Simba’s Pride: The Road Less Traveled
A Parallel Past in the TLK Universe
“So, instead of Monah leaving you by your mommy’s side and not splitting up the pride and allowing you and your sister to grow up with each other rather than apart, you think that this was the way the gods laid things out to be? I think I will call you crazy.” –Vitani, “Cracks in the Ice”
Repetition. It happens all the time in TV shows, books, and movies. Writers try to avoid it, but like entropy, it just happens.
As a writer in the Lion King fandom, I try to keep my stories as original as possible, but even I, someone who has been writing and creating appraised art since I could read, write and draw, hit speed bumps every now and then.
For example, my first work, Tanabi’s Return. The concept of Simba’s son, Tanabi, being stolen as an infant by an outcast lioness is a lot better than the actual story (at least, that’s what I think). But look! He’s reliving his father’s own life, with one major difference being that Simba was a few months old when he ran away from home. But otherwise, the story of the prince being separated from his homeland and not returning until adulthood in a time of trouble. In spite of TR and the two “add-ons” I wrote, After the Union and Cracks in the Ice, that repetitive landmark still haunts me.
But there’s always been that little spark in the back of my mind (and every TLK fan’s mind who knew that the cub at the end of TLK was not the same cub as the one at the beginning of TLK2), that wonders:
“What if Monah didn’t kidnap Tanabi?”
This one little question sparks a myriad of possibilities branching outward in every direction, as well as many more smaller questions: “What would Tanabi and Kiara’s friendship have been like as they grew up? Would Zira still have been exiled? What would happen to Kovu, Vitani and Nuka? Would Tanabi and Monah have the same relationship? Would Kiara still turn out to be a terrible hunter?”
Of course, I can’t answer all the questions that that one little catalyst triggers, but this story will try to just the same. The title is still “Simba’s Pride”, but it’s a whole new pride in this story. Some events will be kept, but they will certainly be different. It’s a story full of possibilities, hopes, and a lot less repetition than the road frequently traveled by TLK fan fiction writers (namely, the road marked by little, round, black, mouse ears). The quote above partially inspired it, but it was mostly the great stories written by all the other fans that encouraged me to keep on going. My thanks go out to Robert Frost as well.
And here I go…
The night was slowly fading in the fertile grasslands that had once been ruled by darkness and hate. The sun illuminated the horizon, and the shadows quickly fled before it.
All but one.
One shadow watched the sun rise from behind a pile of boulders, sniffing the air, waiting for a chance to move.
The chance came, and she took it.
If someone had been watching, it wouldn’t have looked like much more than a thin shadow flickering across the ground, then ascending a path that wound its way up a gargantuan pillar of rock flanked by a sharper one that protruded out and upwards at an angle, supported by a smaller boulder beneath it.
The shadow found another pool of darkness to duck into. She flattened herself against the cold wall and banished the chill feeling from her ribs. With eyes like flames, she eyed the sharp rock, not allowing anything to distract her. A tiny flicker of movement near the base of the promontory caught her eye. She focused her eyes, which were remarkably sharp, even for one of her species, and singled out what she was looking for. So small, yet so painful for her to look at. She turned her head away.
Then she noticed the animals. Great herds and flocks of beasts and birds approaching the rock, as if they were being drawn to it. Gazelles and elephants, monkeys and storks, they all came, not caring that this place was home to an animal that preyed upon them. They had come out of respect to honor their future ruler. The one that might feast on their young ones and slay their elders. But that was the way life was, for all of them.
The shadow tensed, hoped none of the creatures happened to be looking up to where she was, then coiled and sprang, darting up the path. If she hadn’t turned when she did, she would have gone straight up to the thing she was intently looking at earlier, but instead, she had taken a sharp left and braked right inside the entrance to a small, cool den. Several lionesses lay about, some young, some old, but all of them with one common feature: a sleek, thin figure and ratty, mussed, dull tan fur.
The shadow stepped over the sleeping bodies, as noiselessly as a falling leaf. Near the end of the cavern was another lioness of similar physique, but her fur was lighter, and somewhat less dirty. A light brown stripe started between her eyes and tapered off between her shoulder blades. A circular notch nicked the edge of her right ear. At her side were two tiny cubs. One of them had light brown fur, with a dark tuft of fur between its ears. The other was a pale tawny gold, with a small forelock, which was unusual, considering that she was a female.
“Zira,” the shadow said quietly, standing a few feet away from the lioness, whose red eyes snapped open at the mention of her name, but relaxed once they recognized the figure that had spoken.
“”Monah,” she purred. “What did you wake me up for?”
“I saw him,” Monah replied, sitting down beside Zira.
“You did?” Zira said, kneading the air with her claws. “And what did you think of that son of a murderer?”
“Zira, don’t call Simba a murderer. You don’t know him. In fact, I don’t know him. We’ve only known him for a few months.”
“I don’t need to know him to know what he did,” snarled Zira. Monah made an incomplete lunge, her forepaws landing inches from Zira’s face.
“Zira, please,” she said, firmly but anxiously. “I need to talk to you about the prince.”
Zira seemed to calm down slightly. Her paws relaxed and she began breathing slower.
“You told me your plan a few weeks ago,” she said. “Have you changed your mind?”
“Zira, Every lioness that has been close to a male in their lives in this pride has borne at least one cub. You and I are probably the oldest in the pride, you have had three, and I haven’t had one. Not even a stillborn.”
“I know,” said Zira, brushing Monah’s paw with hers. “You’ve told me that many times and I still can’t help but feel sorrow for you.”
“And everything I’ve heard makes it clear that some lionesses weren’t meant to bear cubs, and sometimes the reason for this is a complete lack of readiness or interest, but I want to have one. I want to go through the pain of birth just to spend a few years of my life with someone I can call my offspring. I want to feel joy at seeing my cub take a mate and continue the cycle. I want to…”
Here she broke down in mid-sentence. Her eyes were growing wet, and her throat was constricting. Zira tried to comfort her friend as she silently cried and sobbed. The soft noises awakened the two infants sleeping by Zira’s side, who began squeaking and searching for milk. Monah stopped crying and looked at the two cubs. Zira smiled and gently picked up the brown cub in her mouth, holding it up in front of Monah’s face. She stared at it and smiled a pained smile. The cub drew back its paw and gave her a bat on the muzzle, but she didn’t draw back. She knew that it was an expression of love.
Zira lowered the cub and allowed it to continue suckling, along with its sister.
“Tell me, again, what your plan is, Monah.”
Monah swallowed and continued speaking, in a much quieter and weaker voice.
“I wanted to take him – the king’s son – as my own. I really don’t know why now. I didn’t want to steal from a common lioness. I live among them. Even though they may not notice me, I am one of them. But just between the two of us, I have never really been on the king’s side. He never acknowledges me, and I never acknowledge him. So if I stole his cub and left the pride, would he even notice the difference?”
“I think he would, Monah. I think he would.”
“But like I said earlier…I saw his son. And I realize that I…I…”
She paused, trying to force the words out of her chest.
“I can’t do it. Though I may not be on his side, Simba is my king, and his son, my future king…if I live that long. He hasn’t done anything to deserve it. He’s been through enough in his life already.”
“So have I. His mate wasn’t pushed from the throne and killed.”
“Zira, Simba was the rightful heir. Scar became king because he exiled Simba and killed Simba’s father. You only let yourself believe that Simba killed Scar and that Scar was king. You don’t…”
“Don’t you try to twist the truth,” Zira suddenly growled, making Monah scoot backwards several inches. “I loved Scar. He gave me love and made me his queen when I was no one. And his last wish was that my second-born son should carry on in his place. My Kovu…” Here she touched the brown cub’s black tuft with her left paw, “…will be the next king.”
“Zira,” said Monah, “Scar was dying then. He couldn’t foresee that Simba would have a male cub, could he?”
“I loved Scar,” repeated Zira, more forcefully than before. “And I do not wish to ignore his last request to me. Kovu shall be king…once Simba – and his son – are out of the way.”
“Don’t hurt them,” said Monah. “Ever since Scar was killed, I’ve seen something in you that frightens me. I won’t let you hurt them.”
“Remember what you said that night? ‘I still love you, Zira’? Did that just apply to that night, or was it really a permanent statement?”
Monah rose to her feet and stood with her feet firmly planted on the cave floor.
“I’m not going to say anything more. You and I have always been friends, and I don’t want it to ever change. I came here merely to tell you my decision. Simba will keep his son. I’m sure I can find others that will let me play ‘mother’ with them.”
As she spoke, she glanced behind Zira, where a scraggly, gray-tan cub lay sprawled out on the ground. A wild tuft of black mane sprouted up from his head. As he dozed, he snorted slightly and batted at imaginary objects.
Monah smiled almost invisibly, and turned to leave.
“The sun’s rising. I assume you’re going to be staying in here?” she asked, solemnly, looking back over her shoulder.
Zira made a low, rumbling sound in her throat. Monah wove her way through the maze of lionesses and out into the light of day.
As the white-haired mandrill sage lowered the golden cub and the cheers and salutes from the many animals beneath subsided, a young, red-maned lion and a green-eyed, cream-coated lioness stepped forward to the promontory of the great rock. The lion looked down into the cub’s eyes and smiled.
“Well, Tanabi,” he said softly. “Did you see my father up there?”
The cub looked up at him with wide eyes, and smiled the same way and batted at him with a paw.
“I’m sure that he did,” said the lioness, nuzzling her mate. “He just doesn’t want to tell us just yet.”
“Hey, Simba,” said an irritated, small voice from behind the three felines. The two adults turned to see a small meerkat perched on the head of a much larger rufous-pelted warthog. “Can I please look at the little tyke for at least a minute? You’ve been guarding him like a prized grub log, and I haven’t even seen what color his eyes are!”
“They’re just like his dad’s, Timon,” said the warthog, snuffling heavily in exasperation.
“I didn’t want to know what color they were,” yelled the meerkat, hopping off the warthog’s head and approaching the lions. “I just wanted to take a look at our pal’s new kid!”
He neared the lanky mandrill, who was still cradling the tiny cub, then turned back to Simba.
“Please, Simba? Please, Nala, ma’am? I promise I won’t pinch him or pull his ears or anything. That’s that last thing I’d even think of doing…”
Simba, deciding to toy with the little animal, turned to Nala.
“Well, Nala? What do you think?” he winked at her, urging her to continue the ruse.
“Well,” Nala said slowly, getting Simba’s drift immediately, “He is very, very young and might be frightened by someone like Timon…”
Timon stood up straight on his two hind feet and put his front paws on his hips.
“Hey, what do you mean, I might frighten him? I told ya, I’d be careful! I won’t even touch him! I’ll have my paws to my back. Look!”
Here he whipped both hands behind him and interlocked the fingers tightly.
“I won’t touch a whisker on the kid! Meerkat’s honor! You can trust me, Simba!”
Here the warthog snorted hollowly.
“And Pumbaa too, but I know better than to break a vow like this! Have I ever let you down before? Please, can I take a look at…what did you say his name was?”
“Tanabi,” said Nala.
“Great name, ma’am, really great name,” Timon said, starting to get to the end of his rope. “Now can I please take one little look at the darn kid??”
Simba and Nala exchanged glances and Simba shrugged, indicating that they should stop tormenting the meerkat. After all, he had asked politely.
“All right,” said Simba, “You can look at him. Rafiki, let Timon see the new Prince of Pride Rock.”
The old baboon, who had been secretly smiling at his king’s treatment of Timon, lowered the tawny cub in his arms until he nearly touched the ground. The little meerkat approached cautiously. The cub’s eyes were closed, but as Timon stepped nearer, the cub opened its large eyes and smiled.
“Oh my gosh,” said Timon, his eyes growing moist. “He’s so sweet…never thought I’d live to see the day our buddy got himself a girl and a kid…”
Tanabi opened his tiny mouth in a laugh and began batting at Timon, although he never actually touched him. Instead, it was as if he was swatting at something invisible surrounding the meerkat. Neither Simba nor Nala could guess what it was.
“Hey, hey, hey, this is a good fur coat here, kiddo, easy with the claws,” yelled Timon, although Tanabi had been swatting with his tiny claws retracted. Timon started backing away. “Well, Simba – yikes! – he’s a cute little guy, but – yow! – I think you should let him be with members of his own species for now!”
“Whatever you say,” said Rafiki, lifting the cub away from Timon. Then Pumbaa came trotting up.
“Hey, Simba,” he said eagerly. “Can I see Tanabi?”
Simba and Nala looked at each other and made uncertain “errrrr”s in unison, snickering slightly afterwards.
“Maybe later,” said Simba to Pumbaa. “After he’s rested a little. And is used to huge faces looking at him.”
“I agree,” said Pumbaa, who was never a warthog who argued after a single sentence. “Let the baby rest. I mean, he was just born a few hours ago, right?”
“Boy, this is gonna be great,” said Timon, as the six of them began to make their way back to the main cave. “We’ve got a new nephew to play with!”
“Nephew?” said Nala, a little surprised that a warthog and a meerkat should consider a lion cub their nephew.
“Yeah! And we’ll keep an eye on him, be his faithful friends and show him how to live off the fat of the land, right, Pumbaa?”
“Whaddaya mean, ‘the fat of the land?’ I don’t know anything about that.”
“I’d think you’d know a lot about fat, Pumbaa,” said Timon sarcastically.
“Hey! This is trim for a warthog!” said Pumbaa, looking his friend straight in the eye.
“Okay, okay, I get it. Anyway, Simba, we’ve got all the time in the world for Tanabi, and we can handle a schedule with him in it just fine.”
“Can you?” asked Nala.
“Yep,” replied Timon, not catching the hint of sneakiness in her voice. “We’ll always have mountains of time for that little guy, you mark my words!”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll have mountains of time,” said Nala.
“We won’t?” asked Pumbaa.
“No, I’d say you’d have the equivalent of a few foothills.”
“Lady, cut the metaphors and tell me what you’re saying!” barked Timon, stomping his hind foot, his frustration hiding his anxiety.
“All right,” said Nala. She looked ahead and called out to the cave.
“Ramla! Please bring her out here. I want someone to see her.”
“Eh…who are you talking about?” asked Timon nervously. As he spoke, a dirty, tan-coated lioness came out of the cave. Hanging gently from her maw was a little golden cub, nearly identical to Tanabi, but with only one small exception: there were no dark rims on its ears. Also, its forehead lacked the tiny scruff of hair that Tanabi had.
The lioness Ramla drew closer to the small group, then stopped a short distance away from them, with the cub dangling a few inches from Timon and Pumbaa, who looked at each other with equal looks of fright.
Suddenly the cub opened its shining hazel eyes and began squeaking happily and squirming in Ramla’s grip. Its little stub of a tail wagged frantically as it swatted the air with its front and back paws.
“Timon, Pumbaa,” said Nala proudly, “Meet Princess Kiara, sister of Prince Tanabi.”
“Twin births have been rare in my family tree,” said Simba. “And to think that I would be the father of these two precious cubs is just amazing.”
“Twins?” said Timon, staring at the cub. “Pumbaa…there are two of him.”
“Well, yeah,” said Pumbaa, also focused on the cub. “Except… he’s a boy…and she’s a girl…”
The two of them looked behind them at the first cub still cradled in Rafiki’s thin arms.
“But still,” said Timon, as they turned again, “There are two of them…two of them…”
Suddenly the tension was broken as the meerkat and the warthog looked at each other with pure horror in their eyes.
“Two of them!” they shrieked in unison. With that, they both fell down, unconscious, on the ground. Kiara squeaked happily, then looked up at her brother, who had also been watching the whole scene. Then they both laughed together.
“Simba, you have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ sooner or later,” pleaded Sarabi from where she lay on the cave floor. Beside her sat several lionesses, and opposite her sat Simba, Nala and the rest of the pride. Tanabi and Kiara lay asleep in the paws of Sarafina, Nala’s mother, while Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu sat close by.
“Mother,” said Simba, “Zira and the ones that have, well…sided with her make up nearly half my pride. Without them…”
“She is the mate of the one that killed my love…my love and your father,” trembled Sarabi. “She may have done no wrong…yet…but she and her companions have been drifting away from the rest of us more and more.”
“And don’t forget those fights that are starting to break out,” said Nala, looking into her mate’s eyes. “One of those lionesses nearly killed one of the other pride sisters because she said Scar was a reincarnation of Giza.”
Simba nodded, vaguely remembering the tale told to him by his father about the lion that had ruled the Pridelands with tyranny and hate. The tale he had told him before…before it happened.
“Do you think this is just a temporary thing?” asked Kifaa, a dull cream lioness with reddish brown eyes. “Will Zira always feel like this towards Simba and the rest of the pride? Just because he threw her mate from the throne that wasn’t his to begin with?”
“Though deep down, I will always feel hate towards my uncle for what he did, I’ll have to accept that he is gone now. I can’t rule over this land my father left me with hatred like Scar did.”
“Zira doesn’t agree with your way of thinking,” says Sarabi. “She wants revenge, and she won’t stop until either she or you are dead. I never heard this myself, mind you, but I know her well enough. Her thoughts move like snakes. You never know when they’ll strike.”
“Oh?” asked Nala, looking at her mother-by-law with curious, yet skeptical emerald eyes. “And once she kills Simba, what next? Is she going to rule in his place? Who will be her mate then? Some wandering rogue?”
“I have no idea, child,” said Sarabi. “I just feel it. I’ve known her long enough to know how she schemes.”
“What she’s saying,” explained Sarafina, “Is that you should consider doing something about Zira and her…well, her companions, if you wish to call them that.”
“Yeah,” said Timon, stepping forward into the empty space formed by the enclosing semicircle of lions. “And killing ‘em is definitely outta the question, right, Simba?”
“That’s right, Timon,” said Simba, ignoring the shocked looks on some of the lionesses’ faces at the meerkat’s statement.
“Why not just send them off somewhere, somewhere far, far away?” asked Pumbaa, gesturing with his front hoof.
“They might just reconvene, reinforce, gain some support and come right back at us in a few years,” said Nala. “Besides, they would be even angrier at us for banishing them with no real motive.”
“True, very true, Madam,” said Zazu, bobbing his head in agreement.
“Yeah, I know whatcha mean,” said Timon. “'Okay folks, you’re ordered to leave this land because your lead lioness has got a bad attitude and had a relationship with a murderer and…’…Hey, this suddenly doesn’t seem like a bad reason after all…”
“Timon, just stop talking, all right?” said Simba, suddenly turning away from him and lowering his head.
“Simba, what’s wrong?” Nala asked.
“I don’t know what to do,” he gasped between silent sobs. The pressures of the situation had finally broken him. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“I do,” said a low voice from the shadows of the cave behind them.
All heads turned to the dark interior of the cave. A figure was slowly approaching them. It walked with a stealthy step, like the gait a beast of prey might possess, not a hunter. But it was a hunter. A lioness. A dark, thin lioness with a bony face and brilliant orange eyes that reflected the midday sun that shone through the cave opening, the only bright thing about her. She slowly neared the circle, then stopped. She was welcomed with silence.
“Who are you?” Simba asked quietly.
“You don’t know me?” asked the figure.
“I don’t remember seeing you,” said Simba.
“I see you nearly every day,” said the figure. “In fact, I’m sure it’s every day, end of statement.”
“You haven’t told me who you are yet. I asked you a question, and I’d like an answer.”
“I am a member of your pride,” said the figure.
“Oh yeah?” said Timon. “Since when?”
“I am a member of your pride who hunts while the others rest, and watches while others sleep.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” asked Timon.
“I am someone who knows Zira.”
A worried murmur of voices raced through the circle of lionesses. Recurring questions such as “Who is she?”, “What does she mean?” and “What does she know?” kept bubbling to the surface. Timon nervously stepped back and climbed on top of Pumbaa’s head.
“What do you mean?” Simba asked.
“I am her friend. I know her almost as well as I know myself. She trusts me with her secrets, as I do with her. But she shuns your word and blocks out all you say. There are very few things about you that matter to her, my king.”
More murmurs came from the assembled group. Simba looked at the figure closely, trying to analyze her form what little he could make out.
“You’re not one of Zira’s supporters,” he said.
“But she’s not one of us either,” said Kifaa. “She looks like a black leopard!”
“Stop,” Simba said firmly. “This lioness may have some information that might help us in solving this problem. Would you please come forward, stranger?”
The figure stepped forward. The light made her pelt scarcely more distinct than it was. She walked forward, into the circle of lionesses. Several members of the pride detected a strange odor from the lioness. Not the typical scent of the savannah and the den, but rather a cold, musty aroma, an aroma only present in the places where others never look.
As she reached the center of the circle, she turned to face Simba. Simba found himself looking into a pair of flame-like eyes that somehow made his skin turn cold and his eyelids flicker.
“Well,” he murmured. “You may speak now. Please tell us all you know about Zira.”
“She is a very troubled soul,” said the stranger. “And she loved Taka – or Scar, as you call him – not for his hate and rage, but for his love towards her. He gave her what she needed most and accepted her, in spite of her flaws.”
“Yep, it sure takes one to know one,” said Pumbaa, who was sitting directly behind the lioness. She turned her head over her shoulder and looked at him with a glance that was not angry or admonishing, but it caused the warthog to shy away from her just the same.
“She is my friend,” she said firmly, turning back to Simba. “While you, Simba, were taking your place in the Circle, Zira was crouched over her mate’s mangled body, grieving more than she ever had in her life. I was with her. So was her son.”
“Her son?” repeated Simba in surprise. Several of the lionesses gasped at the same time.
“No, I didn’t!”
“Well, I knew she had a cub before it even left her belly. Nuka saw his father’s body. He is only a few months old. How old were you when your father was killed? Not much older, right?”
Several agitated voices began brewing in the circle of lionesses at the stranger’s rude boldness. Claws were unsheathing, Nala and Sarabi glaring at her with rage, Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu were exchanging looks of terror, and Simba was trying to decide what the right response to the cold, dark lioness’s words should be.
“What is she going to do?” he finally asked in a flat monotone.
“She wants revenge,” said the lioness. Her words lacked the sinister tone Simba would have expected. Instead, it was quieter, almost sad, as if the lioness regretted what she was revealing to him.
“You mean…” said Simba, trying to piece the puzzle together, “This Nuka…she’s going to condition him to…to kill me?”
After a deathly shock, the lioness slowly shook her head.
“Nuka isn’t the chosen one.”
“That is what Zira calls her second-born, the one whom she intends to rule after you are…” she paused and grimaced before spitting out the words: “Out of the way.”
Sarabi began growling, and the lioness began flattening her body against the floor, preparing for an attack from the older but certainly stronger lioness.
“Mother,” said Simba, “She has harmed no one…yet. Don’t hurt her.”
Sarabi slowly stopped growling and relaxed, deciding that her son’s statement was safe to believe.
“Although I may not know that Zira has at least two cubs, does she know that I have two cubs as well, one of which is a son, destined to rule in my place when I go, just as it has been for generations?” Simba asked.
“I’m sure she knows,” said the lioness quietly. “I talked with her about your offspring just a few hours ago, and judging by what she said about them…”
Here the lioness paused and took a step closer to Simba.
“I would start watching both her and your cubs very closely.”
The volume of horrified inhalations and mutterings in the cave reached a peak. Some of the lionesses began whispering foul things about Zira, some of them began pointing at the two dozing cubs and talking in frightened voices, and some began rattling Simba and the strange lioness with questions that were mostly incomprehensible, due to all the other noises.
Finally, Sarabi let out a loud growl for silence. The audience immediately became quiet.
“My son has taken on a lot of responsibilities as king,” she said calmly. “And raising two cubs is one thing, but having a mad lioness intent on killing one or even both of them is an entirely different matter. But as king, he has a choice. He can exile Zira and her companions, or he can let them stay. Whichever decision he makes is law, and it is up to him what is right in these lands.”
Simba’s brow furrowed in thought. The stranger once again stepped closer to him.
“Simba,” she said. Simba’s head snapped up at hearing his own name being spoken by someone he barely knew. “Don’t be like your uncle. Don’t just see the surface of the river. Look down, deeper. Zira may have a cruel intent, but she has one young cub and two newborns to care for. Exiling her may be one thing, but exiling Nuka, even in the company of others, is no kinder than what Taka did to you. Try to know her as I have known her, Simba. She is more than what she appears. I know how much trouble it will be for you, but I will help. I am closest to her. I will talk to her. I won’t let her kill you…or your children.”
At that moment, there was a small cry from the golden-furred twins between Sarafina’s paws. Tanabi had awakened, and was reaching around, trying to find his father, his tiny eyes not registering that his father was sitting right beside him. Simba looked down at him and smiled faintly, the heaviness of the conversation still weighing on his mind. The stranger froze for a moment, her orange eyes locked on the cub, the turmoil swirling behind them invisible to all who were present. Then she suddenly bent down, the tip of her nose almost touching the little cub.
“What are you doing?” hissed Nala, drawing back her paw, preparing to strike the intruder down for whatever she intended to do. However, all that the lioness did was gaze at the infant as if in longing and sadness. The cub didn’t notice her until she exhaled lightly in his face. Then he looked into her eyes with a look of puzzlement mixed with wonder. Then he reached up with a paw, trying to touch the bridge of her nose.
“Watch out for those claws, lady,” warned Timon from his perch atop Pumbaa’s head.
Tanabi, however, did not start swatting at the lioness as he had at Timon. Instead, he seemed to move his paw forward and stop a few inches away from her skin, then twirl it around in a curious fashion. All the lions standing near watched with expressions of utter bafflement on their faces.
“What is he doing?” whispered a lioness beside Simba, who shrugged and continued to stare.
Finally, Tanabi stopped twirling his paw, smiled at the large, strange face, yawned, then curled up into a slumbering ball once more. The stranger lifted her head away and looked at Simba with a face that seemed to possess more determination and boldness than it had before.
“I can tell your son is special,” she said plainly. “And I will do my best to protect him.”
“Why?” asked a lioness on the opposite side of the circle. “How can we trust you, a friend of Zira, to protect the prince? I’d sooner trust a crocodile to do the job!”
“You don’t know the way I think,” said the stranger, turning around. “None of you do. But I’ve been around long enough to know nearly all the members of the pride. I know Zira’s weaknesses as well as her strengths. I am patient and I can be quick. I will talk to her when her anger begins to overflow. Trust me, and I will help Simba, his son…all of you. You may not see me, but I will be on the watch. Just think of me as a shadow.”
Giving one last glance towards Tanabi and his sister, the dark lioness turned and started walking towards the opening of the cave. Her tail swished at a strangely slow rate as she did. Just as she was about to step into the sunlight, she turned and looked back at Simba.
“Have you considered presenting your daughter to the gods, my king?”
“No,” replied Simba, “I haven’t. My father said only male heirs are presented in that manner.”
“Ah, but that is because no female cubs have ever been born to the Lion King in Pride Rock’s history, isn’t it?”
“Hmm,” Simba murmured in contemplation. “I guess you’re right. You don’t think it would be…breaking any old customs, do you?”
“Of course not,” said the stranger, smiling for what was probably the first time during that meeting. “Let Kiara taste the breath of her ancestors. Since she is destined to rule with her brother…and probably much more, perhaps…I don’t see why she shouldn’t have her own ceremony.”
With that, she turned again and lightly sprinted out of the cave. One of the lionesses near the door sprang to her feet and looked out the entrance to see if she could see her, but Monah had gone.
Two days later, the first female heir ever to be born to the King of Pride Rock was lifted to the sky. A beam of ethereal light bathed her golden, spotted fur and she laughed with delight as a strange, sweet breeze swept through the assembled audience, ruffling fur and feathers. Simba looked up into the thick, swirling pallor of the clouds and could almost swear he was looking into the face he had known as a cub, a face that he would never see until he had exhaled his last breath. The face of his father.
And now as he stood there, beside his mate, the wind that caressed his senses bore the familiar scent of his wise, brave, understanding father. As dry as the air was, he felt his eyes grow moist and all the stresses on his mind melt and evaporate.
Nala rubbed her head against his cheek as their daughter was slowly lowered, breathing out in a guttural purr and turning her brilliant green eyes to her child, which was still cradled in the arms of the mandrill shaman, Rafiki.
“To think I looked like this once,” Simba remarked to no one in particular, smiling at the tiny cub. “Spots and all.”
He nuzzled her forehead lightly, and was amazed to smell not only the fragile, delicate smell of Kiara’s unsoiled fur, but his father’s scent as well. The memory of it had never left him, and to somehow, as impossible as it was, smell his father as well as his daughter, was something that left him breathless for a moment. It was as if she had been sleeping right at her grandfather’s side the previous night.
“No, no,” said Rafiki, interrupting the brief silence. “I think you looked more like dat one than dis one.”
He pointed to something behind Simba and Nala, who turned and beheld Kifaa, who was holding Tanabi by the scruff of his neck. He was half asleep, but he was still awake enough for his parents to see the hazel irises of his eyes.
“He didn’t want to miss the presentation,” said Kifaa out of the corner of her mouth. “First female to be born to Pride Rock’s king and all.”
Simba and Nala smiled in appreciation of the lioness’s intention, but their emotions changed as they noticed the expression on their son’s face. It was one of…what was it? Sadness? Longing? Loneliness? Was he upset that he wasn’t the center of attention now? Was he jealous of his sister now, at this early age?
Nala drew close to him and looked at his face.
“Kifaa, what’s wrong with Tanabi?”
“I didn’t notice anything when I brought him out,” said Kifaa. “What makes you think something’s…”
She was cut off as Tanabi started wailing as if he was in pain. Nala took him from Kifaa and dropped to the ground, licking him rapidly and consoling him between licks. Simba looked closely at his son and sniffed his fur. The king’s brow furrowed. Something was different about the way his son smelled and the way his daughter smelled. The familiar smell of his father was evident in his Kiara’s fur, but in Tanabi’s fur, there wasn’t even a trace. Why was this? Was it just his imagination? He turned and sniffed his daughter’s fur again. No, it wasn’t an illusion. The smell was still there, and it was still not on his son. He wanted to ask someone else if they detected the scent, but how would they know? None of them had been as close to Mufasa as Simba had, and so none of them would recognize the scent. Simba forced himself to shove the quandary out of his mind. He turned again to look at his mate and the heat-wrenching wails of his son.
“He must have been wakened at a bad time by all this noise,” said the king. “Let’s take him and his sister back to the cave so they both can rest.”
“So Tanabi’s sister got to see the gods as well?” said Zira to the lioness. “Well, at least it was a she, and not a he. I’d hate to be forced to kill three birds with one stone.”
“Think she’s fat too?” said a scruffy male cub behind Zira. “As fat as ‘Tani here?”
He gestured to a golden female cub that was trying to drag her tiny body across the cave floor.
“Quiet, Nuka,” said Zira irritably.
“But I didn’t get to see the princess
up close, and she did,” said Nuka, gesturing to himself, then to the lioness. “I just wanted to know if she’s fat, cause both Vitani and that little hippo Kovu are nothing but…“
“I said be quiet!” roared Zira, inches from Nuka’s face. “And don’t talk about your brother that way! You know his future position, do you not?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Nuka, almost inaudibly, turning away. “’The Chosen One.’”
“What else did you see?” continued Zira, turning back to the lioness.
“Not much of importance,” said the lioness. “But the male heir started screaming, and that’s when I decided to leave.”
“Why? Did you start telling him about what I have in store for him?” asked Zira with a conniving smile.
“Nope,” said the lioness. “But what you have in store for him is going to be very hard to carry out. The prince was very closely guarded when I was there. Four lionesses were standing around that one – what’s her name, Kifaa – who was holding him, and pretty darn tightly, too.”
Zira nodded and froze for a moment as a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. She turned her head very slightly, then relaxed to see Monah entering the cave, walking parallel to the wall and staying as close to it as she could. The shadowy lioness sat down, facing Zira. If the lioness speaking to Zira noticed Monah, she gave no sign that she did.
“As inexperienced in fatherhood as he is, that Simba is even more watchful over his offspring than his father,” she continued. “Too watchful, even for his pride, if you ask me.”
Suddenly, there was a rattling of stones and a young lioness, just coming out of adolescence but nevertheless part of Zira’s alliance, skidded down the slope outside the cave, turned, and leapt inside.
“Zira,” she panted. “The king just spoke to me.”
“And what did he say?” asked Zira patiently.
“He wants to speak with us,” the young lioness said.
“Let me guess,” mused Zira. “He’s going to tell us every single rule we have to follow within this kingdom concerning those two little cubs of his. Tell him I know his rules, and I’m not going to listen to him no matter what he does.”
“No, Zira,” said the lioness. “His pride is going hunting in preparation for a feast celebrating the twins’ birth, and since the herds are still recovering, he thought you would be a good individual to ask which animals would be the best to hunt, considering how much experience you’ve had.”
Zira’s left eyebrow raised. “That sounds like a trick to me,” she snarled.
“He assured me that it wasn’t,” said the lioness. And I’m sure every one of us would enjoy a – “
“No,” said Zira firmly and surprisingly aggressively. The two other lionesses looked shocked and confused. “I’m not going to serve that murderer’s needs. Let his own slaves find him food.”
“But…what about us, Zira?” asked the first lioness. “What will we eat?”
“We will hunt,” said Zira, “But far away from wherever they are.”
“Will we still live in the Pridelands?” asked the young lioness.
“Yes,” replied Zira. “There’s no suitable place to raise a young king that would require a moon’s journey from here.”
“So we will have to coexist with the pride, yet stay separate from them at the same time?” said the older lioness.
“Exactly,” said Zira. “We may be close to them, but that doesn’t mean we are them. I was the one who loved Scar, and you were the kind souls who stayed by me in my time of grief. We shall stay together until his death is finally avenged.”
The two lionesses nodded in silent agreement.
“Now both of you find that blue feather-ball that Simba uses as a messenger and tell it that I am…busy with personal matters.”
She drew the brown cub that was lying on the ground close to her side.
“And I trust you won’t tell him what ‘personal matter’ I mean?”
The lionesses smirked and nodded again, then padded out of the cavern, into the bright daylight. Zira’s face grew solemn as she watched them leave. When their tail tips had disappeared around the cave’s mouth, she looked down at her son and palpitated his tiny head meditatively. She had made a decision from which she would never be turning back.
Suddenly, she felt a musty wisp of breath over her shoulder. She turned and beheld the strange, orange eyes of Monah, who had silently circled the cave wall and ended up behind her. Nuka, who was busy making faces at Vitani’s efforts to walk, hadn’t noticed the dark lioness.
“So this is the way you chose to live your life under a king who let you stay in his pride, even though you were the mate of his father’s killer?” she asked quietly.
“He has no reason to get rid of me just for that,” said Zira indifferently.
“Maybe not,” said Monah, “But why threaten the balance even more?”
“You aren’t exactly faithful to him,” argued Zira.
“I never did anything to make him hate me,” said Monah, with more sadness than protest. “In fact, he probably never even saw – he’s probably never seen me.”
“What do you mean?” said Zira suspiciously.
“Nothing, nothing,” said Monah, trying to cover up her mistake. “But is this really the way you intend to live out the rest of your life?”
“I loved Scar,” said the pale lioness flatly. “He wanted an heir. He was king. Even if it was a brief time, he was king, and it is my duty to fulfill his wishes.”
Monah looked at her with what looked like frustration, then inquisitiveness.
“What about the two cubs that had the birthright to the throne before they were even born? And what if your son doesn’t want to become king? What if something happens to him?”
“Nothing will happen to my Kovu,” said Zira, tightening her grip on her son. “I will guard him with my life, as will those that have shown kindness for my sorrows.”
“You may have forgotten, but that is just how Simba and Nala intend to guard their cubs,” said Monah impatiently. “If Simba can’t get to your offspring, there’s no way you can get to his.”
Zira inhaled deeply, preparing to say something full of anger and fury, but she changed her mind at the last moment and grew calm. She stroked Kovu’s body from head to tail. The tiny cub stretched and yawned under her tense digits.
“We shall see,” she said slowly. “When my son comes of age, he will know all about Scar and Scar’s legacy. He will know all I know. He will know all the tricks of the trade. He will know how to take over the throne that is rightfully his.”
Monah was silent for a moment. The only noise Zira heard was her breathing, which bore that familiar mustiness that Zira had grown to associate with her.
“Zira, please don’t do this,” pleaded Monah. “Scar is gone, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. He can’t hurt you from where he is now if you don’t fulfill his ‘dying wish.’ Let the poor cub grow up and live his own life, not a life laid out by a lion that wasn’t even his true father!”
“Stop it!” Zira growled, exposing her sharp white canines. “I was Scar’s mate, and Kovu is my son. Whoever his father is, he is my second son, the one Scar told me would be the one to follow in his path, and take his place.”
“And what place was that? An outcast? A recluse? Someone everyone hates?”
“I didn’t hate him,” repeated Zira. “And my friends didn’t either. I don’t care what the others think. If my love is strong enough, perhaps they will see my reasons for what you seem to make out as treason.”
The dark lioness looked at Zira with tears in her eyes.
“You know…if I stole Tanabi, I would be forced to flee to a far-off land. We would probably never have seen each other again. And since Simba has never seen more of me than my shadow, he would probably blame the most potentially dangerous lion or lioness he could find for the disappearance of his son.”
Zira paused, her expression growing more thoughtful and suddenly turning into great surprise.
“Yes. You, Nuka…all of the lionesses that are ‘on your side’, as Simba would say. I don’t know what he would have done with you, but I do know that you would have been blamed and punished for a crime you never committed.”
Zira flattened her ears against her skull and lowered her head.
“You always were the perceptive type,” she muttered. “I guess I should thank you for not taking the royal brat, then.”
“But he might have still done something to you and your companions,” continued Monah. “You are lucky he chose to let you stay here. But you’re walking on a narrow line, Zira. Please don’t do anything that might separate us. As different as we are, we’re still friends, and I don’t want to die without knowing that you still think of me as you did today.”
Zira nodded slowly.
“All right, Monah. You’re right. Whatever either of us do, let’s hope that we remain friends. But still, I will not give up until my love’s death is avenged.”
Monah pressed her face against Zira’s and exhaled in a rattling purr. She looked down at the tiny cub that her friend intended to place on the throne, the dirty tan cub that was denied the honor, and the light-colored cub that had no real place in anything. Then she lifted her head and rose to her feet. The movement attracted the attention of Nuka. His red eyes widened at the sight of the shadow with its orange eyes.
“One more thing before I go,” she said. “Please think before you do anything, no matter how extreme. And ask yourself who really gave you that cut on your ear.”
She turned and walked silently out of the cave. Nuka looked towards his mother in utter confusion.
“Mom? What did she say?”
“He isn’t sick,” said the old shaman, examining the drowsy cub carefully. “He isn’t hurt. I see no reason why he is fine one moment and bawling his little throat dry de other.”
“Maybe I picked him up awkwardly?” suggested Kifaa, looking at Simba with concern. “Because if I did anything to discomfort your son, I’m very…”
“No, no,” said Rafiki. “De boy is fine, no marks on de neck, no anything. Perhaps he was feeling neglected by his father or mother while I was holding up little Kiara?”
“No…” said Nala. “He was half-asleep until Kifaa brought him up to us. I don’t know what it could have been.”
“Perhaps he just needs sleep,” suggested Rafiki, yawning, “Like I need sleep. Maybe he feel better tomorrow, yes? I’ll be going now. Good night, my king.”
“Good night, Rafiki,” said Simba, accepting the monkey’s exaggerated bow. The lion watched his friend walk in an odd, limping fashion down the path that led down the side of Pride Rock, then across the fertile grasses of the savannah, making a beeline for the ancient, gnarled baobab tree that was reserved for the shaman of the Pridelands. Simba then turned to his side. Kifaa and Nala were still at his side, Nala holding her two cubs between her paws.
“Kifaa? You go back to the cave first. I want to talk to Nala in private.”
Kifaa bowed her head and left the two lions standing alone on the cold promontory. The moon had risen and Simba could barely see his mate’s green eyes in the thick, dark night.
“You really don’t have any idea what might’ve happened to Tanabi this morning, do you?”
“I wasn’t lying. I don’t know what came over him. Maybe Rafiki was right. Maybe he was rudely awakened or something. I guess there’s no way to know for sure.”
“Maybe when he’s older?”
“Maybe.” Simba looked up at the stars. There were few clouds that night, and the stars were as clear as the spots on his cubs.
“Would you take Tanabi and Kiara back to the cave? I want to spend a few minutes alone out here.”
Nala nodded and smiled, rubbing her chin against his mane. “As you wish, your highness.”
She picked up Kiara in her mouth and started back to the cave. She would need to take two trips with the two cubs. When she was far away enough, Simba looked down at Tanabi, who was sleeping peacefully at his feet.
“Do you know what happened to you this morning, Fluffy? I wish I knew so that I could tell you it’s nothing to worry about…and I hope it is. I’d hate for something to happen to you…to you or your sister. But don’t worry. I’ll try to be the best father I can be.”
He stopped talking as he saw Nala approaching. She had left Kiara back at the cave, and was returning for her second charge. Picking her son up gently by the nape of the neck, she nodded a “good-night” to Simba, turned and walked back to the cave.
Simba looked up to the sky and breathed in deeply. The wind of the night was not the same as the wind of the day. It was gentler and not as harsh. It even smelled differently, especially this night. It smelled sweet and familiar. Was it what he thought it was?
“Father…what should I do? I want my son and daughter to have better cubhoods than I did. But how? How can I do this? I knew you for such a short time, and know so little about being a father…and there’s no one I can turn to…except you.”
A gust of wind swept through his mane, overwhelming his senses with that same, strange scent.
“And that dark lioness…who is she?” he asked. “Is she really part of my pride? Did you know her? Is she a friend of Zira’s…or someone on Zira’s side? Are her warnings true, or is she just leading me into a trap?”
He paused, looking down at the dark grasslands and listening to the wind whisper through the reeds. Then he lifted his head again.
“And why does Zira hate me so much? Why doesn’t she understand? What can I say to convince her that I am innocent?”
Simba scraped a paw across the stone of the promontory and looked at the underside of his foot with the five, perfectly formed pads…suddenly it seemed to be no more than a cub’s foot, the paw of a confused young lion who knew too far little to rule himself, let alone a kingdom.
“I know I may be asking a little too much…if you can hear me, that is,” he continued. “But I need help. Do I have to learn on my own and suffer even more if I make a mistake? I guess you would say that’s how the Circle turns, but…haven’t I gone through enough? Losing you, being told I killed you…being robbed of my youth…”
He paused again. His eyes were tearing.
“And all because of Scar. Uncle Scar. Whatever caused him to hate you drove him mad. And he started another Circle…a Circle of Hatred. If only this new Circle could be broken…but I don’t see any chance for that now, with his mate choosing someone to…to do me in when he comes of age.”
He looked up at the stars, then down again, feeling too ashamed to look at the faces of the Kings.
“Why did it have to be me, Father? I can’t break this Circle by myself. Please…even if you can’t stop it…help me. Let me know that I can do this.”
Then, after a long silence, he looked up slowly, his mane trailing into his watery eyes.
“And please help my cubs too.”
“Daddy?” said a small voice in Simba’s ear. “Daddy? Daddy? You up?”
Simba moaned, partly in response, partly in irritation at being woken up at such an early hour.
“Daddy!” said the insistent voice. This time it was accompanied by a small bat on the ear. No claws, but the bat was just hard enough to make Simba open his eyes. He found himself looking at what looked almost like his reflection, except this character was a tiny male cub with spots that had yet to fade from his back.
“Daddy, come out! Look at the colors!”
“Now?” Simba asked, his weariness all too evident.
“The sun’s coming up! Hurry!”
“All right,” grumbled Simba. “I’m getting up.”
He stretched his body, trying not to rub against Nala too roughly, and began to rise to his feet. His tiny son pranced about excitedly on the cave floor, his tail lashing about like a snake.
“Hurry!” he said. “You gotta see this!”
“Okay, okay,” said Simba. “Just a minute.”
He arched his back and yawned heavily, then shook his head free of the tiredness that still stagnated in his brain.
“Lead the way,” he said.
Tanabi grinned excitedly, and began making his way to the cave’s exit. He still had trouble walking, and his stomach was still barely above the ground. As Simba wasn’t walking very fast, their paces were fairly evenly matched as they stepped out of the cave and into the light of the rising sun.
Tanabi kept walking in his flat-footed way until he nearly reached the tip of the main promontory. However, he stayed a considerable distance away from it, obeying what his father had told him on his very first tour of his home.
“See all the colors, Daddy?” Tanabi asked, after scanning the savannah with wide, excited eyes.
Simba squinted at the rising sun and the clouds that cradled it, assuming that Tanabi meant the colors of the sunrise. The clouds ranged from blood red to a gentle pink, and the sun resembled a newborn cub amidst the shrouds of its afterbirth, full of life and warmth. Simba looked upon his son with the metaphor fresh in his tired mind.
“Yes, Tanabi. The sun always looks beautiful when it’s coming up.”
“Not just that, Daddy,” said Tanabi, looking at the grasslands again. “Everything! Look at all the colors coming from all over! Aren’t they neat?”
Simba looked where Tanabi was looking. He could see tiny ripples in the grass from the wind or where small herds of animals were passing through it, as well as many trees, bodies of water, and the great river that cut through the Pridelands. But he couldn’t see the “colors” that his son spoke of. He looked at Tanabi again.
“I see many neat things, Tanabi. Animals, trees, grasses…but the colors seem…well, normal to me.”
Tanabi’s black-rimmed ears drooped, and he hung his head.
“So you can’t see them either,” he said quietly.
“What?” Simba asked, lowering his head.
“Nuthin’.” Tanabi muttered. Simba could see that he had unintentionally said something to hurt the cub’s feelings, but he couldn’t tell what it was. Was the cub seeing something that he wasn’t seeing? Or was it some imaginary game that all cubs play at least once in their lives? However, Tanabi wasn’t too upset by his father’s reaction, so Simba decided to change the subject.
“Have you ever brought Kiara out here to look at your colors?”
“She’s always tired. Do girl cubs sleep more than boys?”
“I guess they do. When I was a cub, Nala would always be asleep in the morning when I was ready to play with her.”
“Well, when I did get her out here, Kiara just told me she saw gold and red and nothing else.”
“Do you see more than that?”
“Yeah…but not much more.”
Simba could tell that his son was holding back something, but he was hesitant to ask him any more. Instead, he gently put one paw around Tanabi’s shoulders. Tanabi rubbed against his father’s leg and sighed. Simba could tell that as enthusiastic as his son was a few moments ago, he was now just as tired as he was.
“Do you want to go back to sleep, Tanabi?”
Tanabi nodded with his eyes closed.
“Do you want me to carry you back to the cave?”
Again, the little cub nodded and yawned.
“All right. Later today, I’ll ask some of the lionesses to bring you back some gazelle. You’d like that, right?”
Tanabi didn’t respond. Apparently, he had grown too tired to nod. Simba stroked the tiny tuft of mane on his son’s head and the cub didn’t try to bat him away. So Simba bent down, picked his son up in his mouth, and padded back to the main cave.
Meanwhile, on the east side of Pride Rock, deep in the shadows of the great structure, a dark figure watched them closely with a mixture of sadness and hope.
Many moons had passed since the twins were born. Their spots had finally faded and they were living on the meat that was brought to them by the lionesses. But they were not allowed to leave Pride Rock, nor go anywhere without an accompanying lioness or a parent. But one morning, both of them awakened at the same time, something that rarely happened, and long before any of the other pride members, something that almost always happened.
“Are you gonna do it?” Tanabi asked his sister.
“No way,” she replied. “You do it.”
“Nuh-uh. I’ve woken Dad up enough. Why don’t you do it for a change?”
“’Cause Daddy says it’s rude to wake other lions up when they’re asleep. We should wait until he’s up.”
“I don’t want to wait,” said Tanabi, shaking his head and letting the twin tufts of mane on his head land awkwardly upon his pate. “Besides, he’s not dreaming anymore. I bet he can hear us talking.”
“How do you know?” asked Kiara. “You’re always talking like that. It makes you sound weird.”
“I’m not weird,” said Tanabi, getting to his feet. “And there was a full moon last night, and Dad promised to show us the kingdom on the next full moon five days ago. I don’t want him to forget.”
“He won’t forget. He’s our Dad. Dads don’t forget stuff like that.”
“Well, he forgot that lions usually eat warthogs and meerkats.”
“Timon and Pumbaa are his friends!” Kiara said angrily. “He told us that! I guess you forgot that, right?”
“No, I was just kidding,” said Tanabi, turning to look at the cave mouth and the brightening day. Kiara glared at him from her perch on a slab of rock slightly higher than the slab Tanabi was standing on.
“You are weird,” she said. “You say weird things and you think weird things are funny.”
“This from the cub who got grossed out by a dead mouse,” said Tanabi without turning his head.
“You thought it was yucky too!” Kiara protested.
“Did not.” said Tanabi.
“Did too!” said Kiara.
“Did not.” said Tanabi.
“Did too!” said Kiara, her voice almost rising to a yell.
“Did not.” said Tanabi, the volume of his voice unchanged.
“Hey Tanabi!” Kiara suddenly whispered. “Look! Daddy’s getting up!”
“He is?” Tanabi asked excitedly, whipping his head around.
That was what Kiara was waiting for. She leapt through the air, barreling into Tanabi. The two of them went sprawling across the cave floor, snarling and laughing until they hit the nearest cave wall – and Timon and Pumbaa happened to be sleeping against that wall. The two let out a yell of terror and shock as the cubs hit them, Timon, being more sensitive to noise, got wind of their approach and was able to leap out of their way just before he was flattened against the wall, landing on the ground where he crouched in fear, his hands over his head. Pumbaa was squealing wildly, trying to free himself from Tanabi and Kiara, who were still grappling with each other. Their combined weight wouldn’t allow him to break loose.
The sudden noise resounded through the cave, awakening not only Simba, Nala and Zazu, who was perched on a pinnacle of rock, but many of the lionesses who were light sleepers. Many of them started laughing at the sight before them, some looked concerned, but too tired to get to their feet and help, and some of them were still too tired to tell what was going on.
Simba, however, looked at his offspring with exhaustion in his eyes, and glanced at his mate, who bore an equally weary expression. He then turned back to the quarreling cubs and the panicked warthog, and calmly said:
“Tanabi? Kiara? What are you doing?”
“He started it!” yelled Kiara, before Tanabi could open his mouth. She still kept a firm grip on her opponent.
“Who, Tanabi or Pumbaa?”
“Tanabi, who else!” Kiara snarled, pointing at her brother, who sniffed angrily in her face.
“Would you two please get off Pumbaa and tell me what you’re doing up at this hour?” asked Simba, as neutrally as he could.
Tanabi and Kiara exchanged angry looks, separated themselves from each other, and climbed off Pumbaa as carefully as they could. As soon as they were off of him, Pumbaa ran from the cave as fast as he could, with Timon, who had finally gotten out of the crouch position, in the lead.
“Mountains of time for the little guy, you said!” shouted Pumbaa to Timon as they ran. “Mountains of time! See if I ever listen to you again!”
Simba looked as sternly as he could at his children, who were still swatting each other and pinning back their ears when the other made eye contact. They had assumed nearly identical sitting positions in front of their drowsy parents. Except for Tanabi’s black-rimmed ears and fiery red tuft of mane, it was nearly impossible to tell them apart.
“Now, from the start: why are the two of you up this early?”
“There was a full moon last night!” said Kiara, again before Tanabi could say anything. “And you promised to show us the kingdom on this day!”
“Right,” said Tanabi, deciding not to start another argument with his belligerent sister. “You said we’d be old enough by today, remember?”
“I did?” Simba asked, trying not to fall asleep again. “Oh yes, I remember. Of course I remember. Your dad isn’t that forgetful, Tanabi.”
“I know,” said Tanabi. “But can we go now? Please?”
“Yeah, can we, Daddy?” Kiara pleaded. “I won’t run off like I did during that last lesson you gave us!”
“He’d probably forgive you if you’d actually caught that lizard you were chasing,” said Tanabi out of the corner of his mouth.
“Stop that!” she hissed. “Or I’ll tell him that you – “
“Both of you stop bickering,” demanded their mother, rolling over and forcing herself into an upright position. “Has your father ever broken a promise to either of you?”
“No,” said Kiara and Tanabi in unison.
“Do you think that he’ll break this promise?”
“No,” they said again.
“Well, I’m afraid you’re only part right,” she said. “Your father will show you the kingdom…but first he needs to catch up on his rest. Maybe when the sun is high, he’ll have the strength to get up.”
The twins’ faces contorted into looks of extreme disappointment and sadness.
“Nooo,” moaned Kiara, staring at Simba’s tired face. “That’s not fair! You promised to take us out as soon as you got up, Daddy! Why did you have to break his promise now??”
“Please, Dad,” said Tanabi in an equally piteous expression. “If we start when the sun is high, it may be too hot for us to go very far. I won’t let you sleep if you don’t show us the Pridelands!”
Simba looked at Nala, whose face was curved into a subtle smile. He smiled back, then turned his hazel eyes upon his distraught cubs.
“Gotcha,” he grinned.
“You mean you were just kidding?” said Tanabi to his mother, who nodded in response.
“That’s not funny!” said Kiara to her father, who was finally starting to give in to the laughter that was brewing inside him. He chuckled audibly and closed his eyes, trying not to give his son and daughter the impression that he was laughing at their hurt feelings.
“Betcha won’t feel like laughing after this!” said Tanabi, leaping through the air and landing on his father’s head, where he raked his mane with his claws and gnawed his ear. Kiara leapt into the fray as well, trying to knock Tanabi off his perch, and Simba began laughing harder than ever, as did his mate and many of the other lionesses. Zazu, who had been silently observing the scene through half-closed eyes, groaned with exhaustion and tucked his head back under his wing, hoping to shut out the terrible noises.
“All right, all right!” Simba finally gasped. “You’ve won, both of you! Now get off me before I change my mind again!”
“So we’re really going?” asked Kiara excitedly, rolling off her father’s head shortly after her brother did.
“You bet,” said Simba, rising to his feet and stretching. “And your mother is coming with us, as is…”
“No, no, no, your majesty, please don’t make me tag along with those two ruffians…” said a feather-muffled voice from behind them.
“Zazu,” said Simba, looking over his shoulder. Zazu unfolded his wings and ruffled his feathers in irritation.
“Those cubs will be the death of me yet,” he moaned.
“I’ve made both of them promise not to practice their hunting skills on you,” Simba assured the hornbill. “Now come on.”
“All right, but I still haven’t forgotten the day your father allowed me to be a subject of one of your ‘pouncing lessons’, highness. I’m going to be staying as far from ground level as I can with those two afoot.”
The colorful blue and white bird sailed off his perch and over the heads of the lions and lionesses and out of the cave. Tanabi and Kiara immediately began to chase after him. Simba smirked with a memory of his cubhood, then followed his two frisking children outside into the daylight, with his mate close behind him.
The land seemed even more beautiful that morning. Perhaps it was the presence of the two heirs frolicking in the sunlight that made it shine brighter than it usually did, as well as the happiness of the king and his queen at seeing their cubs’ joy at being allowed beyond Pride Rock for the first time.
The warning from the dark lioness had increased Simba’s concern for his offspring greatly, and he had waited as long as he could bear before allowing them to be let out into a place where Zira might be waiting behind the next boulder for them, or even this ‘Chosen One’ that she intended to train to kill Simba. Simba couldn’t imagine how a mother could do such a thing to her own son, but he couldn’t deny the fact that Zira was a lioness with revenge on her mind, and eventually, something would have to be done. But not now. Now he had too much to deal with. His son and daughter, his pride, his kingdom. As dangerous as this lioness was, she was still just one lioness. Hopefully, he would one day have the power to meet her face to face and try to reason with the poor, broken, twisted individual.
He wondered how his father must have felt. How did his father manage such a pride, with such a son as Simba and such a recluse as a brother? But Mufasa didn’t even know that his brother felt such deep, burning hatred towards him…until it was too late. But Simba knew almost all there was to know about Zira, thanks to this mysterious lioness that he had never known until the day she appeared before his pride…had his father known her too? She looked old, but not as old as his mother, who was starting to get on in her years. How could she have known all this about him and Zira, and why did Simba trust her? It was her scent. Something about the strange odor she carried hinted of secrecy and unseen places. Somehow, everyone who had seen her felt that the information that she had given Simba could be regarded as true. But was it really true? Only time would tell, it seemed.
But he could not think about it now. He was determined to enjoy this day, and not let his mind gain control over his heart. After all, his children couldn’t be kept cooped up within the confines of Pride Rock all their lives. They would eventually have to learn about the world outside their fortress of stone, and about the harsh realities of it as well. That was something that his mother had told him when he was very young, and hadn’t forgotten since. The sooner Tanabi learned about ruling a kingdom and Kiara learned about the basics of hunting, the better off the both of them would be.
“Every one of us is dependent on the other in order to live,” said Simba as the four of them walked along, remembering the words his father told him long ago and trying not to sound like he was droning on too much. “Take away one part of a circle, and it can’t turn anymore. So, the Circle of Life always finds a place to fill an empty gap, and it keeps on turning. Though some may be born and some may die, there are always just enough things in the Pridelands to keep the circle moving, as long as there is someone to rule over the land with kindness, loyalty and bravery.”
“Wow,” said Kiara, looking at the wide landscape before them. “And which one of us is going to rule the Pridelands?”
“Why,” said Nala, looking from one twin to the other, “Both of you, I suppose. I think you and your brother are the first twins to be born to the King of Pride Rock.”
“Really?” said Tanabi with interest.
“It looks like it,” said Simba, stopping in the shade of a large acacia tree and flopping his muscular body down on the dry grass. Zazu flew up and perched in a branch above the lion’s head.
“But Daddy,” said Kiara, running up to him and pressing her paws against his chest, “You’re the king…and Mom…she’s the Queen…”
“Yes?” said Simba patiently.
“Well…Does that mean Tanabi’s gonna be King and I’m gonna be Queen?”
“Seems like that’s the way it’s going to be,” said Simba, stretching himself. Kiara dropped back to a sitting potision.
“But that doesn’t mean I have to…marry him, does it?”
“Eww!” burst out Tanabi. “There goes my appetite for lunch!”
“Drop dead!” Kiara snapped back.
“Stop it, you two!” said Nala sternly. “Kiara, you can’t marry Tanabi. He’s your own brother. You will only be King and Queen, nothing more.”
“But you and Dad aren’t brother and sister,” said Tanabi, “And you’re King and Queen.”
“Yes, that’s true. We were…betrothed at a young age, Tanabi,” explained Nala.
“Huh?” asked Kiara.
“It was decided that we would be married as adults when we were only cubs,” said Simba with a sigh, recalling what he thought when the word was first defined to him.
“That’s not fair,” said Tanabi. “If I were betrothed, I would’ve asked you to make it illegal or something.”
“Funny you should say that,” said Simba, “When I learned Nala and I were betrothed, I told Zazu I would do that very thing when I became king.”
“And did you?”
“If he had, the two of you wouldn’t be standing there,” said Zazu from his perch in the acacia.
“I don’t get it,” said Tanabi.
“You will someday,” chuckled Simba. “Anyway, like Zazu said, I decided not to make betrothal illegal because I found out that your feelings towards lionesses…change as you get older.” He cast a sidelong glance at Nala as he said this.
“I don’t think mine will,” said Tanabi, assuming a regal pose before his father.
“We’ll see about that,” said Nala, smiling.
“But what if he does change his mind?” Kiara asked.
“I won’t,” said Tanabi.
“I bet you will,” she said assertively. “What happens if Tanabi wants to marry someone, Dad?”
“He would probably have to seek a mate out from the members of the pride or leave this pride in search of another one with a female willing to bond with him,” said Simba.
“Oh,” said Kiara.
“But what if Kiara wanted to marry someone?” said Tanabi, seeing his chance for a comeback. “There are lots of lionesses in this pride, but the only lions are you and me.”
“Perhaps more than that,” said Simba under his breath.
“What?” asked Tanabi.
“Nothing,” muttered Simba.
“So,” continued the cub, “Would Kiara have to leave this pride just to find a mate too?”
“Yeah,” said Kiara, deciding to hide her anger to make Tanabi even more irritated than before. “Who would I marry if I wanted to marry someone?”
“I…” began Simba.
Suddenly, his mind became blank. He had never considered this question before. What if his children did have the desire to find mates? For his son, it would be nothing great, but what about his daughter? Neither his father nor his father’s father had experience in raising a princess, so this was a new experience for him as well as the rest of the pride.
“I don’t really know, Kiara.”
As simple as the sentence was, his mind was racing wildly with suddenly pressing thoughts. Would he be forced to watch his daughter leave the Pridelands forever? To do so would be just as breaking as watching her die. But what would be the alternative? There weren’t any males within a day’s journey from the Pridelands…
“You think that’s them?” asked the female cub.
“I don’t know. Mother never told me what they looked like exactly,” said her brother, nudging her aside slightly.
“Hey, you’ve got plenty of room!” she snapped back, giving him a cuff on his dark ear. Don’t hog my space!”
“Will both of you shut up?” snarled an older, adolescent lion who was perched on a nearby boulder. The flatness and light color of his body made him almost undetectable from a distance, but at close range, he was all too obvious to the two younger cubs peering over a smaller rock beneath him.
“Well, Kovu asked me if he could come, and Mother let him go only because he needed the experience, and you let him come only if he would be quiet, but like I warned ya, he’s being a thorn in the paw, just like I told ya he would be…”
“He’s no less a parasite than you,” responded the older lion, twisting his head and nibbling his left shoulder viciously at the mention of the word. “Stupid bugs. Both these bloodsuckers on my back and you two. No difference except that you have four legs and these guys have six legs.”
“And we know better than to bite something like you,” snickered the female cub.
“What?” said the lion angrily, the black bristle of mane down his back fluffing up in rage, “’Tani, I am going to yank that tongue of yours out and stick it up your nose!”
“Not before Mother hears you screaming after I cut your face,” said the cub slyly.
“Why you little – “
“Hey, Vitani! Nuka!” said Kovu, the third cub. “Keep it down. I think they’ve noticed us.”
“’They?’ Does that include all or some of them?” asked Vitani.
“Just the twins. The boy looked this way and asked the girl to come look. Now they’re both looking this way. See?”
Vitani pinned her ears down and peered out over the rock. Across the yellow grasses, she and her brother could see, in the dappled shade of the acacia, the great, red-maned lion, the cream-colored lioness, and the two golden cubs with the hazel eyes. Both pairs were looking straight at them.
“I think we’d better vamoose,” said Nuka, slowly dismounting his boulder.
“For once, you’re right,” said Vitani, backing away from the boulder as Kovu did the same.
“I’ll get you for that when we get back to Mother,” growled Nuka, as the three of them quickly sprinted away through the saffron savannah.
“I think they ran off,” said Kiara quietly, squinting at the large boulder and the small one beside it. She and Tanabi had stopped talking to their parents after Simba’s last answer, and strayed a short distance away, but still under the mighty acacia. Kiara had spotted something some distance away in the grass. It appeared to be three lions, one scruffy male in his teens, and two younger ones, barely visible, which Tanabi could somehow see much clearer than Kiara did. As they were looking at them, the three lions had suddenly disappeared. Both of the twins tried to hide their surprise from their parents, as well as the fact that they had been intently watching three individuals that they had never been told about.
“Yeah,” agreed Tanabi. “I wonder who those guys were.”
“What are you looking at?” asked Nala, in a friendly manner but still with sternness in her voice.
“There were these three – “ Kiara began, but Tanabi swatted her leg with his tail.
“We thought we saw something, but it was probably just a bunch of birds.”
His story was convincing, but Nala could see that he and his sister were hiding the truth. She turned to face Simba, who had risen to a sitting position.
“What do you think, Simba? Do you think it was them?”
“’Them’? What do you mean, ‘them’?” asked Kiara. Tanabi glared warningly at her, but their parents had gotten wind of their ruse.
“Kiara, Tanabi, I know you saw more than a bunch of birds,” said Simba, looking at his cubs seriously. “I’m not going to say anything harsh. Just tell me what you saw, or at least thought you saw.”
The twins looked at each other, then silently agreed to obey their father.
“We saw three lions,” said Tanabi. “Two were cubs, the third was about a year older than us but much younger than you.”
“Did they look anything like any of the lionesses you’ve seen around Pride Rock?”
“No, no way,” said Kiara. “They were really scruffy-looking and at least one of them had a really dark coat.”
Simba shuddered slightly and looked back at his mate.
“The Kina Mwasi…it must have been.”
“Keena-what?” asked Tanabi.
Simba gave Nala a querying look, and she returned it with a nod. Simba turned back to his cubs and said:
“I guess I’d have to tell you this sometime in your cubhood. You couldn’t grow up not knowing it.”
“What?” asked Kiara.
“Remember the story of Uncle Scar?”
“The lion that killed grandpa and tried to kill you?” asked Tanabi, shivering at his own words.
“Yes. Well…when I became king, I didn’t know it, but…he had taken a mate while I was gone.”
“You’re kidding!” said Kiara. “How could a lion as bad as that get someone else to love him?”
“Maybe she didn’t love him for his evil deeds, Kiara,” said Simba, after pondering the question for a moment. “Maybe he never told her what he did to gain the throne, maybe she couldn’t see how evil he truly was, I don’t know. But I do know that she had one son by him, and at least one more in a second litter. But there have been rumors that this new cub isn’t Scar’s son after all.”
“So his mate went with another male just like that?” asked Tanabi, repulsed. “Sounds like some of his badness rubbed off on her. So what happened next?”
“Well,” continued Simba, “After Scar died, his mate was devasted, as you might imagine, and several members of the pride that had been ‘on her side’ during Scar’s rule pitied her and decided to be her allies from that moment on. But when you were born, they split from the rest of the pride. They are still living in the Pridelands, but they rarely allow themselves to be spotted by us. Unless I’m mistaken, the two cubs you saw were the second litter of Scar’s former mate, Zira, and the older male you saw was Nuka, the only true son of Scar.”
Tanabi and Kiara sat in silence, thunderstruck with fear and excitement. Simba felt relieved to have let the secret he had been hiding from his children out, but now he knew he faced even more questions from those eager young cubs, and would have to let even more information out. But at least he had been able to hide the fact that the young male the twins had seen was plotting their father’s doom.
“Are these lionesses very dangerous?” asked Kiara.
“Well, they supported Scar’s mate, what do you think?” asked Tanabi curtly.
“Quiet, Tanabi! Daddy never said that – what’s her name, Zira? – was evil. Did you, Daddy?”
“The many lionesses who know Zira better than I do say that she was a fairly ordinary and gentle lioness until her mate was killed by the hyenas,” explained Simba. “I’m afraid she may be like that until she dies.”
“Poor Zira,” said Kiara, hanging her head.
“What about her cubs?” asked Tanabi. “If they’re still very young, are they dangerous too?”
Simba paused very briefly before replying:
“Even though they may look harmless, I want you to stay away from them. Remember how Scar’s evil rubbed off on Zira? It might just happen again with her cubs.”
“That can’t happen!” said Kiara. “Cubs don’t get evil from their parents! You grew up around Scar, and you’re not evil, Daddy!”
Simba forced a smile and stroked his daughter’s chin with a paw.
“I just want you to grow up better than I did so you can rule the kingdom better when you grow up. Your brother too. I almost got myself killed lots of times when I was growing up, and with a pride like Zira’s in these lands, you may run the risk as well unless someone watches over you.”
“And it has to be like this forever?” asked Tanabi sarcastically.
“No, Tanabi, not forever. Perhaps when you two are old enough to take care of yourselves or until you can prove that you can at an early age. That shouldn’t be too difficult for a pair of responsible little cubs like you.”
At this moment, Zazu swooped down from his branch, alighted upon Simba’s shoulder and whispered in his ear.
“Sire, you’re still holding too much back from them! Do you want them to grow up unaware of what danger you’re in as well?”
“Shush, Zazu,” hissed Simba. “They’re not ready yet. I can’t ruin their cubhood like Scar did to mine! Let me choose what time is right.”
“As you wish,” said Zazu, fluttering down to the ground dejectedly.
“Hey, Zazu?” asked Kiara.
“Yes?” said Zazu, prepared to cover up what he had just whispered to Simba.
“Watch out!” yelled Kiara, leaping through the air in an attempt to pounce on him. Unfortunately, Zazu could see her action coming, and flapped out of the way just before Kiara hit the ground. Tanabi, Nala and even Simba burst out laughing.
“I think you could use some pouncing strategies, Kiara,” said her father gently. “With a little help, you could be the best huntress in the pride as well as the princess.”
“Could I learn too?” asked Tanabi.
“Tanabi, you’re a boy,” said Kiara. “Boys don’t need to hunt. That’s the lionesses’ job.”
“I’d still like to learn how to pounce, at least,” said Tanabi.
“It’ll be a wasted lesson, I’ll bet,” said Kiara with a sassy air.
“I don’t know about that,” said Nala. “If Tanabi wants to learn how to hunt, there’s no law that says he can’t be taught how.”
“Good thing we don’t have another brother,” said Kiara to Tanabi. “Or he’d call you girly for wanting to hunt.”
“Very funny,” said Tanabi, turning his back to Kiara. She was going to talk to her parents again when she realized that Tanabi was again looking at the two boulders. She leaned over his shoulder and whispered to him in a much more serious voice.
“Are they still gone?”
“Yeah. I wonder if they really are that dangerous…”
“Woo-hoo, now that was neat,” said Vitani, prancing around her brother and older half-brother. “We actually got to see the twins and Simba! Nice to know what you’re up against, eh, Kovu?”
Kovu had remained silent for most of their walk back to where Zira’s sect of the pride, the “pride” called the Kina Mwasi – the Rebel Group – by most of the pride members on Simba’s side. He had seen the lion that his mother, Zira, said her former mate wanted him to kill when Kovu was old enough. All because of her love for this lion, Scar, that wasn’t even Kovu’s father, nor his sister Vitani’s. Kovu had occasionally suggested that his half-brother, Nuka, should be the one to do such a deed, since he was the true son of Scar, but Zira refused to listen.
Kovu was in perpetual confusion about what his mother really thought of him. He knew she thought of Nuka as an irritating burden that she hopefully would no longer have to carry when he reached adulthood. He knew she thought of Vitani as a cub of great potential as a huntress and a fighter. He knew she saw all of her companions as faithful, loyal friends, but what did Zira see her youngest son as? Even though she planned to make him powerful and strong, was he the tendon that controlled the claw or the claw that was controlled by a tendon?
“Think ya’ll be able to take Simba out once your mane’s come in? And what about his son? He’s younger than Nuka…heck, he’s even younger than us! I bet ya’d be able to wop both of ‘em before Nuka’s an adult…”
“Stop talking about killing Simba!” Kovu suddenly spat at Vitani, who blinked her brilliant blue eyes in surprise. “What does Mother have against him anyway? What did he ever do to us?”
“It’s not what he’s done to us, Braniac,” said Vitani, rolling her eyes, “It’s what he did to Scar…and consequently to her.”
“But I never knew him! Nuka knew him, and a lot of the lionesses knew him. But you and I were born after he was killed…and Nuka himself said he saw Scar get killed by hyenas, not by Simba.”
“One thing leads to another, like I keep trying to pound through that head of yours,” said Vitani. “Since Mother told us how Simba threw him over the edge of Pride Rock in the first place. So it might as well have been Simba ripping out his throat and tearing at his – “
“Shut up! Both of you just shut up!” screamed Nuka. Ever since the name “Scar” had appeared in their conversation, he had been becoming more and more uneasy. Now he turned away from the two younger cubs and tried to stop from crying. It was painful, but he was just able to.
“Whassamatter?” asked Vitani, in her typical mocking drawl. “Was it somethin’ I said?”
Nuka turned on shaking legs and continued forward, his grizzled head bowed.
“I’m going to tell Mother everything you little weeds said! I’ll get her on my side, I promise you!” said Nuka, looking back over his shoulder.
“But she won’t do anything to me,” said Vitani smugly, low enough so that Kovu could hear her but Nuka couldn’t. “And she certainly won’t do anything to you, ‘Chosen One.’”
“I wish you would quite calling me that,” said Kovu. “I never wanted to be a prince, or whatever the heir to Scar should be called.”
In the days following their first outing in the Pridelands, Tanabi and Kiara constantly pestered their parents to allow them to go exploring on their own, but Simba insisted that with Zira so nearby, the cubs couldn’t be left unsupervised. Either their parents or at least one lioness would have to accompany them.
“But Daddy!” complained Kiara during one of their talks in the main cavern. “It’s not fair! You and Mom went all the way across the Pridelands without someone watching over you!”
“And we walked right into a very dangerous place and nearly got eaten by three hyenas,” said Nala.
“But there aren’t any hyenas here anymore,” said Kiara.
“That’s because they were all scared off,” said Simba cryptically.
“’Scared off?’ By what? What could scare off a whole pack of hyenas?” Tanabi asked.
“Not what,” said Simba. “Who.”
Tanabi lowered his head in thought, shook his head, then looked at Kiara, who shrugged slightly. They both turned to look at their father, waiting for the answer, but t the same time, dreading it.
“Zira,” said Simba. “After Scar died, she returned to her pride with a mangled, bleeding ear. She told at least one of them what happened, and the word eventually spread to us. Do you two want to hear what happened?”
Kiara nodded. Tanabi hesitated, then nodded as well.
“Well, as you know, when Scar lunged at me in his final fight with me, I had no choice but to flip him over the edge of Pride Rock. All the hyenas had fled the main levels by then, and must have been waiting for him at the bottom, because when I looked down, I could see them closing in on him. He was still alive, but I could tell he wouldn’t be for long.”
Both cubs shuddered. Even Nala grimaced slightly.
“I couldn’t look at it any longer, and I left my uncle to his fate. I had no real choice. But according to what the lionesses who overheard Zira’s story told me, Zira had watched the entire fight from behind the ranks of hyenas, and when they started attacking Scar, she began to fight her way through them just to get to her mate before he died. As she was clawing her way through, one of them jumped up and tore a piece out of her ear. That’s when she finally lost all traces of the gentle, innocent lioness she had once been, and she screamed at the hyenas, yelling at them to go away and never come back, or she would kill them all herself.
“Well, I never did see a hyena near Pride Rock after the fires ceased, so I guess they listened to Zira, or else this whole tale is untrue and the hyenas just wised up and saved their skin before anything worse happened. But if Zira is powerful enough to threaten an entire hyena pack with death at her paws, what do you think she might do to a pair of young lion cubs?”
Kiara’s ears flattened against her head. She shuddered and slowly padded around Tanabi, trying to conceal her fright behind him. Tanabi, however looked as terrified as she was, and was trying to stop himself from crying with fright.
“Simba,” Nala said, “Why in Aiheu’s name did you have to tell that awful tale to the cubs now, at their age?”
“I’m sorry, Nala. I’m sorry,” said Simba, looking ashamed and saddened to see his children with such expressions of horror on their delicate faces.
“I just couldn’t hold it back,” he said to them. “You’d have to know the truth sooner or later. Otherwise you might try to seek Zira out as if there was nothing to be afraid of. She is someone to fear. I just don’t know how much. But I know that until you’ve grown old enough, you’ll need someone to watch over you, be it me, your mother, Zazu, or one of the lionesses.”
“We just wanted you to know the truth,” said Nala. “I know it’s hard to handle, but eventually, we all have to face it. I didn’t want your father telling you now, but at this age, when you’re so likely to wander off, looking for trouble…”
Kiara slowly came out from behind her brother.
“I…think I understand,” she said softly.
“Me too,” said Tanabi, though his ears were still drooping.
“Hey, what’s goin’ on here?” asked a concerned but alert voice from the cave entrance. “Simba, what have you been telling your poor kids?”
All four lions turned to see who it was. It was Timon, as they had guessed, riding atop Pumbaa, who was trotting briskly towards them. Both showed great concern for the frightened twins.
“What’s wrong?” asked Pumbaa, as soon as he reached Tanabi and Kiara. “Did he tell you about the lion that’s going to k – “
Timon reached forwards and slapped Pumbaa on the snout.
“Shhh, you big oaf!” he hissed. “Simba told us not to tell them that until – “
“Tell us what?” asked Kiara.
“Eh…nothing,” faltered Timon. “But what did he tell you just now?”
“He told us how Zira fought an entire bunch of hyenas, and drove ‘em out of the Pridelands,” said Tanabi dully.
“Oh, that,” said Pumbaa. “We never saw that fight, thank goodness.”
“But,” said Timon brightly, hopping off Pumbaa and standing beside the cubs, “We were in the main fight. The fight between our side and their side. We fought off some the nastiest, ugliest, smelliest…”
“Smellier than me, even,” added Pumbaa, “And Timon agrees.”
“…Slimiest, hairiest, scummiest hyenas you’ve ever seen!”
“I’ve never seen a hyena,” said Kiara.
“And you hopefully never will, but Pumbaa and I saw and fought enough hyenas for our lifetimes! And the fight…woah, hold me down, Pumbaa, before I go skywards with this rant…it was a fight that will live on for generations!”
“You actually fought hyenas?” said Tanabi, his monotony slowly fading as his thoughts shifted to the thought of Zira fighting hyenas to Timon and Pumbaa fighting hyenas. Kiara too, now had her eyes focused on her two “uncles.”
“Yep,” said Timon, miming out actions as he spoke, “Barged through ‘em like they were bushes, kicked ‘em out of the way…”
“I jumped on at least one of them,” said Pumbaa.
“And I’ll never forget how Pumbaa, my dear, faithful, warthog friend, saved my life,” said Timon, laying a hand on Pumbaa’s side.
“What happened?” asked Kiara, getting up and facing them. Tanabi also got up and turned towards the warthog and the meerkat.
“We can act the whole thing out right here in this cave,” said Timon, “Let’s just do it over here, where there’s more room.”
He ran towards the cave entrance, out of earshot, beckoning for the cubs to come closer. Tanabi, Kiara, and Pumbaa eagerly ran to where he was, the cubs excitedly asking questions and laughing, the words of their father gone from their minds for the moment.
“They are just like me,” said Simba thoughtfully. “Listening intently to you one moment, off playing the next. I hope they don’t forget what I said entirely, though.”
“You know they won’t,” said Nala. “Just let them be cubs, even if it means having to watch them. Just watch them from a distance, and everything should be all right.”
“I hope so,” said Simba, as he watched Pumbaa charge towards an imaginary ribcage, which Timon was pretending to grip the bars of from the inside, as his children watched with ecstatic laughter.
Despite what their parents had told them, Tanabi and Kiara were never watched by a pride lioness in their first few days in the Pridelands. Only their parents would watch them, Simba’s fear for their safety the main reason for this. He was too afraid to put both of his cubs’ lives into the paws of a lioness that might too easily be overtaken by Zira and her supporters, and though Timon and Pumbaa begged to look after the cubs, Simba explained that looking after one cub would be difficult enough for them, but two cubs was out of the question. So the Lion King and his mate willingly sacrificed their time for Tanabi and Kiara’s playtime, knowing that it was only for the best.
But as the days went by, both Simba and Nala could see that the cubs were heeding their words of caution. When one began straying away from the family, the other would warn him or her not to go any farther away, and when this didn’t happen and both of them became distracted, they obeyed their parents’ words to come back promptly. They never hurt themselves, and even Zazu, who occasionally flew by the family, was amazed at how responsible the cubs were for their actions.
“Unlike some cubs I once knew,” he remarked one time.
Finally, on the tenth day that Tanabi and Kiara wanted to explore the Pridelands, Simba decided that with the way his children were behaving, it was safe enough to allow them to do so with only a pride sister as an escort.
“Now, don’t give Kifaa a hard time,” warned Nala. “She is a patient lioness, but don’t push her too much.”
“We won’t,” said Kiara.
“And don’t wander off,” said Simba.
“We won’t,” said Tanabi.
“And remember,” Simba said, “a small part of the pride is out hunting today, so if you and Kifaa encounter something that she can’t handle, head for the hunting party. They should be enough in number to handle anything that comes up. Otherwise – “
“Come straight home,” said Kiara, repeating the words as she had heard them many times before. “I know.”
“Just be careful,” said Nala. “We don’t want anything to happen to you. You understand, don’t you?”
“We understand,” said Tanabi, nodding.
“All right,” said Simba. “Kifaa’s waiting outside the cave. Now go and have some fun. That’s an order from the king.”
“Yes, your majesty,” said Tanabi, bowing his head until the locks of his mane nearly touched the ground. Kiara suddenly swatted him on the shoulder, catching him off-guard and making him pitch forward, landing on his face. He glanced up at her angrily.
“Tag! You’re it!” she squealed, sprinting out of the cave. Tanabi quickly got to his feet and took off after her.
“If that Kifaa were any more loyal to you than she is now, to baby-sit those two little balls of fire,” said Nala, “She would surely earn a place in the stars when she dies.”
“You’re doing it all wrong,” said Tanabi, as Kiara chased wildly after a low-flying, iridescent beetle. “You’re supposed to stalk your prey, then pounce, not tear after it like a cheetah! Remember what Dad told us?”
“He told us…” said Kiara, streaking past him and fighting for breath to speak as she ran, “That we all…have…unique…hunting…styles!”
“I know, but what you’re doing isn’t exactly hunting!” yelled Tanabi as Kiara leapt in the air after the erratically swooping insect, which zoomed out of her reach and up into the sky, where it soon became out of sight in the brilliant blue sky.
“I was just having fun with it,” she said forlornly at the sight of the beetle flying away. “I never said I was hunting it.”
“Really?” asked a drowsy Kifaa from where she sat, in the shade of a nearby boulder. “Hunting or not, you’ve got some great stamina, Kiara.”
“What’s stamina?” asked Kiara.
“Strength,” said Tanabi. “Endurance. What keeps you going. Mom told me that lionesses usually have more than lions do.”
“Is that why I always win when we wrestle?” asked Kiara mockingly.
“You don’t always win,” argued Tanabi. “But Dad said that Mom always could beat him…”
“Okay, so you’ve had me on my back a few times,” confessed Kiara, walking away from her brother and Kifaa, looking out across the sweeping fields of grass and the occasional herd of hooved creatures. “But males aren’t the only lions who can be fighters.”
“Who said they are?” said Tanabi, walking up to her and sitting down beside her. “I think you’re good at wrestling. Your hunting skills could use some sharpening, though.”
“I’m no worse at hunting than you are,” said Kiara, getting up and trotting down the large hill they were sitting on. Tanabi got up and followed her.
“You know, I think you were just trying to play with that beetle,” said Tanabi, when he caught up with her and they were nearing the base of the hill. “You weren’t trying to catch it, were you?”
“Did I hear someone say something about eating bugs?” said a familiar, bellowing hog’s voice.
“Oh boy,” said Tanabi, as Timon and Pumbaa appeared from behind a large, nearby rock.
“Well, if it isn’t the Prince and Princess,” said Timon warmly. “Nice of you to come out here on this lovely day – “
Suddenly he grew tense, looking around nervously.
“Where’s your parents? You didn’t sneak away from them, didja? You didn’t come out here all alone, didja?!?”
“No,” said Kiara, rolling her eyes. “One of the lionesses came to watch us this time. She’s back there.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Timon, wiping his brow. “I’d hate for something bad to happen to either of you, out here where that nasty Zira might be…”
“We know about Zira,” said Tanabi, “And we’ve been careful so far, haven’t we?”
“So far, yes,” said Timon. “But I’m glad that you came here just the same. I just wanted to say that Pumbaa and I forgive you for jumping on us like that that one morning. It was all an innocent mistake, and we have no reason to hold a grudge against either of you.”
Kiara and Tanabi looked at each other, then back at Timon.
“And it took you this long to forgive us?” asked Tanabi.
“Well, it was quite a blow to my pride,” said Timon, with embarrassment, “And we both were hesitant to forgive you, as forgivable as the actions of the young may be…”
Pumbaa grunted in disagreement.
“All right, I was the one who was the most hesitant. Pumbaa was a bit shook up, but hey, Hakuna Matata, right? No worries, forgive and forget. So I eventually had to agree with him, since we are buddies and all.”
“I wish we got along as well as you do,” said Kiara, glancing at her brother.
“You may someday,” said Timon, “But enough of that. It’s really great that you could both be here today, you’ve got to check out what we just found. Over here.”
Timon gestured with his hand, and he and Pumbaa circled the boulder behind them until they were out of the cubs’ view. Tanabi and Kiara followed the warthog and the meerkat around to the other side of the large rock, where they found a large, rotting log, which had a small stone propping it up. In the moist earth beneath the log, there was a mass of worms, beetles, and other random bugs crawling about in a seething mass. Timon plucked a small, black-backed beetle out of the swarm and devoured it.
“The stuff of life,” he remarked blissfully. “Easy to get, and free for the takin’. But still not somethin’ to be taken lightly.”
“How can eating…bugs be something serious?” asked Tanabi, wrinkling his nose at the writhing sight beneath the log.
“Oh, it is an art in many ways,” said Timon, wrenching a section of bark off the log and scooping up a handful of creepy crawlies. “Letting ‘em age in the sun or eating ‘em straight off the log, the time of year you harvest ‘em…again, not something to be sneered at, Prince and Princess.”
“And remember,” said Pumbaa, through a mouthful of mashed grubs. “The slimy ones are the best that there is,”
Timon spat the green beetle he was chewing on out on the ground. Kiara stuck her tongue out.
“Pumbaa, Pumbaa, my dear compatriot,” he said, “Slimy bugs are nothing compared to crunchy bugs as the appetizer to any meal.”
“Crunchy bugs get stuck in your teeth,” objected Pumbaa. “Slimy bugs go down easier and don’t cloud your palate.”
“It’s the crunchy ones, Pumbaa,” said Timon with a slight edge to his voice.
“Slimy!” said Pumbaa.
“Crunchy!” said Timon.
“Hold it,” said Tanabi.
“What?” asked both Timon and Pumbaa at the same time.
“I’d like to know more about the slimy bugs,” the young prince asked quietly.
“See what I mean?” Pumbaa grinned, nudging a now silently fuming Timon with his hoof. “The kid’s got taste! He knows what he wants. Fire away, Tanabi. Whatcha wanna know?”
“What do the slimy bugs taste like?” asked Tanabi.
“I don’t think there’s anything to compare them to, kiddo. They’re just the best kind of food there is!”
“Are they anything like…zebra guts?” asked Tanabi.
Pumbaa instantly grew tense, as if he’d heard a twig snap. Timon too, seemed frozen. Finally, Pumbaa slowly said:
“Uhhh…we’re not…hunters, Prince. We don’t eat…other animals…”
“But bugs are animals,” said Kiara.
“Yeah, but…” stammered Pumbaa.
“And zebra guts are pretty good too,” said Tanabi, beginning to talk less shyly and with more of a spring in his step. “And they’re good for you too, if you want to be brave. The more guts you eat, the more guts you get.”
“That’s not true!” protested Kiara. “Who told you that?”
“It’s a fact,” said Tanabi, “If you want guts, you’ve gotta eat them.”
“And you believe this?” asked Kiara is horror. “You actually eat those yucky things that look like giant worms?”
“Nothing bad’s happened to me so far,” said Tanabi, smiling at his sister slyly.
“Oh, you’re too gross,” she said, starting to turn away from Timon and Pumbaa. “I bet Kifaa told you that. She’s almost as weird as you are. Let’s go back to her. Those bugs are starting to remind me of zebra guts just looking at them!”
“Actually,” said Timon, as Tanabi was turning to follow his sister, “Why don’t you two sample some of the local cuisine? Your dad practically grew up on the stuff, and look how big and strong he is now!”
He lifted up the piece of bark that was still swarming with insects and grubs.
“He told us that he eventually learned to hunt…” began Kiara.
“True, true,” said Timon. “But when he was your age, this was all he ate, no matter what. Come on! Just try ‘em!”
“Yuck! No way,” said Kiara, beginning to trot back up the hill. But then she realized that Tanabi wasn’t with her. She turned around to see that he was still sitting before Timon and the overflowing tray of multi- or no-legged creatures.
Tanabi extended a paw and picked up what looked like a dull brown caterpillar. He examined it as it wriggled in his grasp, then inserted it into his mouth. Kiara made a small sound of disgust. After a brief session of chewing, Tanabi swallowed it and looked upwards without a sign of nausea. Finally, he looked at Timon.
“Not bad,” he said calmly, getting up and starting to walk back up the hill.
“I told ya he’s got good taste!” whispered Pumbaa to Timon again.
“It doesn’t taste that different from zebra guts,” said Tanabi over his shoulder.
The cubs heard Timon and Pumbaa make noises conveying that they didn’t feel very comfortable with what the prince had just said, and when Tanabi and Kiara had reached the top of the hill and looked back, they could see their two odd uncles headed towards the waterhole at a fairly quick pace.
“Why did you have to act so mean?” asked Kiara. “They’re Daddy’s friends! What did they ever do to deserve that?”
“I was just joking,” said Tanabi. “They’re cracking jokes all the time. I didn’t mean to be mean to them.”
“Well, you were,” said Kiara. “And I’m going to tell Kifaa everything you told Timon and Pumbaa as soon as we – “
She stopped talking abruptly. They had reached the summit of the small hill that Kifaa had been watching them from. She was still resting in the shade of the rock, but she was on her back and breathing shallowly.
“Kifaa? Kifaa, are you all right?” Kiara asked, running up to her and putting her paws against her cream chest. Tanabi ran up as well and looked closely at Kifaa, and nodded.
“She’s fine. She’s just asleep.”
“But she’s hardly breathing,” said Kiara.
“She sleeps deeper than most of the other lionesses,” said Tanabi. “She can’t be woken up unless there’s a stampede running by.”
“Are you sure?” asked Kiara, her intent on tattling on Tanabi rubbed out of her mind with the near panic she had fallen into at seeing Kifaa in such a comatose state.
“Believe me, I know,” said Tanabi enigmatically.
“So what should we do now, with our babysitter asleep?” Kiara asked.
Tanabi looked out across the sweeping plains of green and gold grasses, and the large acacia trees that dotted it. A broad grin slowly spread out over his face. He turned back to his sister.
“Why don’t we take a little walk on our own?” he asked.
Kiara was silent for a moment, shocked that Tanabi would say something as scheming as wandering away from Kifaa, when they had both been taught to stay as close to their guardians as possible. And Tanabi was so obedient that Kiara had sometimes wondered if he was truly her brother, since she was always trying to sneak away from her parents for one reason or another. What had caused this sudden change in his personality?
“What?” Kiara finally asked.
“Why don’t we take a little walk on our own?” repeated Tanabi. “Kifaa sleeps for long enough periods of time, and all the other lionesses that aren’t at Pride Rock are on a hunt, remember?”
“That’s just another reason why we should stay here!” argued Kiara. “Remember what Daddy said happened when he and Mom wandered off on their own? Hyenas! And now, with that mean lioness living in the Pridelands…”
“Kiara, it’s hot,” said Tanabi. “Real hot. Too hot for any single lioness to take on two speedy cubs. The lionesses that are hunting have a real reason to push themselves, but if Zira is the leader of this pride, this Kina Mwasi, then she’s probably as asleep and dead to the world as Kifaa is right now. Her lionesses may be hunting, but I’ll bet my tail she isn’t.”
“Sometimes I think you know too much,” muttered Kiara. “And you just might be making those facts up, like you made up that stupid ‘guts’ thing.”
“I’m telling you, I didn’t – “
“All right. Forget I even started arguing with you about that!”
“Fine,” said Tanabi, relieved to see that he had won. “So…you want to go exploring for a bit with me?”
“I guess I don’t have a choice,” said Kiara. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you all of a sudden, but I know that if you go exploring on your own, there won’t be anyone to save you from getting trampled by an elephant, or something.”
“Ha, ha, very funny,” said Tanabi, as they started down the hill. “Maybe I can help you practice those hunting skills of yours while we’re walking.”
“See?” said Tanabi, panting and struggling to keep his grip on a small ground squirrel. “You have to be quiet as you’re stalking as well as when you’re running. That guarantees you a clean catch.”
He retracted his claws, relaxed his paws and let the terrified squirrel speed off.
“Why’d you let him go?” asked Kiara.
“Well, I’ve heard that ground squirrels really taste stringy,” said Tanabi, one side of his face grimacing slightly, “And this place is full of holes. They’re popping up all the time.”
He got to his feet and shook the dust off his fur. He and his sister were standing in a dusty area lacking grass and trees. An occasional boulder rested here and there, but other than Tanabi, Kiara and the ground squirrels, there was no other living beast in sight.
“You wanna try catching one?” asked Tanabi, stepping back and lowering himself to the ground.
“I guess,” sighed Kiara. She hadn’t been enjoying her hunting lessons very much, and had shown less interest in them than Tanabi. She got much more pleasure out of wrestling him to the ground and chasing things she never intended to catch. But nevertheless, she crouched low to the ground and stared out across the sea of squirrel holes. She saw a squirrel emerge from his hole and start grooming itself, and she began growling in excitement and tension. Tanabi slapped her tail with his own.
“I told you not to make noise while you’re stalking something!” he hissed.
“Okay, okay!” snarled Kiara, glancing back at him with narrowed eyes. Looking forward again, she began slowly crawling forward on her belly, focused on the tiny rodent, which didn’t even glance in her direction. Finally, when she had gotten about halfway between Tanabi and her target, she leapt to her feet and broke into a run. The squirrel saw her coming and also began scurrying, but Kiara had not gone more than three strides before she tripped over an old root and went sprawling headlong through the dust. She came to a stop coughing heavily. The squirrels were running everywhere, trying to get away from the danger, as indisposed as the “danger” was at the moment. Tanabi padded over to Kiara, trying to restrain himself from laughing, which wasn’t too difficult, concerning all the dust in the air.
“Don’t worry,” he gasped. “First try…with a…ground squirrel…speedy little twerps…”
“Don’t talk like that,” said Kiara angrily. “I saw you grinning. You were laughing at me. I suppose you could do better, right?”
Tanabi didn’t have the heart to remind Kiara that he had just demonstrated catching a ground squirrel, but, just to humor his sibling, he scanned the wild, squabbling mob of rodents through dust-flecked eyes until he spotted one heading for the perimeter of the grass–framed colony.
“Well, I’ll try,” he said, pointing to the squirrel with his paw. “See that big one headed into the grasses?”
“Well, follow me and watch this.”
Tanabi romped after the fleeing squirrel, but instead of going directly after it, he scrambled up a nearby boulder and peered down, into the grasses. Kiara climbed up after him.
“You can see where they’re going better this way,” he explained quickly. “Otherwise you’re just going blindly. See? You can see the grasses stirring over there. That must be him.”
Kiara squinted down into the grasses below and several feet ahead of them.
“Tanabi, that can’t be the squirrel you were chasing. This one’s too big and dark…”
“What else could it be?” Tanabi asked, his hind leg muscles tensing. “Stand back, Ki. I’m going to pin him down.”
“Tanabi – wait!” Kiara yelled, but she spoke a moment too late. Tanabi leaped through the air, towards the suddenly retreating creature in the grass. He saw an ominous dark shape that the dust in his eyes must have hidden. It was too late to turn back, and the creature in the reeds suddenly stumbled backwards, falling on its back. Tanabi hit whatever it was squarely in the chest. The head-on force flipped both of them over, and once more, leaving Tanabi on the top, staring into the face of not a aquirrel, but another lion cub with dark, dull brown fur, a creamy chest, a nearly black tuft of fur between its ears and two terrified dark green eyes.
Tanabi inhaled sharply and nearly choked on his own breath.
Kiara screamed. Tanabi leapt backwards, away from the cub, which was instantly obscured by the long, thick grass. When Tanabi could finally make out noises besides the beating of his heart, he could hear the strange cub panting as well.
“Who are you?” asked the cub. It sounded harmless, but something about it sounded roguish, uncouth. Rebellious.
“I’m…I’m not telling you,” said Tanabi, his throat tight, slowly backing away from the source of the sound. Who was this cub? As briefly as Tanabi had seen his face, it looked vaguely familiar, and strangely disturbing.
Suddenly, there was a loud rustling. Tanabi crouched down in the grass, shaking. He still couldn’t see what was making the noises.
“Kovu, what was that racket?” said another, very husky voice. It had to be another cub, from the level the noise was coming from. “You sure have a high voice for a boy.”
“It…w-wasn’t m-me…” said the first cub.
“I didn’t think so,” said the husky voice. “It sounds like it came from…”
“No, no!” said the first cub. There was a loud crunching sound, as if one of the two creatures had fallen down. “Don’t go up there!”
“Ouch! Lemme go, buzzard brain!”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Why not? It’s a littermate’s privilege, y’know, Kovu. Now what’s up there that’s so big and scary?”
“It’s not big and scary, it’s…”
“What are you two arguing about this time?” said a much more mature voice, which sounded like it came from an adult lion, or at least an adolescent.
“It’s Kovu,” said the second voice. “He thinks he heard something from up ahead, and I heard something screech, so I think he wasn’t making it up.”
“It wasn’t just that,” said Kovu. “Something jumped on me, and I didn’t have time to see what it was!”
“Well then stop stalling, Kovu! Go up and see for yourself what it is, don’t sit here blocking my way.”
Tanabi gasped in fear, heart pounding rapidly, then scooted backwards and ran away from the source of the voices. He had almost reached the bare patch of ground when he heard the older voice say:
“Heyyy…I think I know what jumped you, scruffy. And what that screech was. I heard it too.”
There was another rustle of grass and the voice continued, and this time it seemed like it was addressing Tanabi and Kiara directly:
“Listen, we’re not gonna kill you or anything, all right? We’re just gonna give you five seconds to get out into that clearing up ahead, then we step out into the open. If you have any objections, then speak up.”
Tanabi didn’t utter a sound. He couldn’t hear Kiara’s voice either. He wondered if she had run back to Kifaa or to Pride Rock.
“Okay, get ready, then. One…”
Tanabi scrambled backwards, finally reaching the clearing. Looking to his left, he saw Kiara huddled against the base of the boulder that he had jumped off only moments before.
Tanabi gestured to his sister, and Kiara rose shakily to her feet, walking over to his side.
“Ready?” He whispered.
“I don’t know,” Kiara shuddered. “I’m scared. I knew I shouldn’t have listened to you.”
“Don’t worry,” said Tanabi, trying to comfort Kiara. “You’re a good fighter. You’ve beat me a lot, haven’t you?”
“I know…but I’m still scared…”
The cubs stood still and dry-mouthed as the time between “four” and “five” slowly passed. Then…
There was a loud rustle in the tall grasses, and three figures stepped out. Two lion cubs and one adolescent male. The two younger ones gasped, as did Tanabi and Kiara, but the older one simply sighed and rolled his reddish eyes.
“I thought it was you,” he muttered under his breath, sitting down on the dusty ground.
The four cubs stared at each other in amazement. The brown male cub was the one Tanabi had pinned, but the other cub (whose sex he could not determine at the moment) had tawny fur, brilliant blue eyes and a mop of fur trailing into them from its forehead. The older lion had dull tan fur, and a jet-black mane, which lined his back in a manner that reminded Kiara of Pumbaa’s hair. It was also just as wiry and bristled, maybe even more so.
All three of the lions had noses that seemed different from any noses that the pride’s lionesses had. They were narrow and more pointed, and somewhat almost sinister. The build of the trio’s bodies was different as well. It was slim and almost emaciated, and some ribs were showing in the oldest lion.
Suddenly, Tanabi realized that he had seen these three strangers before, his mouth fell open as he looked from one face to another. He looked at Kiara to see that her eyes were snapping about in the same manner. Finally, before Tanabi could say anything. Kiara stepped forward, but only about a half-inch forward.
“I know who you are,” she said. “You’re that part of the pride that decided not to live with us! The…the…”
“The Kina Mwasi. That’s what Mother says you Pridelanders call us,” said the darkest cub.
“’Pridelanders?’ Isn’t that a strange thing to call us when we’re all part of the same pride?” asked Tanabi.
“I thought the same thing,” said the tawny cub, apparently the owner of the husky voice. “But if that’s the way Mother wants it, la-de-da.”
“So you’re the lions who were on Scar’s side?” asked Kiara, somewhat rashly. The older lion suddenly swung his head close in to hers, a snarl on his face.
“Hey, I wasn’t old enough to see what he really was, so don’t start yelling at me, Miss Uppity! Or you, whoever you are!” he said, turning to Tanabi, then drawing his head back and turning around.
Kiara sat back, confused and upset, Tanabi rubbed up against her cheek sympathetically.
“Don’t pay any attention to Nuka,” said the tawny lion cub. “He saw Scar die, and he hasn’t been the same since. At least, that’s what Mother told us. Makes sense, though. What would you expect if you lost your father when you were a cub?”
“You mean his father was – “
Tanabi stopped with a shocked look on his face. He suddenly remembered what Simba had warned him about, and how potentially harmful Zira’s cubs could be. But he looked at the young cubs again, closer this time, in fact, he even took a step forward, a much larger one than Kiara had taken. He looked at their eyes, their faces, their expressions, but he also looked at that other thing…that thing that danced around them…around every living creature that he looked at. As an infant, he would call his father to look at the thing, but his father never said that he could actually see it. The thing seemed fairly normal on the tawny cub, but on the brown one…it was different. It seemed slower and darker in color. Tanabi looked up at the older male. He also seemed to be darker…but why? What was inside them, producing the darkness? Could he and Kiara really trust these strangers? Again, he looked at the brown cub. The cub gave a small, hopeful smile, and at that same moment, that thing which surrounded him radiated with a bright, soothing white light, and Tanabi knew that this cub and his sibling were safe to talk to. It was their older brother that Kiara and he would have to be careful with.
“I’m really sorry that that had to happen,” said Tanabi sympathetically. Kindness matters, no matter what, his grandmother had told him once.
“So’m I,” said the tawny cub, stepping around Tanabi and Kiara, inspecting them closely as it circled them, like a vulture from the air. “Then maybe Nuka wouldn’t be such a jerk. So you’re the royal twins, eh?”
“Yes,” said Kiara, her fright slowly fading as she watched the serenity on her brother’s face growing. “I’m Kiara.”
“And I’m Tanabi,” said Tanabi.
“Charmed. My Mom called me Vitani,” said the tawny cub.
“And my name’s Kovu,” said the brown cub, sucking in air to make his chest stand out, making him look very vain.
“I know,” said Kiara, pointing to Vitani as she spoke. “I heard him say your name several times.”
“Hey,” Vitani said angrily. “I’m no male!”
“You’re a girl?” asked Kiara.
“Yeah, you got a problem with that?” Vitani growled.
“Sorry, I just thought you were a boy, like your…your brother, right?”
“Yep,” said Kovu. “At least you didn’t think I was a girl. Then I’d’ve thought you were really confused.”
“Oh, don’t you start ganging up on me too, Kovu,” said Kiara. “I’ve got enough brotherly love to last me for the rest of my life. But how was I supposed to tell your sister was a girl?”
“Girls don’t have those ugly poofs of mane on their heads,” said Vitani.
“Hey!” said Kovu and Tanabi in unison.
“But you…you have sort of a poof as well,” began Kiara.
“These are bangs, Baldy!” snapped Vitani, flicking her hair with a paw and narrowing her crystal blue eyes. “If you don’t like them, don’t look at them.”
“I never said I didn’t like them, Vitani,” said Tanabi. “I thought they looked kinda cool.”
“Really?” asked Vitani, raising her eyebrows. She looked at Tanabi with what looked almost like genuine pleasure, but then she quickly shifted back into her normal, sassy, sarcastic demeanor.
“From what Mother told us, you two are the first recorded twins born to the King of Pride Rock. Congrats.”
“Thanks, I guess,” said Kiara.
“Hey,” said Kovu, winking subtly at Kiara, “Something like that from my sister is a real compliment. You gotta get used to stuff like that when you hang out around her.”
“Excuse me,” said Vitani, whirling her head around to face her brother, “I was talking to the twins.”
“Sorry,” said Kovu.
“So which one of you was first?” asked Vitani, turning back to Kiara.
“First?” asked Tanabi.
“I asked your sister,” said Vitani. “So do you know or did your parents decide to tell you later, like when you ‘came of age?’”
“Tell us what?” asked Kiara, befuddled. Vitani rolled her eyes and sighed with a rattling exhalation.
“Which one of you was born first? You know, came out? Saw the light?”
“Born first?” asked Tanabi, looking at his sister, who still looked confused. “Vitani, we’re twins. We’re from the same litter. We were born at the same time.”
“But one of you had to come out first,” said Vitani. “It’s not like there was enough room for you both to come out at the same time.”
“Lovely visual, Vitani,” said the older lion, Nuka, from over his shoulder.
“Will you guys never let me finish my conversation!?” Vitani snarled. Nuka fell silent and turned away again.
“See, Kovu and I are from the same litter, but he was born several hours before me, therefore, He's the oldest. Well, second oldest in the family. And as identical as the two of you are, one of you has to be somewhat older than the other. How else would your dad determine which one of you was to be king or queen?”
“Well, he – What?” Kiara asked. “What did you say?”
“Nothing important, or you’d have remembered it,” said Vitani. “Or are you one of those ‘thinking of the head one minute, tail the other’ type lions?”
“I mean,” said Kiara, “Did you say something about the order in which we are born determining which one of us gets to be king or queen?”
“I said just that,” said Vitani, swishing her tail. “The older of the two of you gets the throne, the younger…ppbt!”
“But Daddy said we were going to rule together, as brother and sister,” said Kiara, “And we could take mates if we wanted, but Tanabi would be the king, and I…”
“Let’s just hope he’s not setting you two up, Princess,” said Vitani slyly. “There may be some rocks down the path you’re going.”
“Vitani!” Kovu suddenly blurted out, louder than he had at any previous time in the conversation. “Don’t tell her it! Don’t tell either of them it! Please! Please don’t tell them!”
“All right!” Vitani spat. “I won’t say a word about it. Just shut your mouth and I’ll shut mine.”
“Tell us what?” asked Tanabi.
“My lips are sealed for now,” said Vitani, “But someday you’ll find out, I’m sure.”
Tanabi had a sudden stirring of fear within him as he looked at Vitani, but Kiara seemed to just glance at her, then shrug it off. Kiara walked past the strange lioness cub to the older, duller lion that still sat, sullen and hunched, behind it.
“So this is your brother?” Kiara asked.
“Yep,” said Kovu.
“You know…” said Kiara, almost in a whisper “He hardly looks anything like you. He looks a little like you in the scruffy department, but not anywhere else…Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Well,” said Nuka, not looking at the frisking golden cub that was now sitting at his side. “You and your brother look so much alike, that if it weren’t for that tuft of his, I’d think you were both girls. You’re sure both squeaky enough.”
“Hey, I’m not squeaky!” said Tanabi angrily.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Vitani. “He’s just jealous of things that’re better than him.”
“And that would be…” began Kiara.
“Everyone and everything,” said Vitani with a flick of her tail, patting Nuka on the side. “Right, Nuka?”
“Buzz off, bat-face,” snarled Nuka, snapping his head around to face his sister, his red eyes narrowed to slits. His already bristled black mane had bristled even more, and now resembled a porcupine nesting atop his head.
“Heyyy…” said Kiara, her face brightening with curiosity. “What’s that thing on your chin?”
She reached out, trying to touch the goatee of black hair on Nuka’s chin. Nuka drew back, but Kiara instinctively reached forward, snagging it with a claw.
“Owww!” Nuka screamed. “My mane! Leggo of my mane!”
“Nice hunting reflexes, Ki,” said Tanabi.
“Unless you’ve gotten a little mixed up with your sense of orientation,” said Vitani, “The mane grows around your neck. What little ‘Claw’ has in her clutches is just some excess fur that your body couldn’t deal with dispersing anywhere else over your skin.”
“My hair is not thin!” yelled Nuka, yanking Kiara’s arm as he talked and trying to get her claw out of his goatee. “It’s genetic. Mother has thin hair, and whoever fathered you two must have had thick hair – get your claw out of my hair, you scorpion!”
Kiara finally retracted her claw and fell on her back, laughing hysterically.
“Bet you won’t say that with my claw through your ear,” began Nuka, but Vitani stomped on his foot with her hind leg.
“Oww!” he yelled again. “Why can’t you two pick on Kovu for a change? There are enough lionesses in our ‘family’ to pick on me, but do they ever pick on him?”
“Smart lionesses don’t pick on You-Know-Who,” said Vitani, nodding discreetly to him. “You know? Mother said it’s important that he has a good life as he’s growing up.”
“Speaking of the Kina – sorry, your family,” said Kiara. “What are you three doing out here, away from them? We passed some pride lionesses on the way out here, aren’t you afraid they might find you?”
Kovu scampered to the top of the small rock that Tanabi had leapt off of and scanned the landscape.
“Pride lionesses?” he asked somewhat sarcastically. “You mean like that one lying over there?”
Tanabi ascended the rock until he was as Kovu’s level, and followed the direction where his paw was pointed until he saw the dust-hued lioness basking in the shade of a baobab.
“Yes,” said Tanabi. “I figured that as long as Kiara and I explored in areas near members of the pride, we’d be safe…”
Kovu laughed and grinned widely.
“Well, you may not be as safe as you thought!” he chuckled. “That’s Feraga, and I’d know her anywhere, even without that ratty fur. She’s one of the best hunters…that is…one of the best hunters in the Kina Mwasi.”
Tanabi shuddered. His breath caught in his throat. He slowly backed down the rock, with Kovu following him.
“Kiara,” Tanabi whispered. “We’ve got to get out of here. There are members of the Kina Mwasi everywhere. We’ve got to get home.”
Kiara silently agreed and nodded.
“Hey,” Nuka said, turning around, “These lionesses won’t do anything unless Zira wants them to. You don’t need to worry about them bursting out of the bush and killing you.”
“What’s this, Nuka?” asked Vitani. “Are you showing concern for these two now?”
“I’ll tell ya about it later, ‘Tani,” said Nuka. Vitani fell silent.
“So…we can come back and visit you?” asked Kiara. Her question could be answered by any of the three lions, but she was looking at Kovu when she said it.
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Kovu, looking down and doodling something in the dirt with an extended claw. “But you should always come together. Mother might show up at any time, and one of you might see her first and warn the other before it’s too late.”
“Kiara, are you sure you want to do this?” asked Tanabi. “First we disobey Dad, now…”
“That was your idea, ‘Nabby,” said Kiara. “And these guys aren’t half as bad as he said they were.”
“Yeah, but still…”
“Just go,” said Vitani. “Your Royal Mommy and Daddy are probably looking for you right now. You don’t want to get in trouble, right?”
“Right,” muttered Tanabi. He lowered his nose to the dusty ground and sniffed it delicately. Then he looked back up at his sister and pointed west.
“This way. I can smell our scent going this way. Come on, Ki.”
He sprinted forwards into the bushes, with Kiara right behind him. After the rustle of their bodies in the grass became distant, then inaudible, Vitani turned to Nuka.
“So why did you warn the cubs against coming here again, Nuka?”
“I dunno,” said Nuka, tapping his toe on the ground. “They seemed decent…unlike some cubs I know. And they obviously wanted to have a good time, and a good time doesn’t mean getting killed before your mane starts coming in.”
“You’re lying,” said Kovu, “What were you really doing?”
“Well,” said Nuka, “Let’s just say that taking ‘em out when they’re young just isn’t the right way to do it...”
Tanabi and Kiara arrived within sight of the hill where Kifaa was thankfully still sleeping soundly upon. There was no sign of Timon or Pumbaa, and a slight breeze was starting to cool the scorched grasslands.
“That was close,” said Tanabi. “If we’d gotten caught, who knows what Dad might’ve…”
“Well, he didn’t catch us, did he?” asked Kiara, still panting from their sprint back to the hill. “And I think we found out something that he doesn’t know. These Kina Mwasi lions aren’t bad. They aren’t bad at all.”
“We only met three of them,” said Tanabi. “And what about Zira? What if we’d run into her?”
“It was your idea to leave Kifaa,” said Kiara. “I don’t see why you’re so worried now. In fact, I’m looking forward to when I can meet those lions again.”
“You just want to see those three again so you can meet Kovu,” said Tanabi. “Mister Mud-Fur.”
“His fur’s not mud, Tanabi! I’d rather be with him than with you, you and your weird visions.”
“Visions? Did you tell Dad about what I’ve been talking about with you? I told you not to!”
“You deserved it! I wish you’d just talk be a normal cub!”
“I play with you, don’t I? I teach you how to hunt, don’t I? What do I do that’s not normal?”
Kiara paused, then turned away.
“Forget it,” she said, starting to walk up the hill. “I’m going to have a nap with Kifaa. If you want to come up, fine. Just leave me alone.”
Tanabi watched his sister ascend the hill and disappear into the shadow of the rock. He sighed and hung his head. The strands of red mane sprouting from his head trailed into his hazel eyes. He turned away from the hill and began walking towards a scrawny acacia tree. As he drew closer, he could make out the body of a lioness lying beneath it. Strangely, he could somehow see the body long before he could see the color of her fur.
As he neared the lioness, Tanabi could see that she was of a faded rust color, an almost red pelt that Tanabi had not seen in any of the pride members. She was also leaner and bonier than most of the sisters, almost like the build of that adolescent lion he had seen earlier. Nuka.
He stopped and looked at her. She was clearly asleep. She lay on her side, against the trunk of the tree, breathing softly. Tanabi sighed deeply and approached the lioness quietly. When he had come as close to her torso as he could without brushing her with his whiskers, he gently flopped down on the ground, his golden body nearly touching the rust body of the strange lioness.
Tanabi looked at the shadows the acacia cast on the cracked earth, then he shifted his eyes upward to look at the hill. As he squinted, he could just make out the cream body of Kifaa and the golden ball of fur nestled against her side. His sister. In spite of her apparent bliss at being coiled up in a ball, safe from danger, she still had a look of tension about her that Tanabi couldn’t understand. He also couldn’t understand why, in his confusion, he had decided to rest against the side of a lioness he didn’t even know. And he had a feeling that this lioness wasn’t a safe one to be lying against at all. What was he doing? Was he trying to test himself? Was he trying to get in trouble to gain his father’s attention?
What indeed. But as Tanabi watched his sister suddenly stretch and roll over in her sleep, he involuntarily did something that no cub of sound judgment would do. He shifted backwards and pressed his spine against the belly of the lioness.
He wanted to leap back in fright and run to Kifaa before the irritated lioness could do whatever a strange-looking lioness like her might do to a defenseless young cub, but that, he thought, might just further his demise. Instead, he froze, trying to will his heart to beat more silently, and trying not to hyperventilate. He painfully turned his eyes to look at the lioness’s face. The eyes were still closed. There had been no twitching reflex when he touched her, not even a tiny squirm of muscles. Her breathing was the same, as was her heartbeat. In fact, nothing about her seemed to have changed at all.
Tanabi was still trying to get his breathing down to a normal level, while at the same time glancing about wildly, trying to plan his next move. Should he make a dash for Kifaa or wait until the lioness awakened and hope that she wasn’t angry to find a cub lying by her side? As the young prince was turning his head nervously from side to side, breathing rapidly, the words “Father, I’m sorry,” found their way out of his mouth. They weren’t very loud, in fact they were barely above a whisper, but in response to the words, the lioness partially opened her mouth and licked her lips. Her chest expanded slightly, and Tanabi gasped, knowing that the lioness had heard him and was going to awaken. But to his further surprise, with her eyes still shut tight, she said,
“So you’re Simba’s boy, eh? What are you doing out here in this neck of the woods?”
Tanabi was speechless. Why wasn’t he covered with lacerations by now? This lioness was surely not one of the pride. She might be from the Kina Mwasi, for all he knew. But what would she be doing here, then, so near to Pride Rock? And the strangest thing was that the lioness appeared to still be asleep, just as she was when Tanabi pressed up against her.
Tanabi finally realized that the lioness had just asked him a question. He was tempted to answer, but would he really get a response? Was this a dream? He had seen her lips move as she spoke, so it couldn’t be…but still…
“I…Ki and I…we have a lioness looking after us…Kifaa.”
“Oh, that little minx,” said the lioness. “Seems she’s burdened with all of the duties nowadays. Keeps Simba’s eye off me, that’s one good thing I’ll say about that.”
Tanabi still had an urge to spring to his feet and run, but something was soothing him. It wasn’t just the warmth of the lioness’s body. It was some other kind of warmth, something that felt like white light passing through him. And somehow, it seemed to be in this strange lioness as well. He could see it in that thing that coated her. It was growing stronger as he watched it. Something in his blood told him that it was safe to speak to her, no matter how strange the circumstances were.
“Who are you?” Tanabi tentatively asked.
“You had to ask? My name’s Goshi.”
“Are you…asleep?” Tanabi asked. He had to ask the question eventually.
“Do I look like it?” Goshi asked.
“Well,” said Tanabi, “You’re talking to me, but other than that…you look like you’re sleeping.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Goshi. “Maybe it’s just one of these days.”
She paused and shifted her position, but she didn’t crowd or crush Tanabi. It was like she could see him lying there.
“Are you part of the Kina Mwasi?” asked Tanabi.
“The Rebels? I guess I used to, but I couldn’t stay loyal. Not that I’m exactly loyal to this pride either, but Simba allows me to stay here, along with a few other lion refugees hiding out who knows where.”
That explains why she looks like she does, thought Tanabi, examining her as well as she could, since he was still facing away from her.
“I really hate cubs, y’know,” Goshi suddenly remarked, with a subtle grin on her face.
“You do? Then why are you talking to me so nice?” asked Tanabi.
“You got me, Princey,” said Goshi. “There’s something about talking to you…makes me feel real open. And the other lionesses say I’m as tight as the skin on a…”
“But how can you hate cubs?” asked Tanabi, his boldness finally reaching a point where he could interrupt without fear.
“I can hate them very easily, thank you. Their squeaky little voices, their little running around everywhere their little legs can carry them…not things I’d take pride in liking.”
“But, don’t all lions start out as cubs?”
“Yes,” said Goshi, after a longish pause.
“So…aren’t you kinda hating yourself?” asked Tanabi.
Goshi hesitated for a long while, then breathed out slowly through her nostrils.
“Kid, you are one darn perceptive cub. I never thought of that. I’m sure some old mandrill shaman has said that before, but you wouldn’t have known.”
Tanabi paused, trying to comprehend their exchange of words. He had never been described as “perceptive” by his sister, or any of the other pride members. Was this lioness just flattering him? Why would she, if she hated cubs as much as she said she did? Tanabi glanced back at the hill where Kiara and Kifaa were, and exhaled deeply.
“Kiara is going to get into real trouble someday, I can feel it.”
“And you won’t?” asked Goshi slyly. “That’s another problem with cubs. They’re always doing the opposite of what their parents want them to and getting into trouble no matter how safe the land is.”
Tanabi could see that even with his piece of wisdom, Goshi was not going to change her cub-loathing ways anytime soon.
“You’re right,” he reluctantly agreed. “I just hope it isn’t anything serious.”
“You might want to be getting back to Keefie’s side,” said Goshi, almost teasingly. “You don’t want her to wake up and find the crown prince sitting beside a lioness that looked like she just came out of the Kina Mwasi’s lands, do you?”
“I guess not,” said Tanabi. He pulled himself away from the rust-colored fur and started to walk away, towards the shelter of the rock-shaded hill. He expected Goshi to say good-bye to him, but when he turned back a few paces away from her and whispered “Good-bye” himself, she didn’t even grunt in reply.
From his perch in the branches of the acacia tree above, Rafiki looked down at the young prince with a furrowed brow and a hand to his chin.
“Dis is a strange thing indeed,” he muttered to himself.
“Come on, Kiara, you can do it!” yelled Sarabi.
“Don’t strain yourself, sweetie, you’ll catch him!” hollered Simba.
“Easy! Easy! You’ve almost got him!” said Tanabi.
Kiara was hot on the tail of a fairly large mouse. She had been able to keep it in her field of vision for at least fifteen seconds, the longest time she could ever remember pursuing something, besides her own brother. As quick as the mouse was, her weeks of training had begun to pay off. Its tiny tail was never more than a foot away from her, and it was just within grabbing range…but she still hadn’t found a suitable window in which to grab it.
“Remember what I taught you, Kiara!” called Nala, shifting from one foot to the other in excitement as she watched her daughter run. “Don’t give up! You’ve nearly got him!”
“That’s it, Kiara!” said Timon, thrusting his clenched fists forward in forceful motions. “Run it down! Break its neck! Chomp its…Hey, hold on! What am I saying??”
Kiara continued her wild pursuit of the mouse around the field of short grasses that dotted a barren patch of ground. Her breathing grew more labored, but her eyes never left the tiny rodent running from her claws. The cheers from her family were drowned out as all her concentration began to focus on bringing the mouse down.
She had stalked it properly and caught it by surprise, and had broken into a run almost before it had. Everything had gone perfectly so far. She wasn’t going to give up or lose her catch and be taunted by Tanabi again. She was going to prove that she was a lioness. A hunter. The one who was responsible for bringing food to the pride. As mediocre as she had been to start with, she had improved greatly with her mother’s (and, as she had no admit, her brother’s) help, and now the time had come for her to make her first kill. As much as she didn’t want to do such a thing, she knew that she had to. Nala had told her how distraught she herself was at having to bring down her first kill, which was only a small bird, but she knew that eventually she would have to face the harsh reality of the Circle of Life, that others had to die at the claws of others so that others could survive.
But now Kiara was gaining on the tiny mouse. It was slowing down only slightly, but definitely. It was time for Kiara to make her final move. She put on a last burst of speed, leapt forward, through the air, and came down upon the mouse, claws out. The mouse squirmed for a few moments, then was still.
“You did it! You really did it, Ki!” hollered Tanabi in amazement.
“That’s my girl,” said Simba.
“If I had as much appreciation for killing animals as lions did,” said Timon, “I’d give that girl a warm congratulatory statement.”
The four lions walked over towards Kiara, who still lay panting with her paws clamped around her catch. Timon and Pumbaa also walked over to her. None of them could clearly see the mouse, however.
“I…I killed it,” said Kiara meekly.
“Don’t show it to us then,” said Pumbaa. “Timon here always faints at the sight of blood.”
“I do not,” said Timon, “You faint, I just get queasy.”
“I can’t believe you actually caught that,” said Tanabi. “Now if you could just catch a zebra, I’d say you’re a pretty good lioness.”
“Tanabi,” said Simba warningly, giving his son’s tuft of mane a noogie. “Don’t pressure your sister. She’s just a cub. We’ll start with mice and work our way up from there. How does that sound, Kiara?”
“Sounds okay,” said Kiara, still breathless from the chase.
“Well, you’ve done very well on your first hunt,” said Nala gently, nuzzling her daughter. “And as a special treat, we’ve got something for you.”
She turned and roared in the direction of the back side of Pride Rock, which was near where they were situated. A dragging sound was heard, and a few moments after that, a small group of lionesses could be seen dragging a large gazelle carcass out from behind a large pile of boulders.
“Woah,” said Tanabi and Kiara at the same time.
“What’s wrong?” asked Simba. “Haven’t you seen a gazelle before?”
“Alive, yes,” said Tanabi, “But I’ve never seen one dead.”
“Well, the pride worked hard to bring this one down,” said Sarabi. “Gazelles are very quick. Sometimes even the cheetahs fail to overcome them. But we managed to kill this one after a few attempts. We figured that you would eventually succeed, Kiara and then it would be time for a celebration.”
“And you expect us to eat that?” asked Kiara. “It’s huge!”
“No, not that,” said Simba. He gestured to the pile of boulders again. A lone lioness was dragging a small gazelle out. It was half the size of the larger one, but just as appealing to the two cubs.
“We caught a smaller gazelle, just for you two to share. We won’t touch a bit of it. Dad’s promise.”
Simba pressed a paw against his chest and smiled at his children.
“Wow!” said Kiara, getting to her feet. As she did, the mouse, which had supposedly been lying dead beneath her paws suddenly came to life and sped away, disappearing down a hole. Kiara looked at it as it ran off, then at her parents, and grinned sheepishly.
“Well…I did catch it, didn’t I?” asked Kiara. “I can still eat the gazelle, can’t I?”
Simba and Nala looked at each other and sighed. Sarabi looked at her grandchild and chuckled.
“You’re right,” she said, smiling. “You did catch it. I guess it doesn’t really matter that you killed it or not. Knock yourselves out, you two.”
With yells of glee, the cubs sped over to where the gazelles were, their parents and their grandmother following them. Timon and Pumbaa, however, chose to remain where they were, away from the slaughter.
The lioness dragging the smaller gazelle seemed familiar to Tanabi, and as he and Kiara approached, he saw that it was the same rust-colored lioness he had encountered after he’d had his encounter with the Kina Mwasi.
“Goshi!” he called. “You went out of your way just to help hunt down a gazelle for us? Are you sure you hate cubs as much as you said you do?”
Goshi dropped the carcass from her red-streaked mouth and glared at Tanabi and his sister.
“How did you know my name?” she growled.
“Don’t you remember?” asked Tanabi, stopping short of the carcass, surprised. “We had that talk a few days ago. You were…well, I thought you were asleep. You told me how you hated cubs, and I said…”
“I never talked with you before in my life,” snarled Goshi. “If this is a game you’re playing, very funny, but if this is some little joke, go play it on some more gullible lioness. So long.”
She turned and loped away. Several lionesses turned to watch her go, and shook their heads.
“Don’t worry about her,” said the tan lioness Ramla, as she and her hunting sisters dropped the large carcass and stood aside to allow Simba to feed. “She’s always like that. I’d steer clear of her if I were you, young master. But don’t let her attitude spoil your lunch. Tuck in, you two.”
Kiara licked her lips, savoring the sight of the tender meat that up until now she had never tasted. Tanabi sniffed the carcass delicately. He looked at it in suspicion, then stared intently at it for a few seconds and then drew back, nose wrinkled. He looked shocked for a moment, and then relaxed.
“Very funny, Dad,” he said to Simba. “Trying to make us eat this. Where’s the good meat?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Nala. “That gazelle is just fine. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Yeah,” said Kiara. “It’s not alive, and it’s not rotting. It’s just right…right?”
She readied to lunge at the soft side of the carcass, but Tanabi blocked her with a butt of his head.
“Kiara, are you nuts?” he asked. “Or are you just playing along or something?”
“What are you talking about?” Kiara asked, glaring at him. “The lionesses just got us a gazelle as a reward for my first catch. What are you so cautious about? Is there a snake inside it or something?”
“Well…” began Tanabi, but he just couldn’t put what he saw into words. Whatever it was, it wasn’t right. He looked at the gazelle and shivered. But his mouth just couldn’t express what he saw.
As he was looking at the dead body, Kiara shrugged and tore off a strip of meat. Tanabi was too confused to do anything. He watched numbly as Kiara tore away the skin and began eating away at the soft muscles.
“C’mon, ‘Nabi,” said Kiara with her mouth crammed with meat. “It’s delicious. You gotta try this!”
Tanabi looked at his sister, then at the gazelle again. It was young, so the flesh was lean and tender, but as tempting and delicious as it looked, Tanabi felt ill just looking at the thing that most lions would go rushing towards. But he eventually had to turn and run away, towards the base of Pride Rock, away from the sight of all the lionesses, ignoring the questions asked of him as he ran, crying and panting with fear and confusion. He huddled against the side of the great rock face, praying that what he had seen was an illusion, that nothing bad would happen.
From high above him, though, a dark figure perched on the topmost peak of Pride Rock, looking down at the tiny golden dot. This figure – the shadow that could always see disaster when it was about to happen – felt that it was going to happen again.
Tanabi was awakened from his sleep that night by loud cries and sounds of pain, and worried, almost panicked voices. His mother was not by his side, in fact, he seemed almost forgotten. He felt cold and abandoned, and could barely see through the mist that obscured his irises. Suddenly, a pair of green eyes set in a cream face loomed in front of him. It was his maternal grandmother, Sarafina.
“Tanabi! I was wondering where you were,” she sighed with relief. “I was afraid you might’ve gotten trampled in this mob.”
“Where…” Tanabi murmured, barely conscious. “Where’s Mom and Dad? Where’s Ki?”
Sarafina curiously winced at the mention of Kiara’s nickname.
“She…she’s not well, Tanabi. You should probably go back to sleep. Don’t worry about your sister.”
“What’s wrong?” Tanabi demanded, the words “she’s not well” making him become almost completely alert in just a second. “What’s wrong with Kiara? Where is she?”
Before Sarafina could answer, there was a coughing noise, and a wail in a voice Tanabi realized was Kiara’s. Instinctively, he rolled off the slab where his family usually slept, stumbling towards what he had perceived as a large blob earlier, but what he now realized was a group of lionesses, their backs towards him. He made his way through the legs that were the size of baobab saplings from his point of view, and found his mother, his father and the pride’s shaman standing around his sister, who lay weakly upon the cave floor. She moaned in pain and coughed once more. Bits of food flew out of her mouth as she did. She had apparently vomited at least once before, which was evident from the awful mess on the cave floor. Rafiki was trying to spoon some dark liquid into her mouth, but she seemed unable to swallow. Her eyes stayed tightly shut and she breathed heavily, clawing at the hard stone floor.
“Dad!” Tanabi cried, running to his father’s side, terrified at seeing his sister so ill. “What’s the matter with her? What happened?”
“We don’t know,” said Nala. “Rafiki thinks it might have been something she ate today.”
“Your father, he say she eat part of young gazelle that the lionesses catch just for you two, eh?” asked Rafiki. Tanabi nodded silently.
“Mebbe something wrong with dat gazelle, you think?”
“Well, now that you mention it,” said Ramla timidly, “This foal was moving a bit slower than the others that were grazing. We thought that maybe it had a limp, but the grass was too high to see how it was moving.”
“Hmm,” said Rafiki. “Dat’s it den. Dis foal was sick, it get eaten by your daughter, she get sick. Don’t worry, dere was no way for you to know. She’ll be over dis in a few days.”
“Are you sure?” asked Ramla nervously, “Because if she doesn’t, I’d never be able to live knowing that I singled out the foal that…”
“Hush, you poor worried cat,” said Rafiki, raising a palm. “Rafiki knows dis girl. She be a strong one. She pull through in due time. No sick gazelle can bring her down. Just have her drink dis…” Here he placed the half-gourd of dark liquid at Simba’s feet, “…As soon as she can keep it down. I come back tomorrow to check on her. In de meantime…”
He bent down and patted the sickly Kiara on the head.
“Good night, Princess.”
He turned and hobbled out of the cave. Tanabi stepped towards his sister and looked at her. She had stopped convulsing and now looked calmer, but still in pain. He nudged her shoulder gently, and she slowly opened her teary eyes to look at him.
“Ki? Are you okay?”
“No,” she moaned softly.
“Rafiki says you’ll be better tomorrow.”
“No I won’t,” she said, looking away from him, with tears of humility streaming down her face.
“Yes you will,” said Tanabi. “It’s no big deal. Everyone gets sick sometimes.”
“But why now?” Kiara asked. “Right after my first catch? Why did I have to get sick now, in front of the whole pride?”
Tanabi could think of nothing to say. He stroked her shoulder, but she only shuddered in embarrassment and shame at his touch. He stopped stroking her, and stepped back. His father extended a paw and pulled him in close to his side.
“That was a very kind thing to say to her, Tanabi,” he whispered. “Not every brother can be that nice to his sister out of his own free will.”
“And you’re lucky that you didn’t eat any of that tainted gazelle flesh,” said Sarabi. “Who knows what kind of disease it had.”
“But why didn’t you eat any of it?” Simba asked. “There was no way anyone could tell there was something wrong with it, and you hadn’t eaten anything earlier that day, so you were definitely hungry…”
“I don’t know,” said Tanabi automatically. It was a lie, but the truth was he really didn’t know why he hadn’t eaten any of the carcass. He looked at Kiara again. The thing that surrounded her was moving erratically and slowly, and it looked almost like the thing on the gazelle that he had seen. No…it looked exactly like what he had seen. What was it? And had Kiara seen it too? If so, why did she purposefully eat the gazelle? Was it a warning spirit? Tanabi was burning to know what is was he was seeing, but if he couldn’t find any words in which to describe it to anyone, then he would never find out.
Zira sat serenely in the shade of a gnarled baobab. Large boulders surrounded the base of the tree and most of them were snared by the thick, dark roots. Zira’s scarlet eyes were watching a dark speck several yards away, in the grass. For a few moments, it would stop in its tracks, then move a few feet, then stop again. As boring as the series of actions was, Zira kept her eyes on the speck, never wavering. Beyond the speck, and to either side of it were two other posts where her oldest son and her daughter were also watching this same little dark point of color…waiting.
“You’ve gone to great measures to train him,” said a voice behind Zira’s head. “It’s an odd way for him to spend his cubhood.”
Zira didn’t turn her head or even flick an ear. She knew who was behind her. Monah was lying upon one of the larger boulders, with her side against the baobab’s trunk. Her lighter belly was obscured by an even larger boulder, and her pale muzzle was hidden behind her crossed front paws, so that she was nearly indistinguishable from the nearly black bark.
“How else is he going to learn how to be as great a fighter as Scar was?” Zira said simply, squinting at the speck, which was shimmering in the mid-afternoon heat.
“Scar was not a fighter,” said Monah. “I have never seen him fight a battle and win. And whatever you’re raising Kovu to be…”
She paused for a moment, as if she was expecting Zira to interrupt her, but no words came.
“You never saw all that Scar was,” said Monah. “You only saw his light side. You refused to see his dark side.”
“If his light side was all I saw, then it’s that side I want Kovu to kill Simba in the name of,” said Zira.
Monah leapt to the ground and came to Zira’s side.
“Don’t talk like that,” she said. “You shouldn’t do this. Think of how many lives Scar’s actions shattered when he killed his own brother. Think of how many lives your actions will shatter, including your son’s! Everyone has a dark side as well as a dark side, Zira. I saw your light side every day until the night Scar was killed…and not by Simba, Zira. The hyenas. The ones he lied to and betrayed. Ever since that night I’ve seen more and more darkness in you. Don’t let it kill you like it killed Scar. You’re not…”
Zira’s ears suddenly pricked up. Monah looked where she was looking. The little brown speck that was Kovu had broken into a wild run and just as she focused on him, he screeched to a halt.
“He’s got something!” Zira said with an almost hungry gleam in her eye. She bolted forward, running towards Kovu, with Monah behind her, running at a much more steady gait. Zira finally reached her son, who was clutching something happily in his front paws. As she sat panting with pride at her son’s accomplishment, Nuka and Vitani also came romping up.
“Whatcha catch, Kovu?” asked Vitani eagerly.
“I think the question is did he catch anything,” said Nuka. Zira growled at him warningly, and he shied back a couple of steps. Kovu opened his paws to reveal a golden grasshopper with a broken hind leg.
“Great. The Chosen One has wounded a bug,” said Nuka. “That’s a first,”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” asked Zira gently. “Finish the job.”
Kovu looked at the badly injured insect with guilt and shame at hurting it, and didn’t move a whisker.
“Come on,” said his mother, a bit more strongly this time. “We’ve gone over this many times before,”
When Kovu still failed to move, Vitani bent down and whispered to him:
“It’ll put the poor thing out of its misery. It’s too far gone to be saved anyway.”
Kovu glanced at his sister, then at the bug again.
“I said kill it!” yelled his mother, so loudly that Kovu smashed the bug between his paws almost involuntarily. Badly shaken, he wiped the fragments of the bug’s exoskeleton on the ground, trying not to show his disgust and nausea at the sight.
“Your practice with the insects has been going well,” said Zira, raising her head and breathing in deeply. “Very well. One day, you will be able to take down beasts much greater than grasshoppers, my Kovu.”
Kovu looked thoughtful for a moment, then he looked up at his mother and said,
“But Mother, why can’t I start hunting larger things now?”
Zira looked down at him in surprise. In all the weeks of his training, he had shown nothing but reluctance. Now he actually sounded eager. Perhaps Kovu was finally turning the corner.
“Well…I don’t know if you are skilled enough, and it would be hard for you to take down a full-grown wildebeest…”
“No, not a wildebeest, Mom, something smaller…maybe a squirrel or a mouse?”
“Are you sure?” Zira asked, more and more amazed at her son’s sudden change in attitude. “Those things can go quite fast…”
“I’m sure I can catch one,” said Kovu.
“That might be possible if there were at least one around here, Kovu,” said Nuka. “There aren’t any squirrel holes here. The ground’s too hard.”
“I know, but there’s a whole bunch of them that way,” said Kovu, pointing north. “Would you please let me go up there to practice hunting? I promise to catch at least one.”
Zira tapped the ground with a claw ponderingly.
“I think that is a marvelous idea,” she said softly. “Let’s all go to this place together and…”
“No,” Kovu said abruptly. “I mean, four lions might make too much noise in the grass and scare all the squirrels off. Why don’t just me and Vitani go?”
He turned to his sister, who was looking at him as if he was growing hyena ears. He gave her an enigmatic “play along” expression, and she looked quickly at Zira, then him, then at Zira again.
“Yes,” she said, “I should probably practice hunting too. Can I go with Kovu? I promise to watch him.”
Kovu eyed her angrily, but Zira smiled at her daughter’s words.
“All right. As long as you are back before sundown, you two may go.”
Kovu and Vitani began to run northwards, but Zira suddenly concluded her sentence with:
“As long as Nuka goes with you.”
After the brief squabble and the final settlement, the adolescent lion and the two cubs began their brief journey south, while Zira silently watched them go. As soon as they were out of earshot, she felt the musty breath of Monah on her shoulder as the dark lioness sat down in the grass beside her, barely making a sound.
“Kovu is still a cub,” she said quietly. “And cubs need to live as cubs, not as warriors in training. He didn't even know Scar. He isn't even a blood relative. Why do you feel he will have any motivation to kill your mate's assassin by the time his mane fills out?”
“He seemed motivated to go hunting to me," said Zira. "And I think that's a sure sign that he will be ready to do Simba in when the time comes.”
“There's still time to turn him around," said Monah. “And Nuka and Vitani. Even yourself. You don't need to make yourselves into fighters. No matter how many members of Simba's family you kill, it won't bring Scar back.”
Zira turned to Monah.
“Are you sure you still want to call yourself my friend?” she asked.
“Zira, we are still friends, but not the same friends we used to be. And no one lets her friend do something that might get herself killed.”
“I won't wind up dead,” said Zira. “I will stay alive long enough to see my Kovu ascend the throne meant for him.”
“How good a ruler will a lion that has been taught nothing but how to kill and slaughter be?” Monah asked. “Nuka is the only child in your family with true royal blood. Why didn't you choose to train him?”
“He is too weak,” said Zira. “I wish that he had been any other lioness's son but mine. He is always getting in the way, and he was never meant to be a king. I'm sure that his actions will one day lead to his own end.”
Monah nodded receptively to these words, and turned away to watch the sun as it slipped between two layers of clouds. Silently she mouthed the words:
“Just like his father.”
“’Nuka, watch your brother!’ ‘Nuka, watch your sister!’ ‘Nuka, watch both of them!’ I tell ya, I’m a babysitter before my time,” sulked Nuka as the three of them headed south. The great form of Pride Rock was visible a few miles ahead. Trees dotted the landscape and not many animals were grazing. The grasses they were passing through were very thick, and so tall that Kovu and Vitani couldn’t see over the tops of the blades.
“Why did you talk Mother into letting us go this way?” asked Vitani, completely ignoring Nuka’s words. “And why did you talk me into talking her into it? I know you didn’t want to go hunting, so what is it?”
“It’s that princess of Pride Rock,” said Kovu, “Kiara. And her brother too. I wanted to see them again. And don't worry if I can't catch anything. I've got a plan.”
“You want to see those goodie-goodies?” asked Nuka spitefully. “Kovu, if Mother finds out you’re making friends with the cubs of the lion you’re trying to kill…”
“Stop it!” said Kovu. “I don’t care what she says, I’m not going to kill Simba.”
“You never say that to her,” said Nuka. “So you probably will kill him someday.”
“I will not!” Kovu yelled, standing on his tiptoes, bringing him almost up to Nuka’s knees.
“You wanna bet?” asked Nuka, suddenly drawing back his right paw and giving Kovu such a smack on the rump that he went tumbling through the thick grasses and apparently down an incline ahead, rolling nose over tail. A few seconds after he became obscured by the thick reeds, there was suddenly a loud splash from ahead. Nuka and Vitani ran to see what had happened.
The tawny, long grasses gave way to much shorter, greener grasses at the top of a small but steep hill. At the bottom of the hill was a small pool shaded by a broad tree, and Kovu lay sprawled in the shallows, coughing up water and looking as bedraggled as a drowned rat. But at the other side of the pool, directly opposite Kovu were Prince Tanabi, who was also lying in the cool water, and Princess Kiara, fully recovered from her brief illness. Both were looking at Kovu, first with confusion, then with absolute hysteria as both of them exploded with laughter.
“See?” said Vitani to Nuka. “You’re not the only one who thinks Kovu is a barrel of guffaws.”
“Ha ha,” said Nuka unenthusiastically. Vitani smirked and began padding down the hill to the edge of the pool.
“Omigosh,” gasped Kiara finally. “Kovu? Is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” said Kovu grumpily, getting to his feet in the water and shaking himself off.
“Well, if it isn’t the Brat Cats,” said Nuka, starting to swagger down the hill. “Looks like I’ll have to look after the four of you again.”
“Oh,” said Tanabi looking at him, then at Vitani, who had reached the edge of the pool. “Nuka, right? And Vitani? I didn’t see you up there.”
“Then you didn’t…” said Kovu nervously. “You didn’t…hear us then?”
He was suddenly gripped with fear. Had the twins heard Nuka say what Kovu was “destined” to do? How would he be able to convince them that he didn’t want to be part of the plan, that he was just being used by his mother?
“No, not really,” said Kiara. “Tanabi was showing me his crocodile impersonation, and I couldn’t hear much else.”
Kovu and Vitani looked at Tanabi, who sank into the water until his legs couldn’t be seen, bared his teeth and made loud, comical gnashing and growling sounds. The two outlandish lion cubs burst out laughing, and Kovu fell back into the water again.
“Oh, now look what you’ve done,” said Kiara angrily. “You’ve messed up the water. Now I’ve gotta to find another pond to drink out of.”
“But what about your brother?” Kovu asked, not bothering to get to his feet just yet. “He’s in the water, and right next to where you are, too. Isn’t he dirtying up the water as much as I am?”
“No, ‘cause he’s my brother. Littermates can’t get water dirty if they just touch it, but you’re not my brother. You’re a dirty ol’ cub, and I bet you stepped in some zebra scat on the way here.”
“I did not!” said Kovu, angrier than ever, but his rage abruptly stopped when he saw Kiara laughing.
“Just kidding, Kovu. I’m sure you’re as clean as Tanabi and I am. But you could still use a good cleaning.”
“Yeah,” said Nuka. “I’ll remind his Mother as soon as we get home.” He had found a large flat rock beside the pool, and was resting on it with his head on his paws.
“Why wait?” asked Kiara. “Come over here and I’ll try my paw at cleaning you.”
“You want to clean me?” asked Kovu in stupefied (and somewhat embarrassed) shock.
“Just your back and head,” said Kiara. “My mom says that if I ever have cubs of my own, the first thing to learn is how to lick them. It helps them start breathing, y’know.”
“So if I stopped breathing right now, if you licked me, it would help me start breathing again?” asked Vitani sarcastically.
“No,” said Kiara, “That’s not how it works. Don’t you know anything about having cubs?”
“Let’s not talk about that now,” said Kovu, “I know you’re a princess and have the right to free speech and all, but Vitani’s not interested in hearing about having cubs, and I’m sure Nuka isn’t, so you’re sorta outnumbered. Maybe we can talk about it later, like a few years later?”
“Oh, shush and come here,” said Kiara, determined to practice her grooming skills on Kovu. Kovu hesitated at the edge of the pool, then walked around it to where Kiara and Tanabi were. At Kiara’s instructions, he sat with his back to her and allowed her to lick the fur lining his upper back and shoulders.
“Hey,” he complained, “Do you have to go against the fur instead of with it?”
“It helps fluff it out and dry quicker,” said Kiara.
“You took those words right out of Mom’s mouth,” said Tanabi, finally getting out of the water, seeing that no one was interested in his crocodile act anymore.
“So what?” Kiara asked. Tanabi decided not to respond to her words and instead watched her groom Kovu with a surprisingly meticulous and skilled tongue.
"Bleah!" she said after about a minute, spitting out a clot of brown hair. "Your hair is a mess! When did your mom last clean you?"
"I dunno. I don't think she ever does," said Kovu. He was going to add "she spends all her time with me teaching me how to hunt," but then surely Kiara would ask why a male lion was being taught how to hunt, especially one that truly didn't want to. Tanabi looked at Kovu and thought he saw something mysterious stir about him, but he then decided it was nothing to worry himself over.
“I got real sick a few days ago,” said Kiara between licks. “I ate part of a sick gazelle and I was throwing up all over the place.”
“Really?” asked Kovu. “I didn't know you could get sick from eating something sick.”
“Well, Daddy said that’s what happened. I ate just a little of the meat that afternoon, and that night I was just spewing all night!”
Kovu and Vitani cringed.
“You weren’t this light-hearted when you actually had the illness,” said Tanabi.
“Well, it’s over, right?” said Kiara. “And it’s kinda funny now that I think of it. I never thought something dead could hurt you like that.”
“Well, we learn something new every day,” said Kovu.
“So you two snuck away from your parents today, didja?” asked Vitani, circumscribing the edge of the pool to meet the three cubs on the other side. “Well, we won’t tell, ‘cause so did we.”
“It was their idea,” said Nuka, with his eyes closed, half asleep.
“Well, our mom was watching us this time instead of one of the lionesses,” said Tanabi, “But she fell asleep, and I know she won’t be waking up for at least another couple of hours. I saw it.”
“Whaddaya mean, you saw it?” asked Vitani, raising an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’ pay ahention ta him,” said Kiara, her tongue snagged in a stubborn knot of fur, distorting her words. “‘Ee’s ahways talkin’ weird.”
“No weirder than you talk,” said Vitani, chuckling. Tanabi and Kovu both laughed, but for some reason, Tanabi laughed louder and longer than Kovu. He finally stopped when he saw the three cubs looking at him with very confused expressions.
“And I thought Kovu was a weird brother,” said Vitani.
“Hey!” said Kovu. Tanabi, however, drooped at Vitani’s insult and started walking away, towards the nearly slumbering Nuka.
“So, have you figured out which one of you was born first yet?” asked Kovu.
“It was Tanabi. Not that it really matters, since he is a boy, and there has to be a king in every kingdom,” said Kiara.
“But,” said Tanabi, who was now standing at Nuka’s side, “Even if you were first, Kiara, I’d still be happy, even if I didn’t get to be the Lion King.”
“Yeah?” asked Kovu, curiously. “Why not?”
“Because...” began Tanabi. Suddenly, he scampered up Nuka’s side and up on his back, then along his spine until he reached his wiry-maned head.
“Hey! Get offa me, you little fire ant!” Nuka yelled, trying to swat Tanabi off.
“Because I’ll always be King of the Pond Dive!” Tanabi hollered. As he did, he leapt off Nuka’s head in a graceful arc over the water. Kovu and Kiara screamed and tried to get away from the water before Tanabi hit it with a gigantic splash that drenched Nuka (who hadn’t even made an effort to move) and splattered Kovu (who was still not thoroughly dried) and the two female cubs.
Tanabi sank out of sight in the deep pool, then resurfaced, spat out a mouthful of water, and shook his head, the red strands of his mane plastered to his skin.
“What are you two squealing about?” he gasped, looking at Kovu and Kiara. “It’s just water!”
Vitani, who had stood her ground and was dripping with moisture as a reward, said:
“Kovu has this thing with water. He’s scared of it.”
“Vitani, didn’t you hear about that teenage lioness from our pride that almost drowned last rainy season? You were scared when you heard about it too!”
“She almost drowned in a river. You barely treaded water in a puddle.”
“All right, so I’m scared of water! I didn’t mind that soaking you gave me, Nuka, but when I saw you jump in,” he glared at Tanabi with a mixture of anger and frustration. “I thought you were gonna drown in there. Excuse me for being concerned.”
Water was soaking the rock Nuka was sitting on, and he was still lying where he was with his growing mane so waterlogged that it hung down around his neck and jowls. He bore an expression of absolute distaste. If any of the cubs knew what Scar had looked like, they would have been shocked at Nuka’s resemblance to him.
“Very touching,” said Nuka through clenched teeth. “But you’d better do something to calm your girlfriend down, Kovu.”
Kovu glanced at Kiara to see that she was glaring daggers at her brother, who was slowly paddling to shore.
“Where did you learn to do something like that?” she yelled. “You got me all wet! Now I’m going to pick up dust and get all muddy!”
“Dad taught me how to do a perfect dive while you and Mom were learning how to hunt mice. Says he used to do it all the time,” Tanabi said. He crawled out of the water and shook himself, spattering the three other cubs yet again.
“Swell brother you’ve got, Kiara,” said Vitani. “He thinks he’s a hippo.”
“Either that or a fish that’s deciding whether to kill itself or not,” said Nuka as he walked by, still dripping wet. Suddenly, Tanabi leapt for Nuka’s shoulder and caught hold of his mane so violently that he nearly pulled the lion over. Ignoring the loud yells of discomfort, Tanabi then proceeded to clamber up onto Nuka’s back, sitting astride him is if he were riding him. Nuka staggered under the weight of the cub. He had never carried such a heavy burden, and his muscles weren’t that good to begin with.
“Now I’m the great Riding King, and this is my new steed,” said Tanabi proudly, gripping Nuka’s mane tighter. “And you are my duke and my two duchesses!”
“Not for long!” said Kiara, recovering from her anger quickly. She leapt through the air, trying to get on Nuka’s back behind Tanabi, but her aim was not very well, and instead she landed with her forepaws and head on one side of Nuka’s trunk and her hind legs and tail on the other side.
“Aagh! I’m going to flip over with you two still on my back, and I won’t do that out of my own accord!” squawked Nuka, trying to shake the cubs off. Kovu and Vitani began laughing louder than ever and running around their brother’s legs, trying to jump astride him as well, Tanabi shouting with triumph and Kiara squealing as she tried to keep from slipping off Nuka’s back, until finally she lost her grip and slid off, tumbling to the ground. Tanabi let go of Nuka’s mane and flopped to the ground at almost the same moment, and Nuka fell down. All four of the cubs were laughing but quickly growing tired with the exertions they had just put themselves through. Kovu padded over to his fallen brother, climbed between his shoulder blades and gave him a slight kick in the side with his foot. When Nuka didn’t move so much as a toe, Kovu turned to Tanabi and said:
“Uh...Your Majesty? I think the steed needs some grass.”
Tanabi was lying on his back in the grass, still laughing and trying to catch his breath when Vitani walked over to him and pinned his shoulders to the ground.
“I have seen more weirdness and craziness today than ever,” she whispered.
Tanabi looked up into her blue eyes, panting.
“I think I like it,” she grinned, removing her paws from him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun in my life,” said Kovu, flopping down in the soft grass.
“You haven’t lived much of a life yet,” said Nuka, looking straight ahead with an affixed angry stare.
“Aw, come on,” said Kiara, going over to him and patting his ear. “Why are you always so grumpy? Can’t you at least play with us?”
“I’ll tell you about it someday,” said Nuka, looking up at her. “If you’re lucky.”
“Well, that was quite a dive,” Kovu admitted.
“Yeah,” said Tanabi proudly. “I guess it was. Dad says he used to do it all the time, when he lived in the jungle.”
“Lions don’t live in jungles,” said Vitani sourly.
“My dad did,” said Tanabi. “He grew up there, and then Mom finally came and told him to come home, and he did.”
“I guess you two owe a lot to your mom then,” said Kovu. “But what about your father? is he nice to you?”
“Of course he’s nice,” said Kiara. “Why would a dad be mean to his cubs? Your dad’s nice, isn’t he?”
Kovu looked her straight in the face for a moment, then turned away, facing the ground.
“Vitani and I never knew our father. Mother never told us his name. He probably mated with her then left her. I wish I just knew what he looked like, though. Or even just the color of his eyes. Even though I never did know him, I really miss him.”
Kiara felt broken for striking Kovu so deeply unintentionally. All she had known about his parentage was that he was the son of Zira, but not of Scar, but she hadn’t realized that he didn’t even know his own father. Her mother Nala had told her that she had never seen her own father. But Nala’s mother, Sarafina, told her daughter all about the mate that she had known for only a short while, not holding anything back from her.
But for Kovu and his sister to be brought up by such an apparently cruel mother and not be told anything about their father...Kiara couldn’t begin to think how awful their lives were, to be trapped in a world among individuals that had supported a lion that had destroyed the once fertile kingdom, offspring of that very lion’s former mate! And forcibly separated from the rest of the pride not by the ones against them, but the members of their own little group!
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, walking over to where he sat, with his ears back. “I didn’t mean to say that. I’m really sorry.”
Kovu opened his swampy green eyes and glanced at her, then shut them again.
“I’m sure your father would be happy if he knew he had two cubs of his own,” said Kiara. “Even your mom has to like you at least a little. You wouldn’t be alive otherwise, right?”
Kovu raised his head and looked at Kiara. She extended a paw and placed it on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry. We’re friends, aren’t we? I’ll be your friend if you want me to.”
“I don’t think I ever had a friend,” said Kovu quietly.
“Well, you do now,” said Kiara. The sympathy in her hazel eyes was enough for Kovu to force a smile.
“We’ll try to visit you guys when we can,” she said.
“Us too. Just be careful not to run into my mom.”
“Yeah,” said Nuka, still sprawled out on the ground. “She has some killer ideas on her mind.”
“Huh?” said Kiara, starting to turn her head around, but Kovu put his paw on the one that she had on his shoulder, distracting her.
“We have to go now,” he said. “But maybe we can meet again soon. Uh...Tanabi?”
Tanabi stopped comforting Vitani, who was also upset by Kiara’s mention of Kovu’s father, though not nearly as much as her brother. He looked up.
“Isn’t there a ground squirrel colony near here?” asked Kovu.
“Yeah,” said Tanabi. “There’s one just over that hill.”
“Well, I’ve seen you hunting those things, and you seem to be pretty good at it.”
“For a boy, that is,” said Kiara. Vitani smirked.
“Not to mention that you almost creamed me when we first met,” continued Kovu. “You seem a lot better at hunting than I am, and, well...I was wondering...”
“Yes?” asked Tanabi.
“Could you please catch me a couple of ground squirrels? It doesn’t matter how small they are, but could you please catch one or two of them?”
Tanabi, Kiara and Vitani all exchanged looks of complete confusion.
“Why?” asked Tanabi.
“This wasn’t my idea,” said Vitani, “But knowing him, he’s got no tricks hiding behind his back.”
“I’ll explain later,” said Kovu, “But Vitani and Nuka and I need to be getting home before sundown. Just please do this one little favor for me. It won’t be any problem for you, right? Just another couple of squirrels?”
Tanabi looked Kovu up and down, then smiled wryly.
“No problem,” he said. “I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”
With that he turned tail and ran over the crest of a nearby hill, and vanished from sight.
“Now what the heck was that about?” said Vitani. “Why did you just ask the Prince of Pride Rock to catch a couple of rotten-tasting rodents?”
Kovu prodded his sister in the ribs and ignored the peculiar gazes of Kiara and Nuka.
“Remember that promise I made to Mother? I told you I had a plan.”
When Tanabi returned with two large ground squirrels later, Kovu explained the compromise he made with his mother, asking to hunt alone as an excuse to see the twins again. He hoped the ruse might work again, as long as there was plenty of prey for Tanabi to catch and give to Kovu, who would bring it home to his mother, pretending that he caught it himself.
Nuka, though he had every right to tell his mother that his half-brother and sister had been playing with their “enemies”, he decided against it.
“She never listens to me anyway,” he growled. “What would another sentence be to her? I would just be wasting my breath.”
When good-byes had been said and the three cubs of the Kina Mwasi had ascended and disappeared over the hill that they had arrived over, Kiara turned to her brother.
“It sure was great to see them again, huh?”
“Yep,” said Tanabi. “I’m worried about that Nuka, though. He never wanted to play with us, and he still looks like a cub to me. A big one, but still a cub.”
“Aw, he’s just a big dummy,” said Kiara, turning around. “Don’t worry about him. Come on. Let’s go back to Mom. If she wakes up and finds us gone, we’re dead.”
“I wonder if Scar was like that when he was a cub,” said Tanabi, as they walked along through the grasses. “Nuka is Scar’s son, remember?”
“I remember,” said Kiara, looking at a flock of birds that passed over the trees that sprouted up along their path. “I’m not that stupid.”
“I never said you were.”
They walked along in silence, side by side, until Kiara finally stopped and pointed straight ahead.
“There’s the tree where we left Mom! She’s still sleeping.”
“Just as I thought,” said Tanabi. “I told you I...”
He paused. His muscles tensed and, except for a slight tremble, he froze in his tracks. Kiara stopped and stared at him.
“Do you feel it?” he asked.
“Feel what?” Kiara asked.
“I don’t know,” said Tanabi. He swiveled his ears and glanced from left to right, then licked his lips in fear. “I think someone’s watching us.”
“Maybe it’s that little weird spirit that lives in your head and is making you talk funny all the time,” said Kiara, showing no concern at all for Tanabi’s worry. “Maybe it decided to step out for a moment and see how you were doing from the outside!”
“It’s not that!” said Tanabi through gritted teeth. “It’s something living...watching us from somewhere nearby...can you see anyone watching us?”
Kiara’s voice suddenly grew calm and dropped to a whisper.
“I think I do,” she said.
“Where?” Tanabi asked.
She leaned gently over Tanabi’s ear, paused for a moment, and then said:
“Tag! You’re it!”
She slapped him on the back and took off running before her brother had a chance to yell at her. Instead of pursuing her, Tanabi began looking around, trying to locate whoever or whatever it was that was that was spying on him. There was nothing under the tree east of where he stood, nor the two trees west. He turned his face upwards and sniffed the air. He could smell nothing. He took a final glance around. East tree, first west tree, second west tree...
Wait...he looked back at the first west tree. There was no doubting it. Someone was there. How could he have missed it? He sniffed the air again, but it was no use. The wind was blowing towards that tree, not from it. But still...he could feel that whatever and whoever it was under that tree was safe to approach...if he could actually see what it was he was approaching.
He turned west and began slowly padding towards the tree. He could scarcely see the colors that moved slowly around the figure lying in the dark shadow of the great tree. And the figure...it was so dark that it scarcely seemed to be more than a shadow itself. But beyond the darkness and the transparent coat that rippled around it, Tanabi could make out the only thing that made the figure solid from this distance. Two amber eyes with wide, yellowish whites. They were lion eyes, but something about them made the young prince tremble at the sight of them He was now within ten feet of the figure. He paused, breathed deeply, then boldly stepped forward through the last patch of grass that separated them.
He stopped in his tracks, his heart pounding. He was trying to decide whether to run or not, but something in his mind told him to stand his ground. He hadn’t run when three lion cubs of the Kina Mwasi were a few feet away from him and his sister, and he couldn’t see any reason to now. Instead, he looked at the strange creature that had been watching him, so close yet so invisible to his eyes.
She was shrouded in a pale blue cloudiness, that something that Tanabi couldn’t even find a name for. It was different than the coating of the other lions, much less complex and active, yet he felt it was very wild beneath whatever surface there was. Her fur was darker than any fur he had seen on a lioness, darker even than Kovu’s, more black than brown. The fur around her orange eyes was darker still, making the yellowish orbs stand out even more eerily. The tuft of hair at the end of her tail was black, a black that looked deep enough to fall into. Her paws, unlike most of the darker lionesses in the pride, were the same color as the fur on her back, instead of the surprisingly light cream fur on her chest and muzzle. She was old, but certainly not as old as Tanabi’s paternal grandmother, Sarabi. This lioness was probably a few years her junior at the most. She was lean, yet muscular and heavy-set in some areas. Tanabi could see that she had probably been a great hunter in her prime, and she was still able to move quickly if the occasion called for it. And as strange and alien as she looked, there was something strangely familiar about her, as if she was a long-lost friend or even a blood relative.
He was still looking her over when she finally spoke in a deep, seldom used voice.
“Good day, young prince. What brings you here?”
Tanabi felt strangely drawn to the lioness instead of frightened by her words. He took a couple steps forward, then stopped. He pinned his ears back and his muscles grew taut.
“Don’t worry,” said the lioness. “I won’t hurt you. I promise.”
Her teeth looked amazingly white in the shade of the tree. The combination of both them and her orange eyes made her look like a demon, or what the most loyal lionesses of the Kina Mwasi looked like. Tanabi felt a shudder run through him. Was this Zira? Was she the one that was spying on them, and was she trying to lure Tanabi to his death? Tanabi regretted his and his sister’s plot to sneak away from their mother. He felt that this was just the type of danger that his father had warned him about, and now he was too terrified to run, or even to speak.
But as he looked up at the stranger with nothing but fear in his eyes, he could somehow see her smiling ever so delicately, as if with sympathy, pleading for the prince to trust her. But how could he trust someone as strange as her that could just as well be the leader of a band of rebels, the former mate of the lion that nearly killed his father? And he could hardly make out that thing that surrounded her, it was so pale that it had almost no color, just a tiny whisper of blue.
“It’s all right,” said the lioness, and Tanabi caught a whiff of her breath, a strange mixture of scents, some of which he had never smelled before. An adult lion would probably be able to make sense out of the odors, but to the young cub, they were alien to him, but strangely, not disturbing.
The lioness extended a forepaw that Tanabi did not draw back from. Instead, he sniffed it with curiosity. The dark fur smelled almost the same as her breath smelled, musty, dank, and…alone. There was no other word for it. It wasn’t intermingled with the scent of other lionesses, like nearly all the members of the pride were. There was only one smell, and this smell seemed strangely familiar, just as the lioness herself did.
She lowered her paw, and Tanabi looked up at her eyes with much more trust in his face than before. They seemed softer than before, gentler and almost motherly. Tanabi raised a paw in front of the lioness’s face. The transparent coat she bore seemed to become clearer and swirl around his paw in response to its presence. Tanabi furrowed his brows, as old, forgotten memories seemed to be re-emerging. He began to slowly rotate his paw, and the colors of the coat seemed to ripple and twirl with his paw as if they were water. The dark stranger smiled softly, and purred. Tanabi stopped twirling his paw and lowered it slowly. The colors ceased their spiraling motion and grew calmer as he did. He looked the lioness straight in the eyes and tried to speak without fear.
“I know you,” he said. “I’ve seen you before. But yet I don’t know you. I don’t even know your name. Who are you?”
She smiled and purred deeply.
“I am a friend,” she said softly. “That’s all you really need to know about me.”
“But…do you have a name?” asked Tanabi.
“Why do you ask?” asked the lioness.
“Well…I’ve seen you before. I don’t know where, I don’t know when, but I’ve seen you before.”
She sighed and looked away, across the grasses.
“Only two living souls know my name,” she said. “And I am one of them.”
“And…” asked Tanabi, “Who’s the other?”
“My friend,” said the lioness. “You may meet her someday. I haven’t told anyone my name besides her.”
“I think someone is holding back,” she said simply.
“You?” asked Tanabi.
She looked back at him, surprised at his boldness.
“You are a sharp young one, aren’t you?” she muttered, shifting her weight from one side of her body to the other. “Just like your father. No, I think it’s the ones I pass. They hold back their questions, and so they never get their answers.”
“You know my dad? Then you must be in the pride…but…he’s never talked about someone like…you…”
“I am not noticed by many. I walk in the shadows.”
“Not to be rude, ma’am, but that sounds almost like how Dad described his uncle Scar….‘A heart of shadows’ or something like that…”
The stranger lowered her eyelids in silent irritation and scratched the earth.
“I am not Scar,” she said. “I am nothing like him. I do not plot or scheme. I do nothing that he did.”
“Sorry, Miss. Sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“I can see that you are a polite young prince, Tanabi. You are forgiven.”
Tanabi sat down on the dusty ground.
“So you know my name too, even though you say my Dad doesn’t even know yours. You still haven’t told me it, by the way.”
“Well, if you insist, young master. I am called Monah.”
“That’s it. Just Monah.”
“Well, Monah,” said Tanabi, trying out the name, “Why do you ‘walk in the shadows?’”
Monah looked at her paws and sighed.
“Your father Simba has told you about the Circle of Life, hasn’t he?”
“Well, then you know that every creature, lion, antelope, and elephant, is born into a certain part of the Circle to keep it complete until the new generation is born to help the Circle keep turning. The grazers eat the grass, we eat the grazers. It’s pretty simple, isn’t it?”
“Actually, it isn’t,” said Monah in a more serious tone of voice. “There are circles within circles in the one great one, there are situations where parts of the Circle form circles of their own, gazelle killing gazelle, the stronger ones pushing the weaker ones out. And it goes even deeper. There are those who are neither strong nor weak, the strange, gifted individuals that are different from the rest and are given a wide berth, just because they aren’t like the rest.”
“And you…you think you’re different?” asked Tanabi.
“I was born a shadow,” said Monah. “I stand unnoticed by others in the darkness of another shadow. They are my brothers and sisters. They protect me. I hunt by night rather than by day with the rest of the pride. And I am quicker than I look.”
Tanabi glanced at her muscular flanks. He could see rippling pools of energy swirling in her legs, filled with potential and strength. He smirked.
“That’s not hard to see, Monah,” he smiled. “You look really strong.”
“Do I? That’s the first time I’ve been told that. Thanks, your highness.”
Tanabi paused for a moment, then lowered his head, then glanced up at her.
“When you say that some of us are different…”
“Does that mean they…see things differently?”
“Of course, Tanabi. Some may see the world as a beautiful place filled with joy, and others may see it as a cruel desolation throwing blows their way no matter what they do.”
“No, I mean really seeing it differently,” said Tanabi.
“What do you mean?” asked Monah, not understanding his words.
“Well…” Tanabi paused again, then raised his head, looking brave and determined. “You’ve shared a secret with me, so I’m gonna share one with you.”
“Go ahead,” said Monah, who was intrigued that the young prince should trust her so strongly.
“When I look at someone…like you or Dad or Kiara…I don’t see you…well, I do see you, but I don’t just see the browns and tans that everyone says they see…”
“Yeah…not brown or tan, nothing like that. I see reds and blues and greens and yellows, and they’re all moving around and around and around like water does when you run through it!”
“Really?” asked Monah, her amazement overwhelming her skepticism that the cub was making the tale up.
“Really! And it’s so neat, it’s so pretty, I don’t know how to describe it! I don’t even know what to call it!”
“I’ve heard tell of certain shamans who are able to see exactly what you’re talking about,” said Monah, “But only a few shamans can see what you’re seeing.”
“Wow!” said Tanabi. “Do these colored things have names, Monah?”
“Yes. They are called auras, and unless you’re pulling my old leg, Tanabi, you have a very special gift. If only I could make sure…”
“I know! Tell me something about you that I don’t know. If it’s false, the aura will tell me that you’re lying. They shift suddenly if you are. If it’s true, nothing will happen.”
“All right,” agreed Monah. “I’m game. Let’s see…I’ve never brought down a gazelle.”
“That’s not a lie,” said Tanabi, gazing at her coat. “Hardly any lion can do that alone. Tell me something again.”
“Okay…I’ve swum across a great river.”
“Wow. Which one?” Tanabi asked, blinking in amazement.
“Hmm…I’m almost convinced,” said Monah, “But not quite.”
“All right. I’ve prevented a great murder and an even greater injustice.”
“Ha! Gotcha!” said Tanabi. “That wasn’t true, Monah. Maybe it wasn’t a really big murder, or there was no murder to begin with, but that wasn’t true. Your aura told me.”
Monah flinched and fought back the screaming voice inside her head. She looked at the little golden face with the budding mane and forced a smile.
“I’m convinced,” she said. “I’m amazed. I’m lying next to a cub that can see auras. And at this young an age too. You have an ability that great shamans have worked years to possess, but ultimately failed. Have you told anyone else about this precious blessing that has been bestowed upon you?”
Tanabi looked flattered for a moment, then piteously sad.
“I…I remember taking Dad and Ki out when I was real small to see these streams of auras that came coming in from everywhere every time the sun came up,” he said in a flat voice. “They must’ve been herds of animals walking across the grasslands. But the last time I took Dad out there…” he fought to hold back tears as he said, “I realized that he couldn’t see the colors. He could see the sun, the clouds and the grass, but he couldn’t see what I saw. Kiara couldn’t either. I tried not to talk about my auras after that.”
Monah gently stroked the prince’s cheek.
“It sounds like you had a hard time growing up, young one,” she said sympathetically. “That is a sad story.”
Tanabi nodded and looked away.
“Would you like to hear another story?” Monah asked.
“Once there was a lioness who was born as a different creature, just like you. She never knew her father, and she had only had one friend in her life.”
“Was he her boyfriend?” Tanabi asked.
“No, it was a she,” said Monah. “And the lioness’s friend was her friend because she too suffered a hard life and was born an outcast. The two of them helped each other survive through rough times and good times, either alone or in the company of others who tolerated their presence.
“The two eventually found themselves part of a great pride in the middle of a beautiful kingdom…”
“Was it this one?” asked Tanabi.
“Well, remember, there are many, many kingdoms out there, Tanabi, and this one was just one of them. Anyway, the king of this land was a kind and generous ruler. He had a son who he was raising to be king, smart, brave…and handsome for his age, too. Just like you are.”
“But some time later the king was killed, and his son exiled by the king’s own jealous brother. No lion was there to see this happen or witness who killed the king…except the lioness. She watched it happen from a distance, but she did nothing. She told no one about what she had seen, even after the land was taken over by the king’s brother, not even her friend, whom she still loved dearly, in spite of the many things that tore at their bond.
“But many years later, when the once proud land was in ruins, the long-lost son returned, fully grown, and reclaimed the throne that was rightfully his. In the struggle, the lioness watched the jealous uncle bear down on the son, accusing him of crimes never committed, and she knew that she could have stepped in at any time and spoken of what she had seen, and expose the true villain…but just like before, she didn’t.”
“Why not?” asked Tanabi. “Why didn’t she do anything?”
“Because, she was different,” said Monah sadly. “She may have been strong and swift, but she was not bold of mind. If it were not for her lack of action, many things may have been prevented. But she chose to stay the way she was. Unnoticed.”
“Wow. That’s really sad,” said Tanabi, looking at Monah’s eyes. Her aura was twisting strangely. “What happened next?”
“The new king and his bride became the parents of two cubs, a male and a female,” continued Monah.
“Just like Ki and me!” said Tanabi.
“Yes,” said Monah. “And the lioness was very sad because although she had lived a long time, she had never been blessed with cubs.”
“Was that because she was different?”
“Maybe,” said Monah. “Maybe. And she spoke to her friend and asked her advice. Her friend didn’t know what to do, and so the lioness thought by herself, as she always did, and finally decided that she would die unless she had a son, and she wished to steal the king’s son and raise him as her own.”
Tanabi gaped in fright.
“She…she didn’t do it…did she?” he asked. “How could someone who doesn’t do anything do something so brave?”
Monah looked at the terrified face and tried to keep herself from bursting into tears.
“No. She didn’t,” she said. “She changed her mind at the last minute. But she knew that both cubs were going to have a hard life ahead of them, and she swore to protect the two heirs until she died. She went to the cubs’ parents, and revealed herself before the entire pride, warning them that there would be great dangers in their futures.”
“What dangers?” asked Tanabi.
“Dangers that only she could see,” said Monah. “She could see things before they came, and she felt that now was the time to let the king know what she knew. And when she saw the little cubs, she knew more than ever that she had made the right choice. She looked at them…and then the little male put his paw up to her face…and when he smiled…the was no doubt that the family trusted her, and they would keep the two cubs safe from harm.”
“Hmm,” said Tanabi thoughtfully. “And what happened to her then?”
“Well…the story doesn’t really have an end,” said Monah. “You can think of one if you want, but that’s as far as it goes for me.”
Tanabi saw her aura swirling madly, but he tried to ignore it. He couldn’t bring himself to asking her if she was lying about something, even though he was quite tempted.
“And what happened to the lioness’s friend?”
Monah looked at Tanabi, then at the thin trail she had made through the grass.
“Her story also doesn’t have an ending. I’m still working on this story. Someday it will be complete.”
“But did she and the lioness stay friends?”
Monah hesitated, then said:
“I’d say yes, but I’m working on that part too.”
Simba pointed up at the clear, cloudless night sky.
“When I was your age, my father told me that the Great Kings of the Past – both of this kingdom and the many others in the world – live amongst the stars and look down upon us. Day and night, they watch us. They laugh with us when we are happy, and comfort us when we are sad. As long as we remember them…they will always take care of us and guide us through our lives.”
Simba stopped to wipe a tear from his eye. His children, who were still gazing in awe at the starry expanse, didn’t notice the action.
“Sure puts your firefly theory to shame, huh, Timon?” asked Pumbaa, who was resting with his hooves tucked under him while Timon rested beside him in the soft grass.
“Hey, you believe what you like, I believe what I like, okay?” Timon snapped.
Nala glanced at the two with a vexed eye.
“I think you should leave us for now,” she said. “This is for Tanabi, Kiara and us. You can discuss your philosophy another time.”
“All right, lady,” said Timon, picking himself up and walking away stiffly, with Pumbaa following him. “Sheesh, one off-topic sentence and they’re all over ya.”
As the two wandered away, Tanabi nestled in closer to his parents. The night was colder than usual, and the stars seemed brighter and more vivid. Nala nuzzled the back of her son’s head, then her daughter’s, purring gently. The two siblings lay in a drowsy state of bliss, looking at the stars in peaceful contemplation, thinking of all that their father had told them about those bright balls of fire burning so far away, yet looking so close.
“Daddy?” Kiara asked sleepily.
“Yes, Ki?” Simba asked.
“You said that the Great Kings go there when they die.”
“What about the Great Queens? Do they go there? Or are there any Great Queens?”
“I’ve been wondering that myself for many years,” said Nala gently. “But I’m sure that they go there, Kiara. My mother never told me that only the Kings are up there.”
“So there are kings and queens up there,” said Tanabi. “But…what about lions that are royal…but never got to be king?”
“What do you mean?” asked Simba.
“You know…if they died before they became kings…or refused the throne…or even…”
Tanabi twisted his head around to look up at his father.
“…If they were someone like Scar was.”
Simba looked at his son, then at the stars. He thought about how he would feel if he were in his uncle’s predicament. The younger brother of the chosen king. Plagued with jealously and a never-ending thirst for power, but with a lack of everything necessary to gain it, strength, courage, and loyalty. Being jealous enough to kill that brother and exile the young prince. Yes, Scar’s throne was eventually gained, he had his happy reign, but then he met his end.
But there was no denying it. Scar was royalty. He was the son of a king and a queen, and the uncle of a prince. But was he really a king in that brief time he controlled the Pridelands? If he was a king, did that mean he was up there, among those stars, looking down upon his nephew, his niece-by-law and his grandnephew and grandniece? Up there with the brother that he had mercilessly killed just to be something he was never meant to be?
Simba couldn’t find an answer, and doubted that he ever would. He looked at the stars and sniffed the air, searching for that reassuring scent that had drifted by on the day of Kiara’s presentation, in hope that his father was still watching him. But the air was still and gravid with a stagnant coldness, devoid of any smell, not even the smell of grass. Then Simba slowly realized that his father was not going to help him answer this question, as difficult as it was. He would have to find the answer on his own.
“Dad?” Tanabi asked again.
“Is Scar up there?”
Simba looked down at his son. The tufts of mane on his head had grown slightly in the past few months, and a reddish fringe of fur continued from the back of his head and down his shoulders, stopping between the blades. His mane was slowly coming in, though the dark rings on his ears showed no sign of fading, as Simba’s had around this age. Kiara, however, showed little change, except that her once stubby legs were becoming more lithe and graceful, both from long hours spent practicing hunting, and the natural cycle of growth. They were entering the short time between cubhood and adolescence, but both still wore that look of innocence that had been stripped away from their father when he was only a few months old.
Simba pondered the question that had just been asked of him, then said:
“You two are always coming up with questions that I can’t really answer, aren’t you?”
Tanabi and Kiara looked at each other and shrugged. Simba realized he had said the wrong thing.
“I mean…if you believe that Scar is up there…you should have reason to believe he is. He was a king for a short time, but he killed another to get there. Not only that, but he was not destined to be the king in the first place. But he was a king’s son, just like grandpa was. So what do you think, Tanabi? Kiara? Do you think Scar is up there?”
The cubs grew thoughtful for a moment, silently communicating with one another, asking questions and giving answers in that mysterious demeanor that young creatures always seem to possess. Tanabi looked back to his father.
“If queens can be up there, I think king’s brothers can be up there too.”
“I think so too,” said Kiara. “In fact, I bet anyone who’s related to a king can be part of the Great Kings.”
“I dunno,” said Tanabi dubiously. “If that’s true, then that’s gotta be one crowded sky.”
“Now, Tanabi,” Simba began, “Let’s not start an argument this late at night. After all, look at the stars. Can you count them all?”
“I…I don’t know…”
“Could you count them all if you had all night?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Simba. “There are thousands and thousands of stars up there, and new ones are being born all the time as old kings die to let new ones take their places. Even if all the royal relatives in the world were looking down on us from the sky, there would still be many more stars.”
“I’m getting a little dizzy hearing you talk,” said Kiara.
“But who’s to say you’re wrong? We’ve never been up to the sky, and we don’t know if only kings are among the stars or if their entire families are up there. But if you believe something strongly enough, then it’s real for you, and if those who have never been and never will be kings believe that they have worked hard enough and are worthy enough to be granted a place in the stars, then they probably will be given one when they leave this world.”
The cubs fell silent, thinking over what their father had just told them. Could an individual’s beliefs be strong enough to change reality? Tanabi wondered if his great-uncle really was amongst the stars with the grandfather that he had never met. What was on Scar’s mind as he lay dying? Was he thinking about whether he would go to the stars or not?
Tanabi’s thoughts shifted to the three Kina Mwasi cubs. Outcasts made outcasts not by their oppressors, but by themselves. Nuka…the only son of Scar. He was of royal blood. Would he go to the stars when he died?
And Vitani. Suddenly Tanabi found himself thinking of Vitani. She was different…just like him. She looked nothing like her brothers, and from what Simba had told Tanabi of Zira, nothing like her mother either. What was it about her that made his thoughts linger upon her for so long? Why did the pearly glow of the moon remind him of the shocking blue of her eyes?
And what about that strange dark lioness Monah? Tanabi had met her more than once in the past few months, and would repeatedly ask her where she was from, and she would always say that she came from nowhere, that she belonged on neither side of the pride. This didn’t sound like something a king’s daughter or a queen would say. Where would someone from nowhere go when she died? Monah did seem old, so she probably had only a few years left, but Tanabi couldn’t help thinking of this mysterious stranger. Why did he trust her? And why did she apparently trust him?
Kiara, meanwhile, was thinking of Kovu. She and Tanabi had been able to sneak away from their guardians to visit them a few times during the past months, but only just. And Tanabi tended to spend more time away from Kovu, as if he disliked him slightly. Of course, that was totally unlike her brother, so Kiara decided that he was just letting them have fun together. He had probably realized what a spoilsport he tended to be.
And as she played with Kovu, practiced hunting (which he surprisingly didn’t object to doing) and “tormented” Nuka, she began to notice many things about her new playmate. As different as the two of them were, they seemed so much alike. They were both bold, yet scared of the world. They were both unafraid of each other, in spite of the fact that they came from different parts of the pride. They both had slightly irritating and arrogant siblings, and they both were afraid of water, although Kiara was just squeamish about getting wet, and Kovu was downright terrified. She often tried to talk sense into him, saying that he didn’t need to feel so frightened over such a harmless thing, but Kovu would retell how he “had almost seen that lioness drown,” and Kiara would eventually have to give up.
Neither twin was ready to tell their parents about their secret meetings, and they decided that they would tell, but only when the time was right.
“We should see them as much as we can before they find out,” said Kiara. “They don’t seem dangerous at all to me, and so I see no reason to avoid them.”
Tanabi agreed, and so their irregular routine continued. Somehow, the four always met, away from either pride. Sometimes Nuka was with the two Kina Mwasi, sometimes he wasn’t.
“He’s just jealous that you don’t have an older sister he could knock around,” said Kovu once when his brother didn’t come, chuckling. The last time Kiara had seen him, his dark mane was starting to come in along his neck, and his older brother’s was starting to grow out and spread, looking surprisingly handsome on such a scrawny lion.
But what would Kovu grow up to be? Scar wasn’t his father, so who was his father? A king? A king’s brother? A distant relative of one? Or just a wandering rogue? Would Kovu go to the stars? Kiara didn’t want to think about Kovu dying now. Her mind almost automatically blocked the thought out. She just hoped that one day, she would find out if he were someone worthy…perhaps even what he really was…
It was very subtle at first, but it became more and more obvious as the days wore on. Sarabi was growing weaker and slower, her reflexes delayed. She walked more stiffly and ran with an awkward gait, or didn’t run at all. It was becoming harder for her to rise in the mornings, and sometimes she wouldn’t rise at all. Sarafina stayed with her constantly, helping drag fresh meat into the cave when her friend couldn’t get up. The shaman Rafiki visited as well, feeding the aged lioness crushed herbs and rejuvenating plants, but even if his medicines prevented Sarabi from growing more ill, they didn’t help her get any better.
Many of the older lionesses, including Sarafina, knew that it wasn’t only illness but age that were confining the former queen to the cave. But she still had the strength to smile, and she was still strong enough to play with her grandchildren, in spite of their fear for her health.
Simba would often stay with his mother, dealing with the affairs of the kingdom from inside the cave. Nala would sometimes be forced to deal with injustices brought before the king, and her strong will made this a manageable task for her, though she too worried about her mother-by-law and Simba as well.
“Sire, you must help your wife,” said Zazu one morning, as Simba was gently waking his mother. “She has enough troubles with two growing cubs and a hunting party to manage! Running this kingdom is your job, not hers.”
“Who says my mother is not part of this kingdom?” asked Simba coldly. “I’m not leaving her alone. What would happen if she needed me and I wasn’t there? I’m not going to leave her, not now!”
“Simba…” whispered Sarabi in a scratchy, parched voice. Simba’s attention snapped to his mother, who was looking up at him through eyes that were nearly closed. “Do what he says. I need to rest. Don’t worry about me. I survived years of hardship when your uncle was king. I’m sure I can make it through this little hardship. Sarafina will be here if I need help. Now go. Go on.”
She motioned with her paw towards the cave entrance. Simba looked at it, then his mother, breathed deeply, then turned and walked out of the cave. Zazu spread his wings and glided out after him. Sarabi closed her eyes and almost immediately fell asleep with a small smile on her face.
Simba was surprised to meet Rafiki directly outside the mouth of the cave. The monkey had practically jumped in front of him, but he was not wearing his usual grin of mischief. Instead he bore a look of mournful regret, and in his left hand was a large bowl made from a gourd, partially filled with a reddish powder. Simba eyed him questioningly, and in response, Rafiki revealed something he had concealed in his right hand: a tuft of tan fur that Simba knew had to be his mother’s. Rafiki dropped it into the bowl and mixed it with the power with his delicate fingers. Then he swirled the contents around a few times and tilted the bowl so that the contents almost slid out, but not quite. The powder clung to the bottom of the bowl for a few moments, then proceeded to slowly slide down until it had all collected into a small pile. There wasn’t even a trace of the reddish material left on the bowl’s insides, and the hue of the powder that now lay lifeless in the curved region of the bowl made it look almost like blood.
Simba looked at the powder, then into Rafiki’s solemn eyes.
“She’s dying, isn’t she?”
It was only a few nights later that Simba awakened, trembling with fear. He glanced fearfully around the cave, trying to find his mother. He spotted her, sleeping alone by the cave wall, and she lay so still that he was certain that she was dead.
“No!” he screamed in agony, springing up and hurling himself towards her, waking nearly the whole pride as he did. When he came to her side, he realized with relief that she was not dead, but her breathing was slow and shallow, and her heartbeat could barely be felt. He rubbed her shoulder, trying to awaken her. For a moment, she didn’t respond, as if she was in a coma, but then she grimaced slightly and half-opened her eyes.
“Simba? Is that you, son?”
“Yes, Mother,” said Simba, half-choking with grief to see his mother so ill. “Are you all right?”
“No,” said Sarabi. “I’m not well…I am tired.”
“Don’t force her to talk,” said Nala, who suddenly appeared at Simba’s side. “It will only make her weaker. She needs to rest.”
“But she’s dying!” said Simba, trying to keep from shouting it out. “She can’t die now! She still has so much life ahead of her…”
“She is sick, Simba,” said Nala, trying to comfort him. “If you talk like this to her it will only make her pain greater.”
Simba’s breath quickened as he looked at his mother. Her mouth hung open and her inner eyelid was showing. At first it seemed like she was looking at nothing, then she looked at Simba and shut her eyes, letting her head fall on its side.
“No!” Simba cried again, roaring in pain and grief, springing to his feet and rushing from the cave. He ran until he reached the end of the promontory of Pride Rock, panting.
“It’s not fair!” he screamed like a helpless cub. “Why do I have to lose her now?”
He looked up at the stars, which suddenly seemed even more distant than they usually were.
“She’s the only mother I’ve ever had! I’ll be nothing without her! I only knew her for such a short time!”
He paused to catch his breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was choked with tears.
“Please don’t take her from me. Losing my father was bad enough, but to lose my mother now, in the happiest time of my life…I’d rather die than live without her.”
He looked down at his paws and remembered his prayer that he had made on that night after Kiara’s presentation to the gods. His paw looked more like the paw of a cub than ever, unprepared to live without a mother. Had his prayer come true or were the gods mocking him? How would his cubs have a better cubhood than he did now? He had never known his grandparents. His cubs’ paternal grandmother was dying in the den behind him. Simba sniffed the air. There was no scent.
He looked again at his paws and the stone ledge beneath them, which dropped off sharply, with the ground several dozen feet below it. Anything living dropped over the edge wouldn’t survive the fall. He extended a paw and tested the air. It wouldn’t be a pleasant experience. He studied the ground’s topography and the slant of the promontory, then slowly took a step backwards, not bothering to look where he was going. He took another step and felt a chill that he knew wasn’t part of the air. Another step. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe calmly. Another step, and finally one last step. He tensed his muscles and whispered a prayer.
“Simba!” said a voice behind him. Simba, for reasons he didn’t know, opened his eyes and whirled around to see Nala padding towards him. But she sounded different somehow, and carried herself differently. As she drew closer, he could see that it was not Nala, but her mother Sarafina, a near-perfect copy of her. Sarafina was younger than Sarabi, but was certainly showing age. She was also Sarabi’s closest friend. Even if someone didn’t know this, it would be all-too apparent by the salty streaks running down her face.
“Simba, please come back inside,” she said. Simba could hear the gentle tone of voice that her daughter had inherited from her. “It’s your children. They need you.”
Simba entirely forgot about what he had been meaning to do. Fortunately, Sarafina had not noticed what he had been meaning to do either. Simba walked away from the summit. When he reached Sarafina, she purred gently and let him walk beside her, as if she was silently asking him if she could be his foster mother. Simba knew Sarafina well enough to know that she would never ask that, no one could replace his mother; still, he could tell that his mother-by-law would gladly help him all the same. Still, he could hear the pain in her shuddering breath, and the squint of her eyes beneath the shadowed brows.
They entered the cave to find Sarabi partially enclosed by a circle of the pride’s lionesses, as well as Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu. Tanabi and Kiara, however, were closer to her, trying to wake her from the sleep that seemed to make the others so sad.
“Grandma Sarabi? Please wake up,” pleaded Kiara.
“Grandma?” asked Tanabi. “Can you hear us?”
Simba drew close and looked at his cubs. Their eyes still bore a look of innocence, but their growing minds knew what they were seeing. They were, for the first time in their lives, witnessing the death of a family member.
Simba looked up at his pride. Nala looked as grievous as if her own mother was dying as she looked at Sarabi. Zazu’s feathers drooped, and even Timon and Pumbaa looked sadder than Simba had ever seen them. Kifaa was sobbing quietly, her head on Ramla’s shoulder, and even the rebellious Goshi looked shaken.
Sarafina sat down beside one of the lionesses making up the semicircle, and gestured to Simba, silently letting him know that he could approach his mother. Though she had no real authority over him, Simba felt so helpless that he needed permission to do something in this situation. He walked with trembling steps to his mother and his cubs, trying not to break down like he had before.
Kiara had started licking her grandmother’s face, and now, to her relief, Sarabi’s two hazel eyes finally opened and her face broke into a soft smile.
“My dear grandchildren,” she said hoarsely. “Why do you look so sad?”
“Daddy, what’s wrong with Grandma?” asked Kiara, looking at her father with eyes with pupils so dilated that the irises were almost invisible. Tanabi didn’t have to ask what was wrong. The colors of his grandmother’s aura were moving so slowly that he could barely tell they were, and so transparent that he had to squint to make them out. There was a pale reddish blot on her chest, and from the many kills he had seen, Tanabi knew that was where her lungs were. Her breathing was slow and labored, and it was hard to tell if it was slowing down or not. It seemed unlikely that it could slow down any more.
“She’s…” Simba said, forcing the words out with a quivering voice. “She’s…she’s dying, Kiara.”
Kiara stared, terrified, at her father, then at her grandmother, then broke down sobbing over her, kneading her fur like a newborn cub. Tanabi also couldn’t hold back his feelings, and collapsed beside his grandmother’s head, between her chin and forepaws, teeth gritted in pain and grief.
“Don’t cry, my little birds,” said Sarabi. “I feel fine. I’ll be all right.”
“But Daddy says you’re dying,” wailed Kiara, burying her face in Sarabi’s fur. “How can you be all right?”
“Please don’t die,” cried Tanabi. “I love you, Grandma! We all love you!”
“Don’t think that I don’t love you also, Tanabi,” said Sarabi, coughing. “But I can’t stay here for much longer. I am old, and I’ve had a long enough life. I have to leave.”
“Leave? But you’re not going anywhere,” sniffed Tanabi. “You’re going to die and that’s it.”
“Silly child. Don’t you two remember what your father told you on that night when you first looked up at the stars together?”
“Yes,” said Kiara, in a less mournful voice. “He said that the Great Kings…the Great Kings of the Past live in the stars.”
“And you asked him if Great Queens also went to the stars when they died.”
“And he said that was possible, that any destiny was possible if you believed hard enough in it. So that’s where I’m going, my dears. I’ll always be with you when the sun goes down, watching you and guiding you from the stars.”
“But you’re still leaving,” moaned Kiara, looking into her grandmother’s eyes that so much resembled her own. “Why do you have to leave now?”
Simba looked at his two cubs nuzzling the nearly completely still body of his mother, and his eyes couldn’t help seeing himself as a cub, trying to awaken the body of his father, before finally realizing the terrible truth. Then being accused of killing him. But the injustice of the moment wasn’t hurting him now as much as the loss he felt. Now he was experiencing that feeling again, and the pain cut him deeply. He wanted to speak, but the thorn jammed in his throat prevented him from speaking.
“Kiara, Kiara,” said Sarabi gently. “Don’t you and your brother remember what your father said about his father?”
Kiara and eventually Tanabi had to shake their heads. Their minds were too clouded with anguish to remember something like that.
“Well, then, Simba,” she said, turning her head towards her son, “Tell them. Just tell them what you know.”
Simba struggled to find words that would make sense when he said them, then spoke with the pain showing in his voice.
“He…he was…a great lion…A much better king than I…And I…I loved him. He was a great…great king.”
Sarabi smiled and turned back to her grandchildren.
“You see? Your father says that his father Mufasa was a great king, and I should know. For I, as you may remember, was Mufasa’s mate.”
The cubs nodded.
“Our rule together was so short, but I did my best to be a devoted wife and queen.”
“And you helped keep the Pridelands as intact as possible after my uncle took control,” said Simba. “Even after Zira became his mate, you were still the true queen.”
“Yes, my son. So, my dears, I won’t just be going to the stars when I die.”
She looked nonchalantly at Simba again.
“I’ll be going to where Mufasa is.”
Simba fell to the ground and rubbed his chin against his mother’s head, finally unable to hold back the tears. Sarabi purred gently, as much as she could for the weakness in her breath. Tanabi and Kiara finally couldn’t make any more protests, and instead nuzzled as close as they could to their grandmother’s belly, trying to get as close as they could to her before she was gone forever.
“We’ll never see you again,” wept Tanabi.
“You will,” said Sarabi, licking her grandson’s budding mane. “You have my word. And when you have fulfilled your places in the Circle of Life, then we shall all be together, as we were before. We must all go through suffering like this before we can earn our peace.”
“Mother,” said Simba, his cheek pressed against hers, “If what you say really is true…tell my father that I love him…and I miss him. I miss him like I miss you already.”
“Don’t despair for me,” purred Sarabi. “Just keep the land your father left you together after I’m gone. Love the daughter that Sarafina let be your betrothed. Love your two children, and prepare them as Mufasa prepared you to rule. And remember…I live in you too, my Simba.”
Simba nuzzled her again. She smiled, then slowly closed her eyes and let her head fall to one side, breathing slowly. The cubs were both exhausted from crying, and after giving their grandmother a last lick on the cheek, left her side and went to Nala’s side. Nala approached the former queen and whispered some silent words into her ear, then drew back, resuming her place in the assembly. Sarafina approached her and put a paw on her shoulder, laying her head on her friend’s neck, her eyes brimful with tears. One by one, the lionesses that wished to say farewell to the aged former monarch approached, paid their respects, and then withdrew. Even Zazu stepped up and bowed before her, and Timon and Pumbaa showed their respect for the lioness they barely knew in a most noble manner. Finally, when everyone had had their turn, Simba approached Sarabi, put his mouth to her ear, and softly whispered:
“I love you, Mother.”
No one was awake when it happened, but by morning, Sarabi’s soul had left her. Simba had decided to sleep beside her, and since he was her closest relative as well as the king, every member of the pride agreed that that was his right. When he awakened late the next morning, he forgot where he was for a moment, then recoiled in horror at the stiff, cold body beside him. He almost cried out, but a soft muzzle next to his softened him. He looked to his side and saw Nala and Sarafina. Kiara and Tanabi sat at their mother’s feet, tears running silently down their faces.
“There was nothing more you could have done,” said Sarafina gently. “Nobody else could have helped either. She is at rest now. Do you understand?”
Simba looked at the pale, matted fur of his mother’s body and shut his stinging eyes. He wanted to cry out to the heavens with all the pain that he had endured in his life, then die himself just so that he could be with his mother, away from this hateful, cruel world. But then he felt that familiar, sweet wind in his mane. That wind that reminded him of his father. And he remembered what Sarabi had said: “I’ll be going to where Mufasa is.” And he sighed, bowing his head to the king that had been his father and the queen that had been his mother.
“Yes,” he said, more to the wind than Sarafina. “I understand.”
Several lionesses helped move Sarabi’s corpse out of the cave and to a gravesite that Zazu helped locate, a place where no jackals or hunting dogs would find her. During that day, half of the pride helped dig the grave while the other half guarded Sarabi’s body so that no hunters of scavengers could get at it. Finally, as the sun began to near the horizon, the former queen was gently lowered into the grave. Rafiki sprinkled some brown powder around it and gave the departed king’s mother his blessing. No words were said there, only thoughts were allowed to flow freely.
Tanabi and Kiara stared mutely at their grandmother as her body was gently covered by the soft earth until the last bit of tan fur had vanished. Sarafina began crying loudly near that time, but the other lionesses managed to console her. Simba felt as if his body had turned to stone. Everything seemed to be pressing thickly upon him, trying to crush him, but he couldn’t give in to the forces; he was utterly unable to. He could only say a few words when Rafiki gestured for him to do so in respect for his mother’s passing, then including at the end that the pride would still stay strong, in spite of this terrible event. He felt colder and more heartless than ever saying that, though he knew it was the right thing to do.
Simba wondered if his father was watching him now. Perhaps he was watching with Sarabi. Were they watching with pride or something else? He could only hope that he could make the right choices now. There was no parent to ask for help now. He was on his own. On his own to protect himself from the lioness that was raising a cub to kill him by the time its mane came in, as well as the rest of the Kina Mwasi…the ones who had severed themselves from the rest of the pride.
And what about that dark lioness that came to advise him that one day? The one that said she watched him every day? Was she watching him now? Simba couldn’t see her, but his instinct told her that she might very well be watching him from behind a boulder or up a thick-leafed tree. It was growing dark as the mournful procession made its way back to Pride Rock, and he knew that surely that lioness was watching him then, from she shadows. What did she think of all this? Had she loved Sarabi? Surely she was old enough to have known her when she was still queen, but still…she might have ignored that fact entirely, since she did have the air of a recluse about her. But a recluse doesn’t know such personal things about individuals, thought Simba. She seemed to know everything about me.
He looked upwards. He, Nala, and their children were standing beneath the great promontory of Pride Rock. The rest of the lionesses had gone on ahead, with the exception of Sarafina, who stood ahead on a small boulder, looking back at them. Nala knew what she was waiting for. She gently nudged the cubs and gestured towards their maternal grandmother. They looked up at her with pleading eyes, not wanting to leave her side, but finally they padded silently to Sarafina, who led them up the sloping path that led up the side of Pride Rock to the den.
Simba stood, feeling cold as stone again, the twilight wind chilling him. He looked heavenwards and saw the great triangular silhouette of the promontory blocking the sky. He wondered how it had looked on the day Rafiki presented him to the animals of the kingdom, drowned in sunlight that wasn’t blinding but soothing, with his parents standing proudly behind…now they both were gone.
But then he looked higher, beyond the peak, and up at the sky. The sun had now sank out of sight, all the light of the day was gone, but the light of the night shone through in the first stars that were staring to bud and blossom far above the land.
“Those kings will always be there to guide you…and so will I.”
The words Simba’s father had told him so long ago repeated in his head. He had never doubted anything his father had told him, and he there wasn’t a chance in the world he could doubt these words now. He just had to believe that his father would guide him, believe with all his heart, and in the same way, believe that his mother, his dear, devoted mother, was there in the stars with his father. He didn’t know if she would guide him too, but it didn’t matter any longer, for he believed that she was in a place where she would be forever at peace, peace from all the hardships she had endured. Someday she, Mufasa and Simba would be together again, but Simba knew that she wouldn’t want her son grieving over her until the day they were. He had to be strong and fulfill his destiny as king. If his father could rule the Pridelands, then so could he.
Nala licked him gently and began moving forwards. Simba looked up at the stars once again, then followed her back to the den.
Sarabi lying torn apart…her aura gone…vultures ripping at her…insects crawling all over her…
Tanabi sprang awake, panting and shivering from the morbid image from the dream he had just been having. He looked around. All the other lionesses, including his mother and Kiara, were asleep. He looked behind him, at his father. Simba was also asleep.
He could feel cold tears on his cheeks, a salty mixture of sadness, confusion and fear. There was a tightness in his throat and chest, he could barely breathe, and even his regular breathing was shaky. He wanted to scream out his pain, but he was too weak from crying to do so.
He looked at Kiara. She was obviously sleeping a peaceful sleep, one without dreams. It was strange…he had never noticed how much his sister resembled his paternal grandmother. She certainly had Sarafina’s rounded face and large eyes, but the subtle areas…the nose and chin, and the shape of the ears…they looked too much like Sarabi. Tanabi turned away. His sister had the shape of his grandmother…he had never noticed it until now. He didn’t think he could look at her without being reminded of Sarabi again. Did this mean that he looked like her as well? How could he go on living knowing this?
“She’s dead,” he finally managed to whisper. “She’s gone forever.”
“I know how you feel, Tanabi. I feel the same way.”
It was Simba’s voice. Tanabi spun around as quickly as he could. His father’s head was facing away from him, with the thick mane obscuring most of the face, but Tanabi could still see, through the thick red strands, his father’s closed eyes.
It was just as it had been with Goshi. Simba still looked as if he was asleep, yet he spoke as if he were awake. No one could have heard what Tanabi had said. It was much too soft, and everyone was asleep. Why hadn’t Kiara responded to his words? He looked at his sister again, as painful as it was to see that face that reminded him of his grandmother. She was no farther away from him than his father was, and didn’t look any deeper in slumber, but then Tanabi realized what was different. He wasn’t touching her. Tanabi had his back firmly pressed against Simba’s side, but he wasn’t touching his sister. Was that what triggered these strange words?
Tanabi couldn’t ask himself this now, he was too full of pain and desperate for someone to share his feelings with. Now that he had someone, and as strange as the circumstances were, he couldn’t let the opportunity pass.
“I don’t know what to do,” he sniffed. I never thought Grandma Sarabi would die.”
“Neither did I,” said Simba. “But when I lost my father, I felt the same way.”
Tanabi hesitated, but instinct told him to ask more.
“What happened when you lost Grandpa?”
“I felt worse than I’ve ever felt in my life, because Scar…my uncle…he told me I killed him.”
Tanabi could scarcely believe what he was hearing. He had never been told this by his father before. All he and Kiara had been told was that their father had fled from the Pridelands because he was being pursued by hyenas. But to have been accused of the murder of his own father by his uncle…as young as he was, Tanabi could clearly see why his father would repress such a terrible memory. But why was he telling this to him son so freely, without refusal or hesitation?
Tanabi decided to move closer to his father’s face so that he could talk quieter and not risk waking others. He couldn’t crawl because that would mean moving against the flow of his father’s fur, possibly irritating and awakening him. He had to use a different approach. He carefully turned around, making sure to keep contact with his father’s body. Then he sat up and touched Simba with his left forepaw. Scooting back, he moved his right forepaw to the left of the left one and pressed it against his father, then lifted his left paw, moved it to the left of his right, and pressed it down again. Repeating this paw-over-paw pattern, he was able to move himself along the length of his father’s body without losing physical contact with him. As he drew nearer to Simba’s head, he could see that his eyes were still shut, but there were tears running from them.
His father was crying. His brave, fearless father was crying. This was just as unbelievable to Tanabi as Sarabi dying. He had, of course, seen some of the lionesses cry, even his other grandmother, Sarafina, but he had no idea that his father did. He had assumed it was something that young males grew out of, like cubs grew out of their spots. But no one had told him that kings cried.
“Dad…” Tanabi said, his voice breaking, “You’re crying.”
“I know,” said Simba. His voice couldn’t hide the emotions burning inside him. In fact, he seemed to be barely putting up an effort to hide them.
“I didn’t think kings cried,” Tanabi said, resting his head on his father’s foreleg.
“I know,” repeated Simba again. “I once thought kings were never scared…until my father told me that he was.”
“Why? Why was he scared?” asked Tanabi, asking questions as soon as he found a place to ask them.
“He was afraid that I would be killed,” said Simba, shivering beneath Tanabi’s chin. “And this was the day before the stampede.”
Tanabi’s eyes grew wide. He stared at his father with pity and amazement at what he was hearing. This was why his father was so protective of him and Kiara. He didn’t want to lose them the same way his father almost lost him.
Then Tanabi’s thoughts inevitably shifted back to Sarabi. He knew that what the other lionesses told him was true, she was very old and ill, it was her time to go, but he still couldn’t understand why she had to leave them.
“What about Grandma?”
“I miss her already, Tanabi. I loved her. She was the only one I had left besides your mother when I returned home. I barely remembered her when I was a cub, and when I finally saw her again, she was…”
Tanabi could hardly bear to ask him.
“She was being abused…by Scar.”
Tanabi shuddered. He should have known. No wonder his father feared Zira so much. A mate of a lion cruel enough to hurt the former queen must be someone to be afraid of.
“I’m scared, Dad,” he whispered. “I don’t know what to do now that Grandma’s gone.”
“Remember what I told you about the stars?” asked Simba.
“If you believe that Sarabi is up there, then she is. Don’t be afraid. Whenever you are, just remember that she is part of you. She is part of all of us.”
“You mean like what Rafiki told you about Grandpa?”
“Yes. Just like that.”
Tanabi didn’t want to ask Simba any more. Though the tears had stopped flowing from his father’s eyes, his cheeks were still moist and his body still trembled. Tanabi nuzzled him gently and hoped they could continue their conversation some other time.
But then suddenly he remembered what had happened with Goshi. She said that she never remembered talking with him or even telling him her name. Did this mean Simba would forget as well? Tanabi quickly formulated a way to find out.
“I woke up because I was having a bad dream.”
“You did? Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” said Tanabi truthfully. “I think I will tomorrow, though.”
“Thank you for talking with me. I love you, Dad.”
Simba suddenly sighed deeply and began moving his left forepaw towards Tanabi, who wanted to draw back but was afraid of breaking contact. But instead of flattening him, as Tanabi thought his father would do, thinking he was an irritating rodent, Simba patted him gently on the head, with coordination so fine-tuned, it seemed no different than if his eyes were open.
“I’ll always talk to you and Kiara when you want me to,” he said. “So will your mother. You know that.”
“I guess so,” said Tanabi, finally starting to feel drowsy. “I guess I never realized how much you would.”
“Are you sure you think this is a good idea?” asked Tanabi.
“Not really,” said Kiara. “This thing has been a bad idea from the start. But we keep on doing it, don’t we?”
Tanabi couldn’t help but smile at his sister’s never-failing sense of humor. They took one last look behind them at their slumbering mother, then broke into a swift run through the grasses, heading south, towards the region that the Kina Mwasi resided in.
“You know your mane is looking more like Pumbaa’s hair every day?” Kiara asked as they ran, making sure to keep her voice down so that no one nearby would recognize them.
“Ha ha,” said Tanabi. “You want a weird hairdo, take a look at Nuka’s mane. His head looks like a hyena’s!”
“You haven’t seen him lately,” said Kiara. “It’s just about fully grown and it actually looks normal, except for that porcupine tail sticking out of his head.”
Tanabi burst out laughing and almost tumbled headlong over a rock, catching his balance at the last moment.
“Now look what you did!” he said. “You nearly made me twist an ankle!”
“Actually,” said Kiara, paying no attention to his words, “It looks more like a wildebeest mane!”
“Your mane, what else?”
Tanabi fell silent in thought as they continued running.
“My mane looks like a wildebeest’s?” he finally asked, more to himself than Kiara. “Cool.”
“You can never understand what I’m saying, can you?” Kiara muttered.
Suddenly Tanabi screeched to a stop and stretched out a paw to block Kiara’s path, a maneuver that partially worked, since although she barreled over it, she did come to a belly-landing in the dirt just the same.
“Wait!” he hissed.
“What?” she panted.
“You smell that?”
Kiara sniffed the air cautiously.
“You want to exercise your mighty hunting skills again?”
Kiara turned to look back at her brother.
“Are you making fun of me?”
“No,” said Tanabi. “But if you want to do it, you’d better do it quick. I think he’s moving away.”
Kiara instinctively crouched down, wiggled her shoulder blades, and took off, bounding through the tall grass. Tanabi, not wanting to miss any of the action, sped towards a low tree and climbed to the first branch he could get to, then scanned the grasslands, trying to find his sister.
Then, there she was, a golden blur parting stalks of gold, pursuing her prey by sound rather than by sight. Then there was another motion in the grass and something dark seemed to spin around, aware of her presence. But it did not flee. It didn’t even move.
Kiara, her eyes narrowed, ran on through the stiff grasses, following the sound and the strangely familiar scent. Remarkably, for some moments, she couldn’t remember where she had smelled that scent before until the last minute, when she broke through the last barrier of weeds and pounced on her prey – it was Kovu.
He must have known it was her, and reacted immediately, his muscled tensed and his claws came out. But Kiara was on him before she could stop herself. They fought and tumbled nose over tail in the dust. Kiara was sure that she was getting the best of Kovu, even though she thought any bystander would think he was fighting unfairly, not only using his claws when she wasn’t, but biting and snapping at her ears and nose whenever he could (though never hitting his marks).
Just as Kiara began to feel the tension going out of his shoulders and was trying to remember what her mother had said was the perfect coup de grâce to a fight, Kovu suddenly kicked her just below her ribcage, knocking the wind out of her and making her vulnerable enough to be flipped nose over tail onto her back. Kovu pinned her shoulders to the ground and stood over her breathing heavily, teeth bared, green eyes flashing with a darkness Kiara had never seen before. Fear suddenly filled her and she shivered with dread.
Suddenly Kovu seemed to recognize her, and his face regained its familiar friendliness, and he suddenly, for no reason Kiara could determine, started laughing. For a few seconds, she was still too stunned to react, but then she started laughing as well.
“I’m sorry I pinned you,” Kovu chuckled. “I guess I didn’t realize it was you! Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in weeks?”
“I’ve been kept home, I guess,” said Kiara, looking at her shoulders and noticing, with some uneasiness, that Kovu’s forepaws were still pinning them down, with the claws still out.
“Uhh…Kovu…” she said. “You claws…they’re…”
“Oh. Sorry,” Kovu said, sheathing his little black weapons that were still small, yet not without the ability to inflict deep gashes. “Are you all – OOOF!”
His sentence was cut short by a tawny body barreling into his side, knocking him off Kiara, who sprang to her feet to see her brother and Kovu rolling across the ground, a wildly spinning pattern of gold and brown. Kiara thought it was just chance that determined who would be on his back by the time they stopped rolling, but as they slowed, she could see the dizzied and exhausted look on Kovu’s face, and when their rolling finally came to a halt, Tanabi was sitting triumphantly on top, with Kovu underneath.
“That’s one point for me. Now we’re even,” he said.
Kovu grunted and shoved Tanabi off his chest. The prince didn’t resist, since this was an intended play fight after all, but the look on Kovu’s face indicated that he didn’t share this view.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Tanabi asked, genuinely sympathetic. “I was just having fun.”
“I’m fine,” Kovu said coldly. “I’m fine.”
“Hey, stop acting so angry,” Kiara said, walking up to him and brushing some of the dust out of his growing mane with her paw. “I started it. It was my idea.”
“Really?” Kovu asked, with a somewhat warmer look. “Well, I guess I’m not that angry then.”
“What has your family been doing lately?” asked Kiara.
“You know. The usual,” said Kovu. “Vitani caught two rabbits yesterday.”
“Wow,” said Kiara, trying to hide her jealousy. “She’s really getting to be a good huntress.”
“Excuse me,” said Tanabi, “I think I’ll leave the two of you alone.”
“Where are you going?” asked Kovu.
“He’s probably going to see your sister,” said Kiara. “I bet he’s in love with her.”
“I am not,” growled Tanabi.
“Are too!” said Kiara.
Tanabi stuck out his tongue at his sister and walked off into the grasses.
“You don’t think he’s really in love with Vitani, do you?” asked Kovu after Tanabi was gone.
“What? You think he couldn’t be in love with a beautiful, scruffy-headed, pointy-nosed, freckle-faced lioness cub like her? Impossible,” said Kiara. They both burst out laughing at her words, sending a flock of birds into flight from a nearby tangle of bushes.
“I figured you’d find me today,” said Monah. She was lying in the shade of a large, overhanging boulder surrounded by other boulders in a space so dark and hard to reach that many would have passed it by. But Tanabi had been able to remember her strange scent and trace it to where she was. But by now he was starting to believe that his sense of smell was no greater than any other lion’s, but perhaps he could sense the presence of others by their auras. What puzzled him the most, though, was how he was able to make out Monah’s aura, which was so transparent and slow moving that it was nearly invisible.
“Yeah,” replied Tanabi, crawling over several rocks to get to the dark lioness. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Why do you spend so much time with me?” asked Monah, not expecting to get an answer. “Do you not love your parents and your sister?”
“Kiara’s okay, but she likes to spend time with that Kovu more than me.”
“Kovu?” asked Monah.
“Yeah, I told you about him, didn’t I? Zira’s youngest son? Nuka and Vitani’s brother?”
“…He is my second son, the one Scar told me would be the one to follow in his path, and take his place…” said a voice in Monah’s head. She shuddered slightly, then became aware of the questioning look on Tanabi’s face.
“Oh, yes,” said Monah, still shivering slightly. “I remember. But Tanabi, why have you been visiting with me so much? Are your parents not treating you well?”
“Mom and Dad are the best lions in the world,” said Tanabi. “It’s just that they’re always watching over us, like vultures watching a dying buffalo.”
“Do you know why they’re watching you so closely?” Monah asked.
“Yes,” said Tanabi. “Zira.”
Monah nodded sadly. “Exactly. That’s another reason why I’m worried about you sneaking out here. One day you might get caught by her.”
“No we won’t,” said Tanabi. “I can see auras long before I hear the grass being parted. I’ll never get caught.”
“But what about your sister?”
“We try to stick together, away from the Kina Mwasi. That strategy should keep us safe.”
“I don’t know, your highness. Zira is a very cunning lioness, and she might be able to track you down, whether you think you’re safe or not. I can’t believe your mother would let you leave Pride Rock alone, if she’s that protective.”
“Well…she did…sort of,” said Tanabi.
“What does that mean?” asked Monah.
“She…she fell asleep while she was watching us.”
“And has this ever happened before?” asked Monah.
“Uhh…yeah,” confessed Tanabi sheepishly.
“And you’ve never gotten caught?” asked Monah.
“Uhh…no,” said Tanabi.
“Well, I must say, you are one lucky little prince,” said Monah. “Lucky for you I can keep secrets. But I’m warning you: if I see you out in the open again, where anyone and anything can see you, far from the Kina Mwasi or otherwise, I might just run back to Pride Rock and tell your mother and father where you are.”
“Oh, please don’t do that, Monah,” pleaded Tanabi. “I like being alone with Ki, and I like talking with ‘Tani, and…”
“Hmm? Who’s this ‘Tani’, Tanabi?”
“Eh…her full name’s Vitani, she’s Zira’s daughter,” said Tanabi.
“Is she your friend?” asked Monah in a deep, purring voice.
“Look,” said Tanabi, his shields going up, “The only reason I hang out with her is because it’s way safer than being all alone, and my alternatives are being with squeaky Kiara and poof-head Kovu or porcupine-mane Nuka!”
“All right, I understand,” said Monah, raising a foreleg in mock-defense against the angry cub. “Sorry.”
Not heeding her words, Tanabi flopped down on the dusty, cool ground, facing away from her, ears back. After a few minutes of silence, however, his tension evaporated and he became more downcast than irritated.
“I suppose you heard what happened,” he said flatly.
“Yes,” said Monah. “I did. She was a great friend of mine, even though I may not have been a great friend of hers.”
“I never thought she’d die.”
“I know,” said Monah. “Neither did I. She was a strong lioness, in mind and body.”
Tanabi turned his head to face Monah.
“Monah…when she was dead…her aura was gone. I’ve never seen a lion without an aura…I was so scared…”
“Shhh…” reassured Monah, gently placing her paw on Tanabi’s shoulders. “Don’t be frightened. “You’re just scared because it’s something you’ve never seen before. If I suddenly saw you with an aura, I’d be very scared, possibly even more than you.”
“But she was still dead,” wailed Tanabi, resting his head against Monah’s paw. She purred softly and licked his tufts of mane.
“Monah,” he whispered after a few moments, in a trembling voice.
“Yes?” Monah asked, removing her paw.
“Can I tell you something?”
“A while back, on the day we first met Kovu, Vitani and Nuka, I saw a rusty colored lioness that I’d never seen in the pride before. Kiara was angry at me, and for some reason I walked over to this lioness and lay down beside her. Nothing happened for a few minutes, but then suddenly, she started talking to me!”
“Did she wake up while you were lying there?” asked Monah.
“No! She was still asleep, her eyes were closed, her breathing was slow, but she was talking like she was awake! We had an entire conversation like that. She told me her name was Goshi…I guess you know her?”
“Yes, I think I do,” said Monah. “A no-sider? Doesn’t stay on the Kina Mwasi side or the Pridelander side?”
“Yes,” said Tanabi. “Well, a few days after that, I saw her again, but when I called her, she acted like she’d never told her my name, let alone talked to me like she did.”
“Do you think she forgot?”
“I dunno…she seemed so awake I could barely believe it…but just last night, I woke up. It was very late. I was lying next to my dad, my mom and Kiara, and everyone else was asleep. I said something about Grandma, and my dad answered me. Just as if he was awake, but he wasn’t. And we talked. Just like I talked with Goshi. And I didn’t know why Mom or Ki didn’t answer me, but then I realized that Dad was the only one I was touching. My back was pressed against him.”
“So you think this thing you’ve discovered takes place only when you’re touching a sleeping lion?” asked Monah, just as interested in this topic of conversation as she was in Tanabi’s discussion of the auras.
“Yes…and not only do they talk to me, but they talk to me like I’m their own cub. Goshi said she hated cubs, but she never said a bad word towards me.”
“That is amazing,” said Monah. “From what I know of Goshi, she’d never say anything to a cub, let alone anything kind. She even avoids adolescents. She only speaks to lions three years of age or more. But as you were saying?”
“Well, they not only talk nicely, but they say…”
He paused, trying to find the right word.
“They say things that they probably would never tell me if they were awake.”
“What do you mean? Did Goshi tell you anything like this?”
“No…but last night, with Dad…he told me how he almost got killed when he was a cub…and how his father told him that he was afraid he would lose him. And when I looked at him, he was crying. His eyes were still closed, but he was crying. I’ve never seen him cry before.”
Monah looked at the distraught cub and decided to let him ask for her comfort, since he was the best judge of his emotional levels. Although he trembled madly, Tanabi did not approach Monah or ask her for a comforting nuzzle.
“He said he never thought kings could be afraid until his father told him.”
“And you never thought kings cried until you saw your father crying?” asked Monah. Tanabi nodded.
“He also told me about how he saw Grandma being…beat up by Scar.”
“I saw it too,” Monah said gently. Tanabi looked up at her in some surprise. “And I can see why your father would lock something away so deep inside him, away from everyone else. But tell me: You said Goshi ‘forgot’ what she told you when you spoke to her when she was awake. What about your father?”
Tanabi hung his head. And spoke quietly:
“I had a bad dream last night and told him I would tell him about it today, but when I asked him if I wanted to hear about my dream, he acted like I’d never told him about it, and I’m sure he forgot what I talked with him about last night too.”
“Don’t cry,” said Monah, reaching out to stroke Tanabi’s shoulder again, but he flinched out of her reach.
“I’m not crying,” said Tanabi. “I’m just confused. Why did he forget? Why did he tell me this? Why did Goshi tell me how she hated cubs?”
Monah paused and thought deeply for a few moments, an exercise that she was very skilled at.
“Well, though I have heard of shamans able to see auras, I have never heard of any creature able to speak this kind of quiet words…these…words of the sleep…of the night.”
“Words of the night,” Tanabi repeated, looking pensively at his paws. “‘Night words?’”
“That does sound like a good name to call whatever this phenomena is,” said Monah.
“Pheno-what?” asked Tanabi.
“A phenomena,” said Monah. “It is something very remarkable and special…like this power you have.”
“I wish I didn’t. I wish I was normal.”
“If I were you, I’m sure I would too,” said Monah, “But there are some things we can’t change. Nearly everyone wishes to be someone they’re not, and waste their entire lives trying to be that someone. But if you are wise, you will try to use your gifts rather than curse them. And remember: Your grandmother as well as your grandfather will be watching you. Make them and your parents proud.”
“That’s terrible, Kiara,” said Kovu. “I never knew either of my grandmothers or grandfathers, but I’m really sorry about yours.”
“I know,” said Kiara, growing slightly tense as she scratched at the stone beneath her paws.
“Is there anything I can do?” Kovu asked.
Kiara looked at him sadly. His leaf-green eyes shone with something that seemed to be more than simple, helpless pity. He looked more mature than he had before, more serious and somehow older than he really was. He looked like it was his own grandmother that had died, his face stripped of innocence and oblivion to death. His partially grown mane seemed almost fully-grown, and yet he was still a cub…but was he the same one?
“I don’t know,” said Kiara, lowering her head again. “Daddy said that things would be all right soon. But he didn’t say how soon.”
Kovu sighed and turned away from Kiara, staring straight ahead at the blurred horizon. Glancing out of the corner of her eye, Kiara could see that his profile was sharper and more angular than her father’s or Tanabi’s. He was so different.
Then she looked where he was looking, across the golden fields and the herds grazing in the afternoon sun. The rock they were on was atop a high hill, and Kiara felt almost like a queen surveying her kingdom. She looked at Kovu with something that she felt was more than mere cub love.
“Yeah?” asked Kovu, not turning his head.
“Do you know if Nuka ever recovered from losing his dad?”
Kovu turned to look at her and shrugged.
“Mom never told us. I don’t know if he was affected at all or if he’s always been this crazy. But he’s not like you. I know you won’t be sad like this forever. At least, I hope you won’t.”
“I hope so too,” Kiara whispered, closing her eyes. In the darkness behind her eyelids, she could feel a paw coming to rest on hers. As rough and worn as it was, it was still warm and gentle.
Tanabi crept through the cooling grasses in the light of the sinking sun. He could see a tree in the distance that was more of a shadow than a solid formation. Its branches stretched upwards like twisted arms and claws, grasping for the sun that was now beyond their clutch.
Tanabi knew this tree. His father had told him about it and had taken him to it more than once. It was the home of the shaman Rafiki, the wise, if somewhat eccentric healer, teacher, and advisor for the pride. His kind, with its strange, long, dextral digits and its two-legged walk, was protected from the lions, and killing one of them was unforgivable. What Rafiki did in this tree Tanabi never understood, even when his father and mother told him. And though they never said that it was permissible, Tanabi had the feeling that exploring the mandrill’s home would be all right as long as he left everything exactly as it was.
The trunk of the tree, which looked as leathery as an elephant’s leg from far away, was quite cracked and fissured up close, like water-starved earth. The gaps in the bark were just wide enough for Tanabi to get his claws into and clamber up the tree until he found a hollow between two branches. He could see some filtered sunlight through the hole, so he knew that it led to the interior of Rafiki’s tree. With the last of his strength, he hoisted his front legs, then his stomach, then his back legs over the slight rise in the bark that formed a small barrier into the hollow.
Unfortunately, he had overlooked the steep incline of the wood surrounding the interior, and tumbled nose over tail down the short slope, coming to a hard landing on the smooth floor. After his world stopped spinning, Tanabi looked up and beheld something that he had never even dreamed of. Strange apparatuses made of gourds and dry clay beads strung on strings of grass hung from the branches far above. Many more gourds and fruits, as well as a tortoise’s shell large enough for Tanabi to sleep in lay about, in what appeared to be a total mess at first, but as Tanabi looked closer, he saw that there was an order to this chaotic room. He sniffed the air, detecting the familiar smell of Rafiki’s musty fur, perhaps even that of the previous inhabitants of the sacred tree. There was also the pungent odor of dried and drying fruit, humid leaves hissing overhead, and sandy dust on the floor that had been carried in by the wind and Rafiki’s feet.
There was also…no, it wasn’t an aura, that was, not one that he could see. It was more like a presence, a feeling that give him the impression that this empty place was full of different beings…but what sort of beings? Spirits of the dead? Of the living? Demons? Guardians? The sensation unsettled Tanabi, making him crouch down, trying to make himself smaller and less visible to whatever it was that was undoubtedly in this strange, contorted tree with him.
Then a sudden breeze shifted the leaves overhead, which in turn caused a shift of the shadows spattering the tree’s walls. It was then that Tanabi saw the wall. He got to his feet and stared at it in amazement. It wasn’t exactly a wall, since it was so curved and uneven, but there was no better word to describe it. Painted upon the wall were elaborate designs: spirals, suns, hands, sets of lines…those were all amazing in their own right. Rafiki had probably painted them upon the wall with his skilled, long fingers, using…Tanabi sniffed one of the fresher-looking handprints…using either crushed berries or crushed fruit. But some of the other paintings smelled different. Some smelled of earth, some smelled like the gourds that lay on the ground. But as red and vivid as the paintings were, there wasn’t a whiff of blood from any of them. It was logical. Rafiki’s species was not one that killed others for food, and he wasn’t at an age at which he could kill at all.
But what caught Tanabi’s eye were four figures, no, not random symbols and shapes…figures. Highly stylized images of animals. Their ears were rounded and their tails were long and thin. Tanabi’s temporary confusion as to what the creatures were supposed to be dissolved when he saw the brilliant crimson fringe around the head of the one near the base of the wall. They were lions. They had to be. But were they any four lions, or did they symbolize something deeper? Were they gods or spirits? Were they what he was feeling a few moments earlier?
But wait…he drew closer to the image of the adult male and studied it. A mark on its forehead was drawn in a material different from the rest of its body. It was lighter in hue and had faded almost to complete transparency. Tanabi looked up at the other figures above it. There were two bright red ones facing each other and another above the right one. This one, for some reason, seemed darker, and it smelled of charred wood when Tanabi sniffed it. He examined the adult and the other three again. Yes, the one on the left had that mark on its head, a much clearer mark too, and so did the one on the right. And so did the dark one…
Tanabi corrected himself. No. The dark one didn’t have a mark on its head. Just what it needed. Another thing to separate it from the other three. Tanabi was starting to think that this drawing might not be representative of a lion at all. It could be a black leopard, for all he knew. He reluctantly looked away from the dark painting and at the two brighter ones below it. How symmetrical the two lions were. Were they females, or were they cubs? Whatever they were, it amazed Tanabi how Rafiki had been able to capture their essence and imprison them in the wood of this ancient tree. It was a skill that not even the strongest of lions could accomplish, not in a hundred lifetimes. Being able to paint just one lion, let alone one so identical to the one it faced. Why, they almost looked like twins…
Tanabi froze. He felt the fur along his back turn stiff and cold. Were these two paintings supposed to be of him and Kiara? He looked down at the adult male with the brilliant mane. That had to be his father. And the dark lion above the twins…Kovu. Who else could it be? But why was he drawn above Kiara? Did Rafiki feel that that would add more balance to the paintings, putting one male and one female on either side? But there was no lion on the side Tanabi was drawn. What could that mean?
He sat down to stare at this strange wall, his mind submerged in thoughts and questions. What he was looking at was probably his own family tree, or at least his immediate family tree. He wondered why his mother and Sarafina weren’t depicted along with his father. His only guess was that the descents of the king’s bloodline were the most important, and there just wouldn’t be enough room to paint the queen’s predecessors. Tanabi was glad that his sister wasn’t there to complain about this, though he felt that it was quite unfair as well.
And what about his grandfather, Mufasa? What happened to the lions that died? There wasn’t enough room to preserve them all. Rafiki would have to erase some of them eventually. And sure enough, as Tanabi peered closer, he could just make out some faint outlines that once formed the shapes of at least two more lions. Male lions.
Suddenly, there was a violent rustle of leaves and a dark gray body landed smartly on the sandy floor of the hollow tree. Tanabi spun around, more in preparation to fight than to see who or what it was.
“Prince Tanabi! What in de sun’s name are you doing in here?”
Tanabi relaxed. It was only Rafiki, and he could tell that though irritated, the mandrill was only mildly angry with him.
“Uh…I was just looking…” began Tanabi, trying to look innocent.
“Deed your dad not tell you to stay out of Rafiki’s home? Does Rafiki ever barge in on your home, Tanabi?”
“Den you shouldn’t be in here, little boy,” said Rafiki sternly, but gently. His voice was never completely angry, no matter how hard he tried to make it angry. His kindness and gentleness were traits that stayed with him, no matter what the situation.
“Yes…” said Tanabi, still holding his ground. “Uh…I was looking at your paintings. They’re really good.”
Rafiki raised an eyebrow and a quizzical look crossed his face.
“Has anyone told you that before?” Tanabi asked. Rafiki looked even more thoughtful. He cradled his chin in the hand that wasn’t holding his gnarled stick.
“No one ever complimented old Rafiki on his work before. You’re a good little boy…”
Here he reached out with his hand and tapped Tanabi’s forehead admonishingly with two of his fingers.
“…But you still shouldn’t be here. Where is your sister?”
“Uh,” said Tanabi, thinking quickly and rising to his feet, “I remember where I left her. I can find her. She’s probably not far from home.”
“Den go find her,” said Rafiki, lowering his staff and giving Tanabi a light tap on the rump. “Go find her, and tell her not to deesturb old Rafiki. One cub bad enough for me.”
“All right,” said Tanabi, padding towards another hollow different than the one he had entered the tree by that looked like it sloped down rather than up, assuring him an easy exit. “But Rafiki?”
“Why did you draw Kovu up there on that wall?”
Rafiki looked over his shoulder at his wall, then backed against it, as if he were trying to conceal it, though it was much too large for that, and he knew it.
“You don’t know?” he asked innocently.
“No, that’s why I’m asking,” said Tanabi.
“Mebbe I tell you later,” said Rafiki. “It may not make sense to you now.”
“Oh yeah?” asked Tanabi. “When’s ‘later’?”
“When you’re older, Prince Tanabi,” said the wise old mandrill. “When you’re older.”
The sky looked as liquid and clear as if it was reflecting the rivers. The sun’s heat was dissipated by the swift, brisk winds that were strong enough to ripple the grasses, but low enough to leave the dust on the ground. Many beasts, hunters and hunted alike, were out and about, enjoying this beautiful day, hoping that many ones like it would follow.
Kiara had taken on many hunts, and a good deal of them were successful, for the most part. Her mother was overjoyed with her daughter’s progress, as was her grandmother, Sarafina, and Simba too was proud of his child, and he told her over and over that his mother would be proud of her as well if she were still with them.
Kiara and her brother were now in their adolescent years, nearly as large and accurately proportioned as their parents. Tanabi had started to outgrow his interest in hunting, though his fighting skills had hardly dwindled. Whenever he and Kiara got into a tussle, he frequently came out on top, though Kiara had her share of wins as well.
As great as Kiara’s catches had been, she still had her eyes set on something bigger. On the morning this amazing day, Kiara informed her parents that she would be going for a short hunt, to which first Nala, then Simba consented. Since she was clearly old enough to take care of herself and fast enough to outrun any enemies, the king and queen felt that their daughter could be safe on her own. However, before she had even gotten a stone’s throw from Pride Rock, Kiara ran into her brother, who was out for a morning stroll.
After a brief spat, they agreed that Tanabi could watch Kiara as long as he kept his distance and stayed silent, two things which he (or any lion, for that matter) could easily do. Secretly, Tanabi still felt that his sister was still unprepared for the harsh world of the Pridelands. Sure, he was unprepared as well, but he couldn’t help feeling responsible for her. Though she was his twin, she was still – even if by a couple of minutes – his younger sister. The oldest should always watch over the youngest. Yes…Sarabi said that.
Now the sun was riding high and growing hotter, and Tanabi was getting weary, though his sister showed no signs of fatigue. She still hadn’t told him what she was looking for, or if she had found it. Tanabi, deciding that this hunt was going to be one of the longer “short” hunts that she sometimes went on, dragged himself into a low tree and continued to watch her through half-closed eyes. He must have nodded off, because when he looked around, Kiara was gone. There wasn’t a sound but the wind in the grass, and the grass was low, even for a young cub. Tanabi leapt from his tree and followed his sister’s scent through the yellow reeds.
Up ahead, he could see a point where the ground dropped off suddenly, then rose up again several yards further away. It was a gorge. Tanabi had seen it before, but never this close. His father had always called them away whenever they got within sight of it, and steered clear of it himself when Tanabi and Kiara were right at his heels. Perhaps it was that automatic avoidance of the gorge that kept the young twins away from it, even when their guardian had fallen asleep and they were free to roam. But the urge to find his sister put all warnings out of Tanabi’s mind, and no doubt hunting whatever it was she was hunting had put all of her worries out of her head.
Finally, Tanabi reached the edge of the gorge. The place where he stood didn’t slope straight downward, but it still made him dizzy looking down. He was near the north end of the great slit in the earth, and it was so long that even with his sharp, feline eyes, he couldn’t see the other end. He suddenly looked back at the north end again. A young buffalo, looking quite lost and confused, was pacing at the cliff edge, looking around, wary yet indifferent to what might befall it. Tanabi, sensing that his bright mane might give him away, crouched down in the grass and began crawling along. He noticed that part of Kiara that wasn’t her body shimmering through a thick clump of shrubbery. When he got near enough, he whispered:
“Any luck, Ki?”
Kiara jumped, but managed to stay as still as she could. Then she whispered back:
“Fine. I’ve managed to separate this one little buffalo from his family. If he would just stumble into the gorge or decide to fall in, I’d have it made.”
“You want to kill that thing?” Tanabi gasped. “Kiara, it’s a monster! Those horns could rip you open! It would take half the pride to take a buffalo down!”
“I’m setting a new record,” said Kiara proudly. “That’s why I didn’t tell anyone the specifics of my hunt. I want to surprise Mom and Dad.”
“Yeah, they’ll be surprised when they find you dead,” said Tanabi sarcastically.
“Shut up!” Kiara hissed. “I’m not gonna get killed. Besides…you’ll be here, right?”
“You’re not going to be running off, are you?” she asked.
“Great. Just keep quiet, and I might just be able to snag this guy. If he’d just go over that edge…”
“Well, that is a big gorge,” said Tanabi. “What will you do if you can’t kill him? Guard the gorge’s exit until he starves to death?”
“I’ll get him,” snarled Kiara. “Just you wait.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” asked Tanabi.
“No,” said Kiara. “Well…maybe there is. If you could walk around the north end of the gorge and form a circle around that buffalo, maybe he’ll smell lion if he tries to escape and think he’s surrounded. That should block his paths.”
Tanabi smiled (even though she couldn’t see him) and nodded. He made himself even lower to the ground and slowly began to walk towards the north end of the chasm. He could see the buffalo, but the buffalo still hadn’t seen him. He could see it clearer now. It was a young male, barely sure of how to use its horns, but old enough to live without its mother. Tanabi continued crawling along the scratchy ground, and was finally able to circle the beast, as Kiara had directed him to. He was now on the cliff opposite the one she was crouched, still waiting for the buffalo to slip up. He would have gladly charged the animal into the crevice, then let Kiara run it down, but she specifically said that she wanted to do it herself, and he knew better than to cross paths with his sister.
There was a cool breeze in the air, cooler than any wind Tanabi had felt that day. It smelled like damp earth and vegetation after a fresh rain, but there were no clouds to be seen.
Tanabi discreetly shook his growing mane, careful as to not let the buffalo see it. The locks trailing down the sides of his face were still distinct, as was the regal sweep of the hair sprouting from his forehead that was said to be so similar to the mane of his grandfather Mufasa. Some new hairs had recently sprouted between his shoulder blades and on his neck, complimenting the now smooth and soft crimson along his upper spine that Kiara had once compared to a wildebeest’s bristle. As mature as his physique and tresses appeared, it would still be some time before Tanabi’s mane was as full and majestic as his father’s.
What Kiara lacked in the mane department she more than made up for in naïve beauty, strength and endurance. As young as she was, she was already showing the signs of a full-grown, accomplished huntress. But what would be the outcome of this “record-setting” hunt?
Suddenly, there was a loud scuffle of stones from the north. Tanabi glanced over to the gorge’s end to see what the noise came from, and was shocked to see the buffalo rapidly sliding down the steep, smooth rock face, trying desperately to keep its footing and glancing about wildly, even bellowing for help. No sooner had Tanabi’s senses gathered the data than he saw his sister come charging out of her hiding place, towards the north end. Upon seeing her, the buffalo panicked, and was about to run, when it remembered that it was on a dangerously steep incline, and breaking into a run would surely mean breaking several dozen bones. So, against its deepest instincts, the animal was forced to make its way down the cliff as slowly as if there was nothing pursuing it.
Kiara was going no faster, though. She knew better than to charge blindly down such a steep slope. Instead, she kept up a steady lope going from one side of the slope to the other, making her way down in a zigzag pattern. The buffalo was growing more terrified by the minute, and finally threw caution to the winds and broke into a fast trot down the cliff. Sure enough, it did trip and stumble a few yards from the bottom of the crevice, but not hard enough to injure itself. But its error did slow it down, and Kiara took advantage of it, running faster as she began to get a feel for the rock face she was racing down on.
“That’s it, Kiara!” yelled Tanabi, deciding that since his sister’s prey was alerted to a lion’s presence already, and he was at the very top of the gorge, it wouldn’t make much of a difference if it saw or heard another lion. “You can do it! Keep on his tail!”
As he suspected, Kiara didn’t respond. She was probably much too busy to respond, or she didn’t hear him at all, since she and the buffalo were now at the base of the great crevice. They were both running on level ground, and at top speed, with Kiara slowly narrowing the gap between them. Tanabi eagerly followed his sister’s progress, keeping as close as he dared to the cliff edge, following it south, the way she and the buffalo were headed.
There was another chill wind that smelled moist to Tanabi’s sensitive nostrils, but he was too excited to pay it much mind. He began running in an effort to keep up with Kiara, whooping and cheering. He had never seen her hunt so well without their mother or father hovering over them, and was practically ecstatic with happiness.
“Woo-hoo! Keep going, Ki! You can do it! Keep going!”
“A little crazy today, aren’t we?” asked a husky voice behind him. Tanabi spun around and saw a lithe, gray-tan lioness approaching him. It was Vitani. She had indeed grown, the same way Kiara had, only in a different way. Her body had grown sharper and coarser as she had aged, as had her snake’s tongue and briar-thorn teeth. The tuft of hair atop her head had shrunk like a cheetah’s mane, but it still remained. She had also gained dark rims on her ragged ears. Tanabi had been born with black rims and still bore them, unlike his father, who was also born with them but lost them as he reached maturity. But other than these rather unconventional features of her anatomy, Vitani was still, through and through, a lioness. An adolescent lioness, but still a lioness. Muscular, swift, and smart.
“I haven’t seen you or Princess Ki in months,” said Vitani, keeping pace with Tanabi. Where is she?”
“She’s there,” said Tanabi, pointing down at the chase and trying to keep up with it. “Hunting that bull.”
“Yes, but he’s not that much of a weakling, Vitani. He’s almost full-grown, and males are known for…”
“I didn’t mean the buffalo, I meant your sister.”
Tanabi lightly swatted Vitani’s front leg.
“She’s not a weakling,” he said. “You haven’t seen what she’s been catching in her hunts. Antelopes, kudus, zebras…”
“All right, all right! Cool it!” Vitani snapped. “Still, I don’t think that’s wise for her high and mightiness to go after something as big and bad as that.”
“Speaking of big and bad,” said Tanabi, wanting to move the subject away from his sister’s alleged inexperience, “Where’s your mother?”
“She’s…” Vitani paused and flicked her blue eyes sideways for a moment. “She’s with Kovu. Nuka’s off on his own. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I snuck away from the Kina Mwasi to see what you two were doing. I figured you were bound to be out on a day like this. Who isn’t?”
“No one I know,” said Tanabi, breaking into a run to keep up with Kiara, who was starting to outdistance them. Vitani also began running. Tanabi began running even faster when he saw that Kiara had lunged for the buffalo, but only succeeded in raking her claws down its hindquarters. The beast screamed in pain and reared backwards, trying to dislodge its assailant. Kiara slid off the buffalo’s back, winded but not out. She got to her feet and raced after the injured creature, teeth bared, eyes narrowed.
“Be careful, Ki!” Tanabi yelled. “Don’t let him get at you with his hind legs!”
Kiara lunged again, but again only clawed her prey’s flanks and let it escape. Still, though both of them were tiring rapidly, Kiara still had the most strength left. In a crafty move, she ran to the buffalo’s left side and began herding him towards the west wall of the chasm. The buffalo shied away from her, not even noticing the wall that he was growing nearer and nearer to. Finally, when he was less than a young giraffe’s neck span from the wall, Kiara slowed her gait, then ran to the buffalo’s right side, then made a break for the west wall of the chasm. She ran up the almost vertical slope, then, before the buffalo knew what was going on, she sprang from the wall and onto her prey, claws out, knocking it to the ground in a choking cloud of dust near the base of the tall cliff. She sank her teeth in its leathery neck, hoping that her catch would stop struggling soon.
“Good grief,” said Vitani in amazement. “She really did it.”
“Yes! Yes!” cried Tanabi, almost dancing with joy. “I knew you could do it, Ki, I knew you could! I just knew it…”
“Uh…Prince Charming,” said Vitani.
“What?” asked Tanabi, temporarily shocked out of his revelry.
“Your sis hasn’t actually done it. Ol’ Horns-and-Hooves down there is still alive and kicking, and if he gets to kicking any harder, he might just kick her head in.”
“Yeah?” asked Tanabi, with a growing concern. “What should we do, Vitani?”
“I’ll handle it,” said Vitani. At the same time, she casually leapt right over the edge of the cliff, into the gorge. Terrified, Tanabi looked over the side, but was more than relieved to see that the walls of the gorge were anything but smooth and impossible to ascend. There were numerous ledges and smaller cliffs, and Vitani was making her way down by jumping from one ledge to another, very quickly and easily too, as if she was a springbok instead of a lioness.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come down too?” Tanabi called down to her.
“Stay where you are. This is a lioness’s job,” said Vitani without turning around. Tanabi sat back, feeling dejected. In no time, Vitani had reached the gorge floor, and immediately began helping Kiara with finishing off the job she had started.
Then, there it was again, a cold, wet wind that Tanabi was sure Kiara and Vitani couldn’t feel from where they were. He looked down at the ground. It was covered with hundreds of dark wet spots. He suddenly became aware of the dampness on his fur. It had started to rain, and so suddenly that he hadn’t even noticed the first drops. He squinted up at the sky. There were several scattered clouds in the sky that he hadn’t noticed coming in the excitement of Kiara’s hunt. But there was something ominous about those semitransparent clouds. Something that he couldn’t place. For a moment, he thought he saw one of the clouds fly down from the sky towards the crevice’s bottom, but then he blinked and decided he must have been seeing things.
“Hey, ‘Nabi!” yelled Vitani from the gorge floor. So voices could be heard from that distance, thought Tanabi. “The buffalo’s dead, but we’ve got a minor problem.”
“What’s that?” hollered Tanabi over the cliff’s edge.
“Your sister’s gotten herself trapped under her own prey…just her back legs, but she’s having some trouble pulling herself loose! She is pretty tired! I don’t think even you could pull her out!”
“And what do you propose we do?”
“I think Ki and me are going to have to eat our way out of this one,” decided Vitani.
“We’ll just eat a little meat off the neck and shoulders until he becomes light enough so that Kiara can move, of course!”
Tanabi couldn’t help laughing. There was nothing to be truly concerned about. Vitani made it sound so funny, and he knew her well enough to trust her, just as Kiara trusted her brother. Besides, if the rain grew harder enough, the ground down there would get muddy enough for Kiara to slip her legs out from under her catch easily.
The rain! Again, that ominous feeling in the air that pressed against his skull as if it was caught in a badger hole. The rain was indeed growing stronger, the wind was growing wilder and the sky was growing darker. What a way for such a beautiful, bright day to go, thought Tanabi sadly. But there it was again, that wisp of cloud that shot down from the sky and fell to the chasm bottom. This time it seemed to land closer to the two young lionesses. Tanabi grew worried. What could this mean. He looked back up at the sky, to where he had seen the wisp originate. It emerged again. This time he saw it clearer now. It shifted and twirled as if it was alive. There were faint colors and shapes, as if the wisp wasn’t a wisp, but something like…an aura…
The wisp flew down from the sky like the spirit of a bird, this time engulfing an old, leafless tree that grew right at the edge of the cliff. It spun around it like fire. For a moment, Tanabi thought the tree was going to burst into flames, but it didn’t. The wisp left the tree, and headed straight towards the gorge floor. This time, however, it landed on Kiara.
Then there was a different smell in the air. Tanabi’s senses were opened, trying to identify what this strange new odor was. It was like fire…yet at the same time it was nothing like it. He could find nothing to truly compare it to. Then, a thought suddenly flashed upon him. It was like the birth fluid of fire…what fire would hover in before it was born…of course, no such thing could exist, yet how could he smell it now?
There was then a low, brooding rumble from the south. Tanabi suddenly panicked. Something terrible was about to happen, and he knew it. He leaned over the edge of the cliff.
“Vitani!” he roared. “Vitani! Get Kiara away from there! Now!”
“Why?” Vitani asked, sounding tired but puzzled as to why Tanabi sounded so frightened. “What’s up?”
“Just get her out from under that thing!” Tanabi cried. “Something’s going to happen!”
“I’ve been trying to do that for the last five minutes! And what do you mean, something’s going to happen?”
“I’m not sure,” Tanabi admitted, “But believe me, you’ve got to free her! I can’t get down there in time! If you don’t pull her loose, something is going to – “
At that moment, there was a blinding flash of light and a splintering cracking sound, followed by an even louder crash resonating from the heavens and in the heads of every living being nearby. Tanabi spun around. The tree that he had seen the wisp engulf earlier had been struck by lightning and was now burning like it was a blade of dry grass. As the limbs were consumed by the ravenous flames and the sparks began to float gently to the ground, Tanabi could see that the trunk had been nearly split in half. The wound in the old tree ran almost down to the roots at the edge of the cliff, and for a moment, Tanabi thought that even if the tree split completely, nothing serious would result, but then he looked down and saw that his sister was lying almost directly beneath the tree, and at the instant he realized this, a deliberately slow breaking, cracking sound began to emanate from the base of the large, gnarled trunk.
Tanabi didn’t waste a second or even consider how unskilled he was at descending cliffs. He sprang off the edge, his eyes set on the nearest ledge. He alighted on this one without much trouble, then turned and sprang for the next safe-looking ledge. He underestimated the distance between his ledge and the one he was leaping too, however, and although he bent his legs just in time, he still got a bad pain in both front paws that shot up his legs and into his shoulders. Clenching his teeth and sucking in air, he continued his descent, finally gaining enough wind to scream:
“Vitani! Kiara! The tree up there is breaking! In a few moments, at least half of it’s going to come crashing down! We’ve all got to get out of here!”
“I can do that,” Vitani yelled back, “But what about your sister?”
Kiara, who had remained quiet since her teeth went into the buffalo’s neck in an effort to catch her breath, said:
“I can speak for myself! I’m trying to move, but this monster’s still weighing me down! I can’t feel my legs anymore!”
“Don’t panic,” cried Tanabi, “If Vitani can’t get you out, then maybe with my help, she can.”
“Well, hurry up,” said Vitani, looking up at the precariously leaning tree with fear in her large eyes. “I don’t want to die from getting hit by something that giraffes eat.”
Tanabi jumped off one last ledge and landed on the gorge floor, he ran over to where Vitani and his sister were and looked up at the tree. Its crown of flames made it no lighter as it leaned over the lip of the gorge, a deadly, unavoidable force that could only be run from or surrendered to. Tanabi knew they had to run, and fast. But Kiara couldn’t run.
There was a loud crack as a small, flaming branch broke off and clattered down. It was only about a foot long, but it made a surprisingly loud clatter as it hit the ground only a short distance away from the three lions. Tanabi and Vitani shared looks of fear and most likely the same thought: “Think of how much that whole tree must weigh if a branch hits the ground that hard.”
Kiara glanced up at the tree, her hazel eyes wide.
“Hurry,” she pleaded, clawing at the ground in a futile attempt to pull herself free. “That thing might fall any minute!”
Again, Tanabi wasted no time. He quickly scanned the parts of Kiara’s body that weren’t covered by the dark buffalo’s bulk, then designed the rescue plan in his mind. He moved to Kiara’s side and carefully fastened his teeth around the loose skin at the back of her neck. He had seen and experienced his mother do it to them hundreds of times, was there any reason he couldn’t?
“Vitani,” he said through a partially obscured mouth, “Go around and lift that buffalo up as much as you can. Then I’ll try to pull Ki out. Ki, you’ll also have to help. Just kick your back legs as much as you can. You’ll need to wake them up so we can hightail it out of here when that tree hits.”
Kiara nodded, but shivered and hoped that Tanabi wouldn’t bite through her neck like she had bitten through the buffalo’s…what a terrible idea, to hunt after that creature with that silly method! Why did this, her record-setting hunt, have to turn out like this? She prayed that if she survived this, her feelings of embarrassment afterwards would not be enough to make her suicidal.
Vitani lay down on the ground and pushed her back against the buffalo’s neck, eventually squeezing it under the leathery skin, she then pushed against the animal as hard as she could, until a small gap between it and the ground was visible.
“Okay. Ready, Kiara?” Tanabi asked.
Kiara nodded and shut her eyes tightly in preparation for the pain. Tanabi clamped his teeth into his sister’s skin as gently as he, a carnivore from birth, was able, and began pulling with all his strength. Kiara screamed, but she didn’t swat at him, as she would have done if she wanted him to let go. It tore at Tanabi’s heart to hurt his sister like this, but he knew that he had no choice. He could either stand by and watch her be killed by that falling tree, or watch her die while trying to save her and there was no way on Earth he would choose the first option.
“You moving your legs under there?” Vitani asked as she continued to push at the buffalo’s body, the very thing that Tanabi would have asked if his mouth wasn’t full.
“Yes…” said Kiara, her voice broken with pain. Though her brother was careful not to break her skin, the unwavering pulling on her neck was still agonizing for Kiara. Still, she endured it, knowing what Tanabi knew, if she wasn’t free soon, she would be crushed by the tree, which seemed to be leaning further and further over the cliff far above them.
Slowly but surely, though, Kiara was coming free. It was only a little at a time, but at least hope was starting to shine on her and her rescuers. However, Tanabi finally had to let go of his sister to catch his breath. Vitani relaxed as well, her back still under the buffalo’s neck.
“I can feel my legs better now,” said Kiara, the only one with enough strength to speak. Tanabi nodded.
“You haven’t punctured anything up there, have you?” she asked nervously. Tanabi grinned and shook his head.
“Well, as soon as you’re rested, you’d better…”
“Now!!” hissed Vitani. Her pupils were suddenly as wide as river pebbles, and she was staring skywards. “Pull! Now!”
Tanabi looked up. The tree had suddenly bent even further, and at that very moment, it swung downwards. Tanabi was about to give in to his primal instincts and run when he saw something that made him calmer, by comparison to most of the events that had been taking place on that day. The tree was still up there…but dangling by a single, scrawny root.
Kiara screamed. “Get me out of here!” she cried. “It’s going to crush us! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to – “
“Kiara, stay calm! Just stay calm!” gasped Tanabi. “Vitani!”
Vitani didn’t need to be asked. She rammed all of her lioness’s strength against the carcass, pushing it even higher than it had been pushed before. Tanabi also was able to pull harder, and Kiara did her part by kicking her legs beneath the buffalo, trying to restore the feeling in them. Fear had boosted their adrenaline, and they were able to move quickly as well as efficiently. They all tried to keep their eyes away from the impending disaster and continued their task, time ticking against them.
They had gotten nearly three fourths of Kiara’s body out from under the buffalo when it happened. The tree broke loose. Tanabi felt the tremble in the air before he even heard the snap and whirled around to see the tree trunk coming down. It smashed against a ledge, but still continued going in the general direction of straight down…and straight for the three lions.
Tanabi gasped, and even though it seemed completely hopeless, he clamped his jaws even tighter on his sister’s neck and strained and pulled, trying to free her before the tree hit. Vitani too saw the tree start to fall, and instead of continuing what she was doing, she got up and ran to Kiara. She crouched down before her and stretched out her neck, as if she was offering it to her.
“Wrap your forepaws around it, and quick!” she snapped. Kiara did as she was asked, and help on, not considering if she was going to partially strangle Vitani or if this hardened lioness could handle a constricted windpipe. Vitani then got up and began pulling as well, clawing at the hard ground with her claws, her shoulders and abdominal muscles straining.
The tree was almost halfway down. The echoes of it hitting various ledges and rocks on its way down resonated through the gorge, even more terrifying than the thunder that had rumbled when the silent lightning struck the tree just a few minutes before. The rain came down heavily, the wind whistled overhead, but no wind came to the three in the chasm, just cold and dampness and blind fear. Either all three would live or all three would die. Or one or two would go back to their family to report the death of another. There would be rumors and blame painted upon the survivor, and eventually, the survivor might decide to end his or her life as well. What would happen? At the moment, it was not a question of what, but when.
Finally, Kiara exclaimed:
“You did it! I can free myself from here!”
Tanabi and Vitani moved away from Kiara and watched as she wriggled free from under the black bulk. They were all so happy and relieved for a minute that they completely forgot about what was still falling, and still heading straight for them.
“The tree!” Tanabi screamed. Vitani didn’t even look up. He and Vitani took off running, but Kiara’s muscles were still atrophied from being in the position she was in. She glanced up, and also took off running, but her first stride made her stumble, and at that moment, what Tanabi had foreseen in that aura-like mist had happened. The tree hit…and it hit Kiara.
“No!” Tanabi rasped, his lungs burning by this time. He ran back to Kiara, Vitani at his side. The trunk hadn’t hit her abdomen, just one of her back legs. With no other choice, he (with some help from Vitani) rolled it off his sister. As he suspected, it was a very heavy tree, weighing almost as much as a young zebra. Tanabi then turned and slowly approached his sister’s face. Her eyes were closed and her jaw hung slack. He lowered his ear to her mouth and listened. She was breathing. She was alive. She was wounded, but at least she was alive.
Tanabi sighed, then wearily looked up to Vitani.
“I guess it’s not always just a lioness’s job,” she said.
“She’s alive, but I think she’s badly hurt,” said Tanabi. “I just don’t know how badly.”
Vitani examined the leg that the tree trunk had hit closely, then suddenly wrapped her jaws around it.
“What are you doing!?” Tanabi yelled, thinking that Vitani was attacking Kiara, though he couldn’t see why. Vitani unfastened her grip on the injured leg.
“I’m feeling it for breaks.”
“Yeah. Breaks in the bone. Some of the prey Mother and I’ve taken down crunches a bone or two en route to its death. I’ve been able to tell this by mouthing the area just before ripping it open. I’m almost always right when I feel a fractured bone. Your sister’s leg doesn’t look broken, but I thought I’d better check it, just in case.”
“And…what did you feel?”
Vitani took the leg in her mouth again and furrowed her brows in concern. She relaxed her grip and looked up at Tanabi, with true pity in her eyes.
“It’s a break,” she said sadly. “One in each of the two bones. Clean, but still…it doesn’t look like the princess is going to be walking home.”
“You don’t mean…she’s going to die?” Tanabi whispered nervously.
“No way, she’s tough. She’s live through this. She just can’t walk. It looks like you’ll have to drag her out of this, ‘Nabi.”
Tanabi looked at his sister thoughtfully, then up at the still stormy sky.
“No. We have to drag her out of this.”
“What?” Vitani snarled, jumping to her feet. “What the heck do you need me for? I helped rescue the princess, isn’t that enough?”
“She’s not out of danger yet,” said Tanabi, “And neither are you. I need to get Kiara back to Pride Rock as fast as I can. She told us that she was going for a short hunt this morning, and it’s almost afternoon now. If I try to drag her back alone, I’ll be able to go about as fast as a tortoise with a hippo on its back. I’m not as strong as I look. And if we don’t get back home soon, Dad will send out a search party. The party will probably find this buffalo carcass with both Kiara’s and your claw marks on it, and they’ll suspect that you tried to kill her. And that will just deepen the mistrust between us. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”
Vitani, surprised at Tanabi’s words, shook her head.
“And what do you propose we do instead?”
“Well, you help me drag her out of this gorge, away from the carcass. We’ll keep going east until we reach the nearest river. Then I’ll tell you what to do from there.”
“What about an explanation for your sister’s broken leg? Are you going to make up some crazy tall tale that no lion in her right mind would believe if it were from someone other than the Prince of Pride Rock?”
“Uh…yeah,” Tanabi replied. “Right. I’ll think up one as we go. Are you ready, Vitani?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be. I just hope you aren’t setting me up for something, Princey.”
Tanabi gently lifted his sister up by the scruff of her neck. Vitani slipped under Kiara’s chest, perpendicular to the princess’s body. Tanabi to let go of Kiara’s neck and slipped under her abdomen so that she lay across both Tanabi and Vitani’s backs, her head and forepaws on Vitani’s side and her tail and hind paws on Tanabi’s.
“We’ll have to walk carefully,” said Tanabi, “But at least we’ll be able to walk at a regular pace.”
“Fairly regular,” said Vitani, squirming slightly. “Your sister weighs a ton. What do they feed you at Pride Rock anyway?”
“It’s all muscle,” said Tanabi, not wanting his sister to be insulted. “Now let’s go.”
They walked along the flat bottom of the gorge for some distance, heading north, towards the end of the gorge. The rain continued pelting down, soaking them to the skin. Tanabi’s mane became waterlogged, and he found it hard to hold his head up. Kiara was still unconscious from the terrible blow she had received. There were occasional flashes of lightning overhead and growls of thunder, but nowhere near them or the gorge. They kept on walking as fast as they dared without letting their load slip off.
Suddenly, Tanabi remembered the steep wall that Kiara had run down when she entered the gorge. It loomed before them now, streaked with rain. There was no way they could get Kiara up that slope.
“What do we do now?” Tanabi asked, feeling a wave of hopelessness sweep over him.
“I’m not sure,” said Vitani, looking answerless for a moment. “I don’t think – wait! That’s it! That’s the way!”
She was looking at one of the adjacent cliff sides. It wasn’t as extreme in height as most of the cliffs Tanabi had noticed, and the many ledges formed in the rock face were rather close together. In fact, it looked like…
“Let’s move over to that side,” Vitani commanded. Tanabi obeyed her, slowly turning to the right in synchronization with her and walking over the cliff wall. It still seemed fairly low to him as they drew close to its base.
Suddenly something in the corner of his eye made him glance to his left. Something was peering over the edge of the cliff at the north end of the gorge. Tanabi couldn’t tell what it was, but what he could see was dark and ragged. The thing disappeared, and Tanabi stifled a low growl in his throat. Something about that thing was made his muscles tense. He could only guess why.
“Now get out from underneath her and jump up to that first ledge,” said Vitani. “This should work.”
Tanabi suddenly remembered about his sister and the task of getting her out of the gorge. Obeying Vitani’s directions, he slipped backwards, letting Kiara’s hindquarters fall to the ground. Vitani still held the princess’s head and foreparts up as Tanabi leaped up to the first ledge and looked back down, awaiting further directives. The ledge was only a short distance above Vitani. If she had wanted to, she could have easily touched his paw with hers.
“Now grab her neck and see if you can hoist her up,” said Vitani. “I saw how good you were at pulling her out from under that who-knows-how-many-pounds buffalo, this shouldn’t be much harder.”
“All right,” said Tanabi. He leaned over the edge and was just able to grab his sister’s neck – he wondered what she would think of he and Vitani using their teeth on her so much – and slowly but surely drag her up and onto the small ledge. Vitani smiled and leaped up beside him.
“I knew you could do it,” she said. “Now get her on my back, just like before, but don’t get under yourself.”
Tanabi gripped Kiara’s neck and Vitani slipped under her.
“Now let’s try for that ledge there,” she said, pointing her nose towards another shelf of rock that seemed almost as low as the first. Tanabi jumped atop the ledge and pulled Kiara onto that one as well. Vitani, looking more and more satisfied that her plan was working, jumped up beside the prince. Tanabi lifted Kiara onto Vitani’s back and leapt up to the next prospective shelf. They continued this passing-and-pulling routine all the way up the cliff face. Once, Tanabi nearly slipped on the wet stone and almost dropped Kiara, but that was the only near-disaster. Finally, Tanabi pulled Kiara up not onto wet stone, but grassy soil. The had reached the top of the gorge. Tanabi was still looking down at the great distance that they had gone – straight up – when Vitani poked him gently with her nose and whispered:
“Hey. It’s all right to look at this thing, but this ain’t the time. Let’s move if we want to avoid that not-so pleasant scenario that you talked about earlier.”
“Right,” Tanabi agreed. Once again, he hoisted Kiara onto Vitani’s shoulders, this time getting under his sister as well. Tanabi scanned the landscape until he determined which way they ought to go, then pointed himself in that direction, forcing Vitani to do the same. Then they continued their urgent mission.
“Hey,” spat Vitani as they walked on.
“What?” Tanabi replied.
“Don’t rub me like that.”
“I wasn’t rubbing you.”
“Yes, you were.”
“Well, walking like this, I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” Tanabi remarked.
“Are you getting fresh with me?” Vitani asked suspiciously.
“No, I’m just trying to apologize for something that I can’t avoid doing while we’re carrying Kiara.”
“All right. Whatever,” she grumbled. A gust of wind blasted rain against their skin as they padded on through the wet grasses and muddy earth. After a few more minutes, Vitani asked:
“So…have you gotten ‘the itch’ yet?”
“You know. You felt the urge to ‘do it’ yet? Found any ‘potentials’ yet?”
“What are you talking about, Vitani?”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Vitani groaned in disgust. “Have you fallen in love with anyone yet?”
“Fallen in love?” Tanabi asked in surprise, as if he had never heard the word before.
“Yes. Do I have to spell it out for you or something?”
“No…But I don’t think I really have fallen in love.”
Vitani looked at him with curiosity.
“Really? Kovu’s turning into quite a black-maned beauty, for someone with his looks. A lot of lionesses are starting to follow him around, and of course Mother’s swatting them off whenever they get too near him.”
“Well…” Vitani said thoughtfully, “She…she thinks Kovu’s a bit too young to have mostly adult lionesses clinging on him. Nuka, however, is something different.”
“What do you mean? Is he finding a mate?”
Vitani burst into laughter, nearly dropping her end of Kiara.
“Are you nuts!? Nuka is uglier than a shedding porcupine! There’s no way any lioness would get within sight of him unless Zira commanded her to! But at least Nuka has grown into a passable lion. But he’s still a disaster, scruffy mane and all. He’s also just as reclusive.”
Tanabi paused. He remembered that dark figure he had seen looking at them in the gorge. Dark and scruffy. Could that have been him?
“And anyway, you’re turning out okay yourself,” Vitani said. “If I were a male, I’d sure like to have a mane as red as that. You probably have lionesses asking you to be their mate all the time back at the Rock!”
“No, they’re a little more mature than that, and this mane’s not that hot a color,” Tanabi replied. “Kiara’s called me ‘firehead’ for as long as I’ve had it.”
“Seriously, have you felt…well…tempted by anyone? C’mon, you can trust me. No one in the Kina Mwasi is interested in the love life of a Pridelander.”
“Well…” Tanabi said, looking up at the now thinning clouds and the decreasing rain, “No. I just can’t think of anybody.”
“Really?” Vitani asked in astonishment.
“You haven’t had romantic feelings toward anyone.”
“No. Have you?”
Vitani’s nostrils flared and she snapped her head forwards, acting as if Tanabi wasn’t there.
“No,” she said flatly. Then, in a less strong voice: “Not yet.”
They finally were in sight of a small river, not much more than a large stream, in fact. The rain had ceased, though dark clouds still hung and the wind still blew. Tanabi and Vitani shivered as they continued walking. Then Kiara let out a low, almost inaudible groan and breathed in deeply.
“Hey, Tanabi,” said Vitani. “Your sister’s coming to.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” said Tanabi. He stopped walking and turned his head to the right, trying to see Kiara’s face.
“Ki?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
Kiara groaned again and shifted her weight.
“Well, she’s awake, that’s something,” said Vitani.
“Are her eyes open?” asked Tanabi.
“Nope,” said Vitani, “But they should be sooner or later. Let’s keep walking, shall we?”
Tanabi nodded. They continued towards the river, Tanabi hoping his plan would work, Vitani wondering what the plan was. Their burden grew heavier and their muscles ached as they padded on, as quickly as their pains would allow. Tanabi’s eyes were fixed on the river. It looked to be just the right width and depth. It was also flowing at a fairly slow rate, which made his plan even more flaw-proof. He urged Vitani to keep walking, pushing himself as much as he could.
After several more minutes, they finally reached the river. They laid Kiara down and rested close by her, trying to catch their breath. Tanabi scanned the landscape. There were few grazing animals around, and not a single lion, except for the three of them.
Kiara suddenly coughed loudly and shivered. Tanabi and Vitani’s eyes instantly focused on her face. Her hazel eyes softly flickered open and then squinted, trying to focus on the at first unfamiliar faces above her. Then, recognition seemed to ignite in them. She looked up at her brother with worry and confusion.
“What’s going on? What happened?”
Tanabi hesitated, then decided to tell his sister the truth.
“Remember that tree?”
“The one that was struck by lightning?”
“Yeah…I think so…”
“Well, a chunk of it broke off and fell…and hit you.”
“Your back leg.”
“Which one?” Kiara asked, trying to look at her feet.
“You can’t feel it?” Tanabi asked in surprise.
“No…” she said blearily. “Are you sure I got hurt? I don’t feel anything.”
“Well, not now, but you sure will later,” said Vitani.
“What do you mean?” asked Tanabi.
“If you’re hurt bad enough, your body falls asleep for a while. You can’t feel pain for a few hours, but it eventually comes back, and boy, does it ever hurt.”
“Where’d you learn that from, your mother?” asked Kiara, apparently still not thinking clearly.
“Right,” said Vitani indifferently. “Well, Prince, what’s the next move?”
Tanabi lowered his nose and sniffed his sister’s belly. She giggled quietly.
“Your scent is on her fur. If I bring her back smelling like you, they’re definitely going to get suspicious.”
“So?” Vitani asked.
“I think the best thing to do would be to drag her through the river. That would get rid of the smell.”
Tanabi glanced up at Vitani. Then nodded.
“Maybe you should take a dip too, just to make sure you don’t go home smelling like a Pridelander.”
“Hey,” said Kiara, “I heard that.”
“Sorry, Ki,” said Tanabi. “I was just trying to speak ‘her language.’”
“Ha ha,” said Vitani. “So how will you get her through the river with a bad leg?”
“The same way I got her out from under that buffalo, I guess,” said Tanabi. “But we’d better act fast. We’re still racing the sun. Kiara, when signal you to, hold your breath, okay?”
Kiara, unable to put together what was going on, nodded. Tanabi grabbed her gently by the scruff of the neck and dragged her towards the river, Kiara trying to help him by dragging herself along with her front feet. They waded into the river, the current gently lapping against their legs. Tanabi’s love of water had faded as he had grown, but he still enjoyed a light splash in a pond in the heat of the day, or even when going through it was necessary. And now, it was indeed necessary.
When the water was nearly up to Kiara’s chin, Tanabi made a soft growling noise. His sister inhaled deeply and he carefully moved forward into the river, the water growing higher and higher until Kiara was completely submerged. Tanabi could still keep his head above the current, and a few moments more, just as bubbles were starting to hiss up from beneath, he pulled Kiara out of the water and onto the other side. She shook her head and coughed heavily.
“This thing had better be worth it, Tanabi,” she croaked.
“Now that I think of it, I hope so too,” said Tanabi. “But I’m sure it is.”
He looked up. Vitani had decided his suggestion was worthwhile and swam across the river and back again, looking as ragged as a drowned rat as she came out of the water for the second time, shaking herself off and growling with irritation.
“I’m sure I’m Pridelander-odor-free now, ‘Nabi,” she snapped. “Anything else, your highness?”
Tanabi couldn’t help chuckling at the angry, dripping wet young lioness that stood before him, glaring at him with those vivid blue eyes. But still, he answered without grinning or even smirking.
“No. You’re free. Thank you so much for helping Kiara. You’ve probably helped both our prides.”
“Probably?” mocked Vitani. “Probably? I hope so, Princey, because if not, you’re first on my “To Hurt” list for tomorrow!”
With that, she turned and ran off, not even glancing back once. When she was out of eyesight, Tanabi looked down at his sister. She was still awake, but looking like she might doze off any minute.
“Listen: I’m going off to get help. We’re close to Pride Rock, so I won’t be long. But when I come back, there are going to be questions, and I don’t want you telling anyone about what happened in the gorge, okay?”
“Just agree with everything I say, and try not to say much, all right?”
“Now stay here. I’ll be back.”
Tanabi turned and took off running. The pains that had dwindled during his short rest quickly sprang back to life in his legs and chest, burning madly. But still he continued, running across the empty plains, occasionally stirring up flocks of birds from the trees or from the ground. There were still no lionesses in sight. He looked from left to right wildly, searching for the telltale glows of auras.
He was only a short distance from Pride Rock when he saw someone. It was a lioness. He prayed that it wouldn’t be his mother or his grandmother. It would be much harder to convince them that his story of how his sister got hurt was legit. The other lionesses of the pride were much more trusting, and they were under Simba’s rule, and Tanabi was old enough to be considered an adult. Someone to obey. There were times Tanabi wished he wasn’t growing up, but now, he was more than grateful that he was.
He drew closer and saw that it wasn’t Nala or Sarafina. It was Yakuti, a lioness with light green eyes and a light rust-hued coat. She saw Tanabi coming and nodded a slight bow, but sprang to attention when she saw the wild fear in his eyes.
“Prince Tanabi! What is it?”
Tanabi screeched to a stop and stood bent over, panting heavily.
“Is something wrong?” Yakuti asked again. “What is it?”
Then a look of dread crossed her face.
“Is it the princess? Is she…”
“She’s alive,” said Tanabi through labored gasps. “She’s just badly hurt. She needs your help.”
“Take me to her,” decided Yakuti. “I’ll see how bad she is, then run back for more help.”
Tanabi nodded, then turned and ran back the way he had come, Yakuti at his side. A few minutes later, they arrived back at the riverbank, where Kiara still lay, her eyes closed. Yakuti looked her over thoroughly, with deep concern showing in her green eyes.
“There seems to be some swelling in her right hind leg,” she said after a few minutes. “What do you think happened?”
“Well,” said Tanabi, “She told me that she was hunting a young antelope that had strayed from its herd, and she tripped over a root during the chase. I think her leg might have broken.”
“Yes,” said Kiara, pretending to agree with Tanabi’s false story.
“And why are you so wet?” Yakuti asked with curiosity.
“She…” said Tanabi, pausing for a moment, “She swam this river trying to get back home, but she says she’s too tired to go any farther. Also, her leg got worse as she walked.”
Kiara nodded mutely.
“Oh, Kiara, you shouldn’t have tried to walk with a broken leg,” said Yakuti sadly. “Who knows how bad it might be now!”
“I know,” Kiara said, grimacing with real pain from her leg.
“I’d better run back to Pride Rock and get some more lionesses to help the princess back to Pride Rock. Are you staying here, Tanabi?”
Tanabi was about to say “yes”, but then he noticed Kiara’s eyes. They were wide open and terrified, staring at something behind Tanabi. Apparently Yakuti hadn’t noticed the princess’s eyes. Tanabi slowly turned his head until he could see behind him. There was a dark, scraggly figure peering over a rock. Its aura was almost as dark as it was, more of a cloud of smoke than a cloud of light. It seemed completely alien, and yet, Tanabi had seen it before. He growled quietly and curled his lip. The figure vanished, but Tanabi could tell it was still there, behind the boulder.
“Well, your majesty?”
“I…I need to leave as well. I’ll be back home before sundown.”
“Well…will you be all right alone for a few minutes, Kiara?”
“All right, Prince Tanabi. Farewell.”
Yakuti turned and took off running to the east, the direction where Pride Rock stood, silhouetted against the sinking sun. Tanabi turned back to his sister, who was still looking where the dark thing used to be with fear dancing in her eyes.
“Kiara?” he asked.
“Yes?” she trembled.
“I’m sorry I have to leave you here again. I’ll see you later, though.”
“But why are you leaving me?” Kiara asked.
“It’s nothing serious,” Tanabi said, getting up and starting to slowly walk towards the place where the dark thing had been.
“It’s just some ‘family’ business.”
When he was at a distance he was sure his sister couldn’t see him at, he broke into a sprint, on the trail of the mysterious figure. His suspicions were correct. It was the same creature that had been spying on him and Vitani from the top of the gorge. It must have followed them while they were carrying Kiara, and now that it knew Tanabi had seen it, it was running like the wind, trying to lose him.
Yes, it was a lion. But it was almost impossible to tell that it was one from a distance. But Tanabi was close enough to make out the features: scraggly dark mane, matted, unkempt fur, lanky, ungainly legs and paws, which were constantly tripping over rocks, the roots of trees, hollows, even the flat ground itself.
The lion was running west, giving Pride Rock a very wide berth, Tanabi noticed. It seemed to be tiring, and was definitely slowing down from the stumbles and missteps it was taking. The land was growing more and more barren, with fewer and fewer trees. Eventually, all there was left were some large boulders and a few dry shrubs. The lion Tanabi was pursuing was growing very tired, its heaving gasps were easily audible. In spite of all that he had endured in the past hour, Tanabi’s urge to catch this rogue overpowered his fatigue. He was still going strong, and not about to give up.
But his target was another story. A few moments later, the dark lion tripped over its own front legs and collapsed, still breathing so loudly that it seemed like it was hyperventilating. Tanabi dug his forepaws into the dusty earth, coming to a halt a few feet behind the stranger. Yes, it was who he thought it was. As little as he had seen him, he had remembered every tiny detail from the first day they met. The same bony frame. The same wild hair. The same dull tan coat. The same midnight-black mane.
“You can maul me now if you want to, Prince,” the lion said, slowly rising to its feet as Tanabi cautiously came closer. “I just wouldn’t want you to lose any milk teeth that you haven’t shed yet.”
Tanabi was torn between remaining silent or making a slicing comeback to what the lion had just said, but he managed to subdue his angry feelings as he drew up alongside this male that was almost a year older than him, yet somehow didn’t intimidate Tanabi at all. Perhaps it was the ominous, slow, bloodlike flow or his aura that made the prince keep his distance.
“I didn’t intend to hurt you,” said Tanabi as sternly as he could with his young voice. “But you were following us. You were going to do something to us once one of us was alone. Why?”
Nuka turned his red eyes to gaze into Tanabi’s, then turned away with a guttural growl. There was a small muscle above his left brow that required only the tiniest amount of light to cast a definite shadow across his face. And his brows were furrowed very deeply, making his forehead a myriad of tiny canyons and crevices.
“It’s nunna your beeswax, Princey Prince,” spat Nuka, slashing at the ground with his paw and starting to walk forwards, away from Tanabi, who naturally started after him.
“I was amazed that you were able to track us like that across that distance with me only noticing you twice. And you knew when we were looking at you, no matter how far away you were from us. You’d have to have an excellent reason for tracking us like antelope…and almost all the way to Pride Rock, too…”
“If this is flattery, it’s getting you nowhere, Vulture Bait,” said Nuka, this time turning towards Tanabi, his red eyes burning. It was a color that Tanabi had never seen in such a form. Blood and fire mixed together, the fire flowing and the blood burning. Even when he turned away, he could still sense the blazing anger coming from Nuka’s eyes.
“Sorry,” he said flatly, unable to think of anything else to say. Nuka growled softly.
“I’d still like to know why you were following us,” said Tanabi, slowly turning back to Nuka, who had again turned away from him. “When I came back to Kiara, she was staring at you like you were the spirit of death. What did you do to her? Did you threaten her with something? What did you say to her?”
“Nothing!” hissed Nuka, snapping his head back in Tanabi’s direction, his eyes even more malicious than before. “I didn’t do anything! I didn’t even touch her! She just happened to notice me! I would’ve come closer too if you and that other lioness hadn’t showed up!”
“Why?” Tanabi persisted, trying not to lose eye contact with Nuka. “What were you going to do with her?”
The anger suddenly drained out of Nuka’s face. He turned away and breathed out a long, low sigh, his brows furrowing not in anger, but in what seemed to be silent frustration.
“Mother never thought I’d amount to anything. I’ll bet deep inside she thinks I’m a mistake.”
Tanabi said nothing, but a voice inside him said that it was hard to disagree.
“She spends all her time with that Kovu. It’s been like that since the day he was born. Vitani was lucky to have survived. She got about half the attention that Mother gave Kovu, even though I knew she loved her as well.”
“And you?” ventured Tanabi.
Nuka paused for a moment before saying:
“I got the remaining quarter of attention,” he said. “And even now, just like when they were cubs, that worthless Kovu doesn’t amount to anything more than a three-legged ground squirrel. I thought Vitani would turn out all right, but even she’s starting to drift from us. When I saw you and her carrying that sissy of a sister of yours, I knew – ”
“Would you shut up about her!?” Tanabi yelled in Nuka’s ear. “You’ve been ragging her since the day the five of us met! She took down a bull buffalo by herself just before the rainstorm started! She’s no more a sissy than you are, Nuka!”
“Stop screaming at me, you little runt!” Nuka growled. “You’re just defending her because you’re the prince and nobody else is supposed to question what you say. But nothing can deny the truth about your sister. Not even you, Rustylocks.”
Tanabi kept his rage securely shut up inside. He knew that an argument like this would just lead into a brawl, one that he, lacking experience and strength, would surely lose. They continued walking, side by side. The gold and the grit. The day and the night. The light and the dark.
The wind blew through Tanabi’s partial mane, causing it to stream out behind him and flicker like a flame. The land they were in was more barren than any other place in the Pridelands. There were only a few dry bushes and trees now. In the distance were large, craggy hills and boulders.
“You’re trying to do something that will please your mother,” said Tanabi quietly. “What?”
Nuka only growled and refused to look at Tanabi. His aura shifted in an irregular pattern and burned with darkness.
“Like I said,” he muttered, “It’s none of your business. Now just go away and leave me – ”
He stopped both his sentence and his feet. Tanabi stopped too. Nuka was looking at something off in the distance. The prince squinted his eyes and looked where the other lion’s eyes seemed to be peering.
There was a massive gorge similar to the one that Tanabi and Vitani had rescued Kiara from slicing through the landscape. Tanabi knew that it was actually an enormous river, but it had become blocked by logs and was no longer flowing. But it was only a matter of time before the blockade gave way and the waters came rushing through.
As Tanabi focused his eyes, he could see something golden walking along the edge of the gorge. It was difficult for him to make out what it was at first, but as he stared more closely, he could see the muscular body…the long tail…the large paws…and the crimson mane.
“Dad…” Tanabi whispered, almost under his breath.
“Just where I want him, too,” chuckled Nuka. Tanabi didn’t comprehend what had just been said until he saw Nuka start to crouch down out of the corner of his eye. He turned just in time to see him charge off towards the west, headed straight for Simba.
“NO!” Tanabi screamed, immediately forgetting his aching muscles and breaking into a run. “What do you think you’re doing!?”
“What does it look like, squirt?” hollered Nuka, almost hysterically, a look of ecstatic, almost insane glee on his face that caused cold lumps of ice to slide down Tanabi’s spine.
“Whatever you’re going to do to my father, I won’t let you do it!” yelled Tanabi. It was the only thing his gasping lungs and spinning head could come out with.
“Says you and who else?” laughed Nuka, ignoring the adolescent lion, which, even though he weighed no more than him, was still no more than a cub in strength and endurance (or so Nuka imagined). He wouldn’t be taking down a full-grown lion, not even a skinny one.
They were nearing the gorge as they shouted. It seemed that Simba still hadn’t heard their voices. He wasn’t looking at them. He was looking into the gorge, slowly walking along its edge. This wasn’t too dangerous because the sides of it weren’t very steep where he was. As Tanabi watched him more closely, he could see his father stop, yell something into the gorge, then walk a few more steps and yell again.
Kiara. He’s looking for Kiara, thought Tanabi. Apparently the word that she had been found hadn’t reached him yet, and he had actually gone out to find her on his own without even thinking of organizing a search party. It was a rash move, but to put his daughter’s own life over his own was something very few lions ever did.
“Nuka, don’t do this!” Tanabi cried, straining to keep up with his rival. “I don’t know why you think this will make your mother love you, but I know it won’t!”
“You don’t know my mother, Gazelle Gut!” Nuka said. “And this will more than please her. Why, she may kick Kovu and Vitani out of the pride for my work!”
Suddenly, a spark inside Tanabi exploded into a fire. He leaped on Nuka, the unexpected weight pinning him to the ground. It was just like that day years ago when Tanabi had tried “riding” Nuka. It was all in fun that time…but now his father’s life was at stake.
“I said…” Tanabi hissed through gritted teeth, claws out, trying to hold Nuka still, “Don’t…do this!”
“Get off me, you mosquito,” Nuka growled, rolling one eye upwards until Tanabi could see the red iris glaring back into his own eyes. He struggled violently, trembling with rage.
“Not when you’re going to hurt my dad,” Tanabi said quietly.
“Him?” Nuka asked innocently. “Oh, I’m not hurting him…”
Suddenly he managed to free one of his paws from Tanabi’s grip. He swiped it back across the prince’s muzzle.
Tanabi yelled in pain and leapt back instinctively. Nuka wriggled free and took off once again. Through the pain in his throbbing nose, Tanabi was able to open his eyes and see his father. Simba was still some distance away, but he had heard his son’s cry of pain, though he and Tanabi were too far apart for him to know that it was his son. At the distance he was at, it was impossible to tell an adolescent lion’s yell from an adult lion’s roar. Tanabi could see that his father’s head was facing them, searching, trying to see what it was that was speeding toward him. Unable to form any complete sentence through his pain and terror, Tanabi took off running after Nuka, screaming “Run! Run now! Run!” as loud as his burning lungs would allow.
Simba, meanwhile, was confused. His mind had been entirely focused on finding his daughter, who had been gone much longer than a normal hunt’s time, and he had looked everywhere he could think of except the great riverbed. He could think of no reason why she would be down there, but he had to find her and Tanabi before night fell, otherwise he would never forgive himself for letting them go off into the Pridelands alone, where the Kina Mwasi could be lurking behind every boulder, waiting to pounce.
Then suddenly, he had heard a loud cry, like that of an injured antelope. He had spun around to see two figures speeding towards him, both of them lions, one darker and duller in color than the other. Then one of them started shouting, telling him to run. He couldn’t tell who said it, but both lions were still heading straight towards him, and the one who was closer to him than the other was beginning to look more vicious and murderous than anything Simba had seen before. In fact, as it neared, he could see its eyes – blood red and full of malice, and despite their color, they looked almost like the eyes of another lion that he once knew. A lion that had tried to kill him countless times, and whom Simba was ultimately forced to kill himself.
“Run! Run!” the second lion yelled. And Simba didn’t hesitate to see who the other lion was. He turned and was about to run when he remembered where he was standing. He was on the edge of a deep gorge. Although the sides weren’t very vertical, they were extremely slippery and easy to trip up on while running. But the Lion King had no choice. He leapt over the edge and went tumbling down the slope, repeatedly getting the air knocked out of him with dust filling his nose and mouth. When he finally reached the ground, he stopped and looked up dizzily. The two figures had reached the edge, and were peering down at him, as if plotting their next move. Simba staggered to his feet and ran as best as he could up the gorge, hoping that he would find a way out.
Nuka saw Simba get to his feet and start to run to the north. Not about to lose him, he too leapt into the gorge and began rolling down the gritty slope. Tanabi followed, only instead of aiming for the slope, he aimed for Nuka, hoping to tackle him before he reached the bottom. The prince’s aim was true, and he hit Nuka square in the back, but again, Nuka fought back, refusing to be beaten by a lion barely into its third year. The two rolled over and over each other, each trying to knock the other out as their rapid descent down the slope continued.
“Why…” choked Tanabi as they fell, “Are…you…doing…this?”
“He killed my father,” Nuka gagged, Tanabi’s paw against his throat with its claws out, “Time to settle the score.”
They finally hit the bottom as he spoke. Nuka took this as an opportunity to slip out of Tanabi’s grip and take off after Simba once more, but Tanabi’s swift jaws flicked open and managed to grab the tip of Nuka’s tail. Nuka shrieked in pain and fell to the ground. Tanabi ran up and stood over him, looking down into Nuka’s eyes, breathing heavily.
“Zira told you this, didn’t she?” Tanabi asked. “You were too young to remember everything that happened that night.”
“Yeah, she told me. So what?” Nuka asked, also showing signs of fatigue as he lay motionless on the ground. “And you should talk. You were…what, about five weeks in the womb when my Dad was killed? Huh?”
“Your mother only told you part of the story,” Tanabi said. “My father killed your father because he was going to be killed himself. And the ones who really killed your father were the hyenas, and they did that because he betrayed them!”
Nuka snarled. He twisted his body around so his back was on the ground and kicked Tanabi in the stomach, winding him and sending him flying through the air, landing on his back in front of Nuka, who quickly got to his feet and planted both of his front paws on the ground on either side of Tanabi’s head, pinning him to the ground by his mane. Tanabi, slightly dazed, looked up into the face that appeared upside-down from his point of view.
“Don’t you lie to me, pipsqueak!” Nuka yelled, showing his yellowed, sharp teeth. “Simba killed my father, end of story. Now it’s time for me to do what my mother and I’ve waited all these years for!”
With that, he let out a roar and leapt over Tanabi’s body, in pursuit of Simba. Tanabi scrambled to his feet and took off after him, panting and still breathing “run” with every chance he got.
Simba’s legs were starting to seize up on him. He stopped when the two lions were out of sight, hoping that he had lost them. He wondered who that terrifying lion leading the duo was, and why the other lion had shouted “Run” when he was obviously after him too. But even if he was out of danger, he wasn’t out of the gorge. The walls had become progressively steeper until there was no way to ascend them. Deciding not to go back the way he came, he continued going north, hoping to find a less vertical slope to climb up.
Suddenly, he heard a roar echoing down the canyon, and his keen ears could tell that it came from a different lion than the first noise he had heard, and in the distance, he could see the two familiar figures speeding towards him. His heart quickened, and he turned and fled up the gorge, praying that he would find a way out before his pursuers caught up with him.
Then, up ahead, he saw something through the dusty haze. It was the great wall of logs that was blocking off the river. It also blocked Simba’s path to escape. Frantically, he looked behind him. The lions were still far behind him, but gaining fast. He looked back up at the blockade. Many of the logs were firmly interlocked with each other, making an immovable mesh that looked stable enough for even someone as heavy as Simba to climb. It looked precarious, but there was no other way out of the gorge. So the king ran up to the base of the wall, splashing through a shallow puddle of water that had seeped through the massive limbs to the other side. Simba shuddered and hoped that his efforts to ascend wouldn’t result in a flash flood. He rose up to his hind legs, dug the claws of his forepaws into the logs, pulled himself up, and began climbing.
“Trying to make like a leopard and climb your way outta trouble?” Nuka grinned as he and Tanabi came to a stop at the great log wall. “Well, kings aren’t the only ones that can climb!”
Simba was already some distance up the wall, but moving slowly. Tanabi was growing more and more fearful for his father’s life. His father was older than Nuka, and was probably already on his last reserve of strength, while Tanabi lacked experience in overcoming such great obstacles as log blockades. Nuka, however, had both youth and experience, and the odds of him escaping Tanabi and catching Simba were very high.
The dark-maned lion leapt up, dug his claws into the tough bark of the logs and began to amble up the tall wall. Tanabi tried repeating the motion, but slipped and fell back down, landing on his back.
“Hah! The prince is even worse at climbing than his Daddy!” Nuka jeered, continuing his ascent. Tanabi angrily dug his claws into the wall and began climbing up after Nuka, determined to stop him before he reached Simba. And what then, said a voice in his mind. He’s escaped you every other time you’ve “caught” him. What will be so different about this time?
Tanabi tried to ignore the voice and continued climbing, sometimes slipping back a few inches, but always recovering and resuming his journey upwards. Suddenly a log came crashing down from above, the vibrations that resounded each time it hit the wall resonating through Tanabi’s limbs. He was just able to leap aside as it continued its deadly descent downwards, smashing into the ground below him. He looked up. The log had come from where Nuka was. Had he purposefully sent that log crashing down to hopefully injure Tanabi? Or had it been a mere accident, with Nuka being just as occupied with climbing the logs as Tanabi was, unable to pull a wild stunt like that? Tanabi didn’t bother asking himself unimportant questions. He sucked in a lungful of air and continued his pursuit of the one true son of Scar.
In the growing dust from their efforts, Tanabi could barely see his father, who was starting to slow in his rate of ascent and occasionally stopping to catch his breath. At this rate, Nuka would catch him well before he reached the top.
“Keep going…Keep going!” Tanabi gasped, knowing his father wouldn’t hear. Simba’s aura was starting to lose that wild energy it was swirling with several minutes ago. He would probably pass out if he kept moving upwards, but what other choice was there? Either get caught by Nuka directly or get caught after he lost consciousness. The only hope for Simba’s escape was for Tanabi to catch up with Nuka…
Or was it?
Then there was another loud crash, but this time from higher up the wall. As he quickly glanced upwards to see what had happened, Tanabi heard a loud gasp from Nuka, followed by a terrified scream, like the cry of a dying giraffe foal. His father was still up there. He had nearly reached the top of the logs, but there were still the steep walls of the crevice on either side of the blockade and the dammed river beyond. Simba could slip and fall once he reached the top or unknowingly stumble into the water and drown, for all Tanabi knew. But below Simba, and above both Tanabi and Nuka…
Another log. It was loudly bouncing towards the both of them, not looking as though it would hit either of them directly, but looking big enough to knock them both of their feet. Simba must have slipped and accidentally broke it loose. How could he help doing such a thing? He was desperate to escape and couldn’t stop to think about whether his pursuers would be hurt or not. And who in his position would want to, anyway?
The log’s rate of descent grew faster as it rumbled down the slope. Then, in what might as well have been the most ill advised move Tanabi had seen him carry out, Nuka leapt not to the right, but to the left…right in front of Tanabi’s path.
“Nuka! Get out of my way! You’ll kill us both!” Tanabi screamed.
“You’re only half right there, Princey-Poo,” mocked Nuka, turning around to face Tanabi, momentarily forgetting about the log that was still bearing down upon the two of them. “I know which lions are going to be killed today, and that doesn’t include – WAAUGH!”
He was cut short. A shadow suddenly blocked out the sun. Nuka spun around just in time to see the log make a tremendous bounce and careen off another log, sailing through the air and aiming straight at him. Nuka squawked in horror and lost his grip, tumbling out of control down the logs, freeing several more in the process. Before Tanabi could move aside, he was struck in the chest and also sent sprawling down the slope. Their combined weight, fortunately, was enough to bring their progress to a halt three quarters down the enormous barrier, lying side by side. The log that had almost ended their lives as well as their climb smashed into sections on the hard, dry riverbed below them.
When they finally slid to a stop amidst the dust, covered with cuts and scratches, Tanabi stared into Nuka’s twisted face and snarled, even though it did nothing more than aggravate the cuts he had received on his nose from Nuka earlier. Nuka snarled back, and his foreleg tensed up as if it was about to give Tanabi’s proboscis that was so conveniently situated in front of him another slash, when there was another, even greater rumbling that made the two young lions turn and look upwards.
It was yet another log. The largest one that had come down yet. Gnarled and knobby, but still rolling and crashing down at a very fast and very dangerous rate. It was coming down too fast for both lions to get out of the way with the combined panic and the unstable terrain. Now for Tanabi it seemed like there was no way out. He had an idea of how his father was feeling. His heart was choking him. He could barely breathe through the beating. It was in his throat, his ears, his skin…
Then he became aware of the ragged lion that lay facing him, staring at the falling log like he was staring at Death. He was giving up. He, Nuka, the lion that had escaped every maneuver that Tanabi had tried, was giving up. Tanabi had never seen him so frightened…so…what was that look? It looked almost like…sadness.
Then something primal gripped Tanabi. Looking back, he had no idea why he did what he did, but there was no denying that he had done it. His muscles stretched taut, he leapt to his feet in spite of the pain in his joints, bared his jaws, grabbed Nuka by the black, hairy scruff of his neck (ignoring the foul odor and the squeal of shock and pain), and summoning all of his remaining strength, leapt backwards, out of the path of the deadly log.
As hard as he had tried, his pull didn’t completely accomplish what he had tried to do. Just as he had made his move and the log came crashing down by them, it suddenly bounced off an adjacent trunk, bringing the left end of it down on Nuka’s lower body. He shrieked with pain, a noise that mingled in Tanabi’s head along with the vibrations of the log as it continued its roll down the blockade, finally hitting the bottom. There was a reverberating cracking and splintering sound for a few seconds, then all was silent.
Simba stopped. His mind tried to bring into focus what had happened in the last few moments.
He had been climbing the logs in a feeble attempt to escape whoever these lions that were chasing him were. Even though he couldn’t tell who they were, he had a gut feeling that their intentions were no good. They had been hot on Simba’s heels as he slowly ascended the precarious slope, almost close enough for him to hear their labored gasps for air over his own breath.
He had almost reached the top when his hind leg had stepped on a weakly supported log. The log slipped free, and he nearly lost his grip and went tumbling down with it. Then there was a scream and a sound of a scuffle from farther down below and a brief argument, obviously between the two lions. Simba tried to ignore the noises and focus on getting himself up to the top, which was only a few feet more, and even though his vision was blurring, he knew he could make it if he only tried…
Then he stepped on another log that seemed firmly wedged in place at first, but his entire weight on the thing dislodged it. Fortunately, he was able to hang on, but the deafening rumble of the log as it thundered its way down was almost enough to dislodge him as well. Then there was another scream, much louder and different than the first one, a sound of a creature in dire pain and agony. Simba was almost certain that it came from the same individual as the first scream. When the last echoes of the log’s loud descent had faded away, in spite of his trembling grip, he slowly turned around to look down.
The slope didn’t seem as steep from the top as it did from the bottom. There was so much dust that it was almost impossible to see the two figures, but there they were, lying nearly at the bottom of the pile of logs, not moving. They didn’t even look like they were alive. Simba suddenly felt weighted with guilt, the same guilt he had felt years ago, when he was accused of murdering his own father. Had he really killed these two strangers? One of them had certainly been out for his blood, by the way he ran, but what about the other? What was that he kept shouting at Simba? “Run. Now.”
So he had killed not only his would-be assassin but his would-be savior? What a strange twist of fate. It seemed too odd to be true. And not only that, but that voice…the voice of the one who kept saying “Run”…and the body…the body that was slightly lighter than the other one far below…both had to be from the same lion…and both seemed frighteningly familiar…but all the chaos in his mind and in the air had made him blind and deaf to who that other stranger was.
But now his fatigue was catching up to him. His forepaws, which were still hanging desperately onto the logs above, were trembling madly. He knew that unless he kept going, he would lose his grip and fall, perhaps landing hard and breaking a bone. So, in spite of the pain that was shooting up and down his limbs, he continued his slow ascent up what remained in front of him.
Finally, he placed a paw on the top of the wall and slowly dragged himself over it. He lay there, eyes closed, lungs blazing. He had escaped…but escaped from what? Now that he thought about it, there was no sure way of telling what those lions wanted with him. He had probably killed two innocent lions. What would Nala think of that? And who could say how long it would be before the pride found him? He hadn’t said where he was going to go in search of Kiara, so how would they be able to find him? And what about Kiara? She hadn’t been seen since that morning. And Tanabi? What about him? He hadn’t even said when he was coming back home, and he hadn’t been seen either. Even though he was more responsible than his sister, this was much longer than he had ever been away from the pride. Why hadn’t Simba done what his father would have done in a situation like this, and send out a search party to find the twins? Had Nala carried out an order for that as soon as he’d left? She would have. She was so independent, so in control, unlike Simba, who was always asking his father for advice, feeling unable to survive on his own and feeling even more fractured than usual ever since Sarabi passed on.
Tanabi and Kiara gone…the pride abandoned…what more could go wrong? There didn’t seem to be any hope left. Simba slowly opened his eyes and looked around. The river lay in front of him, small rivulets of water running through and over the twigs and branches and around his tawny body. The water looked very deep and was cold to the touch, but Simba didn’t care anymore. He relaxed, closed his eyes, retracted his claws and allowed his body to lie flat, slowly beginning to slide into the water. The cool liquid caressed his chin and mane, quickly weighing it down. The water passed his mouth, and slowly reached his nose. He breathed out, and tiny bubbles of air escaped his nostrils and rose, bursting at the surface.
Just as his last breath was leaving him and the water of the river was beginning to fill his ears, he heard a voice that made him snap his head upwards.
It wasn’t a familiar voice, yet Simba had a faint recollection of hearing it before. He looked around, trying to focus, but the water had blurred his vision, and he could only see a marred, blotchy landscape through his now stinging eyes.
It was a lioness’s voice. A somewhat elderly lioness’s voice, huskier than Sarafina’s, but not as deep as Sarabi’s. Simba looked around him in search of the voice, and finally saw a dark blobby object perched atop what had to be an adjacent, low cliff. As soon as Simba’s eyes registered the shape, it continued:
“Simba, don’t give yourself up. You are needed. You must go on. Your daughter is alive. She is at Pride Rock, waiting for you to return. Don’t worry about your son, either. He will return home before nightfall. Believe what I say, Simba. Good-bye.”
The figure vanished. Whether she only turned and loped away or simply faded into thin air was something Simba could only guess at. His waterlogged mane was making his head sink into the water. With a great effort, he pulled it up and rose shakily to his feet. He blinked his eyes and waited for the excess water to drain out. When he could finally see clearly enough, he looked around and saw the cliffs on either side of the top of the blockade were much lower than the cliffs that rose from the base of the gorge. It looked like it would take only a couple of leaps to ascend one of them.
Simba’s assumptions proved correct a few minutes later, as he stood triumphantly atop the left cliff, looking down at the blockade. The dust was still thick down below, and the two figures were invisible to his eyes. He swallowed uncomfortably as he turned around, praying that he hadn’t really killed them. Then he remembered the lioness that had told him about his children and prevented him from killing himself. He looked around, hoping to find at least a set of paw prints he could follow, but his efforts to do so proved futile. The ground surrounding the gorge was nothing more than solid stone. With a head full of questions and a body full of pains, Simba slowly began his journey back to Pride Rock.
Tanabi slowly began to regain his senses. He could hear nothing but his own shallow breath, and smell nothing but dust and dead wood. Then he became aware of where he was. He was lying sprawled out in a dense pile of logs, barely able to move. Apparently the exhaustion in him was so great that as soon as it could, his body decided to shut itself down. He couldn’t blame himself. He was hurting like he had never hurt before, and there didn’t seem to be a part on his body that couldn’t be any more injured than it already was.
Then he became aware of the dust lining his upper throat. His reflexes kicked in, his eyes flew open and he coughed heavily, trying to breathe out more dust than he was breathing in. Finally, his throat was clear enough for him to breathe normally. He breathed in deeply, replenishing the depleted oxygen stores in his muscles. He was able to lift his head, which was still heavily coated with dust. Tanabi shook it as forcefully as his weakened condition allowed him to. Then he heard a low, pained groan in front of him. He blinked his eyes and looked at the dirty, mangled figure lying in front of him.
Yes. He was alive, but barely. His mangy, ungroomed coat was badly scratched and scarred from the climb up the logs. Tanabi couldn’t complain, his coat was probably just as mussed. From the waist up, he looked all right, but below his ribs…
Who could say how heavy that log was. It was fortunate that it hadn’t stayed where it landed, or Nuka’s suffering would be even worse. It had struck him somewhere in his lower trunk, possibly his back legs too. Almost like Kiara, but no. This wasn’t a simple break. Even without touching the wound, Tanabi could see that several bones had been crushed, perhaps one or two of the lower ribs. Nuka still twitched his hind leg every now and then, so his spine hadn’t been damaged, but there was no telling what other bones might have been shattered when that great log struck him. Not to mention his muscles and organs. There was no blood Tanabi could see, but that might only mean he was bleeding inside, and that was far more disastrous.
Tanabi looked down at Nuka. This poor lion, loathed by everyone, even his mother…why did he have to end like this? His actions spelled certain death for him. Was he really that foolish? What would drive him to do such a thing?
Tanabi moved a trembling paw forwards and touched the black, lank mane that graced the equally lank shoulders. It would be some months yet before Tanabi’s mane looked like this. Perhaps at times he had envied this strange lion’s mane. Wild, dark and untamed, as opposed to the normal flowing red that his father had. The same color mane that his great uncle – Nuka’s father – had. Tanabi often wondered what Scar had looked like. His father had only known him for a short while, and his mother and grandmother, as detailed as their descriptions were, could never come up with a description that would form a vivid enough picture in Tanabi’s head. Was his only son, Nuka, the closest thing to this devious lion that had plotted to kill his own brother and started this circle of vengeance? Were this bony frame, this pointed nose, this dull, dark pelt taken from Tanabi’s great uncle and recreated in this poor individual, doomed to die trying to avenge his father’s murder?
“I almost did it,” Nuka suddenly mumbled through slack jaws, a thread of saliva slipping between his teeth and running down one of the logs. “I almost killed the son of a jackal. I don’t care if Mother saw me or not. I almost did it.”
The first thing that hit Tanabi was a cold shiver that started from his head and coursed through every nerve in his body. When Nuka said that he was going to “settle the score,” Tanabi guessed that that only meant a confrontation and a fight. His still-innocent mind had briefly speculated but never believed that Nuka was going to kill his father. But now it all made sense. How could he have been so blind? An eye for an eye…what better law to follow when avenging a father’s death? Tanabi had almost learned this law the hard way, but luck was with him today. But why had he tried to save his father’s would-be killer? Was it instinct? Was it compassion?
The second thing that then struck him was the realization that Nuka’s breathing wasn’t normal. It was very slow and shallow, like that of a sleeping or unconscious individual. Yet he was talking…talking just as if…as if he were awake. Night words. Tanabi was touching Nuka, so the contact was there, but he hadn’t spoken to Nuka to start the conversation. Had Nuka just said those words to “break the ice?” That was some way of breaking it. Tanabi knew that what Nuka was saying to him he would never say when he was awake, and it looked like Nuka wouldn’t be awake – or even alive – for very much longer.
“What do you mean?” Tanabi whispered, his throat raw from shouting earlier. “Were you serious about killing my father?”
“I’ve never been more serious in my life. Besides, it should’ve been me. Mother should’ve picked me. I’m stronger, smarter, and I’ve got much more motivation than that puny little…”
He paused and wrinkled his nose, stifling a low growl.
“What do you mean, ‘alternative?’” Tanabi asked.
Silence. Nuka suddenly stopped breathing. Tanabi shook his shoulder, where his paw lay.
“I said, what do you mean?” he hissed.
“I’m not telling,” said Nuka, in a voice that sounded slightly more “awake” than before. Tanabi hesitated. Was Nuka waking up? Or was he actually refusing? How was that possible? None of the lions that Tanabi had spoken to with night words had ever held anything back. Perhaps there was more to Nuka than met the eye. If he was willful enough to hold back something from Tanabi during a conversation like this, which typically unleashed so many dark secrets, there had to be something different about him.
“I was never able to get close enough to him…or anyone else in the Pride,” Nuka said. “I had to wait for two things to happen at once…my mother had to be there, to see what I really was…and he had to be there, in easy range…that second thing seemed impossible…but when it actually happened, when I saw that king away from his harem, I couldn’t pass the opportunity up. I didn’t care if my mother saw me chase him. At least she’ll know…that I died trying.”
Nuka hacked and coughed loudly. Tanabi drew back in disgust, but still kept his paw on Nuka’s neck.
“You didn’t have to do this,” said Tanabi. “Why couldn’t you accept the fact that Scar died because of his own wrongdoings and get out of his shadow and live your own life?”
“Your father killed my father,” said Nuka. “It’s a simple problem with a simple solution. Even the score.”
“No,” said Tanabi, “Well…Let’s say that my father did kill your father.”
“Shut up,” Tanabi snarled, his paw trembling. “He may have…indirectly. But not with his bare paws.”
“Indirectly is the same as directly when it comes to killing,” muttered Nuka. “Mother told me that when I was two years old.”
“Stop it,” Tanabi snapped, his anger starting to get the better of him. “Do you know why my father did whatever you say he did?”
“Who can say what was going on in that oversized worm’s head…” Nuka began, but Tanabi, trembling with the effort of suppressing his fury, pressed his paw against Nuka’s throat, nearly blocking off the lion’s air supply. Nuka spluttered in an effort to get his words out, but he finally stopped, and Tanabi relaxed his paw.
“He ‘killed’ him because he killed my father’s father. Did your mother ever tell you that?”
“From the little she knew about Mufaro or whatever his name was, she said that he was a real bully. Made it his mission in life to torture his brother because that Muff just happened to be born a few minutes earlier. The arrogant son of a…”
“My father said that everything Scar told him was a lie, a cover-up,” said Tanabi. “And Scar was shunned by most of the lionesses too. So my father and Zira are the two who knew him the most. And if everything Scar said to my dad was false, do you think he spoke nothing but the truth to your mother?”
“You never stop talking, do you?” Nuka growled.
Then something struck Tanabi. He had probably forgotten all about it in the chase, or possibly never realized it at all. But suddenly it seemed so plain and simple that he nearly laughed, in spite of the pain gnawing at his torso and his throat. He looked at Nuka closely. He had never known his great-grandfather and Sarabi and Sarafina’s descriptions of him had always been vague. But what little they had said of him suddenly began to shine through Nuka’s ragged shell…the lean muscles…the sleek mane…the large paws…
“Nuka, do you know what we are?” he asked.
“As of today, mortal enemies…well for a few minutes more anyway,” Nuka groaned.
“Your father was the brother of my grandfather,” said Tanabi. “Do you know what that means?”
“Do I look like I want to guess?” Nuka murmured.
“Nuka,” Tanabi said, “We’re second cousins! We’re blood relatives! Haven’t you ever realized that?”
“Is that all you have to say?” asked Tanabi, somewhat ecstatic over his sudden discovery.
“No. I found it out years ago and it’s made me all the more ashamed to know you and your sister.”
“Look, it’s not just us,” Tanabi continued. “Being my great-uncle’s son also makes you cousin to my father. You were trying to kill your own cousin, Nuka!” he almost yelled in a voice loud enough to resonate through the gorge. “I can understand your motivation, but I know you’re not all hate underneath. No matter how extreme things get, family always comes before revenge. You may hate your brother for getting all your mother’s attention, but do you know the real reason why you don’t kill him? Do you?” Tanabi snarled, unsheathing his claws and pressing on Nuka’s neck when he didn’t reply. Nuka feebly shook his head. “Because he’s your brother. He may not have the same father as you, but he is still kin to you. Same with your sister. Deep down, you have a place in your heart for the both of them, just as your mother has a place in hers for you. You just haven’t opened yours enough to see the truth.”
Tanabi stopped and leaned back, shaking with anger and frustration, knowing that Nuka was at his mercy, and that he could kill this lion that had tried to kill his father with one blow, but he couldn’t bring himself to even draw blood from Nuka. He wiped the paw that wasn’t resting on the dark mane across his nose. When he looked at the paw, he could see that it was streaked with red. Blood from the wound that Nuka had given him. The blood that was as much his as Nuka’s blood was his own, yet so closely tied that he couldn’t turn away the fact that they were what they were. Enemies. Opposites. Kin.
“It’s like what Dad told Ki and me when we were cubs,” he said in a much calmer voice. “We’re all connected, and we all depend on each other. We don’t slaughter the antelope. We depend on them and hope that they live so that we may. And they don’t destroy the grass. They depend on it as well. So in a sense, the mightiest beasts in the world depend on the most insignificant plant.”
“Nice lecture,” said Nuka, “But what’s your point?”
“I’m saying that what you were going to do would have thrown the whole Circle out of balance,” said Tanabi. “Revenge is a weapon that can bring satisfaction to no one and misfortune to all. I wish Zira could only see that.”
“I wish she could too,” Nuka muttered. “Who is she? Your aunt? Or is that your great-aunt?”
“Great-aunt, I guess,” Tanabi said.
“Great-aunt,” Nuka tittered deliriously, snickering. “Great. Great, great. And to think that I went running off just in time to kill your great dad, who is really my own cousin, only to get accidentally squashed to death by him…great, great…”
“Nuka, no,” Tanabi whispered, rubbing his shoulder. “You’ll be all right. Save your strength. I’ll help you. It’s the least I can do.”
“No…” Nuka said hoarsely. “No help. Just need to rest…”
“What do you…” began Tanabi, but then the awful truth dawned on him. “No, Nuka. You can’t die. You aren’t hurt that bad. You’ll be all right. You’ve just got to hold on. Don’t give up now…”
“Yes…I’ll be all right,” Nuka breathed, “I just really need a rest…yes…just a rest…”
“Nuka…” Tanabi pleaded, but even as he spoke, he saw Nuka’s aura fade into a barely visible veil. His body went limp, as did the one ear Tanabi could see. His heart was still beating, but very slowly, and his breathing was so faint that it barely stirred the dust on the logs beside him.
Tanabi repeated Nuka’s name several times, pushing on his shoulder harder and harder. He finally dared breaking the contact with Nuka and speaking the lion’s name as loudly as possible. There was no response. Tanabi stared at the unconscious, mangled body. No blood…no marks…still young…but within a few hours, he would probably be dead.
The young prince felt tears prick his eyes as he stared at this poor creature that had been as distant as another species and as close as a sibling in the space of a few minutes. He had to try to save him. He had saved his sister, and only with a little help from Vitani. He tried pushing Nuka’s body a short distance with his head, but was barely ale to budge it an inch. He tried for the most commonly used handle on any lion, cub or adult – the scruff of the neck – but Nuka was so heavy and Tanabi was so weak from the exertions of that day that he couldn’t even lift the lion’s head.
The young prince lifted his head upwards and screamed Nuka’s name in rage and grief. Here he was, lying beside someone that had been an outcast from birth, a misfit in a group of misfits, who deserved a second chance, and he was, now about to die trying to fulfill an empty, hopeless desire. Tanabi collapsed on the logs, lying with his face towards Nuka. He felt tears flow down his face and over his closed eyelids. One tear rolled out of one eye, across his bloodied nose and into the other eye before it finally fell from his cheek and onto a dusty log.
After a long while, he opened his bleary eyes and sat up, staring mutely at Nuka’s body, the pale aura, the shallow breath, the still muscles. He looked at him in a different way, as if he was his own brother, his bumbling, foolish, misguided brother. Yes, Simba had told Tanabi that things like this would happen, things that couldn’t be explained…but here it wasn’t the death that was incomprehensible but the feelings that were running in Tanabi’s blood. Why did he suddenly feel attached to a lion that had attempted to murder his father? It had to be more than them being second cousins to each other. Being sympathetic towards a killer was dangerous, as Simba had learned from Scar. It had to be something different. But Tanabi would never know now.
And there was so much else that Nuka hadn’t told him in their conversation. What would Zira do once she planned to kill Simba? How would she do it? And what exactly had Nuka meant when he said “the alternative?”
But there was nothing more that Tanabi could do now for this poor lost soul. He could only hope that Nuka would survive and get out of the gorge alive, though the prince doubted that was even remotely possible. Then he remembered his father. He had to have escaped over the log wall, but he might still be up there, and Tanabi, as weak as he was, would have to help him. And if Simba had returned to Pride Rock, he would be waiting for Tanabi to return, or sending out a search party. Who could say what would happen if his father found him down here, next to a dying Kina Mwasi member? Who knew what questions might take flight. He’d be answering questions for days, and then maybe branded as a killer…and what if his father had seen him climbing up that log wall? Would he suspect that Tanabi had teamed up with Nuka in an attempt to kill him? There were too many “what ifs”, and Tanabi had to wipe his record clean before he returned home, or at least wipe off his bloodied nose.
He shakily rose to his feet and stumbled down the slope to the base of the gorge to the small pool of water that dripped through the narrow mesh formed by the many logs. He dipped his muzzle into the pool, allowing the mud at the bottom to cool the cuts and mask them from onlookers. Then he raised his dripping head from the pool and scanned the gorge, searching for a way out. However, his eyes wouldn’t let him look at the pile of logs. The mere thought that Nuka lay there was more than he could stand.
He finally spotted a procession of ledges leading upwards, like the ledges in the gorge Kiara had been trapped in. He was able to slowly make his way up, almost crawling on his belly from one flat ledge to the next until he reached the top. He reluctantly turned his eyes back to look at the wall of logs and the great river being held back by it. He could barely make out the body lying there, the body that he couldn’t save…if only he had told his sister not to chase that buffalo into the gorge…if only he hadn’t spent all his strength rescuing her like that…if only he hadn’t chased Nuka so long…if only he were a year or two older…but none of these “if onlys” had happened…and he had failed. He had let a blood relative alone to die a slow and cruel death. A death that could have been prevented.
Suddenly, he glimpsed something nearby, something that seemed to be looking out from behind a rock. If he had an ounce more of strength, he would go after whatever it was, but it was probably just a shadow anyway. A dark one, but still a shadow. A dark one…what a perfect name for Nuka. That is…perfect for any Pridelander to call him. But now Tanabi just couldn’t see any darkness in his cousin. None at all.
As his eyes began to water again, he gave Nuka one long, last look, and amidst that dingy, gray tan of his fur, the prince was almost certain that he saw a gleam of gold.
The barren land slowly began to fade back to fertile soil and tall reeds. The form of Pride Rock was visible against the dying sunlight. As Tanabi was limping along, trying not to give in to his weakened legs, he sensed something running towards him, and at a breakneck speed, as well. He pricked up his ears and scanned the landscape. Sure enough, the grasses were being parted by something small running through them. It was too large to be a ground squirrel, but too small to be a gazelle foal. Besides, what would be going at such a speed this late at night?
Tanabi stopped walking and tried to focus on whatever it was that was coming…and from the looks of it, coming straight for him. Then he heard a familiar voice being carried across the plains. It sounded uneven, as if its owner was sliding down a cliff as the words were being yelled. It had to be coming from whatever was approaching. Tanabi squinted at it even more closely, and saw, to his surprise, the head and upper torso of Timon, his bottom half hidden by the tall grasses, apparently speeding towards him…yet in a position almost two feet off the ground!
Tanabi blinked his eyes and looked again, but it was no illusion. It was as if the meerkat was running on legs twice as long as his own, or hovering in the air…but there had to be some explanation for this strange sight.
That explanation came a few moments later, as, with an ear-splitting “TANABEEEEEE!”, Timon burst out of the tall grass…revealing Pumbaa acting as his steed underneath, who was unable to come to a smooth stop, sending Timon flying through the air, landing on Tanabi’s face, who was so drained of strength and resistance that he fell over backwards, landing on his back, with the tiny animal sprawled across his muzzle.
Recovering from his brief flight, Timon took one look at the enormous red eyes looking into his, shrieked and leapt off Tanabi using the only available surface to jump off of, namely Tanabi’s throat. As Timon stood on the ground trying to recover from his near heart attack, breathing and panting heavily, Tanabi got to his feet and tried to recover from his near trachea-crushing, coughing until he was nearly breathless.
Timon shook his head, sucked in an indignant breath, and glared around at the warthog and the young lion.
“All right, who should I blame for what just happened?” he snapped.
“You didn’t say ‘Stop,’” Pumbaa suggested. “Perhaps it’s your fault, Timon.”
“It’s not my fault!” Timon said angrily. “There was no time for me to say ‘stop,’ and you shoulda known better than to let me go flying like that! It’s your fault!”
“You were above the grass,” said Pumbaa, slightly more ticked off than before. “You should’ve been able to see him.”
“I was distracted,” began Timon, but by then Tanabi had regained enough breath to speak up and intervene.
“What are you two doing away from Pride Rock at this time of day?” he asked.
“What are we doing away from Pride Rock? What are you doing away from it is what we wanna know!” yelled Timon. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you, ever since, whats-her-name, Yakuti and those other lionesses came back with your sister!”
“Is she all right?” Tanabi asked.
“She’s pretty banged up,” said Pumbaa.
“But is she all right?” asked Tanabi.
“I dunno, the monkey didn’t say,” said Timon.
“He did,” said Pumbaa. “You just weren’t listening!”
“Oh, and you were?”
“No, I just know that…”
“Master Tanabi!” came a voice that seemed to come from the sky. In fact, it did come from the sky, and as Tanabi was raising his head to look for the origin of the voice, it swooped down in a flash of blue and white and landed at his feet.
“Oh…” Zazu panted. “Young Master…thank goodness you’re all right…I had faith that you would return, like Yakuti claimed you would, but apparently these buffoons…”
Here he turned to look at Timon and Pumbaa out of the corner of his large eye.
“…decided to go hunt for you anyway. Oh… I say, Tanabi,” Zazu suddenly said in a concerned voice, taking off and hovering in front of the prince’s face, “What happened to your nose? There’s mud all over it. Surely you weren’t doing that crocodile act you used to do when you were a cub!”
Tanabi ignored the chuckles from Timon and Pumbaa as he hastily formulated a conceivable answer.
“I was tired, so I stopped to rest by a river and lost track of the time. And by the time I woke up, I took off running back home and tripped and nose-dived into a shallow creek.”
Timon and Pumbaa’s snickers grew louder.
“You tripped as well?” Zazu asked in surprise. “Well, you and your sister certainly are accident-prone today, Master!”
“Speaking of which,” Tanabi asked, finally seeing an opportunity to ask about Kiara, “How is she? Is she all right?”
Zazu hesitated, then fluttered down to the ground, his head bowed.
“She could be far worse, but she certainly isn’t well, Prince Tanabi,” he declared solemnly. “I’m sure that Rafiki can explain her situation to you better. Please…come home. Both she and your family need you.”
Tanabi made his way through the crowd of lionesses, which, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t have been too difficult, since anyone in the kingdom would have stepped aside to make way for Simba’s heir, even if this had been their first look at him, but this time there was fear in the air that made the many individuals in the cave almost ignore him completely, their eyes fixed on something of greater concern.
With a few pardons and shoves, some gentle, some not so gentle, Tanabi made his way through the crowd, and when he was able to see more than lionesses’ heads in front of him, a terrible sight met his eyes.
Rafiki the mandrill was stooped low over Tanabi’s sister, with his mother by her head and his father standing slightly behind her. Kiara’s lower leg was in a splint made of straight twigs and branches, which was still being bound up by a mandrill many years younger than Rafiki, probably one of his apprentices.
Simba was the first one to notice Tanabi, and he slightly nudged Nala, who looked up and spoke her son’s name. Rafiki, his apprentice, and all of the lionesses who were within hearing range also turned to see the king’s son, who they hadn’t noticed in their concern for the king’s daughter.
“Is she all right?” Tanabi asked.
“She was unconscious when we came for her,” said Yakuti, her green eyes shimmering in the dark, wet with tears. “Why did you have to leave her there? She could have been found by a scavenger and killed…or even one of the Kina Mwasi!”
“I’m sorry, but I had to,” Tanabi said. “But tell me: is she all right?”
“I’m not the one to ask,” said Yakuti.
“She break both bones down ‘ere,” said Rafiki, pointing at Kiara’s right hind leg. “Could be worse, but still not good. She needs to rest for a long, long time.”
“How long?” Nala asked.
“Longer dan she would want to rest,” Rafiki said, grinning. “You!” he then said, looking at his young helper. “Dat’s enough. You wrap her up good and tight. Let’s let Kiara rest now.”
The young mandrill spryly leapt away from Kiara’s leg and followed his master out of the cave. The lionesses parted so that Rafiki could pass through. When the two had gone, Tanabi turned to look up at his father.
“Dad…you look awfully tired. What happened?”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” said Simba wearily. “But you should talk. You’ve got dirt all over you and mud on your nose. What did you do, go for a swim in the waterhole?”
“No,” said Tanabi, “Well, I got in a bit of a scrape as well, I guess. It’s nothing…it’s nothing big, though.”
“Do you want me to scrape that off for you?” asked Nala gently.
“No, no,” said Tanabi quickly, not wanting his cuts to be exposed. “I’ll take care of it myself later. Right now…”
He looked down at Kiara and then at his parents again.
“Could I please be with Kiara? Alone?”
Before Simba could answer, Nala said:
“Of course you can, Tanabi. I’ll ask the pride to leave you and Ki together. But only for a few minutes. When the sun goes down, we’re all coming back in.”
“But good luck talking to her, if that’s what you want to do. She’s still out cold,” said a voice from behind Tanabi. It was Timon, who had made his way through the lionesses with some effort, leaving Pumbaa behind at the cave entrance.
“Timon, don’t talk like that,” said Simba.
“Well, what’s wrong about it? She can’t hear me, can she?” Timon asked cockily.
Simba would have laughed if he wasn’t so tired, but now he only sighed and rose to his feet.
“All right, all pride members except Tanabi and his sister out of the cave until sundown,” he said.
Immediately, the lionesses began turning and leaving. Simba and Nala waited until the last one had departed, then left with them. Just before she left, though, Nala gave her son a gentle smile and a nod, then left along with the rest of the pride.
Tanabi lay down beside his sister. He decided not to speak with quiet words, he wanted her to remember what he said to her. He stroked her shoulder and whispered in her ear:
“Kiara? It’s me. Are you okay?”
The lid of one of Kiara’s eyes seemed to peel back. Her exhaustion was so great that she seemed to be straining to keep her eye open. But when she recognized the face string into hers, she smiled and purred, rubbing Tanabi’s paw with hers.
“What?” she mumbled.
“Are you okay?” Tanabi repeated, placing his other paw on top of Kiara’s.
“I am now,” she said dreamily. “But my leg isn’t, is it?”
She turned to look back at the branch splint around her leg and winced.
“No. You’ll have to rest for a while so that your broken bones can heal.”
“I know,” Kiara said.
“You know?” Tanabi asked. “How do you know?”
“I wasn’t unconscious when you and Mom and Dad and Rafiki were talking about me. I could hear you.”
“Oh. But you were unconscious when Yakuti and the others were – “
“Yes. I don’t remember much from in between the time you ran off and the time I was starting to come to here. By the way, what about that ‘thing’ that you needed to leave me for?”
“I’ll tell you about it some other time,” Tanabi said a little too hastily. “Not now, though.”
“Why not now?” Kiara asked.
“I’m tired,” said Tanabi. “I need to rest.”
“You saw whatever it was that was staring at me,” Kiara said. “What was it?”
“I wasn’t sure,” said Tanabi, fighting hard not to reveal the truth that he had left their second cousin to die in a gorge. “It’s not important, though.”
Kiara nodded weakly and stretched her head forwards to lick Tanabi’s paw, purring gently.
“Thank you so much for saving me. I don’t know how you did it.”
“Well, Vitani helped.”
“All I remember her doing is helping me finish off that buffalo, then lifting it enough for you to drag me out from under it. My neck still hurts. Lucky that Daddy didn’t notice your teeth marks or he might think you were practicing your fighting skills on me or something.”
Tanabi silently agreed.
“She helped get you out of that gorge while you were unconscious. Then she helped me get you to that river. I wouldn’t have been able to get you out of there without her help.”
“How did you do that anyway?” Kiara asked. “Those walls were made of sheer rock.”
“I’ll tell you the whole story later,” Tanabi promised. “But right now you need to rest. Good night, Ki.”
“Good night,” Kiara muttered quietly, starting to close her eyes. Then they opened again.
“Hey,” she remarked.
“What?” asked Tanabi.
“Did you get some buffalo blood on your chest?”
“If I did, you sure couldn’t see it now, after my swim through the river and in this dark cave,” Tanabi said.
“Well, then that red stuff must be your mane,” said Kiara. “It’s finally coming in on your chest. Hasn’t anyone else commented you on it yet?”
Tanabi tried and failed to see where Kiara was looking on the fur covering his sternum.
“No. Maybe it isn’t visible from distances further than the distance we’re at yet.”
“I bet it will be soon,” Kiara said, with a smile of what seemed more than just admiration. With that, she closed her eyes and let loose a cavernous yawn.
“G’night, ‘Nabi. See you in the morning.”
Tanabi nuzzled her gently, then walked around her and flopped down beside her, his back to hers. He breathed in deeply, and was asleep within minutes.
“Kiara? Princess Kiara? Hello?”
That voice. It kept on repeating her name over and over in a voice that she might have recognized in her waking hours, but now everything was fuzzy and vague to her. And every now and then a paw reached out and touched her shoulder. A strong, muscular paw with tense tendons and sinews. The claws seemed to protrude slightly, like a cheetah’s, and the pads seemed worn and ragged, not unlike the voice…
“Kiara? Are you awake?”
She finally managed to gather up enough strength to open her eyes. Staring back at her were two vivid green eyes tinted teal in the dark cave. The body the eyes were part of was so dark that for a few seconds, she couldn’t distinguish it from the cave walls. It was as if it was only the two eyes, floating in the air.
She almost screamed, but in that instant, she recognized that pointed nose, that dark tuft of fur that sprouted from the lion’s back, the lean frame, and the soft, yet gruff voice…
“Kovu?” she whispered.
The lion nodded. Kiara forced herself awake enough to look around her. It was late, judging by the stars she could see though the cave’s mouth, and all the members of the pride lay asleep. She twisted around and saw that her brother also lay asleep, as well as her mother, father and maternal grandmother.
“What are you doing here? If Mom or Dad wake up and find you here…”
“I’ll turn tail and run as fast as I can if they look like they’re aiming to kill me,” said Kovu, “Or stand up and fight for my right to live and my right to be standing here if they don’t.”
“And…” Kiara hesitated, “Why are you here?”
“I think the answer is sticking out of your hip there,” Kovu said, pointing to Kiara’s leg. “I came here to see if you were all right.”
“But, your…your pride,” Kiara said, “The Kina Mwasi…they stay so far from us…how could you have known?”
“Word travels fast,” Kovu said, his green eyes slanted slyly. “But not as fast as my sister, in this case. Vitani came home looking like a waterlogged mouse. She told Mother that she had fallen into a stream, but I knew she was lying. I asked her afterwards, and she told me how she and that brother of yours saved you after your leg had gotten crushed. I’m sorry I wasn’t there, or I’d’ve helped too. I just wanted to come here and see how bad you were hurt.”
“I’m okay,” she said. “But you shouldn’t be here. Even if you don’t get caught…you’ve tracked your scent in here. Someone’s sure to smell you or see a paw print…”
She glanced at Kovu’s paws and blinked. They were all thickly coated with mud, and she could make out tracks leading from the cave’s mouth and though the maze of lionesses.
“Not through this muck,” Kovu grinned. “’Tani gave me a tip. She told me about Tanabi’s water-masking trick, and apparently it worked. Vitani didn’t smell different at all to me, and I’m sure she didn’t to anyone else. I decided to try something similar. I’d coat my paws with mud and render my tracks unreadable and un-smellable.”
“But your tracks still lead out of the cave,” said Kiara. “How will you make sure that no one tracks you back to the Kina Mwasi?”
“Mud tends to rub off in grass,” said Kovu. “And I’ll go through a shallow river on the way home, just to be safe.”
“Boy, you sure are a masterful planner,” said Kiara dreamily. “Wish I could think like that.”
“We’re from different prides,” said Kovu. “We think differently.”
“Don’t say that,” said Kiara, touching Kovu with a paw. “You know that you and your family were once part of this pride too. It’s just that…that…”
“You don’t need to tell me about it,” said Kovu. “Our pride and yours split. That’s all there really is to it.”
“No it isn’t,” Kiara said, struggling to form a sentence to argue with, but eventually giving up in her weariness.
“Vitani and I sometimes wonder if our Mother really wants to be separate from your pride,” Kovu said. “Your father doesn’t seem that tyrannical. I think he’s a very fair ruler.”
“He is,” said Kiara. “But then, he’s the only ruler I’ve ever known. My brother seems to share the same view…but then, what would you expect, we’re twins.”
Kovu snickered, then looked deeply serious.
“What’s wrong?” Kiara asked.
“It’s Nuka,” Kovu said.
“Your brother? What about him?”
“He left home this morning and he still hasn’t returned. He’s never been gone this long. Have you seen him, Kiara?”
“Nuka…” Kiara murmured in a slight daze, “No, I don’t think I have seen him…it’s so hard to remember…”
Kovu looked concerned for a moment, then sympathetic.
“Go back to sleep,” he whispered. “You need your strength. Maybe I’ll come and visit you again if I’m not caught.”
“All right,” Kiara said. “Be careful. And thank you so much for coming.”
“Sure,” replied Kovu. “Oh…and one last thing…”
“Why are there a sleeping warthog and a meerkat by the cave entrance?”
Kiara giggled softly.
“Oh, don’t you know? Those are Daddy’s friends. They saved his life when he was a cub. Now they’re like family.”
“Well, I’m glad you told me that, otherwise I might have had myself a midnight snack on the way out of here,” Kovu said.
Kiara’s eyes opened wide.
“Kovu! That’s mean!”
“Don’t worry,” Kovu grinned as he turned away. “Any warthog or meerkat sleeping inside a lion’s den is a special critter. I promise I won’t hurt them.”
“You do that,” said Kiara, yawning heavily. “Good-night, Kovu.”
Then came the light. It wasn’t the morning light that Kiara knew so well. It appeared so brightly…and it got so much brighter so quickly…and it wasn’t piercing, blasting against her eyes, directly through the skin of her eyelids. It also seemed to have more of all that normal sunlight had…it was warmer…gentler…more golden…there seemed to be more of a presence, as if the sun had moved closer to the Earth.
And then there was that commanding force coming from an unknown origin. This time she was able to actually make out what it was asking…and in actual words, too…
Open your eyes.
The voice was a lion’s, but whose? She had never heard it before, yet it seemed so familiar. She slowly opened her eyes. At first there was nothing but a mass of colors, all bleeding into each other, but gradually they congealed into definite shapes.
What she saw was something she never would have expected. She was still in the den, but it was filled with that burning golden light, as if the walls were literally painted with it. The sky outside seemed to be one brilliant white light, like that of the sun at its zenith. She looked around for the other pride members, only to find every one of them, even her brother and her parents, gone.
For a moment, she panicked, a hundred thoughts rushing through her mind, but then all thought ceased as she noticed something standing in the light. She tried to focus. It wasn’t squinting that was disrupting her eyesight, in fact, she wasn’t squinting at all. Now matter how she tried to adjust her vision, the figure was always just as blurry. Finally, she gave up and relaxed her eyes. To her growing amazement, in just a few seconds the figure had become as solid as the cave walls. Kiara gaped. He seemed so great, so majestic, as if he were a god. But something bound him to the Earth…and somehow, to her. Who was this lion?
“Kiara,” he said in a voice like distant thunder that resonated off the walls of the cave. “I’ve waited a long time to see you.”
“Who…who are you?” Kiara whispered.
“Who do I look like to you?” the lion asked. A breeze that Kiara didn’t feel ruffled his reddish brown mane.
The way his mane grew, sprouting from the center and trailing down the back of his head, was amazingly like the way Tanabi’s mane was coming in…but still, this lion couldn’t be Tanabi. There were too many subtle differences in the face and the body. Kiara shook her head and tried to shrug, even though she was still lying on her side.
“I don’t know who you are. But…you seem so much like…” she trailed off, he fuzziness in her head clouding her mind.
“I’m sure in your heart you know who I am, Kiara,” the lion said softly.
Kiara looked down in confusion. She couldn’t understand what was going on, why this was happening, and who this strange lion was. She kneaded the stone floor of the cave in deep thought, then looked pleadingly up at the lion’s face. She was about to ask him who he was again, but something stopped her. She looked closely at him. That mane…it was more brown than red, but still…it was Tanabi’s. There was no doubt. It was his, but at the same time, it was Tanabi’s.
And that face…stern and serious, but at the same time warm and gentle…Kiara remembered she and Tanabi having a conversation with their father when they were cubs, asking what traits they got from which parents. Naturally, the twins got their golden coats and hazel eyes from their father, and their hunting and fighting skills from their mother…but then one of them…Kiara remembered that it might have been her…asked where Simba had gotten his physical and mental makeup. Simba had thought this over for a moment and said that as a cub, he had possessed dark rims on his ears, like Tanabi, and these he believed he had inherited from Sarabi, as well as her gentle disposition. Then Tanabi asked where his father had gotten and his full mane and golden coat as well as his bravery and strength. Simba said that had to be Mufasa…his father.
His father. Kiara gasped upon realizing it.
“Are you…” she trembled. “You…you can’t be…”
“Yes, I am,” said the lion gently.
“But…” Kiara said, “Then…I’m not…dead, am I?”
“No, you’re not dead,” said the lion with a smile and a slight chuckle. “You were hurt, but not that badly.”
“But…you…my grandfather…he’s dead…he died years ago…”
“Did your father not tell you that the Great Kings go to the stars when they die?”
“Yes…yes, he told us that.”
“And he told you that the Great Kings would always be there to guide you through your life as you grow.”
“Yes, he did…”
“That is why I have come. I need to guide you. But I needed to assume the form that I had in life, bearing the looks that both you and your father share. You can see just by looking at me that I am part of you, can’t you?”
“Yes,” Kiara said, gazing into her grandfather’s dewy hazel eyes. “You are my grandfather…you are Mufasa…You…you are me…”