Chapter 6: To Win a Mate

 

            It was early afternoon, and the sun had just passed its zenith. Searing rays beat down upon the rich savanna of Kusini, creating only minimal shadows, and Dhahabu was panting in the heat, the pads of his paws slick with sweat, when at last Malachi brought the party to a halt at the top of a windswept hill. "There." The young lion cut a proud figure against the sky, muscles tensed and blond mane blown back by the rising breeze. "The dens of Kusini." There was a look in his eyes Dhahabu could not decipher--pride, certainly, but something else as well...the pain of regret, perhaps, for time lost.

            The prince of Kiburi padded up to stand beside Malachi and gazed into the valley below. A high hill dominated the hollow, with a series of slate ledges jutting at sharp angles from its sides. Caves and dens opened between the slabs of rock, and outside each one lionesses lounged, enjoying the rare shade the overhangs provided. From the number of them--there had to be at least thirty--it was clear that Kusini was as powerful a pride as Kiburi.

            As Nuala, Nuru, and Tembo joined the two lions, Malachi raised his head and let out a  surprisingly deep roar, announcing his return to Kusini. Leonine heads rose immediately, and then as lionesses came to their paws, another lion, more large and powerful than Malachi, emerged from a den high among the ledges. Dhahabu's breath caught in his throat. The lion was fully as large as Mfalme, his pelt a rich golden tan and his mane a deep red. Muscles rippled and flexed as he descended the ledges with casual ease that belied his age. The only sign he was older than he appeared was the streaks of black in his mane and the white on his chin.

            Malachi nodded to the lion, then turned to Dhahabu. "That is my father, Adhimu. Now we will find out if you are what you claim to be."

            Without another word Malachi moved down the hill toward the valley floor, leaving Dhahabu and the others no choice but to follow.

            When Dhahabu and Tembo reached level ground once more, Malachi was already beside Adhimu and in intense conversation. Over Malachi's shoulder Dhahabu could see Adhimu's expression, green eyes narrowed in curiosity but also deep mistrust. At last, as Nuala and Nuru arrived and sat quietly some distance back but still within earshot, Adhimu let out a soft chuff, silencing his son's explanations. Slowly he approached Dhahabu. The prince of Kiburi sat on his haunches and straightened perceptibly, managing to control the shaking of his knees but not the quaking of his heart.

            The impressive lion slowed as he reached him, his massive form clearly filled with raw power held in check by an iron will. Adhimu regarded him in chilly silence, the ghost of a snarl hovering on his muzzle. Mustering all his courage, Dhahabu met the other's gaze squarely, pride and confidence filling him, along with trust in his father's words. "Greetings, Adhimu. I have come a long way to meet you."

            "So my son has told me." Adhimu's voice was as powerful as his body, deep and booming like a bell. "And why have you come here, Dhahabu?"

            The golden lion looked at Adhimu almost apologetically. "I...I have come here to seek a mate, if you will grant me leave, your Majesty."

            Out of the corner of his eye he saw Malachi stiffen in outrage, but his attention was on Adhimu, who only watched him with deceptive calmness. "Now why should I offer one of my lionesses to you?"

            "Because I am the son of your dear friend Mfalme, whom you trust greatly." He glanced to Tembo. "My friend Tembo there can vouch for me...an elephant never lies."

            Adhimu also looked to the elephant who returned him a gaze of imperturbable challenge. The lion eyed his gleaming tusks and nodded slightly. "I would never deny the honesty of an elephant...but many know this of me, and could use it to their advantage. And there are always exceptions to every species."

            Tembo lowered his head slightly, shifting his tusks to a better position. "Do not question my integrity, or Dhahabu's...he tells the truth."

            "We shall see." Adhimu turned back to Dhahabu. "Have you no other proof of identity?"

            Dhahabu nodded emphatically. "I have my father's scent. He knew you would be wary." The young lion held out his paw.

            Adhimu eyed it skeptically for a moment, then lowered his head to sniff. Dhahabu closed his eyes, praying the scent had not faded too much with time. He could feel the king's hot breath stir his fur and tried not to flinch. Then he sensed movement, the muscled lion shifting, as if for a blow. He kept his eyes closed, not wanting to open them and see the blow coming. The scent was weak, or Adhimu no longer remembered it. He could envision the claws coming at his face...

            When it came it was not a blow at all. A great warmth encircled his neck and shoulders. Was Adhimu preparing to slash his throat? Or strangle him? The warmth remained gentle however, and it was soon followed by a low rumble. A growl? No...a purr...

            Dhahabu opened his eyes and was stunned. Adhimu was embracing him!

            Looking over the lion's sculpted shoulder, he could see all those watching were as shocked as he, and none more than Malachi. The young lion stared at Adhimu as if he had become a Cape hunting dog before his eyes.

            Finally Adhimu broke the embrace and stepped back. All the anger was gone from his expression, replaced by respect and trust. He smiled broadly and laid a paw on Dhahabu's shoulder. "I could never forget that scent. You are Mfalme's son. Welcome to Kusini, Dhahabu."

            It was as if a paw that had clenched his heart suddenly let go, allowing it to beat once more. Relief and happiness flooded through Dhahabu, and he smiled back, returning the paw to the shoulder. He looked back at the others...Tembo, now completely unthreatening, Nuru capering around excitedly, and Nuala smiling, her willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt vindicated. Finally he glanced at Malachi. The shock had left his face, transformed now into contrition. Suddenly Dhahabu felt guilty...he had made Malachi appear a fool. But how could the other lion have known he told the truth?

            He was about to cross to offer him comfort when Adhimu cleared his throat. "So, Dhahabu, your father thought of my pride when he decided you needed a mate? I am humbled." He looked Dhahabu over, then shook his head ruefully. "I must have been a fool not to see it...your every movement betrays you, everything about you marks you as Mfalme's offspring. You can tell your father I am proud of him, for raising a son like you." He smiled. "So how is that ornery rascal? And your brother and sister? I was there when you were all born, you know."

            Head whirling at this turn of events, Dhahabu blinked. His father, an ornery rascal? "He is well, Your Majesty. Getting older, but still strong. And Taraji is now a beautiful lioness...perhaps too beautiful if you know what I mean." Adhimu chuckled. "But as for Sulubu..." Dhahabu's voice dropped. "He...was killed by hyenas when we were cubs."

            Behind him he heard Nuala gasp. Slowly the cheerfulness faded from Adhimu's face. "Oh...I am so sorry, Dhahabu, I had no idea...we get very little news down here from other prides."

            The prince of Kiburi nodded, managing a small wry smile. "Apprarently that works both ways, as my father told me you only had two daughters. He knew nothing of Malachi."

            Adhimu hung his head slightly. "There is good reason for that. Even I knew nothing of Malachi for most of his life, and even after that I had no idea he was my son at first."

            Dhahabu blinked at him. "But how...?"

            "His mother disappeared on a hunt while still carrying him. She gave birth far from Kusini, and died when she ate meat tainted by the humans. After that Malachi was taken in by the humans and imprisoned...he did not manage to escape until he was an adolescent. Luckily he found his way here and we were able to piece the truth together..." He glanced at Malachi with pain in his eyes. "But only after much trouble and heartache..."

            Dhahabu stared at Malachi's downcast face in pure sympathy, then looked back to Adhimu. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I didn't know..."

            Adhimu stayed silent for a moment or two, then shook himself and looked up. "I know. But enough of this gloomy talk. It is clear neither of our prides has had it easy these past years. Perhaps now, working together, we can ensure that our futures will be bright." He rose to his paws. "I do indeed have two daughters, Mahiri and Imani. And I am quite sure one of them will be a perfect match for you." He quirked a brow. "All that remains is to determine which of them that is."

            He turned and headed toward the ledges, glancing back over his shoulder and raising his voice. "I will bring them out, Dhahabu, and then we shall see if we can complete your quest."

            Dhahabu watched Adhimu ascend the jutting ledges, then slowly turned as he felt another presence by his side. It was Malachi.

            "Dhahabu...I am sorry." His voice was low and apologetic. "But there was no way I could know...I had to protect the pride. Especially after being away from it for so long, and then with the trouble I caused here when I first arrived..."

            The golden lion shook his head. "Malachi, you have nothing to be sorry for. I am the one who should apologize, I harbored such ill thoughts of you...I thought you were a rogue who had usurped Adhimu, or a rival who would prevent my success. I couldn't see you were only doing what any lion, including myself, would have done in your place. And as for the past, that's what it should remain...the past. I learned that when I lost my brother. What matters is that you are here now, and serving your father. I can't imagine what it was like for you, being separated so long..." Gently he butted heads with Malachi, purring softly as all his doubts about the lion disappeared like the morning mist under the heat of the rising sun.

            Malachi was surprised, but then with a smile he returned the head-butt. "Thank you for understanding, Dhahabu. I...hope we can be friends someday."

            Dhahabu grinned. "Why not now? I don't hold grudges, do you?"

            Malachi grinned back. "Nope. Not at all..."

            At that moment there was a stirring among the lionesses of Kusini, and both lions' attention was drawn back up the slope. Adhimu stood erect on a ledge, and behind him, two lithe and muscular lionesses were stepping out of the shadows of the cave. Dhahabu froze, eyes trained on the view above him, not even noticing Malachi's sly grin. He only had eyes for the lionesses, waiting until they stepped into the sunlight and he could at last see them clearly...

 

                                                            ***

 

            Stepping from the rushing waters of a fierce river, Taraji shook herself, spraying the vicinity and leaving her fur ruffled and stiff. Annoyed, she sat on her haunches and applied her tongue to her pelt, working to smooth it down. She winced slightly. Her shoulder was still sore, but the wound the addax cow had given her was healing, leaving the beginnings of a scar, which she had dutifully licked clean during the two days she recuperated within the streambed where she had eaten her fill of the bull addax.  At last she had been confident enough of her strength to depart, and had discovered her limp had noticeably improved, to her distinct relief.

            Now she was on her way home.

            She sighed. She didn't know if she'd found what Dhahabu had told her to find. She was proud of her hunting skills and knew when she returned to Kiburi she would become a member of the hunting party, but her heart remained uneasy about her future. In spite of the numerous animals in the savanna around her, she felt alone and saw only more of the same ahead of her, a life as empty as the desert wasteland...

            "I will never be truly happy..." she murmurred. Sighing, she looked up morosely at the sun and then rose to her paws and climbed the riverbank. Perhaps something would turn up on the journey home.

 

            Hours later the river was left far behind, and the noonday heat sweltered around the cinnamon lioness. No breeze stirred the grasses, although apparently the wind gusted strongly in the vaults of the sky, for the clouds raced rapidly across the sun, their shadows running across the ground ahead of her like vast wings. A leopard paused in its tracks to watch Taraji's passing, spotted neck arched curiously, before it returned to its hunt of a warthog mother, tail erect as she led her piglets toward the shade of a towering kigelia tree. Five minutes after the leopard disappeared into the vegetation, loud grunts and squeals arose, accompanied by the yowls of the cat. Then all was silent. There was a flash of an ocher tail, and then the leopard lifted its bloody muzzle to gaze across the landscape, a slice of flesh dangling from its mouth. The Circle of Life had turned once more.

            As she drifted northeast in her travels, Taraji both felt and heard her stomach growling and knew she must hunt again. Gazing toward the north, her eyes focused on a shifting in the grass. The longer she watched the more apparent it became...something was approaching, something large. The grass was rustling like a wave upon the sea. She licked her lips and slowly pressed her belly against the ground, disappearing from view. Whatever it was, it would make an excellent meal for her.

            Claws unsheathed, the lioness slipped silently toward her unsuspecting prey...

 

                                                            ***

 

            Stumbling over a hump of earth and his own weary paws, Jahili fell forward with a thud, his muzzle shoved unceremoniously into the dirt. For a moment tears came to his eyes at the unfairness of this, but then he shook himself angrily and rose to his paws, wiping at his face futilely. He glared up at the oppressive ball of the sun, then with a groan continued on through the thick grasses.

            He wondered anew why he bothered to go on. He had sworn to himself that he would find a way to earn his father's respect without endangering the Kiburi Pride, but there was little chance of anything, good or bad, happening when he could find no other lions for miles around. He had wandered...first south, then east, putting as much distance between himself and the Majonzi as he could. The Majonzi...what an appropriate name, for it meant grief, and it was the site of his most intense sorrow...

            The young lion tried to block out the words of exile and contempt his father had snarled at him and wrenched his thoughts to other things. To his gnawing hunger. He had never been a good hunter, he hated having to kill more than necessary and at any rate was unskilled at cornering prey, more so than even most male lions. He was weak, there was a hollowness in his limbs that frightened him. If he did not find something soon, he was sure he would die.

            Finding some well of strength, Jahili pressed on. After two days of traveling with little purpose, he at last resolved to head toward Kiburi. Perhaps somewhere along its borders he would find what he sought: food, shelter, and a chance to implement his plan.

            But he was still alone. Even as he drew closer to Kiburi, the savanna remained the sole witness to his despair. Weaving through the grasses, the lion was on the verge of breaking down entirely. His mane was a mess, matted with sweat and mud, his fur had lost its shine, and his eyes were flat and slightly glazed. Unaware of his surroundings anymore, he moved without caution, snapping twigs and setting the grass around him to swaying. Nothing mattered...nothing mattered...the world had collapsed around him, isolating him. All he could smell was himself, a hornbill somewhere overhead, a meerkat hiding in fear off to his right, and...

            He froze.

            A lioness.

            Just ahead of him, a lioness.

            He didn't know whether to roar in joy or hunker down in fear. This close to Kiburi, as a rogue, he would be run out...perhaps even killed. What had he been thinking, coming here...?

            His weakness of body decided the matter for him. Unable to run or roar, he stayed where he was, fervently hoping the wind was blowing the other direction...

 

                                                            ***

 

            Taraji was almost upon her prey when the wind shifted, bringing the scent of a male lion to her nostrils. She slowed, cursing inwardly at her ill luck and unsure of what to do. He had most likely caught her own scent by now, but what would he do about it? Would he attack her? Or worse...

            She cringed slightly...when her mother had explained about her season, she had also stressed the danger of wandering males who would take advantage of receptive females. Luckily her season had ended that morning. But that would only prevent her from bearing cubs...it would not keep this lion from forcing himself on her.

            Trembling, she knew her only chance was to somehow convince the lion that she was unavailable. Trying to instill confidence in her voice, she called out, "Who are you? Show yourself!"

 

                                                            ***

 

            At the sound of the lioness's voice Jahili's heart plummeted. He was finished. She would never believe he meant no harm to Kiburi...or would she? Glancing down at himself, he realized he would not present a threatening image. Perhaps there was still hope.

            He swallowed. "I...I mean you no harm, miss. I am lost and alone, and dying for something to eat. Can you help me?"

            Slowly he stepped forward, pushing the last stalks of grass aside to stand shaking before the lioness, head bowed in submission. Then he lifted his gaze, blue eyes rising to meet those of Taraji...

 

                                                            ***

 

            In the same instant, four pairs of eyes met each other, and the entire savanna seemed to hold its breath.

            Head lifted toward the sky, Dhahabu could not move a muscle as the daughters of Adhimu stepped into the light. One was a bright gold with pale blue eyes, but his eyes were immediately drawn to the other, to her cream pelt and her muscled limbs. Then he stared into her eyes...they were an intense green and seemed to pierce his heart. Suddenly her soft chest fur and her haunches meant nothing, they did not exist. All he could see was the intelligence, emotion, and power shining in her eyes. At once he knew she was the one. She would be his mate. Nothing would stand in his way...

            Perched on the high ledge of Kusini, Mahiri felt her skepticism fading away. When her father had told her and Imani about the young prince from a distant pride who had come to claim one of them as a mate, Imani had been overjoyed at the prospect, but she had been wary. Who was this lion? What right did he have to think he could sweep one of them off her paws and take her away from all she had ever known? And who was to say he was even worth the risk? He would most likely be the same as all her other would-be suitors--the mind of a cub in a body raging with testosterone... But now that she could see him, her doubts were lessening. She still held distrust, but she was shocked by how handsome he was, and not in some rugged, conceited way. There was something self-effacing about his expression, as if this lion--Dhahabu, was it?--did not know his own worth. And then she saw his eyes, a soft gray, filled with gentleness and a deep honesty. At that moment she knew that, while appearances were often deceiving, and she was not about to leap into this blindly, if any lion might be worthy of her, it was this one...

            His tired eyes barely open, Jahili finally met the gaze of the lioness before him--and instantly his weakness faded into the background. Soft light brown fur ruffled in the breeze, shapely muscles shifted, and her eyes...her sapphire-blue eyes sparkling with fear changing now to concern, their depth pulling him in, claiming him. He had no idea who she was, all he knew was that the emptiness in his heart had been dulled, and that he needed to know her. He sensed she could bring the happiness he sought...

            As the lone lion stepped out of his hiding place amongst the savanna grasses, Taraji's mouth hung open. He was not at all what she expected--an image of abject misery, mane and coat muddy and sweaty, paws faltering with every step, head hung low...there was no way he could be a threat. Her heart ached, wondering how he had ended up in such a sorry state, and she knew then and there that though she had no obligation to do so, she would help him, somehow. But as the mahogany lion lifted his head, she was stunned anew by his eyes, as blue as her own and filled with a softness mixed with inner pain...a pain she felt compelled to assuage...

 

                                                            ***

 

            A soft gasp came from Imani's throat, causing Mahiri to turn and look at her sister with a raised eyebrow. The golden lioness was staring in unabashed admiration at the young lion waiting below them. "He's gorgeous!" she gasped.

            Mahiri rolled her eyes and looked at Adhimu in time to see him return the same expression. Imani was an incurable romantic, and both of them had given up on her long ago. The powerful lion chuckled. "Well we know what you think, Imani...what about you, my dear?"

            Looking back down at Dhahabu once more, Mahiri shrugged, even as her heart beat a little faster. "Well he certainly looks nice enough...but then so did all the others."

            Imani turned on her. "Mahiri, what is wrong with you? He's so much better-looking than them...what a lion!" She looked back at Dhahabu, licking her lips.

            Mahiri laughed outright. "Perhaps. But you know that's not all that counts...it's clear he's strong..." Her eyes sized up Dhahabu's muscled forelegs and deep chest. "...but I want to know his mind and his heart."

            Adhimu gave his daughter an appraising look. "And what did you have in mind to determine that?"

            The cream lioness smiled knowingly. "A test, of sorts...something that will measure everything about him, not just his brawn. Any lion can have that...I want to know what makes him special. And what I'm thinking about should do the job."

            The king of Kusini smiled slyly. "Now I know why I was right to name you 'clever'. So what exactly is your plan?"

            Mahiri stepped close to her sister and her father. "Well, it goes something like this...if Dhahabu wants me to be his mate, then he's going to have to win me..."

 

                                                            ***

 

            Taraji moved a pace closer to the subdued lion, speaking softly. "Don't worry, I won't hurt you...what's your name? And what happened to you?"

            The lion cleared his throat--he had not spoken in several days. "I...I am Jahili. I...have been wandering ever since I was outcast by my pride, and I have been unable to find food. That's why I'm so weak..." It was not exactly a lie, only an omission. And the simple truth was enough for now. It didn't matter that he had been outcast from a group of rogues bent on another pride's destruction...if he expected any help, it would be better to let this lioness think he was only one of the many young males driven out at the age of two.

            "Oh...I'm sorry to hear that." The lioness stepped closer still. "But it's all right now...I'll help you find food." She smiled then, warm and caring. "My name is Taraji."

            Jahili stiffened. Taraji...Mfalme's daughter?!?

            It was too much for him. The weakness, the hunger, and now this shock pushed him over the edge...

            Taraji watched in amazement as the lion's eyes rolled up in his head and he fell to the ground in a faint. In the sudden quiet, she murmurred to herself, "He must be weaker than I thought..."

            Leaning down, she pushed her head beneath his belly, just behind his forelegs, and lifted. Despite his malnourishment the lion was still muscled and weighed a great deal, but Taraji was strong. In moments she had worked him across her neck and shoulders until he hung across her back, tail, mane, and paws draping against the ground.

            Then she rose, glanced around, and proceeded through the grass toward a dark blotch of rock against the horizon, rising beside the shimmering movement marking a stream flashing between the blades. She would take him to shelter, and then go hunting once more. All thoughts of her pride fled...they could wait. This lion Jahili needed her help, and she would not rest until he had recovered his health.

 

                                                            ***

 

            When at last Adhimu and his daughters descended the ledges, Dhahabu's nerves were almost frayed. His heart raced and his breath was short. He had to know what that discussion had been about, up there before the den. What had been decided? How would he make sure the cream-colored lioness would be his mate?

            He glanced at Malachi and at last saw his sly smile. "What's that for?"

            Malachi chuckled. "They're something, aren't they?" He smiled up at the two lionesses in pride. "Either one is worthy of being your mate."

            "Yes..." Dhahabu murmurred, although Malachi could still hear him. "But there's only one that I want..."

            Finally the three lions reached the ground and paced toward the waiting prince. As they drew near, Dhahabu could see both lionesses were beautiful, a prize for any lion...but still he only had eyes for one. He was puzzled by the look on her face. While the golden lioness was giving him a seductive look, the other regarded him with eyes that reflected curiosity and judgment.

            "Dhahabu." The young lion turned at Adhimu's voice. "These are my daughters...Imani and Mahiri." He nodded first to the golden lioness, then the cream one. At once Dhahabu looked to the lioness who had so enchanted him. So this was Mahiri...

            He finally tore his gaze away and looked at the king of Kusini. "But...how do you wish me to choose?" He knew what his father had said, to trust his heart, and his heart chose Mahiri, but Adhimu might have other plans.

            Adhimu sighed. "I wish I could let you follow your heart, Dhahabu, but my daughters have requested a test to see what sort of lion you are, and to determine who will be your mate."

            Dhahabu felt as if his blood had stopped flowing in his veins. "What sort of test?"

            The golden-tan lion nodded to Mahiri. "You will have to enter a combat with Mahiri...if you win, she is yours. If you lose, your mate shall be Imani."

            Slowly the prince of Kiburi's heart sank. He regarded Mahiri with extreme trepidation and reluctance. How could he fight her, here before her father and the entire Kusini Pride? And how could he hurt the lioness he wanted as his mate? But if he did not, he would lose her and be forced to choose Imani. What a cruel choice!

            He licked his dry lips. "I..."

            "Your Majesty." Tembo stepped forward. "I do not think this is wise. You are forcing Dhahabu to play his principles against his heart."

            Adhimu nodded slowly. "But then that is a fair test of the lion he is, is it not? To know what he will choose, the expediency of violence to get his own way, or the strength of his principles, even if it will mean something his heart does not wish..."

            Deeply troubled, the elephant turned away, unable to dispute this logic.

            Trying to still his heart, Dhahabu turned to Adhimu. "I cannot turn away without knowing what I would do, how I would prove myself. I...will fight her."

            An audible gasp came from the watching lionesses of Kusini. But most shocked of all was Mahiri. She stared at Dhahabu, eyes mirroring her disbelief. But as she peered into his morose face and his dejected eyes, something in her expression changed...a gleam of respect entered her eyes.

            She spoke then, in a soft, husky voice that sent a shiver down Dhahabu's spine. "Then it is agreed. We will fight."

            Dhahabu was rooted to the spot as Adhimu, Malachi, Tembo, and all the other members of Kusini spread out to form a vast circle, leaving him alone in the center of the rolling verdure with the lioness he wished to spend his life with...and the one he must now fight for that privilege. As she backed several yards away to give both of them room to move, tears stood in his eyes. But this was how it had to be. It was not what he had wanted, but Mfalme had not said it would be easy...

            Trying to conceal the pain in his heart, Dhahabu slowly unsheathed his claws and lowered his head...

 

                                                            ***

 

            The savanna seemed to go silent as the two combatants circled each other, gauging, testing, considering strengths and weaknesses. Dhahabu was clearly half-hearted about it, but Mahiri was not. Her eyes were narrowed, her hackles raised as she stalked through the whispering grass, cream pelt shining in the sun with a dazzling radiance. The prince watched her warily, even as he too kept pace, making sure to stay a safe distance away. He still could not see how she could do this to him...he understood the reasoning, but surely her emotions must be warning her against it...

            A subtle shift in her scent warned him...it became thicker as her adrenaline flowed through her. Dodging instinctively aside, he heard her yowl of outrage as the lioness swept past him, her sudden leap carrying her several feet beyond. Whirling, she raced through the vegetation, muscles flexing as she increased her speed. For a moment he only stood frozen, entranced by her lithe grace. Then his first instinct was to flee, but he immediately brushed it aside. He could not be a coward. He had to do it.

            Pain filling his heart, he crouched down in the grass and sprang...

            His massive form launched forward, landing atop the lioness's forequarters and bearing her to the ground. In an instant Mahiri was grappling with him, using his shock and greater weight against him. Throwing him off balance, she slammed her head into his chest, knocking him back. As the air rushed out of his lungs, the lioness bore him down, her hind legs coming up to rake his underbelly and her forepaws slashing at his chest.

            Crying out, Dhahabu reacted without thinking, slamming one massive paw into Mahiri's head. Stunned, she fell away, letting him rise to his paws, blood dripping from his chest and stomach. The wounds were not deep, but they stung. The pain and the trickling sensation in his fur brought the reality of the fight home, and he knew he could not afford to continue this way. He must give it his all, no matter the cost. He could not lose Mahiri, or his pride...

            As he mustered his strength, the lioness rose from the grass, shaking her head vigorously. She too was bloody, from a series of claw marks down her cheek that he didn't even know he'd given her. For a moment she only stared at him. Then she tensed herself and leaped again.

            This time Dhahabu was ready for her. A collective gasp came from the watching lionesses as he too leaped and slammed into Mahiri full force. The two fell together as the prince slashed at her chest. They had barely landed on the ground again when Mahiri swiped at his unprotected face. Flinching, he once again found himself on his back as the lioness pounced on him, jaws wide as she bit at his shoulder, knowing well enough to avoid his neck, protected as it was by his thick mane. Stiffening his powerful forelegs, he kept the lioness at bay, shoving her away from his flesh. At that point he knew there was no turning back...

 

            No longer able to resist, he gave in to his instincts. He snarled, and then the snarl became a deep, furious roar. For a split second he saw the fear in Mahiri's eyes, and then that too was gone...all thought left him, there was only the surge of adrenaline as he once again bashed her across the face. This time he followed through, flipping her onto her back and pinning her in place. His muscles tensed, his paws clenching around her shoulders. He bared his fangs, then bit into her only inches from her jugular. She howled in pain, but nothing penetrated Dhahabu's consciousness...he had become a killer, intent only on spilling blood. He bit again, and again, even as Mahiri fought back, slashing and clawing at his chest and shoulders. But Dhahabu was much stronger than she was, and soon had her forelegs pinned. She was defenseless...

            Snarling again, he reared back, preparing to strike the killing blow...

            Suddenly an immense roar broke through the cloud of aggression. Jerking his head up, Dhahabu's eyes locked on the form of Adhimu, watching from the edge of the circle, a fatal warning blazing in his eyes. All at once the young lion turned back, staring in shock and horror at what he had done...the blood flowing from her shoulder...and coating the fur of his paws...

            All the anger was gone. Trembling, he looked Mahiri in the eyes. "I'm so...sorry. I never meant--I can't do this. It's wrong."

            He hung his head--and was stunned anew when Mahiri lifted a paw from his now slack grip and knocked him away again. Even as he fell, Dhahabu realized he had lost...he had not been able to fight without becoming a killer. Yet he also felt that Mahiri's blow this time had lacked the force it had before...

 

            Soon he found himself on his back for the third time, the cream lioness perched on his broad chest, staring down at him as blood clotted on her neck and ran down her foreleg. She narrowed her eyes at him. "And why can't you fight for me? Am I not good enough for you?"

            His jaw hung open at these unexpected words. "No...that's not it at all. You are too good for me...I don't deserve you. I can't even find the guts to fight for you without causing you terrible injuries...I'm sorry, but I can't do this. Not anymore. I thought I could, but..." He swallowed hard. "I can't harm a lioness, especially one like you. I...concede. And now that you know me for the coward I am, you can do what you will with me. Kill me, or send me away, or give me Imani as my mate. I would rather you be happy, then with someone like me."

            Tears flowing, he closed his eyes and waited. I'm sorry Father...I tried...

            Nothing happened for a long moment. Then at last he felt Mahiri's breath on his cheek...followed by a gentle lick! Dhahabu's eyes popped open, and he gazed up into green eyes shining with respect.

            Slowly Mahiri climbed off of him. She swayed for a moment before she steadied herself. Then she gazed around at all the spectators. "The test is over, the battle won. I have learned what I needed to know...and I choose Dhahabu as my mate."

            At this the lionesses of Kusini burst into amazed conversation. Tembo, Malachi, and Nuala looked utterly confused...but Adhimu only nodded slowly, his anger changed to a smile.

            Mahiri moved back to Dhahabu and nuzzled his side, pushing her head against his foreleg as an offer to support him. The lion groaned as he rose to his paws, his eyes dazed as he regarded her. "But...why? I nearly killed you...and I lost the fight..."

            The lioness hushed him. "But you didn't kill me...you were able to resist your instincts and hold back. That's one of the reasons I chose you. And you didn't lose...you won."

            Dhahabu blinked. "What do you mean?"

            Sighing, Mahiri sat on her haunches and began licking the wounds on her neck and chest. "You must understand the nature of the test," she explained between licks. "I wanted to know what sort of lion you were...and you have shown me." She paused and lifted a paw to stroke his cheek. "You would not fight at first, even though you had to in order to win me as a mate. That proves you are not like other lions, who fight for the joy of killing. When my father roared, and you realized what you had done, you showed mercy on me. And then when I pinned you, and you still could have fought back, you didn't. What you said...how you cannot hurt a lioness. And the way you accepted defeat, even though you would then be mates with Imani. But most of all, how you would sacrifice your happiness for mine." She smiled softly. "All of these are traits I would want in a mate. They mark you as a lion with a noble heart..."

            The lioness rose and moved painfully to his side. Nuzzling him again, she whispered in his ear. "To lose is to win, Dhahabu...and you have won."

            Dhahabu's eyes widened in disbelief...he had won? She...would be his mate? His heart pounded in his chest, and he barely noticed that Adhimu was moving their way, a meerkat running alongside, trying to keep up. He only had eyes for Mahiri...

            "Dhahabu...you have won. I was afraid for a moment there that I would have to do something drastic to break you out of your instincts. But you came to your senses and proved you are Mfalme's son in heart as well as blood. Although it will disappoint Imani..." He chuckled and glanced back at his other daughter, who was pouting on a boulder. "Mahiri will be your mate. I have brought a healer here to tend to your wounds. After that, I will leave you to get to know one another. Congratulations." He nodded to the meerkat, who scampered forward, tiny paw plunging into a small pouch around her neck. She hurried to the two lions, climbing Mahiri's foreleg to sit on her shoulder blade, within easy reach of the deep wound Dhahabu had given her. He winced, watching the healer apply a strange-smelling paste, but then his gaze returned to Mahiri.

            His mate. She was his mate...

 

                                                            ***

 

            Beneath the sweltering sun, the river of Kiburi wound across the land, shimmering as it rippled over its stony bed. Widening as it flowed westward, it soon opened into a calm expanse dotted with the ridged backs of lazing crocodiles, trailing long strands of algae as they lay in wait for the desperate wildebeests to come to quench their thirsts, despite the risk.

            Standing atop a hill, Kuchinja smirked. Oh yes, the wildebeest will come to the river...but not of their own will, and at much greater risk than they expect... He chuckled. "And they will not be the only ones at risk."

            Beside him Njaa clenched his jaw and shot him a worried, tense glance. "And what is that supposed to mean, Kuchinja?"

            Eyes narrowed angrily, the gray lion let out a soft growl. "It means exactly what it sounds like, brother...we will teach Mfalme whose lionesses he claims..."

            Njaa sighed. "Brother, while I know we must do this if we wish to reclaim our lands, I cannot condone such violence to innocent lionesses--we don't have to be barbaric about this."

            "And why not?" Kuchinja's fiery gaze burned into the golden lion. "Mfalme brutally murdered our father! We have every right." His voice dropped as he looked out over the wildebeest herd grazing below. "We have every right..." he repeated.

            Njaa hung his head, his expression morose. "Yes...I know. And for what Mfalme did, he must be punished. But this still does not set well with me..."

            "Nor with me," Tauni murmured.

            Kuchinja snorted. "Fear not, brothers, I wouldn't dream of asking you to do something that would offend your sensibilities. No...I have a simple task for you, and for Ushindi as well." The massive lion regarded the wildebeest. "Drive them into the river...deprive Mfalme of his largest herd."

            Njaa nodded. "That we can do." Glancing at Tauni and Ushindi, he led the way down the hillside.

            Once they were out of earshot, Kuchinja turned to his remaining siblings. "Ah...Kufa, Vita, my dark brethren. You shall join me on a little visit to the dens of Kiburi...Mwoga tells me Mfalme is on patrol. Let us teach him not to leave his pride so...vulnerable."

            Kufa and Vita returned his fiendish smile, eyes alight with bloodlust.

 

                                                            ***

 

            Resting her head on her paws, Malkia let her eyes roam across the savanna, disinterest and boredom having taken up residence in her this day. Lying as she did just outside the Kiburi dens, she could see for miles around, but there was nothing to see. Only the river, and the wildebeest herd, and a few stray birds in the sky. Sighing, she eyed the tawny humps in the grass all around her that marked where the lionesses of Kiburi lay. Seeing them so content brought back so many memories...of lazy days when Dhahabu was a cub...when Sulubu was alive.

            She squeezed her eyes shut in pain.

            How she missed him. And Dhahabu too, now grown up and seeking a mate. Everything had changed so much, so fast. It made her yearn for the past...for their cubhoods, but even before that, for the days of her youth, when she had first met and fallen deeply in love with Mfalme, amidst the tumultuous times surrounding the death of Giza...

            Malkia's thoughts dwelled on that terrible day when Giza had beaten her...and then Mfalme had come and fought him. It had been a day much like this one...beautiful, full of promise, and beyond the reach of cruelty and terror, or so it had seemed...

            Suddenly uneasy, the queen lifted her head and stared into the distance. She watched the crocodiles stir restlessly, the clouds run before the wind, and then--

            The lionesses around her gasped and cried out as one, at the same time Malkia herself saw the billowing clouds of dust filling the air where the wildebeest herd had once been. The queen leaped to her paws and pushed through the suddenly milling lionesses to see more clearly. And then came the bellowing of the wildebeests and the rumbling of hooves as all the animals flowed like a massive wave toward the river, heedless of the danger the crocodiles and the deep water posed.

            Just as Malkia was about to call out to form a line and try to drive the herd back, her voice caught in her throat. She could see three male lions, forcing the wildebeest on. And beyond them three more, headed in her direction, anger burning in their eyes...and the largest of them all was terrifyingly familiar...

            "No..."

 

                                                            ***

 

            Growling and snapping at the ignorant beasts running before him, Njaa smirked slightly, knowing how much damage he and his brothers would inflict upon Mfalme's pride. After killing Giza, the loss of a herd was only the beginning of what should be done to him...

            Tauni and Ushindi loped alongside of him, the three lions spread out in a line and roaring periodically to keep the wildebeest in a frenzied panic. Heedless of where they were headed, the brindled animals raced across the savanna, down the hill, and poured into the river valley, heads tossing futilely as they ran in headlong flight, in most cases ignorant of what pursued them, pushed on only by those in the rear. Ahead, the water foamed and bubbled as the crocodiles thrashed in anticipation of juicy morsels galloping toward their snapping jaws.

            Njaa noticed the lionesses of the pride dashing around on a nearby hill outside the dens, completely thrown by this surprise attack. Chuckling a little, he turned and bit savagely into the hind leg of the nearest wildebeest. The cry it gave was nearly deafening. Ripping free, the wildebeest plunged madly ahead, blood pouring down its leg, and trampled any and all who stood in its way.

            Soon the forefront of the herd was dashing into the river. Without warning the nearest crocodiles rose from the water and attacked the wildebeest, jaws closing over necks and shoulders, scaled hides impervious to the pawing hooves. In moments the entire river was churning with twisting bodies, fur, scales, and thick blood staining the water a vivid crimson. As more wildebeest leaped in, they crushed those already in the water beneath them. Still others turned along the banks and tumbled into deeper water downstream, where they sank from view and drowned.

            Njaa laughed as he watched the river become a sanguine stream of death and dismemberment, of horns piercing pale underbellies and teeth digging into flesh. Mfalme and his pride would not be hunting wildebeest for some months to come...

 

                                                            ***

 

            Grinning with a sadistic pleasure, Kuchinja paused for a moment to watch the unfolding slaughter. Then, veins throbbing with a greedy desire for blood, the eldest son of Giza leapt ahead, claws scraping the ground as he moved toward Malkia and the other lionesses, who were transfixed by the ferocious battle for supremacy, the unbalanced turning of the Circle of Life, occurring before their eyes.

            Kuchinja reached Malkia's side just as she turned back toward him. As Kufa and Vita appeared behind him, she snarled viciously. "You..."

             "Why, is this the way you treat your prince, Malkia?" A sly smile touched his muzzle.

             "You are no prince--you never were!" The Queen of Kiburi spat in his good eye.

His muscles already coiled tightly, the gray lion snapped at this, his forepaw lashing out to slam into the side of Malkia's head. Reeling back, she fell to her knees, blood running down her forehead and cheek.

"Do not dare to question me...you know very well I am the rightful king here, not Mfalme! These lands belong to me by right of birth!"

Other lionesses gathered close, fangs bared at him and hackles raised. "You presume too much, Kuchinja..." one of them, the head huntress, muttered darkly.

"No, I think I don't presume enough!"

Malkia had managed to stumble to her paws by this time and delivered a look of utter disgust. "You are a disgrace to lionhood, Kuchinja...thinking only with your claws and your sheath. You aren't worth the fur on your back--"

The second blow slammed her to the ground completely. Snarling, two lionesses leaped to Malkia's defense, but at that moment Kufa and Vita pounced, knocking them away from their brother. Kuchinja laughed, a sound laced with such undertones of superiority as to show how truly insignificant he considered these lionesses.

When Malkia could finally look up at him, she was presented with an amused gaze. "Now that is much better...exactly where you belong--below me. You should never have been the queen..." He touched an extended claw to her chin and lifted her head, a condescending look in his eye as she jutted out her chin in brazen defiance.

"And you should never have been the prince...in fact you should never have been born!"

Kuchinja rolled his eye. "As much as I enjoy this parley of insults, Malkia, I have more important tasks before me...such as devising my strategy for taking back what is mine." He looked meaningfully toward the crush of bodies littering the river's bloody surface. "That was a warning...you will never know when, or how, but we will strike. We are the Wahamiji, with a path you will never predict. And soon, one day, these lands will be ours once more."

The lioness who had previously snarled at him seemed to lose her sense of safety at these words, running forward and pouncing atop his back, fangs sinking into his flesh, claws slashing in fury. Instantly Kuchinja whirled, throwing her to the ground. With amazing speed he turned and pinned her, paws pressed against her chest. Kufa and Vita moved between him and the other lionesses to keep them at bay, teeth glinting in their dark muzzles.

"That...was a very foolish mistake...Farate..." Kuchinja's voice was low and sinister. With practiced ease, the gray lion embedded all ten of his foreclaws in the helpless lioness's neck and ripped downward. Blood fountained up, staining his paws and legs. Eyes closed, a shudder of pleasure crossed his face, accompanied by a satisfied smile as the warmth of the lioness's life ran down his fur. At last he leaned down and slowly lapped up the blood, feeling her grow still and cold beneath him.

When he looked up, Malkia's face was pale with horror. The other lionesses' expressions ran the gamut from ill to enraged to terrified. He grinned broadly...this was far better than he had ever hoped or planned.

"Don't have much to say now, do you?" Kuchinja glanced back behind him and spied Njaa, Tauni, and Ushindi moving away from the massacre at the river. Climbing off of the dead lioness, he sent one last barb at Malkia as he moved away, leading Kufa and Vita. "Let that be an object lesson to you...that could have been you, and will be one day soon..."

Chuckling, the now-bloody lion rejoined his brothers, and soon all six were loping across the savanna, splashing through the river, and disappearing into the distance.

 

For the next ten minutes, the lionesses of Kiburi could do nothing but weep in mourning for their fallen sister, or stare in shock at the carnage before them and in the river below. At last, as Malkia stumbled toward Farate's mangled body, she caught a familiar scent on the breeze, coming from the east, directly opposite of the Wahamiji's path...

"Mfalme..." she whimpered.

A lioness was sent to meet the king. Malkia kept her head low as she waited, bitterness and guilt filling her heart. Then the scent became stronger, and lifting her eyes, she beheld Mfalme's massive form beside the lioness messenger. Both were breathing hard. The Lion King's gaze was steady, but a deep fear lay buried there. The lion slowly took in the devastation from the hilltop...the river, awash with blood and crocodiles gorging themselves on wildebeest...the murdered lioness. And then he saw the wounds on Malkia's face and moved to her side. Embracing her, he began licking the wounds clean as she cried into his strong shoulder.

When her storm of tears had passed, she peered up to see anger and death in Mfalme's eyes as he again contemplated what had occurred. Then he slowly spoke three words in a voice of barely-restrained fury.

"Who did this?"

Malkia met his stare and could only choke out one word in reply.

"Kuchinja..."

 

                                                             ***

 

Jahili moaned softly and slowly opened his eyes as the light bathing his eyelids was cut off by a shadow in the entrance of the cave. Looking up, he spied Taraji dragging in an impala, blood still warm and fresh on its hide. His mouth watered at the sight.

"Well, this was the best I could find, Jahili, I hope it's enough." She turned, saw the expression on his face, and chuckled. "I guess it is..."

Rising to his paws, the weakened lion moved to the carcass and ripped into its flesh, small growls of hunger and pleasure coming from his throat as he buried his muzzle in the antelope's innards. He had already consumed a fourth of the beast's underbelly before he could spare a glance for the lioness. She was watching him, amazed by his ravenous appetite. Shrugging sheepishly, Jahili lowered his bloody muzzle to his repast once more.

Finally, when his stomach was bulging and the impala was nearly gone, the lion sighed and looked gratefully at Taraji. "Thank you for hunting for me...and for bringing me here. I...don't know how I can ever repay you."

The lioness frowned slightly. "There's nothing to repay, Jahili...I would have done this for any lion in need, and I'm sure you would have done the same. Besides, I'm not through yet...days of forced starvation cannot be undone by one meal...you will have to stay here for several more days at least." She chuckled. "Looks like we're stuck with each other."

Jahili stared at her, dumbfounded...spend all that time alone with the daughter of Mfalme...and a beautiful lioness in the bargain...? He lost himself in her eyes, her fur, her muscles...it was some time before he realized her mouth was moving. "Did you say something?"

She raised an eyebrow. "I asked you how you came to be wandering out here...you spoke of being outcast from your pride?"

Uncomfortable, not finding it easy to lie to her, he rubbed the back of his neck with one paw. "Yeah...but it's a long story."

"We have plenty of time," Taraji pointed out.

She had him there. "All right..." He moved to the corner of the cave and lay down with a sigh of contentment, feeling much better than he had a few short hours ago. When Taraji was situated beside him, he lowered his head in thought. The truth should suffice, as long as he left out any names, or references to the two prides. Keeping that in mind, he began to speak.

"My pride was small, mostly my father and uncles...my mother died when she gave birth to me, and my father always blamed me for her death." Taraji looked at him sympathetically, encouraging him to continue. "So I had a very lonely cubhood. I was made to feel like an outsider, not a part of the family. A few of my uncles tried to make me feel wanted, but my father...I know for a fact that he hates me."

Taraji gasped and placed a paw on his. "That can't be..."

"It's true, Taraji. He told me to my face many times how worthless I was...I grew up thinking I would never amount to anything. I was never shown any love by him...I barely existed in my father's mind..." Tears stood in his eyes as his feelings of inadequacy reared up once more.

"That's horrible!" The lioness softly nuzzled him, sending a wave of shock and a small thrill of pleasure through him--he had never been nuzzled, except a few times by his uncle Njaa, and this was quite different...it made his cheek tingle. "But why were you exiled then?"

Jahili's pleasure faded again. "In truth, Taraji, I was always an exile...from myself as well as from my family. My father just made it official. All my life I never really knew love...if not for my uncles I would have been cut off from my heart entirely. Finally, though, my father demanded too much of me. He asked for devotion to the pride without offering anything in return except pain and anguish." He could see the questioning look on her face and shook his head. "The details don't matter and would only make you hate me."

"I could never hate you, Jahili." Taraji's voice was gentle.

The lion gazed mournfully at her. If she only knew the truth...she would despise him more than anything. He sighed. "Don't make promises you can't keep, Taraji." When she gave him a puzzled and indignant look, he shook his head. "Nevermind...I don't want to hurt you, or burden you. Anyway, I refused, and so my father basically accused me of being lazy and useless and told me it was time to strike out on my own. And here I am."

She considered him for a long while. "I can't imagine what it was like for you, growing up in such a loveless environment."

He clenched his paws. "I can barely imagine it myself...it still all seems like some nightmare, but it's one from which I can never awaken...I went through life in a daze. I was like a single tree standing in the savanna, branches reaching desperately for light and rain, but always solitary...or a cloud drifting aimlessly across the sky. Growing up like that probably hurt me in ways I don't even know yet...it was like standing on a hill, roaring at the top of my lungs, but no one could hear me. Even with my uncles, I felt so..."

"Alone."

Jahili, who had been staring at the floor of the cave, looked up to see a distant expression on Taraji's face, one filled with the same longing and loneliness that he had just been describing. He blinked in surprise. "I...get the feeling you know what I'm talking about."

"Yes I do, Jahili...I may have had a loving family, and a large pride who cared for me...but I too have felt alone for some time now."

Shoving his own problems aside, the lion nudged her, as if to say he was there for her if she needed him. Taraji sighed. "It's just that...well, I'm the only daughter of King Mfalme of the Kiburi Pride...my two brothers always overshadowed me because they were male. One would be king, and the other was very strong. So to make up for it, I always tried to be clever and brave, and to be as good a huntress as I could be. Then one of my brothers...was killed when we were cubs..." She took a shuddering breath. "And I withdrew for a long time, Jahili. It's not that I don't love Dhahabu...but I was so close to Sulubu, it was like losing a piece of myself. And after that all the focus was on Dhahabu, the future king...and I've become almost obsolete. Alone. Trapped..."

She hung her head, but Jahili carefully lifted it again so he could look into her eyes. "Your life is what you make of it, Taraji...I learned that long ago. We have both been alone...but now that we know there are others like us, that changes everything. You don't have to be trapped any more than I do, you can be whatever you wish to be." He shrugged. "Perhaps my exile was actually a blessing in disguise...freeing me to be myself..." Pausing, the young lion turned his own words over in his mind, realizing the truth of them was greater than he'd first thought. In spite of everything he loved Kuchinja...but he could not change him anymore than he could be changed by Kuchinja. Whatever happened, whether he was successful in winning his father's respect, he would always be his own lion...and if Kuchinja could not accept that, then perhaps separation, however painful, was the correct course.

When he looked back at Taraji, she was studying him with a frank and open gaze. "It appears we both know a little of what the other is feeling, Jahili. You're right...it is good to know we're not alone after all..."

In the dimness of the cave her eyes shone like the stars as she leaned in close to give him another nuzzle. Purring softly, she leaned back and regarded him with a look that was at once caring and accepting. Then something crossed her face...a realization, one that made her eyes shine brighter, then turn away in widened disbelief. Though he did not know it, the same look was in his own eyes...but he had not yet realized the same feeling, or he could not admit it to himself.

Slightly flushed, he cleared his throat, and so did she. At last Taraji flicked an ear. "It seems we have a lot in common, Jahili."

"I guess we do..."

She laughed a little, and then rose to her paws. "Well, we'll have to see what else we can find in common later...time for me to leave you to rest. I'll bring more food later."

"Yeah..." He watched her muscled form as she passed through the cave entrance. Suddenly Jahili knew that his meeting with Taraji had been more fortuitous than he had first thought. She would certainly offer him much information about the Kiburi Pride, perhaps too much. But he wanted more than that now. He wanted to spend time with her...he wanted to get to know her.

He laid his head on his paws. He wanted to not be alone anymore...

 

                                                              ***

 

A sun vermilion was setting into the horizon, sending its rays across the rolling savannas of Kusini and bathing the two lions and the grass around them in varying shades of red and orange. Dhahabu sat on his haunches beside Mahiri, gazing at the wondrous beauty of the land, marveling not only at the sunset but also at how a day that had begun with such anxiety and uncertainty could now be one of such peace and solitude.

After watching the sun for some time, Mahiri at last broke the silence. "So...what do you think of my lands, Dhahabu?"

The young lion smiled. "They are beautiful, Mahiri...just like you."

She blushed, and seemed to take a sudden interest in the ground. Dhahabu watched her, pain still in his eyes as he regarded the leaf-plaster the meerkat healer had made to protect her neck wounds.

As if reading his thoughts, the lioness glanced at Dhahabu's chest and belly, which bore identical plasters. "Are you in any pain?"

He shook his head. "No, your healer did a wonderful job."

Silence reigned once more. Dhahabu thought of Tembo, who was being shown around the lands by Adhimu. He missed his friend...he would have given good advice to help him conquer this attack of shyness. But he was not here, and all the expected pleasantries had already been exchanged.

Sighing, Dhahabu asked the only thing he could think of. "So Mahiri...how has it been for you, growing up in Kusini?"

The lioness smiled. "Very peaceful. Kusini has rarely been threatened, and Father has always been able to protect us when we were. Imani and I had an idyllic cubhood..." She trailed off, frowning slightly. "Except for the time when Malachi returned, of course..."

At this sudden change in her demeanor, Dhahabu quirked a brow. "That's right, Adhimu didn't tell me much about Malachi. What happened with him?"

For a moment he was afraid he had crossed the line, for Mahiri remained deathly quiet. But at last she spoke again. "That...is a long story. To keep it brief...when Malachi first came here, my father saw him as any other rogue, a threat to the pride. But Nuala fell in love with him. Father warned her she could not be with a lion not of this pride, and she promised she would not to protect him. But their love was too strong, and they met again. So Father exiled her."

Dhahabu stared at her raptly. "And Malachi?"

Mahiri sighed. "Things...got complicated. My aunt Tazi trusted Malachi and tried to get him and my father to meet, to see about Malachi joining the pride. But Malachi was too proud to beg, and he knew little of pride life...so he did not come. And then Nuala became pregnant." She hung her head. "She tried to hide it, but Father found out. And because the cub was not his or that of a pride member...he killed it."

Dhahabu gasped. "But that was his grandcub!"

Mahiri nodded solemnly. "No one knew that at the time, though. Then Tazi was killed by some lionesses from a pride Malachi had once been a member of. He tried to stop them. Father thought he had done it. But Imani and I convinced him to listen to Malachi's story. By the time he had explained about his life, the humans who had held him were in Kusini. So Malachi and Father worked together to drive them out. Afterward, they compared notes, and that's when they realized they were father and son."

The prince was stunned. "So that's what Adhimu meant by there being much heartache before the truth was learned...his own grandcub." He sighed. "Well at least he has Nuru now."

Mahiri smiled sadly. "True, but I fear Father will never forgive himself."

Dhahabu gently placed a paw on her shoulder, unsure of her reaction. When she looked at him gratefully, he ventured to pull her against his chest and stroke her cheek. "Forgiving yourself is one of the hardest things to do in this life, it takes time." His eyes fixed on a far-off hilltop, where the last of the sunlight was fading, leaving an evening sky ablaze with stars. "I know that from experience..."

Mahiri looked at him quizzically. "You suffered tragedy, too?"

A vision of Sulubu's mischievous smile flashed before his eyes. "Yes...I lost my brother."

The lioness blinked. "Oh, by the Kings...I'm so sorry, I didn't know..."

Dhahabu wiped away tears and shrugged. "It's all right. Anyway, the pain is less now."

"But it never goes away, does it?" Mahiri observed sagely.

The lion nodded mechanically.

Mahiri gave him a gentle lick on the cheek. "You listened to me...now I can listen to you, if you care to tell me."

Dhahabu turned, eyes bright with gratitude. Then he began to speak, stuttering and struggling to find the right words to encapsulate his emotions. He knew he would fail, but he had to try, for Sulubu and for Mahiri, too, who needed to know what made him who he was...

By the time he had finished, Mahiri was in tears and was cradling his head on her shoulder. He too was weeping as she brushed back his mane with one paw. He'd thought he'd gotten over it, but the pain was as fresh and searing as it had been that day in Kivuli. He knew now it always would be...

Mahiri nuzzled him softly. "Dhahabu, you don't need to blame yourself anymore. Sulubu loved you very much, and it was his choice to give his life for yours. That doesn't alter in any way your love for him, or his for you." She gazed deeply into his eyes. "You have a gentle heart, Dhahabu...I know now more than ever how right I was to choose you. We belong together..."

Closing his eyes, the prince nuzzled into the curve of her neck. Sharing the pain had helped...he would never have wanted to burden her, or seem like a pathetic weakling, but now this had brought them closer together. Smiling through his tears, he licked her neck, discovering dried blood in her fur. In moments he was grooming her.

Mahiri returned the favor, cleaning blood off of his face. "Thank you..." he murmured. A warmth began in him, growing in his heart as he purred deeply. It was a feeling he'd never felt before, an unfulfilled longing which increased dramatically with each touch of her rough tongue on his fur.

Her purr soon joined his...and then Dhahabu sniffed the air. It held a beautiful scent, just like Taraji had on that fateful day, only stronger. His breath quickened.

"Uh, Mahiri..." His voice was a trifle nervous.

"Hmm?" She eyed him langorously.

"Is...is it time?"

She raised an eyebrow suggestively. "What would you do if I said it wasn't?" she said teasingly.

A look of horror crossed his face...her scent, overpowering as it was, had stimulated him overwhelmingly. "You wouldn't!"

Mahiri laughed coyly. Then a fond smile appeared. "No, I wouldn't. I promised I'd be your mate..." She leaned close and whispered in his ear. "...in every sense of the word."

Dhahabu's eyes widened further as she licked his cheek, lingering sensuously, before nuzzling him once more. Both of them began purring in tandem, rumbling like the thunder of an approaching storm. The last of the sun's dying light washed across Mahiri's face, reflecting in her sparkling eyes. She in turn could not take her eyes off Dhahabu, his mane catching the light in its folds and layers, some strands shining like pure gold, the fiery luminescence rippling across the hair, his face lost in shadow. He seemed mysterious...yet already she felt she knew him, knew his soul.

The prince could sense this in her expression, and echoed the sentiment. As the sun faded from view, leaving them in darkness, his heart burned with love. All he could see was the intense power and beauty in her eyes. United with her by tragedy and emotion, he at last achieved a sense of being wholly alive...the emptiness that had existed since Sulubu's death had been filled.

The two lions rubbed cheeks, marking each other as extensions of themselves. Then Dhahabu gifted her with a lick to her muzzle, followed by a tender kiss.

Mahiri's smile broadened, and Dhahabu could feel himself rising to the occasion. But this instilled a sudden worry in him. He pulled back a little and regarded her uncertainly.

In a seemingly mystic connection, the lioness knew what he was thinking and caressed his scarred shoulder. "Don't worry," she whispered. "It's my first time, too..."

Embarrassed yet reassured, Dhahabu pressed against her side as the two mates descended the hill to a small grove of trees. Their lashing tails slid along underbellies and across inner thighs before intertwining. Their scents mixing, Dhahabu and Mahiri entered the glade and disappeared into the obscuring, seductive shadows...

 

Those three days with Mahiri were the most memorable of Dhahabu's young life. He experienced things he had never dreamed possible, and his knowledge grew by leaps and bounds. In the few moments he was able to catch his breath and escape the pheromones long enough to think, he discovered a joy of such purity and intensity that he could not describe it. He only knew it would be burned into him forever...

His emotions were running rampant. There was pleasure certainly, more to spare than he knew what to do with, but it was more than that...it was love, simply that. With each hour that passed, his love for her strengthened.

By the end of the third night, he knew instinctively that the bond they had forged would bear fruit--cubs as well as greater emotion. The roars he released were thus not only of pleasure and dominance, but also of sheer exuberance and happiness.

At last it ended. Mahiri slept with a blissful smile on her face, tail tuft flicking against his side. Dhahabu lay beside her, an expression of shock and excitement frozen on his face. Lying on his back, massive paws curled up onto his still heaving chest, the young lion gazed up at the stars and thanked the Kings for bringing him to this place and time. And thoughts of the Kings naturally led him to thoughts of Mfalme. Smiling, he glanced at Mahiri and pictured the day he would bring her home to Kiburi.

"Dad...you'll be proud of me..."