Chapter 9: Retribution and Justice

 

            Jahili's final words stuck in his throat, he could not force his tongue to move, it was like a cracked stone lying in a vast salt flat. But somehow he managed to utter the fateful words that would determine his future course.

            "Taraji...I am Kuchinja's son."

            For a moment Taraji thought she hadn't heard him right. She almost laughed and congratulated him on his joke. But then, as she gazed into his eyes, she saw the mournfulness...the pain...the truth, rising before her eyes like the golden orb of the sun, its light framing Jahili's head. Slowly her heart began to harden. She did not want to accept it, but she had to...

            There was no way for Jahili to know her thoughts...her pain as she realized she had trusted and aided the enemy. He shook, however, when he saw the fires of anger in her eyes. Then suddenly her forepaw lifted, striking out with shocking speed. Jahili flinched and tried to duck, but he was too slow, and Taraji's claws swiped across his exposed cheek. Crying out in shock as much as in pain, the young lion lifted his head to gaze into her blue eyes--which were now as hard and cold as chips of ice. When she spoke her words were hissed. "How could you?"

            "But I...let me explain--"

            She cut him off with a snarl. "There is nothing to explain, Jahili, I understand it all quite clearly, and for the first time!" There was despair now in her gaze as well. "You used me! You used me as if I were no different than a haunch of wildebeest!"

            "No!" His heart beat wildly in fear. "No, it wasn't like that!"

            "Oh really?" Sarcasm dripped from her words. "Well then tell me how it was. Go on, this I have to hear!"

            Jahili shuddered at the anger in her and tried to speak, his tongue stumbling repeatedly as blood from his cheek trickled into his mouth. "You s-see, when I first m-met you, Taraji, I didn't know you...I didn't know you were from Kiburi. You helped me and--"

            She snorted. "And now I wish I hadn't!"

            His jaw shook, in fact all his legs trembled, but he managed to continue. "And then when I found out who you were, I knew you could help me with my father, but I thought..."

            "You thought what?" Taraji snapped. "That I could be your spring of knowledge? You'd get close to me, worm your way into my heart, and learn everything you could about Kiburi?"

            "No! You've got it all wrong! I wanted to help my father, but in a way that would help you, too!"

            She stared at him incredulously. "Now you're not making any sense!"

            Jahili sighed. "I know now that would never have worked, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I never wanted you hurt, I thought if I learned just a few things, my father would love me and be proud of me, but that I could make sure never to tell him anything that would threaten Kiburi..." His voice trailed off--it sounded ridiculous, even to him.

            Taraji blinked, then laughed derisively. "Well, you did a pretty poor job of that! You expect me to believe such a preposterous story? No one would do such an incredibly stupid thing."

            He growled softly, his claws digging into the dirt. "Maybe to you it's stupid, but not to me! It hurt me to lie to you, but I had no choice...you never would have cared about me if you'd known who I was."

            "You're absolutely right about that!" The cinnamon lioness's eyes were full of fierce tears. "But that's what you wanted, wasn't it? To get me to open up so I'd reveal everything! I can't believe I trusted you...the son of that monster Kuchinja!"

            Jahili slammed a paw against the ground. "But I'm not like him! I can't help where I was born, or to whom! Everything I told you was true, I had a horrible cubhood--"

            "How am I supposed to believe anything you told me?" Taraji bit off the words. "And to think I loved you...when you feel nothing for me..."

            He gasped. "How can you think such a thing? Love can't be faked! I love you, Taraji!"
            "Don't you mean your hind end does?"

            Jahili felt a growing coldness inside him, an emptiness...he could see her, pulling away from him. Her face was the same, but her eyes were devoid of emotion. He felt like screaming to the skies, but he knew that would do no good. "This has to be your anger talking...because the Taraji I know would never say such things."

            Taraji's tone was bitter. "Well maybe we were both fooled by our own hearts."

            "No, I couldn't be wrong about this! I love you."

            "Stop saying that."

            "I can't, it's true! I love you!"

            "Well I don't love you!"

            Jahili took a faltering step back as Taraji turned away, setting her face toward the rising sun. "You can't mean that."

            The lioness was silent.

            Eyes closed to block out her stiff form, the lion whispered. "Please..."

            "Don't beg, that's beneath both of us. Get out of my sight." Her words were no longer angry, merely tired.

            "But...what about Mfalme?"

            Taraji spat on the ground at his paws. "It's too late for him, I'm sure--no thanks to you! When I feel I can face my brother after my betrayal, I'll go there alone."

            For an interminable moment Jahili watched her, naked longing in his eyes. But he knew now there was no chance for them...his happiness had indeed been short-lived...and there was no reason left for him to strive for it.

            Tears running down his cheeks, the mahogany lion turned and loped away...slowly at first, then faster. He headed for the northwest...toward the gorge.

            Behind him Taraji kept her head bowed, eyes closed and chest heaving. When at last the sound of his passage through the grass had faded, the lioness allowed herself to collapse, face buried in her paws, and cry.

 

                                                            ***

 

            Sooner than he had hoped, the dark blur of the gorge appeared in Jahili's sight, a shadowy cleft in the barren earth, darkened still although the sun had cleared the mountains, for the angle of the light prevented it from illuminating the broken walls and rugged floor. His muscles, not yet recovered from his journey across the desert, protested, but he pressed onward, every part of him--body, mind, soul, and heart--crying out in agony. He had been wrong. Kuchinja had been right! She had rejected him...rejected their love.

            As he approached the rim of the gorge, he sobbed aloud. He should have known better than to think she would accept him...he should have known his life was never meant to be fulfilled. He'd lost his father for nothing...and now he was truly alone...he had no reason to go on living...

            The wind rose as he approached the drop-off, blowing back his sweat-soaked mane. Finally he could see down into the depths...the jagged rocks, the broken ledges, the distant bottom. That was where he belonged. In the darkness. In the emptiness. Among the shattered stones. Kuchinja and Taraji had both crushed his heart, there was nothing in him...and yet, as he beheld the gorge, a part of him locked his muscles in place. No matter what she had done, he still loved Taraji! In spite of her cruel words, he could not turn away...her words of love still burned even though she had just denied them...

            "What am I to do?" Jahili whispered. "My love can now never be completed...I hurt Taraji, Dhahabu, his cubs, and probably Mfalme too. I have no reason to stay, yet my heart will not let go..."

            Finally his frustration became too much and he threw his head back and roared, a quivering sound that echoed in the gorge, shaking loose stray rocks. Then Jahili fell to his knees and buried his face in his paws...

            The lion was still crouched down, his pads stained with tears and blood from his wounds, when he felt a hesitant little tap on his foreleg, one with barely enough strength to knock down an anthill. Lifting his head with extreme reluctance, Jahili was startled to see a meerkat, body erect, tail stiff, and eyes alert, its tiny paw resting on his mahogany fur. "What's the matter dere, big fella?"

            Jahili sat up. Where had he come from so suddenly? He swept his eyes across the eastern horizon until at last he spotted a collection of mounds rising out of the savanna, marking the location of a meerkat colony. Turning back to the meerkat, he met his gaze, sighed, and then looked away. "Believe me, you wouldn't want to know."

            "Sure I would! If I didn't wanna know, I wouldn't have asked ya." The meerkat hopped up on his paw and peered up into his blue eyes. "I ain't afraid of lions, King Mfalme knows how valuable I am! I help pick da ticks off  'im. An' besides, I listen ta all da lions' problems an' help 'em out."

            For a moment Jahili was tempted to laugh at the ludicrous thought of this meerkat counselling the great Mfalme, let alone himself, but the serious look in the little creature's eyes stopped him. When he spoke again his voice was dull and listless. "And how could you help me?"

            The meerkat chuckled. "Ya never know till ya try it. An' ya gotta tell me somethin' before I can help."

            Jahili couldn't fault this logic. Besides, what did he have to lose? One more person hating him wouldn't change anything. Slowly he exhaled, sat down on his haunches, and looked down at his attentive audience. "You'll hate me..."

            The meerkat snorted derisively. "Let me be da judge of dat! Cheko ain't never wrong."

            Smirking in spite of himself, the young lion shrugged and began to speak...

            By the time he had finished telling his story, the soft light of midmorning warmed the land, and the meerkat Cheko was shaking his head sadly. "Ooh boy, ya got a big problem dere."

            Jahili let his breath out loudly. "Tell me something I don't know."

            "Well, how about dat ya ain't bein' true ta your heart?" Cheko crossed his arms across his small chest.

            "What do you mean?" the lion demanded. "I love Taraji more than anything! That's my problem, I can't let her go!"

            "No, dat's not your problem." When Jahili looked confused, the meerkat leaped down off his paw and stood directly beneath his face, regarding him fixedly. "Let me explain. All dis time, have your principles changed one little bit?"

            Jahili considered. "I don't know...I thought they had. I mean, I mated with--"
            Cheko waved that aside. "Dat was your bod talkin', not your mind."

            The young lion blushed. "All right...then no. I still think what my father is doing is wrong."

            "Well ya see, dere's what ya should be concerned about. Ya have your priorities mixed up." The meerkat placed his tiny paws on his hips.

            Despair filled Jahili's eyes. "But there's nothing I can do! Especially without Taraji..."

            Cheko let out an exasperated sigh. "Look, Jahili, dat's not you! Dat's your father talkin'. Your problem is dat you're still lettin' Kuchinja run your life, even though ya can't see it. Ya tried to do things his way, but he wanted more from ya than ya were willin' ta give, and now ya know ya can't help him. So let it rest."

            "But Taraji--"
            "Forget Taraji for a moment, will ya?" The meerkat stepped close and poked Jahili in the chest, right where his heart was. "My friend, she doesn't matter right now. What matters is dis: do ya want your father ta win?"

            "No!" His answer was vehement.

            "Well den get off your haunches and go out and stop 'im! Don't throw away your life when ya can still do some good. If Taraji doesn't love ya anymore, at least you'll still be doin' what feels right in your heart. And if she does, dis'll give ya the chance ta prove ta her ya aren't like your father." Cheko nodded firmly.

            Jahili's eyes widened as this simple truth blasted through his self-pity. The meerkat was right! It didn't matter what Taraji thought, he still had no choice but to prevent his father from succeeding...

            But then as he looked out across the dry earth and brittle grass that lined the edge of the gorge, his face fell. "Yeah, but I don't even know how to do that. I don't know if Mfalme is dead, I don't know where my father and uncles are, I don't even know whether Dhahabu knows yet. How am I going to..." He paused and stared down at Cheko. "You!"

            "Me?" The meerkat stepped back a pace, looking confused and flustered. "What about me?"

            "You're a meerkat!"

            Cheko looked down at himself, then peered over his shoulder at his stripes. "Ya know, I think you're right."

            In spite of himself, Jahili laughed. The sound was warm and full, and made him feel alive again. "No, I mean--you're fast, right?"

            "Sure I am!" The meerkat puffed out his chest proudly.

            The young lion leaned down so that his muzzle was near the meerkat's face and whispered conspiratorially. "Well then here's what you'll do...if you really want to help me, run as fast as you can into Kiburi. Find out what's happened to Mfalme, and where and when any confrontation will happen between Dhahabu and my father. Then come back here, so I can decide what to do to stop any more bloodshed."

            The meerkat rose to his full diminutive height. "Ya can count on me, Jahili! If it'll save Kiburi, I'll do it!"

            Jahili watched as Cheko turned and scampered away, streaking across the barren ground until he disappeared into the grass. When the meerkat had vanished, he looked back into the gorge. But this time he did so with a look of defiance. "No," he said under his breath. "You won't claim me, not now. Not when I can still do something right." The young lion's expression turned distant and desperate. "Oh please, Taraji...believe me when I tell you I want to help your brother. Let me help you. Let me love you again."

            And then his eyes blazed, and he clenched one paw tightly. "Father...this ends now, this day. I will let this continue no more. Your vengeance will never be complete."

            But as Jahili said this, his voice trembled. He hoped more than anything that he would have the courage to make those words become truth.

 

                                                             ***

 

            Njaa lay with his head resting on his massive paws, watching the edge of the oasis through slitted eyes as he waited for the return of his brothers, or Jahili. As his gaze tracked across the burning sands, cracked earth, and rippling haze of the Majonzi, his own heart seemed to match what he saw. Torn between his brothers and his nephew, uncertain of the future, worried for what might be occurring miles away, his emotions burned in him like the sands, shifted like the haze, and broke his will. Groaning, he buried his face in his paws and tried to calm himself, but he could not. All his mind could comprehend was that his family was falling apart--on the one side, his brothers, set on destroying Mfalme and taking over Kiburi, on the other side his nephew determined to stop them. Only ill could come of this...

            Some inner sense made him look up in time to see dark shapes appear in the haze--five muscular forms. Hurriedly he returned his head to his paws, closed his eyes, and feigned sleep, hoping his heart hammering in his chest would not give him away.

            The Wahamiji stepped into the shade of the oasis. Njaa could hear their breathing, their paws passing through fallen leaves, a soft growl from Kuchinja. And then the powerful lion roared in anger. Flinching, Njaa let his eyes pop open and scrambled about in the dirt before managing to sit up. He stared in fear at the gray lion. "What? Brother, what is it?"

            "You idiot!" Kuchinja stalked to his side and slammed a paw into his head, rocking Njaa back. "You fell asleep, and now my worthless son has escaped!"

            The golden-tawny lion feigned shock and remorse as he regarded the spot where Jahili had lain. "I...I am sorry, brother, I was tired, and the heat of the day, it was too much--"

            "Don't give me excuses," Kuchinja snarled. "You have failed me, and nothing can alter that fact."

            Njaa shook before his brother as his burning eye trained on him. Only the knowledge that revealing the truth would incense Kuchinja further kept him from doing so out of self-preservation. "But...why does that matter? You succeeded in killing Mfalme, didn't you?" Suddenly his fear heightened. Jahili had headed off to stop Kuchinja. The fact that he had not returned, but Kuchinja had, did not bode well. Yet the gray lion was genuinely angry at Jahili's disappearance, so he had not met him in Kiburi. What had happened?

            "We did indeed." The anger in Kuchinja's voice was momentarily replaced by a gloating satisfaction. "The murderer is dead, our father's spirit can at last rest." Then his tone hardened again. "But I did not plan on our deed to be discovered until our scents had had time to fade."

            Njaa froze. He looked to his brothers--Tauni, an ill look still on his face; Kufa and Vita, eyes dark and cruel; and Ushindi, nostrils flared in fury. "You mean...?"

            "Yes!" Ushindi snapped. "We didn't cover our trail this time--Dhahabu and the others can follow our scents right to us!" The cream lion clenched his jaw. "How could you be so witless as to let this happen, Njaa?"

            The older lion had nothing he could say to defend himself. "I...I don't know. I'm sorry..." He stared at one set of unforgiving eyes after another. Only Tauni looked sympathetic, but he could not meet Njaa's gaze.

            At last Kuchinja spoke again, in a somewhat calmer tone. "What is done is done. Now we must decide quickly how to prevent all we have worked for from collapsing."

            Njaa swallowed, then stammered, "B-but if Mfalme is dead, we really only need to worry about Dhahabu. The rest of the pride will be forced to follow our wishes if we can only eliminate him."

            In a rare vociferous moment, Vita spat, "Yet even now Jahili may be leading him and his pride right to us."

            Glumly Njaa turned back to Kuchinja--only to see him staring thoughtfully at Vita. "Yes...they will be led right to us..."

            Ushindi blinked, confused. "What are you talking about, brother?"

            Njaa was wondering the same thing, but before he could probe Kuchinja, the gray lion's mouth twisted in a smirk and he stepped forward to the center of the gathering of brothers. As all eyes turned to him, including those of Mwoga and Ukware, who had hung back from the lions until this point, Kuchinja raised his voice. "They will be led to us--but to a place of our choosing, not theirs. All is not lost. As you say, Njaa, Dhahabu is our last major threat. Together, we can defeat him."

            The other five lions exchanged an uncertain look. They were strong and powerful, but Dhahabu had a whole pride behind him. Kuchinja was being overly optimistic.

            The gray lion snarled and slammed a paw against the ground. "What is wrong with you? Yes the odds are against us--but we are the sons of Giza, and he would not stand for this craven attitude! Do not be niggard with your courage, prove you are worthy of the goal!" He glared first at Kufa, Vita, and Ushindi, the youngest of them, clearly questioning their fitness. Almost as one the three stiffened and lifted their heads with pride. Then Kuchinja turned toward Njaa and Tauni, his littermates. Though both were reluctant, they could not abandon their brother. Njaa gazed at the light tan lion across from him, and an understanding passed between them. Then they too nodded to Kuchinja.

            Giza's eldest at last let a look of respect enter his eye. "That is much better. Now, let us go. We have much to plan, and little time to do it." Quickly he stalked back out into the scorching heat of noonday. The two hyenas scrambled to follow, desperate to please. Ushindi cast a look of disgust in their direction, clearly fed up with their sycophantic ways, as he too joined Kuchinja. Kufa and Vita silently stepped up behind the cream lion, and last of all came Njaa and Tauni.

            As the war party headed out toward Kiburi and their destiny, Njaa exchanged a last look with Tauni and stepped close so that he could hear his whisper. "I know you are as worried as I am...for all of us. This campaign has rapidly degenerated, and I fear some of us may not survive. But no matter what happens, I will be there to protect you, brother."

            "Thank you...as I shall be there for you." Tauni nuzzled him gently, then forced resolution into his eyes. Njaa smiled in gratitude, but a dark cloud still filled his heart and mind. He only hoped wherever Jahili was, he was faring better than they were...and that his principles would not throw him into worse danger than he had already faced.

 

                                                             ***

 

            When she at last reached the top of the hill and gazed down into the valley below, Malkia almost lost her faith in her vision. There, lying flat in the dust and dirt, his blood soaked into the ground, was her beloved Mfalme, the corpses of jackals scattered around him. A sob escaped her throat, rising from the depths of her being, scraping through her like the claws of those who had robbed her of her mate. She registered Dhahabu's presence, frozen on his haunches, his mane hanging to obscure his face while his shoulders shook. But she barely noticed. All she could comprehend was the terrible wounds, as deep and cruel as the chasm that now separated her from the lion she loved.

            Weeping, the Queen of Kiburi stumbled down the hillside toward the grisly scene. Behind her trailed the other members of the pride: Mahiri, a look of stunned horror on her face; Tembo, immense and furious in his grief, trails of tears in the dried mud on his skin; the other lionesses, anguish and shock on every countenance; and the cubs...little Mohatu, Busara, and Makani, following silently after their mother, each pale and silent except for the sniffling of Mohatu.

            At last, as the pride filed into a circle surrounding their fallen king, Malkia managed to glance at Dhahabu as he raised his head. His expression was ravaged, eyes dull and vacuous, face pinched with bitterness and loss. She swallowed, seeing all at once the change in him...it was as if he had aged five years in the space of a few hours. "Oh Dhahabu..." Her voice was dry and raspy, she could barely speak.

            Silently the new king acknowledged her, nodding mechanically. As she turned back toward Mfalme's body, Mahiri stepped close. "I am so sorry, Dhahabu...we tried to get here as fast as we could...but even if we had come sooner it wouldn't have mattered. When I went to fetch the healer, I found she had died in her sleep. She could not have helped us..." The cream lioness bit her lip.

            Dhahabu shuddered. "It doesn't matter. He could not have lasted..." There was a darkness in his eyes, as if his soul had been shattered. Mahiri fell back a pace, but then she gathered her courage and stepped to his side, burying her face in his mane. The golden lion placed a shaky paw on her back. "You shouldn't be so forward in public now...I am the king."

            "I don't care...you are my mate, and you need me." Mahiri nuzzled him.

            It was as if the nuzzle had snapped every sinew in his body. At once Dhahabu seemed to collapse, his body slumping forward as he pulled her into a fierce embrace and cried uncontrollably into her shoulder...

            Malkia, too, was in tears, her muzzle pressed into Mfalme's unresponsive cheek. The other lionesses of the pride watched in sorrow, then at last threw back their heads and roared, a powerful sound that quivered in the noonday sun, repeating and shaking the nearby bluff. For long moments clouds passed before the sun, and shadows fell across the land, as Aiheu and the Kings grieved with them.

            Tembo's trunk hung listless. He could not tear his eyes away from the lion who had taught him so many things, so much wisdom...the lion for whom he had willingly left his father's side. Now he was truly on his own. Could he now wield that knowledge as Damu had wished him to?

            One paw at a time, Mohatu slipped between Malkia's legs until he could look down at Mfalme's face--bloody and wounded, but now unmarked by pain, set in a peaceful expression. Tears stood in his eyes. "G-good-bye, Grandpa..." Offering a small head-butt, the cub threw himself upon the king and wrapped his forelegs around his maned neck. He was soon joined by his brothers, Busara licking the mahogany cheek-fur, Makani chewing gently on his ear. Together the three then cuddled into his mane, professions of love spilling from their small muzzles...

            After a long period of silence, one of the lionesses at last turned to Dhahabu and sighed. "What do we do now, sire?"

            The golden lion's eyes popped open, and he lifted his head from Mahiri's shoulder. "What did you say?"

            "I asked what we should do, sire." The lioness cocked her head to the side. "You are the king now, Dhahabu."

            He gasped audibly. Although Mfalme had already said this, and he knew it to be true, to have the throne thrust suddenly upon him... "No..." he whispered. "No, I can't do this..."

            At these words Malkia rose from her crouch and paced to her son, with solemn dignity, her red-rimmed eyes now filled with determination. "But you must. You are now the Lion King, it is your mantle and you must bear it for your father's sake, and for the Kings, and for Aiheu."

            Slowly Dhahabu's shoulders slumped under the weight of the throne. His head dropped for several minutes. But when he lifted it again, there was acceptance in his eyes. He looked from one lioness to another uncertainly. "I don't know what to do. My father taught me all he knew, but I never expected to put it to use so soon. I'm so confused..."

            Mohatu lashed his tail and watched his father. "Uh...Dad? Shouldn't you find out who did this?"

            The new king snorted and looked around at the carnage. "Isn't it obvious?"

            The cub glanced at the dead jackals, frowning. "But didn't you tell me jackals only ate car--car--"

            "Carrion." Mahiri finished Mohatu's sentence thoughtfully. Then she narrowed her eyes. "My gods, he's right! No jackal would attack live prey--certainly not a lion. Not unless he were provoked..."

            Malkia and Dhahabu exchanged a quick glance. "You think...?" The former queen trailed off.

            The lion nodded. "I'm sure it's Kuchinja. I just can't prove it."

            They were interrupted by a sudden cry from Mohatu. When Dhahabu looked back, his son had his nose to the soil, sniffing the dusty ground. "Dad! Grandma!"

            Hurrying to the cub's side, Dhahabu wiped the tears from his eyes and peered down. The dust and dirt had been shifted and stirred by the swarming jackals, and their tracks were everywhere. But there, unmistakable despite it being half-erased, was the massive pawprint of a lion.

            Fanning out, the lionesses and their king scanned the site of the battle meticulously. Soon another cry came from Busara, then Makani, and then another lioness. Investigating, Dhahabu found four separate sets of tracks. Clearly there had been lions amongst the jackals, driving them. But none of them, according to Malkia, bore Kuchinja's scent.

            Dhahabu widened the search, checking along the bluff face, across the valley, and even the nearby hillsides. Intent upon proving his suspicions, he buried his grief and took command, ordering his lionesses with an air of confidence that at any other time would have made Malkia proud. But her mind was elsewhere, still dealing with the death of her mate. It was only half-heartedly that she climbed a hill to check for the telltale signs.

            Her apathy was broken, however, when her cursory examination turned up two scents, quite familiar to her. "Son! Come quickly!"

            Golden mane swirling back as he rushed up the rise, Dhahabu called out even before he had arrived. "What? What is it?"

            "Here." Malkia nodded toward a patch of broken grass blades. "It is the scent of Kuchinja--and of the leader of the jackals. Together. We don't need any more proof than that." Her voice shook with anger.

            Dhahabu's mind seemed to explode. Rushing to the area his mother had indicated, he sniffed deeply, ignoring the canine scent in favor of the thick leonine smell. A furious snarl at last became words. "That's it. No more. This time his life is forfeit. And we have the trail now to lead us straight to him." He raised his head and roared fearsomely, a sound that came from deep in his chest. Within minutes the others congregated on the hillside and stared at him questioningly.

            "Mark this scent well." He nodded toward the broken grass and watched with burning eyes as each lioness dipped her head to the ground. "That is the scent of a doomed lion. A lion who is as of this moment a walking carcass. A lion whose life now belongs to me. It matters not where he runs, we will find him, and hasten his departure from our lands by streams of blood."

            "And what of his brothers?" It was a young lioness who spoke, a few months older than he was. "They did little but harry and kill our herds."

            Dhahabu paused to recall her name. "True, Asumini, but they also drove the jackals that murdered my father." His jaw hardened. "If they truly repent, and will not fight us, perhaps I will spare them. But if not..."

            Mohatu chuckled and swiped at a grasshopper. "Yeah! We're gonna kill them, aren't we?"

            The king shook his head. "No, you will stay here in Kiburi, where it's safe. You and your brothers."

            "Awww, Dad..."

            "Don't push me, Mo, I'm not in the mood to argue with you." Dhahabu's stern glance silenced the cub. Then the golden lion looked back to Malkia. "Which way did they go?"

            The queen sniffed the grass again, then circled the hilltop until she intersected their trail. Following it, she had almost faded amongst the dry vegetation before she turned back. "If they don't deviate, they are headed northwest--toward the gorge, and beyond that the Majonzi."

            Dhahabu stared, then gnashed his teeth. "Of course! Why didn't we think of that before? Where else could they hide, where we would never consider looking..." He turned to face the others, pleased to note that each lioness had bared her fangs and appeared ready to kill. "All right, this is what we will do. Maarifa, take the cubs back to the den and guard them until we return. Tembo..." He locked gazes with the elephant, whose eyes were bloodshot. "You will accompany me, my mother, and Mahiri--as well as all the lionesses we need to break the siege of the Wahamiji once and for all. We will track them, to the gorge and beyond, and exact justice." Slowly the lion gazed down the hill toward the dark form of Mfalme. "But first...we should bury my father."

            Eyes lowered, Malkia followed Dhahabu as he paced down the hill into the shade of the bluff once more. One by one Mahiri, the cubs, and the other lionesses moved after them. Trailing at the rear, Tembo flexed his trunk, remembering the day he had helped pull the stone marking Sulubu's grave into place. Now he would be called upon to hoist a stone of greater portent...

            As the elephant shuffled through the grass, eyes locked on the ground, he failed to notice the small form of Cheko peering out at the vacated hilltop, a rictal stare on his face. The meerkat backed away into concealment, then turned and scampered back the way he had come, muttering. "Jahili's gotta know about dis..."

 

                                                             ***

 

            The morning passed with agonizing slowness for Taraji. Her tears had faded long ago, leaving her prone on the hillside, her face buried in her paws, with only an aching numbness, and a dull pain in the depths of her heart. All she could hear was the words that had ruined her love...that Jahili was the son of the lion who had tried to destroy Kiburi, kidnap Mohatu, and possibly even killed her own father. But echoing just as strongly were the words she had given him in reply. The pain it had caused to say those hateful things to him. She knew he was Kuchinja's offspring, yet his gentle, handsome face would not vanish from her mind's eye. Those beautiful blue eyes...the unspeakable sorrow and longing and shattered hope in them as she had denounced him. The look on his face when she sent him away, telling him she no longer loved him...

            Looking up at last, the cinnamon lioness gazed dully at the savanna around her...the clear blue sky, streaked with wispy clouds; the warm currents of the air blowing across her face; the sweet-smelling grass; a line of leaf-cutter ants near her paw; in the distance, a communal nest where ostriches perched on their massive eggs, spreading warmth and life. But all of that meant nothing to Taraji. The sunbeams of midday held no comfort, the scents of the savanna did not invigorate her.

            Because what she had said was a lie. She did still love Jahili.

            Crying out in anguish, the lioness slammed a paw against the ground. "Why? Why must I love a lion who betrayed me? How is it possible? What am I, one of those lionesses won over by a handsome face and a muscled body? Is that it, it's the fire in his haunches I love?" She moaned and then snarled...she was lying to herself again. It was clearly more than that, she could not escape the overwhelming need to be near him. To caress his face. To hear that soft, sweet voice. He was everything to her. But he was the enemy.

            Wasn't he?

            Weary, Taraji rested her head on her paws and squeezed her eyes shut. Without her consent, memories flooded her mind...those first days in the cave, when Jahili was recuperating. Especially the day they had shared in their loneliness. How the young lion had told her with such heartbreak about his empty existence--with a father who hated him, and wished for him to do something he didn't want to do. A father who considered him worthless...a family who did not love him. He had told the plain truth. In fact beyond the lie of his identity, he had never deceived her once--unless he had indeed informed Kuchinja of everything she'd said. But if that had occurred, Kiburi would have fallen long ago--wouldn't it?

            Her head spun with confusion and conflicting emotions. She didn't know what was true anymore. Where did her loyalties lie? And Jahili's? Had his pain all been an act? Taraji opened her eyes and watched the leaf-cutter ants for some time before she came to a conclusion. No it had not been. The emotion in his eyes had been genuine.

            But he had mated with her, rather than warn her of Mfalme until it was too late. Could it just have been the pheromones? Had he been overcome by his love and passion? Or had he known she would reject him, and so dallied until he had at last achieved the culmination of his desires?

            Taraji groaned. She couldn't believe he would do such a thing. He had always seemed so sincere, so tortured by his past--and with a father like Kuchinja she could easily understand that. He had tried to warn her not to associate too closely with him. And in fact he had told her if she knew the truth she would hate him.

            Eyes unfocused, regarding some distant vision no one else could see, the lioness recalled bitterly what she had said to him then...that she could never hate him. Was that still true? And if so...what fate did that decree for her? Tears sprang anew...her brother would never understand. He would see only the son of a usurper. A threat. A menace to be driven out, or killed. She suspected he knew of her outings, but he had never questioned her, because she had been happy, and then his cubs had arrived and absorbed his time. She could only imagine how he would react. Her mother too would be appalled.

            Then a terrifying thought came to her. If they did not kill or drive out Jahili, they might exile her instead, for her treason.

            Finding her voice again, Taraji wailed. "But I can't help it! He...he's not like his father! At least...I don't think he is. He's gentle and caring and kind--or was that all feigned? No it couldn't be...it was too real. And so are my feelings..." She dug her claws into the soil, then fiercely swiped her paw across the ground, scattering uprooted tendrils of grass and clods of earth in a dark spray. Flipping over onto her side, she breathed raggedly as she tried to force Jahili from her thoughts. But just as she thought she was successful, she caught his scent on the blades beside her, left over from the night before. And with that scent came the familiar rush of memories. Over and over, she heard him say he loved her. She could see his eyes as he said it. The pure emotion residing there.

            And then other words returned to the forefront...when he had told her to forgive him for what he would say. A realization suddenly burst upon her. Jahili had not been obligated to tell her the truth. He could have continued lying, never revealing himself. And if he were truly like his father, if he plotted the downfall of Kiburi and cared not one whit for her, he would have done so. But he had not.

            He had not...

            The enormity of this thought struck a blow to her heart. Could she have been wrong about Jahili? Was it still possible to fill the void in her chest, to find happiness in life again?

            Gazing down at the ground, Taraji looked absently at her shadow and saw that it was angled behind her. In shock she realized it was now early afternoon! Lost in thought, she had wasted precious time...time in which she could have learned of her father's fate, or helped Dhahabu against Kuchinja.

            Rising to her paws, she wiped her eyes and turned eastward...but abruptly froze in her tracks.

            Standing just behind her, chest heaving from his frantic run to this lone hill, was Jahili.

            For nearly ten minutes, no words passed between them--at least, none that had been vocalized, for countless emotions and thoughts danced in their eyes. Taraji could not look away, Jahili's eyes were too overpowering. She could see they were rimmed with the redness caused by bitter tears. But at the same time, the depth of love and devotion in them was unchanged. They burned with it. His chest was still rising and falling rapidly, but no longer from his exertions.

            Uncertain of what her own eyes revealed, but suspecting the truth, Taraji finally broke the silence. "You...came back..."

            "I had to." That voice...so filled with pain and need, and so...loving. Even after what she had said to him.

            Swallowing hard, the lioness did not, could not, know what words to use to fill the breach. They fled from her, scattering like frightened guinea fowl. At last she managed to whisper, "Why?"

            Jahili gently but firmly placed a paw on her shoulder. Taraji quivered--from fear or desire she could not tell. "Don't speak. I know you detest me now, but please, set your emotions aside for the sake of your pride. There is something you need to know." Before she could protest, the lion lowered his head and muttered into his mane. To her disbelief a meerkat emerged from the layered brown tresses to perch on Jahili's shoulder.

            "This is Cheko," Jahili introduced the small animal, who regarded Taraji without a trace of fear. "He serves Mfalme."

            Taraji blinked, then in spite of herself, she laughed. "Oh he does, does he?" She smirked at the meerkat. "Then how come I've never seen you before in my life?"

            Cheko squirmed beneath her amused gaze, then looked up to Jahili, who was frowning intensely. "Well, Cheko?"

            "All right, so I lied! Ya wouldn't have listened ta me if I hadn't. But I still helped ya, didn't I?" The meerkat crossed his arms defiantly.

            "Yeah you did." Jahili relaxed, then managed to chuckle, but he stopped when he noticed Taraji's questioning look. "He helped me get my priorities straight...and kept me from leaving this world in favor of the next."

            Taraji's heart nearly stopped. The thought that only an opportunistic meerkat had come between her and never seeing Jahili alive again... "That...would have been wrong. No matter what has happened, I don't want you dead."

            "That's good to know." The mahogany lion lowered his eyes uncomfortably, then shook himself. "But that doesn't matter now. Cheko, tell her what you told me."

            The meerkat glared at Taraji for a moment, then began speaking, his tongue racing to keep up with his thoughts. "Well, Jahili here had me run inta Kiburi an' see what was goin' on. I had ta run as fast as I could, an' I tell ya, dere were lotsa close calls! First a snake tried ta bite me when I got too close ta her den, an' den when I was runnin' away from her a hawk swooped down an' tried ta make a meal outta me, but I got hold of a stick an' beat her claws away, an' den--"

            Jahili stomped a paw, causing Cheko to lose his balance and fall to the ground. "Get to the point!"

            "I'm gettin' dere, I'm gettin' dere!" The meerkat brushed himself off as he stood up. Then he turned a sad gaze to Taraji. "I'm sorry ta tell ya dis...but when I got ta Kiburi an' asked around, I found out all de pride was down south, where a bunch of jackals killed your father."

            Taraji's jaw trembled and she looked at Jahili. In his eyes was reflected the same horror, muted only by the passage of time since he had first learned it himself...horror, and intense guilt. Instantly she wanted to embrace and nuzzle him, tell him it was all right. But she could not. Things might not ever be all right again.

            Finally she turned shakily back to Cheko. "What about my brother? And Kuchinja?"

            "Dey figured out Kuchinja was behind de jackal attack, an' so your brother, who's de king now, is takin' dat elephant an' a bunch of lionesses after 'em. Dey found deir trail an' are followin' it ta de gorge, an' after dat de Majonzi."

            When it was clear the meerkat had no more to say, Taraji lifted her head and gazed toward the northwest. For a long time she said nothing, her heart wrestling with a difficult decision. When she looked back to Jahili, Cheko was on his shoulder again and his expression was one of loneliness, but also determination. "Jahili, I..."

            "You don't have to say it. I know you don't want me here. But right now there are things going on that are bigger than the both of us." The young lion set his jaw. "I won't let my father succeed, no matter what you think of me. I am going to stop him, end this war, and I don't care if you hate me, as long as you let me do what has to be done." His voice shook as he said this, and she instantly knew how much it hurt him to say those words.

            Before he could continue she growled softly, cutting him off. But then, as he eyed her guardedly, Taraji stepped close and returned his earlier gesture of the paw on the shoulder. "What I was going to say," she whispered, "is that I want you to come with me. I can't forgive you...not yet. I don't know if I ever will. But I've been doing a lot of thinking, and I realized you never meant to hurt me. Nevertheless, you did, and that will take time to heal. But meanwhile, our families are in danger and I can't stop your father alone. I need your help, Jahili."

            The mahogany lion's eyes bulged. It was clear he had never thought he would hear those words, that his heart had been set stoically on a solitary sojourn and even a sacrifice if need be. Slowly his expression softened into one of gratitude and acceptance. "I...understand, Taraji. And you're right...preventing any more death is paramount to anything else. But forgive me for this..." He moved even closer, and slowly, tentatively, licked her cheek before moving to her muzzle, giving her a sensuous kiss.

            Taraji stiffened in place--but not in anger. The feelings rushing through her were the same as before. She could feel the love in her heart. And it frightened her because she did not know what its consequence would be.

            She returned the kiss, then pulled back. "It's...all right. I understand why that just happened." She hoped he could not see through her falsehood, she had absolutely no idea why she was still drawn to him. Could she sense his innate goodness? "But don't let it happen again, we have a higher task now."

            Jahili nodded, though from the look in his eyes she could tell he wished it could be otherwise. And Taraji found herself wishing the same. She could not resist melting in his gaze...

            "Well I'm comin' too!" Cheko blurted out. "I ain't gonna miss dis! An' maybe I can help."

            Jahili chuckled. "Maybe you can. But anyway, I owe you, so sure, come on."
            As Cheko burrowed back down into his mane, the young lion paced along Taraji's side, admiring her every muscle as they picked up speed and descended the hill, moving toward the northwest, retracing his trail. He knew he had no reason to keep his hopes up. A time of stress and danger lay ahead, and what had just happened was no more than physical. It would be a long time before he could earn her trust again, but he swore to himself he would do so.

            Taraji, too, watched Jahili, respect returning to her eyes. Once more, he had surprised her...taking the initiative, learning the truth and setting out to undo his father's schemes. But at the same time, she hesitated. This could be more of an elaborate web of deceit. A plan to lure her to her doom, with the meerkat as his accomplice. Or perhaps they would indeed find her brother, but when they arrived Jahili would do nothing to help. Doubt grew...but then she caught the open honesty in Jahili's eyes and chided herself. She truly knew nothing but what her heart told her. It could lie, but she felt it was not doing so. Still, nothing would be certain until she could learn his true intent and act accordingly.

            The two lions loped faster, perfectly matched. But Taraji swore they would not be a match until she had satisfied her need for proof, proof of his integrity. Setting her face forward, she instead allowed her thoughts to return to Mfalme. Silently she apologized for not being at his side when the end came, and her fury at Kuchinja rose, equalled only by her keen distress. Mfalme's kind and handsome face came to her unsummoned, eclipsing Jahili's...yet the love in their eyes was the same.

            The wind whined past her face as they sped onward, bringing moisture to her eyes...but that was not its only source.

 

                                                             ***

 

            A halo of thick black mane tossed and swirled around Kuchinja's head as he stood atop the cliff at the northern end of the gorge, gazing down the ledged slope toward the rocky floor stretching off into the distance. Every seam and crack on the boulder-strewn sides of the yawning rift stood out in relief as the angled light of afternoon cast sharp shadows on their ridged surfaces. The dry, nearly barren floor was an expanse of rough terrain, with bands of light and darkness stretched across it. Stunted trees grew scattered here and there, offering scant shade. And the only sign of motile life was a lizard or two on the stones--for all intents and purposes, the gorge was a no-man's-land of dull vacuity, a place no one would wish to visit.

            Perfect for a clandestine foray into Kiburi.

            Kuchinja smirked as his brothers and the hyenas at last achieved the heights beside him. Mwoga and Tauni were winded, but the others seemed fueled by the same lust for power and vengeance as he was, and showed a tenacity and cunning that would be deterred by no lion, let alone a paltry feature of nature. An unholy light burned in Kufa and Vita's eyes...Ushindi snickered and licked his lips in anticipation, while Ukware regarded the jagged cleft with a narrowed gaze, gauging its suitability for ambush and defense. Only Njaa remained unaffected by the taint of avarice and belligerence, marked instead by a suffering conscience...haunted by thoughts of the missing Jahili, the innocent lionesses of Kiburi, and a young lion who had suddenly been thrust unprepared into the violent upheaval of a conflict that would most likely end his brief reign simply because of the sins of his father...

            The golden tawny lion's head lowered, his chestnut mane shifting to fall across his face, when a loud snarl from Kuchinja arrested his attention. "Here is the entrance to our kingdom--the path to our inheritance. All lies open before us, it is ours to claim. Dhahabu cannot prevent our victory!" The gray lion's muzzle twisted with a fearsome grin.

            "Well then, let us cease discussing it and act instead," Kufa muttered.

            Mwoga laughed, a rather jittery sound, and nodded. "Yeah, get your haunches movin' so we can rip their throats out!"

            Everyone burst into snide, sarcastic laughter except for Tauni, who only chuckled weakly, and Njaa, who remained silent. When their mirth died away, Kuchinja nodded and began picking his way down the slope toward the bottom of the gorge, muscles flexing in keen excitement. "Rather crude, but certainly a statement with which I cannot argue..."

            Step by step, paw by paw, the Wahamiji and their two hyena allies proceeded smoothly and without hurry down the rocky incline until at last all stood gathered at its base. Njaa cast a worried look at the unstable cliffs on either side as he followed Kuchinja warily into the throat of the gorge. As the others followed, he chanced a quick glance at his brother and flinched instinctively--Kuchinja was eyeing him, with a scowl of such repugnance and anger that Njaa stepped back. But it was his eye that frightened him most. It burned with a furor of such intensity...at the same time there was a wild, frenzied look about it. Instantly he knew that Kuchinja had gone mad. Whether it had always been so, or whether Jahili's love for Taraji had pushed him over the brink, he knew not. But he could not deny it, he could not fool himself. The golden tawny lion sidled away from Kuchinja, shuddering uncontrollably. The gray lion chuckled, thinking it was a weakening of his resolve, an acceptance of their path, that he saw in Njaa's face, but it was not. What Njaa felt was the intense fear which can only stem from knowing one's fate is in the paws of the insane...

 

                                                             ***

 

            At the far end of the gorge, where the canyon walls widened and opened out into an expanse of scrub brush and sere vegetation, the equally muscled form of the youthful Lion King, Dhahabu, stood poised for battle, his thick golden mane blazing in the sunlight as if fire licked his furred face and sprang from his very flesh. The lionesses of Kiburi were ranged behind him, ten in number counting Mahiri and Malkia, and each bore a look of awe and respect on their faces as they gazed at him, except for Malkia, whose nose was to the ground, inhaling the scents of the lions they tracked. Tembo rose from their midst like a granite mountain, a murderous look in his eyes.

            At last Malkia lifted her head and nodded slowly. "I was right. They passed this way...into the gorge."

            Dhahabu sighed gratefully. "Thank you, Mother." He shifted his eyes away, unwilling to see the tears still shining on her cheeks from the burial of Mfalme, for fear they would inspire further tears from himself...tears he could not afford to shed now, when so much lay at stake.

            While his head was turned aside, he felt a soft nuzzle against his neck and glanced up to regard Mahiri, eyes overflowing with sympathy. Struck anew by the glorious beauty and compassion of this lioness, and his own luck in having her as his mate, the golden lion purred, licking her cheek tenderly, before regaining his composure and facing the waiting lionesses.

            "I cannot tell you what lies ahead. Any or all of us may go to meet the Kings this day, and to bow before my father once more. Kuchinja will be merciless, I can promise you that, and I expect no less of his brothers. I also cannot pretend to any skill in leadership or warfare...hopefully that will come with time. Most of you have known me all my life, so you trust me. But I cannot promise I will not make mistakes, today or in the future. But I will do my best...that is all anyone can offer, even my father when he lived." Dhahabu took a shuddering breath. "And I hope that Aiheu and the Kings will grant us leave to achieve justice, and right the terrible wrong Kuchinja has wrought upon our lands. I will strive for it...this cannot remain unpunished..."

            He paused again, meeting each lioness's gaze. Mahiri fairly exuded love and acceptance; Malkia beamed with pride and wonder, while the others returned rapt gazes of confidence and hope. At last he looked directly at the young lioness who had earlier spoken of clemency for the brothers of Kuchinja. "Asumini...I see you brought along your healer's pouch. Good...keep it close, you may need it before the day is out." Dhahabu nodded toward the small satchel made of cured impala hide suspended from a thong around the lioness's neck. It had been a gift from Busara--not his son, of course, but a mandrill who had saved Asumini's life after she suffered major injuries in a hunt.

            In spite of himself, a soft smile crossed Dhahabu's face as he recalled her return to Kiburi...it had only been three months before his journey to Kusini, and his father had still been gradually introducing him into matters of pride business. That day, Asumini had not been able to stop praising the mandrill's skills, and Mfalme on his part had been most impressed by the tale. Busara had of course trembled as he was brought before the king and his son, but he'd had nothing to fear. That very moment Mfalme had declared peace between lion and mandrill and had decreed mandrills would nevermore be hunted in Kiburi. A debt had been repaid...though Mfalme had not ended it there, but insisted on paying his respects to Busara from time to time, visiting his cave and his wife Kima. In the months since then Dhahabu had seen how much his father came to care for the mandrill--which was why when by pure chance Mahiri had named her secondborn Busara, the Lion King had been overjoyed...

            Tears suddenly welled up in Dhahabu's eyes as he heard Mfalme's rich voice, saying the cub would grow to be as wise as his namesake one day. All of that was gone...so much had changed. His father, torn away by the cruel machinations of Kuchinja. Asumini, healed, but bereft of the young rogue she had taken as a husband shortly before that fateful hunt...he had been attacked by another rogue on the borders, and the infections that had set into his wounds led ultimately to a fatal fever neither Busara nor the leopard healer could cure...

            Dashing the tears away, Dhahabu pushed aside once again his grief and the thought that if only the jackal attack had not happened so far distant, Busara could have aided Mfalme. Instead he shook himself and turned back toward the gorge. "The time has come. Now that we know where they've been, let's find where they are."

            As one, the twelve members of the impromptu posse pressed onward, anger and a burning desire to exact retribution from the Wahamiji enflaming every muscle. Following their king, the lionesses and Tembo moved into the shadows of the cliffs and marched around the first bend in the gorge.

 

                                                             ***

 

            The two war parties caught sight of one another at the same moment, as both turned through a jagged angle in the rift to enter the broad flats at the center of the gorge. For a few seconds no one moved, frozen twenty yards apart as each side assessed the other's strengths and weaknesses. Dhahabu was pleased to note the trepidation on Kuchinja's face as he regarded Tembo.

            But the fear soon faded into a sly grin, and the young king felt distinctly uncomfortable. Watching the lions arrayed across the gorge, he managed to retain his calm yet furious demeanor and moved forward, crossing the deserted ground with his subjects at his back. Kuchinja approached similarly, and soon all were close enough to be heard without shouting. Dhahabu lifted his head, chin thrust out imperiously, and spoke in a low, threatening voice. "You made your last mistake, Kuchinja. All that waits for you now is a slow, painful death."

            Kuchinja laughed derisively. "I think not, Dhahabu...vengeance is now mine, but one more stands in my way. It is you who shall not live to see the sunrise, while what waits for me is the lands of Kiburi to which I am the rightful heir..."

            Snarls and growls arose from the lionesses at Dhahabu's back, as each raised her hackles and crouched low. Malkia in particular offered a frightening guttural sound, her fangs bared and teeth clenched as tears of hatred ran from her eyes.

            The gray lion pursed his lips in a false pout and inclined his head slightly, as if studying a helpless cub. "How thoughtful of you to join us, Malkia...have you come to collect on that little promise you made to my father the day he killed Sisasi? I can assure you no lioness has ever complained after I serviced her."

            Howling in outrage, the infuriated lioness lunged toward Kuchinja, but Asumini and another lioness leaped after her and dragged her back. The lion snickered and shook his head. "Why whatever is the matter--oh yes, that piece of carrion you called a mate died last evening. I'd forgotten...what was his name...?"

            A thunderous blast from Tembo's trunk cut Kuchinja off and silenced him instantly. In the deathly stillness that followed, Dhahabu tried to ignore his mother's weeping as he stepped closer still to the scarred face before him, trembling with pent-up rage. "How dare you...how...how..." He could not find the words to express his emotions. "You will pay for this, you vile..." At last he broke into a string of blistering curses so venomous that one of Kuchinja's brothers, the golden tawny one with the chestnut mane, turned an ashy gray in the face.

            Single eye trained on Dhahabu, Kuchinja nodded in approval. "Now that's the spirit! I always want my victims fighting tooth and claw before I kill them. Although you'll have to do better than that--those aren't really insults, since I've been known to do that to any number of females."

            The two chocolate-colored lions laughed uproariously at this...but as Dhahabu ground his teeth and stepped toward them, another sound penetrated the fog in his brain. A high, annoying yelp accompanied the normal laughs...the yelp of a hyena. As his head snapped sharply in its direction, two of the grayish animals stepped into view from behind Kuchinja. "Hoo boy, has he ever!" one cried enthusiastically, her tongue flicking across her teeth. "If I weren't a hyena, you couldn't pry me away from him!"

            Something exploded inside Dhahabu as all at once that voice and the mohawk-like mane on the hyena's neck was joined by a familiar scent. "YOU!!!"

            Before he could leap upon Mwoga, Kuchinja stepped between them. "Ah, I see you remember my little spy...oh yes, did I neglect to mention she worked for me?" He shook his head, clicking his tongue softly. "How careless of me...yes, Mwoga was quite lurid as she described to me each and every slash and tear she and her mate inflicted upon your brother. I could listen to such a tale countless times..."

            Roaring in outrage, Sulubu's battered body floating ghost-like before his eyes, Dhahabu sprang forward, his powerful hind legs thrusting him at the smug visage of Kuchinja. But the gray lion calmly swung a massive paw, striking the young king across the face and hurling him to the ground. As he scrambled up, Kuchinja strode toward him. Blood boiling, Dhahabu snarled, "You even robbed me of my BROTHER?!?"

            Kuchinja nodded with false gravity, breaking it with a yawn. "I took your brother, and your father...now only you remain between me and the throne...a technicality I will deal with now..."

            He raised a paw to gesture to his brothers, not noticing Njaa had fallen back in horror, but before they could move Dhahabu gathered all his considerable strength and pounced, bearing the lion down. At the same moment the king snarled, "Attack!!!"

            Kuchinja threw Dhahabu sideways until they were rolling across the ground, paws encircling his neck, even as the other bit savagely into his mane. Simultaneously, the opposing forces of lions and lionesses dove toward each other with ear-splitting cries, except for Njaa, who instead was attacked by two lionesses at once before he could fall back to safety.

            In moments all was a blur of dust, blood, and sweat as the battle for Kiburi's future began.

 

                                                               ***

 

            The ground shook violently beneath Tembo's pounding feet as the elephant barreled toward Kufa, two lionesses flanking him on either side, yowls of fury rising from their throats to split the humid air. But before they could draw within two feet of the dark brown lion, Kufa turned at an angle, skidding through the dirt so that the elephant passed over him. The lion at once leapt high, clawing at Tembo's sensitive underbelly and drawing thick blood to drip onto the barren earth. Trumpeting in fury and pain, the elephant stomped uncontrollably, attempting to catch Kufa beneath his crushing feet, but the lion dodged each descending missile--although several times he escaped death by mere inches.

            Sidestepping the danger altogether, Kufa slipped out from under Tembo--but one of the lionesses was waiting for him and hurled herself into the fray, claws slashing across his face. Momentarily blinded, he was unable to prevent her from springing to his back and biting into his neck. Snarling, he whirled and threw himself against Tembo's trunk-like leg. The force jarred the lioness loose, and she fell to the ground groaning.

            Chuckling, Kufa raised a paw to cut deep into Tembo's leg, when the other lioness tackled him from the side. The lion slammed to the ground and rolled, the lioness grappling with him with a fierceness that surprised him. Tearing his claws into her throat, he tumbled into an upthrust rock, scraping the fur from his back. Despite the searing pain, he continued to clamp his jaws across her windpipe...not seeing the shadow looming over him...

            Across the gorge, Vita was in an equally precarious situation. Two lionesses had him backed against one cliff wall, their lips writhered back to expose gleaming ivory fangs. Standing his ground, the dark brown lion vacillated from side to side, trying to draw the lionesses out of position, but they did not fall for his feints, instead pressing in closer. Finally in a desperate gamble the lion sprang at the smaller of his adversaries, his forelegs wrapping around her neck as his weight bore her to the ground. Twisting as he fell, he rolled her sideways, his hind legs lifting to slash deeply at her underbelly. But the lioness bit into his forepaw, and Vita howled as he both heard and felt the bones breaking.

            At that moment the other lioness slammed into him, spilling him off her pridemate. Limping, the lion stumbled away back onto the open expanse of the gorge floor and managed to duck another swipe of a paw. With freedom of movement once more granted to him, Vita gritted his teeth and rested as much of his weight as he could on his broken paw, lifting the other to strike a massive blow across the face of the smaller lioness, who was in the midst of pouncing furiously onto his back. She fell away, holding a paw to the terrible gashes across her eye and cheek.

            But he could relish in the blood soaking her paw for a short moment only, as the other lioness began stalking him in eerie silence...without growls or snarls, only a menacing bloodlust burning in her eyes as she forced him back in an ever-tightening spiral, teeth bared as the muscles in her hindquarters tensed for the thrust of a powerful pounce...

            Isolated from the rest of the vicious fighting, Ushindi felt a trickle of nervous sweat run from beneath his cinnamon mane as he faced Mahiri's infuriated grimace, and her considerable fangs. One paw at a time she backed him along the gorge, having already driven him this far by sheer strength of muscle, for despite being male he was not as powerful as his brothers. Each blow from her deadly paws had sent shivers of pain throughout his body and left lacerations all across his face and neck. He had of course fought back valiantly, but just as he had caught her off guard and pinned her, the lioness had outmaneuvered him, slipping one hind leg free to slam it into his underbelly, spilling him to the ground. Alone and unaided, he had retreated...but now she had him where she wanted him...

            Suddenly he stiffened in fury. Was he a son of Giza or not? He should not be cowering, he should be striking fear in this pitiful lioness's heart! Narrowing his eyes, he growled menacingly and halted, tensing his muscles for a strike. Mahiri echoed his stance, and leaped simultaneously so that the two crashed together in mid-air. In desperation Ushindi bit deeply into the lioness's neck as he wrapped his paws around her shoulders. She retaliated by digging her fangs beneath his mane into his own neck, drawing blood.

            Together the two slammed into the ground and rolled, clawing at each other's pelts and slashing at straining muscles. Mahiri landed atop him and pressed downward, her claws puncturing his chest. Roaring in pain, Ushindi slammed a paw across her face. Blinded momentarily, the lioness loosened her grip and the cream lion slipped out from beneath her, dashing away further down the gorge. But in moments Mahiri was following, and Ushindi had no choice but to continue on, although each step he took in flight galled him. Stumbling over a rock, he rounded a bend and leaped forward over a small crevasse, hoping that there would be a place to hide up ahead from which he could ambush the lioness...before the dead end lived up to its name...

            Raking his hind claws deep into Dhahabu's underbelly, Kuchinja bared his fangs and tore into the golden lion's shoulder, relishing the ripping sensation as flesh gave way. Dhahabu roared in anguish, but lifted his free paw to slash down the blind side of Kuchinja's face, eliciting a howl of pain from the gray beast pinning the young king to the gorge floor. Using this distraction, Dhahabu thrusted sideways, sending them both rolling. A small crevice diverted their course, sending them flying into the cliff wall. As the two separated, Kuchinja leapt to his paws and brought his forequarters to bay, shoulders heaving in fury as his paws slammed into the ground and launched him forward.

            Dhahabu shook his head groggily as he struggled to rise. He had a brief glimpse of the other battles nearby--Kufa, rolling up against an upthrust rock as he attempted to crush the windpipe of his aunt Simana, while Guyana and Tembo rushed in their direction; and Vita, backing away from the vicious teeth of Detera as she stalked him, followed closely by Huyjinga. Then Kuchinja was upon him, and he could see nothing but the sweat-soaked gray fur of his adversary and the flexing muscles as the son of Giza threw him back into the dirt and pinned him in place. Blood surging, Dhahabu kept his forelegs rigid even as Kuchinja pressed close, fangs flashing in impotent fury just inches from his vulnerable neck. His eye blazed a vivid red, sending a chill down the young king's spine.

            Grinning fiendishly, Kuchinja thrusted against the younger lion's limbs again and again, bearing down on the muscles keeping them stiff. At last they weakened, and his legs buckled. Snarling in triumph, Kuchinja plunged downward--only to rear up again in pain as a set of claws buried themselves in his shoulders, accompanied by fangs digging into his withers. Sparing a glance back he saw Malkia perched atop his back, a stark vision of bestial savagery in her gaze. Whirling, he stumbled off of Dhahabu and rolled his shoulders, trying to dislodge his attacker. Crashing into the cliff wall, he felt her slip free, but in the same moment his own head connected with the rock. Suddenly dizzy, the gray lion staggered in the opposite direction, feeling the blood trickle down his temple...only to see Dhahabu on his paws before him, crouched and ready to pounce...

            Borne down by the weight of two lionesses, Njaa struggled to escape their grasp, muscles surging as he fought their furious attack. But he made certain not to injure them anymore than necessary...his massive paws as they slammed into leonine shoulders drew no blood for their claws were sheathed, and the bites that he gave were not deep and far distant from the vital organs and blood vessels. Yet even so the golden tawny lion was valiant, and in moments he succeeded in breaking free and whipping around to bring his fangs to bay. To one side, Tauni battled in a similar conflict, but he was faring much worse. Despite the fact that he was more vicious and used teeth and claws to their full advantage, the tan lion had been caught off guard in the initial assault, and as a result his chest and shoulders now dripped thick rivulets of scarlet, and one ear was torn. The wheezing of his breath, coupled with the painful spasms in his sides as he stumbled across the ground, revealed he had bruised several ribs, if not cracked them, when one of his attackers had sent him rolling into a broken pinnacle of rock rising from the gorge floor. Njaa watched in sorrow as his brother took a blow to the head and nearly lost his footing. Attempting to maneuver closer to Tauni so that he would be free of enemies on at least one side, the golden tawny lion backed sideways, but each time he sidled in Tauni's direction one of the lionesses would cut him off and drive him away. His temper flared, yet he managed to keep calm even as his brother's cry of pain cut the dust-choked air. Desperate, he raised a mute appeal to the lioness facing him, eyes pleading with her not to force his paw, not to make him kill her...

            As her opponent's chestnut mane stirred in the breeze, Asumini blinked through the haze. Was it her imagination, or had she seen regret in that lion's eyes? And a look beseeching understanding? How was that possible? But the longer she stared into those jaden orbs, the more convinced she became of their sincerity...this lion did not wish to fight her. At present he had no choice...but he was unwilling to harm her unless his own life depended on it. Shocked, she froze in place, mind racing to unravel what this could mean. Why would one of Kuchinja's brothers not fight to the death against the lionesses of Kiburi for their lands? Could it be that this lion did not want Kiburi back? But then why was he here? It was all so confusing! Undecided, the lioness again searched Njaa's eyes, and found pain, and anger, but also gentleness. There was a depth to them...she could not explain it but suddenly it felt as if the entire battle had faded away, and the cause for which she fought meant nothing. All that existed was this lion's eyes, for they told such a haunting story--of goodness amongst evil, of respect for others warring with contempt for them, of taking the lesser of numerous ill choices, of compromise and cruelty, of far too much knowledge and yet a certain innocence. Instinctively she could sense he was not like the others...and yet he fought just as the others did, and did not speak out against his brother. Thus, how could she trust him? Dimly she was aware of the lioness beside her, staring in consternation and disgust, but that did not seem to matter anymore...

            Entranced by Asumini's eyes, burning with such sudden sympathy and curiosity, Njaa was completely unprepared for the weight that slammed into his side as the other furious lioness barreled into him, sending him sprawling across the ground. Before he was aware of doing so, he was fighting back, claws ripping down her sides and chest as she leaped atop him. The other lioness's cry of restraint was like an echo of another world, for Njaa was in a fight for survival. His opponent seemed on a rampage, tearing into his own muscled chest, prompting a roar of agony from the golden tawny lion. Bashing her in the ear, he was rewarded by a spray of blood as the organ tore nearly in two. Yowling, the lioness tumbled off of him, but Njaa pursued, leaping across her, pinning her down with his full weight--and burying his fangs in her jugular. The resultant fountain turned her last cry into a gurgle before the lioness collapsed in a heap beneath the lion's body. It was only after he stepped away from the corpse that Njaa came back to himself...staring at what his instincts had wrought, he shuddered. This was no wildebeest, lowly and meant to be preyed upon, that he had driven into a river...he looked up at the stricken Asumini in horror. But then a snarl of triumph made him whirl. In one instant he saw a lioness slam one paw into Tauni's jaw, and then his brother lost his balance and stepped into a gopher hole. The snap of his ankle could be heard even through the tan lion's scream, and then Tauni fell. At once the lionesses swarmed over him...Njaa was in motion, rushing in, paws flailing at the tawny forms, claws digging in and ripping the lionesses away. But by the time he had cleared the space around his brother, Tauni lay weakly on the soil, sides and underbelly shredded in several places, and barely conscious.

            Looking up, Njaa saw the lionesses, even Asumini, closing in around him and his brother...they were surrounded. Trapped. His premonition that they would not survive this day had come true. But he swore to himself he would not go down without one last fight. Moving to stand athwart the fallen Tauni, the golden tawny lion stood his ground, crouching low as he readied himself for death...

            Gasping for breath, Simana, Malkia's sister and the only elder left from the days of Giza's rule, struggled beneath the sinewy form of Kufa and glared up at the lion's dark visage. She remembered him as a pudgy and gentle cub who had filled the savanna with an infectious laugh of innocence and humor. How could his years of exile in the Majonzi have changed him so? Staring at him now, a small part of her felt pride at seeing how strong and powerful he had become...but this was overshadowed by what she saw in his eyes, the depth of cruelty and the emptiness of necessity. The cub Kufa she had known was no more...only this shell remained, and he must be eliminated.

            Gathering her muscles, the lioness shifted her hind legs and managed to tear free of his grip, bringing the claws up to rake deeply between Kufa's legs, in his most sensitive place. Howling in sheer agony, Kufa suddenly let go of her neck and rolled off of her, body curled into a protective ball as he writhed on the ground. Smirking, Simana struggled to her paws in time to see Guyana take advantage of the lion's distraction and pounce, sending both of them tumbling across the soil. Tears of pain trickling down his face, Kufa shook as he threw Guyana aside and began to rise...but suddenly he stiffened in horror as something large, rough, and heavy came down firmly on his back, pinning him in place.

            Slowly the dark lion raised his head to stare into the cold gaze of Tembo, a monolith of anger and vengeance, whose mighty foot rested upon his vulnerable spine. Simana, watching intently, saw the flicker of despair in Kufa's eyes, followed by a fear so great it almost made her restrain the elephant. But then she saw something else...in this moment, as Kufa turned to meet her gaze, the warmth was back, and he was the lion she had known. And suddenly she knew she could not allow him to return to his previous state. He must die now, while he was himself again.

            An imperceptible nod was all the lioness gave Tembo. Needing no further prompting, the elephant clenched his muscles and shoved downward. The crack of Kufa's backbone sounded like thunder to Simana, and his cry tore at her heart. Unable to continue watching, she turned away, breathing raggedly. When she at last regained her composure and was able to look back, Kufa's last whimper was dying away. His dark eyes closed forever...yet as he let out one last sigh, she could not mistake the look of peace on his muzzle...

            A reddish haze overlay Detera's vision as she stalked Vita, the normally gentle lioness incensed by the horrible fate this lion and his brothers had visited upon her beloved king. She would not rest until their threat was banished forever...seeing the uncertainty and worry in Vita's expression, she chuckled and continued her slow movement, noticing out of the corner of her eye that Huyjinga had maneuvered around behind the lion while he had his attention focused on her. Without shifting her eyes or stance, the lioness twitched her pelt, signalling Simana's daughter to act.

            Caught completely by surprise by Huyjinga's sudden leap upon his haunches, Vita whirled instinctively--presenting his neck and chest to Detera. Immediately she pounced, forelegs wrapping around his shoulders and twisting, bearing him to the ground as her fangs buried themselves in his trachea. At once the dark lion was choking on his own blood, struggling beneath her weight, but Huyjinga held his hind end prone and would not relent as her paws worked downward to plunge into his underbelly. Detera grinned fiendishly around the lion's neck, his mane becoming soaked with the essence of Vita's life.

            Taking a risk, she briefly released her grip and locked her eyes on his. "Your reign of terror is over...enjoy these last moments knowing I ended it." Dodging quickly as he attempted vainly to snap at her, she ducked down and once more sank her fangs into his neck--but this time, she wrenched away, tearing his throat open. Beneath her paws she felt Vita twitch and spasm and then go limp. Satisfied, she at last released her hold and rose to stand beside Huyjinga, a superior attitude in her expression as she glanced down at his crumpled body. Although it was rather like a cub to do so, she gave in to an impulse and kicked at the dusty floor of the gorge, spreading the gritty particles in a cloud across Vita's face. Nodding to her companion, she then cast down one last look of contempt and turned away...

            Turning the final angle in the gorge, Mahiri slid to a halt, abruptly confronted by the towering cliff face where the rift first split apart the ground above. Strewn with massive boulders and crisscrossed by numerous ledges, it offered an astonishing number of hiding places, any one of which could conceal the cream lion she pursued. Standing poised and waiting, she strained to hear any pawfalls, or rocks being dislodged, as she ran her eyes rapidly over the scene.

            Without warning Ushindi hurtled out of the shadows of a monstrous boulder several yards to the right and sprang. Although her instinct to duck saved her from a bite to the neck and immediate death, the young lion's weight bore Mahiri to the ground and sent her sprawling. Grinning in triumph he pinned her with all four paws, and let out a roar that was fearsome for his size as his fangs flashed in the light of late afternoon. Unfortunately for him his roar dislodged several rocks the size of his head from the slopes above, sending them tumbling down in his direction. Startled, he lost the advantage of surprise as Mahiri raked her claws down his muzzle and bit into his youthful chest. At once Ushindi fell away, freeing the lioness.

            Furious, the lion circled her, but Mahiri would not allow him an opening, instead darting in and out to slash at his unprotected shoulders and then dodging away once more. She grinned openly at his frustration, which only enraged the lion further...and caused him to play into her paws, for his reflexes and strategies were likely to be weaker now, more easily countered. Still, he was not stupid, he could see how she was baiting him. Clearly struggling against his anger, the cream lion continued to sidle around his counterpart in hue--and abuptly struck, leaping in close to swipe her cheek. The roar of pain Mahiri released once more caused a small landslide of rocks from the ledges overhanging the combatants.

            Even as she evaded another blow, Mahiri's incredibly quick mind realized the significance of this discovery--and produced a plan. Maneuvering between a cluster of boulders so that Ushindi no longer had an unobstructed path, the lioness gazed up at the dead-end slope...the loose scree at its base...and the precarious perches on which its geological weapons rested. Smirking, she pounced from hiding and caught her opponent across the haunches, sending yet another roar into the unstable walls of the cleft. At once Ushindi went on the attack--and though it pained her to do so, the lioness allowed most of his blows to land, drawing blood in countless places. But each one prompted a roar from her throat, which in turn triggered another collapse of rock. But the young lion was too infuriated to notice, avoiding the falling missiles yet still keeping his attention fixed on Mahiri.

            Back and forth the two lions leapt, from one side of the gorge to the other, each striking numerous times, each cutting the air with loud yowls and cries, until the intertwined echoes were nearly overwhelming to the ears. A sustained shuddering began, spreading from the highest ledges into the cracked earth beneath their paws. Finally Ushindi realized what was progressing around him, and began jerking his head wildly as he watched the cracking of the slopes in terror. Glaring at Mahiri, he gathered all the strength of his hind legs and pounced--but the lioness met his attack with both forepaws extended, slamming into his chest and hurling him backwards...directly into the wall of the gorge.

            Sending up one last roar, this one a cry of triumph, Mahiri landed on her paws, whirled, and raced at top speed back toward the rest of the battle. The resonance begun by her final outcry, coupled with Ushindi's sudden flight into the rock, tipped the balance, and at once a chain reaction of rockslides tumbled from the heights. Ledges tore free, boulders rolled ponderously from their eons of prolonged rest, one entire cliff face gave way. The young lion, still struggling to his paws with a splitting headache, had no chance.

            When Mahiri at last felt she was a safe distance away, she slowed to a stop and gazed back. As the last of the echoes died away, and the massive dustcloud slowly settled, the lioness's widened green eyes took in the throat of the gorge, now blocked entirely by a mountain of rock and dirt. After the collapse subsided, and all was calm once more, she peered closer...and spied one pale cream paw emerging pathetically from Ushindi's burial mound. Shivering in spite of herself, the young queen of Kiburi averted her gaze and rushed back toward where her mate and the rest of the pride continued their conflict.

 

                                                             ***

 

            Mahiri's feat was more impressive than she had intended--the echoes of roars and crashing rocks intermingled to flood the entire gorge with sound. As the cacophony filled the air, every lion and lioness froze in the midst of fighting, paws held in place, jaws hanging, various looks of shock and fear in their eyes.  The hyenas Mwoga and Ukware cowered with their paws over their muzzles. Detera and Huyjinga braced themselves, bloodied paws gripping the ground. Njaa dared to breathe at this sudden reprieve, for Asumini and the other lionesses had turned away from him to stare toward the far end of the gorge. Tembo let out a startled blast on his trunk. Kuchinja peered furtively around him, realized Dhahabu's attention was diverted, and backed far enough away to put himself out of immediate danger.

            Then, as abruptly as it had started, the horrible sounds dissipated, fading into the dusty air. In the growing stillness, those who had been consumed in battle at last had a chance to look around and take stock. Despite numerous injuries, many of them quite serious, the Kiburi Pride had only one loss, the lioness Njaa had killed in self-defense. But two of the Wahamiji lay lifeless...Kufa, flat on his stomach with a shattered back, and Vita, coated in the still spurting blood from his vicious neck wound. Neither Ushindi nor Mahiri were anywhere to be seen.

            No one dared to move for fear of setting off further landslides...all waited for the sign that the worst was past, as each glanced across the rocky expanse at wounded comrades. Malkia's eyes ran over each of the Kiburi lionesses, fixing upon congealing blood and gaping lacerations with disbelief and anger. Njaa stared at the bodies of his brothers, tears coursing down his cheeks. Kuchinja too glanced at Kufa and Vita, but with fury rather than remorse. Tembo kept a solemn expression as he checked the extent of Dhahabu's injuries, but the Lion King ignored himself, instead focusing all his worry on the dustcloud from which Mahiri had not yet appeared.

            Then, slowly, a silhouette formed in the haze of dust. As it drew closer, it resolved itself into Mahiri--dirty, disheveled, and bloody, yet still the most beautiful lioness the young king had ever seen. Dhahabu let out an explosive breath and smiled warmly at his mate, the pain in his shoulder dulled by the love burning in her emerald eyes. At the same moment Kuchinja took a shaky step backwards--which also happened to move him in the cream lioness's direction. Spotting the motion from the corner of his eye, Dhahabu snarled and crouched, and Tembo glared furiously at the gray lion. Suddenly all in the gorge seemed to reach the same conclusion at once...the Wahamiji were now greatly outnumbered.

            Yet as the lionesses of Kiburi turned their attention to him and began contracting their circle inwards, Kuchinja managed to keep the desperation and panic from his voice, though not from his eye. "It seems I underestimated you, Dhahabu."

            A dark chuckle came from the Lion King. "So it does, Kuchinja...I warned you you made your last mistake."

            The eldest son of Giza shot a look at Njaa and Tauni, but the one lay unconscious and the other seemed barely in full possession of his faculties himself, probably due to blood loss--and from his expression, Kuchinja doubted he would lend a paw even if he were not incapacitated. Quickly the wounded lion lifted a massive, cautionary paw. "I believe, however, that you are making a mistake yourself, your Majesty." Kuchinja managed to make the term of respect into an insult just by his intonation.

            "Oh really?" Assured of his victory now, Dhahabu spoke in almost a conversational tone as he stepped closer to the lion he had vowed to kill. "And what mistake might that be?"

            "You seek justice..." The lion licked his onyx lips a trifle nervously. "This requires fairness on your part, even though you surely do not wish to exercise it...it entails giving those of us left a fighting chance. Something you shall deny us if you attack now in overwhelming number."

            Dhahabu's brain seethed at the thought of this despicable creature daring to speak of fairness and justice when he had deprived Sulubu and Mfalme of the same rights. Yet a small still voice deep within his heart forced the young lion to examine his actions...and to reluctantly agree with his enemy. Although it would be satisfying to send all of the lionesses, and Tembo, into the fray and watch them rip Kuchinja to shreds, if he gave in to this bloodthirsty desire...he would be no better than the murderer who stood before him.

            Yet he could not admit this aloud. Instead, a trifle grudingly, Dhahabu replied, "Perhaps...yet wounded as you are, even if I brought only two or three lionesses against you, you would perish."

            Kuchinja considered this, mind racing, as he felt every wound acutely...the pain wracking his face, shoulders, chest, and withers was enough to make any lion without his incredible stamina faint. In all honesty he was uncertain whether he could overcome the constant agony long enough to achieve victory. "But still I am a formidable foe," he boasted. "You might indeed vanquish me, but you can be certain I would take one or two lionesses with me...and I know how greatly you are attached to your pridemembers. You could not wish any more injury or death than is necessary."

            From behind him, Mahiri's proud, determined voice rang out. "Don't listen to him, Dhahabu...he's only baiting you."

            Dhahabu smirked at his mate. "You think I don't know that?" Shifting his gray eyes back to Kuchinja, who suddenly looked less threatening and more pitiful to his confident gaze, the golden lion shook his head in amazement. "First my sense of honesty and justice, then my protective instinct toward my pride. What will you try next to stave off the inevitable? It's true I wish no more bloodshed than is necessary...but all who came here this day knew they might die by your paw, and came willingly...because they, and I, see it as a small sacrifice when compared to the evil your death would cleanse from the land."

            The circle tightened further still.

            His anxiety at a fever pitch now, Kuchinja looked once more to Njaa, but his brother had averted his gaze. The implicit message was obvious: 'You dug your den, now lie in it.' Hurriedly the gray lion tried one last ploy. "But Dhahabu...I know that it is you, and you alone, that you wish to see tear my life from my body. It is you who wishes the greatest vengeance for your brother and your father. It is you who wishes the satisfaction of feeling my last heartbeat beneath your paws." Flicking his eyes around the circle, he snorted. "You do not need them...you can defeat me without any assistance whatsoever. Surely you do not wish to be a king who depends on his lionesses to win his battles for him?" Carefully masking the disgust engendered by this posturing and false praise, Kuchinja instead focused all his emotion into the final taunt.

            It should not have worked. Aware of his foe's trickery and malice, Dhahabu should have resisted the third temptation. But the one thing he still retained from his cubhood, besides that roguish sense of mischief, was his pride. With all the insecurity he bore as a king, Kuchinja had found his vulnerability by assaulting his confidence. He did desire fairness and justice, and he did wish to avert bloodshed...but more than these he wished to prove his worth once and for all.

            And defeating Kuchinja alone, by his own paw, would at last give him the greatness he craved.

            Most of this did not come as conscious thought, of course. All Dhahabu felt was an intense need to wipe that smug grin from Kuchinja's face...to conquer him himself, and wrest his victory from the son of Giza by his own power.

            Mahiri and Malkia both saw the change in his eyes at the same time...and knew they could not do anything to alter his decision. Both were well aware of the golden lion's constant self-doubt, his sense of inadequacy. The same thought entered both their minds as they exchanged a meaningful glance--if Dhahabu survived this, he would finally be free of the prison he had forged for himself since Sulubu's death.

            Kuchinja saw the shift in Dhahabu's eyes too, and smiled sardonically. "I take it your answer is no."

            Clenching his jaw, Dhahabu nodded slowly. "You're damn right it is...I accept your challenge. This may be a manipulation, but it is also what I wish. I will indeed end your tyranny once and for all...I, and I alone."

            With a curt nod, the Lion King indicated to Tembo and the lionesses that he wished them to back away. Reluctantly they did so...all but Tembo. The elephant locked his eyes on his friend and king. "Dhahabu...think of what you are doing! You will face him alone, with no assistance--but what is to prevent him from bringing his allies against you?" He flicked his gaze to Njaa, then to the two hyenas who crouched snarling not far away.

            The lion stared, having completely forgotten this detail in the midst of his overconfidence, but before he could say a word Kuchinja stepped smoothly in. "Ah, but I promise this shall be a fight between only your king and I, tusked one."

            "The promise of a murderer, a liar, and a thief." Tembo snorted disdainfully. "Now that I trust without a single reservation."

            Kuchinja chuckled at the elephant's biting sarcasm. "But you're forgetting one thing...indeed you must trust my word. For you have no other choice."

            Glaring belligerently, Tembo was about to retort a reply when Dhahabu cut in gently. "I promise, my friend, that if anyone interferes to aid Kuchinja, you may deal with them as you see fit. But leave him to me."

            Slowly the elephant let his trunk fall and lowered his tusks, then began backing grudgingly away. "Very well, Dhahabu. But I hope you know what you are doing..."

            So do I, the young king thought to himself. But as the center of the gorge was cleared once more for battle, leaving him alone before the sadistic lion who was doomed to die if he had any say in the matter, Dhahabu did not voice his trepidation. Instead, he drew himself up to his full height and spoke in a grim, emotionless tone. "And now it is down to you and me, Kuchinja..." His eyes narrowed dangerously.

            The gray lion smirked and unsheathed his claws. "As it was always meant to be..."

 

                                                              ***

 

            As Tembo and the lionesses of Kiburi retreated from the battleground to take the role of spectators to the ensuing conflict between Kuchinja and Dhahabu, Njaa breathed a slow, shaky sigh of relief. He had been spared. Why, he did not know--but now that the outcome would be decided by a single test of wills and strength, he and Tauni could at last sit out the war in peace.

            Turning his gaze to the crumpled, bloodied forms of his brothers, the golden tawny lion shuddered. But at what cost had this been achieved? Renewed tears flowed from his eyes...Kufa and Vita, so young they had been. And Ushindi too...the safe return of Dhahabu's mate could only mean he too had perished. Njaa hung his head. He still remembered when they had been born, and their eager cub eyes twinkling with delight. And now all that was taken away. But he could not defend their actions either...they had made their choices, and sought revenge and cruelty in the pawprints they trod, and so had led themselves to this fate. Yet that did not change the love he held for them...

            Sighing, he turned back to the prone form of Tauni, his sole friend in this time and place. The lionesses had moved away, leaving them alone, but the injuries he had sustained were severe. He flinched as his eyes fell on the bone protruding from the tan lion's forepaw, and as he took in the widening pool of blood beneath Tauni, flowing from deep wounds in his chest, sides, and underbelly. How could he ever survive long enough for him to be healed, assuming that were possible?

            A soft crunch of dirt beneath weary paws alerted Njaa to the presence of another. Quickly tensing and stepping in front of his brother, he lifted his head--and was surprised to see the lioness who had faced him before, and chosen not to attack him. A look of sympathy and caring shone in her eyes.

            "What do you want?" His voice was not distrustful, accusing, or angry, merely tired. "Hasn't enough blood been shed this day?"

            The lioness winced, a hurt expression crossing her face, but then she nodded slowly. "Indeed it has. I have not come here to threaten you. I wish to help." Carefully she sat down on her haunches beside him and lifted a paw to work at the strings of the pouch around her neck with her claws.

            Blinking in surprise, Njaa seated himself as well. "What? You would help me, one of the Wahamiji? Why?"

            For a long time he thought she would not reply. But then as she finished opening the pouch and reached inside, the lioness said, "Because you are not like the others." She began removing various herbs and powders wrapped in leaves and small strips of leather, setting them on the ground. When she had finished, she looked up into his eyes with sincerity. "When Mfalme was killed, and we discovered that the Wahamiji had driven the jackals who were responsible, we found all of their scents there...all but yours. During the battle, I saw how you fought--without claws, only in defense, never intending to harm unless your life was threatened. When your brother fell, you stood over him to protect him. You would have given your life to save him. None of your brothers would do that. And just now, I saw your tears for those who have died today...but Kuchinja showed no emotion. To him you and your brothers are only tools. He regrets the losses he has suffered as a snake regrets the loss of a skin it has shed. But you...you truly love your brothers. You are only doing what you feel is right."

            Njaa's throat worked as he attempted to find the words to respond. This lioness, who had every reason and right to hate him, instead saw the truth of his heart. She did not reject him...she wished to spare him. No one had ever done anything remotely resembling this for him before. How could he deserve this? "But...I killed one of your huntsisters." The observation sounded inane and weak even to him, but it was all he could think to say.

            "Only when she forced your paw...you would never have done so otherwise. And afterward you were horrified by what you had done." The lioness's words were gentle and understanding, and sent a thrill of amazed disbelief through Njaa's body.

            Managing a grateful smile, he glanced down at the array of healer's supplies on the ground between them. "So you have come to bring healing?" As he spoke it struck him that those words had more than one meaning.

            The lioness seemed to realize the same thing, and smiled as she lifted a paw to stroke Njaa's cheek. "Indeed I have. Whatever else happens this day, when it is all over, I wish for you to have a second chance, to prove that you are as good and worthwhile as I now believe you to be."

            Glancing at the forms of Dhahabu and Kuchinja in the near distance, circling and eyeing each other as they prepared for the attack, Njaa nodded worriedly, then flicked his eyes back to her. "Then all I can say is...thank you. And I hope I live up to your expectations..." I hope I simply live, he amended in his thoughts. Gazing deeply into those eyes he remembered so well from the midst of battle what seemed ages ago, he added, "I am Njaa. And what is your name?"

            As she proceeded to unwrap a leaf filled with a mint-scented cream and to rub it gently into the wounds on his chest and shoulders, the lioness murmured, "I'm Asumini."

 

                                                              ***

 

            Gasping for breath, Jahili slid to a halt at the eastern lip of the gorge, paws gripping the rock as he stared down into the depths of the rift, eyes searching desperately for what he knew in his heart was taking place. And he was not mistaken--in the center of the gorge he spied the lionesses of Kiburi and a massive elephant ranged in a circle, surrounding the muscular forms of Dhahabu and Kuchinja, fangs bared as they prepared to fight. A sinking feeling filled his chest...was there enough time to still avert the battle?

            Quickly he shot a glance at the cinnamon lioness beside him. Taraji's eyes were wide with horror and anger. What she intended to do, he had no idea, and frankly his own intentions were vague as well, but they could not stand by helplessly.

            She saw him looking at her and swallowed. "We have to do something, Jahili."

            "I know." The mahogany lion tried to put as much firmness and certainty in his voice as he could. "But what? Are there words we can say, an action we can take, that won't cost someone their life?"

            A small snort came from Jahili's mane, and then Cheko struggled out from under the layers of hair. "Well ya ain't gonna find out by standin' around talkin' about it! Ya gotta get down dere an' get closer!"

            The lion nodded and began scanning the rim of the gorge. In a few moments he discovered a ledge only a few feet below him, sloping downward at a steep angle into the yawning depths. Nerving himself, he leaped and landed safely, skidding only a short distance before finding purchase on the loose soil. As Taraji leapt after him, Jahili trotted as fast as he dared along the narrow path, following its angles as it zig-zagged across the face of the cliff.

            He was about halfway down when more details of the scene below became apparent to him. To his intense relief, Njaa still lived, although he appeared wounded, as he lay beside Tauni while a lioness tended to both of them. But to Jahili's sadness, Kufa and Vita both lay still and lifeless, and even from this distance he could smell the thickening blood. Mwoga and Ukware were there as well, huddled together off to the side, eyes fixed on the two combatants. In fact, all eyes were on Dhahabu and Kuchinja...a condition that meant no one would notice if he and Taraji approached. Turning to whisper this realization to her, Jahili was surprised to find the lioness frozen in place, eyes filled with shock and fury. "Taraji...what's wrong?"

            Her voice was a hiss. "I can't believe it. I never thought I would see that horrible face again!"

            Jahili furrowed his brow in confusion and followed her gaze. The incensed lioness was staring at Mwoga. "Who? You mean Mwoga?"

            Taraji snarled and bared her fangs. "You know her?"

            A sense of foreboding filled his mind. Choosing his words carefully, he replied, "Yes...she works for my father."

            An audible gasp came from the lioness's throat, and then she swore. Jahili's eyes bulged, and he blanched when Taraji turned a furious stare upon him, as if she had just condemned him to death. "Then your father was behind it. He is the source of my pain and suffering."

            The mahogany lion blinked and struggled to understand what was going on. He had always held Mwoga in contempt, but what about her could be so horrible as to provoke this response? "What do you mean?"

            Taraji narrowed her eyes and turned her head to the side, as if studying prey soon to be slaughtered. "You truly do not know what she did?"

            Jahili shook his head, not comprehending. "All I ever knew was that Mwoga spied for my father. What else did she do?"

            The cinnamon lioness muttered to herself. "That's right, you would have been a cub at the time..." Looking up, she locked her blue eyes on his. "She is one of those responsible for the death of my brother Sulubu."

            Jahili's heart turned cold in his chest. Slowly he turned to stare down at the hyena on the distant floor of the gorge. Watching him, even Taraji had to shudder...Mwoga would lie eviscerated if his gaze had the power of fangs and claws. His shoulders heaved for several minutes, and when he looked back at her, the contempt and wrath in his eyes was clear. "She...she...she was the one who did that? All this time, the one who nearly killed you, and killed your heart, was within my grasp all along?"

            Taraji nodded, entranced by his building ire. It frightened her, but at the same time brought a great satisfaction. The great bitterness of her life could now be avenged, and if she was reading him right, Jahili would gladly help her achieve it.

            As Jahili looked back down at the hyena, a deep growl rumbled in his chest. "She will know the meaning of pain if I have anything to say about it. Let's get down there."

            Together the lion and lioness proceeded down the ledges, until at last they gained the cracked and pitted expanse of the gorge floor. Several massive clusters of boulders thrust from the ground, providing the perfect cover for the pair. Slipping from one to another, Jahili drew closer to the building conflict. Finally he was only a few feet from Dhahabu as the golden lion turned to pace around the wounded form of Kuchinja. Absently the mahogany lion removed Cheko from his mane and carefully set him down. The lion before him was fully as massive as Taraji had described, his muscles surging with raw power, the razors of his claws slashing deep into the soil. He gulped...although his love had always said Dhahabu was gentle and kind, the emotions he saw burning in the young Lion King's eyes now filled him with dread and fear. This lion, he sensed, could kill him with no questions asked. How could he prove to him that he was unlike his father in every way?

            Jahili sensed Taraji moving up beside him to join him in the boulder's shadow. Together they watched and listened as Dhahabu and Kuchinja began to speak, hurling insults and taunts...the two waited, muscles tense, for the perfect opening. The chance to spare those they loved. The chance to end this war.

            The chance to set things right again.

 

                                                             ***

 

            Limping visibly as he strode past Kuchinja's sneering visage, Dhahabu struggled to contain the burning wrath within his heart. His ultimate enemy, the bane of his existence, he who had spawned every evil of his young life, stood before him, and yet he could not fight him until he regained enough of his strength. And even once he could do so, the golden lion knew he teetered on the balance between righteousness and corruption, that to give in fully to his desire for revenge on Kuchinja was to become Kuchinja himself. That must be avoided at all costs...

            The gray lion chuckled. "If you continue to encircle me in such a manner, you will only make yourself lightheaded."

            Dhahabu glared at him. "Your throat is the first thing I will tear out, I think." He stalked a few paces closer as he continued his circuit. "As you well know, I wait until I am strong enough, and until the right opportunity."

            Kuchinja shook his head in mock regret. "But such an opportunity shall never present itself, Dhahabu...it is my destiny to rule Kiburi, the Kings have shone their favor upon me."

            The golden lion snickered in spite of himself. "Having only one eye has blinded you to the truth, then. By what right do you claim the favor of the Kings?"

            Giza's chosen heir squared his shoulders and lifted his muzzle proudly. "The right of birth, the right of lineage...and the right of vindication. If I were not meant to be king, I would never have succeeded in killing your brother and your father."

            Dhahabu growled softly, his voice low and dangerous. "Strange logic, Kuchinja...that proves nothing, other than your ability to alter the proper course of events. You acted alone, without the aid of the Kings, and today this hubris has caught up with you. I shall be the instrument of your destiny." His last words rumbled in his throat, sounding like a knell of doom.

            Kuchinja abruptly switched directions, passing back to the left. His fangs flashed as he snapped a reply. "Now who is overestimating his own importance? You are as much a usurper in my view as I am in yours."

            In consternation, Dhahabu clenched his teeth and snarled. "Why do you persist in this foolishness? Your father was a tyrant! He gave up all rights to kingship when he abused them."

            The gray lion's expression was a mixture of fury and confusion. "What nonsense are you babbling? Giza was a powerful king! It is true he was firm, even cruel, but such a ruler is needed when his subjects are lazy and incompetent." He sneered at the watching lionesses, from whom arose a soft muttering.

            The Lion King's eyes widened in disbelief. "And this justifies Giza's predations upon the innocent?"

            "What innocents?" Kuchinja's single eye narrowed.

            Dhahabu's jaw slackened a little. "You mean you truly do not know? Your father wrongfully exiled and murdered my grandfather!"

            Kuchinja rolled his eye. "Not that tired tale again...Mkase interfered with the punishment of a disobedient subject, and later attempted to wrest the throne away himself." He smirked. "Apparently the blossom does not fall far from the kigelia."

            The golden lion turned on his opponent, stalking close until he loomed in the other's face. "You could not be more wrong...punishment? What a novel way of describing a rape. Wresting away the throne? Giza was paranoid..."

            A roar of outrage burst from Kuchinja's throat. "Lies! My father told me himself of Mkase's treachery!"

            "No, Kuchinja." Dhahabu's voice rang out, echoing in the confines of the gorge. "It was Giza who lied to you. My grandfather saved that cheetah from your father's lusts, that is why he was exiled...and the only reason for his return to Kiburi was to escape the terrible drought. He never had any intentions of conquering the lands. Unlike you, he was content with the status quo, even though he knew Giza was a terrible ruler. It was Giza's own suspicious nature that led him to kill Mkase...which set in motion the chain of events that leads us to this moment in time. Your vendetta against my father was for naught...it was Giza who was to blame."

            The words died away, and the air seemed to quiver with their power. Somewhere behind him, Dhahabu heard the lone brother of Kuchinja left standing gasp in horror. Glancing back, he caught the look of anger on Njaa's face--but it was directed at Kuchinja, not himself. Another snarl burst from a nearby throat, but he could not determine its source.

            When he returned his gaze to Kuchinja, the gray lion's chest was rising and falling in a rapid pattern--driven by a desperate urge to deny the truth. "No--that cannot be! My father would never lie to me! He loved me!"

            "Not even if he wished you to carry on his evil deeds, even after he himself was gone?" Dhahabu queried with a note of triumph in his voice.

            Struggling to argue, the other lion snapped, "What difference does it make? One cheetah female--she was surely asking for such treatment! And if she had not fought back, she would have received more sensuality than she could possibly imagine...as to your father, the death of Mkase still does not justify his murder of Giza!"

            Dhahabu stiffened at the chauvinistic and boastful words of his adversary, but he managed to contain his ire. "That is a matter of opinion. And as to Giza's death...I agree with you, it was not justified."

            Kuchinja fell back, completely stunned. The observers around them were equally shocked. All eyes were on Dhahabu, who appeared strangely tranquil and calm in his own sense of righteousness. "Two wrongs do not make a right--one death does not undo another. But what was justified was my father's challenge against Giza for his murder of Mkase. Mfalme did not have to kill Giza, and he would have let him go, even after what he had done, if he had only relented and acknowledged his guilt. Giza did so, but he was proud of his actions, and proceeded to attack my father in cold blood. Yet even at the end he could have been spared, but he refused...and as he lay dying, my father even offered immunity to you and your brothers, and forgiveness. But you also clung to your misguided beliefs...both you and your father chose your fates, despite the chances you had to escape them..."

            Kuchinja's face was a mask of fury, but one splintered by cracks of doubt. Dhahabu's words were compelling and laden with just cause. But before he could utter a word, Njaa spoke up, his voice thick with emotion. "Brother...you always said Mfalme challenged Father without claiming any right to do so beyond revenge. But that was untrue, wasn't it?" Seated on his haunches beside Tauni, whose grievous wounds were being treated by Asumini, the golden tawny lion shook his head in realization. "Was it a lie, or were you simply not there to hear the issue of the challenge? Does it even matter...?"

            The trance that seemed to have captured Kuchinja's will was broken by Njaa's bitter words. Turning on Dhahabu, he snarled, "You think to blunt my claws by sowing discord and poison, but you shall fail, Dhahabu! I know what is right, do not think to twist the truth to your own ends!"

            The Lion King tensed, wary of the other's vicious claws, which slashed at the ground in pent-up rage. "I have no need to twist it...it cries out from the very earth."

            "Then I shall silence it!" Kuchinja roared fearsomely and, gathering all his recovered strength, pounced, his hind legs slamming into the ground and propelling him toward Dhahabu...

            But at that exact moment, two bulky silhouettes leaped from behind the nearest boulder and intervened, throwing themselves between the combatants. As the forms landed with paws splayed, each facing one of the massive lions, Dhahabu's eyes cleared from the glare of sunlight, and he stared in astonishment. The dark mahogany male he did not recognize...but the lioness facing him was his own sister, Taraji...

 

                                                             ***

 

            Gauging the reactions of the various eyes trained upon the conflict, Taraji found it an interesting exercise to estimate who was the most surprised by their sudden appearance, as well as to note the additional emotions she found there. In the gazes of Tembo and the lionesses of Kiburi, she discovered hope and pride. Kuchinja's brother, Njaa, wore a mask of relief mingled with worry as he stared over her shoulder at the welcome form of Jahili facing off with Kuchinja, who in turn locked his lone eye on his son in disgust, fury, and scorn. Dhahabu, however, was the lion upon whom Taraji kept her eyes fixed the longest. He appeared so much stronger, wiser, and older than when she had last seen him--shoulders thrust forward in firm resolve, shrugging aside the weight of the suffering and loss she saw haunting his smoky gray eyes. The regality in his bearing stunned her...truly he had become the Lion King he had always been destined to be. But it was clearly at the cost of yet another slice of his innocence, washed away by the tears he had shed for their father. Pain throbbed in Taraji's heart at what her brother had been through...without her there to stand by his side. She closed her eyes in guilt for a moment, then regarded him again. His muzzle was parted, his breath rasping from his throat as the lion peered at her searchingly, seeking out her motives in interfering.

            The balanced tableau held for ten long minutes. Paws shifted, chests rose and fell. The silence was only interrupted by Jahili's soft growl at his father. Then at last Dhahabu found his voice and spoke quietly to his sister. "What are you doing here, Taraji?"

            The moment was upon her, and she could not lose her resolve now. "What does it look like, brother? I am here to prevent further bloodshed."

            Honey-gold locks of mane hung across his face, casting sharp shadows over his eyes as Dhahabu considered this. "Surely you know of Father's death by now. Kuchinja is to blame." His eyes blazed. "And he must be punished!"

            Taraji's voice was compelling, beseeching. "I know, and I agree...but not this way. It is too dangerous, you are the king now and cannot risk your life so foolishly."

            "Foolishly?" the young king gasped, nostrils flaring in indignation. How could his own sister dare to question his judgment when he was now the leader of the pride? Claws digging into the soil, Dhahabu snapped an angry reply. "So now my judgment is impaired? What is so wrong in seeking to chastise Kuchinja for what he has done? And yes, I am the king. That means I do have the right to take risks, rather than hide behind my throne and let my subjects do the fighting for me. And if I should not risk my life for something of this magnitude, when should I risk it?" His form trembled with emotion.

            The cinnamon lioness was stunned by the power of his rhetoric, but she knew she had to continue. Kuchinja was too cunning...if her brother fought him, he would die, she could feel it. Thoughts racing, she took a deep breath, then glanced back at Jahili before speaking once more...

            Lifting his brown-maned head to stare fixedly at his father, Jahili quailed at the visage he saw. If his last confrontation with the gray lion who had sired him had been frightening, what he saw now chilled him to the bone. There seemed to be no trace of emotion in Kuchinja save for dark, swirling, titanic rage. His expression was demonic, twisted by hatred. Yet even through the fear that clutched at his heart, Jahili knew he could not give up on his father, not yet. He hated what the lion had done, had forced him to do, and would do all in his power to stop him. But deep within his soul, the mahogany lion still loved his father and was desperate to reach him, to break through his insanity and find the bond of blood they had once shared.

            "End this." His words were husky, soft, yet underlain by an unwavering strength. "If you value your life, Father, leave now while you still have the chance, before Dhahabu delivers the same blow to you that Mfalme did to Grandfather."

            Kuchinja laughed, a cold sound empty of mirth. He shook his head, as if truly regretful of his son's naivete. "But that is exactly the point, Jahili...I am here to reclaim what is mine, to draw retribution for Giza's death from Dhahabu's tattered corpse so that none will ever dare to threaten our family again."

            Jahili's ire rose, flanked by his hackles, as he gritted his teeth. "Dhahabu did nothing to you--and killing him will not bring Grandfather back. All this will lead to is suffering and death, on both sides. Why must you be so blind? Your actions only condemn us all to more and more atrocities!"

            The gray lion chuckled. "And why should you care? You have never shown a single sign you have cared for your uncles. You have opposed me at every turn, consorted with the enemy, defied my will, and hated all I stood for. Why should it matter to you now whether I live or die?" He grinned fiendishly. "Besides, your fear is for naught...I am stronger than Dhahabu, it is not I who shall perish..."

            The mahogany lion snarled. "You don't know that for sure! And why do I care? Because, no matter what you have done, you are my father and I love you!"

            Kuchinja laughed again, this time in ridicule. "You still do not see how powerless love is? You have recklessly tied yourself to me when the wiser course would have been to cut yourself free, to depart these lands and never look back, but no, your precious conscience has made you stay." His lips curled into a smug, satisfied grin. "A mistake you will soon regret...allow me to show you what love will bring you..." The lion took a step toward Dhahabu and raised his voice so that all in the gorge could hear him...

            Across the rocky floor of the cleft, Mwoga slowly arose from her crouch, eyes burning with a feverish fire as she gazed at the supple form of the cinnamon lioness only a few yards away. Memories of that fateful day in Kivuli flashed through her mind, of Taraji's determined pursuit of her mate Mjinga, her claws and teeth vicious even as a cub, drawing blood and tearing flesh to send hyennic howls into the misty air. It was weakness from the wounds the lioness cub had inflicted that had slowed Mjinga so that Mfalme could catch him. And her own failure to kill Taraji had prompted a severe beating from Kuchinja...lifting a black-furred paw, the hyena could feel the scars on her cheek and throat, barely missing her jugular. Since that day she had always sworn she would have her own personal revenge--and now here Taraji was. Grown into a powerful lioness, yes, but distracted, alone, easy prey. And if she, Mwoga, could succeed in at last carrying out Kuchinja's orders, eliminating another of Mfalme's bloodline, the rewards would be...

            Visions of hyena glory dancing before her eyes, Mwoga lost all rational thought. Her obsession outweighing common sense, she began a slow stalking along the outer fringe of the circle of watchers, darting behind boulders and into the shadows, her baleful yellow eyes fixed on Taraji as she counted on the element of surprise to give her the edge against the lioness. She failed to notice her son Ukware had fallen back, retreating from her side as he beheld the madness she intended--although he remained close enough to lend his aid if the need arose...

            Licking her dry lips, Taraji struggled to find the right words to reach her brother. "Dhahabu, I would never question your fitness as king, or your right to risk your life for our pride. But surely you do not wish to be cut down so soon after claiming your throne. And yes, Kuchinja must not evade his fate--but there are other ways to lead him to it. Look around you, brother." The lioness turned her head to regard first Kufa's body, then Vita's, then the wounded forms of Tauni and Njaa. "Two of Kuchinja's brothers lie dead--"

            "Three," Dhahabu interrupted, glancing at Mahiri.

            "All right, three. Another is unconscious, and a fifth is badly wounded. Kuchinja is no longer a threat to Kiburi...what could he do, with no other allies to aid him?" The lioness's voice became more insistent. "Surely knowing he has failed in his bid for power will tear his heart to shreds more thoroughly than your claws ever could..."

            Dhahabu's expression wavered as Taraji's logic began to make an impression. But at that moment, Kuchinja's voice rumbled around them, speaking words that drove icy blades of horror and despair into the lioness's heart.

            "How dare you betray me, Jahili--you, my own flesh and blood! And all for the love of that ill-begotten sister of Dhahabu's!"

            Stricken, Taraji turned to see Kuchinja's smug expression and Jahili standing helplessly behind him. All around her she could hear the cries of anger, disbelief, and denial from the lionesses of Kiburi. Then the whispering began, and as the lioness turned back she heard quite clearly the words "traitor" and "treason" uttered. Malkia spoke not a word, however. Instead her face was a ghastly white, eyes filled with disappointment and sorrow as she stared at her only daughter.

            Dreading what she would see, Taraji turned back to her brother--and her legs trembled. Dhahabu's every facial muscle displayed an animal fury she had never beheld there before, etched into place as the creases and seams in a slab of adamantine rock. All of his fangs were exposed, gleaming with saliva, and his eyes were the shade of a roiling stormcloud, on the verge of releasing forks of lightning to sizzle to the earth.

            "D-d-dhahabu..." she stammered, "this is not what it seems. Jahili and I--"

            "Is it true?" Each word emerged as a lingering growl--she could barely recognize his voice.

            Tears streaming down her cheeks, the lioness froze in an agony of indecision. If she denied it, Jahili would likely contradict her, and even if he did not, she would have lost any chance of reconciliation with him, something her heart yearned for despite her mind crying out not to trust the dark lion. But if she revealed the truth, there was no telling what Dhahabu would do to her, and to Jahili...

            Shoulders sagging, she at last knew she could not hide it any longer. Brokenly, she replied, "Yes...it's true."

            A roar burst from Dhahabu's throat, followed by the cracking of rock. When she dared to raise her eyes, Taraji was stunned to see the floor of the gorge all around the lion was cleaved and shattered by intersecting splits and furrows. Muscles surging, the Lion King lifted one quivering paw, its claws still unsheathed, and began to move toward her. "How...how could you...the son of Kuchinja, the murderer of our brother, our father! You defile their memories, Taraji...their spirits cry out for justice, and what do you do? You lift your tail for one of the Wahamiji! I don't understand you, I don't know you..."

            Weeping openly now, Taraji shook her head violently. "No, it wasn't like that, it wasn't like that at all! I didn't even know who he was until today, and he-he's not like his father! Why do you think he is here with me, attempting to stop this terrible war? He is as against violence and death as I am! Please believe me, Dhahabu! I love him, and he loves me!" There, she had said it, she had admitted the truth in her heart, for good or for ill...

            Dhahabu's eyes bulged. "I cannot believe anything you say anymore, Taraji...for all I know, you only came here with him to distract me, to lull me into a false sense of security so that Kuchinja could triumph and you could run away to be with your precious mate!"

            Taraji stood aghast. "How could you think such a thing! This is not your true heart speaking, Dhahabu...you are letting Kuchinja direct your thinking!" Her grief and fear were transforming now into determination and defiance. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed both Malkia and Mahiri edging closer to her brother, but from their tense, infuriated expressions, they were not coming to support Dhahabu, but to rebuke him. Heartened, she cried, "Don't you see? This is what Kuchinja wants! He wants you to be so caught up in your wrath at what I have done that you forget about him, the battle, your search for justice, all of it! If he triumphs, it is because you let him, by playing into his paws--even now you give him the chance to escape, or to strike back. You must not let my love for this good lion, who could not help where he was born, blind you to the truth! It is clear Kuchinja wishes you enraged with me--do you really wish to do what he wants?"

            For once Dhahabu had no words to say. Thunderstruck by the ramifications of her tirade, the young king slowly fell back a pace, paw lowering, some of the anger draining from his face as the adrenaline cleared from his mind and reason reasserted itself in his thinking. Shakily glancing to the side, he met the cold, reprimanding gazes of his mother and his mate. In Malkia's golden eyes he could sense the thought that Mfalme would never have lost control of his temper in such a manner. In Mahiri's emerald orbs he saw shimmering the reminder that he had won his mate by proving he was not like other lions, pugnacious and bloodthirsty. Shuddering with guilt and shame, he swallowed with difficulty and turned back toward Taraji, fangs no longer bared...

            Flinching with each of Dhahabu's cruel and vindictive words, Jahili could barely restrain his own anger, but he knew to interfere would be tantamount to suicide, considering the Lion King's blatant contempt for him, and his desire to snatch the life from his throat. Instead, once he could stand to hear no more of the golden lion's twisted logic, the mahogany lion turned and vented his temper on the one responsible.

            The amused look on Kuchinja's face fired the fury in Jahili's veins all the more. Snarling, the lion maneuevered himself between his father and Taraji. "You think you've won now...but you just made a big mistake."

            "Have I?" Kuchinja pouted in false sorrow. "I think not. Soon you will be killed, or driven out, and I shall have my chance to be rid of Dhahabu once and for all. I may even take your dear Taraji in the bargain--after I gift her with my considerable charms, of course..." A lustful grin curled at the corners of his mouth.

            A savage roar sounded from Jahili, mingling with Dhahabu's roar, but Kuchinja only smirked and paced around his son, as if he were not even there. "Come now, Jahili, enough with the pitiful threats...you will never carry through, you love me, remember?" The sarcasm was cloying.

            But as Kuchinja turned away and gathered his powerful haunches to spring toward Dhahabu, he neglected to see the intense hatred in Jahili's eyes, dwarfing every other emotion he felt towards his father...

            Dhahabu was about to offer words of apology when his eyes tracked movement beyond his sister. Suddenly, before he could act, the muscled gray form of Kuchinja was barreling towards him, single eye blazing with a fanatic zeal. But then, even quicker came the lithe mahogany form of his son--Jahili, was it?--from the side. The two lions crashed together, and as Kuchinja cried out in surprise and tumbled across the ground, Jahili stayed with him, claws and fangs ripping and tearing, opening new wounds with a ferocity and instinctive bloodlust that stunned the young king.

            Whirling, Taraji spied father and son locked in vicious combat and gasped in horror. "Jahili!" She too began moving, running toward the rising dustcloud, and all at once it was like that day in Kivuli, when he had felt all was shifting in slow motion, as he struggled to get up to speed and pursue her, and his sister entered the swirling dust, the same as she once had when Sulubu had fallen beneath the hyenas in the murky elephant graveyard. And then, as if his thoughts had summoned her, Mwoga hurtled from behind an outcrop and sprang atop Taraji's surging shoulders just as she entered the dustcloud. Dhahabu cried out in warning, too late--always too late, were his reflexes that dulled by the fighting?

            A few heartbeats later Ukware also leapt from hiding and joined his mother in accosting the cinnamon lioness, who had lost her footing and now crumpled to the ground. In seconds the hyenas were swarming over her, and her writhing form rolled futilely to cast them off as Taraji's jaws parted and her fangs bit deeply into the grayish-brown pelts.

            Sliding to a stop, Dhahabu tried to follow the course of the fight, his head jerking in one direction after another, but it was so fast and furious he could distinguish little but hazy silhouettes. He dared not act, for fear of hurting Taraji, and no matter how disgusted he remained by her love for Jahili, he wished for nothing to happen to her. Beyond her, he could barely make out the wrestling bodies of Kuchinja and Jahili, but this battle was not one he was inclined to prevent. Perhaps they would do him a favor and kill each other. Yet a twinge of doubt had seeded itself in his brain--if he had observed correctly, Kuchinja had been about to leap on him when Jahili had intervened...saving him. Why would he do this if he were anything like his father?

            But in any case he could do nothing for any of them until a solution presented itself. As Dhahabu rapidly glanced at Tembo and the lionesses of Kiburi, he saw the same thought was mirrored on every countenance. Turning back, the Lion King could only watch in a helpless paralysis, waiting for the moment when he could be of use, and put a stop to this endless violence once and for all.

 

                                                                ***

 

            Taraji's mind seethed with reckless fury and fiery rage as she tumbled across the dusty ground, borne to the earth by Mwoga and her worthless son Ukware. Jahili, the lion she loved, was locked in deadly combat with his father, yet she could do nothing to help him because of the interference of these mangy, disreputable, murdering hyenas! The only consolation she could take from this was that at last, after so long, she would finally have revenge for Sulubu's death. The smug smirk on Mwoga's muzzle as she set to work slashing her brother's unprotected belly still haunted her dreams, filling Taraji with an unfamiliar helplessness and gifting her with hours of sweat-soaked torture in the den. Nightmares of Mwoga's merciless attack had kept her mind broken and perpetually horrified in the weeks following Sulubu's sacrifice...only the kind and understanding words of Guyana, Dhahabu's example, and her father's teachings had helped her to recover. And now here Mwoga was once more, still bloodthirsty, still seeking revenge. But she, Taraji, would return the favor. Forgetting entirely her warnings to the young Lion King not to seek vengeance lest he be killed, the cinnamon lioness only had one thought in mind now and nothing could shake it from her.

            Vicious, determined, and bold, Taraji hurled her muscled body faster across the ground so that its full weight came down with crushing force on Mwoga. The hyena hastily released her hold and scrambled away, but in seconds she was on her paws and leaping back into the fray. But Taraji's few moments of freedom had allowed her to roll upright as well, so that Mwoga's attack was met by slashing leonine claws. Ukware still clung to her back, jaws fastened to her neck, but the lioness's gyrations as she began to twist and whirl across the gorge floor dislodged his paws, and he shifted and slid uncontrollably on her back. Yowling in pain, Taraji stumbled as Ukware ground his teeth deeper to hold on, and Mwoga dashed toward the lioness to take advantage of this opening. But her distraction was only momentary. Thinking only on instinct, the lioness whipped around, presenting her backside to the hyena instead of her face--and, unable to stop, Mwoga's descending teeth closed on her own son's posterior.

            Ukware howled in agony, which naturally caused him to sail through the air and crash to the ground as his only means of purchase vanished with his grip. Mwoga, meanwhile, was unable to halt her momentum and slid beneath Taraji's belly. Grinning in spite of herself, the lioness waited for the next assault. It was not long in coming. Ukware, jaw dripping with her blood and limping on a bruised leg, nevertheless stalked her, shooting a venomous glare in her direction, but when he leaped at last, she was ready for him. One paw darted out, slamming into his shoulder and hurling him away again--this time to crash into the side of a residual boulder nearby. With a groan the hyena collapsed to the ground, sinking into unconsciousness.

            But Taraji had only an instant to revel in her victory before Mwoga, who had been stealthily approaching her from behind, pounced, taking her son's place upon the lioness's back and resuming the cruel gnawing of the wound on her neck. Humping her shoulders, Taraji tried to shake the hyena loose, while reaching back with one paw to attempt to slash her opponent's face, or anything that would make her fall from her perch. Finally the lioness pretended to collapse, catching Mwoga off guard. In moments they were both wrapped in each other's limbs, rolling through the dust as they each bit and tore flesh until both were soaked in blood. Soon a tangy copper scent was mixed with the dry choking swirls of disturbed dirt, foreshadowing the joining of life with earth that was soon to come...

            Ebon mane smeared with crimson liquid and gray pelt stiff with dust, Kuchinja sank his fangs into Jahili's shoulder, perilously close to the throbbing jugular that sustained his life, but his son returned the attack with equal ferocity, ripping open wounds that sprayed out his father's life-essence to make the ground beneath them even more slippery than before. Kuchinja was stunned, and for a moment it penetrated to his understanding that his son truly loved Taraji with an intensity that made him stronger and more ruthless than he had ever been in his life...and he was now a worthy adversary, and perhaps even a superior one. Shaking his head at this impossible thought, Kuchinja bore down with his full weight, slamming Jahili's head back against the ground. A massive roar burst from his son's throat, nearly deafening at this close range.

            Suddenly Jahili's hind legs thrust up, forcing his father's apart and granting him access to his tender underbelly. Jahili glared upward, his expression one of grim satisfaction and almost sadistic pleasure as he buried his claws in Kuchinja's abdomen and shredded the sensitive flesh.

            Rearing up and thrashing wildly, the powerful lion could not stop the tears from soaking his cheek-fur. Shoving sideways, Jahili sent him tumbling across the gorge floor, which was slanting at an angle toward a shallow crevasse. Pursuing, the mahogany lion leaped atop him and clawed at his chest as they both fell over the rim. Kuchinja attempted to cling to the side, but his mass worked against him, and he soon lost his hold. But as he fell, he clutched at Jahili. Before the younger lion could react, both were tumbling downwards--and Kuchinja remained on top, his body crushing Jahili against the rocky slope. By the time they landed at the bottom of the crevasse, Jahili was bruised and battered, with numerous wounds dotting his pelt.

            Slowly Kuchinja shuddered to his paws, and gazed down soullessly at his son. Within the shadows of the crevasse, and against the twilit sky, the lion's lone eye burned with a towering anger that clearly sent a shiver of fear down Jahili's spine. Once he judged that his son had been claimed by his terror, Kuchinja sprang into action, pouncing toward the prone form. But Jahili was not as incapacitated as he seemed, and met the rush with a quick, if stiff, defense, paws thrusting up to keep him at bay. In seconds the two were once more at odds, claws digging into chests soon streaming with blood. Above, gathering stormclouds continued to cast darkness across the battle scene to match the emotions surging in both fierce and unforgiving hearts...

            Heart still pounding, adrenaline still rushing through his veins to stimulate his bulky muscles, Dhahabu shifted nervously from one paw to another, eyes fixed on the battle unfolding before him. Each blow by the hyenas prompted a hiss of breath; each slash and bite his sister delivered elicited cries of excited affirmation from the young king. His claws gripped the ground as he kept track of the furious combat, anxious to find the moment when he could aid Taraji and eliminate Mwoga forever. A fearsome grin appeared as Ukware was tossed aside to slam into the boulder, taking him out of the fight. But then, as the lioness and her adversary intensified their struggle, Dhahabu's attention was drawn by deep, ominous roars.

            Turning, the golden lion spied Jahili and Kuchinja tumbling across the ground into a narrow crevasse, and he winced visibly at the thick trails of blood in the soil from where they had lain. The sheer viciousness of their attacks far outmatched even Taraji's ferocity, and this coupled with the fact that it was father and son locked in such a deadly test of will and strength only increased Dhahabu's shock. Despite his distrust of Jahili, he could not help but feel a touch of horror at what he was witnessing...that such hatred could exist within a family chilled the lion's soul. However he might feel about Jahili, no lion deserved to be denied the love of his father.

            As Dhahabu continued to watch Jahili and Kuchinja claw and slash at each other's chests within the crevasse, the soft pattering of feet in the dust reached his ears, followed by an indignant, piping voice. "Aren't ya gonna do somethin'? I thought ya was de king!"

            Eyes wide at this rude and thoughtless conduct, the lion turned--and blinked. Standing at his feet was the tiny form of a meerkat, staring upward in consternation as he propped one fist on his hip.

            Dhahabu returned the stare, distrust and inquiry mixed in his expression. "Who are you, and why do you presume to undermine my authority?" The lion's voice was deceptively soft.

            Despite his threatening posture, the meerkat did not seem frightened of the king. "My name is Cheko, an' I don't see ya usin' dat authority! Dey could die out dere, an' ya just standin' dere!" His little jaw clenched.

            The lion would have laughed at this comical image if the situation had not been so dire and if he had not been on the verge of losing his temper entirely. Trying to calm his breathing, Dhahabu snapped, "And what would you know about the pressures of authority? I fully intend to do something, but if I choose wrong, and act without thinking, I could end up hurting my own sister!" A pained look crossed his face.

            Cheko raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Maybe, but ya can't wait too long! An' what about Jahili? I bet dat ya could pin dat Kuchinja without hurtin' his son."

            Dhahabu snorted contemptuously to hide his growing doubts. "And why should I care about him? Taraji would be better off without him."

            The meerkat's eyes flashed with a fire greater than his strength or size. He stabbed a finger toward Dhahabu's distant muzzle. "Dat ain't true, dat ain't even close t' de truth! An' ya don't even know him...I may've just met de guy today, but I ain't never wrong when it comes t' first impressions. Jahili has more courage an' honesty den any lion I know, an' he's got a heart dat has more love an' loyalty den ya could imagine!" Cheko quivered with his righteous ire, his voice rising louder and higher in his vehement rebuke.

            For several minutes it was all the Lion King could do to meet his accuser's gaze. When he spoke, some of the anger had faded. "But what proof do you have this is so? And how can I believe you when you are his friend, and a stranger to me? I can't chance my sister's heart...or life." Shaking his head, Dhahabu shifted his stance as he returned to observing worriedly Taraji's combat with Mwoga.

            But Cheko would not be deterred. Even as the lion struggled internally, the words of praise for and pride in Jahili ringing in his ears in a manner that encouraged a sense of guilt for doubting him, the meerkat scampered around in front of his paws again. "Well it may be true dat I can't do anythin' t' show ya I'm tellin' ya de truth, but why would a stranger lie t' ya? An' if ya really want to, after dis is all over ya can check with my colony, dey'll tell ya I never lie."      

            Nodding firmly, Cheko glanced toward the fighting lions and ducked instinctively as Kuchinja swiped at Jahili's cheek, sending a spray of blood into the air. He had to shout over the roars as he continued. "As t' how I know Jahili ain't a bad guy...listen t' me. He told yer sister who he was, de whole story, predator an' prey. He didn't have t' do dat. He could've kept it secret. An' when he thought Taraji didn't love him anymore, he still wanted t' help ya an' stop his father!"

            He paused to let that sink in. Dhahabu's eyes widened, and he shook his head in disbelief. "No, that's not possible..." His protest died in his throat as he recalled once more how Jahili had prevented Kuchinja from attacking him. The lion's mind whirled.

            Cheko rolled his eyes. "Of course it's possible! Jahili believes in doin' what's right. An' he truly loves yer sister. If ya don't believe dat, den hear dis: when she first found out who he was an' rejected him, he was all set t' kill himself, an' he would've if I hadn't happened along." The meerkat crossed his arms with an air of finality, as if daring the lion to contradict him.

            But Dhahabu would do nothing of the kind...horror, shock, confusion, and hesitation warred on his countenance. Once more he tried to speak, but his throat locked. He wished fervently to deny the validity of Cheko's revelation, but as he fixed his gray orbs upon the meerkat, Dhahabu could see the truth shining in his gaze...the conviction he found there staggered him. Although there was no logical reason to believe, he was not going by logic, but emotion...

            Closing his eyes, the Lion King breathed deeply, trying to block out the scent of blood and death that filled the gorge, and focused. Jahili was Kuchinja's son...how could good come from such evil? Yet, how could Taraji so misjudge this young lion as to love him if he were truly unworthy of trust?

            Searching for answers, Dhahabu suddenly recalled the words Adhimu had shared with him upon his departure from Kusini, words of great import...However much you may wish it, you are not your father. No lion can be another. What you will be is your own choice... The lion's eyes popped open. Was it possible? Had Jahili chosen not to be his father, despite the instinct to follow in Kuchinja's pawprints? Locking his eyes on the crevasse, the golden lion again took in the unbridled savagery of Jahili's attacks...this could not be an act. The mahogany lion clearly would do anything to save Taraji and blunt his father's plans.

            Contemplating the ruined relationship between father and son, Dhahabu was reminded of Tembo and Damu. Turning to stare at the rigid form of the elephant across the gorge, he recalled Mfalme's cautious warning from his cubhood...The Circle of Life turns for all, but not every animal can discern where he will be carried, or understand the purpose of the journey... If Cheko were correct, and Taraji had not been misled, then Jahili had certainly not been carried where he had expected--but then neither had he, Dhahabu. Was he now to be like Damu, distrusting, hateful, suspicious? Would his prejudice utterly consume the love and acceptance Jahili had found on his journey and consign him to the same fate as his father? And what of his own journey? Had he learned nothing from his life...from Mahiri's belief in his gentle, noble spirit? From Sulubu's sacrifice so he could be a great king? Would a king rule well by refusing to admit he was wrong? Groaning, Dhahabu tried to latch onto something stable in the maelstrom of self-doubt. His father had been wrong to be proud of him...

            And then, as these thoughts churned in his mind, Mfalme's wise voice again echoed in the vaults of his memory, for a moment drowning out the noise of battle: You must follow your heart...it has never failed you before...

            His heart. It thudded now with one thought. Jahili had wanted to die rather than live without Taraji.

            Two glistening tears trickled down Dhahabu's cheeks.

            A snarl from Kuchinja broke the Lion King from his reverie. What had seemed hours was in fact minutes, as Dhahabu squared his shoulders and glanced from one dust-choked conflict to the other. Then he returned his attention to Cheko, who was watching him intently, a mixture of rapt, penetrating understanding and impatient eagerness on his small features. "Cheko...you've given me a lot to think about. I can't promise anything yet, but for now I'll reserve judgment on Jahili. But that suggests he's still alive to be judged. So I'd better ensure that's the case."

            He chuckled at the meerkat's sudden whoop and leap in the air with one fist raised. As the lion turned, he spied Mahiri sitting nearby, her expression radiant and approving. Feeling vindicated in his choice, Dhahabu finished his movement and began to sidle unobtrusively toward the crevasse...still keeping Taraji in sight if she needed help, but concentrating now on being ready to come to Jahili's aid if the situation demanded it...

            Fangs bared, Taraji lunged at Mwoga's arching neck, shoving her forcefully against a patch of sharp rocks so that the hyena's back ground painfully against them. Struggling, the smaller animal scratched and batted at the lioness's chest and shoulders, vainly attempting to keep her away. But she was tiring from the rapid pace of battle, and the strain of having to fend off the lioness's blows without any assistance was clearly taking its toll. Desperate, Mwoga lashed out at Taraji's cheek, and when the lioness flinched backward, the hyena darted in and closed her jaws over the outstretched paw. As blood spurted and muscles tore, Taraji lost her grip and was dislodged. Wasting no time, Mwoga squirmed and crawled until she escaped the embrace and stumbled away. What she would do she had no idea...there was nowhere to go, and her pride would not let her flee from Taraji, especially without her revenge complete. Instead she prepared to make a stand with another boulder at her back--but before she was even half a dozen paces away, something gripped one hind leg and jerked her to a halt.

            Fearfully Mwoga gazed over her shoulder and blanched. Taraji stood just behind her, her wounded paw somehow clenched around the hyena's foot to check any further progress. The look of victory and superiority in her cold blue eyes sent a realization stabbing through the hyena...a realization that death had come for her. She tried to twist free at once, but Taraji might as well have been stone. Gnashing her teeth, Mwoga clawed and pawed at the ground, but her strength finally gave out, and she collapsed. She sensed rather than saw the lioness's body looming over her, the shadow flowing across her pelt. And then Taraji's full weight pinned her in place. Growling, she wrenched the hyena's head up so that she could not avoid her unwavering orbs. Then, softly, she whispered in her ear, "Say hello to your mate and your sister for me, coward...that is your name, and that is what you have proven yourself to be by your actions." And then Taraji casually drew her claws across Mwoga's jugular and windpipe. As blood flooded her throat and she began to choke and suffocate, the cinnamon lioness tightened her grip, gradually crushing her trachea.

            When the hyena was only a corpse, still warm and sodden with rich scarlet fluid, Taraji mustered all her dignity and stamina and left her behind like a discarded slab of disease-ridden meat. To one side, and several yards ahead of her, she could see Dhahabu almost out of her line of vision, moving with a deliberate pace. But Taraji's full attention was on what appeared to be her brother's destination as well as her own--the crevasse and the compassionate lion whom she must now save from the monster that dared threaten his precious life...

            Every tendon and sinew crying out for release and the blessed oblivion of death, Jahili yet refused to relent, somehow finding a well of strength, drawing it from the love of Taraji that sustained him. Muscles rigid, he drove Kuchinja's body away, increasing the pressure with every moment, until his father was unable to force him downwards. Snapping and snarling, the gray lion moved against his will, even as he attempted to strike again. Then, when Jahili had enough room to maneuver, the mahogany lion raised his hind legs and slammed them forcefully into Kuchinja's underbelly. Caught off guard, the massive lion spilled onto the cracked ground, freeing his son. As quickly as he could manage, Jahili rose to his paws and limped to the side of the crevasse, climbing toward safety.

            But just as he reached the lip, he could hear his father's ragged breathing below him, and then a humongous paw looped over his shoulder and began to drag him downwards. Questing with his own paws, Jahili fought gravity and the power of Kuchinja's maniacal will, and for several long moments his life hung in the balance. But ultimately gravity became his ally, as Kuchinja lost his footing and slipped down the slope, allowing the younger lion to crawl to level ground. Not daring to rest despite his weariness, Jahili staggered back toward the others, weaving from side to side, his forequarters stained a vivid crimson. Yet still he endured, as his steps slowed and faltered...he could see Taraji like a spirit risen from a blood-drenched field where once an ancient pride war of distant days had been fought...but she seemed so far away...and then he felt the sudden pressure on his shoulders, driving him down.

            His weakened knees gave way, and Jahili was abruptly spread on his belly once again, his father's great body atop him, pinning him down in a cruel mirror image of Mwoga's last moments in Taraji's grasp. Unable even to struggle, the young lion wept softly, barely hearing the words of contempt and amusement. "Ah, son...at last you see it now, at the end...your principles could never be stronger than my vision of conquest." Against the roiling clouds in the sky, Kuchinja suddenly became a stark silhouette as lightning flickered behind him, bathing the heavens with an azure glow. "You could never hope to gain anything unless you joined me. And without me, you are nothing." He lifted one paw to strike the killing blow--and suddenly the terrible weight was wrenched free! Jahili, whose eyes had been squeezed shut, suddenly blinked and watched as his father was hurled away, sent flying by an unexpected tackle from Taraji!

            The world rotated endlessly around Kuchinja, even after he came to rest. Shaking his head to clear it of the ringing, he stared in consternation at Taraji as the cinnamon lioness paced back to Jahili's side and stood before him, blocking the way. Growling, his throat producing a sound far uglier than any imagined, Kuchinja silently berated himself for his inattention to his surroundings as he began to rise. But before he could begin stalking toward Taraji to chastise her for her countless disruptions of his schemes, a massive weight slammed into his side, and once again the gray lion found himself sprawled in the dirt. But this time, when he looked up, he stiffened in fearful recognition of the truth...that this time he was trapped, too gravely wounded to escape his fate. For, perched atop his now-vermilion chest and underbelly, gray eyes cold and dancing with the promise of a final resolution, was Dhahabu, the Lion King...

                Groggy and with a throbbing headache, Ukware slowly regained consciousness, feeling as if he were swimming through a storm-tossed sea, but he was stubborn and refused to be controlled by his physical limitations. Cracking his eyes open, the hyena managed to rise halfway and peered through the gloomy twilight. Finally, after his eyes adjusted, he could see his mother's lifeless body lying several yards away. His brain, though still dazed and confused, burst into the fires of rage and seethed with thoughts of revenge...but as he turned his eyes over the rest of the battlefield, Ukware saw to his despair and disgust that Kuchinja appeared to be the only one left with any will to fight--and he was pinned by Dhahabu, with the other lions ringing him all about.

            Reining in his ire, the hyena tried to calm his breathing and flicked his eyes from Taraji to Jahili, who was obviously on the verge of fainting. Reluctantly, he growled softly and acknowledged the truth of what he saw, even though it galled him...they had lost. Kuchinja was alone now and at the mercy of the Lion King. He would not survive longer than a few minutes. And without Mwoga or any of the Wahamiji, except the weary and wounded Njaa, he could not triumph, could not gain the power he deserved or even the vengeance he craved. Once before he had considered leaving Kuchinja's service...now it was a foregone conclusion, since there would soon be no one for him to serve.

            But all eyes were on the fatal denouement that was rapidly approaching...no one bothered to spare a glance toward him. Teeth clenched in a mixture of contempt, hatred, and mad desire, Ukware heaved himself to his paws and began padding south, away from the battle scene. He would escape, he would live to fight another day. The glory due to hyenas may have been denied him, but there would always be other chances to take, other plans to concoct. No one cared about him, no one would realize he was gone until it was too late. He would depart this wretched gorge and sojourn alone until he could track down the nearest hyena clan. Mwoga had spurned the clans, setting her sights on a higher goal unimpeded by snivelling paw-lickers and whining dullards with no imagination...but such a place was the only safe haven for him now.

            Staggering and weaving, the blood still soaking his temple, the hyena reached the first turn in the gorge, where the cleft angled out of sight of the battle. Glancing back over his shoulder, Ukware spat in the general direction of the lions and passed from view, tears of grief soaking his fur. Mwoga was dead, but he would not let her death remain unpunished. He would bide his time, but one day he or one of his descendants would find the way to topple the lions from their thrones and reclaim the greatness that was their destiny. How or when, he did not know...but it would happen, the lands would be theirs to plunder and scour until all acknowledged their supremacy, and all animals existed at their sufferance...his dark gaze burned with the oath as he slunk into the shadows...

            Gasping weakly, the gray lion knew without even seeing his body that he had bruised or broken several ribs when he had been thrown to the ground--he could not move without spasms of anguish racking his frame. But he could not show this to Dhahabu. Managing a cold, defiant stare, he met the Lion King's gaze. "So...you finally have me exactly where you want me.  Why don't you gloat now, Dhahabu? Or would you rather get it over with and tear the life from my heart while it still beats? Justice be done!" His voice was a harsh whisper, somehow made all the more menacing and vile by its husky death rattle and scathing sarcasm. "Yet as you do, know that your thirst for revenge taints you, and collapses the image of goodwill and forgiveness you wish to project!" Kuchinja proclaimed this vehemently, as if daring the young king to take the bait and be drawn into another pointless argument.

            But the passage of time had distanced Dhahabu, allowed him to regain control of his emotions. Rather than reply, he simply perched atop the son of Giza and regarded him fixedly, until even Kuchinja had to feel a sense of growing unease and trepidation. The entire gorge, shrouded by encroaching night as the sun lost its battle with the endless march of the hours and the broiling stormclouds, was shockingly silent as all watched and waited.

            When Dhahabu had at last gathered his thoughts and had the opportunity to remind himself of Mfalme's teachings, the young lion inclined his head to the side and replied in a voice laced with equal parts pity and rejection. "If I kill you now, it is not out of rage or revenge, but as you said yourself, out of justice. Killing you will not restore my father to me, but it will keep you from ever ruining the peace and prosperity of my lands. You are a disease far easier to prevent than to cure." The golden lion looked up and glanced around the gorge, reminded of Taraji's words to him a short while earlier. He eyed Njaa, then Jahili, before shaking his head. "Look around you...your brothers lie dead, all but two, and the only one who could aid you will not, because he sees the wrongs you have perpetuated. Your own son has abandoned you. You are alone, as the defiled are." A grim smile appeared on his muzzle. "If I did not wish to banish your evil from Kiburi, I would let you live, for that is the worst punishment you can face. Death would be mercy for you, a blessing..."

            Kuchinja wanted desperately to find some rebuttal for Dhahabu's words...but somehow, staring up at him, he could not. Because no matter how much he fought to deny it, it was true. Shifting his eye, he could just see Njaa, expression mournful but determined...torn by wishing to aid his brother, yet knowing now that it was useless, and that the cause he had believed in had all been based on a lie in any case. Glancing to the other side, he could see Taraji standing over Jahili as the mahogany lion lay prone...beneath the tangled locks of brown mane, his son's unwavering eyes burned with painfully naked emotion--hatred, disappointment, horror, grief, but most of all a loneliness so pervasive it penetrated to Kuchinja's heart. At once he wondered how long that emotion had been in Jahili's eyes...how long had he failed to see it? All of his life, he suddenly feared. Blinded as much by his contempt for Jahili's pacifistic ways as by his missing eye, he had never acknowledged the younger lion's deep need to be loved, to belong.

            And why was that? The gray lion's breath rasped in his throat as, in a moment of clarity and sanity he had long avoided because of the pain it would bring, a revelation burst upon him. He had always disparaged love as useless...because his own father had rejected it and remained unemotional despite Kuchinja's own love for him. And now, by denying it to Jahili, he was repeating history. So focused had he been on reclaiming his heritage, even when that heritage had turned out to be derived from Giza's mendacity, that he had let nothing stand in his way...not even the unconditional love Jahili possessed, which had somehow survived every cruelty and insult, only caving when his own love for Taraji was threatened. All of this time, his truest friend and most devoted family member had been his son, and he did not realize it until now...when it was too late.

            At last Kuchinja's gaze turned to Mahiri, who sat not far from Njaa, watching in stunned shock. She had once told him he would have an empty life, would drive away everyone who loved him and could spare him pain, and her prediction had come true. She was even here to witness it, as she had hoped...

            Dhahabu was watching him closely, his massive body a silhouette against the streaks of lightning in the nubilous sky. Kuchinja shuddered, remembering what he had said had truly taken place between his father and Mkase...he still knew not whether to believe it, but he admitted to himself that it sounded like the Giza he remembered. Sighing, he nodded slowly...although he still hated Dhahabu for ruling the lands that should have been his, the circumstances were now different. "You are right, Dhahabu...to live alone, without kingdom or subjects or family, would be worse than death. But death is what I crave, now that I have lost. For you this will bring justice to your brother and father...to me it will bring peace, as I will not have to live as a failure or see my kingdom ruled by another."

            He could see the young king doubted his sincerity, and Kuchinja did not blame him. He himself could hardly believe he was giving in so easily, and part of him was scheming for some final treachery. But the rest of the gray lion's heart was weary of fighting...he knew he would die anyway of his wounds, but if he died now by Dhahabu's paw, he would die with at least some dignity left. And perhaps that would be a point in his favor when he came before Aiheu and the Kings for judgment.

            Glancing back at Njaa, Kuchinja raised his voice as well as he was able. "Njaa...brother...I relinquish Kiburi to you. It is now yours to dispense with as you please." Before the startled golden tawny lion could react, Kuchinja turned his attention to Jahili. "And you, Jahili...I'm sorry I'm not the father you wanted. The father you deserve." Nerving himself, he then closed his eye and waited. "Do it now, Dhahabu...end it quickly."

            There was no fierceness to it when it came, no relishing in the moment, no prolonging of the pain and suffering as there would have been if he had been the one ending Dhahabu's life. Instead the Lion King lowered his head and parted his jaws, setting his fangs against Kuchinja's flesh on either side of the jugular. "It ends here...no more vengeance, no more death, no more evil. May the lands be free of this pall of violence, and shine unmarred beneath the shelter of the Kings." And with those words, Dhahabu closed his jaws, his teeth piercing deep and tearing the gray lion's throat open. Kuchinja gasped, a burbling, liquid sound, and then fell silent as his straining chest sank into stillness. The blood flow became sluggish, then began to peter out.

            And so the eldest son of Giza met his end.

 

***

 

            Letting out a shaky breath, Dhahabu slowly climbed off of Kuchinja's body and turned toward the frozen form of Njaa, feeling as if every muscle within him had been stretched and torn...every movement seemed to produce another new pain. Bruised and battered and bleeding, he nevertheless felt a great relief.

            At least he was still alive.

            Padding heavily across the beaten earth, he lifted his maned head, the honey-gold hair streaked with blood and smeared with dirt, to see Njaa bowing his own head in respect, shoulders hunching forward as if he were about to fall on his knees. "Dhahabu...I am no king. I would have no business ruling Kiburi. And I am not my brother. While I admit I did desire your lands, I never wanted more bloodshed than was necessary. And now...knowing what I do of your grandfather, my family does not deserve the kingship here. So I relinquish Kiburi to you...you have earned it." He paused, then glanced back at the unconscious Tauni. "All I ask in return is one boon...that you grant a pardon to my brother and I, and to Jahili, and grant us leave to depart in peace. I know that may be asking too much, but we never truly did you harm, or wished to...and Jahili, he has shown more than once this day that his loyalty is to your sister, and that he would give his life to protect her...and you."

            For a long time Dhahabu only stared at the golden tawny lion, gray eyes fixed on his emerald ones, his thoughts troubled. It was indeed a great thing to ask...but Cheko's words still filled his mind, telling him to believe, to judge by the actions Jahili had taken and not by his bloodline. His father would wish him to be forgiving, as would Mahiri and Asumini. The latter lioness sat close by Njaa, a look of hope mixed with worry on her features. She clearly wanted this to come to pass. His heart was torn, wanting to relent but unsure as to the consequences. Finally, still undecided, he turned to face the rest of the pride that gathered there around him. He glanced at Taraji, could see the tears of sorrow in her eyes as she gazed at the wounded Jahili, her stance suggesting one long separated from that which gave her life, who would never leave it again.

            He sighed. "I have given your words much thought, Njaa, but this decision is one that is greater than I. Others will be affected, and I must heed their counsel as well." Dhahabu turned his gaze to the lionesses and Tembo, silent witnesses to the great struggle that had been waged. "What is your advice, all of you? Shall these three be pardoned?"

            Silence reigned at first, as lionesses regarded one another and Tembo frowned thoughtfully. Then at last one pride member stepped forward, an aging lioness Dhahabu recognized as Simana. "I remember Njaa when he was a young adolescent, when Giza still ruled...he was never like his father, he tried to do right and to take care of the pride. And...when Giza wished him to choose a mate, he demanded that I take on that responsibility. I of course did not wish to do so against my will...but Njaa..." She turned to the golden tawny lion and smiled softly. "He refused it as well...he insisted his mate be a lioness who truly loved him. Giza was furious of course, but he dared not show his anger before the others, so he officially sanctioned his son's decision. Ever since then, I have known Njaa was a moral lion...and if he promises never to bring harm to Kiburi again, and vouches for Tauni, then I believe him."

            Njaa stared at Simana as if seeing her for the first time, recognizing in her the lioness he had once known. His eyes shone, and he ducked his head in embarrassment. Beside him, Asumini regarded him with new respect in her eyes. Meanwhile, the other lionesses and Tembo were softly murmuring their assent, but Dhahabu was troubled. "And what of Jahili?"

            An even longer silence ensued. It was Taraji who first broke it, with a shuddering sigh. "Brother...it is as I said. I love him...I know he is not Kuchinja. I cannot deny him anymore. If that seals my fate, and I must be exiled with him...so be it."

            The Lion King's jaw dropped, and he tried to stammer a response but nothing would come out. So sure he had been a short while earlier--but the battle between father and son, and Cheko's words, had altered that. And no matter what occurred, he would never wish to drive Taraji away...

            Before he could reply, Simana again spoke, her voice firm but sympathetic. "I have known Taraji all her life. She is a very level-headed and intelligent lioness. She could not be deceived as to Jahili's true nature. I say she be allowed to choose whomever she wishes as her mate, and that Jahili too be spared...and I dare any lioness here to object, when all can see how truly devoted she is." As the lioness glared around her, her pridemates had the grace to look apologetic and solemn. Each gazed at Taraji as she stood over the weary, nearly unconscious form of Kuchinja's son, and none could deny the emotion they saw in her azure orbs.

            Tembo, meanwhile, had his eyes fixed on Dhahabu. Softly, he whispered his own response. "Once I would have sworn no good could come from the line of Kuchinja...but I have heard and seen things today that make such an assessment impossible to believe. And I know Taraji as well as anyone here...as well as you yourself should, Dhahabu. Trust her heart, my friend..."

            Dhahabu met his sister's pleading eyes, and at last his shoulders sank slightly before he squared them. "I have heard your reasoning...and I am pleased, because it agrees with mine." He glanced toward the boulder where the meerkat Cheko was perched to stay out of the way of massive paws. "Jahili has proven himself today...and so I will pardon all three of you. You may leave in peace."

            Njaa let out an explosive breath at the same time Taraji began weeping for joy. He watched with a warmth and pleasure that would have been surprising once, but was so no longer, as Taraji left her love's side to embrace Dhahabu. As the young king patted her back and nuzzled her tenderly, Njaa caught his eye over her shoulder. "Thank you, Dhahabu, you will not regret this! But...if I may say so...none of us will be going anywhere if we do not receive some sort of healing soon." The large lion glanced at Tauni, then Jahili, and then the lionesses of the pride.

            Taraji pulled back, a stricken expression forming. "How could I be so blind--of course! None of us survived this battle unscathed. We all need to see the healer..." She trailed off at Dhahabu's expression.

            "She...died, Taraji. Just before Father was killed. And the mandrill clans are too far away...we'd never make it." The lion turned a worried expression to Malkia, suddenly at a loss as to what to do. Raising his voice, he addressed the pride. "Does anyone have any notions as to how we can find healing, and soon?"

            Tembo's deep voice rumbled out of his chest thoughtfully. "There is a very old baboon who lives in a baobab tree in the center of Kiburi. He is much closer than the mandrill clans, and is extremely wise in the ways of medicine...he was one of the few non-elephants my father respected. There is only one thing that might be a problem...he dwells near Kituko Rock--Giza's former throne."

            Dhahabu froze in place for several heartbeats, but at last he shook his head. "Giza can no longer harm us...we must deal with it, it is a part of our lands too. What is this baboon's name?"

            "Diwani." But it was not the elephant who replied, it was Njaa. The golden tawny lion was nodding to himself. "I remember the tree you speak of, gray one...Diwani has lived here as long as I can recall. He is a most excellent healer."

            Tembo nodded, his expression rather surprised at this sudden endorsement. Dhahabu lifted his head slowly, and met the eyes of each and everyone present. "Then it is to Diwani that we shall go...and let us not forget what has happened here. We must heal spiritually as well as physically, and remember why we still live."

            As he spoke these words, the last vestiges of light faded from the sky and the sun dipped below the rim of the gorge, plunging them into night. The young king turned toward Jahili and managed a small, apologetic smile to Taraji. "Here...let me help you carry him. And...I am so sorry for the things I said to you. You did not deserve them."

            The cinnamon lioness licked his cheek in acknowledgement. "I know you are, Dhahabu. And I don't blame you...it looked very bad from where you stood. But all that matters now is that we're still together, and there are no more secrets between us."

            The golden lion sighed and joined his sister in leaning down to begin the painstaking process of working their way beneath Jahili's bloody forelegs. But as he prepared to shrug his shoulders and roll the mahogany lion onto his back, Dhahabu suddenly felt drops of wetness on his muzzle. Looking up, he watched as the sodden sky finally let loose its moisture, and soft rain began to fall to wet the earth and plaster his mane to his head. So gentle and cool, washing away the heat of battle...offering Aiheu's blessings to his endeavors...

            It took nearly half an hour for both Tauni and Jahili to be situated with as much care as possible on the backs of the lions who would bear them. During that time there were many signs of reconciliation...Dhahabu and his sister touching, nuzzling, rubbing sides as they worked...Njaa and Asumini sharing warm and understanding glances. But at last the pride was ready to depart this place of death and anger. Flanked by Tembo and the other lionesses, the four weary figures lifted their precious burdens and padded with extreme care down the throat of the gorge, the rain increasing its steady pace, forming a thick veil of mist that soon swallowed their stumbling silhouettes.

            Behind the retreating lions, the floor of the cleft coursed with flowing water, a fast-moving stream lapping against the rocks and rippling with a cadent rhythm beneath the evening breeze. Three dark humps became miniature islands in the flood, their manes undulating in the current around them, streaming out, almost seeming to join the dark patches of blood being swept away from the bodies. Lightning flashed, vividly illuminating the face of Kuchinja, finally at rest after being filled with hate for so long. It also revealed the soaked gray fur of his chest, washed clean of all blood...including the dried life-essence of Giza that had ridden there for ten years. Somewhere in the growing torrent, the dried scarlet liquid flowed again, lost from view, soaking into the earth, never to rise again.