UNDER THE ACACIAS
Part Four 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. “Under the Broad Acacias” 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.

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 “Under the Acacias.”

FOREWORD BY THE AUTHORS

Much of this material was originally slated to appear in “Shadow of the Makei,” and “Spirit Quest,” but it pulled from the focus of the works. It had to wait its turn to be published. Does this mean the material is a series of “outtakes” stitched together? Hardly! In a very real sense, the four parts of Chronicles of the Pride Lands were being worked on at once. Each part matured at a different time. In that sense, The Spirit Quest was not a sequel, nor were Shadow of the Makei or Under the Acacias. These form parts of a whole, and reading them out of order will make a lot less sense to you. It is my fond hope someday to see the four parts ordered chronologically and united into one work.

In completing this story, we have used the last of the “next project” file, and unlike the others this work did not produce the core of a future story. It is with a sense of fulfillment and closure that we submit the conclusion of the cycle begun with Chronicles of the Pride Lands.

Will Dave and I collaborate again? Sure! Will the stories be canon with Chronicles? Sure! Will it be Volume 5 of Chronicles? No. Than what will we do? From time to time I taunt David with humorous pitches for stories based on the gopher (“Under the Golden Savanna”), and the wildebeests (“The Little Chewer That Cud”). Don’t spread gossip about these pseudo-fanfics—not even in your dreams!! But Nala—hmm, that could prove an interesting challenge for two male authors trying to avoid stereotypes and cliches…

This story is lovingly dedicated to the memories of George and Joy Adamson. Gathered to Aiheu, they are indeed “forever free.”

John Burkitt, Nashville, Tennessee
February 12, 1997

Well, here we are again. Pride Rock’s shadow has grown long, burying the promontory in darkness as the sun slips beneath the western horizon. We have many things to do tonight, but first there’s something we’d like to share.

Somewhere in the midst of writing “The Spirit Quest,” something strange and wonderful happened. This story is mainly about two figures from that work, one brand new, the other a familiar companion from “Chronicles” who came together, forging a relationship that was to ultimately affect not only those around them, but John and I as well.

The new figure from “The Spirit Quest” is of course Ugas. And the old companion? The lioness Uzuri. Master of the hunt, devoted mother, and stalwart friend, she has touched the lives of nearly everyone around her to some degree… and that includes the authors, as well.

Let us go now; the lionesses are gathering, and Uzuri is ready.

The hunt awaits.

David Morris, Wilmington, North Carolina
February 12, 1997

PROLOGUE

High on top of Elephant Kopje where the bare rock lay exposed, weathered but defiant, there was a crack. Years of dust storms had patiently filled that crack with small amounts of soil. And in that crack grew a single stalk of Alba whose one red blossom looked up to God with hope for the coming rains. Where the seed came from, only Aiheu knew, but he looked down on it and smiled. “One Who Brings Rain,” Aiheu said, “take care of my garden.”

“Lord, I see but a single flower,” the cloud answered.

“But it has the faith of a thousand,” Aiheu said. “Any flower can grow by the river bank, but this one has brought beauty to barrenness.”

Even in the stoniest ground, the smallest spark of life may bring beauty. And where the beauty is found, Aiheu smiles. This is a story of one such spark—the lioness Uzuri—and the beauty she brought amid the dark days of Taka’s reign.

CHAPTER: HYENAS IN THE PRIDE LANDS

Birds still sang in the trees. Clouds still wafted across the sky. A gentle breeze still caressed the grass and stirred it in waves of serene detachment. But for the lionesses of Pride Rock, the old world they thought would last forever had abruptly ended: Mufasa and Simba were gone.

Sarabi was looking for strength to live from moment to moment. Nala was huddled against her mother, struggling to understand her loss. No longer would Mufasa call her “honey tree” and tell her stories of the great kings of the past. And her friend Simba was gone forever—no more games, no more words, no more anything. In the depths of her grief, she wished she had let Simba win at wrestling just once. Now she would never get another chance.

“How bad did it hurt?” she asked her mother.

Sarafina was a huntress and had seen her share of death. Shaking with emotion, she weighed her words carefully and said, “He was so surprised, he didn’t feel much pain. I mean, before he had time to think, they’d have been all over him.” She felt warm tears run down her face. “The poor little angel!” She began to fondle Nala with a paw. “If it had been my little girl, I’d have died! Just died! Don’t you ever go near that place, or I’ll cuff your behind! Do you hear me, Missy??” Sarafina nuzzled her and kissed her.

“Oh, Momma!” Nala began to sob. “I won’t go there! I promise!” She added in a near whisper, “But can’t we go see him one last time?”

“No!” Fini kissed her again. “You don’t want to remember him the way he looks now. You really don’t.”

Before the last warmth had left the old King’s body, a new ruler sat atop Pride Rock and proceeding toward him up the winding trail were the hyenas of Shenzi’s clan. This was the new world, a frightening place of uncertainty, mistrust and grief. Uzuri watched them with bitter anguish as they violated her sanctuary, and she silently cursed Taka for betraying his people. Hyenas had murdered his aunt and uncle, and he was taking them into his home!

Despite his promise of a “glorious new future,” Taka was merely paying his debt to Shenzi, and he cared little for most of her race. But there was one hyena that he loved above all loves remaining in his tortured heart. Fabana broke from her place in the processional and ran to Taka’s side, fawning on him. He nuzzled her gently, turning her small, scarred face with his large paw and kissing her cheek with his large tongue. “Muti,” he said in broken hyannic, “mo keth ban’ret dubrek!”

Some of the hyenas looked around, puzzled. “Betra hyannicha?” one of them asked.

He shook his head. “Just a few phrases I picked up.”

Shenzi satisfied the longing of a lifetime to see the world from the tip of the promontory, planning for the day when she didn’t have to share it with the lions. All the while, oblivious to her conceited gloating, Taka lovingly stroked Fabana with his paw and gazed into her smiling face.

“I sit here tonight because of you, Muti. I would have killed myself, and my hopeless spirit would have wandered the night while a stranger ruled the Pride Lands.”

“If it hadn’t been me, someone else would have stopped you.”

“You would say that. You always believe that goodness prevails.” He kissed her cheek. “I love you more than words can say.”

Tears ran down her face, and she sat leaning gently against him. “My dear son.”

CHAPTER: RECIPE FOR DISASTER

The first night without Mufasa’s comforting presence was the hardest for Sarabi. She slinked quietly to the spot where she had spent so many blissful nights pressed against his beautiful body. His scent still hung in the air, and closed her eyes, clinging to that one last trace. “Oh gods, help me!” she cried, falling to the ground sobbing.

That evening her own sister had practically thrown herself before Taka, even after he had brought hyenas into the Pride Lands. Hyenas had murdered her parents! After that, she could not bring herself to speak to Elanna. Now her dear friend Rafiki was confined in house arrest. She had no one to turn to for comfort and had to weep alone. Only God stood between her and total isolation.

There were exactly forty paces to the end of the promontory. On the forty-first she could find an end to suffering. One extra step into the arms of love, and all the things she wished she could say to Mufasa and Simba would come pouring out before them as sweet as fragrance from the nighttime jasmine. But what a blow it would be to those she left behind! Sarafina and Isha would have to drag her battered body to the jackals and watch as her flesh was torn from her by small, sharp teeth. No, after weighing the consequences, she accepted her fate and chose the path of duty. Her life, worth living or not, would go on.

Elanna had considered her own path of duty. Her heart was pierced with thorns over the anger of her sister and the disapproval of the Pride Sisters. It would have been simple to turn away from Taka and stay in the good graces of her friends. But she had watched Taka’s struggle with depression and frustration wear away at him and take his joys away one by one. His first love had rejected him, and his parents were dead. Now his brother was dead, and he had to turn to the hyenas for comfort. She wanted to love him, to comfort him and give his life meaning once more. And hoping against hope that he would find solace in her love, she had dared to offer herself to him completely and openly.

Sarabi had asked her to choose between her sister and her lover, to give up happiness and cubs of her own, and share Sarabi’s loneliness forever in return for acceptance by the Pride.

“It’s not fair!” Elanna prayed fervently. “I love her enough to die for her and right now I should be by her side, but she won’t have me! She loved him once—how can she blame me for needing him so? She doesn’t understand, God. What can I say that will make her listen??”

Taka stole quietly to her side and nuzzled her. “So sad, my darling?”

“Hold me,” she said, as tears ran down her cheeks. “Let me feel you near me.”

Taka kissed away her tears and began to stroke her with his paw. “I’ve never seen you more beautiful than you are right now. Such a kind heart, capable of such compassion.” He looked at her with a tenderness uncommon to him. “If I’d known how you felt before, things might have been very different now.”

“How?”

“Does it matter?”

Taka rested beside her feeling her comforting presence. He closed his eyes and could see Mufasa and Sarabi with little Simba resting in their favorite spot. Next to them, Elanna nursing a small Taka and a small Lannie. Taka loved Mufasa once, as he had loved Sarabi. If only he had stopped striving after a vain dream and seen the potential in Elanna long ago! Under the circumstances, Taka felt his deeds were justified, but still he wondered if there was more he could have done to purge the curse that poisoned Mufasa’s love and alienated Sarabi. The nagging doubt that he was partly to blame for began to eat away at him, and he felt contaminated—dirty in ways that no water could wash clean.

Oh to have felt clean again! He would have been content with Elanna’s sincere and unblemished love. And there would have been no hyenas in the Pride Lands earning him the undying hatred of the pride. The price he paid to rule was too high, but it was final and there could be no refund. Opening his eyes once more to the sobering truth, he kissed Elanna’s cheek and sighed deeply.

Uzuri and the other pride sisters were also very upset, but they found solace in the discipline and effort of the hunt. Sarabi’s missing position hurt them like a wound, and Uzuri discretely asked Ajenti to take the left point of the crescent formation. Ajenti took a few steps toward Sarabi’s old spot, but she broke down into tears.

“I can’t! I just can’t! It’s HER spot!”

“There now,” Isha said. “You take my spot, Honey Tree. I’ll do the left point tonight.”

Painfully, Isha stalked to the left point position and took the post with unaccustomed somberness. “Well, let’s do this thing.”

Meanwhile with unaccustomed jubilation, the hyenas were going to hunt the Pride Lands without the fear of being discovered. Used to the arid conditions of the elephant graveyard, the smell of fresh grass and trees, of blossoms and vines intoxicated their senses. The scents on the wind filled them with promises of good times ahead.

Not that Ber or the other loyalists got to enjoy any of that. Their ties to the former Roh’mach earned them endless, mind-numbing guard duty. Shenzi suspected that the old ways were too ingrained in them to trust them with anything else.

Ber watched the night sky and sighed. The distant laughter of his clan brothers stirred a longing in him to be out and about following the trail. “Roh’kash, first I lost my son, and now I’ve lost my true calling! Great Mother, am I to rot out here like a discarded bone with all the marrow stripped away? Show me the way out, Great Mother! There is only death here!”

Uzuri nodded, and her pride sisters spread out in a pattern of her own design, ready to advance on a herd of gazelles. The moon was kind—just full enough to see by, but not full enough to betray the lithe lionesses in the tall grass.

Uzuri’s ears flattened back and her tail twitched. Instantly her pride sisters tensed up, ready for action. They waited for the signal to rush…

“Now I got you!” shouted a hyena, darting between the lionesses and the gazelles in pursuit of a bolting hare. The gazelles looked around and fled.

“Damn!” Uzuri yelled.

The hyena closed on the hare and with a snap, he had snatched the life from the small body. Bearing his trophy proudly, he trotted back across the meadow toward Pride Rock.

Ber watched Skulk prance by with a dead rabbit. Not far behind him was the hunting party of lionesses, and Ber could tell they were furious.

“Back early, I see? Did luck go with you?”

“Yes!” Isha spat. “All of it bad!”

“Hfff! Did it have to do with that rabbit?”

Without answering, Isha and the others pushed past him and went to see Taka.

The King was lying down napping when he got a rude nudge from Uzuri. “Look here, we have a problem.”

“We do indeed,” Taka said grumpily. “Never do that when I’m asleep!”

“Those—friends of yours—just spoiled our chances of pulling down a gazelle or two for a lousy rabbit! We can’t have them running wild while we’re hunting! You’re King—do something!”

“Well I just might, since I AM King. Not that you’d know it from the level respect you show me.”

“I’m sorry—Sire.”

“This union will work. I didn’t say there wouldn’t be any problems at first. What we need is more cooperation. Something like a mutual hunt. That’s it—you get together with Pipkah and plan something you can all pull off together.”

“But sire, our styles are so different!”

“That’s why I’m putting an expert in charge. You will justify the faith I have in you, hmm?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I ask of anyone. Now run along and let me get some sleep.”

He closed his eyes and rolled over. Clearly, the subject was closed.

CHAPTER: WITHOUT A PRAYER

The next night came in silent splendor. Sarabi looked with misty eyes at the stars as they made their nightly migration across the heavens.

“Aiheu,” she wailed. “Help us! Call up the ancestral spirits! Send Taka wisdom to turn from the path he has taken! Help him to see the folly of his ways. But until he finds the right path, help us to deal with these hyenas.” She pawed at the sky and added, “I don’t understand any of this. I don’t understand why good people like Simba have to die while Shenzi goes on and on. But you are merciful. I know you are just and good. Don’t forget us in our hour of need! Please don’t forget us!”

Ber also prayed. “We are hated here. I want to go home and take my family with me! These lions do not want us, and though their land is good, I cannot sleep safely in the shadow of this rock. Touch our Roh’mach and open her eyes to the truth! Drive out from among us the deceiver and forgive us of our recklessness!”

“Let the hunt begin,” Taka’s voice boomed with unbridled optimism. “Hunt mistress, we need your blessing!”

Uzuri went to stand near Taka. The blessing was supposed to be an important milestone, and the new King had given her some prompting on what he wanted her to say. It should not have taken her much thought to do that. He wanted her customary reference to “Aiheu” to be expressed as a more generic “God,” and wanted all references to “Him” or “His” changed to avoid offending the hyenas whose God was the female Roh’kash.

And yet Uzuri stood before the crowd, lions on her right and hyenas on her left. She looked at the expectant hyenas and felt a shiver run down her spine. Then she glanced over at the lionesses. Their faces were downcast and their ears and tails sagged. Taka’s ideas on a “glorious new era” stuck in her throat. She could say nothing.

“Come on, Hunt Mistress,” Taka hoarsely whispered.

The desolation on Yolanda’s face matched the depth of bitterness in Isha’s expression. Uzuri had to drop her glance.

“Uzuri,” Taka growled, “they’re waiting.”

The hyenas began to murmur uncomfortably. She had to do something, so she did the only thing she could do. She faced the lionesses squarely and prayed.

“Have mercy on us, O Lord. For our transgressions, do not punish us. Look with favor upon we who call on you. And on the trail, let us find sustenance for our bodies and comfort for our spirits. Blessed Aiheu, hear our prayer!”

The lionesses somberly bowed one by one. “Blessed Aiheu, hear our prayer!”

The hyenas looked one at the other. “Great Mother, sustain us,” they said, nervously, bowing. Soon, the whole hunting party lay prostrate on the savanna.

“Good hunting,” Uzuri said shakily. She started to walk off.

“Interesting prayer,” Taka said with a harsh edge to his voice. “Did I detect a note of pessimism?”

“You detected a prayer,” Uzuri said, pushing past him.

Ber pushed up alongside her. She had been avoiding eye contact with the hyenas and it took a lot of work for him to get her attention.

“Well, what do you want?”

“It’s about that prayer.”

“I’ve already been called down once about it.”

“I’m not calling you down,” he said. “I can tell that you’re a good person, and I know Roh’kash will side with you. When the revolt comes, and I feel one will, spare my mate and pups. They are loyal to the old ways and do not want to be here. Remember us.”

She stared at him and sniffed. “I will.”

“I was the hunt master. Now I’m just a guard. Of all the lions, maybe you alone know how much I’ve lost.”

She looked him right in the eyes. For the moment, her feelings for hyenas was tempered with compassion. “I know what you’ve lost, and I hope I’m not next. Pray to your god for me and I’ll pray to Aiheu for you.”

Ber smiled. “God is God. She will hear both our prayers.”

Uzuri went to initiate the first cooperative hunt. She looked at Beesa and sighed. “Well, let’s do this thing.” She felt even then that the hunt was doomed.

CHAPTER: KICKING A DEAD HORSE

The first cooperative hunt was a disaster. Now Taka did not ask her but TOLD her to give the hyenas another chance. To make it worse, Uzuri’s plea for Ber to lead the hyenas fell on deaf ears. Taka deferred to Shenzi in the matter, and she wanted Pipkah to remain in charge.

Apparently the little creep was a better liar than he was a hunter.

Uzuri had little choice but to accept Taka’s decision, but she was going to make it quite clear to Pipkah that THIS time he would wait for her signal to close in.

Just as she was thinking of a diplomatic way to make her point, Pipkah swaggered up to her with a couple of large hyena guards. “Your advice got us into this mess, and it’s up to me to get us out. This time I plan the strategy, Toots.”

Uzuri looked at him speechlessly.

He continued. “Shenzi and Taka have the utmost of confidence in my abilities when I’m allowed to do what I do best.”

“If that’s irritating me, you have succeeded beautifully…”

“This is an outrage!”

“… and NEVER call me Toots!”

Uzuri was ready to explode. She looked over at her sister Sarafina, searching for the right words to vent her feelings. Frustrated and inarticulate, she struck the ground with a paw. “Look, Sis. You deal with this—PERSON—while I take a walk to clear my head.” She turned and started off.

“You’d better take a mighty long walk,” Pipkah called after her.

She whipped about and snarled. “I warn you, Pip Squeak—you don’t have enough friends to keep me from ripping your leg off and jamming it down your throat!”

“Now Sis,” Sarafina purred soothingly. “Don’t threaten him like that.” She patted Pipkah on the head with a paw, none too gently. “He might lose his concentration in the hunt and have an unfortunate accident.” She winked in clear view of Pipkah and Uzuri winked back.

Pipkah’s ears went back and his jaw trembled. “Holy Roh’kash, you can do without me or my plan! I always said it was a mistake to trust your kind! Didn’t I, boys?? Accident indeed!” He slinked away, looking over his shoulder uneasily. “The Roh’mach will hear about this!”

CHAPTER: OUT OF BOUNDS

Taka was a lion who inspired pity for a while, then contempt and finally anger. Uzuri had pitied him once. She had reached the stage of contempt during his difficult adolescence. Now she had reached the point of anger, a white hot anger that could swallow up the moon and the sun and make the rivers run red with blood. She was headed to the eastern meadow, ready to leave and never come back.

Being hunt mistress was her sense of belonging, her identity. Uzuri was beautiful, but she always saw herself first as a good provider and a leader. That night by siding with Pipkah, Taka had stripped her of all she held dear. She felt naked and ashamed and very angry. If he did not appreciate her talents, she would find someone who did.

Uzuri had no idea where she would go. Indeed, the world beyond the Pride Lands was unknown to her and fraught with danger. The intimate knowledge of her home that made her such a fearsome huntress would be gone. She would see only what was in front of her nose.

As she calmed down, her reckless courage failed her and she felt very vulnerable and small. Could she leave her sister Sarafina and young Nala? Could she spurn Ajenti’s sage wisdom, Beesa’s compassion and Yolanda’s gentle advice? And then came the terrible thought of losing Rafiki’s matchless devotion.

She realized she could never turn her back on those she loved. And the void her anger left behind filled with fear. Glancing about, she saw a large pair of eyes glowing in the moonlight.

“Oh gods, no!”

She backed back. It was a male lion! She turned and started to run.

“No, wait!”

“Leave me alone!” She ran madly toward her territory and safety.

“Please, come back! I’m not going to hurt you!”

“Leave me alone!”

She ran blindly into some hedges and got tangled. It only stopped her forward progress for a moment, but that was long enough for him to catch up.

“I’m too old for this,” he complained, wheezing. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll protect myself!” she snarled defensively. “Let me go! I don’t want to cause trouble, but I’ll fight if I have to!”

“I don’t want you to fight,” the lion said soothingly. “You came on my land and almost walked into me. Won’t you at least introduce yourself?”

“Sorry,” she said stiffly. “I’m Uzuri. Glad to meet you. Can I go now?”

“Sure you can,” he said gently. “Run away if you must, but don’t tell them I harmed you. At least tell them the truth, and be sure you get my name right.”

“I don’t know your name.”

“You never asked me. I’m Ugas.” He smiled bashfully.

“I’m sorry. I’m not always this rude—uh—Ugas.” She relaxed. “Are you the King here or a rogue lion?”

“I’m King here.” He drew near enough to reach out and touch her with a paw but he made no move to do so. His large, beautiful eyes swept over her face in a search for understanding. “Uzuri, you look depressed. Is everything quite all right?”

“I’m fine. Just fine.”

“Your words say you are fine, but I see something in the way you’re standing, the set of your ears, even the way you look at me. It’s as if your whole being is crying out for help.” He sat like a sphinx and began to idly groom his mane and said matter-of-factly, “You were thinking of running away.”

“How did you… says who??”

“Don’t be upset, my dear.” He smiled pleasantly. “You can confide in me. That’s the best part of meeting a stranger—you can say anything that comes to your mind. I’ve lived a long life—maybe I’ll have the answer you’re looking for.”

“No, it’s nothing, thank you.” She licked her paw nervously but looked into Ugas’ eyes and his warm, fatherly smile. “Well, yes,” she said at last. It felt good to admit it. “Our King is dead and now his brother is ruling the Pride Lands. I’m sure he means well, but he’s…”

“But you can’t stand him. Mufasa was a good friend. Scar is… how shall I put this… acting like himself.” He shrugged. “So are the rumors true? Are hyenas really living on Pride Rock?”

“Yes! Oh gods, it’s awful!”

“And terribly unfair to you, hunt mistress. I hear your first joint effort was a disaster.”

“It sure was!” She gasped. “How did you know that??”

“I have eyes and ears all over. Even Zazu.” He saw her expression of shock, but only nodded and began to examine his claws. “Don’t look so surprised. His mother lives here, and she’s a first-class gossip. And then Mufasa used to always do border patrol with me before ‘IT’ happened.”

“You walked the line together?”

“He’d nod at me, and I’d nod at him. He never said much, but when he did speak, it was always something worth hearing. And the first day he wasn’t there, I had this horrible emptiness inside.” He sighed. “I didn’t realize Simba was dead too, not for several days. Taka didn’t tell me anything, and Zazu hasn’t been back.”

Uzuri hung her head. Tears began to run down her cheeks.

“You poor dear thing,” Ugas purred, reaching up with a paw and wiping her face.

She looked into his gentle eyes and saw genuine compassion. “You really liked Mufasa, didn’t you?”

“Yes. And the child, too, for I have no son of my own. I used to think Mufasa was so lucky.” A tear slid down his cheek. “You’re a parent. Surely you understand.”

“I understand, but I’m not a parent.”

“You’re not??” He looked surprised. “As beautiful as you are?”

She looked down, embarrassed. “You flatter me.”

“Oh no, my dear. You are beautiful. And when you cry, the beauty goes all the way through.” He lifted her chin with a paw and looked into her sad eyes. “I bet a smile would have the same effect.”

“I don’t have any smiles left.”

Ugas kissed away the new tears. “You pierce my heart with a thorn, child. Taka is so full of hate—I’ve seen it when he walks the border. He glares at me and shouts, ‘This land is mine! You want it, but you’ll never have it!’” He nuzzled her. “There is no hate in me, Uzuri. Come with me and I’ll see if I can find a few smiles left. Meet the others—they could be your pride sisters.” He watched for her reaction, but when she said nothing, he added, “I’m offering you freedom, my dear. Freedom and friendship.”

“You’re very kind, but not now. I have family there.”

“Bring them with you. Don’t go back to Taka—it’s not safe while he’s there.”

“Thank you, but it’s my home. There’s more at stake than family and friends. You understand, don’t you?”

“Yes. Do what you feel you must.”

She sighed. “Well, it’s time for me to make my report. You’re such a kind lion, Aiheu would listen to your prayers. Say a prayer for me.”

Ugas nodded. “I will. Take care of yourself, dear.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“Call me Ugas,” he said, rising and touching her cheek with his nose, then kissing her lightly. “Come back to me.”

“When?”

“Any time you want to see me. Any time at all. That goes for your friends as well.”

She felt of his cheek with a paw. “Yes, I might just do that.”

CHAPTER: FAMILY TIES

Ugas hummed to himself as he trotted through the grass. His mind wandered back to Uzuri and the short time they shared, and he smiled despite himself. “Lovely Uzuri,” he thought dreamily, “what was Aiheu thinking when he fashioned you? Was he singing his favorite song? Was he in a good mood?”

Ugas had known many lionesses over the course of his life, but there was something about this one. The way she looked at him made him want to frisk about like a cub. He closed his eyes and summoned up the image of her face again. “Uzuri,” he whispered.

He tried to imagine what her smile was like, but her pervasive sadness was too strong. “I will make you smile,” he thought. “I’ll devote my life to it. The magic of your smile would cheat death itself, and I’d be young again!”

“Daydreaming again, you old goat?!”

Ugas started and opened his eyes to see the lioness glaring at him through the scrub bushes that lined the path he had been following. “Adhama, what are you doing here?”

“Making sure you do your sentry duty this time.” She emerged from the cover and stood face to face with him. “I found hyena tracks not twenty lengths from our kopje last night, Ugas! What have you been doing out here, napping??”

He drew himself up to his full height, his neck arching in indignation. “You know full well I was patrolling! If it wasn’t for me, Sis, this pride wouldn’t even exist!”

“Oh, THAT’S for certain!” Not intimidated in the least, she paced forward, forcing him back a step. “I know all about your ‘efforts!’ They’ve produced a rather large pride, in case you haven’t noticed. A pride which needs to be fed, protected, cared for, and LOOKED AFTER! Why can’t you be more like your brother was? Now THERE was a responsible lion.”

Ugas groaned. “Not again, please!”

“Kazi was out here from well before sunup to well after sundown, patrolling the land and defending us against our enemies.”

“And he died of exhaustion. Is that what you want me to do?”

“At least he died with honor. I’m glad he didn’t live to see you like this!” Her jaw trembled as she wheeled about and stalked off a short distance, her head lowered.

Ugas stood still a moment, then slowly padded over to her and nuzzled her cheek. “Addie, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snipe at you.”

She raised her head and blinked back tears. “Yeah, right.”

“I’m serious. I just-”

“Ugas, I know you loved him.”

He took his paw and gently wiped away her tears. “I’m trying, Addie, but I’m just not my brother. He was always better at fighting, better at tracking, but I had the personality. Well my charm won’t work on rogue lions and wild dogs. I’m having to be someone I’m not, trying to support a double burden on old shoulders, rising early and resting late, patrolling this whole land by myself. No son to help me, and now no brother.”

“There are many lions who never had a brother. Do they complain? No—they are glad just to have a home and a family.”

“But they are young, Addie. They still have their health.” He looked down. “I’m near the end of my path, old girl. I should be able to pass some of the load to another. Instead I have to spend my final days tired and afraid. Always tired and afraid. I have aches where I didn’t think I had bones, and every time I think about making that long trek, my heart skips a beat.”

Adhama took a shaky breath. “Are you just giving up, then? What are you saying to me, brother?”

Ugas looked at her intently. “I’m not giving up. Tonight I met someone that may help us. If I can work my will, she’ll be my wife and mother of my son. A son, Addie!”

“Mother of your son?” She looked at him skeptically. “Kazi fathered nothing but daughters, and so have you. It looks like you’d stop trying.”

“I CAN’T stop trying. Don’t you know what happens to old lions who have no son?” He looked pleadingly into her eyes, then turned and trudged away, his head and tail hung low. “There are lots of rogues out there who would swap their whiskers for this place,” he muttered. “I won’t let them drive me off. I’d rather die here in one brave gesture than starve slowly. I love my daughters, but if only Aiheu would give me a son! Merciful God, help me!”

CHAPTER: A FREE LUNCH

Uzuri crept back to the Pride Lands with a knot in her stomach. Ugas’ offer began to sound ever better as the ominous shadow of Pride Rock began to loom over her. “Aiheu abamami,” she muttered, taking the trail up the stone to where Taka was waiting.

Before she even walked into the cave, Taka said, “So you have a problem with Pipkah, I hear?”

“He’s a royal pain, Scar.”

“Need I remind you who’s really royal??”

“Sorry—Your Majesty.”

“Well then.” Taka pulled himself up straight and tried to sound commanding. “Let’s work things out. If you don’t want to hunt with Pipkah and his group, you don’t have to.”

“Thank you VERY MUCH, Sire.”

“Just make sure you get enough food for all, because they get first choice.”

“What??”

“They are willing to hunt for their share, but you seem to think it’s unwise.”

“But Sire… surely you don’t expect us to… we’ll starve!”

“Not when you’re motivated by hunger to learn some courtesy.”

“But I…”

“No buts, Uzuri. Pipkah tells me Fini threatened his life, and you went along with it.”

“We spoke in anger. You didn’t see what they did!”

“I didn’t have to. Everyone’s talking about it. Now there are a lot of hungry eyes looking to you for food. Go scrounge up something like a good girl.”

Uzuri was stunned. She numbly nodded her head, turned and left. For a third time, she remembered the kind words Ugas spoke to her: “There is no hate in me.” Never had he seemed so kind as by contrast with Taka.

Uzuri went about shouting “Baraza!” which is to say, “meeting!” It was like any strategy meeting might have begun before the hunt, but it had a very important purpose.

By ones and twos the lionesses arrived. Soon they were all together, except for Elanna whose absence was both expected and painful.

“Aiheu abamami,” Uzuri muttered as she nuzzled each of the lionesses from Yolanda, the oldest, down to the newest huntresses. It was an order dictated by tradition. But there was a tenseness in the air, so strong it could be prodded with a paw like water.

“Taka has laid a burden on us,” she spoke slowly. “Now we must hunt for ourselves and for the hyenas. It seems they are afraid for their safety.”

“Damn straight!” Isha said. “And well they should be!”

Ajenti, who was usually more democratic, said, “It’s time to cut King Droopy-Drawers down to size.”

“The hyenas are on his side,” Uzuri said. “We must solve a major problem tonight. Our cubs must eat, and so must we.”

“I say I could acquire a taste for hyena,” Ajenti said.

“This talk is dangerous,” Yolanda said. “They could be spying on us.”

“Let them get an earful,” Isha said. “I heard Fini’s joke about the accident. But I believe we really could kill them one or two at a time tonight without alerting the others. By the time the news got out, there would be too few of them left to fight us.”

“And have you forgotten about Taka?” Uzuri said.

“Leave him to me,” Isha said. “I’ll kill him myself.”

“My gods!” Uzuri’s hackles were raised. “Do you mean commit murder? What about Elanna? She’s Sarabi’s sister, for God’s sake!”

“Don’t remind me,” Sarabi said with understandable bitterness. “That’s all that keeps me from marking her. She’s a disgrace to her people, fawning on that hyena-kissing brother-in-law of mine. As far as I’m concerned, the moment Muffy died, he was out of my family.”

Uzuri looked around at the other lionesses. “Don’t you know the gods would judge us if we just butcher him like a gazelle?”

“Can we possibly be any worse off?” Sarabi insisted. “Maybe the gods will judge us if we DON’T kill him!”

“Some of us have small cubs,” Sarafina said. “Nala might get hurt—or killed. I don’t think we should rashly jump into this.”

“I agree,” Uzuri said.

“You would,” Ajenti said and spat. “You’re her sister.”

“And I’m not yours??” Uzuri said, stepping in front of her and glaring into her eyes. “Aren’t we ALL sisters here? I didn’t say that we shouldn’t overthrow him, just that Sarafina was right. We can’t be rash. We won’t have to kill him if we can get rid of the hyenas. He wouldn’t dare fight all of us.”

“All right, so how would YOU get rid of the hyenas.”

“I’m not sure yet. I’ll think of something. In the meantime, we have to bide our time.”

“Until what?” Ajenti looked around at the others. “Until we’re so hungry we’re too weak to fight?? I’ve seen a lot in my lifetime, but I never thought I’d live to see Uzuri turn coward!”

Uzuri cuffed her across the face—hard. “You take that back, Missy! We can’t fight them while we’re fighting each other! Pull in your claws and apologize!”

Ajenti tried to think of something angry to say, but the more she looked into Uzuri’s face, the more ashamed she felt. “Sorry,” she half whispered. “No one thinks you’re a coward. But it’s a dirty shame not to strike now.”

Uzuri nuzzled her. “One day we’ll cleanse the land of shame, I promise you.”

Upset by the bad news, they hunted very poorly. They missed a Duiker that was practically waiting to die, and tempers flared. Blame enough for three prides was quickly exchanged in low but angry hisses. Uzuri needed all her powers of persuasion to calm them down and refocus their energies on the quarry and off each other. And though it took most of the night, they finally found an old zebra and managed to kill it.

Ajenti was sent to call Taka and the others. “Fresh kill, My Lord,” she said to Taka, her bitterness concealed by a forced smile.

The hyenas ran to the site while Ajenti and the cubs merely trotted. There was no reason to run after Taka’s edict. So while the lion cubs sat and stared in misery, the hyenas feasted. And they feasted and feasted.

Lisani nudged her mother Beesa. “When are we going to get our turn?”

“Soon, dear. I hope…”

“That’s what you said last time.”

Beesa was hoping against hope for her daughter’s sake that something would be left at all. But the hyenas finished off the carcass and even began to crack the bones for marrow. Lionesses began to grumble. If ever they had hated hyenas, that moment was the all time high point of their rage. Somewhere in the melee a hyena pup shrieked.

Uzuri noticed the pup running from the carcass, sobbing. Fighting down her bitterness, she went after her; a child had no business running about the savanna alone, leonine or not.

Drawing up alongside, she asked, “What’s wrong? Don’t you like zebra?”

“Leave me alone!”

“What’s wrong? Hey, little girl, I’m not going to hurt you.”

The pup looked up into Uzuri’s eyes. At once she relaxed. “I know. I’m a seer like Shimbekh.”

“Really?” Uzuri felt an odd sensation as the child looked at her.

“Yes. I wish I wasn’t!”

Uzuri nuzzled her. “I’m not a seer. Come on, little one. Tell me why you’re so sad.”

Makhpil looked up. “Don’t you think I can tell how much you lions hate us? Night and day wishing we were dead! All of us!”

“Heavens, child, don’t say that! I don’t wish you were dead.”

“You’re not like the others. But just a minute ago, one of them…” she pointed—“was thinking…” Makhpil drew up close and in a whisper of supreme embarrassment said, “Get out of my way, brat! I ought to send you straight to hell.” She looked down and wept.

Uzuri stirred uncomfortably. “Some of them are upset now. We had trouble on the hunt. We love our cubs the same way your mother loves you. When they have to go hungry, we get upset and sometimes we say things we don’t mean. But I don’t want you to die.”

Tears streamed down her face. “I don’t want to be here! I want to go home! I want to go far away and never come back!”

Uzuri comforted the child, holding her close with a paw and nuzzling her. “Hon, it’s not your fault. I know one lion that’s going to have a lot of explaining to do when Mano gets a hold of him. But you do what’s right and someday when you face your god, you won’t have anything to be ashamed of. So why don’t you get something to eat, OK?”

“I wish you were Roh’mach,” Makhpil said, rubbing against Uzuri’s cheek.

Just then, an adult hyena trotted up. “Is everything OK, Makhpil?” She looked suspiciously at Uzuri.

“Everything’s fine,” Uzuri said quickly, patting Makhpil with her large paw. “She just found out that the innocent often suffer along with the guilty.”

The female looked straight into Uzuri’s eyes with a peculiar stare that made her feel like her fur had fallen off leaving her naked. Then the hyena relaxed. “I’m sorry I doubted you. You were kind to my little girl, and I won’t forget that.”

“How did you…” Uzuri smiled shyly. “You must be Shimbekh. You’re the seer, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. I’ve heard my share of insults today. This unholy and unnatural union will lead us only to sorrow.”

“Don’t get me wrong, but if you’re unhappy here, why don’t you just leave?”

“We can’t,” Shimbekh said. “This thing has divided families down the middle. We’re trapped here to the bitter end, and it will be bitter you know. Death will grow fat on our misery, and pups will cry in the night for their parents but no one will answer them. Don’t judge my clan brothers too harshly. They have been misled, filled with false promises and foolish notions. They are expecting a golden age. They will find something very different.”

“Did you foresee this with your powers?”

“Uzuri, when the truth comes out, sisters will fight brothers and children will fight parents. And not just hyenas will know death, my dear.”

“Us too?”

“To a lesser degree, yes. At least one of your own will die—I have seen it. And what is a seer to do about it? I can make them listen, but I can’t make them believe.” She sighed. “Don’t you think I know about the plan?”

“The plan?”

Shimbekh sent Makhpil back toward the kill with a pat of her paw. “Run along, girl.” And as soon as they were alone, she drew close to Uzuri. “You know, the plan to kill the hyenas off one by one and make it look like an accident.”

Uzuri gasped.

“Don’t worry, hon. I’ve told no one about it. But we have to talk. There are hyenas good and true that would shed their honest blood to drive out Shenzi and cleanse the land of shame.”

Uzuri remembered saying almost the same thing to her pride sisters. She touched Shimbekh’s cheek with her paw and whispered, “When the last battle comes, fight by me. You and Ber and any willing to join you. I swear to you that there will only be two kinds of people that day—friend and foe. Understand?”

“Completely.”

CHAPTER: THE PHOENIX

Ugas trudged slowly along behind Adhama with an ache in his right shoulder that made him grimace slightly with each step. But it had been worth it to see Uzuri’s sweet face. They neared the kopjes that served a home for the pride, and the old lion sighed and pushed through the edge of the grasses, emerging into a small clearing where the pride lay.

Lionesses lay scattered about in various spots, but they quickly straightened up nervously as they spotted him. Ugas had been very temperamental in recent days. Conversation dulled and fell silent as he paced past the group and settled onto the ground. His hip twinged again and he groaned.

A cub skittered past him, giggling, and he glared at her from under lowered lids. One of the lionesses hurriedly sat up and called softly. “Alyssa! Come back here!”

The cub slid to a stop and slowly crept back towards her mother under Ugas’ gaze. She glanced at him quickly, then she looked away when she encountered his stare.

Ugas saw the visible fear in her face and felt a thorn pierce his heart. “Alyssa?”

The cub came to an absolute standstill.

“Alyssa. Come here, Honey tree.” He beckoned with a forepaw.

Slowly, trembling, she inched forward until she stood beneath his immense bulk. “Yes, sir? I’m sorry.”

Ugas stared wonderingly at the shaking cub. “Sorry for what?”

“Whatever it is I did.”

“Did you just do something naughty?”

“I… uh… don’t think so, Sir.”

“Daddy will do nicely.”

“I’m sorry, Daddy.” She looked back at her mother and back at him.

“Don’t you want to give your old Dad a kiss?”

“I guess so.” She edged carefully forward, stretched out her neck and touched his foreleg with her tongue, then darted back a couple of feet.

“Honey tree?” He looked at Agavi. “Vivi, what’s wrong? Doesn’t she love me anymore?”

“She loves you,” Agavi said soothingly. “We all know you’ve been depressed since your brother died. And those aches and pains and now that crick in your spine. I know that a lot of noise and prodding makes you upset, so I told her not to disturb you.”

“Upset?? Since when have my children ever make me upset?? Maybe I like to be disturbed!”

Adhama said, “Let me field that one, hon.” She looked piercingly at Ugas. “Lately, everything makes you upset. You snap at us all the time and think we’re supposed to rub your shoulder all the time and say ‘poor baby’ and ‘there now, that’s a good fellow.’ Well it’s taking its toll on your popularity, as if you haven’t noticed!”

Ugas snarled. “Since when have I snapped at anyone??”

Adhama said, “Oh, that’s a tough one.” She frowned. “Shame on you, carrying on like this in front of the children!”

Ugas sat down, nonplused. “Well, maybe I have been a little…” He glanced over at little Alyssa. “Oh, the poor dear!”

He went to the cub. When she shrank from him, the pain that drew his face was not from his shoulder. “I love you, Lissie.”

Alyssa’s jaw trembled and she almost cried. “I love you too, Daddy.”

“There’s my girl!” He rolled over on his back, scooped her up with a paw and when she stood trembling on his stomach for one moment, pulled in his back legs and arms, lifting her up wriggling on a pedestal of four paws. He began to pump her up and down. “Three baby bunnies a hopping around. Three baby bunnies hop over the ground. If you keep hopping, you’ll never start stopping, but you’ll get away from the hound!” His legs shot out straight, tossing her into the air. She fell giggling with a sound plop. His stomach was not as firm as it used to be, but he hid his discomfort. He held her to his chest and nuzzled her softly, kissing her with his warm, pink tongue and grunting with pleasure when she kissed him back and rubbed along his soft mane. “I’m never going to be gruff with my little girl again! I promise!” He nuzzled her, then looked over at the other cubs who were watching him closely. “And that promise goes for the rest of you too! Come here, you little scamps! Rides for everyone!”

The other cubs rushed over and mobbed the two of them. Ugas rolled about laughing as a crowd of cubs tickled him, pounced on his tail and tugged at his mane. “Oh, I love you all so much! I could just eat you up!” He would be bouncing bunnies for a long, long time before he got a rest.

Alyssa’s mother watched Ugas rolling about, bellowing laughter at the cubs around him. Nudging Adhama with her paw, she asked, “What’s got INTO him? You’d think he was young again!”

Adhama smiled. “Young again? Don’t you mean alive again?”

“Up we go!” Ugas cried, hoisting another giggling cub. “Now let your Daddy catch his breath…”

CHAPTER: THE OFFER

Rafiki was languishing in house arrest, unable to leave his baobab without a hyena escort. Once he had tended to be a loner, preferring to deal with one or two friends at a time rather than large groups. But the enforced loneliness was preying on him and he spent long hours in front of the scrying bowl desperate for some shadow of his past to comfort him. His father’s face looked back at him, tinged with sadness. Rafiki didn’t know if he was seeing the past, the present or the future, and tears began to run down his face. “Father, I wish you could be here. I always felt so safe when you held me. So safe and happy.”

Uzuri heard rumors that all access to Rafiki might be cut off without advance notice. She put on her best limp and headed out to the tree. The large number of guards chosen to guard one elderly mandrill was a testament to Taka’s fear of him.

A couple of hyenas stopped her. “My lady, no further please. We insist.”

“I’m injured,” she said. “I need medical treatment.”

“We have good doctors. May I recommend Da’klesh?”

“Rafiki is familiar with my problem. Now if you want me to wake Shenzi from her nap, I’ll do it.”

“No need. Come this way.”

Surrounded by hyenas, she went to the baobab. It was a very tense moment, and she could feel the oppressive sense of being confined already.

The moment she looked in the baobab, the mandrill’s face lit up. He threw his arms around his neck and kissed her. “Honey tree, you remembered old Rafiki?? I’ve missed you so much!” Then he backed off and looked worried. “Are you hurt? I should have asked before I grabbed you like that. What is it, old girl?? Nothing serious I hope.”

She winked and shook her head no. “I think my shoulder is out of joint,” she said loudly. “If you don’t fix it, I won’t be able to hunt for a long time.”

“Do something quick,” one of the hyena guards said, looking inside. “We don’t have enough food as it is!”

Uzuri smiled sweetly and walked over to him. Clearly he was uneasy at her approach despite her smile and he backed out.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” she purred. “You know I’ll always take care of you, even if the others do without.” She gave him a long, slow lick on the cheek. “Meet me behind Pride Rock at sunset, and don’t tell anyone.”

“What’s this??” Krull demanded.

“Nothing, Sir!” The hyena began to tremble. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying!”

“Holding out on us, Dourbet??”

Uzuri looked at Krull pleadingly. “Leave the poor boy alone.” She kissed Dourbet again. “It’s not like he’s the only one to beg for scraps. You ride them so hard, they all wonder who made you a god.”

Krull went into a slow burn. “Well,” he said, his hackles raising, “They won’t wonder any more!!” He looked around. “General assembly, ON THE DOUBLE!!”

Uzuri went back to Rafiki. As Krull cursed the guards loudly in Hyannic, Rafiki began to rub Uzuri’s stiff shoulder.

She grunted in pleasure as the muscles loosened up. “We can talk now. They’ll be busy for a while.”

“I’ll say, you little devil!” He chuckled—his first good laugh in a long while. “So my dear, what is the latest news? I never know when I’m being lied to by those fellows.”

“Lies would have to be better than the truth,” Uzuri said with a sigh. “The land is dying. It’s being hunted out, and the rain has stopped. What’s happening to us?”

“I wish I knew.” Rafiki began to rub the other side, his eyes half closed as his thoughts wandered. “There’s a lion to the east. His name is Ugas. If things go too badly here, you could make the excuse you’re hunting for gazelles. When you cross that border, honey tree, no one is going after you.”

“I couldn’t do that. Not and leave my pride sisters in the lurch.”

“Somehow I knew you’d say that. It’s one of the things I love about you.”

She looked at him in the eyes for a moment and purred. “So you know Ugas?”

“Not very well. And these days I don’t get out much.”

“I know.” She began to groom around his face and neck and he sat still, a look of contentment on his face to feel her closeness. “I’ll mention your name the next time I see him. In fact, I might just arrange for you to drop by and see him in person. You could use some fresh air and sunshine.”

He put his arm around her neck and gave her shoulder a pat. “If those hyenas were all that stood in my way, I’d be out like a sparrow. They raid my pantry when I’m not looking. A little Bumpweed in a honeycomb and I guarantee they’d all be sleeping like little pups while I walked out as big as you please.” He chuckled for a moment, but then looked down at the tooth of Ahadi he kept with him always. Fingering the ivory fang, a wistful look of sadness washed the joy from his face. “My life is rooted to the Pride Lands deeper than this old baobab. I’ve lived most of my life here, and I guess I’ll die here. Whether I die happy or sad is for Aiheu to decide.”

CHAPTER: UZURI AND UGAS

A few evenings later Uzuri was meeting with the pride sisters to discuss the approach for the night’s hunt.

“Tonight we’ll come into the Southern meadow. There is a group of Tommies down there and if we move fast, they’ll still be there if those hyenas will shut up and keep out of our way.”

“How will we approach them?” Ajenti asked.

“We’ll use the double blind method. You take the right side with Yolanda and Isha will come with me on the left while Fini leads the rest of you around through the wadi to wait for the signal.

“Sarafina is sick,” Ajenti said. “Remember?”

“Okay. Then Yolanda can lead that group.”

“And who will that leave on the right with Isha?”

She struggled to concentrate. “Oh, Beesa can do it. I don’t care. Let’s just do this thing before the darned gazelles go home, OK?”

Uzuri paced away nervously. She was in her season, a time in her life that could make her feel very special or very alone.

She sat down and sighed deeply. Rafiki was confined to the baobab or she would have asked his advice on what to do. Maybe he had some kind of herb to find her lost powers of concentration and dull the empty feeling inside of her. The temptation to push past the guards and plead for help was great.

Still she could not risk two visits in such a short time—it might arouse suspicion. She sighed deeply again.

Then she remembered who she could turn to for advice. Ugas was just across the Western Border. She had not accepted his invitation to come back, but this would be the time. He would dispense more of his fatherly advice and compassion.

“Beesa, I don’t feel good. You lead this hunt the way we’ve planned, OK?”

“Sure, hon.” She drew close and whispered, “You got yourself a Honey Tree out in the bushes?”

“Beesa, you should be ashamed!” She added in a whisper, “Girl, I wish!”

“There’s been a rogue male sighted to the south. Maybe you two will hit it off.”

“Beesa!” Uzuri groomed one of her paws nervously. “I’m not selling myself to the highest bidder. Still, thank you.”

Her remark was casual, but her inner turmoil was great. A lioness’ natural drives are as strong as a lion’s. Aiheu did not make them to rebel against the natural order of things, so she found herself at odds with her own body, a conflict that left her no place to run.

Making sure no hyenas followed her, she went to the east and finally slipped into the neighboring territory. “Ugas? Are you out there?” There was no answer and she realized just how disappointed she was. “Ugas??”

“Uzuri!” a rich voice said at last. The lion hurried over, his face beaming. “I’ve waited for you. I thought you’d forgotten me.”

“I see you haven’t forgotten me,” Uzuri said. “Thanks.”

“You’re unforgettable,” Ugas said. “I enjoyed our talk, but I’d like to get to know you a lot better. Can you stay a little longer?”

She bowed her head. “You said if I had a problem I could come to you. Does the offer still stand? Can I tell you anything?”

“Anything at all, my dear. I’m so glad you came back—I’ve been really worried about you.”

“I don’t know what to do anymore. I can’t hunt with those hyenas—well most of them. Some of them aren’t half bad, but that Pipkah—ugh!! And their Incosi is a she-devil!!”

“You didn’t come here to talk about hyenas.”

“You’re very perceptive for a male.”

He laughed. “It doesn’t take much perception to tell what’s bothering you.”

She cleared her throat self-consciously. “Well, uh, yes. Ugas, I’m so alone and confused!”

Ugas smiled sweetly. “Uzuri, you’re not alone now. And perhaps you’re not as much confused as you are frightened.”

“Frightened of what?”

“Frightened of this.” Ugas drew close and touched her cheek with his nose, then kissed her lightly. “Simple closeness. Letting your feelings show. Do you have a consort?”

Uzuri looked at him timidly. “No. Why?”

“Because all I could think about for the last moon was your beautiful, sad face. I wanted to kiss away your tears forever.” He nuzzled her, and though surprised, she did not pull away. “I’ve never seen your smile. I bet it’s beautiful.”

“You’re toying with me.”

“I’m too old for subterfuge and subtle gestures. Now let’s see that smile. Think of something happy. Like maybe fresh antelope.” He looked into her eyes deeply. “Not good enough? Then imagine the look on Taka’s face if he caught us making passionate love behind Pride Rock!”

She tried to look away before the smile covered her face. Hiding behind a paw, she felt like slinking away, but he looked around her camouflage and said, “Oh, it IS a pretty smile. You should do it more often.”

“You’re terrible!”

“I know. Quite wicked. And if you can pardon me for dreaming out loud, I really would like to make passionate love to you. You make me tremble.”

Uzuri shoved him with a paw. “You aren’t serious!”

Ugas looked at her pleadingly. “I was never more serious. When you get to be my age, you see more and more yesterdays behind you and fewer and fewer tomorrows ahead.” He sighed. “I have no son to inherit my kingdom. I was almost desperate enough to form a loveless union, and then you came. Uzuri, I could love you. I could love you with my whole heart, my whole being. You’ve awakened feelings in me that I thought were dead. Am I selfish to want both a son and a little happiness before the sun sets on my life?” He waited a while for her reaction, but she stood unmoving, staring at him.

He bowed his head. “I’m sorry. I still feel like the same young lion inside, before the evening aches and pains settle in. Sometimes I forget that I’m just an old fool.”

“Ugas, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“No need to apologize. Why would you want a broken-down has-been like me when you’re so young and beautiful? I wasn’t always old. There was a time when I might have lured you away from that lonely lifestyle and made you happy. Please tell no one you saw me this way out of respect for the Ugas that once was.”

He turned and trudged away, his tail hanging limply and a distinct slump to his face and ears.

“Ugas, wait!”

He turned and looked at her, tears in his eyes.

“Only if you will pledge to me,” she said.

“And tie you down to an old carcass? How long could I make you happy?”

“However long it would be is that much more than nothing. And I could give you sons.”

“You just pity me. I shouldn’t have begged you. Maybe it’s better that I go now before you do something out of pity that we’ll both regret.” He turned and trudged away again.

“I don’t pity you, Ugas. I want to give you a son. My world is slowly crumbling around me—I need your love. Come back and I’ll prove it to you. You’re a dear, sweet creature and I’ve been thinking about you since we met—all the time.”

He stopped and looked back. He straightened to full height and looked like a real lion again. “Please Uzuri, I have feelings. Don’t say that unless you really mean it.”

“I never say what I don’t mean.”

Trembling, he stalked over to her, his gaze locked into hers, and he held out his left paw to touch her shoulder. “Before I lose my nerve, I’m going to say it!” He drew in a breath, let it out in a sigh, then said, “Before the gods, before the stars, before the assembled host I swear to give you my protection, my life, and my comfort forever.”

She purred and nuzzled him. “Till the last beat of my heart, to the last breath I sigh, our lives are one, so help me gods.”

He took his large paw and fondled her cheek. “I’ve only seen you twice. Once for an evening. And once more for the rest of my life. Bless you, Uzuri! You’ll never be lonely again, and you’ll never feel regret or hopelessness again. Come, let me show you around your new home!”

“My new home?” Her smile dropped. “This is foolish. I can’t be your queen! I have responsibilities and family. They need me!”

“Uzuri! Oh gods, what are you saying?”

“I’m sorry, Ugas. Our vows have not been sealed, and it’s best that I leave now.”

“No, you just can’t!” He ran in front of her and stared at her with wide eyes. “Please, Uzuri! Beloved! Can’t you at least stay with me as you can get away? I want you by my side always, but if you can only visit, don’t renounce our pledge! I’ll always be here when you need me. I didn’t want to beg before, but I’m begging you! Uzuri, I’m begging you!”

“Ugas, please don’t!”

Tears began to stream down his face. “If you leave me now, never come back. You remind me of too many things I’ve lost—youth, beauty, hope.”

“Ugas, don’t cry!”

“Why shouldn’t I?? If it bothers you, go tend to your responsibilities and you won’t have to watch.”

“Fine.” She turned around, her nose slightly lifted and began to trot away. But after a few steps, her head lowered and her ears drew back. A tear ran down her cheek. “What am I doing??”

She whipped about and ran to the old lion, nuzzling him desperately. “Forgive me, darling! Forgive me!”

Ugas nuzzled her face, then rubbed against her neck, walking slowly along her and letting his tail stroke her under her chin. “Since you stumbled into my life, you’re all I think about. You’re the first thing I want to see in the morning, and the last thing I want to see at night. I want to fill my senses with you!”

She sighed deeply. “I’ve never felt this way before.”

“I thought I’d lost you, but when you came back, I knew it was our destiny to be together.”

“If it is our destiny, then it must be so.” She nuzzled him passionately and purred. “Ugas, make love to me.”

CHAPTER: PARTING OF THE WAYS

The morning sun painted Pride Kopje with golden optimism. Uzuri missed the shelter of her old cave, but she delighted in the feel of Ugas’ mane and felt very safe with his strong arm around her. Still, it was time to go, and she gently and quietly worked her way free of her lover’s embrace and got to her feet without waking him. For three days she had craved his closeness and whispered a thousand loving names in his ear. For three days her grief and loneliness had been lost in his love. But the light of dawn was revealing more to her than the savanna. She could see clearly that her sisters would miss her, and they were suffering for lack of her leadership.

She considered waking him to whisper farewell, but thought better of it and silently trudged away.

Ugas felt cold, and opened one eye. “Uzuri! Are you leaving without saying good bye?”

She looked around. “Ugas, beloved, you looked like a sweet little cub lying there. I didn’t want to remember you sad. But even the best dream has to end, and it’s time for me to go.”

He stood quickly. “But you’re taking my heart with you! When it crosses that boundary, it will cease to beat! Uzuri, have you learned nothing in these whole three days? Nothing at all?”

“I must head home—there are others counting on me. But someday when things are better for my pride, I will come back to stay. Till then, remember what you agreed to—when I have to leave I will leave. You agreed, remember?”

“I remember, but…”

“But I’ll be back, love, and we’ll take up where we left off.”

“Please hurry. I’m not getting any younger.”

“None of us are, Ugas.” She ran back and nuzzled him. “Don’t worry if your heart leaves with me—I’ve left mine with you. It will always be with you, wherever I go.”

CHAPTER: JUST BETWEEN US

Ugas’ love had taken on life within her. Uzuri was both proud and worried. For a while she could conceal her pregnancy, but as days turned into weeks, the other lionesses began to talk behind her back that she had the light in her eyes.

Finally when the changes in her weight and balance began to affect her hunting, there was no need to pretend any longer. Her sister Sarafina was chosen to confront her because of her own daughter Nala. No one would dare imagine that Taka was the father of Nala, nor would they speculate about Uzuri and Taka—it was just too awful to think about!

Sarafina thought of a dozen different approaches and discarded them one by one. Finally, she saw her sister alone and had worked up the nerve.

Nuzzling Uzuri gently, Sarafina purred, “I’m so happy for you, Sis.”

“About what?” Uzuri said tensely. “Have you heard some good news that I don’t know about?”

Fini laughed gently and kissed her. “No, Sis! I don’t see how you couldn’t know about it. There’s a miracle happening inside of you.”

Uzuri did not speak. Sarafina squirmed in the tenseness of the moment. “Look, Sis,” she said at last, “you have a heart full of love. I know how fond you were of Nala, and how you liked to groom her and play with her. And I used to pray that you’d fall in love and have children of your own. Let me be the Aunt that spoils the kids. Confide in me, Sis. Please? Don’t shut me out of this part of your life—I didn’t shut you out.”

Uzuri looked down shyly. “How many times did you practice that speech?”

“A dozen times at least. Only because I love you so much. Hon, you don’t ever have to be alone, not as long as I’m around.”

Uzuri drew close and in a near whisper said, “Pray that at least one is a male.”

“I guess so—but I thought you’d want all daughters. You know that sons are a heartbreak when they have to leave. Unless you’re a queen, anyhow.”

“And who says I’m not a queen?” Uzuri smiled.

“Oh my gods! Not—HIM??”

Uzuri thought for a moment, then burst out laughing. “You mean Old Droopy Drawers! Shame on you for even thinking it!”

Sarafina breathed a relieved sigh. “You had me worried, girl! If you’re a queen, then that time you were gone for three days… you weren’t really sick!”

“I was in season and left for three days. Now I’m pregnant.” Uzuri glanced at her out of half-closed eyes. “You know, with your ability you should have been hunt mistress instead of me!”

“Now, Sis! Spare me the sarcasm and tell me all the details!”

“Well all the details is a bit much—right now anyway—but he’s a king and yes we’re married. He’s a little older but he could charm the thorns off an acacia. He’s sweet and gentle and…” She drew close to Sarafina’s ear and added, “… remarkably entertaining!”

“Oh you little devil!” Sarafina said with a squeal of delighted approval. “Does he have a brother?”

“Don’t you WISH!” Uzuri purred, examining her claws and meeting Sarafina in a sly sidelong glance. “When the time is right, our son will go meet him and take his place as prince. Then he’ll be king someday. Of course that can be postponed indefinitely—I’m having too much fun. Besides, I love him. He’s just like a lonely cub. When you see him, you want to protect him and make him feel happy.”

“I’m so glad for you, Sis! But you’re not going to leave us, are you?”

Uzuri’s pained expression left no doubt how she felt. “When things get better. But right now I’m not going to leave you in the lurch.”

“I love you, Sis. I might just come with you. Little Nala too.”

“Fini,” Uzuri purred, nuzzling her. “My happiness would be complete. But tell me about your mane event.”

“He’s a rogue lion. I don’t want to say too much right now, but we’ve seen each other as often as possible. He’s a little older too, but very sexy. I don’t know what’s best—youthful enthusiasm or the wisdom of age…”

Uzuri giggled. “NOW who’s the little devil!”

CHAPTER: THE TWINS

All of the other lionesses plagued Sarafina for details. The only thing she would say is, “She has a husband.”

Uzuri’s condition was evident to Taka, and he watched her progressing pregnancy with dread. He was afraid the lionesses would abandon him and leave him to feed all those hyenas himself. And when it was only him and his wife, he knew chances were good to excellent that they would hunt lions.

Elanna was no less distraught, but for different reasons; she feared that Taka was being unfaithful. This suspicion, never voiced aloud, still hovered between them like a Makei until the birth of Uzuri’s cubs. Elanna went to see Uzuri and Sarafina, and she cooed and fondled the cubs with undisguised delight. They were not at all like her husband, something she secretly thanked Aiheu for as she kissed Uzuri on the cheek. “I hope you’ve found your true love,” she said discretely. “I know I have.”

Uzuri, who was not entirely blind said, “Their father loves me the way Taka loves you—completely. He will be pleased to know he has a son.”

“Two sons,” Elanna said.

“Togo and Kombi.”

“I wish you’d had a daughter. It’s going to be hard when their mantlement comes.”

Uzuri looked at her intently. “Can I trust you?”

Sarafina shook her head ever so slightly in disapproval, but Uzuri either did not see it or did not care. “They have a future. Not here, but they do have one. But tell no one—it’s our little secret.”

“Not even my husband?” Elanna said.

“Especially not your husband,” Uzuri said. Then realizing how it might sound, she quickly added, “He’d give anything for a son. I don’t want to rub it in—you know how melancholy he gets. And Lannie, this must be hard on you too. I’m so sorry.”

Elanna nodded. “As long as I have my Taka, I can get by.” She was on the verge of tears. “I can understand how some people might dislike him. I know there are a few that wish to harm him. Love hasn’t turned me into a complete fool. But Uzuri, there are times when we are alone when he can be beautiful and gentle and witty and so full of love. Under all that fear and rage, there’s a little cub that just wants to feel safe and loved. And no matter what he ever does or ever becomes, my destiny is to love him and protect him from all the hate in the world. They all think I’m crazy to feel that way about him. You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?”

“No, hon.” She thought about Ugas, and for one moment she could understand what Lannie saw in him. “How’s Sarabi taking this?”

Tears ran down Elanna’s cheeks. “We hardly speak anymore. This little talk is more than I’ve heard from everyone else for the last moon. Only Taka ever speaks to me anymore. My own sister will turn her head to keep from looking in my eyes. Oh gods, Uzuri, I’m all alone in the world! What would I do if something happened to him??”

“It’s unfair,” Uzuri said. She patted the ground with her paw. “You’re not that alone. Come here, Lannie.”

Elanna laid by Uzuri quietly, with her side along the ridge of Uzuri’s back while she nursed her cubs. She felt her breath come and go, and felt the gentle tenor of the pulse in her neck. She listened to the cubs feeding and to the soft sounds they uttered to each other and to their mother. Her stress began to work itself out and in a few minutes, Elanna got up much improved and kissed Uzuri’s cheek. “I’ve been carrying on like a mad jackal. Someday Aiheu will reward you for being my friend. Can I come back sometimes?”

“Any time you want.”

Elanna hurried back to her husband. Full of peace and love, she snuggled alongside his warm body and nuzzled his dark mane.

“My, you’re in a good mood,” Taka said, fondling her with a paw. “Your fit of depression seems to be lifting.”

“And it’s not coming back, I think.” She nuzzled him again. “Uzuri’s children are quite beautiful, aren’t they?”

“I have yet to find out,” he said crossly. “I couldn’t even get near her today. You’d think those lionesses had never seen a cub before. I shall have to make a formal inspection in the morning.”

“Good. That means I have you all to myself tonight.” She began to groom him lovingly and nuzzle him until at last he had to smile.

CHAPTER: THE INSPECTION

The next morning, Sarafina came in to see Uzuri. “Here he comes,” was all she said or needed to say. Uzuri felt her stomach tighten up with fear as the long-dreaded confrontation approached.

Taka entered her cave. “Good morning, hunt mistress.”

“Good morning, sire.”

Taka approached the twin cubs and looked at them. He smiled and touched each of them with his tongue. “You are blessed, Uzuri. Twin sons.”

Uzuri nodded as Taka sat down, his tail flicking back and forth.

“I was young and fresh like them once,” he said. “Before I was marked, and life took it’s toll on me, there were people that thought I was cute. Remember, Uzuri?”

“You were a cute cub. I remember.”

He fondled her sons with his paw. One of them reached up and swatted at him and Taka had to laugh. “Look at them. They are too young to know I’m ugly. When I kiss them, they don’t want to slink away and rub it off in the grass.”

“You don’t look that bad. People are just afraid. Afraid of you and afraid of the hyenas. Maybe you have this unique kind of thing with them. Maybe they like you. But they don’t like us. They make it painfully clear that all we’re good for is hunting. Don’t take my word for it—just ask them.”

“It’s too late to change that now.” He sighed and his shoulders sagged. “I will never live to see them gone, just as I will never live to be forgiven for bringing them here. I don’t think they like me any more than they like you, but they bow and scrape before me, seeking favors. They’ll kill me when they get the chance. Every time I pass one of them, I wonder, ‘will it be you?’ And every night the same dream reminds me that each day may be my last.”

“Oh gods, how awful!”

He examined her face carefully. “So you’re not amused by my plight?” He purred. “You have a kind heart, just like your mother had.” He put his paw on hers and gave her a gentle pat.

Uzuri was surprised. She met his glance directly, and the kindness in his eyes was genuine. While he was in such a good mood, she sought her heart’s desire.

“Sire, when you were born you weren’t breathing. I saw Rafiki breathe life into you with his own mouth.” She put her other paw on his. “Can’t you find it in your heart to forgive him? It would mean a lot to me. Please?”

He heaved a sigh. “Of all else, I could forgive him. But for trapping me in this life of pain, I cannot.” He winced at the thought. “And what’s worse, I am too much of a coward to undo it. If I could just go to sleep one night and never wake up…” He sighed as a tear rolled down his cheek, then kissed the cubs once more. “I do tend to run on like a fool, don’t I?” He rose and turned. His shoulders slumped under the weight of the world as he trudged away.

Sarafina hovered protectively near Uzuri and her cubs. “Phew, thank the gods that’s over.”

Uzuri looked at Sarafina and sighed. “Will things ever be well again? There’s some kind of curse on this place—I can feel it.”

“That’s why you wanted Rafiki back, isn’t it?”

“One small reason, Sis. One reason among many.”

“You’re rather fond of him, aren’t you.”

“Aren’t we all.”

“But you especially.”

Uzuri looked at her from half-lidded eyes. “Where’s this leading?”

“Nowhere.”

Uzuri purred. “There’s so much goodness and kindness in his heart. Of all the people I’ve ever known, he’s the most like Aiheu. He loves everyone.”

“That may be. But he adores you.”

“Come on, Fini!”

“You can ‘come on Fini’ till Pride Rock crumbles to dust. I’m telling you that monkey thinks the sun rises and sets just for you.”

“So he adores me! What’s wrong with that?”

Sarafina smiled sweetly. “If he wasn’t a mandrill, I’d say he’s sweet on you.”

“Fini, you should be ashamed of yourself!” She laughed. “He’s just very demonstrative.” A troubled look came across her face. “That’s just part of being an ape,” she said as if she were trying to convince herself. “Ask anyone.”

Later that day as Taka rested on the tip of the promontory watching the wide savanna below he saw the ungainly approach of Gopa the stork. Gopa landed a great flapping of wings and bowed. “I have your daily report, Sire.”

Taka looked down at Uzuri, who lay sunning herself on a rock below with her cubs nursing peacefully. Tameka lay beside her, clearly with the light in her eyes. “Gopa, where are all these new children coming from? I have cubs practically running out of my ears!”

Gopa bent down and almost whispered, “Who do you THINK brought all those cubs? The stork? Well it certainly wasn’t me.”

Taka looked at him askance. “What the devil are you talking about?”

“Forget it,” Gopa sighed.

CHAPTER: DOUBLE TROUBLE

When Togo and Kombi were first born, they slept most of the time, and they moved around very little. But by the age of three moons they never stopped moving, and everywhere they moved trouble followed close behind.

It must be understood that Uzuri was a strict mother. Around her, the twins were as good as gold—even better. She used to brag about how well-behaved they were to the other lionesses. Most of the time they would listen patiently and nod. There were a few times, however, when their patience ran thin. Times when someone else’s cub would misbehave and Uzuri would look at the mother with a superior attitude and say, “Togo and Kombi would never do a thing like that.”

The love Uzuri felt from her pride sisters was well-earned. No one would dare compromise her happiness by telling her what they thought of Togo and Kombi. At least not aloud.

One day, an outraged Isha was chasing them when Sarafina innocently stepped in the way. Togo and Kombi hid behind her trembling and Isha barely stopped in time to avoid crashing into the three of them.

“What’s wrong here??” Fini demanded. “Isha, remember your low boiling point!”

“Where is the mother of those—PERSONS??”

“I’m her sister. I’ll handle it.”

“Well, you asked for it. These two little hellions…” She bent close to Sarafina’s ear and while Togo and Kombi huddled behind her for protection they strained to hear what she was saying.

“You’re kidding!”

“No, I’m not! I caught them in the act!”

“I’ll take care of them, Isha. It won’t happen again.”

“Well it had BETTER not!”

“I’m sorry,” Togo said, sniffling. “We’ll be good from now on.”

“I’ll give them a good talking to,” Sarafina said.

“I sure hope so. That mother of theirs ought to cuff them more often.”

Kombi began to bawl. “We were just funning! I’m sorry, Isha.”

“Well, OK I guess,” she said, somewhat mollified. Isha could not stand to see cubs cry, even Togo and Kombi.

When Isha walked off, her dignity defended, Sarafina glared at the twins. “What am I going to do with you two??”

Togo and Kombi pleaded with all their charm and hound-dog expressions of remorse for her not to tell Mom.

Sarafina softened a little. “Kombi, don’t you understand that a joke isn’t funny when people get hurt? I like a good joke as much as anyone, but when you love someone you should respect them and try to think about how THEY are going to feel when they find a fully-grown… Well, you know what I mean.”

“I’m sorry,” Kombi said, tears coming to his eyes.

“And you, Togo. I know you probably didn’t start this, but you went along with it. That’s almost as bad. You love Isha, don’t you?”

“Yes ma’am.” Togo was the shy one and he looked like he wanted to crawl under a rock.

“Do you think what you did was the best way to show it?”

“No ma’am.” He began to wail and huddled up tight against her. “She’s really mad at me, isn’t she?”

“Yes, but she’ll get over it. Look, we’ll forget it this time. But you have been warned.”

For the rest of the day at least, Togo and Kombi were as good as two Nisei, but whenever Kombi had to pass Isha, he’d look at her suspiciously and change direction. By contrast, when Isha awoke from her mid-sun nap, she felt something warm and soft snuggled against her, and she fondled Togo with her paw. Kombi, sitting off a discrete distance, watched uncomfortably. Isha jerked her head ever so slightly and grunted. Then Kombi stirred himself and gamboled over, a relieved smile on his face. He rubbed his small back and tail under her chin and over her strong neck. “I really am sorry. Please don’t stay mad at me.”

“I really should, you know.” She nuzzled Kombi and kissed his cheek. “I hope you learned your lesson.”

Uzuri also stirred from her nap. “Fini, where are the boys?”

“Oh, around and about.”

“That’s not good enough. Nothing must happen to them, Fini. Not just for my sake, but for their father’s sake.”

She stretched and yawned, then quickly began to search Pride Rock for her children. They were not in the small cave where they liked to play. They were not by the cistern. Still, there were several places left where they MIGHT be. Oh if only Zazu were on the job, they would be properly supervised. Zazu loved children though he often had an odd way of showing it. Gopa didn’t really give half a minnow for the children. “Smelly, noisy things,” he would croak with irritation. “They really should be hidden away till they’re old enough to behave themselves.”

And then Sarafina had an odd thought. She knew Togo almost better than he knew himself, and she led Uzuri to Isha’s rock. And there, snuggled to her side, were Togo and Kombi.

Uzuri breathed a relieved sigh. “Look at them, Fini. Isn’t that sweet! They’re just a pair of little angels!”

Sarafina quickly bit her tongue to keep from laughing. “They’re a pair, all right.”

CHAPTER: PEACE AT LAST

The hunt mistress had been having a hard time finding food in the overhunted and parched Pride Lands. There was little to do except to hunt for all kinds of unwholesome creatures that only desperate lions would attempt to choke down. Togo and Kombi were growing drastically emaciated, and Uzuri was even worse off. The only way her twins survived was the generosity of Ugas who would have Adhama pass her an occasional hare. He did not know about his sons yet, but he suspected that she was struggling even harder than she would admit.

Disgusted, she returned empty yet again to her favorite rock, there to wait for one simple pleasure she allowed herself. Every night, Shimbekh would come and talk with her. From Shimbekh, Uzuri learned many stories of the hyenas and even a few phrases in their language. In return, Uzuri taught her about Aiheu and all the stories of the great kings of the past. These brought her comfort in her distress, and of late Shimbekh had looked strangely tormented.

Time passed. One Called Alligator and The Three Monkeys rose above the horizon. The moon sailed like a silent swan to the zenith of the heavens, crested at midmoon, then settled lower in the western sky. And still Shimbekh did not come. Irritated, Uzuri was ready to leave. “She knows we have a standing date.” But it occurred to her that the hyena might be sick.

Shoving through the brush, a look of desolation on her face, Makhpil went to Uzuri and fell before her, sobbing.

“There now, my child! What’s wrong?”

“It’s Shimbekh,” she gasped. “Holy Mother Roh’kash, she jumped into the gorge!”

“Oh no!” Uzuri pulled Makhpil close with a paw. “Oh gods, no! You poor creature!” Tears began to stream down her face.

Togo and Kombi were attracted by the commotion. Miserable, they huddled next to their mother and Makhpil.

“We have to set her soul free,” Makhpil sobbed. “I don’t want Shenzi to know. I hate her! It has to be just us, and maybe Ber. She liked him, you know.”

Sadly, Uzuri trudged with Makhpil and Ber to the side of the gorge followed by her twin sons. They sat on the spot where her trail abruptly ended. Togo looked over the side.

“Get away from there!” Uzuri shouted, pulling him back by the nape of the neck and then grooming him nervously.

Makhpil wailed—a high-pitched, heart rending cry that made Togo and Kombi’s hackles raise and their tails bristle. “Roh’kash, give me strength to walk this path alone, for my companion is gone into the east.”

“We look to the dawn where comes our salvation,” Ber said. “May your firstborn find no fault in her. May he recognize her righteousness.”

Uzuri put her paw on Makhpil’s shoulder. “Great Mother, let our friend rise with the sun to meet you and nurse at your side. Roh’kash, hear our prayer.” Falling on her back in a hyannic posture of prayer, she pawed at the sky. “Go to the sun, Shimbekh. Rise with the sun, Shimbekh. It is the dawn of your eternal bliss.”

Uzuri then went to the edge of the canyon and drew in a deep breath. She unleashed a roar—a loud, terrible roar that echoed off the walls in a thousand protests of grief. When the sound finally died away, she added softly, “You have put a thorn in my heart, old friend! I shall miss you.”

CHAPTER: A PROUD FATHER

Distraught from the death of her friend, Uzuri sneaked out to see Ugas. He would remind her of all that was beautiful and kind and soothe her heartache.

Indeed, the moment she caught sight of him, her heart was filled with joy. “Ugas!”

“Uzuri, my angel!” He nuzzled and pawed her. “How hungry you look. Please come dine with me, dear.”

“I’m not here to stay long, my love. I just had something to tell you.”

“By any chance, is this about cubs?”

“Twin sons.”

“Twin sons?” His eyes grew large. “Are you serious??”

“Wasn’t that what you wanted?”

“Yes, Uzuri! Yes!!” He practically wiggled with joy. Ugas came up on his hind legs and sprang at her, wrapping his arms around her neck and wrestling with her. She was smaller but had youth on her side. She held back some of her great strength to keep from overwhelming him all at once. And when she felt him beginning to tire, she finally let him push her to the ground. As she lay with her back pillowed in the soft meadow grass, he stood over her and tickled her chest with his nose. Looking into her beautiful eyes with his warm smiling face, he said, “Go retrieve your sons. I want to look at them, smell them and nuzzle them. They will know their father loves them, and Uzuri, we’ll be a family at last. A family!”

Her face lost its smile. “I can’t,” she said. “I must go back, beloved.”

“But why? Think of our sons, Zuri. Don’t they need my love too? I would raise them to be Princes and they would get respect they will never have out there.”

“Don’t be upset, my love.” She reached up and fondled his neck, following his mane down his broad chest. “Someday we will come to you. Someday we’ll be a family.”

“When?” He drew his face down to almost touch hers. “What time I have left, I’d like to spend with you. When you’re gone, I don’t live, I only exist. Don’t you think I’ll make a good father?” He saw her tears start. “Oh, honey tree, I didn’t mean to make you cry.” He kissed away her tears. “I was so lonely tonight. Must you go now? So soon?”

“Not right this moment, anyhow.” She patted the ground beside her with a paw and Ugas lay next to her. She pushed her face into his soft mane and put her paw on his chest, feeling the tides of his breath and the reassuring rhythm of his heart. Her tears began to flow freely. “You poor, dear thing! I feel awful about this. You must think I’m a terrible wife.”

“That’s a foolish thing to say,” he said, putting her paw in his powerful jaws and giving it a little squeeze, then stroking it gently with his warm, pink tongue. “You know, I’m tempted to play on your guilt, but I won’t. I want you to stay, but not out of guilt or obligation. I want you to need me the way I need you.”

“But I do,” Uzuri said. “I swear it.”

Ugas glanced over at her. He fondled her cheek with his paw. “If you think one day you’ll wake up and have nothing holding you to Pride Rock, you’re mistaken. It will never be easy to leave.” He pulled his paw back. “You’ll keep finding one more reason to wait. It will always be one more week, and the weeks will turn into moons. But I’m old, Uzuri, and when I’m dead all the tears in the world won’t bring me back.”

“I thought you weren’t going to play on my guilt,” she said.

“I’m not. I just have this terrible dread that when you’re gone I’ll never see you again.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said with a deep sigh. “Nothing will keep us apart, dear. You’re the only lion I’ve ever loved, and the only one I ever will love.” She got up and shook off. “I’m sorry, but I have to go. My cubs are hungry.”

“Our cubs,” Ugas reminded her.

“I know.” She nuzzled him. “Darling, I will come back. I promise you.”

“Soon?”

“Soon.”

“I love you. Never forget that.”

She looked back at him sadly. “I love you too. Wait for me.”

CHAPTER: THE WINDS CHANGE

Uzuri was true to her heart. Once her feet were set on the path she did not stop until she arrived. Out of her love for Elanna, she kept an eye on Taka whenever she could.

She heard a rumor from Ber that some of the hyenas were plotting to kill Taka, but they needed a way to make it look like an accident—or suicide. It panicked her, not so much because of Taka but what it would do to Elanna. Little did she know they were planning to kill Lannie as well, or she would have really done something desperate.

To settle her mind, she went to see Taka—something very few lionesses would ever do, for his mental state had deteriorated to a barely suppressed madness.

He was not in his usual place. She bullied one of the hyena guards to tell her where he went.

“The cistern place, I thinking,” he said in broken leonine. Leonine from a hyena! Indeed, the occupation had lasted longer than she’d thought.

“Ka’del chul,” she replied in perfect hyannic. Now it was his turn to be surprised.

She ran down the slope of Pride Rock along a path covered with hyena footprints. Going around to the lee of the stone, she saw the dark-maned lion huddled by the side of the water, talking to his reflection. “No way out. There’s no way out. If there is a God, please help me! But how can there be a God? How can there be a God with so much misery in the world?? If I were God, things would be a lot different around here, that’s for sure!”

“Sire?”

“What??” He looked up, more afraid than angry. Tears had stained his cheeks. “Oh, Uzuri, it’s only you.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Did they send you to find me? Did they put you up to it—all those lionesses that want to know if I’m totally mad??”

“That’s not fair!” Uzuri upbraided him, something only she and Elanna could do. “Lannie was worried about you. She asked me to keep an eye on you.”

“Spy, you mean?”

“No. If I was spying on you, would I call out? I could see you quite well from over there.”

“Yeah.” He wiped his eyes with a paw. “You do think I’m mad, don’t you.”

“Well, I think you’re hurting.”

“Hurting.” He laughed bitterly. “I’m going to die soon. Not that I dread being dead one bit. It’s dying that frightens me.”

“Surely you’re not going to kill yourself??”

“No, nothing that noble. My friend, I know my star lore well. Well enough to know that the rumors are true, not mere whispers in the reeds.” He sniffed. “Uzuri, you believe in God, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then if you swore something by Aiheu, you’d consider that binding for all times, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course. Where is this going, Taka?”

“You looked after me for Elanna. Now I want you to swear that you’ll look after her for me when I’m gone. I want you to swear by Aiheu.”

“I don’t have to swear it. I love her, and as long as I have breath in this body, I’ll take care of her.”

“When I die that the others will want to hurt her because she was my wife. You must protect my Lannie. She gave up everything for me, and that kind of devotion must not go unrewarded. Don’t let them hurt her, Uzuri. They’ll listen to you.”

“I’ll do my best. I promise. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll swear it to Aiheu.”

With a pronounced trembling in his limbs that made him look far older than he was, he drew up alongside her and nuzzled her. For a moment she could see the frightened little cub that used to call her Zuzu. “I said some unkind things about you in the past,” he said. “When you remember me, I want you to remember that I felt regret. Say a prayer for me from time to time.” He nuzzled her once more. “Now be a good girl and please leave—I should like to be alone now.”

Uzuri nodded and softly padded away. She had no way of knowing that Shenzi would crush the life out of him later that evening.

CHAPTER: REBIRTH

Until the final dark days of Taka’s reign, most of facets of pride life continued to operate, but in a more subdued and somber manner. Cubs were born, Beesa died and was duly mourned, a lioness came of age and earned her annointment of blood and a lion was given his mantlement.

Toward the end, however, there was not so much life as existence. Thoughts turned toward Aiheu and the life beyond the world of Ma’at. Before the futile mockery of a hunt that almost never succeeded, Yolanda would lead her pride sisters in prayer and nuzzle each of them tearfully, not knowing if they would all return safely. One of them, a young female, broke ranks during the hunt and ran madly for the border screaming “Aiheu abamami!” She was never seen or heard from again.

Since that fateful escape, patrols of hyenas enforced a no-hunting zone near the borders, making it more difficult to abandon the crumbling kingdom when the borders and a new life were calling alluringly.

And yet Nala did. “If I don’t come back by next moon, don’t try leaving one by one. Settle on one night and leave as a group. Fight like fire and fly like the wind. Let Taka and his hyenas rot together, but for God’s sake go!”

She was determined to get help. Indeed, by the grace of Aiheu she received it.

Simba’s return infused the pride with new life and hope. The hyenas were gone—at least the ones that supported Shenzi—and fairness returned to the conduct of life. Without Taka’s violent mood swings, Simba was a very accessible King, and day by day the pride sisters saw in him the marks of his father. To say there was none of Ahadi in Taka would be unfair, but only Elanna’s tenderness could look inside and see it within him.

But there was no change overnight in the bleak landscape. Animals that avoided the boundaries of the pride lands in their migrations now felt confident to walk across Simba’s land rather than detour through Ugas’ and Mabatu’s kingdom.

Getting them to stay was another matter. One-who-brings-rain visited the land when the evil had been driven from it. The fertilizing drops quenched the dying thirst of the land and wakened seeds long buried in the desolate soil. Those sparks of new life realized the fulfillment of Aiheu’s promise, and they ached for long overdue freedom, straining at their bonds and breaking free to push up new leaves for sunshine and fresh air.

Within a few days, the brittle gray savanna began to show a green haze that tinted the bases of last year’s burned grass. And within a moon, the appointed time for the escape, lush grass was thriving on the nutrients in the ash strengthened soil. Antelope and zebra came to graze on the verdant treasure. Giraffes plucked new green shoots from the wakening acacias and rabbits began to clear out old burrows of their ash and mud. And to the careful ear, the sound of singing birds broke the long silence with messages of hope and joy.

The golden tide of rebirth was climaxed by Simba’s roar from the promontory. “Listen all of you! Nala is with child!”

CHAPTER: IT STARTS

Togo and Kombi once thought all males were like Taka. Simba’s good natured sense of humor and gentleness made a deep impression on them.

In particular, they watched the way he treated Nala, and the way she reacted to his attention. They were curious about this sort of relationship which seemed to bring Simba so much happiness.

Their mother nodded and smiled. “That’s the way I feel about your father. Someday you’ll have a wife and cubs, and you’ll be that happy.”

That was probably the most she had ever told them about having a father, and she made no signs of elaborating on that statement. But it did stoke their hopes somewhat.

Isha thought she was in for another prank when Togo and Kombi showed up at her resting place.

“What are you up to this time?” she asked, somewhat impatiently.

“Nothing,” Kombi said innocently. It was when he looked like he was not up to anything that Isha suspected him most.

“And why are you up to nothing by my spot? Go do nothing somewhere else—I’d feel much safer.”

Undaunted, Kombi sat in front of her. “It’s like this. You know how moms are. They won’t tell you any of the good stuff.”

“Oh?” Isha’s ears flicked forward. “And what is the good stuff?”

“Lionesses. You know—lionesses.”

“Yeah, I know.” She folded her paws and the tip of her tail twitched. “Do you want to be more specific?”

Kombi looked at a loss. He glanced over at Togo who looked equally nonplused. “Just start talking and I’ll tell you when you got it.”

Isha laughed. “You mean…” She drew close and whispered, “… lionesses?”

“Yeah!”

“Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place!” Isha spread her claws and groomed the end of her paw nonchalantly. “That’s a big topic, but I’ll fill you in. You see, there will come an age when you will be walking along big as the world and along will come this cute little lioness. You’ll stop in your tracks and stare at her, and even though you’ve seen her dozens of times before, she’ll look different to you because you’ll be looking with different eyes. You’ll think that she’s special somehow, and you’ll want her to think you’re special too.”

Togo and Kombi watched her raptly, their full attention riveted by the topic. “What happens then?” Togo asked.

“You’ll know when it happens to you. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of. It’s Aiheu’s gift to you to fall in love with someone. If that someone loves you back, it’s even more wonderful. That’s the kind of love that brings light out of the darkness.”

“Neat,” Kombi said. “When is it going to happen to me?”

“That’s one thing I can’t tell you,” Isha said. “When you finish going through puberty, you’ll understand.”

“Thanks,” Togo said, rubbing against her. “Has it ever happened to you?”

“A few times,” she said, smiling coyly.

Armed with all the information they needed, the experts in love went on to other pursuits like playing tag and baiting a poor hedgehog to distraction.

The hedgehog was protected by spines which hurt their paws. They were not old enough to know to tip the unfortunate beast over and attack the underside, but they were old enough to age the hedgehog several years in a few moments.

Finally the hedgehog darted into some reeds and skirted away.

“Darn,” Togo said. “I was hoping we could keep it.”

“And what would you do with it? Teach it tricks?”

Just then, Vianga came slinking out of the grass with remarkable grace for a lioness in that long-legged age. “Hi, Togo.” She smiled at Kombi and winked. “Hello, hot stuff.”

“Uh, hi Vivi.”

She strutted past the two lions with a flip of her tail that brushed the tip of Kombi’s nose.

Togo watched the playful ballet of her shapely thighs as she headed on to the watering hole. His mouth hung open.

Kombi said, “It just happened.”

“What?”

“I finished going through puberty.” He got up and padded after her.

“Hey Kombi, wait for me!”

CHAPTER: ALL’S FAIR IN LOVE AND WAR

Togo lay glumly at the foot of Pride Rock, sprawled ungainly across one of the stones that lay tumbled at its base. He stared bleakly at the trembling tips of the savanna grass and wondered if puberty was worth the agony he was going through. Perhaps Rafiki had some obscure potion that would calm his jangled nerves and keep him from staring at HER.

He groaned a put a paw over his face. “Oh, Vianga! Why won’t you love me just a little? Why won’t you give me a chance?”

By day he had fantasies of her sunning herself on a rock. When he closed his eyes at night, her smiling face pursued him into the depths of feverish dreams from which he awoke from trembling and calling her name. He couldn’t pass her by without feeling his heart race. He would want to gaze into her liquid amber eyes, nuzzle her cheek, rub against her side, and yes, place his paw on her left shoulder to make her his forever. Only one thing separated him from his goal.

Kombi.

Togo’s jaw clenched as he thought of his brother. Kombi must have the favor of the gods, for every time Togo tried to impress her, Kombi would one-up him.

Togo, who was not as dim as he seemed, was only painfully shy. When she was away, he would think of witty and charming things to say, but when she looked right at him—which she rarely did—all that would come out is, “Nice weather we’re having.”

Togo had practiced for days at jumping the small creek that trickled into the water hole, soaking himself many times to the laughter of several animals. He ignored that laughter and kept on trying, concentrating on balance, poise, and distance. It would not do to land in the mud and splatter the girl of his dreams. Early that morning, he had gotten the jump down pat, and he tried it several times, always landing with a whisper in the dry grass on the other side.

Elated, he then padded off, seeking out Vianga and talking her into taking a walk with him. The two paced down to the water, chatting idly, with Togo fighting down his irritation at Vianga’s repeated wondering about the location of his brother.

“Oh, he’s probably wandering somewhere, playing cub games.” Togo smiled indulgently. “You know how CHILDREN are.”

“I like children,” Vianga said, bending down to sniff at the edge of the creek. “I think they’re cute.” Barely more than a cub herself, she nevertheless managed to throw a dazzling smile at Togo. “I can’t wait till I have cubs of my own.”

“Neither can I,” he breathed. His heart was pounding, and he was looking into those liquid hazel eyes. It was all he could do to keep his left paw firmly on the ground.

Then a tawny shape shot past, leaping into the air to land with a solid thud on the other side. “Hey, Vivi! What’s up?”

“Kombi!” Vianga squealed delightedly. “Wait for me!” With a bound, she cleared the creek easily, landing silently next to him. They paced off together, Kombi shooting a quick grin and a wink over his shoulder at Togo.

“Hey! Wait up guys!” Togo gathered himself and leapt, watching the water flicker by underneath him, the sunlight dazzling off it’s surface in a starburst of light, the far bank coming closer… and rising much too rapidly…

“Uh-oh,” Togo muttered. He closed his eyes, wincing as he hit the water, the cold driving the air from him with a burbling gasp. Sodden and covered with mud, he dragged himself off, the soft giggles of Vianga’s laughter driving thorns into his heart. He stormed home and he’d been sitting on that rock ever since.

Togo stared at the trembling grass and sighed again. No doubt about it—love was a cruel trickster that played by its own rules.

“Hey, Togo.”

His hackles rose as he heard the voice. HER voice.

“Vianga?”

She paced around the rock to look at his sad face. “Togo? I, uh…”

“What?”

“I’m sorry I laughed at you this morning.” Vianga scuffed a paw in the dirt nervously. “It was really mean of me.”

Togo gaped at her. “Uh, well, it’s okay.”

“Really?” She glanced at him quickly. “You mean it?”

“Sure.” He smiled at her.

“Great. You’re really nice, Togo.”

He opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by an all to familiar voice. “Vivi!”

She looked over Togo’s head. “Hey Kombi! He’s right here.”

Togo turned to gaze at his brother. “What is it?”

“I hope you aren’t sore about this morning. I explained to Vivi that it wasn’t your fault, since you were… you know, born uncoordinated.”

So that was why Vianga looked at him with such a mixture of sorrow and pity! Togo struggled to take in the depth of his brother’s deviousness while wondering where he had learned a word longer than three syllables. “Uncoordinated, huh?” Togo bristled.

“Yeah! I told her that’s why I can already catch prey, and you can’t.” Kombi grinned.

“What??”

“Sure!”

“You can NOT catch prey, Kombi!”

“Can too!” Kombi’s grin turned sly. “I bet I can catch something before YOU can!”

Togo shot a flat gaze at Kombi, all too aware of Vianga’s eyes on him, measuring… “Deal.”

“You’re on!” Kombi sniffed the ground purposefully, then dashed away into the grass. Grumbling, Togo padded off in the other direction, wondering what he was going to do now. Pushing his way onto the tall grass, he nosed about uncertainly, then froze as he heard a horrific shriek. Turning, he tore back to where Vianga sat, her eyes wide.

“Did you hear-”

“What was that all-”

Both of them were silenced by the sight of Kombi padding out of the grass, humming busily to himself, a fat savanna hare dangling from his jaws. He deposited it on the ground, grinning hugely. “Told ‘ya!”

Togo gaped wordlessly as Vianga praised Kombi nonstop. A lead weight seemed to fill his stomach as he turned to stare at his brother, his jaw trembling. “I… I guess you win, Beebee,” he croaked.

“Hmm?” Kombi looked away from Vianga. “Oh yeah!”

“Good luck.” Togo turned and paced away slowly, his tail dragging in the dust. Even in extremis, he did not want Vianga to see him cry—or Kombi for that matter.

“Togo?”

“What??” he said tremulously. “Leave me alone!”

“Hey… no hard feelings, okay?” Togo turned to see Kombi carrying the rabbit toward him. Laying it at Togo’s feet, he turned away. “You keep it, Togo.”

Vianga stared at Kombi in wonder. “You are so SWEET!” Togo watched agonized, as she leaned over and kissed Kombi’s cheek. A beatific grin lit his face, and he nuzzled her in return, purring.

“Well, you know, I have to look out for him. I mean, he IS my brother-” Kombi froze, staring at something behind Togo. “Uh, I gotta run. Seeya later, okay?” Without waiting, he turned and trotted off quickly. Vianga stared after him. “You’re lucky to have such a wonderful brother, Togo.”

“Yeah.” Togo wrapped his forepaws around his head in shame. Warm breath puffed in his ear as he was nuzzled softly. “WHAT??”

“Jeez, cool it!”

Togo looked up to see Habusu looking at him oddly. “Oh, hey, Habu.”

“What’s shakin?”

“Nothing,” Togo sighed. “Nothing at all.”

The older cub looked over at Vianga. “Hey, Vivi.”

“Hello, Habu,” Vianga said in a voice that fairly dripped sweetness. “Looking handsome as ever today, I see.”

“Thanks,” he said, grinning crookedly. “Oh hey, Kombi brought you the rabbit!”

“Yep.” Togo grunted.

“Wild. I tell you what, your Mom had a time catching that sucker this morning.”

Togo lifted his head to stare at Habusu. “What?”

Habu nodded. “Uzuri finally caught it a while ago; she gave I to Kombi and said to share it with you.” He stared in wonder. “I’m surprised he didn’t eat it himself. No offense,” he added hastily. “But you know Kombi.”

“Yeah,” Togo growled. “I know Kombi, all right.” he looked at Vianga, vindicated. “See?? I TOLD you he couldn’t do it! That was a dirty, underhanded trick!”

Vianga dissolved into giggles. “Wow! He’s smarter than I thought!”

Togo and Habu looked at each other. “What??”

She giggled again. “Boy, he really pulled a fast one on you. He’s so clever, you have to think twice before you go up against him!” She batted her eyes and sighed deeply. “What a lion!”

Desperate times called for desperate measures, Togo decided. He made off purposefully through the grass, and before long was sitting before the pride’s shaman, parading his woes before the mandrill. Finally, Rafiki shushed him. “What do want ME to do about it?”

Togo squirmed uncomfortably. “Uh, well, uh… can’t you, like give her something to make her love ME instead?”

Rafiki’s eyes widened in surprise. “Tell me young buck, if I DID have such a thing, would it be right to use it on her when she is already in love with someone who loves her back? How would your brother feel?” Rafiki peered at him, interested. “And could you REALLY enjoy a love from someone that comes from a drug instead of their heart?”

Togo wilted. “I guess not.”

Rafiki patted the young lion and laid an arm across his shoulders comfortingly. “There, there, son. You’re going through a difficult time right now. Believe me, Rafiki knows.” The mandrill chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, thinking. “Has your mother talked with you yet about… lionesses?”

“No, she hasn’t.” Togo frowned deeply. “She probably thinks we’re still too young.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Rafiki said, smiling at the cub whose mane was little more than a shaggy ruff around his neck at the moment.

“Yeah,” Togo said, not seeing the amused look on Rafiki’s face. “At least Isha told us the truth about it.”

Rafiki’s smile froze. “Oh?” Visions of the sultry lioness having a heart-to-heart with the two cubs about the facts of life made his heart skip a beat. “And what did she tell you?”

Togo recounted the somewhat vague details Isha had given him, and Rafiki relaxed as he mentally chastised himself for having so little faith in her. Clearing his throat, he stroked the thin mane on Togo’s shoulders as the afternoon crept gently past, and began to speak, slowly revealing the wonderful secrets that life held for a lion, the things Ugas would have told his sons had he been able to.

At last he sat back, sipping at a bowl of water to soothe his dry throat. “Well?”

Togo gazed thoughtfully out at the grassland. “Wow. That’s really… something, Rafiki. Thanks!”

“Of course.” Rafiki sat back and smiled. “Anything else?”

“We-ell…”

“Come on, out with it.”

Togo glanced at him. “Is there REALLY any such thing as a love potion? I’d really like to know.”

Rafiki sighed. This WAS Ugas’ son, after all. Reaching into a small alcove in the side of the baobab, he withdrew a small leaf wrapped tightly around something. “Here. I believe this is what you want.”

Togo’s eyes grew large. “Awesome!” He bent to pick the bundle up.

“Listen to me carefully, son. I’m giving you this as a special gift. I want you to keep it, not use it.”

Togo drew a puzzled frown at that. “Huh?”

“This is to keep you honest, my boy.”

The young lion drew back indignantly. “Who, me?! I’m always honest!”

“Of course,” Rafiki said dryly. “That’s why I entrust this to you. Because I know that every time you look at it, you’ll think better of meddling in the lives of others.” Rafiki laid a hand on Togo’s head. “You’ll never use it. Every time you see it, you’ll feel proud of yourself for doing the right thing.”

Togo’s chest swelled with pride and purpose. “You betcha!”

A short while later found the adolescent lion proudly laying the wrapped bundle before Vianga. “Look what I got for you, Vivi!”

She eyed the leaf warily. “What is it?”

“A treat… a sweet treat for a sweet girl.”

She giggled shyly. “Thanks. Even if you did slobber on it.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s okay.” Sniffing the concoction, she picked it up delicately, chewed, and swallowed.

Togo eyed her apprehensively, heart pounding. “How’s it taste?”

“Okay.”

“How do you feel?”

“Fine.” She stared at him because he seemed to be waiting for something else. “It was very nice, Togo.” She looked into his searching eyes. “Thank you very much?”

“Is that all you feel?” He looked disappointed.

“Oh, you want a kiss?” She gave him the briefest lick and said, “There. I hate to run but I have a date with Kombi.”

She started to walk away. Then she looked back. “What was in that thing?”

“What does it matter? It didn’t work.”

“Where did you get it?”

“From Rafiki. He told me it was…” He looked down.

“A love potion?”

“Yeah.”

“That explains it. Gods, that’s strong stuff!” She fell at his feet and pawed at him. “I’m ready, Togo! Take me!”

“Take you?? Where?”

“Make love to me! I’m on fire!”

Togo backpedaled madly as Vianga nuzzled his face and chest vigorously, prostrating herself before him. “Love me, Togo! Love me quick or I’ll kill myself!”

“Well, I…” He closed his eyes tightly as if it could make her go away. “We’re not old enough. Do you know what they’d do if they caught us??”

Her passionate kiss made his eyes fly open.

“Run away with me. So what if we’re not old enough. We’ll hack out a living in the wilderness, just you and I facing danger and hardship together, but we’ll have our love. Our love, Togo!”

“But Vianga…”

“We’ll make love morning, noon and night! I’ll live for your touch—your closeness—your beautiful body next to mine as we climb to the skies together and cry out from the dizzy heights of passion!” She began to writhe sinuously before him.

“Vivi, get a grip on yourself!”

A burst of uncontrolled laughter erupted from a nearby bush and Kombi tumbled out, staggering weakly. “You dope!” He walked over to Vianga and nuzzled her cheek, grinning as she returned his affections.

“Hey!” Togo said. “What’s the big idea!”

Kombi rolled on the ground, laughing. “Let that be a lesson to you, brother. You’re messing with MY girl. She and I have this special thing, see, and you can’t be a part of it. Did you think that was a love potion or something?? That was only cough medicine.”

“It was?” Embarrassed, Togo squirmed and tears began to roll down his good-natured face. “You let me make a fool of myself?? How could you do that to me, Kombi! How could you be so cold!”

“Love potion! How could you be so stupid! You should know I’m her honey tree. She doesn’t even know you exist. It’s not your fault—you didn’t have a chance with me around. I’m the love doctor!”

Vianga frowned. “Beat it, love doctor. I want a second opinion!” She pushed away Kombi and nuzzled Togo, wiping his eyes with her paw. “I’m glad I found out who the real love doctor was before it was too late. I’ll follow you anywhere—all you have to do is ask.”

“The joke is over,” Kombi said, incensed. “This isn’t funny anymore.”

“Who asked you??” She looked penetratingly into Togo’s eyes. “Who needs him? He’s so conceited he’s swelling up like a carcass in the sun. He’s not gentle and sweet like you.”

“Don’t try to pull the same trick on me,” Kombi said. “I’m wise to you.”

“Put a paw in it!” she shouted. She turned to Togo and nuzzled him again. “I’m sorry I came on to you like that. It was a nasty little joke and I’m sorry. You tried to trick me and I just wanted to teach you a lesson.”

“You sure did. If you’ll dump him that quick, you’d dump me too. Vivi, you’re very pretty, but you’re a shameless flirt, and that’s not what I need.” He took in a deep, cleansing breath, let it out and smiled broadly. “It doesn’t matter one way or the other ‘cause I’m cured of puberty! No more symptoms at all! See, I can look right at you—nothing happens! I can kiss you!” He jumped down and gave her a lingering, passionate lick. “Nothing happens! I feel so much better, I ought to thank you! I don’t know about you two, but I’m going to play tag with Habu.” He turned and left.

She rubbed her cheek where he kissed her and shuddered. She padded after him. “Togo, wait! I think I love you!”

“Vivi, come back!” Kombi chased after her. “TO-GO!! VI-VI!! Wait up!!”

CHAPTER: THE SHADOWS GROW LONGER

Ugas’ eyes half closed as Rafiki’s herbs had their desired effect and the old mandrill’s hands worked his stiff joints. “I’m sorry I’ve been so long coming,” Rafiki said. “I’ve had to nurse Simba through a nasty fever.”

“So how’s my second cousin doing?”

“He’s fine now.”

“Is he like his father? I mean, I really miss old Mufasa’s gentle wisdom.”

“You knew him well? I thought…”

“That lions are territorial? We are. But we always walked the line between our kingdoms at the same time each week.” He sighed. “He would never say much. But I always looked forward to seeing him. And the first day he didn’t show up, a small part of me died.”

“I had no idea. If you cared for each other, why have territories at all? I mean, it makes no sense.”

“It makes perfect sense. We have duties to perform, duties that Aiheu gives us.” Ugas put his paw around Rafiki and drew him close. “One of them is to hunt and feed our children, and territories help us do that. Does that mean we hate our prey, or that they don’t deserve to live? I think not. Life is a struggle, but it is in the struggle that we define ourselves and find our place in the universe.”

“So it really is duty that keeps us separated from the ones we love?”

“Yes. But ultimately it is love that brings us together. When we’re reunited before Aiheu, there will be no territories. When I see Muffy again, I’ll do more than speak. I’ll nuzzle him and share jokes with him and see if I can best him in wrestling. I’ve always wanted to take him on, no holds barred. He was such a big lion, so full of power and resolve.”

“You must have given this a great deal of thought.”

“Yes. Death is like a distant mountain. At first it’s all gray and green, like a mist. But the closer you come to it, the more you see. You begin to make out separate trees and rocks. I’ve come to see it all too clearly now.”

“Oh no! You’ll outlive us all.”

“Yeah, right.” He coughed as if to drive the point home. “We all have to die sometime. But before I go, I want to meet my sons. I want to look into their eyes and tell them I love them.”

“Are you sure you have that much time left?” Rafiki asked, amused but a little judgmental. “You’ve been very busy.”

“I don’t have much time left,” he said. “And you know I meant Togo and Kombi. They’re the only sons I have—all the rest are daughters. Ah, that’s it, rub further to the left… oh, yes!”

“Those two are quite a sight,” Rafiki said, rubbing harder.

“They’re Uzuri’s. That’s good enough for me. I love that girl.”

“You love all lionesses.”

“I LIKE all lionesses. I LOVE her.”

“Well you’d BETTER love her!” Rafiki said sharply.

“What do you mean by that??”

“If you ever hurt her, I may be only an old monkey, but I’ll get you. I swear I will! You take care of that girl, you hear me??”

“Calm down, will you? Not so hard with the hands, you old monkey!”

“She means the world to me. I won’t have you treating her like a plaything to toss aside when you’ve had your fun!”

“Calm down! Your face is turning red! Besides, you’re rubbing my fur the wrong way!”

“I’m sorry. I guess I’m playing the honey badger.” He gave Ugas’ shoulder a pat. “So you really love her?”

“I’m deeply in love with her. Just like you are.”

“Well I…” Rafiki was supremely embarrassed. “I love her, but I wouldn’t say I’m IN love with her. I mean, not THAT way.”

“Come now,” Ugas said, patting his shoulder with a large paw. “Let’s be honest. I won’t be upset by the truth. Now before Aiheu, can you truthfully say that you’ve never had one small inkling of attraction to her? Your wife has been dead all these years. Uzuri does practically everything for you a wife would do. She has even groomed you.” He smiled. “I can tell by looking at you that you feel threatened. You’re very transparent, and the guilt leaves tracks all over your face.”

Rafiki looked down. “Ugas, you wouldn’t understand. I mean, sure. Sometimes I wish we were—the same kind—you know. But I pray about those feelings and they go away.”

“You’re giving me half an answer. Rafiki, Aiheu knows your heart. And so do I.”

Ugas drew him close with a paw and patted him gently, nuzzling him with his large face. “She has that effect on people. In your heart, you know that even the stones and the grass she step on love her. I count myself lucky that I can act on that love. We see each other as often as possible, and not only when she’s in season. Sometimes we sit under the stars and talk for hours.”

“About what?”

“Oh, one thing she really likes is star lore. What she doesn’t know about the night sky isn’t worth knowing. I can tell—in my younger days, I was quite a scholarly type. As deadly serious as a baobab tree in a rain storm.”

“I didn’t know that.” Rafiki cleared his throat. “Does she ever talk about me?”

“Oh does she ever! How cute your little girl was and how pretty your wife was, and how you work miracles on her stiff shoulder—I can tell from personal experience that you do. You’d think she was your mother the way she talks about you. And did you really stop Akase’s miscarriage with Heartleaf?”

“Yes. With Maraliscus. The combination kept it from poisoning her but stopped the contractions. It was touch and go there for a while.”

“Uzuri has good taste in friends—she doesn’t smile at everyone that nods their head at her. She cares for you a great deal. More than she probably lets on.” He drew close and said in a near whisper, “If you were a lion, I’d be insanely jealous. Odds are five to one she’d be married to YOU right now.”

Rafiki rubbed more and more slowly as a dreamy expression crossed his face. “Don’t be foolish,” he muttered. “What an odd notion!”

“I want her children to inherit my kingdom,” he said matter-of-factly. “That was our understanding from the beginning. I would give her love, and she would give me sons. And she has—twin sons when I thought I only had daughters in me. We must not let them slip away.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Can you arrange a meeting? Just them, their mother and I?”

“I’ll do what he can.”

“You’ll do better than that. Her happiness means everything to you. You’d do whatever it takes.”

Rafiki looked down again. “Yes, I would.”

“And Rafiki, I’ll be gone long before Uzuri. You know I’m rather old.”

“You shouldn’t think that way.”

“Why not? It’s true. And I know I’ll be leaving her alone.” He looked at Rafiki intently. “I want to know she will have someone to look after her. Swear to me—swear by Aiheu’s holy name—you will see she is well tended to. Let no harm come to her.”

“I swear.”

Ugas put his large paw on Rafiki’s shoulder and gave him a soft pat. “Someday, somehow God will reward you for all this.”

The mandrill looked up. “He already has, my old friend. More than you could imagine.” He hugged Ugas around his strong neck and said, “She talks about you too. All good things. I just thought you’d want to know that.”

Rafiki said a quick blessing over Ugas’ land, then walked away. When he was safely hidden in the rushes between the two kingdoms, he clasped his hands and bowed his head. “Merciful Aiheu, I can’t help it if I’m in love with her. Help me! I’d die if she ever found out!” Tears ran down his cheek and he sniffed, rubbing his eyes.

CHAPTER: LIEBESTOD

Adhama flicked an ear absently at a buzzing fly as she shouldered her way silently through the high grass. As she emerged from the surrounding brush, she spotted Ugas atop a small rise, looking into the west toward Pride Rock.

Padding to his side, she craned her head to look at him. “Who is it this time?” she asked with a wry smile. “Do I know her?”

He glanced at her and grinned dazzlingly. “It’s not a lioness, Addie! My sons are coming to visit me! My sons, Addie!”

Adhama beamed. “Togo and Kombi? Coming here?”

“And why not?? My sons can go anywhere they please!”

“When are they coming?”

“I don’t know. Within a few days. But what’s a few more days after all these moons?” He leaned over and nuzzled her warmly. “After I’m gone, I’ll feel good knowing that my sons are taking care of you.”

“And who says you’re dying first? You may outlive us all.”

“I hope not.” He reached out with a paw and fondled her cheek. “I’ve lived a long life, a full life. I’ve had a lot of happiness, and now I have peace of mind. I prayed for a son, and I got twin boys! Aiheu has been good to me.”

“You forgot to mention your sister that loves you.”

Ugas smiled and nuzzled her again. “Yes, I have a sister that I love.” He thought a moment. “Addie, I’m going to try and talk Uzuri into staying. Things are fine in her pride now, and she said she would come to me when things improved.”

“Does she know about the others?”

“No.” He looked worried. “It’s better that she never knows. She’s my wife, you know. I pledged to her.”

“She’s the Queen?”

“Yes. You sound surprised.”

“No, not at all. I think she’ll make a good Queen. But do you think you can remain faithful to her?”

“Addie!” He smiled, somewhat embarrassed. “If she’ll only stay this time, I’ll be faithful to her. It’s an even trade. She’d be giving up her pride, and I’d be giving up…” He half closed his eyes and looked pensive, counting on his paws. “Well, maybe it’s not an even trade, but I’ll do it for her.”

“Be serious!”

“I AM serious. I’d do anything for that girl. When she’s here, she makes my world. But every time she leaves me, I feel this horrible emptiness. If she will make sacrifices for me, I’ll make them for her.”

“She might just do that. At least I’ll never leave you.”

Ugas smiled and his eyes sparkled. “Have I told you I love you recently?”

“Many times, Honey Tree.”

“Well I’m telling you again.”

Adhama smiled and slipped silently into the grass headed for Pride Kopje. The hunt would begin in an hour or so, and already the Pride Sisters were starting to gather to discuss plans.

Adhama had spoken of sacrifices. Never had she understood sacrifice more keenly than as she went over the night’s plan with the other lionesses. Despite her advanced age, her slowing reflexes and her weakening eyes she was still hunt mistress for Ugas’ pride. With her renowned hunting abilities and keen sight, Uzuri would surely replace her, but so great was her love for Ugas that she would willingly step aside for Queen Uzuri. Adhama, who loved cubs, would tend the children in her remaining days and dream of nights on the trail. She determined to remember every moment of what might be her last hunt as a leader.

Ugas watched her tawny form fade into the grass, a smile on his face. Settling his bulk gently to the ground, he started to doze off for a nap when he heard a soft padding in the grass. “Addie, did you forget something?”

“I’m not Addie,” a sultry voice replied.

Ugas looked up. A smile of delight blossomed on his face. “Sarafina! My sweet Fini!”

Sarafina nuzzled him as he lay on the ground. Quickly he raised off the ground, closing his eyes in bliss as he rubbed down her full length. “Oh, girl, it’s good to see you!”

“I missed you, beloved,” she said.

“I missed you too.” He kissed one of her cheeks softly, then kissed the other cheek. A deep, quiet purr rose from inside her.

“You’re in your season,” he said gently. “It seems like the only time I ever see you around. Don’t you ever just want to share the view from Pride Kopje when the sun is setting and the stars come peeking out?”

“I wish I could, my darling. I love you so much, but I have too many ties to my Pride to just walk away from them.”

“So how’s my little girl?”

“I’m fine,” she said, kissing him again.

“I should have said OUR little girl.”

“Oh, Nala. She’s expecting cubs soon.”

“My Nala, a mother?” He smiled warmly. “Wonderful! I hope they look like you. Is Simba good to her?”

“Oh, as good as gold.”

“If he isn’t, you call me. I’ll teach him a little respect.”

“I believe you.” She laughed. “You sure taught ME a few things.”

He smiled and nuzzled her passionately. “Is that a hint? Are you back for another lesson?”

She laughed again with anticipation and nosed him playfully on the thigh. “Come with me. I thirst for knowledge.” Then she turned and darted into the reeds.

Ugas pursued her. “So you want to learn something?? See if you can handle this!”

From the depths of the reeds, Sarafina gasped in a breath and issued it in a moan.

“Oh, Fini! I love you so much! So much!”

“Ugas!” she stammered. “I love to have you next to me! I live for your touch!”

“Oh, Fini! My dear girl!”

“Oh gods, I love you, Ugas!”

“I love you too! Oh! Oh yes!” He gasped and roared loudly.

She answered his roar with a cry of passionate fulfillment.

Suddenly Ugas shrieked—this time it was a cry of pain.

“What’s wrong??”

“Oh gods, no!”

“Ugas, what’s wrong??”

“My chest!! I can’t breathe!!”

“Ugas! My darling! Ugas!!”

He came out of the reeds, his eyes wide, gasping. “My heart! I’m dying!! Fini, I’m dying!!” He staggered a few more steps, then fell to the ground and rolled on his side. “Tell Rafiki to send for the twins.”

“I’ll go get him right away!”

Ugas gasps, then begs her, “No! Fini, please don’t leave me! Don’t leave me here to die alone!”

She began to sob hysterically. “Ugas, don’t die! For God’s sake, please don’t die! Don’t leave me, Ugas!” Looking around, she screamed, “Help! Somebody help us! Adhama! Rafiki! Anybody!!”

A flock of ravens was startled out of an acacia tree. Flapping and squawking they formed a black cloud that whisked away on the wind. No one else could hear her.

He reached out with a trembling paw and placed it atop hers. He stared at her, but his eyes didn’t seem to focus. He drew in a hoarse breath and whispered something.

“I didn’t hear.”

He closed his eyes. “Uzuri? Uzuri??” A look of pain and desperation crossed his face. “Uzuri??”

Sarafina lowered her voice slightly. “Yes, Ugas?”

“Uzuri, beloved. I don’t feel so good.”

“I know.” Tears streamed down her face.

“Uzuri, forgive me. I’ve cheated on you, dearest.”

Sarafina’s breath caught. “Oh?”

He gasped, sweat matting his fur. “Forgive me, my angel. I’ve been unfaithful, but only because you were so far away. I wanted you here by my side—Gods, I was so lonely without you. I sought comfort in my solitude, but it was only you I loved. Only you, my dear wife.”

Tears brimmed in Sarafina’s eyes. She felt her heart crumble into pieces. “No one else?”

“Our sons will be king and consort. It’s the least I can do. I wish I could have been a better father.”

“That’s all right,” Sarafina said, stroking his pain filled face with a paw. “We all have regrets. That’s part of life.”

“Then you forgive me?” He became very agitated, and pain twisted his features into a mask of suffering. “Please, Uzuri! Say you forgive me!”

“Yes, my darling. But you’re going to get well again. Dear God, you must get well again!”

“Come,” he stammered. “I feel so tired. Let us rest in the shade under the acacias.”

The air rushed from his lungs in a sudden sigh and his paw slipped down.

Sarafina hung her head and began to sob, stroking his mane with her paw. He looked almost like Nala when she slept. Never again would his kind eyes look in hers. Never again would his gentle voice speak of love. The sun that had risen on her joy would set on her grief. And not hers alone, but Uzuri’s.

“What will I tell her? How could I tell her?” She had no idea what to say, or even who to tell. She couldn’t tell Uzuri that she had seen him die! Rafiki would have to tell her, and when he wouldn’t reveal his source, Uzuri would be suspicious.

With a trembling paw, Sarafina drew a circle around Ugas’ eye and touched him beneath the jaw. Then giving Ugas one last kiss, she turned and trudged away toward home. She could not roar, but had to keep her feelings locked away inside her. She wiped her tears and tried to freeze her face into a mask of deceptive calm. Her sister’s husband had died making love to her, and out of love for Uzuri she would suffer in silence.

CHAPTER: THE PANIC

The next day Adhama was sunning herself with Agavi when she noticed vultures circling some distance away. “That’s odd. I don’t remember a kill to the west.”

“Maybe it’s the hyenas again. That brother of yours is probably napping again.”

“My brother the king, you mean,” Adhama chided gently. “Still,” she sighed, “you’re probably right. I’ll go have a little talk with him. But first, let’s check out that kill.”

They headed west to what would have been the gateway to the eastern meadow from Pride Rock. The number of birds seemed to indicate a rather large animal down, and Adhama felt her spirits perk up despite her irritation at Ugas; the pride might eat well tonight if it was fresh.

That was when Agavi saw the body. “It’s a lion!”

Adhama trembled. She sniffed the air, then froze for one awful moment like a statue of grief. “Oh my gods!!”

“It’s Ugas!!”

Adhama ran to her brother, scattering a flock of vultures, and began to paw and nuzzle him. “Ugas!! Brother!! Oh gods, he’s dead!!” She fell upon him, running a paw gently over where the birds had sadly abused his body. “Oh, you poor, sweet angel—walking the border! Oh gods, how tired it made him! He always said how tired he got, and I didn’t want him to take a nap!” She began to sob.

“Honey Tree, he lived a long life. He was happier at the end than I’ve seen him in years. Don’t blame yourself.”

“He wanted to see his sons and tell them he loved them.” She stroked his mane and wept. Her grief was deep, but the urge to roar for him and release her grief was suppressed by a more immediate concern. “Agavi, we have no male heir till the twins get here. We’ll have to hide him.”

“HIDE him? Hide HIM??”

“You get the pride sisters together. We have to do something. Maybe we can mark the territory—scratch a few trees—pee on a shrub—I don’t know!”

“They’ll know it’s not a male.”

“Well, maybe if we freshen up some old marks. We can’t just sit here—we’re in danger!”

And so began a time in the life of Ugas’ pride known as The Panic. At all times there were at least two lionesses awake that traveled together. If trouble came, they were not to fight but to head back to the others at a run using separate paths. Cubs were not to play by themselves under any conditions. And no matter what, Ugas’ name was not to be mentioned aloud except at certain times. In front of Zazu’s family (who were notorious gossips) they would talk of Ugas’ latest accomplishments. Reports would be given to Ugas’ dour-faced majordomo Ichabod that the King was busy patrolling and just drove off some hyenas. The crane would nod and take to the skies, gleefully squawking at the top of his lungs at the King’s latest exploits. And Atika, who had the deepest voice of the lionesses, would drop a register or two and do a decent imitation of Ugas’ evening call. “This land is mine! Mine by the will of Aiheu! I will protect my family and my own!”

She meant it too…

CHAPTER: GRABBING AT THE WIND

Kombi did not know he was a prince. Indeed, he did not know his father’s name. And so to him The Big World was still a great mystery into which he would be thrust one day to eke out a living.

Like most lions his age, he was looking around for a lioness that would come with him to share his existence and comfort him in his loneliness. Vianga would not even speak to him, much less face the unknown by his side. But somewhere there must be another, and he was determined to find her.

Lately, Kombi had his eye on Wajanja, a lovely creature whose gentleness was a stark contrast to his own brashness. It was precisely this contrast that had kept them apart. Now the lioness cub that he had once held in contempt, and who had tattled on him often as a child became the object of his greatest desires.

There lay the problem. Some of the young lionesses were interested in him, but he could not return their affections. He was attracted to someone who did not even like him, much less love him.

Wajanja was the type that found deep meaning in everything and made remarks to her friends how Simba’s love for Nala reminded her of Mano and Minshasa, casting them as romantic hero and heroine. Wajanja loved to roll in the flowers, but was sad to see their fragile beauty crushed. Her three hundred pound weight, rapier claws, and passion for hunting red meat on the hoof aside, she had a very gentle disposition when compared to Kombi.

He would follow her at a discrete distance, watching her while his brother felt like a lonely widower after so much attention for so long.

She noticed his attentions, and she made every effort to show she was spurning him, even going to the trouble to change paths once and take the long route to the watering hole. As if that were not enough, she would talk with her friends in his hearing and insult his “infantile attempts” to woo her.

Finally, one day, Kombi decided to force the issue. He ran a few steps ahead of her, blocked her path and blurted out, “Wajanja, we need to talk.”

“Wrong. You need to talk. Why don’t you find someone that wants to listen.”

“That’s very cold, Jannie.”

“My friends call me that. You can call me Wajanja. Now repeat after me—‘so long, Wajanja.’”

She tried to push past him, but he moved in front of her again. “You’ve never even given me a chance. I have the right to just one fair chance, don’t I?”

“No. Love is a privilege, not a right. So is conversation.”

“Well, just grant me the right this once and I won’t press the issue further, OK?”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“Very well. You are not my type. I want the quiet, sensitive type like Habu. If he wasn’t smitten with Lisani, I’d be all over him like green on leaves.” She sighed. “I’d leave the pride for him. I don’t think Miss Priss would. Love is wasted on the wrong people.”

“I know. Deep down inside I am really sensitive and—uh—quiet. But I have to put on a brave front for the others. See, I can even cry.” He tried to force tears to come, screwing up his face into all kinds of promising but unproductive expressions. He turned and bit his paw. Then he got tears all right, but ended up hopping around, holding his forepaw to his chest and licking it.

She laughed at him and said, “You never had a serious thought in your whole life!”

He looked at her, hurt. “Oh really? I’ve had lots of serious thoughts.” Turned his back to her and sat down.

“You wanted to talk. Well, this is your chance. Name one,” she said derisively. “Can you even name one?”

“Well, for one, I have to leave the Pride someday, and I have nightmares about it. I mean, I’ll have Togo and all, but I’ll never see my mother again and I’ll never see you again, Jannie. No matter how you feel about me, I love you and I’ll miss you and hope you fall in love with someone who can love you back. Sometimes I was dumb enough to think I might get you to notice me, or even like me a little. I say dumb enough because love can make clever guys act so stupid. Well, I hope you got a good laugh out of it—at least one of us will.”

“No, I wouldn’t laugh at you.”

“Daria is crazy about me. If I would say hello to her, she would melt like dirt in a good rain. But I don’t really care—you know—and it’s sad that she wants what she can’t have, and so do I. Maybe Daria and I are more alike than I realized. I mean, we both are grabbing at the wind, and we’ll never catch it.”

She looked at him intently. “You know, I believe that somewhere VERY DEEP DOWN INSIDE you really do have a thoughtful side.”

“Thanks—I guess.” He started away. “Don’t worry, I promised I wouldn’t bother you again, and I won’t.”

“Wait.” She came, nuzzled his sad face and said, “I’m sorry I laughed at you. I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings. I’m not really a mean person.”

“Aw, no problem.” He nuzzled her back. “Does this mean I can see you again?”

“Why not. Maybe tonight.”

“I’d like that. Heck, I’d love that. I feel like I can talk to you. I could tell you things I wouldn’t share with another living soul. But Wajanja, if you laugh at me or you tell anyone else what I say, I’ll just die!”

“I’d never do that!” She looked into his sparkling eyes and smiled. “I’ve misjudged you, Kombi. You’re really very sweet.”

He smiled back. “Do you think so?”

“No, but I’ll still see you tonight.” She reached over and kissed his cheek.

He walked away, a blissful, innocent smile on his face. Togo met him behind the bushes. “So, did you pull the old ‘grabbing at the wind’ story on her?”

“Yep. Works every time!”

Togo nudged him and grinned. “The Love Doctor strikes again.”

He rubbed his cheek where she kissed it. “I wish you wouldn’t put it that way. I’m going to see if she’ll come with me. This is serious.” He looked off into the distance for a while, then rolled on his back in the grass. Togo joined him.

“So, Togo, have you narrowed down the field?”

“Who, me?” Togo had an embarrassed grin on his face.

“Who is she? Don’t hold out on me now.”

“You’d laugh at me.”

“No I wouldn’t.”

“Well, it’s Lisani.”

“Miss Priss??” Kombi giggled.

“There you go laughing at me!”

“I’m sorry,” Kombi said. “Really I am. But you and Lisani? You know she’s stuck on Habu.”

“So is Wajanja. But that doesn’t stop you from trying. I guess we’re grabbing at the wind.” Togo took his paw and ruffled Kombi’s mane. “Hey, I hope you catch it, you dog.”

“What the heck. Why don’t you hit on Lisani? I mean, maybe one of us will get lucky.”

“You don’t ‘hit on’ a girl like Lisani. And I don’t suggest trying it on Wajanja if you want her to marry you. ‘Get lucky’ indeed!”

CHAPTER: PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW

Togo and Kombi were showing changes in their maturing bodies. They lost that long-legged look that once made them appear awkward. Their manes were filling out nicely, their chests were broadening, and one day out of the sheer will to make a grand noise, they both let out with a roar that would have made Ugas quite proud.

Uzuri would look at them appraisingly, and some of the time she was proud of the fine lions they were becoming. Other times she would mourn the loss of their cubhood and the approach of their commoner’s mantlement. She would eventually have to tell Simba that they were sons of a King and entitled to a royal mantlement hosted by their father. And doing so, she would also be saying her farewell to her old life and old home. Uzuri loved Ugas and longed to be by his side, but his words came back to haunt her. It would never be easy to leave old friends and old haunts and start again. But if Togo and Kombi could do it, she could too. When she was depressed, she would close her eyes and look inward at her dream—Ugas by her side as Togo and Kombi stood on Pride Kopje and surveyed their kingdom.

She had not discussed this with her sons yet. She could not risk either of them making an indiscreet remark. Uzuri had planned out what she would say and how—she did not want her departure to be spoiled by misunderstandings or hard feelings.

And so knowing nothing of their mother’s plans, Togo and Kombi spent much of their time fawning on Simba, trying to ply him with favors. Simba was utterly surprised when they stopped calling him “big guy” and started calling him “Sir.” Kombi brought him a hare Uzuri had caught for him to eat, and Togo even dragged part of a gazelle for him clear up Pride Rock so he could wake up to a surprise breakfast.

Privately, Nala asked Simba if there was a way to let them remain. “They’re trying so hard to please you. There’s is no hate in them—they will not turn on you the way your Uncle did.”

“That’s not the problem,” Simba replied. “I’d trust them with my life, if it came to that. They’re afraid of their destiny, Nala. I don’t blame them, for I know the ways of the ‘big world,’ and they have reason to fear it.” He sighed and glumly ate the haunch.

Later that same day, Togo and Kombi offered to help him with the border patrol. “You have no brother to help you,” Togo explained in what sounded like a prepared statement. “Without a Prince Consort, you have to go around doing everything for yourself and have so little time to spend with Nala.” Togo looked over at Kombi who subtly nodded approval and he continued; “We insist on taking the Western Plain.”

“But that’s very hot and dry,” Simba said. “And it can be very dangerous.”

“We don’t mind, Sir,” Kombi said, bowing with respect. “Danger is our life.”

“And what would you like in return?”

Kombi looked shocked and scandalized. “Sire, we’re just trying to be nice.” He looked casual, but his tail twitched nervously. “Since you asked, I wish we could go on being friends forever.”

Simba sighed deeply. “I know you do.” His heart was not into having them become rogue lions, bachelors on the open fields having to support themselves with marginal hunting skills, being driven from pride land to pride land by a succession of males. Despite their routine truancy, Simba had grown to love them, and he saw in them some of the basic goodness that was in their mother.

Uzuri would be the real problem. Next to Sarabi and Nala, Simba loved Uzuri the most, and he would steal glances of her private grief that weighed on him like an injury. And despite himself, Simba had grown extremely fond of Togo.

The brothers watched him carefully to see how he would react. Simba scratched his mane uneasily and said, “You want the Western Plain, eh?”

“Yes sir.”

“Fine. We’ll start there in the morning.” Simba rose and stretched.

Togo glanced at Kombi quickly, his eyes widening. “S-Sir?”

“You heard me.” Simba looked them up and down. “I’m glad to see you taking on some responsibility. However, a responsible lion also knows his limits, and I’m afraid you aren’t yet up to the challenge.”

Kombi looked indignant. “What do you mean?!”

“Your heart is in the right place, but you’re too soft to go out there.”

Togo sucked in his stomach self-consciously. “We can hack it, sir.”

Simba shook his head. “No.”

“We can take care of ourselves!” Kombi grated. “I’ll beat up any lion who dares challenge our border!”

“Really?” Simba looked at him. “Knock me down.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Knock me down.” Simba looked at him. “Or can’t you even handle that?”

Togo flicked his eyes to Kombi, who was staring balefully at the king. “Kombi, give it up.”

“Yeah?! Watch and learn, Togo!” Kombi gathered himself and leapt towards Simba, intending to tackle the other lion full force. Simba sidestepped neatly and wrapped his forepaws around Kombi, seizing him in mid-air and wrenching him around to bring him crashing to earth, Simba’s weight holding him fast. Kombi gasped for breath, humiliation in his eyes as he looked up at the sad face above him.

“Had this been a real fight, your mother would be mourning your death.” Simba nuzzled him gently. “I’m sorry, Kombi. You and Togo have one month left to you in which to do something.”

“What are we gonna do?” Kombi said in a small voice.

“I’ll not cast you out unprepared, son.” Simba laid a paw gently on his head. “We’ll patrol the Western plain tomorrow… together. Each morning, we’ll go out on patrol. Talk with your Mother; she knows a lot about the lay of the land. When we get back, I’ll show you how to fight.”

CHAPTER: A STRANGER WALKS

For the longest time, Ugas’ pride managed to hold together the fragile deception that kept their sovereignty intact. The lionesses doubled border patrols after reports from several revealed a rogue male had been observing the pride carefully.

Then one evening when Adhama said in her deepest voice, “This land is mine!” a distinctly male voice answered her from the bushes.

“Nice try! Now all you need is a mane!”

The worst had happened. Through long observation, the stranger had learned the patterns of the watch, and he easily slipped through where there were no sentries.

“The king will make you pay for this!”

“Are you the king?” He laughed. “What’s the problem, Sis? Am I that ugly?”

The lion stepped out into the moonlight. Indeed, he was anything but ugly, but she did not like his attitude one bit.

“He will be back soon,” she said. “Then you’ll pay!”

“Fine.” The stranger sat down and began to groom a forepaw. “I’ll wait for him right here.”

For several minutes that felt like several hours, Adhama stared at him icily. There was no sign of nervousness in his manner. He knew that he had won.

She bowed her head. “What good is it pretending. He’s dead.”

“Good. That saves me the trouble of killing him. In the meantime, I’m hungry. What do you have?”

“A little bit of wildebeest. Not much.”

“Not much?” He uttered a short, ugly laugh. “It’s an acquired taste, lady. When you’ve eaten ‘not much’ as long as I have, you never turn it down.” He frowned at her. “Well, do I have to draw you a diagram??”

Adhama’s heart sank. She rose and led him to the larder, watching in despair as their rations for the next two days disappeared in a matter of minutes.

“Is there any more?”

“No. There is no more.”

“Too bad.” He burped. “I was still hungry.” Licking off his paws, he said, “I’m Ambia. King Ambia now. You’re really lucky, you know. I almost went east, but instead I headed west, and here I am.”

“Well hooray and hallelujah.”

He looked at her with half closed eyes and scowled. “You must be the one that peed on the shrubs. The urine was very sour.”

CHAPTER: WALKING THE BEAT

As the days passed, Togo and Kombi began to feel the weight of a lion’s responsibility settling on their shoulders. It was a remarkably heavy burden.

Well before sunrise, Simba would rouse them and head off into the early morning mists, each day choosing a particular section of border or area to patrol. At night, as the sun set, they would return to Pride Rock, where Simba would instruct them in various modes of attack and defense. Only after finishing their lessons, far after the sky had turned dark and the stars had emerged, were they allowed to rest and eat their dinner.

Once Kombi protested this. “With all due respect, if I could eat first, I could concentrate better.

Simba simply looked at him. “This is no game, son. If you lose your meal in a fight, you go hungry. Concentrate on that.”

There were no further complaints after that.

The demands of patrolling and sparring practice were shaping the young lions. Their low, swinging bellies had given way to firm muscle. The young lionesses began to notice, and Kombi would strut about with a conceited swagger, showing off the merchandise. Togo was a bit more shy, and he shuddered when Visima rubbed along his body and ran a curious paw down his thigh.

Simba and the brothers began to range farther afield, even patrolling the dry and empty Western plains together.

Early one morning, the three had gone out to examine the border between the Pride Lands and hyena territory. Simba expected no real threat from Uhuru’s clan, and after greeting the hyenas who were doing their own guard duty, the morning passed slowly. Kombi ranged ahead slightly, practicing his rudimentary hunting skills as he followed the trail of an impala who had passed by recently. Togo and Simba followed at a distance, padding slowly across the ground in the gradually increasing heat.

“Sire?”

“Mmm-hmm?”

“Why do we patrol the hyena’s lands when they’re friendly? Isn’t it a waste of time?”

“Well, for one thing, it helps to keep an eye on things. If things turned ugly, we wouldn’t know about it until it was too late.”

Togo looked surprised. “You mean they might try and take over again?”

Simba grinned. “No, I doubt that would happen while Uhuru’s in charge. No, if they had problems, or needed help, though, we’d never find out by sitting at home lying in the sun. Besides, patrolling does more than establish your borders. Sometimes Uhuru meets me out here in the morning, and we talk together. He’s too busy to come to Pride Rock… and, well, I can’t go see him, either. He tells me what’s going on with the hyenas, we ask after each other’s families…”

“Wow,” Togo said. “All that just by walking the border?” He looked out across the savanna. “But doesn’t Zazu tell you about things like that?”

“Yes… but hearing about something, and seeing it for yourself are two different things. Besides, I can’t just sit at home. It means a lot to the other animals to see the King out and about, doing his duty. It’s a way to let them know he truly cares about them. My father did the same, as did his father before him.” Simba breathed deeply as he gazed about the plains of his home. “This land is mine. I was born here, I fought for it, and I will die here. I love it, and I will protect it along with my family and friends.”

Togo looked at the king with admiration, but his smile faded quickly. “It’s a shame that we finally became friends too late.”

Simba stopped and glanced at him. “Too late? Why do you say that?”

“You know.” Togo sighed. “We only have two more weeks left. Then we have to leave your Pride Lands for good. I was born here, but I’ll never see it again. I’ll die out there somewhere far from home and I’ll never see you or Mom again!”

Simba nuzzled him on the shoulder. “Listen to me, Togo. In the next realm there is only one kingdom, and it belongs to Aiheu for his children. We will share that Kingdom forever, so friendships never really die unless you let them.” The king wrapped a huge forepaw around the young lion and hugged him close. “Enjoy this time while it lasts. Someday, you’ll be a King yourself. You must be strong enough to let Aiheu’s will be done.”

“What is it like to be king? Neat, huh?”

“It’s like I told my son Tanabi—being King is not all fun. You think this is a long walk? Just wait till you’re walking your own borders in the driving rain with only Kombi to help you. You get lots of respect, and that’s nice. But you also work hard, and you have to make some unpopular decisions—even decisions that are unpopular with your own self, like your mantlement. I love you, Togo. I’m going to miss you terribly, and if there was some way to keep you here, I would.”

“You mean that?”

“With all my heart. I’ll miss that scamp of a brother of yours too. I can truly say it won’t be the same here without you.”

CHAPTER: JUST BETWEEN US

Togo and Kombi had never been on a hunt before. Increasingly aware of the perils that prideless lions faced, they went to their mother and pleaded for a few lessons. Uzuri agreed, for she wanted to spend some time with her sons in their old home. She knew the land intimately. Like all lionesses, she thought that the land was alive. Its breath stirred in the wind, and she could almost feel its pulse beneath her feet. Pride Rock was the heart of the land, and it had a permanent place in her own heart. Could she learn to love Pride Kopje? Yes, if Ugas was there. But she would always feel regret for what she had left behind.

Uzuri was initially delighted by their request. She had no daughters of her own, and now that the opportunity presented itself, she jumped at the chance to pass on some of her knowledge to her offspring. She began instructing them in some basic skills, and looked forward to sharing some of her secret tricks and tips to help ensure a successful kill. She was a patient teacher as well as a huntress beyond compare, but as time wore on it became readily apparent that none of her natural ability was in them. They had the facile charm of their father Ugas, and they looked like a couple of likely fighters if territory must be defended. But they were no hunters.

Late that afternoon, she stood in the tall grass at the foot of Pride Rock, bending her head now and then as she imitated a grazing gazelle. Several yards away, Togo and Kombi were flattened in the depths of the grass, breathing rapidly as they practiced a pincers maneuver for the umpteenth time. They had been going at it since before high-sun, and the heat was oppressive in the lush vegetation.

Togo eased his head up gingerly, his russet mane matted with perspiration as he peered through the grass. Sweat ran into one eye, stinging, and he winced. Blinking furiously, he saw his mother about six body lengths away, her back to him. A grin split his features and he sank down again. Motioning to Kombi, he eased off sideways, intending to line up on an oblique angle while Kombi executed the main attack.

Kombi nodded and crept forward slowly, placing his paws carefully. His forelegs quivered with exhaustion and nerves, the result of the last five failed attempts to successfully get within striking distance. His tail lashed, and he stepped forward again.

“Movement!” Uzuri shouted. “Movement is the key to hunting. A lion has to have discipline, else instinct takes over, and control is lost.” Her voice hardened. “Togo is five lengths behind me. Kombi, you are to my left at the same distance. What do you intend to do, drive your prey by thrashing at the grass like humans?”

Kombi stood up and shouted, “Damn! What did I do wrong NOW?”

“Watch your mouth, child.”

“I’m not a child, mother!”

“You are until your mantlement, which is only a week away, in case you’ve forgotten!” Uzuri snapped. “You are too noisy; you thrashed your tail and gave away your position easily. Togo, you were silent enough… but you moved against the grain of the grass when you began the flanking maneuver; I saw the trail cutting through the grass as soon as you moved.”

Togo sat up miserably. “I’m sorry.”

“And have you forgotten about the wind?! I was downwind of you the whole time; I smelled you coming. You can conduct an upwind attack ONLY if you have superior speed or numbers to cut off fleeing prey… and neither of you is fast enough.” Uzuri stopped, claws extending in frustration.

“Mom? I’m sorry.” Kombi hung his head. “I didn’t mean to smart off like that.” He blinked pathetically at her, eyes bright with pain at her obvious disappointment. Kombi cursed himself for being so clumsy. His mother was the best hunter he had ever known, and here he was, embarrassing her.

The shame came across clearly, and Uzuri felt anguished as she saw the cub buried inside the huge frame, hungering for her approval, desperate to prove himself the son of a great huntress. Her eyes burned, and she looked away. “It’s all right. Sit here and rest. We’ll try again in a moment.”

Togo began to cry. “We’ll never learn this! We’re going to starve!”

“No, you’ll have lionesses to help you.”

“Oh?”

“What I’m about to tell you must be just between us. Togo, Kombi, you are not going to be wanderers. One of you will be a King, and the other will be a Prince Consort.”

“Sure,” Kombi said. “When we find us a Pride of our own.”

“I’ve made an arrangement already. But you must tell no one, understand?”

“Yeah,” Togo said, tears starting down his cheeks. “Mom, you’re the greatest!” He nuzzled her and kissed her. Kombi fell to the ground and rolled over on his back, pawing at the sky.

“Blessed Aiheu,” he muttered. “Thank you, Aiheu! You’ve saved us! Mighty God, King of all Kingdoms, thank you!”

For several moments, all the brothers could do was nuzzle and kiss their mother as her warm tears of joy ran freely down her cheeks. In her heart, she knew she could find happiness with her husband and sons by her side. They would be a family the way Simba, Nala and Tanabi were.

She looked again at the beautiful vista of the Pride Lands. She had been born here, raised to maturity, learned her craft on these plains. It had been her pride and pleasure to serve three generations of kings as the hunt mistress, her skills respected and unmatched by any lion for miles around. She would be laying that down and passing the leadership to another younger set of shoulders. Misha was a quick student, and one day she would be Queen. The question was not whom to pick but how to break the news to her. It was a heavy responsibility for one so young, but she was the same age Uzuri was when Kiva had anointed both her cheeks with the blood of her prey and kissed her.

At first Kiva was relieved to lose the burden, but Kiva was alone. Her brothers had left after a commoner’s mantlement, and she had no mate or cubs of her own. Shortly after losing her position, she began her decline into depression, bad health, and eventually death. Uzuri had always thought she had died of grief. But that would not happen to her, she determined. Not to Uzuri…

CHAPTER: THE TRUTH OUTS

Togo and Kombi were flush with optimism. They believed that they would not be leaving the Pride Lands, and that some way, somehow, Tanabi did not want to rule the Pride on his father’s death. That one day they would stand on the promontory of Pride Rock and proclaim the new kingship.

They had promised their mother to keep strictest silence about the arrangement, but they went to a few of the attractive young lionesses and spread the wonderful news that two of them would marry the most eligible bachelors in the land. Each of them promised to keep it to themselves, but gossip started to circulate.

“Why doesn’t Tanabi want to be King?” Isha asked. “Is there something wrong with him? Has he lost his nerve?”

“Not our Tanabi,” Ajenti said. “He’s plenty brave enough. Maybe he has a weakness—one that he’d rather talk about. The poor boy!”

Barata drew close and whispered, “Fact is, I think he has weak eyes.”

“No!” Ajenti said, taking in a gasp. “The poor boy! How bad is it?”

“I’m not sure,” Barata said. “He bumped right into his mother the other day.”

“I thought that was an accident,” Isha said.

“It was. He didn’t deliberately do it. But Nala said, ‘What’s wrong with your eyes, son?’”

Ajenti bowed her head. “The poor boy!”

“Hi,” Tanabi said, nodding at the lionesses.

Ajenti came right up into his face. “It’s me, Ajenti.”

“Uh, yeah. I know.”

“Taking it easy, dear?”

“Well, I guess so. I had a little unexpected free time today. I thought I’d go to the water hole and just kick back.”

“You’re so brave,” she said, giving him a big kiss. “You’re so much like your father.”

“Thanks.” Tanabi shrugged, then walked away.

“The poor boy!” Ajenti said, a tear running down her cheek. “I wonder if he’ll go completely blind?”

It wasn’t long before Habusu came to see Simba. He fell before him and said, “Haven’t I loved you as much as Togo and Kombi?”

“Yes, son.”

“And longer? When they were still playing pranks on you, wasn’t I good to you?”

“I know who my friends are,” Simba said cautiously, but with a warm nuzzle. “What would you have of me?”

“Can’t you fix it for me too? The way you did for them? I don’t want to be King any more than Tanabi did. I just want to live here in peace. Please don’t send me away into the big world!”

Simba nuzzled him again. “I did not ‘fix’ anything for anyone. They will receive their mantlement on time. My boy, don’t cry. Rely on Aiheu, and keep to the path of righteousness, and you will find a home of your own. That is the duty and the privilege of a male lion.” Simba nodded gravely. “I’ll be right back. There are a couple of people I need to see.”

Simba encountered Togo and Kombi near the watering hole. They started to nuzzle their King and benefactor, but not when they saw the look on his face. “Boys, we need to talk.”

Uzuri was asked to join the group by Zazu. “I’d hurry if I were you. He’s really upset.”

“Oh gods,” she said. “What have they done this time??”

CHAPTER: BAPTISM BY FIRE

“ADHAMA!!!” Ambia shouted. The cry sent a flock of birds into a panicked flight. “Adhama, get up here!”

The lionesses looked uncertainly at one another. “What are we going to do??” young Amara cried. “Why won’t he just leave us alone??”

Adhama padded up behind her and nuzzled her. “Easy, sister. I’ll handle it.” Adhama closed her eyes briefly, sighed, then slowly made her way up the rough slope of the kopje, muttering a prayer as she went.

The last few weeks had become a living hell for the lionesses as they struggled to cope with Ambia’s fickle moods and whims. And most of that ill will was directed to Adhama whose leadership qualities and proud bearing made her a threat. He looked for every chance to humiliate and intimidate her, especially in front of the others.

She heaved a small sigh as she reached the top of the kopje where he lay, waiting. “Yes, Ambia?”

“You will address me as SIRE!” he snarled.

“Oh, yes, I forgot. You’re supposed to be some sort of King.”

Fury blazed in his eyes. With a low grunt, he cuffed her nearly senseless with one massive blow. Adhama shook, tears streaming down her face as blood welled from a cut lip. “I’m hungry,” he growled. “You’d do well to find me something fresher than your dry wit.”

Adhama ran her tongue out and licked the blood from her lips, feeling the sting. Her eyes narrowed. “So you can outfight a lioness,” she said, frightened but indignant. “I knew there was SOME reason you called yourself King. What would you do when another male comes around? Will you hit HIM like that?”

With an inarticulate roar of rage he surged forward, sending her scrabbling off the kopje in an effort to keep from falling. “GET OUT! Find me some dinner before I hit you with my claws out!!”

Trembling, Adhama’s turned away from him and headed down the rock to gather her hunting party. She detailed two of the older lionesses to stay behind and baby-sit the cubs.

“No,” Ambia said.

Adhama blinked and looked up to face him. “What?”

“Take those old cronies with you.” He jerked his head at Amara. “Leave her here to watch the cubs.”

Amara’s eyes widened in fear, and she looked pleadingly at her pride sisters. The two older lionesses returned the look helplessly. And Adhama felt sorry for the pretty young female. She was just coming into her first season, and there was no doubt what Ambia had in store for her. But to refuse him would be to risk terrible consequences. Adhama moved to her side and nuzzled her ear. “It’ll be okay, hon.”

“Addie, please take me with you!” she whispered hoarsely. “Oh gods, I don’t want to stay here with him! I beg you!”

“Easy, hon. He’ll leave you alone. Just pretend you’re sick. We’ll pray for you.”

Amara trembled for a moment, then nodded, swallowing convulsively. “O-Okay.”

Ambia shouted again. “Adhama, I meant TODAY, not next week!”

“All right!” she snapped. Adhama turned and looked at Sh’aari again. “Aiheu abamami.”

Amara nodded jerkily, unable to speak, them moved away to where the cubs lay frozen with fear. “Come on, kids. Want to hear a story?”

The cubs huddled against her, trembling. “Marrie, don’t let him hurt us!” one of them whispered.

“Don’t worry, honey tree. I’ll protect you with my life.”

“I wish Daddy would come home.”

“He’s with God now.”

“If we asked Him, would he send Daddy home?”

“I wish He would, sweetheart.”

Adhama watched her for a moment, then reluctantly turned and led the others away. Padding slowly across the worn ground, she paused as they began to enter the tall grass and looked back. Amara looked after them with the desperate look of a gazelle in a death grip. Ambia was perched atop the kopje again, eyes glinting in the reddish glow of the sunset, a warped smile on his face as he watched them go. His gaze met hers, and his smile widened into a grin.

Cursing silently to herself, Adhama slipped into the deepening shadows of twilight, praying fervently they would find something soon—soon enough to spare Amara.

Ambia lay silently, watching as the grass rippled in a purposeful wave as the huntresses moved through it, heading away to the west. He began grooming a forepaw idly, listening to the low drone of Amara’s voice as she spun a tale of N’ga and Sufa to the cubs. Her voice quavered, and she was having trouble remembering it straight. Absently, he began running a forepaw through his mane, smoothing the fur and untangling the burrs from it as he continued to watch the grassy field across from them. Finally satisfied, he yawned hugely, then rose. Shaking himself, he turned and leapt to the ground, pacing slowly over to where Amara lay with the children.

The lioness heard the pad of feet near her, she blinked and looked up to see Ambia standing next to her. “Sire?”

He smiled down at her. “Indeed. It’s so nice to know at least someone around here respects my authority.” He eyed her keenly. “You DO respect me, don’t you, Marrie?”

“Well, yes, of course—Sire.”

“Of course. It’s heartening to see respect from one so young.” He cocked his head oddly and smiled. “So young, and so pretty…”

Amara felt her stomach knot with fear. “Not that pretty. I’m just young.” She purposefully coughed.

“VERY pretty, he amended softly. “I’ve been watching you. You move like tall grass in a gentle wind. Everything about you is exciting, even the way you tell stories. I think you would be a good mother.”

“Thank you,” she said tensely. She did not like the way the conversation was going.

“Beautiful and gentle. Good qualities in a prospective queen, I’d say.”

“Me? A queen?” She rose in fright.

He nodded and moved to stand beside her, his heavy body brushing against hers. “And why not? It’s as simple as pledging to a King.” He looked directly into her fearful eyes. “I know I can be a little abrupt at times, but I have lived a hard life. The world makes me hard like flint. You could take off the rough edges. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? We could all get along like one happy family. Once in a while we could slip out and make love under the moon.”

Amara was young, but not entirely naive. She understood his terms clearly. And while she could never love him, she could marry for love—the love of Adhama, the other pride sisters and the helpless cubs that peeked at her from the cover of the tall grass. “So it comes to this,” she thought. “Aiheu, if I must do this thing for my friends, help me to tolerate him. Please?”

“You are a rather handsome lion,” she said with resignation. “I’ve never been with a male before. Be patient with me.”

“I can be patient,” he said with barely suppressed excitement. “Patient within reason. Be my Queen, Amara. Tonight, and for always.” His shaggy head nosed her flank.

“Ambia—I—”

“Yes, Amara?” He nosed her again. “You’re shy. I like that. Don’t worry—I won’t hurt you.” Passionately, he rubbed up her side and then put his paw on her shoulder.

She tried to purr. Only a deep rumbling came out. Tears started down her cheeks. “Please God,” she silently prayed, “let this work. Show me a sign that he’ll honor his promise. Spare my family.”

Trembling with passion, he 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 a moment for her answer. Instead she stared at him, frozen like a stone.

He said, “Answer me, my love.” He nuzzled her face, then worked his way back until he reached the base of her tail. He reached out with an adventurous paw and fondled her intimately.

“No!!” She screamed and jumped on top of a small boulder where she crouched, sobbing hysterically and cowering in fear. “I can’t! I tried, but I just can’t!”

“Come down here!”

“Leave me alone! Go away and leave me alone!”

“You lead me on, then say no?? Do I look like a fool to you??” Ambia snarled, then sprang up on the rock beside her, cuffing her viscously. “Ungrateful WITCH! I’ve been out there in the hot sun of the desert and done without. I’ve paid my dues like any other lion. Now I’m going to get what’s coming to me! You will come when I call you. Sooner or later, you will grow to enjoy this, but you WILL be my queen, understand??”

“What do you think you’re doing??” Adhama cried.

Ambia spun to see Adhama and her hunting party behind him. “Whatever I wish,” he growled, jumping down to confront her. “What are YOU doing here?!”

“Bringing you dinner as ordered, YOUR MAJESTY,” she said. Sh’aari padded forward and dropped the carcass of a small gazelle at his feet.

He glance at it, then snorted. “About time!” Seizing the animal, he padded away towards the kopje, leaping up and moving forward.

There was a cub resting in his favorite spot. He dropped the carcass and shouted, “What are YOU doing here??”

“Oh gods!” Sh’aari cried. “Saieti, get DOWN from there!” The lioness padded forward, looking at the kopje above where her cub sat, crying pathetically.

“Mama I’m SCARED!” The cub cowered away from Ambia, nearly slipping off the edge. “Help me, Momma! He’s MEAN!”

“By gods I’ll SHOW you mean if you don’t get OUT OF MY SPACE!” Ambia roared and swung a heavy paw down, scoring the stone with his claws as the cub fled, screaming hoarsely.

“I’ve had a trying day, Sh’aari! Keep your brat out of my way if you know what’s good for you!”

Sh’aari snarled deep within her chest as Saieti huddled against her, shuddering. “You touch her again, and I’ll…”

“And you’ll what??” Ambia arched his neck and sat up. “You want to tangle with me?? Huh?? Come here—I’ll go a couple of rounds with you? Want to take a poke at me, Sis?? HUH??”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“Oh wouldn’t I??” He leaped down and cuffed Sh’aari viscously, sending her sprawling. “We’re going to lay down some rules here. Rule one: nobody better be laying where I want to nap!” He cut Saieti’s flank with a claws-out swipe and she huddled down, shrieking with pain.

“Rule two: what I want, I get.” He pushed through the shocked lionesses to where Amara stood. He dipped his maned head and rubbed up her side, crossing behind her and repeating the action on her right. Amara closed her eyes, digging her claws into the earth as she felt the loathsome scrub of his body against her.

“Rule three—Nobody better break rules one and two. Three little rules—do you think you can remember that??” Ambia settled back on the top of the kopje and closed his eyes. “When I wake up, I want to smell dinner. REAL dinner, not some lame tidbit fit for jackals!”

Sh’aari whispered, “I have to find the King’s sons. I’ll go to Simba and ask about them.”

“No,” Adhama said. “Stay here with your daughter. I’ll go.” Adhama nuzzled Saieti who was still sobbing uncontrollably. “Honey Tree, I’m going for help. Don’t tell anyone, OK? You’re going to be all right.”

CHAPTER: THE MISSION

Amara fought down her disgust and fear, trying to hold Ambia’s attention while Adhama made a mad dash out to the border.

Adhama, who was no younger than her dead brother, panted at the exertion as she ran and ran and ran. Lionesses often chase down prey, but they will break off pursuit if they don’t quickly overtake their target. She had to run like a gazelle, long and hard.

From time to time she glanced over her shoulder. Good—there was no pursuing lion. Amara’s ploy had worked. And finally when it seemed her old heart would burst, she saw the stream that marked the boundary of the pride. A couple of springs through the cold water and she would be on Simba’s land.

Only at the margin of the water did she slow her pace, stepping from stone to stone but still getting her legs wet—she hated that. And gaining the opposite bank, she breathed in deeply and let the air rush out her mouth and nose. The first obstacle was overcome.

Still she was not entirely safe. As she entered the Pride Lands, she shouted, “Aiheu abamami” several times as she went, and before long two lionesses came out of the brush.

“Sarafina, Isha, help me!”

“Adhama?? What’s wrong??”

“I must see the King at once. It’s an emergency!”

Not long afterward, Togo and Kombi showed up for guard duty and training. Simba stared at them with somber intensity and they felt something awful was afoot.

“Whatever it was,” Kombi said, “we didn’t do it this time.”

“I’m not upset with you,” Simba said, giving his shoulder a sympathetic pat. “My dear son.”

The strange lioness fell before them. “My Lords! You are our only hope!”

Togo nosed her carefully. “You’re crying! What’s wrong?”

Simba shook his head. “This is your Aunt Adhama. You are indeed her only hope. Your father is dead.”

Togo and Kombi took in a collective gasp.

“Ugas never met you,” Adhama said, rising from the earth. “But he cared for your mother a great deal, and he tried to arrange a meeting with you before death took him. Now you must come back and rule in his stead. This is what you were born to do—it was your destiny.”

“If you insist,” Kombi said casually. “Mom told us already. You don’t have to cry. We accept. We’d be delighted. Honored too.”

“You don’t understand. It’s not that simple.”

Kombi sighed. “With us, it never is. What’s the catch?”

“Your family is being hurt by a rogue lion. Lionesses, cubs, people that your mother knew and cared for. People that your father loved very much. You must help us now. He is terrorizing us.”

“Is he big?” Kombi said apprehensively.

“We’ll do it,” Togo said quickly. “I don’t care how big he is. He can’t push you around like that.”

Adhama fawned on him, kissing him and nuzzling him as tears streamed down her face. “Oh thank God!”

“I’m so proud of you,” Simba said. “I’ve always thought of you as one of my sons, but never have I been more proud of you than I am this moment. Togo, my dear son, God be with you.”

“Hey, we’re in this together,” Kombi said, patting Togo’s shoulder with his paw. “That’s it, a joint effort—fifty fifty!” He readied himself for the kiss that never came.

Simba said, “One day I’ll hear great things about you two. You must be given your mantlement quickly. You’ll be leaving as soon as you’re blessed—there’s no time to lose.” He looked at Zazu who was sitting near the entrance. “Go bring Uzuri here, and tell her nothing about the reason.” He looked at the brothers. “You must say nothing of the emergency to her. Ugas asked you to come early, understand?”

“Why not tell her the truth?” Kombi asked.

“Picture this,” Simba said. “Your mother fighting a strange lion that weighs half again as much.”

“I’d never let her fight my battles for me!” Kombi said indignantly. “What do you think I am??”

“As old as she is, your mother can still outrun you. She’d fight him to the death out of love for you. Never underestimate the power of a mother’s love. It’s stronger than any spell in Rafiki’s baobab.”

“He’s right,” Togo said. “We have to be strong for her. Smile, Kombi. Like you really mean it, understand? We’re going to see Dad, and you’re happy.”

“Is this good?” Kombi asked. His smile was weak but acceptable.

Just then, Uzuri came in. She saw Adhama and her face fell at once. “It’s Ugas, isn’t it?” She tensed up. “How did it happen?”

“He’s fine,” Adhama said with a forced smile. “He just needs to see Togo and Kombi at once.”

“Then let’s go.”

“Alone,” Adhama said.

Uzuri glared at her suspiciously. “Alone? Without me? He’s my husband.”

“That’s what ‘alone’ means. Relax, hon. It’s one of those male things—he wants to see them before he steps down. Maybe he wants to choose which one will be King.”

“Oh.” She glanced at Togo, then at Kombi. “I guess that means it’s time.”

Simba nodded. “Yes. Now. I’m sorry I didn’t give you more warning, but I only just found out myself. You know how impulsive Ugas can be.”

Uzuri hurried to Togo and nuzzled him, then she nuzzled Kombi. “My little boys are lions now. There is so much I wanted to tell you. I will come to see you—I promise. Soon.”

Adhama said, “In a couple of days it should be OK. I’ll send for you.”

Uzuri began to cry. “I know I haven’t said it as much as I should, but I’m so proud of you. Both of you. I hate to see you grow up, but I know you’re going to be King and Prince and you’re going to have a safe home of your own. I’m happy for you—so happy!” Her chin trembled and she sniffed back tears. “I’m stepping down as hunt mistress, and as soon as I’m sent for, I’ll join you and take my place at your father’s side.”

Togo and Kombi nuzzled her fervently. “Don’t cry, Mother! Please don’t cry!”

Simba put his paw on Kombi’s shoulder, then he touched Togo’s shoulder. “Unto the keeping of the gods I send my sons. Long life to you and success in your endeavors. Remember the Lord who formed you from the ground and breathed life into you. Go forth with my blessing.”

Uzuri said, “You will always be my sons, but you are no longer my cubs. Remember that by the standards you set, you shall be judged yourself. What you require of others, it shall be required of you, and what you forgive of others, it shall be forgiven you.” New tears welled up in her eyes. “Go forth with my blessing!”

CHAPTER: THIN ICE

They were anxious to prevent Ambia from hurting their family, but they knew better than to run. Ambia would be well rested, and they must be prepared to fight him. At a fast trot, they headed across their old home for the last time. Every landmark was associated with a dozen memories. They quickly glanced about, trying to remember as much as they could. And Togo also glanced over at Kombi. He had a horrible feeling that one of them might not survive, and he wanted to remember his brother. Oh if there was only time to sit and talk! He had wasted the morning napping in the grass when he could have said so many things that were suddenly so important!

The three lions paused a moment at the border. The stream had always kept them in before. Now it would keep them out. As Simba had taught them to do, they bowed their heads to the ground at the bank of the stream and thanked their parents for giving them life. Then they headed into the water. Togo deliberately splashed water on his face to hide his tears.

No sooner did they emerge on the opposite bank than they could smell the new male’s mark. “Well, now we’re in trouble,” Kombi said. “At least some things never change.”

“He’s the one in trouble,” Togo said, shaking water out of his mane. “It’s either him or me. I’m not running.”

“Yeah. Me neither.”

Adhama briefly bowed before them. “Welcome home, my King. I touch your mane.”

Togo glanced at Kombi and nodded at him.

“I feel it,” Kombi said. Then he nuzzled his brother and whispered, “You’re OK, kid.”

There was an unearthly quiet over the land. No birds sang, no crickets chirped. Even the wind did not blow. Adhama expected to be met by some of the pride sisters. But there were no sentries, no messengers, no hunting parties. It seemed like the calm before the storm. Could it be that Ambia had forced one of the lionesses to reveal her plan? Were they walking into a trap?

They got to the Pride Kopje. Ambia was nowhere to be seen, but there were several lionesses around with pained expressions.

“Does he know?” Adhama asked. “Is he watching us?”

“He’s behind the rock—with Amara.”

Adhama’s jaw trembled. “Not my little girl! If he hurts her, I’ll kill him!”

Togo and Kombi crept quietly around the rock. They saw a large lion looking very smug. Lying on the ground with a paw over her face in shame was Amara.

Ambia got up and sauntered over to her. “Admit it, I’m fun to be with. Someday you’ll come to appreciate me.” Trembling, he nosed her slender thigh. “Try to relax this time. It will be good for you too.”

“Stop!” Togo cried.

“Says who??”

“The true king!” Kombi cried.

“The what??”

Togo and Kombi took advantage of his momentary surprise. They snarled and mounted a viscous frontal attack. Amara cowered back as Ambia flailed back at them with swipes of his bared claws and snaps of his powerful jaws. One well-placed blow and he could even up the match.

Suddenly, Ambia felt a hot pain rake down his back leg. He turned around for one fateful moment to look into the burning eyes of Amara. “Was it good for you too?” she hissed.

Before he could look back at Togo and Kombi, they grabbed him by the throat and forced him to the ground. Wide-eyed he stared up, pushing with his paws but unable to dislodge himself. As Togo’s grip threatened to crush his windpipe and choke the life out of him, Kombi came about to face the desperate opponent.

“Spare me!” he cried, gagging. “Spare me! I’ll go away and never come back!”

“Kiss her feet,” Togo said.

“What??”

“I said kiss her feet! Now DO IT!”

Trembling, Ambia crawled across the ground on his stomach toward Amara, kissing her forepaws, then rolling on his back. “Tell them to spare me! Please, for God’s sake!”

The lioness looked at Togo and Kombi. “He defiled me. Do with him what you will.”

Kombi came to him, raising his claws as if to rip him.

“Please, for God’s sake!” Ambia cried. “I surrender!”

Kombi smirked at him. “My mother always said to put personal feelings aside and have mercy on the helpless.”

“Oh thank God!”

“But you’re not dealing with my mother.” He raked Ambia’s face with his claws out. Ambia screamed hysterically, blood staining his cheek a bright crimson.

“Now you know how it feels. Get out!”

Ambia squirmed before Togo and Kombi. “I’m going! Thank you!”

Togo roared with his full voice, “You heard him—DO IT NOW!!”

The intruder bolted wild-eyed across the savanna and into the shelter of the rushes. It was safe to assume he was gone for good. The lion that terrorized lionesses and their cubs was a coward.

Then in the quiet left after the storm, lionesses and cubs came from the bushes and tall grass as if they were popping out of the ground. “Look everyone, it’s Ugas’ sons!”

Lionesses came from all sides and rubbed against them. Cubs stared at them, noting the uncanny resemblance Kombi had to Ugas.

“Is it safe now, Mommy?”

“Yes, honey tree.”

Togo nuzzled some of the small cubs. He turned on his back and began to play with them, the way he had played with Tanabi and Misha long ago, bouncing them on his legs.

Adhama saw that and began to cry. “Look, Kombi! Look at your brother! Ugas lives on in you!”

Kombi nuzzled her and pawed her cheek. “Auntie Adhama, I miss my mother, but it’s good to be home.” He went to Togo and whispered, “Hey, let’s not mess this one up.”

As everyone watched in gratitude and relief, Kombi climbed to the top of the kopje where Ambia had so recently held sway. But to Kombi it only meant one thing—it was where his father had ruled. It was the closest he would ever come to meeting Ugas in the world of Ma’at. Feeling his father’s blood surging in his veins, he lifted up his muzzle and roared—loudly. The lionesses answered him. He felt shivers go down his spine. As the echoes died away across the savanna, a distant reply caught his ears. His blood rushed as he recognized the voice of Simba answering him from the Pride Lands, acknowledging Kombi’s sovereignty and proclaiming his own. He heard Simba’s lionesses declare their allegiance as well, tears stinging his eyes as he recognized the voice of his mother. He bowed his head to the ground. “Thank you, God. It’s good to be alive.”

CHAPTER: TO THE VICTOR GOES THE SPOILS

Togo felt a thrill as he watched his brother atop the kopje, the breeze blowing his mane back from his forehead. It was hard to believe the rambunctious brother he had grown up with had grown into the stern faced lion making his way down the rocks. Togo sighed deeply at the wonder of it all.

He was about to join his brother when he felt a gentle touch at one shoulder. Glancing around, he saw a lioness beside him, a smile on her face as she gazed at his hazel eyes. “Your Majesty,” she said, bowing her head in a curtsy.

Togo chuckled. “Oh, hello. I’m sorry, but I’m not—”

“Oh no you don’t!” Another lioness trotted rapidly over. “I saw him first, you hussy!”

“WHAT?!” The first lioness flattened her ears and growled. “Don’t even THINK about trying that stunt, dear. He’s big, he’s beautiful, and he’s all MINE!” She looked back at the shocked Togo. “I’m sorry,” she giggled, her voice returning to normal. “Forgive her, Sire. Now where were we?”

“Nowhere, really,” Togo stammered. “You see, I’m not the—”

“See?!” The second lioness shouldered her way in roughly. “His Majesty has taste AND class… qualities you obviously lack, hon. Now get lost.”

“Ladies, PLEASE!!” Togo thundered. They fell silent, staring at him in adoration. “Please don’t argue like this.”

“And sooo assertive,” the first crooned. “What a monarch! Please, Sire, choose me! I shall rule by your side with loyalty. We’ll bear our children in happiness and joy. Our love will shake the earth!”

“But I’m NOT the king!” Togo finally said. “My brother is.”

The lionesses fell silent and peered over at Kombi, who was already beginning to attract a crowd of his own, then looked at each other.

“He’s YOURS,” they chorused, and sped off towards Kombi. “Sire! Your queen is here! Our love will shake the earth!”

Kombi groomed his mane and looked at his nails. “Check it out, Togo! They’re fighting over me!”

“Which do YOU want?”

He looked at both of them. “Decisions, decisions! Oh, it’s not easy being King.”

Togo smiled quietly and sat down, wondering if Kombi would survive the realization of his dreams. He lay down, resting his maned head on his forepaws, watching the tips of the grass sway and move in the gentle breeze that caressed the land. The sound of feminine voices drifted back to him and he sighed deeply.

A slight touch at his shoulder startled him and he turned his head to see a young lioness standing close by, the quiet one he had noticed earlier, the one who had been cowering under Ambia’s abuse and had then suddenly slashed at him, giving the brothers the crucial instant they needed to make their move. She smiled nervously at him. “Are you still undecided? Do I have a chance?”

“The line for queen is right over there. It looks like you’ll have some stiff competition.”

“I don’t want to be queen. I’m standing in THIS line.”

“Really?”

Her smile quivered and vanished, and she looked away quickly. “You find me unattractive?”

“Oh no, it’s not that.”

“Is it Ambia? Has his touch made me unworthy? Togo, I have to know.”

“It’s just—I’ve been number two all my life. Nobody’s ever preferred me before—for anything. This is so strange.”

“I find that hard to believe. You’re so much handsomer than your brother.” She smiled shyly. “My name is Amara.”

Togo smiled. “Hey, you’re all right. My name’s Togo.”

“Yes, I know. That’s a pretty name.” Tears came to her eyes.

“What’s wrong? Why are you so sad?”

“I was saving myself for you.” Her jaw trembled. “Ambia forced himself on me.”

“Oh gods!”

“I either came to him, or he would have killed little Saieti.” She looked away. “What will I do if the cubs are his? I mean, we weren’t together long, but it could happen.” She reached over and nuzzled him. “Could you still want me? Could you want the cubs?”

“You poor thing,” Togo said, wiping her eyes with his paw. “What a thing to say!” He nuzzled her in return. “Amara, I want you. I’ve wanted you ever since I saw you beautiful, frightened eyes full of tears. I wanted to kiss those tears away and make you happy.” He half whispered. “You will be their mother, and that is all that matters to me. That and the chance they might be mine.” He smiled and put his paw on her left shoulder. She purred softly and rubbed him down his whole length, then nuzzled him passionately.

“Hey Togo!” Kombi shouted. “Help me make up my mind!” He was surrounded by five amorous lionesses, clearly in his element.

“Have a race or something,” Togo said. “Can’t you see I’m busy now?”

Togo nuzzled her, and she lay her head against his mane and walked away, leaning on him.

Without seeing him, Kombi was rubbing the lionesses and giggling. “Where did he go, anyway? You’d think he wasn’t interested in girls!”

CHAPTER: SAD TIDINGS

A couple of days after Togo and Kombi’s mantlement, Uzuri began to watch the eastern border, hoping for news of her sons. “Come on, Ugas. Why the secrecy??”

All of the lionesses had been strictly charged to escort Adhama to Uzuri’s spot the moment she appeared. It seemed likely that she would be the messenger.

Rumors had circulated about the goings-on. Uzuri was none too free with her information, and while most of the lionesses knew that Togo and Kombi were going to see Ugas, not one of them fully understood the situation.

“He had no sons,” Ajenti said.

“I think he wants someone from our pride,” Isha told her. “I have my own personal reasons for believing that. Good reasons.”

“Not as good as mine,” Ajenti said with a sly wink. “What do you think, Sarafina?”

Fini sighed. She had been moody for the past few weeks, and this business with Togo and Kombi only renewed her melancholia.

At that moment, Habusu came among them, very excited. “I saw them!”

“Who??”

“Togo and Kombi!”

“Good news??”

“The best! Where’s Uzuri??”

The hunt mistress had retired to her cave, trying to get a little rest. Then she would go back out to the eastern border and wait again. The strain was telling on her. It was also taking a toll on her hunting—two days hunting yielded only a small duiker and a thompson’s gazelle. Very slim pickings for a pride of full grown lions and their cubs.

Habusu practically bounced up. “Guess what, Uzuri! I just saw Togo and Kombi!”

“You did? Where??”

“Right next to the Pride Lands! They took over the eastern kingdom when Ugas died. How about that! Now you can sneak down and see them whenever you want.”

“Yes,” she said, her heart almost stopping. “I see.”

“I knew you’d be thrilled.”

“Yes, of course.” Uzuri’s jaw began to tremble, and tears filled her eyes. “Thanks.” She looked away before he could see her cry.

Ugas’ voice came back to her across the void. “I’m old, and when I’m dead, all the tears in the world won’t bring me back.” For a few moments she was paralyzed with grief and guilt. But as soon as soon as she could move, she hurried across the savanna for Rafiki’s baobab. It was the only place she could safely express her feelings.

Rafiki was scrying the future. Without even looking up, he said, “Come in, Uzuri. I’ve been expecting you.”

She looked at the bowl of water. “Just how much do you know?”

“I knew you would come by.”

“And how about Ugas. Is he?”

“Yes, he is.” Rafiki fondled her cheek and wiped a couple of half-dried tears from her eyes. “So you found out today, did you?”

“Habusu told me.” Trying to keep her composure, she sat stiffly, her jaw held so tightly that her chin could not tremble. “I want you to help me. Ugas, my husband, must be mourned.”

“Of course.”

“I want you to come with me. My heart is heavy, and I have no one I can tell. I need someone, Rafiki, as once you needed me.”

“What an honor,” he said, giving her paw a squeeze. “Uzuri, Ugas was my good friend. He spoke often of you. He would ask me about Togo and Kombi. Too bad he never met them—his own sons.”

“It was too bad.”

Rafiki wanted her to release her pent-up grief. It tortured him to see her like that. “Where do you want to hold the ceremony?”

“Our special place. The bank of the stream that runs along the border of our kingdoms. There is a patch of reeds there. We would meet there at times.”

“I know.”

“He told you? Did you know him that well?”

“Very well. I’ll keep your secret, but you must keep mine. I have a little something for you.”

He reached in a gourd and pulled out a lock of golden fur. “I brought this back for my shrine.” He watched as she sniffed of it and took in the old fragrance.

She stroked the lock of his mane. Her eyes welled up with tears and she bent to face the ground. “Ugas! My beloved Ugas!”

Rafiki put his arms around her neck and held her to his heart. “Uzuri, how it breaks my heart to see your grief. I know what it’s like to lose a mate. I will pray for you day and night.”

“You’re a good friend. I knew you would understand.”

Rafiki gave her a little squeeze and patted her shoulder. “You were always a queen to me. You always will be.”

Uzuri sniffed and dried her tears with a paw. “Until high moon.” She took her grief and locked it away inside, then walked out of the baobab with what dignity she could summon.

CHAPTER: ALWAYS ROOM FOR ONE MORE

Rafiki knew Ugas well. Too well to think that there would be no problems caused by his death. Habusu had unknowingly unleashed a thunderbolt into dry grass, and the news would spread like a brush fire.

Isha quietly poked her head inside the baobab. “Rafiki, do you have a moment?”

“Yes, dear.” He looked into her large, sad face. “I bet I know what you’re here for.”

“You’re very perceptive,” she said. “Did Ugas tell you about us?”

“That he did. He always called you ‘blossom.’”

“There is a story behind that name,” she said. Rafiki had a strong suspicion that he was going to hear it, and he settled back while the anguished details came pouring out, punctuated by fits of sobbing. He was genuinely interested, but prayed that she would hurry up and leave before someone else came by.

“And we used to meet at our special place by the river,” she continued. “There was a patch of jasmine there. He would tell me that I was the prettiest blossom of them all. The name stuck.”

“You will pray for him tonight, I trust?”

“More than that,” she said. “He deserves so much more. But I can’t tell the other sisters. I mean, none of them knew I was seeing another lion. They would look down on me.”

“I understand.”

“At midnight, I was hoping that you and I could meet at our special place by the flowers. You understand, don’t you? I mean, I can’t let that poor, dear lion go to the stars without someone who understands what he meant to me hearing a few good words.”

Rafiki put his arms around her neck and gave her a hug. “You poor, dear lady. We’ll see what we can work out.”

Just then, Ajenti stuck her head in. “Oh, you’re with someone else. I just have this thorn in my paw.”

“My shoulder was stiff,” Isha said. “It feels much better now. Come on in.”

Limping as well as she could, Ajenti waited until Isha was out of hearing range.

“Oh Rafiki!” she said, bursting into tears. “Isn’t it awful about Ugas! Surely he told you about me?”

“Yes, my dear. He was Misha’s father. He used to call you ‘Squirrel.’”

“Indeed. There’s a story behind that name. The first time we were together, there was this squirrel in the acacia tree, and…”

Just as Rafiki was settling down to hear another story of love’s labors lost, Sarafina pushed her head in.

“Oh, you’re with someone. I can come back later.”

“No, it’s fine,” Ajenti said. “He just pulled a thorn from my paw.”

“You’re lucky,” Sarafina said. “I have this pulled muscle in my shoulder.”

Ajenti started to leave. “If you want to check on me at mid-moon, you know where I’ll be. Please see if you can be there.”

Rafiki sighed. He knew exactly where she would be at mid-moon. She would have a bigger thorn in her heart than in her paw when the truth came out.

Sarafina watched until she left. And when all was quiet, she fell before Rafiki. “Oh gods, you have to help me!” she stammered, tears running down her cheeks. “I’ve kept this thing bottled up inside me and If I don’t get it out, I’ll just die!”

“You just found out about Ugas? I didn’t think it wise to tell you, knowing that you and he were close.”

“I knew all along!” She covered her face with a paw and sobbed. “Why didn’t you tell me he was Uzuri’s husband! Why did you let me make such a fool of myself! This is all my fault!”

“My dear, don’t be so hard on yourself! Nothing is your fault.”

“But it is, don’t you see??” She looked him piercingly in the eyes. “It’s all my fault!” She added in a weak whisper, “We were making love at the time!”

“Oh my gods!”

“And when he was dying, he thought I was Uzuri. He said, ‘Forgive me, for I’ve been unfaithful to you. It’s only you I loved!’”

Rafiki bowed his head and tears streamed down his cheeks. “Tell me he didn’t say that!”

“He did,” she said, her heart crumbling. “Oh gods, I feel like such a wretch! My own sister’s husband! And I killed him!”

“You did not kill him! Age killed him. Old age, Fini! At least he died with someone who cared by his side.”

He reached down and kissed her cheek, lovingly stroking her face and ears. “Don’t believe his little confession. He wanted Uzuri to feel good, but I knew that lion. He spoke highly of you, and used to brag that your daughter had your lovely eyes. He loved you, Fini.”

“He said that?”

“Yes, I swear.” He stroked her gently. “You and your sister Uzuri are both beautiful and sweet and intelligent, and so wonderful. He was lonely because Uzuri would not stay with him. Maybe he saw in you the things he loved in her.”

She looked at him perceptively through her tears. “I know how you feel about her. That’s the nicest thing you could have said to me.”

“I meant it, Honey Tree. Every word.”

She reached up with a paw and stroked his face. “I can hardly bear to look at her, knowing what she’s going through. Can you meet me at mid-moon by our special place? Maybe Aiheu will be merciful to me and help me find inner peace. My life has not been worth living for weeks now.”

“How could I refuse you, old girl?” He patted her shoulder. “I may be a few minutes late, but I’ll be there.”

CHAPTER: ASHES TO ASHES, DUST TO DUST

Rafiki was relieved when Uzuri came a little early. Uzuri was never deceptive, though she was hard to interpret at times. She did not advertise her feelings through chatter and social conventions, but she always managed to show the ones she loved her warmth and compassion.

But now she was able to toss reserve aside and bare her soul. She knew that his spirit would be watching from the stars, and she could not afford to show a calm face to him.

“Oh, Ugas! Oh gods, my husband, my lover, my heart! He’s dead!”

Tears began to stream down her face. She wanted to roar, but dared not. Instead, she nestled in the sanctuary of Rafiki’s arms and sobbed.

“That wonderful lion! That kind and gentle soul! What little time we spent together made me more noble, more grand just for having loved him! And let me tell you, Rafiki, more important than his breath on my cheek was being there with him.”

He kissed her and stroked her gently. “Yes, my dear.”

“He was caring, with a voice as warm as a good nuzzle, and a nuzzle as warm as the sun. Sometimes we would just lie side by side, and I would smell the honest fragrance of his mane against my cheek. He always made me feel special and beautiful. The last time we made love, he said—” She began to convulse with choking sobs.

“What did he say?”

“He looked at me sadly and said ‘Love me as if it was for the last time.’”

Rafiki put his arms around her neck, kissing her around the face. “My poor girl! My poor little girl! It will get better with time. You will never be the same, but you will learn to live with the loss, as I have.”

Uzuri kissed him. “I was right. You do understand.”

He rocked ever so slightly back and forth with her head pillowed against his chest, whispering, “There, my love. I’ll always be here for you, and not just tonight. You know it, don’t you?”

Tears streamed down his cheeks as he felt her soft breath on his arm and felt the trembling in her large, powerful body rendered almost helpless by crippling grief.

At that intimate moment of grief, Barata showed up. Rafiki sighed.

“What is she doing here?” Uzuri asked, drying her eyes quickly.

“Uzuri, dearest, try not to be too upset.”

Uzuri hurried over to Barata and confronted her furiously. “You are here because of him, aren’t you??”

“He had an affair with you too? I didn’t know! I swear I didn’t know!”

“Affair?? He was my husband!”

Barata was taken aback. “You never told me!” Barata rolled over on the ground. “I swear, Uzuri, I would never have cheated on you. It was only once, and it was many moons ago. Oh gods, I love you! You’re my pride sister! I’m sorry!”

Uzuri looked at her misery and knew that she was suffering a double grief. The hunt mistress nuzzled her. “Get up, friend. I should have gone to be with him. I left him alone, and I can understand how this might happen.” She tilted her head puzzled. As discretely as she could, she said, “Still, I always thought you never had an interest in—you know.”

“Just because I never got pregnant didn’t mean I never…” She glanced over at Rafiki. “You know.”

Ajenti poked her head through the bushes. She saw the other two lionesses and gasped. “Oh my gods!”

Isha pushed past her. She looked appraisingly at the other lionesses. And shook her head. “I knew I wasn’t the only one, but I underestimated the old boy.”

“Watch what you say about my husband!” Uzuri shouted.

“Your husband??” Isha said.

“Your husband??” Ajenti echoed.

Rafiki motioned for quiet and tried to begin the ceremony. “Death has struck down our friend Ugas. Let us remember him as a brave lion, a good lion, whose heart was full of love…”

“Yeah, you can say that again!” Ajenti said bitterly.

Isha nodded. “He was Bango’s father. And I must admit he was a good lion—quite good.”

“Yes,” Sarafina said quietly. “He was good, wasn’t he?”

“Sarafina? You too?”

Isha came to her. “You and Ugas??”

“Why not??” Sarafina said. “We were a matched set. I couldn’t imagine you’d like him. I like a comfortable routine, but you would have gone crazy. The same old thing every time.”

“Never the same thing twice!” Isha said, scandalized. “Are we talking about the same Ugas?”

“And his sense of humor,” Sarafina added. “He always told the funniest jokes. Most of them don’t bear repeating in public.”

“Jokes??” Uzuri was outraged. “That somber, powerful and tragic lion of destiny??”

Barata said, “It seems he sized us up like prey. He chose a different approach with each of us. Sisters, we were had!”

“It was worth it,” Sarafina said.

“I learned a few things,” Isha said. That was saying a lot.

Rafiki sighed. It would be a long night.

CHAPTER: THE QUEEN MOTHER

The next morning, Uzuri called the Pride Sisters together one last time. She had before her a dead hedgehog. Dipping her paw in the blood, she touched Misha on both cheeks, leaving red prints. Then she kissed the startled lioness.

“I give you the most precious possession I have,” she said, tears streaming down her face. The pride sisters all took in a deep gasp. “I gave a lot of thought to what I would say when I left you. In the end there is nothing I can say, and so I leave you with silence. But I can never forget the time we spent together on the trail. Farewell, my sisters, and Godspeed.”

Her chin trembling, she sniffed back her tears and headed outward.

“You can’t do this!” Sarafina said. “Sis, I love you! Can you just turn your back on me?”

“No more than I could turn my back on my sons. They need me, hon.”

“Then let me walk with you to the border.”

Uzuri leaned against her shoulder as she walked. As was her custom, she said little, but she glanced over at Sarafina and kissed away her tears.

“I thought we were together till the end,” Fini said.

“I will visit you,” Uzuri replied. “You have not seen the last of me.”

“It won’t be the same without Ugas.” It was the first time she’d mentioned his name since the truth came out, and she tensed up.

“I won’t spoil your memories of him,” Uzuri said. “I’m glad you found happiness. Maybe you will again.”

“And how about you, Uzuri? Will you find happiness again, now that you have done this thing?”

“I won’t stop looking if you won’t.”

Before they reached the border, Rafiki confronted her with Makaka at his side. Makaka sprang to her and hugged her around the neck.

“Shame on you,” Rafiki said. “Trying to leave your best friend behind.”

“But I must,” she said.

“I won’t let you. I’m going with you. So is Makaka.”

“I thought you said you were tied to this place?”

“I was. But only because of you.” He looked out toward his old baobab and back toward Pride Rock. “We had some times here, old girl. That we did.”

Uzuri smiled sweetly. “I feel much better now. Thanks.”

They headed east, an odd procession of two lionesses and two mandrills. But at the creek, Sarafina sadly nuzzled Uzuri, then kissed Rafiki and Makaka. “I am bound to Nala, as you are to your sons. But my heart is always with you.”

With sadness for what they left behind, they headed out into the water. But as the opposite bank drew nearer, their sense of adventure began to shove grief aside. If only Ugas had been there to meet her, joy would have flooded her soul like noontime sunlight. But in a way she felt closer to him, and it was some comfort in her loss.

No sooner had she crossed the creek than Adhama spotted her and fell to the ground. “My lady.”

“Rise up,” Uzuri said with a self-conscious laugh. “I was never much at being a queen. So how are my boys doing?”

“See for yourself!”

Uzuri found no need to call out ‘Aiheu abamami’ as she went along. Indeed, as the Queen Mother she was a member of Kombi’s pride and free to come and go as she pleased.

Togo and Kombi were out on border patrol when she arrived at Pride Kopje. But she was soon surrounded by a swarm of excited cubs who pawed her and chanted, “Zuri, Zuri!”

She rolled on her back and patted her chest with a paw. They covered her, kissing her face and pawing her affectionately.

As she held them close with a paw and kissed them, Princess Amara came out with a squeal of delight. “Hi, Mom! It’s all right if I call you ‘Mom’ isn’t it?”

“Sure it is, Marrie.”

Amara pushed through the cubs to nuzzle her. “I’m so glad you came. I do my best to make Togo happy.”

“I’m sure you do,” Uzuri said with a knowing smile.

Rafiki smiled. He was fond of Amara and was glad to know she loved Togo and knew his love in return.

“He misses you terribly,” Amara added. “Now that you’re here, he’ll be so happy. And you and I will be great friends. There are so many things that I want to ask you, Mom. We knew sooner or later you were coming here to live. I’m just glad it’s sooner, before the cubs were born. Uzuri, I so much want you to be my midwife.”

“Grandchildren,” she said with a smile. “Bless you, my dear.”

Uzuri looked about. Many of the places and many of the people reminded her of the love and companionship of her husband. But she did not know these lands well enough to hunt them masterfully. At best, she would be a helper. Perhaps even a beater to drive prey toward the ‘real’ hunting party. She could learn the land, but it would take years, and she was not growing any younger. Maybe it was best that she take care of the young and leave hunting to the ones who did it best.

Suddenly, she heard a roar. It was not an angry sound, but what a male lion does when words are not enough.

“Togo!!”

She broke into a run. Togo hurried to meet her, rearing up and putting his arms around her neck and nuzzling her.

“Mother!!”

“My little boy! I know you’re a lion now, but you’ll always be my little cub! Oh, I could just eat you up!”

“Marrie said you’d come,” he said, his eyes shining like diamonds. “Welcome home, Mom! Oh, I’m so happy I could just burst!”

She nuzzled him again. “My special little boy! I heard all about Ambia and what you did, and I’m so proud of you! So how are you??”

“Fine! Never better! You saw Marrie, didn’t you? She’s my wife, now. You’re going to be a grandmother soon.”

“I know!” She kissed him. “You be good to Marrie, you hear me? She’s a fine lioness.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“I hear Kombi is king.”

“Yeah.” He half laughed. “I like this Prince Consort thing well enough, but I don’t want to be a King. Besides, now that Kombi is King, it keeps him out of trouble.”

Amara rubbed full length against her husband the way Uzuri used to do with Ugas. “Well, Honey Tree, aren’t you going to show the Queen Mother her new home? She can have my old spot now that I have a nice soft mane to snuggle on.”

“I know where my spot is,” Uzuri said gently. She lithely climbed to the top of Pride Kopje. She went to the spot where she would spend hours talking with Ugas about the stars. His scent had nearly vanished, but as she lay on her back and looked up at the skies, she could almost feel his warm, strong body lying next to her. “I’m home, beloved,” she murmured. Makaka settled next to her and put his arm around her neck, and the two of them slipped into their mid-sun nap.

CHAPTER: NO PLACE LIKE HOME

In the meanwhile, Rafiki tried to find a place of his own. It wasn’t like he expected to find another baobab just waiting for him to move in, but he needed a quiet and private place to go when he wanted to think. Sleeping on the ground with the pride was a romantic notion but not a viable option; he had to set up the paraphernalia of a shaman and paint protective icons. Also, some of his herbs could kill as well as heal. They had to be kept away from small paws.

He invited Makaka to come along with him, but he also had a number of uninvited guests as well. He was crowded with boisterous young cubs. Rafiki was fond of children, but they made so much noise and bustle that he could hardly hear himself think. Sh’aari also tagged along, trying to control the cubs that got seriously out of line, but doing little to curb the incessant noise and endless questions. And all the usual questions came pouring out.

“Why do you have those stripes on your face?”

“May I touch them?”

(“Yes, you may.”)

“Are those stripes on your bottom the same?”

“May I touch them?”

(“No, you may not touch them!”)

“Will you do a magic trick?”

“Do it again!”

“Is Makaka your son?”

“Are his Mommy and Daddy in heaven?”

“Does he have any brothers and sisters?”

“Will we see them some time?”

“Why do you walk with that stick?”

“Say something in monkey language!”

“What’s in the gourd?”

“Can I have one?”

“What’s that smell?”

“Can you really tell the future?”

“Can I watch?”

After the first hour or two of this, Rafiki began to wonder if cubs were more rough and tumble than they used to be, or if he was just getting older. “Probably both,” he thought, sighing.

Rafiki yelped as a furry bundle nipped playfully at his heels and darted away, giggling madly. “Ohe! Watch it! That hurts, you little scamp!”

“Saieti!” Sh’aari said sharply. “That was rude. Now apologize to Rafiki.”

The cub stopped and looked up at the mandrill with bright eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said in a small voice. “I was just playing.”

“I know, Honey Tree.” Rafiki smiled and bent to pick the cub up, but she skittered away. “What’s wrong? I won’t hurt you.” He peered at Saieti as she huddled against the lioness’s side. “What’s that on your side?”

Sh’aari licked the trembling cub. “Ambia’s handiwork,” she said. “That’s just one of the marks he left on our pride.”

“My Gods!” Rafiki knelt and stroked the wide eyed youngster. “You needn’t fear him any longer, child. Togo and Kombi have set things right again, and this old monkey will certainly never hurt you.”

Saieti looked at him carefully, measuring him. It drove a thorn in his heart to see the look of guarded suspicion on one so young. “Even if I sit in your favorite spot?”

He nodded. “Perhaps we have the same favorite spot, eh? We’ll just have to share.” He reached into his gourd and got a piece of Tiko root. Saieti sniffed, inhaling the wonderful fragrance. Her tongue licked out and her eyes followed the treat as Rafiki moved it about.

“Who do you love?”

“You, Rafiki!”

“How much do you love me?”

“Bunches and bunches!”

The correct answer was, of course, “more than life.” There would never be another cub quite like Taka, but there would also never be another cub quite like Saieti. “Good enough!”

Rafiki dropped the Tiko root and Saieti snapped it up. She savored its goodness, then swallowed it. Then she looked up at him and grunted affectionately.

The mandrill picked up the cub, kissed her and hugged her tightly. “You poor baby! If anyone tries to hurt you again, I’ll kill ‘em!”

She cuddled under his chin and purred. Overcome, Rafiki began to sob, kissing her repeatedly and whispering loving names in his old tongue. “Why do they have to suffer?” he asked Sh’aari. “Why the helpless and the innocent?? She deserves so much more out of life, and if I could take those stripes from her and bear them myself, I would!”

Saieti wrapped her large cub paws around his neck and nestled her head against his shoulder, a faint purring tickling his neck.

Rafiki’s thoughts went back to a different time and place before old age had set in and when all things were fresh and new. He remembered picking up Ajenti and holding her, and asking his new wife, “Isn’t she beautiful, Asumini?”

Asumini had smiled. “Our child will also be beautiful, like its father.”

Dearest Asumini! It was on their wedding day, the beginning of a brief dream of happiness and fatherhood. He kissed Saieti again and closed his eyes, listening to her small heartbeat. Poor Asumini, poor Penda, gone! Spirits in the Kingdom of Aiheu separated from him by every breath he drew, every beat of his own heart.

He clung to the cub, sighed deeply, and remembered. Then he looked in her eyes and kissed her again. “I see the beauty of Aiheu in your smile and the way your eyes shine. I feel the warmth of Aiheu in your soft fur. Never turn from your Uncle Rafiki, my dear. I love you, Saieti.”

“I love you too.”

Sh’aari nuzzled him and smiled, giving him a long, slow lick up the cheek. “Oh, look what I did to your beard!” She quickly began grooming his right side back into some semblance of his left.

Rafiki’s eyes half closed and he felt very much at peace. The realization came streaming through that his happiness had always been there—it had only taken many different forms. “Thank you, Aiheu,” he prayed silently. “You always take care of me. Now if I only had a home of my own…”

At that moment Amara came in. “I hear you need a place to live,” she said. “You can have my old place. I’m staying with my husband now.”

He looked up and sighed gratefully. “That was fast.”

Amara led the crowd down to her small cave in the side of the kopje. It was not much to look at, but it had made her the envy of all the other lionesses.

“Here it is!” she said with obvious pride. “Your new home!”

Rafiki looked inside. It was damp and wet, though Marrie was clearly making a great sacrifice for him.

“You ought to know when it rains, water comes through this crack in the ceiling.”

“I can fill the crack,” he said, thinking aloud. “It will require some work from time to time, and maybe a little straw on the floor will make it a little dryer and warmer. Makaka has lung trouble, so I’ll let him take this side when he sleeps over.” Idly running his fingers through Makaka’s hair, he told Amara, “He’ll usually sleep with you girls if that’s all right. Uzuri is his mother, you know.”

“We’d be delighted!” Amara said, nuzzling Makaka until he had to giggle. “He’s so sweet!”

“We’d have to raise a bed here to keep out the water.”

“I’m sorry we don’t have anything better.”

Rafiki put his arms around Amara’s neck. “Oh gods, It’s the most wonderful present I’ve ever received! Thank you, dear Marrie!”

Still, it was not exactly Busara’s cave…

Old Busara! How long ago those happy days seemed! Once Rafiki thought he would be chief of the mandrill village where he lived. Then Busara brought him to a state of enlightenment, a favor he would buy with his own blood when the priest of the old ways found out. The fever to be a shaman consumed him and transformed him, and finally sent him to his third home. That was supposed to be his final haven, a place to spend the rest of his days in loving service with his wife and children and the people of Ahadi.

Fate was not so kind. With no wife to comfort him, no children to raise, he had lost the home itself with all its memories. Makaka and Uzuri were his only ties to his old life. At his advanced age, he was starting over.

CHAPTER: NIGHT COMES

As the sun began to set, the lionesses gathered for their hunt. Adhama came and nuzzled Uzuri. “Time to gather up,” she said cheerfully. “I’ve looked so forward to the honor of hunting with you, Zuri.”

“I’m flattered,” Uzuri said. “But I’m unfamiliar with the area. Tonight, let me sit with the children.”

“Zuri, don’t be timid! We don’t expect you to bring down a buffalo by yourself! Just tag along and learn the land tonight.”

“Maybe tomorrow,” Uzuri said. “Good hunting, sister.”

Adhama nodded, and before she left she added, “Don’t get used to it. I look forward to seeing you in action out there.”

“I won’t.” Uzuri smiled and pulled a sleepy cub a bit closer.

Adhama nodded and paced away silently, vanishing into the dark. From another clump of brush, Makaka emerged, humming a tune to himself as he meandered over. He sighed and slipped his arms around Uzuri’s neck, hugging her close.

She smiled and kissed him with her warm tongue. “Busy day?”

“Busy week!” He slid down, resting his head on her side. “We walked everywhere! Rafiki found this really cool place to set up in. It’s kind of damp, though.” He yawned hugely. “We had to cut brush and fill cracks. The dampness hurts his joints, you know.” His voice dropped off to a buzz as he slowly nodded off.

Uzuri continued to groom him absently, turning this over in her mind. After all the times Rafiki had rubbed her stuff joint without complaint! She had no idea his joints hurt!

Eventually the warmth of Makaka and the cubs sank into her and she drowsed lightly, head still erect and ears alert for any disturbance. Before too long she detected the familiar tread of Rafiki as he eased through the grass towards her; his distinctive gait barely registering before she relaxed again.

Very quietly, Rafiki bent down next to her face and ever so softly planted a kiss on her cheek. He whispered, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you, girl. If this doesn’t prove it, I don’t know what will.”

One of her eyes opened to look at him.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to wake you!”

“That’s all right.” She patted with her paw and winked. She didn’t have to ask twice—he settled next to her. “You look tense. Relax.” She took a paw and controlling her great strength with finesse, began to rub his back and shoulders. “You need to relax. This day has worn you out.” When she heard the grunt of relief, she knew she’d found the source of his pain and she concentrated on loosening him up. What her paws lacked in dexterity, they made up for in gentle persistence. And only when Uzuri was content with the results did she let him up. “If you feel tense again, you come see me.”

“I will,” he said, kissing her brow. “Thank you.”

She managed to stay awake until the hunting party came back. She had an important job to do, but she was restless and wondered what she was missing on the trail. She also wondered how her own Pride Sisters were faring, and if they caught anything. She glanced back in the direction of Pride Rock and sighed.

When the lionesses returned victorious, she woke the cubs and shared her first meal with her new family. Not knowing many of them well, she heard snatches of gossip and idle chatter that sounded only distantly familiar. As a result, she said very little.

That night as she finally settled to sleep, time and time again in her dreams she re-enacted the parting from her Pride Sisters.

“I give you the most precious possession I have. I gave a lot of thought to what I would say when I left you. In the end there is nothing I can say, and so I leave you with silence. But I can never forget the time we spent together on the trail…”

That was the crux of her problem. She could never forget the time they spent together on the trail. Would she ever be that happy again? And did she have the right to subject Rafiki and Makaka to this?

CHAPTER: CHOOSING A PATH

The next morning, Rafiki dropped by cheerfully but a little stiff. “How did you sleep?”

“Fine.”

“Uh huh…” He looked at her dusty, disarranged fur. “That’s nice.”

Makaka took Rafiki aside. “No. She moaned and tossed all night. She’s not happy here. I heard her crying. Rafiki, I want to go home! I have some friends here, but this place is not good for us.”

Rafiki sighed and made his way back to her. “So, my dear, how do you like it here?”

Uzuri looked pensive. “Fine. But do you think I’ve left my sisters in the lurch?”

“No. They’ll have to adapt, if you really want to stay. Admittedly, it won’t be easy.”

“So you think it’s wrong my being here?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Well, what DID you say?”

“I said—and I will say again—I cannot choose your path. You must go where your heart leads you.”

She shuddered. “I hope you won’t be disappointed, but my heart is leading me back to Pride Rock.”

Rafiki sprang to life. “I’ll get my things!”

“But I have to say good bye.”

“Of course you do. But if we do it quickly, we can make it back in time for tonight’s hunt.” He hugged her tightly. “We can’t have you unhappy, my dear!”

That afternoon, an article of her faith became very real to her. Pain was indeed the brother of pleasure, and in loving Ugas and his pride, she had opened herself to the pain of farewells. Adhama and Amara were dear friends and she would miss them terribly. And there were her sons who must remain behind in the kingdom of her dead husband. But as Aiheu had told all who dared to love, the pleasure was worth the pain—it gave her nobility and inner beauty that shone brightly from her hazel eyes.

Makaka was impatient to leave, hopping from foot to foot at the delay as Uzuri and Rafiki nuzzled each cub and spoke to each of the lionesses.

The brothers insisted on escorting them back to the border, and Uzuri was glad of the company.

“You will visit us, won’t you?” Togo asked.

“Of course I will, if the King permits.”

“The King insists,” Kombi said. “Oh look, I can see the stream from here.” The sadness behind his smile was obvious to her and she nuzzled him.

“There’s no stream deep enough or wide enough to keep us apart,” Uzuri said.

Reaching the bank, she couldn’t help but feel her heart sink as her sons stopped short of the water. She kissed each of them on the cheek, inhaling their scent and holding it in her memory. “I’m so proud of you both! Your father is too, I know it.”

Kombi nuzzled her one last time, then stepped back. “Aiheu abamami, mother. Take care.” Togo bid her farewell, and then joined his brother as they turned and headed back home. Uzuri watched them leave, then slowly turned towards her own home that lay shimmering in the distance like something out of a dream.

The three splashed through the water, then stood once again on their old ground. Without looking back, Uzuri led Rafiki and Makaka past the spot where young Sarabi and Taka used to play. They went through the field where Ahadi lay his feverish body to die with his beloved Akase. She passed the spot where Misha had made her first kill and first made love with Tanabi. And she saw the spot where Pipkah crawled away to die after the great battle. She half smiled when she thought about the tricks she pulled on him. Maybe he learned a little humility at the end—maybe he’d even found peace.

They arrived at Rafiki’s baobab a little before sunset. The reddish hue sparkled from his cheeks as he reentered his old home, each limb and notch calling to him like an old friend. Reaching up, he ran his fingertips gently along the runes painted into the trunk, tracing gently over the Eye of Aiheu with one hand. Making his way to the hollowed alcove where he stored his things, he reached in to put his medicine pouch inside—and stopped, pulling out an ivory tooth, well worn and familiar as his own.

Rafiki clutched the tooth in one palm, feeling warmth steal over him as Ahadi’s voice rang gently in his ears. “Where have you been, you old rascal?”

“In misery,” he said. “But I’m back to stay.” He shuddered in a deep breath, the smell of wild honey enveloping him as he knelt and gave thanks.

Presently he rose and wandered over to where Uzuri sat. He joined her, reaching around and holding her to him as they gazed across the land at the dim silhouette of Pride Rock. Uzuri looked at him, a smile touching her face as she saw the look of peace in his features. “I think we did the right thing.”

“I for one can not disagree.” He grinned. “But you’d better hurry; it’s time for the hunt, isn’t it?”

“Oh!” She purred, rubbing her cheek against his. “Thank you Rafiki!” Descending carefully, she bounded off, the years seeming to fall away as she loped through the grass happily, each landmark that went by stirring new feelings of happiness inside her heart. As she drew near her home, she detected a familiar scent and rushed toward it, a beatific smile beaming from her features. Breaking clear from the grass, she leapt upon a lioness who had been sniffing the ground nearby, knocking the startled creature to the ground. “Fini!!”

“Uzuri?! Oh gods! You’re back!” Sarafina embraced her sister with her forepaws, nuzzling her amid joyful laughter. “Praise Aiheu!”

Uzuri bounded up and smoothed her fur back into place as the other lionesses emerged around them, exclaiming at her appearance. “I feel like a good hunt. Is it too late?” She peered around at them, seeing the happy faces from her childhood, the old friends who had hunted by her side, her gaze finally coming to rest upon one she had trained from a cub. Uzuri nodded at Misha. “Would you have me? I’ll help out in any position you want me in.”

Misha shook her head. “There is only one position I can give you tonight. She padded over to the decimated remains of the pride’s last kill, tearing off a small section of hide. She laid it at Uzuri’s feet, then pressed her paw to the inside of the skin, wetting it with the blood that remained.

Uzuri’s eyes stung with tears as Misha placed her paw upon the older lioness’s cheeks. “I’d give you my most cherished possession, but he’s pledged to me. So I’ll have to give you this.” Kissed her. “Welcome home, hunt mistress.” She sat back and looked at her attentively. “Where will you have us?”

“Eastern meadow,” Uzuri says tersely. “Crescent maneuver, Isha on the left, Sarabi on the right, and girls, give us support from the wadi from the north. It’s good to be home…”

She was in rare form. They killed a water buffalo and feasted royally, heading back home in the small hours of the morning with full swinging bellies and contented smiles all around. As they settled in to sleep, Uzuri heard Simba utter a final roar as he proclaimed his rule once again. And in the distant night, she heard her sons answer, their proud call bringing a smile to her face as it followed her down into peaceful dreams.

CHAPTER: NO SHAME

Uzuri quietly slipped in to Rafiki’s presence. There was no need to ask her what she wanted. Rafiki smiled and put his hands on her shoulder blade, rubbing in tight circles, then gradually spreading out like ripples in a pond to loosen up the joints and warm up the muscles. She grunted with pleasure as he worked his way down to her elbow, relieving her discomfort.

“How is the Garu Root helping?”

“It helps,” she said with a certain reserve.

“But not as much as it used to?”

“Not quite.”

“I see.” Rafiki shook his head.

Uzuri looked at him worriedly. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, you’d just get upset with me.”

“No I wouldn’t.”

Rafiki got some Garu root and began to grate it with a flint pebble. “It’s nothing really. Sometimes I think out loud, and you’re reading too much into it.”

“If you don’t tell me, I PROMISE you I will be upset.”

Rafiki sighed. “It’s not your health, old girl. I was just thinking of something that happened to me when Simba came back. Minshasa came to me that night while I was grieving for Taka.”

“So you were there after all.”

“Yes. You don’t stop loving someone just because they hurt you.” He switched to the other side and began rubbing at the shoulder blade. “Does that feel good?”

“Well? What did she say? Am I going to have to pull it out of you a word at a time?”

Rafiki smiled. “You’re always in a hurry!”

“Rafiki!”

“All right, all right.” He scratched his head uncomfortably. “We were talking, and she asked me what I wanted as a reward for my service. And I guess I looked down at his body and thought about all the people I loved that I’ve had to watch die one by one. Maybe that was what was going through my mind.”

“And?”

“And I said that maybe I’d like a friend that would always be there for me, someone that I wouldn’t have to worry about losing. Someone that would be my friend in this world and the next.” A shy smile of mixed pride and embarrassment crept over his face. “She said, ‘That would be Uzuri.’”

Uzuri smiled. “Was that it?”

“Almost. She told me that her gift to me is that we would both die on the same day.”

Uzuri looked penetratingly into his eyes. “She offered you a gift, and you chose that?”

“I told you you’d be upset.”

“I’m not upset. I’m just—well—surprised at you. There were so many things you could have asked for.”

“That’s what I wanted then, and that’s what I want now. But you know something, old girl? I have so many things I have to do. I must train Makaka before I go to my fathers. You have to take care of yourself. I keep patching you up and sending you out for more wear and tear.” He shook his head again. “I’m glad you’re back where you belong, but why did you come back as Hunt Mistress? Misha is very good for one so young. Wouldn’t you like to live to see her do well at it? Why don’t you do that tonight?”

“But the hunt mistress is what I am! If I wasn’t that, what would I be?”

“You are so many things, all of them very special to me. Go ahead and hunt if you must, but you take such risks. I mean, every time you lunge at a wildebeest, I cringe.” He put his hands out and caressed her lovingly under the chin, running his fingertips gently across her cheeks. “I like that face the way it is,” he said reverently. “Already you have a scar across the bridge of your nose and that nick under your cheek, and that bald spot behind your ear from the gazelle.”

“Thanks for noticing,” Uzuri said a little indignantly.

“Oh gods, listen to me!” He began to gesture wildly. “Every time you go out there, I’m scared out of my wits! I can’t stand it when you get hurt. Every time you get hurt, a piece of my heart dies.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Hey you, listen to me! Avina was every bit as good as you, but gods, the horror of her face, the horror! I’ll never forget that face as long as I live! I can see that happening to you. I have nightmares about it!” He put his arms around her neck and waited a moment for his heart to stop pounding. Then he took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and began to speak to her fatherly. “I know we all have to die sometime, but I don’t want you to be frightened and in pain when you die. I don’t want you gasping out your life with your ribs stove in like Beesa’s.” He kissed her on the cheek and gave her a pat. “When the time comes, I’d want you to lay your head in my lap and drift away quietly. I would give you something for your pain. Then I would wait for Minshasa to come for us. I want it said that they found us together.” Rafiki turned away quickly, wiping his eyes. “I’ll get your Garu root now.”

“Rafiki?”

The mandrill did not turn around. He began soaking the Garu root in water. “I’ll just be a moment.”

“Rafiki, if you think it’s best for Makaka that I step down, I’ll do it. You are the person to train him, and I can’t be selfish and spoil his chances. And Misha would make a fine hunt mistress. I’m sure I could talk her into it.”

Rafiki took in a deep breath and let it out. “Please, Uzuri?”

“I’ll do it. For Makaka.”

“Oh thank God!” Rafiki bent over and began to cry uncontrollably. “Thank God! Thank God!”

Uzuri quietly stalked over and nuzzled him.

CHAPTER: THE FOUR OF US

Uzuri, having pledged to take care of Elanna, is playing with Makaka when suddenly Makaka says, “We’re being watched.” They are by the baobab at the time.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Uzuri.”

“Where are they?”

“It’s a lioness. I don’t know her, but she knows you. It’s coming from…” He began to scan a small region of brush and trees at the edge of the savanna. As if she knew the jig was up, Elanna came stalking out into the open.

“Lannie! I thought you were dead!” Uzuri started forward.

“Don’t hurt me!” Elanna said, starting backward.

“Hon, I won’t hurt you. I’m your friend, remember?”

“Well, I was hoping you wouldn’t hurt me.” She came toward Uzuri and nuzzled her desperately, “Oh Uzuri, I’ve been so alone!”

“Not any more, dear. Not any more.”

“But I can’t come back. The others—they hate me. I just know it. They’ll never let me stay.” She started to cry. “Uzuri, I don’t know what to do! I’ve been alone for the longest time. I can’t stand it anymore! I tried to join Mabongo’s pride but his wife is insanely jealous. She tried to kill me!”

“Oh honey tree!” Uzuri nuzzled her again.

“It was in the hunt. She said it was an accident, but I know better! I almost ended up like Avina!”

“Poor thing!” She stroked Elanna’s cheek with her paw. “You remember my sons Togo and Kombi, don’t you?”

“Yes. How are they?”

“Well Kombi’s a king and Togo’s his Prince Consort.” Uzuri smiled. “Their father died, but his death gave them a new life. Life is like the wind—if you don’t like the way it’s blowing, wait and it will change.” She kissed Elanna’s cheek. “They will be glad to take you in, my dear.”

“Really?”

“Yes, and you could have a fresh start…” She frowned. “No! Your home is here, and you’re going to come home where you belong.”

“But they all hate me. They’ll never forgive me for marrying Taka.”

“I think they will. Don’t you want to see your sister Sarabi again?”

“Oh gods, I’d give anything to see her. But it will never work!”

“I don’t want you give anything—just the effort to trust me and come back. Give it a try.”

“But facing all of them alone…”

“You’re not alone. I will be with you.”

“Why are you so good to me?”

“Because I love you, and because I promised Taka that I would look after you the way you asked me to look after him.”

“How is he? What happened to him?”

“He died like a real lion. You would have been proud of him.”

“You are good, Uzuri. So good to me. If it’s the two of us, I will give it a try. It can’t hurt.”

“The three of us,” Makaka said.

“The four of us,” Rafiki said. Rafiki threw his arms around Elanna’s strong neck. “First Simba came back from death. Now my Lannie. God has been generous.”

Bravely, hopefully, the four friends headed for Pride Rock.

THE EPILOGUE

Makaka looked anxiously toward the mouth of the cave. He was not used to being excluded from Uzuri’s presence, but Uzuri had a few words for Rafiki alone. And since she was so old and in such pain, Makaka was used to granting her every whim whenever possible. Later he planned to pour out many things from his heart—that is, if he could figure out where to begin.

Her last bout with fever had not been going well, and he resented every moment he could not spend by her side. Anasa tried to comfort her husband as well as she could, but though she was an accomplished shaman in her own right, she could not work miracles. And she thought it would take a miracle to bring the smile back to his face.

Gur’bruk and Kambra came to the cave, and they were allowed in at once. Rafiki ushered them in as if they were expected, but asked Makaka to be patient a while longer. Makaka went back to Anasa with a light flush of anger clouding his eyes.

Inside the cave, Rafiki sat bent over with age. In his lap was Uzuri’s head. She was too old and sick to pretend anymore, and when Rafiki put his hand down to stroke her cheek, she took his fingertips in her mouth and gave them a gentle squeeze between her teeth. Tears welled up in Rafiki’s eyes.

“Gur’bruk, Kambra, would you stand over there for a while?” Uzuri said hoarsely. “Be polite and don’t listen in, OK?”

The hyenas nodded respectfully and went to sit in the corner. Uzuri looked at Rafiki. “Honey Tree?”

“Yes, my dear?”

A tear began to roll down her cheek. “It must be hard to love someone the way you loved me and feel so helpless.”

“What?”

“Don’t pretend with me. A female knows these things, whether she’s a mandrill or a lioness.” A smile came to her face. “I thought you were such a fool, wanting to die with me. I didn’t understand then. You weren’t foolish at all. You were just in love.”

“You can’t die, Honey Tree. You mustn’t think of dying.”

“Now you ARE being a fool.” She coughed so hard that her whole body shook. “Don’t worry, my dear friend. Death is but a doorway to the world of Ka, and we will go through the door together. I’ll wait for you in the east. Then we’ll be together forever.”

“Forever,” Rafiki said, his tears splashing on her soft cheek. “That’s a long time to put up with me.”

“I’ve had practice.” She coughed again, this time weaker. “Maybe we won’t be so different on the other side.”

“How are you feeling, old girl? Did the herbs help you any?”

“I can’t tell,” she gasped. Her face clouded with pain. “No, they didn’t! Do you have anything stronger?”

Rafiki looked up helplessly. “Kambra? Gur’bruk?”

Old Gur’bruk came and looked deeply into her eyes. “What color are my eyes?”

“Don’t you know?”

“Come on, Uzuri. What color are they?”

“Well… hazel. No, brownish green… or green. Yes, green. Or is it the light in here? Now they look blue.”

“Blue?”

“Yes. Sky blue. No, there are clouds and… it’s the sky!”

Rafiki stroked her head lovingly. “The sky?”

“Yes! I can see the clouds move!”

Gur’bruk smiled. “Are there birds in the sky, dear?”

“A red bird. Can you see him, Rafiki?”

“Yes.” He wiped away his tears quickly and began to fondle her shoulder and arm while there was still time.

“That red bird is your pain,” Gur’bruk. “It’s flying away. Can you feel it flying away? Getting less and less?”

“Yes.” Her jaw trembled. “Yes, it’s going. Thank the gods, it’s finally going. It’s finally… oh look, it’s Ugas! Ugas! My beloved has come back for me! He’s come back for…” Her breath went out.

Gur’bruk looks up, heartbroken. “Rafiki…”

“I know.” The mandrill touched Gur’bruk’s cheek and fondled Kambra’s neck. “I need a moment alone with her. Please give me that, but don’t tell Makaka she’s dead. I want to tell him myself.”

Gur’bruk found Makaka still sitting anxiously at the mouth of the cave waiting for some word on her condition.

“How is she?”

“Resting peacefully,” Gur’bruk said.

“Well, is she going to be all right?”

Kambra nuzzled Makaka. “Ask Rafiki. But I wouldn’t go in there just yet—he’s very busy.” She slinked off with Gur’bruk, anxious to be clear of the cave before the tears started.

Makaka turned to Anasa. “I know Rafiki was close to her, but so was I. Tell me if I’m wrong, but I think I ought to be in there. I mean, those two got in.”

“They came to help,” Anasa said firmly. “You should show them respect.”

“I’m sorry.” He hugged her. “I don’t know what I’d do if she died. Really, I don’t.”

Meanwhile, Rafiki swept Uzuri’s eyes closed and gently sealed them with a small drop of Dwe’dwe resin. “You must look good, old girl. Your son is coming for a last look-see.”

He pushed her claws back in and smoothed her ears back. He gently put her tongue back between her teeth and lifted her jaw, bracing it up with an arm so that she looked asleep. Then from the locket around his neck he took some silverleaf and rubbed it between his hands, stroking it lovingly into her fur along with his tears. “I want you to smell nice, old girl. I wish I’d had jasmine—it was Penda’s favorite. There now, you look presentable.”

Suddenly he began to sob. “Oh gods, you were always beautiful to me!” He grabbed her paw, giving it a squeeze, kissing it and holding it to his cheek. “Uzuri, my beautiful Uzuri! Remember when we first met? How young we were? Soon we’ll both be fresh and new, my beloved. Your shoulder won’t be stiff anymore.” He laid her paw down and gently ran his fingertips over her bad shoulder. “I bet half the time it wasn’t even hurting, you little trickster. You just wanted my attention.” Tears coursed down his cheeks. “I didn’t mind it one bit. Not one bit. We had an understanding, you and I.”

Makaka sat in anticipation for several more minutes, but loyally he had not moved a single inch. Nor would he if it took days.

“Rafiki?” he called. “Can I come in now? Will she see me?”

The old mandrill came out of the cave. He had a relieved look on his face, and Makaka breathed a sigh. “Good news?”

Rafiki said, “Yes. No more pain. It’s over.”

“Over so soon? You’re a genius, Rafiki! How did you do it?”

Seeing that Makaka did not understand, Rafiki said, “It’s over. Over for good.”

“Over?” Makaka pushed past him and ran into the cave. “Mother? Mother??”

In the dark, he encountered Uzuri’s still warm body. Instinctively he knew the truth. “Oh Gods!” He fell on her body, stroking her neck and kissing her still face. “Mother! Oh Gods! Don’t leave me! Come back, Mother! Don’t leave me!”

Makaka felt the familiar hand of Rafiki on his shoulder. “Son, it was her time. She lived a long life. She was happy. She was loved. You should remember the good she did and be glad.”

Makaka looked around at him in the dark. “How can you say that like it was nothing? I thought you loved her as much as I did! I thought she was your friend!”

Rafiki looked at him, a soft smile on his face and a light in his eyes that made his plain face absolutely beautiful. “Maybe I know something that you don’t. Maybe your mother isn’t out there somewhere.” He patted his chest. “Maybe she’s right in here.”

Tears flooded Makaka’s eyes and he took the frail mandrill in his arms. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“I know.”

“I have a father too. I love him and I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings.”

“You keep talking like that and I WILL cry.” Rafiki kissed him on the cheek. “I must go now, Makaka my son. You stay here with your mother and pray over her, then you get Misha and Swala to help you move her. You’ll also want them to tell the pride sisters and the King.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going on a journey. I had to delay it because of Uzuri, but now I can’t wait any longer. Take care of yourself, my son. You’re in charge till I get back. That might be a very long time.”

Rafiki left the cave without looking back. He didn’t want Makaka to know it was the last time they would meet in this world.

Anasa was waiting for him. “Does he know yet?”

“No. And just you remember what we discussed.” Rafiki kissed her cheek. “Wait until the next full moon, then tell him that Zazu found me by Elephant Kopje.”

She ran her fingertips around Rafiki’s eye and touched him beneath the chin. “Aiheu abamami.”

“Aiheu abamami,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it. “No tears now. You must be strong for his sake. Watch over him for me. And remember, not a word.” Rafiki took the locket of Mano’s fur and placed it around her neck. “Give this to him later. I won’t need it where I’m going.”

The old mandrill took up his staff and turned toward the east. He looked ahead, not at the trees or even the horizon, but beyond the sun and moon where Minshasa waited for him.

Come gentle night, stealing through the rushes; The sun is sinking lower in the sky, Stars wink in amid the azure heavens And I can feel that God is very nigh.

My path grows short, home is drawing nearer; Soon I will be laying down to rest. Do not mourn, for it is Aiheu calling And I will find a place among the blessed.


THE END: UNDER THE ACACIAS