Chapter 3: Death and Regret

 

            The afternoon sun was hidden behind a wall of towering clouds as Dhahabu and his siblings at last arrived at the border of Kivuli. For the last few miles, the land had become increasingly gray, misted, and still, a lifeless barren of dust and parched earth. By the time the three lion cubs topped the final rise before the elephant graveyard, Dhahabu was prepared to see a wasteland, but his breath still fled when it was actually before his eyes.

            The land lacked all vegetation--the heat and fumes from the fumaroles was too intense for life to exist in such a hellish place. Everywhere he looked, he saw elephant bones--massive skulls with the tusks still attached, curving ribs like gigantic monoliths, arched backbones like accusing fingers pointing to the overcast sky. A thick haze permeated the forgotten valley, reducing visibility enormously, but it appeared that the tract of death continued to the horizon, a jagged expanse of rocks, broken cliffs, caverns, and chasms.

            Sulubu whistled. "Whoa, it's better than I thought it would be!"

            Taraji giggled, a trifle nervously. "Yeah!"

            Dhahabu only stared at the grim vision before his young eyes, an uneasy feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. Something was wrong...

            "Do you really think we should go down there?" he ventured. "We can see it fine from up here..."

            Sulubu laughed. "If you want to go and be an ostrich, with your head stuck in the sand, be my guest! But I'm going down there to show you what a real hunter can do..." With effortless bounds the dark cub leapt down the hillside until he was almost within the graveyard. "Come on! There's sure to be some mice here, at least."

            Reluctantly, Taraji followed her brother, and Dhahabu even more reluctantly followed his sister. Together the three cubs stepped into the mist and into another world.

 

***

 

            Elsewhere, another young animal was making a difficult decision. Hidden in the grass beside his father's prone form, Tembo watched the elephant's wrinkled side rise and fall in the rhythm of sleep.

            Silently, carefully, he began to retreat through the grass until he was a safe distance away. Then he began to run.

            Dad was wrong. Dhahabu was not a savage, bloodthirsty animal. He was friendly, warm, and sympathetic. And his father was a good king. The elephants might not have as much food as they did under Giza, but the rest of the animals and the land itself were flourishing. It wasn't right to deprive other animals of their food. And he would play with Dhahabu if he wanted to!

            The ghost of pain flooded his hindquarters, where his father had beaten him, but he ignored it. His mother would have understood. She had not liked Giza. He remembered the arguments his parents had had, when they thought he wasn't listening. If only she were still alive...

            Tembo paused mid-stride. "Mom, what would you want me to do?" he called to the sky.

            Hanging his head, the little elephant muttered, "She can't hear me..." His eyes widened. "At least, not here!"

            With renewed determination, he turned northward and began to run. He would go to Kivuli. He knew it was forbidden, it was sacred ground, but he had to see his mother's bones. There, perhaps, he would receive the answer he sought, perhaps he would learn that he was right to trust his heart...

 

***

 

            Dhahabu froze, listening intently. "What was that?"

            His brother and sister looked up from their respective meals, a shrew and a small bird that had been unlucky enough to fly within Sulubu's reach. "What was what?" Taraji asked.

            "That sound. Remember, you said to use all your senses. Listen!"

            The other two paused, heads turned to the side. Then the noise came again, a faint, ghostly chuckle.

            Sulubu blanched, but then recovered quickly. "It's probably just the wind blowing through one of these old elephant skulls."

            The chuckle came again, louder and closer.

            "...or, maybe not." Sulubu's voice quivered.

            Taraji sidled up to press against her brother's side. "I thought that zebra colt said there were no predators here!"

            Sulubu's eyes were wide. "He was just a colt--maybe he was wrong."

            Dhahabu joined his siblings, and all three began backing away from the sound's source. "What are we gonna do?"

            Sulubu rolled his eyes. "We're gonna get out of here, of course!" He looked around and paused. "Does...either of you remember which way is out?"

            The three cubs peered around wildly. It all looked the same--bones, mist, and lifeless dirt.

            "Great! We're lost!" Dhahabu snapped. "I thought you were a 'real hunter'!"

            Sulubu's bravado had vanished, leaving a frightened cub with a trembling lip. "I never said I had a good sense of direction..."

            Suddenly, out of the mist, Dhahabu saw three disembodied pairs of baleful yellow eyes!

            "Uh...don't look now, but..."

            Slowly the mist receded, revealing a trio of hyenas, mouths agape to expose teeth dripping with warm saliva. One had a narrow, tapering face, another a short, dirty mane that stood up like a mohawk, and the other had a blunt muzzle, as if part of it had been chopped off, but otherwise there was little difference between them. They were all lithe, mangy, and smelly, and they all looked eager for blood.

            "Well, here's a new one, Mwoga," the one with the tapered snout observed. "I've never heard of a meal that came to us!" She laughed shrilly.

            "You got that right, Mwizi," the hyena with the mohawk replied, her eyes never leaving Sulubu's muscled legs. "But there's a first time for everything, ain't there, Mjinga?"

            The male hyena with the blunt snout nodded. "Let's just hope it's not the last time--although it is their last time!"

            All three hyenas erupted into crude laughter, but their eyes never left the three frightened cubs, who had gathered into a tight ball of fur.

            Mwoga approached Sulubu. "My, you're a strong one, aren't you!" She circled him, appraising his flanks and belly. "So much to eat, and so little time..."

            Sulubu snarled. "You're not going to even come close to laying a claw on me!" Crouching down, he bared his teeth, his hackles rising.

            Mwizi whistled. "Woooo, look at the brave lion cub! He thinks he can waltz in here, take a look around, and waltz on out without leaving something for us to remember him by...like an ear, or a nice slice of loins!"

            Mustering his courage, Dhahabu growled as well and imitated his brother. "We're all gonna leave here in one piece, and don't think that we can't!" As he flexed his claws, Taraji joined her brothers in menacing the hyenas.

            Mjinga's lip curled. "I don't think you understand how hopeless your situation really is, little lion!" He lowered his head and bared his teeth at him.

            "And you don't know who we are, do you?" Sulubu demanded.

            "We know you're a three-course meal--salad, entree, and main dish!"

Mwizi laughed at her own joke, her whole body shaking.

            Dhahabu rose to his full height. "We're Mfalme's cubs, and I'm the future king!"

            Mwizi stared at him, her laughter silenced, but then she recovered. "Oh, really? What do you think of that, Mwoga? We're in the presence of royalty!"

            Mwoga chuckled and began bowing facetiously before Dhahabu. "Oh, mighty King! Please don't kill me! I thought you were just a pipsqueak lil' lion cub ready to be my dinner."

            Soon all three hyenas were laughing and bowing, while Dhahabu's face burned crimson with anger and shame.

            "You won't think it's so funny when our father comes!" he yelled.

            Mwizi looked up and smiled cruelly. "First of all, cub, we don't give a zorilla's ass who your father is--he has no power here. This is our land, and no upstart king who thinks he's better than Giza can come and tell us hyenas what to do. And second...I bet he doesn't even know where you are, does he?"

            All three hyenas began to growl evilly as they formed a circle around the three lion cubs. Dhahabu realized that Mwizi was right, and his heart sank. He continued to bare his teeth, but he knew a fight would be futile. "I think we're in trouble..." he muttered softly.

            But Mwizi heard him. "You got that right..."

 

***

 

            For one seemingly eternal moment the six opponents eyed each other, the hyenas drooling eagerly, the lion cubs frightened but determined to be strong. Brown, blue, and gray met black three times over. The mist swirled sluggishly, its restless motions masking the outside world until all that remained was the glowing yellow eyes.

            Then, with a growl, Mwizi leapt toward Sulubu.

            Letting out his loudest roar, Dhahabu crouched and pounced, his unsheathed claws digging into Mwizi's hindquarters. His sudden weight jerked her to a halt as, howling, she spun to swipe at his vulnerable muzzle. But at that moment Taraji rammed the hyena in the side, knocking her to the dirt. Dhahabu let go of Mwizi's bleeding flanks and pressed himself against his sister, terrified beyond any words of gratitude as he watched the wounded hyena scramble up and leap toward him, her mouth agape...

            Sulubu watched helplessly as Mwizi pounced on Dhahabu, for he was cut off from his siblings by Mwoga and Mjinga, who had their heads lowered, pink tongues passing over dark gray lips in gluttonous ecstasy. Sulubu clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes. He had to help Dhahabu, even if it meant his life was forfeit--his brother was the future king!

            Mustering his strength, the dark cub tensed his muscles and sprang...

            Dhahabu froze in terror as Mwizi scrambled madly toward him, teeth gnashing furiously. She was coming too fast! He watched Taraji stumble over her paws in her haste to intercept the hyena, but a mad gleam filled Mwizi's eyes--nothing would deter her. As Taraji bounded in front of her, the hyena slashed instinctively, without thought, catching the lioness cub across the cheek and sending her rolling across the ground.

            And still she came on like a charging rhino, looming in his sight. Dhahabu bared his teeth and raised a paw, ready to die fighting...

            Then he stared in awe, fear, and amazed hope. His astonished eyes could barely accept what they were seeing. A dark brown blur streaked through the overhanging mist to land square in the center of Mwizi's humped back, bearing the startled hyena down in mid-stride. Dhahabu's eyes met those of Mwoga and Mjinga, which mirrored the same astonishment--it was Sulubu, and he had leapt over the hyenas! That had to be a distance of at least twenty feet...

            Growls, snarls, and cries of pain rose up as Mwizi and Sulubu rolled across the ground, teeth ripping and tearing, claws slashing wildly. The lion cub bashed one paw into the side of the hyena's head, but she returned the blow, stunning Sulubu. This momentary distraction allowed Mwizi to shove the cub away and rise to her paws. She snapped viciously at his face--and Sulubu sliced open her throat along the jawline!

            Mwizi howled and lunged, catching hold of one of Sulubu's ears. She bit down savagely, tossing her head from side to side. The lion cub screamed and half-collapsed, but he managed to plunge his claws into Mwizi's sensitive nose, causing her to recoil violently. As she fell back, Sulubu knocked her off balance, spilling her onto her back. His ear was bloody and tattered, hanging loosely by a flap of skin, but he knew he could not give up. Throwing himself onto the hyena, he proceeded to gouge and tear into her exposed underbelly.

            With howls of outrage, Mwoga and Mjinga finally moved to action, running toward their fallen clan member with murderous looks in their eyes. But before they could reach her, Taraji and Dhahabu were on top of them, biting and clawing. Mjinga rolled away from Taraji and whirled to his feet, eyes blazing. "You're carrion, cub!" he snarled.

            Dhahabu was cast off like a shed snakeskin as Mwoga flung herself into a complex, gyrating spin. Coming to a stop, the hyena swiped at the cub's face and turned to assist Mwizi, whose belly was now soaked with blood. But Dhahabu would not give up. Presented with Mwoga's exposed rump, he leaped and buried his teeth in her flank. Clamping down tightly, he twisted his head and ripped away a chunk of flesh.

            Mwoga screamed and twisted her body to reach the cub, who'd spat out the foul-tasting meat just seconds after tasting it.

            Suddenly a loud, shrill sound filled the air, one Dhahabu recognized instantly as the call of an elephant. But it was too small to be an adult... "Tembo," he breathed.

            "I'm coming, Dhahabu!" the little elephant cried, his trunk raised high as he stood at the top of the nearest rise. Then, lumbering at first but soon picking up speed, he ran toward the hollow and the battle within it.

            Sulubu heard the noise and looked up. Instantly Mwizi knocked him off of her belly and rose to her feet, her underfur dark and wet with clotting blood. She stumbled weakly, then regained her strength and snapped at Sulubu, catching one forepaw in her mouth.

            But then Tembo was there. Letting go of Sulubu's paw, Mwizi turned in horror to see the baby elephant, head lowered and tusks leveled at her heart--tusks that were short and dull, but deadly. She tried to run, but slipped in a pool of her own blood.

            And then Tembo slammed into the hyena.

            He drove her up against a towering elephant rib as the other combatants froze in shock. Mwizi groaned when she connected with the bone, and then her head drooped. With glazed eyes she contemplated the pair of white tusks protruding from her chest with a strange sense of detachment. Then, as Tembo slowly retreated, the hyena slid off the reddened ivory onto the ground with a gurgling sigh.

            For a single frozen moment Mwoga and Mjinga's jaws hung open, the other lion cubs forgotten. Then Mwoga snarled, "That was my sister you just killed, you wrinkled dung beetle!" She began to lope toward Tembo.

            From his prone position on the ground, Sulubu tottered to his feet, blood oozing from a diagonal slash across his throat and chest. "Tembo saved my life," he whispered to himself. "Now I have to save his..."

            Dhahabu's eyes widened in disbelief as he saw Sulubu stumble toward Tembo. "Sulubu! NO!!"

            But it was as if his paws were sinking into a pool of warm honey. Time seemed to slow as the future king leaped toward Mwoga, catching hold of her right foreleg. Angrily the hyena swiped at him.Waves of agony washed over him as her claws sank into his shoulder and embedded themselves in his muscle. The hyena casually hurled him away, then proceeded toward Tembo.

            As he sailed through the air, Dhahabu found the scene unfolding before him clearer than his own plight. He saw Sulubu place himself in front of the baby elephant. He saw Taraji chasing Mjinga, who was also zeroing in on the wounded cub, but she was too far away to be of help.

            Then he slammed into an outcrop of rock and fell to the ground, his ears filled with the dull roar of his blood and the pounding of his heart. Peering up dazedly, he saw Mjinga sink his teeth into Tembo's backside, saw Mwoga fall upon Sulubu, and then all was obscured in mist and a rising cloud of dust.

            Forcing himself to his paws, Dhahabu glanced down and saw four gaping slashes in his left shoulder, the blood already beginning to clot. The roaring was still there, only now it seemed louder, closer, almost angry...

            And then he realized what he was hearing. "Dad!" he cried, his voice faint. "Dad!" he called, louder.

            In moments the massive form of Mfalme crested the rise, his chest heaving with great gasps as he strained to catch his breath. If only he hadn't been so far out on patrol when he'd heard the cries and seen the circling vultures!

            Roaring once more, the Lion King descended on Kivuli like a dark-winged angel of death. Dhahabu watched with rising hope as the mahogany lion disappeared into the dustcloud. In moments yelps, shrieks, and howls emanated from the cloud, a discordant cacophony of pain, fear, and anger. Soon the two hyenas burst into view, running as fast as their legs could carry them, with Mfalme right on their heels. The lion drew closer and closer, and finally he was able to snap his teeth down on one of Mjinga's hind legs. Biting viciously, Mfalme slid to a halt and swung his head in a wide arc, whirling the hyena by his hind leg until he connected with a towering pile of rock. There came the distinct sound of bone breaking, and then Mjinga hung limp from Mfalme's mouth.

            The lion dropped him unceremoniously and stared after Mwoga, watching until she vanished into the mist and the looming dusk.

            Slowly a deathly stillness settled over the valley of Kivuli. Dhahabu limped up to stand beside his father, peering intently into the dust.

            Slowly, slowly, it began to settle. Then two dim silhouettes took form, coming closer and closer, until they resolved themselves into Taraji and Tembo. Both were dusty and bloody, Tembo with a long cut on his back from Mjinga's claws.

            Suddenly afraid, Dhahabu hurried forward as fast as he dared, fearing what he would see yet knowing he had to see. And there, at last, he saw Sulubu...and instantly his eyes brimmed over with tears.

            Behind him, Taraji stood motionless for a second, her eyes filled with disbelief; then she turned away, her mouth clamped shut as she struggled to contain the contents of her stomach. Tembo, too, turned sadly away.

            Mfalme might have been a statue, so still did he stand.

            Grief-stricken, Dhahabu stumbled across the uneven ground, slicing the pads of his paws open on various jagged rocks. At last he stood beside Sulubu...or what was left of him.

            His ear was gone. His left forepaw was nearly chewed off. A raw gash bloomed on his chest like a poisonous flower, nearly two inches deep. His underbelly was in ruins, a mass of reddened fur and shredded flesh. His left eye was swollen shut, and his right hind leg had been pulled from its socket.

            Dhahabu wept.

            "Dha...Dha-ha-bu?"

            The lion cub blinked and stared in disbelief. His brother was still alive!

            The dark cub raised his head half an inch, blood welling up from under his muzzle, and spoke again in the same husky whisper. "Dhahabu...this wasn't your fault. I had to protect you, and your friend. You're going to be the king, and you'll need an adviser." He coughed up blood. "My place was to serve you, however I had to, and this was the way."

            His head fell to the ground once more. "Be the greatest king ever, bro..."

            Sulubu's breath rattled in his lungs, then escaped in a last puff of sound.

            Dhahabu collapsed and buried his face in Sulubu's side, heedless of the blood. A storm of tears overwhelmed him.

            It should have been me, he thought feverishly. Sulubu was bigger, stronger...he was always the better cub than me--he would have been the better king! Why did the Circle take him?

            From behind him in the mist, Dhahabu heard a long, heart-rending roar of anguish, sorrow, and grief that rent the sky, echoing throughout Kivuli, penetrating the mist, reverberating from horizon to horizon until it seemed that all the world joined Mfalme in his mourning. But Dhahabu continued to weep, his paws cradling the battered head and his face pressed into the familar fur.

            It should have been me...