Chapter 5: The Wahamiji

 

            Dhahabu loped slowly to a stop at the top of a small rise and gazed down into the valley below. A small waterhole glistened in the morning sunlight, its water such a startling blue that his breath caught for a few seconds. Beyond the waterhole, about a hundred yards distant, a herd of Thompson's gazelles grazed.

            "Hey, Tembo!" The young lion turned and looked back at his friend, who was just climbing the rise. "There's a waterhole down there!"

            "Good." The elephant flapped his huge ears in discomfort. "I could use a drink."

            Together the two weary travelers proceeded down the hill to the edge of the waterhole. As he lowered his head and lapped thirstily at the placid surface, Dhahabu glanced at Tembo out of the corner of his eye. The elephant's trunk dangled in the pool, siphoning water, as listless as the rest of his body. Dhahabu sighed. It was now the second day of their journey. His father had described Adhimu's scent in careful detail the morning they departed, and Dhahabu hoped that he would recognize it. He had had an emotional parting with Taraji and his parents. But although both his uncertainty and loneliness had stayed with him as he traveled, the lion had not failed to notice Tembo's subdued mood. He had barely spoken since their departure, and Dhahabu was worried. What could be wrong? The elephant had seemed perfectly fine the night he and Taraji had told him of the journey...

            The rumbling of hooves made Dhahabu look up. The herd of gazelles was on the move. The lion narrowed his eyes and stared at the rising cloud of dust. Strange...the gazelles were upwind of him, there was no way his scent could have reached them.

            Then he saw it--a cheetah, pacing alongside the herd, its lean body moving with a studied nonchalance. Dhahabu smiled in spite of himself; he'd seen this tactic before. The cheetah was affecting disinterest while testing the reaction of the prey.

            For several tense minutes the cheetah watched the gazelles and Dhahabu watched the cheetah. Then, when the spotted cat had pinpointed the weakest gazelle, the one running the slowest and the farthest in the rear, it struck.

            Suddenly, before Dhahabu's admiring eyes, the cheetah became a blur of yellow and black streaking through the ocher grass of the savanna. As the other gazelles fled in fear, the cheetah closed in on the lone animal galloping ahead of it. Even at that distance, Dhahabu could hear the gazelle's heaving breaths.

            The cheetah sprang...and the gazelle had no chance. The cat's fangs glinted in the sunlight as its jaws closed over the gazelle's neck. Bearing the wounded animal down, the cheetah jerked its head sharply, and the gazelle's neck snapped. The tawny animal sagged and fell to the ground as the cheetah let go. Stopping abruptly, the cat looked around guardedly, then lowered its head and began to feed.

            Dhahabu's jaw hung open. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to be a hunter like that..." he murmured. The lion sighed. He could never be that fast, but he was a strong and efficient killer--although he owed most of it to Sulubu...

            Wrenching his thoughts away from that well-worn course, Dhahabu shook his head and turned to see Tembo's reaction. The elephant had not moved a muscle, his eyes lowered to the water, fixed on the fading ripples. He had not even noticed.

            "Tembo!" At the sound of the lion's voice the elephant at last looked up, his eyes haunted. "I've been quiet long enough. If we're going to travel together, we can't do it in silence! What's the matter? You can talk to me." Dhahabu looked at him beseechingly. "You know I'm your friend. You were there for me, and I want so much to return the favor..." He placed a paw against Tembo's leg.

            Tembo gazed wordlessly at Dhahabu for several long minutes, his dark eyes solemn and deeply expressive, though of what, Dhahabu wasn't sure. Suddenly he shivered, afraid of what he would hear.

            At last tears began to well up in the elephant's eyes, and he uttered two short words. "He's dead..."

            Dhahabu stared at him, confused. "Who?"

            "Damu..." At this Tembo broke down completely, head dropping until his tusks touched the grass, every wrinkle in his skin seeming to sag even more until he looked as old as his father was--had been. The change was startling and frightening.

            "Oh, Tembo..." Dhahabu didn't know what to say. On the one paw, Damu had always hated him and his father, and a part of him was glad to see him go, a thought which twisted his gut with its callousness. On the other paw, no matter what Damu had said or done, he was Tembo's father--and now his friend had lost the only parent he had left. He didn't know what he would do if he lost Mfalme...the thought still filled him with dread. For a moment he recalled Mfalme's words, that one day he would no longer be here...

            He shook those thoughts away. He had to help his friend.

            "Tembo, I'm so sorry. When did it happen?"

            "The night before we left."

            That explained the sudden change in Tembo's demeanor. "H-how did he die?"

            Tembo stared at him for a moment, disbelief in every line and seam. Then he seemed to realize that Dhahabu actually didn't know what had happened. "It was his time. He-he had to leave us, go into Kivuli, and join the ancestors..."

            Something--an image of his father, perhaps--passed before Tembo's eyes, and his gaze turned vacant once more.

            Dhahabu knew it sounded inadequate, but he couldn't think of anything else to say. "That's terrible, Tembo, but at least now he's in a better place, and at peace. And he never had to learn about us."

            Tembo blinked slowly. "But he did know, I told him before he left, and he accepted it..."

            The young lion was startled all over again. "He did?"

            "Yes." He smiled sadly. "He was a much better elephant than we ever gave him credit for. He even gave me the elephant blessing before he left...an honor I never thought I'd receive from him..."

            Dhahabu swallowed a lump in his throat. "I know it may not help much, but...he's probably much happier now. He's with your mother."

            Tembo flapped his ears restlessly, his surprise evident. "That's true, I never thought about it that way, all I could see was what I'd lost, not what he'd gained."

            Dhahabu nodded. "That's why, when I die, I won't be so sad, because I know I'll be with Sulubu..." The lion's words caught in his throat, tears starting to form in his eyes.

            Gently the elephant placed his trunk on Dhahabu's shoulder and sighed. "No need to think about that yet, Dhahabu. You have a long life ahead of you, and so do I. Now it's time for us to learn to live them."

            "I can learn to do that--it's what Sulubu wanted," Dhahabu asserted. "But what about you? I've had time to distance myself a little from his death...you haven't."

            "I will, one day." Tembo sighed and lowered his trunk.

            Dhahabu gazed at him, and suddenly he knew what to do. "Would it help...if you talked about it?"

            Tembo looked at him in gratitude for a long, emotional moment, and then he nodded and began to speak...

            By the time Tembo had finished, both he and Dhahabu were in tears, and the lion was embracing his massive leg, with the elephant's trunk wrapped around his shoulders. "Oh, Tembo, I never saw him that way...I wish I had."

            Tembo nodded. "He was proud and stubborn, but he had a good heart deep down inside, and that was why I could still love him. I only wish he could have let it out a little sooner, maybe he wouldn't have died so bitter..."

            Dhahabu shook his head. "He may have been bitter, but he was also proud of you. I could tell from the words he said, and the way you said them. He wants you to be my advisor, and after hearing your tale...there's nothing that would make me prouder than to have Damu's son at my side."

            Tembo blinked, the tears fading from his eyes in astonishment. "But--after what he said to you as a cub..."

            "Words spoken in anger mean nothing." Dhahabu nodded decisively. "My father taught me that."

            The elephant's voice was low and compelling. "And you learned it well."

            Slowly, before Dhahabu's shocked countenance, the elephant bowed, his knees bending and his head lowering until his tusks touched the dirt and his trunk lay draped before him. It was a gesture the young lion had only seen once, from the elephant matriarch who had come to his father to reject Damu and accept Mfalme's rule. It was a gesture of intense respect and power, and it had never been given to him.

            "Tembo, I..."

            "Don't speak, Dhahabu. I acknowledge you as my king. Your generosity is greater than you know, and I can only offer you my humble service. Mfalme has taught me what he knows, as he has to you, and I hope it is enough. I promised my father that I will guide you to be the king he would respect, and I can only do that if I let my father rest and move on."

            Dhahabu looked almost ready to collapse himself to a bowing position. "First my father, then Sulubu...now you and Damu..." he muttered. Then he turned his morose gaze to Tembo. "So many have placed their trust in me, and I don't even know if I deserve it! What have I done?" Suddenly he became angry--at himself. "Tell me, what have I done?!? My brother died saving my life. And for what? All I've done is shackle you to me in the hopes I'll amount to something, and keep you from your father until it was almost too late. I almost ruined my life and my sister's..." He burst into tears. "I haven't done anything right!"

            Tembo looked up and glared at him sternly. "That is not true," he said slowly, each word full of a determination Dhahabu had never heard there before. "You risked your life for your brother and your sister. You loved him, and you still love her and your parents. You taught me that lions are not savage, bloodthirsty creatures. And you love the land."

            The elephant rose and looked around him at the vast expanse of grass and hill, sky and tree and water. "That, most of all, is clear. From the moment we met, you showed respect for the creatures who live here, and for every inch of the land. Don't you remember that first day of lessons after Sulubu's death? You wouldn't even step on an ant! And when you learned to hunt, to blend in with the grass, you became part of the land. You were born here, as was I, and we are a part of everything. You know that as well as I, and that is why you will be the Lion King--because you understand the worth of all. Another lion would have forgotten your brother, for he was not the future king. Another lion would have ignored the trees and grass, but you start each morning by greeting that huge kigelia tree near the den. You are the future king, Dhahabu--all you need is the faith to see it." He smiled. "I have ever since that day in Kivuli."

            Dhahabu looked at him. Throughout his speech he had remained utterly silent, his face displaying disbelief, embarrassment, and awe by turns.

            As the elephant said his last words, the lion's face at last became calm. Every muscle was frozen, a sculpted marvel of power and raw beauty. There was a look in his eyes Tembo had not seen before--not since that first day they had met in the grass by the river. A look of confidence, but more importantly, one of understanding.

            "You're right." Tembo jumped. Even his voice sounded different, more commanding but also more wise. "Now I know why the Great Kings led me to you that day. I only hope I can live up to their expectations--but I won't stop trying."

            He rose to his paws. "And the best way to do that is to find a mate." He smiled broadly, as these words suddenly filled him with a happiness that they hadn't before. The lion moved to circle the watering hole and looked back. "Come on, Tembo. Adhimu isn't going to wait forever to find someone for his daughters!"

            Tembo laughed, rose to his full height, and trumpeted a blast that startled the feeding cheetah, sending it into flight. "Lead the way...your Majesty!"

 

***

 

            As Tembo and Dhahabu proceeded southward toward their meeting with Adhimu, other events were unfolding that would have a great effect on their lives, events that were set in motion far to the northwest.

            The lands of the Kiburi Pride were varied in topography, and one of the most striking landforms was a massive gorge that extended along the northwestern border. Beyond this gorge, the land became barren, a dusty expanse of fallow ground that soon turned to gritty sand. For miles the wasteland stretched, the parched earth cracked and utterly lifeless; nothing could live here, in a land fronting the vast Sahara, an empty tomb of hope and life. It was an area into which few dared to venture, bereft as it was of any sustenance. During the day, the brilliant orb of the hot African sun beat mercilessly upon this sere land, sapping the strength of those who entered into the unprotected region. All was heat, a burning that seared the throat and left one gasping. Vultures circled overhead, eager to descend upon the foolish and weak, to rip away their flesh and feast upon their blood.

            This land would one day in the years to come witness the fall of a prince, the sorrow and grief of a lion cub haunted by suffering and death and exile, the loss of innocence. It had a name, one most suited to the fate it visited upon its victims...the Majonzi.

            But although it was lifeless, it bordered abundant growth, oases and jungles to the south that burst with moisture and verdant vegetation. It was these lands that enabled some few to survive in the Majonzi...for there were some who dwelt there, not by choice, but by necessity...

            One eye bored into the landscape, its fixed gaze piercing the vista with an accusing glare, silently blaming it for all the misfortune its owner had suffered--not at the whims of fate, but as a result of a calculated plot.

            The eye blazed a deep crimson, the color of blood...

            Standing in the shade of the jungle, a massive tree overhead, the lion continued to glower, his single eye seething with hatred; the other eye, an empty socket surrounded by scar tissue, was a well of darkness sunk into his skull, plumbing its sinister depths. His body was a dark gray, the color of wet ashes; his flowing mane a rich black flecked with strands of silver and gold. His squarish muzzle was set, his teeth clenched in fury.

            Staring, as if he could see the Kiburi lands, he growled softly.

            "Mfalme..."

            At last he broke his gaze; it was pointless staring; his father's lands would one day be his, and only with patience and cunning...but it was so difficult to restrain his anger!

            He had just entered adolescence when that upstart Mfalme had entered his father Giza's lands and challenged him. He still remembered vividly the shattering roar the young lion had given...the look of hope on the lionesses' faces...his father's disdainful expression...

            He shook his head. Giza should have listened to him.

            The fight had been vicious...clawing, tearing, ripping--the blood flowed like the broad river that divided the land with its gentle meanders. He had warned his father not to underestimate Mfalme...but he had been confident in his strength.

            The gray lion lowered his head in sorrow. That strength had not been enough. Mfalme had mortally wounded Giza and cast him out--him and his six sons...three of which were mere cubs, the other two fledgling adolescents like himself...Kuchinja.

            Giza had died of his wounds shortly thereafter, his last words an adamant command to one day reclaim what was rightfully theirs, their birthright. Kuchinja had sworn an oath, dipping his paw in his father's blood and wiping it across his youthful chest...it would be done. Now, a decade later, his chest was massive and deep, but the oath remained unchanged, the dried blood still in his fur.

            With all other lands claimed, he and his brothers had had no choice but to flee to the Majonzi and the neighboring jungle. Game was scarce, but the six had managed...some better than others of course, Kuchinja mused as he eyed his brothers sleeping in a circle around the base of the tree. But that was to be expected...the oldest must be the strongest.

            Njaa and Tauni were the two oldest, his littermates, Njaa golden with a chestnut mane, Tauni a light tan with a reddish mane. Then there were Kufa and Vita, the twins with chocolate manes and bodies, and lastly Ushindi, the pale cream lion with the cinnamon mane.

            That was all...the sons of Giza, condemned to wander as nomads, never able to stay in one place due to lack of food and their own tarnished reputation. Soon they reveled in the fear and anger their presence generated...they were the Wahamiji, the Wanderers, their name whispered in all the surrounding prides.

            Kuchinja grinned smugly to himself. It was in one of those prides, the Nguvu to the east, that he had found the lioness his instincts desired.

            Her name had been Tisho. He had found her alone while hunting, feasting upon a kudu carcass, and immediately he had wanted her. And the sons of Giza always get what they want...

            Kuchinja's eyes unfocused, gazing into the distance. He remembered with pleasure how it had felt to take her...her body trembling beneath him as he forced himself upon her, the feel of her fur in his teeth and the sour taste of her blood in his mouth as he clenched his jaws, the look of terror in her eyes...how he had enjoyed that...the pleasure had been intense, but that look, the knowledge that her life was in his paws, had filled him with a greater lust and incited his passion to new heights...

            He frowned at the last lion under the tree, a deep mahogany with a dark brown mane. That was his son Jahili, the result of that night with Tisho. Kuchinja scowled and curled his lip in contempt. He had named the cub himself; just as he, Kuchinja, had fulfilled his name, "slaughter", time and again, so Jahili would be raised to be "cruel".

            But this had not occurred. From the beginning all had gone wrong...Tisho had died giving birth, a fact that still cankered Kuchinja's soul. Every day he thought of the lioness whose life had been stolen by that pitiful excuse for a son before him...

            Worse, his son showed no inclination whatsoever to embrace the cruelty necessary to reclaim the Kiburi Pride, or even to kill prey. He was gentle, kind, and thoughtful, prone to daydream in the middle of a hunt. He was a disgrace, a pacifist who strongly disapproved of his father's actions with regards to Mfalme.

            Kuchinja spat in Jahili's direction. He didn't know why he bothered to keep the colossal mistake around...he should have broken his spine when he was a cub, but his brothers had stopped him. Njaa especially had argued eloquently for his survival, and his possible usefulness in the future. Grudgingly he had agreed. But now he wondered yet again why he had listened...he was the rightful king of Giza's lands, and should listen to no one.

            Kuchinja turned and looked out once more across the Majonzi, its surface blurred by the shimmering heat waves. It mattered not. He would find some use for the sand maggot, but one way or another, the Wahamiji would triumph...

            "Yes..." he whispered. "Mfalme, your time as ruler reaches its end...I have already killed one of your sons...and soon I will have you between the pads of my paws." He raised a paw and flexed his claws. "The Great Kings cannot save you...you stole my rightful lands, they will not protect you..."

            He laughed sepulchrally. "And then you and your family will die. I will watch the life drain from your eyes, and feel the kingship in my veins..."

            His hollow chuckles hovered beneath the tree, as empty and lifeless as the land he beheld.

 

***

 

            Yawning slowly, the heat of the day still keeping him groggy, Jahili stirred and lifted his head, eyes half-closed as he peered at his sleeping uncles, then out across the wastes of the Majonzi. Flies buzzed up around him, circling lazily, until a particularly vicious one bit into his flank. Growling audibly, the young lion turned and chewed vigorously into his mahogany fur.

            When he looked up, Kuchinja was glaring at him. "So you finally decided to wake up."

            "Good afternoon to you too, Father." The dryness in his voice was not lost on Kuchinja, who scowled.

            Jahili sighed. His father was always glaring and scowling at him--he could not remember a time when he had ever been kind to him. He still remembered his cubhood so vividly...how he would rub against Kuchinja's leg, only to have his father pull away in disgust. How every day he was reminded of the death of his mother Tisho, which was his fault. How he was ultimately useless.

            But he would not cry, No, he had done that far too often and been ridiculed for it. He would keep the pain inside and hope futilely that one day he would make Kuchinja proud...and love him.

            The gray lion snorted, snapping Jahili out of his reverie. "What's so good about it?"

            Jahili frowned. "It's good because we're alive."

            Kuchinja shrugged. "It would be better to have our enemies dead."

            "Our enemies?" The mahogany lion shook his head. "You mean your enemies, Father. Mfalme--"

            "Mfalme stole my birthright, and yours!" Snarling, Kuchinja stepped close to Jahili, his jaw clenched and quivering, his scarred eye socket sending shivers down his son's spine. A leopard had given him that injury and not lived to see another sunrise. Kuchinja seemed to know how much it bothered Jahili to contemplate his wound, even now, and enjoyed tormenting him with it. "That makes him your enemy..."

            "No." Jahili's voice was steady. "Mfalme took the lands from Grandfather fairly. He abused the pride--"

            Kuchinja's growl turned into a roar. Abruptly his brothers began awakening. Njaa was the first to do so. "Starting in on Jahili a little early today, aren't we, brother?" His voice was urbane, and also disapproving.

            "It's never too early for that," Ushindi muttered sarcastically, but Kuchinja heard him and chuckled nastily. Tauni exchanged a sad look with Njaa, while the twins Kufa and Vita remained as laconic as the shadows they resembled.

            Kuchinja narrowed his eyes as he noticed Njaa's displeasure. "I will treat my son however I please, whenever I please."

            "Indeed." Njaa narrowed his eyes in turn, but fell silent. Yet as he turned away from Kuchinja, he gave Jahili a sympathetic glance.

            The gray lion stepped into the shade of the tree and lay down, forcing his son to reluctantly move aside. He gave one last icy stare, Jahili's words about Mfalme clearly unforgotten, and then looked away contemptuously. An uncomfortable silence fell over the region as the Wahamiji brooded--in disgust, in anger, in boredom. Then, out of the Majonzi, two dark forms took shape.

            Most would have dismissed them as mirages, but Kufa's eyes were sharp. "They're here," he commented softly.

            Jahili rolled his eyes and looked away, while Kuchinja smiled in anticipation.

            Soon the two visitors were close enough to be more readily discerned--hyenas, a male and female, the latter with a short mane that stood up like a mohawk...

            Kuchinja rose to his paws and approached the pair. "Mwoga...Ukware. I am pleased you answered my summons so quickly. Such loyalty will be remembered."

            Mwoga smirked. "Who else I got to be loyal to? Besides, you're the rightful king of Kiburi. I'd never turn on a son of Giza."

            "Good..." The gray lion's solitary eye turned to the male hyena, whose blunt muzzle and floppy ears were quite distinctive. "And does your son feel the same way?"

            Ukware bowed his head. "Of course, sir. I may be young, but I'm not a fool."

            Jahili snorted at this, but wisely held his tongue. Kuchinja gave his son a warning glance, then turned back to the hyenas. "And what news do you have to report to me? What have you spied with those cunning eyes?"

            Mwoga smirked. "Well it seems the heir to Kiburi has gotten a bit eager to be a lion, if you know what I mean...so Mfalme sent him off to another pride to find a mate. And his sister is off on a hunt, so they aren't there to protect the pride."

            The gray lion's mouth curved into a sly grin. "How unfortunate..."

            Jahili growled softly.

            Kuchinja stared at him, eyes blazing. But Jahili would not back down. "Father, I will not stand by and watch you attack innocent lions for something that was justified. Grandfather was a tyrant and you know it! He wouldn't leave the lands, even when that terrible drought came. He made the lionesses follow his every whim...they lived in fear of him! He ruled by anger instead of wisdom and vengeance intead of justice. He killed and hunted because he could, not because he should. He thought of no one but himself...he was as craven and cruel as those hyenas there..."

            He trailed off as he saw the look of venomous hatred burning in his father's eye.

            "You pitiful, brainless fool." Kuchinja could barely speak, his body shaking with barely contained rage.

            Jahili took a step back as his father strode toward him, his dark shape looming close. "But it's the truth--"

            His father snarled. "Enough! You speak of truth, yet you were not even there...I have had all I can stand from you. I can barely look at you...all I see is a pathetic excuse for a lion! You call yourself my son...you are no son of mine!"

            Jahili gasped. "But...I was only trying to make you see..."

            "Get out."

            "What?"

            "Is there something in those two words you didn't understand? You must be more idiotic than I thought. I want you to leave." Kuchinja growled. "You are no longer one of us. You never were. I never want to see your muzzle in the Majonzi again. You will never be useful for anything...and it simply turns my stomach to look at you. Now leave!"

            He stepped menacingly towards Jahili, claws unsheathed.

            For a long tense minute the young lion stared at his father in disbelief. He looked at the grinning hyenas, then at his uncles. Ushindi was stiff with outrage and disgust. Kufa and Vita gazed at him with enigmatic indifference. Njaa and Tauni's faces registered shock and sorrow...but also acceptance. There would be no help from that quarter.

            Jahili looked back at Kuchinja and blanched. The loathing in his eye was so apparent...

            Tears welling up, the mahogany lion backed away until he was no longer beneath the tree. Kuchinja kept his eye trained on him, not backing down an inch. For an instant he considered saying something more but the expression on Kuchinja's face froze the words in his throat. Silently Jahili turned away, stumbling at first, then moving quicker, his large paws sending up clouds of dust that surrounded his form. In moments he disappeared into the shimmering heat, a blotch of color that soon vanished entirely.

            Mwoga chuckled. "It's about time, Kuchinja. You should have done that a long time ago..."

            She froze as the huge gray lion snarled and spun on her. "Don't presume to question my judgment, ingrate! And that is not how you are to address me..."

            The hyena's jaw dropped. "Oh! Y-your Majesty! I-I-I was just saying..."

            "I know what you were saying." He scowled, but inwardly he was pleased to see her grovelling. "And don't say anything like it again if you wish to keep your throat intact. Never forget, your life exists at my discretion...I should have killed you for not taking care of all of Mfalme's cubs in Kivuli as I demanded. You're lucky you succeeded in killing one, or you would have lost more than your mate and your sister..."

            Mwoga hunkered down, although it injured her pride to do so. "I won't forget.

Y-you are the king..."

            Kuchinja nodded. "That's better. Now, tell me more of what Mfalme and his pride are doing...it is time he received a visit from the Wahamiji..." He looked from the hyenas to his brothers, a feral grin on his muzzle. "And I would hate for us to arrive unprepared..."

 

***

 

            Blue eyes narrowed in concentration, muscles taut with power, claws extended, Taraji crept on silent paws through the whispering grasses toward a lone acacia tree, the broadest limb of which supported the large dangling nest of a weaverbird colony. The birds did not have enough meat on them to make them a suitable meal, but the young lioness was becoming desperate. She had been on the hunt for two days now, and had only managed to kill a zebra colt for all her trouble. Anything was welcome at this point.

            When at last she judged she was close enough, Taraji burst from her cover and raced toward the tree, fangs bared. The weaverbirds, startled, scattered from the nest in a blur of feathers. Taraji leaped into the air as several of the birds swung low in their flights and came within reach--but instead one of the birds slashed her paw while another pecked at her face and she was forced to fight them off as she fell to the ground. In moments the weaverbirds were back in their nest, far beyond her ability to catch them. The lioness panted and glared upward. She could almost swear their jabbering was actually laughter.

 

            Sighing, Taraji turned and paced onward beyond the acacia, head hung in dejection. Two days. Two days since she had chosen to come west in her hunt. Kusini lay to the south, the desert to the north and northwest, and two prides that were only marginally tolerant of Kiburi--the Nguvu and the Jabali--to the east and northeast respectively. There was nowhere else for her to go, yet she was having no luck here.

            And then there was her reason for leaving in the first place...Dhahabu, away on his journey to find a mate, to prevent the two of them from ever losing control again. Tears came to her eyes. Her father didn't trust them. She knew he had reason, Malkia had explained it all--her first season had started the day she left Kiburi and had nearly overwhelmed her with its power...she did not know if she could have withstood it. Yet at the same time it wounded her deeply that Mfalme and Dhahabu had thought this was the only solution...to cut her off from her brother, and he from her, for something that was, in spite of its inappropriateness, completely natural. It made her doubt, doubt his love and understanding.

            Worst of all was the alternative...to find a mate of her own, as Dhahabu was. She had no idea where to look. A simple rogue would be too apt to wander, his eye too likely to rove--she could not keep him. And most other males would either already be taken, or be daunted by her status as a princess.

            "What am I to do?" she cried suddenly to the savanna around her. "Am I supposed to be alone all my life, without a mate and without a brother?"

 

            The sky remained halcyon and cloudless; no answer was forthcoming.

 

            She trudged on to the top of the next hill...and gasped. The sandy depression in the valley below her, an extension of the desert, was filled by a herd of addax.

            Smiling in relief, the lioness lowered her belly to the ground and slipped noiselessly down the hill. The contented grunts of the addax as they lay in the shade of massive boulders urged her on...at last she lifted her head from the grass with agonizing slowness until she could see the herd. Closest to her were an addax cow and her calf, grazing on the sparse but succulent vegetation, and the adult favored her right hind leg. What luck!

            Taraji shifted her shoulders in anticipation, eyes gleaming...

            And then the breeze began, ruffling the fur on her neck--lifting it from behind.

            All across the herd heads lifted, bearing thick, spiraled horns, as the addax caught her scent. A large yellowish-white bull at the forefront of the herd raised his head to the sky, letting out a deep, warning bellow, and then the addax scrambled to their hooves and began to move. It was too late to turn back. As the antelope picked up speed and raced along the valley floor, Taraji leapt toward the addax cow she had spotted. She was at the rear of the pack, limping and lowing to her calf, who was nowhere to be seen. Snarling, the lioness moved closer, paws striking the ground and claws gouging the soil as she pressed onward.

            She was just behind the addax when the sound of hooves pounding shifted--one was coming toward her from the side! She barely had time to see the bull addax coming at her, his horns lowered and his eyes blazing, before a kick from one of the addax cow's broad, flat hooves spun her away.

            The kick saved her life. She rolled across the ground, and the bull bypassed her by only a few inches. As she came to her paws she felt the blood trickling from her shoulder down her leg, but she had no time to check the severity of the wound. The bull addax had slid to a stop and turned in her direction once more.

            Taraji fled back down the depression, the addax at her heels, her only thought of survival. Far ahead she spied a dying tree at the edge of a drop-off, its roots questing futilely at the open air for nutrients.

            She put on a burst of speed and was rewarded by a burning pain in her shoulder...no bones were broken, but it was clear the hoof had cut deep enough to tear her muscle.

            The snort of the addax made her look back, and wish she hadn't. A vengeful animal fury burned in his eyes beneath his mat of black hair. He was determined to kill the lioness who had dared to threaten his herd.

            Taraji could see clearer now what lay ahead. The drop-off was the edge of a nearly dry stream, its bottom only a trickle of water. An idea began to form in her mind...

            The tree was upon her. Pushing as hard as she could, the lioness launched into the air and caught hold of a low-hanging limb with her claws. As the addax galloped toward her, horns at the ready, she looped her forelegs over the limb...and swung herself forward and up.

 

            Unable to stop, his horns passing through where she had been a moment before, the addax fell forward--over the drop-off.

 

            As Taraji fell backwards once more, she watched the addax tumble down the embankment...and through his bellow of pain she heard the sound of his neck snap.

            Suddenly it was over. The addax lay sprawled in the miniscule stream, his head turned at a peculiar angle. Slowly Taraji let herself drop to the ground and proceeded as carefully as possible down the slope. She still slid in the loose dirt halfway down, but landed safely.             Grimacing in pain, she approached the fallen addax. "That's the problem with focusing too much on your enemy...you miss what's right under your nose, or in this case your hooves."

            She glanced at her shoulder and winced at the sight of all the blood. Painfully she began licking the wound, knowing it would be a while before she would be in peak condition once more. But that was a fair trade for what she had received this day. She eyed the dead addax, his muscled bulk more than enough to satisfy her stomach for several days.

            With the dirt cleaned out of her shoulder, Taraji limped to the addax and ripped her fangs into his underbelly. As she greedily devoured the meat, the lioness's thoughts turned from the prey to her other goal. Fervently she hoped that finding a mate would not be as difficult as this hunt had been.

 

                                                                      ***

 

            Dhahabu lifted his head from the bark of the ancient baobab and smiled in relief. There it was at last--the rich, thick scent his father had described as Adhimu's, dark and earthy and quite distinctive. It was all over this tree.

            "Tembo...we've found Kusini," he said with a grin.

            "It's about time," the elephant grumbled.

            The young lion sighed and looked around him at the lands it had taken three days to reach, the lands where he would hopefully find his future mate. They were every bit as beautiful as the Kiburi Lands--rolling hills covered with vibrant savanna grass, rushing streams and overflowing waterholes, tall acacias spreading their arching limbs to touch the bold blue sky. And the herds! The zebras and wildebeests were too numerous to count, and they were joined by water buffalo, impala, kudu...all in great number. The more he looked, the hungrier he became...

            Dhahabu shook his head. These were Adhimu's herds, it would not do to hunt without his approval. Sighing, he nodded to Tembo and passed under the baobab, moving downhill toward a waterhole. But as he stepped over an upthrust root, he smelled another scent, stopping him in his tracks.

            He leaned closer, sniffing deeply, trying to banish the impossible. But he could not. It was clearly the scent of another male lion, not Adhimu.

            A chill went down his spine and his hackles rose. What was this? A simple rogue? Or something more? Uneasy, Dhahabu moved around the root bearing the disturbing scent and padded down the hill...

            As the two companions approached the waterhole, Dhahabu was surprised anew. On the opposite side of the water, an okapi stood, come down from the forests and jungles west to slake its thirst. Its reddish-brown coat twitched and it stomped one of its oddly striped hind legs as flies chewed into its pelt. He marveled once more at what his father had told him, that this strange creature was related to the giraffe. He also marveled at its muscled body.

            The lion licked his lips, his earlier decision fading in the face of his growing hunger. Surely Adhimu would not miss one okapi...and they had been traveling three days...

            The okapi jerked upright and squealed, water still dripping from its muzzle, as Dhahabu streaked toward it through the grass. It tried to flee, hooves scrambling, but the apparent safety of the waterhole had lulled it into a false sense of security, and it was not quick enough.

            The lion's fangs ripped into the okapi's neck and back, tearing away flesh. It stumbled in pain, head flailing, leaving Dhahabu the perfect opening to sink his teeth into the jugular. A few moments more and the okapi collapsed limply to the ground.

            Grinning, blood coating his muzzle, the lion began feasting while Tembo looked on in a mixture of pride and awe bordering on fear.

            "Hey!"

            Dhahabu nearly had a heart attack at the sudden outburst. Spinning, he looked for his accuser...and relaxed, beginning to smile. Before him stood a cub, face scrunched up in what he assumed was an angry and threatening glare.

            "Who are you, and who said you could kill that okapi?" The light brown cub--it was a boy for it had a dark brown tuft of mane--glowered at him, seeming unafraid of his large size.

            Dhahabu chuckled. "My name is Dhahabu, and I killed that okapi because I've been traveling for three days and I'm hungry."

            "Traveling, huh?" The cub's golden-yellow eyes lit up. "You wouldn't happen to be a rogue, would ya?"

            Dhahabu laughed outright. "No, sorry, little fellow, I'm no rogue."

            The cub scowled. "'Little fellow'! My name's Nuru. And how do I know you aren't lyin'? Rogues do that, y'know."

            At this point Tembo stepped close and Nuru's eyes widened. "Because, young Nuru, Dhahabu is a prince of his pride."

            The cub swallowed hard and his eyes flicked back to the golden lion. "Uhhh...um, I'm so sorry, Dhahabu--I mean, Your Highness!" He stumbled on his words nervously until Dhahabu grinned at him amiably, at which point he let out the breath he'd been holding and then began muttering to himself. "Awww, man, why couldn't you have been a rogue? I wanted to chase ya off, that's what my dad does to rogues..."

            Dhahabu blinked. Only Adhimu would chase off rogues, but this cub could not be his son unless Adhimu had had cubs after the two daughters Mfalme had told him about. But he would be as old as Mfalme, he couldn't have cubs now...could he?

            "Wait a minute," he interrupted. "You mentioned your dad. Who is he?"

            "Well, Malachi, of course," Nuru answered promptly.

            Dhahabu frowned thoughtfully. Could Malachi be the one whose scent had been on the root? Had he ousted Adhimu from Kusini? But the scent had not covered Adhimu's, in fact its placement on the root suggested subordination to him. What was going on?

            "Could I meet your father?" he asked casually.

            Nuru shrugged. "I guess so. But Dad doesn't like strangers, even princes like you."

            Dhahabu exchanged a long look with Tembo. "I see. Well, after I finish my meal here, you can take us to your father and we'll see if I can change his mind about strangers."

            As the lion tore into the okapi, his thoughts were churning as much as his stomach. Something wasn't right here...what had he gotten himself into? Who was this Malachi and what did he have to do with Adhimu? And would he be a threat when he, Dhahabu, approached Adhimu about taking one of his daughters as a mate? Would he have to fight this Malachi for her?

            His stomach clenched with more than hunger. Things had just gotten more complicated.

 

 

            Dhahabu's stomach was still in knots as he stood outside Malachi's den an hour later, waiting for Nuru to announce him. He glanced at Tembo, who returned a solemn gaze of his own. He sighed. At least, whatever happened, he had Tembo with him.

            At last Nuru emerged from the small cave, followed closely by a young but thickly muscled lion with golden tawny fur and a blond mane, though dark hair encircled his face. With him was a lioness, and both of them looked suspicious of him, especially Malachi, whose golden yellow eyes flicked to Tembo with unease and a touch of fear.

            "So." His voice was soft, a light tenor, but it harbored accusation. "My son tells me you are a traveling prince...but why are you traveling, and why are you here in Kusini?"

            This close Dhahabu could instantly recognize Malachi's scent as the one that had been on the root. "I have come to speak to Adhimu," he responded warily.

            Malachi raised an eyebrow. "And what business do you have with my father?"

            It took a few minutes for the meaning of those words to fully register. "What? Adhimu is your father?" Dhahabu shook his head. That would explain the subordination of his scent to Adhimu's, but... "I understood he only had two daughters!"

            Slowly Malachi stepped close, eyes narrowed. "Now how do you know so much about Adhimu?" he asked, his hackles raised.

            Dhahabu did not flinch, even when a soft growl came from the other lion. "My father told me about him."

            "And who exactly is your father?"

            "Mfalme, king of the Kiburi Pride." Dhahabu's temper was growing short at the tone and frequency of the other's questions.

            Malachi snorted. "I've never heard of him."

            "Well I've never heard of you, only Adhimu, so we're even!" Dhahabu snapped.

            "Stop this." The lioness, who had only studied Dhahabu quietly until now, stepped in front of Malachi, whose eyes were flashing as his claws instinctively extended from their sheaths. "Malachi, I have heard of Mfalme, Adhimu has spoken highly of him in the past."

            Dhahabu glanced at her in gratitude. "Yes, my father said he and Adhimu were good friends."

            The tawny lioness nodded. "But, forgive me for saying this, how do we know you are his son?"

            Dhahabu was ready for this and held out the paw his father had scent-marked. "Here is his scent."

            The lioness sniffed his paw tentatively, then sighed. "I am sorry, I don't know Mfalme's scent...I can't tell if that is his."

            "Then take me to Adhimu, he will know." Dhahabu locked gazes with her.

            "Nuala, no!" Malachi burst out. "He could be a rogue trying to get close enough to kill Adhimu!" He glared at Dhahabu.

            The prince of Kiburi kept his voice even. "He will surely know if I speak the truth before I am close enough to do any harm."

            Malachi clenched his jaw in frustration and then looked up at Tembo. "And what is your part in all of this?"

            "I am Dhahabu's friend and protector," the elephant said slowly, "and I am here to vouch for his claims. An elephant's word is inviolate."

            The lion blinked. "I didn't know that." It was half a challenge, half an uncertain observation.

            "Malachi." Nuala placed a paw on his. "You haven't been a part of pride life long, remember? What the elephant says is true."

            Her mate sighed, then looked back to Dhahabu. "Why do you want to meet Adhimu?"

            Still suspicious, Dhahabu shook his head. "It is a private matter, for his ears only." This lion may not be a rogue, he thought, and already has a mate, but why is he so defensive...?

            Malachi narrowed his eyes. "I am his son, I promise you I will tell him and be discreet about it."

            "Forgive me, Malachi," Dhahabu replied, "but I have no more reason to trust you than you do me."

            "Hey!" Nuru, who had been listening with confusion, cried. "Don't be mean to my dad! It's not his fault he's this way. Ever since those humans had him--"

            "Nuru!" Nuala gasped. "You know your father doesn't like being reminded of that."

            As the cub's face fell in shame, Dhahabu turned quickly to Malachi and caught the pained look in his eyes. So that was why he had been missing from Kusini, and was so untrusting. But how had this happened? His mind whirled in confusion. Humans capturing a grown lion was unthinkable...

            He shook the questions away as Malachi's expression darkened, angry at Dhahabu's stare. "Malachi, I'm sorry, I didn't know...but please, this is very...personal." He swallowed in embarrassment. "I promise I won't harm your father. Just please take us to him."

            For a long moment the other lion gauged him, measuring the sincerity in his face and voice. Nuala softly brushed his shoulder with her paw, and when he turned to her, she peered up at him pleadingly with her golden-brown eyes. "Malachi, he's right. It's the only way to know for sure."

            The lion nuzzled her gently, purring, and Dhahabu's fears faded a little as he saw the love between them. "All right, Nuala, for you I'll do anything. Dhahabu..." He glanced back to him. "If you are who you say you are, I will owe you an apology. But if you aren't..."

            He left the threat hanging as he nodded to Nuru. "Come on, I'll take you to my father."

            The lion shook his blond mane and then began padding south, Nuru scampering behind him. Dhahabu and Tembo were quick to follow, Nuala beside them. As he glanced at her, Dhahabu watched the pride in her eyes for her mate. Looking forward again, he studied Malachi, who was still an enigma to him. He clearly was not what he had first seemed, but a twinge of doubt lingered. The prince of Kiburi only hoped that Adhimu could dispel that doubt at the same time he quelled Malachi's.

 

***

 

            It was nearing midnight, and the sweeping canopy of the African sky was ablaze with the lights of countless stars, each one such a great distance away it could never be reached, yet their light shone as brilliantly as the moon's. Each one, it was said, was a great king of the past, though surely all lions who ever lived had a place there by their sheer number. Each moved in its own path, assured of its place, shifting throughout the night in a complex array, woven slowly together to form an immense symbol of life itself. Each was a goal for which to strive, yet each was unattainable.

            They reminded Jahili all too well of his place in life.

            The young lion let out a sad sigh and placed his head on his crossed forepaws. This lonely stretch of savanna beneath the stars only served to reflect the state of his heart. He was alone, in all senses of the word--an exile, cut off from the only family he had ever known, and all because he had stood up for what he believed in. Tears filled his brilliant blue eyes. It was vastly unfair. All he had ever wanted was for his father to love him and be proud of him, but he could not in good conscience earn that love by harming innocent lions. That would not be earning, it would be demeaning himself. And besides, he shouldn't have to earn it, it should come instinctively.

            Jahili gouged the earth with his claws in frustration. Yet he knew he could not abandon his father. He had no idea what he would do if he were forced to choose between Kuchinja and his principles, he could not afford to lose either. But he feared he had already lost his father, if he'd ever really had him to begin with. In truth he had lost Kuchinja when Tisho died...

            Gazing upwards, the lion cried out, "Why? Why did you leave me, Mother? Why when I've always needed someone, no one was there?"

            He broke down then and wept unashamedly into his massive paws that had never seen a fight and held only gentleness. His father would say this was a sign of weakness, but he knew better. To feel such strong and good emotions was a sign of strength of heart. But at the same time it was such a burden...

            When his tears had run their course, Jahili lay still, breathing shallowly as he stared morosely at the ground. What was he to do? Where was he to go? No pride would accept him. His only place was with the Wahamiji, but Kuchinja's words still rang in his ears: "You are no son of mine! You will never be useful for anything..."

            Suddenly he sat up in shock. What if he could prove his worth, earn Kuchinja's respect?

            His mind drew a blank. How could he do this and yet not betray himself? He could not fight Mfalme and his pride.

            Then it dawned on him. What if he simply found out information for his father--things that could help him in his conquest? Things that if he delayed in informing Kuchinja long enough would be essentially useless, apparently through no fault of his own?

            He pondered further. He could gradually increase the usefulness of the information--but by the time it could result in a successful conquest, the delay would enable Mfalme to have built up enough strength to prevent it. It would take careful managing, walking this line. Jahili swallowed nervously. If either Mfalme or his father found out...

            But it was the only way. He had no other options left.

            Steeling himself, Jahili swore he would find the wit and nerve to pull this off, to return home yet not deprive Mfalme of his home. Looking up, he searched the sky for the unseen kings.

            "I know I've done nothing to deserve this, but please..." He sighed. "Please help me to do this. Guide my paws, let me be the one who carries out your will. And let it lead me to happiness at last."

            No answer came, of course, although one star did twinkle brightly.

            Jahili watched the stars until high-flying clouds began to fill the sky and mask their light. Then exhaustion at last claimed him. But before he drifted off, he placed one paw on his heart and hoped.

            Somehow...some way...