Geuzi walked with the pride, annoyed. She didn’t do pride hunting. It wasn’t her thing. She was fine by herself. She didn’t work well with others, despite the fact that she clung to Taos. But Taos didn’t hunt with her. They could share a carcass, and either one could get the kill.
Geuzi made her way to Uwivu, thinking that Uwivu was the hunt leader. Uwivu glanced at her, then did a double take. “And just what do you think you’re doing?” Uwivu asked rudely.
“Taking Shani’s place,” Geuzi said contemptuously.
“No one can take Shani’s place.”
“I was asked to. She wants to talk to Taos.”
“Shani never misses a hunt. She forces herself to do it if she has to. No one can replace her.”
“She asked me to,” repeated Geuzi angrily. “Do you have a problem with her request?”
“Yes, I do, rogue, because I sure as hell can’t trust you.”
“Deal with it.”
“Who are you to give me orders, you filthy rogue?”
Geuzi barely restrained herself, thinking of Taos’s plea that this was his home, and not to start anything. Some home. “Listen, you stupid prider, I don’t give a damn whether you like it or not. I’ll get your stupid kill, and you can go back to lording over your pathetic waste of a kingdom.”
“Waste. Pathetic, worthless waste.”
“You little slu—” Uwivu was cut short by Geuzi’s paw across her face. The pride stopped with a gasp. “You’ll pay for that,” snarled Uwivu. She swung at Geuzi.
It was a mistake. Geuzi blocked it easily, then bashed her head down onto Uwivu’s. The crack of their heads was audible. Uwivu staggered to the ground, dazed. She looked up hazily, seeing Geuzi’s head swim in and out of focus.
“Listen, cub,” Geuzi said angrily, “I don’t give a damn about what you think of me, but you will keep it to yourself. I don’t care that you would rather have Shani; I’m here, deal with it. Now you are going to explain to me, simply, how you hunt. You’re the hunt leader, do your job.”
There was a silence. Uwivu had put her head down to the ground halfway during Geuzi’s little speech, placing her paws on top of it. It hurt so much. A lioness said quietly, “She’s not the hunt leader.”
“What?” asked Geuzi, turning around to see the lioness. A path cleared to a lioness about her age.
“She’s not the hunt leader,” said the lioness quietly. “I am.”
“Good. Now can I have you explain this on the way?”
“Um . . . Uwivu needs—”
“I’ll deal with it,” said Uwivu, getting up slowly, her eyes jammed shut in pain.
Geuzi looked at her in disgust and, surprisingly, in slight envy. She turned back to the lioness. “Can we get this over with?”
The lioness bit her lip. “Uwivu?”
“I’m fine!” Uwivu said angrily. “Let’s go already.”
“Alright,” said the lioness quietly. The pride began to move again, but because of Uwivu’s say-so, not the lioness’s.
Geuzi fell in step with the lioness, the others edging away from the pair. Uwivu traveled in the back, slowly shaking her head from side to side. Geuzi asked the lioness, “So how do you hunt here?”
The lioness thought or a moment. “We form a circle around the herd. Then—”
“Then you rush them.”
“Yes,” said the lioness in a small voice.
“What’s the count?”
The lioness walked a little further in silence, glancing at Geuzi timidly. She finally said quietly, “I never got your name.”
The lioness paused. “It’s a good name,” she offered.
Geuzi gave a small snort of disgust. The lioness bit her lip and looked away, embarrassed. Geuzi looked over at her, feeling a rare twinge of pity. But just a twinge. The lioness was suffering, just as she was. “What’s your name?”
“Fina,” said the lioness quietly.
“Why so quiet? I won’t bite. Not too hard.”
Fina gave a small hmph of laughter. “I—I don’t really notice it. I guess I’m just—skittish a little. I guess it happened after my friends died. Or maybe after my cubs did.”
Geuzi ignored the last statement. “Died?”
“Jadi—er, the king did it. They annoyed him. I wasn’t in the den at the time, or I’d be dead, too.”
“Who were they?” Geuzi would make a mental note to ask Taos more. He might be able to console Fina. He was good at that.
“They were Haja and Bayana. We used to be Taos’s friends, until he ran off with Pofu. We didn’t understand his gift.”
“Gift?” asked Geuzi, intrigued.
Fina looked away nervously. “Pofu can tell you about it. He doesn’t really like to spread it around,” she said in that quiet, timid voice of hers. She was silent for the rest of the short walk to the hunting ground. She pointed to a spot five yards away, showing Geuzi where to go, and quietly said, “Two hundred, one ninety-nine, one ninety-eight . . .”
Geuzi and the others spread out. This was the worst kind of hunting in Geuzi’s opinion. Too much relied on accurate counting and trusting others. Give her a rush, a yell of “Now!” and a rush where they all grabbed for their own buck. But no, they weren’t fit enough for that. So they ended up doing it this way.
The count ended, Geuzi rushing out, ahead of the others not because of rushing the count, but because of the speed with which she sprang from her crouch. She sprinted for a wildebeest. The stampeded started, the wildebeest trying to find a way out of the closing circle.
It happened so quickly, not even Shani in her youth could have avoided it. Geuzi leapt for a buck and was tossed like a rag-doll. A wildebeest had charged her in desperation, putting its horn into her stomach. She hit the ground and rolled, cursing. She leapt up after the wildebeest that had injured her and clamped down on its neck. She broke it savagely. She dodged another wildebeest as the herd dispersed.
She looked around to see lionesses, most with a kill, a few without. “Any dead?” came a yell. There was no answer. “Any wounded?” Geuzi didn’t bother to answer. She’d be fine. She looked underneath her to see blood dripping onto the grass.
“Oh, great. Taos, you—” What followed was fifteen seconds of truly unprintable obscenity. The pride began to move wearily toward Pride Rock, carcasses in their mouths. She put her paw on the shoulder of as nearby lioness who happened to have no carcass. She spun the lioness toward her and sat down, pointing at her stomach. “How deep is it?”
The lioness stared at Geuzi in shock. “Oh my god.”
“How deep, dammit? Press above it.’
“It’s bad.” The lioness pressed a spot on Geuzi’s stomach.
Geuzi cursed, picked up her carcass, and headed for Pride Rock, the lionesses staring as they noticed her. They wanted to see if the rogue was worth anything. And yes, she had gotten her carcass, so she must be worth—Right about there they noticed the steady dripping from her gut. Luckily it had missed the vital organs.
But Geuzi didn’t even seem to notice it. The only sign was the cursing that was muffled by the carcass. Even injured, she was the first back to Pride Rock. She marched straight up to the den to have Taos turn to her. “Oh, now this is just priceless,” he said.
Geuzi dropped the carcass angrily. “I told you. I told you, but no, you wouldn’t listen. And now look.” She lied down on her side, showing the deep wound. The lionesses in the den gasped along with Taos.
“I’m sorry,” said Taos honestly. “But please just—just fix it, will you? You know I don’t like seeing you do that. You should have healed it out there.”
“Fine,” growled Geuzi. Most of the pride had come in by now with their meat. Geuzi rolled onto her back, breathing heavily.
“What’s she doing?” asked Shani.
“Watch,” said Taos. “Now this is freakish.”
Geuzi’s wound slowly began to close up, as if it was healing in fast forward. The den watched in amazement as they turned to see how she was coping. Mouths dropped open. Geuzi’s back arched inward as she groaned. She finally fell to the ground, perfectly fine. She drew in a long breath, and then another, as if she had just run for miles.
“What just happened?” asked Pofu, unable to make out what happened clearly with his lack of vision.
“She—healed,” said a lioness, stunned.
“There,” said Geuzi, “you’ve embarrassed me with hunting and you’ve shown me off to your friends. Happy?’
“Geuzi—” began Taos. Geuzi ignored him, putting the carcass between her and him.
“Eat.” Geuzi began to do as she advised Taos to do. A lioness brought over a carcass for Shani and Pofu. Pofu ate so little that he could share a carcass with anyone. He took five mouthfuls of the carcass before lying back.
Shani smiled. “Hungry today, aren’t we?”
“Somewhat,” Pofu responded.
“Uh, Pofu?” asked Taos. “Aren’t you going to eat any more?”
“No. I’m good.”
“Pofu, you ate barely anything. You’re huge. You shouldn’t be starving yourself. You don’t have that king around anymore to limit your food.”
“He never did limit my food. I limit my food.”
“You’ll waste away to nothing.”
“Taos, what I just ate I could make last for three days before I was hungry again. Fortunately for me, I choose not to put myself through that.”
Taos sighed. “Is this something else you haven’t told me?”
“Yes. You see, I can control my body. I only eat what I have to I slow down my body’s speed, and I need less. Here—” Pofu rolled onto his back—“put your paw here.”
Taos placed a paw on Pofu’s chest. Pofu moved the paw to his neck. Taos could feel Pofu’s pulse. Then, amazingly, it began to slow down, and then, finally, was gone. Taos looked at Pofu’s chest, alarmed. It had stopped moving. He wasn’t breathing. “Pofu!”
Pofu laughed. “Look at me, I’m dead.” He took in a breath, his body speeding up.
“Don’t do that!”
“The cubs love it.”
“Then I won’t do it around you,” Pofu said simply. “But it’s better than just stopping a heart. It’s these muscles, too. Complete control. I can build them up as much as I want.”
“They already look like they’ll rip through your fur.”
Pofu laughed. “If you say so. And look here.” He held up a foreleg. “Remember how bad that gash was?”
“You’re joking,” said Taos, staring at the half-healed wound. “I just thought Geuzi could do that. You know how to heal, too?”
“Taos, I just tell my body to fix it. That’s all.”
“Then—it’s not magic?”
Pofu laughed. “Not at all.” He paused. “Why magic?”
“Because what I do is magic,” said Geuzi bitterly, not even looking up from her carcass as she spoke.
“She can heal anyone,” said Taos.
“Yes, why don’t you just pour out my life to them?” said Geuzi sarcastically.
“Geuzi, it—oh, forget it . . .”
“What are you talking about?” asked Pofu. “Taos?”
Taos opened his mouth to speak, but Geuzi beat him to it. “I’m diseased, okay? I can’t feel any damn pain.” Pofu heard sorrow on the edge of her voice. Just the edge.
“Lucky,” muttered Shani.
“Lucky?! Lucky?!” screamed Geuzi as Taos frantically gestured at Shani to please shut up, not to say any more, and he really would fill her in about everything later. It was a very complicated gesture.
“It’s better than being in pain all the time,” said Shani.
“Better? Do you have any idea what hell I have to go through? Every hour of every day, I have to check myself! Toes, legs, teeth, ears, tail! Just to see that they’re all there!”
“I don’t have to check them,” said Shani acidly. “I get to feel them killing me instead.”
“I have to check my eyes every morning when I get up just to see if I haven’t scratched the surface.”
“I have to check my eyes every morning when I get up to see how much vision I’ve lost.”
“I have to go to the bathroom on a schedule, all because if I don’t, I’ll go right then and there, and won’t even feel it. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is?”
“I have to worry about it leaking out even if I’ve gone.”
“My mother had me kicked out of the pride when I was two, saying I was clearly possessed!”
“I watched my mother have her head torn off in a stampede.”
“I’ve broken all four legs at once.”
“I got raped.”
“So have I!”
“Raped repeatedly. And felt every painful bit of it.”
“I sat on a thermal vent when I was a cub and lit my ass on fire.”
“I’m forced to escort little cubs around and do the explaining when their asses are lit on fire.”
“Then kill them,” said Geuzi fiercely. “Kill the little beasts and be done with them.” She stormed out of the den.
“I like her,” remarked Shani. “Speaks her mind.”
“Shani, you weren’t raped because you were in pain,” said Pofu. “You were raped because you were an ass to Jadi.”
“Some might say the two were related.” She went back to eating.
Taos sighed. “She just isn’t a very happy animal.”
Geuzi was not, as Taos put it, a very happy animal. She hated the world for the reason that the world seemed to have no end of bitterness to inflict on her. Her disease had been present since birth. She had numerous accidents, even when she was a tiny cub.
Cubs teethe. It’s natural. Geuzi, like any other cub, used roots, sticks, her mother’s ear despite how difficult is was to carry on a conversation with another lioness when a cub was hanging off the side of your head, bones, etc. But unlike other cubs, Geuzi chewed on herself. She would nibble on her leg, feeling how good it was to yield to the impulse, not feeling herself bite her leg bloody. She knew no better.
More and more severe accidents happened. She hurt other cubs, not knowing her strength. She said she was sorry, and she honestly was, but she did it again and again, not knowing how little it took to injure someone. Her claws would come out as she wrestled with the cubs, and she didn’t even feel it. She’d scratch them, pin them in horribly painful ways, and the whole time not know why they squirmed. She never had to say “uncle,” she simply wriggled out of the pin, even dislocating a leg once.
The other cubs saw how this was obviously wrong. Their mothers had less of a problem with her. They knew how Geuzi felt no pain, and saw the excruciating trials she had to go through to cope with it. Geuzi was a good cub, anyway, and she was always very polite.
The other cubs, however, weren’t looking for thinks like that. Cubs look superficially at others, making quick character judgments. They decided not to play with Geuzi. She played too rough, scratched them without cause, and never, ever allowed others to beat her. The other cubs began to shun her, leaving her out of activities and games.
And then they began to tease her. They laughed at her inability to feel pain, and they poked her, prodded her, slapped her, hit her, clawed her.
And Geuzi changed. She became less and less polite. She developed bitterness that knew no end. She took the abuse the other cubs forced on her, remembering how her mother had told her they didn’t realize what they did, and there would come a day when they would be very, very sorry for what they did to her.
So Geuzi suffered the cuts she could not feel and the words that hurt her so much. And then came the worse accident of her life. She nearly died. She was unable to move; it was difficult enough to move with one broken leg, let alone four. She heard the laughs of the cubs as they ran away. She lied there, angry at the cubs, unable to do anything but wriggle on her torso, going nowhere. She finally stopped that, too. She later fell asleep.
She woke up in a cave. She was fine. She looked around, seeing no one. Then a fire suddenly flared up. Geuzi screamed. She leapt up, retreating from the flames. She might not have been able to feel herself be burned, but she still shared the centuries-old fright of the flickering, red thing that devoured everything in its path. She kept screaming, despite the fact that the fire went nowhere, simply staying where it was.
Suddenly Geuzi felt a foreleg draw her close to a stomach, and heard the reassuring words, “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s not going to hurt you. You’re fine.” Geuzi clung to the stomach, burying her face in it. The creature rubbed her back with a paw. “It’s okay. You’re fine now.”
The words were wonderfully reassuring. Geuzi hugged the stomach even tighter. If she was able to cry, she would have. The paw continued to rub her back. She finally looked up to see the face of her comforter. It was a lioness Geuzi had never seen. But from the creature’s mismatched eyes, one blue, one green, Geuzi felt that she knew more than enough about the lioness.
Geuzi gasped and slowly began to back away, then stopped, turning to see the fire behind her. “You’re—you’re the . . .”
The lioness frowned. “Yes. I’m Ila.”
Geuzi was very, very afraid. Everyone knew who Ila was. She had been exiled from the den, but not from the lands, all because of what she could do. Ila visited the shaman, a leopard, as often as she could. She found she could do things with the elements, but had very little control at that point.
She accidentally started a wildfire while she attempted to burn a log. Grass caught fire as well, and it raged out of control. Ila tried to put it out, but barely managed to put out a few grass stalks. Her control wasn’t complete at all. The king, however, was benevolent. The fire hadn’t damaged too much of the kingdom, and he forgave her, giving the cub a promise that if anything like that happened again, he wouldn’t be so forgiving.
But Ila went back to the shaman. He said he would have nothing to do with her, at least not with her power. He continued to teach her how to cure illnesses, what plants to use, where to find them, and what cases to use them for. She soaked it up, and found the ability to heal as well. The cubs didn’t suit her tastes. She wanted adventure, not just scampering around. The shaman was the closest thing she could get to it. The leopard admired her persistence.
But Ila still continued to try to use her powers. It came naturally; she saw no reason why not to. And besides, the king had just told her not to make a mess like the wildfire again. She learned to control water better, just in case.
It was a good thing she did. Another wildfire started. Ila rushed to it, attempting to put out as much as she could. She managed to curb it, and then, amazingly, put it out before it spread too far. She went back to the den, a triumphant smile on her face. The smile left her face as she stared at the pride that was huddled inside the stone den, the only protection they had from the fire. She saw, on every face, fear. They were afraid of her. They believed she had done it again. They stared at her soot-covered body, whispering.
One face was not filled with fear. It was covered with anger. The king was not pleased. “I put it out,” Ila said, praying her voice was happy. She tried to smile. Her smile slid off again as the king continued to frown.
“Get out,” he said coldly. “Don’t you dare set paw in my den again.”
“But . . .”
“You are a danger to us all! Leave!”
Ila was heartbroken. “Daddy . . .”
“YOU ARE NO DAUGHTER OF MINE!”
Ila gasped. Crying, she ran from the den. She ran to the only friend she knew, the shaman. He had no time for her. So many animals had been burned in the fire. He couldn’t handle them all.
But then the worst happened. His mate came in, her cub’s limp body in her jaws. The shaman immediately pushed everything aside, concentrating on saving his cub. He tried everything as Ila tried to help the others. The cub finally died. The shaman couldn’t believe it. He turned to Ila, who was treating a cheetah’s side with r’laka.
“You,” the shaman said. He hit Ila across the face. “You killed my son!”
Ila looked up at the leopard. “I didn’t start that fire. I swear.”
“What good are your oaths? Leave! I never want to see you again!”
Ila turned back to the cheetah, putting more r’laka on its burned leg. “I can’t leave. I don’t have anywhere to go. I—I was hoping . . .”
“No. Leave. Go back to your den, and may I never see you again.”
“The den kicked me out. The leg’s infected. We need yson for it.”
“There is no more. Now leave.”
Ila turned back to the shaman angrily. “He needs help.”
“And I’ll give it to him. Now leave, before I give you something that needs to be treated.”
Ila’s face softened. “Please,” she begged him. “I don’t have anyone. You’ve always been good to me. Please, just—”
“You’ve murdered my son! LEAVE!”
Ila ran from the shaman’s den, crying. She ran and ran and ran. She finally found a cave, a small one, perfect for one animal, and maybe one or two cubs. Ila knew she would never have cubs to fill that room. She had no one. But the den never knew that. The lion cubs were told her story, hideously altered. They were told she was a horrible monster with mismatched eyes, a lioness that brought death and destruction.
Geuzi stared at this lioness, very, very afraid. “Please don’t kill me,” Geuzi begged.
“I won’t hurt you,” said Ila. She stretched out a paw to Geuzi. Geuzi flinched, curling away from it. Ila let the paw drop. She walked toward Geuzi, Geuzi not wanting to go any closer to the hated fire. Ila walked past Geuzi to the logs that were crackling. Geuzi ran as far as she could, to the back of the cave.
Ila looked back at her. “Hold your breath,” she advised. Ila placed her paw over the flames, water seeming to drop from it. The fire went out as she waved her paw over it, hissing its protest. Ila jerked her head back from the hot steam that shot up, coughing slightly from the soot that came with it. Geuzi watched in amazement.
“There you go,” said Ila. “No more fire to keep you in here.”
Geuzi was very, very tempted to run for it. If she was luck, she could get past Ila unscathed. But then there was the problem of getting home. It was very, very dark, and Geuzi had no idea where she was. “Uh . . .”
“I’d rather you stay here, though. It’s pretty dangerous outside at night. And you can’t see that well on dark nights like this, either.” Ila sounded sensible. But Geuzi was still scared. Her little body, pressed against the back of Ila’s cave, showed her fear. Ila smiled, trying to reassure Geuzi. “That must have been some fall you had.”
Geuzi didn’t answer.
“I—um, I’ve got dinner, if you want some. Gazelle.” Ila pointed to a carcass just outside the mouth of the den. Geuzi’s mouth watered. There was nothing like gazelle. But they were so hard to catch. Ila dragged it over toward Geuzi so Geuzi could have some. With the carcass inside the little den it began to become slightly cramped. “I don’t catch one too often, but . . . well, here. Take a few bites.”
Geuzi stared down at the carcass. “Uh . . .”
“I didn’t poison it,” said Ila, seeming to read her thoughts. Ila took a bite out of it. “See?” she said. “It’s fine.”
Geuzi gently took a bite, the wonderful meat rolling around in her mouth. She swallowed. Ila seemed to be watching her. “Uh . . . thank you,” Geuzi said quietly.
Ila smiled. “It’s okay.” Ila continued to eat at the carcass, making sure Geuzi got enough and leaving the better parts for her. She finally looked over to the smoking logs and said, “Do you mind if I start it again?”
“The fire. It gets pretty cold with no one in here but me.”
“I . . .”
“Really, it’s nothing to be scared of.” She walked over to the logs. “Even if wet wood is a pain to start.” She placed a paw into the pile of logs. Steam rose up from the logs, and Ila drew her paw hurriedly back as flames engulfed the logs. Geuzi gasped. Ila sighed as the heat rushed over her.
“Much better.” She turned to Geuzi. “Doesn’t that feel warmer?”
“No,” said Geuzi in a quiet voice.
Ila sighed. “Oh, well.” She walked back to the carcass and began to eat again.
Geuzi stared at the fire, uncomfortable with it. Finally she asked Ila, “How did I get here?”
Ila swallowed. “I brought you here. I fixed up the parts that need attention most, then brought you back here for the rest.”
“But—but my legs—”
“They were broken. Shattered, more like. I fixed them.” Ila’s face dawned with realization. “Ohhh. I healed them. Magic.”
“Uh-huh. Like that fire. Some animals just come to me, asking for help. So I heal them. It’s the least I can do. They may not deserve it, but . . . well, I can tell them about Afriti. And maybe they’ll see.”
Ila laughed. “I’m not going to hurt you, okay? No more stuttering, no more shaking with fear.” Geuzi nodded. She was beginning to like Ila. “Now let’s see . . . Afriti . . . Well, do you know how you came here? How you came to your mother?”
Geuzi nodded. “Uh-huh. The stork brought me.”
Ila smiled. “Hmm. Well, I’ll let Mommy tell you.” She thought trying to find a way to say it so she wouldn’t taint Geuzi’s innocence. “Well, you see—well, I never got your name!”
“Geuzi, how did your mommy come to her mommy? And her mommy before that?”
“Um . . . the stork, I guess.”
“Right. But where did the stork come from?”
“The gods!” said Geuzi happily.
“That’s right. So, didn’t the gods make you, in a sense?”
“But you see, the gods aren’t good animals. Have you ever been hurt?”
“And didn’t it feel bad?”
“I can’t feel it,” said Geuzi, looking back down at the finished carcass.
“I can’t . . . I can’t feel pain,” said Geuzi guiltily.
Ila pushed the carcass out of the way and held a paw out for Geuzi. “You poor thing.” Ila shook her head as she drew Geuzi close. “That must be awful. I can’t imagine how horrible that is.”
She understands, thought Geuzi. She nuzzled up against Ila’s chest.
“But do you know who made you this way?” asked Ila. Geuzi shook her head. “The gods.”
Geuzi gasped. “But the gods are nice, and good, and—”
“No, Geuzi, they’re not. Look at yourself. Do the other cubs tease you about this—malady?”
Geuzi didn’t understand the last word, but she got the gist of it. “Yes,” she said, her ears drooping.
“And the gods allow that. And it isn’t nice, is it? Do their words hurt?”
“I’m not that different from you,” said Ila. “Do you have any friends?”
“I—I’ve got Mommy.”
“Poor thing. But I don’t have anyone. What did they tell you about me?”
“That you were going to hurt them. That the old king got rid of you before you hurt us.”
“But that isn’t true, Geuzi.” Ila told Geuzi her story as unbiased as she could. She kept astonishingly close to the true series of events. “See?” she said finally. “I don’t have any friends.”
“None at all?”
“No one, except for a couple of animals that visit now and then.”
“That’s so sad.”
“But you don’t have friends, either, Geuzi. Do you?”
Geuzi shook her head. “Just Mommy.”
“And what do you do when the cubs tease you?”
“I can’t do anything. Mommy said not to.”
“Are you sure Mommy’s your friend then?” Geuzi looked uncomfortable. Ila changed the question. “Do the cubs hit you?”
“Yes,” said Geuzi in a quiet voice.
“And does Mommy tell you not to hit them?”
“But you want to hit them.”
“And it’s good to want that.”
Geuzi looked up at Ila. “It is?”
“It is.” Ila rubbed Geuzi lovingly. “You see, the gods let them hurt you. The gods aren’t nice. They let bad things happen. They don’t love you.”
“But Mommy said—”
Geuzi was stunned. “But—”
“She doesn’t know she’s wrong,” said Ila hurriedly. “She loves you very, very much, I’m sure. But she’s wrong. You should hit the other cubs. You should hurt them. The gods didn’t stop them, why would They stop you?”
“But it’s wrong!” protested Geuzi.
“But that isn’t what Afriti says. Afriti says that they deserve every bit of it. Afriti used to be a god. But the gods didn’t love him like They said They did. They keep Their love to Themselves. And Afriti and his friends left them, so they could give other animals like us a chance. Afriti will welcome us when we die, and will give us a chance to strike back at the gods. And he tells you to fight now. Fight back against those cubs. Don’t they deserve it?”
“I . . . I guess so.”
Ila smiled. She put a digit to Geuzi’s nose. “You know so.” Geuzi smiled, then suddenly yawned. “Is someone tired?”
“No,” denied Geuzi.
Ila laughed lightly. “Alright. You want to say up a little longer?”
Ila thought. “How about a bedtime story?”
“But I don’t want to go to bed!”
“Alright, just a story, then.” Ila paused. “How about the story of Keros? The founder of the kingdom.”
“Okay.” Geuzi snuggled closer to Ila’s side, listening with delight to how Keros grew up. She was asleep by the time Ila reached Keros’s first birthday.
The next day Geuzi went back to her pride. Her mother had been so happy to see she was safe, she didn’t notice a lioness with mismatched eyes slinking back to her cave. But Geuzi didn’t forget Ila. She went back as often as she could. And the lioness taught her how to heal. It drained Geuzi to do it. The act of healing took so much out of her. It didn’t come naturally at all.
But she became better at it. The cub’s blows no longer left their marks on her body for a week. And the blows were responded to. Geuzi began to fight back. The cubs’ taunting turned into fights. And Geuzi enjoyed it.
Ila, however, continued to pity Geuzi. She knew what Geuzi was missing out on. How Geuzi could feel no heat, no cold, how she had to check herself constantly. So Ila took Geuzi to the shaman. It was amazing that he was still alive. The leopard had at least sixteen years. Ila herself was nine. Geuzi was only two, exactly. It was Ila’s birthday present to her.
Ila marched into the den with Geuzi, brushing the shaman’s daughter aside. “My father needs rest! If you need help, just ask me!” the young leopardess insisted.
“If you don’t get out of the way,” said Ila, “your father will be enjoying a much longer rest that you’d like.” She walked to the elderly leopard in the back of the cave and took his face in her paw, tilting it up. “Remember me?”
“Ila,” the old shaman said. “I—leave!”
“Someone as old as you shouldn’t be that angry. It could be fatal,” said Ila matter-of-factly.
“Get away from him!” yelled his daughter.
“Oh, but I’ve got a patient for him. And we all know how much he likes taking care of animals. Especially your brother.”
The young leopardess gasped, realizing who Ila was. “You! How dare you come here!”
“He made my life a hell!” screamed Ila. “And he’s going to help me, if it kills him or not!”
“I didn’t start that fire! I put it out, for Aiheu’s sake!”
“After it had engulfed half the kingdom!”
“It barely touched the kingdom!” Ila turned to the shaman, whipping a paw to his throat in rage. “You see what you’ve reduced me to? You took everything from me! I was the princess! I would have had a mate and cubs! You could have convinced them to take me back! You were the last friend I had!”
“You took the life of my son,” whispered the shaman.
“You failed to save him!” Ila leaned close to the shaman’s face. “And you are going to help this cub whether you like it or not.”
“Who?” Geuzi appeared by Ila’s shoulder. “She’s fine. Maybe you need me to heal your eyes.”
“She feels no pain,” said Ila bitterly.
The shaman looked away as far as Ila’s paw on his throat would let him. “I can’t help her.”
“I can’t help her.”
“Then tell me how to. She’s suffered long enough.”
“Or what? You’ll kill me?”
“No.” Ila pointed to the shaman’s daughter. “I’ll kill her.” A flame appeared above Ila’s paw. “Now tell me. Unless you want to see her burn to death.”
The shaman hesitated. Ila’s paw moved closer to his daughter. “Wait!” the shaman begged.
“Then tell me.”
“Let me think! Just let me think.” He sighed. “No pain at all?”
Ila looked at Geuzi. “None,” Geuzi said.
“Any feelings? Heat? Cold? Itchiness?”
The shaman sighed. “Then you need a pure soul.”
“What?” asked Ila.
“She needs a pure soul for her to regain feeling. Someone who doesn’t think of themselves, someone who can do no wrong.”
“No. There’s magic involved, if you actually believe in magic. Of course, being the freak you are—” The leopard gagged as Ila’s paw pressed harder. He tried to push it off.
Ila finally released the pressure. “Don’t you dare call anyone that name,” she hissed. “Now what do we need?”
“I don’t remember,” said the leopard. “I truly can’t. Pray to the gods. Maybe They—”
“The gods do not love her,” snarled Ila.
“Then pray to Afriti.”
Ila stormed out, Geuzi following her. Geuzi slept with Ila that night, crowding the cave horribly. But Ila hadn’t minded. She loved Geuzi like a daughter, just as Geuzi loved her more than she could ever love her real mother.
Geuzi’s true mother was worried. Geuzi was becoming more and more headstrong and bitter, and there seemed to be nothing she could do about it. She didn’t blame Geuzi. No one knew how much of an agony Geuzi went through.
And then Geuzi was exiled.
A fight got out of hand. Geuzi intended to give the other lioness a beating she’d remember. Geuzi clawed her, she bit her, she ripped through her muscle—and finally broke her neck. It was an accident. She hadn’t meant to. But it happened. The lioness was dead. The entire den clamored for Geuzi’s death.
But Geuzi’s mother refused to let it happen. “Look at her,” she said, hoping to save her daughter’s life. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She prays to Afriti, she feels nothing. She is not normal. She is a demon. Don’t kill her. Send her away. But please, don’t kill my daughter.”
“Then she will be exiled,” said the king.
Geuzi had been walked to the borders, a lioness escort and the king with her. They had watched her go, threatening death if she returned. Ila found Geuzi outside the borders. “I can kill them,” she said. “I can make them regret this. You had every right to kill that lioness. After all they’ve done to you . . .” She rubbed a paw down the side of her “daughter’s” face.
“No,” said Geuzi. “You gave me a home. That’s more than enough.” She licked her “mother’s” cheek. “Just stay here. You don’t need to suffer, too.”
Ila smiled sadly. “There aren’t any pure souls in this kingdom anyway.” Ila sighed. “When you’re healed, come back to me. Please.”
“We don’t even know exactly what to do.”
“You’ll find out. I know you will.”
Geuzi smiled sadly. She embraced Ila with a foreleg. “Goodbye, Mother.”
“Goodbye,” whispered Ila, tears dripping down her face. Geuzi let go, turned and ran. “I love you,” whispered Ila.
Geuzi never found another substitute for a mother. She had been exiled at the age of two and a half. She went from kingdom to kingdom, being exiled from every one. She learned to fight proficiently, gaining even more scars.
And then she found Taos. Taos, the pure soul she needed. Taos, to whom she clung desperately. He seemed to be everything she wasn’t. She wanted it all, he wanted nothing. She wanted to help herself, he wanted to help others. He never left her. He knew why she needed him. It was the ultimate sacrifice for him. But Taos refused to leave Geuzi.
It was morning. Pofu stretched on the promontory of Pride Rock, yawning. Taos walked up behind him. “Aren’t you up early?” asked Taos.
“I still go on those morning walks. Remember when I used to do that with Fujo?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Always riding on his back.”
“You want to come? You can ride.”
Taos smiled. “I think I’ll keep my paws on the ground.”
“So why are you up?”
“I just always get up this early. Rogues need to. You’d be surprised what tries to sneak up on you.”
“So what do you want to do today?”
“Yeah. You know, like we used to.”
“We aren’t cubs anymore, Pofu.”
“That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun,” said Pofu with a smile.
“Yeah . . . but I kind of decided to show Geuzi the kingdom today.”
“Great. I’ll come with.”
“Um . . . kind of alone.” Pofu’s face fell. “Yeah . . .”
“No, no, I understand,” said Pofu, walking away.
“No, really, it’s fine. Look, if I don’t go now, it won’t be a ‘morning’ walk for much longer, right?” Pofu walked down the ramp. “Besides, there’s always tomorrow.”
“Right,” said Taos, relieved. “I—I guess I’ll see you tonight.”
“See you tonight.” Pofu walked into the savannah, a bitter thought creeping into his head unbidden.
Tomorrow never comes.
“And if you look over there,” said Taos, “you can see Mufasa’s Gorge. You see, my great-grandfather tried to save his . . .” Taos turned to look at Geuzi, who was lying on the elevated rock next to him. He smiled. “You don’t care, do you?”
“Actually,” said Geuzi, “it’s worse than that. I’m bored.”
Taos chuckled. “Well, what do you want to do?”
“Well, here we are, all alone in this big savannah—”
“Geuzi! We’re not mates! I’ve told you that! Repeatedly.”
“It may stop you, but it hasn’t me.”
“Does your lust know any bounds?”
“A few. I’d abhor being a queen. All that ruling and lording and—ugh.” She looked up at Taos. “Too much work. Hungry?” It was her way of saying, Should I be?
Taos smiled. “Not yet.” He paused. “So, where you want to go next?”
“You choose. Unless you know of a shrine to Afriti or something. Might give me some answers.”
Taos sighed. “We don’t do devil-worship. I’ve told you.”
“And I’ve told you he’s not the devil. He’s merely just.”
“Let the gods deal out the justice.”
“Tried it. Doesn’t work.”
“Oh, forget it. I’m too tired too tired to argue theology today.”
“But not to walk across the kingdom with me?”
“It’s physical, not mental. There’s a difference. Just ask Pofu.”
“Maybe he’d have some fun with me.”
“Actually, he’s . . . kind of chaste.” Taos got up and began walking in no particular direction.
Geuzi followed him. “Kind of?”
“Alright, is. It’s one of the problems they’re having.”
“What, no fun?”
“No cubs. They have no males.” He paused. “So I’ve been thinking . . .”
“Are you sure you have a pure soul?”
“No, not that. It’s just the entire kingdom has practically fallen apart in a week. I was thinking I could . . . y’know.”
“Let’s hear you say it.”
“I was thinking about staying.” He looked over at Geuzi.
“I swear you do this to annoy me.”
“Come on. You’ve always been looking for a pride.”
“I’ve been looking for someone who’s actually decent to me. That and the cure.”
“I’m sure Shani will be more than happy to be your mommy. The lioness who never had cubs with the cub that never had a mother.”
“Can you imagine a more dysfunctional pair? Besides, Shani’s going to kick off in a few days.”
“Don’t say that. Please.”
“Look, I just don’t want to stay. I don’t fit here. Besides, I don’t want to be tied down.”
“Oh, come on. You’d have the whole kingdom to roam. It’s a big place.”
“As big as the world?”
Taos sighed. She’d get her way. She always did. He couldn’t very well stay here and leave her. Besides, the kingdom would sort itself out. Give it a few years. “Just think about it,” he asked her. “Do something for me for once. There are some things I want to do here. We’re staying for a few days. Think about it.”
“Fine.” She looked around. “Where are you taking me?”
“Um, I guess to the gorge. I dunno.”
“Well, it’s as good a place as any.”
“Hmm?” Pofu’s head jerked up from the flat rock he had been lying on in the middle of the savannah. He heard Fina walking toward him. “What is it, Fina?”
Fina sat down next to him. “It’s nothing really. Just thought you might like to talk.”
“Not too much to talk about.”
“Well, Taos is back. He’ll be king, won’t he? That should solve our problems.”
Pofu smiled. “Hope springs eternal for you, doesn’t it?”
“Pofu, I—” Pofu fixed her with his blind gaze. “I thought you had to be touching me to read my mind,” said Fina, a slight tinge of guilt entering her voice.
“Is it really that obvious?”
“Fina—yes. Yes, it is. But my reasons still stand—”
“I don’t need cubs from you, Pofu!” said Fina. “I—I just wanted . . .”
“Fina, I really don’t think you’re looking for me as a mate. You just want someone to talk to,” said Pofu gently. “I’ll listen, gladly, but I don’t need to be your mate to do that.”
“Pofu, I just wanted . . .” Fina simply closed her mouth and stared at the ground. She closed her eyes for a moment, then began to walk away.
“Fina.” She kept walking. “Fina, come here. Please.”
Fina stopped for a moment, then turned and shuffled back to Pofu. “What?” she asked quietly.
“Come here,” Pofu said, holding out a foreleg to her. Fina hesitated a moment, then ducked under the foreleg and nuzzled close to Pofu. “Just talk,” he said. “About anything you feel you need to.”
And Fina talked. About how she missed her friends, Bayana and Haja, about how she missed her cubs more than anything, cubs that had been old enough to realize that Jadi was coming to kill them, but too young to escape anywhere, their bodies too small to run any distance without being caught. About how she missed her mother, missed her father, Kovu, missed Fujo. By the end she had been crying, and Pofu’s mane had been used more than once as something to get rid of tears.
Pofu rubbed Fina’s back gently as she sniffed and wiped at her eyes with a foreleg. “See?” asked Pofu quietly. “It helps to talk.”
Fina looked at the ground, saddened by the reliving of her losses. “You don’t talk to anyone,” she said.
Pofu opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. “No, I don’t,” he finally said.
“Well . . . if you wanted to share . . .”
Pofu smiled. “It’s generous of you, Fina. Really. But Taos is back. I’ve never stopped thinking about him.” He stood up and bent down to give her a brotherly nuzzle and kiss. “Everything will work out okay, Fina. It always has.”
“Pofu . . .” she said quietly, almost too quiet for even Pofu’s excellent hearing to pick up. “I . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“Yes?” asked Pofu.
Fina looked back up at Pofu, her wide eyes asking her silent, continual request for her. “Please,” she said quietly.
Pofu frowned. He put a gentle, reassuring paw on her face as his blind, near-colorless eyes stared into hers. “It’ll be fine, Fina. Just the way it is.” He walked away from her, toward Pride Rock.
Fina watched him go, then hung her head sadly as the sun slowly lowered into the sky. “But I want more,” she whispered.
Pofu was waiting on the tip of Pride Rock. It was night, dinner had been eaten, but still Taos had not come home. Pofu sighed. He got up and walked into the den. Five minutes later Geuzi and Taos came in.
Darkness may have fallen, but the cubs were still wide awake. And for the first time in years, he’d declined to tell them a story. Taos could tell them one. He could tell the whole den one. But Taos had only come back now, now when the mothers were insisting that their cubs sleep for Aiheu’s sake, and let them do the same. Most of them had nearly gotten asleep, and now Taos walked in. The mothers weren’t pleased.
“He’s back!” yelled a cub. Every cub, whether previously awake or asleep, was at Taos’s paws within five seconds. Geuzi’s lip curled in disgust. She walked away from Taos, leaving him to deal with the group.
“Um . . . yes?” asked Taos, staring at the faces of the happy, eager cubs.
“Pofu said you were gonna tell us a story!” said a cub eagerly.
“He did, did he?” Taos looked over at Pofu. “I don’t know where he got that idea.”
“So what is it?” asked another cub.
“Uh . . .”
“Girls, it’s too late for a story,” said Pofu, raising cries of protest. “But—” Pofu waited for the cubs to stop complaining. “But, if you’re all very good and go to bed right now, both me and Taos will tell you a story tomorrow.”
“Fine,” came the general, grudging response as the girls went back to their mothers.
“Um, Pofu,” said Taos, walking over to him, “what was that about?”
“They wanted to hear about where you’ve been, what you’ve done.”
“Is that a hint?”
“Subtle, isn’t it? Really, it was Uzuri’s idea. Your niece, if you don’t want to be really picky about bloodlines.”
“I must remember to thank her,” said Taos dryly. Pofu smiled. “Er, Pofu . . . listen . . . Geuzi was thinking about soon . . . say, three or four days . . . yeah . . .”
Pofu closed his blind eyes as he lied down. His head came up to Taos’s when he held it up, even lying down. “I was afraid of that.”
Then, as Taos said, “You could come,” Pofu said “Don’t go.”
“Huh?” Again together. A pause. “Look—” Another pause.
“Okay,” said Taos, “that was awkward.”
“Taos, I need to talk to you. Badly. Alone.”
“Pofu, I’m not like that.”
Pofu chuckled sadly. “Really, Taos. Now?”
“Uh, can it wait? Until tomorrow? I’m kind of tired.”
“Alright. So long as you don’t die on me overnight.” Taos laughed, turning to go to Geuzi. “By the way, where did you want to go tomorrow?”
“Oh, uh . . . I thought maybe you had something planned.”
“Oh well. Tomorrow?”
“Bright and early. First thing, I promise.”
Geuzi opened her eyes after five minutes of lying on the floor of the den with them shut, but still being conscious. She needed to get up. If she didn’t, the lionesses could be feeling something wet soon, and it wouldn’t be rain. Damn her lack of feeling.
She lifted herself from the floor of the den and went out into the night. It was chilly. She was walking for about five feet when she heard a yawn behind her. She turned around seeing a cub behind her.
“Whatcha doin’?” asked the cub.
“My business.” Geuzi turned and headed for the grass again.
The cub followed. “Your name’s Giza, right?”
“It’s Geuzi,” said Geuzi, her irritation showing plainly.
The cub didn’t seem to hear it. “Oh. Well, my name’s Giza.”
“That’s wonderful. Now get back in the den.”
“But I need to go,” said Giza. Her eyes lit up in inspiration. “Hey, we can go together!”
Geuzi couldn’t remember the last time it took so much effort to refrain from turning around ad killing someone. There was no end to how much she hated cubs. She turned to the side and squatted. “Do you mind?!”
“No. Go ahead.” Giza squatted as well. Geuzi groaned and straightened up when she was finished. Giza finished at about the same time. Geuzi turned and began to walk still further away from Pride Rock.
“Hey, where you going?” called out Giza, following her.
“Really? But Nowhere’s that way.”
Geuzi turned to look at the cub impatiently. The cub had her foreleg pointed south. “A different nowhere.” She resumed walking.
“I don’t think there’s another Nowhere.”
Geuzi stopped and sighed. “It’s very dangerous out here. Go home,” she said levelly.
“Maybe you should come back, too. Mommy says no one should go outside at night.”
“And just who is your mommy?”
“The princess. Her name’s Uzuri. She’s really nice. I think you’d like her. Do you want to meet her?”
“Do you ever shut up?”
“That’s a bad word.”
“It’s two words. So shut up and go home.”
Giza cocked her head. “Why?”
Geuzi sat down with a sigh. She looked up at Giza with a smile and stretched out her foreleg. “Come here, little cub.” Giza walked over to her. Geuzi drew Giza close to her stomach in a rather maternal manner. “Let me try to—explain something to you. Do you know how you were born?”
Giza nodded happily. “The stork!”
“And do you know what the stork is?”
“It’s a bird!”
“That’s right. It’s a bird. And it’s not a nice bird. It’s a mean, nasty, cruel bird, with a very pointy beak and very, very sharp talons. And it comes, bringing little gifts like you. And if mothers had any sense, they’d beat the nasty stork away.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Little cub—little, disgusting, helpless Giza, I hate you. I loathe you and every other cub on a level your little, little mind just can’t comprehend. Little runts like you have done nothing for me. You’ve beaten me, tortured me. Do you know what the worst thing you’ve done is? You little cubs have laughed. You’ve pushed me of a hundred-foot cliff, broke every single one of my legs, and laughed.”
Geuzi’s foreleg that wasn’t holding Giza close to her stomach curled into a fist in front of Giza. “And you have no idea how much I just hate you.” The paw sprang open, its claws unsheathing, very long and very close to Giza’s tender cub body. “I wish I could just tear every one of you apart, just making you feel a little bit of the pain, and the humiliation, that you have forced me to suffer.” Giza tried to squirm away from the claws that were coming unconsciously closer.
Geuzi finally looked away from her imaginary bloodbath and down at Giza. She put a claw in the soft spot underneath Giza’s neck, tilting it up so Giza looked at her, trembling. “And so, little Giza, I really do think you should go home, or else your mother will be very, very worried when she can’t find you.”
“You—you’d hurt me?” said Giza in a small voice, trying to open her mouth as little as possible.
“Very good! I’m glad you’ve actually learned something tonight. Now leave.” Geuzi lowered the claws and Giza ran off into the darkness, heading toward Pride Rock. Geuzi smiled.
Geuzi continued on her way. Taos had showed her the place, but she hadn’t actually gone there. The Tree of Life, or so he called it. The younger lionesses seemed to call it the Great Tree. They had no idea what it housed, or rather, used to house.
Geuzi leapt into the tree, using knots and branches to work her way up. A courtesy entrance, that’s what the tree needed. Geuzi leapt into the center, landing into a place that had once housed a shaman. She looked around. Half-shells of paint-powder lay in careful places, some nearly full, others almost empty.
A walking stick with two gourds attached to the top laid in a corner against the side of the tree in a crook that seemed to be have been made for it. It was the only thing that seemed in its place, as if someone had put it there deliberately, while the rest of the objects lay scattered about in slight disorder. Geuzi could easily imagine from the massive pawprints who had put it there.
Geuzi sighed. She had come here to search, not gawk. She looked around the tree, paintings on every part of it. She idly wondered why she had come to the tree now. She always went to the home of every shaman, seeing if they knew her cure. All she had was bits and pieces, seemingly contradictory. But they all agreed on one thing: she needed a pure soul.
But it was hopeless, here. There was no shaman; he had died four years ago. All there was were these drawings. Geuzi shook her head. It could have waited until morning and better lighting, but she had come here now. She might as well start.
She began looking through the pictures on the wall. Almost every kind of animal she could imagine was on there. She was sure this would be a wonderful history if someone could explain it to her.
She worked her way up the walls. She was amazed at the detail of the pictures as she went higher. They became smaller and smaller to fit the branches of the tree, but they seemed to have more detail, such as the animals having individual digits, full eyes, not just dots of paint, and careful details to distinguish one animal from another of his kind, such as spots in a certain way. These had been crafted with extreme care. They were the history of the Pridelands, depicting the most famous encounters, the most famous births.
Geuzi searched, looking for something that wasn’t there. She reached the top, barely balancing on two slim branches, looking at the last of the pictures on that branch and praying that the branches she was on wouldn’t snap. She cursed long and well, not finding what she needed.
She made her way back down to where she had branched off, and started again. It was no use. She finally descended back down to the floor and started again, this time taking a different set of branches. She found nothing. She tried another two.
She started on the fifth set, thoroughly annoyed, cursing Rafiki for having died three years earlier. She continued to curse until halfway up the tree, where she suddenly ceased to insult his heritage in names that most certainly weren’t true.
She stared at the little symbol in front of her. It wasn’t like the others; it had no distinguishing features. It was something with a head and four legs, but that was all that could be told about it. She couldn’t believe it. She’d seen others like it in other lands. Something generic, something that symbolized every animal. She smiled a bit, or rather, frowned less.
The animal was wounded, obviously, and next to it was a plant that was . . . d’ron. Yes, because the animal ate it, instead of having it applied to its injured leg, which d’ron was notorious for. It worked miracles, but was very, very powerful, overly so, and was only to be used in small doses for near-death losses of blood, and could only be taken by mouth. Unfortunately, the patient had usually passed out from loss of blood, and was unable to swallow it.
Geuzi had finally found it. This was the shaman’s medical reference. The same animal, pictured over and over again in various states of injury, with a remedy next to each one. Her cure was here if it was anywhere. She began to climb with new energy, the sun peeking over the horizon. She paid no attention.
She looked through the paintings, the drawings becoming harder and harder to follow due to their diminishing size and increasingly confusing remedies. She went up and up, and then, suddenly, stopped. She descended two feet. There, right there. The animal wasn’t injured. It was perfectly fine. And yet it was still being cured of something.
Geuzi’s heart raced as she looked at the cure and the multiple shapes. There was the animal, and another animal whom the shapes surrounded. It dawned on her. The pieces were contradictory, unless, of course, they weren’t together. Some said triangles, some said circles. Both were there. And then, after the cure, the first animal seemed to stand straighter than ever, the second one slouching down, looking depressed.
Geuzi actually laughed out loud. She had found it. After all these years of searching, she had found it.