THE PROMISE
A Chronicles of the Pride Lands Story
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. “The Promise” is distributed free of charge excepting reasonable distribution costs. Quoting passages from our work, writing original pieces based on our work, or using characters we created is fine as long as you secure prior approval. That begins by sending either of us a copy of the work. Our e-mail addresses are

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

David A. Morris: damorris@wilmington.net

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

The character Isha is the property of Brian Tiemann. Used with permission.

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

FOREWORD BY THE AUTHORS

After the stylistic experiment of “The Leonid Saga,” it was comforting to return to something tried and true. But would be unfair to say “The Promise” was not experimental. All of the Chronicles stories have been like exploring new worlds. Even my most devoted fans—and some of them are very wonderful—could not enjoy reading these stories any more than Dave and I enjoyed writing them. I recall with misty eyes the joys and suffering of certain favorite characters. Once in “Under the Acacias” I strove to capture in one short paragraph the way I felt about Uzuri before finishing the main Chronicles series. It was my way of thanking her for all the wondrous experiences she had given me. The sky outside was soft and purple, and the stars were winking into splendor one by one. I sat at the keyboard and typed the one short paragraph

“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.”

I wept. Her charm was a two-edged sword that cut both ways. One moment I was Makaka circling her warm, soft neck with my arms and listening to her soft breath. Then I was witnessing an intimate and tender moment of grief. When Uzuri died, I knelt, put my arm around Rafiki and hugged him. “Look at her,” I said. “Isn’t she beautiful.” Only he didn’t hear me or see me. That’s when it really started to hurt, for we had switched roles. I was the imaginary character, the shadow without form or substance.

Writing another story always seems to help. Depressed, I turned my eyes to The Leonid Saga, and then to The Promise. I hope my simple therapy makes you feel better too.

John Burkitt
Nashville, Tennessee 1997

Everyone who takes the time to read or write fiction of any sort has favorite moments that they enjoy, things that take on a new meaning and characters that stand apart from the rest of the text.

How do they do this? It goes beyond the magic an author weaves into his or her work and into the characters themselves. Like us, each of them has their hopes and dreams. And all to often, like us, those are disrupted by forces beyond our control and smashed to lie in pieces at our feet.

It is those who pick up the pieces and keep on going regardless that earn our admiration. Those that endure the pain because they know that pain is as much a part of life as pleasure, and that pain cannot last forever… but love always endures.

Those like Mabatu and Isha.

David Morris
Wilmington, North Carolina 1997

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

To Trey McElveen who read and re-read the rough copy with a kindly but critical eye. To Mirco Zacher who suggested the idea of covering Mabatu’s pride in a fanfic. To all our fans whose kind letters encouraged us to take the time to do this. And last but not least to every Disney employee that worked on The Lion King and felt, even for a moment, that it was more than just a job. You hear that, Andreas Deja?

CHAPTER: THE BEGINNING

“It was a hard journey they made, but one they walked

out of love for you.”

— Umande

The anniversary of Taka’s reign was also the anniversary of Mufasa’s death. Taka hated to stand in the shadow of his brother and forbade Gopa the stork to spread the news.

Still, out of love for Elanna, he celebrated his first wedding anniversary. By tradition he went hunting and what he killed would go to his wife. He was not much of a hunter, and the best prey he could find was an old honey badger too weak to defend itself. Under most circumstances, badgers would not have been considered prey, but this gift was his best effort and a token of love. Elanna would understand. Besides, he felt a certain satisfaction in conquering an old fear from his cubhood days.

With a cut on his muzzle and still panting, Taka crept up the side of Pride Rock and stalked into the cave, the badger dangling from his jaws. Elanna looked up expectantly. She saw the gift and knew at once what it meant.

With the excitement of a puppy about to be fondled, Taka closed the remaining distance with ears erect and tail twitching. He dropped the gift at her feet and smiled. “Happy anniversary, my darling Lannie!”

“Oh look, a badger!” She rose at once and rubbed him sinuously full length. Then she raised on her hind legs and put her arms around his neck, rubbing his face with hers and bearing him lovingly to the ground where she panted in soft leonine laughter. “You didn’t forget!”

“You’d better eat it while it’s still warm.”

“Forget the meat, my husband. Have I told you lately that I love you?”

“Every day. It’s what wakes me up every morning and it’s my lullaby every night.” He touched her with his gentle pink tongue and reached up with a paw to fondle her cheek. “Oh gods, I love you more than life itself!”

In the midst of their intimate moment, Isha came in. “Sire, there’s a strange lioness that wants to see you.”

“A strange lioness?? What does she want?”

“She won’t tell us.”

He nuzzled Elanna. “I’ll be right back. Remember where we left off.”

Taka headed to the mouth of the cave. A miserable creature was slowly trudging up the side of Pride Rock. “Who is that?”

“Her name is Kako,” Isha said. “She came from the east.”

He could tell that she was expecting cubs, but her face lacked the radiance lions called the “light in the eyes.” She slowly strode before the Pride Sisters, and each one dropped her eyes in turn. She was beautiful and noble in her suffering. Taka felt that he could relate to her somehow. He had known suffering intimately, and realized with a shock that he could almost read her thoughts.

She walked unsteadily to the mouth of the cave and looked in Taka’s eyes. “Please help me.”

Taka looked back into her hazel eyes. The sadness in them was overwhelming, but she managed to straighten herself and put forth some pride in her bearing. It was clear that she was used to being respected.

“My dear, what brings you to my kingdom?”

“I’m seeking a home.”

“Why are you homeless?” He looked at her with pity. “You have—you had—a mate. Did he die, or were you a rogue lioness?”

She looked at him directly in the eyes. “I am a good huntress—one of the best in these parts, and I can prove it. My name is Kako.”

“Well, Kako, you aren’t guilty of some crime are you? Or—ugh—sick with something catching?”

Again she looked at him unwaveringly. “If you don’t want me, I can move on. But I am not sick and I have committed no crime.”

“And you actually want to come here?” He glanced around at the hyenas and back at her. “Why, pray tell?”

She stood as regal and silent as a statue and kept looking him in the eyes. Taka could not explain it, but he felt a deep shame, a feeling of unworthiness he would have only expected from the white lioness herself. If she needed a home, somehow he must make provide one.

He glanced about at the other lionesses and could see expectation in their faces. Clearly this Kako had their sympathies. Besides, her blend of pride and sadness put thorns in his heart.

“Kako, my heart is not made of stone. You do not show me proper deference, but I will not turn you away. Will you accept my authority as your King?”

She gave a single silent nod.

Taka looked into her large, sad eyes and regarded the droop of her ears and tail. “I will respect your privacy and require my pride to do likewise. But may I hope to see you smile someday? Your sadness staves me through.”

Tears formed in Kako’s eyes and began to roll down her cheeks. She did not avert her gaze, though her chin trembled and her breath came in short gasps. Taka struggled to maintain his regal pose, even though silver tears formed in his eyes and worked their way down his cheeks. But after a few moments of exquisite pain, Taka had to look away. “Isha, Uzuri, see to her needs.”

Taka wandered into the cave where Elanna sat by the badger. “Well, how did it go?” she asked.

“Lannie,” he half whispered, “I think I just saw a ghost.” He nuzzled her desperately, drying his tears against her sympathetic shoulder. Then he settled next to her, trying to recapture his good mood as she ate.

CHAPTER: THE SISTERHOOD

Kako was greatly helped by the love and support of her new pride sisters, and she looked for a way to show her gratitude. She offered to join them on the evening hunt though she had not studied the land.

As the Pride Sisters gathered up, talk centered on the new arrival. The few details they could pry out of Kako’s dark past were tantalizing. She had borne cubs before and had survived an attempt on her life when she was three moons old. She said that she had once seen the white lioness herself, Minshasa the blessed. But the reason for her exile was sealed away behind her soft, enigmatic hazel eyes.

Kako had many questions herself. She did not understand why Taka put up with hyenas or why he did not require them to hunt for themselves. “You would think he owed them a big favor.”

Sarabi remembered how Taka had loved her once, and she raised a half-hearted defense for the sake of what he once meant to her.

“There is a curse on him. I used to deny it. I thought it was foolishness, but I have seen it grow and spread destruction over everything he touches. He despises life, but he fears death, and so he goes on through a never-ending nightmare.”

“I could see it in his eyes,” Kako said.

“We were going to be married, but he wanted to leave the Pride Lands with him. I told him that I couldn’t, so he asked me to choose between my home and his love.”

“And you chose to stay?”

Sarabi looked down. “Yes.” She sighed. “Kako, you must understand, I loved Taka like a brother, but not like a husband. I loved Mufasa, and if you’ve ever been in love, you know how hard it is to fight your own heart.”

Kako’s eyes filled with tears and her chin trembled. “It’s almost impossible, but it can be done. It really can.”

Sarabi blinked. A tear ran down her cheek. “Kako, honey tree, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up painful things!”

“Don’t be sorry,” Kako said. She nuzzled Sarabi. “Where did the hyenas come into this?”

“Taka went away to find peace at the bottom of the gorge. Fabana stopped him. She adopted him, and when his mother Akase died, she was his only family. I must admit that her love for him is almost leonine in its strength and I feel she is a good person—for a hyena.”

“OK. I might have invited Fabana to stay, but her whole clan too? Does he always act without weighing the consequences??”

Sarabi sighed deeply. “I didn’t say it made sense. I only said he has known a lot of pain in his life, and somehow they make him feel better. It’s strange, but he’s always been a little strange.”

“A lot strange if you ask me,” Isha said.

“I didn’t,” Sarabi said with mild irritation.

Kako quickly nuzzled Sarabi. “Well you girls make ME feel better. I didn’t mean to cause any problems.”

“You didn’t,” Isha said, nuzzling Kako and then kissing Sarabi. “We have our little scrapes, but we’re a sisterhood.”

Kako set about to prove herself on the hunt. She was very focused, as intense on the hunt as she was facing Taka. The hunt was a dance between predator and prey, and Kako was a graceful ballerina, a thing of beauty and deadliness. Uzuri gave her wide latitude in choosing her own approach, sure she had another Avina in her care. It proved to be correct, and while the others pursued a group strategy, Kako silently crept up on a bontebok. Her rush was sudden, terrible, and victorious. Isha gasped with amazement at her effortless grace even in the kill, and came to her as she stood over her trophy. Isha nuzzled her warmly and said, “Well done, my sister!”

“May we be sisters?”

“Of course. I take some pride in my own hunting skills. It will be a bond between us.”

Kako nuzzled her back. “Even so. And we are passionate about our beliefs. That is another bond between us.”

Isha led her away a short distance. “Kako, I wouldn’t dream of asking you in front of the others. But if we are going to be sisters, confide in me.”

Kako looked away and sighed. “If we are going to be sisters, insist that I say nothing. Turn from me even if I come willingly to pour out my heart. You must give me the strength to bear this awful secret for the love of one I left behind and one I bear inside me. Help me, Isha—a lot depends on it. Help me!”

“Forgive me,” Isha said quietly. In lion fashion, she put her paw over Kako’s mouth and then kissed her. “I have sealed the secret away. But from this point on, let no new secrets divide us, Sis.”

“I’d like that,” Kako said, breathing out a sigh and smiling for the first time.

CHAPTER: THE LITTLE STRANGER

Kako was always present on the hunt, even the days she was sick with a fever and barely able to stay awake. Her pregnancy was only an inconvenience to her, one she dealt with firmly.

One night they were hunting wildebeests. Kako’s gait was unsteady, and often gritted her teeth in pain. Uzuri was loathe to order her home, so impressed was she by her courageous dignity, but she winced when Kako held her cries to a stifled moan to keep from alerting the prey.

Uzuri stalked closer and closer to the herd, excited by the prospect of getting a decent kill for the first time in a long while.

Fanning out to the full width of the crescent, the huntresses awaited Uzuri’s signal. Kako was on the left tip, a position requiring some skill, but she had proved her worthiness time and time again. Kako was tense and preoccupied, fighting her discomfort with a will only a lioness could muster.

Uzuri’s ears twitched. She sprang from cover and soared toward the herd like a golden hawk. Sarabi closed in quickly from the right to drive the herd as it blossomed into full retreat. Kako lumbered along on the left, trying to block out her pain and give her best effort.

Uzuri closed on a wildebeest, locked in a battle of two wills to survive. Three other lionesses swarmed over the unfortunate beast and soon it was gasping for its final breath with Uzuri’s strong jaws closed on its throat. The pride would survive another week.

On the left flank, Kako let out a shriek of agony. It galvanized the other lionesses who thought she had been gored. Isha and Sarafina came running to her aid.

Kako was trying to stagger out of the way of an oncoming wall of animals. Isha and Fini rushed to her side. They snarled and clawed, parting the wildebeests the way a large rock in a stream divides the water until she was out of danger. Isha trembled like a leaf. “Whoa, girl, that was a close one!”

Sarafina said, and without irreverence, “I know how Mufasa must have felt. They look different when they’re running AT you. They’re BIG.”

“I know.”

“Oh gods!!” Kako shrieked, her slow, unsteady gait betraying her extreme agony. Isha and Sarafina looked around at their pride sister grimacing in agony. Her water broke, quickly soaking the fur on her leg with blood and humors. She stumbled a couple of steps toward her friends and she moaned. “Help me! Somebody help me!”

“Lay down! Lay down!” Isha ran to her as she collapsed on her side. “Kako! Honey Tree! It’s going to be all right!”

“Isha, you’re so good to me. I love you, Isha.”

“I love you too. Don’t you die on me, girl! Now listen to me—I know you’re in pain, but bear down. Push as hard as you can, and it will be over sooner.”

“I don’t think I can.” Kako gritted her teeth as a moan of agony escaped her. “Aiheu! God help me! Help me!”

“Bear down!” Isha said in a commanding voice. “Do it!”

Kako’s eyes bulged until the whites showed, and sweat popped out, matting her fur. “I’m trying, Isha! I’m trying! I shouldn’t have come out tonight!”

“I hate to say I told you so,” Isha said, trying to be calm. But the tip of her tail twitched nervously. “Push! Bear down, for God’s sake! Push!!”

Oh gods!” She gasped. “I think something’s happening!”

Blood stained the grass near her tail. “Look!” Uzuri said. “Here it comes!”

“Come on, Honey Tree!” Isha kissed her on the cheek. “You can do it, Sis!”

A half smile broke through the tense face on Kako. “Yes, I can! I can! It’s happening!”

With a half-choked-back shriek, Kako expelled a small body still wrapped in its maternal cloak. Excitedly, Isha pulled the sac from the infant and began to clean it off.

Uzuri came over excitedly. “Oh, look at him! He’s beautiful!” The other pride sisters gathered around in respectful silence before the start of a new life.

Isha said, “Mother, behold your son.”

Panting with the effort of bringing life into the world, Kako looked at the small, wet treasure that God had given her. “Come, my son.” She gently nudged the small child against her abdomen and lay exhausted as he took his first meal under the starry sky. With a tired smile, Kako said, “He was born at night. He’ll be a mighty hunter someday.”

Isha touched the small infant with her tongue. “Isn’t he beautiful! What are you going to call him?”

“He will be Mabatu, like his father.”

CHAPTER: MORE THAN AN UNCLE

Kako was worried about presenting Mabatu to the King. She had seen only compassion and kindness in Taka’s eyes, but she had also heard—and overheard—a lot of things about him that distressed her.

There were always the hyenas. It struck Kako as unnatural that they would be sharing the rock with lions. Certainly Mufasa would never have permitted such a thing. Everyone spoke of Mufasa like some sort of Mano with golden fur. Everyone, that was, except Taka. Once when coaxed to speak of his brother, Taka told Kako that Mufasa was dull witted and more obsessed with popularity than with handing down the hard decisions that a King should make. “He sat watching the wildebeests while I paid attention to my lessons. Alas, cruel irony of fate, he was trampled by them. The one good thing I can say about him was that he loved his son.”

Kako had noticed that Taka was a little odd. He had a certain intensity when he stared at her right in the eyes, and he possessed a lot of strange mannerisms. But she tried to convince herself that the other lionesses were unfairly prejudiced against him. And of course, she did not dream that Taka had driven out his nephew and murdered his own brother!

Kako finished Mabatu’s first meal, then she took him gently by the scruff of the neck and carried him gingerly back to Pride Rock to her favorite haunt.

The king came running down the trail. When Taka first caught sight of young Mabatu, he was elated. “Look at him! Isn’t he a looker!”

Kako looked up and smiled pleasantly. “They say love makes the child beautiful,” she replied. “I gave up everything for him, and it shows.”

Indeed, after the hunt was divided, all the lionesses filed by to pay their respects and many of them mentioned his good looks. It was a saying among the lionesses that handsome cubs often grew up to be plain, and sometimes the homeliest cubs grew up to be stunningly beautiful. But it didn’t keep them from hoping he would one day live up to his promise.

Taka’s sense of duty compelled him at the sight of the proud stranger caring for her child in a strange land. As ruler of the pride, he felt responsible for them and went beyond what was necessary to insure their comfort. During the days of Mabatu’s milk, Taka would save choice portions of the kills for Kako so that her milk would be wholesome and plentiful. And when Mabatu began to try solid food, Taka would bring him tempting tidbits to eat. Baba, as he was often called, found Taka more of a father than an Uncle.

Despite all the lavish attention paid her by the king, Kako was somehow immune from the prejudice that had tarnished Elanna. It was all right that Taka loved her like a sister and loved Mabatu like a son. All who knew them felt the same way. If anything, it helped Taka’s perception among the Pride Sisters, and while he was never liked as a King, he was tolerated because of his care for little Baba. Even Isha paid him grudging respect when she saw him give up part of his share of the kill for the cub.

Once briefly Elanna expressed a little jealousy of Kako and the attention she was getting. But Taka kissed her and nuzzled her and said, “In her I see my deepest pains. In you I see my deepest joys.”

CHAPTER: LEAN RATIONS

When Mabatu was three moons old, he went to his Auntie Isha for his nightly lesson in star lore. She had to cancel class because the sky was overcast. A bolt of lightning flashed and within moments it was raining heavily. That rain would be remembered for a long time because it was the last one before the drought.

Hunting had already begun to suffer in the Pride Lands because of the hyenas. Besides taking many of the best resting places, shedding hair and raising a smell that many lions called ‘oppressive’ or ‘downright disgusting,’ the hyenas ate a lot for animals their size. There were signs they hid away some of the prey as well. And while the lionesses never killed rabbits, their small carcasses were found more and more often. The hyenas were eating much better than the lions, and the issue began to raise some angry words among the Pride Sisters who had to hunt for their own cubs.

Then came the terrible draught that would be known for many years after as ‘Taka’s scourge.’ It seemed like an unfair name, but Rafiki assured them later that One-who-makes-rain was holding back the water because of Taka himself.

For the first week without rain, no one was alarmed. Two dry weeks seemed odd. Three weeks, and lionesses began to make remarks. But after four weeks without rain, hunting began to become an exercise in frustration.

Among the first to leave the Pride Lands were the hunters. Timid at first, but progressively more bold, the cheetahs would stand the humiliation of a shamefully long wait to see the king. Then Taka would listen politely to their complaints, say something patronizing, and dismiss them.

Eventually the cheetahs left, followed shortly by the leopards that haunted the edges of the Pride Lands. Before the drought was over, the foxes, wild dogs, and eagles would desert the land. Only the vultures never left, but they had their eyes on Pride Rock and bigger game.

Little Baba’s appetite was growing along with his body. His “Uncle Taka” had to work harder to find enough for him to eat. As the river receded, several shallow pools formed along the edges where fish were trapped. The hyenas tended to raid theose as soon as they formed, though the lionesses eventually caught on and would keep a watchful eye along the bank. Those fish were all that stood between them and starvation, and they dared the hyenas to touch them under pain of death. Taka used his royal privilege, however, and brought Baba a couple of large fish. When Baba turned from them, Taka sighed and said morosely, “But I caught them myself just for you.”

Baba sniffed of them again and tried one. It was not bad, and he quickly downed it with a look of pleasure. Then he started to eat the other, but stopped. “What are you going to eat?”

“I’ll find something.”

“Here.” He shoved the fish over to Taka. “You eat this one.”

Taka looked into Mabatu’s face, stunned. “What a kind thing to do,” he said, giving him a warm nuzzle. “I love you, Baba.”

“I love you too.”

CHAPTER: THE SUITOR

Kako was dubious about Taka’s care of her son, but she adored Isha and looked forward to her visits. Isha had endless patience with the boisterous love Mabatu gave her, stoically enduring his pounces at her tail, his tugging at her ears and his snapping at her heels. She knew when the rough play was over he would look to her with unadulterated love. Then she would hold him close with joy, kissing his small face and fondling him with her paw.

One day when Isha came to take care of Mabatu while Kako went to see Rafiki. Kako told Isha, “You’re the sister I never had. What wonderful thing did I do to deserve you?”

Isha nuzzled her. “I was just wondering the same thing.”

“That’s the third time this moon you’ve taken care of Mabatu for me. There must be something I can do in return.”

“I love the little fellow. I enjoy every moment we spend together. That’s my reward.”

While Kako was gone, Isha settled down to watch him play until he was ready for sleep. But he was in high spirits and kept challenging her to a fight so they wrestled instead. Mabatu had a size disadvantage, but he’d learned a new move, and he grabbed for her hind leg, pulling her off balance. When she toppled easily, he pounced on her stomach and giggled. “Gotcha!”

“What a little stinker!” She crawled out from under him, dusted herself off, and said, “I’ll get you next time, you little rat fink.”

He reached up and kissed her. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

He smiled. “Are you married?”

She laughed self-consciously. “No. But maybe someday the right lion will come along.”

He kissed her again. “When I grow up, I want to marry you.”

“Oh, Baba!” She pawed him and giggled. “What am I going to do with you!”

“Please don’t laugh at me. I meant it.”

She paused and looked at the very sincere, sensitive look in his eyes. Indeed, he meant it.

“I wasn’t laughing at you. It was just such a sweet thing to say. I wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.”

“You’re not mad?”

“No.” She kissed him and rubbed his cheek with her large paw. He looked at her with absolute love and touched her paw with his. A deep warmth spread through, and her eyes shone like stars. “That was the nicest proposal I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard quite a few.” She pulled him over with her paw. “Time for your bath, squirt.”

Mabatu meekly submitted to the ritual without the usual objections. As she cleaned his fur, he purred quietly and looked deeply into her eyes. Even his own mother could not get him to behave while she bathed him, much less force him to enjoy it.

Mabatu was sorry to see his mother come back from Rafiki’s appointment so soon. He greeted her affectionately, but was loathe to let Isha go. Isha kissed him more than usual and nuzzled him. “I love you, my special little boy.”

“I love you too.”

Later that day as the lionesses gathered for the hunt, Uzuri came to Isha with a broad smile on her face. “Congratulations!”

“On what?”

“On the big event. Mabatu just told me the good news.” She laughed merrily.

Embarrassed, Isha asked her, “Who else did he tell?”

“I don’t know. But I’d catch him quickly if I were you.”

“I’ll have a little talk with him.” Isha thought a moment and burst out laughing. “He asked me if I was married. The little rat fink, I should have known what he was up to!”

CHAPTER: OUR LITTLE SECRET

Isha did not know if Kako had heard any of the snide remarks. She grimaced with embarrassment as she went to see Mabatu’s mother and clear things up once and for all.

“Isha!” Kako said with her usual sunshine. She nuzzled Isha and patted her shoulder with a paw. “You’re so sweet taking care of my Baba. He had such a good time last night, he was talking about it on and on!”

“Oh?” Isha smiled timidly. “Anything I should know about?”

Kako’s ears twitched, but she made nothing of it as if she didn’t hear the question. Isha was not about to ask it again.

Baba saw her and came running up, eyes shining. “Isha! Isha!” He pounced on her, kissing her with his soft, warm tongue and rubbing her face.

“Hello, Rat Fink!”

He smiled broadly. “Hello, Isha!” Sitting next to her, Baba looked at his mother and said, “Guess what I’m going to do when I grow up!”

“I like guessing games,” Isha said quickly. “Baba, I have a little secret for you if your Mom doesn’t mind.”

“A little secret?” Kako said with a grin. “Ooooh, sounds serious!”

“Oh it is,” Isha said slyly with a wink and a smile. Gently but urgently, she nudged the smiling cub around a few rocks and bushes, then said as calmly as she could, “Baba, I don’t think you should tell your Mom about us yet. In fact, you shouldn’t tell anyone.”

Mabatu’s ears sagged. “Oh.”

“Honey Tree, getting engaged is a big step. At your age, you could still change your mind.”

“But I won’t!” He nuzzled her. “I love you, Isha! I’d marry you right now if they’d let me.”

“I believe you, Fuzzy Love.” Trying not to hurt his feelings, she nuzzled his small body and kissed him. “Just follow my advice and hold off until you get older, like when you’re approaching your mantlement. Then when you say it, they will understand it the way I do. You see, if you DID happen to change your mind…”

“But I won’t! I love you! I really do!”

“I know. But let’s just say IF you did, you wouldn’t have to make it up to me. And I’d understand.”

“You DO love me back, don’t you?”

“What do you think, Baba?” She lay down and with her paw easily scooped her small suitor to her side. Fondling him with a paw, she purred, “You’re a special part of me, and if you were taken away, it would leave a wound that would bleed. You’re my little golden treasure.” Mabatu began to grunt with pleasure at her touch. “If you really love me, it won’t be a long two years. The days will speed past, but don’t wish them away. Once you cross that threshold and become a lion, all your free and easy days of cubhood are gone forever. Understand me, Rat Fink?”

“Yeah.” He pushed out from under her paw and rubbed his face against hers. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

CHAPTER: WE’RE TALKING KINGS AND SUCCESSIONS

Only two and a half months after Elanna married Taka, she began having contractions. She was in danger of having a miscarriage, or at least that’s what Kako could gather from a few snatches she overheard. The hyena guards would not let her too close to Taka’s cave, and they would not give her a straight answer.

An old mandrill was escorted quickly to the cave, his hyena guard supremely impatient with his unsteady, lumbering gait. Kako had heard of Rafiki. Whisperings from the hyenas and a few disparaging remarks from Taka would lead her to believe that some evil sorcerer was being confined in the baobab. The other lionesses, however, told a different story. She did not know what to believe.

Rafiki passed close by Kako. He paused and looked at her. In a kind and bashful voice, he said, “My dear, I don’t believe I’ve seen you before. Has it been that long?”

The mandrill yelped as one of the guards nipped his flank. Quickly he drew his fingers in blessing across her cheek and started on before he could be bitten again.

Kako was watching and listening, but was in a poor position to tell what was going on. She would have to ask Uzuri later. The conversation was anxious and rose and fall, but she could make out very little. Then she heard very clearly, “Rafiki! Do something! Anything! My son, my son!”

A few moments of near absolute silence went by. If this mandrill was really a great sorcerer, he would perform some great spell, probably in exchange for his freedom. That was the plan, wasn’t it? “Aiheu,” she whispered, “give him the power. Give him the power.”

After a few moments, she heard a loud cry from the cave. It was not an apelike sound but the heart-rending howl of a fully-grown male lion whose strength and courage could not even keep a small cub from dying before his eyes.

Isha, her ears and tail drooping, went past bearing a small dead male. “Oh Isha,” Kako whispered, pawing her shoulder as she walked by. Isha looked around, her eyes red with hopeless tears. Soon after that, escorted by hyenas, Rafiki dragged past as well. Kako watched the grief stricken mandrill limp by, leaning heavily on his staff. If possible, he looked even older and more bent than before.

Taka came out on the promontory and shouted in his anguish, “If there is a God…” He took in a deep breath and concluded, “… please help me!!” He sat on the end of the promontory, his face bent low and sobbed. Fabana slipped alongside him and held up her finely chiseled nose, howling like her heart would crumble. Even the lionesses that hated him most were silent, transfixed by the depth of their grief. Then Taka raised his muzzle to the sky, pulled in a deep breath and roared with pain. All of the lionesses took up the sound. The hyenas howled and yammered, and from a nearby acacia, a flight of weaverbirds scattered like a living cloud. The silence that followed could almost be nudged by a paw. All eyes were on the dark-maned lion as he trudged down the promontory.

Still weak in the knees, Taka wended his way down Pride Rock and crept slowly to where Kako stood with her son.

“It seems the Gods have spoken,” Taka said. “There will be no prince from my line.” His chin began to tremble and tears spilled down his cheeks. “She can never… the damage has…”

Fabana quickly pressed her shoulder against his. “Remember, son. You’re a king.”

Taka did his best to keep some royal dignity, but he looked like a trembling blade of grass caught in a strong wind. Kako quietly padded over and kissed him. “I’m so sorry. You poor dear-I mean, Your Majesty.”

“Kako, you came to me from the gods. Your goodness is one of the few things that can laugh at the curse that burns my blood.” He sighed, and with great effort said, “Mabatu is my Prince, and your future King.”

“You honor us, Bayete.”

He looked at Mabatu. “Hello, sport.”

“Hello, Your Majesty.”

“You are a prince now. You should call me by my name, or if you feel like it, you may call me… please call me… Dad?”

Mabatu came and sat next to him, burying his head in Taka’s mane. “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too.” He kissed Baba. “You’re my last hope, son. Go to sleep a little early tonight ‘cause tomorrow, I’m waking you at sunrise. I have something I want to show you.”

“What?”

“You’ll see.”

CHAPTER: ON THE PROMONTORY

Mabatu stood on the end of the promontory with Taka and saw the sunrise.

“Look at the light,” Taka said. “See how splendid it makes the plain look? That is my kingdom, and someday it will be yours.”

“When?”

“When I die,” Taka said, solemnly.

“Then I hope I never get to be king,” Mabatu said.

“What a beautiful, foolish notion! We all have to go into the east when our time comes. What makes life worth living is what you do with the time you have. Like this morning. I made sure I woke up to show you this, because it was important to me. When I’m seated among the stars, I’ll look back on this memory and smile.”

“Me too.” Mabatu leaned against Taka’s dark mane. “So Dad, when you were my age, did your dad do this with you?”

Taka said, “My father was…” He stiffened and his jaw began to quiver. “He was always… I mean, we never…”

The words stuck in his throat. Tears began to stream down his face.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh nothing.” He wiped his eyes with a paw. “Please, don’t watch me cry. Please? Just go run along and see your mother—I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Reluctantly, sadly, Mabatu nuzzled his king and stalked down the promontory leaving Taka alone with his private grief.

“Aiheu! Roh’kash! Anyone!” Taka cried in an anguished voice that echoed off the distant hills. “If you’re really out there, why did you take my son?? Why??” He dropped his face to the ground and sobbed helplessly.

CHAPTER: A NICE COLD DIP

Mabatu was living up to his promise. Those who thought handsome babies often grow up to be plain had to admit that there were exceptions to every rule. At one year of age, Baba was still a youngster, but his beauty would turn the heads of the female cubs. Like warm sunshine was his smile, and his walk was a carefully choreographed dance of joy that delighted the eye and gladdened the heart.

Lela padded over to him at the cistern as he stopped to draw refreshment and watched him with deepest admiration. “Baba? What’cha doing now?”

“I’m seeing what I’d look like with big round wrinkles.”

She laughed. “I don’t think you COULD look ugly if you tried.”

“Oh really?” He crossed his eyes and covered the end of his nose with his tongue.

“Eww, gross!” She turned sideways, and bending her body away from him, she said, “How about my long, furry tongue!” She opened her mouth and passed her tail along her opposite cheek and wiggled it.

“Cool! How about a big wet kiss with it!” He did likewise. “Like this?”

“Yeah! That’s so sick!”

“Hey, that’s nothing. Wanna hear me roar?”

“You, roar??”

“Sure I can. Just listen…” He gulped air several times, then with a look of supreme concentration, he held up his snout and vented it in a long, soulful belch.

“You win!” she said, giggling. “I could NEVER do that!”

He sprang at her and put his paws around her neck. Giggling, she wrestled with him, planning all the time to let him win but not to let it show.

Back and forth they swayed, standing on hind limbs with a supreme effort to unseat each other and pin shoulders to the ground. Then Mabatu lost his footing and rolled backwards. With a loud splash, he landed in the icy cistern, paddling in shock through the chilly waters to the side.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Lela said, helping pull him out by the scruff of the neck. As he stood dripping and shivering, she kissed his face. “I like you, Baba! I always have! I’d never do anything to hurt you!”

“I know.” He shook off, showering her with moist diamonds. “Hey, so I slipped. No big deal.”

“So you’re not mad?”

“No.” He touched her cheek with his tongue. “It’s OK.”

“I’m glad.” She kissed him back. “I really do like you. Do you think I could see you again?”

He smiled. “Why not? Just don’t drown me, OK?”

She laughed. “It’s a deal!”

Just then, Isha walked by. “Were you swimming in the cistern?”

“I’m sorry, Isha. It was an accident.”

“Well try to be more careful. Hey, we have to drink that stuff!” She nuzzled him. “I’m headed out to Anteater Kopje to scout out the herd if anyone asks where I am.”

“Can I come too??”

“Sure, if you’ll be quiet.”

His face positively glowed. “Not a word,” he said, putting his paw over his mouth and winking. It may have looked funny to other creatures, but among lions it is a solemn promise of silence.

Lela’s ears drooped. “But I wanted to play tag!”

“Maybe later,” Mabatu said.

“Tag sounds fun,” Isha said, encouragingly.

“Yeah, but I have stuff to do.” When Isha left, he trotted along behind her toward the distant kopje.

Lela sighed. “Oh well.” She went and looked in the cistern at her reflection, then touched it with a paw. The waves made her face dance, and she had to smile at the effect. “Maybe tomorrow.”

CHAPTER: OUR DAILY BREAD

Food was harder to come by and the hyenas started to grumble. Shenzi had promised them unending abundance, and that promise was failing. At first, Shenzi claimed that Roh’kash was merely testing their faith. They began to pray almost without ceasing for relief, but it did no good. It was becoming clear to even the strongest believers that Roh’kash could and would let them suffer hunger and thirst from the Roh’mach clear down to the smallest pup.

Scrambling not to lose her people’s loyalty, Shenzi was looking for ways to make the food go further. Rationing began among the hyenas, and they looked toward the lions looking for ways to reduce their tremendous appetites as well. They looked at the male cubs and thought they may have found an answer in rushing some mantlements. Even an adolescent lion ate as much as three hyenas. And who knows, with a couple of well-placed teams waiting just outside the border, they might even have a way to supplement their diet even more.

One male cub posed a special threat. Mabatu was now in line to succeed Taka as King, and it was the general opinion of the hyenas he would be a powerful and dangerous king who believed Pride Rock was for lions alone. Terrified of the prospect of a bloody war in the making, Skulk submerged his usual disdain for lions and offered to take Mabatu on a trip around the Eastern Meadow to hunt palm squirrels and rabbits. They were gone for only a couple of hours when Skulk came charging into Shenzi’s cave, fuming and cursing. “I was SO NICE to him! You’d think I was his real FATHER with the way I treated the brat! He didn’t say two words to me the whole time, and when I slipped in the creek, he laughed at me!”

“He’s a boy,” Shenzi said gently.

“He’s a hyena hater,” Skulk said. “Don’t you think I could see it in everything he did? I patted his shoulder, and when he didn’t think I could see him, he rubbed in the grass to get rid of my scent!”

Shenzi’s eyes narrowed to slits. “We’ll get rid of his scent—permanently!”

Makhpil had clearly foreseen that Taka would die young and violently. It was a vague prophesy, but one that filled Shenzi with the urgency of the moment. They didn’t have much time before Taka was gone and the popular Mabatu became King of a pride full of strong and determined lionesses.

One of them suggested that they kill Mabatu, but there was no telling what Taka would do in retribution. They would have to be more subtle.

Time passed, and unlike some of Taka’s mercurial friendships, his bond with Mabatu grew closer with each passing day. So when Mabatu was only eighteen moons old, and a few bits of ruff around his neck began to form a real mane, the leaders of the clan had a private meeting and decided it was time to act.

But how? Certainly, Shimbekh must be involved. Fed information from Makhpil, she still made several correct predictions to Taka, enough to cover all the lies Shenzi wanted to sneak in.

Relying on the old hyena proverb that a half truth is like a half carcass-it can be pulled twice as far-they decided on a lie that would soften the blow, but still strike home.

Timid and unsteady, Shimbekh stood before Taka to deliver the news that may bring instant death. “My Lord, evil tidings.”

“Oh? Surely not!”

“I don’t know how to say this, my lord. But there is an evil spirit in this place. One too strong for our powers to drive off. Unless Mabatu driven off early, the day after his mantlement he will go mad and kill his mother, then you.”

“What??” Taka came and faced her down. “If you’re lying to me, I’ll rip you apart!”

Tears filled her eyes and she touched his cheek with her tongue. “You love him, don’t you.”

“Yes, I love him.”

She kissed him again. “Then send him away now while his heart is pure. You know what it is like to suffer from the inside. There is nowhere to hide.” She looked down and moaned. “No one knows what torment there is in the wounds we bear inside. We try to smile when our heart is breaking!”

Taka looked at her in the eyes. His chin began to tremble. “I’m stove through,” he muttered. Tears began to stream down his face. “Go, Shimbekh.” The hyeness’s ears drooped and her tail hung limply.

“Old friend, we are both stove through.”

“Go, Shimbekh! Please, just go!”

Shimbekh trudged outside, the weight of the world stooping her shoulders and bowing her head. Shenzi said, “Very convincing. You really sounded concerned.”

“Go to hell!”

“See you there, Shimbekh!”

As Shimbekh walked away, she heard behind her the soft, deep sobs of a lion. Somehow, like a fugitive from a daydream, a memory came back to her of playing with her sister Kambra. What would the pup she was think of what she had become? “What I wouldn’t give to lay at my mother’s side again and nurse myself to sleep! My heart is so tired, Muti. So tired! If I could be your pup again just for tonight and feel your love once more!” Tears spilled down her cheeks and she slinked to her quarters like a forgotten shadow.

Mabatu was told two days in advance that he would get a commoner’s mantlement so he could prepare himself, but he was not told the reason why. Taka was clearly heartbroken, and Mabatu could sense it. Mabatu could not hate him, and no matter what his mother said, he kept faith that deep inside Taka loved him as much as ever.

Mabatu and Kako were both in a bit of a panic. Baba was not ready yet-he had minimal hunting skills and he was still not what most lions consider mature. Kako made an impassioned plea for a little more time-that not waiting a moon or two would condemn him to death—but Taka was insistent. “He will learn. It’s nature’s way. Besides, I will pray for him every night.” Tears slid down Taka’s cheeks and even Kako could see the horrible pain he felt.

“Won’t you at least tell us why you’re doing this?”

“Sometimes love must be firm,” he stammered. “I’m so sorry.”

CHAPTER: LOVE TRIUMPHANT

As Bor the monkey pounds his fruit

Upon the tree to free its juice

And savor its elixir sweet

So pounds against my anxious chest

my trembling heart.

— The Love of Kigali and Lisha

Mabatu spent the night before his mantlement with Isha. She wanted to teach him everything she could about survival before he faced the unforgiving challenges of “The Big World.”

Mabatu was a good fighter for someone his size. Playful wrestling with the other cubs had gracefully prepared him for the serious challenges of battle. Isha still remembered the time he threw her in a wrestling match by grabbing one of her hind legs. They spent little time on fighting except for Isha’s advice that running away was not always shameful or cowardly.

Hunting skills were a different matter. Isha had plenty of fond memories of hunting rabbits and antelope with her mother. Luckily Isha grew up in a time when the savanna rejoiced in abundance. Mabatu was a child of hardship, and his mother had to spend toilsome hours hunting just to survive. Little wonder his education was sorely neglected.

Mabatu had almost no knowledge of stalking and pursuit. And it was clear if he ever caught up to an antelope, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. It was an unpleasant surprise to her, for all lionesses believed a cub born at night would make a great hunter, and he had literally been born on the hunt. Maybe when old folk wisdoms failed, a little determined teaching would have to do.

“We must look at holds,” Isha said. “Here on the arm, you can restrict movement.” She gently gripped his arm above the elbow. “Here on the flank you can rip. But the throat hold is one of prime importance…” She put her arm across his back. “You strike them here and push with your weight.” Isha leaned into him, nearly pushing him over. “It’s important to let your weight do the work. Then you go for the throat and cut off his wind.” She gently mouthed Mabatu’s throat.

Mabatu trembled. She quickly let go and looked him in the eye. “Your heart is pounding. Are you all right?”

He stared back. “Isha…”

“I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. It is I who have offended you.”

“Nonsense,” she said, nuzzling him softly.

He returned her nuzzle and nibbled at her ear. Before she could pull back with surprise, he said, “Don’t hate me. You don’t know how long I’ve waited to do that.” He sighed. “How VERY long.”

“We need to get back to hunting,” she said unsteadily, recognizing the look in his eyes. “We don’t have much time.”

“We DON’T have much time. I must hunt now. I may not have a chance, but I’ve stalked for a long time. Now I must break my cover and rush to you.”

She took a step backward. “Even though I’m old enough to be your mother? I’m flattered. Really I am. But when you’re older, you’ll find someone more your own age. Then you’ll look back on this and laugh.”

“You know I’ll never get much older. I’m being sacrificed to help the others. You know it.”

She looked down. “I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

“But you don’t deny it.”

“How can I?” Tears began to roll down her cheeks. “My poor Baba! My precious little Nisei! I love you more than the food I eat or the water I drink. Even more than the air I breathe. I would give them up if it would save you.”

“I love you, Isha. I’ve always loved you.” He kissed away her tears. “Remember, I said when I grew up, I’d marry you. You laughed then, but if you laugh now, I’ll die. While life holds my soul and body together, I will love you. Even in death I will love you.”

“In death?” She pawed and nuzzled him. “Don’t think of death. You are alive. There is still hope.”

“How can I be alive? I’ve never lived!” He looked her intently in the eyes. The fire in his hazel eyes was unmistakable even if it was uncertain. “If I could only be close to you, just for tonight, I would have LIVED, Isha.”

She looked deeply into his eyes and saw the sincerity of his love. Isha was held captive by its overwhelming purity and depth. She pawed him affectionately and he playfully batted back at her. She drew off a length and began to circle him, looking for an opening. “If you hunt big game, prepare to exert yourself.”

He watched her lithe body as it crept gracefully but forcefully about him. Any moment the huntress could rush her prey. A flick of her ears betrayed her attack, but it was not enough warning. She pounced, collaring his throat and wrestling him. Laughing and panting, she nearly shoved him to the ground. He flailed at her with his arms, but struck her very gently.

“I can still throw you,” he said.

“Prove it!” She threw her weight on him with a mighty thrust and easily pushed him over.

Mabatu regained his feet and circled her. He tried to use his weight to push her over, but she had the advantage and sidestepped him. She put her arm over his shoulder and began to lean in on him, causing his legs to start buckling. Then when it seemed victory was hers, she relaxed and did not move. He put his head under her arm and pushed her over into the grass and looked down into her face. “Gotcha!”

Her paw reached up and gently traced the curve of his cheek and fondled his chin. She looked deep into his eyes smiled alluringly as his breath came and went like a wild wind. “Now that you’ve caught me, do what you will.”

“Oh gods!” Breathless, he knelt down and began to nuzzle her passionately, nibbling her ears and pawing her cheek gently. Her fragrance made him tremble, and he kissed her on the cheek and forehead murmuring, “Isha, beloved!”

She whispered, “Not here. Come, my lover, where the night shall hide us away.” They rose from the verdant grass and he walked, pressed against her warm, soft body into the shadows.

When they were alone, he stroked her thigh with his paw. “How could one lioness be so beautiful?” He expected a reply, but suddenly she broke away from him and began to run.

“Isha, wait! What did I do??”

She looked at him reassuringly. “If you want me, you’ll have to catch me!”

He realized it was a game. Laughing like a cub, he began to pursue her through the tall grass. She cornered sharply like a wise huntress, keeping him off balance and maddeningly at bay. They bounded over the hill and down the other side, splashed through a small creek, and ran around Anteater Kopje. She looked back and laughed. “Can’t you run faster than that??”

“Are you kidding?? You haven’t seen anything!”

Driven by the fierce heat of desire, he lunged forward and began to narrow the gap with each spring. Sensing his approach, Isha plunged through a field of gold and purple blossoms, somewhat wilted by the drought but still holding an essence of their former beauty. And amid the blossoms, she stopped and looked back.

Mabatu came to a halt and looked at her wonderingly. “Give up?”

“You’ll need some of that great strength,” she said. “I wouldn’t leave you drained. We’ll start out simply.” She took a couple of steps and crouched among the fragrant blossoms. “Come, Baba. Make love to me.”

He stared at her apprehensively. An awkward moment passed.

“Do I not still please you?”

“Isha, you ARE pleasure. It’s just—well—this is my first time. I don’t know my father and my mother did not speak with me. All I know about making love is a lot of cub gossip.”

She smiled. “I’ll help you if you need it. Just remember, you are saying farewell to cubhood. Once you’ve taken this step, you will be a lion.” She smiled disarmingly. “Come and kiss me. Would you like that?”

He trembled. “Always!” He shyly came forward and reached down, touching her cheek with his tongue. She looked up and kissed him passionately, pawing at his mane. She rolled over and stroked his throat and chest with her paws, setting him on fire. “I can feel your heart throbbing.” She reached up with a paw and drew his face toward hers, kissing him passionately. In a sultry voice, she purred, “Deep inside, you know what you want. Forget what your head tells you. Go where your feelings lead you. Make love to me.”

His feelings were strong and clear this time. She rolled back into a crouch, purring softly. “It’s OK. Don’t be afraid.”

He gently mouthed her neck, and trembling with desire he pressed himself against her soft golden body. With faint utterances of contentment and pleasure, Baba filled his senses with her love, the love that made her his lioness. Feeling her shudder in his gentle embrace, he lived out all the tender fantasies that filled his dreams. Never had he felt so alive as he had in that moment.

“Beloved,” she purred, “Are you happy?”

“Delirious! And you? Do I please you?”

“Yes! I feel… I feel…” She jerked and moaned. “Oh, Baba! Yes!”

Mabatu was drunk with her pleasures, and just as he thought his heart would burst, he knew in his own body the ecstasy that made her cry out. He gasped and wanted to let it out in a roar, but he dared not. Only a gentle sigh of fulfillment left him, and overcome he nuzzled her and stumbled away.

“Will that ever happen again?”

“Many times,” Isha said. “The night is still young.”

Panting, he fell in the grass. “Many times,” he said, heaving a contented sigh. “Imagine that! I must have done something good in my life. Aiheu has been good to me—so have you.”

He patted with his paw on the ground, and Isha came and snuggled next to him, rolling on her back and stroking his mane with her paw. “I love you,” he said simply. “You’re everything I’ve ever wanted. And at every special moment of my life, you were always there.”

“Always,” she said. “Because I love you.”

Cubhood was over—he was a lion at last.

CHAPTER: MID-MOON

Late that night near mid-moon, he looked at his resting consort and said, “Isha, my lover, can I ask you a favor?” She smiled and said, “Again, my little brush fire?” She licked her paw and groomed her face. “Let me prepare myself.”

“No, not that. When I face Aiheu, I want to face him as your husband. Would you please pledge to me? Please? I hear you’re not the marrying type, but when they ask me who I’m praying for, I want to say it’s my wife.”

She was stunned. She’d never been asked quite that way before. She only had to think a moment. “That’s the only thing that could make this night any better. I’d be glad—no—honored. And when I go into the east, I’ll sit next to you throughout eternity.” She nuzzled him and kissed him gently on the cheek, between the eyes, and then rubbed his face with her own. “Maybe I was saving myself all along for my little Baba. My heart is swift prey, and no one else could catch it.”

He smiled warmly and nuzzled her. “I don’t want to catch it. I want to set it free the way your love set me free.” He put his paw on her shoulder. “Before the gods, before the stars, before the assembled host I swear to give you my protection, my life, and my comfort forever.”

She pawed his face and kissed him. “Till the last beat of my heart, to the last breath I sigh, our lives are one, so help me gods.” She kissed him again. “It is done, husband.”

A moment went by when neither of them spoke. Then, almost abruptly, Isha said, “I HAVE to teach you how to survive out there! I won’t let it end like this! I can’t!”

“No more lessons. These memories have to last me, my wife. Let’s lose none of this time together.”

Tears began to stream down Isha’s cheeks. “Baba, I love you!”

“I love you too, but please don’t cry. I’ve known love all my life, first from my mother, than from my King, my friend and my lover. I have no enemies, and no one I’ve loved has ever left me. I’m the luckiest lion in the world, and you should be glad for me.”

She kissed him and nuzzled him. “I am. I love you so much, Mabatu! Who in heaven or earth wouldn’t envy me tonight!”

“I’ll come back within the year. If I don’t, then consider yourself free to remarry. Only death can stop me.”

She wept again. “You must come back! I’ll pray for you each night—you can’t die! You mustn’t break my heart!”

“Please don’t cry.”

“Don’t forbid it. It makes me feel better.”

He pawed her. “But I don’t want to remember you sad. Can’t I make you happy? Just for a little while? Be sad tomorrow, but not now—this night belongs to us.”

She said, “Yes. Make love to me. Let me feel you next to me once more.”

He nuzzled her passionately. “Habusu am I, a prisoner of your love.” He rose to his feet and awash with mixed pride and passion he tenderly mouthed her throat.

Far from the crowd whose prying eyes Would violate our solitude We shall make love among the reeds Here unobserved by jealous hearts We shall caress.

CHAPTER: THE SEPARATION

Isha looked at Kako and her heart sank. Kako had always been so friendly to her and smiled so beautifully. The beauty was still there, but she looked like she was at a funeral, not a mantlement. Deep inside, that’s how she felt too. Mabatu looked very small, pitiful, and frightened. The proud lion of last night shrank down like a disciplined cub, pacing about, lost in the whirlpool of his inner turmoil.

Taka stalked into the meadow with slumped shoulders and dragging tail. He looked like the weight of the world was on him, and indeed he looked back as if to see what sat on his back. He was really watching Elanna who filed silently behind him.

Only Shenzi seemed to be upbeat. She had never seen a mantlement before, and she sought to satisfy her idle curiosity with a little pageantry and culture.

There would be little pageantry. It was a very private ceremony and very somber. Standing in the midst of the blossoms where the night before Baba and Isha had first made love, Kako put on her best smile and looked at her hapless son. “Where has my little cub gone? All I see is this lion.” She shuddered to say it.

“I’ll always be your son,” Baba replied, and nuzzled her.

“Remember me,” she said. “When you are a great king, do not forget that I gave you milk.”

He looked deeply into her eyes. “When you are gone to be with your fathers,” he stammered, “pray for me.”

“I will pray for you.” Tears began to stream down her cheeks. She looked at Taka with desperation and cried, “Oh gods, my son, my little son!”

“Don’t cry, mother.” Mabatu kissed away her tears. “You must be strong for me. I will carry this moment with me for the rest of my life.”

“I’m sorry.” She sniffed back her bitter tears and managed a smile. “Besides, we will meet again among the stars, and nothing will separate us. May the Lord Aiheu smile upon you. May the grass be soft beneath you. May the great kings enfold you. May you find love and safety wherever you go.”

“I’ll be safe. The gods are with me.”

Isha trembled and tears flooded her eyes. Mabatu noticed and went to her, kissing away her tears. He whispered, “I’ll come back for you. If Aiheu lets me live, I’ll make a place for us. Will you wait for me?”

“I will. I swear.”

“I will always love you. If I die, look in the stars. I will be watching over you.”

“Don’t die. Promise me you won’t die!”

“I promise you I’ll try not to. You are everything to me—wife, lover and friend. I will fight to hold on for your sake, and someday I’ll make a life for us and for our children.”

Isha turned from him and began to sob. Mabatu quietly walked back to his mother and nuzzled her. He wanted to remember how she felt, smelled, and sounded. He peered into her sad eyes and said, “Mother.”

“My son.” She touched him with her tongue for the last time and stroked his cheek with her paw. “I release you to God.”

Silently, he turned to the north and walked away without looking back, as custom dictated. He reached the edge of the forest and drew close to the border of the Pride Lands. One more small meadow caressed his feet in fond farewell. One last clump of reeds stroked him as he stopped for a moment at the far side of the meadow. “I’ll come back for you,” he murmured quietly. “Isha, my dearest Isha, I must leave you now.” He stepped across the threshold of The Big World and immersed himself in uncertainty.

CHAPTER: A LIFE FOR A LIFE

As he wandered the strange land, memories of the blissful moments he spent with Isha came crowding in on him. He was unprepared to be out on his own, but his greatest fear was not death. There was a chance that Isha would bear his children in the middle of a drought and there would be no husband to see to her. What if the hyenas turned on the lion cubs? What if there were no more rains?

Isha had begged Taka to be freed from her obligations and leave with Mabatu. Of course, she could not say she had married him, for Taka would not have recognized vows taken before mantlement. It was a mistake to speak of leaving to the King. Not only did he refuse her passage, he sent hyenas to trail her every move to prevent her from fleeing. It seems he knew more than he was admitting.

Grief came to many that day. An old king had driven off some rogue lions that tested his authority. He and his brother were weak from age, and while they had both sired many daughters, there was no son to shoulder the load of defending the pride territory from the jealous eyes that wanted it.

Prince Baliaha’s life was flowing away in a crimson river. Remnants of his once splendid mane lay scattered on the ground, and he gasped for breath. He looked up with eyes that strove to focus. “Are they gone? Brother, have we driven them off?”

“Yes, we have.”

“Good,” he said with a sigh of resignation. “They’ll come back, you know. And I’m afraid you’ll have to handle them alone.”

“You’ll recover, but there will be scars.”

Through his pain, Baliaha managed a smile. “You always were an optimist.” His eyes closed tightly, and he went into a seizure. The king looked away in horror and did not see his dying breath escape.

There was a quiet moment, and a couple of lionesses peeked out of the brush. “How is he?”

“He’s gone.”

They bowed their heads low. “We will see to him. I’m sorry, but there’s another rogue male to the east by the termite mounds.”

He was tortured by grief, but the grief became a terrible rage. Whomever this lion was, he would kill! “A life for a life!” he shrieked, foam on his heaving nostrils as he ran like a thing possessed across the grassland.

CHAPTER: THE CONFRONTATION

Unwittingly, Baba was heading right into the eye of the storm. He was a gentle-natured soul and knew nothing of what he would face in The Big World. He kept a piece of advice that Isha had given him in the forefront—let Aiheu be your landmark and he will lead you home.

Baba came to a stream. Under the searing sun, he sought to slake his thirst in the cool, clean water. He dipped his muzzle in and drew out refreshment, then he reached in with a paw and threw the cold, invigorating drops in his face, heaving a sigh of relief. A nearby acacia tree offered some shade, and he crossed the stream and settled down for a moment to rest.

For a moment, all was deceptively peaceful. Then in the distance, he saw the powerful charge of a male lion. He felt his stomach knot up and rise into his chest.

“Now you pay!” the King snarled, coming to a halt in front of Baba. “Defend yourself!”

The youth cowered back and bared his teeth. “Leave me alone! You may kill me, but I’ll leave some scars on you!”

The old yet powerful lion looked down at Baba. “What is this?? You’re just a boy!” He softened. “Are you lost, son? Are you looking for your mother?”

Still cowering, but with a trace of pride, he answered, “I’m a lion now. I’ve been given my mantlement, and what’s more, I’ve taken a mate.”

“Wfff! A lion you are! But a very young one, my lad. Drink, have something to eat from our kill, and remember that I was kind to you when you say your nightly prayers.”

“Thank you.” He drank again from the stream and followed the old lion to a zebra kill. Famished, he looked at the half-eaten kill and wondered that so much food could possibly be in one place. Desperately, he tore pieces from the haunch and downed them, feeling the warm meat comfort his empty stomach. “Oh gods, you must be wealthy!”

The king laughed. “I do all right.”

After the edge was off Baba’s hunger, they talked.

“What is your name, son?”

“Mabatu.”

“Then we are both the same name! Do you have a nickname?”

“They call me Baba.”

“So who drove you off so young, Baba?”

“Scar.”

“Scar??” He looked at him intently. “By any chance, do you know Kako?”

“Sure. She’s my mother.”

A look of tenderness warmed the old king’s face. “Kako’s son?” He reached out with a paw and fondled Baba’s cheek, then turned his face with it from side to side as he saw the resemblance. “So you are.” Purring deeply, King Mabatu came forward and nuzzled Baba very gently. “The shaman spoke truly. If Kako is your mother, then you are welcome here. My brother died today, but Aiheu has sent me a son. Welcome your new father, Prince Baba!”

Filled with wonder at his good fortune, and moved by the gentle lion’s plea, Mabatu nuzzled him and pawed his right shoulder. “I touch your mane! Aiheu make long and happy your days.”

King Mabatu sat down in the shade of some acacias and heard Baba’s story. He nodded solemnly and mused that even though his son had bad luck, perhaps Aiheu meant it for good. He introduced one of his lionesses—his youngest daughter Umande. “Mandy dear, show the new prince around his kingdom. If he’s going to rule someday, he needs to know the boundaries.”

CHAPTER: SETTLING IN

Umande was in very high spirits. “Mabatu?”

“Maybe I should go by Baba. It’s less confusing. Besides, that’s what my friends call me.”

“I’d like to be your friend, Baba.” She smiled broadly. “You don’t know what your coming has done for us. You’re the son my father never had. You’re our hope for a future.”

“Whoa!” he said. “Really?”

“Would I joke about a thing like that?” She nuzzled him playfully. “You think you’ve had a run of bad luck, but you’re really very lucky, you know?”

“I don’t think I’ve had any bad luck. God has been very good to me. Your King is the second one who asked me to be his son. I never knew my real father, but I’ve known a lot of love in my life.” He nuzzled her back. “So your Dad knew my Mom?”

“I suppose so. They hit it off well, I’d say.”

A few clouds passed in front of the sun giving a moment of blessed respite from the mid-sun heat. A cool wind began to blow with the promise of moisture for the thirsty land. A drop fell, playfully teasing the end of Mabatu’s nose. Then a couple more fell. “Hey, it’s going to rain!” He almost danced. “Imagine that! Rain at last!”

“What’s so great about that? It rains all the time.”

“It does??” He remembered something his mother told him long ago and sighed. “I guess she was right. It’s only back home that it never rains. It’s been many moons since we’ve had any rain.”

“Many moons, you say? What’s happened to the grass? It looks like that would ruin hunting.”

“Hunting? Half-rotted fish trapped in pools as our beautiful river dries up to nothing. Dead birds, snakes, lizards. Do you realize that zebra is the first thing with hair on it I’ve eaten since I was belly-high to my mother?” He sighed. “Some day I’m going back for her, hyenas or no hyenas, and I’m getting her out of that hell hole. There will be a lot of scores settled that day, I promise you.”

“Poor Baba!” She trotted in a lope that was easy and looked casual but moved a lot of ground beneath her. “These trees form one corner of our land. Note the scent, Baba. Note it carefully—it’s my Dad’s, and it’s all that comes between us and danger.”

Baba sniffed of a tree trunk, closed his eyes and grimaced. The fragrance of his father’s urine was a safe smell, one that he would remember and respect. Then he lifted his leg and marked the tree. “There! You try to touch that old lion, you’ll have to kill me first!” His face lost its cublike timidity and he was the lion that made love to Isha once again. “I wish I’d known my Uncle Baliaha. He sounds like a decent sort of lion.”

“He was more than decent. He loved us with his whole heart. He was a lot like you—he said they’d have to kill him first, and they did. Don’t take foolish chances, Baba. You’re our only hope.”

“But I’m young. At least I have a chance.”

“You have more than a chance. Aiheu sent you to us, and he never does anything halfway. I believe you are blessed, our little Nisei.”

Baba smiled. That’s what Isha had called him so tenderly as they made love under the moon. He reached over and touched Umande with his tongue.

It was a long trip from the copse to the termite mounds, or so it seemed to Baba who had never had to walk boundary lines before. As a lion, short-legged or no, he had to satisfy the mandates of lionhood laid down by Aiheu to the first Baba many generations ago. Again, he added his mark to the termite mounds, then turned to face Boundary Kopje. Another long walk, and another scent mark later, they followed the creek from Boundary Kopje to Bontebok Copse, and then back to where they started. It was part of his leonine heritage that he remembered the border vividly after one trip, even as he remembered his new father’s scent. He looked out into the lands beyond his domain, raised his muzzle and uttered a loud, deep roar. “This land is mine! Baba, son of Mabatu! Trespass at your peril!”

Umande said, “This time, let’s see YOU find the markers.”

Baba looked around, wide eyed. “Again??”

CHAPTER: TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER

Baba came home in the evening as the stars were just appearing; quite worn out from walking the beat. He groaned as he flopped to the grass, idly wondering just HOW the King did that every day. His mind kept wandering back to Isha. What was she doing tonight? Out on the hunt with Uzuri and Sarafina and Mom? He thought about Taka who had driven him out, and wondered what he meant when he whispered, “It’s for your own good.” He could not conceive of Taka not loving him, and in this he was right. Isha’s sweet voice came back to him, intoxicating with its subtle nuances of passion as she told him the words he wanted to hear all his life. “Let us make love…”

Umande glided over and settled herself next to him.

“Tired, Baba?”

He nodded and sighed deeply.

There was more than physical pain marking his face. Umande sensed that and was drawn to it. She nuzzled him softly. “Poor dear. You’re worn out.”

Baba was covered in dust and sweat. Umande began to groom him gently, licking his shoulders and mane, brushing his ears, and cleaning his face.

Baba could feel in her care an echo of his mother’s gentle touch. It transported him back to a simpler life he once lived in the shadow of Pride Rock. He half closed his eyes and purred softly.

“Do you like me, Baba?”

“Of course I like you, Mandy.”

“I like you too. I feel like I’ve known you all my life.”

“That’s nice,” he said, grunting with pleasure as she groomed behind his ears. “Oh that feels good.”

She passed her paw across the tops of his shoulders and along the ridge of his back, fondling his strong but aching muscles. “Oh yes!” he said, taking a deep breath and letting it out in a deep sigh. She kneaded the small of his back and nosed a couple of small abrasions he got in the reeds. It felt heavenly.

Then, without warning, she nuzzled him in the fold of his thigh, touching one of his rudimentary teats with her tongue. His eyes flew open and his ears sprang up. “Mandy?”

“Yes, Baba?” she purred, fondling his buttocks.

“Hey, what are you doing??”

“Doesn’t it please you?”

“That’s not the point!” He got up and walked a couple of lengths away, then turned to look at her, his tail clamped tightly down.

“I’m sorry if I was too forward. I’ve never been with a lion before.” She looked at him contritely but still passionate. She came to him and rubbed him full length. “Let me comfort you tonight. I want to feel you close to me.”

“Umande, please!”

“I want to worship your beautiful body. I want to make you supremely happy. Baba, tell me what pleases you. Love me, Baba! Love me, please! Don’t you think I’m beautiful? Don’t you want me?”

Baba trembled. He struggled to remember Isha and blot out the temptation before him, but Umande was there, alive and warm. He remembered what Isha said about finding another. He also remembered how he replied. Now if he could only wait till things were better, he could come back for her—if she still wanted him.

“You are indeed beautiful,” Baba said. “Everything about you pleases me to the bone. God help me, I want you despite myself.”

She pawed his face softly and kissed him. “From the moment I saw you, I longed for you. Now I’m in the season when my blood burns like a brush fire. Let my fragrance fill you with desire. Everything I am or ever will be I willingly cast at your feet.”

The racing of his youthful passions did not blind him to his responsibilities, and he took in a deep breath and let it out. “I would take you here and now and never let you go. But I am pledged to Isha and I have made love to her. She may even have my children. Do not take advantage of my pain.” He bent and kissed her cheek warmly. “I have loved Isha since I was a cub, and someday I will bring her here to live. I love her, and I hope you will be her friend. I hope you can still be my friend as well.”

He turned and stalked away silently. She stared heartbroken at him as he vanished into the night. “You could change your mind! I will wait for you, Baba! Love will prevail, and don’t be ashamed to admit it.” Tears filled her eyes and she collapsed on the ground.

Then she heard a step behind her. King Mabatu came forward, his face tight and set. “Umande. I would speak with you.”

“Yes, Father?”

“Tears, my darling daughter?” He kissed her. “What you seek can never be.” Gently but firmly he said, “I want you to leave him alone until your season is over. Is that clear?”

“Why, father? I’ve done nothing wrong!”

“I know… and I wish it to remain so.”

“Why? He’s the first lion I’ve ever known that I feel safe with, and he needs me—I can feel it!”

“THAT is why you must remain aloof.” Mabatu sighed. “There is more at stake here than you realize.”

“Are you saying he’s bad?”

“No, honey tree. He’s very good.”

“Then are you saying I’M bad?”

“No, heavens, no, honey tree! I’m so proud of you.”

“Then tell me why it’s so important I leave him alone! What would possibly be at stake? Don’t I have a right to know?”

Mabatu settled to the grass beside his daughter. “You must not breathe a word of this to Baba. If it ever got out, there would be dire consequences from the gods themselves.”

“What are you trying to say?”

Mabatu took in a deep breath, shuddered, and let it slowly out. “I know you love him, but you must not mate with your own brother.”

Umande gasped. “My brother? Him?? Oh my gods!” She began to sob, and Mabatu put a paw across her shoulders, pulling her face into the softness of his mane and kissing her. “Why didn’t you tell me??”

“It is a long and painful story. Every time I tell it, a small part of me dies.”

“Then don’t tell me.” She kissed her father and nuzzled him.

“No, Mandy. I think it’s time you knew the truth about your mother. I owe you that much.”

CHAPTER: THE BIRTH OF THE CUBS

When Isha’s time had come, she had three cubs. Her son looked like the newborn Mabatu, and so she called him Habusu. Maybe he would meet a good lioness who would love him the way she loved her Baba and be a prisoner to her love. The daughters were named Minshasa and Jona after her favorite lionesses in star lore.

Rumors had circulated about the father of the cubs. While it was still uncertain, most of the lionesses would have bet their whiskers that she had mated with Mabatu before his mantlement. Some of her pride sisters filed by to see them, more out of curiosity than of joy. They looked for familiar features in their face. More than a couple stared at Habusu and commented on how familiar his face was. Significantly, Kako did not even show up.

While Isha was not a social outcast, there was tension and a feeling of disapproval in the faces that filed past her. They would say something pleasant only to go outside and gossip. And with Isha’s excellent hearing, there was no doubt she heard many hurtful things before the day was over.

Yolanda said, “She will be a devoted mother. She has SUCH a way with KIDS.”

Ajenti nuzzled her mother and laughed. “Talk about robbing the litter!”

Sarafina said in a quiet voice, “How did he get her in trouble? I mean, I didn’t think at his age they could… well, YOU know.”

“Carry through with it?” Ajenti said. “When those things aren’t on their mind, they wouldn’t think of trying. But when someone puts ideas in their head, you’d be surprised.”

Sarafina was shocked. “Are you saying she led him on?”

“I’m saying if those cubs were a reflection, Mabatu would be standing by the water hole. That’s all I’M saying.” Ajenti winked and walked away smugly.

Just as Isha was ready to cry with shame, her friend Uzuri showed up. Uzuri’s love for Isha was absolute and unconditional and in her eyes, there could be no taint to spoil the beauty of her cubs. Uzuri looked at each cub, sniffed them gently, and touched them with her tongue. “This male looks like Mabatu when he was that age,” she purred. Isha cringed, but she saw that there was no malice in her words. “He’s very handsome. Sometimes I worry about Baba; where he is, what he’s doing, and if he’s missing you. We must pray for him.”

Isha nuzzled her. “I love you, Uzuri.”

“Why? What did I do.”

“Nothing-and everything. Just because you’re you. You’re my truest friend in the world, and don’t think I don’t appreciate it, girl.” As Uzuri left, Isha brought the cubs to her warm belly and guided them to her milk. She rubbed over them with her paw tenderly as they nursed. “I don’t care what the others think. You are my children, and you are wonderful. You are Mabatu’s children. Our children.” She half closed her eyes. “My little Mabatu. Wherever you are, I hope you know how beautiful they are.”

Later, Taka himself came by. “Look at the little angels,” he cooed. “Aren’t they beautiful!”

“Mabatu’s children,” she said. “That’s what you came to find out, wasn’t it?”

“Mabatu,” he said softly. “I will go to my death grieving for him. He was my son, and he always will be.”

“Then why did you let him go?”

“I don’t have to tell you, but I will.” He sighed. “The seer told me he would meet an evil fate if he stayed here. I love Mabatu. I loved him enough to give him a small chance over no chance at all.” He sighed again. “Everyone I love suffers for it. Even my poor Lannie. Do you think I’m completely unaware? I may have many faults, but stupidity is not one of them.”

There was a truthful ring to his voice. Isha looked at the sadness that clouded his face as he recalled his friend.

He looked at the male cub. “What is his name?”

“Habusu.”

“Habusu, you are son of my son. You will be my heir, and the one true King. I am not a seer, but I predict that you will not be hated as I am hated. You have brought some measure of peace to my heart. That is not an easy thing to do.”

“You honor me,” Isha said, but she looked a little worried. “Please don’t tell the hyenas just yet.”

“Why not?”

“If their seer is so good, let her come tell you.”

He half laughed. “Yes. Let her. But aren’t you a little curious what the future holds for him?”

“Yes. That’s why I plan to be there when it happens. We all have to suffer thorns and bruises, and we all have to die, but isn’t it really better not knowing how and when?”

“Why Isha, you’re a philosopher.”

“All mothers are philosophers.”

Only one week earlier, Beesa had become a philosopher. Fortunately, she only had one cub to worry about feeding, a daughter named Lisani. Perhaps someday Lisani would grow to love Habusu. Perhaps Aiheu in his mercy will provide some future for them all. Perhaps…

CHAPTER: NO ROOM IN THE INN

Isha’s cubs spent a few days blissfully unaware of prejudice. But then Jona managed to waddle unsteadily to the mouth of her cave and look out. It was a strange world that first met her wondering eyes, one with no roof or walls, and a bright yellow eye looking down on her. And playing about were other small, furry creatures that looked just like her. Cubs!

Excitedly, she gamboled back with the news. “There are other lions out there just like us!”

When Isha’s children were old enough to walk a straight line, they would leave the safety of the den and go out to meet those cubs.

“Hi!” Minshasa said to one. “I’m Minnie!”

“I’m Piki! Wanna play tag?”

“Sure. How does it work?”

Piki’s mother stepped forward. “You’re Isha’s little girl, aren’t you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Well run along now. It’s time for Piki’s bath.”

Piki looked up. “But you just bathed me this morning!”

“Well you’re dirty again. Don’t sass your mother.”

While other cubs were free to make friends at will, there were strange problems for Isha’s children as they sought to be accepted by the parents. Without parental approval, those brief, tantalizing contacts with other cubs went nowhere.

Usually, there was polite avoidance. Outspoken Gobiso gave prejudice a name and face when he came out and said, “My mother told me I couldn’t play with you. Sorry.”

Isha’s children ended up thinking all cubs pretty much stayed only with their mother. They clung to this belief rather than believe there was something wrong with them. Indeed, they looked and felt just like everyone else—they were just more lonely. They played among each other and were an even more closely knit family than usual. Habusu and Jona were an inseparable pair. Minshasa was more withdrawn and would snuggle under her mother’s chin. Ironically, it was Minnie that was more like Isha as a cub. For the first year of her life, Isha was painfully shy. That was a bond between them, and Isha would purr, touching Minnie with her paw and kissing her while Habu and Jona played.

Beesa’s daughter gave them a welcome respite from their isolation. Like Uzuri, Isha showed no favoritism when it came to cubs and treated her niece like one of her own. “Miss Priss” was prim and proper, but she was also a lion cub and subject to lapses in both her dignity and her discipline. Because Habusu was so polite and gentle, he and Miss Priss formed a partnership right away. They were not only cousins but milk brother and sister. When Uzuri came to visit, she showered Habusu with affection and care, sure that someday he would pledge to Lisani and raise a family. “Look at them,” Uzuri would say. “Don’t they make a cute couple?”

While Habusu’s sisters played together, Habusu would follow Lisani around like a puppy. Even Taka noticed this, and he pronounced his blessings on the relationship, a step that Habu did not understand at the moment, but one that made Lisani his betrothed.

But eventually Habusu wanted another male to play with. It was only a natural part of growing up. Uzuri’s twin sons Togo and Kombi heard no dark rumors about Isha and Mabatu from their mother. Uzuri could never see anything in Isha but beauty, though she was aware of her ‘playful’ tendencies. That didn’t matter anymore, for to Uzuri alone Isha revealed that she was saving herself for her young husband. Uzuri understood—she always understood like no one else.

Despite their occasional difficulties, Isha’s family was a happy one, and it seemed with Habusu’s future secured that the happiness would go on forever. Then when Isha’s children were two moons old, Minshasa, who was always a frail and delicate creature, came down with Dol Sani. In most cases, it is a rite of passage. For the undernourished cub, it was a major blow. Helplessly, Isha watched her decline day by day, huddling desperately against her mother as if Isha could protect her against the invisible enemy that was hurting her. Isha would stroke her with her paw and tell her that everything would be all right, and for a while her story fooled the child, and Isha almost believed it herself. Then one week into her illness, Minshasa died in her sleep. Indeed, the pain went away.

The death of Minshasa was a wake up call to Isha’s pride sisters. Little by little they came to see the unmistakable beauty in her sad countenance. It was a beauty that came from within and brought shame to those who gossiped behind her back. Then one moon later with terrible suddenness, pneumonia snatched Jona from her. The same ones who gossiped once would whisper about the noble and beautiful sadness that made her already pleasant features almost godlike. Indeed, she had taken on the awful beauty of Kako, her best friend. In those days, Kako stayed by her side constantly, helping her keep her sanity. It was a kindness that would prove important in the future.

Isha clung desperately to Habusu. Every night as she prayed for Habu’s safety, she would say, “If you must take one of us, take me. But spare my son.” Indeed, Isha was not only perceived as a more noble creature by the Pride Sisters, she became more noble. Seeing her roll over in prayer was not that uncommon, and everyone nodded and said she could use all the prayer she could get.

CHAPTER: HABUSU

Finally, Habusu became weak in turn. Isha was going mad with worry, and Taka paced about like something possessed. “The curse! The curse!” he would murmur. “Will nothing stop it??”

Isha was heartened when Kako and some of her friends smuggled herbs from Rafiki to build Habu’s blood and heal his infection. Even Taka, who did not often pray, would come over and let the child stroke his mane in the belief that a King’s mane might have some healing powers. He would pray to Aiheu, and even breathe a quick whisper to Roh’kash just to be sure. Then day by day Habusu grew stronger. For one of the short times in Taka’s adulthood, he believed that there was a God after all. And from that time forward, he would always say “Aiheu provides” before eating.

From the time he was very young, Habu had been told that his father loved him very much, though he had never seen him. And though that sounded strange to most people, Habu did not doubt it for a moment because his mother would never lie to him.

Though Isha did not lie, the truth she withheld from him would fill volumes. Habu knew about his father only in broad general terms—that he was brave, handsome, gentle, and loved them both very much. But Habu thirsted to know more. And one day when Togo and Kombi were telling him about things that happened before he was born, he decided to ask if they knew his father. It was a dreadful mistake.

Kombi, without malice, simply tried to answer his friend’s heartfelt question with a truthful answer. “Mabatu was one of the older cubs,” he said. I heard Ajenti telling Sarafina that he scored with your Mom before his mantlement, and Scar kicked him out but wouldn’t tell anyone why. Maybe he saw them—I don’t know. You mean she didn’t tell you?”

“No.” Habu trembled. “What do you mean by ‘scored?’”

“You know. Getting down. Heavy breathing. The wild thing.”

Habu gasped. Tears started down his cheeks and he let his breath out in a great wail. “Mommmm!”

“Hey, Habu! I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” Kombi said, genuinely distressed. “That’s where babies come from. It’s just your Dad wasn’t old enough, and you get busted for that around here.”

Sobbing, Habu bolted for home. He huddled against his mother’s soft, warm body and cried. “Tell me it’s not true about Daddy!”

Isha regarded him with her heart crumbling and kissed him gently and repeatedly until he settled down. “Let me tell you about your father.”

Isha explained to him in gentle terms about the lifelong love Mabatu had for her, about the time Taka suddenly determined he must leave the Pride, and about the bittersweet night before his mantlement. “I loved your father and I pledged to him. He had to go away for reasons only Taka understood, but he said he would come back for us someday. Then he will love you as I have loved you, and we will be a family again. I promise.” She was uncertain if Mabatu was alive or dead, but she did not share this with Habusu.

The question preyed on her mind more than ever. She had to settle her heart one way or the other, so late that night when Habu was peacefully asleep, she went to see Makhpil.

The hyeness was not surprised to see Isha coming. Few things surprised a medium of her quality.

“Please be truthful with me. Please.” Isha stroked Makhpil’s foreleg with a paw, a desperate gesture of pleading that a hyena would understand all too well. “I know we have been enemies in the past, but the gods have given you this talent for a reason. Please use it for good. Do not lie to me.”

“Lies cost me my best friend,” Makhpil said. “She was my only friend. I will not lie as she did.”

“I will be your friend,” Isha said.

Makhpil looked into Isha’s eyes. “Yes, there is truth in you. Goodness that I did not expect to see. Your friendship honors me.”

“I have a problem,” Isha said. “It’s driving me crazy. I have to know if…”

“Hsssh!” Makhpil said. “Silence, my girl. Silence!” She closed her eyes and drew back her ears. From her parted lips came an eerie high-pitched whine. It sounded painful, but she didn’t seem to be in distress.

“You are worried about your husband.”

Isha started. “Yes!”

“Hsssh! It comes to me. Yes, your husband is alive. But how he fares, I do not know. The spirits are unclear.”

Makhpil’s eyes flew open with a wild stare and she shook as if to rid her coat of water.

“Are you OK?” Isha asked.

“Of course. Glad I could help.”

“Please tell no one what you have seen. Tell no one of Habu’s father, not even Shenzi or Taka.”

The hyeness looked in her eyes. “You fear Taka. You fear us too.” She looked away. “I don’t blame you. I’m scared all the time. Shenzi has spies everywhere watching us.”

“You too?”

“Yes. They need me, but my powers frighten them, so I’ve taken to sleeping lightly when I sleep at all.” Makhpil touched Isha’s cheek with her paw. “Roh’kash gave me strong teeth, sharp ears and quick feet. I have no need for lies and tricks. Your secrets are buried deep.”

“Bless you, and bless the news you bring.” Isha fondled Makhpil and kissed her. “I live again. Perhaps he will come back to me. Perhaps he will claim what is his.”

“Perhaps he will, koh’met.” She nuzzled the lioness tenderly. “Never underestimate the power of love.”

CHAPTER: THE HOMECOMING

Habu was trapped in a small fissure in the side of Pride Rock. He’d gotten separated from his mother during the heat of The Great Battle, and fled shrieking from a hyena into the first place he could hide. It was barely adequate at best. If he’d ever had reason to fear hyenas before, he had an even better one.

The guard that was after him reached in with a paw trying to pull Habu’s small body into his deadly jaws. The cub huddled back as far as he could and watched as the paw swiped slightly closer each time as the hyena wedged himself more tightly into the crack. It was only a matter of time until the claws found flesh and began to tear gashes and finally manage a grip. In mad desperation, Habu timed his next move, snapped at the flailing paw, and held on to it.

With a shriek of pain, the hyena gave his paw a mighty yank backward. Habu’s canines and shearing teeth had set deeply, and they gouged long parallel gashes into its flesh. Screaming, the hyena turned about in tight circles, holding his paw up. “Krekh toh! Krekh toh, you dirty little bormarkh! I’ll kill you if it’s the last thing I do!”

Suddenly, a tawny streak passed by and with another shriek, the wounded hyena was raked brutally across the abdomen. He collapsed at once into a pool of his own blood and humors, writhing in his death struggles.

Habu cowered in the back of the cave, his eyes squeezed shut. He tried to drown out the awful moans of the hyena, putting his head down and clamping his paws tightly over his head.

“Roh’kash! Roh’kash ne nabu! Roh’kash ne nabu!”

Habu could smell smoke. At first he thought it was the scent of a dying hyena, for he had never experienced fire, but as the smell grew in its acrid intensity, he felt he must take another look outside.

What he saw was incredible. The hyenas were being driven off! They were running away! He looked about and saw flames consuming the dry grass. The whole world was on fire! He did not understand the red plague, but some distant ancestral memory told him to avoid it.

He glanced down at the hyena. The eyes turned to look back at him. Though Habu was still frightened, he understood that he was in no immediate danger. He stepped around the blood-spattered body as the eyes followed him, and trotted off to find his mother. Amarakh still lay twisted in the knot of her final death spasm. He had liked Amarakh, but he was frightened and could not bring himself to touch her lacerated body.

“Momma! Momma!”

He ran down the steep switchbacks of the trail leading to the ground. There at the base of Pride Rock, he stopped for a moment to look at his friend Taka who lay with a gaping wound on his abdomen. He trembled and headed to the sad lion that had stared at him balefully. Taka had been his friend, and he shoved him with a paw. “Are you OK? Taka?” He walked about, but the eyes did not follow him or blink. “You’re dead, aren’t you?” It was a foolish question. “Poor Taka.” He reached out and gently stroked his mane. “I guess you’re gone to see Jona.”

It was his first time to see a dead lion. Sad and confused, he wandered off to find someone—anyone—that could tell him where Isha was. He prayed that she was not with Jona too.

It began to rain. The pelting drops from the sky were a new experience for him, and he watched as the ash on the ground began to run in gray rivulets across the parched earth before being absorbed.

“Habu??”

Habusu’s heart almost went into his mouth. “Mom??”

Isha came running across the scorched earth. “Oh thank gods!!” She fell to her side and with a quick swipe of her paw, pulled his squirming, happy body to her heart and kissed him repeatedly. “My little boy! Oh gods, I was going crazy with worry! Don’t EVER run off like that again!”

Miss Priss rubbed against his mud-spattered body. “Habu!” She was usually very affectionate to him, but this time she spared no degree of effort, kissing him and pawing his face until his heart swam.

A large male lion with a wet but still impressive russet mane strode toward Pride Rock past them.

“Who’s that, Mom?”

“That’s Simba! He’s the true king! Wave at him!”

Habusu rose, covered with ash and mud, and waved his paw. Simba turned and nodded at him.

“Did you see that, Mom?? He winked at me!”

“He sure did, honey tree!”

The old mandrill Rafiki stood at the base of the promontory and hopped impatiently as the lion ascended the trail leading up Pride Rock. He glanced at Taka, shook his head, then spoke with the mandrill.

“What’s going to happen?” Habu asked.

“He’s going to climb the rock and roar for us. Then he’ll be king of the Pride Lands.”

“Is he going to do it now?”

“Soon. Just watch.”

Trembling with emotion, Isha drew Habu to her side and watched through the rain as Mufasa’s son ascended the granite promontory. The hyenas were gone, and hope for the future made her heart swell and filled her eyes with tears.

“Gods forgive me,” Isha said, “but I never thought I would live to see this day. Look, Habu! There is your king!”

Habu watched the lion come to the end of the promontory. He had never known Mufasa, but he heard so many wonderful things about him that he thrilled to see his son come home and take his place as king. The infectious joy and hope affected him deeply, and he nearly danced with an excitement that seemed to fall in the rain, blow in the winds and bubble up from inside all at once.

Simba looked down at his faithful pride. Habu nudged his Mom. “Look, he’s looking at us!”

“Shhh, Honey Tree! Watch! You’ll want to tell your grandkids about this.”

Silhouetted against the sky, Simba looked up expectantly. As if to answer him, a rift opened in the clouds and he saw the stars. Drawing in a deep breath, he sounded a thunderous roar.

Isha and the other lionesses poured out their soul, their sounds echoing and blending in a joyous song of triumph.

CHAPTER: THE CRISIS

When good news is too good to be true, it’s sure to be followed by something bad. Simba’s return to the Pride Lands offered hope to the despondent and strength to the weary. But Isha found her rejoicing cut short when realized her most precious possession was missing—Habu was nowhere to be found.

Simba and Nala were just waking up after their first night home. Before they could go for a morning drink at the cistern, Isha bounded into their cave, wild-eyed. “Forgive my intrusion, Incosi, but I can’t find my son! Please help me!” Isha was nearly incoherent. “I let him go play with Uzuri’s cubs’ but they don’t know where he went and he won’t answer me!”

“Calm down, Isha.” Nala touched her with her tongue. “Think now, where did you see him last?”

“I was lying in the grassy spot over by the north face. He went off to play with Togo and Kombi. I told him to stay near Uzuri but he didn’t listen.” She struck the ground with her paw. “I should never have let him go!”

Uzuri slinked in morosely. “I can’t find him, Isha. I don’t know where he went, but I found out why.” She frowned at her twins who tried to look small and inconspicuous. “It seems Togo and Kombi were playing a little… rough.” She patted Isha comfortingly. “Don’t worry, Hon, he’s probably just sulking somewhere.”

“That’s just it; he always comes when I call him, no matter what mood he’s in. He’s such a good boy.” She buried her face into Uzuri’s shoulder and sobbed. “My son! My little son!”

Simba glanced at Nala. “Oh boy. I’m gonna go ask Rafiki if he can help. Maybe he’ll know where to look. In the meanwhile, get some search parties organized.”

Simba worked his way quickly down the rock, then ran unbroken toward Rafiki’s acacia. Isha had taken several bites meant for him during The Great Battle, and he felt suitably grateful. “Aiheu, help us! Isha deserves better than this.” By the large trunk of the tree he stopped breathless, looking up into the branches. “Rafiki! Rafiki?? Are you awake??”

“Indeed I am. What is all the commotion about?”

“Habusu is lost. Can you do anything to help us? We have to find him quickly, before something else does.”

Rafiki started. “Aiheu forbid—I will try.”

Back at Pride Rock, Isha was going crazy with worry. Nala was stroking her with a paw, nuzzling her. “We will find him, Auntie Isha. I promise.”

“How can you promise something like that?” Isha trembled. “You can’t! What if he’s dead already?? What if he’s fallen into a sinkhole?? Maybe he’s calling for me!”

“Easy, girl! Easy! Don’t think such things!”

Simba came running back to the cave with a frantic looking Rafiki on his back clinging to his mane.

Isha stepped out of the cave, looking hopeful, but her face fell when she saw no sign of her cub.

“Isha, my poor dear,” Rafiki said, running up and hugging her neck. “Do not fret. We will find your child.” He quickly set up his scrying bowl and filled it with water from a gourd he carried. “Do you have anything that he might have touched or played with in the past day or so? An old bone, perhaps?”

“No, he doesn’t play with toys very much; he likes to pounce and wrestle more than anything else.”

Rafiki frowned. “Hmm. That will make it more difficult; I don’t think I’ll be able to find him without something.”

Isha said, “How about some dead grass? I made him a soft place to sleep.”

He paused, stroking the flowing white hair which grew from his chin. “Yes. Yes indeed.”

She brought a small mouthful of dry grass, but he only took a few strands. She watched closely as he dropped the grass into the bowl, where it floated about in a small circle. Isha and Simba peered over his shoulder with interest as Rafiki made a short prayer, then studied the pattern of ripples in the water. “Makpelah the Circle. He lives.”

Simba sighed with relief as Isha sank to the ground. “Aiheu be praised,” she whispered. “Where is he?”

Rafiki scratched his head. “I don’t know.” But all too soon, he would have a good idea.

“Hey, your Majesty!” called a hyena voice. “I would most HUMBLY request an audience with you.”

“I know that voice,” Simba said. A distant but horrible memory came back to him. “Oh gods, no! Shenzi!”

CHAPTER: HOLDING OUT HOPE

Shenzi had offered to help look for the child, but her veiled threats were all too clearly read, and they proved to be more than just a trick to gain influence with Simba. After a long and frustrating day of searching, Yolanda and Sarafina came and bowed breathless before Simba to make a startling report.

“We found Habu.”

“Where is he?” Isha gasped. Her stomach knotted. “Oh God, tell me he’s not dead!”

“He is alive, Isha. Aiheu forgive me for saying so, but it might be better for him if he had died. The hyenas have him.”

After a moment of pain and anger, Simba roared loudly and said, “Come, Isha. Let’s go get your son.”

Every able body was called into the rescue operation. Only the cubs were left behind. Uzuri took charge of the team for all prey was one to her, and she took this particular hunt to heart. There could be no sudden rush, for it is likely the prey would not flee. It required something more subtle than a dash for gazelles, and she was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the safety of her pride sisters as well as that of Habusu. In the back of her mind, however, she remembered Ber, Makhpil, and several others whom she could see no evil in. She prayed they would be safe as well, and maybe that they would help her.

Quickly and silently, the ghosts of Pride Rock slinked through the grass as silently as a gentle wind, but they were a mighty thunderstorm ready to strike the enemy with lightning.

The guards posed little problem. The quiet approach caught a couple of cowardly hyenas by surprise, and within moments they were driven off into the uncertain night.

Uhuru, the Roh’mach, was making his nightly rounds before he slept. He saw the stealthy approach of the lions, and it surprised him that they came unannounced. “I’m going to have a word with Griz’nik,” he grumbled as he headed to meet them.

“Sire! What an honor!” He bowed. “No news on your missing child, I’m afraid.”

Simba ran to him and snarled viscously. “What in God’s name do you think you’re doing with our cub? Did you think we wouldn’t find out??”

Uhuru quailed and shrank back. “Sire?? I don’t understand!”

Isha stared into his eyes. “Liar! Where is my child? What have you done with him??” She scanned the area frantically. “Habu? Habu, it’s Mom! Oh gods, answer me!” Her voice echoed, mocking her. She turned back to Uhuru, her ears laid flat in anger. “What have you done with him?”

Sitting above them on a ledge, Shenzi laughed.

Simba glared up at Shenzi. “Are you responsible for this?”

“And what if I am, cubby? What are you going to do about it? Touch me and your little babykins is going to be tonight’s dinner.”

Simba strode forward angrily. “What do you want?”

Shenzi laughed. “Are you that dense? I want that pathetic excuse for a Roh’mach replaced. We need someone more qualified.”

“That someone wouldn’t happen to be you, would it?”

“Why, dearie, I thought you’d never ask. I’d be delighted to volunteer.”

“I’m sure you would!” Simba roared loudly. “I will not be dictated to by anyone, especially you. You helped Scar kill my father, and by God I either get Habusu back or I’ll rip you.”

“So she helped kill Mufasa too?” Uhuru asked. He confronted Shenzi, shouting, “Let’s end this here and now. I call on the gods to witness our Shih’kal. I challenge you to fight to the death.”

Deathly silence fell as Shenzi stared at Uhuru, openmouthed. “What? You can’t do this!”

Azuba stepped forward. “But he has.” She was a loyalist and hated Shenzi. She scrabbled up to the ledge and drew close to her enemy, speaking through the clenched teeth of her rage. “Accept the challenge, or forfeit forever your claim as Roh’mach.”

Shenzi looked around at the other hyenas. The challenge had been witnessed, and she faced only two paths. “Very well. I accept the challenge.” She shoved past Azuba and stood before Uhuru, spitting at his feet. “Fool. You would have lost your title. Now you lose your life.”

“Really?” His eyes bored into hers intently. “We shall see.”

CHAPTER: MATCH POINT

Shenzi began circling Uhuru slowly, sizing him up. He was smaller, but he was very quick and agile.

Fighting to remember all his mother had taught him about combat, Uhuru kept his head low to the ground, trying to give her the smallest target possible.

“Kill her!” Azuba shouted. “See if her Roh’kash comes to her aid! I think not!”

Suddenly Shenzi lunged, jaw snapping and claws swinging for purchase in his living flesh. Most of the lions watched spellbound as the battle raged on, but all Isha could think of was her son. She began looking about frantically calling, “Habu! It’s Mommy! Answer me, Habu! Oh gods, answer me!”

Hyenas began to gather, watching the two combatants. Ber shouted, “Bite her once for me! Make a guard out of me, will she!” Hopping mad, Ber shoved through to take a position where he could see well. “Come on, boy! I’m praying for you!”

Shenzi managed to get in a blow, raking Uhuru’s shoulder and bringing blood. A couple of adolescent females began to chant, “Shenzi, Shenzi, rule forever!” Ber snarled at them viscously and they hushed up.

Isha frantically went from one hyena to another. “Please help me! Please! Have you seen my son? I’ll do anything, just tell me where he is!”

Most of them denied any knowledge. Some of them truly did not know, and many others were afraid. But a few were obviously Shenzists and they took great pleasure in her discomfort. Isha wished she could tell who those were and kill them one by one. At last she came to Makhpil, who pawed her gently, fell to the ground and tried desperately to concentrate. All the noise and the confusing Babel of thoughts conspired to drown out her inner voice, and she whined in frustration. “Honey Tree, I’m trying but I can’t hear myself think!”

“Quiet!!” Isha roared. “Quiet down all of you if you want to live!!”

Makhpil rolled on her back, pressing her paws against her face. All the aggression and excitement flowing through her from all sides was dizzying and she could make little sense out of it.

The battle seemed to take forever as two combatants struggled to stave off death. There could be no other conclusion. Uhuru was getting the advantage, however, and it seemed likely to all the witnesses, lion and hyena, that Shenzi would lose.

Shenzi began to gasp. Her body was riddled with wounds. Jackals had gathered to watch, ready to claim their share of the action. If the enemy is respected, they would get a body snuffed with a merciful neck bite. If the enemy was held in contempt, they would get a miserable, pleading victim that would shriek as its flesh was ripped away. Either way, they would be well fed.

Uhuru’s paw struck her high on the face, sending her sprawling. A paw slapped down on either shoulder, pinning her neatly to the ground. He bared his teeth, but paused a moment to think. Should he make it quick? Shenzi looked at him pleadingly. “Please show respect. Kill me quickly.” She closed her eyes and began to pray.

Skulk came in, doing his best to look grief stricken. “I am saddened by the heavy burden of the news I bring, but it is my duty to inform you, Roh’mach.”

Uhuru cocked an ear toward him, but kept his gaze locked on Shenzi, wary of a trick. “Speak up, Skulk, and be quick. What do you want?”

Skulk spat a mouthful of golden fur into the circle before the two combatants. “There is all that remains of the lion cub. One of Shenzi’s traitorous guards decided to have him for a snack.”

Isha shrieked. She hurried forward and scented the tuft of fur, then rolled on her back in agony. “Oh gods!” she sobbed. “They killed my baby! My son, my son!” She took the small furball in her paw and held it against her chest sobbing. “Why?? Why did you want to hurt him?? He was an innocent little boy! Why??”

Makhpil fell moaning by her side and lay across her trembling body, kissing her and stroking her with a paw. “My koh’met! My poor little koh’met! You can be my mother. I will find the guilty ones and bring you their hearts! You will grow fat on their hearts!”

Kako wailed and Uzuri leaned against her. “So close!” Uzuri sobbed. “We were so close! Uhuru, don’t finish it! Leave her to the jackals—I want to hear her scream, and every time she does, I’ll laugh!” She looked at the jackals and cried loudly, “Don’t rush it! I promise you a gazelle if you do a good job!”

The jackals nodded greedily. “Leave it to us!”

Uhuru looked at the fur disbelievingly. “You mean…”

Skulk nodded sadly. “I’m afraid so. I’m afraid that once the combat is complete, you will have to be executed, milord. You did swear with your life to redeem the cub.”

Shenzi glared at him, a smile on her face. “I didn’t think you had it in you!”

“Slow and painful!” cried the jackals. “Leave it to us! Leave it to us!” They began to edge closer, their eyes glowing red with anticipation. “We eat well tonight!”

Suddenly, a small cub gamboled past. “Hey, Shenzi! Hey, Uhuru!”

“Shut up, Habu,” she snarled. Freezing, she did a double take. “Habu?!!”

Habusu ran to his mother who wept and rolled on her back, hugging him to her warm stomach and kissing him. “Oh, I could eat you up!” she stammered, and kissed him repeatedly, uttering little cries of joy and rubbing his small golden body. Makhpil wept with joy, kissing the cub. One of Isha’s large paws caught her and drew her near. What Taka and Shenzi could not achieve through force, Uhuru and Makhpil accomplished through love. The dark days were over and all was set to rights under Uhuru’s watchful eye.

CHAPTER: PARTING OF THE WAYS

Sarafina was settling down for her nap. Uzuri and Isha were together, as they tended to be, asleep side by side. Life was returning to normal, and they did not have to spend hours every day on the hunt anymore. Life was good.

When Zazu flew excitedly overhead shouting, “Great news!” Sarafina glanced up for a moment and muttered, “That’s nice.” She snuggled into Kako’s side and drew in a deep breath, letting it out in a sigh.

Under the warmth of the sun, the world moved at a slower pace. No one was expected to do anything important at high-sun, and it was an unspoken rule of leonine society that you let sleeping bodies lie. With one exception, of course, and that was an emergency.

Simba roared. Sarafina’s eyes popped open abruptly. “What the devil??”

“Pride meeting! Come to me!”

Sarafina half closed her eyes. “This had better be good.”

“It’s happening!” Simba said, standing over her.

“What’s happening??” Sarafina asked

“You’ll see!”

Something about the infectious excitement in his voice made Sarafina’s heart light. She lost her scowl and followed him eager to see what the mystery was about.

Isha came over and Simba nuzzled her warmly. “Isha, I want you, Habusu and Miss Priss to come with me. We’re having a Pride Moot at the eastern meadow. And your family will sit by me.”

“I’m honored.” She looked at him worriedly. “Is today the day I lose him? I’m supposed to get two days notice.”

“You will never lose him. I swear.”

“But the gods?”

“The gods will rejoice!”

“It’s him, isn’t it. He’s come back for me?”

Simba kissed her. “I’ll give you two guesses.”

Isha’s face beamed with joy. She nuzzled him back, tears in her eyes. “Bless you. Bless you!”

“Now now, you don’t want to smell like another lion when your husband comes!” He smiled slyly. “I don’t think he’s going to want to share you with me.”

When the Pride had assembled on the eastern meadow, the lionesses began to speculate on what was happening. Some said Simba planned a special mantlement for Habusu. Others thought Rafiki had found a reason for Habusu to be adopted or stay as Prince Consort. “What’s wrong?” some of them asked. “Couldn’t he produce a strong heir?” But others said, “I don’t think he’d look so happy if there was something wrong with him.”

Several minutes passed, but it felt more like an eternity. Simba waited patiently, and as long as he sat there, no one would stir. A few cubs played in the grass, but as long as they kept it quiet no one seemed to mind. But the adults and older youth sat stock still, waiting for Simba to give the word to begin.

An hour passed. Many of the lions were very restless. Sarafina began to wish she had stayed on her rock and napped.

Then Zazu shouted. “Here he is!”

Several of the lionesses took in a gasp when a large, shapely lion came out of the trees. “Isn’t he handsome!” one of the lionesses whispered.

“What a catch!” another one answered.

The stranger looked at Kako and quietly said, “Mother.”

Kako stared for a moment, her heart full to bursting, then she sprang to her feet and rushed to him, putting her arm over his shoulder and nuzzling him. “My son, my son!”

Sarafina started. “Mabatu??”

The stranger nodded, and a wave of shocked delight spread through the pride. They all remembered the adolescent that skulked away with ears and tail drooping. This was a lion.

Kissing his mother, Mabatu gently led her aside, then went to Simba. Falling down before him, he said, “I touch your mane.”

“I feel it.” Simba nodded to Mabatu and fought to keep a straight face as the other lion rose. “And what brings you to my kingdom?” He half laughed and winked.

Baba glanced over at the row of lionesses that flanked Simba on one side. “I come to claim what is mine-if she still wants me.”

“Yes, yes, YES!!” Isha sprang forward and raising on her hind legs wrapped her arms around his neck, pawing him and nuzzling him. “I’m yours forever!”

Sarafina cried, “Big boy, you’re in for some loving tonight!”

“I’m the real Isha!” Ajenti yelled. “She’s an impostor! Take me, take me!”

“Enough of this,” Simba said. “Can’t you see they have unfinished business?”

“Can we watch?” Sarafina said.

“Shame on you, Fini.” Simba chuckled. “Remember, you’re the queen’s mother.”

Mabatu greeted Isha warmly, but he clearly had some unfinished business. He went to the adolescent lion that bore a certain resemblance to the one that was driven out long ago. A smile spread across his face, and Habu brightened. “Dad?”

“So this is Habusu.” Mabatu’s jaw trembled, his eyes brightening as he lifted a paw to touch the face of the youth before him. “My son…” He looked around. “He is my son, and the one true heir.” He nuzzled Habu gently and added, “It is a small kingdom. I share it with an old lion who lost a challenge. We are a matched pair, a sunrise and a sunset. But he is a dear friend, and you will grow to love him.”

Lisani came up and nuzzled Isha.

“And who is this? My daughter?”

“Lisani, but we call her Miss Priss. She is Beesa’s daughter—my sister died some time ago.” Isha looked at her compassionately. “What do you want to do, Miss Priss?”

“Auntie Isha, you’re my family. I want to go wherever you go. But the nickname stays here, OK?”

Mabatu smiled. “Fair enough, Lisani. I guess that makes five of us.”

“You’re taking two of my best lionesses, and a second son,” Simba said. “You better leave before I change my mind.”

“Three of your best lionesses,” Kako said with little modesty but great effect. “Someone has to make sure my son is eating right…” She glanced at Isha. “… and my daughter.”

Thus the visitor from the east went back the way she came. Many of the lionesses watched Isha’s departure wistfully, especially Uzuri. “There go some of my best friends,” she said.

“Don’t you think of leaving too,” Simba said, nuzzling her. “We love you, Zuri.”

“Oh, you can’t get rid of me that easily,” she said, kissing his cheek.

CHAPTER: HOME AT LAST

Mabatu grunted softly as he shifted position, trying to ease the ache on his flanks where Umande lay, her head pillowed comfortably in the curve of his haunch. Mabatu loved his daughter dearly, and enjoyed the moments they spent together more and more—of late she had spent more time with her young friends, leaving the old lion feeling very alone since Baba had left. With a smile he reached back and caressed her cheek, drawing a sleepy smile and a purr of contentment. She was his daughter, and would make some lion a fine mate one day…

… But right now, she was putting his leg to sleep.

He laid back and tried to relax. A botfly settled on his side, seeking blood. He flicked his tail, but it only disturbed the insect which fluttered a bit and settled right back. Another try met with the same result, and he began to wonder if the thing was going to explode before it quit feeding.

Without opening her eyes, Umande reached up with a paw and swatted his side firmly, splashing his fur with a crimson stain.

Mabatu eyed it with distaste. “Messy.”

“But effective, and SO satisfying.” She opened an amber eye and smiled.

“For you, maybe.” He rubbed his sore ribs gently.

“Poor old lion! Aren’t you glad I’m here to take care of you?” She giggled and stood, moving forward to nuzzle his cheek.

“Absolutely. I feel better already, now that the blood can get to my leg again.” He chuckled softly.

“Dad!”

His smile fell as a deep roar cut the air. “This land is mine! Mine!”

Mabatu’s ears pricked up and he answered with a roar of his own. “Who land is this?? This land is MINE!” He struggled to an upright position despite his tingling leg. Cursing his aging body, he staggered forward and roared back, “This land is MINE!”

The challenger’s voice was much nearer. “Then all is still as Aiheu wills it, then.” The grass parted to reveal Baba’s smiling face. “Hello, Father!”

“Baba! Welcome home!” Mabatu breathed a relieved sigh and trotted to greet his son, nuzzling the fragrant softness of his mane. “I’m so glad to see you!”

“I’m back, and I have the family!”

A lioness emerged from the grass. Baba’s face beamed with pride as he nuzzled her and looked back at his father.

“This must be Isha!”

“Yes, Dad. My wife and the mother of my son!”

The lioness rubbed against the King and kissed him. “You have cared for my husband. I owe you more than I could ever repay.”

“My son has chosen well, I see. You are even more beautiful than he said you were. Darling daughter, I welcome you with a full heart.”

Isha smiled at him. “Baba’s told me a lot about you.”

“Only the good parts, I hope?”

She laughed. “Are there any bad ones?” Isha cocked her head and grunted softly at the grass behind her. “Come on, kids.”

Two gangly adolescents emerged, one an attractive female, the other a young male with the first hints of a mane showing on the nape of his neck. “Sire, this is Lisani, my niece, and Habusu, our son.”

Mabatu craned his great head down and nosed Habu gently, his eyes shining. “You never told me you had a son, Baba.” He grinned and wrapped a paw around the young cub, pulling him close. Habusu smiled up at the friendly embrace and nuzzled the old lion.

“I didn’t know myself until I went back.” Baba looked at his son proudly. “Look how big he’s grown—I can’t believe it!” He glanced back and motioned with a paw, then turned, smiling, to his father. “There’s someone else I want you to see. You said you knew my mother once, and here she is!”

Mabatu nodded and sat quietly, waiting as the last newcomer pushed her way out of the grasses and stood before him. His eyes locked on her lithe, graceful form, and his breath caught, his heart speeding up in his chest until he thought it might burst.

The King swallowed and nodded once. “Kako.”

She made her way forward slowly and tensely. Drawing close to Mabatu, she saw the way his eyes regarded her and how his chin trembled. “I touch your mane.” She reached out and slowly, sensuously traced the curve of his cheek and throat with her paw. Then she drew close and kissed his face. “Oh gods,” she whispered. “He didn’t tell me it was you.”

Her breath in his ear made him shudder. “Steady, old girl. Keep your composure.” He nuzzled her quickly and straightened up. “Note well, all of you. This is Kako, mother of the Prince. She will be living with us from now on.”

Baba nosed Isha softly. “Come, let me show you our home. Come on, kids!”

Habusu and Lisani trotted off behind them, leaving Kako and the King behind. Several of the pride lionesses made their way over and fell before Kako’s feet. Shenannii touched her with her tongue. “My sister! God has sent you back to us!”

“Yes, Nani! Oh, I’ve missed you so much!” Kako rubbed her old hunt mistress’s cheek warmly. “I wondered if you were still as good at chasing gerenuk as you used to be.”

“Yes, and still quicker than you are, just like I was then.” Shenannii’s jaw quivered and she lowered her head. “Welcome home, My Lady.”

Kako shuddered. “No! Never call me that. Please!”

“But why?”

“For ALL our sakes. Please address me by name only. At least in front of Baba and his family.” She straightened and looked away. “You know the rules. I’m just a Pride Sister now, nothing more.”

Shenannii bit her lip and nodded. “As you wish, Pride Sister. But you know how I feel inside. Gods, I love you, Sis!” Shenannii rubbed heads with her and pawed her shoulder and throat. “When the children are around, that’s one thing.” She bowed her head to the ground. “When we’re alone, that’s different. Bless me, my Queen.”

Kako touched her forehead with a paw and said, “Aiheu abamami,” then kissed her. The other lionesses lined up for a blessing, each one bending low before her with love and joy as she touched them and kissed them softly. “It’s good to be home.”

CHAPTER: ALONE AT LAST

Isha was amused at all the new attention she received as wife of the prince. It was sweet revenge for all the humiliation she had suffered when her cubs were born. Still she turned away the respectful titles thrust on her, insisting with a disarming laugh that she was not a “Mistress Isha” or a “My Lady.” With a casual nod, she would say, “I’m just plain old Isha.”

Her husband smiled. “Plain old Isha, eh?”

She padded over and flopped down next to him. “And what’s wrong with plain old Isha?”

“Oh, nothing! It fits you, actually…” He rolled over and absorbed himself in watching the stars overhead, hiding a sly smile behind a paw.

She shoved him in the ribs. “It fits me?”

He nodded. “Dependable, predictable.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Is that a challenge, big boy?”

He chuckled. “So is that the constellation of N’ga and Sufa, or Mano and Minshasa?”

Isha rolled over and put her paws on his chest, pinning him to the ground. “Who cares! Are you going to just watch the stars or soar to them?” She rubbed her face against his and kissed him.

“Isha!” he stammered. He pawed her face, running his pads softly over her mouth. She parted her lips and softly mouthed his paw, then lay her face against his chest, listening to his pounding heart, nuzzling his mane and drinking in his masculine fragrance.

Mabatu wrapped his arms about her and grunted with pleasure. “I forgot how good you felt next to me. I’ve missed you so much—every day, every minute, every second. On the long lonely nights I would dream about the soft curves of your beautiful golden body…” He looked at her apprehensively. “Nip me—am I asleep?”

She opened her jaws and gently embraced his throat, drawing her soft pink tongue along his throbbing pulse. Kneading his chest and face with her gentle paws, she purred, “There. Are you awake now, honey tree?”

“What a nip!” he said, trembling. “I want you, Isha! I’ve waited for you so long! So VERY long! I want to make love to you!”

Her purring took on a deeper rumble. She rose and with sensual grace slinked alluringly into the tall grass, glancing backward over her shapely shoulder. “Follow me.”

CHAPTER: DO IT FOR ME

For the next few weeks Kako and Isha traveled over the hunting grounds with Shenannii. Isha, who had much to learn, paid careful attention and thoroughly enjoyed the outings. Kako had to maintain appearances for Isha’s sake, but everything she saw brought back old memories from happier times. It was a bittersweet experience for her, and she walked quietly, speaking only when spoken to.

Even Baba noticed that something was wrong, and he fretted over his mother’s discomfort, blaming himself for his poor judgment in bringing her along. He just assumed she would want to leave the family she’d grown to love in the Pride Lands and settle down happily. He took careful note of the polite but reserved conversation when she was around, aware that some great secret was been being hidden, but he had no idea what it could be. It had never occurred to him to ask Mabatu just what debt he owed Kako, or why the lionesses all came and kissed her when she arrived. Baba felt that he should speak frankly with her.

When the restlessness of Kako’s season gripped her and she did not gravitate toward Mabatu the way he’d hoped, Baba decided to intervene. He began dropping hints about how handsome and regal the king looked perched atop the rocks, and how good it would be for him to chose a new mate.

Kako would nod, but she would never react the way Baba expected. His efforts at matchmaking were thwarted one by one, and he began to wonder how someone so unresponsive EVER had cubs. Finally, he took her aside one evening as the sun was setting. “Mother? Can I talk to you openly?”

“Certainly! Any time you’re worried, or you just want to talk, I’m here for you.” She padded over and nuzzled him warmly. “What’s wrong? Is it you and Isha?”

“No, nothing like that. I was wondering if you could do me a little favor.”

“Of course, Baba. What is it?”

“King Mabatu’s been really depressed lately.” Mabatu fidgeted uncomfortably as his mother’s hazel eyes regarded him closely.

“And?”

Mabatu scrubbed the ground with a paw uncomfortably. “Well, there’s no other way to say it but to say it. Mom, he’s struck on you. Here you are in the middle of—you know—and he’s going crazy every time he sees you. I can tell. Even though you loved Dad, don’t you think you could give him half a chance?”

She looked scandalized. “Baba, what EVER made you think of this??”

“He’s wanted to ask you out for a long time. This morning he asked me if I could put in the good word for him. He’s painfully shy, you know. Maybe you could help him. And besides, you’ve looked a little like a lost lamb since you’ve been here.”

“That’s very sweet of you. Really it is. But if he’s not going to ask me himself, I don’t feel right asking him. I’m fine—really I am—and I am old enough to take care of myself.” She kissed him.

Baba pawed her cheek. “Isha and I are so happy. We’re living the way Aiheu intended, and it does make all the difference. Mom, just see him once. Once, Mom. That’s all I ask. Talk with him. Maybe hunt rabbits together. If you’ll just give it a try, whatever happens is OK by me. And I won’t pester you anymore. Is it a deal?”

“Baba, please!”

“Momma, please!”

“OK, Baba. It’s a deal IF you agree not to interfere anymore.”

“Sure! Thanks, Mom! You’ll be glad you did.”

CHAPTER: A FRIENDLY GAME

At the appointed time that evening, Kako made her way to a secluded spot behind an outcropping of rock and sat down, waiting. Presently the pad of footfalls impressed itself on her hearing and she saw King Mabatu’s bulk part the grass and stop across from her. A moment of awkward silence passed. “Hello, Kako.”

“Mabatu.” She nodded and sat. “How have you been?”

“As well as can be expected.” He sighed and sat across from her. “And you?”

“Quite well.”

Mabatu sighed. “Tell me you didn’t ask Baba to ‘put in the good word’ for you! What COULD you have been thinking!”

“But I never! I thought that YOU told HIM to…” She had to smile. “Why that little scheming furball!”

Mabatu chuckled. “His heart was in the right place.” His smile vanished as quickly. “This must be hard on him. Oh, if I could only tell him the truth!”

“If,” Kako said with a sigh. “You know we swore an oath. You must never tell him, and neither must I.”

“Yeah. So Kako, how’s the hunting coming along?”

“Very good; I’ve had to do a lot of relearning, but the patterns haven’t changed that much around here.”

“There’s much around here that hasn’t changed.”

“Mabatu, please… don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”

He sighed. “Kako, I know my limits old girl, but do you think the gods would mind if we got a LITTLE closer?” Mabatu lay down in the soft grass and beckoned with a paw. “Please? I don’t have anything catching.”

Trembling, Kako inched her way over to him and eased down next to him, daring to lay her head on the luxuriant softness of his mane. She inhaled his musky scent and trembled. “My darling Mabatu…”

He gingerly placed a foreleg around her and patted her softly on the shoulder. “Kako, it feels like old times. I never thought I’d see you again, and here you are close to me. I still love you. We have to pretend for the lad, but I never want you to be deceived, not for a moment.”

“You know how I feel, darling.”

He gave her another pat. “Still, I like to hear you say it. I don’t get many chances these days.”

She put her paw over his. “I live for you.” Her inner reserve broke and she burst into tears, embracing his comforting bulk. “Oh gods! What is there left to live for!”

“Shhh, my Nisei. There is plenty to live for. What did you do before you met me?”

“I wandered the barren plains with nothing but my name and a few aging kills to scavenge. I spent those days sure that there must be something better. I spent those days looking for you.”

“And now you’ve found me—again.” He managed a half-hearted smile. “We have our memories, and we have our children. No tears, old girl. I mean it! Our love lives on through them.”

She lifted a paw and caressed his cheek tenderly, tracing the wistful expression on his face. Gently she stroked the flowing curves of his cheek down to the broad mantle of auburn mane that covered his throat and chest, feeling the rumble of his purr. Absently she followed the flow of his mane, her paw making lazy circles as it moved across his chest and onto his upper belly.

Mabatu shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t think you should do that. Don’t start something that can only end one way.” He sighed. “If it was only my life to pay, nothing could stop me from making love to you! I would feel your lithe and tender body against mine one last time and die without regrets.” He shuddered again in the throes of passionate arousal. “Couldn’t we see this Rafiki Isha talks about? He has the ear of the gods, doesn’t he?”

“And what would that accomplish?”

“Maybe there is a way. If we gave up the kingdom and ran away together, the gods would have no reason to torment Baba.”

“You mean we’d become rogues?”

“Yes, if that’s the price of our love.” He reached out with a trembling paw and ran it down her chest and belly. “You are my kingdom, my treasure, my every need. I want you. I’ve waited for so long to crouch over your beautiful body and feel you shudder next to me! The border is right over there! Just beyond those trees! We could make love tonight!”

“And throw away everything we’ve worked for?? Territory? Safety?”

“Long, lonely nights! Empty days!”

“Our family?”

“Our separation!”

“Just like that??”

“Just like that, and never look back! Yes!” He rested his forearms on her chest, his throbbing heart pressed against hers. His lips brushed against her own as he spoke in a passionate whisper. “I’m on fire! I want you! I want both your body and your Ka. I want to fill myself with you. I can feel you tremble. You want me too—admit it!”

“Yes, I admit it!” she cried, more like a cry of remorse than passion. She wrapped her paws about him and rocked him gently back and forth. “Do you think the gods would accept it? Would they be content to let us steal a little happiness? Do you really think they would?”

“Don’t you?”

“Well I… if only we could…” She burst into tears and shoved him away with her paws. “We can’t! We can’t take the chance!”

“He sighed and kissed her again, this time gently. “Is that what you really want?”

She sobbed, “Does it matter what I really want? What I can’t have, I must learn to live without!” She touched him with her tongue. “Baba’s a lion with a wife and cubs that love him! I’d never gamble with his future, and neither would you. Not when you have control of your passions. Not when you’ve thought about what he means to us—both of us.”

He slid off her chest and rolled on his back, taking in a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh. “Yes, I love him too. I owe him my kingdom and my life. I have let my feelings run away with my common sense, old girl.”

“Then you understand.”

“I understand.” He looked at her intently. “Perhaps for the last time in this world, let me say that I love you with my life, my heart, my very soul. Never forget that, my blessed Nisei!”

“Lover, in my dreams tonight I will feel your breath on my cheek!” She wiped her eyes and sniffed. “I will tell our son that we were bound too tightly to our past to build a new love. That’s not really a lie when you come to think about it.”

“You can’t build a new love till you lose the old one.” He reached over and very gently kissed the tip of her muzzle. “God bless you, Kako.”

She struggled to her feet, looking back with a silver tear catching the moonlight on her cheek. “God bless you too.” And then she turned and stalked away into the shadows.

When she was gone, he rolled on his back and looked at the stars with a sigh. “Aiheu, I wish I were dead!”

CHAPTER: THE NEXT DAY

Baba was anxious to hear news of his matchmaking game, but his mother’s polite smile prepared him for disappointment. “It was interesting,” she said. “Things just didn’t work out. I felt guilty, like I was about to cheat on my husband, and he felt like he was sneaking out on his wife. In the end, we just sat and talked politely. He’s a good friend, and I’m glad I got to know him better, but neither one of us had nerve to go make love.”

King Mabatu passed by. “Hello Baba. Good morning, Kako.”

“Good morning to you too,” she said. “I trust you slept well?”

“Yes, thank you.” He glanced at her longingly and trembled. “I enjoyed our little chat last night.”

“So did I,” she said, following the curves of his mane and the build of his shoulders with her eyes. She had to look away. Baba did not know what to look for, or he would have seen much that morning.

Listless and somewhat detached from the rest of the world, Kako went through the motions of her morning routine, taking a long cool drink from the stream, grooming her face and neck with a paw, and settling down for a nap with the Pride Sisters. Only her eyes rarely closed, and during a brief bout with sleep, she twitched and moaned a great deal, waking with a start and crying, “I can’t!”

Mabatu fared little better. Baba saw him perched on a kopje, watching the goings on of the savanna with a sullen, withdrawn air. He climbed up and sat next to his father. “What’s wrong, Dad? Are you feeling sick?

“No, son. I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“About you. How much I loved you, and how much I’d give up for you. You do love me too, don’t you?”

“For shame!” Baba buried his head in the old king’s mane and purred affectionately. “Of course I love you! I owe you my very life!”

Mabatu leaned on him. “Son, those words carry a bitter irony you can’t understand now. But someday you will.”

“What does that mean?”

Mabatu pawed his shoulder. “You have a son now. Bringing him into the world was one of life’s sweetest pleasures, but raising him is one of life’s hardest responsibilities. Look around at these faces. On the surface, they appear to be looking in every direction. But deep down inside they are all looking to me for protection and guidance. And someday they will all be looking to you. You see, son, there’s only one difference between you and a rogue lion.”

“What’s that?”

“A rogue lion has nothing to lose. Always remember that.” He laughed bitterly. “Listen to the old lion going on. I’m rambling and not making any sense.”

“I think you make lots of sense,” Baba said. “I never knew my real father, but I don’t feel so bad about it now.” He rested his head on Mabatu. “What did I do to deserve all this?”

The king purred. “You made an old lion feel much better. That is enough.”

That evening, Kako tried to lose herself in the hunt. But she does not concentrate well. One of her daughters said, “How do you stand it? I mean, you’re in your season—you and him together alone!”

“This is one subject not to mention in front of Baba or Isha. Is that understood?”

“Sure, Mom. But you were taking a big risk last night being alone with Dad. It’s clear to all of us that you still love him.”

“I kept my head about me. Nothing happened.”

“Oh? Really? You weren’t even tempted for a moment?”

“My son lives, doesn’t he? My love for your father is strong, but my mother love is even stronger. God bless him, Baba was trying to fix me up with a date. He doesn’t know, and he must never know why your Dad and I are not together.”

“I think it’s a shame to give up so much and not be able to tell him.”

“I think it would be a worse shame to have him feel guilty.”

“True, true,” the others said.

Kako sounded in control and very rational, but she could barely concentrate on the task at hand and she was very forgetful. Umande watched her in anguish as she strove to act normal with the turmoil she felt inside.

Kako taught them Uzuri’s crescent formation, and they decided to use it. She took up her old post on the left point, but gave the pre-arranged signals with her ears that guided the others unfailingly through the steps of the predatory ballet.

Wildebeests had congregated on the meadow near the termite mounds. The splashing of water in the creek was a perfect cover for the delicate leonine tread that brought the huntresses ever closer.

Most of the young calves were in the center of the herd protected by a wall of formidable adults. But one young mother let her inexperience show, and she was at the rim of the herd with her calf. “Aiheu abamami,” Kako silently mouthed. “Aiheu provides.”

Her ears flicked forward. At once, several lionesses plunged from the surrounding grass. The Wildebeests cried out in alarm, taking flight. The central column of huntresses drove the well-ordered herd into two bodies that fled in opposite directions. Shennanii tore into the right company, grabbing hold of a large bull by the shoulder, climbing on his back and slowing him just enough for others to seize his flanks, stomach and lower back. He fell into their deadly embrace as Shennanii closed on his throat.

Kako strode swiftly after the screaming calf, cutting it off from the rest of the herd. She bounded ever closer and readied herself to aim a blow at its shoulder that would make it hers. Then out of the corner of her eye she saw the cow approaching, horns lowered.

Umande heard a lioness scream. Galvanized, she broke off her pursuit of a calf and searched frantically for the source. Lying in the grass trembling was a golden body smeared with its own red blood. Trembling, she drew close.

“Momma!! Oh gods!!”

Wide-eyed, Kako reached for her with her one good arm. “Mandy, go get Mabatu! Quick!”

“Momma!!”

“Go, honey tree! Run! Get Mabatu!”

Umande, sobbing, ran screaming past her pride sisters. “Kako’s dying!! Get Mabatu!!”

“Which one??”

“Both of them!”

Umande and Shennanii rushed back to the Pride Kopje and saw Mabatu and Baba going over some star lore and laughing, blissfully unaware of the tragedy unfolding near the termite mounds.

“Come quick!” Mandy shouted. “It’s Kako! Hurry!”

Mabatu and Baba tore across the grassland. The peaceful stars were beginning to come out, and a hush was settling across the land. Crickets serenaded the newborn moon and a distant hyena was heard serenading his lady love. With maddening consistency, the flow of life did not pause even for a minute as Kako lay gasping in a pool of her own blood.

Mabatu drew near and shuddered. She started to say something to him, but she looked over and saw Baba. “Be strong. Remember the promise.”

“Even now?”

“Even now.”

“You were a good friend to me.”

“So long, my king.”

“Yes, my friend. So long.”

Baba drew near. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Oh Momma!”

“My little boy! Oh, but you’re not little anymore, my handsome lion. Be good to Isha.”

Isha fell to the ground and wailed in anguish. Habusu and Lisani huddled next to her and sobbed.

“Don’t die! Please don’t die!” Baba lay his head against her side like a helpless cub. “Oh gods, I can’t lose you, I just can’t! Get up, Momma! I’ll take you to the shaman! Get up, Momma! Please!”

Mabatu touched his mane softly with a paw. “Nothing can stop it now. Don’t spoil her last moments with you.”

Baba looked into his mother’s eyes. “I love you, Mom! You hear me? I love you.”

She managed a weak smile. “You have no idea how much I love you,” she said. Her eyes looked over at Mabatu, then closed.

The lionesses sat about stunned. Mabatu got up stiffly and nudged his Prince. “Baba, you lead the roar. She was your mother. I have to go patrol the border now.”

“Right now?”

“Yes. I’m sorry.” He stroked Baba’s mane. “I remember when my mother died. I know what you’re feeling my son.”

CHAPTER: ALONE

Mabatu left the group and headed off into the trees. He rounded the other side of a small kopje and collapsed.

With his cheek pressed to the earth, he reached out with his forelegs and extended his claws, digging them deeply into the grass and pulling back to plow furrows in the grass. “Kako!! God, why didn’t you take me instead?? Why, why??”

His stomach knotted, and tears flooded his eyes. “I must stay in control,” he stammered. He raised his head up and pulled up into a crouch, then tried to stand. He bit his lip to keep from crying, but couldn’t. “I’m in control. I can do this!”

He raised up on his forepaws, then crumbled to the earth, rolling on his side and curling into a ball of misery, sobbing. “I must stay in control,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “I must!”

For many moments he lay there and shuddered, too weak to move. Then with a supreme effort, Mabatu actually struggled to his feet. He turned about and started to head back home. His legs trembled so badly he could hardly control them, and his joints were weak. “I can’t let Baba find out,” he said. “He must never know.”

His stomach hurt, and tears streamed down his cheeks. He took a couple of steps, then collapsed again and lay helplessly as his body was wracked with powerful sobs that with passing minutes died down to a soft, plaintive utterance like the cries of an infant cub separated from its mother.

“Why, Aiheu?” he whimpered. “Why did you take her from me? Didn’t you think I could be trusted?” He rolled on his back. “I was weak for a moment, but I overcame it! I could have withstood temptation!” He covered his eyes with his paws. “Help me! You have to help me! If you still love me, give me strength to go on!”

Just then, Umande breasted the wall of grass and shrubs. She smelled the fresh earth and saw the look on his face. “Oh Dad!” She wept and nuzzled him. “Daddy, I love you so much! So much!”

He pawed her face and kissed her. “My little Mandy! You don’t remember your Mom too well, but honey tree, she loved you with her whole heart! She used to call you Mimo.”

“I remember. Just this morning she called me Mimo, right before we went…” She broke down and wept. “This morning she was so alive! So warm and alive!”

“I know!” Mabatu rubbed his head against her cheek, but then he started. “Are you alone??”

“Yes. I was not followed.” She came and laid her head in his soft mane and pawing him desperately. “I couldn’t stand it anymore. How can I call Mother my friend?? She was so much more than that! She has to be mourned properly—we can’t let her Ka slip away like that.”

“You’re right, you know.” Mabatu looked about and kissed Mandy gently. “Let’s do it right. Baba will think I’m proclaiming the border if we’re careful.”

Mabatu and Umande got up and climbed to the top of the rock. They waited for Baba’s roar of grief, and they picked that moment to answer. “I love you, Mother!” Mandy cried.

“Beloved, my heart is dead!” Mabatu shouted. Tears coursed down his cheeks and he drew in a deep breath, releasing it in a loud, long roar. Umande raised her nose to the sky and joined him. The foundations of heaven were shaken, and the sound of their pain echoed off the distant hills in a hundred eerie permutations.

When the sound finally died down, Mabatu kissed Umande. “Well, Mandy, let’s go mark the boundaries. I think I’ll need someone to lean on.”

“Are you sure you can make it?”

“I have to make it. She died with such courage, surely I can find the strength to pee on a shrub.” His voice had renewed strength, but a tear still managed to escape and roll down his cheek. “Honey Tree, I’ve made some sacrifices for my children, but they were paid back many times over. You are such a comfort to me. I love you.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

CHAPTER: NO SWEETER REST

Baba remembered that his new father would sleep in a certain place, but about one moon after his mother died, he noticed that Mabatu made a mysterious pilgrimage. He would reappear in his usual place each morning, but apparently did not spend the night in that spot. This intrigued Baba and one night he determined to follow his father.

Quietly tailing him, Baba watched as King Mabatu walked, ears drooped and tail hanging limply. The King crossed the broad meadow, the creek, and beyond to the termite mounds and the place where Kako died. By her bleached bones—or what was left of them—Mabatu fell on his face and rolled on his back. “Kako!” he sobbed. “Kako! My little Kako!”

Baba, against his better judgment, walked to Mabatu and touched him with his paw.

The old king jerked around. “What are you doing here??”

Tearfully, Baba stroked his mane with a paw. “You don’t have to hide it from me anymore.”

“Hide what??” Mabatu asked fearfully.

“You loved her, didn’t you?”

Mabatu sighed. “Yes, I loved her. Her ties to your father were stronger than death itself. And I loved her stronger than death itself. She knew that—she asked me to be strong for your sake. The poor Nisei, always looking after us, even at the boundaries of death itself!” He pawed Baba’s mane. “Ask me no more about it, Baba. Not if you love me.”

“As you wish, father. But tell me: you come here every night, don’t you.”

“Yes. And when I die, I want to die here. It’s a beautiful spot to meet Aiheu in. Yes, a beautiful spot for anything. Kako and I were apart in life, but we will be together in death.”

Baba wept. “If I have to drag you here myself, you will rest here.”

Mabatu nuzzled him tenderly, then lay in the grass and said, “Son, you have a wife whose fur is warm and soft. Leave me with the dead and go treasure the living while they may be found. I’ll be OK, I promise.”

CHAPTER: A BLESSED EVENT

Isha responded to Baba’s love by kindling new life within her. Baba had never witnessed pregnancy before, and he spent many days in anxious pacing as the evidence of his new family began to show.

“This waiting is killing me!” he said after two moons.

“What do you think it’s doing to me??” Isha asked. Then she laid on her side and motioned for him to come over. “Lay your head against me here. Now listen very carefully.”

Baba settled against her belly, straining to hear the sounds of new life. “Hey!”

“Did you hear anything?”

“No, but something moved!”

“Not something. Someone. Your child.”

Baba raised his head, a look of such beauty in his eyes that Isha had to reach out with a paw and stroke him. “Life is a miracle,” he murmured. “My beautiful Isha! I love you so!”

Isha did not follow Kako’s lead and hunt when she was having contractions. But she did hunt right up to her due date, taking a position as beater and leaving the main kill to the unburdened. Even that made Baba nearly split his hide. Mabatu had to reassure him that Isha knew what she was doing.

One day, Isha excused herself from the hunt. Worriedly, Baba asked her, “Are you all right?”

“It’s time,” she said.

“Time for what?”

“Time for Habu’s mantlement,” she said pointedly. “I’m having contractions!”

“Oh.”

When the full realization hit him, he nearly went into histrionics. “Where are the midwives?? Don’t you think Rafiki should be here?? They’re out on the hunt at a time like this??”

“Just relax and it will all be over soon,” Isha said. She could tell it was going to be a difficult delivery, and she wished that Rafiki could have been there to give Baba something for the pain.

“What are we going to do?”

Isha grimaced and breathed deeply. Trying to remain calm, she said, “Bring Mabatu here. My midwives will be midhusbands.”

“But I don’t know what to do??”

“I’ll talk you through it, Honey Tree. Just relax.”

Her water broke, and labor began in earnest. Throughout the stressful process, several cries of discomfort broke the stillness of the night, but Isha tried hard to ignore them. She brought out one, two, and finally three cubs.

“Remove the sacs,” she told Mabatu. “You can do it.”

He reached out with his paw, claws extended.

“No, use your teeth.”

“My teeth??”

“Hurry or they’ll suffocate!”

Grimacing with disgust, Mabatu pulled the membranous sac from each cub. “Eew!”

“Now Baba, you help lick them clean. Hurry, Baba! You wanted to help, didn’t you?”

Baba parted his lips and managed to part his tightly clenched teeth. He touched the first cub with his tongue and licked toward the face. After the initial shock, he relaxed and began to groom more vigorously. Mabatu took one of the others and began to groom. “It’s not SO bad.”

“Of course not,” Isha said, taking the third one and grooming quickly but lovingly. “Do you realize these are your children, Baba? And your grandchildren, Mabatu?”

“Yeah!” Baba said. “My children! Look how small and fragile they are! Look at those tiny paws and that little pink nose!”

Isha smiled proudly. “Two sons and a daughter. The sons will be N’ga and Sufa. But I’m unsure about the daughter.”

Habu came up. He regarded the small bundle of fur and said, “I’d like to name her Jona.”

A pained look came to Isha’s face. “Why that name, my son?”

“Because she was my friend. She was very special to me.”

Isha put her paw on his. “She was very special to me too. That’s why no more of my cubs must ever have that name. I already have two Mabatus to keep track of, honey tree. Let’s think of something else.”

Habu said, “Maybe we could call her Penda?”

“Rafiki’s little girl.” Isha thought for a moment, then smiled. “Yes, that is a good name. It means ‘beloved,’ and she will be.” She looked around at the three generations of males and nodded. “You were there when I needed you. I don’t know what I would have done without your help.”

CHAPTER: OUR BODIES BECOME THE GRASS

Lisani grew into quite a beautiful lioness. Isha looked at her appraisingly one day and said, “Beesa would be so proud of you. I know I am.” Habu noticed as well, and while his cubhood devotion remained undimmed, it took on an additional richness of depth and meaning as he longed to bond with her and raise a family.

Miss Priss was an apt pupil, quick to master hunting skills and put them into practice. She was rather young when she made her first kill and was doubly proud when Isha put the blood on her cheek. All she had to wait for was Habu’s mantlement.

Habusu enjoyed something that was a rare privilege for Ahadi’s line. He had a grandfather. King Mabatu doted on him as much as he did Isha’s newer cubs.

King Mabatu had lost his wife, but it would be unfair to say his last years were dark. Far from it, he would roll on his back and sweep his paw at Aiheu, thanking him for the love that was the comfort of his old age.

Still he never forgot Kako, and a day never passed that he didn’t express his grief in his own special way. The day of Habusu’s mantlement, when he watched Habu pledge to Lissie, Mabatu could almost feel Kako’s presence next to him. It was a peaceful feeling, and after the ceremony, he sought her out.

King Mabatu slinked quietly to the Termite Mounds. He stood where the green grass swayed and flowers nodded in the breeze. On that spot Kako had gone to be with Aiheu. Mabatu stroked a tender spike of purple flowers. “From one beauty to another,” he murmured gently. “My little Nisei.” Finding comfort in the soft grass that sprang from her body, he spoke to her.

“You know, Habusu is an old married lion now. Yes, he’s taken the big step, and you should see what a good couple they make, Miss Priss and Habu. When I see them together, I remember the wonderful times we had together. Oh girl, what times they were! I’m just sorry you’re not here to see this. You would be so proud.” He closed his eyes and pillowed his head in the soft grass. Taking in a deep breath, he tasted the fragrance of the flowers. “See you in my dreams, honey tree.”

CHAPTER: EPILOGUE

Old King Mabatu had not walked the border for many days. He left the job to his capable son and grandson, and while he was not worried about safety the inactivity was a blow to his self esteem.

For a week or so, Mabatu said, “Tomorrow I will mark, but today I’m just not well. But don’t worry about me.” Then as he declined rapidly, he stopped the pretense and began to speak of Kako more in the present tense than in the past. “She will be young and fresh. What will she think of this broken-down old lion coming to meet her!”

Makaka and Anasa were taking turns monitoring his care. At first, Mabatu chafed saying, “I don’t trust these female doctors!” After a couple of days, however, he would rest his large head in the shelter of Anasa’s arms and whimper as he would not dare in front of the males. “Honey Tree, do you have anything that will help this pain? It’s all I can do just to go on from minute to minute.” She would kiss him and treat him with herbs, and before a week was out, he would be disappointed to see Makaka coming. “What have you done with my honey tree??”

Then one day Mabatu was restless. He could barely move, but he spoke incessantly about going to the termite mounds. “This is not a good place to die,” he insisted. “I need a change of scenery.”

He was so insistent that Makaka was afraid he would hurt himself in his struggles. He knew what was happening, for Baba had told him about his final wishes long ago. “Eat this. It will give you what you need.”

Old King Mabatu chewed the strip of jerky slowly, careful to swallow all of it. Despite the strong spicy flavor of the meat, he could taste the medication in it. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” Mabatu said slowly. “This stuff tastes awful.”

“It will loosen up your joints,” Makaka said.

“That’s what I need. Even now, I can see Mano standing over there.” He looked around at an empty place on the meadow. “See, the white lion does not cast a shadow. Or maybe you do not see. Mano appears to whom he will.”

While he laid still and let the drug take effect, his daughters came one by one and filed past him, kissing him and saying, “Pray for me, Daddy.” Baba and Isha kissed him, and their cubs came and rubbed on his face. Mabatu looked about at the crowd and heaved a sigh, then he smiled gratefully. “You made my life worthwhile. I thank you all.”

With a look of supreme effort, King Mabatu struggled to his feet. Isha and Umande pushed him fully upright and leaned against his sides as he took to his last trail.

Away across the long meadow, they walked under the hot sun toward the distant termite mounds. Another lion might not have endured the long trek, but Mabatu had one last thing to accomplish, and he would not die until he had done it.

He dragged himself the last final steps to the termite mounds and found the spot where he had slept so many nights. There he collapsed and sighed deeply. “This is a good place to die. Maybe a flower will grow here, and both of us will come back as one beautiful blossom.”

Mabatu wanted to tell Baba that he really WAS his father but didn’t dare say it directly. “When I am gone, talk with my daughter. She will tell you things that I would say if only I could. But son, if Aiheu allows, my Ka will remain here a moment after I’m dead. If you have anything to say to me, speak then.”

Baba put his paw over the King’s. “Is it about Mom?”

“I cannot say. But know this—I loved your mother very much, and I love you with all my heart.”

He rolled on his side and his eyelids began to droop. “Prepare me for my death. The darkness is settling in.”

Baba reached out with his paw and drew a circle around his father’s eye and touched him under the chin. As tears started, he asked him, “Are you my father?”

Mabatu smiled weakly. “I love you.” He took in a deep breath, shuddered, and released it in a prolonged sigh. His mouth hung open and urine trickled out behind him in a small puddle.

Umande came to him. “Your real father is dead.”

Mabatu answered, “I knew. Somehow, I always knew.” He looked at the body, pained. “Why couldn’t he tell me?”

“He promised to keep silent for your sake. When my father was very young, he was separated from his sister.” Umande sighed, looking at her dead father and stroking his mane with her paw. “Dad and his brother grew up and eventually ruled the Pride Lands together.

“Then one day a rogue lioness came in wanting refuge. Her name was Kako, and eventually she and my father fell in love and pledged to each other. Between them, they raised many cubs. Most of them were female and lived, but the two males they had were born dead. Then your mother became pregnant with you. She left your father soon afterwards.”

But if they were so much in love, why did Mom leave him?”

“To save your life.” Umande pawed him. “Your father wanted to know why none of his sons lived. So he asked a shaman for help and found out to his horror that Kako was his own sister.”

Baba gasped. “Oh my gods!”

“The shaman said if Kako would forsake my father and if they would hide the truth from you, that you would be spared. Few parents have ever shown such love to their child as you have been shown.” Tears filled her eyes. “Do you remember the day I tried to make love to you?”

“How could I forget?”

“I found out that evening that I was your sister.” She touched his mane with her paw. “His pain had become mine. I’ve never loved another lion but you, and I never will.” She wept softly and bowed her head in shame.

“Oh honey tree!” He kissed away his tears. “I’m so sorry!”

“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “For some odd reason, I feel much better now. No more vows of silence, but I hope you won’t breathe a word about—you know—US—to Isha? She looks like the jealous type.”

Baba nodded. He stroked Mabatu’s mane with his paw. “I was going to say it made no difference if you were my real father or not. But you know, Dad, I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of being your son as I am right now. I love you.”


THE END: THE PROMISE