Chapter 7: Forbidden Love

 

Tembo watched with an odd mixture of solemnity and excitement as Dhahabu and Mahiri approached with tails wound together, descending the hillside to meet Adhimu, Malachi, Nuala, and Imani. As he gazed at the massive lion, who now walked with a greater confidence in his stride, his heart swelled with pride for his friend and prince. And from the expressions he and Mahiri wore, he had also gained a mate, Tembo thought wryly.

The elephant passed his trunk across Dhahabu's back as he stepped up beside him, and the lion lifted his golden-furred face to smile gratefully up at him. Then both of them returned their attention to Mahiri, who was embracing Adhimu tearfully.

"Father...I will miss you so much..." the lioness whispered.

Adhimu nodded, his maned head pressed into her shoulder. "As I will miss you, my daughter...but the Circle waits for no lion, all must move ahead and cannot look back. And if your gaze reaches far enough back, you will find the seeds of the future, you will encircle your path and return to where you are destined to be. All things must change, Mahiri. But you will find happiness with Dhahabu, I am sure of it." He smiled and pulled back so he could look into her eyes. "Besides, there is nothing to say we cannot visit one another. The distance is not that considerable."

Mahiri wiped her eyes and smiled a little. "You're right, Father...and I love Dhahabu with all my heart." At this Tembo heard a soft sigh from beside him, and turned to see Dhahabu watching her longingly, passion and love burning in his gaze. Tembo had never seen its likeness or equal--and it lent the young lion a maturity and majesty he had lacked before.

"It's just so hard to say good-bye..." Mahiri was saying.

"I know...I know..." Adhimu gently caressed his daughter's cheek. "But you will have a legendary future, I am sure. Great things lie ahead for my friend Mfalme and his pride. I am only glad we can play a part in that, however small." He embraced her once more, then nodded toward her sister and brother.

As Mahiri head-butted Malachi and gave Imani an emotional nuzzle, Adhimu turned to Dhahabu and offered him a massive paw, which the prince clasped warmly. Each of them held intense respect in their eyes as they regarded each other. "Dhahabu, all I can say is I wish you luck, Mahiri is quite a pawful." He chuckled ruefully.

"Don't I know it..." Dhahabu looked at Mahiri and smirked slightly.

"You came to find a mate, and succeeded...but you also gave to us hope that the lands will be ruled with honesty and justice. And with Mahiri by your side, you cannot fail. The joining of our prides will bring peace." The king of Kusini nodded emphatically.

Dhahabu blushed. "I hope I can fulfill everyone's faith in me. I have large pawprints to fill."

"No, you have large pawprints to make." Adhimu smiled. "However much you may wish it, you are not your father. No lion can be another. What you will be is your own choice, Dhahabu, and will result in you shaping your own destiny, leaving your own mark on this world."

The young lion fell silent, stunned by this possibility. Adhimu placed his paw on Dhahabu's shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. Then he turned toward Tembo and Mahiri, who were now in quiet conversation about the route to Kiburi, leaving Dhahabu to face Imani, Malachi, and Nuala.

"Well." He swallowed uncomfortably and looked at Imani. "I hope you don't feel any ill will toward me, Imani...you are a beautiful lioness who I am sure will find a wonderful mate...it just wasn't me, my heart belongs to your sister."

Imani pouted a little, then smiled winsomely. "It's all right, Dhahabu, Mahiri deserves you. Besides, now this gives me all the more incentive to find a mate as handsome and charming as you!"

Malachi chuckled as Dhahabu blinked in disbelief. "Dhahabu, my friend, pay her no mind, her hormones are running wild." Imani gave him an indignant look. "But she is right, you and Mahiri belong together, I can see it in your eyes. I am sorry I ever doubted you." The golden tawny lion pulled Dhahabu into a rough embrace.

Tears in his eyes, Dhahabu smiled. "It's all right, Malachi...you have nothing to be sorry for. Mahiri told me of your past...and that explains so much. I am sorry for what you have suffered, but now you have a bright future. I hope to see you in Kiburi someday, for you to visit me."

"You can count on that," Malachi answered without hesitation.

Beside him, Nuala nodded, and Dhahabu regarded her seriously. "And thank you for believing in me when no one else would, Nuala."

The lioness leaned her head against Malachi's shoulder. "No thanks are necessary, Dhahabu...I believed once before, when no one would trust my mate...and I would do so again for another lion who has the same gentleness as Malachi."

The four of them were nuzzling and offering final good-byes when Adhimu, Mahiri, and Tembo at last rejoined them. "It is nearly midday, Dhahabu...you should be heading home now," the king offered.

Dhahabu nodded. "I have been away long enough as it is...your lands are beautiful, but I miss my home."

Adhimu took his paw one last time. "Take good care of my daughter."

The prince looked at Mahiri, her cream pelt shining in the sunlight, her eyes glowing with a fire equally brilliant. "Believe me, Adhimu, I won't have any problem doing that."

Adhimu smiled and then stepped back beside Malachi, Imani, and Nuala. "May the Great Kings guide you on a safe journey home, Dhahabu."

As the young lion joined Tembo and Mahiri and began climbing the hill out of Kusini, Adhimu let out a soft chuff. As one, the lionesses of the pride roared, offering their own blessing. At the sudden noise, the cub Nuru burst out of one of the dens and began scampering around in the grass. "Bye, Aunt Mahiri! Bye Prince Dhahabu! You better come back soon, or you'll have to deal with me!"

Dhahabu's laugh joined with Adhimu's. As the prince looked back he saw the king had moved to his grandson and grabbed him by his scruff, tossing him up into his mane. There the cub perched proudly, as if his grandfather were his throne, and waved one paw wildly.

At last the three travelers reached the top of the hill and swept one last look across the breathtaking panorama of Kusini and the distant forms of the pridemembers below. Then they turned their faces to the north and passed over the crest of the hill, and all was lost from view.

Dhahabu looked to Mahiri and saw her expression, still fraught with loneliness. "It will be all right, Mahiri...you will see them again. And you will love Kiburi as much as I love Kusini."

The lioness nodded. "I hope so, Dhahabu. And since it is your home, I don't see how I could not." Purring, she nuzzled him, and he returned a soft lick to her ear, tugging gently.

Tembo cleared his throat and gave them an amused look. "Am I going to have to chaperone you two all the way to Kiburi?"

Both lions laughed out loud, easing the tension, nervousness, and the sorrow of parting, leaving only a sense of camaraderie. Tembo grinned and winked at Dhahabu, causing the lion to butt his head into the elephant's leg. He pretended to be mortally wounded. "How could you, Dhahabu...your own friend!"

Dhahabu laughed again and ran, Mahiri at his side, as Tembo began chasing them northward, a look of feigned fury in his eyes.

 

                                                              ***

 

Taraji opened her eyes and yawned loudly. Smiling down at Jahili's sleeping form beside her, she marveled at how quickly he had recovered, once she had been able to offer him a steady supply of meat. It was now the third day since she had found him and decided to nurse the weakened lion back to health. In that time, she had managed to teach him enough hunting skills for him to survive until she could return another day.

For she did have to return to Kiburi, the lionesses and Mfalme would be wondering where she had gone, and Dhahabu was due to return soon with his new mate. Yet she also knew she must see Jahili again. When she was with him, she felt more alive than she had in a long time. Part of it, she knew, was the hunting, finding food for the young lion and aiding him in learning to do it for himself. But there was more than that...that was what she had realized that day they had shared their loneliness with each other. She had felt a deep connection between them...one that was as much emotional as circumstantial. The suddenness of the feelings shocked her, but Malkia had told her once that sometimes that was the way it happened--when one least expected it...

Jahili stirred and rolled over onto his back, the light from outside the cave shining inside to spill across his maned head. At last his eyes blinked open, and he squinted against the light before he spied her and smiled. "Good morning."

"Morning?" She laughed. "Wake up, sleepyhead, it's almost midday."

"It is?" He sat up and looked outside. "Well we lions are nocturnal you know."

"True, but I have to return home today, so I wanted to say good-bye." Her gaze lowered.

At once Jahili was on his paws, nuzzling her. "I wish you didn't have to go...you have helped me so much, and made me feel for once I was worth something. You will come back, won't you?"

She nodded. "But before I go, I want you to prove you'll be all right while I'm gone. Show me the hunting skills you have learned."

For a moment he hesitated, but he knew he had to be strong if he was to survive on his own. "All right..."

 

In the burning noonday sun, Jahili was roasting, his dark fur absorbing the heat until he felt he was on fire. Sweat soaked his mane and the pads of his paws, but he ignored it, instead concentrating on the small zebra herd ahead of him.

At first his mind was blank, but then he remembered the things Taraji had drilled into him...he could even hear her voice repeating them as he slipped silently through the grass...

"Be aware of your surroundings...what will help you blend in, and what will make you stand out like a black leopard against mountain snow."

Glancing around, he found he had luckily chosen a patch of dead or dying grass that was a rich brown in hue...what with the shadows, he would not be seen.

"Keep low to the ground, and make sure your tail doesn't give you away."

Quickly he lowered his tail.

"Stay as silent as the wind."

His breathing slow and shallow, Jahili crept forward, concentrating so as not to shift the soil, or step on a stray branch or leaf.

"And when you are close enough...pounce!"

The lion leapt out of the grass directly behind a zebra mare and landed atop her back, his bared fangs sinking deep into her neck. The zebra squealed and began kicking out her hind legs, whirling in an attempt to throw him off, but he persisted, his fangs plunged into her neck their full length. The other zebras fled as the one he had attacked continued gyrating across the savanna, her kicks and head tosses becoming steadily weaker...

At last, as Jahili reached down with one forepaw and slashed his claws across her throat, the zebra let out a gurgling bark and collapsed slowly to the ground, legs twitching. Jahili let go and rose to his paws, staring down at the dead zebra in astonishment and pride. He barely noticed when Taraji stepped up to the zebra's other side. "Jahili...that was wonderful. Continue to hunt like that and you won't need me anymore."

Jahili looked up quickly. "I wouldn't need for you hunting, anyway..." His voice was soft.

Taraji stared at him across the zebra carcass. "Yeah...I'm sure we could find other reasons to be together..."

A long silence ensued, during which the lion and the lioness did nothing but gaze into each other's eyes and gauge the emotions they found there. Then Taraji managed a small chuckle. "Um, Jahili, you have a little blood on your muzzle..."

This was an understatement...the cream fur of his muzzle was soaked with the zebra's blood, dripping off onto the ground at his paws.

"I guess I do." He smirked. "I'll try and be less messy next time."

"Here, let me help you." She leaned close and began licking the blood away...much more slowly than she needed to. Jahili shuddered slightly. Eventually all the blood was gone, but Taraji continued to lick. And then she gave him a soft kiss.

Breathing hard, he stepped back a pace. "Perhaps...you should go now."

"Yes...or I might not leave." A hint of mischief was in her eyes.

"That...wouldn't be so bad."

She sighed. "Yes it would...I have to be there when my brother comes home with his mate, and to see my father. But I promise I will return." Taraji turned and eyed the rock formation that held the cave where they had been staying these past three days. "Shall we say, we meet at our cave in a week's time?"

Jahili nodded slowly. "I will be here, don't worry."

The lioness nuzzled him one last time, then turned toward the east and began moving away. "Farewell, Jahili...and good hunting! Remember, one week..."

The mahogany lion watched her go until she was only a speck on the horizon, his heart filled with emotions he could not put a name to. All he knew was that nothing would keep him from being here in a week's time.

Slowly he returned to the zebra and began to eat his fill. He knew now that he had to chance a return to the Majonzi, in the time Taraji was absent, and tell his father of what he had done. He already had important information for Kuchinja, that Dhahabu was returning in about three days with a mate, the future of Kiburi...that should be enough to begin earning his respect, yet the amount of protection the pride would offer ensured the safety of Dhahabu's mate and future cubs, whenever they would be born...

He hoped.

But whatever happened...he would see Taraji again.

 

                                                             ***

 

Peering down from a towering hill crowned by the ubiquitous acacia, Mahiri's face lit up with a pleased smile as she at last beheld Kiburi. Turning to face Dhahabu, who was watching her with an eager expression, she laughed. "Dhahabu, it's breathtaking! So much like Kusini..."

The lion grinned. "That's what I thought when I saw your lands...it seems we were destined to be together, even by our homelands."

Together the three travelers inhaled the fresh air and watched a flock of flamingoes sail across the sky. It was the third day of their journey, and at last they had arrived. During the whole of the last day, Dhahabu had been anxious, constantly checking Mahiri's reactions to the land around them while awaiting the moment he would at last see his father again--and the expression Mfalme would wear when he first laid eyes on Mahiri. Tembo had only laughed at him, but Mahiri had seen straight to his heart...she knew how much it meant to him that she would love his lands, and his pride...how he wanted her to see them the way he did, and be a part of them as he was. And she had sworn that she would, for his sake. But now, seeing the lands before her, she suddenly knew it would be no trouble at all for her heart to belong to these lands.

Nuzzling her mate, Mahiri whispered, "Thank you for bringing me here..."

As Dhahabu's eyes melted with love for her, Tembo suddenly let out a startled blast from his trunk. Both lions flinched and turned to see him staring down the hill. Following his gaze, the prince spied a familiar cinnamon-brown lioness loping across the valley below, in the direction of the river. His heart beat faster. "Taraji...she's back!"

The lion quickly rose to his paws and roared mightily. Below the lioness slid to a halt and stared upward in astonishment. Then she echoed the roar excitedly and altered her course, heading toward the hill. At the same time Dhahabu leapt down the hill, an amazing surge of power suddenly released from his muscles. Mahiri watched him streak toward Taraji, a thoughtful look on her face. "So this is his sister..."

Pursing her lips, she eyed the other lioness's lithe form, and suddenly began to realize why Dhahabu had always referred to her as being perhaps too beautiful...eyes narrowed, she too descended the hill, Tembo at her side.

As she reached Dhahabu, he and Taraji were already nuzzling closely, deep love mirrored in both their eyes. They moved apart when she approached, the lion giving Mahiri that same shining gaze. "Mahiri, come over here, I want you to meet my sister!"

Taraji's eyes, Mahiri noticed, were roving over her, clearly judging what she saw. Jaw clenched, the princess of Kusini snarled softly. "Well? Do you like what you see? Do I pass your test, Taraji?"

Dhahabu blinked. "Mahiri! How could you suggest such a thing? My sister would never--"

"Brother." The young lion turned at Taraji's sudden interruption, in a voice touched with shame. "She's right...I was judging her, trying to see if she was good enough for you." She looked at Mahiri mournfully. "I'm so sorry...Mahiri, is it? I didn't mean to hurt you. I just...I'm very protective of Dhahabu...he's the only brother I have..." The lioness bit her lip.

Slowly the suspicion faded from Mahiri's eyes, and she stepped close to Taraji. "I know...he told me about Sulubu."

For a long moment everyone was silent. Tembo and Dhahabu exchanged a glance, in which the elephant's frank expression clearly told the lion he should have expected this would happen.

Then Taraji looked up with tears in her eyes as Mahiri gently butted heads with her. "I understand how much you loved him...I don't blame you at all for being protective. But you don't have to worry, Taraji. I love Dhahabu, and would never do him wrong."

The young lion shot Tembo a triumphant glance, his faith in his mate and sister vindicated, and then moved to nuzzle both of them. "Yes, Taraji...Mahiri is a warm, compassionate lioness, and I love her more than anything..." He gazed at her perceptively. "But there's no need to be threatened. I will always love you, you are my sister, nothing can change that."

"Oh Dhahabu..." Taraji's tears ran faster and she embraced him. Mahiri watched silently, her thoughts dwelling on her own sister and how much she missed her. When the embrace was over, Taraji turned back to her. "Mahiri...again I apologize. I..." She glanced from her to Dhahabu. "I can see how much you love each other..."

Dhahabu gave Taraji a lick on the cheek. "It's all right..."

For a while none of them spoke, each absorbing the palpable emotion in the air and drawing close because of it. At last Tembo cleared his throat. "Well, now that we all know how much we love each other, don't you think we should go meet the others that we love?"

Mahiri nodded. "Yes, my love, I want to meet your father!"

Taraji smiled shyly at her. "You will come to love him, too, I hope."

"If he is anything like my father Adhimu, I will." The cream lioness stepped tentatively closer and nuzzled Taraji.

Dhahabu grinned. "He's a lot like Adhimu, actually...now I know why they are friends. Come on, I'll take you to the dens...and Taraji, you can tell me how your hunt went."

As he suited actions to words and led the party down the hill, he eyed Taraji's plump belly and laughed. "As if I need to ask."

Taraji swiped at him and growled playfully.

 

                                                             ***

 

The cinnamon lioness could not help but sneak glances at her brother as they approached the network of caves that housed the dens of Kiburi. He looked so different...content, proud, mature. There was confidence in his step and wisdom in his eyes. He was even more of a lion now than he was when he left for Kusini.

Dhahabu, in turn, was watching Taraji. He could see she had changed, but he could not put his paw on the cause. She had just finished telling him about the addax hunt, but that alone could not account for the sparkle in her eyes, the shine in her pelt, the small sighs she gave when she thought he wasn't paying attention.

But the lion had no time to puzzle the matter out, for a familiar roar sounded at that moment, and then Mfalme emerged from the grass before the dens. For a moment Dhahabu caught a haunted look in his eyes, but then it was erased by joy and excitement as his father rushed to his side and pulled him into a powerful embrace. "Son! You have made it home at last! I was so worried about you...and you too, Taraji..." He gazed at his daughter over Dhahabu's shoulder, tears in his eyes.

Before the prince could even hazard a guess as to why Mfalme was so worried about them, let alone formulate the question, the Lion King spied Mahiri and inhaled sharply. Slowly he broke the embrace and moved toward her. Mahiri's eyes widened at his impressive size, and she bowed deeply. "Your Majesty...Dhahabu has told me so much about you."

Mfalme could not tear his eyes away from her beauty. At last he smiled and raised her head. "So you are my son's mate..." He nodded and then looked at Dhahabu. "Well done, son..."

Tears burned in Dhahabu's eyes as he saw the intense pride in Mfalme's expression...it was all he had imagined, and more...

There was a rustle in the grass, and then Malkia stepped into view. Without hesitation she moved to Dhahabu and nuzzled him repeatedly. "Thank the Kings you are safe...but what's this?" She had found the leaf-plaster on his chest as she embraced him.

"That...is a memento of the combat I had to fight to win Mahiri as my mate," the prince explained.

"You had to fight to win her?" Mfalme narrowed his eyes, clearly wondering what had possessed Adhimu to sanction such a turn of events.

Mahiri stepped forward. "Yes, your Majesty...he had to fight me. I wished to test him, to prove the nobility of his heart...and he passed with flying colors." She smiled fondly at Dhahabu.

Mfalme and Malkia exchanged a quick, worried glance, but when they saw neither their son nor Tembo seemed concerned, they relaxed. Taraji, on the other hand, raised both eyebrows and regarded Mahiri with surprise and respect.

"Well." Mfalme sighed, a barely perceptible quiver in his voice. "At least you have found what you sought, and are now home safe with us." He moved to Mahiri and head-butted her, purring loudly. "Welcome to the Kiburi Pride. Our home is yours, and whatever you need will be given."

"Thank you." She bowed again. "I see you are the soul of courtesy, your Majesty. My father was right about you."

"Oh? And what did he say?" Mfalme grinned.

At this point Dhahabu stepped in. "Wait a minute, before we get into any old history, I want to know...what is wrong here?" He looked from Mfalme to Malkia. "You both are acting like frightened cubs! What happened while we were away? Why were you so afraid we weren't safe?"

When the monarchs exchanged another look, Dhahabu spied claw marks on Malkia's face. "Mother!"  He took hold of her muzzle with one paw and was surprised when she did not resist, letting him examine the wounds. Behind him he heard Taraji growl softly. He glanced at Mfalme. "Well Father? Are you going to tell me, or am I going to have to ask the head huntress?"

"You can't." The mahogany lion's voice was pained and he spoke laboriously.

"Why not?"

"Because...she is dead."
"What?!?" This came from both Dhahabu and Taraji at once.

Unable to contain herself longer, Malkia began to weep. At the same time Mfalme slowly sat down on his haunches and suddenly seemed to feel his age...head hanging low, shoulders slumped, flesh drooping slightly. The change frightened Dhahabu.

Mahiri stirred. "Perhaps...I should leave you alone..."

"No." Mfalme lifted his head again. "You need to hear this too." He sighed. "Dhahabu...look at the river."

Dread filling him, the lion did as he was asked...and gasped in horror. The meander just below the hill on which they stood was littered with rotting wildebeest and congealing blood. Even from here he could smell the stench of death, a sickening pall that drove all away from the once crystalline waters. When he turned back, face ashen, he saw Taraji turned away, retching.

When he spoke, the prince's voice was deadly quiet. "Again I ask, what happened?"

"We are besieged, my son, by a group of rogues calling themselves the Wahamiji, the Wanderers." Mfalme chose his words carefully. "They are led by Kuchinja...the former crown prince of Kiburi."

Dhahabu snarled. "That's not possible!"

Malkia shook her head. "Oh but it is, my son...there are things we have never told you, or Taraji, about the history of our sovereignty here."

The prince blanched and sat down heavily. "You...you mean you are not really the king and queen...I am not the prince?"

"No!" Mfalme almost roared the word, and Mahiri and Taraji flinched. Tembo stood still, head lowered. He had heard what was about to be said from his mother...he had always thought Dhahabu knew. Gently he placed his trunk on his friend's shoulder, and the lion spun and stared at him as if he did not recognize who he beheld. But then Mfalme chuffed, drawing his attention back. "That is not what I meant at all...we are the king and queen. What you do not know is how we came to hold our positions. I...took this pride from Kuchinja's father, Giza."

Dhahabu was stunned. "But...then..."

Mfalme sighed. "Let me explain...it is a long story. My father Mkase and my mother Sisasi were once members of Giza's pride. But Giza was a tyrant, my son. He abused his rights as a king. He overhunted the herds, he mistreated his lionesses, everyone lived in fear of him...except my father. And Mkase's bravery has now come back to haunt us. One day, when I was but a cub, my father caught Giza torturing a cheetah female...no, I must be truthful. He was forcing himself on her." Dhahabu snarled, instinctively clawing a huge furrow in the soil. "So Mkase did the only thing he could think of, he pounced on Giza and knocked him away, allowing the cheetah to escape. But for that action, my family was exiled from Kiburi."

The prince turned and slowly regarded his sister and his mate, both of whom wore expressions of indignation and fury.

Malkia sighed. "The lionesses did not agree of course..."

Dhahabu's head came up. "You were there, Mother?"
"Of course I was. I was only a cub, but my mother told me everything that happened...I was forced to mature emotionally at a very young age..." The queen gazed off into the distance, as if searching for her lost cubhood, and Taraji quickly approached her to offer warm nuzzles of understanding.

Mfalme watched this for a time, tears in his eyes, then returned to his narrative. "So...my family was forced to live on the outskirts for all of my cubhood and adolescence. I grew up with all the love Mkase and Sisasi could lavish on me...but without playmates, and often very little to eat. Somehow we managed. From the time I was old enough to understand what had happened to us and why, I was determined that I would become strong--so I could punish Giza and return us to where we belonged. I hunted constantly, starting small, of course. I had many close calls on the edges of Giza's dark lands--run-ins with his cubs, or attacks by hyenas and jackals. But I was stubborn, I always have been..." Here he managed a small smirk. "And eventually my work paid off. I became stronger and more muscular than even my father. And it was a good thing too. Because by this time there was a severe drought in the lands...and so, although he knew the consequences, Father took us back into Giza's lands, to ask forgiveness and to see if we could rejoin."

The entire glade was silent, as if the lands themselves were recalling the dark days they had once suffered.

"But...I take it that didn't happen," Dhahabu murmured.

"No. It didn't. Mkase left my mother and I in a small cave and went to meet Giza on a hill overlooking the den. And Giza, like the paranoid fool he was, thought my father had returned to take over his pride. So they fought...and my father was killed before our eyes." He shuddered and wiped away tears. Picturing Sulubu's death, Dhahabu could only imagine how horrifying it had been for his father to see his own father die so cruelly. His only consolation was that such a thing could never happen to him.

"Well." Mfalme shook himself. "Giza followed my father's scent back to the den, so Mother and I fled in separate directions. Eventually, when I thought it was safe, I backtracked and found some of my mother's blood soaked into the ground not far from the cave. I was enraged...my parents were both dead, at the claws of this vile murderer." The Lion King's body shook with anger. "So I followed him. I tracked him. I swore I would make him pay." He paused. "I trust in your journey south to Kusini you saw the immense rock formation pointing to the sky?"

Dhahabu nodded slowly...he remembered Tembo calling attention to it...a gigantic monolith, cracked and pitted, creases and ledges running up its sides, a jagged slab jutting out from its eastern face, held up by another angled slab.

"That was once Giza's throne, Kituko Rock. Its caves were where his pridemembers dwelt. I tracked him there, and confronted him atop the peak. He was so confident of his prowess that he confessed to killing Mkase. So I challenged him." He paused again, and a small, sly smile crept across his muzzle. "I think you can determine who was the victor and who was the vanquished."

Mahiri and Tembo chuckled. Dhahabu exchanged a long look with Taraji, then stared at his father. Though he had not thought it possible, he loved and respected him even more.

"I did not finish the job...it was clear Giza would die. But by this time he had six sons, though three were only cubs. I gave them the choice of whether to stay, but the oldest, Kuchinja, refused. So I banished them, and they took away their father's mangled body, to his death I assume. Afterward, the lionesses of the pride were so grateful they demanded I become their king. And that is when two wonderful things happened." He smiled. "I met Malkia...and I learned my mother was alive."

Malkia leaned her head against her mate's shoulder. "You see, Dhahabu, when Giza and Sisasi fought, I happened to be nearby on my first hunt. I heard the commotion and hid in the bushes. When I saw what was happening I knew I had to act. So when Sisasi passed near the bush, I whispered to her to play dead. She did so, after Giza struck her particularly hard, and then I stepped out and pretended to congratulate him. I got his mind off the fight by suggesting he and I could mate later on..." She grimaced. "But first I told him I would dispose of the body. So I dragged Sisasi back to Kituko Rock, and hid her in one of the unused dens. All the lionesses and I worked together to keep her presence a secret until after Giza and his sons had been exiled--once Kuchinja almost caught us. But after they were gone and Mfalme became the king, I restored his mother to him." She smiled through her tears. "And that was how we first began to fall in love...but that's another story."

For several minutes Dhahabu digested this incredible tale. Finally he shook his head. "I had no idea how much you had given up and fought for to gain our lands, Father..."

Mfalme nodded. "And now it seems we must fight again. For Kuchinja and his brothers have returned, and they have sworn to take the Kiburi Lands back. It was they who caused the massacre of the wildebeests you have seen, and it was Kuchinja himself who killed Farate."

Dhahabu slowly rose to his paws and moved to the edge of the hilltop, gazing down at the river, his form stiff with anger. When he turned back, his eyes blazed. "I will not let that happen. I will die before I let the son of a tyrant take what is rightfully ours!"

"As will I!" Taraji took her place beside Dhahabu with a roar, tail lashing.

"And I." Tembo loomed on Dhahabu's other side, tusks gleaming in the noonday sun.

"And I as well." Mahiri nodded grimly. "I did not become Dhahabu's mate, only to see everything he has known and believed in be destroyed."

Both Dhahabu and Mfalme looked at the loyal cadre before them with pride, but Malkia, who had been sniffing the air for some time now, slowly shook her head. As everyone watched her with confusion, the queen wiped her eyes, rose, and circled Mahiri, sniffing again, paying close attention to her hind end, to the lioness's extreme embarrassment. At last she sat back and looked at Mahiri kindly. "I think not, Mahiri...you must stay in the dens where it is safe."

"What?" she exploded. "You say I cannot defend my own mate, or help protect his pride and our future?"

"But that is just my point...to protect the future of the pride you must remain in the dens."
"Why?" Mahiri demanded.

"Because, my dear, you are gravid."

There was a shocked silence.

"What?" the cream lioness asked, a blank look on her face.

"Mahiri, you are with cub."

As the enormity of this revelation hit her, the lioness slowly sat down in defeat, knowing there was no way she could place herself in danger now...she bit her lip, a strange mixture of disappointment and joy filling her.

Dhahabu was breathing hard, unable to believe his ears...he had had a feeling this was so, but to have confirmation... "You...you mean I'm going to be a father?!?"

Taraji smirked at him. "My my...whatever were you doing in Kusini, brother dear?"

The golden lion's face turned a deep, burning scarlet.

Laughter filled the little glade, laughter that released the tension and opened the way to celebration...yet which failed to erase the dark thoughts that all those assembled there had about the future.

 

                                                             ***

 

His tongue hanging from his mouth, curled and dripping saliva as he panted fiercely, Jahili slowly lifted his head to gaze across the wastes of the Majonzi. Waves of heat shimmered before his eyes, but he knew he had to press on. His father must know of what he had accomplished...then at last he could begin to walk the path that would lead to his father's respect.

Each paw seemed leaden, weighed down by the growing weakness in his limbs...he could barely place one paw before the other, and he stumbled often. Gazing up, he spied vultures wheeling against the blazing white sky, but he set his jaw. They would not have him, he had too much to live for now. He only hoped he would find one of his uncles soon...

When at last he looked up and saw a massive form on the horizon, he at first thought it was only a delusion. But as the heat dissipated momentarily, he could see it was quite real...and it was the golden pelt of his uncle Njaa that he spied, patrolling the land as he often did when needing time to himself.

Sighing with relief, Jahili tossed his sweaty mane out of his eyes and pushed himself harder, moving as quickly as he could toward the older lion. As he drew near, Njaa happened to glance his way and froze in place, eyes wide. Clearly he too thought he was seeing only what his lonely mind wished him to see.

"Uncle Njaa! It's really you!" Jahili reached his side, tears in his eyes as he gazed at the uncle he loved the most of all.

"Jahili?" The golden lion moved to his side as his nephew began to faint, his strong shoulder ducking down to offer him support. "What are you doing back here? If Kuchinja knows you came back..." Njaa eyed him worriedly, but seeing the look of love in Jahili's eyes, he warmly embraced him.

"I had to come back, uncle...I have done something that will at last make Father proud of me." The mahogany lion pressed his face into Njaa's thick chestnut mane.

Raising an eyebrow, Njaa sighed. "I fear that is a lost cause, nephew. He will only reject you again and put you through more pain...or worse, he may even take your life for returning from exile. I cannot in good conscience allow such a thing to come to pass."

"Please, Uncle Njaa...I know this will make him start to accept me...it has to do with Mfalme's pride." He paused. "I need to see him...can you take me somewhere private where we can meet?"

For a long moment the other lion only stared at him, warring emotions in his eyes--confusion, disbelief, worry, distrust, curiosity, but finally a desperate hope. At last Njaa hung his head. "All right...for you I would do anything, you know that." He gently nuzzled Jahili, a rumbling purr beginning in his throat and echoing in his broad chest. "I hope you are right, and that you will be allowed to stay...I have missed you, Jahili. You offer a chance for sanity and compassion amidst Kuchinja's narrow-minded vision of revenge." Eyes bright, the lion quickly embraced Jahili.

Feeling the warmth and gentleness in his uncle's powerful foreleg, Jahili let the tears flow, all his memories of growing up in the Majonzi now glowing with life and goodness as he recalled the constant love Njaa had always shown to him...the concern, the determination to guide him, the pleasure at seeing him mature into a lion who had always made him proud. "Thank you, uncle...I can never thank you enough for this. And I have missed you, too...I love you more than I can say."

Njaa softly butted his forehead against Jahili's. "I know...I've always known. And I love you, nephew. Now...if you can lean on me, I will take you to an oasis and bring you meat. That should keep you safe until I can bring your father."

Jahili nodded and moved to his uncle's side, allowing his weight to rest against Njaa as they began to walk westward. Both exchanged hopeful glances, but whatever happened, Jahili could only pray to the Kings that he would at least never be separated from Njaa again.

 

 

Just as the sun was beginning its final descent toward the horizon, staining the Majonzi in the colors of fire, Njaa at last returned to the oasis where he had left Jahili, a familiar massive gray form beside him.

It had taken a few hours to find the lush patch of trees and bushes surrounding a small but deep pool of pure blue, a half hour more for Njaa to hunt down and bring to his nephew an assortment of desert hares, a wildebeest calf, and an impala. Then with one last nuzzle the golden lion had departed.

Now, his meal consumed, Jahili slowly rose to his paws, watching the approach of his father with trepidation. The fact that Njaa had succeeded in persuading him to come bode well, but that did not mean it would be an easy conversation.

When Njaa and Kuchinja at last stood before the mahogany lion, he looked his father in the eye. What he saw there was a now-muted hatred, and intense curiosity.

"Well. Njaa tells me you think you have done something to earn my respect, concerning Mfalme's pride." He smirked. "We shall see. You had better make this a rapid explanation--I have little patience for fools, even loquacious ones."

Jahili swallowed. "I have gained the trust of a member of the pride...Taraji, Mfalme's daughter. And I plan to pry information out of her to help your conquest."

There was a dead silence. Njaa's jaw slackened, his expression one of intense disappointment and worry for his nephew's safety. Kuchinja too was stunned, but he recovered quickly. "Now why should I believe you? And why would you help me now, when for so long you have been against my conquest?"

Jahili swallowed again. So far, so good. Now to take the plunge. "Because, while I still do not approve of the conquest, I know it is what you want, and I want you to be happy. Since I can't do the violent things you ask of my uncles, I decided I would help you the only way I could. I am clever and thorough, no matter what you may think to the contrary...I can supply you with intelligence about the pride. And in fact I already have learned something you will find interesting."

Grudgingly, Kuchinja nodded, the suspicion fading from his eyes. "You could be of use to me in that sense," he admitted reluctantly. "All right. I will let you return for a trial period, to see if you can truly aid my efforts against Mfalme. You are far from--"

He was interrupted by Jahili, who threw himself forward at his words to embrace him and nuzzle his mane. Instinctively Kuchinja growled, but then slowly he relented and did not break the embrace...if for no other reason than amazement. "Jahili...how can you show such affection to me?" He snorted. "It makes you weak. And anyway, I cast you out and insulted you...you should feel nothing but hatred for me now."

Jahili shook his head. "That's not how love works, Father. You are my flesh and blood...though I disagree with your beliefs, I will always love you. And this is not weakness...love is one of the most powerful things in this life..." He nuzzled his father's mane again, so glad to at last be close to him again.

Uncertain and uncomfortable, Kuchinja lifted a massive paw and patted Jahili's back. Though clearly forced, it also held a spark of emotion. Njaa stared at him in wonder.

Finally Kuchinja broke the embrace and turned away from Jahili. "Love...powerful?" He shook his head. "No. I loved Giza with all my heart...and it could not save him."

Only Njaa caught the smallest tear in Kuchinja's eye before he angrily blinked it away and turned back to Jahili. "What is this information you have already learned?"

The young lion sighed. "Taraji told me Dhahabu is returning to Kiburi this very day...and he is bringing a mate with him."

Kuchinja stiffened. "Is she pregnant?"

Jahili nearly choked on his father's blatancy. "I don't know...but if not, I suspect she will be soon. You remember what Mwoga told you about Dhahabu."

The gray lion nodded slowly, then began pacing before them. "You were right, Jahili...this is critical information. Dhahabu cannot be allowed to have an heir if we are to reclaim our rightful place. This mate of his must be dealt with..."

Jahili's eyes widened, but he quickly covered. "I shall endeavor to learn more of her from Taraji, Father."

Kuchinja cocked his head, then placed a paw on his son's shoulder. "And so you shall, Jahili." And then he actually chuckled. "Now I see a little of myself in you, at long last."

Though he felt sick inside, Jahili managed a grin as he and Njaa rose to their paws and moved after Kuchinja, who was already turning toward the southern jungles where the other Wahamiji waited. "That is good to know..."

The gray lion shook out his thick mane of coal. "We have much to discuss, Jahili...of how you can best use Taraji to our advantage. And to aid us, perhaps, in capturing this mate of Dhahabu's, or her offspring. They could make excellent bargaining tools. For them, Dhahabu would do anything..."

As the massive lion paced out of the oasis into the setting sun, its burning light soaking into his mane with a volcanic glow, Jahili followed slowly, Njaa at his side. He exchanged a glance with his uncle, whose eyes betrayed a profound worry. Then he whispered, "Not if I have anything to say about it..."

 

                                                              ***

 

Over the next three months, the Kiburi Lands and those surrounding lay under a pall of expectancy and tension, interspersed with periods of boredom. The greatest attention during that time was paid to Mahiri. Upon determining she was pregnant, Malkia quickly took the young lioness under her wing, as she did for all the lionesses of Kiburi when their time came to have cubs. Aside from Dhahabu, she took over Mahiri's grooming, and was quite specific in which sorts of prey he and Mfalme were to have the lionesses bring. Unfortunately, Kuchinja seemed to have an innate sense for what this prey should be, and constantly harassed the herds in question. Thus, as Mahiri's belly swelled with the new life growing within her, the pride became hard pressed to provide food for themselves, let alone their newest member. Worry was the predominant emotion...for none more than for Dhahabu, the anxious father-to-be. Already on edge over the coming cubs, he was further stressed by the attacks of the Wahamiji. And this was what Kuchinja had hoped for.

Jahili had been happily welcomed back to the Majonzi by Tauni and Ushindi, and even Kufa and Vita had warmed somewhat. All had agreed the young lion's plan was sound, but Kuchinja had added the corollary that their attacks on Kiburi would continue...and Jahili would gauge their success by assessing the effect on Taraji. His meetings with the cinnamon lioness were frequent, occurring every week or so. Each time they met, it became more clear that life was taking its toll on her. Some of the luster had faded from her eyes and pelt, and it pained Jahili to see her suffering like this. Yet all he could do was offer her false assurances that things would change for the better soon. His guilt grew...even though he had done little to betray her, he felt as if he had. Yet another emotion kept pace with his guilt...the deepening love he felt for Taraji. He could not explain it, it was as if she were the other half of his soul that he had been searching for his whole life. They could be discussing something as simple as the weather, or a hunt, and he would be entranced by her every word, caught up in the nuances and inflections of her voice, loving each one. He felt a kinship with her, that they were meant to be together in spite of everything conspiring against them, because they both knew what it was to be alone, to be lonely. Even as she casually supplied him with information about herd size and location, borders, and times when her brother and father would be in certain locales, his love for her grew. He carefully edited her words, sending his father on fruitless searches for Dhahabu or Mfalme, his excuse being that the lions must have changed their plans. So far he had been successful...but he knew this could not go on forever. The line he walked was thin indeed...

Taraji, too, walked a line, one of a different nature. Her frequent disappearances into the savanna had begun to arouse quiet suspicions, particularly with Malkia, who unlike Mfalme was not wrapped around the pads of her daughter's paw. She knew all too well the nature of young lionesses. But she could not pursue her suspicions, for when she was not attending to Mahiri's needs, she was required to complete pride business, meeting with allies and informing them of the conflict with the Wahamiji while Mfalme and Dhahabu constantly patrolled the borders.

One morning, however, near the beginning of Mahiri's third month of pregnancy, Malkia managed to witness Taraji's departure from Kiburi once more...her delivering of an excuse to the new head huntress, saying she was going out on a solitary hunt and would be back in several days. As the cinnamon lioness turned and proceeded westward across the valley, Malkia stood on a hilltop watching her, Mahiri at her side. "Have you noticed," she observed, "that Taraji always goes the same direction when she leaves on these spurious hunts of hers?"

Mahiri nodded. "Surely the prey cannot be that plentiful there..."

"No. It is something else. Something more...personal."

The cream lioness grinned slyly. "A male, for certain...I too have seen the way she acts. When she is here, she is listless. She goes on hunts, but her mind is always elsewhere. She brings me meat, and helps Dhahabu. But even when she drove that zebra at Kuchinja and made him flee, it was not long afterward that her gaze turned to the west. And when she leaves on these hunts of hers, there is a shine in her eyes and a spring in her step."

Malkia watched Taraji disappear over the horizon thoughtfully. "My thoughts exactly."

Mahiri gave her a strange look. "But...why aren't you happy for her, then?"

The queen sighed. "Because of the danger posed by Kuchinja. And her secretiveness. Why is she hiding this from us?" She paused meaningfully. "I only hope she knows what she is doing..."

Dhahabu too had managed to put the clues together, but in a much more direct way. Ever since he returned with Mahiri and noticed Taraji's curious state of mind, he had resolved to learn the truth. And since she would not tell him herself...he had resorted to subterfuge. After her first few disappearances, he had her followed, and once it was determined she always went in the same direction, he had intercepted her on a return trip--ostensibly to greet her and welcome her home. But when he drew her into his gentle embrace, he had unobtrusively sniffed her pelt...and immediately detected the scent of a male lion.

At first he had been angry, although he hid this fact from Taraji. But when his temper had cooled, and he had gotten past her having deceived him, he began to feel a secret joy for her. At last his sister had found what she needed to make her life worthwhile...and perhaps even more. He had no idea how far things had progressed between her and this mystery lion, and he would respect her privacy until she chose to tell him. But he hoped that all would go well. At the same time his fears grew--fear that on one of her journeys Kuchinja would find her alone; fear that this lion was not as good for her as he thought, that he posed some danger; fear that something might happen to the lion, or he might leave Taraji, resulting in a shattered heart. And he had already picked up the pieces of his own heart when Sulubu died...he did not know if he could do so again for Taraji.

Strangely, the entire three months seemed to reflect Mahiri's condition. Taraji and Jahili's love for each other filled their hearts more every day, just as Mahiri's underbelly hung lower and swept aside more grass with each passing week. Her shifting moods of anger, worry, and devotion matched those around her--Kuchinja, furiously impatient for her to give birth so he could set his plans in motion; Malkia and Mfalme, trying to hold the pride together; and Dhahabu, a constant presence, attentive and gentle, always assuring her that she was beautiful and would be the best mother his cubs could ever have.

The months passed. The baking heat of the sun increased, and the dry season approached, the vegetation crackling in the slightest breeze. The river steamed at the height of the day, and became far shallower as its waters evaporated.

Then at last, when Jahili reported the state of the river to Kuchinja, the gray lion devised a plan...

 

At the western border of Kiburi, south of the gorge, Kuchinja stood on a promontory overlooking the river as it wound down from the tropical jungles and plunged into a towering waterfall. Just beyond the falls, the river narrowed, churning through a small gap as it flowed past forested knolls before entering the flats of the savanna.

Perfect for his plan.

Below, his brothers waited, downwind of a grazing herd of rhinocerous...waited for his signal.

Smirking, the gray lion lifted his head and let out an immense roar that startled the horned beasts into a panic. At the same time, the other members of the Wahamiji burst from the grass, roaring in unison.

Though deadly, the rhinocerous were also easily fooled into believing they were surrounded. Seeing the river as their only escape, the massive animals tossed their heads and crashed into the forest. In moments the trees were shaking, their roots ripping free of the soil as the rhinocerous blindly charged anything in their path, including the trunks before them.

Kuchinja leapt down the hillside, single eye trained on the shaking treetops. Finally it happened. The largest rhinocerous, a huge male, slammed his horn into a baobab, and the trunk snapped. As the tree, which grew right beside the bank, toppled into the river, it crashed into several acacias in passing, their limbs entangling, until it pulled them down as well. Broken limbs and shattered trunks fell into the water as smaller trees succumbed to the onslaught of rhinocerous and followed their larger relatives. Soon a crush of broken wood filled the river, blocking the gap and forming a natural dam.

The gray lion reached level ground as the rhincerous reached the far side of the now growing lake and disappeared into the trees. He smiled cruelly, then paced downstream. On the far side of the dam, water leaked from between cracked trunks, but the river itself was slowly receding. It would take time, of course, but he could see that the surface had already dropped considerably, and he could see the rocky bed.

As Njaa and Vita came up behind him, Kuchinja chuckled. "Let's see them survive without water..."

 

By the end of the afternoon, the dam had taken its toll. The entire river was dry, with only scattered puddles to attest to its former state. Various animals stood along its banks, stunned by the calamity. Looking at the sere land around them, a pair of giraffes and a cheetah exchanged a desperate look. The waterholes could never sustain them...especially since they too were drying up...

As Mfalme met with the leaders of the herds, Dhahabu stayed in the cool darkness of the den his father had provided for himself and Mahiri, softly nuzzling her. He could hear the raised voices from outside as Mfalme, the elephant matriarch, and the stallion of the largest zebra herd argued.

"Dhahabu...what are we going to do?" Mahiri's voice was faint and her face gaunt. "If the river does not return, the few herds we have left will leave...that much is clear."

Although he secretly knew she was right, Dhahabu shook his head and gave Mahiri a soft lick between her ears. "That won't happen, my love. Something will change...perhaps the rains will come."

"But Dhahabu, the dry season has barely begun."

Her soft voice stopped him. Head hanging in defeat, the young lion sighed. "I know...I don't understand it. The river should not have dried up so soon...and so completely..."

Groaning quietly, Mahiri rolled over on her side so that her belly could rest more comfortably against the cool rock. "Perhaps, then, it is not natural."

Dhahabu stared at her incredulously--and then his eyes narrowed, flashing in anger. "Of course...Kuchinja! But how did he..." He stopped. "It doesn't matter. I have to go find out what he has done, and undo it." He leaned down and licked her all across her muzzle, painting it with a warm kiss. "Will you be all right, my love?"

For a second Mahiri hesitated, then she nodded. "There are many here to guard me...and this must be done, for the good of the pride."

Nuzzling her, Dhahabu nodded in return and then headed out of the cave. Behind him, Mahiri lowered her head to her paws and panted, trying to ignore the rising heat in her face, and the wetness beneath her tail as she felt her muscles begin to clench...

 

                                                              ***

 

Cresting the last hill before the falls, Tembo gazed into the valley and was stunned. "Dhahabu! You'd better come and see this..."

Dhahabu loped up the hill behind his friend, panting. When he at last arrived beside the elephant, he groaned aloud.

The prince of Kiburi had held a hurried conference with Mfalme telling him of Mahiri's suspicions and his resolution to tear down Kuchinja's scheme. His father had suggested that if Kuchinja had somehow managed to block the river, he would need assistance. So the elephant matriarch had ordered two young bull elephants to join Tembo and Dhahabu as they worked their way upriver, trying to find the source of the problem. But now that they had reached the falls, the problem was painfully obvious.

At the narrows, the river was fully blocked by a crush of downed trees. As the party descended the hill and moved to the shore of the newly-formed lake, it was apparent that a herd of some large animals--rhinocerous, by the scent--had rushed through here, bringing down the trees. And as he checked the ground, Dhahabu could recognize the scents of several of Kuchinja's brothers. He snarled.

"It was the Wahamiji." He lifted his head to the other elephants. "Looks like it was a good thing we brought you along...because your strength will be needed to break through that mess..."

 

                                                             ***

 

Carrying a haunch of leucoryx, Taraji entered Dhahabu and Mahiri's cave. She knew the lioness needed her sleep, but right now she felt rather helpless. With Mfalme and Dhahabu and Malkia each performing critical roles, the cinnamon lioness felt her lack of importance anew. Bringing food to the pregnant lioness was the only way, albeit small, that she could assist at this juncture.

"Mahiri?" Only silence answered her. Worried, Taraji stepped deeper into the darkness of the cave; it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. When they had done so, she could see Mahiri was indeed there, lying flat on her belly. Taraji froze. Something was wrong. Her position looked too unnatural, her claws were unsheathed and digging into the stone, and the expression on her face was one of intense pain. "Mahiri, what is it?"

"I...Taraji, it's..." A spasm went through her body, and she tightened her jaw, her eyes closed.

As her tail lashed, Taraji glanced in that direction and spied a pool of blood beneath Mahiri's hind legs.

The leucoryx leg fell from her mouth.

"Oh my...Mahiri--the cubs!" At once Taraji turned back and roared out the entrance of the cave. "Father, Mother, come quickly!"

 

                                                             ***

 

"One, two, three, PUSH!"

At Dhahabu's insistent yell, Tembo and the other elephants braced their heads and tusks against the barrier of deadwood. Shoving their feet against the rocky bottom of the lake, the three flexed massive muscles and pushed.

For a moment the young lion thought nothing would happen, but then a groaning shudder ripped through the trunk of the baobab, followed by an ominous cracking. "Harder! Push harder!" Dhahabu leapt into the water beside them and pushed his own muscled shoulder against one of the smaller trunks.

Straining, the elephants complied as water began to rush past their feet and through the new chinks and breaks in the wood. At last, Tembo gave one last heave and the baobab snapped down the middle. Heartened, the other elephants pushed on either side, and the tree sagged forward. Instantly the dammed-up water roared through the opening, blasting out in a torrent that threatened to sweep the elephants off their feet. Hurriedly they moved aside, joining Dhahabu in forcing more openings between the deadwood.

With a loud crunch the entire dam shuddered and began to collapse. Scrambling to shore, Dhahabu watched with pride as the lake poured through the wood. In seconds, the river's waters broke the last of the trees and crashed into the riverbed. Soon the remnants of the dam were washed downstream as the river rapidly filled its bed and raced eastward.

Tembo and the elephants stood beside him and breathed hard, huge smiles on their faces as the life-giving water of the river was once more restored to the Kiburi Lands.

 

                                                             ***

 

Weary and water-logged, Dhahabu returned to his den two hours later, climbing the hill from the now-churning river, wishing only for the loving embrace of his mate. He smiled softly to himself. Though they had been not been able to determine how many cubs Mahiri carried, it was clearly at least two by the size of her belly. He shook his head. He still could not believe it. He and Mahiri had shared their love with each other, as their hearts and bodies had desired, but to create new life...it was an unimaginable thought. He could not wait until he could hold his son or daughter...

Finally he stepped into the privacy of the cave. "Mahiri, my love..."

He stopped. The den was empty, and as he moved further in he could tell by the chill in the air that it had been for some time.

Then, as he reached the place where he had left his mate, another scent reached his nostrils...at the same time he saw the dark stain on the rocky floor.

Face pale, he backed away. "No...no, it can't be..."

A soft step came from behind him. "It's not what you think, son."

Turning, Dhahabu found himself facing a concerned Mfalme. "Father, where is she? What's happened to Mahiri?"

Mfalme eyed him for a moment, then grinned. "She is with your mother...in the birthing den."

It took a moment for this to register. "What? She...she is...?"

When he saw the smirk on his father's face, it was as if Dhahabu's heart had grown suddenly larger. "I have to see her..."

Before Mfalme could stop him, the prince was racing from the cave.

 

                                                             ***

 

Deep within the birthing den, where all lionesses of Kiburi were taken to prevent the scent of blood from attracting scavengers to too many widely separated locations, Mahiri lay prone, claws gouging the floor as another wave of pain washed over her. Beside her, Malkia brushed a concerned paw across her forehead and urged her to drink from the water-filled gourd she had dragged into place, while another lioness helped hold Mahiri down if she struggled too much.

The pain flared again, the agony so strong she almost passed out. There had already been so much blood, and she didn't know how much more she could take. Malkia had given her a bitter herb that controlled the flow so that she did not bleed to death, and another for the pain, but it was not strong enough. And she could not eat more, Malkia said, or it would harm the cubs.

"Mahiri, you must push! I know it hurts, but you have to do it when the spasms come, or you will never birth the cubs," the queen insisted.

As the lioness drank gratefully from the gourd and Malkia wiped the sweat from her brow, there was a commotion at the entrance of the den. "Mahiri! I have to see her!"

The gentle, male voice nearly stopped her heart, and the love it sent thrilling through her veins nearly blocked out the pain. "Dhahabu..."

Hurriedly the queen moved to the entrance as the prince burst inside past the lionesses who had been standing watch. "I'm sorry, son, but you have to leave--this is no place for a male!"

Dhahabu's eyes were wild. "But she is my mate, I must see her!"

Malkia's gaze hardened, but at that moment Mahiri finally found her voice. "No, it's all right, Malkia...let him stay, for a few moments only."

Reluctantly the queen stepped aside, letting Dhahabu run to her. Instantly he was at her side, his rough, warm tongue licking her cheek, her forehead, her ears, her neck. His quivering purr revealed his nervousness, and she could see his eyes bulging as he took in all the blood. But Mahiri gently lifted one paw to his cheek, and then as he leaned down, she rubbed her head against his broad chest. "Dhahabu...it will be all right. Your mother has been wonderful...she will make sure nothing happens to me."

He nodded. "I know that, I don't doubt her skill...but are you sure...?"

The prince broke off as she winced in pain again. "Yes...I'm...sure. Now go. Wait...outside. You can come in...when it's over..."

Tears in his eyes, Dhahabu gave her one last nuzzle and then caressed her neck before turning and disappearing into the waning sunlight outside the cave.

Malkia approached once more. "Now, if you can hold on to your thoughts of Dhahabu, perhaps you can make it through this easier."

 

Pacing back and forth before the entrance, Dhahabu clenched his jaw, his heart a tangled knot of emotions as he listened intently to Mahiri's cries from within. Something had to be wrong. Malkia had never told him it had been even half this difficult when he and his siblings had been birthed. And all of that blood...it had almost been enough to make him vomit.

As a particularly piercing yowl split the air, he winced and turned away, stomach tense and eyes misted over. It wasn't right. Guilt filled him--he had put her in this condition. Out of love, yes, but also from sheer pleasure and desire. Was that what this pain was, punishment from the Kings, a warning not to indulge the flesh?

But then, as he considered it further, a thought struck him, so shining in its clarity that it felt pure and right. It had to be the nature of the Circle...everything existed in a balance. Pain with pleasure. Life with death. It was a reminder, both of the tenuousness of existence, and therefore its inherent worth. It was a gift from the Kings, to make clear the importance of creation so that there was no way he or Mahiri could take it for granted...

Latching onto that thought, Dhahabu paced back the way he had come, trying to hold on as another cry pierced the oppressive heat. Then, as he lifted his head to the setting sun, Malkia emerged from the cave. Immediately he was at her side. "What is it? What's happened?"

The queen smiled. "Dhahabu, my dear, you have one son."

"That's all?" he blurted out. A sheepish look crossed his face as he realized how greedy and egotistical that sounded.

Malkia chuckled a little. "No, there are two more cubs from what I can tell. The birth is not over, I just thought you'd want to know now that you have an heir, so you can get some sleep." She sighed. "It will be a long night."

Dhahabu nodded weakly as his mother disappeared back into the den. A son! He had a son...

Stunned, he lay down on the warm stone just outside the entrance. As weariness overcame him and tired muscles protested, he placed his head on his forepaws and finally allowed himself to take a breath and relax. It would be fine. His mother was there, one cub had already been birthed, all would be well...

Slowly he fell asleep.

 

Hours passed, each one seeming more cruel to Mahiri as she struggled to push when the spasms came. Her first two cubs were now both before her, curled up in the curve of her forelegs, their fur warm and fluffy from her careful grooming. But one cub remained, and for some unknown reason he seemed more difficult, as if he were too stubborn to come out. "He's too much like me," she muttered under her breath. "Or he doesn't want to leave his nice warm home."

Looking up, she saw Malkia watching her, eyes filled with love and kindness. What a wonderful lioness she was! These months spent together had been so emotional...her own mother Uzima had died when she was two, and she had always felt an empty hole in her life since then. But now, as Malkia held out a paw and clasped hers, Mahiri's eyes filled with tears. Malkia was a beautiful mother to Dhahabu...and now to her as well.

She gripped the paw tighter as another spasm came, and eventually had to let go for fear of clawing Malkia. Then she felt a change in the pain. Bearing down, she felt movement, and then the other lioness made an exclamation. Turning weakly, Mahiri glanced back...and could at last see the head emerging...

 

Dhahabu was shivering in the cold dawn light, curled up as much as his massive frame would allow, when he felt a nuzzle against his cheek. Blinking sleepily, he looked up into Malkia's face. "Son, it's over."

He sat up at once and looked around at the breaking of day. "It took all night?"

The queen shook her head. "The birth was over by midnight. But you needed your sleep, so I didn't want to wake you. Besides..." She smiled. "I thought you would want to see your cubs in the light of day."

Dhahabu nodded eagerly at this and rose to his paws. "So I have one son...and...?"

"And another...and another." Malkia laughed aloud at the look of euphoria that crossed Dhahabu's face.

"How is Mahiri?"

"She's fine, come and see." Quickly Dhahabu followed his mother inside. In the back of the den, Mahiri lay, looking wan and bedraggled, but radiant. As he stepped into the shadows, he saw she was on her side, and the three cubs were nursing. Slowly he stopped and gazed downward. He could not stop watching them...his cubs...HIS cubs. Their little paws pushed fiercely against her belly, forcing more warm milk to flow from her teats into their questing mouths. Each had his eyes closed as he suckled.

The muscled lion turned to Mahiri at last, a lump in his throat. "You did well, Mahiri...they're adorable."

As he approached her, she smirked slightly. "You didn't do so bad yourself." She nuzzled him.

Dhahabu sat on his haunches and licked her ears, continuing to stare at the cubs. Finally, after what seemed hours but was only about ten minutes, the cubs quit nursing one by one and turned away, rolling on their pudgy bellies. Mahiri laughed, then reached down and took hold of the nearest cub by his scruff and set him between her forepaws, licking his head. Malkia moved the second, and then Dhahabu worked up his nerve and at last lifted the third and largest cub, who was a rich golden tawny color.

When all the cubs were safe in Mahiri's care, they pressed into her chest fur and began to purr softly. Slowly Dhahabu leaned down and began licking them one by one, inhaling their scents simultaneously. "Have you thought of any names yet, my love?"

Mahiri regarded him with her brilliant green eyes. "Two of them, yes...I felt it best to let you name the heir." She nuzzled the first cub she had picked up, who had a cream pelt exactly like her own, and a small tuft of light brown mane. "This is our thirdborn son, Dhahabu...and since I have made Kiburi my home to stay, I have named him...Makani."

Then Mahiri touched the second cub, and as he rolled over into the light, Dhahabu gasped. The cub perfectly resembled Sulubu...dark brown fur, and a black tuft of mane. A thoughtful expression was on his little muzzle. "He I have named Busara." She looked up and smiled at Dhahabu.

Nodding, the prince lay down beside her and placed his forelegs to mirror hers, so that she could set the last cub, who was the one he had moved and was actually the firstborn, before him. He could see now why he had been so difficult to birth. The cub would clearly be as muscled as his father when he grew up, from his size.

For an eternal time Dhahabu looked down at his son...he could not speak. He could barely breathe. The golden tawny fur seemed to glow softly in the dawn light. A tuft of chestnut brown mane sprouted from his head between large, rounded ears. His precious little nose was a pale pink, and his creamy muzzle was buried in Dhahabu's fur. He could feel his cub's whiskers tickle his leg, and a tear ran down his cheek to splash on the stone beside his son. He continued to examine the cub, as if to make sure everything was in working order. Four paws, quite large, with velvety pads. A short tail, a sprinkling of spots across his back and shoulders. A rounded belly and fuzzy chest. Everything was perfect, even, he noted wryly, his nether parts. In spite of the time it had taken to birth him, nothing was wrong.

Dhahabu locked gazes with Mahiri for another long moment, silently thanking her for such an intense love that it could result in this miracle he held in his paws. Then he looked back down as he felt a nuzzle. His throat constricted as he saw his son had curled up against his broad chest, a small smile on his face. Tenderly he placed his massive paw against his firstborn cub and cradled him close, relishing the feel of his fur.

Finally he lowered his head until his mane fell down onto his paws, brushing the cub. He licked the cub's ears and whispered. "And you...you my sweet angel, my cub of sunshine and love..." He nuzzled him again, and could feel the warmth of new life in him...could feel his small but strong heartbeat. "You shall be named...Mohatu."

 

                                                              ***

 

"...and so that's why I haven't been to see you lately, Jahili," Taraji finished. "I've been run ragged, first by those attacks by that sadistic lion Kuchinja, and now by helping to take care of my brother's cubs. And are they ever a pawful!" The lioness chuckled, but then her expression changed as she saw the lion's downcast face. "What's wrong, Jahili?"

Hurriedly he raised his head and tried to smile. "Nothing, Taraji...I was just upset by those attacks. I don't want anything to happen to you or your lands."

This was a half-truth of course, Jahili thought to himself. Much more was wrong in his life. It was now two days since the birth of the cubs, and during that time Kuchinja had constantly hovered around him, asking why Taraji had not come at the appointed time, what she could be doing, if she could suspect the truth, what methods he had used to win her trust. The young lion had carefully answered as completely as possible, suggesting trouble with the herds in the aftermath of the river blockage, or being called upon to bring food to Mahiri. At the same time he had to wonder himself what had occurred. He had prayed Taraji had not somehow learned his identity.

That fear had faded when she had come at last, and given him that familiar warm smile and nuzzle with which they always greeted one another. But when she had informed him of the reason for her delay, his heart had almost stopped all over again. The moment he had avoided for so long had finally happened. The cubs had been born...knowledge his father would desperately desire, and which, if he did not tell him, he would eventually learn from some other source. How was he to proceed?

There could be no other course...he could not let cubs only days old be harmed by his father...

Blinking, he looked up as he realized Taraji had spoken. "What?"

"I said it must be more than that, you look like your heart was trodden on. And that if you really feel so badly for us, we could always use another lion to help patrol the borders. I'm sure Dhahabu would gladly accept you..."

Jahili's eyes widened and he took a step back before he caught himself and regained control. "No...that would never work. I'm sorry, Taraji, but I am a rogue, and anyway your brother would never approve of me." A hurt look crossed her face, but he rushed on. "As to how I'm feeling...well I must confess, it pains me to hear of such beautiful cubs, and such a loving family, when I have no brothers or sisters, and so little love in my life." This was the absolute truth...simply not all of it.

"Oh, Jahili, I'm sorry...I didn't think of your past." Taraji gently embraced him, purring into his neck. Surprised to say the least, the lion enjoyed it nonetheless...at her warm touch a soft smile crossed his face.

"It's all right...I know you were just excited to be an aunt. From now on, I'll try not to get so depressed about it. I want you to be happy, and I can tell talking about the cubs makes you feel better."

Taraji smiled slightly. "Yes it does...they help me feel young again, and make me dream of the future, the cubs I will one day have myself."

Jahili blinked at this, then blushed. "Um..."

Taraji laughed. "Not anytime soon, Jahili..." She looked up and suddenly seemed to realize the position of the sun. "Oh my goodness...I have to get back to Kiburi."
The lion raised an eyebrow. "Why the rush?"

"I'm needed on the hunting party...there's to be a special ceremony in honor of the cubs' birth and we need to bring down special prey for it. A water buffalo, a giraffe, and several kudu."

"Oh..." Jahili filed that information away as something harmless he could tell his father. "Well then I will see you as soon as you can meet again. I have some new hunting techniques to show you." He grinned. "And I always miss you when you're away..."

The cinnamon lioness smiled. "That's so sweet, Jahili...I miss you too." She caressed his cheek with one paw, then turned back toward Kiburi. "You shall be in my thoughts until I return." Moving to a lope, she was soon far out on the savanna, heading home.

Jahili stared after her for long minutes...how he wished he could be in her world, her lands...that he could share in the love of her family, and provide her the happiness she desired. But that was a distant dream, especially as long as he remained living this lie, loving her yet knowing they could never be while Kuchinja's schemes festered and grew...

Sighing, the lion turned back toward the Majonzi, once more sifting through what he had learned, hoping he would not make a slip and reveal too much. No matter what the cost, he must not lose Taraji.

 

                                                             ***

 

Kuchinja narrowed his single eye as Jahili bowed his head in submission before him. He still did not fully trust his son--he made all the right motions, said all the right words, but his father could sense his heart was not in it, not completely. Yet, as long as Jahili produced results, he had no reason to fault him...for now.

The tone when he spoke was brusque. "Report."

Jahili lifted his head. "The wildebeest herd has still not recovered. But your scheme to block the river was foiled...Dhahabu discovered the dam and broke through using elephants."

"Elephants...of course..." Kuchinja let a note of grudging respect enter his voice. "I hadn't counted on that...I give him credit for his ingenuity." He paused meaningfully. "And what of the cubs?"

There was a second of hesitation, and then Jahili shook his head. "They haven't been birthed yet, but Taraji thinks it will be soon."

Suspicion rose anew in Kuchinja, but he hid it well. "Surely you have more to report to me than that."

"I have learned some of Mahiri's history." The young lion raised an eyebrow. "She is the daughter of King Adhimu of the Kusini Pride."

Kuchinja's eye widened. "Kusini...a powerful pride. If Mfalme calls on Adhimu for aid..."

Jahili frowned. "If you intended to exert influence through Mahiri's pride, that is clearly impossible now."

"What I intend is not your concern...leave the planning to me." The gray lion's gaze burned into him. When Jahili shuffled his paws in the dust of the Majonzi and at last looked away, Kuchinja smirked slightly. "Now, is there anything else--however trivial? Anything could be important."

The mahogany lion shrugged. "Just news of another hunt. Water buffalo, giraffe, and kudu. Rather an odd assortment, I thought, but..."

Kuchinja had tuned him out. Breath caught in his throat, his mind raced. He had only known of that combination of prey being hunted in Kiburi once before...when Mwoga and her mate and sister had spied on the birth of Dhahabu and his siblings. It was a special choice, reserved only for the celebration feast in honor of the heir's birth...

Suddenly he realized Jahili had fallen silent and was staring at him, a strange look on his face--nervousness, discomfort, fear. "Is something wrong, Father?"

The gray lion pursed his lips thoughtfully. Either Jahili did not know of the cubs' birth, or the significance of this information...or he was lying. And he would find out which it was. "No, nothing at all...merely contemplating our next move." He turned toward the oasis behind him and chuffed.

Soon his brothers approached. Njaa gave him a questioning look. "Some new development, Kuchinja?"

"Yes, Njaa...Jahili has informed me there will soon be a hunt in Kiburi, but we were not invited." He pouted falsely. "Let us remedy that..."

After a quick explanation, Kuchinja insisted Jahili wait for them in the oasis, it would not do for anyone to see him in their midst. Jahili quickly agreed and padded off, thoughtful and worried. As soon as he was gone, Kuchinja smiled cruelly at Njaa. "Now, to implement my plan...in full."

"What do you mean?" The golden tawny lion took a step back.

"Oh, you and Tauni and Ushindi will still disrupt the hunt, to distract Mfalme and Dhahabu." The gray lion smirked. "But Kufa and Vita and I have a different target in mind...one much more defenseless..."

 

                                                             ***

 

A soft mew echoed in the den, and Mahiri smiled in spite of her concern, opening her eyes to gaze down at Mohatu, who was pawing at her side. "And what do you want, little one?"

Mohatu mewed again.

"Oh really? Well I'll have to see about that..." Mahiri nuzzled the cub and then gently licked his ears, producing a small giggle. She smiled, the warmth in her gaze belying her discomfort. It had been hours since Dhahabu had come to her with the news that the Wahamiji were once again terrorizing the herds, this time the ones needed for the feast. Hours ago, he and Mfalme had gone to chase them off. And the more time passed, the greater her fear.

For a brief instant she regretted her decision to come to Kiburi. But then horror filled her being--how could she have thought such a thing? She loved Dhahabu, and now her cubs, with all her heart!

"Oh, Mohatu...I love you so much, and I thank the Kings for you, and your brothers." The cub's paws slipped out from under him and he fell forward against her chest. Smiling, she lifted her eyes to Busara and Makani, curled up against her belly. "I'm just so afraid...Father said I would have happiness with Dhahabu, but he didn't count on this intense danger." A tear came to her eye. "I don't know how to protect you...but I will. Nothing will stand between us. Kiburi is my home now, too...I know you don't understand, so just feel my love and know I will always be with you."

Mahiri pulled Mohatu close as he mewed again and caressed him.

"How touching."

Inhaling sharply, the lioness brought her head up at the deep, threatening voice. Three dark forms blocked the cave entrance, the largest massive and gray with a burning hatred in his lone eye. "No...it can't be..."

Kuchinja grinned. "Oh but it is." He chuckled and eyed Mohatu's cowering form suggestively. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your son?"

Mahiri snarled. "How dare you!" She rose to her paws and placed herself in front of her cubs. "You will never touch any of my sons!"

The gray lion sneered. "Don't be too sure, Mahiri. And I will dare whatever it takes to reclaim my lands."

She met his gaze coldly. "But they are not yours. After what your father did as king, your family does not deserve to rule--"

A powerful blow cut her off. Mahiri cried out, holding a paw to the rising welt and bloody claw marks on her cheek. Kuchinja glared at her, shuddering with rage. "You know not what you say...my father ruled with an iron paw, but that was the only way to maintain control."

"You know nothing of kingship," the cream lioness snapped. "My father Adhimu has no need for cruelty and violence--he rules by respect and love, not fear and hatred."

"Ah yes...Adhimu. Another fool like Mfalme." Kuchinja smiled slyly as Mahiri bristled. "You belong with him you know...this is not your fight. I can grant you safe passage home, with your cubs, if you agree to abandon Dhahabu now. I am generous with those who do not defy me."

Mahiri stared at him incredulously. How could he think she would... "No! I will never leave Dhahabu. This is indeed my fight now. My father is Mfalme's friend, and I love Dhahabu deeply." She pressed her mouth together in disgust. "But then you wouldn't understand that, since you don't know what love is, do you?"

Kuchinja rolled his eye and began circling the rocky hollow, forcing the lioness to constantly shift in order to keep herself between him and the cubs. "Love...that's all anyone can ever talk about, isn't it? It's highly overrated...and frankly, enough to make my flesh crawl."

The cream lioness's mouth parted in disbelief at the utter lack of emotion in his voice, the flippant delivery of such cruel words. For a moment her rancor faded and she peered into his eye with sincerity. "You really don't understand love..."

Kuchinja stepped back a pace, caught with his guard down. But then the sarcasm returned. "Save your pity, lioness. Power is all I need...and vengeance."

"Then your life will be as empty as your heart. Eventually you will have no one, you will realize you have driven away or ignored everything and everyone that could have spared you pain and suffering." She nodded emphatically. "I only hope I am there to see it."

Stunned, Kuchinja could only step close, dwarfing her, trying to intimidate her as his muscles quivered with tension. "You may not be...for now you have thrown your lot in with Kiburi, and your fate is sealed."

Mahiri lifted her head defiantly. "Yes it is...it is forever tied to Dhahabu. And of that I am proud. But you, too, have set your own course."

"I would have it no other way." He clenched his jaw.

"Then you will die."

Unable to contain his growing anger longer, Kuchinja roared in outrage and slammed his paw into her shoulder, sending her hurtling into the wall of the cave. Stars appeared before her eyes, and she could feel thick blood flowing down her head. Dimly she could hear the lion's voice lash out. "You should pay attention to the here and now--it is not my life in danger!"

Moaning, Mahiri leaned against the wall and struggled shakily to her paws. "Maybe...so. But it is not...my soul...that is in danger..."

"If you mean the Great Kings," Kuchinja snarled with contempt, "I care little for them, they abandoned me long ago. I choose my own fate."

Before she could manage to force another retort out, the lion was at her side, grabbing hold of her scruff with one paw. "And now I choose yours as well..."
Already weak from the birthing, she could not resist as he flung her to the ground once more. Slowly darkness began to sweep over her. But as she looked up, she saw something that galvanized her strength and desperation.

Kuchinja stood over the shivering forms of Busara and Makani...and Mohatu hung from his jaws.

She tried to crawl in his direction, finally making it to her paws. But as she flung herself at him, Kufa leapt at her and knocked her aside. Lying pinned beneath the lion, she began to weep. "Please...don't take my cubs! Please..."

Vita spoke for his brother, whose mouth was full. "He will not be harmed...as long as Dhahabu complies with our demands."

Suddenly Kuchinja cried out in pain. To Mahiri's shock, Mohatu was growling, swiping at him with his tiny claws unsheathed, and he was landing blows on the lion's sensitive muzzle. As she watched, the cub kicked at the air for a few seconds before his claws scraped along the lion's throat. Instinctively Kuchinja cried out--and Mohatu dropped to the cave floor. Scrambling madly, he was soon beside his brothers, pressed back against the wall and snarling.

Even as pride filled her heart, Kuchinja chuckled. "A feisty one...I will enjoy beating the defiance and will to fight out of him."

Mahiri's hope died, and her head sank to the floor. Kuchinja noticed and nodded. "At last you understand. There is no one to help you now."

"I wouldn't count on that!"

At once all the lions turned as all the light was blocked from the cave. Tembo stood in the entrance, eyes blazing and tusks upraised so that they glinted in the light. Mahiri, looking up and sobbing in grateful relief, was pleased to see genuine fear on Kuchinja's face.

"You have two minutes to vacate this cave, and the lands of Kiburi, before I rip open your underbellies and spill your bowels out on the stone. Or would you like to see what your prey looks like after you've eaten it?" Tembo grinned savagely and raised his tusks.

Kuchinja managed a snarl, but one look at the razor-sharp edges of Tembo's tusks was enough to make him back down. Together the lions pressed their bellies against the stone as they slipped past the elephant. Kufa and Vita continued to shiver in fear, but Kuchinja's expression suggested boiling rage held in check only by common sense. As he passed Tembo, the elephant gave him a superior look. "I should just break your back right now...but Mahiri needs healing and I can't take time out for recreation."

With one last growl, Kuchinja made it past Tembo and rose to his full height. "Mark my words, tusked one, I shall return!"

Tembo tossed his head. "I'm sure you will...and I will be waiting for you. Now get out of my sight, you sicken me!"

With extreme reluctance, Kuchinja and his brothers at last fled the vicinity of the dens, heading westward.

As the elephant ducked down and moved his head into the den, Mahiri stumbled to her cubs and began bathing them endlessly, to their annoyance. Now that the threat was gone the cubs had forgotten it, rolling and crawling across the stone. Tembo smiled, watching Mohatu move to his mother's side and head-butt her, clearly demanding milk. Groaning in pain, Mahiri lay down and obliged. As Mohatu greedily drank, the lioness looked up at Tembo in gratitude. "Thank you, Tembo...I am in your debt."

Tembo shook his head, ears flapping. "No, Mahiri...you are the mate of my dear friend, and also the future queen of this pride. I would give my life for you, or your cubs, without a second thought." He bowed his head to the cave floor.

Mahiri smiled as the dignity of the moment was broken by Busara, who happened to be next to Tembo's draped trunk and was now attacking it as best he could, tiny claws scratching at the rough gray flesh. The elephant laughed delightedly.

After watching Busara for some time, he looked back to Mahiri. "I will stay here with you until Dhahabu returns and you can receive healing."
"That's not necessary. The dizziness has already passed, and my wounds are not that serious." Mahiri tried not to show the pain on her face.

"I insist." Tembo eyed her meaningfully. "It may be more serious than you think."

Finally Mahiri consented and then lowered her head to her cubs once more.

It was only ten minutes later that Dhahabu returned. He was confused by Tembo's presence, but his emotions soon changed to anger and worry. "Tembo, what happened?" He rushed to Mahiri's side, quickly nuzzling each cub to make sure it was safe. Mohatu swiped playfully at his muzzle while lying on his back, but Dhahabu was soon embracing Mahiri, licking her wounds with profound gentleness.

"Who do you think happened?" Tembo muttered. "Kuchinja."

The prince seemed to grow in size, his muscles swelling with wrath and an instinctive desire to kill. "He will pay...I will see him suffer for this." He gazed down at Mohatu and finally gained control, his expression softening. "And my son will receive the feast he deserves. I will guard him with my life...Kuchinja will never take him from us."

Scooping the cubs close, Dhahabu continued embracing Mahiri, his mane sliding soothingly across her shoulder and neck.

 

                                                             ***

 

 

Dhahabu was true to his word. With the Wahamiji driven off once more, the prey was brought down, and the feast went off without a hitch. Mahiri, treated by the pride's leopard healer, was given a place of honor, and all the lionesses of the pride showered affection upon the little cubs, who seemed rather confused by all the strange faces and voices. Their eyes, which had begun to open during the confrontation with Kuchinja, were now wide as they stared at all the animals who had come to see them, particularly the elephants. Tembo was the first to point out that Busara, who seemed to have taken a fascination with his trunk, had gray eyes like his father. After this no one could refrain from commenting on the cubs' large eyes. Makani, it was revealed, had blue eyes like his aunt Taraji, and Mohatu had the shining golden brown eyes of his uncle Malachi. All three were full of mischief...but as Dhahabu watched them play with each other, he began to have an inkling of their personalities. The youngest, Makani, was quite shy, hanging back from the others quite often. Busara was much more outgoing, but at the same time Dhahabu caught him staring thoughtfully off into space every now and then... "He will be a dreamer," he murmured to Mahiri, prompting a smile.

Mohatu was the most mischievous of all. Although he could not get around well yet, it was not for want of trying. Full of spirit and energy, the oldest cub was rambunctious, frequently chewing on his father's forepaws and tail, though luckily he did not yet have his sharp cub teeth. Dhahabu kept a close eye on him, never letting him out of his sight, and thus he was able to witness many of his early successes--his first steps, his first pounce, his first growl. The prince was very protective of his sons, but at the same time he knew he had to let them have their freedom. And, he noted wryly, Mohatu was very much like he had been as a cub...

The weeks passed quickly after that, and it seemed like the cubs were growing and changing every hour. By the second week they had learned to speak, and it made his heart swell to hear their innocent voices and laughter. After about a month, Dhahabu was able to turn over the border watch to Mfalme and Taraji, leaving him free to focus on his sons. He always made sure to spend time with Makani and Busara, taking them on outings to suit their interests. For Busara this meant frequent visits to the elephant herd, for he had a fascination about the great gray beasts and pestered Dhahabu with endless questions about them, some of which he had to appeal to Tembo to for the answers. Makani, as quiet as he was, preferred simple talks upon hilltops, watching the clouds roll across the sky. Like his brother, he often surprised his father with his curiosity and his insights into life. In particular Makani sensed early on the connections between all the animals, and their roles.

Mohatu, however, was something of a challenge to Dhahabu. He too was highly intelligent, but he seemed content not to make use of it. Instead he engaged in endless play, and while Dhahabu knew this was crucial to his development, he also worried that Mohatu would not learn what he needed to know to make him a good king.

And so, one day three months after their birth, Dhahabu made the resolution to awaken Mohatu's sense of responsibility. He spent a blissful day in play with all the cubs, letting them attack his muscled chest and belly as he lay on his back in the grass, and he returned the favor by chasing them across the savanna and rubbing their heads as he pulled them close. Then, as the sun was setting, he finally rested on a large rock and watched Mohatu pounce on Busara, pinning him to the ground and laughing while Makani sat nearby, a small smile on his face.

"Ha! Got ya!" Mohatu stuck his tongue out at his brother and struck a superior pose.

"That's what you think..." Catching him off guard, Busara shoved the golden tawny cub away and rolled with him across the ground.

"Who said you could do that?" Mohatu demanded as Busara pinned him in turn. "I'm the heir!"

The dark brown cub scowled. "Oh yeah, Mr. High and Mighty, you're so special!" He snorted. "As if you did anything to earn it..."

Snarling, Mohatu swiped his brother, knocking him away. Busara got to his paws and glared at him, but at that moment Dhahabu stepped in. "Hold on, don't let your temper get the better of you, Busara...like Mohatu did." The prince gave Mohatu a severe look, and was rewarded by a contrite expression.

"But, Dad, he--"

"Nevermind what he did. I'll talk to him, all right?"

Busara nodded reluctantly.

"Now you go play with Makani, I'll be here if you need me." Dhahabu watched his two youngest cubs scamper off, then turned to Mohatu with a sigh. "Mohatu, what do you think you were doing?"

"Dad, he made fun of me! What's the word...he mocked me, said I wasn't good enough to be the next king!" The cub's jaw was set, and his eyes blazed with anger.

Dhahabu shook his head. "That's not what I heard. Busara didn't need to be bitter, that's true, and I'll talk to him about that. But you...Mohatu, you were suggesting you were better than him because you're the heir."

"Well aren't I?" the golden tawny cub demanded.

The prince was stunned by the question, then realized it was asked in complete innocence...Mohatu really didn't know the truth. He sat down slowly. "Son, no lion is better than another. I thought I taught you that."

Mohatu cocked his head, flicking an ear. "Yeah...but you always spend more time with me than you do with Busara or Makani."

Dhahabu sighed. "That's because you're the heir, but that doesn't make you better than them." When the cub looked confused, he gently lifted his chin and gazed into his eyes. "Mohatu, the reason I have to spend more time with you is because it is so important you know what you need to do in order to be a good king...Busara is right, you do have to earn the right to rule. It takes a long time to learn what it takes to do that. I haven't even learned it completely yet."

Mohatu frowned and placed an oversized paw on Dhahabu's own. "But Dad, you're a great lion, you know everything!"

Dhahabu chuckled. "I wish that were so. But it's not. Mohatu, you have to realize everyone is always learning in this life. The Circle is always shifting, and change is inevitable. It affects everyone, every animal."

The cub made a face. "Well who cares about them...lions are better anyway."

Dhahabu blinked. "Who told you that?"

"No one." Mohatu shrugged. "I figured it out myself from watching the herds. They all bow to you and Grandpa, so they can't be worth much compared to us."

Dhahabu groaned and put his face in one paw.

"Dad, what's wrong?"

The prince looked at him pointedly. "Son, you couldn't be more wrong. Do you want to know why the herds really bow to us?"

Mohatu nodded.

"It's because they respect us. They know we have the power and strength to hunt and kill them. But they serve us at their own discretion, if they all joined together they could destroy us without a second thought!" The cub's jaw dropped open. Heartened, Dhahabu continued. "But they don't do that because they see it as an honor to be our prey. When we hunt them, they will always run because they wish to protect their lives and that of their offspring, but they know it is a part of the Circle that some must die so that others may live. And that is why we in turn must respect them, and know we are not superior to them. We may have the hunting skill, but if not for them we would starve. They know we have the intelligence and strength of heart to rule the lands with fairness and make sure all get enough to eat, but we must always keep in mind that the animals we hunt play a critical role." His voice softened. "Each animal must be loved and honored for what it can do. The ant...so small, yet able to carry a tremendous weight. The eagle, soaring on the currents of the air, where we can never reach. The baboon, with his flexible hands that can do so much more than our paws..."

Mohatu's eyes were wide with the dawning of knowledge. Clearly he had never considered the other animals in this light. "What about the hyenas?"

Dhahabu swallowed and took a deep breath. "Well...I know that we always chase them out of our lands, but that is for a very good reason. Hyenas are scavengers, and if we let them roam at will, they would deprive us of our prey. But at the same time, they are necessary. If not for the hyenas, the savannas would become overwhelmed by the bodies of the dead."

The cub curled up his lip. "They eat rotten meat?"

Dhahabu nodded. "That's why they have such a strong smell. But that is no reason to dislike them. As I said...every animal is important."

Mohatu was silent, staring off as he turned all he had heard over in his mind. Above, the sky had darkened to an intense blue, and the stars sparkled in thick patches and isolated points.

"You see, son...that's just a small part of the responsibility of being a king." He caressed Mohatu's head with his massive paw. "A king is no better than any other...and in fact what is asked of us can often be almost too much to handle. But we must always remember, others are counting on us." He stared up at the stars. "The Great Kings count on us too...just as they had the same responsibility when they ruled."

The cub raised an eyebrow. "The Great Kings?"

Dhahabu smiled. "Yes, son...every star you see is a king, they are all the kings who reigned before us."

Mohatu looked confused. "But I thought Grandpa was the first Lion King."

"He is...but there have been other kings, in other prides and other lands in Africa."

"Oh." The cub watched the stars twinkling brightly, and then sighed. "Looks like I have a long way to go before I can be as wise or good as you and Grandpa."

Dhahabu leaned close and nuzzled his son. "No, not at all...you see, you know there is a problem. And you are learning already." He purred in Mohatu's ear.

"But Dad, I just wanna play..." The cub frowned. "I wouldn't make a good king."

The prince sighed. "There is nothing wrong with having fun! I loved to play myself when I was your age."

"You did?" Mohatu's voice was incredulous.

Dhahabu laughed. "Yeah, your boring father used to do nothing but pounce all day."

The golden tawny cub blushed. "I didn't mean it like that, Dad...I just can't see you as small as me."

"Well, it's true. And see how well I turned out? A balance can be struck between having fun and learning. I know you will succeed. And one day you too will have a star." Dhahabu licked his son's ear, his voice filled with love. "I can see the goodness in your heart...your star will shine the brightest of all."

Mohatu, who had been grimacing at the lick, looked away, embarrassed. "Maybe. But that doesn't matter." He jutted his chin out. "I just wanna be a great king here in Kiburi...I wanna make things better for everyone, so they don't have to worry about mean lions like Kuchinja." He sighed. "And I wanna find some way to repay all the animals for respecting us. I don't know how, but I'm gonna make it up to them."

Tears in his eyes, Dhahabu embraced his son. "That is a powerful promise to make...but if anyone can keep it, it's you, Mo." He smiled as he purposely used his personal nickname for the cub.

Mohatu was crying too as he hugged his father's leg. "Thanks Dad..."

Together father and son sat beneath the stars as night enveloped the land, and the stars shone with crystalline light. The valley below lay in shadow, but it was a friendly darkness, warm and welcoming. And in the blackness, small streams shivered in the starlight, winking between the trees. Gazing up, Dhahabu regarded the stars, and noticed with surprise that one of them had grown considerably brighter, and it seemed to be shining in their direction.

A look of peace crossed his face. He did not know if it were Sulubu, but whichever king or lion it was, he could feel approval radiating out...assurance that even amongst the terror of the Wahamiji, the future had been secured, and he was following the right path.

 

                                                             ***

 

Hunkered down in the shade of an acacia, Ukware gazed with narrowed eyes at the forms of Taraji and Jahili seated on their haunches several feet away, and upwind. It was difficult to stay awake and to keep his attention on the pair, but Kuchinja's orders had been firm. It was now four months since the aborted attempt to spirit away the days old cub Mohatu, and ever since then the gray lion had lain low, biding his time to avoid that menace of an elephant, Tembo, instead counting on Jahili to provide the information he would need. But the young lion had not been forthcoming. He continued to meet with Taraji of course, but he had given little that would aid their cause. So Kuchinja had directed the hyena to follow his son and spy on him, to learn his methods and see if they could be improved. And also to see if he was telling the truth. It had never been determined whether Jahili had lied about the cubs' birth, or simply had not been told by Taraji. But now, Ukware would find out...

The hyena's mind wandered as the heat of the day beat down on him through the acacia leaves. For a moment he turned over the thought of leaving Kuchinja's employ...not because he was disloyal, but because he was beginning to think their alliance was doomed to failure. Every one of the lion's schemes had failed, except the death of Sulubu...and that had cost the lives of Mjinga and Mwizi.

Ukware shook his head. That had been the fault of Mfalme, and that blasted Tembo. He could not blame Kuchinja. And besides...Mwoga still served him, she believed he was the key to their revenge. And to more...

Memories replayed, his mother's whispered words of the glorious days when Giza still lived, when she and his father and aunt had followed the dark tyrant and had received the respect and power they deserved. "That's how it was, and should be, and will be again," she had insisted. "Hyenas are more than just scavengers, and Giza knew it. Kuchinja knows it. One day the whole blasted savanna will know it..."

Smirking, Ukware nodded to himself. His mother was right. And he would do whatever was needed to secure that future...that he swore in his father's name.

Hearing Taraji's voice rising on the wind, he cocked his head, and listened...

 

                                                              ***

 

The lioness raised her head, frowning. "I'm sorry, Jahili...but ever since Mohatu was almost taken by Kuchinja, Dhahabu has insisted I stay close to home more often. For my safety, and for the cubs' safety as well. And he does not want me to speak of the cubs anymore. I...probably should not even have told you they were born..."

Jahili's own expression was one of guilt and shame. He did not know how, but something he had told his father had led to that aborted raid on Mahiri's den. If something had happened to her or the cubs, he would never have forgiven himself. "I understand, Taraji. And I agree...perhaps it is best if we not see each other for a while. I would never want to place your pride in danger."

Taraji inhaled and quickly took a step back. "No, no! You misunderstand me...I'm not saying we should stop seeing each other...I don't know if I could live with that!" She paused. "We just have to be more careful, that's all."

The mahogany lion eyed her. She was more right than she knew...great care had to be taken, or all would be lost. "All right...but how do you want to proceed then? I know you can't talk to me about your pride anymore, because your brother wouldn't trust me if he knew of me...so what is left for us?"

The cinnamon lioness closed her eyes in thought. "I don't know...all I know is, we belong together."

Jahili locked gazes with her as she opened her eyes. "I feel the same...is it for the reason I think it is?"

Slowly Taraji stepped close to him and sat on her haunches. "If you mean, do I love you...the answer is yes."

Jahili swallowed hard. "And I love you as well, Taraji." He lowered his muzzle to hers, unable to resist the growing attraction, and kissed her passionately.

Neither lion noticed the soft hiss from the shadows...or the dark gray form that retreated through the grass until it was beyond detection, then turned and vanished into the savanna, racing toward the north...and the Majonzi.

 

                                                             ***

 

Breathing hard, Jahili stepped back. "My love, you should go back now, before things become more...personal...than they already have. Your brother will be missing you as it is." All of this was true, but the lion's thoughts were racing along other pathways. The love had grown and been professed...he didn't care if it was forbidden, there was no way he could hurt her now. But there was one more thing he must do before he could decide on his future course.

Taraji sighed. "You're right...I just don't want to leave you, I fear something terrible will happen if I do."

The lion nuzzled her tenderly. "No...I won't let it. Head home. We will meet again in five days, all right?"

Reluctantly the lioness nodded. "I will miss you, Jahili...the days won't go by fast enough."

Jahili watched as she turned away in sorrow and departed for the Kiburi Lands. Then, when she had passed out of sight, he turned back toward his homelands. It was time to face Kuchinja, to tell him that he could no longer do this. He cared for him, but could not ruin others' lives to gain his love and trust. And now that he had Taraji, he didn't need him anymore...

Yet as he loped onward, he could not help but feel a heaviness in his heart--for the family he had lost, and was about to lose. For he feared this decision would forever sever him from the uncle he loved dearly...Kuchinja would never let him remain on good terms with Njaa...

Tears filled his eyes. "Once again, I am an outcast..."