The Lion Rogue
by Samuel Simpson
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· Content advisory: Some chapters of this story may contain violence, strong language, or intense situations.
· The Lion King and all Disney-created characters are copyrighted by Disney.
· This text made be freely distributed and made available electronically, so long as it is not modified.
· Special thanks to David Morris, The Gentle Kingdom, and the members of The Lion King Mailing List for support, advice, and inspiration.
"From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done"
--The Circle of Life
On a typical day, the Pride Lands were quiet and peaceful during the late evening hours. About half of the lionesses would be asleep in the communal den, resting for the night's hunt, while the rest would relax by the water hole, or lounge in the fields near Pride Rock, watching the magnificent sunset.
This evening, however, the sunset was being largely ignored. Nearly every member of the pride gathered outside one of the many small caves near Pride Rock, waiting anxiously and talking with each other in small groups. Even Scar was there, lurking in a corner by himself.
King Mufasa emerged from the cave, just then, flanked by Rafiki the baboon, shaman of the Pride Lands. Immediately, a hush fell over the gathering.
All eyes were on Mufasa as he came and stood before them. With his powerful build and the wind streaming through his great mane, he looked every inch the proud and noble monarch that he was. "I have an announcement," he declared, in his deep, rich voice. "Today, my mate Sarabi has given birth to my firstborn son Simba. He will be presented in ten days."
Wild cheering broke out, with lionesses leaping and rushing to offer congratulations, or racing off to spread the news.
Scar's face fell, then slowly hardened into a mask of rage.
Unexpectedly, the celebration was interrupted as Zazu the hornbill came flying in so fast that he nearly crashed into Mufasa. "Sire, sire!" he cried, "She's back again!"
"Slow down," said Mufasa. "Who's back?"
Zazu landed on a nearby boulder, still out of breath from his frantic flight. "That rogue lioness, sire! She's here!"
Mufasa frowned and growled softly. In the past few days, there had been several reports of a strange lioness in the pride's territory. They'd tried to speak to her, of course, but the rogue had vanished without a trace each time. "Where was she seen this time?"
Zazu managed to look even more agitated. "You don't understand, your majesty. She's here at Pride Rock, right now! She's asked to speak to you."
Mufasa considered this for a moment. "Zazu, Nyota, come with me. I need you too, Scar."
Scar, who had been just about to leave, paused. "Me?"
Mufasa nodded. "You have more experience with rogues than I. I need your advice."
Scar scowled, then sighed theatrically. "There's a first time for everything, I suppose."
Mufasa gave a few more instructions, and then the three lions headed back to Pride Rock, with Zazu gliding overhead.
As they walked, Mufasa turned to Scar. "Brother, what do you make of this?"
"Isn't it obvious?" snapped Scar. "She's been spying on the pride for days now. Any idiot could see that she's a new mother, looking for a place to raise a cub."
"I don't understand," said Nyota. She was one of the youngest lionesses, fast and agile, but still unsure of herself and her place within the pride. "If she wants to join, then why doesn't she just ask?"
"Because, Nyota," replied Mufasa coldly, "a rogue is a lion who does not belong to any pride. They live alone in the wilds, without family, friends, or home. They trust no one, and nothing."
Nyota shuddered. "That sounds horrible! Who would want to live like that?"
Scar's expression darkened. "It's not always a matter of wanting," he snarled, quietly.
Confused, Nyota tried to ask Mufasa another question, but he just turned away, looking almost ashamed. The rest of the trip was made in an awkward silence.
When they reached the base of Pride Rock, the rogue lioness was waiting. Where before she had been so evasive, she now stood completely in the open, proud and defiant. Like most rogues, she had brown fur and piercing red eyes.
Cautiously, the rogue approached. She studied Mufasa with a cold, deeply suspicious gaze, then knelt before him respectfully. "Your majesty, my name is Dhoruba. I ask sanctuary for myself, and for my cub."
Mufasa regarded the rogue thoughtfully. "Do you promise," he said, "to consider yourself a member of my pride and to be subject to my authority for as long as you live here?"
A pause. "I do."
Mufasa smiled, warmly. "Then you are welcome among us, Dhoruba."
"Thank you, your majesty." Another pause. "I've already got a den near here. I'd like to live by myself for a little while longer. If that's okay with you."
"Of course. Nyota will go with you, so we'll know where to find you. I'll see that you're allocated a share from our kills. Come to me when you're ready to present your cub to the pride and participate in the hunt."
Dhoruba bowed again. "Thank you, your majesty." Slowly, she turned and padded away, disappearing into the tall grass. Nyota followed, uneasily.
"You know you can't trust her," said Scar, after they were gone.
Zazu landed on Mufasa's shoulder. "Humph. Well, I suppose you would know best."
Mufasa sighed. "She gave me her word."
"Oh, I have no doubt she'll keep it," sneered Scar. "After all, by the terms you gave her, she's free to leave whenever she likes, and after that her promise is worthless!"
"Without trust," argued Mufasa, "any promise is worthless. I see no reason not to give her the benefit of the doubt."
"Aren't you even curious? You know how seldom we encounter rogues here. She's hiding something."
"What would you have me do, Scar? Turn away a mother and a newborn cub when there's no other place for them to go? You're heartless!"
"And you, brother, are a fool."
Mufasa frowned, but said nothing as Scar stalked away.
The following days passed swiftly, and soon the morning of Simba's Presentation arrived. Afterwards, Dhoruba left as soon as she could and returned directly to her den, thoroughly glad to be away from the priders and their foolishness. Never in her life had she seen such an absurd spectacle.
Not even a month, she thought to herself, and already she hated this. It galled her, being so dependent on others, having to obey their rules and eat their food and attend their stupid ceremonies. Perhaps she should have gone it alone, as difficult and dangerous as that was.
It was not yet noon, but the air was already warm, and dusty path felt scorchingly hot beneath her paws. Inside her cave, though, it was blessedly cool and dark, and her cub slept undisturbed in a corner.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Dhoruba lay down, then curled protectively around her cub and began to groom him with broad strokes of her rough tongue. He awoke, stretching and mewling, then groped sightlessly for a place to nurse. Soon, he found it, and began kneading her stomach with his tiny paws and purring.
Dhoruba smiled despite herself. Yet again, she studied her son closely. He had dark brown fur, a light brown underbelly, and a black-tufted tail. Just like his father, she thought.
And then, a small miracle occurred. Blinking, her cub opened his eyes and looked up at her for the first time. The irises of his eyes were a deep, clear blue. He mewed again and purred loudly.
Dhoruba smiled again, and her purring mingled with her cub's. Yes, she thought, for this tiny new life, she would do anything, suffer any indignity, endure any hardship. This was one responsibility that she was glad to bear.
"Hallo!" cried a cheery, voice from the mouth of her cave.
Instantly, Dhoruba was alert, ready to defend her cub or die trying. She was almost disappointed when the intruder turned out to be the pride's shaman, standing in the mouth of her cave with a stick in one hand and a sack slung over his shoulder. "What do you want?" she demanded.
Astonishingly, Rafiki just wandered on in and made himself at home. "Now, what do we have here?" he said, reaching toward her cub.
Dhoruba snarled and bared fangs and claws. Rafiki hesitated. It only just now seemed to have occurred to him that he was endangering his life by coming in here. "Look," growled Dhoruba, "but don't touch."
"Of course, of course!" Instantly, the ridiculous smile returned. Rafiki peered down at the cub, then tipped his head to one side and made funny faces. The cub stared with wide, innocent eyes, then smiled back at him. Rafiki nodded. "Good, very good." He looked back at Dhoruba. "Now, what's his name?"
Dhoruba frowned, not wanting to admit that she hadn't actually decided yet. She thought about it for a moment. "His name is Mtanga," she told him, at last.
Rafiki nodded. "Ah, that is a fine name for a rogue." Quickly, he produced a bowl and a gourd from his sack and arranged them on the floor.
"Not that again," moaned Dhoruba.
Ignoring her, Rafiki broke the gourd, then mixed the juice with a handful of sand in the bowl and began mumbling and rocking the bowl back and forth. Suddenly, he peered very closely into the bowl, then recoiled, as if startled by what he had seen in there. He shook a finger at Dhoruba. "This little one is destined for great things," he admonished. "You take good care of him now, you hear?" He swept his stuff up off the ground and back into his bag.
Dhoruba felt uneasy all of a sudden. "Wait!" she shouted as Rafiki hurried off. "What are you talking about? What great things?"
Rafiki poked his head back inside. "Can't stop to talk now! I've got one more cub to do today. Bye!"
And then, he was gone. For a long time, Dhoruba just stared, wondering. Then, she shook her head and laughed. "Creepy little monkey."
Mtanga stretched contentedly, then snuggled against his mother and went back to sleep.
Meanwhile, far to the south of the Pride Lands, a lion was indulging in an afternoon nap.
The lion was a monstrously huge and strong rogue, with dark brown fur and a thick, shaggy, lustrous black mane. Scars from numerous battles crisscrossed his flanks.
He slept in his den, an ancient network of caves hidden behind a small waterfall, deep in the jungle in the heart of the Southlands. The cave was an otherworldly place. Reflections from the water made strange lights dance on the walls, and the sound of the waterfall was constant and curiously soothing. The rogue came here often when he needed to think, or simply to watch the shimmering colors in the curtain of flowing water.
The priders, the lion kings of the central savannah and their followers, called him the King of Clawtip Peak. This was nonsense, of course. One could no more be king over rogues than one could command the mighty River Kube to alter its course.
The rogues of the Southlands, who knew him better and thus feared him more, called him Shadowlurker, and said that he was the mightiest lion of his, or perhaps any other generation. The rogue in question thought that this, too, was nonsense. Death was a greater hunter than any lion ever born in this world. Someday, he knew, his time would come, later if not sooner.
His friends called him simply Janja, for that was his name. Janja had few friends, and it pleased him to keep it that way. Actually, he might have preferred to have none at all, but, as he himself was often heard to say, even a rogue needs a few friends.
Suddenly, a bird flew in, plunging straight through the waterfall. Immediately, Janja's eerie blue eyes flicked open. His deep growl of displeasure echoed ominously in the confined space as the dripping wet bird landed. He sighed, deeply. "Kasuku, you're getting my nice clean sand all muddy again."
Kasuku, a large grey parrot with red markings on his face and tail, spread his wings in disgust and tried to shake himself dry, but mainly succeeded in getting his feathers thoroughly ruffled. "Oh sure!" he squawked. "Make it sound like this is all my fault! This wouldn't happen if you'd tell me where the back entrance is!"
"Why Kasuku," said Janja, with mock astonishment, "are you complaining about that again?" He smiled, exposing a mouth full of nasty, sharp teeth, and flexed the claws on his forepaws. "You know how I hate listening to people complain."
Kasuku gulped. "Uh, no, no Janja. I uh, I needed a bath anyway. Yeah, that's it!" Janja continued to smile. "I like getting wet. Really! Honest!!"
"Good," snapped Janja. He yawned, then got up and padded across the cave to stand staring out at the waterfall, his back to Kasuku. "I trust you have a good reason for bothering me."
Kasuku cleared his throat nervously. "Yeah. I got what you wanted."
Janja looked back at Kasuku, surprised. "Did you, now?"
"I sure did, and you owe me big time for this one, Janja! Sheesh! Six days of tracking her across the savannah, and another whole day to fly all the way back here, for crying out loud!"
Kasuku had Janja's undivided attention now. "Well? Where is she?! Tell me!"
"Ah, ah, ah!" admonished Kasuku. "What about my reward?"
"You'll get what I promised you," snarled Janja. "If I'm satisfied with your answer."
"All right, already! Calm down! She's at Pride Rock."
Janja blinked, genuinely surprised. "Pride Rock? Now why on earth..." He lifted up a paw and scratched his chin, then sat down. "Damn her. I'll never understand that lioness."
Kasuku cleared his throat. "Er, now about my fee..."
Janja glared at him. "Oh, very well." He pondered for a moment. "I believe we had agreed on 'The Tale of Mazimwi Leafchaser and the Sky Demon.'"
"That's the one," said Kasuku, grinning and rubbing his wings together greedily. He found a comfy spot on the sand and settled down.
Janja stared at the waterfall for a long time. "Long ago," he began, "in the second year of the reign of Kitambe son of Kalamka, King of the Kube River Valley, a young rogue came to Clawtip..."
"The sun is shining
The children laughing, playing
Full of dreams to find
They all remind me
Of when I was a little boy
Full of life and pride"
The Great Circle of Life turned, and in the Pride Lands, the rains came, just as they always had.
In his tree house, Rafiki paused and stepped back to admire his latest painting. A lion cub rested in the center, alone on a winding path. To the left, Rafiki had painted a mountain surrounded by a dark jungle. Black lions with glowing eyes lurked there. To the right, there was a lush valley with a river and a waterfall, and brightly colored lions basking in the sun.
"Mtanga," whispered Rafiki. Satisfied, he put the paints away and went to sleep.
Early one morning, in a grassy field not far from Pride Rock, Mtanga sat facing an old, gnarled tree, his eyes tightly closed. "... eighteen, nineteen, twenty!" The dark-furred lion cub opened his eyes and leapt to his feet, bursting with excitement. "Ready or not, here I come!"
Eagerly, Mtanga scanned the area, but he could see no trace of Simba or Nala. Frustrated, he dashed back and forth across the field, poking his nose in every hiding place he could think of, but still he found nothing. He began to wonder if the field was really empty, and the other cubs far, far away, laughing at the cruel trick they had played.
And then, almost by accident, he did see something. Right in front of him, there was a cub's paw print, freshly imprinted in a patch of muddy ground. He wasn't sure how, but it knew the print had to be Nala's. He grinned, then, a big mischievous lopsided grin. Almost without thinking, he began to stalk Nala's trail, noting a bent blade of grass here, and another print there, creeping ever closer, making hardly a sound, until...
There! Nala was behind that rock, he was sure of it! With a great snarl, he sprang over the rock, landing smack on top of the utterly surprised lioness cub. They thrashed, pawed at each other, tumbled end over end, and suddenly, with a great thump, Mtanga pinned her. "Gotcha!" he cried. Then he courteously stepped aside so she could get up.
"Whoa!" exclaimed Nala, clearly impressed. She stared at him in awe. "How'd you do that?"
Mtanga beamed with pride. "It's easy. My mom showed me how."
"I wish my mom would teach me cool tricks like that." Suddenly, Nala smiled innocently. "Betcha can't do that again!"
"Betcha I can!" retorted Mtanga.
Halfway across the field, Simba looked out from behind an old hollow log. "Hey! Isn't anybody looking for me?"
Nala and Mtanga grinned at each other, then tore across the field after him. Soon, a frantic three-way cub wrestling match was in progress.
The advance group of the hunting party was almost home, making their way slowly but steadily through the tall savannah grass. Pride Rock towered high into the clear blue morning sky, its shadow looming across half of the plain. Even Dhoruba couldn't deny that the sight was impressive.
The rest of the hunting party probably wouldn't return until nearly noon. After all, it was their job to drag the kills back to Pride Rock--six wildebeests in all. It had been a very good night.
Dhoruba felt a touch of pride, thinking about that. If she hadn't anticipated the herd's direction of flight, the hunting party would have only gotten one or two at the most. The irony of it. Once again, her skills had made the difference between the pride being well fed and going hungry. How in the world had they managed without her?
As was her custom, Dhoruba walked a little apart from the others. Sarabi lead the way, of course. Dhoruba didn't mind her. Sarabi knew darn well that Dhoruba was the best hunter in the pride, and she was smart enough to use Dhoruba to best advantage by giving her the key position in ambushes and taking her advice on difficult hunts. She didn't trust Dhoruba around Simba, of course, but other than that they got along just fine.
Most of the other lionesses got real uncomfortable, or found other places to be when Dhoruba was around. That suited her just fine. The fewer attachments she had here when Mtanga was old enough for them to leave, the better.
"Hey, Dhoruba!" called Nyota, trotting up beside her.
Of course, thought Dhoruba, there just would have to be at least one idiot around who didn't have sense enough to keep her distance. She sighed. "Yeah?"
"That was really amazing, the way you cut off the herd like that."
"It was nothing."
"Really, I mean it," insisted Nyota. "I've never seen anything like that."
"Don't take this the wrong way, kid, but if that's the best you've ever seen, then you need to get out more. Now, back home, I knew a rogue named Mwuaji, lairs near Riverbend. He's a hunter, if there ever was one. Last I heard, he hadn't missed a kill in two and a half years." Dhoruba grinned wryly. "He brags about it every chance he gets, too. Of course, any rogue who can keep herself fed can hunt rings around any prider."
Nyota frowned. "What you mean?" she asked. "Sarabi and Sarafina are pretty good hunters, aren't they? What's so different about rogues?"
Dhoruba felt a flush of anger. "Girl, you don't appreciate just how easy you priders have it. If one of you misses your kill, it doesn't matter. Somebody else takes up the slack. When you're a rogue, you got no one to depend on but yourself. If you don't kill, you don't eat. You figure it out."
Nyota seemed disturbed. "I... I never thought about it that way."
"Hey, I'll admit it's a hard life. But some of us wouldn't have it any other way." Looking ahead, Dhoruba saw that they were almost at Pride Rock. "Excuse me. I've got a cub to check on." Without waiting for a reply, Dhoruba left the hunting party and headed for the low hills nearby.
When Dhoruba reached her den, she found it completely and unexpectedly empty. Her anguished roar caused an entire flock of birds to take flight.
Dhoruba did a fast, but thorough search of the den and the surrounding terrain, but Mtanga was nowhere to be found. "Crud!" she snarled in frustration. "All right, girl," she told herself anxiously, "don't panic. Think, where could he be?"
Mtanga had been gone for hours. Tracking his trail through the savannah grass would be a long and difficult task, and probably wouldn't work anyway, so that was out. She was going to need help. Gritting her teeth, she sprinted immediately to Pride Rock.
As she approached the communal den, Dhoruba was grateful to note that few of the off-duty lionesses were yet up and about to see her in such a state. Better still, the pride's majordomo was perched in a nearby tree, observing things. Just the hornbill she needed to see.
"Hey, birdbrain!" she called.
Zazu turned around and glared down at her, the very picture of offended dignity. "For the last time, madam, my name is Zazu! Not birdbrain, banana-beak, feather-head, dodo, or any of your other wretchedly colorful appellations! Of all the confounded, disrespectful..."
"I can't find Mtanga," snarled Dhoruba. "Have you seen him today?"
"Actually, no." Zazu pondered for a moment. "Perhaps you should check the field on the east side. Simba and Nala like to play there."
"Good idea," said Dhoruba. "Thanks, feather-head." She turned and bounded away.
"That tears it!" grumbled Zazu, as Dhoruba sped off. "Mufasa's going to hear about this."
As Dhoruba galloped eastward around the bulk of Pride Rock, she quickly found herself becoming furious, furious with herself, with Mtanga, with the priders, and pretty much with the world in general. Suddenly, Dhoruba's thoughts were interrupted by a faint, but unmistakable sound in the distance: cubs laughing and playing. Immediately, she dropped from a run to a stalking posture. Crouching low in the grass, she slipped silently forward, until at last she stopped behind a large boulder, behind which she could hide and watch unseen.
There they were, down in the valley below, all three of them. Soundlessly, she breathed a deep sigh of relief. Here she had been, worried sick, and Simba, Nala, and Mtanga were enjoying a game of hide and seek. As she watched them play, her eyes grew wide with astonishment. "Why, that little rascal," she whispered, smiling despite herself. Mtanga had already discovered how to apply her hunting lessons to his play. Perhaps she had been too hard on him, after all.
Now that she knew her cub was safe, Dhoruba's mind quickly turned to other matters. Why, for instance, were the cubs out here alone, completely unguarded? Surely, the priders knew that the hills just outside the Pride Lands were full of hyenas, cheetahs, and Ancestors knew what else. The watch on the outer boundary was good, but hardly foolproof.
Well then, she thought, if the priders couldn't be bothered to protect their cubs, then that was just one more thing she'd have to do for herself.
Dhoruba considered her options, then settled down to watch and wait. Mtanga had still earned himself a good talking to, but that could wait. No sense in interrupting a good practice.
Dhoruba didn't even have time to settle down properly before she was started by a rustle in the grass behind her. She spun around and found Scar standing there, looking vaguely thoughtful. "Mind if I join you?" he asked.
Dhoruba minded very much, thank you, but Scar proceeded to crouch down nearby, without waiting for an answer. She frowned, uncertainly. Usually, Scar was even more reclusive and unsociable than Dhoruba herself. In fact, she couldn't remember having seen him up close even once since the day she had joined the pride.
Of course, any lioness might feel uncomfortable, being this close to a lion like Scar. With his thin aristocratic features, dark brown fur, and that rakish scar, he was actually quite handsome, in a creepy sort of way. If she didn't have a cub to look after... Quickly she pushed that thought out of her head. That kind of entanglement was the absolute last thing she needed, just now.
Scar leaned to one side and peered around the rock at the cubs. "My, now doesn't this bring back old memories."
Confused, Dhoruba took another look herself. Golden-furred cub and brown-furred cub, innocently playing together, without a care in the world. Scar and Mufasa. Oh. She looked back at Scar. "Are you sure Mufasa's your brother?"
Scar sighed. "Let's just say, I take after our mother."
"I see." Just what was Scar's job around here, Dhoruba found herself wondering. Mufasa never delegated to him, at least she that she'd ever seen. She knew he wasn't on the schedule for the hunt or the border watch. He apparently contributed nothing to the pride, and yet no one challenged his right to stay. By the Ancestors, he was a puzzle!
"Forgive me, but..." Dhoruba hesitated.
"Never mind. It's none of my business."
Scar gave her his most charming smile. "Oh, do go on. I can tell that you won't rest until you've satisfied your curiosity."
Crud, she thought. Scar was good at this, and worse, he was absolutely right. Dhoruba took a deep breath. "I was told that prides always exiled their male cubs when they came of age. Except for the king's firstborn, of course."
"Oh yes, now there's a sad, sad story." Scar grinned ruefully. "I had such grand plans, once," he said, quietly. "You have no idea what it's like, growing up unneeded, unwanted, cast out into a cruel, uncaring world like leftover scraps fit only for hyenas. Oh, how I was going to make them regret the way they'd treated me. I was going to show them all. And so, like any good second son, I journeyed to the Southlands to seek my fortune."
"Obviously, it didn't work out," said Dhoruba, cautiously. It was so eerie, she thought, the way he could put so much venom into his voice, while speaking barely above a whisper. And that haunted look in his emerald green eyes...
"It started well enough at first." Scar hesitated, then went on. "But, alas, as always, I never even had a chance. I made a mistake. I broke... a rule. Just a small, trivial thing, hardly of any consequence, but the rogue leader chose to make an example out of me. I was dragged before an assembly of every rogue in the area. He humiliated me in front of everyone, beat me to within an inch of my life! And then, when he had broken me utterly, he banished me from the Southlands forever." Scar shivered. "It's a wonder I made it back here alive. If Mufasa hadn't taken me in..."
"I... I'm sorry," said Dhoruba.
Scar grew suddenly and furiously angry. "I don't need your pity!"
"Well it sure sounded to me like you were asking for some." Something wasn't quite right with Scar's story. Janja would never do a thing like that. And then, suddenly, Dhoruba's gut turned to ice. "Bloodpaw," she whispered, horrified.
Scar stiffened, then looked at her, incredulous. "What did you say?!"
"You had a run in with Mauti Bloodpaw, didn't you?"
"Who told you? How could you know that?!"
"It doesn't matter." Dhoruba took a deep breath and tried to get a grip on herself. "Look, Scar, you're right. You got a bum deal. Bloodpaw was a sick, sadistic bastard. Believe me, most rogues aren't like that." Dhoruba shuddered. "He's dead now. Janja Shadowlurker killed him years ago, and good riddance."
"Well," said Scar. "This is all very fascinating, but I fail to see what good it does me now."
"Don't you see?" said Dhoruba, compassionately. "You're wasting your life here, Scar. There's no future for you at Pride Rock. You've got to get out, make your own life, your own opportunities! Stop living on your brother's charity and go make something of yourself! It's not too late for your dream, Scar."
Scar nodded, thoughtfully. "An interesting proposition. But, I fear I must disagree with you on one small point." He leaned closer to her. "You see, my dear, I believe that there is a future for me, here at Pride Rock."
What was he talking about, thought Dhoruba for moment. Then, realization dawned. "You want to be king of Pride Rock? That's crazy!"
"Is it, now? Think about it! Are you so sure?"
"Mufasa may be soft-hearted sometimes, but he's not stupid. You wouldn't stand a chance against him."
"Not without help," said Scar. He smiled, teeth bared. "You could help me, Dhoruba."
"Forget it, Scar," snapped Dhoruba. "I promised I'd serve Mufasa, and that's just what I'm going to do."
"Oh, come now. I sure I could make it worth your while, once I was king."
By now, Dhoruba had had just about as much of this as she could stand. "You listen up, Scar, and you listen good! I don't give a damn who rules this place. I'm here to raise a cub, and after I'm gone the Pride Lands can rot and burn for all I care. But so help me, if you start some fool coup that puts me or my son in danger, you will need my pity, and that's a promise!"
"I didn't mean..." Scar hung his head. "Forgive me. You're perfectly right, of course. What was I thinking? My ambition isn't worth the risk of anyone else's life." He smiled again. "Thank you, my dear. You've given me a great deal to think about."
"Let's hope so," said Dhoruba, "for your sake." Just who did he think he was fooling? As if she'd never seen lions plotting to stab each other in the back over a choice territory, or the affections of a lioness, or some other fool thing, even when there was plenty to go around for everyone. Males! What was it with them?!
Still Scar was probably harmless. What could he possibly do? Nevertheless, Dhoruba made a mental note to keep a close eye on him in the future.
Meanwhile, Scar stood, nodded courteously, then turned to go. He paused, looked over his shoulder back at her. "You know, we really ought to talk again sometime. It's quite refreshing to meet someone who knows so precisely just what her priorities are." He strode away, as quietly as he had come.
Now just why did that give her the creeps? Shrugging, Dhoruba turned her attention back to the cubs.
"No one saying do this
No one saying be there
No one saying stop that
No one saying see here."
--I Just Can't
Wait to Be King
Down in the east field, the wrestling match had eventually given way to a pouncing contest, followed by a race, then a game of king of the mountain, and now, three exhausted, but very happy lion cubs were lying on the grass, enjoying the cool breeze and the big, puffy white clouds drifting across the wide blue sky.
"That was great!" gasped Simba, still breathing hard from all that running around.
"Yeah," agreed Mtanga. He hadn't had this much fun since, well, ever as far as he could remember. He sighed contentedly. It sure beat being cooped up back home all day, or sitting through yet another of mom's boring old lectures.
"Hey Mtanga," asked Nala, "how come you don't come out to play with us more often?"
Mtanga frowned. "It's my mom," he replied, frustrated. "She doesn't like me being out alone." Suddenly, he felt a twinge of guilt. "You know, maybe I'd better be getting back home..."
"Aw, come on!" exclaimed Simba, clearly unconcerned. "There's nothing to worry about! Your mom's out with the hunting party, and they won't be back for hours. She'll never know."
Nala didn't look quite so confident, but she shrugged and added, "I don't see what the big deal is. Simba and me can go anyplace we want, as long as we stay in the safe area near Pride Rock. What's wrong with you being out here too?"
Mtanga shook his head. "You don't know my mom." Something was bothering him. He had, all of a sudden, the strangest feeling that he was being watched. Never ignore your instincts, his mom had told him at least a thousand times, so, not quite sure what he was looking for, he let his gaze drift upwards, to the slopes of Pride Rock in the distance.
And then he gasped in horror and his ears drooped. Without thinking he sprang to his feet and took a few steps back.
Simba and Nala sat up, alarmed. "What wrong?" asked Simba, confused.
"Up there!" exclaimed Mtanga. "On those cliffs!"
They turned around and looked. "I don't see anything," said Nala.
It was gone now, but Mtanga was sure he seen something. No, not just something, he thought, gulping. "There's a lioness up there, watching us," he stammered. If that was who he thought it was... "I... I'm sorry, I really have to go!"
Simba and Nala just stared, bewildered as Mtanga turned and ran away, heading for home. "He's so weird," remarked Nala.
Up in the cliffs, Dhoruba blinked in surprise. "The kid's good," she remarked to herself. Then, she was gone, racing for her den as quickly and silently as the wind.
At first, Mtanga ran so hard that he got lost, and had to stop, gasping and all out of breath so he could figure out where he was.
It wasn't long before he started feeling pretty silly. That couldn't have been his mom up on the cliff, he thought. He'd just gotten scared and mixed up real and pretend, like the time he'd seen Nyota's shadow late one evening, and thought it was a big scary cheetah come to eat him up.
He was feeling almost confident by the time he rounded the last bend and found his mom, just sitting there in the entrance to their den, waiting for him. He gasped, terrified.
"Hello there, Mtanga," said Dhoruba. Her tone was casual, but her voice had a dangerous, cold edge. "Did you have a good time with Simba and Nala this morning?"
"You know about that?" said Mtanga, trembling. He didn't even consider trying to lie his way out of it. One time when he had been littler, he had told mom an outright lie. When she found out, she'd gotten really mad and cuffed him. She'd never done it again, but it still scared him, just thinking about it.
"I know about a lot of things." His mom leaned closer, looming over him. "Like for instance, you aren't supposed to go wandering off and leaving me not knowing where you are!"
"I... I'm sorry. I..."
"I was worried sick, running around looking for you!" she said, her words full of anger and hurt. "Didn't that even once cross your mind while you were off having fun?!"
Mtanga blinked, trying not to cry. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I... I didn't have anything to do and Simba came and asked if I wanted to come play with him and Nala, and..."
"I see," said Dhoruba, calmly. "So, this is all Simba's fault. Is that what you're saying, Mtanga?"
Mtanga almost said yes, then hesitated, suspicious. Oh no, he thought! His mom was giving him that look again. The one that meant that there was a right answer and a wrong answer, and if he told her the wrong answer she'd be Very Disappointed in him. In it's own way, that hurt almost as much as getting cuffed, even if mom never laid a paw on him.
He thought and thought and thought, trying to figure out what he was supposed to say. And suddenly, with a sinking feeling, he realized what it was. It wasn't fair! Why did the right answer always have to be the hardest one?
Mtanga hung his head. "No, it was my fault," he admitted, ashamed. "I should have waited and asked you first." He closed his eyes and cringed, expecting to be yelled at, or worse.
"Mtanga," said his mom quietly, "I'm proud of you."
He opened his eyes again, hesitantly, and looked up at her. She was smiling at him! "You... you are? You're not mad at me?"
Gently, Dhoruba rubbed the top of his head with a big paw. "I'm still not happy about what you did, Mtanga," she said softly, "but after you messed up, you were brave enough to take responsibility for what you did, and for that I'm very, very proud of you."
Mtanga was flooded with relief, proud that he'd made mom happy, but still... Suddenly, he started to sob, and pulled away from her. "It's not fair! Simba and Nala get to do whatever they want, but I never get to do anything!"
Dhoruba sighed. "So, that's what this is all about. You think you're ready to do stuff on your own and take care of yourself and make your own friends." A wry grin. "That's an awful big responsibility for a little cub like you."
There was that big word again, thought Mtanga, curious. "Responsibility," he echoed, stumbling over the pronunciation. "What's that?"
"Responsibility is stuff you have to do, whether you want to or not," said his mom, in her lecturing tone. "A responsible rogue always takes care of business first, so he'll have time to play later."
"But, I thought rogues could do whatever they want," said Mtanga, confused.
Dhoruba laughed. "It's not that simple, Mtanga. Nothing worth anything ever is." She thought for a moment. "I tell you what, kid. You show me that you can learn everything a good rogue's gotta know, and be responsible without me looking over your shoulder all the time, and I'll cut you some slack on the rules and let you go out by yourself more. Deal?"
"Deal!" exclaimed Mtanga. He purred and rubbed against his mom.
His mom smiled warmly, then yawned and stretched. "Good. Now I've been out hunting all night and I need some sleep. You'd better get some, too, Mtanga." For just a moment, Dhoruba glanced at bright world outside their den, and her red eyes glimmered in the sunlight. "Your first lesson starts tonight."
Late that afternoon, in the Southlands, a rogue lion arose, left his den, and headed out into the jungle.
To a casual observer, the lion would have been all but invisible as he made his way through the vast, dense jungle that was his home. There were no casual observers here, though. Wherever he passed, birds paused in their songs and small animals froze and held their breath, caught by a terror they could sense but not see. The predators took note and stayed well out of his path, even the other lions. Only the constant drip of moisture from vegetation and the distant roar of the River Kube continued unceasingly. These, at least, had nothing to fear from Janja Shadowlurker, leader of the lion rogues of the Southlands.
On this particular evening, Janja's destination was a small clearing near the Kube River Falls. It would have been quite unremarkable, if not for fact that Janja and his faithful used it as a regular meeting place.
On those irregular occasions when Janja had a general meeting, the clearing became quite crowded, but tonight, the place was empty except for Kasuku the parrot, who was perched on the big flat-topped rock in the middle of the clearing, fidgeting impatiently.
Kasuku perked up immediately when he saw Janja arrive. "Hey, Janja, can we make this quick?" His feathers puffed up proudly. "I," he declared, with a grandiose flourishing of his wings, "am booked to perform in the Gathering Place at sunset."
"Really?" remarked Janja, as he sat down facing Kasuku. The Gathering Place, of course, was a large bowl-shaped valley located in the western foothills of Clawtip Peak. Bards from all over the known world came there to tell their stories, and put on their plays and dramas. Many of the permanent associations of the jungle, including the lion rogues, also held their monthly meetings there. It took a whole family of hornbills working full time to keep the schedule straight, and there were few times on that schedule more prized than the coveted sunset slot.
"You better believe it," crooned Kasuku. "I tell ya, Janja, tonight, I am ready! I am inspired! I am going to tell 'The Rise of Mwasi Thunderstroke' like they've never heard it before!"
Janja flashed a wicked, toothy grin. "That bad, eh?"
Kasuku winced. "Ooh," he shrieked, "tough talk for a guy had hasn't given a public performance in two years! You think you can tell it better than me, huh!? Well, just say the word and you got yourself a story telling contest, just you and me and we'll see who's better!"
Janja frowned, suddenly troubled. "You know I haven't got time for that any more. Besides, it wouldn't be proper."
"Proper? Proper!!?" Kasuku sighed. "I just don't get you, Janja. You could've been one of the best. I mean, come on! You've got all your dad's best material, and talent most bards would kill for. But nooo!" he sneered. "It all goes to waste cause you're too busy playing King of the Jungle!"
"I didn't come here to talk over old times!" snarled Janja. The huge, dark-furred lion took a few deep breaths, then continued, more calmly. "I need another favor."
Kasuku settled down. "A favor, huh?" He scratched his head with one wing. "Must be important. You haven't asked me for one of those since..." Suddenly, Kasuku recoiled, and a couple loose feathers went flying. "Oh no! Not that Pride Lands thing again!"
"Yes, as a matter of fact," drawled Janja. "I really need you to check up on Dhoruba again. Discreetly, of course."
"What do I look like, your majordomo or something?!!" squawked Kasuku, frantically gesturing with his wings. "The answer is no! N .. O .. NO! I hate it up there!"
"Kasuku..." growled Janja, his claws flexing.
"It's too hot and dry and the blasted sun shines all day, and it's too far away, and the place is crawling with hyenas!" Kasuku cringed. "I hate hyenas!"
"I can make it worth your while," remarked Janja, casually.
"Hello!?" shrieked Kasuku. "That mane getting in your ears, big guy?! I said no! What part of no don't you understand? I'm not going to the Pride Lands, and that's that!"
Janja grinned slyly. "Not even for the original version of 'The Sons of Kube Fireheart?'"
Kasuku wound himself up for another scathing outburst, then suddenly stopped, his beak hanging open. "You know that one?" he managed to croak, in an awed whisper.
Kasuku flapped down from his peak and walked right up to Janja. "The lost third act, too?!"
"Every word," said Janja, gesturing with a forepaw. He leaned down so that he was nose to beak with Kasuku. "Oh, and you're not to tell this particular story to anyone else, understand? If I ever even suspect you of spreading it around behind my back..." Janja clicked his teeth ominously.
Kasuku seemed torn. He waddled around in a small circle, pondering, then sighed. "I'm gonna hate myself in the morning, but you've got yourself a deal, Janja. I'll leave first thing tomorrow, okay?"
"Fine," said Janja. Kasuku nodded, then flapped his wings and flew away.
And the spirit of life
And a voice
With the fear of a child
--He Lives in You
Late that night, when the evening's fiery sunset had long since ended and the inside of their den had grown dark and still, Dhoruba gently nudged Mtanga awake.
Mtanga stretched and yawned. "Too early," he moaned, groggily. "Just another couple minutes." He turned over and buried his face under his paws, trying to go back to sleep.
"Mtanga," whispered Dhoruba, "get up. It's time for your lesson."
Mtanga blinked slowly. "It is?" Suddenly, his eyes opened wide. "Really!?" he exclaimed, springing to his feet, and then it was "Hurry up, mom!" and "What's taking so long?" until Dhoruba had finished her wake-up stretches. Satisfied that everything was in order, she nodded, and together they left the den and emerged into the night.
Outside, Dhoruba shivered and cursed under her breath. A strong breeze was blowing tonight, ruffling her fur, and the stones felt icy cold beneath her paws. How did the priders stand it? In the jungle, the air was always comfortably warm and wet, even at night. You never saw much of the stars, except when you climbed up to a high place or went out to the Fringe. Here, though...
Here, the heavens were laid bare, from horizon to horizon, and the void sparkled with more stars than a lion could count in a lifetime. The crescent moon, still high in the western sky, hardly dimmed them at all. Dhoruba shivered again, and not from the cold this time. When she'd been a just a little cub Mtanga's age, her mother had always told her the Ancestors lived up there. No wonder she felt uncomfortable.
Mtanga, on the other paw, didn't seem bothered in the least. The savannah is the only thing he's ever known, Dhoruba suddenly realized. What would he make of the Southlands when they went back home?
Well, that couldn't be helped now. Dhoruba glanced around to get her bearings, then silently motioned to Mtanga and headed south, setting a steady relaxed pace. Mtanga eagerly trotted along beside her. Occasionally, he would dart to one side to check out a chirping insect, or a strange plant, or some other newly discovered wonder.
Dhoruba sighed. She'd worked so hard to prepare and teach her son, and still he seemed so small, so innocent and helpless in a big cruel world where death was easy and indiscriminate. As a hunter, Dhoruba knew death all too well. One little accident, one swipe of a predator's paw, and her precious son would be gone forever. And the future was a terror greater still...
Now was as good a time as any, she supposed. "Mtanga," she began, as they continued walking, "you remember this afternoon, when you asked me why rogues couldn't do anything they wanted?"
"Yeah?" Suddenly, Mtanga was close by her side, his ears perked up and all the wonders of the night forgotten.
"Well, in a perfect world, we could," said Dhoruba, looking her son right in the eyes. "Everybody could do whatever they pleased, and we wouldn't need any kings, or laws or leaders or anything like that. Trouble is, in real life things just don't work that way. When there's no rules, there's no responsibility, and when people don't take responsibility for what they do, they can do terrible, cruel things. Folks hurt each other just because they can, and nobody's safe, anytime or anywhere. You see, Mtanga? We just can't live without responsibility."
Mtanga frowned, trying to digest all that. "So responsibility's good, right?"
"I didn't say it was good," answered Dhoruba, sharply. "I said it was necessary. Look, a responsibility is something that you have to do whether you want to or not, right?"
"So, every responsibility you accept takes away from your freedom to do the things you want to do. Too many responsibilities, and pretty soon you can't even get up in the morning without asking somebody permission. Take Mufasa for example. How much freedom do you think he has?"
"King Mufasa? Whoa, I bet he can really do anything he wants!"
"Wrong. Think about it, kid. Because he's the king, Mufasa's responsible for every member of the pride. Suppose he wanted to take a day off, go hunting in the hills or spend some time alone with Sarabi or something. He can't do that, you see. The pride needs him here, every minute of every day, and it would be wrong for him to ignore that. Whenever anybody in the pride has a problem, it's his problem too. What's the use of all that power if you have to spend all your time worrying about what other people need, and not what you want?"
"Wow." Mtanga was quiet for a moment. "I guess I never thought about it that way."
Dhoruba smiled. "Right. Now do you see now why real rogues live the way they do? When you can survive on your own without anybody else's help, when you can mind your own business and trust other people to mind theirs, that's the only way you can really be free."
Far to the north, in a cleverly hidden cave on the edge of the elephant graveyard, an old black-furred baboon was stirring.
Poking his head out of the entrance to his home, he glanced furtively this way and that to make sure that no one was about. Then, he padded outside. Almost at once he hissed, teeth bared, and raised a hand to shade his eyes from the light of the moon and stars.
And then he smiled strangely, laughing to himself. Leaning heavily on his stick, an ancient gnarled wooden thing topped with a bird's skull and three red feathers, he walked the worn path that led down the hill. The valley around him was murky grey nightmare of sharp rocks and sun-bleached bones, but if it bothered him in any way, he gave no sign.
At the bottom of the slope lay a shallow pool of brackish water. Here, the baboon drew a crudely made bowl from the sack slung over his shoulder, then stooped down and filled it. He squinted at the water with his one good eye, then nodded to himself and sat down in the dust, cradling the bowl in one hand.
Muttering softly to himself, the baboon dipped a finger in the water and swirled it around a bit. When he stopped, the water no longer reflected the stars, but somewhere else entirely, a dark cave where a thin, black-maned lion slept fitfully.
Moving ever so carefully to avoid spilling the water, the baboon scooped up a handful of sand and began to sift it into the bowl. "Remember, Taka," he whispered. "Remember!" In the tiny image on the water's surface, the lion began to writhe and toss in his sleep, moaning as if he were in terrible pain.
The baboon just threw back his head and laughed and laughed and laughed.
Afterwards, mother and son walked in silence for a time. Mtanga trudged along, lost in thought, while Dhoruba kept alert for trouble. Eventually, Dhoruba found the distinctive line of trees that she'd been looking for, visible only as shadows against the slightly brighter night sky. "We're here, Mtanga," she announced, stopping at the top of the next hill. "This is the south border of the Pride Lands."
Mtanga blinked, as if he had just woken. "It is?" Cautiously, he crept forward and stared southward with wide eyes, even though there was nothing to see in the pitch darkness. He seemed a bit disappointed. "You mean, that's the Southlands?"
Dhoruba smiled warmly and laughed. "No, Mtanga, it's further than that."
"You mean, over the next hill?"
"Way further than that. You'd have to keep walking for days and days before you got anywhere near the jungle."
"Whoa..." He looked back up at her. "And that where we're going to go someday?"
"That's right. Just you and me, Mtanga."
Mtanga considered this, frowning. "But, what about Simba and Nala and everybody else? Are they coming too?"
Dhoruba scowled. "No, Mtanga. They have to stay here. The Pride Lands is their home."
"But, if we go away, and they have to stay here," protested Mtanga, "I'll never see Simba and Nala again. How come we have to leave?"
"Weren't you listening when I told you about rogues and how rogues have to be free? The Southlands is our home. There's no place for us here."
Mtanga sighed and looked down at the cold, dusty ground. "It's not fair!" he declared.
"Life's not fair, kid. Get used to it."
"But that's just the way it is. You should have thought about that before you made friends with them." Dhoruba sat down beside her pouting son and stroked his fur gently with a paw. "Friendship is a big responsibility, too, you know."
"Figures," said Mtanga, dejectedly. He looked into her eyes, his curiosity aroused again. "How come being friends is a responsibility?"
"Because it's a commitment, Mtanga, even stronger than the one between lions in a pride. When you make someone your friend, you're responsible for them, and they're responsible for you. When your friend's in trouble and you aren't there for them, it's like you made them a promise then broke it. Making friends isn't bad, you understand. You just have to know what you're getting into ahead of time."
Mtanga had that puzzled, thoughtful look again. "So, can I still be friends with Simba and Nala?" he asked, hopefully.
"Of course you can. Even a rogue needs a few friends."
Her sudden unease must have shown on her face, because Mtanga asked, "Mom? Mom, what's the matter?"
"It's nothing." Liar, she thought bitterly. Oh, Janja, what have I done? Can you ever forgive me? Damn it, why did the right thing to do always have to be the hardest choice?
Dhoruba sighed. "Come on, Mtanga. We've got lots more to see tonight." She turned resolutely northward, and continued on her way, with her son following close behind.
Back at the elephant graveyard, three tired and cranky hyenas were standing on a high ridge, glaring down at the madly laughing baboon.
"And I thought Ed was bad," said Shenzi.
"Man," snarled Banzai, "that's the third time this month! I say we go down there and shut him up!"
"Muhr eek muh ooo me mah!" agreed Ed, nodding vigorously.
By this time, the laughter had died down, only to be replaced by a rhyming nonsense song. Annoying didn't even begin to describe it. The hyenas shared a pained expression.
"So, go tell him already, dung for brains!" said Shenzi to Banzai.
"Ain't no way I'm going down there first!" Shenzi scowled and massaged the top of her head with a paw. "I'm still sore from the last time. You go."
"Oh no, not me!" griped Banzai.
Shenzi and Banzai looked at each other, then at Ed, rather pointedly. Confused, Ed slowly followed their gaze, then recoiled. "Uh meh ugh ee mah moh!" he protested, terrified.
"Oh come on, you big baby," sneered Banzai. "It's just a monkey with a stick."
"Yeah," urged Shenzi. "He won't hurt you."
"Much," added Banzai. He blinked. "Hey, come back here!" But it was too late. Ed had taken off like a shot and was already gone.
Shenzi sighed, disgusted. "So what do we now? Go home and stuff grass in our ears?"
"Sounds like a plan to me," said Banzai.
As the hyenas slunk away, the baboon fell silent for a moment, then burst into fresh gales of laughter.
Dhoruba spent what was left of the night leading Mtanga on a meandering tour of the Pride Lands. They drank at the water hole and watched the moon's reflection dancing in the waves. They peered down into the jagged gorge near the western border and saw the enormous wildebeest herds, gathered to sleep for the night. After a pause to avoid the border patrol, they proceeded northeast, passing Rafiki's tree and foothills of Savannah Ridge on the way.
By the time they reached the far northern border, the moon had set, and the eastern sky was brightening with the coming dawn. Mtanga was getting tired, cranky, and footsore, so they stopped for a short rest.
"Okay, Mtanga," said Dhoruba, while they were catching their breath. "Tell me the Rogue Philosophy again."
"Again? How many times do I have to say that stupid thing?"
"Until you can say it back to me word for word without any help, just like I had to learn it for my mom way back when I was a little cub just like you."
Mtanga rolled his eyes. "Oh, all right." He took a deep breath. "Only when we can stand alone can we truly be free."
Dhoruba nodded. "And how do we do that?"
"Um... Don't meddle in other people's business, and they won't meddle in yours?"
"Never make... uh... make a..."
"Promise," prompted Dhoruba.
"Never make a promise you aren't serious about keeping!"
Mtanga frowned in concentration, then declared, "Never call someone your friend unless, uh, unless you care enough to stand by them, no matter what! Hah! I remembered that one all by myself this time!"
"Very good!" praised Dhoruba. "Last one?"
"Um, never, uh... Crud, I forgot."
Dhoruba raised an eyebrow. Now, where had he picked that up? "Never, ever, tell someone you love them unless you're willing to die for them."
"Eeeww." Mtanga made a face, then grinned adorably. "I bet I don't have any trouble keeping that one!"
"Tell me that again in a couple years," muttered Dhoruba.
"Huh? I don't understand."
"Later." Sigh. If Mtanga turned out half as good looking as his father, he'd have lionesses tripping over each other to help him figure it out. His father...
Mtanga nudged her foreleg with a paw. "Mom," he asked, yawning, "are we going home soon?"
Dhoruba blinked. Crud, she thought, realizing that her mind had been wandering again. The northern border was no place for daydreams! "Yeah. There's just one more thing I want to show you first." She looked meaningfully toward the north. "Mtanga, do you see that grey ridge in the distance?"
Mtanga stared. "Yeah, kind of," he said, frowning. Dawn wasn't far off, but it was still pretty dark.
"That ridge is the border, kid. The elephant graveyard is right on the other side of there."
Mtanga gasped, his ears drooping, then ducked behind her to hide. "It... it is?" he asked, poking his head out.
"That's right," answered Dhoruba. "And do you remember what I told you about the elephant graveyard?"
"Never, ever go there," stammered Mtanga, "cause it's full of big nasty hyenas." He seemed torn between fascination and terror. "Mom, are we going to go see a hyena?"
"No," said Dhoruba firmly. "Not this time."
Mtanga breathed a big sigh of relief. Just then, his ear twitched, and he looked over his right shoulder. "Hey, I wonder who that is?"
Dhoruba heard the soft footfalls in the grass herself a moment later. Someone was coming! "Get down!" she hissed, dropping low to the grass. Thank the Ancestors that Mtanga had sense enough to do the same, without a single question or complaint. No reason to think that the newcomer might be trouble yet, but it never hurt to be sure. Whatever it was, it wasn't the border patrol, not unless something was seriously wrong. According to the schedule, they ought to be back at Pride Rock right now, changing shifts.
Something big was coming toward them, from the south. Dhoruba squinted, but it was hard to make out in the low light. The newcomer was a lion, she reasoned, by the walk. Male, she realized, picking out the mane. This could get interesting. Deadly interesting. Damn, she thought. She couldn't afford any mistakes now, not with Mtanga here!
The other lion passed by on their right without stopping, or noticing them. Dhoruba only saw him silhouetted against the flame-red eastern sky for a moment, but for her, that was more than enough.
Dhoruba waited until the other lion was long gone before she dared sit up.
"Mom?" asked Mtanga, not understanding, but quite plainly scared. "Was that another rogue?"
"No," said Dhoruba, grimly. "That was Scar." Mtanga just gave her a blank look. "Scar, the king's brother. Remember?"
"But he went right into hyena territory, like he wasn't afraid or nothing! I don't get it."
"I don't either, Mtanga. But I'm sure he's up to no good." Dhoruba sighed heavily. "Come on. Let's go home."
When Scar found the old baboon, he was still sitting in the midst of the desolation of the elephant graveyard, amusing himself by drawing shapes in the dust with a finger. Scar cleared his throat and waited impatiently.
Taking his time, the baboon grasped his stick, then got to his feet, slowly and painfully by the look of it. "Ah, Taka, old friend," he exclaimed cheerfully. "It has been too long! What is it that brings you out here to see old Mkorofi, eh?"
Scar frowned at the sound of his true name, but did not object. "As much as it pains me to admit this, I need your help, old one."
"Of course, anything you need. Go on, go on!"
Scar hesitated. "I have a plan," he said in a hushed voice, "to depose my wretched brother and seize the throne of Pride Rock for myself. But I need allies."
Mkorofi shrugged. "So? What are standing around here whining for? Go and get some!"
"Do you think I haven't tried!?" snarled Scar. He shook his head angrily. "I've approached a few of the lionesses quietly, but none of them has the courage to support me over Mufasa. People are getting suspicious. I dare not risk asking anyone else from the pride. With your resources, perhaps I could contact the cheetahs, or a local coalition..."
"Oh, I've got much better then that!" The old baboon grinned. "The hyenas," he whispered, ominously.
Scar recoiled. "You're mad!"
"Am I?" exclaimed Mkorofi, gesturing wildly. "Think about it! The hyenas are here, all around us, hundreds of them! Your own army, to use and discard as you please!"
Scar's face lit up with a malevolent expression. "I must admit," he mused, stroking his chin with a paw. "The idea has a glimmer of potential..."
"But," Mkorofi raised a finger and shook it, "you have to know things! How to approach them, who to talk to. How to keep their loyalty! You follow old Mkorofi, he'll show you the way!"
Scar still seemed hesitant. "I don't like this. There are reasons why we lions generally don't deal with hyenas. Very good reasons."
"Well then, Scar," said Mkorofi rather pointedly, "I see I misjudged you." He shook his head sadly and sighed. "Perhaps you were right to take that name after all. If Scar is all that you truly believe you are, then Scar is all you ever will be." Shrugging, the old baboon turned his back on Scar and started to shuffle away.
Scar's jaw dropped, and then his eyes narrowed, burning with rage. Suddenly, he bounded forward, caught Mkorofi's shoulder with a paw, and spun him roughly around. "Perhaps I hadn't made myself clear!" he roared. "I will take my rightful place as King of Pride Rock! No price is too great! If I must deal with the scum of the earth, then so be it!!"
Mkorofi's shoulder was marked with three bloody furrows, but he just laughed darkly. "Ah, now that sounds more like the Taka I remember! Hah! Hah hah! Soon, you will be the king, and then you make Mkorofi shaman in place of that nasty old Rafiki! Yes?"
Scar smiled venomously. "A small price to ask. Very well then, I agree to your proposal. Lead on, old one."
"There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round"
--The Circle of Life
In the Pride Lands, many days passed, and then there came The Day, a day long awaited and prepared for. There would be no cheering crowds today, nor celebrations, nor shaman-rituals, and yet in every way, this day was just as important as the presentation of a prince, and every bit as steeped in the ancient traditions of prides and kings.
It began crisp and cold, though the clear, cloudless sky promised a long, hot day ahead. The newly risen sun blazed in the east, bathing the Pride Lands in a crimson glow and casting long, strange shadows.
In the topmost branches of his tree, Rafiki watched and waited patiently. The gusty breeze chilled his fur and made his perch sway precariously, but Rafiki ignored it. The sole focus of his attention was Pride Rock, far away across the savannah. Still, he waited...
At last, he saw it. Two figures were climbing Pride Rock, slowly making their way up the narrow trail which began near the promontory and went all the way up to the peak. If one squinted, or used one's imagination, they could barely be made out as a mighty lion and a young cub.
The old baboon sighed contentedly and wiped a joyful tear from his eye. Mufasa and Simba were on the peak and out of his sight, now, but he knew well what was now taking place. Today, the young prince would for the very first time behold Everything the Light Touches, and his father the king would teach him the wisdom of the Great Circle of Life, and the awesome responsibility of the power that would someday be his.
Rafiki watched in reverent silence for another few moments. Then, without warning, he dropped, caught a branch as he fell, and swung gracefully down to the clear space in the heart of the tree, his home. Without stopping to rest, he gathered a few bowls of freshly made paint. He'd spent hours yesterday afternoon, hiking through the fields and valleys of the Pride Lands, hunting for the special plants and clays he needed for a new batch.
The broad, inner branches of the tree were decorated with simple, colorful paintings, just as they would be in any shaman's house. The palm print outline, symbol of the shamans, had a prominent place of course, as did the special cub-drawings which he'd made last month for Simba, Nala, and Mtanga. Another branch displayed the sacred symbols: the rising sun of the Great Kings of the Past, the full moon of the Ancestors, the red crescent of the Devourer of Souls, and the great spiral of the One Above All.
Paints in hand, Rafiki approached the special place which he had reserved for this occasion. He studied the smooth, unmarked wood, then dipped his finger in a bowl of reddish-brown paint and began sketching with quick, deft strokes. In a few minutes, tiny figures of Mufasa and Simba stood atop a representation of Pride Rock, watching the sunrise. Finished, Rafiki set the paints aside and reached for his stick, eager to begin the day's work.
And then, he froze.
Slowly, Rafiki reached out with a trembling finger to touch the painting again. There was an ominous empty space in the pattern, there in the shadow of his hand. Strange. The new drawing looked like it ought to be complete, and yet there was very obviously something missing.
Rafiki scratched his head, puzzled. A leftover bowl of black paint lay conveniently nearly, so he scooped it up and made a quick sketch of Sarabi, Simba's mother, in the empty place. He pondered this for a moment, then changed his mind. Quickly, he plucked a leaf from the tree and wiped the paint away before it could dry, leaving the troublesome spot blank again.
After that, he tried an drawing of young Nala, then a leering hyena, then a clever cheetah, but nothing seeming to satisfy him. Rafiki leaned closer to the sketch, frowning deeply.
"Rafiki!" called the voice of a lioness from below, startling him. "Hello? Are you home?"
Rafiki blinked, his train of thought broken. "Be right there!" he shouted. He snatched his stick, then nimbly lowered himself to the ground.
At the base of his tree, Rafiki found Nyota, waiting for him. He greeted her with a big grin and a cheerful "Hallo!"
Nyota opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated. "I... I'm not bothering you, am I Rafiki? It's not that important. I can go away and come back later if you're busy."
"No, no, of course I'm not too busy, Nyota," Rafiki reassured her. "Now, what can old Rafiki do for you today?"
"Well... I was wondering if you could tell some more of those old stories."
"You know, like the ones you told me last time," explained Nyota, eagerly. "I just loved the one about Raha the First King, and that other one about Great Drought."
"So, you really liked them that much, eh?" Rafiki shrugged. "Well, I'm afraid I don't know that many stories, and most of the good ones are for shamans only, you understand?"
Nyota's face fell. "I... I'm sorry. I understand." She hung her head and started to trudge away.
"Hold on, hold on there!" called Rafiki quickly, running to catch up with her. "Have you ever though that perhaps the Great Kings of the Past have called you to become a bard?"
"A bard?" echoed Nyota, confused. "What's a bard?"
"Oh, a bard is a very special person!" Rafiki gestured expressively with his hands. "A bard is someone who dedicates their whole lives to learning the old, old stories, and passing their wisdom on to others."
"Really?" said Nyota, her ears perking up. "That sounds wonderful! You mean, I could really do that?"
"Of course you can!" exclaimed Rafiki. He clambered onto on large rock in front in front of Nyota and seated himself, legs crossed. "Anybody can become a bard, so long as they can speak, and remember the words."
"What do I have to do?" asked Nyota, breathlessly.
"Ah, now that is the hard part. To become a bard, you must be taught by a bard, and you will find none here. There hasn't been a bard in the Pride Lands since old Shairi." Rafiki sighed, shaking his head sadly. "Such a magnificent lioness, she was. She died long ago, when Ahadi was king. Such a shame."
Nyota considered. "So, where can I find a bard?"
"Let me see. I believe there's a bard at Savannah Ridge. Mount Raha Pride would be better, though. They have many bards, and even a special school!"
"Mount Raha!" exclaimed Nyota, dismayed. "But, that's so far away! I just don't know, Rafiki. I really want to, but..."
Rafiki grinned and patted her on the shoulder. "There's no rush. After all, this is a big decision for you! I tell you what, you go and think about it some more, eh? If you decide you want to be a bard, then you come talk to old Rafiki again and I'll arrange everything with Mufasa!"
"I will," promised Nyota. "I will think about it! Thanks, Rafiki!" She stood up, stretched, then trotted away with a spring in her step, heading back toward Pride Rock.
"You're welcome!" shouted Rafiki. He scratched his head, as if he were trying to remember something, then shrugged. Leaning on his stick, he headed south. There was much to be done today.
In Dhoruba's den, mother and son were sleeping late, as usual. Dhoruba slept soundly, but Mtanga thrashed in his sleep, mumbling softly to himself. Suddenly, he jerked awake, wide-eyed and gasping for breath.
Whoa, he thought. He'd had that weird dream again. The one where Simba was in trouble, and he tried to get mom to help, but she couldn't because she was too busy arguing with the golden lion and the black lion full of stars. And Mtanga could never help either because no matter how hard he ran Simba just kept getting further and further away. Nala huddled close by her mom and cried and cried, and then the big lion with blue eyes just like his looked straight at him and whispered "Remember!" That was the part that always woke him up.
Remember what, wondered Mtanga. The crazy dream just didn't make any sense! He tried to think of what was so important, but the details were already fading away.
Mtanga gave up. Just thinking about it made his fur stand on end. Mom was still fast asleep, but Mtanga didn't really feel like going back to bed again, so he got up as quietly as he could and left.
Slowly, the dark-furred lion cub crept out of the den, looking from side to side with wide, curious eyes. Then he gasped in wonder at all the bright sunshine, and the tall green grass and the clear blue sky. Sure, he'd seen lots of bright, sunny mornings, but somehow today seemed really extra special. He didn't know why, it just did. Already, he was bursting with excitement, wondering what neat new things mom would tell him about today, and the cool places they would go and see.
Too bad she was still asleep, he pouted. What was it with grown-ups, anyway? Why did they want to spend all their time lying around, or talking, or sleeping, when there was so much fun to be had?
Thinking about fun reminded him of Simba and Nala, and that made him sad for a little bit. Every time he went out to play with them now, he couldn't help but remember what mom had said, how someday they were going to go away and he'd never see them again.
There were other things that had been bothering him lately. Like the way that nobody else in the pride had brown fur like him and mom, except for Scar. And the way some of the lionesses looked at him and mom, and whispered bad, mean things when they thought he couldn't hear.
"Just ignore them," mom had said, when he'd come to her, crying. "We're better than they are, and they know it. They're just jealous."
But he and Simba and Nala had so much fun together! Mtanga thought about this for a little while, then stamped his paw. So what if Simba and Nala were priders? They were his friends, and a good rogue always sticks up for his friends, no matter what! Pleased with his decision, Mtanga decided to prowl around and find something fun to do. Mom wouldn't mind, so long as stayed close and came right away when she woke up and called for him.
A faint chittering sound made his ears twitch just then, and his young heart raced. He knew what that was! Everything else instantly forgotten, he grinned and crept toward the sound, keeping his body low to the ground. He peeked around a rock.
Yes! The field mice were nosing around again, just outside their burrow. Just watching their small, twitching movements got him all excited and made his tail flick back and forth in anticipation. This time, he'd catch himself one of those pesky little rodents for sure!
He crouched, waiting for just the right moment, then sprang forward, lightning-quick, and suddenly there he was flopped on the ground, staring in wonder and disbelief at the little field mouse trapped between his paws. Wow! That had never happened before! "Mom?!" he cried. "Mom, come look at what I did!"
Only a moment passed, then Dhoruba came at a run. When she skidded to a stop and saw Mtanga and his mouse, her expression of barely controlled panic melted into a broad grin. "Very good, Mtanga!" she said, approvingly. "Very good indeed!" Mom frowned a bit. "Well, go on. Kill it."
Mtanga's ears drooped. "Kill it?" He looked at the little mouse again. It had stopped wriggling now, and was staring up at him with tiny bright eyes, frozen with fear. "But... But it's so cute. What about..."
"Don't think of it like that," snapped Dhoruba. "Think of it as your breakfast." Mtanga still hesitated. "Mtanga," she said gently, "it's just a dumb animal. For the Ancestors' sakes, where do you the food we eat comes from? It doesn't grow on trees, you know."
"Well, okay, I guess..." Mtanga frowned in concentration, then lunged at the mouse, but as he tried to bite its neck, it squirmed violently. He fumbled for it, but the mouse slipped right through his paws, darted for its hole, and was gone. The lion cub just stared at the mouse hole, disappointed. Not only had he lost the mouse, but he'd let mom down too.
"Hey, it's okay," said Dhoruba quickly. "That was very good for a first try."
Mtanga perked up a bit. "You really think so?"
"I know so. I'm not the best hunter in the pride for nothing, am I?" She grinned slyly. "Tell you what, son. You wait here, and I'll go find you some more mice to practice on. Okay?"
As soon as Dhoruba was out of Mtanga's sight, she circled around and doubled back. Quietly, she crept into a position where she could watch him unseen.
It made her feel guilty, tricking him like that, but she reminded herself firmly that this was for his own good. Mtanga wasn't quite ready to learn to kill just yet, but he would be before long, with a little practice. This was the best way for him to get it: working on his own, without the pressure of mom looking over his shoulder.
A few minutes later, Mtanga got bored and went prowling on his own, just as Dhoruba had known he would. Patiently, she followed, always keeping just out of sight.
Watching her son like this, Dhoruba couldn't help but remember her own cub days. Mom had insisted that little Dhoruba catch a mouse all by herself, even when she'd been so frustrated because she'd let three escape in one day. Her sister Tufani had even started teasing her that she'd have to join a pride and eat bugs and grass for the rest of her life. But, oh, how proud she'd felt when she finally killed her first mouse, then brought it to her mother and laid it at her feet.
A large grey bird whooshed by overhead, catching Dhoruba's attention. It circled once, then settled down on a boulder some distance away.
Here comes our first volunteer, thought Dhoruba, with a wicked grin.
Obviously, Mtanga had seen the bird too. He had ducked into the tall grass, and was already slinking in that direction. So far so good.
Odd. The grey bird had a big beak and red tail feathers. A parrot!? Way out here in the savannah?
No, thought Dhoruba, desperately. It couldn't be.
Kasuku!! Damn, damn, damn! What in the Forsaken Lands was that little pest doing here!? How had he found her?
Mtanga was almost in position to pounce on Kasuku. Perhaps she ought to stop him. As annoying as Kasuku was, the loudmouthed little bird-brain could be awfully useful at times. In fact, she realized, Kasuku might be just what she needed to get the upper paw on Scar.
Before she could decide, Mtanga snarled and leaped. Fortunately, Dhoruba needn't have worried. Lightning quick, Kasuku turned his head and jumped into the air with an alarmed shriek. Mtanga missed him, hit the ground off-balance, and wound up tumbling and rolling to a stop.
"Do you mind!!" squawked Kasuku, hovering safely out of Mtanga's reach. "What's the big idea? Can't a guy perch in peace around here?!"
Mtanga got up slowly, blinking in surprise. "Hey! You can talk."
"Darn right I can talk, fuzz-for-brains!"
In her hiding place, Dhoruba chuckled, soundlessly.
"I'm sorry," said Mtanga. "I didn't know you could talk." He peered at Kasuku, curious. "What kind of bird are you, anyway?"
"Hello!? What does it look like I am? I'm a parrot!" Kasuku landed again and folded his wings indignantly. "Don't tell me you never heard of parrots before!"
"Oh! You're a parrot? But, I thought parrots were nothing but a bunch of feather-headed, interfering, bird-brained little good-for-nothing..."
Kasuku's feathers puffed up. "Okay, okay!! I get the idea already! Sheesh. You sound just like..." He trailed off suddenly, a funny look on his face. "Say, kid, you wouldn't by any chance know a lioness named Dhoruba? Brown fur, red eyes, bad temper?"
"Dhoruba?" echoed Mtanga innocently. "Oh, that's my mom!" Then, to Dhoruba's considerable consternation, Mtanga looked right at her and announced, "She's in the grass over there. Hey mom, look at what I found!"
"Dhoruba," repeated Kasuku, with slowly dawning horror, "is your mother!?" He slapped his forehead with one wing. "Oh... crap... That's it. I'm dead." He began to panic. "Hey, look kid, it's been nice talking to you, but really, I gotta fly. See ya!" The grey parrot spread his wings and took off.
At least, that's what he tried to do. Instead, he smacked into the ground rather amusingly, because Dhoruba had just planted a paw squarely on his tail feathers.
"Well, well, well, now what do we have here?" remarked Dhoruba, in a tone of barely restrained fury.
"I know that your powers of retention
Are as wet as a warthog's backside
But thick as you are, pay attention
My words are a matter of pride"
"And remember," called Scar, as Simba bounded away, "it's our little secret!"
Scar waited until he sure Simba was gone, and only then allowed himself an utterly malevolent smile.
Far, far away in the deep jungle of the Southlands, Janja Shadowlurker crouched on the bank of the River Kube, waiting patiently for his breakfast.
Already, he had been motionless for so long that every muscle was stiff and aching, but Janja took no notice. The great lion had kept himself comfortably fed all his adult life. Lying in wait for prey came as naturally to him as breathing.
There was the briefest silver flash below the surface, barely distinguishable from the bright reflections on the rushing water. Faster than conscious thought, Janja lashed out. There was a huge splash, and then a large fish lay on the bank, flopping helplessly. Swiftly, Janja grasped it between his forepaws and bit its head cleanly off.
Janja paused to give silent thanks to the Ancestors for his breakfast, then began to feast on the delicious meat. "For us to live," he mused to himself, "every day something else must die. So it is for all creatures who live within the great Circle of Life. A wise rogue respects death, and never kills more than what he needs to survive." Father had taught him that ancient truth long ago, and he still had great respect for it, whatever his brother Malenga might scornfully say of him.
All too soon, the meal was finished. Janja brushed the remains into the river, then stretched out and purred in contentment. Perhaps, he thought, he might take a pleasant nap, relax a bit before today's audience.
But he could find no peace. No matter how he tried, he could not forget the ominous message he had received early this morning.
"Shadowlurker, master shaman Wasimulizi sends you greetings, and a warning," the little chimpanzee shaman had told him, hardly bothering with formalities in his haste. "The One has revealed to her that something precious to you is in terrible danger! Be prepared for anything!"
Janja growled softly, and his tail flicked back and forth in annoyance. What was Wasi thinking? It wasn't like her to bother him with such hopelessly vague omens. Still, he reasoned, she must think it was important, considering the trouble she'd gone to.
Sudden panic. It couldn't be Dhoruba in danger, could it?!
Nonsense, he reassured himself a moment later. All of his sources insisted that the Pride Lands had been politically stable for generations. Janja sighed, sadly. No, it had to be something to do with the peace in the Southlands. What else could be more precious to a rogue leader?
While he was still puzzling these things out in his mind, there came a soft thump behind him, followed by the rustle of wings folding. Janja glanced over his shoulder and was unsurprised to see Tai the hawk, his chief watcher, perched nearby. The great reddish-brown bird shuffled impatiently, glanced at the sun, then cleared his throat. "Leader, it's time."
"So soon?" teased Janja.
Tai frowned. "Surely the leader jests. The audience is scheduled for noon, precisely." The hawk took a moment to preen for under his left wing with his wickedly sharp beak. "Unless of course, the leader has a good reason for delay."
"No, no, of course not." Janja yawned indulgently and stretched, in no great hurry. "Let's go, Tai."
Tai nodded crisply. "Very good, sir." Together, they left the riverbank and headed east, towards the Gathering Place.
They had not gone far when two more lions emerged from cover and fell in alongside Janja. Two of his faithful, of course, giving him the usual escort. Ujuba walked on his left, her emerald green eyes and torn ear making her look fierce and malevolent as ever. Mwuaji, master hunter, eldest of the faithful, and Janja's friend, walked on his right. Unwise, perhaps, having one of the faithful for a friend, but then, what did friendship ever have to do with wisdom?
"I took care of the leopard clanleaders," said Ujuba, getting right down to business. "It took some doing, but I'm pretty sure they see things my way now."
Janja raised an eyebrow. "You didn't injure them, I trust?"
Ujuba flashed a crooked smile at him. "Hey, you just said to make sure they came, O great and mighty leader. You didn't say to make them enjoy it."
Mwuaji rolled his eyes. "I shudder at the thought," he whispered in Janja's ear, rather loudly.
"I heard that!" shot back Ujuba.
"What about the boy from Riverbend Coalition?" asked Janja, smoothly interrupting before the two could get into one of their famous spats. "The one accused of breaking the peace of the Gathering Place."
"Ah, you mean Kijana. The good news is that he came willingly."
"The other three members insisted on attending as well."
Why was he not surprised? Janja sighed, deeply annoyed. "Extra security?"
Mwuaji nodded. "Already done, Janja. As many of the faithful as can be spared. Personally, I doubt the coalition will contest any judgment you might make, but it never hurts to be sure."
"Leader," called Tai, gliding lower so he wouldn't have to shout. "I believe there is another matter of which you should be aware."
Oh crud, thought Janja. Now what?
"My associates inform me that a small party of lionesses is here from Kube River Valley Pride."
Ujuba snarled in disgust. "What the hell do the priders want this time?!"
The hawk looked indignant at her choice of words, but answered her anyway. "Unfortunately, my associates were not able to discover that information. Though if the leader wishes, I would certainly make another effort."
"No," answered Janja, briskly. "Whatever it is, we'll all know soon enough." Never mind that relations with the border prides were badly strained. They had quite enough troubles already without looking for more hornets' nests to stir up!
"I don't like this," muttered Mwuaji. "Stiff-necked priders, feuding leopards, and a riled-up coalition all at once. It's just begging for the Devourer's attention."
Janja grinned ruefully and laughed. "Old friend, what would you have me do? Which of my unwanted guests dare I offend by sending them away unheard? No, we've already set our fangs into the problem. There's nothing to be done now but hold our grip or be trampled under hoof."
But now, there was no more time for pondering and planning, because the twin pillars of stone that marked the path down into the Gathering Place were just ahead. The three rogues received yet another surprise when they passed between the massive rocks and looked down into the clearing. Ujuba swore under her breath, and this time nobody chided her. Mwuaji whistled softly, and even Janja forgot his dignity and gaped in awe and dread.
On a normal audience day, there might be as many as ten rogues present, plus an equal number of various of other species who happened to have business with him. Today's crowd was easily twice as large. Lions, leopards, the odd cheetah, warthogs, elephants, baboons, a small group of meerkats, and birds of every color and feather waited down there, filing the place with a boisterous rumble of conversation and argument. Ancestors have mercy, there was even a senior shaman and two novices from the Mother Tree!
This must be what Wasi had warned him about, Janja suddenly realized. The place was like a field after a long drought: one stroke of lightning, and all of it would go up in flames. Once again, Janja considered rescheduling some of the complaints, but he knew that it was already much too late for that.
Ancestors guide my paws, thought Janja with a heavy sigh, as he started forward into the valley.
"But mom," pleaded Mtanga.
"No buts, kid," said Dhoruba, firmly. "Kasuku and I have important grown-up business that we need to talk about right away. Alone."
"But you said you were gonna teach me a new lesson today!"
"Of course I will. Right after I'm done with Kasuku."
"No you won't!" he accused. "You're supposed to be on the stupid hunting party all afternoon."
Oh crud, thought Dhoruba, remembering. "You're right," she admitted, going to her cub and nuzzling against him gently. He returned the gesture, confused. "Look, Mtanga, you know how much our lessons mean to me. You know I wouldn't put those off unless it was for something really, really important."
"Well, I guess..." Mtanga's frown softened a bit.
"Good. We'll try and have the lesson tonight when I get home." Dhoruba knew she'd be awfully tired by then, but it would be worth it. "In the meantime, why don't you go play with Simba and Nala or something?"
Mtanga gave her that special, innocent smile of his. "Okay." He got up and trotted away.
Dhoruba sighed in relief, then returned to her den, where Kasuku was waiting.
Mtanga was just about to race to the east field in search of his friends, when Simba came unexpectedly bounding into view. His ears perked up. "Hey, Simba!"
"Hey, Mtanga!" answered Simba, a big, mischievous grin on his face. "Guess what. I just heard about this really cool place..."
"Crud," muttered Dhoruba, as she settled down on the cool, dusty floor of her cave. "That cub's getting so sharp I can hardly keep up with him anymore." Then she remembered her guest. "Not that it's any of your concern," she added harshly.
Kasuku didn't exactly look thrilled to be here, but at least he wasn't bouncing off the walls. He cleared his throat. "Now let me get this straight. All I have to do is hear your proposal, and then you promise not to hurt me, or stop me from leaving?" The parrot shook his head in disbelief. "What's the catch?"
"No catch, Kasuku." That had been an easy agreement to make, considering that she had no way to hold him here, short of killing him. That was something she had no intention of doing without much better reasons than she had now. Of course, Kasuku couldn't have been sure of that. Otherwise, he would have simply flown away at the first opportunity, back home to spill everything to Janja and collect his reward.
Guessing Janja's involvement didn't take much imagination either. Only a trained bard knew the rare stories that could buy Kasuku's loyalty, and Janja had received the very best training before he had thoroughly scandalized his family by becoming the rogue leader. He also had, it could not be denied, a very personal interest in her and her cub.
But how to make Kasuku fess up? The tip of her tail flicked back and forth idly. Then an idea came, and she had to fight her to keep her expression from giving her away. "So, just how did Janja do it?" she asked, casually. "Last time, I recall you swore up and down he'd never talk you into a mess like this again." She shook her head and sighed. "You're really pathetic, you know that, Kasuku?"
"Hey!" Kasuku protested. "Can I help it if I have a taste for the finer things and Janja's got the goods?" Too late, he realized what he'd done and clapped both wings over his beak.
"So it was Janja!" Her tail lashed angrily. "Damn him. He never could understand when to leave well enough alone."
Kasuku frowned at that. "Oh come on, Dhoruba, give the guy a break. He's been worried sick about you!" Dhoruba shot a dubious look at him. "It's true, honest! Oh, he never tells me that, of course. He acts like it's No Big Deal, but I've seen how he mopes and pines and stares at his waterfall all day. As if that's going to help! What is it with you two, anyway? Why'd you have to run off like that?"
For a moment there, Dhoruba's mind was a blur. Was Kasuku being straight with her? Could Janja really care about her so much? And then, the last question caught up with her, snapping her back to the present. "None of your damn business!" she roared.
"Okay. Never mind. I can take a hint." Kasuku shrugged. "Well, let's get this over with. Tell me what it is you want already, so I can say no and be on my way." He grinned confidently.
That's what you think, banana-beak. We'll see just who eats whose words when we're done! "It's like this. I strongly suspect that the king's brother is planning a coup. I want you to keep an eye on him and find out exactly what he's up to. You can pose as a traveling bard from the Southlands, and no one will suspect a thing."
"Hmm. Doesn't sound like anything I haven't done before. But I can't perform here without permission from the pride's bard. Professional courtesy, you know."
Now for the clincher, thought Dhoruba, grinning. "Oh! Did I forget to mention? Pride Rock doesn't have a bard."
"What!?" squawked Kasuku, floored. "Oh, go on!"
"I'm serious. I did a little asking around when I first got here. Seems their old bard got killed before she trained a successor. Nobody around here's heard a decent tale in years." That calculating gleam in Kasuku's eyes had to be pure greed. Quickly, Dhoruba pressed her advantage. "You do a little sneak job for me, and I give you the best audience of your life. What do you say?"
Kasuku didn't even have to think twice. "I can't believe I'm doing this... But you got yourself a bard, Dhoruba!"
"Good. Come on, I'll introduce you to King Mufasa."
Back outside the den, Dhoruba was more than a little concerned to find Mtanga just lying around in some tall grass, all alone and staring off into space miserably. "Son, what's the matter?!" she asked at once. "What happened?"
"Simba wanted to go someplace dumb," Mtanga pouted, not even looking up at her. "I told him I didn't wanna go there, and he said I was a yellow-bellied scaredy cat."
"Why that little royal brat!" muttered Dhoruba. She had a good mind to...
No. Give it some time. Let Mtanga have to chance to work this out for himself. There were some pains you just couldn't spare your cubs, not if you wanted them to learn to do for themselves.
Kasuku flapped his wings and glided the short distance over to Mtanga. "You know, kid? You look like you could use some cheering up. Wanna know a secret?"
Now what's he up to, wondered Dhoruba, immediately suspicious.
"A secret?" asked Mtanga, his ears perking up. "What kind of secret?"
Kasuku peered first one way, then the other, with silly exaggerated motions. "You see," he continued, in a hushed voice, "I'm really a super-duper famous bard from the Southlands!" Kasuku puffed his feathers up proudly.
"You are? Whoa!"
"That's right, kid! People come from all over, just to hear me tell the best stories, but today I'm performing right here, in the Pride Lands!" He nudged Mtanga and winked. "Show up early and get a good place to sit, and you'll be in for quite a show!"
"Wow! Hey mom, can I watch Kasuku while you're out hunting? Please?"
"It's all right with me," said Dhoruba, warmly. "Come on, we can all go up to the meeting place together."
On their way there, Mtanga was so eager that he kept racing ahead, then scampering around impatiently, waiting for her to catch up. "I had no idea you were so good with cubs," she whispered to Kasuku, while Mtanga was out of earshot.
Kasuku shrugged as best he could manage while flying. "Blame it on my sister. Last year she laid six eggs in one nesting! Sheesh! I'm surprised any of us survived that."
As they passed by, Rafiki poked his head out from behind a large rock, observing them. He muttered to himself, then nodded approvingly before rushing off to attend to other matters.
"Everybody look left
Everybody look right
Everywhere you look I'm
Standing in the spotlight"
--I Just Can't
Wait to Be King
As Mtanga and Dhoruba approached the meeting place at the foot of Pride Rock, the small, dark-furred cub had a big grin and an extra bounce in his step. Finally! He'd thought that mom and Kasuku and Mufasa would never finish their boring grown-up talk. Just a little longer, and he'd finally get to hear stories from a real bard!
The cool shade directly under the promontory of Pride Rock was already full of half-asleep lionesses, crowded in close to escape the fearsome midday heat. Mom gave them a cold, unhappy stare, then looked him right in the eye. "Remember to watch your step around Mufasa," she admonished. "Male lions don't like cubs that aren't theirs."
"I know, mom," complained Mtanga. Of course he knew that! Mom had only told him a million times, after all.
"And that goes double for Scar!"
"Okay, okay." Sheesh. What was mom so worried about? He was a smart cub. He knew the rules. He could look after himself for one little afternoon!
Not far off, three other lionesses stood in a circle with Sarafina, discussing strategy for today's hunt. Mom nuzzled against him, purring. "I love you, Mtanga. You be real careful while I'm gone, you hear?"
"No problem!" answered Mtanga, brightly. Dhoruba smiled, then went and took her place with the rest of the hunting party. Mom could be so weird sometimes, thought Mtanga, as he watched them trot off into the savannah.
Oh well. Mtanga turned around and wandered over to the promontory. He started to go in there with the others, then hesitated.
All those scary strangers, and no mom to look after him. He looked back and forth, a little worried now. No Simba or Nala either. Scarier still, there was King Mufasa, sitting right over there! Suddenly, mom's fussing didn't seem so silly any more.
Maybe if he was really small and quiet, Mufasa wouldn't notice him. Trying his best to be brave, Mtanga picked a nice spot on the edge of the crowd and sat down.
Nothing happened right away, so Mtanga waited. And waited some more. His tail lashed impatiently. Where was Kasuku? Mtanga didn't want to wait, he wanted to hear some neat stories right now!
Mtanga heaved a thoroughly bored sigh and rested his head on his paws. Now what was he supposed to do?
Maybe, he decided, it wouldn't hurt to sneak just a little look at Mufasa. Mtanga braced himself, then peeked out of the corner of his eye.
Mufasa sure was acting funny! He kept yawning and trying to go to sleep, but every time he did, Sarabi got mad and poked him until he woke up again. Mtanga almost laughed out loud, then caught himself at the last moment. Small and quiet, small and quiet!
Nobody had seen him. Whew, that was close!
This was neat. Mtanga had never gotten to see a grown up lion this close before, only lionesses. When he was all grown up, would he get to be all big and strong and have a really cool mane like that? He certainly hoped so!
"Mtanga?" called a soft voice behind him. Frightened, Mtanga tensed to leap and run away. "Hey, slow down, it's only me."
Not quite trusting, Mtanga looked over his shoulder, then breathed a big sigh of relief when he discovered that it was only Nyota, looking down at him with a concerned expression. "Oh. Hi, Nyota. You scared me."
"I'm sorry. It is all right if I sit here with you?"
"Sure!" Nyota was nice, not like those other mean old lionesses. She always had lots of neat stuff to talk about.
Nyota curled up and sat down, close but not too close. And it was right about then that Kasuku finally showed up.
As Kasuku introduced himself and began his storytelling, a curious change came over the crowd. Lionesses sat up straight, staring with wondering eyes. They started nudging their still sleeping neighbors awake with breathless whispers of "Check this out!" and "You've got to hear this!" A few slipped quietly away, then returned with absent pride members.
By the end of Kasuku's first story, almost every off-duty lioness was present and listening with eager attention. A certain gopher had turned up as well, along with several birds and a family of cheetahs. Even old Rafiki was there, sitting cross-legged on the ground, eyes closed and drinking it all in.
After the first enthusiastic roar of approval finally died down, Kasuku told them one of his own compositions, a tale of how the Pride Lands had fared during the legendary long ago time when the Sky Demon came from the far north to lay waste to the warm lands. Some of the lionesses actually shivered as they tried to imagine the whole world buried in freezing white stuff as high as a lion's shoulder, and cold grey clouds so thick they blotted out the sun and stars for years and years.
Then Kasuku further surprised and delighted them by telling a story where all the characters spoke in their own voices, courtesy of his excellent mimicry skills.
The gathered creatures of the Pride Lands roared with laughter at the comic misadventure of "Tarabi's Tail." They were silent and reverent as Kasuku performed one of the seven great soliloquies of Zimur and Mlebo. Even sour old Busara was moved to tears, though she fiercely denied it afterwards. Pride Rock hadn't been so lively in months.
Eventually, Kasuku needed to rest his voice. He politely asked directions to the nearest water hole, then flew away, promising to return soon.
In the back of the crowd, Sarabi sighed sadly, as if she'd been in another world, and was disappointed to find the old, mundane world still here. "That was wonderful! It was just so..."
"I know," said Mufasa, sharing his warm smile with her.
Sarabi had a thoughtful look. "Mufasa, isn't it time we asked Mount Raha Pride to send us a new bard from the academy? We've done without for so long."
Mufasa mulled this over. "It would be good to have a regular bard again. Still..."
Sarabi nuzzled gently against her mate. "Please. Think about all the history and culture the cubs are missing out on. We had Shairi to tell us stories when we were growing up. Doesn't our son deserve someone just as good?"
Mufasa smiled again. "You're right," he conceded. "I'll send Zazu with a message as soon as we can spare him." That done, Mufasa relaxed, leaned back, and looked over the crowd. The first thing he noticed was Mtanga and Nyota, eagerly whispering to each other about something. He stiffened. "Sarabi, why is Nyota with that rogue's cub?"
"Mtanga," Sarabi reminded him. "Dhoruba lets her cubsit sometimes."
"Nyota? Why her of all people?"
"I think she's the only one she trusts to do it."
Mufasa considered this for a moment. "Nyota," he called, raising his voice. "Would you come over here, please?"
Sarabi gave him a puzzled look, but he remained silent as Nyota got up and padded over to them. She cleared her throat nervously. "Um, yes, your majesty?"
Mufasa regarded Nyota thoughtfully. "I notice that you've been spending a lot of time with Dhoruba and her son."
"What's wrong with that?"
"There's nothing wrong with that. I just think that you ought to be a little more cautious."
"I know I ought to be, but... it's just not right. Everyone treats Dhoruba like she's a hyena or something! I just thought she needed a friend, that's all."
At this, Mufasa seemed deeply troubled. "Nyota, you must remember that Dhoruba is still a rogue. She isn't a really member of the pride, she's only taking sanctuary here with us for a little while. I realize that this might be hard for you to accept, but she honestly doesn't care about us, and she doesn't enjoy our company. We have not rejected her, Nyota. It is she who rejects us."
Nyota looked surprised, and hurt. "No. That's not true."
"She isn't like that! Mufasa, I've talked to her, been on the hunting party with her. Dhoruba and Mtanga aren't monsters! They're really nice people once you get to know them."
Mufasa frowned. "If you truly believe that reaching out to her will do any good, then I won't forbid you. It's a rare thing for a rogue to leave the wild and settle down with a pride permanently, but it does happen. But please, Nyota, for the love of the Great Kings, be careful. Dhoruba is far more dangerous than you realize."
Nyota sighed. "Thank you, your majesty. I guess you've given me a lot to think about." The young lioness returned to the crowd and quite deliberately sat down right next to Mtanga again.
"Was that really necessary?" asked Sarabi.
Mufasa had an unsettled expression. "I just don't want her getting hurt. Not like my brother got hurt."
Sarabi looked unhappy, but had no answer to this. After a while she spoke up again. "Actually, I'm glad that Nyota is taking an interest in Mtanga."
"It's good practice. Nyota's not a youngling any more, you know. If the hunting stays as good as it is now, she just might have a cub of her own by next year."
A thought came to Mufasa just then. "Speaking of cubs, where are Simba and Nala? Why aren't they here?"
"I haven't seen them since this morning. They wanted to go to the water hole, so I sent Zazu with them." Suddenly, Sarabi looked alarmed. "Didn't they ever come back?!"
Immediately, Mufasa stood up. "I'm going looking for them."
"I'll go with you," Sarabi quickly offered.
"No. There's no reason to panic. If the cubs were in real danger, Zazu would come back for help." Mufasa grinned, trying to reassure her. "They're probably just teasing him by staying out longer than they know they should. This won't take long."
Mufasa slipped away from Pride Rock and headed north at a fast pace. Most of the lionesses were so busy discussing Kasuku's stories with each other that they didn't even notice.
By the time Janja was finally able to leave the Gathering Place, the day was nearly gone, and he was mentally exhausted. A good day's work, he decided. The negotiation with the priders had been civil and productive. The leopards had been as arrogant as ever, but the threat of direct intervention from the faithful had made them promise to curtail their civil war.
As for young Kijana, Janja had judged him guilty of striking a fellow creature in anger within the Gathering Place, and then proceeded to ban him from the Gathering Place for an entire year. Janja smiled, quite satisfied with his decision. The youngling would have plenty of time to think about the seriousness of what he'd done when his friends were out enjoying the summer festival and the winter storytelling competitions, and he couldn't go.
Overall, everything had gone well, or at least as well as could be expected. So why, then, did Janja still feel unsettled, as if he'd forgotten something vitally important? Try as he might, he just couldn't catch the scent of it.
Give it a rest. If it was truly important, it would come to him soon enough.
Meanwhile, the new faithful-candidate who'd just joined him and Mwuaji in the small jungle clearing was still staring in obvious reverence and awe. "Well, go on, Aminifu," Mwuaji urged him. "Don't keep the leader waiting."
"Oh, sorry," stammered the young lion. Cautiously, he faced Janja and cleared his throat. "Leader, the pride lionesses have safely returned to their own territory. I just saw them cross the river."
Janja nodded. "Good. You're dismissed."
"Yes, leader!" Aminifu started to leave, then glanced back at old Mwuaji. "Uncle? Did I do all right?"
"You did just fine," Mwuaji reassured him. "Now go and report back to the others. Hurry!" Aminifu grinned proudly, then charged off into the jungle.
"That boy makes me so proud," remarked Mwuaji. "Even if he does still have a long way to go."
"He seems eager enough," offered Janja.
"Too eager, for Ujuba's liking." Mwuaji growled thoughtfully. "Perhaps for mine as well. There's more to being a faithful than shouting 'Yes, leader!' and doing as your told. Blind obedience to the leader is what got us Mauti Bloodpaw, after all."
True, Janja had to agree, all too true. He was well aware that he had far more leeway with Mwuaji in charge of the faithful than he really ought to have. Mwuaji was old enough to have served under four different rogue leaders, and wise as a senior shaman. They'd known and respected each other for many, many years.
Ujuba, on the other paw, was fiery and stubborn, eager to do her duty when she agreed with his decisions, and quick to question when she did not. One day, inevitably, she would succeed Mwuaji as faithful-eldest, and then life might get very interesting indeed. But that was a problem for another season, thank the One.
And then, like a lightning flash, it came to him. "It was too easy!" he exclaimed.
Mwuaji stared at him, not understanding. Quickly, he explained about Wasi's mysterious omen. "Wasimulizi said that something important to me was in danger. When I saw all of the factions at the meeting, I assumed that she was warning me of renewed fighting with the priders, or a struggle with Riverbend Coalition."
"But the situation wasn't as bad as it looked at first," mused Mwuaji. "The meeting was tense and tempers hot, I must admit, but no more so than usual." His expression became grave. "Could the master shaman have been speaking of Dhoruba? Is that what you fear?"
"You know about that?!" Janja was surprised, and more than a little angry. "Am I to assume that the whole jungle is gossiping about my private affairs, then?"
Mwuaji looked embarrassed. "I've tried to discourage the rumors where I could, but there has been talk. Janja, my friend, I know this is none of my business, but..."
Mwuaji hesitated, seemed to consider carefully before continuing. "They've been saying that you gave Dhoruba a cub, and she ran out on you before it was born. Forgive me for even mentioning it. I'm sure it's just slanderous nonsense."
"It's true," admitted Janja. He kept his face hard and expressionless, betraying nothing of the shame he felt now.
"Ancestors have mercy!" exclaimed Mwuaji, breathlessly. "Why? What would make her do such a thing?"
Janja hung his head. "I wish I knew."
"It's clear from your vacant expressions
The lights are not all on upstairs
But we're talking kings and successions
Even you can't be caught unawares"
Dusk came, and with it, the return of the hunting party to Pride Rock.
Wearily, Dhoruba dragged her kill the last few steps and placed it with the other three zebras they'd caught. Then she sat down with Sarafina and the others, relieved to be rid of the burden.
Not for the first time, Dhoruba wondered why the confounded priders insisted on having all their meals at Pride Rock. Why not let the pride eat the prey where it had fallen, and save everyone a lot of time and effort? Probably some stupid tradition started by a king ten generations dead, she decided. A lot of pride stuff was like that.
Strange. Where was everyone? Why weren't they all crowding around, waiting to get their share of the meat? When Dhoruba got up and padded over to Pride Rock to see what was the matter, she was astonished. Most of the pride was still gathered around Kasuku, watching him perform. They must have been spellbound indeed, if they hadn't even noticed their dinner arriving!
Dhoruba couldn't help but laugh. Say what you liked about Kasuku, but the obnoxious little parrot certainly was a prince among bards. In all her life, she'd only heard one better.
Old memories washed over her, and for a moment she was back at the grand summer festival in the Gathering Place, the last one she and mom and Tufani had attended as a family before going their separate ways. She smiled, remembering herself walking tall and proud through the crowd, and her and Tufani turning the heads of all the young male rogues.
But those other lions had been nothing, compared to Janja. He was still a bard then, fresh from the academy. Big for his age too, larger and stronger than many grizzled veterans despite his youth. So shy, yet so caring and generous, rare qualities in a rogue.
If only things could have stayed just the way they had been, in that one perfect moment. Before Mauti had gone mad and started destroying everything. Before that damned gorilla Wasimulizi had taken her Janja and twisted him into something he wasn't and had never wanted to be. Before...
Furious, Dhoruba shoved those thoughts away. Useless! All the worrying in the world couldn't change the past. There was more than enough to worry about right here, right now.
Meanwhile, Kasuku had finally brought his storytelling to a close. Lionesses stood up, stretched, and started making their way towards the food. "Mom!" cried her son, charging out of the crowd.
"Hello, Mtanga." Safe and whole. Dhoruba breathed an enormous sigh of relief.
Mtanga rubbed against her legs, purring. "Kasuku was really awesome. You should have seen him! Did you know he's doing it again tomorrow night? What's for dinner?"
"Slow down, kid! We're having zebra." Just as soon as His Royal Majesty picked out his share, of course. Where was he, anyway?
Mufasa wasn't here, Dhoruba realized. Crud! Bad enough that the big lazy so-and-so got the best of the meat, even though he did nothing to help catch it. Now he was off Ancestors knew where, making them wait on his pleasure!
Come to think of it, Scar wasn't here either. Nor were Simba and Nala. Sarabi and Sarafina were speaking in hushed whispers, like they were terribly upset about something. What the heck was going on here?
Just as Dhoruba was starting to draw some nasty conclusions, Nala arrived with Zazu. Sarafina rushed out to meet her daughter, and Zazu had a quiet word with Sarabi. Then Sarabi cleared her throat. "Everything's all right," she announced. "Mufasa and Simba are going to be a little late, so you can all start eating now. I'm sure the king won't mind."
As it turned out, Mufasa and Simba didn't show up until everyone else had just about finished. Something fishy was definitely going on. Well, this time she didn't just have to sit around and wonder!
Casually, she wandered over to Kasuku, as if she planned to ask him a question about one of his stories. Kasuku kept well away from the feasting carnivores, of course, but he still loitered around, keeping an eye on things. "Find out what happened," she whispered at him, when she was sure no one else was close enough to hear.
"You got it." Kasuku made a show of yawning, then stretched his wings and flew off.
Dhoruba grinned slyly, knowing full well that Kasuku probably would have spied on Mufasa and the others regardless. He just couldn't resist a juicy mystery.
Now all she had to do was wait.
By the time Mtanga and Dhoruba got back to their den, it was pitch dark. Dhoruba still owed her son a much delayed lesson, so they settled down outside on the soft, cool grass.
Mtanga gazed up at the stars longingly. "I sure wish I could tell awesome stories like Kasuku. Hey mom, can a rogue be a bard?"
Oh crud, thought Dhoruba. What was it, something in the blood? Why hadn't she seen this coming?
Still, if Mtanga genuinely had it within himself to become a bard, then who was she to tell him no? Wasn't that the whole reason she had come out here, so far from home? To make sure her son had his own life, his own choices?
So she told him, "Yeah, but it's not easy. Not just anyone can become a bard, you know."
"Why not?" Mtanga wanted to know.
"Being a bard is a lot of hard work, kid. You've got to learn more stories than you ever knew existed and practice them every day."
"Well, that doesn't sound like work. That sounds like fun!"
"It's more work than you think. Anyway, you've got years and years to make big decisions like that." A thought struck her. "Did Kasuku tell any stories about Kube or Mwasi?"
Mtanga got that cute look on his face that meant he was thinking really hard. "He talked about them a couple times, but he never said who they were."
Dhoruba yawned. "Good. Settle down, and I'll tell you."
So, Mtanga listened with rapt attention while she told him the story of brave Kube Fireheart, who defeated the terrible Hyena Horde long, long ago. Then she taught him about Kube's sons, Raha the firstborn, first of the Lion Kings, and Mwasi Thunderstroke, the first leader of the lion rogues of the Southlands.
When she was finished, Dhoruba stretched and relaxed, proud of her efforts. She didn't know much about Kasuku's fancy bard stuff, but she could still deliver a good history lesson or two. Besides, she liked to think that plain words were still the best for some things.
Mtanga was still asking her eager questions when Kasuku flew in. "Well?" she demanded, as soon as the parrot found himself a suitable perch.
Kasuku shrugged. "I watched all day, but this Scar character never showed up. You sure he didn't bug out and leave or something?"
"Yeah right," said Dhoruba, ruefully. "What about Simba and Mufasa? What was all the fuss about?"
"Oh, that was easy! Turns out these two cubs decided they'd just wander on over to the elephant graveyard without telling anybody. They were this close to being hyena chow!"
Mtanga gasped, horrified. "But... Simba said he wasn't going to go there!"
Now it was Dhoruba's turn to be astonished. "Simba? That's what he was here for this morning? He wanted you to go with him to the graveyard?!"
"I told him it was a stupid idea! I told him I wouldn't go, even after he called me a scaredy cat, so he said he was sorry and he changed his mind."
"Hey, believe me kid, he went to the graveyard," Kasuku insisted. "I heard King Mufasa telling his queen how he had to chew Simba out for disobeying him."
Mtanga trembled. "I didn't know, mom! Honest I didn't know!"
Dhoruba drew her son close and hugged him. "It's not your fault," she told him gently. "You did the right thing." Then she sighed and shook her head. "I just can't believe Simba and Nala would do a thing like that. Didn't they know about the hyenas?"
"Yeah," mused Kasuku, "and another thing. That north border is pretty big and empty, but from what I heard, the cubs weren't in hyena territory for more than a minute or two before they got caught. It's almost like the hyenas knew they were coming..."
Dhoruba frowned. "Mtanga, this is really important. Did Simba say anything at all about why he went to the graveyard?"
"Well... I remember he said something about his Uncle Scar telling him that only the bravest lions went there."
"Scar!" snarled Dhoruba. "That sneaky bastard. I should have guessed."
"Let me see if I got this straight," said Kasuku. "Scar tried to bump off the prince, but he screwed up and Mufasa saved him. And by now, Mufasa knows everything we do, right?" Kasuku broke into a big grin. "Well, that's that! Scar's history. Guess I can go home now, right?"
"No," snapped Dhoruba. True, that would explain why Scar never came to dinner, but still... She hadn't survived this long by taking stupid chances. "We don't let our guard down until know for sure that Scar is dead or exiled."
At the canyon near the elephant graveyard, a another crowd had gathered to hear a very different speaker.
Scar stood upon a high rock before every hyena in the lands north of Mufasa's kingdom, and he spoke to them of the power and glory that would be theirs when he ruled the Pride Lands as King. No one could listen to that voice and be unmoved, for Mkorofi had secretly prayed for the power of the Devourer of Souls to come upon Scar and teach him what to say.
Now, Mkorofi watched from a cleft high in the rocks above the assembly. Cackling with glee, he traced unholy symbols in the dust. Then he took crimson paint from a concealed pouch and smeared it over the symbols, forming a red crescent.
As Scar's speech came to its climax, Mkorofi whispered dreadful, soul-searing words. He spoke again, and thunder boomed. A third time, and he brought his stick down hard upon the rocks, and they shattered and the very earth moved.
Every stone in the canyon broke and shifted as great plumes of sickly green steam burst forth, filling the air. The horde of hyenas howled their exaltation and triumph, believing in their hearts that Scar had given them a mighty sign from the gods. Now, they would follow him anywhere, even lay down their lives for him.
Mkorofi reveled in it all, adding his mad shrieking laughter to the tumult.
The next morning found Dhoruba in an uncharacteristically good mood. So good, in fact, that she indulged herself by sleeping in even later than usual. She and Mtanga had both needed it, she decided, as she watched him sleeping peacefully, curled up in a precious little ball.
And why not sleep late, since she had a whole day with no hunting or guard duty? Dhoruba smiled. Extra days off was one of the perks reserved for lionesses with cubs. Incredible! A prider tradition that actually made sense!
What to do today, she wondered, as she strolled out into the deliciously warm mid-morning sunlight. Her sharp eyes spotted Kasuku, far away but rapidly winging his way closer. Good. Perhaps by now he would know what Mufasa had done with Scar. It didn't matter, really, so long as it was done and over with, but she was still curious.
Kasuku's fearful look told her something was wrong, even before he spoke. "We got big problems! I just saw Scar strolling around the commons, like nothing happened!"
"What!? Are you sure?"
"Hey, you think I make this stuff up? Go look for yourself if you don't believe me. Heck, Scar even stopped and chatted with Mufasa about the weather! I don't get it."
"Does everyone in this pride has grass for brains?!" Dhoruba snarled in frustration. "Kasuku, keep watching Scar. I've got a bone to pick with His Royal Majesty."
Eventually, Dhoruba found Mufasa walking along the east side of Pride Rock, inspecting his territory. "Mufasa, we've got to talk!"
Mufasa raised an eyebrow, but otherwise didn't object to her informality. "Dhoruba. How can I help you?"
"What is the matter with you! How can you stroll around sight-seeing when your cub nearly got killed yesterday?"
Now she had his full and immediate attention. "Who told you about that?" he demanded.
"Look," snapped Dhoruba. "How I know isn't important. What is important is that you have to do something about Scar now!"
"Scar? What are you talking about? What does he have to do with this?"
"You don't know?!! You really don't have a clue, do you? I'm surrounded by idiots!" Dhoruba took a deep breath to calm herself. "All right, your majesty, I'll explain it real slow and simple. What happened yesterday was no accident..."
Mkorofi's cave wasn't really big enough for Scar to pace in properly, but he did it anyway. "You were right, old one. The pride is behaving just as you said they would." He kept moving, too agitated to sit still even for a moment. "I don't like this. It could be a trick to catch me off my guard."
Mkorofi laughed. "No, no Taka! It is as I told you! You are the brother with the injured eye, and yet I say to you that it is Mufasa who is blind. He scents no danger, even though the reek of it is all about him. He's not fit to rule the pride!"
"Yes... Yes! Just a few more days, and..."
"Boss!" cried Makuu, as he stumbled in, panting and exhausted. The wiry little hyena was notorious among his fellows for his cunning and stealth, which was why Scar could rely on him to scout the Pride Lands without getting caught, even in broad daylight.
"Why are you here, you fool? Can't you see I'm busy?"
"Boss, I was watching Mufasa like you said, and I heard him and the rogue talking about getting rid of you!"
Scar froze. "How much does she know?"
"I think she knows all about the ambush yesterday, boss."
"Blast her!" Scar quivered with fury. "Run to Shenzi and tell her to prepare for the gorge plan immediately. She'll know what to do." Makuu bowed low, then raced out.
"No!" cursed Mkorofi, gnashing his teeth. "It's too soon!"
"Weren't you listening? We're out of time. There's still a chance, but only if we act at once!"
The aged baboon stood his ground. "I have not yet had time to recover my strength. If you attack Mufasa today and fail, I can make no miracles to save your hide."
Scar patted Mkorofi's shoulder with a paw. "Save your worrying for Rafiki, old one. Leave Mufasa to me." Scar permitted himself an evil smile. "The trap is being set even as we speak. All that remains now is to fetch the bait."
As soon as Scar left the cave, Kasuku squirmed out of the cleft in the rocks where he'd been eavesdropping. "Gotcha!" he crowed. "Sons of Kube Fireheart, here I come!" He waited for a good gust of wind, then took off.
Suddenly, a stone came flying out of nowhere and smacked him hard, causing him to lose control and plow into the ground. Before he could recover, thin bony fingers wrapped around his body and squeezed cruelly tight.
Kasuku found himself lifted up to the leering face of a black-furred baboon. If he'd been able to move, he would have recoiled in horror. The baboon had foul breath, and his left eye was scarred and milky white.
"Well, well," observed the baboon. "What has old Mkorofi got here?"
"Oh no," croaked Kasuku. "Not again."
Zazu peered down at Pride Rock, far below, but there was no sign of Mufasa. "Now where has he gotten to," the little hornbill muttered under his breath. He swooped low and flew around to the opposite side, but Mufasa wasn't there either. "Must have gone out for a walk or something. Yes, that's it."
Pumping his wings hard, Zazu caught a thermal and glided outwards in a lazy spiral, passing over a herd of zebras and Rafiki's tree. He had just started to worry a little when he finally sighted Mufasa sitting near the water hole. Triumphantly, he spiraled down and came in for a neat landing. "There you are, sire! I have your daily report ready."
Mufasa didn't answer. All he did was stare at his reflection in the water. "Sire? Are you all right?"
This time Mufasa did look up, meeting Zazu's gaze with a lost, hopeless look. "Dhoruba believes that Scar tried to have my son murdered yesterday."
Zazu recoiled, then burst out laughing. "You had me going for a moment there, sire! Good-for-nothing rogues! Surely you don't actually believe..." Zazu trailed off. Mufasa's grave expression hadn't changed. "You do believe her?!"
Mufasa stared at his paws. "Yes. No. I don't know! Great Kings above help me, I just don't know any more! She makes a very convincing argument, but... Gods, Zazu, my own brother! How could he!"
Mufasa sighed deeply, then finally seemed to snap out of it. "Let's go home, Zazu. I need to speak with Simba right away."
Uneasily, Zazu hopped up on Mufasa's back, and the big lion started walking. "But... but sire?" he asked. "What if Scar... What if he really is guilty?"
Mufasa took a long time in answering. "I have to know the truth, Zazu. If Scar truly meant to hurt my son, then I'll do what I have to do." More quietly, he added, "Even though it breaks my heart."
A faint rumbling noise caught Zazu's attention. Looking over his shoulder, he saw a great dust cloud rising from the old gorge on the west border. "Oh, look sire. The herd is on the move."
Mufasa stopped. "Odd..."
Before they could ponder this any further, Scar burst into view. "Mufasa, quick," he gasped. "Stampede in the gorge. Simba's down there!"
"Simba?!" At once, Mufasa turned around and raced westward, with Scar following close behind.
In the chaos that followed, Mufasa completely forget about Dhoruba's warning. Until, of course, it was far too late.
Emerald green eyes in the dark, burning with hate.
A dreadful voice spoke, "Long... live... the king," and suddenly he was falling, tumbling out of control! The ground rushed to meet him sickeningly fast and...
Rafiki awoke, shouting and clawing at the air. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
Without understanding what he did, Rafiki snatched a bowl of paint and frantically began dabbling at his painting of Simba and Mufasa on Pride Rock.
The vision passed, leaving him weak and trembling. His eyes focused.
In the empty space which had troubled him so much the other day, he'd just painted a black baboon, dancing madly at the foot of Pride Rock.
A single word emerged as a horrified whisper from his lips. "Mkorofi!" The clay bowl slipped from suddenly numb fingers and shattered on the floor, spattering paint everywhere. His beautiful painting was ruined.
Rafiki grabbed his stick, climbed out of his tree, and hit the ground running...
"Take it from me
He's got it all worked out"
Zazu thrashed and squirmed, caught in wrenching dreams of awful, sickening pain. Suddenly he came awake, gasping and clutched at his pounding head. "What? Where am I?" he moaned. And how had he gotten in this dark, foul smelling cave? An ominous shadow hovered over him. "Hello?" he stammered "Who's there?"
Two stones smacked together, striking sparks, and a small pile of dry wood caught fire. Soft, flickering light flooded the cave, revealing the shadow to be just an ordinary baboon sitting cross-legged on the ground. "Rafiki? Oh, thank heavens it's you. Something awful has happened!"
The hornbill struggled to get up, but the baboon gently restrained him with one hand. "Not so fast! You have a nasty bump there. Why don't you tell old Rafiki all about it, okay?"
The words came out of Zazu, all in a rush. "There was a stampede at the gorge. Simba was trapped, Mufasa went down there to save him. I tried to fly for help, but something hit me, and when I woke up I saw Scar, flinging Mufasa into the gorge! I must have blacked out after that, but... Oh, Dhoruba was right! We have to warn Sarabi!"
"No," said the baboon sharply. "You're confused. That is not what happened at all!" He took a small pouch and sifted its contents over the fire, producing a cloud of sweet scented smoke which he wafted towards Zazu.
"I know what I saw!" Zazu insisted. "We must..." He coughed, inhaling the smoke more deeply. His eyes took on a glazed, dreamy look. "We must... What is it we must do? I can't remember."
"When you went for help, you were in too great a hurry," the baboon explained, patiently. "You flew right into a rock and hit your head."
"Of course," murmured Zazu. "Oh! Oh my! What have I done? How could I have been so careless, just when Mufasa needed me the most!"
"It was all a terrible accident," the baboon told him, soothingly. "Scar tried so hard to save his brother, but there was nothing he could do! Do you remember him standing there, with the tears streaming down his cheeks, crying out to the Great Kings for his lost brother?"
"He tried so hard..." Zazu began to weep. "It's my fault! If I hadn't hit my head... I shall resign. Yes, that's what I'll do. I should resign as majordomo and go away, far away where I can't hurt anyone else."
"No! You must be strong. Don't you see? Scar needs you, now more than ever!"
"He needs me," Zazu agreed, nodding slowly. "Yes, of course I must stay. It's my duty."
"You must serve him just as you would have served Mufasa."
"I must serve Scar... Yes of course I will..." Zazu yawned. Suddenly, he just couldn't seem to keep his eyes open. "What else would I do?" he murmured, just before he slumped over and passed out.
"Sleep now," whispered Mkorofi. He stamped out the fire, and darkness filled the cave once more.
When Dhoruba got back to her den, Nala was there, wanting to play with Mtanga. She told them it was fine with her, and in no time at all the two cubs were happily racing round and round, pouncing and wrestling without a care in the world.
Dhoruba sat and watched enviously. She'd had that luxury once. Living like she pleased, minding her own business and trusting other people to mind theirs. That was the way a rogue ought to live. Not like this. Not with all this cursed planning and scheming and watching her every step.
It was all so frustrating! More than anything, she wished that she could just wash her paws of the whole mess. Let Scar take the Pride Lands, if he could! If Mufasa couldn't protect his kingdom, he didn't deserve it anyway.
But having a cub changed all the rules. Mtanga still had a lot of growing to do before she could even consider doing without the sanctuary of a pride. If Scar became king, she'd lose that safe haven. She and her son would be in grave danger until she found them a new place to live, and that was simply unacceptable.
Dhoruba groaned and rested her head on her paws. Who would have imagined it? Her, a proud rogue of the Southlands, risking life and limb for some stupid prider king who'd never appreciate or care what this was costing her. Ancestors, what a relief it would be when all this was behind her!
If only Kasuku would come back with news, any news. The waiting was killing her!
Kasuku struggled and squirmed, but it was no use. The leather cords that bound him refused to budge. "Let me guess," he ventured, as Mkorofi carried him out of the cave and headed uphill. "You want a favor, right? Well, whatever it is, you can forget it, pal! I've had it up to here with favors!"
Mkorofi laughed. "But it's such a small favor! When you're done, old Mkorofi will never bother you again, yes?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Kasuku, very much relieved. "Well, that's not so bad then."
Kasuku stopped looking quite so smug when he saw that Mkorofi was taking him across the ridge and down to the hyena dens in the heart of the elephant graveyard. Worse, the place was crawling with all the angry, bad-tempered hyenas who'd gotten stuck with guard duty on today of all days.
"Hey!" he squawked. "Just what kind of favor is this?"
The old baboon just smiled knowingly. Ignoring Kasuku's frantic protests, he approached the hyenas and showed the grey parrot to them. "Here you go!" he announced.
The hyenas regarded the offering with considerable suspicion. "Hey, what's this supposed to be?" one of them asked.
Mkorofi shrugged. "What does it look like?" He placed Kasuku gently on the ground, then turned his back on everyone and walked away without another word.
"Hey! Hold on just a wing-flapping moment," demanded Kasuku, with growing fear and disbelief.
"I don't know about you," remarked another hyena, "but I think it looks like dinner!"
The first hyena licked his lips and drooled. "I like the way you're thinking!"
The grey parrot thrashed around in a panic, but the way he was tied up, he couldn't even hop properly, much less spread his wings and fly away. "You can't do this to me!"
"Oh? Why not?"
"Because... er, because..." Inspiration struck Kasuku like a charging elephant. He smiled brightly and said, "Have you heard the one about the two hyenas in the desert?"
On the outskirts of the elephant graveyard, the celebrations had already begun.
Scar watched disdainfully as the hyenas laughed, danced, and caroused like the fools they were. Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed stood right in the middle of it all, clearly the heroes of the day. If Scar himself had gone down there, they would doubtless have been all over him as well. The very thought made him nauseous.
So instead, he threw his head back proudly and stalked right past them, ignoring their invitations to join in the fun. Past the hyenas, down the slope to the quiet, shadowy cave where Mkorofi made his lair.
Mkorofi glanced up from his scrying bowl, grinning. "Taka!" he cried out. "Or should I say, your majesty?" The aged baboon rose and bowed low before Scar.
"Indeed, you should, old one. I've done it! Mufasa and Simba are dead, and no one is the wiser. Zazu told the lionesses that it was all a terrible, tragic accident, just as you said he would." Scar frowned, suddenly suspicious. "You're certain he'll remain loyal?"
Mkorofi laughed. "To the bitter end."
"Excellent. By this time tomorrow, I shall be king, and my dear brother will be just a bad memory."
"You still have not dealt with Dhoruba," Mkorofi pointed out.
"I haven't forgotten. You know, it's a shame really. I rather admired her. But, as they say, she knows too much."
Scar scowled at the cave mouth. "Shenzi!" he roared. "Get in here!"
The hyenas took their time coming. Scar growled impatiently, but said nothing. Now was not the time to make an issue of their lack of respect. But soon, once he had the lionesses firmly under control... Scar grinned devilishly. Yes. Now that would be another matter entirely.
Shenzi appeared, flanked by Banzai and Ed. "Yeah?"
"Gather your best warriors," Scar told her. "We're going hunting."
With Scar and the hyena pack leaders gone, it wasn't long before the quiet stillness of death settled over the elephant graveyard once more. Mkorofi relaxed and began to laugh.
He kept right on laughing as he gathered up his few possessions and stowed them in a leather bag. When that was done, he left the cave and headed west, out of the Pride Lands, tapping his stick on the rocks and whistling an eerie tune as he walked along.
"Oh Taka, you fool!" he cackled. "You still have no idea what you've begun here..."
"So then I said, lady, have you got your lions crossed!"
All around Kasuku, the hyenas exploded into fresh gales of laughter. He had them literally rolling on the ground, helplessly laughing themselves silly. A few had even passed out, overwhelmed by the endless stream of jokes, gags, and bad puns.
And all the while, Kasuku was quietly scraping his bonds against a sharp rock behind his back. "Just a little favor, Kasuku," he grumbled under his breath. "Best audience of your life, Kasuku. Yeah right. Janja had better cough up big time hazard pay for this, that's all I can say!"
Nearly sunset, and still no word from Kasuku.
Dhoruba swore softly. Obviously, something had gone very, very wrong.
Unless Kasuku was just having a good laugh at her expense, of course. By the Ancestors, if Mufasa had won ages ago and that little pest had simply never bothered to come and tell her, she'd rip him apart one feather at a time!
Wait a moment, she'd already promised not to do that. Crud.
Dhoruba sighed. Enough of this. The evening meal would be arriving at Pride Rock soon, if things were still on schedule. Time to take Mtanga over there and ask around, quietly.
She took one last long look at Pride Rock, then padded over to the warm spot near the cave where Mtanga lay curled up, asleep. Then she did a double take.
Someone was coming up the trail. Dhoruba looked harder, trying to make out the distant shape. It was Nyota, and she looked awful. Walking unsteadily, head low and tail dragging on the ground, almost as if...
Oh no. Oh gods no, Mufasa had screwed up bad. She could see it all over Nyota's face. "Tell me what happened," she urged Nyota, forcing herself to sound calm and reassuring.
"Dhoruba," she stammered, tears streaming down her face. "It's Mufasa and Simba... They're... They're dead." Nyota broke down and started sobbing again. "The eulogy's at sunset, if you want to come."
"Damn," said Dhoruba quietly, her tail lashing. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She'd warned Mufasa, for the Ancestors' sakes! She'd done everything but jump up and down and scream "You fool, your brother wants you dead!" in his face, and the idiot had still gotten himself killed! How could this have happened?! How could Scar have so thoroughly outwitted her?
An icy chill descended on her. What if Scar knew she'd betrayed his plans to Mufasa? He'd already murdered his own brother and nephew. What wouldn't a lion like that stoop to?
She had to get out of here, now!
"Mtanga!" she shouted. "Wake up."
Mtanga sat up, yawning and stretching. "Huh? Is it time for dinner already?"
"No, son. Just come on. I'll explain as we go."
"Go where?" asked Nyota, innocently.
Crud! She didn't need this, she really didn't.
If Nyota knew the whole truth about Scar, she'd never be able to keep her mouth shut about it. Sooner or later, she'd confront Scar and get herself killed or thrown out of the pride. Or worse, the lionesses might actually overthrow Scar and find themselves with no king and no heir. Dhoruba had seen what happened to prides like that, and it wasn't pretty.
Still, she reasoned, there was no reason why part of the truth shouldn't serve just as well. "Nyota, Mtanga and I can't stay here any more. We're leaving the pride tonight."
"What? Now?" The young lioness blinked and tried to pull herself together. "But, it's too soon, isn't it? Sarabi said you wouldn't have to go until Mtanga grew up and his mane started showing."
"Yeah, well I wish I could wait that long, but I can't. It's too dangerous."
Nyota looked confused, then horrified. "You don't think that Scar would..."
"He could, you know," said Dhoruba. "Technically, my sanctuary expired when Mufasa died. I have to go. I can't take any chances."
"I guess I understand," said Nyota, soberly. "Would you mind if I walked with you to the border, at least?"
"Fine, whatever." Anything, just so long as she was making tracks out of here instead of standing around jabbering!
None of them spoke as they headed south across the savannah. Mtanga looked worried and full of questions, but he kept his mouth shut and trotted to keep up with her fast pace, bless him. Nyota, on the other paw, seemed to have a lot to say, but no words to say it with.
What was the matter with her, Dhoruba wondered. You'd think she was more broken up about us leaving than about Mufasa. Funny thing was, when Dhoruba got to thinking about it, she discovered that she was probably going to miss Nyota as well.
In fact, why deny it? She was going to miss a lot of things about this place: the cave where she'd raised her son, the sight of Pride Rock looming majestically on the horizon, the fields where she'd hunted every day... Maybe even Sarabi and the others, a little bit. After today she'd probably never see them again.
Dhoruba sighed. If anyone had told her three months ago that she'd be sorry to leave the Pride Lands behind, she'd have laughed in their faces.
But that was all in the past now. Over. Done with. Nothing she could do about it. Time to stop worrying about what she couldn't change, and start figuring out where she and Mtanga could find a new sanctuary.
Grasslands Pride might be a good place, she decided. They had good hunting in the Grasslands, and she'd heard their king tolerated rogues more readily than most. Or perhaps somewhere close to home like Bright Coast Pride would be better. Or maybe...
Mtanga sensed it first. "What's that funny smell?" he asked, sniffing curiously.
Dhoruba froze. "Hyenas!" She gaped in disbelief as the tall grass ahead of them came alive with lurking shapes and cruel, mocking laughter. Ambush!! "This way!" she urged Mtanga and Nyota. "Run! We'll go around!"
But there were hyenas coming from that way too. There were hyenas everywhere! More than she could count in every direction, moving in to surround them.
And behind them came Scar, darkly triumphant.
"It's great that we'll soon we connected
With a king who'll be all time adored
Of course, quid pro quo, you're expected
To take certain duties on board"
By the time Rafiki reached the gorge, the sun had already sunk low in the west, plunging the ground between the steep cliffs into deep shadow. Even so, the shaman searched diligently, combing the floor of the gorge from one end to the other, until at last he found it: Mufasa's cold lifeless body, lying under a broken tree.
He also found something that he hadn't been seeking. Something, in fact, that he'd been praying with all his strength not to find. A crimson feather lay on Mufasa's flank like a bloody gash in the golden fur.
Rafiki stared dumbly for a moment, then reeled backwards. Not just a red feather! A red crescent, the unholy symbol of the Devourer of Souls. A Devourer-spawn had murdered Mufasa!
Suddenly, Rafiki seized the feather and crushed it in his fist. Then he sank to his knees, wailing and weeping openly. He reached out and cradled Mufasa's massive head in his arms, turned it gently towards himself so he could look deep into that noble, kindly face one last time.
"May the Great Kings guide your path," he whispered, his voice trembling. "May the Ancestors bring you joy and freedom from pain. May the One Above All gather you to His kingdom and hold you in His love forever." His grief overwhelmed him, and he had to stop a moment before going on. "Now, I weep, but one day I will weep no more, for I know I shall see your face and touch your mane again. Good bye... Mufasa my friend."
It was finished. If the Devourer-spawn had left any taint on Mufasa's spirit, then Rafiki had purged it, to the best of his ability. Rafiki felt desperately weary, but he dared not rest, not yet. The wretched thing that had done this was still loose, somewhere in his Pride Lands.
Grasping his stick tightly in both hands, Rafiki made a special prayer to the One Above All. Unseen power flowed into the wood, twisting it gently in his grip until it pointed in one particular direction, and no other.
There. That was where he would find his enemy. Grimly, Rafiki began his journey.
As more and more hyenas gathered in a rough circle around the trapped lions, shock flooded through Dhoruba. The whole hyena pack, working for Scar?! Impossible! This couldn't be happening. Not now. Not to her!
Mtanga rubbed against her ankles, then looked up at her with wide, frightened eyes. "Mom, I'm scared."
Dhoruba swallowed hard. This was her worst nightmare. Alone, she could have run and escaped, but with Mtanga involved she was helpless. If the hyenas attacked, she, Mtanga, and Nyota faced certain death.
But the hyenas hadn't attacked! Why not?
Could it be because Scar had ordered them to take her alive? If Scar wanted them alive, they still had a chance! It wasn't much, but it was hope, and Dhoruba seized upon it like a starving lioness grasping for meat.
"I know, son," she told Mtanga, stroking his fur tenderly. "Don't worry. I'll find us a way out of this somehow."
Far away to the north, a dark form emerged from the twilight. Scar had finally arrived. Nyota sat up straight, her face suddenly full of hope again. "Help!" she shouted. "Your majesty, over here!"
"Help?" exclaimed Makuu, in the front row of the hyenas. "You actually think Scar's gonna help? You?!" He burst out laughing. "Aw, this is just too much!"
"Don't you worry, honey," mocked Shenzi. "We help you, all right..."
"Same way we helped Mufasa!" said Banzai. "Right off a cliff!"
Ed started giggling in his uniquely ghastly way, and all the rest joined in.
"I don't understand," said Nyota, bewildered. "Dhoruba, what are they talking about?"
Dhoruba sighed bitterly. "Don't you get it? Scar and the hyenas are working together. They killed Mufasa so they could take over the Pride Lands."
Scar padded towards them at a relaxed, confident pace, nodding to the uncommonly respectful hyenas as he passed. By now, it was obvious even to Nyota that Scar had come to join the hyenas, not drive them off. "Great Kings..." she gasped. Slowly, the true horror of their situation began to dawn on her. She looked at Dhoruba helplessly. "Why... Why didn't you tell anyone!?"
"I did, if that makes you feel any better. Fat lot of good it did."
Dhoruba had expected Scar to stay further back, safe behind his horde of hyenas, but instead he arrogantly came right into the center with them, just out of paws reach. It made her skin crawl, having Scar so close, but she stood and faced him anyway, refusing to back down.
Scar spoke first. "I don't recall giving anyone permission to leave," he said, icily.
"I don't recall asking," she countered.
Some of the hyenas laughed at that. Scar just smiled ominously. "My dear, let's not beat around the bush, shall we? You know, and I know that you know. I'm sure you understand the position that puts me in."
Dhoruba nodded warily. "Go on."
"My lieutenants urged me to have the three of you killed. Better safe than sorry, you understand. However..." Scar raised a paw with one claw extended. "I find myself inclined to be merciful. After all, I already have what I want, and so much blood has already been shed this day. Surely, there must be some suitable arrangement we could come to, if you know what I mean..."
Dhoruba held back a great sigh of relief. "Scar, I swear by the Ancestors that if you let us leave the Pride Lands unharmed, no one will ever find out from me that you killed Mufasa or Simba." She paused to let that sink in. "If you've spent any time around rogues, you know I'll keep that promise."
"Excellent," said Scar. "And what of you, Nyota? Will you also swear?"
Nyota looked positively horrified. "No!" she blurted out.
Dhoruba cringed. Crud! She was going to ruin everything! "Nyota..."
"Nyota, please be reasonable about this."
"Reasonable?!" Nyota backed away from her. "What's wrong with you? How can you make deals with him? He murdered Mufasa and Simba! Don't you care!?"
"It's not worth dying for!" snarled Dhoruba. "Look around you, girl! We've got no choice!!"
Nyota shook her head, trembling. "I can't!" she stammered. "You expect me to go through the rest of my life, lying about this? Just act like it never happened? I can't swear that! I'd rather die than swear that!"
Scar's face lit up with a malevolent grin. "As you wish."
Before Dhoruba could cry a warning, the pack exploded into motion, burying Nyota under a writhing heap of bloodthirsty hyenas.
"Nyota!" cried Mtanga, rushing towards the mob, where he surely would have been torn to pieces...
"No!!" screamed Dhoruba. Barely in time, she grabbed her cub and held him back...
Just as Nyota burst free of the hyenas, and... Dhoruba felt violently ill. Ancestors above have mercy, she was a bloody mess! Somehow, she scrambled onto a boulder before they pinned her down again. The hyenas crowded around, leaping at the torn and battered lioness. Nyota slashed wildly, trying to hold them off, but she clearly wouldn't last much longer. "Dhoruba," she cried, weakly, "help me! Please!!"
Dhoruba froze, utterly torn between helping Nyota and protecting her son. "Stop this!" she demanded of Scar. "Damn it, you've made your point! You don't have to kill her!"
Slowly, Scar turned around and fixed her with a chilling stare. "I am King of Pride Rock," he growled. "When I find enemies in my lands, I deal with them as I see fit. Do you have a problem with that?"
So that was it, then. It was either Nyota, or all three of them. Dhoruba sucked in a long, shuddering breath.
"No," she said.
Scar's eyes narrowed. "No, what?"
Dhoruba gritted her teeth. "No, your majesty."
As she spoke the words, Nyota lost her footing on the blood-slicked stone and fell. The hyenas dragged her down and ripped into her. In another few moments, it was all over.
The hyenas broke into an unholy chorus of howling laughter.
Mtanga began to whimper, then burst into tears and buried his face in her fur.
Dhoruba started shaking and couldn't stop. There was nothing I could do, she told herself over and over. Don't lose it now! Mtanga's counting on you!
Scar seemed morbidly fascinated by the whole thing. "You actually did it," he mused. "You actually stood there and watched her die. I didn't think you had it in you."
Cold rage shook Dhoruba, stabbing through her grief. "Now are you satisfied?!"
Scar nodded firmly. "Yes. I believe I've seen everything I need to see here." Scar turned his attention to the hyenas. "Shenzi, Banzai. Kill them. Make sure the bodies are never found."
"What?!!" exploded Dhoruba, unable to believe what she was hearing. "We had a deal, Scar! I gave you my word!"
"So, you're asking me to trust you, is that it? Like Nyota trusted you? Like Mufasa trusted you!?"
Dhoruba frowned sharply. "No that's not the same..."
"Isn't it!?" thundered Scar. "You swore to Mufasa that you would consider yourself a member of this pride, and then you betrayed it! Nyota was the best friend you had here, and you condemned her to death in the hopes of saving your own sorry hide!"
"How dare you?!" she cried. "Murderer!! You killed Mufasa! You ordered Nyota put to death, not me! You never let meant to let any of us go, did you? You were just... Oh, gods! The Devourer rot you in his burning hell, you monster!"
"A good try, my dear," said Scar, smugly, "but lies and excuses won't help you this time." Scar motioned to the hyenas, and the crowd started to tighten around her again.
Shuddering, Dhoruba looked down at her precious son and held him close. I'm sorry Mtanga, was all she could think. I blew it. I let you down. Ancestors, forgive me, I tried. I tried so hard...
Scar turned to leave, then stopped suddenly. His face lit up with a devilish grin. "On second thought, spare the cub. I may have use for him."
Scar was saying something else, but she couldn't hear him over the blood pounding in her ears. Pure hate burned through her, wiping away any trace of rational thought, but she no longer cared. Nightmare images assaulted her: Scar with Mtanga... Scar, teaching Mtanga his lies... Undoing every good thing she'd worked so hard to give him... Twisting him into a monster just like himself...
NO!! Scar was NOT laying his filthy paws on her son!! She'd kill him first!! Kill him!! KILL!!!
With a heart-stopping roar, Dhoruba crouched and leapt right over the hyenas, straight at Scar. He had the briefest moment to look surprised before she slammed into him, sending them both tumbling. They rolled over together twice, then flew apart. Both of them came up on their feet, she with deadly grace, he clumsily and more by sheer luck more than anything else.
The raging beast that Dhoruba had become drank deep of Scar's terror and lunged at him again and again. Scar tried to hold her off, swiping viciously with his forepaws, but he was helpless as a newborn against her rage. Dhoruba ducked his blows, then plowed into Scar again, flipping him over and slamming him into the ground.
Dhoruba snarled murderously and raked his chest with her claws. Scar roared and desperately slashed and thrashed, but he couldn't get her off. She didn't have enough reach to tear Scar's throat out, but it didn't matter. He was slowly suffocating, his struggles growing weaker by the moment. A few seconds more, and...
The sudden shrill scream was like a dash of cold water in the face. "Mom!! Help me!"
Mtanga! Dhoruba's head snapped up. What the hell was she doing?! She'd left her son unprotected, and three hyenas had him cornered! Immediately, she abandoned Scar and charged recklessly through the mob of hyenas.
The first hyena stupidly tried to meet her head on. She barely slowed down as she trampled him, hardly even noticed the sickening crunch of shattering bone. The second one crouched and leapt at her. Dhoruba just raised a paw and slammed her aside. That hyena fell to the ground in a twitching heap and didn't get up again.
The third one! Damn it, where was he?
Suddenly, pain exploded in Dhoruba's left hind leg, horrible burning biting pain like a thousand stinging nettles! She whipped around and tore the wiry little hyena apart with her jaws, but the damage was already done. The leg buckled under her, forcing her into an awkward crouch. Oh gods, it hurt!!
"Mom!" cried Mtanga. He licked her face. "Get up! Please mom, you gotta get up!"
"I'm all right," she gasped, trying to focus on her son. He had bloody scratches all over. Those bastards! Suddenly, Dhoruba realized that her paws and muzzle were covered in blood, and she felt horribly sick all over again.
She might have lain like that for hours, if the growling of dozens of maddened hyenas hadn't brought her back to her senses. Dhoruba forced herself to stand unsteadily on three legs. Scar lay unconscious in the middle of the field, but his hyena army was still furious and out for blood. "You want a piece of me?!" she bluffed. "I bet I can kill five or six hyenas before you drag me under. Who wants to die first?"
That stopped the front rank in their tracks, but the ones in back kept pushing. "Mother of us all, she's killed Makuu!" screamed one voice.
"My sister, oh gods my sister!" wailed another.
"Kill the bitch!" shouted Banzai.
"No more fooling around," snarled Shenzi. "This time, we do it our way! Who's with me?!" More than half of the pack howled in approval.
Dhoruba braced herself to snatch Mtanga and ran like mad. She knew she had no chance of escaping, loaded down and injured, but no way she just going to lie down and die!
And then a roar shattered the air. A male lion's roar! "Get out, you wretched poachers! This land is mine!! Get out, before I rip your foul hides and leave you for the jackals!"
Dhoruba sat down again, stunned. Could it be? Mufasa, alive?! Or another rogue, seizing the moment? For one moment, she dared to hope. Then, a strange feeling came over her. She looked up at the sky.
And there was Kasuku wheeling high overhead, still shouting his brave but ridiculous challenge across the land. Dhoruba had heard parrots pull that trick too many times to be fooled for long.
But the hyenas were buying it bark, leaf, and branch, scattering in every direction, running in circles, even abasing themselves on the ground in sheer terror.
Now or never! Dhoruba gently picked up her cub, grasping the loose skin of his neck with her teeth, then trotted away. Every step on that hurt leg was pure agony, but she gritted her teeth and made herself go on, until she was out of sight of the hyenas and well across the border. Then she put Mtanga down and collapsed ungracefully, panting like she'd run the length of three kingdoms.
When she could move again, she ignored her own injuries and started cleaning Mtanga with her tongue. Most of his wounds were just scratches, thank the Ancestors, but the deep cut that ran across his nose and muzzle was probably going to scar. Dhoruba knew that she should have been outraged, furious even, but right now all she could feel was a cold, numb emptiness inside.
A short while later, Kasuku caught up with them. "Found you... fast as I could..." he said, still gasping for breath. "Everybody okay?"
Dhoruba gave him a look that would have stripped the bark off trees. "No," she snarled. "Everybody's not okay."
After Dhoruba finished licking her own wounds clean, they headed south, away from the Pride Lands, and she never once looked back.
To Rafiki, the western border of the Pride Lands had always seemed a desolate, lonely place. From here on out, the tall savannah grass rapidly thinned, then vanished altogether. There were no herds here, no neighboring pride, only a vast lifeless desert. Overhead, the first stars of the evening shone faintly, along with a thin crescent moon. Rafiki frowned at the bad omen, then pressed on towards the faint light he saw in the distance.
The shaman approached as quietly as he could, creeping through the brush and circling around so that his scent wouldn't give him away. When he finally drew close enough to make out of the source of the light, he was astonished. A campfire! What could make his enemy so brazen? Didn't the Devourer-spawn fear him at all?!
Time to speculate later, Rafiki told himself. He tensed himself to rush and strike swiftly, knowing he might only get one chance.
The moment came, and Rafiki sprinted forwards! He burst into the circle of the fire's light...
And stopped dead. "Mkorofi!"
The elderly baboon tried to cackle softly and had a coughing fit instead. "Hello, Rafiki."
Rafiki gaped, shaking his head in disbelief. "But... No, it can not be!! I warn you, spirit, don't play games with me! Show me your true form."
Mkorofi shuffled forward and grabbed Rafiki's hand, squeezing it hard to prove he was solid. "What's the matter, apprentice? Don't know your old teacher? Surely, it has not been so long."
Rafiki jerked his hand away as if he'd touched something filthy. "How can you be here, alive? The council condemned you to death for your crimes! Master Tahadhari swore to me that the sentence was carried out. You couldn't have escaped, not unless..."
Slowly, Rafiki began to see all the changes in Mkorofi that he'd missed before. His blinded eye, his poor health... The tokens on his stick! Before, he'd always displayed blue feathers, the traditional token for a shaman of the Southlands. And now he used red! "By all the gods, Mkorofi, what have you done!?"
"What have I done?" roared Mkorofi. "The question is, what have you done?! You betrayed me, apprentice! Did you think I wouldn't find out? Did you really thing you wouldn't be punished?!"
Rafiki shuddered. "You're mad! You've used the Devourer's magic too much and let him rot your soul!"
Mkorofi grinned. There was a gleam in his eyes, a feverish intensity that frightened Rafiki to core of his being. "Is that what Wasimulizi has taught you? She lied to you, Rafiki, just as Tahadhari lied. They fear He Who Brings Death, because they know that the One's strength is nothing compared to His. They hide the truth from you so that you will not grow more powerful than they. Come with me, and I'll show you what true power is!"
Mkorofi's expression darkened. "Fool. Can't you see that your life as a shaman is over?" He laughed quietly to himself. "For my curse, there can be no atonement. Your precious Pride Lands and everything in it will wither and die."
"That won't happen," insisted Rafiki, slumping, close to tears. "I won't let it happen!"
"You'll see." Mkorofi laughed again, louder this time. "Do you know what they'll do to you when discover what has happened here? You'll be lucky if they put you to death and spare you the shame. Tell me, Rafiki, is that what you want?!"
"If that is how the One Above All chooses to punish me for my failure, I accept it. I will not serve the Devourer willingly, never again." Reluctantly, Rafiki raised his stick to a fighting position. There was no other way, he knew. He had to destroy Mkorofi before he could hurt anyone else. "I am sorry, for what I must do now."
"So I am," said Mkorofi, whipping a hollow reed up to his mouth and blowing.
Rafiki staggered forward, clutching at the feather dart stuck in his chest. Then his stick clattered to the ground and he toppled over.
As the world spun and went black, Rafiki was vaguely aware of Mkorofi looking down at him with a leering smile. "Oh no, it won't kill you. That's more mercy than you deserve. Bye!"
By the time Rafiki awoke, the sun had fully set and his former master was nowhere in sight.
"Gods forgive me," he moaned. He knew he would never catch Mkorofi now, so he turned and limped back to Pride Rock to see if there was anything at all he could salvage. It seemed hopeless, but he had to try.
He arrived just in time to see the new King of Pride Rock welcoming a horde of hyenas into his kingdom as friends. In that moment, he knew in his heart that every evil thing Mkorofi had spoken would surely come to pass. The curse had already taken root, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Rafiki moaned and buried his face in his hands.
"Sometimes I wonder
Why people always seem
To turn around
And lose their way
Look out your window
Be grateful for this day
And make a change
This time, Janja Shadowlurker had no warning, no luxury of long and thoughtful contemplation. Mwuaji and Ujuba came to him in the dead of night, interrupting a perfectly good hunt to bring him the news.
The leopards had broken their oaths and the peace. The Star and Cloud clans were at each other's throats, and all the Southlands was in turmoil!
When Janja understood the enormity of what had happened, he came at once, across the fringe and up the slopes to the deep jungle where the Gathering Place lay. A great crowd already waited for him there, huddled together under the clear starry sky. They watched, tense and uneasy, as the leader of the lion rogues of the Southlands entered and took his place on top of Mwasi's Stone. Janja gazed out at them, and a hundred faintly glowing eyes stared right back.
It was time.
"All right," he roared, getting right to the point. "Who will speak against the Star and Cloud leopard clans?"
"I will!" shouted a lion rogue, stepping forward. "My best hunting territory is worthless now, thanks to those cursed leopards! They chased all the prey away with their damned fighting!"
"One of my territories too!" chimed in another lion.
Two more lions came forward, a stranger, and Janja's own brother Malenga, leader of the Bard's Coalition. "Go on, Mtunzi," Malenga urged his companion. "Tell him what happened!"
"The Cloud leopards accused me of telling stories that praised their enemies," Mtunzi told them. "They besieged me in my cave, with my mate and cubs inside. If the other bards had not come to my rescue, the leopards would have killed us all!"
Once the lions had spoken, the other creatures seemed to find considerably more courage. A bull elephant was angry because a dead leopard had fouled his herd's water hole. The meerkats had needed to evacuate an entire colony. Most damning of all, a senior shaman had taken it upon himself to negotiate a peace between the warring clans and gotten brutally mauled for his trouble.
When everyone was finished, Janja asked, "Does anyone here wish to speak in their defense?" An eerie silence fell, disturbed only by the drone of the night insects and the distant winds whistling on the slopes of Clawtip Peak. There were leopards from the Sun and Wind Clans present, but they turned their backs and said nothing.
"Very well then," Janja growled. "I declare the Star and Cloud leopard clans guilty of breaking the common Law of the Southlands. The faithful will render judgment on them tonight." The crowd dispersed at once, quickly and quietly. No one stayed, no one offered to help. That wasn't how rogues did things. The matter was somebody else's problem now, and they wanted nothing more to do with it.
Only when they had all left, all except for his watchers and faithful, did Janja permit himself to breath a deeply troubled sigh. "Mwuaji, Ujuba, Tai, conference," he snapped, as he came down from the stone.
"Conference?" exclaimed Ujuba, as if she couldn't believe her ears. "What the hell else is there to talk about? Hey, we all know the damned leopards need killing, so let's just do it already! Or are you scared?"
Ujuba's words shocked Janja to the core. How dare she! The faithful were ready to go to war, scores of people might die, and she made jokes about it?! Janja opened his mouth to give her the most scathing rebuke of her life.
And suddenly, he reconsidered. No, not that way. Janja took a deep breath, allowing cooler thoughts to circulate in his head. Don't charge like a youth with a half-grown mane. Sneak like the serpent. Wait for just the right moment, then sink the fangs in deep, right where it counts.
The huge lion's face became a stone cold mask.
"Ujuba," he asked, in a dangerous tone of voice, "have you ever considered that you might very well be the next rogue leader?"
"Me?" she gasped, stunned. "Don't be silly. I'm a lioness!"
"He's right, you know," said Mwuaji, pacing around the side of the stone to join them. "It's been a long time, I'll admit. We haven't had a lioness for our leader since Binti Whisperfang three generations ago, but the rules haven't changed."
"We're not priders, Ujuba," said Janja. "It's brains and character that make a leader, not muscles and a mane."
"Wait a minute, wait, wait... You're trying to tell me... that you're seriously considering me? For your successor!?" Ujuba laughed nervously. "Yeah right. Sure you are."
"I'm perfectly serious. Look, Ujuba, I'll be honest with you. You wouldn't be my first choice. As a lioness, you would be controversial. You're impulsive, you have a short temper, and you don't always treat your responsibilities seriously enough."
"Then why are we having this discussion?!" she snarled, ears low and tail lashing. "If I'm not good enough, I'm not good enough! You don't have to rub my nose in it!
"Because whether you realize it or not, you are in the line of succession." Janja growled deeply and began to pace back and forth. "Mauti's purge of the old faithful has left me very short of candidates. Mwuaji is old, and my other faithful are less experienced than you. If I die untimely, Ancestors forbid, you would probably be chosen. It's my responsibility to see that you're fit for the job, and I've been neglecting it. No more."
Now Ujuba looked far less certain of herself. A little scared, even. "So, what do you want me to do?"
Janja nodded, pleased. "You, explain it to me. Why must the Star and Cloud leopard clans be punished? Because I'm angry with them, perhaps? Because they broke their oaths to me and made me look like a fool?"
Ujuba looked exasperated, as if the answer were painfully obvious. "No!"
"Because those damned leopards have directly challenged your authority, that's why! If you don't put them place now, no one will ever respect you again!"
Janja shook his head. "That's a good reason, but not the most important one. Think, Ujuba. Look harder."
"Because... because they're ripping the Southlands apart, and we're the only ones who can stop them?"
Janja sighed. "Good. I'm glad you understand that."
With a heavy heart, he turned away from her and faced Mwuaji. "Faithful-senior, your orders are as follows: Gather the rest of the faithful. Hunt down the leopards responsible for those attacks and kill them all. No warnings, no mercy. If the other leopards oppose you, you have my leave to kill them as well. Do you understand?"
Mwuaji nodded grimly. "As you wish... leader."
It was out on the endless savannah plain far south of the Pride Lands that Dhoruba first began to despair.
She, Mtanga, and Kasuku were not making good time. Her fault, of course. Her wounded leg had become a never-ending torment, a bottomless well of agony and suffering that assaulted her again and again with every step she took. If not for Mtanga, she might have long since crawled into a hole to die.
Mtanga... That was a whole other kind of hurting, as if she needed any more.
Her son. Her precious, beautiful son. Giving him a good home and keeping him safe and whole while he grew up was the most important thing she'd ever done in her whole life, and she'd failed. Miserably.
For a long time after the Pride Lands, Mtanga hadn't said a word. He spent the whole first day plodding on and on, step after weary step, staring at nothing and no one. He spent the whole first night shivering and twitching in his sleep, enough to give Dhoruba nightmares of her own. And then the questions had started...
"Mom, when can we go home?"
"Mom, I'm hungry. When are we going to eat?"
"Mom, why did Nyota have to die?"
She couldn't blame him, really. It wasn't his fault. But how could she even begin to answer his innocent questions when she didn't know the answers herself?
Through it all, Mtanga never blamed her for what had happened. Not even once. Somehow, that only made it worse. She felt ashamed, unworthy of his simple trust and love. Couldn't he see how the land itself rose up against them, dancing and twisting until she couldn't tell east from west? Didn't he hear the ghostly hyenas swirling around them, howling "Oath breaker!" and "Friend betrayer!" as they reached for her with their moldy, decaying paws?
Yet another failure. In her time, Dhoruba had stalked and killed countless prey animals and never once felt ashamed of it. But hyenas weren't animals, damn it! They might be the worst scum of the savannah, but they were still people in their own way.
She'd never killed people before...
At some point, Dhoruba realized that she must surely be delirious. Don't let Mtanga die, she begged Kasuku. Don't let this all have been for nothing! Get him somewhere safe, anywhere safe! Then she dimly recalled that she'd already asked the same thing of Kasuku twice before, and she was truly sick with worry.
And she felt so very tired. Ancestors, please let her make it through this. Just let her rest for a little while, and she'd be okay. Just a little rest...
So very tired...
That night, Mtanga dreamed of a golden lioness and a black lioness full of stars. The dark one was a strange older lioness who looked like mom, only different somehow. The golden one...
No, Mtanga thought. It couldn't be!
But it was! Nyota stood before him, whole and unharmed. Her whole body glowed with a radiant light that gave her an unearthly beauty. Somehow, he understood that he was looking at Nyota's spirit. She was Dead, and she'd come back again.
Suddenly, he was more afraid than he'd ever been in all his young life.
Nyota looked down at him, solemnly. She didn't seem angry or upset or in pain. Just... sad, somehow. Lost and sad and alone, just like him. "You told Simba and Nala that they were your friends. Where were you when they needed you? Where were you when I needed you, 'Tanga?"
Mtanga desperately wanted to say something, anything to Nyota that might make it better, but the words just wouldn't come. The small cub trembled and began to cry.
The black lioness full of stars gave him a tender, caring hug, just like mom would have. "It wasn't your fault," she told him, gently. "Nothing you could have done would have saved them. You did very well even to escape with your own life! Sometimes, you just have to accept that and move on."
A sharp blast of cold air came, and suddenly the lionesses were gone, ripped away from him like they had never existed. Then the darkness behind Mtanga roared to life. He spun around, whimpering, to behold a lion made of fire! "Nyota is mine," it crooned with Scar's face and voice, laughing cruelly as it stalked him. "Mufasa is mine. Soon, you and your mother will be mine as well."
"No!" cried Mtanga, backing away. "Leave me alone! Mom! Help!"
"Foolish, foolish little cub," cackled the burning lion. "No one can help you now. Kings and princes, rogues and outcasts, all are mine to Devour in time. I am the Hunter, and all the world is my prey. Who are you to stand against me?"
His horrible laughter burned Mtanga's ears. The raging flames spread and spread until all the world seemed to be on fire. Mtanga cringed and hid his eyes, waiting for the end.
"You will not touch him!" spoke a voice like thunder. Mtanga looked and saw a blue lion, the largest he'd ever seen, standing protectively beside him. With one mighty roar, the blue lion opened the heavens, bringing down a torrent of icy cold rain.
The mean bad lion howled in anguish as his flames began to smolder and die away, but he wasn't through yet. "Do you really think you've won, Chosen? Whatever you do, wherever you run, I'll always be a step behind. One day, you will have nowhere left to run, and I will be waiting..."
Finally, the downpour extinguished the last of the fires. The burning lion dissolved into a cloud of filthy smoke and was no more. The rain ceased, and earth and sky grew still and faded away.
Now, Mtanga was all alone in the endless dark with the blue lion. Beautiful azure light streamed from his fur, pooling in a radiant glow all around them. "Who are you?" whispered Mtanga.
The magnificent lion regarded him with warm, intensely blue eyes. "A friend," he said, smiling. "A messenger, from One who loves you and protects you." His expression became grave. "Mtanga, there's something you must do for me. Your mother is very sick. If help is not brought for her soon, she will die."
"But... mom can't die!" protested Mtanga. "Not her too!"
The lion rested a paw gently on Mtanga's shoulder. "You must be brave, little one. Run towards the rising sun as fast as you can, and you will find the help you need. Remember!"
Blue light flared impossibly bright...
And Mtanga spasmed and jerked awake, gasping for breath. Cool, dry earth underneath him, endless starry sky above. Mom's warm, comforting bulk at his side. What a weird dream, he thought.
Or was it? A hard knot of fear welled up inside him. "Mom?" he called softly, nuzzling against her flank.
No response. "Mom?!" He scrambled up and shook her body with his paws. "Mom, I'm scared. Wake up!"
But she didn't wake up. She just moaned quietly and wouldn't open her eyes. She was shivering too, and her hurt leg looked all ugly and swollen. Mtanga backed away, terrified. "Mom..."
"Kid..." Kasuku looked awful. His fine coat of grey feathers hung ragged and unpreened, and his whole body drooped with exhaustion. "I hate to tell you this, but... I don't think your mom is gonna make it." The grey parrot folded his wings and slumped helplessly. "I flew around all night looking for help, but it's dark and I don't know my way around this far north and..." He hung his head. "I... I'm sorry, kid. I'm really sorry..."
As if in a trance, Mtanga lifted his head and looked out to the east. The sky there was blood red with the coming dawn. "No," he growled.
Kasuku blinked. "Huh?"
"Mom isn't going to die. I won't let her die!!" Mtanga crouched, then leapt forwards, racing eastward as fast as he could.
Kasuku, left far behind, cut loose with a string of avian curses. He obviously wanted to follow, but he was too exhausted to get airborne. "Kid, wait! Come back! Oh damn it, Janja's gonna kill me!!"
Mtanga ran on and on across the grassy plain, yelling for help. Something rational inside him said that this was stupid. His paws hurt. His lungs burned. His tummy ached, telling him he hadn't eaten in two days. Beside, there wasn't any help out here! All this noise would only bring leopards, jackals, or worse!
But mom was counting on him! He couldn't let her down, not like he'd let Simba, Nala, and Nyota down! He just couldn't!! Twice, he stumbled, and twice he got right back up and kept on running.
His breath was coming fast and ragged now. He knew he couldn't run much further. Any moment now, he'd fall and he wouldn't be able to stand again. He kept going, and going...
And that was when two lionesses came bounding over the next hill, both of them skidding to a stop as they came into sight. "Look, it's a cub!" exclaimed the younger one with the pale fur. "It's okay, little guy. Who are you? Where..."
"It's my mom!" cried Mtanga, still gasping for breath. "She's hurt real bad. You've got to come help her!"
Immediately, the older dark-furred lioness took charge. "Faraja, fetch the shaman and bring her up here, fast! I'll stay with the cub."
The lioness named Faraja nodded respectfully, then turned around and took off running without another word spoken. As soon as she was out of sight, the other lioness looked down at him and said, "All right, kid, let's go see about your mom."
Mtanga hesitated. He knew that strangers were bad and sneaky and never ever to be trusted, but he didn't have any choice, not if he wanted help for mom. If only mom were here to tell him what to do... He started crying again.
The lioness' stern expression softened a bit. "Look, it's all right," she said, soothingly. "You're in Kube River Valley Pride territory now. I'm Tufani, the hunt mistress here, and I promise I won't let them do anything bad to you or your mom. What's your name, little cub?"
Mtanga sniffed and wiped his tears with a paw. "Mtanga," he stammered.
"Mtanga," echoed Tufani. "Don't worry. Faraja will be back soon with Laini, our shaman, but until then, someone needs to watch your mom and make sure she's safe. I need you to show me where she is. Can you do that for me, Mtanga?"
Be brave, thought Mtanga. Mom would want him to be brave. The young cub swallowed hard and nodded. "Okay..."
When Mtanga and Tufani got back to the place where Dhoruba lay, she was still unconscious, and Kasuku was still there, standing watch. The parrot did a double take and came hopping over to Tufani. "What the heck? Lady, I don't know where you sprang from, but you have no idea... how glad... hello?"
Kasuku trailed off, because Tufani wasn't even looking at him. Instead, she was gaping at Dhoruba, astonished.
"My sister! Oh gods, my sister!" Tufani rushed to Dhoruba's side and gently stroked her face with a trembling paw. "Great Kings have mercy, Dhoruba. What have you gotten yourself into this time?"
"There's a river
Standing between me
And my home"
Darkness enfolded Dhoruba like a mother cradling a newborn cub. At long last, she could rest. No more pain or suffering. No more responsibilities. It was oblivion, and she was grateful.
But it didn't last. Little by little, sensations began to emerge from the Dark, strange yet hauntingly familiar. Scents. Sounds. Voices. One voice, calling for her. Dhoruba shied away, wishing only to return to her rest, but the voice insisted, giving her no peace.
"Poor little Ruba," crooned the voice, soft and female, old and thin. "What nasty mud pit have you put your paws into this time, hmm? Such a brave, feisty cub, my little Ruba, always getting in brawls and poking her nose in badger dens! Well, what are you waiting for? Wake up, girl! Come, up, up!"
"Laini?" moaned Dhoruba, yawning and stretching. She opened her eyes, and immediately shut them again, blinking in the light. "Ancestors, is it really you?"
The elderly female baboon leaning over her smiled gently and scratched between her ears. "Of course it's me, Ruba." Laini offered her a bowl full of water. "Here, drink."
Dhoruba was astonished to discover how parched she was. The rogue lioness lapped the water greedily and found it intensely cool and refreshing.
Laini nodded, satisfied. "Very good. Now, hold still while old Laini changes your bandage."
"Bandage?" she asked, groggily. Dhoruba looked around and realized for the first time that she was in a cave. Her cave in Kube River Valley, the very place where she'd been born and raised! Then she saw Laini doing something to her left hind leg, and memory came flooding back. "Crud..." she whispered, suddenly wracked with fear. "Is it all right, Laini? Will I walk and hunt again? Oh gods, please say I will!"
"I think so..." Laini took a fresh wrap made of sewn-together leaves and tied it tight around Dhoruba's leg, making her wince. "But you mustn't try to walk until I say so, and you mustn't touch that bandage. The leg has to stay covered for at least another eight days."
"Eight days! I can't lie around for eight days! I've got a cub to feed!"
"Be glad you still live and breathe! There was an evil sickness in your wound. Had I come any later..." Laini trembled and lowered her gaze. "You should thank the One Above All, Dhoruba. Surely He has done a miraculous thing for you this day."
Dhoruba sniffed contemptuously. She'd never had much use for the mysterious One Above All that the shamans liked to babble about so much. She barely even respected the Ancestors, for all that she swore by them. Then she got to thinking about how unlikely her rescue had been, and the kind of future Mtanga would have faced with her dead or lame. "Maybe you're right," she said, reluctantly. "I will. Thank you, shaman."
Laini smiled again and was about to speak, when she was interrupted by the sound of small, eager footsteps. "Mom? Mom!!" Mtanga came charging into the cave and began nuzzling against her face and purring like she hadn't heard since he was a newborn.
"Mtanga!" Overjoyed, Dhoruba licked her cub gently, and he purred even louder, if that were possible. Then as she watched, he yawned adorably, curled up in a little ball by her side, and fell fast asleep.
"Isn't he just precious?" said Tufani, following right behind Mtanga. "He wouldn't rest until he knew you were okay."
"Gods..." Dhoruba found herself staring at Tufani, even as Tufani stared right back at her, each taking the other's measure. Could it really have been two whole years since she'd last seen her sister? "Tufani. I... I'm glad you're here."
"Well, yeah," murmured Tufani, with an embarrassed smile. "That's what family's for, right?"
Tufani sighed. Dhoruba knew, even before Tufani spoke again, that something was bothering her. "Ruba, I saw the blue eyes. He's Janja's, isn't he?"
Dhoruba realized what Tufani must be thinking. "My choice, Fani. I asked and he gave. I don't regret that."
Tufani frowned, but asked no more prying questions, even though she had to be burning up with curiosity. "If you want to talk about it, if there's anything I can do..."
Dhoruba reached over and nudged Tufani's paw with her own. "Yeah. Thanks, sis. I really appreciate this."
Outside, a commotion seemed to be brewing. Raised voices argued back and forth. "Crud," growled Tufani under her breath. "I asked him to wait..."
Him?! Ancestors have mercy...
Dhoruba cursed herself for a fool. Her sickness must have scrambled her brains more that she'd thought. How could she have lain here awake all this time and not remembered why she'd deliberately avoided her sister's pride for so long?
Unable to turn away, Dhoruba watched King Mfalme storm into the cave. His golden fur, face, and emerald eyes were the same as ever, but now the slender young lion had grown proud and strong, with a regal bearing and a thick brown mane. A cold somber shadow seemed to lay over him.
Dhoruba shivered with a sickening dread. Could this dark, angry lion really be the same Mfalme she and Tufani had played with every day as cubs? The same kind and eager prince who'd had such a crush on her once? She'd heard the story of how Mauti Bloodpaw betrayed and murdered Mfalme's father, but somehow it had never seemed real.
Not until now.
"Let me handle this," whispered Tufani. Then she moved to block Mfalme's path. "Your majesty, I asked you to wait."
"I will not!" snarled Mfalme. "Why have you given one of those wretched rogues my hospitality without consulting me? You know the Law! By all the gods..."
And then he saw her. Mfalme froze, gaping in shock and disbelief. "You..." His jaw trembled. Emotions seemed to war with each other on his face: love, anguish, and rage all jumbled together.
He's mad, thought Dhoruba, suddenly fearing the worst. The pain has broken his mind, and there's no telling what he might do!
But Tufani smoothly stepped between them again. "I won't let you hurt them, your majesty," she said, utterly calm. "Don't make me do something we'll both be sorry for."
Mfalme scowled fiercely, but he didn't come any closer. "You have a lot of nerve, coming back here after what your kind did to us. After what your thrice damned mate did to me!"
"I got jumped by hyenas, your majesty," said Dhoruba, in her softest, most respectful voice. "I didn't exactly have a lot of a choices."
"So I heard." Mfalme sighed through clenched teeth. "Fine. You want to stay? Stay, then, but I expect you gone as soon as you're well enough to travel. When you see Shadowlurker again, tell him he owes me."
For a moment, Dhoruba was livid with anger. "I can pay my own way, damn it!"
Mfalme didn't get mad again, didn't yell or shout or try to argue with her. Instead, he turned his head and coldly regarded her torn leg and her sleeping cub. "No," he said, quietly. "You can't."
He gave Tufani a sharp glance. "Hunt mistress, your sister is your own responsibility now. See to it that I'm not bothered with this matter again."
And that, apparently, was that. The King of Kube River Valley turned sharply and strode from the cave without so much as a single backward glance.
Over the next few days, Dhoruba and Mtanga's lives settled into a comfortable, if rather dull, routine.
Twice a day, Tufani or Faraja brought meat to Dhoruba's den. It shamed her, eating food she hadn't earned, but for Mtanga's sake, she gratefully took whatever they could spare her. She also continued Mtanga's vitally important education whenever she felt well enough. It between times, she slept all she could.
Since Dhoruba's wound made it difficult for her to do anything but sleep, eat, and talk, Tufani and Laini frequently came to keep her company. Once, they even stayed all afternoon and long into the night, catching up on old times. They especially enjoyed getting acquainted with Mtanga; Laini loved to play with him and give him special treats, and Tufani never tired of telling stories of all the things she and Dhoruba had done as cubs.
Dhoruba, in turn, told her sister all about recent events in the Pride Lands, with particular attention to Scar's murderous schemes and his alliance with the hyenas. She wasn't breaking her promise, she reminded herself. To a rogue's way of thinking, that promise had holes big enough to run an elephant through, and Dhoruba was using the biggest one of all. She'd only promised to keep Scar's dirty secrets if he let her go unharmed.
With any luck, Tufani's loyal messengers would spread the truth about that lying, grass-eating son of a jackal to every pride and coalition in the savannah. It wasn't much of a revenge, but for now it would have to do.
Dhoruba's friends tried their best to keep her occupied, but Tufani had hunting parties to lead and borders to guard, and Laini had to go wherever the Ancestors willed her, healing and teaching. Inevitably there came a morning when Dhoruba was left all alone. Too restless for sleep, Dhoruba lay listlessly in the mouth of her cave, thinking and brooding.
She'd escaped Scar, but one thing still had not changed. She must have a safe place to raise Mtanga. Would Mfalme allow her to stay longer if she pleaded with him? Should she even try?
If she must seek another pride, which one? With whom could she trust the lives of herself and her precious son? The Pride Lands had seemed like such a good choice, right up until things had gone so badly wrong!
What if Scar's thugs came hunting her? Would another prider king protect her against them, or would they serve their own interests first and leave her to rot?
Worse, what if Janja decided to meddle? That backstabbing little pest Kasuku had vanished soon after she woke, so Dhoruba had to assume that Janja now knew all about her condition and exactly where to find her. True, he hadn't done anything yet, but he might only be biding his time...
And then, there was Mtanga himself to worry about.
With a bitter sigh, Dhoruba lifted her weary head and looked out at the lush Kube River Valley. She was disappointed, yet unsurprised, to see that Mtanga had not left the sight of their cave.
She had continued his lessons, and he'd listened dutifully and taken every word to heart. She'd told him to practice his pouncing and hunting exercises, and he'd done that too, getting obviously better and better the more he worked at it.
But when she gave him time of his own to go and play, this was how he used it. Sulking. Aimless pacing and wandering. Pawing idly at the fresh scar on his muzzle. Sudden fits of anger or depression for no reason at all.
Dhoruba could have gone to him. She could hobble around slowly and awkwardly on three legs, if she dared, but she stayed put, knowing it would do no good. Dhoruba knew the sight of a rogue who wished to be alone, if she knew anything in this world. When Mtanga wanted her comfort, he'd open his heart to her then and not before.
Dhoruba cursed uselessly and laid her head down on her paws.
Her rest didn't last long. The small, furtive sounds of curious cubs woke her. Two of them, she noted, easily spotting them in the tall grass despite their clumsy attempts at stealth, one male and one female, both with bright fur and green eyes. Mtanga, too, had seen them. He sat and watched warily.
Crud! Those were Mfalme's cubs, no doubt about it. Dhoruba shuddered to think what might happen if even the slightest harm came to them. Did she dare shoo them away? She could make an excuse, claim they had disturbed her rest...
No, she decided. Do what you're doing now. Keep pretending you're asleep, and pray Mtanga doesn't do anything stupid.
Now the prider cubs came forward openly to greet Mtanga. "Hi!" said the male. "My name's Kanzi. I'm gonna be king of Kube River Valley someday."
"I'm Miradi," said the female. "Kanzi's my brother. What's your name?"
"Mtanga," muttered her son, clearly not interested.
Brother and sister exchanged puzzled looks. "We're gonna go play in the north field," offered Miradi. "Want to come with us?"
Kanzi frowned. "Huh? Why not?"
"I said I don't want to, okay?" growled Mtanga. "Leave me alone."
Miradi and Kanzi gave up and left. As they turned to go, Dhoruba could faintly hear Kanzi complaining, "Stupid rogues. I told you this was a waste of time."
"Don't be so hard on Tanga," Miradi whispered back. "It's not his fault he's a rogue."
Not his fault. Miradi had said the words so innocently. Hurt had obviously been the furthest thing from her young mind, but hurt had been done all the same.
Mtanga watched them go, then angrily batted a clattering old bone with his paw and stalked away.
That night, when the evening meal was finished and they were alone again, Mtanga asked, "Mom, are we staying here?"
Dhoruba blinked. She'd been half asleep, right on the edge of dozing off. "No, Tanga. We're leaving as soon as I'm well again."
Once, Dhoruba would have been pleased to hear such a mature roguish attitude from her son. Not now, though. Mtanga was still so young, too young for such bitterness. Dhoruba roused herself, rolling onto her side so she could study his face. In the quiet darkness, she could barely make him out, lying there beside her.
Mtanga just looked at her strangely, his deep blue eyes glimmering in the starlight. "You don't like it here either, do you mom?"
Dhoruba shivered. Again, his insight had astonished her. "I... I guess not," she admitted. "It's nice to visit, though. I was born here, you know."
That got his interest. For a moment, the old Mtanga, always so curious and eager to learn, seemed to return. "You were? Really?"
"That's right. You see, when it was time for my mother to have me and Tufani, she came here and got sanctuary, just like I did at Pride Rock. Then when we were grown up enough, mom took us back home to the Southlands."
Mtanga got that cute little puzzled frown again. It warmed Dhoruba's heart to see it. "But mom, Aunt Tufani's still here. Why did she come back? Didn't she like being a rogue?"
"She thought she did at first." It hurt Dhoruba to talk about this, to remember this again, but Mtanga needed to know. "After... after mom died, she got to thinking real hard and decided to come back. That was her choice. When you grow up, you'll get to choose too. You can be a rogue, or join a coalition, or you can try to take a pride and be a king."
"But I don't want that!" Mtanga protested. "I want to be a rogue like you, mom." Tears brimmed in his young eyes.
"What's wrong?" she asked, gently.
Mtanga sniffed and began to cry. "I was so scared when you got sick. I... I thought... Oh mom, please don't ever do that again!"
Dhoruba reached out and drew him near with her paws, nuzzling him warmly and reassuring him. "Son, being a rogue... isn't a safe life. You never know when you or me or someone else you care about might get hurt real bad, or even killed. But what I can promise you is that we'll always be together, because when we die, we become spirits and live with the Ancestors forever and ever."
"Really! That means I'll always be able to watch over my special little cub, no matter what happens."
Mtanga closed his eyes and hugged her tight, purring softly. "I love you, mom."
Dhoruba smiled and held him close. "I love you too, son."
Everything was all better. Everything was going to be all right again...
And then Mtanga said, "Mom, I dreamed about Nyota last night. Do you think she's a spirit now?"
A cold chill seized Dhoruba, snuffing out the only joy she'd had in longer than she could remember. "Yeah..." she stammered. "I'm sure she is..."
After that, the days passed more swiftly and Dhoruba's leg slowly mended. Laini had much experience with these sorts of injuries, so she taught Dhoruba some stretches to help her learn to walk right again. Dhoruba faithfully did the excruciatingly painful exercises every day, until she felt just as confident on her paws as before. Another day or two, Laini said, and she'd be ready.
But ready for what? Her body was getting better, but in her heart she just kept feeling more and more miserable.
The more familiar Dhoruba became with the Kube River Valley as it was now, the more alone and unwanted she came to feel. In another place, at another time, she wouldn't have cared. Rogues hate priders and priders hate rogues; that was the way of things. They were Other People. She owed them nothing, and by all rights she shouldn't have given a damn what they thought of her.
But this was her birthplace, for the Ancestors' sakes! All her life, she'd thought of this place as a sort of home, and it hurt her bitterly to see lionesses that she'd known as a cub giving her those suspicious stares and hateful looks. The fact that the pride sisters obviously loved and respected her sister a great deal just made it worse.
Even then she could have managed, if not for the dreams.
Every night, she lived through Nyota's death again. Every night, she saw blood on the rocks, and ripping fangs and tearing claws. She heard the scream of a dying lioness and the cruel laughter of a hundred thousand hyenas. She felt them tearing into her again and again, ripping and slashing until she was wrenched from sleep to lie there in her cave, shuddering and gasping for breath.
"Why!!?" she screamed in her mind over and over again. There was nothing she could have done! Only the most incredible stroke of luck had saved her and Mtanga, much less Nyota! Why couldn't she get any peace? Did the Ancestors hate her so much, that they rained misery on everything she touched? Why? Why?!!
And then, in the dead of night, she awoke again, trembling with a horrible realization. Scar had been right. Oh gods, Scar had been right about her all along! Hastily, she got up, taking care not to wake Mtanga, and bolted from her cave.
She ran a long ways, then walked when she grew too exhausted, tail dragging in the dust, until she had come far away from where any lion lived. The world seemed so quiet and peaceful out here... Endless savannah below, and endless stars above. A night breeze blew fiercely, sweeping the tall grass in waves and ruffling her fur. Dhoruba shivered, but not from the cold.
Dhoruba looked up into the star-filled heavens and whispered, "Nyota, I don't if you can hear me, wherever you are now, but I was wrong about you. You were a better friend than I ever realized." Dhoruba swallowed hard, wracked by emotion. "You always had kind words for me, even when everybody else hated me or ignored me. I always felt better going out on the hunt, knowing that you'd be around to watch Mtanga, even though I wouldn't admit it to myself. Knowing that someone cared..."
She was crying now, she realized, crying like she hadn't since the day mom died. "But I was too damned stupid to admit I needed a friend. I just had to be so Ancestors-be-damned clever, didn't I? Didn't have to get my paws dirty, didn't have to care about anyone or anything! If I'd only trusted someone... If only I'd told the pride everything I knew about Scar's plan as soon as I knew, we could have stopped him before it was too late..."
"I'm a rogue, Nyota. My mom taught me that when you screw up, you have to take responsibility for what you did, so here it is. I'm responsible for what happened at Pride Rock. It's my fault you died, Nyota. I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry..."
All of it came pouring out of her, all the pain and hurt and grief that she'd tried not to feel for so long. A hand rested gently on her shoulder. It was the shaman, and for once, Dhoruba didn't mind. She just nodded wordlessly, and let Laini hug her and hold her tight while she cried and cried, her whole body wracked with great shuddering sobs.
A long, long time later, when the eastern sky was bright with the new dawn and life felt like it might be worth living again, Dhoruba whispered, "Thank you."
The elderly shaman reached out and scratched between her ears. Yesterday, Dhoruba would have snarled and jerked away, but now she found it oddly comforting. "I don't mind," said Laini.
Dhoruba sighed and rested her head on her paws. "Laini, what am I going to do? I've lost my sanctuary and I don't know where else to go. Where can I go to raise Mtanga where he'll be safe?"
The shaman closed her eyes and breathed deeply. "Dhoruba, the One Above All has seen your suffering and shown you mercy. Even a rogue needs a few friends. Find yours, and you will find your home."
Dhoruba blinked, then sat still and thought about that. Then she thought about it some more. Finally, just after sunrise, she got up, thanked the shaman again, and returned to her den.
Now she understood what she had to do.
"Got to stand up
Got to move on
Got to build me
A life of my own"
Later that same day, two dark-furred lionesses and a young cub left the safety of Kube River Valley Pride and climbed the ridge that marked its southern border. In the distance, the savannah sloped gently downwards until it met a vast sea of emerald green which covered the land from one horizon to the other. Further away still, wreathed in mists, Clawtip Peak loomed over the jungle like an immense stone fang.
"Whoa..." breathed Mtanga, staring with wide, curious eyes. "Is that really the Southlands?"
"It sure is!" said Dhoruba. "I told you we'd be coming back here someday, didn't I?"
Tufani stood quietly nearby, her tail lashing unhappily. "You sure you want to do this? Absolutely sure? There's other prides besides Mfalme's and Mufasa's, you know. Just say the word, and I'll get you in with Golden Coast or Misty Vale, no questions and no hassle."
"Tufani, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but I have to talk this out with Janja or I'll never have any peace. I think I knew deep down, even before Laini told me. Now I'm sure."
Tufani sighed. "You just be careful, you hear? You don't know Shadowlurker as well as you thought you did, else you wouldn't have run away in the first place. Think of your cub, Ruba. Don't do anything stupid."
Dhoruba found herself smiling unexpectedly. "You know, you sound just like mom when you say that."
Tufani blinked. "I do not!"
"Do too!" Dhoruba scrunched her face up into a fearsome motherly frown. "I didn't raise either one of you girls to be fools! Use your heads, remember what I taught you, and for gods' sakes..."
"Don't do anything stupid!" they chorused. Both of them burst out laughing, while Mtanga watched, honestly bewildered.
Eventually, Tufani grew serious again. "We'd better go if we're going. The day's half over and I'm on patrol tonight."
Dhoruba nodded soberly. They crossed the ridge and descended together.
The Fringe seemed uncommonly peaceful and empty today, but Dhoruba kept her guard up just the same, eyes, ears, and nose alert for even the slightest hint of danger. Predators of every kind shared these rich hunting grounds, and not always gracefully. You never knew what you might meet out here.
She started to warn Mtanga to stick close by her side, only to realize that he was doing it already, imitating her careful walk and looking over his shoulder every now and then, just like her. Dhoruba watched in amazement, a little sad but very, very proud, wondering if anything would ever be the same again.
In the outer layers of the jungle, the very nature of the land began to change. The shadows of the trees fell over them and grew deeper. The air became steadily more humid. Further still, and the tall grass gave way to rich dark earth, cool and reassuring beneath her paws. Leaves, branches, mosses, and vines thickened above them until the sun became just a soft glow amidst the green, and blue skies just a memory.
But there was more to it than that. Much, much more.
Something deep and profound began to stir within Dhoruba. A sense of order in the jungle's chaotic beauty. A feeling of purpose, of knowing the world and her place within it.
In other lands, prides ruled, and rogue lions lurked in the shadows and scraped out a living where they could. In the Southlands, though, there could be no prides. The dense jungle held too little prey to feed large groups of lions living together, but skilled individuals could and did thrive. It was a hard place to live, but the rogues cherished it and guarded it jealously, for it was uniquely their own.
It was so clear now, so obvious! This was her home! This was the place where she belonged. How could she have ever thought otherwise?
And now, she might never be able to live here in safety again. The thought filled her with such despair that she had to physically shake herself out of it. No! She didn't matter. Nothing else but Mtanga mattered. No shady deals would be acceptable, she swore, no compromises. She'd do what was best for her son.
No matter what the cost.
The mighty River Kube lay before them, lifeblood of all the Southlands, flowing deep and strong in his channel. He would have been far too dangerous too cross here, if not for the massive fallen log bridging the gap between north bank and south. That log was no happy coincidence; every few years the bridge rotted through or washed away in a storm, and each time the shamans patiently raised a team of elephants to put another log in its place.
Tufani looked mistrustfully at the south bank. "This is as far as I go, sis. I hope you have some way to get Shadowlurker's attention without tromping up and down half the jungle."
"He'll be here," said Dhoruba, not quite able to keep a nervous tremor out of her voice. "Just wait."
"This crossing is always watched." In fact, her sharp eyes had already spotted one of Janja's watchers taking wing, but it wouldn't have been wise to point one out to a prider, sister or not.
They sat down to wait for a little while. Tufani told Mtanga a story to keep him from getting restless.
All too soon, the dense foliage on the south bank rustled and parted.
Janja had arrived.
The beating of Dhoruba's own heart suddenly seemed terribly loud.
She drew in a deep breath. "Tanga, stay here with your aunt Tufani. No matter what happens, don't cross the river unless I call you over, okay?"
"Please." She managed a small smile for his benefit and lovingly rubbed the top of his little head with her paw. "Hey, it's okay. I'll be alright." She gave a meaningful look to her sister, and Tufani nodded once, silently. Finally, Dhoruba got up and padded across the log bridge with careful, measured steps. She stared at her paws as she crossed, not trusting herself to look at Janja directly until she was on solid ground again. And when she did at last look up...
There he was, sitting only a few paces away, massive and strong and achingly handsome. A faint breeze blew along the river, stirring his thick ebony mane. Gods, she'd missed him so much! Suddenly, it was all she could do not to fall at his feet and weep for joy. Ancestors help me, she prayed. Let me be strong for just a little longer, for my son's sake.
"Dhoruba..." he spoke, deep and resonant, yet soft as footfalls in the tall grass. Then the gaze of those intensely clear blue eyes slipped away from her, to the small cub sitting on the far side of the river. The proud, cold mask of the rogue leader slipped, just for a moment. "Is that..."
"Yes, Janja. That's my son, Mtanga. Our son."
"Mtanga," he whispered. He gazed in wonder for a long moment before regarding her again. There was something else in those eyes this time. Pain. Loss. "Why? Why did you run away? We discussed this. You were going to raise our cub here, in the Bard's Coalition."
"I... I couldn't. Janja, you know how we talked things over before we decided to make a cub? How I wanted more than anything else for Mtanga to have the same opportunities my mom worked so hard to give me? Your family just wouldn't leave well enough alone."
"Malenga," hissed Janja. "Damn it, he promised he wouldn't meddle!"
"It wasn't just him, Janja. The whole coalition was in on it. They kept coming to 'visit' one after the other! Always talking about bards and families and their damned traditions. Janja, your family won't rest until they get Mtanga for a bard, like they think you should have been. If he chooses that for himself, fine, but I won't have it forced on him!"
"Dhoruba, why didn't you come to me with this? I would have stopped them. All you had to do was ask!"
"I couldn't do that either..." she stammered, anguished. "Don't you see? I wasn't just running from the coalition. I was running from you!"
Janja shrank back from her, stricken. "How can you say that? I love you, Dhoruba. Don't you know by now that I'd never do anything to hurt you?"
Dhoruba swallowed hard. Gods, it hurt so much to say such hurtful things to Janja's face, but she knew she had to say her piece now, or she'd never be able to do it. "I... I thought I believed that once. Now, I just don't know any more... Janja, you've changed. You're not who you used to be."
His eyes grew wide, and he shook his head in denial. "But..."
"No, please, let me finish." Dhoruba drew in a long, shuddering breath. "Since you became rogue leader, I've seen you with my own eyes do things that would have shocked the old Janja to the core of his soul. I know you do what you do for good reasons, but sometimes I look at you and I can't find the lion I fell in love with any more. Do you know how much that frightens me?"
"I'm sorry," he whispered, staring down at his huge paws. Tears brimmed in his eyes.
"I just wish... Janja, if you really love me, let's leave all this! Let's go far away from here, just you and me and Mtanga. No more plots and plans, no more dispensing justice for half the rogues in the world. Just you, me, and him, the way it should have been."
"I can't," said the great lion, trembling. Trembling, like a little lost cub! "You have no idea... how much I wish I could do exactly that. But the Southlands needs a leader, and I'm still the only one who can do the job. I'm sorry..."
"Well... I guess that's that, then." Bitterness welled up inside Dhoruba. She'd been so sure this talk could make a difference! She'd wanted so much to believe that Janja was the one who could show her the safe place the shaman had spoken of. Now, there was nothing to do but head north again, and keep on searching.
"Dhoruba, wait!" he pleaded, as she turned to go. "I have an offer for you."
She hesitated, suspicious. "I'm listening."
"Don't go begging strangers for their sanctuary again. You and Mtanga deserve better than that. Stay here, in the Southlands. Take sanctuary from me."
Dhoruba's jaw dropped. Sanctuary? Here? "Janja, that's crazy."
"Why is it crazy?" he challenged her. "You trusted the priders enough to take their sanctuary. Can't you trust me even as little as them? Do you think I can't guarantee your safety here? I can, Dhoruba. Believe me, if I tell my faithful that you and your territory are off limits, then they're off limits, and Ancestors help any creature that defies me."
"My territory?" she asked, not quite believing her ears.
Janja smiled. "Yes, Dhoruba, your old territory. No one else has claimed it. I made certain of that."
Her old den. The place where she and mom and Tufani had lived. She'd grown into a lioness there, kept it and made it her own after mom died and Tufani went away. To have that back again, when she'd thought it lost forever...
"I want to believe in you, Janja. I want to so much... But those favors aren't cheap, and we both know it. If you're really so devoted to the Southlands, how can you justify putting so much at risk for one lioness and one little cub?"
Janja hesitated, then spoke slowly, as if he were choosing his words with great care. "Look, Dhoruba... I know most rogue males never give a damn about the cubs they sire, but I'm not like that. I care. I couldn't do this job if I didn't care. Someday, when I'm old and dying, I want to be able to look out and say, 'That's my son. I made the world a better place for him.' As much as keeping Mtanga safe and raising him right matters to you, this... matters... to me!"
Janja took a deep breath and looked at her imploringly. "You want me to keep Malenga in line? I can do that. You want my protection? It's yours! I'll even swear to stay away and never set paw in your territory again if that's what you really want, but please don't run away where I can't protect you! Dhoruba, I know I'll never have the time to be a proper father for our son. Won't you at least let me be his friend?"
This was it, thought Dhoruba. There was no putting it off any longer. This was the moment when she had to decide. Should she trust Janja now, or leave the Southlands and never return?
Could she ever trust him again? Dared she trust him?
Ancestors, which choice was right?!
She had to be sure about this. Very, very sure. Her life and Mtanga's both depended on it.
She searched Janja's deep blue eyes one more time.
"I... I'd like that," she whispered. "I think I'd like that very much." Quickly, before she could lose her nerve, she called to Mtanga across the river.
Mtanga looked at the log bridge and the rushing waters below, then back at Tufani, fearfully. Tufani smiled and whispered something encouraging, then nudged him forward with her head.
The log was broad and Tanga crossed slowly and cautiously, but Dhoruba still found herself worrying and thinking of the Kube Falls not far downstream. But it was all right. Her son made it across just fine, not slipping even once.
He came to stand beside her, and looked up at the strange dark lion sitting across from his mom.
"Mtanga," she told him, "this is Janja. He's your father."
And Mtanga's small face lit up with awe and wonder.
Janja wished that the moment of their reunion could have gone on forever.
He'd planned on spending the whole evening with Dhoruba and Mtanga, but before he had the chance to exchange more than a precious few words with his son, Tai suddenly flew into their midst, apologizing profusely and explaining that the leader's attention was urgently required elsewhere.
As Janja made his hasty farewells and followed Tai deeper into the jungle, he felt torn between rage at the interruption and dread of what could be so terrible to make Tai bother him now of all times.
The news was worse than he could have imagined.
The Star and Cloud leopards had utterly rejected his authority and launched all-out attacks against his faithful, probably thinking that they could overwhelm the lions and seize the Southlands for themselves.
No one would ever know for sure now. By the time the bloody slaughter was finished, every last leopard who'd joined in the fighting lay dead. The cubs, the elderly, and few others remaining would have to merge with the other five clans just to survive.
Janja sat alone in his cave, pondering all of this as the fading light from outside made lovely colors in his special waterfall. Here, where no one else could see, the rogue leader wept, letting the tears flow freely down his face.
The faithful were not unscathed. Two of them were dead.
Two more had been grievously wounded. Even now, Mwuaji was at the Mother Tree in the shamans' constant care. Tai had said that he might not survive the night.
The Southlands had been saved, but gods, the cost! So many deaths on his conscience, so much blood shed! Good lions had gone to fight and die on his orders, and he hadn't even been able to go and fight alongside them. Mwuaji and the other faithful would not permit it. They could be replaced, at great cost. Shadowlurker could not.
Janja fidgeted, unable to rest. Had the shamans forgotten him? Perhaps he should return to the Mother Tree. Something might have changed while he was away. Perhaps...
The unexpected sound of soft, ethereal chimes caught his attention.
Slowly, Janja turned his head to behold a gorilla standing in the mouth of the hidden entrance to his den. Her body was massive and strong, but Janja felt soothed by her presence, never threatened. The string of crystals looped around her neck and the strangely scented pouches of healing herbs marked her as a shaman of very high rank, but Janja would have recognized Wasimulizi at once even without them. How could he not, after all the things they had been through together in years gone by?
But why was she here? He'd expected a simple messenger, not the master shaman herself! By all the gods, what could this mean?
Wasi nodded. "Mwuaji lives..."
"Your friend is old, and gravely hurt. I do not think he will ever be well enough again to hunt or serve as your faithful."
Janja shuddered. Death might have been kinder. Many rogues choose exactly that if they found themselves too sick or old to take care of themselves. They said goodbye to their friends and loved ones, then "walked in Mwasi's footsteps" by climbing to the top of Kube Falls and flinging themselves over the edge.
"I'll find him a coalition!" Janja resolved, gritting his teeth. "Something, anything, so long as he's willing..." The great lion's strength deserted him, leaving him slumped on the ground, sobbing furiously.
Wasimulizi sighed sadly. "I am sorry, Janja. We did our best. I know what he means to you."
Janja wiped his tears with a paw and tried to compose himself, but peace eluded him. "How can I do it, Wasi?" he pleaded. "How can I go on being the rogue leader when my heart just isn't in it any more?"
"Your son will not always be a little cub, Janja," she told him, in reassuring tones. "One day, Mtanga will be a grown lion, with troubles of his own and questions that only a father can answer. Will you be there for him? Will you keep this land safe, for his sake?"
Without hesitation, Janja solemnly answered, "I will. I promise."
Wasimulizi smiled, then nodded respectfully and took her leave of him.
Janja sat still for a long time, then stood and began to pace, as he often did when he needed to think. Rest would have been a delightful and much needed luxury, but he had no time for that now. Ujuba needed to be publicly confirmed as his faithful-senior. Orders needed to be given regarding the leopards, the safety of Dhoruba's den, and a hundred other things.
Janja kept at it, back and forth, back and forth, until all his thoughts were in order and all his plans certain. Then he went out. The rogue leader had work to do.
The Great Circle of Life turned, and in the Southlands another day came to a close.
As night fell, insects and birds emerged in every part of the jungle to fill the land with their songs and sounds. In the northern reaches near the Fringe, rogue lions awoke and left their dens to begin once again the endless hunt, to search and prey and kill to feed themselves and those they cared for, just as they always had done, and as they always would do.
In one particular den, though, a rogue lioness and her young son lay fast asleep. Their journey had been long and tiring, but now they had finally come home, to the place where they belonged. The lioness slept soundly, but no harm could come to her or her son this night, for many eyes and ears were on them, both those of Janja's watchers, and others far less obvious.
Outside the den, the warm damp air rippled and a lioness materialized, an unearthly creature that shone with a soft golden light. The watchers looked at her, but they did not see, for she was a creature not of their world. The golden lioness hesitated, then padded down the path to the cave and went inside.
First, she brushed a paw gently against Mtanga. The sleeping cub giggled, then turned over and snuggled closer to his mother.
Then, she leaned over Dhoruba and whispered "I forgive you" in her ear. Dhoruba didn't wake up, but her troubled breathing grew easier. A smile slowly crept across her face.
Nyota also smiled, wishing there was more she could do. Reluctantly, she turned and left.
On her way out, Nyota was startled to find another spirit just arriving, a night-black lioness full of stars, like a living silhouette cut from the night sky. "Oh," she exclaimed. "It's you! I'm sorry, I'll leave..."
"Wait," said the dark lioness, in a warm, friendly tone. "Don't go. You look like use could use a friend. I don't offer to just anyone, mind you, but I think I'll make an exception this time. I saw how nice you were to Dhoruba back in the Pride Lands, even when you didn't have to be."
"Um... Thanks. My name's Nyota," she offered.
"Imara. Glad to meet you." The dark lioness gazed longingly at the den and smiled. "That's my daughter and my grandson in there. Isn't he beautiful? Wish I could have known him in life." She sighed.
"Imara... I just want you to know I'm really sorry about those mean things I told Mtanga in his dream. I didn't want to at first, but King Raha said he needed to hear them, and better from me than from a stranger."
Imara nodded. "Hey, I understand. Nobody likes playing guilty conscience, but we spirit faithful gotta do that sometimes. Bringing bad news is just as important as bringing good."
"Me? A spirit faithful?" Nyota looked herself over, as if she had only just now noticed her radiant glow. She grinned. "I guess I am! I wonder if spirit faithful can be bards..."
Further back in the jungle, another lion crouched in the shadows. The lion's great age had not diminished his awesome size and strength. His soft brown fur and kingly red mane were liberally flecked with grey, but that only made him all the more impressive. His deep blue eyes seemed almost to glow in the darkness. He, too, had come to watch over the new Chosen and his mother while they slept, but clearly his efforts would not be required tonight.
The lion watched in wonder as Nyota and Imara talked long into the night. An Ancestor and a servant of the Great Kings, fast friends. Who would have believed such a thing could ever be?
So much pain and suffering, all washed away and made to serve a greater purpose. The old one had been in the service of the One Above All for so long, and still His wisdom and mercy seemed like a fresh, beautiful new thing each day, like dew on the grass at sunrise.
Mtanga would be well guarded now, he could see, and in his time, Mtanga would do great and mighty things in the service of the One, like his father before him. All that lay years in the future, of course. The lion wished, just for a moment, that he could rest for a little while, lay back and dream away those years.
But this was no time for resting. There was so much work still to be done.
Kube Fireheart sighed deeply, then slowly dissolved in a haze of brilliant blue light and faded away.