. “I’m here to save your daughter.”
“To save me?” Nala asked. “Am I in danger??”
“I don’t know,” Ber whispered urgently. “All I know is what I overheard. Memnekh was talking to someone—I don’t know who—about a plan to raid the nursery tonight. Oh holy mother Roh’kash, such a sin to stain our people red with innocent blood!”
Nala gasped. “What am I going to do??”
Ber looked over at Sarafina. “If you love her, beg off from the hunt tonight. Tell the sisters you are feeling unwell and sit guard outside the back entrance to the cave. Nala, you guard the front. They can’t sneak in if you cover both entrances.”
“I’m scared,” Nala said. “I’ve never fought a hyena before.” She looked at Ber’s rather fit body and trembled.
“Don’t be afraid, my girl. I’ll be waiting just out of sight, and if you need me I’ll come.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Sarafina asked.
“How could I NOT tell you this,” Ber said quietly. “I’d rather face my God with an empty belly and a full heart than the other way around.”
Shenzi herself watched the back entrance of the cave. Skulk sat beside her, a position he treasured for its power, but which he also enjoyed for its closeness. He even dared to lean against her and feel the softness of her fur, and when she didn’t object, a slight smile crossed his lips.
“Oh look,” he whispered. “Here comes Sarafina.”
“Right on time,” Shenzi said. “He’s guilty as hell.”
“It was a brilliant plan,” Skulk said, daring to flatter her.
“I thought so,” Shenzi said. Then she laid her head over on Skulk’s shoulder. “Now what do we do about it?”
“I have a plan. Hopefully half as good as yours…..”
Little did they suspect that Uzuri had circled back and was doing some spying of her own.
Ber went to the tip of the promontory as the sun began to sink in the western sky. He watched the orb hover like a red spot of blood for a moment right at the top of the horizon.
“Show me the way,” he whispered lowly. “I’m not perfect, but I try to do the right thing. Rohkash, this place is death. It is closing in on me so I can hardly breathe! I’m running out of time, I just know it, but there’s no way out! No way out unless you hear my prayer, Great Mother! Help me please—show me the way.”
Just then quiet lioness feet padded up behind him. “There you are,” Uzuri’s soft voice intoned. “I have important news.”
“Thank you, Roh’kash!” Ber turned about. “Zuri, dear, I hope it’s good news. I could use some.”
“Well it comes with good news.” Uzuri sighed and sat next to him on the tip of the promontory. She cast a glance behind and listened for a moment before speaking. “Dirty Skulk, I never know where he might be.”
“He’s everywhere,” Ber said with superstitious dread. “I hate him.”
“Old friend, you made a fool of Shenzi and she’s determined to be rid of you. But don’t panic—I managed to hear her plans. I know how the attack is planned, and I’m prepared to offer you and Amarakh safe passage out of the kingdom. Believe me, the girls will all know you tried to save Nala and the cubs and they’ll take the risk.”
“Bless you,” Ber said, “but you know Amarakh won’t leave. She’s a symbol of hope to all who reject the evil ones. And you know I will never leave her.”
“I suspected so. But if you are to stay, we must find a way to frighten her out of making plan after plan till she crushes you. Let’s talk….”
The following day was long and stressful for Ber. He had to behave casually, looking into face after face and wondering, “Will you be my betrayer?” He only really would know where his assassin lay when someone told him he had a wasp on his neck and volunteered to swat it off.
His comfort came from a few lionesses who quietly whispered the pass phrase to him as he passed, the hyena word “gorgavit!” (courage!). He learned that he had several allies. Indeed, he would need “gorgavit,” and plenty of it.
Isha actually met his eyes, something she rarely did with hyenas and only to stare hatefully. “Gorgavit,” she said haltingly.
Ber froze, taking in the significance of her action. “Isha, I…well…”
“There’s no need to thank me. You helped save Nala and I’ll help save you. Then we’ll be even.”
“Not quite,” Ber said. “Shaka died and not once has anyone apologized for it—except poor Gurmekh, and he didn’t have a choice.”
“I’d rather not discuss it.”
“But I must. I’m sorry, Isha, and I wish I could undo what has been done.”
“That only makes it worse! You are apologizing while the guilty keep silent! You didn’t do anything.”
“DIDN’T I, Isha?”
Her eyes widened. “DID you?”
“I don’t approve of what Jalkort did, but I watched him writhe on the ground, begging, pleading for one more minute of life. Shaka didn’t wait for a hearing. He just killed him. He bit him so hard his head almost came off while his mate stood there shrieking like a poor malkot. Jalkort was a good boy—not perfect, but how many of us are? And when I saw him die, I wanted to kill Shaka. Not just kill him—I wanted him to suffer.”
“Great Aiheu!” She had to look away for a moment. “Why are you telling me this? Are you a fool? Don’t you want me to help you? Don’t you want to live?”
“I’m telling you this because it’s the truth. Because I saw Shaka’s face for one moment when he called to you. ‘Run, Isha!’ he said. I realized that he had forgotten his own death and thought only of you. What a face that was, a face I will see in my dreams till I am taken into the sunset.” He shuddered. “I realized we were killing a saint. Rohkash would forsake us and the darkness would close in. Our prayers fall like leaves from a dead tree only to rot in the dust. Taka is going mad, the rain will not fall, and the land is dying and us with it. If I did not confess my sin, any slight hope we have would be dashed. I’m sorry he’s dead, and someday I’ll tell him face to face.”
Isha sat. Her eyes seemed to look at nothingness. For several moments the only visible movement was the tide of her breath. Then a tear brimmed in each eye and slowly rolled down her cheeks. “When you saw Jalkort die, you felt the way Shaka felt when he saw Avina. Then you understand why he did what he did, and I understand why you did what you did. It was the kind of pain that blinds you. It blinded me too.”
“Oh Isha, I’m so sorry.”
“That’s all right. Nobody owes anyone anything—I’m going to help you because you’re in the right. Thank you for being honest with me.”
“Do you forgive me then?”
“Gorgavit,” she said quietly. “I forgive you.”
By the time Skulk found him and summoned him to see Shenzi, it was a relief. Ber took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and went into the cave where Shenzi was grooming Ed to get the tangles out of his fur.
“Oh there you are, Ber,” she said, looking up for a moment. “Two of my guards are going with you on a very important mission. There’s rather poor hunting here, and that’s a fact. But we may be adding on some territory to the east. There’s a sympathizer there who will be meeting you at the border with a very important message. All you have to do is meet him there and CAREFULLY memorize whatever you are told. Then come back and repeat it to me.”
“Why do I need two guards?”
“This is a very dangerous assignment. If you are caught, it could ruin everything for me and even lead to your death. Now head with the evening sun to your right till you reach the creek. Wait there—he will find you.”
“As you wish.”
“Kahlil, you and Gaun go with him.”
Ber’s heart sunk. Kahlil he did not care for, but his nephew Gaun was someone he loved, his brother’s only surviving son.
“Are you sure, Gaun?”
Shenzi looked at him suspiciously. “Is something wrong?”
“Gaun is my nephew. I love him. I don’t mind danger, but I don’t want him to get hurt.”
“That’s ok, Uncle,” Gaun said, a slight edge to his voice. “I don’t mind.”
Ber was shocked. “If you really don’t mind,” he said stiffly, “I’ll try not to mind either.”
The trip to the edge of Scar’s territory seemed to take forever. Ber hung his head and was uncharacteristically silent.
Gaun nudged him. “What’s the matter, Uncle? You haven’t been yourself.”
“I’m not the only one who isn’t,” Ber said. “Tell me, what has Shenzi promised you in return for your loyal service?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Khalil said gruffly. “We all get what is coming to us.”
“Indeed we do,” Ber said.
“Not much further,” Gaun said. “The creekbed is right ahead.”
“DEAD ahead,” Khalil said with a slight smile. “There’s a…oh…Ber?”
“Hold perfectly still. Don’t move a muscle.”
“Still! You have a large wasp on the side of your neck. Hold very still and I’ll swat it off.”
“Anything you say, Khalil.”
The large hyena drew closer, his eyes half closing and the fur on the back of his neck raising. “Steady now. It’ll be over before you know what hit you.”
“IT’S A TRAP!” Gaun shouted. Ber’s nephew charged Khalil. “RUN, UNCLE!! RUN!!”
“What the hell??” Khalil yelled.
In half a second, Ber had turned to face Khalil. Gaun was by Ber’s side protectively.
“Ok, have it your way!” Khalil cried. “I’ll kill you BOTH!”
Just then a few lionesses sprang from cover. Isha got between the combattants and in a couple of bounds Uzuri grabbed Khalil and shook him like a rabbit, snapping his neck.
“Zuri, just in time!” Ber said, running to her and kissing her. “Isha, Sarabi! My dear friends! Thank you!”
Uzuri dropped Khalil’s twitching body and looked over at Gaun. “What shall I do with him?” Uzuri asked.
“Nothing, I think.” Ber smiled. “Gaun, my dear boy!”
Gaun smiled. “I wish I’d known about your lionesses. I mean really. I came out here to save your butt.” He lost his smile. “Of course I can’t come back now. I’ll have to go away.”
“Be sure to tell Mom and Dad I’m ok.”
“I will. Thanks for saving me.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“You saved me from losing my faith. As much as I owe my favorite girls, I owe you the most.”
Simba’s brush with humankind left him scared but still hungry. Somewhat pensive, he sat on the bank of a small pond, watching the fish swim in the crystal clear water. Some of them were rather large, and he felt that it would be a shame to waste all that meat on the bottom of a cold pond when it could be inside a nice warm lion.
He considered his approach. As slow as the fish swam, they would perk up substantially the instant his paw entered the water. As he saw it, there were so many fish that if he jumped in the middle of the school and grabbed, he ought to catch at least one.
After a while, the fish seemed to forget that Simba was there and began to behave normally. One of the came alluringly close to the surface, then snapped up a hapless fly that had fallen in the pond.
“I guess it’s now or never,” Simba said. He tensed up, poised like a statue, then sprang.
Timon and Pumbaa watched in awe as Simba grabbed, missed, and grabbed again. Flailing about in the water, he chased fish around until he was covered in mud. The slippery algae on the rocks proved a bit much, even for his large paws. He slipped and fell over on his back.
Some monkeys began to laugh in a nearby tree. “Fresh fish! Fresh fish!”
Simba tried to ignore them. He concentrated on the task at hand, but with mud stirred up in the water it was almost impossible. Still he thrashed about, finally managing to chase a fish into some very shallow water. A quick smack of his paw pinned it to the bottom.
He looked up proudly. “Hey guys, look what I got!”
The fish thrashed around, and as slippery as it was, it worked out from under Simba’s paw. The lion made another quick jab, but only managed to get water in his eyes. He rubbed his face with disgust.
“Hey guys!” one of the monkeys said. “Look what I got!” Gales of laughter erupted in the tree.
“Shut up!” Timon shouted from the nearby riverbank. “We’ll have gibbon instead of fish!”
At that remark, one of the monkeys pulled a ripe fruit and tossed it with almost flawless accuracy. At least it hit Pumbaa....
Others began to pull fruit, and Timon sounded a quick retreat. It was just in the nick of time, too. Fruit began landing all around them as they scrambled to put distance between themselves and the troop.
As Simba ran, he began to dwell on what he had lost. That fish meat would have tasted good. A curse on those monkeys! Maybe with a little more time things might have been different.
As Simba checked behind him to see if the monkeys were pursuing, he failed to notice the thinning trees around him. He absently noticed the light level increasing, but it failed to register until his front paws sank into soft grass instead of the spongy mat of leaves on the jungle floor.
He turned his head to look and sucked in a deep breath of awe. “Oh!”
Arrayed before him was an immense expanse of grassland, stretching out as far as he could see, the gentle fingers of the wind stirring the ground restlessly into a panorama of motion. He paused for a moment, the stepped out tentatively into the open.
Timon glanced at him apprehensively. “Hey? What’re ya doin’?!”
“This is beautiful!”
Timon and Pumbaa felt naked and exposed without the canopy of trees. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Simba had only good feelings. The cloying scent of rotting vegetation, ever present in the jungle, was gone, whisked away by a clean wind that brought the earthy smell of grass and ground, an ambrosia of scents that made his nostrils twitch with excitement. The last time he had breathed such scents, he had been but a child, the tall stalks of grass towering over his pudgy body as he waddled through the flora. Now he stood upright, the tops of the plants brushing his shoulders as he surveyed the plain, and nothing wad hidden from him. The faint flash of a thunderstorm on the horizon winked at him from far to the southwest, and a small herd of zebra paced leisurely a few miles off, bobbing their heads and gossiping in their singsong voices. He raised his head to look at the sky and grinned, settling down and rolling onto his back as he watched the clouds scud slowly by. “Oh yeah!” He sighed. “Come on, fellows! It’s OK. It’s great out here!”
“No thanks. We’ll stay here and watch.”
“Jeez! What is it with you two?” Irritated, Simba started to rise. Pushing himself up on his forepaws, he shifted, preparing to get up, when his ears flicked towards a sound from the grass behind him. He turned, seeing the stalks rustling and waving, but not from the wind. What breeze there was shifted slightly, and his nose twitched as he caught the long forgotten but unmistakable scent of a lioness. “Who’s there??” he said, frightened.
“Hey, it’s OK. I’m not going to rush you.” Timon and Pumbaa quivered in the underbrush as a golden face appeared. “My name is Sasha.”
Simba stared, entranced by the lovely visage. “Pretty name.”
He smiled. “Hey, it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to another of my own kind.”
“Are you a rogue lion?”
“Worse,” he said broodingly. “There’s something natural about a rogue lion. I’m--well--oh forget it.”
“You’re lonely? I can understand that.” She stepped from the grass, the entire length of a fully grown lioness revealing itself as she came to sit beside him. “How long has it been? A moon? Two?”
“Since I was three moons old.”
“My gods!” She looked at him with wonder. “How did you survive?”
Simba gestured over at Timon and Pumbaa. “I had help.”
“Them??” Sasha smiled. She looked back at Simba. “You mean you’ve been without lion friends since you were three moons old?”
“I’ve been without lion enemies too. You’re the first I’ve seen since my father....” He looked down.
She came to him and nuzzled him. “You poor dear!”
An embarrassed smile lit his face. “I forgot how good lionesses smell. But you look so small. I used to look up at my mom and she was like a big golden elephant.”
She laughed. It was a merry sound that reminded him of Isha’s wonderful chuckle, a sound that was as warm as a good hug.
“Hey Simba!” Pumbaa shouted. “Come back!”
“It’s all right.”
“No it’s not!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Pumbaa.”
“If you don’t believe me, ask HIM!”
“What?” Simba patiently began to explain that it was a female who sat beside him when another scent reached out and slapped his senses. This one was utterly familiar, despite the intervening wall of years. He had smelled it when his father had rescued him and Nala from the hyenas clutches; the scent of a male lion full of rage and ready for battle. Simba turned his head slowly to see the immense form part the grass.
"Who are you talking to, Sasha?" The amber eyes narrowed and regarded Simba coldly, mouth tightening into a flat line that gleamed at the edges where his incisors protruded. “Listen you snotty-nosed brat. Run along before I have to sharpen my claws on you."
“Wait, Jomo,” Sasha said rapidly. “It’s all right--”
Timon shouted, "What makes you think you can talk to us like that?? Why, Simba here will use you for a beanbag!"
The shine left the lion’s eyes, leaving them flat and deadly. “So it’s Simba, is it?? Well, Simba, why don’t you prove it!” His tail stiffened slightly as his shoulders hunched, and he began to stalk slowly towards the terrified youngster.
Sasha stood aside fearfully as Simba gathered his legs under him in a crouch, creeping backwards towards the treeline. “Hey, no need to get huffy, sir.” He looked back at the meerkat. “Cool it, Timon! Hakuna Matata, remember?"
The adult lion grinned humorlessly. “You have a lot of worries if you ask me. Or maybe just one big one. Me.”
“We were just leaving.”
“I’d bet my next kill on it.” As he spoke, the lion flattened his ears and swept towards Simba in a deadly rush, fangs bared fully, the light gleaming off them in a promise of death. Simba gave a roar of surprise and jerked away, scrabbling for purchase as he tried to turn and flee. The monarch’s paw whipped around and struck the young lion, his claws scoring crimson furrows in Simba’s haunch. Simba cried out in pain and fear, the lion’s roars thundering in his ears as he sprinted away towards the safety of the jungle. He glanced back and saw the lion still pursuing, the sight goading him to run even faster.
Finally he stopped, unable to run any longer, his sides burning with pain as his breath whooped in and out in great tides of air. He turned slowly, expecting to see the great brute bearing down on him for the kill.
Instead, he saw only empty jungle, a very relieved warthog, and an indignant meerkat who sat astride Pumbaa’s head, glaring at him.
Timon asked, “Why did you run away like that?? That dope was a softie; you coulda thrashed him easy!”
Simba licked the bleeding claw marks on his injured haunch and wondered at that. “Once a very wise lion told me he was only brave when he HAD to be. You don't go asking for trouble.”
“Simba, I don't think you should go back there for awhile.”
The young lion grinned shakily at Pumbaa. “Good idea.”
The rest of the afternoon passed blissfully uneventful, and the trio even managed to scare up enough insects that evening to go to bed relatively full. But Simba lay awake long after the others had passed into sleep, his head on his paws as he thought about that beautiful sky above, and the wonderful feeling of space around him, unobstructed by vines and trees. As his eyes began to close, he wondered idly what Nala was doing right now, and if she was as pretty as Sasha had been, her tawny face framed by the waving stalks of the grasslands.
Nearby, Timon lay enraptured in dreams of a different sort.
“The rhinoceros beetle, my dear, IF you please.” Timon grinned, as he lay back, literally in the lap of luxury. His head was pillowed on the legs of a meerkat female who sat cross legged, tickling the fur on the top of his head. Giggling, she nodded, and picked the struggling insect from a pile of bugs that lay nearby, popping into his mouth delicately. “There you go.”
He chewed, savoring the delightful crunch. “Thanks, babe.”
“Of course.” She smiled at him, and he couldn’t help but smile back, admiring the beautiful white fur that enveloped her whole body. “You’re kinda cute, you know that?”
“You too.” Bending over, she rubbed her nose against his, making him chuckle with laughter. “You’re really special, you know that?” He blinked. “What makes you say that?”
“The way you and your friend took care of that lion cub.”
“Oh, Simba?” Timon shrugged. “Least we could do. You know, when we first found him, he was almost dead. We saved his life!”
She nodded. “I know. That was very thoughtful of you.”
“We practically had to teach the kid everything; what to eat, where to sleep...” Timon sighed. “He’s gettin kinda big now though.”
She remained silent, stroking his cheek quietly, waiting for him to continue. Finally, he did. “He’s gettin kinda big, all right.” Timon examined his hands uncomfortably. “Pretty soon he’s not gonna need us any more.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
“Oh, there’s a few things that still have to be done.”
He looked at her strangely. “Like what?”
By way of answer, she leapt out from under him, sending his head to the ground with a dull thump. “YEOWCH!” He sat up rubbing his head, and was immediately flattened again as she tackled him, sending the two of them rolling through the grass until she finally pinned him to the ground with her weight, holding his shoulders tight with her hands. “You silly little fellow!”
“Whaddya tryin ta do, kill me--” he trailed off, entranced by her beautiful eyes, gleaming silver-blue as they stared into his own. “Pretty eyes.”
“Everyone says that.” She chuckled, then looked at him intently. “Your friend has reached a turning point in his life. He needs someone to walk with him across the bridge. Great things lie ahead for him, but there are forks in the path. You must help guide him along the way.” She reached down and played with the fur on his cheek, sending shivers down his spine. “You’ll do that for him, won’t you?”
"You betcha. What do I have to do?"
"First of all, he has grown his mane. You need to give him his mantlement. That's the leonine coming of age ceremony. You'll pray for him, let him nip your neck—gently of course—and then you pronounce him an adult. You will help him find his destiny. In his case that will involve some risk for you."
His focus on her wavered slightly. “Risk??"
She stroked him under his chin, riveting his attention on her again. "But you will be very brave and won't let me down. I know this for a fact."
He looked at her spellbound. "I will be very brave," he stammered.
“You will help him."
"I will help him."
"I knew I could count on you." She looked penetratingly into his eyes and drew very close. He could feel her soft breath on his face, enveloping him in the smell of wild honey. "Daima pendana," she whispered, kissing his cheek. “Love always.”
Timon jerked awake, sitting up and rubbing his eyes in the first gray light of dawn. Gingerly, he rubbed the back of his head and looked at where he had been lying, seeing the rock protruding from the ground.
“Stupid stone.” He rose, stretching and yawning with exaggeration, feeling the stretch and pull of his muscles as he stood. He was standing there, glancing about blearily, wondering where he might find a good bit of breakfast, when his eyes fell on Simba. He stood still for a long moment, then pattered over to the lion and yanked on his whiskers. “Up and at ‘em!”
“WHAAAA!!” Simba’s eyes bulged and he jerked back, his claws splaying involuntarily. “What the--”
“C’mon! Get up, ya bums! It’s daybreak already! We ain’t got much time.” Scampering over, Timon took a deep breath and nipped Pumbaa’s tail lightly, waking the warthog with a shriek and sending HIM running into Simba. Lion and warthog stood trembling at the tiny apparition which ranted at them.
“C’mon! We gotta get goin!”
“The waterfall, knucklehead! It’s the only place high enough!”
“Your mantlement, dummy!”
“My wha--” Simba froze. “Gods, you’re right.” He lowered his head. “But I know so little about it; my dad only told me a little about the ceremony.”
Timon glared at him. “Are you a lion?”
“You got a mane?”
“We can fake the rest. C’mon!” He smacked Simba’s rump and trotted off into the forest, grumbling.
Some time later, the three stood on the rocks that overlooked the falls, feeling the cool morning breeze caress their faces, carrying with it a damp spray of droplets from the falls. They sat silently, hearing the calling of the first birds in the clear air. Timon fidgeted nervously and glanced at Pumbaa, who was clearly just as nervous as he was. They glanced at Simba enviously; the lion sat quiescent, head bowed slightly and eyes closed.
Simba felt a preternatural calm as he sat, hearing the dull roar of the falls below him and the tremors that traveled back up through the rock, vibrating in the pads of his feet. Finally, he detected the first warm rays of light on his eyelids. Opening them, he looked to Timon and nodded slightly.
Timon cleared his throat, trembling with nervousness as he raised his voice. “Uhh, ahem! Let everybody that can hear me know that Simba is following his fathers.” He cringed, looking at Simba, who said nothing as he continued to look at the rising sun. “Look, he bears the sign!”
Silence reigned, and Pumbaa cleared his throat. Timon closed his eyes and hoped fervently that this next bit might go okay; Pumbaa had insisted on giving the ritual prayer. His eyes opened slowly as he heard the warthog’s words.
“I don't really know what to say to you, God. But you're smart enough to figure out what I mean. He was all alone in the desert, and we found him lying there, and jeez, if we hadn't found him, he would have died. But we did, and I don't think it's an accident that we came along when we did. You know? I mean what are the chances of that? Well, anyway, he's got this fuzz on his neck, and for lions that's supposed to be a big deal and all. It means our little cub is grown, and I guess what I'm trying to say is if he was my own son, I couldn't be any more proud of him than I am right now. Thanks for giving us a shot at this. I love him, and you make sure nothing bad happens to him, OK?"
He looked up to see the two of them looking at him wonderingly. "Was that all right?"
Simba nuzzled him. "Beautiful. You're a good friend, Pumbaa."
Timon said, “Now you have to nip my neck….gently.”
Timon looked puzzled for a moment, then he began to speak. “I nipped your mother’s neck when I conceived you, and when she carried you she nipped your neck. Now you take your place as an adult, my son, by nipping my own neck. As I took my lionhood from Ahadi, so shall you take it from me.”
Simba looked at Timon, stirred but a little puzzled. “Where did you hear that?”
“Where did I hear what?”
“Pumbaa? What did you just hear him say?”
The warthog looked at Simba wonderingly. “He said something, but I couldn’t make out the words. It sounded impressive, though.”
Timon nudged him. “It’s time. Go for it, kid. You are a lion—let’s hear you roar!”
Simba nodded. He took a deep breath and started to roar. His throat tightened up and he could not even get out a dull squeek. “Well,” he barely croaked out, “The lion has no roar. How typical of me.”
CHAPTER 43: SPOTTING THE LEOPARD
Simba was walking restlessly along a well worn path through the jungle, his feet making no sound as they padded along the trail. He paused, glancing down at the far end where it ended, the trees beginning to thin out at the limit of his vision. A slight smile rose as he set about carefully marking the unseen boundary between the savanna and the forest. Grouchy old booger, he thought. Come in HERE and I’LL show you a thing or two. He longed to trot down to the end of the path and roll under that delightful sky once again, but dared not; he was still not fully grown, and he was well aware of the difference between boldness and foolishness.
As he turned to leave, the sharp crack of a tree limb above reached him, and he ducked sidewise, expecting to see the colorful splash of a rotten fruit strike near him. Stupid monkeys, he thought irritably. He was smart enough not to look straight up. There had been times before when he had caught a ripe fruit right in the face.
Instead of a fruit, however, an antelope fell out of the tree and plopped on the ground right in front of him. As he stared, shocked, a voice floated down from above.
“Damn! Of all the times to drop something!”
It was a female voice, a melodious catlike voice but not a lioness. Moments later, a large leopardess came bounding down the trunk with the intensity of a vertical run. She pounced on the antelope and said, “Mine! Buzz off!”
Taken aback, Simba looked up in the tree and back at her. “You got that all the way up there?”
The leopardess glared at him. “What of it?”
“Well, I just thought....” He looked at her and at the antelope. “Did you have help?”
She half smiled. “No. I did it by myself. Haven’t you ever seen a leopard do that before?”
“I’ve never seen a leopard before.” He looked at her appraisingly. “Those spots are so--so neat!”
She purred. “I’ve seen you here before, and I’ve always wanted to ask. How did a lion like you get in a forest like this?”
“Long story,” Simba said with a shrug.
“You hang out with those two?”
Simba knew immediately whom she was referring to. “Well, uh, yeah. What of it?”
“Oh nothing. I just thought I’ve never seen you with another lion before. But there are a lot of strange things in this forest. Like that pair of hyenas.”
“Gur’bruk and Kambra?”
“You know them? They healed my shoulder once.”
“What do you know! They saved my life once.”
“Small world, isn’t it?” With a quick snatch of her powerful jaws, the antelope was on its way up the tree. In five or six bounds of her powerful legs, the prey was cached away in the branches.
“Whoa! I’d give anything to know how to do that!”
She came bounding down again. It was always disconcerting to Simba when she did that.
“Let me get this straight. You’re grown and you don’t know how to hunt?”
“Yeah.” Simba looked away.
“Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”
Simba looked at the ground. His ears and tail drooped. “She didn’t get a chance. My dad gave me a few pouncing lessons.”
“He died when I was very little.”
“I’m sorry. So have you scavenged all this time?”
“No, ma’am. I’ve eaten bugs.”
“These guys helped me. I don’t know what I would have done without them.”
It brought out some of the motherly feelings in her. The corners of her mouth twitched. “I lost a cub once. I had a lot of things I wanted to tell her, and they’ve been bottled up inside me. Look, if you wait till I chow down, I’ll give you a couple of lessons, OK?”
The leopardess had a leisurely meal in the tree. She did not offer to share her meal, and she was not asked. Timon and Pumbaa watched her pull off strips of the fresh meat and mince them with a look of pleasure before swallowing. Timon stared at her hungrily, running the tip of his tongue slowly around his lips. “Look at that, Pumbaa! That’s how real people live.”
Pumbaa said nothing, but his stomach complained periodically. Simba was quite content to watch her. Part of his missing heritage would be given him, and he awaited the wonderful secrets she would impart with open-mouthed wonder. “Imagine, me a hunter! A hunter like my mother before me!”
Pride began to swell in his chest, and he hadn’t even tried his luck at it yet.
Finally as the sun was getting low in the sky, she nosed the carcass and it fell out of the branches. Stretching in her precarious perch, she yawned, shook herself, and ambled down the tree. “You ready?”
“Lose the ‘yes ma’am.’ My name’s Mikosi.”
“Glad to meet you at last.” She nuzzled him.
“I’m Timon, if anyone cares. This is my friend Pumbaa.”
Without even glancing in their direction, Mikosi continued. “If you’re going to learn from me, you must do what my cub would have done. Speak when spoken to, and then very softly. Every word we say is an enemy, seeking to betray us. Do you agree to this?”
Simba nodded quietly.
“You learn fast, I’ll grant you.”
For nearly two hours, she gave him lessons on stalking, running after prey, and staying downwind. Timon and Pumbaa watched with horrified fascination at the list of killing tactics, especially when she used them as examples in laying out an approach.
Then when the moon disappeared behind a cloud and the forest was cloaked in inky darkness, she said, “Let’s do it!”
He did exactly what she told him to do. And to his absolute amazement and hers he brought down a small antelope on his very first try!
“Maybe it’s beginner’s luck. But you earned this.”
Mikosi dipped her paw in the blood and made a pawprint on his cheek. “Somewhere out there your parents are proud of you.”
Before Simba could eat, she dragged the carcass up a nearby tree!
"Hey! Bring that back down here! I didn't even get a bite!"
"This is my payment for showing you where to hunt, big boy," she teased, chewing contentedly. “Next lesson: guard your prey from jealous eyes. That’s why I climb trees.”
“But that’s my first! I want to know what it tastes like!”
“I’ll describe it to you.”
“We could share.”
“We certainly could. But what would be the fun in that?”
“It would be nice and friendly.”
Simba extended his claws and began to shinny up the rough-barked tree with absolute determination in his eyes.
She stopped chewing, her claws flicking out as she hugged the limb for balance. "W-What are you DOING?!"
He flailed clumsily, trying to ascend and keep his own balance. "I'm going to join you for dinner, hon."
"STOP!" The tree, not that big to begin with, began to sway drunkenly. "You're too big, imbecile!"
"Well I’m getting smaller by the minute. I'm hungry."
Splinters shot up in a spray and sap spewed into the air in haphazard patterns as the tree surrendered, shredding at its lower end to come tumbling down with a crash. As it neared the ground, the end of the tree snapped clear of the stump, pistoning out and jarring the cats, sending them flying clear. The gazelle was not so lucky; Mikosi had wedged it into a fork of the tree to keep it from falling, and she did her job well; it remained there all the way to the ground, where it was obliterated by the smashing weight of the trunk.
Mikosi shook her head blearily, staring at Simba as he staggered to his feet. "You're crazy!"
“Well look. I don’t mind hunting with you if you play fair, OK? Let’s set down some rules here and now. Those that work, eat.”
She looked into his angry eyes, expecting the worst. He went over to the fallen tree, pulling what remained of the carcass out and starting to eat as she watched hungrily. The sensation of eating meat stirred him, and he remembered old feelings and old friends from long ago. A shudder of deep emotion went through him. He’d finished more than half of it, but then he backed back a little. “Won’t you join me, Mikosi?”
“Yeah. When I say something, I mean it.”
She came up tentatively beside him, snatching a quick bite and chewing, relaxing when he ignored her and started to eat again. "Friends?"
She kissed his cheek. “You’re rather special, you know that?”
Abruptly a low growl issued from the trees behind them. They turned to see another leopard descending, his flat yellow glare fixed on Mikosi. "Gods, this is SICK! You'll do it with ANYTHING! I thought you were just having an affair, but my gods, this is SICK!"
“He’s just a friend! He’d never been around his own kind, and I thought I’d show him how to--well--you know!”
The male leopard moaned. “That’s what I was afraid of!” She tried to explain, but he would hear none of it. He told Simba, "Get out, you home wrecker! Out, out out!!!!"
“I was just trying to satisfy my appetite.”
"Take your ‘appetite’ and GET OUT!!!"
As Simba padded away slowly, he couldn’t help but hear the heated argument behind him as the leopard berated Mikosi. “Tell me he didn’t! Tell me you didn’t!”
“You jealous fool,” she hissed. “What if we did! You think you can come waltzing into my life every few months and tell me how to run my affairs??”
In fury, he bellowed, “DID YOU??”
“NO!” Simba shouted. “Absolutely not! No way! Forget it kid! I’m out of here!”
“I thought you were very special!” she called after Simba.
“Special??” The leopard ran and blocked Simba’s escape. “Hey Fire Flanks, you want her, you fight for her! Come on, lion! I’ll fight you to the death!”
“But I don’t want to fight you!”
“Come on, lion! Are you saying she’s not worth it?? You made it with my wife, then you leave her flat?? I’d kill you for that, or die trying!”
“Look,” Simba said. “It’s really you she loves. I mean hey, she cried out your name by mistake. It’s a real turn-off when someone yells ‘Oh Oswego’ in a moment of passion.”
The leopard’s hackles raised and he began to tremble with unstoppable rage. Just as Timon and Pumbaa were wishing they were on another continent, the leopard shrilly screamed, “WHO THE HELL IS OSWEGO??”
He pushed past Simba and barreled after the leopardess at top speed. When all was still, and the trio had gone safely into the forest, Timon said, “Yesss!!” and high-fived Simba. “Gods, what an inspiration!!”
Timon looked worriedly at Simba. “Your face is bleeding.”
“No, that’s just my marks. I’m a hunter now.”
CHAPTER 45: TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM
Simba listened enraptured to the soft voice of the leopardess. “You are special,” she purred alluringly. “Friends?”
“You can’t have him,” a lioness voice said from the bushes. “He doesn’t belong in the trees like a leopard. He belongs in the open with me.” It was Sasha.
The lioness twitched her head for him to follow. He left the leopardess behind and followed her.
Soon he found himself back in the open savanna where his heart belonged. Sasha came to him and nuzzled him slowly and gently, pawing his face and then slinking softly down his full length. “Isn’t this better?”
“Jomo is not around. We have this to ourselves.”
A smile warmed the corners of her shapely mouth and her eyes half closed. She rolled on her back in the rich grass, taking in a deep breath and letting it slowly out. “Simba.”
He smiled, drifting alongside her warm body and lowering his bulk with such grace that the grass whispered in answer. He looked over into her soft hazel eyes and rolled on his back, snuggled against her graceful body. A feeling of peace and contentment swept over him like a calm wind, blowing his worries and doubts away and leaving only the essence of his wondering soul.
As they lay next to each other, she reached over with an adventurous paw and began to explore his soft mane and feel his heartbeat. Simba grunted his approval, his eyes half closed in satisfaction. “Oh yes, you know what I like.”
“I know what you like,” she said mischievously, and she began to widen her explorations.
His eyes opened wide. “Hey!”
She gazed at him longingly. “It’s what you want, isn’t it?”
She licked his face slowly and passionately. “You can’t hide it from me. It’s been on your mind since we met.”
“It’s all right, honey tree. Really it is. It’s what I want too.” She reached over with a paw again, starting at his chest and slowly, steadily setting him on fire. “Make love to me, Simba.”
“OK. But it’s going to be my first time.” He rolled over and got to his feet. “Do you still want me?”
She looked up at him and smiled. “Yes.” She rolled over smoothly into a crouch. “Don’t be afraid. You’re so timid, just like a little cub.” She licked out the end of her tongue in a kiss. “I think you’re kind of cute.”
Suddenly, Jomo came running toward them. “Get away! Get away from her!”
The two squared off, and Simba flailed at him, claws out. Jomo was bold, but to the point of overconfidence. He did not expect a firm defense, and Simba struck at him, catching him on the side of the face.
Stunned, Jomo fell back, and Simba rained blow after blow on him almost unopposed.
Soon Simba prevailed. He saw the vanquished foe at his feet, but rather than beg for mercy, the lion said, "Everything I had is yours. But before you make love to her, why don't you tell her I'm the second lion you killed. Your own father's blood is on your paws!"
Simba looked at him and realized it was his Uncle Scar.
"No!" Simba backed up. "I didn't kill him!” he stammered. “I swear I didn't! It was an accident!"
Taka glared at him as he lay mortally wounded, his life draining away with each beat of his heart. "It's all your fault! If you hadn’t messed up, he’d still be alive. Go away and never come back!"
"It's NOT my fault! It's NOT!"
Simba struggled awake, striking out at the bare air in his efforts to escape the nightmare. Breathing rapidly, his heart pounding, he sat in the still heat of the jungle, the humid air stifling him and making each breath an effort. At last his heat slowed, and he reclined back onto the leaves, his fur soaked in sweat. His eyes flicked up to the dark canopy of leaves overhead, and for the first time in months, he wept bitterly, the tears falling silent onto the forest loam.
CHAPTER 46: FACING FACTS
Ef a man is what he isn’t, den he isn’t what he am,
And as sure as I’m a-talkin’ he isn’t worth a damn!
Doan’t ye be what you ain’t, jes’ you be what you is.
Ef a man is what he isn’t, den he isn’t what he is;
And as sure as I’m a-talkin’, he’s a-gwyne to git his!
-- EDWIN MILTON ROYLE
Simba was disturbed by some of the feelings his young adulthood gave him. Hakuna matata was stretching thin. He wanted a mate, he wanted meat, he wanted a territory, he wanted absolution. In short, he felt trapped, with little hope of ever achieving any of the success predicted by Gur’bruk and Kambra.
Sefu the secretary bird was unconventional, but his advice when given was not taken lightly. And it was to Sefu that he looked for help.
Of course, Sefu was not easily found. Unlike his old friends on Pride Rock, there was no way of knowing when and were the Secretary Bird would show up. Despondent, Simba paused one morning while Timon and Pumbaa continued on to the water hole to get a drink and bowed his head.
“Please, Aiheu, help me! I may not pray every night like I should, and I may be just a fugitive, but Mom said you were merciful. Please give me a second chance, God. Please show me the way--I’m so lost!”
Just when Simba was about to lose his faith in the power of prayer, Sefu surprised them at the watering hole.
“Sefu! I’m so glad to see you!”
“Hey, cat! Likewise!”
While Pumbaa wallowed in the shallows and Timon gargled noisily as he drank, Simba managed to corner Sefu for a moment and try to put into words what was only a feeling of emptiness, a dread of dying alone and forgotten, a creeping despair that eroded him like fungi on a fallen log.
“Hey, been there, done that.” Sefu looked at him appraisingly. “Some of us little folks can fit into a little hole somewhere and hide ourselves from the world. Some of us can’t.”
“I heard through the grapevine that you tried to take meat from the local tribesmen. I guess you found out they have a lot of sense for creatures without fur or feathers.”
Simba uttered a short laugh. “No darned kidding.”
“Well they have this custom of making shapes of geese out of pitch covered straw.”
“Black stuff that’s really sticky,” Sefu explained patiently. “Anyway, from a distance, the geese look real. They are set out in the lake and when the real geese see them, they think its safe and light.”
“Land,” the bird sighte. “Land. And when they land, they get whacked.” He cocked his head and regarded Simba with an amused look. “You do know what whacked means, don’t you?”
“I figured out that much on my own,” Simba said gruffly. “Is there a moral to this story?”
“No!” Sefu said. “I just wanted you to know that you’re an impostor. You’re not a jungle bum. Hakuna matata does not fit you. You were meant to be marsh grass, and no matter how much they weave you or tar you, you can't be a goose unless you were born a goose. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly--well, at least most of them do--and lions gotta roar. You don't belong here. You'll NEVER belong here. You belong out there, free and unencumbered. As free as the wind blows. As free as the grass grows. Born free to follow your heart." He threw back his wing, held up his head and burst out with "BORN FREE! AS FREE AS THE WIND BLOWS...."
Timon grabbed his beak shut. "Please, don't sing it!" He turned back to Simba. “Listen, kid! It does no good bringing up a lot of false hopes and stirring up a lot of pain. Hakuna matata is the only way. You gotta be like Pumbaa here--he’s got it all figured out.”
But Pumbaa was looking at Sefu and Simba wistfully. He was anything but sure about Timon’s logic. He felt sorry for Simba.
“I was afraid this would happen someday,” Pumbaa said. “But when the time comes, I’ll let go. Simba, we’re all born into this world with a destiny. Some of us might have it easier than others, but you can’t escape your destiny.”
“What is my destiny?” Simba asked.
“That is something that you must figure out for yourself, my son. That’s between you and God. And whatever it is, I’ll be there to help you fulfill it.”
Timon looked at Pumbaa disbelievingly. But the warthog had a look of wisdom and nobility shining in his eyes that stunned him. He could not find the nerve to contradict him, and looked away, sighing. “Yeah, IF.”
CHAPTER 47: HER FIRST SEASON
Two years had passed since Taka had become King of the Pride Lands. The drought that many blamed on him had turned the once beautiful kingdom into a wasteland, as devoid of hope as the lionesses that tried to eke out a living on it.
The eye of N’ga augured the land with its unblinking golden stare, jealously drawing the last moisture from the water hole and spreading cracks in the hard pavement of dried mud around its rim. Those who could go far had left long ago for greener pastures. Those who could not fell prey to the desperate efforts of the lionesses, and some of those creatures were rather meager fare at best. Lionesses turned over rocks and dug at burrows in a desperate effort to keep ma’at and ka together. They had long since stopped grimacing at snakes and lizards. Before it was over, they would jealously guard them from the attentions of their hunting partners. If it had not been for the gasping fish left stranded in small ponds that once connected into a vibrant, cool creek, they would have all met Aiheu long before.
Nala remembered a time when large game roamed the Pride Lands. It was a distant memory of soft green grass that made no noise underfoot. She had watched the pronking of the Springbok, the migration of the wildebeests, the stately procession of the zebras, and had even glimpsed a few hunts from the tip of the promontory. But as an adult, she had never had a chance to hunt large game. She held out hope that the rain would come again and she would use the body Aiheu gave her in the way he intended.
One young female either became mad or wise, depending on whom was asked, and ran away from the hunt, crossing the border of the Pride Lands screaming “Aiheu abamami!”
The escape prompted Taka to send patrols of hyenas to guard a no-hunting zone near the borders. The call of freedom was too loud when the borders were a few lengths away.
Even with those precautions in place, the lionesses had made plans to escape when things got unbearable. And one did more than plan. Nala knew that short of abandoning their home, there was only one workable plan--bringing help from outside.
Nala had a lot to be depressed and worried about as it was. But it had suddenly become worse—much worse. She did not understand that her restless stirrings and moodiness were caused by the approach of her first season. Sarafina knew, and she used the opportunity to give her daughter the talk she had been dreading.
Sarafina was no more timid about sex than any other lioness, but she understood the link between Nala and Simba, a link she believed was shattered under the hooves of wildebeests.
Nala listened sullenly and dutifully, feeling none of the joy that Akase felt with her mother long ago. Indeed, what should have been a pleasant prompting to intimacy became an inconvenience, another symptom to add to a long list of complaints.
Nala had not paid much attention to lionesses talking about lions before. Now in her agitated state, they seemed to be talking about their romantic adventures all the time.
Her mood swing was building by the hour. She failed to catch a lizard and she cried. She apologized three times very profusely for bumping into Isha. Her mother nuzzled her softly and in return got a rush of affection that opened her eyes. Even the colors seemed to be brighter and the sounds sharper and the scents… The scents were the worst. She hunted near the border of the territory closely enough to smell Taka’s scent marks. They did not please her, but there was a second lion who was said to hover just outside the territory—a rogue lion—whose scent came to her more than once. It built the tension inside her almost to the snapping point.
Nala did not want—or did not want to admit wanting—a full romance. But she felt flirtatious and wanted her own lion to brag about on the next hunt.
She decided to forsake the hunt for the rest of the night and look for a different prey. If anyone wondered where she was, she would use the traditional excuse—a touch of fever.
By an inborn prompting as old as her race, Nala did not relieve herself in full but did something very unlike herself. She went from bush to bush and sprayed a little urine on each one to leave a trail. The scent of it travelled on the light wind and sent just the right signal.
The moon looked down on her and seemed to smile slyly. Nala felt a little naughty, strutting her stuff on the savanna like a bad girl. She smiled back at the moon. For a change, exploring her feelings rather than hiding them away gave her a rush of exhileration—she was queen of the world and in search of amusement. She was the temptress, the huntress, the young lady of leisure looking for fun.
Her reverie was broken by the emergence of a lion from the bush.
“Don’t be afraid! Please don’t!”
“Who are you?”
“Matoto. I haven’t entered your territory have I?”
“No. The boundary is back there by that tree.”
“That’s nice. And you are?”
“That’s a pretty name. A pretty name for a pretty lioness.”
Nala laughed nervously. “Want to talk?”
He moved closer to her, his eyes half closed, and took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. A look of deep satisfaction spread across his face. “Yes, let’s talk.”
Despite their boldness, Matoto and Nala were both new to romance. They had played tag, wrestled, and even laid close to feel each other’s warmth. Beyond that laid a frontier which neither had explored, and before they could take those steps there was much to consider.
Over time the pain of Simba’s loss had become less keen and less frequent. Her bitter grief had become regret. And yet the presence of the handsome rogue and the possibilities he raised knotted Nala’s stomach worse than hunger. She thought about Simba’s face, so young and innocent, frozen forever in the unfulfilled promise of cubhood. Poor Simba! Once she had laughed at him being her betrothed. As she lay snuggled next to Matoto she turned on her back to look up at the stars. Somewhere up there were father and son, cut down ahead of their time. Were they angry with her? Were they jealous? She was only sure of one thing—they were silent. She would have to make her own way through this uncharted land of romance.
Though she felt an attraction to Matoto, and though she did care for him as a friend, she understood her own feelings well enough to know it was no great romance. Still, she might please him, and through him achieve freedom for her people. Surely Mufasa would approve—even Simba.
She rolled over and stroked the lion’s mane. “Matoto, have you ever lost anyone that was dear to you?”
He grunted under the pleasure of her touch. “My Mom.”
“How did it happen?”
“I grew up. I was sent out into the world.” He opened an eye and looked over at her. “Relax, she’s fine. But we’re apart for this life—it’s almost like she’s dead.” He sighed. “How about you?”
“No, silly.” She smiled for a moment, but the smile soon faded. “He was the prince.”
“Oh?” His eyes opened fully. “Did you and he ever…”
“No. He was a cub, betrothed to me by his father. He was…killed. So was his dad.”
“A rogue male?”
“No. Nothing so horri….” She looked at him intently. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“I know what you mean. And I’m sorry about your Simba and his dad. Really I am.” He was thoughtful for a moment, then he added, “You can’t be my mother, and I can’t be your Simba. We’re two lonely people, but if we were lonely together it might not be so bad. I really like you. I think we could be good for each other."
“I can’t run out on the pride sisters. My Mom, my family…but Matoto, you could be king of Pride Rock. You could come home with me and have a family again. Think about it, Matoto! Safety, land, and never being alone again!”
“That sounds wonderful. Nala, I know you’re stuck on this Simba of yours, but I’m real and warm and I can love you in ways he can’t. Let me pledge to you and you to me.”
“Only if you’re going to run Scar out. I was destined to be a queen."
"You sure were."
"No, I'm serious. The branch dipped on me. If you were king, I would be your mate. You would free our people from the hyenas and I would learn to love you--I think I could, you know. I'm young and strong--I could give you an heir."
“Only if the other lionesses will help. I can’t fight them alone. Maybe I am the next king. Maybe I can do this. For you, I’d try."
Nala nuzzled him and tongue touched him. “Bless you! I promise that I will make you happy and bear you strong sons. My dear, handsome lion!”
She did not see the silent hyena who watched them from behind a bush.
CHAPTER 48: BACK TO HER ROOTS
It had been an agonizing night and day for Nala as she sought to get the pride sisters she needed most alone to talk. As the sun began to sink in the western sky, she won a private meeting with Uzuri and pled her case, asking for the assurance she needed. What joy had filled her when Uzuri nuzzled her and said, “Tell your Honey Tree that I will alert the sisters within one phase of the moon, and we SHALL support him all the way.”
She couldn’t hum or even look too happy as she headed quietly to the border that night to meet her friend and tell him the news. Her ears strained for a second set of footsteps, however faint, but there were none. Everything was perfect!
A lion was coming through the grass. Her heart rose in her chest and she sprang forward. “Matoto! Honey Tree!”
“No,” Taka’s voice said dryly, “it's me."
Her ears flattened and her tail drooped. For one moment she didn’t know whether to run or simply die on the spot. “You??”
“Yes. It's not safe to be out here with rogue lions about...." He scowled at her. “These matters can be very dangerous, my dear. Dangerous all around.”
"There’s blood on your fur! What have you done??"
“Don’t worry. It’s not my blood.”
“But you can’t! He was just a friend! He had no one in the world and I came out here to talk—just TALK!”
"My dear, those rogues will fill your little head with nonsense. All they care about is ONE THING, and they'll use you and abuse you to get it."
She struggled not to puddle up with tears. “You had no right,” she stammered.
“I had every right. I’m protecting the kingdom, and that means you too, my dear.”
“I’m not your dear,” she said, losing her battle with emotions. Tears began to stream down her cheeks and she pushed past him and ran into the unknown.
Nala managed to track two other rogues that night and one the following morning. She told them, but never with the affection she felt for Matoto, that she went with the kingdom. "Free us and I will make it worth your while." Not only was her heart not in it, but the other lions also lost interest when they heard about the hyenas. It seems her first choice had been the best, but he was no more.
She offered herself as dowry, for she knew she was fated to be queen. She assumed Aiheu had made her beautiful and desirable for the cause of luring a reluctant savior to the Pride Lands.
The noon sun was at its most fierce when she decided to stop and rest. She found water and even managed to catch a rabbit to fill her empty stomach. How strange it seemed that just beyond her dying home there was much life, even in the dry season.
A male came out of the bushes and spotted her. She half expected to be run off, but then she noticed that the old male did not seem to be angry.
“Are you looking for someone?” the lion asked.
“Sir,” she said tiredly, “I’m looking for someone brave who will deliver my pride from danger. If you will help me, you may have me.” She burst into tears. “Please say yes! I want to go home and see my mother again! Help me please!”
He looked at her carefully. "Who are you, child?"
"Nala, daughter of Sarafina?"
"Yes. Do you know my mother?"
Tears flooded the old lion's eyes. "So it has come to this? Nalapenzi, my little alba flower?"
“Only one lion ever called me that. I was a very young cub.” Nala drew close and said, “Dad?”
Ugas said, "Yes, Honey Tree."
"I thought you were dead!"
"Oh no, Nalapenzi. I'm old, but I'm still breathing!"
"Why didn't you come for us?"
He sniffed back tears. "I begged your mother to bring you. She said she couldn't turn her back on her pride sisters. Every time she came to see me, I'd ask how my little Nala was doing. She always said, 'Fine. Just fine.' You don't look fine to me. Gods, you are so thin!"
Nala's chin trembled. "Father, we're starving to death. We need help."
"I tried, really I did. I spared as much food as I could, Honey Tree. I even had to hunt by myself. Imagine an old fool like me trying to snag a gazelle...."
"You're not an old fool," Nala said, tears springing to her eyes. She looked at the old lion and saw the love in his eyes. "I never knew the food was from you. I would have come to see you. Honest."
He reared up and put his paws around her neck, nuzzling her and kissing her tear-stained face. "I won't have my little girl's ribs showing. You must dine with me."
“I will dine with you, but I can’t eat much while my mother is starving.”
Ugas sighed. “I am too old to fight a young and vigorous lion. I am almost worthless, my girl. Once I was a force to contend with, and now I am a collection of aches and pains. But I am your father and I will always love you. But come live with us. Be my little girl for always."
"I can't. I have to get help."
"I forbid you to leave. I'll order my pride sisters to track you if needs be. And we're going to get your mother and bring her here. By Aiheu, I won't have my family treated like dirt by your hyena kissing fleabag of a King!”
Nala found that through the censorship of Sarafina's cautious conversations, Ugas had managed to learn a great deal about her. He knew about her first walk and several little embarrassing incidents that happened on her path to adulthood. He told her about her unfortunate sister and how she died.
After they finished eating, they went up to Pride Kopje to rest. He showed her his bed, and laid down, patting his paw. She laid next to him. "Remember when you were a little girl you once stayed here?" He showed her a bone from a cape buffalo. "See those tooth marks? Those are yours. I kept this bone--I tell everyone that my little Nala did that."
"You kept this?" She stroked his mane and he sighed.
"Honey Tree, your mother is a special person. I tried to talk her into staying. That's why I kept the bone. I kept hoping that you might need it again. Now you're a big girl and you don't play with toys anymore."
She pawed and nuzzled him. "I love you, Father."
"I love you too." He looked into her eyes and sighed deeply. “My little girl mustn’t sell herself cheaply. Making love is a wonderful thing when you love the one you’re with. I want your mate to be someone special, someone you want and who wants you for all the right reasons. Promise me you will not pledge to some deadbeat. Promise me that you will wait for love.”
“I’ll try,” Nala said. “Still, there are some things in this world bigger than my happiness. More important things.”
“No there aren’t,” Ugas said tenderly but firmly. “It was for your happiness that Aiheu brought us into the world. Oh that happiness may be interrupted by grief and trouble, but it always comes back. Remember that, Nalapenda. You and I and countless others wanting love, a full belly, and a nice midday nap. Your father is a king, and that makes you a princess. Your mate should be a prince—if not by birth, then by the greatness of his heart.”
She nuzzled him once more. “I found the greatest heart, the one lion in the world I cannot pledge to.”
She spent part of the night with him and his pride. She fell asleep resting on his mane. But she awoke about midmoon from a nightmare about her mother, and sadly, she started to sneak away to continue her quest. She got a few lengths away when she heard his sad voice. "Honey Tree, aren't you even going to say good bye?"
"Dad, I have to go. Please don't try to stop me."
"I know. I just thought it might be a little longer before you slipped out."
"I thought so too."
She ran back to him and rubbed him full length. "Wish me luck, Father! Pray for me!"
"I will, Nalapenzi. And don't you go breaking your father's heart. You're a noble lady from a noble line, and I don't want you crouching in the reeds with some deadbeat." He kissed her cheek and pawed her. "Go with Aiheu."
"Aiheu abamami, father."
CHAPTER 49: THE CLAN MEETING
Elanna had taken to staying in the cave longer and longer hours until her eyes had actually become sensitive to the bright light of the open sun. She even took to carrying out her most private acts in the stone shelter.
She nuzzled Taka as he lay on the stone floor, then walked about him rubbing against him full length. It was all she needed to do to get his interest up, and when she walked a couple of lengths and crouched, he was right behind her.
Taka stepped across her shoulders, crouched behind her, and took her shapely neck in his jaws for a playful, passionate caress. As he pressed close and explored her pleasures, she rumbled with joy. Making love was one of few moments when he was his old self, the lion she had fallen in love with.
Suddenly he stiffened. He moaned, not the cry of sexual fulfilment but a fearful sound. “Help me!”
As Elanna lay there horrified, he collapsed across her, his lungs bursting for air and his limbs splaying out stiffly. As soon as she began to crawl from under him, he urinated all over her hindquarters and started to thrash, claws out.
“Taka! Taka, my love!” Risking injury, she stroked his mane and rubbed his exposed chest and belly softly. “You’re all I have left. Swear you’ll never leave me. Oh gods, what would I do if you died??”
Elanna stroked him till the thrashing died down and he lay in an exhausted pile, drenched in his own urine and vomit.
Two hyena eyes shined softly in the darkness as silent feet padded out of the cave.
Skulk headed to a special clan meeting about Scar. Shenzi greeted him affectionately and called for silence. “Our ears have returned. What have they heard?”
“It is no folly that my mother named me Skulk. I was silent, I was unseen and I heard it all.” Pleased with the expectant hush, he continued. “He had another seizure.”
“Again?” Shenzi asked. “It’s getting worse, isn’t it?”
“Not JUST another seizure. Want to guess what he was doing when it hit him?”
The crowd began to giggle nervously.
Skulk began to howl with laughter. “He was doing IT when it hit him!”
Shenzi’s ears fell back with mortification. For a moment the crowd was hushed and in shock.
“Poor baby didn’t get to finish. But you think HE had it bad. I’m telling you, you should have SEEN that girl! I mean, he fell on her like a tree hit by lighting—KERSPLAT!”
The hyenas erupted in gales of laughter. Even Shenzi could not maintain her professional attitude and began to roll on the ground. It took several moments before anything else Skulk said could be heard.
“Anyway, folks, you HAD to be there. But I have the answer to our problems now. It happens sometimes when he gets really upset or stirred up. We can bring this on whenever we want.”
“Yeah!” Banzai cried. “Just have sex with him!”
“I’m being serious now!” Skulk thundered, his hackles raised. “Too big of a shock could kill him, or at least make him unable to defend himself. If we just try to fight him, he could rip us open. But if we make him seize up, ANYBODY could do the deed. That would leave Kovu as the next king—a CUB. We could appoint a regent to make sure he had all the proper guidance. A cub that we could make into whatever we want.”
Banzai asked, “What’s going to get old Droopy Drawers that upset?”
“If something happened to Elanna, that would do it.”
“But he’d try to get revenge on us first! We can’t be sure it would work!”
“No, but if it looked like an accident, he couldn’t hold it against US very well, could he?”
“An accident?” Shenzi said. “He won’t let her hardly breathe, much less get involved in an accident.”
“Let me see to that,” Skulk said
“But isn’t this treason?” Banzai asked.
Skulk said, “You know he’s falling apart. We just don’t want him to take us with him.”
“You must not do this evil thing,” Fabana cried. “There is still good in him.”
“Who is that old fool?” Shenzi asked. “Someone shut her up.” She did not recognize that it was her mother. “We won’t be without help. There are some lionesses that would go along with us in our plan.”
Fabana said, “If Taka must die, let me kill him.”
Shenzi smiled broadly. “See, Mom is as anxious as the rest of us to be rid of this dandelion. And it was her idea for this union to form.”
“That was NOT my idea,” Fabana said. “He’s suffered much in life. Please don’t drive him to dispair! If Taka must die, first I will make him happy. I will tell him all the things he wants to hear, and when his heart rejoices, I will give him a little something from Rafiki to make him sleep. When he’s quiet, I will choke off his wind. It will be quick and merciful. He deserves that much. He was our friend!”
Shenzi looked at her mother with a little bit of respect. “It might work.” She thought for a moment. “But Elanna will find him. She’s always with him when he sleeps. I’m sorry, but that’s out.”
“You don’t understand. He’s a tormented little pup, a fizh’lo that the gods would have been wise to take as an innocent youth in his milk.”
“You advise the gods?”
“No, I advise my daughter. I adopted Taka—he is my son. You will give him the same rights you would give one of your own. Rights under our law. We cannot torment him. If he dies, it must be honorably. We must fight him one at a time.”
“You mean that vain, overstuffed excuse for a king is my brother?” She shuddered. “I don’t agree. I didn’t swear to it. That little boy of yours is dangerous. He’ll turn on you. You’d better not try and warn him if you know what’s good for you.”
“You’re right. He’s not your brother, for that would make you my daughter.” She turned her back on Shenzi and scratched some dirt up with her hind legs. “By Roh’kash, I utterly renounce you.”
The hyenas took in a collective gasp.
Her look of horror soon turned to rage. “Being my mother is all that’s kept you here, you meddling old fool. Maybe you can adopt Rafiki too. You’ll spend the rest of your life in that baobab tree.” Shenzi turned her back on her mother and scratched dirt at her. “By Roh’kash, I utterly renounce you.”
Banzai and Ed were afraid and they went along with their sister, turning their backs on Fabana, though they said nothing.
“Guards, take this FEMALE to the border and see she does not return on pain of death.” Her face set hard against any feelings that may remain. “Now, before I was so rudely interrupted, I called you here to share news of great importance. Scar is about to make his exit. Yes, we are on the threshold of a power and independence that will make us the envy of all peoples. We have a plan that will make a great song for our children and our children’s children. If we stick with it as one body, there can be no chance of failure. The matter is closed.”
CHAPTER 50: TIDINGS ON THE WIND
“’The strange lion will tell his name to no one but the King,’ his brother said. And King Amalkozi wondered if he was being challenged, and he went out to greet the stranger with kind words while judging his strength as an enemy.
“But when the strange lion came before the King, M’hetu, the childhood friend of the lost prince humbled himself and cried, ‘Behold it is Zara who once was lost but now is found. Look, my King, the cub has returned a lion.’ And the King looked closely and saw that it was his son, he wept.”
-- LEONID SAGA, “M” SECTION, VARIATION 5
Far from the Pride Lands, Simba eyed a rare treasure, a bongo. Those antelopes are very wary, and well they should be for their meat is the favorite of most lions. Because they haunt the forests, they mainly fear the leopard who brings death from above. This bongo saw Pumbaa and thought, with good reason, that the rustling behind him must be another warthog. It was not.
In three quick strides, Simba was on the bongo and found a fatal hold on its throat. Pumbaa and Timon watched the spectacle of death with horror. “Aren’t you glad he’s on our side,” the meerkat said. “Sheesh! Carnivores!”
Of course his whole outlook changed when Simba offered to share his meal. Pumbaa would only take a little meat, for he was mainly a vegetarian. But this was fresher than the carrion he was used to. Timon, on the other hand, thought nothing of eating unwisely and well.
They spent hours on the meal, and still they saw there was plenty for other days ahead. And fully satisfied, they became a little drowsy, especially Simba. He cleaned off his face, and lay in a small clearing with his friends. Simba smiled with satisfaction, then rather indelicately belched. Timon said, “Whoa! Nice one, Simba.”
“Thanks.... Man, I'm stuffed.
“Me too,” Pumbaa said. I ate like a pig!”
“Pumbaa, you are a pig.”
Pumbaa surveyed the night sky. Often when he was young, he’d try to count the stars, but not being very educated, he didn’t get far. “Timon?”
“Ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?”
“Pumbaa; I don't wonder, I know.”
“Oh! ...What are they?”
“They're fireflies. Fireflies that uh.. got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.”
“Oh. Gee. I always thought that they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.”
“Pumbaa, with you, everything's gas.”
The warthog was left wanting a deeper answer. “Simba, what do you think?”
“Well, I don't know.”
“Aw come on. Give, give give give ... come on we told you ours. Please?”
Simba looked disturbed. “Well, somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there; watching over us.”
Pumbaa sighed. “Really?”
Timon was amused by the answer, as Simba feared he would be. “You mean a bunch of royal dead-guys are watching us?” He laughed, and Simba had to chuckle, but only for a moment.
“Who told you something like that? What muke made that up?”
“Yeah,” Simba said, his face falling. “Pretty dumb, huh?”
“Ah, you're killing me, Simba.”
Simba’s eyes searched the skies. He could almost smell the familiar presence of his father next to him. It was almost like sitting on Pride Rock watching the sunrise. Then abruptly he could see the battered body from whose lifeless arm he stole one last embrace. The ugliness of the memory took his breath away, and he had to leave before he roared with the depth of his grief.
Simba walked out on a nearby ledge. Looking into the stars for some sign of hope, he found none. “I thought you’d be there for me, but you’re not. You’re not!” He collapsed in despair. A cloud of milkweed floss was stirred up by the impact, rising slowly around him. Caught by the air currents, it drifted away on the breeze.
Rafiki was ready to eat his meager evening meal when a cool wind swept over him. It was from the wrong direction for that time of day. What’s more, there was milkweed floss on the breeze, and no milkweed grew in that area. He collected it. Something in it makes his fingers tingle. He put it in a bowl and sifted it sunward. It came out in a shape that only had meaning to an astrologer like him. It was the shape of the constellation Amalkosi, where Mufasa’s star burned brightly. He turned it again sunward and it came out again Amalkosi. Then he wanted its meaning so he turned it counter-sunward. It fell into a constellation he recognized very clearly. M’hetu.
Reverently he whispered the words of an old tale: “Look, my King, the cub has returned a lion.” He turned and looked at the painting of Simba. He reached out and put his fingertips on it and they began to tingle. His hand started shaking. “Simba?? He's--he’s alive? He he- He's alive!!” He laughed loud and wonderfully. “It is time!” Trying to control his shaking hands, he picked up some red ochre and hastily daubed a mane on the painting.
THE END: PART THREE