Chapter III: Long Live the Kings

 

            I felt a searing pain in my hind leg. I opened my eyes and rolled over as quickly as I could, lashing out with my other hind leg, whacking a large hyena who had bitten into my leg across the face. She let go, then ran away, only stopping to pick up Shujaa as she ran. Poor cub. Deserved better than that.

            I laid my head back down with a groan and closed my eyes to block out the sunlight. The pain was less, much less. The gods knew how long I had been out. I opened my eyes again to reveal the sun in an entirely different position. I groaned. I had been out again for hours, maybe even days, and all I felt I had gotten was a few seconds rest. I tried standing. Hurt, but at least I could do it. I looked around and saw Mpande’s beaten body on the ground. Numerous slashes covered his entire body, several running up and down his entire face. His muscular formed seemed to have lost that radiant glow he had always had. He really was gone.

            I wasn’t.

            He’s expendable.”

            I began to limp away from the den. Dingane was going to have a lovely hell of a time when I was ready.

 

 

 

            I limped away from the den, hoping to find Sicwele. He at least seemed to care about me. I wasn’t sure if I could find him. It was always a “don’t see me, I’ll see you” basis with him. As far as I knew, he could already be back at the den. I didn’t know how long I had been out. I finally collapsed by a pond in the shade of a tree. I had given up.

            “Akasare?” I turned to see Sicwele behind me. “’Sare, is that really you?” He took a few steps toward me. I noticed that he had a horrible limp in the leg Mpande had bitten. I could still see the bite marks. “I don’t believe it.” He paused, looking at me. “You aren’t a ghost, are you?”

            “I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts.” I slowly and painfully got up. It still hurt horribly to move.

            “I watched you die.”

            “You left me for dead.” He was in pretty bad shape, but probably not as bad as me.

            “I didn’t want to. Dingane said to. I guess that’s what we get for not checking the corpse.” He paused. “So, not a ghost?”

            “I’m feeling too much pain to be dead.” I turned and began to drink from the lake.

            “I wonder what Dingane will say.” I turned angrily.

            “He won’t say anything. He won’t even know I’m alive if you know what’s good for you.”

            “Okay, calm down. Someone in your condition shouldn’t indulge in rage.” I went back to drinking. “Why not?”

            “I’m just going to catch him when he least expects it. I’ll show him expendable.”

            “He’s running this kingdom now. He’ll find you soon enough. How long do you expect to wait?”

            “As long as it takes. Besides, you know how to sneak. That can just be my training now.”

            “For the record, I think this is a bad idea.”

            “You’ll get used to it. Just remember, he can’t see you either.”

            “I’ve got a kingdom to take over.”

            “It’ll have to wait.” He came over to me angrily.

            “And what makes you think you can be giving orders?”

            I looked him square in the face. “I’m dead, remember? Show respect for the deceased.” I went back to drinking. He went back to the shade and lied down, slowly and fluently cursing.

            “Fine,” he finally said. “Just not too long.”

 

 

 

            I stayed out there for a year and a half. Sicwele taught me pretty well how to stay unnoticed. I watched the pride as closely as I dared while still keeping out of Dingane’s view. You’ve seen it when a lioness has lost her mate, how she just carries on as if he’s just gone down to the watering hole. That’s the way the lionesses here acted. They sent out the hunts right on time, with no change in the pace at all.

            I waited and finally decided to send Sicwele back to Dingane, with an oath that he would not tell him about my survival. I wondered what Dingane would think when he found the one-week limit had been changed into a year and a half, but it didn’t bother me. Sicwele would just explain that away. It was difficult living out there with two lions instead of Sicwele by himself. We had to go on barely any food to avoid a noticeable drop in the herds. I was almost starving by the time I decided we should go back. I approached the den the long way a few hours after Sicwele had gone, taking the time to go all the way around before approaching it from the front side opposite the lake.

            As I came up the slope I saw all of the lionesses in a semi-circle around Dingane. I thought he was giving some kind of speech about the “new order” he had placed upon the pride as an “attempt to measure up to my dear, beloved brother’s greatness.” I had noticed that he tended to wax eloquent when it came to that kind of thing. I finally got close enough to hear the words. They filled me to the brim—no, they made me overflow with anger.

            “We cannot allow Mpande’s death to go without revenge! Not only him, but Akasare, and poor Shujaa as well! They gave their lives for him, fighting valiantly to overcome the murderers.” So he was sticking to the whole “another pride attacked and killed Mpande” story. “While only I and Sicwele were the only survivors, we still wish deeply we were among the dead, for this loss is far too great.” LIAR! I picked up my pace. “I know you all feel the same sense of loss. And for this loss, we should show them that we will not tolerate this act of—” He stopped in mid-sentence, finally noticing me as I reached the outer edge of the lionesses.

            “Stand aside,” I said roughly to one of them blocking my way. She turned and let out a gasp. When she wouldn’t move, I pushed her aside with one paw. “Move it. Dead lion walking.” Others heard my voice and turned, shocked, but they stepped out of the way for me, clearing a path to Dingane. I continued to walk toward him, him staring at me like a ghost. For good reason.

            “Oh gods,” he finally breathed. “What—are you?”

            I walked up to his face. “Pissed.” I saw fear in his eyes.

            “You’re dead. I watched you die.”

            I sat back, letting out a breath. He just really didn’t get it, did he? I looked back up at him, furious. I whipped a set of claws across his face, knocking him to the ground. “IS THAT LIVE ENOUGH FOR YOU?” I roared.  I walked over his body and into the den, seeing him stare at me in disbelief. I just ignored him, going into the den for food. I hadn’t eaten all today. I found Sicwele in the den. He was lying down on his side, the hind leg Mpande had bitten spread out abnormally. It had healed while we were waiting, but not so that he would be doing any running any time ever. He looked up when I came in and smiled. “You’re okay,” he said in relief. “You took longer than I thought.”

            “Since when have you been so emotional?” I asked him.

            “You’re like that little brother I’ve never had ’Sare. I’ve told you. You’re the only one who’s ever made me feel anything. I love you for it.”

            “Okay.” I said. “You can’t understand my bloodlust, I can’t understand your emotions. We’re even.”

            Sicwele laughed. “You want something? I was just about to start.” He stepped aside, letting me see a fat carcass on the ground. My mouth dropped open in longing, and my stomach protested all the more.

            “That is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” I barely noticed Sicwele’s odd look at my remark as I fell upon the carcass, tearing bit after bit off it, not even bothering to chew before swallowing.

            “You’re going to—” started Sicwele, then gave up. He just shook his head and stared at me. The noise outside the den had grown to a buzz when I had first seen Sicwele. It had continued to grow, but now it stayed steady at a dull roar. I finished off the last of the carcass, then noticed Sicwele staring at me.

            “Oh, sorry,” I said. “Forgot you wanted some.”

            “It won’t kill me to miss a meal. It actually may have killed you. I’ve been here long enough to get a decent meal—” He broke off and turned, hearing Dingane come in.

            “We all thought you were dead,” said Dingane. “You never even moved when the pride went to see your bodies. How are you—”

            I pushed myself up and walked angrily over to him. “Give me one good reason—just one—why I shouldn’t kill you right there.”

            Dingane looked over my shoulder at Sicwele. “I think he’s angry.” I whipped my paw up to hit him again, but he blocked it this time, and easily pushed it away and knocked me to the ground with his other paw. “Okay, I’ll give you two: One, I would undoubtedly have to kill you if you tried, and you’re too weak to even think about fighting.”

            “I’d give it a damn good shot,” I responded angrily from the floor.

            “Two,” continued Dingane, ignoring me, “Sicwele still needs your help for his throne. You’ve only paid back me, not him, so don’t think you’re done.”

            “I’d do it for him anyway. I wasn’t expendable to him.”

            “You are expendable.”

            “You stupid son of a bitch!” I pushed myself off the floor and leapt up at him, only to be knocked down by a blow to the back of my head. Everything went black. Again.

 

 

 

            I woke up to Sicwele poking the side of my face. “’Sare, you okay?”

            I groaned and struggled to my feet. “I think so.”

            “Sorry about that. Dingane would have ripped you to shreds. He’s outside talking with the lionesses.”

            I shook my head, trying to clear it. “I don’t think you ever hit me this hard in training.” The shaking only made the headache worse. “Outside talking to the lionesses, huh? How’s Asari taking this?”

            Sicwele looked uncomfortable. “Well . . . she’s gone.”

            I looked up sharply.

            “He killed—”

            “No no no, no, no,” said Sicwele hurriedly. He sighed, then continued. “Mpande ruled a huge pride. It’s much bigger than any normal ones. Huge compared to my old one. Most only have around thirty; well here they have fifty. Dingane said that there were too many in the pride. Someone had to go. He picked Asari.”

            “When did he—”

            “Yesterday. She’s not in the boundaries any more. Dingane threatened her with death if she came back.”

            “She’s in the Outlands?”

            “She went the other way. She’s probably just outside the boundaries, picking off whatever food she can.” I thought of her miserable skills as a huntress and felt awful. She was as good as dead. “I’ve got one last job before we move on to my pride.”

            I looked him in the eyes, seeing them say the last thing I wanted. “You can’t. You won’t.”

            “I have to. If I don’t, Dingane will have my life next. I can’t protect myself against him anymore. If I don’t do it, it’ll be your job.”

            “He has no right to play god with her life!”

            “I leave tonight. I don’t know how long it will take.”

            “Just do me one favor and kill her quickly.”

            “I’ll do what I can.” He got up and limped out of the den. I watched him go, seeing him turn and limp toward the lake. I dropped my head to the ground, filled with regret. Asari . . .

 

 

 

            I woke up early the next day. I had barely slept that night. The lionesses had asked me so many questions the night before. I told them what Dingane had told me to say, that we had been attacked by another pride. I didn’t really have a choice. If they found out I had helped kill Mpande, I had just signed my death warrant.

            I walked out to the lake, thinking again of the first night I had been here with Asari. I remembered how Dingane had stood between me and her with just a shadow. Now he was having her killed, all for being Mpande’s daughter. I hated him.

            “You should be resting.” It was Dingane. I turned and snarled at him. “Is that really how you treat your king?”

            “It’s how I treat a murderer.” Suddenly I didn’t care what he did to me. I was going to stop Asari’s death even if it killed me. “I’m leaving.”

            “No, you’re not.”

            “Just try to stop me, and so help me, I swear, it’ll be the last thing one of us does.”

            He smiled. There was no humor in it. “Alright. Go ahead. You’ll be back.” He turned back to the den. I ran towards the boundaries Sicwele had indicated. I had to stop him. She mattered too much to me.

 

 

 

            I found Sicwele the next day. He was crouched down in the tall grass on the top of a hill, well hidden to anything below. I walked over to his side. He planted his claws in my shoulder and dragged me down to the ground.

            “Hey, what’s the—” I started.

            “Shh.” He gestured with his head to the savannah below. Asari trudged along it, looking tired and dejected. “Almost no food from what I’ve seen. Three days with no food, if she’s been like this the whole time. It’s almost enough to make me start to fell sorry for her. Hyenas keep getting her kills. Gods, I hate those little beasts. They’re uncivilized, they’ve no manners at all, and they eat like—well like you that night you came back. Disgusting. And to think, half the food we got out here was actually from them.” He turned and looked at me. “Dingane’s going to be furious when he finds you gone.”

            “I made him see reason.”

            “I can’t really say I’m surprised to see you here.”

            “Why?”

            “Well, you love her, and from the one experience I’ve had with love, you are willing to do anything.”

            “Damn right I am. So don’t do it.”

            “I’m going to talk to her tonight. Just to see her. I never actually have, you know. Just that one time two and a half years ago.”

            “You’re going to kill her tonight, aren’t you? Look, just let me run away with her. You’ll never see her again, I promise.”

            “’Sare, I’m not going to kill her.” He paused, thinking. “Look, if I have to do anything, I’ll just leave her wounded. You can decide what to do after that. You can have the honors.”

            In Sicwele’s world, that lifeline almost amounted to an entire kingdom. “Thank you.”

            “Yeah. Well, I’m starting now.”

            “What are you going to do?”

            “She’s hungry. I’ll feed her, of course.” Sometimes, he seemed almost humane.

 

 

 

            We stayed there until night had fallen. Sicwele was certain Asari would come back here. She hadn’t strayed out of the general area the entire time she had been exiled. Asari was desperate. A cheetah had killed a gazelle on the top of a smaller hill, and was just about to start the feast. I watched her charge the cheetah, all for the purpose of getting its kill. She succeeded in scaring it off, and began to dig into the carcass it left. From our hill we could see hyenas charging toward her.

            “That’s my cue,” said Sicwele. “Now just stay low so she doesn’t see you at all. You don’t, you’ll never see her again.” I crouched low to the ground, the high grass obscuring me completely. Asari finally heard the hyenas. She tore off one last piece of meat and ran. The hyenas raced toward the kill. Sicwele drew in a huge breath. The hyenas had just reached the kill and started to eat when Sicwele let out an earth-shattering roar. The hyenas looked up at him then ran off as fast as they could.

            “Nice,” I said.

            “Thanks,” he responded, already heading down the hill. He reached the kill, and started eating. I saw Asari start back toward the kill. I saw her finally open her mouth when she was about forty feet from Sicwele. He straightened up and looked around to her. He responded, me being unable to hear either of them. Asari walked around to his front. They exchanged a few more words, then Sicwele stepped back from the carcass and sat down again while Asari dug into the carcass greedily. Sicwele said something, and she slowed down. He sat there watching her until she finished eating. She straightened up, and they talked some more. Then Asari did the last thing I wanted and expected her to do. She walked over to Sicwele and lied down beside him, rubbed against him.

            No. This isn’t happening.

            I watched Sicwele drape his leg over her shoulders. He pulled her close and gave her a lick on her face, then whispered into her ear. She talked to him and he talked back. A few sentences, and then he gave her another kiss. I watched her close her eyes, then lean over to passionately lick his neck.

            NO!

            Sicwele continued to lick her, and after a few more licks on his neck she gave up, surrendering to him. He continued to lick her, and slowly edged her onto her side, where he licked her neck and chest. She had her eyes closed in ecstasy. I watched helplessly as she slowly turned back over onto her stomach and whispered something to Sicwele. I saw him smile, then gently caress her flanks. He gave her a passionate lick on the neck, and I watched her shudder. I turned away, unable to watch further.

            I loved you . . .

            I had loved her, and this is how she repaid me. I walked down the other side of the hill, thinking sadly of all the times she had spent with me. Of all the lies she had spent with me. I had been nothing more than a quick fix for her, just another lion. I hated myself for being the fool I was. I felt my love for Asari turn to hate, and was glad she was going to die. Then I remembered: I was going to have the pleasure of killing her. That suited me just fine.

 

 

 

            The next morning I went back to the hill. I saw Sicwele staring at the bottom of his hill. I looked there too, and saw Asari moving toward a group of zebras. I sat down, waiting for her inept nature to show itself. Sure enough, she failed horribly. She paid attention only to her mark. She didn’t notice a charging zebra until it was too late. She was trampled, and lay on the ground in agony as the herd walked away. I smiled, watching Sicwele go to her. I saw her appeal to him, and saw her caustically deny her. He limped away from her, towards me. I saw her attempt to get up. As soon as she put pressure on her leg, she screamed and fell to the ground, knocked out by the pain. Sicwele kept limping towards me. He finally reached me.

            “She’s all yours.” He paused. “She asked me to say goodbye. I thought she’d rather see you say hello.” He paused again. I don’t think you really want her. I—”

            “I saw last night.”

            “Oh.” He looked away, waiting for me to begin to berate him for what he had done.

            “Thank you.” He looked up, surprised. “I never would have known if it weren’t for you.”

            “What are you going to do?”

            “Kill her. In the worst way I can think of.”

            “Which is . . .?”

            “I don’t know yet. That’s Dingane’s department. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got all the time in the world. She isn’t going anywhere.”

 

 

 

            I was wrong about that. She finally woke at the beginning of the night. She started to drag herself up the hill where she had slept with Sicwele. I watched her struggle every inch of the way. By morning she had finally made it. I saw two hyenas walking towards the hill, no doubt heading for the zebra herd they thought to be there. I recognized one of them as the one who had tried to eat me when it thought I was dead. They walked up the side of the hill, then stopped, smelling Asari. They debated a few minutes, then walked up the rest of the way slowly. Asari didn’t seem to notice them. Her head was down, her eyes were closed. The male reached out and grabbed Asari’s injured leg. She roared, and jerked her head up. The female that had tried to eat me said something. Asari responded, and the male leaned over her, speaking something. The female said something, then called the male away. I saw the female reprimand the male, making him cringe to the ground with guilt—or was it fear? The female then went back to Asari and exchanged a few words with her before finally sitting down and staring at Asari.

            “Decided yet?” I turned around to see Sicwele standing in front of a fresh carcass. He had gotten food for me all of yesterday, too, while I had sat and stared at Asari. I motioned him over to watch the scene. I saw him raise his eyebrows. “They’re going to starve her to death.”

            “I know. I was thinking about breaking her other leg, then playing with the first one a while, you know,  pushing the bones through the skin, pulling on it, that sort of thing, and then slowly clawing off each one of her digits, and finally ripping open her heart and watching her bleed to death, but I like this better.”

            Sicwele stared down at them. “Why? Less work?”

            “Wow. Another bonus. And I had just wanted the hyena who ate her brother to eat her. She hates hyenas even more than you do. I never did figure out why. Hopefully I never will, either.”

            “My, what a change this has wrought in you. Dingane would be proud.”

            “He was right. Emotions are nothing more than hindrances. May this be the last time I feel anything even approaching compassion.”

            Sicwele turned to me. “Akasare?”

            “I mean it. I never want to feel that weakness again.”

            He stared down at Asari and the hyenas for a few seconds. “Yeah, Dingane would have thought of something better.”

            “We can’t all be good at everything.” I turned and started on the carcass, eating only a few bites before I turned to watch the scene again. Sicwele finished the rest. This went on for three days. Sicwele bringing the food, me eating barely any. He said he took them from hyenas. I didn’t really care where it came from. I barely ate, I never slept. I didn’t seem to need it. Sicwele tried to make conversation, but after the first day he stopped. I wasn’t too talkative. The days dragged by. The hyenas watching her, and me watching them. It was uncomfortable having to crouch or lie down all day to stay hidden. But it was worth it. Time seemed to slow down just for this. I never realized revenge was such a time-consuming business.

            On the third day Asari finally spoke to the female again. The hyena walked over to her, and Asari grabbed the hyena’s throat. They exchanged words, then Asari released the hyena. The hyena licked Asari’s face, then grabbed her neck. She shook until it broke. The female walked over to her mate and woke him. They spoke, the male approaching Asari hungrily. The female left. The male looked down at Asari, then ran after the female, leaving Asari untouched. Oh well. You can’t have everything.

 

 

 

            Sicwele and I arrived at the den in two days. Three days of nearly starving myself on top of a year and a half of unintentionally doing it had really left me with an appetite, and I spent two days just hunting, gorging myself, and sleeping before we went back. Happy days. Especially for Dingane.

            He was pretty happy about all this. At least, he seemed happy, as happy as anyone with a kingdom full of worries on his back could be. I never did understand how Mpande coped. Dingane may have been happy, but Sicwele was not. He constantly reminded Dingane of his kingdom he was promised. Some lion named Tshingwayo ran it. It was pretty interesting to see how Sicwele actually did handle himself with the pride. Cruelty seemed to be second nature to him between himself and those who he didn’t think necessary. Many of the lionesses came to fear him, at least a little. If he had stayed longer, I’m sure he would have made a much larger impression. I hadn’t really had a chance to see his really nasty side, other than the few times he had attacked hyenas in the Outlands or during my self-imposed with me watching. That was what really interested me. He could be as ruthless as Dingane if he felt like it, possibly even worse. He tended to put on a sort of royal air. It was clear he thought himself above all of the lionesses.

            Finally, five weeks after Asari’s death, Dingane decided he had enough of a grip on the pride to actually go to war. I don’t know how he decided this; I never really thought he even had a grip on himself. I wasn’t one to talk; now that I had shut off my feelings, I became more like Dingane than I care to admit. It wasn’t the same between me and the pride. I had been respected, liked. Now I was just there, more like an outsider than anything. All of my relationships seemed to just fall apart. You pay a price for power.

            Dingane decided to tell the pride that he had discovered where the pride that killed Mpande was. Nearly all of the lionesses were ready to kill at once. Dingane thought it was his leadership that spurred them on. I thought that it was more their love of Mpande. Either way, we set out for Tshingwayo’s lands the next day. It was a full day away, so we had plenty of time on the way there. I stayed in the back with Sicwele, just talking over various things. A lot like our time in the Outlands, really. Probably the only decent part of the whole screwed-up campaign. I finally learned why he wanted this kingdom so badly.

            “I need a reason.”

            “Reason? For what?” he asked.

            “I almost got myself killed the last time I pulled something like this. I’m not about to do it again without knowing why.”

            “You knew why the last time. You had to do it; otherwise Dingane and I would have taken you to some backwater cave and beaten you to death.”

            “Okay, but why do you want a kingdom.”

            “I don’t. I’ve lied to you, ’Sare. A long time ago, there was one lioness I cared for. That’s why I want this kingdom. It’s just the only way to get her back.”

            “You want to overthrow a kingdom all for one lioness?”

            “It’s the only way. She deserves the world, not jut that pathetic kingdom. I would have brought her here, but it Dingane would never allow it. I never even brought up the possibility, so he never had a chance to tell me to go to hell.”

            “I’m still not too fond of the idea of doing this for a lioness. I’m still trying to get over that last experience.”

            “I don’t know if Asari really loved you or not, but Scai’a loves me. And I love her, more than you know. Tshingwayo exiled me, all for making a little mistake with a lioness. I got angry, I hit her for insulting Scai’a, and he exiles me. Just for one little blow. And she’s been waiting for me all this time. I know, I’ve gone back, I’ve seen her. She still loves me just as if I was still there.”

            “If you say so. Well, now I have a reason.” There was a slight pause. I could tell he was not telling me everything. When you spend about half your life in the company of only two lions, you get to know them pretty well. He finally spoke up again.

            “He was my father.”

            “Beg pardon?”

            “Tshingwayo.”

            “Your father exiled you?”

            “Yes. I guess that’s part of the reason I want the pride back. I would be the next king. Who knows who it’ll be if I don’t go through with this. But I wouldn’t care less if I ended up with the pride, so long as I got Scai’a. I don’t know what would happen to me without her. I’d probably have ended up bitter like Dingane.”

            After that we walked in silence for some time. He seemed happy thinking about her, so I didn’t interrupt him. Finally he spoke.

            “Anything new?”

            “Sorry?”

            “Remember anything lately?”

            “It’s hard to say.”

            “Say it anyway.”

            “Nothing. Ever. Sometimes I think it’s something, but it’s nothing. Kind of strange when that happens. So you can understand if I’m still a little bit confused about all the ‘joys of cubhood’ that you had.”

            “Have you ever tried?”

            “A few times. Mostly just dreams.”

            “That same one again, huh?”

            “Yeah.” Then it was my turn to just walk quietly. I didn’t know why I remembered nothing. If I had parents, why hadn’t they been there for me? If they had lost me, why hadn’t they looked? I still didn’t understand what parents really were. The closest thing I had was Dingane and Sicwele. And as anyone should know, two killers aren’t exactly ideal parents.

            After this, everything else seemed like small talk. Just reminiscing about training in the Outlands, about all the places Sicwele had been before he had found me, about the best meals we could think of. Nothing important, just something to make the time go by. The rest of the pride trudged on in silence. Everyone seemed to be thinking of Mpande. We reached the kingdom by nightfall the next day. According to Sicwele, they had their den in the wall of a gorge. The plan was simple enough. Take up places outside it, and threaten them to “surrender and die.” Not a single lioness wanted to exchange the word “or” for “and.” To them, Mpande had died at the paws of these heartless monsters, and they would pay the price for it.

            So Dingane sent me, Sicwele, and half the pride to sneak down the gorge on one side of the den, and the rest on the other. We just took them to the top on our side and waited while Dingane put his on one side. It was dark that night, no moon at all. You couldn’t even see your allies if you didn’t see them move. Sicwele and I didn’t want to risk any lives by putting a lioness in the wrong place, so we waited for an hour, making sure we knew the positions. One of the lionesses got impatient, though. She walked up to me and Sicwele and asked angrily:

            “Why are we not moving? I don’t even see why Dingane sent you here if all you’re going to do is—” I turned around and hit her to the ground. The rest of the pride was visibly shaken. They knew I was changed, but not like this. The lioness looked up at me with newfound fear. “I mean, whenever you’re ready.” There was no argument after that.

            We finally decided we knew where all of Dingane’s side was and led ours down the side. It was steeper than the light made it out to be, and a couple of lionesses almost fell and broke their necks. We finally made it down, and set them along the gorge wall and in front of the cave. We found Dingane in front of the cave.

            “Took you long enough,” he said.

            “If you want to have a pride to rule after this is done, then you should be glad I’m doing this carefully,” retorted Sicwele.

            “Are you sure they’re ready?”

            “Yes.”

            “Alright. Now the fun begins.” He let loose a huge roar. If there was anyone in that den, they were sure to be awake. “Hear this,” Dingane yelled into the den. “We have come to avenge the murder of our beloved king Mpande. Come out, and we may be merciful.”

            “Here’s hoping they don’t surrender,” I said.

            “Shut it, ’Sare,” said Sicwele. I could see anxiety on his face. We waited a few minutes. No one came out. They seemed to be taking an awful lot of time discussing their options. Then I heard the last thing I wanted to hear. One of the lionesses behind me screamed. I turned and was what looked like an entire pride coming down the side of the gorge behind us.

            “Attack!” yelled Dingane. It was utter confusion. Only about half of the lionesses had actually noticed the enemy sneaking down the back side. The rest attacked the den, where they would find nothing. The half that did attack did so blindly, some attacking their allies in the bad light. It was so dark, even we were having trouble seeing. The other pride didn’t seem to have this problem. They attacked us proficiently, taking down one lioness with several and then moving on to the next. I fought back as hard as I could, killing as many lionesses as I could reach. I found myself fighting a male once, but he was attacked by Sicwele and had his throat torn out. I had never seen this side of Sicwele before. I was more likely to be smiling over a dead lion on the ground, not him. Still, there he was, smiling as he spit out what was left of the lion’s throat. Then the entire world seemed to turn upside down.

            I don’t even know what happened. It was some kind of freak accident I suppose. One minute everything is just plain, ordinary hell, and then it’s like the gods took hell, shook it up like one of those nuts with smaller nuts inside that they give cubs to play with, and threw it back down, making it break into a million little pieces. The ground started shaking, and the fight came to a complete standstill. It shook so much that everyone fell to the ground, regardless of where they were. The thing that really got us, though, was the rocks. The walls of the gorge seemed to fall apart in pieces, raining down debris. Screams erupted everywhere. I saw some lions getting to their feet and running up the sides of the gorge they came down, some with success, others getting knocked down by rocks or just losing their footing in the shaking. I would have done the same, but I was too busy trying to just stay out of the way of falling rocks. Once I heard Sicwele yell “Move!” and felt myself being tackled, but other than that I was on my own.

            After a couple of minutes it all stopped. I looked around as the dust that had been stirred up slowly settled. The darkness didn’t help at all. I could faintly make out the den. It looked as if there was a huge rock lodged in it. Any lionesses that hadn’t wised up to the position of the other pride would be trapped in there for good. I started to walk toward the side of the gorge where we came down. I tripped over something. I heard a groan of pain and took a closer look.

            It was Sicwele. He had a huge slab of rock across his back legs, and from the look of it, both of them were broken. It must have hit him standing.

            “Sicwele? Can you hear me?” I turned and sat down by his head.

            He coughed, getting dust out of his lungs. “’Sare. Is that you?”

            “Yeah, it’s me.”

            “I should have never gotten you into this.”

            “What are you talking about? I would have died if it weren’t for you.”

            “You are dead. I’ve made you dead.” He coughed again.

            “What—”

            “Shut up and listen. I don’t have breath to waste on interruptions.” He groaned, his face contorted in pain. “This is no way for you to live. You’re supposed to be happy. Not like this. I shouldn’t have gotten you into this. You could have found your home, gone back, been raised right. I’m sorry.”

            “Hey, you’re back now at least. I can get you out of here; all we have to do is move this thing. Just let me lift—”

            “No.”

            “But—”

            “I’ve killed Tshingwayo. His son will probably kill me when he finds me here. But I’ll see Scai’a again. Maybe I’ll be spared. But at least I’ll see her again.”

            “Sicwele . . .”

            “Just do me one thing. Find something . . . something to live for. Like Scai’a . . . sweet thing. Don’t die unhappy, ’Sare. Don’t die unhappy.” His eyes seemed to be looking into the distance, no longer focused on my paws. “Scai’a . . .” He closed his eyes for the last time I saw. I looked down at him. No one would mourn him. Except maybe me, and Scai’a, whoever she was. “Go.” I stood up and ran up the side of the gorge. What was left of the pride was up there, along with Dingane.

            “Where’s Sicwele?” demanded Dingane.

            I walked past him, heading towards our lands. “Dead.”

            I heard a pause behind me. “Alright, let’s get back home. There’s nothing more we can do here,” I heard Dingane say. I kept walking, hearing Dingane and the rest of the pride follow me this time. There was no talking between anyone this time. There was the occasional sob, quickly muffled or cut off. The rest was silence the whole way back.