Chapter 8: A Son's Grief

 

            Kuchinja paced restlessly beneath the trees at the edge of the jungle, sending quick darting glances out into the Majonzi. Warning signals had been tripped in his mind--something had gone wrong, he could feel it. When Ukware returned, he knew instinctively he would bear ill tidings. And not of Jahili's lack of success...no, it would be of Jahili himself.

            The massive lion's fevered brain turned over the same thoughts again and again, hearkening back to the day he had first exiled his son. The contempt he had shown for Giza had enraged him...he had been so close to ripping Jahili's tongue from his throat. But he had not, for the sake of his brothers and for the memory of Tisho. Then, a scant few days later, Njaa had come to him, with news that Jahili had returned and requested an audience. Kuchinja had accosted his brother with such vituperations...in retrospect he could not recall Njaa ever looking so pale in his life. But when he had finally calmed down enough to listen, the prospect of Jahili aiding him in his efforts with Mfalme had seemed too good to be true. He had been unwilling to trust or believe, but his son had been convincing...yet now all he could think was that he had been played.

            So absorbed was he in his paranoid contemplations that the lion did not notice the hyena's approach until he stepped into the cool dampness of the shadows beside him.             "Kuchinja..."

            He flinched and turned quickly. "Ukware! Never come upon me unawares like that again!"

            Ukware was nonplussed, but only shrugged and bowed. "Whatever you say, my king."

            Kuchinja growled softly, then gave a perfunctory nod and came straight to the point. "What have you heard?"

            The hyena's eyes burned. When his response came, it was utterly blunt. "You have been betrayed."

            There was a dead silence. After several long minutes, Kuchinja spoke, his voice ominously hushed. "What did you say?"

            "Jahili...I heard Taraji tell him they could not speak of Dhahabu's cubs ever again...suggesting they had discussed them before. And then she noted she should not even have told him of their birth." Ukware's eyes had narrowed to slits. "He lied to you, sire..."

            Though his exterior remained calm, save for heightened breathing, Kuchinja's mind was aflame with careening thoughts. His suspicions were confirmed--Jahili was as worthless as he had always known him to be! But then he paused in confusion. Why would his son lie to him, when he had promised to acquire information from Taraji? It made no sense...

            When he looked back to Ukware, the hyena's expression was grim. "And there is more...much worse."

            Kuchinja stared in disbelief. "What could be worse?"

            "Jahili is in love with Taraji."

            The words were like a shard of slate piercing his heart. For a moment Kuchinja stopped breathing altogether, eye bulging, spine stiff. Then, as the import of this exploded through him, every stray piece of the puzzle fell together, and with a roar of pure anguish, wrath, and despair, the lion unleashed his claws on the nearest tree, ripping its bark and trunk to shreds, slashing and gouging deeply until at last he severed it. Seething with hate, he watched the tree collapse to the ground, shoulders heaving.

            Turning back, Kuchinja was surprised and pleased to see Ukware had neither fled nor cringed at his tirade. The only sign he was stunned was his slightly widened eyes. "You are sure of this?"

            The hyena nodded. "I heard it from their own mouths. And I saw them become intimate." He curled his lip.

            Digging his claws into the soil, Kuchinja closed his eye and struggled to contain his fury. How...how could Jahili do this. It was utterly wrong, unforgiveable. Yet no wonder he had lied, and had offered so little. He did not know whether this had all been a fabrication from the beginning, or if Jahili had only fallen for Taraji's enticing wiles and sensuous charms after drawing close to her during his tenure as a spy, but it didn't matter. The effect was the same. And his son must now be punished...

            Kuchinja opened his eye and regarded Ukware once more. "Did he know he was followed?"

            The hyena shook his head vigorously. "He would never have been so candid if he had. And he did not see me, or know when I departed."

            The gray lion smirked slightly. "All for the better." Slowly he stalked to the edge of the jungle and peered into the quavering air, the brilliant light. "By now he is sure to be returning...and I shall be waiting most eagerly for him when he arrives..."

 

                                                             ***

 

            When Jahili at last stumbled to a halt at the edge of the jungle, he leaned against a tree for a moment, catching his breath. Then, as his gasps faded and he managed to look up, he was suddenly aware of the deathly silence beneath the dark canopy. No birds sang. No shrews or other rodents scampered through the brush. Even the air was still. All he could sense was a dark brooding presence.

            Fearfully he pushed away from the tree and moved into the center of the path, glancing guardedly around him. "Who's there?"

            A low, rumbling growl echoed through the foliage, and then a faceless wraith of a lion slipped through the impenetrable cloaking shadows to approach him. Only when a lone sunbeam sliced through the leaves to splash across the lion's face did Jahili recognize him...he fell back at the look on Kuchinja's face.

            "Why it's your father, Jahili..." His sinister chuckle sent a chill through the young lion. "Why whatever is the matter? Aren't you going to tell me about your latest foray with Taraji?"

            Something in the other's tone made Jahili want to shriek and scramble away...instinctively he felt it...his father knew. Somehow he knew!

            Trying to cover his panic, the mahogany lion cleared his throat. "Of course, Father. That's what I came here to talk to you about."

            "Is it?" Kuchinja sneered. "Or did you come only to tell me half the story?"

            "What are you talking about?" Jahili snapped.

            The gray lion stepped close until his breath touched the other's face. "I am referring to the information I never received...the lie you told about the birth of Dhahabu's cubs."

            Jahili's stomach clenched. "But...but I..."

            "No excuses, son. For once stand up for what you did!"

            The lion stood up straighter...his father was right. "All right, I did lie. But only to protect those cubs. For Aiheu's sake, Father, they were only a few days old! They were no threat! And you didn't have to take them, or kill them...once Dhahabu stepped down they would be only ordinary cubs."

            Kuchinja contemplated him for a time, as if he were actually considering Jahili's logic as worth accepting. "Perhaps. But it was unwise of you to second-guess my decisions, or to offer protection to any member of Kiburi..."

            "I would do it again in an instant, Father. No cub deserves to die. And I had no choice." His jaw hardened.

            The eyebrow over the gray lion's empty socket lifted, providing a sharper view of the unnerving mass of scar tissue that lay therein. "No...choice?"

            Jahili shuddered, but pressed on. There was no turning back now...whatever his father knew or didn't know, he had to lay the truth out. "Yes. My principles would not let me do otherwise. I know this conquest is what you desire. I tried to assist the only way I knew how. But I cannot continue, Father. Not when so many lives could be destroyed by your vendetta. Not when it would only result in the ruin of the lands you crave. Have you not thought of that? All your attacks...the wildebeest slaughter, the dam...they only serve to erase the future you wish to preserve!" His voice became more impassioned, insistent. "Everything you have done will only hinder your efforts...Mfalme is old, Father. Why not let him die on his own, and make some sort of deal with Dhahabu? Partitioning the lands, perhaps?"

            He took a breath, and then saw the look of ridicule enter his father's eyes before he burst into uncontrolled laughter.

            "You...you actually think...that after what Mfalme did to my father, your grandfather, that I would let him die peacefully? That I would broker a deal with the son of a murderer?" Kuchinja's laughs were soon replaced by a vicious snarl. "You are too soft, Jahili--always thinking with your heart! What an utter fool..."

            "I may be a fool," Jahili replied quietly, struggling to contain the pain within him, "but at least I will be an honest one...one untainted by your hatred and cruelty. One true to myself."

            "That is where you are wrong once again, my erstwhile spy." Kuchinja paced slowly forward to stand in front of him, single eye trained on his face with a coldness that locked Jahili's voice in his throat. "You shall be true to me, and me alone...or you will join the vaunted Kings."

            His forepaw lifted, claws unsheathed, to press against his son's jugular.

            Frozen in place, Jahili swallowed.

            "Nothing to say now, is there?" Kuchinja grinned fiendishly. "Give up this pointless crusade, Jahili. I know what I must do, Mfalme and his family will suffer until they return to me what is rightfully mine...and forget about the damage to the lands. They are resilient, they will recover." He squeezed the lion's throat. "I cannot say the same of you..."

            Jahili's eyes bored into his. "Would you really kill me? Simply because I disagree with you, and won't help you?"
            Kuchinja did not hesitate. "Yes. And also because I know you will stand in my way."

            The mahogany lion took a deep breath. "You might as well do it then. Because I will not change my mind."

            His father stared at him incredulously. "You would die for your worthless principles?" He snorted. "You don't have the nerve to be a martyr."

            Pride filled Jahili's eyes--he had found a well of strength and tapped deeply into it. "You'd be surprised at the things you don't know about me, Father."

            Kuchinja looked into his eyes and saw the intense determination burning there. He let his paw fall away...though he could kill him, he could see Jahili was stronger than he had thought, and his death would not bring the conquest he sought. Then a sly smile formed. Another death, however, might produce results...

            "Perhaps so, Jahili." Kuchinja let a note of nonchalance enter his voice. "But I believe I can still surprise you...if I, for example, took the liberty of obtaining Taraji." He smiled as he saw the look of horror on Jahili's face. "I can kill her easily...unless, of course, you were to continue to aid my efforts against Mfalme."

            The lion shook his head adamantly. "You don't know her--she would fight you. She is beyond your reach."

            "I think not," Kuchinja replied coolly. "When she comes to meet you again, it will be a simple matter for six lions to subdue her." He watched the growing fury in Jahili's eyes, and his own grew to match it. Ukware was right...he did love her...

            "No. I won't let you," Jahili growled.

            "And why not?" Kuchinja stepped closer again, forcing his son to retreat until he was backed up against a tree. "Why should you care what happens to Taraji? She was only the victim of your espionage...I'm sure if she knew she wouldn't have anything more to do with you..."

            Jahili snarled. "You wouldn't!"

            "Oh, but I would." He could feel the bile rising in his throat as his rage burned unquenched...him, and Taraji, together! "But why should it matter? You don't need her..."

            "But I do!" Desperation crept into Jahili's words.

            "Why?" Kuchinja pressed.

            "Because...she's not like any other lioness I've known..."

            Kuchinja snorted. "You haven't known any other lionesses! You can do better than that."

            "She understands me." His voice quivered.

            "If she knew who you were, that understanding would be gone." The gray lion chuckled. "Why should you believe it would survive such a revelation?"

            "It would!"
            "Why?"
            "Because we love each other!"

            There...it was out. Jahili crumpled within himself. All was already lost...what more could the truth hurt?

            Gradually Kuchinja looked up. When he spoke it was one word that broke Jahili's heart. "So?"

            The mahogany lion struggled to explain. "We were meant for each other, I can feel it! When we're together I feel whole, and so does she! We both know what it's like to be alone, but when we are with each other that fades away...we are at last happy." He shook with emotion. "Please, Father...don't take this away from me!"

            "And why shouldn't I?" Kuchinja's voice was cold. "You took away my chance of finally becoming the king I was destined to be."

            Jahili roared in outrage. "Forget about your damn throne for once, Father! Forget about the past, forget about what you have lost--it's irrelevant, it's elephant dung! I am here before you, now. I am your son. Why can't you be happy for me for once in your miserable life?"

            The gray lion seemed to swell in size as his fury grew. His words were bitten off like slices of a gazelle's underbelly. "Happy? For you? For a mewling, weak, emotional, pathetic..." He let loose a string of curses that made Jahili blanch. "Not when you can't be happy for me. Not when you deny your heritage, turn your back on my father, and undermine everything I've worked for years for!"

            Jahili gave in to his instincts and slashed his father across the face. "Grandfather is dead! A tyrant is dead! He is everything I am not, and will never be!"

            Chest heaving, he watched as Kuchinja turned back, blood running in thin rivulets down his face. "Then you are a traitor...and do not belong in this family. But I am not finished with you! You will lead Taraji here, you will help me make her a hostage, or I swear your blood will stain the earth at my paws, and hers as well..."

            In the sudden stillness, father and son faced each other, and for a moment there was no difference between them, their eyes smoldered with the same molten hatred. Then Jahili spat on the ground. "I would rather be fed to the jackals then to lift one pad of my paw to help you again."

            Kuchinja lifted his paw, but before he could strike Jahili, the other's words seemed to sink in, and slowly, a wicked grin appeared. "Fed to the jackals...what a marvelous idea..."

            Jahili blinked. "What are you talking about?"

            "Why, Jahili, I am only referring to the perfect solution to my problems, one which you have just given me." Kuchinja laughed aloud. "If I cannot kill poor, old Mfalme by myself, if he is too well protected...then why not have the jackals do it for me? I am sure they would enjoy immensely the feeling of digging their teeth into his ample flesh..."

            "You're insane!" the young lion cried.

            "No...I only know what I must do to win Kiburi back. Mfalme killed my father...now I will watch the jackals reave his life away..." Kuchinja smirked.

            Jahili was no longer thinking. Only seeing the image of a lion, an innocent lion, Taraji's father, the one who toppled a sadistic king, being torn apart so hideously, he leapt toward his father, fangs bared. "Not if I can help it!"

            But as he fell upon Kuchinja, the other lion, who had been goading him all along, knew what was coming and was prepared. Even as Jahili's jaws closed over Kuchinja's neck, the gray lion swiped a massive paw at the side of his head with stunning force. His teeth let go, and Jahili fell back. Kuchinja struck again, throwing his son into the side of a tree.

            Groaning, the young lion collapsed to the ground, his last view one of his father standing over him in contempt as his vision swam and he fell into unconsciousness...

            For a long moment, Kuchinja stared down unemotionally. At last he kicked Jahili's side. "Fool. You could have been so much more...I'd kill you now, but I have a larger zebra to catch." Leaning down, he grabbed Jahili roughly by the scruff and tossed him up to sprawl across his powerful back. Then he turned and headed out into the Majonzi, along the edge of the jungle. "I will deal with you more fully when I can give you my undivided attention...for now, you will be unable to warn your precious Taraji. Not before it is too late for that murderer Mfalme."

            Snorting in disgust, Kuchinja stalked into the blaze of sunlight, his shoulders shifting beneath Jahili's limp body as he bore him away.

 

                                                            ***

 

            A blissful smile upon his face, Mfalme lay curled in Malkia's embrace, the warmth of his love and passion for her still burning through him, his body cooling only reluctantly. As his tail intertwined with hers and patted against the stone, he pressed his muzzle into the curve of her neck, licking her softly all the way up to her ears. His mate moaned, burying her face in his fragrant mane. "Oh, Mfalme...you still know how to enchant me. You haven't lost your romantic touch." She grinned slyly. "Or your agility..."

            Mfalme let out a deep chuckle, caressing her side with one massive paw as he nuzzled her shoulder and pulled her closer. "You inspire me..." The lion rubbed against her, relishing the feel of her warm fur against his. "You always have, my love, and you always will."

            Eyes shining with devotion, Malkia uttered a soft sound of love and appreciation before lifting her head to lick his muzzle. Then she kissed him...

            The two lions were still licking when Dhahabu cleared his throat. "Now I know where I get it from," he commented dryly.

            Mfalme turned toward his son, grinning somewhat foolishly, when a golden ball of fur burst into the den between Dhahabu's legs and pounced on the king. "I'm goin' on a hunt, I'm goin' on a hunt!" Mohatu beamed, scrambling through his grandfather's thick mahogany mane to perch atop his head.

            "Oh you are, are you?" Mfalme reached up with one paw and snagged his grandson, pulling him down against his sculpted chest and pretending to squeeze him.

            A laugh came from Mahiri, who stood beside Dhahabu in the cave entrance. "Yes he is...we all are." She nodded to Busara and Makani, who were rolling around on the ground at her paws. "They're old enough to learn now."

            Mfalme watched the playing cubs for a long time, then gazed down at Mohatu, wincing slightly as the cub chewed on his paw. When he looked up again there were tears in his eyes, but not ones of pain. "Dhahabu, I am so proud of you, my son. You have achieved so many dreams...and I know you will succeed at all your endeavors."

            Dhahabu paced to his side and lowered his head to nuzzle his father, purring as a lump entered his throat. "Thank you, Father. And I am proud to be your son. I will strive to always make you proud."

            After a long emotional gaze, Mfalme at last sighed and rose to his paws. Mohatu let go of his paw, peering up questioningly. "What's up, Grandpa?"

            "Well, since you and your brothers and your mother will be going on a hunt, I thought I would patrol the borders of our lands to make sure there will be no threats to you." He smiled. "Protecting you is my job, after all."

            "Oh." The cub paused, then embraced his foreleg. "Well I'll miss ya Grandpa. See ya when we all get back!" He scampered over to his brothers and pounced, bearing them to the floor with a miniature roar.

            Chuckling, Mfalme turned to Malkia once more and delivered one last lick upon her muzzle. "I shall return, my love. Keep the den warm for me." He winked, then strode to Dhahabu's side. "Let's go son."

            Dhahabu shook his head. "I'm sorry, Father, but I am tired out...I need sleep." He smirked at his sons. "Probably from chasing those little terrors around."

            Mfalme nodded, a knowing look on his face. "All right, son...perhaps another time then."
            "You can count on it." Yawning hugely, Dhahabu stretched, his forequarters lowering to the floor and his claws extending their full length, before he arose again, working his jaw. He shook out his mane, then padded out of the den. "I'll see you tonight, Father."

            After he had departed, Mahiri stared after him, longing on her face, before she turned and made a soft chuff under her breath, calling her cubs. "Come on, guys. Time for you to learn to do more than butt my stomach all day."

            Malkia laughed as the three cubs followed their mother out of the cave, each casting back a grin before continuing on. Mohatu's was quite roguish. "Your kingdom is before you, Mfalme...in the form of those cubs."

            "I know...that's what I'm afraid of." The king's deep laugh echoed in the cave as he made his way to the entrance. "They will all become proud, strong lions one day. I can feel it. Now...to perform my duty."

            The queen was still for a moment, then she eyed him worriedly. "Be careful, my love. Kuchinja and his brothers still roam the lands."

            Mfalme snorted. "I can handle them..."

            As the king padded out into the burning noonday sun, Malkia laid her head on her paws and watched him go. Staring at the massive body of the lion she loved so deeply, at the golden halo of coruscating light surrounding his maned head as he blocked the sun, she could only hope fervently that he was right.

 

                                                              ***

 

            By the time Kuchinja arrived at the oasis where his brothers waited for further news from Kiburi, Ukware had already given them all an earful on what he had seen and heard. Thus, when the massive gray lion stalked into the shade of the trees with Jahili draped across his back, all of the other lions were shocked.

            Ushindi was the first to stalk to face Kuchinja, eyes blazing. "How dare you bring him back here, after what he did!"

            Kuchinja snarled and raised a paw, striking the cream lion forcefully across the face. Ushindi fell back before his blazing eye, one paw to the growing welt. "I thought you knew better than to never question me..."

            Kufa stepped forward next, voice quiet and unassuming. "He should not have been so rude, brother, but his point is valid. Why is he here, when he could be a threat to us?"

            Njaa, watching the fury in Kuchinja's face, growled. "Yes...I would have thought you'd have killed him by now."

            The gray lion chuckled as he strode to the edge of the waterhole and shrugged his shoulders, sending his son toppling unceremoniously to the dirt. He landed hard, limbs flopping and head just missing a sharp rock. "Believe me, I considered it, and it is certainly an option later on, when we have more...leisure time."

            He turned to see Njaa staring down at Jahili, sorrow and pity on his face. "Ah yes...I should have known your soft heart would be torn by this 'tragic' turn of events." Kuchinja's voice rose and fell in scathing sarcasm.

            Njaa's expression hardened further. "Dispense with the snideness, brother. This is a tragedy...for him to finally find love, but have it taken beyond his reach because of our feud with Mfalme--"

            "If I hear," Kuchinja interrupted, "so much as one more word about love pass from your throat, I shall personally rip it out." He smiled in grim satisfaction as all the color drained from Njaa's face and his voice fell to a whisper, then silence. "Good. Now you at last know I mean business. You are far from necessary, Njaa...I do not need five brothers to accomplish my goals."

            As the golden tawny lion's face crumpled and he sat down heavily, Kuchinja turned to the others. "Jahili may have betrayed us, but he inadvertantly gave me a plan with which we will be rid of Mfalme once and for all."

            Tauni gasped, while Vita chuckled, low and dangerous. Kuchinja observed the skepticism in Njaa's eyes and glanced at Mwoga. "You have told me that the head of the local pack of jackals is your close friend. Was this true, or another one of the many lies you told to get in my good graces, of which you thought I was unaware?"

            The hyena was flabbergasted, completely thrown as to how to respond to this. At last she stuttered, "Y-yes, he and I played together as pups."

            "Good. Then I wish for us to travel to his pack. Once there, you will convince him to do a little...scavenging for us." Kuchinja smirked.

            Mwoga stepped back a pace. Broken out of his trance, Njaa narrowed his eyes. "You mean...?"

            The gray lion threw his head back and laughed. "Oh yes...Mfalme will have his flesh torn from his bones for what he did to our father. And we will be there to witness the reckoning...all except you."

            "Me?" Njaa blinked.

            "Yes...someone must remain behind with Jahili, to make sure he does not run off and warn our target before he can be slashed to shreds." Kuchinja regarded him coolly. "Since you seem to be so fond of him, you shall share his fate for a while...remaining isolated. And of course ensuring his survival, so that I can deal with him more fully later on."

            Ushindi snickered at this. Njaa shot him an angry glare, but the young lion was already looking away, rising to his paws and moving to Kuchinja's side. "Well then, what are we waiting for?"

            "Indeed. Let us go. This is a moment long in coming...finally, I shall behold Mfalme's body ripped asunder." Kuchinja spoke slowly, drawing his final words out. It was clear he fully savored saying them, that he received a thrill of pleasure each time he spoke of Mfalme's fate, changing the words but retaining the horrifying meaning.

            Kufa licked his lips as he and his twin joined Kuchinja and Ushindi. Tauni moved to their side with slight reluctance, looking back at Njaa for reassurance. The golden tawny lion nodded, accepting his role without question. He knew he would not have wished to view such a slaughter in any case...though he desired Mfalme's punishment for what he had done, that did not make him a bloodthirsty killer like Kuchinja. And this was not the sort of death he would want for anyone.

            Eagerly the two hyenas led the way, Mwoga anxious to expunge the memory of her bragging from Kuchinja's mind. Njaa watched as his brothers faded one by one into the shimmering haze of the Majonzi, until at last he remained alone with his nephew. Then he moved to Jahili's side, and lowered his head. He pushed against the lion's shoulder, bracing his paws and working his muzzle underneath the prone form until at last he managed to turn him over. Standing over him, Njaa stared down in sorrow and shook his head.

            "Oh Jahili...why did you allow yourself to become so close...you made a choice that may well be fatal. And now you suffer in heart more than you ever have..." The golden tawny lion looked up again, eyes fixed on the barren wasteland that had swallowed the others. "And I cannot help you...not anymore."

            Tears stood in his eyes.

            "I am sorry..."

 

                                                            ***

 

            Paws striking the ground with measured tread, Mfalme traveled rapidly but without urgency along the western border of Kiburi, his heart filled with utter contentment. It was strange. He knew he should feel threatened, even worried, by Kuchinja's campaign against him and his family, and somewhere within him he was indeed deeply troubled. But right now all of that seemed distant. The only thing occupying his heart was love, and his thoughts returned only to his precious grandsons.

            Chuckling to himself, he slowed to a stop at the apex of a grassy ridge thrust into the sky and paused to survey the land below him. Breathing deeply, the Lion King watched as the sunlight shone on familiar shapes. An acacia, gnarled and twisted as it stretched its branches to the sky. The river, meandering across the savanna, sparkling as if the rushing, surging water had swallowed up the previous evening's stars and displayed them in one gleaming array upon the rocks of its bed. Loons burst from their nests, secreted in the reeds of a narrow bog, their wings silhouettes against the glowing sky. On the ground, zebra and okapi lay sprawled in sleep, only a few individuals rising to graze in the intense heat. Hills rolled beneath the brilliant dome of pastel blue. All was a panoramic vista of such loveliness and beauty it brought tears to his eyes.

            All of this...this pristine land, it was his and Dhahabu's, and now his grandsons' as well. A vision passed through his mind, of the condition in which he had first seen it, following the return to Giza's pride and the death of his father Mkase. Overgrazed. Barren. Dying. So much had changed for the better since then. How dare Kuchinja return and plan to plunge the land into darkness once more.

            The scowl faded as he thought of the cubs again...little Makani, so solemn. Busara, so perceptive for one so young. And Mohatu...as wild and mischievous as his father had been, and also with the same good and loving heart. He closed his eyes and inhaled the fresh scent of acacia blossoms on the wind, smiling softly. Malkia was right. They were the future, and his mind churned as he pondered what they would be like when they were grown.

            He shrugged and continued on to the south. "Whatever they will be, they will make us all proud...I only hope I am still here to see it." Wincing slightly as he felt the bones in his legs creak and the tenseness in his weary muscles, Mfalme slowed his step. His paws had trodden a difficult path on the Circle...but now at last he had found peace. If the Great Kings decreed his allotted years had been achieved, he would go with pride and even a certain relief...knowing his kingdom was in capable paws, and that the Circle would remain complete.

            His rest among the stars, if it came soon, would be well-deserved...

 

                                                            ***

 

            With a moan of pain, Jahili opened his eyes and squinted against the sharp light of afternoon. Blocking the sun with one paw, he slowly rolled over and sat up. To his shock he was back in the oasis within the Majonzi. He scrambled up, ignoring the weakness in his legs, and quickly assessed the situation. It did not take him long to realize he was not alone--Njaa lay beneath a nearby tree, watching him with a hurt, betrayed look. But Kuchinja and the others were nowhere in sight.

            "Uncle Njaa!" The young lion staggered to his side. "What's going on? Where is my father?" A dangerous glint was in his eyes.

            "He and the others have gone to deal with Mfalme, once and for all." The golden tawny lion spoke with difficulty, clearly unhappy with this turn of events.

            "What?!?" Jahili let out a roar of outrage and clawed an innocent tree. "No! I have to stop him..."

            But as he moved toward the edge of the oasis, Njaa abruptly snarled and darted out in front of him, blocking his path. Jahili stepped back, shocked as he saw Njaa's hackles rising and his fangs bared.

            "I'm sorry, Jahili, but I can't let you go..." Njaa took another pace toward him.

            "But..." The mahogany lion swallowed. "But I can't let him die, he's Taraji's father! And anyway no one deserves to be mauled by jackals!"

            His uncle shook his head in sad resignation. "Jahili, you chose your fate. You should have known never to let yourself get close to Taraji. Now you have lost your father for good, and he may well kill you when he returns."

            "Good! I'd rather die than live without her." Njaa inhaled sharply, disbelief and horror in his eyes. "It's true, uncle. She means everything to me."

            "Nephew, no! Whatever you do, you must not tie your destiny to hers!" The golden tawny lion's voice was pleading, genuine fear in his gaze. "I know you feel some attachment for her, but that is not worth throwing away your life! Whether we wish it or not, the Kiburi Lands will fall, and if you are still connected to Taraji when they do--"

            Jahili growled. "That is what you see this as? An 'attachment'? A simple fling? A delusion? Well you are wrong, uncle. I love her, more than I've ever loved anything in my life!"

            Njaa sighed and hung his head, shaking it sadly. "I know it may feel like love, Jahili, but it is only your hormones! You are young, you can't possibly know what love is yet."

            Jahili snorted. "And you do? I don't see lionesses at your beck and call!"

            His uncle froze, eyes wide, as if he had been struck by a paw with claws unsheathed. Clearly this had stung him--but only because it was true.

            As Njaa slowly sat down on his haunches, Jahili had a chance to run his mind back to a phrase his uncle had uttered which had struck him as odd. At last he caught it. "Whether we wish it or not?" he repeated slowly.

            "What?" The other looked up, distracted.

            "You said we." Hope burned in Jahili's eyes. "You don't want Kiburi to fall either, do you? You may desire it as your birthright, but you don't want to claim it this way."

            "No..." Njaa tried to deny it, but Jahili could see in his expression that he was right.

            Hurriedly the young lion moved to his uncle, peering up at him anxiously. "Please, uncle. Let me go, let me prevent this injustice from happening! Two wrongs do not make a right."

            Njaa wavered. "I can't...your father would kill me!"

            "But could you live with yourself if you let such a cruel thing happen?" When his uncle took a step back, Jahili pressed his advantage. "Besides, I am doing this for love as well as justice. You said it's not worth throwing my life away--but it is! And it's not a useless gesture, it is part of what you do when the time comes to choose where you will stand, with right or with wrong!"

            The older lion's jaw shook. "Oh nephew...why did this have to happen? It will tear our family apart!"

            "Only if Kuchinja wishes it."

            Njaa breathed out heavily. "Are you absolutely sure you love her? It could just be the excitement of a lioness, or the afterglow of mating--"

            "I am sure." Jahili paused. "And we have not mated, not even once."

            Njaa stared. "You must have an iron will for one so young."

            "Believe me, it was no easy task. At least twice I was close to losing control. But I always knew it would be a mistake, that it would only ruin the relationship."

            Gradually a look of respect filled Njaa's eyes. He moved closer and placed a massive paw on Jahili's shoulder. "She means that much to you..."

            "Yes, uncle. She knows me, and I her. We know what it's like to be alone, to be cast aside. Everything about her fills me with joy, and she always brightens when I am near. When we're together, it's like the stars are brighter, the flowers smell richer, the water is purer, and every word is a gift from the Kings." Jahili's voice softened more the longer he spoke, becoming hushed by intense emotion. His eyes were trained on the ground at first, but when he realized how silent the world had become, he looked up to see tears in Njaa's eyes.

            "I can see it...you do love her." Njaa sighed. "And a love like this should not be denied..."

            Gently he wrapped his paw around Jahili's neck and pulled him close.

            Crying, Jahili buried his face in Njaa's chestnut mane. "Oh thank you, uncle, thank you! You won't regret this!"

            "I hope not, Jahili...I hope not." He caressed his nephew's mane, then stepped back. "Go on...you don't have much time."

            The mahogany lion nuzzled him once more, knowing it could very well be the last time he saw him, and then turned toward the scorching desert of the Majonzi. He paused at the edge of the oasis and looked back. Seeing the worry and loneliness on Njaa's face, he cocked his head. "We will see each other again, I promise you that."

            "I know."

            "Until then...what will you say to Father?"

            "That I fell asleep, and you snuck away." He shrugged. "A believable lie."

            Jahili nodded. "I hope so..." Reluctantly he turned back again and then took a deep breath. He rubbed the back of his head and winced, then clamped down on his pain and instead latched onto his strength. Stepping into the sunlight, he gazed toward the east, and started off.

            But as he picked up his pace, until he was running at top speed across the burning sands, he knew Njaa's lie was not the only one in question anymore. To save Mfalme, he must warn Taraji. But she would never believe her father was in danger unless he offered proof. To do that...he must reveal his identity.

            And then...he could lose everything. What if Kuchinja were right? If she turned on him...

            The fiery pain in the pads of his paws as he streaked eastward matched precisely the pain in his heart.

 

                                                             ***

 

            It was mid-afternoon by the time Mwoga returned to where Kuchinja and his brothers waited impatiently. They had cut across the desert rather than through the savanna, making for a harrowing journey in the sweltering heat, but it had saved time, which was precious to them. Kuchinja had had no idea of whether he could count on the hyena, and wanted plenty of leeway to make adjustments to the plan if need be.

            As Mwoga approached the hilltop, he could see from her downcast, furious expression that such a change would indeed be necessary.

            "Well?" he roared. "What did your jackal friend have to say to my proposal? Surely he would not turn down a meal that would last him and his pack for several weeks and a chance to rid himself of the scourge of Mfalme!"

            For answer, the hyena lifted her head. Tauni gasped and Ukware growled. Across her cheek, throat, and chest, streaks of blood gave mute testimony to the ferocious reply the jackal had given her.

            "Apparently he's not my friend anymore," she snarled. "And he says he's not gonna risk losing his packmates to a menace like Mfalme, not even for you..."

            "Is that so?" Kuchinja tapped a claw against the ground suggestively. "Well then perhaps he will lose his packmates to a different menace..."

 

                                                            ***

 

            The sun hung poised just above a low bluff in its descent toward the horizon when Mfalme reached the southern border of Kiburi and turned back toward the heart of his lands. His body was even more tired and sore than it had been before, if that were possible. Silently he berated himself for coming so far, but he had wanted to assure that all was well...and to prove to himself that he still had the strength. Now, limping on his right foreleg, his mane dusty and his pawpads rubbed raw by the constant walking, he had to admit the painful truth--he did not have the strength. Or at least the stamina. Only the thought of seeing his beloved Malkia and his precious grandcubs kept him from lying down in the shade of a tree and falling into a much-needed sleep.

            He gazed down at the earth as he continued on, noting how the reddening light of the sun stained it the color of blood. His fur and mane, too, were turning crimson beneath the ruddy glow from the west. He repressed a shudder at this ill omen...and at how it reminded him of the wildebeest massacre in the river.

            Reluctantly his thoughts turned to Kuchinja. As he passed along the base of a rocky outcrop, the mahogany lion ran through the same worn pathways in his mind, discarding plans and considering options before coming to the same conclusion. Somehow, he and Dhahabu must track down Kuchinja, learn where he was hiding, and then with the help of the lionesses, separate the Wahamiji so that each lion could be dealt with easily. But as of yet, no scents were left behind. On their first foray into Kiburi, the blood of the wildebeests--and of his head huntress, Mfalme thought darkly--had masked their scents, and that scent in turn had been washed away by the river when the six had crossed it farther upstream. The rhinocerous had covered their tracks at the dam, and apparently the other times they attacked, including the aborted kidnapping of Mohatu, the lions had decorated themselves with foul-smelling herbs no one could stand to track.

            He growled audibly. That last attempt...it still made his blood boil. To threaten an innocent cub...thank goodness Tembo had been there. Once again he was grateful for the elephant, and knew the wisdom of his decision to train him to be Dhahabu's majordomo.

If only they could learn where the Wahamiji dwelt! It was a puzzle with no answer...no other pride would shelter them, and there were few other places close enough to Kiburi where they could survive...

            Mfalme moved on as the shadows lengthened, pondering his course, the soft breeze blowing into his face...not noticing the canine silhouettes against the rock behind him...

 

                                                            ***

 

            Taraji lifted her face to the cool evening breeze and closed her eyes. The heat of the day was rapidly fading, and yet her body still burned with it. Panting, she sat on a hilltop along the western border of Kiburi and tried not to think of Jahili. But she could not avoid it. Ever since she returned she could not keep her mind away from him. His gentle eyes, his handsome face...his muscular body...

            She blinked. There it was again--her thoughts shifting to desire and fervent longing. Why could she not banish these sensual fantasies? The more she loved Jahili, the faster they filled her mind. In fact she could almost swear she caught his scent at that very moment, drifting on the breeze behind her...

            Suddenly the cinnamon lioness stiffened. That was no imaginary scent, it was real! Turning, she saw the young lion climbing the hill, stumbling wearily. "Jahili!"

            The sound of her voice seemed to invigorate him. Putting on a burst of speed, the mahogany lion reached the crest and rushed to her side, his tongue at once caressing her cheek, her ear, her neck. A deep, thrumming purr filled his throat, echoed by her own. "Oh Taraji...I missed you so much..."

            Taraji buried her muzzle in his mane. "Oh Jahili...I couldn't stand another minute without you." She breathed deeply of his wild, woody scent, and for her efforts received a noseful of sand that had been caught in the brown hair of his mane. She sneezed violently and pulled back. "You went through the desert to reach me? Why? What was so urgent?" Then she raised an eyebrow. "And why didn't you wait the five days?"

            Jahili at once looked uncomfortable, but he quickly smiled disarmingly. "I just couldn't stop thinking of you...I had to see you."

            The lioness gave him an odd look, but for some reason she could not focus her thoughts on his words. All she could sense was the growing heat inside her, all she noticed was the depth of love and passion in his eyes... "That's...the only reason...?" she managed to murmur.

            He swallowed, looking as if he wished to say something more, but then pain appeared in his eyes and he stopped himself. "There is something I need to tell you...but it can wait. I'd much rather get closer to you." Gently he pressed against her side, rubbing his muzzle against her neck, before licking her cheek with agonizing slowness.

            The heat intensified. Gasping, she suddenly realized what it was--it was her season! It had come upon her unawares...and now, eyes trained on the handsome face of the lion she loved, she could not resist its call even if she wished it. And she did not...

            Jahili's eyes widened, and she could tell he could detect the change in her scent too. He licked his lips uncertainly, and then grinned. "Taraji...?"

            "Hmmmmmm?" Her langorous response was low and throaty.

            "With the way things are now, I don't know if we'll ever have the chance again. Do you want me to...?" He blushed and hung his head, turning away. "I know, it was a stupid question, and very insensi--"

            He was cut off by Taraji, lifting his head and pressing her muzzle to his in a passionate kiss, tongue slipping across his warm fur and between his lips.

            Shuddering, Jahili let his tail slide across her back and down her side to her underbelly, closing his eyes. Taraji watched him, smiling, before she kissed him again, with more fervor. At last, the two of them would never be alone, feeling apart from everyone around them, divided from each other by circumstance...they would be joined, they would be one...

            Their mixing scents filled the air as the cinnamon lioness lowered her head to the mahogany lion's chest and bathed his rippling muscles with warm wetness. Jahili squeezed his eyes shut in ecstasy...

 

                                                             ***

 

            Kuchinja pressed his massive body down against the jackal who led the pack, one paw shoving his head to the ground. The jackal growled, then whined as the lion pressed harder, grinding his muzzle in the dirt. Blood trickled from the jackal's mouth, as well as from numerous wounds on his neck and sides.

            "Now then," the gray lion said almost conversationally, "as I was saying...you will order your pack to attack Mfalme. Isn't that right, dog?"

            The jackal snarled and struggled to rise, but Kuchinja slammed his head down hard and he finally nodded weakly. "All right, Kuchinja. You win." His voice was gravelly and laced with contempt.

            Kuchinja chuckled darkly. "I always win..." He looked up to the rest of the pack, under guard by his brothers after the short fight to capture the pack leader. It had been easy for Mwoga to lead them to the jackals and catch them by surprise--as it was not yet sunset most of them had been asleep. From there they had traversed the lands until they had crossed Mfalme's trail and followed the direction that held the freshest scent. Now they stood on a hill overlooking the valley where Mfalme walked lost in thought.

            His last thoughts.

            The lion nodded to the jackals, but they refused to move. A curt growl from him, and Kufa snapped at the pack. The other members of the Wahamiji soon joined him, snarling and swiping at the yellowish-gray beasts. The highest-ranking member after the packleader looked to the pinned jackal. For a moment he hesitated, but then Kuchinja grabbed hold of his head, jerked it up, and dug his unsheathed claws into his exposed throat. The jackal yipped, giving the order to attack.

            Finally the pack of jackals, fifteen strong, turned and raced down the hill, the Wahamiji on their tails, still slashing and driving them on. Kuchinja smirked and shoved the packleader back down. "You, my friend, will stay here...as a precaution. We wouldn't want anything to happen to you, now would we?"

            The look of fear in the jackal's eyes made Kuchinja laugh outright. Then he returned his attention to the valley and the imminent slaughter...

 

                                                             ***

 

            It came out of nowhere. One moment Mfalme was pacing slowly across the dusty ground, the next he was startled by a sharp howl. Looking up wildly, he saw the dark shapes of grayish canines running toward him, muzzles curled back in snarls of hatred. The bloodlust in their eyes was instantly apparent.

            His throat locked up, and then the lion turned and spun on his hind paws, racing along the base of the bluff.

            Heart pounding in fear, the Lion King could feel the pain and weariness in his legs and paws, and he knew he could not keep up this pace. It was a cubhood nightmare come true...living on the borders of Giza's pride, he had had a deathly phobia of jackals, of the small but deadly animals trapping him, their teeth and claws slashing his flesh. Looking behind him, he stared at the jackals closing in and stumbled on, already feeling the pain, his blood burning. Then he tripped over a rock he hadn't seen and fell, rolling in the dust. Quickly he scrambled to his paws, slicing one open on the same rock, and tried to regain the ground he had lost. But the blood made his tread uncertain and his path slippery. He tried to veer right, but the bluff turned at an angle just ahead, preventing it. And when he turned to the left, he found some of the jackals had separated from the rest, blocking his path.

            Slowly he slid to a halt. In moments he was surrounded, backing toward the bluff face, trying to use it as protection. One jackal leapt in, unable to restrain himself, and instinctively Mfalme swung a massive paw, claws connecting with the animal's head and sending him crashing into the bluff behind him. But even as it fell in a bloody heap, another one rose to take its place.

            Mfalme looked up at the darkening sky, unable to believe this was the way the Kings willed him to leave this earth. As the jackals licked their lips in anticipation, he closed his eyes...

 

                                                              ***

 

            Closing his eyes, Jahili inhaled Taraji's scent, a shiver running through his body. When he had come upon Taraji, he had known he had to tell her the truth, but looking at her face, he did not have the courage to break her heart like that. And though it was selfish, he wanted to share himself with her at least once before she turned on him, for that was what he feared she would do. And the love in her eyes made it easy to rationalize not warning her yet of Mfalme. There was plenty of time...he had taken a shortcut to reach here. Mfalme was strong and would not succumb easily. And the distance to where he was, assuming Kuchinja had been able to ambush him, was not likely to be great.

            Then all thought vanished as he was overwhelmed by the power of Taraji's scent. This was a moment he had dreamed of for so long, had ached to experience. He was almost giddy with excitement, at last it would come to pass! Lovingly he caressed her cheek with his tongue and kissed her yet again, his tail lashing in slow beats, the tuft slipping across the cinnamon lioness's inner thighs. Jahili slid along her side, tickling her muzzle with his tail, and at last arrived at her hind end.

            Taraji looked back over her shoulder, a sly, inviting look on her face. His purr deepened, and he raised an eyebrow. Then Jahili stepped close and placed his large forepaws on her shoulders, pressing close as he took hold of her scruff in the strong grip of his teeth...

 

                                                              ***

 

            The sharp teeth of the jackal gripped Mfalme's shoulder, tearing deeply into his flesh. Roaring in pain, the king shook from side to side, trying to throw the animal off of his back where it clung tenaciously. Another jackal was gnawing on his hind legs, while a third leaped in at his chest. The lion bashed its head to the ground with one paw, crushing its skull. Then he swung back into the outcrop, breaking the spine of the jackal on his back. As it limply fell away, Mfalme shuddered, feeling the blood well up in the wounds on his neck and shoulder.

            Before he could even catch his breath, the rest of the jackals rushed him at once, swarming over his massive body. Claws scratched and slashed, teeth ripped and tore. One jackal managed to hang along his ribs and lunge at his underbelly, its jaws flashing and mauling. Mfalme wept, struggling, his muscles heaving as he fought their weight, but the ferocity of the jackals was overwhelming. He staggered across the ground, twisting, a jackal dangling from his head, claws raking across his eyes.

            Feverishly he wondered why this was happening...jackals never attacked something alive, they preferred carrion! Something must be driving them somehow...

            He screamed as the jackal on his side chewed into his belly, penetrating to his innards. Snarling, he heaved, trying once again to throw the jackals off. One was dislodged from his back, falling to the ground. Instantly his head darted down, tearing out the jackal's throat. Pain flared anew as the cruel wound in his belly was ripped further open. Mfalme roared again, digging his claws into the soil...

 

                                                             ***

 

            Claws plunged into the soil, Jahili dug deep furrows as his passion increased. Everything was as he'd envisioned it to be, and more. A tingling warmth spread through him, echoing the love in his heart. His tail lashed faster as he thrusted against Taraji, and he could feel her arch her back beneath him. Moaning in longing, the mahogany lion reveled in the waves of pleasure coursing through him, his purr rumbling in his throat. The lioness turned her head, arching her neck back to pass her tongue across his cheek. In gratitude he licked her neck vigorously, strengthening the bond between them as his movements became more emphatic. Trembling, Taraji's hips quivered.

            At last, Jahili pressed his underbelly against her back and bore her downwards...

 

                                                              ***

 

            Borne downwards by the weight of the jackals, Mfalme felt himself weakening. His muscles protested, tense and stiff from the long journey of the day. And every minute that passed he felt his age more acutely. Two more jackals lay dead around him, but now he could barely manage to close his jaws over the throats of the ones remaining. Lacerations covered his body; the thick blood welling up from one eye blinded him; the tendons in his hind legs had been severed. Gasping and moaning, he at last fell to his knees, his weakened foreleg giving way.

            As he crashed to the ground and the jackals swarmed over him, Mfalme thought desperately of his beloved Malkia and how much he loved her. Then he was lost from view...

 

 

            The savanna echoed simultaneously with two shattering roars--one of triumph and pride, the other of agony and despair.

            A new life had been created...and another was slowly draining away into the earth...

            The Circle of Life had turned once more.

 

                                                            ***

 

            After watching the melee of blood, fur, and meat with a macabre enjoyment, Kuchinja at last roared. As one the jackals froze in place in mortal terror, presenting a morbid tableau...gobbets of flesh dangling from mouths, bloodied muzzles and paws, intestines strewn on the ground--even an eye caught in one jackal's teeth.

            "That's enough of that...you've received enough food to last you for a while, and I want there to be some of him left for the vultures to pick clean." The gray lion smirked, then lifted his paw from the packleader's back and stepped away.

            The jackal staggered to his paws and shot him a venomous glare. Then he looked down into the valley. "You heard him...let's get out of here." He glanced back at Kuchinja. "I don't want to stay in his filthy company any longer than he wants to stay in mine."

            Reluctantly the jackals dispersed, sneering at the other members of the Wahamiji who stood watch--Tauni looking violently ill, but the rest with bestial gazes of satisfaction and tongues licking lips in utter pleasure. The packleader gave one last look to Kuchinja. "I will never forget this."

            "Nor will I..." The ominous tone in the lion's voice silenced whatever else the jackal would have said. Instead he turned and descended the hill, joining his packmates with a howl. In moments they were passing into the night, the last vestiges of the sunlight fading from their hides as the sun sank from view.

            Kuchinja watched his brothers approaching for a moment, then looked beyond them to the brooding hulk of Mfalme sprawled on the ensanguined earth in the shadow of the bluff. Lifting one massive paw, he placed it against the dried blood of Giza in his chest fur.

            "At last, Father...you are avenged..."

 

                                                             ***

 

            Beneath the bone-white orb of the moon, Mahiri lifted her head from the still steaming carcass of a springbok and let the blood drip from her muzzle as she stared out across the rolling hills washed with the silvery light of evening. Beside her Mohatu, Busara, and Makani gorged themselves on a young adolescent springbok they had brought down together, tearing and chewing the meat with great gusto. She smiled slightly at them in approval, but worry still creased her brow.

            The hunt had lasted all afternoon. At first they had found no prey at all, then it had only been prey far too large for a solitary lioness, let alone three cubs. Finally, as the sun was setting, Mahiri had spotted a herd of springbok grazing in a bend in the river, and with relief she had led the cubs into a small half-circle, as the lionesses did when they hunted. The lioness had easily brought down a young mother, allowing her to quickly focus on her sons and guide them with sharp commands. At first the three had trouble, because Mohatu wanted all the glory and tried to bring the animal down all by himself, while Makani had been too afraid to attack. But it was Busara, without any urging from her, who had brought them in line, physically pulling Mohatu back by his tail while whispering words of encouragement to Makani. At last he had coached them to come at the prey from both sides, avoiding the kicking hind legs. With surprising ease, the three had leaped onto the springbok's sides and back, biting as deeply as their cub teeth would allow. Mohatu had succeeded in slashing the springbok's throat, and it had collapsed, allowing them to watch it bleed to death.

            But now, looking out at the deserted savanna, Mahiri's heart was laden with a gnawing doubt and a profound fear. Mfalme should have returned by now, he was only patrolling the borders, it would not take all day to do something so simple. True, he could have taken a different route home...but since he was patrolling to protect them, she had been sure he would check in with her first...

            At that moment Mohatu head-butted her foreleg. "Hey Mom!" His words were muffled and indistinct, since his mouth was full.

            "Swallow your food, Mo," she muttered absently.

            His throat worked, and then he spoke again. "That was great, Mom! I never tasted anything so good in my whole life!"

            In spite of her discomfort Mahiri could not help but laugh. "And you've tasted so many things already?"

            The golden tawny cub scowled. "Hey, you're messin' up my fun!"

            The lioness chuckled and then lowered her head to nuzzle him. "Oh, my brave and fierce Mohatu, what would I ever do without you?"

            Mohatu giggled. But then, as she looked up to stare once more out at the darkened plains, he cocked his head. "What's the matter, Mom?"

            Mahiri sighed. "I'm just wondering where your grandfather is. He should have come back by now."

            "Aw, he's just out there guardin' the borders, chasin' out hyenas, poundin' that Kuchinja flat!" Overwhelmed with excitement, Mohatu leaped and pranced and slashed at the air with his claws, presumably to demonstrate Mfalme's exploits.

            The cream lioness flicked an ear. "I hope so..."

            Mahiri's fears had not subsided by the time their meal was finished. And so she made a quick decision. Calling her cubs to her, she praised all of them for their skill, but especially Busara for his understanding of cooperation. Then, head held high, the lioness turned and headed back toward the dens. She would leave the cubs with Malkia and find Dhahabu...so they could search for his father...

 

                                                             ***

 

            Dhahabu glanced sidelong at Mahiri as the two mates paced rapidly across the Kiburi Lands, his jaw clenched to prevent it from trembling. The lioness returned a gaze equally frightened. They had been traveling all night, seeking out the gallant Lion King, but it was as if the soil had swallowed him up. All that remained to mark his passing was the faint traces of his tracks and scent, stretching endlessly southward. The lion shuddered. The farther they traveled and the more time passed, the more his heart pounded. Eyes wide, he scanned the horizon futilely for any sign. In the back of his mind the insidious thought lurked, that something had happened to him, that Kuchinja had struck again. But he could not accept that. No, it was likely Mfalme had simply traveled too far, grown tired on the journey back, and had lain down to rest and recuperate until morning. Yet still the fear lingered...

            Silently Dhahabu cursed himself for not going with his father on the patrol. If only he had not been so tired! If only he had decided to spend more time with the king. If only, if only... He shook his head. He could not second-guess himself, especially when he still did not possess all the facts. The search must reach its conclusion before any damage could be assessed, and if they were lucky all his distress would be for naught.

            On the journey went, and still with no further sign of Mfalme. Dhahabu roared periodically, and Mahiri as well, but the only answer was the whine of the wind through the rocks and the barking calls of a few stray zebra. The lions were now approaching the roughest country of the Kiburi Lands, an area of rifts, canyons, and towering bluffs and pinnacles spreading into the mountains to the east. Beyond the misty, snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro, a thin crescent of light flashed and shone as the sun began to rise.

            Wearily Dhahabu scanned the land once more. And then, as they passed near the largest of the granite outcrops, his gaze picked out a humped silhouette in the rock's shadow...a massive shape with a thick brown mane blowing in the breeze, two reddish stripes clearly visible in the dawn light.

            The golden lion's muscles locked. Behind him he heard Mahiri gasp. Desperately his mind sought another interpretation of the scene...his father was sleeping, that was all. But then, as his eyes shifted across the Lion King's fallen body, and the light grew stronger, horrifying details became clear. Flies, swarming around Mfalme. The hunched forms of vultures. And the ground all around him...stained by a dark, spreading patch of reddish-brown.

            "No....no...."

            Breathing shallowly, Dhahabu at last managed to stumble forward. But the closer he became, the more his heart twisted inside him. Quickly he snarled, and the vultures scattered...but what was then revealed was worse than he had imagined. He could hear his mate retching behind him, but he could not tear his eyes away. For a few moments it was as if he were someone else, with no emotional attachment to Mfalme, so stunned was he. The whites of his gray eyes shone in the light as Dhahabu took it all in...his father's sides, chest, and shoulders, a mass of shredded flesh. His gentle, loving face marred by deep scratches and a torn flap of skin. One eye was missing, a gaping hole. And his underbelly...the lion was lying face down, but from what Dhahabu could see, the noble king had been eviscerated. One bloody paw was bent underneath him, pressed to his flesh as if in his last moments Mfalme had tried to force his innards back inside.

            Finally, all the shock and horror retreated enough to let the full image blast through his mind...all narrowed to a single point of focus, the expression of pain on Mfalme's face and the streaks of tears in his bloody fur.

            Dhahabu howled--a single, guttural cry of despair, loss, and grief that clawed its way from his throat like a furious serval. With one last stagger the lion fell to the ground before his father and roared in pain, the tears running down his cheeks. It was Sulubu, all over again, only worse...for then he had had his father to comfort him, to remain behind. But who was left now to offer solace? Taraji, once more on one of her foolish hunts...? Mahiri, who didn't even know Mfalme well...? Malkia...?

            The sobs came harder. His mother, already suffering so much...how could he break her heart with this news? He had never thought this would happen. Someday, long distant, Mfalme would join the Kings, but not now...not like this...

            Shaking and twitching, Dhahabu buried his face in his paws.

            Then, as he lay collapsed on the blasted waste, he felt a soft, shaky touch on his mane by a leonine paw. Sure it was Mahiri, he slowly lifted his head--and stared.

            Quivering in pain, Mfalme's paw rested on his head...and his single eye was trained on him, glazed over but clearly aware!

            "S-son..." The king's voice was a dry whisper.

            At once Dhahabu twisted to stare vacantly at Mahiri, whose eyes were red and bleary. "He-he's alive! Run, Mahiri! Get the healer, as quickly as you can! And the rest of the pride as well!"

            The lioness stood stock still for a moment, then turned and sped away to the north at a dead run, muscles surging.

            As Dhahabu looked back to his father, Mfalme was coughing up blood, his body spasming. He crawled forward, the tears flowing anew, and cradled his father's head in his paws. Brushing back his mane, he kissed the dying lion's face. "Oh Father...please hold on..."

            "Son...I am...sorry..." Mfalme struggled to speak, a strange high whine coming from his chest. "I cannot...go on. The healer...is no...cheetah, she will not...get here...in time..."

            Though his own fears knew this to be true, Dhahabu would not let himself acknowledge it. "No! Father, you lasted this long, you can continue to--"

            "No..." The king shook his head a fraction of an inch. "That was only...until I...passed out...and could not...hold back the...vultures. And because...I am holding my own...life...in my...paws." He winced, making his point as his paw pushed his bowels back into place. "I held...on...because I...I knew...you would come."

            "Of course I would!" Dhahabu caressed his face. "You know that, I love you!"

            Mfalme managed a small smile. "Yes...and now...you are the...king, my son..."

            The golden lion's jaw shook, and he fell back. "No...no, you must live! I--I'm not ready!"

            Somehow finding a well of strength, Mfalme's free paw clutched Dhahabu's shoulder in a crushing grip. "But you must be! I am finished...Aiheu has called me home..."

            Dhahabu's eyes flashed with anger. "Why? Why now? And why like this?" His voice broke. "I need you, Dad, I need you..."

            The fallen king moved his paw to Dhahabu's cheek. "Aiheu's ways are mysterious...I cannot...question this. But you...you don't need me, son...I have already given you...all you need to know...all I know...to give..."

            Dhahabu nuzzled him. "But I can't let you go! I love you!"

            "And I love you..." Mfalme managed a weak purr. "Yet you must, son...you must let me go..."

            "But a healer could still save you!"

            "Only a mandrill healer could do that, if it is possible...at all." The king let his head fall back. "And though you do not...know this, there was an offer by...the nearest clan...to give us a shaman. But I...declined. We were at peace...I did not think it necessary." The corner of his mouth twitched. "Apparently I made...a mistake. Rectify it."

            "What?" Dhahabu was stunned. His father was dying and he was talking about foolish baboons? Was he delirious?

            "You are the Lion King, Dhahabu...you must rule...wisely. You must undo...what I have done. Save our lands. Bring a shaman...fight Kuchinja, do not...let him destroy...what Aiheu has given us..." Mfalme's breath hissed. "Promise me..."

            "But I--"

            "Promise me!" His paw gripped tighter, and his voice lashed out.

            "All right. I promise..." Dhahabu felt the grip slacken, and he quickly moved to take the limp paw in his own.

            "Dhahabu..." The king's voice was a whisper once more.

            "Yes, Father?" The prince could barely speak, choked up by his sorrow.

            "What I told you...you must believe. I am proud of you...you will be the king I have always...envisioned you...to be. Do not fail me, my son." His eye began to cloud further.

            "I won't, I swear it!" Dhahabu's voice was firm with conviction. "I swear by Aiheu, by the Kings, by your blood, I will be what you wish me to be!"

            "Then, my son...there is one last thing...I require of you."

            "Anything!"

            "Son...oh son...I cannot see you anymore, my vision has failed...I cannot see my own throat..." Mfalme's voice shook.

            Suddenly wary, Dhahabu hastened to allay his fears. He caressed his father's forehead, brushing the pads of his paw across the once-beautiful mane. "Oh Father, I am still here, can't you tell? I touch your mane..."

            "I feel it..." Mfalme's voice seemed to gain strength from these words, and Dhahabu felt a strange sense of power and peace in his heart, as if something of great import had just been bequeathed to him, had passed through his soul.

            "But I cannot...do it myself," Mfalme continued. "You must...do it."

            "What must I do?"

            Slowly the king shifted his head and revealed his throat, which had somehow escaped major injury. "Kill me."
            "What?!?" Dhahabu felt as if he'd been rammed by an elephant tusk. "But I--"

            "Please...I am dying. A slow death...my life bleeds into the earth...from whence...it came." The mahogany lion shuddered. "I care not...to suffer more."

            Dhahabu could not believe his ears...and yet he knew, in his heart, that it was true. He could not deny it. But the anguish... "Is there no other way...?" he asked desperately.

            "I am...sorry. Please..." Mfalme swallowed. "End it quickly..."

            The sun was now fully over the bluff and shone with a preternatural brilliance on the sorrowful scene. The extent of Mfalme's injuries was made all the more clear in the unforgiving light...yet a nimbus surrounded his maned head. As Dhahabu drank in every detail, he felt a growing sense of purpose. It must be done. To allow his father to die so painfully...it was not the will of the Kings, nor could it be his will. He would do anything to save his father--barring that, he must spare him any more agony.

            Mfalme cried out, his eye squeezed shut as he writhed on the ground...Dhahabu almost turned away as he saw the blood come gushing from his underbelly. But he could not.

            "Oh Father..." He waited until the spasm had passed, then lowered his head once more and nuzzled him. Softly, he felt Mfalme's gentle tongue caress his cheek...a flash of his day of birth, of the same gesture from his father...his unconditional love even then. He would hold him in his heart forever...

            "Son...my son, the Lion King..." Mfalme smiled.

            Slowly, Dhahabu pulled back and stared dully down at his upturned paw. Then, as his eyes refocused on the face of his father beyond it, his claws gradually extended...each as deadly as the thorns that now pierced his heart...

 

                                                               ***

 

            Taraji purred softly in her sleep as she cuddled against Jahili's side. The young lion could not take his eyes off her, in the dawn light she looked even more beautiful than he remembered. They had shared their love all night, and yet he still was not satisfied, his love burned ever stronger. Gently he licked her cheek and smiled when she responded by nuzzling his chest.

            His breath was slow and shallow as Jahili finally lifted his head to gaze out at the grayish landscape. Color flared in the east, shooting across the land and sky in narrow fingers that sent bands of light into the world. The lion's chest rose and fell strongly as he beheld the display in amazement, feeling as though all of life had blessed his time with Taraji. He regarded her again with a tightness in his throat...she was everything he had ever wanted, he didn't know what he'd done to deserve her, especially after his life thus far...but nevertheless he was grateful.

            Idly he flicked his tail tuft across her back and haunches, smirking as she rolled in her sleep, groaning quietly as the cinnamon lioness writhed in slow motion, shoulders digging into the soft soil. He leaned close and purred into her neck, once again inhaling her sweet scent. Then he pulled back and spent several long minutes in rapt contemplation...watching her breathe, watching her eyelids twitch, watching her mouth curl into a small smile. He loved everything about her...every expression, every murmur, every inch of her. For this moment, Taraji was his world, and he longed to make every day like the previous night...fondly recalling her dreams of the future, he brushed away his nervousness and hoped only to give her what she wished. A wry smile crossed his lips. If he had not done so already, he would give her cubs...give grandcubs to Mfalme...

            Mfalme!

            Suddenly all thoughts of the future were swept away, and rather than love his heart pounded with fear and horror. How could he have let her scent overwhelm him like that, with Mfalme's life on the line? Once had been enough...but they had continued all night! Now it was most likely too late! Tears came to his eyes as he realized his own greed and pleasure may have cost his love her father's life. He did not deserve this happiness. Not anymore. He could not live with himself if what he surmised was true...

            Yet he could do nothing but dig his claws into the ground and whip his head in one direction, then another. What could be done? How could he find out what had happened? What were his choices?

            Slowly calming his breathing, he tried to control his careening thoughts. The only way to know was to learn whether Kuchinja had been successful, and to prevent his next scheme, whatever it took. But to do that...he must go through with his original plan...Taraji would never believe he bore a legitimate warning concerning her father and brother unless she knew the truth. And he could never aid her if his conscience was not clear.

            He had to tell her.

            Jahili reached out a trembling paw toward Taraji's side. His pads were only an inch away when his muscles locked. Weeping openly, he stared down at her, so serene and unconcerned...how could he destroy her world, and his? Why could they not remain in their perfect world forever? Why did the Kings curse him with this unattainable love?

            At this thought his heart nearly stopped, and he clenched his jaw. No! It was not a curse...no matter what would happen, whether Mfalme lived or not, whether Taraji would hate him or not, he must never regret their love. It was the only thing that had made his life livable. And even if he lost it now, the very fact that this amazing lioness had deigned to give it in the first place would be enough to sustain him...he hoped. But even if it were not enough...he could not hesitate. Justice outweighed his own happiness.

            He had no choice...

 

 

            Two paws extended in the same moment of time...both to deliver the pain of death, one to a suffering body, the other to an unsuspecting heart.

            Eyes squeezed shut as hot, stinging tears flowed down his cheeks, Dhahabu positioned his paw above Mfalme's throat and let it hang in place, claws jutting from their sheaths. Then, as he lifted it higher, he whispered brokenly, "Father...forgive me for what I am about to do..."

            United in sorrow and despair, Jahili lowered his paw to Taraji's muscled shoulder and gently shook her, to awaken her--not just from slumber, but to the truth. As her eyes slowly blinked open and she smiled up at him, he too whispered. "Taraji...forgive me for what I am about to say..."