Author's note: Do any of us really know who Nala's father is? Well, for I while now, I've been curious as to what would happen if Meric came to Pride Rock not as an adult wanderer, but as a cub! Therefore, I've started this fan-fic to answer the question of Nala's father, with my own imagination. Grab some popcorn. Pull up a comfy chair. Sit back and relax. And enjoy our feature presentation... 'Meric: Cub of destiny!!!'

Legal stuff: All TLK characters, places, as well as the words to "The Circle of Life" are the property of Walt Disney Co. Uru and Ahadi are based on the characters from the Fanfic novel, "The Chronicles of the Pride Lands" by John Burkitt and David Morris. Aiheu (mentioned in name only), is a general character and is by no means my property. Zulu, Killer, and Hershey are copyrighted to my dear friend, Heather, AKA Nalafan2002. All other characters are my property and not to be used without permission. However, you already knew that right? I thought so.


Special Thanks: Many thanks to Justin Reese, AKA, The Sonic God, for his story, "The Leaders of the Pride" which partially inspired me to create this story. Special thanks also go to Heather, AKA Nalafan 2002 for her allowing me the use of her characters as well as to Robin, AKA Ladyoftheshadows003 for her wording of the prophecy. THANKS SIS! :D In addition, many thanks to so many other fanfic writers and artists who are doing everything possible to keep the TLK fandom alive, even if Disney is not. To all of you, I dedicate this story.

Cub of Destiny I: From Rogue to Guardian
A fanfic by: Siglo Snowleopard, AKA Teren White Wolf, AKA Amerilander


Table of Contents:

I. Introduction
II. Joy and Pain...

III. The Arrival... 

IV. Homeward Found...
V. Meet the Family... 

VI. Humble Beginnings... 

VII. The First Day..
VIII. Zulu...

IX. Zulu's Acceptance...
X. The Cheetah Twins...
XI. Taka's Friend...
XII. Betrothed...

XIII. The Search for Taka...
XIV. Tragedy...

XV. Bad News...
XVI. Runaway...

XVII. Night of Sorrow...
XVIII. Reunion...

XIX. Among Friends...
XX. Home Again...

XXI. Young Love...
XXII. The Return of Silent Killer...
XXIII. Destiny Revealed...

XXIV. Fallout...
XXV. Lesson Under the Stars...
XXVI. Mufasa's Reign Begins...
XXVII. Together at Last... 

XXVIII. The Circle Continues... (Epilogue)

I. Introduction


It never ceases to amaze me how one day, and one event can change a life forever. Every life is special. Every living being, whether they are lion, hyena, hare, human or any other creature has a special purpose, a story, a destiny. Nevertheless, sometimes, often times, that destiny is never clear when we expect it to be. This is my story, and it is just one example among many.

II. Joy and Pain....
It all started with darkness. I felt myself moving, pushed down a pitch-black tunnel toward a brilliant light, the likes of which I had never seen!

The first sight I saw when I finally emerged was that of a male lion. I soon would grow to know him as my father. He stared down at me with fatherly endearment in his emerald colored eyes. We were inside what I later learned to be a special cage constructed by the two-leggers, Humans. In the artificial lighting, my father's jet-black mane appeared glossy, like polished obsidian. His deep yellow coat gleamed like the purest gold.

A golden colored lioness with sapphire colored eyes looked at him. This was my mother. "Oh Teren, isn't he beautiful?" she asked.


Of the two, it seemed Father was the more observant. He looked over my scrawny form, smiling. As his gaze rolled over my head, he stopped, eyes seeming to widen slightly. "He is beautiful." he said carefully, "But... Look at his mane Shiava."


 She looked and understood what he was saying. "It... It's white." she said in disbelief, "You... You don't think there could be anything wrong with him... Do you?"


Father was quiet for a moment. "I... I don't know." he replied, "I hope not... He seems healthy enough. Maybe it'll wear off when he gets older." 


"I hope you're right Teren." Mother said. She began to clean my fur with her rough, pink tongue.


"He needs a name." Father said, evidently eager to change the subject."

Mother nodded, "Yes... A gift this precious deserves a special name... My gift... My Koto." Koto... It was a name of our homeland's old language. It simply meant 'gift.' Though I would one day be called by another name, Koto was always the name I kept near to my heart.


Koto was of course, more than what I was, even if we didn't see it. It spoke of something I had been given, something that would not manifest itself until sometime later.  In time, we would find out that my father had been wrong, at least in one sense. I was healthy enough, but the white wouldn't fade from my tuft. It would grow, becoming a pearly mane. Neither they nor I truly realized how unique I was or what destiny had in store for me...

The next two days went quickly for me. I would have explored our tiny corner of the world, if I had been able to walk. The typical day consisted of waking up, eating, and then after a time, going back to sleep. The third day was bright and sunny, and so Mother carried me into the outside world. My eyes squinted as they adjusted to the brilliant light of the sun. Slowly, everything came into focus. In front of us, there was a cliff-like platform for us to rest on. Around us, many kinds of plants grew, so many in fact that I could not even begin to name them. To the far left, a tree overlooked our little home, providing shade from the scorching sun. All around, metallic bars surrounded us: cold, hard, and dark. Evidently, we were not supposed to be able to leave this place.
My parents didn't have a problem with it. Father had been here for his whole life, and though Mother had only arrived under two years ago, she too had found happiness in this place. She had found my father, Teren.

Through the bars, many kinds of humans gazed at us. Each one of them was different, unique just like me. There were humans with dark skin, some with light skin, some with long, dark hair, and some with short, blonde hair. There were so many differences in fact that I could not even begin to tell you what I saw then. They chattered amongst themselves in a strange language. My parents seemed to understand it, despite the fact that humans were not able to understand them. Unfortunately, I did not.


"Whatever you do my little one..." Father said, "You must never, never go near them." I didn't understand why he told me that, but I never forgot the warning.

Mother and Father walked to the platform, mother still carrying me by the scruff of my neck. She lay down there, next to me father, placed me in her paws, and began to give me a bath. I did not like that at all!


After the bath, I lay in my mother's loving paws as she described to me the world outside this place, the world from which she had come. She told me of huge, gray creatures called elephants, with long noses called trunks. She told me of many creatures that looked allot like the two-leggers, called monkeys. She told me of all kinds of birds and reptiles. She told me of other big cats, of leopards and cheetahs. She told me that where she came from, there were even other creatures like us, other lions.

She went on to tell me of the wondrous trees that grew there, such as Baobab, the Sausage tree, the umbrella thorn, the Llala palm, the knobthorn, and many others! She told me of many smaller plants, that she called 'shrubs:' Aloe, love grass, fever berry, star Lilly, red oat grass, and many more besides! I listened intently, hoping that I would one day see the wonders she spoke of, the many kinds of plants and creatures.

That night, after most of the two-leggers had left, my parents and I were resting on the rock platform, looking up at the stars through the bars of our cage. It was hard to get used to the hard, grainy feel of the rock because I always slept curled up in my father's silky mane. A pair of humans walked by suddenly.

"So she's going back tomorrow then?" asked one. 


His comrade nodded. "Yup, and that little cub of hers too." he said.


 My parents seemed to know what the humans were talking about; because they perked their ears listen better. “What about the father?" asked the first one. 


"Nope, he's staying here." the second one said, "He's an important part of our breeding program." 


"All right then." the first replied, "I'll get straight to work on the TRQs in the morning." Then the two walked off.

My father and mother panicked. They did not understand everything the humans were talking about, but they realized that the two were planning our separation. They were going to tear our family apart! Mother spent that night crying into my father's mane while he tried to console her. Because of her crying, I began to give cubbish whimpers as well.

"I wish he could understand." Mother cried, but Father shook his head. 


"I'm glad he's too young to remember." he told her, "The pain of this night will live forever in our memories... But... To him, it will be as though I was never there. He can live a normal life, the life he was meant to live."


 I hung on to every word the two of them said. Though I could not yet speak, I promised myself I would never forget my father, who seemed so noble, wise, loving. No, I would remember. The last sound I heard as I drifted off to sleep was the weeping of my mother.

The next morning was the hardest one of our lives. My father had gone outside early for a drink when the entrance was somehow on him. My father realized it, but it was too late. He pounded the thing that was blocking the entrance with his mighty paws, trying to break it open, to get to us. Another entryway partially opened. Mother, hearing the commotion opened her eyes. Sticking through the second entrance, she saw something black and shiny, a tube of some kind. I of course, was oblivious to all that was going on around me.

I did not hear a thing as the something came out of the tube and hit Mother in her side. However, I did wake up when she roared in pain! As I opened my eyes and looked at her, Mother closed hers and fell to the ground. Then a two-legger walked in. I knew right away that it was bad. I did my best to growl, but he just walked over and scooped me up in his arms. I tried to scratch and claw, but he had placed special padding around his arm for protection.

Two others walked in with something made out of the same cold, hard bars that held us here when we were outside. The two of them set it down as another man entered. Working together, the three men hoisted my mother into the small cage, and the first put me in with her before somehow blocking the entrance with even more bars.

I crawled over and nudged her. "M... Momma?" I asked. She did not respond. I figured she was asleep, so I curled up next to her. 


Meanwhile, my father continued pounding on the entrance to our little den. "Shiava!" he shouted, "Shiava!" However, it was to no avail. The four humans picked up the cage as I drifted off to sleep by my mother, trying to forget what was happening.

III. The Arrival....
I am not sure how long I was like that, but just before I opened my eyes, I heard a voice, strong and gruff. "Hey! You Ms. Kari Berez?" I opened my eyes and looked up to see who was speaking. It was a mean looking human. He and several others like him were carrying the cage that contained my mother and me from some kind of thing that let them float on water. 


"I am she." replied a voice, equally as strong, and yet kind. I turned my head around to see who else had spoken. It was a light colored woman, with a kind, gentle expression on her face. Her eyes were a beautiful shade of chestnut brown. Her hair was a brilliant red/orange in color. She stared at Mother and me adoringly. 


"Package for you Miss Berez." said the gruff one.

The men carried us a little further and set us down before leaving without a word. The one they called 'Kari' came over and crouched down beside the cage with her hind legs. "Poor things." she said. She stroked my mother's fur. "She's absolutely gorgeous." Kari said.

Again, I tried to protect Mother. I crawled over and batted at the human's hand. She only smiled and patted my head. Hey, when you cannot walk, talk, or even growl, what are you going to do? It was then that the woman noticed my hair tuft. Her eyes went wide for a moment, but that kind and gentle look never left them.

Another male human walked over to us. He was dark colored, with glimmering, emerald colored eyes and short black hair. Like the woman, he didn't look as though he intended Mother and me any harm. "Look at her Jesse." Kari said, "Isn't she beautiful?" 


The one called Jesse smiled. "She sure is." he replied, "And the cub's not so bad looking either. Looks to be less than a week old."

"Are you sure we have to release her back into the wild Jesse?" Kari asked. 


Sadly, the one called Jesse nodded. "I'm afraid so." he answered her, "I'm not really worried about our little mother here. I just hope that cub survives." Kari sadly nodded in agreement.

Two more humans came over. Before lifting the cage up, they put some more stuff into my sleeping mother. "That should keep her knocked out until we can get her released in the morning." one of them said. The four humans lifted us up and put us into what they called a 'truck'.

I watched as we began moving along. I watched outside as best I could, fascinated by the things I saw moving past. There were big, white, square shaped stones, in and out of which walked dozens of humans. I had never seen anything like it. There were more trees, grasses and bushes here than I had ever imagined there being in the entire world. I recognized a few of them from what Mother had told me, but most, I could not. Everything seemed so much bigger outside of our little home, but after a while, I became bored with watching and we seemed to be slowing down, so I curled up next to my mother and fell asleep.

I awoke later that night to see the human called Kari stroking my mother's fur with her gloved hand. We were still outside in the humans' truck and cage. "I wish we didn't have to send her back tomorrow." she said. She seemed to be talking to herself. "I know Jesse isn't but I am worried about her, and that little cub of hers." she continued, "If a male finds her, he'll kill the little one for sure." I crawled over to her, still trying to walk. 


"Mew." I said. 


She smiled sweetly and stroked my fur. I couldn't help but smile at this human. She didn't seem so bad to me. "You'll be just fine little one." she said to me, "I promise." She stayed with us through the night, keeping us company.

IV. Homeward Found....
The next morning, I awoke as we began moving again. I could see the human, Kari standing, watching us leave. She seemed to be... Crying? She had become attached to my mother and me, even in the short time that she had known us. The humans drove us from the jungle into the African Savannah. The grasses turned from a bright green to a sandy color as we went. The hot sun blazed down on us from the sapphire colored sky, though there was a good deal of clouds, they were not enough to bring down the temperature.

Soon we stopped and four humans jumped off their beast, their 'truck.' After checking to be sure that my mother was still sound asleep, they each took a corner of our cage and unloaded us, setting the cage on the ground. Then they opened the door slightly, enough that my mother could get out and take me with her. After that, they drove off, never to see either of us ever again... Or so they thought.

It wasn't long before my mother awoke and looked around. She was still a bit sad but... "I'm home." she said quietly. It was then that she noticed a great crowd of animals moving toward a giant rock structure in the distance. Having seen this kind of thing before, my mother knew that there was a pride in the area. Today must have been the presentation of a new king! She picked me up and started toward the rock, hoping that perhaps the king of this pride would be willing to take us in as one of their own. As she did so, she noticed a colorful young hornbill flying through the air toward the structure.

Meanwhile, inside the structure, Pride Rock, two new births were being celebrated. Last night, princes Taka and Mufasa had been born to king Ahadi and his mate, queen Uru. Ahadi smiled proudly at the little ones as Uru held them in her paws and groomed them with motherly affection, the light breeze that whisked through the den displacing a few strands of his pumpkin colored fur. He noted with pride the way the rays of sunlight seemed to glimmer off his love's golden colored fur. He shook his head a little, moving aside a few stands of his chocolate colored mane from his eyes. The young hornbill, Zazu, flew and alighted on the ground before the king.

"Congratulations to my king and queen." he said, bowing low so that his beak almost touched the ground.


 Ahadi was silent, but nodded his great head. However, Zazu didn't notice, apparently having his mind on other things. Though happy for his king and queen, he was business as usual. "I have gathered the kingdom for the presentation of the new princes." he said. 


"Very good Zazu." Ahadi replied, "I can see that Uru and I made the right choice. Now we only have to wait for Rafiki."

As if in response, a mandrill, his hair ashen grey, his frame bent from the strain of his many years, entered the den. "Greetings my king." he said in a strange accent. 


Ahadi turned around. "Good morning Rafiki." he responded. He walked over to the mandrill and put his paw around him.


Just as Zazu had been, Rafiki too was all business. After all, he knew the time for celebration would come later, once they had all taken care of things. He hobbled over to where Uru lay with the cubs in her paws. "And how are you feeling this morning my queen?" he asked. 


"Much better, now that I've had a chance to rest." Uru replied, "Thank you Rafiki."

Rafiki bowed before getting right to work. His first task was to give the queen and cubs an examination, making sure that the birthing process the night before had not effected any of them adversely. Finding nothing wrong with any of them, he took the staff he held in his hand and shook it over the two cubs, giving them a blessing. He muttered something in the old language, his words inaudible to most of those present, apparently intended for the cubs alone to hear. This done, he looked up at the new parents. "Have you selected your heir?" he asked. 


Ahadi nodded. "Though our decision was a hard one, we have selected our eldest son, Mufasa." he said.

Rafiki nodded and got to work, removing the one of the gourds from his staff. He broke it open and dipped his thumb in the juice. The juice was red, shimmering as sunlight spilled into the den. Using the juice, Rafiki made a special mark across the head of Mufasa. He then picked up a handful of dust from the floor and sprinkled it on the young cub's face. Mufasa sneezed and most of the dust flew off. This anointing done, Rafiki picked up the young prince and carried him out onto the edge of the promontory as the entire kingdom looked on. From the entrance of the den, Ahadi and Uru watched proudly as Rafiki held the cub high, allowing the entire kingdom to see their prince and future king.

Poor Taka. He seemed to sense some kind of rejection and began whimpering. Uru did what she could to comfort him, but the young cub ended up having to cry himself to sleep.

The assembled crowd went wild! Monkeys of various types chattered with excitement. Elephants trumpeted and stomped, shaking the ground with their massive legs. Zebras whinnied. And every other assembled creature celebrated in its own way, for the new king had been born! My mother smiled as she looked on. She knew how happy the parents of this cub must be. It was a sense of joy like none other. A golden ray of sunlight burst through the clouds and shone on the young cub, Mufasa. It was a sign of blessing. Rafiki held young Mufasa high for a few more moments before taking him inside.

As the crowd continued to celebrate, my mother did her best to squeeze past, hoping against hope for us to be accepted. It wasn't too long before the crowd dissipated as the animals went back to their normal lives. Seizing the moment, my mother slowly ascended the promontory and set me down by the cave entrance. "Now stay here, my little one." she whispered to me, "I will return soon." With that, she walked cautiously to the den's entrance.

Inside, king Ahadi was enjoying the time with his queen and his newborn sons. Not sure what to do, my mother hesitated. She knew well enough how risky this was... For both of us. Even if she was accepted, which was unlikely, it was even more improbable that the king would accept me. In addition, the king, being perfectly within his rights as dictated by tradition, could kill me. But what other choice did she have? She knew that we couldn't survive on our own... Not for very long anyhow... This was our only chance. Steeling herself, she stepped just inside and bowed her head in respect. "Excuse me, your majesty." she said, nervousness evident in her voice. 


A bit shocked by the visitor, Ahadi whirled around. Rafiki and Zazu had been about to leave when they heard the voice. Rafiki smiled, seeing the lioness. Zazu, being the fuss-budget that he was, fluttered up to her. "Who do you think you are?!" he demanded, "You can't just approach the king and be expected to be granted an audience! You--" 


"Zazu! Enough." Ahadi bellowed. Zazu glared at my mother and flapped back over to sit by Rafiki and the others.

Uru herself wasn't so sure about this lioness. In fact, her sudden appearance had unsettled the queen. However, she noticed the fine manners, which was quite impressive in a rogue. But if my mother was a rogue, it was not by her own choice, but by that of the humans.

Mother's head remained bowed. "May I speak?" she asked meekly. 


Ahadi looked back at Uru, as though having a wordless conversation with her, and then turned back to the lioness. He nodded. "Your majesty, I am currently in the process of seeking a pride that might allow me and my cub to join. Humans separated me from my mate. I am alone, except for my little one... and I am hoping that you and your queen... could find it in your hearts to allow us to stay. Please... If not for me, please allow us to stay... for my son." A tear of fear and sadness dripped down her muzzle.

Ahadi thought for a moment. He looked at Uru, who smiled warmly. Ahadi stepped toward my mother, who looked about ready to turn tail and run, taking me along with her. "Gentle maiden, my queen and I would be glad to have you as part of our pride." he said gently, soothingly,  "As for your cub... It has been a tradition for kings to kill those cubs they find that are not their own..." Mother's face was filled with fear and concern for me. "... However, I have always found such a practice to be barbaric, despicable." Ahadi continued, "And so, I welcome you, and your cub into the pride, with open paws."

Mother lifted her head and bowed again. More tears dripped from her sapphire eyes, but these were tears of joy. "Thank you, my king." she said. She left the den and picked me up. She then walked back inside and set me down at her paws. She looked up at Ahadi again. He and Uru looked at me and smiled. They didn't even seem to notice my uniqueness, and if they did, they didn't say anything.

V. Meet the Family....
Ahadi looked back up at my mother. "Now, what is your name?" he asked her. 


"My king, I am your humble servant, Shiava." my mother replied, "And this is my son. My mate and I had named him Koto; however, I shall rename him for the land of the humans, the place from whence we came, so that he will always remember. His name will be 'Meric'." 


"Meric?" Ahadi asked curiously, "That is a bit of an unusual name."


"Yes." Mother replied, "The humans... They called the place where we came from 'America', and so it is for that land my son is named."

"Very well then." Ahadi said, nodding approvingly, "So it shall be. He will be remembered in this pride for all time as Meric, son of the lioness Shiava." He turned to his mandrill shaman. "Rafiki, please do as best you can to welcome our new pride members." he said. The aged mandrill nodded and hobbled up to Mother. 


As Ahadi headed out onto the promontory, Zazu followed and perched on the king's shoulder. "Sire, you can't be serious, letting a rogue join the pride so easily!" the young, worry-wart hornbill squawked, "We don't know anything about her. She could be a spy, or worse!" 


"Zazu, she has a cub." Ahadi pointed out, "I very much doubt that we have anything to worry about. A spy would not endanger her cub in such a way as to bring him to the pride on which was spying. Remember, she told us that humans separated her from her mate, and what we've seen so far seems to confirm it. Being cautious about a stranger doesn't mean shunning them." 


"I still don't think it was a good idea." Zazu pouted. 


Ahadi glared at him. "You really must stop questioning my judgment." he said, "My decision is final. Now, that will be enough out of you." I don't think Zazu said another word for the rest of that day...

In the meantime, Rafiki tended to Mother, looking her over and making sure she was still in good condition. After all, when one of our kind came into contact with humans, the results were not usually pleasant, although there were rare exceptions throughout history. Mother lay across from Uru. Mother held me in her paws and the two newborns suckled as the mothers spoke. 


"So, how did you come to be in our little corner of the world?" Uru asked, curiosity, and perhaps a bit of bewilderment evident in her tone.


 "To tell the truth, I'm not really sure." Mother replied, "All I know is that one morning, I heard my mate, Teren, pounding on the entrance to our den. Somehow, he was blocked. I woke up and saw some kind of black tube pointing through another entrance... A gun, I think the humans call them. Before I could react, something came out of it and hit my upper right flank. 


"Something pierced your skin." Rafiki observed, checking that area, "That would explain the bit of blood I see here. You're lucky the damage wasn't worse." Mother nodded. Rafiki went on to examine me as my mother and Uru continued speaking.


 "But what happened after that?" Uru asked. 


"I don't know." Mother replied, "After that, I blacked out. When I woke up, I was in your lands. I feel as though I was asleep for at least a few days."

Uru wasn't sure what to make of the story. It wasn't very common for one of our kind to encounter humans and live... Nevertheless, she believed my mother. Partially because she wanted too, and partially because what Rafiki found seemed to confirm it. "Well, you needn't fear any humans here." she said finally, "They stay far from this place. 


Mother nodded. "I want to thank you again for allowing my son and me to stay." 


Uru smiled warmly. "It was our pleasure, Shiava." she said.

As the two continued speaking, I crawled out of my mother's paws and over to where Uru lay with the young princes. Mother reached out to pull me back for fear of upsetting the queen, but Uru shook her head. "It's alright." she said, "The cubs will no doubt be growing up together. It would be best to let them get to know one another while they're young." Mother was hesitant, but certainly saw the logic of this and nodded in agreement.

And so, I crawled up to Uru and looked at the two cubs that lay in her paws. The first, Mufasa, was a fairly well built cub with golden fur and hazel eyes. He looked at me and smiled, as he was unable to speak as well. It looked as though the two of us would become great friends.

Then I looked at his brother, Taka. Young Taka had fur of an unusual orange color, which seemed to come from his mother, Uru. He had shocking emerald colored eyes and a black hair tuft that reminded me of my father's mane. Taka grinned, and I thought in that moment that the two of us would be as good friends as there had ever been Boy was I wrong, but there will be more about that later.

Mother smiled. "Well, it looks as though they like each other." she said. Uru smiled and nodded. "Was there ever any doubt?" My mother shook her head, knowing that Uru had been right about us.

VI. Humble Beginnings....
Pride Rock was not the only place full of action that day. Nearby, in a small, unremarkable den, a pair of lionesses had just given birth. However, these births were not accompanied by such glamour as the births of Mufasa and Taka had been. The lionesses didn't seem to care though, for to them, merely giving birth glamorous enough. They lay across from one another, looking over their new cubs with pride, joy, and most certainly, love.

The first of the two, Dala, had given birth to a tawny colored lioness cub with deep blue eyes. The second, Merlu, had given birth to a dark gold colored lioness cub with warm brown eyes. 


Dala looked at her friend. "Just look at them, Merlu." she said, giving a happy sigh, "They're gorgeous." 


Merlu nodded in agreement. She licked her cub, paying careful attention to clean the nose first so that the little one could breathe. "They certainly are." she said, "They are as great a gift as any as Aiheu has ever given. But we must name them, if we want to tell them apart."

Name picking isn't something most do casually. Very often, the one giving the name intends to describe something about the individual. Dala didn't want to give the wrong name, for the meaning was truly important to her. She looked down at her little one, thinking for a few moments about the possible labels. "Your name... is to be Sarafina." she said finally, "My bright, little star." 


Merlu smiled at this. "Sarafina... A beautiful choice. I wish I was that good at coming up with names." she said.


 "Oh, it isn't too hard." Dala replied, "Take a look deep into her eyes and the name... Just seems to come... It's as though they tell us what they want... Even if it's only our imaginations. Go ahead. Try."


 Merlu looked at her young cub. "She's so beautiful, like a mirage in the wilderness." she said, "You, my little one... Your name will be... Sarabi." 


"There now. What did I tell you?" Dala grinned.

Merlu nodded, "Yes. Thank you Dala."

For the rest of the day, they rested and tended to the young cubs. After all, the little ones had a big day ahead of them tomorrow, for then; their mothers would introduce them to the rest of the pride, although they would meet a few of us that very night. 


-------------------

That night, Mother found us a place to sleep near the back of the den. It was secluded perhaps, but Mother had not been a part of a pride for what seemed like ages to her, and she felt more comfortable on her own, for the moment at least. I lay down beside her, but I couldn't sleep. This place was so new, and there were so many things to explore! I just had to look around my new home! As the lionesses of the pride began to return for the night, I stood up and began trying to walk. First I took one step... K-flop! And I fell. Then I stood up again. I took one step... Two steps, K-FLOP! Mother noticed this and leaned down. She nudged me slightly. "Don't worry." she told me, reassuringly "It will come to you, in time."

Mother smiled at me and then looked around the darkening den, watching and listening. Ahadi and Uru had already taken their place in the center on a slightly raised platform. Wrapped up in Ahadi's deep red mane, lay my young friend, Mufasa. Taka lay curled up next to his mother’s warm flank. Some of the few lionesses who did notice my mother and I began to murmur among themselves. 


"Who's that?" one would ask.


"Is she that rogue?" another would question

"What was the king thinking?" a few others inquired

"I've never heard of such a thing." still others would observe.


However, not all of the pride's members distanced themselves so. No. This was far from the truth. A few of them welcomed us with open paws, among them, the new mothers, Dala and Merlu. They had finally returned after going off on their own to give birth, and carried in their mouths, the young cubs, Sarabi and Sarafina.

They padded over and lay down across from us, leaning on their forepaws, in which they also set their young ones. "Hi there!" Dala said cheerfully, "I'm Dala, and this is my friend, Merlu. You must be the rogue everyone's talking about."


 Mother chuckled, but nodded. "I guess you could say that." she smiled, "I'm Shiava, and this is my little son, Meric." 


Merlu looked inquisitively at her friend and then back at Mother and I. "Meric." she said, "That IS an unusual name. How did you come to name him that?" And so, my mother went again through the process of explaining what had happened and how she had come to be here.

My mother then looked down at the little cubs, who were sleeping peacefully in their mothers' paws. "But you must tell me." she said, "What have you named these little angels?" 


Dala nuzzled her young cub with motherly affection. "This little star is named Sarafina." she told Mother. 


Mother thought for a moment. "Sarafina." she said, "Doesn't that mean 'bright star' in the old language?" 


Dala nodded. "It does." she replied.


 Mother smiled kindly at the little one. "Well, the name certainly fits her." she said. Merlu nodded in agreement. "And who is this little one?" Mother asked, nodding to Merlu's daughter. "This is Sarabi." Merlu answered, "My little mirage."

Mother smiled. Both of the young cubs were so cute. It seemed that she wasn't the only proud parent, and so far, those that had bothered to notice us, and actually made the effort to greet and get to know us, had made her feel right at home, a part of the Pride Lands community. Dala and Merlu were not judgmental as some of the others. They had been orphans when the previous king had found them and taken them in. He, like Ahadi, had been sort of a rebel as far as kings went, abandoning some ancient traditions, and often with good reason. They were all too happy to make newcomers feel welcome.

By the time the introductions were, the rest of the pride had returned, and I, Muffy, Taka, and the other cubs had fallen asleep in the strong, loving paws of our parents. Who would have thought that things would turn out as they did, especially when things started out so well?

VII. The First Day....
The next morning, my mother got up early as was her custom. Heh. I suppose that's where I got it. She carefully stepped around the sleeping pride members, doing her best to not wake them up. She smiled somewhat as the warm rays of red and gold sunlight spilled into the den, creating a beautiful pattern of color within. With a contented sigh, she stepped out into the waking world.

She ascended to the peak and there she lay, looking out over our new home, the Pride Lands. "This place is so beautiful Teren." she said sadly, a tear dripping from her eyes staining the fur around her muzzle, "Everything about it... It's just like we always dreamed. Oh Teren, I wish you could see it." 


"Thinking about your mate?" a familiar voice asked. Mother turned around, and there stood one of the new mothers, Dala. She smiled a bit.

"Yes." Mother replied, "We were separated just three days after little Meric was born... My first cub. The humans... They never even gave us a chance to say goodbye." 


Dala walked over and lay down beside her. "Perhaps he isn't here with you physically." she said giving Mother a sympathetic look, "But, I know that he is still with you in heart. And when he looks up at the sky, he sees the same sun, moon, and stars as you; Aiheu's handiwork."

Mother looked a bit surprised. "Wow." she replied to Dala, "It doesn't seem like you would be old enough to possess that much wisdom." 


Dala gave an almost cheesy grin. "I guess you could call it a gift." she chuckled, "I amaze others too... But it's really just common sense if you think about it. In all seriousness though, you and your mate are never really separated, because you are joined at the heart..." 


"...And through our son." Mother finished. Dala nodded.

Mother smiled at her. "Thanks." she said sincerely, "Thanks allot."


 Dala sat beside her and watched as the sun continued to rise. "You know, if you ever need someone to talk to, Merlu, the king, queen and I are here." she said, "We'd be more than happy to listen to you." 


For the first time since coming here, my mother felt her sadness melt away, icy walls melting away because of the warm feelings of her new friend. "Sure." she said, "I'll take you up on that sometime." 


"I'll count on it." Dala said. That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship, a friendship that would last the two lionesses the rest of their lives, however long or short they might have been.

-------------------
Just before the sun had fully risen, the two descended from their positions on the peak and returned to the den so that they would be there when Sarafina and I awakened. Uru and Merlu also seemed to be awakening early, as it seemed that all new mothers did. The queen smiled as she noticed Mother and Dala talking as if they were old friends. It warmed her heart to see Dala getting along so well with a new pride member.

"Good morning Shiava." Uru greeted her quietly, "I trust you slept well." 


Mother nodded. "Yes, I slept very well." she replied, "Though I have been a bit sad of late. I thank you for your concern, your highness." She walked over to where I was still sleeping and looked down at me. With tender, motherly affection, she licked my forehead with her rough tongue. "Rise and shine sleepy." she said. I opened my eyes and looked up her, giving a cubby yawn. I smiled at her, but like all newborn cubs, the first actual thought on my mind, was food. Therefore, Mother placed me at her side so that I could find some.

Meanwhile, Dala had lain down, placing her young daughter in her loving paws. She smiled and awakened Sarafina, placing her at her side so that the young cub could suckle as well.

By this time, most of the other pride members had woken and begun to go about their morning routines. Some stretched as they awakened, getting themselves loose and limber for that morning's hunt. Others went about helping to tend the new princes, although Uru had done quite a good job of that herself. Still others went toward the nearby water hole for a morning drink. My young eyes gazed in awe at the flurry of activity around me. Never before had I been this close to the action.

I looked around at my cubby companions, some of whom were still asleep. As I gazed at young Sarafina, it seemed as though something, unseen and unspoken passed between us. I can't really describe what it was I felt, but like... A link... A bond... Some faint sense of a common destiny. Strange though it might have seemed, it was there. .

From that point, the day continued normally. I ate, slept, and occasionally tried to walk, only to fail miserably each time. The other cubs weren't quite as active. After all, Mufasa and Taka had only been born two days ago, and Sarabi and Sarafina had only been born yesterday. For the most part, they preferred to stay close as possible to their mothers.

-------------------
Later that night, king Ahadi gathered the pride near the water hole for a formal announcement. Although he and Uru had already accepted us as pride members, they still needed to make it official: a formality if you will. The sun was setting now. It covered the land in a soft, pink colored glow, a warm blanket of color. The pride sat under a budding Winter Thorn tree. King Ahadi and queen Uru sat side by side, with Zazu perched on Ahadi's shoulder. The other cubs and I were at our mothers' paws, playing and wrestling, as cubs tend to do. Mufasa and I were wrestling one another when Ahadi began his announcement, "Attention everyone."

Every member of the pride turned their full attention to the king. With the exception of us cubs, every eye fixated on him. Even the quietest of chatter ceased. Ahadi continued, "As some of you may have noticed, we have a couple new members among us. Shiava, would you and your son come forward." Mother nodded and picked me up by the scruff of my neck. I squirmed. She just didn't understand. I was having fun with my new friend! I didn't want to stop now! She carried me and sat beside the king and queen. "These are our newest pride members, Shiava, and her son, Meric. I want all of you to make them feel as welcome as possible."

The few of the pride members that had not noticed us last night or today began to murmur among themselves. They couldn't understand why Ahadi was allowing strangers to join with the pride, and so soon after our arrival. One of them spoke up. "My king, do we even know anything about them?" she asked. 


Ahadi nodded, "Yes, Shiava comes from a land of two-leggers, humans. She has named her son for that land. She was separated from her mate and abandoned here." 


"How can we be sure she isn't a rogue, or worse?" another member asked.


 "The only proof we have is her word." Ahadi replied, "And unless she does something against the laws of our land, we have no reason to keep her from us. Shiava, please stand before the queen and me."

Mother obeyed and, still carrying me, she stood before the king and queen. "Shiava, do you promise to live your life loyally as a member of our pride?" the king asked, "Will you acknowledge the laws of our land, and do your best to obey them? Do you agree to submit to the royal authority of my queen and me, as well as those who may come after us, as long as you live within our land?" 


Mother set me down and bowed her head low before the king and queen. "You have my pledge of lifelong loyalty, my king." she answered, not yet lifting her eyes, "I shall be loyal to this pride as long as I live, and I will teach my son this loyalty as well. We are your humble servants."

Ahadi looked at Uru. The two smiled. "Well then Shiava, I am proud to admit you fully into this pride." Ahadi said. 


"As a member you will be entitled to the benefits thereof." Uru continued, "But you will also be expected to do your part, putting the needs of the pride ahead of your own. As it has been said many times over, 'To whom is given much, of them is much also required. You will do well to remember this." 


Mother nodded, "I will remember. Thank you, my king and queen." 


With the formalities out of the way, many the other lionesses of the pride flocked over to congratulate and get to know us. A few remained hesitant, but we would win them over in time. From the shelter of his ancient Baobab tree, Rafiki observed and smiled to himself. Things were going just as planned, just as the great kings had told him they would go.

And so, that is how we became members of this Pride lands community. This is how it was established that this land would be our home for as long as we lived, and for those who would come after.

VIII. Zulu....
It was early morning approximately two months later. I awoke and looked around. It was pre-dawn, not the time for a cub to be awake, especially one who barely knew how to walk and talk, like me. The other pride members were still asleep. Mufasa curled up in king Ahadi's mane while Taka slept next to queen Uru's warm flank. Even Sarafina and Sarabi curled up next to their mothers.

I sighed and walked carefully out of the den, but not without slipping a few times along the way. Hey, I said I'd just barely learned to walk. Remember? I walked out onto the promontory and looked over the land. It was a magnificent view. On the horizon, I could barely make out the first orange rays of sunlight. I took in the sight of the still-sleeping land, the place I would call home for the rest of my days. At times, I felt like somewhat of an outsider, and yet, something told me that this was where I belonged, that this was where my destiny laid.

I looked up to the peak. Mother had told me never to go up there without her or another adult. She was afraid I might fall and hurt myself. Nevertheless, I knew that I could get a better view of the land from there... And it would only take a minute. I reasoned it couldn't hurt... so long as no one saw me. Therefore, I made my way to the ascending path.

"And just where do you think you are going young man?!" a stern voice asked. I turned around. Mother had just stepped outside. She didn't look at all pleased. 


"I... uh... Nowhere." I lied. Her face didn't change. 


"Meric..." 


"Yes mother?" 


"You know how I feel about lying."


"But mom!" I protested. 


"No buts Meric." Mother answered, "Now, where were you going?"


 I looked at the ground, embarrassed about being caught.  However, even more, I felt guilty, guilty that I had almost disobeyed one of my mother's rules for me, guilty for lying to her.

"I was... going up to the peak." I answered.


 Mother shook her head. Her facial expression softened somewhat. "You know aren't supposed to go up there alone Meric." she told me, "You could get hurt. If I lost you, I don't know what I would do. And what's worse, you lied to me."

"But mom," I protested again,” I didn't mean to lie, and Muffy and Taka go up there by themselves all the time." 


"That is beside the point." Mother answered, "What Mufasa and Taka do is between them and their parents. YOU are not to go up their without myself or another adult. I'm very disappointed in you."

"I know." I answered, guilt still washing over me, "I'm sorry." 


Mother leaned down and nuzzled me. Her whiskers tickled. "I forgive you, my son." she told me, "But from now on, I expect you to obey my rules and always tell me the truth, no matter what, ok?" I nodded.

Mother's stern look turned to a smile, "Now, why don't we go up their together, hmm?" 


My eyes widened and I looked up at her with shock written on my face. But she was silent, only continuing to smile at me. Finally, I nodded my head eagerly and with a bright grin.

Still nervous about me falling (you know how mothers are) she picked me up by the scruff of my neck and carried me to the peak. There, we sat and looked out over the land as the sun began to rise. At first, there was only a bit of orange on the horizon. Yet as we continued to watch, the sun continued to rise, bathing the still-sleeping land in glorious hues of red, yellow and orange. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.

But as I looked across the land, something caught my eye. It was a brown figure, of what I could not tell, moving across the land. 


"Mom, look." I pointed it out to her. Now you must understand that no animal other than us had awakened yet. Though there were brown creatures all across the Pride Lands, none had this shape. Curious, Mother and I went to investigate.

There are days I wish we hadn't done so. As we got closer to the figure, we could begin to make it out. It was approximately as tall as my mother herself was, with dark brown fur that also seemed covered in blood. Its bloodshot eyes were a hue of hazel. Its facial features were like that of... "Oh my gosh!" Mother finally said, "A lioness!"

Indeed it was. In her mouth, the lioness carried something that at first only appeared to be a little brown ball of fluff, a cub! The lioness had not seen us in the long grass. (For you must realize that this was the rainy season.) Finally, she appeared to give up struggling, and collapsed. Mother walked up to her. "Poor creature." she muttered. I walked with her and looked at the lioness. 


"Mommy, is she gonna' be alright?" I inquired.

Mother shook her head. "I am afraid not, Meric." she answered with a pause, "She's dead." 


The little cub pawed at its mother's face. "Mommy." she said, "C'mon. Get up." When she heard our voices, she turned around and backed up, gasping in fear. Like her mother, the cub was dark brown, with a lighter brown, paintbrush-like tail and three lighter spots of brown on her back. Her eyes were of the purest blue I had ever seen.

"Don't worry little one." Mother told her, "We won't hurt you." 


"W...who are you?" the cub asked us, "Can you help my mommy?" 


"I am Shiava of the Pride Lands and this is my son, Meric." she said, "But... I am afraid that no one can help your mommy."


 "Why?" the cub sniffed. 


"I don't know how to tell you this dear... but she's dead." mother replied.


 The cub looked at the body of her mother. "No!! Mommy, please wake up." she cried, "Mommy." She broke down and lay beside her mother, crying.

Mother looked and took pity upon the cub. She placed a gentle paw on the cub's back. "I'm so sorry." she said, "I know it must hurt." 


"Who's going to take care of me?" the cub asked, "My mommy was all I had." 


Mother thought for a moment. She knew that king Ahadi would more likely accept this cub than he did us, since she was a female and therefore posed no threat to his kingship or that of Mufasa. "I will." she said finally. 


The cub looked up. "Really?" she asked, "You would take care of me?"

Mother nodded. "Of course, and you can stay at Pride Rock with us." she answered. The cub managed a slight smile. She was sad, but she knew she wouldn't be alone anymore. "What is your name little one?" Mother asked her. 


"My mommy called me Zulu." the young cub answered. 


"Well then Zulu, come with us." Mother said, "If you like, I can carry you." The cub, now known as Zulu, sniffed and nodded once more. Mother picked her up started back toward Pride Rock. But I just stood there, staring at the poor lioness. Her fur was very dusty from days of travel, skeletally so. It seemed she hadn't eaten in almost as long as she'd been traveling. But Zulu was apparently well fed. What's more, there were no visible wounds or caked blood to indicate any attack, so what had happened to her? Unfortunately, it would be some time before I would find out.

Mother looked back and noticed that I was lagging behind. She set Zulu down for the moment and called out, "Meric! Come on!" I slowly turned and followed her back toward Pride Rock.

IX. Zulu's Acceptance....
As we journeyed home, Mother was trying to think of a way to tell king Ahadi that she had adopted a cub, and an orphan at that. She knew that he had abandoned certain traditions, but this cub, Zulu, was a complete stranger, to all of us. She didn't have anyone to vouch for her but Mother, and me, though it was doubtful the king would take advice from a young cub.

Nevertheless, mother knew she had to try and just hope that Ahadi and Uru would be gracious toward this cub as they had been toward us. Mother had sort of adopted her, knowing that Zulu had no one else to turn to and knowing that, being a cub, she had no chance to find a pride or even survive on her own.

The two mothers, Dala and Merlu, and their daughters, Sarafina and Sarabi met us on the way. They had gotten up just after dawn and taken a trip down to the local water hole. And so, the three mothers entered into a conversation with one another. "Well, hello there Shiava." Merlu said, "What have you got here?" 


Mother set Zulu down and replied, "Her name is Zulu. Meric and I saw her mother struggling across the land with her daughter in her mouth. Finally, her mother collapsed, so I took it upon myself to take care of her.

Dala smiled, but looked a bit uncertain. "That's really generous of you Shiava." she replied cautiously, "But what will the king think? I mean, we don't know anything about this cub, other than what you've told us." 


Mother shrugged. "You didn't know anything about me or Meric." she replied, "But the king took us in all the same. And Zulu is female, so she presents no threat to prince Mufasa's future kingship."

"I guess you're right about that much." Dala said, "But the king may not accept her. Even through he probably won't kill her, she'll still be driven away."

"I will not leave her alone to fend for herself." Mother said, determined, "If king Ahadi will not accept her, I will leave and look for someone who will. I promised."

Dala sighed, " I can't help but worry about the little dear. Do you know what happened to her mother?" 


Mother shook her head. "No, I don't." she responded, "She looked as though she'd been in some kind of fight, but that's all I know." 


Merlu shook her head in astonishment.  "You're a braver lioness than I am Shiava." she commented, "I know I certainly wouldn't be brave enough to bring a strange cub before the king and queen, even if it was female." 


"I think king Ahadi will understand." Mother replied, "And so will the queen. After all, she's a mother too."

Dala and Merlu both nodded in agreement. They went right on talking with Mother as Sarabi and Saffy stepped over to meet Zulu. "Hi there Meric." said Sarafina, "Who's this?" 


"Hey Saffy. Hey Sabby." I replied, "This is Zulu." 


"Hi Zulu." said Sarabi. 


"Uh... Hi there." Zulu replied nervously. 


I chuckled. "Zulu, you don't have to be afraid." I told her, "These are my friends, Sarafina and Sarabi."

"I know." Zulu said, "But... I don't really talk." 


So, she was a bit shy. I supposed I could understand, especially after what she'd gone through... 


Sarabi and Sarafina exchanged curious glances. Then, as though they'd come to an agreement, they turned in unison and smiled at her. "So, where do you come from Zulu?" Sarabi asked. 


"I... I don't know." Zulu replied quietly.


"Mom and I found her mom and her when we went up to the peak for sunrise." I explained, "But her mom died just after we got there." 


Sarafina's eyes widened, and Sarabi gasped. "Is that true?" Sarabi asked, concern evident in her voice.


Zulu nodded sorrowfully, "Yes, it is." Tears dripped from her eyes. 


"Oh... I'm so sorry." Sarafina said, stepping over to embrace Zulu. 


"Yeah." Sarabi agreed, "Me too." She too embraced Zulu. Maybe it wasn't much, but I think it did Zulu some good to know that there were still some who cared for her. And for the first time since she'd arrived, I saw her smile.

It seemed that things were once again going well. Zulu had already been accepted by the six of us. Now all that was left would be to introduce her to the king, queen, and if they accepted her, to Mufasa and Taka.

We continued toward Pride Rock in silence, with Dala, Merlu, Sarafina and Sarabi now joining us. The mothers held their heads low, the mood about them seeming rather solemn; perhaps a bit uneasy about what was soon to happen. The air about us seemed to hang heavily, almost as though holding its breath from apprehension and fear. I didn't know what to feel, but then, I wasn't the one who would have to present Zulu to king Ahadi. Pride Rock now loomed before, gigantic and intimidating.

We finally reached it and with a deep breath, Mother ascended to the promontory. Zulu followed close behind. Still young and fearing the king's reaction, I chose to stay with Dala and Merlu. 


With Zulu at her heals, Mother entered the den. Ahadi had left for the moment, but Uru was inside, attending to her sons. "Shiava, good morning!" she smiled.


 Mother bowed low. "Good morning your highness, "Is king Ahadi about?" 


"He should be back soon dear." Uru replied, "Why?" 


Mother took a deep breath and let it all out with a sigh. "Come on out Zulu." From behind Mother's leg, a very nervous Zulu stepped.

Uru's eyes widened upon seeing the little one, "Shiava, where...?" 


"Meric and I found her mother wandering the plains this morning." Mother interrupted, "But by the time we reached them, her mother had collapsed. No one else was present, and she has no one else she can turn to. I was hoping I would be allowed to adopt her as my own." 


Uru looked doubtful. "Ahadi has already bent the rules far too often for his own tastes." she replied, "I don't think he could or would accept this new cub, adopted by you or not."

"I know." Mother replied, "But I have to take a chance. I promised this little one that I would take care of her. She can't survive on her own. Uru, I know you would have done the same thing, had it been my own son instead of this little one. I can do no less." 


Uru sighed. "Point." she conceded, "Go ahead and do as you plan, but I don't think you should get your hopes up." Mother nodded and bowed her head low once more before stepping just outside to wait for Ahadi's return.

-------------------


It seemed like an eternity and a half passed before the king finally returned to Pride Rock, though in truth it had only been a matter of a few minutes. What he had gone off to do, he would not say. Inside, Uru, Dala, and Merlu watched over us cubs as we scooted around the floor, racing, wrestling, and just being cubs.

As Ahadi stepped to the promontory, Mother greeted him with a bow. "Good morning my king." she said respectfully. 


Ahadi nodded. "Good morning Shiava." he replied, turning to go inside. 


"My king, a moment please?" Mother asked quickly, knowing that if she didn't ask now, she would not be able to. Ahadi turned around, not yet noticing Zulu, who had once again taken refuge behind mother's leg. 


"Yes?"

"My king, I have a request to make of you." Mother replied, her words coming out slowly, almost as though each labored to break free of her tongue and float freely into the air, "Zulu?" If Zulu had been nervous before, she was practically terrified now, under the intimidating eye of the king. Like Uru before him, Ahadi's eyes widened and he asked Mother where she had found her. "On the plains." Mother explained once more, "Her mother brought her here... However, she collapsed and died before we arrived at her location. In her mouth, she had been carrying this little one, Zulu. With your permission, my king, I wish to adopt Zulu as my own cub."

Ahadi looked off into the distance for a moment, as though seriously considering the proposal. Finally, he shook his head. "I am sorry." he said, "I cannot allow it." 


"But sire..."


 "My decision is final." he interrupted, his tone firm but measured, "I am sorry. I suggest you find this young one another home." 


Mother sighed sadly. "Yes Sire." she replied. She picked up a sniffling Zulu and began to walk slowly away.

Uru meanwhile had been listening to the conversation. She stood up to meet Ahadi as he entered the den. "Ahadi dear..." 


"Don't say it." Ahadi replied, "We've already bent the rules far too much. Even if I wanted too... I couldn't allow that cub into our land." He turned away. 


"What happened to the warmhearted, accepting Ahadi I knew?" Uru asked, "Ever since Mufasa and Taka were born, I get the feeling you've become far more protective and strict... Rigid...What has happened to change you so?” 


Ahadi avoided the question. "The rules are the rules." he answered, "Even as king, I am bound to them, especially now."

Uru stepped to him and looked into his eyes. Her emerald green orbs met his deep brown oculars. "Can't you remember what your own father told you?" she asked him, "He said 'being a good king isn't about rules and laws. It isn't about respect or glory. It is about making the best decision for the benefit of your pride and of all the land.' I think he was right. Sometimes, you have to make decisions that go against tradition, all for the greater good."

Ahadi didn't respond at first. He simply lay down and said nothing. Uru heaved a heavy sigh and went back to what she had been doing before. I crept up to the king and looked at him. Cautiously, I placed my front paws on his foreleg. He didn't stir, eyes staring outside, appearing hard and unfeeling. It seemed he was going to try to be obstinate. Perhaps it was hard for him to admit he had been wrong. “King Ahadi... Sir." I said in a small voice, "Zulu is my friend. She doesn't have anyone else in the world, other than my mom and me. If we can't take care of her... she might die. Please let her stay with us."

 He simply lay there, looking at the wall of the den. I could feel a tear beginning to drip from my eyes. "Please..." I pleaded one last time. Mufasa padded up to us. "Yeah, c'mon dad." he encouraged. Ahadi looked at us, his eyes stern and yet... there was a glimmer in them I hadn't seen there before. He stood up and padded toward the den's entrance. Not stopping, he went out. I followed him, wondering where he was going.

Mother had walked slowly from Pride Rock with Zulu at her side. Mother's eyes didn't shimmer as they normally did, her muzzle frozen in a frown. Tears dripped from Zulu's shining eyes as she cried. First her mother's death, and now this... I'm not sure who was filled with more sadness at Zulu's rejection, Mother or her. For that reason, she wasn't too far from Pride Rock (about 50 yards) when the king and I came following after. 


"Shiava!" Ahadi called. Mother and Zulu both stopped in their tracks and turned around. It wasn't long before we had reached them. "Yes my king?" Mother said. 


"I've changed my mind." Ahadi said, "The cub known as Zulu may stay, but you will be responsible for her. Do I make myself clear?"

Mother's frown turned into a bright smile as she heard the king's words. Zulu sniffed and looked up. Tears still stood in her eyes and yet she smiled! "Yes, your majesty!" Mother said joyously, "Thank you! Thank you very much." 


Ahadi smiled warmly. "Young Zulu seems to have great favor in the pride, especially from my son and Meric." Mother nodded. And for once, even she was at a loss for words. Zulu had been accepted into our pride. She had been adopted and her fate was now bound to ours, but one day her destiny would lead to a place none of us expected.


X. The Cheetah Twins...

The next day, Sarabi, Sarafina, and I all awakened from a refreshing, mid-morning nap by Mufasa's excited voice." Hey! Guys!" he shouted, "Wake up!" I opened my eyes and glared at the prince, as did the two girls who lay sleeping nearby. If looks could kill, then Mufasa would have been dead twenty times over. 


"What is it now Muffy?" I asked, grumpy that I he awakened from pleasant dreams of my life with my father.

"Yeah!" Sarafina agreed, "What's so important that you had to wake us up?!" 


Mufasa hesitated for a moment. "Well..." he finally said, "I... I wanted to introduce you to my new friends." 


Sarabi groaned. "You've already made friends with every creature within a mile of Pride Rock, Muffy." she said, "Who could possibly be left?"

I giggled at that. Sarabi's statement was of course a huge hyperbole, but it could have been true. Mufasa was, after all, very friendly, and very outgoing to say the least. "Ha ha." Mufasa said in a sarcastic tone, "Very funny." 


"It could be true Muffy." I said, "But come on! Don't leave us hanging. Who are your new friends?"


 "Come meet them!" Muffy urged again, "Zulu's already there with them."

I stood up and nodded. After all, a perfect nap was ruined. I figured I might as well go see who it was that Mufasa was so excited about meeting. I looked at the girls. "Coming?" I asked. 


Sarafina sighed. "Might as well." she answered, "It's not like I'm going to get any more beauty sleep right now anyway." 


"Yeah." Sarabi laughed, "And we all know you need all the beauty sleep you can get too." Sarafina glared at her, but her face changed after a moment, and she giggled right along with her friend.


"Well c'mon then." Mufasa said, "They're not going to be able to wait all day, you know." I stood up and stretched, allowing my muscles to awaken just as my mind had. Sarafina and Sarabi did the same, only they (as all girls tend to, it seems) took somewhat longer to do it.


Without another word, we followed along behind Mufasa into the world outside of the den. The sun was climbing higher into the sky and was almost at the top of its climb. It was unusually warm today, and most creatures weren't grazing in the plains, but huddled in whatever shelter they could find. It hadn't rained in at least a couple weeks, so the water hole was unusually crowded. I could see that much from the promontory.


Mufasa led us down into the plains and to the east from Pride Rock. As we neared our favorite meeting place, we could hear voices. "So, where are you from?" asked one. It sounded like Zulu. 


"We're from the grasslands." another voice answered. "Yeah." said yet another, "But our mom and dad moved us here because of the drought. The Pride Lands are the only place with enough food and water for everyone."


Mufasa, Sarafina, Sarabi and I moved out of the grass and finally saw with whom Zulu was speaking. They were cheetahs! The first was slightly larger than the second was. He had the typical spotted coat of the cheetah, but his legs were completely black. His eyes were an emerald green. His body was streamlined, long and lanky. It was perfect for running at high speed through the savannah grasses.


The second was slightly smaller with warm red eyes, and though her fur was mainly like that of other cheetahs, she had a black nose and muzzle. The way the black gleamed in the sunlight reminded me of my dear father's obsidian-colored mane. I had to hold back a tear as I thought of how I missed him. The first of the cheetahs turned around.

"Hey there Muffy!" he said with a huge grin. 


"Hi there Lex." Mufasa replied. He turned to us, "Guys, these are my new friends, Lexian and Diadra." He turned back to them, "Lex, Dia, these are the friends I told you about..." He introduced each of us in turn, "Sarabi, Meric, and Sarafina. Zulu you already know."


The first cheetah, now known as Lexian, smiled. "It's nice to meet you all." he said in his politest tone, "Please, call me Lex." 


The second, who we now knew was female, Diadra smiled. "I agree." she said, "Most do not take to us as kindly as you have. Please, call me Dia."

I looked over at Mufasa. "Muffy, how did you find these two?" I asked. "Well, after breakfast, when you guys went in to take a nap, I still wanted to do some exploring." Mufasa explained, "Zulu wasn't very tired either, so she agreed to come with me. When we got close to this place, we heard Taka teasing them about their black fur." 


"Taka can be such a jerk sometimes." Saffy said regretfully. 


Mufasa nodded. "Yeah, I think he was scared off when Zulu and I came." he said, "Probably thought it was their mom and dad."

Well, I don't know how Muffy thought that he and Zulu sounded like full-grown cheetahs. As best I can figure, Taka probably had something else planned. "He was probably just bored." I commented, "No offense Muffy, but you aren't very good at pretend. You're too literal." 

"

Humph." Mufasa replied, "I am too." I rolled my eyes. It wasn't uncommon for Mufasa to try to act more grown up than he was.


"Well, I'm just glad he left when he did." Diadra commented, "I didn't like it when he made fun of my face. It's not my fault." 


I grinned. "It's alright Dia." I said, stepping closer, "I know how it feels." I looked toward the ground so that she could examine the top of my head. Her eyes widened, as did those of her brother. "Your hair-tuft is white!" Diadra gasped. 


"Yep." I replied, "It's been that way since the day I was born. Taka teases me about it sometimes, but I get used to it."

"So I guess we aren't the only different ones around here." Diadra said. 


I shook my head. "Nope." I replied, "I'm different too." THAT was an understatement, even if I didn't realize it then. 


"Hey, why don't we forget about Taka for now?" Mufasa suggested, "Let's go play!" The two Cheetah twins looked at one another and nodded. We ran off into the plains, where we played together until it was time to go home.


XI. Taka's Friend...

Two weeks later, Mufasa, Sarabi, Zulu, and Sarafina sat in the plains near Pride Rock. They were waiting for me to show up so we could all go exploring together. "I wonder what could be taking Meric so long." Muffy commented. 


"Last I knew his mother was giving him a bath." Sarafina replied, "And you know how long she takes." 


"Oh, don't give her a hard time." Sarabi giggled, "She's a perfic... A perfect..." She was still having trouble with big words. 


"Everything has to be just right." Mufasa finished her sentence. 


"Right." Sarabi nodded.


"So what should we do while we wait?" Sarafina asked.



 "I know!" Mufasa volunteered eagerly, "Let's have a wrestling match. We'll be on teams of two." Zulu sat by, just listening. She had become fast friends with all of us, but had quickly earned the reputation as being the quiet one of the group. It was agreed. Sarafina and Zulu would be on one team, and Mufasa and Sarabi would be on the other.


The two teams lined up and then quickly approached one another, each bowling the other over and rolling around with them in a playful manner. Mufasa was the first to be pinned. "Hey!" he laughed. Sarabi said nothing, but she smirked as if to say ‘that’ll teach you.'

It was about this time that I arrived. I sat on a small boulder behind them, just out of view. "Starting the fun without me?" I asked. 


Zulu was pinned as she looked up. Saffy smirked and then looked up at me. "Hi there Meric!" she said, "We wondered when you'd get here!"


Sarabi stepped off Mufasa. "Well, I'm here now!" I answered, leaping of the boulder and pinning Sabby. "Never let you're guard down Sabby." I coached. Mufasa finally managed to get up. 


"Nice one Meric." he laughed. 


Sarabi pushed me off and laughed as well. "I'll get you next time!" she promised.


Well, now we had a problem. The consensus in the group was that we wanted to keep wrestling, at least for a bit longer. However, with me here there was now an odd number of cubs. Zulu volunteered to sit out, but we all said no. After all, she was one of us, and we wanted her to be able to play too.


"Well, what about Taka?" I suggested finally, "With him playing, we'd have three whole teams!" 


However, Mufasa shook his head. "I don't think so Meric." he replied, "You know how Taka is. He's a loner; always has been." 


"We should still at least try." I explained, "I mean... we don't want to leave Zulu out." 


"Alright." Mufasa answered, "But I don't think he'll want to even if we can find him. He's been spending allot of time on his own lately for some odd reason."


"Well then let's go!" I said, "There's only one way to find out one way or the other." So, the five of us started off to go find Taka. We walked in a straight line. First came Muffy, then Sarabi, then myself. Saffy and Zulu came last, walking side-by-side.


Surprisingly, we didn't have to travel far to find Taka. We heard his voice not ten minutes after we started out. Unfortunately, at this time of year the sandy colored grass was far too long for us to see very far. We listened as we approached, and thought we could hear the voice of another.

"You're gonna' pay for that Taka!" the voice said. 


Taka's voice answered, "Is that so? Come and get me!" 


A good number of cubbish growls ensued. "Sounds like Taka's bugging one of the Cheetah twins again." Muffy whispered. 


I shook my head. "I don't think so." I replied, "Listen to the voice. It doesn't sound like either of them."

"Then who else might it be?" Mufasa asked. I didn't have time to answer. Through the grass, a young cub burst suddenly, pinning Mufasa to the ground. "Who're you?!" he snarled. The cub was like none that I had ever seen (though my experience was not very broad right now). His fur was dark as a night without the moon or stars. His eyes were a very deep shade of navy blue, and he had chestnut colored hair and tail tuffs. I also noted that he was unusually skinny (though surprisingly strong) and very scruffy, even as cubs go. As we learned later, Silent Killer (his full name) was an Outlander. 

----------------

Oh... I suppose I should explain about the Outlanders. You see, the Outlands were once a part of the Pride Lands, but some generations ago had fallen into a permanent drought. Several of the pride's members blamed King Ahadi's father, King Mohatu's ruling for this disaster, and feared that if he was not removed from power the drought would spread and eventually cover the whole of the Pride Lands.

They rebelled, several rising up to challenge Mohatu's claim, and a bloody battle ensued, during which many of the pride were killed or severely injured. Mohatu's queen and Ahadi's mother, queen Sira, was killed in the fighting when several tried to end Mohatu's bloodline by attacking the cubs. Sira defended them, and paid with her life.  When the dust settled, the rebels had lost. Only a few of them remained. Grief overcame Mohatu, due to the loss of his queen. He vowed that never again would something like this happen. Gathering the pride to him, Mohatu made an announcement, "From the founding of the Pride Lands, there has been only one penalty for spilling the blood of the royal family: Death. Now I say to you that death is too good for those who have taken a queen and a mother. The judgment I therefore pass shall be recorded as a law of the Pride lands henceforth. Those found guilty of the murder of a royal family member will be exiled to the fringes of the Pride Lands, banished from the sight of Pride Rock under pain of death. That barren wasteland shall be known ever after as: The Outlands."

And so the practice of exile began. Mohatu banished many of the pride's members, rebels and their families, to the wastes of the Outlands. There, they lived a harsh life, forced to live in termite mounds and live off what little they could catch. The rebels banded together for mutual survival and formed their own pride. Over the course of time, others were added to their numbers: rogues and their families, banished from elsewhere in the Serengeti. Silent Killer was one of the descendents of this most wicked and bitter generation. However, I suppose I should get back to the story.


----------------


Through the grass, a young cub burst suddenly, pinning Mufasa to the ground. "Who're you?!" he snarled.


"His name is Prince Mufasa." I replied firmly.


At that moment, Taka burst through the grass. "It's alright Killer." he said, "This is my brother, Mufasa." The cub, now known by everyone as Killer backed off. 


"Mufasa, what are you doing here?!" Taka asked angrily as Mufasa got to his paws. 


"Looking for you!" Mufasa replied, "Where've you been?!" 


"Playing with my friend Killer, if that's any of your concern!" Taka answered, "And what gives you the right to spy on me?" 


"I told you, we were looking for you." Mufasa said, "We were having a wrestling match, and Zulu needed a partner."

"And you thought I'd want to be that silent girl's partner?!" Taka asked, "Paleese! She can't talk... Probably can't wrestle either. Forget it bro." 


My eyes widened in shock. "Taka, how can you say a thing like that?!" I asked in astonishment. 


"Because it's true!" Taka answered, annoyance showing in his voice. 


"But you shouldn't say things like that." Mufasa said, "Even if they are true, that doesn't mean anyone likes to hear them, especially not Zulu!" 


"So?!" quipped Taka, "I don't care what anybody thinks."

If only I could have seen the future, or if I had realized the gifts I possessed, then perhaps I would have seen that this was a sign that Taka was backsliding, growing more bitter and dark by the day. But I didn't see it.


Meanwhile, as we continued to argue, Killer looked over us. Taka had told him about us, or at least what he thought of us, but he had never really spoken about Zulu, other than the fact that she was too quiet for his tastes. Now that he saw Zulu for himself however, something began to change inside him. He didn't feel so much like slashing our throats with his bare claws anymore. And when Zulu looked at him, she could only smile coyly. Saffy and Sarabi's attention was more focused more on the argument than on anything else, so they didn't notice.

"You need to be nice to Zulu, Taka." Mufasa said, "She's our friend." 


"Your friend.” Taka said, "She's not mine. You aren't dad, and you aren't king yet, so don't order me around." 


"But he will be someday." I replied, "Allot sooner than you think." 


"Oh, I shall practice my curtsey.” said Taka sarcastically. He turned to Killer. "C'mon." he said, "Let's get outta' here." 


Killer turned abruptly, "Uh... Yeah. See ya' later, Pridelanders." He and Take turned and slunk back through the grass. 


"Well, that was a pleasant first meeting." I told Mufasa dryly. 


"Yeah." replied Mufasa, "I wonder where that guy comes from anyhow."


"It doesn't matter. He's gone." I said, "C'mon. Let's get back home." Mufasa nodded. We turned back toward Pride Rock. Sarafina and Sarabi followed, but Zulu just sat there. "Zulu, you coming?" I asked, turning back to her. Zulu turned around. 


"Uh yeah." she said, "Coming." She followed. I shrugged, wondering what had gotten into her.


XII. Betrothed...

Dawn. It was three months since my mother and I had first come to the Pride Lands, a month since Mother had adopted Zulu as her own cub. King Ahadi awoke with the sun. He stood up and stretched, letting out his lion-sized yawn. It didn't disturb the rest of the pride, as we were generally used to it. However, this day was to be different, and king Ahadi knew this well. He gently tapped Uru with his paw. She lay sleeping with Mufasa and Taka cuddled up to her warm flank and didn't stir. Ahadi leaned down. "Uru honey." he whispered, "It's time." Uru's eyes fluttered open.

"Alright." she said, "I'll get Shiava and the others." 


Ahadi nodded, "Meet me at Rafiki's tree." He left the den and walked into the sunrise, toward the ancient Baobab tree that served as the mandrill's home. Uru stood up and stretched her lean muscles. She looked around the den. Toward the back, Sarabi, Sarafina, and I slept curled up next to our mothers.


Uru stepped carefully through the maze formed by the bodies of sleeping pride members until she reached us. Mother's head faced away. "Shiava, wake up." Uru whispered, tapping Mother with her paw. 


Mother turned her head around. She hadn't been asleep at all, but had simply been staring at the rock wall. Her eyes sparkled brightly as she smiled. "Good morning your highness." she said, "Do you need something?" 


Uru nodded. "The king wishes to speak with you." she said, "Head outside and wait for me."


 Mother nodded and stood up, preparing to take me with her. "Leave him." Uru instructed, "I'll get Kifara to look after him.”

”But what if he wakes up?” Mother asked, “He’ll probably be hungry.”

”We won’t be gone long.” Uru answered, “He’ll probably still be asleep when we get back.” Reluctantly, Mother nodded and headed to the promontory. Uru awakened the two mothers, Dala and Merlu in a similar fashion.


When the three lionesses had left the den, Uru stepped over to another sleeping lioness. She was a tawny/tan color and slept close to the middle of the maze. Uru tapped her and her ebony colored eyes fluttered open. "Yes?" she said. 


"Kifara dear, will you please look after the cubs for a bit?" 


Kifara nodded. "Of course, my queen." she replied. She walked to the back where we cubs slept while Uru headed outside.


Mother, Merlu, and Dala sat talking in hushed voices, wondering what exactly the king wanted to speak to them about. Whatever it was, it had to be important. The king rarely got up this early, and he never asked them to leave their cubs in the care of another. The queen joined them and waited for a break in the conversation. "We'll leave at once if you're ready." she said when it finally came. The three mothers glanced at one another and then nodded. Uru led them down the path at the side of Pride Rock. The mothers walked in a straight line behind her, so none noticed the bright smile on the queen's face.


As the four lionesses walked, the plains around them were just beginning to awaken. Here and there, a zebra or an antelope grazed on the tender savannah grasses. Crickets chirped the ending to their night’s song. A warm breeze and the bright smile of the sun greeted those just awakening from their own night's slumber.


Before long, the shape of a lone tree appeared on the horizon. It was obvious by its height and girth that the tree was ancient, and up close, one would see from the markings that this tree had weathered many storms. Under it sat the figure of the king, awaiting the presence of the lionesses.

As soon as he saw the four approaching, He stood and walked a short distance to meet them. "Good morning ladies." he said cordially. 


The mothers bowed. "Good morning, your majesty." Mother said. 


"I am glad you've agreed to meet with me here this morning." the king said, getting straight to business as usual, "As soon as everyone has arrived we can begin. 


The three mothers cast inquiring glanced at one another. "Everyone?" they asked.

It turned out that the only one they had been waiting for was the young hornbill, Zazu. As the king's majordomo, he would need to be just as up to date on matters of the kingdom as the lionesses who sat in the shade of the great baobab tree now.


The brightly colored bird winged his way down toward the shade and alighted in branch that sat just above and to the left of the king's head, as the queen sat to the right. "Good morning sire!" Zazu greeted the king cheerfully, if a bit sleepily.


"Good morning Zazu." replied Ahadi, "I'm glad you could make it so early."


"No trouble at all." said Zazu, "But what is so important that you needed to meet us all here?" Zazu had just asked the question that was on everyone's mind.


"I asked you here to speak of the cubs." Ahadi said. 


Merlu was the first to speak up. "The cubs?" she asked, a bit concerned, "What's wrong? Are they in danger? Have they done anything wrong?"


Ahadi chuckled lightly. "No, nothing of the sort." he replied, "It is a manner of tradition that from an early age, the heir's queen be chosen." 


"And you want either Sarabi or Sarafina chosen?" Dala asked, understanding at least partially where the king was going, "But what does that have to do with Meric and Shiava?"

"Well," the king explained, "We have a bit of an unusual circumstance to deal with here. Never before have we had two males who planned to live in the Pride Lands permanently, with the exception of the king's siblings. I don't really know what to do about Meric."

"Ahh! But you need not decide young Meric's destiny! It is already chosen for him." said a voice from within the tree. Zazu squawked in fear and darted to the king's shoulder. The group looked up and was surprised to see the ancient mandrill known as Rafiki sitting on a slightly higher branch, eavesdropping on the conversation.

The king looked up at him in curiosity and surprise. "Rafiki, you know of this?" he asked. Rafiki nodded. "My king, do you remember a cub hood legend that your father told you?" he asked. 


Ahadi nodded. "Yes, my father told me many stories." he said, "But the legend you speak of... Do you speak of the legend about the one who would become guardian of the Pride Lands?"

Rafiki nodded.  "But that is just a story." the confused king replied. 


"It is no mere fairy-tale! The one is among you." he said, "Shiava, perhaps you have noticed something unusual about your young son?" 


Mother nodded. "Well… Yes." she answered, "His hair tuft wasn't a normal color. It's white. But what does that have to do with-" 


"Legends foretell that a great time of trial shall come to the Pride Lands." Rafiki explained, "Only the bloodline of the chosen one, the guardian of the Pride Lands, would keep all from ruin. As a sign, the chosen one would be granted a mane of white, pure as his heart and soul." 


"And you believe my son to be the chosen one?" Mother asked. 


"I know it to be so." said Rafiki, "I have known from the time when I first beheld him."

Mother contemplated this for a few moments. "If this is the case, then what must we do?" Ahadi asked. 


"The same as you have." Rafiki answered, "But allow one of the cubs to be betrothed to young Meric." 


"And what of Zulu?" 


Mother asked. Rafiki was silent for a long moment. "I am afraid that young Zulu is not a part of the prophecy." he answered finally, "Her destiny here is uncertain at best." 


“Uncertain?” Mother asked, “What do you mean uncertain?”


“Not even the wisest can see all ends.” Rafiki said, “Zulu may or may not have some part to play in the events to come. But I cannot tell you more than that.”


"That doesn't matter." Mother replied, "I will still raise her as my own, no matter the consequences." 


Rafiki nodded, "As you should."


Ahadi now turned back to all the lionesses. "The matter still remains as to which cub is to be betrothed to Mufasa and which to Meric." he said. They were all silent. No one really knew how to decide. 


It was then that Dala spoke up. She had a thought. "My king, if I may speak?" she asked.

Ahadi nodded.


"Ever since the first meeting between my daughter, Sarafina, and Shiava's son, Meric, I have sensed and begun to see a bond between them like I have never seen before. With the exception of Mufasa, Sarafina is Meric's best friend. I have the feeling that that bond of friendship will grow into something far more. If you approve, I wish Sarafina betrothed to Meric."


Ahadi was silent for a moment. He looked at Merlu. "And what of you Merlu?" he asked, "Is this your feeling on the matter?" 


Merlu didn't speak right away. She took a moment to think through what she was hearing. "It is." she answered finally, "They are close friends and I believe it very likely that they too will grow to be far more." 


"And do you agree, Shiava?" the king asked. 


"Yes." Mother answered simply. 


Ahadi nodded. "Very well. It is settled then.” he said, "Sarabi is to be betrothed to Mufasa, and Sarafina to Meric."


"But what of Taka?" Uru asked. 


"I... I cannot say as far as Taka is concerned." the king replied, "He doesn't spend a whole lot of time with the other cubs. Perhaps he will never find a mate...."


 "Perhaps." replied Uru, "But I certainly hope he does.”


”Me too dear." Ahadi replied, "Me too."


And so it was that the paths of my friends and me were set.


I don't think the king, or the queen, or any of the mothers, or Zazu, and perhaps not even Rafiki could foresee what an impact their decision would have on the Pride Lands, the events they had set in motion that day.


XIII. The Search for Taka....

The group that had met that morning, the king, and the mothers, and Zazu headed back toward Pride Rock. The mood was light, and it showed in the voices of the mothers. Excited chatter filled the air. Strangely though, both the king and queen were silent. Their thoughts were on their son, Taka, the 'odd cub out' if you will.

Still, together everyone ascended to the promontory.  However, before they entered the den, the king stopped them abruptly. "I think something needs to be said before we head inside." he said. The lionesses stopped their chatter and turned to face him. Zazu alighted on Uru's shoulder.

"We shouldn't let the cubs know of what went on this morning." the king said, but then he went on to explain, "I don't believe it would be in their best interests to have their decisions effected by ours. The Lilly of love will bloom on its own and in its own time. We needn't help it along." 


Merlu nodded. "I agree." she said, "The cubs will make their own decisions, in time." 


"Then we are all in agreement to keep silent about this?" Ahadi asked them all. Everyone but Zazu nodded. 


Ahadi stared hard at him. "And that goes double for you, Zazu." he warned. Zazu gulped but nodded his head, answering in the affirmative.


Without another word, the group headed inside. There they found all of us lying next to and in the paws of the lioness known as Kifara. None of us had opened our eyes yet. She smiled as she saw everyone entering the den once more. "I trust the meeting went well?" she asked.


 "Oh yes." Dala answered, "Very well indeed." Oh, that what had happened that glorious morning had been the end of it! But alas! It was not to be.


-------------------

"Taka!"
A few days later, the sound of someone calling for Taka awakened me around noon from a morning nap. "Taka!" the voice called again. I sat up and groggily gazed around the den.


With the exception of one or two slumbering lionesses and me, it was completely empty. A warm, inviting breeze blew in through the massive entryway. "Taka!" There was the call again. The voice sounded familiar. I strained my ears to listen, "Taka! Where are you?!" It sounded like Uru!


With a yawn and a stretch, I stood and padded outside. As my eyes adjusted to the blinding sunlight, I spotted several lionesses congregated nearby, simply chatting and enjoying the day. They were on one of the slopped outcroppings of Pride Rock, where the umbrella-thorn trees provided more than enough shade for the number.

Uru stood at the base of Pride Rock, calling for Taka. I stepped down and padded over to her. "Good afternoon your highness." I said, "Are you looking for Taka?" Talk about a cubbish question. Of course she was looking for Taka! Why else would she be calling his name and asking where he was? But Uru apparently didn't care about that. 


"Yes, I haven't seen him since this morning."


"Can I help?" I asked, "I'll ask around. Maybe one of the others knows where he is." 


Uru considered this for a moment, "Very well. But stay near Pride Rock." 


"I will." I replied. I ran off to find my friends. Maybe Mufasa would know where Taka was. Of course, I had my own ideas too. Taka had been spending more and more time away from home, usually, we found, with Killer.


I found my friends not far from the same place we had met a week ago, not ten minutes from the part of the plain where we had first encountered the Outlander, Killer. "Hey there Meric." Muffy greeted me, "What's up?" 


"Have you seen Taka this morning?" I asked. 


Mufasa shook his head. "No. He went off on his own right after breakfast." he responded, "Said something about going somewhere with his buddy, Killer."

I shook my head. "Then we'll never find him." I said. 


"Sure we will." Sarafina assured me, "After all, he's got to eat sometime. He'll come back when he's hungry." 


"I still think we should look for him." I explained, "Queen Uru is really worried." We all agreed and set out to look for Taka. Time passed slowly.  Seconds seemed like minutes. Minutes seemed like hours. Soon, it seemed, hours would feel like days. Nevertheless, we couldn't give up. The ever-hopeful Mufasa urged us on, but even his brave front could not hide the fact that he was as concerned for Taka as we were.


Still we kept going as the sun rose higher and higher into the sky and soon began to fall toward the west, the horizon where it would set. As the sun rose, our spirits rose. As the sun began to set, so did our spirits begin to fall. There was little chance of finding Taka after dark and little chance of him surviving a night on his own.

Just when all hope seemed lost, we had a breakthrough. We were about ready to give up and go home, hoping that perhaps Uru or one of the pride lionesses had found Taka. It was then that we neared a large Umbrella-thorn tree. For about twenty yards around it, there was little grass to be found, because the tree's branches blocked most sunlight from the plain.


Even to this day, I am unsure if it was simply good luck, or if it was really meant to happen, but napping in the shade of that tree, we found Taka's friend, Killer. We conferred silently among ourselves about how best to awaken him. "I'll do it." Zulu volunteered.

Now, you can imagine that we were all pretty surprised by Zulu's suggestion, and exchanged glances with one another, as though conversing through our thoughts. Zulu didn't look at us. She only looked over to Killer, as though not able to take her eyes off of his scruffy form. I looked over at Zulu. I didn't know exactly what it was, but there was... Something in the way she looked at Killer that convinced me Zulu was right, and after a little more time, my other friends, Mufasa, Sabby, and Saffy agreed.


Silently, Zulu moved over to the sleeping cub and tapped him on the shoulder. "Killer." she whispered, "Killer, wake up." 


Killer woke with a start. He jumped up, turned around, and bared his teeth. "What do you want?!" he snarled. 


"Easy there Killer." Mufasa replied, "We're just looking for my brother, Taka. Have you seen him?" 


"Yeah." Killer replied, "But I ain't no blabber-mouth. Why would I tell you where he is?" 


"Well... My mom and dad are really worried about him, because they haven't seen him since this morning." Mufasa explained, "Besides, it's getting late and we're getting worried about him too."

Killer laughed. "Listen, prince," he answered, "Taka is where he belongs, among his friends. He ain't a momma's boy like you. You don't need to know where he is." 


"Yes we do Killer." I interrupted, "If not for his sake, we need to find him for his parents' sake." 


However, Killer only laughed again, "Sorry Whitey. That ain't gonna' work on me. I'm not all soft like you and the prince." That deeply offended me, but to keep from saying anything I would regret, I held my tongue.

Zulu looked at him, with big, pleading, puppy-dog eyes. "Please tell us Killer." she implored, "I'm really worried about Taka too." One look into those eyes and Killer sighed. His hard heart finally seemed to melt from their warmth. 

"

Aw... I could never refuse to help a pretty girl." he said sheepishly, "Fine. I'll tell you." 


"You will?!" Mufasa asked excitedly. 


"But..." Killer added, "I'm doing this for Zulu; not for you." 


"So, where is he?" Mufasa asked. 


"He's playing with his friends, in the Elephant Graveyard."

Now me... I had never heard of this 'elephant graveyard', but from the looks I got from Sarabi, Sarafina, and Muffy, I guessed that they had. Killer laughed. "Follow him if ya' dare." he said. He turned and started to walk away. However, he turned around and gazed at all of us, especially Zulu, one last time, "See ya' 'round Pridelanders." He then moved off into the plains.


XIV. Tragedy...

I have to admit that now we were in somewhat of a quandary about what to do. Were we supposed to go after Taka, or should we go back to Pride Rock and tell one of the adults? I looked at the others. "So, what do you guys think?" I asked, "Should we follow him?" 


"I don't know..." Mufasa said hesitantly, "Mom and Dad told me and Taka to never go there. They say it's korban, forbidden." 


"Yeah." Sarafina agreed, "My mom told me it's dangerous out there, especially for cubs."


"But we can't just leave him out there." I argued, "What if he's in danger?" 


"Meric, I want to help him just as much as you do." Sarafina assured me, "But we can't go against our parents' wishes." 


"Maybe." I replied, "But my mother never told me I couldn't go out there." 


"Maybe she's never heard about it." Mufasa mused, "If she had, I'm sure she would tell you not to go there."


"Either way, I'm going out there." I said, completely forgetting what Uru had told me, "I'm not going to leave Taka out here by himself. Are you coming, or staying?" I imagine from the looks my friends exchanged that they were somewhat shocked at my decision. 


Finally, Mufasa sighed, "I'll come with you. He's my brother, so I have to make sure he's safe." 


"Me too." Zulu said, "After all, Meric, you're my brother, so I have to keep you safe." I chuckled lightly, but nodded.


Now only Sarabi and Sarafina had to decide what they were going to do. I looked at them. "I'll come." Sarabi said finally, "But I still don't think it's a good idea." 


"I'm not coming." said Sarafina, "It's a bad idea. Our parents should be the ones to go; not us."

"But by the time one of them gets there, it might be too late." I argued, "Taka could be seriously hurt, or worse, dead." 


Sarafina sighed. "I'm still not going." she replied, "And I still don't think you should either." 


"Do what you feel is right Saffy."

I turned and headed for the great shadowy place to the north, the Elephant Graveyard. Slowly, the others, except for Sarafina, turned and followed me. Sarafina headed back toward Pride Rock, realizing what I did not, that my decision had put us all in grave danger, and we were going to need help, and soon.

-------------------


My friends and I headed toward the Elephant Graveyard as quickly as we possibly could, hoping that we weren't too late to help Taka. Mufasa was especially worried. Right now, he could see things in and about Taka that I couldn't, and wouldn't be able to for a very long time... a very long time indeed.


The sun continued to fall from its perch in the middle of the sky. Some of the Pride Lands' creatures had begun heading into their shelters for the night, but I was determined to keep going, and I think that Mufasa, Sarabi, and Zulu were too, though Zulu looked more tired than any of us did.

Soon... Too soon perhaps, we had reached the borders of the Elephant Graveyard, the forbidden place, the place that my friends' parents had warned them to never visit, and yet I had led them here. However, it was too late to turn back now. I knew that much. Every second was precious. Still, Killer's words echoed in the back of my mind, "Follow him if ya' dare." We trudged on.

The graveyard itself was a frightening place. Massive bones and skulls of long-dead elephants littered the grounds. A spooky mist hung over the entire place. My friends and I continued onward. We were now deep into the forbidden land. The bones had become all the more massive and cavernous. The horrible stench of death and decay grew stronger as we went. We walked on in silence, possibly to nervous to say a thing. Zulu, the most faint-hearted of our group, began to shiver.


The sun had almost completely set. Suddenly there arose a bone-chilling cry! We heard deathly howls and maniacal laughter, cries that still haunt me even to this day. Mufasa looked at me, eyes widened in fear. "Hyenas." he whispered. Now I was beginning to regret having led us here in the first place. It was then that we heard a low growling noise. It started behind and soon I could hear it coming from all around us. Out of the shadows and skulls, and out from behind piles of bones stepped the ugliest creatures I had ever seen.

They were twice our size and had gray fur. Black spots adorned some of them, but others had none. They all had black, horse-like manes running from between their ears to their shoulder blades. Their tails were short and wagged as though in glee, glee at having found their next meal.  Their short muzzles were curled as they snarled, revealing rows of sharp, flesh-tearing teeth. These were the hyenas.

One of them who was larger than the rest stepped forward. "Well well well." she (I assumed by the voice that it was a she) said, "What have we got here? Little cubbies trespassing onto my land." 


"Wh... Who are you?!" Mufasa demanded, trying to act braver than he was, but as I had said before, he was a horrible actor. 


"That's no concern of yours." the female hyena snapped, "What I wanna' know, is what you're doing in my territory." 


"We... We were just looking for my b... Brother." Mufasa stammered. 


The female hyena quirked an eyebrow, apparently in recognition of the prince "Oh... Oh ho ho... So, you must be young prince Mufasa." she smirked, "Young Ta1ka is just fine. He's here playing with my children." 


"Then... Then let... let us go." Mufasa said, still shaking in fear, "And let him come with us!"

"Oh, you think it's that easy?!" the hyena laughed. All the other hyenas broke into fits of laughter as well. "Let me put it this way." she said once she had calmed down, "There's a penalty for being on my land, cub, without my permission. That penalty is death."  Mufasa's eyes widened, as did ours, but it seemed that the hyena female wasn't done yet. "But I'll give you a ten-second head-start." she finished, "It makes the hunt more interesting... for me." Again, the peals of laughter arose from the surrounding crowd of hyenas.


Slowly the hyena began to count, "One... Two..." We turned and ran. There was nothing else to we could do. There was no way we could fight all these vicious poachers. However, we were tired and didn't make it very far before we could here the growling and howling of the hyenas giving chase. We ran on, hoping to reach the border in time, hoping to get back to Pride Rock, though we all knew it wasn't likely that we would do so. "Oh, why did I lead us here?!" I berated myself as we ran.


Fast as we were, the hyenas were faster and gained ground. We were tiring and beginning to slow, but the hyenas seemed to have limitless energy. Still the hyenas gained ground until we could almost hear their snapping jaws right behind us. We began to despair.


Just when all hope seemed lost, when it seemed that nothing but death was before us or behind us, we heard another sound above the clamor. With a mighty, earth-shattering roar, a lioness rushed out of nowhere, past us and toward the hyenas. They stopped in their tracks and glared at her. She narrowed her eyes at them.


It was when I turned around that I realized who it was. "MOM!" I called. 


She turned her head slightly, "Meric, run home. All of you GO!"


"But mom..."


"I said go!"

I turned and ran, catching up with my friends and finally reaching the border. However, as we did, I could hear my mother's roars and the hyenas' howls, and soon there was nothing... silence... We hung our heads and headed for Pride Rock. Boy, were we in trouble when we got home....


XV. Bad News....

It was dusk by the time we reached Pride Rock. Even from a distance, queen Uru, Merlu, Dala, and Sarafina spotted us. The looks on their faces varied. Merlu seemed to be concerned. Dala seemed sad. Uru seemed disappointed. We didn't pick up our pace, but simply kept our heads bowed low in shame. It was then that Uru's words came back into my mind, "Stay near Pride Rock." Now perhaps, I understood why she had said that.


Dala was the first to approach. "Thank the heavens, you're safe." she said. 


Uru nodded as she too stepped forward. "You all have a lot of explaining to do." she firmly stated. We all headed inside, saying nothing more.


Once inside, we all sat down. King Ahadi and the rest of the pride were already there waiting for us. Uru sat beside him and the two mothers, Merlu and Dala sat on either side. The light was failing, but we still could see one another. "What were you all thinking?!" Ahadi asked, trying to hold back his anger, "You know that land is off-limits!"


 I sniffed. "We... We were trying to find Taka." I said, "We were told he was there."

Ahadi nodded. "Yes, I know." she said, "But you should have come back to get us. You put yourselves at grave risk." 


"It was my idea to go." I admitted. 


"It isn't your fault Meric." Mufasa said, "We all wanted to go. You didn't make us." 


"The fact remains that you disobeyed direct orders." Ahadi replied, "You could have all been killed! If Sarafina hadn't run back here to tell us-" "


Sarafina told you?" I interrupted. Ahadi nodded. "Yes." he replied, "She was very worried about you all."

Saffy stepped from behind them. "I'm sorry Meric." she said, "I just didn't want to see you get hurt." 


I shook my head, "No... I'm sorry." I answered, "You were right Saffy... You were right about everything." I turned and walked outside, lying down just outside the entryway. 


"We will talk more of this later." Ahadi said, "It's time for everyone to get to sleep." While the rest of the cubs dispersed and went to their own areas, Mufasa stayed to talk with his father.

"Dad, what about Taka?" he asked.

"Taka returned just before you did." Ahadi replied, "I will speak with him later. He too has a lot of explaining to do."

"I'm sorry Dad." Mufasa said.

"I know, Son. I know."


Dala stepped outside. "Meric, you know you can't blame yourself for what happened." she said. "But I'm the one who convinced everyone to come." I replied, "If they had been killed... If they had been killed, it would have been my fault."


I sighed, "I guess I'm going to be in trouble when Mom gets home." 


A look of concern crossed Dala's face, but she said nothing except, "We will talk more tomorrow. Why don't you come in and get some sleep?" Sighing deeply, I nodded.

I headed in and went back toward the place where Mother and I usually slept, but it seemed so empty without her warm body there next to me; without her loving paws holding me in their protective grasp. I looked forward to her coming home. 


Dala went over to where she and Sarafina slept. She looked at me. "Meric, do you want to sleep over with us tonight?" she asked. 


"No. I'll be alright."


I lay down in my usual place and gazed at the rock wall behind me. Dala lay down and went to sleep, as did the rest of the pride. But me... I stayed awake as long as I could, gazing toward the den's entrance and waiting for Mother to walk in. I should have known that she would never walk through that passage again. Finally, unable to keep my heavy eyelids open any longer, I closed them and fell into a deep sleep.


-------------------

With a mighty, earth-shattering roar, a lioness rushed out of nowhere, past us and toward the hyenas. They stopped in their tracks and glared at her. She narrowed her eyes at them.


It was when I turned around that I realized who it was. "MOM!" I called. She turned her head slightly, 


"Meric, run home. All of you GO!"


"But mom..."


"I said go!"

I turned and ran, catching up with my friends and finally reaching the border. However, as we did, I could hear my mother's roars and the hyenas’ howls, and soon there was nothing... silence...


I woke up the next morning in a deep sweat. All night, visions of those few moments had haunted my dreams. My limbs felt so tired that it seemed I could have been going through that, again and again and again.


It was late in the morning, and most of the pride's members had gone to start about their morning routines already. Dala walked inside. "Well, look who's finally awake." she said, giving a gentle smile. 


"I didn't sleep very well." I admitted. 


Dala nodded. "That's not surprising." she commented, "Why don't you come outside? I've managed to save some breakfast for you."

I nodded and followed Dala outside. Squinting my eyes, I looked about and spotted the breakfast Dala had mentioned. It was a zebra! My favorite! Much of it was gone, bones included, but some of the tastiest parts were left over. 


"Go ahead." Dala said, "Mufasa and the others have already had their fill." 


"But what about Mom?" I asked, "Has she eaten yet?"

A look of concern crossed Dala's face. "Meric... I... I thought you knew..." she said, "You stayed awake for so long last night."

 

I looked up. "Knew what?" I asked. 


"Meric... Your mother hasn't come back yet." Dala answered cautiously, "After breakfast, queen Uru put together a search party to go out and look for her." 


"But they'll find her... right?" I asked, getting a little worried. 


Dala shook her head. "I don't know, Meric." she replied, "But they will do their best."

I turned and went back inside, suddenly not hungry anymore. Dala followed me. "Meric..." she began. I lay down toward the back and closed my eyes as tears began to flow from them. 


"I can't lose her." I cried, "She's the only family I have left. We lost my Dad. The humans took us away from him. I can't lose my Mom too."

Dala stepped over and nudged me with her nose. "We should never give up hope, Meric." she answered, "Uru and the others will do everything they can to find her." 


"I hope they do, Dala." I answered, still sniffling, "I really hope they can find her."

XVI. Runaway...

Uru and the searching party didn't return that day. The rest of the pride tried to go about their lives, as did I, but there was no hiding the fact that everyone was concerned about Mother, especially Dala and I.

Dala scarcely left Pride Rock, and I never left the den. I just didn't want to go anywhere or do anything, or even eat until I knew Mother was okay. Dala did what she could, continually assuring me that Uru and her search party would do everything they could to find my mother and bring her home, but it didn't help.

I couldn't explain it to anyone, not even Dala, but I knew that something was wrong. I could sense it. My mother and I had a bond, the same as any mother has with her child, especially an only child, or first-born. In a way, I knew that they wouldn't bring her back, that she was gone from the Pride Lands forever, and yet the flicker of hope that burned within my soul remained. "You've gotta' come home mom." I cried one day, "You've just gotta'." 


Time wore on. Clouds formed and then dissipated. Sometimes the sun shown, sometimes the sky was grey as though it was soon to rain. I really didn't take notice of it. None of it mattered to me.

Soon it was mid-afternoon. Yet that entire day I hadn't left the den. I just lay inside, hoping, waiting, and dreaming. My friends came inside to see me. I didn't turn around as they entered the den. Right now, it seemed that darkness was my only friend. Mufasa's voice was the first one that I heard. "Meric, are you alright?" he asked me. 


"No, I'm not alright Muffy." I replied, "I'm worried sick."


 "We all are." Mufasa answered, "But we're worried about you too." 


"Why?!" I asked, somewhat bitterly, "Don't have even teams for your games anymore?!" Mufasa looked taken aback by this. I had never spoken to him like that before.


Sarafina stepped over so that I could see her aqua eyes looking over my shoulder. "Meric... What's wrong?" she asked, "Why are you acting this way?" I sighed, but didn't turn my head. 


"I'm sorry guys." I replied, "It's just... Well... My mother's all I have left. If I lose her, then I don't know what I'll do." 


"But you have us." said Sarafina, "We're your family too." 


"It's not the same Saffy." I replied, "I just don't think I could go on living here without her." 


"We're all worried about her Meric." Saffy answered, lightly rubbing her soft cheek against my own tear-stained face, "She means allot to everyone here." For the rest of that afternoon, we all sat together in silence, even as the sun climbed higher into the sky, and then began its descent.

It was dusk that same day when, flying through the air, Zazu spotted a group of lionesses approaching Pride Rock. He flew down to get a closer look and found that it was the queen and her search party. Their faces were tired and mournful. Uru looked up and spotted him. "Zazu, go inform the king of our return." she instructed in a monotone voice. She wasn't going to show any emotion until it was time. Zazu nodded his head and fluttered back to Pride Rock, where the king waited up on the peak.

"Zazu!" Ahadi called as the hornbill flapped up to him, "Anything?" 


Zazu alighted on Pride Rock and looked up at him. "Yes, Sire." he answered gravely, "The queen and her party are returning... Without Shiava, I'm afraid." 


Ahadi sighed. He knew that could mean only one of two things, and neither of them were good. "Zazu... Assemble the pride within the den." he said, "And make sure to tell no one of what we know." 


"Right away Sire." Zazu replied. He again took flight and moved back out into the Pride Lands.

Ahadi meanwhile descended from the peak and stepped into the den, where we were all anxiously awaiting any word from the queen. He kept his face straight. None of us noticed because we were still facing toward the back of the den. Ahadi cleared his throat. Startled, we jumped and turned around. "Dad?" Mufasa asked, "What is it?" 


"Queen Uru and her search party have returned." Ahadi told us, "The pride is gathering here. Sarafina, Sarabi, you had best find your mothers." Sarabi and Sarafina exchanged confused glances before heading off to find Dala and Merlu.

I looked up at the king expectantly, but he remained stone-faced and said nothing. I suppose right then and there, I should have seen what was coming, but I didn't.


It wasn't long before Zazu had found and rounded up every lioness in the pride. Sarafina and Sarabi had found their mothers and now sat in the crowded den at their feet. Minutes before, the king had met with queen Uru and her search party on the promontory under the darkening sky. They had then come inside, but said nothing and kept their faces straight. Ahadi had soon joined them. An eerie silence followed as we waited for the news of what they had found or not found.

Ahadi was the one to deliver the announcement. "My dear subjects," he said, his face set as if in stone, and yet his voice betraying his sorrow, "A tragedy has occurred. A dear friend has been missing for the past few days... Shiava. The search party, led by queen Uru has just informed me that yesterday... They found the remains of a lioness..." He took a deep breath as tears began to fall from the eyes of some of the pride members, who already expected what the king was about to say. "They were barely recognizable." he said, "But the remains are indeed those of our dear friend... Shiava."

At once, a mournful cry arose from the pride. Tears flowing from her eyes, Dala managed to lean down and nuzzle us cubs. Ahadi's face remained emotionless, but a tear or two slipped from his eyes as he looked at Zulu and me. "Meric," he said, "Zulu... I'm so sorry." Zulu sniffed and closed her eyes as she cried. I looked at him, still not wanting to believe it.

Now if you've ever experienced the death of a loved one, especially a parent, then you know how it is. The first thing that hits is the shock, that something like this could happen, and then like a stormy sea, a whole flood of emotions hit you all at once: anger, sadness, surprise, hate... That's the way it was for me. I just couldn't accept it! All at once, my thought seemed to leap from my throat, "NO!!!"

I ran outside and lay down on the promontory. Dala rushed out after me, Sarafina and Zulu tagging at her heels. "Meric..." she said quietly. 


I looked back at Dala. "She can't be gone!" I cried, "She can't be!" 


"Meric..." Dala said, "She-" 


"She's gonna' come home!" I insisted, beginning to cry, "She's gonna' be okay!" I stood up and ran for the slope that would lead down into the plains. 


"Meric!" Dala called after me.

I didn't listen. I kept running. I had to get away from the pain. Even as I ran further from Pride Rock, I could hear her calling after me, "Meric! Come back!" No! I couldn't! I couldn't go back! I had to get away from the memories! Slowly, her voice grew more and more silent. "Meric... Meric..." Soon, it faded away completely, as did the form of Pride Rock from the horizon.


XVII. Night of Sorrow....
Still, I didn't stop running. By the time Pride Rock had faded from my sight, I was panting, and my legs were beginning to get sore, but I just had to get away. I was in danger now. I knew that. Night had fallen across the Pride Lands, and who knew what creatures waited in the shadows to catch a cub-sized morsel like me? There was another danger as well. Now that I was on my own, I had no one to hunt for me. That meant that I was in danger of starving. I needed food and shelter as soon as I could find it!


I continued until I found a seemingly empty cave. Depressed and exhausted, I went inside for the night. It seemed no one else had been in here for quite some time. But that was okay. I didn't really care. I walked to the very back and lay down. It was only when I allowed myself to stop running that I had time to begin grieving. It was true. Mother was dead, gone forever, and I knew it all too well.


There are no words to accurately describe the pain I felt that night as I cried myself to sleep. My body ached. My legs felt limp as overdone spaghetti. My paws felt as though I had been walking on sharp stones, but that was nothing compared to the pain I felt inside, the pain my heart was going through right now. "Why?" I cried, "Why did she have to go? Why was she taken from me? IT ISN'T FAIR!" Tears spilled from my eyes in a seemingly endless river. 


-----------------

Meanwhile, back at Pride Rock, Dala, Merlu, Sarafina and Sarabi stood on the promontory looking out over the Pride Lands, hoping perhaps, to catch a glimpse at where I was going, but it seemed they did so in vain. Sarafina sniffed and buried her head in her mother's leg. Sarabi sat silently by, but the pain on her face was obvious too. Dala leaned down and nuzzled her daughter. "It's alright dear." she said, "I know you’re sad. We lost two of our dearest friends today."

Sarafina looked up at her. "It isn't just that." she hiccupped, "I know how Meric is feeling... It's almost like I'm feeling it too." Dala cocked her eyebrow in thought. 


"There are not many who can feel the pain that others feel." she said, looking at Sarafina, "But those that can, share an incredibly strong bond. It seems that is the way with you and Meric." 


"A bond?" Sarafina asked. 


Dala smiled, "You know his pain, and you share his happiness. It is a bond that has been between the two of you since the day you were born."

Sarafina was still confused. "So, he can feel what I'm feeling too?" she asked. 


Dala nodded. "Yes, and that is one reason his pain is so great," she said, "even if he doesn't realize it." 


Sarabi walked over and looked at her. "I kinda' know how you feel Saffy." she said, "It's the same way with me and Muffy." 


Sarafina looked at her. "Do you understand it?" she asked. 


Sarabi shook her head. Dala and Merlu exchanged glances and then smiled at their daughters. "Don't worry." Merlu said, "Some day, you will."


While this conversation was taking place, another conversation was taking place in the den. This one was between Ahadi, Uru, Mufasa, and Taka. "I just don't understand." Mufasa said, "It hit all of us hard. Why did Meric run away?" Ahadi bit his lip and looked at Uru, hoping that she would be able to answer. 


"Meric's pain is different than ours." Uru explained, "We all lost a good friend... But Meric... Meric lost what he felt to be the most important thing in the world. He lost his family."

"But what about Zulu?!" Mufasa asked earnestly, looking over at Zulu who was sleeping in a nearby corner, "Shiava was her mother too! Isn't she part of the family?"


 "Yes." Ahadi answered, "But Meric doesn't see it that way. He still has yet to learn what a true family is." 


"But she didn't run away!" Mufasa said. 


"That is true." Ahadi answered, "But Zulu is dealing with this in her own way. She is grieving silently, and has secluded herself from everyone else for the time being. Meric is dealing with this in his own way. He needs to be on his own to grieve properly."


"So you think he'll come back?" Mufasa asked. 


"Perhaps." said Uru, "But then again, he may not. That will be up to him." 


"Well, I don't care if he comes back or not." Taka piped up, "He always was too much of a softie. If he can't handle it, maybe it's better for us that he left." 


"How can you say that?!" cried Mufasa, looking at his brother in utter befuddlement, "Meric needs us. And even if he didn't... I have the feeling that we need him..." 


"That's enough for tonight." Ahadi interrupted, "It's time for bed. We'll discuss this more in the morning."


The lionesses turned to reenter the cave, and Sarabi went along with them, but Sarafina remained, staring out over the land. Dala turned to her. "Come on Sarafina." she said, "We had best get some sleep." 


"But Mom," Sarafina protested, "I can't sleep. I'm too worried about Meric." 


Dala turned and walked back to her daughter. "Sarafina... I promise," she replied, "Someday... Somehow... Meric will return to us." Sarafina stared up at her mother with her big, aqua colored eyes glimmering in the moonlight. 


"What makes you so sure?" 


Dala grinned, "Don't worry. We mothers have our ways of knowing these things."

Sarafina sniffed, but she managed to smile a bit and nuzzle her mother. "I really hope you're right Mom." she said, "I miss him." 


"I know." Dala answered, embracing Sarafina, "We all do." Turning to look one last time over the land, Sarafina whispered something that none but those who dwelt in the heavens above could here, a special wish. She turned and followed her mother inside. However, even as she did, a shooting star passed through the skies overhead. Little did young Sarafina know that her wish would be granted. It would not be this night, or the next, for several years. But indeed, it would be granted.

With nothing more to say, each of us retired to our places for the night. Mufasa and Taka slept close to their parents in the center of the den, surrounded by the sleeping lionesses. However, the sleep of the king, queen, and of Mufasa was not as restful as the might have hoped. For instead, it was filled with dreams of their loss. Even today, I do not know what Taka dreamt that night, and perhaps I should not want to know.

Merlu and Sarabi slept toward the east wall of the den. Though sad, they slept with greater ease. At least they did not toss and turn as the three true mourners in the center did. Sarafina and Dala slept in a corner with Zulu. They would take care of her, now that Mother could not. Zulu was so far gone emotionally right now that she did not even dream. Her sleep was deep as the rest, but her ability to dream was, for now, gone. Perhaps... Perhaps it was better for her that way.

Dala would awaken several times that night to hear the silent sniffling of Sarafina as she dreamed of those she had lost, and the occasional giggles (though these were few and far between) of what she imagined her future life would be like.


Finally, there was me. My dreams seemed as torturing to me as my reality. Wherever I searched in them; wherever I tried to run from the pain, I only saw what I had lost: My father, my mother, both of my homes, my adopted sister Zulu, my friends, and most of all... It seemed that I had lost myself to the dark feelings that welled up inside and poured like water from a fountain. It would be some time before I was truly able to find myself again.

Even the morning offered no solace. The sunlight drifting into the cave had lost its warmth. The fresh morning wind had lost its sweet scent. As I stretched and looked about, it seemed to me that even the day had lost its light, even though I could see just fine. As I walked outside and began my trek again, I found that even the savannah grasses had lost their softness. The flowers had lost their bright colors. Everything was now dull and monotonous in my mind. Truly, depression had taken control of me.

XVIII. Reunion....
Unaware of what had taken place the previous night at Pride Rock, I continued on my journey. I didn't know where I was going, and I didn't really care. "Anywhere but here." I thought. The previous day's clouds had not given the rain they offered, so the land was dry as a bone. As I journeyed farther from Pride Rock, trees, grasses, and even other creatures became more and more scarce.

At this point, hunger began to gnaw at my stomach, and my throat started to become parched. Still I continued on as the sun began to climb. I had no idea how far I had gone the previous night, nor did I have any idea of how far I would go today. Soon, I reached a place where the grasses grew in sparse patches. Even these were rare. Eventually, there was no grass to be seen, only dry, cracked ground. I finally realized what had happened. I was now outside the Pride Lands and wandering through the baron wilderness.

With no trees, caves, or even grasses to provide shelter, the heat of the sun now seemed blazing. Now dehydration and heat stroke were added to the dangers I faced. As the sun's light and heat grew more and more intense, I struggled across the rocky plain. However, the pain and fatigue, both emotional and physical soon became too much. I collapsed in a heap on the ground.

My vision blurred and things slowly began to darken. I would have died right there, if not for what happened next. "Meric..." I must have been hearing things. The voice was sweet sounding to me... Familiar. "Meric...” it said again, "Meric, get up!" 


I opened my eyes a little. "M... Mom?" I asked.  My vision was still blurred, but I could almost swear I could make out the form of a familiar lioness. Everything I saw looked as I had remembered: her golden fur, her sapphire eyes, her loving smile, but there was something different about her. I can only describe it as... as a kind of glow she had about her.

She looked even more angelic than I could remember. "Meric, you must get up." she told me, "You must continue on." 


"I can't Mom." I replied, "I don't want to." 


"It is not time for you to die yet, Meric." she said, "You must continue on. You still have a long life ahead of you." 


"But Mom... I can't go on without you." I sniffed. 


Mother smiled lovingly, seeming to step over and brush her nose against my forehead. "And so you shall not." she told me, "Meric, I am a part of you, just as your father is, and just as you are part of us. You are never alone."


I began to cry. "Mom... I miss you." I said. 


"And I, you, Meric." Mother replied, "But remember, not matter what, a part of me will always be with you. Now, you must get up and continue on." 


"But... I want all of you with me." I cried, "I want you to be there to keep me warm at night. I want you to warn me about the peak... I even wish you could still give me baths!"


Mother chuckled, "Oh, my dear son... You have all of that... You have your memories, and you have my love in your heart. All that is missing is my body. A part of my spirit will always be with you. Now... Get up."


"Mom... Will... Would you sing to me? One last time before you go?"

Mother nodded, "Of course."

In her sweet voice she sang a song that she herself had learned when she was young.

"Think of me every day
Hold tight to what I say,
And I'll be close to you,
Even from far away.
Know that wherever you are,
It is never too far,
If you think of me, I'll be with you."



"It is time now, my son." Mother finally said, "I have to go. And so do you. You have a wonderful destiny ahead of you. You just have to run toward it. Promise me. Promise me you'll never give up."


I sniffed but nodded. "I promise Mom." I replied, "I promise." 


"I love you, Meric." she said as she began to fade. 


"I love you too Mom." 


And then she was gone.  I struggled to get to my feet and looked about me. As far as my eye could see, there was nothing but wilderness. It was doubtful that anything could survive out here.

With a sigh and a sniffle, I strode on. The aches and pains were beginning to worsen. The hot ground felt as though it would scorch my paws. I felt like I was getting nowhere fast.  It was worst when the sun had reached the apex of its climb. The scorching rays seemed focused directly upon my body. I had to keep going in a straight line. The heat was playing tricks with my mind, and several times, I thought I could see water holes off to the side, but I realized that chances were, they were mirages.

Even as the sun began to fall, I continued on. I managed to look up once or twice and caught the black outline of vultures flying overhead, waiting for the moment I fell, too weak to continue. A part of me felt like giving in and just lying down to await my death, but the promise I had made, and something inside pushed me on. The sun continued to fall, and it seemed my wanderings would become easier. My eyelids drooped.


It was at dusk that I noticed something on the horizon and growing ever closer. At first, it appeared to be just a blurred green and brown shape, but as I got closer, I realized I was nearing a jungle! "Surely," I told myself, "there will be some water there to quench my thirst." This hope filled me with new energy and I began to run as fast as I could toward the shelter.

It was almost completely dark by the time I reached the edge of the jungle. There were plenty of thick trees and other kinds of brush, but as far as I could tell, no water. I walked on. For the time being, I could only hope to find one night's shelter. However, in this jungle, I would find no caves... Well... Not the type I was used to anyway.

I continued deeper into the jungle. The thick trees blotted out the light of the moon and stars. All around me, I could hear the sound of chirping crickets. I was beginning to fear. I couldn't know what creatures waited in the shadows. Several times, I heard sounds that I had never heard back in the Pride Lands.  The only way to describe them is to say they were shrieks!  "Just monkeys." I told myself unconvincingly.

Several times, I jumped at the sight of a shadow, but each time, as I stood with my heart threatening to pound its way from my chest, I realized that ferns or stumps, or other types of debris cast them. This couldn't go on much longer! I couldn't take it!


I continued on in that dismal state, though for how long I wasn’t sure. The sun had just begun to peak over the horizon as I reached a clearing. It was by sheer luck that in this particular clearing happened to be a small pond. I leaned down and lapped up the cool water. However, exhausted, I laid down there and fell asleep.


-------------------


The next thing I knew, I felt my self being lifted up from the ground. Something almost as warm as my paws had me in its grasp. I opened my eyes so that just a bit of the morning light filtered in through the narrow slits between my eyelids. Indistinctly, I could see the greens and browns of trees moving by. I looked up and saw a face that seemed… Vaguely familiar somehow… It was almost as though I had seen it before.

The face was that of a young human girl. She had light colored skin and emerald colored eyes. Her hair was a brilliant red/orange in color. She seemed to be humming a little tune in a soft and sweet voice as she went, holding me firmly at her chest. That was all I remember before the motion of her movement lulled me back into a somewhat more peaceful slumber.

-------------------

"Mom! I'm home!"
The young human girl's voice drifted into my ears, startling me out of my slumber once more. I opened my eyes once more, ever so slightly, and looked around. Well, you can imagine how shocked I was. There were all kinds of unfamiliar structures and objects, things I had never seen before as I looked about, things that came in every color of the rainbow and then some. My first instinct was to run, and yet, despite what I had lost, my cubbish curiosity caused me to remain put. After all, I had never been inside a human dwelling before.

SQUEAK! SQUEAK! From a hall at the end of the room came an all-to-familiar figure. She lacked the uniform, but I would know those chestnut eyes and orange/red hair anywhere. "K... Kari?" I whispered, though I realized that she probably couldn't hear me. 


At the sight of what her daughter was holding Kari's eyes widened. "Amie?" she gasped, "Where did you find that?" She pointed to me. 


"By the pond Mom." the little girl, Amie answered, "He was just laying there and he looked like he needed help, so I brought him home.”

Kari was silent for a few moments before responding. “Give him to me, Amie.” she said. Reluctantly, Amie handed me into her mother’s arms. “Now, go see if you can help your father with something.” Kari instructed her daughter, “I’ll take care of this little one.” Amie nodded and immediately went down the hall, disappearing into another room.

XIX. Among Friends...

Holding me firmly but gently in her hands, Kari rushed back outside and set me down. As I fully awakened, I gazed at her. There was an inquisitive look in her eyes. She reached a delicate hand toward my head, but I backed away, remembering my father's advice, long ago though he had given it. She drew back her hand a bit and smiled. It was that same kind, caring smile I had seen on her face before. That smile put me at ease now just as it had then.

She then stretched out her hand toward me again. Before I knew what was happening, I could feel it stroking my head. As she did so, the dust that had accumulated from my travels began to clear away, returning the color of my hair-tuft to its natural white. Kari pulled back her hand and gasped. She hadn't recognized the little cub that had been brought here from America so long ago. "Where is your mother little one?" she asked.

I knew there was no point in talking to a human. I knew, as almost everyone else did that they couldn't hear us. Still, I needed to talk to someone, even if they couldn't talk back. "She... She's dead." I sniffed, "She got killed by hyenas." I didn't bother to say exactly why she had died, but it was better than nothing.


Then something both shocking and amazing happened! "Oh... little one," Kari responded, "I... I'm so sorry." 


I looked up at her, eyes widening in shock as I backed away once more. "You... You can hear me?!" I questioned, "You can hear and understand what I'm saying?!" 


Kari nodded. "Yes." she answered, "It's an ability I've had since I was just a little girl."

"How... How did it happen?" I asked, curiosity now overriding my fear and sadness. It's a feline trait, I suppose. 


Kari shook her head. "To be honest, I don't know.” she admitted, "All I know is that one night, I was lost in the woods back home. When I woke up, I was scared and alone... Kind of like you are now." Kari paused for a moment before continuing on, "I began to cry, wishing my mother was there with me, when I noticed a wolf staring at me through some brush. I backed away, but he could sense my fear. And... Even though he knew I probably couldn't hear him, he told me that everything would be okay. That he wouldn't hurt me. That was when I first heard anyone other than my fellow humans speaking to me. I suppose what happened then is one reason I am where I am today."

"What was he like?" I asked quietly, "The wolf, I mean."

Kari looked thoughtfully into the distance, "He was... Strong... Noble... He had this shimmering white fur that looked just like glittering diamonds. His eyes were green and there was a... A suppressed power in them. I only wish I could remember his name. She sighed and looked at me, "But we'd best see about getting you taken care of. You don't want to hear about my life, especially right now I 'm sure."

In truth, I did want to ask her more questions. She seemed to have a great deal of love for other creatures, perhaps one spawned by the events that night so long ago. Unfortunately, Kari didn't seem interested in discussing her past, at least... Not right now. It was strange, but I felt at ease talking with Kari. Father had been wrong. He had to have been. Not all humans were bad. In fact, this one seemed genuinely concerned about me, almost as civilized as my friends back at Pride Rock. As my thoughts drifted there, a fresh pang of sadness and regret flooded through me. A tear dripped from my eyes. Strange as it was, it seemed Kari could sense how I felt. "You're sad about your mother?" she mused.

I shook my head. "It isn't just that." I replied, "When I left... Well... I lost everything. The only friends I knew are gone now... Even if I went back, I don't even know that they’d accept me. I'm all alone now, Kari." 


Kari's face turned toward the treetops, gazing at the clouds that the forest canopy partially obscured. After a few brief moments, she returned her attention to me, a fresh determination showing on her normally serene features. "Not anymore." she promised, "For what it's worth, I will take care of you." 


"You will?" 


Kari grinned, "Sure... But first I need to know your name." 


"Meric Koto." I said, "But everyone just calls me Meric." 


"Well then, Meric," Kari said, "Let's find you some place to stay."

Now, Kari hadn't just been born last season. She realized that there would be problems. Kari's husband, a fellow zoologist by the name of Jeff didn't care much for big cats, which was one reason he had asked to be assigned to this region, where the chances were smallest of encountering one. Imagine his surprise when Kari told him they'd be taking care of me indefinitely. "What about Amie?" Jeff argued, "We need to think of her welfare first and foremost." 


"Amie will be just fine." Kari assured him, "I can't explain, but I don't think this little cub will be any threat." 


"Sure, not right now." Jeff countered. 


"In the future either." Kari argued, "Jeff, you don't need to worry. Trust me." 


Jeff sighed. It seemed Kari wasn't going to back down on this issue. He finally had to admit defeat. "Another one of your premonitions, no doubt." he sighed, a hint of bitterness at having lost the argument edged on his voice, "Alright Kari. Have it your way." Apparently, Kari hadn't told anyone about her gift, not even Jeff.


Even with Jeff's argument out of the way, there were still going to be problems. Though she was Kari's daughter, Amie didn't seem to have Kari's gift of communication, and unfortunately, she didn't know a whole lot about lions. Kari and Jeff hadn't expected to encounter them except for a few brief and occasional shipments they received, out here in the jungle. They knew well enough to know that lions really aren't equipped for jungle areas. Amie therefore couldn't help but see me as she would see an American housecat. Kari would have to train her to use special care when it came to me.


There were other problems to begin with too. Here in the jungle, there wasn't quite as much food for me. Unfortunately, as a human, Kari couldn't very well teach me hunting or fighting skills. It took some doing, but she finally persuaded Jeff to take his bow and hunt for some of the small herbivores that inhabited the area: warthogs, meerkats, and other things of that sort.

The first time Kari brought them to me, I found them to be bland, compared to the things I was used to eating. Still, I had to admit that I was thankful at least for having something to eat and in time, I got used to the small variety of things that were there.


Kari even managed to construct a shelter for me beside their dwelling. Of course, it wasn't very big, at least compared to Pride Rock, but it would suffice for as long as I needed it. It was made of wood and was a perfect cubicle. On the front, there was a large, square-shaped hole that would serve as the entrance. The only problem I really had with it was that the inside of it was fairly dark, lit only by the dim sunlight that managed to get through the trees. Still, it was warm, and relatively private. Yes, this place would be quite suitable.

And so that was where I spend the next three years of my life. Kari and I became the best of friends and talked about just about everything. It was strange but, being with her, I didn't feel so alone anymore. I felt as though I had someone that I could really talk with, without worrying about being judged. Yet always in the back of my mind were thoughts of my friends that had stayed at Pride Rock, especially my adopted sister, Zulu, and Sarafina.... I didn't really know why I couldn't stop thinking about her even when I wanted to. 


-------------------


It was on Sarafina that my thoughts dwelled one sunny day. I was lying by the small pond where Amie had originally found me. I sighed as I gazed up into the sunny sky. A light breeze whispered through my trees and brushed across my face like a gentle hand. Even if I was happy here, it was nothing compared to what I had felt back home in the Pride Lands, and recently I had begun to wonder why I had ever left. I knew the answer, of course. I had caused my own mother's death. Yet I still couldn't help but wonder if I would have been better off staying there.

During the three years I had spent here, something had been happening. I had been growing up both inside and out. The white had never faded from my hair-tuft and it had now grown to form the beginnings of a pure-white mane. I was finally old enough to take care of myself, and Kari realized that it was time for me to be on my own.

The sound of shifting dirt caught my ears and alerted me to someone approaching. I my head around to see Kari coming out of the shade. "Oh, hi Kari." I said, not even pretending to be in a good mood. 


Kari seemed to know how I was feeling. "You missing your mother?" she asked. 


"Well... Yeah." I admitted, "But not just that... I miss my home, my friends." 


"You have a home and friends here." Kari pointed out. 


"But that isn't the same." I replied, "You and Amie are great... But... It just isn't the same." 


A glimmer appeared in Kari's eyes. "You thinking about a certain someone you left behind?" she asked. 


I sighed but nodded, "Yeah... One of my best friends: Sarafina." 


Kari couldn't help but grin. "From the way you talk about her, I get the impression she's a bit more than a friend." she commented. 


Eyes widening, I looked at Kari. "What do you mean?" I asked.

"There's an old saying." Kari answered, "They say that 'absence makes the heart grow fonder'." 


"Huh?!" 


Kari sighed. She sat down and stroked my fur. "Look, Meric, this isn't easy for me to say." she said, "But you have to go back." 


"But... I can't go back!" I said, "Not after everything that's happened!" 


"You need to go back Meric." Kari said, "Running away from your problems won't solve them. You're never going to heal completely until you face them." She was silent for another moment before continuing, "Meric, Amie and I will both miss you, but you don't belong here, with humans. You belong with your own kind, with your friends and your family." 


"I don't have any family to be with." I argued.


 "Really?" Kari asked, "What about that little brown cub you're always talking about, Zulu?"


"Well... She is kind of like my sister." I admitted. 


"Then you do have a family to go back to." Kari smiled, "They need you Meric, just as much as you need them." I sighed. I knew Kari was right. It was just extremely hard to admit. 


"What about you?" I asked. Kari smiled that same kind smile that I had seen so many years ago. "I'll be alright." she said, "I have my family here, just like you have yours. Go Meric. Be swift and be safe." It seemed Kari had backed me into a proverbial corner. 


Finally, I nodded. "I'll miss you, Kari." I said, "Good-bye." 


Kari smiled and patted my head one last time, "Good-bye Meric. Live well."

I stood up, stretched, and casting one last glance at Kari's tearful but smiling face, I headed back toward the desert I had crossed, back toward my true home, the Pride Lands.


XX. Home Again...

I found it easier crossing the vast wilderness this time. Instead of sorrow and regret, hope now drove me on. Even the arid conditions didn't seem as harsh as they had before. Things became even easier as the sun set, for I had started out in the afternoon. As the sky darkened and the air cooled, I gazed up into a cloudless sky at the countless number of stars. "I'm going home, Mom." I said, "I'm going home." As I neared the border of the Pride Lands, I barely felt the pain in my joints, caused by the long travel, or the weariness that would have otherwise caused me to lay down right there and go to sleep.


The soft grasses were a welcome change after the hot sands and the harsh ground that could be found in the wilderness. The moment I stepped over that border, I took a deep whiff of the fresh air. "At last." I said, smiling to myself, "At last I'm finally home." Now that I had time to relax, exhaustion was threatening to overtake me. "Not yet." I told myself, "I need to get into shelter first." I moved a short distance toward the cave that I had slept in three years ago. Surprisingly, it was still empty. Then again, not many animals lived out this far. I went inside and lay down, gazing through the entrance at the soft blue glow of the moon. Finally, I closed my eyes and for the first time in ages, I slept peacefully.


-------------------

The next morning, I woke up with a yawn and looked around. It still seemed hard for me to believe that I was back home in the Pride Lands. It felt almost like a dream. I stretched my cramped muscles and walked outside, seeing that the sun was just rising over the eastern horizon. I grinned. "Old habits die hard." I thought. However, this time I was glad that I had awakened at sunrise. That meant that none of the other pride members would be awake yet. With any luck, I could get back to Pride Rock, or at least close to it before the morning hunt. I hoped they would recognize me.


I walked along in almost complete silence. It seemed nothing had changed since I had been away. The land had continued to prosper, still under Ahadi's leadership I guessed. It was early in the rainy season, the time where the land came to life more than ever and where the majority of creatures would soon be giving birth to their young ones. Even the grasses seemed more alive than I remembered. I looked up into the sky and saw that a few stars were refusing to give way to the sun's light. The sky had turned from a deep blue to a playful shade of orange. I gave a happy sigh and looked ahead of me. And there it loomed, the massive form of Pride Rock, growing ever larger as I came closer to it.


A rustling of grass off to my left caught my attention. I looked over just to see a brown form leaping out, knocking me over, and pinning me to the ground. The young lioness grinned and leaned down, rubbing her furry cheek against me. "Meric!" she shouted, "You're home!" 


------------------


Well, even after all these years it seemed Zulu still recognized me. With a grunt, I pushed her off. "Zulu." I smiled, "It's been a long time." Zulu simply nodded. It seemed she was still as quiet as ever.

Zulu turned around and headed back to Pride Rock, pausing only momentarily to look back at me before continuing on. With a shrug, I followed her. As we neared Pride Rock, Zulu let out a loud roar. Hearing it, king Ahadi, queen Uru, Mufasa and several of the Pride's lionesses came out to see what was going on. Apparently, either Taka wasn't interested, or he had chosen to sleep in. Among the lionesses was Sarafina's mother, Dala. Her face lit up when she saw Zulu and me approaching. For that matter, so did the others'. Dala said something to Ahadi and rushed inside.

When she came out, another young lioness that I recognized immediately joined her. She gasped and ran down the promontory. 


As Zulu had before, she pounced and pinned me to the ground. "Meric," she said, "I missed you. Welcome home." 


I couldn't help but give a stupid-looking grin. "Thanks Sarafina. I missed you too." She giggled.

My attention was so focused on Sarafina that I didn't even see the others, Merlu and Sarabi now among them moving at a leisurely pace down the promontory. King Ahadi was the first to greet me. "Meric," he said, "Welcome back to the Pride Lands. Welcome home." 


"Thank you, Your Majesty." I replied solemnly. 


Ahadi only grinned, "Hey, just call me Ahadi." 


"Yes Your... Ahadi." I smiled. The older lion smiled and embraced me. Funny as it was, in that moment I felt almost as though I was like Mufasa or Taka, one of Ahadi's sons. Queen Uru didn't step forward or say anything. She only smiled, the look in her eyes saying everything that her words couldn't. 


Mufasa moved beside his father and smiled. In the three years I had been gone, his hair-tuft had grown and he now had the makings of a deep brown mane. "Hey, we were wondering when you were going to show up again." he said, grinning widely. I was amazed. In the three years that I had been away, his voice had grown considerably deeper, and my guess was that it wasn't quite done yet. What I didn't realize was that mine had as well. It was so gradual that I hadn't even noticed it. 


With a smirk, I embraced Mufasa. "You know me." I answered him, "I always have to make an entrance." 


Sarabi walked up beside him and chuckled, hearing my joke. "I'd say you succeeded in that." she confirmed. 


I looked up onto the promontory where I could just make out Taka's silhouette against the stone. He turned and walked back into the den without as much as a 'hello.' "He always was the anti-social one." I muttered. 


XXI. Young Love...

Dala and Merlu merely stood by, not saying anything for the time being. Perhaps their joy was too great as well. "Well," Ahadi said finally, "I'm sure you're hungry after all you've been through. Would you care to have something to eat, Meric?"


 I smiled. "No thank you." I replied, "Believe it or not, they kept me well-fed where I was...." I glanced at Sarafina, "Besides, I've got some catching up to do." Ahadi gave his knowing smile and nodded. 


"Very well." he said, "Welcome home, Meric." He turned and headed back inside with the rest, all except for Dala and Sarafina. 


I gave Dala an apologetic look. "Dala..." I began. 


"There's no need to be sorry." Dala interrupted, "You were going through allot. You needed to deal with it in your own way. What matters is now you're back where you belong." 


"Is this where I belong?" I asked, "Is it really?"


Dala grinned. "This is your home Meric." she said, "And no matter what, your home is always where you will belong." 


They were simple words, but there was certainly wisdom behind them. Dala was right, and in that moment, I realized something. I'd had it all wrong for three whole years. My mother wasn't the only family I had here. I had Zulu, my adopted sister, and my friends. I could count on my buddy Mufasa to be there whenever I needed. Sarabi was always there to offer a kind word of advice. Dala... She felt almost like a second mother to me. And Sarafina... It was hard to say. She had been my best friend for as long as I could remember... Now, now that we had grown up and come back together again after such a long time apart, it was as though I saw her in a new light. There was more to it than a simple friendship now, and yet it was still something that understand... Not for now at least.

I glanced at Dala again. "Thank you Dala." I said, "Thank you for everything." 


Dala looked at me. "No thanks are necessary Meric." she answered, "I would do as much for any other member of my family." She smiled at us and then padded back into Pride Rock. I grinned and chuckled. Sarafina, who was still sitting by my side, looked at me. "What?" she asked. 


"Oh... It's nothing." I said, "It's just... Well... I didn't exactly expect to get this warm a reception. Here I am, not even a native of the Pride Lands... And everyone treats me like I'm royalty."

A thin smile crossed Sarafina's face. "To some of us, you are, Meric." she said. A confused expression crossed my face as I looked at her. 


"Huh?"


 Sarafina giggled. "Never mind." she replied, "C'mon. Let's take a trip down to the water hole... For old times' sake." 


"You know, I think I'd like that." I said, "I think I'd like that allot." Sarafina turned and headed toward the water hole.


For the longest time, we just walked silently, side-by-side, gazing at the beauty of the land all around us. Every now and again, Sarafina would begin to silently hum snatches of old songs, just bits and pieces that she remembered from when her own mother had taught them to her. Every so often I would dare to look over at her as she looked ahead, simply smiling, saying nothing. If she even looked as though she would return the glance I would turn and look forward again, but for some odd reason I found myself unable to keep my eyes off her.

Soon we had reached the water hole. We sat down by the banks and gazed at the crystal-clear waters, listening to the sound of hornbills in a nearby nest. The sun had risen over the horizon but the last shades of orange had not yet faded from the sky. Soft white, star-lilies on the left opened their petals to take in the morning light. Sarafina gazed about. "I can't count how many times I've come here alone." she said, "It was the only place I really felt comfortable in... After you left. I've always loved the flowers and water, but it never seemed as beautiful as it does now that you're home."


She paused and looked at me. "Why Meric?" she asked, "Why did you take so long to come back?" 


I sighed, recalling bitter memories and hard times. "It's not something I'm proud of Saffy." I answered, a twinge of regret touching my face, "I guess after all that happened... I just kind of felt responsible for the whole thing. I didn't feel like I could face the pride anymore... Or you. I had to be on my own for awhile."


"We've all really missed you." Sarafina told me. 


"I know..." I replied, having to think a bit before I spoke, "I've missed you all too. I can't count how many times you've all been in my thoughts and dreams over these past years... Especially you." 


Sarafina gave a light smile as she gazed down at the water. "Meric... I've never told anyone about this." she said after a moment of awkward silence, "But... On the night you left, I made a wish.  No one but Aiheu and the great kings heard it, but it never came true until recently." I cocked an eyebrow, wondering exactly what wish that was. 


"What did you wish for?" I asked. 


Sarafina hesitated and took a deep breath before answering. "I wished for you." she said finally. 


"What?!"


 "I wanted you to come home." Sarafina explained, "We all felt bad about you leaving... But... Well... It was different for me. It was like I could feel all the pain you were feeling inside and I just wanted you to feel better. It's been so hard wondering all this time if that wish would come true..." Sarafina hesitated as tears began to well up in her eyes, "It's been so hard waiting for you to return to us... Waiting for you... To return to me."

 
I didn't say anything just for a moment, too stunned to speak. From what I could gather, I had been in Sarafina's thoughts just as much as she had been in my own. "Well... I'm home now." I said after mulling it over in my mind, "And I don't plan on leaving again. But for what it's worth, you're the reason I came home." 


She sniffled and placed her head on my shoulder. She looked up at me, those big aqua colored eyes of hers glistening with tears. "Please, never leave me again." she said, trying to get a grip on her emotions, "When you left, I found myself left only half of what I had been. It was then that I realized... I realized that I love you, Meric."

Love?! I had to do a double take on that one. It didn't seem possible, but deep down I knew it to be true. After all, Sarafina had never been one to lie. She paused and I could have almost sworn she was holding her breath as she awaited my response. I had to admit that much as she had been in my thoughts, I had never associated what I was thinking with love. Was it really true? "Remember Meric, when you speak, always speak from your heart." The words and indeed one of the many lessons Mother had taught me drifted back into my mind. I closed my eyes and searched the very depths of my heart.

In the end, I had to admit that I had been wrong. Sarafina wasn't just my best friend... I looked deeply into her beautiful, shimmering eyes and spoke of what was truly in my heart. "I love you too, Saffy." I answered, "I love you more than even I realized... More than life itself." Sarafina drew a sharp breath and let it out, her joy surpassing even the fanciest of words. She sat up and nuzzled her soft, warm cheek against my own. And for a time, we just sat there together, basking in warmth that had nothing to do with the now fully risen sun. No. This warmth was far more, for we basked in the warmth of the greatest power the world has yet seen: love.


XXII. The Return of Silent Killer...

To this day, I'm not sure whether it was simply luck or whether it was good providence that brought me back to the Pride Lands when it did, but it was around that time that things began to happen at Pride Rock; things that would inevitably shape the future, as well as the lives of those that experienced them. Two days after my return, these crucial events began. The first thing I noticed was that in the time I had been away, Mufasa and Sarabi had grown considerably closer to one another. The two of them rather reminded me of Sarafina and me. I wondered if perhaps their relationship had blossomed as ours had. But only time would tell.

The second thing I had noticed was that Taka now spent even less time with us than he had three years ago. More and more he would stalk off on his own, seeming to want to avoid us at all costs. Where he would go was anybody's guess. I had a few ideas myself but not one of them was pleasant, and I certainly didn't plan on following him to find out. The memories of what had happened the last time were still all too fresh in my mind. The only thing I could do was to continue being kind to him and offer my friendship whenever I could. Unfortunately, every time, Taka rejected it, telling me I needed to mind my own business. Still, I couldn't help but worry about him. Indeed, things were beginning to change but nothing that had happened was as major as what happened next. 


It all started one bright morning, a month or so after I had returned. Sarafina and I had left the sleepers at Pride Rock early that morning, hoping to have some time to ourselves before the others awakened. We strode throughout the Pride Lands, sometime making idle conversation about this and that, sometimes walking silently along, and simply enjoying one another's company. 


Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of a bird that had risen early as we had. Even more rarely we would see a single springbok or gazelle jump by, perhaps enjoying what little time it had left before the rest of the Pride awoke, at which time it would need to keep a constant lookout. But for the moment, a single, young lion and a single young lioness, both just now on the cusp of adulthood were of no concern to it. Ignoring such things, we continued on.


The morning was perfect. The sun was just rising over the horizon creating a dazzling display of color on the landscape and in the sky, its rays reflecting purple and pink off the gathering clouds. As we walked by the waterhole, a gentle breeze whispered through the surrounding palms and created little ripples on the pristine waters. A single antelope which was up for an early morning drink looked up at us momentarily before going back to satisfying its thirst.


We were some distance from Pride Rock when a rustling of the long savannah grasses off to Sarafina's and my right caught our attention. Considering that Sarafina was on my right, I moved around to protect her from that direction. Heart pounding, I thought it through. It was probably nothing. Probably just some other early-rising creature, but I had to be sure. "Show yourself!" I demanded.

"Well well well..." a strangely familiar voice said, "I didn't expect to see you in the Pride Lands again, Whitey." And from out of the grass he stepped. My eyes widened. It had been years since Silent Killer had come to the Pride Lands. His ebon fur had grown sleek and his navy blue eyes glittered. His deep down mane had begun growing. He'd been living well, it seemed. Nevertheless, he was still thin, though a good deal less scruffy.

Killer chuckled to himself. "What's the matter?" he asked in a mocking tone, "Aren't you glad to see me?" 


"Glad to see you?!" I responded, trying desperately to hold in three-year-old anger back, "The last time we met, you sent my friends and me off on a wild goose chase that nearly got us all killed and ended up getting my mother killed in the process! So NO, I'm not happy to see you at all!" Sarafina looked at me, perhaps a bit shocked herself that I had reacted that way. She placed a comforting paw on my shoulder.

Killer did his best to feign offense but didn't really have any success. "Hey, remember it was your decision to go." he said, rather pointedly, "I didn't have anything to do with that, so don't take it out on me." He muttered something under his breath about 'Pridelanders not knowing when to take responsibility for their actions'. 


"What was that?" I snapped. 


Killer shook his head, "Nothing. Anyways, I's just on my way to Pride Rock when I spotted you two Love-Birds, so I thought I'd drop in and say hello."

"You planning to get Taka into trouble again?" I asked suspiciously.


 Killer shook his head, "No actually. Taka doesn't even know I'm coming for a visit." 


"Oh, how nice." I said dryly, "A surprise visit from his best friend." 


Again Killer shook his head, this time giving a quiet chuckle, "Wrong again, Whitey. I'm here to see Zulu." Sarafina and I threw surprised looks at one another.

"Zulu?" Sarafina asked, "I thought you didn't like any of us, especially Zulu!" 


Killer gave a silly-looking grin. "Eh... Time changes things." he admitted. "Yeah, right." I shot, "It's probably just some trick to get us all into trouble, or worse. You Outlanders are nothing but trouble." I still didn't trust him. In my mind, the fact that it had been his tip that led us into that deathtrap known as the Elephant Graveyard years ago was enough to find him guilty of murder, or at least its attempt. Nevertheless... There was something... Something in his eyes that set off a slight tingle in the back of my mind, almost as though I could tell just from the way he looked ahead that he was telling the truth. 


"If I wanted that, I'd have already made my play." Killer argued, "I'm telling you, I'm just here to see Zulu." The way he said it... He spoke with such... Finality, such determination. Between that and what I could see in his eyes, I finally had to concede that perhaps he was telling us the truth after all. 


"You realize Taka's not going to be happy about this." I pointed out, "Especially once he finds out just how much you like Zulu."

Killer's eyes widened. "How did you know about that?!" he asked, obviously surprised. 


"Err... I don't know." I said, "It's just something I saw in your eyes, I guess." 


Sarafina glanced at me. "Meric, I didn't see anything like that in his eyes." she told me, apparently wondering where I had dug that up, "They look just the same as they always did to me." 


I shook my head, "I don't know Saffy. But that's how I figured it out." 


Sarafina looked at Killer, "Is that really the reason you wanted to visit? Because you have feelings for Zulu?" A bit of red touched Killer's cheeks as he nodded. I shook my head. 


"Taka's not going to be happy about this." I repeated, "Not happy at all." 


-------------------


It didn't take us long to get back to Pride Rock this time. Killer's anxious urgings hurried us on our way. Personally, I wasn't so anxious to get back. I was still trying to figure out in my own mind why I had been able to see Killer's feelings for Zulu, but Saffy hadn't. 


"Maybe Rafiki could explain." Sarafina suggested, almost as though sensing my unspoken question. 


"Maybe." I agreed. 


Sarafina nudged my side. "Why don't you go see him?" she told me, "I'll be alright."

Before I was able to answer, we heard a familiar but flustered voice from overhead. "And just where do you think you're going?!" it asked. We all looked up to see a familiar blue hornbill flapping in our direction. 


"Good morning Zazu!" I called to him. The hornbill fluttered down and hovered in front of us as we walked.

"Master Meric, you know very well that it is against the law for an Outsider to even set foot in the Pride Lands!" Zazu squawked, "His very life is in danger as long as he stays, and for that matter, maybe all of ours as well!"


"Zazu, he's just here to see-" 


Zazu cut me off before I could finish. "That make's little difference at all." he answered, "The law is the law." 


Sarafina spoke up. "Zazu, you don't even know the whole story." she said, trying to be sympathetic to everyone at once, "If you would only let us explain-"

Evidently, Zazu wasn't in the mood to listen. He interrupted her too, shaking his head as though he already knew what she was going to say. "I am sorry, but nothing can be done." he said, "The Outsider must leave or face the penalty." 


"Which is?" Killer inquired. 


"Death." Zazu stated plainly. 


"Death?!" I gasped, "You don't mean-" 


"I'm afraid so." Zazu said. 


I looked at Killer. "Are you sure you want to risk it?" I asked him. 


Killer took a deep breath. "Zulu is worth it." he said, "If I am only able to see her face one last time, for even an instant, it would be worth it to die a thousand deaths."

I looked at Zazu. Something in the bird's eyes, strange as it was, told me he would finally give in even if he was reluctant to do so. "Very well." he said after a moment, "But we must be cautious." Zazu flew ahead to keep a lookout for any sign of trouble. I looked at Killer. 


"Don't worry about him." I advised, "Zazu's always been a bit of a fuss-budget. Rumor has it his egg wasn't the only thing that got cracked when he was hatched, if you know what I mean." Sarafina threw me a look. I looked back at her and grimaced. "Whaaat?" I asked, "I was just kidding." With a sigh, Sarafina shook her head and closed her eyes. 


"I don't know about you sometimes Meric." she said, "I really don't." 


Soon we were within sight of Pride Rock, its towering form growing ever larger as we approached. Killer took a deep breath. "Well..." he said, nervousness evident in his voice, "Here goes nothing."

XXIII. Destiny Revealed...
Zulu was taking a short walk around the base of Pride Rock, humming quietly to herself as she did so. She was just coming to the path when we approached. "Hey Zulu." I said. Zulu turned her head around. "Oh, hey there Meric." she said, "Hey Saffy... Hey... KILLER?!" 


Killer grinned. "Uh, hey there Zulu." he said. 


Zulu looked up toward the Promontory. She apparently assumed that he was here to meet up with Taka. "Taka's probably at the peak." she told him, "I'd offer to go get him for you but... Well... You know how he feels about me." 


"Rrright..." Killer said, "But... Well... I'm not exactly here to see Taka." 


Zulu cocked an eyebrow in curiosity. "I'm here... To see you." Killer said in answer to her unspoken question. Zulu took a sharp breath. "Me?" she asked.

Killer nodded, "Yeah... Um... Why don't we go for a walk... Maybe... Down to the water hole?" Zulu looked at Sarafina and me as though looking for us to say that she shouldn't, but there was no missing the twinkle in her eye even then. When Sarafina and I didn't answer, she looked at Killer and nodded, managing a slight smile. The two walked off together as Sarafina and I continued to the promontory. "I really hope things work out between them." Saffy said, "It'd be nice for Zulu to find someone as special to her as you are to me." 


"Yeah... Me too." I answered, "But I get the feeling Taka's not going to like this at all."

"What wouldn't I like?" I spun around to find myself face to face with prince Taka. He had certainly changed in the years I had been away, and even now, his frame seemed to change, becoming more boney by the day. Uru and Ahadi blamed the fact that he didn't eat very much. Me? I blamed his jealousy and bitterness toward Mufasa. Even as I gazed on him this day, it was strange but I could see darkness, having a form almost like a cloud, creeping into him, consuming his very being. This showed even more prominently in his black half-mane, though others may have associated it with simple genetics.


"Oh, hey there Taka." I said with a smile, trying to be as friendly as possible. 


"Yeah, hey... Whatever." the other answered, apparently not in the mood for cordial greetings, "Now what is it that I wouldn't like?" 


"Oh... Uh.. That..." I said, trying to pick my words carefully, "Saffy and I were just talking about Zulu." 


"So, what about Zulu?" Taka asked. He was very obviously growing impatient. 


"Well... I think she's finally found someone who cares about her." 


"Good for her." Taka said, his words practically dripping with sarcasm, "So who's the lucky lion?" I looked at Sarafina, my eyes pleading for help, but she just shrugged as if to say, "You might as well tell him."

Sighing, I turned back to Taka. "It's Killer." I informed him. 


Taka laughed, obviously not believing a word. "Now, c'mon." he said, getting a hold of himself for the moment, "Tell me the truth. Who is it really?" 


"I told you the truth Taka." I insisted, "Killer came to see Zulu. I think he really cares about her." 


"Oh?" Taka asked, the sarcasm leaving his voice, "And what makes you so sure, Whitey?" There was that name again. Taka called me that whenever an argument wasn't going his way, or when he was angry with me for something he claimed I did. I hated it. Nevertheless, I realized I couldn't sink to that level. I had seen how that went in the past between him and his brother.


 "I saw it in his eyes." I said coolly as I was able.


 Taka fell to the ground, doubling over in fits of laughter, "You... You... s... Saw it in his eyes." He was rolling on the ground now, tears flowing from his electric green eyes. His laughter was downright hysterical. 


"I don't see what's so funny." I commented.


 Getting a hold of himself, Taka stood and looked at me. "It's funny, because it's impossible." he said, his eyes staring straight into mine, "First of all, Killer hasn't been here all morning, or I'd have known about it. Second, Killer's not a softy like you. He's an Outlander! They don't get touchy-feely over there. And lastly, I somehow doubt that you can actually 'see' what Killer's feelings are." 

I shrugged. This was getting tiresome. I decided to end it. "Fine then." I countered, "If you don't believe me, go ask him yourself!"


 "Fine then." Taka snorted, "I'll go find him, and he can set you straight once and for all." I couldn't help but smirk.


"You needn't go looking for him." I said, "He's at the water hole with Zulu right now!"


 "We'll see." Taka muttered. He turned and headed down into the plains.


 Sarafina looked at me. "Meric, are you sure it was a good idea to tell him where they went?" she asked, "He seemed pretty upset." 


"Taka needs to know that I'm telling the truth." I explained, "He needs to know that he can trust me. Who better to tell him than Killer?" 


Sarafina sighed and brushed her cheek against mine. "I know you're right." she responded, looking out into the plains, "I just hope it doesn't backfire on you." "Backfire?" 


"Yeah." Saffy answered. She turned and looked at the shrinking form of the prince as he headed for the water hole. "If Taka's as upset as he seemed to be... Somebody just might get hurt."

-------------------


Later that morning, as the rest of the pride members got up and began to go about their daily routine, I decided to take Saffy's advice and head to Rafiki's tree. With any luck, perhaps he could explain what was going on with my eyes. The morning air had seemed to change since sunrise. A crisp breeze whispered through my half-mane, blowing some of the longer strands out of my eyes. I had inquired back at Pride Rock as to where exactly this tree was. It was Ahadi who had told me. I could only hope the king wasn't mistaken.


It turned out that he wasn't mistaken at all. Rafiki's tree, the ancient Baobab I mentioned earlier was soon within sight. It was, I thought to myself, one of the most recognizable sights in the Pride Lands, second only to, perhaps, Pride Rock itself. I paused for a moment. To be perfectly honest, I was a little nervous. I had it in my mind that there might be something wrong with me, something that hadn't yet been discovered. What if I was sick? What if I had some plague and had to leave for the good of the pride. The things I was seeing could have just been hallucinations after all. Could I take being separated from Saffy for the rest of my life?


Taking a deep breath and mustering my courage, I continued on toward Rafiki's home.

It wasn't long before I arrived at the base of the massive tree. I looked up into its many branches as its leaves blocked the sunlight, casting a nice-sized shadow on the ground where I now stood. On the surface, there didn't really seem to be anything remarkable about it. 


Unsure of what to do, I cleared my throat. "Um... Rafiki?" I called, "Are you up there?" 


There came no immediate reply but kind of a strange chanting. The words were almost indistinguishable but it sounded like 'Asante Sana, squash banana, we we nugu mimi apana.' It was in the old language, but if I remembered correctly, those words translated into "Thank you very much. Squash Banana. You're a baboon and I'm not."  


"Odd..." I muttered to myself. Mufasa had told me that Rafiki was a little strange, but this... This I had never expected. "Rafiki?!" I called again.

The strange old mandrill poked his head out of the branches, scaring me half to death right then and there. "Yes? Who's there?" he asked in his strangely accented voice, looking this way and that. His eyes finally fell on me. "Ah-ha!" he grinned, his face suddenly seeming to brighten, "Young master Meric! What can I do for you?" He leapt from his tree and landed gracefully before me. 


"Err..." To be honest, I was a little unnerved by the old mandrill's demeanor. He seemed harmless enough, but there was... Something about him.... Something I couldn't then nor can I now describe.

Apparently, Rafiki was used to this. He simply stood and waited for me to speak. "Well... First of all... I'd like everyone to stop calling me 'master'." I said, "I'm no prince." 


"And second?" 


"Well... Um... I kinda' noticed something today and I was wondering if you'd know anything about it." 


Rafiki stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Oh?" he asked, "And what is it that you noticed?" There was a gleam in the old baboon's eyes. In a way, it seemed he already knew exactly what I was saying. Nevertheless, he wasn't going to make this easy for me. Oh no.


 "Well... It was strange." I explained, "But... I found something out about one of my friends. He didn't tell me but... Well... I saw it in his eyes. It was like... It was like I could tell exactly what he was feeling at the time." 


Rafiki gave a laugh that sounded halfway between a cackle and a chuckle. "So you have finally begun to discover it." he grinned. 


"Discover what?" Rafiki leapt back into his tree, retrieved his staff and jumped back down to join me. 


"Not here." he said, "You follow Ol' Rafiki. He knows the way!"


Shrugging and again wondering about the wisdom of coming here, I followed Rafiki, wondering where exactly the old monkey was leading me. Strangely enough, it turned out he was leading me back toward Pride Rock. Was he going to tell the others? Was I in trouble? I thought Rafiki would head to the promontory, or perhaps the peak, but he didn't. Instead, he led me to the back of Pride Rock, where moss and vines thrived. "Okay," I said, "we're here. Now can you tell me what's going on?" 


Rafiki shook his head. "Not quite yet. Close your eyes." Sighing in frustration, I obeyed. With my eyes closed, I could here the rustling of grass and perhaps vines and the tinkling of the gourds on Rafiki's staff as they hit one another. "Okay, open them." he instructed. I opened my eyes and they instantly widened.

A gaping hole was now visible where once vines had covered Pride Rock, the entrance to a previously unknown cave. "This is impossible." I told Rafiki, "I must have been back here a thousand times. I've never seen this cave before." 


"You were not meant to." Rafiki said, "Not until you discovered your sight." 


"Sight?!" I asked, starting to feel a little panicked, "What sight?! What's going on?!"


 "Enter, Meric." Rafiki told me. Sighing and wondering why I'd even bothered I stepped into the darkened cave.

"Okay, I'm here. What-" Before I could even finish, something truly amazing happened. In an instant, the cave seemed to light up! Brilliant hues of red, blue, purple and even a little orange seemed to dance on the walls, filling the entire cave with a glow to dazzle the eyes of the beholder. Toward the back wall, I noticed a cool spring with crystal clear water. It seemed to flow out of the rock wall, perhaps out of Pride Rock. No, I decided, perhaps out of the very heart of the earth itself. Rafiki entered behind me. 


"It is time you knew who you are Meric." he said, "It is time for you to know the task for which your birth has destined you." He stepped over to the spring and motioned for me to join him. 


"Meric, there is a legend, a prophecy that has been passed down through generations since the founding of the Pride Lands." he told me as soon as I was at his side. He closed his eyes and muttered a strange chant, more of the old language. If my skills served me correctly, he was saying, "Aiheu, thy name above all, blessed, given light into the darkest of these hearts. Wicked times shall find thee low, and find thee mighty fallen. Hope and faith rendered, lost, words most rarely spoken. An age of the earth, that long since forgotten, both life and dreams shall die. Forsaken lands, forsaken lives, shall turn thine eye to stone. Bittersweet, such memory, before as the waters flow. When ceasing all eternal rush, earth’s lifeblood no longer shows. From deep within the bowels of hell, a hand shall curse the land. And all thine subjects tarry on, though the struggle be all in vain.  A fire unlike all before shall spread upon the land. But no flames enveloped here shall harm a single hand. A plague upon the house of old and the mighty king has fallen. Between the time, of father and son, between the battles for life, one is born to lead them out and save the land from strife. White, the color predominant, white will color the world. The heart and soul, so pure, so clean, gleaming as a pearl. The path taken with great denial, for his heart is troubled as mind. But in the end, he shall see, with eyes as clear as water, that all has come to pass. And lifting up a voice to sound, bell-like and unbroken, the heavens then shall open up and lifeblood shall pour down. "

 As he finished he made a gesture with his hands and opened his eyes again, wizened eyes staring at mine. I wondered if he expected me to know the meaning of these words. Unfortunately, I did not. "What is all that supposed to mean?" I asked.


Rafiki was silent a moment, his face suddenly dead serious, "It is said that there would come a time of great trial for the Pride ands, a trial so severe that none would survive. With the loss of a great king, even the land itself would die."

He paused. "What does this have to do with me?" I asked.


 "It was not the will of Aiheu for this to happen." Rafiki explained, "And so he promised that the land would be saved through the coming of one: the Guardian of the Pride Lands. It would be his bloodline that would bring the Pride Lands through the trial and save them." 


"And... What..." I said, "You think that I'm this guardian? That's impossible, isn't it? I mean... I'm no stronger than anyone else here...  Certainly not strong enough to lead through any kind of trial. I was the reason my friends were almost killed! And my mother DID get killed!" 


"I know all this, and much more." Rafiki said, "But I also know, Meric, that you are indeed the guardian." 


"How can you be so sure?" I asked, eyes closing as I tried to sort this all out in my mind. 


"Because as a sign, the guardian would be gifted with something very unique." Rafiki said, "He would be granted a snow-white mane, pure white as his heart and soul. Gaze into the water, Meric."

More curious now than anything else, I did as he asked. At first, all I saw was my reflection: My face, complete with golden fur, blue eyes, and white half-mane, but after a moment, the scene seemed to change... To shift, distorting the image. Now, as the waters calmed, another face stared back at me. This one was bigger certainly, but there was no mistaking those eyes. It was my face all right, but there was something different. It seemed older, wiser, more seasoned. Indeed, even the pure white mane was now fully-grown. "You gaze on the face of who you are, Meric." Rafiki told me, "And who you will become. You possess an ability possessed by none other: that of gazing into their hearts. You will see their emotions, and you will see the darkness in some; the light and love in others. It will be your bloodline that saves the Pride Lands from the greatest of their trials. It is you, Meric. You are the chosen one."

XXIV. Fallout...

It wasn't really something I could believe or accept right away. There was so much information to take in, so many decisions to make. However, if Rafiki was right and I was the only hope the Pride Lands had... "Don't worry." Rafiki told me, "You'll understand more fully, in time." I gave a nod and turned to head back outside. Rafiki followed. Strangely enough, the moment I exited the cave, it went completely black, just as it had been before I entered in the first place. Rafiki moved the vines and grasses back over the hole to cover it up. 


"How come you're doing that?" I asked curiously. 


"This cave is sacred." Rafiki said carefully, "It is reserved for the guardian and the guardian's family. Only when you or a member of your family enters will it come to life as it did a few minutes ago. To all others, it will appear dark as pitch." 


"Really?" I asked, considering it, "Cool." I was still a little bewildered by all this, but the thought of having somewhere that only I could enter was very enticing. It seemed that there would be some fringe benefits to being a guardian. Of course, I didn't realize that later it would not be a privilege, but a necessity. For those close to me, there would come a time when this was the only refuge they would have in all the land.

We traveled back around to the front side of Pride Rock and headed up to the promontory where Mufasa, Sarafina, and Ahadi were waiting. "Welcome back Meric." Sarafina greeted. 


"Thanks Saffy." I replied, stepping over to her and nuzzling her cheek. 


Ahadi looked at Rafiki. "He knows then?" he asked. 


The old mandrill nodded, "He does, my king." 


Ahadi nodded, "Very good." 


Mufasa looked curiously at his father. 


"What is it he knows Dad?" he asked. "Simply that he is going to be serving at your side when you become king." Ahadi explained, "It's an ages-old prophecy." 


"What do you mean?" Mufasa asked, "What prophecy? What are you talking about?"


 "I mean that Meric will, in a sense, be ruling Pride Rock as you are." Ahadi explained, "You will still be king, but his authority will be of a different kind than yours. It will be an authority that extends beyond the Pride Lands' borders." 


"Wow..." Sarafina muttered.

Mufasa grinned. "Hey, that's great!" he said, "Never thought I'd get to have my best friend ruling with me!" 


"But..." Everyone looked at me as I looked toward the ground in thought. I looked back up at them after a tense moment. "But what about Taka?" I said finally, "He's not going to like being left out like this." 


"Taka will have a kind of authority as well." Ahadi explained, "He'll be what is known as a 'prince consort'. However, Mufasa will be in command of the pride, and you will be responsible for protecting the Pride Lands themselves. Taka will serve under the two of you, and under the queen." 


"The queen?" Mufasa asked, "Who's that gonna' be?" 


Ahadi laughed. "Now, you didn't expect me to not find out, did you?" he asked. 


"Find out what?" Mufasa inquired. 


Ahadi grinned, "That you asked Sarabi to be your queen." 


Mufasa's cheeks flushed a deep rosy shade. "Well... err..."

"And just when were you planning on telling me this?" I asked, feigning offense. 


"Well... I wasn't exactly going to tell anyone yet." Mufasa said in a low, embarrassed tone of voice, "I kinda' wanted to keep it a secret until it was made official, on the day I become king."


 "Ahh..." I said.


 A sudden, mischievous grin appeared on Mufasa's face as he looked at me. "You mean to tell me you haven't asked Saffy to be your mate yet?" he asked. 


I stepped back a bit, startled, "Well... I uh..." Sarafina giggled. I blushed.


I looked around, desperately searching for a way out of answering. Then I had it. Taka was coming back from the direction of the water hole, and though it was hard to tell, he didn't look to be in a very good mood. 


"I wonder what happened to Taka at the water hole." I said, relieved to not have to answer the question. 


"Huh?" Mufasa looked in the direction I indicated, "He doesn't seem to be in any big hurry to get back." 


I threw a sideways glance at Sarafina before looking back at Mufasa, "Is he ever?" 


Mufasa shrugged, "Point."


We headed to the edge of the promontory and waited as Taka approached. In the distance behind him, I could see a single form, though whether it was Killer or Zulu, or some other animal that had nothing to do with the situation whatsoever was impossible for me to tell. "You think he'll get here before lunch?" I asked, turning to Muffy.


 "Hard to tell." Mufasa answered. 


"Maybe we should go meet him?" Sarafina suggested. I shook my head.


 "I don't think so. He doesn't look in the mood for company." 


"Well, it doesn't matter, because he's getting it." Mufasa said, a determined look in his eyes. 


I realized that arguing with him was pointless. He was too strong-willed, so I went along down into the plains. Sarafina wisely decided that now would be a good time to go see if her mother needed anything in the den.

Boy, were Mufasa and I in for a surprise when we reached Taka. He had his head to the ground, but even then, we could see the blood dripping from his face. 


"Taka... Brother... What happened?" Mufasa asked.


Taka looked up and we recoiled. His gazed at us through narrowed eyes, his teeth partially bared... Moreover, blood was almost literally pouring from his left eye. "I don't want to talk about it." he said, hissing through his teeth in pain. He just went past and headed for Pride Rock. Mufasa and I followed. 


"We'd better get to Rafiki's tree and have him look at your eye." Mufasa advised. 


"Save your pity." Taka muttered, "I'm fine." 

"But that could become a scar if it isn't treated properly!" Mufasa argued. 


"I said save your pity, Mufasa." Taka growled, "I'll deal with it." 


"But Taka-" 


"I think it would be best to do as he says." I interrupted, "Taka's not going to budge on this one." 


"That brother of mine is too stubborn for his own good." Mufasa murmured under his breath. 


I had to agree. "Well, I'm not going to argue with you there." I told him, "But I think there's more behind it than simple bull-headedness." 


"Like what?" Mufasa asked. "I don't know..." I said, "I guess it's something that looked like anger... Maybe some sadness and bitterness mixed in there." 


"How do you know that?" Mufasa inquired. I shrugged. "I don't know." I said, "Some kind of gift or something. Rafiki said that's part of being what he called the 'Guardian of the Pride Lands'." 


Mufasa chuckled, "Boy... Today is just full of surprises.

About this time I happened to look back to see Zulu rapidly approaching. She was breathing heavily, and perspiration dotted her forehead. Her eyes were wide, as if she'd just received the fright of her life. "Hey Zulu!" I greeted, "Where's Killer?" 


Mufasa threw a surprised glance at me, "Silent Killer? The Outlander?" 


"The very one."


 "He headed home." Zulu said, "I guess he was pretty upset."


 "How come?" I asked.


 "Well..." Zulu hesitated.


 "C'mon Zulu. How come he's so upset?" I pushed.


 "Because he got into a fight with Taka." Zulu answered. Now Mufasa and I both exchanged shocked glances. 


I turned back to Zulu, "Is that how Taka got the slash on his eye?"

Zulu nodded, "Yeah. See... Killer and I were sitting by the water hole, talking about this and that. I guess Taka was watching or something, because Killer leaned over and kissed me.... And next thing we knew, Taka had jumped out of some hiding place and landed on top of him, calling him a traitor." 


"That sounds like my brother alright." Mufasa muttered. 


"What happened then Zulu?" I asked, ignoring the remark. 


"It just fell apart from there." Zulu answered, "Killer pushed him off and stood up... They yelled at each other and then Taka started attacking him again." 


"His temper got the best of him in other words." I said. 

"Right." Zulu nodded, "Anyway, Killer ended up slashing Taka's eye. Taka yelled that Killer would pay and then stormed off. Killer stormed off in the other direction."

"This is not good." Mufasa said darkly.


 "How come?" I asked him. 


"There are three laws every prince is taught from birth that have remained since the ancient days." Mufasa answered, "The first is specifically given to kings and future kings. It says that a king respects all life in his land, whatever its form, and makes decisions for the good of all, not just for himself. The second is the one that worries me. It names a penalty for spilling royal blood." 


"And that is?"


 "Exile." Mufasa said, "If Killer was to be convicted and exiled... He could never come back to the Pride Lands. If he did, he'd face death." 


"And just out of curiosity, what's the third?" I asked.


 "Well... The third says that the penalty for killing one of royal blood is immediate death." Mufasa said, "So at least Killer has a chance to live." 


"Maybe..." I said, "You think that's what Taka was talking about?" 


"Maybe." Mufasa replied. 


"But he only did it in self-defense!" Zulu protested, "He can't be sentenced for that!" She was usually quiet, more so than anyone else I'd known. It disturbed me to hear her raising her voice to that level.


"He won't be." I assured her, "It's not like he did anything wrong."


 "I hope you're right." Zulu sniffed, "I really do." 


I smiled at her, moving over and nuzzling her cheek. "You have feelings for Killer... Don't you." I said. 


Zulu started. "Well... I didn't really think so at first, but... Well... As we were talking and then when he leaned over and kissed me..." she seemed to have a thousand different thoughts going at once, "Well... Yeah... I do." 


I smiled, "Heh. Brother's intuition I guess." 


"Maybe." Mufasa grinned behind me, "Maybe."

We headed back to Pride Rock, noticing sporadic drops of Taka's blood on the ground and rocks as we went. We headed up the ledge and entered the den to find... Ahadi's stern face looking at us. Taka was in the rear of the den where Uru and a couple of the other lionesses were trying to comfort him, or at least convince him to seek attention for his eye. "What happened to my son?" the king asked us, his eyes narrowed, his voice barely kept low, "What happened to Taka?" 


Zulu explained again her version of what had happened. "So you expect me to believe that Taka was the one who attacked first?" Ahadi asked, "Zulu, you should know Outlanders can't be trusted!" 


"But it's the truth!" Zulu argued.

"It is not." Taka said, coming forward, "Stop covering for your boyfriend Zulu. He attacked me first and that's all there is to it." 


"He did not!" Zulu insisted. 


This was getting nowhere fast. I spoke up. "Um... Ahadi. If I may?" 


All eyes fell on me and I suddenly felt very small. "Yes, Meric." Ahadi said, "What is it?" 


"Well... I suppose this whole situation was kind of my fault." I said, "I'm the one who told Taka where to find Killer and he stormed off. He was upset, so it seems more likely that he began the confrontation... Besides that... Well... It's just something in his eyes. It's hard to explain." 


Taka snorted, "Whatever Whitey. You weren't there." 


"Maybe." I said, "But I don't think Zulu is lying. She has no reason." 


"Other than the fact that she's all lovey-dovey with him?" Taka asked mockingly. Zulu blushed. 


"Taka, that isn't nice!" Mufasa said. 


"The truth rarely is." Taka replied. 


"Enough!" Ahadi said, "It is the word of Meric and Zulu against that of you, Taka. You are my son, but under the circumstances, I have to be fair and declare the Outlander, Silent Killer innocent of any wrongdoing. You're going to need to pick your fights more carefully." "But Dad-"Taka began to protest. 


"No buts Taka." Ahadi replied, "My decision is final." 


"Whitey always gets his way." Taka scowled. He went into the back and sulked. From that day on, I began to see Taka disappearing. What he had been began to give way to what he was becoming, a darkness I could give only one name, "Scar."


XXV. Lesson under the Stars...

Time passed. My friends and I continued to live and grow at Pride Rock under the careful guidance of Uru and Ahadi, as well as under the care of the mothers, Dala and Merlu. I continued to grow under Rafiki's teaching as well. Zulu and Killer became nearly inseparable, spending much of their time together as their relationship bloomed. And just as their relationship bloomed like a beautiful lily, Sarabi and Mufasa's relationship, and Sarafina's and my relationship bloomed as well.  Nearly three years had passed since the day of the fallout. We were almost fully grown, and Ahadi and Uru realized that it would soon be time for them to step down... and to pass on. One night, my friends and I lay out on the promontory, looking up at the stars that twinkled in the opaque sky, looking like diamonds against some rich, human woman's dress.

Mufasa and Sarabi, and Sarafina and I laid side-by-side, about mid-way toward the edge. Zulu and Killer however had decided to head up to the peak and watch the stars from there. Leaning on my shoulder, Sarafina gave a contented sigh. "Have you ever seen a more beautiful night?" she asked, somewhat quietly. 


I shook my head. "Not in a very long time." I said. I turned to look at Mufasa.

In the past few years, he had grown quite a bit. His nearly full, dark brown mane hung over his shoulders, flowing elegantly like the robes of a grand ruler. He'd become heavily muscled, owing much to his training. Sarabi leaned on his shoulder. 


"What about you Muffy?" I asked him. 


"It has been a long time." Mufasa agreed. 


"And I think tonight is just right for my final lesson." said a voice. I looked back to see the aging figure of king Ahadi. His mane had grown streaked with grey, and he was losing some of his bulk. 


"Good evening Ahadi." I said, giving a nod. 


"Meric." Ahadi acknowledged. 


Uru came out of the den and stood beside him. "Mufasa dear, would you please come with us?" she asked. 


"Uh... Sure." Mufasa said, sounding and most likely feeling clueless as to what 'lesson' his parents were referring.

Giving Sarabi a lick on the cheek, he stood and followed his parents. Together the little family headed down the path into the darkened plains, soon disappearing from the site of those who waited on Pride Rock.


-------------------

For a while, Mufasa, Ahadi, and Uru walked in silence. Mufasa was acting almost like he was still a cub, rushing ahead every so often and calling for his parents to race after him, but they would only smile and continue at their steady pace, apparently not in a big rush. Needless to say, Mufasa was dumbstruck. He couldn't, for the life of him, figure out why his parents weren't acting like they had in the past. Looking at their faces, he could see that they were solemn looking, almost sad. He strode back to them. "Is something the matter?" he asked in a concerned tone. 


Ahadi shook his head. "No." he replied, "Everything is fine." Mufasa tried to inquire further, but Ahadi only told Mufasa that he would find out soon.


Finally, the group reached a comfortable place. The grass here was relatively short and patches of dirt were seen sporadically throughout the area. It was here that they stopped. Ahadi and Uru sat down and waited for the somewhat overanxious Mufasa to join them. "So what's this big lesson?" Mufasa asked as he sat down, his eyes darting back and forth to each one of his parents in anticipation. 


Ahadi took a deep breath. "It will be your final lesson, my son." he said. 


Mufasa looked confused, "What?" 


"Your mother and I are getting too old to carry on anymore Mufasa." Ahadi said, "Soon it will be time for you to take your place as king." 


Tears entered Mufasa's eyes, "But... I won't become king until... Until you die." Ahadi didn't say anything, giving a nod as his only response. Mufasa's eyes widened. "Mom... Dad... You aren't saying...!" he declared in shock, "I mean, you aren't going to die are you?! I can't go on alone!"

Uru smiled softly at her son. "Oh, my darling son, you will never be alone." she consoled him, "You have Meric and Sarabi and everyone else at your side." 


"But I don't want anyone else." Mufasa said quietly, "I just want you." 


"And so it will be." Ahadi answered him, "Even when we are gone from this world, we will always be with you." 


"How?"  


"Because we are a part of you." Ahadi told him, "And we will always be there to help you along." He stood and stepped to his son's side. "Look Mufasa. Look up at the stars." he said. Mufasa complied and looked up, his eyes gazing in wonder over the countless points of light. "The great kings of the past look down on us from those stars." Ahadi continued, "Even during the day, when we cannot watch them they are ever-watchful over us." 


"Wow..." Mufasa whispered. 


"Whenever you feel alone," the king continued, "just remember that those kings will always be there to guide you, and so will I."

Mufasa nodded, but the thought of his parents' death still saddened him. Uru moved to Mufasa's side and sat down as Ahadi had done. Mufasa looked at them with tears in his normally sparkling eyes. For what seemed the longest time the three sat together, gazing up into the inky blackness of space, gazing at each one of the stars and naming them. A gentle breeze whispered comforting words to them, but one thing was always in the forefront of Ahadi's mind, and he knew it would not be long now... Just a few more hours.

-------------------


The hours passed. The evening stretched on. Back at Pride Rock, Sarabi slept fitfully. Something was wrong. The young lioness was almost certain of it. Awakening every couple of hours, she would look around the den and find that Ahadi, Uru, and Mufasa had not yet returned home. She would pace back and forth, wondering what had happened to them, trying to calm herself back to sleep. Mufasa and his parents never stayed out this late and she was becoming more worried with each passing hour. 


This went on the entire night, and I awoke the next morning, around dawn, to find an extremely agitated and downright exhausted-looking Sarabi pacing yet again. "They're still not back yet?" I asked her. 


Sarabi shook her head. "No... I really hope they're alright." her voice was calm, but even with my rudimentary skills, I could look in her eyes and see that inside she was a tangle of emotion: worry, anger, sadness.... And so many others. It seemed that was taking more of a toll on her than anything else. She paced a few more times, as the rest of the pride began to awaken. 


"Something must have happened." she said anxiously, "We need to arrange a search party to go look for them."


"Now hold on... Let's not be so hasty about this." I said, "We don't even know for sure yet that they're in any danger." 


"But what else could have kept them?" Sarabi insisted, beginning to break down, "They've never been gone for this long before." 


"Let's just head out and wait for him on the ledge." I suggested, "Just a little longer." Sarabi looked around at the others, as if hoping someone would give her reason not to. Finding none, however, she turned to me and nodded her head.

Together Sarabi and I headed out, sat on the promontory, and looked out over the Pride Lands. "Morning guys!" The sound of Zulu's cheery voice caused us to jump in surprise. We turned to see her standing with a big grin on her face. Her brown pelt had grown sleek and glossy, and the patches on her fur had darkened visibly. 


"Morning Zulu." the two of us said in unison. 


"Why the big grin?" I asked. 


"Well... We were up on the peak last night." Zulu said, "And Killer and I were talking... About his upbringing and our hopes for the future mainly. And then... Almost from out of the blue, he looked into my eyes and asked if I would be his mate!" 


"His mate?! Are you serious?!" Sarabi asked, seeming to forget her anxieties for the moment.

"Sure am." Zulu replied, "I told him yes."


"That's wonderful!" Sarabi exclaimed, "Congratulations!" Zulu blushed and nodded her head. Sarabi turned her head and looked back out over the Pride Lands, as if suddenly remembering why we'd come out here in the first place. "I only hope my Mufasa returns soon." she said. I turned and looked with her, as did Zulu.

Then we saw a single, shadowed figure moving across the plains. Surely, it wasn't Mufasa, was it? We didn't have to wait long to find out. Soon, with dark circles under his eyes, Mufasa had joined us on the promontory. "Mufasa!" Sarabi cried, running to him and buried her cheek in his hazel mane. Mufasa paused and nuzzled her. "Where've you been?" she asked, "I was so worried." 


"I was... In the plains with Mom and Dad." Mufasa said hesitantly, "We decided to spend the night together." Something didn't add up. He wasn't telling us the whole story. I knew that much. 


I walked over to him. "Where are they?" I questioned him, "Will they be along soon?" 


Mufasa took a deep breath, a tear dripping down his muzzle, "No... They won't be coming home... Ever again." 



 XXVI. Mufasa's Reign Begins...

Zulu, Sarabi and I sat facing Mufasa with a shocked expression on our faces. "Not coming home?!" I asked, "What do you mean they're not coming home?"


 "Exactly what I said." Mufasa replied, "Mom and Dad aren't coming home. They're gone." 


"Gone?!" Sarabi gasped, "You mean... Dead?" 


Mufasa shook his head. "No. They aren't dead." he explained, "They're just... Gone... They left." 


"What do you mean?" I asked again, getting a bit tired of what I these ambiguous answers.

Mufasa sighed, a far-off look appearing on his face as he thought back, "Well... We were out in the plains, looking up at the stars. Mom and Dad told me that night's lesson would be the final one before they left. When that was done we just sat there for awhile, but I was tired, so Dad told me I should lay down and get some sleep. He said I had a big day today... I guess they left while I was asleep. I didn't know that was what he'd meant."

Glistening tears slowly began descending from the young prince's eyes. Gasping in surprise and pity for Mufasa, Sarabi stepped over and rubbed her muzzle against his cheek. "Oh, Mufasa... I'm so sorry." True to her usually quiet nature, Zulu was silent as well but she nodded her head. 


I too was silent for a time. I realized in that moment that Mufasa had lost his parents just as I had lost mine... The pain and anxiety that filled his heart then would have been obvious to me even if I'd not been able to see them. He sat, sobbing quietly as Sarabi and Zulu did their best to comfort him. Zulu too had lost so much... I realized that now more than ever we needed one another, Mufasa, Zulu and I. Yes, it was true that Merlu and Dala were still around, but they were aging, and their time would soon come as well.... Perhaps sooner than any of us wanted to admit.


A few seconds later, Sarafina stepped from the den. She noticed Mufasa's sorrow and requested an explanation. Quickly, I brought her up to date as best I could. "Oh..." she said, digesting the information, "I had no idea... guess... I guess that means Mufasa is king now."

Great loping antelope! I had forgotten all about that, and evidently, everyone else had too. "Good morning your majesty!" Okay... I was wrong. Maybe not everyone had forgotten.


-------------------


Apparently, Zazu had been keeping up with events better than we had. He had been going about his usual routine, flying over the Pride Lands and gathering information for the morning report to the king when he had encountered Ahadi and Uru as they neared the eastern borders. When they had informed him that they were leaving, he had sadly but dutifully bade them farewell and then flown off to ready the kingdom for Mufasa's coronation ceremony. We were the last in line. 


"The kingdom shall be assembled soon Sire." the hornbill reported, having alighted on the ground in the middle of our little group, "Shall I wake the pride?"

Mufasa grimaced, unnerved by the hornbill's seemingly detached attitude. "Um... No Zazu. I'll take care of that." he said, "Why don't you get ready." Nodding, the hornbill turned and flapped off to ready himself.

It wasn't long before Zazu's words indeed proved true. The entire kingdom turned out to see Mufasa take his place as king. Zebras galloped, savannah hares hopped, hippos swam as far as they could before taking to land and joining the rest, elephants plodded slowly toward Pride Rock, their very movements shaking the earth. Snakes slithered, and antelopes loped. Crocodiles stayed toward the back of the crowd, preferring to stay as close to the water as possible. Monkeys by the dozens caught rides with larger creatures as they passed, and there were countless birds on the wing from just about every possible species in the land. I hadn't seen such a gathering since Mufasa's presentation all those years ago.


The pride itself gathered toward the sides of the promontory and along the ledge leading up to it. Closest to the den were Sarafina and I. Taka was next, though he was looking none too happy. Then came Zulu and Killer (yes, even he'd turned out to see Mufasa's kingship established). After that came Dala and Merlu and then the rest of the pride filled out the available space, creating an artificial aisle to the promontory's front edge.

Even now, clouds were gathering, threatening rain. However, despite all they could do the sun still shown brightly down, warming the land and creating a majestic setting. 


Soon an awed silence fell over the crowd as carrying his staff with him, the old mandrill Rafiki approached and climbed up the ledge, stopping along the way to give a light bow to each of the pride's members, each of them giving a respectful bow in return. As he stepped to the promontory and toward the den, he did the same, each of us responding in the appropriate fashion.

Judging by the look on Killer's face, it pained him to bow to another, even if it was only out of courtesy. Growing up in the Outlands, he'd been taught to look out for number one and had never been taught real manners. He wasn't accustomed to this kind of ceremony. Nevertheless, the opening of the proceedings went off without a hitch. 

Rafiki entered the den and reappeared a moment later, leading a very nervous-looking Mufasa and his queen-to-be, Sarabi toward the promontory. "You're doing great." I whispered to him. Managing a smile, Mufasa nodded in appreciation.

Rafiki stopped short of the edge and gestured for Mufasa and Sarabi to continue. The two continued on to the edge and stopped. The clouds parted and a beam of sunlight shot through, shining down on the young couple. Taking a deep breath, Mufasa took another step forward and let out a mighty roar, a roar which was soon followed by Sarabi's and then by the rest of the pride. Again, Mufasa roared and again Sarabi and the pride responded, now joined by the choruses of the thousands of creatures down below as they acknowledged that Mufasa was indeed now their king and Sarabi, their queen. This occurred three more times before everything finally calmed down again.

"Thank you all for coming." Mufasa announced, "I love this land, my home, and to you, and this pride, I make this solemn vow. This is my kingdom, and I will protect it, no matter the cost!" The cheers and trumpets that erupted then, nearly drowned out his last three words. Mufasa had to wait until the animals all calmed down to continue. "To that end," he continued once all was quiet again, "It has been appointed to me to instate a new post in the Pride Lands hierarchy." He back to face me, "Meric, will you please step forward?" 


-------------------


Well, I had been expecting Mufasa to announce my appointment to the kingdom, but not so soon. It was rather surprising. Apparently, he wanted to get right down to business.


Nodding, I stepped forward to join him and Sarabi. "This is Meric." Mufasa continued, facing the crowd once more, "It has been appointed to him, by divine providence and by kingly authority, the responsibility of caring for the land even when I am at last gone. From this day forward, you will know him as: 'Meric, Guardian of the Pride Lands'!"

At once cheers erupted from the crowd, "Long live king Mufasa! Long live Queen Sarabi! And long live Guardian Meric!" 


Giving kind of a stupid looking grin (all this attention was very embarrassing), I looked back to see the reactions of the pride. Sarafina was beaming. Merlu and Dala were giving their motherly smiles. Killer was trying to question Zulu about what exactly the Pride Lands' Guardian was, but she only shook her head, indicating that she'd explain later. Most of the other pride members were giving their congratulations to the three of us in some way or another. Were I to list the various ways here, the list would be far too long for this story. And as for Taka? Well... He was sulking, evidently upset that it wasn't him in the lime light. 


"He doesn't know how lucky he is." I thought. Don't get me wrong. It isn't that I wasn't grateful to be appointed as guardian. On the contrary, I was extremely thankful for it. However, what I didn't care for was all this attention so soon. Even if the majority of it was on the young king and queen (as it should be), it was still far more than I was used to.

The crowds cheered us on for what seemed like hours, and even as the throng dissipated and the cheers died away, the pride continued to offer their congratulations and to celebrate, until it was time for the noon hunt.


XXVII. Together at Last...


For the next two weeks or so, everything went as steadily as it had before. Though saddened by the loss of Ahadi and Uru, the pride found strength (mostly because of Mufasa's steady leadership) to move on and to continue in prosperity.

Mufasa proved a capable leader, making his decisions after careful consideration, doing what he felt necessary for the Pride Lands to continue prospering. Sarabi stayed by his side almost constantly and quickly proved herself one of the pride's cornerstones. Killer and Zulu left Pride Rock and found a cave a short distance away, where they would be able to live and raise a family for themselves. Sarafina quickly became known as the pride's best huntress, often leading the hunting parties out into the plains. Though not every day brought a kill, we never went hungry, always having enough, yet never taking more than we needed. 


And what of me, you ask? I stayed at Pride Rock, acting mainly as an advisor to Mufasa but doing my best to stay out of the spotlight. I really didn't care for all the attention that I naturally received as guardian.

Taka was the only one who did not really seem to be prospering. The prince consort kept to himself most of the time, rarely socializing with or even spending time around the other pride members. He found a place just under the promontory to call his home and stayed there, becoming more and more dark and distant. I often tried to pull him out of his gloom, but each time he would brush me off just as he had when we were cubs. As my sight became stronger, I could begin to see something very wrong with the now-scrawny lion. There was a darkness entering him. He was holding onto his anger, his hate, his bitterness, his lust for revenge, and it was consuming him. Indeed, Taka was dying, his body seeming to become home to the darkness that now resided there, and the name given him by the pride: Scar, now seemed more fitting than ever. The life of Taka was over. The life of Scar had just begun.


-------------------


Well, that was pretty much how things went, until one morning as I sat on the peak, gazing over the morning sunrise and thinking of all that had happened since I had first come.  "As I look back on this life of mine, I can't believe what I see; So much has happened in such a short time. Even I hardly recognize me." I hummed. 


"Neither do I Meric... None of us do really." said an elderly voice. I turned to see Dala and Merlu strolling toward me, apparently having just come from the promontory below. By the looks of things, they had only just awakened. I certainly hoped I hadn't interrupted their rest.


"Oh... I'm sorry." I apologized, "Did I wake you?"

Merlu shook his head. "No dear." she said in her motherly tone, "We have come to the peak to gaze upon the dawn's first light for as long as we can remember. And for a time, your mother did as well. It was a time of reflection for all of us, and a time for sharing. Even with your mother gone, we still continue the tradition in her honor, and know that though she is gone, a part of her remains with us still. For we loved her as you love Zulu, as a sister."


Mother... How I missed her. Simply hearing of her made me want to weep. I knew the words they spoke were true. I knew that she lived on through each and every life she had touched in this land, and yet to know that she was gone... It hurt more than you can imagine. Yet, it felt strangely comforting to know that others shared pain of her loss, perhaps not in the same capacity as I, but they had lost someone they loved as well. Perhaps, I decided, the burden of pain was easier to bear when carried by many, instead of being carried alone.


Understanding, I nodded. I turned to look back over the horizon, pretty much ignoring the presence of the mothers for now. I'd had allot on my mind lately. Being the Guardian was a big responsibility, and it was hard to adjust, even as time went on. It was allot to take in, that when I had first come I'd been nothing more than a carefree cub that looked forward to growing up one day and leaving... Maybe starting a pride of my own somewhere... Yet in one day, everything had changed, and I found myself saddled with an immense task.

That wasn't the only thing on my mind though. Sarafina had also been on my mind allot lately as well. For some time now, I had been trying to work up courage enough to ask her to become my bride. Mufasa teased me endlessly about it, and Sarabi prodded me forward as best she could. However, it wasn't as easy for me as they thought it should be. I didn't know why. The thought, though welcomed, also tended to make me apprehensive. I felt as though I could barely handle the responsibilities I had now. Was I ready to take on more, to start a family of my own? I didn't think I was. 


Being both a mother, and the most empathetic member of the pride, Dala sensed how I felt. When I had returned, she had essentially adopted me as one of her own, and had always been there for me. She knew when something wasn't right.

"Do you want to talk about it Meric?" she asked, padding over to my side.

I hesitated. If it wasn't easy for me to think about, it was even harder for me to share with others. "I guess I was just thinking about Saffy." I sighed, "I've been trying to build courage enough to propose to her for so long now... But I can't. I don't feel like I'm ready. I want to ask. I really do. But... I just don't know if I could handle it."

Dala smiled. "I know it's a scary thing, taking on new roles and new responsibilities." she replied, "It's never easy either. Some of the toughest times you will face will be in the life of your family, and there's no real way you can prepare for them. You will face anger, sorrow, bitterness, pain, and yes, sometimes even hate, but in the end, the love and the joy you experience far outweigh any of them. I think that you'll find that when at last you look back on your life, on your family, you'll acknowledge to yourself that you would do it all again." She paused for a moment, letting me consider all of this, "And believe you me, these things are no easier for Sarafina than for you. She will face many trials during her life just as you will. She will find the strength.... As will you... In..." She stopped.

"In what?" I asked.

Dala took a deep breath, as though trying to decide the best way to say what was on her mind. "There are very few who know of this Meric: Rafiki, Merlu, and me." she answered, "But... There is something between you and Sarafina, something that has been there since the day the two of you were born. I can only describe it as a.... As a bond."


"What?!"


 "Somehow, your lives, your destinies, perhaps even your very souls are linked together by it. The love the two of you share augments it, makes it stronger. That is where the two of you will draw strength from: from the bond, and from one another. You are meant to be together Meric."

"I... I guess you're right." I said, "But... I still don't feel like I'm ready."

Dala smiled gently. "Take my advice Meric." she said, "Go speak with Sarafina. Perhaps then the two of you will find the path ahead easier to walk, together."

I sighed heavily. "Okay." I replied, "I hope you're right Dala."


-------------------

There was a place by the water hole that Sarafina and I had deemed our ‘special place'.  It sat in the shade of the swaying palm trees a few yards from the sparkling waters. Yet it still received enough light to allow beautiful star lilies and aloe plants to grow. Colorful birds made their nests in those branches, and their songs filled the air. Overall, it was a very pleasant... Almost magical grove.

It was here that Sarafina and I would spend much of our time, talking, reminiscing about times past, and even playing as though we were still cubs... Never did we feel as carefree as when we spent time together in this place, so it was no surprise when I found her here, laying in the shade and looking over the crystal pool.


A warm breeze whispered through the boughs of the palms, the swaying leaves allowing flecks of light to dance on the ground and on Sarafina's fur. By the looks of it, she was drowsy. She looked up as I approached.

"Oh. Hi there Meric." she said quietly, "What brings you out here?"

"Trouble as usual." I grinned. She glowered playfully. "Naw. Just kidding." I said, "I just came out here because I figured this was where you'd be."

Sarafina's ears perked in interest. "Oh really?" she asked, "How come you were looking for me?" It was evident from her tone that she was curious about the matter.

"Erm... Well... Just to talk." I replied, "Kinda'... Like usual."

There was no hiding my emotions from Saffy though. She and I had gotten to know one another well enough that we could read each other like open books. Nevertheless, Sarafina was still a cub at heart, and so she decided to play along. "What is it you want to talk about?" she asked rather coyly, "Come on over and sit down."

Tentatively, I moved over to her side and sat. A moment of awkward silence passed, as I looked over the water, trying to avoid Sarafina's gaze for just a moment. I needed to find the right words. 


Her angelic voice pulled me out of it. "Meric?" she asked, "Are you alright?"


"Yeah... Yeah. I'm alright." I said, turning my head, finding myself meeting with those perfect eyes of hers, "In fact... I don't think I could be any better. Sarafina... When I'm with you... Everything is just... So... So lovely, so perfect." I could have sworn that she was blushing beneath her fur at that moment. Without knowing exactly what to say, I plunged on, "Sarafina... I've known you for as long as I can remember. When we were cubs, you were my best friend. You were there for me even when I resented it.... And even when my Mother was killed you were at my side, doing your best to comfort me..." I paused, awaiting her reaction, but there was none, well... Other than perhaps an awed silence. "In these past few years... I've found that you've grown to be more to me than just a friend. I love you... More than I ever thought possible, and without you, I am incomplete. Saffy.... I was hoping that... Perhaps you would give me the honor of becoming my bride."


There was no mistaking the look of pleased shock that came over Sarafina's features then. Her lips twisted upward in a wide grin. Her eyes were wide, their icy depths twinkling like the brightest of stars. A moment of quiet passed between the two of us as a sweet scented breeze whispered through the above branches of the trees.

Finally, Sarafina stood and faced me, bringing her nuzzle to rub against my own. "Of course I will, Meric." she answered, "I love you more than words can describe. Yes, I will be your mate."

There is no way to describe to you the way my heart soared just then. At last, Sarafina, the love of my life and I were to be mated to one another, to spend the rest of our days together. Dala had been right. I could see that Sarafina was nervous as I about beginning this new journey, and yet somehow, we knew we would find the strength through one another to carry on, no matter the difficulties that would lie in our path.

It was very soon after that, the official announcement to the pride was made, the announcement that Sarafina and I were mates, together at last.

XXVIII. The Circle Continues... (Epilogue)

For a time after that, the Pride lands entered an era of great peace and prosperity. Mufasa and Sarabi reigned with wisdom and compassion, and the land benefited from their decisions. Soon the pride was expecting not one, not two, but three new births. Very soon, Sarabi, Sarafina, and Zulu would give birth. The pride was overjoyed to hear the news. Nevertheless, the times mentioned in prophecy, those of trial, were not far off. Soon... Very soon, the Pride Lands would face their greatest of trials. Blood would be spilt. The land would all but die... The prophecy was soon to come true, and even today, I do not believe that any of us were truly prepared. But of course, that story is for another day....


Nants ingonyama bagithi baba 

 Sithi uhhmm ingonyama 

Nants ingonyama bagithi baba 

Sithi uhhmm ingonyama 

Ingonyama 

Siyo Nqoba 

Ingonyama Ingonyama nengw' enamabala 

Ingonyama Ingonyama nengw' enamabala

Ingonyama Ingonyama nengw' enamabala

Ingonyama Ingonyama nengw' enamabala

Ingonyama Ingonyama nengw' enamabala

Ingonyama nengw' enamabala (Se-to-kwa!) 

Ingonyama nengw' enamabala (Asana) 

From the day we arrive on the planet 

And, blinking, step into the sun 

There's more to see than can ever be seen 

More to do than can ever be done 

There's far too much to take in here 

More to find than can ever be found 

But the sun rolling high 

Through the sapphire sky

 Keeps great and small on the endless round 

It's the Circle of Life

 And it moves us all 

Through despair and hope

 Through faith and love 

Till we find our place

 On the path unwinding 

 In the Circle 

The Circle of Life 


TO BE CONTINUED....