THE LONG PATH
By Mirco Zacher and John Burkitt
How mighty is a lioness who springs from cover to pursue a fleet gazelle! Over three hundred pounds of muscle, bone and sinew. And yet every lioness someday surrenders that body to the earth from which it came and moves on. The real Shingi died tragically young. Now she is the heroine of a story which I cannot read or write in this lifetime. Shingi has been places and done things that I can only dream of. I hope that somewhere, somehow she knows how many of us still love her in this world of warm blood.
--- John Burkitt, Nashville, Tennessee
What happens when two people write a story? Either they don't connect and it flops, or with time both start to think and feel alike and they become one with their characters. And certainly John and I shared our feelings. Maybe that's the most wonderful thing to me in writing, what makes that special magic of a story, when you the reader realize that behind the words is something of John and I.
The title of this work is symbolic in many ways, for my own life as well as for the characters. These past few months have made me more mature, perhaps more than all my previous 29 years. A part of me died with Gabor Antos, and I gained an all-new part with every moment John and I got closer to each other. I can't thank him enough for going through my troubles and darkest moments, same applies to many of my Lion King friends out there. This way you were making this story possible, too. Without all of you and John I would most likely just be a memory now.
Well, I promised it. If you don't understand what goes on at the beginning and how it fits to Homecoming, the predecessor, don't give up. It will all be clear. Aiheu's paths are a miracle at times, but his wisdom gives sense to all perils. Shingi lives on. Come with me, I'll guide you through her life.
My special credits go to Dave Morris. The basic ideas for this story were discussed with him when we were still working on Homecoming, and he did the proofreading. He wasn't participating in this project directly, but he deserves to be mentioned here!
--- Mirco Zacher, Hannover, Germany
This work is dedicated to the lions of Uganda who were all killed in a single senseless act by retreating soldiers. May God guide your lights unto his own. Shine, my children--shine forever in love.
This is also dedicated to a dear friend who felt that problems in his life left him no way to go on living. But if we remember him he will live in eternity, like Shingi, in his special way. In Memoriam Gabor Antos. He died on Jan. 22, 1998.
CHAPTER 1: THE THIRST
Mgoma, a lovely young lioness, basked in the early golden sunshine. She stretched luxuriously, extended her claws one by one, and waited for her usual morning walk with mother. Azima was late but Mgoma was not worried--her mother never broke a promise.
Mgoma was the daughter of royalty and she had led a privileged life. She was an only surviving cub, the sole recipient of her parents' attention and love. Queen Azima had continued to nurse her till she was well past weaning age, then King Makini began saving the best part of kills for her. It seemed everything she wanted was hers, and yet Mgoma was not spoiled. Her parents had also given her lessons by their example, instilling in her patience, generosity and an easy, natural kindness that endeared her to many.
When Azima finally showed up, she looked lost in thought. "Daughter, you must walk without me today."
"Are you all right, mother?"
"I'm fine." Azima smiled gently. "You remember a moon ago when you were the one that stayed home? I saw the reason--he looked like a very good reason."
"So there was a lion. I enjoyed talking with him."
"I heard bits of that conversation," Azima said with a knowing smile. "Most of it was 'Oh baby, oh baby!'"
"Why do you tease me all the time!"
"Because I love you. Someday you'll look back on all my teasing and you'll miss it."
"Then tease me forever." Mgoma drew near and nuzzled her mother. "Are you going to be with Daddy?"
"Yes. You may have brothers and sisters very soon."
"I would love that!"
"If you help me raise the cubs, I'll teach you everything I know about motherhood. How about it, darling?"
Mgoma smiled broadly. "Yes! I will!" She nuzzled her mother. "I hope you do kindle, and I want to be there when they are born."
"I wouldn't have it any other way. Maybe I will let you name one."
"Oh please! If you have a son, name him Kopa."
"Any particular reason?"
"Yes. My imaginary playmate. You remember Kopa."
Azima smiled. "I'd almost forgotten about him! You never caused me a bit of trouble, but he was into mischief all the time." Azima purred knowingly. "So what would you like best? Brothers or sisters?"
Mgoma blinked. "Can you choose that?"
"No, Honey Tree. I just wondered."
"Then the answer is yes. I want brothers or sisters the most. A young prince might be nice for Daddy. Someone to take some of the worry off him."
"Goma, I have a wonderful mate and a wonderful daughter. I must have done something very good in my life."
Mgoma purred and smiled wistfully. "I'll think about you often."
"And I'll think about you too."
"Sure you will," Mgoma said with a wink. "I know what you'll be thinking about. 'Oh baby, oh baby!'"
"Shame on you! Remember I'm your mother!"
"Can't I tease you cause I love you too?"
"My little nisei." Azima rubbed full length against her beautiful daughter and purred softly. "Here he comes now. Pray for cubs, my darling. I'm not getting any younger."
"I'll pray very hard."
Makini walked by and glanced over at Azima, his eyes sparkling with barely suppressed excitement. "I'll be taking a walk through the reeds to cool my thirst. Maybe you want to join me?"
Azima looked at him, love shining in her eyes. "Yes, let us refresh ourselves."
ACT I: THE LONG PATH BEGINS
CHAPTER 2: THE INTRUDER
Azima crouched trembling in the grass, her ear twitching as Makini touched it with his tongue and mouthed it gently. His mane brushed her shoulders and swept her neck. "I love you, girl," he panted gently but breathlessly. "Do I make you happy?"
"Very happy," she purred. "Think of cubs. Think of three or four. Make one a male for Mgoma. I also want a little lioness that…." She gasped, her claws extending into the earth as she shuddered. "Makini!"
Makini leaned slightly forward and nipped her neck lightly as his body trembled. For a few seconds he uttered a low yammering moan, then he said, "I swear, each time is the best time ever!"
When Makini rose from Azima and stepped away, she did not snarl at the slight sting. She had matured in her love for him and had realized the best was yet to come. As she slowly rolled onto her back, she utteried a sigh of contentment at the warm glow that spread through her body. It was time for him to wrap her in his musky embrace, and snuggle into her warmth. She patted her paw on the ground and said, "Come lay by me."
"In a moment," Makini said. "I want to check on some business first."
"I thought we WERE taking care of business," she said impatiently. "Don't you ever stop being King for a moment?"
"Not as long as you're queen," he said with a wink. "I just want to check in on the pride. You know how I worry. Nothing should come between us when we want to be as close to you as possible." He touched her glum face with his tongue, provoking a smile. "You understand, don't you? I have no brother to watch for me."
"Well, if you hurry."
Makini took one last look at his mate, then turned and headed back along the trail to two-headed kopje, the most likely place where the pride would be gathered. Tingling and sleepy, he had to fight his desire to roll on his back and let the sun warm his belly. He was consumed with lovesickness, and his sister Mabota would surely tease him for leaving his lover in the grass. At least Mgoma would not think him a stodgy old lion. Not good old Mgoma.
Makini could not help himself. He had to fight his tendency to make big problems out of small issues. Still he had a harder time than usual--something felt different, and the worried feeling only grew stronger as he grew closer to two-headed kopje. He stopped and tested the wind, then his ears sprang up and his eyes narrowed as his suspicions were confirmed.
He could scent a strange male!
He ran about looking for the source of the smell. From rock to rock he ran, peering about and sniffing. "I know you're out there!"
No one answered him.
"I am Makini, and this land is MINE!"
All thoughts of romance and joy had been pushed from his mind. He knew the hopes of young cubs and young lionesses were at stake. Disaster could strike at any moment--perhaps it already had. "Mgoma! Mabota! Where are you?? Answer me!"
The words echoed back emptily.
"Oh gods, where are you??"
His heart pumped wildly and his pulse pounded in his ears. He forded the tall grass, searching desperately for some sign of his extended family. "Mgoma! Anybody! Answer me! Dear Aiheu, where are you??" He was about to turn back to tell his mate Azima the drastic news when at last he caught sight of the pride sisters. Some cubs were among the lionesses and he breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God! Are you safe?"
They didn't answer him and he called out louder. "Is everything all right? Have you seen a strange male??"
They said nothing, but two of the lionesses were frantically making the silent hunting sign for "retreat at once."
"Mabota, is he still here??"
She shrieked, "Makini! Look out! Run!!"
Before he could turn, a rogue suddenly lunged from behind some shrubs and burst upon him. The male took a viscious swipe at him and Makini was knocked hard by a terrible blow to the face.
Makini was rolled on his back. He struggled to regain his footing. Shaken by the blow, his eyes would not focus well and all he could see was an oncoming tawny blur.
He braced himself for the impact. It was not an effective defence, and it seemed the interloper was all over him, battering him repeatedly with claws-out paws, seeking his throat.
"No!" Makini gasped, struggling desperately to throw the lion from his back. "Don't hurt them! This land is mine! This land is...."
The interloper's jaw slid under Makini's, and before he had time to cry out, a long ivory dagger bore down on the top of his skull and pierced deeply into the life below.
Makini gasped one last breath and his eyes dilated large and stared blankly ahead. He fell over, his limbs straightened and his paws began to twitch spasmodically. The crimson cascade from his crushed skull smeared blood on his mane and pooled on the ground. The rogue leaned down and nipped Makini on the throat--not a killing bite but a symbol of his victory. Almost as fast as it begun, it was over.
CHAPTER 3: THE AWFUL DISCOVERY
Mabota screamed and ran blindly toward the stricken lion. With the strength that came from shock and grief, she shoved the strange male aside and fell on Makini's body, shrieking, drawing a breath, and shrieking again, rubbing her paws across his bloody cheek and mane. Sobs racked her as she felt the body tremor under her, then fall terribly still. "Makini! My darling! You can't be dead! You just can't!"
Blood smeared on Mabota's face and paws as she kissed and nuzzled Makini and anointed him with her tears. Indeed he was dead. She felt guilty for wishing he would come back and fight for them. She had dared to think her older brother could take on the young rogue. Now he was gone forever and all hope had vanished.
"Get off him!" the rogue commanded. "That's disgusting!"
"Leave her alone!" Mgoma cried. Her teeth were bared with anger and indignation. He snarled back but he did not disturb Mabota.
"Is she his mate?"
"His sister," Mgoma spat. Mgoma was in shock--she knew her father was dead, but she did not have time to grieve--not just yet.
Azima wandered back innocently. "Where did you go? I thought you'd be a minute, you little...."
The sight of Makini lying in a smear of his own blood stopped her speechless like a zebra kick. She was about to shriek when suddenly Mgoma ran up and said, "Sister, I told you there would be no prey in the western plains. A lot happened while you were gone."
Azima looked at the new male with his crimson badge of death. She looked back at Makini. His blood reeked on the light breeze. With a slow, stiff-legged gait she made a final painful pilgrimage toward Makini, tracing the shape of his beloved form with her eyes. His chest did not rise or fall. She knew death had stolen the lion who had just made love to her. Never again would he share his pleasures with her. Never again would he nuzzle her or comfort her with his paw in the night. Never again would his warm voice call to her. She was in shock, unable to take in the full horror of the moment in one gulp. "Makini," she said slowly and terribly, "you're gone!" She turned her glance to the other lion who stared back at her. "It was you, wasn't it? You did it."
"You were off hunting when it happened," Mgoma said with forced calmness. "It was quick, sister. Very quick."
"He hardly knew what hit him," the stranger said, drawing near to Azima. "I'm Machuti. You really shouldn't look at things like this, it's such an ugly sight for such a beautiful lioness." He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "And you--my dear--seem to be in season. I wondered if there would be someone to lick my wounds and make me feel all better. But I didn't quite expect this!" He frowned. "That is, of course, unless you and he were...."
Azima looked at her daughter and at the other pride sisters. Some of them had young cubs, and their faces were full of fear and uncertainty. With some small remaining strength, she spoke in a trembling voice. "No. He courted me once, but I refused him."
Mgoma said quickly, "Makini's mate died recently."
"It is true," Azima stammered. "It was her heart." She took a few steps forward, stumbling. "Gods give me strength."
"Then I did the old boy a favor by sending him after her. And I will do you a favor too. You will be my queen. What is your name?"
"Azima," she stammered. "My name…is Azima."
Mgoma's jaw trembled and tears began to spill down her cheeks and Mabota came to her and nuzzled her desperately. One by one the other lionesses looked down.
Machuti came to Azima with Makini's blood still on his lips and rubbed against her full length. She stood rigid, in shock, staring at the body of her mate in the dust. She wanted to say a thousand words of grief for him, or maybe one long, loud wordless shriek. It did not matter now--she must say nothing.
CHAPTER 4: CONFESSIONS
The next few days passed like months. Each of the pride sisters spent time comforting Mgoma in her loss and assuring her that Azima was a survivor and would somehow come through her trials.
During this time the pride sisters hunted very little, afraid for the young cubs that huddled close beside them. Machuti had killed once--he might try to kill again.
After three days, Machuti came back with a look of tired satisfaction on his face, followed by a dejected Azima. He ate most of a kill that was supposed to keep the whole pride for two days, then fell into a deep sleep, snoring loudly.
The cubs sat glumly and watched him, cautioned against making a sound that might wake, "Uncle Machuti." The older cubs understood the danger--for them there were no polite lies. They knew Makini was not off on a visit--they saw the body before the pride sisters had born it lovingly to the place of jackals. They knew they might probe the great mystery of death themselves if they did not treat the new king with respect.
Azima sat on a kopje and stared into the sky. Her demeanor changed briefly when for a few moments at a time Machuti would wake, nuzzling her and kissing her cheek. The moment he looked away, the desolate look returned to her eyes. She was the walking dead, and most of the lionesses could barely look her in the face longer than it took to greet her.
Fully two weeks had passed before Mgoma took her mother aside to ask, "What happened in those three days?"
"I can't talk about it with you."
Mgoma nuzzled her softly. "Please--if you can't tell me, whom can you tell?"
Azima looked about and in a tired voice said, "Mgoma, I have the light in my eyes."
Mgoma looked at her mother. The look in Azima's eyes was dull and glassy, but the meaning of the phrase was clear to her. "Who is the father? Dad?"
"I don't know."
"You mean That Lion had his way with you after all?"
Azima's chin trembled. "Again and again and again." Tears began to stream down her face. "I couldn't let him hurt the cubs. I had to please him no matter what it took."
Azima turned away, unable to look her daughter in the eyes. "Three days he did not sleep more than a few moments at a time and he ate nothing. All he wanted was me, and all I wanted was to die. I went to the watering hole and washed myself again and again to take his scent from me, but I could still smell him! Even now I still reek of him!" She looked around. "Oh Gods, will I never be rid of his odor??"
"I'll kill him!" Mgoma shouted. "I'll rip him open like a gazelle!"
"You mustn't put yourself in danger," Azima said, nuzzling her softly and slowly. "It's your love that keeps me going. As long as the cubs are alive and you are safe, my life serves a purpose. Besides, Makini..." Her chin quivered and her eyes flooded with tears. Azima looked down, stricken with a sudden wave of grief that stole her strength and her resolve.
"What about Dad?"
"The love I bore him lives on in you. If you die, he'll be gone without a trace. You must never die, Mgoma--promise me you will never die!"
Mgoma sniffed back tears. "If it would make you happy, I'd live forever." She huddled against her mother, her body racked by sobs. "Tell him that I will be his queen! I won't let That Lion force you again, Momma! Oh gods, I'd rather have him on me first!"
Azima's eyes turned red and a growl of rage started deep inside. "If he ever touches you, I'll kill him! Even if I can't, I'll shred him in the tail! You're all that's left of Makini's holy and pure love for me--you're everything that Machuti is not! He'll never touch you! I'd kill him first!!"
"It's all right, Momma. I only said it because I love you so." Mgoma groomed her mother and kissed away her tears. "What are we going to do if they're Makini's? That Lion will know they aren't his."
"I've thought about that. I may be able to fool him. We'll have to be careful--very careful. My dear, you cannot wear that expression of hate on your face when Machuti walks by. You must stop calling him 'That Lion.' You must treat him with respect for my sake and my unborn cubs so that he won't be suspicious. Do this because you love me, and because I'm carrying your brothers and sisters. After all, your father and I made love several times." She half closed her eyes. "His last moments with me were an act of love. I will remember how safe and loved I felt with his strong body wrapped around me. He was my mate, my lover, my very best friend. I thought we would grow old together." Azima nuzzled her daughter and said, "Goma, Honey Tree, I feel so empty. Help me, please!"
Azima collapsed in the grass, and Mgoma laid with her head propped on her mother's belly like a small cub to cry herself to sleep.
CHAPTER 5: THE HUNTED
Mgoma already detested Machuti as her father's murderer. The thought of "that lion" violating her mother fanned the hatred into a burning rage that ate at her insides. She could barely restrain her feelings long enough to stand near him.
Oddly enough, Machuti was fond of Mgoma. He would go out of his way to be near her, which made all the pride sisters wince as they saw a confrontation coming. None of the lionesses were fond of Machuti but they began trying to shield Mgoma by distracting him with small talk or even a flirtatious glance.
Machuti smiled back at these attempts and even returned a couple of timid nuzzles. Still it was clear he felt differently about Mgoma than he did the others.
Mgoma was taking her usual mid-day sunbath, feeling drowsy as the warmth beat down on her exposed belly. She indulged in her usual custom of scanning the skies above her for clouds and wondering what their shapes were most like. One looked like a wildebeest, while another bore a passing resemblence to Pride Kopje.
Suddenly, Machuti's face loomed over her. "Mind if I lay next to you?"
She could not say no. Moments later he had settled next to her in the grass, draping his paw across her chest and grunting. His paw slowly traced a circle over her heart, then slipped down a bit past her ribs and on to her belly to brush across her teats.
"I have to go pee," she said indelicately, getting up, stretching, then looking back for one moment. She could see he was aroused. The lion that killed her father and raped her mother had just groped her. Disgusted and frightened, she hurried away.
Mgoma was desperate for guidance. That night on the hunt she came trembling to Azima and whispered, "Momma, help me!"
"Darling, you have been been so patient for me. For all the sisters."
"He stalks me like prey," Mgoma said, her voice slowly rising. "He will spring soon!"
"Keep it low," Azima cautioned her. "It would not do for us to be overheard." Azima nuzzled her softly. "I don't think you're in danger. He seems to like you."
"Momma, momma, that IS the danger! My period is coming on, and I feel like it's getting worse. I know my period makes me anxious, but I'm sure it's not all in my mind! He seems to violate me with his eyes and his voice. Oh gods, I feel so dirty! And I have done nothing to encourage him! You KNOW how I feel about him!"
"That is just Machuti. He is a flirt, but he means nothing by it." She added with bitter sarcasm, "I wonder what I'd do with all my time if he left me and never came back?"
"Do you think there's a chance he ever would?"
"When the moon falls in the river." Azima sighed. "Wouldn't it be justice if someone came in and killed him the way he killed your father! A good lion, one sent by an angry god to pay the blood debt to the last red drop!" She sighed again. "Machuti is young. I will probably not live to see it, but you will. On that day you must be happy for both of us."
Mgoma felt a wistful tear come close to the surface, but she fought it. It would not be good for mother to see her cry when she should be strong. Of course she was emotional anyhow, for her time had come to mate and her emotions were hunting her resolve. "Maybe you will live to see it after all," Mgoma said. "Maybe there's an angry god that just needs a little help from us."
"Don't do something foolish that may get you killed."
"Nothing foolish," Mgoma said. "I promise I will be cool and calm about this. But you know where my heart lies."
CHAPTER 6: LAYING PLANS
Mgoma woke early one morning with a strange restlessness and a slight tingling sensation in her hips. She had felt that way once before, and it ended up in a passionate encounter. Her fragrance was familiar, but admixed with the scent of a lioness was a special message.
Under the circumstances, it was an inconvenience. She padded quietly down to the watering hole for a drink and managed to pass Machuti heading back to Pride Kopje. He passed her by a couple of lengths with a slight nod, then stopped. Mgoma heard his footfalls stop and for a few moments she walked very slowly, then turned.
Machuti's eyes were squeezed shut. Lips parted, he drew in some air, then let it out in a quiet, contented sigh. Mgoma looked about quickly and continued on her way, her tail clamped firmly down.
A few minutes later, Azima joined her. Mgoma's mother lapped the water with her honest pink tongue, then looked about at she smiled. "Restless, Honey Tree?"
"You have any plans?"
"Yes Momma?" Azima smiled broadly. For a moment it was the old lioness that had loved to tease the ones she loved. "Can't you do better than that?"
"Ok, it's Mbogo," Mgoma answered shyly. "He's handsome."
"And he's gentle. Maybe he's not just like father. In fact, he's a little lacking between the ears."
"I wouldn't say that. He's really very sweet, and if he really worked hard he could amount to something."
"How would you know that?"
Azima nuzzled her daughter. "Don't be cross. My little girl was going on her first date. I wanted to make sure he would please you and treat you with respect."
"Wait till you have cubs of your own. Speaking of which, are you going to give me a grandchild?"
"Maybe. And maybe I'll be giving you a king as well. Let's see if he'll really work hard."
Mgoma found Mbogo where she expected him to be. She had advertised her condition on some bushes just past the edge of her territory.
Mgoma knew not to bargain until she had secured his interest. Mbogo came to her and rubbed her full length, then breathlessly said, "Crouch for me, Goma!" But she did not meekly submit to his entreaties. She flirted with him, wrestled with him and ran from him just far enough ahead to get his blood warm. She led him on with skillful foreplay and affection, arousing him to a fever pitch.
Finally when Mbogo was drunk with desire and ready to promise her anything, she knelt in the grass. Using all she had learned from the pride sisters, she pleased him so greatly that when he shuddered above her lithe body he cried out with abandon, not caring who heard it. He fell panting in the grass and smiled as she lay beside him and stroked his chest mane with a paw.
"Mbogo, you were wonderful! I didn't know it could be so special--so exciting! Don't you wish this could last forever?"
"Yes, Goma!" He wrapped a paw around her shoulder and gave her a pat. "Forever and then some."
"It COULD last forever. One challenge and you could be my king, and you would own all of this and never be a rogue again. You could be home, my darling! Home!"
He sighed and stroked her with his paw. "That sounds wonderful Goma, but I've seen that lion of yours. He's nothing to fool with."
"Alone that may be so."
"I have no brother. No friend to help me. It would be me against him."
"I hate Machuti. We all do. It would be a rout--I can guarantee you we would all turn on him and back you up. Every last one of us."
"Then why haven't they done it before?"
"Because they were afraid they'd do no better with the next male. We need a king--we need YOU."
"What would your mother think?"
"That lion killed my father and Mother hates him as badly as I do! Help us and we will give you anything! Home, comfort, food, and every night I will stroke your chest just the way you like it and every moon I will rub you further back." She fondled him, making him coo and giggle. "I'm good at what I do."
"You are indeed," Mbogo sighed sleepily. "That sounds wonderful. A kingdom of my own, with Goma by my side. Our cubs playing around us." He looked straight into her eyes. "I only wish I could."
"Sure you can!"
"No I can't! I'd get myself killed, and frankly I'm used to living. It's a hard habit to break."
Mgoma snarled. "I can't believe you're such a coward! You unworthy beast, you cub with a lion's mane! Where is your courage??"
"Hiding behind my common sense," Mbogo said softly, his shame clearly visible in his face. He peeked at her with half-lidded eyes. "Do you hate me?"
Mgoma looked at him harsly, then softened. After all, she had been given opportunities to kill Machuti and had not done so. "I should hate you, but I just can't. I love you, too much to hate you and I need you too much to quarrel." She gazed into his soft hazel eyes. "How do you feel about me?"
"You're very beautiful, and very attractive."
"But I meant how do you feel about ME?"
"You're also very nice to be with."
"And what?" He looked at her sleepily. Mating had made him feel drowsy and he wanted to nap. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No. But what if I told you that I think about you all the time, even when I'm not in season? What if I say that I love you? How does that make you feel?"
He touched her with his pink tongue. "I think that's really sweet. Now rest like a good girl." His eyes closed at last.
Mgoma sighed. "Sleep well." Somehow she knew he would.
CHAPTER 7: THE BIRTH
Twice Azima had known fear at the birth of her cubs. The first time it was a fear of the unknown, but Mgoma's entry into the world proved to be a beautiful thing. This time Azima was afraid of whom the cubs would resemble. "That Lion" had taken her husband, and he might well take her cubs. That was one crime she would not permit him, even if it cost her own life.
Silently while the rest of the pride still slept, Azima paced agitatedly while the new life within her struggled to be free. She looked into the night sky and watched the silent stars. "Aiheu help me," she murmured as loudly as she dared. "I'm so alone. I could use a friend right now. Mano, Minshasa, look down on a mother's pain. Alba, show me the blood of mercy. I'm frightened--so frightened!"
Machuti lay unmoving, the light breeze stirring his mane as he snored softly. In her desperation, Azima considered a spring, closing on his throat as he slept and butchering him like an antelope. But she was not like him--she could not bring herself to hurt him. In the pale moonlight he looked like Makini as he slept. Tears began to spill down her cheeks. She looked back into the night sky. "I love you, darling! He may touch my body, but my heart is yours alone. Give me strength, darling! Shine down on me!"
Perhaps it was just the emotions of the moment. Perhaps it was her impending birth. She felt a little better, a little braver. She was still afraid but she could face the fear.
A sudden pain in her abdomen got her attention to the matter at hand. Her time was near and she went to her daughter who slept peacefully, her own body now bearing the first fruit of love. As gently as her urgent mission would allow, Azima shook her and beckoned with a paw for her to follow silently.
With a tight-lipped expression of pain, Azima led Mgoma to the creek, then walked into the chilly water, struggling not to slip on the slick stones. Grunting with discomfort, she led her daughter upstream, hoping to leave no scent trail to her birthing place. The extreme measures she took to hide her den were necessary with the uncertainty surrounding the birth.
There was a cave in two-headed Kopje, and when she left the water, Azima headed there in a stiff-legged trot, breathing heavily. "We don't have long now."
"Everyone knows about the cave," Mgoma said.
"Not Machuti. And I told the sisters not to tell him."
The cave was a preferred birthing place among the pride sisters. Azima herself had first seen the light of day within its walls, and she returned there to give birth to Mgoma. Now she came once again to bring new life into the world, only what joy she felt was burdened with grief and fear.
Azima did not lie down, but paced about frantically as if looking for something. Mgoma watched her with fear. "Momma, is everything all right?"
"Yes, darling. Everything is fine."
"Are you sure?"
Azima looked at her, genuine compassion and understanding in her eyes. "Everything that I have control over is fine. Pray about the cubs. Pray hard, my darling."
Suddenly Azima let a muted grunt as if she were struck. She stepped forward a couple of paces and collapsed to the ground. Moments later, her water broke, and the smell of blood and humors filled the cave.
Mgoma, who had never seen a birth before, nearly panicked. "Oh Momma!"
"Mgoma, my darling, have I told you that I love you lately?"
"All the time, Momma! All the time!"
"Well I do." The strain on Azima's face was clearly evident. "Honey tree, I do love you. I love you more than life and light and joy itself. If something ever happens to me, I will be with you always, by night and by day. You'll never be alone, my child, my blessed little Mgoma!"
"Nothing must happen, Momma! Promise me! You have to be there for me when I give birth! Promise me!"
"I promise. Anything for my little Nisei."
"I'm scared," Mgoma said. "It won't be long till it's my turn. I don't know if I can do this!"
"They are going to come out when it's time," Azima said. "Nothing will stop that. But it really helps when someone you love is there to stand watch. Mgoma, I am so proud of you. Your father's goodness is so strong in you."
"And your goodness," Mgoma said, nuzzling her mother and kissing her. Then she glanced back at the struggle taking place in Azima's belly. "How are they coming?"
"I'm not sure. I'm not---oh Gods, I'm sure!"
The first cub began its tentative journey into the world of light. Mgoma grasped the remnants of the birth sac and pulled it from the cub's head. A small, perfectly formed male was revealed. He looked like a small Machuti without a mane, but he did not move.
The second cub was a female. She was clearly her father's child--Makini's beautiful face but with a combination of feminine grace and childlike innocence. As Mgoma cleaned her off, the cub moved and grunted. Clearly she was a fighter. She would live.
The male did not respond when nudged. Azima licked him urgently and nudged him with her nose and paws. He was dead.
"Mgoma, you must take him far away and place him where the scavengers won't come back to me. But first I name him. What do you think is a good name?"
"Why name a dead cub? Why name HIS dead cub? Gods, That Lion killed your mate--he killed my father!"
Azima looked with patient love at her daughter and said, "My son--your brother--did not kill Makini, Machuti did. Look at the poor unfortunate cub who has never seen his first sunrise. When his soul stands before Mano and Minshasa, they will ask him his name. What shall he answer?"
Mgoma thought for a moment. "The dearest male name I know. Call him Makini like my father."
Azima nodded gravely. "My son, your name is Makini. Mgoma, Take little Makini to begin his last journey. Then come back to your new sister Tani."
"Tani," Mgoma said. "That's a good name. She will need courage." She took the tiny, still body of the male outside.
Little Tani, no one promised that the path of life was fair,
Some are loaded down with riches, others burdened down with care;
To find meaning in existance you must hunt a wary prey,
For the meaning of your life is love, so seek it while you may.
What is love? Where is love? What will make your world all right?
Who will kiss you in the morning? Who will hold you in the night?
As your teardrops softly falling wet the grass like evening rain,
Who will have the love to comfort you and take away your pain?
Little Tani, let me love you, let me take your cares away,
Let me guide you with a tender love that helps to light the way
Let me gaze into your hazel eyes and see how bright they shine,
Let me dare to ask you for your heart, and dare to offer mine.
This is love. Here is love. This will make your world all right.
I will kiss you in the morning, I will hold you in the night.
I will kiss away your teardrops when your heart is full of pain
I will love you till the tears of joy come down like evening rain
CHAPTER 8: THE EPIPHANY
Machuti paced from side to side across Pride Kopje. "When WILL she be ready to see me??" he boomed at Mgoma. "I've been waiting three whole moons!"
"In a little while. Please be patient."
"Three times have I been patient a little while. Just how clean can she make those cubs? Just how much milk can she feed them? They must be the cleanest, most well-fed cubs in the world!"
"But Machuti, please! She is very busy right now."
"Then I will watch quietly. Whatever she can do alone, she can do before her lover."
At the word "lover," Mgoma tensed up inside. She hated to think of him on top of her mother, enjoying the pleasures he stole from Makini along with his life. She led him to the cave rather than telling him where it was. She wanted to make sure she arrived first.
As Mgoma drew close to the cave, she used as cheerful a voice as she could muster to speak words of greeting and warning. "Azima, he's here to see the new princess."
The lion pushed past Mgoma and went into the cave. He nuzzled Azima, then sniffed and looked at the child.
"She doesn't look a thing like me," he said with a frown. "Still, she is familiar."
"She just favors my side of the family," Azima said.
"Yes--and no. Still, she does not have my eyes, or my nose. It's almost as if...."
Mgoma said quickly, "At that age there is no telling from appearances. Haven't you seen enough newborn cubs to know that?"
Machuti looked down, somewhat embarrassed. "No. I arrived a virgin and this is the first newborn I've seen."
Azima forced a laugh. "I couldn't tell by the way you acted on our wedding night!"
Machuti chuckled and looked at Mgoma. "Isn't she a treasure??"
Mgoma was repulsed, but managed to keep in her temper. She knew what her mother was planning, and she played along with her. "Too bad your son did not live. He looked just like you."
"Oh? Was he handsome?"
Azima looked gratefully at Mgoma and nodded. For the moment, disaster had been forestalled.
Over Tani's first month of life, Machuti treated the new cub like a special little princess. The one thing Machuti did that made him look less than a monster was the way he would play with the cub he felt was his daughter. When she would toddle toward him and call him "Daddy" he would laugh, then twitch his tail tuft before her to entice her to play. So all the careful deceptions that Mgoma and Azima wrought had paid off, and the precious remnants of Makini's love for Azima were guarded, fondled and kissed.
By the time Tani had reached the age of one moon, Machuti had completely reversed his original opinion. He was always bragging that Tani was so much like him. And because of the careful coaching of Azima and Mgoma, the pride sisters all knew to agree with him. There was one feature of Tani that they would never mention: Tani's wonderfully expressive, deep hazel eyes. They were her true father's most obvious contribution.
One day Mgoma was playing with Tani. She not only loved her small sister, but she hoped to practice for next moon when she would have cubs of her own. She crouched on the ground, putting her paws over her eyes. "Where's Tani?? Whe-r-r-r-es Tani??" Then she pulled her paws away. "There's Tani!!"
The cub giggled. "Goma!! Goma!!"
Mgoma bathed Tani with warm kisses and the cub squealed with satisfaction. "That's my baby sister! Yes you are! Peeking at me with daddy's big brown eyes! You're such a sweetie!"
Azima glanced over at her in horror. Mgoma thought about what she had just said and looked about quickly. Not too very far away was the large bulk of Machuti lying belly-up to absorb the warmth of the sun.
Azima's brief flirtation with happiness was over. Added on top of her secret grief was a secret fear. She began to groom Tani frantically, wondering what would come of this.
That evening when Machuti finally stirred and rose to his feet, he passed Tani who greeted him affectionately. He half smiled and said, "You know, her eyes look just like her father's, don't they?"
"Yes," Azima said without thinking.
Machuti looked at her with a forced smile. "Peek-a-boo."
CHAPTER 9: THE AFTERMATH
Mgoma was horrified at her mistake. Unsure what Machuti had heard, or what he had NOT heard, she thought about her foolish statement and regretted it a thousand times over.
Azima comforted her daughter. "Sooner or later someone would have said something. I know you tried your best." She sighed. "I just wish Tani had been old enough to hunt--or fight."
I'M old enough," Mgoma said. "I can take her far away and care for her. Just say the word."
"My love, you are dry and Tani has not been weaned. How will you feed her?"
"The light is in my eyes. Soon I will have milk for her."
"And where does that leave me?" Azima asked. "Until we know she's in real danger, you would be going out in the big world by yourself, a rogue saddled with a young cub. And I would be left alone with Machuti and nothing to live for."
"I'm sorry! Momma, I'll never leave you! Come with us and we will all be together."
"A rogue at my age?" Azima sighed deeply. "Darling, I know you want what's best for all of us. And you're the dearest and kindest of daughters, offering to take Tani as your own. Let's wait and see how swift the waters run before we swim."
"But we can't watch Tani every moment," Mgoma said. "Every second she's alone could be her last."
"We have help," Azima said. "We have many eyes, enough to see everything, every moment."
As the evening sky grew soft and purple, Azima went to the base of Pride Kopje and cried, "Baraza!" (meeting) and when the pride sisters gathered to plan the night's hunt, Azima spoke loudly. "There are wildebeests in the wadi area and a few zebras along the sandy lugga. The only decision to make here is which target to go for."
While she was speaking, Mgoma went from lioness to lioness and whispered "Watch Tani. Watch Machuti. If you don't, he may kill her."
There were some shocked looks, worried glances, and in all the faces a love determined to help in any way possible.
After the hunt, every move Machuti made was scrutinized for some sign of his intentions, especially when he was around Tani. Skills that were learned in cubhood play and honed to a fine edge on the hunt were used to watch the lion without making it too obvious.
Machuti may have known he was being stalked--they couldn't very well ask him. He was maddeningly unclear in his behavior, briefly nuzzling Azima when he passed her, but not glancing down at Tani except when she got underfoot.
Tani had grown used to affection from her "father" and did not understand his lack of attention. She ran directly under his paws as he walked, once causing him to stumble. He looked at her and growled something that sounded like "damn nuisance," though no one was quite sure.
Azima was kept informed as often as possible. She tried to bear the strain as best she could, knowing that if worse came to worst Mgoma's offer still stood. It was her one tangible link to sanity that kept her from slipping into complete dispair.
The draining worry made Azima feel tired and she tried to nap while her tiny daughter slept on her stomach. All she could achieve was a fitful rest that was not quite wakefulness or true sleep.
A sound in the grass roused her, but she only opened her eyes a small slit. Through her lashes she saw Machuti staring down at her and Tani, as if he were trying to read the tracks of her dreams.
Machuti nuzzled the cub softly. Tani awoke, stretched, yawned and began to follow him away.
In a panic, Azima's eyes flew open. Her heart began to thump against her ribs. "Machuti, honey tree," she asked with forced calmness, "Where are you taking our daughter?"
"Just for a little walk. I felt alone."
"I'd like to come too. You know how I am."
"Yes, I certainly do."
What did he mean by that? What did he suspect--or know? For a few minutes of icy fear, Machuti led them on a pointless walk about Pride Kopje. There was nothing Azima could ask without implicating herself, and yet she wanted to know so much. There was nothing she could say, though her heart was so full. The tiny cub trotted innocently along at the heels of one she had not learned to hate. "Daddy!" she cried, and the lion would look down at her.
"Isn't it time to mark the territory?" Azima said at last.
"Soon. Not quite yet."
"I don't understand."
Machuti looked around. There was an odd glint in his eyes but he did not frown. "I'm not like other lions you've known. When I drink, it takes me time to work up a good strong pee. But trust me, my dear, soon I'll be ready to draw the line between what is mine and what is not."
Azima felt her heart miss a beat. "Walking about helps?"
"Yes. Both the activity and the chance to gather my thoughts." Just then Tani sprang up and grabbed Machuti's tail tuft, pulling back playfully. He looked around and said with a grin, "Look at that! The little thing thinks she can stop me!"
"She's an innocent little creature that loves you," Azima said, the strain beginning to show in her voice. "Maybe she gets underfoot sometimes, but her heart is pure and she means nothing by it."
"Of course she doesn't," Machuti said with his eyes half closed, turning about and patting the cub's head with his oversized paw. "When do they lose that innocence? When do they learn to get what they want by any means?"
"They grow in WISDOM," Azima insisted. "Some of us have done no wrong. Some of us just want what Aiheu meant for us. A little security, a little understanding, a little luck on the hunt. You don't think I've lost my innocence do you?"
"What an odd thing to say, my dear. I thought…." He grinned dopily. "What do you know! I feel the urge! Pardon me, but I have a date with some bushes."
Machuti turned without a good bye to mark the territory he had wrested from Makini.
Azima laid in the grass shivering with fear, grooming her tiny daughter. For several moments she was afraid to even speak above a whisper, and she stared at Tani, sniffed of her, felt her as if to commit to memory every little detail of her short life. "Tani, my little nisei! I love you, sweetheart! I'd do anything for you, my child. If you asked for the sun, I would jump for it. But never leave me, girl! Never leave me!"
Finally Mgoma joined them. She saw the anguish in her mother's face and said, "Momma, what are we going to do?"
Azima sighed deeply. "I'm sure Machuti knows who her father is. We have to hide her till we can be sure what he means to do."
"I'll help any way that I can," Mgoma said.
"I know that, my darling. That is why you alone will come with us."
Mgoma forgot about her own troubles and silently followed her mother, keeping her energetic little sister from gamboling away after butterflies and frogs. Tani had to be silent--this point her mother made VERY clear.
Far from the pride was a small acacia tree. In its shade Azima laid down to give Tani a quick meal. "Honey tree, you have to stay here," Azima said, stroking the small body. Tani responded by kneading her abdomen to make the milk flow freely.
Mgoma kissed her mother and Tani, then headed on back. "Shouldn't one of us stay with Tani at a time?"
"No, honey tree. Tani knows to stay put. She'll be a good little girl and not wander away. If we're never seen together, Machuti will be suspicious. He must believe Tani is lost, and I will decide when it is safe to 'find' her. I must know his intentions."
Mgoma started back first, leaving Tani in her mother's care.
CHAPTER 10: HEART TO HEART
Mgoma was thinking about what to tell Machuti when suddenly she saw him sitting sphinx-like in the grass. She knew he was far enough away not to see where Tani had gone, but still....
"Sire, what are you doing out here?"
"I could have asked you the same thing, if I didn't already know the answer."
"And what answer is that, sir?"
"I'll say this much. You will make a fine huntress with so much self-control. The cub, of course. One thing is sure to me--I looked into Makini's eyes for one moment before I took the kingship from him. I saw the large hazel eyes look at me for a moment...the eyes you have yourself, my dear. The eyes that your sister Tani has. Big, beautiful eyes." He twitched his tail quickly. "As your king, I need to know the truth. You seemed to be the honest sort, so did your mother, but you are keeping secrets from me."
"So Azima is my mother," Mgoma said guardedly. "Are you angry with me?"
He replied, "Angry? With you?" He chuckled softly. "Angry with my pretty little step-daughter?"
She smiled warily. "Does that mean 'no'?"
"Perhaps it does--if you want to put it mildly. I don't keep secrets, Mgoma. I say exactly what I mean, and I'm about to do it right now." He motioned her closer, then when she drew near he reached up and gave her a long, lingering touch of the tongue up her cheek. "Perhaps it means that the wind has changed and I am looking away from the mistakes of the past and toward a wonderful future."
"That's a good philosophy," Mgoma said nervously. "Well, I'm off to take my nap. Maybe you ought to get a little rest yourself in this heat…."
"I'm not through," Machuti said calmly but firmly. "That brings us back to us and how I feel about you." He rose from the grass, then walked about her appraisingly with a look that made Mgoma feel ashamed and dirty. "Azima could never be truly mine, and it's time I accepted that. I want you to be my new queen."
"You already have a mate," she said, backing away.
"A mate gained from deception. Such a union is tainted and cannot last. But you are fresh and beautiful and ready to bear strong cubs. Your beauty cries out to be appreciated. Azima has betrayed me and she is not worthy to be my queen."
"Mother did not betray you."
His eyes narrowed. For a moment he lost his calm bearing. "Then why did she lie to me? And why has she stolen Tani?"
"Because she was afraid."
"Afraid? Afraid of me?" For a moment, anger flashed in his eyes, then he took a deep breath, let it out, and smiled, stepping closer to her. "Afraid of Machuti? I am a very large and powerful creature, and yet when I settled upon her it was with the gentlest of embraces. And when I fondled her beautiful body, could she stand before the gods and swear she did not enjoy it? I felt her shudder beneath my belly. I could feel the stirrings of her body as I explored her." He slowly ran his paw down Mgoma's thigh, then rubbed it across his face. "She has cooled toward me since, but she wanted me and I satisfied her just fine!"
"I don't want to hear this!" Mgoma said, her tail firmly clamped down.
"You fear me too much. You shouldn't. Once you've felt my pleasures, you will come to me and rub me full length, pleading for more attention." He turned about for a moment and raised his tail in a none-too-subtle gesture. She could see he was clearly aroused. "Let us make our bond official. Crouch for me!"
"I can't. I'm not in my season!"
"That is not the point."
"It IS the point! My body is not ready!"
She began to walk away, afraid to break into a run. He walked behind her, resting his chin on her shapely rump. "Ready or not, I want you. I've always wanted you."
"Don't do this!" she squealed. "I'm pregnant! Please!"
He took a couple of quick strides, bounding up and wrapping his forepaws around her waist. "Crouch for me!"
"No, please! I can't! Let go of me!"
He pulled her rump to the ground, then with his massive forepaws shoved her shoulders, pressing her to the ground. "I'm a good lover. Relax and enjoy this."
"Oh gods! Machuti! Don't do it! Let me go!"
He gripped her neck brutally from behind. She could feel his efforts to conquer her. "Relax! I said RELAX! Move your tail!"
"Let me go! Aiheu, help me!"
His grip on her neck tightened. He mouthed her, groping her and trying to join. She continued to resist him, clamping her tail down firmly.
"Move your damned tail or I'll kill the cub!"
"No, don't hurt her! Don't hurt Tani! Please!"
"Then move it! NOW! You'll thank me later."
She took in a deep gulp of air, then let it out in a sign of resignation. She had brought down antelopes and buffaloes with her powerful body, but just moving her tail took all her strength.
"There you go," he said with a sigh, rudely entering her. "That's not so bad. Oh yes, not bad at all. Just relax and enjoy it, and know that you are mine."
As she felt her body being violated, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. Her claws extended and buried themselves in the earth. "It's not my time! I'm pregnant! Oh gods, let me go!"
"Oh you are so fine," he said passionately. "I knew you would be. I let Azima turn my head but you are the real treasure!"
"What did I do, Aiheu?" she whimpered. "Please don't let him kill Tani! Please!"
"You're quite safe. So is Tani. I want to please you! I want...I want...to make...you happy!" He stroked her face with his pink tongue and mouthed her throat as he explored her privacy. "Oh I want to live in your soft, beautiful body! I want...to...oh! OH!!" He gripped her throat firmly, a high yammering moan erupting from the corners of his mouth as he was caught in the grip of passionate fulfillment. He shuddered briefly, took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "My gods that felt good!"
He kissed her cheek, causing her to turn her face in disgust, then he quickly rose from her with a final stinging insult to her body. As he staggered drunkenly a few paces and rolled on his back to enjoy his afterglow, she huddled miserably into a tight ball and trembled.
"Try to tell me that was wrong," Machuti said with a self-satisfied chuckle. "Oh it felt so right. So VERY right. I had some good times with Azima, but girl you are so exciting! It felt like my very first time--only better! Mgoma, you are my queen and you will sit by my side on Two-headed Kopje when I call to the sunset."
Choking sobs flooded her eyes with tears. "I can't be your queen."
"Sure you can," Machuti said quietly as if it were settled. "There now, my dear. You will learn to hunger for my touch. When your time comes, you will come to me and nuzzle my thighs and rub my rump with your paw. You know you want it too, so relax and learn to have fun."
"Fun?" Mgoma said. "Relax? How can I? What's going to happen to Tani? And to Momma?"
"If she behaves herself, not a thing. She can raise your sister and we'll all be one big happy family. I'm not mad at her--not anymore. Besides, it was my fault that I didn't come to you first." He turned and looked at her with a grin. "I'll make it up to you. We'll spend some good times together, my girl. Then one day you will have my cubs. Little Machutis and little Mgomas that we can be proud of."
Mgoma began to sob again quietly, turning to groom herself with desperation to remove every trace of him. She wondered what her mother would think of her when she found out.
CHAPTER 11: HELL TO PAY
Mgoma did not have to wait long. Before Machuti had finished his short nap, Azima poked her head through the tall grass into the clearing. She saw her daughter lying huddled and the tyrant luxuriating on his back. "No!" She scented the air for only a moment, looked in her daughter's distraught face and asked, "Did he??"
She looked away. "Oh momma, he said he'd hurt Tani!"
Rage reddened Azima's eyes and her hackles raised. "You dirty son of a jackal!" she hissed at Machuti through her bared teeth. "You crouched with her!!"
He looked up and yawned. "Oh, it's you. I can forgive your little games, Azima, but you've had your last fling with me, baby. There's a new girl in my life now."
Azima roared, then came bounding over in a couple of powerful leaps and with all the stored up hatred of her bitter heart. She thrashed at him, claws out, stunning him with blow after blow. Caught by surprise, he fell back at first but his mane had well protected him from serious harm.
Machuti gathered his wits, then came with one massive cuff to her face that sent her staggering back. A second blow toppled her with a shriek. "Oh God! Let me go! I have a daughter!"
"I'll kill you, you lying witch!"
Mgoma screamed. "Momma!!!"
"Run, child! Save yourself! Save Tani!"
Mgoma watched with horror. She wanted to help but she couldn't move.
Azima struggled to her feet, but Machuti closed on her again, battering her with white hot rage. She tried to protect her face, but she was clearly no match for him. He found an opening in her defenses and struck her, knocking her to the ground. Then he reached down and clamped his jaws around the top of her head. There could be only one outcome, and suddenly Mgoma saw the death of her father reenacted in all its brutal horror.
"Oh my gods!!" Mgoma shrieked. "You killed her, you bastard!! I hate you!!"
Azima saw Machuti look around, blood dripping from his jaws. As her mother's blood stained body stiffened and began to jerk spasmodically, some small voice in Mgoma's head cried, "Escape now!"
Mgoma could move again. She screamed, "I'll kill you someday! I swear to the gods!", then turned and with choking sobs of grief ran away.
CHAPTER 12: THE TIME OF WANDERING
Mgoma's trail of pain had led her from her mother's body to the empty place where Tani's scent scent still lingered. She had not saved her mother, and in one last defeat she had failed to grant her mother's dying wish. Tani was gone.
Perhaps she had not completely failed her mother. "Save yourself," Azima had cried. It was the only thing Mgoma could do. Despising life but fearing death, she fled the land of her birth with nowhere to go and the rest of her life to get there.
Life as a rogue was even worse than life with Machuti. The grief and fear were just as real, but they were complicated by dangers and isolation. She tried to make contact with some hunting parties, begging the lionesses just to hear out her story. They did not trust her, something that surprised Mgoma who had always been known and loved by everyone she met.
One group of lionesses was touched by her story, but they had a new male themselves. Another was suffering from a plague and urged her to leave for her own good. Still another thought her story was an outright lie. They asked her for the real reason she was exiled. "What was it, dearie? Too tempermental, too lazy, or too untrustworthy?" Mgoma would not even dignify the question with an answer.
The loss of her reputation gnawed at Mgoma bitterly. "All the things I did, all the gifts I gave, all the cubs I've sat and all the nights I sat up with old Namambu when she was dying. Can't you let me find a friend? Aiheu, do you even know I'm out here? This is Mgoma who never forgot her prayers and always gave thanks to you after every meal. Help me please? Please, Aiheu?"
On her lonely pilgrimage she met a few rogue males. Most were not like Machuti, they were frightened cubs in an adult body who held on to a nameless hope, much like Mgoma. She learned how to follow the corridors between the main kingdoms where she could eke out a living, and she learned the pass signs fathers taught their sons when crossing a territory was unavoidable. These chance meetings saved her sanity and probably her life, but none lasted more than a day and she was on her own again.
Mgoma had been stripped of everything except the cubs she carried within, and even that one blessing would prove to be a challenge as she wandered the savanna alone.
By day she watched for pride males and by night she watched for hunting parties. The few moments she stopped were to eat or to peer into the stars and feel hot tears of grief and guilt roll down her cheeks. In those moments of despair she would beg her mother to forgive her for the terror that had sapped her strength and rooted her to the ground. She would relive the death in all its horror, think about her flight, and finally about her failure to grant her mother's dying wish. She would see Tani waiting for a mother and sister that would not return. Mgoma would finally fall exhausted and sob herself into a fitful sleep.
By night she lay huddled by the doubtful shelter of trees or bushes, never daring to stretch out on the open ground. She was frightened of the mysteries of the night, though she was a mature lioness, but she never cared what those sounds meant when she had the secure shelter of her pride, knowing she was safe. Once as a princess she worried about very little, even paying attention to her hunting lessons. What a mistake that proved to be! Now she only ruled over what she could catch, and that was very little. Snakes and lizards were often her only nourishment, and even the muddiest water trampled by beligerant elephants was better than the burning thirst she felt.
Inside her the life that had formed from her first taste of love had begun to fill out her abdomen even as her stomach shrank from hunger. Mgoma was desperate to eat. She would eat the most rank of carcasses scavenged and defended at great cost from the hyenas. Sometimes when the sun was especially hot and her hunger was sharpest she would hear voices from her past speaking to her. At those times she would huddle in whatever shade she could find and beg Aiheu to preserve her sanity. Maybe Aiheu helped her--maybe the shade--maybe both. The voices would recede and once again she would start her journey toward nowhere.
CHAPTER 12: THE FOUR OF US
She did not count the days that had passed, but it was midnight nearly a moon later as she was crouching low in the brown grass watching a wildebeest from so close she could almost touch it. Then the wind shifted and the beast caught her scent. It made a high, quavering call and looked about in a panic.
The lioness never taken a wildebeest before, but she felt up to the task. "RUN!" Mgoma's instincts commanded. "RUN, or it's gone!"
She jumped out from her cover right at the moment when her prey decided to run. The wildebeest took flight, but it did not have much of a lead on its pursuer. Mgoma surged alongside and with all her strength she jumped, her forepaws embracing the wildebeest's neck. All its efforts to gore Mgoma failed and her jaws and sharp claws dug deeply into its back.
Momentarily Mgoma was thrust off in the struggle, but sore as she felt, she scrambled to her feet and made another lunge. This time her jaws closed on the wildebeest's throat and her powerful arms wrapped it in an embrace of death.
Down to the ground went the struggling creature. Her weight bore it into the grass and still her jaws firmly choked off her prey's wind until it finally ceased to struggle. With unseeing eyes that still mirrored the moonlight, it had found the final sleep of the dead.
She had killed her first wildebeest, but she did not have much time to celebrate or even feed her hunger. The tremendous excitement and exertion had started her contractions. She was ready to kindle, and she remembered how her mother had promised to be there for her. Alone and panting in the stillness of the light, she looked at a bright, shining star and heard her mother's voice from the past. "If something ever happens to me, I will be with you always, by night and by day. You'll never be alone, my child, my blessed little Mgoma!"
As she lay panting with her exertions, a lioness appeared out of the brush and stood before her. Mgoma looked at them with tired eyes filled with tears. "Momma? Is that you?"
"Not likely," the stranger said.
"Then I am done for." Mgoma sighed deeply. "Take the fresh prey for yourself, or if you must kill me, make it quick and merciful. I can't run. My cubs are coming and I have no one to help me. "
The lioness looked at her tired, gaunt body, so much like her own. "You have me. I'll help you."
Mgoma looked up, her face still pained but grateful. "Would you do that for me? A stranger?"
"That all depends. You wouldn't be part of the pride here, would you?"
"No. I was about to ask you the same thing," Mgoma said. "Aiheu must have heard me. Are you a rogue too?"
"Yes. My name is Mkiwa. Who are you, Honey Tree?"
"Mgoma. I'm from…" Mgoma yowled with pain.
"You have to bear down, girl. Don't fight it."
Mgoma panted. "My mother is dead. She promised to be here with me when I gave birth. Will you help her keep that promise? Will you help me, Mkiwa?"
"Of course. Bear down, Honey Tree. Go ahead and scream if you want to--I will protect you."
"I'm scared," Mgoma said.
"I told you I would be your friend. Don't be frightened."
"Not of you. I can see the goodness in you." She yowled with pain again. "I'm scared for the cubs. I was so glad when I missed my first period. I wanted to have cubs, but I didn't want to bring them into this. Poor innocent things born without a chance."
"They DO have a chance," Mkiwa said softly. "You're looking at it. They will be safe and they will know love. In return for my help, you must promise not to leave me. I've known such loneliness. I can't stand it anymore."
"I'm lonely too," Mgoma said, tears brimming in her eyes. "All alone in the world."
"You're about to be a lot less alone. Bear down."
"I'm trying. Really I…."
"Stop TRYING. Start DOING."
Suddenly Mgoma's water broke. As her breath came rapidly and unevenly, she brought out a tiny daughter. She paused for a moment, admiring her little child, then another wave of contractions started. With a long, protracted yowl of pain tempered with excitement, she expelled another tiny body. "Oh gods, I think that's it! Help me, Mkiwa! Get the sac off."
Mkiwa pulled the tissues away and began to vigorously clean off the second cub. "Another daughter. It seems like we're an all-girl team here, Mgoma. And isn't she beautiful, just like her mother!"
"You're beautiful too, Mkiwa. More than you know."
Mkiwa was a fellow sufferer with her own story of woe. Though Mgoma was far more beautiful, Mkiwa had a pleasant enough face with a warm, sincere smile for the one-time princess. She was still cub-spotted along the legs. Remaining spots in older age were often taken as a sign of romantic prowess, and in hers case it was true. She spoke lovingly of three daughters and two sons she left behind and the two lions that fathered them.
Death had come to her last suitor. An angry elephant at the water hole had stove him through with ivory spears. She did not have long to grieve before some males came to fill his position. The three lions were young and haughty and did not meet with Mkiwa's approval. She left as the once closely-knit sisterhood of the old pride broke up.
Mgoma bared her soul to her new friend, telling her all her woes. Misery felt better in company, and somehow Mgoma's heart felt better to see that her parents' memory would be kept alive in Mkiwa's heart. She asked Mkiwa to help her find news of her sister. To her credit, Mkiwa risked the wrath of Machuti and combed the area where Tani had been left. There was no sign of the cub, and in the grief Mgoma felt--made worse by not knowing the whole truth--Mkiwa gave her comfort.
Mgoma considered for a moment naming one of her daughters Tani in memory of her little sister, but the shame of her failure was too great and she could not speak the word. Therefore she named her daughters Nieti and Mgani after two of her former pride sisters that had been especially good friends.
The cubs were beautiful like their mother and their grandmother. Though their life as rogues was harsh, Mgoma loved them dearly and did not neglect them, finding time to teach them the stories of her people. Mkiwa was as good as her word, protecting them and showering them with affection, something that only strengthened her ties to Mgoma. There was no question that the two lionesses would ever part company. They were of one ka, one family, one destiny. Indeed, all went as well as could be expected in the bush without a male.
ACT II: 25 MONTHS LATER
CHAPTER 13: A PROMISED GIFT
Mgoma coped as best she could with the uncertainty of life as a rogue. Her life was not all bitterness--Mkiwa was a great storyteller and had a special skill at giving warm nuzzles and playing games just when she was needed the most. Once Mgoma found a watering hole surrounded by thousands of butterflies, many of them irridescent blues and greens. She pounced and watched a moving bed of flowers dance in the air about her. In the bleakness of exile, small pleasures took on a whole new importance and Mgoma took nothing for granted.
Mgoma's daughters were her treasures. Mgani's temperment and finely-chiseled face was just like her mother's. Nieti was a charming blend of her mother's wisdom and temperment and her father's exhuberance. She had some of Mbogo's more flattering features, including his quirky smile that provoked Mgoma to laughter.
Mgoma found joy in an unexpected place, a dark maned male who called himself Ingama. He was weak and battered, but he was also kindly and charming. Ingama had expected a few moments of civil conversation to lighten the loneliness, but his tale of woe marked him as a fellow sufferer. Mgoma took pity on him and undertook the long task of nursing him back to health.
Ingama had started out as a wild-eyed fugitive who trembled at a mild frown. He had appeared little more than an object to be pitied and tolerated. With the care of the solicitous lionesses he began to regain some of his composure and dignity. In one moon of their care, his limbs ceased to tremble, and the caked blood in his mane was worked away, revealing splendid ebony tresses. The sparkle came back to his emerald eyes, and once again he could meet their glances rather than looking down. With these changes he also became more attractive as a male, an issue that became more and more pronounced as time passed.
Ingama was kind to Mgoma's daughters, something that pleased Mgoma highly. Indeed, the lioness went to great lengths to interest him in her twins.
Once as Ingama drowsed between waking and sleeping in the heat, Mgoma came to him privately, lying next to him and saying, "I need a word with you."
"I was waiting to hear you say that," he replied, a smile spreading across his face as his eyes fully opened. "I also need a word with you."
"Me first," Mgoma said quickly. "We have rescued you and for that asked very little. Indeed, you may find the reward I ask of you a sort of gift, one you will be glad to give. My daughters need a consort, a good lion that will please them and father strong cubs."
"You mean Mgani or Nieti and I? Mgoma, I would be honored!"
Mgoma nuzzled him. "I had hoped so. Understand that my daughters mean a great deal to me. Indeed, they are all I have left from my old life. I would do anything to protect them and ensure their happiness. Anything."
"I understand." He nuzzled her back. "Which one did you have in mind for me? Or do I get to choose?"
"About that," she said quietly, "Both my daughters will need a male, and I cannot afford to have one jealous of the other. This is not a large pride, and it would be well for us if we all could raise strong cubs. Perhaps Mkiwa will come to you as well. Surely you are handsome enough."
"You flatter me again."
"No. I observe you again."
"And yet you do not want me? Sweet, beautiful Mgoma whom I love the most?"
CHAPTER 14: THE LIGHT OF EXPERIENCE
Mgani and Nieti had been looking at Ingama for some time with different eyes. Once he had seemed like an uncle--or even a father--but their feelings, along with their bodies, went through a transformation. Ingama had become to them first and foremost a lion, and since their mother told them of her plans they began to watch him with increasing interest. A whole new dimension of beauty and desirability emerged from his finely-chiseled face and ebony mane.
Ingama also noticed the emerging beauty and desirability of the twins. Still it was Mgoma's beauty that showed in them. Ingama's heart belonged to Mgoma from the very beginning.
Where Mgani and Nieti were anxious for Ingama's attentions, Mgoma was only beginning to recover from the crippling emotional backlash of her rape. It took her time to trust a male, though Ingama's gentleness soothed her spirit. Over the past moon he had pursued her, at first timidly, then passionately. He had a hard job in winning her, but the greater the challenge, the greater his zeal. His combination of patience and persistence gradually wore down her defences, and he won the privilege of touching her; nuzzling her and stroking her and even touching her cheek with lion kisses. She had loved the attention, but she had never agreed to be more than just a friend.
Then one day he came to her as her season was upon her. He started to speak to her, then sighed. "Machuti took away your mother and your father. He took away your sister. He still takes from you. From both of us."
"Both of us?"
Ingama nodded. "When you first met me, we both suffered in our own way. Now I am healed of my wounds, but you suffer still. Whose injury was worse?"
"Don't pity me, Ingama."
"I cannot help myself. I see your daughters so full of life and joy. I can't help but think you were once like that. A happy, laughing, carefree cub."
"Cubhood ends," she said shortly.
"Indeed it does. But what comes to replace it? Where is the heritage of your mother? Where are your joys? You need a lion to comfort you in your time of need. You need to be told how beautiful you are. You need to be loved often and well."
He nuzzled her softly but she turned from him. Still, he nuzzled her again, asking, "Were you ever happy making love? Did you love the father of your cubs?"
"Yes. He was a rogue. He was very handsome and he pleased me."
"You can love a stranger. Can you love an old friend? Can't you tell I'm no Machuti? I would never take what is not freely offered. How about you? I freely offer you my love, no conditions attached."
She looked into his emerald eyes and touched his broad nose gently with her tongue. "I believe in your love. But you will have to love enough for both of us. I am not sure of myself."
"I will make you feel joy again. I promise."
"Don't promise what you might not deliver."
"Come, Mgoma. Let us find a place away from prying eyes."
CHAPTER 15: AN ENCOUNTER TO SAVOR
Four days had passed since Mgani had seen her mother. Then as she was drinking at the watering hole she heard a cheerful sound, the sound of a lioness singing. At first she thought it had to be Mkiwa, but she realized that it was her mother.
Soft and sweet are the nighttime voices, clear and bright as the stars above
Speaking low of a bright tomorrow, full of promise and full of love
Hey up, you old sun! Spirit of life! Shine on the triumph! Shine on the strife!
Hey up, you old sun! Spirit of light! Drive out the darkness! Set the world right!
Mgani bounded over to Mgoma and nuzzled her. "Well aren't YOU looking cheerful today! I don't think I've ever heard you sing before."
"I sing when I'm happy," Mgoma said.
"I thought you've been happy lots of times. Don't I make you happy?"
"Of course you do," Mgoma said. "I just haven't felt this good since…." She paused: she had never told her daughters about the rape or how her mother died. "….since your father left. I thought I'd never feel that way again, but now I'm deeply and hopelessly in love!"
"With the world! With life! And yes, with Ingama!"
Mgoma crouched low, then batted at Mgani. Her daughter took up the invitation to play, springing at her mother and trying to wrestle her to the ground. Nieti heard the commotion and came running over, frisking playfully as a cub as the two lionesses giggled and pawed each other in a show of high spirits.
Finally when mother and daughter had fallen on their backs panting in the grass, Nieti drew close to her mother and nuzzled her. "Well, good morning!"
Mgoma reached up and softly pawed her face. "It is a good morning. How are you, sweet thing?"
"Curious. Is all this brought on by Ingama?"
Mgoma sighed. "He's wonderful! And he makes me feel wonderful just being with him!"
"Will I feel wonderful when I'm with him?"
The look on Mgoma's face sobered for a moment. There was a long moment of silence. "Yeah. Sure, Honey Tree. That was the plan, after all."
Mgani came over. "Look, Momma, if you want to be his queen, I'll find me a rogue. I want you to be happy."
"Me too, I guess," Nieti said, but with a little less enthusiasm. "If you really love him, maybe we should just bow out. We knew it was you he loved. It's so obvious you're his sun and moon."
"You're very sweet to say that," Mgoma said, fondling her daughter's finely wrought face. "I can share him with you because I love you too. Besides I will always be his queen. He told me so."
Just then, Ingama strolled leisurely by, looking at the three lionesses with a mischievous wink. "How are my girls this morning?"
Mgani and Nieti giggled shyly and turned to leave the couple alone.
CHAPTER 16: SHARE AND SHARE ALIKE
Mgoma felt that she was Ingama's lover and that he was hers. He had taught her much about life and about herself. It had not prevented her from sharing him with her best friend Mkiwa. She had also decided to share him with her daughters as well. She was not jealous--not TOO jealous--for deep inside she knew his heart was hers alone. After he had been with Mkiwa he returned to her and said, "No matter what happens, you will always be my queen." He stroked her with his paw and smiled so tenderly that she could not be unmoved. Indeed those nights together after he returned were every bit as good as the sex, maybe even better. She would lay next to his dark maned body and he would drape a paw across her and hold her all night long. With his warm presence, she could sleep without nightmares.
Mgani and Nieti had begun to come into season at the same time. It was a difficult time when passions were aroused and a restlessness came over them but they were not yet ready to mate. The "waiting days" were a chance to prepare for what lay ahead. Mgoma chose Nieti who had never gone with a lion before to be with him. She felt she had the right to choose how she would give away her lover, and she remembered how Mgani had sneaked off one night to throw her virginity at the feet of a foolish and clumsy rogue. Mgani would have to wait until her next season to be less unworthy of his attentions.
Nieti ate ravenously. She would be fasting soon enough, living only on love. Though Mgani reassured her, Nieti was a bit nervous at what she would find when she went in to Ingama.
Mgoma was nervous too. Her little cub was a grown lioness now, doing what a lioness does and possibly about to make her a grandmother. She spoke with one of her newer friends, a lioness named Ngmogawa but whom she simply called Gawa. Gawa had never been with Ingama and somehow that made it easier for Mgoma to speak freely about her feelings with her.
Gawa smiled and kissed Mgoma. "Honey Tree, it's so hard to let go. You want to tend to them forever, but there comes a time when you have to let them go as your mother let you go."
Mgoma's chin trembled as a sudden rush of grief caught her off guard.
"Mgoma, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to make you cry!"
"My mother never got to let me go." Tears ran down her cheeks. "She promised to be here when my cubs are born. I'm sure she wanted to, but you don't always get what you want in life. At least I will be here for Nieti and Mgani. If I have to fight death one-on-one, their cubs will have a grandmother."
Nieti came by and saw them talking. "Momma, I'm ready."
"Are you sure?"
"I think so. This is my first time."
"Let me check," Mgoma said, circling around behind her.
"Oh Momma! Don't do that!"
"Sweet thing, there's no part of you that I haven't groomed and seen a hundred times. Now move your tail--it's all right."
A moment later, though it seemed like ten to Nieti, her mother circled back around. "It's indeed time. Remember everything I told you. And above all remember one thing."
Mgoma took her forepaw and touched Nieti, then nuzzled her softly. "Enjoy yourself."
Nieti had an escort as she headed to the stream where the tall shrubs grew and love waited her. At a dozen lengths away, Mgoma suddenly stopped. The others stopped behind her.
"What's wrong?" Nieti asked.
"What comes next is private. You're on your own now."
Nieti kissed her mother, then took her first hesitant steps. She caught the faint musky scent of her lover on the breeze and her heart began to pound. She remembered the foolish little quips she had exchanged with her sister about seeing him aroused in his sleep. It was not a joke now, and she would be showing him her own privacy and wrapping herself in his passion.
She looked around. Her mother and the others had retreated a respectful distance. Gaining some courage, she allowed the strength of her growing longings to be expressed aloud. "Love me, Ingama! Fill me with cubs! I want to feel you shudder!"
She leaped lightly over the hedge, landing a few feet away from Ingama. Nieti gasped--there was a strange lioness huddled beneath him where she should be! He looked around and cried, "Nieti!"
CHAPTER 17: MAKING ADJUSTMENTS
Rage had driven the pride sisters to maul Ingama beyond recognition and to batter his partner in infidelity. As far as they knew, Ingama was dead. The rage was spent and all that was left was the terrible gap he left in the pride.
Mgoma's anger gave way to grief. She was inconsolable on the first day, falling on the place where he had lain beside her the night before, drinking in his fragrance and finding a small strand of his mane left behind on the ground. Then she rose, shook herself off, and told her pride sisters that she needed some time alone. "I will return when I am ready to face things."
One day she was away, and that turned to two, then three. By the fourth day Nieti and Mgani were worried. It was only by the fifth day when Mkiwa began to panic that the awful possibility was first spoken aloud. "Maybe she's not coming back."
On the sixth day, Mgoma returned, looking for all practical purposes as if nothing had happened. But to her daughters and her closest friend Mkiwa a little bit of the innocence in her eyes had vanished. A little bit of the romance had left her heart. A little piece of her had died.
The absence of Ingama led to lean times as their brief flirtation with having a territory of their own was shattered. Soon the loss began to show itself in ways that went beyond grief. Other lions and scavengers felt more bold in poaching their lands. Without Ingama's vigilance, the extra burden of defending the pride lands took away from their hunting time. They were tired and hungry and lacking in hope. All of this misfortune made Mgoma's icy resolve all the more frightening. She would never speak of failure and would not allow the others to do so.
Mkiwa lay in the sand. She, Mgoma and all others were hungry, their fur unable to hide the terrible emptiness in their stomachs. The vengeance that had burned so hot once had wrought a terrible price. The weakest and most helpless suffered most. Poor gentle Mkiwa who had helped Mgoma in her despair and protected her cubs herself had a daughter, small and gaunt for her age.
"Mom, I'm so hungry."
"Yes, Honey Tree. I know you are."
Mkiwa knew there was no hope for the tiny cub that nibbling on one of her claws.
Through this, Mgoma was sympathetic to her best friend, but her comfort was limited. Mkiwa saw her daughter dying before her eyes but she could not mention it. She had to suffer alone.
CHAPTER 18: KOPA'S ENCOUNTER
Six moons had passed since Mgoma's group had a pride male. By Mgoma's command the name of Ingama was never mentioned. She had a new "That Lion" to despise, and while she did not hate him as badly as she hated Machuti, she refused to speak of him or the time they spent among the reeds. It was as if Ingama had never existed, a ruse made awkward by the presence of his three month old son Kopa.
Nieti had indulged her frustrated passions by following her sister's example, crouching for the first rogue to come along. Mgoma severely chided her for they were running very low on food and had no need for new additions. Fortunately Nieti did not get the light in her eyes, but it still opened a source of resentment between them that only added to the dismal lack of morale.
The territory that Mgoma had managed to eke out of a corridor or two was nothing spectacular. Indeed, most corridors formed because the land was not worthy hunting ground. For three years she had managed to hold it, and despite losing Ingama, she was not about to give up her independence. Mgoma had little use for males, an attitude reflected in her relationship with her son.
All around her were males. Though the desperate rogues in search of a home frightened her the most, there was a nightly call from a pride male that chilled her blood. Coming strong and deep through the trees that rimmed her land came the traditional shout, "This land is mine, mine! King Simba!"
She wanted to shout back, to declare her independence, but instead she huddled silently, sullenly and allowed herself for a moment to miss Ingama's strong embrace.
Nieti and Mgani had killed a pathetic zebra which Mgoma dragged under the shade of an acacia. That would have to supply their needs for a while, but there was no denying some were going to go hungry. Kopa sighed deeply--he smelled the fresh warm tang of blood that made his empty stomach churn. It was a cruel taunt of nature to smell fresh food and know there was not enough for him. His older sisters would eat well, no doubt. Maybe there would be something left to gnaw upon. Maybe….
Patiently he waited until Mgani and Nieti were finished. He had given up a long time ago. He was sick of trying to press his body through the forest of legs, of being kicked or even stepped upon. His back was covered with scratches. One of them on his neck had become infected and he could not reach it for grooming. He clamored for attention from his sisters who by and large ignored him. His mother would occasionally give him a half-hearted bath, but he still felt pain from the wound, and flies bothered him unmercifully.
He went to the carcass after the others had left. He began to prod around the blood-stained skeleton looking for some remnant of food. Everything he liked best was gone. Things he could tolerate were also gone. Sadly enough, even the things he thought he could force down were missing as well. He could not live on hair, hide and bone.
Kopa tasted the blood from one of the bones. Desperately he began to lick the fresh blood from the grass and hide, trying to find relief for his aching stomach. For three days he had been without meat.
He padded over to Mgoma, laid down, and pressed her belly gently to start milk flowing.
Mgoma raised her head. "I don't have any milk anymore," she whispered sadly, eyes half closed.
Kopa began to sob. He raised and walked over to look into his mother's eyes. "I'm so hungry! Please, Momma? Help me please!"
"Kopa, let me rest. I am so tired, my son. We will try again tomorrow."
The cub's green eyes stared at the lioness. She fell silent. Kopa was despaired, and every growl of his rarely more than half filled stomach drove him deeper in sadness.
Completely at a loss he ran toward the border of the territory. What exactly he expected to find there, he did not know. His heart longed just to hear the words "Please stay," or just an angry, "Stay here!" There was nothing--they did not seem to notice him at all.
Kopa had already crossed the dirty creek that was leftover from the once large river. He pushed through the reeds that grew along the bank and as the last green stems parted he caught his first sight of Pride Rock. It was big, bigger than the trees and it seemed to touch the sky. It nearly took his breath away.
A puckish desire overcame him. He wanted to climb it if he could. The only thing more exciting than the view from the bottom must be the view from the top! And while he had no ambition to climb to the top of Eagle Nest Point, where no lion had ever been, he did want to reach the tip of the promontory and look back at his home. It never occurred to him that there were other lions out there just beyond the rim of his territory. He'd never seen a grown male lion before. The closest he'd come was scenting some pawprints in the mud.
Not far away from him the grass was rustling. The dizziness in his head kept him from noticing the giggling and the happy "GOTCHA!" emerging from someone's muzzle close to him.
A young lioness poked her head through the grass, her teeth holding a springhare in its death struggle. A sharp CRACK ended the torment.
"Who are you?" Kopa questioned puzzled
"Mpfhgh!" she uttered.
She dropped the springhare and took a deep breath.
"Well, I am Shani, the Queen of the Pride Lands. Who are you?"
Kovu grinned weakly. "Queen? You're too young to be a queen. Who's your mate?"
Shani's ears fell back. "Well I...oh I meant to say future queen. Still, future or not, you are a stranger and you should bow."
Kopa's quivering legs did not hold him anymore, exhausted he slumped to the ground.
"Now YOU are exaggerating," Shani said with a forced laugh. "Still, if you'd rather my DAD ask your name, I can go get him."
He had only heard ill spoken of adult lions, something he did not fully understand since he was male himself and did not feel evil at all. "Don't let him hurt me," Kopa said weakly. "Can't you just pretend I wasn't here? I'll go home."
"Hey, half pint. You OK?" Shani pushed him gently with her forepaw. The skin felt loose and the impression her paw made remained for several moments. "You look awful! "
"I'm so...so hungry."
The little lioness picked the springhare up and dropped it in front of Kopa. "Here, take this."
"Really? I get to go first?" Without even a word of thanks, he started to rip pieces from the hare, bolting them down.
Shani watched his undignified, desperate display. Obviously he was telling the truth. She approached the dark brown cub from behind.
Kopa put his paws over the springhare and snarled. "You said I could have it!"
"Relax! I was only going to look at that scratch. It's really nasty, you know."
"I wouldn't know. I can't see it, but it is driving me crazy."
He went back to eating when it was clear she was not going to steal the food. As she began to groom the spot, he tensed up, then relaxed as the stimulation eased his circulation and the dried blood was softened and lifted away.
"Oh, that feels good," he said at last, snuggling into her warmth. "Thanks for everything. By the way, I'm Kopa."
"Kopa is a nice name," she said, then renewed her grooming with more pressure.
"I'm sorry. I have to get the old scab off. It's caught in your fur. Then it can come back clean."
"Whatever you say--I guess you know what you're--AIHEU'S WHISKERS! OWWWWW!!"
"Sorry. It's over now. Just eat and I'll clean it out."
Kopa relaxed. "OK. It hurt like hell but it's better now."
"Watch your language!"
Shani looked at him carefully. "You look like another cub I know. The same green eyes and dark fur. But he's pestering. And he is not so--skinny. Are you lost??"
Kopa started to sob again. "No. Momma doesn't want me because I'm useless! I'm too small to hunt, and there's no food! I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up!"
"Nobody is useless! You shouldn't want to die. That's wrong."
"I don't know what's right anymore."
"Well, I like you. I think that's right."
Kopa looked at her piercingly in the eyes. "When I grow up, you want to marry me?"
"Marry you? We just met!"
"You're the only one that's ever been nice to me! Probably the only one that ever will! I wish you lived in my place. Shani, I want to marry you 'cause you're the nicest girl in the whole world!"
"Even nicer than your mom?"
"Much nicer than my mom. You have no idea what she's like."
Shani felt stirred by his plight. She lay down, comforting and grooming him.
As his full stomach began to make him drowsy, he purred and relaxed, closing his eyes.
CHAPTER 19: CHILD OF SADNESS
Shani was at a complete loss. For a cub to be tinged with a sadness as deep as Kopa's was new to her. Still the longer she thought about it, his mood reminded her of Simba's dark moments. Once she sat hidden in the reeds and watched Simba lying by the cistern alone. From then on when she heard her father was gone, Shani knew how to find him. He would be lying by the cistern, softly sobbing. Once--only once--she came to him tearfully and began to kiss him frantically, nuzzling him and touching him with her pink tongue. He scolded her for spying on him and even when she persisted he would not reveal the source of his deep agony.
Kopa was somewhat less mysterious, though the look in his eyes was the same. He was more honest about his pain and he seemed to invite her consolation. For the moment he laid peacefully beside her. She reached with her paw and stroked him softly. "Poor thing," she whispered. "I wish I could make you feel better."
"You do," Kopa said, opening his eyes.
"I thought you were asleep," Shani said sheepishly.
"I know. I didn't mean to make you sad. I just don't understand why you're so nice to me. My mom doesn't clean my sore and she's my mom. I didn't get fed today. You're a stranger, and you fed me and cleaned me. Why?"
For a moment Shani lay silent. Then she said, "Why not?"
"I don't know. I don't know anything." He thought a moment. "No, I know one thing. I want to come home with you. I want to be your brother."
"I thought you wanted to marry me."
"If I try to wait that long, I'll die."
"You shouldn't say such things!"
He looked at her, his gaunt face speaking far more of his troubles than any words he could utter. "Why not? It's true."
"I guess we could ask my dad. He's king, you know."
"Would you??" Kopa looked positively radient.
Just then a lioness called from the trees. "Kopa, get your butt back here before I come after you!"
Kopa looked at Shani, a desolate, empty look. "It's Mom. I have to go."
"Come with me, quickly. We'll go to the rock. You'll be all right."
"Kopa! I'm warning you!"
The male's small face looked like it would soon be covered with tears. "She would never lose anything that belonged to her. She'd track me down like an antelope." He touched her with his pink tongue. "I love you, Shani. But I have to go."
Shani nuzzled him softly. "Don't get in trouble for me," she said. "Come back if you can! I'll be here!"
Shani, whose parents had only shown her love, was at a loss to see a cub so deep in dispair, a mood she had found in her father on his bad days.
The lion princess watched Kopa vanishing in the grass, heading home.
CHAPTER 20: A TASTE OF LOVE
Kopa had always had a certain distant look about him as if he had lived in a world of his own. But he found himself totally wrapped up in a dream of love. It was not a romantic love but the simple desire to need and be needed. Every step he took away from Shani he experienced a new kind of hunger--a hunger for love that burned hotter than the noonday sun. The emptiness in his heart rivaled, then surpassed, the void in his belly. Secretly he planned to sneak away in the night. Perhaps he could run a circular trail and confuse his tracks enough to make good his escape. He would find his place next to Shani and know true happiness.
Close to the place his 'pride' had chosen the resting place for the day his ears heard the familiar voices of his sisters and mother.
Curiously he poked his head through the bushes. Mgani and Nieti were obviously comfortably lying on the ground, Nieti's paws up in the air, warming her belly. Close to them was Mgoma sitting. The serious expression on her face was no good omen.
"We have to find a male to protect us or it's over with us. Maybe we'll hang on to this land until Kopa is grown," Mgoma said.
Nieti looked at her mother, not understanding what she was aiming at. "Why?"
"Because he can be our pride male then. Even if it's against all traditions." Mgoma continued.
Mgani rose suddenly. "You can't be serious, Mom! Taka's son? I only wish we could have killed him twice, the lousy no-good two-timing neck nipper!!"
Mgoma's glance grew icy. "I told you never to mention that name! Kopa thinks his father's name is Ingama!"
"You never let us use THAT name either! "
"And NEVER tell him we killed his father! Do you have any idea what he might do to us if he ever found out?? "
Both sisters stepped back in surprise. "My gods!" Nieti said. "He'd kill us!"
Kopa emerged from the bushes, and he walked slowly towards his mother. He did not say anything, but when he passed his mother he gave Mgani and Nieti a glance that pierced them like a thorn.
ACT III: SHINGALANA'S LOVE
CHAPTER 21: FOLLOW YOUR HEART
Twice the rains had come and gone since Mgoma and her pride had driven out Ingama. Her eyes were dull and tired, hardened from the strain and disillusionment that had robbed her of her youth. Yet beneath her lusterless hide, behind those weary eyes and the look of icy resolve was a small, hurting adolescent who missed her family and friends. When she was asleep, sometimes she would call to Tani. Even her good friend Mkiwa knew better than to disturb her from these dreams. They were the last refuge of her gentle innocence.
To her daughters Mgoma was affectionate and almost her old self. Even the long standing resentment between Mgoma and Nieti had finally slipped away to die quietly as day by day Mgoma quietly, patiently loved her. To Mkiwa she was grateful and almost self-effacing in her desire to please a friend who came in time of need. She tolerated the other lionesses with a certain forced civility. Then there was Kopa.
Kopa, the product of her last fling with intimacy. Kopa, the unwitting reminder of her betrayal by Ingama. From time to time the other lionesses had sneaked in the reeds with a lover, but they never dared brag to Mgoma who always had negative and cynical remarks to follow the word love. Mgoma herself was an ice princess, serene and terrible in her unmovable majesty and off limits to any male who would use her body for passionate fulfillment. She had no love left to give them.
This was demonstrated clearly in her relationship with Kopa. When he was born, Mgoma had sniffed at him derisively. "Oh thank the gods--another male in my life!" From that moment on it only became worse.
She intended him to become king someday, but she also wanted to control him. Kopa's desperate need for love gave her that control, and compliments and the occasional gesture of affection were rewards for correct behavior--correct by Mgoma's harsh and willful standards. Over time this shaped him into a creature that both loved her dearly and loathed her intensely. His temper was stoked by Mgoma's stubbornness and sharpened on the hard edge of her personality. The result was a five hundred pound dark-maned warrior whose wrath was destruction to his foes.
By her sheer force of will and careful use of tact, Mgoma managed to hold on to power as a self-styled queen mother. She convinced Kopa that he needed her to hold the kingdom together, though he was clearly a revolution waiting to happen. It was with great reason that Mgoma had delayed his mantlement as long as she could and dreaded the day as it approached. Kopa pressed her to set a date when he could make a quick sortee into the neighboring territory and find his one love. The memory of Shani was the one piece of normalcy in his whole life and he clinged to it with tenacity.
Someone else was anxiously waiting for a mantlement. At Pride Rock, not far from where Mgoma held firm sway over her land, the lion Kovu had been anxiously pestering Rafiki for the past several days to know how much longer he had to wait. A certain romantic urgency colored his words, for the time was set to coincide with the coming of Shani's season. He would celebrate the night he became a lion by making her his lioness.
His mother Shingalana was very glad for him He had found the true love for Shani that no lion had really held for her. From time to time she thought of Ingama, but as romantic as he spoke and acted there was no depth to his love. Indeed, she hardly knew Kovu's father. That became painfully obvious to her as she watched her son with Shani.
Kovu was named Simba's heir out of the love they bore his adopted father. He would not be leaving to seek a kingdom in the big world, but would remain to help guard the borders. That comforted Shingi greatly, for she loved her son with the truest love of a mother. Surely all the goodness that remained in Ingama had come to her through him. In a way through Kovu they would never be seperated.
Shingi could deny Kovu nothing. Indeed, she was very glad for him in his happiness, and she loved the lioness that gave him that happiness. The one thing she begrudged is that she never knew such love from a male, and every time she saw them together it only made her feel more lonely.
CHAPTER 22: SHINGALANA'S DESIRE
Shingi laid in the grass close to Nala, letting the warm sun fall upon her belly. Silently she glanced over at her queen, rolling over enough to touch Nala gently with a forepaw.
Nala grunted happily, drawing that paw close to her mouth and touching it softly with her tongue. "Penda Shingalana."
It was a perfect moment that hung in the air like a soft white cloud and swallowed up the doubts and uncertainties of her odd history. The awkwardness of her cubhood was swept away--she was a wild heart, a huntress of the free sisterhood whose world was not bound by wooden fences and human customs.
A soft, friendly tread in the grass stirred her from her reverie. She glanced up and saw Simba looking down on her. He went to Nala as she lay in the grass and began to explore her face with the tip of his nose, kissing her smiling face about the cheeks, behind the ears, at the corner of her soft verdant eyes. One of Nala's forepaws reached up and drew his broad, honest face down until she was buried in the warm muskiness of his mane. A soft "mhmm" escaped her slightly parted ebony lips and her lids grew heavy and began to close. "I love you," she intoned.
"I love you too, my little Nisei."
Shingi smiled--it reminded her of her time with Taka and she could feel her heart rising into her mouth. Then as he left and passed her, rather innocently he said, "Hello, Shingi," and briefly nuzzled her golden throat.
She looked after him in awe, her heart hammering. Her paw reached up and brushed the spot where his nuzzle had warmed her. "Oh gods," she thought to herself, "Nala is such a lucky girl."
Nala WAS a lucky girl, but Shingi did not feel so lucky. Once while she was recovering from her injuries, Rafiki had told her a story about a deadly poison. She remembered that there was a herb growing at the edge of the forest that could be eaten in small amounts without harm. But those who tasted a little wanted more and more, until one day they would eat till they burst. Shingi once again lay on her back and rubbed her paw over the place where Simba had kissed her. "Please, Aiheu, take these feelings from me," she intoned. "Nala is such a good friend. I would never hurt her."
Nala happened by. She looked down at the miserable lioness and seemed surprised and dismayed. "Are you all right, Shingi?"
"Oh yes. Just a little thoughtful. Sometimes I think about things that happened long ago, and things that I have lost."
"Your family Your mother?" Nala drew close and nuzzled her on the side of her throat. On THE spot. Was it a sign? Surely that innocent kiss had not meant so much to Nala--or even to Simba--and so it was merely a coincidence. Still, Shingi reached up and rubbed the spot with her paw.
Shingi looked into Nala's deep verdant eyes, brushed her cheek with a paw and said, "Girl, you have no idea how much I love you, or how much I would give up for you."
"Why?" Nala said with a smile, but clearly puzzled.
"I don't know. There are so many things I don't understand, but I can't wait till I do to go on living." Suddenly, tears welled up in Shingi's eyes..
"You're crying! What's wrong, Penda Shingalana?"
"I don't know! I felt it locked up inside me for the longest time. Somehow I felt it was ok to show it in front of you. You would never embarrass me in front of the others. You would never tell, would you?"
"Of course not, Honey Tree! Of course not!"
"Once a lion made love to me. I didn't even know him. It was passionate and exciting, but I did not love him, Nala! I am not sure what love feels like between a lion and a lioness, and then I see you with Simba and maybe I get a hint just watching you. Do you think a lion would ever feel for me the way Simba feels for you?"
"I'm sure of it, Honey tree! You're very beautiful and very kind."
"What does it feel like? When I am in love, I want to know it. I want there to be no doubt."
Nala smiled. "There will be no doubt." Her shapely nose twitched with excitement. "When his beautiful body is next to mine, it is absolutely wonderful. But as he steps away, I know the best is yet to come."
"The best?" Shingi looked at her with mild surprise. "When my lion stepped away, he would...." Embarrassment made Shingalana hesitate. "I mean, when he stepped away it stung. I would lie on my back and the warmth would spread and cover the sting and those naps were very satisfying, but I wouldn't call them the best part. More often than not I would cuff him."
Nala nuzzled Shingi again. "That's where love comes into it. I too would lie on my back--it always stings a little when he leaves, but I expect that. But when I lay on my back, he lies next to me and looks into my eyes. And in his eyes you can see such love there. He smiles at me like a gentle little cub and whispers, 'You are so beautiful, my beloved.' And no matter what I think of myself at other times, when he says I am beautiful, I AM beautiful. He MAKES me beautiful. That's love."
Shingi patted with her paw on the ground and Nala settled next to her. Shingi began to softly stroke Nala's side and she whispered, "I'm so glad for you."
CHAPTER 23: SHINGI AND SIMBA
Shingi saw the stealthy approach of her friend the King. Indeed, Simba counted all the lionesses as friends, but he had a special felt a special closeness to Shingalana for she--like him--was the product of suffering, and she was a survivor. "Oh, you're back already."
"Yes. I don't have to keep as close a watch on the hyenas these days. I think they're glad to have rights to the eastern meadow, and they don't want to risk that." He looked down between her front paws. "Oh, I see you've killed a hare. And in broad daylight."
She rose and took the hare, then walked stealthily to him and placed it at his paws. "It's for you."
"Because you look so tired. I thought you could use a pleasant surprise."
"A pleasant surprise?" He smiled, but looked at her suspiciously. "Is this leading us somewhere?"
Shingi shook her head slightly. "Simba, all of my life, whenever I was in trouble or alone, someone would come to me and show me kindness--unbelievable kindness. First it was Gillian and John. Then Taka. Then Rafiki, and you and Nala and Uzuri and all the pride sisters. I used to wonder what I did to deserve this. Why I was even alive? What it all meant."
"Shingi, we just...."
"Simba, please let me finish." She touched his mane gently with her paw. "I found the answers to my questions. And here it is." She nudged the dead hare.
"A rabbit?" He laughed a little nervously. "How can a dead rabbit be the answer to your problems--unless you were hungry?"
"That's just it. I was hungry for something besides food. I was hungry for my life to have meaning. Now you came back from patrol tired and hungry. I could do something about that." She drew closer and looked penetratingly into his hazel eyes. In a low voice, as if she were talking to a tired cub, she said, "I've spent my whole life getting and getting. Now I'm giving something back. And no rabbit could ever make me feel as good inside as I feel right now. Maybe that's how John and Gillian felt. Maybe that's what Rafiki felt. I thought it was just pity, but it's not. It's this warm feeling you get when you give something of yourself. I have felt it, and it has changed my life."
Simba's eyes shined, and a smile slowly dawned on his face like a sunrise. "Shingi, no rabbit could ever make ME feel as good inside as I feel right now. I'm so glad to be your friend. You are very special and you honor me with this gift, more than you could ever know."
Simba touched her with his tongue, then nuzzled her slowly. She wept, burying her face in the softness of his mane and taking a deep, slow breath, drawing his fragrance into her while wiping her tears on his fur.
Shingalana sat quietly and watched as Simba turned and walked away. For a moment, the bond of friendship and the warmth of his nuzzle filled her with joy. But even as she savored the last remnant of his masculine fragrance, the inner peace she won at such great cost began to crumble around the edges.
Nala came to Simba, her heart full of love and joy to see her husband home. He nuzzled her the way she had just been nuzzled. Indeed, she could vividly imagine what it must feel like to be her. For a moment, it gave her joy to watch, but as he pawed her soft golden face and spoke to her gently, a sinking feeling came over Shingalana.
Taka had been gentle with her--that was not the problem. But where Taka had been full of charm and flattery, there was a seductive delight in the wonderful ordinary quality of Simba. And in a guarded way, Shingi admitted to herself in quiet tones, "I hope I find someone that will love me like that." She settled sphinx-like on the soft grass and lay her head down, hoping to shake the odd feeling that had begun to gnaw at her inside.
CHAPTER 24: SHINGI AND SARABI
Simba had kissed her again! Shingi had felt the softness of his mane. Once she had tasted the herb, and later she had taken more. Now she wanted more, to fill herself until she burst and died.
Shingi in her melancholy wandering found Sarabi sitting alone. She came and sat beside her in her restlessness, hoping for some answers.
"Sarabi, do you mind if we talk? I've always wanted to find you alone and speak with you."
"You look like you need someone to talk to."
"Oh?" Shingi looked at her guiltily. "You know how I have always admired you. At least I hope you do. When I'm near you, anything is bearable."
"That's very sweet, child. We are both products of suffering. We have a bond between us."
Shingi sighed. "I never had a mother--well, at least I remember a distant face that looked very loving and very sad. Nala says when she's worried or depressed, she goes to her mother. I've never had someone to go to. I love John and Gillian, but in a way they are like Timon and Pumbaa. They meant well, but something was missing. I don't feel free to go to them, and they would not understand me. I've been haunted by dreams and memories of that face--my mother's sad, sweet face. But when I see you--and please don't laugh at me--I can see that same sweetness, but it is not sad. At least not deeply sad."
Sarabi purred. "My dear, I am flattered."
"Don't be. You're such a kind nisei. I wish I could be more like you. I see you with your daughter and I wonder if I wouldn't have snuggled next to her like that. I loved John and Gillian, you understand, but they were always busy doing something. I would lay my head on them and get comfortable, then maybe I'd have a few minutes before they would leave. They slept very little, and when they did they hid themselves away."
Sarabi looked at her kindly. "Shingi, it's not sleep that's bothering you. I can see you are worried and depressed. My ear is ready to hear your worries, and my shoulder is ready to rest your head."
Shingi rested, laying on that shoulder. "Oh Sarabi, how long I have dreamed of doing this!"
"And I have imagined it also." Sarabi looked at her recumbent form with a wise and gentle glance. "You came here a lost little cub in need of care and love. I have a well-known weakness for such cases. Only with you there is hope. You are strong, and you will find your destiny and smile." Sarabi stroked her with a paw. "My poor daughter Shani looks like this in my dreams. Now I am living out my dream."
Shingi began to weep softly.
"What is it, child? What troubles you?"
"How I wish I could tell you! Tell me, Sarabi, have you ever felt trapped by your own feelings? Have you ever wanted something that you could not have?"
"All the time, my child. I dream of my husband Mufasa. Sometimes in the night, I can feel his warm, strong arm about my shoulder comforting me. I turn to look into his eyes but he is not there."
Shingi turned and met Sarabi's eyes with her own. "I love you, Sarabi. If there was anyone that I would bring my problems to, it would be you. You understand. You really do. You don't need to know the name of my misery to comfort me."
Sarabi sighed and purred deeply, stroking Shingi again with her paw. "Shingalana, my little honey tree, you fill a need inside of me. You never had a mother when you were growing up, and I never had a son while he was growing up. I grieved away my youth. You help fill that void. And I can help you face your own troubles. I can do this because I know you have honor and principles that run deep like a river. You would never dream of hurting Nala."
"Hurting Nala??" Shingi looked up startled.
"A mother knows these things." Sarabi sighed deeply. "You know how badly Nala would be hurt if you acted on your feelings. It weighs on you, and that is a terrible burden. You need someone to help you share that burden. You came to the right place."
"You won't tell him, will you??"
Sarabi half smiled. "What do YOU think, honey tree? Rest here beside me. You are young. Someday you will find another--someone who can return your feelings and give you strong, handsome cubs again. In the meanwhile, don't forget who loves you very much."
Shingi tenderly nibbled at Sarabi's soft paw, then licked it. "I don't forget things like that."
CHAPTER 25: TIES OF BLOOD
Shingi had three sources of consolation in her woes. Sarabi's motherly love brought her stability. Kovu's gentle devotion warmed her like a good nuzzle. Yet it was mostly hunting that made her feel more like her old self. The self-discipline and comradeship of pride hunting was better than any herb old Rafiki had in his pouch.
Shingi vividly remembered her first kill, and she had a chance to relive the excitement as Sarabi's daughter Omatu bid to enter the pride sisterhood.
An old cub, Omatu looked in every way like a lioness, but she was only treated as an old cub until the blood of her first kill was daubed on her cheek by the hunt mistress and all the lionesses had sniffed of it.
Shingi was Omatu's sponsor, responsible for her behavior when she accompanied the adults on the important task of finding food for the pride. It was a great honor to Shingi, for Sarabi was one of the most respected of lionesses and Omatu was surely to be her last cub. Never since she had left her human parents had experienced such complete acceptance and love.
Omatu had also known acceptance and love, but her very life represented something that made the pride sisters feel uncomfortable. Everyone thought of Sarabi as Mufasa's mate, the kindly queen mother, the king's mother. When Sarabi first began to show the light in her eyes, it caused a small scandal, and even with Omatu a young lady ready to take on the role of adult, Simba had never said much more to his half sister than "good morning" or "good night." There was no hate, only a discomfort that colored most of the older lionesses' relationships with her. All except for Shingi, her "older sister" and best friend. In Shingi's eyes, Omatu was as beautiful and flawless as jasmine in bloom.
Sarabi came to Shingi and spoke with her alone before the hunt. "I have always followed tradition," the old lioness said, "but my daughter is in her season. She has a lover waiting--I've seen him."
Shingi gasped. "They were going to pull the Great King of the Zebras joke on her."
Sarabi smiled. "Honey Tree, I want to live to see her cubs. I want them to have a grandmother. There's no time for fun and games--I want her to make a kill."
"I can fake it."
"No. She must make the kill herself. I want Aiheu to bless her union with cubs, so you must not compromise her coming of age. But tell the sisters this is a straight hunt--no pranks."
"No pranks," Shingi said. "I will see to it myself."
Sarabi was watching the cubs, waiting for Omatu's return. She knew her daughter was on the threshold of being a proper lioness, and she felt sure she would never live to see another daughter of hers grow to fine estate.
She did not have to wait long past midmoon until she heard the footsteps in the grass. "Sassie! News!"
She forced her stiff joints to answer and wandered toward the oncoming hunting party. She caught sight of her cub, now bearing the crimson mark on her cheek. "Honey tree, you're a lioness now!"
Omatu came trotting toward her mother, slightly uneven in her gait.
"You're hurt!" Sarabi said.
"It's just a jackal bite," Omatu replied casually.
"I tried to stop her from baiting the jackals," Shingi said apologetically.
"She's lucky she didn't get more," Uzuri answered sharply. "Don't you worry, Shingi. She had the blood on her cheek when she did it. She was a lioness, responsible for her own actions." She looked at Omatu with a frown. "You did everything but stomp on that jackal."
"He was desecrating my first kill," Omatu insisted. "I hate those things! They're lower than hyenas! I wanted everything to be perfect on my first kill. I wanted my mother to be proud!"
"I am proud of you," Sarabi said in a calm but authoritative voice. "Still, you must use common sense. You're a very wise young lady when you don't let your feelings impair your judgment."
"I hope you learned a valuable lesson," Isha said. "Better now than later."
"It was her first time," Nala said gently. "She learned something about jackals tonight, and I'm sure she'll make a fine huntress. Here, Omatu, I'll clean the wound."
"It's really nothing," Omatu said.
"Let me be the judge of that. Lay down."
Omatu settled sphinx-like to the ground and Nala began to lick the blood that had matted in her fur. It stung at first, but it finally loosened the wound and before long Omatu wore a relieved smile. "Thanks."
"It's nothing," Nala said.
"Not for the grooming. For taking up for me. I know they thought it was funny, but it was important to me that the jackal not get a bite of my first prey."
"How do you feel now?"
"I'm feeling very feverish and I may not hunt again for maybe three or four days."
"I know," Nala said with a wink. "You need rest and relaxation. Don't keep him waiting on my account."
Three days later, Sarabi was settling down for a nap beside Isha. "Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all," Isha muttered sleepily.
"It's hard for me to rest," Sarabi said, snuggling into Isha's strong but soft body.
"Your hips acting up again?"
"No, my daughter's."
Isha looked about and grinned. "Good one, Sassie! Don't worry about her--she's fine. I only hope she's found someone with experience."
"Well it's true! My first time out, I didn't know what I was doing, and neither did he. We finally figured it out, but not before a lot of things happened I'd rather forget."
"I've had 'the talk' with her," Sarabi said. "She knows what to do--and what to tell him."
"My mother was very thorough in our little talk. She had no romantic notions, and thought males were only interested in one thing." Isha sighed. "Thank goodness she was right!"
"Isha! You should be ashamed!" Sarabi smiled wryly. "The same thing's been said about you, Miss Six-Days."
"Five and a half," Isha said firmly. "Some go for enthusiasm. Some go for endurance. Some can't decide…." Isha smiled. "Now in all seriousness, there are some times in my life when I felt something larger happened. Something really beautiful and spiritual. I pray to Aiheu that it's always that way for Omatu."
Sarabi took one of Isha's paws between her trim ebony lips and mouthed it affectionately. "I've been thinking about names for the cubs."
"That's the mother's perrogative," Isha said.
"I know, but Omatu asks me for advice on lots of things, and IF she should ask me…."
Just then Omatu came stumbling back. "Momma, is that you?"
"Over your sickness?" Sarabi asked with a smile.
"No, I'm not!" Omatu stumbled a few more steps and then collapsed. "Oh Momma, help me! Help me!"
"Did he hurt you??"
"No, but I'm so sick! Help me! I don't want to die!"
CHAPTER 26: SUNSET FALLS
The day passed in anguish for Omatu and her mother. Sarabi prodded her in various places, asking her, "Does this hurt?" and Omatu would say "no" but her brow would be furrowed with discomfort. As the sun sank lower in the western sky, Omatu got violently ill. Her fever was hot as the midday sun but even as her fur matted with sweat she shivered with chills. From time to time weakness overcame her, pushing her into a short and fitful sleep.
Shingalana could hardly bear to look Sarabi in the face when she came by to see Omatu. She went to the stricken lioness and started to nudge her with a paw. Omatu opened one eye sleepily and said, "Shingi, I knew you'd come."
Shingalana's chin trembled and she had to turn away. "How are you feeling, girl?"
"I've been better," Omatu said, then she closed her eyes. "How are you?"
Shingi finally looked up into Sarabi's reddened eyes. She could hardly keep from bursting into tears. "She has to get well again. She just has to! Sarabi, I'd rather die myself than…."
"Hsssh!" the old queen said, shaking her head. "Nobody's going to die. She just needs rest."
It was obvious she said it for Omatu's benefit, and Shingi dropped her head, slinking quietly away.
For a couple of hours Sarabi held a silent vigil at Omatu's side. The old lioness looked at the fresh young face and saw a reflection of her own beauty that attracted a young Mufasa. On the side of her neck was a small scratch from a passionate nip. One week ago, Omatu was an old cub. Now she had become a huntress, a lover, and ever so sick. Sarabi stroked her precious daughter with a paw and murmured prayers.
Omatu finally opened her eyes. After three days of fasting and illness she looked so gaunt and frail. Sarabi touched her face with a paw. "Can I get you a little something to eat?"
"Not hungry," Omatu stammered.
"Won't you at least try? Maybe if I got you something fresh?"
"That's momma's little cub."
Omatu sighed. "Not a cub anymore. I'm a lioness. Blood on my cheek." She coughed. "I made love too. Maybe I'll kindle."
"You'll always be my little cub, Honey Tree. But how was it with your lion? Was it what you wanted? Did he please you?"
"Oh yes, momma!" Omatu coughed again. "My first hunt was great, but he did things for me no blood on the cheek could do."
"I bet he did."
She coughed again, so hard and long that Sarabi cringed. When she could get her second wind, she said, "I'll tell you about it later, OK? I'm so tired."
Sarabi nodded. "Sweet thing, you rest while I hunt you up a nice rabbit."
Rafiki was sitting by his baobab tree, his eyes half closed as he muttered a prayer as old as time itself. Before him stood Uhuru, leader of the hyenas, his mate, and his first pups. Bursting with pride and joy, Uhuru heard the blessing given to lion cubs bestowed on his three tiny treasures. Health, prosperity, and right guidance along the path leading to the eternal lair of Aiheu.
Suddenly a strange lion came staggering toward the Baobab. Rafiki looked up and his eyes opened widely. "Maybe it's better you go home now."
Uhuru and his family left hurriedly. An ordinary lion was no threat to take lightly, but this one was sick as well.
"What do you want, stranger?" the mandrill asked.
"Are you Rafiki?" the lion stammered.
"What if I am?"
The lion coughed, gasped, then coughed again until his sides shook. He shook his head and wheezed for a moment, finding his wind. "Omatu said you could help me."
"You know Omatu?"
The lion swayed unsteadily. "For Aiheu's sake, help me monkey!" He coughed again. "Help me! Please help me!"
"Sure, if I can." Rafiki got some Red Multiflora, wet it with fresh water, then squeezed it tightly over a piece of jerky. "Eat this. It will steady you. I'll get you something for the cough."
Sarabi managed to catch a hare, not an easy task for someone slowed by sore joints. She wanted it for her special daughter to make her feel better.
When she bore it lovingly to the place where Omatu had lain, she saw only a depression in the grass. It was cold and the scent was faint. "Ajenti, where did my girl go?"
"She had to get a drink of water."
"The cistern is right behind the rock! Where did she head?"
Ajenti thought. "I believe to the stream."
"That makes no sense! She was out of her head! The fever!"
Ajenti was shocked. "You mean she really WAS sick?"
"Maybe dying! We have to find her!"
Sarabi was frantic. She ran to the promontory in one long steep climb. "Zazu! Zazu!! Come quickly!!"
Fortunately the hornbill was nearby. He fluttered over to her quickly and perched. "Is everything all right?"
"No it's not!!" the lioness shrieked in a panic. "You have to find Omatu! She may be dying!"
"If she's out there--and I'm sure she's just fine, mind you--I'll find her."
While Zazu used the fast failing light of evening to search for a small golden mark on the savanna, Rafiki was brooding over the dilemma on his hands. Omatu's lover was once a mighty lion. An enemy too small to see had brought this splendid creature to a lowly state.
Lying on his side, the lion was convulsed by an almost continuous coughing spell. The herbs he had been given were no longer enough, and the mandrill thought about the dried seed pod in his medicine pouch. Perhaps it would be the lion's only escape.
An eerie quiet eventually descended as the lion became too tired to cough anymore. His chest rose and fell in a ragged semblance of normal breathing, followed by a few moments of absolute silence, then a sudden gasp for air. Rafiki took the seed pod in his hands. Crimson in the light of the setting sun, he looked up at the first few stars to emerge. "O Mano, O Minshasa, bless this gift that it may relieve his suffering. Receive his ka that he may shine brightly with the heavenly host."
The lion suddenly rose to a sitting position, then bellowed one long, heart wrenching roar, and crumpled over on his side with a soft, plaintive moan. By the time the mandrill could rush to his side, the lion's urine flowed out in a slow stream and his limbs twitched one last time. Rafiki took his fingertips and as he had once done for his own mother, closed the open eyelids, then gently kissed them. "No more pain. Sleep, my son."
CHAPTER 27: PREY OF JACKALS
Night fell, the sun rose, and finally the hornbill arrived with news. "Sarabi, my dear, kind Sarabi."
"You found her? Where is she??"
Zazu sighed. "With Aiheu," he said softly.
"Oh my gods!" Sarabi shrieked. "Oh my gods! My last little girl and she's dead!" Sarabi began to walk about in a tight circle, headed nowhere but in a great hurry to get there. "Oh my poor baby, just a little simbake on her first date! What did you see, Zazu?? Did she look peaceful?? Did she look in pain?? Sometimes you can see it in their eyes."
"I can't tell how she died, but knowing her mother, I think she faced death with honor and courage. Most of her remains were eaten by jackals."
"Damn!" Nala said. "I hope she took out a couple with her!"
Ajenti said superstitiously, "I wonder if the bite on the paw was a prophesy? You know right before he died, Mufasa went hunting and he got nicked by a wildebeest."
One of the others said, "Hush, you old fool! They will hear you!"
The lionesses looked around. The king had his head bowed. Sarabi was sobbing softly. Nala went and comforted them. "Don't you listen to those foolish tales. I never saw him nicked."
Shingalana sat alone, weeping for Omatu. She had wished a thousand times she had never been made her sponsor, and what was once an honor to her had become a shame. From time to time she glanced up at the cave where Sarabi's muffled sobs could clearly be heard.
Isha came and nuzzled Shingi. "Go to her. You know you want to."
"How can I face her?"
"She needs you now more than ever. How can you NOT face her?"
"Good old Isha. You always know what to say."
Shingi sighed and trudged up the path. "Sarabi? Honey Tree? It's me. May I come in?"
In the darkness, Shingi could barely make out the form of the stricken lioness who had been so like a mother to her. "You know I loved her like a sister," Shingi said.
"I know." Sarabi looked up. "She needed a sister, and there you were. Aiheu knows she didn't have a brother. Simba tried, but he couldn't accept Omatu. He thought my time with Kaga was cheap and humiliating. The only way he could deal with it was not to deal with it at all. You don't think I'm cheap, do you?"
"Of course not, Honey Tree."
"When Muffy died and I thought my son was dead, my world crumbled." She sighed, tears rolling down her cheeks. "The pride lands were dying. Taka was losing his hold on reality, and in a way so was I. There were days when I barely had strength to get up in the morning."
"Sassie, my poor Sassie!"
"When Simba came back, you would think I'd be ok. I was better, but I was still married to a memory. A beautiful memory, but still one that could not hold me or ward off the night chill. When the hyenas left and things went back to normal, my body went back to normal. Normal in every way."
"Maybe you're the only one who really can. The only one."
"You had a lover."
"Calling him a lover is going too far." She sighed. "Kaga was honored that I would give him a second look, and he was truly moved by my story. He let me call him Muffy, a humiliation no lion would endure unless his heart was great enough to bear it out of love. And he did love me."
"Did you love him?"
"No, but I came to like him. When the cold wind blows at night, sometimes you want a warm, strong arm around you. I know Muffy understands. He wanted me to have a cub that I could raise, the way I never got to raise him. Omatu was his doing, as much as it was Kaga's."
Shingi nuzzled her, trembling. "I'd do anything if I could bring her back."
"I know, Honey Tree. I know." Sarabi balled up tightly, her ears flat back and her eyes tightly shut, then she sobbed. "She's gone!! My little Omatu is gone!! Take care of her Muffy, wherever you are!"
"I'll be your companion," Shingi said, stroking the old lioness. "I am your daughter now. You will be my mother, and I will love you till the day I die--even longer."
"You were my daughter long ago," Sarabi said, stroking her face with a trembling paw. "I know you loved Omatu. I know you love me. And I accept you as my own."
"Bless you, Mother. Bless you!"
"I love you, Shingi, and I hope you will understand if I miss Simba. If he doesn't come, I'll understand. He's ashamed that he never spoke to Omatu, and I know he loves me. Still, it would have been nice."
Just then, Simba's voice floated up. "Mother? Are you all right? I need to see you."
Shingi smiled and nuzzled Sarabi. "I'll go now. You two have much to discuss." She headed for the doorway of the cave, rubbed Simba full-length in passing, then glanced down at Isha.
Good old Isha. She always knew what to say….
That night, Simba quietly worked out from under Nala's paw without waking her. He headed out of the cave and traveled to the end of the promontory where he could look up into the stars. One of them was his father Mufasa. Another one surely must be the young Omatu.
Lost in thought, he began to scan the skies looking for some sign of her presence. There were so many stars! How could one hope to find her unless she sent him a sign? He felt guilty that he had not been kinder to his half sister. That he had not come to know her better. "Father, forgive me. I know you would have wanted her to be happy. I know it was her right, but oh I can't imagine Mom with another lion. I just can't! Help me to deal with it. Help me to give my mother comfort! Don't let me offer too little too late!"
Suddenly he heard something tap behind him. Simba looked around and saw old Rafiki with his stick.
"You awake too?" Rafiki asked.
"Yes. I couldn't sleep."
The mandrill laid down his staff, then walked quickly to the lion, putting his arms around Simba's strong neck and patting his strong, deep chest, burying his face in the soft mane. Tears began to roll down his cheeks. "Oh Simba, have I told you lately how much I love you?"
"Many times, old friend."
"Let me tell you again. There was a strange lion about. He was so sick. He came to me for help and I watched him die! So young, so handsome! Such a loss! And I couldn't do a thing to help him!"
"Poor Rafiki! Anyone I know?"
"Omatu's lover. I tell you Simba, that fever killed them both. Mol doba! I need to use the cave tomorrow--I need to burn blackweed and hay to drive out the bad air. Otherwise there's going to be a lot more dying than just those two."
"Blackweed?" Simba said with obvious distaste. He remembered the last time Rafiki cleared the cave. "It won't smell right for a moon."
"Any smell is good if you're alive to smell it."
Rafiki placed his fingertips at the corner of Simba's mouth. The lion sniffed, took his mouth with great tenderness and gently pressed his fingers between his teeth, licking them and finally drooping his great head to touch the mandrill's rainbow face with his pink tongue. Rafiki in turn kissed him gently on his cheeks and his eyelids.
"You make me feel much better," Rafiki said.
"Maybe you could help me feel better," Simba said.
"Oh, you're not sick are you?"
"Not yet. It's just something Ajenti said. About how Omatu being bitten by a jackal was a sign of how she would die. Then someone said my father had been nicked by a wildebeest on the hunt. That it was a sign. That was a cruel remark, but it's true, isn't it?"
"About the signs?"
"More than that. It's like some things are going to happen no matter what we do. Nala was going to be my mate and I was going to be king--against all odds we ended up together ruling the Pride Lands. Scar was going to kill the brother that loved him. He did it."
"Look, my friend. If these things were determined for us, we would have no reason to go on living."
"I don't follow you."
"We could take no credit for any good thing, and no blame for any bad thing. Only Aiheu would be responsible for anything, so you are not a great king and Scar was not a villain and Nala is not kind and I am not patient. These things were assigned to each of us by Aiheu and all we do is act it out like cubs playing at hunting."
"I didn't say that."
"No, but you came very close. Aiheu sees our hearts and he knows we have a fondness for certain paths. If you know where the path leads, you can be a prophet. But at any time we can change our path. It is our right as Aiheu's children."
"In some things maybe. I agree we can make a difference, but only so far."
"We can change ANYTHING."
"Shhh! Not so loud! They are asleep!"
"Sorry. But if they are meant to be awake, it will do me no good to whisper."
"You are missing the point," Simba said.
"No. I know the point all too well. Certain things seem so likely that the heart quails and the legs grow weak at the thought of fighting powerful fate. And yet when the heart is courageous and true you can do anything--you can be anyone--you can go anywhere. Don't sell yourself short."
"I hope you're right," Simba said, nuzzling his friend.
CHAPTER 28: A COLD WIND
"Lord knows when the cold wind blows it'll turn your head around"
--- James Taylor, "Fire and Rain"
The next day, Simba was waiting for Zazu's morning report. He felt a slight uneasiness, and needed the reassuring news that all was well in the Pride Lands.
Several birds had passed overhead, but eventually one dipped his wing in salute and dropped to a long, low glide. At last there would be tidings.
"Zazu, thank Aiheu. Tell me, how are things?"
"Things are not well." Those four dreadful words confirmed Simba's suspicions.
"I thought so."
"I was flying over the elephant graveyard last night. I saw some kind of ceremonies before the full moon. They don't look right somehow, so I dropped in and listened. It seems there is some new seer who is all the rage among the hyenas, one who is making prophesies that have those folk all stirred up again. Some of them believe him and are all excited. Others do not believe him, and they are all excited."
Simba sighed. "When they get stirred up, I get stirred up too." He stood and shook the grass from his mane. "A seer, eh? I'd better consult Rafiki on this."
When the lion reached the baobab, he found a restless mandrill waiting for him. "Is all well in the pride lands?" Rafiki asked.
"Probably not. It's the hyenas again."
"I knew it, I just knew it!"
"You too, eh?"
"The signs were not quite right." Rafiki climbed down and gave the lion a hug. "Aiheu must love trouble makers, that's why there are so many of them."
"Zazu says there is a new seer among the hyenas. He's stirring them up."
"Then we must go see them. It's your duty to investigate this."
Simba smiled wryly. "That's MY line! I thought I would have to order you to go with me." His smile fell. "What if this is true? What if he does have some kind of power?"
The mandrill nodded gravely. "If so we will find out soon enough. What have you heard?"
"Zazu tells me the hyena hears the voice of Roh'kash herself. But he can't really, can he? I mean there really is no Roh'kash."
"Now Simba, do not speak of what you do not know."
"Then you don't believe in Aiheu?"
"Of course I do!" Rafiki looked indignant. "Is Roh'kash God? No sir!" The mandrill stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Do I believe that there is a powerful spirit that may be named Roh'kash? I don't know. You don't either. To prove something exists may be a simple thing. To prove something does NOT exist, hah! Should you live so long!"
"And if this Roh'kash means ill for us? What shall we do?"
Rafiki gave Simba's shoulder a pat. "If this Roh'kash had meant ill for us, would we still be standing?"
"Then you don't think we're in danger?"
"I didn't say that."
"Then what ARE you saying?"
"I'm SAYING that we must find out if the seer is true or false." Rafiki hugged Simba and gave his shoulder a pat. "I'm SAYING that knowledge is a powerful magic. If we would fight this thing, we must study it. Your father told me that."
Simba announced the unpleasant news at the next baraza. "I will be on the border of the pride lands rather than making my usual rounds. You must all be watchful and report to me at once if anything looks suspicious. There may be trouble with the hyenas, but I will take care of it."
"And who will take care of you?" Nala asked.
"Rafiki will be by my side. What he lacks in brute strength, he makes up for in wisdom." Simba kissed Nala. "Good bye, my darling."
She returned his kiss but said nothing.
"What? No farewell?"
"I'm afraid of good byes. Maybe I'm superstitious, but I feel it's like inviting death. I'd rather say 'see you later.' Think of it as a prayer of sorts."
"I'll be fine," Simba insisted. "I'm going so you will be fine too."
She nuzzled him. "I understand. See you later."
CHAPTER 29: THE WATCH
Nala accepted the first day of Simba's absence with an untroubled mind. She believed that Simba's strength and Rafiki's integrity would keep them safe on the border of the dark lands. But as day turned to night and still they did not return, she grew depressed and worried.
To complicate matters, her body was whispering subtle things to her soul. Whenever she felt like that, she would seek out the closeness of her mate and her body would also speak to him. In another day that whisper would turn to a cry of longing. Never before had that cry gone unheeded, and she silently cursed the people of the dark lands for turning his steps to a distant path.
Her receptive state played havoc with her emotions, increasing her loneliness fourfold. Simba was gone so often, walking the boundary and reading the signs. If only he knew what he was missing, he would surely come back to her! She knew what she was missing.
Nala sat by the cistern where the fresh rainwater collected. She looked in the still surface at her reflection, the somber face of a lioness whose rival was kingly duty, a rival she could not defeat on her own terms. He was protecting her, a very important job. And yet….
As the strength of her yearning grew, she quickly stood and trotted off toward the elephant graveyard. "He will spare a moment for me. He loves me!"
The trip to the elephant graveyard brought back a lot of unpleasant memories for Nala. Even as a great huntress, she would always urge her pride sisters not to take that route on the hunt. Those missing years that were so much a part of Simba represented the one part of him that he would not share openly with her. It took a long time before he would speak of them at all in front of her.
Beside her in spirit was a small Nala, a Nala that took life and friends for granted. She thought of that cub that had once been her and dared to speculate on what might have been if only she could warn that innocent young thing. Her mood darkened, and she quickly tried to push such thoughts to the back of her mind and concentrate on the warm embrace of her lover.
Simba was sitting atop a kopje, his faithful mandrill friend by his side. "They always pass that spot before the ceremony," Rafiki said, pointing. Simba nodded gravely.
"Darling?" Nala said.
Rafiki looked around quickly, then smiled. "Yes, Sweetie?"
"Not you. I'm talking about the other dumb looking one."
Simba looked around preoccupied. "Huh?"
"I came to see you."
"Is there trouble??"
"No. I just wanted to see you."
"Oh, thanks?" She went to him and rubbed him full length, her eyes half closing. "Let's see how observant you are."
"Well I...um...oh yeah. Now I get it!"
"At last." She looked over at Rafiki. "Why don't you go to the stream and refresh yourself? You look hot and thirsty."
Simba quickly said, "He has a job to do. So do I. I'm sorry, really I am, but there is much at stake here." He kissed her. "I'm protecting the pride--you included, and Kovu. I can't afford to leave now, no matter how much I may want to."
"Why not let Kovu stay here for just a day--just an evening. He's tall and strong and all he has to do is watch."
"I can't!" Simba said. "Heavens, he has not had his mantlement yet--he's just a cub!"
"He's NOT just a cub. Just a few words spoken over him in a moon or two from now--what is that in the great scheme of things."
"It's a break with tradition. One the pride would never forget--or forgive. If anything went wrong--no matter how small--they would say 'Simba ran off pleasuring and left a cub to guard the boundary.' I would have to leave. Don't you see, Nala?"
"I didn't mean to make you angry. But Simba, I need you! Don't you care what I say too?"
He looked at her sympathetically, kissed her, then rubbed her full length. She closed her eyes tightly and shuddered. Counting on Rafiki to leave them in peace, she did not even look back but walked a few paces and crouched, her heart hammering in her chest. "Come to me, Simba."
"Maybe I'll be home tomorrow," he said. "I'll make it up to you then. I promise."
She looked around, a look of shame and consternation on her face. She stood up, shook off the dried grass, and promptly left. "That will take a lot of making up," she said in a frustrated growl.
CHAPTER 30: GENTLE ADVICE
She spent a long night hunting, but she was up early the next day waiting for her lover to return. When the morning mists had dispelled, there was no sign of his approach. The day bloomed, and cubs played among the sleepy lionesses, but she still sat watch. The heat of noon found her still scanning the horizon. Finally in the evening shadows as she started to nod off to sleep sitting upright, she heard a rustling in the grass and saw a large body approaching.
"Simba! My darling!"
"Oh, it's only you, Sarabi."
"Only me??" Sarabi sat by her, a mischievous grin on her face.
"I didn't mean it like that. I was waiting for Simba."
"You were waiting for loving."
"Well, yes. Is it that obvious?"
"Honey tree, this periodic obsession with the border is normal with a king. It was that way with my Mufasa." She frowned lightly. "At least he would never miss my period. Nothing could drag him from me then. Then again, Mufasa didn't feel he had to prove something."
"Maybe Simba's trying hard to be a good king like his father--a little too hard." Sarabi nuzzled her. "This time of your period will pass. You will feel better."
Nala said, "It's not the--well-- "
"Speak freely child."
"It's not making love that I miss the most. It's just having him with me. Feeling his strong arm across my shoulder or laying with my head buried in his soft mane. You know how I feel, don't you?"
"Sure I do, child. Sometimes in the night I wake up and reach over for Muffy. Not as much as I used to, but sometimes."
"This is the first time we have not been together."
"Maybe he will return tomorrow. Maybe he will return tonight. Maybe he's just a few lengths away. The important thing is not to give up hope."
Simba did not come that night, nor did he come home the next. The next morning Nala awoke stiff and cranky. Sarafina came and nuzzled her daughter softly. "Good morning."
"What's good about it??"
"Every day you're alive is good," Sarafina said a little reproachfully.
"I'm sorry, Momma. I'm just so pent up inside I feel like the first mosquito to land on my nose and prick me would make me explode!"
"Now there's a pretty sight to think about before breakfast. Maybe a little rabbit hunt will take your mind off things--just you and I like we once did. You're not a cub anymore, but I miss having my little girl sleeping tucked up against my tummy. Maybe we can spend some time together, just the two of us."
"That sounds nice," Nala said with an exhausted sigh. "Only I don't feel so energetic."
Zazu came fluttering in. He bowed and said, "The King is surveying the eastern meadow. There is no word on when he may be back."
"That's what you ALWAYS say," Nala growled. "It gets old fast."
"You're telling me! With all due respect, Madam, no one ever asks how much ZAZU wants his old life back. All day long I try to make out what those hyenas are saying, and frankly hyannic is not so much a language as a disease of the throat! And those endless hours hovering over the graveyard in the hot sun while…."
"That's all very true," Sarafina said gently but firmly. "I'm sure Nala appreciates all your hard work, but right now we ladies want to be alone with our troubles. OK, dear?"
Zazu bowed dutifully, then flitted quickly away. He never forgot how tiny he was.
Nala sighed. "Mother, I feel like I'm losing my hold on Simba. Isn't what I need important to him?"
Sarafina nuzzled her. "He's protecting you. That's important to him. He needs you, Honey Tree. Every time he's in danger, he thinks about you and what would happen to you if he were gone."
"But still...." She shivered, then admitted with embarrassment, "I've never gone through my period without his comfort before. You've missed your time before: how long is it before the chills stop?"
Nala shivered again.
"Honey Tree, you shouldn't be having chills." Sarafina felt of her with a paw. "Lord Aiheu and all the Nisei! You're burning hot!" Sarafina kissed her daughter. "Baby, you have to go see Rafiki at once."
"I'm not going to die, silly." She sighed. "Besides, Rafiki is away with Simba."
"Thunderation! That ape always picks the worst times to leave!" Sarafina looked at her worriedly. "If this changes at all, you be sure to let me know. I'll go find him myself and bring him back one way or another. Be careful, my little girl."
"I'm not a little girl anymore." Nala coughed. "You always see me as a cub."
"You always will be to me. I'm telling Uzuri that you're staying home from the hunt tonight."
"Oh mother!" Nala sighed. "You make a crisis out of everything."
Sarafina knew that if Nala had felt halfway like her old self, she would have raised stronger objections. Sarafina looked in her daughter's eyes and nuzzled her softly. "I love you, sweetheart. Don't you dare let anything happen to you."
CHAPTER 31: THE FEVER
While the pride sisters were on the prowl, Nala laid in her cave shivering. It was going to be a long time until the sun came up, and she felt horribly depressed. As the hours trudged by one by one, she tossed and turned in her discomfort, aching in her joints and feeling as if that night was the hottest of her entire life.
No position was comfortable. Her attempts to find a restful posture led her from one misery to another. The fever made her tired but it denied her the sleep she craved. She began to cough, an irritation in her throat and chest nagged at her but coughing did little good to relieve it.
Finally when she could endure the torment no longer, she struggled to her feet and wearily padded down the boulders that led from the cave to the sea of grass below. Her unsteady legs bore her uncertainly through the obstacles and landed her panting on the savanna.
The stream was calling her. She had one secret weapon to unleash on the fever. She would FORCE it to release her. Tired as she was, she hurried toward the healing currents, desperate for relief. The moon stared down angrily and the crickets laughed at her. "You'll never make it, Nala!" As she felt a weak spell overtaking her, she could sense tussocks of grass snatching at her legs, trying to hold her back. It took all her strength of will to continue.
"Leave me alone!" she shouted. For a moment the sound of her voice cleared her head. The night was cleansed of its imaginary terrors. The moon was just a light, and the crickets were only singing. The grass parted before her without malice and she continued. Then she heard the stream beckoning to her from just beyond the trees.
Nala forged through the reeds and bushes with one last surge of strength, then settled she her feverish body into the cool water.
The cold shocked her at first touch. Then as she grew used to the cold it became a soothing coolness that washed her fever downstream. "Oh, thank you Aiheu! Oh that feels so good!" For a moment the terrible tiredness that made her feel like a zombie relaxed and the cool current put some life back into her stiff limbs. Then panting, she dragged herself halfway from the water and collapsed on the bank where she fell into a fitful sleep.
Used to sleeping alone, Rafiki luxurated in the chance to snuggle into Simba's soft mane and feel the soft currents of his breath and the gentle rhythm of his heartbeat. It brought back the long-ago warmth of his mother's embrace and soothed the child that still lay at the heart of him. Still his rest was troubled by a nightmare. His limbs lightly jerked and a soft moan escaped his lips. "No, no please!"
Suddenly, with a start, the old mandrill sat upright.
He caught himself, realizing that he was safe for the moment. Then looked back at Simba to see if he had wakened him. The lion had not stirred.
Rafiki kissed his fingertips and stroked Simba's mane, then he sat for a while still trembling. As hard as he tried, he could not remember the details of his dream, but he was left with a terrible feeling of dread.
"Something is wrong at the pride," he murmured. It was the one thing he could put his finger on. Not one to react to every bad dream, he took this one seriously. Simba looked peaceful in his sleep--Rafiki would not dare wake him just to tell him of a bad dream. No, it was his own dream, and he would discover if the truth lurked behind it.
Quietly the mandrill stepped away, muting his footfalls in the crisp grass until he was far away from the lion's sensitive ears. He was headed for the heart of the pride lands to wait for the hunting party to return. With Aiheu's help he would be back by sunrise and Simba would never miss him.
Uzuri was the first to enter the cave. She saw the eyes gleaming in the dark and said, "Nala, is that you?"
"No. It's Rafiki."
"Rafikipenda," she purred, nuzzling her old friend. "Are you here to look at Nala? Good. I've been worried about her."
"Where is she?"
Uzuri looked about. "I thought she was here!"
The other lionesses stalked in one by one, chattering among themselves about the latest near-miss.
"Shhh!" Rafiki said. The mandrill took a set of three carved sticks from his pouch and tossed them up. As they fell to the floor of the cave he studied the way they landed. "A clear pattern. She went that way. A good distance I think." He looked up at Uzuri. "The stream?"
"I suppose so. She was feeling a little feverish."
"A little feverish??" Rafiki shouted. The other lionesses looked around. "Why doesn't someone tell me these things??"
"I was going to come for you in the morning," Sarafina said. "I've been terribly worried."
"In the future, don't come for me in the morning!" he said sharply. He saw the hurt, worried look on Sarafina's face and said soothingly, "I want to know at once because I love you all so much. I will find her if it takes all night." He grabbed up the three sticks and hurried away.
CHAPTER 32: THE WORST TIDINGS
Rafiki knew the nighttime savanna was as dangerous as it was beautiful. He repeated "Aiheu abamami!" at intervals to let the ears of the night know he was off limits to hunting by order of the king. The snakes and some of the meaner creatures did not honor the king's command, but he went on driven by a combination of faith and desperation over the large plain toward the tree-lined basin.
What he had in his pouch was not much, but it would have to do. Nala had been sick with a fever before--such things came to lions and just as quickly left--but he never took an illness lightly.
As he penetrated the growth of reeds and trees to find the stream sparkling in the moonlight, he did not expect to see her at once. He would have to guess which way to head first, upstream or down. "Aiheu guide me," he muttered, and acting on the first feeling he received, he headed upstream.
A couple of startled antelope galloped away, their eyes green orbs in the moonlight. Rafiki gasped, nervously called, "Aiheu abamami!" and continued on trembling legs. By day his relationship with the lions had lulled him into a false sense of security. He was unassailable, a friend to all and afraid of none. By night he was a very small monkey in a very big world, and the notion of his own mortality was very real.
"Nala?? You there old girl?? It's Rafiki!"
With a splash, two crocodiles ran down the bank and headed off. They ranked along with snakes in not honoring the king's command. In fact, they would just as soon eat a lion as look at him. "Oh Aiheu," he murmured, "Aiheu help a little monkey that's trying to help a friend. Please help me."
He clutched his staff tightly. It was pitifully little protection in case he encountered trouble, but it was all he had.
A stirring in the brush along the bank made Rafiki raise his stick and cry, "Aiheu abamami!"
"It's only me," an aardwolf said, stepping out into the moonlight. "What are you doing so far from home, Rafiki?"
The mandrill lowered his staff and sighed with relief. "I'm looking for a lioness. She came to the water for a drink, but she's very sick."
"I'll grant you that. I saw her on the bank."
The aardwolf glanced on upstream. "Not very far up that way. Still I thought it wise to drink down here in case the scavengers came."
"Scavengers?? Oh my God!" Rafiki impetuously grabbed the aardwolf's pointed muzzle and kissed him between the ears, then he reached in his bag and brought out three sticks of seasoned jerky. "Something for you. You've done me a great service."
Rafiki held his bag tight to his side and as quickly as he could he ran along the bank. "Nala! Nalapenda! Answer me! Nala??"
The next few moments were a blur. Somewhere along the way he noticed he had cut his foot on a stone, but he did not stop to fix it. Before long he saw something large half in, half out of the water. It was definitely not a crocodile.
With a cry of distress, he hurried along the bank then fell to his knees. "Nala! Oh gods! Wake up, girl! This is no place to sleep! The crocodile gonna get you if you don't look out!"
She opened her eyes which gleamed bright green in the moon's splendor. "Rafiki?" she said hoarsely, shaking her head as if to dislodge cobwebs. "Is that really you?"
"Yes, Nalapenda! My poor child! Rafiki is here---everything's going to be all right." He kissed her brow and added, "Your mother's been worried sick, and it's a good thing I came when I did. An old foolish monkey goes away for three days and everything goes to hell around here, but I'm back, honey tree! I'll set things right or know why not!" He stroked her face, then put his hand on his own forehead. "You're on fire, old girl. This is no bad meat in the belly. They should have called for me right away!"
"You make it sound like I'm dying," Nala said, then coughed ominously. "You're worse than my mother!"
"We shall see. I don't like the sound of that cough." He put his hand before her eyes and waved it back and forth slowly. "Follow my hand with your eyes, not your whole head. That's right…"
"Whoa!" She looked away. "You're making me sick!"
Rafiki frowned. Once again he put his palm of her forehead and felt for a moment, checking it against his own. Again he frowned.
"What is it?"
"A moment, please!" Anxious, he pressed on her side. "Does this hurt?"
"Yes! Be careful?"
"How about here?"
"Yes! Stop it!"
"At once I will, Honey Tree. At once I will." His chin trembled and he reached down gently to stroke her face. "I can give you something to bring down the fever and stop some of the chills. It will make you feel better for a while."
"How did you know I had chills?" Nala looked into his eyes. "Rafiki, what's wrong with me??"
His chin trembled. "It is never easy to say this. Never…."
She looked at him in the eyes. "Rafiki, I will get better, won't I?"
The old mandrill put his hand over her shapely paw and gave it a little squeeze. Tears ran down his face. "Think of Aiheu. Let his love fill your heart. After all, this life is only the beginning."
Panic in her voice, she said, "I'm dying? You're telling me I'm going to die?"
"We are all going to die someday. It's only a matter of time…." He placed his arms around her neck and wept. She was stunned. For a long time all she could do is stay there and rest her head on Rafiki's shoulder as the awful news sunk in. She had seen death many times in many forms, but the beating of her heart, the quick tides of her anxious breath, were measuring out her last moments. "How long do I have?"
"You have Mol-doba," he said in a half-whisper. "That's what killed your friend Omatu. Without herbs, you may last three days. With some heartleaf and kidneywort you will live maybe ten. Maybe half a moon. I don't know how long you've had it."
"That short?" she asked. There was another awful silence broken by a timid, "Will it hurt?"
"Only right at the end. You will feel more tired with each passing day. Then the cough gets much worse, so bad you have trouble breathing. Then one day the coughs get so close together, you have no time to breathe...."
"And then I suffocate like a gazelle in a lion's jaws." She trembled. "Do something, Rafiki! You have to help me!"
Rafiki looked down. "Oh God, I am old and my back hurts and my hearing is nearly shot! Why don't you take me instead? Why her??"
"Life is very uncertain," Nala said, still in shock. "Enjoy the good times while they last so there will be no regrets."
"Bless your heart," Rafiki stammered. "By rights, I should be the one telling you this." He wiped his eyes and composed himself. "Here are your herbs, my dear. Eat them all, even the bitter ones. That's right, Nalapenda. That's my good girl."
"Are you sure it's mol-doba? Are you very sure??"
"I wish I were not. You must go away from the others. The disease is spread through blood. If you were cut, even your saliva…."
"I understand." She nodded sadly. "I will go away. Only I will see Shingalana one last time. I have something to ask of her."
"For Aiheu's sake, make it brief," Rafiki said. He went and began to wash thoroughly in the stream, splashing himself and rubbing his face with vigor. "Do not touch her. Do not kiss her. Do not urinate or pass waste around the others. Keep your distance--no closer than three lengths."
"I hope I didn't put you in danger," she said.
"It is Simba I'm worried about. I can't catch it, but I could carry the infection. After its over, is there something you want me to tell Simba? Maybe your daughter?"
"Simba," she murmured, her chin trembling. As she watched the mandrill clean himself, she collapsed to the ground, this time with a grief that emerged from her shock, and she sobbed. "I'll never see him again! Oh gods, I'm leaving him alone in the world!" In her desperation, she stared at Rafiki, her eyes narrowed to slits. "Why did you give me those damned herbs?? Isn't three days long enough to be alone?? Must I wait ten??"
Rafiki splashed back to the shore, then fell to the ground before her. "Forgive me! Forgive me, Nalapenda! I have just what you need in my pouch. You take the herbs, then lay your head in my lap. You go to sleep with old Rafiki here to hold your paw and stroke you. Sleep, yes, then wake up in the stars. I'll do whatever you want, only don't hate me! Please don't hate me!"
"I don't hate you. Foolish little monkey, you know how much I love you."
He stroked her foreleg and said, "Let me give your message to Shingi. You look so tired."
"I must see Shingalana," Nala insisted.
"Why Shingi? Why not Simba?"
She looked at Rafiki intently. "If I'm going to give my husband away, I want to do it face to face. I know you will help Simba when I'm gone, but Shingi is the one I want to take my place. She would never admit it to me, and maybe not to her own self, but she is in love with him."
"And why not? Aiheu knows how handsome and desirable he is, and how gentle and kind." Her tears renewed. "Oh gods, if only we had made love one last time! Something to remember him by! I'm not afraid of death, but I don't want to leave him! Is there nothing you can do?? I don't care if it's painful!"
The mandrill looked down. "If Aiheu would take me instead, I would gladly go in your place."
"I know. That gives me strength to face it with courage." She composed herself and sighed. "Promise me you will keep the secret from Simba. Don't let him find me and catch this thing. Take care of him for me."
Nala rose tiredly and started to walk away. Rafiki stood before her, arms open. "One last hug for old times, Honey Tree?"
"You've already washed off."
"And I will wash again." Rafiki put his arms around her shapely neck and kissed her repeatedly. "My dear child, spend the time you have left with me. Come to my home and find peace there. I will show you what you can expect among the stars. I will ease the lonliness and I can comfort you."
"No, my friend." She touched him with her tongue. "I will go far away. Remember me the way I look now. Just knowing you're with Simba and Shani will comfort me and I'll be less alone." She kissed him again. "Good bye, Rafiki."
She turned, pushed into the reeds and in moments she was gone. Soon even the soft padding of her feet had died out and he was left alone on the bank. Rafiki slowly knelt, rolled on his side, and covered his face with his arms as his old body was wracked by sobs.
CHAPTER 33: THE MORNING LIGHT
As the sun began to climb into the sky, Simba opened one eye, then the other. He struggled to his feet, yawned and stretched luxuriantly. "Rafiki, you awake?"
"No, I'm not."
It was a thin attempt at humor. Rafiki did not feel like joking and it showed in his downcast face, disheveled hair and even the tone of his voice.
"What's the matter, old friend? You look like something the hyenas drug in."
"And what is that supposed to mean? So I don't have a mane like yours that always lies in place. It's early and the dew has wet my fur." He began to comb his fingers through his fur in a shallow attempt to look presentable.
"Don't be offended. You just look sad."
Rafiki had thought quickly over what he had spent half the night planning to say. "Simba, old friend, we cannot afford to stay here much longer. We must break this stalemate and confront the hyenas today--this morning."
Simba did not even ask Rafiki if there was a reason for the rush. He was tired and ready to go home. He nodded his assent and headed into the lands of the hyenas with loyal Rafiki by his side.
"Just what kind of confrontation did you have in mind, Rafiki?"
"You will see. It is simple, painless and effective. If this hyena really works miracles, I will pay him honor. If he cannot, I will shame him in front of his people. Either way we will know what we came to find out. And if something goes wrong with this, I have a backup plan."
"Dare I ask?"
"I'll jump on your back and you run like hell."
"I guess you could call that a backup plan," Simba said. "I sure can't."
"Trust your old friend Rafiki. Have I ever failed you before?"
"How about driving the weaverbirds out of our cave?"
"Well, besides that."
"And that love potion for Kovu?"
"You're just loving this, aren't you?"
Simba looked about and smiled. "Old monkey, you've saved me a dozen times over. I love you--and I trust you completely. You've never been less than completely honest with me."
At that, Rafiki bowed his head but kept on walking. The time for complete honesty would come soon enough.
Shingalana was lost in thought--she had been given much to think about. As she headed to the watering hole to refresh herself she nearly collided with Sarabi. Neither of them was much in contact with the world around them, and both looked up to say, "excuse me" at the same moment.
"Shingi? Honey Tree, thinking about Omatu?"
"Among other things."
"What other things, dear? You can tell me anything."
"No, Mom. I can tell you most anything, but not this."
"It's not you and Simba is it?" Sarabi looked her closely in the eyes, not angrily but in a way that seemed to pierce her very soul seeking answers. "You said you wouldn't, child. Has he come to you for favors?"
"No, Sarabi. That much I can tell you."
"You know how I love you. Tell me. I can help."
"Sarabi, you can't help this. The truth will come out soon enough, and we will speak of it then."
"Is something wrong with you?"
"My son? Is he ill? Is he in trouble?"
"No, mother. I promise you that."
For a few moments Shingi stood still as a boulder waiting for Sarabi to ask about Nala. It did not happen, and Sarabi kissed her. "I'll let you keep your secrets, Honey Tree. I shouldn't have pressed you like that."
Shingalana continued to the watering hole. Indeed, she had not been with Simba to plead for favors--yet. But the possibility existed that she might one day be the mother of his cubs. It was at once the most delightful and the most tragic of dreams, and she felt both hopeful and terribly guilty. After all, Nala was out there dying somewhere. Nala, her good friend, had given her Simba. It was the most beautiful gift she had ever been given, and the gift was so unselfishly granted. She loved Nala in that moment more than all other moments put together, but oh how she loved Simba and wanted his beautiful body next to hers. "Damn!" she muttered. "When I got what I wanted, I'm not allowed to enjoy it!"
Somewhere along the border Simba was on patrol blissfully unaware that his first love was dying. Somewhere Nala was cowering in the reeds, hoping to die before the scavengers found her weak and defenseless and ripped her alive. Shingi knew that a time would come when she would have to tell him the truth. Simba could never be hers until he knew.
Would it be more merciful for him to think she left never to return? Perhaps to find love with another? No, it would dishonor her memory. Nala would die loving him, and her love must never be profained. She would have to tell him.
Shingi sighed. "Then he will want to know why I waited. He will resent me for hiding the truth." For that she was not as clear how to react.
Yet, if Aiheu had indeed positioned Shingi to be Simba's consolation in his lonliness--if their love had indeed been divinely ordained--would Aiheu not give her guidance? If she waited ten days according to her promise, the gods would guide her in what to say, and Simba would be hers.
Hers! Simba lying next to her in the night, his firm, muscular body swathed in soft golden fur and crowned with the glory of a russet mane! Oh, to have even one night of such happiness and then die contented! And it was to be hers in ten days. She knew how hard those ten days would be as she longed for him.
A surge of shame nearly brought her to her knees. As she walked to the water and looked in at her face, she felt contaminated. "How could I be anxious for Nala's death? Even if it cannot be prevented from slipping away, her life was precious to Shingi. "She loved me like a sister! How can I find any joy in the loss of that poor creature!"
There was only one thing she could decide to do. "Tonight when the sisters are hunting, I shall sneak away and go see Simba. I will tell him, for it is less shameful to break my promise to Nala than to wait. My promise was not right, and I should never have made it."
CHAPTER 34: AMONG THE HYENAS
A pair of hyena guards popped from the grass. "Who goes there?"
The lion remained silent by Rafiki's advice. The mandrill said, "I have a problem, and I would confer with the wisest one among you."
"That would be Or'lach," one of the hyena guards said. "You honor us with your confidence. How about the lion?"
"You have his pledge that he will not break your laws."
Simba silently nodded, then followed Rafiki deep into hyena territory.
Or'lach was a small, scrubby looking hyena who seemed to take very little notice of his disheveled appearance. He shuffled forward from one of the burrows and fell to the ground before the King, raising his paw in a gesture of supplication. "Simba! At last we meet face to face!" His whole body shook as his tail wagged rapidly. "I knew you would come today!"
"Uh, right." Simba looked at Rafiki and nodded. "This is my mandrill shaman."
"Rafiki. I know! What an honor to meet such a great and noble-looking creature."
The old mandrill shifted forward, supporting his weight on a knotted staff. "Oh, such a civil and respectful creature. But are you up to the task we give you?"
Or'lach looked him right in the eyes. "I pray I am worthy."
Rafiki nodded. "What then do I have in my pouch."
"Let me see it."
"Oh no, I will think about it. I can see it in my mind. If you would see it--if you COULD see it--you must look deep within for the inner vision."
Or'lach concentrated for a moment, his lips silently forming a prayer in the ancient tongue of his race. Finally he stopped, wearing a pained expression. "This is sin! My Lady refuses to tell me what is in your pouch. You have insulted her! You have insulted the Great Mother!"
"I have insulted no one," Rafiki insisted. "It is you who have insulted the memory of Shimbekh and Brinbi and all the other seers of your race. You should be ashamed!
Many of the hyenas had gathered around. Rafiki could understand some Hyannic, but they were muttering swiftly and lowly. He could make out the words "the enemy" and "fools," and he heard something about "defending our honor."
Rafiki nudged Simba. "I think our work here is done. I think we go now."
Simba was no seer, but he could feel the mandrill's urgency. Still, he made a show of standing slowly and walking away. It would be disastrous to show weakness by running.
Simba and Rafiki regained the border of their territory, and felt they had won a major battle. "I'm going home to my mate," Simba said, a gleam in his eyes. "I have a lot of making up to do."
They headed home. Rafiki stumbled along with his staff, looking a bit more careworn and tired than before.
"Are you feeling ill?" Simba asked.
"A little depressed, that's all."
"Depressed? About what?"
"Oh, don't let an old monkey get you down. I'll be better."
"You've always been there for me. Can't you confide in me just once?"
"No!" Rafiki said firmly. Then he realized who he was talking to. "Please don't ask."
Simba glared at him. "I'm not so sure I haven't been insulted? Don't you trust my advise at all?"
"Sure I do old friend." Rafiki put his free hand in Simba's mane. "I was thinking about how devastated I was when my mate died. I wanted to kill myself, but Uzuri, bless her heart, stayed with me day and night till I was through the crisis."
"She's a good friend," Simba said, nodding.
"You have a good friend too," Rafiki said. "I want you to know that. It's a good thing to know if you should need one."
Simba looked at him and smiled. "Don't think for a moment I don't thank the gods for her every night. I know I've been neglecting Nala lately, but I'm going to make it up to her. I can hardly wait to get home and tell her--Kovu's getting his mantlement early and she and I are going to spend some serious time alone, just like in the old days."
"What's wrong, Rafiki?"
The old mandrill sighed. "I was talking about me. I've given up my whole life to help first Ahadi, then Mufasa, and now you. Simba, I am old, but I would do my best to support you if you needed my help. When you were just a tiny warm bundle, I took you in my arms and held you up to the light of Aiheu, swearing to be there when you needed me. Simba, you have grown so tall, but my arms are still around you. I will only let you go when I die."
Simba smiled. "Don't you think I know that? We all love you, Rafiki. Nala and Shani and I. I only wish there was some way to show it. Something special I could do for you."
A tear rolled down Rafiki's cheek. "I want no payment from you. I want no payment from anyone. I just want you to know I'm here for you."
CHAPTER 35: MISSING
Simba looked excited. "I have many things I want to say to Nala," he told Rafiki as they saw saw Pride Rock draw near. "I've been neglecting her, but I'm going to let my little prince take some of this burden from me and Nala and I will spend time together."
"That's very nice of you," Rafiki said, fighting to control his emotions. As the lion bounded up toward the rock, the mandrill turned to the waterhole for a few moments alone.
He splashed a little of the cool water on his face, then as his reflection reformed slowly, he glanced at it. "Simba, there's something I have to tell you." He scratched his chin whiskers. "Simba, old friend, we have to talk." With a sigh Rafiki knew there was no easy way to say what was on his mind. "Simbapenda, you know how I love you. I have some sad tidings for you. Nala is very sick. In fact, my friend, she is…."
Suddenly a second reflection appeared next to his. Kovu looked upset.
Rafiki looked up quickly. "Kovu, my young friend, what's wrong? What did you hear?"
"It's not what I heard. It's what I have to say." The lion sat facing the mandrill and sighed. "News that will shake my poor father to the core, I'm afraid."
"Did Shingi tell you?"
"Tell me what? How could she know? You're the first one I've told."
"That I can be a prince consort, but never a king of Pride Rock. No, anywhere but here."
Rafiki was shocked, but still relieved that Kovu did not know about Nala. "What makes you say that? Of all times to say such a thing, this is about the worst."
"I saw what he's done to Nala. I could never put my Shani through such torment. Besides, there's the question of my father. Every time I made a mistake, they would say that I am just like my father. I don't know if I could ever live that down. One day Simba will have a son with Nala, and he will want his own son to take the pride after he's gone."
"But you are his son. Not by birth, which is a matter of chance, but by CHOICE. He chose you as his son, something that is no small honor."
"He did it out of obligation to me because I saved Shani."
"He did it out of love to you because you saved Shani. That's different. Besides, if I were you, I would wait to see if he ever had a son with Nala. This may never happen."
"And what do you think are the chances of that?"
Rafiki's chin trembled. His gnarled old hands covered his eyes and he tried to choke back the sobs that suddenly burst on him. "Kovu, Kovu, please wait a moon before you tell him!"
"What's wrong? Rafiki? Why are you crying??"
"I would tell you if I could. Oh Kovu, wait a moon before you tell Simba! Promise me!"
Just then the grass parted. "Wait a moon before you tell me? Tell me what?"
The lion looked from one to the other. "She's not in her cave. Where is Nala?"
"I don't know," Rafiki said, "and that's the truth."
"Then what are you hiding from me?"
Rafiki looked desperately for an answer, and then blurted out almost involuntarily, "Kovu does not want to follow you as king."
"Way to go," Kovu said sternly.
"Not follow me as king??" Simba's ears flicked forward and his teeth bared. "What nonsense is this??"
"I am not fit to be king here. Besides I'm afraid that I will never be accepted as you were. Please don't be upset."
"Don't be upset?? You were what I counted upon as a help in my older years! You were to help me spend more time with my mate, and now you selfishly put the full burden on my shoulders?? Of course you will be king!"
"It's not like that. Besides, you will have more cubs with Nala. You will want your own son to be king. I think about the long days away from Shani and I get sick inside…. Besides, they will compare everything I do to my father."
"Starting with me!" Simba said, eyes red with rage. "Scar murdered my father to take the kingship! I can't even GIVE you the kingdom, you cowardly little ingrateful lion brat!"
"No one EVER calls me a coward!!"
"I just did! COWARD COWARD COWARD!!"
Kovu did something he never he would. Rearing up on his hind legs, he lashed out and battered Simba across the face with his powerful paws.
Simba roared, closing on his heir as he would a rival. "You'll pay for that, boy!"
"STOP IT!!" Rafiki shrieked, striking Simba in the face with his staff.
A sudden swipe of Simba's arm sent the old ape sprawling on the ground. The weak cry of the mandrill made Kovu pause for one moment, and Simba looked about at what he had done. Fortunately it was a claws-in blow or Rafiki would have been badly gashed.
"You fools," the old ape said. "Fighting like N'ga and Sufa while Nala is out there dying somewhere!"
Kovu and Simba reacted with one voice. "Dying?"
Rafiki felt for his staff, then used it to laboriously pull himself from the ground, panting. "I promised her I would not tell you. I meant to keep that promise."
"What do you mean dying??" Simba said.
"She has Mol-doba. It's incurable, and it spreads like fire, so she has hidden herself away to wait the end. I'm so sorry."
CHAPTER 36: TESTING FATE
Simba left abruptly without another word or a tear. Kovu expected him to go to the promontory and roar, but instead he simply entered his cave quietly and left strict word that he was not to be disturbed.
For a couple of the longest hours the pride had ever endured, the rumor spread among the lionesses while Simba stayed silently in the cave. While Sarafina sobbed in a mother's agony, ominous silence came from the cave.
Then Shingalana came to the mouth of the cave and started in.
"Miss Shingi," Zazu said agitatedly, "the King has given strictest orders NOT to be disturbed for ANY reason and….Miss Shingi, PLEASE!"
She pushed right past the bird and entered the cave.
Simba did not look up as she approached. He was lying on his side, lost in a world of his own. The way he shuddered and moaned as the tears welled up and trickled down showed her it was a very lonely world.
Shingi came over and gently stroked his mane with her paw.
"No, Honey Tree. It's me."
"Shingalana? I gave Zazu orders that no one but Sarabi could…."
"Shhh," Shingi said softly, touching his cheek with her tongue. "Nala made me promise to take care of you."
"And you're here to keep your promise?"
"No. I'm here because you're hurting." She stroked his mane with her paw. "Nala understood that. The promise was a mere formality. She wanted to hear me say what her own heart told her."
"Don't tell the others you saw me this way," Simba intoned hoarsely. "I'm their king. I have to stay in control. I have to mark the trees and roar and fight. I have to make hard decisions. Just because Nala…." His chin began to tremble and another wave of pain tightened his gut and made him gnash his teeth as more tears surged up. "Don't tell…."
"I won't. But you must pull yourself together if we're to find Nala."
"Find Nala? What good will it do to look for her? Fate has decreed her death, just as it did my father's."
"Fate be damned! If there's one chance that you can save her, however slim, you must take it! You think you feel bad now? If you let her die without even trying, you'll know what pain is!" She bent and kissed his forehead softly, then added in a low voice, "You cannot afford to let destiny usurp the throne the way your uncle did. I came here to help you."
"Because you promised to take care of me?"
"Because? DESPITE my promise." She sighed. "Simba, I love you. Can't you see that I love you more than life itself, and if I were selfish I would remain silent and try to console you and win your love. I thought in some tragic way I was brought into your life to fill the void when Nala died. I thought it was my reason for being. Even she believes that. And I could have accepted that, but could I live with myself if I didn't try to save her? Could you?"
Simba stood up. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No, I don't suppose I could." He was the old Simba again, sad but somehow beautiful in his resolve to carry out his duty.
Shingi bowed her head. "I'm coming with you."
"But you can't! Shingi, you've been very lucky so far. Out there luck runs out quickly."
"You can't stop me," she said. "I let your mother down. I let her cub die. Now because of me Nala is dying. I have to believe I have some control over this. I have to believe I can change fate by working hard enough and wanting to badly enough. If you don't let me go, you may find my body here when you return, but it won't be the Shingi you admire. If you care for me as you say you do, you must give me this chance to redeem myself."
"But you weren't at fault! Omatu caused her own trouble."
"It does not matter if you believe it. I believe it, and that's very important to me."
Simba sighed deeply. "You must understand what I'm doing, and you must know why. I've neglected Nala terribly. I'm going to find her and stay with her. If she dies, I will not be coming back. Kovu will be the new king."
"I know. Maybe I will not be coming back either. Maybe I'd have no reason to come back."
He looked over at her with sadness in his eyes. "I could use a friend to keep me company. I swear before Aiheu that any debt you incurred would be wiped out in full. Now I must see my son."
Kovu didn't know what to say when Simba approached him. The king nuzzled him softly. "Kovu, let there be no anger between us." He half-closed his eyes and mhmmed as his adopted son nuzzled him back. "I love you. Remember only that. The time has come when I need your help badly."
"I want to help any way I can."
"You can help me in a very big way." Simba smiled gently and sadly, then bowed his head. "Nip me on the neck, my son."
"Just do it. I'll explain later."
Kovu cautiously came to Simba and touched him gently with his teeth, then backed away. "What was I doing?"
"Mufasa mouthed my mother's neck the day I was conceived. By the back of my neck my mother carried me. Now with a bite you have taken away my kingship."
"Oh gods! I would have never…." A deep pain surged up in Kovu's gut and he began to cry. "Dad, I feel so ashamed! You should have warned me!"
"Kingship often comes without warning." Simba nuzzled him and kissed his wet cheeks. "Don't feel ashamed, and don't weep for me. I have passed the kingdom to the son I love, not to a rogue. There is no shame in this."
Kovu looked at Simba and said, "I will do everything to be a worthy king, to honor the names of Simba, Mufasa, Ahadi, Mohatu…. and Taka."
Suddenly Simba turned his head to the southern sky, where a bright star was just cresting the horizon. "There is one last thing, Kovu." He raised a paw and pointed at the star. "Rafiki told me this star raised for the first time at the night after my father's death. If you see a new star close to it one night, very soon a second one will join it. You will know not to expect me back."
"Oh gods, father! I can't lose you like this! I would just die!"
"Son, I saw my father trampled in the gorge, a death I felt was all my fault. Everything I had lived for was stripped from me in a single instant. Still I did not die. You will not die either. Already the weight of ruling a kingdom has settled on your shoulders. You must share that burden. Be a son to Sarabi. Respect Rafiki, listen to Zazu--they are loyal friends. Be ruthlessly compassionate, firmly flexible, and above all remember that a kingdom is not a plot of land, but those who live on it. They have thoughts and feelings and deserve your love."
"I don't feel ready for this."
"It is well that you do not. It keeps you humble. And one last bit of advice, Kovu."
"Never forget how much I love you. When you're alone, remember me."
Kovu moaned. "I love you too!"
Shingi rubbed her head to her son. "As long as you love me, we will always be together."
Simba stepped back and bowed his head. "I touch your mane, King."
Kovu breathed heavily, eyes wide opened as he stared at his father. "Please.. don't do that."
"You must reply, Your Majesty."
"I-I feel it" Kovu replied.
ACT IV: THE LONG PATH DIVIDES
CHAPTER 37: A SHINING NEW ERA
"The future is a lion. Unpredictable and dangerous.
But just as long as you don't know it. The past is a lap cat.
The same lap cat that was a lion before."
Kovu lay still beside Shani in the early morning hours, but he was not asleep. His thoughts were like migrating wildebeests, unwilling or unable to rest.
Just as he had been preparing for a traditional mantlement ceremony, memorizing his short speech, overcoming his fear of speaking in public, Simba suddenly thrust the duties of a king upon his young shoulders.
To be proclaimed a grown lion was Kovu's fondest wish. Indeed, he had waited a long time to claim his friend Shani as his mate and have her lie next to him in the night under his strong, loving arm. To be king, however, was something he dreaded. He loved Simba and he always felt safe following his advice. He had sworn to protect his new father with his own lifeblood. Now that love and advice were gone. Simba was dead in his own special way.
During the long night, Kovu had woken Shani and spoken to her the words she had grown up expecting to hear. He turned to her for comfort and she did not refuse him. She had heard that Nala was dying and that Simba was looking for her, but somehow she made herself believe everything was going to turn out all right. She felt that denying the whole thing would make it go away and through the early morning she pleased her new husband again and again, insisting that she was happier than she had ever been before.
Then as the first glow touched the eastern sky, she fell to the ground and began to sob as if she would never rise again. She cried herself to sleep, and that was how the dawn found her.
The sunrise was the only certainty left in Kovu's life. He walked up the promontory hesitantly, carefully measuring every step he took, expecting to find Zazu for the morning report, but even that was different now. Far away he was barely able to see two dark shapes approaching the pride's home. Kielie the eagle and Zazu landed close to the new King's feet.
"Zazu, what does this mean?"
The bird cleared his throat. "Well, Sire…." Zazu could not meet his gaze and looked down. "I'm simply tired of serving another cub."
The lion watched the old majordomo with a reproachful expression on the face. "Another cub?"
"K..King, I meant. Anyway Sire, I'm too old. I'm naming my pupil Kielie as my successor."
Kielie smiled proudly and bowed with a flourish of his tail.
Kovu said, "Now you reserve the right to name your successor?" He lowered his head to look in Zazu's eyes, trying to frown, but smiling slightly. "Zazu, your wings are as agile as ever, not to mention your quick wit."
Zazu had the well-trained slightly insulted grimace on his face. "I have served Simba, Scar, Mufasa and Ahadi. Every time a new king came to power, they would try to change things. Frankly I'm a little old to be reinventing my job yet again."
"I know, I know. But you will stay my counselor until you taught Kielie to give me brief reports. I don't need to know about every new badger hole in the Pride Lands."
Zazu's face fell.
Kielie said, "You have no idea what a badger hole can do, haven't you? Your Majesty, I mean. Anyway, I will change my style if it does not please you."
Kovu looked upwards, sighing. The wind gently blew strands of mane before his eyes. "I'm sure you mean that. But if this hornbill here would think how much reinventing I've gone through in the last day, maybe he'd know the LAST thing I need is one more change."
Kielie unfolded his impressive wings and bowed. "My King, I need to tell you…"
"You need to tell me 'good bye.'" Kovu said firmly. "Zazu, I will skip the morning report today for I need to make an announcement. But tomorrow morning I expect the same consideration you gave my father."
The new monarch stood at the tip of the promontory, his new mate standing tired and drawn beside him from crying. She was not crying then--she would not spoil her husband's announcement with tears, and put on a brave smile. He took a deep breath and released it in a roar that rolled across the savanna. The lionesses stirred and looked up at him. Kovu looked rather impressive, his dark mane and green eyes a heirloom of his father Scar, but his stocky built was closer to Simba or Mufasa. In his own way he was a perfect union of both. As he turned around he saw the lionesses sleepily gathering below, leaving the den. There was nothing that needed to be told--meaning hung heavily in the air.
Sarabi and Sarafina gave Shani a short glance, and she knew her time had come. Shani had always preferred the company of the younger lionesses, in a way the youngsters stuck together in a respectful distance from the older, who gained fame from their hunting skills.
Suddenly Shani was a leader--THE leader. She had a big lump in her throat when she left the group of her girlfriends to stand with the likes of Uzuri and Sarafina. Even Sarabi's heartwarming smile did not help much as Shani took the place of honor next to the hunt mistress and was accepted into the inner circle.
Kovu struggled to keep his composure as he spoke. "My father is following his heart, no matter where it might lead him. I pray to Aiheu for the same strength, for a good future for all of us. Hard times are about to come."
Sarabi bowed her head and whispered softly, "Great Aiheu, don't take my son and his love from me. Please spare an old lioness this grief."
"Is Simba dead?" Isha asked quietly.
"No. Not yet," Sarabi said.
CHAPTER 38: BEING SUPPORTIVE
Shani knew Kovu well. Indeed, she could almost read his thoughts as easily as she read tracks in the mud. She had watched him all morning and the strain he felt was clearly evident.
Shani was tense as well. She wanted to comfort her new mate, but felt helpless to ward off the challenges he faced. Also, her own role had changed. She was not a Nala, and she frankly wondered how Nala bore the responsibilities of being queen and made it look easy. She had a direct line to Kovu's heart and the temptation was great for even the best and most noble of the lionesses to want her influence over him. To be a good queen, she had to avoid taking sides. When Kovu came to her for advice, she felt she must discourage him and send him instead to Sarabi.
When the sun had climbed to noon, the grassland danced in the heat waves. It was not a time for hunting or doing anything that involved much energy. Indeed at such times it was hard for Shani to justify brishing a fly from the end of her nose. A few cubs tried to play in the heat, but not getting any response from their elders, they too settled down to nap.
Shani, now a queen in her own right, settled close to Sarabi. The older lioness grunted and adjusted, draping a paw across Shani's chest. Clearly it was no accident, for Sarabi gave her a little pat.
"Grandma, does it get any easier?"
Sarabi turned to look into her eyes. "Being queen? Yes and no."
"Not another one of your famous democratic answers. I need straight talk."
Sarabi chuckled softly and stroked her cheek with a paw. "Honey Tree, if there was straight talk to being a queen, anyone could do the job."
"Can't you help me just a little?"
"That I can do." She smiled. "When a little cub grows into a lioness she becomes mature in many different ways. She can have cubs and she can hunt and with a little luck she can deal with all the little secrets and alliances that make a pride so mysterious. When a little cub grows into a lion, he becomes larger and interested in making love. And that is about the only difference you see, Shani. Behind that beautiful dark mane is a little cub that is afraid of failure and losing your love. Failure he might take in stride, but Honey Tree, he must know he will never lose your love or he will fall apart inside."
"You know I love him. You know my love could never change."
"I do. And make sure you tell him often. Tell him how great he is and how wonderful he is. And guess what--the more you do, the more great and wonderful he will be." Sarabi smiled. "My child, did you see Kovu's eyes when he looked at you this morning?"
Shani nodded silently.
"Never forget these eyes. They are green like Scar's, but the love in them give them the warmth of Mufasa."
"I won't. Might I ask you a favor, grandma? I'm sorry, but please don't address me as 'child' anymore. But please do when we're alone."
"I guess you just learned something, Shani." Sarabi smiled. Certainly Shani was now a person that had to be respected, and the elders were first in line to be a good example for the others.
Shani heard a rustling in the grass and looked around. From behind her Nyota approached. Nyota was Shani's playmate for nearly their whole life, but Nyota wore a dark expression of bitterness Shani had never seen there before.
"Bah, I know too well what happened when a dark maned lion ruled this land!" Nyota said. "I've heard too much about Scar."
Her head turned slightly to the place where Kovu and Kielie were resting. Puzzled, Shani watched her girlfriend.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean he will have to prove his abilities to get my respect." Nyota shot icily. "When a tamarind seed falls from the tree, a tamarind grows from it."
Deep inside Sarabi fought to keep her composure. "How DARE you speak of things you've never seen! All you know are the tales told to scare cubs!" The old lioness hissed at Nyota in a way that Shani had never seen before.
"Grandma, what is wrong?"
The fur under Sarabi's eyes was wet. "Don't believe those stories. Taka and Scar were two different beings in the same body. Taka was gentle, intelligent and caring. He became Scar from pains you have never known and could never understand. He overcame them too--he died Taka, bless his poor soul!"
Shani saw Sarabi's sadness. "You loved him?"
Sarabi turned her eyes away from Shani, not knowing what to say.
"Nice story," Nyota blurted out sarcastically. "Besides, shouldn't HE check the borders ?"
"Look here, Ny!" Sarabi burst out, her eyes narrowing. "You're stepping beyond your own borders, missy! And I'm about ready to put you back in them!"
In the meanwhile Kovu had risen, standing close to Nyota. He shook his head at Sarabi, making the hunting sign for silence. "Nyota, you seem to know my job better than I do. Do YOU want to be king?"
Somewhat startled at Kovu's sudden reaction she stepped backwards. "I...I guess I wouldn't be worse than you."
Kovu shook his head, grinning wryly. "Save that fighting spirit for the hunt. We're down by a few hunters and we'll all be watching you tonight--closely."
Nyota saw that her battle was lost and she turned sullenly to leave.
Kielie the eagle fluttered in from behind, squalking loudly. "News! Awful! Sire, it's me!"
"That is awful news," Kovu said, looking around. "What is it THIS time, and the BRIEF version."
"I...intruders, my King. Yes, intruders. That was what I wanted to tell you."
"I tried to tell you before, but…."
"Well tell me NOW!"
"I'm so sorry… We were flying back to give you the morning report. Zazu did not see it."
The king exposed his ivory fangs . "Did not see WHAT?"
Nervously Kielie pricked at his feathers for a moment. "I... I was looking back. Far away at the horizon I saw Simba and your mother, but there were two lionesses. They came off the bushes at the border, heading toward Pride Rock."
Kovu frowned. "I need to check that out. Follow me Sarafina, Sarabi, Nyota…and you, too Shani." He gave her a gentle lick. "Let's find out what they want before we overreact. Maybe it's perfectly innocent."
CHAPTER 39: THE JOURNEY
Simba and Shingi knew Kovu would be watching them until they finally vanished into the darkness. They resolved not to look back--it would only be too painful. Not a word passed between them until from afar they heard Kovu's roar. "This land is mine! Mine! I will defend it!" He had claimed his rightful place as king.
"Well, that's it," Simba muttered. "As my father once said, the sun will rise on him as the new king--and set on me."
Shingi looked about. "Oh Simba!" The awful finality of it had finally sunk in. Simba had lived many lives--spoiled prince, hopeless outcast, reluctant king, and now old wanderer. All that he owned was the loyal love of Shingalana.
"It's still not too late to change your mind," Shingi said. "You can go back."
"I am going back. Back to what is important to me."
"Like the time I saw John and Gillian?"
"Yeah," he said. "Everyone has their John and Gillian. When I was out there in the bush, I thought about Mom and Dad a lot. I also thought about Nala. As I got older, I wondered what she was doing, and if she ever found love or had cubs. I never thought I would see her again. You can imagine how I felt when I saw her standing in the jungle like a golden goddess. Have you ever felt that way about anyone, Shingi?"
She looked into his hazel eyes and swallowed hard. "Yes. Only it was not sudden. It crept upon me like a hunter, slowly and methodically. Only when it had rushed me did I know my own heart."
"And what does your heart say?"
Shingi looked away. "It says I should have told you at once about Nala. We could have followed her trail. But I didn't."
"It's more than that. I felt it was my destiny. I put off telling you because I believed this was more than a coincidence. I believed it was meant to be."
"And you tell me about destiny and fate??"
"I know. I had to learn the hard way." She sighed. "If we see her, she will know that I broke my promise."
"It was Rafiki that broke your promise."
"I broke my promise to keep Omatu out of trouble! Don't you see, I've killed Omatu and now I've killed Nala!"
"Killed her by neglecting my job!"
"You killed nothing but a wildebeest! Shingi, I care for you a great deal, and it tears me up inside to watch you go on like that."
She looked him in the eyes again. "Do you care for me? Do you really?"
"You know I do. I always have. Even when you looked at me suspiciously at first, I knew that under the scars was a beauty that shone like the sun. And now your scars are gone, and everyone sees you the way I do--beautiful and kind.
Simba nuzzled her and she closed her eyes with a soft mhmm.
Simba and Shingi walked through the night, and when the first small stripe of sunlight raised above the savanna they almost reached the borders of the Pride Lands. No one broke the silence, sadness and feelings of being guilty seemed to rule the night. But it was not really silent, the night was filled with noises. A zebra herd, elephants, giraffes, and all those sounds seemed to head to Pride Rock. Simba stopped as they arrived at a watering hole and turned around to where he knew Pride Rock was. Shingi was relaxing, her paws hurting from the long march. The sun was at the level that normally ended the lionesses hunt, but his dawn no lioness would spill the blood of any animal. Simba was remembering the day he became king when three mighty roars were rolling over the savanna.
"Your son is king now, Shingi. Be proud and happy." Simba smiled at her.
The lioness was lying paws up. She angled her head to look at Simba. "I am, a little. But you, and Nala… and I can't be with Kovu. And…" she interrupted herself.
Shingi closed her eyes and shook her head. "Please don't ask me."
"Why did you finally tell me about Nala?"
For a moment, Shingi fell silent. Then she said, "We knew how much Nala means to you. And there was no chance for her. I had hoped…" Then she burst out into tears.
Simba stroked her head gently with a forepaw. "Go on," he whispered.
Shingi rose and rubbed her head under his chin. "I love you. Don't you feel it?"
Simba looked deeply into her eyes. "Shingi? Am I the hunter that rushed you?"
She nodded. "I fought it. Oh gods, how I fought it. I would never have hurt Nala!" She turned to face away. "Then the illness came. It was not my fault she got ill--it was some mysterious working of fate. Still Nala came to me and made me promise to take care of you."
"And you did."
"You say that like it's cheap and tawdry."
"No I didn't."
"I love Nala like a sister. I would have promised her anything, but that is what she asked me. And so I accepted the fact in my heart that it was not a crime to love you. I permitted my feelings to express themselves. Fate had offered you to me and Nala had given me her blessing. I should have been happy, but instead I am sad and confused and ridden with guilt. And why should I feel guilt if you truly believe I have done nothing!"
"No one said you did," Simba said, remorse in his tone.
"I had hoped I would be your mate. But I can't bear seeing you suffer. I saw your love for Nala. There was no hope for me. Then fate had promised you to me. My only guilt is that I dared to dream you might love me someday. Now the fever is on me. The hope is like a cub that woke but will not go back to sleep. I need your love, Simba. Shame or conscience or pride cannot give me back control of my heart." She finished her pass, raising her tail when her back was under Simba's chin. She looked back at him with pleading eyes. "Take me as your new mate if Nala dies. If not…give me just one night with you."
Simba lowered his head. "Shingi, I could never do that."
"Why? Is it my scars?"
Simba looked at Shingi closely. He wondered why he did not do it before, at least not as did in this special moment. He was awestruck by her beauty. He made the remaining few steps towards the water. "Come and look"
She joined him and looked at the water. Not the slightest sign of her scars was left. Fur had grown, hiding the remnants of the past.
"The scars are gone!" she said, smiling. Then the smile quickly faded. She looked about at Simba and said, "Then you are not attracted to me at all?"
He looked back at her. "I never said that."
"But that's what you're thinking, isn't it."
"No. That's why I must be very careful."
CHAPTER 40: SEEKING HELP
Nieti, who was more curious than either her mother or sister, agreed to scout out the uncertain lands ahead of them. To her sensitive eyes, the moonlight was nearly as helpful as the sun in revealing the lay of the territory she was traversing. The only thing protecting her from the threats of predators and territorial patrols was her quick wit and stealth. Already she had come close to a snake and an angry jackal defending his newly-killed hare.
The distinctive sounds of approaching lions made her freeze with fear, then crouch low in the grass. The moonlight was working in her favor with a small cloud covering the sun. "Oh Aiheu let it be enough," she prayed silently. Fortunately the lions were not headed straight for her.
The male looked handsome--indeed, only her love for her mother and sister kept her from throwing herself at his feet. And then there was the other lioness….
"You said, you had a different name?" the male asked his companion.
She nodded. "My name was... Ta..." Violently the lioness shook her head, as if she wanted to sort out her memories. "Tani... that was my name."
The male chuckled. "Courage, eh? That's you all right. You have the guts to tell a king straight out what you think. You're very special...to me! But you know I can't be yours."
The female let her gaze wander over the handsome male.
"I know you belong with Nala, but even without her your life goes on. Don't throw your life away, it's the most precious gift of Aiheu."
Purring the male gave her an affectionate, but short head rub, as if he didn't want it to be seen by anybody.
Nieti was waiting in her hideout until the two had vanished from her field of view. Far in the distance, hidden by thin layers of fog there was a large rock ruling the impressive free landscape that she had entered. She knew she found what they were searching for so badly. Taking a deep breath Nieti turned around.
Soon she was at the resting place they had chosen the evening before. Mgoma and Mgani lay back to back, comforting each other as well as they could.
"Mum! Wake up!" Carefully she pushed the elder lioness, which was just starting to blink into the morning light, a bit puzzled. "I found it! Come on, lets go!".
Even Mgani was now slowly awaking. "Didn't you say it's a large and impressive land with a proud rock visible from all it's places?" Mgoma nodded while she was doing her wakeup routine, flexing her claws. Yawning and nodding at the same time made her look almost ridiculous. It was time to continue their way.
It was already noon, no time to walk across the open savanna. Pride Rock had come closer, but the way still seemed to be far. The lionesses let her heads hang down, marked by the heat they were enduring. They were used to it, to all the renunciation. They were scavengers, always seen as the lowest beyond the kings of the animals. Living from the leftovers of others and sometimes even from the mercy of prides whose lands they had to cross, sometimes it was hard to keep self-confidence, but they were proud.
All the years they were together they made it to survive alone, without permanent hunting grounds. They knew they could trust their hunting skills, and they never asked for help; it would be their first time.
Suddenly, after a long silence, Mgani moaned. "He is such a..."
Mgoma's eyes hit her harshly. "STOP it!" Mgoma spat; "You make me sick. Don't forget we are not blameless for our situation! And you're speaking of my son!"
Mgani chuckled bitterly. "A bit too late to realize that, isn't it?"
Mgoma didn't go into it. Instead her ears started flicking around. "They are coming--stay behind me. Not a single word about details."
A couple of lions were approaching them.
Kovu was nervous. He had fought hyenas and jackals before, but on the first day of his reign he had strange lions to deal with and had no idea what they would want.
He spotted the group of three lionesses and growled. "This is my land! You are intruders here--state your business."
The older lioness stepped forward. Defensively she addressed the black maned lion. "Are you King Simba? You don't sound like him. You sound younger."
Surprised to hear the name Kovu stopped growling. "I'm not Simba, but I am the king of these lands. And I know the law about intruders."
"Have you deposed him?"
"No. I am his heir."
"Then there is still hope." Mgoma laid down and rolled on her back. "My king, we are seeking help. We mean no harm to you. Please have mercy."
From behind, Shani joined her mate. Her smile assured Mgoma that the danger was over. "I am Queen Shani, and Kovu is my mate. No one who seeks help shall be harmed in the Pride Lands."
Kovu relaxed. "Raise. Tell me your name and why you're seeking help."
Mgoma rolled back on her belly but remained crouched. "My name is Mgoma--Nieti and Mgani are my daughters. We need help against our male. He is a tyrant who does everything to make life hard for us. We are just vagabonds, but please help us!"
Mgoma felt ashamed to no end. For the first time in a long time she had to show her feelings. The past had been teaching her to submerge her dispair in optimism, but now she was no longer in charge. She had to trust her fate with another. Tears began to roll down her cheeks.
"A rogue has taken your lands"
"It is easy to hate a rogue. To wish him dead. This menace is my son. I see by the look in your eyes that you are a kindly lion. Perhaps I was not a good mother as yours obviously was. Perhaps I am paying for my sins, but my daughters and the pride sisters have all had to suffer along with me. I have no right to sit by while this happens while I feel sorry for myself. I beg you to help us."
Kovu smiled at Mgoma. "You have learned something. I believe in your sincerity. Now please stand up and come with my friends to Pride Rock. I hae duties to perform and I will decide your case later."
The welcome Mgoma and her daughters received was not very warm. Uzuri managed a forced smile but Isha--who always spoke her mind--scowled outwardly. Most of the others were somewhere inbetween these extremes, but the message was clear. After all what had happened in the Pride Lands new changes were the last thing they needed.
Still, after four endless days of wandering through unknown lands and unseen dangers the trio was just happy to have found shelter and protection. Mgoma put on her best brave smile, looked away from Isha, and headed straight for Uzuri whom she nuzzled softly. "Believe me, my dear, we understand the size of favor we are asking, and we will try hard to justify our presence here."
"I know you will." Uzuri looked about at the other lionesses as if to warn them. "Mgoma, would you and your daughters like something to eat? You look a bit worn."
Isha took in an audible gasp and glared. The other pride sisters sat unmoving.
"Actually, Ma'am, we're more tired than hungry. Perhaps if we may find a place to lie down."
Isha relaxed a bit. Clearly the newcomers were hungry, but they had passed Isha's character test. Perhaps they would pull their own weight after all.
With their future still uncertain, Mgoma and her daughters laid down to nap, staying a bit away from the other lionesses. Suddenly Mgoma felt four little paws on her back. Just a few steps and these little feet were at her neck. Mgoma still lay relaxed, her eyes closed until these little feet started to gnaw at her left ear. Silently Mgoma had to grin and she opened one eye.
"Ok, I give up, mighty hunter. Just tell me who is killing me!"
The cub on her back frowned. "You know me," it said, jumping over Mgoma's head. "Why are you back so early, Auntie Shingi??"
Mgoma looked puzzled at the cub before her. "I am not your auntie Shingi, little one."
The cub smiled broadly. "You're just being silly! Silly Shingi, silly Shingi!" Then the cub sniffed and looked puzzled. Suspicious, it put a forepaw on Mgoma's nose, brushing the fur aside. "No scars," it said, backing back.
"Don't worry about it, Honey Tree. I'm a visitor here, but I'm really very nice and I like cubs."
Deeply buried thoughts came up in the tortured lioness. "This name Tani...the scars... no, you are up there, sister. This all makes no sense. This Shingi can't be MY Tani, can she?" After all, Tani was a common name among lionesses. "No, this is all too strange."
CHAPTER 41: THE CUBS
Mgoma lay peacefully asleep in the company of her new companions. The occasional twitch of her paws or her chin revealed that she was dreaming.
Makini nuzzled her. "They look beautiful, just like you." He called to Mgani and Nieti and kissed them with his soft pink tongue. Azima nudged her own little cub, still as small as before, toward the two lionesses. "As hard as it is to believe, Tani is your aunt. Makini and I were very old when we had her--she was the comfort of our sunset days."
"You shouldn't call them sunset days," Mgoma said. "You and Dad are still so beautiful."
Makini said, "You're just being nice to us because we're dead." He smiled. "Azima here is still beautiful, but look at this mane!"
"It's a beautiful mane," Mgoma said, thinking nothing about the strange nature of the conversation. "Being dead has nothing to do with it."
"I'm afraid it does," Azima said with a slightly urgent tone. "You promised to take care of Tani. I know you got lost, but Honey Tree your sister needs you."
The small cub looked up. "I miss you, Goma! I wish you'd come back."
"But you're dead!"
"No I'm not! You PROMISED. You said you'd come back for me!"
"I tried! I tried for the longest time!"
Makini said solemnly, "You must try again. You promised."
"I will! I will! Daddy, I won't let her out of my sight! Not for a moment!"
She looked back around, but Tani was gone.
"You must find her," Azima said.
"She was here just a minute ago! Did you see her, Momma?? Dad?? Anybody??"
Mgoma began looking frantically in the tall grass. "Tani?? Tani, answer me!!"
Suddenly Mgoma was startled by a paw on her shoulder, shaking her. She opened her eyes and looked up into Nieti's face framed by the warm rays of the morning sun. "Mom, are you ok?"
"I'm not sure. I think so." She rose, stretched and yawned. "I saw Mom and Dad. You would have loved them, Nieti--they would have loved you too."
Mgoma had slept through the morning, and the lionesses were already back from the hunt. Still she felt better than she had in a long time. Mgoma felt a bit of happiness growing in her like a tiny flower starting to blossom, and everything in this land seemed so much more beautiful.
Still Mgoma sensed an odd atmosphere of sadness and pessimism in the pride sisters. Only the cubs were seemingly unaffected, playing around light-heartedly. For a while Mgoma lost herself in their innocent enthusiasm, overcoming their shyness and teaching them a new game. She was happy and having a wonderful time until a couple of lionesses saw her. They called to their cubs to come away "NOW" and Mgoma looked down. It seemed her presence was tolerated, but not entirely welcome.
CHAPTER 42: SUPERSTITION
The pride sisters relied on skill and luck to find food, so they were very practiced and very superstitious. Even with practical Uzuri superstitions dictated which animal in a herd to single out and which route to take in search of prey.
Two major changes had occurred; Taka's son had just become king, and three strangers had entered the pride. Hunting had begun to suffer, and the only real question in their minds was which one caused the bad luck.
Lionesses did not like their cubs associating with the strangers. This especially hurt Nieti who was very fond of cubs. How it chilled her to hear the whispers that her kiss was unlucky and needed special prayers to undo. Mgani fared little better, when she tried to play-fight with the adolescent Makoa. Makoa's mother tried to have Mgani banned for attacking a cub. Nyota rushed to claim she witnessed the brutal attack and heard Makoa's shrieks of fear. "Mgani claimed she was just playing. Indeed she has confused the girl and embarrased her." Makoa had to strongly protest before Kovu that the charges brought against Mgani were dropped. For her trouble Mgani was spared punishment, but Makoa was shamed before her family. In Mgani's hearing, Nyota said, "You ruined everything! It was our best chance!"
The dark reign of Scar with its drastic shortages and crushing drought was a favorite topic of conversation now. "They haven't forgiven him," pride sisters would say with "they" being the Nisei who controlled the rain and 'him" being Taka. "To say his son is king the rightful king is to say he was a rightful king. How can we do this?"
A nasty rumor had briefly been circulated by Nyota had Kovu convincing Simba to go out on a suicide mission to find Nala so he could take the kingdom. Because the accuser was female, Shani represented her husband in ceremonial combat to let the gods show who was telling the truth. Shani, driven by love and the conviction of her mate's innocence, easily won over Nyota. She carried a small scar from that battle barely visible under her left ear on her otherwise unspoiled beauty. Sarabi and Kovu both assured her that the scar bore an almost unearthly beauty from the love that put it there. Nyota insisted once--only once--that she emerged with no scars and was therefore blameless. Shani heard of this and asked her to her face if her luck would hold out a second time. Only then did the ugly rumor die a long overdue death.
Indeed there was nothing that Scar and his son had in common, aside from their sensitivity and intelligence. Kovu tried his best to direct Nyota's zeal and passion down less harmful paths, and so it was a well meant and wise decision to let Mgoma and Nyota hunt together. He hoped Nyota would learn from Mgoma's experiences in hunting and survival. They tried it once, and that was quite enough for Mgoma. Of course Nyota insisted that the failure was all Mgoma's fault, but by then the lionesses were tired of hearing Ny blame everyone for her troubles except herself.
While Kovu worked hard to be a good king, Mgoma and her daughters worked hard to be good pride sisters. They worked extra shifts, hunting alone in the heat of noon while the others slept. A few words of thanks greeted their occasional kills, but instead of appreciation, they earned the reputation of being renegades that refused to integrate into the pride hierarchy. Not surprisingly, Nyota was the first to speak this aloud….
CHAPTER 43: THE BARAZA
The hunting party had been summoned on the grassy plain for a baraza. Uzuri stepped up on a small rise from which she could face the others. "My sisters, Aiheu has not been with us these last days. We need a special prayer before we go out. We need a miracle for our cubs."
In the last rows of the lionesses the murmuring increased as Mgoma and her daughters joined them.
"Nice that you honor us with your presence, ladies!" Uzuri said, not hiding the sarcasm in her voice. The phalanx of lionesses stepped aside to let the three newbies through.
Mgoma, Nieti and Mgani looked up and met the withering glances they got. Mgoma had insisted that they would stare right back, though it was harder to do than to talk about. Indeed the pride sisters made them feel little better than hyenas. It would do no good to insist that they were early rather than late, for they had just returned from an unsuccessful hunt.
Uzuri went to Mgoma and nuzzled her. "Honey Tree, you will give the blessing. Make it a good one, girl." The hunt mistress then glared at the lionesses, daring them to say anything negative.
Few lionesses liked to do the blessing. It was a burden more than an honor, for it was so easy to say something to offend someone when times were bad.
Uzuri watched Mgoma with more than casual interest, looking for some sign that her new pride sister was not the cause of the misfortune.
Mgoma rolled on her back, an extreme gesture of supplication usually reserved for emergencies. "Spare them, Aiheu!" she murmered.
"Speak up, please," Uzuri said. "They need to hear you in the back."
Mgoma felt awkward in her shyness--she was not ordinarily shy. "Spare them, Aiheu! If I displease you, I swear that I will leave and never return if you will only send me a sign. But please let my daughters remain! I would have been his queen, Lord. As much as I hated Machuti, I would have stayed with him if only I could undo this! Momma, I let you down--I let everyone down--but pray for us that we may make a kill tonight! Don't punish them for my mistakes!"
Uzuri came to the prostrate lioness and looked into her wretched face. There was a kind of fairness about Uzuri that undergirded all her decisions and opinions. "We will use you with the beaters if you feel up to it."
A moment of awkward silence fell over the pride, then Uzuri turned about and said, "Let's begin."
The bodies of the pride sisters became one with the grass in the wonderful way Aiheu wanted them to. Uzuri looked back and murmured, "We're splitting up to increase our chances. Sisters, go to the southwest border. Ny, Goma, I'll hunt with you to the southeast. I want to see how you're cooperating."
"I'm good enough," Nyota said. "If SHE would be in time we'd be more successful!"
Mgoma had become tired of the stinging remarks of the younger lioness. She swallowed it but those remarks summed up slowly in her. "What are we after, Uzuri?"
"There's a kopje close to the border of our lands. Most herd animals don't expect us to be there, but the kopje itself is on our lands, and a stripe behind it."
CHAPTER 44: AT THE ROCK
The long walk to the kopje had been made in silence, not from anger but practical necessity. Mgoma was grateful to Aiheu not to have to explain her prayer to Uzuri, and she dreaded mentioning Machuti and her mother in front of the rest. Surely it would only feed the rumor mill.
Uzuri whispered, "There it is. Impressive, isn't it?"
The rock was nothing like as grand as Pride Rock, but it stood above the level ground like a monument. "Very nice," Nieti said.
"Ny, you know what to do. You approach from the right side."
Without losing a purr Nyota vanished. "Okay, Mgoma, she'll need some time until she's there. Now, what is it with you two?"
Mgoma grinned wryly. "You know how she is, hot blooded and a true lioness. You really want to make her the new hunt mistress?"
Uzuri nodded. "Yes, if she learns to control her temper. But not as long as we have Nala…and Shingi."
"Now that we talk of her, what is she like? I've heard much chatter. Shingalana wasn't born into this pride, wasn't she?" Mgoma asked.
Uzuri smiled as they continued their way around the left corner of the kopje. The hunt mistress looked imposing all the time, but she really had a classic beauty when she smiled. "When Shingi came to Pride Rock she was merely more than a ball of scarred flesh. But..."
Mgoma interrupted her. "You sound like you respect her very much."
"Oh, I do respect her--and care for her. It didn't take her long to recover and she was a true fighter. I've never seen so much fierce will and love in the same lioness. And I bet she conquered Simba's heart in her very own way." Uzuri snickered.
"You mean he's likely nipped her in the reeds?"
"No. Right on the neck."
"You should be ashamed." Mgoma couldn't help but smile. "Why are you so sure that there will be prey behind the kopje?"
"There's a creek's source on the opposite side of it, it floats over the rocks and ends up in a watering hole that you can't see. Now keep your senses peeled, I'll stay close to the hill's base and you chase them towards Nyota when she's at her position. And keep an eye on my tail."
"O...ok." Mentally Mgoma shrugged at Uzuri's last remark, unaware of its meaning. But she assumed her experience would show her what to do. Moments later Uzuri was hidden behind rocks, as well was Mgoma. She now saw what Uzuri was taking about. A few gazelles were drinking at the small passage between hill and watering hole, one end of the passage blocked by the two lionesses. Mgoma crouched, her muscles tensed. Endless moments later Uzuri's tail shot up. All of Mgoma's inner strain formed into power in her haunches as she sprang off her cover, knowing it was too far to catch them, expecting Nyota was on her place.
The Gazelle's hooves dug into the mud, slowly gaining speed. They were scared to death when they tried to escape. But the lioness stood too far behind them to catch up and in front of them there was nothing to stop them.
"GOMA! NOT NOW!!", Uzuri shouted when the other lioness' golden body shot forward. Mgoma kept after them for a good run, but then she gave up when it was no use. Mgoma stood breathless, watching the prey escape.
"What came to your mind when you didn't watch our signals?!" Uzuri shouted.
Around the corner Nyota came. "What happened? Couldn't you wait until I was in my position?"
Mgoma looked around puzzled.
"What signals are you talking about?"
"Our tails! " Uzuri said.
"I have no idea what you mean, Uzuri! I swear!"
"Wait, Mgoma... Ny, I told you to teach the newcomers our tail and ear signals. You told them, didn't you??"
"Of course I did," Nyota said.
"Damned liar!" Mgoma screamed. "Come on, girl! I've been waiting to cuff that sneer off your face!"
"Go for it, sweet cheeks, if you think you're good enough!"
"Enough!" Uzuri shouted, stepping between the two. "Damn this stupid argument! I'm taking this to the king. I'm a hunt mistress, not a cub sitter!"
"But she lied to me!" Mgoma said.
"I don't want to hear it."
"Did not!" Nyota shouted.
"I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT!!" Uzuri flashed her fangs, her eyes red with rage. "One more word out of either one of you and you won't hunt here again!!"
The threat carried plenty of weight, and the two lionesses follow her silently along the trail back to Pride Rock.
CHAPTER 45: STATUS QUO
"Kovu!", Nyota shouted as she ran up to the promontory of Pride Rock, Uzuri and Mgoma two tail lengths behind. "Em…Your Majesty , I mean…"
Kovu opened his half-lidded eyes.
"So it's 'Your Majesty' now? You must want something big." He sighed. "What is it this time, Ny?"
"Mgoma lost our prey. We literally already had it, but then…"
Mgoma's rage was written into her face. "CUT IT OUT, YOU LITTLE LIAR! Who was it who…"
"QUIET!" The king roared. He was sick of the permanent complaints from Nyota.
"Uzuri, it seems you're the only sober mind in this, so what in Aiheu's name happened?"
The hunt mistress sighed deeply. "Well, Nyota is right, Mgoma made us lose our lunch. But on our first hunt with the newcomers I told Nyota to teach them the new signals. Mgoma says she didn't."
Kovu nodded. "So you two troublemakers are unable to keep your personal problems out of the hunt?" His withering glance made the two lionesses shrink back. "The law says that new pride members must prove themselves helpful. Mgoma, our rules are old and their author's names are 'life' and 'survival.' The law says five days without food, Mgoma. Since you are just partially responsible for the mishap, it's just two days."
Nyota grinned evilly. "Serves her right!" she hissed.
"And YOU, Ny are a thorn in my paw. You're driving Mgoma to distraction, and your latest little mishap cost us all a good feast. I'm not so sure you're not the little liar Mgoma says you are. I caught you in a good one the other day. Same penalty for you, too!"
Nyota's face fell.
"You're dismissed. Both!"
Hunger and tiredness let the two rivals remain silent, each one looking for a corner of their own.
Uzuri took Kovu aside, her skillful use of hunting signs was so second nature to her that it was impossible to talk with her without watching her carefully. "Your majesty?"
Kovu smiled. "You could be my mother, Uzuri. Call me Kovu."
"Well, Kovu, wasn't your decision too harsh?"
"You should know best. Life wrote the rules, and even if I would spare them from punishment, life wouldn't. Mgoma knows it. If she wouldn't get prey regularly as a poacher, she'd stay hungry. And Nyota, perhaps hunger will break her stubbornness. I feel Mgoma is telling the truth. In fact, I know how she feels. Ny is quick to accuse me. She's said hurtful things about me--nasty things. I cannot make her love me, but if she would only hate me less blatantly I could try and ignore it."
Uzuri smiled. "You look like Taka, but you have Mufasa's heart...or Simba's." Uzuri gave him a brief nuzzle. "Kovu, maybe we're just having bad luck. Maybe no one's at fault."
The king touched her with his tongue. "Why does Ny hate me so bad? I try to make them all like me. It seems like the harder I try, the worse things get."
"Then don't try. You can't make someone like you, but you can be likable. At that point it's up to them--and that's the way it ought to be."
After the night's hunt turned up only a small antelope, Kovu announced that food would have to be rationed. Just the cubs and their mothers would get meat until the fortune of the hunt was with them again.
Mgoma watched the others eat and her stomach growled. Not far away, the cub Chuma watched Mgoma intently. Chuma loved Mgoma as a second mother. From afar Nyota watched Chuma carry her chunk over to Mgoma, who was shaking her head, whispering something in little Chuma's ear. The cub turned and headed towards Nyota, the load in its tiny jaws.
Chuma looked in Nyota's eyes as she dropped the meal.
"Auntie Goma says you need it. You have a cub of your own. Take it please."
Nyota nodded as she accepted it, humiliation and shame spreading through her. She looked at Mgoma, angry with her that she did not behave badly so her hate would be justified. The last thing she needed was for Mgoma to act noble and it troubled her.
CHAPTER 46: LONG LIVE THE KING
Mgani pouted at her mother Mgoma. "It's that typical male stubbornness. I say he gets it from his father, just like Kopa did."
"You must be more open minded about such things," Mgoma said back softly but firmly. "After all, your father was very patient and neither one of you took after him."
Mgani frowned. "I'm being serious."
"So am I. You have been getting into trouble with Kovu since we got here."
"Yeah," Nieti said.
Mgoma looked about with a snarl that made Nieti cringe. "You are little better! Lord knows you have been provoked--we all have--but you have to help keep the peace around here. This is a great setup, and we can't afford to get ourselves banished. We'd be on our own again, and Kopa would find us."
"He was no worse than this Kovu."
"That was BEFORE we jilted him! Do you have any idea what he'd do to us NOW if he found us again??"
Mgani came to her sister's defense. "Are you saying we have to take just ANYTHING from this lion?"
"For the time being, yes." Mgoma took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "You are not used to having a king. I am. It has its advantages that more than make up for being stranded." She nuzzled her daughter. "Kovu tries hard. He's certainly not selfish like Kopa. He holds himself to high standards--very high standards--and his only problem is that he measures the rest of us by them too. No, we don't like it. I certainly don't like it. I would rather be home with my Dad calling me his 'Little Goma,' and having Momma nuzzle me and groom me behind the ears." She seemed lost for a moment in a dream time. "Still, we can't always have what we want. We can't always keep what we had. And besides, I'm not so sure a little discipline wouldn't do all three of us some good."
"In other words," Mgani said, "you're on HIS side."
"I'm on NOBODY'S side. I'm just making an observation. And Missy, you had better make some observations of your own--and concessions--if you don't want us kicked out of this pride!"
Kovu sat next to the cistern and looked at his face in the still water. Once he was a carefree young lion looking forward to his mantlement. From the moment hyenas were spotted acting strangely near the Pride Lands, things had gone from bad to worse.
Simba was headed out to an uncertain fate. Nala was dying. Kovu needed to grieve, but even a formal period of grief was not allowed him. Still, he relaxed his guard long enough to let a couple of salty tears slide down his nose and stir his reflection in the water.
Mgoma and her daughters had seemed like a gift from Aiheu, skilled huntresses with a knack for survival. Some of the older lionesses, particularly Uzuri, recognized that common bond of resiliency. Uzuri had survived dark days with no food. Like the wanderers, she had eaten lizards and fought hyenas for scraps. Uzuri came to realize that the similarities ended there and so had Kovu--Mgoma and her sisters had no discipline. Uzuri and the pride sisters respected the voice of the king and obeyed him at once. In a way that was subtle at times and harsh at times the three strangers had to be persuaded to obey each ruling as if it were a suggestion, not an order.
"They must learn to obey some rules," Kovu said, as if hoping his reflection would nod in agreement. "I must be firm before Mgoma grows a mane and sets herself up as king." He frowned at his reflection. Ahadi had made hard decisions. Mufasa had been strong like his father. Simba found the mantle of his father difficult to take on, but he struggled valiantly. Now Kovu had to take on the burden and struggle for the pride.
In the beginning he had given experienced huntresses advice on how to catch more prey and tried to tell little cubs right from wrong when their mothers are sitting right nearby...a pain in the butt. He found this made him very unpopular and tried to be lax. Perhaps a little too lax. Now he would be firm once again, only that he would be more sparing with the free advice and leave the cubs to their mothers to tame.
How would he walk that narrow path between extremes? Against all his inclinations, he would have to come crawling back to Zazu for advice.
"He won't come right out and say it," Kovu said with a trace of irritation. "He'll show it, though. He'll manage to get in an 'I told you so.'"
He bid his reflection good bye, then reached down and shattered it as he refreshed himself in the cool water.
CHAPTER 47: SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY
Simba and Shingi walked through the long grass at the edge of the Pride Lands. They were in a place of great beauty, one where Simba had taken Nala on that wonderful night after the defeat of his uncle. Of course then the earth had been scorched and Nala was beautiful. Now the earth was beautiful and Nala was dying. The irony was not lost on Simba.
Behind them loyal Rafiki struggled to keep up. He was old, and it took all the power of a double dose of bowroot tonic to match even their casual pace.
"What makes you think she's here?" Shingi asked.
"She is very sentimental," Simba said. "She remembers how hard it was for us to be together. How a miracle seemed to bring me back from the dead, then defeat my uncle and his gang of hyenas. Then here we came sore and battered, but so much in love. Fatigue could not keep me from making love to her all night long. Now she needs another miracle. She comes back to this spot looking for another favor from Aiheu."
"A cure?" Shingi said.
"An easy death," Simba said slowly. "Not like Omatu's death."
"What if we don't find her?" Rafiki said.
"I can't even consider that," Simba said.
There was a tiny rustling in the grass. Though it was only a small sound, it was the sort of sound that only came from a large source. Simba continued for a couple more steps, then he halted.
"What is it?" Rafiki asked.
"Shhhh! Not a sound!"
For several moments they stood perfectly still, almost afraid to breathe.
"There is something…or someone…in the grass," Simba whispered. "Just to the right of me and a few lengths behind."
Shingi listened carefully. "I hear it too. Do you think it could be her?"
From the grass came the agonized sound of a coughing fit. "Go away!" a lioness gasped between coughs. Please leave me alone!"
"Nala! It's me! Simba!"
Suddenly a lioness burst from the grass.
She pushed her way past the group and headed toward the border at top speed.
"Stop! It's me! Simba!"
She kept on running. Clearly she was desperate to keep from being caught.
Simba launched himself through the golden grass in pursuit. He was fresh and strong, and driven by love he flew across the savanna. "Nala! Stop! Please! We need to talk!"
"Leave me alone!" she shouted, breathlessly. Her weakened body was not up to the task and she gasped, trying to force one last ounce of speed from her leaden limbs. She began to cough, and without her wind her progress slowed to a crawl.
Simba caught up with her quickly. He looked into her fearful eyes and asked, "Nala? Beloved? Don't you love me anymore?"
She stumbled, but quickly regained her feet. What really hurt her most was not her aching lungs, but the sound of Simba's voice. It was the question "Don't you love me anymore?" She fought to keep her concentration, starting off into the taller brush.
"Nala, stop! Please! We need to talk!"
"There's nothing to say! Leave me alone!" She began coughing so hard she could hardly speak. "I'll love you forever but leave me alone!"
He overtook her and cut off her exit with his body. She turned to change course but Shingalana appeared from the tall grass with the skill of a practiced huntress.
Nala sat, gasping for air between coughs. "Please…don't touch…me! I'm sick!"
"I know," Simba murmured sadly. Panting but fixed on her eyes, he reached toward her to nuzzle her. It was a very rash and a very beautiful act.
She shook her head and moaned, "No! You don't understand!"
He rubbed her face with his own, imbibing her familiar fragrance, then kissed her shapely ebony mouth. "I understand. Once duty kept us apart, but now I defy death to steal one more day from us. One more moment."
She looked at him overwhelmed. "You knew I have mol-doba?"
"Yes. Now I have it too."
"But the pride! You have left them in danger!"
"I have left Kovu in charge. He's king now."
"What's going to happen to you?"
He kissed her again, nuzzling her soft golden face. "You are my kingdom now, a kingdom that death cannot take from me. Nothing else matters."
Shingalana looked away and began to softly weep. As Rafiki put his arms about her and stroked her shapely throat and chest, tears sprang to his eyes.
Nala came to Simba and rubbed him full length, and kissing his face softly. "Rafiki, Shingi, my mate wants to talk with me. May we have a moment alone?"
Rafiki and Shingi went off their separate ways. Each needed a moment to sort out their feelings by themselves. The mandrill went into the reeds and pushed his way to the rippling stream. He splashed some cold water on his face, then sat on a rock to watch the sunlight sparkle off the surface.
A hyena came and sat beside him. "That boy gets into more trouble."
"You said it, Or'lach!" Just then Rafiki looked over. "Or'lach??"
Rafiki stared at him. "How did you find us? And what are you doing here??"
The hyena sat and scratched behind his ear. "I could see through Simba's eyes. I had to wait for him to see something I recognize before I could come after you. And it is important that I found you."
"So you can convince me of your powers?"
"To the devil with my powers! There is healing among my people for the fever. We can cure her, and now Simba since he has kissed her. But if she does not eat White Asphrodel, she will not live to make it back."
"White Asphrodel? You would poison her??"
"No, foolish monkey, it is not poisonous. I will prove it by eating some myself. The root and leaves are deadly, yes., but not the blossoms. This will control the coughing and give her the strength to walk."
"How do I know I can trust your kind?"
"My kind??" The hyena looked very upset. He burst through the brush with Rafiki in pursuit, then fell before Nala, gesturing in supplication with his foreleg.
Nala was startled. "Who are you?? Rafiki, is this your doing??"
"It's not my fault," the mandrill said. He held up his stick. "I'm going to teach this creature some respect."
"I'm here to save your life, dear lady!" the hyena begged. "Hear me out!"
She looked down with disgust at the whining creature at her feet. "How can you save my life?"
"You must trust me!"
She began to cough, doubling over and rolling on her side. The hyena nuzzled her, stroking her with a paw. "Let me get you some white asphrodel!"
Simba looked at him. "I know you! You're the troublemaker that caused the problems!" He ran to the hyena. "Look, you! I should kill you here and now! Give me one reason why I shouldn't?"
"If you kill me, she will die and you too."
"I don't believe anything you say."
"Believe this. When you spent your last night with your father, he did not punish you for straying, even though you put Nala in danger. I remember how it felt when you climbed up the back of his neck and draped your paws across his brow. I remember how the mane smelled so strong and masculine, and how his voice sounded, and how good you felt when he said you would always be pals. I remember how you loved him."
"What's all this??" Simba said, deeply disturbed. "How could you remember that?? You were not there!"
"I was there. I've always been there. I'll always be there whether I choose or no. And that's why I have to save Nala. You love her. She loves you. As you grieve, I waste away, my world is in shambles."
"What kind of power is this?"
"It's not a power. You and I were born at the same moment, the same instant of the same day. My parents were seers, and so am I. But the only thing I see and feel--indeed EVERYTHING I see and feel--is from you. I've shared every grief you felt, every joy, even the way you felt when you saw your father's body in the gorge and Scar told you to run away and never return."
"Oh gods!" Simba said, shaken. "I've never spoken of that to anyone!"
"If I do not help you, I will fall and never rise again. You are so much a part of my life that if you died, I don't know if I could face life as a complete creature. Even when they made love, I was there. I remember this spot the night after you defeated your uncle." He sighed. "I have remained faithful to Nala. I could no more mate with a hyeness than you could."
The thought was unsettling. "You spied on my love life?"
"Spied?? I was privileged to die to my miserable life and be resurrected upon the glory of your love! For five days I would not eat, not sleep, and I would close myself away to be borne away to a beautiful place where life was worth living. Once I sneaked to your cave to see you as you slept. I wanted to see what would happen if I touched you, but I lost my nerve. Instead I merely said a prayer for you and your lovely mate. I watched the moonlight play on her lovely form and thought perhaps to jump from the promontory before the dream ended. It would have been so simple. Till this moment I wondered why my life should be spent this way. Now I know. I was sent to save you. My whole life has meaning, and if I have to bite you till you chase me, I will get you back to my people with Nala."
Simba looked into the rapt face of the hyena. For a moment he forgot the ugliness of the hyena's visage. He saw something deep inside that stirred him. "You may," he said simply.
The hyena wiggled with joy and ran to him like an excited cub. He stood on his hind legs and wrapped his forearms in the soft mane of Simba's throat. Moaning and grunting with pleasure, he placed his face next to the lion's cheek. "I love you. My brother, my companion, my all!"
Nala looked at him intently. "Can you cure us? Can you really?"
The hyena turned to her. "Not me. But my people can. Now the first thing we need to do is find us some White Asphrodel. It will help that cough of yours."
She sighed with relief. "Oh thank God!" Tears started down her face. "I came here for a miracle and I found one."
"Don't cry, Honey Tree," Or'lach said soliciously, going to her. "You know how I hate to see you cry."
"Do you, little one?"
The hyena looked up at her. "You are so much bigger in real life. I always saw you as petite and delicate. I find a kopje, a mountain of strength. I didn't mean to call you Honey Tree, Madam. I forget myself sometimes."
"Do you, my mate?" She looked at Simba and the lion nodded his assent. "One moment away from the dreams. One real moment of tenderness, my friend. Something to carry with you when days grow cold and limbs grow stiff." She softly nuzzled the hyena's face and stroked him with her paw, then she touched his face with her pink tongue. He closed his eyes and mhmmed as Simba did. "I love you, Simba. I have always loved you, and I always will. Kiss me, darling."
Or'lach started to touch her with his tongue, but he trembled violently. "No! Save your pity for another! I will not defile you with a stolen kiss!"
"Then kiss me as Or'lach. As a friend."
The hyena touched her with his tongue, then backed quickly back. Tears sprang to his eyes and he fell to the ground. "Simba, do not pity me! Stop! It tortures me!"
CHAPTER 48: THE ROAD BACK
Nala could breathe properly because of the helpful effect of the herbs. Still she was weak and feverish. The long march began to drain her resources quickly.
Simba and Shingi took turns encouraging Nala in her pilgrimage to the hyena lands. For her own part, Nala remembered telling Rafiki how she would do anything--even if it were very painful--to be with her husband. She had to prove it, and prove it she did.
Still, she had to rest. Nala collapsed panting under the shade of an acacia tree and Simba laid next to her with his arm across her shoulder.
Shingi watched the two of them for a while, deeply moved. Next to her was Or'lach, who watched the pair adoringly. Still his small face was tinged with sadness. Shingi looked at the hyena and overcame her dread of them to plant a soft kiss on his face. "What's the matter?"
"It's times like this when I know I live in the shadows. When I step into the sun, I see my shadow in all its cruel honesty. It's not that hyenas are bad. I'm one, and I know they are just people like everyone else. But inside I am a lion--I always have been. A lion in a hyena's body."
Shingi motioned him aside. "Come, Or'lach. Rest with me. Please."
The hyena agreed, not knowing why she looked at him so kindly. "I know who you are," he said to her. "Everything that Simba knows about you."
"Then you know how I feel about him."
"Yes. It troubles me."
Shingi laid down and patted with her paw. Or'lach knew what the invitation meant and he settled next to her, laying his head on her side like a cub. She stroked him and said, "Or'lach, honey tree, you say you know everything he thinks and feels?"
"Yes. Where is this leading?"
"You can at least set my mind at ease. You said you were placed in the world to help Simba and Nala. You can help me too, friend. You can help me find peace."
"You want me to tell you if he loves you."
"Can you feel my thoughts too?"
"No. I don't think so, but I know the look."
"Can you tell me?"
"I can tell you. I just don't know if I should."
"You should. Either I ask you or I will ask him. Help me, Or'lach. He's the only lion I have ever loved. Is it just my imagination that he loves me too, even slightly? Is it?"
Or'lach sighed. "He's known for a long time that you want him, and he's struggling with his feelings for you. He does desire you, but he loves Nala and would never hurt her. Please don't take advantage of him. Please."
Tears sprang up in Shingi's eyes. "He loves me! Thank you, Aiheu! Thank you, Or'lach!" She raised up and kissed the hyena.
"Don't kiss me," he said sullenly. "What I did was shameful."
"No, Honey Tree." She stroked him with a paw. "It was beautiful. Now you rest here next to my heart. A little bit of Simba is in there, and I want it close to me."
Reluctantly he settled next to her golden softness and closed his eyes to dream of Nala.
CHAPTER 49: BACK TO THE BEGINNING
As the small band approached the boundary of hyena territory, Simba asked one last time: "Are you SURE your people will admit us?"
"I am sure," Or'lach said again. "My people have a very strong sense of justice. If I have lead you into a bee hive, I will take the guilt entirely upon myself. They will let you and the others go."
"Just like that?"
"Well, as far as you're concerned yes. Of course for me there are several possible ways to die--some more interesting than others…."
Simba shuddered. He had heard stories of his great uncle Shaka who faced hyena justice.
There was no sound to betray the presence of the border guards. There was not even the sparkle of eyes in the dull grass. None of them needed evidence: they all knew that sentries were alert to their presence.
By the time they were confronted, it was a mere formality. A male emerged from the grass. "Who comes upon our land?"
"As if you didn't know," Rafiki said with a laugh. "Ber, you old rascal! How are you?"
The old hyena smiled broadly. He ran to Rafiki who put his arms around his neck and hugged him. Shingi smiled and drew nearer.
"The others I know," Ber said quickly. "But who is she?"
Rafiki smiled. "Ber, this is Shingalana. Her son is King Kovu."
"A queen, and I didn't even know. I thought Nala was the…."
He glanced over at Nala, her tired face and reddened eyes. "Great Roh'kash! What's wrong with her?"
Simba spoke. "She, like myself, is dying. We came here to beg your help."
Or'lach had never predicted that a great king would arise from the hyenas. He had said a great king would come to the hyenas. Indeed, the prophesy had been fulfilled.
Simba met the Roh'mach Uhuru, the chief of the hyenas. Uhuru had been a good friend in need, and he smiled as he saw the lion again. "This time you come in peace, I hope?"
"Of course, my old friend. Nala and I have Mol-doba. We hear you can cure that disease. I am no longer king at Pride Rock, but my son King Kovu loves me and I am sure if you healed us he would reward your people with the freedom and dignity they need."
"Healing is a religious ritual," Uhuru said. "There is not a big enough reward in all your kingdom to buy the cure from us." The hyena came and nuzzled him. "But it will be freely given because it is the right thing to do. If you give us our freedom, it must be for the same reason."
Simba smiled. "Whether or not it works, I admire you."
CHAPTER 50: A BITTER PILL
Simba had not begun to show symptoms yet, so he was given a simple herbal remedy and pronounced cured. The same had been done for Shingi as a precaution and she downed the unpleasant mixture for the sake of her son.
For Nala the process would take a day and night, but if it worked she would be her old self again.
The high priest Zhvek came to Nala. He had large eyes full of compassion and to those who looked in his face, they saw in him not a hyena nor an enemy but a citizen of Aiheu's beautiful world. Though he called the creator Roh'kash, the light in his face was unmistakable and inspiring.to all who would look at it.
Zhvek spoke quietly and sadly in a voice without a trace of hyannic dialect. "My dear, the healing process will be very unpleasant. We will do all in our power to help you endure it."
Zhvek's attendants waved the others away. Outsiders were not allowed to watch, even Rafiki who really wanted to know the process. "It is part of our religion," one of them said politely. "Unless you have been confirmed in Roh'kash, harm would come to you."
Simba kissed Nala before leaving, looking into her tired hazel eyes. "I love you."
"I love you too."
Zhvek brought Nala out of view of the others, into one of the large caves. A slight sulfurous stench came from its depths, and Nala began to get the first hints as to how uncomfortable the cure would be. Zhvek stood before her and nuzzled her softly. "Daughter, today you become mature in your faith. Today you take upon yourself the responsibility for your own actions, bearing the punishment for your misbehavior but reaping the reward of your righteousness."
"I don't understand," Nala said.
"Though you are the patient, even you cannot see this cure unless you are confirmed in Roh'kash."
"I believe in Aiheu," she said tensely. "I can't turn my back on my God."
"If this Aiheu is good and righteous, then I believe in him also. The Great Mother denies us nothing that is perfect and kind. And how do I know that this Aiheu is not the Great Father, the Roh'khim which our tales describe? And how do you know that Roh'kash is not his mate?"
"Aiheu has a mate? Well, I never thought of it that way before. I guess if Mano has his Minshasa, just maybe…."
"Only open your mind to the possibility and follow my lead." He looked deeply into her eyes. "Do you plan to follow the path of righteousness?"
"And do you plan to love--the Lord--with all your heart for all your days?"
Then speak these words: Elim Roh'kash, Muti zakhret salm oypim."
With an embarrased smile, she stumbled through the syllables. "Ell-lim Row cash, Mooty zagret sal oh pimm."
Zhvek kissed her and pawed her face softly. "We have no time to lose, my daughter. I place you with the priestesses. Do as they require, and you shall be cured."
"What was that I just said?"
"You swore to God that you would reveal nothing."
"Very well. I will keep that promise."
Nala was treated with politeness and gentle civility, but she was made to eat foul smelling and bitter substances, then she was covered from her neck to the root of her tail with dirt and set close to the heat from one of the thermal vents. To her already feverish body it was a foretaste of hell, matting her dirty hair with sweat. As she sat nearly ready to wretch, one of the priestesses said, "You must breathe the steam." She then urinated directly into the vent. Gagging with her already weak stomach being pushed to the limits, she had to take deep breaths of the sulfurous odors. She wretched, losing everything in her stomach.
"That's a good sign," one of the hyenesses said. "We must clean you out from both ends."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Nala asked weakly. Then her face tightened with discomfort. "Oh gods, I see what you mean!"
"It's the herbs, dear."
Nala could barely make it over to the slight shelter of a rock formation, all that could protect what was left of her dignity as with a light strain she felt everything in her not glued into place come out. "Oh gods I'm so sick! Help me! Help me!"
A young hyeness came to her. "Look into my eyes, Nala. Look deeply and I will take your pain away."
"Can you do that?"
"You have suffered enough. Look into my eyes."
She stared into the face of the young hyeness and watched as her eyes clouded over and her mouth was drawn tight with pain. The discomfort and nausea left her body, but the hyena rolled on the ground and began to thrash around, whimpering.
"Make it stop! Make it stop! I didn't want someone else to hurt! I can stand it, really I can!"
Moments later the hyeness fell still as death. For a while no one moved or spoke. Then an eye opened. The creature smiled and rose, apparently all right. The pain did not return to Nala, so it must have truly gone. Nala gathered the small friend to her side and forgetting her prejudices began to groom the hyeness and stroke her softly with her paw. "I don't understand this thing you have. I only know that I appreciate all you have done for me."
"Many more things remain," one of them warned. "Don't thank us yet."
CHAPTER 51: ALONE TOGETHER
Blissfully unaware of Nala's turmoil, Simba and Shingi were together in a field alone. Worriedly and wearily, Simba laid in the grass. Shingi came and laid next to him.
"You are so tense," she said, stroking his mane, then rubbing his shoulder.
He grunted with satisfaction. "You are so good to me. You've been great all through Nala's illness. I wish there was some way I could show my appreciation."
"There is." Shingi sighed deeply. "Nala told me that if she died, I was to be your mate."
"You see, she knows the truth. So does your mother."
Simba looked at her worriedly. "What is the truth, Shingi?"
She placed her paw in his mane and began to stroke him again. "I am completely, utterly, and helplessly in love with you. I kept it locked in my heart for the longest time. I thought it was shameful and pointless. Then out of the sadness of Nala's illness I saw for one brief moment that my love had a purpose, a reason for being. It was not a shameful thing--it was the will of the gods. And I let myself imagine the two of us alone--just like this. You and I and the stars." She kissed him. "The dream is nearly complete. Everything is here but one thing--the most important thing. I want you, Simba. I want you like I never wanted anything else in my whole life."
"I told you no!" Simba said. "I thought we had that settled."
"Please don't be offended."
"I'm not offended. I'm just sorry to put you in this position. It was just foolish of me to let you come."
"No it wasn't! Nala is my friend--I love her like a sister. I would do anything to help her and I wanted to be by your side. But she was dying, and as far as I knew there was nothing that could be done. In my grief, I turned to you for comfort, thinking about the blissful moments that we would share and the cubs we would raise."
"With Nala out there dying."
"You don't understand!" Shingi said with frustration. "I dared to accept what fate was sending me, to prepare myself for the one moment when everything I was and everything I'd done would make perfect sense. Things changed suddenly, and nothing makes sense anymore. Only one thing remains clear to me in all this--Simba, I love you! You are the only lion I have ever loved, and I love you more than life itself."
"Don't talk this way, it's foolishness."
"Foolishness?" She stroked him with a paw. "Your heart is hammering. I can feel your pulses throbbing. You are on fire, darling. Simba, I want to feed that fire. I want to crouch for you."
"I want to feel you over me. I want our hearts to beat as one."
"Shingi, please don't!"
"I want you to mouthe my neck and make love to me just once. You want it too. I can see it in your eyes!"
He quickly looked away. "Shingi, this is foolishness! Stop it, please!"
"You want me, Simba. I can tell it. You want to press close to me. You want to be one with me. You want to drink deep my fragrance and feel my pleasures! You want to stand over me. You want to be one with me. You want to feel me shudder! It's all right--it really is. I want it too!"
"What if I do! Aiheu forgive me, but I do want you! Still, I can't have everything I want!"
"But you can! And you can give me one memory of bliss to keep in my heart when the rain comes and clouds cover the stars." She pawed him again. "I don't expect you to love me. I only expect you to enjoy me. I can feel love enough for both of us, and I will make it good for you. I know how to please a lion! I know what you want and I'll give it to you freely, with no conditions imposed. No one has to know."
Simba got up and walked away a few paces. "If you really love me, don't tempt me."
Shingi stood and went to him, then rubbed completely around him. "You missed your chance with Nala. You are tense inside with frustration. I'm not asking you to do something you don't want to do." Her musky fragrance filled his nostrils making him shake involuntarily. "I'm asking you do to something you want as much as I do. Make love to me! Press close to my body and have your way with me!" She slid her shapely rump under his chin and batted his face with her tail. She headed about him once more, nuzzling his hip and sliding provocatively about his buttocks, and brushing against him intimately. Clearly he was supremely aroused.
"Shingi, I can't. That's my final word." He tore his glance from her deep, piercing eyes. "Remember that I am your king. Or at least I was."
"How can I forget? That's all you are." The anger rose in her voice. "The kingdom is your lover, you proved it when you were caressing it and marking it and patrolling it with Nala languishing in her period and now ill and dying!"
Angrily she shouted, "You have no romance! No heart, no soul! You care nothing that I am dying of love for you! Such things do not concern you at all! Every decision you make is carefully planned. You never do something just because it feels right! My love holds no value for you, so you toss it back at me like skin from a carcass! You're a stodgy old lion and I don't know why I waste my love on you!"
Simba's face fell and he looked down. "Is that what you really think of me? A heartless stodgy old lion?"
She trembled. "Oh gods, I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! Really I didn't!" She ran to him. "You're so beautiful and so kind and so thoughtful and so wonderful and I worship the very ground you walk on! Oh Simba I'm sorry!" As tears filled her eyes, she nuzzled him softly but urgently, touching him with her pink tongue, running the silky edge of his ear between her lips, then kissing it. "Simba, I love you! I love you so much I could just die! Show me a little love! Nala will have you as long as she lives. I would not deny her the happiness that I long for myself, but for me there is only this moment. Think of it, Simba--one moment in which I must live out my whole dream of love. Oh gods, to love you and then die contented! Even when you even smile at me, the clouds part and sunshine floods into my darkness!"
"Shingi, you know I am vulnerable! Please for Aiheu's sake leave me alone!"
"You and Kovu are all I live for. Simba, don't hate me for speaking the truth. Surely you must have known, or at least suspected! Can you look me in the face and tell me you don't want me--even a little?"
He looked into her tear-filled eyes and stammered, "Shingalana! My sweet Shingalana! How could any lion in the world not want you?" He kissed away her tears.
She nuzzled him softly, touching his nose and strong ebony lips gently with her soft tongue. As he began to kiss her passionately, she buried her face in his soft mane. "I love you!" She covered his face in soft kisses, inhaling his musky fragrance, letting the strands of his mane brush her lips. Then she stepped forward a length and crouched in the grass, her tail turned to the side. "Come, my lover! It matters not if you don't love me. I have enough love for both of us. And no one has to know."
Trembling, as if in a dream of desire, Simba stepped forward. "Shingi, I shouldn't be doing this." He was overpowered by the fragrance of love from her lithe body. He saw her tremble as well. Reaching down, he shyly kissed her shapely throat, then in a moment of passion seized it firmly but gently.
As he stepped across her and became one with her, Shingi's large pupils narrowed to tiny points of darkness and she gasped and her chin began to tremble. As they wrestled as one, in a low passionate rumble, she began to stammer, "Oh Simba, my lover! Live with me! Live above me! Live within me! Make love to me, darling! Make love to me!"
She shuddered, and words failed her. Silently, she felt her claws dig into the earth and her eyes half close as his warm pleasure spread in waves through her body and released her frustrated passions. "Great Aiheu, I didn't know love could be like this!" she cried. "I love you, Simba! More than life!"
He grunted, then suddenly uttered a high yammering moan. Afterward, he jumped from her suddenly. But there was no need for a quick retreat for the mild sting of his departure did not dampen her happiness in the least. She rolled on her back and felt the tingling resonate through her like sparkles on a lazy river.
"That was incredible," she said, panting but radiant. "I've never been loved for my heart before. Kovu's father just had sex with me. That was so much more! I could feel it in your strong embrace! I could feel it shaking the ground beneath my feet! You love me, don't you!" Tears of joy came to her eyes. "I love you so much, Simba!" She patted with her paw, and he stepped to her as if to lay down by her side. But he looked at her, and the look on his face was shame. What she wanted to see was not there, nor could it be.
CHAPTER 52: THE DAY AFTER
The next morning, Simba went to Shingi and nuzzled her briefly, but he was clearly uncomfortable. "About last night, I don't want you to get the wrong idea."
She looked up at him. "Was I that terrible a lover? We only bonded once."
"I didn't say that. I just said that I didn't want you to get the wrong idea. And it would be better if you walked to one side of me, downwind. I'm sorry if I gave you false hopes, but I could never be your mate or even your consort. You must forget our brief fling and speak of it no more."
So it was a brief fling! That moment Shingi had treasured like a gift from the gods! Shingi looked down with shame. "I'm sorry. I did not mean to hurt you."
"It's all right. But it's over--just remember that. You wanted me once--you had me once. Let's never speak of it again."
Or'lach came by with a broad smile. "I have a lioness that's calling for you."
Shingi said, "Go see her. We'll talk later."
The hyena looked over at Shingi and frowned. "She called for both of you."
Shingi cringed. "Or'lach, don't tell Nala. Please."
"Your secret is safe with me. I can't afford to destroy Simba's happiness."
Nala had been given a quick bath so she would not look bedraggled. A hyeness had spent a lot of time making sure she looked as good as possible. Still she appeared weak and unsteady. When Nala saw Simba, she came and rubbed him full length.
Shingi looked at her fearfully, wondering what would transpire. Her feelings of guilt made every glance, every word seem like an indictment. Still, Nala came to her and kissed her softly. Tears sprang into Shingi's eyes. "How do you feel, my sister?"
"Fine, Shingi. Fine." Nala looked into Shingi's eyes deeply. "The time has come for complete honesty between us. I know how you feel about Simba. I knew when I asked you to take my place as queen. Now that is not to be. Still, I had given you false hope. I do not blame you for what happened last night."
Shingi gasped. "You know?"
"I didn't before. I do now. I see it in your face." Nala sighed. "As I drifted in and out of this world, I heard a sound I knew well. It could have been a dream, but it was not."
"Oh gods," Simba said, his head hanging sullenly.
"Look," Shingi said. "I begged and pleaded. He resisted me to the end but I was desperate for him to love me just a little. It was all my fault."
Nala looked at Simba. "Do you love her--just a little?"
Simba looked at the ground. "Well, I…it was not the same as when we…I mean…"
Shingi came forward. "Don't try to spare my feelings, Simba." She pawed Nala. "He is my friend. But he does not, and never did, love me. Oh gods, how many times I wished he would, even for a moment. But it is only you he loves, and after we crouched once, he spent the night crying like a lost cub. I knew I could never compete with you."
"Don't say that," Simba muttered. "I didn't have to say yes. I'm not sure why I did, but I did."
"I'll go away," Shingi said. "Far away. You'll never see me again."
"But you can't," Nala said. "I'm weak and depressed and I need all my friends around me. Especially my dear sister Shingi. What would Sarabi think? What would Kovu think?"
Shingi's chin quivered. "No wonder he loves you so! Oh gods, I feel so low!"
"Don't do that. How could I blame you for loving him?"
"I don't love him anymore. At least I don't think I do." She glanced over at Simba. "Watching him call your name between sobs is a big turn off. I'm an experienced huntress and I know when to break off a pursuit." Shingi nuzzled Nala again. "You are so lucky. Not just the cure--I mean everything. Aiheu bless you for forgiving me. Bless you, Nala!"
CHAPTER 53: NO WAY OUT
Close to sunrise, Kovu was muttering in his sleep, his paws and tail twitching. He rarely moved in his sleep unless he was under a great deal of stress or he slept unusually hard from exhaustion. That morning, both were true.
Finally, his eyes opened. He looked about for a moment, then content with the fact he had only been dreaming, he glanced over at his mate Shani. She lay peacefully on her side, and though he felt guilty disturbing her, he laid his paw over her neck and nuzzled her, his whiskers making her lip tremble. "Shani? Honey tree? Are you awake?"
Shani grunted and shifted slightly. "I am now."
"I really need you now."
"Not now. I'm not in the mood…."
"You don't even know what I want."
Slowly, Shani gathered her wits and opened an eye. She did not see the sun, only a slight red glow in the east. The eye closed again. "You SURE don't know what I want," she grunted. "Go back to sleep."
"We really need to talk. Come on, Shani--if I can't confide in you, whom can I turn to?"
Shani heard the concern in his voice, and both eyes opened. She slowly rose and performed her wake-up routine with a huge yawn and an arched back. "Come with me. Let's not wake the sisters."
After they had walked to the end of the promontory, Shani sat, yawned again, and said, "I'm listening."
Kovu sighed. "I don't know how to put this. Everything feels wrong. I can fight a lion and I can kill a buffalo, but lately I'm being pecked to death by weaverbirds. Little nagging problems seem to come from everywhere, and everything I do about them seems to be wrong. I can't win for losing."
"Being king is tough sometimes," Shani said. "Part of the job is making tough decisions. When you're doing your job right, you can't please everyone.."
Kovu shook his head. "I'd given up on pleasing everyone long ago. "Still, I can't seem to please ANYONE these days."
"You please me. Besides, you've only done what you had to do," Shani purred.
"But they hate me for it. Everyone loved Simba. It was like he could cuff someone right in the face and somehow they would be grateful and ask him to do it again. I could offer someone a zebra haunch, and it would be from the wrong side. I don't know--I just can't seem to gain any respect or appreciation around here."
"It's hard to be happy about the times we're going through. Just take comfort in knowing it's not your fault. I know who started this--Mgoma and her daughters."
Kovu snorted. "True. I didn't start it, but I have to end it. They have to go. They will destroy the pride if they stay here." He looked Shani in the eyes searchingly. "You don't think I'm being rash, do you? Too harsh?"
"You're king. You make the decision."
"But you're my mate. I respect your feelings. What do you think I need to do?"
"Besides letting me sleep? Yeah, sure, send them out. They aren't timid about what they dislike here. I say send them elsewhere and maybe they'll find something better."
Kovu nodded. "I understand. You go back to sleep. I'll be along later."
Kovu had a place of his own where he went to when he needed to be alone. A water hole, right at the border of the Pride Lands, surrounded by a few acacias. It was a green, shadowy isle in the ocean of the Pride Land's golden and drought grass. He had visited it more often of late, burdened with the weight of being King in hard times.
Kovu forced himself through the bushes and stepped to the edge of the pool, looking at his reflection in the water. He eased silently to the ground, trying to let his thoughts wander freely. The longer he was there the more it was clear the only thing he could do was hoping and go on as before, until something happened.
A few lengths away the bushes rustled.
"Shani, is that you?"
"No," said a male lion voice.
Kovu crouched, ready to spring. He watched anxiously as the strange lion emerged and stood before him.
"I mean you no harm. I come in search of someone."
Kovu took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. His ears settled back somewhat, but he was still ready to attack if necessary. "These lands are mine. Be aware of that!"
The stranger nodded. "I touch your mane. No challenge here, great king. I'm Kopa, the leader of a pride with no lands of its own. All we have is each other, but my mother and two sisters are gone. We need them back--I need them. You can surely understand that?"
Kovu nodded. "A group of three, huh? A mother and two daughters. Did they get lost on the hunt? Why did they leave?"
"It was a foolish argument. I have one of those mothers you can't live with--and you can't live without. Things have never been ideal between us, but I want her to come home." Kopa came closer and respectfully stroked Kovu's mane with his paw. "I've never seen such beautiful lands. Aiheu has richly blessed you. Still, you look sad. Why are you troubled? Did someone die?"
"No," Kovu said, staring closely at the stranger, then back into the water at his reflection. He glanced back at Kopa with his dark mane, lyrate nose and green eyes. Even Kopa's voice sounded like an echo of his own. He shook himself, trying to break the spell. "I'm the king here, but since my father left the pride I have watched helplessly while everything went from bad to worse. I guess it started when I let three strangers join. The moment Mgoma came, peace and contentment left."
Kopa frowned. "Mgoma! MY MOTHER! All we have left is myself and three lionesses. Not enough to defend our kills against the hyenas! How could she do this to us--sentencing us to a miserable death because she's so strong willed! I must have her back with her daughters too."
"So you're the tyrant Mgoma mentioned."
Kopa laughed sarcastically. "You have no idea who the real tyrant was. Yes, I treated them badly, but no worse than they deserve. I've always loved mother, but she NEVER loved me! Oh gods, I learned everything I knew about love from strangers."
"If it's true, that's terrible!"
"I suppose she never mentioned how I treated the others, did she? Do you even know the names of the other three? Does she even mention them?"
Kovu shook his head. "Kopa, your search is over. There will be a meeting of the pride sisters before the evening hunt tomorrow. Join me on Pride Rock and you will call the out. May Aiheu give you the strength to handle them."
CHAPTER 54: A SECRET
Zazu did not like the new stranger. He had a bad feeling about Mgoma and her daughters, sure that they would cause trouble, and indeed they had. He had the same feeling about Kopa, only it was much stronger.
Zazu had seen desperate eyes before. He saw Taka surrounded by hyenas, begging for his life. He saw the hyena Gur'mekh groveling before Ahadi as his sentence of death was passed. It was the look that said, "I would do anything for one more moment." Though Kopa's words were gentle, his eyes were desperate, and that frightened the hornbill.
Once Zazu had tried to help Simba, a gesture stopped by a simple blow from Taka's paw. Now he was determined to help Kovu, and this time there would be no stopping him. The debt would be paid in full.
The morning sun was just beginning to rise. Most of the pride sisters were enjoying the first warm rays of the sun on the eastern face of Pride Rock. Sarabi was in the cave by herself, lost in a world of her own with her dead husband and missing son. It was not Kovu that Zazu wanted to see. It was Sarabi. For him, it was always Sarabi….
Zazu quietly fluttered into the cave. Sarabi was alone, but her eyes were closed.
Timidly the hornbill said, "Sarabi? Are you awake? Sarabi??" She did not budge. Finally a bit of his desperation surfaced. "Sarabi, for Aiheu's sake I need to talk to you!"
Her eyes opened. "Hmm, what?" She looked about. "Oh, it's you."
Zazu bowed, trying to regain what was left of his dignity. "I'm sorry to disturb your rest, madam. Still, there's something very important I have to tell you."
"It all depends," Zazu said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and nervously fluttering his wings. "I have not been completely honest with you. Lying is not something I feel comfortable doing, even if it's just withholding the truth. It's like my mother always told me…."
"And I'm sure she was right," Sarabi interrupted gently but firmly. He had a tendency to ramble. "Zazu, you are a good and faithful servant. Whatever it was you said--or didn't say--I forgive you."
"Thank you, Sarabi. But I have to tell you something."
"Please understand I acted on command of the King…"
"No, your son Simba."
Sarabi sighed. "Zazu, not you, too! You're not being loyal to Kovu. Everyone is treating him like he's just a stand-in. He should be able to rely on your complete support."
"No offense, Sarabi, but that is not the issue here." He looked uncomfortable as if he had critically overstepped his boundaries. "Please just hear me out."
"Zazu, you're shaking! What's wrong, dear?"
"With all due respect, this pride has seen better days. I've watched things around here go from bad to worse in the last few days. I served Ahadi, Mufasa, Simba and now Kovu. Things are worse than bad now--they are dangerously out of control. And this Kopa character that Kovu is confiding in--forgive me, but Kovu is an innocent baby antelope with a cheetah coming in downwind, and believe me, Kopa is that cheetah. I'm being loyal to Kovu and trying desperately to save him from disaster. Simba told me not to come for him unless there was a real emergency, something Kovu could not handle. I need your advise--should I go?"
"Zazu!" Sarabi said suddenly, "You say you know where my son is?"
Zazu shrank back from the lioness' face. "I…I do. It was his order not to tell you. He knew Kovu would have a hard time, but he wanted to give him a chance to prove himself. I was just…"
"Following orders--I know." Sarabi was very upset. "Zazu, my son would call this an emergency, and even if he wouldn't, I will. Find him. Bring him home! Tell him his mother won't take no for an answer and for Aiheu's sake HURRY!"
Zazu nodded. "If he still lives, I'll tell him. Remember Nala's illness." He lowered his voice. "Either they are both alive or they are…."
"I know. Just do what you can." Sarabi sighed deeply. "At least bring poor Shingi home. I'd trust that girl with my life. I just may have to."
"I will…I'll need the whole day to get there and back."
"Then start now. Don't breathe a WORD to Kovu or Shani."
"I won't." Zazu turned to leave, but he looked back and said, "Oh, and one other thing, Ma'am."
Zazu slumped. "I don't know how things will turn out. Still, no matter what happens, I want you to know how proud I have been to serve your family. At first it was just a job, but it has become a part of me. Every birth, every death, every everything. I know I have my faults, but you've made me feel needed, and no matter where I go or what happens I will carry the memories in my heart forever."
"I love you too," Sarabi said. "Why do you think I've put up with you all these years? Now go, and Aiheu be your guide."
CHAPTER 55: DESPERATE TIMES
Simba, Nala and Shingi were heading back to Pride Rock slowly but steadily. Nala was growing in strength, but it was clear that a few nights would pass before she was in hunting condition.
Suddenly from the grass they heard a lion approach. What met them was a poor excuse for a lion, broken down and travelling alone.
"You are on the lands of King Kovu. Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"I am Machuti, King Kovu."
"I am not Kovu. I am Simba."
The old lion looked at him carefully. "Wfff! If he can best you, he must be one damn fine lion!" He came forward and stroked Simba's mane. "Have pity on an old wanderer. Let me drink from your stream to cool my parched throat."
"Sure. On the way out."
Shingi stared at him. "You look familiar. And that name. Have we met before?"
Machuti looked at her carefully, then sniffed briefly. "What is your name, my dear?"
"Oh," he said. "Sorry. I had you confused with another."
The rogue wandered off. Before they hardly had a moment to discuss him, a hornbill lit on the ground before them. "At last, at last! Important news!"
Simba nodded. "What is it?"
"Oh for heaven's sake how rude of me! How are YOU? How is NALA?"
"We'll live," Nala said.
Zazu flitted over to her broad shoulder and landed, rubbing the side of his face against her cheek. "Oh thank Aiheu! I really thought that…." He stopped embarrassed and flew back to the ground. "Well, all's well that end's well, that's what I always say. But we have some problems back in the pride. Sarabi said that you were to come home AT ONCE and attend to the mess there."
Simba sighed. "It never stops."
Zazu sighed back. "I know."
The sun was sinking low in the sky, bathing Pride Rock in golden light that even penetrated the dark despair in Kopa's heart.
"Some lions get all the luck," he wondered silently. "Why can Kovu live in paradise, and others suffer and fear for their lives everyday?" He didn't know how, but he felt his destiny HAD to change. Good fortune was a swift antelope and he would have to run fast to seize it. He'd worked hard, he deserved it, and by the gods he would HAVE it.
The two lions stood on the promontory. Kovu shouted "Baraza!" and in moments the pride sisters had gathered, most of them looking at the strange lion and gossiping about what his business might be. Three of them knew him and they could guess his intent. Mgoma, Nieti and Mgani watched their King Kopa standing together with Kovu.
"We had many problems, but they will be solved soon," Kovu said. "I know that our three newcomers did their best, but the pride is being split over them. Mgoma, with a sad heart I know what I must do."
"Never!" Mgoma roared, close to tears. "I brought my daughters up in misery, but I promised them someday they would have a real home! I promised!"
Kopa said, "With a sad heart, I know what I must do as well. Forgive me, Kovu! It's not your fault." Kopa rushed around and extended his claws. Kovu had no chance to react before a heavy blow from Kopa's paw cut three bloody lines on his cheek. Kopa sprang on him, holding him down with his massive weight and a well placed paw.
Kovu looked at him more shocked than angry. "What the hell are you doing?"
"What I must. Pray to Aiheu! Pray that he will forgive me."
"I will pray that you are damned for all eternity!"
"All right. See you in hell!" He started to reach down and end it all.
Mgoma shrieked, "No! Kopa, have you lost your mind??"
"No. I'm doing it for you! For the girls! I want them to live in honor like lions, not jackals! I'm doing it for my father Taka!"
Kovu lay almost suffocated. "Taka? Your father was Taka? I knew him! He was my…."
Mgoma shouted, "Son! Don't kill him! There is no honor in this--we would be thieves, WORSE than scavengers!"
Kopa looked about. "Momma, for once I could make you proud of me! For once I could do something useful! I have to do this!"
Shani ran toward the pair. "You'll have to kill me too!"
"My quarrel is not with you," Kopa said. "Stand back!"
Uzuri came forward. "I may be old, but I've killed many a large beast. Get off him, son. Don't make me hurt you."
"Listen to them," Kovu said. "Let me up. I won't hurt you if you leave now."
"But I can't!" Kopa said. "I don't want to kill you. You are a good lion. I don't want to kill you. I'm sorry, really I am!"
Shani said, "If you remember my kindness to you, spare my husband!"
"Shani? Can it really be you?"
"Yes. You did not become my mate, but you wanted to be my brother. If you kill my husband, there could be no love between us. You would lose your one friend."
"Let him go," a deep male voice commanded. Simba walked forward.
"Oh thank Aiheu!" Sarabi cried.
"Simba, help him!" Shani cried.
"My death is nothing," Kopa said. "No one will miss me when I'm gone."
"Let him go!" Simba thundered.
Mgoma quietly walked past Simba, then went to where Kopa sat atop Kovu. She touched Kopa's cheek with her pink tongue. "You're my son. I want you to live. Please come home with me."
"Wherever we're together, that's our home. Things will be different--I promise."
"He was going to banish you, and you still want to save him?"
"He does not deserve this, as you don't deserve this. You spare his life and I will be a mother to you. I'll make it up to you, Kopa. Please come with Momma. Please?" Tears began to stream down her face. "They're going to kill you! I can't bear that guilt for the rest of my life! I just can't!"
Kopa looked about, his eyes filled with tears. He looked down at the lion pinned beneath his paws, then bent down close to his face. His tongue touched Kovu's cheek. "Forgive me!" Then he rose and walked away a couple of lengths.
As Shani ran to Kovu and nuzzled him desperately, Mgoma and her daughters went to Kopa and kissed him, nuzzling him softly. "Honey tree, I'm proud of you!" Mgoma said. "I'm so proud of my little boy!"
Simba sighed. "Will someone please tell me what's going on here?"
"I wouldn't mind knowing that myself," a soft lioness voice said.
"Nala!" Uzuri cried. "You're alive!"
"We're ALL alive!" Mgoma said, tears streaming down her face as she stroked Kopa's mane.
CHAPTER 56: SAGE ADVICE
The first return of Simba brought salvation to the pride. His second return was greeted with the same hopes as they all expected Simba to take back the mantle of King of Pride Rock. Nala was still weak, but all the huntresses came and rubbed her full length and told her how beautiful she was, and she smiled meekly at the warmth of their sincerity.
Amid all the joyous souls, Kovu hung in stark contrast as a dark cloud. Like his father before him, he had tried and failed, and his depression was complete. He struggled for the words that would allow him to give up the kingship while still saving some measure of dignity. Perhaps he would have to leave and become a rogue.
Simba startled him out of his preoccupation. "Come with me."
They went out on the promontory. Kovu looked about at his adopted father. "Simba, I…."
"Shhh. There is no need for explanation, Your Majesty."
Simba looked at him with a slightly amused, wry smile. "What you are going through reminds me of what happened when I first came back. But you know, if you are just a little more tolerant, you will be all right. I mean a lion has two ears and one mouth. That's what Aiheu was telling you---to listen twice as much as you speak."
"I really made a mess of things," Kovu said.
"The best of us do from time to time. I almost lost my mate. At least everyone is OK. As upset as they are, they will turn completely around the first good thing you do for them."
"Then you mean they are shallow?"
"No. Just that they will remember the good things much longer than the bad. And much stronger. In fact, there is a good thing about to happen to you."
Simba looked about, and Kovu turned to see what he was watching. It was Shingalana.
Shingi scrambled up the promontory as Kovu headed quickly down. "Whoa!" Simba shouted. "Don't run up here--it's dangerous!"
Shingi and Kovu met, rubbing full length and grunting with contentment.
When the trio came down from the Promontory, Kopa was waiting for them. It was a tense moment, but in just a moment they knew he was a different lion.
"Kovu, what were you saying about my father? I said my father was Taka and you tried to tell me something. Was it what I thought it was? I have to know."
"It was. My father was Taka."
"Great Aiheu," Kopa muttered, looking at Kovu. "It's like my reflection in the waterhole climbed out on the shore and talked to me."
"I know. You and I are brothers. My gods, Kopa, we're brothers!"
Kopa looked at him piteously. "Tell me about my father. Mom never speaks of him. I want to know what he's like."
"I only saw him once," Kovu said. "Still, he was gentle and good and very wise. You would have been proud of him."
Kovu and Kopa both looked at Simba at the same moment. Simba cleared his throat. "He had some faults, but don't we all. His knowledge of history and the old stories was so perfect. He was a terrific fighter and very handsome. You both look as he did in his prime."
Shingi came and nuzzled Kopa gently. "He was also incredibly romantic."
"Uh huh. I bet you're going to be very popular."
Kopa smiled self-consciously. It was the first time they had seen him smile, and it was very becoming.
"You should smile more often," Shingi said with a wink.
CHAPTER 57: REMEMBERING NAMES
At last it was over. With the pride safe, Shingi and the others could turn their backs to the dark past and look toward a brighter future.
Shingalana sat watching the sun sink into the western sky. Her nostrils twitched--an odd scent hung in the light breeze that got her attention and made her feel supremely uncomfortable. It was the scent of a lioness. She had rubbed faces with the pride sisters at many an evening siesta and lay with her body pressed against them to wile away the hot hours under some friendly acacia. She knew every fragrance by heart, and this intruding smell was too strong to have drifted very far.
She had not yet seen nor talked to the newcomers, and she wanted to find out more about them. Still more comfortable with each other than with the pride sisters, Mgoma and her two sisters usually maintained a discrete distance. Shingi would have to locate them.
On bottom of Pride Rock Shingi saw one of the newcomers. Judging from the age it must have been Mgoma, the oldest. In the bat of an eye Shingi was down to where Mgoma was waiting.
"Are you Shingalana?" the lioness greeted friendly and with unmistakable confidence in her voice. "I wanted to see you. We have much to discuss."
With every step Shingi took the suspicious scent intensified in her nostrils. Slowly nodding she passed by, rubbing her head to the other lioness' flank to get her smell.
Shingi stiffened. "In times like this I always wonder what Aiheu wants me to do. A moment's hesitation or a rash act may bring DEATH. I never expected to see you again."
Mgoma stood as still as a kopje as Shingalana finished walking about her and looked into her eyes. "What do you mean, Shingalana? Or may I call you Shingi?"
"Fine, be that way! But don't talk in riddles."
"I'm just about to solve one! I was in the reeds with my lover when you and your friends tried to kill me. You should have made sure I was dead. It would have been simpler for you."
"Oh my gods! It's you!" Mgoma's jaw began to quiver. "Shingalana, I didn't know it was you! I would have never harmed you. You're my SISTER. Just give me the chance to explain, then you can do with me as you will!"
Shingi looked down her nose at the cringing lioness. "That's more of a chance than I ever had. Use it wisely"
Mgoma rolled on her back in supplication. "You're my younger sister! You're all I have left of my mother! Mom tried to hide you from the rogue that killed your father--OUR father. He found out you were not his and he killed Mom for it! I wanted to protect you!"
"You have a strange way of showing it!"
"I couldn't find you! She moved you after I left! I lost everything and became a homeless scavenger. Listen, Shingi--Shingalana--maybe I tried to kill you once, but I also tried to save you once and almost lost my life in the process. For the sake of that one good deed, give me the benefit of the doubt. Please."
Shingi was deeply troubled. "Maybe you did. But why didn't give me a chance to speak or to flee! Ingama never told me he had a pride. I thought he was my lover! What gave you the right not to even ask me?? Sister or not, that's no way to treat anyone!"
Mgoma's voice trembled. "We were desperate scavengers, reduced to the lowest and most unworthy state our kind can be! Ingama was our only hope! Our only hope, Shingalana! Mkiwa had a cub by him and I was pregnant. He betrayed my daughter! I was angry! So mad I wanted to kill him slowly and savor every scream!"
Shingi approached the prostrate lioness, then she pressed a foreleg on her chest, resting her weight on the frantic Mgoma. Shingi's eyes were wet with tears. "Damn you! You'd say anything to keep me from killing you! My sister abandoned me! Left me to die! Even if you were my sister, I ought to kill you!"
Mgoma began to stammer. "Don't do it! Please! Shingi, some of us carry our scars on the outside. Inside I'm torn and tattered! We are alike you and I, sisters on the long path of suffering! In Aiheu's name, let me go!"
"Aiheu's name?? How dare you speak to me of God! You'd better hope he has mercy on you, cause I won't!"
Mgoma kicked her hind legs upwards, giving her a deep blow to the belly. It knocked the wind out of Shingi and the lioness rolled over in the grass. With a huntress' reflexes, Mgoma was on top of her sister in moments, and it was Shingalana who was pinned to the ground.
"Very good move," Shingi said. "Finish me or I will finish you."
Mgoma shook her head. "Why don't you try to understand? We called you Tani! TANI!!"
"Where did you hear that name??"
"Spoken from your mother's lips. OUR mother. Don't you remember when I played peek-a-boo with you? Where's Tani? Wheeeres Tani??"
Shingalana looked up. Once she had seen such eyes looking down on her when she was small. "Goma? You're Goma?"
"You do remember! Oh Tani, my little Tani! You do remember!" Tears came to Mgoma's eyes. "We did not abandon you! Machuti was going to kill you! We tried to hide you, Honey Tree! For my trouble, I got raped and mother was cruelly murdered. 'Find Tani' she said. 'Save her. Save yourself.'" She lowered her face and touched Shingalana's face with her tongue. "I'm going to let you up now. Do what you will with me."
CHAPTER 58: RECONCILIATION
Shingi and Mgoma lay together in the dawning of a new day. Still a bit fearfful, Mgoma whispered, "Can you forgive me?"
For a moment Shingi's face fell, and her claws dug into the sand below. She was looking for words. "Shingi can't forgive you just yet. Give her time."
Mgoma sighed. "Shingi?"
"Shhh!" Shingi looked about, a light smile on her face. "Tani has already forgiven you. I ought to thank you, Goma."
Mgoma stroked her with a paw. "What nonsense is this? Thank me for what?"
"If you had not attacked me, I would still be a rogue lioness. My son would not be king. Nala would be dead. Let me tell you my story."
Shingalana recounted long rides in a malori, watching the antelope run from the open window. She spoke of tame fire and boxes that speak and humans that hug and nuzzle. She talked lovingly of Rafiki, and of her new sister Nala and the illness that nearly claimed her. With embarrassment, she even related how she spent one night with the king. She told of hyena priests and miracles worked in the spectacular desolation of an elephant graveyard. And she told of the small, scared cub that still lived inside her all those years. And she spoke of Ingama's return. The one born Taka, the one called Scar.
Mgoma was shocked. "Don't tell me I watched Kopa grow up like a miserable heap because of wrong feelings of guilt? Ingama wasn't dead?"
"No. Moons later, we had just made prey when he stumbled out from a row of bushes. He looked even worse than I did; bruises, inflammations, and Gods, he was so skinny. Every single part of him begged for food. Simba had just announced that my little Kovu would be the heir of the Pride Lands, and then they all saw who Kovu's father was. Scar! You can imagine what that caused."
Mgoma frowned. "Wait, not so fast, Shingi… the Taka that fought Simba on the rock? The one that killed his father?"
"Yes. That Taka was our Ingama, and your Kopa and my Kovu are his sons!"
Mgoma sighed. "He used to tell us a young and cruel lion chased him off his pride! I used to feel sorry for him! Now it looks like Simba just returned the favor!" Mgoma growled, feeling the fool. "Yet another way we are alike, my sister. Yet another bond between us. We believed the same lies."
"Only I have moved beyond that and forgiven him. Is that another bond between us?"
"Not yet, sister. Not yet." Mgoma comforted Shingi with a paw. "You have told me your story. Mine does not compare. I never rode on a malori or watched fire in a ring of stones. Let's just say it has been one hell of a struggle. If there is something you want to know, just ask."
Shingi said in a soft, almost tearful voice, "Tell me about my mother."
From behind a corner of the bottom of Pride Rock gentle pawsteps interrupted the lionesses' talk. It was Kopa. He looked like the reflection of Kovu in a waterhole, mane, eyes and fur colored the same. The only difference that told them apart was Kopa's often very serious looking facial features. Shingi was almost tempted to call him Kovu, since Kopa's face was now so gentle and loving looking like Kovu's. Her own son was now a totally unfamiliar sight for Mgoma.
"Mum…why did you never tell me? Why did I have to find it out myself?"
She shook her head, and watched the sunrise, avoiding his eyes.
"When did you find it out?"
"Do you remember when I ran off for a day when I was a cub? I met a little girlfriend. She acted like she was a princess. She took care of my wounds and fed me. When I came back I sat in the bushes and heard you and my sisters talk."
"So long? That must be why you treated us like that."
"How could I understand it? I was just a tiny cub and all I knew was that my Mom and my sisters acted like I was a thorn in the paw."
Shingalana smiled, seeing her sister and her nephew rub heads. That day had seen a new beginning for many troubled souls.
CHAPTER 59: NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Kovu had spent many moments alone on the tip of the promontory with Kopa. No one dared disturb their privacy uninvited. The others listened but could hear nothing from the conversation except a low whisper.
"They look friendly enough," Shani said, watching them closely from the grass below.
Isha nudged her and said, "One little shove and your mate could 'accidentally' fall to his death."
"That's a terrible thought, Isha!"
"He tried once, you know. I just don't trust him."
"I trust him. I don't know why, but I do."
Kopa descended, leaving the King alone on the spire. He wended his way down the curving path and regained the firm earth.
Mgoma ran to him and nuzzled him. "What happened up there? What did he say to you?"
Kopa looked deeply into his mother's eyes. "He talked a great deal about you."
"Was he very upset?"
"No. He gave me some advice. 'Love her,' he said. Three different times he told me, 'Love your mother.'"
"And what did you tell him?"
"What do you think I told him?" He raised up on his hind legs, not to batter her but to wrap his forepaws around his mother's neck. She barely had time to prevent herself from being shoved to the grass.
"You think you can beat me??" she asked.
"I know I can!"
Nieti and Mgani came over, giggling excitedly. "I get to play the winner," Nieti said.
"You'll play me," Kopa said, shoving his mother to one side and unbalancing her. With a couple of kicks and a half-scramble, she slipped and fell into the grass laughing.
"You're the winner," she said.
"I know," Kopa answered, kissing his mother's panting face. "Things are going to be different between us."
"My son," Mgoma purred, wrapping her forepaws around his neck and drawing him down to her. "Indeed they will be."
Kovu remained by himself on the tip of the promontory pondering some great mystery. The sun was growing low in the sky giving the world a slight golden hue before he rose and padded down the trail to the ground. There was an odd excitement about him, a look of certainty and a ring of confidence to his voice when he musically shouted, "Baraza! Baraza! Everyone come!"
Simba and Nala came and sat near him. Shingalana and Shani took their places of honor on either side of him. The others gathered in hushed silence and listened.
"I have spoken with Kopa, and for those of you who do not yet know, we share one father. Like me, Kopa has made mistakes, but like me he has hopefully found forgiveness. It would not be wise for me to take him as my prince consort, nor would it be appropriate to send him out like an intruder. So I had to make a hard decision. One I could not invite Simba to advise and one that Rafiki or Zazu could not make for me. I had to make it alone and bear on myself the sole responsibility for its success or failure."
Simba nodded but did not speak. It was Kovu's moment.
"There is a small strip of land just out of sight of Pride Rock. Simba before me marked the land and claimed it for the pride, but we never hunt there. So it is both ours and not ours, just as Kopa is and is not my brother. It is only appropriate that I place King Kopa there to make his home, and in return for this he will help me defend our southern border. Those who would go with him should come and sit by their king."
Mgoma came and nuzzled her son. Nieti and Mgani stalked over and sat by their brother. Ulanga, a young,, impressionable lioness, came up and rubbed Kopa full length. "I can give you comfort, Kopa. I can bear you strong cubs."
Ulanga's mother gasped. It was a rash act, a sudden act, a very presumptious thing a lioness to do even if she was in her season. Yet it was just the sort of thing to appeal to Kopa's spontaneous nature.
"You held my glance from the moment I came here." He imbibed her fragrance and sighed. "You are beautiful as the jasmine. You are fiery as the leopard and sweet as honey. Be my queen and I will make love to you."
Finally as the murmur in the crowd died down, Shingalana came forward and nuzzled Kopa. "I can hunt alongside the best. Take me and I will bring you luck."
"Good or bad luck?" Kopa gently chided, kissing her. "Bless you, Aunt Shingi. Your sister and I would be honored, and besides I could use a fine hunt mistress."
Kovu looked around. "Mom, are you sure you want this?"
"Yes, my son. You have Shani now, and trust me I will keep my eye on you from time to time."
Kovu then came over to Simba. "Now that I have done what I was given to do, nip my neck, father."
"Oh no. You don't go giving me back the kingship. Besides, I want to spend more time with Nala."
"You did not make me ill," Nala said. "Don't use me as an excuse."
Simba frowned. "I am getting older. I was looking forward to being an adviser for a change. Maybe like a prince consort."
"Only now you would have a prince to help you," Kovu said. "I'm an adult. I can split the work with you. I was afraid of being king before, but this has taught me much and I won't be afraid anymore. Still it is not yet my time to be king. I want to give it back to you with all the love in my heart. I want to hear you roar, 'This land is mine!' while I still can. It's such a beautiful sound to me, such a safe sound, such a caring sound. You can't give that back to your father, but I can give it back to you if you'll let me."
Sarabi nodded at her son. "It's your decision."
Simba kissed Kovu's cheek, then gently nipped his neck. "I love you, Kovu. And I'm so proud to call you my son."
"I love you too, dad." He looked out at the rapt faces of the pride sisters. "Long live King Simba!"
A small band headed out to the new territory to learn the borders and mark them. With them came an escort from Pride Rock.
Kovu accompanied his mother somberly, at times walking with his cheek against her face. He did not tell her "I love you." Indeed it was obvious. Shingi glanced over at her son and could see the hurt in his eyes. There was also hurt in her eyes.
As Pride Rock receeded into the distance, she tried to fill her thoughts with the future and not dwell on the past. So many things had happened with Simba's pride. She had first lived as a lion with them and shared their joys and sorrows as an intimate sister. She had raised her cub there. Part of her would always remain buried below the promontory, and it was to that place she would go to die someday.
Mgoma looked over at her son Kopa and smiled.
"Mom, you can be really beautiful. I can't remember seeing you this happy before."
"I can't remember being this happy before."
"Do you think we can make it in our new lands?"
"If we don't then we don't deserve any better. It's our best chance ever. Do you agree, Shingi?"
"Yes, I do. Our only chance…" Shingi's words sounded empty, devoid of conviction.
Mgoma stopped. "What's wrong?"
"Maybe I'm a bit sick. Nothing serious."
Mgoma grinned wryly. "You ARE sick. HOMESICK!"
Shingi shook her head violently. "No. Kovu is grown and married, he doesn't need me anymore. And Simba…"
Mgoma smiled with a trace of mischief. "You still love him, hm?"
"Yes. I mean NO. Who cares? Soon enough he'll be out of sight and out of mind."
"Your son will be out of sight. He won't be out of mind. Why should it matter with Simba."
"It's not just that. I could even deal with that, but there's more and I don't want to talk about it Sister. Please respect my wishes."
"If you insist, Shingi."
"Shingi is dead. I am only Tani now."
"As you wish, Tani."
There was a sound in the grass, the sound of something huge charging at them. Water buffalo had been known to do that, and Shingi looked around quickly. "Simba!"
"There you are! Thank Aiheu! Listen to me, girl! You belong home with us. I miss you and Nala misses you. You can't just dump us like that."
"But I can't! I just can't! Don't you see? You could never care for me the way I cared for you."
Simba looked over at Kovu and the others. "Go on ahead. I need some time with Shingalana."
There was an awkward moment. Then Mgoma and her daughters went on ahead followed by Ulanga and Kopa. When it was finally safe, Simba sighed deeply. "Shingi, please don't go."
"But I must. I know you are ashamed that I threw myself at you. How can I face you knowing how much it repulsed you to make love to me. What was beautiful to me was sordid and ugly to you."
Simba came to her. Shingi looked away, but he took one of his large paws and gently turned her to face him. "Not sordid, not ugly. Just inappropriate. Shingi, if things had been a little different, you and I would have been mates. Even now I remember how it felt when your sweet, soft body was pressed to mine. I try to forget it because I must, but I cannot lie to you. I enjoyed it. There is only one question to be answered; we were friends once--could we be friends again?"
"Well, I…." Shingi looked into Simba's eyes. "Are you sure Nala has forgiven me?"
"No. In her mind there is no wrong to forgive. She loves you and she asked me to come after you."
"But Sarabi and Omatu! It would never work. How could I face her?"
Sarabi pushed through the grass. "I'm glad I followed you." She went to Shingi and said, "I can't bring back Omatu, but I can bring you back. Stop this foolishness and come home."
"Home," Shingi said. It had a wonderful sound to it. She ran to Sarabi and nuzzled her, pawing her and rubbing her full length. "I want to go home, mother! Oh Aiheu how I want it!"
"Then say yes."
"Yes, YES! A thousand times yes!"
On their own land Kopa was a true king and Mgoma his mother was once again a true princess. Before the others Kopa pledged to Ulanga and made her his queen.
"This is going to be interesting," Kovu said. "You know some rogues have gotten used to this as a corridor. Either you have to be lenient with them, or you'll have a real job driving them out till they learn the new score."
"Oh?" Kopa said. "Any recently?"
"Just the other day. There was this old lion. I think any of you could have beaten him, though. He was Matutu--uh--Malawi. Nope, it was Machuti."
"Machuti??" Mgoma said. "Are you sure??"
"I'm sure. You know him?"
"I know him well enough for a lifetime," Mgoma said sharply.
"If I see him, I'll beat him senseless," Kopa said quickly. "I may be king, but you're still my Mom. If he so much as looks at you crosswise…"
"Send him to me," Mgoma said coldly. "I want him alive and in good shape. Tell him I'll be glad to see him."
"I bet you will," Kopa said.
Kopa had spotted the treasure of the lowlands--a large kopje with a small cave in its side. It was very tiny compared to Pride Rock, but it was his, and he knew someday he and Ulanga would be presenting their cub from that spot. He ran to the rock, turned and marked it, then smelled of the mark. "No more will I hide my scent. No more will I run like a scared rabbit! I'm a lion--a LION!" With that, he tilted his head back, drew in a deep breath and let it out in a spectacular roar. "Here I am! Does anyone want to make something of it??"
"I wouldn't do that," Mgoma said quickly.
"I would," Kopa said. "This is your home. You can do what you please here. Come on and let out a good roar."
"But do you think I really should?"
"Do it, Mom. Do it NOW!"
She took in a shallow breath, then let it out in a half hearted roar. The effort made her feel flushed and she looked about with mixed pride and shyness.
"Do you call that a roar?? I want to feel the ground shake!"
Mgani and Nieti nodded. Ulanga said, "Let it out!"
Mgoma looked about once again, took in a very deep breath, then let out a long, heartfelt roar that made Kopa's ears turn back and his eyes squint. She caught her breath, then giggled with the sheer exhilaration of being alive. She pounced on Mgani who reared up and wrestled with her mother. Nieti came and put her weight against Mgoma until her mother was forced giggling to the verdant grass.
CHAPTER 60: JUST LIKE OLD TIMES
Just as Shingi had said, there were a few rogue lions that were surprised to find a welcoming party waiting for them. By and large they were polite and understood that the rules had changed. One older male cub who was quiet and shy touched Kopa--he seemed to recognize himself. This one was allowed to pass through as long as he announced his presence when he crossed the border.
Mgoma was receptive, and she took many good-hearted jibes from her daughters each time a rogue tried to come through. "Oh look, this one has two good eyes. I bet you could have some real fun with him."
"Oooh, check out that mane!"
"Momma, I think he's giving you the come-on!"
Each time, Mgoma would smile, nod, and say, "Girls, try not to fight over him."
The uglier the lion, the more the sisters would jibe their mother. At first they couldn't resist an old half-blind lion who stumbled about and shook his head from time to time. But then they saw he was in pain. Pity shamed them and they stopped in their tracks.
"The poor thing," Mgani muttered. "He's lost a few fights, I'd say."
Nieti shook her head. "A few?"
Mgoma looked closely at him. A single word escaped her tight-lipped face--"Machuti!" Her body tensed, and she made the silent hunting sign for "hide now."
As the rogue stumbled on, Mgoma suddenly came out of the grass. He did not hear her right away, probably due to the damage to his ears that made him shake his head. "Just passing through," he said quickly. "I won't be long."
"What's the hurry, big boy? Are you after some prey?"
He looked up at her, took in a deep breath, then slowly let it out. "Oh, I must be dreaming! You're not real!"
He started on past. Mgoma came and nuzzled him softly, her ebony lips slightly parted as she brushed against his face. "I'm real. As real as you want me to be."
"I want you to be real," he said softly. "Young lions have time for games, my dear. I find myself on the run and rarely do I stop to enjoy anything. But if you can forget the stalk, I will rush you."
"You know what you like," Mgoma said languorously. "I like that. So do I. I like pleasuring. I like it when a lion wraps me in his musky warmth and makes love to me. Tell me what you think of this…."
She rubbed him full length, then took her paw and slowly stroked his thighs. Placing her paw beneath his tail, she let it slide down. He was supremely aroused.
"Oh gods!" he said, shuddering. "I've been without for so long, you ought to save this for the real thing."
"Then you do want me?"
"More than anything!"
She extended her claws full length. "One more little rub to get the blood racing, then we make love if you're still up to it."
He said, "I think I am. But I don't understand how something young and beautiful like you would take pity on a battered old wreck like me. You must be a good person, and it is an honor to be your consort. What is your name, honey tree?"
Her paw trembled. She tried to force it to move, to gash him right where he once raped her. Slowly, her claws retracted, and her paw returned to the ground.
Machuti looked about. "What's wrong, my dear? Did I say something wrong?"
She looked at the scarred face and saw him shake his head on the side of his bad ear. Tears welled up in her eyes and a sob caught in her throat.
"Oh, I have made you cry! I'm so sorry!" He came to her and stroked her cheek with his paw.
"Get the hell off my land!" she sobbed.
"Just go! Go and never come back!"
"Did I do something to offend you??"
"You offended heaven and earth! You killed my parents and you raped me when I was pregnant! Don't you remember me?"
He looked back at her face. "Oh my gods! Mgoma!" He stared for a while. "I thought you were a young thing, maybe on her first date. Either I'm going blind or time has been much kinder to you then to me."
"You've lost a little of your mane, I see."
"I've lost everything. Soon after you left I was deposed by another, and I have wandered alone ever since." He looked down. "Ironic isn't it? The lioness that swore to kill me is the closest thing to an old friend that I have seen in years." He started to walk away in his stiff-legged shuffle. "You were a mighty fine girl. You would have made a damn fine queen too. I wish you and I could have had another go at it--for old time's sake."
"You better have a faster step than that! If you can still run, you'd better do it before I change my mind!"
The old lion headed off with the uneven rocking-horse gait that spoke of hidden injuries and lost battles. Mgoma watched him for a while, then laid down and began to sob again. From the brush came her two daughters Nieti and Mgani. They nuzzled her and rubbed heads with her. "You ok, Mom?"
"Yes. For the first time in years I am ok." Mgoma kissed each of her daughters. "I'm more than ok. I'm happy, very happy." She wiped her tear-stained face with a paw, then looked up into the sky. "Mom, I'm happy enough for both of us, just like I promised!"
"What promise?" Nieti asked.
"Oh, something I said a long time ago. Don't worry about it--it's over now."
Kopa climbed a small kopje that formed a landmark in his own territory. He shouted as Makini had before, "This land is mine! Mine! I will defend it!" Then he drew in a deep breath and roared--a long and terrible roar. Mgoma sprang to her feet and joined in the roar, followed by her two daughters. It was a terrible and wonderful sound. The sun had come to the end of its long path, and so had the hate, fear, and bitterness that had filled Mgoma's heart.
THE END: THE LONG PATH