Dhahabu's Tale--Chapter 1: Sulubu
It was a crisp morning like many others in Africa when a young lion cub emerged from the long grass where the lionesses lay asleep to perch on a rock overlooking the river valley. He had a coat of burnished gold, perfectly matching the hue of the blossoms of the acacia tree that shaded the rock. Gray eyes darted across the landscape, eager to miss nothing in the wide world around him. A curl of mane overhung his brows, lending him a rather roguish look.
"Hey, Dhahabu! Wait up!"
The cub turned to watch his sister Taraji scramble up the grassy slope toward the rock. "What took you so long, tortoise?" He grinned at her, ignoring the scowl she returned.
"I wonder," she said sarcastically. "Maybe because you shoved me in that stream back there!" Taraji's cinnamon fur hung plastered to her sides.
Dhahabu laughed. "How else was I gonna beat you to the rock?"
Taraji glared at him, her icy-blue gaze piercing his confidence. "You got that right," she muttered. Then, without warning, she shook violently, spraying her brother with shimmering wetness.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Dhahabu stared at her morosely. "You didn't have to do that," he whined.
Taraji smiled sweetly. "Sure I did. Payback's always fair."
Dhahabu frowned. "I'm sorry, sis. I didn't mean to upset you. I was just trying to have fun!"
"You're always trying to have fun--and I'm the one who always pays for it." His sister looked at him sternly. But then the corner of her mouth twitched, and her resolve broke. Laughing, she pounced on Dhahabu and sent him flying to the ground.
As they rolled to a stop at the bottom of the hill, Taraji giggled. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Race me to the river, that's what!" Dhahabu rose and loped toward the south, but before he could reach the next hill, a dark brown blur flew out of the branches of the acacia tree and pinned him to the ground.
"Hey!" He struggled. "Sulubu! Lemme up!"
The cocoa-colored cub perched proudly on Dhahabu's chest smirked.
"Nope! Not until ya admit I'm the best stalker."
Dhahabu groaned. "All right, all right! You win. You're the best!"
As Sulubu backed off, Taraji walked up with a disinterested air. She peered down at her brother. "Oh, look! It's the Lying King!"
Sulubu laughed, while Dhahabu swiped playfully at his sister. "What's all this noise?" The tired-sounding voice was that of a lioness approaching through the grass. In moments she emerged, a golden lioness like Dhahabu. "Are you three up already?"
"Yes, Mom," Taraji replied with a gentle shove at her brother."Thanks to Dhahabu!"
Malkia, Queen of the Kiburi Pride, smiled. "My little adventurer. And where did you think you were going?"
Dhahabu told the truth. "The river first, but after that, who cares?"
Malkia raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really? I think I might just have to come along, at least to the river."
"But, Mooooom!" the three cubs chorused.
"Come on! You know it's not safe out there. Any number of animals could kill you. Our territory isn't assured."
"But we're all big and strong!" Dhahabu said proudly.
"And overconfident." Malkia smiled. "Listen to me--please? You know I worry about you."
Dhahabu sighed and approached his mother. "All right. I know it's for our own good." He mouthed the words with exaggerated care, having memorized them long before. "But only if we get to go off by ourselves after we reach the river."
One after another the three cubs rubbed on their mother's sides. Then the four lions walked in a close group down the hillside toward the river sparkling in the morning sun.
Malkia and her three cubs approached the river slowly, cautiously. Dhahabu fidgeted impatiently, eager to explore, but his mother had her head raised, nostrils lifted to the wind.
"All right, kids." Malkia sighed and smiled. "No sign of hyenas."
"Finally!" Dhahabu burst out. With a small roar he leaped onto Sulubu and carried him to the ground. The two rolled down the hill, flattening a path in the tall savanna grass, until they tumbled into the flowing water.
Taraji glanced at her mother and rolled her eyes. "Males!"
"Who do you think you're fooling?" Malkia asked, smiling slyly. "You would have done the same thing if your brother hadn't beaten you to it."
The lioness cub shook her head, then grinned. "You're right, Mom. And now's the time to prove it..."
She crouched down in the grass, disappearing from sight, and began a slow, steady descent toward the river.
Spluttering, Sulubu broke the surface and flailed for a few seconds before he calmed down enough to swim for shore.Behind him Dhahabu paddled nonchalantly, as if he had planned the fall into the river well in advance.
As Sulubu climbed to dry land, Dhahabu waded through the shallows. "So now who's the better stalker?" He smirked.
Sulubu curled his lip. "What are you talking about? You didn't stalk me--you caught me off guard, that's all." He raised his brown eyes to his forehead, where the water had flattened the black tuft of his mane into a pitiful dark stain on his fur.
Dhahabu snorted. "A likely story."
His brother turned on him. "You're getting a little full of yourself,
Without warning a reddish streak flew out of the grass behind Sulubu and pinned him to the dirt. "Not again..." he moaned.
"Sorry, bro," Taraji apologized, climbing off. "I thought you were Dhahabu." She turned and eyed her other brother suggestively.
"Nuh-uh!" The golden cub backpedaled and tripped over a rock, landing flat on his back. Both Taraji and Sulubu burst out laughing.
"Hey!" Dhahabu sat up. "Quit making fun of me!"
"We're not!" Sulubu gasped, still laughing. "It's just the look on your face when she said--and then you--and you fell on your--" His voice disappeared in a burst of giggles.
"That's it. Lay it on me!" Dhahabu got to his feet and turned, walking to the edge of the grass. He looked back. "See if I care. You must think I don't, the way you're acting!"
As Dhahabu disappeared into the grass, the laughter of the other two cubs faded into an embarrassed silence. Sulubu lowered his head and Taraji gazed hopefully at the grass, but their brother did not reappear. "I think we went a little too far," she murmured.
Stalking angrily through the grass, Dhahabu began muttering to himself. "Why do they always have to make fun of me? I'm the future king, aren't I?" He paused, in motion as well as in words.
Then, although no one could see him, he blushed. "That's why they tease me. It's my stupid pride. Every time they do something, I have to do it better! I have to be the first to the rock, I have to be the best pouncer and the best stalker..." He sighed. "How do they put up with me?"
A rustle in the nearby grass jerked his attention to his surroundings. Something was coming his way... Stealthily he crouched down and began to slip through the grass on silent feet, not even disturbing one blade. He would prove he was worthy of the throne, and then he wouldn't need to be so pushy with his siblings. He'd catch whatever this was and show them all! Closer and closer he drew, and as the snorts and rustling grew louder, he pressed himself further down. The hair rose along his spine, he bared his teeth in a silent snarl, his muscles tensed...
"RRRRR!" It wasn't very impressive, but as he leaped out of hiding, jaws open to bite into his prey, his roar seemed to frighten the animal--although as soon as Dhahabu saw it he had no idea why it would be scared. Falling slackly to the ground, he stared at the gray, wrinkled bulk rising at least two feet above his head, the dangling trunk, and the miniature pointed tusks.
"AAAAAHHHH!" he screamed, but the baby elephant was already screaming, its trumpet-like call drowning him out. To Dhahabu's great surprise the elephant cowered down and closed its eyes.
"P-p-please don't eat me!" he cried in a slightly shrill voice.
"Eat you?" Dhahabu couldn't believe his ears. Scrambling to his feet, he peered incredulously into the elephant's face. "I can't even reach you!"
Slowly the baby elephant stopped trembling and opened his eyes. "You're right! You can't!" He breathed a sigh of relief and rose to his full height again. Then he cocked his head to the side. "You sure looked a lot bigger a minute ago!"
Dhahabu lowered his head and dug at the ground with one paw. "Uh, about that...sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I thought you were prey."
"Prey?" The elephant backed up a step. "But I thought you said..."
Great, Dhahabu thought. An elephant who's scared of his own shadow. "Hey, I said I'm not gonna eat you--I can't."
"I know," the elephant said uncertainly, as if he knew no such thing. "It's just that--Dad warned me about predators. He told me that you lions like to catch and eat baby elephants, and you don't care about the Circle of Life." His voice gained a defiant edge. "He said that if you could, you wouldn't leave any baby elephants for the future, or you'd just let the hyenas catch us all. He told me to call him if I ran into any trouble..."
The elephant froze. "But you're not gonna eat me? I'm not in trouble?"
"No." Dhahabu didn't like the look on his face. "Why?"
The elephant slowly curled his trunk up before his face and eyed it meaningfully. "When you leaped at me, I..."
A loud booming echoed across the savanna, coming rapidly nearer. It was soon followed by a deafening blast of sound from an elephant's trunk. "Tembo!" The deep voice raised the hairs on the back of Dhahabu's neck. "Tembo, where are you?" Unwilling to look but knowing he had to, the lion cub gazed in the direction of the sounds. Grass was flattening rapidly, and the ground shook so violently that Dhahabu stumbled and fell. Then a huge silhouette blocked out the sun and filled the little glade with shadow.
Cringing, he peered up at the massive ears flapping angrily, sending up scores of flies; the towering legs, the broad chest; the long, curving, yellowish tusks sharp enough to spear his body as easily as Dhahabu would stab a kigelia fruit with one claw...
The bull elephant glared at him with fury in his eyes. "What have you done to my son, lion cub?" His pronunciation of the word "lion" was one of arrogant disgust.
"Uh-oh..." Tembo whispered.
As Dhahabu cowered before the bull elephant's angry visage, he heard a loud rustling in the grass around him. Turning, he spied two paths forming in the savanna, one from the east, the other from the north.
Looking back at the elephant, he managed a cocky grin and stood up straight. "You're--" His voice came out in a squeak. Quickly he cleared his throat and tried to make his voice more deep and commanding, like his father's. "You're in trouble now!"
The elephant frowned, but at that moment Malkia burst into the glade, closely followed by Taraji and Sulubu. "Dhahabu! What's the matter, son?" She noticed Tembo, then his father. "Oh, it's you..." Slowly the queen crouched down and growled softly, her teeth clenched furiously.
And then Mfalme, the Lion King, emerged from the tall grass.
The bull elephant blew a nasty-sounding note from his trunk and turned to face the lion, his enormous feet taking him close enough that he towered over Mfalme. "So now the 'Lion King' is here! I suppose that cringing ball of fur over there is yours, hmm?" His rumbling voice dripped with contempt.
Mfalme was not impressed by the elephant's stature. Standing proud and implacable, his massive frame dwarfing even Tembo, each muscle taut beneath thick, mahogany fur, he stared at the insulting elephant. His green eyes locked on the other's black ones, their piercing gaze emerging from behind two locks of mane, both a shocking red, that extended back to form a matching pair of stripes in his brown mane.
"Damu..." the Lion King snarled at last.
"Mfalme." The elephant looked off over the lion's head, as if the king were an annoying fly buzzing around his head that he wished he could ignore.
"Yes, Dhahabu is my son, and your future king!" Mfalme snapped.
"I see no king here--not him, and not you!" Damu said, calmly superior. "The sons of Giza are the proper heirs to the pride--"
The Lion King roared deafeningly. Tembo ducked down in the grass and hid his face, while Dhahabu, Sulubu, and Taraji grinned.
When the sound had died away, Mfalme paced over to stand before the four young animals. "Giza was a tyrant and a killer. He hunted without shame, he abused the land, he appeased his cruel desires whether his lionesses agreed to it or not!"
"That is his own business. All that concerns me is that, under his rule, we elephants always had enough to eat." Damu nodded decisively.
Mfalme growled. "That is because you were given more than the Circle of Life has decreed to be your share. As king I restored the balance. You call that deprivation; I call it justice. Despite your size, you are not the sole animal in these lands. Others must be able to live, and they cannot if you will not fulfill your role."
"Why should I care about them?" The elephant eyed Dhahabu again. "And why should I listen to you? Where is it written that lions are the wisest of beasts?"
"In the stars."
Damu grunted. "Never put much stock in the stars. They don't stay in one place, you know. Besides, you don't show any respect for me, so why should I return the favor?"
"Only those who show respect are worth receiving it," Mfalme commented ominously. "And what proof do you have that I have never respected you?"
"Why, look at your cub there!" the elephant blustered. "He tried to attack my son!"
Mfalme turned toward Dhahabu. "Did you, son?"
"I-I was going to, until I saw what he was," Dhahabu said in a quiet, sad voice. "But then I saw how frightened he was, and I tried to be friends with him."
"Hah! A likely story!" Damu turned his head away and blatted a sour note.
Tembo, by now, had arisen and stood between his father and Mfalme, trembling. "But, Dad, it's true! Dhahabu--"
"Silence!" Damu pounded one foot on the ground. "Don't believe a word lions say, Tembo! You know they'll sooner eat an elephant calf as look at one."
Mfalme, more sad than angry, shook his head. "You should stop feeding your son lies, Damu."
"As should you, Mfalme!"
"You should address me," the Lion King snapped, "as 'your Majesty'!"
"I'd sooner break off my tusks!"
Mfalme sighed. "This is going nowhere. I believe my son--and yours. You have no quarrel here. Take Tembo and go."
"My movements are my own," Damu said obstinately. "I will follow no order from you."
Malkia stepped forward. "I suggest you do as he says, Damu. For your sake."
"Is that a threat?" The elephant stepped between Tembo and Mfalme.
"If you make it so. Do you want the entire pride to rise against you? My mate won't hesitate to call them." Malkia locked her eyes on Damu's.
For a long moment the elephant scowled belligerently, but at last he lowered his head to his son. "Very well. Tembo! Come along."
Tembo hung his head and turned to leave. "Good-bye, Dhaha--"
Without warning Damu delivered a stinging blow to his son's hind end with his trunk. Immediately Tembo began to cry and sank to the ground in pain. "Cease your tears AT ONCE! Elephants do not cry. You must be strong and show no emotion. How many times must I tell you, boy? Any other way will make you a victim. One day you will be the largest animal in the savanna--now behave that way! Hold your head up, and come along!"
Desperately Tembo struggled to his feet, still sniffling, and stumbled after his father. As they passed through the grass, Dhahabu could hear Damu still lecturing. "You are never to speak to that lion cub, or any other lion, again! Is that clear?"
Dhahabu couldn't hear Tembo's answer, but he hoped the little elephant had said no in his heart. Suddenly, the future king didn't feel so regal anymore. The only thing he felt was helpless--and he wondered, suddenly, why the kingship mattered.