This is just a continuation of my TLK III. It just describes what happened to Taraju. You can either read this one first, or the other; it doesn’t make much difference. And now, the boring legal stuff. Kovu, Nala, Vitani, Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba are all copyrighted to Disney. Sicwele, Dingane, Mpande, Asari, Shetani, and Gakan (last two not mentioned by name), as well as the sequence from the story Goodbye, all belong to Roger Byrum, a.k.a. spottedhyena, and are used with his permission. Taraju, Akasare, Fujo, Tumai, Ghera, Shujaa, Haja, Kwanza, and Mvushi are all my characters, and not to be used without my permission. All comments are welcome at conor0191@aol.com.

 

 

Morals

 

Prologue

 

            Taraju was cowering in the back of the den. He could hear roars and yowls coming from outside it, and a moon shining over it, blissfully unaware of the battle below it. Every lion in there with him had a face filled with fear, along with a cheetah. There was a meercat and a warthog trembling next to a pair of lionesses. Several lionesses were on the floor, bleeding, looking as if they had gone through a stampede. He was in front of a group of cubs, all huddled in a corner.

            “They’ve broken through, they’ve broken through!” He turned his head to see a lioness shouting at the cave entrance. He saw the lioness get slammed to the ground by a cheetah. Ten more rushed in, led by a huge one. The lionesses immediately charged the cheetahs, several of them getting swatted down in the first assault, along with the cheetah that had already been in the den. It became clear to the cheetahs that they couldn’t keep up the assault, as first one fell, then two more. They did their best to avoid the able lionesses and rushed around, trying to kill the wounded and elderly, ones they knew they could take. It was obvious that had been told to take as many lionesses with them as possible. When there were no more handicapped lionesses to kill, the rest turned their attention on the other lionesses. One swatted the meercat into a wall, the warthog joining him shortly. The lionesses slowly fell to the cheetahs, taking all but two with them. When the last lioness finally fell, the two remaining cheetahs looked around the cave. It couldn’t have taken more than two minutes. The bigger one went over to the cheetah who had been in the den before the attack started, kicked him.

            “My brother, the traitor.” He noticed the fallen cheetah still was breathing. He raised a paw to strike him.

            “Simba’s coming!” shouted the other cheetah from the mouth of the den. The bigger one swiped at his brother in frustration, knocking him a foot across the ground.

            “We can’t stay here. They’re stronger than we thought.” The bigger cheetah looked around the den, noticed the cubs sitting in the corner. “Well, look what we missed.” He smiled and advanced on them. Taraju and the others tried to back farther into the corner.

            “He’s at the base!”

            “Just take one of the cubs and run! We’ll decide what to do with them later.” He lunged forward, catching a dark-skinned cub in his jaws. The other cheetah was right behind him. He picked up Taraju, lifted him off the ground. Taraju’s world spun around him, making him nauseous as his cheetah swung Taraju around as he turned to face the bigger cheetah. “Go! You first!”

            Taraju’s cheetah ran through a hole in the back of the den. He heard a roaring fill the den as he left it. He suddenly was out of the den, the bigger cheetah right behind him, followed closely by a lion. They all ran. Finally, the lion jumped onto the larger cheetah, sinking his claws into him. Taraju saw the cheetah bite down on his cub in pain, then threw him aside as he turned to face the lion.

            “Fujo!” The scream came unbidden from Taraju’s throat. His cheetah clamped down on him, drilling his teeth into him and forcing him into silence. The cheetah kept running, as far and fast as he could. Taraju bounced along in silence. They reached the Outlands. The cheetah finally stopped at the edge of a gorge. Taraju could hear another voice.

            “Where’s Ghera?” Taraju looked up to see another cheetah growling at his.

            “Dead,” Taraju’s cheetah spat around Taraju.

            “What? He is dead and instead of trying to save him you bring this . . . this thing?!”

            “Ghera asked me to.”

            “Fool!” The cheetah slapped Taraju’s cheetah in the face. Taraju’s cheetah bit down on Taraju in pain, although it was nothing compared to what Taraju felt in having teeth bored through him. Taraju screamed in pain, began to cry. The second cheetah shot Taraju a look of disgust and hit him from the cheetah’s mouth, sending Taraju hurtling into the gorge. Taraju heard his cheetah yell “NO!” He hit the ground. Everything went black.

 

 

 

Chapter I: Learning

 

            I woke. I felt pain coursing through my body. Every time I so much as twitched I was overwhelmed by it. Even breathing hurt. Especially breathing. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel, but I knew this wasn’t it. I slowly got to my feet, hurting every inch of the way. I looked around. I was in a place with high walls. Really high walls. I wanted something. Words popped into my head. Food. Water. Nourishment. The picture of a carcass came to me. I decided to look for it. I took a step with my right leg and immediately picked it up. Pain had shot through it when I had put weight on it. I looked down at it. It hurt, but it looked fine. I didn’t understand. I felt tears come to my eyes, stream down my face. I slowly limped down the path between the two walls, making slow progress with only three legs. Every step jolted the injured leg a little, causing it to sear with pain.

            After what seemed like days, but couldn’t have been more than hours, I found a path leading up the side of one of the walls. I walked up it, not having seen anything between the walls. I finally came to the top of the wall and looked out. Everything was a reddish orange. I couldn’t see anyone as far as I looked. I saw almost no plants. I started walking away from the chasm I had been in, looking for something to moisten my throat. I climbed a hill to see a pool of water at the bottom. I walked tried to walk down to it but slipped. I couldn’t keep my balance on something that steep with only three legs. I fell down the hill, my leg killing me all the way, landing in the pool.

            The first mistake I made was breathing. All I inhaled was a bunch of water, all going down the wrong pipe. I spluttered, trying to get it out. When I finally stopped coughing, I stuck my head down by the surface and drank, taking as much water as I could with every lick. I could hear it slosh audibly around in my stomach. I looked around, trying to make out things in the darkness that had replaced the light. I saw some of the reeds and their leaves in the water, the first plants I had seen anywhere. I limped over to them and lied down. I grabbed one with my paw and slowly put it in my mouth, taking it piece by piece. I laid my head down, exhausted. I closed my eyes turned over, my leg causing me to yelp in pain.  I immediately stopped trying to turn over and put my leg back on the ground. I laid my leg gently down, trying to move it as little as possible. Sleep slowly overtook me.

 

 

 

            The next couple of weeks are a blur. I don’t know how long I was sleeping the first time, only that when I woke up it still night. It could have been the same day, the next day, a week from the first day. All I knew was that the hunger and thirst were back. Every time I woke I would always tilt my head to be able to lap up some water, and then took some of the reeds to eat. They didn’t taste right. They never did. I would have gotten up and looked for something else, but it hurt too much to move. I just would put my head back down and go to sleep. One time I felt water dripping on me and looked up to see it falling out of the sky. It didn’t last long.

            Slowly I felt my leg get better. It took a long time before I wanted to move it again. It always hurt so much when I did. I finally did get around to it. It didn’t hurt like before. It hurt to touch it too much, so I stopped. I just lied there, waiting until the pain was gone. Slowly I felt the pain everywhere go away. I couldn’t measure it day by day, but when I look back on it, I know it went away. I began to feel whole.

            One day I decided to just get up. I slowly got to my feet. I tried putting pressure on the bad leg. It held. I took a few steps. It seemed to work fine. I finally left my poolside prison, looking for something new. I didn’t know what it was, I just wanted something. I found a carcass that day. It wasn’t nearly as full as the picture I had. In fact, it was almost empty. I sniffed it. I licked it. I tore a strip off. It was good. It tasted much better than the reeds. I stripped off all the meat I could find on the carcass. I finally finished with it and moved on. Some days I found one. Others I didn’t.

            I kept wandering around, just trying to find more carcasses. It wasn’t much of a life. No, looking back on it, it wasn’t even a life at all; it was just staggering from meal to meal. At least until I found what made the carcasses. I finally found I wasn’t the only one stuck in the middle of the entire barren wasteland. I found some hyenas feeding on a kill. I didn’t know what they were when I found them; I just hoped I could get some. I walked up to them. One of them heard me and turned around, revealing the carcass. It was beautiful at least to me. Granted, it had already been half eaten, but it was still much more than the last hanging-ons I had gotten before. The one that turned around to me grinned.

            “Well, look guys. If it isn’t dessert.” The other hyenas finally stopped eating, looked up at me.

            “Um, hi. Um . . . Could I get some of that?” I asked tentatively.

            “Of course. Why don’t you come just a little bit closer so we can all get a good look at you?” I walked up to them, sat down. I stuck my head toward the kill and noticed the hyena in front of me looking directly over me. I turned around and ducked, barely missing a faceful of claws. I ran. After about a hundred yards I looked back to see them almost on top of me. I ran all the harder. I didn’t know what they meant by it, but I didn’t like it. I finally stopped after what seemed to be a mile and turned around. I could see them walking away from me, back to their kill before someone else would take it. I dropped to the ground, breathing heavily. Amazing what adrenaline can do to you. After that I stayed clear of any animals I saw. It wasn’t too hard. No one seemed to even be in this desolate waste.

            I grew up, drinking what I could, scavenging off of carcasses I could find. I had finally found that they came from herds of animals; I had seen some hyenas working to take one down. I had also seen a few bigger things doing it as well, but alone. I decided that I would try my paw at it when I grew big enough. I finally decided to get one. It wasn’t a choice really. The hyenas had seen me again, and they had decided to stop feeding me. They had decided to strip every last bit of flesh off that they could from the skeleton, leaving me to starve on the bones. For five flea-bitten days this went on. I couldn’t stand the hunger. I had to get an animal, or die trying. I would certainly die if I didn’t.

            I found a herd of antelope on the sixth day. I looked down at them, salivating. Then it suddenly hit me. I had no idea what to do. I thought back to what I had seen the big things doing. They always jumped on an animal and held on to it any way they could, sinking both teeth and claws into the animal. It was all I had to go on. I decided to give it a shot.

            I crept over to the herd, trying to stay out of sight. The smaller ones were three times my size. Even the babies were bigger than me. I remembered the things I had seen had always jumped out of nowhere. I tried it. I moved low to the ground, hearing the dirt shift around me. I stepped on a twig hearing a sharp crack in response. Looking back, with all the noise I made, I’m surprised they didn’t bolt before I even had a chance to get within a mile of them. I finally got within a hundred feet of the herd and rushed at them. They immediately panicked, all of them going in different directions. I lost track of the one I was trying to kill, and decided that should just grab one. I jumped, hoping to find one to latch on to. I hit one and dug my little claws into it. I was knocked off the side by another antelope. I fell to the ground on my side and had a hoof hit me in the stomach. I rolled several feet, getting hit by several more. Finally they had all disappeared. The blows stopped. I laid my head down, exhausted and filled with pain again, the hunger even more intense now.

            I heard pawsteps behind me. I slowly and painfully turned over. I saw two of the big things coming towards me out of the dust that the stampede had kicked up. A word popped into my head. Lion.

            “So this is the little thing that ruins all our plans.” I could see their faces now. Neither one seemed happy. Which was like saying that Scar “failed to meet expectations” as king.

            “Well, if we aren’t going to eat, the least we can do it get rid of this nuisance,” said the one with the black mane.

            “Please, no . . .” I managed to get out. I was almost as badly injured as I was when I first woke up. It hurt to talk. But at least all my legs worked.

            “And why should we?” growled the one with a red mane.

            “I just wanted some food . . . Just give me some food.”

            “Look, little thorn in my side,” said the red one, grabbing my neck, causing my body to cry out in pain when he grabbed it, “we are not the kind of lions you give orders to. We are the kind that you make requests to. Politely.”

            “Dingane,” the black one said.

            “Why?” I choked out. The lion removed his paw from my throat.

            “Why? Why? Do you really have to ask?” the red one said.

            “I don’t understand.” The lion stepped back, looking me over.

            “What’s your name?”

            “Name?”

            “What do animals call you when they meet you?”

            “You’re the first . . . other than some hyenas. They called me dessert.”

            “Oh, my head,” groaned the black one.

            “Look, kid, everyone has a name. I’m Dingane, this is Sicwele, and you are . . .”

            “In pain?” The red one buried his face in his paw. The black one decided to try.

            “Okay, what do you call yourself? You know, when you want to refer to yourself when you’re thinking?”

            “I.”

            “He really doesn’t have one, does he?”

            “Okay, look here nameless,” said the red one, “you use names to tell people apart. If you didn’t, there would be no way to distinguish between each other.”

            “But there’s only you and me and him and the hyenas to distinguish between, right?”

            “Yeah, Dingane, you were right. Let’s just kill him.” The black one advanced toward me. The red one stuck a foreleg out in front of him.

            “Wait a second.”

            “He’s no use to us. You have no sense of value.”

            “And you have no sense of vision. He could get us in. You owe me, remember?”

            “He’s a starved, half-dead runt.”

            “No vision at all.” The red one walked between the black one and me. “Trust me.” He turned to look at me. “So you want some food, right?”

            Yes.”

            “We can get you all the food you’ll ever need. All you have to do is come with us.”

            “Come with you where?”

            “You know, kid, there’s a huge world out there. I’ve got one place in mind. All you have to do is come with me to that place. After that, you can go wherever you want. But if you don’t come with us, you definitely aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. You understand me?”

            I didn’t care. I wanted the food. I struggled to my feet.

            “Good.” The red one turned to the black one. “How about bringing us down one?”

            “Only if you get him straightened out by the time I come back.” The black one walked away. The red watched him go for a minute, then turned back to me.

            “What do you call him?”

            “Huh?”

            “When you refer to him in your head, what do you think?”

            “He just . . . is.”

            “Okay, to distinguish him, you call him Sicwele. When you want to talk about him, you call him that. If you want to talk about me, you call me Dingane.”

            “Oh. Why didn’t you just say so?” The re . . . Dingane I mean, made strangling motions in the air with his paws. He took a deep breath and looked back down at me.

            “Now what do people say when they want to talk to you, Akasare?”

            “I haven’t had anyone to talk to.”

            “Yeah, funny. Now really, what?”

            “You’re the first animals I’ve talked to since the hyenas.”

            Dingane looked at me for a second. He opened his mouth as if to speak, and closed it again. He finally said, “You’re not lying?”

            “No, I’m standing.”

            “Oh, gods here we go again.” He took a deep breath. “If you are lying, you are saying something that isn’t true.”

            “Why would I do that?”

            Dingane opened and closed his mouth several times this time. “Because you don’t want someone to know the truth.” I opened my mouth. “And don’t you dare ask that next question. Just . . . just wait until Sicwele comes back.” He looked back toward the direction Sicwele had gone.

            I flopped back down onto the ground. It still hurt to talk and breathe, even though it didn’t hurt near as much as it did to stand. I saw Dingane look down at me for a second, then he looked back up for Sicwele. After a while I saw his tail stop flickering. I got up slowly and walked around him so I could see better. Sicwele was coming towards us bringing the biggest carcass I had seen in his mouth. He dropped it on the ground.

            “I was lucky they didn’t get too far. Well?”

            “I’m rethinking my values.” They both turned to stare at me.

            “Um . . . Can I—” I started hesitantly.

            “Sure,” muttered Sicwele. I launched myself at the carcass, biting off as much as I could get into my mouth. I swallowed, not even bothering to chew. I was lucky I didn’t kill myself. If it hadn’t been so fresh and had so much blood on it, it never would have eased down my throat.

            “So, how did it go?” I heard Sicwele ask.

            “It’s insane. He knows nothing about nothing. It’s like he only knows the bare minimum of everything. And what he does seem to know is completely random.”

            “Strange. And the name?”

            “Well, now he knows what they are. And he doesn’t have one.”

            “What’d his mother call him?”

            “Damned if I know. I just gave up. You try asking him that. You’ll probably end up with ‘What’s a mother?’ for an answer. Look at him go. You’d think he hadn’t eaten anything this good.”

            “Which is scary, considering this is one of the worst of the herd. Found him hanging off the rear. Couldn’t keep up.” They both stopped for a second. I suppose they were staring at me tearing apart every last bit of that wonderful meal. I didn’t notice; I was deliriously happy. “So how do you expect to use him?”

            “You know Mpande’s soft. He’ll want his little brother back no matter what. And having a poor, helpless little lion like him starving in the Outlands will only make him all the softer. I imagine little Akasare over there has a pretty sad tale to tell, too.”

            “I thought you said he didn’t have a name.”

            “It’s something.”

            “What, ‘little idiot’?

            “‘No-name.’”

            “Apt.” I leaned back from the carcass, unable to eat any more. I had never actually been full. It was an amazing feeling. I smiled, my aches and pains forgotten. I looked up at them. Sicwele was looking at me intently. Dingane was still looking at Sicwele.

            “So all we do is we keep him out here, train him up, and he can do it just fine.”

            “And you’re sure you want this?” asked Sicwele.

            “How many times are you going to ask me that?”

            “Until I don’t doubt you anymore.”

            “I’ve told you everything.”

            “I would have let it go if I believed that.”

            “Well that’s you, isn’t it?”

            “Okay, okay. Well, I still am not going to forget what’s in it for me.”

            “What are you talking about?” I interrupted.

            They both looked down at me. “Nothing that concerns you . . . yet,” said Sicwele. “Where’s your family?”

            “I don’t have one.”

            “You know what that means?” said Dingane.

            “Huh, family? Yeah.”

            “How do you pick them?” he asked Sicwele. He ignored Dingane.

            “How did you get here then?”

            “I just woke up, like everyone else. It really hurt.”

            “You remember your parents?”

            “No. I don’t really understand what those are anyway.”

            “Orphan. I can’t believe it. Perfect.” Sicwele turned to Dingane. “Okay, you were right. Start him.”

            “It can wait until tomorrow. Let him rest today.”

            “What are you going to do to me?” I asked. “I don’t want to die.”

            Dingane smiled. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make sure you don’t. You’re everything I was waiting for. Soon that kingdom will be mine.”

            I knew what it was, but I asked anyway. “What’s a kingdom?”

            Dingane took in a deep breath. “Sicwele, turn away. I want no witnesses.”

 

 

 

            I found myself changed. It was definitely for the better. I had learned, experience filling in the gaps. I learned what lying was. More importantly, I learned how to do it. All that stops anyone from lying is one little inhibition: You are not better than anyone else. Take that away and you can lie. Think that you are better than others and your entire personality will come collapsing down around your furry ears. You can lie, you can backstab, you can take without giving back. I learned this. Proficiently.

            The little demon that often takes away that inhibition is simple: pride. Being proud of yourself for things that you should be praised for isn’t something bad, but pride has a way of growing past where it should go. I’ve heard that some have been able to control their pride. The only lion I met like that wasn’t long for this world.

            So I became proud. And I learned fast what a crutch it was. Become too proud, let it become too much of a part of you, and it will all come crashing down on you. I learned that the hard way one lesson. I had finally figured out what Dingane had in mind for me. I would go with him to Lakeside Pride, wherever that was, and I would kill Mpande. Dingane would help if needed. He was working as hard as he could to make sure that I wouldn’t need help.

            I grew stronger than I ever had been. Having proper food tends to do that. I was eating every day now. It was great. You really have to have been starving to be able to appreciate getting food at regular intervals. I slowly grew used to eating more. My stomach slowly grew to regular proportions. I loved my new self. I felt strong, I felt powerful. I felt I could do anything.

 

 

 

            I rammed myself as hard as I could into Sicwele, knocking him to the ground. I rolled with him, shifting one leg expertly onto the ground to stop us both, myself on top of Sicwele, him on his back. I raised my paw back to strike a blow across his neck. I stopped in the act and looked over at Dingane.

            “Again.”

            I got off of Sicwele. “I’ve been doing this all morning. I can’t get any better at this.” Pride, again. That fateful lesson.

            “You heard ’Sare, Sicwele. What do you think?”

            “I think we let him try and see how far he gets.” Sicwele struggled to his feet.

            “Alright. It’s your life if he is ready.” Sicwele just smiled. “Alright, again, and this time finish it.”

            I took my position and waited for Sicwele to get ready. He gave me a little nod of the head that said Go already. I tackled him, planted my foot, stopped and drew my paw back, claws extended. I swung it down, but Sicwele had it stopped with his leg. He viciously clubbed me across the face with his other paw, knocking me off him. I rolled, finally stopping. I looked up to see him leaping at me. I stood up as quickly as possible, putting my neck right into his open mouth. I felt his body ram into mine, him still clutching my neck. A spasm of pain shot through my neck. I tried to turn to get at him. Sicwele increased the pressure on my neck, bringing me down to my stomach in pain. He finally let go. I stayed on the ground, still in pain. I felt his claws rake my side as he hit me, knocking me a few feet.

            “Pathetic.” I slowly got to my feet to see Sicwele staring at me somewhat in sympathy. I turned to Dingane, who was looking at me in disgust. “And you thought you were ready,” he said. “If that’s how you plan to kill Mpande, then you really should just let us kill you now. Speed you on your way.” He shook his head. “The only thing you were right about was that we’ve been at this all morning. I’m hunting lunch.” He turned and walked away. “Show him his mistakes,” he called back to Sicwele. “I doubt you’ll have time to address them all, but try.”

            Sicwele stared at Dingane’s retreating back, then turned back to me. “Alright?”

            “I just got the hell beaten out of me physically and verbally. Do you think I’m alright?”

            “Did someone’s ego get hurt?”

            “Just tell me where I went wrong.”

            “Hey, relax. You just weren’t fast enough. Work on it. Besides, you’re still barely more than a cub. As for the beating, you were lucky it was me and not Dingane. He’ll kill you—and then he’ll go to work on you. And that was only a scolding. You haven’t even seen him pissed. If I knew half that many ways to insult people, I would probably have been in too many fights to live through.”

            (I did finally get really chewed out by him one day. He didn’t take repeated failure well. It started somewhat along the lines of “You pathetic piece of trash—no, you’re not worth that much. You disgusting, useless waste. If you had any sense in that pitiful void you call a mind . . .” He kind of carried on after that. Pretty much he described all of my shortcomings, physical, mental, and genetic, in great detail. The amazing thing was he didn’t repeat himself once (as far as I could tell) and he never used profanity. He saved those insults for special occasions.)

            “Where did you find him anyway?” I was a little surprised I hadn’t asked this before.

            “He found me. Had an entire group of hyenas on me for my kill. Gods, I hate them. I wouldn’t have made it out alive if it wasn’t for him. He sees me and rescues me for some reason. I still can’t reason out why. What good was I to him?”

            “‘You lack vision.’”

            “I really doubt he saw any use for me.”

            “He does seem to have it all figured out for everything.”

            “He has no compassion, so what did he see in rescuing me?”

            “Yeah, I noticed that. Why is he always so angry?”

            “He’s got unroyalitis. You know, the “Lament, for I will never be king” syndrome.

            “Ah. And he wants me to kill Mpande to take over his pride?”

            “If Mpande dies, he gets the throne.”

            “He’s a prince?

            “You never would have guessed it would you? Not with his bastard-act for an exterior. He’s simply passionate about this.”

            “Well, why do you care about things? You heard him, he told you to let loose. I should be dead.”

            “I knew he’d be mad if I did kill you. You’re still usable; I don’t kill what I can use. Besides you’re beginning to grow on me. It’s scary. No one has ever done that. I don’t want to see you hurt.”

            “You just beat me up.”

            “Too badly hurt.” He smiled. “You’ve asked me plenty of questions about life, let me ask you one. Why are you still here?”

            “Huh?”

            “You could leave right now. I’d never say where you went to Dingane; he’d have to search my rotting corpse for the answer. You know the basics of hunting even though you haven’t yet, and can protect yourself within reason. Why not leave?”

            “But I said I wouldn’t.”

            “And as long as that’s your reason, you won’t kill Mpande. You need to actually start thinking things through for yourself. I’ll give you a hint as to why I think you stay: I think you want to please him. Think about it.”

            We walked in silence for some time. I did think about it. Everything Sicwele had pointed out was true. So why do I stay?

            Well, he did save me, and he said that I was going to come with him or die.

            That was then, this is now. Stop thinking along that line, you’ve been down it hundreds of times. Think differently. You admire Dingane. You respect him for who he is, for what he can do.

            That was it. Respect. That was all that was keeping me here. I was nothing compared to Dingane, or Sicwele. I wanted to learn from them, be like them. I couldn’t stand to be proud when I actually had nothing to be proud of. I wanted to please Dingane, to make him proud of me. When that happened, I knew I could be proud.

            “And we were discussing your horrible, horrible fighting skills,” said Sicwele, cutting through my thoughts. “Especially how you have no balance whatsoever.”

            I looked up from the ground (it’s strange how that always seems to occupy your vision when you think) and saw Dingane coming over with a carcass. I resumed the charade.

            “And how should I improve my balance?”

            “Just try not to over-swing unless you’re sure you’re going to hit your mark. It’ll open you wide up, and more likely than not, be the one mistake that kills you.”

            Dingane dropped the carcass, and we all began to eat. I never forgot that day. I’ve never had anything but respect for the two of them since. Now, hate was something completely different. You can still respect someone you hate.

 

 

 

            But the thing that really changed me was the first time they put me on hunting duty. You never can seem to capture the same feeling as the first time you do it right, but you can get pretty darn close. Of course Dingane, being the jerk he was, made me do it alone, without help. Looking back, this is one of the traits in him that actually got me where I am today. Push, push, push, until you are beyond where you can go.

            One morning they just both come up to me and wake me up. Dingane had just thrashed me the night before (pride creeping up again) and I was sleeping like a cub. I doubt I would have woken up until noon unless they had woken me.

            “Just wake him up easy.” Sicwele’s voice.

            “He should have been up an hour ago; I am not going to wake him up easy. I’m tired of waiting.” Dingane.

            “I told you that you went too hard on hi—”

            “I don’t want to hear it. Do you think if he’s attacked he’s going to get a chance to wake up easy?”

            “Just don’t kill him.”

            I opened my eyes to look at them. I saw Dingane swinging his paw back to whip across my face. I immediately leapt up at least ten feet away. Motivation is a wonderful thing.

            “Wakie, wakie,” Dingane growled.

            I yawned. Then I looked around for breakfast. “Where’s the meat?”

            “We’re waiting for it.”

            “You found another lion?” They both stared at me. Realization dawned. “Oh. Oh you’re mean. You’re just mean-spirited.”

            “Not getting any less hungry.”

            “Where are they?” There was no way I could get out of this and I knew it. I just hadn’t actually expected them to spring it on me like this.

            “Down in that direction. Probably by the lake.” There was only one lake that I had seen in the entire Outlands. It made sense that the herd would stay around it.

            “Who’s going with me?” More staring. “Ohh.” I massaged my head with my paw.

            “If you don’t get going we’ll end up eating you,” threatened Dingane.

            “I’m going, I’m going.” I started walking towards the lake. I still had no real idea how to hunt, just how to fight. Supposedly I had learned the basics, but I had seen how far the basics of fighting took me against Dingane. Well, you had to be born before you could walk. I found the herd standing by the lake, grazing on what little grass was nurtured by the water. I kept low, hoping that I wouldn’t be seen. I crept towards them. I saw the one I wanted, the biggest juiciest one out there. I felt a slow rush come over me, completely soothing my mind and giving me the most unimaginable sense of power. I rushed my prey, my claws coming out on their own. One thought flooded through my mind.

            Kill.

            I leapt on the antelope, the herd scattering around me. My momentum carried both of us to the ground. I sank my claws into it as deeply as I could, lusting for its blood. I roared with savage pleasure, then sank my teeth into its neck. I threw my head this way and that, feeling its neck break twice. I dropped it from my mouth and saw the herd fleeing.

            Kill.

            I leapt up after them, and jumped one of the ones at the rear. It landed on its back, and I was thrown off it, my claws raking its sides. It tried to get up, but I sank my claws into one of its legs, preventing it from rolling over. I got up, using my paw that was embedded in the antelope for support, digging it deeper into it. I looked at its face, its eyes wild with terror. I smiled at the sight, not knowing why. I sank my teeth into its throat and ripped it out. I let out a long, loud roar of vicious triumph. I resisted the urge to eat the antelope here, to tear it apart. I slowly became myself again. Suddenly I realized what I had done. It wasn’t the act that had shocked me, it was the ecstasy I had felt in doing it. It was the most wonderful feeling I had felt. I felt that nothing in the world could replace it, and now that it was gone I wanted more.

            I turned and looked at my other kill. Then the stupidity settled in. I had killed two. I could carry one. Which one, which one? I heard pawsteps behind me. I turned to see Dingane and Sicwele walking towards me. Dingane’s smile was so big he could have fit the entire antelope in it without bothering to chew. Sicwele was smiling, too, but not nearly as widely. But Sicwele smiling was reward enough. He didn’t do it nearly as often as he should have.

            “Excellent,” said Dingane. “Simply wonderful.” I growled with pleasure, remembering the feeling. “You really are a killer.” Sicwele walked on to the next carcass. “Maybe we can step it up a bit.”

            After that we did step it up. I trained with even more ferocity than before, learning every way to fight and kill that I could. Eventually I could match Sicwele, and could almost beat Dingane. I got the feeling that he was always holding back a few tricks. But it didn’t matter. I had finally found what I had loved. Killing. Nothing eased my nerves like it. I loved the feel of the neck snapping, of the bones breaking, of the claws tearing through the flesh, and of the wild terror of the animal. I never did recapture the original feeling. I always was left lusting for more. It made me all the better for it.

 

 

 

            After years of training I was finally passed as “proficient” by Dingane. Either that or he couldn’t wait any longer. It didn’t matter, I felt ready. I was strong, I was confident, and I had finally gotten a leash on my pride. No more stupid mistakes. Ever.

            Dingane and Sicwele walked alongside me as we headed for Dingane’s old pride. They seemed to give me advice the whole way.

            “The fact that we’re traitors should never enter your mind,” said Dingane.

            “Otherwise you’re wasting our time and Mpande’s,” advised Sicwele.

            “Just don’t show any signs that you even know who he is. It’ll be obvious, but don’t make it seem that way.”

            “Relax and let us do the talking. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Don’t mention your past unless he does first.”

            “And if he does, tell him everything. Be specific, but only for little things. He needs to know as little about you as possible until we want him to know.”

            “We just can’t trust you not to slip. So just listen to us, and if you have to speak, don’t take our lead.”

            “Go in an entirely separate direction. You are a distinct personality. Use it. Sure you are mostly a mixture of Sicwele and me, but you as different from us as night is from day.”

            “And whatever you do, don’t forget: You’re a mercenary. You will kill on command and you will like it.”

            “And don’t make any moves that could be threatening to Mpande. You do not repeat not want to have a pride attack you. There is absolutely no way you will get out alive. Frankly, I don’t want to be dead until I see his filthy corpse at the seat of my throne.”

            After that we walked in silence for a bit. We had already been walking some time, but now the landscape was beginning to change. It was amazing to me. All I knew was the ruddy orange of the Outlands. There were hardly any plants anywhere. But here I seemed to see pieces of grass everywhere. Just growing, with no water around them at all. Slowly they spread everywhere. And then I saw trees. Not the dead stumps of wood I had grown up with, but actual living things. I looked everywhere, trying to soak it all in. The grass, the trees, and then a herd of wildebeest. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The animals in the Outlands were all half-starved and would fall over at a moments notice, dead. But these were strong, healthy, meaty wildebeest. Especially meaty. I thought about what a pleasure it would be to eat one.

            “Home,” I heard Dingane say. “Home, with grass, and trees, and decent, clean water.”

            “Oh, don’t get all maudlin on me,” replied Sicwele. He turned and looked at me, saw me eying the herd. “No.”

            “What was that?” I asked absentmindedly.

            Sicwele cuffed me hard on the side. “Pay attention. Mpande would kill us if he found us poaching. Wouldn’t you with herds like that?” He looked back over at Dingane, who was still looking around. It was disturbing to see him actually moved by something. “Gods, the moment he sees something old or you see something new, you both fall apart.” Sicwele sighed. “Okay, which way now?”

            Dingane shook his head, clearing it. He was himself again. “Let me think . . . It should be right over those hills. After that we’ll have a clear view of the place.”

            He walked along in silence, while Sicwele resumed coaching me, going over everything. “Remember, you only show compassion when you think it’s necessary. If this were ideal, you would show it only to myself or Dingane, and never in public. Just try to make it seem that you’ll ease into the pride life, that you don’t fit right away. That may actually come pretty easy to you for once. And try to keep the bloodlust under control. We’ll see if we can’t get you on a hunting detail.” He shook his head. “Where did you get it?”

            “Probably not you. Maybe Dingane?”

            “He only wants Mpande dead. But you . . . It’s like you’re addicted to it. Crazy.”

            “What can I say? Neither of you have that half-smile you say I have. Anything else?” We topped the hills. There were two rocks standing out on a green hillside, one helping the other stay up. There was a black space in between them that I couldn’t see into. Dingane shifted his course to it.

            “Not really. I think we covered most of it. Just remember: no talking, no threatening, and no compassion. At least not too much.”

            “I think he’s pretty well beaten it all out of me.”

            “Just relax. Remember, if Mpande finds out, we’re dead.”

            After that we walked in silence for almost the rest of the way. The rocks were deceptively small at the distance we had been at. As we walked up to them they grew steadily larger. New animals came into view, ones I had never seen before. Elephants, giraffes, hippopotamuses, monkeys. Everywhere there was green. It was like I had walked into a different world. I didn’t really like it. I wanted the barrenness of the Outlands again, just somewhere. Then I saw something that completely caught all of my attention.

            They were beautiful. I had never seen a lioness before. All I could do was stare. Gods, they were wonderful. I had never seen a female, and man did they make me feel. I didn’t even know what the feeling was, but it was strong. It only got stronger as we got closer and I could make them out better. They were all sunbathing in a flat, grass-less area right outside the rocks. I left a soft “Ohhh” escape me.

            Sicwele heard it and nudged me with his shoulder. I tore my gaze away from them with an effort and looked at him. Not even the faintest hint of a smile was on his face. “No. Absolutely, positively, unconditionally no. You will not make a fool of yourself with them. You may look, but you will not touch,” he said, spacing the last three words for emphasis. “This is not negotiable.” He turned to Dingane, who was looking at me. “We really should have covered this.”

            “How were we supposed to cover it? Don’t pretend like you don’t enjoy it.”

            “He’s never seen one. How do you know what he’ll do?”

            “What were we supposed to do? Now shut up and let me think. And Akasare, don’t stare.” We walked in silence. When we approached the lionesses, some of them noticed us. They stared at us, their beautiful eyes fixed on us. Two of them got up and went into the cave between the rocks. The others just laid there, their bodies spread out in no particular way on the ground. The two reemerged from the den and lied back down on the ground. Dingane moved ahead of Sicwele and me, placing himself between us, but slightly ahead. One of the lionesses gasped. I looked at her, seeing the shock on her face. I shifted my attention to the den, where someone was coming out.

            Mpande was huge. I don’t just mean big, I mean huge. Biggest lion I ever saw in all my time on this earth. No one in his pride even came close. If there was anyone bigger in the entire world, I never met him. I heard Sicwele curse fluently and quietly beside me as he walked out of the den. I had to agree. He seemed even bigger from the way he measured up to the lioness beside him. Dingane walked right towards him. The lionesses, seeing this, slowly got up and circled around us. I really didn’t feel too safe, not with that giant there and them behind me.

            “Greetings strangers,” Mpande said. His voice was a low rumble. “I am Mpande, ruler of Lakeside Pride, and this is my queen, Haja. What brings you here?”

            “I’m back,” said Dingane.

            “You’re back?”

            “You’re telling me you don’t recognize your own brother? Now that hurts, it really does.”

            “Dingane?” he asked incredulously. His face slowly spread into a smile. “Dingane, is it really you?” He laughed. “We had given you up for dead. It’s wonderful to have you back. And who are the two with you?”

            “Just some friends I’ve met along the way. The one on the right is Sicwele.”

            “We humbly offer our services to protect your pride,” said Sicwele.

            “And what would your name be?” Mpande asked me. He was still staring at Dingane.

            “Akasare,” I responded. He doesn’t need to know more than a minimum.

            “So you three are just wanderers?”

            “Yes,” said Dingane. “Unfortunately, Sicwele can only stay for the night. He has places to go, lions to meet. But Akasare would be honored if you would let him stay with you. He’ll offer what he can to protect the pride.”

            “He doesn’t seem like a killer.”

            “Think of him as more a merc-in-training.”

            “Of course he can stay. All of you are welcome to stay. Come on in.” He turned around and walked on into the den. I followed him after Dingane and Sicwele. Inside there were a few lionesses lying down, some of them obviously having just woken up. After I looked around the floor of the den I looked up. I couldn’t even judge how high the ceiling was, it was so high up. It seemed to have the entire hill hollowed out. Ridges jutted out from the side, just possibly large enough for a lion to sleep on if he didn’t move around too much. I heard Mpande’s voice again and brought by view back down to the floor. “This is our humble home.”

            “Just as I left it,” said Dingane. He was looking around the ceiling the way I had been. I looked at the lionesses again. Most of them looked just like the ones outside, but one of them was different, wonderfully different. If all the others outside were beautiful, she was radiant. She was staring at me with her dark blue eyes, a slightly puzzled look on her face. Come to think of it, a lot of the lionesses outside had been giving me that look, too. But I had forgotten them in her presence. She moved something in my heart like nothing else had. The thing that really upset me though was I didn’t know why any of the lionesses made me feel this way, especially her.

            “This is my daughter, Asari,” boomed Mpande’s voice, cutting through my thoughts. He walked over to the lioness I had been eying and nuzzled her. “You must remember her only as a cub, Dingane.”

            “Yes, she was quite the little niece.”

            Mpande stopped nuzzling and stared at the wall. “So, why did you come back anyway?”

            “I got tired of living alone. The life I was living was no life at all. I just decided to give it all up and come back.”

            Mpande finally stopped staring at the wall and turned his extremely light blue eyes to me. “So where did he find you?”

            I didn’t really know how to answer this. Dingane couldn’t have stressed any more how loyal those lionesses were to Mpande, and how even a small threat would make me an outsider to them forever. I answered carefully, “He found me as a starving cub. He found me and gave me some food and . . . helped me . . . from then on.”

            “Really?” Mpande turned to Sicwele. “And you?”

            “He rescued me from attacking hyenas.”

            “Sounds like you’ve been busy, Dingane.”

            “Not too much. And I could have sworn you’ve grown.”

            “Well, I wouldn’t really know that, now would I?” Mpande said, laughing. Nevertheless, I grew concerned again when Dingane mentioned that. I looked over Mpande’s huge body, his paws concealing huge, sharp claws, his muscular form that seemed to bulge out at every possible place. I cleared my throat. Dingane and Sicwele turned to look at me, along with about half the lionesses in the den. Mpande’s head stayed where it was.

            “Could I talk to you two? Outside?” I asked quietly, so that only they could hear.

            “Of course,” said Mpande. “Take as much time as you need. Just come back for dinner.”

            I stared at him, shocked. How had he possibly heard me? Dingane and Sicwele walked out of the cave, Sicwele muttering as he walked by, “This had better be good.” I looked back over to Mpande and saw him raise an eyebrow. He was staring at the wall again. I turned and followed them. Dingane had apparently decided that we would be less overheard over the hill. He had already started up it when I walked out. I ran up after him, slowing to keep his pace when I came to his side.

            “How do you—” Dingane turned and looked at me, his face clearly saying shut up. I did and fell back behind him. He kept walking till he had reached the top of the hill. He walked over and disappeared. I followed him over and stopped dead in my tracks when I reached the top. Suddenly Lakeside Pride didn’t seem like such a stupid name after all. There was the biggest lake I had ever seen. It seemed to stretch to fill the entire landscape.

            “’Sare.” I tore my gaze away and kept walking after Dingane and Sicwele. They were making to a small cave in the ground at the base of the hill. They finally reached it and went inside. Went I went in I found them waiting for me.

            “Now what was so important?” growled Sicwele.

            “You expect me to kill that monster? He’s three times my size!”

            “You know that, he doesn’t,” said Dingane.

            “What do you mean he doesn’t? He looked right at me.”

            “I mean he didn’t see you.”

            “Of course he saw me, how could he not? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard.”

            “He literally can’t see you. Or me. Or anyone.”

            “What are you talking about? He knew perfectly well how many we were, he looked right at us, he spoke directly to us. He can see.”

            “He’s blind, ’Sare. His eyes don’t work. It’s something my family tends to have a lot. I’m lucky my eyes do work.”

            “How can eyes not work?”

            “I don’t know. You saw his daughter, that’s what his eyes probably would have looked like. But they’re covered with film. He literally can see nothing but black, everywhere. He’s been like that since birth.”

            “Gods,” I said quietly. “I don’t know how I’d suffer through that.”

            He isn’t suffering. He’s been gifted. Everything else has been amplified, his hearing, his smell. He can see as well as you can, possibly better, just by feeling for you. Hell, he can even tell you apart. You saw that. The gods know how he’s managed that. And his size. He was big, even as a cub. He’s possibly the biggest lion that’s lived in the pride. It helps that he’s charismatic, too. No lioness has ever refused him, even though he gives the right to every one. Most of them actually ask for him.”

            “What are you talking about?” Dingane and Sicwele looked at each other, with oh, here we go looks on their faces that they always got when trying to explain something new to me.

            “Well, you see, every lion has feelings for lionesses . . .” started Sicwele. Ten minutes and a dawning realization later I had been vividly brought up to speed on the facts of life between the two of them.

            “Well, now I know what I want to do with Asari.”

            “You knew what to do with Asari before you came here, and you do not know anything new now. You will not make an idiot of yourself. You will stay away from her.” Sicwele said this all in the most insistent fashion. “Besides, he’d know if it was your cub immediately.”

            “Huh?”

            “Remember how they all looked at us funny? That wasn’t us. It’s you. You have this really messed up coloring, and believe me, your cub will probably have it, too.”

            “Messed up?”

            “Scratch your back leg.”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Just do it.” I looked at him for another second and then twisted to gnaw at my leg. “Stop right there. Look. Your tail tuft. It’s black.”

            “And this is earth-shattering because . . .”

            “Look at Dingane here. Tan with red. Me, I’m dark with black. But you, you’re tan with black. That’s just weird.”

            “Uh-huh,” I said, not entirely convinced.

            “But your choices in girls. Asari, of all of them.”

            “She’s Mpande’s daughter, of all things,” said Dingane. “If he knew what you were thinking most likely we’d have to sew you back together for your funeral. Are you insane?

            “The thought had entered my mind,” I said. “And you’re the one who’s making me kill a giant. What about your sanity? You’re asking me to murder him, and I don’t even have a mane yet.”

            “The two aren’t related.”

            “They are to me.”

            “Is that the only reason you called us down here?” interrupted Sicwele. “Just to stress to us how impossible this is?”

            “Um . . . well, yeah.”

            “Look, he’s one blind lion. You can take him,” said Dingane. “Besides, you’ve got some time. Say, a year.”

            “A year!?” said Sicwele. “You expect me to wait a year for it?”

            “Trust takes time. So does power. You can just wait for it. You’re good at that. If anyone should be complaining, it should be me.”

            “Do you mind telling me—” I started.

            “Yes. Now look, Sicwele, all you have to do is wait. I’ll get you that rule, just be patient.”

            “We’ve been waiting for years already. And you want me to wait even longer?” he demanded.

            “How do you think it would look if he killed Mpande now, hmm? Three strangers walk into the kingdom and the next day the king is dead? We need their trust.”

            “It’s easy for you to say. You’ve got your kingdom in your paws.”

            “Have I ever given you reason to mistrust me?”

            “Have you ever given me reason to trust you?”

            “But you still do it anyway.”

            Sicwele sighed. “Alright. I won’t argue that.” He got up. “I’m leaving now. Just to make sure I don’t do something stupid to you. I’ll see you in a few days. If you find me by then.” He to the mouth of the cave. “Oh, and Dingane? Just remember, even I get tired of waiting.” He left.

            I turned to Dingane. “What is he going for?”

            “I just don’t want him in the picture. Just you and me, kid.”

            “And I didn’t know this because?”

            “Details are such a pain in the ass to manage. I didn’t feel that you needed anything else to worry about besides Mpande. Remember, just a year or two.”

            “And why didn’t I know the time limit either?”

            “Like I said: details, who needs ’em? Besides, it’s not like you’ll never see Sicwele again. I’ll be making sure he’s working your tail off every few days.” Dingane got up and walked to the mouth of the cave. “And besides, think of all the hunting you can get done in between.” He walked back towards the den. I smiled. Bringing down those antelope I saw would be a glorious pleasure.