Chapter 10: The Circle Unbroken

 

      Njaa could barely place one weary paw before the other, or even stay upright, as he padded weakly across the gently rolling hills of the savanna with Dhahabu and the other members of the Kiburi Pride. Yet despite the terrible wounds clotted with blood and his protesting muscles, the golden tawny lion pressed onward, not allowing his progress to be checked by anything. For he could not give up, not now when he had finally earned a peaceful rest...not when his brother and nephew depended on him.

            Dawn had arrived only half an hour before, marking the end of the long, grueling night, which had varied from dull and dismal to tempestuous and violent, as the storm that had begun as they left the gorge intensified and howled across the land. On a positive note, the coursing rainwater had washed away much of their blood and kept their wounds clean, but at the same time the deluge had beaten them mercilessly, driven them back, and slowed their movements. But finally the clouds had begun to tatter and drift apart as the rain slowed to a drizzle, and just before the sun heaved its aurous orb over the mountains far to the east, the sky cleared. Thus it was that a sodden, bedraggled party of lions, and one elephant, made its way toward the center of the Kiburi Lands under a slate-gray sky beginning to show signs of pastel blue, in search of the healing they needed.

            Leaning heavily against Asumini, Njaa shrugged his shoulders and supported the weight of his unconscious brother as he staggered forward, determined that even if he should fall, he would continue on by crawling. Eyes glazed and bleary from lack of sleep the previous day, the lion at first did not recognize the massive baobab looming a hundred yards to the southeast as their destination. Only looking up now and then to gauge their position, he only registered it as another landmark to acknowledge they were actually moving at all. But then, as they drew nearer, the golden tawny son of Giza sensed a flickering of familiarity...and then, gazing beyond the enormous girth of the tree, he spied a silhouetted pinnacle fronted by two angled slabs of stone...

            At the same moment he realized where they were, the elephant Tembo let out a peremptory blast on his trunk, startling many of the lions to a halt. "There, Dhahabu!" He lifted his proboscis to point unerringly at the baobab. "That is where we shall find Diwani the healer."

            Smiling up gratefully at Tembo, the young king nodded and began moving again, this time with a surer step and a renewed strength. Heartened, the other members of Kiburi followed, with Njaa and Asumini bringing up the rear. After another twenty minutes, the pride at last gathered beneath the sheltering boughs of the tree, where Tembo again blew a note of command from his trunk.

            There came a rustling in the leaves, and a muttered grumbling, and then a wizened baboon emerged from a hollow among the limbs. Shimmying down the gnarled wood, he dropped to a lower level and hunched his way forward until he could see who waited below. He seemed startled by the lions, although whether it was because of their great number or their identities was not apparent. Fixing his eyes upon Tembo, he leaned upon a knobby walking stick he had brought with him. "Why if it isn't young Tembo, the prodigal son! I have not seen you since the death of your father. What brings you here?" His voice was thin and reedy, with a strange lilt to it that was at once hypnotic and vaguely annoying. "Come to solve all the problems the lions make for themselves?"

            Despite the seeming insult in these words, the elephant laughed. "Not at all, these lions have brought peace and justice to the lands, and by their own merit and blood. And what are you still doing living in this baobab? Hoarding and dispensing wisdom better left for the baboons?"

            Chuckling, the crimson-furred mandrill shook his head and smiled fondly; clearly this was some sort of neverending game of bantering the two indulged in whenever they met. "Ah, and of course as an elephant you never forget anyone's proper place in the Circle of Life." But then, as the baboon peered downward, he spied the grievously wounded body of Jahili draped across Dhahabu's back, and his expression turned serious. "But what is this? Have you brought me those in need of my healing arts?"

            Gravely, Tembo nodded. "This is Dhahabu, King of the Kiburi Pride--"

            "Dhahabu, the Lion King!" The humped form bowed deeply as these words burst from his throat, and suddenly the young golden lion seemed to find something interesting about his paws, as a slow flush crept up his cheeks.

            "Yes, Diwani," the elephant continued. "He has come here with me, and his pride, to receive medicinal aid, for many here have suffered injuries in the battle with the Wahamiji, and will not survive without it. Can you help them?"

            With a practiced eye, Diwani assessed the condition of those most deeply wounded, Jahili and Tauni, as well the cruel gashes and bloody claw marks adorning the pale forms of Njaa, Taraji, and Dhahabu. Then he regarded the other members of the pride. At last he inclined his graying head. "Indeed I can, Tembo, although they would not have survived much longer without treatment. Let me fetch my supplies and I will set to work." And with that pronouncement the baboon turned and scrambled back up to the baobab's hollow, disappearing inside in the blink of an eye.

            In a few short minutes Diwani reappeared and climbed down the tree, its rough bark providing plenty of hand- and footholds. Once on the ground, the mandrill crossed to Dhahabu, who let the limp form of Jahili slide from his shoulders. Opening the drawstrings on a leather pouch not unlike Asumini's, the baboon withdrew a handful of dried purplish leaves and fed them to the mahogany lion as everyone watched breathlessly. The healer ran a gentle hand over Jahili's shoulder and murmured soothingly to him as he waited for the painkiller to take effect. Then, when he had checked the condition of Jahili's eyes and seemed satisfied by what he had found, Diwani produced a small bone and a length of sinew and began the slow, careful process of sewing closed the massive wounds on the young lion's chest and shoulders.

            After another half hour, during which Diwani spread a creamy paste over and into the deep lacerations that covered Jahili's body, the baboon at last put a hand to his back and groaned as he bent back upright. Clutching his staff, he bobbed his head approvingly. "This one was close to dying, but he is young and strong, and will recover with time." He caressed the brown locks of mane falling over Jahili's face, then turned and approached Njaa. The golden tawny lion gratefully lowered Tauni to the earth and collapsed onto his haunches, awaiting the healer's ministrations. The aged lips of the mandrill parted as he reached Njaa's side, and he had to lean forward to catch his words. "I always knew you would not be your father's son, Njaa...you have a good heart."

            As Njaa stared in astonishment, Diwani twisted back spryly and eyed Dhahabu. "I will deal with the sons of Giza next...then you, my king, followed by your sister and the rest of your pride. Be patient, and you will see what Aiheu can do, when aided by a willing set of hands." Shifting back, he lifted his head so that the morning sun shone on the thick ruff of his beard and hair, setting the gray and white strands aflame with a glittering silver fire, and suddenly he did not seem old or whimsical, but alive with power and divine favor. The watching lionesses stirred, murmuring respectfully.

            And so, as Diwani once again delved into his pouch for the medicines and herbs that would slow bleeding, and brushed back Tauni's mane to peer into his pain-glazed eyes, Njaa felt a constriction lessen in his heart. He remembered and trusted the baboon deeply...and seeing him at work now, he knew this had been the right choice. At last, all would be well...

 

 

            Several hours later, their wounds treated and beginning the long process of healing, the members of the Kiburi Pride lounged beneath Diwani's tree, spread across the shady ground between the trunk and a small waterhole nearby. Tembo had found a mudhole large enough to hold him and was now blissfully basking in the cool wet stickiness. At last at peace, Dhahabu sat placidly on a hillock, Mahiri sleeping at his side. Sighing wearily, he glanced at Taraji hovering protectively over Jahili's still silhouette, then turned as the healer mandrill limped slowly toward him.

            "Dhahabu...Your Majesty, now that all are on their way to recovery, I would speak with you alone, on matters of some concern to us all." He rested a wrinkled hand on the golden lion's shoulder.

            Nonplussed, the young king rose to his paws and stretched languorously, yawning, before following Diwani out of the baobab's bulky shadow into the steadily increasing heat of the day. Together the two proceeded to the south, the immense shape of Kituko Rock looming in the near distance. Clearly that was the baboon's destination. Dhahabu frowned, uncomfortable. So much had already been asked of him...what more could he be facing?

            When they stood in the shadow of the grim rock formation, Diwani planted his staff in the soil and leaned forward, a thoughtful expression on his face. "What do you see, Dhahabu?"

            The golden lion let his eyes roam over the gray boulders, cracked ledges, and precarious acacias perched on the heights. Finally, he muttered, "I see a place of darkness, and evil, and loneliness."

            Diwani clucked disapprovingly, his bushy eyebrows pressing together like mating caterpillars. "Is that all you see? It is true Giza tainted this mountain with his tyranny, but it is so much more than this...search your feelings..."

            Reluctantly Dhahabu again regarded the pinnacle...and as he let his eyes rest on the peak of slanting stone, a strange emotion surged in his heart. He could not explain why, but pride seemed to fill him, as if this place were his birthright, or as if it could somehow bring him closer to the Kings... Eyes wide, he turned back. "I feel a warmth...a blessing...some inner goodness."

            "Ah, now you are seeing with divine eyes rather than mortal ones. That is Aiheu's doing...he is always with us, and he wishes you to fulfill his will. And one aspect of that will is, this rock must be your throne." Diwani's words were soft, but forceful.

            The Lion King's jaw dropped in stunned disbelief. "What?!? How can he expect me to--how can you know...?"

            The mandrill chuckled and gestured back toward the baobab. "I have my ways, Dhahabu...I was once a shaman, and though I no longer practice, I still possess the skill of scrying the future. Aiheu is never distant from my heart...and he has been watching you, as have I."

            Dhahabu's shock grew, and was joined by nervousness and doubt. All this time, throughout all his moments of insecurity and uncertainty, he had been under scrutiny? "He...has? I..." Swallowing with difficulty, he let out a shaky breath and struggled to reestablish his calm demeanor. If this had all been a test, he was not sure of his final accounting. "What is his judgment?"

            Gray head bowed, the baboon smiled fondly at the muscled lion. "Young lion, you know better than that...Aiheu does not judge us until we come before him. But," and here he held up a finger, "I do think he is most pleased by what he has seen. You need not worry, as long as you continue to rule in the manner you have this past day."

            His honey-gold mane cascading down to frame his muzzle, Dhahabu gazed at Diwani with a pained expression as he shook his head. Surely the baboon knew of his moments of faltering, of failure... "But I am not so sure I will be able to rule consistently. The throne is a heavy burden..."

            Diwani patted his shoulder and squeezed firmly. "You will succeed, Dhahabu, because Aiheu has directed me to impart to you the necessary guidance to rule with fairness and justice, and to please the Kings."

            The Lion King returned to him a look of awe and found his voice again. "And...I take it that one of the things in which you must guide me is learning to accept this...place...as my seat of power." He licked his lips nervously. "Why is it this must be so, or am I not permitted to know?"

            The mandrill chuckled and waggled a finger. "Do not be so quick to judge...surely you have seen after the siege of the Wahamiji that your pride is in need of a more secure and unassailable home? And what could offer more protection than Kituko Rock?" Dhahabu bristled at this cavalier dismissal of the pride dens Mfalme himself had chosen, but when he saw the look of reproach on Diwani's face, the lion offered a contrite expression and backed down. Satisfied, the healer nodded and then sighed. "But that is merely practical...there is a more compelling, spiritual reason. For you to truly complete your victory, you must purge all of Giza's evil from the land...and that requires the claiming, and renaming, of Giza's throne."

            For a long moment Dhahabu contemplated the towering mountain, gathering his courage and preparing his heart as the brilliant ball of the sun inched slowly noonward, casting angled shadows that gradually sharpened and clarified. The arguments were sound, and he could not contest them...all that remained was to live with the consequence of the choice. Slowly he lowered his head in acquiescence. "Very well...when they are ready to move, I shall relocate the pride here...and as for a new name, that is simple. I shall name it Kiburi Rock--or, more simply, Pride Rock." He nodded in approval, feeling relief and firm confidence flowing through him, as if he were now somehow more of a king than he had been when he defeated Kuchinja. He glanced askance at Diwani. "So...what is next on your list of tasks for me?" A wry smile touched his lips.

            Crimson fur ruffling in the breeze, the baboon lifted his walking stick and smacked the end across Dhahabu's forepaw. As the lion cried out and jerked back instinctively, Diwani thrust out his chin. "That was for calling these deeds tasks...suggesting they are arduous and compelled from you. You will find that the other demands Aiheu has made are not difficult, and in fact are quite rewarding."

            Rubbing his throbbing paw, the golden king frowned in displeasure, but did not object for fear of receiving another blow. "All right...then would you kindly inform me as to the nature of Aiheu's next request?" He attempted to keep as much sarcasm out of his voice as possible, but was certain it could still be detected.

            Diwani smiled slightly, lowering his head to gaze at the ground as he mumbled to himself. "Already it begins...the stubborn tendency of this family not to listen, and to follow their own misguided path. Aiheu give me strength..." Rising up to once more meet Dhahabu's line of sight, the mandrill raised his voice as well. "I trust you will see the wisdom in obtaining a healer shaman to tend to your pride's needs in future?"

            The young lion nodded agreeably. "Of course. My father made the same suggestion to me before he...died." A clouded expression entered his eyes, and his voice fell. "He said I should contact the mandrill clans to obtain one."

            A sad, understanding look passed between them for a moment as the baboon observed a moment of silence for the fallen Mfalme. Then Diwani murmured gently. "Yes...Mfalme was always wise. But in this case, the wisdom is not only his own, but also Aiheu's. For the shaman is needed not only to minister to your pride's physical wounds, but also its spiritual ones, which are much more common and harder to seek out. The one who takes this position must be carefully considered and tested."

            Dhahabu smiled and lifted a paw to thump the mandrill softly in the chest. "How so? If I had to choose it would be simple, I would select you."

            "Me?" The mandrill burst into a gale of high, wheezing laughter. "No no no no, Diwani is too old for such a thing, Aiheu will be calling me to join him before another turn of the seasons. No, not I..."

            Frowning, the king glanced off toward the east, where the nearest mandrill village lay two days' journey away at a walking pace. "Very well...who would you recommend, then?"

            "If it were up to me, this lowly baboon would choose Makedde. He is young, but highly trained and quite skilled, and he has a gentle touch and a favor with Aiheu unequaled in the clans." Diwani gripped his staff and leaned forward to peer up into Dhahabu's eyes.

            Resting a paw on the crimson shoulder, the lion nodded gravely. "So be it...I shall request Makedde specifically as my new shaman. So far so good...what else does my pride need?" The doubt and uncertainty of a few minutes ago had vanished from his voice, which was now more calm and accepting as the healer's requests became more reasonable.

            Diwani leaned back, one hand pressed to his spine as he craned his neck to regard the point of Pride Rock's angled shelf. "What remains is a collection of rituals meant to ensure your legitimacy, and to instill confidence in both your subjects and your descendants. They will endure for every generation hence, by your decree, and bind you always to the land and to Aiheu."

            Dhahabu's eyes widened, and he swallowed slightly at the import of this declaration. "All right...name them."

            Sitting down with a grunt, the mandrill crossed his legs so that his long, strangely shaped feet rested on his thighs with their bare undersides turned upward. One hand resting on his knee, he reached down with the other and began stirring a patch of soil. The golden lion curled his lip in confused puzzlement at what appeared to be a pointless child's game. "Dhahabu...the earth is a part of who we are. From it we were made, to it we will return, and while we live we are tied forever to its care and protection. This is all reflected in the first ritual...the presentation of your heir to the pride and to Aiheu." Dhahabu began to object, but Diwani silenced him with a raised hand. "I am well aware your cubs are four moons old and have already been introduced to the pride...but not in this way. Your new shaman must bear Mohatu, and his brothers, to the peak of Pride Rock, where they will be displayed to your subjects, whom you shall call with your mighty roar. Each must be anointed with the juice of the passion fruit, for it is bittersweet, like the mingled sorrows and joys of life. From a fruit it must come, for it is both the end of one cycle of life and the beginning of another." The crimson form swayed gently from side to side in time with his voice, as if in a trance. "And then they must be sprinkled with the earth that gives them life, and held high so that all the animals may pay homage, and so Aiheu may bless them."

            Dhahabu's breath rasped in his throat as this intense and powerful ceremony was described to him. Despite its simplicity he could sense the weight of meaning and the layers of power within it. "I...am humbled, Diwani. Such recognition is greatly appreciated. How soon must this ceremony be performed?"

            "As soon as possible. In fact, dawn tomorrow would be best." The mandrill opened his eyes and smiled. "All the heirs there shall ever be in these lands must meet their creator at the beginning of the new day, and unlike your sons, they must do so as soon after they are born as is advisable."

            The young king blinked, then spoke hurriedly. "Then I must send word to the mandrill clans, and to my subjects, as quickly as I can! And...may I invite Mahiri's family?"

            "You may invite whomever you wish, my king, as long as you and your family, and your subjects, are present." Diwani scooped up a handful of earth and let it trickle from his hand to the ground, watching it fall while chortling approvingly to himself. Then he slowly uncrossed his legs and rose to his feet.

            Mind racing, Dhahabu felt his heart beat faster as he considered the implications. At last, he would feel confident of himself, and that he and his sons deserved the honor they bore! Mfalme had earned his right to rule by defeating Giza...but he, and every Lion King in the future, would have to reaffirm their service to the lands and to Aiheu. And in instituting this ritual, he would be remembered and loved...he would make his father proud. "I gladly accept this charge, Diwani, as the token of esteem and respect it is meant to be. What are the other rituals Aiheu requires of me?"

            Hunching forward, the baboon approached his side, his walking stick supporting most of his weight. When he reached the lion's shoulder, he lifted a slender hand to stroke and caress the locks of mane, beautiful still despite the sweat, dirt, and blood that streaked them. "The second ritual is one you will not need until your sons are nearing adulthood. To become an adult is a great responsibility, as you well know, and the sprouting of a mane is a sign that this approaches, that your sons will soon find favor on earth and with Aiheu. So when that day arrives, and the mantle of the mane has been laid on your sons' shoulders, you must present them again. You must use these exact words." His voice became insistent, compelling. "You must say, 'Let all within the sound of my voice know that my son is coming fast on the path of his forefathers. Look, he bears the sign.' Then, and only then, will your son's mantle become the mantle of kingship and respect in the eyes of Aiheu."

            A strange sense of vindication rushed through Dhahabu at that moment. He had always felt denied a certain acknowledgement and responsibility when he had grown his own mane, despite the signs of affection and pride shown him at the time. Something had seemed lacking...and this ceremony filled that void. Now his sons and their sons would receive the attention and recognition they needed. Nodding firmly, he accepted this without question, feeling yet further at ease. "Very well...and what of the last ritual?"

            The small smile on Diwani's face was gentle and amused. "Why that is the simplest of them all, but the one that shall be used most frequently. It will mark you as king, and ensure your worthiness shall never be forgotten. You must choose a ritual greeting you and your subjects will exchange upon meeting one another. Consider carefully, and let the voice of Aiheu speak to you."

            Dhahabu blinked in surprise...but as thoughts raced through his mind and various alternatives were discarded, a stray memory flickered from the previous dawn, and suddenly he could smell the tangy metallic odor of blood, could feel brown strands of mane beneath his paw, could hear his father's deep voice whispering words that drove into his heart. Somehow he knew...he recalled the innate rightness he had felt at that moment, and knew that these were the words he must use...to honor Mfalme's legacy, to further bestow authority upon the lion's mantle, and to accent the personal connection between the Lion King and his subjects.

            Leaning forward, he murmured in the mandrill's ear. A look of respect crossed his shriveled features, and then he stepped back a pace and bowed, almost prone upon the ground, one hand extended to barely touch Dhahabu's paw. "I touch your mane, my king."

            "I feel it." Tears stood in the golden lion's eyes. Again, that strange sense of power radiating out, of a piece of a puzzle falling into place, of intertwining strands of fate weaving together like jungle vines. All was right, and Aiheu's favor filled him.

            Slowly Diwani arose and crouched before him, his walking stick as tall and straight as a young sapling planted in the earth. At last he spoke. "Your Majesty...Dhahabu...you have chosen well. And now that you have agreed to fulfill Aiheu's requests, the Lion Kings shall never be deserted, and no matter how the winds of ill fortune may howl around you, the truth and goodness of your blood shall triumph. Pride Rock shall stand as a testament to your courage and strength, to inspire every generation in times of trouble and hardship."

            Pale with shock and awe and trembling with the release of emotion, the young lion slumped forward slightly, and winced as the wounds in his chest began to seep with his movement. The mandrill narrowed his eyes, then wrapped an arm around Dhahabu's shoulders and began to guide him back the way they had come. "But that is the future, and for now the present troubles beckon. Return to my tree, and I will reapply my herbs. The Flame of the Forest is a most beneficial medicinal flower, granting hardiness to the weary...and it looks as if you could use its fire."

            Suffering himself to be directed toward the shade, Dhahabu moved as if in a daze, still stunned by the ramifications of what he had wrought, his mind dwelling on all the swift changes he must implement and the messages of great import he must have delivered this day. But that could wait a short while...now he was in need of rest and relaxation, spending gentle hours with the members of his pride. Yet even as he padded back toward Mahiri's slumbering form, he could not forget Diwani's momentous advice, for the land reminded him, its colors seeming to shine with a preternatural brightness...and Pride Rock, towering into the welkin, no longer languished in the shadows of gloom, but stood warmed by the meridian sun, as if cleansed by an inner heat that lit its cold granite with the orange-yellow hues of summer.

 

***

 

            Asumini leaned down and stroked the furred cheek of Njaa as he slept in exhaustion beside her. She knew no other lionesses were nearby to witness this, but even if they had been she did not care how this gesture would appear to the others in the pride. This brother of Kuchinja was so different from the others, and her heart went out to him even now, as he lay prone with his side rising and falling arhythmically. What he must have been through...

            Despite the care she took to avoid it, Njaa felt the sensation of her touch and stirred. Smiling softly, he opened his eyes and gazed up at her. "What a lovely sight to see upon waking..." He winked.

            Blushing, the lioness rose up and hung her head slightly. "Now you're simply exaggerating..."

            The golden tawny lion blinked sleepily, then groaned and struggled onto his haunches. "I would never do such a thing...I never deviate from the truth, even in jest." He lifted her chin with one paw so that he could look into her eyes. "You are stunning, Asumini...as well as gentle, forthright, and honest. A very special lioness."

            Asumini smirked. "One might think you were after something, noble sir."

            Njaa raised an eyebrow innocently. "I? After something? Perish the thought..." For a moment his eyes rested upon something over her shoulder, and she glanced back to see Dhahabu returning from his solitary conversation with Diwani to gently nuzzle and caress his mate Mahiri. When she looked back, Njaa had a wistful expression on his face, as if he viewed something far beyond his reach. Asumini's heart thudded in her chest, and everything in her being urged her to end this lion's loneliness...

            Searching for the words to express herself, she cleared her throat. "You need not worry about the king, Njaa...he and the pride have spoken, you will never be an enemy to us again, or face harm from our members."

            "I wasn't worrying," the lion replied rather defensively. "I know I am safe...I was thinking more along the lines that he surely must not be comfortable with my presence. I should leave as soon as is feasible."

            Asumini's heart nearly stopped at this suggestion. "No! You...you can't leave!" Seeking a reason, she latched onto the most ready excuse. "Your brother and nephew need to have time to fully recover from their wounds."

            Njaa eyed her speculatively, as if doubting her sincerity or the motivation of her objection. But he nodded. "This is true...but, I should depart as soon after that as possible. Dhahabu wishes me to form my own pride, and that I shall do. It will be difficult at first, and harsh, and will require much traveling to find a suitable locale, but it is infinitely better than anything I experienced while living with Kuchinja."

            Again, even though his talk of leaving now incorporated a delay, the lioness felt a need to intervene. "But you need not live such a life...do you? It would be so...lonely..."

            "Not really...I will have Tauni, and perhaps Jahili and Taraji as well. I have no idea in what manner that matter shall be decided." Njaa frowned worriedly, glancing toward his nephew on the far side of Diwani's baobab.

            "But is that enough, Njaa? I am certain you need more...such as..." A stray thought flitted through her mind, and instantly she pounced upon it. "Njaa...have you been alone all your life?"

            Taken aback, the golden tawny lion made an annoyed face. "Of course not! I have had my brothers, and before them my father and the entire pride that dwelt at Kituko Rock. I have always had companionship of some sort."

            "Not...female companionship?" The query hung suspended in the air around them, unanswered, as its significance loomed and grew, interweaving with the shocked silence. Njaa's mouth parted but no sound emerged as he realized the implicit meaning. Asumini herself could not believe she had said such a thing...she barely knew this lion! Yet she could not deny to herself that she wished to get to know him better...much better...

            At last the brother of Kuchinja found his voice. "No...I have never found a lioness for me. There were several who could have become more to me than a friend, but none struck the right chord in my heart. I fear I may be a bachelor for all of my days." The corner of his mouth twitched despite the note of despair in his tone. "I take it you have an alternative?"

            Asumini froze, uncertain as to whether she wished Njaa to know of her interest. Deciding discretion was best in case he did not return the feeling, she smirked and said, "Yes...I know of a lioness in this very pride who finds you very attractive."

            "Do you now?" The golden tawny lion made a show of looking around the sleeping forms. "Anyone I know?"

            "I think you do," the lioness replied with as much indifference as she could muster. "She has been watching you for some time, and she confided in me that she not only finds you handsome, but also intelligent, kind, and sympathetic. She wishes to get to know you better."

            Njaa rubbed his chin with one paw, musing aloud. "I see...then it behooves me to fulfill her every fantasy and answer her request."

            Asumini bristled inwardly, jealous that Njaa would suddenly let his eye rove to a lioness other than she...she barely concealed her irritation, but managed a polite reply. "I agree, Njaa...you should not leave Kiburi without first exploring all angles."

            "Certainly not." A merry twinkle filled his emerald eyes, and a strong suspicion filled her mind as he ran his gaze familiarly over her muscled forelegs. Before she could speak again, the lion rose to his paws and limped closer to her, until he stood only a few inches away. Looking up into his face, she was enchanted by the depth of emotion and gentleness she found there, the humor and longing and respect mixed in equal measure. "But is this lioness willing to leave Kiburi and travel with me, wherever I may wander? Or to be separated from me for months and seasons at a time?"

            Not having thought that far ahead, caught up only in her emotions, Asumini blinked, but she soon had an answer. "I...do not think she could ever leave her home, she is too loyal and has too many friends here. But although it would be painful, she would endure the separation and wait for you. For a lion such as you, she would do anything..." No longer bothering to conceal her desire, she met his gaze and could not tear herself away.

            As if expecting this development, Njaa grinned almost cubbishly, and took another step closer, his musky form dwarfing hers. "I think...an arrangement could be reached. After all, I would never deny a lioness her heart's desire...especially one such as you."

            Before Asumini could futilely object as her mind wished her to, Njaa took the last pace forward until no distance separated them at all. His paw lifted to encircle her neck, and then he lowered his head to hers and kissed her.

            The upwelling of devotion and need in her heart was so explosive that Asumini simply melted into his embrace and returned the kiss with a fervency that seemed to surprise him, but he gamely increased his passion. And suddenly it did not seem to make any difference to the lioness that she had only met this lion the day before...the strength in his foreleg as he cradled her close, the warmth of his breath, the scent of his fur, the taste of his lips, it all felt utterly and undeniably right, as if it were meant to be...as if a lock had been clasped which could never be shattered.

            Neither she nor Njaa noticed the silent, massive silhouette that circled the tree's base opposite them in his circuit toward other members of the pride...nor did they see the expression of astonishment slowly change to one of approval and warm pleasure on Dhahabu's face...

 

 

            With a gentle purr and a soft nuzzle, Taraji rested her head against Jahili's shoulder and waited for his eyes to flicker open...for him to awaken and reassure her that he would survive this horrible battle with no permanent injuries, that he would never leave her side. Now that she no longer denied the truth, the cinnamon lioness wished to share every moment of her life with Jahili and her heart beat with the joy of being near him.

            When at last he did stir, the mahogany lion's eyes, though pained, were filled with a love so pure and true it cut straight into her chest. His voice was weak, but steady. "Good morning, Taraji...did we win?"

            Taraji chuckled and kissed his cheek. "Yes, my love, we won...although in your case I'm not sure how much of a victory it was." Her voice shook and fell to a whisper.

            The mahogany lion sat up, leaning against her side and resting a paw on her shoulder. "Believe me, it was a victory for all of us...Father is at last at peace, and I truly was able to receive his respect and love, there at the end. My only regret is that it came too late...and that so much pain and death preceded it." He hung his head, his brown locks of mane falling to drape across his face.

            Flicking her tongue out to soothingly caress his jawline, the cinnamon lioness leaned against him, every inch of her body pressed to his, as she purred in his ear. "Yes, that was unfortunate...but the Kings never fail to lead us onto the proper path, and their ways are often confusing and pass through the darkness before reaching the light." The form of a dark brown cub sprawled on the fallow ground of Kivuli encroached upon her vision.

            "But is light what lies ahead of us?" Jahili frowned mournfully. "I know Dhahabu pardoned my uncles and I...but he would never let us be together. We shall be separated, never to see one another again..." His voice cracked and broke.

            Taraji's jaw trembled as she tried to answer him, but before she could force her lips to wrap around the words, another voice interposed itself into the stillness. "That's where you're wrong, Jahili." Turning her head, the lioness gasped to see her brother Dhahabu standing unthreateningly beside the nearest tree root...a warm smile of joyful acceptance on his muzzle.

            Startled, she began to rise, but the young king shook his head as he approached. "No, you need your rest, Taraji...both of you do." He glanced at Jahili with concern as he sat down beside the mahogany lion. "And you will have plenty of time to get it, because I have decided to allow you and your uncles to stay in Kiburi until you have fully recovered your health." A sad expression formed as his voice dropped. "But...I am afraid after that you will have to leave...I wish it could be otherwise, but there can only be so many males in a pride, and I already have three sons."

            Jahili hung his head, understanding mixed with self-doubt and loneliness on his face. But his muzzle lifted in shock as Dhahabu suddenly leaned forward and nuzzled him gently. "Yet...although I cannot allow you to stay here, there is one thing I can do for you. I'm sorry, Jahili...I was wrong about you. You are a brave and noble lion, and I give you my blessing to be my sister's mate." There was a wry smirk on his lips and a twinkle in the other's gray eyes. "That is, if that's what you want..."

            Taraji stared in slack-jawed amazement, every feature betraying a sudden burst of hope and excitement. Every inch of her body quivered and shook with whirling emotion. At last...what she had dreamed of! "Oh...Dhahabu...!" Her choked reply was followed by a leap to her paws and an impulsive embrace.

            Dhahabu smiled gently and patted his sister's back with a massive paw, eyes fixed on a faraway place as he sensed the breach between them closing and healing. He caught Jahili's attention and returned a look of firm respect, which caused the young lion to blush profusely.

            When the cinammon lioness at last broke the embrace, she whispered softly, "Thank you...you have no idea what this means to me."

            "Yes I do." The king grinned and winked, then turned back to Jahili and rested a paw on his shoulder. Squeezing the muscle, he murmured, "You are my brother now...so do what Sulubu would have done, and take good care of my sister."

            A look of awe joined the tears in the mahogany lion's blue eyes. "Y-your Majesty...I don't know what to say! Of course I will...I love her more than I do my own life." The loneliness faded from his expression as he stared longingly at Taraji. For a moment he seemed uncertain what to do...for so many months the possibility of redemption and acceptance and an open, unconcealed relationship had been denied him. Finally he wrapped a foreleg around Dhahabu and clasped him close. "You are truly a wise king, Dhahabu."

            Blinking rapidly at his own tears, the golden lion nodded into Jahili's mane and then gently disengaged, gesturing to Taraji. "I don't need wisdom to see this is right...I can feel it in my heart, when I look at you and her together."

            As Jahili stepped back and limped to the cinnamon lioness's side, she bit her lip and slumped her shoulders. "But...brother, where will we go? I cannot leave Jahili, but you have said he cannot stay here. Must I be an exile?"

            Dhahabu sighed. "No, not an exile...consider yourself let free from the responsibilities of this pride. You have found your life, your love, your happiness...your peace. Go with him, Taraji...it is where the Kings wish for you to be, or your devotion would not have survived all that has tested it. And you know you will always be welcome here, to visit whenever you like." The sadness of parting suddenly was overshadowed by a growing pride and eagerness lighting up his countenance. "But you will still be here for many weeks, I should imagine...long enough to spend as much time together as possible. First, however, there's a little ceremony I'd like you both to attend tomorrow at dawn...a presentation of my cubs to the pride and to Aiheu."

            Jahili perked up noticeably at this announcement, and a broad smile appeared. "There's nothing more I'd like than to finally meet your cubs, Dhahabu...you can count on it."

            Taraji felt as if her heart would leap out of her chest...the prospect of finally filling the void in her life for good, of never being severed from Jahili, was both daunting and exhilarating. Instinctively she pressed against Jahili's side and began licking and caressing his face and ears, to his extreme enjoyment--the lion practically melted, his tongue lolling and his eyes rolling upwards, prompting an understanding laugh from Dhahabu. Giggling, the cinnamon lioness began depositing her scent on her mate with fervency and pleasure. "Oh brother...I still cannot thank you enough...for everything!"

            "It is I who should thank you, for opening my eyes, for making me see the truth, and for saving my life. As to Jahili..." Another merry twinkle appeared in his gray orbs. "In his case you should be thanking Cheko. He's the one who knocked the most sense into me."

            "Did somebody say my name?" The grass rustled beside a nearby slate boulder, and abruptly the tiny meerkat leaped into view. Scrambling up the rock, he smiled disingenuously and bowed a little before posing on the stone's surface.

            All three lions laughed at this. Cheko frowned and crossed his arms, but whether his indignation was feigned or not was difficult to tell. "Hey...what's de matter? Is dere a bug caught in my teeth?"

            Wiping her eyes, Taraji snickered. "Oh Cheko...I don't know what we'd do without you!"

            "Suffer in boredom, probably." The meerkat winked. "Dat's what most of ya do, but not me, I look at life differently. An' if ya wanna learn t' laugh again, I'd suggest ya follow my advice."

            Jahili, who had been chuckling, paused and considered this seriously. "You know he's right...he's helped us all a great deal, and his advice has never been wrong. Things would have turned out much more tragically if not for him. He should be rewarded."

            "Yeah you bet I should be! I mean, awwww, dat ain't necessary, I was just doin' what any law-abidin' member of dis pride would've done in my place." Cheko hurriedly tried to wipe the greedy expression from his face, but the subsequent nobility and selflessness that he affected was as completely out of character and unconvincing as the grave and benevolent set of his chin.

            Dhahabu snorted derisively, but his good-natured smile showed his true feelings as he regarded the meerkat thoughtfully. "You're absolutely right, Jahili. What reward would you suggest?"

            Jahili considered, trying to ignore his peripheral vision, where Cheko was now dancing frantically to get his attention. "I think it's only fair that he receive the position he originally claimed to me he held...that of an adviser to the Lion King."

            Cheko ceased gyrating so quickly he almost stumbled and fell off the boulder. A mixture of shock, pride, and disgruntled approval twisted his mouth. "Me? An adviser? I...well of course dat's only t' be expected--I mean, dat would be a great honor an' I'd be happy t' accept. But I was kinda hopin' for a lifetime supply of crunchy, slimy bugs!" He glared at Jahili.

            Taraji looked vaguely ill and turned away, but neither of the males seemed to mind. The mahogany lion imitated Cheko's solemn demeanor and looked at Dhahabu. "I think that could be arranged, don't you?"

            "But of course." The Lion King deported himself with equal gravity. "Such is but one of the perks of the position."

            The meerkat rose to his full height and stabbed a finger at the air. "Now dat's more like it!" He leaped down from the boulder and scampered to Dhahabu's forepaw, clutching the thick fur and beginning a rapid climb up his sculpted body, to the lion's obvious amusement. When he at last reached the top of his shoulder, he grabbed the honey-gold mane and settled comfortably into a pocket within the silky locks, arranging it with a fastidious air to form a makeshift nest. "But dat can't be de end of it, dere's lotsa details we gotta work out..." Cheko intertwined his fingers and cracked them satisfyingly, eyes bright as he prepared for a serious round of haggling.

            It took all of Dhahabu's self-control not to collapse in laughter and squash the hapless meerkat beneath his convulsing body. Shoulder quaking, he glanced at Taraji and Jahili and saw that each was now oblivious to him, their eyes locked on one another, the shifting mists of love and unending desire dancing in their blue orbs. It was as if the rest of the world did not exist. Reminded of himself and Mahiri, the young king sighed contentedly before returning his gaze to the meerkat. "I agree...but I think we should work them out elsewhere, and leave these two alone. They've earned it."

            Suiting actions to words, the golden lion rose to his paws and padded with soft slow steps back the way he had come. Just as he was about to round the baobab, he glanced back over his shoulder. In the shadow of the tangled limbs, his sister and Jahili had drawn closer still, their fur almost the same hue in the darkness so that it appeared they had blended together as one entity...reflecting the state of their hearts. Then, tenderly and lovingly, Jahili leaned in and kissed Taraji. Neither would ever be alone again...

            Wiping tears from his eyes, Dhahabu peered down and saw that, surprisingly, Cheko too was secretly dashing salty fluid from his cheeks. Hurriedly he shoved his hands behind his slim striped back as he noticed the king looking. "What? Don't ya think a guy like me could have a heart? Jahili's my bud, I'm happy for 'im."

            "I know you are, Cheko...I know you are." Smiling fondly, Dhahabu once more commenced walking the path around the tree. "But you wanted to discuss the terms of your advisorship. I certainly hope we can come to an agreement that suits your liking."

            Cheko ran a hand through the rust-colored plume of hair atop his head and chuckled. "Aww, Dhahabu, my demands ain't gonna be dat awful...don't you worry, your Majesty, hakuna matata!" He paused, as if struck by the attractiveness of his own words, and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Hey...I kinda like de sound of dat..."

 

***

 

            Tattered clouds, the last vestiges of the storms of the previous night, drifted slowly across the luminous face of the moon, sending strangely shaped shadows skittering across the ground, but after several minutes the misty tendrils were swept clear by the wind, allowing the magnificent lunar face to shine down undisturbed on the blocky, brooding form of Pride Rock thrusting up from the plains below. Perched on the tip of the pinnacle, a lone form stood as a sentinel, set to guard the dark and fertile land as it languished in the silvered peace of the early morning hours.

            A hyena harangued the savanna with its unearthly cry somewhere in the night, and atop the angled rock, Dhahabu shivered. As he and his pride had traveled through Kiburi toward Diwani's tree following the battle, he had belatedly realized Ukware, Mwoga's son, remained unaccounted for and had likely escaped. To what place he had vanished, no one knew, but he was sure to return and cause trouble another day...a loose end that might yet unravel the fabric of peace. He sighed.

            But other loose ends had been more neatly tied. Despite raised eyebrows, whispered words, and a few muttered grumblings, the Kiburi Pride had relocated without a vocal protest, leaving their old dens for the caves and ledges of Pride Rock, where a cistern located behind the pinnacle provided fresh water, to everyone's delight. Detera had been sent back to bring Maarifa and the others, and for their part Mohatu and his brothers had been eager to explore their new home and discover new mischief, to the chagrin of Dhahabu and Mahiri, who worried that the cubs might tumble from the heights of the mountain.

            Matters of pride business had been dealt with swiftly and efficiently. Two cheetah messengers had been dispatched, one to the mandrill clans to request a shaman, the other to Kusini to invite Adhimu and his family to the presentation ceremony the following dawn, the latter having been sent immediately after Dhahabu's talk with Diwani to allow the lions plenty of time to travel the large distance. The mandrills, honored and somewhat bewildered by the Lion King's sudden recognition of their wisdom and skill, hastily convened their councils and with little debate confirmed the choice of Makedde as Kiburi's shaman. He too would be traveling this night to arrive at Pride Rock at dawn.

            Within the pride itself, changes of an organizational nature had occurred. Huyjinga, who had been pressed into service as the pride's temporary head huntress following the death of Farate, was instated to her position permanently, to Simana and Malkia's great joy. As advisers Dhahabu chose Diwani and Cheko, the latter prompting a cloud of humor within Kiburi, but the meerkat took his duties seriously and swore to always be loyal. Tembo, meanwhile, had received a blessing he had hoped for but which had never been officially acknowledged--before all the members of the pride, Dhahabu had humbly and gratefully bestowed the position of majordomo on his dear friend, using words soft and respectful that brought tears to the elephant's eyes.

            Breaking from his reminiscences, Dhahabu stared off into the cloaking shadows of the darkened savanna with tears of his own, remembering the pride he had felt at that moment...it had been so right. All of the changes, despite their suddenness and newness, had been right, he could feel it. The pride was now even further entrenched within the land, with new connections among the various animals--mandrill and meerkat, elephant and lion. Even the hyena clans had been invited to join Kiburi, as a token of good faith to show no hard feelings were nursed in vengeful hearts. So many changes...but he was a new king, and such was to be expected. A new king, and an uncertain one--but about this, he felt only conviction and a positive outlook. Whatever else might occur, he had done well.

            "Your Majesty...I touch your mane." The soft female voice startled him, causing the lion to flinch visibly. Turning, he was surprised to see Guyana at his side, bowing and with one paw extended, just as Diwani had done earlier that day. Dhahabu had informed the pride of the ritual greeting, and it had been adoped wholeheartedly.

            "I feel it. You may rise, Guyana. What brings you to me tonight?" Dhahabu inclined his head, a puzzled expression on his face.

            The gentle wanderer sat back on her haunches and regarded him fixedly. "Your Majesty...years ago I first came to these lands when Giza ruled them. I saw a need for my presence, to aid in guiding Kiburi towards goodness and prosperity, and so I predicted the rainy season to gain Giza's trust. Since then I served him loyally, although as a secret dissenter to his reign, and afterwards Mfalme as well. But now I must confess I no longer see a need for my presence."

            Shock rippled through Dhahabu--this was the lioness who had so warmly and sympathetically spoken with him, comforted him, and guided him during those dark days after Sulubu's death when all he had to live for was his father's teachings. Without Guyana he did not know what he would have done...and now she wished to leave? "Guyana...you will always have a place here! My kingdom does require you, and many things lie in store for your time in Kiburi."

            But the lioness shook her head, her amber eyes never wavering. "No, Dhahabu...I have accomplished what I intended to do, seen the downfall of Giza and his family, and helped to usher in a golden age of monarchy here. Now that that is done, my only possible role could be as an adviser...and you already have Diwani, Cheko, and Tembo, and soon Makedde will be here as well. No, my time in Kiburi is done, and I must return to my wanderings. Somewhere there is another pride, another place, in need of my wisdom."

            Words of protest struggled to rise up from Dhahabu's throat, but one look into her eyes forestalled them. Slowly, reluctantly, he sighed and hung his head before nodding. "Very well...if that is your wish, I cannot hold you here against your will. And I would not question your reasoning, nor do I wish to deny other lands and lions your healing touch. But may I say I will miss you greatly, Guyana...there is no other lioness like you, nor shall there ever be again."

            "What a lovely thing to say, Dhahabu." Guyana's eyes twinkled, bringing a slight blush into the golden lion's cheeks, as she approached to nuzzle him. "You always were quite the charmer." Winking, she kissed his muzzle and patted his shoulder. "Thank you...and I shall miss you as well. My time with you was well spent, and you have become a lion to make me proud...to make all of us proud." Rising once more, she turned and began pacing back down the slanted slope of the mountain. Just before reaching the ledge that led down toward level ground, she called back over her shoulder, "Farewell, your Majesty..."

            Long after she was gone Dhahabu sat with his paw pressed to his face, eyes moist as memories of Guyana replayed unbidden in his mind. Finally he sighed and returned to gazing at the night sky. Suddenly it seemed more lonely...the moon still shone, but with a coldness that spoke of emptiness and the silent witness of the march of the tides, of a vigil with no end and no point. The stars burned in their multitudes, but so distant as to remove even the thought of the warmth their hearts contained. Dhahabu wondered if, despite his family and pride, this was what his life would ultimately amount to as a king...a solitary path to destiny. Or perhaps this was what Aiheu, despite the wonder of his creation, felt...

            As if his thoughts had summoned him, a small paw suddenly tugged at his foreleg, and Dhahabu glanced down to see Mohatu peering up with a pleading expression. He blinked, then smiled softly, glad to have his son with him. "Yes, Mo? Did you want something?"

            "Yeah, Dad..." The cub rubbed at the back of his neck uncomfortably. "It's about this ceremony tomorrow..." He seemed to search for the words. "Do I have to do anything, or say anything? I don't wanna mess it up for you..."

            Laughing at this, the king leaned down and scooped Mohatu close, nuzzling him lovingly. "Oh son...there's no way you could mess up this ceremony...you want to know how I know? Because to make it come to pass, all you have to do is be yourself."

            Mohatu scrunched up his face in confusion. "What do you mean, Dad?"

            "Son, this ceremony is intended to let you be presented to the pride as my heir, and for Aiheu to bless you. You don't have to do anything special to be the heir, you already are, and you don't need to say any unique words to receive Aiheu's blessing, because he loves you and wishes to honor you just for who you are in here." He touched the cub's chest where his small heart was beating rapidly. "Now do you understand?"

            A small smile curled the corners of his lips, and Mohatu nodded. "Yeah I do! But...what about Busara and Makani?"

            Dhahabu's eyes clouded over for a second as he considered this, but then a thought struck him as to another precedent he could set. "Well...they will be presented too! You will be called the heir, but they will be prince consorts, with duties and responsibilities just as important as yours. How's that sound?"

            "I think it's a splendid idea!" A slight chuckle sounded, and then Mahiri paced onto the end of the promontory, her cream pelt shimmering iridescently in the moonlight. When she reached their side, the lioness leaned down and licked Mohatu's ears, to his annoyance.

            "Yeah, Dad, that sounds only fair!" The golden cub shoved Mahiri's muzzle away and wiped his cheek and ears with one paw distastefully, prompting a laugh from his mother.

            "Is everything all right now, Mo?" Mahiri queried fondly. "Because you need your sleep if you're going to get up in time for the ceremony."

            Mohatu's eyes widened and he gasped. "Awww man I forgot, it's at dawn! Yeah, I gotta go...thanks Dad!" Winding between Dhahabu's forelegs and rubbing against his fur, the cub dashed off several yards, waiting eagerly for Mahiri, who hung behind to kiss the king's cheek. Dhahabu chuckled and watched Mohatu with pride before returning the gesture. Thick clouds passed across the moon, obscuring its light, but even in the enclosing of darkness he could see her brilliant green eyes shining with love and devotion.

            "You are so good with him, my mate...with all the pride, in fact. You have truly come into your own, Dhahabu...and I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of you." Mahiri rubbed her chin against the back of his maned neck, then turned and slid muscle to muscle along his body, her tail passing along his chest and back, lingering a moment on his haunches. The lion looked back over his shoulder, heart thumping at the seductive look in her eyes, as she padded slowly back toward the ledge that decended to the royal den. Shadows seemed to creep behind her as the clouds in the sky roiled and built higher, and an ominous rumble shook the welkin. Apparently another storm was on its way.

            But just before Mahiri and her son disappeared from sight, Mohatu spun on his paws and called back. "Dad...tomorrow will be great, won't it?"

            Smirking, Dhahabu nodded. "It certainly will, son."

            "But...one thing would make it even better." Mohatu's expression became crestfallen.

            "Oh?" The young lion perked an ear to catch the cub's words over the rising wind and raised his voice to be heard. "What's that, son?"

            "Well...I wish Grandpa could be here to see it." Muzzle drooping in sadness, Mohatu turned again and moved much more slowly off the rocky slab. Mahiri paused, shooting Dhahabu a pained and regretful look, then followed.

            Stinging tears filled Dhahabu's eyes, made worse by the grit stirred by the swirling air currents, and he squinted as he padded back toward the point of Pride Rock. Biting his lip, he stopped and sat down heavily, a ragged breath escaping him, and in moments his chest and shoulders, in fact his entire body, shook with broken sobs. Such simple words...yet they renewed his pain and caused grief to wash over him, to drown his hope and confidence. Within, he was still the uncertain cub he had always been, needing one last time the assurance of his father that everything would be all right, that he would succeed.

            But that would never come, now.

            Bitterly he stared at his paws, ignoring the increasingly agitated clouds and the shadows they produced, the pounding thunder and the whining wind. Muttering to himself in a voice thick with despair, he squeezed his eyes shut. "Oh Mohatu...I wish Father could be here to see it too..."

            The rumble in the sky increased, shuddering from horizon to horizon...and then the carefully constructed walls Dhahabu had built between himself and his guilt and sorrow crumbled to dust as a voice he had never expected to hear again in life throbbed from the heavens, filled with gentleness and warmth that swept through his soul, tearing away the veil of death and opening him to a rush of emotion that seemed to cleanse his body of every fear and grief, leaving only awe.

            "But son...he is already here...as he has always been, and shall always be..."

            As Dhahabu sat in stunned shock, before his eyes a strange cloud formation swelled and rolled, rotating endlessly as it grew to cover the eastern sky. Eerie shapes darted about, as a massive silhouette began to darken and solidify. A swirl of cloud parted, and then the image of Mfalme appeared in the stars. As his father approached, padding on a nonexistent ground, Dhahabu gulped...the lion was completely transparent and void of color except for various shades of blue. A spirit come from beyond the grave...

            "Oh Father...Father..." Weeping for joy, the lion stared longingly upward. Even knowing Mfalme was dead, just to see him once more seemed to erase the renewed pain at the moment of its inception and flood his heart with hope. The great lion was not truly gone, he watched from the heavens...

            That thought stunned him, and he stammered rapidly. "Father, have you been watching me? How am I doing? Have I made you proud? Is this the proper course?"

            Mfalme's brow seemed to furrow, and he shook his substanceless head in rueful disbelief. Suddenly his very presence suffused the air around Dhahabu as the fallen king spoke again, enfolding him in a comforting embrace to still his fears and instill peace in his heart. "Oh Dhahabu...why do you still doubt so? Has nothing I taught you remained in your thoughts? I have indeed been watching...but son, you cannot allow yourself to second-guess every decision you make based on whether I would approve. You are the king now, and you must judge only by your own beliefs, your own sense of right and wrong." The spirit paused, then smiled softly. "But to answer your question, yes I am proud of you, as I shall always be."

            The golden lion swallowed and rose to his paws, tentatively approaching the tip of the promontory. Above, the clouds swirled again, filling in details of the spirit's visage. Light flared behind Mfalme, and color soon followed. The ghostly outline changed until Mfalme appeared just as he had in life...but a slight transparency and a faint emptiness in his emerald eyes still revealed his true state.

            "Dhahabu...the Kings granted me this chance to speak with you, because they have perceived your doubts. They wished me to tell you that they too are proud of you, and Aiheu as well. You did not give in to your rage, and because of it Kuchinja has a chance at redemption that would otherwise have been beyond his reach. You did not remain crouched in a perceived sense of perfection, but realized you could be wrong. You have enabled great good to occur, and brought honor to yourself and the pride. The Kings wish to commend you, and they wish you good luck at all your endeavors." Mfalme's voice, even as serene and susurrating as it was, throbbed with emotion, and Dhahabu could almost swear there were crystalline tears in his lambent eyes--or perhaps it was only a brilliant star shining through from the sky beyond.

            "Dad...I don't know what to say...thank you!" The young lion's gray eyes brimmed over. "This means so much to me...and tell the Kings thank you as well, for letting you come to me this way. I...needed to see you, to have closure..."

            Brown locks of mane stirred in a nonexistent wind as Mfalme smiled again. "Ah, but there is more...the Kings knew there was something else you needed as well, and Aiheu gave his blessing for it..." Turning, the spirit glanced askance at another patch of churning clouds. Dhahabu peered curiously, noticing another silhouette approaching, one much smaller and moving more rapidly than Mfalme had...almost scampering, in fact...

            Dhahabu stopped breathing for a full minute.

            No. It couldn't be...

            But it was. Another spirit resolved into being beside Mfalme, manifesting itself as an adorable brown cub whose every muscle and feature was etched into the young king's memory...unchanged from the last day he had seen him, the day of his death...black mane tuft still sprouting at a rakish angle, a glint of mischief in his earth-brown eyes.

            Sulubu.

            "Hiya bro!" Dhahabu's eyes closed for a moment and his massive frame shook with sobs as tears streamed down his fur...even the voice was the same. "Whoa, you sure grew up big, Dhahabu! I always knew ya would...ya didn't believe me, but I told ya you were gonna be strong!"

            The king opened his eyes again and watched his brother perch on the masses of grayish cloud beneath his paws as if they were humps of soil or boulders, his bright eyes peering down in awe as his tail swished in delight. The cub's spirit grinned, but then his look turned serious. "I told ya a lot of things ya didn't believe, bro. Why didn't ya believe me?"

            Dhahabu struggled to find the words, his voice hoarse. "Sulubu...I...I couldn't. I had to see it for myself, experience it. That's the way I am. But I know now you were right...you were always right."

            Sulubu chuckled. "Told ya..." But his affectionate smile showed he was not truly being arrogant. "So now that ya know better, I want ya to believe me on more thing, bro. I want ya to know that I am proud of ya too...and that I don't blame ya for what happened in Kivuli...so ya don't need to punish yourself anymore."

            At these words Dhahabu burst into a torrent of tears, but they were cleansing ones. Even as his shoulders quivered and stricken whimpers escaped his throat, he could feel the guilt and shame washing out of him, leaving him feeling more alive and whole than he had in many months.

            When at last the golden lion looked up, his eyes burned and his muzzle was soaked with tears, but he managed a grateful smile. "Thank you, bro...I needed that more than anything else. I just wish...I wish you could have lived, and grown up with me, and been able to become an adult."

            Sulubu tilted his head to the side and regarded Dhahabu curiously. "Well...Aiheu said I had special dis...dis...dispensation to show ya what I would have looked like if I'd grown up!" He winked and then closed his eyes. As the Lion King watched in astonishment, the spirit shimmered and proceeded to grow, muscles bulging, body lengthening, mane sprouting and cascading down his broad shoulders. In moments his brother was a massive figure of a lion, as large as Mfalme or Kuchinja, his gorgeous mane thick and lustrous, like ebony. But when he opened his eyes, they were the same mischievous ones Dhahabu knew so well.

            Jaw hanging, Dhahabu could not hide his amazement or appreciation. "Sulubu...you're magnificent!"

            Sulubu chuckled and turned first one way, then another, to show off his powerful physique and smooth, unruffled fur. "I rather like it," he commented wryly. His voice was a rumbling bass, quite a difference from his cubhood pitch. "Any age is possible for me...but I prefer being a cub, because it is more fun that way! And at any rate, I don't think it's fair that I be an adult if I didn't go through all the changes and challenges that accompany maturation, do you?"

            Mfalme cleared his throat and raised a misty eyebrow, eyes narrowed at this display of self-admiration. Sulubu managed to look sheepish and trailed off. Then the mahogany lion looked back at Dhahabu. "Our time grows short, and we must return to Aiheu, but before I leave, let me remind you once more: let your heart guide you, my son. It has never failed you before...and never shall. The Circle shall stand forever, unbroken, by the prints of your paws." Nodding firmly, he stepped back, and with that motion the spirit's face lost its clarity, becoming an outline once more. The clouds moved with him, rolling and surging as the sound of thunder again shook the sky.

            Dhahabu called out desperately, but his father was already fading. Sighing, he instead whispered, "Farewell, Father...rest in peace. I will do as you ask...with your wisdom to guide me, I cannot fail."

            With a final rumble, the soul of Mfalme was gone...yet Sulubu lingered, gazing at his brother with eyes that held a profound mystery. Beyond his maned head, the sky was beginning to lighten with the approach of dawn, casting a halo of coruscating light around his countenance. A deep, thrumming purr reached Dhahabu's ears, and in seconds he echoed the sound.

            For endless minutes the brothers faced one another, united at last in pride and respect, unspoken words and emotions flowing between them, each passing on what he had learned and accepting without question what the other held faithfully in his heart. Finally, Sulubu sighed and rose to his enormous paws as well. But he too paused in thought. "Brother...there is little I can add that you have not already heard from Father, or your pride. But I can give you one last piece of advice that I gave you in life...let us see if it holds just as much meaning now as it did then...or if it holds even more."

            His spirit began to dissipate slowly, as tendrils of fog driven from mountain valleys by the sunrise, dissolving apart into splashes of color and ethereal moisture, candent in the shining rays. But Dhahabu could still hear his voice as Sulubu smiled almost beatifically, eyes filled with peace and joy, and he could feel a solid, powerful warmth around his shoulders, as if the dark lion were there on the pinnacle, embracing him. "Be the greatest king ever, brother..."

            Sulubu's visage scattered into dispersing clouds and flaring light, and then he had vanished, and in his place the burnished disk of the sun rose, celestial glory spearing outward to warm and enlighten the land. Chest heaving with the power of this moment, Dhahabu felt the rapture build, the excitement, as he realized he had no more need to dwell on the past, or suffer for something that had not been his fault. True, his brother and father would never live again...but for this moment it had seemed that they had, and it reminded him that they would always be watching. He had to move on, and believe in himself. He had done well with Kuchinja, Mfalme had said so...Aiheu was pleased, Diwani had implied...he was where he belonged, ruling the land of which he was an integral part, Tembo had admonished...and in his own heart, he knew he had done right by Taraji and Jahili, and had made improvements within the pride. There was no reason to doubt any longer. If he failed now, it would only be because he refused to try...

            All he had to do was have the courage to do what was right, whether others believed that it was or not.

            Gazing out at the impressive array of hues that rimmed the eastern horizon, as if a divine finger etched them into place, the golden lion watched as the incandescent sun heaved itself over the peak of Kilimanjaro, following a course as familiar and ancient as the stars whose brilliance it now masked with its fiery light...gazing down at the world as it rotated endlessly, creating the illusion of the sunrise. Beneath its touch the Kiburi Lands shimmered and basked in radiance, every ripple of water, every leaf and branch, every blade of dew-kissed grass reflecting back the astonishing display. Warm, inviting, beautiful...a panorama of prosperous splendor.

            The ceremony was set to begin as soon as he gave the call to the herds to gather at this place, to honor and worship, to recognize what bound them all to each other and to the earth. And he was ready...ready to remember his responsibilities, and to face them rather than hide behind his worries and fears. No king lacked those emotions...but every king who succeeded persevered against them, fought on despite them. And with Sulubu and Mfalme, Aiheu and the Kings--in fact, with everyone believing in him, for the first time he felt he could do so.

            It was time.

            Bracing himself, Dhahabu closed his eyes and listened to the hushed stillness of the ever-changing, ever-inspiring world, and then he roared triumphantly, startling a flock of guineafowl into clumsy flight and sending shivers of respect and fear down the spines of a herd of zebra. Atop the pinnacle of Pride Rock he stood, every limb stretched to its fullest extent, tail lashing, claws gripping the stone, chest and throat throbbing with the awesome sound, head thrown back so that his mane lay gilded by the sun.

            At last the roar subsided, and Dhahabu, the Lion King, lowered his head to gaze once more in awe, pride, and longing at the lands that were his...the lands he ruled...the lands he loved.