THE

COMING OF MEERSHA

By Baby Fire Wolf

 

This is the tale of one lioness. Just one, who brought forth a greater part in the royal pride. An anecdote, taking place under King Mohatu’s and King Ahadi's reigns, but joined in the royal pride beneath the Kingdom ruled by Mufasa.

 

Parts

I The Cub

Chapters

1. New Ones

2. Meersha's Name

3. Lions

4. Benighted Water

5. Mud and Trouble

6. Leader Stress

7. First Carcass

8. One Eyed-Freak

9. The Rogues' Revelation

10. Fleeing

II The Adolescent

Chapters

11. Deformed Elephants

12. A Cheetah's Weakness

13. The Dawn of Adolescence

14. Cubs Once More

15. A Free Ride

16. Because of Study

17. An Old Face

18. A New Journey to Start

19. Captured

20. Izegbe

21. Two of the Drie-Leeu

22. The Deal

23. A Hunt

24. What was Left

25. Killing the Killer

III The Adult

Chapters

26. A New Meersha

27. Only Two Now

28. The Ceremony

29. Unexpected Bloodshed

30. Her Dying Wish

31. Dibi

32. By the River

33. Gatu's Quest

34. Strangers

35. Heavy Sentiments

36. A Fight in the Rain

37. The New Pride

38. Cubs, Establishments and Travels

39. Same Blood

40. Two Old Lions and Two Young Lions

41. The Flatland Pride

42. A Plan

43. The Warning

44. Finally

45. A Son’s Revenge

46. Welcome Home

47. A Real Leader

48. Reunited

49. Corrupting the Circle of Life

50. Passing the Emperor

51. The Birth of the Twilights

52. A Best-kept Secret

53. Father and Son

54. A Chase to Danger

55. A Trick, a Chase, and a Mistake

56. Mist is an Ally

57. Her Mistake

58. Decisions

59. A King and a Brother

60. Hello…Goodbye

61. Searching

62. The Pass

63. Messenger of King Basha

64. A Broken Love

65. The War

66. Her Path

67. Turned Upsidedown

68. Leaving

69. The Feeling of Loss

70. Reborn

71. The New Nyte, and a Path Shaped and Ended

72. The Coming of Meersha

 Epilogue

 

My Characters

Meersha (Daughter of Kinara and Ashuma, litter-sister of Kasha, Banjija, half-sister -younger- of Chusuka) Meer-sh-uh

Banjija (Son of Kinara and Ashuma, litter-brother of Kasha and Meersha, half-brother -younger- of Chusuka) Bon-shee-shaw -- "sh" pulled in like "z" is a pulled in "s", Banjija sounds African with French

Kasha (Son of Kinara and Ashuma, litter-brother of Banjija and Kasha, half-brother -younger- of Chusuka) Kaw-shaw

Kinara (Lioness of White-Feather pride, mother of Meersha, Kasha, Banjija and Chusuka) Kin-ar-uh

Ashuma (Once leader of the White-Feather pride, father of Kasha, Banjija. Meersha, and other various cubs) Uh-shoo-muh

Bayna (Lioness of White-Feather pride, mother of Lusala and Pashi) Bay-nuh

Lusala (Daughter of Bayna and Ashuma, sister of Pashi) Loo-saw-luh

Pashi (Daughter of Bayna and Ashuma, sister of Lusala) Paw-shee

Chusuka (Lioness of White-Feather Pride, daughter of Kinara and Tambi, mother of Toga) Choo-soo-kuh

Toga (Son of Chusuka and Ashuma) Toh-guh

Tambi (Once leader of White-Feather pride, father of Chusuka) Tawm-bee

Shashi (Lioness-shaman of White-Feather pride) Shaw-shee

Dashu (Once leader of White-Feather pride, father of Kinara) Daw-shoo

Tanda (Lioness of White-Feather pride) Tawn-duh

Helalu (Lioness of White-Feather pride) H-law-loo

Gatu (Lion cub in White-Feather pride) Gaw-too

Tokto (Lion cub in White-Feather pride) Tawk-toh

Shap (Lion cub in White-Feather pride) Sh-ap

Daba (Lion cub in White-Feather pride) Daw-baw

Naynana (Lion cub in White-Feather pride) Nay-naw-nuh

Bondu (Lion cub in White-Feather pride) Bawn-doo

Kiku (Lion cub in White-Feather pride) Kee-koo

Chaska (Leader of the White-Feather pride) Chaw-skuh

Gali (Female hippo) Gaw-lee

Unaro (Rogue lion) Oo-nar-oo

Natira (Wild shaman, grandmother of Unaro) Nuh-teer-uh

Ahadgna (Leader of the Broken-Claw) Uh-hawd-g-nuh

Yawnda (Lioness of the Broken-Claw) Yawn-duh

Chioke (Son -adopted- of Ahadgna) Chy-oh-kay

Kumba (Rogue lion) Koomb-uh

Gonra (Lioness of the Broken-Claw) Gohn-raw

Bahashi (Lioness of the Broken-Claw) Bawh-ha-shee

Ignu (Lioness of the Broken-Claw) Ig-noo

Uhawku (Son -adopted- of Ahadgna, part of the Drie-Leeu) Oo-hawk-oo

Hawkna (Son -adopted- of Ahadgna, part of the Drie-Leeu) Hawk-nuh

Kikaru, Zarazu (Son -adopted- of Ahadgna, part of the Drie-Leeu) Ki-kar-oo, Zar-aw-zoo

Rombu (Son -adopted- of Meersha and Zarazu) Rom-boo

Izegbe (Meersha's Broken-Claw name) Ee-zeg-bay

My New Characters

Hilali (Lioness of the Broken-Claw) Hi-law-lee

Julu (Lioness of the Broken-Claw) Joo-loo

Dibi (Male prarie dog) Dib-ee

Umbsha (Once leader of the Sunset pride, father of Yora, Tati) Oom-baw-shuh

Yora (Lioness of Sunset pride, daughter of Umbsha) Yor-uh

Kira (Lioness of Sunset pride, mother of Kashu and Tati) Keer-uh

Tati (Lion cub of the Sunset pride, son of Kira and Umbsha, son -adopted- of Banjija, brother -younger- of Kashu) Taw-tee

Imba (Daughter of Kinara and Tambi) Eem-buh

Mika (Lioness of Flatland pride, sister of O'star) Mee-kuh

O'star (Leader of Flatland pride, brother of Mika, father of Cheasala, Pinga and Pursha) Oh-star

Kula (Lioness of Flatland pride, mother of Cheasala) Koo-luh

Fina (Lioness of Flatland pride, mother of Pinga and Pursha) Fee-nuh

Runaka (Lioness of Flatland pride) Roo-naw-kaw

Cheasala (Lioness of Flatland pride, daughter of Kula and O'star, sister of Kirasi -- great, great grandma of the Cheasala featured in The Lion King VII: Kusa and Cheasala) Chee-saw-law

Pinga (Lioness of Flatland pride, daughter of Fina and O'star, sister of Pursha) Peeng-uh

Pursha (Lioness of Flatland pride, daughter of Fina and O'star, sister of Pinga) Per-sh-uh -- "sh" pulled in like "z" is a pulled in "s", like the word "Persia"

Kirasi (Son of Kula and O'star, brother of Cheasala) Ker-aw-see

Rawkshaw (Lioness shaman of Sunset pride) Rawk-shaw

Tara (Lioness of Sunset pride) Tar-uh

Bongo (Lion cub of Sunset pride) Bawn-goh

Runcha (Lion cub in Susnet pride) Roon-chuh

Kashu (Daughter of Kira and Umbsha, sister -elder- of Tati) Kaw-shoo

Hadra (Son -eldest- of Meersha and Zarazu, brother -eldest- of Binjaji, Gwalu and Tamu) Haw-druh

Binjaji (Son -second- of Meersha and Zarazu, brother -second eldest- of Hadra, Gwalu and Tamu) Bin-shaw-shee -- "sh" pulled in like "z" is a pulled in “s” so Binjaji sounds African with French

Gwalu (Daughter -third- Meersha and Zarazu, sister -third eldest- of Hadra, Binjaji and Tamu) Gwah-loo

Tamu (Daughter -youngest- of Meersha and Zarazu, sister –youngest- of Hadra, Binjaji and Gwalu) Tuh-moo

Ashu (Lioness of the Sunset pride) Aw-shoo

Hagra (Leader of the guards, lioness of the Sunset pride) Haw-gruh

Untru (Lioness of the Sunset pride) Oon-troo

Bayla (Lioness of the Sunset pride) Bay-luh

Talka (Hippo, once leader of Gali’s pod) Tawl-kuh

Sutu (Son of Hunru, queen of the Nyte pride) Soo-too

Hunru (Mother of Sutu, once queen of the Nyte pride) Hoon-roo

Kami (Edler sister of Tae, mate of Ganru, once Messenger of the Nyte pride) Kaw-mee

Basha (Father of Bahi, once King of the Nyte pride) Baw-shaw

Yaynu (Once Shaman of the Nyte pride) Yay-noo

Bahi (Daughter of Basha, once Queen of the Nyte pride) Baw-hee

Tae (Younger brother of Kami, once Warrior of the Nyte pride) Tay

Ganru (Younger brother of King Basha, mate of Kami, once Protector of the Nyte pride) Gawn-roo

Kaniki (Once leader of the Sunlight pride) Kuh-nee-kee

Kangu (Son of Kaniki, once lion of the Sunlight pride) Kawn-goo

Shika (Once lioness of the Nyte pride) Shee-kuh

Belu (Once cub of the Nyte pride) Bay-loo

Tatri (Once cub of the Nyte pride) Taw-tree

Singdu (Once half-cub of the Nyte pride) Seeng-doo

Nitala (Ancestor of Meersha, once cub of the Sunlight pride, and lioness of the Nyte, adopted daughter of King Basha) Ni-taw-law

Yamu (Once lion of the Nyte pride) Yaw-moo

Saka (Cheetah cub) Saw-kaw

Hayru (Son of Hadra) Hay-roo

My Characters Updated

Meersha (Leader of the Twilight pride, daughter of Kinara and Ashuma, litter-sister of Kasha, Banjija, half-sister -younger- of Chusuka, mate of Zarazu, mother of -adoptive- of Rombu, blood mother of Hadra, Binjaji, Gwalu and Tamu) Meer-sh-uh

Zarazu (Son -adopted- of Ahadgna, mate of Meersha, father -adoptive- of Rombu, blood father of Hadra, Binjaji, Gwalu and Tamu) Zar-aw-zoo

Banjija (Leader of the Sunset pride, son of Kinara and Ashuma, litter-brother of Kasha and Meersha, half-brother -younger- of Chusuka, father -adotive- of Tati) Bon-shee-shaw -- "sh" pulled in like "z" is a pulled in "s", Banjija sounds African with French

Naynana (Daughter of Ashuma, mate of Kumba, mother of twin cubs) Nay-naw-nuh

Kumba (Mate of Naynana, father of twin cubs) Koomb-uh

Hadra (Leader of the Twilight pride, father of Hayru)

 

 

Part III:

The Adult

 

XXVI

A New Meersha

 

As the wind blows,

and the fog grows,

there will be a new one,

to destroy us all,

and there will be a new one,

to save us from the fall

-Prophecy of the Messiah (Highsun Era)

 

"Meersha, can I talk to you?" Zarazu asked.

A young lioness slowly stalked over to the male who sat atop the hill, over looking the water hole in the southwest. The female purred as she began nuzzling her future mate.

"Call me Izegbe. And what is it, Kikaru?" she replied.

He shook his head, his night-like mane flowing – it was fullgrown, as was he now.

"That!" Kikaru snapped.

"What?" she innocently peeped.

"Listen to yourself! You're calling me Kikaru – you Izegbe. You're at your lessons way earlier than usual. We barely get to talk because even in your freetime, you're always off with the pride-"

"They're my family, Kikaru!"

"Stop calling me that! And no they're not!"

"Yes they are." she growled lowly. "What's happened to you? You're not the lion I remember..."

Zarazu's blue eyes widened as he looked over Meersha in shock. He fumbled to find words, but she went on.

"I'm just off with them...hunting. How d' ya think we get food, silly?" Her voice was smooth, and somewhat reflected Ahadgna's. "And why can't I spend time with kin?"

"Well what about me?" he whispered coldly, then looked away, glaring at the ground.

"Oh don't be like that, hunny," she purred, nuzzling him once more. "Don't be so jealous."

He suddenly jerked around, roaring, "I'm not jealous! Just worried!"

"There's nothing to be worried of, Kikaru," she assured, with an awkard giggle.

"Don't call me that." the lion warned.

"It's your rightful name, though. Just as Izegbe is mine."

Zarazu took a deep breath, before exhaling deeply, and bursting out, "You used to hate lessons, Meersha! And now, every time you come back, you always arrive at midnight, smelling as blood!"

"Blood from your meals." Izegbe growled, slightly shocked at his yelling. "The meals I get you."

"That's not it...I mean, you do get food, and I thank you and the others for it. But I smell more than just zebra or antelope."

She took a step back, astonished, before becoming outraged once more. "What are you saying?"

"I don't know," He glared.

"Are you saying...I'm a murderer?"

"I'm not sure..."

Izegbe blinked, taking another step back.

Seeing his mistake, Zarazu quickly replied, "I mean no."

She glowered at him, though. Before Izegbe could reply, there was a voice behind her.

"Hey, love birds,"

Meersha turned. "Yawnda."

"Tonight's the big ceremony at the Rock Claws, just to let you know. The boy's are...anxious," Yawnda snickered. "Oh and, you better choose the right one." she glanced darkly at Zarazu. "To mess up this, could mean messing up the future."

With that, the older lioness turned and slowly walked off.

Zarazu couldn't help but shiver at the thought of never being picked for Meersha. So far, they were best friends! He couldn't stand it, and wouldn't know what to do if he wasn't picked.

Indeed Meersha had changed, though. It was about about two full moons after the killing, and she had taken part with the Broken-Claw. She had accepted them as family, and accepted her "rightful" name as Izegbe. People began to respect her – almost as much as Ahadgna – all except Yawnda, who looked at her as she had the time Meersha first came. This only caused Zarazu's suspicion to grow. What could she have done to get the whole pride to like her? It wasn't that he wasn't proud or glad for her, but most of the lionesses had not taking a liking to her in the first place, so there had to have been something she had done to gain this much respect. And, knowing this pride for practically his whole life, Zarazu knew there was nothing good she could do to get their admiration.

One would think she had turned to murdering, though this was not it...not yet, at least. But of course, her hatred of adult males had dawned, and was now thriving. She hated all – all but Kikaru. What of her father? Brothers? They didn't matter now, and deep down, Meersha knew she would most likely never see them again. And so she had pushed them out of her mind, along with any cubhood memories. She didn't hate them, she just did not know them anymore. They were gone – they were nothing to her.

 

XXVII

Only Two Now

 

When the war was finally over, the royal twnis were the only ones left.

-Royal Twins of Suntu (Dark Era)

 

"I don't believe you!" Banjija had roared in anger.

"What's gotten into you, Gatu?" Lusala had asked, frowning.

"What's gotten into me? What's gotten into her! She's a murderer!" Gatu had yelled.

They were back at the tree when Gatu had told them what he had witnessed. Even as he had tried to urge them to believe him, he himself, didn't know if what he had seen was the truth. After all, Meersha couldn't be a killer - she was his best friend! In fact it was that night that he had had to think it over, before telling them. Memories flowed through his head about her sweet nature, her loving ways – but every time that happened, they were cut off with the frigthened voice of the innocent lion. "I have cubs on the way!" and his words seemed to drown out each picture he had of his loyal, loving friend. All evidence pointed to Meersha as a killer.

Now, even two months after the incident, the three were still arguing. Banjija wouldn't fall into it - he would not believe that his own and only litter-sister was a murderer. Lusala just shook her head any time she was told Meersha was a murderer, and ended up thinking that maybe Gatu had seen it all in his mind - that in fact, was what Gatu wished had happened. But deep down, he knew the truth.

Both Gatu and Banjija were glaring at each other, as if attempting the other to force out submission in words. Lusala watched, tail curled around herself as she heaved a sigh, wishing for once that she had another female's company. This, after all, was not the normal life of a lioness. If only she had her sister back, instead of two young, constantly-quarreling rogues.

Growling to himself, Gatu turned and angrily stalked off into the savannah. He plopped himself down in one spot and let his eye travel up to the sky, and there it stayed, that is until night kicked in. When the stars began to twinkle, his heavy mind was not settled upon one thing. What was he to do now that his best friend was a murderer?

"Gatu?" he heard Lusala say.

He did not reply. He didn't even look at her, and the only sign of recognition was the twitch of his left ear. But still, Gatu gazed up at the vast sky.

"It's endless." he stated aloud.

"Huh?" the lioness's gentle voice replied as she sat down, and looked up as well. "What is?"

"The sky. It goes on forever. But maybe that's what makes it wonderful." His voice was distant and dreamy right then.

"It is beautiful,"

Gatu blinked, then looked to Lusala, as if finally noticing her. "Maybe Meer-" quickly the lion stopped talking. He could not bring himself to say Meersha's name. Not after what he had seen. "Maybe she was right."

"Who? Meersha?"

The lion's fur bristled as Lusala said that.

"What was she right about?" Lusala persisted.

"Maybe the best part of something is not the destination, but getting there."

"Oh no," groaned Lusala, though she couldn't help a small grin at his realization.

"It's like life, though. I mean, life's last stop is death, but it's the living that counts. It's living that is the journey."

"I'm glad you found that out."

Slowly, he stood, and said, "I think I have to go."

Lusala just stared at Gatu. But what she did surprised him. The lioness also stood, smiled, nuzzled him, and then nodded. Gatu's eye fell on her, and there was a gentle connection between the two, as well as a strong understanding. Lusala was not about to ask why he had to go. It was the same reason Meersha had left in the first place.

"You will be missed," she finally whispered.

Gatu quickly turned, and started off into the north. It was the same way Meersha had gone, but he would not allow himself to fall into the same trap that led her to nature's crime.

~~~

"Oh now where's cyclopse?" asked Banjija.

It was the next morning, and the lion had awoke to see only Lusala beside him. She gave a yawn, before simply replying, "He went."

"What?" Banjija whispered in light shock, but quickly cleared his throat and asked, "Why? It wasn't because he was mad at me for not believing my own sister murdered someone, was it?"

Lusala shook her head as she sat up. "Nah. He left 'cause he needed to. The same reason Meersha herself did."

"Well good ridens then," the lion replied as he also sat, though he couldn't help a feeling of regret. After all, he and Gatu had become friends - like brothers. Sure they had many quarrels, but still...And the last conversation they had together was more of an argument, that almost led to violence. Banjija flinched as he glanced at Lusala, who seemed to see right through him.

You know you miss 'im, she thought to herself.

For the rest of the day the two laid around in the sun, quietly thinking to themselves. They didn't even notice the strange group of about forty or so lions walking over the horizon, heading north.

 

XXIIX

The Ceremony

 

We watched as the new leader was raised high into the light that so blanketed his fur, and wondered, is he finally the one?

-Questions of the Folk

 

The night was cold. A chill lingered throughout the savannah and all the grasslands, and the moon was full and high, brightening up the dark sky. The stars were not out, though, and mist would lightly blanket the borders of the Broken-Claw empire.

Several lionesses were making their way through the darkness, over to where the Rock Claws lay. It was Ahadgna who was beckoning them with her overpowering roars. Soon, the unusually large pride was together. Older lionesses were scattered around in the groups of the younger ones, who had just entered adulthood. The Drie-Leeu were upon the Rock Claws themselves, each seated upon one. They, now with their fullgrown manes, were glaring out into the distance, for this was how they were taught to be when in this position. It was Meersha who sat in front of the Rock Claws, tail curled around herself as she gazed at nothing, her face expressionless, even in the dark.

When the younger lionesses were quieted down, Ahadgna began to speak, standing between Izegbe and the young males on the rocks, looking at her pride. "My sisters!" she cried. "We have come here tonight, to the Rock Claws, for a number or special reasons. First, let's congragulate our youngest lionesses, for they, as well as the Drie-Leeu, have now become full adults!"

With that, everyone burst out in a series of roars, that filled the night like deadly music.

"And," Ahadgna went on when it became silent. "now that our Drie-Leeu have grown up, as well as Izegbe, it's time for her to choose her mate...She once came here when she was a cub, and now she is an adult!" Ahadgna turned to look at Izegbe, eyes sparkling in the moonlight as she took a step forward and said, more to Meersha than to anyone, "I know she will pick well...After all, she is to bring on the next generation to let our ways run through the lions of the future. But she cannot do it alone. No. There must be two. And tonight, she will pick one of the three true males, to become her mate. They together, will bring on the ways of the Broken-Claw!"

A second time, the whole pride, including Yawnda, roared. Some lionesses even swept the air with extended claws. This time, though, Izegbe herself and the three males were silent. In fact, Uhawku, Hawkna and Kikaru were gazing off into the distance, the slightest of dark grins on their faces. Zarazu, though, had more of a nervous expression as he stared at nothing. Nothing. The Drie-Leeu were taught to let their eyes stay in one spot: the background. Whenever they were to sit upon the Rock Claws, they were to stare past the whole pride at nothing, and appear as brave and proud as possible. But Zarazu was not that. He felt like he could vomit right then. His blue eyes darted to Meersha for a moment as he swallowed the lump in his throat. The lion had quickly looked back past everyone. Had anyone seen him look at her? He was risking severe punishment in doing so...No one. No one had seen him glance at the beautiful, yet cold lioness. Thankfully...Or was he wrong?

Izegbe stalked slowly forward to the Rock Claws, the pride's eyes upon her. Her _expression was so cold, and yet felt so firey hot to Zarazu, that it made him inwardly flinch. Not that he was looking at her again, but he could feel it, and it made his fur slightly bristle. Izegbe was staring hard at all three of them as she paced by the giant rocks. She was looking up at first Hawkna, but quickly past him. Uhawku was in the middle, and all she could do was glance at the young lion. It was when she came to Zarazu, did she stop.

Kikaru's heart was beating fast now. So fast, it overlapped the music of the chirping crickets. Was sdhe going to pick him? Even though he knew she had changed, he still had to have her. He loved her and, somewhere trapped in her soul, was the old Meersha. He could not let this go. She could not pick someone else. They were meant for each other. He had to have her...no matter what.

Suddenly, Kikaru's heart sank and he felt his stomach churn as Izegbe turned around, heading back to the other two. What was she doing?! Was he not to be picked?! Was she mad at him for their earlier talk? Surely this could not mean losing his mate!

Once more, Izegbe stopped as she sat in front of Uhawku. Her tail twitched a few times as she gazed thoughfully into his eyes, but never once did he look away from the wall of blackness that sat right behind his family. It seemed forever that she sat there, silence among the pride. Finally, though, the lioness stood, and bound over to Zarazu's rock, only to let out an earshattering roar.

Zarazu was so relieved, that he could not hear the words of his mother.

"She has chosen!" Ahadgna had cried. "She has chosen the other one who will bring on our pride's ways!"

Again, cheering was heard in the rest of the family's roars.

Izegbe lifted her forepaws and let herself rest on the rock's side as she stared deep into his eyes. There was a knowing silence between the two young ones, and she quickly licked his nose, before jumping upon the rock. The two nuzzled in the gleaming moonlight as it bathed them.

"This is a great and happy moment! Our Kikaru, a true lion indeed, has become not her brother, but her mate!" Ahadgna paused, before going on. "Now there's one other anouncement...Because our daughters our now fullgrown, they are allowed to go out on hunts." The white lioness smirked, and the pride grinned back. "Half of the young ones will be led by our own Hilali. They will shed the black blood of the untrue lions! Now off!"

One older lion suddenly leapt up, and roared, and half of the younger ones followed her over the hill behind them, and disappeared into the night as Ahadgna had yelled, "Good look!" She looked back to the rest. "And, now the rest of the lionesses are to find the innocent cubs, and bring them to us. You will be led by Julu."

As another lioness got up, she slowly began to move off. The younger ones trailed behind her.

"Bring back our two young lovers a few cubs to start off their relationship with," Ahadgna exclaimed with a chuckle, before they were off.

The rest of the lionesses began to seperate.

"The two of you," the leader's ghostly voice lingered as she padded closer to the Rock Claws, staring at her sons. "You two are still Izegbe's brothers. Treat her and your brother with respect, as well as each other. But don't worry. Just because you have not been chosen to carry on our ways, does not mean you do not have a part here. No. You two are very important. You will help to train and raise the young males that Izegbe and Kikaru collect. Now, off with you!"

The two had been staring behind their mother as she had spoken, and quickly leapt off, disappointedly into the night as they were comanded.

Ahadgna said nothing as she smiled at Izegbe and Zarazu, before she turned around, her curved tail following.

Kikaru watched her go as he nuzzled into Meersha's fur. He could not argue right then. Not tonight. He was too greatful that he was chosen, and did not want to risk losing her.

"What do you want," Ahadgna asked the enivornment as she padded to the north. "Yawnda?"

Yawnda padded over in front of her mother and bowed respectfully.

"I was just wondering," the golden lioness began. "Do you think Izegbe and Kikaru will pull it off?"

"Pull what off? The future? They were raised and trained by us. There is no doubt in my mind that Izegbe and Kikaru will raise great cubs and make true lions..." she paused to briefly but deeply ponder. "...and one day, they will rule the Broken-Claw."

"What?!" Yawnda choked. Could she have heard right?

"That is right, Yawnda. They are young and strong, and will make this pride thrive. They will make our way known throughout the lands. I have the deepest trust in them."

With that, Ahadgna started off again.

Yawnda stood, stunned. She could not move for a few moments, but when she did, the lioness quickly scrambled to the white one.

"Mother...are you sure? I mean, we have indeed done a good job with Izegbe but, have you noticed that Kikaru is getting...how should I put it...?" she asked herself.

Ahadnga halted in her tracks and jerked her head around, glaring at her daughter, who took a step back, "Yawnda! Enough! What's done is done! They are mates, and because Izegbe is going to carry out the pride, Kikaru will, too! There is nothing wrong with them. When will you learn this? Now, silence!"

Yawnda's ears flattened as she narrowed her eyes, but nodded solemly, and said nothing as the leader padded off again. Izegbe and Kikaru, future leaders of the Broken-Claw? How could this be?

 

XXIX

Unexpected Bloodshed

 

“The newcomer would ask, her eyes filled with rage and sorrow as they crawled upon the new graveyard of our pride, ‘What has happened?’ and I said, ‘Life.’”

-Adolescent Yimba (Dark Era)

 

Gatu trudged through the open savannah. His ears were perked and his only eye gleamed in the melting sunlight. It was a day after he had left, and already the young lion had traveled miles to the northeast. Now, though, he was heading straight north once more. If he had only turned his head slightly to the left, he would have been able to watch the last of the giant group of males, pad further north, more to the west, at least two miles away.

Suddenly, Gatu grunted in surprise as he fell. Meeting the ground hard, the lion staggered up and blinked, finding himself in a hole - about twelve feet or so deep, and maybe eight feet around. Crouching for a moment, the lion jumped up, but fell back. It was too high up.

"Oh crap," he uttered, before trying again, but with no success.

~~~

It was the next evening. Early crickets were already chirping, the sky was steaked in beautiful pinks and oranges, and a light breeze came through the savannah as two lions had seated themselves beside a calm water hole. The lioness was resting her head into the lion's raven colored mane. Both stared down dreamily at their reflection as the male sighed. Was it time to bring up the conversation again? It had only been a day since the ceremony, but still...

"Too bad they didn't bring us any cubs," Izegbe whispered, before looking up into Zarazu's innocent eyes of blue, a whicked smile on her face. "But we could make some ourselves."

Zarazu, taken aback by this, just blinked at her. Indeed the lioness was old enough and at the same time young enough to mate and was in the right part of the year, but was it truely time? No. He could not do this with someone he did not love. He needed to find the real Meersha before anything went on.

"I can't." he finally said after a heavy silence.

"What?" Izegbe asked, astonished. Any other male lion would've given anything up for a moment and offer like this. But why did her own mate not want to? What was it that led him to stray from it? Is he not attracted to me anymore? she asked herself.

The thought was quickly pushed aside as a roar shot out into the distance. Izegbe gasped and the two jerked their heads to look southeast. The roar sounded deeper than that of a lioness's. Quickly, they began up a broad knoll to get a better look.

~~~

"What are you doing?!" a lioness snarled.

She was standing strongly between the Broken-Claw, and a massive pride of only male lions. One large lion in particular, stepped up in front of his companions, only to reply in another earshattering roar. "It is time to take over your pride once and for all!"

The crestfallen lioness took an awkward step back, glancing at the lionesses behind her. But when she looked back at the lions she growled, "Must you have so many untrue males to take over a pride? That obviously shows how weak you really are."

"We're not going to take over your pride...we're going to destroy it!"

Yawnda was scrambling up a hill in the northeast, panting as this happened.

"Oh really? And why must some lions destroy the innocent-" the lioness had started, but was cut off by the same male. "Innocent? Is this not the Broken-Claw?"

"It...is..." hesitated the lioness.

Suddenly another lion from the Broken-Claw jumped up beside her sister. "We are the proud Broken-Claw! Come and give us all you've got, untrue lions of the Outlands!"

The male leader roared out, "We have heard tales about your murdering kin! After being kicked out of our own prides, we lions have come together, and sworn vengence on our fathers and brothers! Now that we have found you, it is time to bring the Broken-Claw to justice!"

Words seeming to echo through the vast lands, the males began forward.

~~~

"Mother!" Yawnda desperately called as she stopped in front of Ahadgna, attempting to regain her breath.

"What is with all the yelling?" snarled the experienced, ghostly lioness as she stood, fur bristling.

"Untrue lions! They've come to destroy the pride!" Yawnda panted.

Before she could go on, her mother ran off. Growling, the dark lioness followed.

"Move the troups in." Ahadgna ordered. "It's time to show lions the true way."

Nodding, Yawnda took off down the hill, roaring out demands to the closest of her pride. The lionesses obeyed, and leapt up after her, into the deadly path of the oncoming males. Now the two prides were only yards away from each other.

Ahadgna sat quietly, watching as her tail curled around her body, eyes glaring at the scene below. If things were to get out of paw...then she would join...

There were about forty males in the enemy pride, and fifty females in the Broken-Claw, along with the Drie-Leeu. But several of the lionesses were old now, while the male pride had strong, healthy young adults.

Finally, the prides came together in swift combat. Claws raked, teeth bit, bodies slammed. Blood was quickly shed, and roars of both pain and anger filled the air. Chunks of earth flew everywhere as the lions brawled. Here and there a lioness would rip the mane of a lion. A lion would break the back of a Broken-Claw member as he pounced upon her. One lioness could easily snap the jaw of a lion with their paws, while another male would tear one's tail off. Sometimes a group of lionesses would join together to kill a lion with ease. Other times a lion was forced to throw a female off him into her own companion, and in doing so injured two at the same time.

As the fighting went on, Izegbe and Zarazu continued to stare at the war in shock.

"What's happening?" Izegbe's coerced voice then came.

"Males have never liked the Broken-Claw. I guess this is what has come of many rogues."

Izegbe jerked her head back and forth, as if shaking it, before she said, "We have to help them." and took off.

"Meersha! No!" cried her mate, and he began after her.

Back at the fight, one male from the lion pride was struck by another male.

"What are you doing, lion?!" snarled the one who's face was now left with a pathetic rake.

"I am part of the Broken-Claw!" Hawkna growled back, now in attacking postition.

Blinking in surprise, the lion said, "You betray your own kind. These are just murderers! Join us and know what it is really like to be a lion!"

"I am a lion! I am a true lion unlike you!" Hawkna yelled in rage, and quickly the two were at each other's throats.

A flock of nearby birds quickly took off from an acacia in the distance. They could not stand the startling sounds of bloodshed any longer.

"Meersha!" screamed the young male as he watched his beloved mate disappear into the fight.

Dust, blood, and bodies everywhere blocked her from his view now. But that wouldn't stop him. Zarazu snarled as he prepared to rip into the fight. Suddenly, though, his own breath was torn from his body as he found himself on the ground, gasping for air. A lion had attacked him! Quickly, he staggered up.

"No! I need t' find-" he began to say aloud, but was once more crushed as the lion pounced him.

Kikaru found the face of an angry lion inches from his own. The fangs glittered in the twilight, and even the music of death from all the others was gone. This stranger was going for his throat! Zarazu was able to tuck his chin down so that the lion's teeth met his nose instead. A roar of agony was overlapped by everyone else, but Zarazu could feel the sharp pain of skin breaking, and soon warm liquid was gushing from his nose. Almost instinctively, he kicked the lion atop him, in the gut, making him fly over. It was not his time yet. He had to find Meersha.

Staggering up, Kikaru forced himself into the fight, away from his attacker's path. At least, away from that lion. Now he had to move through everyone else. Perhaps it could be easier than expected, though, for the lionesses knew him very well, and the lions could think he was part of their pride - just another fighting rogue. But no. Again Zarazu was knocked off his paws. He found himself in danger of more lions.

XXX

Her Dying Wish

 

“It amazed so many, that my life was based on someone who was dead…but I made the promise.”

-Yimba (Dark Era)

 

The fight carried on for some time. Ahadgna was still upon the hill, watching as her own family was dying. There was one certain roar that led her to get up, and move to a ravine in the east. As she stopped at its edge, her weary eyes fell onto a group of cowering lions. Four of them. But wait...they were not cowaring. They were waiting...waiting for an ambush. A single lioness from her pride was being pushed back into the ravine by three others. It was Meersha.

Smirking slightly, the white one suddenly leapt down with a loud roar, landing on the back of one of the lions in the ravine. He snarled in surprise, but quickly fell as she dug her teeth into the back of his neck and barely twisted before she heard a snap. Having been the break of her forced fall, that lion was easy enough to kill. The lioness leapt off, though as she saw the other three. One leapt, and she ducked. He went rolling into the earth's wall. This gave Ahadgna a chance to turn and pounce him. Before he could gather his wits, before she herself could even attack him, Ahadgna was off his body once more. She found herself a couple feet away, just as the lion's own companion had landed on and attacked him instead. With an angry roar, the third lion launched himself through the air, but was quickly thrown back at the fourth lion. As this happened, both were knocked into the ravine's wall, too. Only this time, the earth began to tremble.

Izegbe blinked and scrambled out of the way of the ravine's enterance, past the distracted lions who pondered why their ambush had not worked. They, too, were off, though as the walls fell over each other.

Dirt and rock began to crumble, and plumet to the ground. Ahadnga was right where they would land. She had to get out of there for her life. The lioness sped towards the enterence. It was her only escape. Rock and earth fell behind her, giving out their own thunderous roars. Almost there. Almost out. Just a few yards. Now a few feet. She was going to make it!

Suddenly a huge rock came to the ground right in front of her, causing her to hault. And just in those couple seconds, Ahadgna was forced to her doom. The earth fell, and she was buried.

~~~

Still, the war went on. Though several were dead, many were still alive from both prides. Ahadgna's capture by earth itself was not unseen. Yawnda had watched the whole thing, and was now onto of the resadue. There was no ravine left, just a place full of rocks and loose dirt. Quickly, she dug through the ground. She stopped only when her mother's head was uncovered, as well as part of her left forepaw.

"Mother," Yawnda quietly said. Her voice was not sad, nor mad, or even shocked. It was in fact nothing, just as her expression. She knew Ahadgna was to die, and so the only thing to look after now was the pride itself. "Ahadgna," Yawnda then whispered.

Ahadgna's ears twitched, and the lioness slowly opened her eyes. One was red, and full of popped blood vessels. Yawnda ignored it and listened to the distant voice of her dying leader.

"Yawnda...sister." Ahadgna choked. Yawnda leaned closer, straining to listen over the nearby fight. "I have lived many years, and now my death has finally come."

"Mother. Ahadgna." the dark lioness growled strongly. "Our pride is dying. Soon we will have lost. Please, tell me what to do."

There was silence between the two, and all that could be heard besides the brawl, was Ahadgna raspy breathing. Finally, she spoke again.

"Fullfill my dying wish, my sister." she whispered.

"What is your dying wish, Mother?"

"Save Izegbe." Ahadgna answered quietly.

Yawnda inwardly gasped. After all this, all Ahadgna could think about was the life of one lioness?

"Izegbe is to bring on the way of the Broken-Claw. If you save her, you save the Broken-Claw...Save Izegbe..."

Ahadgna's head fell back as a dribble of blood came down out from her open mouth. Her eyes stared at nothing, and Yawnda just stood there in pity, disgust and shock.

With that, Yawnda turned. Her eyes scanned the fighting lions. Suddenly, they were caught by a lioness. Five more lions were behind her, chasing her. Or was she leading them? It didn't matter. She had to take care of this once and for fall.

Yawnda growled to herself, and stalked out into the savannah, after the lions. They were headed to a gorge in the east, full of unruly water. Finally, the lioness began to sprint off to the group.

"Meersha!" yelled Zarazu, who was now outside of the main group of fighters.

Before he could run after her, he was caught under two other lions.

Now Izegbe was caught between the edge of the gorge, and the five lions. They stopped and snickered at her, but she only snarled, keeping herself strong and in attack position. She was not about to let them see her as a weak lion. Suddenly Yawnda jumped in beside her, roaring at the lions. One in front shifted his shoulderblades as he crouched, getting ready to pounce. As Yawnda glanced behind her, she could see a tree falling and, as the lion leapt into the air, she turned to Izegbe. For a split second, they stared at each other. There was no understanding, no connection, not even the least bit of friendship between the two, and Yawnda could see the Meersha deep in Izegbe's eyes. You were wrong, Mother, she thought. With a whicked smirk, the older lioness pushed Izegbe back. Izegbe's eyes widened in fear and realization as she felt herself being pushed off of the cliff's edge. For a moment, she could see the lion that was now in the air, coming at them, but she could do nothing about it as her body was falling now. The lioness gave a shrill scream, not even hearing the splash of the log below her. She twisted in the air, thrusting out and struggling to keep any balance, to try and grasp something, but there was nothing. Nothing to keep her from plummeting into the river, yards below. All Izegbe could hear now was her own heart beat and, in those frightful moments, she could remember her cubhood, adolesence, and the wonderful things in life that made her Meersha. She recalled her family and friends, and it seemed as if her short life was passing before her while she free fell. And then, it stopped. Everything did.

The lioness landed hard onto the log below, causing her to black out. Everywhere around her, the waters pushed and pulled. They churned and even growled, as if trying to force her off that log. That very thing that kept her unconsious body from going under and dying. But the lioness's forepaw was caught in a hole, and no matter how much the rappids themselves tried to her off, Meersha stayed put.

~~~

"No!" cried Zarazu.

He had struggled off past his own attackers, and was now running to the five lions and Yawnda. He had seen his own pride member push Meersha! Down into the gorge and rough river! Down to her death! How could this be? Sure Yawnda and Meersha had not been friends but...

"You!" Zarazu snarled, running past the other lions, who watched in shock and amusment. Zarazu's eyes settled on Yawnda as he glared. He couldn't think. He didn't even have time to mourn before his rage kicked in. But the lion did not stop as he ran, and before Yawnda could respond, Kikaru pushed the lion off her, and he pushed her over, just as she had done to his mate. He didn't have time to save Meersha, but at least he could avenge her.

 

XXXI

Dibi

 

It was so small, and yet so valuable, for it contained the insurance of their survival.

-Day in the Savannah

 

Three days went by. Because Gatu was so used to the lack of food and water from his adolescence, he could fight through the pain easyly enough. But at least back then he had company. The boredom was boring into his youthful mind now, and he thought he was going to go crazy. Each day he had padded around in a small circle, and each night he had curled up in a tight, large furball of gold. On the third day, he was stalking around in the hole once more.

"Who would dig a hole this big?!" Gatu finally shouted out loud.

"Zat would be me." a small but loud voice said.

"Huh?" Gatu questioned the air, before looking up to see a small prarie dog at the edge of the hole. "What are you?"

"I am Dibi." answered the rodent.

"I said what are you, not who are you." Gatu iritablly growled.

"I am a prariedog." the strange creature answered, little nose twitching.

"Well why – how...?!" but he was at a loss for words.

"You zee, Dibi gets bored. And when Dibi gets bored, he digs holes. Big holes! Zomtimes 'ee will keep at it for zuns!"

"Well, how do you get out then?"

He shrugged. "Dibi will dig a tunnel zo that it zlants upward."

"A tunnel? Where?" and Gatu was all ears.

"Under that rock...?" suggested Dibi.

Turning his head, Gatu spotted a large rock jutting out from the earthly wall. He lowered himself to see a small tunnel leading upwards – it was only big enough for his paw to fit in. Growling lowly, the lion looked back up to where the ammused Dibi sat.

"It's too small!" he shouted.

"Dibi can do nothing about that."

Rolling his one eye, Gatu replied, "Well get me out of here!"

"Oh, Dibi cannot do that." and he shook his head.

"Why not?!"

"Because if Dibi did so, then Mr. Lion would gobble him up."

Sitting down, Gatu said, "I will not eat you. I promise."

"Umm," thought the rodent aloud. "What about harm?"

"No. I won't harm you either."

"Hurt?"

"I obviously won't hurt you if...!" but Gatu stopped himself and heaved a sigh. "I won't eat, harm, hurt or kill Dibi if Dibi lets me out." stated the lion.

"Oh, good!" squealed the prariedog. "But Dibi still can't help Mr. Lion."

"And why is that?" snapped the wild cat.

"Because Dibi is much too zmall and Mr. Lion is much too big for Dibi to do anything about it."

"Well find a way!...Because if you don't, and if I ever get out of here, I will eat you!"

Dibi screamed, and quickly scrambled away. Gatu closed his eyes in doubtful annoyance, but soon enough, the sound of a breaking tree came. With a roar of surprise, Gatu jumped back as a rotting log fell into the hole. Smirking, he climbed out with ease.

When he saw Dibi, he suddenly pounced him with a, "You!"

"Ah! Please don't hurt Dibi!"

"Thanks," Gatu said, smiling and he gave the prarie dog a lick, before standing up, a broad smile on his face.

Dibi blinked, then stood.

"How'd you get that whole log down there anyway?" Gatu asked with fasination.

"Dibi moved the lose rocks under it and it came rolling down a hill." then he paused. "What happened to your eye?"

Chuckling, Gatu answered, "Stuff."

Now lifting his head, he stared north, before beginning to pad off.

"Wait!" called the prarie dog. "Where are you going?"

"North!"

"But you must not! No!"

Gatu stopped and curiously studdied his new friend. "And why not?" he asked as Dibi caught up.

"Because Dibi has heard things from other animals. They say they saw a great brawl of monsters in the north!"

Now laughing, Gatu said, "I'm sure I can handle it!"

From there, he took off, now sprinting through the lands, despite the rodent's warnings in the distance. He had a lot of ground to catch up on.


XXXII

By the River

 

Is it worth living when all that you love is dead?

-Questions of the Folk

 

A light breeze fluttered through the dry grasslands. Few trees were scattered about, which gave the relief of shade. Most denizens of these wild lands preferred the muddy bank of a flowing river, though. Something upon that bank moved. It was blanketed in the earth's wet dirt, still drenched from the water itself. No one else seemed to be about. Aburptly, the animal began to choke on nothing. When her coughing was done, Meersha was crying the name, "Zarazu!"

Finally, she lifted herself from the ground, only to call once more, "ZARAZU!" only louder.

There was no answer. Instinctively, her nose began to twitch and her ears perked, just noticing she was alone, in a vast enivornment. Zarazu was not there. Suddenly, though, images forced themselves into her mind and she remembered the war. So many deaths! So much bledshed! But as the frightened lioness tried to calm herself down and attmempt to shake the caking mud off her coat, she gave a yelp. The pain – the agony in her left forepaw was not bareable, and she sat down, eyes scrunching up. When she opened them again, she did her best to ignore the throbbing. It was most likely a sprain, having come from her fall...

And then, Meersha gasped. Her fall! She had fallen!...No. She was pushed! And by her own pride member! Instantly, the lioness snarled at nothing, glaring into the distance as she recalled the hatered she saw in Yawnda's eyes before she was pushed. That old lion could not have even taken pity on Meersha and spared her life for that. No. And now, if Meersha was to ever meet that lioness again, she would not show pity.

A groan escaped from somewhere, and Meersha jerked her head to the right. Could it be? Was she not alone? Carefully forcing herself to her paws, the young one began to limp slowly. She only haulted in her tracks when she could see another mangled body, sprawled out in a large mud puddle. From its golden hide, she could tell it was another lioness. Meersha sniffed.

"Yawnda!" she snarled aloud.

The lioness, even more covered in muk, opened her eyes, and instantly grinned up at her.

"Why, isn't it Izegbe," Yawnda weakly whispered.

"Murderer!" Meersha hissed in rage. "Betrayer!"

"Oh?" and the old one lightly lifted her head, squinting her eyes, as if trying to see Meersha. "Is it not I who saved your life?"

"What?!" and Meersha jerked her head back in astonishment. "Saved me life? By pushing me down a cliff into a river?!"

"Foolish! You may have grown but you're just a cub on the inside!" Yawnda snarled, but was trapped in a coughing fit.

"What do you mean?" Meersha growled, more lowly, ears folded back as she glared down at the lioness. She was ready to rip Yawnda's throat out, and even her fur bristled, but she needed to know more.

Finally, as Yawnda's coughing wore off, she whispered, "You would've died...Those males, they would've killed you in a heartbeat. I was saving you."

Before Meersha could think she blurted out, as her eyes began to water, "Then why not let me die with my mate?! With my pride?!"

"It was Mother's dying wish."

Meersha gasped once more. In a moment, she began limp back and forth near the still lying lioness. She stopped when the pain was too much, and roared, "You should've let me die with my Kikaru!" She stopped herself and growled. "No...my Zarazu..."

"He died. Just like the rest of the pride." Yawnda growled.

"If I could've chosen to have survived like this or died with my pride, I would've chosen to die at my mate's side!" Meersha's anger could do nothing but overlap any sadness she could've felt from the news of her mate.

If it had not been for her left forepaw, she would've striked the old lioness right then. But it was easy enough to see that Yawnda was to die very soon. She had been too old and weak to survive the results of the fall and the river much longer.

"It was Mother's wish. And I fullfilled it. Now no one must ask me for anything, for my time is here." Yawnda exclaimed, voice growing more distant.

"Zarazu was right!" Meersha cried. "I am not Izegbe! I am Meersha!...Meersha White-Feather!"

For a moment, there was silence, before Yawnda said, "Then Mother was wrong."

"Huh?"

"They all were. I could tell you were never Izegbe, even when I killed your beloved cub and blamed it on a male lion."

"Murderer!" Meersha screeched again. She could not believe her ears.

"Are you not a murderer for killing that male?"

Meersha lowered her head as she whimpered, "I'm not...I'm not Izegbe..."

"You never were. And oh how Mother would've been disapointed in you..." Yawnda whispered, with a smirk.

How could Meersha have done that? How could she have gone from a small pride of her loving friends, to this? But Yawnda had taken her away from herself. Yawnd had killed Rombu. Now this time, as pityful as the sight was, Meersha would have her revenge. Looking up, she said shakily to Yawnda, "I'm going to kill you."

"More murdering? Well I'm sorry dear, but I'm going to die anyway..." Yawnda's breathing began to get raspy.

Meersha sat down, watching, tail curled around herself. Perhaps it was better to watch her suffer and let nature take its couse so that no hard moral could be set upon Meersha once more.

"I will never be Izegbe. I am Meersha. And I will never pass on the way of the Broken-Claw...because that way is wrong."

"Mother was wrong...in choosing you." Yawnda chuckled, before her eyes grew as she gazed at nothing...and her breathing silenced. She was dead.

The younger lioness got up, and began to limp east. She could not show herself in the presence of her brother, Gatu or Lusala – who had loved her and stayed with her – not after she had ditched them. Nor could she not go back to a ruined land where bodies of a murdering pride would lie...where her loving Zarazu would be. Not that she could if she even wanted to, for she could see that the river had split in three different places farther south – the way she had come from. As she climbed over the log that she had fallen on – it was now wedged between the banks, making it perfect as a small bridge –  the lioness made up her mind. She would go out, and travel the savannah...alone. She did not diserve anyone else, not after all the mistakes she had made; at least, that was Meersha's conclusion. Perhaps when she got older, she would retire to a quiet valley, or maybe a knoll that could remind her of the home she once had with her siblings and mother, and her caretakers. Or maybe she could find one with a tree that would also look somewhat like the territory she had founded with Banjija and the other two. For now, she would just go where her paws went.

Even with her wounded paw, the lioness suddenly took off, sprinting as best she could, farther northeast. For now, she needed to run. She needed to get away from all her thoughts and worries, as well as memories past. After all, Yawnda had said Zarazu and the others were dead....She would have plenty of time to mourn for her lover while she aimlessly traveled.

 

XXXIII

Gatu's Quest

 

“It is time.”

-Rafiki, Shaman of Pride Rock (Golden Er –  beyond this time)

 

Gatu gasped. What lie before him was a graveyard. It was almost a half a square mile of dead bodies, resting in their own slathered guts and branching bones. Their carcasses had been cleaned up, though, by the scavangers that now seemed to darken the sky above as they screeched horifcally, soaring through the air. The lion wrinkled his nose as he took a step forward, studying these sorrowful lands. Lions and lionesses decorated the beastly, torn up ground where raw dirt was left uncovered, and splatters of blood would stain the very earth itself. As insects cut into what was once life, and flies swarmed the freshest of bodies, Gatu forced himself to pad through this heartwrenching scene. The aroma was even of death as it lingered over each dead creature, each broken tree or ravaged bush.

Suddenly, there was a roar, and he jerked his head around to see five or six skinny lionesses swarm around him. Their ribs would show through balding fur, and tattered ears kept perked while eyes of rage narrowed upon him, like he was some small bug in their way. Gatu's fur bristled at not only the sight, but the sentiments that came off them like the scent of the dead bodies.

"Untrue, murdering piece of zebra flank!" snarled one as she stepped forward, shoulder blades moving under her skin. "Come back for more? Is it not enough that your pride has killed all of our kin?!"

"I-I had nothing to do with this," Gatu quickly replied in a voice of submission.

Now he was trapped in the circle of fierce lionesses, and could see no escape. How foolish was he to let his curiousity carry him away and lead him straight to the middle of a bone yard. Death was everywhere, and if he had been smart enough, he would've realized it could easily be his own in just a few moments.

"LIAR!" the lion roared, and her companions did the same.

When it was over, and silence filled the air except the dying cries of vulchers, she began to explain. "You thought it was over. You thought you had defeated us. Yet out of the ashes of death itself we rose. Yes, there are few of us still alive. We thought it wouldn't be worth it, we thought we should just roll over and die with our kin. But now, now that a murdering piece of filth such as yourself has come, we stay risen, to get our revenge."

At the emphasis of "revenge" the lioness breathed it into Gatu's face as she unsheathed her claws and threateningly and traced them over the bridge of his muzzle.

"Now that our mother and leader has died, now that our young ones have died, now that our true males have died and now that our savior is gone..." she continued.

"You savior?" he cut in.

"Silence!" she roared.

"But she's gone?" he asked despite her command. He assumed it was female, considering they all were.

Raising an unseen, yet impressed brow, she sat down and began to lick her exposed claws. "You ask of our savior...our Izegbe. Yes she is gone. We do not know where she has gone or if she is even still alive. But she was to be the one to carry on our way into the future. Now that she's gone, all hope is lost...and that means for you, too."

Gatu surpressed a glare, before the words slipped, "I could find her."

Blinking in surprise, the lioness rose up. The others snarled and started to close in.

"Don't play jokes with us, cub." one of the others growled.

"No! I'm serious! I will make it my own task to personally find her! I will make sure she is alive and well enough to carry on your ways to the future." They continued to close in as he attempted his best not lash out in fright or try to take off - not that he could. "I will not rest until I have searched every inch of all lands to find Izegbe!"

"Stop!" the first lioness then yelled.

To Gatu's utter relief, the small kin took a few steps back each and allowed him to breathe.

"You say you will find her? You say you will make sure she brings on our ways?" the leader questioned forcefully.

Gatu solemly nodded.

"I still cannot believe that you did not have anything to do with this war. You even have a wound to prove it," she suddenly challenged, just when he thought he was out of deep water.

He instantly knew what she was talking about, though. "I have not had that eye since cubhood." he exclaimed. "Came from my father himself."

"Ah, so you know what it is like to be the victim of an untrue lion. Well, perhaps there is something you can do for us." she purred.

Her sisters turned and growled as their voices shouted out in arguement.

"How do we know he could find her?" snarled one. "He couldn't! He's an untrue male! Why send an untrue male to find our savior?" a second one growled. And a third yelled, "No! He's lying! He could never find her! He won't find her! He just wants the life he doesn't deserve!" "He's a liar!"

"You were not put in charge were you, sisters?!" the leader finally roared. "It was Mother herself who picked the rankings and status! Now, we all know one thing - he is an untrue male." They all nodded and muttered under their breaths. "But," she went on. "he's our only hope. Our pride's future lies in the paws of an untrue male."

With that, the small pride roared out once more. Gatu could not tell if they were roars of anger or what, but the leader let them go.

"You must promise to find her! You must swear! Swear on your life! On your cubs' lives! Your family's life! You must swear to the Great Kings and Queens of the past! To the gods and goddesses! Go on, swear!" she offered.

"I swear! I swear to my loved ones, to myself, to the souls of the past and the future and to the gods and goddesses and heavens that I will not rest until I have found Izegbe!" the lion shouted.

Again, the lionesses began to roar. As this happened, the lead lioness took a step forward and whispered so coldly that it sent a chill down his spine and he began to quiver at her words, "If you do not live up to your vow, then may you die slowly and painfully, and may you burn forever in the underground."

Gatu turned so suddenly, that he almost tripped over his own paws. He scrambled passed the circle of lionesses, taking the lead one's warning as the pass to go. While the lion sprinted to the northeast, he heard the same lioness call out, "Follow the river!"

As he disappeared into the distance, he couldn't help a silent thank you for this great oppurtunity. He was let free! Overjoyed by the thought that he was to live, Gatu could not push away the promise that he made. He had to look for the one called Izegbe. Now that he had purpose in his life, he had a sence of fulfillness in his heart. Those lionesses...were about to murder him. But they gave him a chance on this one condition. He would not stop looking for Izegbe. He had to at least try. It was his mission now in life. It was his quest.

 

XXXIV

Strangers

 

She looked through the night, hearing their horrible screeches and seeing their terrible bodies that flew through the air, searching for the dead.

-Strangers in the Night

 

Banjija yawned. The youthful lion would stretch his muscular body before lying down beside his tree. Today had been busy – nothing but sun bathing. As should the life of a lion, he thought with a grin on his face as he recalled his practically day-long nap. A couple times he had gotten up for the ocassional walk to a near puddle or water hole, other times he would munch on the remains of a carcass hunted just a few days before, and would end in his grooming. Yes, a lazy and fine life it was. Sure, he didn't have a pride of his own, but he just as satisfied. In fact, Banjija and Lusala had not seen another lion since they found this territory, and it was that very isolation that had driven him away from the thought that was not now present - taking over a pride of his own. This was unusual for a male lion, especially with such potential, but it really didn't matter now. He was surviving just fine on his own, and did not need to put himself or Lusala in the path of danger by looking for it. Nope. Everything was fine here.

"Hey," a soft voice came right as Banjija had shut his eyes.

He perked. "Not now. I'm sleeping."

"Banjija. I need to show you something," Lusala insisted as she proded him with her nose.

Tail twitching with iritation, eyes now scrunched up as he kept his massive head upon his forepaws, he said, "Stop. I only had eighteen hours or so of sleep."

"Get up!" she hissed.

"What?!"

The lion opened his eyes and swung around after leaping up.

"Come."

Raising a brow, he began to pad after his companion as she led the way to the west, up slightly raised land. They stopped when they got to the top.

"What is that?" she asked.

"What is what?" Banjija replied dully.

"That."

Lusala nodded to the ground, and Banjija lowered himself to examine the hard dirt where in between the blades of the savannah's floor, was the distinct inprint of a lion paw.

"It's not mine and it doesn't look like yours or smell like yours...Were you here all day, Banjija?"

Banjija straightened himself up as he said, "Kinda...but I would've known if someone else was here...in our territory."

Suddenly, the two lions looked up as they heard the fall of paws upon the ground. There, a few yards off stood a lone lioness. With a crashing roar, Banjija sprinted closer, before haulting as his fur bristled and he puffed out his chest. Lusala just stalked slowly behind him, eyes and ears alert as she gazed warily at the stranger.

"Did you not find the scent of us? Get out from our territory!" Banjija's voice bellowed.

The lioness flinched, but stood her ground.

"I'm just a messenger," she finally said with a hesitant voice.

At this, and the realization that she was but an adolescent, Banjija softened and said more gently, "Right. What is it that you have come to say?"

"More of a warning, I guess." the lioness exclaimed. "But my father has sent me to tell you to move."

"Move?" Lusala questioned as she stepped forward to further study the lioness.

"Yes. He said move out by dawn or face him." There was a brief pause. "He's come to take your land."

"TAKE OUR LAND?!" Banjija roared out once more.

The adolescent took a step back at this, ears folding back and fur bristling, wondering if she should make a run for it.

"Banjija!" Lusala growled. "Calm down!"

"Calm down? How can I calm down? Some freak who we don't even know is gonna come and try t' kill us!"

"Not if you leave," whispered the lioness.

"You shut up!" he snarled.

"Don't take it out on a half-cub!" Lusala snarled right back as she batted him once.

Banjija, his breath now coming out sudden thrusts, attmepted to calm himself. When that was done, he turned to face the young one and said, "Tell your father we will be here...and carry on his challenge."

Nodding, the lioness turned and took off into the distance.

"What are you thinking, Banjija?!" Lusala cried. "We'll die!"

Turning carefully to look at his friend, he said quietly, "You won't."

"What are you talking about?"

Taking a deep breath, before deeply exhaling, he went on. "It's my turn to fight."

"You're crazy! I won't let you die!"

"And why is it that I have to die? Do you not believe in me?" he snapped.

"No, it's just that I don't believe in this kind of violence," she growled. "Violence that our own father brought on us, as well as the rogues."

"I just want to defend our territory."

"There's plenty of land to go around, so why can't we just find a new territory?"

"Why can't they? We were here first!"

"This isn't even the best place to live, I don't know why you'd put our lives in danger just to protect it!"

"Lusala, it's not just about that!" he finally growled, before turning around and heading back to the tree as she followed. "We were here first. We established this place as our home. Now if we don't defend it, what are we in life?" He paused thoughtfully. "Besides, that lion is just putting himself in danger and even perhaps his family."

"You and I would not hurt them."

He shrugged as he laid down in the same place as before.

"He doesn't know that."

There was a minute or so of arguing silence, before Lusala nipped him and yelled out, "Move! We have to!"

"We don't have to! And we won't! I'm defending my territory just as the real lion should!"

 

XXXV

Heavy Sentiments

 

“The rain can expresse sorrow, just as the sun can expresse spirit.”

-Word of the Shamans

 

It began to rain. The sky's water plummeted to the earth, and even slanted in the wind as each cold drip was coereced into Zarazu's face. Not but a few days ago, he had seen his mate pushed. Pushed down into the ravaged waters...Pushed to her death. Or was it her death? The lion came to believe that Meersha was alive somewhere. If not Meersha's body, at least the soul and mind that he had last seen living in Izegbe's body. Perhaps part of the Broken-Claw rubbed onto him, though, too. After all, if it had not been for the continuess effort to push himself through anything and everything to try and find her, he would have been seeking revenge. If he was not searching for Meersha right then, he would be searching for Yawnda, so that he could kill her. It was she who had pushed Meersha - one second Meersha was standing beside Yawnda, and the next she was gone. But as strong as his anger was now, the emotion that Meersha was somewhere out there, still alive, still needing him and he her, was the one to overthrow that rage. She's alive. I know it, he told himself. He always did. Just like he always hunted for her, non stop. Through the harshest of conditions.

After the war, he had followed the edge of the gorge, before it steeply fell to level out with the land. Then it had been easier for him to travel beside the river. But when to stop? He would never stop searching for his love till he found her, that was for sure, but he did not know when it was time to leave the river - it was the last place he had seen Meersha. Or should he keep following it until the end of his days? Or the end of the river? What is the end of the river anyway? he suddenly thought, but quickly shook it from his strained mind, knowing he'd need to keep it on Meersha if he was to find her.

Zarazu cringed as he briefly stopped, picking up his right forepaw, before continuing on again. He was wounded from the war, in various places. Surprsingly, the injuries weren't too terrible, yet each had worsened since that day instead of healing. But what could one expect out of traveling for days on end? It was true. Zarazu rarely stopped. He rarely slept, or ate, or did much of anything except walk. That made his health fall downhill. And as wary as he was, he would not stop even as it rained and stormed. Well, not too much and for not too long. Eventually the lion found a baobob that rose from the ground by about three feet. The roots were thick and sterdy, though, and looked - as he squinted through the downpour - too tempting to pass up. As he climbed under, he found it to be snug and cozy, and a shed of greatfulness came as he was able to grab rest in an abondoned place like this without the dragging weight of guilt. Zarazu had traveled far in this day, even with his injuries and soon-to-be-showing ribs, and he decided that it should not be that bad if he were to grab a piece of shuteye.

Curling up, he tried to ignore any pain in his body, as well as the cold that caused him to tremble constantly. That soon subsided, though as he grew warmer, and in a few minutes, was fast asleep. Only the mournful downpour could describe his emotions right then, that he could not escape from even in his slumber.

Indeed Meersha was alive.

Miles to the east lie that lioness. In the rain was her ravaged body. But she didn't care as she silently mourned. Her mate, cub, brother, half-brother and sister, as well as the rest of her family were gone and always had been. It was fate that led her to this very spot, though, so was she not meant to have and keep kin? Right in front of her was a puddle, which grew with every drop that splattered on it, breaking the surface in tiny ripples. Finally, Meersha - throat tight, view blurred, ears back, tail curled under herself - edged her way to that puddle, for hope that that dark creature she had seen so rarely in her life, would appear, and allow her soul to escape from her body.

"Take me," she quietly choked through the rain, before her voice bellowed, "TAKE ME!"

 

XXXVI

A Fight in the Rain

 

“Do not challenge the challenger, unless you know to try.”

-Yuuka, Shaman of the Midnight pride (Mystic Era)

 

The rain was much more gentle as dawn bore into the unsteady night. Neither Banjija nor Lusala had gotten a minute's worth of sleep, the anxious sentiments too strong. But when the sun did rise, Banjija was standing tall upon the hill that supported his tree. There, he watched with wary but solid eyes, his challenger, along with a few lionesses, head over to him. Lusala stayed by the grove as she, too, watched from behind her half-brother. It was hard enough to keep herself still as she dug her claws into the hard soil from which the golden blades of the savannah grew and came from. Her ears folded back as her coat bristled, just as Banjija's did. It was strange, though, for his expression was different from that of a usual lion's. The corners of his mouth were pulled back, almost sneering at the approaching leader, teeth exposed of course.

Gold and red and brown was the stranger's thin coat. His mane matched, but was much darker. The head was somewhat squarish, as was his muzzle, but the eyes were large and mocking as their yellow gleem rested upon Banjija – the target. His small but muscular body shifted above his giant paws, and this youthful lion licked his lips as Banjija glared right back. Finally, the leader stepped forward and called;

"Young lion! I will give you one last chance to save your life; move yourself from these lands!"

Banjija continued to smirk, and moved forward without a word. This was his land, and he was not about to give it up.

The leader was temporarily stopped, but not quite in shock, as he half expected this. For Banjija was young, and though he himself was youthful - just enough to have given at least one litter to the pride and keep it going for a perhaps a few more years - this leader was still experienced. He knew what to do.

Each lioness was watching as the two lions began to circle each other, rain steadily falling upon their backs. It was wet, and perhaps even carried a bit of warmth. This new pride was unbalanced, and once the quarrel was over, they would who was to be their leader.

Banjija growled heavily. He had an advantage: his buff torso. But of course this did not mean he would win. Oh no, if anything, he was further from even living than the night before. This is my land, he growled conffidently in his mind. So get out or I will rip your throat out. Suddenly, a rain drop fell into his eye and he winked. It blurred his vision for a moment, causing light panic, but as he blinked it away, Banjija found himself ready once more. He could not help but narrow his vision on that so-called "leader." How much of a better job could Banjija do himself, though? At least by ten times, he thought. But when was this leader to jump? To strike? To even attempt?

The two kept on circling each other, ignoring the anxious breaths of the lionesses so nearby. Then, Banjija pounced. He couldn't help it as he had stared into those yellow, piercing eyes that seemed to see right through him. Seemed to see the exact fear boiling in his belly and soul. It would've been much easier to let this bastard attack first, but no. Youth, fear, and much more caused Banjija to leap toward that lion and, only in the air, did he see his mistake. The hard ground met Banjija's face, and it stung. He flinched as the lion had easily moved just enough out of the way. Turning around, though, the leader hastily placed the tips of his claws onto Banjija's side, about to dig them into flesh. Fortunately, Banjija had rolled over on his back, causing the lion to stumble. Taking this oppurtunity, Lusala's half-brother gruffed as he shoved his hind paws as best he could into the lion's stomach, and kicked him off. In an instant, the two were up again, glaring. This time, Banjija, catching his breath, was able to hold himself, and soon enough, the pride leader had made the move. The lions were at it, battling each other, roars and snarls sounding as they rolled over each other, pounced at one another and so on. A few denizens decided to move from their spots, whether a prarie dog or a hornbill having perched on an acacia.

"Please beat him," Lusala whispered under her breath as she watched, eyes wide with fear, heart beating so loud that it almost seemed to drown out the cries and howls of the brawl.

As Banjija and the other moved, trying their best at this daunting fight to keep their throats and stomachs protected, and at the same time endevour to strike at the other, the memories of his father and the two rogues flashed into his mind. There he was, atop the Great Knoll, back in the White-Feather territory as a cub again. His father was dying, no doubt from the lack of youth and him being out numbered. But as only a fur ball, he and his sister could only stand there and watch in horror with their mother as Ashuma was killed. No, murdered. Was this any better that he was doing? This was different, though, for it was the present leader of this pride that had put himself into this danger. He had come and tried to take away Banjija and Lusala's land. It was his fault if he was to be injured, chased off, or worse, killed.

The fight lasted longer than any had expected, and soon, the two were gasping for breath. Again, they were standing, gazing at each other. Both had under estimated the other, but neither was about to give up. Finally, the leader gave a roar, and charged. Banjija smacked a paw, extracted claws at the lion, raking him. It left a deep wound, blood gushing from each scratch. After all, Banjija had had a lot of practice with Kasha, back in his cubhood days. The lion roared in both pain and rage, but as he did so, Banjija took to a new tactic. If he was to win, he should do it soon, for both were losing life every second. So, thinking quick, Banjija suddenly, and out of nowhere, rammed his side into the lion. It did him some good and, as the leader was trying to gather his wits, Banjija was on top of him. Up came a paw and pathetically, it wounded Banjija's muzzle just a bit, but to Banjija's relief, he saw that the lion was struggling in panic under his weight. He was winning! One wrong move, though, and it could cost him his life. Suddenly, the lion was able to free himself from the giant above him, before taking off to the northeast.

Attempting to regain his breath and strength, Banjija smirked in triumph as the lion ran for his life. But he did not have the energy himself to chase after. Instead, he stayed still for awhile, before a roar sounded. It was Lusala. She came running over and nuzzled him as she purred in disbelief and greatfulness.

"You won!" she cried. "You won!"

It was indeed a victory, for not only had Banjija won his first fight, got to keep his territory, as well as gained a pride of his own, but he had his life still.

After a few moments or so, Banjija turned his massive head to the pride that was now gathering near him, emotions mixed. He scented the air, ears perked as he watched the pride – his pride, come forward. It was communication through sound and body language as each lioness gathered the smell of their new leader and Lusala. Then, there was a gasp.

"Banjija!" hissed Lusala and his ear twitched as she did so. "Cubs! They have cubs!"

Blinking in surprsie, he gazed over a few other pride members who were hissing at him, standing together in front of a group of small lions, no more than four months old. This was strange behavior for a pride, then again, it was all new to him. Lusala watched, keeping herself planted as Banjija began toward the mothers. Was he going to kill the cubs? He wouldn't, thought Lusala. Would he?

Banjija growled as he exposed his teeth, padding forward. Aburptly, he haulted in front of the mothers. There were three, and six cubs all together. Shaking his head a bit, he finally turned around with a shrug, and said to all forteen lionesses including Lusala, "Come, my new pride. It's beginning to rain harder. Let's take cover."

He turned as he began to lead them up the hill, past the tree to where a cave would lie. It was large, and would suite this pride.

"But what about the cubs?" questioned a lioness.

The others hissed angrily, but all wanted to know.

"What about them? They are part of my pride now, too." Banjija exclaimed, almost bitterly. "Now, in the cave."

 

XXXVII

The New Pride

 

A new leader is to take charge of the old family, for the old leader is too elderly to keep that charge. It is for the good of the family and for the good of the leader.

-Natural Statements

 

The rain was indeed picking up, and all were moving into this new den. As Banjija laid down, slight pain in his body from the wounds – just a few scratches, bruises and a ripped ear over all – he sighed to himself, thinking deeply. He would lie by the enterence, recalling the main den at the Great Knoll, and how this so reminded him of his old home. It felt good to have the company of so many lions again, instead of just him and Lusala. It was an overwhelming emotion he could not describe, but never the less, it gave him comfort.

Something brushed up against his side, and he turned to see Lusala lie down by him. He smiled as his tail occasionally twitched and moved to and fro.

"You did well, my brother," she whispered as she began to lick a small gash on his paw.

He cringed slightly, but replied, "Wouldn't have done it without you."

The lion turned and gazed out over the rainy savannah. Ah at last, the wet season had come. It would feel even better to have a pride and the satisfaction of thirst together.

"And a big pride they are," Lusala went on. "That's good."

"Yeah," said Banjija as he lazily placed his head upon his forepaws, still watching the rain come down outside, ears twitching as a few conversations from the lionesses started up. "I haven't really got to know them yet."

"You can do that when the rain subsides. For now, we're all tired, and should get some rest. They're just excited that they have a new leader...and a good one at that," she added thoughtfully.

"They don't even know me."

"Yes but, you let their cubs live."

"They're my cubs now." Banjija replied, and couldn't help an inward smile. He was proud of the words which spilt from his mouth.

After a few minutes of silence between the two – the other lionesses continued to chatter quitely among themselves – Lusala finally said, "Strange, isn't it?"

"Hmm?" and he closed his eyes, tail continuing to slowly swish.

"That they would be traveling with such young cubs."

"We had to," a weary but shrewd voice said.

Banjija perked and opened his eyes, turning his head around to see the adolescent lioness who had come the night before.

"Father made us move since the herds were traveling as well. They kept on moving this way, and we kept following." she explained, almost darkly.

Banjija shrugged, rather halfheartedly as he laid his head on his paws once more.

"We're staying here. Lusala and I are great hunters and though this is usually a dry place – not now I must say," he added at the downpour outside, "we have plenty of food to go around."

"Good." the adolescent simply said, before turning around and crawling to the back of the cave.

"Is she angry?" Banjija asked to no one in particular, keeping his eyes closed again, tone not the least bit carring despite his words.

"Well, you did chase away her father." Lusala whispered. "She's bound to be giving you a cold shoulder for awhile."

"It was his fault," Banjija snapped as he again, perked. "And he's lucky I didn't kill him."

"Right. Give the half-cub time to warm up to you, though."

Before long, the lionesses were moving over to Banjija, almost curiously. They began to ask him many questions of his life and why he had chosen to let their cubs live, and that they were very greatful for it. Most of the questions he let Lusala answer, as for why he had let the cubs live, the only thing he said was, "They are my cubs now, just as you are my pride." This went on for quite awhile, though of course it was the adolescent who never dared to approach Banjija again that day. But he did not care, for exhaustion had taken over. In fact, he did not care for the lionesses themselves, pestering him all the time. The lion fell in and out of sleep as they asked, Lusala still answering for them.

Four more lionesses would not approach him besides the adolescent, though. Three were the mothers, who were grooming their cubs, keeping them from Banjija as they stayed in the back. My little ones, he had once thought to himself, surpressing a chuckle. I shall meet them and their mothers tomorrow. He was anxious to check up on them, but for now, he needed sleep, having not gained any from lastnight. The fourth lioness, though, left him perplexed. As he glanced at her once or twice, he could see her talking with the adolescent, yet he strained to hear what he could not. For some reason, that lioness felt so familiar. But, as he could not quite put a paw on it, he finally laid his head back down and closed his eyes, the voices of the pride growing distant, and finally, he fell fully asleep. If he had looked over that lioness carefully, he would have seen that she was missing her left foreleg.

Lusala was the one to carry on the conversation with the pride members, chatting and ocassionally laughing, which was a great relief for them all, considering what had happened earlier. Eventually the questions turned into other subjects about the cubs and the younger lionesses, as well as the former leader and what had happened to them in the past. Finally, the talk settled down, and as thunder and lightening crashed through the gray sky, the pride began to drift into a light sleep. They themselves had had but a few moments' worth of sleep the night before, having been too busy traveling.

~~~

"Lusala," a voice said.

"Huh?" a tired Lusala asked as she opened her eyes with a yawn. "What is it? Who are you?"

But suddenly, she gasped and cried as the familiar scent came into her nostrils, "Naynana! I can't believe it's really you! Why didn't I smell you before? Oh Great Kings, how did you survive?! And where is Kumba?"

"Settle down," Naynana whispered, almost like an adult to a cub. "You don't want to wake Leader Banjija, now do you?"

Lusala glanced at Banjija, never having heard him called "Leader Banjija." It almost made her laugh, but instead, she looked back to her friend and sat up to nuzzle her. After a few moments of nuzzling and purring, sniffing and so on, they began to talk.

"Naynana, what has happened to you over these years?"

"Has it been that long?" Naynana asked, strongly, though.

"I'm afraid it has."

"Well, anyway, I am glad to know you are alive and well. And in fact, in the same pride now, I expect."

Lusala eagerly nodded. "Yes."

"Well now, this darkness between us will not do." Naynana suddenly said.

Lusala tilted her head for a moment, but chuckled at the lioness's words, for this was how Naynana always was. Naynana indeed was a strong lioness, and always had been. She many times would use strange phrases that one would usually ask about, and when talking to others, she talked almost always in a bolder tone. Not that she saw herself better than anyone else, but it was a silent establishment between Naynana and the one whom she was with. There was no need for words, or even body language nor violence to let someone know that she was the dominant one between the two. Back in the days of her cubhood, she new which to be under – the adults – and who to be over – all the other cubs. Lusala was yet to see the day that someone, even a strong adult lion, would take dominance over Naynana, which in fact, had given Lusala and the others comfort for such a stable, strong companion back in adolescence when they had traveled through the darkest of times. Naynana was a leader inside, and always had been.

The lioness was dark, with an even darker under belly. Her thin coat was of gold and brown, and her muzzle was long and slender, just as her body was. The tuff of her tail was large, though, and almost black. Her gleeming eyes were a dark brown, and she had grown much since the last time Lusala had seen her, during that dreadful night with the four lion leaders. And no left foreleg, was to show for it. Though she looked youthful and very healthy indeed.

"What darkness do you speak of?" Lusala questioned, almost in relief to hear that tone, and those quite sacred words.

"The darkness with which we are at a loss. As in, we do not know of each other after the sun we were seperated." Naynana explained.

"All right then." Lusala said. "Allow me to speak and tell you what has happened to me since then. Then you shall."

Naynana respectfully dipped her head with understanding. "As you wish."

And so Lusala began her story. It did not end for about an hour or so, and when it did, there was a silence that both had to use to go over the story one last time in their heads.

"All right then," Naynana had finally whispered, rather choked at this. "Things have happend to me as well." There was a brief pause, before Naynana finally cried out, "Oh, Lusala! Thank the Great Kings of the past that this has happened!"

It was a shock to see Naynana in this state. Never had Lusala seen her break down like this, and never did she think she would. Naynana was different than many, and it was rare to see fear or weakness in someone like her. Someone like her was born strong, into a leader that seemed youthful forever, and when the time came that that youth was gone, there was still experience and wisdome filled with tales and advice and help for others, just as a shaman. And a motherly figure to those much younger than herself she could be, and a great one for her own cubs. This was the rare kind of personality seen in someone, and when it was in a lioness, oh how a pride could go on without a male –  that is besides the male giving the lionesses cubs to carry on the generations.

"Shh, the others are sleeping," Lusala exclaimed and she leaned down to nuzzle her friend, greatfully.

Finally, Naynana straighened up and nodded, expression solid as her voice came out in a brawny attitude once more. "I am sorry, Lusala. Forgive me for that nonsence."

"It's all right," Lusala purred.

"But really, thank the Great Kings and Queens of the past. Now that I have found you, I can tell you the thing I feared so much before."

"What are you talking about?"

"You see, our leader in this pride was called Umbsha. This pride was called the Sunset pride. Umbsha had let me join just after my adolescence had ended. But strangely, only a few lionesses had mated with him. Three, if I remember correctly. Now, before I had joined, it was Kumba who had pushed me into this really. I was weak emotionally and physically, so finally I folded and was able to join while Kumba hid out by the borders of the territory. Always downwind of course. Anyway, the pride's current cubs grew into adolescents, as I myself into a healthy adult, despite my missing leg. Now, almost all of Umbsha's first litters decided to move out, which was very unsual, considering that all of his cubs were females. And you know lionesses, they stay in the pride they were born in – except for a few expectations, such as ours," she added warily. "Anyway, another strange thing was that they had just entered adolescence, so they were practically cubs still. But if they were to go, then that left Umbsha to mate with the lionesses again, so he let them, taking his fatherly authority with him. Yes I had asked why the half-cubs wanted to go, but they only answered, 'because it was the right thing to do.' Strange, but still I stayed with the original Sunset pride, not wanting to take my chances out there again with cubs.

"As I had lived with the pride, Kumba and I would meet every night, under a baobob in the far west, unknowingly needless to say, for Umbsha was much more experienced. Kumba tried to talk me into letting him fight Umbsha, but every time he talked about it I would bring up that dreadful night when the four lions killed Daba, took my leg, and seperated us. Anyhow, I lived among those lionesses quite peacefully, and no one took too long to gaze at my missing limb – though how can you stare at something that is missing?" she added, and chuckled before continuing. "Where was I? Oh yes. Well, after the half-cubs left, I was surprised to see Yora still among us." Naynana nodded to the adolescent who was in the back of the cave still, curled up and sleeping deeply it seemed. "For you see, Yora was Umbsha's youngest daughter. When I asked her why she wouldn't go with the others, she just shrugged. Now, right after the half-cubs had left, Umbsha mated with the lionesses once more – very few like before. It seemed as if not many were very fond of him. Then again, who would want to bring cubs into such a dreadful land? The place we were settled at was a territory with few prey, and for the mostpart, the territory was dry.

"Finally, after the new cubs were born and learned to walk, the lionesses convinced him to start to move off after the animals. Also strange for lionesses to do with such young cubs. Anyway, a/fter much proding, he agreed, and we were off. From then on we did not find any places to stay perminantly. Then, we found this place and Umbsha sent his own daughter – Yora – to go warn the lions here. I didn't even know it was you and Banjija until the fight. I didn't want to make myself known until after, and that was if Banjija did win...But he did! Thank the Great Kings and Queens!" she cried yet another time.

"But wait," Lusala said, confused. "where's Kumba?"

"Right, he's what I was getting to. So, when Umbsha had mated a second time, I did not...not with him. I waited and, as our pride started the journey with the cubs – only one died, thankfully – Kumba trailed behind. One night..." and she lowered her voice to such a whisper that Lusala had to strain her hearing. "Kumba...Well, Kumba has given me cubs in my stomach."

Lusala gasped, and looked wide eyed at Naynana, in disbelief. "You're not seirous?"

"I am sorry, but I am pregnant, and not with Umbsha's cubs. Then again, I prayed every night that the Great Kings and Queens would find some way for me to birth these cubs without having them killed by Umbsha, and without me moving off to be a rogue again. All though I would've had Kumba, it would've been much too hard to raise cubs alone and without a pride I shall think."

Lusala fumbled for words, but could only say, "You don't look pregnant."

"It was actually quite recent," Naynana said with a chuckle. "I know I shouldn't be pregnant with another lion's cubs, but Kumba and I had fallen in love. And we were young...and still are. I might regret having my cubs at this time, but I will never regret having my cubs."

"Oh, Naynana!" Lusala cried with joy as she nuzzled the lioness. "My own pride-sister having cubs!"

"Shh, Lusala. Hush. Word of this must not get out yet." though there was a softness in Naynana's stern voice. "Now that Banjija is the leader, I can only hope he will let me stay with the cubs."

"Of course he would! He's Banjija, your pride-brother and leader! Besides, he let the other cubs stay." Lusala reassured her half-sister.

"Good then. I guess I shall ask him in the morning." Naynana shifted warily as she glanced outside, the water that was still plummeting. "He's out there right now...Kumba, I mean."

"Perhaps," Lusala whispered. "I could talk him into letting Kumba join the pride."

"Lusala! You would do that for him? For me?"

"Of course!"

"My sister," Naynana purred and licked Lusala atop the head. "I am glad to be in your presence once more." When she lifted her head, she looked back to Yora. "I must go back to her."

"Why?" Lusala questioned as she, too, took a quick look at the young lioness.

"I am not sure why, but the young one does not see it fit when I am away from her. You see, I sort of took her in when she was younger, for her mother had died from a fatal disease and Umbsha was her only means of a parent. Then again, he was not that great of a father figure I must soworfully add. And when her sisters left, Yora became even more anxious."

"Are you like a mother to her?"

Naynana shifted uncomfortably, pondering whether to say yes or no. She could only only say, "I am what I am to her." though.

Lusala nodded.

"Though she is like a daughter to me, I admit." she added.

"Wait," Lusala said, confused. "Umbsha mated a second time while Yora was still an adolescent? That means she's older than I thought."

"Yes, her body should be done growing just about now. I guess you could say she's adult now, and that she does not need a mother, but she does need someone. She grows very anxious when I'm not around, or so the other lionesses say. If I knew her litter and pride-sisters were not dead – that is very unlikely – and were healthy, I would have almost felt it better if Yora had traveled with them. I know she felt comfortable around them, just as she does around me."

With a lick and a nuzzle, Naynana turned and headed to the back of the cave, lying beside Yora, almost protectively. Lusala hmmed to herself before closing her eyes, though she was greatful that Naynana and Kumba were alive and well.

 

XXXIIX

Cubs, Establishments and Travels

 

“Just like the flower tries to sprout, and grow, and blossom, you must try to make life work for you.”

--Bayba, Shaman of the Waterfall pride (Lush Era)

 

"Dad?" a voice querried.

Banjija blinked, before curiously turning around to see a small ball of golden fur pad up to him. His tail swished around comfortably in the long grass as he laid on the hill right by his tree. It was the next night, and though the water holes were filled and the atmosphere was moist, it was a nice time to be outside. The rest of the pride was scattered around the near knolls as well. It had been a surprise to see Naynana here, and even more so when she had asked about Kumba staying. Almost reluctantly, he had agreed to it, but was now regretting that descision as he had been staring up at the stars. But now, he was gazing upon the first cub that had bothered to approach him, that is, without the mother jumping in front to protect it. Wearily, he glanced up at the lioness who watched with perked ears and careful eyes as she laid a couple yards off. He had met her earlier, and though she had stood between him and the cub, she had been quite kind and introduced herself - Kira - and her son - Tati. After a silence of understanding between the two adults' stares, Banjija looked down at the cub once more.

"My name is-" Tati began, but Banjija cut in with, "I know. And my name is Banjija, so why do you not call me by it?"

"Mama says you're my new dad." the cub mewed.

Banjija raised an unseen brow, but then grinned as he nodded. "Yes. All right. I am."

"But what did you do with my other dad?"

"He left. He did it to himself, young one. If he wasn't so stupid then he wouldn't have..." but he trailed off at the cub's confused expression. "Never mind...you'll learn when you're older, kid."

Banjija heaved a sigh before letting his view wander up to the stars once more. But the cub wasn't finished, and so padded over in front of him, and looked up as well.

"What are you looking at?" he asked.

"The stars." Banjija answered. "That's where my own father is right now."

"Really? How can he be all the way up there?"

Banjija looked at the cub questioningly. "Hasn't anyone ever told you that the spirits of the past are now stars?"

Tati looked back and shook his head jerkingly, his tail swishing playfully as he did so. "My other dad said that when you die, you are born again in the sunset, and all the spirits of the past are what make up the sunset."

"Really?" Now Banjija's head was slightly tilted at this new idea.

"Yup!" the cub said after a small pounce, attempting to land on the bug that now flew off into the night.

"Well, where ever we go, my father's there now."

Tati blinked and turned around, before looking up to the stars again and nuzzling into Banjija's mane. Banjija could only flinch at the new wall of emotions washing over him.

"What about your mom?" Tati suddenly asked.

Blinking, he said, "Er, I'm not exactly sure." The lion swallowed a lump before continuing, a great feeling of regret boring into his soul, for he had not even thought about Kinara since adolescence. "To tell you the truth, I really don't know what's happened to her."

"Oh."

After a minute or two of silence, the low grunting sound of Kira sounded.

Banjija finally exclaimed, "Well, ya better get back to your mom, kid."

Nodding, the cub started to move back to the lioness, but then turned around, put his forepaws on Banjija's chest and licked his nose saying, "I hope grandma's OK." before he ran off to his mother.

"Grandma?" Banjija questioned under his breath as he watched the fur ball scramble away. He knew Tati had meant Kinara.

What had happened to Kinara, though? Was she even alive? Was she OK? Was she healthy? Happy? Had she stayed in the White-Feather pride? Had she had any other cubs after Banjija and the others? Did she ever think of the cubs she had already lost?

Quickly, Banjija shook the several questions off his mind, and laid his head upon his forepaws to close his eyes and attempt to fall asleep, when suddenly he opened them again as a lioness stood in front of him: Naynana.

"Kumba should be there now," she said quietly.

"At the southeastern borders like I requested?"

The lioness nodded and Banjija eagerly stood, before taking off to the southeast.

~~~

A snarl errupted from the lion's throat.

"Whoa, calm down there, friend!" Banjija cried out.

The lion blinked, before his body became relaxed and muscles losened. "Forgive me, Leader Banjija." he purred.

Banjija cocked his head at the title that was given to him, before saying, "Er, it's OK. I mean, no need t' act like an old lion or something."

The two shared a quick chuckle.

"So Kumba," Banjija then went on. "I'm informed that you wish to join my pride."

"That is right. You see, my mate is expecting cubs and we cannot raise them alone so-"

"I know why you're here, Naynana told me. And I agreed with you staying with me."

"Oh-!" Kumba started, but Banjija cut him off. "But, we must go over some things before you step paw upon my territory."

"Oh right right, whatever you want." Kumba assured with submission.

"First thing, stop with the act."

"What?"

"Don't act so proper in front of me like I'm royalty, or as if you're a grandfather. Nor should you act like a whimpy cub either."

"How do you want me to act?" Kumba asked, unsure.

"I don't want you to act. I want you to be yourself around me. Around my pride. Show who you really are so that we can become friends and the others will respect you." Banjija quickly exclaimed.

"Right, OK."

For a minute, the two stood, facing each other in the dark. A light breeze caused both to shiver as the bugs of the night sang into the cool environment. It was clear they were studying each other, noses twitching, ears perked, eyes open. Kumba, Banjija could see, was a golden-brown with a mane that matched his coat, but was a bit darker. His eyes were of an unusual brown-red.

"All right," Banjija said. "Here's how it's gonna be. If you're gonna join my pride, then know these things: the lionesses are not to be mated with except by me. You of course can have Naynana."

"Right. I wouldn't dream of being with any other lionesses."

"Now, the cubs are not to be harmed, whether the ones I adopted, or my own blood cubs."

"I respect that very much. You're a great leader because of that."

"Because of what?" and he raised a brow.

"The fact that you took in the former leader's cubs. I don't know any lions who would do that. I don't even think I would have."

"That's great to hear, but you're under my rules."

"I know, I know."

"Anyway, my adoptive cubs are not to see you as a father, but only me. Do not be a parent towards them, but do hold authority over them. You can parent your own cubs when they come. Now, what else is there? Oh yeah; you're to patrol the borders just as I do, and to be like a real pride leader. You can be, and I am giving you that position of power."

"Holy..." Kumba started, but trailed off. Was it really this easy to get a pride? Well, it wasn't his and he wasn't the most dominant leader, but surely they were his pride, too.

"Yes, you will be the other leader. But I'm the absolute...unless of course you wish to challenge me..."

Banjija's voice was full of uncertainty, but he had left his sentence open for a reaction. Was he offering Kumba to fight him for one more step higher in his position and ranking in the Sunset pride? There was silence, before Banjija narrowed his eyes.

"I know you, Kumba," he whispered, breath drifting out into the air. "I know that you are like me, wanting a pride, and to be the leader and absolute. I know that because you once tried it in your adolescence. Yes, Lusala told me about that one horrible night, the night she was seperated from you two. I know you were arogant as all half-cubs are, and I know that now you are bigger and more experienced but still with youth, making you the perfect challenger for another leader. But I myself am youthful, strong and experienced, which makes us equals. In a pride, there are no equals when it comes to ranking, though. Even when there is more than one leader, one is more dominant and powerful than the other. I am willing to bring you in as another leader, but one step below me. Now, I am also willing to fight once more to keep my position as absolute leader. If you wish to be that absolute leader of the Sunset pride, then take this challenge, or move off and never show yourself in my view again."

Again, there was silence, as the two gazed understandingly at each other.

Finally, Kumba said, "I do not wish to fight you, because I don't want to be the absolute leader. You are, and I respect that. I will never try to do anything to take the power away from you. I know my place. All I want is a good life for my mate and cubs."

Banjija grinned and nodded. "You have grown up much since that night I can tell. Just as I, myself have since adolescence and cubhood. But you are strong and youthful, Kumba, and you are determined and I know that your personality is also strong, so you could easily try to lash out for the position of power. What is keeping you in line? What is keeping you under my paw? What is keeping you submissive?"

Kumba flinched at the leader's words, for it was true: he was strong, determined, youthful and could easily make a good leader if given the chance, which lions like Kumba would normally snatch. It was there, that chance. ...So why should he not grab it? Why not fight for the top?

"Because," Kumba pawed the ground a bit. "like I said, I want a good life for my mate and cubs...and that's the reason: because I have cubs on the way that need me. I can't take that chance."

"All right." Banjija finally said, satisfied. "You are a good lion, Kumba. Just as long as you know how to live, then you shall live among us."

He easily turned his back to Kumba. That was unusual for a lion to do for it showed trust, but Banjija felt something strong about this lion. Kumba was good hearted with a light soul deep inside his strong personality and outer shell.

"Come then, the pride is waiting to meet you and your mate is waiting to reunite with you." Banjija exclaimed as they began back to what was now referred to as the Sunset territory.

They padded along in silence, side by side for some time, before Kumba finally said, "So, you let the cubs stay even though they weren't yours. That's great and new. It must've been hard since-"

"I know. But once the males are adolescents, they are to be on their own like a normal pride leader would make males do."

"C'mon, have a heart. They're your cubs now and besides, do you not remember what it was like for you?"

"Of course I do," Banjija growled. "That's why I'm letting them stay as cubs. Once their manes start, though, I don't want any competition, so I'm booting them out."

"They'll be half-cubs, and you just said how half-cubs are aragant and we all know half-cubs - I obviously found out the hard way - would never be able to beat an adult who's still youthful and strong."

"Yes, but I don't want them to find out the hard way either. Plus, if they're going to live on their own as adults, they must find out then how it is to live alone. Don't worry, I'll allow them to stay around the borders of the territory, but once they're full grown they should be long gone."

"Are you to do that to all your cubs? All males I mean? Even your own blood?"

"Even my own blood cubs, yes. The same fate is for your cubs, too."

"But-!" Kumba started like a young one. "If you don't chase them away, I will!" Banjija interrupted.

"All right, calm down. I know but...you seem so sure about this. Don't you even care?"

"Of course I care!" the red maned lion snarled as he halted in his tracks. "How could I not?"

"I didn't mean it like that," Kumba whispered. "It's just, I don't like how the rogues did it-"

"To you? I know. Same thing with me. But I don't want rogues to do that, so for as long as I can, I won't allow that to happen to my cubs or myself."

"But if you're chasing away your cubs, then that's like the same thing, isn't it?!" Kumba continued.

"No, because I would never kill my cubs...not like the way the rogues did to my siblings and almost did to me and a couple lucky others." Banjija darkly answered.

"Sorry," Kumba whispered back, tail low.

They started on their way again.

"Naynana is anxious to meet up with you again." Banjija stated, trying to push out any awkward silence.

"Yes." Kumba replied, looking straight ahead into the night. "I was wondering, if neither of us are to have Lusala - which I would never, even if the chance was presented to me, for I am too deeply in love with Naynana-"

"A rare thing a lion has: love for one and only one lioness."

"Anyway, if neither are to mate with her, who is?"

"Well, like you said, you won't. And I will not since we are related. So...I guess no one."

"Does she not care?"

Banjija shrugged. "I'm not sure if she even wants cubs. And if she does, she can find a male for herself."

"But Leader Banjija, that might mean that you have to take in another male." Kumba said.

Banjija couldn't help a smirk at what he was being called. He couldn't remember his own father even being called "Leader Ashuma."

"Well," he exclaimed. "if it happens, I'll leave you two to figure out who's third in the position of being a ruler."

"I would normally leap at that, Banjija," Kumba sneered. "If I did not have my unborn cubs..."

"I know," the dominant leader replied with a grin.

 

XXXIX

Same Blood

 

There is a story, about a boar that was so cruel to everyone around, that he would not – could not – stand to let anyone dominate him. Most of the rainforest just called him “Master.” Anyone in Master’s way, was to be punished by his razor-sharp tusks, or trampled by his massive body. Squealing, he ruled the forest, showing the denizens who was boss. But then, one day, as he went to a lake for a drink of water, he saw someone who did not run from him. Instead, the stranger just looked up at him from under the water, looking gnarly and huge, and mean at that. This angered the boar, but he was feeling surprisingly good that day, so he decided to give the other boar a warning stare. But the stranger did the same thing back to him! Enrage, Master squealed another warning, and yet the stranger copied him yet again! Who was tough enough to challenge the ruler of the rainforest himself? Master was to teach this creature a lesson! So, snorting, he trampled into the water, splashing around. Little did he know, though, that the other boar in the water, was his own reflection. Nor did he know of the crockadiles that invaded the lake. Soon, the crockadiles were attracted by the boar’s squeals and cries, and not long after that, they had their lunch. And Master was never seen again…neither was that stranger in the water.

-Legend by the Leopards

 

Meersha's stomach rumbled. The young lioness was now skinny, but she did not care. Not much at least. Just enough to force her to hunt because of the agony that bit at her belly. The day was hot, and she stopped beside a puddle to lap up some water noisily, quenching her thirst, but if anything, sharpening the hunger. Finally, she made the descision to hunt.

The yellow-gold pelt blended in with the savannah's grass and dry soil as she kept herself low, stalking through a plain, nose twitching and eyes crawling. She was searching. But why? What was the point? She could just lie down and die, and no one would care, for all her loved ones were gone. If Meersha were to do this, then maybe she'd be able to meet up with the others, up in the stars. Fortunately - or was it unfortunately? - her animal instincts kicked in, and were just too strong for her to overthrow. Her body needed food, and somehow she would get it, or die trying.

It was almost as if something was pulling her, but suddenly, Meersha spotted it: a lone gazelle. Not normal. Perfect. It was one on one. But of course the prey could move faster than her, so she would have to take it by surprise. Aburptly, though, the animal lifted its head, scented the air, and fearfully leapt off. Gasping in almost surprise and defeat, Meersha scrambled after, practically tripping over her own legs. The gazelle had bound over a knoll, but as Meersha's body finally gave out and she collapsed in the dirt where not even blades of grass would care to grow, she was taken aback once more. It, the prey, had turned back, and came back over the hill, right past her.

"What?" Meersha asked under her breath, panting as she watched it disappear the way she had come.

Curiously, but weakly, she lifted herself from the earth, and wearily padded over the hill the gazelle had dashed from. At the top, she stopped and her nose twitched as she attempted to find what had scared her potential meal. It didn't take her long to smell it: a lion. She hissed, and was about to turn around when an old male showed himself, staggering out from behind an acacia tree. Meersha was weak, but this fella was old. Very old. In fact, he could barely walk. Poor lion, the voice in the back of her head said. But wait, this was food! Or was it? Would she really stoop that low and go into canabalism, the way a rogue would do to cubs? Perhaps, but maybe not. Whatever the descision was, it would come. So, making up her mind and gathering her wits, Meersha staggered down the small hill, moving closer to the lion.

"Lion!" she hissed, for he hadn't seen her at first. At the call, he turned his round head to look in her direction, old almond eyes squinting into the day.

"Yes?" he called, unsure.

"What, are you stupid? You totally scared away my hunt!"

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry," his almost feeble voice replied.

She rolled her eyes, annoyed. The old lion - of light gold and a practically blonde mane - himself could not be in a worse position, lying in the path of a now disturbed lioness, in which she could easily inflict her anger and sorow upon him.

"And if this is your territory, you'd do good marking it." she warned.

"Right, right. But the thing is, I am old and will probably leave this world very soon."

"How sad." Meersha remarked sarcastically as she found a rock to lie on, basking in the sun as her tail tip twitched and she began to lick her left forepaw.

"This is just a place to stay at for my retirment. Actually, I used to mark it, but now I don't see the use, especially because I can barely walk now."

"Thanks for the life story, but it's already easy to tell you can hardly stand."

"Why," the old lion said as he heaved his warn body closer, before carefully sitting in the dry grass. "What is a young lioness like yourself doing out here without a pride?"

The words stung, and Meersha could not help a slight flinch, before conintuing on with her grooming and replying, "I used to have a pride. I am gone now...from them..."

"Ah, I know how that is." he purred with sympothy. "After being pushed from my birth pride, far in the northwest, I went on, by myself. That is, before I took over my own family...They were called, the White-Feather pride."

Meersha's eyes widened at the mention of her first family. Tilting her head, she curiously turned to look at the male, cranking her neck ever so slightly. "The White-Feather pride?" she whispered.

He nodded and went on. "Yes. A great time in my prime, that is, until that rogue Ashuma, overthrew me. Young, strong fellow at the time. I suppose he's gotten his by now, though."

"Ashuma! He's my dad!" she cried, leaping off the rock and scrambling over to the elder.

They greeted each other quickly.

"If you were before Dad - Ashuma," Meersha said, body trembling as well as voice. "then you must be..."

"Tambi's the name." he chuckled.

"Are you not the father of my sister?"

"Who might your sister be, young one?"

"Well, I had others, as well as brothers that were birthed from Kinara before me and my litter, but the only one I got to know was-"

"Let me guess, Imba?"

She shook her head, and that's when his rising expression of hope changed.

"Not Imba? I would've thought the little one would've lived. Oh, she was a fighter!"

"Sorry, but I don't know anyone named Imba."

"Oh...no you wouldn't," he said quietly, looking away for a bit, before looking back. "I'm guessing she past on, when Ashuma came that is."

Meersha gasped. "Dad wouldn't...would he?"

"Ashuma was a strong rogue, looking for the right pride. When he spotted how old I had become, he took over, and almost killed me. Luckily I got away. It was my last litter, though, that I had had with the lionesses, which was killed."

Meersha's ears lowered. "I can't believe it..."

"Every rogue that takes over a pride must be strong enough to destroy the throne and position of the former leader, even if that means destroying the leader himself...as well as his cubs." he exclaimed with a dark voice.

A tear trickled down her face.

"But let me tell you something, lioness." he whispered, stepping forward. "There is not one sane male who does not regret that action he must take to take a pride. The emotions and determination are strong when a rogue fights a leader, but once the former leader is killed or is chased off, and once his cubs are killed, then the rogue, and new leader, feels nothing but regret and pity. Yet he must move on, for a pride depends on him then."

"How would you know?" Meersha hissed, fur bristling suddenly.

"Because I remember the day took over the White-Feather pride. I had to fight the ol' chap, they called Dashu."

"My mother's father," Meersha then whispered to herself.

"You said your mother was Kinara, did you not?" Tambi finally said, voice lightening up a bit.

She nodded.

"Well," he went on. "I remember her, and all the cubs I had with her. She was a great lioness, as well as our young. Sadly they had died from Ashuma...all but one...who was it now? Not Imba of course."

"No...It was Chusuka."

"Ah, my little Chusuka!" he cried out in both happiness and longing.

"Not so little now," Meersha exclaimed, sitting down, tail wrapping about her. "She had a cub when I was born as well."

"I'm a grandfather, finally!" he shouted.

"Back when I was a cub, she had a son named Toga."

"Oh, if only I could've met Toga. How did Chusuka survive anyway?"

Meersha shrugged. "Mom probably helped her."

"Wait, how is it that you came from Kinara in the White-Feather pride, and yet you are here, miles and weeks from that territory?" he suddenly asked.

Meersha looked down briefly. "The rogues..."

"Ah, so Ashuma was thrown out."

"Yes...they killed him..."

"I am so sorry," Tambi then said, a nurturing understanding in his voice.

After a minute or so of awkward silence, Tambi began to speak once more. "I remember, Chusuka was the last cub we - your mother and I - had had together, and she was the last in the last litter. That's why Kinara allowed me to name her."

"She did?" Meersha asked with pure fascination. "I was the last with Ashuma, and Kin- Mother, let Dad name me."

"Hmm, strange." the old lion said thoughtuflly. "Also, Kinara was the last birthed from her mother, one of the mates of Dashu, and that lioness had let him name her. That's what she told me."

"Mom never told me that."

"Well, your mother and I were very close. She told me lots of things."

Meersha smiled. That was something she did not think she was capeable of doing, ever again.

Cautiously, she sat beside Tambi.

"Tell me about Mom, when she was younger. And about my brothers and sisters I never knew." she said.

"All right," he replied, nodding as he laid down. "Why not? You are practically my daughter after all, I mean, if you do not mind me saying that."

"That's OK. I miss having a dad."

For some time, Tambi told Meersha about his life in the White-Feather pride and about Kinara and her youth, as well as the cubs she had never told Meersha about. It went on for awhile, and then the moon rose, and when that happened, the two would lie in the grass, watching the stars in silence.

"Hey, Tambi?" Meersha had finally spoke.

"Hmm?"

"If you're alive...does that mean my mother is?"

"Quite possibly." he said. "I'd hope she is."

Meersha grinned, before letting her eyes travel to the stars once more, that sparkled in the vast night sky.

"Do you mind," her unsure voice went on. "if I could stay here with you?"

"Well," he chuckled. "I would love that. I have not been in the company of another lion since the sun I fled the White-Feather pride."

"You haven't? How come?"

"First off, I didn't have a pride. But even when I came across lone lions or lionesses, I just avoided them. I felt too ashamed for first killing the leader called Dashu, all those years before, and then leaving that very pride I had killed to get. It was too much for me to handle..." and his disturbed voice trailed off. "But, Meersha," the old lion then said. "I must warn you, I am to leave this life very soon. You see - staying alive by scavanging – I came here in a remote area to end my days here peacefully, but also in shame."

"There's no reason for you to be ashamed," Meersha almost coed.

"Of course there is. I killed-"

"Yeah but you had to! I mean, if you didn't, somone else would've. Besides, if Grandpa - or Dashu, had stayed leader, then he would've gotten too old to lead them very well and there would be inbreeding among the lionesses that he had mated with and birthed. It's just the Circle of Life!" and she gasped, eyes widening in recognition.

"What is it?" Tambi quickly asked with concern.

Meersha got up and hastily climbed a near knoll, watching the stars before sitting down, while Tambi rolled over on his stomach, watching curiously.

"I just found it out..." she whispered.

"What?"

"Why males must do this...and that the Broken-Claw was wrong and...how life is and...Oh it's so confusing! And yet I found out part of it!"

"What are you talking about, Meersha?!"

Meersha carefully turned her head to stare at him, almost smiling once more, before she began the story of her life...

 

XL

Two Old Lions and Two Young Lions

 

“When one has betrayed our trust, let them bathe in their own guilt, and let them go, as their punishment shall be exile!”

-Judgements of the Council

 

The lion cub mewed for his mother. It was a deserpate and confused cry that was sent out to the world, saying, "Hi! Here I am! Get me now! I'm alone and exposed!" Though that didn't last long, as the comforting low grunts of another, older lioness sounded. Those grunts were saying, "Come here and hush now, little one. It's OK." The cub was but a few months old, and scrambled fearfully across the small plain, over to his grandmother. There, the two united, and the grandmother nuzzled her daughter's son, before carefully picking him up, and bringing him to a near den, leaving the bloody carcass of his damé to rot. It wasn't that she didn't care for the lioness, or even mourn over her death, it was just life was now, and it was meant to be looked at through the present. Besides, this young cub had a purpose in that life. The night itself was young, and so the grandmother had let the cub sleep, but when dawn had approached...well, it was that dawn that changed his very life, as well as the life that had ended the day before.

"Unaro!" Natira angrily hissed. "How many times do I have to tell you, look to the present!"

Sighing, coming back from his thoughts of the past, the young lion muttered, "Ever since the day my mother died."

"Silence!" she snarled, taking a forepaw and pathetically attempting to swat it at his muzzle.

Unaro snickered, feeling the light brush of his grandmother's paw. She was old now, and would probably live but another year or two. When that day came, Unaro would finally be free! But for now, he must stick to those last couple of years. Why was it that he had to stay with her? He was a full adult now, and did not need anyone to take care of him, nor to tell him what to do. Plus, this lion could easily dominate and beat, perhaps even kill Natira. Yes, that would be all too easy. But, ever since she had taken him, since the day his mother had died from the pack of raging dholes, Natira had told him of a great fortune he would one day have. That is, if he were to stick with her. It was hard, not living with a pride, but the two had their own ways. All Unaro had to do was find a nice pride, and wait for the leader or leaders to go off and patrol the territory, while he went in and acted cute and begged for food. If the leader did not go, then Natira and her grandson always found a way to force the male off...even if that meant killing him. When adolescence came in, Unaro would bribe, but usually force younger cubs in some way or another to get him the food he and his grandmother needed to survive. From there, the two would scavange, and Unaro soon learned to hunt. But, being young and a male, he was not too good, and rarely caught what was worth a piece of a meal. Not to mention, they did not have other lionesses to help, so there was never big game.

Even though it was a hastle, first getting kicked around by an old lioness, then having to take care of her, what was it that they were looking for? What would make him so happy that he must waste a major part of his life - perhaps the most important time, his youth, the passege way to getting a pride of his own - on her? Over his cubhood, Natira had forced him to help her search for a certain lion or lioness, around his age, give or take a few months. But why? What was so special about this one lion they were looking for? Supposedly, Natira had been a great shaman in her prime, and could get certain vibes from things that weren't even existing at the time. Now, whenever he had asked about this cub they were searching for, all she would say was, "I can sense it in my bones. There is but a cub, 'round your age, that has a special power. I don't know what it is, I don't know how I know, I just do." but Unaro was thinking she knew more than what she said.

Well one day, Natira sensed a strong presence nearby, and after Unaro pushed the two males cubs to get him food, he stuck around the female, which his grandmother said was the cub. Was that the cub to end his misery? But no, she had escaped...and on a hippo! What kind of world was this? That was not natural at all! Ever since then, though, his grandmother was sure that was the cub she needed. Now, Natira and Unaro were searching. They always had been since the day, tracking and stalking her, getting information from other denizens. Now they were hot on her trail. A day, maybe two behind.

Unaro began to push through the growing grass again, shoulderblades moving beneath his thin coat of light gold and yellow. The mane had grown out over his back, shoulders and chest. The red mane seemed to glisten in the sunlight as he gracefully moved through the savannah. Soon, they spotted a hill, and he only stopped to let his grandmother catch up. When Natira had stopped beside him, panting, he rolled his yellow eyes, before setting up the knoll.

"Gotta move faster than that if ya want 'er, Grandma!" he called.

~~~

Meersha blinked as a voice sounded through the wind.

"Did you hear that?" she asked Tambi.

He shook his head and replied, "I barely hear anything anymore."

Standing, the lioness scented the air, solidly gazing at the knoll which took her to this very place. Very slowly and carefully, Meersha began to the base of the hill, not blinking. The voice that had sounded, was so...familiar. Yet she could not put her paw on it. Suddenly, a lion showed himself at the top of the hill. Stupid. He was not looking in front of him, but behind him, and seemed to be talking still. The voice, the accent, the physical appearence itself. Who was that?

"C'mon, Grandma! Hurry it up!" he called.

"Shush, or you'll wake the dead!" another voice cried out.

Meersha, raising an unseen brown, roared out, only to have the lion's head jerk her way. When that happened, the memories flashed, and her eyes widened at the recognition of Unaro. He was once that sneaky adolescent who had literally wripped the manes out of Gatu' and Banjija's heads. Now, he was big. Probably not as big as Banjija was now, but a large lion.

"You!" Unaro snarled, watching Meersha in almost fascination. After all, her trail had been faint, and led them to think she was still miles away. But there she stood, just yards from him. "I finally have you!"

"Who is that?" Tambi asked, squinting to try and see the male.

Unaro started forward, but was aburptly pushed aside by an old lioness. Perhaps a couple years younger than Tambi himself. Again, Meersha was forced to raise her brow at this un natural behavior. Then again, when was anything normal for her? Unaro growled and just slumped down, watching as Natira limped down the hill, closer to Meersha.

"What do you want?" Meersha coldly snarled.

"I want the one who's very energy makes me shiver," Natira whispered as she wickedly smiled at the younger lioness.

"What?"

"You heard her!" Unaro roared from atop the hill, now standing anxiously.

"I don't know what you mean, nor do I care anymore, so do yourselves a favor and move out from our territory!" Meersha roared back, fur standing on end.

"Territory?" Unaro went on. "There were no markings here. This land belongs to no one!"

"Unaro, hush!" Natira ordered, right when Meersha was about to reply. But the elder looked upon the youthful female once more and snickered. "If you'd be so kind as to follow us."

"What's going on? Follow who?" Tambi was asking no one. Poor fellow was practically blind.

Meersha glanced once more at Unaro, and could see his claws digging into the ground as he grinded his teeth, glaring at Tambi in iriation. She could tell he was doing his best to keep his spot atop that hill. But why? Why obey a lioness he could easily dominate?

"Why would I do such a thing?" she then growled at Natira.

"Because you are the one. The one the benighted is seaching for..." Natira's chillling whisper came, coercing Meersha' body to freeze, and then tremble with every word as the memory of the black creature from the far away savannah, only seen in water, bor into her mind.

Suddenly, Meersha snarled, closing her eyes and then opening them again as she swatted the air.

"What is it? Meersha, are you all right?" she could hear Tambi cry with worry.

"Would someone shut that lion up?!" Unaro bellowed.

"Yes, it's you. I know it is." Natira laughed as she watched Meersha's emotional struggle. "You!"

"No!"

"Yes! Come with us and we shall lead you free of that demon!"

"I can't!" Meersha helplessly cried. What was wrong with her? She'd do anything to get that creature away from even her own memories, and here she was given the oppurtunity, yet all she could do was turn it down.

Tambi questioned again, "Meersha?"

"That's it!" the young male roared, and scrambled down the hill, making his way to Tambi.

"No!" Meersha was able to gasp, looking up as she squinted through teary eyes. Drips of sweat were gleaming on her bristled fur as she could only watch, her paws planted in the ground. "Tambi, run!" she called, before attempting to find more air, for it was being torn from her body.

Natira did not seem to care as she licked her lips and stalked to the young one. A light brush of fur was felt on her chest, and Meersha let out a deep snarl, lashing out with a forepaw.

"Get away from me!" her shattering voice came out.

"You must calm down," Natira exclaimed.

Suddenly, there was a cry of agony, and Meersha gasped, looking up at Tambi again, only to see his body, lying on the ground, limbs sprawled out. He didn't stand a chance. Right there, over him was now a humble Unaro, smirking. He had, with cease, snapped the neck of the old one.

"Now it's time for you to come with us." Unaro's grandmother's voice changed from a mocking calmness, to a solid order.

"No!" Meersha yelled, and she leapt up, sprinting to the northwest.

"Get her!" she could hear Natira call.

It didn't take long for heavy paw steps to sound behind her. They were hurrying, and she could feel through the chilling air the rushed past her fur and face, that it was Unaro. But she could not let him catch her, nor could she stop. She must keep running. She must leave. There was no way Meersha would allow herself to stay within the presence of either of those lions. The young one was strange, but the old lioness could only make her shiver and vomit. There was something about that Natira that she didn't like, and couldn't help but fear. Whatever it was, she didn't want to feel it...It reminded her too much of that dark creature in the warer.

Before long, Meersha, out of panic, was able to continue pushing herself through the wild grass. So far and so fast she did, that soon, she lost Unaro. Lions were never a match for a race against lionesses, for the females were much slimmer, and that's why they hunted. Unaro's own body was the thing that slowed him down, and it would've been too hard for Natira, what with her lack of youth, to even try and catch up with Meersha. For now, speed was on Meersha's side. And, soon enough, she was far off, running and panting. It didn't last, though, and blackness came over her vision as she tried so hard to catch her breath, heaving in and out. Suddenly, she fell, and all her sences were temporarily lost.

 

XLI

The Flatland Pride

 

“You are all mine! I will make you the darkest of the dark, or the lightest of the light! Whichever I please!”

-Sungru, leader of the River pride (Mystic Era)

 

Meersha groaned.

"Huh?" she asked, as her blurred vision rose up to find several lionesses peering curiously down at her. "Wh-who are you? Where am I?"

The young lioness sat up, vision clearing as she scented the air and gazed around, fur standing up a bit, before resting. This was a pride, and the lionesses here were healthy, and seemed nice enough. Then again, they were strangers. They could be foe, or they could be friend.

"It's OK. We found you here, lioness. You were just lying here and we came and...Well yeah, that's pretty much it," a perky adolescent exclaimed.

"Are you all right?" an older lioness questioned with concern.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Meersha answered, unsure, before cracking her neck and stretching her aching muscles.

"So what were you doing on the borders of our territory?" snapped a different lion.

"Hush, Mika. It's all right. She seems to have done no harm." the lioness who had asked if she was OK, said. "But answer one thing straight; are you an enemy?"

"Er, not if you're not to me." Meersha replied.

"Good," the lioness said with a grin. "Then you shall follow us to our leader. And perhaps get some meat on those bones. I mean, if you're not to start off again...?"

Meersha blinked, and looked about with fascination. Some how, she had ran far enough to a plain, and did not smell the territory markings of this pride. There were around seven or so lionesses here.

Suddenly, though, Meersha gave an inward gasp as she thought about Tambi. He was dead! Was it really all that sad, though? The lion had been old and she barely knew him...but still, he had meant something to her. Finally, she shook her head and grasped this realization. If she stayed with these lions, then maybe she could be safe from Unaro and his grandmother.

"I would very much like that." she stated.

"Good. Then follow me."

With that, the lioness took off, and the others followed as Meersha trailed behind. The lead lioness –  the one who had spoken the most to her – seemed in fact, the dominant of them all. Probably the closest to the leader male because of that supremacy. She looked older than Meersha by a few years, but still in her prime – too old to be young, and too young to be old. Mika and two other lionesses were the same age as that leader. Then there was the adolescent who had first spoken to Meersha. Two others were adolescents as well. It was obvious the pride was small, but strong.

"Ah, so it is true." a deep voice said.

"Huh?" Meersha questioned as she looked up to see a large lion sitting beside an umbrella tree.

It had only been around ten or fifteen mintues of walking, and already they were in the middle of the territory. Respectfully – and for some unknown reason – she bowed.

The leader chuckled, "No need for that! Not that I don't apprecitate it." He paused as Meersha straightened up. "My pride has told me they found a lioness by our borders, and now that I see you, I know it's true. What is your name and why did you end up by our territory?"

"My name?" Meersha could only ask, before saying, "Oh! Yeah, uh, Meersha." But there was an awkward silence as the pride sat around her, listening, all eyes on her. "Er, and I'm not exactly sure how I came here. You see, I was running from enemies."

The leader stood and raised an unseen brow, only to reply, "We do not want enemies here."

For a moment, Meersha was speechless. "Neither do I. So if you wish for me to go, I shall."

Suddenly, the dominant lioness stood and strode over to the leader, and for a couple or so quick minutes, the two were harshly whispering to each other. Then the leader looked up at Meersha again and sighed.

"Well, my mate has just informed me that you are weak, and are not an enemy to us yourself. If you wish, you can stay here."

Should she? After all, Meersha had made plans to stay by herself. Then again, she had already broken that descision when meeting up with Tambi. Besides, Unaro and Natira...especially Natira, were the two she feared right now, and they were out there, searching.

"All right." Meersha finally stated. "I'll stay."

"I'm not asking you to join the pride, Meersha. I am merely offering you a temporary place here, that is, until judgment is past."

Nodding, she replied, "I understand."

"Good, then I'm glad we have our priorities straight. Now, allow me to introduce myself; I am O'star. This is my mate, Kula." he exclaimed as the dominant lioness nuzzled into his blonde mane, purring. He smiled, his long tail swishing in the grass. After a moment, the lion's old eyes traveled to the rest of the pride. "Mika is my sister. Those two – Fina and Runaka – are my other mates. And the three youngin's are my daughters. That's Cheasala," he said while holding up a massive paw and pointing to a dark adolescent. After he lowered it he nudged another adoelscent with his head. "She's Pinga. Oh, and the hyper one's Pursha." Meersha nodded to the three, remembering Pursha as the adolescent who had spoken to her earlier. "Pinga and Pursha are sisters, and daughters of Fina. Cheasala is the daughter of me and my beloved Kula." Again, the two lovebirds nuzzled. "And all together," he went on, proudly. "this is the Flatland pride!"

~~~

"It's beautiful here," commented Meersha, just a few hours later.

Her stomach was comfortabely full of meat, and right now, she was lying beside a small upward curve, so that she would lie just a foot or so above the whole plain, which was the biggest part of the Flatland pride's territory. Indeed this place held some beauty, thanks to its slightly green grass – not as green as it would be in the Pridelands, but still green. Plus there was a glittering water hole in the distance.

"It's OK here," the lioness lying beside Meersha replied: it was Pursha, the young half-cub.

"What do you mean? This place is fresher than any other place I've been – and I've been to a lot of places." she added wearily. "Even the grass is not totally yellow or golden here!"

"Well, I still say it's OK. I mean, it's pretty all right, and makes a good home for a small pride like us, but it's nothing compared to the Pridelands."

"To the what?" Meersha asked with cuirousity as she rolled over on her side, tail tip twitching in the fresh blades of the savannah.

"Yes, it's a kingdom far, faraway."

"A kingdom, you say?" and this made even her head tilt and brow rise.

Pursha nodded with a grin, before leaping up with excitment. "I've never been there before, but my great grandpa has. It was before he took over the Flatland pride. He had been traveling all through his teen years and early adulthood. He said when his mane became full, that's when there was a major drought. For days he went around, just looking for some source of water, when finally he stumbled upon the most lush land anyone has ever set paw upon. Though it took him that long just to find water, he said it was all worth it – the greenest grass you've ever seen, so many prey of different kinds, clear blue skies – that is unless you needed rain from clouds – and oh, so many water holes and rivers and streams! And it went on for miles!" Meersha kept silent, eyes wide at this story. "Great Grandpa wanted this land for himself, but when he found out who was the ruler of it, he knew he couldn't. See, it was a king!"

"Oh right, I didn't know a king would rule over a kingdom," Meersha replied with sarcasm, but chuckled at the half-cub's enthusiasm.

"He said the King was called Mohatu. And he had a whole pride full of the healthiest lionesses. Oh, and the best thing of all was the kingdom itself – a huge rock!"

"A rock?" Meersha asked with a grin.

"Yeah, but it wasn't just any rock. It was huge!" and she began to pounce around after a fly, just as small cubs would do, but she did not quit talking. "It towered into the sky! And there was an outcrop that stuck out over the lands. And it was called Pride Rock." The adolescent pounced on the fly, but it flew off.

"Pursha, are you talking about that old story your great grandfather told you?" Kula asked as she gracefully padded over.

"Yeah but it was real!"

"It wasn't real. Grandfather was senile," Kula exclaimed as she sat down, smiling.

"He was not!" Pursha huffed.

"OK, OK. Whatever you say, Pursha. Anyway, your mother wants you. You're supposed to be at your lessons, preparing for tonight's hunt, remember?"

"Oh yeah. Thanks, Aunt Kula!" Pursha said, before running off.

"Half-cubs," Kula said, rolling her eyes. "They're like full cubs."

Meersha chuckled, before asking, "So was the story true?"

"I'd like to think there is a land out there like that, but it just doesn't seem real enough to me. Besides, Grandfather was a little crazy, and was known for telling lies back in his prime." Kula exclaimed.

"Well, I think it would be great to live at a place like that, with..." Meersha whispered, but trailed off.

"With...?" Kula encouraged, but Meersha only shook her head sadly, thinking of Zarazu. "It's OK." Kula said quietly.

"Hey, that one lioness!" someone cried out.

Meersha blinked and looked over her shoulder to see another adolescent padding over.

"Cheasala?" Kula wondered aloud. "What are you doing here?"

"Hey, Mom." Cheasala said as she sat down.

"Aren't you supposed to be at the lessons with your cousins?"

"Well, I was just thinking. Besides, I haven't got to meet the lioness yet."

"Her name's Meersha," chuckled her mother.

"Well, I'm Cheasala!" the half-cub exclaimed in delight.

"Hi, Cheasala. Nice to meet you." Meersha giggled.

Suddenly, Pursha ran over with Pinga.

"You're all supposed to be at your lessons with Runaka and Fina. Do they not care?" Kula growled.

"Where'd you come from? Where's your family? Do you have any cubs?" Pursha butted in, despite her aunt's words.

"Pursha!" snapped Kula, seeing Meersha's flinch at the last question.

"I was just curious," muttered Pursha. “I never got to ask her before.”

"It's OK," Meersha was able to say. "Er, anyway, my birth pride was called the White-Feather pride. My mother was Kinara, and my father was Ashuma. He named me actually, since I was the last born in his last litter."

"Really?" gasped Pinga.

"Yup," Meersha said.

For some reason, it did not hurt her as bad as she had thought. In fact, it made her feel better talking about the past – the family she once had.

"That's so cool!" cried Cheasala. "When I have cubs, I'll make sure I'll keep a special name for the last cub of the litters."

"Like what?" Pursha snickered.

"Uh...Cheasala!"

"You're going to name your cub after you?"

"That's stupid!" shouted Pinga.

"Hey! I'm going to make it a tradition from now on that every cub that is last born is going to be named Cheasala! That is, if she's a girl." Cheasala huffed.

"Speak for yourself," Pursha laughed. "I'm never having cubs!"

"And if I do," Pinga went on. "I'm not naming my last born, 'Cheasala.'" her voice mocking the name.

"Hey, what's so bad about that name?" Kula then asked.

"I know! All the lastborn girls will be named Cheasala, that is in my bloodline," Cheasala exclaimed, then blowed a raspberry at the other two.

Meersha could not help laughing at this, and found it hard to keep a straight face, even when Kula scolded the three and sent them back to their lessons. As the adolescents padded off, chattering away, Kula could only sigh.

"They're cute. They remind me of big cubs." Meersha giggled.

"Well, that doesn't help our pride thrive. They're practically grownup, but they still act like little ones."

"They still are – half-cubs at least," Meersha said, and then rolled over, batting up at Kula rather playfully, almost like a cub herself.

"Yeah," Kula replied, wearily, before sighing.

As she rolled back on her stomach, the younger of the lionesses asked, "What is it?"

After a moment of looking at the ground, Kula said, "It's just that; they're half-cubs still, and know nothing about life or surviving, and my son is out there on his own!"

"What?" Meersha asked, taken aback by this as she glanced out over their territory.

"Yes. O'star had chased him away just weeks before you showed up, as well as the other males. Now my son and nephiews are out there, all alone." Kula cried.

Awkwardly, Meersha nuzzled Kula and exclaimed, "They'll be all right. They have each other, and besides, they were taught by you and the rest of these strong lionesses. They should be OK."

Looking up, Kula could not help a grin, though her eyes had become teary. "Yes, I suppose you're right. It's not the first time it's happened, though. I mean, my first litter was all males, and I had to live with the fact that they were to leave. For some reason, though, I had tried to talk O'star out of it, but he said he must do it. And that he did, as well as with Kirasi – Cheasala's litter-brother. Oh, she took it so hard when he chased Kirasi off. She wouldn't talk to O'star for a week. It was the same with me, though," and she gave a weak chuckle. "When he chased our first off I mean. This time, I was used to it. Ever since O'star chased the first litter off, I haven't seen them. And only rarely do I see my little Kirasi around the territory borders. I know that soon, he will be gone even from the edges of our lands."

Meersha nodded. "I know what it's like to be them..."

"Huh?"

"I had the same thing happen to me..."

"Oh, Meersha! I'm so sorry about that!"

Again, she nodded gravely.

"Let me tell you, though, never have cubs." Kula said, a tear trickling down her face. "It's too painful when things like this happen. So to save yourself that pain, don't bear a cub." After a couple minutes of quiet sobbing, she said, "I myself, am never going to again. That's also a reason why I rather not have my little Cheasala talking about having cubs around me. It will one day break her heart when her future mate has to chase away her own sons. Just, if you don't want the pain then, never have cubs..."

Meersha gazed at the ground, thinking of Rombu, before she whispered, "I know..."

 

XLII

A Plan

 

The wind blows and the rain pours

The birds sing and the crickets dance

The sun shines and the moon rises

The fire cracks and the ice breaks

And they all live, until their lives death takes

-Word of the Shamans

 

The summer was full of scorching heat, wild fights, rushed romance, and of course, the growing survival of the pride. Meersha would hunt every week with the Flatland pride, and easily  proved herself to them. Her place was discovered with cease as well, and though she was quickly over powered by O'star, Kula and Fina, she was above all the rest. At nights, the lionesses would gather together and watch the stars, the youngsters chattering away about males and prides, while the adults spoke about religion, politics and status. Eventually, when O'star would come back from marking the borders, the pride would come up as a whole, and usually ended the night with stories of the past, as well as what they predicted would be the future.

Once in July, a young, ignorant rogue, just out of adolescence, had come to challenge O'star, though the brawl didn't last long, and O'star sent the young one running as fast as he could. After all, O'star, though experienced, was still in his prime and zenith, and still had the strength of a youth.

Meersha had befriended all in the Flatland pride, but she and Kula had become closest. Kula was someone who Meersha looked up to for advice and opinions, which she would store into her mind for the influence in her descisions, for Kula was as well, experienced and strong. But what really made Meersha grin, was the fact that Kula, the leader lioness herself, had looked to her for tacticts in their weekly hunts.

The two talked about the heatbreak in their past, and how they came to be in this part of their life. When Kula found out about Natira and Unaro, she had growled and vowed to try and keep Meersha safe from them. But Meersha could only take sympothy and empothy upon the loss of Kula's sons, as she did to hers. Once or twice, Meersha had thought she had even seen a lion out near the northern borders. He was young, tan and slim, and seemed to describe Kirasi.

It was Pursha, the hyper adolescent, who Meersha also became closer to. She looked upon the young one as a younger sister, perhaps even a daughter in some ways. But of course she had never told anyone that, not even Kula, for fear of the loss of Fina's friendship. Cheasala and Pinga were young and arogent and Meersha saw herself as a protector to them as well. Yet she and Pursha talked often, about many things. At least every conversation the two had, though, Meersha would find herself scolding the adolescent for letting her mind travel different ways. Eventually, Meersha would let her go and play wrestle or groom with the others.

All together, life in the Flatland pride was different, new, and just what Meersha needed. A home, and a loving family. Though it would not take the burden off her shoulders of Rombu, as well as the guilt of leaving her siblings, and the idea that Zarazu was dead. Kula thought it best that Meersha was to let go of them all, for she could do nothing. Then again, there was the idea of going back to Gatu, Lusala and Banjija, or at least visit. After all, she had promised them. But the traveling would take weeks, and it seemed that this pride needed her...or more, that she needed them.

"That's it," Kula stated one night. "You're going back."

"Huh?" asked Meersha. "Back where?"

The two were sitting beside the land slant where they laid just a foot or so above the plain. O'star and the rest of the pride were sleeping, gathered up together beneath the stars.

"You're going back to your brother and pride-siblings."

"What?"

"That's right. And I'll even drag you there myself if I have to."

"Kula...I can't."

"You say you can't! But the only thing that's keeping you is the fact that you're not on your paws and making them move!"

"You don't understand. I know I said I'd come back, but I mean, that was years ago. I was ignorant-"

"Of course you were, for you were that ignorant to move from them in the first place. They were your family, and you don't just leave family. You must see them, Meersha. Otherwise, that not only makes you a liar, maybe even a coward, but also-"

"I know, I know!" Meersha cried, not wanting to hear the rest.

"not even part of their kin!" Kula finished.

Fur bristling, Meersha sat up and snarled, "You know nothing about my life! I know I told you the story, but you were never there! It would take forever to get there, and I don't even remember exactly where they are. Besides, they're probably gone now!"

"You must at least try, Meersha!"

"Try? What's the point? They're my family, and they always will be...nothing will change that, but I can't go there."

"Why not?!"

"Because I can't! I want to forget! Every time I think about them, it also reminds me of my birth pride, and my mother and father, and my brother, and my mate and son!" Meersha continued, claws extending into the dirt.

Standing up, easily bigger and taller than Meersha, Kula gave a low growl, fur threatening to stand on end as well as she glared into the younger lioness's eyes. The sight and intimidation made Meersha inwardly shiver as her fur flatened and she looked away, almost submissively. "They're your family, and what do you do? Leave them?" Kula coldly whispered.

The very words stung, and Meersha shut her eyes tightly, before opening them and warily looking to the older lion, a tear streaking down her face.

"What about you?" she whispered back with a shakey voice.

"What about me?" and Kula's voice came back.

"Are you going to come with me?"

Kula said, "Only if you want me to."

"I do." Meersha stated - she could not bare the thought of going alone.

"Good."

As Kula's muscles loosened up, Meersha calmed, and the two purred as they padded back to the pride.

 

XLIII

The Warning

 

You know death is near when the snake shakes its rattle and you say you have no fear.

-Snake in the Grass

 

"Is she OK?" Banjija abruptly asked, though it was obvious.

"No. He got her pretty good." answered a lioness called Rawkshaw – the shaman of the Sunset pride.

Banjija, Rawkshaw and Lusala were gathered near the southeast of the territory, all circling a wounded lioness. She laid on her side, attempting to catch her breath as her heaving loudly thrusted into the air; an open injury was at her left ribcage which was the exposed side of her. It was masked in blood and staining her fur. Quickly, a lioness came running over. She would suddenly begin to sob at the sight of her daughter, and lowered her head to nuzzle the wounded lioness.

"My Tara!" the lioness cried.

"I am very sorry. But Tara is passing on. You will now see her in the sunset and the sunrise." Rawkshaw wearily exclaimed to the crying lioness.

"She is my daughter! She is so young! Just last season my Tara was but a little one!"

"I know, I know. But for some reason, the spirits take the good and the young...I am sorry."

Tara continued to breathe loudly, not even noticing the small crowd around her. Her eyes were watery, and they were looking into the distance, though she was in shock. Tara's mother kept on her sobbing as Rawkshaw and Lusala padded away, back to the pride. Banjija was speachless. The lioness that was dying was but a young one. In adolescence still, and in fact, one of his adopted cubs from just a few months ago. Tara was indeed like a daughter to him, and now he could do nothing to help her. The pain was too great, and so, as Tara took her last breath, Banjija turned, and padded to the tree.

There, the lion lay down beside his grove. Almost instinctively, he began to groom himself out of his shocked emotions.

"I am sorry." a gentle voice cooed.

"Do not tell me you are sorry, Lusala. My daughter has died today. She was young and innocent. And you know what? It was her own pride-brother who killed her." Sitting up, he looked around to the near pride and said louder, now talking to all, "This crime will not go unpunished!" The lion pushed away any tears as he called over the crying of the mother nearby. "Hear me now, my son! I am not sure why you are taunting your own family. Why you have killed your own sister. But I will find you, and one sun, you will pay for this unneeded death!" His roars swept through the dark lands.

Over the summer, as Meersha had lived with the Flatland pride, Banjija had lived with his own. The Sunset pride was doing well. Naynana had given birth to a litter of but two cubs, though they were beautiful and healthy. She and Kumba became the best of parents. Lusala helped with them, as well as the older cubs from the former leader. Banjija had grown close to all, and was a great leader himself, always making sure to mark and patrol the borders with Kumba. He took care of the cubs and they all looked up to him like their own father. The pride grew used to and soon adored him. He told the little one stories every night, and helped them learn to hunt, even if he was a male. Every day he gave them advice on life, and told them about his past.

Kumba and Naynana's cubs got to know Banjija's adopted ones, and they all were a family. One painful night, though, before summer came, the males got the start of their manes, soBanjija had chased away his sons – all of them. All the lionesses had expected it, and in fact the cubs themselves were warned of this, and most were prepared, so several went without much hustle. Only a couple were reluctant, and forced out to the borders.

Banjija was a good leader, though, and let the mothers and sisters visit the adolescent males ocasionally. He himself, feeling regret and pity, would "accidently" bump into one of his young sons when patrolling the borders, only to have a little chat with them. More than once he did this to all, giving them more advice, telling them how sorry he was and much more. He would also help them with fighting and hunting tactics, so that they could survive completely on their own when full grown, and get their own pride. Surprisingly, within a couple weeks, all of his sons had left the edges of the territory to travel, even though they were still adolescents. Was he that good of a father, leader and teacher? Though there were still around three of his sons left. In fact, it was one of those three who were left – perhaps more – who had killed the lioness Tara, an adolescent female who had in fact been their pride-sister.

The pride had kept telling Banjija that there was an adolescent lion stalking around their borders, and he knew it was true – they all did – for the three sons were still around. Later, though, one of the lions began to taunt the pride. Someone would bluff attack a cub from behind, or roar out mockingly at the lionesses. At first, Banjija found this irritating, because each time something happened he would be out on the other side of the territory, so he could do nothing about it. Soon, though, that someone began to actually hurt Kumba's cubs of the pride. Because of this, the cubs – though they were large now themselves, about half the size of a lioness – were watched carefully and put under strict protection. The son had first just barely bit a cub, but later on ended up ripping off part of a cub's tail. This enraged Kumba and Naynana, and the pride demanded that Banjija chase his adopted son far from even the borders. It was a good idea, but Banjija had never been able to find his son to at least even talk to him, or find out which of his sons it was who was causing this terror.

Before long, he started to talk to Lusala and Rawkshaw about this. Both suggested that the lion was obviously one of his sons, and that the son was most likely doing this for feeling betrayed because Banjija had chased him away at the first sight of his mane.

"I know it was harsh and extreme," Banjija had exclaimed to the lionesses. "But I needed to, for our good and his good. Besides, he's lucky I didn't kill him when he was a full cub, and he's lucky I actually came to him at the borders to discuss his future life. I mean, I did that for all my sons, and each seemed confident enough at the advice I gave him."

"He still feels betrayed." Lusala had stated. "Wouldn't you?"

Finally, the son took the taunting to the extreme, and attacked a lioness. He had bit into her ribcage and it ended up killing her. It was Tara.

Now it was about an hour or so after the death of his adopted daughter and Banjija was still grooming himself by his tree. The rest of the pride was in the main den, all curled up with each other to keep warm, and the cubs of Kumba and Naynana were in the back with them. Lusala had padded outside once more, over to her half-brother and sat down.

"You must stop this grooming...you're going to groom your own fur off," Lusala had joked.

Banjija forced a weak grin, before asking, "So how is she?"

"She is fine now. She cried herself to sleep." Lusala answered, knowing he was talking about Tara's mother.

Banjija looked down and sighed.

"I know this isn't what you wanted, Banjija," Lusala gently said. "But things will get better."

"No." Banjija growled firmly, now sitting up. "The pride is in my paws, and I let them down. Now because of that 'son' that I let roam around our territory, a half-cub – my half-cub – is dead."

"It wasn't your fault."

"I need to fix this, Lusala. There can be no more cubs until I fix this. I must find all three of my sons who are still around and talk to them."

"Who are the three left anyway?"

"Bongo, Runcha and Tati." he answered.

"Who do you think would be the one?"

"I am not sure. I love all my sons, but I cannot imagine any doing this to us. What could drive him to this? I know I know," he quickly added, before Lusala could answer. "The feeling of betrayal, I know. But it had to be done. And now, he doing this, just proves how little we mean to him. How little his own sister means." After a moment of thought, he went on. "I do not think it's Tati."

"Oh?"

"He and I talked much when he was but a cub. We talked about the stars and the sunset, about my life and about his 'other dad.' I told him stories all the time and gave him advice about prides and lionesses and hunting when he got older. We are just too close for that to happen."

"Then who do you think it is?"

"Hmm...Runcha seemed so innocent, even as a half-cub. He was not as mischievous as any of the other cubs. He just doesn't seem like he would, or even could do that."

"OK then, it's Bongo?"

"I'm not saying that!"

"I mean you think it's Bongo?"

"I'm not saying that either!" he hissed. "I don't think it's him. It couldn't be. Tara's his own litter-sister."

"OK, then that leaves no one, Banjija."

"I know," Banjija groaned. "I just can't imagine any of my sons doing this!"

"It's disappointing, and quite a shock, I know. But one of them felt betrayed, and so now has betrayed you and the pride. You must do something."

"What can I do, Lusala?!" he snarled.

"Talk to them all! Like you said!"

~~~

Banjija heaved a weary sigh as he padded out into the night. What am I gonna do? he thought. My own son is killing the pride.

"Father!" a voice called, causing the lion to perk and gasp as he looked up, only to see nothing and smell no one.

"Who's there?" he snarled, fur on end.

Suddenly, Banjija found his face in the dirt and a body atop him. Though it was lighter than he, and he forced himself up. The person atop him came off and faced him, causing Banjija to gasp yet again.

"Tati!" he cried.

"Yes, Dad?"

Straightening up and surprsesing the urge to jump to conclusions, Banjija asked calmly, "Where are your brothers? I must speak to them and you, right away."

"Pff. How am I supposed to know?" the adolescent scoffed, rolling his eyes.

"You know very well from my words, that when the time comes that you're alone, then you should find an ally. It's the best way to find a pride and make it your own." Banjija exclaimed.

"Oh don't worry. I've got allies...I have a lot of them." This caused the older lion to raise a brow, but his son continued. "I'm giving you and your pride three sun rises to move out."

"Huh?"

"That's right! This is my territory now, whether you like it or not, Banjija."

"Son, what are you talking about?"

"You know exactly what I'm talking about. And stop with that fatherly act!" With those words, Tati began to stalk back and forth in front of his father. Indeed the adolescent had grown much since he was a cub.

He was larger, of course, and his golden pelt seemed to glitter in the moonglight. The start of a red mane, much like his father's, was showing as it lined his neck and came over the sides of his head. Though the gleaming eyes of unusal blue showed that Banjija and he were not related.

The day Banjija had announced to his sons and the pride that all the young males were to leave, it had taken Tati's breath away. Why must he go? Because he had a mane. But then why did Kumba's cubs – who were both male – get to stay? Because they were still too young. It was obvious that it was a wall of daunting emotions that had made Tati inwardly choke.

At first, the signs of adolescence were wonderful. The lionesses purred and complimented him on how big he had gotten and that soon there would be a beautiful mane hanging from his handsome neck. They – the females – made him feel special, new, different…and he liked it. His mother had stopped treating him like a baby when he became a young teen lion, which gave him better ranking, status and potential within the pride. And of course, with new advice – how to raise a family, look after the pride, even hunt – from his father and Kumba, and other things they had never explained to him when he was a cub, led to a great wave of confidence and pride washing his soul. Indeed he was proud, and several times he would hang out with the other males, and show off to the females.

Yes, Banjija and Tati were close pals – father and son. It was great, ever since he was a cub, and the thought of being a young adult had left Tati with a smile, and hopes and dreams for the future. He even remembered a night when they were under the stars, and he had first met Banjija, wondering what had happened to the other lion – the former leader of the Sunset pride, and the lion who should've been his father.

But then, the feelings of adulthood took over, and Tati couldn't help himself as he had padded over to a female, by a dare from one of his brothers. Though he didn't mind. Tati had gone over to a young female, and began purring and rubbing up against her. His mane had started by then, and so the female thought he was handsome and couldn't help herself as well. Well, Banjija had seen this.

Before, Banjija was hesitant about the whole idea of chasing his sons off, and for a moment, he thought perhaps, he didn't have to. It was when he saw this, that he had called the whole pride together for the announcement. After all, the two youngsters down there were half-brother and sister – it wasn't right, inbreeding that is.

The memory of the day that Banjija had announced the news of his sons leaving, Tati had gasped, eyes wide in shock, heart racing as he felt the betrayal and fright burning up in him. His father's words were far in the distance, though he was sitting between his brothers and near Banjija. He thought he could even hear crying.

"Do not mourn on this day, for it is meant to be a wonderful one. Your sons are taking a step forward. They finally get to move and make their own life, and it wouldn't have been possible without you lovely lionesses teaching them how." Banjija had announced, before turning to see the shock in all of his sons' eyes. "Do not fear, for you, my sons, are allowed to stay beside the borders. If ever you need help or advice, I will be there. And you can leave whenever you'd like."

"Dad?" one of Tati's pride-brothers asked. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because it was meant to be done. It's the way of life, my sons. I am sorry, but now you can leave and find your own pride and your own life." Banjija had replied, before turning to see Kumba's sons, quivering under their mother, and he had chuckled at that. "No need to fear. You two are but too young. But, one sun, it shall happen to you. Just as it will happen to my future sons. Now, go off and live your lives."

With that, Banjija's sons had stood and began off past the lionesses, some of whom were sobbing. A couple said goodbye to their mothers, but most just padded away witout a backwards glance. What really scared Tati, though, was when Banjija had been angered, for two of his sons would not leave. A few times he had warned them, but finally, the leader charged at the adolescents. In fright, they scrambled away. It was a horifying sight, and one that Tati had never thought he'd see. Was this really his dad?

Panting, Banjija had stopped to turn around and see Tati. "Tati," he said calmly.

Before either could say anything, Tati took off to the west, as fast as his legs could carry him. It didn't take too long for most of the sons to leave even the borders behind. But Tati could not put the feeling of betrayal away. It was just too strong and surprising. How could his own father be like this?

Over the next few weeks, Tati had laid around the borders, moping in his depression. Though he finally gained his strength and wits again, and the anger boiled deep in his heart. It was time for revenge. It surprised even him that he could be so harsh to his own birth pride, and kill his own pride-sister. Still, they had ditched him, and they deserved it.

"Do you remember the night we laid under the stars?" Tati finally asked.

"There were many of those times." Banjija replied.

"The first time! The first time I ever saw you, and called you Dad!" snarled the adolescent. "I thought it was special! I thought I was your son!"

"It was special, and you are my son." Banjija quickly said, surprised.

"Yeah? Then why did you chase me off?! And all your other sons!"

"Because it's the Circle of Life, Tati." Banjija sighed, trying not to become iritated. "I didn't like doing it, but my instincts told me to."

"Your instincts? Is that your excuse?"

"One sun you will understand." purred the older one. "It was for the good of the pride, and for the good of you."

"No! It wasn't for the good of me. It was for the good of you!"

"Tati-"

"You just can't stand the thought of sharing the pride!"

"No. If that was true, then Kumba would not be here."

"Then that's it. You don't care about me."

"What? How can you say that? Of course I care about you!" Banjija roared. "That's why I didn't kill you when I took over this pride!"

Tati snarled as he continued to pace back in forth, eyes set upon his father. How could he do this? And he still didn't regret it? Tati stopped.

"You ditched me. You all ditched me. And you will all pay!" he roared, suddenly. "So take your pride and go. Be gone in three sunrises. If I catch you here on the forth sunrise, then I swear to the Spirits of the Past, that you will pay."

"That's it, Tati!" Banjija sent the roar, rushing throughout his lands. Even Tati began to cower, as his father, was huge. In fact, Banjija had grown to be one of the biggest lions the savannah had ever seen. "I'm sick of your threats! What would your mother say-?"

"Kira?" Tati forced himself to interrupt. "She means nothing to me. Just like you and the rest of 'em."

"You don't mean that."

"Oh, I do. That's why Tara is dead."

Banjija gasped. "Tati...you...?"

"Who'd ya think? All your other sons were cowards and went away. But I'm still here, and I will always be here. I will always be around you, haunting you. That is, if you haven't moved by the forth sunrise, like I said."

The anger was not only swelling up in the young one, but in Banjija as well. With another roar, the Sunset leader charged to the teen. Tati turned and sprinted away, off into the distance.

~~~

"Do you think he would really do something?" Lusala asked.

"Of course he would! He already did to Tara!" snarled Banjija, outraged. "Sorry," he added

He was back at the tree, with Lusala, Kumba and now Kira.

"I can't believe my own son would do that," Kira sobbed.

"I know how you feel," Banjija grumbled, before speaking up. "It's obvious he would try to do something to the pride. But he's young, ignorant, and stands alone. There is no way he could harm us all.”

"Hmm...Banjija, you said he had told you that he had a lot of allies, right?" Kumba asked.

"Well yes but, how could he? He's a half-cub for Heaven's sake!" Banjija replied, almost in surprise at the question.

"Well, he took us by surprsie by killing his own sister. He could probably take us by surprise again. Look, Banjija. I don't think we should be hanging around here anymore."

"What?" and the leader grew in shock. "In our own territory? Are you kidding?! You're actually going to take this bluff seriously from a half-cub?!"

"Look. If we leave, maybe that would let him regain his thoughts...and mind," Kumba added thoughtfully. "That would give him some time alone to think and learn to survive. Besides, the herds are moving out anyway. We should be following them."

"Yes, the old Sunset pride curse." Kira quietly said.

"Huh?" they all asked, turning to her.

"Well, I don't think the Sunset pride as ever stayed in one place for more than two years. The herds always seem to move on, and we must follow."

"Yeah, Banjija. If we move, we'd be following the herds for a better territory, and that would also make Tati happy and away from others to harm." Kumba went on.

Banjija began to stalk back and forth, just as his son had done not too long ago. Then he stopped and snarled, "No! I found this land! And I fought for it! Besides, we're talking about a half-cub! Are you really frightened of him? And now that we know who it is, we can watch out for him."

"Banjija, stop. Maybe it's time to leave." Lusala purred.

"No! You are all being cowards!" he blurted out, before he could stop himself.

"And you're being stubborn." his half-sister growled.

Kumba then said, "It's not that we're afraid of Tati. We could easily kill him if we wanted...not that we do want to," he added at Kira's gasp. "It's just, we'd be better off leaving now than later. I mean, we all know we're gonna have to soon."

"Enough! We're staying here!" Banjija declared.

His mind was made up, and he padded around the tree and laid down, tail swishing as he glared at the ground like a mad cub. For some reason, he was too stubborn to move the pride. The lands by his tree were not the greatest, and it was true that the herds were moving, and if they left now, then it would lose any conflict between the pride and Tati. So why did he want to stay? Anger, maybe. Perhaps even curiosity in what Tati had in store for them. There was even something deep inside Banjija that scared himself – the fact that staying here, would give him the excuse to harm - maybe even kill - Tati. The young one deserved it, and at any cost, he'd probably end up killing him in self defense. Yes. This way, Tati's death, would be Tati's fault.

 

XLIV

Finally

 

When the earthquake came, it shattered the earth itself. Cliffs collapsed and cracks formed within the ground. Many died, but the ones who lived, grew stronger after the devestation.

-Days in the Savannah

 

On the forth sunrise since Tati’s warning, things seemed normal. Naynana and Kumba’s cubs were playing under the careful eye of their parents, and the rest of the lionesses were sunbathing in the grasslands. It was Banjija who sat under his tree, eyes scanning his family and the land. Since this morning, he had already checked the borders once in a complete check of the whole territory, marking them for a second time that week. And with a fresh carcass nearby, it was time for the pride to relax. Still, he could not get the shakey feeling of wariness off his mind.

"Banjija?” a voice asked.

“Yeah?”

Lusala sighed and sat beside the leader. “Do you feel OK?”

“Of course I’m OK. Why wouldn’t I be?” he scoffed.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe because you’re sitting here like a tree. Why don’t you just relax with the pride?”

“I have to keep my eyes and ears open.” he replied stiffly.

“Why? Because of Tati?”

“Of course not! I’m the one who wanted to stay here, remember?”

“I remember.”

“Look, Lusala. You should go back with the lionesses. I’ll stay here as a good leader is supposed to do.”

“A good leader is supposed to stay in one spot all sun?”

“A good leader is supposed to keep watch over the pride and make sure nothing bad happens to his pride. Now go, please.” added the lion.

Shaking her head, Lusala padded over to Rawkshaw, who was lying out in the sun, tail swishing in the grass. With another sigh, the younger lion laid beside her friend.

“I sense something…Lusala, what is wrong?” the shaman asked without opening her eyes or lifting her head, though her ears were perked.

“I don’t know.” Lusala mumbled as she rested her head on her forepaws. “I keep thinking about what Tati said. And how we should’ve moved.”

“Are you afraid?”

“I’m not afraid, just wary. And I think Banjija is, too.”

“We have a right to be wary. Whatever Tati is planning, it shall come soon.”

“What do you think he is planning?”

“I haven’t an idea, but if we stay here, we will find out.”

Just then, a cool wind whisped through the savannah, relieving several of its denizens of the harsh heat.

~~~

Days went by, and soon weeks, and there was no sign of Tati, or any of his supposed allies. And finally, Banjija felt safe.

It was night, and the lion was still beside his tree. He would roll over and lean against its base, glancing about, listening to the crickets sing into the dark. Then, Banjija’s eyes slowly began to close…

“Banjija!” someone yelled. “Banjija!”

At the first yell, the leader was awake in an instant, and up on his feet. It seemed like there was no time to relax anymore. The lion made his way to the voice.

Banjija!” it called again.

A female from his pride.

“BANJIJA!” the voice was growing louder and urgent.

He continued to stride quickly through the lands, before taking off in a sprint when he caught the sent of the lioness on the wind, and could now follow the trail. Yes, there she was.

“Lusala!” he called. “What is it? Are you hurt? Are you OK?”

The lion was now beside his sister, who stood in shock, eyes wide. He quickly followed her gaze, and gasped to see a small body lying in the grass. Lusala’s calls had caught the attention of not only her brother, but the rest of the pride as well, not to mention a couple other animals of the night.

“I-I-I didn’t know what to do,” Lusala stuttered, still shocked at the sight. “So I called you.”

“What happened?” Banjija could only muster to ask, not taking his eyes of the bloodied body.

Soon, the whole pride was surrounding the dead cub of Naynana and Kumba. Gasps and distress chattering filled the night. It didn’t take long for the coleader and his mate to appeare, only to stop in their tracks with an abrupt hault.

“Kumba…Naynana…I am so sorry,” whispered Banjija, head lowered.

~~~

From then on, the Sunset pride was left in despair as they continued to live out their lives in the same territory. For awhile, all was well, besides the morning of the loss of the cub. Anger would dwell in the hearts of his parents, as well as the rest of the family, and the remaining son of the coleader was left under constant protection. In fact, the poor little one was rarely let out of the den, and at least two lionesses would watch him every second of the day. It was a mystery really, how his brother was killed. The leaders had had discussions of this horrible event.

“I don’t know. He must’ve crawled out in the middle of the night, maybe going out for a drink of water,” Naynana sadly suggested months later, after she was finally able to speak of her son’s death without bursting into tears.

Indeed months past, and as time went, so did the herds. They left to find better grazing lands, leaving the lions behind. The grass became even drier and more yellow than before, and where water holes used to sit, were now spots of bare cracked ground. Banjija’s grove was now dead; no leaves grew from its naked branches. Soon, not even the vulchers resided. But as all seemed to disappear, so did signs of Tati. The best he could deliver out to follow his threat was but one other death…The rest, was left to nature…or so it seemed. As this all happened, Banjija still refused to move the pride. This angered several of the lionesses, but no one ever said anything about it.

Day by day, the pride kept on. It didn’t take long for another death to come. A young lioness was now dead. And then two. Then three. That made five deaths all together in the Sunset pride, before Banjija finally called a meeting.

“The deaths of our family are hard, but we must push past them.” Banjija mournfully exclaimed as he sat by the dead tree. “Now, it is time we move on. I am finally convinced that all is not well in our lands. Not only because of the wrath has nature endured on us, but the sudden deaths as well.”

Harsh mutters filled the day as he spoke, but the leader would ignore them as he simply turned, and began to pad north, into the horizon…The pride began to follow. They were finally moving out of death’s path…or so they thought.

 

XLV

A Son’s Revenge

 

“Fall fall the sun did so

Fall fall the lives did low

Rise rise the sun did so

Rise rise the souls did go”

-Word of the Shamans

 

“We’ll keep heading north until we find the perfect place.” Banjija exclaimed, almost week later.

“Well where’s the perfect place?” Lusala asked as she panted, tyring to catch her breath. “We’ve been traveling for days, Banjija.”

“Yes and it’ll all pay off.” the leader said sternly, staring into the distance as he kept one paw after the other moving.

The lands about were scorched in the sun’s light, and there was not a sign of life besides the cries of distant vulchers or the songs of grasshoppers and bugs alike. As the pride was moving, they past a part of ground where the earth was dry and cracked.

“What once used to be a waterhole.” someone said.

Just the mention of water made the whole pride mourn silently and lick their dry chops. Banjija kept quiet, though as he led them on, red/gold pelt glimmering in the sunlight, pointed ears twitching in the irritation of the heat.

“If we keep up like this, our little one will die soon.” Naynana fearfully shot at her mate.

Kumba frowned, glancing down at their twelve-month-old son. He was practically as big as his mother, and his mane was soon to grow in.

“Dad, when are we gonna stop?” the cub asked with a helplessness in his voice.

Despite the growing fear of the future, Kumba whispered, “I’ll talk to him,” before trotting up into the front of the slow moving pride.

“Leader Banjija,” the male lion respectfully said.

“Yes?” Banjija asked, keeping his eyes in front.

“Naynana and I fear for our son. He is young and weak, and we have not rested since night two days ago. Please, for his sake and the pride’s, let us rest for a bit.”

“What is the point, Kumba? The waterholes around here are dried up and there is no food, and to rest your body on such a heated ground is nothing but pure torcher, is it not?” Still, he kept looking forward.

The coleader heaved a sigh of slight frustration and longing. His lighter fur rippled as muscles moved beneath the coat, and Kumba could not helpt but feel somewhat inimitaded by the larger lion. Banjija was huge, and seemed almost twice as big as the normal lioness. It was not a fair fight if one was to attempt to snatch the dominance that he held. Banjija would have them down in a heartbeat. For now, Kumba could only use words.

“Banjija, I am begging you,” Kumba pleaded. “My son-”

“-is too old to have you worrying like this about him.” And that’s when Banjija halted in his tracks.

Releaved, the pride sat down under a skeleton tree to try and soak up any shade it had to offer, which wasn’t much at all.

Banjija stared coldly at the smaller of the two, and Kumba was forced to look down at his forepaws. The swelling of distress swirled in his chest. Kumba knew he had said the wrong thing, and now it was time for the talk.

“It’s time to recognize the adult in your son, Kumba.” Those were the words Kumba so feared. “Soon he will grow a mane, and then it will be time-”

“I know!” Kumba cut him off as he jerked his head up. Regretfully, he calmed down and said in a softer tone, “I mean, I know. But he has not yet grown that mane…”

“And what will happen when he does?” Banjija challenged.

“Well…”

“Well he will be torn from the pride, Kumba. That’s what will happen. And the only thing that will be keeping you and him together is love. Your love has to be strong enough to keep a bond between parent and child, even when they are seperated. Do you not love your son enough, Kumba?”

And before Kumba could help himself, he shouted, “Of course I do, Banjija!”

“Then do what’s right for him and the pride.” Banjija simply replied, without any anger whatsoever.

“All I wanted was a rest for him, but now you have to bring this up?! Banjija! Please!”

“All I wanted was for you to know.” The leader glanced at the pride, before saying, “And we’ve had our rest. Now it’s time to start on again.”

As he began north once more, the lionesses would all get up, almost stiffly as they groaned.

“Mom, I’m so tired,” complained the cub as he walked past his teary-eyed father.

Kumba stood, stalkstill as the pride passed him on.

“Kumba, what is it?” Naynana questioned as she turned around to face him.

“What? Oh. Uh, n-nothing.” he studdered through a weak grin. “Let’s hurry and catch up with the others. We don’t wanna fall behind.”

“Tell me, please, my loving mate.” she quietly pleaded.

Purring, the two would nuzzle as their son made a face of disgust at his parents. As this happened, the male would murmur softly, “It’s soon time to let our son go.”

Naynana’s eyes widened at the very thought that so churned her stomach and it made her want to vomit. Ears folding back, she took a step back and exclaimed, “But he is so young!”

“He has to, remember? He’s practically an adult.”

“What are you talking about?” the young one asked curiously, head tilted.

“Go with Uncle Banjija. The adults are talking.” Kumba commanded.

Rolling his eyes, the young lion ran off with the rest of the pride.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s an adult, he’s still our son!” Naynana spat.

“You and I both knew this day was going to come but…” and his weary voice was cut off by a sudden roar of thunder in the distance as lighting danced about in the evening sky.

“But he’s out there!”

Kumba stopped, and blinked. Naynana was distressed and worried – something she normally wasn’t – but when she was, everyone should be. And he knew exactly who “he” was…Tati. Had Naynana feared him the whole time? Did she know something?

“Kumba, Tati is out there. I fear what he will do to our son.” Her voice and words were coming back to that of a young shaman, though she could not disguise the concern. “We can’t send our little one out until Tati is gone. And until we find a safe place with thriving prey!”

“You’re right.” he choked. With that, Kumba shot up to the leader of the Sunset pride once more and found the courage to growl, “Not yet, Banjija. Our son will be released when it’s time, but that time won’t come until we’ve found a safe place – filled with prey and away from Tati.”

Raising a brow, the larger of the two would turn to Kumba, who flinched only slightly, but stood his ground. Still walking, and out of sheer luck and surprise, the leader replied simply, “OK.”

A smile spread on Kumba’s face, and he nodded. There were no more words needed for their agreement and understanding.

~~~

Panting, Banjija continued to pull himself through the grasslands. Every step burned, every breath forced, and every second a slow and painful one, filled with thirst and yearning. He couldn’t even help the sweatdrops from sliding down his fur or the flies that swarmed around his face. The lion’s ears tail would swish. Finally, the youthful leader would lie down on his side, still panting.

Behind him laid the Sunset pride, too exhausted to move on. Naynana was the only one showing signs of movement as she groomed her son, who was too hot to pout.

“Banjija,” a strained voice croaked. “We need to find water…soon.”

“I know,” the leader replied. “I know, Lusala. But we’re just resting.”

“I think it’s better if we traveled at night from now on.”

Sitting up, the male turned to the lioness in fascination.

“Think about it; the sun is the thing that makes us hot, but if we travel at night it will be cool enough to go on, and the day will give us warmth to sleep and bathe in.”

Of course! How stupid was he? How ignorant of a leader? How foolish to move his pride in this scorching heat!

“You’re right. Announce it to the pride.” and with that, Banjija would lie back down on his side.

Rolling her eyes, Lusala spat, “Too lazy and old now? Ha! I should be the leader!”

It didn’t take long for the word to spread through the large pride, but when it did, lions began to relax – if possible – even more than before, with a silent wave of releaf washing over the family of giant cats.

By midday, Banjija would heave himself off the ground with a rather graceful stretch afterward, and, sniffing the air, would move forward. Afterall, he was the leader, and that was taking care of the pride. As he began on a small walk, his ears would twitch as he sniffed the air, protectively. If there was any danger near, it would have to deal with him first.

Suddenly, a strange sound of what seemed like chuckling caused him to hault in his tracks.

“Who’s there?” he demanded. “Come now, show yourself like a real lion.”

The scent was much different than any of the lionesses back at the pride, which was now yards off. In fact, Banjija could tell it was a male, and definitely not Kumba. And yet there was something familiar about this scent that the leader could not put his paw on.

“You wanted a pride without a threat, so you chased me away. But in doing so, you got just what you tried to avoid.” a sleek voice said.

“Tati!” Banjija roared.

The younger lion would step over a near hill, showing himself in the afternoon light. A grin masked his dark face, and the mane of almost crimson was full grown.

“You’ve stepped too far, my son.” Banjija’s voice practically quivered from the boiling rage that grew in the pit of his stomach. “Your blood should be shed and your soul should not go to the stars or the sunset, but rather the underground. But, I will give you one last chance to save yourself. Run – run from your birth pride and never come back!”

“Oh but we’ve jut barely begun our talk, Father.” exclaimed the younger male as he stopped but a few yards from Banjija. “Don’t you want to hear how your own son slowly killed your pride? And right under your nose!”

“No!” Banjija shot out. “It couldn’t have been you! How could I have not noticed?”

“Really, that’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since the sun I first killed part of the Sunset pride. The only logical explanation is that you’re as much of a bad leader as you are a father.”

Banjija stood there, flabbergasted, as parts of his mane fell into his face and his own limbs began to tremble. The emotions were too strong, and he knew he was about to do something horrible.

“I,” he finally whispered. “will give you three seconds to run. And then, I will kill you.”

The words that slipped from his mouth scared even him, as well as Tati. Yet Tati kept on the act, as his grin grew wider.

“I think it’s the other way around, Banjija.” he chuckled.

Lifting his head, the Sunset pride leader roared, “Run, you fool!”

With that, Banjija leapt forward.

Wham!

Banjija’s face met the ground in a hard thump, and before he knew it, one of the biggest lions the savannah had ever seen, was struggling to get up. A lioness had knocked him flat on his face, and now a group of them was surrounding him and Tati. For some reason, Banjija could not help but sense another familiarness about these lions, but it was not clear to him at first. They were like the Sunset pride, but not.

“You see, after I was shunned from my own family, I made some friends.” the younger adult snickered. “And now, we will kill you!”

“Not without us!” someone cried.

Kumba stepped forward, the Sunset pride standing loyally behind him.

The other lionesses stood near Tati, hestitant at first.

“Go on, girls. It’s time to regain our place and rank in society!” Tati encouraged.

All at once, the two prides were charging at each other, and lions clashed together. Bellows and howls filled the air as the wild cats fought each other, digging into each others flesh with jagged teeth and claws.

You!” Banjija snarled, glaring at Tati, who stood in the middle of the brawl, still grinning. But before the leader could pounce, someone called, “Mother!” The word cracked the cries of the whole mess, and everyone stopped. In the middle of it all, two lionesses stood, stalkstill as they gazed intently at each other, almost in surprise. Finally a lioness from the Sunset pride would cry, “My daughter!” and the two came together, nuzzling, purring and sniffing as they attempted not to sob.

“Wha-?” Banjija questioned to no one in particular.

“Mom!” someone else cried.

And soon, the pride and the strangers were now nuzzling and purring. A lioness here would be talking with a younger one. Two others would crowd another lioness.

“What’s going on here?” Tati growled.

“The cubs!” Naynana exclaimed as she ran to Banjija. “These are the lionesses I told you and Lusala about who left when they were but half-cubs.”

“Huh?”

“Girsls, what are you doing? Attack them!” Tati ordered.

A lioness cranked her head to stare at the male in the eyes and growl, “You told us we would be getting a pride and a place in life; you did not tell us we would have to kill our own family.”

“Family?” he spat. “This is not your, family – they are your enemies!”

“Tati,” someone suddenly said.

Kira walked over, another lioness beside her. “Meet your big sister.”

“Kashu? No! We were going to be future mates!” he blurted, locked in a cage of shock as he stared at his mother and the lioness beside her.

“I do not participate in inbreeding, nor the killing of my own family, Tati.” his older sister called Kashu exclaimed. “And to think, I was going to be a mate with my little brother and kill my birth pride!” and she lowered her head in shame.

“It is all right, my daughter.” Kira gently cooed. “You didn’t know.”

In the mix up of all the fighting, none of the lionesses had discovered they were related, until minutes after the beginning of bloodshed. But now it was over, and the pride was reunited.

Shaking his head in utter disbelief, Tati roared, “No! Attack! Attack them, now! They’re our enemy!”

Then, before anyone could stop him, Kumba, eyes buried deep into Tati’s body as he remembered the death of his son, would roar and charge. The younger lion knew he didn’t stand a chance, and like a coward, turned, and sprinted as fast as his legs could carry him. Tati disappeared into the horizon, while Kumba stopped atop a hill and let out another mighty roar. The Sunset pride was now safe.

For a few moments, Banjija stood where he was, ashamed as well as his son – a murderer – was forced away forever.

“Don’t let the pride fall, and protect them always,” someone said quietly.

“Huh?” and Banjija was torn from his astonishment. “Yora!”

“That’s what my father told me before he went.” Yora explained. “He told me that, and I kept to my word, even when my own sisters left. I had to – he was the only one I had left.”

~~~

The crickets chirped through the crisp night and a distant cry of some kind of creature bore into the savannah. It was decided that the Sunset pride was to rest and regain its strength for this night, instead of traveling. It was also a time for mothers and daughters and sisters to catch up on their life. Apparently the lionesses had left this pride years ago, seeking a new and better life, as they saw no purpose in staying with Umbsha in charge. Later, they met up with a young adolescent called Tati, but no one new he was their pride-brother. Tati had led them on, and they became allies. Exagerating the truth, he was able to get the lionesses to do him favors. Though none had noticed since – as quincidental as it was – not one lioness met up with another actually related to them until the day of the fight.

Now it was later that day, and the sun was down.

“No wonder she looked to you as a mother,” Lusala whispered.

She and Naynana laid close, and Yora was not too far. Kumba was nuzzled beside his son, and Banjija was in a deep sleep in the middle of all the lionesses.

“Your words are past the hill; what do you mean?” Naynana questioned in her shaman-like ways.

“Yora. She had no one to look up to, what with her mother absent and her father chased off by Banjija. So she looked to you, and stayed with the Sunset pride because she was following along with the promise she made to Umbsha – to protect the pride, that is.”

“Seems you’ve gained some wisdom there, Lusala, my pride-sister.” Naynana said with a grin.

“Seems I have.” Lusala replied, smiling back.

 

XLVI

Welcome Home

 

“I’m home.”

-King Simba of Pride Rock (Golden Era – beyond this time)

“This was it, I swear,” cried Meersha.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!”

She and Kula were at Meersha’s old adolescent home, where the grove rested upon the hill – the place where she, her brother, pride-brother and pride-sister had spent much of their youth. Now the tree was bare, and the grass was scorched.

It had taken over two weeks to find her old home, but finally, the two had tracked it down again. Only this time, it was much different than Meersha had remembered. And now, Banjija, Gatu and Lusala were gone, too.

“Hey,” said Kula, scenting the ground carefully. “I smell lion.”

Meersha padded over and examined the earth, too. “I can smell a faint scent of Banjija. But it’s so faded, and days old. Probably weeks. And I think Lusala’s scent is somewhere among the ground as well, but it’s so covered up by her absence.” She paused. “There’s no sign of Gatu, though. He must’ve left long ago.”

“But there were other lionesses.” Kula said. “Can you not smell their old scents, too?”

“Yes, I can smell them. But, who are they? We have never had anyone else here.”

Suddenly, Meersha’s head dropped. “It’s no use. They’re not around…I waited too long to come back…” Her hollow voice trailed off.

Kula sat down beside her friend, and purred, “I am sorry we came to this. I made you go and-”

“No.” Meersha interrupted. “It’s my fault that I waited so long to come back. I’m glad we went. I would’ve never known then.”

The two exchanged weak smiles, before Meersha whispered, “Let’s go.” and they took off northeast, back home to the Flatland pride.

~~~

“Come quick, Banjija!” someone called.

“Huh?” the giant leader questioned as he began to run after the voice. “Lusala?”

“Just hurry up!” the lioness continued as she sprinted through the grasslands.

“What’s this all about, Lusala?” he asked as he caught up, just a foot or so behind his pride-sister.

“I discovered it lasnight.” she happily cried. “Wait till the others see it!”

“What?!” his impatient voice roared.

“That!”

Abruptly, the two would stop, and Banjija let out a gasp of astonishment. There, they stood on the outskirts of a healthy valley. Trees were scattered here and there, and there were even a couple rolling knolls built in with a small river that laced its way around the whole glen.

“Banjija, is it not wonderful?” Lusala asked happily.

“Is the land taken up?” Banjija was finally able to ask, not taking his eyes of the wonderous landscape.

It wasn’t that these lands were the best around, but surely the best Banjija or Lusala had ever seen in their young lives. The grass was even hinted with a certain light green. And other residents of the valley flourished, and signs of prey were everywhere.

“Nope. I already skirted it out so as to not get up our hopes. It’s all clear and ready for the taking.”

“And to think, this glen was waiting for us the whole time!” Banjija laughed.

“What do you mean? Will we live here?”

“Why not? It’s perfect!”

The two smiled at each other.

“Now I’m going to explore the lands and mark the borders. Please go tell the others.” Banjija then exclaimed. “Oh, and welcome home, Lusala, my pride-sister.”

“Welcome home, Banjija.”

 

XLVII

A Real Leader

 

Who is to say, that you are the rightful leader?

-Questions of the Folk

 

“Banjija, I wouldn’t be so sure about this.” said Kumba, caustiously.

“And why not?” asked Banjija.

The lions sat peacefully upon a small hill. Hills. Something Banjija loved and felt at home at.

“Well, for one, these lands are pretty good.”

“Of course.” interrupted the leader. “That’s why we have them.”

“So why didn’t anyone else have them before?”

“They did. Can you not notice the birds, insects, fish, reptiles and prey all around?”

“Of course I can, Banjija. I’m not stupid and you know that.” Kumba growled, irritated. “Besides, I meant how come this home has not yet been residented by lions?”

“Well who knows? But now it is.”

“Do you not know about those kind of rogues?”

“Huh? What are you talking about?” Banjija scoffed as he watched his pride lounge about in the sun. “What do you mean, ‘those kind of rogues’?”

“The kind of rogues who live in lush lands, and wait for a pride to come to them so they can take it over.”

“Actually, I have not heard of those kind of rogues. And even if they’re around here, well, they’ll have to deal with me.” Banjija proudly exclaimed.

“All I’m saying is, it’s kind of suspious. And just watch out.”

“Of course I will. We will. Kumba you are a leader, too, ya know.”

“OK, OK. I was just saying…” and the coleader trotted off to his family.

“Right, whatever,” Banjija muttered, shaking his head.

~~~

Days went by, and the Sunset pride was settled comfortably within their new home. The valley was only about five or six square miles, but it suited them well. There was plenty to drink and eat, and a great mixture of sun and shade.

Soon, though, the time came when a new scent filled the air. At first, Banjija thought it was nothing but a hollow threat. But soon, he came to recognize it every day.

About a week later, the leader was stopped, right at the southern borders of his own territory.

“Stop!” someone ordered.

A mangled lion was standing between Banjija and his pride. The lionesses looked up, ears twitching and eyes studying.

“What do you want, rogue?” Banjija coldly growled.

“Your pride of course.”

“So Kumba was right.” he muttered under his breath. “Where is the old coot anyway?” But he knew Kumba was on the other side of the territory, remarking the borders as well.

“You’re pride is on my land. And now that pride is mine.” snickered the lion.

“Right,” Banjija smirked as he took a step forward

It was obvious to see who would win. Banjija was almost a third the size bigger than the rogue. A single roar and the lion was sent off, running away from his own lands.

“Well that was easy,” Banjija laughed as he bounded over to his family.

“Well you seem like a happygolucky guy,” Lusala giggled.

“Why wouldn’t I be? I chased someone off with a single roar. He was like a cub running to his mother!”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to be using your size as intimidation.”

“And why not? It worked, didn’t it?”

“You should prove yourself.”

“Have I not already?”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” snickred Lusala as she trotted away to lie down under an acacia tree.

“Pff, lionesses.” muttered the male, rolling his eyes.

~~~

Even when Naynana and Kumba’s son was forced from the pride, the Sunset pride seemed to get bigger. In fact, every day it grew and grew. First a couple more lionesses, then ten, then twenty, and before they knew it, there was almost a hundered lionesses in the pride! 

Banjija’s popularity had spready quickly throughout the savannah, and lionesses through the whole savannah moved to join the Sunset pride. After all, Banjija was the biggest lion anyone had ever seen, and he was undefeated. But, as the females came, so did the males. Rogues everywhere arrived as well. Most would come, and then leave, too frightened and intimidated by his size. Though a few ignorant rivals would pick the fights, and end up losing.

“All right, let’s get this over with.” Banjija’s normal reply was when he saw a new conestor step up to his lands.

The more females, the more tempting the pride was to other males. And the more males defeated or scared off, the more desirable it was for the females. Soon, Banjija was known not only as “Leader Banjija” but to some migrated prides, “Emperor Banjija.” The title took him by surprise, and even frightened him somewhat, but soon, he grew used to the name. The only one who refused to call him Emperor Banjija was his own pride-sister.

“Because it’s stupid,” Lusala hissed one day. “Why would I call you ‘Emperor’? You’re my brother. I would never call you that.”

“The other lionesses wonder why you don’t!” he said. “Why not just call me what they call me?”

“Because it’s stupid!” Lusala growled again, and got up to move away from him, leaving Banjija to stand on his knoll.

The Sunset pride’s valley was full of lionesses, and the territory had to be expanded so as not to chase off the prey.

“Ugh,” he groaned as he laid down.

“Cat got your tongue?” Kumba joked as he came over and sat beside the bigger of the two.

“Lusala doesn’t think I’m a real lion. Or a real leader.”

“Oh, and why not?”

“Pff, who knows? Who cares.” he growled, staring at his forepaws.

“Well, speaking of being a real lion, don’t you think it’s time to mate? There haven’t been cubs in the Sunset pride since my son, who was chased off suns ago.”

Raising a brow, Banjija lifted his head and carefully studied the other lion. Kumba and Naynana had been hurt when the day came to chase off their son, but it had happened, and the two were able to deal with it and talk about it.

“Do you still see him occasionally?” Banjija asked, now sitting up.

“Sometimes.”

“Do you think he’ll turn out like…” and he trailed off, closing his eyes tightly.

“Like Tati?” Kumba finished.

“Yeah.” Banjija opened his eyes, only to find them watery. His stomach churned at the thought of his once closest son, and now his enemy.

“No. I honestly don’t think that will happen again.” Kumba gently answered. “Is that why you have not mated with the lionesses yet?”

“I haven’t given them cubs because we’ve been traveling!” snarled the leader defensively.

Kumba took a couple steps back, head and ears low, trying to show submission. “With all do respect, we’ve been settled in these lands for a couple full moons now.”

“Whatever.” Banjija growled, staring at nothing now.

“It’s OK, Emperor Banjija.” Kumba said.

“Don’t try to flatter me. You and Lusala are the only ones who don’t call me that.”

“Well I am now.”

“Why? You only want to mate again and want my permission.”

“Is that bad? Besides, the lionesses are anxious. It’s time to let your blood flow and spread through to the next generation now, Banjija. They want cubs as strong and big and dominant as you. They’re waiting.” and with that, Kumba walked away.

Sighing, Banjija sat down again, gazing intently at the savannah. Was it true that he had not mated yet because he was scared of what he would produce and raise? That he would just give them another Tati? It’s time to let go, he finally told himself. And it’s time to start being a lion and a leader.

 

XLVIII

Reunited

 

When the loner is returned to its kin, it’s welcomed with open arms. While the loner who made its new home, should be just as welcomed.

-Rogues of the Savannah

 

The creature moved in, eyes of blood buried deep into Meersha’s soul.

“No!” she cried desperately. “Don’t!”

But when she turned to run, she did not know where to go, as her surroundings were nothing but a misty night in a deserted savannah.

“Meersha!”

Meersha’s eyes opened, and she tried to gasp, only to take in a gulp of water. The lioness jerked her head from the puddle, and came out into the night, sputtering and choking. If it had not been for the fact that her head was under water, Meersha would’ve woken up in a cold sweat.

“What happened?” she coughed, water streaming down her face, causing her fur to stick to her skin and a blanket of goosbumps to wrap around her body.

“You were sleeping.” a young-adult Pursha awkwardly exclaimed. “You were having a bad dream I think.”

“More than a dream, half-cub.” Meersha whispered as she stood.

Glaring, Pursha hissed, “I’m not a half-cub anymore!”

Chuckling weakly, the older lioness would reply, “I’m sorry, I forgot.”

“Well anyway,” Pursha went on. “How was that not a dream?”

Heaving a sigh, Meersha thought it best not to talk about it with someone so young. After all, it could have been a dream. And yet, she could not let go of the thought or feeling she had back when she was a cub, and remembered the creature. It was coming back. But how? And why? Was it real? Nevertheless, she knew it was best to act natural and casual now.

“Eh, nevermind,” she shrugged.

“OK…” Prusha then blinked. “So…anyway, we’re about to head off on our weekly hunt, Meersha, and you should come!”

The excitement in the youngster’s voice calmed the lioness down, and Meersha was able to grin and stop her trembling as she began to groom herself.

“Nah, that’s OK. I think I’d rather stay here and get dry. Besides, your mother needs helps with the new cubs.”

“Pff, why? All she does is lay there in the cave with them. And anyway, we need you! Even Kula told me to come get you! You’re the best hunter!” pleaded Pursha.

Sighing and shaking her head, Meersha said, “I’m staying. You guys can do all right without me.”

“Well Mom doesn’t need help with the cubs. Dad can help.”

“He’s out marking the borders, remember?”

“But that’s stupid! He’s marked the borders a billion times today!”

“But how many tonight?” snickered Meersha.

Groaning, Prusha turned away and muttered disapointedly, “Fine, whatever.” As she began to run, she called over her shoulder, “But you’d be doing the whole pride a favor in helping us get some meat!”

After the flattering was over, and Pursha disappeared over the plain, Meersha began towards a small den, and lay beside the enterence, only to give a couple low grunts.

“Fina, are you all right?” she asked cagily.

“Just peachy,” remarked the lioness who was lying in the cave, seven small bundles suckling at her tits. “I mean, I haven’t been able to get up for suns since I brought the cubs to the middle territory, but whatever.”

Just a few months before, Runaka and Fina had both given birth to a litter of healthy cubs. Once the two lionesses introduced the offspring to the pride, they took turns nursing them, and other females would help watch over the little ones as well. But right now they were sleeping, nuzzled against either mother or aunt; whichever role Fina played in their tiny lives.

Meersha giggled, then replied in a more serious and sympathetic tone, “Don’t worry; the others will be back soon, with meat. And you can have a break while Runaka nurses the fur balls. In fact, they’re much bigger than they used to be. When do you think they shall start eating meat?”

“Soon. Very soon. Look at me! I’m practically shrivled up already, and then I’ll have nothing left!” she joked.

The two shared a much needed laugh, and even more tension was brought off both their shoulders.

“Well I’ll be around if you need me.” Meersha offered, before trotting over near the ridge of the land where it overlooked the Flatland pride’s territory.

There, she finished up her grooming, before lying down and gazing intently at nothing in particular. Minutes past, and the female continued to lie in that position, listening to the quiet soothing sounds of her enivornment. A fly buzzed around her, and her ears twitching as her calm side rose and fell. The lioness’s tail swished slowly and comfortably in the yellow grass blanket. Her claws extended and kneeded the earth to help soothe her distraught body. Finally, when all was relaxed, Meersha began to close her eyes for the second time.

It didn’t take long for her eyes to shoot back open as her nose twitched, senting the air. Someone was near, and no one from the pride. In fact, the stranger was male. As her fur stood on end, the lion barely shifted her head, yet left it resting on her forepaws. The stranger was getting closer…

Suddenly, Meersha snarled as she leapt into the air. Whoever it was, had not only trespassed, but had gotten too close for her to handle. The lioness collided with a male, who roared out in surprise, flinging her off him. Rolling into the grass, Meersha quickly stood and roared back, only threateningly.

“Meersha!” the stranger called.

Astonishment then, took her heart away. There, standing in front of her, was her longlost lover: Zarazu. But how could it be? She had not seen him since that night, two years ago…How was it that she hadn’t even recognized her own mate’s scent?

Panting, and attemptimg to find her words, Meersha kept still, though her body was quivering, almost as if trying to keep its balance and not collapse at what was happening.

Zarazu looked warn, and skinny. His mane was shaggy, but a beautiful black, nevertheless. And somehow, it still managed to sparkle in the moonlight. Though his rare, ghostly pelt let him stand out, everywhere. The lion’s blue eyes rested on the one person he had spent years searching for.

“Zarazu…” Meersha finally choked, fur coming down.

It was strange to see her mate in such a way, with several small wounds about his thin body. Even his ribs showed in the dark.

“What’s happening?” she went on, wearily. “Is it really you?”

“Of course it’s me.” and his voice warmed her all together.

Jumping forward, the two met, and the sound of purring mixed in with the night life. Meersha buried her face into his mane, taking in his scent and closing her eyes tightly, keeping them shut for awhile. It was hard to understand what was happening really. After all, Yawnda had said he was dead. Then again, when was Yawnda ever telling the truth?

“Oh, Zarazu! I’ve missed you so much!” she cried through his mane.

“And I missed you, too!” he whispered in a weak tone.

After a couple more minutes of nuzzling, the two backed up to look each other over.

“Meersha, I looked for you for suns, and yet I found no trace of you.” Zarazu finally spoke, gently. “I almost thought about giving up at times, but there wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t think of you... I thought...I thought Yawnda had killed you.”

"Killed me?" Meersha asked, startled. "No. She is dead."

"Then that means I won't have to kill her." he growled. "...Oh, Meersha, every sun! Think about you!"

“I know. I thought of you all the time.” she exclaimed with a sniffle. “But I didn’t think you were alive…Yawnda said-”

“Whatever she said was a lie.” he interrupted. “Yawnda had a cold heart, and never wanted us together…because she never wanted us to be happy. When I found her body by the river, I could smell you. But you were already gone. I followed as best I could, trying to track you down. Trying to find my mate. But I never did…until now. And it’s really you! I can’t believe it! Thank the Great Spirits!”

And again, the two were nuzzling and crying into each others fur.

For at least an hour, the lover laid down beside each other, nuzzling and purring, grooming each other. It was surprising even Fina herself could not have heard the commotion.

“Zarazu,” Meersha finally said, studying her mate. “You look so weak.”

“I never stopped looking.” he whispered with a grin.

The words suddenly stung her, and Meersha looked down, eyes scrunched up.

“What is it?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” she lied, looking up with a forced smile. “Anyway, you’re skin and bone. You need some meat and fresh water. Follow me and we can make you a buff, healthy lion again – like you were before!”

Nodding, Zarazu got up as Meersha did and began to follow her. When they found a near puddle, Meersha quietly padded away, listening to the desperate laps of Zarazu’s tongue on the water, trying to scoop up as much as possible with each gulp. She dispparead for only a second, and came back with a chunk of bloody flesh. Dropping it, the lioness sat down and waited. Only a moment later did Zarazu notice the meat, and fling himself to it, ripping it apart and chomping into it. Yet it was nothing but a snack.

“Don’t worry, the pride is coming back with more, probably in a couple days.” she reassured him as he began to lick his bloody claws dry.

“Pride?” Zarazu then asked, stopping abruptly and lifting his head to look at her.

“It’s OK. We’re called the Flatland pride.”

“We’re?” he repeated with a frown.

“What’s – oh.” she had started out with the question. Not even hesitating, she blurted out, “They’re my family, Zarazu, you must understand. But you are, too. I will never let us be apart again.”

“And neither will I.” he stated, and for a third time they nuzzled.

“Never again.”

“But what will you do then?” he questioned.

“I’m not sure yet.” she admited. “But can we talk about this when the time is right?”

“When will the time be right?”

“When my lover is healthy. We shall feed you and make sure you get better, with pleanty of sleep.”

“I’m not a cub,” he chuckled.

“I know you’re not, but I just don’t like seeing you like this.”

“Meersha!” someone suddenly yelled, furiously.

An abrupt roar shook the land. The two long-lost lovers jerked their heads to see the giant O’star, standing atop a near knoll, fur bristling and rage boiling in his eyes. It took but a second, and the Flatland pride leader was right next to them, glaring at Zarazu, who was just another unknown male within his territory.

Zarazu protectively jumped in front of his mate.

Who is this?!” O’star growled as he halted in front of them, giving all signs ready for a fight.

“O’star, please!” Meersha cried out, forcing herself beside Zarazu. “This is my mate, Zarazu.”

Raising an unseen brow, the lion questioned, “Zarazu? The Zarazu you always told us about?”

“Yes, that’s him!” she anxiously exclaimed, nodding her head.

“Well, he is still a male, and we still have cubs.” spat the Flatland pride leader.

“Please, I beg you; just let him stay here until he has regained all his strength.” Meersha continued to plead.

“I am pleanty capable of taking care of myself, and Meersha.” Zarazu said coldly, staring into O’stars eyes.

“Calm down or we shall not let you near here ever again.” O’star said. “And I would never dream of hurting Meersha. She is like a daughter to me.”

“Well that’s good, ‘cause-”

“Enough!” hissed Meersha. “So, O’star you will let him stay?”

Giving a moment’s thought, O’star was silent, before stating, “Until he is healthy. Then he must move along.”

Meersha delightedly squealed, but Zarazu just smirked at the pride leader, before O’star turned and headed back to where Fina was.

“Don’t worry, you’ll love it here.” Meersha then explained. “Here, we are really a family. We are not at all like the Brokenclaw…We care about each other. And we don’t lie to each other either.”

At first, Zarazu didn’t know what to say. The exciment of not only being around lions who actually cared, but also the reuniting of him and his mate shot excitement down his spine. All he could say was, “That’s good.”

 

XLIX

Corrupting the Circle of Life

 

“We are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”

-King Mufasa of Pride Rock (Golden Era – beyond this time)

 

As Zarazu dug into the zebra carcass, blood splattered everywhere. Meersha just stood, examinging her hungry mate. Indeed, in his searching the lion had had barely anything to eat. It was too hard alone…to do anything.

“Tell me what you’ve gone through, Zarazu.” she whispered.

The black and white lion lifted his head from the dead animal to quickly reply, spitting out its blood as he did so, “I told you; I looked for you. That’s all.” And he went back to digging in.

Meersha frowned. For now, she should just let him eat and relax.

It took the pride two days, but eventually they came back, stomachs full as they dragged the zebra. A wave of shock had washed through the lionesses, though, after seeing Zarazu, and even more surprise caused their eyes to widen when they heard that O’star was letting him stay…at least for a few suns. No one really had said anything to Zarazu, but Meersha was just fine with that.

Now, the exhausted lion was sinking his teeth into the pride’s kill.

“So I heard that zebra here is gonna leave soon.”  Kula said slyly as she padded over to them.

Zarazu hardly gave the lioness a glance as he continued to stuff his mouth.

“Who? Oh.” Meersha replied. “Right. Yeah. When Zarazu’s better, we’re going to move on.”

“That’ll be a shame to see you go, Meersha.” Kula warily exclaimed. “You’re one of my best pride-sisters.”

“And you’re mine, too.”

“So, tell me,” Kula then said as she sat down. “Where do you two plan to go?”

“I’m not sure. Anywhere –  just as long as we’re together.”

“A lovely story to tell the grandcubs.” she joked.

“Ha, yeah.” But Meersha’s voice was full of sorrow and regret.

As Kula walked away, Zarazu slurped up one last piece of the zebra, before turning to gaze intently at his mate, studying her expression and the sence of loss in her beautiful, purple eyes. They held so much pain.

“Meersha.” he said quietly, licking his lips clean before going over to nuzzle his mate.

“Yes?” she asked, still staring into the distance.

“This pride…they don’t want me here, yet they are part of your family.”

“Your point?”

“I don’t want you to be unhappy.”

As he said this, the yellow-gold lioness turned and looked at Zarazu.

“Look…I know I’m not welcomed here, so I want you to stay.” he finally said.

“What?” she asked in astonishment.

“You heard me. I wish for you to stay here with a pride who can help give you the joy and protection you deserve.”

Meersha shook her head slowly, but a grin grew on her face, which only caused more confusion in Zarazu’s naēve mind.

“Zarazu,” she replied. “If I were to stay here, then I couldn’t be with you. I want to be with you. I’ll never let you go again.”

“But-” he argued, but she went on.

“If I were to stay here, I wouldn’t be as happy as I would be leaving with you. And if you love me, you would see that and let me go with you without anymore protests.”

For a silent, intense moment, the two stared into each other’s eyes, as if reading their souls, before an agreement came between them. Again, the mates came in for another nuzzle.

“Zarazu. I could never leave you again. And…I’ve been meaning to say this but…it’s almost as if I don’t deserve you.”

“What do you mean?” he questioned, pulling from the nuzzle.

“Look. After I was pushed into the river, Yawnda had said you were dead.”

“But you should never believe her.”

“Exactly!” Meersha suddenly cried out in despair. “That’s the thing! I did believe her! I was too stupid to even look for you! I was too heartbroken to and so I gave up, even when you looked sun and moon. Even when you pushed yourself through everything - through death itself, just looking for me.”

Meersha’s throat began to tighten as she heard her own words burst from her dry mouth. As she attempted not to break down, she could hardly stand to look at Zarazu anymore. She really didn’t deserve him.

After another moment of silence – a time where Meersha tried anything to stop herself from crying – Zarazu finally spoke.

“It’s all right, Meersha.” he reassured her. “Things were messed up then. Now it’s time to look into the present and future…instead of the past. Can you do that for me?”

Nodding like an innocent cub, Meersha sniffled once. Though it was Zarazu who was in critical condition, she saw herself so weak right then.

“But,” she then said. “What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?”

“We’ll go where ever we want.” he strongly replied with excitmenet in his voice. “There’s no one stopping us or telling was what to do now. We’re our own lions, Meersh! We can run through the savannah at top speed, and find a paradise all our own. And when we finally find that paradise, we can have cubs, raise a family, and make a pride of own, too!”

Again, Meersha was dumbfounded. The idea of being free, being with her mate and all the other images forced into her mind made her shake with excitement. She was free. She was a lioness. And she was going to take advantage of it.

Suddenly, Meersha was pulled back in hestitation once more.

“But,” she began. “I’m not sure if I want cubs…or a pride.”

“Why not?” Zarazu asked in mere fascination, not the least bit trying to pressure her.

“Because…” she stared at her paws. “I don’t want the same thing that happened to me and my siblings and Rombu, to happen to our cubs…or the same thing that happened to my father to happen to you.”

“Meersha,” Zarazu said, putting a paw under her chin and pulling it up to look at her. “It will be OK.”

“No it won’t!” she cried out and pulled away. “What happens when our sons grow manes? Will you chase them away? What happens when you get too old to be a leader and a young rogue comes to take over the pride? Will you fight and die, or runaway? Either way I’ll never see you again and our cubs will die from that rogue, too! Or be chased off as well!”

Zarazu heaved a sigh. Perhaps it would’ve been better if he had said to look into only the present, instead of the future, too.

“How about,” he started. “we make new rules to nature.”

“What?” Meersha questioned, as if he was making no sence.

“What if we had cubs? And I choose one of those cubs to be the future leader of our pride, and I train him – not like train like Ahadgna did with us!” he added before Meersha could jump to anymore conclusions. “I mean, teach him what it would be like to have responsibility and be a real leader. And then when he’s grown up he can take my place as the leader and you and I can go into early retirement. Then, once he finds a mate and they have cubs, he can do the same thing with his son. And it will keep going on like that, generation after generation. It will be a new type of living. It will be a new kind of pride. This way, I will not be killed or chased off by a rogue. Our cubs would not be chased off or killed by rogues either. And with each leader comes an early but great retirement of being able to stay in the pride and being protected by the leader after him. All our sons can stay, too. And we can still produce cubs after retirement if we wish. It will just be adding on to the pride.”

“Oh, Zarazu. That seems so wonderful.” Meersha admitted. “But what about inbreeding?”

“The leader – our future son – will find a mate of his own, while we stick to each other.”

“Of course.”

“And his mate will be a lioness not from our pride. That way, they can add to the pride, and we can add to the pride, too, and our other sons and daughters can find mates of their own but still stay in the pride as well. Before you know it, we’ll be the biggest, happiest and healthiest pride the savannah has ever seen!”

“Do you think we could really pull it off? I mean, it just seems so different…not like the way it’s supposed to…Not…natural.” Meersha exclaimed.

“We’ll make it natural! This way, we’ll all be one big happy family!”

“Oh, Zarazu! I love you so much!” and Meersha hopped forward, nuzzling into her mate. “I want exactly what you said!”

Little did they know, O’star was nearby. As he trudged through the grass, seemingly innocent, he had heard every word they had said. Soon, he ran into Kula.

“They look so happy.” Kula said with a smile as glanced at the two young lovers, who were now yards off from them.

“Yes…but they’re future will be a downfall.” O’star replied.

Blinking, Kula looked at him with her head tilted. “What do you mean, O’star?”

“I mean, they’re trying to make their lives perfect. But no one is perfect and no life is perfect.”

“Trust me, after what Meersha has been through, her life is no where near perfect.” Kula coldly said.

“Well, if she keeps trying to make her future that way, then it will fall.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She has had so much pain in her life, I know. But now she wants it to stop. From now on, she wants no more hurt. No more pain. She is so desperate for salvation that she attempts to change nature itself.”

“I’m still not sure what you’re talking about, O’star.” Kula growled.

“Her mate offered to have cubs with her in the future, and she refused.”

“Is that a bad thing? She’s her own lioness; she can decide what she wants and doesn’t want. Actually,” and Kula glanced out to the territory borders, a face now full of pain itself as she remembered her own sons. “I think it’s a good thing that she doesn’t.”

“It’s not that, Kula. See, first she refused, but then she agreed, just as long as the cubs didn’t have to go.”

“Is it bad that she wants to stay with her cubs?”

“Kula, you’re not seeing what I’m saying.” he snapped. “If she tries to change the way things are – from nature to her own way – then she will most likely end up falling again. She wants so bad to stay with her mate and family that she will only have a family if they’re allowed to stay together. But the Great Kings and Queens didn’t make it so.

“Look, my father told me that lions were meant to spread out and that’s what keeps the species going. That’s why males leave the pride when in adolescence – so that their father can add new cubs to the pride without the sons interfering and inbreeding within the family. That’s why young lions defeat old leaders, and those rogues become the new leaders of the pride – to keep the whole pride going on and living.” He turned to look at her, regret yearning to burst out of his chest. “That is why I chased away your father. That is why I chased away my own sons. So that we could have them,” and he nodded to a couple cubs who were now stumbling out of the near den for the first time in their lives, their tiny eyes blinking at the environment that engulfed them. “And so that our own sons I chased away could have them. And when they come, they turn into us one sun, and the cycle continues. They will be forced out before they are able to force someone else out and have their own pride and cubs. It’s nature. It’s the Circle of Life.”

Kula frowned. “I know…It’s just, the Cirlce of Life is so painful.”

“Who said it wasn’t? But it’s the way of existence itself.”

“What is Meersha trying to do with the Cirlce of Life?”

“Change it…Corrupt it.” 

“But-!” Kula cried out.

“We made mistakes when we were young, and we will keep on making them. Everyone will, Kula. You have to let her see for herself, otherwise she will not learn from that mistake.”

And O’star calmly walked away.

Kula glanced over her shoulder to see that Zarazu and Meersha were still nuzzling. They were so young…and in love. Of course they were going to make mistakes. Sighing, Kula went off to the rest of pride.

~~~

The two lions stood, side by side as they greatfully stared at the Flatland pride. It was about a week later, and Zarazu was strong enough to move on. He and Meersha were now about to take off, as it was dawn. They were bidding goodbye to the pride that saved both their lives.

“Goodbye and thank you for your hosptilatly.” Zarazu said to them all.

Meersha took a deep breath, before saying, “The Flatland pride has saved both my life, and the life of my mate, and for that I wish to thank you. I am also here to say goodbye.”

O’star suddenly stepped over to Meersha and smiled at her. “You are like a daughter to me, Meersha White-Feather. I hope one sun, that your dreams will come true.”

“Thank you, O’star. You’re like a father to me, too.” she replied, weakly.

The lion stepped back, and before long, Meersha was nuzzling with the several lionesses, saying goodbye to them all.

“And I hope,” she said with a grin while she looked down at the young cubs who now stood under Fina and Runaka, “That your cubs will grow up healthy and strong.”

They just stared back up at her, baby blue eyes wide in curiosity, which made her chuckle and remind her of herself and her siblings when they were young.

“Kula,” Meersha said. “You’re a great lioness, friend and sister.”

Kula nodded, and they nuzzled.

“I hope you have a great life, Meersha.”

“I will.”

Then she turned to Pursha and exclaimed, “Pursha. I always saw you as my little sister, you know that?”

Pursha just shook her head, a frown on her face as she blinked away tears.

“Well, you are to me. Goodbye.” Meersha finished.

It was clear that Pursha was hurt and angry, and did not want to be near Meersha right then, for she was leaving her. Seeing this, Meersha could only sigh, shaking her head and slowly turn around, before she and Zarazu began to move off to the east.

After only a few minutes, Meersha’s ears twitched at the word, “Wait!”

Both stopped and looked to see Pursha sprinting over to them.

“What is it?” Meersha asked.

“I wanna come!” the younger adult cried. “Please let me come!”

“What? Why would you want to come?” Zarazu suddenly snapped.

“Because. I want purpose in my life. And if I come with you two, I can have that purpose and help out with the future cubs and pride. Please let me come!” she pleaded.

“That’s a silly idea. Leaving your pride just because you want purpose.” Zarazu began with iriation at this delay.

Meersha was trapped in a temporary silence, though, as she glanced over at the Flatland pride who stood in confusion, yards away, watching them.

“Is it OK with your family?” Meersha finally asked.

“Meersha-!” Zarazu started, not believing her concideration.

“I’m my own lioness and I'm an adult.” Pursha huffed. “I can do what I want.”

“That’s true.” Meersha then said.

“But your reasons for leaving are ridiculous, young one!” Zarazu growled.

“No. They are not.” Meersha went on, firmly. “If it weren’t for me desiring purpose and excitement in my life, too, I wouldn’t be where I am now. You see, I was like you and left my pride for the same reasons. But along with those feelings comes heartbreak.”

“Like what?” Pursha challenged.

“Well for one, leaving your family.” Meersha nodded to the pride that was still standing, watching them, yet not exactly hearing their conversation.

“I love them, and they are my family. But I want to go with you - to help you rebuild a pride of your own. Please!”

After a moment of careful thought, the older lioness asked, “Is this what you really want?”

“Yes!”

“Then I see no reason you can’t come.”

“Thank you!” Pursha cried as she leapt up in joy.

“You can’t be serious.” Zarazu muttered to himself, watching the young lioness with ADHD.

Suddenly, Fina was running over to them, yelling, “Pursha! What are you doing?”

When Fina was reunited with her daughter, along with Kula behind her, and O’star behind her, Pursha explained what she wanted.

“I am going with them, Mother.” Pursha stated.

“Don’t be absurd. You’re coming home.” Fina snapped. “Come on now, let’s get back to the territory.”

“No.” Pursha growled.

“Pursha!” Fina snarled back.

“Mother, I’m going with Meersha and her mate and you can’t do anything to stop me.”

For a moment, Fina glared at her daughter, before her eyes became soft and watery.

“Tell me this isn’t true.” she choked.

“It’s true.”

“But why?”

“I want purpose in my life and excitement.”

“You have purpose here! To love and be loved! Your family is here!” Fina attempted. “So you are leaving because you don’t have excitement?”

“It’s ridiculous, I know,” Zarazu said, rolling his eyes.

“Hush.” Meersha snapped at her mate, before turning to look at Fina. “It’s OK, Fina. Pursha will be all right with us. Besides, she’s an adult who can take care of herself now.”

“But-”

“Fina, stop.” O’star then said, calmly. “Our daughter wants to leave…so let her leave.”

Fina stifled a cry, then stared her daughter in the eyes and asked, “Do you really want to go?”

“I really want to go.” Pursha answered, strongly.

“Then follow your heart.” was all Fina could think of to reply.

The two nuzzled for a while, before Meersha, Zarazu and Pursha began their journey, leaving the Flatland pride territory and the pride itself.

“It’s all right, Fina.” O’star said gently. “Your daughter is just following her heart, like you said. They go their own way eventually.” And with that, O’star turned and headed back to the other lionesses.

“It’s true.” said Kula, as both lionesses sat beside each other, watching the trio dissapear over the horizion. “Everyone leaves. Whether to the stars or to the savannah itself. But one sun, we will be reunited again.” Kula turned to look at Fina’s worried face. “And you don’t have to worry. Pursha’s a strong lioness. After all, she was raised by you was she not?”

Fina could not help but grin weakly, before the two turned to head back to the pride as well.

 

L

Passing the Emperor

 

“Come then, and make your way through!”

-Ushu, leader of the Red-Boulder pride (Dark Era)

 

The three lions would travel for days on end. Thanks to Meersha’s intense hunting skills, though, and their team work, none would go hungry…at least, not for very long. In the end, they stumbled upon a small territory, far to the east.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Meersha asked Zarazu proudly. “This place is perfect; the grass isn’t too dry, there’s a water hole not too far from here, scattered trees for shade, a plain, and even a small hill with an abandoned den, just for us!”

As she said this, she climbed into the den, and Zarazu followed, giggling mischeivously. They nuzzled and turned to watch their surroundings. Some kind of primate called in the distance, bugs and birds sang as well.

Suddenly, Pursha jumped out of nowhere.

“Boo!” she yelled.

“Do you have to do that every time you come near?” Zarazu asked in annoyance.

“Stop that,” Meersha growled lightly, batting a paw at her mate.

“Well I checked around and there’s lots of signs of prey around here! And no other pride for miles!” Pursha exclaimed with excitement.

“That’ll be good for us. We’ll be isolated so no one can interfere with us or try to steal our territory.” Zarazu said, gazing at the lands.

“Yeah. Thank you, Pursha.” said Meersha.

“So is this our new territory?” the younger one asked.

“Zarazu?”

Heaving a sigh, Zarazu nodded and said, “I guess so.”

“What’s with the sigh?” his mate asked.

“Because now that we have our new land, I have to go mark it to keep any unwanted visitors out, which means I have to leave you.” Zarazu groaned, before forcing himself out of the den and up.

The big black and white lion started to pad away and, as Meersha watched, she too, lifted herself from the den floor, observing him disappeare into the distance.

“Why doesn’t he like me?” Pursha suddenly asked.

“Huh?” Meersha blinked and looked at the lioness. “What do you mean he doesn’t like you? He does.”

“No he doesn’t. He hates me. Or he acts like it.” Pursha’s voice was layered over with hurt.

“It’s not that he doesn’t like you. It’s just, he’s been through a lot. Give him time to warm up to you.” Meersha reassured her.

Pursha nodded, before rolling over in the grass, letting the sun bathe her body. Meersha soon joined in, and the two had a catnap. 

As this was happening, a lion, miles and miles away in the west was running through the savannah at top speed. Though Gatu had but one eye, his sences were great, and he was farely healthy for a rogue.

It didn’t take long for the lion to slow down, ears perked and his nose twitching as he scented the air. The smell of several lionesses lingered near, and before long, it had grown so strong that he was surprised there was not the scent of another male near. I hope this isn’t like that one pride from when I was a cub that hated males, he thought to himself nervously. After all, the aroma was almost overwelling without another male mixed. His stomach even did a flip as the memories of the Broken-Claw flowed through his head. 

“Hault!” a lioness yelled as he notioned, Oh know. “Who are you?”

“Um, Gatu…?” he answered, not too sure what to say.

“What do you want?” he heard her hiss, before the lioness showed herself. She stepped over to him through the grass with a small but muscular and long body, bangs lining her neck and going up to her head until a few thick parts of it covered one of her eyes. She almost looked like an adolescent male with the beginning of his mane, though it matched the color of the pelt. Perhaps this was the reason to why this lioness had become so strong and harsh throughout her young life. “I said what do you want!” she snarled once again, brown eyes glaring.

“I wish to pass through your territory.” Gatu spat out. “I’m looking for someone.”

For a moment, the lioness considered this carefully. The thick black rings below her eyes made Gatu shiver on the inside, but if he had to fight her, he would.

Finally, she replied swiftly, “You wish to pass these lands, then you must speak to our emperor.”

Before he could say anything, she gave a quick roar, and five other lionesses circled him. They must be guards, he told himself. 

“Follow.” was all the first guard said to him.

Gatu began after the tough lioness, the others still around him, watching his every move as their fur bristled slightly and their muscles tensed beneath their thin hides.

Suddenly, the scent of females grew even more and soon, Gatu was being hustled through a land full of lionesses and cubs. There were too many to count as he stepped through the golden grass. The guard in front stopped for a moment, allowing two playful cubs to run in ftont of them, hissing and batting at each other before rolling around. Gatu could only smile at this as he remembered the times he had spent as a cub in the White-Feather pride, playing with his own friends and pride-siblings.

With a quick snap at his flank from a scolding guard, Gatu was moving again. Yet his one eye still crawled about, taking in the surroundings of this strange place with so many romping youngsters and carefree females.

Minutes upon minutes built up on each other until they turned to an hour, then an hour and a half of traveling through this unnatural and yet healthy and happy salvation of land. As Gatu began to pant and sweat, his ears twitching at a couple flies that swarmed near him, he could just spot the tip of a heap of land. It seemed big at first, but it didn’t take long for it to tower into the African sky, and soon they were at its base.

“Go up.” the guard with the bangs ordered.

“Why does it matter? I’m not hurting anyone, and besides, I’ve already gone through your territory half way, so why does it matter if I finish?” Gatu ignorantly replied.

The guard roared, and all the lionesses around him extracted their claws and exposed their teeth at her orders.

“Fine, fine I’ll go!” he hurriedly cried, before turning to face the mountainish area.

The land here rose a good thirty yards; higher than five acacias put together. At first, because he had no idea how he was to get up the cliff, he was about to protest again, but the guards were still there. Heaving a sigh, the lion started to walk by its base, only to find a steep trail of grass and rocks leading up. The trail was covered in the scent of a male, which gave him relief. Quickly, he started up.

Only a few minutes past, and soon he was up on the plateau, which overlooked the lands.

“You wait!” a voice demanded behind him.

“Huh?” and Gatu swung his massive head to look over his shoulder.

Only the female guard with bangs had followed.

“Our emperor could be busy. You wait here.” she said, before dispearing behind a few large bolders that sat on the plateau.

A minute went by before he saw her pop her head from behind a boulder and she nodded. Taking a deep breath, Gatu tried as hard as he could to gracefully follow. After all, he was about to meet an emperor.

Gatu stepped through the boulders and was on the other side of the highland, and that’s when he let out a gasp. The lion he saw in front of him, was so large, it made him seem like a beginning half-cub, and he was forced to flinch inwardly. It was obvious that this was the emperor – he was almost twice the size of Gatu! But the lion was just standing, watching over his lands which stretched out for several miles, all covered in his pride. His coat was gold, and his mane and tail were red mixed with that gold. The ears were unusually pointed, with red strands sticking out.

Suddenly, it hit him, and the scent of this male was so familiar, it made Gatu’s head hurt. But could it be? No. He was going crazy. Then the emperor turned, and another gasp was launched from his lungs and escaped from behind his lips as Gatu instantly recognized the lion.

“Emperor Banjija.” the guard with the bangs said. “This is the stranger that wanted to pass our lands.”

The eyes of the so-called emperor met Gatu’s one brown eye, and there, the two lions froze. As this happened, the guard left behind the boulders. The massive lion slightly tilted his head, as if he was a cub and couldn’t quite comprehend what was going on.

“Gatu? Gatu!” a voice cried, suddenly.

Gatu jerked and looked to see a lioness running after him. Not a moment later and she crashed into him, licking his face and jumping around.

“Gatu! It’s really you!” she screamed.

“Lusala.” Gatu exclaimed with a calmer tone than what he thought he had.

“The word about a lion with one eye was spreading, and I thought maybe!” Lusala exclaimed. “But I wasn’t sure, so I had to go see for myself. And-and here you are!”

Lusala got up and helped Gatu as he turned to see Banjija again.

“Banjija.” Gatu then said. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was truly his pride-siblings. “Emperor?”

“That’s right!” Lusala squealed like a youngster. “Our own Banjija is the king of the savannah!”

“Well…I wouldn’t really call myself that.” Banjija finally spoke, his voice as deep and strong as thunder.

“I can’t believe I am here with you two.” Gatu replied. “How is this?”

“I’m not sure.” the emperor went on. “What happened to you, Gatu? You look like you’re fur and bone!”

“Hey, I’m doing well for a rogue!” Gatu defensively threw back.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, my brother.” Banjija maturely said, instead of making fun of the smaller lion or giving a comeback.

This caused Gatu to raise his brow.

“What?” Banjija chuckled. “I cannot be acting like a cub; I am a leader now.”

“An emperor.” Gatu corrected.

“Sure.”

“Huh?”

“They insisted in calling me Emperor Banjija, instead of just Leader Banjija. But lionesses are greatful when you allow their cubs to live.”

“Is this how you got so many to join your pride?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you mean our pride?” Lusala then said, which surprised the emperor somewhat. He knew it was Lusala’s pride, too, of course. “I mean, Gatu’s part of this pride also.” Lusala exclaimed.

Banjija blinked at this. Sure, Gatu was once with them, in a pride, but Banjija had done this alone. He had climbed to the top of the ranks and conquered so much, bringing so many lionesses into the Sunset pride, that he felt protective of it all. Gatu had even left. This was not Gatu’s pride.

“You guys,” Gatu started. “Look, I can’t be a part of this pride.”

“What? Why not?” Lusala asked, but Banjija murmured, “Good.”

“What?” they both questioned, looking to him.

“Why don’t you tell us what has happened since the beginning of your absence, Gatu. And we shall tell our part, too.” Banjija suggested quickly.

“All right.” Gatu replied.

The three sat down, and Gatu told them about how he was on a mission in life to find the lioness called Izegbe. This was a promise he made in exchange for his life – he had to fulfill it.

“The fact that you stuck to your task is very noble of you.” Banjija’s graceful but strong voice said.

“Now, tell me what’s happened to you two.” Gatu then said.

Lusala helped with the story, and soon the three were reunited through and through.

“But you didn’t hear anything about Meersha?” Gatu asked.

“Sadly, no.” the emperor answered wearily. “I have not heard what has happened to my sister, though I wish I knew. It almost seems as if she is part of the sunset itself now.”

“Stop that.” snapped Lusala.

“The what?” Gatu asked.

“Oh.” and Lusala turned to see her pride-brother again. “Er, in this pride, lions think that spirits build up into the sunset or sunrise when they die.

“Well that’s strange.”

“Not really.” Banjija shrugged. “There are so many beliefs out there. I just hope that Meersha is OK.”

“Me too.” Gatu mumbled miserably.

“What’s wrong?” Lusala asked, tail swishing.

“Well, besides the fact that I don’t know anything about Meersha-”

“Why would you care about her anyway? I thought you said she was a murderer.” Banjija darkly exclaimed.

“I might have one eye, but I see what I see, and I’m sticking to my word. Yet I still wish to know what of her.” Gatu growled, just as coldly back. “Anyway, I can’t stay here. I must keep searching until I either find the one called Izegbe, or until I die and become one with the stars. Or as you here call it, the sunset.”

“Well, I really wish we could help, Gatu. But it sounds like this is something you have to do on your own.” Lusala resignedly said.

“Indeed.” Banjija remarked. “I am sorry we’re of no use to you.”

“On the contrary; I am no more greatful for being in your presence than I am to breathe. Your company for the rest of this day and night would be of great use to me.” the one-eyed lion said.

Suddenly, Banjija’s heart softened. What was he doing? Gatu was a pride-brother whom he had not seen in years, and yet Banjija was acting like a cub, even when he pointed out that he couldn’t.

“Well, I’m glad you’re here, Gatu. You can stay the night with us, and we’ll see to it that you have plenty of rest and food. Then you can head out at dawn. Or when you wish.”

“What about the guards?” Gatu asked.

“What about the guards? They’re under my command, remember? I’ll tell them about you, and you’re free to go…or come back.”

Gatu blinked. Had he really heard what Banjija was saying?

“I mean…” Banjija glanced down at his paws. This was stupid. He was acting territorial; the opposite of how he became a leader in the first place. Suddenly, he looked up to Gatu again and smiled, saying, “You’re welcomed here any time, Gatu…my pride is yours.”

The words warmed the three lions, and as this happened, they laid down in the grass, facing each other, listening to the sounds of evening taking over.

“Speaking of you being an emperor, why couldn’t I smell you before? Do you not mark your lands? Or kingdom, should I say?” asked Gatu curiously.

“Nah. The territory is much too big to have only one lion go about and mark them all. That’s why I have the guards on patrol near the borders. It makes it easier for us all.” Banjija explained.

The night ahead was peaceful for them all. Gatu was fed well, and for once, he felt full – a difference between that and the brink of satisifaction.

When morning came, Gatu bid a poignant goodbye, and then was off, through the territory and traveling once more.

 

LI

The Birth of the Twilights

 

“The light shined on the little ones, bathing them in all its glory. They were so small and so helpless, it could melt anyone’s heart. But we all knew, that one sun they were to be big, and strong, and step up to be our own protectors. …For now, we were their protectors.”

-Queen Andra of Pride Rock (Sunrise Era)

 

Months had gone by before Meersha was in her season, and even more months past after that, turning into a whole year. Finally, one day, it was filled with the usual savannah music. Actually, it was almost night, and the grunts of a stressful lioness would linger through the environment. Another lioness – much younger – waited anxiously outside. No matter how much she longed to go check in on her friend, the youngster knew she could not.

            By the time the sun barely peaked out from under the horizon, the lioness within the den fell silent. Only a few purrs were heard, but the youngster still stood her ground outside, head slightly tilted.

“What happened? Is she OK?” someone suddenly said in an urgent tone.

The lioness turned to see another lion, only to remark uneasily, “Just in time. Anyway, go see for yourself, Zarazu.”

“Pursha, I’m the mate and will be nothing more until I am presented with cubs and given the OK by Meersha.” Zarazu replied, now more smoothly and strongly.

“Exactly. Neither of us will find out until the time is right.” Pursha said, almost proudly at the fact that she was acting so calm and adult-like about this – something she normally was not.

“Hmph.” Zarazu could only react to the young adult’s trick.

“Zarazu.” someone called, causing the black and white lion to jerk his head.

“Meersha?” he cried back.

Just then, the beautiful head of his mate popped out from the enterence of the den, and she nodded, notioning him to come. Desperately, Zarazu lunged toward the den, and nuzzled his mate anxiously.

“Meersha, are you all right? What happened? Are they here? Are they OK?” Zarazu blurted out before he could stop himself.

Giggling, the lioness exclaimed calmly and exhausted, “Calm down. Yes. They are here. We’re all OK.”

“Oh, Meersha! I never thought this would – could happen!” Zarazu abruptly cried.

“Neither did I.” Meersha muttered, before saying, “C’mon. See your cubs.”

“What? But, Meerhsa…am I allowed to?”

“Why wouldn’t you? You’re their father, you silly brute! I know this is different than most lions, but I’m not going to let my mate wait so see his own cubs.”

The two smiled, locking eyes for a moment in which their love seemed to grow even stronger, before Meersha turned and crawled back deep into the den. Carefully, Zarazu climbed in as well, until he could now see four tiny bundles of fur suckling at Meersha’s side. At first, the lion was speachless.

“They’re beautiful.” he was finally able to choke.

“Yes.” Meersha whispered.

“What are their names?”

“Well, this one here.” she said while nosing the darkest of the four. “was the firstborn. His name shall be Hadra.”

“Hadra…” pondered Zarazu aloud. “I like it…Hadra, leader of the…” but then the adult cocked his head as if he himself was a cub again. “Meersha, we don’t have a name yet for our pride.”

“Well, because our cubs were born at twilight, I think we should be called the Twilight pride.” Meersha suggested.

“That’s great. I love it.” Zarazu replied with a proud smile. “Hadra: leader of the Twilight pride!”

Meersha could only smile at that, before nosing the second darkest cub and explaining, “This is another male, and was born second. His name is Binjaji.”

“Binjaji?” Zarazu questioned, raising a brow.

“It kind of reminds me of my dear brother Banjija.”

“Then Banjija it is!”

“Binjaji.” corrected Meersha with a smirk.

“Right. Sorry.” he cheekily responded. “Go on.”

“This one is a girl, and I wish for her to be called Gwalu.” Meersha began to lick a light cub as it stopped nursing and quickly fell asleep.

“The name is as beautiful as she is…and her mother.” Zarazu purred.

“I think it fits her.”

“But what about the lightest?” he then asked.

“She is the last of the litter. And, Zarazu…”

“Yes?”

“I wish for you to name her.”

Gasping, the male blinked and said, astonished, “What? Me?”

“Yes you.”

“But why? You’re the mother. It’s well known throughout the Broken-Claw and even your own birth pride – as you said – that the mother always names the cubs.”

“Well, when I was born, my mother told me I was the last of all the cubs brought into the world, not only from her at that time, but by my father, Ashuma. It was a special tradition held in her bloodline that she pass on, and so my own father named me because I was his last. I’m not saying this is our last litter, but I wish for you to name the last cub in this one. Will you?”

For a moment, Zarazu considered this. But, finally he gave in and, with a wide grin he answered, “Of course I will.”

Again, there was silence as Zarazu looked down at the creamy colored cub who suckled at her mother’s stomach. What name would be perfect for such a beauty as this? Finally, a name popped into his head.

“Tamu.”

“Tamu?” Meersha questioned.

“I’ve made up my mind. Tamu…Sweet little Tamu.”

Again, Meersha smiled and said, “I love it.”

Suddenly, Meersha’s smile became a frown. Though there was a great feeling of having to protect her offspring, she recognized it as the first time she felt it when she became Rombu’s adoptive mother. This only led to the memories of her lost cub all those years ago.

“What is it?” Zarazu quickly asked. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m thinking.”

“About what?”

“About Rombu…I miss him so much, Zarazu. And seeing these cubs makes me miss him even more – makes me think they might end up like him.”

“Rombu was a great cub and we’ll always love him, but now he’s up in the stars. Now it’s time to let go and move on and take care of these little ones. They depend on us. They won’t end up like him…I promise.”

With that, the two nuzzled, reassured by each other’s company and warm words.

Before long, Meersha, still exhausted, laid her head down and closed her eyes to reunite with slumber as Zarazu turned and trotted proudly outside, reporting the good news to Pursha. He was in such a good mood that he even treated Pursha descently, but he also joined her on a hunt for the night, ignoring any traditional roles a male lion would play. After all, his mate needed meat for the milk which the cubs needed, and there were only two hunters now.

 

LII

A Best-kept Secret

 

“Shh,” the wind would whisper in its ghostly way

The trees sheltered them, keeping that breeze at bay

But there was a secret

“Shh,” it moaned again,

Still, they did not fret

And they knew, the time was then

-Hidden in the thicket

 

“Tamu!” a distressed voice called through the savannah. “Little Tamu, where are you?”

Pursha sprinted in the grasslands, frantically seaching for the small cub. It was about five or so full moons later, and Pursha’s duty to the pride right now, was to watch the cubs while their parents were out. But how could she have lost them so easily? At least Tamu…

“Tamu, come out right now!” her voice cried, attempting to be strong, yet one could hear the urgency in it.

After getting this job and position, it seemed the carefree youth was washed up by the responsibilities of adulthood.

Over a small hill near a water hole, a creamy colored lion cub – looking much like that of a more pale Kiara – watched the helpless lion, giggling. Her eyes were a beautiful, stinging yellow, and her chest and stomach were even more of an off-white color.

Soon, Pusha was off in the distance.

“Hey, what are you doing?” someone suddenly asked.

Gasping in surprise, Tamu jumped, only to see her brother Hadra curiously looking at her through his light, gray bangs.

“Nothing.” she shrugged.

“But you’re supposed to be at the den.” he exclaimed.

“Aren’t you?” she snickered.

“I’m helping Aunty Pursha look for you.” her brother huffed.

Rolling her eyes, the independent, little Tamu replied in iriation, “She’s not even our aunt.”

“You’re hiding from her, aren’t you?”

“Why would I be hiding from anyone?” she scoffed.

“Then why don’t you answer her calls?”

Again, Tamu shrugged.

Glaring and gritting his teeth in irritation, Hadra said, “Fine. I’m telling on you!”

Right as he sucked in a deep breath to call out for the lioness, his sister abruptly rammed into him, headbutting him into the water. Sputtering, the gray cub broke the surface, coughing and dripping wet as he snarled at his sister and pulled his small body onto the land. Tamu could only laugh at this.

“Hey, what’ch ya doin’?” two cubs called as they ran over to Tamu, happily.

“Pursha’s lookin’ for ya, Tam.” the girl of gold and yellow said.

“I know, I know; furball here already told me.” and she turned to look at her brother and smirk, seeing his hazel eyes burn up in rage and fury.

Hadra shook, trying as best as he could to get the water out of his dark gray fur.

“Ha! He looks like a rat with his fur sticking to his skin like that!” remarked the brown Binjaji, laughing hard.

Emotions slightly tinged, Hadra stuck his tongue back out to his siblings in reply.

“Gwalu, Binjaji, is that you?” Pursha called, her voice now getting louder.

“Oh no, she’s coming!” Gwalu exclaimed. “If she catches us, we’ll have to go back to the den!”

“What do we do, Tamu?” asked Binjaji.

Though Tamu was the youngest of the litter, the cubs looked up to her the most. This hurt Hadra like crazy, seeing as he was to be the future leader of pride. And because he was the runt – though oldest – this came to be a disadvantage as well, making him the easiest target out of the bunch be to picked on. Though this was true, Hadra did his best to try and follow the rules, and several times try to keep his siblings – especially Tamu – out of trouble. This was another reason why he was looked down to: the fact that he was boring and not adventurous like his youngest sister. Though he never admitted it, and for some unknown reason (at least to him) Hadra sometimes wished he could be like Tamu.

“Cubs!” Pursha went on, coming closer.

“C’mon, this way.” Tamu quickly notioned, before taking off, her brother and sister racing after her.

The trio began their way beside the water hole, leaving Hadra behind to ponder. As his “aunt’s” voice grew closer, he silently debated on whether or not to tell on his brother and sisters, or to perhaps go along with them this time, and maybe gain some respect. Taking a deep breath and rolling his eyes, the small gray cub pounced away, just as Pursha came to the water’s edge, sniffing the ground where they were.

“Hadra, are you near?” she asked, looking around.

But Hadra was now scrambling through the grasslands after the other cubs.

“You guys!” he panted. “Wait!”

As he came to the top of a small mound, he looked around, only to spot Tamu and the others a few yards off. He quickly took after them again. Not soon after that, Hadra was hot on their heals.

Bang!

“Ow!” Gwalu snarled as she turned around to hiss at her brother. “Watch where you’re going!”

Blinking away blurred visions, Hadra stumbled up, muttering a quick and regretful, “Sorry.”

While he ignored the dim ache in his head, he curiously cocked his head to the side, following their view, only to see a small herd of antelope a few yards away down a hill.

“What are they?” Hadra questioned, for they had never seen such creatures in their short lives.

As he said this, one of the bigger prey lifted its head, ears perked, before it began to leap away, the rest following.

“Look what you did!” Binjaji heartlessly hissed.

“You made ‘em get away!” Gwalu continued.

Seeing the hurt in her brother’s young eyes, Tamu sighed and said, “It’s OK. It doesn’t matter; what would we have done with ‘em anyway? It’s not like we can hunt yet.”

“Yeeeeeah.” breathed the other male cub.

Suddenly, an earsplitting roar broke the silence, and the cubs gasped, jumping as they looked to see a giant lion standing over them, teeth bearing and muscles flexing. The four would stare up at him, eyes wide with fright as they all turned into little puff balls.

“Unaro!” a chilling voice abruptly hissed. “Be nice to our friends!”

An old lioness with a limp came over, batting at her grandson. This caused the younger lion to huff like a cub and sit down, snarling still.

“I apologize for his behavior…He’s not very…social.” the old lioness exclaimed.

Finally, courage building up, Tamu remarked as she stood, fur flattening, “We’re not your friends. We don’t even know you.”

“They’re so ungreatful. Let’s eat them now!” Unaro spat as he jumped up.

“Hush!” she growled.

As she turned back to the cubs, she was smiling, but Hadra trembled at the look in her eyes. It seemed like they were filled with nothing but lies and hate and the hunger for power. And this lioness appeared so old…the fact that she was still living and walking was almost unnatural.

“What’s your name, young one?” she asked, despite the disrespectful remark.

“Tamu.” Tamu growled.

“Well, Tamu, my name is Natira, and this is my grandson, Unaro.” she exclaimed.

“Cool.” was all Tamu replied.

“C’mon, Tam. Let’s go.” Hadra whispered.

“No.” Tamu said, swatting him with a forepaw.

“So, tell me, little Tamu.” the lioness called Natira went on. “Why are you so far from your parents or pride?”

“Because she wants to be!” Binjaji snapped, almost in a rebellious way.

“I was asking Tamu.” Natria lightly growled.

As Binjaji’s ears folded back, Tamu only shrugged at the question.

“Please, Tamu.” Hadra said, tugging on her sister’s scruff with his teeth. “Let’s go.” his muffled whispers went on.

“Not yet.” she hissed at him, easily pushing the gray one over.

“Oh, don’t go yet. We’re just getting into a conversation.” Natira gently said. “So, who is your mother?”

“Come on!” pleaded Hadra as his body continued to quiver.

“Our mom is Meersha.” Gwalu answered.

At the name, Natira seemed to perk. A new darkness lighted up in her soul, and she could not hold back a grin. Hadra, seeing this, could not sit still as he stayed behind his siblings, trembling and pawing the air, mewing for his mother.

“Shut up, Hadra!” Binjaji growled.

The call of a stressful lioness shot through the air. At first, they thought it was Pursha, but then Tamu gasped inwardly, recognizing the calls instantly; it was Meersha. But she was not the only one to recognize the call. Natira smirked, glancing at her grandson who returned the same expression. Hadra as well, knew his mother’s stress cry, and called back to her in his mews.

“Don’t!” Gwalu growled.

“Shush!” Tamu snarled, tackling her brother and doing her best to keep him down, even placing a paw over his muzzle.

Binjaji exclaimed quickly, “She’ll hear us!”

“So tell me,” Natira continued casually, as if not hearing the calls of their upset mother. “Who else do you live with besides your mother?”

“Dad.” answered Tamu, wrestling with her brother as she did so.

“And Aunty Pursha.” Gwalu replied, almost in a mocking tone.

“Well that’s good. Anyone else?”

“Nope.”

Gasping, Hadra cried, “Mom!” as he was able to move his muzzle from his sister’s paw. Only for a moment, though.

“Stop it, Hadra! Please!” Tamu whispered, hearing the cries of their mother closing in.

What was Hadra doing? He could be sitting here, having a nice conversation with these strangers and in doing this, gain the respect of his siblings. But no; he was calling for his mother like a baby. Yet the feelings that came from these strange lions – especially the female – made his own heart race.

The cries that he attempted to get through just kept coming, even while his sister wrestled him into the dirt. Another paw was put over his maw, but he quickly dug his little teeth into the flesh.

“Ow!” cried Tamu, jumping off her brother with a hiss, fur bristling.

“Mama!” Hadra cried.

 “Do us a favor, and don’t tell anyone about us.” Natira asked. “Will you?”

“No.” Tamu was able to say, still batting Hadra.

“You promise, young ones?”

They all nodded as Tamu finished with a strong, “I promise.”

Just as Tamu was about to pounce her brother in a mad quarrel, the sudden roar of their father shook the earth. While this happened, even Natira and Unaro ran off into the distance.

“Hey, wait!” Tamu called, turning around, ignoring her brother.

“Tamu!” someone snarled.

Swirling back around, Tamu was now facing the outraged but relieved faces of her mother and father. Instantly, her ears and tail fell low.

“Gwalu, Binjaji, Hadra! What were you all doing?” Meersha went on, furiously.

Despite her cold words, Hadra was comforted by the presence of his parents, and quickly scrambled over under his mother, behind her forepaws and nuzzling a leg as he buried his face in her fur, still trembling. While he did this, he could feel the stone cold stare of Tamu.

“You’re not supposed to be so far from the den. And Pursha told us she couldn’t find you.” Glancing at Zarazu, Meersha growled. “Aren’t you even going to say anything about this?”

But Zarazu almost seemed out of it, his nose twitching, fur standing on end as he took a step forward, staring at the place that Natira and Unaro had been.

“Zarazu?” Meersha then asked, curiously. “What is it?”

Though Zarazu knew they were gone, he jerked his head to stare at his cubs and snarl, “Who are they? Where are they?”

“Who?” Meersha asked.

“Strangers. Can’t you scent them? Lions.” Zarazu answered as he looked from one cub to another, demanding an answer. “Well?”

“You ran off from Pursha, went far from the den, and talked to strangers?!” Meersha roared.

Gwalu and Binjaji stayed low, whimpering in fright. Hadra continued to keep his face buried in his mother’s fur. The only one left was Tamu, whom both her parents knew was the most rebellious.

“Answer your father!” the lioness ordered her cubs.

“I-I don’t know.” Tamu finally said quietly, looking at her paws.

“You know who. Tell us!”

“I don’t know!”

“They were strangers!” Hadra then said. As he glanced about, the other cubs glared, and even Tamu gave him a threatening look, mouthing something – it almost looked as if it had the word ‘kill’ in it.

“Who were they?” Zarazu asked his son as Meersha stepped away, exposing her cub for questioning.

“It was an old lioness…and her grandson. But…” he looked at Tamu again, before staring back up at his parents. “they didn’t say their names.” he quickly lied.

“Hadra,” Meersha said, leaning down to look at him face to face, knowing he was the more responsible one of the bunch. “Is this true?”

With a final glance, he stuttered, “Y-yes.”

~~~

“You let them go!” snarled Unaro. “How could you let them go?”

“Silence, Unaro. I know what I am doing.” the old lioness was saying as she sat, her eyes closed.

“No you don’t! You’re a senile old lioness that I’ve been watching over since I was born and I-”

Unaro was stopped as he was tackled to the ground. Though his grandmother was unnaturally old and healthy, she was able to keep a hold of him, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

“If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t be alive today.” she hissed, standing over him with a paw at his throat as she glared with firey eyes.

Finally, she got off him and stared into the distance.

“Our plan is almost complete.” she then said.

“What plan?” scoffed Unaro as he got up and shook the grass and twigs off him. “What are we waiting for? I’ve been following you my whole life and I’ve been under your rule ever since I was born, and yet you still haven’t told me what you’ve been searching for!”

“Her.” was all she said.

“I know her. But why? And why her?”

“You will find out soon enough.”

“You’ve been saying that ever since I was a cub! Now look at me!” The adult male was in good shape. His once red patch atop his small head had grown, just like the rest of him. He was a good sized lion with a now-brown and strong mane. He would have been quite attractive to females. “I could have my own pride right now, but no! I’m stuck with you!”

“Yes. You’re right. So there’s no reason to stop now after having gone all this way.”

As sad as it was, his grandmother was right. After all, he had wasted his whole life so far on this, so he might as well get something out of it.

Heaving a sigh as he calmed down, the lion plopped down and asked quietly now, “What is your plan?”

“First, we need the cubs’ trust.” she explained. “I know we can get that from that Tamu cub –  she’s too easy and ignorant. The others will follow.”

“What about the other one that wouldn’t shut up?”

“We’ll deal with him. But for now, we need to be on their good side. We need their trust, but to be kept a secret among their pride. That’s another thing.”

“What is?”

“Their pride; it’s small. That’s a good thing.”

“They may be small, but they still out number us, and only one of us two is strong and youthful still.” he added.

“Ah, but you forget, young one, that I am more than just a normal lioness: I am a shaman; I have the power of the spirits on my side.

“Now, after we gain their trust, we can finally take them hostage. Then we can get the lioness we need.”

“We could’ve taken ‘em hostage before!”

“We need cooperation between us and the parents.”

“Oh trust me, once we have their cubs, there will be cooperation, Grandmother.”

“You fool! We can’t just take their cubs and that’s it! We need this plan! If we had taken the cubs then, then we would’ve easily been tracked down.”

“Espeically now that they know we’re around; they’re gonna be keeping their eyes and ears open.” Unaro pointed out.

“That’s why we need the cubs to come to us.” Natira whispered, kneading the ground with hoarse claws.

 

LIII

Father and Son

 

There is always one that the eagle looks to, and the lion  yearns to be, and the tiger tries to see.

-Sire of the Savannah

 

“I can’t believe you!” yelled Tamu. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Hey, I didn’t tell them their names!” Hadra defensively replied.

“You still told on us!” Tamu snarled, glaring at her brother. “Thanks a lot!”

With that, the light, female cub padded to the back of the den and plopped down, staring at the wall.

“Why do you have to be such a zebra?” Gwalu asked, quietly.

At this, Hadra stuck his tongue out. Binjaji quickly batted at the tongue, before he and Gwalu followed Tamu to the back.

It was later that day, and Meersha and Zarazu had brought the cubs back to the den. Their punishment was to stay in there the rest of the day and night.

Pursha had been upset at what she was told; the cubs running from her and meeting with strangers. Zarazu gave her a stern talking to and demanded that she watch the cubs at all times while he was out at the borders, remarking them and watching out for strangers.

Right then, Pursha and Meersha were talking under a near tree, just yards from the den which was in clear sight of theirs. Even Tamu herself knew better than to disobey her parents again, especially with both lionesses nearby. For now, she would stay in the den and encourage her siblings to be even more against Hadra, in her own way of punishing him.

As the trio in the back continued to make fun of their brother, the tiny gray cub would toddle over to the enterence of the den, and lie down, head on paws as he stared through his bangs out into the savannah. The sunlight was dying, just as his spirit was right then. Even Meersha could tell from the expression on his sad little face.

“I just can’t believe I let this happen.” Pursha said, regretfully. “It’s my fault. I mean, they could’ve been killed!” She shuddered at the thought. “Don’t worry, Meersha. I promise I’ll take better care of them. I’ll be such a good caretaker; even Zarazu himself will thank me!”

It was true that Zarazu was still hard on the young lioness. Especially after their encounter with the strangers. Tamu had even felt bad for getting her “aunt” in trouble for their mistake. But as cold of a shoulder Zarazu gave Pursha, Meersha was very forgiving towards her friend.

Heaving a sigh, Meersha said, “It’s all right, Pursha. It’s really not your fault; they’re just mischievous cubs…especially that Tamu of mine.”

“Ah, yes. Tamu even reminds me of me when I was younger.”

“And me.” Meersha said, smiling now as her tail swished in the grass, remembering the times she got in trouble for several different things, including wandering from the pride and seeing that puddle of benighted water.

Meersha’s smile quickly faded, though, now seeing her son’s despaired face. Again, she sighed, and as Zarazu returned, Meersha sat up beside him, exclaiming, “Look at how sad Hadra is…I think you should talk to him.”

Zarazu gave Pursha a cold look, causing her to flinch, but at his mate’s words, he looked over to Hadra’s miserable face. He nodded once, before trotting over to the den.

“Hadra?” he said.

Hadra opened his hazel eyes and lifted his small head from his paws.

“Papa?”

The voice of his son gave him warmth, just as the voice of Hadra’s father to him gave him comfort and made him feel secure. As Zarazu stared down at the cub, he couldn’t help but see Rombu in those innocent, young eyes of his. He and Meersha had failed to tell their litter of the cub they once had, though his memory still lingered in their hearts, just as strongly as the love for their new cubs.

“Hadra, I wish to speak to you.” Zarazu stated.

Glancing at his arguing siblings, Hadra wearily got up, and padded behind the giant, black and white lion. The fact that his father was so big – Hadra seemed only as big as one of his paws! – and so strong – even Zarazu’s voice – made him feel protected. A million monsters could be surrounding the two, and as long as he was with his father, Hadra would still feel safe. It amazed him how strong his parents could be.

As the sun began to fall behind the horizion, crickets took their place in the evening, singing loudly along with other denizens of the golden lands. Zarazu would gracefully walk in front of his son, paw after paw upon a part of the land where it rose slightly, as if over looking their territory.

Hadra stopped, turned, and squinted to see his mother and Pursha far off, only specks in the distance now. Then he continued on after his father.

 “Son.” Zarazu would finally exclaim as they walked, now a half a mile from the den. “I’m very disappointed.”

“I know. I didn’t want to…I just…I don’t know.” Hadra said ashamed, ears low.

“Hadra, I look to you as the one with the most responsibility and sense. But what you and the other cubs did today…”

“I just wanted them to like me, Dad!” the little cub suddenly blurted out.

“What do you mean? They’re your siblings. They love you.” he said gently and reassuringly.

“But they don’t like me.” Hadra went on with humiliation and regret as he glared at the ground, eyes slightly teary.

Sighing, Zarazu leaned down to nuzzle his son. “I know things are tough, but it’ll get better. Trust me.”

“No it won’t!” he pouted ignorantly, but this only made his father grin.

“Look. Have I ever told you about how responsible you are?”

“Just now.” Hadra sniffled.

“Well then, have I ever told you how you’re going to be the leader of this pride?”

“You mentioned it.”

“And I think you will make a great leader some sun.”

“But they make fun of me! I’m so small, too! And I only went along with their plan ‘cause I wanted them t’ stop making fun of me!”

“I know, I know. But one sun you will be the leader of the Twilight pride, and all this will be behind you. Look, I took you out here because I wanted to tell you that; because I wanted to tell you how much of a good leader you are; how strong you really are and determined and how you’re accountable for your siblings – even if you think they don’t like you. You are responsible for them and for yourself, Hadra. That is why you can’t go along with their mischief.”

Still, Hadra was gazing away, no matter how carefully he was listening. With a chuckle, Zarazu nuzzled his son again.

“I know you probably don’t understand, or you think you can’t do it, but give yourself some time to grow and mature; ya know, get some muscles on those bones and become a big strong lion.” he said, nudging the cub.

Spinning around, Hadra giggled as he pawed his father’s giant muzzle, “Like you?”

“Yes. Like me.” he laughed. “C’mon. I’ll race you back to the den.”

With that, the two were off.

As they came over to the lionesses, Hadra was panting and plopped down beside his mother.

“He’s exhausted. What’ve you been doing? I told you to talk to him, not have him race a cheetah.” Meersha scolded, licking her little one as he continued to try and catch his breath.

“Don’t worry. He’s fine.” Zarazu exclaimed. “Just getting some exercise before we turn in for the night.”

“Daddy, do I still have to stay in the den with Tamu and Gwalu and Binjaji, even though I’m gonna be leader one day?” Hadra then asked.

It was hard for any of the adults to say no to the little one, but Zarazu could only shake his head with a sigh and a grin. “Yes. You have to. You have to take responsibility for it, too, Hadra. You will learn.”

As Hadra huffed, Meersha said, “Well, I’m off to den.” before she picked her cub up by the scruff and began to pad to the ground cave.

Zarazu sat down, watching his family disappear. As they left, he could not help but shiver at the overwhelming feeling that washed over his soul; he felt the same way as he did when he and Meersha became mates, and when he had adopted Rombu. It was the feeling to protect and never stop protecting.

“I love them so much.” he uttered.

“I know.” Pursha said, which made him perk as he had forgotten she was still lying there. “It really is something to have family, huh?”

Zarazu ignored her, and got up to follow Meersha into the den for the night.

 

LIV

A Chase to Danger

 

Run run, little one

Flee from the dark,

hide from the light,

for this is your mark

your fear held tight

 

Run run, little one

Sprint from the cold,

dash from the heat,

you were just too bold,

and now you’re meat

 

Run run, little one

Scurry in a hurry,

dart with your heart,

lope like an antelope,

scamper, scramper and next time do not tamper,

do not pout,

do not protest

do not shout

or you will surely be put to the test

 

Run run, little one

-Lioness warning- poem to naughty cubs

 

A couple days later, Tamu would be found frolicking through the grasslands, laughing as she did so. Pursha watched with keen eyes while she laid upon a flat rock beneath an umbrella tree for shade. Her tail tip twitched a bit as she watched the young ones play, especially Tamu.

The little, creamy lion continued to mew and giggle as she ran after a butterfly. As it landed on a blade of grass, she would briefly playbow, before leaping after it. Before long, though, the cub grew bored, and sighing, she turned to pounce back to Pursha.

“Boo!” she yelled as she jumped up on the lioness.

“Ah, you got me.” was all Pursha said, with a quick giggle.

“Aunt Pursha.” Tamu then exclaimed, placing both forepaws upon the lioness’s side and looking up at her with yearning eyes. “I’m booored.”

“And I’m sorry.” Pursha stoutly replied.

“For what?”

“For you being bored.”

Huffing, Tamu plopped down on her rump, before asking, “Where’s Mama and Daddy?”

“Your dad is at the borders.”

“He always is!” Tamu whined.

“And Meersha’s out with him, too.”

Tamu tilted her head for a moment, before bounding off to the water hole that was a few yards away.  She heaved a sigh, before blinking at her siblings. Grinning, the cub stalked over to where Hadra sat upon a small jutting rock that came out from a mound in the land. Suddenly, she tackled him, easily pushing him off the rock, taking his spot.

“Ah!” he cried in surprise as a thump sounded while he fell on hard, bare ground. “Tamu!” he hissed, staggering up.

The other two cubs just laughed at Tamu’s heartless actions.

“What’d you do that for?” he spat. “That’s my spot!”

“Well now it’s mine.” Tamu exclaimed, before turning to look at him, unsheathing her claws to kneed the rock’s surface while she said, “But if you want it, you’ll have t’ fight.”

“Huh?” and he tilted his head.

“C’mon, ya tough cub! You’re supposed to be the leader one day, and there’s no good leaders that don’t know how t’ fight.”

“Yeah.” Binjaji agreed. “If you’re gonna be the leader, you have to know how to fight.”

“That’s right.” Gwalu encouraged.

“Well?” Tamu went on. “What are you waitin’ for?”

Looking from Tamu, to Gwalu, to Binjaji and back to Tamu, Hadra pondered for a few moments, before stating, “I don’t wanna fight.”

“Ha! You’re such a zebra!” Gwalu shouted.

“Am not!” Hadra shot back.

“Oh yeah? Then why don’t you show us just how much of a tough leader you really are, Hadra.” Tamu said, pouncing off the rock onto her brother.

For a minute or so, the two rolled around in the dirt, before Hadra was finally able to escape from his sister’s grip.

“Look here at the lil furball!” Tamu laughed.

Now Hadra was curled up as a small gray puff, trying his best to keep away from his sister’s blows. His forepaws wrapped over his muzzle as he sqrunched his eyes shut. Maybe he could out wait the fight.

“Now let’s see how fast the young leader is!” Binjaji suggested.

“Good idea, Bin.” Tamu complimented.

With that, the three cubs pounced the smallest, clawing and biting at him.

Why was it that Hadra was one day to become the leader of a pride that made fun of him so much? That seemed so cruel and heartless towards him? And all he could do was lie there and continue taking the attacks.

“C’mon! You can do it; just get up and run you waste of fur!” Tamu snarled with rage as she took her anger out on her brother; the anger that so swelled up within her soul and made her despise this little furball that always seemed to get her in trouble, just for trying to have fun.

In fact, Tamu was so wrapped up in her fury, that she did not notice the actual blood she drew from Hadra’s small body.

Finally, Hadra could stand it no longer, and leapt up, falling once and making Gwalu fall over as well. Quickly, he stumbled up again and took off to the north, sprinting through the long grass, not even caring as it smaked his face. But he knew the trio was behind him now, chasing him.

His panting grew faster and more frantic as his adrenaline rushed. He felt like a mere prey in a game of cat and mouse. Or perhaps one of the antelope that his mother had hunted for him. How could this be? How was it that now he was running from the pride he was meant to lead?

Suddenly, a burst of energy came, and he shot out into the grasslands, faster than he could’ve ever imagined, easily outrunning his siblings. He left the three behind, still trying to catch his breath as he scrambled over now bare land. It was obvious Hadra was past the borders of his territory, and yet he kept running.

“Don’t worry.” Tamu exclaimed to her sister and brother as they ran still, only with astonishment. “He can’t last like that for long.” she panted. “And I’ll be able to catch him anyway!”

With that, Tamu – with her lean and youthful body – was running just as quickly as Hadra. It seemed as if her own anger was the thing that pushed her, just as Hadra’s fear and determination urged him on.

The two were closing up on each other, and soon Tamu was at Hadra’s tail, snapping at it.

“Furball!” she called. “Zebra! Prey! Cub! Stupid, little-”

But then Hadra instinctively jumped before he knew what he was doing. The gray cub was now leaping up what appeared to be a stair case of stones that so matched the color of his fur.

Tamu halted in her tracks, watching her brother climb the rocks. For a moment, she stayed still, before gritting her teeth and hurdling after him.

Stone by stone, rock by rock, the two jumped from each one, climbing higher. Finally, Hadra leapt from one side of a gap in the “stairs.” For a moment, he struggled on the edge of small cliff, his hind legs kicking to find any surface as his claws dug into the flat rock above him. And then, with one last effort, he found another stone to place his back paw on, and shot up into the air.

The little cub landed on his side, almost gasping for breath. For a moment, his view grew blurry from exhaustion.

“You!” he heard his sister cry.

A little thump sounded beside him, and he turned to look up into the angry face of Tamu. Though Tamu was just as warn, she continued to stand her ground, before pouncing Hadra once more. Snarling, the little cub raked his face. He could only reply in a yelp.

“Cubs!” someone then said. “Cubs, what are you doing?”

The voice was nothing but a lie, as it seemed to be frantic. But Hadra recognized it a stone cold sound coming from that very old, very frightening lioness.

“Natira!” Tamu shouted in joy.

“Why, what are you two doing? You could hurt each other. Or you could easily fall off these rocks.” the lioness gently exclaimed. She paused. “You both look exhausted.”

“Yeah well, I was just mad at this stupid cub.” Tamu replied, glaring at her brother as she stood.

“Well that’s not very nice.”

“It’s not very nice that he told on us! He always does!”

“Told on you?” Natira’s voice was suddenly unleashing a raw dark side. “Did you tell about us?”

“No!” Tamu quickly said. “Hadra just said we met some strangers, but he didn’t give your names.”

For a minute, Natira seemed to be considering this, debating on whether or not she should lash out. But finally, Natira’s expression and voice sunk back into a fake gentleness.

“Well I am glad you have not told. Hey, tell you what; my grandson and I are having a…a picknick tonight, and we were wondering if you and your siblings would like to attend.”

“Really?” Tamu squealed. “That’d be fun!”

“Great. All you have to do is wait when the moon is up, and meet us back here. Oh, and don’t tell your parents, all right?”

“How come we can’t tell our parents?” Hadra then said, standing up after he had caught his breath, blood and sweat trickling down his face.

“Well, let’s just say my grandson and I would like to be kept a secret. After all, your father is very protective about his lands-”

“It’s a good thing.” Hadra interrupted.

“And all we want is friends.” Natira finished, ignoring the cub.

“See?” huffed Tamu, batting at her brother. “All they want is friends. And Daddy doesn’t want to be around strangers, so that’s why we can’t tell them!”

“Right, well I hope to see you and all your siblings here tonight.” Natira then said.

“Don’t worry. You will.”

“Good. Good bye, little ones.”

“Good bye.” Tamu mewed.

~~~

“Hadra, you can’t tell!” ordered Tamu when they were back at the water hole.

“Why not? They’re strangers!”

“Who cares?!” Binjaji said.

“I have a bad feeling about them!”

“So what? Every time you have a bad feeling, you end up taking away our fun.” Tamu complained. “Don’t do it again.” she threatened. “You won’t tell…will you?”

The three cubs were staring coldly at Hadra. All he could do was sit there and flinch inwardly at his several small wounds that surrounded his body. He knew it would only get worse if he taddled like he had done so many times, which was another reason why he was so despised among his peers. But at the same time, he was meant to be a leader, and be responsible.

Sighing, Hadra said, “I won’t tell.”

“Good! Then it’s settled: tonight, we will go meet Natira out at those rocks.” Tamu exclaimed with delight.

What was he doing? Just letting his siblings get themselves into trouble? No. He could not let this happen again. His father was counting on him. And yet, his own future was, too. And then, a thought popped into his head: what if he could protect his siblings, while at the same time keeping their relationship with those strangers a secret? Then he would be winning on both sides!

“Hadra!”

The four cubs jerked their heads, seeing Meersha trot over to them.

“What has happened to you, my little Hadra? You’re full of dirt and blood, and you look exhausted!”

“I’m fine, Mom.” Hadra replied.

“Of course you’re not! Look at your coat; I just cleaned it! And you have scratches all over.”

Meersha abruptly shot a cold glare to her other cubs.

“What have you been doing to him?” she asked.

“Nothing, Mama.” Tamu innocently replied.

“Don’t ‘Nothing Mama’ me.” she snarled. “I know you, Tamu. Now tell me what happned!”

An awkward silence, before Hadra finally said, “It was me!”

“Hadra, don’t-” Meersha began, but Hadra continued. “No really, Mama. I just fell in the sticker bushes was all.”

“How can you fall in the sticker bushes? And what sticker bushes are near anyway?”

“Mama, I just got myself a little dirty, OK?” Hadra huffed.

Rolling her eyes and shaking her head, Meersha scruffed her eldest son and carried him over to a tree, only to lie down and begin grooming him. As this happened, Pursha padded over to the rest of the cubs, making sure they would not drift too far.

~~~

The night had taken over the vast savannah. Even though dangerous predators continued to thrive throughout the darkness, the family of lions were sleeping peacefully within their now-large den. But there was a struggle; four little cubs were making their way from the safety of their family, out to the enterence of their home.  

“I can’t see.” complained a small voice.

“Shh!” hissed someone else.

“Ee! You’re on my tail!” squealed a third voice.

“Would you just all shut up!” snarled Tamu, as she was now in the moonlight that littered the enterence of the cave floor.

“Ugh.” Hadra grunted as he knocked into his younger sister.

Immeditely the cub spun around, and Hadra was looking into the furious face of his sibling. Tamu bared her teeth as her fur bristled, causing the little gray cub to gulp and back up. After a moment or two of that tremble-causing stare, Tamu looked up, watching the land outside.

“We have t’ be quiet so we don’t get caught.” she exclaimed, glancing at her sleeping parents and Pursha. “So shut up.”

With that, she turned back around, and headed out into the deadly, unprotected night.

For several minutes, the four cubs would toddle into the long, grass. Before they knew it, though, they were laughing and giggling, they were sprinting from the heart of their territory. All over each one would pounce, toppling over each other and scrambling around, falling over their own paws. The night bugs interested the little ones as they chased them, and of course, each other. Only Hadra was quiet and wary as he watched his brother and sisters, trying not to get caught up in their playful quarrels. He sighed, thinking about the two strangers. At the thought of seeing them again, his stomach did a flop, and he felt as if he could vomit right there and then.

Suddenly stopping, he said, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this.”

“Huh?” asked Gwalu.

“And why not?” Tamu huffed.

“Because…it’s not safe.”

“If you didn’t want t’ come, then you should’ve stayed!”

“But Papa says I’m responsible for you guys.”

“We can take care of ourselves, can’t we?” Tamu challenged as she began to walk away, tail high in the air behind her.

“Yeah!” agreed Binjaji, following his siter.

“Duh!” Gwalu coppied, and ran after the others.

Hadra cocked his head, before exclaiming frantically, “Hey you guys! Wait up!”

“No, Hadra!” Tamu halted in her tracks and swirled back around, her siblings watching as she glared at Hadra. “Go away!”

Before Hadra knew what had happened, the sky was in his vision as his breath was taken away. The cub smacked the ground hard, just as the other three were snickering, running off into the distance and leaving him behind. Coughing, Hadra scrambled up. After he caught his breath, he looked around, and though the scent of the others was strong, he could not see them anymore.

Suddenly, his heart was racing, and he began to quiver. Not only because of the lonely breeze that past him by, causing the tips of the grass to tickle his fur, but because he was left alone in the dark. Now even his own family was gone. And what would happen if they got hurt? Then it would be his fault; his fault for not telling his parents about this; his fault for following them instead. But he had tried his best! After all, if he didn’t tell his parents on them, then he would’ve gained respect from the cubs, and if he had gone with the cubs then that way he could’ve made sure he was responsible for them and taken care of them – that way, he would win! But no. Not even just this one time could he win. Not once in his short life did he feel like he was a winner. Now, he could not tell his parents, nor make sure his siblings were OK. He was lost.

Finally, doing his best not to panic, the little one sniffed the air, and began to follow the tracks of the other cubs. Abruptly, Hadra took off, running through the yellow grass, which now looked so dark in the night; everything did. He did his best to push past the large blades the brushed his face and body. Once he fell down a hidden drop off, though he was OK. Giving a quick cough, he jumped up again, still trying to track down Tamu and the others. 

~~~

“What a zebra!” cackled Tamu.

The three cubs were now padding along near the giant rocks, where the ground was bare and the earth was hard and seemed as dark as the sky at the time.

“I know!” Binjaji giggled delightedly. “And that was so cool, the way you headbutted him!”

“And the way he fell back so easily, like he was nothing but a light feather.” agreed Gwalu in laughter.

“As I recall, there were four of you last time I saw you.” an ancient-sounding voice cracked through the night.

The trio of youth gasped as they stopped, eyes widening in fear as their views shot in front of them, only to have them all sigh in relief. Natira lie on a near stone, forcing out a jaded yawn, her tail slowly swishing to and fro.

“Natira!” Tamu cried. “It’s you!”

“Yes, and it’s you…but not all of you. Tell me, little ones, where is the fourth cub?” she calmly asked.

“Oh, don’t worry; we took care of him.” chuckled the light-colored lion cub.

“Well, it’s a shame that he won’t be joining us, because, I was really looking forward to dining with all of you.” Natira exclaimed, putting on a verbal act of disappointment.

“You wouldn’t want him here anyway.” Tamu continued.

“Yeah!” agreed her siblings.

“Well then, I’ll hate to do this without him.”

With those last chilling words, the lioness suddenly rose from her spot atop the gray formation of rock, before taking a forepaw and grasping Tamu with her extended claws. Again, the cubs gasped, and Tamu was painfully pulled forward as Natira buried her claws into the little one’s flesh. The old lioness grinned satisfied at the cub’s flinch. When she pulled her up so that they were face to face, and poor Tamu’s paws were dangling in the cool air, Natira’s grin widened to a toothy smile. Her frightening eyes of sharp gray, glared as they filled with rage.

While Tamu was grabbed, Unaro suddenly leapt out from behind his grandmother, jumping behind Gwalu and Binjaji, making sure they couldn’t leave.

Tamu’s heart raced as her nose touched the adult’s nose. She felt like she could hardly breathe or feel her own body, as the fear and realization ran through her veins. These lions were not friends: they were enemies.

“I wanted,” Natira began in a light murmur. “all of you.” There was a pause, before: “All of you!” she suddenly roared.

The cub shut her eyes, shivers and whimpers taking over her small body. This only made Natira chuckle.

“Now, you told me you would all come.” her voice was now normal. “This is very dispaointing indeed. You know why?”

“N-no.” Tamu forced herself to whisper.

“Let’s just say I like even numbers. But now, there are only three of you. Tut, tut, that will not do. I guess things could be arranged, I mean, if I can’t get four, then I’ll have to settle with two.” she laughed. “That means, one of you will have to go…And I trusted you.”

The last word “you” made Tamu lose her breath. Before she knew it, Natira’s breath closed in on her, and it felt so warm as her teeth was now an inch beside her. Those fangs were so close, she could almost see her own reflection in them.

“You leave her alone!” someone suddenly called.

Everyone shot up to see Hadra standing on a cliff, about five yards in the air as he stared down at them. For once in her life, Tamu was thankful to see her brother.

“Oh, it seems we do have four.” Natira said, still grinning as she tossed Tamu aside.

“Ah!” she squealed as she fell down between Gwalu and Binjaji, but Unaro still standing above them.

“Young one.” Natira started as she slightly began to move to the base of the cliff, looking up at Hadra. “I’m glad to see you’re here. Why don’t you come down here with us, huh?”

“You leave my brother and sisters alone!” he snarled, trying his best to look tough as he puffed his chest out.

“Oh, I just wanted to have some fun, don’t you?” she snickered. “After all, I really do like the feeling of cub flesh being torn by my own claws.”

Suddenly, with a gasp, Hadra turned around and started off into the grasslands, heading back to the territory. But Unaro was just as quick, leaving the other cubs with Natira as he leapt over, following the cub, and soon coming out on leval land with him, jumping in front of him. Unaro grinned down at the little one, who glared back up at him with a pathetic hiss.

“No.” Natira said simply as she sat beside the other cubs. “Let him go. He’ll be a messenger to his pride.” Her chilling eyes then rested on Hadra himself as she went on. “You tell your parents that Natira has your siblings, and if she still remembers, then your mother will know what I want. You tell them, that if they want their cubs back alive, then we’ll meet at gorge in the northeast.”

~~~

Hadra was gasping and shaking in exhaustion, but he continued to push himself through the savannah, on his way home. He had to tell his parents this, for his siblings lives were on the line. Oh, how could this happen? What was once a simple plan for him to get respect from them and respsonsibilty from his parents, was now about to caust him his sister’s and brother’s life. Well, now all he could do was deliver the news – that was his only task left…and the only thing that mattered. He could at least do something right, and it was to get home and tell the others before it was too late.

“Ah!” he grunted in surprise, falling over and tumbling down a hill.

Everything was spinning, but finally, he looked up, seeing the twinkling stars above him, which were now disappearing from his view as a blanket of mist seeped through the enviornment. Taking a shaking breath, he looked forward, seeing the den, and he forced himself up on his clumsy paws.

“Mom!” he called. “Dad!”

~~~

The lion’s roar shook the earth itself. Zarazu was breathing almost as hard as his son, who had just gotten back and delivered the news.

“How could this have happened?” Pursha asked in a wary whisper, staring at nothing.

You!” Zarazu suddenly said, spinning around and giving the lioness a smack with extended claws.

She snarled in surprise and pain as she closed her eyes, trying to ignore the blood that now gushed down her face. Instead of fighting back, Pursha just slumped there, submissively and regretfully. But the action of his father, took Hadra by surprise as well.

“Zarazu, no!” Meersha cried.

“You let this happen!” Zarazu growled. “Now our cubs are gone!”

“She did nothing!” Meersha finally snarled, jumping in front of her friend and glaring at her mate. “Now you’re right, though – our cubs are gone. And it’s up to us to get them back!”

Zarazu gave one last glance of fury to his scapegoat, before leaping out of the den and looking around.

“Where are they?” he roared.

Though the reactions of his father scared him, Hadra was able to say, “C’mon, follow me!”

“No! You’re staying here!” Meersha ordered.

“But you don’t know the way, especially in this fog, Mama!” Hadra protested.

“He’s right.” Zarazu suddenly breathed, quiet now as he gazed at the mist that had taken over their lands. “Show us the way, son.”

Giving a quick nod, Hadra started out, and the other three followed.

Another task for him – another thing he needed to do to was save their lives.

 

LV

A Trick, a Chase, and a Mistake

 

“Love runs on life. But if there is no love, what is the use of life?”

-Paham, Shaman of the Dream-Catcher pride (Mystic Era)

 

Hadra was panting as he scrambled through the lands, tripping several times.

“This is going to take too long.” Meersha frantically pointed out. “Tell us where to go.”

And with that she lifted her son up in her mouth.

“Keep going straight.” Hadra grunted as he was picked up.

Before long, the lions were racing through the oncoming mist. Meersha was in front, listening carefully to her cub’s words with Pursha at her heals and Zarazu in the back, struggling to keep up.

“Keep going up that hill!” he ordered, just a few minutes later.

“Ah!” Pursha cried out in surprise.

Meersha snarled, letting go of the small lion as they all tumbled down a cliff, landing with several loud thumps. Hadra was lucky he was not killed by his own family in the fall.

“Hadra, where do we go?” Zarazu asked, getting up abruptly.

“Just straight from now on.” he said.

“And no more cliffs?”

“Nope.”

“Good. Then hide here.”

“Huh?”

Meersha asked, “What are you doing?” as Zarazu scruffed his son and padded to a near log. There, the giant black and white lion set the cub gently within the rotting, fallen grove.

“But, Daddy!” Hadra protested, jumping out of the log.

“No. You’re staying here. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“But I won’t!”

“Listen to your father, Hadra. You need to stay here. We’ll go get your brother and sisters and be back in no time.” Pursha said.

Zarazu growled while he glared at the lioness.

“No.” Meersha suddenly said.

The three looked at her questioningly.

“I’m going.”

“What? You can’t!” Zarazu started.

“No. I have to. It’s my fault that our cubs are in that position. It’s me they want, not you or them.” Meersha wearily exclaimed, looking out to the east.

“But you can’t go alone!” Pursha cried.

“Once I make sure the cubs are OK, I have to deal with them: I have to go with them.”

“What? Meersha, are you hearing yourself? You’re talking crazy!” Zarazu snarled.

“Hadra, you said it was an old lioness and her grandson, right?” Meersha asked, looking down to the cub, ignoring her mate.

“Uh huh.” He nodded. “But why do you have to go?”

“Because…back when I was a half-cub, a lioness named Natira tried to get me, yet I don’t know why.”

“That’s her name! That’s her name!” Hadra squealed, jumping up.

“But you don’t know if it’s her for sure?” asked Pursha.

“No, but think about; these strangers’ actions are not normal. Why would a lioness be traveling with her grandson and take away a pride’s cubs? Because they want something…someone…me.”

“You can’t go, Meersha!” Pursha cried then.

“This is ridiculious. If they want you, they have to go through me.” Zarazu growled, sticking his chest out and lifting his chin.

Meersha shook her head slowly. “Whoever they are, they are strong.”

Pursha pointed out, “But there’s only two of them, and the lioness is very old.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’re strong and I have a bad feeling about them, especially the lioness. I must go with them…for the sake of our cubs.”

“But they can’t! You-”

“It doesn’t matter, Zarazu! They want me, not them!” Meersha snarled, before turning around and sprinting through the mist.

“Meersha!” Zarazu cried in distress, before taking off after his mate.

“You guys!” Pursha said, also trailing after.

Hadra looked out after them for a moment, and then took off as well, making his way through the dark savannah once more, now alone again. Yet as he climbed to the top of a steep knoll, he was thrown back after knocking into the leg of Pursha.

“Hadra!” she cried as she looked back to him with concerned eyes.

“I have t’ help them!” he growled, getting up and trying to pass the lioness.

“You can’t go after them! It’s too dangerous!”

“But it’s my fault!”

“Your fault?” and she slightly cocked her head to the side.

“Yeah. If I had just told Papa where we were going or if I had been a better guide for them, then none of this would’ve happened.”

“It’s not your fault, Hadra. But now, you must stay here so that I can protect you…I won’t fail again.” At the end of that sentence, her voice grew stronger as she glared into the distance, kneading the ground in anger at her fails.

As this happened, Meersha and Zarazu were running for their cubs’ lives. Mist continued to engulf the whole savannah it seemed. Meersha’s soon began to pant, trying her best to catch her breath as horrible thoughts flowed through her racing mind. What if the cubs were nowhere to be found and it was a trick? What if they had killed the cubs already? But she couldn’t stop now. She wouldn’t.

Before long, a figure showed itself within Meersha’s view, and her watery eyes squinted briefly. It didn’t take but a few more seconds before she halted and snarled, “Where are they?!”

The figure was now clear, and though her body was trembling in fright and anger, Meersha stood her ground, waiting for an answer as she glared at the old and unnatural lioness.

“Why, they’re just in that gorge.” the ancient voice slithered from behind those black, cracked lips.

As Meersha watched, she saw Natira nod to her left. “A gorge ready to break and fill with water any time now…just with a sweep of a claw.”

At first, Meersha did not understand, before she gasped, looking over to where the mist cleared, giving her just the perfect view to see Unaro, standing beside a rock wall at the edge of the gorge. It was clear that the stones that piled up were working like a dam to the raging river on the other side of it. With one sweep of his paw, he could easily send the one lose rock above tumbling down, casuing the rest to collapse and allowing the water to rush through. Though she could spot him, the cubs were nowhere to be seen, what with all the mist blanketing everything else. But what if the cubs really were stuckin the gorge? She couldn’t take any chances.

“Give us back our cubs!” Zarazu’s roar suddenly shook the earth. He had finally caught up to his mate. “Before I tear you to shreds, you old hag!”

“You can easily get your cubs back. But you know what I want, first.” Natira snickered.

“Meersha will never go with you!”

“Hush, Zarazu.” Meersha interrupted. “I’ve already explained to you what I must do…I love you.”

With that, the young lioness started toward Natira, chin up and eyes burning with rage. She could not believe what she was doing. Never in a million years did she think she would have to give herself up for someone else…or that she would. But the moment her cubs were born, she knew they were the most important things in her life, and that she would do anything for them.

“I’m glad you finally see things my way.” Meersha heard Natira say over her racing heart.

“Now, give the cubs to my mate…and I will go without a struggle.” Meersha demanded as she stopped, just an inch from the old lion.

Natira nodded, and said, “First, follow me.”

The two began to walk stiffly across a log that reached over to the other side of the gorge. Zarazu could only stand, yards away as he watched his beloved Meersha walk away forever. Why did it have to be this way? Why wasn’t he still fighting? How was it that he was just standing there and letting this happen?

After what seemed eternity, Meersha stopped in the middle of the log and growled.

“Give him the cubs.” she ordered. “Now.

“Whose giving orders here?” snarled Natira as she whipped around.

“I’ve done what you wanted!” Meersha’s voice suddenly began to break down and turned into pleads. “Now you have to keep you end of the bargen!”

At first, Natira could only growl in anger and frustration, before an evil smile spread on her face.

“Well, that wouldn’t be much fun now would it?” she purred.

The question both surprised and horrifed Meersha as she stood, stalk-still upon the log.

Natira turned and gave a mighty roar that seemed too unbelievable to have come from her. That was the sign, and Unaro grinned immediately raised a forepaw, and let it come straight down onto a large, lose rock. Meersha gasped, eyes widening as the whole thing began to break and crumble beaneath itself, giving Unaro himself just enough time to jump to the edge of the gorge and climb up on sturdy land.

“No!” Meersha cried as a wave as big as the ravine’s walls itself swept into the giant gap.

In minutes, the whole place would be flooded.

“What did you do?!” she roared, turning to headbutt Natira.

The attack took the old lioness by surprise, and before she knew it, Natira was head over heals, and just barely hanging by a few claws on the log. If her cubs’ lives were not at stake, Meersha would’ve sent the shaman to her death right then and there, but instead, she took off.

Running on the log, Meersha mad her way back to land when she heard Natira’s voice echoing through the mist, “Unaro, get her!”

A quick roar sounded, and Meersha knew she was being chased. As she blindly pushed herself into the fog, she guessed that Zarazu was on his way to save their babies…hopefully.

But her hoping did not prove to come true. In fact, Zarazu – after having heard the shocking roar of – abruptly began to run, scenting the hazey environment, attempting to find Meersha’s trail. His own running didn’t last long, for in a few moments, the lion ended up tumbling over and found himself being forced into the ground. Groaning, he took a forepaw and gently rubbed his now-tender nose, forgetting about the chase. Suddenly, he gasped and jumped up on all fours, determined to save his mate. But now, as he looked around, Zarazu could only tell that he was at the base of a hill; while trying to catch up with Meersha, he had some how fallen down this knoll, probably tripping over his own paws in excitement.

Just as the young, black and white lion was about to get a move on, another roar sounded.

“Huh?” he questioned nothing as he looked over his shoulder.

At first, Zarazu could not be sure, but he thought he had seen a figure, standing in the mist. Shaking the feeling of company off of him, he began to move up the base of the hill again, when a voice called through the mist.

“Stop!” it commanded with a brawny determination.

Swirling around, Zarazu snarled at the figure. Was this the other lion that had started chasing Meersha? But as he scented the air, he could tell this was another stranger.

“Who are you and what do you want?” he replied, his voice cracking.

It amazed even Zarazu himself that he was staying to chat, while his own lover could be being killed right then. But some uknown forced caused him to stay in his tracks. Something was drawing him ever so closer to the stranger…He knew this person was important, and in someway, somehow, just maybe, the stranger was the key to their cubs’ survival.

“For many full moons I have been seeking a lion by the name of Izegbe.”

Zarazu didn’t even notice his own gasp as the figure stepped forward. It was a lion. But still, Zarazu did not know this person and couldn’t even begin to guess how he knew of Izegbe…of Meersha. Suddenly, a threatening thought penetrated his ignorant mind; what if this lion was from the Broken-Claw? But how could this be if the Broken-Claw was defeated by the massive group of rogues bent on revenge? Yet if this lion knew of the sacred name, Izegbe, then he had to have connections with the Broken-Claw.

“I want nothing to do with you!” Zarazu abruptly shouted, before he could help himself. “Leave now! Izegbe is not for you!”

It was true; Zarazu could not stand the thought of having to reunite with the pride that ruined his life. The only good thing that came out of it, was the fate he had with Meersha…and now it seemed, that this person was here to take her away.

“I won’t let you have her!” he continued, stepping forward as his fur bristled and claws extended.

Zarazu was so caught into defending his mate, he did not even notice that the lion he was challenging, had but one eye.

At first, the one-eyed lion cocked his head slightly, and then cleared his throat and growled strongly, “I have made a promise to some lionesses and I will not fail.”

“You’ll just have to be on your way then, mongrel! I have left you and your kind long ago and have no intention of returning!”

“Wha…?” the stranger muttered to himself, before moving forward, his only eye of purple squinting. Suddenly, Gatu gasped, the memories flowing through his head of the day that he and Banjija were forced into that lioness pride when they were but half-cubs. He remembered when their manes were ripped off and, as they tried to escape, only to be bitten at by a small cub of black and white. Could this be the same lion? But then again, what other lion was of those colors – or more like shades? “You!” Gatu snarled. “Of course you’d be the one to try and ruin my plans!”

Startled by some confusion, Zarazu continued with a, “You’re not getting her!”

“We’ll then, you murdering little rat-!”

“Murdering?” Zarazu growled.

“I may have one eye, but I have the memory of an elephant! If you had just bit a little harder, then my pride-brother and I would’ve been given to the mouths of those lionesses and would’ve been DEAD TO THIS DAY!”

At the last words, Gatu had forced them out like the actual thrust he made toward white-furred lion, leaping into the air, claws reaching out for his flesh.

Zarazu glared, but was quick enough to move out of the way, leaving Gatu to bare ground. It took only a second for the one-eyed male to regain his balance, but by the time he did, Zarazu’s claws were already digging into his pelt.

“Ah!” Gatu screamed in agony, thrashing about.

He turned and grabbed a mouthful of raven-colored mane from Zarazu, attempting to yank the bunch out. Immediately, Zarazu left the pelt and pushed his side into the stranger. The two began to roll a couple times. Before they were about to stop, they were suddenly sent down the one hill that led to the flooding gorge.

Zarazu’s sight was blurring as it spun continuessly. His head began to ache in the brawl, not only because of the spinning, but of how it was hit over and over on the ground. It seemed that the rushing sound of the raging river matched his pain and anger right then. Finally, he was able to put into his brain, what was about to happen. Gasping, the lion endeavoured to dig his claws – instead of into his enemy – into the ground.

“Stop!” he tried to hiss, but Gatu was too busy wrestling as they rolled.

Growling, Zarazu felt the last inches of land behind them, and was able to leap like an antelope into the misty air. As he did so, landing on all fours, Gatu was left to roar in surprise as his forepaws grasped the edge of the gorge. Now water was rushing just yards below his back paws as he dangled helplessly.

Panting, Zarazu turned around, watching the stranger curiously, but with raging eyes of fire.

“You’ll never get her.” he whispered, taking a step towards him.

“ZARAZU!”

Again, Zarazu gasped, hearing the cry of his mate in the distance.

“Meersha?” he quietly asked himself, tilting his head.

“ZARAZU!” she cried again.

The call was coming from the north, and suddenly Zarazu leapt straight over Gatu, onto a piece of land in the middle of the gorege, sticking straight up over the water. He didn’t even notice what kind of danger he put himself into…but Gatu did.

Seizing the opurtinity, Gatu grinned, despite the water that would so easily rush him away to his death if he let go. The lion carefully pushed his hind legs onto the piece of land Zarazu stood upon, who was watching nothing while waiting for another call from the distant lioness. As Gatu was able to push the paws up on land, he – for only a moment or so – was lifted up between the main land of the edge of the gorge and the natural pillar that extended from the depths of the raveine’s middle. Unsheathing his claws, Gatu began to knead the dirt of the wall. After several more seconds of this tiring work, he growled in annoyance at the absence of his success. Suddenly, giving a roar, Gatu literally kicked the dirt beneath Zarazu’s paws.

“Ah!” Zarazu cried out in surprise as he slipped.

The kick caused not only Gatu to go back to hanging, but Zarazu fell, only to catch onto the middle of the propped land with his forepaws. Now, both lions were dangling, and struggling to hang on for their lives as the water thundered below both of them.

“Where are you?” Meersha voice seemed to echo through the atmosphere.

“Here! I’m right here!” Zarazu choked as he faught to keep his claws fastened into the dirt of the pillar’s top.

“No! He’s the murderer!” cried Gatu to Zarazu’s surprise. “He’s an evil lion! Over here!”

“What?” snarled Zarazu.

But the two left the idea of arguing rather quickly, as both began to slip ever so slowly to their doom. Both had their forepaws sliding in the earth, causing their bodies to fall even closer to the water.

“No!” Zarazu gasped, now panicing as his forepaws continued to scratch at the land.

For a moment, he thought he heard the voice of his mate calling, but his terror blocked all sounds now.

“No! He’s evil!” he thought he heard Gatu repeat.

The events that happened after this were such a blur, that Zarazu didn’t even know what was happening when it happened.

Suddenly, someone was flying through the air..If only Zarazu could reach a little farther...His claws were slipping…A cry of despair ripped from his lips as his last effort was put into the paw that let go of the edge of land! And he was falling! Falling to his death! But so was Gatu…

No. Gatu – who had let go the same time that Zarazu had – was still clinging to the edge of the gorge! But how?

To Zarazu’s horror, he could see Gatu was recued by the flying figure…by Meersha.

The next thing to happen was an earshattering roar that would send a herd of water bull bufullo running for their dames. A roar of unmistakeable grief by a tormented soul, who now – plunging to his doom – was expressing to the world, his uttermost love and hatred to those who now rushed like the water, through the last seconds of his mind’s life.

Zarazu roared the whole way down as his forepaws dangled in the air above him, as if trying to reach out to his beloved Meersha. It was almost as if Meersha had given up on him, and traded him in for this stranger. It was as if their love was nothing but a mockery molded by the darkest demons found in the deepest pits of the earth. His heart ached and it felt as if it was the most painful thing that had ever happened to him, and though it didn’t last long, it seemed like it lasted an eternity. His heart was ripped…

But, for a moment – for a split second, he thought he saw Meersha turn to him, and stare him straight in the eye…with no regret…

The water surged over his hearstrucken face. It buried him as it ran over his body…and he felt no more…

 

LVI

Mist is an Ally

 

“Even the most unusual can be your friend.”

-Anuru, lioness of the Gray-Rain pride (Shadow Era)

 

Hadra had gasped, having watched his parents run off into the distance. At the time they were running off, he was stuck with Pursha upon the hill. Soon, they had disappeared within the blanket of mist.

“No, no! I have t’ go!” he pleaded with tears in his once-shimmering eyes. He didn’t know what he’d do if he couldn’t at least try to fix this incident he blamed on himself.

“Hadra, it’s safer here.” Pursha tried to soothe him, nuzzling his soft pelt.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s safer here; I have to fix this!”

It was hard enough that Pursha was waiting for her pride leaders to come back and hopefully not be dead, but the pleading expression once on this carefree cub killed her on the inside.

“I can’t let you go.” she whispered, looking at the ground now.

It was obvious that Hadra could not outrun his guardian, but he had to save his siblings.

Suddenly, a roar sounded, and Pursha gasped, watching nothing but the fog that lie in front of her. But as she looked back down, she could that once again the cub which she was supposed to be watching over, had escaped her view. She had failed yet again! Ah!

With a growl of mixed emotions, the lioness took off, following the scent of Hadra, who had easily escaped by mere distraction.

~~~

Scrambling through the grass once more, he was alone. It didn’t take long for his little nostrils to catch the scent of the big lion called Unaro. Nor did it take much longer than that for him to hear the roar. Hissing and turning into a puff ball, the cub scrampered off after the trail.

“Stop chasing my Mama!” he squealed, trying to distract the grandson of the evil lioness. After all, distraction had saved him from Pursha.

The astonishing speed that had helped back when Tamu and the others were chasing him, suddenly kicked in right then. The heals of the lion in front suddenly showed, and Hadra couldn’t help but sink his little growing fangs into them.

“Ah!” cried Unaro in irritation as he abruptly stopped.

Hadra let go, ran in front of him and growled, “That’s for trying to hurt my family!”

With that, he stuck out his tongue, and began running a different direction than his mother, who had now disappeared into the mist.

“You little rat!” snarled Unaro, now hot on the cub’s heals.

It seemed as if the Great Spirits of the Past were helping Hadra climb through the foggy savannah and keep out of reach of his enemy. After all, how was it that a cub could outrun a full grown adult? The truth was, that the fog itself kept Unaro from taking a claw and sweeping it at the little one – the only thing he needed to do to kill the cub. Panting, Hadra was able to confuse Unaro, sometimes running to the left as the grandson of Natira swiped empty air in front of him. Still, other times the gray cub moved to the right, or ducked in the grass, doing whatever he had to to keep his physical being safe and far enough away or out of sight as possible. That night, the mist was his savior. 

He did his best to try and keep up with his breath, but the energy was draining from his small body. The only thing he could think of was to keep this predator away from his mother right then. And it was working…now all he needed was to get Unaro away from him.

After several moments of a game of adult and cub – or more like cat and mouse – Hadra could see the mist clearing out where the giant stone steps climbed through the night sky. The clever lion gasped and took charge to it. Suddenly, Hadra found himself leaping for his life, up and up, climbing the natural steps.

“Now I’ve got you!” he heard Unaro laugh behind him.

As the mist cleared, Hadra was horrifed at the thoughts that crossed his mind right then. The blanket of low clouds was moving, and so that left him exposed to Unaro’s eyes, which left him exposed to Unaro’s teeth. He could almost feel the breath of the adult bathing his small body.

Then, the gap in the stone ground showed up. He easily leapt it, but so did Unaro. Hadra was both shocked and greatful at the fact that he was not now stumbling or tripping, for one false move could mean that he would end up in the jaws of the lion. But this was also amazing, for the fact that he had never been in this area of the rocks, which meant that he could easily trip or fall or something in this unknown part of the wild!

Another gap was immediately placed in Hadra’s path, but he had never jumped this before. In fact, it looked much too wide for even Unaro himself to jump! Besides, Hadra was losing energy and breath by every second.

I can’t make it, he thought. But he had to keep Unaro away from his family!

Just then, an outcrop was revealed from the mist! The gap was at least twelve meters across and dipped down to several yards; if he fell in there, he would never be able to get out!...But then, so couldn’t Unaro. The thought quickly leapt into his mind and, as he continued to force himself forward, he tried his best to examine and calculate the oncoming test. This was a task that meant life or death: if he fell, he would surely break his neck; if he stayed, Unaro’s jaws could crush him. But the edge of the jutting rock from the other side of the raveine was close…hopefully close enough to leap to!

Hadra could feel his heart pulsing as his small paws clamered on the rock floor. The pads of his feet were cracked from the sudden outburst of energy earlier, which was now almost gone. He could not seem to hear past his own shallow breathing as the empty air within the gap appeared to come closer, when in fact it was he who was closing in on it. This was it; if he didn’t make it, he would die at this young of age. Oh how curel the world could be! His own breath and time was running out on him, and he could feel himself slowing down. The chill of Unaro’s breath caused him to stir as he felt a tremble run down his spine. It was too late; he had no more energy left to try and make the jump.

Then, the image of his mother and brother and sisters and father then slid into his young mind. And right then, he knew he had to live for them.

It would take all the strength he could muster, but then, Hadra felt himself pushing off from the gap. He was in the air! The youngster pushed out his forepaws, and watched, almost in slow motion, the oncoming land, and the mist that began to engulf his vision once more.

Smack!

Without a warning, Hadra fell onto the outcrop, and rolled for about a second, before he stopped himself. He had made it! He survived! But what of Unaro? The cub jumped to his paws, panting as he did so, turning around and looking about…yet he could see nothing but the mist now.

“Ah!” someone screamed.

The roar of Unaro filled the air, and then a loud thump. Tilting his head ever so slightly, Hadra inched his way to the edge of the outcrop. As he looked down, he spied a lion, lying at the very bottom of the gap. His exposed side moved up and down very quickly in the moon light, and for a moment, Unaro seemed unconcious. Suddenly, he snarled and leapt up. Hadra squealed in fright, falling back on his rump and almost rolling backwards. But soon, he realized that Unaro had fallen all the way down. He could not get up; it was not possible. In fact, the mist itself had covered the one and only way of being able to jump the gap; the outcrop. The fog had made it so that Unaro could not see where the jutting rock was, even after he knew that it was there. That’s what made Unaro jump, and that’s what made him fall; the mist. It had literally blinded him! Once more, the fog had helped out, and was an ally of Hadra’s.

The little cub could not help but grin at his success, and watched the adult lion stalk around in the gap below him, looking for a way out as he snarled in frusteration.

“I’ll get out!” he threatened. “And when I do, I’ll get you!”

But his threats never frightened the young one. Hadra was just happy to be alive, and was now – as his tail swayed to and fro – caught by this entertainment. 

It didn’t take long for his amusement to turn back to fear as he heard the bone-shattering roar in the distance: Zarazu.

 

LVII

Her Mistake

 

“We all make them. It matters on what we learn from them.”

-Awni, lioness of the Sunshine pride (Lush Era)

 

She forced herself through the endless fog. Meersha had run for a while, even when she thought her body was lying to her, telling her that the lion behind her was gone. Why would he be? He was ordered to chase her by Natira, and that’s what he was doing! But, for a split second, Meersha could’ve sworn she could smell the faint scent of her own little Hadra in the air. It was only for the moment, though, and as it blinked away, so did all of Unaro. But she kept running on, pushing her body through the low clouds that so blanketed her lands.

The lioness continued to sprint, before finally she could not help herself, and she ended up crying out, “ZARAZU!” at the top of her longs. Was he near? Could he help? Was he himself OK?

One more yell, before she convinced herself she was safe, yet her heart still raced and her adrenaline was rushing through her veins like an outraged river, gushing just like the wild one did in that gorge right then.

“Where are you?” she screamed, claws unsheathed, fur bristling, ears perked and eyes wide as her head jerked around, trying her best to see through the mist and listen for her cubs or mate. Any sign of them living would help to serene her.

Suddenly, she jumped as she heard the words she wanted to. “Here! I’m right here!” The words were a miracle to her. But then, something else caused her to tilt her head in confusion that was still wrapped in her own exhilaration. “No! He’s the murderer! He’s an evil lion! Over here!” someone had cried. So Unaro was still around!

Because of the rush in her confused and excited body, Meersha began to pad forward again, occasionally giving out strange grunts or cries. It was almost like her body was being stretched, or perhaps her mind because of this utter confusion and antispation. After all, her cubs could be dead or dying right now, as could her mate. And a killer was said to be near, told both by her scenes and the mysterious voice ahead. She didn’t know what to do!

“He’s the evil lion!” the persistent lion called again.

While this happened, Meersha blinked, watching the forming shapes in the distance bearing into her vision. Despite the sounds of the nearing river, Meersha was now running toward it, as that was where she saw the lion, hanging for his life. And then she was off! Meersha had put all her weight and pushed down on her paws, before leaping high into the air, and coming down onto the pellar from which the struggling lion hung. Just as his forepaws let go, the lioness snatched his legs, and working together, the two pulled him up.

Right after this happened, Meersha’s curiousity got to the best of her, and it was then that she let her eyes travel to yet another lion! He was falling in the distance, down to the water! But who was he? She could not tell in this mist. Yet his scent – mixed with the other lion’s – was lingering strongly beside her. Because of all this confusion and excitement, she could not figure out who was the lion who had just fallen down to his death. Was he not the evil one?

“Thank you.” someone whispered.

Meersha jumped, as she had been studying the place where the second lion had fallen, and even though all that was left here was mist and the water below, she had totally forgotten about the lion she had saved. She turned around, hackles raised, unsure of this other lion.

“Who-!” she started, but gasped, as Meersha realized exactly who this lion was. The one eye gave it away!

“Gatu?” she quietly uttered. “Is that…Is that really you?”

It had been so long, that all familiarity of his scent had been lost within the years.

Gatu’s jaw was dropped in shock. It was almost too much for him. Sure, he had recent had another reunite with Lusala and Banjija, but it had been even longer since he had seen the pride-sister he once loved.

“What are you doing here?” was all Meersha could think of saying or doing. “I-I mean, we need help!” How stupid was she, just putting all this aside and asking about Gatu. Her family was in mortal danger!

“Help?” Gatu asked.

“Yes! There’s a lion-”

“I already killed the evil lion.” Gatu stated.

“The evil lion?” Meersha blinked.

“Yes. I already killed him.” and he nodded to the waters below.

Abruptly, as if lightening had struck, Meersha choked on nothing, and turned around, almost falling off the poll of land. The realization had brought so much shock and terror, she did not know what to do or say, except give a striking, “NOOOO!” The scent that she did not recognize till now, was her own lover’s!

Gatu blinked in surprise.

“Zarazu!” Meersha called, tears blurring her vision. It couldn’t have been him! It just couldn’t! After all, why would she go and try to save Gatu – who was just a stranger a second ago to her – instead of her own mate first? But she hadn’t known! She hadn’t known who was who!

“Don’t worry; the evil lion is probably dead now.” Gatu cooed.

“No! He was my mate!” she snarled, turning to face the one-eyed lion, whole body shaking in several different emotions at once.

What was happening? He was her mate?  The one lion who was a part of that murderering pride? And then it hit him: Meersha was a murderer! He had seen her with his own eyes! Or eye.

“Of course, a murderer with a murderer.” spat Gatu almost fowly.

“Wha-?” Meersha whimpered.

“I know what you really are, Meersha. Don’t try to hide it. You’re just as bad as him!” the words that spilt from his mouth were almost accidental, but he kept going on.

“No! No! My Zarazu!” Meersha whined, glancing at the river every so often as if expecting to see him still there while her body continued to tremble.

“Murderers do stick together.” growled Gatu coldly, despite his sister’s cries.

Finally, Meersha turned and narrowed her eyes at her pride-brother. “What are you talking about?” she questioned through choked back tears.

“I saw you murder that lion, Meersha! Don’t deny it! I’m not going to be stuck here, listening to a bunch of lies. I’m on a quest in life to find the one named Izegbe, and I don’t need you standing in my way!”

Blinking several times, Meersha could do nothing but stand there. She could not take the time to go over and tell him what really happened those years ago. It was almost not possible in her state right then. But then, something came over her, and she roared at the top of her lungs, “I was avenging my cub!”

Struck. Surprise. Gatu indeed was dumbfounded by Meersha’s scream of reply. Cub? Avenging it?

I’m Izegbe…and we…are not…murderers…” Meersha breathed, staring at him.

Before either could say or do anything else, the cry of a cub was heard.

“Mama!” someone screamed in the distance.

Meersha perked, turning and facing the east, where the gorge curved from the south. And sure enough, in the water, was yet another pillar of land…where her cubs sat.

“No!” she cried, and scrambled over to the edge of the earth which she stood on, and leapt off to the main land. From there, the lioness began running, pushing everything out of her mind as she bolted along the gorge’s edge, by the water. The only thing on her mind and in her vision now, was that of her three cubs, sitting there on the land that seemed to be almost washed away already. When she came near enough that she was about to jump, someone rammed into her.

Snarling, she hit the ground, and turned to see Gatu standing over her. She looked up, fangs exposed and eyes glaring with rage, and yet, his expression was…almost scared.

“No!” he cried, desperately. “I’ll do it! If you fall, you’ll surely be swept by the river and your fate will be at the paws of the Great Spirits themselves. Let me try…it’s the least I can do.”

And with no further thought or time for an answer, the one-eyed lion turned, ran for a near tree – it laid sorrowly in the water on its side, though it threatened to break free from its roots that jutted from the earth – and he jumped. The tree shook for a moment as the lion leapt, and Meersha watched as he flung himself through the air, just barely landing it. One more inch to the right, and Gatu would’ve fallen and taken the cubs with him. Terrified, Meersha stood up, watching in horror as her brother carefully scruffed her babies. First, Gatu grasped Tamu’s neck, and eyed the tree. It was being shook cruely by the river now, and any second he knew it’d be too late. So, he then scruffed Gwalu and Binjaji as well, knewing he had to get them across at the same time.

The river grew fiercer, and there was no way he could swim across. He’d have to jump again, but now with three frightened furballs dangling from his jaws. Gulping, and digging his teeth slightly more into their scruffs, Gatu thrust himself into the air once more, now landing at the withering branches at the end of the tree. His claws buried firmly into the swaying fingers of the dead plant, he carefully placed the cubs down, each on a branch. From there, he began to nose and prod Gwalu. Now that the tree was even closer to snapping or coming loose, he would have to do this one at a time.

Little Gwalu mewed and whimpered in fright, barely moving. But, with the help of Gatu’s consistent guidance, he was able to push her with his nose to a point where Meersha could scruff her. Her heart soared in reasurence as she set her cub beside her paws on the firm ground, but she was still waiting for her other little ones.

Gatu turned and began to push Binjaji forward.

“Mama!” he cried once, before boldly leaping toward the his mother.

“Tamu!” Meersha yelled, and was able to snatch her son, right in the air! She sat the cub down beside Gwalu, and turned back to her brother once more.

Gatu snarled as the cold water rushed past his paws, but he kept his claws still the grove. He knew it was even closer to the breaking point, and he needed to hurry. Only Tamu was left now, and so he stretched his neck forward and nudged the little cub. Tamu just sat there, though, in shock as her little claws bit the wood and her soaking fur stood on end, making her look like an actual furball. She could not move. She could not even call out for his mother. Instead, she was stuck there, and for once in her life, she could not do it.

“Move!” Gatu gasped, one of his paws briefly coming loose. It searched around before fidning another spot to position itself in.

“Tamu!” Meersha cried. “Come to Mama!”

Tamu continued to stay in that spot, and was only able to squeak.

Gatu knew that if the cub did not move, then both him and her would surely die in the river. But this was only a cub! And more than that, she was Meersha’s cub! He owed it to her. After all, he helped in the death of her mate. He knew that if this cub died, too, he could not live with himself. In fact, his own life did not matter anymore.

Finally, taking a deep breath, Gatu inched forward, making the attempt to snatch the little cub in his mouth. Firmly and carefully, he picked her up, and moved her over to the land. There was a snap, just as Meersha leaned over and grasped her baby.

The tree broke almost cleanly, but only part of it was swept off.

“Gatu!” squealed Meersha after she dropped Tamu by the others. “Hang on!”

Gatu was now forced to keep his forepaws in the very edge of the main land, while his back claws kept to what was left of the tree.

“Meersha!” he called over the surging currants. “I know you must hate me, and I am deeply sorry for what I have done! But heed my words; take your cubs and move east for safety if you ever need it-“

Another snap and Gatu and Meersha both gasped, but Gatu was still caught on the branches as another piece of the tree was curely torn away.

“I don’t hate you!” Meersha cried as she planted her claws into his front paws, trying her best to keep him on the edge of the land and trying to pull him up.

“Make your way west, past the dead acarcias and through many plains you will come upon your brother’s lands.” Gatu continued as if nothing had happened.

Another snap and the tree was gone. Gatu roared in surprise, but still, his stubborn body was pinned to the land.

“No!” gasped Meersha, still holding on.

“Let go of me!” he snarled. “The water will take me, and it will take you! Your life is not worth mine! And you need to live…for them!” he choked, before suddenly the lion let go.

Meersha gasped once more, letting go of her pride-brother’s flesh as well…

His mission in life had been fulfilled – he had found the one called Izegbe…now he could be at rest. Gatu was swept down the gorge, disappearing in the water’s, just as Zarazu had.

 

 

LVIII

Decisions

 

It’s then when the earth churns and the lion roars that the sky changes and the clouds move.

-The Changing

 

It was all but a dream to Meersha – to the whole family really. All the cubs had survived – thank the Kings and Queens of the Past – as well as Pursha. But her own lover and soulmate had been washed away by the untamed waves. He had fallen at the absence of her help; instead, she had helped an old pride-brother that had thought of her as a murderer. Yet, she had to thank Gatu for the lives of her offspring – part of her felt pity for him as well. At least through her cubs, the spirit of Zarazu lived on. That’s what Pursha always tried to tell her, attempting to calm the stressed lioness.

In the days that followed that terrible day, Meersha was left to ponder and try to realize what had happened. She had to try and make it through, and yet she hadn’t even started admitting to the truth: that it did happen, and that Zarazu was dead. She would never see him again…at least until she died…she hoped.

It took about a week for her to finally get it through her head; the cubs were bitten with hunger as last week’s hunt only last for so long, though Pursha had eaten barely anything and Meersha had eaten nothing at all since her mate’s death. Another reason why Meersha was forced to this realization, was that Natira and Unaro were probably still around. Actually, not probably, but for sure. Their scents continued to linger around the territory, and it wouldn’t be too long before another tragedy struck the family. But what did it matter? Zarazu was gone forever!

The day was scorching, and Meersha was slightly trembling due to the lack of nutriment. She was thirsty and hungery, and bugs were eating her up as the sun bathed her too much, literally drying her out. She was even losing wait, and clumps of fur had fallen off her weakened body, leaving her in the position of looking like a giant rat, attacked by predators and just barely surviving. But what did it all matter?

“I’m hungry, Mama.” a small voice said. It was Gwalu.

Meersha heaved a loud sigh, tattered ears twitching as she stared at nothing, ignoring the cry of her cub.

Pursha sat near, watching this. She shook her head with a frown, before getting up and padding to the little one, nudging her with her nose.

“It’s all right, Gwalu. We’ll get some food soon.” she exclaimed gently. “But for now, go with your brothers and sister in the den.”

“But we’ve been in there for so long!” complained the cub.

It was true: for the whole week of mourning over Zarazu, Meersha had almost completely ignored her children. Though she was greatful for their lives, she still did not know what to do or say. In those gloomy seven days and nights, the cubs had stayed within the den, rarely speaking or doing anything, and never playing as they would normally had done. Even Tamu was off Hadra’s back.

“I know, sweety.” Pursha went on. “But just a little longer…Please?”

Groaning, Gwalu padded back into the den with her siblings.

Lusala turned, studying her older friend carefully. After a couple of awkward moments, she made up her mind and said, “Meersha, I have to speak with you.”

Meersha said nothing.

Pursha blinked, and glanced at the den, aware of the peering eyes and perked ears. “Stay in the den – all of you.” she growled firmly. “I must speak to your mother alone…We will be back very soon.”

With that, Pursha turned to Meersha again, with the same firmness in her voice. “Get up.” she commanded. “Now.”

Meersha’s once sparkling eyes – now dull – wandered up to the face of her youthful friend, who was almost like a sister to her.

“I mean it, Meersha.” snarled Pursha, now more threateningly, her fur standing on end.

Quietly, Meersha forced her weak body of the ground, and followed Pursha a few yards away from the den, away from hearing distance. When beside the now dried up water hole, the two plopped down, gazing intently at each other – at least Pursha was; Meersha just sat there, looking right through the other lioness.

“Look, Meersha,” began Pursha, uncomfortably as she attempted to find the right words to say. “I – I mean we…” She then sighed, pawing the dirt a bit, before looking back up at Meersha, now more confidently again. “I know that a terrible thing has happened – we all miss him indeed, and now it’s going to be even hard to move on. But that is exactly what we must do – move on.”

“Why? There’s no point in living now.” Meersha whispered, which caused Lusala to blink in utter disbelieve.

“Meersha, listen to yourself! He would want you to move on!” but still, Meersha stared at nothing. Twitching her tail in iritaion, Pursha went on. “Zarazu wouldn’t want it like this; we’ve all grown weak emotionally and physically – especially you. We have not hunted since…the incident. We have no more food left and your little ones are growing hungrier by the hour. You yourself, need nourishment. Look at you! You are not even Meersha anymore!”

“There is no point in life anymore.” Meersha weakly mumbled.

“No point? What about your cubs, huh? Meersha they need you – that’s why you’re here and alive right now.”

“But they don’t even have their father anymore.” cried the lioness.

“That’s why they need their mother now more than ever!” She paused, before going on as she glanced at the den, “If you’re not going to live for yourself…then live for them…”

Meersha blinked, watching her forepaws as they rested on the ground. Pursha spoke the truth; they need to do something – they need to live. Suddenly, she lifted her head, and did something that surprised both of them: she smiled. Pursha cocked her head slightly.

“Meersha…?” she wondered aloud.

“You speak the truth, my young friend.” she said, voice cracking. “You are right; they need me.”

“Meersha!” cried Pursha, almost sobbing now as bumped her head into Meersha’s chest and nuzzled her. “I can’t believe you’re back!”

“I was never gone.”

“I think you were.” Pursha replied, grinning as she straightened up.

Meersha sighed, looking over to the den, her eyes now examing it. As she did this, Pursha couldn’t help notice the look in her eyes: sure, now they were actually looking at something instead of through it into nothing, but they remained as dull and gloomy as ever. And now, not only that, but they seemed almost ancient…matured, perhaps. Pursha couldn’t help but feel pity for this, as well as awe. At the same time, she couldn’t help but almost look up to Meersha and respect her for it. After all, she had gone through a lot in her life. She knew that they would never show that same youthful gleam that had sparkled in her eyes for her whole life. One would’ve probably thought that gleam would’ve stayed until her death, but this incident – adding onto the others – had been the last straw…and now, Meersha was changed. At that briefe moment, Pursha thought of Meersha as not only a doting mother, but what could already be a wise old grandmother, or maybe even shaman.

“What are we gonna do?” Pursha finally asked, both of them gazing at the den.

“I’ve been thinking…” Meersha started.

“What?”

“Gatu – my pride-brother – told me where to go to find Banjija. I think we shall travel there.”

“With the cubs? They are so young!”

“Yes, but there I know they will be safe in the lands of my brother. And here, not only have the herds moved, but those two are still around…I can smell them.”

Pursha knew exactly who Meersha was talking about: Natira and Unaro.

“Me too.” Pursha said.

“Pursha…can I ask you something very important?” Meersha then turned her head, watching the youthful lioness.

“Anything.”

Again, Pursha was taken aback by the widsome and hurt she saw in the eyes of Meersha, but it was nothing compared to the words that spilt from her mouth.

“I need you…to take care of my cubs.”

“I was blessed with that job even before they were bor-”

“Pursha.” Meersha quietly interrupted. This caused Pursha to hush instantly. “I need you to care for them as if they were your own.”

“Why? What about you? You’re their mother.”

“I know I am and nothing makes me prouder…But I need you to do this for me, all right?”

“Meersha…what are you saying?”

“I’m saying…I have to go.”

“What?!” Pursha blurted out in shock.

“Shh!” Meersha growled, glancing at the den again to make sure the cubs hadn’t heard. “I shall travel with you and my cubs to Banjija’s lands; I wish to say goodbye and see my brother again before I go.”

“Go where?” Pursha questioned, now more quietly.

“Young one, so many things have happened in my lifetime – some wonderful…some horrible.” Her voice weakened at the last part, before she cleared her throught and continued. “And then there are things I cannot explain – things I don’t understand, nor will you. I must understand them, Lusala.”

“I don’t get it, Meersh.”

“Neither do I…and that’s why I’m leaving.”

There was an awkward silence, and then Pursha said gravely, “If I did not know you, Meersha, I would think that you’re crazy and this whole thing is ridiculous. But I do know you, and I know that you follow your heart…and that you still have to. So I trust you…I just hope you’re making the right decision.”

“Me too.” whispered the older lioness. “Please, do not tell them about my plans.”

“Never. I will leave that up to you…When will you leave?”

“Like I said, I will travel with you to my brother’s lands in the west. There, I will meet up with him again and then bid goodbye to him once more, as well as you and…and…” she trailed off, looking to the den once more.

Pursha nodded, understandingly. “I know.” she cooed gently. “When shall we leave?”

“At dawn.” Meersha answered. “Tonight, we must regain our energy and sleep.”

As they began back to the den, Meersha growled inwardly at herself. Was she being heartless or stupid for leaving her cubs? Then again, it seemed everywhere she went, someone she loved died: her father, her brother, her cub, now her mate and pride-brother. She just couldn’t take the pain. It seemed as if everyone around her was dying. And now, the only thing she could think of doing, was to go on by herself, and figure out about her dreams.

Meersha had not had the nightmares since she was young, but she knew it had to do with something – perhaps everything. She needed to find out what they were; what that creature was. Whatever it was, where ever it was, it was calling to her. Her heart leapt out to it. Maybe, just maybe, if she found what she was looking for, and she would understand it. What it all meant. What she was meant to do in life. For sure, she was not meant to bring down others.

Everyone I love dies around me, she thought, miserabely. I must not let it happen…I must be on my own.

 

LVIV

A King and a Brother

 

“C’mon, then, you!” laughed the young lion. “Show me watch’ya got!”

-Half-cub Yayu (High-Sun Era)

 

It was all but a dream; traveling in the savannah. Meersha had not told her cubs where they were going, nor had she mentioned that she was to leave them once they got there, which made the journey even more tiresome and dreadful. Those thoughts were almost agony as they lingered in the back of her mind.

Meersha and Pursha took turns leading the group west. One adult would lead the little ones, while the other one stayed in the back, keeping an eye on everyone. I just hope Gate’s words were of the truth, Marsha thought bitterly, staring straight ahead, shoulders always moving almost majestically beneath her yellow-golden coat, as if she was on a hunt.

It took three full suns and three full moons traveling across the savannah. The heat was intensifying with every step it seemed. The usual quior sounded throughout the scorching lands; birds chirped and bugs of all kinds sang. Grass under the paw was thick and crunchy, while the soil was hard. Scents of the savannah’s denizens filled the atmosphere, and the sun hungrily fed on the lions’ minds and bodies. It ate away at their flesh and caused their mouths to dry. The cubs repeatedly licked their little chops, hoping for water. Their sleeping schedules were mixed up now, and normally the small group slept half the day away before continuing on, and taking a small nap at night.

Finally, Meersha ordered that her family stop when the sun fell. Relieved, the other five sat down, Tamu and Binjaji even panting.

“Well,” said Meersha, as a mater-of-fact like. “It’s night fall, and we’ve all been traveling for the Spirit’s know when, so we’ll rest for the whole night.”

“The whole night?!” squealed Gwalu in delighted shock.

“The whole night.” Meersha repeated to her daughter, smiling. “All right, then,” she then exclaimed, looking at them all. “We’re to sleep in till dawn.…Pursha, watch them while I look for some place to sleep.”

Pursha nodded obediently as the dominant, older lioness set off, stalking the plains. Meersha occasionally stopped to sniff the air, and set on with her search. It didn’t take her long to stumble upon a small den, though it was probably just big enough for the litter itself. Sighing, Meersha called to the others in her deep grunts.

“Right, then, all my babies in the den.” she demanded.

Tamu led her siblings in, though Hadra stayed at the enterence. He watched his mother and his supposed aunt chatter quietly on the horizion.

“Hadra?” a small voice called, uncertainly.

“What?” Hadra said, looking over his shoulder in surprise.

“Hadra…” Tamu whispered, looking almost mournful. “Aren’t you coming in?”

“N-no.” he stammered, looking back at the adults.

“But it’ll be cold out soon, and Mama said to come in.”

“I am in, and besides, when did you start following the rules?” he snapped.

Tamu’s fur bristled, but she did not move. “I…I just wanted to say…” Her voice was now hoarse. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry…”

“For what?” Hadra continued to gaze at Meersha and Pursha, though his ears were now perked as he listened intently.

“For being such a jerk all the time.”

Not knowing what to do, Hadra said quietly, “OK…”

A little disappointed, Tamu turned and crawled back to Gwalu and Binjaji and cuddled up with them for the night. Within minutes, Hadra lie down, and quickly fell asleep from the long journey’s exhaustion which settled over his body.

“Poor cubs,” Pursha was saying as they sat in the long swaying grass, a few yards off from the den. She glanced at the abandoned den, which now contained a litter of four. “This traveling must be real stress on them.”

“It is for all of us.” Meersha replied, wearily. Then, thoughtfully, she added, “I think we’ll scavange tomorrow.”

Gasping, Pursha said, “Like vulchers and hyenas? Meersha, I thought you were a great huntress! Even without a pride!”

“Back in my prime.” the older lioness exclaimed, gazing at nothing.

“Well you’re still in your prime!” Pursha’s voice was now full of shock.

“By the time my babies are half-cubs, my zenith will be leaving…and this is why I need to save the last strength I have to find what I am searching for…” Indeed, Meersha had grown over the years. Even when she had given birth to her first cubs, a normal lioness would’ve been on her fourth or maybe even fifth litter by then.

“I just don’t know how to tell them,” Meersha then said.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be OK.” Pursha reassured her.

“The thing is, I don’t know if it will…” and Meersha’s voice trailed off.

~~~

That night, the family had scavanaged, but to no real success. The only thing they were able to scrape up was the last remains of some kind of carcassl, so torn and old that it was too hard to distinguish what animal it once was. There was enough rotting meat to go around for the cubs to sleep without the everlasting hunger normally biting at their tummies that night. But before long, the sun had risen, and they were off again.

“Mom, where are we going?” Tamu asked for the twentieth time since they left their territory.

“Far away.” Meersha said, for the twentieth time as well.

“But when will we get there, Mom?” whined Gwalu. “I’m hot, and thirsty! And I wanna sleep!”

“Me too!” mewed Binjaji.

Hadra just kept quiet, slowly losing energy with each step he took. He did not want to complain, though, for he knew it would just make the journey worse.

Meersha just heaved a gloomy sigh, and kept her cubs going.

Another night fell, and they stopped for a while.

“You didn’t scent any other lions, did you, Pursha?” yawned the elder lioness.

Pusha shook her head.

“All right then, I’ll be back.” and with that, Meersha slumped away into the night.

The lioness sniffed the air as she padded, glaring at nothing as she made sure their surroundings were safe for night. There didn’t seem to be any danger, though; a big flat rock lie in the distance, along with a small muddy puddle; a rotting log was not too far, as well as an acacia too large for its size, though it was tilted and seemed to be dying, along with its scattered companions of dead trees. Other than that, the night seemed just right. It was almost unnaturally safe.

Satisfied, Meersha began back to the others, who were now a quarter or so of a mile away. Her tired eyes were forced open as she padded along a little reviene. She sighed, thinking of her beloved Zarazu. Was it really so shocking that she didn’t even notice the agony anymore? But then again, she had spent the best of two years thinking he was dead.

“Oh, Zarazu,” she uttered, a tear leaking down her face as she now gazed up to the stars, still walking. “Where are you?” Her voice was hoarse and she choked out the words, throat getting tight and mouth drying up.

Crunch.

Meersha stopped so suddenly, she almost fell backwards as her paws dug into the ground. Her ears were now perked and her eyes now large as they traveled around in the dark, searching for the source of the noise. A small breeze ruffled her fur and she quivered, but stood her ground. The air carried the scent of a stranger – not her cubs of Pursha. How stupid had she been, not noticing? But then, the wind changed course again, and the scent was gone. But Meersha could still feel the presence. That was it: the breeze had carried her own scent right to the stranger when she first left her family a half hour ago, and yet it blocked her nose from the scent of the other lion as well. Idiot! she snarled inwardly to herself. As clumsy and arrogant as a half-cub on her first hunt!

Crunch.

Meersha jerked her head to the right, narrowing her eyes at a near buch, fur bristling and claw extending.

“Who’s there?” she growled, warily.

Another breeze brushed her, and this time she was read; she inhailed deeply through the nose…a lioness….No…lionesses. But how many?

“Show yourselves, strangers.” ordered Meersha.

Then, four lionesses came melting out from behind the bush. They, too, had their fur on end and claws exposed. At first, the five of them stood there, the group studying Meersha as she herself stared caustiouly back.

“Who are you?” Meersha finally forced herself to ask.

“Who are we?” asked a strange looking lioness, whos neck and back were lined with overgrown fur, almost like a mane. “We should be asking you that.”

“What do you mean? These aren’t your lands.” Meersha said, not unfriendly.

“Well, you’re close enough to our borders.”

“I scent you, nor did I a lion.”

“Well now you know.” spat the same lioness: she seemed to be the leader of the group.

“Look, my family and I are just traveling-”

“Your family?!” interupted another lioness, tone mixed in shock and rage.

“Yes, my family.”

“We don’t tolerate other prides so close to our territory.” the leader then went on.

“Like I said, we didn’t know there was a pride here. Besides, we’re looking for one ourselves.” she added, unsure.

“Oh really?” the leader asked, raising a brow, though there was a smirk on her face. “Why? So that you can take over that pride? Or our pride?”

“Look, I didn’t want any trouble! And we don’t even have a male with us, so we’re not aking over your pride!”

A minute’s silence told Meersha – as well as the expression on the maned lioness’s face – that the group was thinking hard. Finally, the maned lioness growled;

“Why are you here then? And without a male?”

“My…my mate died…” Meersha said, which surprised herself that she could finally say it. “We...we’re looking for my brother’s pride now, so that I can let my cubs stay there with him. I know they’ll be safe.”

“Oh, is that it? Well, I must say, not too many lions would let unknown cubs just join their pride…you know how males are.” the stranger exclaimed, a-matter-of-fact like.

“I know that, but my brother’s different…I know he’d take them.” Meersha said, with confidence.

“Are you sure about that, lioness?”

Meersha blinked, thinking about how many times Banjija had faught with Kasha, both wanting to take over a pride; of course Kasha would’ve made a better leader, with his intelligence, sympathy and leader skills, but he had died so many years ago…and if Gatu was right, Banjija had a pride and lands of his now. Finally, Meersha stared the maned lioness in the eyes and said, with confidence once more, “I am sure.”

“Well, there is only one lion I have known throughout my years that would allow cubs other than his own to join his pride…Tell me lioness, what is your brother’s name?”

“He is called Banjija.” Meersha stated.

Again, the maned lioness raised her brow, but her expression was now of ammusment than a sneer. Meersha couldn’t help tilting her head slightly while the others gasped and began to whisper amongst themselves.

“She can’t be!” one hissed.

“It doesn’t matter!”

“Well so? She’s just making it up! You know how popular our king is!”

“She’s lying!”

“Silence!” the maned lioness snarled, glaring at the group. “We do what we always do!”

Suddenly, the group began to surround Meersha, claws out, but she knew it was more of a precaution for them.

“What are you doing?” she asked suddenly.

“We’re going to go see your ‘brother.’” answered the leader, almost casually.

“My brother? He is here?”

“Of course he is! You are right by the lands of King Banjija!” and she laughed.

Blinking a couple times, Meersha stood, trying to think, before blurting, “Wait! I have to get my cubs!”

For a moment, the maned lioness seemed to be thinking again, before shrugging and saying, “Go get the cubs, Ashu.” She turned to Meersha. “Where are they?”

“That way, by an acacia.” Meersha exclaimed.

“Is there anyone else with them?”

“Their guardian, Pursha.”

“All right…they will meet us on the way. Come then, ‘sister of the King.’”

The maned lioness turned, and Meersha followed, pondering about the stranger’s words. Two of the lionesses were on either side of her and one behind. The one called Ashu was already headed out to fetch her family.

~~~

“Mama! Mama!”

Meersha turned her head, only to watch little Hadra scampering up to her, leading his siblings. A smile spread on her face as she was reunited with her family. She licked and nuzzled her little ones as Pursha came padding over with Ashu.

“Meersha, what’s going on?” she asked, uncertainty straining her voice. “This lioness told me to follow her to you. Where are going and who are they?”

“I’m not exactly sure, Pursha. But apparently, we’re near their lands.”

“Now you’re in them.” Ashu exclaimed as they padded through the invisible borders.

Almost immeditately, the stench of lioness urine hit Meersha nostrils, and her nose wrinkled and twitched.

“But these are your markings.” she pointed out. Then her stomach dropped. “Don’t tell me you guys are like the Broken-Claw?”

“The what?” asked Ashu, curiously now.

Pursha glanced at Meersha, terror in her eyes, for Meersha had told her about the Broken-Claw.

“Ah, I’ve heard of them and their downfall.” the maned lioness chuckled. “Just some stranger was here a full moon ago or so. Said he was looking for their savior. Forget her name…Izigi? Something like that.”

The maned lioness just shrugged, but Meersha shifted uncomfortably as they continued to walk along in the moonlight.

“So…you’re not them?” she asked.

“Oh no. We are much stronger than them and do have males in our pride.” Ashu assured them, which almost put a disappointing expression on her leader.

Meersha’s spirits lightened a bit, while she ussured her cubs along.

For minutes, they traveled in silence, before those minutes grew to an hour, and the cubs began to complain like usual. Meersha tried desperately to hush them, for fear the other lionesses would be bothered and lash out, yet they didn’t appeare to be annoyed. After an hour, the sun began to rise in the distance, and as it blanketed their suroudnings in its warmth and shine, the faint scent of male lions, mixed, came to her nose. Something about one of the smells was familiar. Could it be…?

Before Meersha could say anything, they were climbing a small knoll.

“Mom, I don’t want to climb this!” panted Gwalu, defiantly.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to,” snarled one of the lionesses in the group.

“Just keep moving, Gwalu.” Meersha exclaimed, fear blanketing her voice, though she tried her best to keep herself sounding strong.

As they climbed, they were protected from the wind, yet Meersha couldn’t help but shiver. The scents of several different lionesses, as well as cubs, abruptly found their way to her nostrils. Again, she wrinkled her nose in confusion, ears perkerd and fur bristling still. She began to hope her own cubs wouldn’t notice the oncoming presence of a new pride, but the litter knew something was up. Gwalu was now panting – perhaps, exaggerating a bit – but it seemed as if she was itching to ask questions; Meersha was greatful she kept her mouth shut. Tamu’s fur began to stand on end like her mother’s, though it made her seem like a puff ball. Binjaji couldn’t help sputtering a few distressed hisses and mews. And Hadra kept his hazel eyes up, though they appeared to widen with each step he took.

“C’mon, now,” growled a lioness in irriation as she stood at the top of the hill, now gazing down at the hostages. “We haven’t got all day, you zebra dung.”

“Patience, Yatu-!” snarled Ashu, but the maned lioness had immediately pushed her out of the way, and leapt up at the one called Yatu, slamming her on the ground. Her jaw locked around Yatu’s neck, but the maned lion kept her control, only giving enough pressure with her fangs to keep the other still. The others had halted, watching, wide eyed and frightened. Finally, after a couple intense moments of silence, the maned lioness let go of Yatu, rising steadily above her, though she was pretty small for an adult.

“I will not have our guests spoken to like that, Yatu.” the maned lioness slowly and quietly growled, staring at her right in the eyes, her own expression wild and menacing.

Yatu warily gazed back up at her, side and throat exposed, breathing heavily. Her eyes sparkled dangerously back up at the dominant of the two, but instead of lashing out, she just nodded slowly. Even as the maned lioness walked off, Meersha couldn’t help notice that Yatu’s claws were still unsheathed. Snarling, Yatu glanced at the others, still looking quiet hazardous, before she herself got up and padded after her leader, down the other side of the hill.

With a nod from Ashu, Meersha led her cubs and Pursha up the rest of the knoll, and that’s when it happened; Meersha could do nothing but gasp as she stood, frozen in her tracks, staring down at what lie in front of her, amazed and shocked. Miles upon miles of semi-dry land stretched out, accupied by more lionesses and cubs that she couldn’t even begin to count. The only thing that stood out, was a piece of land, rising up into the sky.

It was only when a lioness ordered, “Onward, seemingly sister of the king.” that she noticed her frozen state.

Shaking her head, as if she had fallen in a water hole, Meersha began down the hill. She wasn’t the only one who found these new scents and sights overwhelming; the cubs were almost running, trying to keep under her or at her heals, while Pursha trembled behind her.

“It’ll be OK,” she muttered to them.

Soon enough, the group came to the base of the hill, but they did not stop. As they past the huge pride, only a few lionesses even glanced up at them; it was almost as if this was natural, bringing in strangers. In through the territory of the lionesses, where several of them were mothers; some stayed in dens to nurse their young, too carefree to even look for a birthing place away from the pride. Others watched the older cubs outside. Half-cubs play-fought with each other. Some lionesses drank from scattered water holes, and others just bathed in the sun. Everywhere it was either a playful cub, or a lazy lioness.

“Mom, who are they?” Hadra whispered, terrified as he watched a couple cubs not too far off, meowing and batting at each other playfully, rolling around in the grass.

Meersha did not reply, for she did not have the answer. They were all just strangers. After a while, the sights and scenes of lionesses and cubs got old, and soon Meersha did not even notice that they were still walking. Within two hours, they had made it to the base of the giant piece of ascending land.

“Up, now.” growled the maned lioness.

Taking a deep breath, Meersha started up into the steep trail that wound its way up the abrupt knoll. A couple times, she slipped, but for the most part, her balance was steady, and she firmly clawed up the rocks and hills. However, her cubs were a different story; more than not, she was forced to prode them forward with her muzzle, making sure they were in front of her in case they fell. There were also a couple times when she had to scruff a cub or two.

Just when it seemed that every denizen of the savannah below was just ants, and they could climb no higher – the cubs panting – Meersha found the land finally leveling out. Sweat glittering her fur, she pulled herself up with the little ones and Pursha, the group coming after them.

“Mama,” mewed Hadra, his small voice hoarse after several hours of silence. “Mama, where are we?”

“The Empire’s kingdom.” answered a lioness, seriously. “He sits just beyond the boulders.”

Indeed to the right of them sat a dozen or so tremendous boulders of gray, separating them from the other side of the mesa.

“Now, I know you must be shaking in your fur right now,” the maned lioness stated with a sneer. “seeing as you were probably lying about your relation to the king, and seeing as he is very strong and not very merciful, and seeing as you’re about to meet him-”

“Hurry up!” snapped Meersha, impatience eating her up.

The other lionesses cranked their necks, watching with fascination as they smirked, waiting for their leader to discipline Meersha’s backtalk, but it never happened. The lioness with the mane just stared, almost shocked, before grinning again.

“His majesty waits beyond the boulders,” she repeated then, ignoring the lip.

“And Pursha and my cubs?” asked Meersha, strongly.

“They will wait here, safely in my lionesses’ paws.” she grinned again.

Meersha’s fur bristled, and she took a step forward, her claws unsheathing themselves instinctively. The others from the group started to move in, but the maned one nodded them away, watching Meersha, very interested, just waiting for her next action.

“If you hurt one single stand of fur on their bodies,” Meersha whispered, threateningly, her voice shaking. “I will make sure your soul won’t leave to the stars, but will rot in the ground with your body forever.”

The lioness beamed again. “Fair enough.” she smirked. “Follow me.”

She moved off, her bangs falling into her face as she led Meersha through a gap between two of the biggest boulders, to the other side of the plateau. This is it, she thought as she past through the giant rocks. I’m going to see my brother, whom I haven’t seen since I was a half-cub. And then it occurred to her; that she hadn’t seen him in years! And that supposedly he was a king! How could this be? How could she have missed this? But before she could think about this any futher, before she could even grow anymore nervous than she was already, they had already stepped out from between the stones.

There, a few yards off, was a group of lionesses. They seemed to be in deep discussion, and when they finally noticed Meersha and her captive, they scowled.

“There, there, ladies.” a deep voice assured. “We will get on with our Meeting of the Councils later. But Harga has come now, and she had informed me of an important matter that I must catch up on.”

Still scowling, the lionesses moved past Meersha and the lioness called Harga. Harga only smirked. Meersha watched them, mouth dry and ears perked, before she looked over again – and gasped. There, standing in front of her, was Banjija! And not only Banjija, but her brother! A brother that had definitely aged over the years. Not only could she tell because of his rumbling voice, but his body was enormous! It was almost as if a monster was standing in of her! Or an elephant! He was at least as twice as big as her, which she once thought was impossible, especially for either of her brothers. But there was no mistaking it – the scent filled her nose and recognition filled her eyes.

Not only had Meersha been frozen by shock, but Banjija was also staring at her, as if he was staring at a ghost. After all, word from Hagra had traveled about the lands, saying that a lioness had come to see him – but that came often! Usually to join the pride, or to complain about what was already going on.

Meersha’s heart was beating fast now, and she felt as if she could collapse. Gatu was right – Banjija did have a pride – a big one! And she knew he would take her cubs in, no matter what.

“Ahem,” Hagra loudly cleared her throat, watching them, and clearly noticing the recognition in their expressions. She almost felt like a fool to say, “This lioness claims to be your sister. Is it true, Empire Banjija?”

“What? Oh, yes…Um, Hagra, if you wouldn’t mind…” he said, now trying to recover as he glanced at Hagra, though he barely seemed noticed her.

“What?!” snarled Hagra, taken aback. “I mean, er, yes…your Majesty,” she uttered, taking a quick dip of a bow before trotting out on the other side of the boulders again.

“M-meersha.” he choked; this was even more astonishing than meeting Gatu, just a full moon before.

Meersha was obviously endeavoring to find her words, but all that came out was a little grunt. This was just happening too fast, and during the travel she was too nervous, wondering whether the lionesses surrounding her cubs were safe enough to be in their presence. It was all just too shocking.

“Meersha,” he said again. “I- how did you…?”

Instead, Meersha just shook her head, took a deep breath, and cried, “Banjija!”

With that, she scrambled over to him, nuzzling him deeply and burying her face into his dark golden-red mane, causing his pointed ears to twich. She barely noticed the tears that trickled down her face into his fur. When she finally pulled herself away, straightening up, she carefully examined her brother, seeing how much he had changed: huge size, deep voice, full mane, a matured face.

“Oh, Banjija!” she cried again. “It’s been full moons and full moons!”

“Since we were half-cubs, Meersha.” he stated, uneasily. If it had not been that long, he would’ve actually found this reunion to be irriating as she had not come to see him like she said she would. But his heart could not take it, what with the way she was looking, and that she was his sister, and that he had not seen her forever. “How is that you turn up now?” he asked, after a moment of awkward silence.

“What? Oh!” Meersha was now fumbling for the words, and the reason why she had come here. Her cubs. “It’s my…my cubs, Banjija.”

Banjija’s eyes widened with curiousity, and he tilted his head briefly, but quickly straightened up again. “Your cubs, you say?”

“Y-yes…Oh, it’s a long story, my brother!”

Banjija sat down, studying Meersha with his strong eyes, before saying, “All right then. Let me have it.”

~~~

The morning was exhausting. First Meersha was meeting her brother for the first time in years after having traveled through the savannah and up a mesa. From there, she had to endure telling her whole life’s story – at least after separating from him, on which most of her life had then unfolded. Still, it was not as terrifying as it was for her cubs.

Hadra had stayed quiet the whole journey. He did not know how to react, so he thought this was the best way. Not only that, but their family was leaving from the place he had been born in and the only place he really ever knew. But those were in no way, as heartrenching and forbidding as the fact that he had lost his father. It was true: sometimes he thought of his siblings, and even Pursha upon their loss of the leader of the Twilight pride, but he himself could almost not cope with it. Like his mother, he did not say much after Zarazu’s death. Still, he knew the lion was up there somewhere, watching him and his family through. After all, that’s what his parents always told him: that when you died, you went to the stars. Several times a day Hadra thought about this, occasionally glancing up at the sky. But when it came time to rest, and reenergize, the small cub always ended up curling in a ball, silent tears trickling down his face as he cried. Why did they have to take his dad?

Pursha was weary for most the time, but nevertheless assured the young ones that their father was now in a happier place, that is, whenever they decided to talk about him – which wasn’t very often. Gwalu and Binjaji had spent their time, complaining like Tamu, but they still could not get over their father’s death either. Several times a day in fact, did they end up crying, which was shortly followed by those questions about death.

Tamu showed her gloom and depression by anger. Whenever there was a bug, instead of playing with it like she normally did, she would now smash it with her little paw. If a twig lie stranded in the grass, she’d bite down on it, growling. Her fur would stand up for no reason and whenever it came down, it didn’t take long for it to bristle again. She was very moody, and continued to complain about everything. But as devastated as Meersha was for letting go of her mate at the river, Tamu could not help but think that Zarazu’s death was her own fault. After all, she was the one who encouraged the relationship between her siblings and Natira and Unaro. If she hadn’t been so ignorant, and listen to Hadra and her parents, than her father would not be dead.

The small family was washed over with devastation indeed, but traveling seemed to take that depression and temporarily push it away, as their minds were set on step after step in the scorching savannah, hunger biting at their stomachs and thirst drying their mouths. Nevertheless, Zarazu was not to be forgotten, nor was it to be torn from their minds and the hopes of the future replacing it any time soon. They could not just forget their father, lover, friend and leader.

Meersha had ended up telling Banjija about her life. The event that happened with Gatu was shocking, but he allowed her to continue. After that happened, he, too, filled her in since her absence. She was glad to hear about his maturity, and his love that he had gained for his pride. She was glad to see her brother grown up so strong and successful and resepectul in his life. Glad he had such a large family to take care of, friends and mates, sons and daughters thriving in these fluishing lands. Banjija was also joyful to hear that he now had nieces and nephiews, even if they didn’t have a father. And that is when she asked him for the biggest favor anyone could give her.

“Banjija, I must ask you something very important.” she finally said, gravely.

“Yes?” Banjija replied, his voice as strong as ever.

Meersha looked down at her forepaws for a few moments as the silence sunk in, and then her purple eyes raised up to fall on him.

“Brother, you are a strong, victorious lion with a thriving pride and family.” Her words were slowly withering from her mouth, and though she sounded extremely vital, her eyes filled with hurt and pain, as the gleam and shine, the youtfullness, and happiness, now gone. Instead they were replaced with agony, regret, and perhaps wisdom and even hope. But the strongest emotion seen in those lioness’s eyes, were longing. A longing to be free of pain. A longing to love and be loved. A longing to find the ones she lost. And Banjija knew, that whatever it was she was asking for, he could not say no. “And now, I am about to ask you the most painful, important, request of my life…Will you look after my cubs?”

Another few moments of silence. Brother and sister sat, staring at each other.

“Of course,” Banjija finally said. “Of course I will!”

“Oh, Banjija!” she cried, nuzzling into his mane again, crying. “Why was I blessed with a brother I don’t deserve?” he heard her sob.

“But, Meersha,” he then said, pulling away from her. “Why is it that I must be looking after your cubs? Where will you being going?”

~~~

The two lions’ discussion lasted well over an hour. Morning was soon swept away as the afternoon sun shined down on the little ones and the lionesses. And though Tamu and her siblings complained and begged – besides Hadra – the lionesses would not let them go see their mother, or climb down the mesa, or eat or drink anything.

“Please,” Pursha pleaded. “They are weak and young and have not had a proper diet or rest in days.”

“You think we care?” Hagra spat in irriation, mostly at the fact that Meersha had not been lying about her relationship with the king.

Pursha just sighed, and sat down, grooming each cub before they curled up in the shade of the giant stones that separated them from Meersha. What could be taking her so long? she thought. Is Meersha hurt? What are they doing to her? The cubs soon fell into uneasy, light sleeps and, before her mind could wander too far on terrifying ideas, Meersha stepped out from behind the boulders, looking quite abstract.

“Meersha!” Pursha cried in delight, nuzzling her. “What’s happened? What’d-?” But then she stopped, as her eyes were carried over to the giant behind that stood behind Meersah, and she gasped. Her fur immediately bristled and she stepped in front of the cubs, all of whom were now away, gasping at what was behind their mother as well; a giant, twice as big as a lioness.

“I’d like you all to meet my brother, Banjija.” Meersha said weakly, forcing a grin.

Banjija, so large and magnificent, studied Pursha for only a quick while, before looking down and seeing the frightened cubs. Each were turned into little puff balls as they hid behind Pursha, looking up at him with wide eyes. But then, he smiled.

Hagra and the other lionesses just stared, frozen with shock. Banjija seemed to notice this as he said, “Well, Hagra, why are you and your guards just standing here? Why aren’t you fulfilling your duties and patrolling the borders?”

“Oh – yes, your majesty,” Hagra forced herself to say, bowing quickly. But as she looked through her bangs that now fell into her face, she couldn’t help but glare at Meersha.

With that, Hagra led the guards down the mesa’s steep path, leaving the family behind.

Meersha had told Banjija what her plans were, and he suggested for her to stay a while before leaving, and perhaps bringing some of his guards with her, but she expressed the fact that she had to go and on her own. She also pointed out that if she were to stay any longer than a day, then the hurt of leaving her cubs would be even more painful. Eventually, Banjija had understood, and insisted on meeting his nieces and nephews for the first time, as well as the lioness called Pursha.

Now, the king stood there, grinning at the cubs.

“Well, little ones,” his booming voice said soothingly. “You look warn and hungry. How about some food?” He decided not to frighten them too much while they were in such poor states.

A couple lionesses still sitting by the boulders, which Meersha hadn’t noticed before, instantly jumped up and ran down the path. Just a few awkward moments, before they impressively came back up, dragging large quanitiest of meat with them, their mouths stained and dripping with blood. The cubs all licked their lips, staring at the meat greedily, but remained cautious.

“Go ahead. Eat as much as you want.” Banjija exclaimed. “What? It’s not poisonous.” he chuckled.

“Come on, cubs.” Meersha said, prodding them with her nose. “Eat. You need it.”

Finally, Tamu was the first to venture over to it, licking her lips and sniffing the chunks of meat warily, before finally digging in. Her siblings soon joined in, ripping and tearing at it. Nothing like this had ever tasted so good in their short lives: so tastey, so juicy, so fresh, and so good on an empty stomach. Even when their parents had hunted, they let the cubs eat last, trying to pick at the carcass before the vulchers and other scavengers came. But they hadn’t the time to dwell on such good surface.

“Ah, I suppose this is the one called Pursha.” Banjija said unexpectedly, which made her jump and nod.

“I am.” she answered quietly.

“Well it’s good to meet you.”

The king walked over and the two quickly exchanged scents, before Banjija turned again to the two lionesses by the boulders.

“Untru, Bayla, please escort young Pursha to the Great Tree beside the water hole where she can freshen up and rest a bit. Bring her as much meat as she needs and make sure she is not disturbed by anyone. The others will be joining her soon.”

The pair nodded, and Pursha, taken aback by this, gave Meersha a glance of wonder, and only followed them down the path when Meersha nodded back.

“Well now, I think that’s a bit better.” Banjija then said, turning to the cubs once more, who looked full, satisfied and happy until he spoke to them again. “I am called Banjija, and I am your uncle.”

There was silence.

“Well, aren’t you going to introduce yourselves to him?” Meersha asked in a proding kind of tone.

“H-hi.” Tamu was the first to speak. “How come you’re so big?”

“Tamu!” snarled Meersha. “That’s not how you introduce yourself!”

“Sorry!” she cried, but Banjija just chuckled and replied, “It’s quite all right, Meersha.” Then he turned to the little ones again. “Well then, hello, Tamu. How are you?”

“Tired.” Tamu answered truthfully, giving a long yawn.

“I bet you are. You can rest up with your aunt very soon.”

“She’s not my aunt.” the little cub said, almost bored like.

“Well, she’s still part of your family.” Banjija said quickly, before Meersha could react. “And who are you?” Banjija then questioned, eyes falling on Hadra.

Hadra froze, gazing up at him, before saying, “I am Hadra: future leader of the Twilight pride.”

There was an intake of breath, and Banjija glanced over at his sister, understandingly. It was clear Meersha was trying not to cry.

“Hadra, huny, you know…you know you can’t…you know he’s…” she started, but Banjija stepped in again.

“Well then, Hadra, future leader of the Twilight pride, I invite you to stay here for a while, upon my own lands and my own pride. Why not see how you like it here?”

“Why would we do that?” Tamu ignorantly butted in, now surprisingly bored of her uncle, oncoming anger just barely at the edge of her voice.

Meersha gave a grave look to Banjija, but he just smiled.

“Gwalu then, is it?” he said, ignoring his neice’s comment.

Gwalu blinked in surprise, and nodded. “Yeah.”

“And you are Binjaji, are you not?” he asked, looking at the brown cub.

Binjaji stayed quiet, unmoving, his mouth agape, as if he was looking at his uncle for the first time again.

“There you go, my brother; those are your nieces and nephiews.” Meersha exclaimed, tail-tip twitching proudly.

“And what fine nieces and nephiews I’ve got.” Banjija said. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind following me down to the Great Tree beside the water hole…”

“Of course,” Meersha responded quickly, glancing at her cubs.

They began down the path once more, following Pursha’s trail.

 

LX

Hello…Goodbye

 

Finally, the sun fell, and the moon rose.

-The Changing

 

The rest of the day was full of resting and pampering. They stayed beneath the umbrella tree beside the water hole, undisturbed by anyone, though the scents, sights and sounds of several lionesses and cubs filled the atmosphere. Several times Banjija visited them, talking quietly to Meersha and sometimes Pursha. But when he left, Untru and Bayla had made sure no one bothered them, and brought them meat whenever they requested it, and whenever they did not. The water helped, gushing down their dry throats and for once, their thirst was satisfied. Not only that, but it also provided an entertaining game for the cubs, allowing them to splash around, despite the fact they hated getting wet; which was an even better reason to splash each other. In the end, they came back to Meersha and Pursha, and were groomed, only to take a long nap afterwards.  They only awoke when the sun was rising the next day.

“Where’s Mom?” Binjaji asked, ears folding against his skull as he gave a loud yawn.

The four of them were huddled together against the tree’s base, just yards from the water’s edge. But Pursha and Meersha weren't near.

“Let’s look.” Tamu suggested, but quickly hushed herself, not wanting more trouble to come from her ideas.

“Yes, why not?” Gwalu agreed.

“They said for us to stay here for this sun, though.” Hadra pointed out.

“Yeah, this sun.” Binjaji said. “But it’s dark now.”

The three of them looked to Tamu. She stood there for a moment in silence, before saying, “Whatever.” and lying down in the grass again.

“But this is dumb!” complained Gwalu. “Mom’s not even here and-!”

“Shh!” Hadra said, and as they strained their hearing, they noticed pawsteps nearing. “Someone’s coming!” But it was only Meersha and Pursha.

Meersha slumped back, staring at the ground, her once beautiful, strong eyes now full of tears. As she looked up she said, “Oh! What are you cubs are awake?”

“Mama, why are you crying?” Tamu asked.

“Yeah, Mom, why are you crying?” the others chimed in.

Pursha just sighed and lay down by the tree, gazing at the water intently, ears twitching. Apparently she had no idea what to say.

“Oh, I-I’m not…” and Meersha trailed off. She couldn’t help it. In no less than six hours, when the sun rose, she would have to leave her cubs, and maybe never see them again!

“Mama, what’s wrong?” Hadra continued, padding up to her and nudging her paw with his nose.

“I-I…I can’t!” cried Meersha so suddenly, that the cubs jumped and Pursha lifted her head from her paws. Right then, the lioness plopped down and began to sob.

“Meersha.” a calm voice said.

The crying lioness lifted her head, her teary vision now settling on two blured lions. When she could finally make out who had now joined them, she gasped, tears ceasing now. It was Banjija, and a lioness beside him.

“Meersha,” Banjija said again, in his strong, reassuring voice. “Come. I think you need to walk off those tears. …There’s someone here to see you.”

Forcing herself up on all fours, she nodded to Pursha, who was now sitting up again, eyes wide in shock. After the nod, Pursha also calmed down, and randomly scooped up the nearest cub – Gwalu – and began grooming her.

Meersha padded over to her brother, sniffling once, before turning to look at the lioness beside him, and she scented the air curiously. Did she know this lioness?