SHADOW OF THE MAKEI
Part Three of Chronicles of the Pride Lands
by John Burkitt and David Morris

LEGAL NOTE

This original copyrighted work is based on Walt Disney’s feature film, “The Lion King.” Elements taken directly from “The Lion King” are the property of The Walt Disney Company. “Shadows of the Makei” is distributed free of charge excepting reasonable distribution costs. Quoting passages from our work, writing original pieces based on our work, or using characters we created is fine as long as you secure prior approval. That begins by sending either of us a copy of the work. Our e-mail addresses are

John H. Burkitt: john.burkitt@nashville.com

David A. Morris: damorris@wilmington.net

Your comments on our work, pro and con, are always welcome. We have been asked about our legal note. This is our official response: “The copyright is maintained solely to prevent patently vulgar or lewd misuse of our characters. Most any work, including parodies would be fine as long as it meets certain reasonably broad standards of decency. We reserve the right as copyright holders to define and change those standards. None of these standards is meant to force the applicant to be consistant with the literary style or plot of the original work.”

The characters Akase, Isha, and Malaika are the property of Brian Tiemann. Used with permission.

This story is a fictional work, but we don’t claim that any resemblance to any characters living or dead is purely coincidental. With love and respect, we acknowledge the debt we owe to those who taught us how to laugh and cry. Without acting as clear models for any one character, many great souls, some non-human, have been woven deeply into the fabric of our lives only to end up in “Shadows of the Makei.”

FOREWORD BY THE AUTHORS

“Chronicles of the Pride Lands” and “The Spirit Quest” shine like jewels on black velvet. A pair of beautifully cut gemstones that gleam with their own inner light, showing us hope, promise, and happiness. And like all jewels, they have many facets, many faces in which one can peer and percieve a distinctly different view of the world. Most are pure and clear, offering a unwavering view of what should be. And there are others which are flawed, offering an uncertain picture as to what the future might hold for us. And then there are those that are dark, giving nothing, promising nothing, and leaving us filled with doubt.

Yet what makes the jewel so beautiful? Perhaps it is the sparkle we see, the contrast of light and dark impressing itself on us. For what is the darkness without the light to give it shape? And in turn, what would the light be without darkness to give it definition? This is the very essence of the jewel. And this is the center of “Shadows of the Makei,” that glimpse into the flawed darkness of one facet that makes us percieve the beauty and clarity of the light all the more.

David Morris, Wilmington, North Carolina
December 15, 1996

As many ideas pulled from Chronicles of the Pride Lands appeared in The Spirit Quest, many ideas pulled from Spirit Quest appear here. These are different views of the same world. As such the works are complimentary but do not heavily overlap. This work is a separate story, but it would be vague and difficult to understand if you had not read Chronicles first, then Spirit Quest.

This work contains a lot of dark, frightening imagery. But it is not a work about dark, frightening things, any more than the Christmas Story is about finding a room in Bethlehem. Those who concentrate on the dark miss the point. We all have our source of strength. We all have the right to tap into that strength. If you learn anything from this work, perhaps it is this: prayer is not a measure of last resort but rather a first line of defense. Do not cower in the shadow of a Makei when you can step into the light.

John Burkitt, Nashville, Tennessee
December 15, 1996

PROLOGUE

“So fair and foul a day I have not seen.”

— SHAKESPEARE: MACBETH: ACT I

From everlasting to everlasting, the Circle of Life rolls on, encompassing all beings from the tiny termite to the tall elephant. It permeates them, entwining itself through their physical forms of Ma’at into their essences, the Ka itself. It is a stream, whose current binds all of Aiheu’s children together and sweeps them gently toward him.

But there are rocks in that stream. Rocks that resist the flow, stirring up eddies. And some of the larger ones create still pockets where all manner of unwholesome things grow tucked away from the tides of change.

Two leaves were swept downstream. One slipped safely by the rock. One spiraled in the eddy, being pulled toward the rock where helpless it felt the first signs of decay taking hold in the stagnant pool of its confinement. It looked below and saw the sludge of withered leaves that lined the bottom, those who had lost forever the power to float. That’s when the despair took hold, and it rarely struggled against its fate as it sank lower and lower into the water.

On the quiet savanna a meerkat was standing guard while his neighbors were enjoying a sunbath. Suddenly a shadow passed over the ground and a chill wind swept him. The guard looked around but saw no one. He glanced up, expecting a large bird of prey, but there was none. With growing horror he watched the shadow amble along the ground with no owner and he trembled. As soon as he could find his voice, he yelled, “All down! All down!”

Within seconds, all of the meerkats had taken refuge in their burrows including the guard who huddled next to his wife and young, shivering too violently to explain. The shadow of a makei had fallen upon the land.

But the dark ka of Melmokh was not after them. Slowly, stealthily he approached young Taka, the son of King Ahadi. Melmokh had followed him since the kingdom was promised to Mufasa. He fed off Taka’s heartbreak as a jackal shredding the warm flesh from a kill.

Melmokh felt his wandering days would soon be over. Driven from love and joy by an agony he could not understand, he sought peace among the angry and the grieving. He sought to harness Taka’s pain, drawing strength from it while it was still fresh.

“If I’m not careful, the child will soon forget his misfortune,” he thought. “I must strike while the prey is weakened. Something that will not cripple him, only shame him… Maybe a scar, perhaps?” He trotted ahead of Taka and looked back over his shoulder appraisingly. Taka’s eyes were soft and bright and beautiful. “An eye. Yes, an eye! It would freeze the hearts and turn the stomachs of the females. They would stare at it—they couldn’t HELP but stare at it!” Melmokh laughed coldly. “Be careful, little cub! Accidents can happen!”

CHAPTER 1: SISTERLY DEVOTION

“Lend your light to anoint my eyes, Great Mother of us all! Open my eyes and let me see the wonder of your works! There is the mountain, lofty and noble, capped with snowdrifts jasmine white. There is the restless meadow grass. There is the crash of mighty thunder, and the whisper of a heartbeat. Who shall place a value on these things? Who shall understand your heart, O Mighty Roh’kash? One like you whose heart is full of love, and whose feet walk the true path of righteousness.”

— TRADITIONAL HYANNIC MORNING PRAYER

Wind fingers fondled the golden savanna grass as pup voices of giddy joy bubbled from the hyena den. Shimbekh gamboled out, with her sister Kambra close behind. They rolled in the friendly grass, sparring and wrestling in a flurry of high spirits. Their muti (mom) looked out of the burrow, a tolerant smile on her kindly face. “You know it’s time for your nap.”

“Aw, Muti! Can’t we play just a little while longer?” Shimbekh asked. She put on her best long face.

“Don’t show me those Gazelle eyes, young lady! I know all the tricks. And don’t go plotting something with that sister of yours. I can’t hear your thoughts, but I’d know that look anywhere.”

“What look?” Kambra thought.

“I don’t know,” Shimbekh thought back.

“Do you think she can really tell?”

“Let’s see.” Shimbekh looked at her muti right in the eyes and concentrated.

“Oh no you don’t!” her muti said with a laugh. “I know when you’re up to something, and you’re up to something! Guilty thoughts left their tracks all over your face!”

She seized Shimbekh by the scruff of the neck and hauled her into the den. Kambra followed dutifully. There would be no reprieve from nap time.

Life for the hyena pups was as warm and soft as the fur on their muti’s side. Muti would keep them clean and well fed, and Maleh (Dad) would tell them wonderful stories of midnight hunts under the silver moon. Giddy games melted into quiet naps, and always the love and care of their parents hovered around them like a warm hug. In those days, there was food enough for everyone, and each new day was an exciting step on the trail to adulthood.

Nature was their companion on the trail, working wonderful miracles that the jaded call “growing up,” a term that falls far short of the mystery and beauty of life unfolding. Very soon, too fast for their okash (mother), they had outgrown the den and spent their days in rough and tumble games. The naps soon ended, at least the enforced ones. Short puppy legs began to grow at an alarming rate. Shimbekh teased Kambra about her sticklike legs, heedless of the changes that were sweeping her own body.

A dry season scorched the grass into submission, then a rainy season turned the dry fields to mud. From the healing drops sprang new life. Antelopes and wildebeests grazed on the new grass. Some prospered, others lost their hold on this world, leaving sustenance for the clan. Shimbekh and Kambra availed themselves of the abundance, giving up their muti’s milk forever, and with it their brief hold on infancy. Time had passed.

As their strength of muscle and sinew developed, so also grew their mysterious and wonderful link with the spirit world and with each other. Other feelings were growing as well, awakening thoughts that were both frightening and exciting.

It began as an idle curiosity about the opposite sex. Then in timid stages it finally blossomed into a healthy desire to find a mate and found a family.

Like everything else, the sisters began this search together. After spending time looking over some of the young males, usually more amused than impressed, they concluded that the clan was about the worst place to find a husband! This only changed when they checked out Gur’bruk, a fine up-and-coming male.

Kambra thought to Shimbekh, “Boy, I could sure sneak away with HIM and be his play toy for an hour or two!”

Gur’bruk looked around and his eyes half closed. He thought back, “You name the place, Sweetcheeks.”

Her eyes grew large. “He heard me!”

His eyes widened. “She heard me!”

Shimbekh began snickering. “Way to go, play toy!”

Gur’bruk smiled and winked, and without a word he raised his chin and strutted away.

“Handsome AND a mystic!” Kambra gushed, following him with her eyes. “And with hips to die for!”

That was no mere puppy infatuation. Kambra fell for Gur’bruk and soon he heartily returned her love. They would sit for long moments, gazing deeply into each others eyes to taste the love that flowed freely between them like water from a crystal spring. Indeed, they rarely spoke aloud, but they shared everything, including the plan to share one path through this life and beyond.

Shimbekh could feel the beauty of his love for Kambra, and she longed to rub slowly along his warm, strong body and kiss his finely chiseled face. But her love for Kambra restrained her. She often hid when she saw Gur’bruk coming so her eyes would not betray her feelings. And yet her pain was not lost on Kambra or Gur’bruk.

Kambra felt badly about it. She went out of her way to spend extra time with her sister, trying to soothe her aching spirit and recapture the fun of childhood games.

In return, Shimbekh promised Kambra that nothing would come between them, wishing her a happy life and many strong pups. Shimbekh meant what she said, but Kambra looked beyond her words to feel her frustrated longings. Kambra nuzzled Shimbekh and said, “If I ever die, you must take care of him. Promise me you will.”

“Oh Kambra!” Shimbekh nuzzled her back. “You must never die. Don’t even say it, Sis.”

CHAPTER 2: ILL TIDINGS

Kambra’s ears twitched. She bowed her front legs and wagged her tail playfully. “Come get me if you’re big enough!”

Gur’bruk laughed. He sprang forward, flailing at her with his paws. Kambra blocked him with effortless skill, seeking an advantage. The moment she saw an opening in his defence, she bounded up and put her forearms around his neck, trying to force him to the ground.

Gur’bruk and Kambra were so in tune that their contests ended in draws. Still, Kambra managed to catch him off guard, and with a mighty shove of her back legs pushed him to the grass where she pinned him, panting and laughing.

“Let me up!”

“No!”

“Let me up, Kambra! You won, all right?”

“It’s not that simple. Do you want to surrender?”

“What are your terms?”

“Does it matter? You’re stuck.”

“Good point. So how much is this going to cost me?”

She gazed into his beautiful hazel eyes, then rubbed his face with hers. “You beautiful thing, I want to bear your children.”

“I’ll have to think about that,” he said with mock coldness.

He took advantage of her momentary surprise, and with a quick thrust of his paw easily pushed her off. She fell to the grass and looked up at him pleadingly. The time for games was clearly over.

He gently nuzzled her recumbant form as she lay in the grass, then he settled down next to her with his head resting gently on her side. “Kambra, why ask me for something you already have? You know my heart is yours. It’s only a matter of time till you have the rest of me.”

“When, Gur’bruk? When?”

He laughed softly. “You name the time, my little play toy.”

“Oh Gur’bruk!” She reached lovingly with her paw and began to fondle his handsome face and neck. “Is tonight too soon?”

She looked at him quietly for an answer, and his feelings were clear to her. She drew comfort from his warm affection and held him close to her. “What did I do to deserve such happiness? I love you so much. More than life itself!”

He smiled and closed his eyes. “Kambra, our love is life itself. I was born on the day you first loved me, and I will die on the day you stop.”

“Then you will live forever.”

The boughs of the acacia tree hovered over them protectively, dappling the lovers with light and shadow. A mild wind caressed them with its cooling embrace, and they soon drifted into a contented sleep. Theirs was a happiness without blemish. As the poet La’kresh said

Look to me only with your heart Let no outward guise of earth Hide the purity of my love.

Time consumes, the grass may wither But we shall spring up with the rains Before the feet of Roh’kash!

Suddenly a hot wind from the east swept over them like an angry hand. Kambra stirred and opened her eyes. She saw her sister Shimbekh approaching, her gait burdened with sadness and her eyes dark with worry.

Quietly, gently, Kambra eased out from beneath Gur’bruk’s head and pillowed him lovingly in the soft grass. She ran on silent pads to intercept Shimbekh.

“Sis, we were in the middle of our nap. Can’t this wait?”

“Come with me.”

Gravely, Shimbekh slinked away out of hearing range. She led Kambra into the shadow of some bushes.

“Now what’s wrong? You look terrible, Sis.”

Shimbekh looked away, afraid to meet Kambra’s eyes. “I love you, Kambra. If the wild dogs came, I would be first in line to die for you.”

“And I would die for you. But you didn’t come out here to talk about dogs.”

Shimbekh took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I just had an awful vision.” She hung her head. “It’s so terrible!”

“Is it Gur’bruk? Is he in danger?”

“Not Gur’bruk.” She kissed and nuzzled Kambra. “Sis, forgive me!”

“Well, out with it!”

Shimbekh moaned. “If you marry Gur’bruk, you will bring forth a son who will be the downfall of our people.”

“What??”

Shimbekh bent her head lower and moaned. “Sis, believe me! I have carried this thorn in my heart for hours—hellish hours when I wished I could die, just die! I could not bring myself to speak it, but if I am silent I will betray my own people and you as well!”

“Shimbekh, you’ve had a nightmare. That’s all!” Kambra kissed Shimbekh and smiled coyly. “Everything’s going to be fine, Honey Tree. Don’t you think I would have been warned? Why would the gods put that burden on you?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps you couldn’t believe it.”

“I DON’T believe it—it’s just a dream! That’s all it could be, for it doesn’t make sense.” Kambra began to pace around nervously. “Gur’bruk is good, and our love is pure and deep. Our children will be born from love, raised to love and follow God. I’m sorry to see you upset you, Sis, but I’m going to marry Gur’bruk this very night.”

“But you can’t! Oh gods, you just can’t!”

“Shimbekh! I just can, and I just will. Now I know how you love Gur’bruk, but he does not love you! I’m very disappointed in you, Sis—I didn’t think you would try something like this, not with your own sister!”

“It’s not my jealousy speaking! I swear! Oh gods, how I wept over this—wept tears of blood!” She rolled miserably on the ground. “Kambra, I love you, and I want you to be happy, even if it is with him! Look in my eyes! Look and see for yourself!”

Kambra studied Shimbekh’s eyes. Her hard set jaw relaxed and her expression changed to concern. She nuzzled Shimbekh.

“I’m sorry I doubted you. I believe you had a bad dream, and I believe it seemed very real. But you must understand that it’s your love for him talking. I don’t hold that against you, really I don’t.”

“But it’s not a dream! I was awake! You have to warn him!”

Kambra became cross again. “Look here, Sis, you better not breathe a word of this to ANYONE else, ESPECIALLY my Gur’bruk.” She tried to calm down. “Wait and see our children. You’ll see. If there was some danger, love could overcome it. Now we’ll be doubly sure to love them every chance we get.”

“I know what I saw!”

Kambra raised up sternly. “Go home, Shimbekh! Leave us alone!”

“I love you, Kambra!”

“I love you too, but right now I’m upset. Go, Shimbekh! Go home!” She bared her teeth. “Go home before I say something I’ll regret!”

“I’m scared, Sis.” Shimbekh slinked away, sobbing. “Please don’t hate me! Please! I’m so scared!”

CHAPTER 3: INNER TRUTHS

Shimbekh trudged home despondently. She was afraid to go to her parents with such a strange tale of prophesy and doom. Besides, if there was the slightest chance she was mistaken, she would not want them to know. Even if she were not mistaken, she would not want to break their hearts.

There was only one source of comfort left to her. Since she was a small pup, her spirit guide had never let her down, though she had never relied on a spirit for companionship. She needed to ask him about the vision, and she was angry with herself for not consulting the him before upsetting Kambra.

Sitting alone by the den she had once shared with her sister, she stared off into space, looking at nothing in particular. “Urikh hom dalem,” she said. She began to chant it repeatedly. “Urikh hom dalem, Urikh hom dalem…” The words meant, “Anoint my spirit,” but they began to lose meaning as the chant washed away the tracks of her troubling thoughts, blending into a sleepy surf breaking upon a mystic shore where time and space had no meaning, and there was only the Eternal Now. “Urikh hom dalem. Urikh hom dalem. Urikh hom dalem…”

Before long, she had fallen into a receptive state. A golden mist surrounded her.

“What would you see today?” the voice asked.

Her jaw began to quiver. “You.”

“Me? Do I sense idle curiosity, Shimbekh?”

Tears flowed down her cheeks. “No. I’m so alone! I have no one else to turn to! Please tell me your name. Let me see you.”

“Are you sure? I mean, wouldn’t it remove all the mystery?”

“Who needs more mysteries? I don’t know what’s real anymore!”

“All right, but you may be disappointed.”

Something began to materialize from the mist. At first there were two bright spots in the haze which formed into hazel eyes. Fear shone in those eyes, the fear of becoming vulnerable. But Shimbekh plead with those eyes, and her gentle coaxing brought out a face—and soon the body—of a hyena.

“Oh!”

“Well, I’m Brin’bi,” he said shyly. “You were expecting something spectacular, and you got me. See, I told you that you’d be disappointed.”

“No, not at all!” Shimbekh smiled shyly. “I like you much better that way. I can talk TO you, not AT you.” She looked into his soft eyes and felt kindness flow from him the same way it came from Gur’bruk, only this kindness was hers. She wanted to touch him, but wondered if she could—or should.

“You may try,” Brin’bi thought to her. “I don’t know what you’ll feel.”

She abandoned spoken language and let her thoughts fly freely to him.

“I think you look beautiful, Brin’bi.”

“Well, uh, thanks. So do you, Shimbekh. So beautiful, and so sad. You really need a friend.”

She almost cried. “Can you stay for a while?”

“I have all of eternity.” He yawned as if to prove the point and settled into a sphinx. “So Shimbekh, you’re on the outs with your sister, are you?”

“Brin’bi, tell me it’s not so!”

“Honestly, I don’t know. There are forks in our path, but I believe we choose to go left or right.”

“Then you can’t tell me what to do?”

“I can only give advice. Remember how much you love your sister, and whatever happens, be there for her. That always works.”

“I’d do anything for her.” She sighed. “I’m so depressed thinking about this. Let’s talk about you for now—please?”

“About me? What’s there to talk about?”

“Dozens of things! How old are you? Do you have a home? How did you die? And are you a real hyena, or just taking that shape to please me?”

He smiled. “Does my shape really please you? That’s the way I used to look. I was born near this spot. I was almost your great grand-okhim till I caught a hoof between the eyes. I never even felt pain.” He sighed. “I guess I went left where I should have gone right. As for where I live, I guess this is my home now. And since I became your spirit guide, you’re the closest thing I have to a steady date.”

Shimbekh smiled. “I like that. Why don’t I consider you my steady date too?”

Brin’bi broke into an embarrassed smile. “Why not! When my friends ask me what’s happening, I’ll have something worth reporting.” He laughed softly with a beautiful laugh that made his eyes shine. “This will help my reputation, being seen with a pretty female.”

“Am I really pretty?”

“No. You’re really beautiful—that goes deeper.”

Shimbekh smiled. “I feel much better now. Thanks so much.”

“For what?”

“For being my friend. And for just being you.”

CHAPTER 4: THE UNION

Kambra married Gur’bruk that night beneath a full moon, which all agreed was a sign their love was eternal. Indeed, all who knew them felt inspired by the depth and purity of their joy. And all were happy for them except Shimbekh.

Kambra’s muti asked, “Where’s your sister?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think she was feeling well.”

“Not feeling well? I don’t have the gift, but I can always tell when you’re not being honest with me. Guilty thoughts leave tracks all over your face.”

Kambra nuzzled and kissed her. “We had a little disagreement, that’s all. Tomorrow we’ll rub and make up.”

“Well I hope so. She should have been here anyway. That’s not like her.”

The next day came, and the sisters did not make up. Kambra immersed herself in Gur’bruk’s affections, trying not to think about Shimbekh, and he respected her wishes. And so for days Shimbekh’s name did not pass between them. Still, in her private prayers, Kambra would beg Roh’kash to heal her sister of her strange madness in long, tearful missives uttered lying on her back.

Shimbekh, once so happy and carefree, spent her days in prayer and fasting. Before long ribs began to show under her once sleek coat. When anyone asked her why—and few ever did—she would predict the downfall of the clan. Only Brin’bi had the patience to hear her words of desperation again and again. He was all that held her together during those lonely days.

Kambra watched her sister’s suffering, and her heart was pierced by the haggard, unkempt ghost that haunted the fringe of the clan. For the longest time, she was afraid to confront Shimbekh again. But the sadness inside her grew until it could no longer be hidden away or denied its wish. With a deep sigh and a faint heart, Kambra stepped in front of Shimbekh and tried to paw her face.

Shimbekh pulled back. “So you remember who I am?” she said disparagingly.

“Let there be no more ill will, Sis. I came to tell you I am with child.”

Shimbekh’s anger was forgotten. Tears of grief came to her eyes. “So happy, my dearest Kambra? Oh gods!”

“Sis, you’re not well.” Tears came to Kambra’s eyes. “Come with me, honey tree. I have a fresh kill nearby. Don’t you want to eat something?”

“How can I eat? Everything I love is being destroyed right before my eyes! Kambra, love your daughters, but by the blood of Roh’kash, you must not allow a son to live. Your son will torment you and bring destruction upon us!”

“Are you going to start that again??” Kambra started to scold her once more, but she stopped and looked in Shimbekh’s eyes. Such misery cried out through them that she shuddered.

Shimbekh wept again. “I love you, Sis. I want you to be happy. You know I do. If I could break the curse with my own death, I’d be glad to die. You do still love me, don’t you Kambra?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I love you.” She shook her head balefully. “I don’t know what foul spirit brought this madness, but there’s no truth in it. Gur’bruk wants a son and I will give him a son if Roh’kash wills. Someday you’ll forget that dream, but I can’t afford to wait that long.”

Shimbekh fell before Kambra and rolled on the ground. “Oh gods, Sis, you don’t understand! He’ll put a thorn in your heart! He’ll destroy you and Gur’bruk! He’ll take away your happiness!” She panted, her gaunt and fragile body strained close to the breaking point. “I’m trying to help you, Sis! Promise me you’ll at least pray about it!”

Kambra shook her head. “You’re mad! You’re stark raving mad! Pray, Shimbekh. Ask for Roh’kash to heal you. I’ve prayed for you every night, and I’ll pray with you now if you like. Come, kneel by me, Sis, and we’ll fight this thing together!”

“No!! Poor fool, you’re the one that has to fight this thing!!” Shrieking in torment, Shimbekh ran into the bush.

She ran straight to Roh’mach Amarakh who listened sympathetically as she related her wild-eyed prophesy of doom and darkness. Amarakh loved Shimbekh and was worried about her—most everyone was—and she was glad to find out what was wrong. But she knew Gur’bruk and Kambra too well to see any harm in their love.

“What do you want Kambra to do? Kill the child? Because you say you saw a vision?”

“I DID see a vision. We have to do SOMETHING. We can’t just sit on our haunches and watch our world swept away!”

Amarakh nodded. “I agree. I will keep my eyes on this situation. In the meanwhile, do nothing. Do you hear me, Shimbekh? If you act on this further without my assent, or speak to anyone of this talk, I will be VERY upset with you and you will be looking for another clan. Understand?”

“Oh, I understand, Roh’mach. You think I’m mad—so does she. But just you remember when night falls on our people that I warned you before the sun set! I warned you!”

CHAPTER 5: SUNRISE

Gur’mekh and his sisters Bath and Mer’bel were born to a beaming Kambra. She fondled them and looked deeply into each of them with her inner vision. Bath and Mer’bel continued to take their first meal at her warm side. But Gur’mekh stirred and looked at her with unseeing eyes. Even on his first day, there was no doubt about it—he had the gift. Gur’bruk looked at his son with wonder, then he nuzzled Kambra. “They were born as the sun rose. It is a good sign.”

“Are you happy, okhim?”

“Yes, okash.”

Gur’bruk climbed out of the den, up into the morning sun. As he looked east bathed in crimson light, the morning breeze swept his body, fondling his ears and crest. He threw his head back and cried out in his unbridled joy. “I’m a father!” he shouted in common speech. “I’m the luckiest person alive!”

“So you’re a father!” an ostrich cried, surrounded by a flock of a dozen small, squabbling chicks. “The novelty soon wears off.”

Lost in his reverie, Gur’bruk watched the enormous disk of the sun climb into the purple sky, gilding the acacias and turning the grass to flame. In an ecstasy of thanksgiving, he uttered his morning prayer

“Lend your light to anoint my eyes, Great Mother (Roh’kash) of us all! Open my eyes and let me see the wonder of your works! There is the mountain, lofty and noble, capped with snowdrifts jasmine white. There is the restless meadow grass. There is the crash of mighty thunder, and the whisper of a heartbeat. Who shall place a value on these things? Who shall understand your heart, O Mighty Roh’kash? One like you whose heart is full of love, and whose feet walk the true path of righteousness.”

Never before and never again would that traditional aubade feel so much like whispering fresh love words right into the ear of God.

On a sadder note, Shimbekh was not allowed to be present at the birth for fear she might do something desperate. It was the one blemish on an otherwise perfect morning.

CHAPTER 6: HUNTING PRAWNS

Time passed, and Kambra’s pups grew to the age where they could come out and meet the pups from other litters.

Bath and Mer’bel liked to play with young Jalkort and Fabana. But Gur’mekh had little patience with those who could not hear his thoughts. The one exception he made was for Lenti, a female that he was infatuated with. Lenti could have cared less about him or his puppy affections. Gur’mekh held even his own sisters in mild disdain, preferring to stay home and hang on his Muti and Maleh.

Gur’bruk was afraid his son would not learn the social skills he needed to rise in the clan and find a mate someday. And so reluctantly he told Gur’mekh to go play with the others and not to come back home till Bath and Mer’bel returned. “You need to get out of the den and stretch your legs! Now go be a good boy, OK?”

Gur’mekh was not upset. He resented the enforced “play” but knew his maleh’s gesture was meant well. He trudged off to try and amuse himself alone, maybe to find a springhare a or meerkat to chase.

He saw Lenti and Demrath wrestling. For a while he stopped and watched their struggle until slowly but surely Demrath won.

“Hello, Lenti! Why don’t you try me?”

“Demrath won. You’re supposed to play the winner.”

He drew close to her and whispered, “I bet he won because you let him.”

“I did not,” she said very indiscretely. “He won fair and square!”

“Shhhh! He’ll hear you.”

She drew close to his ear and whispered, “Wanna know a secret?”

“Yeah! Who’s it about?”

She looked around and then whispered in his ear. “You. I hear on good authority that Lenti doesn’t want to play with you. She doesn’t even like you.”

Gur’mekh hung his head. “That’s not funny. Why don’t you like me? I just want to be your friend, and all you do is dump on me.”

She sighed. “Look, Gur’mekh, if you leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone, OK?” Lenti turned and trotted off with Demrath.

Gur’mekh plodded off, his head hung low. Preoccupied with his own problems, he walked right into Shimbekh’s side.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” he said, but he thought, “I bet she thinks I’m an idiot.”

“No I don’t,” she thought back.

“Hey, you heard me!”

Shimbekh smiled. “What’s wrong, Gur’mekh? Your maleh put you out of the den?”

“Yeah. Who are you?”

“I’m your Aunt Shimbekh.”

“That makes you…”

“Your muti’s sister. Does she ever mention me?”

“I’ve met my Aunt Zari and Uncle Der’brukh. I didn’t know my Muti had a sister. Why don’t you ever come by?”

“I really want to, but not today.”

“When?”

“We’ll talk about that later. Since you have nothing better to do for a while, why don’t we go chase prawns in the creek and get to know each other?”

“Yeah, sure!”

From that point on, Shimbekh tried to keep her eyes from meeting his. A desperate plan was going through her mind, one she tried not to think about for fear that it would betray her motives to the pup.

They took a long route to avoid the eyes of the others. It would not do to have others identify her as the last one to see Gur’mekh alive. Eventually they ended up at a deep place in the creek, deep enough to suit her needs.

“Maybe you’ll get your first prawn,” Shimbekh said. “Mmmm, yeah!”

“Are they good to eat?”

“The best. But you have to know where they like to hide.”

Gur’mekh waded into the cold stream, raising his paws high with each step to avoid the chilly water. “Where are they?”

“They live under the rocks. You have to turn them over.”

“Oh.”

Gur’mekh dipped his whole muzzle in the cold water, pushing up a rock with his nose. A prawn skipped backwards, using its tail to flee along the bottom. He smacked at it with his paw and missed, only wetting his underside. “Darn it! They’re fast, Aunt Shimbekh!”

She laughed—a forced laugh that her heart was not in. “You have a better chance in the deeper water.”

“I don’t swim—very good.”

“That’s all right. If you get in trouble, I’ll come after you.”

Gur’mekh waded out until the water lapped at his shoulders. He reached under with his head, pushing up a stone. Between the efforts and the current, his paws lost their hold on the slippery rocks.

“Hey!”

He struggled to right himself, but the current pushed him into deeper water where his feet could not touch the bottom.

“Help! Aunt Shimbekh!”

Shimbekh’s jaw trembled. Her heart began to pound. If Roh’kash willed him to live, than live he shall. If he were to die…

“Help! Aunt Shimbekh, help me!”

She watched the pup that could have easily been her son slide under the water. Sputtering, Gur’mekh broke the surface to gasp in a breath and release it in a yell for help. “Oh gods! Auntie Shim…”

Shimbekh’s maternal feelings yelled for help as well. She sprang up and ran along the bank. “Hold on! I’m coming!”

“Help!”

His small body slipped under the surface. Shimbekh jumped into the water, frantically paddling to his side. She groped around in the water till she found him, then gripped the nape of his neck with her teeth and held his head above the water. He gasped, his eyes wide with fear.

She got him to the bank. Sitting him down, she fell to her side and began to sob. “Poor little boy! Oh gods!”

“Auntie Shimbekh,” he sputtered, coughing.

“Are you all right, honey tree?”

“Yeah. But I don’t like prawns.”

“I know honey. I don’t like them anymore myself.” She began to groom him, tears rolling down her face. Holding him desperately to her with a paw, she stammered, “I was so scared that I’d lose you! No more fishing till you learn how to swim. From now on, you don’t get in deeper than your knees, understand?”

“No problem!” He looked at the water and shuddered, half with cold, half with fear.

“We’ll go hunt you a nice springhare. Would you like that?”

“Yeah! Let’s go away from here!” He leaned against her as they walked. “Thanks for saving me. I love you, Auntie Shimbekh.”

CHAPTER 7: HOPE AND FORGIVENESS

Shimbekh tried not to think of her plan. For all her doubts, one thing was certain—she could not kill a pup. Maybe it WAS the will of Roh’kash that Gur’mekh live. She had to confront her doubts—the warning might have only been a dream.

Shimbekh relaxed and enjoyed their time together. They hunted springhares, played rough and tumble games, told stories and even took a walk to the termite mounds. But more importantly, she looked into his eyes and saw there the gift of his parents. Love flowed into Shimbekh like fresh water from the mountains. Love deep and pure that made Gur’mekh and all he did seem beautiful and holy. And he drew love from Shimbekh, for she had it in abundance.

“Promise we’ll always be friends,” Gur’mekh said.

“I promise it, you little scamp.”

Mid sun had come and gone. As the afternoon grew old, Shimbkeh headed home with Gur’mekh in tow. He was wild about her, and as soon as she lay down to rest, he went to nap with his head on her side the way Gur’bruk once cuddled on Kambra. She reached down with a paw and fondled his face and neck. “You’re a little Gur’bruk,” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek. “He lives in you. May Roh’kash guide your steps little one, and keep you from trouble. Sleep, my love.”

Shimbekh felt a deep, crushing guilt for the trouble she had stirred up. Only she did not know how to apologize, or even if her sister would believe her sudden change of heart.

The afternoon slipped quietly into evening, softly deepening into a wistful shade of azure. Kambra was worried when Bath and Mer’bel came home and said that they had not seen Gur’mekh all day. She was worried and went right out to search for her little boy.

A nagging doubt ate away at her, and drove her to look first at her sister’s home. “Please God, let it be OK. Please, Roh’kash, let him be fine!”

She saw Shimbekh with Gur’mekh snuggled to her side. Terrified, she reached out with her thoughts to see what Shimbekh was planning.

She concentrated with all her might, but she found nothing but love in her sister, a love that overpowered all her suspicions and bathed old shadows in its healing light. Kambra breathed a sigh of relief, then came running to Shimbekh to wake her with a kiss.

Shimbekh looked up into the smiling beauty of Kambra’s face. “Sis!” Tears of joy began to stream down her face. “Please forgive me. I want to I want to be family again—please?”

Now it was Kambra’s turn to cry. “Come back with me. I want you to meet Bath and Mer’bel. Muti and Maleh have been going crazy over this trouble. Oh, honey tree, I’m so happy!”

CHAPTER 8: STICKS AND STONES

Taka yawned, then sat up, blinking at the bright light streaming into the cave mouth. He ambled over to the entrance, squinting. The pain in his left eye still made him wince, but it was better than it was two nights ago.

Looking about, he spied Sarabi and Elanna having fun while Yolanda watched them comfortably from the shade of an acacia. Little Tameka came up behind Yolanda, making the supreme effort to leap over her, but collapsing in a heap on her back.

Taka laughed. “Look at the little frog!”

Sarabi looked around. “Hey, Taka! Are you OK? Wanna play tag?”

Taka ambled over slowly and sat down. He sighed deeply. “I can’t. Rafiki said I have to stay out of the dirt for a week till my eye gets better.”

“Why?”

He stuck his lower lip out in a pout, trying to imitate Rafiki. “Keep da eye clean Master Taka or id’dll get een-FECK-ted.”

“Now Taka,” Yolanda purred with a mild hint of reproof. “Rafiki is only trying to help. You should appreciate what he’s done, saving your eye, and giving you all those herbs for the pain.”

“I know. I’m just bored, Aunt Yolanda. I can’t do nothing!”

“You can’t do ANYTHING.”

“Yeah. That’s what I said.” He scrached some dust up with his back paw and harumphed. “Stupid old badger! Why did he have to scratch my eye anyway! All I wanted was his stupid blessing! I mean, he could have at least faked it or something!”

“Getting angry doesn’t change what happened,” Yolanda said. “Besides, he died for his crime. You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”

“You always take up for the ones that act bad,” Taka complained.

“You’re right, you know. Remember the cub that got in trouble by the watering hole? I said I wouldn’t tell on him if he tried to act better.”

Taka looked down, embarrased. She nuzzled him gently and he rubbed along her side. “Yeah. I guess it works both ways.”

Elanna brightened. “Hey! We can play ‘King’s Command!’”

Sarabi perked up. “Yeah! You don’t have to get dirty to play that.”

Taka looked at Yolanda. “Can I?”

“Sure, I think so.” She nuzzled him gently. “Go ahead.”

“Yeah!” The cubs gamboled off to the shade of some nearby bushes. They lined up in a rough group.

“Who’s gonna be the king?” Elanna asked.

“Let Taka do it!” Sarabi said.

“I’ve never done it before,” he said, looking down. “I’m not sure I know how.”

“That’s ‘cause Muffy always gets to do it,” Elanna said. “But he had to go to see Rafiki this morning. His stomach was hurting cause he ate too much last night.”

Sarabi giggled.

“That’s NOT funny, Sassie!” Elanna elbowed her sister roughly. “Cut it out!”

“Okay, okay. But it’s not the first time. One of these days he’s going to explode!”

“I’ll do it!” Tameka said.

“You’re a girl,” Sarabi snorted. “You can’t be king. I still say Taka ought to do it!” She smiled at him beguilingly. “For me?”

“Okay. Uhh, lessee…” He squinched his face in thought, then grinned. “King commands you to raise your right forepaw.”

The girls complied. “That was easy,” Elanna said.

A gleam appeared in Taka’s eyes. “King commands you to put your paw down.” They did that too. He grinned, and continued. “King commands you to wave your tails.”

They did, Sarabi giving hers a little flick at the tip each time she waved it.

“Stop waving your tails.”

Sarabi and Elanna kept waving, but Tameka dropped hers.

“Gotcha!”

“Aww, come on!”

“The king didn’t command,” Taka smirked. “You’re out, Tameka.”

“Phooey!” She growled, scuffing sand angrily with a forepaw. “I don’t care! Mufasa’s going to be the real king, anyway; he wouldn’t trick me like that!”

“Come ON, Tameka,” Elanna said sharply. “Just wait till we’re done, then you can try again.”

“I don’t want to play anymore!” Tameka glared at Taka furiously. “I don’t want to play with YOU anyway, you little one-eyed freak!”

There was stunned silence as Taka’s chin began to tremble. “I am NOT a one-eyed freak!” he stammered. “You take that back!”

“Freak, freak, Taka’s a freak! He thinks he owns the world, but he’s just a snotty-nosed one-eyed cry baby!”

“STOP IT!” Taka shouted, tears beginning to stream down his cheeks. “Just ‘cause I got cut doesn’t make me a freak! At least I’m not a stuck-up prissy butt like you!” He sprang up and ran, a wailing cry trailing out behind him as he fled across the rocks and vanished behind an outcropping.

Tameka fell silent, looking down in shame. Elanna looked stricken, but the anger left clear tracks on Sarabi’s face. She got up and slowly walked over to Tameka. “You’re the little snotty-nosed freak! You’re just lucky I’m a lady, or I’d rearrange your face!”

“I didn’t mean to make him cry. I just got mad. You understand, don’t you? I mean, he can be so—”

Yolanda meandered over. “What is going on, here?!”

Sarabi growled, startling Yolanda. “Tameka made fun of Taka’s eye ‘cause she got out! She called him a snotty-nosed one-eyed cry baby and a freak!”

Now it was Tameka’s turn to sniffle as the lioness glared at her. “But I didn’t mean it! I was just mad!”

“You go inside, young lady.” Yolanda said softly but firmly. “I’ll talk with you later.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Yolanda stroked Sarabi with a paw. “Calm down, honey tree. Tell me where he went.”

“That way, toward the cistern.”

Yolanda padded quietly around the side of Pride Rock. Pride life was communal, but lion cubs, like other children, need some places to be alone from time to time. The cistern was an ideal location.

Even before Yolanda could see him, she knew where he was. She could hear Taka’s gentle sobs, and her heart sank. He was sprawled on the edge of the spring, paws over his face. “Honey tree,” she purred, drawing near and nuzzling him.

“Go away!” He sniffled loudly. “Leave me alone!”

“Come on, honey tree. It’s Yolanda.” She licked him with her warm, moist tongue. “Shh, it’s all right.”

“It will never be all right.”

“It will take some time, my child. But never say never. Tameka is very sorry she hurt your feelings. She really wants to make up, and she will apologize.”

“You should have seen her,” Taka said, shaking. “She hates me!”

“Nobody hates you. Tameka has a temper, but she also has a big heart.”

“There you go again.”

“Yes. Taking up for those in the WRONG. And honey tree, she was in the wrong. Having that scar doesn’t make you a freak.”

“Oh yeah? I saw how you looked at me the other night. You think I’m ugly. You think I’m a freak, just like everybody else!”

“Oh, hon!” Yolanda’s eyes stung. “I didn’t think you were ugly! I think you’re beautiful!” She began to groom him. “When you love someone, really LOVE them, you get all knotted up inside every time they get hurt. If I came back from the hunt limping—let’s say I had a broken leg—how would you feel? Would you think I was ugly? A freak? Would you hate me?”

“Oh no! Never!”

“Or would you maybe take in a deep breath and say something like, ‘Oh my gods, what happened to your leg?’”

Taka looked at her in stunned silence. He swallowed hard and tears—compassionate tears—welled up in his eyes. “Do you really love me, Aunt Yolanda?”

The lioness took him by the scruff of the neck and padded over to a corner. She laid down, setting Taka beside her and grooming him. “There are lots of people that will say they love you lots of times. Then there are people who get off their haunches and show you.” She filled his fur with the scent of lioness love. “How does the eye feel, honey tree?”

“It still hurts, but it’s getting better.”

“Good. Now come on, Your Majesty. After your bath, let’s see if I’m still as good at ‘King Commands’ as I used to be.” She grinned mischieviously. “I betcha you can’t get ME out.”

Taka grinned back. “Betcha I can!”

She laughed warmly. “You’re on!”

CHAPTER 9: PROMETHEUS UNCHAINED

The hyena pup Fabana was napping with her family, when suddenly she felt a paw nudge her shoulder.

“Fay,” someone whispered. “Fay, are you awake?”

She grunted and shifted. One eye came open. “Who wants to know?”

“It’s me, Jalkort.”

She whispered, “Oh. Hi, Jal.”

“Let’s go play.”

“I can’t right now. Muti says I have to take my nap.”

“No one’s going to mind—if we don’t get caught.”

Jalkort was her best friend. She didn’t have to think long before she made her decision, rising up carefully and sneaking away from her family.

If her parents had caught her, she would have been in a lot of trouble. Humans had been sighted nearby, and everyone was in a state of heightened alert. Fay had been warned many times not to go off without permission.

“We don’t have long, Jal. They won’t sleep all day, you know.”

“Oh, we’ll be back in plenty of time. Now you’re it!” Jal tapped her and ran.

“Not fair! I didn’t say ‘start’ yet!”

“OK.” Jalkort came trotting back and stood next to her. “Say it now.”

“No you don’t! Stand over there first.”

“Over here?”

“Further back.”

“Now?”

“Further back!”

“Geez, I’m not a wildebeest! What do you want me to do, migrate?”

It was the dry season. In the human camp, an unattended campfire shot out a coal that crossed the ring of rocks and fell in the grass. A small trail of smoke went up, then with an almost shy beginning, the first flame sprang up, greedily consuming the first tuft of grass, then looking around for more.

The rabid flames quickly infected the grass with a fatal fever, overwhelming the golden shafts and turning them into blackened ash. A light wind fanned the flames which spread rapidly over the savanna.

High above, a hornbill spotted what appeared to be a large black thundercloud, then stopped in flight, turning back toward Pride Rock as fast as he could go with the news—brush fire!

A dead acacia stood in the way, but it was soon overwhelmed by the destructive tide. It soon turned into a giant torch, raining limbs of golden light.

Some Thompson’s gazelles were trying to get some good out of the dying grass. They looked up and saw the wall of flame coming. In a panic, they sprinted away. “Fire! Fire! Get out!”

The choking, blinding pall of smoke dimmed the sun and the searing heat was enormous. Some sleeping hyenas were nudged by the Roh’mach.

“What the…”

“Brush fire! Get out while you still can!”

The father looked around and quickly spotted the smoke. He looked in the other direction where escape should lie, but there was more smoke. “Get up, everyone! Up, up!! We have to get out of here!!” He looked around desperately. “Where is Fabana??”

Fabana was hiding from Jalkort. She wondered why it took so long for him to find her, since hyenas had a keen sense of smell.

She looked out. “Jal? Jal!”

That’s when she saw the flames spreading all around. She forgot the game and thought about her family. “Muti! Maleh! Oh gods!”

A zebra went galloping by madly, then balked at the flames and reared up with flailing hooves. She was nearly trampled by his hooves.

“Muti! Maleh!”

Like a predator, the flames sought to surround and drive their victims. Most head toward the river and safety. In the mad rush, Fabana could not tell which way led back to her parents. She ran around in the confusion looking for some sign of her family.

At Pride Rock, young King Ahadi stared at the gray cloud with anxiousness. Zazu landed next to him, but by the time he had reached his King, the message was too obvious.

“It’s sheer panic, Sire. The jackals will feast tonight.”

The wind shifted the progress to and fro, and blowing sparks that spawned new fires in its wake. Vultures had already began to gather, looking for victims.

A meercat pushed past Fabana in a mad desire to escape, then encountered a fresh wall of flame. He ran around in circles staring wide eyed at nothing in particular, shouting, “We’re all going to die! Oh gods, we’re all going to die!”

Flames had surrounded Fabana completely. Perhaps the meercat was right. And then suddenly bounding over the flames came Fabana’s okhim (father) who grabbed her up by the scruff of her neck in his strong jaws and took off running.

He plunged through the flames, ignoring their hot embrace. Picking out the best routes, he managed to jump most of the flaming ground and come through unhurt in a deadly game of hopscotch. Then finally he saw freedom behind one remaining wall of fire. There were no easy routes, so closing his eyes he plunged directly into the fire. The swirling flames hurt Fabana’s nose, the tips of her ears and her eyes. She reached up with a paw to ward off the heat.

Finally they burst through on the other side. Her okhim dropped her quickly with a loud yelp. “Run!! Run quickly!!”

Fabana looked back and saw her okhim become a living torch.

“Maleh! Oh gods!”

“Go!” he screamed. “Run! Run!!” He staggered a few steps, then fell into a crumpled heap, jerking spasmodically. For a moment she stood rooted to the spot. She would draw in a breath and shriek, and do it again. “Maleh!! No!!!”

Finally her fur began to singe. She had the presence of mind to turn away from what was left of her okhim and head away from the flames. She ran sobbing and howling across the ash, raising small clouds with her feet and getting soot in her nose and mouth.

Too late she saw some game wardens with shovels and picks trying to outflank the fire before it consumed their camp.

“I wish I could wring the bloody poacher’s neck! Three elephants weren’t enough—he had to burn up the whole damned place!”

One of them said, “Look at that!” Large hands circled her, and before she can snap at them, they rubbed her behind the ears gently. “There now, fellow, it’s going to be all right.”

“What are you going to do with it, Ed?”

“We’ll see.”

Fabana strained to look through the flames. “Okash!” she yelped. Then she began struggling frantically and crying, “Muti, Muti!!!”

“You’re a loud little bugger, aren’t you! Hey, It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Muti!!!” Tears came to her eyes. “Muti!!!”

CHAPTER 10: YOUNG GUR’MEKH

Gur’mekh had a powerful gift, one that could have been used for great good or evil, but could not be ignored.

While Shimbekh or any of the priests would have been happy to teach him to control that power, Gur’mekh had plans of his own.

“I will not spend my life telling lovesick young bak’rets which male to pursue! I will not sit around on my haunches telling others where to find the best hunting!”

Gur’mekh felt that his powers carried an awesome responsibility. He often said with pride that through him would rise up a great race that would take second place to no one, not even the lions. And to those he trusted, he would describe a puphood vision of standing on the promontory of Pride Rock. “It is my destiny. I must prepare for it with heart, mind and body.”

When he was hungry, Gur’mekh and his adolescent friends would raid the Roh’mach’s private cache of food. They knew they would be safe, for Gur’mekh could feel a guard coming and escape.

He was a braggart and a manipulator. His perception of others’ thoughts gave him the power of effective flattery and effortless lies. His friends would say that he could charm the feathers off a weaverbird and get handouts from a cheetah. His enemies said similar things, but their language was less flattering.

Though Gur’mekh felt himself superior than his associates, he spoke kind words to them, telling them what they wanted to hear with ease. So he was idolized by the ragtag group that ran around with him, particularly young Jalkort who thought the moon and sun rose solely for Gur’mekh.

Gur’mekh actually loved Jalkort, for Jal’s heart was noble and unselfish, and he believed in the greatness of Gur’mekh’s ideals. To Jalkort, every liberty Gur’mekh took was justified by his great goals.

Once Gur’mekh was angry because Jal was late for the hunt, and he began fuming and complaining to the others. But someone told him that Jal was out hunting him a rabbit for him. Gur’mekh was silent and waited patiently until mid-moon for Jal to come proudly bearing his “surprise.”

“I’m sorry I was late,” Jal said, depositing a fat hare at Gur’mekh’s feet. “The other one was too scrawny. I wanted to get you a good rabbit.”

Gur’mekh looked into Jalkort’s eyes and saw the love there. “My brother,” he said, nuzzling Jalkort, then tearing into the small carcass with more pride than hunger. And from that moment on, Jalkort and Gur’mekh were always referred to as “the brothers.”

Everytime something disappeared, eyes would turn to follow Gur’mekh, but no matter how they tried to trick him into admitting guilt, he sidestepped them and always had perfect alibis for himself and his friends.

As he grew older, Gur’mekh’s ambitions rose from simple mischief to power mongering. He wanted a position on the ruling council. Prestige appealed to him, and he had an eye to one day becoming the next Roh’mach. And there were suspicions that his desires reached even higher. To his friends that seemed only natural for the founder of the master race. To them, the world owed him a debt it could never repay by any other means.

He applied to Memnekh for a position on the council. When the old female asked him if he had studied, he replied, “Yes, diligently.”

He listened to her thoughts and every time she asked him a question he would quote back the expected answer. She nodded her head each time, but frowned at him.

“Did I do well?”

“You did too well. I always expect one or two errors.” Memnekh grumbled, but she had to give him the benefit of the doubt. And so he entered the Clan Council under a cloud of suspicion.

Gur’mekh used the thoughts of his enemies and of his prey against them. He could corner better in a hunt than hyenas with three times his age and experience. He could anticipate moves in a fight and rethink his strategy. He was a great hunting master, and assumed the position with a clear right to it. But though he brought in steady meals, everyone was afraid of him.

Actually there was one hyena who was not afraid of him. He was very mentally disciplined and a formidable foe. Demrath, son of Ber. Demrath was a philosopher, great in a fight but even better in an argument. And though he was not gifted psychically, he could best Gur’mekh in either kind of struggle. Just how bitter that strength was hated only became clear to Gur’mekh when Demrath began dating Lenti, the object of his childhood infatuations.

CHAPTER 10A: LOOKING FOR LOVE

Gur’mekh loved Lenti. If he had to choose between her and all his other grand dreams, he would have had a hard decision indeed.

Lenti had never liked Gur’mekh, but he determined to do something about that. He exhibited his usual flattery, guided unerringly by his psychic sense, but it rarely got him more than a begrudged ‘oh, hello.’”

Lenti was rarely impressed by flattery, and Gur’mekh’s reputation had preceeded him. A shy and quiet sort, she resented Gur’mekh’s attentions. She only loved the quiet and thoughtful Demrath.

One evening Gur’mekh stood just few feet from her bed as she settled down for the night. He regaled her in his fine voice with words from La’kresh

Come celebrate the moonlight with me, dear Entrust your magic to my vigilance And I shall watch over you

Who shall worship your perfect beauty And wait upon your good pleasure As I have done in vain my darling

Stars abound in the vault of heaven But far more beautiful than they Are the eyes of my beloved!

Cruel is death for the unloved Who never knew the kind response To their grand remonstrations

Come to me with willing heart And let our passions be as one Pledge to me and stir my very soul!

Lenti came to him and smiled. “Very good, Gur’mekh! You memorized that whole poem just for me!”

“I was hoping you’d like it.”

“I do. I’m crazy about it. You’ll have to perform it at my wedding. Demrath likes poetry too.”

“Demrath?”

“Yes. If I needed an excuse not to marry you, it would be him. I suggest you give up now before he finds out you’re making passes at me. He’s the jealous type.”

This angered Gur’mekh, especially because Demrath was so well liked, and most people thought Demrath would be Roh’mach when Amarakh retired.

Gur’mekh decided that he had sold himself short. “If she does not like my praise, what WOULD she like?”

The next day he followed her at a distance, and when he finally got the chance to speak with her alone (and that was not easy) he strolled to her casually to avoid suspicion.

She sighed in disgust. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Well, aren’t we discrete!”

“I’m sorry. Hello, Gur’mekh. Nice weather, isn’t it? Well, I have errands to run…”

“Your small talk is as good as your manners.” He cleared his throat. “Look, I need you to do a personal favor for me, OK?”

“That depends on what it is—and if you’ll leave me alone for a change.”

“It’s nothing naughty, and yes, I’ll leave you alone for the rest of today if you’ll help me.”

“OK, you’ve made it worth my while. What’s on your mind?”

“I have this problem with my eyes. I think I’m getting cataracts, but I need someone with sharp eyes to see if they’re clear.”

“Why don’t you go to the healer?”

“She doesn’t like me. I don’t think she’d tell me the truth, and if she did, she wouldn’t want to help me.”

“I don’t like you either. Not that it stops you from reciting erotic poems to me in the middle of the night.”

“At least you’re honest. Please, Lenti. You don’t want me to go blind, do you? I mean, you’re getting to marry the one YOU love. You’re set for life. Why should you wish more harm on me?”

“I don’t hate you. I just don’t like you. Sure, I’ll look in your eyes if you promise to behave yourself. This isn’t one of your tricks, is it?”

“If it was, would I tell you?”

“Yes. I believe you would. Bluntness with bak’rets is your one good trait.”

“You’re refreshingly honest.”

“But why here when were alone? That’s what I don’t understand. I know you’ve been following me all morning.”

“I don’t want anyone to know if I’m going blind. Surely you can understand that? And I don’t want Grou’besh to have the satisfaction of knowing I’m worried.”

“She is a bit of a prig.” She smiled and laughed, something that made Gur’mekh light up like the full moon. He admired the light of her ka that shone from her gentle face, and it took all his strength not to melt in front of her.

Lenti came close and looked into Gur’mekh’s deep amber eyes. “They look fine to me. I really don’t see…”

“Look harder.”

“Oh!”

She froze, her gaze locked into his, staring straight ahead as Gur’mekh fondled her soul, violating her privacy.

“I can see now. You don’t like people who talk too much or brag about their accomplishments. You like quiet males that are good listeners. You like gentleness and shyness, but not TOO shy.” He touched her cheek with his paw, and she gasped. Drawing close until his nose almost touched hers, he searched her with his eyes. “You think I’m shallow, that I have no deep feelings or tenderness. You don’t think I’d ever show my vulnerable side. Now tell me, what is your favorite color?”

“Blue,” she stammered. “Sky blue.”

“You are surrounded by blue. It is filling you like the heavens. It is covering your memories, covering over our little talk. You try to remember looking into my eyes, but it was only the blue, the sky blue. Close your eyes and count to eight, and when you open them, I’ll be gone.”

Lenti shut her eyes, unsure why she felt the need. A few seconds later, her eyes opened. She felt a little disoriented, and shook her head.

She wandered around aimlessly for a while, trying to remember where she was headed. Gur’mekh encountered her.

“Hi, Lenti!”

“Oh, it’s you, Gur’mekh.”

He smiled gently. “You looked a little distracted. Thinking of Demrath?”

“Uh, yes.”

Gur’mekh blossomed into a warm smile. “He really loves you. I would have given anything to make you my wife, but I’m glad you found someone that will make you happy. If he doesn’t treat you right, tell me and I’ll come thrash him.”

Lenti smiled shyly. “Why that’s very sweet, Gur’mekh!”

“I have a personal favor to ask of you, Lenti.”

“Well that depends on what it is, and if you’ll leave me alone.”

He hung his head. “You don’t really mean that, do you? I mean, I didn’t realize you felt that way.”

“Well I…” She was confused and a little ashamed. “What’s the favor, Gur’mekh?”

“We’ve never been really good friends. I know a lot of it is my fault. I’m painfully shy.”

“You??” She laughed.

He hung his head. “Please don’t laugh. I try to hide it. Too hard. I drive off all the really good people like Ber and Demrath. I think if Ber would even say hello to me, I’d shine like the sun. But they all think I’m shallow and callous.” He drew near to her. “I’d give anything for a second chance. Please, Lenti, when you are a respectable married lady, you will speak to me once in a while, won’t you? Or maybe ask Demrath to let me hunt with him once in a while?”

“Why Gur’mekh, I had no idea!” She looked at him appraisingly. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll bring it up. If you weren’t in trouble all the time, I’d have a much better chance of success.”

“I only do those things to fill the hole.”

“What hole?”

“Forget it. You’re just trying to be nice.”

“I’m just trying to understand. Stop speaking in riddles.”

Gur’mekh’s jaw quivered and his eyes misted up. “Lenti, there’s only one thing I’ve really wanted out of life, and that’s happiness. I’ve been denied happiness, so I seek my pleasure where I can find it. Someday it will catch up with me, but till then it gives me a reason to go on living.”

He looked away from her, but she walked around to face him. “Why Gur’mekh, you’re crying!”

“Don’t stare at me!” He turned again and burst into tears. “I don’t need your pity! Forget I said anything, OK??”

Before she could reply, Gur’mekh ran out. He scrambled up the ridge and into the small cave that served as his home. Balling up in the back corner, he began to sob brokenly.

A couple of minutes passed, then predictably Lenti’s quiet tread mixed with his crying. “Gur’mekh?” She nudged him. “Gur’mekh??”

“Oh, it’s you, Lenti.”

“I want you to understand that my heart belongs to Demrath. I don’t think of you as a lover, only him. But I see no reason why we can’t be friends. You, Ber, Demrath and I. Maybe I can even get my parents to meet you. IF you behave yourself for a while and stop these pranks.”

He looked up at her and wiped his eyes. A meek smile began to warm his features. “I’d like that. Don’t worry, I’ll be good.”

“And you could settle with being my friend? You’d understand where to draw the line in this relationship?”

He tapped his lower jaw with his paw. “Yeah. But it’s OK for me to be a LITTLE jealous of Demrath, isn’t it?”

“Well, just a little.” She smiled. “How do you feel?”

“Much, much better. Thanks, Lenti. You know, from now on, I’m just going to be myself. If my friends don’t like me for who I am, then they aren’t really my friends.”

“That’s the spirit! Make a clean break with the past, Gur’mekh. And someday you will find what you’re after. I just know it.”

She smiled, nodded, and trotted away to find Demrath. And as soon as she was out of hearing range, Gur’mekh’s mouth curled into a large grin. He chuckled.

“If Demrath wasn’t around, I’d be here to pick up the pieces, my darling little Lenti. He’d want some nice husband taking care of you after he was gone. Someone like—well—like me!”

Gur’mekh was determined to fulfill his great destiny. He saw Demrath as the largest obstacle in his way. He needed a way to overpower him so he could work on the Roh’mach herself and finally turn his gaze to Pride Rock. And standing by his side would be Lenti.

CHAPTER 11: BLISS BY PROXY

With crushing heartbreak, Gur’mekh watched as Demrath and Lenti pledged to each other in a public ceremony. Sildresh watched her only son take the vows, deeply stirred. Gur’mekh was also deeply stirred, but to bitterness.

The other hyenas, who all liked Demrath, felt they had just witnessed a beautiful event. Gur’mekh only saw that his chosen one—the one he would have made Grand Emperess of Pride Rock—was marrying his most hated enemy! Clearly she did not deserve him or the empire, but it was too much for Gur’mekh to put behind him. He determined that one way or the other, he would take his share of happiness.

On the evening of their wedding, Gur’mekh followed the newlyweds to their private sanctuary. What he planned would have made Demrath to fight him to the death. For hiding out nearby where he could hear them, Gur’mekh laid down in the grass. Gur’mekh closed his eyes and quietly mouthed, “Lend me your thoughts, Demrath. Lend me your feelings, Demrath. Let me see through your eyes, Demrath. Let us be one, you and I.”

He concentrated until he went into a deep trance. Though his eyes were closed, he could see Lenti’s face through Demrath’s eyes. She was gazing on her husband with mixed joy and shyness.

“Lenti!” Gur’mekh uttered. After a few moments, a smile came to his face. “Oh yes, Lenti!” He took in a deep breath and let it slowly out. With a grunt of pleasure, he rolled over on his back, shedding his own identity to feel more clearly the intoxication of the moment. He chuckled and said, “I bet your boyfriend Gur’mekh is biting his leg over this!”

“Shame on you!” she said. “I really feel a little sorry for him.”

“Sorry? For him?”

“Sure. He’s always wanted the one bak’ret he can’t have. There are a dozen others who’d give their whiskers to get him behind the bushes.”

A fleeting smile came to Gur’mekh’s face. “But not you?” he mouthed.

“No. I said I felt sorry for him, not that I loved him. I only want you. I’ve always wanted you. Now don’t stand there on your wedding night and talk about Gur’mekh! Come to me, darling! You’re my husband—make love to me!”

Gur’mekh pushed anger to the back of his mind as Demrath rubbed full length down Lenti’s side. He gasped, abandoning himself to a passion that made him drunk with joy. The corners of Gur’mekh’s mouth began to twitch, and his paws trembled. “I love you, Lenti!” he murmured.

“Beloved,” she sighed, swept away by a passion Gur’mekh had only dreamed of, a passion that he could sense but not possess.

“Oh gods, can you feel me tremble!” Gur’mekh shuddered and stifled a cry of passionate fulfillment. The episode felt like an eternity, but in moments it was over. Suddenly his eyes opened and he looked around, expecting to see her beautiful face and feel her lithe body next to his. But he was alone, terribly alone, looking up into the cold sky. He found himself mired in a deep abiding emptiness and, for the first time in his life, very ashamed of himself.

“Never again!” he hissed. “Someday I will have her to myself, but not this way! Oh Gods, I feel so awful!”

Gur’mekh slinked home, more determined than ever to settle his score with Demrath. “Bite my leg indeed! Pfah!! At least Lenti had the decency to pity me!”

But the more he thought about her pity, the more angry he became. “When I’m Emperor of Pride Rock and the world bows before me, she’ll BEG me to make love to her! She’ll beg me just to NOTICE her!” He sniffed in contempt. “And as for YOU, Demrath, we have an appointment to keep.”

CHAPTER 12: CAVE CANUM

Later, when Fabana had grown into a fine young bak’ret, she was tied up outside.

There were many exciting new sights, sounds and smells. She could see the sky again, and it was good. But some of the sensations were not so good. She smelled smoke and saw a campfire. That wakened a vivid and terrifying memory. She could almost hear her father’s screams again and see him thrashing on the ground, a living torch. She backed back from it to the other end of the rope and huddled, weeping in terror.

Fielder, the dog, addressed her in common speech. “What’s the big deal, Spotty?”

“Fire,” she said, shuddering. “We’re in danger! We have to get away!”

“Fire is our friend when it’s controlled. It brings light and heat. You’d know that if you came from civilized folk.” He turned to face away from her. “Faah! Hyenas are nothing but ignorant cowards—and they smell.”

She stared at him blankly, then when he laid back down, she curled up and shivered again. Never since the fire had she felt so alone. Thoughts turned to her home on the savanna. “Do you still think of me, Muti? I still think about you.” She sighed. “I wish you were here right now. No, I wish I were there. I wouldn’t wish this place on anyone. The dog hates me. Ed’s all right I guess, but he’s gone all the time and leaves me behind.”

“Do you always talk to yourself?” Fielder grumbled. “My Uncle started talking to himself when he got old. They took him out behind the tents with the bang stick and put him down.”

“Down where?”

“Killed him, you idiot. That’s what they do around here when you’re old and useless. Oh they called it ‘putting him out of his misery,’ but what they really meant was putting him out of Ed’s misery. He wasn’t miserable, just inconvenient to have around.”

“Oh gods!” Fabana curled up tightly, putting her paws over her eyes and ears and moaned. She tried to push out the realization by shoving it from her head. Of course, it did no good. “Maleh protect me! Roh’kash, deliver me! Chew through this rope, Great Mother! I want my Muti! I want to go home!”

“You are home. Get used to it. And stow that whining while I’m trying to nap!”

In the days to come, Fielder never grew to like her, though he came to tolerate her. When Ed had guests, which was not very often, they would always be pulled out back to see Fabana. Some would hide behind small boxes with eyes that flashed like lightening. Fabana hated the purple spots they left in her eyes, but came to bear the inconvenience them because the humans would usually kneel afterwards and rub her with words of endearment. She came to understand a few of those words with some degree of certainty. She attracted attention the way the dog never could, though the dog tried to put on a show and get some of the attention and extra treats that came her way. Frankly, Fielder was jealous of all the extra attention she got. And he racked up part of it into his prejudice against her and her race.

It was not always pleasant. Ed thought hyenas smelled too, and he would subject her to the indignity of a cold bath in an aluminum washtub that left her reeking of soap. Sometimes it would rain, and she would have to stoically endure it, tethered to that hated peg, while Fielder retreated to his warm, dry shelter. But far worse was the occasional sound of the free hyenas who would cry out in the night as they hunted. They awakened longings in her that could never be satisfied on the end of a rope. It was on those long, lonely nights that she first plotted her escape.

CHAPTER 13: TROUBLED WATERS

Sarabi and Elanna couldn’t decide if they would rather run or fight, so they did both, laughing as they gamboled through the grass, pawing at each other in quick swipes. Sarabi feinted, and Elanna ducked, reaching out and catching her sister with a quick jab of her forepaw.

Sarabi yelped and tumbled to the ground.

“Gotcha!”

Sarabi did not answer.

“Sassie?”

Elanna listened but heard nothing. She panted hard as she pushed through the tall stems and looked at her sister lying motionless on the ground. Her eyes were open, staring blankly ahead. Her chest did not rise and fall. Elanna nuzzled her sister gently. “Sassie? Are you OK?”

Sarabi remained still, and Elanna nuzzled her again. “Sassie? Sassie?? Oh my gods! Sassie, wake up!”

Sarabi swatted her. “BOO!!!”

“Oh gods!” Elanna ran in a tight circle, her eyes wide and her tail fuzzed out. “How DARE you!”

Sarabi laughed, pounding the ground with a paw. “What a face! You should see yourself!”

“That’s not funny!”

“Wanna bet??”

“I thought you were hurt!” Elanna glared at her crossly. “I was worried about you, you big jerk! You shouldn’t have scared me like that. It wasn’t very nice.”

“Sorry,” Sarabi pouted. She got up and shook herself thoroughly. “I was just playing, Lannie. I’m sorry.” She walked over to her sister and nuzzled her. “Friends?”

“Yeah.” Elanna nuzzled her familiarly. She got up and made off through the grass slowly, Sarabi alongside. “So what’s the deal with you and Taka?”

Sarabi’s ears fell back. “Huh?”

“I saw you two making gazelle eyes at each other the other day.” Elanna giggled to herself. In a low voice, she began to sing softly to herself

I once saw two cubs a-walking through the grass One was named Sarabi; a sassy young lass The boy was named Taka, a handsome young cub The two went out to play one day and fell in love!

“E-LAN-NA!” Sarabi stared dumbfounded at her sister as Elanna rolled through the grass, convulsed with laughter.

“Oh, come off it, Sassie; you’re almost nine moons old, for crying out loud. Everybody knows who you’re going to pledge to, anyway, so why be coy about it?” Elanna shook her head, grinning.

“Oh yeah? Well how about the way you were staring at Muffy yesterday?”

Elanna’s grin fell. “What ABOUT it? That’s different.”

“I saw you, girl! ‘Oh, Muffy, you’re so big and stuh-RONG!’” Sarabi batted her eyes. “When he snarled, you almost fainted!”

“That was a roar!”

“Mm-hmm.”

“It was!”

“Yeah, right. So tell me, are you expecting?”

“Expecting what?” In a moment it dawned on her. “Ooh! I’m gonna GET you for that!” Elanna sprang, missing as Sarabi evaded and ran away, laughing so hard she nearly stumbled. The two tore across the grassy plain, ascending the lower slopes of Pride Rock in a tawny blur, nearly knocking Uzuri and Yolanda down as they passed.

“Slow down!” Uzuri bellowed after them. “Watch where you’re going!”

“Oh, they’re still kids. Let them play.” Yolanda licked a forepaw calmly.

“Hmph! They’re never too young to have a little discipline,” Uzuri grumped as she lay back down. She cocked her head slightly as Yolanda began to groom her behind an ear, eliciting a deep purr from the lioness. “Those two are just like Avina, I swear. If I ever have children, they’ll be properly behaved, have no doubt of that!”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it, hon. I think you’ll make a marvellous mother.”

“Yolanda?”

“Hmm?”

“Have I ever told you that you’re a terrible liar?”

“Many times,” Yolanda grinned. “Now stow it and lean over so I can get the other side.”

The two cubs were ignorant of this as they continued their high speed pursuit around Pride Rock. Sarabi cut tight around a corner and ran downslope, ducking behind the large cistern where the lions came to drink. Elanna appeared, slowing, looking around carefully. “I know you’re back here, girl.” She sniffed carefully as she fought to catch her breath. “Come out!”

Sarabi did. “BOO!”

Elanna gave a delighted shriek and pounced upon her sister, rolling about and wrestling as she tried to catch Sarabi’s flailing paws in her mouth. Her sister was most uncooperative and wriggled away, heading towards the cave opening at the back of the cistern cleft. “Betcha can’t catch me!” she shouted, vanishing inside.

Elanna stopped short at the entrance. “Uh-uh. I ain’t goin in there.”

“What’s the matter, Sis?” Sarabi’s voice floated out of the darkness. “You scared?”

“Daddy told us not to go in there. And Barata says it’s haunted.”

“Oh gods, you believe that old story? They tell you that so you won’t go in. Don’t be a fool.” Still, Elanna sat planted at the entrance like a bush. “Well, come ON, Lannie.” Sarabi giggled again. “I see it now: Mufasa the Great and his wife, Queen Scaredy Cat!”

“All right, you ASKED for it that time!” Elanna bounded into the cave, her eyes adjusting quickly to the dark. She spied the dim shape of Sarabi bounding away deeper into the cave’s recesses. “Come back here!”

Sarabi ran on for awhile longer, the turned, grinning, expecting to see Elanna’s head poke around the corner, a mishievious smile on her face as she prepared to exact her revenge.

Instead, she saw only inky blackness. “Lannie?” Her voice echoed back to her, harsh and somehow mocking in the cave’s confines. The warm glow of play faded, replaced by the dull chill of the dank walls, moist with condensation. The faint drip of water somewhere behind her and the tides of her breath were the only sounds. “Lannie?”

A faint touch tickled the back of her neck and she screamed, whipping about and striking with her forepaws, feeling the impact as they struck a dark form behind her. A yelp of pain reached her ears, and she froze. “Elanna?!”

A choking sob sounded from the blackness. “Sassie, I can’t see anything, it’s so dark, I can’t find the way OUT!”

“Well, it’s right back…” She bumped into the wall. “I guess not.”

Sarabi knelt in the blackness and nuzzled her sister comfortingly. “Don’t worry, we’ll get out of here. Come on.” She felt carefully around in the dark, until her whiskers detected an opening. Moving slowly, so that Elanna could keep up, she padded through the winding tunnels, pausing now and again to sniff carefully. Time passed in a blur, and she began to wonder if anyone was looking for them.

“Look, Sassie, light! We’re saved!”

Sarabi peered ahead. Sure enough, a faint glow was detectable in the distance. “Thank Aiheu!”

“You said it!” Elanna pushed past her, eager to escape the dreary confines of the cave. “C’mon, let’s get outa here!”

“Wait up!” Sarabi slipped on the damp floor, picking herself up slowly. “Lannie, wait!”

She padded along the tunnel, the light growing around her, but seemig wrong, somehow, a cold, pale light, not the warm yellow glow of the sun. Turning another corner, she emerged into a small room, lit with the same cold light. Elanna stood nearby, a miserable expression on her face. “Guess we took a wrong turn, huh?” she said, and burst into tears.

Sarabi stood awestruck, unable to answer as she stared at the sight before them.

CHAPTER 14: DARK SECRETS

Elanna looked despondently at the shimmering pool of water that lay before them. It stretched across the full length of the cavern, an expanse of water that seemingly glowed with its own inner light. Elanna peered about and realized the light was a reflection from the cavern walls! Nosing them, she broke a piece of something nauseatingly warm and hideously soft off of the rock surface. The smell of the luminescent fungus stung her nose, and she screwed up her face in distaste as she watched the glow die from the piece she had broken. “This place gives me the creeps.”

“Check this out!”

Elanna glanced over at Sarabi, who was bent intently over the pool’s edge, the young lioness glancing up at Elanna as she ambled over. “How deep do you think it is?”

“Who cares?” Elanna snorted. But she had to admit, the pool did look deep. The glow from the walls failed to show the bottom, only reflecting their faces in its weak light. “Who cares about the stupid pool, Sassie? Let’s get outa here.” Elanna stepped away and swatted the dead fungus at her sister.

It glanced off Sarabi’s shoulder and vanished into the pool with a sharp FZZZZT! sound.

Sarabi glanced curiously in the water, which lay undisturbed by the intrusion. “I don’t see it. Where’d it go?” She leaned over the surface, her chin nearly touching the dark water.

“I don’t know.” Elanna moved to stand beside her. Curious, she picked up a pebble between her teeth and dropped it in. The same odd hissing noise issued from the water, and though they strained their eyes until they ached, the saw no sign of it sinking through the depths.

Elanna glanced at Sarabi’s reflection, the only thing she could see in the pool. It lay flat on the surface, undisturbed by the pebble, without even a ripple to mar its perfection.

Then suddenly, it DID move.

The lovely visage of Sarabi twisted and writhed in the pool’s surface, leering and gibbering silently at her, a vision from her worst nightmares. It raised a paw, as if beckoning her to jump in and join the fun, waving its paw.

Horrified, Elanna looked up to see Sarabi extending a forepaw into the water, an enraptured look upon her face. “SARABI!! NO!!”

Sarabi blinked and looked at her. “What?”

“Get your paw out of there!” Elanna backed away, a terrified look on her face. “Get it out NOW!”

An implacable grip seized Sarabi’s paw and began to pull. She gaped down horrified, her claws extending uselessly as she began to slide across the cavern floor towards the edge. “LANNIE!! HELP ME!”

A strangled cry emerged from Elanna’s throat as she ran to Sarabi and gripped her tail forcefully, pulling with all her might, her sister shrieking in pain, the sound echoing off the cave’s walls as she was pulled in opposite directions. Elanna closed her eyes and prayed, sure that Sarabi would vanish into the pool with that same hissing sound, and she would be left alone here with the ghosts that Barata had warned her about, trapped until she starved or until her sister’s ghost returned for her, as she was sure it would, it would return and drag her down too…

Sarabi’s weight shifted as the grip on her paw vanished, sending her flying back to land on Elanna, driving the air from her lungs with a muffled gasp. Scrambling to their feet, the two tore off back into the dark tunnels, running blindly through the blackness, afraid to stop for what might be in pursuit of them.

Presently, they saw light ahead again, and slowed. Elanna padded ahead, sniffing, and suddenly heard a faint voice calling her name. She turned to Sarabi, grinning. “I’ts Mom, Sassie, c’mon!”

The two burst forth from the cave mouth into the warm sunlight, breathing great lungfuls of sweet savanna air as they scrambled past the cistern and upslope to where Avina sat, roaring softly as she called to them. They piled onto her, knocking her onto her side as they nuzzled her affectionately. “Mom!”

“Uff! Cool it, kids! Where have you two been? I’ve been calling you for an eternity!”

“Uhh… we were just playing.” Sarabi dredged up a grin with an effort. “Right, Lannie?”

“Sure!”

“Well, next time, you come right away when I call you. We’re getting ready to go hunting, and I want you two to come along.”

“Yes ma’am.” The two sat quetly until Avina had left. “What happened, Sassie?”

“I don’t know. All I know is I never want to go in THERE again!”

“Me neither. I won’t tell if you won’t.” Elanna shuddered at the memory as the two of them headed away toward the lionesses below. During the excitement of the hunt, the two forgot about the incident, and it was never mentioned between them again. But years later, Elanna would wake in the night beside Taka, shivering, the memory of that capering face dancing in the darkness, unable to return to sleep until the glow of dawn had touched the horizon.

CHAPTER 15: COMING OF AGE

Finally, Fabana reached her first season. She was nervous and restless, as if something was missing from her life. She had long felt ill at ease among humans and their strange world, but this was a different kind of stirring that she had never felt before. The dog, taking note of that, became restless as well and showed a new interest in her. He understood many things that she did not know about growing up.

At first, Fabana had no clue what had sparked his changed attitude. Usually Fielder would not even answer her direct questions. His few words to her had been insulting and demeaning, and when he even said “good morning” it made the whole day noteworthy.

Suddenly Fielder had become chatty, saying how good the weather was for that time of year, and inquiring about her health, and a great many other things of questionable value. He even brought her part of his coveted table scraps in an awkward attempt to curry favor.

And Fielder began to watch her intently. At first Fabana thought it was her imagination, but the dog began to stare more and more often, and for longer periods. Finally, she had to risk a direct question.

“What are you looking at?”

“You, Spotty. You’re blossoming into a fine young lady. I didn’t realize what a few moons would do to you—remember when you were that squalling pup yelling for her mom?

“Vividly.”

“I hate to say it, but I didn’t really like you then.”

“No kidding.”

“It doesn’t always have to be that way, Spotty.”

“My name is Fabana.”

“Whatever. Well—Fabana—you’re a young lady now. It’s time you were initiated into the secrets we grown-ups keep from the pups. You know, kind of like a ceremony of sorts—a rite of passage.”

“Can you do that? I thought only females did the Bak’ret Koth!”

Fielder laughed till his sides ached. “Oh for God’s sake, where DO you come up with these! There are two sexes—male and female, see.”

“Don’t you think I KNOW THAT?”

“Oh—the ceremony!” He laughed again. “Well pardon me!”

Fabana finally understood what was so funny, and she smiled, embarrased.

When he regained his composure, Fielder drew near and said, “You want something, but you don’t quite know what it is. I know what it is, and I can give it to you.”

She tugged at her leash. “Oh, I know what it is I want. And I want it more than anything.” She strained to see the border of her homeland. “Help me please, and all is forgiven. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Trembling with passion, the dog came toward her. “Oh yes. This should be interesting. Just don’t brag about it afterwards, and if it’s good, maybe we can do this again sometime.”

Instinctively, Fabana knew what was about to happen. She bared her teeth.

“Oh, so you like to play rough?”

“Don’t touch me! I didn’t think you meant THAT.”

“Well what DID you mean?”

“I want a way out of here!”

“You do? Well you’re looking at it. But I want something for my trouble. Something you can give me. Come on honey, you’ll thank me later!”

“Don’t do this! I’d rather stay!”

“Your words say no, but your eyes say yes. You’ve never made it before with a male. If you had, you’d want this as much as I do. Maybe we can run away together.”

She began to stammer a prayer she learned in childhood. “Roh’kash ne nabu! Koh’pim ket ra mispa ojkhim!”

The private feelings she had been saving for her husband were about to be brutally exploited. She backed up again. “Please, in the name of God!”

“You will enjoy this. Calm yourself, Spotty. You’re not my first, and I’ll talk you through it. It’s really very simple, and when it’s over, you’ll beg for more. Trust me, honey bunch! Now just you stand still and let me handle the details.”

He started toward her again, and she sprang at him. She reached the end of her rope and was cruelly jerked back. “Leave me alone, Fielder!” she gasped. “Come at me again and I’ll kill you!”

His eyes glowed dully with loveless passion. “I want you, and by the gods I’ll have you!”

She started biting at the rope frantically. The sisal fibers stung her lips and tongue, but the rope did not fray in the least.

Fabana kept backing up further and further, and the dog kept advancing. She bided her time, waiting until he was far enough inside the circle that she could stage her last defense.

“Relax, honey. You can’t run and you can’t hide. So you might as well try to enjoy it. We’re going to have fun. Trust me.”

“I suppose so,” she said, drooping her ears and tail in submission. “Please be gentle.”

“I will. Hey, I don’t want to hurt you. We’re all friends here.”

She took in a deep breath, let it halfway out and held it. Suddenly she leaped at him. This time the rope did not stop her. She had not been trained in fighting, but neither had the dog. She closed on his flank and tore large hunks of his fur out with her superior strength, gripping him with her powerful arms. All thoughts of lovemaking fled from him, and he struggled to break her hold.

She knew she had to finish him. Tied up, she had to remain in that one place, while he could run away and recover, then come back when he had the advantage. If she surrendered to sleep, he would come ready to ravish her or choke off her wind.

She had him pinned where he could barely move, and could not afford to release him. “You’re right,” she growled, “I’m going to enjoy our time together. Now for love’s first kiss!”

She seized him by the throat and bore down with irresistable force. She felt something pop inside his neck and tasted warm blood.

He reached up in his death struggle and scratched down her face.

“Oh gods!” she cried, falling back and rolling in agony. Where there had once been an eye were now four parallel gashes. That side of her world was plunged into darkness and pain. Shrieking and yipping, she clawed the ground. “Roh’kash! Roh’kash!” she yelped. “Ne’b karssit dareh! Krekh toh, Fielder! Krekh toh, kresagit!!”

The dog, his windpipe crushed, crawled off a short way and collapsed, gasping. He stared at her imploringly, as if asking for his breath back. His jaws moved in silent words of terror.

Ed came running over. “What’s the bloody problem with you two??” He looked at the dog, prodded him with his shoe, and seeing his suffering was mortal, took his rifle and pointed it at Fielder’s head.

Fielder’s eyes grew wide. He held out a paw beseechingly.

“Poor wretch,” Ed said, pulling the trigger.

The sound of the shot made her freeze. She looked at the gaping wound and watched the unfortunate body twitch spasmotically. A red tide began to spread out on the ground, and the acrid smell of cordite and blood reached her.

Ed derisively said, “I should have known a stinking hyena would turn on me sooner or later!” He looked back at Fabana. “You made me put down my best dog!”

She dreaded the rifle he still held in his hand. “Roh’kash,” she whined, “I’ve always tried to live a good life. Take my spirit to your side.”

He pulled up the gun and pointed it at her. Fabana whimpered and trembled, cowering on the ground. She waited for death. It never came. He lowered the gun and stared at her eye. The end of the rifle barrel wavered uncertainly. Then without ceremony, Ed bent down and grabbed her by the collar, pulled his sheath knife and held it near her throat. Silently she prayed, “La’kuneh, dear maleh, come for my spirit.” The blade grazed her neck, pricked her, then with a quick upward pull, it bit in two the collar she had so hated.

“Get out, Spotty! Let God be your judge.”

She cowered in terror and could not move.

He picked her up bodily and hefted her toward her old homeland. Then picking up a rock, he stung her flank with a well-placed throw. “Get out, damn you!! If you come back, I’ll kill you!!”

She took one last look at the man that saved her life. She knew where she belonged, and she turned away. Without looking back, she slinked away toward the border of her old home.

CHAPTER 16: ODYSSEUS RETURNS

Fabana had walked for two hours in the hot sun. She was used to pacing a short distance from side to side. The distance to cover seemed almost impossibly vast, and she was weakened by her wound. Her grinding thirst pulled her to the side of the small watering hole she found. Without caution, without even looking around, she stumbled to the bank. Looking down into the water to take a drink, she saw something horrible looking back at her—a face delicate and fresh on one side and hideously scarred on the other.

She was in the middle of her first season, but she knew no male would ever want her. She howled pitifully. “Why, Roh’kash! Why me! I’ve never known the company of a male, and now I’m so horrible!” She collapsed by the bank and sobbed brokenly.

A small group of hyenas heared her and came out of the brush. They wondered who the stranger was. Fabana looked at them apprehensively. “Who are you?” she asked in common speech. “I don’t want trouble. I used to live here, and I’m trying to find my family. Do you know my okash La’kuneh?”

She smelled human and spoke common speech. They wondered if she was truly one of theirs.

“I remember La’khuneh,” the large male said in common speech.

“Jalkort?” She looked at him closely. “Jalkort, is that you?”

“I’m Jalkort. Should I know you?”

She broke into tears. With almost painful reluctance, she said, “Bih hyannicha! Moh keth Fabana!” Gaining strength, she almost shouted, “Bih hyannicha, Jalkort! Moh keth Fabana!”

“My gods!” Jalkort’s tail wagged so hard, his whole back carriage swayed. “Fay! Fay!” He ran forward and kissed her face on the good side. “Barkhal, Roh’kash!” He nuzzled her and rubbed her full length. Seeing the scar, he said, “I’ll rip the devil that did that to you! I’ll rip him alive! Where is he??”

“He’s already dead. I had him in a death choke when the man got his bang stick and put him out.” She tensed up and asked, “How’s Mom?”

Jalkort looked down. “Oh, Fay!”

“What is it, Jal? Is she… ?”

“The fire. I’m so sorry.”

“How about my brother and sister?”

Jalkort nuzzled her sadly. He didn’t have to say a word.

She nuzzled him back, a tear running down her cheek. “Then you’re all I have left. Oh Jal, please lean on me!” When he sat by her, she rested her cheek against his and wept bitterly. “I smell like a human and a dog. I want to be rid of that scent.” Bitterness began to well up inside her and she added, “I want to forget that life, to blot it out forever. The man took my freedom, and that dog tried to take my pride. Look what he did to me!”

Jalkort looked at her good side in profile. “Actually, you’re a rather handsome female. Your children will only take your good looks, not your wound.”

“What children? I will die forsaken, and you know it!”

“Our children,” Jalkort said. “Bal dareth, Fabana?”

“You can’t possibly mean it!”

“I do.”

“But look at me!”

“I am looking at you. I’m hunting, and I never take my eyes off my prey. No matter what anyone else thinks, you’re beautiful to me. I always knew you would be my bak’ret.”

Tears began to stream down her face. “There is a God,” she sobbed. “There really is!” She kissed him and said, “Dareth koh, Jalkort! Dareth koh!”

CHAPTER 17: IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

Fielder’s brutal advances had prejudiced Fabana against her own natural inclinations. She was afraid that Jalkort would come to her in the night with dull glowing eyes the way Fielder did to have his way with her. But she would endure it for the sake of her love for him and to bear his pups.

Jalkort drew up almost timidly to her. “How bright the stars are tonight.”

“Yes,” she said stiffly. Her muscles tensed. “They are bright, aren’t they.”

“We’re alone now,” Jalkort whispered. “Safe from the eyes of night, this small part of the world is our private kingdom, and you are my queen.”

“Come on. Get it over with,” Fabana said tensely.

“Get what over with?” Jalkort said with a gentle laugh. “You’re such a timid creature. That’s what I love about you.” He pawed her, then came down on his front legs and wagged his tail. “Hey, I bet you can’t catch me!” He tapped her on the shoudler and ran a short distance, then said, “You’re it! Come on, Fay! Work off that fat, honey bunch!”

“Fat??” She ran after him. “I’ll fat you!”

He bounded over a row of bushes like a gazelle. She followed, just skimming the top.

She looked around for him, but didn’t see him anywhere. Then she looked back and saw him hiding at the base of the bushes with a rakish grin on his face. “Gotcha!”

Fabana laughed. “You little fakir! You never change!”

“That’s right,” Jalkort said. “I’m still your friend. See, I’m not so scary am I?”

“Well, no…” She looked into his warm hazel eyes. “Well, yes. You’re the most scary and wonderful thing I’ve ever seen.”

He drew close to her face and nuzzled her gently. “I can be patient, as patient as you need me to be.”

She smiled and rubbed his cheek gently with hers. “You’re my best friend, and against all hope you’re my husband. Whatever you want to do is fine by me.” She pawed the ground uneasily. “Will it hurt?”

He chuckled. “No, my darling.” He pawed her face and smiled. “You’ll feel loved, very loved.”

She looked into his eyes and saw the honesty and openness that liberated her love for him. “I’m ready. Make me feel loved.”

“Are you sure?”

Trembling with mixed fear and desire, she whispered, “Yes. I’m sure.”

Fireflies like tiny shooting stars brought the splendor of the heavens close enough to touch. In the distance, a lion sang an ancient song of the joys of owning territory. Another lion roared back in eerie antiphony. The acacia leaves whispered wordless messages of peace and love. Fabana felt very happy, safe, and loved as he said she would. With Jalkort, no one would stare at her. With Jalkort, no one would shake their head in pity.

Fabana:

I looked into the water, and I dreaded what I’d see A tortured face with ugly scars was looking back at me I shied to go on living, and I wanted just to hide And yet he doesn’t see that face, but one that lives inside

Jalkort:

She ran before the hungry fire that burned our world away I thought our love was buried deep in some dark yesterday Our path had forked, the dream had died, like grass our love had burned But life renewed amid the ash, and with it love returned.

Both:

The day before was void of hope, you were a sweet regret A sad dream tugging at my heart I tried hard to forget Then fate decreed our paths would cross, our love was meant to be Tonight the stars of Heaven smiled because you came to me.

Jalkort and Fabana went to a place where fear and shame could not follow them, a place found only in the heart where scars do not make ugliness and the boundary between two hopes is removed. They were one love and one spirit burning brighter than the sun, and everything the light touched was made pure and holy. Fabana felt her old sadness washed away in the tide. With it washed away the clinging traces of Spotty. She was Fabana, daughter of Kelvar and wife of Jalkort!

She discovered her special heritage with the help of her husband. Born to an ancient line, she knew the joy and comfort of a husband as her mother and grandmother did before her. All fear was gone. She floated in a pink sky on a golden cloud of joy, warmed by the sunshine of his love. She drew nearer, ever nearer to the sun, and finally trembling like a dry leaf she was swallowed up in the sweet caress of its fire. “Oh, Jal! I love you, so much!”

The end of their passionate encounter was just the beginning of their close bond. Fabana turned to meet her husband’s shining hazel eyes. He smiled gently and kissed her.

“Are you happy, Fay?”

“Delirious,” she said. “You are love.”

He went and rolled on his back in the sleepy savanna grass, and Fabana snuggled next to him.

“Aren’t the stars beautiful, Fay?”

She didn’t notice. Her gaze was turned upon him. “You make everything look beautiful. Even me.”

CHAPTER 18: UNCERTAINTIES

After the honeymoon, Jalkort had to return to the mundane reality of evening hunting and morning scavenging, but every moment he spent with Fabana was made to count. She would hunt with a group of females headed by Amarakh, and most of the males would trot off with Ber. But Jalkort would leave with Gur’mekh and a few chosen males who hung together almost as a clan within a clan.

When Fabana would return, and Jalkort saw her from across the field, he would run to her and forgoing words simply press his body against hers and nuzzle her. Her heart would almost rise to her mouth and she would paw him, knowing with some pride that new life was stirring inside her—life born from love.

Jalkort often spoke of Gur’mekh, his wonderful psychic gifts, and his big plans for the future. Fabana wanted to meet Gur’mekh, but it was more easily said than done.

Then one day when Jalkort came back from the hunt, he came trotting back with a lean, muscular male with a very intense pair of eyes that seemed to look right through people’s faces and spy on the heart.

“Here he is, Fay! You wanted to meet Gur’mekh!”

Jalkort’s pride was too clearly evident. Fabana nosed Gur’mekh’s cheek. “Jal speaks of you highly.”

“He speaks highly of you too, Fabana.”

There was something odd about Gur’mekh that disturbed Fabana. She could not quite tell what it was. Maybe his supposed gifts troubled her, but she was not sure. It would do no good to come out and ask him about his activities, so she tried hard to push her doubts to the back of her mind. She was wise enough to know Gur’mekh would pick up any strong suspicions whether she voiced them or not.

“Your husband is indispensable to me,” Gur’mekh said. “I believe that our sun is rising, not setting. That there are great things ahead for our race, and that those who have looked down upon us for centuries will come to respect us as children of Roh’kash.”

“Is something going to happen?”

“Something revolutionary? No. Something evolutionary, at least for now. I believe that we have wasted the blood of our seers on petty concerns. I think that the psychic gift is a trust given us by Roh’kash for the betterment of our people. I believe that I must work to make the clan and someday the race better off than I found it. That’s what I will teach my children, and if the gift does run in families, we need to encourage our seers not to forgo marriage, but to do as my parents did, spreading the gift of Roh’kash until it becomes one with the race, and the race is one with it. A family united in blood and in spirit. Wouldn’t that be beautiful, Fabana?”

“Perhaps. And yet…”

“And yet?” He looked her in the eyes with his intense stare. She glanced down.

“And yet, there is some comfort in privacy. I mean, don’t you think things you’d like to keep to yourself? Like maybe being attracted to someone else’s mate?”

Gur’mekh was visibly upset, but quickly covered it. “Of course she doesn’t know,” he thought to himself. “Why, Fabana,” he said aloud, “If we all knew how we felt about each other, I think we’d choose the right partners in life. I mean, when I was growing up, my mom and dad would look at me, and I would feel drunk with love. I wish everyone could feel that way, even once in their life.”

“I feel that way when I’m with Jalkort.”

Jalkort kissed her, and the issue was soon smoothed over. Still from then on she distrusted Gur’mekh, and tried to encourage her husband to hunt with Ber instead.

CHAPTER 19: DEMRATH’S FAMILY

“Among the first of the Hyannicha were the brothers Mal’keth and Gol’shekh. Mal’keth was quiet and thoughtful, while Gol’shekh was loud and selfish. Yet though they were so different, the two brothers were seldom apart.

“Mal’keth fell in love with Baellea. But Gol’shekh was consumed to the bones with jealousy. And one evening he asked his brother, “Share Baellea with me, and whatever I kill you shall eat of first.”

“But Mal’keth laughed and said, “Whatever you kill, you may eat alone. Whomever I marry, I shall love alone.”

“And Gol’shekh became exceedingly angry and he seized his brother by the throat and slew him because he laughed.

“Before Gol’shekh could hide his brother’s body, Baellea saw her lover dead. She rolled upon the ground, crying out to Roh’kash for a reckoning. Gol’shekh was afraid and he killed Baellea.

“The next morning as Roh’kash was walking through the meadow, she saw Gol’shekh and asked him, ‘Where is your brother Mal’keth?’

“‘He is with Baellea,’ Gol’shekh replied.

“‘Indeed he is,’ Roh’kash said. ‘Their spirits have cried out to me for justice. And so tears shall you drink all the days of your life. In grief and darkness shall your spirit languish until the sun is quenched and mountains are laid low. Henceforth your name is not Gol’shekh (Bright star) but Melmokh (Dark path).’”

—FROM THE HYANNICHA URU’GUTH

Demrath once thought the happiest day in his life was the day he married Lenti. But he changed his mind when the pups were born. Small expressions of the miracle of creation, he looked at them lost in wonder and love.

Tela was a small Lenti, her pushed-in nose and large eyes were typical of a pup, but he could tell that she would grow to be like her Muti with the fire of Roh’kash shining in her eyes. Krull and En’geer naturally held Demrath’s attention, for he knew in the months to come he would spoil his twin sons the way his father spoiled him. “Mighty warriors, you make the earth tremble in your wake!” He laughed softly, nuzzling them, then kissing his daughter. “Look at them, Lenti! Our family!”

Demrath showed off the pups whenever he could. Many of his friends were veteran parents, having raised several litters. But the pups of the next Roh’mach generated a great deal of interest. There were those out there who could see Tela as the future leader of her people.

Of course, the depth of Demrath’s happiness only rubbed salt into Gur’mekh’s wounds. “Lenti, I would have given in to your every whim!” he said passionately, but only to the back wall of his cave. “I would have made you a goddess and worshipped you night and day! Now you have his pups when you could have had mine—seers, visionaries, destined for greatness!”

After Gur’mekh had his say, he decided he must pay his respects to the pups or lose all of the progress he’d made with Lenti. After all, if he was going to be their father someday, they must get to know him. Though it rankled him that they were Demrath’s pups, he remembered that they were also Lenti’s children, and he would love them if only for that.

Gur’mekh trotted down to Demrath’s den, grumbling about all the nice things he’d have to say to him. But when he arrived, he was softspoken and polite.

“Hello, Demrath! You old married buck, let’s have a look at the kids!”

Lenti said, “See, darling? I told you.”

Gur’mekh gave him a firm pat on the shoulder, then headed straight for the pups. “Oh look! Two little Demraths and a Lenti!” He fairly bubbled over with excitement. “I’ve never seen newborns before. Aren’t they tiny! Look at those perfect little toes!”

“They’ll grow,” Lenti said. “She’s Tela, and these two boys are En’geer and Krull.”

Gur’mekh carefully pawed Tela and she looked up. “Can you see me, hon?” He concentrated, touching her with his paw. “Yes, you can. Not clearly, but you can.”

“You can tell?” Demrath asked.

“Oh yes. I’m a seer.” He smiled pleasantly. “Tell me, do you already have a ma’khim for them?”

“Well—uh—no.”

“I guess you wouldn’t consider me.”

Lenti looked at Demrath and nodded slightly.

“Uh—sure. It would be an honor.”

Gur’mekh frowned slightly. “I know about my bad reputation. But I’ll be good. Better than good. This evening, I’ll hunt up a gazelle for old Amarakh to repay the one she thinks I stole. I’ll even patch things up with your okhim. By the way, how is Ber these days?”

“Fine.” Demrath looked uncomfortable. He scratched behind an ear. “Don’t be offended, but isn’t this kind of sudden? I mean, what happened to you?”

“It’s kind of personal.”

“I didn’t mean to pry.”

“No, I didn’t think you did.” He drew up close and in a low voice said, “Actually, there’s a certain bak’ret involved. You know, a chance I may be settling down with a wife and pups of my own. And I don’t want them to suffer from being associated with me.”

“That’s very honest of you. And very noble.”

“When did this happen?” Lenti asked, pressing Gur’mekh for details he was clearly unwilling to volunteer.

“Last night. But I have to prove myself worthy of her. I must let nothing stand in my way of my one chance for happiness.”

Demrath smiled. “Gur’mekh, we’ll have to hunt together sometime.”

“I’d really like that. I hear you’re quite good.”

Gur’mekh walked off, pleased as punch. He kept repeating the names of the pups to himself so he wouldn’t forget. “Yes, my children, I will give you things that Demrath could never provide for you. Some day a great empire will be yours and many will bow before you who now sneer at us.”

CHAPTER 19A: HYANNICHA URU’GUTH

For the next two weeks, Gur’mekh kept his word to Demrath, behaving as well as a priest at high moon. He did kill an antelope for Amarakh, and a couple of hares for good measure. He even said something nice to Ber, who almost fell back on his haunches with surprise.

He brought a rabbit to seal the relationship as ma’khim to the pups, and spent hours playing with them.

Even his father Gur’bruk noticed the change in him and congratulated him on making it through the “rough spots.” That meant more to Gur’mekh than he dared admit. Despite their love for each other, their relationship had been strained for months.

“I hear that you’re interested in a bak’ret. I don’t know who, and I’m not going to pry, but son I’m proud of you for putting your priorities in order. Roh’kash really knows what’s best, and when you follow her will, you can’t help but be happy.” He took Gur’mekh aside where Kambra couldn’t hear them. “Frankly, son, for a while I was really worried about you, and so was your mother. She was having nightmares about you getting yourself exiled or killed. But the last week or so, she’s slept like a pup. I love you, son. I’ve always loved you, but lately I’ve really felt—well—so proud that I could just burst. Whatever you did, or however things turn out between you and your bak’ret, I hope you’re going to remember to reach for the stars.”

Gur’mekh nuzzled his father and stroked him with a paw. “I love you, Maleh. I’m happier than I’ve ever been before, and things are going to all right from now on.”

Gur’mekh gazed in his father’s eyes and felt the love there. He determined not to steal food from the Roh’mach or pull pranks on Ber. But the one thing he DID plan to do would stand out above all the rest.

He was much less patient than Shimbekh was with Kambra. He wondered what he could do to gain the upper hand with Demrath. Enough time had passed to change his reputation, and he’d already secured custody of the pups if anything happened to Demrath. And more importantly, Lenti did not shrink away from him the way she used to do.

Now there was a darker side to hyannic lore and magic. There were potions that opened the subject to powers and places beyond the experience of the ordinary mortal.

A real seer would have been taught the hidden knowledge of the Hyannicha Uru’guth, the shamanic lore of their people. Gur’mekh was not the type to commit to that sort of lifestyle. He wanted the abilities, but not the responsibilities that went with it. It was a volatile mixture.

He remembered his experience with Demrath on his wedding night, and felt the solution to his problem lay in such a link. For no one would willingly tell him the secret words under pain of death. Therefore he went to his mother as she slept and lay close by to her. He rolled on his back and murmered, “Lend me your thoughts, mother. Lend me your feelings, Mother. Lend me your eyes and ears, Mother. Let us be one.”

He concentrated and at long last fell into a trance. Soon he found himself in her dream.

It was a playful one—she was sparring with her sister Shimbekh. For a moment, he felt a little bad about what he planned to do, but he promised himself he would make it up to her. Besides, it was for the good of the race.

“Hi, Muti!”

“Gur’mekh!”

Shimbekh took the opportunity to push Kambra to the ground. “Thanks, Gur’mekh!”

“Cheater!” Kambra cried, trying to push off Shimbekh’s powerful body. “This is not over!”

“I’d be careful if I were you,” Gur’mekh said. “I hear there are wild dogs out here.”

“Wild dogs?” Shimbekh let Kambra up. Kambra dusted herself off, the conflict momentarily forgotten.

“They were coming from that direction. Oh, look!”

Gur’mekh concentrated with all his might. As he said, a pack of wild dogs came over the rise. One stood right in front of Shimbekh and said, “You are surrounded. Give no resistance and we’ll be quick and merciful.”

The dogs quickly overwhelmed Shimbekh and began to tear away at her while she struggled and shrieked. Gur’mekh ran into the fray, managing to kill one of the dogs, but suffering bite after bite. “Muti, help me! Use the curse!”

That was when the words came out. Words that shall not be written here or passed on in the lore to avoid the anger of the heavens.

The spirit of Melmokh overshadowed them powerfully, and she commanded him that all the wild dogs be killed. They shrieked as one by one they fell to the ground bleeding from the nose, mouth and ears.

Gur’mekh knew that he had the key to unlock his great future. Of course the one thing he did NOT do was explore how to control this force. That would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Gur’mekh stumbled over to Kambra and kissed her. “I love you, Muti! I will spend the rest of my life showing the world your greatness.” He felt a little noble despite his theft. He withdrew from her dream, feeling quite proud of himself. Jumping up with triumph, he ran to his sleeping mother. But her expression of pain hurt him. He could sense that she was bent over Shimbekh’s dead body. Quickly he nuzzled her.

“Muti! Wake up! You were moaning in your sleep!”

She opened her eyes. “Oh gods, where is Shimbekh??”

“She’s fine, Muti. You were just having a bad dream.”

With mixed guilt and love, Gur’mekh nuzzled her as she lay on the ground. “I love you, Muti! Someday I’m going to make you proud of me.”

“I’m already proud of you.” She smiled wonderfully and beautifully, and Gur’mekh’s heart melted, lost in the depths of her unconditional love.

Gur’mekh trotted off, floating on a cloud of good feelings, but repeating to himself the words of damnation lest he should forget them in the hour of need.

Seers were trained to keep Makei at bay by the words of binding and loosing. Of course, Gur’mekh had not been trained, and he did not know to ask for a binding spell.

First, he caught a rabbit and choked off his wind.

“Karfas of the Rising Sun, Melgath of the Setting Sun, hide me from the jealous eyes of night! Accept my sacrifice! A hare without blemish, no part of him consumed!” Then he spoke the words of fell significance.

The dead rabbit stirred, and Gur’mekh jumped. In a deep voice, the hare said, “Who calls?”

“Gur’mekh, son of Gur’bruk.”

“And why have you disturbed my long sleep?”

“Because vengeance is more satisfying than sleep!”

There was a long pause. Then the rabbit said, “I am Melmokh, the great destroyer. I do not settle petty squabbles. Make it worth my while or you shall regret waking me.”

Gur’mekh, drunk with his power, said triumphantly, “Petty squabbles! I desire the blood of my enemy, and I shall consecrate it to you!”

“And who is your enemy?”

“Demrath, son of Ber.”

“And you bid me do this of your own free will?”

“I do.”

There was another quiet moment. Then in the distance Demrath came rushing madly from his cave, yelping and whining.

Close on his heels was Lenti. “Demrath! Oh gods!” She began to run around him in tight little circles. “Help! Oh gods! Somebody help us!”

Demrath crumpled to the ground, blood oozing from his nose, ears, and mouth.

“Demrath! Don’t die! Oh gods! Don’t die, darling!”

His trembling paw reached up and touched her cheek, then fell back limp.

“No!!! Demrath!!!”

His pups came out and gathered around the body. She began to shriek, and the pups howled pitifully over the body of their beloved okhim.

Gur’mekh watched in horror. “Did you have to torture him to death?? What did you do to him??”

“What you asked by your own free will,” the hare said. “Taste the sweetness of triumph, Gur’mekh. You’re right—vengeance is more satisfying than sleep.”

“Yes, but THIS?”

“Who is next?” the hare asked impatiently.

“Just Demrath for now. It would look suspicious if the Roh’mach died the same night.”

A deep voice came from the hare that made the fur on Gur’mekh’s back stand on end. “I kill packs of wild dogs, prides of lions, whole troops of baboons, and you called me to kill one napping hyena??”

“There will be others, but there is need for stealth here.”

“Stealth? No one may call me who worries about stealth. You are weak, Gur’mekh son of Gur’bruk. You called a mighty gale to shake a single leaf??”

Gur’mekh began to tremble. He lost his concentration and in doing so lost what little control he had over the situation.

“I said just Demrath for now. There will be others. Many others.”

“Oh, there WILL be others. But I will pick the next one, understand?”

CHAPTER 20: BIRNAM WOOD TO DUNSINANE

Gur’mekh came running over to Lenti. He looked down at Demrath, and stared with horror at the ugly hemmorages that killed him. “Oh my gods!”

The pups, knowing no better, came sobbing to him and huddled next to him. Very gently, Gur’mekh touched each tearful face with his tongue. “He’s gone! He’s gone!”

Lenti ushered the pups away. “Gur’mekh, what do you know of this?”

Gur’mekh looked at her, wondering what she meant by that. “I’ve never seen bleeding like this before. Did he complain of any pain or run a fever? I’m no healer, but I mean this all seemed very sudden.”

Lenti collapsed over Demrath’s body, sobbing. “Sudden?? One minute he was playing with the pups, and the next minute…” She fell over the body. “Oh gods!!”

“I’d be careful if I were you. What he had may have been catching.”

“That’s not a disease! No disease does this!”

“I’m no healer, Lenti. I wouldn’t know.” He took his paw and gently stroked Demrath’s face. “And to think we were getting along so well. He had everything in the world to live for.”

“And now I’m left with three young pups to raise. They will want to know what happened to their okhim. They’re too young to really understand.”

“They have a ma’khim.” Gur’mekh pawed her gently. “I’ll take care of them. They will lack for nothing.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “Bless you, Gur’mekh! I didn’t know if you were serious about that. You can still surprise me.”

“I was never more serious in my life. You stay here and I’ll get some help. We’ll move him, my little barak ler.”

Gur’mekh started off to get help, when he suddenly heard a loud cry. He froze.

“What did you call me??”

“I’m sorry? I don’t understand.”

She stared at him with a look of horror. “How did YOU know he called me that? He only used that name for me when we made love!”

“Just a coincidence.”

“I don’t think so! There’s a story behind that name, one you couldn’t possibly know, unless…”

Gur’mekh started to squirm. “Don’t get upset, my dear! You’ve been through a terrible shock, and you’re not thinking clearly.”

“Now I remember,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “The bleeding curse of Melmokh! My gods, surely you wouldn’t want to hurt that sweet, gentle ban’ret! He trusted you, Gur’mekh! Tell me you didn’t speak the unholy words!” Her hackles bristled. “Tell me you didn’t!!”

“No, I didn’t! I swear! Melmokh doesn’t even handle petty quarrels!”

“And how would you know that?? You haven’t been initiated!”

“Things leak out! For the gods’ sake, surely you don’t think I would do a thing like that!”

“Oh, I think it! You go around stealing and working mischief. All of a sudden you have this big change! You want to be the pups’ ma’khim in case anything ever happened to Demrath! Who’s the bak’ret you’re thinking of marrying? Was it me??”

“No!”

“Her name, Gur’mekh! What’s her name??”

“I’d rather not say! She’d die if you found out!”

“Or kill, you mean! It’s me, isn’t it?? Be brave enough to say it to my face!”

“You don’t know what you’re saying! You’re hysterical! Besides, you can’t prove anything!” He realized with horror what had just slipped out.

“Maybe I can’t prove it now, but as Roh’kash is my witness, I’ll make sure they all know what you did! Murderer! Murderer!”

“No, I’m not a murderer! I’m not!”

“Murderer!!!”

“For God’s sake, not so loud! You’ll get me killed!”

“That’s what I want! You’d better curse me while you still can.”

“No! I love you!”

“You’ll come to regret that someday. I swear by Roh’kash you will. I’ll never rest till I see you dead!”

She fell on her husband again and began to sob again. Gur’mekh slinked away sullenly.

Inside his head he heard a mocking voice that would not easily be silenced. “Maybe I should bleed her out too. She’s a trouble maker for sure.”

“Don’t you dare!” Gur’mekh answered. “She has pups to raise. Besides, I still love her!”

“Oh, that really touches me,” the voice said. “I’m deeply moved. I wouldn’t dream of harming her because YOU still love her.” Maniacal laughter echoed from the evil presence. “You’re weak. You don’t have the guts to tell me what to do.” Gur’mekh began to gasp. His throat was closing up. “Don’t you dare!” the spirit repeated, mockingly. “She has pups to raise. Besides, I still love her!”

Gur’mekh fell to the ground, almost gagging. “Let me go! What do you want from me?”

“Submission. And I’ll get it too. Now behave yourself and you can enjoy our time together. Cross me and I’ll torture you to madness.”

Gur’mekh gasped in a deep breath and let it out. The air felt good venting his lungs, and he lay on the grass for a long time waiting for his heart to stop pounding.

CHAPTER 21: A CRY FOR HELP

Tormented by the entity, Gur’mekh went to his okash and tearfully begged her for help. “I’m in trouble, Muti! You have to help me! Please help me!”

Kambra frowned, then sighed. “What were you caught doing THIS time?”

“I—I can’t say it.”

She looked into his eyes inquiringly and concentrated gently but firmly. The answer made her hackles raise and her jaw tremble. “Oh God! Oh dear God!!”

Gur’mekh fell to the ground and began to sob. “If I could put things back the way they were, I would! I swear! Oh gods I’m so sorry! Help me, Muti! Don’t let it destroy me, Muti! I’m so scared!”

As soon as Kambra could overcome her initial shock, she nuzzled Gur’mekh and kissed him. “My son, my poor son! I’ll have to tell your okhim.”

“Must you? He already thinks I’m a failure.”

“No he doesn’t. You must be brave, and you must be honest. I can’t fight this without his help.”

“You aren’t going to tell the others are you?”

“No.” She hung her head in shame. “They would kill you.” She sighed. “Whether or not you keep this promise, I will help you because I love you too much to do my duty. But please promise me you won’t use the curse of Melmokh any more. Please?”

“I swear,” Gur’mekh said fervently.

She could see in his eyes that it was so, and she kissed him. “You’ve had a hard life, but you’re still my good little boy. We’ll get you back on the right path. My poor child, how you have suffered!”

Tears streamed from Gur’mekh’s eyes. “Muti, I love you! I’m so sorry! You deserved a better son! I’d have rather died than hurt you like this!”

“We’ll survive this thing,” she said. “I can only pray that you’ve learned something from it.”

She went to meet Gur’bruk privately, afraid that he would lash out in anger at his son. There was no fear of that. Gur’bruk merely sighed, resigned that his son would end up in trouble someday. But he held out the hope that Gur’mekh had hit the bottom of his downward slide and could only climb up from there.

So they covered up the truth about Demrath and the two of them took Gur’mekh to a place alone where the ceremony would not be observed.

Gur’bruk and Kambra nuzzled Gur’mekh as he lay on his back. They prayed over him words as ancient as the hope of eternal life

“Might of mights, love of loves, before the sun you were the light of the world. Look upon this child to be born and know that his name is Gur’mekh. He is consecrated to you, receiving from us the fires of rebirth; may he carry on the line that after we are gone that the name of Roh’kash may not be forgotten. Protect him from the claws of day and the jealous eyes of night, and gather his spirit when his eyes grow dim. Hear our prayer.”

Then as Gur’mekh lay on his back, Gur’bruk and Kambra took turns urinating on him, soaking him from the neck down. Then they scratched dust on him, turning him into a mud-caked mess. Kambra said, “Husband, it is time for me to be delivered. Pray for the protection of Roh’kash.”

From time to time, Kambra howled pitifully in her birth pangs. As she did, the wrath of the Makei began to make itself known. A stiff wind blew from the west, trying to force them away from their goal. The spirit began to torture Gur’mekh, closing up his throat till he had to gasp for every precious bit of air, and dimming his sight until he had to lean against his mother for guidance. Still Gur’mekh, who was considered still unborn, spoke not a word as the ceremony demanded. Finally, Gur’mekh’s throat closed completely, and as he lay being choked to death Kambra gazed deeply into his eyes.

“I love him,” she thought. Her love became a mighty wave that swept over the Makei like a painful rash. “I love him! You can’t have my son! Give him back to me!”

Gur’mekh gasped in a deep breath, but he stayed silent and submissive. With trembling legs he tottered forward, straining to see his target just ahead.

He was escorted to the river where with a silent bow of submission he flung himself in head first. He rolled about and splashed, removing the pungent mud from his fur. The evil clung to the bloom of muddy water that opened around him and travelled downstream. His eyesight returned, and the hard, cold look left his eyes. A peaceful smile spread across his face. Even without words, Gur’bruk and Kambra joined with him in a warm shimmering love that made him feel drunk and giddy. How long it had been since the family was that happy! And when he was completely clean, he stepped from the water reborn. He fell to the ground and shouted, “Holy Mother, blessed is the name Roh’kash, sweet as honey upon the tongue!”

“Thanks to you, O God, for our child is born alive and healthy,” Gur’bruk said.

“May he grow in love and beauty,” Kambra said. She remembered saying those words for the first time under happier circumstances. Nuzzling Gur’mekh worriedly, she asked, “How do you feel?”

“Wonderful. Better than I have a right to feel.” He nuzzled his parents and said, “I’m going to resign from the clan council. I have no right to hold office. Instead, I’m going to be a seer and maybe a healer too. Roh’kash gave me this talent for a reason, and with the time I have left, I’m going to find that reason.”

“Thank God,” Gur’bruk said.

Gur’mekh nuzzled them both again. “Hey, I’m hungry! Why don’t I go bring you back a nice gazelle? Maybe even a wildebeest?”

“You ARE feeling better,” Kambra said. “Go with Roh’kash, honey tree. Success.”

Meanwhile, Fabana had just finished a good hunt and brought back a small duiker antelope to where Lenti and her pups sat stranded. “Maybe this will help the little fellows.”

“May I take a few bites too, Fay?”

“Sure. It’s for you too. It could have been my Jalkort, and I know you’d be there for me.”

Lenti nuzzled her. “You are a sister to me. You’re the best.”

Famished, the pups lit into the carcass. Lenti held back to let them get their fill first.

“Bless their hearts,” Fabana said. “I want to help you raise those pups.”

Lenti winced.

“What’s wrong? Did I say something wrong?”

“No, it’s just that Gur’mekh was by earlier. He offered to help me.”

“That was uncommonly kind of him.”

“Kind?? He killed my husband. I just can’t prove it yet.”

“Killed him??” Fabana shifted uncomfortably. “I’ve seen the body. I don’t see how he could have done that.”

“That’s because you don’t know about the dark lore. You grew up around humans. They don’t know what lies beyond the western sky.”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

“Don’t laugh. Gur’mekh cursed my husband. There’s a demon curse that burns the blood. It’s an old protection used by the seers in times of great need.”

“I see.”

“You don’t believe me.”

“Oh I believe you. I’ve seen his eyes. Gur’mekh gives me cold chills.”

“Keep Jalkort away from him for his sake and yours. I tell you Fay, have a talk with your husband.”

“Are you safe?”

Lenti sighed. “I don’t know. He wants me, Fay. He tried to hit on me earlier. It’s not safe to turn him down—everyone knows that. I take the pups to a different place each night to sleep because he’ll try to invade my dreams.”

“Can he do that?”

“That and more. Much more. He can persuade the feeble minded, forcing his thoughts on them. He’s dangerous. No one is safe with him around. Not when he’s angry.”

Fabana sighed. “Jal thinks the moon and stars rise and set on Gur’mekh. Jal is basically good, but he can be led astray. I love him. I’d kill for him. I’d kill Gur’mekh and face the consequences.”

“You wouldn’t have a chance. There’s only one way: come with me to see the Roh’makh.”

“What could she do?”

“She could make Shimbekh look for the truth. Shimbekh is his aunt and she doesn’t want to believe he’s guilty, but she will tell the truth once she learns it. I remember my Muti mentioning something about a prophesy. They try to hush it up now, but Shimbekh used to say the son of Gur’bruk would lead us all to ruin. Amarakh knows. All she needs is to be reminded.” Lenti pawed her gently. “We can do it, girl. Where is Jalkort now?”

“He’s out hunting with Gur’mekh. Where else?”

Lenti looked worried. “I’m not gifted, but I’ve just felt a cold wave down my back when you said that. Pray, for your husband! Pray hard!”

CHAPTER 22: THE SPECTRE OF DEATH

Gur’mekh had a certain quiet reserve and calm that he’d lacked before. Jalkort noticed the change at once.

“You seem to be in a very good mood, brother.”

“Indeed I am, Jal! I feel—well—reborn. God has been very good to me.”

“Yes, Roh’kash has blessed you with this great talent, and a great future is ahead of you.”

“Not the future you think. If I want to be truly great, I have to stop raiding the Roh’mach’s pantry. I have to stop thinking about myself so much. I have to help others the way God has helped me. You know Jal, what’s really important in life is this…” He took his paw and patted Jalkort’s shoulder. “I mean a mountain can be big, a river can be strong, but love is something from the Ka. It is the greatest gift of Roh’kash.”

“What a noble thing to say!” Jalkort was all the more convinced of the greatness of Gur’mekh and looked at him almost worshipfully. “You’re going to be the greatest Roh’mach ever!”

Gur’mekh smiled. “I don’t want to be Roh’mach. There are other ways to be great. My Muti and Maleh are great. Someday you’ll understand. It certainly took me long enough. I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to make up for…”

Suddenly Gur’mekh felt dizzy. He staggered and nearly fell. “Oh gods!” He began to gasp for air. “Jal, it’s happening again!”

“What’s wrong?” Jal asked.

“I thought I was free of it!” Gur’mekh cried. “Go find my okash! Tell her it’s back—she’ll know what I mean!”

“Free of what?? What DO you mean?? Oh gods, brother, you look awful! I’ll get Kambra—you just wait right here!”

Gur’mekh took in a deep breath and straightened up to his full height. His eyes shone with a strange light. “I don’t need her now,” he said defensively. “I’m much better.”

“I don’t know. I don’t like this.”

“Don’t you think I know how I feel??”. He scratched the ground. “We have a job to do, and there isn’t much time. Follow me.”

If only Jalkort had been gifted, he would have seen the fear and helplessness in Gur’mekh’s eyes as he was being pulled against his will toward his destiny on the savanna.

CHAPTER 23: OUT OF CONTROL

Avina was staggering across the grassland, lamenting her crushed face and the death of her happiness. It was a foolish accident, one that she never should have had, and since she was on a solo hunt there was no one to help her. She had leaped for a hartebeest, and all was well until she felt almost like someone had grabbed her ankle and pulled. The hartebeest struck her in the cheek, burying her under a mountain of pain.

She desperately sought out Rafiki, and instead she encountered Gur’mekh…

Gur’mekh saw with horror what the Makei was doing inside him. He was a spectator, helpless in the grasp of an irresistible force. He seized her throat, tasted lion blood, and felt the ground tremor as her once beautiful face struck the grass.

She struggled weakly, begging him to stop in God’s name. For one brief moment, he met her eyes and her horror and sadness came pouring into him. “What’s going to happen to my cubs?” she silently dispaired.

“May Roh’kash bless them,” Gur’mekh tried to say—it would not come out. And as a tear trickled down his cheek, he grasped the tender skin of her abdomen and ripped her alive.

Her shriek pierced him like a thorn. “Why, God?? I thought I was free of this! I thought I was free!”

“There’s only one way to be free of me,” a voice echoed inside his head. “You don’t have the nerve to do it, you little coward! Now shut up and eat! You must set a good example for your friends.”

Gur’mekh’s stomach was in knots and his limbs quaked as he was forced to eat the still-warm lioness. The huge bites Melmokh made him take nearly choked him.

“Gur’mekh? Brother? Do you think we should have done this?”

It was Jalkort. Gur’mekh looked around, unable to say what was in his heart. But tears were streaming down his cheeks.

“Oh Gur’mekh!” Jal watched the tears fall silently. “What’s wrong?”

Gur’mekh looked at him pleadingly for a moment, mute against his will. “Oh Jal!” he thought. “My nearly perfect friend. If only you could hear my thoughts!”

As he looked back, blood and mother’s milk ran from Avina’s torn abdomen. “Oh gods! Oh gods, show me the way and I’ll be rid of this thing! I’d do anything! ANYTHING!!”

“Your gods won’t help you now. You told me to kill Demrath of your own free will, and you’re beyond their help. You’re mine to do with as I please!”

A terrible roar shattered the air, and for an instant Gur’mekh expected Melmokh to materialize before him, revealing his shame to all present. The other hyenas looked at him, frozen in terror, wide-eyed with fear as they backed away from him.

Abruptly he realized they were not looking at him, but at something beyond him. He turned his head to see the the furious charge of a male lion hurtling towards them, his face burning with fury, fangs bared as he uttered another challenge. Without waiting for Gur’mekh’s command, the hyenas broke and ran. Gur’mekh joined them, stumbling away in a haze of horror.

The Makei fell into mocking laughter as the lion looked up at heaven and raged against the awful crime. “I said I’d pick the next victim! Run, Gur’mekh! Run while you still can! Ha ha ha ha!!”

CHAPTER 24: ONE FALSE STEP

Free to run, Gur’mekh beat a hasty retreat toward the clan territory with his companions. Muti would know what to do! Muti would know it was not his fault!

Perhaps this demon was stubborn and required a harsh regimen of fasting and ordeals. He would gladly do whatever it took to be rid of the spirit, assuming he could live long enough to find the way. The lion was not faster, but he would not stop.

“Roh’kash, why have you forsaken me! Great Mother, help me!”

Gur’mekh crossed the creek and headed up the eastern meadow. Then he saw Antelope Kopje on his right and the Clan Acacia on his left—right between the two of them stretched an invisible line where the lion’s territory ended and he was on his home soil. Ah, blessed sanctuary of home!

But Shaka crossed the border and continued into the Clan’s turf! He would not turn back! Gur’mekh had only three choices. He could find strength in numbers, and if that failed he could keep running until the lion tired and stopped. If that did not work, he could stage a last desperate battle for his life with his three companions. Good old Jalkort would not run out on him. The other two would probably run in different directions and leave them there to fend for themselves. At least good old Jal really loved him. Maybe—just maybe—they would live to see twilight.

Gur’mekh topped the rise that surrounded the elephant graveyard. He half ran, half slid down the other side, barreling toward the spot where his parents would no doubt be taking their evening nap.

Behind him, he heard a yelp. Turning his head, for one awful moment he saw Jalkort turning end over end down the slope, coming to rest in the dust, then trying to right himself. “Jal!! Get up!!”

Shaka pounced, and in one horrifying arc covered the distance to the unfortunate hyena. Jalkort found himself trapped under the awesome weight of Shaka’s front paws. The lion leaned back or he would have crushed him at once. He had other plans, and merely kept Jalkort gasping in a tight embrace of rage.

“You killed my wife!” Shaka roared. “You ripped out my heart, and I will rip out yours!” The lion looked at the terrified face and knew there was nothing more he could say to frighten him. “I give you a moment to pray to your god.”

Fabana watched, beside herself with terror. Jalkort glanced about frantically and saw her in the crowd. He silently mouthed her name, the cried, “Somebody help me!”

“You are trespassing on our lands!” Amarakh said. “You are holding one of my people!”

“He’s a murderer! He killed my wife in cold blood, and he was on my land! She had two cubs, Amarakh. Two cubs that won’t have a mother coming home tonight! She was alive when they ripped her! Alive!”

She looked at Jalkort. She recognized that he was one of Gur’mekh’s followers. “I will investigate it. I know him. He’s a trouble maker anyhow, and you can be sure I will punish him if he’s guilty.”

“IF??” Shaka glared down at his prisoner. “I saw him over her body. Zazu saw the kill.” Shaka bent down. “You tell her! TELL HER, VERMIN!”

Jalkort squealed, “Somebody help me!” He looked at Fabana, her anguish piercing him to the core.

“Husband! Why??”

In desperation, Jal saw Gur’mekh and looked into his eyes.

Gur’mekh could feel the agony. He considered rushing the lion to give Jal a chance to escape. After all, Jal took no part in the killing. Maybe a bite on the foreleg to make him let up for one brief moment. That’s all Jalkort would need.

He crouched, ready to spring. “Roh’kash, give me strength.” Suddenly his strength failed him. He didn’t feel too afraid to move, but he could not straighten his back legs. “Leave me alone, Melmokh!” he thought. “It’s MY neck, you fool! I can risk it if I choose!”

“Fool, am I? Who called a grand makei just to have an affair with a married ban’ret that hates him?? No, you’ll die when I’m good and ready. Right now, I want Jalkort!”

Amarakh said, “You can’t extract a confession to a murder by death threats. This is my land, and I give you my word we will investigate within the customs of our law. But you must let him go. Leave—now!”

Shaka said, “I do not believe you.”

“You are not in a position to negotiate. Leave at once. I will see your brother the King tonight. We will talk.”

Shaka wept. You are right. You are absolutely right. I am NOT in a position to negotiate!” Looking up, he cried, “Aiheu abamami!!” He swung down and with one snatch of his jaws severed Jalkort’s head.

Fabana ran around in tight circles screaming, “Oh gods! Oh gods!”

Gur’mekh rolled on the ground howling. The entity reminded him that “Isn’t it strange that your best friend happened to trip when he did? Such a pity. And right after you tried to exorcise me. You’d think it was more than a coincidence, wouldn’t you?”

“My gods!” Gur’mekh screamed. “No!!”

“Yes!! Oh, the sweetness of his suffering! I feel stronger, bolder, freer! And now watch the lion! How bravely he meets his death!”

The hyenas closed in on the lion, and Shaka died without much of a struggle. The entity began to giggle like a ban’ret on a hot date. “Look, Gur’mekh! See how a lion dies! Will you be that brave when your time comes??”

The Roh’mach prepared for the real backlash to come. In a state of heightened alert, the hyenas doubled the guard, closing off all entrances and exits from the Clan territory unless the proper passwords were given.

Gur’mekh sought out Fabana. He told her, “Fay, I want to help you.”

She replied, “The way you tried to help Lenti? And my name is FABANA to you!”

He followed her, persisting. “Look, I loved your husband as a brother. Ask anyone! I tried to help him just now, but…”

“But WHAT?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t understand!”

“I understand perfectly. Jal was your pal, as long as he was doing stuff for you. But the moment he got in trouble, you turn your back on him!”

Gur’mekh’s hackles raised. “To hell with you! I knew you wouldn’t understand! You can raise your own brats without my help!”

Fabana acked back, whining.

Tears came to Gur’mekh’s eyes. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” He began to sob. “Fay, I loved him! I really loved him! I’m sorry!”

“Yeah, well…” She backed off suspiciously. “Look, thanks for the offer, Gur’mekh. We’ll talk sometime, OK?”

She turned and hurried off, trying not to break into a run. But the intent was clear. She put a great deal of distance between herself and him, mixing with a large crowd where she could grieve in peace.

Then came the confrontation with Ahadi. Gur’mekh was hiding in his cave sobbing while the Lion King was demanding a settling of accounts and setting the ban. All Gur’mekh could think about was Jal’s haunting whimper as he peered into his eyes. “Jal, if you can hear me, I tried to help you! Oh gods, Jal! Jal!”

Ahadi made his demands clear. In response, Amarakh made clear demands on her people: someone must pay for the attack, or all would suffer.

Gur’mekh tried to find his parents. He began to work his way through the crowd. Before he was successful, the Roh’mach called out assembly.

“I don’t have time for this!” He kept working his way through the crowd.

“Come to order!” the Roh’mach called again. “That means you too, Gur’mekh!”

The Roh’mach lined up everyone. Amarakh said, “We are in desperate times. If we don’t find out who lead the hunting party, we’ll all have to suffer for the actions of a few. I cannot stand by and see the innocent suffer with the guilty.”

Ber spoke up. “Roh’mach, we have a seer whose innocence is beyond dispute. Why don’t we have her hunt down the guilty party?”

“Shimbekh? Excellent suggestion, Ber!”

Ber leered at Gur’mekh, and watched him squirm with all the glee of a wrestling pup.

The hyenas were lined up by Ber and Amarakh, and each one had to look Shimbekh in the eyes. There was no adequate defence except possibly love. “Shimbekh loves me,” Gur’mekh thought. “Surely to God she won’t betray me!”

Gur’mekh glanced nervously down the line as Shimbekh counted off the hyenas, one at a time, marking them with a pawprint in Shaka’s blood. It was the red badge of their innocence. For one frantic moment, Gur’mekh considered blaming it on Jalkort. He was dead anyhow—his suffering was over. But he thought about Fabana and her unborn pups. She would surely be exiled to scrabble for leavings in the desert. In desperation he bit his own leg—deeply—marking his cheek with a bloody pawprint.

“Hey Gur’mekh, your leg is bleeding! How did you do that??”

Gur’mekh jerked his head to look at Korg, who stood next to him, looking at him curiously. “Hsssh, Korg! Not so loud! You know good and well what I did. And just you keep your silence.”

Korg shook his head sympathetically. “You should have that looked at.”

“I will later.”

“But it’s serious.” He bent his head to examine the wound closer.

“I’m serious. Drop this conversation!”

Korg sniffed of his wound, spreading the blood with his nose. “Looks bad for you, fellow!”

Gur’mekh to slapped him with a paw. “STOP!”

Heads turned. Now Gur’mekh was the subject of scrutiny by dozens of hyenas. He began to tremble, then as Amarakh drew close to him, he panicked.

Gur’mekh tried to run, but his leg cramped up. He was quickly overtaken and stopped by bared teeth on all sides. Pushing through the crowd was Shimbekh. He tried not to look in her eyes.

Shimbekh finally secured a straight-on stare into his eyes. “Did you lead the attack?”

Gur’mekh squirmed as he felt the first touch of her mind. Gentle but insistent, he felt the probe of her psyche like a gentle tickling in the back of his head.

“You know this is necessary. Be calm—just relax…”

Her thought broke off abruptly. Her mind’s eye opened and she saw the struggling lioness crawling through the grass, her shattered jaw dripping blood and saliva on the ground. She saw Gur’mekh move forward, and heard the lioness’s dying shriek.

“Oh gods, nephew!” she thought. “Why?!”

“She was dying anyhow!” Gur’mekh said aloud. “In the name of the gods, there is no way she could have lived!” He fought frantically with teeth and paws, but was grabbed roughly by the throat and choked into submission.

Shimbekh stood over him, her face twisted in pain as she touched his mind again. “The deed is done. I will pray for you, nephew, for there will be a reckoning.”

Gur’mekh looked up at her, eyes pleading. “Please,” he thought frantically. “Lie, do something!! It was not my fault! Can’t you see it was Melmokh! Melmokh!”

“I can see that, but there is more to it than that. More that you’re not telling me. He couldn’t force you unless you had sinned.”

“They’ll kill me! Oh gods, I don’t want to die! I was turning my life around! I tried exorcism! Tell Muti I was forced to do this! Tell her, Shimbekh! I can’t control myself anymore! Don’t you love me anymore? You said we’d always be friends—you PROMISED!!”

“I will pray for you,” she repeated, tears staining the dark gray fur of her cheeks to black. “Maybe death will set you free.”

“Please! Please no, I’ll do anything! Just let me talk with muti first! Please! Just five minutes!”

“I can’t. I’m sorry.” Shimbekh broke contact and turned, looking to the Roh’mach, who stood by, waiting. She shuddered to say the words. “Gur’mekh is guilty.”

Amarakh glared down at him. “You’ve been a thorn in my side long enough. This time you went too far, and you will pay for it.” She jerked her head. At the signal, three guards strode forward and seized Gur’mekh at various points with their powerful jaws, not breaking the skin, but firmly enough that he realized he could not escape. The guards pulled him firmly along.

“Look at him!” Ber shouted to the pups that huddled by him. “That’s the devil that murdered your father!”

Kambra fell on her back and began shrieking uncontrollably. Gur’bruk stared into space, a look of hopelessness on his face. “Not my son,” he stammered. “Why, God? Why my son? Why??”

Kambra tried to push through the crowd, but she was held back. “Gur’mekh! Oh gods! Let me pass—I must see him!”

“Mother!”

Shrill laughter echoed in his mind as he was led away. The Makei told him, “After all, it was your destiny to look off Pride Rock.”

CHAPTER 25: BEFORE THE JUDGEMENT SEAT

Ber jeered Gur’mekh on the way to judgment. “I hope the King rips you alive! Kill my son, will you?? May you rot in hell!”

Lenti was right behind him, crying, “Murderer! Murderer!”

Gur’mekh looked back at her and said plaintively, “I love you! How can you hate me, Lenti??”

Ahadi came to the promontory and looked out at the distant approaching band of hyenas. He was not sure what was on the wind, but he had a good idea what was about to happen. He sent out a delegation of lionesses headed by Uzuri to confirm his suspicions.

Gur’mekh whimpered. “Roh’mach, I was posessed by a demon spirit! Please, I didn’t want to hurt Avina! I swear!”

“And you are much better now? Is that it?”

“No! I’m not better! Please don’t kill me while I’m bound to this thing! It will steal my soul! Don’t let it steal my soul!”

“I’m not letting it do anything to you,” Amarakh said curtly. “Explain this to Ahadi. You’re at his mercy, not mine.”

Just then the lionesses fell in around the hyena guard, walking at a distance but still menacing with their strong, lithe bodies looming like giants around them. Gur’mekh began to shudder. “I didn’t want to hurt her! I swear!”

One of the lionesses glanced over at him and scowled, showing her fangs. “So, you’re the little wretch that killed her! You’ll pay for that meal, scum!”

“He killed my son,” Ber said bitterly. “He’ll pay for a lot of things today!”

“Silence!” Amarakh said. “The King alone will pass judgment on the prisoner. The King alone!”

Of course, ringed by so many powerful lionesses, Amarakh’s shouting was so much empty noise. She began to feel apprehensive herself.

Ahadi stood on the promontory. Gur’mekh caught sight of him and began to squeel and yelp, struggling against the hyenas that held him fast. “Oh gods! Don’t do this! I’m innocent! Let me go! Oh gods, he’s going to kill me!”

“Quit whining like a pup!” Amarakh said. “We have our dignity. Face him the way you faced Avina.”

“I was possessed!” Gur’mekh shrieked. “In God’s name, ask Shimbekh! Please, call for Shimbekh! She’ll explain everything!”

Ahadi watched the agony in Gur’mekh’s eyes. “There goes the most unfortunate of creatures,” he said to Akase. “I expected an arrogant buck and instead I got a terrified boy.”

At the base of Pride Rock, two more lionesses appeared, flanking Gur’mekh on either side as he scrabbled up the slope, babbling almost incoherently about the Makei.

Gur’mekh tried to hold himself steady as they reached the top of the path, but when he turned to see Ahadi sitting silently in the mouth of the cave waiting for him, he began to whimper again.

“This is Gur’mekh,” Amarakh said. “He called for Avina’s life. His jaws are stained red with her blood. We bring him to your justice.”

The hyena looked into the face of Ahadi. He could see death in his eyes. His knees began to buckle, and he urinated on the cave floor. “Roh’kash, help me! Help me!”

Ahadi came over to him. Quietly, without malice, he purred, “I do not want to kill your immortal Ka. Aiheu will decide. I give you a chance to admit your guilt.”

“Have mercy! Oh gods!” Gur’mekh fell on his back, soiling his fur in the urine as he began to paw at Ahadi. “I don’t want to die!”

“That is not an option at this point. You will have an opportunity to be right with your God. Now tell me Gur’mekh, they didn’t torture it out of you, did they? Are you guilty as they say?”

Gur’mekh knew there was nothing he could do to save himself. He decided to do the only decent thing. “Forgive the others. I talked them into it. All my fault. The Roh’mach didn’t know. All my fault. And I’m sorry. So sorry!”

“It’s good that you’re sorry. Your friends are glad as well, for I will not punish them. Now don’t you feel better telling the truth?”

“I thi-think so. Yes.”

“Now then, I want you to think really carefully. I can make it swift and nearly painless. But the gods may not think you have suffered enough. Or I can punish you now, and you will die forgiven.”

Gur’mekh knew he was not guilty of killing Avina. But he was guilty of killing Demrath. With the chance of eternal damnation looming over him, he tried to think clearly. “I don’t know,” he cried. “I don’t know!”

“But you must know, Gur’mekh. When you do something, be it good or bad, there are consequences. I would not want to face God after an easy death. I would take my punishment now, but it is your decision.”

Gur’mekh’s jaw began to tremble. “Help me decide,” he silently prayed. “Roh’kash, Great Mother, your will be done.” He gasped for air, his heart pounding. “Well then, I want to be sure. Hurt me bad. Hurt me very bad.”

Ahadi looked around. “Take the cubs outside. Far away. Wife, you may want to leave as well.”

Time dragged by as the young and fearful walked away. Gur’mekh kept silently repeating his prayer. “Roh’kash, Great Mother, rescue my spirit. Roh’kash, Great Mother, rescue my spirit…”

Finally, Ahadi nodded gravely. “You ripped her alive. If you would find peace, I will have to return in kind.” He looked upward. “Oh gods, look down on your child. Witness his suffering and accept his atonement.”

“If you do this, do you promise you’ll forgive me? Promise?”

“I promise, son. While you can, go as far as you can. Your friends will have to drag you the rest of the way.”

“I understand.” Gur’mekh shut his eyes and whimpered. “Mother Roh’kash!!!”

Ahadi swept his abdomen with his outstretched claws. In a private hell of pain, Gur’mekh shrieked all the air from his lungs, gasped in and shrieked again. It was often said that at that same moment Gur’bruk and Kambra fell to the ground and covered their ears, trying to block out the squeels of his death agony.

Gur’mekh gasped for air, foaming at the mouth and shuddering on the floor. His mangled, bleeding entrails were laid open to the horrified audience of hyenas. The Roh’mach had to look away, covering her face with a paw. Ahadi looked at his paw red with Gur’mekh’s blood and glanced again and the unfortunate wretch gasping out his life.

“Somebody help me!” Gur’mekh cried. “I can’t get up!”

Ahadi looked on the youth with compassion, taking Gur’mekh by the nape of the neck and lifting him upright. “Can you walk?”

“I’ll try.” He shuffled forward, stiff-legged, his face a portrait of pain and hoplessness. “Roh’kash, great mother, my spirit longs to nurse at your side.” He gasped, struggling to finish the prayer of confession. “Forgive me. Brother Sun, Sister Moon, do not shine on my transgressions. Shine only on my good deeds. Let my debt be paid.” Tears began to flood his cheeks. “Oh gods, I’m hurt!”

“I know,” one of the lionesses said. “It was a brave thing you did for me. I forgive you.”

He looked and saw it was Avina. His heart focused on her. One of the blessed, she might be able to protect him from the Makei.

Demrath nuzzled him. “I accept your sacrifice. Oh gods, we could have been good friends. Why do things work out that way?”

“You are good and noble. Protect me in the moment of my death.”

The members of the hyena escort looked around to see whom he was talking with.

“He’s in shock,” Ber said.

Gur’mekh turned to look at Ber. The old hyena, once so full of hate, could not meet the desolate eyes of the dying ban’ret. “I admit it. I killed Demrath.”

Ber gasped. “Why did you do it? Why?”

“Because I loved Lenti. I would have done anything for her love, but I destroyed her.”

“Are you saying you really were possessed?”

“Yes.” Blood-soaked drool began to run down his neck. “I’m sorry, Ber. Accept my death.”

“You die a brave death. I accept it.”

Gur’mekh’s agony was so great that his head swam. He stumbled, and some of the hyenas propped him upright. Reduced to a bare crawl, he had to will each step up the promontory.

The Makei’s voice echoed in his head. “You don’t have to die. If you will curse Ahadi with the words I teach you, you will be King on Pride Rock and he will crawl to his death. Even now it is not too late. Do you understand me, Gur’mekh?”

“Oh I understand,” Gur’mekh thought in reply. “I understand that you are afraid! I will feed off YOUR agony for a change!”

One of the hyenas that walked ahead of him was Jalkort. “I know you tried to rush Shaka to save me. You were willing to die in my place.”

“You knew I loved you, Jal.”

“I’m going to try and help you, but you must resist the evil. Resist it, brother!”

“I’m doing my best!”

Again, the hyenas looked about. Ber alone understood what was happening. “Pray, Gur’mekh. While you still draw breath, pray. The Nisei are coming for you.”

“You are good, Ber. Just like your son.”

The makei’s voice ran through his head once more. “I also forgive you for attempting to drive me out. If you’ll swear alliegance to me, we will be friends, not enemies. I will give you power, fame, and the pleasures of Akase. The prophesy was for you to take Ahadi’s place. And when you’re king, you can help the hyenas achieve mastery of the world. We will rule together, unbeatable and immortal. Just swear alliegance to me, and all this will be yours, and much more.”

“No.”

“Don’t be a fool!”

“For once, I’m not a fool.”

“If you don’t say yes, I’ll hold you together and let you linger for hours in this agony! And it can get worse, much worse!”

Gur’mekh began to wretch up bloody scraps, wincing with the effort but helpless to stop. His moans were broken by fits of gagging. “Never!” he defiantly replied. Still, he felt such pain that he couldn’t stand it much longer. A cold sweat ran from his brow and his jaw trembled. Wretching again, he shrieked, “God, let me die!”

One of the hyena guards offered to push him off the tip of the rock but he gasped, “No! Don’t touch me! I can’t stand heights!”

Jalkort whispered silent advice into Ahadi’s heart, and the King came out to the end of the promontory. Gur’mekh looked up and saw Ahadi’s large, sad face. He looked into those eyes and saw the goodness and sorrow Ahadi felt for him. Gur’mekh was glad that that noble creature would not be victimized by the Makei.

“Do you release me, friend?” he asked in his desperation. “Have I paid the price?”

Ahadi reached down and whispered, “You have paid in full. I forgive you. Relax, son—I’ll be gentle and quick.”

Gur’mekh knew that the Makei was defeated. He smiled at Ahadi and exposed his throat.

The lion took it gently but firmly, kissing away the burden of his mangled body. Forgiven, Gur’mekh’s spirit slipped away toward the eastern horizon to join his ancestors. He found peace at last.

CHAPTER 26: THE TRANSFERENCE

That night, Gur’bruk and Kambra crept quietly and sullenly across the savanna toward Pride Rock, tall and forbidding in the moonlight. They stalked to the base of the stone, already having scented what they were after. The smell made their hackles raise. Kambra in her ambivalence walked slowly and stiffly, everything in her begging her to flee, and everything in her being tugged forward by an okash’s love. Gur’bruk came to her shoulder and leaned upon her. His presence was comforting, and she found the strength to make the last few steps.

At last, the grass parted, and lying on the ground before them in a broken huddle were all their hopes and fears.

“Gur’mekh!” Kambra nearly collapsed. “Oh gods! My precious little boy!”

“Courage,” Gur’bruk said, tears streaming down his face. He nuzzled her, but then turned back to his only son. His paw ran tremblingly over Gur’mekh’s face, tracing down his neck still potent with Ahadi’s scent. “Roh’kash has staked her claim on him. He’s at peace now.”

Kambra tried to mumble a prayer, but she broke down and began to sob uncontrolably. “Oh Gur’bruk! Our son! Our son!”

Some lionesses emerged from the grass. “This land is off limits to your kind,” Uzuri said. “King’s orders.”

Nearly unaware of their presence, Kambra fell across the torn and battered body, howling pitifully.

“His wife?” Uzuri asked.

“My wife,” Gur’bruk said. “He was our only son.” He slumped, his ears and tail drooping. “Can’t you please just go away and leave us alone? We’re not hurting anyone. Please, for God’s sake, just go away?”

The lionesses looked at the faces of extreme pain and grief, then looked at each other. “We did not see you here,” Yolanda said without asking any leave. “We will be back in a few hours, so do what you have to do.”

“He’s too big for us to move,” Gur’bruk said. “We were banned, so no one else will help us.”

Kambra asked, “What will happen to my boy?” She looked around at the lionesses one by one. “I know he’s dead anyway, but his bones need to rest with his fathers. His spirit can’t rest if he’s left here!” She fell before Yolanda. “Haven’t you lost a cub before? That could have been your son!” She crawled to Yolanda’s feet, kissing them with her eyes tightly shut. It was the most humiliating of hyena pleading gestures.

“Don’t do that,” Gur’bruk said gently but firmly. “Can’t you see we’re lucky to be here at all?”

Kambra moaned, reaching up with a paw and gently rubbing Yolanda’s forearm. She kissed the lioness’ foot again, anointing it with her tears.

Yolanda cleared her throat. “Go on without me, sisters. I’ll be detained.”

The hunting party moved on, and when they were out of range, Yolanda reached down and tenderly nuzzled the sobbing Kambra. “Stand up, honey. I’ll carry him for you.”

Kambra slowly rose to her feet. She looked searchingly into Yolanda’s eyes. “Yes, you DO understand. Somehow, some way, I’ll repay this debt. I swear it.”

“No debt, hon. Your son was very brave. You would have been proud of him.” As gently as if she were moving a cub, Yolanda took Gur’mekh’s battered body by the scruff of the neck and followed the hyenas back toward the eastern meadow. From there, Gur’bruk and Kambra went into exile. Yolanda last saw them heading across the desert. Whether or not they would make it, she did not know.

Of course that same night the Makei was without a home, and he sought someone else to cling to. Someone who would voluntarily accept him. Shimbekh was too wise to take him in. But that was a momentary handicap. Somewhere out there was someone that would let him in.

He began to wait on a hard-bitten and hard-biting female who was full of repressed rage, sorrows, and bitterness.

Fabana stirred in her sleep. She was overwrought from the events of the day. She worried that she would grow old in destitution and ruin, never enjoying the life she’d heard told about by the clan members. Her heart began to fill with bitterness, a bitterness that was sweet incense to the Makei.

Fabana heard something and looked around. A bright golden light appeared next to her. Staring from the bright light was a beautiful female hyena.

“Are you a ghost??” Her hackles raised and she trembled.

“No,” the form said in almost a dreamy lullaby. “I am who I am. Okash of all, child of none.”

Fabana fell at her feet and kissed them. “Roh’kash ne nabu! Roh’kash ne nabu!”

The Makei reached down and kissed her gently. “The Lord your God has come to rescue your people. I have anointed your unborn daughter to become the next Roh’mach at the time I have chosen. You will name her Shenzi, a name that will come to mean salvation for the race.”

“I am yours!” Fabana fell on her back and reached up with a paw. “I am yours! Use me!”

“I shall,” said the Makei. “Oh, I shall.”

CHAPTER 27: BIRTH OF A ROH’MACH

Melmokh strictly warned Fabana not to reveal the prophesy before the appointed time. Faithfully she agreed to keep silent, though her reputation could have used the help. A few of the hyenas treated Fay with distain because of her husband, doubly unfair because Jalkort did nothing shameful.

Since Gur’mekh was disgraced and dead, it was easier to rail against him and his followers openly instead of whispering in the shadows. Fay contented herself by imagining the looks on their faces when the plans of Roh’kash were made public. There would be an accounting then, by the gods!

However, most of the hyenas were sympathetic to her plight, especially Ber. He tried to help her get by when she became too great with child to hunt, becoming a second okhim to her. He listened sympathetically when Fay needed a friendly ear and occasionally brought her some meat. There was only so much he could do since he was hunting for Lenti and her pups. But his friendship fed a hunger deeper than the pit of her stomach.

Lenti was also like a sister to Fabana. She remembered the gazelle that she ate the night her husband died. Fay was the giver then in the days of her sleek, well-fed figure. Now the ribs showed, and she walked a little slower, her head bowed a little lower and her smile used a lot less. As Gur’mekh’s group had formed a clan within a clan, a common bond of grief united Fay and Lenti in a private world of grief.

Korg and Skulk had gotten away with their role in killing Avina. It almost seemed unfair that they walked and slept and breathed the fresh morning air while Jal’s bones sharpened the teeth of jackal pups. At least they had the decency to look away when Fabana and Lenti walked by, and not brazenly meet their glance.

Amarakh was already unpopular with most of the hyenas for her handling of the Avina affair. She had little to lose by being openly friendly to Fabana, even to the point of giving a public eulogy for Jalkort. Fay was very grateful, especially when Amarakh would come by to check on her. It was her link with respectability. As if Amarakh knew this, she would go out of her way to be seen with Fabana in front of the others, asking about her health and her pregnancy.

When the pups were born, the first male was named Ed. This was a form of exorcism, for the name of her betrayer would belong to her faithful child, and the hurt would be undone. Banzai his brother would bear a warm place in his mother’s heart, for he looked like his father. But it was Shenzi that was of special interest. For this was the daughter of the prophesy. Small and helpless, the future Roh’mach snuggled to her muti to take her first meal. “Wherever you are, Jal, see your children. Aren’t they beautiful?”

Fabana looked at Banzai’s face and wept. “Oh, Jal! You did not leave me without comfort! My poor, dear Jal!”

It was not until four moons after the birth that the false Roh’kash made an appearance. It was very subtle to avoid frightening the children. The Makei needed their complete trust.

Smiling, the being of light whined and licked Shenzi. “You’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful that my heart melts.”

“That’s God,” Fabana said, falling face down to the ground and trembling.

“Hello, God,” Shenzi said, boldly rubbing against the false Roh’kash. “I’m Shenzi.”

“Show respect!” Fabana stammered.

“SHOW respect? She will be SHOWN respect,” the light said. The false Roh’kash materialized as a beautiful female from the light. She dropped her front legs and wagged her tail. Shenzi began to bat her with her paws. With Fabana watching in near shock, her daughter began to wrestle with the Creator, laughing and finally collapsing in submission as Shenzi was bathed by Roh’kash’s own tongue.

As days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, young Shenzi was the “daughter dearest” whom the false Roh’kash had anointed and given the power of life or death. And still not a word was breathed outside of Fabana’s family. “When the time is right, the truth will reveal itself,” the light would say. In a very bitter way, that would prove to be true.

CHAPTER 28: CONSOLATION

Shimbekh turned again to Brin’bi for comfort. Her first love had fled, her sister was gone, and Gur’mekh had been picked clean by the jackals. Her parents had turned inward in their grief and were little help in sharing her own burdens. Brin’bi’s friendship upheld her during a time when all other support was gone. And over time her feelings for him had had grown to a love.

Brin’bi could feel that love, and it began to play upon him. He would appear to her more often, sometimes unbidden. And she never did anything to discourage him. In fact, she craved the every moment of the time they spent together.

Giddy as a young bak’ret on her first date, she went to all of the places she enjoyed and took Brin’bi on a tour of her private world. But her favorite thing was to lie in the grass Gur’bruk and Kambra were wont to do, gazing into his soft eyes and loving him without a word. In her rapture, she remembered the Ecstacy of Limlorin

Gentle zephyr out of the west Bear my love on wings of fire Straight to the heart of my beloved!

Who is like unto him? His smile begats the sunrise, His touch, the joy of life!

“If I had not died, we would have had pups and hunted together.” Brin’bi looked down. “I’m sorry I cannot give you what you want. Of course we could try…” Brin’bi stopped, embarrassed.

“What?”

“I don’t know if it would work with you in that body.”

“What??” Shimbekh was excited. “Come on, Brin’bi—are you holding back on me?” She peered deeply into his ka and could see his thoughts. “Let’s try it! Do you want to?”

“All right. Close your eyes.”

She stood, her eyes firmly closed. “Tell me when.”

“OK. Here goes…”

Shimbekh gasped. “I can feel you!”

Brin’bi slowly passed through her. “Shimbekh!” he cried in undiluted joy. “Do you feel like I do?”

“I hope so, Brin’bi! I can feel your joy! I can feel it! Warm, beautiful golden joy! You beautiful thing! Can you feel me too?”

“Yes!” He sighed. “I didn’t realize how much you loved me! Shimbekh, my darling Shimbekh!”

Brin’bi came on through, then turned around and kissed her.

She could feel the lick. It was warm and moist, not like a ghost. She opened her eyes and kissed him back. “Will you have me?”

“Do you know what you’re asking? You are still of this world with its passions and needs. Do you really want to pledge to me? A spirit?”

She smiled and said, “Yes, Brin’bi. We both saw our first love take the right fork when we took the left. But who’s to say the left fork can’t lead to happiness?”

He nuzzled her. “Bal dareth, Shimbekh?”

“Dareth koh, Brin’bi!”

They kissed and pawed each other. His touch was real and gentle. A tear rolled down her cheek. “Husband,” she sighed as a smile blossomed on her face. “Brin’bi, my husband!”

CHAPTER 29: MAKHPIL

Shimbekh was as anxious as any new bride to present her love with a child, someone that would be theirs to love and nurture. But she had one problem—Brin’bi was dead. In fact, she was faced with the embarrasing complication of registering her marriage with the Roh’mach and one other witness.

Amarakh did not understand Shimbekh’s powers, but she did appreciate them. And anxious to have her young friend happy, she did not require any proof of their relationship, even the simple step of speaking with Brin’bi. Kambra was her other witness, and like Amarakh, she promised to keep the marriage a secret from the others.

Officially married, she set about the task of having a child. Having a surrogate okhim was out of the question—she wanted to keep herself pure for her husband. So the only other way was adoption.

There were certainly enough pups to choose from who wandered the stars, and she did consider giving her heart to one. But she wanted at least one warm body to lay beside her in the night, one who would grow and present her with grandchildren someday.

Ber’meer, a distant cousin, had married the daughter of a seer, and his daughter Makhpil showed an emergence of strong psychic powers.

Ber’meer had often given hints to Shimbekh of his desperate attempts to raise Makhpil. The stress of raising her was beginning to erode his marriage. Though it would be a challenge, Shimbekh liked Makhpil, and wanted to give her the home life she needed to grow into a secure and happy adult. It was either that or giving her up to the priestly caste for training. So Ber’meer was absolutely delighted when Shimbekh made him an offer. “Frankly, she scares me. I think she feels it, and she rebels against our authority all the time. Pardon my honesty, but I’m afraid she’s going to be another Gur’mekh”

When Makhpil was weaned, she went to live with Shimbekh. She was told that it was an extended visit, in the hopes that she would grow fond of her new parents before the adoption became final.

Makhpil was sad for perhaps a day. But once she peered deeply into Shimbekh’s eyes, she felt the spell of Shimbekh’s love. Like Gur’mekh, she was irrestistably drawn to her, drunken with a love she had not felt before.

Unlike most of the hyenas, Makhpil could easily spot Brin’bi whom she called Okhim from the beginning, and she quickly began calling him Maleh.

Shimbekh and Brin’bi did not treat her like a freak, but instead wrapped her in a warm, soft blanket of unconditional love. Under their encouragement, she quickly stopped her tantrums, blossoming into a vibrant young lady who was polite and anxious to please.

Makhpil showed every sign of being delighted with Shimbekh and Brin’bi, but after one week, she began to look very sad. She would not admit to it, much less discuss it, but she sank into a depression. Finally, Shimbekh saw her huddled in a corner of the den they had dug her, sobbing. There was no denying it then.

“Are you homesick, hon?”

“No!” She continued to sob.

“Well, what’s wrong?”

“You’re going to send me back! I don’t want to go home! They don’t love me—they’re scared of me!”

“Oh but they do love you. You frighten them, but you’re their little girl and they’ll always love you.”

“But not the way you do.” Makhpil sniffed, wiping her eyes with a paw. “I like it better here, Muti.”

Shimbekh shuddered. “Darling, you called me Muti!”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not!” She fondled her with her paw. “Honey tree, how would you like to be my daughter and live with your Maleh Brin’bi and I?”

Makhpil’s tail began to wag so strongly that her hips shook from side to side. She jumped up and kissed Shimbekh over and over until she had to laugh. “OK, I take it that means yes?”

Shimbekh now had a family, and though she missed the traditional closeness a wife would have to her husband, she adored Brin’bi all the more for coming to her unhappy world to keep her company. In the hard times ahead, he was a great comfort to her, as was Makhpil. Shimbekh saw in her what she once was, blithe, innocent and fresh.

CHAPTER 30: A CHILL WIND

Lenti tried to raise the children as best she could. When she would leave to go hunting, Krull was left in charge of his sisters. He learned at an early age to take on large responsibilities, something that would come into play when he became Roh’mach. He didn’t know it, but very soon he would have all the responsibility he could handle.

The pups were upset. “Muti is never this late!” Tela squeeled. “I want my Muti!”

“She’ll be home soon,” Krull said. It’s way past mid-moon now.”

“How do you know she’s coming back?” En’geer said quietly. “How do you know?”

“Because she loves us. She would find some way to come back, no matter what.” He closed his eyes and quietly whispered, “Please God, let her come back!”

Time seemed to drag by. Krull did not want to admit it, but he was on the verge of tears himself. But he could not cry—he had to be strong. Still, he closed his eyes tightly and silently murmered, “Roh’kash ne nabu! Koh’pim ket ra mispa ojkhim! Muti ne gris…”

As if in answer to his prayer, he heard a stirring in the grass. But there was also a low moan. Running out of the den, he saw his okash limping, holding up one of her front paws. There was a large kick wound on her shoulder, and a trickle of blood stained the length of her forearm.

“Muti! What’s wrong??”

“Everything’s going to be fine. It’s nothing.”

The pups piled out of the den and began to mob her. She had no lack of help cleaning her wound, and three different offers for support in case she could not make it to the den.

“I’ve come half a mile like this. I think I can make it.”

Despite her confidence, she was stiff and ambled very slowly and painfully into the comfort of the burrow, where she collapsed exhausted.

She did her best to keep the wound clean, but it became infected and before long she could barely put weight on it.

Three nights in a row she went out hunting. Each time, she came back late and exhausted. And she never caught anything. Finally, she stopped trying to hunt and gave in to her growing weakness after she collapsed on the trail and had to be helped home.

Ber tried hard to gather enough food for her and the growing children. He began to grow a little gaunt, for he would eat very little and save most of his kills for them. Lenti could not afford false pride. She accepted the food gratefully, kissing Ber and gradually going from calling him Okhim to calling him Maleh.

A week passed. The rest had done her no good at all. In fact, she was getting steadily worse. When Ber brought her the leg from a gazelle, she was almost too weak to take a bite. She pawed his face and said, “You’re so good to me. I love you, Maleh.”

“I love you too. You must get well, you must!” He nuzzled her gently. “Lenti, pray about it. Pray as you’ve never prayed before. And you’ll know that somewhere I’m praying with you.”

After Ber left, Krull began pulling strips of meat from the carcass, mincing them in his teeth, and bringing them to his okash. He’d been doing that for a while now, for she was too weak to feed herself. Lenti pawed him and in a faint whisper said, “My special little boy!”

Unable to contain himself any longer, Krull burst into tears. “Muti! Muti!” he sobbed. “You got to get well again! You just GOT to!”

“Honey, I’ll try my best.” She shivered violently. “So cold! I’m so cold!”

It was very hot, actually, but her children knew the routine, and came and piled on her, their warm bodies giving her comfort. She began to relax. “Such good children. Someday I’ll make this up to you, I promise!”

She fell into a deep sleep, snoring loudly. Then shortly after mid-sun, she fell silent. Completely silent. Krull noticed he could not feel her chest rise and fall, and he tried to wake her.

“Muti! Wake up, Muti! Wake up!” He began to sob. “Muti, wake up!! Please!! Mutiii!!”

She was dead, and through the long afternoon and into the quiet evening they huddled in the darkness of the den next to her slowly cooling body.

Finally Ber came by with a rabbit. “Food! Come on out, you little rascals!”

Rather than pouncing on the food, they all came and huddled around him, sobbing. He kissed them, then went into the den where he found her body. “Oh, Lenti!” He bent down and kissed her cheek. “Find my son. Find peace. Find Roh’kash. Your suffering is over, and now mine can’t get any worse.”

Ber and Sildresh opened their hearts to the children, digging a new den for them. The old den was filled in around Lenti. Ber could not bear for her beauty to be disfigured by scavengers.

“I hope this is the end of the tragedy,” Ber said, smoothing the dirt evenly where the entrance used to be.

But it was only the end of the beginning…

CHAPTER 31: TAKA’S WOES

“I’m coming of age, the time when a lion goes out into The Big World to make his fortune,” Taka told Sarabi. “Other than food and water, I have one need. Love, Sassie. Right now, Mom and Dad still love me. Maybe not as much as Muffy, but they do. And you love me, don’t you?”

“Yes! How many times do I have to tell you??”

“Once,” Taka said. “It’s time we stated our intentions. I want you.”

“We are not of age. Not in their eyes at least. It is corban. They would never agree to this.”

“Then don’t ask them to. If you will always love me, pledge to me. I won’t ask more until you come to me of your own free will. But we’ll go away together. We’ll leave tonight at high moon.”

Sarabi was taken aback. “I’m honored, really. But how are you so sure you will want me as your lioness? I mean we’re friends, but do you really know what you want?”

He reached out with a paw and fondled her strong, shapely form. “Our love could move Heaven and Earth. It would spread like ripples in a pond, growing, spreading, deepening. You know I want you. When you look at me, when you touch me, I want you. Sarabi, look at me. You know I want you.”

“I believe you.” She looked away. “You will be Prince Consort. It is foolish to go away when you are wanted here. It is safe here—out there in The Big World it is so uncertain. We have to think about our children.”

“There is only one certainty I want,” Taka said. “Before the gods, before the stars, before the assembled host I swear to give you my protection, my love, and my comfort forever.” He waited for her reply. “Come on, Sarabi. Say it.”

She started to hold her paw out to touch his, but it trembled and she pulled back.

Taka’s head bowed. “I understand. You are only a small lioness in a big world. How could you hope to fight destiny?” In a tone of resignation, he slumped sadly and said, “It would be better for all of us if I left. I want to be remembered with some kindness-maybe a little regret for what might have been. And it might have been fine, Sassie.”

Taka headed for the river valley, a predator whose only prey was his own self. Little did he know that he was also stalked by Melmokh the Makei. Behind him trotted an ominous silent shadow without an owner. Taka’s self-pity fed the hungry spectre, and renewed his hopes of one day realizing his dream to enslave Pride Rock and those who dwell about it.

Finally Taka stood on the edge of the river valley. What lay before him, he was not sure. Would there be peace at last? Peace and rest from his struggles?

Melmokh could not sit by and watch the show, though the moment was sweet to his great appetite. He was ready to cast a spell on Taka, but Mano appeared, interposing himself between the two. “You shall not have him.”

“Have him? HIM? I only plan to keep him from killing himself.”

Mano frowned. “A kindly gesture? From you?”

“Watch me with your own eyes. I will make him hungry, and I shall provide a meal for him.”

“I do not trust you.”

“While you are not trusting me, he’s about to jump.”

Mano looked about in alarm to see Taka looking off the edge of the cliff. He had to make a quick decision. “Look, I’LL make him hungry. YOU hunt him some prey. If this is one of your tricks, I will finish you the way I should have long ago.”

“Lord Aiheu, creator of the universe,” Taka stammered, “I stand far from the rest, alone for I am dying. Forgive the many hurts I have caused. The night is coming when the breath you gave me will return to the heavens. Gods, help me! I’m afraid. Let it be quick. Aiheu abamami!”

Before he could jump, he heard the death cry of a gazelle, and turned. He could see a lone hyena panting, pulling the hide off a fresh kill.

“I have fulfilled my part of the bargain,” Melmokh said. “Now I will leave him to his meal as I have said. You may follow me and see that I will not even speak to him till sunrise tomorrow.”

“I may do more than that,” Mano grumbled. “I have my own plans for him, so just you watch yourself!”

Of course Melmokh did not promise that he would not talk with Fabana, and through her thoughts get a glimpse into the misery of Taka to figure out how to consolidate power and have some real say in the Pride Lands. It did not however suffice to fill his whole ambition to become permanently manifested. He was looking for ways to do that.

CHAPTER 32: OUR LITTLE SECRET

Since the birth of Simba, Taka had been made one plan after another to get rid of his young rival to the throne. Each in turn was discarded for one reason or another. Then finally he had a plan that just might work, one that relied on his hyena allies. Surely fate had guided him to them! And if fate guided him to the hyenas, fate must also decree that he would be King of Pride Rock. King at last!

Taka slowly paced up the rocky slopes of Pride Rock. Silently he practiced his elegy for young Simba. “A gentle, beautiful soul crafted from the deep love of his parents, whom the sun and moon smiled upon, and the stars called their friend!” He shook his head. “A beautiful soul crafted from the beautiful love of his parents, now borne to the heavens untimely. The other day, he came to me and said, ‘Uncle Scar, why don’t you have a child of your own?’ And I took him close-thank the gods I did-and told him that I did have a son. Or at least in my heart I did.” Again, he shook his head. “He said, ‘Uncle Scar, it’s so sad that you don’t have a child of your own!’ And I took him close… ’” He stopped and a tear rolled down his cheek. “Oh yeah, that should wring tears from their hearts. I wish I’d thought about biting my tongue before! Sheer poetry of grief!”

He stood on the promontory. “It is with great sadness that I look into the sky tonight. For the heavens will shine a little brighter with his star, but my heart will be darker from this emptiness inside that only Simba’s sunshine could fill.” He looked down at the imaginary audience of lionesses, then placing a paw across his brow in great pain, he stared blankly at the distant horizon. “Oh gods, how low my heart sank when I found his little body…” He smirked. “Speak of the devil, there’s the little furball now…”

Taka realized what he’d just said. “Oh my gods! IT CANNOT BE!”

“Cannot be what, Scar?”

“Oh, Sarafina!” He chuckled, holding his paw over his heart. “I thought I saw a cloud-white eagle. That would have been an omen.”

“I didn’t know you were into shamanism.”

“There’s a lot about me you don’t know.”

With that, Taka turned and slinked off of the promontory. “Of all the idiotic, contemptible, STUPID FOOLS! I should NEVER have sent Keth on a job like that! Even Shenzi tried to warn me, but no, Keth begged me, pleaded with me! ‘Oh, let me, let me!’ I’ll throw him in the thermal pool—that ought to warm his heart!”

Taka glanced out across the savanna again and sneered. There was Zazu, escorting His Highness the Furball. The lion’s eyes honed on Zazu like twin rapiers. He would have a little fun with Lord Stuck-up when the time came. Oh, yes…

Taka resumed his nervous pacing, seething inside. All Keth had to do was take his boys in quietly, overwhelm Mufasa and Simba, and sneak out. A simple plan. He had gone over it with them several times, and Keth had always said, “Simple! No problem! All we gotta do is run circles around Mustafa-”

“MuFAsa,” Taka would say, patiently.

“Whatever. Meanwhile, me and two other of my boys’ll take care of the cub.”

“And then?”

Keth would look at him blankly. Every darned time! So Taka would explain it again. “The river, you fool! You don’t want to be caught eating a lion cub. You throw him in the river for the crocodiles. After you take care of Mufasa. My gods, what part of that is so hard to remember??”

“Yeah, okay, fine, don’t tie your tail in a knot.”

Taka sat on a small patch of grass that had established itself in a pocket of the rock. With one of his claws he was idly making marks in the dirt. “Next time I see you, Keth, I’ll demonstrate each of the steps on you. Circles, snatching, ripping you from top to bottom, and yes, CROCODILES!”

Taka had been sure that by high sun, he would be ready to ascend the throne. Now the only thing he would ascend was the stony sloped path that led to his favorite resting spot, high above the ground. Taka sighed again and looked back across the rolling plains. The imbeciles had been spotted as soon as they crossed into the Pride Lands by that triple cursed Zazu. Gods, his eyes missed nothing! Mufasa had sent the bird back to escort his beloved hairball home while he dealt with the intruders.

Taka gnashed his teeth. At least he wouldn’t have to discipline the hyenas himself—his brother was taking care of that. “Another day, another plan,” he sighed.

“But what if they betrayed me??” The thought almost made his blood freeze. Mufasa was a large lion—a very large lion. Chances were good to excellent that he would end up with several more scars at least. Then would come banishment—or death. And death would almost be a mercy because he had no hunting skills. The best he could hope for would be a scavenging existance among the hyenas.

“If he attacks me, should I run at once, or try to fight first?” It was a dismal choice, and there was no certainty that the lionesses would accept him if he DID beat Simba in combat. They might rise up against him as a group… Angry and frustrated, he swatted an offending bone out of his path and stalked across the rock ledge.

“Hey, Uncle Scar! Guess what?”

Taka froze, then resignedly looked around. “I despise guessing games,” he muttered.

Simba missed this and trotted up, grinning from ear to ear. “I’m gonna be King of Pride Rock!”

“Oh, goody,” Taka growled. “I can hardly wait.”

“My dad just showed me the whole kingdom,” the cub said, trotting to the edge of the cliff and looking out over the immense expanse of grassland. “And I’m gonna rule it all,” he said proudly, chuckling at his good fortune.

While he was bragging, Taka’s eyes gleamed like diamonds, hard and cold. He began to fantasize. The cub stood on the brink of the cliff, his paws placed delicately on the rough edge of rock… Taka could creep over silently, draw back a forepaw and swat the cub with all his might. Then he could watch as Simba sailed outward, a scream trailing from his throat as he tumbled down, down, down…

He shook his head. Too risky. Too many questions would be asked, and there would be no answers. Instead, he dredged up a weak smile as Simba glanced at him. “Yes, well, forgive me for not leaping for joy.” Taka shrugged apologetically. “Bad back, you know.” He turned away and flopped to the ground rather ungracefully, ignoring the brat for the time being.

At least until he heard footsteps behind him. Taka gritted his teeth as Simba flopped across his neck, nuzzing his ear. “Hey, Uncle Scar? When I’m king, what’ll that make you?”

“A monkey’s uncle.”

Simba giggled delightedly and rolled away. “You’re so weird!” he laughed. Uncle Scar never ordered Simba around, or tried to make him wash behind his ears, or anything. In fact, he pretty much left Simba to do as he wished.

Taka rose and shook himself, then walked lazily over to the other side of the ledge. “So,” he said over his shoulder. “Your father showed you the whole kingdom, did he?”

“Everything!”

Taka wondered at this. “He didn’t show you what’s beyond that rise on the Northen border?”

Simba’s face crumpled, his ears flattening dejectedly. “Well, no. He said I can’t go there.” The cub looked decidedly put out.

A new hope gladdened Taka, and he had to fight to hold a stern expression. “And he’s absolutely right!” he ad-libbed. “It’s FAR too dangerous; only the bravest lions go there.” He let the bait dangle invitingly, looking away at the horizon.

Simba bit hard. “Well I’M brave! What’s out there?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Simba, I just CAN’T tell you.” He looked the other way, avoiding Simba’s hurt gaze.

“Why not?”

Taka looked at him paternally. “Simba, Simba, I’m only looking out for the well being of my favorite nephew.” He raised a paw and caressed the cub’s head lovingly, feeling the shape of the skull underneath. One tight clench of his paw…

Simba wriggled delightedly under his uncle’s touch. “Yeah, right. I’m your ONLY nephew.”

Taka smiled. “All the more reason for me to be protective!” His smile faded and he shook his head again, looking stern. “An elephant graveyard is no place for a young prince.” He slapped a paw to his mouth as if to stop himself. “Oooops!”

Simba was not just excited, he was ecstatic. “An elephant WHAT?! Whoaaa!” A look of total mischief fell over his face and he looked eagerly towards the dark area across the grassland.

Taka moaned. “Oh dear, I’ve said too much! Well, I suppose you’d have found out sooner or later, you being SOOOO clever and all.” His grin twisted as he drew Simba to him. “Oh just do me one favor,” he added softly. “Promise me you’ll never visit that DREADful place.”

Simba was silent for a moment, then smiled innocently. “No problem.”

The grin on Taka’s face was genuine. Taka could read his eyes like a book; the little snotnose was certain to visit the graveyard at the first opportunity!

“There’s a good lad. You run along now and have fun.” He brushed Simba away and watched him trot off. “And remember…”

Simba stopped and looked at him curiously.

“… it’s our little secret.”

The cub grinned and sped off. Taka watched him go, the smile on his face curdling into something else entirely. He rose and stretched, claws extending to their full length, looking dark and smooth, then relaxed, watching as they sank back partway and stopped, the tips still showing, gleaming razor sharp in the afternoon light. Nodding, he shook himself briskly and set off down the side of the rocks.

He had a little visit to make.

CHAPTER 33: THE OTHER LION

Mufasa paced slowly along the edge of the Pride Lands, sniffing warily at the air. The sky had begun to darken from blue to crimson orange in the west, and the moon was wakening to its full glory. But Mufasa paid scant notice to the beautiful sight, his mind fixed on the sinister tumble of rock and bone that lay some distance away.

The graveyard had a certain fascinating quality to it, and he felt the same lure that young Simba did to plumb its mysteries. It was a hotbed of smoke and mists which arose from the ground in huge shadowy gasps that choked off breath and made eyes water. He wondered why the elephants would find such a dismal place to go meet Aiheu.

Besides, there were also the hyenas to consider…

His hackles rose at the thought of them. He had followed Zazu’s directions and intercepted a group of the miserable creatures a little ways inside his territory. At the sight of his approach, they had hesitated momentarily, as if considering, but the enraged bellow that had broken from his throat decided them, scattering them in panic and sending them fleeing back to their own homeland. Mufasa had let them go, allowing them to warn the others that The King was on guard.

He had plenty of ground to cover before he could go home. So after leaving a few signs of his passing, he tore himself away from the realm of the dead and padded off silently.

He had not gone far when a strange scent made him freeze in his tracks. He looked down and in the dim light saw what looked like lion tracks. He sniffed carefully.

A strange lion!

Another male had dared intrude on the Pride Lands! The tracks led out of the savanna and towards the graveyard. His cubs had been in danger—his home had been violated! Growling with rage, Mufasa turned and lumbered rapidly over the ground, eyes never leaving the trail in front of him. He reached the invisible boundary of the Clan, balked for a minute, then plunged ahead. Hyenas were one thing; lions another. Such an act dared not go unpunished.

He wended his way among the bones and ash, flicking his paws disgustedly as he stepped through a puddle of vile muck too wide to leap. Gods, what a miserable hellhole!

“Sire! Sire!”

Mufasa skidded to a halt as Zazu shot past and nearly submerged himself in the stinking morass that the lion had just traversed. The hornbill sighed in relief as Mufasa looked on, astounded. “What in the world are—”

“Sire! You have to hurry! Simba’s in trouble!”

Mufasa’s jaw snapped shut and he stared at Zazu. “What?”

“Quickly! Follow me! Oh, this is awful!” Zazu rose, dripping, and flapped away towards a twisted rock formation several lengths away. Mufasa padded after him, noting that the pawprints of the lion led that way also. And mixed in with them were—

His eyes widened in alarm as he saw the twin sets of tiny pawprints, clearly leonine, scattered among the bigger ones.

“No!”

His ears pricked up as he heard a distant shriek of terror. “Nala!” Galvanized, he leapt ahead, following the trail of prints around a corner, through a narrow stone gap, and finally into a cave. He blinked as he saw Simba and Nala, huddled under an old ribcage festooned with dried skin. The object of their fears were the three hyenas that now stood with their backs to Mufasa as they closed slowly on the cubs. One he recognized as Roh’mach Shenzi, and a silent snarl spread his lips apart in a deadly grimace.

Ahead, Simba growled roughly, the small sound echoing in the confined area.

“What? That was it?” Shenzi giggled and bent close. “You can do better than that. Come on, big boy.” She bared her teeth and bent towards the terrified cubs, preparing to rip out his throat, when the room was filled with a fierce roar. Something powerful struck the side of her head, sending her and her brothers sprawling. Looking up, she saw Mufasa, cuffing her brothers aside effortlessly, his roar drilling through her head and paralyzing her with fear. Another swipe of Mufasa’s paw landed her brothers beside her, and his huge head loomed over her, eyes glowing with a killing rage.

“Oh please don’t hurt us!!”

“Uncle, Uncle,” Banzai cried in desperation.

Simba and Nala stood transfixed, limbs shaking in the fatigue of terror as the king berated the hyenas and sent them bolting in blind panic. Simba writhed in shame as he recalled his own puny roar. He ambled forward slowly, looking up at Mufasa with great reluctance. “Dad, I—”

He shrank away as Mufasa glanced at him, eyes blazing furiously. “You deliberately disobeyed me!”

“Dad, I—”

“Let’s go home.” He turned to go, glancing around. “I want to leave before we run into the other…”

The king fell silent as he stared back at the way they had come. The ground was marked by the prints of the two cubs, his own, and the tracks of the three terrified hyenas. But where the deep pawprints of the intruding lion had been, there was now only smoothly packed earth, marked only by time and the winds.

CHAPTER 34: THE ELEPHANT GRAVEYARD

Taka shook his head slowly and rubbed his temple with a forepaw, trying to massage away the headache that had formed there. “I’m surrounded by idiots.”

He looked down his nose at Fabana’s brood feasting on the zebra haunch he had tossed to them. How did they stand it in this hellhole? There they lay, stuffing themselves happily, wonderfully oblivious to how much more their lives could be, if only…

He shifted and angrily swatted a stone away, listening to the sharp CRACK as it ricocheted off the granite columns around him. If only… His whole existence seemed to be made of if’s. IF he had been picked to be king instead of Muffy… IF Sarabi had not spurned his affections… IF that hairball had not been born… His anger rose to the surface and he glared hotly at Shenzi. “Pfahh. Some Roh’mach! Two defenseless cubs! And you let them get away.”

“Defenseless?!” Banzai indicated his torn rump. “I’d hate to see them when they’re ready for a fight!”

“He’s right.” Shenzi returned Taka’s glare. “It wasn’t exactly like they was alone, Scar.”

“Yeah! What were we supposed to do?!” Banzai chewed and swallowed a huge chunk of flesh, belching horribly. “Kill Mufasa?” The three hyenas laughed.

Taka’s eyes flared as his mind began working, coming to life with terrifying speed. A huge grin spread across his face as he leered over the stone ledge at the hyenas, who grew suddenly silent at his gaze.

“Precisely.”

Taka stood and stretched, luxuriating in the feeling. He bounded from his perch to land quietly in front of Shenzi. Banzai and Ed scrambled away madly, and Shenzi could only stare, spellbound, at the apparition before her. Taka met her gaze, his eyes burning with an inner light, matching the phosphorescent green hue of the methane pits around them, each fueled by its own inner decay. Steam hissed from a nearby thermal vent in a white exclamation of heat, and she bit her tongue to keep from shrieking.

Taka saw the fear on her face and drew close. “Calm, my dear,” he purred. “You have nothing to fear from me. Through me your people will find salvation.”

Shenzi’s trembling stilled, her eyes widening. Had not Roh’kash herself said, “I will send you a sign. From thine enemy will come deliverance; your greatest fear shall be your greatest hope.” Shenzi had despaired of ever seeing the sign in her lifetime. Now she fell before Taka, her eyes misting. “Roh’kash ne nabu! Praise God!”

Taka bent and kissed her forehead. “Rise, Shenzi. Rise before your new king. For I swear to you: by the sunset tomorrow, I will release you from this torment.”

“How?”

“It will not be easy. I will need your help.”

“Of course!” But the Roh’mach’s ears perked up at that. “Messiah or no, he still needs us,” she realized. The thought turned in her mind slowly, a dark and tantalizing morsel that made her grin. Perhaps this was another sign from Roh’kash Herself. The Mother of All would not lead her children out of despair only to lick the paws of a lion, even such a one as Taka. Oh, no. Something greater beckoned, and Shenzi saw a vision of herself at the tip of Pride Rock, much as Gur’mekh had before her. She could feel the wind caress her as she looked out over the green savanna, pups playing at her heels, with all the kingdom bowing before her in homage. She smiled, genuinely this time, and nodded to Taka.

“Whatever assistance you need, you have but to ask.”

The lion grinned again, and turned to look at the assembled host of hyenas who had silently gathered behind him. He scanned their ranks, only half noticing, his thoughts centered on the spire of Rock that lay across the plain.

“It appears the great Mufasa is willing to risk life and limb to save his son, even to the extent of coming into the graveyard alone. Did you note this, Banzai?”

“Yeah, boss.”

“Did you note it most carefully? Did you really?” Taka peered at him intrested, a dangerous gleam in his eyes. “And what conclusion did you draw?”

Banzai swallowed. “Uhh, he wasn’t worried about himself? Just Simba?”

“Brilliant! I shall make you a warlord in my new army.” Taka laughed, a strangely empty sound. The lion looked around at the desolation, the age old kingdom of bone and stone that the hyenas had existed in for years, and spat. He lifted his head and stared again at the finger of rock where his brother lay sleeping without a care in the world. Taka’s claws extended slowly and raked across the stone at the thought of Mufasa snuggled close to Sarabi, sharing her warmth, or even greater comforts…

He gritted his teeth and willed the vision away. It went easily enough; it had tormented him many times over the past few months, and it waited with infinite paitence, knowing it would have its chance again.

Taka looked up at the crescent moon overhead. “The time has come to break free from the mud and climb to the heights. The curse that has harmed me all my days must and shall be dispelled. I am through RE-acting. It is time to ACT. And you, my brother, had best be prepared.”

CHAPTER 35: THE GORGE

“… but know, thou noble youth,

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown.”

—SHAKESPEARE: HAMLET: ACT I, SCENE V

It was the end of the world. Or close enough not to make a difference, anyway.

The thought raced through Simba’s fear maddened mind as he sprinted down the length of the gorge, his short legs flailing madly as he fought to keep ahead of the maelstrom behind him. The ground shook under his feet, sand spraying into his eyes as the leading edge of the wildebeest stampede began to pass by him on either side. Sharp hooves dug into the ground inches from his face, and he flinched away, scrambling madly to keep from being trampled. He glanced up at the bleating wildebeests and stumbled, paws flailing as he fought to keep his balance. He regained his footing and continued, tides of air rushing in and out of his lungs as he strained to keep ahead of the onrushing herd.

Ahead a dark shape hove into view; a twisted and gnarled remnant of a small tree, withered and half dead. Simba lunged for it, scrabbling up the old wood to the top. The one remaining limb swayed and creaked dangerously as he made his way onto it, tail flicking from side to side rapidly in an effort to stay balanced. One foot slipped, and his haunches slid out from under him. His front claws scored deep wounds into the old wood as he felt himself sliding over the side.

“Oh gods,” he thought, “I’m gonna FALL—”

His claws finally caught, and he laboriously hauled himself atop the limb, clutching it with fearful strength as he saw the wildebeest flowing past him like some insane river, their bleats and bellows of panic punctuating the constant thunder of their hooves.

High above, Zazu passed over the edge of the gorge wall and dipped his wings, plummeting into the crevasse as he scanned the ground rapidly. Squinting through the dusty haze, he saw the cub perched on an old limb and flew to him, fighting to keep his altitude in the roiling air.

“Zazu, help me!”

“Your father is on the way!” Zazu shouted. “Hold on!”

“Hurrrrry!” Simba screeched, as he slipped again, feeling the limb creak agin under his weight.

Zazu shot away towards an overhanging ledge where Mufasa and Taka were sliding down the slope, paws scuffing in the dirt for purchase. Ascending, he flew to Mufasa’s side and pointed with one wing. “There! There, on that tree!”

Mufasa looked and felt his blood freeze up. Sweet Aiheu… “Hold on, Simba!” he bellowed.

A passing wildebeest bumped the tree, shaking it with a loud CRACK! that all of them heard. Simba screamed in sheer blind panic as he felt the tree shift again, and saw splinters poking out from a break in the wood. Closing his eyes, he began to rapidly recite the prayer his mother had taught him when he was still nursing at her side

God bless us all, from king to cub     All members of my pride The kings above will show their love     And take me to their side My star will shine with Aiheu’s grace     Amid the midnight sky There to stand and guard the land     Forever when I —

His voice stuck on the last word, his head shaking in mute negation as tears began to run down his cheeks. “Oh God, I don’t want to die!”

Mufasa stared for a second, then clenched his jaw and leapt from the perch on the ledge, flinging himself into the stampede below. Taka and Zazu watched disbelievingly as they saw him weaving in and out between the panicked creatures with infinite grace. Zazu watched in horror, Taka in absolute glee.

“He’s going to get himself killed,” they thought simultaneously.

It was a dance of survival as Mufasa swerved among the jostling bodies armed with hooves, horns, and unstoppable speed.

Swept along in its irresistible crushing tide, Mufasa struggled to find Simba in the dust.

Next to him, a hapless gnu stumbled. Quickly she was overwhelmed and fatally battered, her dying shriek piercing Mufasa like a thorn. “No time to be afraid,” he thought. “I must find him!”

Looming ahead was a branch. Dangling over certain death was a hysterical cub. “Simba!”

Zazu flapped about, near insane with panic. “Oh, Scar, this is awful! What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” He looked at Mufasa again, missing the look of annoyance that swept Taka’s features. The hornbill straightened as Taka raised a forepaw. “I’ll go back for help!! That’s what I’ll do, I’ll go back fo—”

Sudden dark descended as Taka backhanded the bird, sending him smashing into the rock wall with an audible crunch. Taka glanced at him, wondering if he had killed the idiot, when he saw the slow rise and fall of Zazu’s chest. Unconcious, then. He raised a paw to finish the job when he was distracted by a cry from below.

Mufasa grunted in pain as he was slammed backward, sprawling in the dirt. Raising his head, he gaped in horror as a wildebeest collided with the old tree, breaking it with a final rotten crack. Simba was flung up and away, screaming as he tumbled through the air, legs flailing desperately as he saw the ground rushing up at him—

—to be replaced by Mufasa’s jaws. The lion leapt through the air, catching Simba gently and bearing him off towards the side of the gorge. He dodged a cow, and sidestepped another—

—his rear foot slipped. A bull came rushing from the dust, ramming him with terrible force, eliciting a roar of pain as he felt the horns tear his side. Simba was flung uncerimoniously away and landed amongst a sea of pounding hooves. Afraid to move, he sidesteped desperately, watching the bull as it passed overhead, feeling the thrumming inder his feet. A warm grip surrounded him, and he felt Mufasa’s breath upon him again as he was swept up in his father’s jaws.

Mufasa ran through the deadly flood, the rumbling shaking him to the core, and the smell of sweat, fear, and dust pouring in with each gasp.

“Help me! Please, God, help me!”

He looked for a ledge, however small. Working his way to the edge, he considered trying to ride it out, but he was grazed by horns. One more inch and he would have been gored!

Finally he saw a place. He leaped, sat his child down, and grabbed for purchase.

He was rudely ripped away as a group of wildebeest crashed into him, bearing him off into the dust.

“DAD!” Simba screamed, horrified. He searched the ground desperately, his eyes continually drawn by the passing wildebeest. Nothing. And nothing. And still nothing. Oh gods, where was he?!

Mufasa’s legs hurt, his heart pounded, and his lungs were about to burst. He managed to see an exit. “Oh gods!”

A rumbling roar tore at the air as he launched himself through the air, slamming into the rock wall of the gorge and driving the air from his lungs. He paused a minute, then scrabbled his way up the slope, fighting for purchase. He began to slip down ever so slowly, and desperately fought the pull of his own weight. “Help me! God help me!”

Taka paced slowly along the gorge wall, observing the turn of events. This was not supposed to happen, not at ALL. Not only had Simba escaped injury, but his oaf of a brother had fought his way clear of the stampede and was making his way to safety even now.

A whisper spoke in his brain. “And what happens when he finds out about the surprise that he was supposed to have?”

“I don’t know,” Taka muttered.

“Yes you do. He’ll finish you. You have to kill him NOW, before it’s too late!”

“No! I’ve messed things up enough already.”

“Would you rather die? This goes far beyond banishment, imbecile. This is treason. Kill him!!”

Taka stood uncertainly at the edge of the cliff, watching as Mufasa dragged his way up, unaware of the shadow which pooled behind him, black as midnight despite the dust which obscured the sun’s rays. He felt a sudden urge to plunge into the herd below and end this insane dance once and for all. No more pain.

“Scar!!”

Snapping out of his reverie, he looked to see Mufasa just below him. The huge muscular legs scrabbled desperately for purchase, finding none.

“Brother!! Help me!”

“Ohh, so now it’s ‘brother,’” Taka thought, a red haze of hatred obscuring his vision. “Fat lot of good all that strength does you now, eh?”

“Scar!! Please!!”

Taka glared at the lion below him. He had a vivid memory of Mufasa’s rage as he shouted, “Is that a challenge?”

At the time, he’d meekly said, “Oh, I wouldn’t DREAM of challenging you!” Now he not only dreamed it. It was within his grasp. For a while he enjoyed the feeling of power. He gloried in the turn of the tide.

Taka lunged down, burying his claws knuckle deep in Mufasa’s forelegs. Mufasa shrieked in pain as he felt the needle sharp claws tear into his flesh. Warm blood began to run down his legs as he stared into Taka’s face, uncomprehending.

Taka’s face split into a grin. Slowly, visciously, he intoned, “Long live the king.”

Mufasa looked pleadingly at Taka. Only then did he realize that Taka hated him and wanted him dead. His jaw trembled.

He was ripped from the wall and flung outwards, the sky and ground exchanging places rapidly, a shriek of horror following him down, down into the living torrent.

The air blistered and rippled nearby, several wildebeest shying away as Mano plunged into the canyon, crying out soundlessly as he saw Ahadi’s son vanishing into the stampede. He ran towards the spot, passing through several animals.

He padded up slowly, peering through the swirling dust as the last of the wildebeest shot past. Tears sprang to his eyes as he saw the magnificent body lying in a bloody sprawl at the base of the tree which had borne Simba up long enough for Mufasa to rescue him. Mano saw that Mufasa was mortally wounded. He came close and nuzzled the torn face, which responded slowly. Mufasa painfully lifted his head, eyes dawning with recognition as he saw the white lion standing before him. The silver-blue eyes looked kindly into his amber ones as he felt the pain slip away.

“Sleep, my friend.” Mano kissed his cheek and bore the great head to the ground with his paw. There was a moments hesitation, then the broken body breathed its last and was still.

There was an electric feeling of anticipation in the air, and suddenly Mufasa’s Ka was before him, whole and magnificent, untouched by pain or worry. He shook himself uncertainly, feeling the tingle upon his skin of the spirit which stood before him. He lowered his head and extended a forepaw. “Incosi Mano. I touch your mane.”

“I feel it.” Mano nuzzled him gently. “You must come with me.”

Mufasa moved to join him, but was stopped short as he beheld his son coming through the dusty air, crying his name. “Simba! I must go to him! I must go to him!”

“No!” Mano restrained him with a paw. “You must NOT go to him. You have gone down the left fork, and he is headed down the right. But I will find a way out for him.”

CHAPTER 36: AMONG THE DUNES

Beyond the gorge lay the thorns, and beyond the thorns lay the land where even thorns would not grow. It was the desert, the place of lost hope.

The wind blew slowly but steadily across the face of the dunes, carrying a light misting of sand with it as it blew into Simba’s face, making him squint, his eyes burning. There were no rich earthy smells of life—it was the sterile smell of solitude.

A faint whistling sound caught his ears, and as he topped a rise, he saw the skull of a small animal, bleached white in the sun and picked clean by vultures. No jackal would come to that forsaken place. Simba blinked at it for a moment, peering into the eyesockets, and seeing the clean white interior polished by the grit-laden wind. He could see himself lying there. Perhaps his turn would come over the next dune, or beyond that range…

He padded slowly down the soft face of the dune, floundering in the soft sand for a moment before regaining his footing. The hot wind gusted again, driving needles of grit into his face and bringing no relief from the heat. “I deserve it,” he thought. He couldn’t imagine what being trampled to death was like, but surely it had to be worse than lying on the sand to sleep and never wake up. “Dad, come for me when I die. I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

Simba shook his head and gasped, breathing rapidly. Struggling through the sand, he began to run, mindlessly fleeing the thoughts that tore at him, wishing he could only find a place to lay for a moment and rest. Heart pounding, he fled acros the featureless face of the desert, just one more golden speck in that vast sea of sand.

The ground abruptly firmed beneath him, and he was scrambling across the hardpan, the bed of a long forgotten lake, now rough and unyielding in the sun’s merciless onslaught. He slowed, panting hoarsely, unable to continue at the rapid pace, padding slowly across the ground. The heat hammered at him from the firm sand, the imbedded salt deposits glittering like a spray of diamonds caught in the earth. The glare blinded him, and he slitted his eyes, paws quietly pat-a-pattering against the hardpan.

And then something glimmered far ahead.

Simba sat, shading his watering eyes with a forepaw as he fought to see, his thirst-swollen tongue hanging limply from his mouth. It shimmered invitingly, a quicksilver gleam at the edge of his vision.

Water. Oh gods, WATER!!

He rose and padded towards it rapidly, then began to trot. Soon he was running, his tired and dangerously overheated muscles running off some unknown inner reservoir, the sweat-matted fur on his forehead flying as he ran, oh gods it would taste so good, he wouldn’t even slow down, he would just sprint full tilt into it, splashing happily as he drank, he would roll in it, he would…

He slowed, his eyes gaping in disbelief as he saw the edge of the water begin to recede from him, the shoreline backing away as he came closer. Padding to a stop, he gaped at the glimmering lake ahead, wondering what was happening. His mouth fell open and he uttered a dull croak. “Uh?”

High above him, an answering croak returned from a soaring vulture. Its mate heard and responded. Soon they were joined by a third, and then others as the avian sentinels began to circle in cold anticipation.

Simba stood unaware of this, his mind trembling on the edge of awareness. He broke into a shambling run again, moaning as the waterline receded again… again… small islands of sand appeared in the water, slowly growing in size till there were only remnants of the sparkle that had deceived him.

The cub arrived on the spot where the beautiful lake had been to see only more sand. Dry, hot sand. He had discovered the how cruel the desert could be. His jaw began to tremble as tears came to his eyes.

Running was no use. Soon he would be back with his father. He stumbled on a few more steps, then toppled, the hard desert floor catching him with a dull thud. Simba laid on the sand, paws stirring weakly in restless motion as the heat drew at him. Tears cut clean courses through the dusty fur on his cheeks as he lay quiescent, unable to fight anymore, waiting for the end to come. “Mother!” he cried weakly. “Mother!”

A terrible weight clutched at his chest as he thought of her. He would never see her until her time came in the years to come. Nala was always such a good friend. Did she know he was dying? And after Scar told the pride of what he had done, would she even care? Sarafina was always so kind to him, like an aunt. And Uncle Scar—oh how disappointed he had looked! His brother lay dead. Simba’s father. Sarabi’s husband. “Mother!” He sobbed again.

A soft lioness voice called to him. “Take heart, my son.”

Against all hope, could his mother have heard him? He looked up and saw nearby a cloud white lioness on the sand. “Come to me. You are in need. I can help you.”

“I’m seeing things again! You’re not real!”

“If I’m not real, how do I do this?” She let out a puff of breath and in moments a cool breeze swept over Simba. It felt wonderful.”

Simba stared, awestruck. “You’re real! You’re really her! Minshasa!”

She smiled. “You know me? Then you must know I won’t hurt you.”

Simba struggled to his feet and stumbled over to her. He fell before her, face down. Tears began to run down his face. “Please help my dad! Do one of your miracles! He’s in the gorge back to the east! Please make him come back! He’s dead, and it’s all my fault!” He sobbed until he shook.

“Your father is with God. It is too late to help him.”

“Are you here to take me too?”

“Not this time.” She purred. “I am in my milk. You are a little old for this, but I think it would be all right this once.”

Simba dragged himself to her side. He snuggled up against her belly, nuzzling the soft fur in obvious embarrassment but desperate for sustenance. He fed slowly, feeling strength returning to his limbs, the trembling muscles relaxing at last. He lay quietly, eyes half closed, lulled by the sound of Minshasa’s breathing and the steady beat of her heart, the sounds evoking memories from far back in a haven of comfort, safety and love.

Presently, he looked up, milk running down his chin. Minshasa cleaned him off with her tongue, then began to groom him. He purred.

“What can I do, Minshasa? Where can I go?”

“Follow the setting sun. It will take you to a safe place.”

“But can’t I stay with you?”

“No, son.”

“Please?”

“No, Simba. Your destiny lies to the west.”

“You know who I am?”

“Yes, and what’s more, I know why you’re here.”

He looked down. “Oh.”

Tears streamed down her face. “Simba, my precious little boy!” She nuzzled him and he came and huddled against her comforting bulk, sobbing brokenly. “Poor little child! So much grief, so much pain!”

“All my fault!”

She began to groom him, her warm tongue washing away his tears in its rough caress. “Poor little Simba. So tired, little Simba. So tired.”

Simba yawned, barely able to keep his eyes open. “I am kind of tired.” He yawned again.

“So tired,” she repeated like a meditation. “So tired. Sleep now. Yes, sleep. Sleep soundly, and when you do, forget you saw me here. Forget, Simba. Forget everything but this: follow the setting sun. It will take you to a safe place.”

Simba surrendered to the enchantment, falling into a deep, dreamless sleep. Minshasa bent and gripped the cub in her jaws tenderly, lifting him easily enough. Turning, she trotted away westward, paws kicking up gentle spurts of sand as she moved. A few moments later, her outline shimmered slightly, and she bacame faintly translucent, Simba following suit. She began to pick up speed, paws moving rapidly over the ground, yet not disturbing the sand in the slightest. Mishasa ran steadily, tirelessly, heedless of the motal constraints of fatigue and thirst as she flew across the desert surface. And the cub in her jaws slept soundly. Having been drawn into the twilight world between Ma’at and the spirit realm, he also felt no thirst or hunger, but passed the moments in the gentle cradle of sleep.

Minshasa continued onward well into the night, the moon’s glow welcome but not neccessary. As she breasted yet another dune, she slowed, tensing. Pacing forward, she felt a tingling sensation pass over her body. She stopped, stretching out with all her senses, physical and otherwise, then nodded slowly. She had passed beyond the edge of Melmokh’s malign influence. Heaving a sigh of relief, she turned to continue onward and froze.

Standing atop the dune in front of her sat a solitary lion, his pure white fur gleaming mellowly in the moonlight. He looked at her silently as she slowly padded over to him, laying Simba down gently and then looking at him, her eyes pleading.

He shook his head. “I’m sorry. We cannot interfere any more. Melmokh cannot reach him this far away, and Simba must make his own path from here.”

“Mano, we cannot just leave him! Too much depends on him!”

He looked at her sternly. “Would you cripple him, springing to his side whenever he faces trials?” His voice softened. “No, my love. It must be this way.” He kissed her gently. “He must face his destiny. All we can do is to keep the balance. Aiheu will not forsake him.”

“I know. But look how small he is. He cannot survive by himself.”

“I have arranged that,” Mano said gently. “Someone who can understand him and who will love him.”

“Husband,” she cooed, nuzzling Mano. But she quickly turned back to the cub. She trembled as she looked at Simba lying on the sand. Bending down to the cub, she kissed his cheek softly. “Your feet tread a stony path, one you must follow to its end, my child. But do not despair—it leads back to Aiheu.”

With one last glance, the two walked away to the west, fading slowly from sight, becoming transparent, then slowly discorporating, their outlines dancing in the moonlight like motes of dust. A light wind skidded across the desert floor, swirling the dust into a haphazard pattern to conceal their tracks.

CHAPTER 37: ASLEEP ON THE JOB

After a discrete pause to allow the new king to try to compose himself, Zazu respectfully requested an audience with Taka to discuss a personal matter. The lion readily agreed, and the two wandered off to a quiet corner of Pride Rock where they could talk undisturbed.

“Now then, my loyal friend.” Taka summoned up a smile and nodded to the hornbill. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well, Sire… I’m rather loath to breach the subject at a time like this…”

“Oh come come, we’re all friends here.”

“Well…” Zazu rubbed his primaries together nervously. “Back in the gorge, I was going to fly away and summon some more help to rescue the young prince-”

Taka dropped his head. “God rest his soul,” he said quietly.

“Indeed.” Zazu cleared his throat, wondering if it might not be such a bad idea to drop the subject altogether.

Finally, Taka lifted his head, eyes bright. “I’m sorry. Do go on.”

“Well, I must have struck something… because I don’t remember what happened.”

“Oh, my, yes!” Taka looked distressed. “Gods, Zazu, I’ve been terribly remiss; I remember finding you lying there on the ledge! ARE you quite all right?”

“Why… yes, Sire.”

“Excellent!” Taka breathed a sigh of relief. “At least you did not suffer any grievous injuries. Heaven knows there’s been enough of that today.” He looked at Zazu shyly. “You know, my brother didn’t think of you as his servant. He used to refer to you as “Little Brother” when he spoke of you.”

“He did?” Zazu was clearly caught off guard.

“Bezraak the Fish Eagle was keen on getting the job. Mind you, he was stronger, sharper sighted, and a prince in his own right. He would have looked impressive perched next to Mufasa when visitors came by. If he’d made the right administrative decision, my little friend, there would have been no contest. But you had something Bezraak did not have.”

“What was that?” Zazu asked, greatly interested.

“Mufasa’s heart.” Taka put a paw across his eyes. “He turned Bezraak down because you always tried so hard to please, and because you took such good care of him when we were growing up. He loved you, truly loved you.”

“Oh!” Zazu’s head bowed and his tail feathers drooped. “May the gods bless him! I loved him too, but one doesn’t say such things to one’s betters. But he’s gone now, and I’m saying it.”

“That’s fine. Now about us.” Taka licked his paw and used it to groom his dark mane. “I see no reason why the we should be at odds all the time. Frankly, I’m in no great rush to call Bezraak. It would be a slap in the face of my dear brother. I’ve lost enough today—I don’t want to lose you too.”

“That’s very kind of you to say, but…”

“But?”

“Well, I feel a little uncomfortable, Scar. I mean, Sire.”

“In what way?”

“I’m sure it’s just me. But you know, I know Pa’haal of the Wildebeests, and I’d like to have a word with him. Just to settle my mind. You understand, don’t you Sire?”

“Oh, I understand perfectly.” He gently patted Zazu on the head, who cringed but tried to smile. “Why don’t you come outside. I’ll call together the lionesses, and we’ll have a frank discussion, no holds barred. I’ll send Uzuri to find Pa’haal. And even though I can’t stand him, I know Rafiki is no liar. We’ll have him do whatever that thing is he does at times like these to see if every word I said is not the AB-solute truth.”

“Oh, I didn’t call you a liar, Your Majesty.”

“I didn’t say you did, now did I? But if I didn’t lie, I shouldn’t be afraid to be put to the test, now should I? And I promise you that no one leaves till everyone is completely satisfied. Will that help?”

“Yes, Sire.” He preened self-consciously. “I must say you’re being awfully big about this. Anyhow, I thought you’d want me to be forthright about my feelings. You know, clean slate and all?”

“Clean slate. I like that.”

“Then you’re not angry?”

Taka half laughed. “Well, not angry.” He looked at his claws and groomed his mane again. “Maybe a little disappointed. Since we’re being so open and forthright with each other, I know I’m moody and a little tempermental, but I do have my good points. No one ever takes note of those, however.” The lion examined him with his best gazelle eyes, waiting for Zazu to melt down and call the whole idea a lot of rot. Zazu did look away with some shame, but he made no move to cancel the inquest.

Behind Taka’s calm face, he made a firm resolve to do what he must do to survive. Besides, he was sick of being nice to Zazu.

The two rose and headed back toward the lionesses, who were still assembled at the foot of Pride Rock, deep in their grief. Clearing his throat, Taka called their attention.

“We have a small problem to address. Our friend Zazu was supposed to protect Simba, you know. I mean, it WAS his job, or I would have been looking over the boy myself. But we TRUSTED him!”

Zazu shifted nervously.

Taka brought his forearm over his eyes and cried, “What a mistake! What a foolish mistake! It seems one of the lionesses, and I won’t reveal which one, found him ASLEEP ON THE JOB!”

Zazu recoiled. “W-What??”

“Let’s get to the bottom of this serious charge, Zazu. Where were you when my brother and nephew were being trampled, eh? Sleeping again?!!”

“Sire! I would never presume to sleep on duty! Besides, I WAS there; you saw me!”

“Rubbish! I did NOT see you because you were NOT there! Are you going to add lying to the other charge?” He looked around. “Is there ONE of you that can vouch that he was on the job? Did ONE of you see him? Come on, I’m giving you a chance to speak out freely!” He looked around for effect. “If just ONE will say they saw him with Simba, I’ll give Zazu the benefit of the doubt.” He examined the faces one by one. “Will no one speak in his defense?”

“You know I was there!” Zazu said, scandalized. “Tell them, Sire! Tell them!”

“I will NOT lie for you, you pathetic ball of fluff! Only your past record keeps me from killing you here and now!”

Zazu began to shake as all attention focused on him. “But I-”

The lionesses glared at Zazu. “How COULD you!” Sarabi said in a tear-choked voice. “That’s not like you, Zazu! You knew he was never to go there! I thought you loved him! Why, Zazu?? Why??”

Taka bared his teeth. “Listen to the anguish of a wife and mother! Had you been watching Simba as you were supposed to, he wouldn’t have wandered into the gorge, would he?”

“Y-Yes, but-”

“And my brother wouldn’t have had to go after him, would he?”

“N-No, but-”

Taka leaned close. “And IF you had done your job, they wouldn’t be DEAD, would they??!!”

“S-Sire, please…” He whispered just low enough for Taka to hear: “I didn’t think you hated me that much!”

“You have no idea.” Taka stared at him with eyes like red coals. “So you wish I were a rug so when I got dirty, he could take me out and beat me??”

“Spare me!” Zazu shrieked. “Just let me go! Let me go and I’ll never trouble you again, I swear!”

“Shut up,” Taka said, his voice dripping with contempt. “In view of your past service and the love which my brother held for you, I will not have you killed.”

Zazu sighed, trembling, but jerked in alarm as a pair of hyenas took up station on either side of him.

“Instead, you will be confined for the rest of your life, where I can keep an eye on you as you reflect on your guilt and hopefully find forgiveness and mercy in Aiheu. For you shall NEVER find forgiveness nor mercy in me, not in this lifetime or a hundred lifetimes!” Taka leaned forward until his nose touched the hornbill’s beak, his voice dropping to a murmur that only Zazu could hear. “And should you start any more trouble, I’ll pluck out your feathers one by one and shove you in the waterhole to drown. Understand?”

Too terrified to speak, Zazu nodded rapidly.

CHAPTER 38: ALONE

Simba stirred in the cool morning air, feeling with a paw for his mother’s comforting presence. He opened an eye and glanced around. The awful truth dawned upon him that for the first time in his life, he was completely alone. As far as he could see all around was featureless sand.

He rose, stretching, and groomed himself in the pre-dawn quiet, the slight rasp of his tongue the only sound in the stillness. Holding forth with an enormous yawn, he began padding slowly across the dunes, his tiny paws leaving a pockmarked trail in the pristine sand as he walked slowly but steadily, face turned towards the darkened western sky, the gentle breezes of twilight ruffling his fur and tickling his whiskers with cool fingers.

But the cool did not last long. His shadow sprang into abrupt relief in front of him, harsh and outlined in red. He glanced over his shoulder to see the sun heaving its crimson bulk above the horizon. The temperature began to climb steadily as it rose higher in the sky, the cold dry winds becoming hot dry winds, the rays of the sun beginning to pierce him with anger and spite.

On the second day of Simba’s journey, he fought new enemies. Tiredness, hunger, thirst, hoplessness. The one thought that kept him going was his faith that friends lay to the west.

Panting in the dry air drained moisture from him. A sweat that did not cool him matted his fur and burned his eyes. He longed to feel firm earth beneath his feet again. The soft give of the sand made walking more difficult. His small feet scrabbled for purchase on even the smallest of dunes, and he had to struggle up one side, then slip down the other. He had daydreams about soft fragrant grass wet with morning dew, and stopping by the cistern to drink the cold, fresh water that collected from the rain.

His gait became unsteady. He stumbled along, unsure why there should be anything better to the west than there was to the south or north. He couldn’t go east—that he could NEVER do. The east was where his heart lay. The most desirable and inaccessable of things. His mother’s soft fur, and Aunt Uzuri’s quiet voice that said so much in so little. Perhaps someone was eating fresh meat. His stomach began to knot up and growl. Overhead the sun stared with its one hateful eye, willing the life from him step by step. Each breath sucked precious moisture from his small body. In the sky, vultures circled slowly, meeting his gaze with undisguised eagerness as he fought to remain standing. He stared at one, and watched its image separate into two, then slowly recombine as he fought to keep his fragile grasp on consciousness. The image separated again. He felt his legs collapse and the shock hitting the ground. “Aiheu,” he moaned, the sand rasping dryly against his cheek in a deadly caress. “Help me, Aiheu. I think I’m dying.”

He put his paw across his face and surrendered. Everything went dark…

CHAPTER 39: FRIENDS IN NEED

“Better is a neighbor who is nearby than kindred

who are far away.”

— PROVERBS 27, 10

“Pumbaa, come ON,” Timon groaned. “The ground’s as dry as a bone, now; we’re not gonna find any more bugs out here.”

“I don’t know…” Pubaa’s voice was filled with doubt. “We found that beetle a little while ago, remember?”

“‘A little while ago?!’ That was two hours ago! I’m fried!” Timon continued to gripe as the foraged listlessly among the cracked and dried flats. A brief rain had sprung up this morning, the dry ground greedily soaking up the moisture and driving the insects out in droves. The meerkat and warthog had delighted in this banquet, at least until the sun emerged again. The insects had vanished with the water, the ground drying into the haphazard mosaic that lay before them, baked hard now in the glaring sun.

Sighing, Timon leaned down to try again when faint movement caught his eyes. He skittered up Pumbaa’s back to perch atop his head, shading his eyes in the glare.

“H-Hey!” Pumbaa, laughed. “That tickles!”

“Hush!” Timon squinted. “A-HA! Buzzards!”

Pumbaa grimaced. “Ewww! I hate buzzards.”

“Pumbaa!” Timon tapped his friend’s head reproachfully. “We do not speak ill of those who might show us where to find some goodies.”

“Huh?”

“They might be giving us a pointer on where we might locate a leftover culinary delight!” Timon’s stomach growled in anticipation.

“Awwww!” Pumbaa looked downcast. “I was hoping they might show us where to find some food.”

The meerkat sighed. “Just head thataway.”

Pumbaa trotted off obligingly, heading towards the circling birds, who were beginning to descend, a sure sign that whatever they had been stalking was about to expire. Fresh meat! Timon shook the rough mane on Pumbaa’s shoulders with glee. “Oh boy oh boy! We’re gonna eat right today, pal, just you wait!”

Pumbaa halted suddenly, nearly sending Timon overboard. “Why do I have to wait?! Who says YOU eat first?!”

“No, no! Just forget it and head for the buzzards before they get the good stuff!” Timon seized Pumbaa’s ears and flicked them, kicking his heels into the warthog’s neck. “YAHHHH!!!”

Pumbaa accelerated, a horrendous war cry of his own issuing from his mouth as the two charged into the pack of jostling birds, sending them scattering in disarray, feathers flying as they squawked an indignant protest back at the two. Ignoring this, the duo checked around themselves for any malingerers, then relaxed, Timon chuckling at the sight.

“I love it!” Pumbaa snorted in mirth. “Bowling for buzzards!”

Timon guffawed. “Gets ‘em every time!” He proceeded to brush himself off as Pumbaa examined the carcass that lay at their feet. “Uh-oh. Hey Timon! You better come look. I think it’s still alive.”

The meerkat drew up involuntarily. “Yeesh!” Steeling himself, he meandered over, trying to look nonchalant. After all, Pumbaa WAS watching.

“Allrighty, whatta we got here?” Bending low, he sniffed the air carefully. The scent filled his nostrils; something exotic, but vaguely familiar. But alive, he could tell that much. Shrugging, he wriggled under the paw that covered the creature’s face and strained, lifting…

… and saw the soft furry features, the whiskers, and the tip of one ivory fang protruding over the lower lip. His blood ran cold as he dropped the paw, staggering back in terror.

“Jeez, it’s a LION!”

CHAPTER 40: GAZELLE EYES

“I knew it. I just knew it!” Timon said with disgust. “I knew if we carried him to water, you’d want to feed him. And if you fed him, you’d want to keep him. Do you know what lion cubs do? Huh, DO you??”

Pumbaa looked at Timon with mist in his gazelle eyes. “No, Timon. What do they do?”

“They get bigger. It doesn’t happen all at once, see, but one day you’ll wake up…” He straddled and expanded to make his point. “… and there will be this greaaat biiiig lion as far as the eyes can see! He won’t be little and cute then, but he’ll still be our problem.”

“Keep it down, Timon. He’ll hear you!”

Timon glanced around anxiously. “Yeah. And I bet he’s hungry, too!”

“Now there you go again! He’s only a little kid, and he’s so sad and lost and helpless!” Tears began to spring up in Pumbaa’s eyes. “Just because you’re smarter than I am doesn’t mean you’re always right. I mean, not always, you know.”

“And I suppose you got it all figured out?”

“No. But while we’re wasting time figuring it all out, that little guy needs our help!”

Once in a while Pumbaa said something that made Timon stand up and take note. “All right. Answer me this, then. Let’s say we keep him. Down, Pumbaa, I said IF we keep him, what will he eat?”

Tears misted up in Pumbaa’s eyes again. “If we DON’T keep him, what will he eat?” A tear ran down the warthog’s cheek. “I gotta live with myself, Timon. Don’t make me choose between you and him. Please??”

“You can’t walk out on me!”

“I can’t walk out on him!”

Adopting a lion cub was a big decision, and it took Pumbaa a lot of discussion and a great deal of pouting to overcome Timon’s reluctance. What Aiheu did not give the warthog in eloquent speech, he made up for in sheer determination. And when Pumbaa really made up his mind and looked at Timon with his gazelle eyes, he usually got his way.

All in all, the benefits outweighed the disadvantages, Pumbaa figured; they would have to raise a youngster (a task Timon especially loathed), but the return on their investment would be enormous. Simba would make a terrific bodyguard and a good friend. Besides, Timon would not have to endure Pumbaa’s pleading looks.

“OK,” Timon said at last. “I’m going to regret this, but we’ll keep the kid.”

“Hooray!!”

The advantages of such a relationship were obvious, and the two readily fell to in making the cub feel right at home.

Simba, however, had no such preconceptions. He embraced the carefree lifestyle of “Hakuna Matata” the two preached of, somewhat reluctant at first, but more and more easily as the day wore on. It was difficult to overcome the inhibitions his parents had instilled in him; he found it hard to accept the fact that he was pretty much free to do what he pleased, eat what he pleased… even the simplest of niceties were not required. The first time he belched and covered his mouth with a paw, saying “Excuse me!” with a horrified expression on his face, Timon had gone into gales of laughter.

The cub reflected on this as he lay on his back, paws outstreched, rubbing one ear lazily as he blinked in the late afternoon sun. He tracked its progress, half intrested, thinking it was funny how much the sun looked just as it did when he had been at home.

Home.

He rubbed the fur on his belly uncomfortably, remembering sitting next to Sarabi, her warm tongue bathing him as he lay beside her, sated from his last meal, watching the same sun go down in the Pride Lands. He watched as the fiery orb doubled, then trebled in his vision as quiet tears ran down his cheeks. His heart sank along with the sun, his spirits falling and turning dark with the sky around him. The stars made their appearances one by one, standing stalwart against the night, but no such light remained in Simba’s soul. Sniffing quietly, he tilted his head back to look at the depthless expanse of the universe above.

“God? I don’t know if you feel like listening to me… but I wanted to ask a favor.” His jaw trembled, and his face drew down in deep lines as he struggled to keep control. “Would you please watch out for my pride? I mean, Uncle Scar isn’t that strong and he has that bad back… he needs help. And help Aunt Uzuri catch a lot of food so Nala doesn’t get hungry or anything.” Despite his struggles, he began to cry again, his voice wavering unsteadily as he rushed to finish. “And watch out for Mom, okay? And if you can… please tell her… I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!” His head fell forward and he buried it under his forepaws, shaking with the terrible force of his grief.

A sharp trill sang from the grass next to him, and he jumped, crying out as he backed away. A second trill answered, and son the grass was full of the droning sound of crickets, humming away busily as they sang their strange calls to one another. Fire blossomed in the grass as a small white glow emerged, flitting about aimlessly. Simba twirled in agitation as he was suddenly surrounded by dozens of tiny points of light, miniature suns that gleamed with a cold brilliance. The fireflies darted about his head, one alighting on his nose and jittering frenziedly as it signaled its fellows. The cub yelped in fear, jumping up and running across the clearing to the cover of the nearby bushes where Timon and Pumbaa were making themselves comfortable for the night’s slumber.

Pumbaa saw him scamper in, shaking furiously. “What’s the matter, Simba?”

“I’m scared!” he burst out. “I wanna go home!”

“Aww, man…” Timon groaned.

Pumbaa shushed him sternly, then turned back to the terrified cub. “C’mon, little fella. Just lie down and get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

“I CAN’T sleep! Those THINGS’ll get me!” Simba ran over to Pumbaa and huddled against his comforting bulk, shivering as he stared at the dark jungle around them, seeing movement in every shadow.

“Poor kid.” Pumbaa grunted unhappily. “Scared of the dark?”

Simba nodded.

“Huh! Me too! But ya know what?”

“What?”

“My mom used to tell me stories to help me get to sleep, and I remember ‘em all! Wanna hear one?”

Simba nodded, wide eyed, and settled in close, much to Pumbaa’s surprise. “Would you tell me one? Please?”

“Sure. Let me see…” Pumbaa grimaced, thinking hard, then smiled. “Oh yeah! This one was my favorite.

“Once there was a great leader among the elephants. His name was Mongo Earthshaker because he was so big that when he walked you could feel the ground shake. Well one day Mongo was so thirsty that he ran down to the watering hole, even though he had hurt his leg only three days before. His mate Zesta warned him that he was headed for trouble because of his leg, but he hurried anyway. Well, the water was so cool and refreshing that when he drank it he didn’t feel thirsty anymore. Then he went back to his friends.”

“Then what happened?”

“How should I know? That’s the end of the story. But there is another one about him that tells about the time he took a mud bath. You’ll never guess how it ends!”

“He cooled off, didn’t he?”

“Darn! You’ve heard it already.” Pumbaa looked alarmingly at Simba’s dour expression and put a foreleg around the cub. “Look here, little guy. You lay next to me. If you’re afraid, don’t be. I’ll take care of you.”

Simba looked at him a moment longer, then lay his head down, pressing his nose into Pumbaa’s side, trying to blot out as much of the world as he could. The gentle tides of Pumbaa’s breathing and the steady thrum of his heart lulled the exhausted cub, pulling him into a much needed sleep.

Pumbaa sat quiet until he was sure Simba had dropped off, then lay his own head down. Eyes drooping, he began to slide away into sleep’s embrace until a sudden motion from the cub brought him back to sharp wakefulness. Glancing down, he saw Simba’s paws twitching restlessly, soft moans escaping his lips and chilling the warthog with their intensity.

“Uncle Scar? I’m sorry… din’t mean it.” He shuffled restlessly again. “Accident… what’m I gonna do? Mom?” Pumbaa grunted with pain as the cub kicked abruptly, crying out in the dark stillness. “Dad! No!”

Pumbaa nuzzled him helplessly, uncertain of what to do, and was relieved to see Simba quiet down at the touch, forepaws reaching out in his sleep and making contact with the warthog’s side, claws kneading him slightly in a long forgotten reflex. Pumbaa endured the discomfort, gazing at the cub thoughfully as the night passed, until Simba dropped off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

CHAPTER 41: ATTENDANCE IS REQUIRED

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

— Old Testament (I’ll have to look it up)

Meanwhile Fabana, Shenzi and Banzai moved among the hyenas. They spread the word to all: “Important Clan meeting at high moon. Attendance is required.”

Amarakh was having a playful wrestling bout with her husband when Ber came by. “Roh’makh, do you have a moment?”

She looked up, peeved. “Can’t I have a life of my own?”

“I’m sorry, My Lady. I’ll ask you tonight at the clan meeting.”

“I didn’t call a clan meeting.”

“Well everyone else says you did. And that it’s very important.”

“Who told you?”

“Fabana.”

Amarakh sighed, kissed her husband, and said, “I’ll be back in a minute. Remember where we were.”

The Roh’mach went around looking for Fabana. She expected to trace down the source of the rumor and find out who dared to mock her. She was in for a great surprise when she finally found Fabana.

“Fay, what’s this about a clan meeting? Who told you?”

Fabana straightened with pride. “Roh’kash herself.”

“What??” Amarakh’s hackles raised. “Let me scratch my ears. I must have wax in them.”

“No, My Lady. Tonight at high moon, The Lord herself is going to address us on a matter of great importance.”

“If you say so,” Amarakh said dubiously. “Let’s just say I hope She shows up for your sake. Otherwise, I’m going to be pretty put out with you, hon.” She softened her tone. “I know it’s been hard on you raising that family of yours alone. Especially the way Jal died. I’ll think of something important to say. Maybe I’ll just make something up. I don’t want you being made a fool of. We’ll discuss this later, OK?”

“I’m not seeing things. There are witnesses. Shenzi, Banzai and Ed all saw her.”

“Look, Fay. We’ve been friends all our lives. But this is ridiculous. You go around promising God to these folks, all I can say is you had better deliver!”

There was a large pointed crag in the elephant graveyard called Makh’pil Baru, or “Moon Claw,” for at exactly high moon the shadow of its point would touch a boulder named Ul Khalil, or “The Springhare.” In living memory it had always been the signal to start a clan meeting.

Also by long custom, the Roh’mach did not discuss business before mid moon. Everyone usually had some idea what was going to be covered in advance, and this time as always there were rumors being spread through the crowd. Amarakh politely turned away questions, but she was clearly uncomfortable.

“It’s not too late,” she whispered to Fabana. “Please don’t go through with this. I’m trying to help you. You know I’m your friend.”

“I know.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Just wait. You’ll see.”

The dance of the heavenly bodies was progressing. The point of the shadow drew close to Ul Khalil. By then, everyone was in a state of great anticipation.

Amarakh was silent, her mind working quickly to think of something to say. Shenzi was looking rather smug, certain that what happened would be the crowning glory of her short life. Banzai was proud of his sister and sat erect, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye and looking gravely serious, trying not to grin broadly. Ed, as always, was Ed.

The point of the shadow crept to the edge of the rock. As everyone watched with bated breath, the black triangle crept across the stone and finally reached the exact center.

The quiet was unearthly. No one spoke or even dared to move.

Then the shadow passed the center of the stone and approached the far side.

“Thank you for coming,” Amarakh said. “My main reason in calling you here was to sort out a crime that had been committed against one of our prominent families. But since the guilty party has confessed and agreed to make reparations, I think it wise not to dredge it up again.”

“Who, Roh’mach?” someone asked.

“I prefer not to say.”

“Was that it?” another one asked.

“Pretty much. The wildebeest herd is on the move again, but most of you know that by now. I’m sorry the hunt had to be spoiled by this little fiasco.”

“When is God coming?” one of the females asked.

“Yes, when is she coming, Amarakh?” Korg asked.

“We were told God was coming!” Ber said. “So where is she??”

“Who said God was coming??”

A clamor arose. Clearly, there were a lot of disappointed hyenas who were not sure who to be upset with, but Amarakh was as good a target as any.

“Calm down everyone,” the Roh’mach said. “We’ll all see Roh’kash at the moment of our death. Think, all of you! Think! Why would God want to call a clan meeting with us? It makes no sense!”

Amarakh was suddenly aware of her shadow grow long and prominent before her, a great golden light filling the air around her with luminance and bathing the hyenas before her as they fell to the ground, ears flattened back and heads between paws. Amarakh trembled. She swallowed hard and turned around…

“Roh’kash!!” The Roh’mach fell to the ground and howled in fear. “Mercy! Mercy, Lord!”

Melmokh came to her in the form of a beautiful hyena. “You question my decision, Amarakh?” said a sweet voice. “I will not harm you. Still, you are no longer Roh’mach.”

“Why, my Lord? Have I not always worshipped you faithfully?”

“Not for your impiety, for there is no quarrel between us. I have given that title to the daughter of the prophesy. Shenzi was annointed from birth to deliver your people from bondage, and her path shall you follow.”

Amarakh rolled over and pawed at the false Roh’kash. “Even so, my Lord. Even so! I hail Shenzi, the Lord’s annointed!”

The other hyenas cried, “Hail Shenzi, the Lord’s annointed!”

Melmokh went through the crowd. At first they parted before him, but after he touched lame Pashond and healed him, the other hyenas began to crowd in on their Roh’kash, seeking blessings and the occasional coveted kiss.

“Hear my words,” the false Roh’kash cried. “I have come to liberate you through my servant Shenzi. But if you are to be worthy of her and of me, you must be disciplined. You must be sober in judgement. You must be willing to make sacrifices.”

“Even so!” hyenas shouted. “Even so!”

CHAPTER 42A: THE PLEDGE

After the presentation, Melmokh saw his opportunity to move in and establish himself as he never could with Gur’mekh.

As Roh’kash, he took Shenzi apart from the crowd to be alone with him. The two of them went along to a cave far from the others.

“You are my anointed, and I have brought you here to confirm our relationship and bond us together forever.”

Shenzi bowed before Roh’kash. “Even so, Great Mother.”

Melmokh laughed prettily. “You do not need to bow before me. I do not want your service but your companionship. Do you not know that I have sought you out to rule beside me?”

“To rule beside you?”

“Yes. As my mate.” The false Roh’kash rubbed her down her full length. The sexual meaning was not lost on Shenzi, and she froze in terror.

“You quake, my little one. Do you not know that I am both Roh’kash and Roh’khim? The Great Mother and the Great Father? They are different aspects of the same God. Behold the one who courts your affections!”

Melmokh revealed himself to her, though his evil heart was disguised with the beauty of golden light that wrapped him like a mantle. “Is this more to your liking?”

“Oh!”

He was musky and handsome, and the gleam in his eyes was hypnotic. She stared at him spellbound. He began to nuzzle her lightly around her face, kissing her passionately beside the eyes and under the corners of her twitching mouth. “You fill me with every wholesome desire,” he purred. “Our love could last the centuries. I can please you the way you were born to be pleased, and you will please me too.” He began to nuzzle her neck and her trembling shoulders. “I’m on fire, child. Give yourself to me freely, not because I command it, but because you want it. Only if you call me of your own free will, for I will not force myself upon you.”

She did not answer him, but she stood her ground when he rubbed her along her length, and from her throat escaped a low whimper as her jaw trembled. She gave herself willingly, and in doing so became truly his. As the death of Demrath bound Gur’mekh to him, so her intimacy bound her to him. But he had no desire to torment her. Far from it.

There in the darkness, Melmokh made love with her. And there in the darkness he forged a bond with her that would make her his. For it was his wish that she would one day concieve a child who would become the physical presence of Melmokh, a body through which he could fully enter the world of Ma’at and have his way unobstructed by time and space.

Of course, he neglected to tell her that.

CHAPTER 43: OMLAKH

Melmokh banned private prayer, asking instead for the hyenas to come directly into the presence of their God and speak their mind. He appeared on Ul Khalil rock each night at high moon in the form of a beautiful female hyena, speaking softly and with an outward kindness that hid the blasphemous, dark purpose of his plans.

Though many were convinced that God was among them, others were not so easily swayed. Ber and a lot of the intellectuals saw something strange with the new doctrines of the false Roh’kash. They relied on their faith instead of what their eyes told them, and in this regard they could peer through chinks in the armor of Melmokh.

This small group held a secret prayer vigil each night while the others were paying homage to the demon. Once when Ber was lying on his back in the depths of prayer, he called upon Roh’kash in tones that melted the hearts of those who heard him as perspiration broke on him and his fur matted.

“Almighty mother whose gentleness is like the sunrise, your broken remnant looks to you for deliverance. Is there no word for us? Is there no truth that we must be subject to the lies of traitors and blasphemers? My life for a word. My life for one word of truth to leave behind with these poor souls that love you!”

There was a smell of jasmine, and a soft golden light. To Ber’s surprise, the lithe, graceful form of a beautiful white lioness emerged. A deep purr emenated from her as she regarded him benevolently, her tail stirring restlessly as she spoke.

“Ber, my child, do not listen to the lies of the demon Melmokh who claims to be God. The true God has heard your prayers. There will be night before the dawn, but even in the night there are stars that shine. Be brave, my child.”

The lioness quickly kissed Ber on the cheek, then dematerialized as quickly as she came.

Ber got up, rubbed his cheek with a paw, than said, “Quick, hide! We are not safe here!”

The dissenters hurried away to the caves, and none too soon, for a fierce female hyena came hurtling in. She nosed about quickly, trying to smell the tracks and identify who was there, but the only scent to be had was that of jasmine. “Damn you, Minshasa! Stay out of here! This is MY land! I was invited here! This is MINE and you can’t have it back!”

For a brief moment, the false Roh’kash rippled and changed, becoming a furious, seething male. Looking around with eyes shining red as coals, Melmokh peered into the surrounding grass and rocks looking for those who dared discover his secret. But the lioness had sent a brisk wind that swept the tracks away without a trace. “Come back, and I’ll kill you!” he said in a voice that tore at the air, making the very stones in the earth tremble and vibrate with its gutteral fury. “One on one, you meddlesome witch! See if you’re so strong when it’s just you and me!!”

Ber and his intellectuals and the gentle-minded formed a sort of clan within a clan, which got the informal name of The Omlakhs, “the different ones.” They prayed to Roh’kash and to the white lioness in a different place each night, sang the ancient hymns and worked to keep the spirit of their faith alive in the descending spiritual darkness.

The temptation to follow a visible god who worked miracles was too strong for most of them. They believed whatever the false Roh’kash told them, losing the purity of their faith to the new doctrines of Melmokh, doctrines that sentenced his enemies to a horrible death. Ber and his group continued to worship as their heart told them, holding to the ideals of fairness and freedom that underpinned the old faith and gave it true meaning. Eventually brothers in the same family split over this issue. The Omlakhs kept strict secrecy, terrified of what would happen if someone betrayed them.

While not a terrorist organization, under the leadership of Ber, the Omlakhs did try in subtle ways to subvert the will of the Makei. And for this they ended up becoming persecuted.

Finally one of their number was found out. A female named Belvalen was trapped and condemned by the false Roh’kash to be tortured to death. For it was Melmokh’s wish to snare other Omlkahs.

Melmokh made it a test of loyalty that each member of the clan bite her hard enough to draw blood and make her scream. Some of the hyenas were loyal to the false Roh’kash, but they felt cold shudders to pierce the hide of the young female. Melmokh, sensing this, kissed each of the hyenas that bit her.

Den’beer was coming up in the line. He shuddered, knowing that he could not hurt her. Of course he knew that he would be given away, and not only die but be used to trap other Omlkahs who would have to torture HIM. He thought of a desperate plan in that moment. He knew that the only hope for his people was something that Melmokh did not understand—an act of profound love.

Belvalen was crouched in the niche where she had been held prisoner, the forbidding rock walls preventing her escape. She cringed as a blast of steam belched from the thermal vent beside her, bathing her in its gusty breath and making her break out in a sweat which was not entirely due to the heat. She shook with the pain of the wounds that had been inflicted on her body, her blood running down her sides in fine streams to pool near the lip of the cauldron next to her, bubbling and hissing as it emitted a hot coppery odor. Her limbs trembled from fear and the loss of blood, and she prayed that the pain would end soon.

Her heart sank as the next hyena in line stepped forward. Skulk came up and without hesitation inflicted a severe bite to her flank that made her shriek with agony. Her cry of pain shook Den’beer to the core. “Enough!” he thought. “It ends here!”

Now all eyes were on Den’beer. Mortally wounded but still terrified, Belvalen looked at him pleadingly. He smiled sweetly at her. “I love you, Belvalen! Let us greet the true God together!”

Relief flooded her face, and she smiled back. “Yes! Come to me!”

Before anyone could stop him, he ran to her, ramming into her and bearing her with him into the thermal vent, disappearing into the depths without a sound.

In that brief moment, Shimbekh, who could not bear to look at the vent, turned away, her gaze coming to rest on the face of the one she worshipped. Her blood froze as she saw the face of Roh’kash horribly distorted in rage, the features actually running as though seen through a haze of rain, the warm amber eyes turned to crimson points of fire that blazed with wrath. Seconds later, the Mother of All’s face returned to normal, and she bowed her head in sadness. “Such is the fate of all those who would not tread the path of righteousness,” she intoned sadly. “Let us pray for their souls.”

Shimbekh trembled as she bowed her head along with the others. How could the true God possess any evil qualities?? She had heard some disturbing rumors flitting about the clan, and some of the feelings she picked up from the hyenas around her did nothing to ease her disquiet. She resolved to speak with Ber at mid moon and find out just what was going on in her troubled family. Putting the thought aside, she turned inwards as the droning monotone of the prayer continued around her. Unbidden, the image of Roh’kash sprang to mind again, her normally beatific features now grossly twisted in a mask of hate.

She suddenly found that the soul she was praying for was her own.

CHAPTER 44: COUP DE GRACE

Simba pranced delightedly about the muddy path, splashing the water with his big paws and laughing at the pretty rainbows they made in the air, the droplets catching the light in an explosion of color before they fell back to earth.

Abruptly, another burst of color emerged before him. The cub’s face was mesmerized by the fluttering wings of the butterflies which leapt up from the jungle floor, swirling around him in a living carousel of glittering beauty. Entranced, he watched them flit abouot aimlessly, giggling at the sight of the tiny creatures. Playfully, he batted at one.

His paw flicked out with deadly accuracy, striking the insect and cuffing it to the earth in a crushing blow. Chagrined, Simba looked down worriedly as the insect struggled to move, but its wings were broken and it was now missing a couple of legs. Concerned, Simba got Pumbaa to look at it.

“What should I do?”

“Don’t eat it, kid. They’re bitter.”

“I don’t mean that. I mean-it’s going to die. I broke its wings. Is there something I can do to fix it? Can YOU fix it?”

Pumbaa stepped forward, crushing it with his hoof. “That’s all I can do. It would have suffered.”

Simba looked horrified. “Pumbaa,” he asked, very disturbed, “when you hurt something—by accident for instance—does God punish you if you’re really, really sorry?”

“I guess it depends on how bad you hurt them, and how sorry you really are.”

“What if you hurt them really bad? You know, like maybe they died or something? But it was an accident and you were really sorry?”

Pumbaa looked at him suspiciously. “Hey, little guy, this friend that did the hurting-did you know him well?”

Simba’s whiskers trembled slightly. “Uh, no. I was just wondering.”

“Well that’s good. But the way I see it, this person you don’t know should apologize for what it is they did. And if that person was a lot like you-you know, nice and kind and thoughtful-I think God would not hold it against them.”

“Yeah.” He nuzzled Pumbaa, then goaded the warthog into a wrestling match.

As the day wore on, however, Simba found many moments to reflect on the conversation. Deeply troubled, he padded quietly away from Timon and Pumbaa that evening as the stars began to emerge into the sky. He made his way quietly to his favorite spot; atop a rotted tree stump near a muddy washout.

The cub padded slowly through the dead undergrowth, broken stalks and twigs showing clearly that he had passed this way before many times. He leapt lightly to the top of the stump and craned his head up to look at the reason he came here so often. A small break in the triple canopy foliage overhead offered an unobstructed view of a swath of stars that he had come to know well.

Pumbaa eased through the buses to the opening the cub had made and peered through, wondering why Simba wandered off to this desolate clearing. As he caught sight of the cub, he drew back, embarrassed; Simba’s face was stricken as he searched the heavens above.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” He opened his mouth again, but all that emerged was a choked sob.

Timon clambered up Pumbaa’s back to perch atop his head. “Well? What’s he doing-” His jaw shut with a snap as he saw Simba hunched on the stump, head buried under his forepaws and bawling hoarsely. “Aw, jeez…” He slid down Pumbaa’s snout, preparing to run over to the cub, when Pumbaa flicked his head, sending the meerkat sailing back behind to land on his broad back. “Whattya doin’?”

“No. Let the little guy alone.” Tears ran down Pumbaa’s cheeks. “He’s a little guy with a big problem.”

CHAPTER 45: OIL AND WATER

Uzuri sighed as she looked across the rocks at her hunting party. “Oh, gods,” she thought. “This is never going to work.”

Assembled in front of her were her huntresses: Sarabi, Isha, Yolanda, Ajenti, Tameka, and Beesa. Uzuri had intended for Sarafina to join them, but the lioness had uncharacteristically begged off, asking to remain at home with her daughter, Nala. Uzuri had queried her lightly on this, but had not pressed the matter; when it came to hunting, none of her lionesses were slouchers, least of all Sarafina. She had readily consented and substituted the young Tameka in Fini’s place. But Uzuri would have much rather have had Sarafina’s experience along for what lay ahead of them tonight.

She glanced over at the other half of her hunting party. Supposedly chosen for their hunting prowess, the six hyenas she had been assigned did not do much to comfort her. At the present moment they were busy arguing among themselves about a particularly nasty fight they had witnessed a few months back.

Clearing her throat, she stepped forward. “Excuse me. If you’re quite finished…” At her penetrating stare, the hyenas subsided slowly. “We’ll be hunting in the northern meadows tonight. Now, as you are unfamiliar with our hunting tactics, I wanted to go over a couple of things that I thought-”

“We can’t eat tactics,” one of the hyenas quipped. “I need red meat and lots of it. I think could eat a whole lion!”

The other hyenas erupted in a gale of raucous laughter. Uzuri set her jaw and endured it until it subsided, then looked at the one who had spoken. “I take it you are Pipkah?”

“Yes, I’m Pipkah, but you can’t take it.” Some of the other hyenas nearly went into fits at this jibe. Others hid their faces and groaned.

Uzuri blew out her breath in frustration and turned to Isha. “I give up. We’ll just have to hope they know what they’re doing.”

Isha stared hard at Pipkah as Uzuri passed by her, muttering. The young lioness glanced back at Uzuri, noting the peculiar set of her head. She envied the hunt mistress’s powers of concentration; already the incident was put behind her as Uzuri began running attack patterns and possible hunting sites through her head.

But for Isha, the insult was not so easily forgotten. As the hyena started to pass her, she stepped in front, blocking his path. She stared at him, sniffing him carefully.

“Hey, watch the merchandice lady!”

She smiled sweetly. “I just wanted to remember you. You’re the hunting party leader. Pap Kuuh is it, or Pip Kahh?”

“Pip Kahh is close enough.” He smiled. “Well, good. I worked hard for this position, and I’m glad to get some recognition.”

Isha’s smile widened, but her eyes remained hard as diamonds. “Oh, definitely. As hunt master of the hyenas, you’re responsible for their actions. If we make a good kill tonight, you’ll doubtless be rewarded appropriately.” She moved next to them as they walked, her breath soft in his ear. “And if one of your people injures one of mine, you will also be rewarded appropriately. I can’t eat tactics, but I think I could eat a whole hyena.” Without waiting for a response, she trotted ahead to rejoin the other lionesses.

Pipkah watched her leave, hatred evident on his face, but a hatred tempered with fear. He turned to see the other hyenas looking at him curiously. “What’re you guys mooning at?! Spread out for cryin’ out loud!”

The breath of night whispered gently through the leaves, teasing the beard on Rafiki’s chin as he picked the precious Alba leaves from their delicate stems. One by one he placed the leaves in the bottom of the small wooden bowl he held in his lap, until a thin layer covered the bottom. Giving a satisfied grunt, he picked up the small bone pestle Makedde had given him long ago and begin to grind away at the leaves in smooth, steady strokes. The task was a familiar one, and he found his thoughts wasndering as he gazed contemplatively out across the darkened savanna.

A rumbling snort cut the air, and he looked down to see one of his guards sprawled at the base of the tree, face composed in bliss as he slumbered away the boring duty of guarding one old monkey in a tree.

Rafiki glanced around surrepetitiously to make sure he was not being observed. Oh, of course, doubtless there was an outer perimiter of guards to keep him detained; he had seen them before. Even if he managed to get down and escape into the grass, one of them would intercept him before he got away. No, escape was impossible.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t have any fun.

He quietly reached up and plucked a gourd from an overhanging branch of the baobab. The branch swished sharply as it sprang back into place, and the guard below snorted and shifted slightly. Rafiki froze, waiting until the hyena had settled himself again. Paitently, he examined the stars, gazing familiarly at the constellation of The Blessed, naming the stars one by one to himself. He had gotten through perhaps half when snores again rose from below.

Grinning, he took careful aim, and dropped the gourd. It fell through the air and glanced off the hyena’s skull with a sharp THUNK. The guard leapt up, snorting in surprise.

“What the-” he looked down, rubbing his abused head gingerly, feeling the welt rising on his skull as he saw the gourd lying on the ground a few feet away. Snarling, he looked upwards at the mandrill who sat in the fork of the branches high above, stirring his bowl and staring innocently out at the stars. “All right, I’ve HAD it! That’s the third time this week! Don’t tell me the wind knocked THAT one down.”

Rafiki looked at him and smiled. “Oh, you found it! I knew I must have dropped it or something!” He cackled as the hyena bristled at him.

“That’s it. You’re gonna be laughing out of the other side of your head when I get through with you-”

“Shut up, fool.” The guard froze in the midst of preparing to go after the mandrill. He turned his head to see Krull sitting behind him, eyes glinting dangerously in the moonlight as they bored into his own. “You’re right. That’s the third time this week he’s done it. And you were asleep on duty all three times. Now what should I do about that, hmm?”

The guard stammered for a moment, then rolled on the ground. “I beg forgiveness, Roh’khal Krull. Bih gah’kh’resh mal! Bih mal!”

Krull looked at him sternly for a moment, then nodded. “Gah’kh’resh nih.” The guard looked up, surprised, gratitude shining in his eyes as Krull jerked his head over his shoulder. “Go get Henneh to relieve you. Go on, now.”

“Yes sir!” The guard scrambled away into the grass. Krull looked up at the mandrill who was watching with no small interest.

“What was that all about?” Rafiki asked.

“The boy fell asleep three times while on duty.” Krull scratched behind one ear. “Technically, I should have killed him the second time.”

Rafiki’s eyes widened. “Technically, I’m glad you didn’t.”

“His wife is near to delivery, and he’s been hunting for two instead of sleeping days.” Krull sat up and shook himself busily. “Some things tend to get overlooked. If you’ll excuse me?”

“Oh, of course.” Rafiki watched the hyena trot off and disappear into the grass. The wind followed him, ruffling the plants in living waves that rippled across the savannah. As Rafiki watched, one wave apeared to die abrupty, as if it had struck a rock or kopje hidden in the grass.

He sat up, intrested, as he saw the forms of several hyenas moving through the grass. His eyes saw something vaguely familiar about the way they were walking, almost as if they were-

He was jolted by the realization that the hyenas were moving in one of Uzuri’s well known sweep patterns. His eyes flicked busily across the grass. Keeping them unfocused, he scanned the area quickly, remembering how she had explained this pattern worked and—there they were. Barely discernable at this distance, the supple forms of lionesses glided theough the savannah, moonlight gleaming off their pelts. Noting the direction of their travel, Rafiki looked and saw the small group of antelope that huddled together, drowsing the night away in the security of numbers.

Down below, Uzuri was also eyeing the antelope, but for a different reason.

The hunt mistress paused, one forepaw lifted, frozen in statuesque beauty as she assessed the situaton. Without taking her eyes from the herd ahead, she flicked her left ear twice, as if deterring a particularly bothersome fly. But the nuances of the motion, lost on one unfamiliar with the hunt, were crystal clear to her sisters. Isha saw the signal and immediately complied, stealthily widening her distance from Uzuri by approximately two body lengths. Uzuri repeated the motion on the opposite side, and Sarabi mirrored the manuver to her right. The other four lionesses, despite being out of sight on her flanks, were doubtless adjusting their positions as well.

As Uzuri resumed creeping toward the antelope, she wondered if the hyenas were even in the correct positions on the far side of the herd. She could only hope; her instructions had been terse and precise, but even the simplest of commands were often lost on those imbeciles. If only one of them got out of position, the whole group might not catch anything-

She berated herself for letting her thoughts wander so; there was work to be done. Rising slightly, she flicked her tail, and the lionesses slowly began closing on the herd.

Rafiki shifted slightly to get a better view at the lionesses began moving towards the antelope herd. He strained to see in the grayish light cast by the moon overhead, and looked up angrily at the slight clouds which scudded over the moon, dimming the luminance into near nothingness.

“Come on,” he muttered. “Give an old monkey a break.”

As if in answer, the clouds tattered from the forceful winds high overhead, and the savanna below was suddenly alive with moving shapes. He picked out Uzuri at the center of the arc of lionesses, her slight form strange and beautiful in the silver light.

“Careful, honey tree, oh so careful,” he whispered. He watched her pick her way across the grassland, silent as the night sneaking in on the heels of twilight.

More movement caught his eyes, and he glanced across the swatch of grassland to see the hyenas closing from the other direction. The pattern fell into place with an almost audible click, and he smiled, unable to help himself. The two groups had surrounded the herd perfectly, allowing no gaps for it to slip through. Someone would be guaranteed at least one strike, maybe at least three before the fleeing animals would escape.

“Uzuri,” he breathed softly, “you are pure genius.” He leaned forward to get a better look at her, and felt a small nudge against his midsection. Looking down he saw the mixing bowl slipping away from his lap, the precious Alba flakes stirring restlessly. He flailed at it, but the bowl slipped from his grasp to fall with a gentle swish on his bed below. Eyeing it agitatedly, he saw with relief that the Alba had not spilled, and began to clamber down to get his treasured herbs, sparing a fleeting glance at the closing predators.

Far below, Pipkah gritted his teeth at the wait. Why in blazes hadn’t the idiot lioness started the attack yet? Mother of All, the antelope were practically in front of him! He eyed the herd greedily, salivating at the sight of the meaty forms that slumbered away, ignorant of his presence.

Finally, he spat in the dust. “I’m going to starve before we catch anything with our “tactics.” He glanced over at the two youngsters next to him. “Losara, Makh’rish: see that youngling over there?”

The two looked at the antelope and spied the small calf lying beside it’s mother. “Yes.”

“That is your target. Res’shakh and I will pick off the mother. On my signal we rush them. Understand?”

Losara nodded, her eyes shining with admiration at his leader’s daring, but Makh’rish looked nervous. “S-Sir? Aren’t we supposed to wait until the lions signal us?”

“Are you questioning my authority? Or would you rather follow that hairy wretch instead of your own kind?”

“N-No sir,” she stammered.

“Then be silent and obey me.” Pipkah looked back at the antelope a moment longer, then nodded. “GO!!!”

The hyenas bolted forward, legs flying under them as they propelled themselves towards the herd. Pipkah grinned with exhilaration and gave out a high yodeling laugh of joy. “YAHHHHH!”

The herd of antelope exploded into sudden motion, startling Uzuri and raising her hackles. “What in the-”

The sound of hyannic laughter drifted to her, and she snarled deep in her chest. “Those fools! I KNEW this would happen.” She glanced at Isha and Sarabi. “Let’s go, but for gods’ sake be careful.” Rising from her crouch, she led the lionesses in a silent rush towards the group of antelope, who were still milling about in a panic. They had only seconds left to act and still have a chance, she knew, but as soon as the herd got organized and began to flee, all was lost.

Rafiki was making his way back up the branch, Alba clutched firmly in one hand, when he heard the commotion. Scrambling up the rest of the way, he saw an enormous cloud of dust raised by the panicked antelope as they stirred about. He stared disbelievingly as the hyenas charged into the herd, sending the frightened animals crashing off in the direction of the lionesses.

“Oh, no!” Forgetting the Alba, he launched himself into space, grabbing hold of a branch above him and swinging up another level to the very top of the baobab. As he caught sight of the herd again, he saw an antelope fleeing into a dust cloud, closely pursued by a lioness. A hyena cut across the dark ground from another direction and vanished into the dust at the same time. A fearful cry of pain arose from the swirling debris, along with the sounds of a fiercly pitched struggle. Another cry arose, clearly leonine this time, and Rafiki wrung his hands, moaning.

Young Losara lay on her side, coughing and panting heavily in the swirling dust. She shook his head, trying to clear it, and moaned as the world seemed to spin crazily. A terrible weight held her to the ground, and she fought to pull her hindquarters from beneath the furred form-

She glanced over at the slumped body atop her and grinned. She had done it! By the gods above, she had pulled down an antelope on her first hunt! Grinning, she wiped away the dirt from her face, imagining the praise her father would heap upon her!

She froze as the dead antelope moaned and coughed fitfully. “Great Aiheu,” it grated, “what happened?!” She stared, eyes bulging in horror as the “antelope” raised it’s head and looked at her, the features of a lioness clear in the bright moonlight.

Ajenti groaned again as she tried to shift her weight and get up. Her whole left side throbbed painfully, and the dust floating about made every breath burn in her lungs. She collapsed back to the ground, moaning as her abused body complained fiercely. “I’m getting too old for this.”

Pipkah emerged from the settling dust, cursing at the top of his lungs as he saw the form of Losara half-buried under the lioness. “You IDIOT! I’ve seen dung-beetles with more brains than you, and they could hunt better, besides! What in Roh’kash’s name were you thinking?!”

Losara’s eyes shone with tears as she huddled under Ajenti’s bulk. “I-”

“Oooops, I forgot. Thinking requires a BRAIN, and you aren’t equipped with one, are you?!” Pipkah turned and scratched at the dirt with his rear paws, showering the young hyena with sand. “That’s what I ought to do with you, kiddo! When your father hears about this, I promise you he’ll-”

He was cut off as he beheld the hunt mistress emerging from the dust, eyes blazing with unrestrained fury as she took in the downed form of Ajenti lying atop Losara. She paused for a minute, then stalked towards the young hyena, who began scrambling madly, trying to push Ajenti’s bulk away.

“Oh gods! I’m sorry! It was an accident, I swear!” She began sobbing uncontrollably as Uzuri drew near. “It was all dusty and noisy and I thought she was the antelope, I mean they’re the same color in the dark, oh please don’t DO IT!” She tucked her head against her chest, shaking with fear as Uzuri stopped next to her. The lioness looked down at her for a moment, wrapped in a terrible cloak of silence. Lion and hyena held their breath, waiting for the blow to fall.

Uzuri sat up and walked over to Pipkah, who was still cursing softly under his breath. Lighting fast, she drew back and struck him in the face, sending him sprawling in the dirt.

“Great Roh’kash!” Pipkah picked himself up slowly, blood running from his torn cheek. “Why did you hit ME?! SHE’S the one who ruined the hunt!”

Uzuri looked at him coldly. “She made a MISTAKE. You were CARELESS.”

CHAPTER 46: THE NIGHT IS YOUNG

There was no levity on the way back to Pride Rock. Uzuri was going into a slow burn, thinking of a diplomatic way to tell Shenzi and Taka why there was no kill tonight. Of course that was taken care of by Pipkah who ran on ahead. He would find a very undiplomatic way to put it, no doubt. She sighed and resigned herself to the upbraiding she would no doubt receive.

She did not bother going to the cave atop Pride Rock, but went straight to her favorite resting spot and flopped on her side. Perhaps sleep would bring some relief if only Aiheu would catch her bad dreams on his claws.

Before she could surrender to oblivion, there was a rustling of a small body through the underbrush. “It better be a cub,” she murmured spitefully.

Just then a hyena came trotting out with a large legbone in her mouth. It was Losara.

“What are YOU doing here! This is MY bed!”

Bowing and scraping, Losara whined, “You had mercy on me, ma’am. I brought you something to help you sleep.”

She looked at the bone. “There’s no meat on it.”

“Not ON it,” Losara said. She began biting with her strong molars, pushing on the middle of the bone with incredible force. The bone began to notch, then crack. And before long, it split open. It was hollow, and the center was filled with fatty red marrow. “Try this.”

“What is it?”

“Try it and find out.”

Uzuri took a sporting chance and sampled the marrow. “Hey, this is not half bad!”

“Not half bad?? It’s one of the best parts!”

She smiled. “Go get the other leg and join me. I’m not used to eating alone.”

“Thanks, but Ajenti has the other leg. She deserves it.”

Uzuri smiled. “I take back most of the bad things I’ve said about you, Losara. I mean, it WAS dusty and it WAS our first hunt together.”

“You mean there will be others? After tonight?”

“You and I. Leave Pipkah and the others behind and we might catch something.”

She laughed uncomfortably. “That fool Pipkah! He got his job because he makes up stories about his own prowess as a hunter. Once he found a wounded rabbit and killed it. Every time he told the story, the rabbit got bigger and healthier. By the time he finished, it could shove the elephants aside at the water hole.” She looked down. “He made us look like fools out there! We’re good hunters, Uzuri. We’re not all like him, but all our best hunters were loyalists.”

“Loyalists?”

“Loyal to Amarakh, the true Roh’mach. Ber is one of the best. He’s a REAL hunt master. He had this move called Dhourba, the ring. But he gets stuck on guard duty in the East Meadow where NOTHING ever happens. All of our best hunters are on guard duty—Shenzi doesn’t trust them.

“Why not?”

“Ber doesn’t believe Shenzi is God’s annointed. A lot of them don’t.” Losara drew close and said in a whisper. “I’m one of them, frankly. Amarakh was a true follower of Roh’kash. She didn’t like lions very much, but at least she was honest about it, not like Shenzi. Hon, you can’t turn your back on that girl.”

“Believe me, I won’t.”

“Amarakh looked like she smelled like she talked like she acted like she believed. And she believed in the true God, not in magic tricks and badger words. Like her or hate her, Amarakh was the real thing. She wouldn’t send a fool like Pipkah out there to lead a hunt, and she wouldn’t sass poor old Sarabi. Gods, what that lady’s been through, and all she gets from Shenzi is grief! And pardon me for saying so, but that King of yours is no Prekh Jakrel, either.”

Uzuri didn’t know who Prekh Jakrel was, but she got the general idea. She looked in Losara’s eyes. “You know something? I think you are the real thing too.” She stirred herself and rose, stretching and yawning. “The night is young. Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“Hunting. You and I. I’ll get you more than a legbone, I warrant.”

Losara was delighted. “Uzuri, if it’s just the two of us, let me teach you an old custom of our people. We have a blessing before the hunt that we don’t usually use before outsiders. I say ‘Bih ‘malan, Uzuri,’ and you answer, ‘Bih ‘malan, Losara.”

“I never thought I’d be speaking hyannic,” Uzuri said with an embarrased grin. “Bih ‘malan, Losara.”

Losara smiled broadly, her eyes looking directly into Uzuri’s.

“And you say?”

“Oh, forgive me! Bih ‘malan, Uzuri.”

Ajenti poked her head through the grass. “It will take three of us to do the Crescent manoever.”

“Yeah!” Losara wagged her tail and her ears perked up. “Anything you say, Ajenti!”

CHAPTER 47: SEFU

Pumbaa and Timon were walking through the forest with Simba tagging along at their heels. Every day for a lion cub is full of new discoveries, but Simba’s friends were especially prone to throw him a curve just when it seemed like he had them figured out.

The day was going slowly, however, and other than a few extra things to eat, there was not much worth staying awake to see. Simba yawned and started to flop down, when suddenly a tall bird stepped out of the brush. “Can you dig it?? The gruesome twosome!”

“Sefu!” Timon cried with obvious pleasure. “Hey, what’s shakin! Good to see you!”

“Good to be seen!” Sefu oggled Simba. “Who’s the cat, cat?”

“That’s Simba, no lion!”

“Oooh, good comeback!”

Sefu timidly patted Simba on the head, then took Timon aside. None too discretely, he said, “Hey cat, he’s the deluxe model. Comes with large protective devices called ‘folks’ that eat Meerkats for less than this, you dig?”

“The little guy’s in trouble. We found him on the desert.”

“What’s the story?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think he wants to talk about it.”

“If it’s cool with him, it’s cool with me.”

Smiling broadly, Sefu stalked over to Simba on his lanky legs. “Yo, cubby! I’ve always wanted to be this close to a lion and live to tell about it. So have you always been this small?”

Simba thought for a moment, then he saw the mischievous look in Sefu’s eyes. “Oh, I get it!”

Timon said, “This is one hip hawk. One ravin raptor. One absurd bird! You ought to hear him groove.”

“What’s groove?” Simba asked.

“Show him, Sefu!”

Sefu waved his wings. “Just like that? Before the good vibrations?”

“Good vibrations?” Simba was confused.

“Yeah. Cloud nine. Seventh heaven. Peace, love and the distinct absence of major irritation.”

“Oh! In the groove!”

“Yeah.”

Simba thought. “How do you start good vibrations?”

“You think about your favorite things. When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad. I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad!”

“Just don’t sing it,” Timon said quickly. “Once was more than enough!” The meerkat thought a moment. “What you’re saying is that you CAN’T do a groove from a cold start.”

“Oh yeah??”

“Oh yeah!”

“Well give me room! I need space!”

Sefu stood atop a log that acted as an impromptu podium. He looked into the sky and began to sway slightly. “Oh, I can feel it coming, cats! It’s coming!”

Simba looked with fascination as the bird began to recite. Softly at first, but later with more volume and confidence

In the dark heart of the forest Where the apes and leopards roam Is a bright spot that’s like paradise And it’s there I make my home.

Kick back on a fern bed and listen And I’ll tell you of subjects and kings, Elephant nights and antelope days And legions of magical things!

Simba was fascinated. Sefu stopped, and Simba asked, “How does it end?”

“The story is being written. It comes from the top of your head, from the depths of your heart. You just open your mind and listen to the voices in your head. Listen to the wordless chatter of the leaves. Jump right in when you can. Timon, you add some to it.”

Timon stepped forward and threw out his arms. “Give me space to live, and dig it.”

In the dark swirls by the riverbank Rides a leaf that's swept in thrall It came from places dark and drear And answered to the call!

Sefu listened carefully, and looked thoughtful. “Profound and very… very… uh… depressing. Let’s hear from the boy.”

Pumbaa pushed the reluctant Simba forward. “You can do it! Just make your mind a complete blank!”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Timon griped. “You’ve had plenty of practice.”

“Now hush!” Sefu said. “Let him have at it.”

Simba looked awkwardly at his paws and cleared his throat.

There’s a lizard on the baobab There’s a snake upon the grass

He thought a few moments, and making the supreme effort, burst out with

There’s a danger in the jungle But I’m not afraid to pass

There’s a loud cry in the silence There’s a strange scent in the winds I’d be scared and yet I’m really not All because I have my friends

“Groovy!” Sefu said. “Dig the chubby cubby—he’s a natural! What he ain’t got ain’t hot!”

Sefu gathered Simba under his wing. “Look here. You keep working on it, and some day you’re going to go places. There’s a spot out there for you. A spot for good lyricists. You do the words, and I do the little black dots.”

“Little black dots?”

“The music!”

“Do you really think I could?”

“Think? THINK?? You got IT, kid! I could make you a star!”

“A star? Me??” Simba’s ears flattened in fear. “I’m too young to die!”

“What?!” Sefu blinked. “No, kid: WE’LL be killin’ THEM. With an act like ours, we’ll SLAY ‘em!”

“Now hold on a minute here!” Pumbaa said. “That’s OUR boy!”

“Are you holding out on me, Pumbaa? You want to be his manager?”

“Not his manager!” Pumbaa said gruffly. “His father! I’m going to make sure he’s taken care of.”

“Okay, okay.” Sefu tapped a foot thoughtfully. “How does a flat rate followed by residuals grab you?”

“I don’t mean that kind of care. I mean love!” Pumbaa looked a little embarrased. “Hey, I love the kid. I don’t want him to write songs unless it’s what he wants to do.”

Simba looked at Pumbaa. Then he looked back at Sefu. He stalked back to the warthog. “Maybe later, huh?”

“Sure, kid. Whatever floats your boat. I still think we could have made an awesome team.”

Sefu disappeared as quickly as he showed up. Simba looked at Timon with puzzlement. “Is he real?”

“That’s just him. Part philosopher, part musician, all mental case. But he’s really an all right guy when you get to know him.”

“So are you, Uncle Timon. You too, Pumbaa.”

Pumbaa smiled broadly. “Thanks!”

CHAPTER 48: THE CRISIS

Often a flood began with a few drops of rain, and a fire began with a few small sparks. The first few times Simba felt discomfort after a meal, he thought nothing of it. But finally as days passed into weeks, eating became an exercise in frustration for him. It finally got to the point where he had to be nagged by Pumbaa to eat enough to get by.

He was growing thin. Pumbaa looked at his ribs and said, “Hey, it’s not right for a young fellow not to be hungry like that.” He took Timon aside. “I’m worried about him.”

Finally even Timon became worried. He felt of Simba’s forehead and asked him to stick out his tongue. Everything looked fine, even when he peered at the whites of Simba’s eyes. Though he was no healer, Timon decided that it was probably nothing to worry about-just a childhood disease.

In fact Simba’s appetite kicked in when Pumbaa uncovered a whole nest of Cleoptrid Beetles. They were large, crunchy, and actually had a taste that appealed to Simba. While Pumbaa and Timon were very hungry, they were so glad to see their friend actually eating like his old self that they let him have his fill, even though he ate every last one.

It wasn’t very long until the nausea came back. “Maybe I overate,” Simba said. “I need some water to wash this down. Or I need something.”

“There’s a stream not far from here. Come on.”

“No, Timon. I don’t think I can make it.”

“Do you want to up chuck? Hey, we won’t watch, will we Pumbaa?”

“Just let me…” Simba’s face was a picture of suffering. He coughed, then wretched. “Oh no,” he stammered. Another great heave nearly bent him in two. His meal came up, mixed with a few spots of blood. “Help me! Oh gods, help me!”

“What can I do?” Pumbaa was in despair. “Can I get you anything?”

“No!”

Simba fell on his side and curled up. He wretched repeatedly, splattering the ground with the rest of his meal. But the contractions did not stop.

“Is it gas?”

“Pumbaa, with you, everything is…” Timon looked at the pain in Simba’s eyes. “We have to do something!”

“Let’s pray,” Pumbaa said.

“It’s been so long. I wonder if God still knows I’m here.”

“There’s one way to find out.”

Timon put both of his small hands on one of Simba’s paws. “Don’t you leave me, pal! God, give the little guy a break. He’s had a hard time of it, and he needs something Pumbaa and I can’t give him. Give us a clue. I mean, even if I could help, I don’t know how.” He started as Simba’s paw quivered in his hands, the cub’s muscles flexing with the force of his exertions.

Pumbaa began to cry. “Look at the little boy, God! He’s hurting. Make him stop hurting, please?”

Simba broke out in a sweat. He still retched, though nothing came up but a yellowish drool.

Timon looked up at the sky. “Look, God, I don’t mean to rush you or anything, but if you don’t do something quick, it’s going to be too late! Geez, he’s only a little kid! He deserves a fighting chance.”

A rustling in the underbrush startled them, and they turned to see two hyenas step out slowly, scenting the air. The bigger female stepped forward and spoke, stumbling slightly in the common language. “We take care of him.”

“Hey, you’ll have to kill us first!”

“You’re Timon, are you not?” The male saw by his startled expression that he must be right. “We here-” He shook his head and tried again. “We are here to help you with the sick child. You were the one that asked God to give the child a fighting chance, aren’t you?”

“You could have overheard us. That’s not a miracle.” Timon did not trust them. “Get lost before my buddy here stomps you flat.”

The male fixed Timon with his gaze, stilling the meerkat as he stared into the deep set eyes of the hyena. Sparkles winked on and off in there, a dancing firelight of silver as the hyena spoke softly. “There is nothing whatever to fear from us.”

Timon answered back, “I’m not afraid.”

“We trust we will have your full cooperation.”

Timon nodded. “If there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know.”

The male said, “You will introduce me to the child.”

“Sure. Simba, these are two good friends of mine. They have come here to help you.”

“Who are they?” Simba asked, cringing from another spasm.

“I don’t know,” Timon said, looking puzzled. “I must have forgotten their names.”

Simba cringed away from the huge hyenas as they moved closer. “I am Gur’bruk, and this is my bak’ret Kambra. We are—how you say—healers. We were sent by Minshasa, the lioness of white hair. You know her, don’t you?”

Simba’s eyes flickered for a moment, but another spasm of pain wrenched at him, and he simply moaned.

“I don’t know any white lionesses,” Timon said, puzzled. “But hey, I’m glad she sent you.”

Kambra sniffed of the spots on the ground. “This is bad. We must act now.”

“I could have told you that.”

Gur’bruk frowned at Timon, and the meerkat silenced. Then Gur’bruk had Simba lay on his side. “Look at my eyes, son. Can you tell me what color they are?”

“Sure. They’re brown.”

“Are you sure? Are you very sure?”

“Well I—no, they’re green. No wait, they’re blue. Hey, how did you do that?”

“I will tell you in a minute. But right now, what color are they?”

“They’re still blue but there are little white things—oh, it’s the sky! I can see the clouds move!”

“Very good. If you look at the clouds, some of them are shaped like things you know.”

Kambra was feeling over Simba’s body with a paw. Though she was barely touching him, it was clear from her face that she was concentrating very hard.

“Look past the clouds,” Gur’bruk asked. “Are there birds in the sky?”

“Yes. Lots of them.”

Kambra’s roving ceased as she stared intently at a spot on Simba’s side. Nodding, she glanced up at Timon and winked. Then she looked at Gur’bruk oddly for a moment, and turned back to Simba.

“Are all of the birds the same?”

“Yes.”

“Every one?” Gur’bruk cocked an ear slightly. “How about the one in front?”

“I see it now. Most of them are black, but the one in front is red.”

“That is your pain, Simba. See it fly away? He takes your pain with him. He is going far away, and he is not coming back. Do you feel the pain smaller?”

Simba’s tense features softened. He had a relaxed smile. “Oh yeah. Oh that feels better! Make the bird stay away.”

“I promise you we will. I had a little ban’ret like you in the past. When he hurted, I play the bird game with him. It made him feel better.”

“Where is your boy now? All grown up?”

“He go to died,” Gur’bruk said.

“That’s so sad. Gur’bruk, there are dark clouds in the sky now. It looks like a storm coming.”

“Yes, I feel it” Gur’bruk’s eyes misted up and a quiet tear trickled down his cheek. “His name was Gur’mekh. Simba is a pretty name. What does it mean?”

“Lion.”

“I think it fits you maybe.”

Timon moved forward as Kambra nosed Simba’s side again, her tongue flicking out for a second. “Hey! What’re you DOING—” He stared, gaping in astonishment as Kambra drew back and then plunged her muzzle inside Simba, her nose disappearing into him as if she were penetrating her reflection at a water hole.

“Oh my gods!” Timon wavered drunkenly and sat down hard, head swimming as he watched the impromptu operation in progress. There was no blood, and Simba certainly gave no sign of pain as he continued to stare into Gur’bruk’s eyes. Kambra pulled suddenly, and out came a pink growth which she discarded in the brush. Sitting back, she sighed satisfactorily. “All done.”

Timon glared at her suspiciously and ran over to Simba. Gritting his teeth, he felt around gingerly under the fur, expecting to find the matted wetness of blood and the ragged edge of a wound in his side.

Instead, he found nothing. he began combing through the soft fur, poking at the firm hide of the cub. “Where’d ya hide it?!”

Simba giggled slightly at the touch, and Gur’bruk smiled. “The game is over now. How do you feel, young ban’ret?”

Simba got up and shook off. “I feel hungry!”

Gurbruk nuzzled him, as did Kambra.

Timon breathed a sigh of relief and grinned at Kambra. “I could just kiss you if you didn’t eat carrion.”

“I could just kiss you back if you did not eat the grubs.”

“Good point.” He patted her and pecked her cheek. “We owe you one.”

“Owe me one what?” She thought for a moment. “Oh it’s a figuresque of speech.” She looked at Timon closely. “Now listen, old ban’ret. Fate the path goes—if you—how you say ‘ta’kher ohvi gabrukh… ’” She stopped, putting her paw on his face and concentrating. “Your charge will find a glorious destiny,” she said in flawless Suricati.

Stunned, he dropped back into his native tongue. “I’d believe it. He’s a great kid.” Timon scratched behind his ear and shifted uneasily. “Tell me the truth: will the problem come back?”

“What is he eating?”

“Grubs and beetles, mainly.”

“Oh gods! That’s what caused it. You have to teach him how to hunt. Or at least how to scavenge.”

“Scavenging we can do, but I’m no carnivore.”

“Bugs are not what Roh’kash meant for lions to eat. You must change his lifestyle, at least a little. There are some herbs you can try to stall the problem, but someday you’ll have to let him be what he was born to be, a hunter.”

“I guess so. But hey, where did you guys come from? I mean, you’re not from around here, are you?”

“No.” Kambra closed her eyes and sighed. “But where we came from, we cannot go.”

Timon fell silent as he looked at her, recognizing a kindred soul of one who has been cast out. Yet he knew somehow that this was much more than a simple outcast before him. Gur’bruk came to stand beside Kambra, kissing her face and nuzzling her neck. Timon regarded them soberly, seeing the comfort they took from one another, but there was an evident look of sadness on their faces that was at once noble and poignant.

Reverting to common speech he said, “Look, why don’t you guys stick with us? I mean, we don’t have a home either. Not really.”

“We go where Roh’kash sends us, like the restless wind.”

“In a way, so do we.”

Pumbaa looked at them wonderingly. “Will we ever see you again?”

“If you need us once more, you will see us.” Without explanation, he looked up and said, “Yolanda, we paid the debt.”

The two vanished back into the undergrowth in a quiet rustle of leaves. Timon and Pumbaa stared after them for a long moment, until they were distracted by a cough behind them. They turned to see Simba rising unsteadily on all four legs, a look of disgust on his face as he spat into the dust.

“Yech! My mouth tastes like five day old pond scum!”

“Must’ve been something you ate,” Timon said dryly. “C’mon, kid, let’s go get some water.”

“Yeah!”

From the concealment of the lush undergrowth, Gur’bruk and Kambra watched the trio meander away, the cub leaning against Pumbaa’s shoulder as Timon perched on his head, directing the way to the water hole. Gur’bruk blinked as his thoughts raced unspoken to his mate. “Do you think they’ll be all right?”

“They’ll be fine.” She smiled at him. “Have faith, love.”

“I trust Roh’kash implicitly. THOSE two…”

“… are fulfilling their destiny. Just as the cub will one day, with their help.” She looked after the odd trio, her smile fading. Gur’bruk felt an odd feeling emenating from her, something akin to awe. He looked at her curiously, and she met his gaze, her eyes shining. “I told the meerkat the child was destined for great things, and he is. When I removed the growth, I was caught up in his Ka. He’s the one true king! And he is the annointed.”

“The annointed? What are you saying??”

“He bears the mark of Duhbrek. Roh’kash had chosen him from his birth to bring freedom to the captives and mercy to the oppressed.”

“And we were sent to save his life!” Gur’bruk closed his eyes and muttered, “Thank you, Lord!”

She fell quiet, trembling. “Yes. We have paid the price. Husband, he has set us free!”

“I think so, dear. But we must wait on the Lord. Roh’kash will send us a sign.”

“What kind of sign?”

“I don’t know. But when it happens, we’ll know.”

Just then they heard a rustling in the undergrowth. “Muti? Maleh?”

Gur’bruk gasped. “My gods, it’s the sign!”

Kambra cared nothing for signs. She shrieked, running to Gur’mekh’s ka. As tears streamed from her eyes, she rubbed him and smothered him with kisses, yipping a string of wordless utterances that were wrongly called “hyena laughter” by those who did not understand. Raising up on her back legs, she wrapped her forearms around his neck, pushing him to the ground and nuzzling him desperately. “My precious little boy!” she finally choked out between her sobs. “Gur’bruk, it’s him!”

CHAPTER 49: THE MASTER

Simba recovered rapidly as the weeks progresed filling out nicely as his appetite returned with a vengance. Timon and Pumbaa were more than happy to oblige, Pumbaa doing the heavy work of lifting logs and nudging over stones to find special goodies while Timon hunted down the odd herbs which Kambra had told him about that would keep Simba’s innards working properly.

The three of them busily engaged in devouring a particularly feisty group of ants, the little insects tickling the throat delightedly as they went down. Simba giggled nonstop throughout the entire meal, giving rise to a bout of hiccups that, while short lived, was particularly intense, much to the amusement of his companions.

Finishing his meal finally, the cub shook himself and padded over to where Timon lay, uttering a periodic “HIC!” every now and again. Coming alongside, he flopped down and rolled sideways onto his companion.

“ACK! Hey! Whattaya tryin; to do, squash me?!”

“Oops.” Simba rolled back, watching as Timon brushing himself off, breathing deeply. “Sorry. You okay?”

“Fine.” Timon felt his ribs gingerly. “Just don’t do that again, okay?”

“Okay.” Simba got up and wandered away to where Pumbaa was lying, snoring noisily as he digested his meal. Simba laid his ear against Pumbaa’s belly and grinned; the warthog’s stomach was making as much noise as his mouth was, and with a much wider range of noises. He brushed against Pumbaa lightly, then made his way to the warthog’s head, leaning against his face as he nuzzled him.

Pumbaa’s eyes shot open and he sneezed violently, jarring Simba away. “Eufff! I can’t breathe!”

“What’s wrong?”

Pumbaa sat up and blasted another sneeze toward him, sending fur flying in a small burst. Your hair makes my dose itch,” he said, sniffling. “Please don’t do dat—WAA-CHOOOO!—again, ‘kay?”

Simba wilted. “Okay.” He padded away slowly as Pumbaa lay back down, still rubbing his nose. Finding a soft bed of leaves, Simba flopped down and lay his head on his paws, the good feeling of the funny little ants gone completely now. Absently, he bagan to groom his forepaws in slow strokes, ignoring the fact that they were clean, in fact much cleaner than any cub his age had a right to be. Sarabi had brooked no refusal in this area, and she had instilled her fastidiousness in her son in this regard. Simba smiled slightly as he remembered sitting by her one cool evening, the carefully picked over remains of an antelope behind them when she had given him his first taste of meat. They had lain together against the slowly cooling body, Simba sprawled across her forepaws, his eyes closed in utter ecstasy as she had licked him clean of the animal’s blood. The purring from deep in her chest had been loud against his ear, and he had answered in kind, content to simply be there with her, to feel her soft fur against his face, reveling in the warm sweeps of her tongue that smelled of lioness love.

Pumbaa glanced back at Simba, wondering at his sudden silence, and saw the tears leaking slowly from the cub’s eyes. “What’s wrong?”

Timon glanced over and got up to join him. “Jeez, you look blue.”

“That means you’re depressed, right?” Pumbaa looked at Simba worriedly.

“Yes, that’s right, and I am.” Simba said.

“WHOOPEE! I remembered!” He looked at Timon proudly.

Simba smiled weakly, unable to remember when his depression had last brought someone so much pleasure.

Timon shushed his friend. “What’s the matter, kid?”

“I feel awful.”

“Oh no, not again!” Alarmed, Timon put his hand on Simba’s brow. “You don’t FEEL sick.”

Simba lost his tenuous grip on his emotions and began to weep openly. “I want my mother!”

“Aw, don’t do that! Hey, kiddo. Let me show you something. Ever seen me juggle?”

He sniffed and wiped his eyes. “What’s that?”

Timon ruffled the young lion’s head affectionately. “I’ll show you.” Timon picked up three pebbles about the size of his own head. “Juggling, my dear carnivorous compadre, is a specialty of mine. It’s easy! You just take a couple of stones in your hands like…” The meerkat trailed off, nonplused, as he looked at Simba’s enormous paws. “Hmm. Problem. Ahh, well, just watch me. I’ll show ya a trick or two.”

Timon tossed the first stone dexterously into the air and quickly followed it with the other two. The three rocks became a blur of motion as they circled rapidly, forming a grayish oval that framed his face. “See?”

“Wow!” Simba stared, entranced. “You’re awesome!”

Timon shook his head solemnly. “This, awesome? Nope. This is for beginners, kid. And I am the master. Hey, Pumbaa! Throw me another stone!”

The warthog tossed another rock to him. Timon caught it backhanded, where it joined the others.

Simba laughed delightedly. “Boss!”

“Boss? Where do these kids come up with this stuff?” Timon nodded to Pumbaa. “C’mon.”

Pumbaa grinned as he tossed another stone to the meerkat, then another. Soon six stones were orbiting around Timon’s head. Sweat matted the reddish cap of fur on his head, and his arms were growing heavy. “Guess that’s enough.”

Simba looked at him eagerly. “One more, pleeease?”

“I don’t know…”

“Aw, c’mon, Timon!” Pumbaa watched his friend struggling to hold the stones aloft. “You said you were the master.”

“You stay outa this!”

Simba flattened out on the ground, stretching out a paw before him as though addressing the king. “Pleeease, Unca Timon?”

“Aww…” Timon’s mouth flattened into a thin line. “Why not. I AM the master! Pumbaa! Another stone, if you please!”

Obligingly, the warthog picked up another pebble and tossed it to him. It was ripped out of the air by his flailing hand and sent aloft to join the other six in one perfect, fluid motion. Timon gaped up at the circling stones. “I did it!”

Pumbaa cackled as he flicked an eighth stone to the blissful meerkat. Reflexively, Timon grabbed for it and lost control.

“Look out below!” The others ducked as the stones rained down on the beleaguered Meercat’s head, each impact punctuated by an agonized “YEOWCH!” The onslaught over, Timon raised his head and rubbed his abused skull gingerly as he surveyed the litter of rocks around him.

“What happened Unca Timon? Did you drop them?”

“What?” Timon looked indignant. “No, of course not! I uh, just wanted to show you how dangerous juggling could be. A guy could get KILLED,” he said, glaring at Pumbaa, who merely grinned wider.

“Okay, if you say so. I feel lots better, though.” Simba bent and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Unca Timon. You’re the greatest.”

Timon smiled, and the ache in his head seemed to lessen abruptly. “Sure. No problem, kid.”

Simba gave him a wet lick that sent him back on his keester. He got up silently, brushing himself off.

Simba’s face fell as he peered at the meerkat in alarm. “I’m sorry! You aren’t mad, are you?”

“No, I like it.” Timon abruptly opened his arms and embraced Simba’s neck, hugging the cub to him. “We’re all family here.”

CHAPTER 50: GROWING PAINS

Simba seemed ignorant of the fact that he was growing like a weed. His rough and ready play was cute once, but nature took its course, and the inevitable happened. One day he was playing with Pumbaa and gave the warthog a playful whack that sent him reeling. Pumbaa shook his head and tapped his ear with a forefoot as if to set his brain back in its socket.

“Hey, are you all right?”

“Nothing a good nap won’t fix. But please to remember to retract your claws, and watch that right cross, little guy.” Pumbaa sat back and regarde the young lion, noting the lanky form and the smooth interplay of muscles across Simba’s shoulders that was becoming easily visible. “Really, you’re not such a little guy anymore.”

Timon had long since stopped playing with Simba, and directed his lighter moods into word games and riddles. Timon looked at Simba appraisingly. “When will you be grown up, and how big will you be?”

Simba furrowed his forehead in thought. “When I’m three, I’ll be a grown up, but I won’t get any bigger when I’m two and a half. I don’t know how big I’ll be.” He looked up at the angle he used to take to peer into his mother’s eyes. “Gee, I guess I’ll know when I’m two and a half.”

Simba was a work in progress. Every day, his potential unfolded like an opening flower, but there was one particular day when it really became real to him. He was playing with a tortoise near the water’s edge, batting it around playfully and finally knocking it into the creek. He came to the water, still rippling with the splash, but even then he noticed something odd about his reflection. Waiting until it stilled, he took in a deep breath and let it out in a shout of delight.

“Timon! Pumbaa!! Check it OUT!” He reached back with a paw and trembling with joy stroked the first russet hairs of his emerging mane. “Look, it’s happening!”

“What, what?” Timon looked up from the pursuit of a lovely red beetle, annoyed at the interruption. “WHAT’S happening??”

Simba was prancing around so quickly that they couldn’t see what the big deal was. “Look guys, just LOOK!”

“Hold it! What is it, kid?”

“Look at my mane, guys! I got a mane coming in!”

Pumbaa stares, entranced. “Wow! You really DO have a mane coming in!”

“Yeah!” Simba grinned again. “Cool!”

Timon smiled, but uncertainly. “That’s nice and all if it’s your thing, but what’s the deal about manes, anyway?”

Simba looked at him as if Timon had asked him for the reason behind breathing. “What’s the big deal?? A mane is…” He thought a moment. “Well the girls dig it.”

His euphoria faded rapidly as he pondered the odds of a girl noticing him at all. The lion population of the jungle was notoriously small; currently, it was running at exactly one. He regareded the wall of greenery around him with sudden dislike; it seemed cloying, the scents of rotten vegetation and flowers abruptly nauseating.

“Girls! Oy!” Timon looked at him and shook his head. “Girls are trouble. Nothing but trouble. I mean, what girl ever took care of you the way we do?”

Simba thought a moment. “My mother.”

“Oh. Good point.” Timon looked down at his feet and shuffled them in the dust. “Well you know what I mean.”

“Nala, too.” Simba took in a deep breath and let it out. “You know, we had this funny hornbill named Zazu. He used to watch out for us, and one day he said that Nala and I were-uh—I think the word was betrothed. It means we were going to be married someday.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“I said that was really weird. I mean, she was my best friend.”

A look crossed Simba’s face as if someone had punched him right in the stomach. He turned around and looked back at the water. “Good old Nal. I guess she has another boyfriend now.” His lips tightened as a tear of regret ran down his cheek and splashed in the water, leaving little silver rings. “Gods, I wish I could see her one more time. And my mother.” He knelt and looked at his visage in the water again. “I’m so alone!”

“Not that again,” Timon said with a sigh. “How many times do I have to tell you—you have us. We’re your family, kid. We won’t let you down.”

Pumbaa suddenly erupted into tears, surprising everyone. “Ohhh, now you’re gonna leave us!”

“What??” Simba looked around. “Leave you??”

Timon looked around. “Leave us??”

Pumbaa said, “When your mane grows in, it means your grown up, right?”

“Yeah… So?”

Pumbaa bawled with renewed vigor. “You’ll want to leave the nest! You won’t want a daddy anymore!”

“What’s that got to do with it? I mean, we lions don’t go off alone unless we HAVE to. Well, I don’t wanna leave.” He looked at them apprehensively. “You… you guys won’t kick me out, will you?”

“Heavens, no!” Timon said earnestly, patting him. “We’re a gleesome threesome! I mean, hey kid, we, like, love you.” His face drew down in a set expresion. “There. I’ve said it.”

Simba regarded him silently for a moment, overwhelmed. “Well, I, like, love you guys too. There, I’ve said it back.” Simba smiled craftily and shouted, “Everyone into the pool!” Before Timon and Pumbaa could budge, he sprang, launching his body, now weighing well over a hundred pounds, into the air over the pond, sailing down to belly-flop into the water in a tremendous geyser that showered his companions. Pumbaa shrieked with glee, rolling delightedly in the muddy bank. His friend, however, was not so amused.

Timon stood trembling, legs akimbo, his fur utterly drenched with mud and water. He uttered an incoherent growl as he gritted his teeth and shook his fist at Simba. “Oy! What IS it with you guys?! Are you part frog, or what?!”

A small toad near the water’s edge emitted a small croak.

Timon glared hotly at it. “Aw, shaddap!”

CHAPTER 51: WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT

Food was becoming scarce for the inhabitants of Pride Rock. They spent more time looking for their basic diet. But Uzuri and Losara still found time to hunt together on the sly, just for the companionship and to share what they caught with some of the cubs.

Uzuri was in genuine awe of Losara’s focus and natural grace. She longed to see the loyalists together again, performing a star-and-four manuver the way they once did under Amarakh and Ber. Losara was deeply touched when Uzuri added the move to her repertorie.

Uzuri pawed Losara. “Bih ‘malan, Losara.”

Losara smiled warmly as she always did at that moment. “Bih ‘malan, Uzuri. Bih ‘malan!”

They were about to leave for their hunt together when Pipkah recalled them. “In the cave, ladies. The King says we hunt again.”

“What??” Uzuri looked around with anger. “Again??”

They went into the cave at the top of Pride Rock. Uzuri did not dare anger Taka. He glared at her, obviously upset by her frequent absences.

“It’s time for the traditional blessing,” Taka said.

Pipkah had nerve enough to try and join the lions, sure that if Losara could, he could. As hunt master of the hyenas, Taka no doubt expected Uzuri to address her blessing to him. She didn’t feel like blessing him, but thought a good blessing might soothe Taka’s nerves. She decided to do something a little different.

“Bih ‘malan, Pipkah.”

Pipkah looked at her strangely, then grinned embarrasedly, the tip of his tail wagging slightly. “Bih ‘malan, Uzuri!”

All of the hyenas took in a gasp and smiled. One of them whispered something to Taka, and Taka smiled broadly, looking at Uzuri with mixed surprise and gratitude.

Uzuri smiled a relieved smile and headed off with the others.

The hunt was rather uneventful as hunts go, but Losara found an excuse to get near Uzuri.

“Uzuri, I have to tell you something rather important.”

“What is it, Losara?”

“Well, that blessing is something just between the two of us. It’s not really traditional.”

“Oh? You sound upset.”

“More like embarrased.” Losara scratched herself with embarrasment. “How can I put this?”

“What does it mean?”

“Well, when I say it, it means, well…” Losara swallowed hard. “It means something I really feel. It means ‘I love you.’” Uzuri simply stared at her, and Losara hurried to continue. “It was wrong of me, and I apologize. But I do love you, Uzuri.” Losara looked at her nakedly. “I thought if I told you it was a blessing, you’d say it back to me.” She looked down at the ground, feeling the shame sweep over her like fire. “I’m sorry—”

Uzuri looked at her solemnly. “There, there, child. No offense taken.” Uzuri allowed a slight smile. “But I wish you’d just… oh my gods! Pipkah!”

CHAPTER 52: GOING NATIVE

“Awright, Simba. Ya ready?”

The lion nodded and raised a forepaw.

“Okay.” Timon squinted his eyes to slits, and Pumbaa did likewise. “Three… two… one… GO!!”

The heavy paw swung down, slamming into the rotten wood and sending splinters flying in a spectacular detonation. Insects and grubs of all kinds sprayed through the air, falling upon the heads of the three companions in a bizarre rainshower as Timon hooted with obvious delight. “WAHOO! You hit a gusher, Simba!”

“Thanks.” The lion grinned at his friend as Timon waded in. “Geez! Leave some for me, willya?!” Simba pounced forward and snuffled up a mouthful of the squirmy bugs, chewing with relish.

“Me?!” Timon planted his hands on his hips in righteous indignation. “Look at you, big mouth! This from a guy who eats a whole nest of termites and comes back asking for seconds!”

Pumbaa snorted and lifted his head. “Reawwy guys,” he said, chewing around a mouthful of chittering beetles, “it’s impowite to tawk wif your mouf full.”

Timon wiped saliva from his face busily. “Thanks Mom,” he shot back. “Do you serve towels with your showers?” He picked the remains of a half eaten beetle from his face, then popped it in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Hmmm… not bad.”

“Timon?”

“Yeah, Pumbaa?”

“What’s a shower?”

“Something you only take when it rains.”

“Cool it, guys!” Simba lifted his head and sniffed warily, nostrils twitching in agitation. “I smell something funny.”

Pumbaa blushed and lowered his head. “Sorry.”

“Not you. This smells great!”

“Hey!” Pumbaa grunted indignantly. “It’s not MY fault—”

“Shhhh! Concentrate.” Simba turned and paced slowly around for a minute, scenting the wind. “This way. C’mon!” He padded off into the dense jungle, the swish and swaying of small branches the only sound of his passing. Warthog and meerkat looked at each other uncertainly, then followed.

Simba pushed quietly through the undergrowth, pausing every now and again to scent at the air. The smell was tantalizing, filling his head with tingles of pleasure. Gods, the scent was alluring! It seemed so strange… and yet familiar all at once. Like… like…

Simba stopped again, sniffing deeply of the air as Timon looked at him curiously. “What’s WITH you, kid?”

“Can’t you smell it?”

Timon sniffed. “Ech. Smells like a brushfire.”

The thought sparked something in Simba’s mind, but he couldn’t quite place it. “Never mind. Let’s go.”

The three wended their way among the ferns for a few more minutes, the scent steadily increasing as they went. Timon perched precariously atop Pumbaa’s head as they followed, straining to see ahaead, but the only thing he was permitted to see was the lazily waving tip of the lion’s tail ahead. He sighed and rested his chin in his hands, grumbling.

Simba came to an abrupt stop, and Pumbaa scrambled to avoid collision. Timon, caught unawares, sailed from atop the warthog’s head to smack solidly against Simba’s rump, bouncing to the ground in an ungainly heap.

“Hey! Why don’t you watch where you’re goin’—”

“SHHH!” Simba peered ahead. The plants were thinning slightly, and he saw a faint glow from ahead. The scent was stronger than ever. “Check it out, guys.”

The three crept closer, stopping at the edge of a clearing. Timon and Pumbaa peered agitatedly at the sight before them, unaware of their companion’s rapture.

A small area of the jungle had been cleared to the dirt, the soft loam of the forest scraped aside to the hard dirt underneath. A strange hedge of sorts ringed the clearing, odd for the fact hat it appeared to be made of dead limbs and sticks rather than live plants. Peeking through the holes in the hedge, the three saw the twisting and writhing shape of an enormous bonfire in the center of the clearing. Around it stood what appeared to be large bushes made of the same dead sticks. And around the fire paced strange animals of a type that Simba had seen only rarely. They reminded him of monkeys, somehow, what with the way they walked on their hind legs, but the funny thing was their skin. Simba snickered in spite of himself. “Lookit that, fellas. They don’t have any hair!”

“Like they need it,” groused Timon. “Those are people, Simba, remember? I told you about people. They’re as noisy as badgers and twice as mean. We better get outa here.”

“Oh, man,” Simba breathed. He had spotted the source of the scent. Over the fire stood a couple of sticks, and on them was perched an enormous antelope, sizzling and spitting in the flames. His tongue rolled out and he licked his lips slowly, never taking his eyes from the meat. “Oh gods, I would give my whiskers for a taste of that.”

Pumbaa shook his head, then glanced to one side, where the humans were hoisting up another animal by the hind legs to cook. His eyes widened in horror as he saw the tusks of a warthog protruding from the snout. “Yeesh! I’m outta here!”

“No, wait.” Simba licked a forepaw and slicked back the fringe of mane on his head and shoulders. “I want to make a good first impression.”

“Are you crazy?” Timon said. “They’ll hang you right next to the pig.”

“I don’t see how. I’m stronger and I’m faster. And all I want is the meat. They won’t follow us to get it back.”

He roared fiercely and strode forward, splintering the wood boma as he shouldered his way through. A second roar sent the humans running, jabbering excitedly as they ran into their huts.

“Hey, that was easy enough! Come on, fellows! Let’s eat!” Simba padded over to the fire, wincing at the heat, and peered upwards, wondering how to get the antelope down. Glancing about, he saw the gleam of the firelight from the eyes of the people hidden in the huts and grinned.

His grin faded as they emerged, the light now glinting off the tips of spears, all pointed at him. “Uh oh!”

The lion turned and bolted, rear paws spurting up dirt as he ran for the hole in the boma. A whirring sound filled the air, and spears began to fall around him, their sharp tips whickering evilly through the air as they passed. Bursting through the gap, he shot away into the jungle. “C’mon, guys! RUN FOR IT!”

Warthog and meerkat followed obligingly as the humans emerged from the encampment, jabbering furiously and waving their weapons. A hissing sound filled the air, and a spear blurred past Simba to bury itself in a nearby tree, quivering angrily. Redoubling his speed, he crashed through the undergrowth, ripping vines and sticks asunder as he fled. Pumbaa ran alongside, Timon astride him and waving his arms wildly.

“Come on fellows!” Timon yelled mockingly. “Let’s eat!”

Pumbaa panted as he struggled to keep up with the terrified lion. “I think the natives are restless.”

“No darned kidding!”

CHAPTER 53: SETTING LIMITS

Simba’s brush with humankind left him scared but still hungry. Somewhat pensive, he sat on the bank of a small pond, watching the fish swim in the crystal clear water. Some of them were rather large, and he felt that it would be a shame to waste all that meat on the bottom of a cold pond when it could be inside a nice warm lion.

He considered his approach. As slow as the fish swam, they would perk up substantially the instant his paw entered the water. As he saw it, there were so many fish that if he jumped in the middle of the school and grabbed, he ought to catch at least one.

After a while, the fish seemed to forget that Simba was there and began to behave normally. One of the came alluringly close to the surface, then snapped up a hapless fly that had fallen in the pond.

“I guess it’s now or never,” Simba said. He tensed up, poised like a statue, then sprang.

SPLASH!!

Timon and Pumbaa watched in awe as Simba grabbed, missed, and grabbed again. Flailing about in the water, he chased fish around until he was covered in mud. The slippery algae on the rocks proved a bit much, even for his large paws. He slipped and fell over on his back.

“Thunderation!”

Some monkeys began to laugh in a nearby tree. “Fresh fish! Fresh fish!”

Simba tried to ignore them. He concentrated on the task at hand, but with mud stirred up in the water it was almost impossible. Still he thrashed about, finally managing to chase a fish into some very shallow water. A quick smack of his paw pinned it to the bottom.

“Gotcha!”

He looked up proudly. “Hey guys, look what I got!”

The fish thrashed around, and as slippery as it was, it worked out from under Simba’s paw. The lion made another quick jab, but only managed to get water in his eyes. He rubbed his face with disgust.

“Hey guys!” one of the monkeys said. “Look what I got!” Gales of laughter erupted in the tree.

“Shut up!” Timon shouted from the nearby riverbank. “We’ll have gibbon instead of fish!”

At that remark, one of the monkeys pulled a ripe fruit and tossed it with almost flawless accuracy. At least it hit Pumbaa…

Others began to pull fruit, and Timon sounded a quick retreat. It was just in the nick of time, too. Fruit began landing all around them as they scrambled to put distance between themselves and the troop.

As Simba ran, he began to dwell on what he had lost. That fish meat would have tasted good. A curse on those monkeys! Maybe with a little more time things might have been different.

As Simba checked behind him to see if the monkeys were pursuing, he failed to notice the thinning trees around him. He absently noticed the light level incresaing, but it failed to register until his front paws sank into soft grass instead of the spongy mat of leaves on the jungle floor.

He turned his head to look and sucked in a deep breath of awe. “Oh!”

Arrayed before him was an immense expanse of grassland, stretching out as far as he could see, the gentle fingers of the wind stirring the ground restlessly into a panorama of motion. He paused for a moment, the stepped out tentatively into the open.

Timon glanced at him apprehensively. “Hey? What’re ya doin’?!”

“This is beautiful!”

Timon and Pumbaa felt naked and exposed without the canopy of trees. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Simba had only good feelings. The cloying scent of rotting vegetation, ever present in the jungle, was gone, whisked away by a clean wind that brought the earthy smell of grass and ground, an ambrosia of scents that made his nostrils twitch with excitement. The last time he had breathed such scents, he had been but a child, the tall stalks of grass towering over his pudgy body as he waddled through the flora. Now he stood upright, the tops of the plants brushing his shoulders as he surveyed the plain, and nothing wad hidden from him. The faint flash of a thunderstorm on the horizon winked at him from far to the southwest, and a small herd of zebra paced leisurely a few miles off, bobbing their heads and gossiping in their singsong voices. He raised his head to look at the sky and grinned, settling down and rolling onto his back as he watched the clouds scud slowly by. “Oh yeah!” He sighed. “Come on, fellows! It’s OK. It’s great out here!”

“No thanks. We’ll stay here and watch.”

“Jeez! What is it with you two?” Irritated, Simba started to rise. Pushing himself up on his forepaws, he shifted, preparing to get up, when his ears flicked towards a sound from the grass behind him. He turned, seeing the stalks rustling and waving, but not from the wind. What breeze there was shifted slightly, and his nose twitched as he caught the long forgotten but unmistakable scent of a lioness. “Who’s there??” he said, frightened.

“Hey, it’s OK. I’m not going to rush you.” Timon and Pumbaa quivered in the underbrush as a golden face appeared. “My name is Sasha.”

Simba stared, entranced by the lovely visage. “Pretty name.”

“Thanks.”

He smiled. “Hey, it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to another of my own kind.”

“Are you a rogue lion?”

“Worse,” he said broodingly. “There’s something natural about a rogue lion. I’m—well—oh forget it.”

“You’re lonely? I can understand that.” She stepped from the grass, the entire length of a fully grown lioness revealing itself as she came to sit beside him. “How long has it been? A moon? Two?”

“Since I was three moons old.”

“My gods!” She looked at him with wonder. “How did you survive?”

Simba gestured over at Timon and Pumbaa. “I had help.”

“Them??” Sasha smiled. She looked back at Simba. “You mean you’ve been without lion friends since you were three moons old?”

“I’ve been without lion enemies too. You’re the first I’ve seen since my father…” He looked down.

She came to him and nuzzled him. “You poor dear!”

An embarrassed smile lit his face. “I forgot how good lionesses smell. But you look so small. I used to look up at my mom.”

She laughed. It was a merry sound that reminded him of Isha’s wonderful chuckle, a sound that was as warm as a good hug.

“Hey Simba!” Pumbaa shouted. “Come back!”

“It’s all right.”

“No it’s not!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Pumbaa.”

“If you don’t believe me, ask HIM!”

“What?” Simba patiently began to explain that it was a female who sat beside him when another scent reached out and slapped his senses. This one was utterly familiar, despite the intervening wall of years. He had smelled it when his father had rescued him and Nala from the hyenas clutches; the scent of a male lion full of rage and ready for battle. Simba turned his head slowly to see the immense form part the grass.

“Who are you talking to, Sasha?” The amber eyes narrowed and regarded Simba coldly, mouth tightening into a flat line that gleamed at the edges where his incisors protruded. “Listen you snotty-nosed brat. Run along before I have to sharpen my claws on you.”

“Wait, Jomo,” Sasha said rapidly. “It’s all right—”

Timon shouted, “What makes you think you can talk to us like that?? Why, Simba here will use you for a beanbag!”

The shine left the lion’s eyes, leaving them flat and deadly. “So it’s Simba, is it?? Well, Simba, why don’t you prove it!” His tail stiffened slightly as his shoulders hunched, and he began to stalk slowly towards the terrified youngster.

Sasha stood aside fearfully as Simba gathered his legs under him in a crouch, creeping backwards towards the treeline. “Hey, no need to get huffy, sir.” He looked back at the meerkat. “Cool it, Timon! Hakuna Matata, remember?”

The adult lion grinned humorlessly. “You have a lot of worries if you ask me. Or maybe just one big one. Me.”

“We were just leaving.”

“I’d bet my next kill on it.” As he spoke, the lion flattened his ears and swept towards Simba in a deadly rush, fangs bared fully, the light gleaming off them in a promise of death. Simba gave a roar of surprise and jerked away, scrabbling for purchase as he tried to turn and flee. The monarch’s paw whipped around and struck the young lion, his claws scoring crimson furrows in Simba’s haunch. Simba cried out in pain and fear, the lion’s roars thundering in his ears as he sprinted away towards the safety of the jungle. He glanced back and saw the lion still pursuing, the sight goading him to run even faster.

Finally he stopped, unable to run any longer, his sides burning with pain as his breath whooped in and out in great tides of air. He turned slowly, expecting to see the great brute bearing down on him for the kill.

Instead, he saw only empty jungle, a very relieved warthog, and an indignant meerkat who sat astride Pumbaa’s head, glaring at him.

Timon asked, “Why did you run away like that?? That dope was a softie; you coulda thrashed him easy!”

Simba licked the bleeding claw marks on his injured haunch and wondered at that. “Once a very wise lion told me he was only brave when he HAD to be. You don’t go asking for trouble.”

“Simba, I don’t think you should go back there for awhile.”

The young lion grinned shakily at Pumbaa. “Good idea.”

The rest of the afternoon passed blissfully uneventful, and the trio even managed to scare up enough insects that evening to go to bed relatively full. But Simba lay awake long after the others had passed into sleep, his head on his paws as he thought about that beautiful sky above, and the wonderful feeling of space around him, unobstructed by vines and trees. As his eyes began to close, he wondered idly what Nala was doing right now, and if she was as pretty as Sasha had been, her tawny face framed by the waving stalks of the grasslands.

CHAPTER 54: SIGN OF POWER

Nearby, Timon lay enraptured in dreams of a different sort.

“The rhinocerous beetle, my dear, IF you please.” Timon grinned, as he lay back, literally in the lap of luxury. His head was pillowed on the legs of a meerkat female who sat cross legged, tickling the fur on the top of his head. Giggling, she nodded, and picked the struggling insect from a pile of bugs that lay nearby, popping into his mouth delicately. “There you go.”

He chewed, savoring the delightful crunch. “Thanks, babe.”

“Of course.” She smiled at him, and he couldn’t help but smile back, admiring the beautiful white fur that enveloped her whole body. “You’re kinda cute, you know that?”

“You too.” Bending over, she rubbed her nose against his, making him chuckle with laughter. “You’re really special, you know that?” He blinked. “What makes you say that?”

“The way you and your friend took care of that lion cub.”

“Oh, Simba?” Timon shrugged. “Least we could do. You know, when we first found him, he was almost dead. We saved his life!”

She nodded. “I know. that was very thoughtful of you.”

“We practically had to teach the kid everything; what to eat, where to sleep…” Timon sighed. “He’s gettin kinda big now though.”

She remained silent, stroking his cheek quietly, waiting for him to continue.

Finally, he did. “He’s gettin kinda big, all right.” Timon examined his hands uncomfortably. “Pretty soon he’s not gonna need us any more.”

She smiled and shook her head. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”

“Really?”

“Oh, there’s a few things that still have to be done.”

He looked at her strangely. “Like what?”

By way of answer, she leapt out from under him, sending his head to the ground with a dull thump. “YEOWCH!” He sat up rubbing his head, and was immediately flattened again as she tackled him, sending the two of them rolling through the grass until she finally pinned him to the ground with her weight, holding his shoulders tight with her hands. “You silly little fellow!”

“Whaddya tryin ta do, kill me—” he trailed off, entranced by her beautiful eyes, gleaming silver-blue as they stared into his own. “Pretty eyes.”

“Everyone says that.” She chuckled, then looked at him intently. “Your friend has reached a turning point in his life. He needs someone to walk with him across the bridge. Great things lie ahead for him, but there are forks in the path. You must help guide him along the way.” She reached down and played with the fur on his cheek, sending shivers down his spine. “You’ll do that for him, won’t you?”

“You betcha. What do I have to do?”

“First of all, he has grown his mane. You need to give him his mantlement. That’s the leonine coming of age ceremony. You’ll pray for him, stroke his mane, and pronounce him an adult. Then you will help him find his destiny. In his case that will involve some risk for you.”

His focus on her wavered slightly. “Risk??”

She stroked him under his chin, riveting his attention on her again. “But you will be very brave and won’t let me down. I know this for a fact.”

He looked at her spellbound. “I will be very brave,” he stammered.

“You will help him.”

“I will help him.”

“I knew I could count on you.” She looked penetratingly into his eyes and drew very close. He could feel her soft breath on his face, enveloping him in the smell of wild honey. “Daima pendana,” she whispered, kissing his cheek.

Timon jerked awake, sitting up and rubbing his eyes in the first gray light of dawn. Gingerly, he rubbed the back of his head and looked at where he had been lying, seeing the rock protruding from the gorund.

“Stupid stone.” He rose, streching and yawning with exaggeration, feeling the stretch and pull of his muscles as he stood. He was standing there, glancing about blearily, wondering where he might find a good bit of breakfast, when his eyes fell on Simba. He stood still for a long moment, then pattered over to the lion and yanked on his whiskers. “Up and at ‘em!”

“WHAAAA!!” Simba’s eyes bulged and he jerked back, his claws splaying involuntarily. “What the—”

“C’mon! Get up, ya bums! It’s daybreak already! We ain’t got much time.” Scampering over, Timon took a deep breath and nipped Pumbaa’s tail lightly, waking the warthog with a shriek and sending HIM running into Simba. Lion and warthog stood trembling at the tiny apparition which ranted at them.

“C’mon! We gotta get goin!”

“Where, Timon?”

“The waterfall, knucklehead! It’s the only place high enough!”

“For WHAT?!”

“Your mantlement, dummy!”

“My wha—” Simba froze. “Gods, you’re right.” He lowered his head. “But I know so little about it; my dad only told me a little about the ceremony.”

Timon glared at him. “Are you a lion?”

“Yeah.”

“You got a mane?”

“Well, yeah…”

“We can fake the rest. C’mon!” He smacked Simba’s rump and trotted off into the forest, grumbling.

Some time later, the three stood on the rocks that overlooked the falls, feeling the cool morning breeze caress their faces, carrying with it a damp spray of droplets from the falls. They sat silently, hearing the calling of the first birds in the clear air. Timon figeted nervously and glanced at Pumbaa, who was clearly just as nervous as he was. They glanced at Simba enviously; the lion sat quiescent, head bowed slightly and eyes closed.

Simba felt a preternatural calm as he sat, hearing the dull roar of the falls below him and the tremors that traveled back up through the rock, vibrating in the pads of his feet. Finally, he detected the first warm rays of light on his eyelids. Opening them, he looked to Timon and nodded slightly.

Timon cleared his throat, trembling with nervousness as he raised his voice. “Uhh, ahem! Let everybody that can hear me know that Simba is following his fathers.” He cringed, looking at Simba, who said nothing as he continued to look at the rising sun. “Look, he bears the sign!”

Silence reigned, and Pumbaa cleared his throat. Timon closed his eyes and hoped fervently that this next bit might go okay; Pumbaa had insisted on giving the ritual prayer. His eyes opened slowly as he heard the warthog’s words.

“I don’t really know what to say to you, God. But you’re smart enough to figure out what I mean. He was all alone in the desert, and we found him lying there, and jeez, if we hadn’t found him, he would have died. But we did, and I don’t think it’s an accident that we came along when we did. You know? I mean what are the chances of that? Well, anyway, he’s got this fuzz on his neck, and for lions that’s supposed to be a big deal and all. It means our little cub is grown, and I guess what I’m trying to say is if he was my own son, I couldn’t be any more proud of him than I am right now. Thanks for giving us a shot at this. I love him, and you make sure nothing bad happens to him, OK?”

He looked up to see the two of them looking at him wonderingly. “Was that all right?”

Simba nuzzled him. “Beautiful. You’re a good friend, Pumbaa.”

Timon nudged him. “It’s time. Go for it, kid.”

Simba nodded. He took a deep breath and roared, the sound shattering the stillness as it echoed across the rocks and canyons. The raucous sound of the birds below fighting for breakfast fell silent, and there was only the sound of the falling water.

CHAPTER 55: SPOTTING THE LEOPARD

Simba was walking restlessly along a well worn path through the jungle, his feet making no sound as they padded along the trail. He paused, glancing down at the far end where it ended, the trees beginning to thin out at the limit of his vision. A slight smile rose as he set about carefully marking the unseen boundary between the savannah and the forest. Grouchy old booger, he thought. Come in HERE and I’LL show you a thing or two. He longed to trot down to the end of the path and roll under that delightful sky once again, but dared not; he was still not fully grown, and he was well aware of the difference between boldness and foolishness.

As he turned to leave, the sharp crack of a tree limb above reached him, and he ducked sidewise, expecting to see the colorful splash of a rotten fruit strike near him. Stupid monkeys, he thought irritably. He was smart enough not to look straight up. There had been times before when he had caught a ripe fruit right in the face.

Instead of a fruit, however, an antelope fell out of the tree and plopped on the ground right in front of him. As he stared, shocked, a voice floated down from above.

“Damn! Of all the times to drop something!”

It was a female voice, a melodious catlike voice but not a lioness. Moments later, a large leopardess came bounding down the trunk with the intensity of a vertical run. She pounced on the antelope and said, “Mine! Buzz off!”

Taken aback, Simba looked up in the tree and back at her. “You got that all the way up there?”

The leopardess glared at him. “What of it?”

“Well, I just thought…” He looked at her and at the antelope. “Did you have help?”

She half smiled. “No. I did it by myself. Haven’t you ever seen a leopard do that before?”

“I’ve never seen a leopard before.” He looked at her appraisingly. “Those spots are so—so neat!”

She purred. “I’ve seen you here before, and I’ve always wanted to ask. How did a lion like you get in a forest like this?”

“Long story,” Simba said with a shrug.

“You hang out with those two?”

Simba knew immmediatley whom she was referring to. “Well, uh, yeah. What of it?”

“Oh nothing. I just thought I’ve never seen you with another lion before. But there are a lot of strange things in this forest. Like that pair of hyenas.”

“Gur’bruk and Kambra?”

“You know them? They healed my shoulder once.”

“What do you know! They saved my life once.”

“Small world, isn’t it?” With a quick snatch of her powerful jaws, the antelope was on its way up the tree. In five or six bounds of her powerful legs, the prey was cached away in the branches.

“Whoa! I’d give anything to know how to do that!”

She came bounding down again. It was always disconcerting to Simba when she did that.

“Let me get this straight. You’re grown and you don’t know how to hunt?”

“Yeah.” Simba looked away.

“Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”

Simba looked at the ground. His ears and tail drooped. “She didn’t get a chance. My dad gave me a few pouncing lessons.”

“And?”

“He died when I was very little.”

“I’m sorry. So have you scavenged all this time?”

“No, ma’am. I’ve eaten bugs.”

“Bugs??”

“These guys helped me. I don’t know what I would have done without them.”

It brought out some of the motherly feelings in her. The corners of her mouth twitched. “I lost a cub once. I had a lot of things I wanted to tell her, and they’ve been bottled up inside me. Look, if you wait till I chow down, I’ll give you a couple of lessons, OK?”

“Neat!”

CHAPTER 56: CATS LIKE US

The leopardess had a leisurely meal in the tree. She did not offer to share her meal, and she was not asked. Timon and Pumbaa watched her pull off strips of the fresh meat and mince them with a look of pleasure before swallowing. Timon stared at her hungrily, running the tip of his tongue slowly around his lips. “Look at that, Pumbaa! That’s how real people live.”

Pumbaa said nothing, but his stomach complained periodically. Simba was quite content to watch her. Part of his missing heritage would be given him, and he awaited the wonderful secrets she would impart with open-mouthed wonder. “Imagine, me a hunter! A hunter like my mother before me!”

Pride began to swell in his chest, and he hadn’t even tried his luck at it yet.

Finally as the sun was getting low in the sky, she nosed the carcass and it fell out of the branches. Stretching in her precarious perch, she yawned, shook herself, and ambled down the tree. “You ready?”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Lose the ‘yes ma’am.’ My name’s Mikosi.”

“I’m Simba.”

“Glad to meet you at last.” She nuzzled him.

“I’m Timon, if anyone cares. This is my friend Pumbaa.”

Without even glancing in their direction, Mikosi continued. “If you’re going to learn from me, you must do what my cub would have done. Speak when spoken to, and then very softly. Every word we say is an enemy, seeking to betray us. Do you agree to this?”

Simba nodded quietly.

“You learn fast, I’ll grant you.”

For nearly two hours, she gave him lessons on stalking, running after prey, and staying downwind. Timon and Pumbaa watched with horrified fascination at the list of killing tactics, especially when she used them as examples in laying out an approach.

Then when the moon disappeared behind a cloud and the forest was cloaked in inky darkness, she said, “Let’s do it!”

He did exactly what she told him to do. And to his absolute amazement and hers he brought down a small antelope on his very first try!

“Maybe it’s beginner’s luck. But you earned this.”

Mikosi dipped her paw in the blood and made a pawprint on his cheek. “Somewhere out there your parents are proud of you.”

Before Simba could eat, she dragged the carcass up a nearby tree!

“Hey! Bring that back down here! I didn’t even get a bite!”

“This is my payment for showing you where to hunt, big boy,” she teased, chewing contentedly. “Next lesson: guard your prey from jealous eyes. That’s why I climb trees.”

“But that’s my first! I want to know what it tastes like!”

“I’ll describe it to you.”

“We could share.”

“We certainly could. But what would be the fun in that?”

“It would be nice and friendly.”

Simba extended his claws and began to shinny up the rough-barked tree with absolute determination in his eyes.

She stopped chewing, her claws flicking out as she hugged the limb for balance. “W-What are you DOING?!”

He flailed clumsily, trying to ascend and keep his own balance. “I’m going to join you for dinner, hon.”

“STOP!” The tree, not that big to begin with, began to sway drunkenly. “You’re too big, imbecile!”

“Well I’m getting smaller by the minute. I’m hungry.”

CRAAACK!!!!

Splinters shot up in a spray and sap spewed into the air in haphazard patterns as the tree surrendered, shredding at its lower end to come tumbling down with a crash. As it neared the ground, the end of the tree snapped clear of the stump, pistoning out and jarring the cats, sending them flying clear. The gazelle was not so lucky; Mikosi had wedged it into a fork of the tree to keep it from falling, and she did her job well; it remained there all the way to the ground, where it was obliterated by the smashing weight of the trunk.

Mikosi shook her head blearily, staring at Simba as he staggered to his feet. “You’re crazy!”

“Well look. I don’t mind hunting with you if you play fair, OK? Let’s set down some rules here and now. Those that work, eat.”

She looked into his angry eyes, expecting the worst. He went over to the fallen tree, pulling what remained of the carcass out and starting to eat as she watched hungrily. The sensation of eating meat stirred him, and he remembered old feelings and old friends from long ago. A shudder of deep emotion went through him. He’d finished more than half of it, but then he backed back a little. “Won’t you join me, Mikosi?”

“Really?”

“Yeah. When I say something, I mean it.”

She came up tentatively beside him, snatching a quick bite and chewing, relaxing when he ignored her and started to eat again. “Friends?”

“Friends.”

She kissed his cheek. “You’re rather special, you know that?”

Abruptly a low growl issued from the trees behind them. They turned to see another leopard descending, his flat yellow glare fixed on Mikosi. “Gods, this is SICK! You’ll go with ANYTHING! I thought you were just having an affair, but my gods, this is SICK!”

“He’s just a friend! He’d never been around his own kind, and I thought I’d show him how to—well—you know!”

The male leopard moaned. “That’s what I was afraid of!” She tried to explain, but he would hear none of it. He told Simba, “Get out, you home wrecker! Out, out out!!!!”

“I was just trying to satisfy my appetite.”

“Oh gods! I don’t want to hear the sordid details! Take your ‘appetite’ as you call it and GET OUT!!!”

As Simba padded away slowly, he couldn’t help but hear the heated argument behind him as the leopard berated Mikosi. “Tell me he didn’t! Tell me you didn’t!”

“You jealous fool,” she hissed. “What if we did! You think you can come waltzing into my life every few months and tell me how to run my affairs??”

In fury, he bellowed, “DID YOU??”

“NO!” Simba shouted. “Absolutely not! No way! Forget it kid! I’m out of here!”

“I thought you were very special!” she called after Simba.

“Special??” The leopard ran and blocked Simba’s escape. “Hey Fire Flanks, you want her, you fight for her! Come on, lion! I’ll fight you to the death!”

“But I don’t want to fight you!”

“Are you saying she’s not worth it! You made it with my wife, then you leave her flat?? I’d kill you for that, or die trying!”

“Look,” Simba said. “It’s really you she loves. I mean hey, she cried out your name by mistake. It’s a real turn-off when someone yells ‘Oh Oswego’ in a moment of passion.”

The leopard’s hackles raised and he began to tremble with unstoppable rage. Just as Timon and Pumbaa were wishing they were on another continent, the leopard shrilly screamed, “I’M NOT OSWEGO!! MY NAME IS HAMBA!!”

He pushed past Simba and barreled after the leopardess at top speed. When all was still, and the trio had gone safely into the forest, Timon said, “Yesss!!” and high-fived Simba. “Gods, what an inspiration!!”

CHAPTER 57: TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM

Simba listened enraptured to the soft voice of the leopardess. “You are special,” she purred alluringly. “Friends?”

“Friends.”

“You can’t have him,” a lioness voice said from the bushes. “He doesn’t belong in the trees like a leopard. He belongs in the open with me.” It was Sasha.

The lioness twitched her head for him to follow. He left the leopardess behind and followed her.

Soon he found himself back in the open savanna where his heart belonged. Sasha came to him and nuzzled him slowly and gently, pawing his face and then slinking softly down his full length. “Isn’t this better?”

“Much.”

“Jomo is not around. We have this to ourselves.”

A smile warmed the corners of her shapely mouth and her eyes half closed. She rolled on her back in the rich grass, taking in a deep breath and letting it slowly out. “Simba.”

He smiled, drifting alongside her warm body and lowering his bulk with such grace that the grass whispered in answer. He looked over into her soft hazel eyes and rolled on his back, snuggled against her graceful body. A feeling of peace and contentment swept over him like a calm wind, blowing his worries and doubts away and leaving only the essence of his wondering soul.

As they lay next to each other, she reached over with an adventurous paw and began to explore his soft mane and feel his heartbeat. Simba grunted his approval, his eyes half closed in satisfaction. “Oh yes, you know what I like.”

“I know what you like,” she said mischievously, and she began to widen her explorations.

His eyes opened wide. “Hey!”

She gazed at him longingly. “It’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“Well, I…”

She licked his face slowly and passionately. “You can’t hide it from me. It’s been on your mind since we met.”

“Well, I…”

“It’s all right, honey tree. Really it is. It’s what I want too.” She reached over with a paw again, starting at his chest and slowly, steadily setting him on fire. “Make love to me, Simba.”

“OK. But it’s going to be my first time.” He rolled over and got to his feet. “Do you still want me?”

She looked up at him and smiled. “Yes.” She rolled over smoothly into a crouch. “Don’t be afraid. You’re so timid, just like a little cub.” She licked out the end of her tongue in a kiss. “I think you’re kind of cute.”

Suddenly, Jomo came running toward them. “Get away! Get away from her!”

The two squared off, and Simba flailed at him, claws out. Jomo was bold, but to the point of overconfidence. He did not expect a firm defense, and Simba struck at him, catching him on the side of the face.

Stunned, Jomo fell back, and Simba rained blow after blow on him almost unopposed.

Soon Simba prevailed. He saw the vanquished foe at his feet, but rather than beg for mercy, the lion said, “Everything I had is yours. But before you make love to her, why don’t you tell her I’m the second lion you killed. Your own father’s blood is on your paws!”

Simba looked at him and realized it was his Uncle Scar.

“No!” Simba backed up. “I didn’t kill him!” he stammered. “I swear I didn’t! It was an accident!”

Taka glared at him as he lay mortally wounded, his life draining away with each beat of his heart. “It’s all your fault! If you hadn’t messed up, he’d still be alive. Go away and never come back!”

“It’s NOT my fault! It’s NOT!”

Simba sruggled awake, striking out at the bare air in his efforts to escape the nightmare. Breathing rapidly, his heart pounding, he sat in the still heat of the jungle, the humid air stifling him and making each breath an effort. At last his heat slowed, and he reclined back onto the leaves, his fur soaked in sweat. His eyes flicked up to the dark canopy of leaves overhead, and for the first time in months, he wept bitterly, the tears falling silent onto the forest loam.

CHAPTER 58: PIPKAH THE GREAT

Uzuri heard that Pipkah’s latest fiasco was supposedly due to errors by the lionesses, for the manoever was a flawless one taught him by “my dear friend Uzuri.” Pipkah had been playing that association to the hilt lately, and Uzuri was determined that at her own time and in her own way she would set the record straight.

Pipkah enjoyed the cool, clear waters of the cistern behind Pride Rock. He came alone, which suited Uzuri just fine.

Pipkah drank deeply, then let out a satisfying belch. Ah, life at Pride Rock was good, even if there was not as much food as there used to be. As one of Shenzi’s trusted ones, he always ate well if nearly everyone else did without.

“It’s me,” Uzuri said, stepping out of the shadows.

“Uzuri!” Pipkah stepped back a pace or two, not certain how much she’d heard or how she would react.

“My Pipkah,” she said softly, nuzzling him. “You know I’m in my season. Taka is content with Elanna, and where does that leave me?”

“Very disappointed?”

“Not really. Not as alone as you might think.” She rubbed along him full length. “It will be awkward at first, but you will adjust with a little help from me.”

Pipkah stepped back again. “Adjust what?”

Uzuri let out a protracted purr, her eyes half closed. “A hunter like me and a hunter like you. When I heard about your legendary skill, that was it. I was lost. Make love to me, Pipkah!”

“Oh gods…” Pipkah swallowed hard. “I’m not really that good! I brag a lot. Some of it is a downright lie!”

“So modest and shy! I think that’s SUCH a turn-on! Just think-we’ll have three days of non-stop passion.”

“Three days??”

He started to leave, but she stepped in his path rather suddenly. “Make love to me, Pipkah! Set me on fire!”

“But I…” He scrambled on top of a small rock. She looked up at him and easily bounded up with him, her body crowded next to his on the small platform.

“But what about-uh-Shimbekh! Yeah, Shimbekh!”

“I’ll have a talk with her.”

“No, don’t do that!”

“She deserves to know what we share between us! She is a good girl, and needs to find another male.” She looked him over appraisingly. “Those are the cutest ears, and that smile is so warm and sexy.”

“Uh, thanks, I think.”

“And check out that fanny!” She reached back with a paw and tickled him.

“Whoa!!! My gods!!!” He jumped from the rock, shivering. “Madam, PLEASE!”

“You don’t have to beg me!” She jumped down, then walked in front of him and crouched down, looking over her back. “Come on, lover! Give it your best shot. We’ll work on it till we get it right.”

Ber padded around the corner and froze. “Oops!”

“Ber! Hey, old buddy!”

“Pipkah-I hope I’m not interrupting anything…”

“Oh, not at all! This is NOT what it looks like!”

Panting and moving her lips in a pout, Uzuri stared at Pipkah. “I’m waiting, honey pot.”

“I can come back later,” Ber said.

“Come back in about three days,” Uzuri said shortly. “We’re otherwise occupied.”

“You said it, sister! But don’t worry-I won’t tell a WORD to the others. Your secret is safe with me.” Ber laughed wickedly. “But of course we ALL know how you feel about each other.” He started to go.

“Don’t leave me here!” Pipkah cried. “I mean, there’s no rush, old friend. I have to get to guard duty. You keep Uzuri company for me.”

“I took on your guard duty, remember?”

“But you’ve been two days without a furlough. I don’t think that’s morally RIGHT, Ber!”

“Hmmm. The only way you could relieve me if you wanted to would be to take the next eight days.”

“EIGHT DAYS??”

“But hey, I got you covered. You’ll have NO INTERRUPTIONS. Kiss kiss!”

“OK, eight days it is!” Pipkah looked at Uzuri. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I have work to do. Maybe in eight days, if you’re still interested, we can have a red-hot honeymoon under the acacias.”

He ran away very quickly.

Uzuri laughed. “Ok, Ber, you remember our agreement? I got you eight days of leisure.”

“And you sneak away for three days to see your husband that I’m not aware exists. If anyone asks me where you are, you’re sick and I saw you retching up breakfast.” He smiled coyly and added, “Behave yourself, my dear! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”

She smiled back. “Honey tree, I’m about to do EVERYTHING you wouldn’t do!”

CHAPTER 59: FACING FACTS

Ef a man is what he isn’t, den he isn’t what he am,

And as sure as I’m a-talkin’ he isn’t worth a damn!

Doan’t ye be what you ain’t, jes’ you be what you is.

Ef a man is what he isn’t, den he isn’t what he is;

And as sure as I’m a-talkin’, he’s a-gwyne to git his!

— EDWIN MILTON ROYLE

Simba was disturbed by some of the feelings his young adulthood gave him. Hakuna matata was stretching thin. He wanted a mate, he wanted meat, he wanted a territory, he wanted absolution. In short, he felt trapped, with little hope of ever achieving any of the success predicted by Gur’bruk and Kambra.

Sefu the secretary bird was unconventional, but his advice when given was not taken lightly. And it was to Sefu that he looked for help.

Of course, Sefu was not easily found. Unlike his old friends on Pride Rock, there was no way of knowing when and were the Secretary Bird would show up. Despondent, Simba paused one morning while Timon and Pumbaa continued on to the water hole to get a drink and bowed his head.

“Please, Aiheu, help me! I may not pray every night like I should, and I may be just a fugitive, but Mom said you were merciful. Please give me a second chance, God. Please show me the way—I’m so lost!”

Just when Simba was about to lose his faith in the power of prayer, Sefu surprised them at the watering hole.

“Sefu! I’m so glad to see you!”

“Hey, cat! Likewise!”

While Pumbaa wallowed in the shallows and Timon gargled noisily as he drank, Simba managed to corner Sefu for a moment and try to put into words what was only a feeling of emptiness, a dread of dying alone and forgotten, a creeping despair that eroded him like fungi on a fallen log.

“Hey, been there, done that.” Sefu looked at him appraisingly. “Some of us little folks can fit into a little hole somewhere and hide ourselves from the world. Some of us can’t.”

“Yeah.”

“I heard through the grapevine that you tried to take meat from the local tribesmen. I guess you found out they have a lot of sense for creatures without fur or feathers.”

Simba uttered a short laugh. “No darned kidding.”

“Well they have this custom of making shapes of geese out of pitch covered straw. From a distance, they look real. They are set out in the lake and when the real geese see them, they think its safe and light. Then they get whacked.”

“Is there a moral to this story?”

“No!” Sefu said. “I just wanted you to know that you’re an impostor. You’re not a jungle bum. Hakuna matata does not fit you. You were meant to be marsh grass, and no matter how much they weave you or tar you, you can’t be a goose unless you were born a goose. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly—well, at least most of them do—and lions gotta roar. You don’t belong here. You’ll NEVER belong here. You belong out there, free and unencumbered. As free as the wind blows. As free as the grass grows. Born free to follow your heart.” He threw back his wing, held up his head and burst out with “BORN FREE! AS FREE AS THE WIND BLOWS…”

Timon grabbed his beak shut. “Please, don’t sing it!” He turned back to Simba. “Listen, kid! It does no good bringing up a lot of false hopes and stirring up a lot of pain. Hakuna matata is the only way. You gotta be like Pumbaa here—he’s got it all figured out.”

But Pumbaa was looking at Sefu and Simba wistfully. He was anything but sure about Timon’s logic. He felt sorry for Simba.

“I was afraid this would happen someday,” Pumbaa said. “But when the time comes, I’ll let go. Simba, we’re all born into this world with a destiny. Some of us might have it easier than others, but you can’t escape your destiny.”

“What is my destiny?” Simba asked.

“That is something that you must figure out for yourself, my son. That’s between you and God. And whatever it is, I’ll be there to help you fulfill it.”

Timon looked at Pumbaa disbelievingly. But the warthog had a look of wisdom and nobility shining in his eyes that stunned him. He could not find the nerve to contradict him, and looked away, sighing. “Yeah, IF.”

CHAPTER 56: THE LEAP OF FAITH

Makhpil was quick to join the Omlakhs. She was filled with love and idealism, and she expected even more from her God. Even before she saw chinks in the psychic armor of Melmokh, she knew that he was a pretender and evil.

But her suspicions were confirmed in a very real and frightening way. She had never spoken with Gur’mekh, but through her contacts with Shimbekh and Brin’bi she understood at a gut level the possibilities of her powers. And in what was to settle her doubts forever, she lay on the ground and covered her eyes with her paws. “Thou in me and I in thee. Come together let us be!” She repeated the mantra over and over, feeling in her heart the closeness of the one who claimed to be God. That she might not survive was not important. One way or the other she must know.

“Thou in me and I in thee. Come together let us be!”

She rolled over on her back, her breath coming and going in short gasps. Reaching out with a paw, she touched the spirit of Melmokh.

A wave of revulsion filled her as she felt a sensation akin to swallowing a mouthful of spiderwebs. Fighting the urge to vomit, she pulled back hastily, breaking contact and opening her eyes wide in a shriek of horror. The next several breaths she drew in escaped as cries of pain and despair. “Oh my God! It’s evil! It’s evil!”

She got up and ran around in tight little circles as if chasing her tail, the hackles raised along her back. “Help us, Roh’kash! Help us! Great Mother, we’re all being led to Hell! Save us, God!”

The false Roh’kash jumped up with a start. “Who dared! Who dared touch me!!”

The followers were all at a distance and looked around at each other. “Great Mother, no one touched you!”

“Not with a paw, stupid!” Melmokh shot a glance at the hapless hyena and he jumped, yelping in pain. The others fell on the ground rolling over and reaching out with a paw. “Mercy, Great Mother! Mercy!”

With a look of ultimate rage, his hackles raised, Melmokh ran out of the circle and began running around the elephant graveyard looking for the source of the pain. But it was too late—Makhpil had released her without betraying her own thoughts.

Makhpil ran to Ber and fell before him. “Okhim Ber,” she gasped, “I’ve seen the devil himself! I’ll do anything to help you, anything!”

Ber nuzzled her and rubbed her face with his paw. “Blessed bak’ret, daughter of Roh’kash, may the true God reward your faith!”

She knew that the Roh’kash was false. She could not hide that from Shimbekh, who had her own doubts, but could not be sure.

It was Shimbekh that Melmokh suspected, and so as Roh’kash, he persuaded Roh’mach Shenzi to order Shimbekh to give false prophesy. If she refused, she would be killed. If she did not refuse, she would be psychically blind. Either way, Melmokh would preserve his dark heart from the sight of the others.

Meekly, Shimbekh considered the life of her new daughter and put Makhpil’s welfare before her own. And she lied to Taka about his chosen heir, even as she was commanded.

Cut off from her spirit husband and unable to reach her daughter’s heart except through talking, she sank into a deep depression. It was a frightening kind of aloneness. From time to time she would beg Makhpil to take messages to Brin’bi as if he lived in a different land far, far away. When Makhpil explained to her mother who the false Roh’kash was, she bit her own leg till the blood ran down. “So it wasn’t Gur’mekh who led to our downfall. It was me! Oh gods, it was me! I could have stopped this!”

Shimbekh began to grow gaunt and ill kept, looking as she did after the vision of Gur’mekh. Makhpil had to beg her to eat—each bite was a concession to Shimbekh’s love for her daughter, for she did not want to go on living.

Then one day Makhpil prophesied that joy awaited Shimbekh at the gorge. It was the hope that she was looking for.

Shimbekh told Makhpil that as the one remaining seer she had to take care of herself and keep prophesy alive among the people if they were ever to survive. Determined to repair what she had done, she went to Uzuri and confessed her full load of guilt. Uzuri was not psychically gifted, but she could see the sincerity in her eyes and took the message to heart. It awakened hope in her spirit.

Shimbekh then went to the gorge. “Great Mother, I have sinned. I have tried to out guess your will and it will not be through me that the suffering will end. But have mercy on me. I have confessed my guilt, and I only ask for my husband back. Please?”

Then looking off the edge, standing far out on a cloud, she saw her husband. She was so overwhelmed that she almost lost her footing.

“It’s time for us to be together,” he said. He sensed the rage of Melmokh at the edge of his awareness, and saw the assassins the false Roh’kash had dispatched to rid himself of Shimbekh. Brin’bi shook his head sorrowfully. He looked at Shimbekh and forced a smile for her sake. “Our time is soon, love.”

“Our time is now.” Without removing her gaze from his, Shimbekh backed up and launched herself into the open space of the gorge. Without a sound she plummeted, caroming off the rock wall and beginning to tumble through the air. She closed her eyes, not feeling the pain as her body was terribly abused by the unforgiving walls of the gorge. Brin’bi stood there in her mind, a look of surprise on his face as he saw her descend. Her eyes opened and she saw trhe ground rushing up at her with terrible finality.

“Brin’bi,” she murmured, and was silenced forever.

Makhpil was expected to be saddened by the death of her mother. Instead Makhpil seemed to grow in beauty and spirit, showing signs of joy and optimism for the future. Only Amarakh knew that her life had changed for the better, for now her mother and father were together again, inseparable, and the three of them went on with their life with very little change.

CHAPTER 61: THE MEETING

“SHE’S GONNA EAT MEEE!!”

Simba’s ears twitched violently at the sound of the scream behind him. “Oh gods!” Turning about, he began to sprint, praying with all his heart he would arrive in time. As he neared, he heard the distinct snarl of a lioness closing in for the kill, and the sound was familiar indeed. His eyes narrowed as he rounded a corner and saw Pumbaa wedged under a tree root, scrabbling desperately for release.

That damned Sasha lied to me, he thought. Well, we’ll see who gets thrown out of whose territory NOW!

A terrible snarl erupted from him as he leapt over the root, floating through the air in a graceful leap. He descended rapidly, crashing down with terrifying force in front of the lioness as she slid to a stop, a look of total surprise on her face. Simba lashed out, snarling, noting that this was not Sasha after all, but another lioness, much younger, in fact. No matter.

Timon leapt with joy as Simba joined battle with a fury that shook the earth. “Get her! Bite her head!” He capered atop Pumbaa’s rump gleefully as the two titans thrashed about, paws whipping throught the air in an awesome display of chained fury.

The lioness backed back, claws whipping around in an effort to lash his face, but his mane deflected the blows as he closed in. Gathering himself, Simba launched himself at her, jaws spreading as he prepared to seize her throat—

—and then he gave a startled “WHUFF!” of surprise as her feet sank into his belly, knocking the wind from him. The world spun crazily, and he found himself lying on his back, the lioness pinning him to the ground, her hot breath billowing in his face as she bared her fangs at his throat. Stricken, sure he would be dead in a few more seconds, he looked up to meet her gaze… and saw the brilliant green eyes staring into his.

He had seen those eyes in a thousand dreams. “Nala?!”

The snarling grimace of the lioness vanished, her face transforming from awesome rage into awesome beauty. Her jaw dropped and she backed away, crowding into a tree trunk and staring at the stranger before her. “Is it really you?”

She gazed at him suspiciously. Was it possible that Taka would send someone to follow her? Nonsense. A male such as this he would have killed outright, or at least driven off. “Who are you?”

“It’s me! Simba.”

“Simba?” The name rolled oddly off her tongue as she looked at him. Funny, she had known a cub by the same name when she was a child… her eyes widened as she looked into his face and SAW him, oh gods, he was ALIVE!

“WHOAAAAW! A simeltaneous explosion of joy erupted from the two as they rubbed heads together in greeting, filling the air with a cacophony of confused questions.

“But how did you—”

“It’s GREAT to see you!”

“It’s good to see YOU!”

“I thought you were—”

“HEY! WHAT’S GOIN’ ON HERE?!”

Simba grinned and introduced his companions to Nala, chuckling at Timon’s utter confusion. His mirth was short lived, as Nala looked at him, her face serious.

“Wait till everyone finds out you’ve been HERE all this time! And your mother… what will she think?”

Simba felt a mad rush of panic that nearly overwhelmed him. “She doesn’t have to know. Nobody has to know.”

“Of course they do! Everyone thinks you’re dead!”

He looked at her, shocked. “They do?”

“Yeah.” She lowered her gaze sadly. “Scar told us about the stampede.” She glanced up tentatively, afraid to meet his gaze.

Simba was awash with cold fear. “He did? What else did he tell you?”

“What else matters?! You’re alive! And that means…” she looked at him, a new look of awe on her face mixed with newborn hope. “You’re the king.”

Simba froze into immobile stillness. He watched numbly as Timon and Pumbaa transformed before his eyes, looking at him like some new kind of insect they’d never seen before. Before Timon could embroil himself into an argument with Nala, he sighed deeply. “Maybe you’d better go.”

Timon gaped. “It starts. You THINK you know a guy…”

Simba watched them leave, then grinned shamefacedly at Nala. “Timon and Pumbaa. You learn to love ‘em.” He fell silent as he saw Nala with her back to him, looking as if she might begin weeping at any moment. He went to her and leaned against her shoulder comfortingly. “What? What is it?”

“It’s like you’re back form the dead,” she said quietly. “You don’t know what this will mean to everyone. What it means to me—” Her voice threatened to betray her, and she silenced herself as years of dreams and hopes, things she had long forgotten and buried away in her mind now clamored for attention. She remebered playing with him long ago, cub games in the sweet grass fields of the Pride Lands where time stood still.

Simba nuzzled her tentatively. “Hey. It’s okay.”

Shaking with the years of memories that threatened to burst forth, she buried her head in his mane, rubbing her cheek firmly against him. “I’ve really missed you.”

CHAPTER 62: CAN YOU FEEL THE LOVE TONIGHT?

The water cascaded over the edge of the rocks, rolling smoothly into the deep pool at the foot of the falls, the frothy spume spraying into the air and wetting the coats of the two lions who picked their way along the rocks.

Simba followed Nala across the natural bridge, pausing to shake the cool droplets from his coat, making a miniature rainbow in the air as he dried himself. He joined her at a still pool where she was bending to take a drink. He was not the least bit thirsty, but at a loss as what else to do, he leaned over the water and took a couple of swallows, his eyes on the lioness across from him. He was unable to believe his friend had found him again! He had missed his family dearly, but there was something special about Nala…

She glanced up and caught him staring at her, and he stopped drinking, raising his head in alarm and embarrassment. But she merely smiled at him and bent to the pool again. “She doesn’t know,” he thought. “Else she wouldn’t smile at me like that. Oh gods, what am I going to tell her?” He looked away from her, the shame dousing the joy he had felt.

Nala lapped at the cold water daintily, enjoying the liquid as she soothed her parched throat. The trip across the desert had been exhausting, and after that high speed pursuit of Pumbaa that had nearly ended in disaster, she was fairly desperate for a drink. Curious that her friend had taken up with a warthog, of all creatures. What Simba saw in that-

She glanced up at her friend and stopped in mid-drink, shocked at the look of absolute sadness in his features. Worried, she lifted her head, intending to ask him what was wrong, but Simba saw her glance up and immediately brightened, the mask of despair vanishing as if it had never been. He stepped to the edge of the pool, then tensed his haunches and leapt gracefully over to her side, smiling enigmatically as he passed. Nala turned to look at him, thoroughly confused. What in the world was he up to now-

Her eyes widened in surprise as he ran past, a vine clutched tight in his jaws, soaring out over the pool to land in its center with a terrific splash. She watched, at first amused, then alarmed as the ripples of his landing disappeared and he still showed no sign of surfacing. She padded to the edge and looked about anxiously, looking for any sign of him.

The water in front of her erupted, spraying her thoroughly as Simba rose and clasped her around the shoulders in a hug. She started to smile and ask him if this was his way of saying hello when she felt her balance shift alarmingly.

“Oh gods,” she thought. “He’s not doing what I think he is-”

But he was indeed. Simba’s weight pulled her forward and down into the icy water with a tremendous splash. The lion surfaced, a grin on his face as he watched Nala scramble from the water, gasping, and huddle in a wet crouch, her teeth chattering. She made no move to rejoin him, and his smile wilted a little as he realized he might have stepped over the line. He pulled himself from the water, the cool liquid running from his mane in small streams as he went to her, a concerned look on his features.

Nala waited until he was next to her, then with a wry grin she shoved him playfully back into the water. “Gotcha!” she thought, laughing delightedly. She shook herself, then trotted away as Simba climbed from the water again, a grin on his face. Another laugh escaped her as she dodged among the trees, her friend in full pursuit of her and bent on revenge. She twisted agilely through a dense thicket, chuckling as she heard Simba smash through the debris.

“Clumsy!” she yelled at him.

“Oh, yeah?!” He grinned and put on a burst of speed as they entered a lush meadow, the late afternoon sun glinting through the trees as he drew nearer. She plunged into the undergrowth on the far side of the clearing and turned to face him, rising on her rear legs and pawing at him playfully. He laughed, rearing up to meet her and throwing his forepaws around her shoulders, his extra weight overbalancing them both and sending them tumbling down the hillside to slide to a stop at the bottom.

Nala giggled up at him, and he responded by bursting into laughter, the sound sweet and joyous to her ears. He had seemed so sad, back at the pond, but all her worries dissipated as she looked up at his contented face. She felt a warm rush of feeling, looking at his features, slightly amazed at how handsome he had become. The rough and tumble cub she had played with as a child had burst forth with a beautifully flowing mane, and his body, while lean in some places, was fully formed and muscular. Yet his face still held that wonderful, innocent look she knew well from their cubhood. His body was warm against hers, and the comforting pressure of his weight resting on her sent tingles up and down her spine.

Nala reached up with a forepaw, draping it over the back of his neck. Pulling him to her, she bent forward and kissed his cheek, a long, passionate lick that ceased his laughter and brought a surprised look to his face.

Simba stared down at Nala, feeling the tingle from her kiss spreading through him like ripples in a pond. She looked up at him, her eyes half-opened and giving him a look that sent fire racing through his belly. He bent to her and nuzzled her, and she responded, rising up to bury her face in his mane and purring deeply, the thrumming sound carrying clear in the still evening air. “Nala,” he whispered.

She said nothing, still purring low in her chest as she sat up and nuzzled him again, her side making heavy contact with his as she rubbed against him. Nala circled him slowly, her tail coiling around his hind legs as she moved up his other side and nuzzled his neck again. Lifting her head, she nibbled the edge of his ear playfully.

He took a ragged breath and blew it out forcefully. “Oh gods, what’s wrong with me?”

“What is it?”

He stood unsteadily, his legs splayed wide, limbs trembling with unreleased tension. “I feel so strange.” His eyes looked searchingly into hers, the fear and confusion clear through the haze of desire.

She kissed him again, and he felt her tremble slightly, and saw the wonder in her own eyes. “ I think you’re supposed to,” she said, a tremulous laugh escaping her. She nuzzled him again under the chin, then walked away towards the edge of the glade. Simba followed her slowly, a pace behind, his gaze fixed as he drank in her beauty. Nala hestitated, then crouched slowly, looking back over her shoulder at him with fear and desire warring in her eyes. “Simba? I…”

“Shhh.” He stood close, unable to tear his eyes away from her, the moonlight slicing through the trees overhead and haloing her face in silver ethrealness.

“Beloved,” he whispered, and went to her.

CHAPTER 63: CONFRONTATION

Simba padded along the path slowly, Nala’s weight resting pleasureably on his shoulder as they walked. A contented purr continued to rumble through her chest, and he echoed it as he nuzzled her behind her ear. “You’re beautiful, you know that?”

“Yes.” She giggled and kissed him on the cheek. “But thank you for saying so.” She studied his face in profile as they threaded their way through some dense greenery. His face was so gentle, like his mother’s, and the set of his jaw and the slight smile brought back memories of Mufasa. But his eyes… oh gods, his eyes… her smile faded as she looked at him. Simba was studying the waterfall that lay across the valley from them, his smile forgotten, almost an afterthought, now. The deep mask of sadness that she had glimpsed at the pool had returned full force. The amber eyes that the other lionesses had commented on in his cubhood were so empty and devoid of feeling that it made her shiver. And the worst of it was, there was still something left in there, buried deep down. She had seen it back there when she first kissed him. Her old friend was still in there, in that well of sadness, and she wondered if she might ever bring him to the light of day again.

Her jaw quivering, she buried her head in his mane, unwilling to let him see the tears that threatened to burst forth.

Simba glanced down at her, his smile returning somewhat. “Isn’t this a great place?”

Nala took a deep breath and raised her head, giving the scenery a perfunctory glance. “It is beautiful,” she conceded finally. “But I don’t understand something.” She looked at him quizzically. “You’ve ben alive all this time… why didn’t you come back to Pride Rock?”

Simba figeted nervously. “Well…” He padded over to a tangled mat of vines that swayed gently in the evening breeze. He eased himself into its firm embrace, sprawling on his back comfortably. “Well, I just… needed to get out on my own. Live my own life. And I did, and it’s great!” He peered at her earnestly.

Nala’s voice shook noticably. “We’ve really needed you at home,” she said.

Simba’s expression crumpled and he looked away. “No one needs me.”

Gods, what was wrong with him?! “Yes, we do! You’re the king!”

“Nala, we’ve been through this,” he said testily. “I’m not the king; Scar is.” “And well he should be,” Simba thought to himself. The monarchy was no place for a murderer, and his uncle had wisely pointed this out in the gorge. Simba had no choice but to agree to his self imposed exile. Technically, it would have been well within his uncle’s right to have him killed for Mufasa’s death. Yet he had shown mercy on his nephew and allowed him to leave untouched. With such a wise and merciful king, the Pride Lands were better off under his uncle’s supervision.

At least, he thought so, until Nala informed him of the hyannic takeover of his homeland. He stared at her disbelievingly. “What?!”

“There’s no food, no water… Simba, if you don’t do something soon, everyone will starve!”

As he opened his mouth to answer, a chill brushed him, and he shivered. He looked away from her, the depression filling him, his spirit sagging with guilt. “I can’t go back.”

“Why?!”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“WHAT wouldn’t I understand?!”

“No, no, no.” He waved her off irritably. “It doesn’t matter. Hakuna Matata.”

“What?” Nala’s face twisted in confusion.

“Hakuna Matata. It’s something I learned out here.” He leapt lightly upon a fallen tree and looked at her. “Look,” he said, eager for her to understand, “sometimes bad things happen-”

“Simba!” Nala lashed her tail in frustration.

“-and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he grated, irritated at her interruption. “So why worry?” He looked away and paced agitatedly along the length of the tree.

Nala followed alongside. The anger and frustration came to a head, and she lashed at him with full force. “Because it’s your responsiblity!!” Sweet Aiehu, why didn’t he see it?

Simba came to a stop and glanced at her angrily. “So what about you? YOU left!”

“I left to find help!” she shot back, incensed. “And I found YOU. Don’t you understand?!” Her voice trembled on the edge of tears. “You’re our only hope.”

Simba closed his eyes for a moment, then loked at her. “Sorry.”

Nala drew back and peered at him with narrowed eyes. “What’s happened to you?” She shook her head. “You’re not the Simba I remember.”

“You’re right. I’m not,” he said, clipping his words off brutally. “NOW are you satisfied?”

“No. Just disappointed.”

He started away, shoulders stiff with anger. “You’re starting to sound like my father.”

A tingle ran through Nala, and the words escaped unbidden. “Good. At least ONE of us does.” She put a paw to her mouth, horrified at what she had said.

Simba froze, the lethargic feeling ripped away as her words tore through him. He spun around and advanced on her. “Look! You think you can just come in here and tell me how to run my life?! You don’t even know what I’ve BEEN through!”

“I would if you’d just tell me!” She moved to go to him, but he whirled and plunged through the underbrush, heedless of the sharp branches that tore at him.

“Forget it!” He padded away quickly, unwilling to let her see the tears in his eyes.

“Fine!” Nala turned away, stung, angry at herself for letting him get away. She walked morosely over to the fallen log and leapt upon it, settling herself atop the old wood. Her tail moved restlessly as she mulled over their conversation, berating herself for lashing out at him like that. At a loss, she laid her head upon her forepaws, gazing out across the river valley. The sound of the waterfall was lulling, and she blinked her eyes sleepily as she watched the sparkling torrent fall through the air to crash on the rocks below. Soon she was dozing softly, the soft white light of the moon bathing her golden form in unearthly beauty.

In the underbrush across from her, the light gleamed from twin points of amber fire. The random edges of the leaves and branches shifted in the night breezes and gave form to a finely chiseled face that peered intrestedly at the sleeping lioness. Mano sighed and slipped from the undergrowth, the pure white fur of his body gleaming like a fallen star as he padded noiselessly over to where Nala lay.

He leaned over her, listening to her murmur uneasily in her sleep, reading her troubled thoughts. He pursed his lips and blew gently in her face, the scent of wild honey clinging to her fur as he watched her features relax and smooth out.

“Sleep, child. You have done well. It’s up to him, now.” He lay down beside her, his mane shifting in an unseen breeze as he looked far to the east, where Pride Rock lay. He thought of the unspeakable horror that lay nestled there, and his features hardened into a grim mask of determination.

“And you, old one, are now on borrowed time.”

CHAPTER 64: I’M HOME!

Makhpil looked on in horror as a living wave of hyenas crashed upon Simba, burying him under an assault of snapping jaws and ripping claws. The lion struck out, scattering them in a bellow of fury as he methodically began to annihilate any and every opponent that seperated him from Taka, who stood across from them at the base of the promontory, exhorting the hyenas to fight on. “Show no mercy!” Taka cried lustily.

“Oh gods,” she moaned as she saw a hyena tossed aside like a pup, shrieking horribly from the ragged wound in his side. She recognized him well; he had come to her only last week to ask advice on where to dig a den for his mate.

A terrific struggle ensued across from her, several hyena voices crying out in shock and fear. Several went tumbling and rolling as Ber shouldered them aside, snapping savagely as he fought his way through the throng. Behind him came Krull and Fabana, the two guarding Ber’s flanks as he bludgeoned his way through the mass of his fellows, snarling defiantly. Ber paused, seeing the mass of hyenas attacking Simba, and raised his voice.

“To the King!” he bellowed, turning lion heads as well as hyenas toward him. “God and Roh’mach!!”

An uproar joined him as the members of the hidden resistance group, plagued and tormented for years rose up with a shout and joined him. “God and Roh’mach!” Pandemonium reigned as hyena turned upon hyena, guards looking in surprise as companions they had known for years began to attack them bitterly.

Makhpil felt her blood boil at the remembered injustices under the reign of Shenzi and Taka. “God and Roh’mach!” she cried, turning upon a burly guard who was harrying Simba’s flank. Her fangs sank deep into his hide, and blood sprayed into her face in a hot flood. Crying out, he whipped around, locking eyes with her. “You!”

“So Skulk, how do you do against an enemy who able to fight back, eh?!” Makhpil bared her teeth at him. “Not so easy as it was with Belvalen, eh?”

“You WITCH!” he cried, lunging at her. She sidestepped neatly, dodging his attack with inches to spare. He rose and flailed again, but she went under this time, tearing out a hunk of hair that made him wail with pain. He stumbled back, stunned, a smear of blood reddening his chest like a blossom. She started forward to finish him, but she stopped as the wave of pain and hurt hit her mind like an openhanded swat to the face, a soundless cry of agony that came from the spirit and not the flesh.

“Why did you want to hurt me?” he thought. “I liked you.”

His mind lay open to her suddenly, and she saw the hidden desire under the cruel exterior, a desperate wish for companionship that reached deep inside him to his core, a desolate lonliness that cried out for help. And in her, he had seen the possibility of a way out.

A way out now closed to him.

She shuddered visibly and closed her mind, turning away so she would not have to look upon his face. Leaving him standing there, she trotted away towards the spire of Pride Rock.

Amarakh snarled viciously under the assault of a crowd of Shenzists. Every time she tried to fight her way out, someone would attack her flanks, tearing at her horribly. Makhpil pushed through to her and took up a position behind her. Between the two of them, they could defend the small turf they occupied for the moment. Amarakh groaned, feeling her strength draining from a dozen wounds as she looked upon the terrible battleground before them. Hyenas, friend and foe alike lay srewn about, the bodies locked eternally in combat. A cry of despair reached her as she saw the pitiful remnants of her Omlakh supporters being decimated by the sheer brute force of Shenzi’s guards.

Abruptly, the fighting hesitated, Shenzists and Omlakhs alike suddenly distracted. Amarakh pointed, her breath catching in her throat. “Great Roh’kash!” she breathed. “Look!”

Makhpil looked and saw Simba and Taka engaged in a mortal struggle on the western crag. And hovering around them was the false Roh’kash, now unmasked. Melmokh was shielding Taka from the main brunt of the blows Simba tried to rain on him.

Then burning with unearthly brilliance stood a mandrill holding a locket on a string. The light came from the locket. Beside him was a brilliant white lion, the largest she’d ever seen. Why didn’t the others see this?

The spectre Melmokh obviously did. Lightning came from the heavens, setting the grass aflame. And Melmokh burned with a fierce rage himself, a living red firebrand so like the one in Fabana’s nightmares.

Rafiki took the locket at the end of its thong and spun it around his head. The halo formed by the circling light seemed to slow down. The white lion crouched, his eyes bright with righteous indignation. Rafiki released the locket. Mano sprang, his bright shilouette merging with the fire from the locket. For one moment, Melmokh looked away from his work, and shrieked. The white lion struck Melmokh, and a blinding flash of light erupted from the impact, followed by a psychic blast that stunned her with its fury. Pain! Horrible pain! Their struggle sent out shock waves in the ether that drove jagged spikes through her consciousness. Makhpil shrieked rolled around in agony before at last she mercifully fainted.

Several moments passed in a sleep without dreams. Finally she woke to the soft caress of rain in her face. She felt something furry push her cheek. The white lion was there, and he nuzzled her again. “Wake up, daughter.”

“Are you all right?”

Mano smiled. “I’ve been worse. I’ve been better too.”

“Is Simba OK? Did we win?”

“We won. Simba had a few cuts, but he’s fine. Ber took a lot more punishment, but I healed him of his pain as well.”

“How about Amarakh?”

Mano’s smile faded and he shook his head. “She has passed beyond pain.”

It took a moment for his words to register, then Makhpil’s features crumpled in grief. “Oh God, no!”

Running to Amarakh’s still warm body, she started to paw the face. “No! Roh’mach! No, not in the moment of victory!” She looked up. “Can’t you bring her back? You healed Ber—surely you can make her live again, can’t you?”

“I will live forever.” Light coalesced next to Mano, and the true Roh’mach herself emergerd, her featured composed and serene. “Don’t worry about me, child. I’ve seen victory, and my heart is at peace. But take care of my husband—he’s so helpless without me.”

“Anything you say, Amarakh. I swear I’ll take care of him.”

“Indeed she will,” Mano said, nuzzling Amarakh. “So will I.”

CHAPTER 65: HE LIVES IN YOU

“The sated appetite spurns honey, but to a ravenous appetite even the bitter is sweet.”

— PROVERBS 27, 7

The confirmation of Uhuru as Roh’mach and her subsequent exile seemed that it must be Shenzi’s ultimate humiliation. She had been born a chosen one, but what she had been chosen by, no one was quite sure.

Still, inside her she carried both the memories and the legacy of her relationship with Melmokh. She was already beginning to show the “light in her eyes,” as Fabana delicately put it. Still Skulk, ever the naive one, did not know that his “bak’ret” had long lost her maidenhood to another.

Utterly disgraced, Shenzi followed Skulk meekly into the darkness of the savanna, hearing the soft calls of her brothers and their few compainions in the dark.

Tired and footsore, the hyenas traveled well into the next day, stopping only to rest at high sun, whe it was too hot to travel any more. They scattered under the spreading limbs of an acacia that provided welcome shade, panting fitfully in the intense heat.

Shenzi pillowed her head against Skulk’s flanks, looking at him through slitted eyes as he napped fitfully. How, after all she had been through, could he still want her! If only she were free to accept his frequent offers to pledge! Surely the real Roh’kash would not consider her marriage binding. After all, it was entered into under false pretennces. All she knew is that she regretted her decision, and wanted something more substantial and wholesome. Lies and empty promises had followed her literally from the moment of her birth. Though she was no nisei herself, she still felt stifled by the wanton exploitation of her femininity. She didn’t know what to believe anymore, or who she could trust—all except for her faithful okash and Skulk. Good old Skulk.

Fabana came and nudged her. She tossed her muzzle to the side and stared at her.

Getting the hint, Shenzi stood up quietly and followed Fabana a short distance. Fay made sure no one overheard them.

“Shenzi, you must tell me plainly. Are they Melmokh’s?”

“What? Oh.” Shenzi looked down at her growing figure. “Yeah. That’s all we need right now is more mouths to feed.”

“That’s not the issue,” Fabana said sternly. “This thing you had sex with—I won’t even call it a ban’ret—is the creature that killed your father.”

“You mean the lion??”

“No. Your father was guiltless. Melmokh arranged for Jal to slip when he was running from the lion. It was premeditated murder. This THING was responsible for the killing of Avina and for most of our troubles. It feeds off of misery, so it stirs up misery to survive. What’s worse, it took you away from the real God, and Missy, you’re in need of some serious prayer.”

“Are you calling me a heathen??”

“No. I’m calling you the okash of something unholy. What grows within you is the spawn of your okhim’s murderer! He has stolen your okhim, and now he has stolen your bak’rethood. Skulk is no La’kresh, but he’s faithful. He would make a good husband, but how do you think he will feel when you bring something into the world born only to house Melmokh’s spirit? Did you really think a normal pup would come of this union??”

“Well I…” She hung her head.

“It would be Melmokh itself. It wants a physical body. It has used your worship and your loyalty. Now it has used your body. USED, I say. It can feel no love.”

Shenzi shuddered. “And it’s inside me, Muti!” She drew close to Fabana and rubbed against her. “Oh Muti! What can I do?? What’s Skulk going to say when he finds out I’m…”

“The pup—if you can call it that—must die. It’s not one of us. And Skulk does not have to find out.”

CHAPTER 65A: THE PILGRIMEGE

Fabana took Skulk aside and told him she was taking her daughter on a short trip—a pilgrimege. “Do not be sad. We will be gone six days, and when we return, I feel certain Shenzi will pledge to you.”

“You mean it?”

“I don’t say what I don’t mean. You know that.” She nuzzled him. “You will bring my daughter the things she’s been missing in her life. I know we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye…” She smiled, self-consciously, turning her good side to face him. “Still, I will be glad to have you as my son.”

Skulk smiled sheepishly. “Things are going to be better. We’re going to find us a good territory, one where our pups can grow and play. No more of this scrabbling in the badlands. And you’ll see, things can only get better from here. I promise I’ll be the best husband I can be for your Shenzi.”

They arranged to meet at Elephant Kopje in six days. Skulk would remain in charge, even without Fabana to keep Banzai and Ed in line. They knew better than to cross him, and he warned them again just to make sure.

Fabana chatted with Shenzi as they headed off into the south. She described her dream of a white lioness who told her of the fruits that grew by Redrock Kopje. “They taste bitter, but they will end your bitterness. They bring death but they will save your life.”

“Good,” Shenzi said defiantly. “That will rid me of the last of Melmokh.” She tried to be brave about it, but slowly her face fell, her ears and tail fell limp and she trudged along like the dying. Tears began to run down her cheeks.

“I was looking forward to being a mother. I thought I could find happiness and be normal like everyone else.”

“What is inside you is no bringer of happiness. Look forward to being with Skulk. His children will bring you happiness. And so will he, I warrant.”

They only walked about a day and a night to find Redrock Kopje. After gaining the goal so easily, Shenzi asked her okash, “Why did you say we’d be gone for six whole days?”

“You’ll find out. I was warned that we must not rush things.”

The plants grew next to a watering hole at the base of the kopje. It was not a very safe location. Surely others came to drink besides the antelopes and zebras that fled before them. Ones not so likely to flee.

Fabana came with bated breath to the water, then looked around carefully, sniffing and listening to the best of her ability. After many moments passed, she called Shenzi to join her and she searched for the berries.

The fruits were dark green with light stripes. The bush they grew on was covered with thorns, and just the look—and smell—of it was enough to panic someone made of less stern stuff. But Shenzi was determined to change her life for the better and strike a blow at the evil creature that violated her.

“You must eat five—no more, no less.”

Shenzi forced down one. She nearly vomited. “Ooh, these are bitter!”

“You will forget the bitterness soon enough.”

Another went down, her face tightening with disgust. Then three more. Gasping, she wanted to wash them down with water, but Fabana cautioned her against it.

“We must do exactly as we are told. Now then, Missy, I will find you a stick.”

“Why?”

“Something to chew on. You’ll need it, honey tree. If you don’t want to bite clear through your tongue.”

“Oh??” Shenzi settled down to rest by the water. “Muti, I’m afraid.”

“I know. So am I.”

Fabana pulled over a large stick. Then she began to groom Shenzi who smiled to feel the closeness of her muti again.

“I used to be so certain about things,” Shenzi said. “My birth was the dawn of a new era. I was going to be the mate of Roh’khim. I used to know where I’d be a moon from now, a year from now, eight years… Now it’s all upside down. And frankly, I don’t have a clue where I’m going to be five minutes from now.”

“Welcome to real life.”

Shenzi sighed. “Why was I born?”

“For the best possible reason. Jal and I loved each other, and we wanted pups. Before Melmokh came into our lives, that was our plan. You were conceived out of our love for each other. No one can take that away from you, Missy.”

She shuddered as the toxin began to work. “Tell me about my okhim again.”

“You would have loved him. He was looking so forward to being there to see you born. He was funny and sweet and as loyal to me as the sunrise is to the morning. The moon we spent together was the greatest of my life.”

“Only one moon?” she said, tight-lipped with the odd sensations in her stomach and abdomen.

“Yes, my sweet daughter.”

“I’m not a sweet daughter. I’m surprised you followed me to this hell hole after what I did to you.”

“Who said I followed you?” She smiled. “Ed needed someone to look after him.

“Oh!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh!!” Her eyes widened. “I’m having contractions!”

“Already?”

“Oh gods!!” She rolled over on her side and her back legs began to twitch. “Muti, I’m scared! Are you sure she said five?”

“Honey tree, that’s what she said!”

Shenzi panted heavily. The fur on her sides was moist with perspiration and she groaned. Fabana got the stick and put it between Shenzi’s jaws. Those powerful jaws could snap a small bone like a twig and grind the marrow from even the largest tibia. They notched the wood as she began to gnaw desperately.

“Honey, you have to push. Bear down.”

“But I… oh gods! Oh gods!! I’m being torn in half!!”

“Shenzi!” Fabana started to the water to see if it was cool.

“Muti! Don’t leave me!”

“I’m here, Honey!”

For several minutes, she experienced one contraction after another with no apparent effect. Then she began to bleed.

“It’s happening,” Fabana said.

“Is this what giving birth feels like?”

“No. This is unnatural. It’s not what Roh’kash intended.”

She shrieked a stifled cry, biting on the stick so hard it cracked. Fay nearly went crazy, kissing her daughter and stammering prayers to Roh’kash. Then when it seemed she could take no more, Shenzi’s water broke and moments later a single pup was expelled with a great deal of blood.

Shenzi rested a moment, then through sheer willpower she struggled to her feet and wobbled unsteadily to the water to wash off. Shenzi lingered in the water a moment, eyes closed as she relished the cool flow over her body. Reluctantly, she paced slowly out of the water and walked carefully towards the red stain on the sand, her eyes swimming as she took in the tiny form lying motionless on the ground. The pup had broken free from the afterbirth, small but well formed. Shenzi’s skin crawled as she saw it stir. “Muti!” she cried. “Look!”

Fabana gasped in horror as the pup’s head lifted waveringly, seeking them out with blind eyes. “I’ll get you,” it silently but clearly mouthed. “I’ll kill you!”

It trembled, crumpled over, and collapsed lifelessly into the dust.

Though afraid to touch it after this supernatural curse, Fabana dug a hole and pushed it and the afterbirth into it, covering it too deeply for most scavengers to dig up. After all, they did not want to attract any danger while they had to remain there.

For the next night and day, Shenzi drifted in and out of consciousness as the toxin circulated through her body. Sometimes she would have chills, and her okash would snuggle next to her, patting her with a paw and speaking words of encouragement and love.

Finally by the fourth day Shenzi could walk slowly but properly, and Fabana insisted that they must leave Redrock Kopje to find the others.

Shenzi was horribly weak and wobbly. Vultures, seeing her unsteady gait, begin to circle. But Fabana glared at the birds from time to time and they kept a safe distance.

Fay insisted that Skulk must know nothing of the abortion, so she kept Shenzi walking for long periods of time, resting only when necessary. “You are weak, but you must seem strong.” And little by little over the two day trip, Shenzi got her strength back.

When they rejoined the others by Elephant Kopje, Shenzi gracefully hid her remaining weakness.

“You must have had bad hunting,” Skulk said.

“No,” Shenzi quickly replied. “We fasted.”

Skulk glanced at Fabana. “Both of you?”

“Just her,” Fabana said.

“I did it for you,” Shenzi told Skulk, rubbing down his side. “In a few days there will be a full moon. They say pledging under a full moon means love will last forever.”

“At last? After all this time?” He nuzzled her passionately. “You promise?”

“I promise.”

Skulk pawed her gently. “I love you Shenzi.”

She smiled. Surely he would not be as skilled in pleasuring as was the Makei. But his love filled a hole deep inside of her, something the Makei never would or could try to address. “I love you too. You’ll never just know how much.”

CHAPTER 66: AMOR VINCIT OMNIA

Gur’bruk and Kambra gazed wearily upon the savanna before them as they padded over the ground with sore paws. Searching the horizon eagerly, they spotted Antelope Kopje in the distance, and soon afterwards the Clan Acacia. “Home!” Kambra muttered, her hackles standing up. “Dearest Roh’kash, I never thought I’d see it again!”

“Yes, old girl.”

“I wonder who’s in our old place.”

“I wonder how Bath and Mer’bel are.”

Kambra briefly whined. “So do I, but I’m scared. Will they want to see us? What if they’re dead? We don’t really know anything!”

“Don’t be foolish, dear. You’re just nervous, but everything’s going to be all right—God willing.”

They headed to the invisible line that marked the territory of the clan. In the bushes there were subtle sounds around that they recognized as sentries calling to each other.

“Maida elekhvor,” Kambra said.

One of the sentries stepped out. It was Ber. “That’s an old password, but…” He looked at them carefully. “Are you spirits?”

“What do you think?” Kambra asked.

Ber scratched behind his ear awkwardly. “Gur’bruk, how are you? Those things I said about your son—I mean—Gur’mekh paid for what he did, and I’m just trying to say that…”

“That you’ve missed us?” She pawed his face. “We’ve missed you too. You are glad to see us, aren’t you?”

Ber’s tail began to wag so hard that his whole back end began to shake. He nuzzled her warmly and cried, “Yes, yes! Welcome home, old friends! Oh gods, it’s good to see you again!”

“I take it we may pass?”

“Of course. I’ll take full responsibility. When you want in, remember that the new watchword is ‘elim galberet’ cause some of the new guards may not know you. We have a new Roh’mach, and he’s much kinder than the last two. He knows all about the makei, and I doubt he’ll honor the ban.”

“Who’s in charge now?” Gur’bruk asked.

“Uhuru. You knew him as Krull.”

“Krull? Your grandson Krull?”

Ber practically beamed. “Yes sir, none other!”

“I hope you don’t mind if we go say hello to the family.”

“By all means! But don’t be a stranger!” Ber nuzzled them both lovingly. “I’m so glad that we put the past behind us!”

Gur’bruk said, “I know what it feels like to lose a son. I’m so sorry, Ber! I just want you to know that.”

Ber nodded. “And I’m sorry about Gur’mekh. He loved you a great deal.”

“We’ll pay our respects to Lenti if she’ll see us.”

He shook his head. “Perhaps she’s looking down on you now.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry!”

Ber looked down. “And that’s not all.” He pawed Kambra’s face. “Prepare yourself, my dear. Your sister is gone too.”

Kambra’s eyes widened. “My Shimbekh?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Kambra’s eyes misted up. “We were so close…” Tears spilled down her cheeks. “My poor Shimbekh! Oh gods!”

When Kambra regained her composure, she signalled to Gur’bruk and the two of them headed deep into clan territory.

They were in for more surprises as they went to find their family.

Bath and Mer’bel were playing with their pups in the eastern march. “Girls!” Kambra said, feeling her heart rise in her mouth. “It’s time for your nap!”

They looked around, stunned. “Muti! Maleh!”

There was a tearful reunion, one made all the more special by the quick arrival of Gur’bruk and Kambra’s parents. Word spread fast among the hyenas.

The whole family was together for the first time in years. En’geer and Tela were off hunting, but a quick look by Mer’bel turned up their pups. It was becoming a rather large reuinion.

The absence of Shimbekh and Gur’mekh was keenly felt, but they all felt that somewhere, somehow their hearts were with them. Such peace came to them all as had not been felt in many moons.

Bath and Mer’bel introduced them to their husbands, then to the pups. There was no way Gur’bruk and Kambra could remember all those names, but they both loved children so, and fit easily into the new role of grandparents. They were mobbed by affectionate pups, some of whom had the gift.

“I can see that prophesy is alive here,” Kambra said with a happy sigh, kissing the small wiggling bodies that tugged at her ears and tail, rubbing against her side and crying “Grand-okash!” Gur’bruk rolled on his back, batting at his assailants. One pup sat on his stomach and peered straight down into his eyes. “Gotcha!”

Bath said, “They’re going to love their grand-okash. Muti, we’ll have to find you a new place. Dabrek is old and set in his ways, and he is fond of napping on your old scratching grounds.”

“We’re not here to stay,” she replied.

“But you MUST stay,” Bath said, her ears folding back. “Muti, it’s OK for you to come back. The Roh’mach understands.”

“We have things to do first. We’re going to Pride Rock, and I’m not sure how long we’ll be gone. But the moment we leave, we’re coming back here.”

“Why are you going there?”

“To keep an old promise.”

Just then, Uhuru came by. Gur’bruk winced. “We were just leaving,” he said. “We came to see the family.”

“Now look here, Gur’bruk. Since when is having puppies a crime worthy of expulsion?”

“We must be honest about this. You know good and well Gur’mekh told us he was guilty. We harbored him for a while because he was desperate to have an exorcism. No matter what the Roh’mach said, only God has the right to condemn an immortal soul. What we did, we had to do. On this basis you may make your decision, and we will abide by it.”

Uhuru said, “I’m not telling you to trample the law underfoot, but I’m a little more open minded than poor Amarakh. I’ve seen things in my life that have broadened my views. The ban is ended, and tonight we will set aside time to grieve for Gur’mekh.”

“Thank you, Roh’mach. How is Amarakh?”

“Dead, Gur’bruk. The dying has stopped, but during the two conflicts and the famine nearly a third of the people you knew died.”

Gur’bruk gasped. “My gods!”

Gur’bruk and Kambra headed on toward Pride Rock. Halfway there, they were challenged by a hunting party of lionesses.

“Ho there, we don’t know you.”

“King Ahadi will understand our mission.”

“Ahadi? He’s been dead for some time. His grandson Simba is king now.”

“Grandson?” Gur’bruk looked at Kambra. “Has it really been that long, old girl?”

Kambra spoke up. “Where is Yolanda? She can explain this.

“Sorry, ma’am. She’s dead.” Ajenti drew closer and examined Kambra carefully. It was a tense moment. “So how did you know my mother?”

“Your mother was very kind to us in our suffering. We came here to thank her. I’m so sorry.”

Ajenti relaxed. “There’s only one hyena that mother knew. You wouldn’t be Kambra, would you?”

“Yes, I’m Kambra.” She looked at Ajenti carefully. “I’ll never forget your muti’s face. You have her eyes, and the bridge of your nose. It was such a kind face, and she had such a large heart.”

“She must have told me about you a hundred times,” Ajenti said with a purr. “Now I see you face to face.”

“I promised your okash—your mother—that I would come back someday and visit her.” She nuzzled Ajenti. “Yolanda, wherever you are, that’s for you.”

Ajenti kissed her. “And that’s from my mother.”

Just then, investigating the odd meeting, Simba came up. He looked at them closely, then shook all over. “Hey, I know you!” He smiled broadly. “You’re the two hyenas that saved my life!”

“You’re that little cub??” Gur’bruk said.

“You’re that big hyena??”

They both burst out laughing. “Come,” Simba said, “let’s have something to eat! You’ll be glad to know that grubs are NOT on the menu!”

CHAPTER 68: THE HUNTER HOME FROM THE HILL

“I believe that our sun is rising, not setting. That there are great things ahead for our race, and that those who have looked down upon us for centuries will come to respect us as children of Roh’kash.”

— GUR’MEKH

Skulk’s love for Shenzi was genuine, and it was not long before she had “the light in her eyes” once again, the impending promise of new life preparing to come forth. The birth of the pups was greeted by joyous exultation by the new clan, eager as they were to perpetuate their line. Ed was not particularly impressed with the new children, engrossed as he was in studying the cloud formations overhead, but Banzai’s chest swelled with pride as he looked at his little nephews and nieces. “Nice job, Sis.”

Shenzi smiled tiredly as her children gathered to her to take their first meal. “Thanks.”

Skulk worked overtime to try and fulfill his promise to Fabana. Under the circumstances, he provided for Shenzi and his pups rather well, but they went hungry more often than not. There was little enough food to go around for they had no territory of their own. Even when they did kill, it was sometimes taken from them by the lords of the land.

The brave thing to do might have been to not have pups. But the husbands and wives had few basic comforts and even fewer pleasures. So soon a few more couples had pups.

The scarcity of food began to take its toll, visible in the lean forms and gaunt faces of the clan. The suffering was most readily apparent in the oldest. Fabana could not eat while depriving the children, so Fay was slowly starving herself to death.

Tired all the time, Fay curled up one day at mid-sun in the scant shade of a dying acacia. Soon she was asleep, her body too drained to sustain a prolonged effort in the heat.

Jalkort came and nudged her. She awoke with a start. “Jal?? Is this it? Am I dead??”

“No, Fay. I’ve come to plead with you. You must go back to Pride Rock. Do this for me. Do it for the lions who still love you. Do it for Makhpil who needs someone warm and strong to give her companionship.”

“But I can’t run out on my children!”

“Would I ask you to run out??” Jal looked at her crossly. “You think what you’re doing is noble. But who appreciates it? If you were back at Pride Rock, you would eat well and they would eat better. Look, honey bunch, you deserve a little happiness. I can’t please you anymore, but you can find release from your misery if you’ll only take it. Besides, you’re spoiling heaven for me. I want you with me, but not by you dying young from hunger! Be happy for me. Be happy for you. Be selfish for a change. Gur’bruk and Kambra are there. And remember, you were never banned to begin with. You’re free to go home whenever you please. Uhuru is doing a fine job, and there is plenty of food. What’s more, you will find self respect, and love. Go home.”

Fabana opened her heart to the possibility of home and old friends. Tears began to flow like falling rain, and the burden on her heart melted away. “Oh gods, I’ll do it!”

She awoke with a start. Went and kissed her daughter Shenzi. “Don’t you look beautiful today, my daughter!”

“Say what??”

“No, really you do. Sometimes you need to be told.”

“Well, uh, thanks. You seem to be in a good mood today. What happened?”

“I discovered something about myself. Something that really makes me feel better. You see, it is not my fault that your father died. It’s not my fault that the false Roh’kash deceived us. It’s not my fault that Taka died, and it’s not my fault that you are selfish.”

“Huh??”

“Maybe with a father to give you some guidance, someone who knew more about the ways of our people, you would have turned out differently. That’s not your fault, mine, or Jalkort’s. Things sometimes happen like that. But I’m leaving you now. You’ll be fine without me, I’m sure. I need a little more happiness before I die. I’ve found a fresh trail, and I’m going to follow it before the scent gets cold.”

“But muti, you just can’t!”

“Do me one favor, Missy: don’t tell anyone that I didn’t love you. I’ll always love you, even when you don’t deserve it. So good bye, Hon, and Roh’kash be with you. I will pray for you.”

Shenzi’s jaw dropped. “Is that it??”

“No, say good bye to Ed for me.”

“Muti, I…”

“Yes?”

“Well, I…”

“I know. You love me. Don’t think I don’t appreciate it. But that does not change things.”

“So are you just going to run out on us? Just like that? How can you do this to me??”

Fabana thought a moment. “How can I do this to YOU?? Hah! That’s rich, Missy!” And with that, Fay turned and trotted off into the bush.

CHAPTER 69: OLD FRIENDS

Old Fabana was watching some lion cubs playing from the shade of a friendly acacia. It was nearly mid-sun, and she slowly, stiffly got to her feet. “Come on, children! Time for your nap!”

“Oh Auntie Fay, can’t we have a little longer?”

“No, Lakayla. Your growing body needs its rest.”

Slowly, but with a proud bearing, Fabana led the lion cubs to the cave.

“Where did your other eye go?” Lakayla asked.

“I must have forgotten it. Oh, it will turn up one of these days.”

Lakayla laughed. “I’m serious.”

“I was attacked by a large animal. A dog.”

“They’re fierce creatures that just want to kill for the fun of it. That’s what mom says.”

“Your mom is wrong.” She looked back on Fielder with the wisdom of age. “Dogs are vulnerable, just like us. They have feelings that can be hurt, and they can want things so much that they can go too far and do something they regret. Then they feel bad—just like us.”

“You mean you don’t hate the dog?”

“Once I did. Now I feel sorry for him.”

“What did he want?”

“Something I couldn’t give him.” Fay nuzzled her. “Run along now, and don’t ask so many questions.”

Fabana settled to the cool floor of the cave, and the other cubs piled on her one by one to form a large heap.

Tanabi eyed her and smiled. There were times he forgot she was a hyena and thought of her as just another one of the pride sisters. She stayed behind with the cubs when the lionesses went out to hunt, freeing up another lioness to gather food.

Though she was rather frail with age, none of the cubs dared to challenge her authority, even those larger and more robust. She could even make Marli’s cubs behave.

Of course Roh’mach Bashak and his family would always greet Fay affectionately when they’d visit Simba. When this happened, invariably some of the lions—usually the very young—would ask Fabana why she didn’t live with her people.

“But I do. My people are the ones that love me. Some were hyenas, like Jalkort, my parents, and Ber. Others like you are lions. It’s all in what you call family.”

EPILOGUE

Melmokh was wandering the Pride Lands. He looked at Pride Rock, bitter because of the setbacks he had endured, but still hopeful that he would achieve his dreams.

He was attracted to those who suffer. And though tired and empty inside, he was stalking a grief, an angry grief. He had no idea that it would lead him to the cave atop Pride Rock, the home of the King himself!

The lionesses were gone, and the cubs were playing in the field. But what luck! King Tanabi’s twin sons Imani and Watanga were experiencing the grief that only one would inherit the kingdom, and it would be Imani.

Watanga was confronting his father bitterly over the decision. Tanabi and Misha listened to his outpouring of ire and hatred with absolute consternation. “How can you speak of us this way?” Misha said. “How can you say we don’t love you? Watanga, how can you put this thorn through our hearts?”

“Love, you say? If you’d just given me half a chance to prove myself—just half a chance! I’m as good as Imani. Maybe even better. But you never gave me a chance! And let me tell you about thorns through the heart: every time I wanted to play, you would tell me to study if I wanted to be king someday! You knew all the time! That’s why you called me Watanga, ‘cause I’d never be anything but a wanderer!”

Melmokh watched with glee. What an opportunity! He went to touch Watanga to influence him, when Watanga turned around.

“Melmokh, have you learned nothing?” The cub spoke in a deep and powerful voice totally unlike his own.

“How did you see me? How did you know my name??”

“I see all and know all.”

Melmokh tried to look into the cub’s eyes, but he saw in them an overwhelming goodness and righteousness which burned him like fire. He quickly looked away. “Aiheu! You tricked me!” He backed back till the wall of the cave stopped his progress. Swallowing heavily, he could almost feel the walls closing in on him. “Aiheu, have mercy! Have mercy!”

“You have made no progress, though I have extended you the benefit of the doubt and shown you great patience.”

“Don’t kill me! I’ll do anything you ask, but don’t kill me! I’m a miserable wretch who just wants to be left alone! I’ll go away, far away!”

He turned to flee, but found that Tanabi and his Queen had vanished. In their stead were the brilliant forms of Mano and Minshasa. He was trapped.

“No! Don’t!” He fell before the cub and with his eyes tightly shut began to kiss his feet. “My life is not worth living, but I’m afraid to die! Don’t hurt me, Aiheu! Please!”

Aiheu looked on him with pity. “Since you cannot escape me this time, let me tell you what’s about to happen so you won’t be afraid.”

“You’re going to kill me! How can I not be afraid??” He began to rub the cub’s forearm with his paw. “Like all living things, I’m part of your spirit! If you kill me, you would decrease! You would only harm yourself!”

The cub shook his head. “Your spirit will go on living, but in a real sense, you will die. Everything that made you Melmokh will perish along with your past.”

Melmokh cowered down. “All of it?” He whined and pawed at Aiheu. “Will nothing be left?”

“If there were, the memories would only torment and sicken you. It is best that you remember nothing.”

“For my own good? Even the wisdom it took me centuries to acquire?”

“It did you no good, Melmokh. You attained much knowedge, but aquired so little wisdom. You don’t even know how to love! What else is worth knowing when your heart is desolate?”

Melmokh said, “But it is not my fault! I have tried to love! Really I have! And if I were a rock or tree that didn’t care, that would be different, but I can hurt. Hate, jealousy, fear, these all come easy to me. They are as unpleasant to me as they are to Mano and Minshasa, yet I have drunk only from those streams. Must I die never knowing love? Never knowing happiness?”

“Your last thoughts as Melmokh will be happy ones.”

“Will it hurt?”

“No. I will make sure it does not.”

“Is happiness anything like pleasure? I know what pleasure feels like, but I can’t remember ever feeling happy.”

“Happiness is even better than pleasure.” Aiheu trotted over to the cistern. There in the mud by the water lay a small lion cub. “Look at her, Melmokh. Look closely. That’s where you will find happiness.”

“Is she dead?”

“She has never lived. I made her from the mud. Complete in every good thing except that she lacks a living spirit.”

Melmokh looked at his Lord slowly, hope dawning at last. “Mine?”

“Yes. And you will know enough love and happiness in this small body to outweigh a thousand lives as Melmokh.”

Melmokh padded over to her. He felt strange. “Oh, isn’t she beautiful!”

“She pleases you?”

“Yes, but…”

“But there’s more to it than that?”

“Yes, Lord. I’m not sure what.”

A small coal of happiness inside him began to grow. There was much tinder that had accumulated over many cheerless centuries, and all those buried feelings burst into flame. Tears began to stream down his cheeks. “Is this it? Is this happiness?”

“Yes.”

“If I could feel this way, I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone. Why not let me go, My Lord? Why kill me now?”

“You are already dying. It is the happiness that is burning away your past. Don’t fight it. Let the feeling flow through you. All your pain is burning away.”

“Then let it burn! Yes, Lord, let it burn! I want it to burn!” He ran his paw over the small, furry child. “Look at those tiny little paws! And those ears! I never had a mate or a child of my own. Oh, look at that little pink nose!”

The hyena shuddered and his shape began to dissolve into a mist. “Oh gods, I feel so happy! Happy at last! So very…”

Within seconds he completely deresolved, leaving only a golden fog. Aiheu breathed in, capturing the spiritual essence. He then carefully parted the female’s jaws and gently breathed into her the breath of life, watching her chest rise, then fall. She gasped and her eyes opened.

Aiheu looked at her with mirth and amusement in his eyes. “Wake up, Shandra!” He smiled and nuzzled her. “Happy birthday, little girl!”

She smiled, yawned, then stretched luxuriously. Rising to take her first steps, she rubbed against Aiheu, then toddled over to Minshasa who lay ready to nurse her. With a friendly paw, Minshasa cuddled her to her milk.

“Well,” Minshasa said with a sigh, “There’s always room for another.”

“No thanks,” Mano said. “I just ate.”

She smiled wryly. “Oh you are so wicked sometimes!” She jerked her head. “Come over here where I can nuzzle you!”

Mano settled next to her and purred softly, rubbing his face against the sweet comfort of her cheek. Aiheu smiled and raised his paw in blessing. “Daima pendana. Love one another as I have loved you.” And so it was that the shadow of the Makei was lifted from the land.

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.

And God saw that the light was good.”

— Genesis 1:3-4


THE END: SHADOW OF THE MAKEI