TOUCH OF THE NISEI
A Chronicles of the Pride Lands Story of Elanna
by John Burkitt, Ian Layton 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. “Touch of the Nisei” 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 one of us a copy of the work. Our e-mail addresses are

David A. Morris: damorris@wilmington.net

Ian Layton: rama@pridelands.org

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

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 “Touch of the Nisei.”

FOREWORD BY THE AUTHORS

When I first heard the suggestion from Ian Layton that we do a story on Elanna’s exile, I didn’t know whether to shout “Never!” or “Let’s do it!” The project, by its very nature, was chock full of challenges and rewards. But as his pitch was laced with some specific suggestions that intrigued me, and I had little chance fighting the temptation. The idea took hold of me, and I was no longer in control of the project, it was in control of me!

It was fun while it lasted. In addition to the story line itself, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with Ian on something canon to the Chronicles of the Pride Lands. Dave and I had become very comfortable with each other’s style—Ian added a unique note to the theme that kept us on our toes. He has been a good friend to both of us, and I think I speak for Dave too that the experience has been fascinating.

— John Burkitt, Nashville, Tennessee

What is it about Elanna? What is it about a character who has repeatedly come back in our minds over and over, demanding her tale be released to the world? Perhaps it is the agony of her pain which makes us sympathize with her… or the depth of her love that sustains her through it… or perhaps it is the iron will that holds her up even in the darkest hours, refusing to succumb to despair… something that inspires us all as we yearn for our happy time in the sun.

The time has finally come round for Elanna to have hers… and we’ve been invited along. Won’t you join us?

— David Morris, Wilmington, North Carolina

Through the past few months, I have been through some bad times. From pressure at school, to my vehicle, and then to my computer, everything seemed to pile on me all at once. Throughout that time, I learned that I had many close friends, willing to do almost anything for me in my times of pain. Two of them, and among the closest, are John and Dave. I really don’t know what I would have done without you two being there for me to talk to. Through all the Ugas jokes and bad puns, thank you.

Now about the story… I was on IRC one night when ideas started to be flung around by some people for an idea for another ‘Chronicles’ story. Someone mentioned Elanna and my wheels began to spin. The next day, I sent an e-mail to Dave with an idea for an Elanna story. He told me to forward it to John which I did. The idea was all I had planned for my part of the project, but before I knew it I was drug into the project as a writer. I would say it was a very interesting experience working with two people with different writing styles from my own… and very rewarding.

Finally I give my thanks to the Disney corporation for making the movie which this series of stories is based on. For better or worse, ‘The Lion King’ has affected me far beyond what I ever thought possible for a mere movie.

— Ian ‘Rama’ Layton, La Vergne, Tennessee

DEDICATION

This work is dedicated to the memory of Jacques Yves Cousteau, 1911 - 1997. Conservationist, oceanographer, citizen of the world, friend to all life everywhere. May his light ever shine on us from the stars.

CHAPTER: THE OUTCAST

The golden eye of N’ga stared at the savanna relentlessly. The effect was palpable, seeming to stir the savanna grass like a gentle wind, but it was only an illusion created by the hot, still air. The occasional wind did little to bring relief. It dried the nose and stung the eye like a fierce enemy. Zebras panted and remained near the shrinking pools of water. One-who-brings-rain had been scarce of late, and the grass has turned from gold to a tawny brown. ‘Dry… but not too dry,’ as the zebras had said. “Merely peckish,” the oryx had replied. Prey was still plentiful, but it had been a lean time for lions, a time to avoid unnecessary effort and rest often. Still, the land fared better than it did in one kingdom rumored to be forsaken by the gods, the lands of Taka.

A lone lion made his way through the grass with the fearful, empty tread of the recently exiled. Now his fate rested on two points: the mercy of Aiheu and his own resourcefulness. His old friends, his family, and his familiar grounds were behind him, perhaps forever, and he sought out solace in a new beginning. Only that lion seemed to bear an extra weight on his shoulders that made his ears a little flatter, his tail a little lower and his step a little slower than most.

“Why didn’t I listen to Dad?” he said aloud. Rogue lions often talked to themselves for a while to fill the void—at least until they got used to doing without companionship. He looked back from where he came and let out a loud sigh as if the weight of the land was on his shoulders. “Why was I such an idiot??”

Only a week ago his life had been so simple. An heir apparent, he was used to respect and concessions. Everything had been fine a week ago, but those times seemed like a distant memory. Fewer days than he had toes? Could it be that short a time?

He had been given a commoner’s mantlement and sent out never to return. It was a shameful fate for one destined for greatness from his birth. The promise of his presentation was not kept, and he was alone and vulnerable. Sure he had stirred up the lionesses. But he had meant no harm by it. Many princes go through a phase of acting like a brat, a child wanting to test the limits set by his elders and have a little fun bending a few rules. The lionesses didn’t mind too much when the young cub would come to them and demand things. ‘He will grow out of it,’ the king would assure them. ‘It is just a phase he’s going through.’ But he did not grow out of it. It got worse with age.

He had been warned. Warned that he would be sent away like the troublemaker Gamu. But the constant warnings had become a familiar part of his life, a background noise that got tuned out from constant repetition and no enforcement. A commoner’s mantlement would never REALLY befall him. At least that was what he used to think.

His mother had died giving birth to him. The thought of what she must have been like, and his father’s stories about her, filled him with awe. He loved the lioness he never knew as much as many cubs love their living mother. But to the other lionesses he had shown little respect. His father had tried to raise him differently, but he did not know how to channel youthful energies into productive growth. Many of the lionesses would have gladly given the young cub lessons, but the King only let them give him milk. That was a dreadful mistake, not only in how the son turned out, but in shaping how the lionesses felt about him. Finally with a threatened rebellion looming large, the King decided to overcompensate, becoming a harsh disciplinarian and making life for his prince a living hell. That only aggravated the situation. More warnings were met with more rebellious behavior. It was only a matter of time until the situation came to a head.

The King’s younger son Ababu was only five minutes younger, but he had no claim on the throne. Still, he had been properly trained by the lionesses, and they were demanding that he be the heir. “Five minutes younger, but years more mature! Either Ababu will be our next king or we’re out of here!”

The King had no choice, and he called a commoner’s mantlement for his former prince. With many bitter tears from father and son, and glares of satisfaction from most of the lionesses, the prince was sent away. That was only a few sunsets ago, and the young lion had experienced his first taste of the loneliness that would be his curse. When he could finally work past the anger and bitterness he felt, he took a long close look at his life, comparing himself to Ababu. He remembered all the times he’d snickered about his brother’s prim and proper behavior, calling him “stodgy” and “stuck-up.” He wished he’d been more stodgy and stuck-up.

Step by step he was headed into nowhere. He thought about his father’s kindly voice and the way Debara’s milk had tasted as she stroked him with her soft pink tongue. He thought about Debara’s daughter Penzi, and how he used to lie beside her under the shade of the acacias to watch the clouds float by. Penzi was his betrothed, and she had been aching for her first kill so she could be a true lioness and unite with him. “Dear, gentle Penzi,” he stammered, “I’ll never see you again.” He was without hope, and with a deep pain in his gut he fell to the ground and sobbed. She was afraid of exile, too terrified to accompany him. He did not blame her, but he felt the lonliness gnawing at his ribs and a moan escaped him.

“Help me, Aiheu! Help me! Send me a friend, God! I’ll be good! Please, God! Oh Aiheu! I’ll never be so selfish again!”

CHAPTER: THE SUNSET OF TAKA

The last few days of Elanna’s marriage to Taka went by in a blur. Taka had more frequent nightmares, sometimes three or four a night, and the lack of sleep left him looking prematurely old. Sometimes she would find him huddled in the cave whimpering. She would ask him what was wrong and he would say, “My mother really loved me, you know. I wish she were here right now.”

She would answer him, “I’m here, and I really love you.” He would kiss her and nuzzle her desperately. His temper was very short, and he snapped at her from time to time, but afterwards he always came to her sobbing and begging her for forgiveness almost incoherently. She would hug him tightly and move him gently with her arms from side to side like a crying cub.

Taka insisted that others eat a bit of his food before he would touch it, sure that the hyena healers would try to drug or poison him. He was afraid of sleep for more than just his nightmares. He finally got to the point where he was afraid to sleep if Elanna was asleep. So the two of them spent less time together—she mainly saw him asleep, and she collapsed from exhaustion shortly after he awoke and was tired all the time. Finally Uzuri, in her kindness, offered to stand watch over them part of the day so they could sleep touching and maybe spend some wakeful moments together.

Then one evening right at the end of his life he went out on the promontory and looked up at the clouds that passed overhead but did no good. In the grip of his encroaching madness, he shouted, “Have you forgotten how to rain??” He turned about, lifted his tail and urinated, the golden drops falling on the ground below. Elanna thanked God that the others were out on the hunt at the time.

He came trudging in and looked down at Elanna who lay on the floor of the cave. “What’s the matter, Honey Tree? You never saw someone take a whiz off the rock before?”

She did not answer him, but patted next to her with her paw. He came and lay beside her, sighed, and closed his eyes. He tired easily, and it did not take long for him to fall asleep.

A moment passed, then he opened his eyes. Something was wrong—very wrong. He looked around, surprised that he couldn’t find his love. “Odd,” he thought. “She hadn’t left me in my sleep in a long time.” He called out her name but heard nothing in return except a quiet laugh, a hyena’s laugh. His stomach began to knot up, and nearing panic he rushed out onto the stone ledge toward the mocking sound. He looks around expecting to see his mate. Instead he saw Shenzi.

Slowly and carefully, he approached her. Shenzi regarded him with an amused grin. “What do YOU want?”

“Have you seen Lannie?”

She only laughed demonically.

“How DARE you laugh at me! How DARE you! I remember when you were a little brat messing in your own den!”

Shenzi laughed louder, a red fire glowing in her eyes. “Now I’m messing in YOUR den! Who is the scavenger now??”

Taka begins to quail with fear. “Where is Lannie??”

“What’s a matter, cubby?? Can’t hold on to your Mommy??” She approached him, hackles raised. “Maybe she wants to crouch with a REAL lion? Maybe that warped little body of yours makes her sick! Sick, sick, SICK!”

“If that’s how you feel, take your—people—and get out!!”

“It’s not that easy, cubby! You don’t scare me one bit.” Shenzi grinned broadly. Taka gasped in horror as he saw the signs of fresh blood on her strong, sharp teeth.

“Where is Lannie?? What have you done with her??”

“Wouldn’t you like to know!”

“What have you done??” Taka demanded, shoving her back with a paw. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE??” He moved closer as she backed back, still laughing at him. “Stop laughing and answer me! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE??”

He shoved her with a paw again and she tumbled backwards over the edge of the promontory, falling, falling, falling to the distant savanna.

“Shenzi!!”

Taka quickly made his way down the steep sides of Pride Rock. Maybe in her dying breaths she might reveal the truth. He searched under the promontory, expecting to see her twisted body. Instead he spotted a lioness laying in the grass motionless.

He approached the form slowly with a growing panic. The pain in his stomach was almost unbearable as he crept the last few lengths on trembling limbs and looked at the face of the lioness.

“LANNIE!! OH GODS!!”

There were fresh claw wounds on her otherwise flawless form. “NO!!” LANNIE!! NO!!”

Suddenly he was stirred from sleep by a familiar presence. He gasped and tried to catch his breath as Elanna’s dear face approached his and kissed him.

“Dear… dear… you were having another bad dream. You screamed out my name.”

“Oh Lannie, never leave me!” He kissed her face and rubbed his paws against her. “Never leave me, girl! Never leave me!”

“I won’t, honey tree!”

He continued to kiss her. “I love you, honey tree! You don’t think I’m a warped little lion, do you?”

“No! You poor fool!” She rubbed against him softly, returning the affection. “I’ve felt that strong body next to me in the night every night and rubbed your beautiful dark mane. I’ve made love with you every time you came to me with that sweet little hungry cub look. You scare me when you talk like that—like you don’t trust me. Taka, you’re the only one in the world that trusts me anymore. If you don’t trust me, what will I do?? What will I do??”

Taka put his forepaws about her neck and rubbed his face against hers, his breath finally returning to normal as calm returns to his body. “I will always trust you. You are the only real truth I’ve ever known.”

“My poor foolish husband!” She kissed him. “At least this cave is our gentle place. If only I could stop those nightmares, my darling. If I could take them on myself…”

“NEVER say that! NEVER!” He kissed her desperately.

“But I would. I would.”

“I know you would. And don’t think I don’t appreciate it.”

CHAPTER: THE BLUEBIRDS OF HAPPINESS

The rogue lion wandered the corridors between territories. There he was relatively safe from the territorial males. They would remind him to avoid their lands, but not fight him. Some of the kinder ones who remembered what it was like to be alone would chat for a while when they saw he meant no harm. Ugas would share a couple of jokes. Old Mabatu would even stroke his mane and give him a blessing. Once, Duma let him eat a small portion of zebra haunch because he reminded him of his son.

Because the other rogues had to share the same corridors, he would also chat with them briefly. He wanted to join a coalition that would end his solitude. But most of the rogues had a brother or another friend already. They were quite content to keep their infrequent kills or carcasses to themselves.

By and large, the most companionship he’d known was the flock of buzzards that collect at every kill. He had negotiated an arrangement with them—in a real sense they were his buzzards. They would spot prey, and rather than watch it go to the hyenas and quickly vanish, they let a lion friend have his fill, then he would guard them while they took the remnants. It was a great system, and because this rogue was alone, they were assured of a large share.

The rogue saw the distinctive signs of a meal ahead. The buzzards were flying in circles. So the lion hurried ahead and saw their target. It was a wounded antelope with a broken leg. It staggered along in the oppressive heat on three legs, a look of desperation on its face.

The antelope spotted him and tried to run, but could only hobble quickly. Soon the lion overtook it and pushed it over, pinning it to the ground with a paw.

“No, don’t! Don’t!”

“It’s over. Just relax,” the lion said softly. “Don’t struggle and it won’t hurt much.” He gripped the antelope by the throat, pressing firmly but not causing unnecessary pain. The antelope hardly moved. It pawed at him almost gently with a hoof, vainly gasping for a breath. Then it quickly felt the need to breathe slip away and relaxed, falling into a last sleep.

The buzzards landed not far away. “Now that’s right nice, Fuzzy,” said the leader said. “I hope when it’s my time I go that well.”

“Thanks,” the rogue said, quickly ripping the carcass and availing himself of a long-awaited meal. “I could have been an antelope—he could have been a lion. That’s what my father used to say.”

“Go easy on him, Fuzzy,” the buzzard warned. “Remember, make it worth our while and we’ll help you out. Fair and square all around. That’s what MY father used to say.”

“You’ll get yours, Markaaagh.”

“You learned to say it properly, I’ll grant you. Maybe you have some vulture in your blood.”

“Maybe,” the rogue said with a laugh. “Any hyenas around?”

“Nope.”

The lion could have easily finished it off himself, but he left plenty for the small crew of buzzards to eat their fill. He watched them eat with some satisfaction. They were in a sense his pride.

“So what’s up, guys?”

“Nothing much,” Markaaagh said. “Things have been kind of dead lately. Har har!”

The lion’s nose wrinkled at the terrible buzzard breath. “Dead lately. Good one.” He looked around. “You have a new one today.”

“Count us, did you? Which one is new?”

The lion looked around and quickly pointed. “Her.”

“Haaaargh! True enough. Most carnies say we all look alike! That’s my new mate, Ohyeghegh.”

“Interesting name. Congratulations.”

Moments later, they had picked what was left of the Antelope clean and with a quickly mumbled good bye, they headed away like leaves in the wind. He looked after them longingly. As poor company as they were, he felt his loneliness close around him tighter still. He was alone once again. At least he thought he was.

He was being watched and followed by another rogue. The strange lion crept along, watching him from the bushes and through the blades of golden grass. Beside him was a hyena…

CHAPTER: THE WORLD IS ON FIRE

Elanna had given up hope. She was waiting for death by her husband’s side, no longer clinging to the fiction that everything would turn out all right. But a small group of hyenas told her Rafiki had the answer to her prayers.

They led her out of the cave by great stealth and smuggled her away from Pride Rock without being seen by Taka. And Elanna cooperated, stealthily slinking on her huntress feet near several lionesses without a sound. Had she known what awaited her, she would have cried out and the hyenas would have been quietly dispatched. However, by the time she knew it was a trick, it was too late to call for help. Death was about to claim her, when suddenly in the distance she heard a loud shriek in hyannic. A lion roared—and it was not Taka. Her would-be executioners abandoned her and ran back to Pride Rock. The battle for Pride Rock had begun.

Elanna stood in shock for a moment. She thought of taking her chances with the beasts, but the better part of her took control and she hurried away from the hyenas into the cover of some nearby trees. Suddenly, the sky filled with light and the heavens shook. Elanna had to focus a bit to where the light came from, and saw the telltale faint orange and curls of smoke rise from the dry grass near pride rock.

Fixed by her fear, she stood and watched as the long-predicted battle raged on. Her thoughts moved back to her husband, and the fight that he must be in right now. How desperately she wanted to be by his side, but she knew that she couldn’t risk herself going back right now. She knew that her husband would never want to see her hurt. She did not know if she would be perceived as friend or foe. This was evident in how she had never been allowed to hunt. With a small sigh, she stayed among the trees.

“Help him, Aiheu! Please! He has not been perfect—who has? But he suffers so! Help him, God! If he must face exile, send him to me! I’ll take care of him, but don’t let him die!”

Suddenly… the sounds of hyenas filled the air near her. Turning her head quickly, she spotted the defeated bands moving toward her position. Quickly, she huddled closer to the ground and trees, trying to stay out of sight. “Please Aiheu…”

The hyenas passed her without incident, but another sound filled the air. This time, the roar of the lion. She looked down and quietly wept for her husband, suspecting that this lion sent Taka to be with Aiheu. Along with the roar of the new male, she heard the roaring of her pride sisters. She sighed, thinking how happy they must be now that they are rid of him. Still she didn’t leave her cover. Her hopes continued that somehow, some way Aiheu guided him out of the fight alive.

Time passed and the night continued with no sight of her love. Finally she saw movement in the grasses. Without thinking she jumped from her cover in the hope it would be him. She was horrified to find a hyena that has fallen behind of his friends. Quickly she adopted a defensive stance, looking at the beast.

The hyena caught sight the lioness as soon as she jumped out. “Well, Lannie-poo! You thought you were so much better than us! But you know what? My mate survived the battle, and yours is lying in three separate pieces! Ripped! He was ripped like a gazelle!” The hyena laughed demonically.

Elanna’s mind had been prepared to hear this but her heart was caught by surprise. Suddenly she could feel her insides crumble. She struggled not to give the hyena the satisfaction of seeing her grief.

The hyena added, “And you know what? If you go back, you’ll be next! Your husband confessed to killing his brother to get the throne. I heard the new king saying that anyone that gave your husband comfort would be killed on the spot.” He grinned evilly as his lie took its toll on her already fragile nerves and she began to sob.

A tearful Elanna watched the hyena slink away. She considered her options. She could go back to her home to embrace death first, then embrace her husband. Then the thought of how she would die came to mind. Would she be choked like prey or would the new king rip her abdomen and leave her to gasp out her last breaths like Gur’mekh?

“I’m afraid, Honey Tree!” she cried into the heavens. “I’d come now, but I’m afraid. I’m a coward, but how I love you!”

She collapsed to the ground, crying. But a few moments later she heard the soft tread of lionesses in the grass. “Oh my God! They are looking for me!”

Quickly, she jumped off and ran into the empty plains, putting some distance between her and the land of her birth.

CHAPTER: THE MISSING HUNTRESS

In the initial confusion after the Battle for Pride Rock, frightened cubs began to come out of hiding and look for their mothers. With a squeal of delight, Isha found Habusu and Lisani alive and unhurt. Other cubs ran to their mothers’ sides to be kissed and fondled in the flush moment of victory.

Rafiki thought briefly of ways to purge Pride Rock of the hyena smell lions found revolting, but he knew that project was very low priority with so many wounds to heal. Not all the wounds were physical, either. Some of them were deep emotional wounds that would take time to heal. Sarabi sat by Taka’s body sobbing to see him laid open who had once lived for her affections. Isha went to the place where Jona and Minshasa had died during the drought. She looked up at the rain, a little bitter, then back at the place where they had lain in death. “I hope wherever you are, you know it’s raining.”

A few hyena stragglers were left on the Pride Lands but they were soon driven back into the elephant graveyard. In that sensitive moment, even the hyenas that sided with the lions wisely retreated across the border to let things cool off.

Finally, as the rain was beginning to taper off, the lions began to regroup and let Rafiki tend their wounds. It was during that informal meeting, as Sarabi was searching for the right thing to say to Elanna, that Sarabi noticed she was missing. Since Elanna was not in her cave on the rock, no one had any idea where she had gone. No one remembered seeing her during the fight. In fact, it was as if she had just vanished.

Since Elanna had left the cave only rarely, it was easy enough to follow her tracks down the side of Pride Rock, but in the wet grass, the scent was lost. Sarabi quickly ran to Simba.

“Son, Elanna can’t be found and no one has seen her since before the fight.”

Simba looked to her sadly. “Form a search party, Mother. May Aiheu guide you.”

Isha pointed out the hyena’s hidden cache of food and a few morsels of food were taken for quick strength. But without rest and heedless of their own wounds, the lionesses headed out and searched the fields, calling Elanna’s name. They knew why Elanna might try to make herself scarce. “Don’t be afraid!” Sarabi shouted. “By Aiheu’s whiskers, we only want to see you!”

After many hours of searching, nothing was found except her scent, which was quickly lost again. Then as the group was heading home in defeat, they turned towards some soft moaning in the grass. Hoping against hope that it would be Elanna they found instead a dying hyena.

CHAPTER: THE WITNESS

She had a head wound from a canine tooth that opened into her brain. Her pain was stronger than her fear, and she looked over the group whimpering in pain. Her eyes stopped on Rafiki. “The pain! Oh gods, the pain! Please help me!”

Sarabi pushed forward, “Now listen to me, you fiz’lo! Where is my sister Elanna?”

The hyena whimpered. “Help me! Please! Please?”

“We will give you something for the pain,” Sarabi said, “But only if you tell us what you know.”

Rafiki pushed past her and held out some herbs. “Take this.”

The lionesses scowled. Isha said, “Those painkillers should go to wounded lionesses!”

“There is enough to go around, Isha. They are no great friends of mine, by and large, but the poor wretch is dying. Let me work.”

“Kind ape, turn me to face the east,” the hyeness stammered. “I want to see Roh’kash.” Rafiki grunted with the exertion, and without help from the lionesses managed to drag her forequarters part of the way around. But Uzuri saw the strain on his face and helped move the hyeness on around. She never questioned his motives on anything.

The hyeness started to fade out. Using a small twig, Rafiki cleared the clot of blood from the head wound. Blood came out, relieving the pressure on her brain. He then held some silvervein in front of her nose. It made her mind work more clearly and she briefly opened her eyes again.

Gently, Rafiki said, “Tell me where Elanna is. It is too late to save you, but you can undo hurt for those who go on living.”

Struggling to focus on his face, the hyeness said murkily, “Taka said he’d kill himself if anything happened to her. We thought we had a plan. Skulk said…” She grimaced with pain. “… bring me his tail to prove he’d done it. We carried her to the woods. Ten of us.”

She started to fuzz out again. He held silvervein in front of her nose and stroked her gently.

“And?”

“She knew what was about to happen. Die with dignity… Screaming… Fire everywhere… The whole world on fire… Mer’kh toh embas, doh pekhtureh frogam meklu… De’h mirchet ere… Immobrek Elanna mes kroth…”

“What’s she saying?” Yolanda asked.

“Did Elanna die??” Sarabi demanded. “Common speech! I don’t speak that gibberish!”

The hyeness drew in a breath and shuddered. “Ten hyenas to kill one lioness… Ten hyenas to kill…” Her eyes closed.

Sarabi put her paws on her chest and shook her. “Did you kill her?? Tell me, damn you!! DID YOU KILL HER??” Sarabi put her paws on the hyeness’ chest and began to slowly sink them in. Blood sprang from the points. “DID YOU KILL HER??” Her claws moved slowly down, leaving red trenches. “DID YOU KILL HER??” Sarabi’s voice fell to a near whisper and she drew close to the hyeness’ face. “Please? Please tell me?? Oh God, I have to know! Did you kill my sister?”

The hyeness’ eyes opened briefly, though it is doubtful she saw much. Her breath escaped in a long gurgle and her pupils dilated to large black lifeless orbs. A stream of urine ran unchecked down her hind legs, forming a pool beneath her shattered body.

“DID YOU KILL HER??” Sarabi pounded on her with her paws and shrieked, “SPEAK, DAMN YOU!!” She gripped some silvervein and scattered it across the still face in her panic. “IS SHE DEAD?? IS SHE??”

Rafiki gently but forcefully gripped one of Sarabi’s paws. “It’s too late. Don’t make a scene, dear.”

Sarabi stepped back from the dead hyena. Her chin trembled. “She didn’t tell me,” she stammered. “She had nothing to lose. Why wouldn’t she tell me??”

“I think she did,” Rafiki said gently. “I’m sorry.”

“I saw Lannie just yesterday,” Sarabi said, still in shock. “You know what she said? She said, ‘We need to talk.’”

Rafiki put his arms around her neck and held her. “You poor dear!”

“She wanted to talk but I said, ‘I have nothing to say to you.’ My gods, can you believe I said that to my own sister??”

Rafiki began to stroke her cheek and kiss her. “Poor honey tree! Poor dear honey tree!”

She pulled away from him and headed to the top of a small kopje. “Elanna??” she shouted. “ELANNA?? CAN YOU HEAR ME??”

The name echoed off the surrounding hills, mocking her.

Sarabi’s chin trembled again, and she drew in a deep breath. “ELAAAANNAAAAA! PLEEEEASE!! I’M SORRY!! OH GODS, ANSWER MEEEE!!” She roared and pounded the ground with her paw. She roared again, and the other lionesses joined her. Tears began to course down Sarabi’s cheeks, and she stumbled off the kopje, nearly collapsing to the ground. “First my parents, then my husband and my son, now my sister! I’ve tried to live a good life. Why does everything bad happen to me??”

Rafiki ran his paw through her fur gently. “Lannie is with Taka now. That’s where she would want to be, Honey Tree. At least you got your son back. Go to him, Sassie. He will bring you comfort.”

Sarabi kissed Rafiki, then turned and slowly trudged up the side of Pride Rock. “Yes, I have Simba. Thank the gods! I should be grateful.”

CHAPTER: THE NISEI

As her Pride mates mourned for her, Elanna was walking alone across the savanna contemplating her own death. She looked ahead of her and saw nothing. Her whole life seemed to lay behind her, a tragic story destined to have a tragic ending. With his faults, Taka was still loved her with his whole heart. Now no one loved her, and the one time she needed a shoulder to cry on most of all, she was isolated, a tiny yellow speck on a vast golden plain.

Sadly, she looked back from where she came, the sight of Pride Rock now long gone from the horizon. For the first time in her life, she could not see any part of it. Pride Rock, whose golden shaft greeted the morning. She had been born there, and she had thought to die there. Her mother lived again in its grasses, and looked down upon it from the stars. Her husband had taken her in its protective embrace. A horror enveloped her that she had not really escaped death, but exchanged a quick one for a lingering, painful ordeal.

She took stock of her life, forming an inventory of all the good and bad times that made up her days. She remembered the sweet richness of her mother’s milk, and the comfort of Sarabi’s body next to her as she closed her eyes and nursed. She remembered cubhood games of tag that lasted for hours, and wrestling with young Mufasa in the cool of the cave. She remembered her first kill, and how proud she felt when the red pawprint in blood was placed on her cheek. She remembered using the warm muskiness of Taka’s soft mane as a pillow, and the breathless pleasures of his lovemaking. She remembered the feel of a small life inside her. Once, in death, she looked on the face of her son Fabana. “Oh gods, if only those little eyes had opened one time and seen the love I bore him! If only once I could have held him to my belly and given him milk!” Tears welled in her eyes. Voices were calling to her from the realm of Aiheu—Mom and Dad, lover and child. And the voices were getting louder, beginning to drown out even the piping of the weaver birds and the chirping of the crickets.

The thought of returning and facing justice played in her mind. Her reasoning was simple and compelling. If Taka had indeed killed Mufasa and Simba in his madness, she could die to pay the blood debt and set him free. His death would atone for Mufasa’s, hers for Simba’s.

She had not rested since the hyenas had told her of her former pride’s plan for her. Finally, her body gave out and she collapsed on the ground exhausted. Soon sleep had claimed her.

Her sleep was fraught with dreams. In her visions she relived her days with Taka. Mercifully it was not what life had become for them in the past few months, but what is was like in the beginning. She smiled softly in her sleep as she felt his body against her.

“Lannie, there is a full moon outside. Let’s sit on the end of the promontory.”

She followed him up the stone spire and laid her head against his soft, dark mane. “What will we name our son?” she asked.

“There is one name for him. Three great loves have I known. My mother loved me. You loved me. And Fabana loved me.”

“I think Fabana would be a lovely name. But what if I have girls? Three little girls. Ever think about that?”

“Three little Lannies!” He smiled and nuzzled her. “Then I’d have to keep trying, wouldn’t I?” He turned his gaze back to the full moon. “Dad used to say if you wished on the full moon and you just believed hard enough, it would come true.”

“I’d never heard that.”

“Neither had he, I warrant. Dad was always like that. Wishing and believing. Oh gods, I wish he was here right now, and my mother too. Once life was so simple. So simple and so good.”

“It can be simple and good again, my love. And you can believe that.”

Taka looked back at her face, washed silver with moonlight. “Gods, I love you!”

Then the vision changed. It was no longer like a dream. A bright light flooded the spot where she stirred. “What the…”

As her eyes adjusted to the light, Taka appeared before her in a cloud of glory fire. “Taka? Is that you?”

“Listen, love! I don’t have much time!”

“Honey Tree, are you coming to take me with you?”

“No. I’m here so you will NOT die.”

She ran and nuzzled him. “Oh my husband, but I want to join you!”

Taka just shook his head. “Do not try to atone for my sin. I will pay my debt to the last drop of blood. I will start with you. You will have a comforter in your time of grief.” He kissed her cheek softly. “When your time comes, we will sit together forever and never be apart again. Till then, be my brave little girl.”

“Taka, Honey Tree, I must know the truth. Did you kill your brother?”

The lion looked at her sadly. “Remember the good times, Lannie. Remember the blissful moments. Those were the truth.” With that, he faded quickly. She had her answer.

CHAPTER: IN MEMORIUM

The search party quietly headed back without their Pride sister. Even the cubs were hushed as the lionesses slowly made their way through the grasses with their heads and tails hung low. Simba, who had stayed at Pride Rock to guard against the last of the hyena stragglers, saw the group approach. One look at their posture affirmed in his mind that Elanna was lost to them. Silently, he made his way to the queen mother. “I’m sorry mom…” he said softly to her as he rubbed against her gently.

Sarabi looked up at her new king, her eyes still wet with tears, “At least I have you, son.”

It had been a long time since Rafiki had been able to walk out alone without the confines of his hyena jailers. Even through the somber mood of the night, he was determined to make the most of his new freedom. He went to each of the pride members and blessed and stroke each of them in turn. He even had a special blessing for Timon and Pumbaa. Slowly, he began to fill in the gaps in the last two years of his life. He quickly ran out of his jerky as he gave all the cubs a treat… and even the lionesses he remembered as nothing but a cub.

As he went through the pride, he treated their wounds. True to his words, there were enough herbs for the lions of the pride, even if he would have nothing for his aching joints that night. It had been indeed fortunate that no one was seriously hurt, the worse injuries being some cuts and bruises. The hyenas that followed Shenzi were quick to leave after they passed their sentence on the former king and upon seeing their cousins fighting with the lions. Still, in the distance, their sounds could be heard, mocking the newly freed pride.

As the evening passed into night and the lions were able to rest their sore bodies, it was time to remember the lost member of the pride. Sarabi, being her sister, called the group together for a memorial to their fallen pridemate.

Rafiki stepped into the circle of lionesses. Everyone knew how he felt about Taka, and for this reason he was the only one left alive that could speak the opening words freely.

“Great Aiheu, we commend to your care Elanna, and pray that she will be reunited with her husband. And may Taka…” The mandrill leaned heavily on his staff as tears streamed down his face. “Grant them peace. Forgive him as I have forgiven him. He loved me once. He really did love me.”

As Rafiki stepped away, Isha came forward. “She was gentle and kind. And how she suffered! I wish I’d known her better.”

Ajenti did not step forward, but she stammered, “Me too.”

Nala crept to the center of the circle. “She really loved children, though she had none of her own. She was always very nice to me. She was always sad, but one time she sang to me. She had a very pretty voice, you know.”

Nala edged back to Simba who nuzzled her and pawed her face.

As the turn passed from lioness to lioness, most remembered her strength. How, even through the mental isolation from her pride, she stayed faithful to her husband to the very end. How even through their scorn, she still loved everyone. The cubs remembered how kind she was… how she would always want to give them affection and how she would, the few times that she could, always had a story for them.

Finally, it came to her sister, Sarabi.

Sarabi sighed softly as the memory of her sister and their cubhood comes back to her mind. The wind whispered quietly among them. Her face remained motionless except for the slow blinking of her eyes. The other lionesses began to stir uneasily, looking to one another uncertainly as they sought an answer to her silence. Thus it was that they all started nervously when she spoke.

“Elanna…” A wan smile creased Sarabi’s face and she looked up finally, her gaze passing through the gathered pride into a haze of time into which only she could penetrate. A half sob, half laugh escaped her and she looked down again, staring through the air. “I keep thinking of a day, back when we were cubs…” She sniffed and wiped her eyes with a paw, smiling. “Once she saved my life. We were lost in a cave, and though I never told anyone about his, I nearly drowned—or worse—in the haunted cave under Pride Rock. She pulled me from the water. And how did I repay her?” New tears welled from her eyes. “I’d give anything to have her back here again… oh gods, I can’t even remember what she smelled like before those damn hyenas defiled this place.” She shivered, gripped by the terrible agony of her grief. “I’d give anything to be able to look her in her eyes… and tell her I’m sorry!”

Silence gripped the group as the former queen looked up to the sky. “I hope you are happy, sister, with your husband. I wish you all the joy in the next world that you never had in this one.” She drew a deep breath and uttered a mournful roar, venting her pain in a cacophony of sound echoed by her pride sisters as it swept across the savanna into the depths of the night.

CHAPTER: STRANGE PREY

After a long night with very little sleep, Elanna was unable to lie still any longer for she suffered from a different emptiness. She had eaten well for the times of Taka’s pride, but still that was poor, and she had been given even less over the last day. Taking Taka’s words in her dream to be a sign, she started off to quench her desire. Hunting had been denied her for over two years by her overprotective husband. She remembered the lessons taught long ago, but she was woefully out of practice. First would be to find some prey to test her luck with her old skills.

That didn’t prove so difficult since the terrible draught had not scorched the land beneath her feet. Silently, she made her way toward a small herd of impala. How she wished for her sisters to be behind her to back her up. But oh, if she DID succeed, what a bounty would be hers! It had been a long time since she had seen so much food. She continued to stalk the prey, hoping against all hopes that she would be able to get her wish.

Finally, after closing the distance farther than she had hoped, she burst from cover and rushed. The excitement of her youth came back. She felt so alive, so exhilarated that she began to understand what she had been missing the last two years.

The herd separated, just as she remembered from her lessons of so long ago. In front of her was a lone impala, unsure where to go. Elanna wasted no time in closing the distance and taking her prey down, ending its life so she could continue hers. Elanna panted and said her blessing as she began to tear into the body of her prey.

Just then, the familiar whoops of hyenas began to close in on her. Before she knew it, a group of hyenas closed in and surrounded her and her prey. At first, they are silent, looking over the lioness and the prey beneath her. Finally, in common speech they said, “Our share! Our land! Part is ours!”

She snarled at them as she stayed protectively over the life giving meat, “Krekh toh! Barekh moh amspach Elanna!”

The hyenas were startled for a moment and backed off, looking at each other. “Hfff! The scholarly type! But, my dear bakhret, even from our own kind we require our share of everything killed on our land.”

The hyenas began to approach her, but as it appeared that Elanna would lose her work and maybe her life, a rustle was heard in the grasses. The rogue lion came out of grass, looking at the lioness, her prey, and the hyenas. He moved out more looking intently at the hyenas and growling, “You wouldn’t be making trouble for her, would you? I advise you to leave and now before I make sure you don’t come near here again—EVER.

The hyenas looked at their numbers and decided not to risk their lives for such a meager meal. With curses, both in their language and common speech, they disappeared into the night.

With a grunt of satisfaction in his work, he moved to Elanna.

Suddenly she snapped at him, “This is mine!”

“You’re quite welcome,” he said with a bow. “Maybe we can do this

again sometime.” With that, he turned and began to disappear into the night.

Elanna watched as the rogue faded from sight. Finally she called out, “I’m sorry. Would you share with me?”

The lion turned around and began to trot back towards her. “How can I refuse an offer like that? But you go first—you look a bit thin, my dear.”

Elanna dug in to the still warm body of the impala. Her stomach, unaccustomed to this food, had shrunk from long fasts and meager meals. As her insides began to rebel, she moved away from the meat and purged the food from her body, crying as she did. The male, not wanting to miss the free meal, dug in, his eyes still on the crying lioness. Finally, his hunger quenched, he moved closer to her and sits down.

“If you’re wise, you’ll eat a little grass, then take a few bites. With time you’ll get your appetite back.”

“Sounds like good advice,” she said, still sick. She nibbled half-heartedly at a few clumps of green grass.

“Are you a rogue lioness?”

“No. At least I wasn’t.” She sadly looked down.

“I hope I didn’t offend you. I’m a rogue male—of late.” He approached her closer and though she shrank from him at first she let him touch her cheek with his paw. “My dear, you look like a ghost. If you don’t mind, we can help each other.”

“How?”

“Well, I can drive off the hyenas and flush game. And you can talk to me.”

“That’s it?”

“Hey, it’s the silence that gets to me. I can’t stand it. I even talk to buzzards. And when they’re not around, I talk to myself. All the time.”

“Well, I can talk,” she said. “And if you help me hunt, you may eat your share. Deal?”

“Deal! I am Kubali, by the way. And you?”

She tried a small bite of the impala, chewing it carefully and uncertainly, then swallowing. “My name is Elanna.”

He smiled. “Elanna! What a beautiful name.”

CHAPTER: SOMEONE TO LEAN ON

The day’s event had taken their toll on the two lions, and when the sun had slipped below the horizon, they quietly searched for a clearing which to bed for the night. Upon finding one, Elanna lied down in the short grass and Kubali did the same, a few passes away. Kubali, long accustomed to the solitude, fell asleep rather quickly. Elanna wasn’t so lucky. As he mind filled with visions of her Taka, she softly wept.

Kubali’s ears were pricked on this weeping. Looking over at her for a few moments, he rose up and moved towards her. Hearing no protest on her part, he lied down next to her, still keeping a small gap between their bodies. Almost absentmindedly, Elanna turned and draped a paw over him, which brought forth a soft purr from him. Felling his warmth, they finally drifted off to a quiet sleep together.

Morning came quickly for the pair. Elanna woke first, and while she was thinking of her Taka and how nice it was to see him wake in the morning, her paw wandered on him. She softly stroked his mane, as she once did for the fallen king.

Suddenly, she realized she wasn’t at Pride Rock anymore. She turned her head to see her paw across Kubali’s mane.

“I’m sorry!”

“Don’t be. My nurse used to do that.” He sighed. “I bet he was special, this mate of yours.”

“He’s dead.”

“Oh…” He touched her face again. “That’s why you were crying

last night. I haven’t known you that long, but I already hate it when you cry.”

Elanna pawed his shoulder gently. “Look, Kube… Kublia… uh…”

“Kubali.”

“Yeah. You’ve been very sweet to me, but I don’t want you to get any unrealistic expectations. I need a friend now, and I think you could be that friend. But I don’t know if I could ever fall in love again.”

Kubali smiled gently and touched her nose with his. “I need a friend too. Someone I can lean on when the trail is long and weary. I wouldn’t take a chance of ruining this.”

Elanna smiled, relieved, and returned his nuzzle.

Over the next three days Elanna and Kubali worked hard to prove their friendship would never blossom into romance. It was a tense time for both of them, a time of guarded words and cautiously touching only when necessary. They would allow themselves a good morning nuzzle and, when they made a small kill, a congratulatory pat on the shoulder. Still, it was done timidly and with great restraint.

Then on the fourth day a remarkable thing happened. They stopped being afraid and decided to enjoy their friendship.

Elanna was sunning herself on a small kopje that morning when Kubali came and laid beside her. “Lannie, we have to talk.”

“My husband called me Lannie,” she replied. “It makes me feel uncomfortable to hear it from anyone else.”

“Fine. Lots of things make me feel uncomfortable. I think we’re both pretty miserable.”

“Are you saying we should part?”

“No. I’m saying we should stop being miserable.” Kubali said, “I’ve been holding back from you. Surely you wonder about my past.”

“I try not to.”

“See there—that’s what I mean. This secrecy is tearing us apart. I mean, if we’re really friends, let’s be honest with each other.”

“Are you saying I’ve lied to you?”

“No. You have to say something first.” Kubali looked around with building frustration. “Look, I have a sordid past. If I can tell you what I did to wind up here, you can tell me, can’t you?”

Elanna looked about, surprised. “Just how sordid?”

“Then we have a deal?”

“It depends,” Elanna said, rolling over to look at him in the eyes.

Kubali sighed nervously. “Where shall I begin? Well, I think it started when I was a little cub. My mother died the day I was born, and I was raised by nurses. My dad is a king, you know. I was the heir apparent, and I guess I had free rein to do what I pleased.” He laughed nervously. “Oh yes, it pleased me to do a lot of selfish things—a whole lot! The lionesses got fed up with me and one day they said my polite little brother would make a better king—or else.”

“Or else?”

“Or else they would leave. Dad banished me.” Tears came to his eyes. “I’ll never forget the look on his face when he said good bye. It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

“Poor Kubali!”

“I deserved it, though. I really messed up my own life, and I have no one else to blame. Now I have to make a new life for myself, and I’ll be different. I begged Aiheu for a friend. Someone—anyone—that would end my awful loneliness. I swore I’d be better. I meant it too. Then I saw this feisty lioness facing off a whole group of hyenas. I knew that you were the answer to my prayers.”

Elanna kissed away his tears, a rather intimate gesture of friendship. “Your honesty puts me to shame. Really, I should have told you more about myself. You’ve been so kind to me.”

“Am I kind? I wondered if I was doing well.”

“Better than well, my friend.” She nuzzled him. “My husband was a king. His name was Taka. He was never popular, but I loved him. I loved him the way snow loves the mountain peaks, and you know the snow would never leave the mountain peaks lest it should melt and die.”

“What did he do to be so unpopular?”

“Well he…” She sighed. “He was not completely sane. He did a lot of strange things. Very strange. But it was not his fault. I did not know that he had killed his brother to take the throne. Not till after the hyenas ripped him alive.”

“Whoa, you poor dear!”

“I loved him, but I wouldn’t have stayed with him. Not if I’d known. Still the knowledge has not killed my love. Somehow I cannot turn years of love into hate. Now you know why I have not fallen in love with you. When he died, my dreams of love also died. He was killed and I live in exile, a wanderer with no place to lay my head.”

“Wrong. Lay your head on my mane, dear. It doesn’t matter if you love me or not. I have enough love for both of us.”

She laid her head on the soft fur of his mane and sighed peacefully. “I’m glad we had this talk. And I didn’t mean what I said before—call me Lannie. You’ve earned the right.”

“It’s not a right, it’s a privilege. A privilege to be earned daily. Your suffering is over, Lannie. Over and done.” He stroked her gently with his paw.

CHAPTER: HAVE IT YOUR WAY

If calling Elanna ‘Lannie’ was a privilege to be earned daily, Kubali did his best. The truth had freed them to enjoy each other’s acceptance. Elanna became to Kubali more than just a mystery, however alluring. She became a person with strengths and weaknesses, and compassion like a river bearing away his sorrows to lands unseen. In return, Kubali treated Elanna with a gentle humility he didn’t know he had. He devoted himself to making her feel important and cared for.

With each passing day, Kubali and Elanna drew closer to the inevitable moment when one or the other would use the word “love” to describe their feelings.

With all the truth and experience, however, small quirks showed up in their behavior. Elanna found Kubali’s snoring intolerable when he lay on his back. Often in the night she would shove him over with a paw, hoping to find peace. And Kubali noticed to his irritation that she always deferred decisions to him. It was nothing much really, just a ‘You decide’ or a ‘We can do what you want’ every so often, but it bothered him. And for him, this was one problem that a simple shove of the paws would not rectify. He decided to let it past and wait. She get use to the freedoms, he thought to himself.

One day, they went on a hunt together. Quietly, before they were close to any prey, he jokingly nuzzled her and said, “So… what do you feel like today, my fair lioness? The savanna is filled with choice prey.”

She smiled up to him, “Oh… I don’t know… you pick.”

He could feel his insides tighten on her words. “Come on Lannie, I always chose… I think it’s your turn to chose.”

She just shook her head, “I’m no good at making decisions… you can. It’s all right.”

Kubali could sense where this was going so he swallowed his pride and nodded, “All right… how does gazelle sound today?”

She smiled and rubbed against him softly. “It sounds wonderful.” She didn’t notice, or care to notice, the tightness in his body she caused.

Together they walked until they were able to find their target. Quietly, Kubali slipped away from Elanna and stalked about to a point where he was sure the gazelles can smell him. He jumped out and roared, causing the gazelles to flee towards Elanna. She burst out of the brush, her swift and fatal onslaught bearing a struggling beast to the ground. Some of the others in panic turned and headed back.

Kubali did not react swiftly enough. One of the gazelles caught him on the side with a hoof, nicking him and bringing a few drops of blood.

Elanna quickly and compassionately snuffed the life from her horrified captive, then spoke a quick blessing. Kubali went to her after the dust had settled and rubbed against her gently. “Good job, Lannie!”

As his body pressed against hers, she noticed the blood on him. “Oh my gods… you’re bleeding, Kubali!”

Kubali turned to look at the wound and chuckled. “Don’t scare me like that! It’s really noth…”

“Oh you poor dear…” She got up from the fallen beast and began to lick at the blood on his coat. “My sweet little Nisei, let me make it all better.”

“Lannie… not that I mind your affections… but I’ll be all right.”

She began to stroke his side gently. “My brave little lion. There, there! It’s all right. I’m here.”

Kubali stepped away from her, “Didn’t you hear me, Lannie? I’m all right. It’s really nothing. I didn’t even notice it until you mentioned it.”

Elanna looked up to him. “But Kubali… aren’t you in pain?”

He just shook his head. Elanna looked down at his paws, “Oh…”

Kubali came and nuzzled her. “You don’t have to treat me like a cub, Lannie… and you don’t have to think of me as your master.” He kissed her gently. “Lannie, I don’t want someone to command around. That’s what got me in trouble in the first place.”

She nodded. “OK. I’ll try if you want me to.”

He shook his head. “You still don’t get it. Try because YOU want you to.” He looked around and said, “We better eat this before it falls to the hyenas.” Ripping at the flesh, he opened the beast. “Hunter’s choice?”

Elanna just looked at him, about to ask what he wanted. Then quickly she dove her head into the carcass and pulled out the heart. She moved over to him and dropped it at his feet.

Frustrated, Kubali sighed. “Lannie, listen to me.”

“We’ll share it. You and I together.”

He smiled and licked the blood from her check, giving her a kiss at the same time. “That’s my girl.”

CHAPTER: STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

The cold gray eyes stared silently out at the small clearing, taking in all that they saw and revealing nothing, like their owner. He crouched in the overgrown scrub, the soft fronds swaying in the quiet breeze, batting at his face in a maddeningly repetitive pattern, but he lay still, like a stone. Finally, he grunted in satisfaction and rose, shaking out his mane, and emerged from the grass, padding silently over to where the other two lions had lain the previous evening. His small companion followed, the hyena glancing about nervously at the waving grass.

Gamu bent his face to the ground and paced about slowly, nosing at the bent blades of grass where the two lions had slept the night. His head jerked aside of its own volition, drawn by a particular scent, and he breathed deeply. Nodding, he lifted his face to look at the hyena in satisfaction. “Soon, now.”

“Soon?” the hyena asked. “I wish you’d hurry up.”

The lion smiled complacently and strolled over towards him. “Patience, Griz’nik.” Whipping a paw up abruptly, he extended a single claw and lifted the hyena’s chin with it sharply, dimpling the flesh in. “Your days with of pushing lions around are over. You will remember who is your boss, and it’s not Shenzi.” He lifted his paw higher, watching the hyena flinch with detached amusement. “Understand?”

Griz’nik coughed and nodded carefully. “Yes sir.”

Gamu released the pressure and dropped his paw. “That’s better. Now be a good little hyena and tell me who that lovely creature is with Kubali.”

Griz’nik rubbed his chin gingerly, staring at Gamu with undisguised hate. “That’s Elanna. She used to be my queen.”

“Your Queen?” Gamu laughed. “I was unaware you were making a career of obeying lions, Griz.”

Griz’nik spat. “Remember that when I gnaw on your bones.”

Gamu waved a paw absently. “Yes, yes. She was a queen, you say?” His eyes gleamed as he looked at the hyena. “Royalty, eh? Then tell me what she’s doing out here eating on leftover carcasses with that flea bag.”

Griz’nik scratched an ear self-consciously. “Well, back when Amarakh was our Roh’mach, there was this hyena named Gur’mekh—”

Gamu swung heavily with a paw, barely missing the hyena who dodged away with a yip of terror. “The condensed version, please, and spare me your savage chatter. I don’t have all day.”

Griz’nik stood warily just outside the reach of his paw. “We helped kill the old king in my old home. His brother took his place and allied with us in return for our help. She married him.”

“You little devil!” Gamu grinned humorlessly. “It seems you do have a few redeeming vices.”

“Thanks—I guess.”

“That still doesn’t tell me why she’s here.”

Griz’nik flattened his ears. “Uhh… the old king’s son came back and kind of took over the place.”

Gamu threw his maned face back and bellowed laughter into the sky. “Oh my… you ARE priceless. I wondered why you came crawling to me.”

“Well, we did for her husband before she left, O Great Hairy One. But you’d better watch yourself.”

Gamu snapped his head down and bored twin holes into the suddenly silent hyena with his eyes. “Ahh… so hubby isn’t going to come looking for his long lost mistress, eh?”

“Not in this world.”

“I see…” Gamu rose and paced slowly past the clearing, his companion following at a respectable distance. “Excellent. I shall have to move against this young upstart before he endears her to him. He manages to exude a certain charm—despite his good qualities.” He paused and surveyed the area slowly. “I could rush him from the reeds, but they do make so much noise…” He eyed Griz’nik uncomfortably. “How fast can you run?”

“Oh no you don’t! Don’t drag me into this!”

“It’s either I drag you into this or drag your carcass away. Now stop whimpering and answer me.”

“Not very fast,” Griz’nik said nervously. “Hey, why don’t you just get him when she goes to drink or something. I make a lousy decoy.”

“As well as a fabulous idiot. If I kill him in front of her, do you think she’ll want my attentions?” Gamu snorted derisively. “Besides… I don’t want to kill Kubali outright like that.” A slow grin spread across his muzzle, humorless and cold. “I can think of other things I want to do to him first.”

Griz’nik tittered. “Then I get him, right?”

“You can have what’s left, certainly.” Gamu sidled uncomfortably close to the hyena and patted him. “After all… what are friends for?”

Griz’nik chuckled. “Dessert!”

“Precisely.” Gamu leered at him, making him shy away in fear. “Now tell me more about this Elanna.”

CHAPTER: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER

Brother Sun padded slowly across the sky, shedding his warmth across the savanna in a proclamation of Aiheu’s glory, exposing all His works for the world to see. The light was reflected from the ground, the golden grass barely wavering in the stillness of highsun as the world slowly revolved about its axis, the intense heat rippling the air and making the world shiver in a macabre dance as the two lions sought surfeit from its hungry embrace.

Kubali groaned and shifted again in another fruitless attempt to get comfortable in the sweltering heat. His chest rose and fell rapidly, tongue lolling absurdly as he panted, the hot air seeming thick as liquid as it burned at his throat. Rolling slightly, he reached out with a paw and stroked Elanna gently, wishing for a delightful rub against her fur but unable to stand the heat. She purred tiredly, glancing at him and smiling.

Movement yanked at the corner of her vision and she glanced upward. “Look, Kubali!”

The young lion twisted and squinted upward into the azure sky, perking up slightly as he spied the dark shapes drifting high above on the thermals. “Vultures. Looks like they might have found a meal.” He debated a moment, then sat up. “Care to join me?”

Elanna hesitated a moment, then nodded and rose to join him, following him as they left the pitiful shade of the kigelia trees and padded through the high grass, glancing upward now and again to keep their bearings. The birds were circling still, but lowering; whatever it was would soon succumb to heat or predator’s jaws, preferably theirs. Kubali increased his pace a bit, trotting through the golden sea of waving grass, his own form nearly indistinguishable from the plants around him. Elanna, distracted by the birds, trotted after him quickly, feeling the heat encapsulate her in the enclosed grass.

Abruptly the circling birds descended and vanished. “Quick! Let’s go before they get it all!” She sped past him, ripping through the tough plants effortlessly as she hurried towards the unseen carcass, her ears detecting the raucous squawk and gabble of the birds as they began fighting for position.

“Elanna, wait!” Kubali sprinted to catch up, seeing her moving eagerly towards the fallen animal, now discernible as a zebra, albeit a decidedly feathery one with the carpet of vultures around it. The bird scattered out of her way, forming a rustling ring about the animal as Kubali cantered up beside her and cut her off. “Wait.”

“But they’re going to eat it all! They already ate the eyes for heaven’s sake.”

“They have their right to the kill as much as we… none of us brought it down. Aiheu chose this spot for it to die upon of its own accord.”

She paused, nodding at his wisdom, but unable to fathom his hesitation. “All right… but they’re just birds… it’s not like they’re helping us hunt.”

“Aren’t they? What signaled us that there was a carcass to be had? In return, we dispatch the prey quickly and they can eat sooner.”

“Oh… I see your point.”

Kubali nuzzled her playfully. “Hey, they’re the next to best thing that’s happened to me out here. They’ll take care of you if you respect them.”

She looked at him askance. “And what’s the best thing?”

“Not what—who.” He nuzzled her again, meaningfully this time. “Gods, it’s good to hear a lioness’ voice again. I was beginning to forget what it was like.”

Elanna purred and lashed her tail shyly as the two approached the downed zebra. One of the vultures hopped astride the striped form and cawed in greeting. “Fuzzy! Still making life miserable for hardworking birds, I see.”

Kubali laughed. “I have yet to see you break a sweat, Markaaagh. Since when have you worked hard in your lifetime?”

“Ever since I met you, Fuzz; it’s hard enough trying to fill my own belly with this crowd without a walking gizzard moving in, har-har!” Markaaagh cackled wittily and looked at the lioness. “Two for dinner? Does she know the rules?”

“It’s safe. This is Elanna.”

The vulture clucked and shifted his weight. “Oooh, so you want to lay a few eggs and raise a brood? Pretty thing for a lioness. No scars or anything.”

“Thanks, I think,” Elanna said. “And might I mention that you don’t have a feather out of place?”

“Aw!” He looked about at his wing coverlets and groomed self-consciously. “This one has manners, kid. Hold on to her.”

Kubali looked at Elanna. “He thinks we’re in love,” he whispered with a grin. “The silly old buzzard.”

She looked at him. “Yeah, silly idea.” Her ears fell flat at his chastened expression, and she hurried to correct herself. “I didn’t mean it that way. I mean, you’re really handsome.”

Kubali arched his neck slightly and smiled. “Why, thanks. And you’re no blot on the landscape yourself.” He waved a paw invitingly. “Shall we?”

They fed on the carcass until their hunger was satiated, then stood guard while the buzzards ate. As Elanna groomed herself clean from the meal, she paused and looked about at the tussling pile of birds, a wry smile coming to her face as she watched her ‘pride’ wrestle its way through dinner. She returned her gaze to the surrounding savanna, watching for predators and feeling a mild sense of wonder at guarding what she had previously seen as nothing but a nuisance or a competitor for her dinner. She looked over at Kubali, who lay with his back to her as he watched the western plains, and wondered at his sense of composure, the odd peace which wrapped him in a near visible aura of confidence. She muttered a short prayer to Aiheu in thanks for sending the young male… otherwise she might have met the acquaintance of the vultures under much less pleasant circumstances.

Sighing, she exchanged greetings with a contentedly stuffed Markaaagh and chatted with him absently, fielding his odd questions and wondering what Uzuri would have made of all this.

CHAPTER: COMING TOGETHER

One morning as Kubali and Elanna were sitting side by side, they watched the clouds and imagined what things their shapes might be.

“There’s a wildebeest,” Elanna said.

“It has a calf,” Kubali said. “See, that little puff to the left?”

“So it does! And there’s a rabbit. He’s eating a—oh, it’s a lion!”

“That must be some rabbit!”

“No, I mean there! A rogue!”

“What the…”

“Should we say hello?”

Kubali tensed up. “To him?? That dirty rascal??”

“You know him?”

The strange lion trotted up, obvious pleasure on his face. “Kubali! Our paths cross again!”

“I wish the pleasure had been postponed—indefinitely.”

The stranger showed disappointment. “Surely not!”

Elanna nudged Kubali disapprovingly. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

“This is Gamu,” Kubali said shortly. “We grew up together.”

“Your brother?”

“Heavens, no!”

Gamu looked down. “Whatever wrongs I’ve done, I’ve paid for in the hell of my solitary existence. I’m sure I wasn’t perfect like you, so they weren’t sad when I left.”

Kubali’s face fell. “Well, maybe I’ve been harsh with you. But you asked for your hard times.”

“Asked and received. Remember at your mantlement? Something about the proving grounds of hardship which strengthen the Ma’at and purify the Ka?” He bowed his face to the ground. “I have suffered, Kubali! Please let us try it again from the start? Please??” He looked up and mustered a withering smile. “Kubali! Our paths cross again!”

Kubali came forward and nuzzled him. “So they do. This is my friend Elanna. Elanna, this is my old pridemate Gamu.”

Elanna shyly nuzzled Gamu and felt his timid kiss on her cheek. She felt sorry for him at once.

“So what brings you this way?” Kubali asked, pointedly.

“The whims of the savanna. Some gracious chance, or was it Aiheu? But since kind fate has thrown us together, let us band together. I can help protect you and aid you in hunting. Maybe someday if you want lands of your own, I can be a valuable ally.”

“And in return?”

“I have a real audience. I’ve had no one to talk to but myself for many long weeks. I’ve lost track of the time.”

Kubali nodded, then looked over at Elanna. She nodded back at him and smiled shyly.

“Very well. Behave yourself and you may travel with us.”

CHAPTER: THE STARS

Gamu managed to steal a few moments from his new companions to visit Griz’nik in the reeds. The hyena had brought him a rabbit, and Gamu nodded silently, gave him a pat on the shoulder, and took the carcass a short distance. He rolled it in the fragrant leaves of a Corbynanthus and then licked the wound on the neck, chewing it a bit to fully disguise the hyena scent and toothmarks. He brought it back to where Kubali and Elanna sat. By their sudden silence, it was clear they were talking about him, but unfazed, Gamu sat the rabbit in front of Elanna. “For you, my vision of lovliness. Have you made your decision yet?”

“My decision??” Elanna looked at him puzzled.

“Oh come now, I didn’t mean to hint around at anything naughty. I meant to come straight to the point. On the one paw, Kubali is dependable, reliable, and is saddled with a strong moral character. Not that I hold any of that against him…”

Elanna laughed. “Oh, Gamu! You are such a wit!”

Kubali grumbled. “At least she’s half right.”

Gamu sneered. “Come now, Kubali. Would you stand in the way of true love?”

“No. And I hope the one of you will be very happy together.”

Gamu laughed. “Why Kubali, you’ve acquired a sense of humor!” He looked over at Elanna and winked. “Well, how about it? Do you want the perfect marriage or some real fun?”

Elanna shoved him with a paw. “You wicked lion! If you must know, I haven’t given the matter a lot of thought.”

Gamu smiled innocently. “Insects don’t give the matter a lot of thought. That’s why there are so many of them.”

“Her husband is dead,” Kubali said, a bit ruffled. “Have a little respect.”

Gamu’s face fell. “Oh my gods! That’s my problem. I had a little respect when I should have had a lot.” Gamu nuzzled Elanna tenderly. “I meant no offense. No doubt he must have had many bitter rivals for your affection.”

“It’s OK,” Elanna said, nuzzling him back. “I’m not offended. I know you meant it all in fun.”

“Of course, my dear. Of course.”

Gamu was better than his word. He proved to be an intelligent, polite, and charming companion. That night when the stars winked in, he astounded Elanna with stories even she had not heard; Maku the Hunter, Ari and Kuzima, and the Love of the Evening Star. When Gamu spoke in his rich, well-cadenced voice, even the most improbable of tales sounded as firm as the stone, and as warm as a nuzzle. He touched her emotions with tales of great kings and epic struggles in long ago days.

Through it all, Kubali sat there jealous and uncomfortable. His own knowledge of star lore was adequate, but no match for Elanna, much less Gamu. And rather than learning something from it all, he merely tolerated it as best as he could.

Gamu saw the sullen look on Kubali’s face, and to avoid offending his host he left the admiring Elanna to contemplate all that she had heard and caught up on events with Kubali. Gamu listened to Kubali’s story, and in return he told Kubali a great many things. Only he did not mention the hyena Griz’nik or the plans Gamu made with him.

CHAPTER: THAT CERTAIN TIME

Elanna had been married to Taka for three years. During that time certain habits had become ingrained in her that were difficult to break. Kubali lay asleep, but Elanna lay wakeful, watching the smooth rise and fall of his chest. She kept her vigil faithfully, and at the first sign of dreams—twitching paws and limbs, she shook him. “Wake up, Honey Tree! It’s all right! Lannie is here!”

“Huh?? What’s wrong??” He looked around. “What time is it??”

“About midmoon. You were having another nightmare. I couldn’t stand to see you in torment like that. Let your Lannie make it all better.” She began to paw him, stroking his mane and pushing him gently from side to side. “Feel the tension roll away, my dear.”

He looked at her askance. “I was hunting gazelles. Just about had one too.”

“You weren’t having nightmares??”

“No. I almost never do.” He yawned. “Hey, if you don’t mind, let’s finish this talk in the morning, OK?”

“Sure.” Elanna’s ears flattened in consternation as she watched him begin dozing again almost immediately. She lay her own head upon her forepaws and watched him surreptitiously, waiting for his limbs to jerk and yank him upright as he howled his torment from the nightmares. Absently she gazed at his side, watching his ribs rise and fall with the gentle tides of his breath. Easing forward, she rolled sideways until her back touched his, assuring herself that any sudden movements on his part would alert her in time. Relaxing slowly, she lay her head down, feeling a faint rumble-purr from him at the contact. The sound lulled her gently down, and she let herself drift away, daring to wonder if she might sleep through the night once again without awaking to a scream.

Her eyes opened to the pleasant sounds of morning, the twitter of birds beginning to fill the air as the sky reddened in the east. Jerking upright, she looked around to see Kubali washing his face, rubbing his paw busily over his muzzle and mane as he lay a few feet away. He noticed her staring and stopped, smiling at her. “Good morning.”

“Uh, good morning.” Elanna looked at him carefully. “Are you all right?”

“Fine.” Kubali frowned. “Shouldn’t I be?”

“Oh, uh, of course.” Elanna lashed her tail and sat upright. “Excuse me… I need to go get something to drink.”

Kubali nodded and watched as she padded quickly away through the brush, heading towards the small pond they had passed the previous evening. Footfalls sounded in his ear and he glanced over to see Gamu plodding slowly toward him, yawning hugely. The lion paused and crouched slightly, lowering his chest and splaying his forelegs, claws extending with the effort as he stretched contentedly. Emitting a self-satisfied grunt, he arose again and meandered over to Kubali.

“Quiet one, that,” he said, motioning to the lioness who was lapping at the water’s edge some distance away.

Kubali hummed thoughtfully. “And a strange one, too… do you know she woke me out of a sound sleep last night, rocking me like a cub?”

Gamu’s ears rose upright. “Oh? Whatever for?”

Kubali shrugged with a flick of his tail. “Aiheu knows… I was dreaming of gazelle. She nearly rolled me over trying to get me to wake up, going on about ‘my torment.’” The lion peered after Elanna, who had finished her drink and was watching the marsh birds flitting about, screeching angrily at each other.

Gamu’s eyes sharpened as he stared at the back of Kubali’s head. “What did she say?”

“Something about me having another nightmare… and she was trying to ease my tension.” Kubali glanced back at Gamu. “Have you ever heard such things?”

Gamu quickly lowered his gaze, his expression carefully neutral. “Only from mothers soothing their cubs… I daresay it’s nothing, my friend.” He smiled ingratiatingly. “She was probably half-asleep herself and dreaming of cubs.”

Kubali nodded absently, his gaze returning to the lioness who was making her way back towards them. “You’re probably right.”

“I always am.” Gamu grinned oddly. “Excuse me.”

As the following days progressed, Elanna began to show the outward signs of a lioness entering her receptive period, and Kubali accepted Gamu’s idea that her idiosyncrasies were just another symptom of that special time which all lionesses experience when their bodies yearn for cubs. Eventually the subtleties grew more and more obvious, and the two males spent their days pacing agitatedly about, growing snappish and irritable.

Elanna felt guilty about the effects of her heat upon her friend, although she was not responsible for it. Anxious to avoid a confrontation between the two males, she persuaded Kubali that it would be best if they separated temporarily, since a nearby kopje provided adequate shelter and an excellent vantage point from which to scout for prey.

“Good idea,” he said, relieved. “I’ll sleep up top on the rocks, and you can stay inside that little cave in the side until it passes. Okay?”

“Okay.” She nuzzled him chastely and stepped away quickly, curling up inside her temporary abode and tucking tail beneath her.

Kubali ascended the rocks and lay down at the top, sighing uncomfortably as he fought to shove away the memory of the quick lick on his cheek she had given him. “Easy, boy, nothing but trouble there.” He watched absently as the herds moved slowly across the landscape, noting the dark shadows that chased each other across the ground. A heavy rumbling filled the air, and his nose twitched as the thick smell of approaching rain hit him.

“Oh, great,” he muttered.

Elanna settled down in a corner of the cave and closed her eyes. She felt lonely and a little depressed. The soft warmth of Kubali next to her had been a comfort she had learned to rely on. She rolled over and reached out her paw to put it on his shoulder, only he was not there. It was the worst time to be alone, and it took her a while to fall asleep.

Elanna’s nights had been full of bad dreams. She had a morbid fascination with the last moments of her husband, and had experienced them many different ways in her troubled nights. For a change the insistant yearnings in her body changed the course of her slumber.

“Lannie?”

“Yes, Taka?” She rolled on her back, gazing up at her husband that loomed over her with that hungry cub look on his face. “Did you want something?”

Silently, fervantly, he reached down and nuzzled her face, then kissed her throat right above her throbbing pulse. Passionately, he took his paw and rubbed her chest, then passed his paw down to fondle her sensitive belly, awakening sensations in her that made her shiver. He touched the paw to his nose, closed his eyes, and inhaled. “Oh gods,” he stammered. “I’m on fire! Crouch for me, Lannie. I want to make love to you all night.”

She reached up with a paw and fondled his chest mane. “Give me a moment, darling. Let me get ready.”

Elanna lay on the ground in the throes of her romantic dream. Her paws twiched and her jaw trembled. A thin, high moan escaped her lips.

Suddenly an earsplitting crack sundered the air. Elanna’s eyes popped open. She was alone. Once again, Taka was dead and the remnants of her dream were washed away in the downpour. Lightning flashed again. The world outside her cave was cold and miserable, and she thanked Aiheu for the shelter as the rain descended in solid sheets.

The drops fell on the dry earth, splashing in small crowns of splendor. After the plunge to earth, the small sprites sought out their friends, joining to form small trickles that merged into rivulets seeking sanctuary from the strange, hard soil. Some clung to stems of grass, turning them to gemmed scepters that swayed in the wind. Lightning lit the sky with infinite diamonds of brilliant lustre.

A hornbill began to bail water from her nest, her chicks shivering and wet. Lightning framed a couple of meerkat sentries that ducked quickly into their holes. Water ran unchecked into a gopher hole, and the agitated resident came out, looking about in the wet darkness. Nearby a badger slept safely, a drain passage keeping the flood from his bed chamber.

Kubali wended his way down the rocks to the lee side of the kopje and crouched miserably in the mud, his tail tucked between his hind legs and his bedraggled mane soaked and drooping. A flash of lightning made him cringe, and he wished it would all go away and let him sleep.

Elanna came to the mouth of the cave and called softly, “Kubali?”

The faint cry reached his ears and he turned to see Elanna beckoning him frantically towards her. Ears flattened, he padded quickly over, paws sending up small splashes of water and mud. Shivering, he trotted in next to her, grateful for the short respite from the driving rain.

“Huh?”

“Hsssh! Quietly. Come in here.”

“But what about Gamu?”

“What about him!” She looked at him sympathetically. “Gods! You’re soaked! Stay in here until it quits, at least.”

“Thanks.” He lay down on the rock floor, still shuddering from the cold air, the water forming small puddles around him as his body steamed away the moisture. Clucking reassuringly, she padded over and lay down next to him, draping a forepaw across his broad shoulders and pulling him close, sharing her body heat with him.

“Don’t do that! You’ll get wet!”

“I don’t care. Besides, it’s my fault you got soaked.”

Kubali had grown used to the feel of her and the scent of her next to him, and he had trouble sleeping alone. He grunted with contentment as her warmth began to penetrate his cold fur. “Thank you, Lannie. You’re really very special.”

“So are you.” She patted his shoulder and rubbed his side. A smile spread across his face.

Kubali closed his eyes and sighed as her warmth sank into his wet fur, seeping in and easing the shivers which caused his tail to tremble with their vehemence. Gradually, the heat of their bodies filled the cave, giving it a cozy feeling and relaxing him. A contented purr rolled out of his chest and Elanna answered it, sliding closer and touching her side to his.

A bolt of lightning struck, and Kubali felt Elanna tense. “Are you afraid?”

“Well, not actually.”

Another bolt of lightning hit nearby. She clung to him with her paws. “There wasn’t much rain where I came from. I’m not used to it, that’s all.”

He turned over to face her, stroking her face with his paw and saying, “I’m here, Honey Tree. You’re safe. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

“You do make me feel safe,” she said, kissing him.

He tried to kiss her back, but stopped at the last moment. Something about it did not seem right. Then a flash of lightning lit her face. There was fear in her eyes, and it was not all from the storm. “It’s all right. Really it is.” He gently reached out with his arms and bore Elanna’s face next to his own. He put a soft kiss on her cheek and on her forehead. “If you want it, I do too. If you don’t, just say so.”

She said nothing, but nuzzled him quietly and passionately, kissing him with the barest touch of her tongue. A purr escaped her.

Kubali swallowed heavily, his heart beginning to hammer in his chest. “Oh girl, I’ve wanted you for the longest time.”

“Shhh.” She covered his muzzle softly with her paw, silencing him. Craning forward, she nuzzled him firmly, her warm tongue flicking out and tracing down his cheek in a kiss. “Kubali, do you really love me? Are you sure you do?”

He nuzzled her passionately, his wet mane filling her with his fragrance. “I was never so sure of anything in my life.”

She purred, rolling over into a crouch and moving her tail aside. “Come then. Make love to me. I’m yours.”

His heart pounding, Kubali rose to his feet. He kissed her once again, then trembling with anticipation gently took hold of her shapely neck in his jaws, stepping across her supple golden body.

The rain came down furiously. The lovers’ muted cries were muffled somewhat by the pouring rain, but Gamu listened intently and missed nothing. He cringed with every soft moan and cursed his luck, both the rain and the passion lost to another. Staring at the dark opening with narrowed eyes, he bared his teeth and trembled. “Damn you, Kubali! Damn you to hell!”

He listened until he could bear no more, then stalked away stiff-legged with rage, the rain filling the depressions he left in the soft earth.

CHAPTER: AFTER

Elanna laid on her back, forepaws tucked neatly on her chest as she lay nestled against Kubali, basking in the delightful warmth of his body and listening to the soft patter of water dripping outside. The cool evening breeze tugged gently at her fur and she shifted slightly, the mane of her beloved falling gently about her face and shoulders. She inhaled his scent and smiled, a small secret smile that intrigued him.

“What is it?”

Her eyes lidded, she looked at him and purred softly. “Oh nothing.” She lifted a forepaw which could snuff the life from an impala with one blow and gently caressed his face. “For the first time in a long while I feel safe.”

He answered her throaty purr with a low rumble of his own. “You are safe, Elanna. Now and forever.”

“Not Elanna. Lannie. Remember?” She smiled up at him and kissed him.

His eyes sparkled. “Lannie, then… do you know how beautiful you are to me right now?”

Her tail lashed in embarrassment and she looked away shyly. “I’m not beautiful.”

“You’re right.”

Her eyes turned to glare at him. “What??”

“You aren’t merely beautiful.” He drew a paw along the side of her muzzle, tracing the soft line where her fur lightened. “Sunsets and flowers are beautiful, but they don’t inspire love. There must be another word for this.”

A nervous laugh escaped her. “The word is lucky. Do you really think I’m attractive?”

“No.”

She glared at him again. “Will you make sense?”

“I don’t have to think so. I KNOW so.” He nuzzled her again, more intensely this time. “I wish I were a flea so I could spend my life on top of you.”

“Oh, don’t say such things!” She giggled, enjoying his attentions. She lay her head back, purring louder as his rough tongue bathed her throat, immersing herself in the waves of pleasure he was inciting in her.

“I wonder what our children will be like?”

Elanna tensed. Her eyes opened in alarm and she twisted to look at him, but his expression was far away and dreamy.

“Uh… it’s a little early to think about—”

He grinned at her, the sight so overwhelmingly beautiful it stole her breath away. “Just think of it Lannie! Our children…” He glanced down absently at his crossed forepaws, as if contemplating a squirming cub there.

“But I thought that would be an awful burden on you. You have no lands of your own, and you’d have to support your children.”

“I don’t mind! They would be OUR children. They’ll be safe and well fed, I promise you! I’ll take such good care of them and love them, my darling.” He looked at her again and beamed. “And they’ll all be as beautiful as you.”

Lannie wore a look of pain. Abruptly, his expression melted away like water steaming under the hot son. “Lannie? What is it?”

Tears were coursing down her cheeks as she stared unseeing out the darkened entrance to their cave. “I can’t talk right now!”

“Elanna?” His voice took on a frightened tone. “Elanna, what’s wrong?” He raised a paw to touch her and flinched in surprise as she jerked away, her eyes burning.

“DON’T TOUCH ME!” she shrieked.

“I’m sorry! What did I do? What did I say??”

“Leave me alone! Please, just go away!” Elanna lurched into motion, leaping up with such violence that her hindpaw struck Kubali in the face, dazing him momentarily. He shook his head, fighting to clear it, only to see the empty savanna stretching before him in the night.

“Lannie?” He rose and paced out worriedly. “Lannie! Please come back!” He swallowed heavily, fear gripping his heart and making him giddy. “Oh gods… LANNIE!!”

The subject of his concern was just over a rise, her own sobs too loud in her ears to hear him. “M-My love, I’m sorry… oh gods, Taka, I miss you so much!” She choked back a cry and looked down at her forepaws. “I wish you were here.”

A soft touch brushed her shoulder and she growled unsteadily. “Damn it, Kubali, I said leave me alone!”

“You summon me and dismiss me in one motion?” A warm voice chuckled behind her, making her eyes widen. “Come, Lannie, make up your mind.”

She whipped around to behold a dark maned lion surrounded by a soft glow of starlight. “Taka??”

“Yes, it’s me.”

“Dear Aiheu, how I’ve missed you! I’ve been so alone!” She swept forward and collapsed against him, feeling his soft fur and breathing in his dear, familiar scent, now touched with wild honey.

Taka lifted a paw and stroked her cheek. “I know, love. But I have sent you help and you have refused it. Lannie, go back to him!”

“What??” Elanna stared at him. “How can you say that? Taka, I want to be with YOU.”

“No you don’t, love. The tides of life still beat strong inside you. My time is past, but you still have a path to walk here.” He lifted a paw and brushed away a tear from her face. “He needs you, Lannie… and you need him, not some old memory of love.”

She shook her head, silent tears still rolling down her cheeks. “He doesn’t need me. Not like you did.”

“No, our needs are different, but that does not make his need any less, love. There is a thorn in your heart, and only he can remove it.” Taka purred deeply and kissed her muzzle. “When I see you happy with him, it fills me with joy. Go to him Lannie. Go to him and LIVE. If you don’t, I cannot be happy.”

Elanna nodded and nuzzled him one last time before turning away and padding slowly back towards the kopje in the distance. A final warmth passed through her and then the savanna fell dark and silent again around her. Lifting her face to the heavens, she beheld the glitter of the stars, and sought out one in particular. “Thank you, my love.”

The star seemed to shine brighter for a moment, as if in answer.

“Lannie!”

She jerked her head down to see Kubali bound over the rise, puffing for breath. “Lannie! Thank God I found you! I heard someone talking over this way and recognized your voice…” He trotted over to her and drew up short of nuzzling her in greeting, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Lannie? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you… can we talk about this?” He looked at her miserably. “Please?”

Elanna cried aloud and ran to him, wrapping her forepaws around him and bearing him to the ground as she covered his features with warm kisses. “I’m so sorry, Kubali… I’ve been such a fool.” She rubbed her cheek to his and nibbled his ear gently. “Love me, Kubali… you make me feel so special.”

He smiled at her warmly. “You ARE special, Elanna. I want to make love to you, but I need to understand what just happened.”

“My mate appeared to me. He told me that I should not be afraid of my feelings for you.”

Kubali stared silently at her in awe. “I’m glad. Your Taka really loved you. I really love you too. I won’t be jealous if you won’t feel guilty.” He nuzzled her. “Do you want to tell me about him?”

She initially looked away, but she settled beside him. “Taka was very sweet but very sad and afraid. Once when he was a cub, there was this badger…”

CHAPTER: AN AWKWARD MOMENT

The next morning, Gamu looked at Kubali with a smile but also a hint of reproach. “Miss some sleep last night?”

“Yeah. The lightning and thunder.”

“I bet. It’s a wonder you slept at all.” He glanced at Elanna who hung her head embarrassed. “All that lightning and thunder.”

Kubali looked at Elanna. “Lannie, are you OK?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?” She edged nearer to him, but said nothing more. Kubali glanced at Gamu, then back at her. She made no sign whether she wanted Gamu to know about them.

“I bet you didn’t sleep well either,” Gamu said at Elanna, pointedly. He winked slyly.

“Look here, Gamu,” Kubali said sharply.

“Yes?” Gamu smiled.

For a moment, Kubali was nonplused. He didn’t know what to do or what to say. He looked at Elanna again, seeing how she wanted to curl up and die.

“Look here, Gamu. I’m unworthy of her, an exiled prince with no one to blame but himself. But last night, that wonderful creature…” He became inarticulate for a moment, looking for the right words.

“We made love,” Elanna said, moving next to Kubali and nuzzling him.

Kubali found his tongue again and straightened with pride. “Yes. Many times. And if I died tomorrow, I could look Aiheu in the face and tell him I’ve lived a full and meaningful life. Well, Gamu, aren’t you going to congratulate us?”

Gamu smiled meekly. He’d clearly lost the first round. But if anything, he was tenacious. “I’m glad for you. Both of you. I’ve lost to the better lion.”

Elanna pawed Gamu playfully. “We need to find you a mate. But for right now, you understand, we’ll need some privacy.

“Of course. You just give the word.”

Kubali leaned against Elanna and purred softly. “The word is given. Go scout up some gazelles—or something.”

“As you wish, Lover Boy.”

CHAPTER: JUST BETWEEN US

Gamu was soon over his disappointment at Kubali’s triumph. After all, no prize easily won was worth much. Tolerating their desire to make love in the morning, Gamu went to the watering hole and looked at his own reflection. He tried to make the most sad face he could create and looked at the reflection. “Oh Gamu,” he said in a rough imitation of Kubali’s voice. “Why did I ever let you back in my life? Why didn’t I see this coming??”

Gamu could no longer keep a straight face, and he rolled on his back with laughter. “Griz, get over here!”

Nonplused, the hyena left the cover of the reeds. “How did you spot me?”

“I didn’t. I just know you, you little sneak. The same way I know Kubali and Elanna. And my little flea-bitten friend, knowledge is power. So he’s breathing down her neck, is he? It will give him something to think about when he’s on the savanna alone.”

“I thought you wanted to kill him,” Griz’nik said.

“I’m not sure. I wandered around alone for the longest time. I know what it’s like. But for him it will be far worse. He’s lost the kingship, and he will also lose her. I see those shapely thighs of hers, and I think about the sweet delight of her lithe golden body…” He trembled. “How much sweeter it will be to know my enemy is alone and unloved! And every time she cries out my name, it will pull out a thorn that lion put in my heart!”

Griz’nik looked at him crossly. “You’re sick, you know that? Even I can tell she’s beautiful for a lioness. If I were you, I’d take her out behind the reeds, and Kubali would be the farthest thing from my mind. My gods, Gamu, if you want to know what I think…”

“I DON’T,” Gamu said, swiping at the hyena and shoving him into the water.

“One of these days you’re going to go too far,” Griz’nik said, huffing and puffing as he left the cold water.

“And then you’ll do what?” Gamu patted Griz’nik on the cheek. “Face it, my little friend. You need me. Even if you could kill me, and the thought is laughable, what would you do? Expect a handout from the mistress you ill treated and her husband? I think not.”

“You promise me much,” Griz’nik said, “but what have you actually delivered? A couple of lousy rabbits?”

Gamu gave him a withering look. “These things take time to be done right. Remember what I told you about the territory to the south?”

“The land between the hills?”

“Yes. You and Elanna and I. You’ll get to hunt gazelles and no one will bother you. Maybe you’ll find another mate and have some little—whatever it is hyenas have.”

“Pups.”

“Yeah, right. But only if you obey. Only if you wait. I’m not like your Taka. I won’t be pushed around or circumvented.”

“Circumvented?”

“Shoved aside.”

“You and your big words.”

“Big words for a lion with big ideas.”

Griz’nik shook himself, and water went flying about, getting in Gamu’s eyes and wetting his mane. Griz’nik tried not to smile broadly at the mischief he’d created. “Oh, pardon me.”

CHAPTER: LATER THAT DAY

Gamu came back later that day. Elanna was lying on her back, a blissful smile on her face. Kubali was sitting sphinx-like a short distance away, looking at her with mixed pride and love.

Gamu tapped Kubali on his shoulder, jerking him out of his reverie, and he signaled for him to come away a short distance.

“This had better be good, Gamu. You know I said I needed some time alone with her.”

“You know, Kubali, I’ve tried hard to earn your respect and trust. I keep hoping someday we’ll have a land of our own, and you will be my King as it was meant to be.”

“So?”

“I come to you as a good friend to tell you something you need to know about your mate. She carries a burden on her heart and you can help her find peace. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Kubali looked at him skeptically. “A burden? She discusses everything with me, no matter how drastic. We’ve been completely honest with each other.”

“Then you know about how her husband died? Have you told her yet that you’ve forgiven her?”

“Forgiven her? For what?”

“Oh my gods,” Gamu said in a near whisper. “I thought you said you were completely honest with each other.”

“What are you going on about, Gamu?? Is this another one of your tricks??”

“Tricks?? It’s true—no good deed ever goes unpunished. Fine thanks I get for trying to help you! I know very little about her past, but she’s admitted to me the cause of her nightmares.”

“Her nightmares? She won’t discuss them with me. Why should I believe she told you?”

“That’s PRECISELY why. She doesn’t care what I think of her. She could ask me anything. You’re another matter entirely.”

“And why are you discussing this with me?”

“Because I feel I owe you something. Now do you want to hear it or not?”

“OK.”

“See, you two are not completely open as you thought. I told her that I thought she could talk about Taka with you, but she’s afraid. You need to reassure her. Then she’ll bare her soul about everything and seek forgiveness. It will set her free, Kubali. If you really love her, you’ll want her to be happy. And true happiness comes from the inside out. With this locked inside her, she’ll never be truly happy.”

“I know that Taka killed his brother, and that he tried to kill Simba. She was not aware.”

“That’s not what she told me. He went completely mad at the end. She knew it was only a matter of time until there was a civil war, so she worked with the hyenas in their plot to depose the king. She betrayed him to his enemies. They ripped him, you know. Now she has nightmares racked with guilt and remorse. I mean, when Taka died he was screaming her name. And she will carry that burden all her life. She felt she had to tell SOMEONE. It was all bottled up inside her, and she was going crazy holding it inside.”

Kubali’s face fell. Gamu tried not to smile and betray his deep satisfaction. The lie was planted, and he would give it time to grow.

CHAPTER: A MATTER OF TRUST

It was a clear night. Kubali held Elanna’s trembling body beneath his own and shuddered in the grip of passion. He climaxed, and with a roar, he sprang from her. She turned to snarl at him, but she was not angry with him. She rolled over in the grass and invited him over. Kubali lay next to her in the soft grass and looked with her into the night sky. Elanna snuggled into his soft mane listening to his heart beat. It was a comforting sound, a familiar sound, and she drew solace from it. Still, as she scanned the night sky she let out a small sigh.

Kubali looked around. “Are you all right, Lannie?”

“I’m fine. It was nothing, really.”

“If it’s nothing, you won’t mind telling me about it. I mean, we don’t keep secrets from each other—do we?”

She smiled, but it was a melancholy smile. “I was wondering which one of those stars was my Taka. I miss him…”

Kubali frowned slightly, but he quickly hid it. “I know you do, lover… he sounds like he was everything to you.”

She turned her head to face him more, “He was. And he used to tell me I was everything to him. He had no other friends. He relied on me for comfort and friendship. I was all that kept him going.”

“I see.” Kubali’s jaw set firmly. “He trusted you entirely, I imagine?”

“Why yes, he did.”

“Uh huh. Everyone needs someone they can trust entirely. Someone whose love for them is unconditional—who would never betray them.”

“I know.” She rubbed his chest mane with her paw. “You are that person for me.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said.

She seemed to be waiting for him to answer her more meaningfully, but he did not.

“You do trust me, don’t you, lover?”

Kubali changed the subject quickly. “Look, the bats are out. They don’t fly in straight lines like birds.”

Elanna glared at him. “I asked you a question!”

Kubali looked back, tensely. “Look, I’m trying to let this whole business about Taka be firmly in the past. If you help me, I’ll help you.”

“What about Taka?? Today I’ve made love to you many times! Do you think I’d just go crouch with any lion in the bushes??” She shoved him roughly with a paw. “Kubali, if there is no trust between us, there sure as the world will be no more intimacy. I don’t crouch for someone that doesn’t trust me!”

“I trust you all right. I just can’t forget what you did just like that! I’m sorry, but it’s going to take time!”

“And what did I do??”

“You know.”

“Assume for a moment I don’t!”

“I don’t want to talk about it. Look, I trust you, OK? Let’s get some sleep.”

“Sure! You sleep here. I’ll find me a place.”

“Look, you little spitfire, you’re acting like a complete fool! Everything was fine, then all of a sudden you change toward me!”

She got up quickly and moved away from him. “I thought you were gentle and sensitive, but you’re not at all! You’re coarse and inconsiderate, and it’s no wonder they drove you out!”

The words seemed to sting him more than words could express. He stared at her for a while silently, a look of barely suppressed rage on his face. Then when he found his tongue, he blurted out, “Yeah right, like I’m the only outcast here! If you’re so perfect in every way, where are your pride sisters when you need them? Huh??”

Shocked and hurt, tears welled up in her eyes and she stammered, “Good bye, Kubali. It’s over.” She turned quickly and walked off, leaving him alone in the night.

He growled back at her as she drew away, “FINE… leave me.” He shouted, “I don’t need you! You HEAR me?? I don’t need ANYONE!” He let out a loud roar and turned from her.

CHAPTER: HURT FEELINGS

At first Kubali was angry enough to hide from the grimness of his situation. He muttered to himself, “How could she betray Taka? Even if he was insane! I could understand if she’d left him, but having him ripped alive?? My gods! Hey, I was willing to forget and forgive, but she started acting like a complete…”

He stopped and sighed. The loneliness was beginning to find the chinks in his defenses and wear away his resolve. “And I guess I helped her a lot, didn’t I?? Way to GO, Kubali!” He flopped on the ground where they lied together a few moments ago. He inhaled slowly and deeply, reading her fragrance. “She was the most beautiful and loving lioness I had ever met—and I went and blew it! She was my last chance for happiness.” He rolled on his back and sighed. “My last chance. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I rubbed in her exile.” He frowned and growled. “But she never should have said what she did! She started it! She insulted me first! She made me mad, and I just had to say something—I just had…” He sighed again. “Well, I didn’t HAVE to. Oh God, help me! Maybe I’m not the most patient lion in the world, but I really love her, and I need her. Help me please!”

Kubali rolled over and got up. “I am not the lion my father exiled.” He opens his eyes slowly, “I will find her… confess my love to her… and ask her to be mine.”

He moved off slowly in the direction that he saw Elanna disappear in, nose close to the ground, seeking the scent that will lead him to her.

As Elanna walked away, disappearing into the night, her ears turned to hear his roar of frustration after her. “What did I see in him?” she muttered softly. “He is nothing like Taka. Why did I give myself to him like I did?” She walked a short distance more, intent on leaving Kubali for good. As she continued to move away from him though, she turns her head more often, as if a part of her is saying no. Finally, she gave up and sat down to work through her thoughts.

Out of frustration for her remaining feelings for Kubali, she muttered, “He did not trust me.” She sighed and looked over the open fields. “Maybe I should go home… I have nothing here either. Even if they kill me, I will be with my husband and I won’t be lonely again.” She looks up at the stars, searching for him. “I will join you, my love… you must keep your faith. I will be there to cradle you again, tell you how much you mean to me. In Aiheu’s fields you will dream no bad dreams and I will weep no tears. How could you send me to that lion? You were mistaken about him, Taka. I don’t need the kind of care he gives me. You were wrong, Honey Tree.”

She laid her body in the grass and, with a deep sigh, allowed her head to fall to her paws in thought. Through her mind ran the times she spent with her husband—how she courted him. The expectation of giving him cubs, then the tragedy of losing them and with them her fertility. She smiles softly, remembering how he wouldn’t replace her and how he remained faithful through it all. “He was always there for me. He loved me. He truly loved me!”

She gasped softly, remembering the moments of passion she had shared with Kubali. “Will Taka be jealous? Will he want me back? Oh gods, if he refuses me what will I do??”

She remembered the last days of Taka’s life. She recalled the sleepless nights she spent cuddling him close and protecting him from his bad dreams. She remembered trying to anticipate his needs and fill them one by one. She could not always know what would please him, and he would sulk. Then she would have to use all her powers of subtlety to draw out the cause of his ill humor and make it up to him. She remembered staying in the cave by herself and not even given the satisfaction of feeding herself. His temper had become even worse in the weeks before his downfall. She stayed by his side through it all for their love was strong. But he would leave her alone for hours or days in a private hell of despair.

She didn’t know what to make of Kubali. Their first meeting still fresh in her mind, remembering how alone she felt until she meet him. How he didn’t try to control her life… how she could actually sleep through the day without it being interrupted by a scream. She could even express her thoughts to him, something she never dared to do to Taka. He was more like her memories of Mufasa and Ahadi. She sighed softly, trying to chart her future course.

Her eyes traveled back up to the sky. “I loved you so much, my dear, that I never realized how much you controlled and used me. Whatever you did to me, I still loved you and I always will.” She sighed softly, “But what is this I feel for this other lion? Is it love like I felt with you, or is this just my season? I talk about you so much to him, I guess that is unfair to him. You mean so much to me, even when you aren’t here, how can I just forget you?”

She heard a voice. It might have been beside her or just in the back of her mind. But its message arrested her. “Don’t forget me, but don’t forget him either. If he knew the truth, all would be well between you. Tell him the truth, Lannie.”

A lioness has little trouble following even an old trail when they are following someone else. But they are so accustomed to their own scent that it is hard for them to backtrack. She desperately tried to trace her steps back to Kubali. “Help me, Taka! Guide me, Aiheu! Gods, give me success!”

Suddenly, she saw a form move through the grass. Seeing the mane poke through the grass, she held her breath, hoping that it is the one that she is hoping for. As her line of vision cleared and his face came into view, she gasped and ran after him. Together in the middle of the savanna, they came together. At first, both are silent, just looking over each other slowly. Suddenly, they both began to speak. With a slight laugh, they tried again, this time with Kubali starting.

“I’m sorry for what I said. I believe in your love, and I’d trust you with my Ma’at and my very Ka. Gods, Lannie, I don’t know why you should love me, but I am grateful and I don’t question my good fortune. Can you forgive me?”

Elanna nuzzled him gently. “I’m sorry I was so angry. Let’s promise it will never happen again. The only good part of this whole argument is making up afterwards. Kubali, I love you.” With that, she gave his cheek a soft lick, walked a short distance and crouched. “Make love to me, my lion!”

He looked in the sky and smiled. “Thank you, God! You haven’t abandoned me!” He turned his attention to the golden body of his lover. With a soft purr, he approached her. “Beloved, I come!”

CHAPTER: GAMU’S FRIENDSHIP

Kubali went running to Gamu. “You know, you were right! Lannie and I got this out into the open, and she and I are closer than ever!”

“You did??”

“Yes! You’re a dear friend, and I’m sorry I ever doubted you. And someday when I have a kingdom of my own, you’ll be my Prince Consort—the brother I never had—and everyone that sees you will owe you respect.”

“Oh—great. Thanks. That will be nice—when you get one. There is this land to the south I think we could grab.”

“Soon enough,” Kubali said, giving his shoulder a little pat. “I have to get back. Lannie will wonder where I am.”

Gamu nodded absently. “Oh yes… go to her, by all means.” He stared off in the other direction as Kubali rose to pad away from him. “We can’t keep our lovely savanna flower waiting, can we?”

Kubali paused and eyed the other lion oddly. “Gamu?”

“Eh?”

“Are you all right?”

Gamu flashed a grin at him. “I’m fine… just full of thoughts. Go on, Kubali.”

Gamu realized that he had lost the battle, but was determined not to lose the war. Knowing that Kubali and Elanna would be otherwise occupied for the rest of the day, he slinked away to find his companion. The hyena was eagerly awaiting him.

“Any food?”

“No, not now. Lover Boy is in search of slower prey.”

“Oh.” Griz’nik’s ears drooped. “I guess your brilliant plan didn’t work.”

Gamu glared at him furiously. “No,” he spat out. “It didn’t.”

“I think you should cut out the fun and games and knock off the lion. This isn’t a pakh’jimbi match—there’s too much at stake.”

Gamu looked down his nose at the hyena and paused for a moment. “Dare I ask? What is pakh’jimbi?”

“It’s a pup’s game. You need at least three players on both sides. The head of each side is called a kor’hum, and it’s his or her job to coordinate the other players called gam’gis. Now when the referee, which we call a bar’gem, gives the signal with three sharp cries, the two sides assume a formation called a tar’tar on either side of the center line or mehlo. The object of the game is to rack up the most points by getting more of your gam’gis through the four obstacles or mosh’muikheti…”

“I get the point!”

“The point is you’ll never ditch the lion at this rate, and I’ll be stuck in this hellhole with no hope! You’re a big disappointment, Gamu. You have no hope of ever being but a THINKER—you should be a DOER.”

Gamu snarled at the hyena, setting him aback. “Be glad I’m a thinker right now. You wouldn’t like what I’d do!”

“All right! OK! Don’t get upset—you know you’re bigger than I am, and I know it too. You don’t have to prove anything.”

Gamu calmed down at the hyena’s show of submission. He made a very clear show of sharpening his claws on a tree trunk. Then he yawned, showing off his ivory daggers of death. Out of the corner of his eye, masked by a quiet expression, the lion watched with glee as his companion stared at the arsenal. And satisfied, Gamu finally settled down and closed his eyes for a nap.

Griz’nik watched him very closely. “Gamu almost looks decent when he’s asleep,” he thought. He waited several minutes, looking deceptively like a guardian angel. The great chest rose and fell softly. Once, before Griz’nik realized the true depth of Gamu’s disdain for him, he had longed for the soft warmth of another body next to him as he slept. He would have tolerated the odor of a lion which he found foreign and irksome. “We might have been friends,” Griz’nik silently mouthed. “As my mother used to say, if you hunt trouble, someday you’ll catch it.”

The hyena looked at the thin-skinned spot in the upper throat right under Gamu’s jaw. Griz’nik knew if he suddenly bit down—hard—and then ran away quick, Gamu would bleed to death before he could catch him. Griz’nik squirmed close, his belly to the ground, his eyes fixed on Gamu’s throat. From time to time he glanced up, and the great eyes were closed. Now was the moment of his destiny, the moment he took charge of his own life once again. The eyes were still closed. Gamu’s breath was even and slow. He crept closer, every movement designed for stealth and accuracy. One last time he looked up—the eyes were slitted… watching him. He froze.

Gamu said, “Come here,” and patted with his paw on the ground. “Lay down, old friend.”

The hyena crawled next to him, exposing his neck in submission. The lion, with a razor-sharp claw stuck out, said, “You know something…” He drew the claw lightly over Griz’s throat and abdomen. “Claws are a wonderful thing. A mother tends her little cub. It glides through his fur and gets out the mats very gently, very tenderly. Then that evening she puts her little cub in a safe place. ‘Now don’t you move—Mommy is going to get you dinner… ‘ Then she goes out on the hunt, and Mommy becomes a huntress.”

The claw tightened on his skin. “She stalks the gazelle like a ghost… then, suddenly, springs! Those claws become very different!”

Gamu swiped quickly down Griz’nik’s soft underside. The hyena looked down in panic, expecting to see blood and entrails. Whimpering and shrieking, he examined his abdomen. There was nothing—Gamu’s claws had been tucked in.

Gamu laughed. “But you’re my FRIEND, Griz’nik! I wouldn’t hurt a FRIEND, would I?” He shoved the hyena away and stalked off, leaving Griznik to stare after him, rubbing his belly and shivering.

CHAPTER: A FRIENDLY GAME

Early the next morning Gamu came to Elanna. “Good morning, my dear.”

“Oh, hello Gamu.”

He stared at her sensual curves, his jaw hanging slack as he thought of those curves pressed against his body. “You are really very beautiful, Elanna dear.”

Kubali was away, and Elanna was not very comfortable being alone with Gamu. But she nodded and said, “Thanks.”

Your face is kind and gentle. Your eyes are like twin sisters of the stars. Yes, my dear, Kubali is lucky.”

“You’re not so bad yourself,” she said, laughing nervously. “I’m sure someday you’ll find someone who can make you very happy.”

“And those strong huntress shoulders which can be so soft. Sleek sides that ripple with each step, and hips like Minshasa’s.” He kept looking further back.

Elanna felt naked and ashamed, and she made a subconscious effort her clamp her tail firmly against her backside.

“Kubali will be back soon, Gamu. Oh look, there he is now!”

Kubali had returned from the watering hole. “That was refreshing.” He looked at Gamu who smiled innocently and at Elanna who was supremely uncomfortable.

Elanna glanced at Gamu. “Why don’t you drink now?” She wanted to speak alone with Kubali, and she was hoping he would leave.

“No, go on, Elanna. I’m willing to wait for what I want.”

She reluctantly left the two of them alone. And while she was gone, Gamu saw Kubali’s good mood and twitched his tail. “Think you’re hot stuff, huh?”

“And I suppose you are??” Kubali reared up and flailed at Gamu, laughing. Gamu seized him around the neck with his forelegs and began to wrestle with him.

“I guess you think you’ll win,” Gamu grunted in the height of his exertions. He tried to shift his weight and throw Kubali.

“I always do,” Kubali grunted, compensating with a hind limb and pushing hard.

“You won’t win this time!” Gamu broke away, then started flailing out with his paws.

“You’re quick,” Kubali said, sparring with him. “But you’re not quick enough for me!” With a sudden jab, he had Gamu on his side and bore his great weight down on him. “Beg for mercy!”

“Never!”

“Beg for mercy!” Kubali rubbed the back of his paw against the fold of Gamu’s hind leg, making it kick.

“Stop tickling me!”

“Beg for mercy!” Kubali laughed and nudged his thigh again. Gamu’s face tightened into a mask of misery as he struggled to keep his composure. “I can stay here all day, Gamu!”

“OK, MERCY! Get OFF me!”

Gamu struggled out from under the laughing lion. “You win—this time.” He looked at Kubali from narrowed eyes. “But be careful not to let success go to you head. It makes you careless, and that’s a big mistake while I’m around.”

Kubali laughed at what he thought was a joke, and he rubbed against Gamu, nuzzling him. “I used to think you didn’t like me.”

I can hardly wait to show you how true my friendship really is.” Gamu nuzzled him back. “Someday, you’ll look back on this talk and remember what we said.”

“Yeah, buddy.” Kubali looked in the distance. “She’s back. Go for it, Gamu. There’s a long hot day ahead.”

CHAPTER: MATCH POINT

Gamu was gone a very short period of time. He had something to do, and it had to be done quickly. He was gleeful when Kubali thought he heard a strange noise and went to check it out. “You pulled it off, Griz’nik,” Gamu thought. “You’re totally unprincipled and ruthless. If you weren’t so irritating, we could be quite a pair.”

Gamu used his moment alone with Elanna to fullest advantage. He watched Kubali leave, very intently. So intently that it got her curiosity. She was afraid that he was about to try and force himself on her. She mentally prepared herself for the struggle ahead, taking in a deep breath and letting it out. The fur on her neck and back began to rise and her ears went back.

“Elanna, we need to talk.”

“Oh??” She backed back a step.

“When I first saw you two together, I felt like it was a match made by Aiheu himself. You seemed so happy.”

“However??” She backed back another step. “You think it’s not working out??”

“You’ve noticed too? I’m so sorry. I wish there was something I could do to help.”

“I bet you do.”

He looked into her belligerent stare. “I realize this is all my fault. I should have never come back. I’m so sorry.”

Her ears flicked forward. “Sorry? For what??”

“You don’t know?? I thought he’d discussed it with you. I could understand him not wanting to. Maybe I should just leave.”

She pressed the point. “Gamu, you say you’ve repented of your crimes. That you want to be good and start over. It would be a big step if you’d put my mind to rest. Be honest with me. He’s jealous of you. He thinks you’re trying to cut in on me. You are, aren’t you?”

“Not exactly.”

“We must be honest with each other. I will not tolerate lies from you. I’ve been very understanding, Gamu. I’ve given you the benefit of the doubt, but I must be able to trust you.”

He tried to meet her glance, but could not.

“If you would consent, I’d be on your back in a moment, girl. But you won’t and I understand. It’s not a crime to want someone, especially when they are so beautiful and charming. My one great crime was not my fault. I was given my mantlement because of Kubali.”

“Are you blaming your crimes on him?”

“What crime??” he asked impatiently. “Aiheu’s mane, Kubali loved me! Why would I want to hurt him??”

“So he loved you. But you must have done SOMETHING.”

“You don’t understand. Poor dear Lannie! He LOVED me. Every time he passed me, he used to run his paw over my thigh. ‘Crouch with me, Gamu! Don’t you find me handsome?’”

She backed back and snarled. “Liar! You liar! How DARE you say that!”

“You think I’m a liar??” He snarled back at her. “He wanted me all the time, and no one would believe me because he was the prince. Then one day the King saw his son nosing my butt. Do you think he punished Kubali?? No, he tried to hide ME away, thinking he could match him up with Penzi. The superstitious old goat believed the gods spoke in the bending of a twig. Because she was his betrothed, the King refused to see any possible outcome but Kubali crouching with Penzi and raising lots of little cubs. So he tossed me out into the wilderness to live or die by Aiheu’s whim, me too young to hunt properly! Then Kubali has the nerve to greet me like I’m some sort of plague when he finally found a lioness he could bear to make it with!”

She cuffed him across the face. He felt of his cheek—there was no blood. “Claws in. At least I have some good luck left. I have lived a hard life, and I gave up on Aiheu being fair long ago.”

She was almost instantly sorry. “I should not be so hasty to judge. I will hear your story, but may Aiheu have pity on you if you are lying to me!”

“Of course, I never encouraged this. I never once said that I found him attractive, and I would make excuses to get away from him. If it’s any consolation, we never actually DID anything.”

“But he and I made love!” Elanna insisted. “It was so special!”

“I know, and I’m very glad for you. My one great sin was in coming here. I should have turned and run the moment I saw him. My dear, I know you well enough to feel remorse for this.” He showed her some small scratches on the turn of his thigh. “We were having a little wrestling match. I was having fun, but—alas—he found it quite stimulating. He bore me to the ground and began to—well—I shouldn’t be telling you this. I should have just left.”

She sniffed the scratches. As she nosed his thigh, a half smile came over Gamu’s face. “Careful, Missy. Especially now. After all, you’re in season and I find it a big turn on when a lioness touches me there.”

She looked away in disgust.

“Just you be careful with him,” Gamu warned. “He’s made it with you but he’ll never pledge to you. At least not with me around. But say the word and I’ll go far away. I am rather fond of you, my dear, and I don’t want you to be deprived of your happiness and consolation, not after what you’ve been through.”

She looked away. “He COULDN’T be attracted to you!”

Gamu sighed. “You’re right. Whatever you say.” He then added, “But tell me, was he a little awkward? You know, in his technique? He wanted you, but he didn’t quite know what to do?”

She looked at him, explosively angry. “How DARE you ask me that!”

“But it’s true. I can tell by your reaction. He’s not a virgin, you know. Why do you think they sent him packing? Do you really think the lionesses wanted him out of there because he was impolite?? They found him crouching with Ajhada in the bushes and that’s why he was forced out. You can’t trust him around other males. My dear, you must always remain a rogue if you want him—if you love him. Always a rogue. Out here in the open, you have a chance. And who knows—being a father may change him like nothing else would.”

She started to sob. He comforted her with a soft nuzzle. “Poor, dear Elanna! Your life has been a hell on earth. I’m so sorry, so sorry! If only things had been different and Aiheu had shown you to me first, I would have devoted my life to you.” He backed from her. “I’ll go now. You will never see me again. Still, I’ll even mend my ties to Aiheu so I can pray for you every night.”

“No, don’t go.”

“If you really wish it.”

“I do.”

Kubali came back. “It was nothing. Just a rabbit.”

Gamu made a show of an overly affectionate greeting, kissing and rubbing Kubali full length. Innocently, Kubali closed his eyes and enjoyed the closeness. Elanna’s chin trembled.

Kubali came to Elanna and tried to rub her but she backed away from him.

“Don’t you TOUCH me!”

“Lannie, honey tree, what’s wrong??”

“You know EXACTLY what’s wrong!”

Kubali looked at Gamu. “What have you been telling her??”

“Not what you think. Only about how we used to play as cubs.”

Elanna snarled at Kubali. “I never want to see you again. Get out!”

“Out of what?? We’re out in the corridors, remember?? Now Lannie, don’t pull this nice-again, mad-again crap on me! I’ve tried hard to be a good mate, and I’ve put up with a lot from you!”

“Well no longer! No more putting up with me! Get out!”

“Aren’t you going to at least tell me what I did?”

“You know what you did!”

“Fine!”

“OK!”

Kubali turned in a huff and charged off into the savanna.

CHAPTER: STORMY WEATHER

Gamu watched Kubali disappear into the distance, then when it was too late for her to cry out, he looked back around at her. “Lannie, will you ever get over this?”

“Someday. Not today.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.” Gamu sighed and rolled on his back.

Elanna needed the comfort of another living Ka next to her. She came and laid next to Gamu and began to pine for Kubali. Then suddenly she looked about with a start. “You’re trembling.”

“Am I?”

“You feel like a leaf in the wind.”

“So I do.”

She rose and came about to face him. “What’s wrong, Gamu? Are you sick?”

“I was never more well in my whole life.”

“Then are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” He shrugged. “Don’t worry about it.”

“If you’re not afraid, why are you trembling?”

He looked at her hungrily and intently. “You’re the one that said you hated a liar. You’re the one that wants the truth all the time. I asked you if you could ever get over him. You said someday.” He rose to his feet and faced her. “You are many things, but foolish is not one of them. I inhale the fragrance of a beautiful lioness in her receptive days and feel her warm body next to mine. Oh gods, I’m not made of stone! Ever since I first saw you, I fought my inclinations for Kubali’s sake. But now he’s gone, and I look at you lying there, so alone, so sad, so vulnerable, so very beautiful.”

She backed back a step, but he advanced another two, bringing him almost nose to nose with her. “Here’s the truth, if you can handle it. I breathe in your essence and it spreads like fire through my being. Ever since I met you, I have had passionate fantasies of your soft, beautiful body under mine while I explore you and tremble. Oh gods, to know this pleasure would heal a world of hurts for me.”

Her tail clamped firmly down and she trembled. “There’s no law against dreams. Not as long as they end when you wake up. I will defend myself if I must!”

“Who said I would force myself on you? Lannie, I love you! Did you not question me in depth about my personal feelings? Did you not say you’d leave me if I lied to you? Gods, you’re beautiful and exciting and intelligent and so kind! You’ve had two lovers that I know of, while I am still as I came from my mother’s belly. You saved Taka from total dispair, and you pulled Kubali from the depths of his misery. You see before you a broken lion who has faced pain and hardship, much of it due to Kubali. I cry out for your redeeming love. Be my conscience, my faith, my principles. You could save me! Do you blame me if I tremble before you?? Teach me how to love, Elanna! To love deeply and well. Crouch for me! Please!”

She looked at him with mixed pity and disgust. “Maybe I should remove the temptation. I will go away—far away. Maybe you’ll find someone else to crouch with.”

“Why? Am I ugly?”

“No.”

“Stupid??”

“No! Of course not.”

“Then why not??”

“You are great for a story or a joke, but the thought of you mounting me makes me sick. Even pity won’t make me crouch for the likes of you. Understand?”

She turned to leave.

“You never know how long a single female can make it in this land.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

Then, as if on cue, a hyena came up from the grass and growled menacingly. Gamu stood protectively in front of Elanna, then with a snarl chased the hyena off ferociously into the bushes.

Behind some bushes Gamu began to beat the earth, while Griz’nik began to shriek horribly. Gamu growled and tore into the earth, and Griz’nik made one heart-rending yip, then fell silent. Griz’nik got the rabbit he had cached away and watched with amusement as Gamu minced it in his jaws, soaking his face in blood, then wiping his mane with his paws to bloody them. “Not bad,” Gamu whispered.

Gamu returned to the shocked Elanna a bloody mess. “I saved you that time. But they will be back, and in greater numbers. You need me. Someday you’ll come to love me.” He nuzzled her, getting a spot of blood on her cheek.

She shrank from his touch. “If you respect me at all, you’ll keep this locked away inside of you and never mention it again. And unill I’m through my period, I’d really prefer that you sleep apart from me. Stay nearby, but don’t touch me.”

The icy silence that she began continued for some hours. Gamu was beginning to feel the isolation of his old rogue life coming back on him again, and he was listless and miserable. Finally, when hunger began to set in, he said, “Elanna, it’s time we tried to hunt, don’t you think?”

“I guess so.”

She had spoken! Hearing her voice again was a balm for his woes, and he did anything to hold her in conversation, becoming too talkative to seriously stalk prey. Instead they settled for making a new kill by watching the buzzards. Elanna knew how to watch the skies, and she soon spotted the wounded gazelle that had escaped one lion only to fall to another.

Gamu, who was very hungry, roughly grabbed the shrieking beast by the hindquarters and began to tear into the muscles of its haunch, satisfying his hunger with living flesh.

“Stop!” Elanna shouted. She drew close to the weakly-panting gazelle and said softly, “Think about Aiheu’s realm. Soon you will be out of pain.” She took the gazelle’s neck between her teeth and cut off its breath. And in a few moments, when the body had slumped into a final slumber, she looked up at Gamu. “What’s with you, anyway?? Can’t you wait for a clean kill? You hunt the way you woo females!”

The birds began to gather, but Gamu looked up hatefully. He was already angry, and their unwanted company set him off. “Stupid birds! Piss off!”

The vultures looked at each other, stunned.

“I said piss off!”

They took to the air before he had a chance to charge them, but then they circled maddeningly just out of reach of his leaps and shouted at him, “Gamu, Gamu! Naughty boy! We know who you are and we know what you did!”

He was mortified. He shouted “I’ll pluck you and eat you!”

“You can’t fly!”

“And you can’t fly forever! You’ll have to land sooner or later!”

“Promises, promises! Look at the naughty kitty! Time someone taught him some manners!” They flew off, laughing.

Gamu stalked back to Elanna who stared at him. “So, what are YOU looking at!”

“What did they mean? They know who you are and what you did?”

“It’s between them and me. Besides, how should I know? Maybe he saw Kubali trying to seduce me. Just drop it.”

She looked away from him. “If you say so.”

“I didn’t mean to snap. Sorry, my dear. I just hate buzzards, that’s all.”

CHAPTER: A WAR OF ATTRITION

A lone lion made his way through the grass with the fearful, empty tread of the recently exiled. His old friends, his family, and his familiar grounds were behind him, perhaps forever, but this time he did not seek solace in a new beginning. He bore an extra weight on his shoulders that made his ears a little flatter, his tail a little lower and his step a little slower than most.

“Oh gods,” he muttered to himself, for he was once again his only audience. “Oh gods, what could I have done? What could I have said differently? I was happy, truly happy and willing to spend my life with her! She wouldn’t even tell me what I did? One moment she loved me, and now she has driven me away, and all I want to do is go to sleep and never have to wake up!”

Memories of the blissful moments he had spent with Elanna came crowding over him, torturing him in his loneliness. If only Gamu had known what his lie had caused, he would have reveled in perverse satisfaction. Kubali fell to the ground and sobbed. “Oh gods, you’ve taken away everything I lived for! Why not let me die! Oh gods!”

Unaware of the extent of his mischief, Gamu was busy trying to solidify his claim on Elanna. He felt victory, complete victory, waited for him over the next rise or behind the next rock.

Gamu alternated fear and tenderness, playing on Elanna’s helplessness and setting himself up as her one salvation. So far it had not resulted in a mating with Elanna, the mark of his absolute and utter destruction of Kubali. Knowing that Kubali had something that had eluded his grasp was more frustrating than his unfulfilled desire.

She refused him consistently. Once, in the throes of passion, he followed her about with a tense purring in his throat. He reached out with a paw and shoved her rump down, starting to mount her willingly or unwillingly. She turned about smartly and cuffed his face with all her might. As he lay stunned on the ground, she snarled at him. “Touch me there again and I’ll leave scars visible at night!”

She got very little sleep throughout the next day and night. She was afraid of him, almost as afraid as she was of the hyenas.

The end of her receptive period offered Elanna some relief from his constant entreaties, but his war of attrition shifted to other fronts. He went from a prospective lover to a caretaker.

“Lannie, if you will pledge to me, I will find a pride where you can be a queen again. You could hunt with pride sisters again as you once did. You can be respected.”

It went on subtly, day after day. Like water running across once baked earth, he began to gently, patiently wear gullies in her firm resolve. She did not grow to find him handsome, but she began to submit to his kissing her. She never kissed him back, but Gamu felt that would come with time. “It’s like that hyena game, whatever in hell that little weasel called it.”

Flush with what he perceived as signs of success, Gamu was more bold in taking leave of Elanna to chat with Griz’nik and keep him apprised of his progress. With a plan that ingenious, Gamu had to brag to someone or he would burst at the seams.

Never did Gamu pay any head to the circling buzzard overhead who watched—and listened carefully.

CHAPTER: MARKAAAGH’S ERRAND

Markaaagh saw what he thought was a dying lion. He had a personal preference, hoping it was not Kubali. Despite his professional detachment, he had grown rather fond of the polite, intelligent lion. He lighted next to him, hoping to at least say something to ease his torment at the end.

“Hey Fuzzy, are you OK?”

“I’m not ready to be the guest of honor at your dinner party.”

“For once I’m relieved.” The buzzard regarded him closely. “Where is your lady friend?”

“Gone. She dumped me.”

Markaaagh looked surprised and disappointed. “Tell me it ain’t so! Brother, I know how you feel.”

“How could you?”

“Oyeghegh left me without so much as a pinfeather.”

“Oh? I’m sorry.”

“Of course, I take these things in stride. In my younger days, I was quite the rage among the young ladies, and I still haven’t lost it entirely! Har har!”

Kubali covered his eyes with a paw.

“You poor boy, I was happy for you. I was hoping this match would work out. I’m really sorry.”

Markaaagh trundled across a bit of savanna, flapping his huge wings until he was airborne and could put some distance between himself and the lion. He embraced the buzzard policy of not getting involved with animals he could eat. It was only courting pain and conflict. Still, he felt he had to get to the bottom of this. If only to find some dirt on Gamu that would give him the satisfaction of ripping out his liver when Fuzzy got through with him.

It took a while. In fact, it took several days. Then by patience and silent soaring, Markaaagh caught Gamu in a bragging mood, talking with a “dead” hyena about his imminent conquest. He heard Gamu tell the story for probably the hundredth time, though it was the first time he could put all the pieces together.

He had heard enough. “We can eat three day old carcasses, but some things we just can’t stomach.” He smiled a nauseating vulture smile. “Today, greedy gut, you get yours! Drive me off with insults, will ya?? I’ll see you ripped like a gazelle!”

Markaaagh flew quickly to find the moping lion. He told Kubali what he had heard.

“You have earned yourself FIRST RIGHTS at my next five kills!”

Kubali rallied. Suddenly he stood tall and straight and proud. It did Markaaagh’s heart good.

CHAPTER: THE CONFRONTATION

Gamu’s fear campaign had worked too well. Elanna was truly afraid to remain alone for even a moment with hyenas about. If only she had known that the nearby clan was the histrionic attempts of Griz’nik to be seen in several different places in quick succession, using variations on his voice with every territorial yip! He would call out “Ta’bliz!” (Attention!) and answer himself, “Mar roh!” (Yes milord!). The sound of the dark tongue would send chills down Elanna’s spine as she worried about those hyenas. Not used to freeloading off the lions, these were surely hunters of the first order, fierce and coldly efficient.

When Gamu left her with strict orders to remain behind, he really expected her to stay put. Though it was supposedly for her own good, Gamu’s ordering about was intended to complete his domination of her and to give him free reign to contact Griz’nik for further orders. Without careful coordination with the hyena, Gamu’s main trump card of fear of the hyenas would become worthless, for a frightened lioness can run faster than an angry lion.

Elanna used all her stalking skills to stay within hearing range of Gamu that she might be a simple shout away if intruders targeted her. Little did she know what she would hear that fateful day!

Elanna saw Gamu talking to the hyena. She overheard what he was saying.

Griz’nik was laughing when Gamu told him again about the deception. That Elanna was foolish enough to believe Kubali loved Gamu after making love to her all night!

She knew that was the hyena that Gamu said he killed. She recognized the voice as one of those that called about her in the night. And she gritted her teeth to keep from crying out.

Griz’nik asked Gamu what would happen to him when Elanna pledged to him.

Gamu said, “I was just about to tell you that myself.” He started forward. “Old friend, I had three great ambitions. One was to have her warm my belly. One was to see Kubali dead in the dust. My third wish is of great interest to you. It’s to keep you from ever telling my secrets to Lannie. I’ve practiced your little cries. Ta’bliz! Mar roh! En’khet koi, Roh’mach! In fact, I think I can get along without you.”

“You’re sending me away??”

“Clear to whatever hell you believe in.”

The hyena backed back. “Oh gods, don’t do this! Let me run away, Gamu! Oh gods, don’t hurt me! Please!”

Griz’nik had backed back into the corner of the small shelter as far as he could go. “I’ll do anything! Oh gods, this is madness! Stop!!”

Gamu was about to bite the hyena’s neck through when suddenly in burst Elanna.

“Griz’nik, I should have recognized your smell anywhere! If you want to live, you better tell the truth!”

Griz’nik urinated freely in his utter panic. “He wanted to kill me! Have mercy and I’ll tell all! Gamu is a cheat and a liar! He invented that story about Kubali being in love with him, and he told Kubali you had betrayed your husband!”

She raised her face in an agony of extreme hate, roaring to shake the walls of the small cavern. Her eyes glowed red with fierce bloodlust, and she sprang on Gamu. “I’ll kill you, you devil!”

For all her determination, Gamu was a young adult male, and he outweighed her by half again her bulk. Her claws tore hunks of fur from his mane but barely grazed the skin beneath. He raked her shoulder and easily brought blood.

Elanna did not really care. If she could only mark him before she died, she could look down from the stars on him and feel revenged. Gamu, who had so often tried to make love to her, was bringing the terrible brunt of his anger on her.

Then a lion announced his presence with a terrible roar. “Keep your paws off of her!”

Gamu looked about. It proved to be his undoing. Elanna clubbed Gamu on the back of the head with one massive blow of her paw and sent him sprawling.

In an instant, Kubali was all over him, battering him and covering him in small cuts and scratches.

From seemingly nowhere, a gallery of buzzards had gathered to watch the fray. One of them yelled, “Give it to him, Kubali! Tell him who’s the stupid bird NOW!” It was Markaaagh. Somewhere, somehow, Kubali would remember that the bird used his real name. He was “Fuzzy” no longer.

Kubali wanted to kill Gamu, and with the rival pinned to the ground, he started to inflict a killing bite to the skull. Elanna stopped him.

“No, honey tree. There are fates worse than death.” She looked at the pathetic lion You wanted to take Taka’s place. So be it.”

Gamu tried to shake his head “no.”

She raised her paw and quickly raked his face. He screamed and rolled out from under Kubali, whimpering and putting a paw over the fresh wound that lay where his right eye had once been. “Oh gods! Oh gods!” His back feet dug into the soil and he kicked spasmodically.

“Now you ARE Taka. Go and never come back, for the next time I see you, I’ll kill you!”

He scrambled to regain his footing. Tilting his head to one side, he staggered away yammering in the half-darkness of pain that had become his world. If he lived or died, Aiheu would decide.

Kubali wanted to apologize, and so did Elanna. Neither could get the words out. Instead they nuzzled, wrestled, kissed and rubbed with a desperate intensity. Tears came, and they lasted a long while. The wounds were deep and cruel, but love would heal them all.

As for Griz’nik, he went away and they never saw him again.

Kubali touched Elanna’s tear-stained cheeks with his tongue. “We will never be parted again, though all the Makei in hell stand in our way.”

The buzzards smiled. “Awwww…”

“I’m so grateful, my friends.” Kubali touched Markaaagh with his paw, something he’d never done before. “How did you know? It was a miracle!”

“Maybe you’re right.” Markaaagh bowed, then took off, followed shortly by the others.

CHAPTER: THE MESSENGER

After Gamu left, the next few weeks passed in a deep river of joy. Rosy dawns nuzzled golden days. Golden days fondled purple evenings. Purple evenings kissed silver stars. Moonlit nights died on the breast of rosy dawns. Day by day, moment by moment, Kubali and Elanna felt their love grow and deepen in breathless beauty. His large paw would gently caress her cheek and turn her deep, soft eyes to face his, and he would draw close and nuzzle her. Times were lean for the two rouges, but safe in the embrace of their love no hint of their low status could intrude on their perfect happiness. Elanna lay with her head on Kubali’s soft mane and closed her eyes. There she would have been content to stay forever with his strong arm about her shoulder.

Then one night a lioness came and complicated their private dream.

She appeared through the grass one night as the two were bedded together. Instantly, their heads rose up in surprise to look at the visitor.

“Kubali, is that you?”

“Well, uh, yes. Should I know you?”

The lioness just smiled, “Don’t you remember the one who gave you milk?”

Kubali stared at her. “Debara?”

The lioness nodded and smiled, moving towards him, “It’s been a while, Honey Tree.”

Kubali rose up and nuzzled his old nurse. But he looked into her eyes, concerned. “What are you doing out here far from home? Have you left my father?”

Debara shook her head. “Your father sent me to look for you.” Tears formed in her eyes. “Honey Tree, I have some bad news.”

“Dad’s not dying is he??” Kubali lifted her drooping chin gently with his paw. “Nursie, surely not Dad??”

“Not your Dad. It’s your brother. He’s dead.”

Kubali took a step backward and sat with a plop, stunned. “Oh my gods!”

Elanna came and sat next to him, rubbing her cheek against his, kissing away his tears. “Poor darling!”

“How did it happen, Debbie?”

“He was hunting with the lionesses. Your father begged him not to go, but you know your brother—he felt more at ease hunting than learning to rule.”

Kubali looked down. “At least he died doing something he enjoyed.” He half-closed his eyes as Elanna nuzzled him and turned to paw her cheek.

Debara sighed softly. “Kubali, you’re our only hope. Could you forget the past and come back with me?”

“Well sure. But what about the lionesses? Aren’t they still angry?”

Debara stroked his mane gently. “You are our only hope of keeping the pride… you must come back. The others have accepted this.” She smiled softly, “My daughter can’t wait to see you.”

“Penzi wants me back?”

Debara chuckled. “She is your betrothed… and you were never that much of a trouble maker…” She bated him gently, “just a normal little brat.”

“That bad, huh? Well I’ve mellowed out somewhat.”

He could feel Elanna’s tenseness. “Yeah, about that betrothal. Debara, this is Elanna. If I am to come back, she must join me. A lot has happened in the last few weeks. Time and trials change people. Debara, Lannie and I have—well—shared our comforts. I love her. I can make no plans for the future that don’t include her—you do understand, don’t you?”

Debara nodded. “You never led Penzi on. You never told her that you loved her. But Honey Tree, she DOES love you, and she HAS told you. If you love me at all, be gentle with her.”

“I DO love you.”

“I know.” Debara nuzzled him softly. “The King will be pleased to see you, and I’m sure he’ll understand. Don’t worry yourself, dear. It’s better if you let me speak to Penzi before you announce.”

Kubali nuzzled Elanna softly, “Come on love. We are going home. You will be my queen and together we will rule the land. You will be my Ka, my conscience.”

Elanna whispered to him softly, “What about Penzi? Can you face her?”

“She will understand.”

“Are you sure they will accept me?” Elanna looked genuinely fearful. “I’ve been alone before—a stranger surrounded by crowds. I don’t know if I could end my life that way.”

“Lannie, we either come or go as a pair. I love my father and I want to help him, but some things are more important than titles and power. Things like love and decency.”

Debara looked at Elanna and kissed her cheek. “Honey Tree, you are good for him. I grieve for my daughter’s loss, but I can’t help liking you.”

CHAPTER: ON THE TRAIL

The three of them walked most of the day. Debara led the way, with Kubali behind her, and Elanna bringing up the tail. Elanna thought of her new future with Kubali. The horrible secret of her torn body played on her mind. She couldn’t give him a son, so if she did become his queen, the line would end with him. She had been afraid of telling him her secret, worried that he might leave her. Now she was depriving more than a husband. She was risking the future of a pride.

She looked up, watching the two catch up on the missing months. She sighed softly, unheard. How could she admit to him that the light would never shine in her eyes?

Almost without warning, Debara was next to her. Elanna’s head raised up to look at her. “What’s the matter, Elanna?”

Elanna just shook her head, “Nothing, just… things… thoughts running through my head.”

Debara nuzzled her shoulder gently, something that made Elanna jump back slightly. It had been so long since she had felt the affection of another lioness. “We are pride sisters now, Elanna. We’ll help each other. Don’t be afraid.” She batted at Elanna’s shoulder gently. “Don’t think just because you are the future queen, that you have to stay apart from of us.”

Elanna looked at her, her smile becoming wider at the thought of actually being a part of a pride. She rubbed Debara back and murmured, “You really don’t know how much that means to me.”

Debara chuckled, “A word of advice, just keep your distance from my daughter for a few days. She is bound to be slightly disappointed.”

Elanna nodded, “Will she be mad at me?”

“Most likely, but don’t you worry none, I will keep her under control. She is my daughter after all. Now, let’s hear more about you. I hear you taught this little brat to respect lionesses?”

Elanna just shrugged. “We met after my old mate was killed and my old pride drove me out. Though we’ve had a few problems, Kubali has shown me unconditional love, and together we made it through.” She smiled softly to Debara. “I thought my life was over. Kubali showed me that I had more to live for, and more to love for.”

Debara laughed softly, “It’s funny how time heals these wounds. Bless you, Elanna. You saved our pride. You don’t know what it’s like to see everything you love crumbling around you.”

“Yes I do, Honey Tree.”

Elanna was about ready to continue to tell Debara more about the time she had spent with Kubali, but soon it was interrupted by a roar of a lioness. Debara returned the roar and looked to the two, “Come on, they have just hunted. If we are quick, we can make it before the meal is gone.”

With that, the group picked up there pace and, coming into a clearing, ran into the pride, gathered around a kill. Elanna looked over the group, subconsciously moving closer to Kubali. Kubali nuzzled her softly and smiled to the group. Debara looked to the group, “I have brought back the son of our king.” She smiled to the group, “and a new member to our pride.” She motioned to Elanna, “This is Elanna, the lioness who taught our prince some humility.”

The king stepped forward. “Kubali? My son? Against all hope, I see you again!”

“Dad, I came as soon as I heard about Ababu. Was it—quick?” When the king hung his head and sobbed, Kubali rushed forward and nuzzled him. “Oh, dad!”

“Can you forgive me for my mistakes, my son?”

“Can you forgive me for my mistakes, father?”

“I have lost one son, but I have found the other. Let us bury the past, my boy.”

After a few moments a young lioness stepped forward to the two. The King smiled once more. “Kubali, there’s someone that wants to see you.”

The young lioness moved to nuzzle Kubali. “It has been a long time, my prince.”

“As has it for me, Penzi.” Kubali replied, not really returning the nuzzle. Penzi looked at him curiously.

Debara coughed a bit, seeing Elanna getting a bit timid. “Sire, may I speak to you and my daughter in private please?” Penzi and the King looked to Debara curiously.

The king nodded. “Of course Debara.” He looked to his son and Elanna, motioning to the kill. “No doubt that it has been a long journey—you two nourish yourselves and then we will talk.”

Kubali started to walk towards the kill, but Elanna stayed where she was. He looked back, “Come on dear… you look hungry.” Timidly she moved next to Kubali to the kill. The lioness make a hole for the two as they approach, some mumbles exchanged between the members of the group. Looking between the kill and Elanna, Kubali ripped off a piece for the two and drug it a little ways off from the group. There, the two eat quietly, not sure what to say to each other.

After the meal, the two groomed each other, getting more looks from the other lionesses. Elanna could feel these stares as they bore into her soul, but she had been through so much with Kubali, there was no reason for them to hide their affections to other. Soon after the meal was finished, the king, Debara and her daughter reappeared. Penzi walked near her mother, her mood showing that she had heard the news of Elanna as her tail and head were hung low.

The king stepped to his son and Elanna and spoke, “Members of the pride… I have an announcement. It has come to my attention that this lionesses and this lion…” He motioned to Kubali and Elanna. “… Have fallen in love while my son was away. Although he does have a betrothed here… and against my better judgment… I am willing to allow Elanna to become his queen as reward for watching over my son.”

Penzi looked at the two, obviously disappointed in her loss, but walked over to them, “I wish you two a long life together.” She nuzzled Elanna gently. “Take good care of him, as I will still love him.”

Elanna smiled back and return the rub, relieved at her good fortune of being accepted into the pride. Slowly the other lionesses approach the group and introduce themselves. Most of them hovered around Kubali, remarking how well mannered he had become. Every so often, one of them would break away from the prince to introduce themselves to Elanna. Elanna felt it hard to try to keep names and faces together, and she fumbled with it for a bit. By the end of the night, though, she was becoming more comfortable and started making small talk to the other members. How she had longed for this, to actually have friends to speak to. How she missed it in her old pride, when Taka would keep her away from the other lionesses or the other lionesses wouldn’t approach her. Finally, as the night drew to the end, the king approached her.

“May I speak to you… alone.”

Elanna looked back to Kubali, who was involved in another conversation. Quietly she walked with the king a short distance away. “Yes, my king?”

The king asked her about her intentions and the time she spent with Kubali. “I understand how bad it is to be alone, and I’m grateful for everything you’ve done. Really I am. But now it’s time for him to take on his responsibilities. I wish you would reconsider becoming Kubali’s queen.”

Elanna just looked at him stunned. “But sire… you said…”

The lion cut her off, “I know what I said… and I won’t force anything. But, you must understand that I have to ask this of you. Penzi is his betrothed and I’m afraid if you marry him, what might befall these lands. I can’t force you to let him go because you did help him. You brought him back to me. Still, I must look after my lands.” He looked at her softly, “You have helped him so much… help him again by letting him go. Let him go, but do not tell him we had this talk. I promise I will reward you if you will do this.”

“Like…” she said speculatively.

“There is another male… and he is approaching his mantlement. It would make him… his mother… and me very happy to see a lioness pledge to him. You can be that lioness as a reward for you good deeds.”

Elanna laughed softly, “Sire… no insult intended… but I can’t do that. Many lionesses don’t find true love once in her life. Even fewer lionesses find it twice. I would be tempting faith to try for three times.” She looked down, “I love him… he gave me life when I thought my life had ended.”

“Then show your appreciation of that by letting him find his place in the circle.”

She looked at him, almost distastefully, “I can’t leave him… I’m sorry.”

“I’m afraid. The gods will be upset because the betrothal is broken. It does not tide well to turn your back on the prompting of the gods. Elanna, I like you—I really do. But I have raised my son over days, weeks, and months. I don’t want him to be hurt.”

“Then don’t break his heart. Can’t you see that we’re like leaves in the wind? Why didn’t the gods interfere then? Instead, against all odds, our love has survived and grown.”

He sighed a bit, “Yes, Elanna. I can see that you are past controlling your feelings. So be it. I will not interfere.” He moved and nuzzled her. “If it is from you that the heir comes, you are my daughter and I will shelter and love you. Welcome to the pride.”

She tensed at the nuzzle but returned it, feeling more relieved, “Thank you, sire. I will not mention this to Kubali.”

He smiled, “Thank you. Now enjoy your husband.” With that, they separated and she walked back to be by Kubali’s side.

CHAPTER: THE DREAM

It had been a few nights since they had rejoined the pride. She was making new friends and had even been on a very successful hunt with them. That was the best, she thought, having ‘sisters’ again. She could see the young male that she would have pledged to, watching over her. It wasn’t really bad, she thought. She liked have a bit of attention on her and not be it for bad reasons.

Other things did bother her, however. Although the king had accepted her into the pride as his daughter, he still didn’t go out of his way to be friendly to her. Same thing with Penzi. She had mentioned this to Debara and she just shrug it off, “Don’t worry, Elanna,” she would say. “They will get friendlier to you with time. Just wait till you bear the Prince cubs. You will become everyone’s darling then. Who can resist a mother and her young cubs?”

They might have told Penzi that she could just wait for him—when Elanna was gone, she could be there to console Kubali. They gossip about her. Did she really tell the whole truth? Was Taka really that bad? Might she have had something to do with Scar’s death? Of course they don’t mean it mean, but they do wonder about these things. Maybe one of them gets put up to ask her none too discretely. Awkwardly, in fact. Maybe this triggers the nightmare.

The most disturbing event happened during her sleep. As she was cuddled with Kubali, she feel asleep. She woke up in a dream, to see the land as it was under Taka. The lionesses all looked thin and the lands were parched. She went to Kubali to talk to thing. He turned to look at her, but it wasn’t Kubali’s face that she saw… it was Taka’s… his faced marred by the scar. She gasped and turned suddenly away from, only to come face to face with the king.

“See what you did, daughter? See what you did by your selfishness. You condemned these lands to this horror. If only you would had accepted my offer, this land would not be in this shape. That young lion that I had offered to you… he was the first to die.”

Elanna gasped. “No! Not again! Oh gods, was the curse on me instead?? Was it me all along??”

Suddenly, Elanna’s eyes flew open as she panted heavily against Kubali’s side. Her eyes scanned the area, just to see the peaceful scene she had seen before she feel asleep. Kubali’s eyes slowly opened and looked at her, “Dear?”

She turned to look at him, her breath calming down, “I’m all right… go back to sleep.”

He nuzzled her softly, “Bad dream?”

She purred softly and nodded. “Yes… but I can’t really talk about it. I’ll be fine, love.”

He yawned and gave her cheek a quick lick. “All right dear… if you say so. I’ll be right here if you need me.”

She did not fall asleep, however. Her mind raced of thoughts of the king’s word to her. Would this land fall into a drought because of me? Would Aiheu punish us all for my selfish love? What if he knew that I could never give him a cub? Now I’m not only ruining his future, but the future of a pride.

That last thought stung her deeply. She could never be his queen because of that. There would be no continue of the line beyond him. She looked down and sigh. She would have to leave him… give him a chance to have a future. She nuzzled against him, knowing it would be their last night together. He grunted with satisfaction, feeling her warmth against his body.

The next morning came quickly and she looked at him, fondling his mane like she did the first night. “Thank you for all of the things you gave me.”

He woke up slowly, purring at the fondle. “Thank me for what love?”

She looked at him sadly. “For all of the times we were together.” She sighed, building up her courage. “Love… I have to go.”

His head shot up instantly. “What? Why?” he stammered.

She continued to fondle him gently. “Dear… I have kept a horrible secret from you… something you must hear before you take me as your queen.”

His tongue licked at her paw. “Whatever it is… you will always be my queen.”

“Dear… I can’t have cubs.”

He looked at her stunned. “What?”

“Taka gave me cubs one time, but it was not to be. The cubs came out dead… along with any chances of me having anymore.”

He shook his head. “I don’t care… I love you. You will still be my queen.”

“And what about the pride? Without me being able to have cubs, you will have no heir. Your line will end.”

He licked her check softly. “I don’t care about being king… I care about you.”

“But you are prince, and a prince must someday be a king. You must not think about yourself. You must think of your pride.” She rose up slowly, giving him a soft lick. “Look for me when you join the stars. Part of you will always be with me, and I will not forget you.” With that, she slowly began to walk off.

Kubali rose up also, following her. “I’m coming with you… I give this up for you.”

She turned quickly, “No… you can’t. You must stay here and be king.” Kubali froze as she continued, “Tell your father and Debara thank you for welcoming me.” She moved back to him and gave him another nuzzle. “Tell Penzi that she will get a loving mate.”

“Elanna… please.”

“Before when we parted it was because of a secret, a lie, or a misunderstanding. This time I am completely certain in what I’m doing. This time it’s the truth that must split us apart. You know what will happen if I remain. Your father will discover that I am barren, and he will drive me off. I will tell him so myself before I let you throw away everything Aiheu meant you to have. Besides, it is Penzi that really loves you. I just wanted a little companionship.”

“Don’t say that!”

“But it’s true! I like you well enough, and you’re a very good lover as far as that goes. But I’m just not in love with you. Penzi is, and your feelings for her could be returned.”

“But Elanna! I know it’s not so! I know you love me! I felt your body tremble next to mine! Oh gods, you can’t tell me that was all an act!”

She kissed him gently. “That does not matter now. You gave me back my self respect. We were together when we needed each other. Now you need Penzi and she needs you.”

“And what do you need??”

“I need to face my past. I need to go some place where you can’t come. Darling, if you love me, let me go. Please??”

“Say you love me first.”

She looked at him, eyes moist with tears. “I won’t lie to you. I am a ripped gazelle, and my heart is being slowly eaten.” She came and kissed his cheek quickly, then turned and trotted away into the grass. A short distance off, she heard his mournful roar. She fell to the ground and sobbed.

CHAPTER: SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR

The heat started to build as the sun rose in the sky. A lone lioness walked through the golden savanna, unsure where to go.

Her future looked bright just the day before, but now she was alone again. She had been with Kubali for so long, she had forgotten what it felt like to be alone. Looking around, all she could see was the flowing grass. Not only was she alone… she was lost.

She continued to walk, desperate to find her way back to where she was. She continued to look for any sign of a jutting rock that signaled her childhood home. Her mind now set… it was time to face her punishment. If they accepted her back, at least she would have companions. If not… she would join her long lost husband.

The problem was trying to find her old home. She had been walking for nearly a full day, and her legs were starting to buckle under her. It had been a few days since her last good meal, so hunger started to return to her body. Finally, after she had walked as far as she could, her body gave out and collapsed the ground.

Her stomach protested, but she tried to put that in the back of her mind as she did with the memory of her husband. Her aching limbs seemed to make a sigh of relief as her weight now spread over her whole body. She laid her head down on the ground and mumbled softly, “Hunt tomorrow…” She was soon asleep.

Her sleep was restless. Her first night in a long time with out someone next to her was troublesome. She missed the warmth of Kubali’s body and she missed the safety she felt when next to him, her head buried in the soft hair of his mane. How she wished she could be next to him, but deep down she knew it wasn’t meant to be.

Aiheu had other plans for her, but what? She wanted to be in a group—she hated being a rogue. The fear of what her old pride still felt about her preyed on her mind… the hyena’s warning rang in her ears. “They’ll rip you!”

She woke the next day, not really feeling refreshed at all. She rose out of the grasses and yawned, looking around. She looked into the sky, seeing them. “Can it be the same group,” she wondered aloud. She wasn’t going to take the chance that they weren’t and began to move towards the circling birds. In a few minutes, she caught up with the group and smiled.

“Hello Markaaagh.”

The buzzard pulled his head out of a impala carcass and looked to the lioness, “well… if it isn’t Fuzzy’s mate. Har har!”

She smiled slightly, remembering how he hated that name. “Yeah… it’s me.” She moved to the carcass. “Is the deal still in place… because I could really use some food.”

Markaaagh flapped a bit out of the way. “Of course.” He looked around, noticing the absence. “So… where is he? After you two routed that lion, I thought you two wouldn’t be more than a step away from each other. Don’t you love him enough to stay with him?”

She sighed slightly, taking a bit of meat from the carcass, “I love him too much to stay with him.” She gulped down the slightly aging meat and sighed, reaching for some more.

“Eat up, Honey Tree! You are delirious!” The vulture moved closer to her. “If there is anything you need that I can get, I will offer it to you. Our old agreement still stands.”

She looked at the vulture, her nose wrinkling slightly at the familiar foul smell. “I do need one thing. Do you know of a place called ‘Pride Rock’?”

He seemed to go in thought for a moment and shook his head, “No… I’m sorry… can’t say I ever heard of it. But I don’t usually talk to them what can talk back. Har har! Maybe if you describe it, I might know where it is.”

Elanna described to the vulture about the lion pride that lived there, the huge rock the dominated the skyline, and about the terrible drought that over took the land. Markaaagh took some time and nodded, “I know where that is… had some fine pickings a while back, but now it’s lean times for us.” He smiled only how a vulture can. “Not that they’re sorry to see us go.”

“Can you show me the way?”

He just chuckled. “Of course… we were heading that way anyway. Times may be good for the lions there, but there is always something for us to eat there. Har har!”

She just smiled. “Oh thank you…”

After she had a bit of meat and let the vultures feed on the remaining portion of the carcass, they started to make their way towards her old homelands. After a walk that took the better part of the day, she finally saw it… the jutting stone of Pride Rock.

CHAPTER: IN THE SHADOW

Through the walk… the thoughts that haunted her dreams came back. Would she be accepted back or be killed for her husband’s crime? She finally reached the stream that marked the border of her lands… the lands of her family. She stopped… the small trail of water becoming a huge stone wall blocking her quest. Markaaagh noticed her balking and flew down to meet her. “Is this not where you want to be, Missy?”

“No… this is it.” She slowly scanned the sky… and something caught her eyes. It was a small bird… flying from the rock. To her horror it was coming right towards her. It must be Zazu, she thought. How could she face him after what Taka had done to him? He would tell the king immediately and the hunting party would be formed to go after her. She gasped loudly and shook. “No… I can’t stay here.”

The buzzard just looked at her, “what… what is it?”

Without answering, she turned quickly and ran into the grass, leaving the flock of buzzards in complete confusion as she disappeared.

Heart pounding and sweet dripping from her brow, Elanna put more distance between her and her home. She had stood so close to going back to her old life… and yet. It was the doubt in her mind about how she would be greeted that made her run.

The thought of being alone ran through her mind also. Now it would be for good. She couldn’t go home… and she definitely could not go back to Kubali. The feelings were just too strong for her to be anything but his mate.

The urgency of getting away soon faded and she slowed down to a slow trot. She looked around the surround area to get her bearings. Her gaze fell back to where she came from. Only the very tip of Pride Rock was barely visible over the golden grass. She dropped her head and continued to walk away slowly, until Pride Rock was nothing more than a memory.

The day slowly faded away as the sun set in the west. Not seeing anyone coming after her, she figured it was safe for her to lie down and try to rest her aching muscles some. She flopped into the grass, disappearing from sight. She sighed, thinking of her future. Now, even the vultures wouldn’t talk to her. She was truly alone… or was she?

CHAPTER: ANOTHER TRAIL

“Hello there,” a booming voice cut through the air. Elanna froze, hearing the voice… her breathing picking up. “I know you are here… I can smell you, lioness. Why don’t you just come on out. I promise I won’t hurt you.”

Elanna held her position, trying not to let her breathing give her away. Suddenly, she could sense that the huge form was moving towards her. “So you want to play, lioness, I’m game”

Elanna still had no idea what was after her… but she was ready. She wasn’t going to go with a fight. She growled softly, baring her claws as her body tensed to jump at the owner of the voice. Suddenly, she jumped out… straight at a maned figure.

“Whoa…” he said as he tried to scatter back from the lioness flying towards him. Elanna landed squarely in front of him, growling loudly. “I said I wasn’t going to hurt you! Now calm down.”

Elanna got a good look at the lion in front of her. He wasn’t like Kubali at all… he was much larger and older. Slowly, as she realized that the lion wouldn’t attack her, the growling in her throat died down as her muscles began to loosen.

“There we are… I was just wondering what a beautiful creature like you was doing on my lands.”

Elanna chuckled to herself, thinking how flattering some lions are. Suddenly it hit her, did he say his lands? “Oh Gods,” she thought, “I have wandered into someone else’s kingdom!” She spoke softly, “I… I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to intrude.” Slowly, she began to back away from him.

“Hold on… it’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you. Do you need help?”

Elanna just shook her head, continuing to back away from him.

“I am King Mabongo… and you are?”

Elanna stopped for a moment… her body still shaking, “I… am Elanna.”

The king just looked at her thinking, “I have heard that name before…”

Elanna looked down. “I was a member of the pride at Pride Rock.”

Mabongo nodded. “You were the queen if I remember correctly. Your husband was named Scar. Latest news that I heard from you old pride was that his nephew came back and took the throne from him.”

She breathed softly, “Simba…”

Mabongo looked at her, “Yes, that was his name. From what I hear, the lionesses were happy to overthrow your husband and have Simba as their king.”

She nodded softly and looked down.

Mabongo shifted softly, “That was tactless of me. I’m sorry. It’s a pity about your husband… I’m sure it was a great loss to you.” Elanna stood there, quietly as he continued. “You don’t have a home, do you?”

Elanna shook her head, “I thought I did…”

He sat down slowly, “If you want… I could always use another lioness in my pride. We are small but tightly knit group.” He smiled to her softly, “You are tired. Come start a new life here. Would you like that?”

Elanna looked up, “I… I’m not sure, sire.”

“Mabongo… I don’t go for formalities here. If you want, you can come with me and I will introduce you to the pride. We are a friendly bunch and if you like what you see, you may stay for as long as you want.”

Elanna looked at him speculatively then rose, “All right… I will try… Mabongo.”

He smiled to her, “There you go… you will fit in fine.” She smiled to him softly and followed him through the grasses.

CHAPTER: THE THIRD PRIDE

As they topped a ridge, Mabongo roared and a lioness replied. The king turned to Elanna. “Come… they know we are coming.” Quietly, they walked down the rise. A small group of lionesses and cubs were gathered below, looking at the visitor with great interest. Mabongo smiled and said, “This is my pride.”

Elanna looked over the small group, trying to gauge their mood at seeing her. In the group were five lionesses and a few cubs who huddled uneasily next to them. “Very nice,” she said, scanning the cubs’ eyes for some sign of acceptance. “You must be proud of them.”

Mabongo ran to one particular lioness and nuzzled her. Elanna guessed that she must be his queen.

“This is Elanna. She comes to us without a home. I feel that it is the right thing to do is to allow her to stay here if she wants a home.”

“Flip that mane out of your eyes, babe,” the lioness said, stepping toward Elanna with a pronounced swaying strut. “How do we know this gal is worthy?” The lioness walked up and looked at Elanna’s face. “Pretty enough for two, but who knows what kind of past she might have—or what future.”

Mabongo looked at Elanna uneasily. “That is Ujuzi… my queen. She means no harm.”

Ujuzi pawed Elanna’s shoulders politely enough. “Of course I mean no harm. But Sweetcheeks, if you want to run with this crowd, we gotta check you out. If you got nothing to hide, you won’t mind answering a few questions.”

“I’m willing to answer any of your questions, Your Highness.” Elanna said softly.

Ujuzi looked back at the timid lioness. “You can skip the Your Highness bit. Yes Ma’am and no Ma’am do nicely.”

“Yes, Your—uh—ma’am.”

“Well, for first, what brings you to these parts? You tick off your queen?”

Elanna sighed softly, “I was the queen. I was driven out by my pride sisters…”

“Driven out by your pride sisters?” Ujuzi stared at Mabongo. “I guess you already knew that? And I’m sure she also told you why while you were flapping your jaws, but I want to hear it with my own ears.” She turned back to Elanna and said, “So you’re going to tell me you’re very sorry and you just want a second chance? What happened? Did he catch you crouching in the bushes?”

“No!”

“No, WHAT??”

Tears sprang to Elanna’s eyes. “No, MA’AM!” Her head hung low and tears streamed down her face. “Thanks for the offer, Mabongo, but I won’t stay where I’m not wanted.”

Elanna started to walk off, but Mabongo cut her off with a gentle nuzzle. “Ujuzi, would you calm down and let her finish?” He turned back to Elanna and smiled softly. “Come on, dear. It’s OK.” Mabongo glared at Ujuzi, showing a little tooth. “I’m sure my wife didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”

Elanna regained her composure and turned to face Ujuzi respectfully but firmly. “I was driven out because my husband was disposed. My only crime was that I loved him.”

“And where is your husband?”

“Dead.” A tear ran down her cheeks. “He was ripped alive.”

The other lionesses drew in a quick gasp. Even the queen was a little nonplused.

Mabongo wiped her tears with a paw and gave her shoulder a pat. Then he turned to Ujuzi. “There. You see! Nothing wrong with that.”

“Yeah, right.” Ujuzi looked about uncomfortably. “So we have royalty among us.” She turned her gaze on Elanna. “I’m not heartless, honey. Just remember who’s the queen around here, and who’s the subject and we’ll get along real fine. There’s no special treatment here for ladies of leisure. Forget breakfast in bed. You want hard work, clean living, and fair treatment, you came to the right place.”

Elanna went and fell before Ujuzi and kissed her forepaw. “Oh thank you! You won’t regret this, I swear it!”

“Well let’s hope not,” Ujuzi said, touching Elanna’s cheek with her paw. “Welcome to the pride, but remember you’re on probation. I’m keeping my eye on you.” With that, she turned and walked away, disappearing.

Mabongo frowned as his wife disappeared into the grass. “Don’t let her intimidate you. She will warm up to you with time—she’s just mistrustful. Come… meet your new family.”

Elanna nodded and walked with him to the group. Another lioness stepped forward, “I am Wehu… hunt mistress.” She sat down in front of Elanna and smiled disarmingly. “Don’t worry about my mother. She’s just grumpy because she missed on the hunt and she keeps thinking she’s getting old.” She nuzzled Elanna and half-whispered, “She is, but most people are at her age. She’s been keeping the cubs, but we need to get her back on the hunt again. Build her confidence again.” With a chuckle, she said, “Until we get you up on our lands, we might just allow you to stay with the cubs. Then she’d HAVE to hunt!”

Elanna said. “I would love to watch the cubs.” She turned to look at them. “They are so adorable.” One of them smiled back at her, and Elanna broke into a candid grin. “It’s the only time I feel like a real lioness.”

“I bet you were a very good mother,” Wehu said, admiringly.

“I never got the chance. I came close once, but I…”

“You’re shy?”

“No, dear.” Elanna nuzzled her softly and whispered, “When I had my miscarriage, I lost my…” Elanna looked down, her eyes filled with shame and tears.

Wehu took her paw and gently lifted Elanna’s chin. She kissed her gently on the cheek, the corner of her mouth, and the tear-stain that flowed from her eyes. Her warm hazel eyes peered into the depths of Elanna’s pain, misty with compassion. “I’m sorry I made you cry.”

“Don’t be.” Elanna returned her kiss. “I have smiled as well. I’ve had a good life, a full life, and every time I’ve needed help, someone like you would come to me. Aiheu has dealt kindly with me.”

Wehu smiled. “I’m glad you came. I’m sure they will be too, even my mother.”

She motioned to a lioness with two cubs huddled around her. “That’s Kiesi… and her cubs Inwiena and Ibura” She turned to another lioness with three cubs around her. “That’s Tetesi and her cubs Asuri, Kirizi and Machosi” Finally she turned to the last lioness in the group, a younger lioness and much darker than the rest. “That’s my daughter, Gamaiusi… but we just call her Darky.” She smiled softly to Elanna. “Mother always said I had a dark streak… and it shows in more than her fur.”

“MOTHER!”

Elanna laughed. It was a pretty laugh that had waited a long time to come forth.

“We have some meat left over from last night’s hunt. We won’t hunt again till tomorrow, so we can let the cubs get to know you better before we leave them in your care.”

Elanna nodded and smiled. “Thank you.”

“You have a pretty smile. Use it often, my friend. With my mother going through one of her phases, someone has to be in a good mood.”

Silently Mabongo walked up to her, before lying his massive body down. “I’m sorry about my wife… she gets like that sometimes. I do hope you have a better impression of us now. Her moods scare away most new pride members.” He looked to her, “I hope she hasn’t driven you off.”

Elanna shook her head, “No. I’ll be hard to scare off. I’m afraid of being alone.”

The king nodded. “I know what it’s like to be alone…”

Slowly, the cubs started to make their way away from their mothers towards the king and Elanna, helped by some nudging of their mother. Elanna smiled and rolled on her back, patting her chest with a paw. “Come on and see your Aunt Lannie!”

There was a moment of initial hesitation, but a light seemed to come from Elanna’s face, one of such peace and joy that even the least perceptive of the lionesses saw it and was struck by it. A beautiful grin and a pat of her paw swept the cubs toward her in a wave of laughter.

The cubs mobbed her, biting at the tuft on her tail and tugging at her ears with soft giggling. Elanna grunted with pleasure, fondling their small bodies and anointing them with kisses. As the group huddled about her, a pair of eyes watched the pride from the covers of the grasses.

CHAPTER: FITTING IN

Kiesi was the first lioness to approach Elanna and make conversation. “I hope you’ll be happy with us. I was just noticing—I mean—my Aunt had a ubruki nose too. You’re very pretty.”

“So are you, Kiesi. You are, Kiesi, aren’t you?”

“Yes ma’am,” the lioness said shyly.

“You don’t have to ma’am me,” Elanna said, nuzzling her. “Just call me Lannie.” She looked at the two cubs that drew near to her and rubbed against her legs. “That goes for you too, Inwiena. Hello, Ibura.”

“I’m Ibura. She’s Inwiena.”

Elanna laughed prettily. “Give me time! I’ll get it right.”

Tetesi came up. “Honey Tree, I hope you know star lore. I’ve run out of stories.”

“I love star stories,” Elanna said. “Meholo and Darzee, the Brothers of Marabo, the Seventh Trail…”

“Oh thank the gods! I’m telling you, Hon, you just might know enough to keep Asuri busy for a week. I warn you, he’s like dry earth—he’ll soak up whatever you give him and come back for more. And always ‘why.’ Why this and why that!”

“I’m so glad!” Elanna could tell by the shy grin which one was Asuri and she nuzzled him warmly till he giggled. “We’re going to get along just fine.”

Gamaiusi, an adolescent lioness, came up and said, “Star lore? Do you mind if I listen in too?”

“Sure, Honey Tree! Your mother is welcome too.”

Wehu smiled broadly. “I’ll take you up on that. But we’ll also cover the lands too. You need to learn this place if you’re ever going to hunt here.”

Elanna smiled broadly. “Yes, I’d like that. You’ve been so accommodating.”

“Dad really likes you, I can tell.”

“He’s a dear old thing.”

Wehu laughed. “You add a touch of elegance to our pride. You know, I love mother to death but sometimes she can be so…”

“Wehu!” Ujuzi shouted, “hike your buns over here and help me drag this carcass! We have a visitor!”

Wehu smiled and nodded in the direction of her mother. “That’s my mom, all right.”

Wehu and Ujuzi pulled in a large wildebeest carcass. The lionesses came around with their cubs by their side and began to tear at the flesh. Elanna came over and tried to nose in.

Elanna discovered to her great surprise that the other lionesses gave way before her and offered her the deference they paid the queen herself. The look in Ujuzi’s face was not exactly angry but it was not approving either.

“You know,” Ujuzi said, her mouth full of meat, “I think wildebeest is good for one’s constitution. I mean it stimulates one’s enduring if properly mitigated with other circumstances.”

Elanna looked up quizzically. Wehu’s face was pained.

“I’m so glad you invited me in,” Elanna said.

“My husband invited you in,” Ujuzi said.

“Still, now that I’m here, I think we can be real friends. You have a delightful daughter.”

Ujuzi pulled off another large hunk of meat and minced it. In words clogged with meat and humors, she said, “That Wehu’s a good’un. Just like her Poppa. Yes ma’am, a real first class act.”

The next few days for Elanna were touch and go for her. She seemed to be accepted by most of the members of the pride. Even the cubs had come to call her ‘Auntie Lannie’. The cubs flocking around her made her very happy. For the first time, she felt that she could play or tell stories to the young ones without getting bad looks from their mothers. Even Darky, although a young lioness, would often stop and listen to her musings.

Most of the lionesses were very kind and trusting to her, especially Wehu. Wehu had been taking her off to the side during the day and showing her the lands, often to the sighs of the cubs that were gathered around her. Slowly, Elanna felt that she was learning the skills she would need to hunt in the group again. She had enjoyed spending the hunting time with the cubs, getting to know them better, but she was anxious to get in some hunts.

CHAPTER: THE SIGNAL

Elanna finally got her chance to hunt with her new pride. Memories came flooding back to her of the few good hunts she’d had with her old pride. There was a time she had enjoyed the title of lioness while her sister the queen reveled in Mufasa’s love, and poor Simba enjoyed the ignorance of youth. Sarabi, lithe and lovely would stride through the golden grass beside her as Uzuri forged a path across the trackless savanna. For the longest time it had seemed like a distant dream rather than a memory. Now it was clear and sharp once more.

The group closed in on some gazelles that were grazing in a clearing. Elanna’s pulses pounded, and her breath came and went in restless tides. She felt so alive, so aware! The moment of fate was approaching, and her prey would either live or die.

Then Elanna saw what looked like the signal to cut off escape and she joyously lunged forward. Behind her came shouts of, “No! Stop!”

But surely she had read a tail wave from the hunt mistress! Could it mean something different here? The realization made her stomach knot tightly. Rather than cutting off escape, her gaffe only spooked the gazelles who ran like an opening blossom of tan across the grassland.

The lionesses looked upset at her move… but understanding as it was her first hunt with the new pride. It wasn’t until she heard the queen yell, “Damn,” Did she feel the blood rush to her face in embarrassment of her move.

The lionesses of the pride came up to her and nuzzled her gently, each telling her that it was all right. Wehu was embarrassed. “I should have gone over our signals with you. I’m so sorry!”

“It’s my fault, Wehu. I should have asked.”

Elanna understood, though, that she would be cub-setting again for a while. The queen went up to her and scowled, “Damn honey… I know you are new here, but that was downright stupid of you to go charging in on the alert signal.”

“But Ujuzi, ma’am, in our old pride that was the signal for cut off escape…”

The Queen just snorted at her. “Maybe it still does. You’d be of some use there.”

“Please, Ujuzi, forgive me! It was an innocent mistake, I swear! I’m a good huntress—really I am!”

“Well dearie, why don’t you go over your signals while you cub set for a while longer. And remember Hon, you will be sitting the cubs… NOT my husband.” The lionesses looked with shock at the queen as she disappeared over the ridge.

Wehu sighed and gave chase to her mother. Finally catching up with her, “Mother! Please! Give her more chance! She is almost having to learn to hunt again. It isn’t easy for her, and besides, what she did wasn’t any worse than that miss you made with the wildebeest.”

“Damn it, that wasn’t the same! Not at all!”

“Whatever you say, Mom.” She looked at her with a sigh. “And could you PLEASE tone down your language a bit?”

Ujuzi turned quickly, her eyes full of rage. “What… am I not good enough for the little princess now? I will not sit here and suckle that overgrown cub, while we grow thin enough to catch gophers in their holes. Not only do we have another mouth to feed in the pride… but here she goes and ruins our hunt so we have NO food. If she doesn’t start getting her butt in gear, dear… I’ll throw her out on hers… understand? My responsibilities is to this pride… not to some deposed queen that has fallen on some bad times.” With that, she walked away, leaving Wehu in shock.

Latter that night, the pride had bedded down. The cubs were against their mother, enjoying their warmth, giving Elanna a breather from what seemed like constant story telling. Mabongo noticed Elanna alone and moved to lie down next to her. “I heard about what happened earlier”

Elanna looked up to him, “I’m really sorry… I just got my signs messed up.”

Mabongo chuckled, “It’s all right. I remember what it was like when I started hunting, and when my daughter, then my granddaughter did. It’s not an easy thing you do, and I’m grateful to have such a fine group.”

Elanna smiled softly, “It won’t happen again… I promise.” She looked around uneasily. “Where is the queen?”

He shook his head, “She probably off moping somewhere… she does that when she is in a foul mood. I hear she didn’t take your mistake too lightly.” He chuckled softly, “I’m actually kinda happy she is gone… she can be such a pain when she is in a bad mood.” He nuzzled her softly and smiled. “I know the cubs ragged on you all day, but I would love to hear one of your stories.”

Elanna smiled gracefully and began telling him more about Taka, grateful that she had found her place.

CHAPTER: AFTERMATH

The next night, the huntresses walked slowly through the grasses. The queen had taken her usual spot in the front of the group. Wehu, Kiesi, Tetesi, and Darky were a few paces behind her. They had a way to travel, so the four were talking quietly amongst themselves. This was the first hunt since Elanna had made her mistake, so talk ran to the newcomer.

“I think she is rather kind,” Kiesi noted.

“She’s a lot more cultured than our queen is,” Tetesi added in a hushed voice. She could feel Wehu’s gaze fall on her but she continued. “Can you believe how she speaks? I never heard such words come out of Ujuzi… I think it’s rather nice to have someone here that can act noble. Still…” She paused, unsure how to express herself. “It is intimidating trying to talk with her. I’m afraid I’m going to say something stupid. Not that she would ever let it show. She’s not that type.”

“Have you heard some of her stories?” Darky jumped in. “It makes me wish I was a cub again so I could stay with her and not miss any.”

“I almost wish that she was our queen,” Kiesi added in quickly. The other three lionesses stopped and looked at her. She continued in a hushed voice. “Well… how many queens you know go around acting like ours? Not that I don’t like her… but sometimes… she just doesn’t act like a queen.”

“Be careful what you say… she is my mother.”

“I know… I mean nothing against her… it’s just…”

Kiesi was interrupted when, noticing that they held up, the queen joined the group, “Are we, or are we not going to hunt, Wehu?”

She turned to her quickly and nodded. “Sorry mother… just trying to… um… get our strategy set for the hunt.”

Ujuzi just snorted. “Were you not going to include me… or am I just not useful enough for you?”

Wehu shook her head, “No mother… we were just going to call you over when you came…”

Ujuzi frowned. “Fine… now start acting like a hunt mistress and take charge of this… GROUP.”

Wehu nodded… then thinking quickly said, “OK… normal semi-circle. Mother… you are the beater.”

She could sense her mother’s grumble as she walked away from the others. She glanced to the other three. “No more discussions about Elanna right now. Who knows what my mother would do.” The lionesses nodded to her as they continued through the grasses.

Sometime later back at the pride’s resting grounds, Elanna was among the cubs when they heard the huntresses’ roar. She was in the middle of a story when the cubs all jumped up, gave her a warm nuzzle of thanks, and dashed after the sound and the meal it promised. Elanna chuckled, watching the mob of cubs take off as she rose and followed them. As she topped the ridge, she could see the five lioness dragging a large gazelle behind them.

It was common for the beater to carry the prize home since she did the least amount of work in the hunt, so behind Ujuzi followed the carcass.

She saw Elanna top the ridge and cried out to her, “Get your butt over here, sweet cheeks, and help me tug this carcass… or are you too proper to do that?” Elanna sighed and hurried to her aid. When she got close enough the queen said, “You grab the butt and I’ll get the neck—we can do this—that is, if you feel up to it, dearie.”

Elanna could feel the blood rush to her face in embarrassment. She shook it off quickly. “Yes ma’am.” She grabbed the haunch on the prey and, along with the queen, drug it up the hill to the pride’s resting area.

Elanna said little, and she tried to avoid eye-contact with the queen. Wehu did not sit next to her, but Elanna understood and was not upset. Wehu sat next to her mother, engaging her in chit-chat to ease her raw feelings.

But after the meal and a good nap, Wehu approached Elanna. “Come on… I want to teach you more so you can join in on the next hunt.” Elanna got up slowly and stretched out, following after Wehu as they disappeared from the rest of the pride.

After a short walk, Elanna looked at Wehu. “Is she always that crude?”

Wehu chuckled, “Who… my mother… yes, unfortunately she gets like that.” She frowned softly, “It’s quite embarrassing at times.”

Elanna just shook her head, “I’m sure it’s nothing. I only knew two queens myself, Sarabi and Akase. I guess I can’t expect all queens to be like them.” Elanna looked at her, “What does your mother think about me… really. Yesterday it almost seemed she suspected me of trying to steal your father.”

Wehu shook her head. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her. You’re the first one I’ve seen her react like this with.” She smiled softly, trying to change the subject. “I can say that you have impressed the other lionesses in the pride… and the cubs just love you. Even Darky says that she wishes she was just a cub… so she didn’t have to miss your stories.” She thought for a moment. “Some even wish you were the queen.”

Elanna was taken aback. “I hope I haven’t given that impression. All I want is to be loved. I don’t care about being queen, and truthfully I don’t want to be. I know what it’s like.”

Wehu nuzzled her softly, “No, no… it’s all right. You haven’t given us that impression, at least not me. It’s just that sometimes mother can be rather embarrassing as you saw. You seem much more cultured than her. And you’re younger. She’s trying to compete with you, and she knows she can’t win.”

“But I’m not competing with HER!”

“Honey Tree, I know that. She’s just apprehensive. Now I know for a fact that my father loves her with all his heart. He would never take a new queen, even if she died.” She smiled. “Now come on. If you want to join in the next hunt, you must learn the lay of the land. And your signals, too!”

Elanna dropped her head in embarrassment.

Wehu made several sweeping gestures with her paw and then tapped the ground twice.

“What does THAT one mean??”

Wehu imitated her mother’s accent. “It means ‘I think wildebeest is good for one’s constitution. It stimulates one’s enduring if properly mitigated with other circumstances.’”

Elanna laughed. “Just don’t let HER hear that!” She pawed Wehu. “Thank you! You have really made me want to stay.”

Wehu chuckled and nuzzled her. “It’s good to finally see someone that my mother can’t scare off.” She smiled. “Now come on. I know you’d rather hunt than sit cubs.” The two lionesses disappeared into the grass, Elanna eager to prove herself.

CHAPTER: THE DOCTOR IS IN

Mabongo was resting, something he was very accomplished at as a lion, but even more since he was older. Ujuzi came and nudged him with a paw. “Wake up, Bobo!”

One eye opened. “I wasn’t asleep. I was resting my eyes.”

“Then you won’t mind having a go at it?”

Both eyes opened wide and he sniffed the air. “Ujuzi, could it be that I didn’t notice? Is it that time for you?”

Ujuzi laughed merrily. “I meant wrestling, you old fool!”

Mabongo rose slowly and stretched. “Do you know how long it’s been since you asked me that?”

“Too long,” Ujuzi said, unwilling to speculate. “Now let’s see you work off some of that fat.”

“Fat? Me??”

Ujuzi snickered at him. She popped his thigh with a paw. “Fat little legs.” She ducked and touched his belly. “Check out that flab!”

“That’s muscle!” Mabongo said, getting into position.

“Put on much more muscle, you won’t fit in your cave!”

“That did it!!”

Mabongo stood ready for all comers. Ujuzi sprang at him, laughing. She sought to bear him to the ground.

Mabongo easily ducked her. “So I’m fat, am I??” He whipped out with a paw as she passed under him and grasped her shoulder. Coming down on her, he bore down with his weight. But she would not be easily won. Despite her age, she was a huntress, not the hunted. And she squirmed away, wrapping her paws around his neck. A few thrusts of her back legs got her the purchase on the grass she needed, and she shoved him over.

Ujuzi tussled with him as he lay on his back. Mabongo laughed, then reached up with both arms, not to wrestle, but to draw her face to his. He rubbed her cheek and kissed her. “My golden treasure. Oh, I love you, girl!”

“I need to hear you say that sometimes.”

“Am I old? Am I stodgy and no fun?”

Ujuzi said, “Heavens, no! You’re wonderful! I pledged to you once. I’d renew my vows if you wanted it.”

Mabongo rolled on his side, taking her with him. As they lay panting in the grass, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, he said softly, “You know, there’s no shame in growing old, not if you have someone that loves you to grow old with. Oh girl, I’d die if you left me!”

She stroked his mane. “No chance of that, Bobo! No chance of that! Nothing, and no one will come between us, my love!” Ujuzi kissed him, then got up and trotted away as quickly as he came. Mabongo closed his eyes and went back to sleep, a happy smile on his face.

For her trouble, Ujuzi ached all over, even in muscles she forgot she had. She would never let HIM know that, and she headed to see her friend, Uzima the Shaman.

Ujuzi had been walking quite a distance and her muscles were beginning to protest every step she took. She knew it was only a little bit longer. Finally… she reached a solitary tree in the open savanna. Uzima… come down here!” she cried out.

Quietly a mandrill’s head pokes down from the tree, “Who dares disturbs my sleep?? Go away—come back tomorrow!”

“Get your ugly blue butt down here on the double!”

A laugh was heard, “And what if I don’t?”

She growled up to him, “You know good and well that I will come up there…”

Another laugh, “I would like to see you try.”

Ujuzi grunted and braced her forepaws against the trunk of the tree. With a powerful push of her hind legs, she managed to clear the ground. Grunting loudly in exhaustion, she pushed her self to the lower branch, just barely above her height over the ground. With another laugh, the mandrill joined her on the branch, “How long has it been since you have done that?”

Ujuzi looked at him, “I can’t remember the last time I climbed a tree…” She looked down at the ground, gripping the branch tighter, “Damn… I’m surprised I got this high.”

Uzima chuckled. “Ahh… the mastery of the language… your father’s blood does course through you…”

She growled, “Don’t you start on my butt too…”

He nodded, “Come on down to the ground… then we’ll talk…” With that, the mandrill flipped gracefully to the ground. The lioness looked down, holding on tightly. Finally… she simply let go and fell gracelessly to the ground, landing with a dull thump and raising a cloud of dust. The monkey chuckled, seeing the lioness get up and shake the dust out of her fur. “Never was able to master the dismount.”

She growled softly and moved to him. The mandrill smiled and wrapped his arms around her neck, fondling her face and kissing her. “What brings the great queen all the way out to see me?”

She sighed, “Am I getting older, friend? I was wrestling with Mabongo the way we used to, and kings above does my body ache!”

He laughed, “The only ones not getting older are dead, Ujuzi… it’s a part of life. Your body is telling you to slow down.” He looked her over slowly. “Why the sudden interest in your age? That wrestling match get you down?”

“I missed on the hunt. Me! I hadn’t done that in ages.”

He looked at her, “Everyone misses at times…”

She continued, “Then my daughter gave me the position of beater, something that is given to the worse hunter or the injured lioness. I haven’t been the beater since I was my granddaughter’s age.”

Uzima started to stroke her fur, rubbing the deep muscles of her shoulder. “It’s all right… someone has to take that position.”

“But I’m the queen… doesn’t that mean anything?” she protested?

“Wasn’t it you that taught your daughter that position in the pride doesn’t carry to the hunting grounds? I seem to remember you saying something like that.”

She sighed. “But for all your monkey mumbo jumbo, you still know what it means! I don’t like double talk, ape. I’m washed up—through—and from here on out it’s only going to get worse.”

He worked her shoulders, loosening up the muscles and eliciting a contented grunt from the old lioness. “That’s the price of perfection—any change is for the worse.”

“You have a civil tongue in your head, I’ll grant you.”

“And you have friends that love you.” He continued to work on her shoulders, making her purr softly.

“I don’t want to grow old,” she said, like a cub that is afraid of the dark mewing to her mother. “Please tell me how to be young again.”

He looked in her eyes with pity. “You should know better than that. You know even my spells have limits.” He grinned slightly, “Don’t you think that I would have used it on myself?” He smiled and continued to work on her shoulders. “Besides… you are only as old as you feel.”

She smiled, but with a tinge of sadness. “That old?”

He changed to the other side. “You need to slow down at your age. Please… dearie… don’t do what your mother did… she worked herself to death. Let the future of the pride take some of the burden from you.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. “It’s not just the hunt. I wouldn’t mind being beater if that was all of it! It’s my husband!” She looked at him with tears in his eyes. “I think I might be losing him.”

He shook his head, scandalized. “Mabongo chasing tails?? Him?? That lion would never leave you dearie! He loves the very ground you walk on!”

“But I’m old and ugly!”

“You, ugly? Maybe I have some herbs for your madness. Maybe it’s not old age, it’s the notions in that pretty head of yours!” He wrapped his arms around her neck. “Your beauty comes from within. Your body might age… but you’re as beautiful as you were when I helped your mother give birth to you.”

“Do you really think so?”

He kissed her beneath each eye. “Honey Tree, I really know so. If you want to be beautiful, you should smile more often. When I see you cry, I bleed inside.”

She touched him with her tongue. “I know you think I’m being foolish. But please help me. Please?” She frowned in her desperate impatience. “You must have something that can help me? Please?? Damn it, help me keep him. I live for that lion! Remember that I help you whenever I can, and I ask for so little in return.”

He sighed, seeing that she didn’t listen to what he said. “Fine. Give me a moment and I’ll see what I can do.”

With that, he hopped back into his tree. Leaves rustled around as he moved about and a few minutes later, he appeared back on the ground with a gourd of liquid. Without saying a word, he started to work the fragrant mixture into her fur.

She winced as the strong floral smell hit her nose. “Are you sure this will help?”

He smiled. “Of course I’m sure. I was wearing this when I met my mate. It contains musk from antelopes. That’s why it’s so hard to come by, and so effective.”

“Hard to come by?”

He smiled, holding up her paw and pressing the claws out. “Hard if you’re a monkey!” He kissed her paw and sat it down. “Your husband will love it.” He finished rubbing her down and hugged her once more. “Now go be with him, and remember that he will always love you.” He nuzzled her. “And dearie, look for sources of stress in your life. Get rid of those things, and those you can’t, learn to accept. You’ll sleep better and feel better if you do.”

She nodded and smiled, “I will try… thank you.”

He patted her on her rump, “Now go on, and let an old monkey sleep!”

So the fragrance was hard to get because the poor little monkey had to scavenge carcasses? If that’s what it took, Ujuzi would work out a beneficial relationship with him. All the antelope musk he could ever want—pounds and pounds of it if she had to pluck whatever part it was found in herself and carry it to the baobab! In return, she would be the sexiest and most exciting streak of golden sunshine that ever lit the pride lands! “Who knows, with time I may even grow to like that smell!”

She went back to the pride kopje with a mincing, happy trot and with a sultry purr drew alongside Mabongo. She rubbed him and batted him with her tail alluringly.

“Hello, handsome!”

He looked about, then stared at her. “Who, me??”

She purred again. “Who else!” She nuzzled him and said, “Bobo, do you notice anything different about me?”

He sniffed and grimaced. “Yeah. But don’t worry. Whatever it is will wear off soon enough.”

“Well, I…”

“What were you into, anyway? I can’t tell if it was flowers or—ugh—antelope!”

Ujuzi stared at him, unable to speak. Her chin trembled.

“Did you want to wrestle again? I’m sorry—you’re just not being very clear, old girl.”

She took a step back.

“Come on, Honey Tree? Give me a hint?”

Ujuzi turned and ran off.

Mabongo looked at his daughter. “Well, what’s gotten into her??”

Wehu said, “I think she was trying to impress you.”

“With what?? Maybe I should go after her.”

“I wouldn’t,” Wehu said. “Give her a moment alone, then I’ll go see her.”

Ujuzi went alone to hide among the reeds and she cried and clawed the grass till it left a bare spot, then sobbed in the bare earth. “I’m old! I’m losing him! Oh gods, help me!” Then she says, “Damn Elanna! Damn her to hell! And I’m just the person to send her there personally!!!” Remembers the shaman’s innocent words. “You need to get rid of what is worrying you.” She says, “I will!”

CHAPTER: CROSS WORDS

When Ujuzi had regained her composure, she went back to the others and began to start her campaign to drive off Elanna in earnest. But how could she do it without getting her husband mad at her? She decided to find something… anything… wrong with Elanna and exploit it to its full potential. She saw one of the cubs at play and approached him with a smile. “Asuri, you like your Aunt Lannie a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Ujuzi smiled. “She’s very pretty and very smart. I bet she tells great stories.”

“Oh yeah! There’s this really neat one about two brothers. They get into this fight over a…”

“I don’t want to know,” Ujuzi said quickly but gently. “I want to hear that story someday, so don’t tell me how it turns out, all right?” She nuzzled him gently and began to groom him as she talked.

“Maybe you can tell me something. Does she ever leave you alone? I mean, does she ever go somewhere and maybe the King goes with her—you know, for a little while, maybe?”

Asuri purred at the grooming and looked up to her, “I’m not sure. Why don’t you ask them?”

The Queen held in her tart reply. “Honey Tree, I don’t want them to know I’m asking. I don’t even want your mother to know.”

“But Mom said it’s wrong to keep secrets like that.”

“It’s OK with me, because I’m the queen. Sometimes Kings and Queens need special favors. And I’m asking you a special favor as Queen because this is an important secret, and you are my special agent. A SECRET agent.”

Asuri gasped in amazement, “Gosh!”

“I’m planning a little surprise for your Aunt Lannie. But there are some things I need to know. Now think hard. Did you ever see her sneak off with my husband for a few minutes?”

He tilted his head from side to side. “Gee, they MIGHT have, but I’m not sure. I was taking a nap. But yes ma’am, I think so.”

Ujuzi’s ears went back and her jaw tightened.

“Are you all right, ma’am?”

“Yes, Honey Tree. I have this pain in my stomach, but it will be over soon.” She kissed him. “You keep your eyes and ears open. Remember, you’re my special little boy. Only a very clever lion can do this job.”

She let Azuri go and got up slowly, wandering off. Ujuzi’s stomach had indeed knotted up. She remembered that Elanna had never been in her receptive period since she came, so that little trip into the bushes could not have been THAT bad. Still, time and nature would correct that if she didn’t do something quickly. She had to go talk to him.

Mabongo was lying down, taking one of his many naps. His head came up when he saw his wife. He smiled to her, “See… I told you it would wear off.”

“Stuff it, my king… we have to talk about that…” She held back the word she wanted to use, “Elanna.”

He cocked his head a bit. “What about Elanna?”

She moved to look at him, eye to eye, “I don’t know what you two are up to… but damn it… I don’t like it. You spending all that time with her is beginning to make the lionesses gossip.”

He looked shocked. “You don’t think… love… I would never do anything like that to you. We spend so much time together because we are friends… nothing more. Most of the time we spend together is when you are on the hunt… and there is little company here other than her. Love… I would never do anything to hurt our marriage. It’s enough to do the right thing without worrying about appearances.”

“But how about the way it appears to ME?? You better watch your step, Bobo! I’ve given you my youth and my cubs! Six years of my life I’ve put into this marriage! I’m not letting some two-bit tramp come along and steal my husband!”

He growled at her softly… apparently agitated. “She’s not a two-bit tramp! She’s a fine lady, and you could stand to learn some manners from her! She can’t steal me unless I WANT to be stolen, and I don’t! Listen to me, wife—I’m tired of the way you’ve been treating her! You’ve been nothing but hateful for the longest time, and I’m sick of it! Sick, sick, sick!! You know I’m not a tail chaser!”

“I know that, but she’s subtle. She’s stalking you, and you’re standing there like a blind gazelle!”

“That’s enough! Wife, this conversation is OVER.”

The Queen was about ready to say something… until Elanna showed up to take care of cubs. She smiled at them and nodded, “My king… ma’am…” Ujuzi snorted loudly and stormed off into the savanna. Elanna looked to Mabongo, “Is something wrong?”

The King just shook his head. Elanna went over and nuzzled him softly, to which he froze and became rigid.

“Is everything all right?”

“Why shouldn’t it be??”

“Oh nothing. You just seem like something’s bothering you.” She walked back a few paces and lied down, looking at him, “I guess that the others are about ready to go on a hunt…”

Mabongo nodded quickly and rose up. “I… um… need to go also.”

Elanna looked at him, “Usually you keep me company… what is wrong?”

He shook his head, “Nothing… I just have to… uh… do my patrol.”

“But you already did it…”

He snapped quickly, “I have to do it again… all right?”

Elanna sighed, “My king… what have I done?”

He shook his head again. “Nothing… but I need to go.” Quickly he ran into the grass, leaving an astonished lioness behind.

Later that day, Ujuzi pulled Wehu aside, “My daughter… I think Elanna might be moving in on my position. I think she might be trying to steal your father from me.”

Wehu gasped, “No mother… you are wrong. I know Elanna… she would never do anything like that to you… or anyone.”

“Listen to me daughter… if you watch them like I do… it would be plain to you. She is trying to muscle in on my lion… and I won’t have it.”

“What do you suggest I do? Go and spy on her like you?”

“Yes… exactly.”

“No mother… I can’t do that to her.”

“What are you afraid of? If you are right then you won’t mind looking in on them. If there’s no wrongdoing, there will be nothing to see.”

Wehu stormed off without an answer. Ujuzi smiled… the first part of the plan was done… now to set the trap for her prey. She found Elanna resting alone in the clearing. Mabongo had come back from his ‘patrol’ and was resting a short distance off. There was tension in the air between the two when Ujuzi walked to Elanna and within ear shot of the king. “Sweetie? You like Wehu, don’t you?”

“Yes, queen.”

“She was my first… and I have had many strong children after her.” She smiled softly, “And how many children have you had?”

Elanna sighed softly… as the memory of her dead son comes back to her, “None my queen. I can’t have cubs.”

Ujuzi just chuckled and shook her head, “That’s a real shame. You know a lioness is not a real lioness until she has her first child.” With that, she walked back to the king and rubbed up against him.

Elanna turned her head away from the two, her eyes focusing off in the distance as tears began to form in her eyes. Ujuzi chuckled softly again and walked off… knowing what would happen next. Sure enough, Mabongo rose and walked over to the crying lioness. “Elanna?”

Elanna turned her head towards him, wiping her eyes clean, “Yes my king?”

He sat down next to her, looking down at the lioness, “I heard what my wife said to you. I don’t know what got into her, it was uncalled for.”

Elanna just nodded, “She is right though… I’m not a real lioness.” She turned to look at him, “That’s why I left Kubali, because I couldn’t give him cubs. I might be a lioness in form… but not a real lioness.” More tears started to form in her eyes as she looked into the sky, “I love cubs so much! Why Aiheu? Why me?” She turned aside and started to sob. “I want to go home!”

Mabongo leaned down and nuzzled her softly, which made her jump a bit. “Dear Elanna… so much tragedy in your life. Aiheu doesn’t do anything without a purpose. You must remember that.” He smiled to her softly, “You are no less a lioness in my eyes because of your injury. You are a very welcome part to this pride. The cubs absolutely love you, and the other members, save my wife, find you very kind and caring. I hope you don’t think about leaving because of her.”

She sighed softly, “I had been thinking it… but I don’t know what to do or where to go. I’m tired of running…”

He shook his head, “Then you don’t have to go. I will talk to my wife and get her to end these attacks. She is a queen… and it is far time she acted it.”

She smiled softly, “You would do that for me?”

He nodded and chuckled, “She may be the queen… but you are also important to me. She can’t be doing this to you… it’s unfair. You see, my dear, she’s very jealous of you.”

“Jealous? Of me?”

“Yes. That’s what was wrong when you came to cub-set. I wasn’t upset at you. I was just afraid what Ujuzi would think, but frankly I won’t hurt your feelings just to spare hers.”

She smiled softly, “I understand now. I’m not worried that she was jealous—it explains a lot. But I’d hate to think I lost your friendship.”

“You never will. She’ll have to learn to deal with her jealousy some other way than victimizing you. Now we spend much time together. And I won’t lie to you—you’re a very beautiful lioness and I couldn’t help but notice that. But there’s no one for me but Ujuzi. I’d never dream of cheating on her.”

“And I’d never dream of breaking up your marriage. But you are a dear, sweet thing and I’m very fond of you. I like to think my brother might have been like you.” She sat up and moved her head to give a lick to his cheek. “I will leave if my presence here is a burden on you.”

In the cover of the grasses… a pair of eyes shown through. after seeing the shows of affections, the owner of the eyes pulled back, further into the grass.

CHAPTER: A STOLEN GLANCE

Wehu couldn’t believe what she just saw… the new lioness—her dear friend—going after her father. At first she didn’t believe what her mother told her about Elanna. She always saw her as being a kind, caring lioness, and she never thought Elanna would try to steal her father away. She had tried to dismiss her mother, but Ujuzi had persisted and convinced to keep an eye open. Maybe her mother was right… maybe she was trying to steal father.

Slowly she appeared in a clearing… her mother already waiting there for her. “Well?” the elder lioness asked.

Wehu’s head hung low, “She kissed him…”

Ujuzi grinned, “See… I told you that she was trying to steal him from me. Now… what are we going to do about this fallen queen?”

Wehu blinked, “We? Mother… I don’t know what really happened. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. All I saw was her give him a innocent little lick.”

“Daughter… I know what I feel from my husband. She is moving in on me and I won’t have it.”

“And I won’t get involved in something I don’t know what is happening. Don’t ask me of this. Elanna is my friend… I trust her.”

“Who do you trust more… this ‘friend’ who just got here within a moon… or your mother who gave you life and kept you alive? Do you expect me to throw away six years of marriage? Six LONG years that I’ve hunted for him, carried cubs for him, picked him up when he fell down! Comforted him when he wept! Six LONG years. And what do I ask of you, my own flesh and blood? For all the love and care I’ve given you? This one thing alone I’ve asked. That you help me against this viper that would come between your father and I! Honey Tree, you’re young. You don’t see things the way my older and wiser eyes do. Where do your loyalties lie—tell me, daughter.”

Wehu just stood there, stunned at her mother’s attitude. She was about ready to answer when a rustling sound from the distance. Her mother hushed her as the king appeared through the grass. “Hello you two.” He moved to join the two lionesses, “Wehu… would you excuse me and mother for a few moments, I have to talk to her.”

Wehu looked to her mother and father, then nodded, “All right… I’ll be around.” With that, she disappeared into the grass.

The king turned to his wife, “Why are you harassing Elanna, dear? Why did you bring up cubs in front of her like that?”

Ujuzi shook her head, putting on her best act, “Dear… I didn’t know about her and cubs. I just thought I would mention it to her.”

“I told you about her problem. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh… if you say so, dear… it must have slipped my mind. I’m sorry… I really didn’t mean to hurt her feelings.”

“It seems like you are trying to make her life difficult here. She has been through a lot in her life. Please… for her… for me… give her some slack and make her feel welcomed here. Everyone but you seem to love her.”

Ujuzi moved closer to him, and nuzzled him, taking a moment to catch Elanna’s scent on his cheek. “Of course my husband… I will.” She pulled back as thought went through her mind, “I will be nice to her.”

Mabongo smiled, “Thank you love… now if you will excuse me, I need to finish my patrol.” He gave her another nuzzle and continued on his way.

Ujuzi sat down, waiting a short time before calling out, “Wehu… come on out.” Wehu appeared a short time later, sitting beside her. “We need to do something to Elanna… she is the evil one here… not my husband.”

Wehu shook her head, “No mother… please… I don’t want to be involved.”

Ujuzi looked at her coldly, “You will help me… remember that I am your mother… your queen… and the lioness that got you the title you hold. How would you like me to give your title to another lioness. I know Kiesi would love to be hunt mistress.”

She looked at her mother and sighed, “All right… all right… I’ll help you.”

Ujuzi almost wept. “My darling, my firstborn, I know I’ve asked a lot of you, but Sweetie, I’ll make it up to you, I swear!” She nuzzled her daughter who returned the nuzzle desperately and kissed her mother.

“Please Mom, let’s not argue any more.”

“Of course, Sweetie! If you want to know who loves you, and who would never take advantage of you, it’s your mother.” Ujuzi pawed her cheek and kissed her. “You relied on me when you were young and weak. Now Honey Tree I’m growing old and weak and I need someone I can rely on.”

Just… don’t ask me not to hurt her.”

Ujuzi smiled. “Hurt her? No, your father would be furious if someone hurt her. But she might have an accident.”

“An accident??”

Ujuzi smiled innocently. “Maybe it’s time we gave Lannie poo another chance to hunt.” The queen leaned over and started to whisper into Wehu’s ear. Wehu eyes went wide as the plan was passed to her.

CHAPTER: THE STORY

Elanna had settled back among the cubs, relating a story of her and Sarabi during happier times. The cubs… and even Darky… were sitting around her in silence as she talked about how they played and got in trouble with Muffy and Taka. Slowly though, as the story continued and the memories flooded back into her mind, tears began to form in Elanna’s eyes.

The cubs noticed this and Inwiena spoke up, “Auntie Elanna… this is a fun story… why are you crying?

Elanna smiled to her, using a paw to wipe her eyes, “Dearie… it’s just bringing back memories… good memories… before me and my sister got mad at each other.”

“You and your sister still fight?”

She shrugged, “I don’t know… it’s been so long since I have seen her… I do miss her though.”

“Why not go back then?”

Elanna chuckled and sighed, “It’s not quite that easy… if I thought I could, I would.”

Inwiena looked back to Ibura, her sister, “We fight… but we always say we sorry and we still love each other.” She looked back to Elanna, “Maybe you go say that to your sister?” She moved and placed a paw on Elanna, “Then you won’t cry no more.”

“Anymore.” Elanna licked the top of the cub’s head, “Maybe … perhaps. If only I saw the world through your eyes… none of this would have happened.” She nuzzled the cub and smiled, “You have something special, a sister that loves you unconditionally… I only wish I had the same.”

The cubs looked at her sadly as Elanna lowers her head back down to her paws. Inwiena moved back to her sister and flopped down next to her, whispering, “I’ll never be mad at you.”

Elanna looked at the group… their mood now saddened by her story. “You don’t have to be sad for me… I have accepted my place in the circle.” She smiled softly. “Hey, if I hadn’t been in trouble there, I wouldn’t have met you! And I’m glad I met you. Now… who would like to hear another story?”

The ears of the cubs perked up and they nodded enthusiastically. Elanna was about ready to take a breath to start her story when Ujuzi and Wehu appeared.

“Hello Elanna,” Wehu said. “Keeping the cubs occupied?” She looked straight at Darky, who turned her head a bit from her.

Elanna looked at the two, “Hello my queen. Hello, Wehu. Yes… I was just telling them a story of my sister and I.”

Ujuzi prodded her daughter, looking at Elanna. Wehu jumped a bit at the prodding then looked to Elanna, “You have been making great progress with me in your hunting skills. So much, that I think it’s time that you join us. Darky, why don’t you take over?”

Elanna smiled a bit, ready to hunt. She rose slowly from the grass and yawned, shaking off the dead grass on her pelt. Amid the pleas of the cubs for her to say, she stretched out her body and muscles.

CHAPTER: ON THE HUNT

Elanna was overwhelmed at the chance of getting on the hunt again. Though she hated to leave the cubs, she wanted her old life back. Enthused about the chance to redeem herself, she went to Wehu. “I need to make up for my last mistake… I’ll be the beater this time.”

“Oh no, my dear,” the Queen said, moving past her daughter and rubbing against Elanna. “You will be next to my daughter. This will signal a new time of friendship among us. I haven’t been very nice to you. But now I want to get to know you better, and show you how I really feel about you.” She grinned slightly as she moved away from the two, getting a look from her daughter.

Elanna smiled to the queen, bowing her head slightly, “I pray that Aiheu may remove all doubts from your mind about me.”

Ujuzi turned her head from her, grinning, “He has, my dear. I have no questions about you or your intentions. Now we will see what kind of huntress you really are.”

Perhaps if Elanna had looked deeply into Ujuzi’s cold stare, she would have seen past the smile. She would have suspected the plan that Ujuzi had in store for her.

The other lionesses were in a good mood to see Elanna among them. They all nuzzled her and commented on how fast that she came back when they saw her. There was a certain relaxing of tension among them that could be seen and even felt in subtle ways impossible to describe. Ujuzi herself seemed to be in an upbeat, if intense mood. Unlike the others, Wehu seemed to be tense as she scanned the horizon for the target of the nights hunt.

Quietly the group headed into the grass, searching for that weak animal that would sustain them for another day. Elanna sensed that something was wrong with Wehu as the night progressed. Slowly she moved over to her and tried to improve her mood. “I’m glad to be hunting again. I feel you have talked with your mother—there’s no other explanation. You’re a dear friend, and so like my daughter might have been.” Elanna smiled nervously to the hunt mistress. “I want to do well and not mess up again.”

Wehu turned to her and tried to put on a smile, failing miserably, “I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you.”

Elanna looked at her curiously, but shook it off. “Still, I feel the queen is only being nice to me because of you. If there’s anything I can do to make your mother really like me, let me know. Your father likes me well enough.”

Wehu swallowed slowly, looking down at the ground. “So I gathered.”

“Aiheu bless you for your kindness. At my age, I need peace and stability. I’ve felt torn up inside since I got here. You’re all that holds me together.”

Wehu nuzzled her, her insides tight over what her mother had planned. “I think you will find peace.” Wehu hung her head. “You know Lannie, you’ve had to face a lot of obstacles in your life. I wonder if I would have done half as well.” Wehu added quietly, “No matter how this hunt turns out, I think you’re a good lioness.”

Elanna looked at her in surprise at her statement “Now I AM frightened. Is so much riding on my making well tonight?”

“No, Honey Tree. Don’t worry about it. I’m just making a statement, that’s all.” Wehu sniffed at the air and sighs softly, “I smell something.” Quietly she grunted to the others in the group… signaling them to get prepared for the hunt.

As the pride topped the hill, they spotted their target for the night, a small group of wildebeest. Wehu looked around at the group, as if she was about ready to make a decision which she dreaded. Quietly she cleared her throat as she looked to the pride. “Mom, you head to the right with Kiesi. Tetesi, come left with me.”

Elanna looked to Wehu in confusion, “Where do I go?”

Wehu tried to smile as her insides tightened more, “You have a very important part.” She motioned with her head, “You head down the dry gully as far as you can and when you hear all grief break loose, climb out and create panic.”

Elanna looked down at where she was suppose to be, through the sea of wildebeests. She turned backed to Wehu “Are you sure that it is safe for me? I’m getting awfully close to their hooves when you start to drive them.”

“It’s not as bad as it sounds, dear. We’ll be pushing in toward your position. If you’re careful, there should be very little danger to you.” She tried again with a reassuring smile, “It’s Tetesi and I that will have to watch out.” She tried to let out a small chuckle, “And Mom is not as young as she used to be.”

Elanna nodded softly, still not suspecting what the real prey was. “I’m sorry Wehu. I guess I just have to get use to a new hunting style.” She looked up to her, “I trust you with my life, something I don’t do to many.” She smiled up to her, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

Wehu nodded and tried to hold the pain in her stomach, “Thank you Lannie… um… I have to speak with the others to set up our portion of the hunt.” With that, she quickly moved over to Kiesi and Tetesi.

The two lionesses looked at the hunt mistress, “What are we going to do, Wehu? What’s the plan?”

“Just do as you’re told, girls. I’m sorry it makes no sense, but I’ve given Elanna some special instructions. It will be clear to you when it all comes together.”

As Wehu was talking to the other lionesses, the queen made her way towards Elanna, “Well, I’m sure you will do well on this hunt. As a matter of fact, I talked my daughter into letting you come on to this hunt. She thought you might not be ready.” She nuzzled Elanna gently and smiled, “But I convinced her to let you play this pivotal role. If everything goes well, we’ll have a kill for sure.”

Elanna smiled to the queen and returned the nuzzle as Wehu glanced over and glared at her mother.

The hunters regrouped and began to make their moves. Elanna was very careful to watch Wehu’s, the signs she had been taught running through her mind. Wehu sent the other lionesses off, and before disappearing with Tetesi, she nodded at Elanna. It was time.

Elanna kept a low profile and walked with a quiet tread as only a cat could through the savanna grasses and toward the beginning of the dry wadi.

There were rocks in the bottom of the wadi. It would take all her skill to keep from making sound there. She stepped gingerly from boulder to boulder, avoiding the loose pebbles and gravel that could make scraping noises.

So far, she had not heard a stampeding herd. There was not even the nervous stamping of a few spooked animals. She could tell by the grunts and low calls of mothers to calves and the chirps back that against all hope she had pulled off the perfect stalk. How proud Ujuzi would be of her! And how proud Wehu would be! With pride in her heart, she waited for the signal, prepared to make a mighty effort to start panic among the wildebeests.

Suddenly, she heard a rush, and what she thought was a signal. Wehu shouted, “Stay still! Don’t move!”

The rumble of hooves was all around her. Suddenly the hunt mistress was bounding down the wadi after Elanna with Tetesi behind her. Wehu had been hit on the side by one of the animals and was bleeding a bit.

“Oh thank Aiheu! You’re all right!”

“Why? What happened?? Did I mess things up??” She looked at her friend, “Oh Wehu, your bleeding!”

“No, Sweetie! You didn’t mess up! I did!” She didn’t seem to notice the bleeding or care for that mater.

“You did?”

Wehu looked down at Elanna’s paws and suddenly burst into tears. Elanna looked at her curiously and nuzzled against her. Wehu looked up and into her eyes, “Forgive me! I love you, Elanna! Forgive me!”

“For what?? I’m all right! So you made a little mistake on the hunt—who am I to be upset with you?? Why are you acting like this??”

Wehu looked up quickly, the fear showing in her eyes, “Run, Elanna! Don’t ask why, just run. Run far away! Or the queen will try to kill you again!”

Elanna was shocked, but before she could react Ujuzi came running into the wadi, snarling. “Wehu, are you all right??” She noticed the blood quickly. “Did Elanna almost get you killed??”

Wehu growled back at her mother, “You know good and well what happened! I couldn’t carry out your orders! Not and stand before Aiheu when I die!”

The Queen growled, “I don’t need a trick to kill a dirty little adulteress!” She turned viscously on Elanna but before she could advance, Wehu bodily blocked her mother.

“Out of my way, brat!”

“No! You’ll have to kill me first!”

“I am your queen!”

“I thought you were my mother! You’re not! I don’t even know you!”

“You’re not hunt mistress anymore! You disgraced the one who bore you!”

“You disgraced yourself! Elanna and I are leaving together.”

“No we’re not!” Elanna shouted, which instantly silenced the Queen, her daughter, and the other lionesses in the pride. Elanna turned on the queen. “You think all I dream about is making it with your husband!”

“Watch your mouth!” she screamed balefully at Elanna.

Elanna snapped back, “I’ve just gotten started, Missy! And do you want to DO something about it??” Elanna stepped forward. “I’m not afraid of you, you overstuffed, backbiting, treacherous loud-mouthed hussy!”

The queen silenced, backing back as she saw Elanna for the first time. No longer was she a timid little mouse, but a mighty hunter.

“Mabongo is like the brother I never had, and Wehu is like the daughter I never had. Personally I don’t care if you live or die, but they love you—no matter what you think—and I don’t want to see them hurt. If you want to hold on to that husband of yours, start by showing him a little respect! Now by your leave, YOUR HIGHNESS, I will leave you and your ‘pride’ alone!”

Elanna turned away from the queen, catching her breath. Instantly, her gaze fell on Wehu.

“Where will you go?” she asked, moving towards her.

Elanna nuzzled her gently, giving her a kiss on the cheek. “Where I belong. I’m going back to my sister to face my past. If I can face Sarabi, you can face your mother. Honey Tree, it doesn’t seem like it now, but you will work this out with your mother. It’s all right. I want you to.”

Wehu kissed Elanna, then went to the Queen. Embarrassed, Ujuzi looked down.

Wehu began to weep softly, and Ujuzi gently but urgently began to clean the cut on her side.

“Ujuzi?” Elanna called. The Queen looked up and tried to meet her eyes with her own. “He never loved any lioness but you. I’ll admit I found him attractive, but I never tried to act on it. I swear to Aiheu. He loves you, Ujuzi. I hope the two of you have a good life. Sometimes dreams do come true—not always, but I hope yours do.”

“You too, Hon,” Ujuzi said. “But somewhere else, please?”

Elanna nodded, turned, and walked away.

THE EPILOGUE

Elanna felt that she would be home by nightfall—either home with Sarabi or Taka. She sought the advice of Rafiki. If anyone could help her know what to expect, it would be him. True, her husband had brutalized him and kept him locked away. Still, inside she felt that if anyone could forgive her, it would be him.

She stalked quietly up to his baobab. She was not certain if he would still be there after the rigors of his long confinement. In fact, she did not even know if he was still alive.

She saw something that made her heart race. A lioness was playing with a young mandrill under the tree. Could that be Rafiki’s son? She could not be sure, and yet she finally recognized the lioness. Uzuri!

What luck! Uzuri had always been willing to stand by her! She felt a tremendous urge to break cover and rush to her, pawing and kissing the one who had been so kind! Still, she remembered the hyena’s warning. She had been told that death awaited her at Pride Rock.

Her conflicting emotions of fear and love made her tremble. The battle within her made her huntress’ concentration lapse, and she didn’t notice which way the wind was blowing for some time.

A quick gust of wind swirled about her ears and tickled her whiskers—and headed straight for Uzuri. Elanna panicked and chills wracked her as the young mandrill turned and pointed directly at her.

“Please, Aiheu,” Elanna silently mouthed. “If I must die, let it be quick and merciful.”

With her heart in her mouth, Elanna rose and stepped out of the tall grass. Trembling, her gaze locked on Uzuri’s startled expression. She saw the lioness quietly mouth, “Oh my gods!”

Makaka glanced nervously from one lioness to the other. The tension was so strong it fairly rustled the grass.

“Lannie! I thought you were dead!” Uzuri took a step forward.

Elanna took a step backward. Her heart pounded. She heard escape from her lips, “Don’t hurt me!” It was almost as if someone else was speaking inside her. Fear had weakened her, and her knees nearly buckled under her weight.

Uzuri paused and lowered her head a bit. “Hon, I won’t hurt you. I’m your friend, remember?”

Elanna wanted to believe that. She wanted to trust her more than anything. For one awful moment, she wondered if this might be a trick to bring her back alive to justice. But Uzuri’s eyes were kind and sincere. There was pity and love in their hazel depths, enough to heal a world of hurts.

She crept toward her old huntmistress, trying to summon some dignity from her past. Her head was erect and her shoulders were square, though her heart was pounding like a hammer.

When she was but a length away, Elanna rushed the last couple of steps into a desperate nuzzle. She rubbed her face against Uzuri’s soft cheek. She took an ear between her lips and mouthed it lovingly, stroking it with the tip of her tongue. Then she rubbed full length down her warm, lithe body, feeling the familiar comfort and mixing the fragrance with her own. “Oh gods!” she murmured, tears filling her eyes. “Uzuri, I’ve been so alone!”

Her friend purred and gave her a gentle touch of her tongue. “Not any more, dear. Not any more.”

Elanna thought about her sister Sarabi. Would she be as quick to forgive? Could she forgive the mate of her husband’s killer? She sighed deeply. “I can’t come back. The others—they hate me. I just know it. They’ll never let me stay.” She started to cry, looking down at the ground. “Uzuri, I don’t know what to do! I’ve been alone for the longest time. I can’t stand it anymore! I tried to join Mabongo’s pride but his wife is insanely jealous. She tried to kill me!”

“Oh honey tree!” Uzuri nuzzled her again.

“It was in the hunt. She said it was an accident, but I know better! I almost ended up like Avina!”

“Poor thing!” She stroked Elanna’s cheek with her paw. “You remember my sons Togo and Kombi, don’t you?”

“Yes. How are they?”

“Well Kombi’s a king and Togo’s his Prince Consort.” Uzuri smiled. “Their father died, but his death gave them a new life. Life is like the wind—if you don’t like the way it’s blowing, wait and it will change.” She kissed Elanna’s cheek. “They will be glad to take you in, my dear.”

“Really?”

“Yes, and you could have a fresh start…” She frowned. “No! Your home is here, and you’re going to come home where you belong.”

“But they all hate me. They’ll never forgive me for marrying Taka.”

“I think they will. Don’t you want to see your sister Sarabi again?”

“Oh gods, I’d give anything to see her. But it will never work!”

“I don’t want you to give anything—just the effort to trust me and come back. Give it a try.”

“But facing all of them alone…”

“You’re not alone. I will be with you.”

“Why are you so good to me?”

“Because I love you, and because I promised Taka that I would look after you the way you asked me to look after him.”

Elanna had hoped against hope that the hyena had lied to her about Taka. She had to know the truth. She timidly asked, “How is he? What happened to him?”

“He died like a real lion. You would have been proud of him.”

“You are good, Uzuri. So good to me. If it’s the two of us, I will give it a try. It can’t hurt.”

“The three of us,” Makaka said.

“The four of us,” Rafiki said. Rafiki threw his arms around Elanna’s strong neck. “First Simba came back from death. Now my Lannie. God has been generous.”

Bravely, hopefully, the four friends headed for Pride Rock. According to Elanna’s wishes, Rafiki and Makaka combined their talents with Elanna’s experience to avoid the sentry patrols and find Sarabi before someone found them. Elanna did not want to be intercepted by an angry Isha who might rip her alive on the spot. If anyone must kill her, it must be her own sister. Maybe with Sarabi there was a chance for mercy.

Elanna ascended Pride Rock the same way she had left it—by stealth. She led her surprised friends up a difficult but well-concealed route that left old Rafiki huffing and puffing, but surprised even Uzuri in its ingenuity. The mistrustful hyenas had devoted a great deal of thought to the approach, and it probably aided many spies to eavesdrop on Taka.

It was the time when Sarabi should have been cub-setting in her usual spot. Rafiki looked around the entrance and spotted her resting in the cool shade. She glanced up at him. “Rafiki, come here old friend!”

“I’d like to, but I think you might want me to wait outside.”

She laughed. “What are you talking about, old monkey?”

“You’ll see.”

Elanna wanted to go right in, but she froze beside the mouth of the cave. She looked at Uzuri and shook her head “no.”

Uzuri half smiled and nodded “yes.”

Lannie tried taking a step, then looked around in a panic. She touched her chest with a paw, the silent hunting signal for retreat. Uzuri shook her head, nuzzled her reassuringly, and tapped her cheek wth a paw. The gesture said, “No!”

Lannie looked at the cave mouth, then looked back at Uzuri. She touched her chest with a paw again and started to walk away. “Oh gods,” she mouthed silently. “I’m scared!”

Uzuri drew close and whispered, “I know. We all are.”

Death had once seemed like release to Elanna, a sort of belated victory. She had contemplated joining her husband among the stars before, but she stood there terrified of dying.

There was no where to run. She was in the middle of the Pride Lands, and the only way out was through. She kissed Uzuri good bye and hoarsely began to whisper the prayer of the dying—in case she did not have the time to utter it in her moment of greatest need.

In a move that was not meant to be morbid, and was not taken morbidly, Rafiki made the sign of Aiheu, circling her eye and touching under her chin. He nodded. “It is time.”

Then she stepped into view…

“Who are you?” Sarabi asked. The bright light behind her made Elanna a silhouette against the azure sky. “Do I know you?”

Elanna had to step closer to Sarabi, and the effort made her tremble and gasp. Still there was no hint of recognition until one feeble word escaped her lips. “Sassie?”

Sarabi’s eyes grew wide and her ears drew back. “You’re dead! Oh my gods!”

“No, Sassie. It’s really me!”

The queen mother looked at her. Her chin trembled and her chest heaved. Tears began to run down her cheeks. “Lannie? I’m…”

“Sis, I want to come home! Oh gods, I want to come home!”

Sarabi rose from the ground and sprang up, wrapping her paws around Elanna’s neck and bearing her to the ground. Wracked with sobs, she pawed and nuzzled Elanna, covering her in warm kisses, feeling her fur, breathing her scent and listening to her heart beat. “Don’t you ever leave me again, girl!”

Lannie reached around Sassie’s strong neck and held her tightly. “I’ll never leave you! Never again! I love you, Sassie!”

“I love you too! I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. Oh Honey Tree, can you forgive me?”

“What do YOU think?” Elanna sniffed back tears. “The hyenas were taking me out to be killed when the battle started.”

“I know. Ten hyenas to one lioness. That’s what we heard.”

“I wanted to come back and help. Really I did, but I thought you didn’t…”

“Hsssh, Honey Tree. It was a bad dream. You’re awake now.”

“How about the Pride Sisters? How many died? How many of the cubs?”

“None and none. Aiheu was with us. Some of the hyenas were with us too. I was bitter and full of rage, but I was touched by a great light that day. Now you’re here and there is no darkness left.”

Makaka slipped his arms about Rafiki, and the old mandrill reached down and kissed his cheek. Tears filled Rafiki’s eyes. “All is as it should be.”

Some of the cubs came forward and looked at the two entwined in their tearful embrace. Sarabi stood up and wiped her face with a paw. “My sister Elanna’s here. You’ve never met her before.”

Sarabi proudly said, “The one in the middle is Tanabi. Simba’s boy. My grandson.”

“Your grandson?”

“And your nephew.” Sarabi smiled at Tanabi. “Come kiss your Aunt Lannie, Honey Tree. She could use it.”

Tanabi came forward and rubbed on Elanna who promptly pulled him close with a paw and began grooming him. “You’re a sweetie, yes you are!”

Lannie looked around at the other small faces and beckoned to the cubs, a smile of almost other-worldly beauty lighting her countenance. “Come here, you! Let’s have fun!” At once they mobbed her, pulling on her tail, kissing her face, and rubbing against her. Elanna wept again, hugging each of the unknown cubs and kissing them.

One asked, “Why are you crying?”

“I’m crying because I’m so happy a smile isn’t good enough!”

Another asked, “Can you tell me a story?”

Elanna affectionately swatted him with a paw. “I’ll certainly try.”

Uzuri poked her head in the cave. “Is everything OK in here?”

Elanna looked about. “Yes, Zuri. Everything is OK in here.”


THE END: TOUCH OF THE NISEI