Asari trudged somberly towards the western
border of the Lakeside Pride’s territory in the failing light of sunset.
Dingane, the Pride’s King, followed some forty feet behind the lioness.
When Asari reached one of the many bushes that the King had marked that
morning, she turned to face Dingane. The lioness stared directly
into his large, brown eyes. Dingane returned her stare impassively;
his eyes didn’t betray the slightest hint of warmth. Asari felt a
cold chill in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t tell whether Dingane
was too proud to display any emotion or was too cold to feel any.
“Asari,” he intoned ominously. “You are no longer a member of the Lakeside Pride. If at any time after the setting of the sun you should be found within the borders of our territory, you shall be deemed an invader and immediately driven out. So say I, Dingane, King of the Lakeside Pride.”
Asari said nothing. There was nothing she could say. The official reason for her banishment was that the pride was too large, someone had to go. As King, Dingane had the right to choose who it would be. Naturally, he chose Asari who was the daughter of Mpande, the former King. Since Mpande had been Dingane’s elder brother, the new King was sending his own niece into banishment.
None of the Lakeside Pride lionesses came to see Asari off. Undoubtedly some feared Dingane’s wrath while others possibly just didn’t care. Asari had no way of knowing for certain, as she would never see any of them again. Nevertheless, she felt stung to the core of her soul that no one said goodbye. The lioness turned to the west and stalked away.
Asari moved as silently
as the wind through the high grass. The lioness could see the gazelle
she was stalking clearly in the moonlight. Even though Asari was
an experienced hunter, this was the first time she had ever hunted alone.
Her heart pounded with all the excitement of a novice on her first hunt.
Except that now the stakes were far higher.
Asari broke cover and charged towards her prey. The distance melted away quickly as the lioness streaked forward gracefully in the moonlight. The gazelle attempted to flee but Asari was already upon him. She sprang on the gazelle’s back and quickly bore him to the ground. The lioness found his throat and gripped it in her jaws. Asari felt the gazelle struggling under her. His struggles gradually weakened and soon ceased altogether. The lioness held the gazelle’s throat for a couple minutes longer to assure herself that he was dead.
A feeling of triumph swept over her as she looked upon her kill. She began to eat in a slow, deliberate fashion. This was the first time in her life that Asari had eaten alone. Once again, the terrible feeling of loneliness gnawed at her heart. Worse still, the loneliness was joined by anger. While Asari fed on her kill, loneliness and anger fed on her heart.
Asari had only just swallowed her third mouthful of meat when the forms of four hyenas materialized out of the darkness. She stood and roared but the hyenas snarled and pawed the ground threateningly. A moment later, the four charged shoulder to shoulder. The hyenas bristled their hair and held their tails high above their backs.
The lioness fled before the hyenic onslaught. Asari felt her heart pounding against her chest as she ran blindly across the savanna. She didn’t dare turn to look behind her and consequently was unaware that the hyenas did not pursue. The lioness stopped only when exhaustion finally overtook her.
When the fear subsided, hunger returned stronger and more insistent than before. Hunger was soon followed by loneliness who was in turn joined by anger, loneliness’ ever-present mate. Asari cursed the hyenas for stealing her food. She cursed Dingane with even more vehemence.
It was the second night of her exile, or was
it the third? Asari wasn’t certain. Just as the lioness was
uncertain of where she was or even what direction she headed. Did
it really matter? The only thing she knew for certain was that her
hunger burned like a brush fire. Her first priority was to assuage
Asari stared wistfully at the large herd of wildebeest spread before her. She felt hungry enough to eat one whole. The lioness picked her victim and approached it stealthily. Successful hunting was all about timing. Almost as soon as Asari began her charge towards the herd, the lioness knew that she had misjudged the distance. It always seemed to Asari that she always made such mental mistakes when she could least afford them. The lioness wasn’t closing on the prey fast enough. Though she came tantalizingly close, Asari never closed to within pouncing distance of the wildebeest. Soon, her endurance gave out and she was forced to abandon the chase. Asari cried bitterly as she saw the herd vanish into the darkness.
The moon was full on the next night of Asari’s exile. Hunger had not only become the lioness’ constant companion while awake, but by now had also invaded her sleep. It tormented her with dreams of fresh meat. Her life had devolved to the point where she now had but one motivation, fill her stomach at any cost.
Suddenly, Asari spotted a cheetah running down a gazelle. Normally, the lioness would have regarded stealing another’s kill to be dishonorable. But now Asari was way past such considerations. The lioness ran towards the cheetah with all the speed she could muster. The cheetah didn’t even have time to begin eating his kill when he was forced to relinquish it to Asari.
The lioness tore at the gazelle greedily and ate as rapidly as she could. Only a few minutes had passed when Asari heard the ominous sound of paws pounding on the ground. She looked up from the kill and saw six hyenas rushing across the savanna towards her. The lioness tore one last piece off the carcass before running off.
Asari had run only forty yards when she heard the sudden roar of a lion. She turned and looked back towards the hyenas. All six were staring at the top of a nearby hill. The lioness followed their gaze to the magnificent form of a powerfully built lion silhouetted by the moon. The hyenas scattered into the night as the lion bounded down the hillside.
Asari approached the feeding lion apprehensively, using the same technique she employed while stalking prey. When the lioness was still some forty feet away, she announced herself plaintively, “My lord.”
The lion looked up suddenly, his mouth full of meat as he glanced around. When he finally saw Asari, he admonished her irritably; “Can’t you see I’m eating?”
“My apologies for disturbing you, my lord, but I am in desperate need of aid,” Asari supplicated.
“Come forward and let me look at you,” the lion commanded sternly.
Asari slowly drew up to the lion and lied down across the carcass from him. He swept his gaze over her appreciatively.
“I am Sicwele,” the lion announced proudly. He then asked gently, “Who are you?”
“My name is Asari,” the lioness responded politely.
“What aid do you require?” Sicwele asked compassionately.
“My lord, it has been days since I’ve last eaten,” Asari answered meekly.
“Please call me Sicwele,” the lion said affably. He then gestured towards the gazelle invitingly, “And share this meal with me.” Asari began devouring the kill voraciously. Sicwele tried unsuccessfully to keep his disgust out of his voice as he gently chided her, “Please eat more slowly, my dear, it’s bad for the digestion.”
“I’m sorry, Sicwele,” she replied contritely.
“I hate to see a lioness developing the eating habits of a hyena,” Sicwele explained mildly.
“How did you end up out here?” Sicwele asked
Asari after she had finished eating.
“I have been banished from my pride,” she answered uneasily.
“Why, did you commit some crime?” Sicwele inquired as tactfully as he could.
“My only crime was that I was born the daughter of the late King,” Asari answered bitterly.
“What cold hearted tyrant could send away such a beautiful lioness as you?” Sicwele asked scornfully.
“Dingane, King of the Lakeside Pride,” Asari replied simply.
“Really,” Sicwele stopped to consider this for a moment before continuing. “Then you must be the daughter of great Mpande!”
“I am,” Asari responded with pride.
“I am truly fortunate,” Sicwele said earnestly.
“Are you the King here?” Asari queried nervously.
“No,” Sicwele responded sadly.
“You’re a rogue,” Asari blurted out without thinking.
“I don’t consider myself a rogue,” Sicwele said in a wounded tone.
“I meant no offense,” Asari responded apprehensively.
“Rogue is such a tawdry word,” Sicwele explained simply. “Makes me sound like a sociopathic elephant. I prefer to think of myself as a gentleman adventurer, or at least a bachelor at large.”
“I am sorry I offended you,” she apologized sincerely. Asari then stated bluntly, “I seek a pride to join, that is why I asked.”
“Indeed,” Sicwele said thoughtfully. “Not long ago, I helped another lion take over a pride. A few days from now, My friend and I will challenge a cruel tyrant name Tshingwayo for control of his pride. Though Tshingwayo has a very large pride, I don’t believe I will find a lioness as beautiful as you. I would be honored if you would consent to be my queen.”
Asari was so overcome with emotion that she could not speak. The lioness lied down next to Sicwele and rubbed against him affectionately. He draped his left foreleg lovingly across Asari’s shoulders and held her close. Then he tenderly licked her right cheek and whispered passionately in her ear, “I’d like to make love to you under the stars.”
“My father told me that the great lion kings become stars after they die,” Asari said softly. “Do you believe this is true?”
“I know it’s true,” Sicwele answered fervently. “And I know that your father looks down upon you now.”
“What did I do the deserve you?” Asari asked affectionately.
“I have no idea,” Sicwele answered with a wry grin.
Asari and Sicwele lied together under the acacia
on the top of the hill where they had slept together. Sicwele stood
up and walked slowly to the crest line of the hill. Asari couldn’t
help but notice that he walked with a pronounced limp. The limp was
the price he had paid for helping his friend attain his throne.
“I may not be able to help with the hunting,” Sicwele said tersely. “But at least I can keep those filthy hyenas from stealing our kills.”
“That is more than enough of a contribution,” Asari responded pleasantly.
“There is a group of zebras at the bottom of the hill,” Sicwele said wistfully. “I would be most appreciative if you could bring one down for me.”
“It would be my pleasure,” Asari purred seductively. The lioness knew that tackling a zebra unaided could be very dangerous, but she had fallen in love with Sicwele and fervently wished to demonstrate that love in every way possible. Against her better judgement, Asari crept down the hill towards the grazing zebras.
Killing a zebra alone would be a rather dramatic demonstration of her hunting prowess. Besides, Asari had regained her strength as well as her confidence. With Sicwele’s love for a talisman, she didn’t believe she could fail. By the time the lioness had reached the bottom of the hill, she had already selected her victim, a mare who grazed at the rear of the group.
Asari crawled forward on her belly as close to the herd as she dared. The lioness broke cover and charged towards her prey. The zebras immediately gathered together and fled as a group. Asari rushed towards the right rear of the mare and was rapidly moving to within pouncing range. The lioness focused on her prey almost to the complete exclusion of everything else. While this presented no problems when hunting with a well-coordinated group, it was a dangerous habit when hunting alone. She didn’t notice the vast bulk of the stallion charging towards her until it was too late.
Asari tried to swerve to the right but the stallion was already upon her. The lioness’ pelvic girdle was shattered when the zebra trampled her. Asari laid flat on her back in a daze for several minutes. The lioness rolled her head to the left when she heard Sicwele approach.
“Help me, beloved,” she moaned.
“Why?” he replied caustically. Asari stared at him in disbelief. Sicwele added brusquely before he turned to leave, “You are no longer of any use to me.”
“Aren’t you even going to say goodbye?” Asari hissed venomously. Sicwele ignored her and limped slowly away. The lioness rolled onto her belly and attempted to stand, but the pain rose in a sudden onslaught, which quickly overwhelmed her brain. She screamed in agony for a moment before passing out, yet Sicwele trudged on without so much as a backward glance.
As the morning sun rose above the horizon,
Asari had finally pulled herself under the acacia tree she had slept under
the day before. She had spent the better part of the night dragging
herself the three hundred yards back to this location. Though she
was completely exhausted, the terrible pain in her hips and rear legs prevented
her from getting any rest.
Asari suddenly heard someone walking through the dry grass ahead of her. The lioness laid perfectly still and waited for the intruder to approach. She opened her eyes and stared blankly into the still darkened sky. A cool breeze brought the invader’s scent to Asari’s nose, the scent of a hyena.
A plan rapidly formed in Asari’s tortured mind. She would lie still, feigning death to lure the enemy to her. When the lioness saw the hyena’s ugly face bend towards her, she would reach up with both forepaws and tear out his throat. Asari wondered what hyena meat tasted like. No self-respecting lion ever ate a hyena. She imagined that the taste would be every bit as foul as the stench of its body. The lioness wondered what was taking the hyena so long when she felt something tug at her left rear leg.
Searing pain immediately filled her mind. She roared involuntarily and her head jerked up. Asari saw a massive female hyena standing fifteen feet in front of her.
“You see, Gakan, she still has quite a bit of life left in her,” the female hyena said smugly.
“If you touch me again, so help me I’ll tear you apart,” Asari threatened viciously.
“Oh, did I hurt you dearie?” Gakan asked sarcastically. The other hyena was standing directly behind Asari. He continued in a soft voice that made him sound all the more menacingly, “Keep your threats to yourself. I can inflict more pain on you than you ever dreamed possible. I can make you scream until your vocal chords break. Shall I tickle her some more, Shetani?”
“No Gakan,” Shetani answered with a sigh. “Petty sadism is a luxury we can’t afford right now.”
Asari watched the enormous female walk slowly away from her. When the hyena was some sixty feet away, she stopped and called for the male hyena, “Gakan, come here!” The other hyena bounded quickly to Shetani. Gakan was also quite large for a hyena, though obviously somewhat smaller than Shetani. Asari wondered if they were siblings. The lioness could not hear what was said, but obviously the female hyena was reprimanding the male. Gakan cringed as he stood before Shetani. His ears were pressed tightly against his head, his tail was held between his legs and against the belly and his head was held low to the ground. Gakan lowered himself to the ground while Shetani loomed over him. She circled around him several times, all the while staring at him intently. Finally, Shetani walked back towards Asari, but Gakan remained lying submissively on the ground.
“What do you want?” Asari demanded harshly when Shetani lied down twenty feet away.
“Oh, you know what I want,” Shetani replied pointedly. “And by the looks of things, it won’t be long before I get it.”
“You can go to Hell, you evil bitch,” Asari cursed bitterly.
“What’s the matter, can’t take falling from the top of the food chain?” Shetani asked malevolently.
“If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll rip into your flesh with my claws,” Asari declared vehemently.
“And that is exactly why I’m just going to sit back and watch you slowly die,” Shetani retorted with a wicked grin. “After all, time is on my side.”
The two females glared at each other in silence for the next couple of hours. Suddenly, Gakan ran up to Shetani carrying a dead bird in his mouth. He dropped the bird at Shetani’s feet. The female hyena smiled at him and Gakan immediately kissed her lips. Shetani wagged her tail and Gakan lay down next to her. Shetani devoured the bird in a slow and thoughtful manner as she returned Asari’s stare.
“Are you doing that to torment me?” Asari asked the hyena accusingly. Shetani didn’t answer; she just picked up the bird and walked away. Gakan glared at Asari but kept his thoughts to himself.
The hyenas quickly settled into a routine.
At least of them watched Asari intently at all times. They slept
in shifts and at regular intervals one would wander off, sometimes for
hours at a time, leaving the other to guard the lioness. They even
seemed to eat regularly if not well. The only thing that Asari managed
to deprive them of was the shade of the acacia. Even this inconvenience
didn’t seem to trouble them much. The hyenas often returned from
their trips soaking wet.
Thus it seemed to Asari, that the hyenas’ victory would be inevitable. Yet the lioness clung to the thin hope of rescue. Perhaps Sicwele would come back for her. Surely it couldn’t be her fate to be the main course in a hyenic feast. But she hadn’t slept, eaten or drank for two days. The pain in her hips and legs was a constant, rhythmic throbbing, provided she didn’t try to move. If she attempted any movement at all, the pain seared her like fire. Despair became her constant companion. But what kept her going most of all was the smug look on Shetani’s face whenever the hyena looked at her directly.
By the third day of their vigil, the hyenas
must have grown bored. For the first two days, they watched the lioness
in silence. But on the third day, they talked to each other almost
constantly. Asari ignored them with disdain at first. However
as the time passed, she found herself becoming increasingly interested
in their conversation. They almost whispered when they spoke, apparently
in an effort to avoid being overheard. They still watched her while they
talked, but not with the same intensity as before. Asari slowly dragged
herself towards them until she could plainly understand their speech.
The lioness was only twenty feet away from the hyenas. If Shetani
and Gakan even noticed her movements, they were totally unconcerned.
“I can’t wait to sink my teeth into her,” Shetani said enthusiastically.
“I don’t know, Shetani, she looks awfully bony to me,” Gakan complained.
“There’s still enough meat there for at least two meals,” Shetani said confidently.
“If we get to keep it that long,” Gakan quipped.
“I don’t think Sicwele is going to steal this one from us,” Shetani stated.
“I wouldn’t put anything past that asshole,” Gakan countered.
Asari naturally found the topic of conversation repugnant and it required all of her self-control to reign in her anger at the mention of Sicwele’s name. She still loved him and held out hope that the lion would rescue her from the vile hyenas.
“There are few things sweeter than fresh lion meat,” Shetani declared.
“How do you know?” Gakan asked incredulously. “Have you eaten it before?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I did,” Shetani answered smugly.
“When?” Gakan demanded.
“Oh, about a year and a half ago,” Shetani answered thoughtfully. “When Mpande died.”
“You ate Mpande?” Gakan asked loudly. Asari pulled herself a little closer to the hyenas.
“No, I didn’t eat Mpande,” Shetani answered defensively. “I ate one of the other lions, what’s his name.”
“I’m confused,” Gakan complained.
“What else is new,” Shetani retorted. Gakan gave her a withering glare but said nothing.
“Look, this is what happened,” Shetani explained. “This young lion, looked like he was just barely old enough to have a mane, challenged Mpande for control of his pride. Well, Mpande thought it was an honorable fight and accepted. Before you know it, another lion comes charging out of the bushes and attacks Mpande. So, now there are two fighting against one. Mpande was a really good fighter, so he takes out the younger lion first. Then he starts to beat the hell out of the older lion. That’s why Old Limpy is in the pathetic state he’s in. Next thing you know, yet another lion comes out and attacks Mpande. Mpande still put up a pretty good fight, but it wasn’t long before he was buzzard bait.”
“What difference did it make who won, all lions hate us anyway,” Gakan said cynically.
“They don’t all hate us,” Shetani rebutted.
“Oh yeah, have you ever met even one lion who didn’t hate you?” Gakan asked rhetorically.
“Yeah, Mpande,” Shetani answered bluntly.
“How do you know he didn’t hate you?” Gakan demanded.
“It’s a long story,” Shetani said wearily.
“I have all day,” Gakan said pointedly.
Shetani sighed heavily, then began her story, “About two years ago, I killed a gazelle in Mpande’s territory. I knew I was trespassing, so I was eating as fast as I could. I had been eating for some time when all of a sudden I hear this deep voice behind me say, ‘You shouldn’t eat so fast, it will give you indigestion’. I looked over my shoulder and there was Mpande standing right behind me.
“Mpande was the biggest lion I’d ever seen in my life. He must have weighed six hundred pounds. There he was, standing so close that his nose almost touched my rump. When I saw him, I started to choke on the big mouthful of meat I had just taken.
“I couldn’t breath, my eyes were bulging out and my nose was almost touching the ground. Mpande reached over and slapped me on the back right between the shoulders. After I coughed up the meat, he asked me if I was okay.”
“I always wondered why you eat so slowly,” Gakan interrupted.
Shetani smiled at him indulgently before continuing, “Well, I told him I was okay. But I was as terrified as I was that time when I was a pup...well almost as terrified. He pats me on the head. Mpande introduces himself and asks me who I am. I told him my real name because I was too flustered to think of a good lie. If he recognized my name at all, he sure didn’t show it.
“Then he asked me if I stole the gazelle. I told him I killed it myself. He smiled and asked if I had finished eating. Mpande then says that I can stay on his land as long as I behave myself. He even showed me an old den where I could sleep. I asked him why he was doing all this for me. He just smiled and said that when he died he wanted to leave a better world than the one he was born in.”
Gakan contemplated Shetani’s story in silence for a moment. He then asked sarcastically, “You don’t seriously expect me to believe THAT do you?”
“You’re hopeless,” Shetani said in disgust.
“Why don’t you let me finish off that lioness so we can eat?” Gakan asked.
“Because I don’t want to see you get hurt,” Shetani replied. Gakan gazed at Shetani fondly for a moment, then he kissed her.
“Do you mind if I get some sleep?” Gakan asked Shetani with a tired expression on his face.
“Go ahead, I’ll keep an eye on things,” she responded. Gakan lay down with his back touching Shetani’s right side and quickly fell asleep. The female hyena laid her right foreleg affectionately around his shoulders.
Asari spent the next hour mulling over what
she had overheard. Obviously, Shetani knew more than what she had
told Gakan. The lioness quickly formed a plan for extracting from
the hyena what she knew about Mpande’s death.
“Hyena,” Asari called out weakly.
“What do you want?” Shetani asked brusquely.
“I can’t take this pain anymore. Come and kill me quickly, please,” Asari begged plaintively.
“Alright,” Shetani said eagerly. She stood and approached the wounded lioness. The hyena opened her powerful jaws and slowly lowered her head towards the lioness’ throat. Suddenly, Asari reached up with her right forepaw and grabbed Shetani by the throat just below the jaw. The lioness extended her claws and pressed them against the hyena’s flesh.
Shetani stiffened immediately then began to tremble with fear. The hyena swallowed nervously and closed her eyes.
“Don’t make a sound,” Asari warned. “If you know what’s good for you, you won’t do anything to wake up your mate.”
“What do you want?” Shetani hissed.
“I want to know who the lions were who killed Mpande,” Asari answered sternly.
“I don’t remember the name of the youngest one,” Shetani protested meekly.
“I don’t care about him, who were the other two?” Asari demanded.
“Dingane and Sicwele,” Shetani replied hoarsely.
“Open your eyes and look at me, bitch,” Asari commanded angrily while tightening her grip on Shetani’s throat. The hyena complied, opening her eyes wide and looking straight into the lioness’ gaze. Asari intoned malevolently, “You’d better not be lying to me.”
“I’m not lying,” Shetani rejoined, her eyes narrowed as fear slowly gave way to anger. “I guess I deserve to die since I fell for your stupid trick. But know this, if you hurt me at all Gakan will inflict more pain on you than you can possibly imagine.”
“You surprise me, Shetani,” Asari said approvingly. “I thought you hyenas were all stupid cowards. I will make a deal with you, I’ll let you go if you do me a small favor.”
“What kind of a favor,” Shetani inquired suspiciously.
Asari pulled Shetani’s head down close to her mouth and whispered malevolently into the hyena’s ear, “If you ever get a chance, bite Sicwele for me as hard as you can and tell him its from Asari, the daughter of Mpande.”
The lioness retracted her claws and released the hyena’s throat. Shetani stared at Asari for a moment then a wicked grin appeared on her face as she spoke; “Sure, but I don’t actually need an excuse to bite a lion.”
Asari smiled bitterly then said weakly, “I’m ready to die. Please finish me off quickly, this time I won’t stop you.”
Shetani bent her head down towards Asari’s head. The hyena licked Asari on the forehead, the nose and then on the mouth.
“What the Hell are you doing?” Asari protested.
“Just saying goodbye,” Shetani replied sadly.
Asari stared at Shetani, tears flowing from both of the lioness’ eyes. She lifted her head weakly and licked the hyena’s muzzle. The lioness laid her head back exposing her throat. She closed her eyes and waited. Shetani licked Asari’s throat then gripped it carefully with her powerful jaws. The hyena bit down as hard as she could and shook her head violently from side to side. Shetani let go when she felt Asari’s neck break. She stared at the dead lioness for a moment.
“Why did you have to go and do that for?” She asked accusingly. “You spoiled my appetite.”
Shetani gently shook Gakan awake with her right forepaw. The male hyena awoke with a start and quickly looked around. He gazed for a moment at Asari’s body and asked, “Is she dead?”
“Yes,” Shetani answered. “I finished her off.”
“Good,” Gakan said while smacking his lips. “I’m starved.”
“I can’t eat her now,” Shetani said sadly.
“Why not?” Gakan demanded.
“Because I know too much about her now,” Shetani retorted.
“Sentimental twaddle,” Gakan said dismissively.
“I’m leaving, Gakan,” Shetani announced as she started to walk away.
“Fine,” Gakan said angrily. “Go if you want to, I’m staying to eat.”
Shetani froze in her footsteps and looked over her shoulder at Gakan. Gakan swallowed when he saw the pleading look on Shetani’s face. She stared for a moment then asked, “Is this goodbye then?”
“I suppose so,” Gakan responded morosely.
Shetani’s ears pressed against the sides of her head, her tail drooped down limply between her legs and her chin nearly scrapped the ground as she slowly walked away. Tears welled in Gakan’s eyes as he watched her recede into the distance.
Gakan sat for a moment hunched over the lioness. Tears flowed like rivers down his muzzle and his jaw trembled uncontrollably. Suddenly, he stood up and stared wistfully into the direction Shetani had walked.
“I’m an idiot if I let some damned lion take her away from me too,” Gakan rebuked himself aloud and ran off after Shetani in a full gallop.