Chapter IV: Utopia

 

            Two weeks. We had two weeks to lick our wounds, to live our lives as normally as we could. We had lost fifteen lionesses in the attack, and Sicwele. The few lionesses that had stayed behind to nurture the cubs were shocked at the tales of the battle, of how it had gone so horribly wrong. I still had difficulty believing it myself. Who had actually expected the earth to shake as if it were falling apart?

            I was placed on permanent hunting duty while the wounded recovered. At first there were few lionesses actually able to help with the hunt, but I was more than able to fill the gap. When I wasn’t hunting, I trained. Two battles I had fought. Both of them I barely escaped alive. I was sure there wasn’t going to be a third like that. Dingane said almost nothing to me. I was just a member of his pride; I deserved no special treatment. The pride gave me plenty of special treatment, all of the kind I didn’t need. They avoided me. Maybe they were scared of me, maybe they despised me. All I know is those two weeks were the loneliest I had been through so far.

            Two weeks. Then they came looking for us.

 

 

 

            It happened one morning. I was lucky to have been awakened by that nightmare again. It was strange, to only be able to see the lions who were encouraging me in it only in my dream. Only Dingane remained.

            I went down to the lake for water. I never got any closer to it than the top of the den’s hill. As soon as I looked over it, I immediately thought Oh, hell. At least two prides were walking across Dingane’s lands, both of them headed for our den. I turned and went back to the den, waking everyone. Dingane didn’t appreciate it at all.

            “If you are going to wake us, you should at least let the sun rise,” he remarked.

            “By the time it’s risen, you’ll be dead. You’ll still be dead if we don’t move now.”

            “What are you—”

            “Two prides, both on their way to kill us. They’ll be here any minute. We have to leave.”

            “We’re not going anywhere.”

            “What kind of fool are you?!”

            “We will not leave this land!” I clubbed him in the head, knocking him to the ground, out cold. I turned to the lionesses.

            “You want to live? Come with me.” I struggled to place Dingane on my back.

            “Where will we go?” one protested.

            “The Outlands.”

            “No one can live there,” said another.

            “I did. So move!

            They moved. Mothers picked up their cubs, the rest hurriedly getting themselves up. I shifted Dingane on my back, trying to balance him as best I could in the short time I had. I ran out of the den, staggering slightly under the extra weight. I ran back the way I never hoped I would have to, toward that desolate wasteland I once called home. The rest of the pride followed me, their breathing heavy and labored as they struggled to keep up with me. I heard a mighty roar as we went over the hill that blocked our former den from the view of the Outlands. I stopped and turned, seeing a lion with a red mane standing in front of the den, along with what looked like two prides’ worth of lions. I never did find out who that was.

            After that we walked the rest of the way to the Outlands. I could hear some of the cubs moaning as they watched the landscape transform around them. They said they didn’t like it, that the dust made them thirsty, that they needed to eat breakfast. I don’t know what kept me from turning around and telling the little buggers where to shove their petty complaints. Dingane finally woke as we passed by where I grew up. As you can expect, he wasn’t the happiest.

            “Do you want to go back and fight off sixty lions?” I asked him. After that he shut up and led. There wasn’t nearly enough room to house a pride where I had grown up. It was just a small cave. It was snug with just the three of us; I really doubt we could have gotten more than five very uncomfortable lionesses in there. So we kept walking. Eventually we ended up in a basin. Big basin. I mean huge. According to Dingane, it was where that “whacked-out chick” had lived with her cubs. The one who had my bloodlust. The pride was forced to sleep in termite mounds, just to stay warm at night. Cubs died off, unable to get milk from sick mothers, who in turn were starving due to lack of food. I didn’t understand how that one lioness’s pride even lived her in the first place.

            Hunting was a full time thing now. It wasn’t hunting so much as poaching. There was some very nice land next door. A lot like Lakeside. Good meat, nice grass. I saw it and envied the lions who owned it. I slowly got to know a bit more about them. I snuck off when Dingane was busy throwing his royal weight around, getting extra meat off carcasses instead of giving it to his lionesses and cubs as he should have. I myself was eating carcasses to the bone again, licking off every last piece of meat I could find on it. It became habit more than anything.

            So I snuck into the lands next to us. They were called the Pridelands. They, like us, weren’t so well off, either. A few years ago a band of cheetah fanatics had ripped through their pride, killing the king, the elder lionesses, and even killing one of the royal cubs. The new king, Kovu, ruled, but supposedly he was only a shadow of the past king. His son, Fujo, was always to be found walking around the kingdom. He seemed to have a lioness, Tumai, but she didn’t seem to care for him much. No one seemed to care for anyone. Happiness seemed to stop at the borders of their den.

            All of this I learned from observing. I learned all of their names, their lineage, where they could usually be found. And I envied them. They were no longer concerned with the Outlands; they never looked here. So I was able to start it. A plan. Just a shift in the balance. The balance I had learned from Mpande. The basin we resided in had some minor growth, but after a month of having us in it, all growth disappeared. I saw an alternative. The lionesses were complaining. I would put them out of their misery, and make for their offspring a paradise, a land where they wouldn’t need to worry about where to get the next meal.

            But I needed to change the balance first. I would make sure of everything. I coldly thought over who would stay, who must go, how many to keep in order to bring it about. When I was satisfied, I began.

            I started on hunting detail. There wasn’t enough prey to justify a full hunt, so we hunted in groups of twos. In an attempt to not overhunt, we only sent out six groups, leaving twenty-four to sit and think about what they could have possibly done to have the gods let them wind up in a hellhole like this. So I went with Kwanza. We got just out of sight of the camp when I decided to do it. She was walking, not expecting anything. We go around a cliff, and I speak to her.

            “Kwanza.”

            She turned around, and I whacked my paw into the side of her head, knocking her to the ground. I leapt on her throat, tore it out between my teeth, spit it out. I looked at her, her face still one of surprise. I juggled her to my back, and walked back down into our “den.” It didn’t even deserve to be called that. All the lionesses were staring at me as I brought in Kwanza’s body. I shook her to the ground, them all in front of me, staring at her. One of the lionesses came over to her body. I think she may have been her sister. She finally spoke up.

            “What happened?”

            “This.” I tore my claws through her throat, watched her collapse to the ground on top of Kwanza. The other lionesses watched for a moment, then attacked. I remember slashing at a few, trying to take them down as quickly as I could. I don’t really remember much of what happened after that. I guess I won.

            One thing I do remember clearly was killing Dingane. He had stayed behind, watching his lionesses get killed one after another. I finally got done with the last of them and went for him. He ran from me, the coward. He leaped over a slab of rock. I tackled him in the air, hard. He landed on the rock, his head hanging over. He turned over and attempted to slash at me, but I pinned one foreleg to the ground, broke the other on the edge of the rock. He yelled in pain. I put my paw to his throat, cutting off air, then dug my hind legs’ claws into his stomach I watched him writhe in pain, unable to breathe, or even speak. When he started to close his eyes, I took my paw off his throat, letting in a breath before replacing it. I dug my claws into his body, watching him squirm. I wanted him alive as long as I could to feel pain. I wanted him to see my triumphant face as I killed him. I would show him expendable, show him worthless, show him everything that I could have been. I finally removed my paw again, and this time threw it as hard as I could into the underside of his chin. His neck flew up and to the side, broken. Just to make sure, I tore out his throat. I had enjoyed it. Immensely.

            After that I knew I didn’t have much time before the hunting parties came back. I wanted them alive, needed them alive for a proper balance. I was too injured to fight them, anyway. As the adrenaline wore off, the pain set in. I had a gash across one leg in addition to numerous ones across my body. But it was the leg that bothered me. I couldn’t run, only limp. So I did. I limped away as quickly as I could, knowing I wouldn’t be safe anywhere near here. I crept to a safe distance away, and watched as the hunting parties slowly came back. They cried over the dead, comforted each other. I shed no tears. The cub Mpande had seen in me was dead. Only the lion remained.

            They left, looking for me. They went completely the wrong way. I crept back down to the bodies, fell to the ground, exhausted. I was going to die here. No food, no water. Just dead. Then I looked around. I slowly realized it. I had plenty of food. All right here. I wasn’t sure what lion tasted like, but I didn’t have any other choice. But for now, rest. I laid my head down and went to sleep.

 

 

 

            I woke up hungry. I remembered what I had decided, and slowly got up and limped to a corpse. I looked down at the beautiful lioness. I wasn’t too sure I wanted to do this. Then my stomach rumbled and I left all regrets behind. I bit into the lioness’s side, tearing out a chunk. It was wonderful. I turned the sweet meat over and over in my mouth, trying to get all of the flavor out of it. It was nothing like the other animals I had eaten. It was so much better. I swallowed it, and dug greedily into it after that. I stripped her body entirely clean, then slept again. It went on for three days. Six lionesses were eaten. By the third day I could walk just fine. So I left. They were beginning to smell, anyway.

            The next three years are something of a blur, with memories sticking out. Like the time I had found what was left of the pride living a short distance away. They had figured out it was me who killed all of them. One of them was pregnant when she left my slaughter site. She gave birth to a cub. They named him Mvushi, and were raising him up to kill me. A lot like me and Mpande. Except I actually had competent teachers.

            I met him once. He had grown up a little. He still didn’t have his full mane, but he at least had the beginnings. I just sat there, watching him walk by. I stayed as still as I could. He didn’t notice me. I just watched him. I had watched him like this plenty of times before. I wanted to teach him, to have him learn from me, to have him carry on in my place. So I had to actually talk to him. I switched my tail, making what little grass there was rustle. He immediately turned to see the noise and saw me sitting. I smiled. “Hello, Mvushi.”

            He stood there for a few seconds, not recognizing me. Then suddenly surprise filled his face, to be immediately filled with anger. “You filthy murderer!” He rushed me.

            “Hey, take it easy,” I said. He didn’t stop. I sighed. I didn’t want to have to do this. This could have gone so much better. He kept coming at me, and when finally leaped at me. I raked my claws across his face, knocking him to the ground and a little bit past me. I got up and looked at him. He now had a nice set of deep gashes across the side of his face. I saw him watching me from the ground with a mixture of anger and fear. The anger won out. He tried to go for my neck with his teeth. I saw it coming and knocked him out with a blow to the head. I left him there. He would come to, and just go back to his pride. I couldn’t use him. They had him brainwashed.

            The rest of the land bloomed before my eyes. I made sure to keep a balance between how much the herds actually ate, how much the lions ate, how much grew in one place. It was hard work. It took time, but slowly grass appeared. Then one thing I cherished above all else, an actual tree. I watched it slowly grow for two years. It was a beautiful acacia. And the rest of the basin bloomed, too. Just like Sicwele had asked, I had found something to live for. Unlike he had asked, I still remembered nothing. I had decided to stop. I didn’t want to know. What if I hated who I used to be? Unfortunately, the more I tried not to think about it, the more that stupid nightmare came up. I tried to stop it by training harder, but it didn’t help either. Luckily I spent much less time sleeping. I constantly patrolled my lands, taking time to sleep only when I needed to, sometimes as little as three, but usually just five hours every day. I came to regard it as a waste of time.

            Another waste of time was when another pride thought they would just walk in and take over my land. They just settled right into the place. I made it immediately clear I didn’t like that. Mothers woke up in the morning to find their cubs dead with their throats cut with a single, deadly claw. They set up sentries at night, who mysteriously were found with their necks broken. Or they were found lying in pools of their own blood, with four bloody paw prints next to them indicating that the killer had sat and watched them die, watching their heart drive the life out of their body. They left after the second week.

            The land didn’t really amount to much. I made frequent visits to the boundaries of the Pridelands, trying to eke out every bit of information I could about its balance. It was a lot closer than Lakeside. I guess I never really thought about it, but looking back, I wanted to make it more a replica of the Pridelands than anything. Slowly, everything was covered in life. The termite mounds were covered, the barren ground was covered, the world seemed to have life breathed into it. Barely. I was forced to keep a constant balance, killing off excess animals wherever there were too many, without any regard to who it was. It would still take years to make it a functioning reality, something that didn’t need constant care and attention.

            I never did get those years. All because of one little fight. It’s like you’ve been in a wonderful daydream—albeit a daydream where you’re constantly watching your back for a small group of murderous lionesses and have the weight of rebuilding an entire land on your shoulders—and you’re yanked out of it into reality. The more I think on it, the more this could have all been avoided if Fujo wasn’t so . . . insensitive.

 

 

 

            I wake up, I prowl around the basin for a short while, I eat, I prowl some more, I check the lions, more prowling, more eating. In other words, just an ordinary day, other than the fact that I am not happy, as the lions have gotten several new cubs in the past two days, exceeding their quota, the wildebeest are overgrazing, a pool has just dried up completely without any explanation, and that damn dream has been haunting me all day. I was not happy. And then they come joyfully bounding into my life. I’m just doing more prowling, and I notice Fujo running around the Outlands. So I followed him. This was my domain, not his. He didn’t belong here, and the king’s son was one of the last people I needed here. I wasn’t finished yet. So I followed him. He never came anywhere near the basin, thank the gods. He was looking for something, I could tell. Then he finally found what—or rather who—he was looking for. It was that lioness, sitting on a hill. Tumee, Tumu, Tu-something. Tumai. That was it. I watched him go slowly up to her. He said something to her, and she responded. I couldn’t hear the first part, but I did hear the second.

            “I want to be alone.” Fujo didn’t leave her alone. He walked up to her instead, and sat down beside her. He said something to her, and made her start crying. That was it. I had had enough of royal privileges with Dingane, and I wasn’t about to let him get the same. I walked up the hill, and saw him raise his leg to put it around her.

            “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I asked.

            Fujo turned to me, looked at me with complete surprise. “Oh my god,” he breathed.

            He still hadn’t lowered his leg. “You heard her, she wants to be alone.”

            Fujo walked over to me, stared at me with those blue eyes of his. “I don’t believe it. You’re supposed to be dead.”

            “Well then apparently Kifa hasn’t told me yet.” I had picked up a few words of the royal language from Dingane here and there. I didn’t really expect him to get it. It seemed to fly right over his head.

            “Taraju?” I turned to Tumai. She had stopped crying, and had begun to look at me, too.

            “Maybe.” I tried to remember what the word was. It was order. . . . But wasn’t it that place that . . . no, wasn’t it the name of that cub that was killed in that cheetah slaughter?

            “What do you mean maybe?” asked Fujo. “You have to be him. There isn’t another lion alive that looks anything like you. Where have you been? What happened?”

            “You don’t need to know. Nobody needs to know. Especially me,” I said. I hated that blank that I had. I never wanted to remember it again. Or rather, for the first time.

            “Do you enjoy being cryptic?”

            “No.” Although it was a little fun to get under his skin.

            “Don’t you even know who I am? Don’t you remember who she is?”

            “You are Fujo, son of Kovu, king of the Pridelands, and she is Tumai.”

            “And this doesn’t make you the least bit homesick?”

            “Why? Should it?”

            “What, are you saying you don’t remember?” I blinked. He could be pretty perceptive. “What? You mean . . . oh gods . . .” Or maybe he wasn’t.

            “It took him long enough,” I said to Tumai. “Not really hunting with a full set of claws, is he?”

            Tumai giggled. “Nope. He never did have the brains.”

            “Hey, he is standing right here!” said Fujo. “And what do you mean you don’t remember?”

            “I mean I don’t remember.”

            “What? How do you forget years of your life like that? Do you think you just popped into existence one day?”

            “As far as I can remember.”

            “Oh, so now you can remember.” There was a little pleasure in ticking him off. I didn’t really like him. I didn’t know why.

            “You mean, you don’t remember either of us?” Tumai asked quietly. “Your brother and your best friend, you have nothing about us?”

            “Nothing.” Tumai sat down, staring at the ground.

            “Well, what do you remember?” asked Fujo. I looked away from Tumai to Fujo. Actions speak louder than words. So I slashed him across the face. I heard Tumai gasp. “Augh! Hey!”

            “I remember waking up and feeling that all across my body.”

            “Did you have to be so vivid?” Fujo shook his head, trying to clear it. “Remind me not to piss you off.”

            “That would probably be a good idea.” The first good one he’d had all day.

            “Where have you been all this time?” asked Tumai.

            “Here.”

            “What, just in the Outlands?”

            Taraju sighed. “You’re already here,” he said. “I might as well show you.” I started walking toward the basin. I didn’t know why I wanted to show it to them. I guess I was just proud of it.

            “Hey, where are you going?” called Fujo. I didn’t answer; I just kept walking. If they wanted to follow me, they would. I just kept walking towards the basin. I finally stopped on the edge and looked over it. Just like I had left it.

            “How did this even get here?” asked Tumai.

            “I did it,” I said. I didn’t really expect them to understand how.

            “What do you mean you did it?” asked Fujo.

            “Now that you definitely don’t need to know.” I wasn’t about to tell these two strangers what I had done to get this just right. Who knew what Kovu would do to me?

            “It looks just like home,” said Tumai.

            “Maybe.” I still thought it had a long way to go.

            “Haven’t you ever wanted to remember?” asked Tumai.

            “I used to. Then I stopped trying.”

            “Why?”

            “Why am I even telling you this? It’s not like you can do anything for me.” I turned toward her, looked at her.

            “Look, we can try,” she pleaded. “Come back with us. I’ll help you.”

            I’ll help you. A cub speaking, “I’ll help you.” Then she reached her head back down to the carcass. Suddenly, the image as gone again. I had never seen it before. It couldn’t have been a memory. I had tried too long for it to just pop up like that. But maybe . . . Just maybe . . .

            “You really think you can?” I asked her. In spite of my lack of inhibitions of doing it, I wanted more. Just to finally be able to know.

            “Yes.” I saw the sincerity in her eyes, the longing in her voice. Reminded me a little of pathetic Asari.

            “Alright. Let’s go then.” Tumai stood up with a smile. I followed her, walking by her side.

            “Hey, wait up!” It was Fujo. Apparently he hadn’t noticed us leaving. I wondered if his father would be anything like him. I enjoyed the walk back to their den. Pride Rock, that was it. I had never been this far into the Pridelands. I had been forced to stay on the fringes, staying out of Kovu’s sight. It would never do to have him see a rival kingdom blooming next to his.

            I just sat back and soaked up the scenery. For this short time, I had no duties, no responsibilities, no land to be watching over. I relaxed. Probably not the best idea to have when you’re walking straight into some lion’s den you don’t know, but I did it anyway. It’s probably why I told Tumai what I did remember, the part about just waking up with nothing. The darkness was coming on, and I was able to watch it as it slowly changed into night. It was beautiful. That may have been what made me relax. I really don’t know.

            We finally got to Pride Rock. Somehow it’s just a little different when it’s towering over you instead of you looking at it from miles away. Just a little. A black-maned lion was sitting on the edge of Pride Rock. Probably Kovu. Tumai led the way up the steps, followed by Fujo, and then me. I had lagged behind to watch the view. As we went up the stairs, I saw the lion stand up and walk toward us. He met us at the top.

            “You’ve brought a friend back, Fujo?” Kovu asked. I could see an ugly scar running across his left eye. I wondered what caused it. Probably that cheetah attack.

            I stepped forward. “Your highness. I humbly ask that you allow me to stay here for the night.”

            “Of course. Stay as long as you like.” Kovu smiled.

            “Thank you for your generosity.” I turned and went into the den, closely aware of the staring of the lionesses. The den wasn’t nearly as big as the one back in Lakeside. To be honest, it felt a bit cramped. I picked an unoccupied corner of the den and lied down on my side. I looked up to see Tumai right above me. She smiled at me, then lied down beside me. Rather on me. At least on my legs. She snuggled closer to me. I just let it go. If it made her happy, she could go ahead and do it. I was a guest; I didn’t make the rules. For all I knew, she was actually expected to do this. I suspected it was something more than that, though. Almost the whole way back, while I stared at the scenery, she stared at me. I shifted my attention away from her to the mouth of the den. Kovu and Fujo were talking. After a few moments they walked away, Fujo leading Kovu away off Pride Rock. I laid my head back down, ignoring the lionesses who were whispering. After a while it all quieted down, though. Slowly I fell asleep.

 

 

 

            I woke up. I didn’t know how long I had slept, but by where the moon was, I had slept much longer than I normally had. Who knows, maybe seven whole hours. It hadn’t been pitch-black when I arrived; I could just see the sun setting. Now, however, I could see the stars in the sky outside the den. I slowly started to wriggle my legs out from underneath Tumai, feeling the twinge that told me they were asleep. I tried to wiggle them a bit to get the feeling gone, and continued trying to get out from underneath her without waking her. I finally got out from underneath her. She stirred slightly, snuggling up to where I had been. I walked out of the den, deftly stepping over the lionesses sprawled over the den floor. I walked off of Pride Rock, down to a little hill. I sat down and thought about going back to the Outlands, just to check them. Then I reasoned they would have to be alone some time or another, one night wouldn’t kill them. Hopefully.

            I looked up at the stars, just taking the time to look at them. I remembered what Sicwele had said about them being kings. I wondered if Dingane was up there. Mpande had definitely made it, but what about Dingane? Had he been enough of a king? His memories had driven him to want to kill Mpande. Who knew what mine would make me do? I thought sadly of what they might make me into.

            But I tried anyway. And no matter how hard I tried, nothing came.

            I heard pawsteps behind me. I tried to act as normally as I could, just acting as if I hadn’t heard anything. I strained my ears to hear every sound. They were coming closer to me, quietly. Mvushi couldn’t have followed me all the way here, could he? Obviously he had. Just get him a little closer, and he would never be my problem again. Wait for it . . . wait for it . . .

            I turned sharply, whacking my stalker up the side of the face, knocking them to the ground. I leapt on them and placed my paw on their throat and shifted my head so I could see their face in the moonlight before I killed them.

            It was Tumai.

            I immediately got off, sorry that I had made the mistake. “Sorry. I thought you were someone else.”

            She coughed for a few moments. “Who could you possibly want to do that to?” she finally gasped.

            “You have to remember, I’ve been gone a long time. If this is where I came from.”

            “You still don’t believe us?”

            I turned away from her and sat down, looked back up at the stars. “More than I did when I first met you. But that isn’t saying much.” The memory had done something to convince me. It had convinced me to come here at least.

            She sat down beside me. “Why are you up anyway? You used to want to get as much sleep as possible.”

            “You get used to not having as much. You just have to try it first.”

            “And what would you be doing that would have you up all night? Chasing girls all night?”

            “Nothing that you need to know about. And I thought you would have figured out by now that chasing girls is not something I would do.”

            “What have you been doing?”

            “You just don’t give up, do you?”

            “I just want to help you remember.”

            “If it’s anything, I’ve remembered a little.”

            “Of what?”

            “About three seconds.” I sighed, remembering how Sicwele had been driven to his death by memory. “And I’m not sure if I want to remember any more.”

            “I would go crazy if I were you. How could you not possibly want to remember?”

            “What if I don’t like who I was?” I asked her. “What if I was the kind of person I despise?”

            “Taraju, everyone liked you. How anyone could have possibly have despised you is beyond me.” She nuzzled up to me. “I’ve missed you so much.” She kept nuzzling. It brought back memories of my first night at Lakeside, how Asari had played me for a fool. I wasn’t going to let that happen here. I pulled away sharply. “What is it?”

            “You have to remember that I don’t even know you,” I lied.

            “Not even a little?” She started to nuzzle me again. I pushed her away.

            “Maybe a little. A very little.” I wasn’t going to give her another chance. I got up and started back to the den.

            “Where are you going?”

            “To try to sleep. If remembering the rest is nearly as hard as what I have, I get the feeling I’m going to need all the sleep I can get.” The lies came off my tongue easily. I heard Tumai laugh. I thought about it, and decided that maybe I would go back to sleep. Who knew what it would take to rip those memories out of their hiding places? I got back to the den and stepped over the lionesses, lied down. I watched Tumai working her way over them, amused. She was so inept, it was almost funny. She finally reached me and lied down next to me. I pulled in my legs, making sure she wouldn’t be lying on them this time.

            “Good night,” she said.

            “Good morning would probably be closer.” I lied there and waited for her breathing to become regular before I finally drifted back to sleep myself.