FANDOM


Strength of Heart is a fanfiction story by Friendly that features the Moyo Hodari Pride.

Chapter 1: Heir Unchosen

The male lion trained his eyes on the horizon, waiting. He stood completely still, his ochraceous eyes never leaving the skyline. The ground was cold against his paws, and a light wind tousled the brown fur of his mane. The only movement from him was the slight rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. Each breath he took tasted of dust and grass, as well as the faint rich odors of the small prey animals lurking about. The air was filled with their sounds, the squeaking and the chirping.

"They have not returned yet?" The lion did not turn at the sound of the soft, low voice that spoke behind him. A vaguely rotund lioness with pale cream-colored fur sat down on his left side, following his gaze with her own tan eyes.

"They'll be back," the lion answered unconcernedly.

"I know they will. But in the meantime, I've been wanting to talk to you, King Hodari, and now is as good of a time as any," the lioness announced in a tone that sounded like she was attempting to cover up any nervousness she might feel.

"You want to talk to me?" The lion's surprise was evident on his face, but he said no more and looked expectantly at the lioness. Meeting his eyes, she hesitated briefly before she spoke.

"You still haven't chosen an heir."

King Hodari sighed, his gaze dropping to his paws. "I know what I am doing, Darahani," he responded flatly, his voice expressionless.

"I don't think you do," Darahani answered simply, her tail twitching.

"It is not your place to challenge my decisions," Hodari replied, his claws flexing and leaving furrows in the soil. It came out sharper than he had intended, and Darahani stepped back.

"I know. Perhaps I am not the one to speak with you about this. But I know the cubs. Any of the males could succeed you, they're all full of spirit . . ."

"Not yet, Darahani. Please, leave me in peace."

But Darahani did not leave. Instead, she tilted her head back, gazing up at the stars. "I heard from one of the hares, the old one who made the journey over the Poromoko Cliffs and started a drove here, that the stars are lion kings that have died."

"The stars? The deceased kings? Well, it figures that you heard that from a hare, Darahani," Hodari replied, his voice politely amused. "The kings, along with the other fallen, are still with us, of course you know that. Listen, here them now."

Darahani fell silent. Above the noise made by the small night creatures, the sound of the faint wind rustling the grass was audible.

"That is more than a breeze," Hodari continued softly. "It is one of our pride members, invisible to us. But we can still hear them."

"Yes, I know," Darahani murmured. She yawned briefly before turning around. As she walked quietly back up a slope, she paused and glanced back. "Please think about what I said, King Hodari. The future of the pride depends on your decision."

Though Hodari did not watch her retreat, he heard her faint pawsteps fading away. He exhaled slowly and inhaled a long breath of fresh night air, deep in thought. The cubs. There were male cubs, as Darahani had pointed out. Spirited cubs. And it wasn't like they were the first in a long time, either. There were those who were already solid-coated, just ready to be selected . . . but he hadn't done it. He hadn't chosen any of them yet. He knew his pride was getting worried, and that was not good. Yet he wasn't certain whom he would choose . . .

A new scent wafted on the air- many new scents, in fact. Badilifu, Ekundu, Fahari, and all of the other lionesses mixed with the mouthwatering aroma of fresh wildebeest. Kumbufu, a lioness with a very good memory, had been right as usual, it seemed. The wildebeest herd must be moving through their territory as she had predicted based on the routes of their previous migrations.

Sure enough, he could see the lionesses dragging something big, horned, and limp. Its brown fur, black it the darkness of the night, was streaked with blood and scored with tooth marks. Not the cleanest kill he had ever seen, but it would certainly feed the pride, and that was what mattered. Hodari thought for a moment, then decided to help to speed up the process. In a couple of bounds he was in front of the lionesses, who greeted him with friendly looks. With a nod, Hodari sank his teeth into the shoulder of the great animal and began dragging it along. The flavor of the blood on his tongue made it hard not to tear away a strip of meat, but he resisted the impulse and continued pulling until, finally, the wildebeest had been dragged up the hill.

"What is the reason for your lateness?" Hodari asked, once all of their mouths were free from the burden of the prey.

"Fahari took a nasty kick in the head," Ntulivu explained. "She needed to rest."

"Will she be all right?"

"Most likely, though you should ask Kumbufu. She'd know better than I would."

Hodari turned towards Kumbufu, who stopped grooming her hind paw, stood, and walked over to Fahari. Hodari noticed that the injured golden lioness appeared rather unsteady, her eyes dazed. Kumbufu gently guided her to a soft patch of grass. "Lie down here, let me look."

Hodari did not bother to watch as Kumbufu parted Fahari's fur with her right forepaw. With a wet renting sound, he tore a slab of meat away from the bones of the wildebeest and carried it to his den, which was a hollow dug out beneath a broad, blocky granite boulder.

Settling down with his meal, he took a small bite and chewed it slowly, savoring the rich flavor. As he ate, his eyes traced the top of the slope where the pride was now eating happily. Magharibi has roused the lions from their slumber, and they had emerged to join the wildebeest feast. Nguruma, the oldest member of the pride, shook his sleep-ruffled mane and sat down next to the young male Askari. The elder lion's yellowing teeth sank into the flank of the kill and gouged out a lump of meat, which he shared with Askari.

Hodari took note of Askari's flexible build, his long legs, the muscles that moved beneath his fur as he pulled his portion of meat closer. He was a protective lion, full of spirit, willing to learn . . . an almost ideal choice for an heir. He always had been. But Hodari had not chosen him. Why? Was it just that he was unwilling to choose an heir, and by doing so ascertain that one day, his reign would end? That was foolishness, he knew that someday he would grow old and let another lion take over, he had always known that . . . but was it still true? He shook his head irritably, unwilling to delve deeper into the thought. He turned his focus to his food, to the burying of his teeth into the still-warm flesh and ripping out large bites.

Soon he was licking bits of blood, flesh, and viscera off of his chops. Darahani's words had given him much to ponder, but it could wait? But for how long? a nagging voice in his head queried. Hodari sighed, unable to shake the troubling thought. He was not a young lion. He wasn't very old, either, but a lot of things could happen. His mind flashed back to his late father, gored by a Cape buffalo, hunched over on the ground as the life spilled out of him. If his own father had been king, would he have chosen his heir by now? Perhaps not- throughout the entire time Hodari had known him, his father had been the picture of stubbornness. Hodari had once been proud because he was different. He was a sensible lion who thought practically and realistically, and knew what was best for the pride. Wasn't he? Now he wasn't so sure.

Chapter 2: Hare Ears

Kimeta yawned widely and stretched the muscles in her forepaws, lowering her front half to the ground. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, and glancing around, she saw that only a few others lionesses had arisen. King Hodari was still asleep. Might as well take a walk. Stretching out her limbs one last time, she strode briskly away from the lush patch of grass she had chosen as a sleeping spot and down the slope. "Hey, Ekundu!" she called out to the reddish lioness who was still sound asleep. "Ekundu!" At last, Ekundu jerked awake.

"Come on, Kimeta!" she whined. "Can't I at least sleep in on the days we don't hunt?"

"What, don't want to take a walk with a friend?" Kimeta answered, pretending to be hurt. Ekundu's glower vanished, replaced by her usual peaceful smile.

"Okay, okay. Let's go."

At the base of the hill, Kimeta tilted her head as a slight scurrying noise became audible. Her eyes scanned the ground and located the small circular opening. She slammed her paw over it just in time; less than a second later, something furry crashed into it from underground.

"Ouch!" she heard a nasal voice cry out. Grinning, Kimeta lifted her paw away to reveal Sikiza, the Cape hare, rubbing his little head with a paw.

"Whoops. Sorry, rabbit. Wasn't watchin' where I was walking. You leave these holes all over the place, did you know that?" Well, it's half true, she thought. Sikiza and his drove did leave the ground around the hill riddled with holes.

The long-eared leporid hesitated, then gave a strained sounding chuckle. "Ah- sorry. We need to get around, see . . . and, er, I'm a hare, you see . . ."

"Hare, rabbit," Ekundu responded languidly. "Is there a difference?"

"Ah . . . yes." Sikiza's voice grew terse, and he took a step back. "B-but I need to go report to King Hodari, you understand."

"'Course, don't let us stop you," Ekundu told him lazily.

"But our much-adored king is still asleep, he might eat you if you bug him," Kimeta put in. "Just kidding," she quickly added as pure terror flooded over the hare's face.

"Oh . . . very funny . . . quite funny indeed . . ." Taking a couple more steps back, Sikiza rapidly turned and darted up the hill, and white flash of his tail bobbing up and down. Kimeta and Ekundu watched him go, Ekundu visibly suppressing laughter.

"I probably should not have said that Hodari would eat him," Kimeta muttered, feeling slightly guilty.

"Don't worry about it," Ekundu told her. "That animal is a nervous wreck. Always has been."

Don't worry about it. That seemed to be Ekundu's response to everything. "Okay," Kimeta replied. "Should we keep going, or head back?"

"Are you kidding? We just got out here."

"Yeah, but our chat with Sikiza wasted some of our time. Anyway, I'd like to here Sikiza's report," Kimeta explained, turning back.

Ekundu sighed. "Fine. But next time, don't wake me up and bring me down here only to drag me back up," she consented with good humor.

Back up the hill, almost all of the lionesses were awake. Sikiza was waiting outside of Hodari's den, nervously cleaning between his elongated hind toes while waiting for the king. When the lion emerged, shaking his short brown mane, Sikiza scratchily cleared his throat. "We heard some rumors, Your Majesty, of some strange lion in the area," he announced.

This proclamation was followed by a babble of mutters from the rest of the pride. Rogue lions usually meant trouble. But as usual, King Hodari's expression was difficult to read. "Continue," he instructed Sikiza.

"Well, from what we heard, the trespasser has orange-brown fur. That's all we know. Only one gazelle saw him. The rest has just been traces of scent- that's how we know he is a male."

"Does the scent lead anywhere?" Hodari inquired.

"We followed it for a short time, but the trail disappeared at the Mkondo River."

King Hodari nodded. "Anything else, Sikiza?"

"No, Your Majesty."

"I want your hares on the lookout more than ever. Be our ears. We need to find out more about this rogue lion."

"Yes, Your Majesty." In several swift bounds, Sikiza had vanished down the slope.

"A rogue lion, huh?" Kimeta turned to see her uncle, Nguruma, approaching her.

"As long as he doesn't interfere with our hunting, it doesn't concern me," Kimeta told him. "The lions are the ones who will have to fight him off if he doesn't leave peacefully. Though I would certainly help if I got there in time."

"I know you would," Nguruma told her.

A peaceful silence settled over the pride, though some were still debating about the rogue lion. Nguruma began picking over the remains of the previous night's meal, though little was left but a pile of bones that had been licked clean.

Kimeta lay down and rested her head on her forelegs. Maybe she'd take a nap. The hunt had taken a lot of her energy yesterday. It had been worth it, though. Wildebeest was one of her favorite types of prey, and the hunt had been so successful that only one lioness had been injured. Fahari would recover, too, so no harm had really been done.

She drifted in and out of a doze for the next couple of hours, the sun warming the fur on her back. When she fully awoke, she saw that the sun had just started to set. She stood and stretched, not bothering to smooth her rumpled fur. She gazed at the Kavu Sana Plains, the land surrounding the hill. Everything seemed normal. Wait- she narrowed her eyes- what was that shape emerging from the ground? A hare, of course. Huh. Looks like two of them. I wonder if they've seen anything.

"King Hodari!" she called, and heard the king's snores falter. "We have a couple of hares coming up here."

"Sikiza?" the king grunted sleepily.

Kimeta looked more closely. Ugh, they both look just like Sikiza.

"I don't think so," she deduced, as the hares neared the top of the slope. One of them looked to fat to be Sikiza, and the other had fur that was slightly more brownish. This one was the first to speak, in a panting, out-of breath voice that was clearly female.

"We need the king!" she exclaimed. "Right now, something has happened!"

"His den is over there," Kimeta told them, pointing with a paw. As they darted over, Kimeta decided to follow them. Let me see why they look so nervous.

"-attacked!" the rotund hare was squealing to Hodari as Kimeta approached. "Blood and fur everywhere! I heard him, too! He was being dragged away by a lion!"

"A lion?" King Hodari growled, his piercing ochre eyes narrowed to slits.

"Yes! Lion scent, too! And heavy paws! I heard them!"

Hodari rose to his paws. "Lead the way." Raising his voice, he called for a couple of the lions to join him.

"Me, too," Kimeta added, stepping forward. The king hesitated. "Come on. I'm a better fighter than he is, and he's going." She gestured to a young lion with a half-grown mane as she spoke. The young one growled, but Hodari nodded. Without another word, the group set off, the hares leading the way.

The female hare bounded swiftly ahead, nose twitching. "Right up here!" she declared in her high-pitched, reedy voice. Kimeta inhaled, and her sinuses were filled with the powerful, mouthwatering scent of fresh hare blood. She followed Hodari and the female hare- the fat one hung back reluctantly- through the tall stalks of grass.

The sight that awaited her looked to her like a typical hunt-struggle with a hare. Blood glistened on the trampled blades of grass, and tufts of grayish fur were scattered about. She tasted the air once more- the tantalizing blood-smell, and something else. Something familiar.

"Lion," she muttered, and Hodari inclined his head in agreement.

"It seems," he growled in his deep voice. "We have found our rogue."

"Are you sure?" one of the lions asked, sniffing around.

"No other explanation," Kimeta responded briskly. "We don't hunt the hares, after all, and this scent is unfamiliar anyway." Moving her head slowly to take in the scene, she saw the brown-coated hare out of the corner of her eye, looking like she was about to faint.

"You can go," she told the small animal. Hodari shot Kimeta a reproving look that said clearly "I give the orders", but said nothing. The hare gave Kimeta a grateful look and disappeared into the grass.

Hodari, meanwhile, had turned his attention to the flattened grass once more. His claws protracted as he examined the mess of fur and blood. He leaned down, nostrils flaring, and arose baring his teeth. Kimeta catiously approached to see what had angered him. At his paws lay several long strands of fulvous fur.

We need more clues, Kimeta thought. She detected a trace of the lion's scent in the air, and followed it into the grass. She noticed that several of the stalks were bent, as if someone had run through them. She followed the faint odor until it grew faint. Kimeta wondered why until she realized that her paws were growing damp, and that the dry soil beneath them had turned to pebbly sand. She was standing on the shore of Mkondo River.

The lion had clearly entered the water. Kimeta quickly decided that it was very likely the rogue knew of the pride's existence- why else cover a scent? As her eyes moved along the shore, searching for any other evidence, they lighted on something bobbing in the shallow water. Kimeta walked towards it, water soaking her legs, small waves lapping at her chest. She finally grew close enough to see what it was. Bloody at the base, nearly ripped in half, held together by a shred of sinew.

A hare's ear.

Chapter 3: River Whispers

"We need to know more," Hodari announced to the pride. The discovery of the rogue, in his territory, eating his allies, had put him in a terrible mood. "I'm sending you out in pairs. Ask around. See what you can find out from the other animals."

The pride murmured assent. "Okay," the king continued. "Fahari, you will be paired with-"

"Wait!" A pale-furred lioness rose elegantly to her paws, an unhappy expression on her face. "Why are we splitting up? That seems like the worst possible thing to do, in my opinion." She emphasized the word 'my', as though her opinion carried far more weight than Hodari's.

"I do not need to justify my reasoning to you, Madoa," Hodari replied coolly. He knew that he could, but he honestly did not feel like explaining himself to such an obnoxious lioness as Madoa. "You'll be partnered with Kubali."

Without protesting, Kubali, an agreeable lioness with pale russet fur, stood and walked over to Madoa. The dappled cream lioness did not even look at her.

"Fahari, you're with Ntulivu. Magharibi, you're with Zoelesha. Kimeta, you're with Askari. Badilifu, you're with Nguruma. Machungwa, Elewa. Ekundu, you're with Imara."

"Wait, what?" Ekundu called out, surprise crossing her face. She turned to her new partner, who gazed back at her expressionlessly. Imara and Ekundu were close to opposites- Ekundu carefree and cheerful, Imara serious and strict. This was precisely why Hodari had paired them together.

"Imara, Ekundu. You're with Imara. Please do not make me repeat myself again." Ekundu sighed but did not press the issue.

No one spoke. Most of them looked pleased with their partners, for which Hodari was glad. But just as he started to turn around, Kumbufu piped up.

"What about me, Your Majesty?"

Hodari stared pointedly at her left hind paw, which was shriveled-looking and deformed. A flash of anger crossed her broad face, and her brown eyes narrowed. "Laaniwa, Hodari!" she burst out angrily. "I can get around just fine, just because I can't hunt well, doesn't mean I can't walk."

Startled by her outburst, Hodari gaped at her. As the surprise faded, he felt hot shame creep over him, more than enough to overpower the irritation he felt at her disrespect. Perhaps it was true that he made too many assumptions about her deformity. "All right, Kumbufu," he consented. "You're with me."

After two minutes, they were walking out of the Kavu Sana Plains. "Where are we going?" Kumbufu asked him.

Hodari sighed. He did not like explanations, but then again, Kumbufu should probably know what they were doing beforehand. "Mkondo River. You know how many animals are there. Maybe one of them saw something."

"Good idea! I'll remember everything they tell us, you know what a great memory I have."

"Yes, I am aware."

When they reached the clear flow of water that was the Mkondo River, Hodari was pleased to see a large gathering of animals. Several different herds, at least. On the other paw, they did not look quite as pleased to see the two lions approaching them. Many of them tensed, and a pair of dik-diks bolted.

"At peace," Hodari declared, calmly but loudly. "We do not hunt today." He strode forward and took a lap of the water. Best to let them all relax before demanding information. Out of the corner of his eye, he scanned the different animals. Zebras, sable antelope, lesser kudu, and a lone golden jackal, as well as a couple flocks of birds.

"We'll ask the zebras first," he murmured to Kumbufu as he arose with a dripping muzzle.

"Got it," she replied, her brown eyes glimmering with excitement. Hodari realized that she didn't really leave the slope very often, never mind the Kavu Sana Plains.

Hodari approached the striped animals as calmly as possible. They gazed back at him uncertainly, several of them scraping their hooves against the ground. "Hello," Hodari greeted them. "My name is Hodari, and I lead the lion pride."

"Ah . . . I see," one bold zebra managed after a brief silence.

"I was just curious as to whether any of you have seen a lion with orange-brown fur wandering about. A male," Hodari continued.

This got a reaction from a female zebra with green eyes. "Yes! I did! I was just going off to graze, and I saw these eyes peering at me from the grass. I panicked and ran back to the herd, but before I did I glimpsed a muzzle with that orange fur, all bloody and scary-looking."

Hodari lifted his head eagerly. "Where was this?"

"Well . . . I can't quite recall."

"Thanks anyway," Hodari told her, turning around. He had forgotten the poor memory of zebras.

"Maybe the jackal next?" Kumbufu suggested. "Though I've heard they can be liars."

"Maybe, but what reason would a jackal have to lie about a rogue lion in the territory?"

They approached the small animal cautiously, stopping several feet from it. It turned and eyed them with beady blue eyes. "There something you want, lions?" it asked in a cunning voice that could belong to a male or a female.

Hodari went straight to the point. "Have you seen a rogue lion around here anywhere?"

"I see a lot of lions around here," the jackal retorted. The lean canid looked him up and down, analyzing, then turned towards Kumbufu and did the same. Its lip curled into a sneer when her eyes landed on Kumbufu's twisted paw, but it said nothing.

Hodari specified the appearance of the lion for the jackal. "Hmm . . . now that I recall, seems I may have encountered a lion of that sort. But I have such a poor memory, you see . . . yes, I can't seem to remember. Maybe after a good meal I'll be able to, but right now I'm just too tired to hunt."

"You're asking me to hunt for you, you little . . ." Hodari seized control of his temper before he could carried away. Easy. Be sensible. He contemplated whether or not it would be worth it. Something about the gleam in the cerulean eyes of the jackal told him so. But as he stepped away from the shore, Kumbufu deliberately stomped on his hind paw with her good one.

"No. Chasing rodents would be a waste of time. Get a fish instead, there are so many of them." Appreciating her cleverness, Hodari walked slowly into the water, silvery minnows darting around his paws. He examined the clear water until he sighted a trio of fish, swimming side by side. He crouched, then launched himself forward, landing with a huge splash. The fish were faster than he expected, and he missed. Seeing one swimming away, he tried to flatten it with both paws, but the wriggling creature escaped. Fed up, Hodari gave up using his paws and plunged his head underwater and felt his teeth sink into something soft and rubbery. The fish thrashed, almost freeing itself, but Hodari lifted his head and breached the surface. Securing the fish with a better grip, he moved to shore as fast as he could, half swimming and half walking.

Triumphant, he dropped the fish at the paws of the jackal and saw that it was laughing. Her laughter was easier to read than her voice, and Hodari could tell that she was female. He realized that he must look quite undignified. He could feel water dripping into his face from his mane, which was flattened against his forehead. He was soaking wet, and his fur was a mess. The jackal, still chuckling, dove into the fish, ripping it apart and devouring it.

"All right, lions," she began, her long pink tongue sweeping over her chops to remove the lingering scraps of fish. "I did see a lion that fits your description."

"Will you take us to the place that you saw him?" Hodari asked, keeping his voice smooth. The jackal seemed to ponder his words.

"No," she replied finally. "You can find your own way, I'll tell you where to go. Cross the river, continue forward in the direction of Towe Gorge. You might see some prints or something, who knows."

Hodari nodded his thanks and signaled for Kumbufu to follow him. She did so without complaining, and they waded into the water. Hodari wondered if Kumbufu's paw would stop her, but she appeared to be managing. The river wasn't too deep, but it was wide, so crossing it took more time than Hodari would have liked.

"Have you thought this through, King Hodari?" Kumbufu could not help but ask.

"Yes," the gold-furred lion replied briskly. "We follow the directions that jackal gave us. Then, we catch this rogue."

Chapter 4: On the Offensive

Kumbufu struggled slightly to keep up with Hodari. The lion walked quickly and briskly, his eyes roaming the land ahead. She bit back a growl as a curling root caught her deformed paw and nearly tripped her. Recovering herself, she freed her foot and continued, trotting a little to catch up.

"Is this the cleverest move, King Hodari?" she questioned the king. He paused, turned, and held her gaze with those yellow-brown eyes of his, his expression stony. She knew that he did not much like being interrogated, but she believed that this was something that had to be discussed. "Wouldn't it be better if we went back for backup?" she pressed.

"I can handle one rogue. With you here as well, we should not have any trouble."

Kumbufu padded after him, increasing her speed whenever he grew too far ahead. They walked in slence for five minutes or so, then Hodari halted and narrowed his eyes. Following his gaze, Kumbufu saw that there was a set of faint paw prints several yards in front of them, leading forward.

"Large prints," she remarked. "Adult male, I presume." Hodari did not reply, he only continued forward. Now the Towe Gorge was visible, a long crack in the short, grassy land around them. The reddish walls were jagged and uneven. Claystone, Kumbufu thought, recalling what she had been told about the place as a cub.

"What's the plan?" she asked Hodari.

"Enter the gorge and find the rogue. Once we're down there, it should be easy. There are not many places to hide, and the water is very low this time of year."

Secretly pleased to know that he had been sensible enough to think ahead, Kumbufu loped to the edge of the gorge and tried to peer down. But the ground transitioned so abruptly from dry grass to rough stone that she lost her balance, caught a claw in a small crevice, and lurched forward. A burst of pain shot up her leg as the nail was torn lose from the distal phalanx. She heard Hodari lunge forward and felt his sharp teeth pulling her back.

"Sorry," Kumbufu apologized, catching her breath. "That was foolish. I should not have blindly wandered so close to the edge."

"Indeed," Hodari agreed. "Come on. Let's enter from the western end." They walked alongside the gorge until Kumbufu could see the ground of it slowly rising. At the very end, a jagged trail led out.

"That's our way in," Hodari told her.

"Okay," Kumbufu agreed, trying to hide the flutter of nervousness she suddenly felt. What if I hurt myself going down, and he makes me stay behind? Resolving to be cautious, she slowly scrambled down, somewhat ungracefully. Hodari followed in three neat leaps, moving so lightly that his paws barely seemed to touch the ground.

Moving through the Gorge proved to be more difficult than Kumbufu would have liked. The ground was rugged and pitted at first, which made walking difficult. It got worse when they entered the water, if it still could be called water. 'Sludge' is probably the more accurate term, Kumbufu thought as the oleaginous brown liquid clung to her fur.

"See anything?" she asked Hodari, but received no answer. The lion was glancing around, sniffing the air, moving his ears. He seemed oblivious to her, focused only on his surroundings. Suddenly, he stiffened. His head turned towards a small pile of knobbly boulders. Kumbufu inhaled, but the wind was blowing away from them, so she could not discern any particularly interesting scent.

"There is something there, I heard it. Go around those rocks on the right side. I'll take the left."

Kumbufu obeyed, creeping carefully around the boulder heap. "Now," she heard Hodari hiss, and she pounced. She saw a flash of rich orange, felt fur slip between her paws, and watched as a lion ran directly towards Hodari. The king wrapped his forepaws around the new lion's shoulder and slammed him against the ground. Kumbufu heard the lion huff as the air escaped his lungs. He thrashed beneath Hodari, and Kumbufu walked around and planted a paw against his haunch to further restrain him.

Staring down at the lion, she was shocked to see his smooth, scarless coat, white teeth, and half-grown mane the color of rust. He can't be full grown!

Hodari seemed to come to the same conclusion. "It seems, Kumbufu," he commented. "That this rogue is a cub."

"Not quite a cub. Look at his mane." Kumbufu tried to point with her free paw, but the lion snapped savagely at her. She drew her paw back just as his teeth clipped the air where it had been a second before.

"Let me up," the lion growled.

"You're in no position to made demands of me," Hodari replied coolly. "What are you doing in our territory?"

"Didn't know this was anyone's territory."

"Well, you are. So I must demand that you leave," Hodari ordered, springing off the youth and letting him rise to his paws.

"I can't do that," the lion told him, and Kumbufu heard an undercurrent of worry in his tone. "Really, I can't. I can't leave."

"And why would that be?"

"There are . . . come on, can't I just stay here? Can you honestly tell me your pride hunts in this old ravine? I haven't seen anyone since I arrived here, what, a week ago?"

"You came here a week ago?" Hodari snarled.

"Uh, yeah."

"You are leaving," the king lion demanded, fuming.

"No, I already told you, I can't . . ."

"Look," Kumbufu broke in. "Tell us why you can't. We're going back and forth here. If you can't tell us, we're going to have to drive you out by force."

The lion hesitated. "Oh, okay. Follow me."

He led them down the gorge, striding through the viscous water as if he were walking on nice dry earth. Kumbufu noted the considerable size of his paws. That's why we didn't realize that he wasn't an adult.

Finally, the lion turned to one side of the gorge. Kumbufu saw a triangular gap in the wall, higher than her head. Surely he couldn't jump . . . Then she noticed the thin, ragged trail that led up to the hole. It looked far to small for the lion's wide paws to navigate, though.

"Nurisha! Ajali! Macheo!" the lion called in his low, clear voice. A moment later three heads appeared in the front of the miniature cave.

Cubs. Taking a look at them, Kumbufu noticed that they could not possibly be siblings- not all of them, at least. The smallest cub had pale tawny fur, pale yellowish-green eyes, and distinctively large ears. The largest was so pale as to be almost white, with a diamond-shaped muzzle and a crest of fur on her head that stood upright. The third cub was a soft, warm brown color, with far-set, bright tangerine eyes and a tall forehead. None of them resembled the rogue lion.

"Kingiza, what's going on?" the cub with the palest fur asked, her eyes lighting on Kumbufu and Hodari. Her brow furrowed as she glanced from one lion to the other.

"Nothing. It's fine," the rogue lion, who now had a name, replied.

"Then why're they here?" continued the cub. Her eyes, which were the color of honey, locked with Kumbufu's, startlingly intense.

Hodari looked at the cubs, then at Kingiza. "Are they related to you?"

Kingiza paused, as if deciding whether or not to answer. "Macheo's my cousin. Ajali and Nurisha are brother and sister, but neither of them are related to us."

"Which one is which?"

"Big-ears up there is Ajali. The tallest is Nurisha. Macheo has the brown fur."

Kumbufu found it hard to believe that the largest and smallest cubs were related at all. They looked completely different, nothing like siblings. And yet, looking more closely, she could she some vague similarities in the shapes of their noses, the set of their ears.

Looking at the cubs, Hodari's expression hardened. "Get out and take them with you. They look strong enough to make it- except, perhaps, for the runty one."

"Runty?" the smallest cub snarled. "Are you calling me- whoa!" He had tried to step out of the hole, stumbled off of the trail, and fell to the ground with a thud. "Ow." He was lying with his rear end in the air, tail flopping into his eyes. Hodari stared at him with disdain clearly stamped into his features as the cub stood, hopping from paw to paw as if each movement smarted.

"No way. You think that you can just kick me and these cubs out? We haven't been bothering anybody. The only animals that live here are a couple of really ugly birds," Kingiza argued, baring those sharp white teeth.

"You ate one of my allies."

"What, the wildebeest?" The fulvous lion now looked confused.

"The hare, you thief."

"The thing practically blundered into my paws," Kingiza snarled, stiffening. "Besides, I have to eat something. And so do the cubs." His brass eyes were dark and angry, locked with Hodari's ochre glare.

As Hodari protested, Kumbufu watched the cubs. The pale tawny cub, Ajali, had sat himself down and was staring at the bickering lions. The cub that Kingiza had called his cousin- what was her name?- was exchanging a concerned glance with the other female, Nurisha. Suddenly, as her eyes roamed over Kingiza's powerful frame, his wide paws, an idea came over her.

"King Hodari, may I speak to you?" she interrupted. Hodari gave her a questioning look, but followed her over the the edge of the Towe Gorge. "Listen," she began. "This could be what our pride needs."

"A rogue eating our food?" Hodari growled, bewildered.

"No. New blood."

"Are you implying that Kingiza, that insolent fool . . ." Hodari fell silent, shocked.

"Think about it. He's clearly strong. And not just a selfish rogue. We could let him join our pride. You know it's the best thing to do, Hodari." She carefully monitored his expression as he mulled over her words. At last, he reached a decision.

"Very well," he sighed. He turned and walked back to Kingiza. "Listen, lion," he started. Kingiza faced him, his expression irritated. However, Kumbufu thought she could see worry beneath the annoyed mask.

"What now?"

"My companion has made a suggestion to me, and I agreed. We think that you could . . . join our pride. You and the cubs."

Whatever Kingiza might have been expecting, it clearly wasn't that. "Join your pride? I thought you were trying to get rid of us!"

"Are you no longer reluctant to leave?" Hodari queried.

The lion ignored this and began pacing, frowning. Finally he halted. "Okay . . . I can't say I see anything wrong with bringing the cubs to the pride, at least."

Kumbufu nodded, trying to encourage him. "They would have a mother and father in the pride that could take care of them," she told him.

"I take care of them perfectly fine myself!" Kingiza argued, but after a pause he inclined his head. "Very well. But . . . we can leave, right? If they don't like it."

"Yes," Hodari replied. "But know that by leaving the pride once, you will no longer be welcome in the territory. Even if seasons pass and the cubs mature, they still may not venture back onto our land."

"Sounds great," Kingiza retorted, bitterness seeping into his tone. He twisted his neck until he faced the cave, where the two females were peering out. The male cub was gaping at Hodari with round tilleul eyes. Kingiza called for the cubs to come down, and they obeyed, moving gracefully down the narrow trail.

"They bringing us away? To a pride?" Nurisha inquired. Her face was very difficult to interpret.

Kingiza nodded, and the second female cub smiled widely. "Great! I'd like to meet some new lions!" She stood up on the tips of her paws, clearly ready to go.

"Well, I'm glad you're happy about it, Macheo," Kingiza responded. He surveyed the cubs with his aeneous eyes once more, then directed his attention to Hodari.

"Lead the way, king lion."

Chapter 5: A New Home

It was loud. It was crowded. It was full of new scents and tastes.

It was a lot to take in.

Nurisha glanced around, trying to adjust to the new environment. She felt Ajali's fur pressing against her side, and she knew that he was as daunted as she was, despite the brave face he was putting on. Macheo did not seem troubled at all; did anything faze that cub? Kingiza looked defensive, as if he were about to put himself between the cubs and the lions around them.

To be fair, the pride members were all keeping their distance . . . to some degree. Nurisha could see a cub with reddish orange fur peering at them curiously, inching closer at an increasing pace. Macheo saw her, too. "Hi there!" the plump cub called out to the stranger in a bright voice.

A grin spread across the other cub's face. "Hello!" She put on a falsely thoughtful expression. "Hmm . . . I don't think I've seen you around here before. Are you members of the hare drove delivering a message?"

Macheo laughed brightly, and Ajali smiled widely. Nurisha felt the edges of her own mouth turn up slightly. "What's your name?" Macheo asked.

"Chekesha. Yours?"

"I'm Macheo! This is Nurisha, Ajali . . . and Kingiza." Macheo introduced them.

"Nice to meet you all! Hey, how about you get something to eat? Some of the lionesses found a zebra carcass today!" Chekesha invited cheerfully.

"Yes, of course," Ajali broke in, eager to take the lead. "Just show us the way!"

Chekesha happily led them over to the remains of a zebra, where a large fiery colored lion and a pale peach-colored lioness were dining with gusto. The lion lifted his bloodied muzzle as they approached, shaking locks of his mane out of his hazel green eyes. "What's this?" he queried in a bored voice.

"New cubs, Machungwa! Isn't it great?" Chekesha gushed.

The orange lion, Machungwa, didn't seem to think so, but he replied in the same tone as before, "Sure it is, uh . . ."

"Chekesha."

"Right, right. Chekesha. Got to remember that." He turned back to his meal, his teeth scraping against the bone as he tore off a strip of meat and devoured it. The lioness next to him surveyed Nurisha and the others for a moment, seeming hardly more interested than the lion. But she dutifully asked them their names, and they introduced themselves politely.

"Zoelesha," the lioness declared in a stentorian, before dipping her head back into the zebra. Nurisha paused, then tore off a scrap of meat, chewed it, and swallowed. The flavor was strong, and she quite enjoyed it. I can't remember the last time I had zebra.

She felt Kingiza's warm breath brush the fur of her ear as he leaned down and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Will you three be okay? I think the leader wants to talk to me." Casting a darting glance, Nurisha saw that the king lion, the one with the golden fur and the short brown mane, was staring at Kingiza with an expectant expression.

"What? But . . . I mean, yeah, sure, Kingiza. Go ahead, we'll be great," Ajali responded, speaking for all three of them.

Nurisha concealed a stab of nervousness as Kingiza walked away. Why am I afraid? This is my home. I need to stop acting like I'm in a clan of hungry hyenas. She faced Chekesha and smiled politely. Looking directly into the cub's eyes for the first time, Nurisha saw that they were an interesting color- bright carmine red. "Um, maybe you could introduce us to some other lions?"

"Sure thing!" Chekesha agreed. "I'll show you all the other cubs! Would you like to meet my sister?"

"Of course!" Macheo replied, and Chekesha led them over to a stout lioness with pale russet fur. She was lying on her side, and had one paw wrapped protectively around a cub that was much smaller than Chekesha. The cub's golden fur was dull and patchy. Her nose was running, and her dull red eyes seemed sore.

"This is Ugonjwa. My sister." The ill-looking cub, Ugonjwa, lifted her thin head as Chekesha said her name. She blinked several times, then spoke in a rasping voice.

"Who are they?"

"I'm Nurisha. This is Ajali and Macheo," Nurisha explained. Ugonjwa nodded, then her head sunk down until it rested on her mother's paw.

"Why don't you let her sleep?" the lioness told the cubs in a soft voice.

"Yes, Mom!" Chekesha accepted. "That's my mother. Her name is Kubali. My dad is Hodari, the king of the pride!"

"Is he . . . nice?" Nurisha ventured, uncertain. He had seemed fierce, even mean, during his encounter with Kingiza.

"Yeah, he is. Keeps to himself, y'know, but comes and plays with us often," Chekesha responded. "Hey, Nyembaba!" she called suddenly. A dark-furred cub with deep amber eyes dipped his head in response, but did not approach. He was standing off to the side, muscles tense, leaning slightly forward as if about to fall into a crouching position. "Practicing stalking again," Chekesha noted with a snort. "He's going to become permanently short if he spends any more time staying low to the ground. I'll introduce you to the cubs who know how to have fun!"

The bouncing red-orange cub frolicked over to a pair of cubs who were worrying a bone with sharp little teeth. One of them was a male, with long ginger fur and green eyes. The other was a yellow-furred lioness. The male looked up as they neared him, curiosity sparking in his emerald gaze. "Well, well. Bringing us more meat, Chekesha?"

"Funny, Kimbilia. Really funny. These are my new friends: Ajali, Nurisha, and Macheo!" Chekesha announced, nodding to each in turn. Nurisha felt some more of her shyness dissolve. Friends? I already have a friend!

"Nice to meet you!" the lioness greeted kindly, leaping to her paws and giving a small hop. "Where did you come from?"

"We've been living in the territory for . . . . a week? I don't know, I can't remember," Macheo admitted. "Anyway, Chekesha's father found us and brought us back here with my big cousin!"

"Is your 'big cousin' the lion who we saw talking to the king himself not a minute ago?" Kimbilia inquired. Nurisha noted that the emphasis he put on the word 'king' sounded vaguely sarcastic.

"That's him!" Macheo confirmed.

"What are we standing around talking for? Let's play a game!" the lion cub demanded, springing up as well. The movement caused the thick tuft of ruddy fur atop his head to bounce and fall into his dancing green eyes, which Nurisha found rather endearing.

"Sure, but maximum three rules. Okay, Kimbilia?"

Kimbilia looked slightly crestfallen, but he nodded. "I guess," he accepted, shuffling his round paws. He lapsed into thoughtful silence for a minute, then looked up rapidly. "All right! I got it! Here's what we're going to do! Little cub-" Here, Nurisha guessed he was speaking to Ajali, who was the smallest of the cubs. "- you're going to pick up a rock and run with it. Lubaya and Chekesha will chase you. You try to pass of the stone to one of your friends, who will be hiding in the grass. Then, while Chekesha and Lubaya try to figure out who has it while you all run around to confuse them. If he or she can, the one with the rock will make their way over to that dead old tree- I'll show you where it is before we start- and try to climb it to give the stone to me. Then, I become the one to run with it, and Lubaya and Chekesha become my allies while you two girls- Nurisha and Macheo, right?- are the ones to chase me. Ajali becomes the one who waits on top of the tree, only it'll be a pile of boulders this time- once again, I'll show it to you before we start- and we play again! The rules are: only the rock-carrier and the chasers can climb the tree while his allies stay on the ground and try to stop the chasers from climbing up after him, if the chasers catch and pin the one with the rock they have to give it up and lose, and the rock must be carried in the mouth." He paused, then added quickly, "And no pulling manes."

Nurisha felt like her head was spinning, but Chekesha only laughed in a way that made Nurisha think that devising such complicated games was typical of Kimbilia. "Wow, really easy to follow."

"Oh, totally." Lubaya grinned maliciously. "And that was four rules. You have to get rid of the last one. I can still pull your mane."

Kimbilia looked very unhappy about this. In one deft motion, he brought a paw to his head and swept his mane out of his face. "Fine. So, anyone need me to repeat the rules?"

"Yes!" they all chorused.

About fifteen minutes later, they are were ready at last. Kimbilia had shown them the old tree and the boulder heap before taking them back to the slope. "We'll start here," he declared, scraping at the earth until he unearthed a small, roundish, earth-encrusted rock. Swiftly, he tossed it over to Ajali, who allowed it to hit him in the face.

"Ow!" The tawny cub shook his head thrice. "Okay. Right. I know just what I'm supposed to do." He took the stone between his teeth and waited as Nurisha followed Macheo down the slope.

"Come on!" Macheo encouraged her. "We have to hide in the grass!"

"I remember, Macheo, don't worry," Nurisha told her. She left her adopted sister behind, as to confuse Chekesha and Lubaya more. She watched as Kimbilia passed. Then, not quite a minute later, she saw her brother, fleeing his pursuers. They were clearly faster than him, and Macheo, who was closer, quickly darted in as he accidentally dropped the rock. The orange-brown cub picked it up and took off, her corpulence slowing her down slightly. Nevertheless, she was quick enough, and Nurisha admired the way the wove through the grass. It was enough to confuse anyone in pursuit of her, and the two chasers were soon looking around, trying to see where she had gone.

"Here!" Nurisha heard the stone plunk to the ground as Macheo dropped it beside her. She snatched it up in her mouth, and, as she heard the pawsteps of Chekesha and Lubaya, ran. She hastened forward, closer and closer to the tree, listening to the panting and the pounding steps of her followers. Without hesitating, she launched herself upward, scrabbling at the dead wood with her claws. Below, she heard a skirmish breaking out, and she tried to pick up the pace.

Finally, she was standing next to Kimbilia. "Nice!" he praised, flashing her a cheerful grin. "Nurisha, Ajali, and Macheo win!" he called to the cubs below. Lubaya and Chekesha gave disappointed huffs, but they were smiling anyway. As they shouted congratulations and Nurisha passed the stone to Kimbilia, Nurisha realized that she probably had never enjoyed herself more than she was now, in a new home, surrounded by new friends.

That night, after another round of the game that involved Lubaya roughly yanking on her brother's mane until it was an untidy mess lying on the top of his head had been completed, Nurisha sat next to her brother and Macheo at the edge of the hilltop. "Great game! I was the best, did you see how I-" Nurisha cut off her brother's boasting by flicking her tail across his muzzle.

"Oh, enough of that, Ajali," she told him affectionately, and he leaned against her gently. Macheo, not to be left out, nearly knocked Nurisha over.

"So, uh, where should we go to sleep?" Macheo wondered.

"Wherever Kingiza is," Nurisha answered certainly.

"Kingiza doesn't appear to have decided," Macheo observed. She inclined her head in the direction of Kingiza, and Nurisha saw that the fulvous lion was standing off to the side, away from the group of sprawled-out lions and lionesses. But as she watched, a lioness stood up and spoke to him. He hesitated, then lay down beside the lioness.

"Come on," Ajali ordered, stepping over to Kingiza. The lioness eyed the three cubs as they approached.

"Why don't you go sleep with the other cubs, newcomers?" she inquired gently.

"If it's okay, Fahari, I'd like them over here with me for tonight. Tomorrow they can go with the other cubs if they want to," Kingiza replied. The lioness nodded, not seeming to mind. Nurisha curled against Kingiza, feeling his chest rise and fall. The warmth of his fur, and that of Macheo and Ajali as they settled down next to her, lulled her into a peaceful slumber.

It was too bad, really, that it was disturbed so soon. But Nurisha wasn't unhappy to see Kimbilia and Lubaya leaning over her. "Good morning!" Kimbilia greeted her brightly.

Beside Nurisha, Kingiza stirred. "Huh? Who's awake?" The sturdy lion rose and yawned, his cavernous mouth stretching open. Lubaya and Kimbilia stared at him.

"This is Kingiza, my cousin!" Macheo had awoken as well. Only Ajali still slept, dozing away while his paws twitched. Either he was dreaming or Kimbilia's voice had somehow penetrated his snoozing. From what she knew of her brother, Nurisha thought the former to be the most likely.

Lubaya and Kimbilia introduced themselves to Kingiza cordially before engaging in conversation with Macheo and Nurisha. "I heard that King Hodari is going to announce you four today!" Lubaya exclaimed.

"Announce us?" Nurisha was confused; what did Lubaya mean?

"Welcome you into the pride, publicly. So everyone knows," the lioness explained.

"Like they don't already," Kimbilia snorted. "But I don't think they all know your names, so it's probably a good thing!"

Just then, Nurisha saw Hodari step out from a hollow carved beneath a granite boulder. The tall golden lion stood up straight, his eyes on his pride, before tilting back his head and issuing a loud roar. He instantly had the attention of his pride. They all approached him, forming a throng of lions. Kingiza, Nurisha, Macheo, and Ajali hung back at first, but Macheo, not at all nervous, strode forward and found a place near the rear center of the crowd.

Hodari cleared his throat. "As some of you know, we welcomed some new lions into our pride last night. Three cubs by the names of Ajali, Macheo, and Nurisha, as well as one male called Kingiza who is nearing maturity." Murmurs rose from the lion pride, and a few heads turned towards them. Hodari waited patiently, then continued. "They will all take their places in the pride. Tomorrow, Kingiza will begin patrolling with the other lions."

Kingiza did not seem surprised by this, though a couple of the lions gave sounds of dissent. The one standing closest to them did not seem hostile, however. He looked serious and strict, his mouth shut tight and his blue eyes betraying no emotion.

The meeting broke up then, but as Nurisha turned, she was startled to feel a paw touch her shoulder. Twisting back around, she found herself looking at Hodari, king of the pride. "I welcome you all to your new home," the king told them. "You're going to fit right in here. All of you."

Chapter 6: Future of the Pride

"Lionesses, are you ready for another hunt?" Hodari inquired in a loud, carrying voice. The lionesses lifted their heads and looked at Badilifu. The dark khaki lioness, who was the leader of the hunt, nodded an affirmative.

"Just checked with Kumbufu this morning!" she announced. "We're ready to go!"

Good, Hodari thought. The previous day, Badilifu had been acting as though Fahari would not be able to hunt for some time, and they would have to put it off. That lioness changes her mind more than anyone I know. He waited until all the lionesses were standing around him, waiting to see if he had any farther instructions. "Maybe try hunting near the Mkondo River," he suggested.

Badilifu nodded agreement and started to stroll away. As she and the rest of the hunters neared the edge of the slope, he heard her call, "But we haven't hunted in Indi Valley for a while now!" Choosing to ignore this and let her resolve it with the other lionesses, Hodari padded over to his daughter Ugonjwa. The feeble cub watched him with those tired eyes- so similar to those of her mother, and yet so different.

"Hey, Ugonjwa. How are you doing?"

"I'm doing okay," Ugonjwa replied in a dead voice. Hodari gently brushed his muzzle against the top of her head.

"Why don't you try exercising or playing a little?" Hodari suggested.

"Chekesha has new friends."

"You're still her best friend," Hodari insisted firmly. "But while she's gone, I'll play with you."

"Okay, Father." Ugonjwa stood up shakily and looked at Hodari expectantly.

Playing. Hodari tried to remember any games from his cubhood that did not involve tussling, pouncing, and chasing. An idea springing into his mind, he took Ugonjwa by the scruff and lifted her onto his back. She didn't protest- didn't make a sound, in fact. "We're going to walk around together."

"Okay," Ugonjwa agreed quietly.

Hodari took slow, gentle steps, careful not to let Ugonjwa slide off. He circled around the slope, watching as the pride, one by one, turned to look at him. After three more circles, he set Ugonjwa down and was surprised to see that she was smiling slightly. "Thank you, Father," she told him with a sniff.

"Did you enjoy that?" Hodari queried eagerly.

"Yes, I did!" Ugonjwa replied, her eyes seeming to brighten.

Hodari turned away from his daughter after holding her gaze lovingly for several seconds, He found himself staring at Kingiza, who was lying on the ground with a forepaw wrapped around a much-gnawed bone. His eyes flickered from Ugonjwa to Hodari.

"I didn't know you had a daughter," he remarked in an unreadable tone.

"Two. Chekesha and Ugonjwa."

"Who's the lucky lioness?"

Ignoring the sarcasm laced subtly into Kingiza's tone, Hodari replied briskly, "Kubali. Pale reddish-brown fur, red eyes . . ."

"I probably saw her. So, you're a king of a pride and you still had cubs?"

Hodari felt a slight prickle of defensiveness. "Why would I not want to?"

Kingiza shrugged, lifting his muscular shoulders. "I don't know. Being king of so many lions seems like a large responsibility."

"It is. But well worth it. And I don't have a problem finding time for my cubs. The pride knows and accepts that I need to take breaks sometimes in order to play with them and teach them. I do not just command the pride, boss them around all day. We're all still individuals who can make our own choices, decide when to hunt and patrol when I am otherwise engaged," Hodari explained.

"I see. So, why did you choose to be king?" Kingiza inquired.

The lion's ignorance of pride law took Hodari by surprise. "I did not. I was chosen myself, when I was about two seasons younger than you are now."

"How is it that a successor is chosen?"

"Well," Hodari began. "It is not a very complicated process. Once a king lion is full grown, they may choose an heir. The heir's coat must be free of cub spots at the time of being selected, so no one makes the mistake of selecting a cub that is full of spirit and bluster but turns out to be a fool."

"Have you chosen an heir?" Kingiza asked.

"No," Hodari answered after a brief hesitation. "I have not."

"Why not?" Kingiza pressed.

"I do not need to explain my thoughts to you, Kingiza," Hodari told the other lion.

"That sounded a lot like 'I don't know why'," Kingiza retaliated.

For some reason, Hodari found himself challenged by Kingiza's words. "You are not a king, you do not understand!" he snapped.

"I think I do understand."

"Why do you care?" Hodari demanded.

This elicited silence from Kingiza. Hodari was about to leave when he finally replied. "This is my new home. I don't want to see it fall apart. There are good lions and lionesses here, and they like having someone to look up to. A leader."

Hodari blinked, trying to think of a suitable reply. "I am their leader for now. There is still time. I'm not exactly keeling over with age, in case you didn't notice."

"Sure you aren't, Gray Whiskers," Kingiza insulted. Hodari's ears went back, but Kingiza plowed on before he can say anything. "Okay. So you aren't that old. But still, I don't see a valid reason you haven't chosen a leader."

"I don't have one." Hodari startled himself with his own reply. He had never confessed that to anyone before; why this rogue he hardly knew?

"Think about it, then. Look over there. What about that lion?" Kingiza gestured to Askari, who was trying to pounce on a grasshopper.

"Askari is faithful and strong, but he lacks the maturity of a leader," Hodari responded. He suddenly found himself examining Kingiza, remembering Kumbufu's words.

New blood.

Short, sturdy . . . mane halfway grown in. Teeth looked sharp, healthy. Ideal. Bold, too, Hodari thought. Smart enough. Acts reasonable. "Um." Kingiza's voice broke into Hodari's mental study. "Why are you staring at me?"

"No reason," Hodari muttered. He searched for a new topic of conversation to cover himself, and one came to him quickly. In fact, it was something he had wanted to ask during his first conversation with the former rogue the other night, when he had made sure Kingiza and the cubs had no plans of leaving right away. "Kingiza, what is the story of you and those three cubs?"

"It . . . isn't too pleasant," Kingiza answered haltingly.

"Tell me, please."

"I was born into a pride, a great distance from this land. My pride was constantly at war with another pride, who sought to claim our prey-filled territory. Battles grew more frequent . . . and more bloody. Lions often were killed without being given a chance to flee, and those who did usually perished of their wounds shortly after." Kingiza's green-gold eyes had taken on a dark, faraway look. He spoke quickly and quietly, hardly pausing for breath, as if he wanted to get the explanation over with. "Even as a cub, I saw my future. I knew it would lead to nowhere but slaughter if I didn't get out. So I did it. Took off, left the pride. My mother and father were dead by then, but I convinced my older brother to come with me. We ventured away from pride territory, where prey was scarcer. But at least we didn't have to pay with blood to get it.

"About a week later, we heard talk of a massive brawl between the two prides. We returned to discover our pride destroyed. However, they were not the only ones. The other pride had been almost entirely wiped out as well. There were only two of their members who were still breathing, and only one of ours. We tried to help them, gave them food and water. One was beyond help. Another- a lioness from our pride- survived, but with a maimed paw, an ear rent to scraps, a tooth lost, and plenty of cuts that were certain to leave scars. The third also survived, though he sustained quite a bit of blood loss.

"After the night had passed, my brother and I realized that there might be survivors at the central homes of the two prides. Upon checking ours, I discovered my cousin, a very young cub, determinedly waiting for her mother and father to return from the battle."

"Macheo," Hodari interrupted.

"Yes, Macheo. We could not leave her behind. I carried her while my brother led the way to the other pride's settlement. He knew where it is because he, being older than I, had been involved in the raids. There, we found a lion, left behind to guard. He promptly struck at my brother, tearing a wound that stretched from his neck to his foreleg. I was ready to attack back, but my brother informed the lion of what had happened. The shock took all the fight out of him. While he tried to absorb this news, we searched the area and discovered two cubs. We asked them their names and found out they they were brother and sister. We could not just leave them there, so we brought them with us as well."

"What happened to your brother?" Hodari had to ask.

"Died." Kingiza's tone made it plain that he was done talking.

"I see," Hodari murmured, feeling slightly awkward. His eyes wandered over to Macheo, Ajali, and Nurisha, who were playing with Lubaya, Kimbilia, Chekesha, and even evasive little Nyembaba. They belong here, he thought, grateful that Kumbufu had given him the idea of inviting Kingiza and the cubs into the pride. As he watched, Nurisha flattened Ajali with a smooth pounce, and the small cub's voice rose up in a cry of protest. He smiled.

"They're good cubs," Kingiza remarked. He, too, was observing the young ones play.

"Yes. Why did you take those three in?"

"What kind of question is that? They were cubs. They had no one to turn to," Kingiza replied.

Hodari inclined his head, admiring Kingiza's compassion. The sun was starting the set, bleeding hues of red and orange onto the surrounding sky. The pride members would be returning from their hunts and patrols, Hodari knew. He sat next to Kingiza, neither of them speaking, until he saw Nguruma, Machungwa, and Askari climbing the slope.

"How did it go?" he called to them.

Askari was the one who answered him. "Convinced a pair of Cape dogs not to enter our territory. No fight, it was all good."

"They were lookin' for one, though," Nguruma put in. "Good thing it didn't come to that. We have enough of their kind around here already."

Hodari nodded in agreement. "Where are Elewa and Ushidi?"

"I don't know," Askari responded. "We didn't see them."

Just then, Hodari sighted the lionesses approaching the hill, dragging something large. He left Kingiza in order to help them, sinking his teeth into a haunch. He could tell by the flavor that it was kudu, and the antlers pointed to a male. Without saying a word, he helped the lionesses haul it up the slope. It was then that he saw Badilifu clutching a rat in her jaws, and that Fahari had another dangling from her mouth by the tail. He stared at Badilifu searchingly, and the lioness dropped her prey. "I decided to go grab some rats while the others finished off that kudu. Fahari agreed to come with me. We were successful, weren't we?"

Hodari did not answer. No point in encouraging spontaneous behavior. He tore off a lump of kudu and brought it to Kingiza.

"Sharing a meal with the king? Wow, I'm honored. And you know, you could say something nice to those girls. What's wrong with 'Hey, nice job, now we can eat!'"

"I don't like talking much."

"Why?"

"No reason," Hodari replied, taking a bite of meat. Kingiza did the same, but before taking a second mouthful he hesitated.

"Hey, Ho- King Hodari, can I go eat with the cubs? I always have," Kingiza told him.

"I understand. Go ahead," Hodari assured him, ripping the meat in half with his teeth. Kingiza took his portion and brought it to the cubs. Hodari watched for a moment, then went ahead and brought his part of the meat over, too.

"Hello, Chekesha," he greeted his daughter as she dug into the kudu he had brought.

"Hi, Father! How's being king?" Chekesha inquired.

"Good," Hodari answered. "How's being a cub?"

"Fun! Thank you for bringing Ajali, Nurisha, and Macheo here, Father! They're all so much fun!" Hearing her, the cubs in question raised their heads and smiled. So did Kingiza.

The next day, Hodari roused Kingiza with a sharp prod to the shoulder. The fulvous lion muttered sleepily, and with a sigh Hodari gave him another nudge with his forepaw. This had the effect of bringing Kingiza to his paws, though he continued to blink his brass-colored eyes tiredly.

"Time to patrol," Hodari announced.

"Patrol?" Kingiza's gaze was suddenly alight with curiosity.

"Yes, patrol. We walk around the territory. Today, I'm coming along," Hodari explained. He had decided to attend the day's patrol, to see how Kingiza would fare.

"Great, I'm in. Who else is coming?"

"Machungwa and Askari are coming with us. Ushidi, Elewa, Nguruma, and Pembemraba are going on a separate patrol through the interior of the territory."

Kingiza stood and followed Hodari down the slope. Machungwa was, as ordered to, waiting for them, Askari at his side. Askari shouted a greeting, which Kingiza returned politely. "Ready?" Hodari asked. Three nods. "Good, let's go." He led the way west through the Kavu Sana Plains, heading towards the Imeatuka Desert. As the sandy region grew visible, Askari spoke for Kingiza's benefit. "That's the Imeatuka Desert. We don't often patrol there."

"Thanks, um-"

"I'm Askari. I already know your name- Kingiza, right?"

"Yeah," Kingiza responded.

They continued in silence for some time. Occasionally Kingiza would break it with a question about the territory, but for the most part it was quiet. Then, as they turned and began walking along the edge of the Imeatuka Desert, Kingiza froze. "Stop," he ordered in a tone so intense that Hodari found himself obeying. Machungwa and Askari did the same.

"What it is?" Machungwa demanded, hazel green eyes searching their surroundings, looking for an adversary to fight. Hodari glanced around, but saw nothing. Kingiza must have spotted something, though. The fulvous lion was standing rigidly, claws protracted and digging into the hard ground. Suddenly, in one abrupt motion, Kingiza launched himself in front of Askari, putting his forepaws together. In the same instant, there was a flash of light yellowish brown scales, and Hodari saw a pair of jaws unhinge to reveal two hooked fangs set into a pale pinkish mouth, unnaturally wide. Then it was gone, buried beneath Kingiza's paws.

"What . . ." Hodari began, momentarily unable to form a coherent sentence.

"Puff adder," Kingiza replied, breathing heavily. "It's dead now."

"How did you know it was there?" Machungwa asked.

"I heard it hiss. Just barely," Kingiza informed them.

"Good thing you did!" Askari declared, shaking his mane. "I hate snakes."

"They aren't all bad," Kingiza responded defensively. "Macheo made friends with a snake once, when she was young."

Askari's starlike bluish eyes widened in surprise. "Really? How strange."

Kingiza appeared to take offense at this remark, but held his tongue. The rest of the patrol went smoothly, without any trouble along the way. Hodari kept thinking of the way Kingiza had killed the snake. The image kept returning to his mind, difficult to shake away. Keen hearing. Good reflexes. Hodari suddenly realized that he had been keeping a list at the back of his mind.

Back with the pride, Hodari sat in the darkness of his den, unable to sleep. He had far too much that he needed to think about.

Chapter 7: Eventide Exploit

Ajali lunged at Macheo, his large paws colliding with her round shoulder. Macheo tumbled onto the ground, but made sure to wrap her forepaws around Ajali's neck so that the pale tawny cub followed her. With an umph sound that was muffled by Macheo's thick fur, Ajali struggled to get free. Macheo refused to release him, tightening her grip until Ajali gave up and demanded that she let him go. Macheo complied, smiling, as a sulky expression spread over Ajali's face.

"I sure got you, Ajali!" Macheo teased.

"Well, I almost beat you," Ajali protested.

"You did not!"

"Did too!"

"Hello there, you two!" Macheo turned to see Lubaya walking over, her shiny yellow-golden fur looking as though it had been recently groomed.

"Hi," Macheo replied. "Where's Kimbilia?"

"Mom is still cleaning him up! He slipped and fell in the mud earlier today. You should have seen him- clots of mud caked onto his fur, a weed tangled into his mane. Hilarious. Chekesha couldn't stop laughing."

Nurisha grinned. "I can imagine." Lubaya nodded and flopped down onto the ground, landing on her back with a soft thump. Curling her forepaws against her chest, she complained of being bored.

"I ran around for a while, but that isn't very fun after you've been doing it for the whole morning. Why don't we go exploring? That would be really fun!"

"Good idea! I still don't know much about what this territory is like," Macheo admitted.

Lubaya snorted. "You probably know more than me. You were living in Towe Gorge for a bit, weren't you?"

"Yeah, we were," Ajali replied, clearly trying to sound impressive. "We lived there for . . . uh . . . a week. Yeah, a week."

"Wait," Nurisha broke in suddenly. "Is exploring really a good idea? Look up."

Following her instructions, Macheo saw that gray clouds were scattered across the sky. She took a breath and realized that she could scent rain on the light wind.

"Huh. Well, it never rains here. This is the Drylands, after all." Lubaya seemed as though she was making that statement against her better judgement.

"I'm in, rain or no rain!" Macheo announced. No way she would be scared off by a few drops of water.

"Right, right, me too!" Ajali added. Macheo saw Nurisha glance at her brother with concern, and she knew what the other cub was thinking. Ajali had a deep fear of thunder, and if a storm began . . . well, they would just have to calm him down with something. Food, maybe.

"Okay, then, I'm coming," Nurisha agreed.

"Coming?" Chekesha's voice inquired. Macheo saw the red-gold lioness approaching them, following closely by Kimbilia.

"We're going exploring!" Macheo announced.

"Excellent! Where to?" Kimbilia demanded, leaning forward.

"Why don't we go to the Poromoko Cliffs?" Lubaya suggested. "I've never seen a cliff before."

"Do you know where the Poromoko Cliffs are?" Nurisha asked. In response, Lubaya flicked her tail towards the east. Macheo saw a line of cliffs dotting the horizon, looking like grayish teeth.

"Those are the Poromoko Cliffs?" she asked.

"Sure are," Kimbilia told her. "Let's get going!"

"Macheo, should we tell Kingiza that we're going?" Nurisha whispered.

"No need. We'll be back soon enough, anyway."

"Uh-oh. I forgot. Mom doesn't want us leaving the Kavu Sana Plains. She won't let us go," Kimbilia sighed.

"Foolish brother," Lubaya teased. "Who said we were going to tell her?"

Kimbilia shook his head vigorously, mane tuft flopping about on his head. "I don't want to lie to her. Besides, she'll catch us. Look, she's keeping an eye on us right now."

The gazes of all the cubs flickered towards the golden-orange lioness, who quickly turned a gleaming yellow eye away from them. "See?" Kimbilia muttered.

"We'll sneak away at evening. A lot of the lions start to fall asleep by then, but we aren't ever tired at that time!" Lubaya's face took on a thoughtful expression, and Macheo could sense that the rest of her plan was taking shape inside of her head. "Yes- it'll work, trust me."

Out of the corner of her eye, Macheo noticed Nurisha looking at Kimbilia, wearing a caring expression. Macheo, like Nurisha, was observant, and she too could see that Kimbilia was quite unhappy with the scheme and deception. Macheo felt bad, but there was nothing that could be done about it.

They'd get to explore the Poromoko Cliffs that night. It would be a great adventure.

As the sky darkened to purple and the clouds turned black, the cubs assembled near a small, dry bush on top of the slope. "All here?" Ajali asked.

"Yes," came the reply.

"Wait, before we start planning and stuff . . . what about my sister?" Chekesha asked hesitantly.

Ugonjwa. Macheo had forgotten that Chekesha preferred to include her sick little sibling in everything. "I'm sorry, Chekesha," Macheo told her. "But I don't think . . ."

"Ugonjwa wouldn't be able to make it. You know it, Chekesha. And for the better. This is a bad idea. I don't think we should do this," Kimbilia declared.

"Fine. You don't have to go. I'm not backing out. This will be so much fun!" Lubaya responded, bouncing about.

"Don't spend all of your energy," Macheo told her, amused.

"Have you ever known me to spend all of my energy? Come on, Macheo," Lubaya teased.

"What are we waiting for?" Macheo asked. Let's go!"

"I'm stayin' behind," Kimbilia insisted.

"Keep Ugonjwa company," Chekesha told him.

"I'll do that."

Fifteen minutes later, the grass around Macheo began to thin out. They must finally be exiting the Kavu Sana Plains! At long last, she thought. Fortunately, no one had stopped them. The only animal they had encountered was an overweight hare, and Lubaya had shaken him off with a quick excuse.

"So, how long will it take us to reach the Poromoko Cliffs?" Macheo asked.

"Oh, not too long," answered Lubaya.

The trekked onward, Lubaya leading the way, Nurisha at her side. Macheo stayed behind with Ajali. "Careful," Nurisha cautioned, her eyes scanning the land ahead. Observant as ever. "The ground looks like it gets bumpy." As they progressed forward, Macheo saw that Nurisha had been right. To make things even worse, Macheo felt something cold and wet plunk down on her nose. She shook off the droplet, but more came falling down, soaking into her fur and turning it deep brown.

Ajali yelped in surprise as a particularly fat globule splashed his forehead, leaving a dark spot. "Lubaya, you okay?" Nurisha asked suddenly. Looking closely, Macheo could see that the glossy-coated cub seemed rather uncomfortable.

"Fine. I've never actually seen rain before, to be honest." Lubaya shuddered. "It's . . . colder . . . than I thought it would be."

"Why don't I lead the way? I can see the Poromoko Cliffs," Macheo suggested, as Nurisha moved back to help Lubaya along.

"That would be great," Lubaya replied.

Macheo stepped forward, keeping her eyes on the dark outline of the Poromoko Cliffs up ahead. Not much longer. But they had better move quickly. If this rain kept up, they might have to turn back if they moved too slowly. Macheo picked up the pace.

The ground turned muddy, the mud squelching between Macheo's toes. Chekesha laughed as a gobbet that Macheo flung off smacked Lubaya in the face by mistake. It seemed that the king's daughter, at least, had retained her good humor in spite of the gloomy weather. Macheo tried not to shiver as a cold wind brushed along her back.

Suddenly, the Poromoko Cliffs seemed to materialize out of nowhere- right in front of them! The cubs took up a cheer, and Macheo felt a thrill of excitement. At last!

"So, uh, how do we get up?" Ajali inquired.

"We climb, silly," Chekesha replied.

"Yeah, I knew that, I just mean . . ."

"Where are the ledges? Trails? Pawholds?" Macheo asked.

"They're there," Nurisha answered. "Difficult to spot, but I can see them."

"Let's get started, then!" Lubaya exclaimed. She moved past Macheo and began hauling herself up, using thin crevices. Macheo followed, then Chekesha. Macheo glanced down from the ledge she had perched upon and saw Nurisha murmuring something to Ajali as the small cub slowly climbed. Nurisha then took up the rear.

Climbing was a strenuous activity, Macheo came to discover. Her muscles were soon howling with protest with every move that she made. The drizzle had evolved into a thunderstorm, with large booms of sound and blinding flashes of light. But unlike Ajali, who Macheo could occasionally hear whimpering, she thought that the storm was interesting. Awesome, in fact, with the dazzling light and the deep sounds.

The all paused to rest on a jutting precipice. Nurisha looked over the edge and stepped back quickly. "High?" Macheo asked, shouldering past Lubaya and Ajali so that she could see for herself. Wow, they were high. It was one of the most amazing things she had ever seen.

"It's less steep from here," Lubaya declared, peering up the cliffside- which turned into more of a mountainside the farther it went upward- with narrowed saffron eyes.

"Great, let's go!" Macheo sprung forward, but she slipped on scree, and, paws flailing, tumbled back to the ledge. But her momentum carried her farther along it, and she abruptly found herself slipping, claws scrabbling uselessly, teeth bumping against stone. Then the rock dropped away, and there was nothing, nothing supporting her, nothing stopping her from plummeting to what would certainly be a painful death. Macheo's jaws parted in an involuntary cry, but unexpectedly there was a great tug from the back of her neck and she found herself suspended, paws hanging down, head drooping. There was a huge yanking sensation, and then she felt hard, solid ground beneath her, slippery with rain and icy cold but solid nonetheless.

"Macheo!" Nurisha's voice cried out. "Are you okay?"

"I- I'm fine . . . who . . ."

"Ajali and I pulled you up. Just in time, too. You were about to go off of the edge," Nurisha informed her. Macheo didn't hesitate to relax against Nurisha, letting the other cub's presence calm her down.

"Asante, Nurisha. Asante, Ajali. I thought I was dead for sure."

"Welcome," Ajali responded. Nurisha said nothing, but she smiled gently.

"Do you want to go back?" Chekesha asked.

"No, let's go ahead," Macheo encouraged. "I'll be more careful."

"Good," Lubaya told her. "I want to reach the top!"

"And I'd rather no one fall before we do," Chekesha added.

- - -

"Darahani, have you seen Lubaya?" Darahani met the gaze of Magharibi as she approached, and she felt a pang of worry.

"No. No I have not. Nor have I seen Chekesha, Ajali, Nurisha, or Macheo," she responded.

"Don't be too quick to fret, Darahani. They're likely just out playing," Magharibi assured her. Always the optimist. Darahani could not share her positiveness. The cubs weren't usually out this late. But maybe Magharibi was right. Perhaps they were playing in the rain, never having seen it before. Nevertheless, she would have to check the area.

Just then, a round-bellied animal with long ears came bounding up to them. A hare, of course, a member of Sikiza's drove. "Hello," Darahani greeted him politely.

"Hey there. Have you seen some cubs out playing, by any chance? It's their bedtime," Magharibi told him, sounding fairly curious but not overly worried. Magharibi had never been too much of a stickler for bedtimes.

"Mm, yes. As a matter of fact, I did. Five of them, I believe," the hare replied. Darahani was touched with relief.

"Where were they?" Magharibi asked.

"Let's see- they were walking in the direction of Poromoko Cliffs, I believe."

"Poromoko Cliffs? Might they have gone off on an adventure?" Darahani asked Magharibi.

"Maybe. I'll go look for them," Magharibi answered.

"Look for whom?" a baritone voice inquired. Darahani noticed Kingiza, the new pride member with fulvous fur, sitting near them.

"Lubaya, Chekesha, and your three, um, cousins," Darahani told him.

"Macheo's the only one who is my cousin. Anyway, mind if I come along with you? If those five have gotten into trouble, I'd like to be there to help."

"Why not? There more, the better," Magharibi agreed. "But I'm sure that they're okay."

- - -

The journey was growing more and more miserable, but there was no way that Macheo would back out now. Hmm. Ajali might, though, she thought, watching him stumble along. He sniffed once, and Macheo noticed that his light yellow-green eyes were brimming with silent, melancholy tears. Poor guy. She fetched a short sigh, wishing she could turn around and make him feel better, but she didn't want to stop them all. Well, he had Nurisha with him, at least.

The top has to be close. It has to be. Macheo certainly hoped so. It had been a very interesting trip, but the fun was starting to fade away. Another roll of thunder echoed through the cliffs, louder than any other the others. Seconds later, there was a blinding flash and a brilliant streak of lightning shot across the sky, darting from one cloud to another.

Macheo heard another grumble, hardly a moment later. What a powerful storm. She continued trudging along, but without warning her legs gave out. She'd been pushing herself harder than she had thought. Oops. Just as she was about to say it, Nurisha called out, "Can we stop and rest for a while?"

They all consented, and Macheo scouted out a wide shelf of stone on which they could all fit. She curled up into a ball, trying to stay warm. The rain pelted her coat, soaking her to the bone. She closed her eyes and put her paws over her ears to block out the thunder, trying to relax. She was so cold . . .

Boom. Macheo's head shot up, her eyes moving wildly- up, down, left right. She felt a heaviness in her limbs and realized with a jolt of surprise that she had fallen asleep. A particularly deafening clap of thunder had awoken her.

Turning her eyes to the other cubs, she noticed that they were all asleep, as well. They must have all been more tired than she had observed. She was about to rouse them when she heard a voice call her name. Kingiza's voice. There was no mistaking it.

"Kingiza?" she shouted in response, her voice whipped away by the wind. Rain lashed at her face, and she narrowed her eyes. "Kingiza!"

"Macheo!" The voice was closer this time. "Are you okay?"

"Yes! Fine!" Macheo called.

"Macheo?" This time it was Nurisha's voice. She and Ajali were sitting up, though Chekesha and Lubaya were still asleep. "What is it?"

"Kingiza is here!" Macheo explained. "Where are you, Kingiza?" she asked at the top of her lungs.

"Not far! I'm climbing up! Stay right where you are," Kingiza ordered. "I have Magharibi with me, too. We're going to take you home." Macheo waited impatiently, flexing her claws, until Kingiza's big orange-brown paw appeared at the edge of the overhang where the cubs were.

The sturdy lion pulled himself up with ease. Macheo was impressed; it had taken a long time for her to scramble up with the help of the others. "Macheo!" Kingiza cried. "Nurisha! Ajali! What were you thinking!" He roared angrily, the sound resonating around each of the cliffs.

"Step aside, Kingiza! I need to come up, too." Macheo recognized Magharibi's voice.

"Not enough room. I'll give you your daughter," Kingiza answered. He took Lubaya by the scruff, and the young lioness made a sleepy sound, paws rubbing at her eyes. It looked as though Kingiza were dropping her over the ledge, but Macheo knew that he was just handing her down to her mother. Kingiza then stepped over to Chekesha and gave her to Magharibi as well.

He turned to face Nurisha, Ajali, and Macheo. "On my back, Macheo, Nurisha. I'll carry Ajali." None of them argued. None of them said a word, in fact, as Kingiza took Ajali by the scruff of his neck. Macheo clambered onto Kingiza's back, paws wrapping around his well-muscled shoulders. Nurisha did the same, hugging Macheo from behind.

Kingiza made his way down from the stone shelf with evident caution, making sure not to upset Nurisha and Macheo. Seeing Magharibi's friendly face was a relief to Macheo, but nothing could compare to Kingiza being here.

Her happiness was short-lived. Exhaustion quickly took its place. Macheo found herself starting to drift off again, but she forced herself to stay awake. Kingiza followed Magharibi and they hiked down the crags, precipices, and peaks.

There was a sudden rumbling in the ground. Kingiza and Magharibi both halted, glancing around. The latter spoke is a hushed tone. "What was that?"

"Thunder?" Nurisha suggested.

"No. That wasn't thunder." This time it was Kingiza talking. However, before Macheo or Nurisha could say another word, there was a tremendous cracking sound. Macheo looked up and felt her ears press against either side of her head. Moving towards them at a frightening speed was a huge black mass of mud and stone. Macheo nearly lost her grip on Kingiza as the lion charged forward with a swiftness born of fear, and she felt a spray of pebbles and drops of mud hitting her back. But it did no good; there was no escaping this monstrous slide of rock and earth that pursued them like a living creature, faster than any lion could flee. Pressure and blackness came from all sides, engulfing her, and Macheo's head emptied of all thoughts save one.

I can't breathe.

Chapter 8: Memories

Nurisha's scream never left her mouth. The next second she was coughing, choking, trying desperately to draw in a breath, but unable to. Then she felt herself flung off of Kingiza's back, landing unevenly onto the ground. Rearing her head, her eyes widened as she took in the scene in front of her. The avalanche roared past, the wind screaming all the while Kingiza was thrashing in the mud, trying to free himself desperately. Ajali was not in his jaws. Before Nurisha could even wonder where her brother was, she realized that the mudslide was carrying Kingiza right toward a steep crag that dropped off into nothingness.

"No!" she yelled, louder than anything she had ever said in her life. But there was nothing that she could do. Before the last strains of her shouted objection had left her mouth, Kingiza was gone.

"Kingiza! Kingiza!" Nurisha stepped forward, but there was nowhere to go. The only thing that she could do was wait until the river of black mud and jagged stone had ceased to flow. Maybe it only took a few seconds, but to Nurisha it felt like an eternity.

She ran alongside the path the mudslide had created, calling Kingiza's name, her brother's name, Macheo's name. About halfway towards the place she had seen Kingiza disappear, she encountered two mud covered forms. Ajali. Macheo.

Desperately, she clawed the mud away from the faces of her brother and sister. They both began hacking and retching, constant streams of waterlogged earth trickling from their mouths. Macheo turned and vomited, saying nothing, but Ajali spoke.

"Kingiza," he gasped.

"Gone . . . he . . . he fell . . . I . . ." What did I see? She wasn't sure. But she needed to find out. Moving past Macheo and Ajali, she walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down. The sight that greeted her was something that she was instantly certain she would never forget, not as long as she lived.

Kingiza's body, broken, sticking out of the heap of mud and rubble like so many of the dead, twisted logs around him. His legs stuck out at odd angles, and even from a distance Nurisha could tell that the dark, glistening substance around his head was blood. His eyes were open, those intense brass-colored orbs glazed over and staring at nothing.

No. It was impossible. It could not be. The world began to sway beneath Nurisha's paws. No . . . no . . . no . . . no no no no no no . . .

What's happening? The thin lioness cub with the pale fur lay huddled against her brother, his warm fur a reassuring presence. Her eyes took in the scene in front of her: the two lions, one larger than the other, talking to the guard. One of the lions, the bigger one, was bleeding from a wound that the guard had inflicted. But they were not fighting anymore. That was good. The pale cub did not like fighting.

The guard lion backed away from the other two, shaking his head slowly. The cub wondered what was making him look so scared. She needed to know what had happened, but she could not make herself move. She was still, perfectly unmoving, watching cautiously as the two lions left the guard standing with shock inlaid into all of his features. The strange, unfamiliar lions drew nearer, approaching the two cubs. The female cub felt fear but did not act upon it. She simply waited, pressing harder against her brother's side.

"Uzito. Uzito, look. Cubs." One of the lions was speaking. He had fur that was neither orange nor brown, but something in between.

"I see, kaka. What should we do?" the other lion asked. He was bigger and broader than the other. His rich brown coat was spattered with blood. The scent of it made the pale-furred cub sick.

Instead of answering the question, the first lion asked another, this one directed at the two cubs. "What are your names, little cubs?"

At first the lioness cub could not answer, but when she looked into the eyes of the lion who had spoken- two greenish-gold globes set close together in a round face- she felt calm enough to say her name. "Nurisha."

"Hey there, Nurisha. What's your friend's name?" The second lion- Uzito, Nurisha remembered the first one calling him- asked.

Ajali replied before Nurisha could. "Ajali. I am Ajali. I am her brother."

"What should we do, Uzito?" the orange-brown lion inquired.

"Only thing we can do. We sure aren't leaving them behind," Uzito told him. Nurisha only understood what this meant after both lions stepped closer.

"We're going to take you with us, okay?"

"Okay," Ajali agreed, voice breaking into a squeak.

"Don't be afraid. We're going to keep you safe," Uzito explained. "Kingiza and I will keep you safe."

"My father kept me safe," Nurisha responded.

"Your father can't keep you safe anymore, I am afraid. But we will. We'll protect you no matter what happens," Kingiza told her.

"Where is our father? Why doesn't he want to keep us safe anymore?" Ajali asked.

"He would want to, but he cannot. I'm so sorry, cubs, but your father is dead," Uzito announced, sorrow crossing his features. His green eyes- green like the feathers of the small birds she often saw pecking at the bugs in the air- were dark with sadness and pity.

"No! My father can't be dead!" Nurisha cried.

"He is. I'm so sorry," Uzito repeated.

Nurisha took a breath, trying to absorb this but being unable to. Tears leaked from her eyes, and she heard Ajali sobbing beside her. She did not know how long she wept for, but Kingiza and Uzito waited without disturbing her mourning. However, when she hung her head in despair, she felt a paw caressing her back gently. "It's going to be okay," Kingiza murmured. "It's going to be okay. You'll be safe with us."

"Yes," Nurisha rasped.

"We're going to take you somewhere safe," Uzito informed them. "That means we'll have to carry you."

Nurisha nodded and felt Kingiza lift her off of the ground. She saw Uzito take Ajali. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to feel safe, safe in the jaws of a lion she had just met.

"Kingiza, who are they? Why are we here?" As Nurisha drifted off, a young, high-pitched voice intruded into her stupor.

"They are friends, Macheo," Uzito answered in his low, mellifluous tones.

"Were they alone?"

Now Nurisha heard Kingiza speaking. "They aren't alone anymore. We're going to protect them. Protect them forever, no matter what happens."

Protect them forever, no matter what happens.

Slowly, the world returned to Nurisha. She staggered away from the edge of the cliff, but the image of Kingiza's broken form was branded into her mind. What now? What now? No one answered her silent question. Kingiza was the only one who could do that, and he was gone.

Macheo. Ajali. She needed to talk to them, tell them . . . but the prospect of doing so seemed entirely unbearable. Chekesha. Lubaya. Magharibi. She did not know where they were. She had to find them, make sure they were both okay. Taking care not to slip, she cautiously moved across the trail the mudslide had left in its wake. Spotting Magharibi standing on top of one of the many ledges, she raced over to the muddy lioness.

"Nurisha! Are you okay?" Magharibi cried. "Where are your siblings? Where is Kingiza?"

Nurisha swallowed. It took three tries to force the word out. "D-dead."

Magharibi's yellow eyes spread wide. "Dead?! Oh, Nurisha, I'm so sorry this happened." She wrapped a paw around Nurisha's back and drew her close.

"A-are you okay? Where are Chekesha and Lubaya?" Nurisha choked out.

"Look." Magharibi gestured to a crack in the crag behind them with her tail. Peering inside, Nurisha saw Chekesha and Lubaya lying side by side, eyes wide. The sight struck her as familiar in some way, and she remembered that she and her brother had been nestled together in the same way when Kingiza and Uzito had found them.

"Chekesha is hurt. Badly," Magharibi whispered. "I was just about to go look for you and the others when you showed up."

Nurisha stared at Chekesha, but saw no sign of blood. Catching her eye, Chekesha spoke in an agonized voice. "My hinds legs. They were crushed." She flinched. "It hurts."

"I'll take you to Ajali and Macheo," Nurisha told Magharibi.

"What about . . . are you sure that Kingiza is . . ."

Nurisha took a deep breath. "Yes. I am."

She brought Magharibi to the place where she had found Ajali and Macheo. They looked up as she approached them. "Where's Kingiza?" Macheo demanded at once.

Nurisha tried to say, "Dead," but found that she could not. "Gone," she finally managed to respond.

"Gone where?" Ajali asked, but Nurisha could see by her look of devastation that Macheo understood.

There was a lengthy pause, then Macheo barked a very strange, hysterical laugh that alarmed Nurisha. "Gone where Uzito gone," the caramel-furred lioness replied.

"Macheo . . ." Nurisha tried to say something, but Macheo interrupted her with a stream of babbling.

"Gone, he's gone, and it's my fault, I couldn't breathe, why aren't I gone?" With that, Macheo's flow of speech stopped abruptly, her eyes spreading wide. She appeared close to fainting. Magharibi stepped forward and deftly picked her up. Nurisha, remembering Chekesha, hurried onto her back, but Ajali did not move. Nurisha called his name twice, and he climbed onto Magharibi in sluggish motions.

Time passed in a blur after that. Nurisha was vaguely aware of Magharibi returning to Chekesha and Lubaya; she felt them brushing against her as they too found places to ride on Magharibi's back. But it all seemed strange and distant. Nurisha was lost in the memories floating through her head.

"Where are we going?"

"To the Drylands, Nurisha. That's where we'll find a home," Kingiza answered. His eyes had not yet lost the hollow, faraway look that they had taken on after Uzito's death.

"The Drylands? Why is it called the Drylands?" Macheo asked.

"The area doesn't receive much rainfall, or so I've heard."

"Will we die of thirst?" demanded Ajali.

"No," Kingiza replied. "There will be plenty of water, and plenty of food. We'll be fine."

"Is that the Drylands?" Macheo asked with gasp. A desert spread out in front of them, the ground cracked with heat. Nurisha saw no sign of vegetation, not even shrubs. She could not spot any of the desert creatures that she was accustomed to either; no lizards, snakes or rodents.

"Does . . . does anything live here?" she had to ask, before Kingiza could respond to Macheo.

"Yes, Macheo, this is a part of the Drylands. Not all of it is so . . . dry. And Nurisha, yes, I'm sure some things do live here. Be wary of them." On this somewhat ominous note, the stocky lion went ahead and entered the parched land.

"Hey look, I see something!" Ajali piped up. He proudly led the way over to something small and pale. A rock? Nurisha could not quite tell. But she could guess as Ajali, upon reaching his discovery, backed away suddenly, shock spreading across his face.

"What is it?" Macheo inquired.

"Um, bones," Ajali responded.

"Oh."

"Let's keep going, you three," Kingiza called. "Keep a lookout for anything that might be dangerous. Don't worry, I'll watch out for you."

"What happened?" A voice- King Hodari's voice- spoke in front of them. Nurisha realized that she had been squeezing her eyes shut and opened them. The king stood in front of them, taking in their appearance, eyes wide with concern.

"Kingiza . . ." Magharibi did not finish.

"Where is Kingiza?" Hodari persisted.

"Kingiza is dead." Nurisha heard herself answer as though she were not the speaker. "There was a mudslide. Chekesha is hurt. Kingiza is dead."

"Dead?" the tall golden lion took a step back.

"Chekesha is hurt," Nurisha repeated blankly, not wanting to think about it any more. And yet she almost did want to, because maybe if she dwelled on what had happened for long enough, the agony would fade away.

"Chekesha!" Hodari gasped. Nurisha felt the injured cub vanish from behind her. Chekesha gave a squeak of pain, and Nurisha twisted around to see Hodari lowering her onto the ground. By now, Nurisha noticed, a crowd was gathering.

"Kumbufu!" the king shouted, though there was no need, for Kumbufu was among the lions forming a throng around them. The pale golden-brown lioness stared at Chekesha in shock.

"Hodari . . . I'm not . . . I can treat broken paws and scrapes and injured tails . . . I've never been faced with anything like this. What can I even do for her?" Kumbufu stammered. Her inconfidence surprised Nurisha; in her experience, the lioness had always been quite sure of herself, proud that she had the ability to heal others.

Hodari's raised voice to an even higher volume. "Try! I do not care what you think you can or can't do, you can't just stand there while my daughter lies in front of you with her legs crushed. If you don't even try to fix her, how can you call yourself our healer? Do something, you're the one always talking up what you can do! At last the time has come when you have to step out of your comfort zone. You cannot just back away and hide. I will not allow it."

Kumbufu met her king's gaze. "Then I will try, and try my best. But I need space. And Hodari, you must know: there are some things that a healer cannot repair." The lioness crouched down and examined Chekesha briefly. After her good paw brushed along Chekesha's legs, causing the cub to cry out, Nurisha decided to leave. But she found that she could not just walk away as her friend was lying on the ground. She slowly got off of Magharibi's back and slid to the ground. As she did, she heard the sound of pawsteps behind her, but did not turn. Hardly a second later, she felt fur press against her side. A glance confirmed it to be Kimbilia.

"Darahani, Magharibi, and Kingiza went to get you," the ginger lion cub began in an uncertain tone. Nurisha had not even noticed Darahani; she was fairly certain that even if the slightly plump lioness had been with them on the return journey, she had not been on the Poromoko Cliffs. "Where is Kingiza?"

Nurisha did not respond to the question at first. A full minute passed before she answered him. "He died being carried off of a cliff by a mudslide."

"Oh- I can't believe it. That's horrible, Nurisha . . ." Kingiza stammered out an apology, his ears lowering with sorrow.

"You were right," Nurisha told him. "We should not have gone."

He looked at her in a way that she understood to mean, I don't exactly feel good about it now. Nurisha glanced down, blinking, as as a circle of moisture appeared on her paw she realized that she had resumed crying. Kimbilia moved his tail onto hers in a gesture that was reassuring without overwhelming Nurisha with contact.

It was then that Nurisha thought about Ajali and Macheo. She felt a wave of shame for not remembering earlier: Ajali's condition of shock, Macheo's despairing hysteria. Searching the crowd of lions watching Kumbufu work on Chekesha, Nurisha finally spotted them at Darahani's paws. Macheo was covering her face, and even from here Nurisha could hear her crying. Her plump body shook with sobs. Ajali, on the other paw, appeared empty: his eyes lackluster, the pupils dilated. He was swaying slightly and seemed to be dizzy.

Nurisha made her way over to them. She whispered the few soothing words she could find to Macheo. "It'll all turn up okay," she murmured in a shaky voice. "We have our pride with us now. They will help us."

"They didn't know Kingiza!" Macheo snapped, sniveling.

Turning her attention away from Macheo for a moment, Nurisha stared into her brother's eyes. "Ajali, are you okay?" The small tawny cub was silent. "Ajali," she repeated. Still no response, but Nurisha noticed that his breathing was growing fractured and irregular. Eyes rolling, body undulating, the cub collapsed abruptly.

"Ajali . . ." Macheo was more alert now, though tears continued to fall from her eyes. "Is he going to be all right, Nurisha?"

"He's in shock, I think. It has happened to him before, when-" She shut her mouth quickly, but she could see that Macheo remembered.

"Come on, cubs. I know you're tired, but you have to stay awake for us, okay? Can you do that?" The thin cub with the eburnean fur opened her heavy eyes. Uzito's face loomed into view, full of concern.

"Yes," Nurisha managed to reply. Ajali did the same.

"Good. Very good." Then, lowering his voice so that he thought Nurisha could not hear, Uzito spoke to his brother. "We'll have to stop and rest soon, kaka. Look how tired they are."

"I know they are tired. But Uzito, you must understand . . . I don't like it here. The prides may be gone, but they both made their share of enemies. We didn't own this territory in the first place. You know what we did to claim it."

"Yes. But we needn't worry, Kingiza. A rogue would have to be insane to take on two young, strong lions like ourselves."

"Insane, or very angry."

"Well, I say we stop here," Uzito declared, halting gently as to not jar the two cubs riding on his back. "Look how open it is. No danger of being attacked, since we can see all around."

"And anyone can see us," Kingiza noted.

"How pessimistic you are, kaka."

The group all settled down and prepared to sleep. "I shall keep watch," Uzito told Kingiza. "More to soothe your mind than anything."

Kingiza said something in reply, but Nurisha was already asleep by then. However, she had not slept long before a screech tore through the air. Her eyes flying open, Nurisha's mouth went agape as she saw what was happening. Uzito was tussling fiercely with a lioness, who had her teeth buried into his already-injured shoulder. Even in the darkness, Nurisha could see that the lioness was emaciated, all ribs showing. Wasted muscle clung to her bones, and her dark eyes were blue pits of hatred. A constant stream of snarls and growls issued from her mouth.

Uzito shook his opponent off with difficulty, blood spritzing in the direction of the cubs. Ajali, lying in a supine position, had his face doused in the crimson liquid. Nurisha, paralyzed with fear, felt some of it hit her muzzle. Her eyes spread wide with shock as the lioness charged Uzito, heedless of the marks that Uzito's teeth and claws had left upon her body. "Pride lion!" she yowled. "My own cubs starved to death because of your filthy land-stealing ancestors!"

But as she pounced, Kingiza appeared at his brother's side, mane wild, claws protracted. With a powerful leap, he intercepted the lioness in midair. He tussled with her on the ground, paws lashing at her face, raking her belly with his hind claws. The lioness screamed in pain but did not go limp. She twisted and, in a snakelike motion, freed herself from Kingiza's grasp. Delivering a forceful blow to the fulvous lion's head, she sidestepped him and once more took on Uzito.

The starved creature was soon pinned beneath Uzito's paws. He glared down at her, and for the first time Nurisha saw true fury spark into his bright green eyes. He raised a paw and aimed a blow at her face, ignoring her snapping teeth. But this was his mistake, for as his paw descended, the lioness's jaws closed around his paw. She yanked him off balance, and, taking advantage of his slip, released his paw and lunged upward. Her teeth buried themselves into Uzito's throat. Uzito struggled to free himself, but this only had the result of expanding the wound. Blood gushed onto the ground.

"Uzito!" Kingiza cried out. But his voice was dazed, and he could only manage a shaky step in his brother's direction. Uzito finally tore himself away from the lioness, his throat ripped open to reveal glistening muscles, a streak of white bone, and worst of all, the rent jugular, still pulsing. The wide-shouldered lion slumped to the ground and gave a short cough.

"Kaka . . . take care of them," he whispered. Nurisha was not sure of Kingiza could even hear him. The lioness stood, triumph glittering in her wild blue eyes. She muttered something that Nurisha did not hear before turning tail and vanishing into the night.

After Uzito's death, Ajali had fallen into mild shock. This seemed a bit worse, though, and Nurisha was concerned. "I'll have Kumbufu look at him . . . she seems to know healing," Nurisha told Macheo.

"Nurisha, Ajali, Macheo." They all turned around and found themselves looking into the carmine eyes of Kubali. Her expression was grave, her ears lowered in sorrow. "I am devastated to hear about your guardian's death. Would you all like to come with us for the recovery?"

"Recovery?" Macheo echoed blankly.

"Of the body. If . . ." The lioness hesitated. "If it is still intact, we will retrieve it in order to host a funeral."

Funeral. The word tugged at Nurisha's memory. She had heard it only once before in her life. It was what Kingiza had called the ceremony they had held after Uzito died. They had all worked together to dig a hole in the earth and place Uzito's carcass into it. Nurisha remembered a small tear trickling down Kingiza's face, leaving a dark trail down his cheek.

She was not certain if she could handle seeing Kingiza's body again, but it felt right somehow. "I will come," she replied. Macheo made an assenting sound in the back of her throat.

"Ajali, you will stay here. Okay?" Nurisha did not want her brother coming along. He gave no reply, but he did not seem inclined to follow as Kubali led Nurisha and Macheo away to retrieve Kingiza's body.

Chapter 9: Wandokufa

"Oh . . ." Nurisha heard Macheo gasp beside her as Kingiza's body loomed into view. She was not the only one; several of the other present lions did the same. Twisted and mud-spattered, an indentation on the side of his head, it was far worse seeing it up close than it had been from the clifftop. And that was awful enough.

"Shall we?" asked a low voice that Nurisha recognized as Zoelesha's.

"Yes," she responded, and the lions all nodded in agreement.

Zoelesha, Imara, and Nguruma all approached Kingiza's limp body slowly. Imara helped pull it onto Zoelesha's back, her muscles twitching beneath her glossy brown fur. Zoelesha gave in slightly beneath the weight, and Imara shifted the body's anterior onto Nguruma. The two lions walked at a careful, measured pace, as if trying not to disturb Kingiza from slumber.

The walk back was silent, somber, and uneventful. However, once they were close to the slope, they were instantly surrounded by the rest of the pride, murmuring words of comfort and trying to help out. Hodari was last to appear; Nurisha suspected he was reluctant to leave Chekesha. They reached the hill as a pride, none of them saying a word. Kingiza's carcass was brought up the slope with care and lain down on the ground near the center.

All at once, the pride members moved forward and formed a wide circle around the body. The only lions absent were Kumbufu and Chekesha; the healer was still crouched over her patient at the edge of the hill. Nurisha nudged Ajali gently along until he sat at Macheo's side. Nurisha stood on his opposite side, waiting and watching. After about a minute, Hodari stepped forward.

"Kingiza was a bold lion, a true asset to the pride," he declared in a loud, powerful voice. "He learned quickly and was a born protector. His quick-thinking saved the life of Askari when he destroyed a snake that struck at us while we were patrolling." Hodari paused in an uncertain way, then continued in a smoother, quieter tone. "Pride tradition states that the king is to recall the achievements of the dead. But I knew Kingiza so little, so I am making an exception. Ajali, Nurisha, Macheo. Would any of you like to speak?"

There was a silence. Macheo, the unfazed, the determined, did not say anything. Nurisha was certain that she thought she would not be able to get the words out. Ajali was likewise quiet. But Nurisha stepped forward. "I will speak."

Moving closer to Kingiza's body, she rapidly decided what to say. "When my pride tore itself apart fighting Kingiza's pride, costing the lives of my parents and many others, Kingiza and his brother took me and my brother in. They hunted for us. They made sure we always had somewhere to sleep. They protected us. Kingiza saved our lives more than once. He displayed great courage, and the strength of his heart could not be matched. Even after the tragic passing of his brother, he kept going.

"I loved Kingiza like a family member. For he was my family, and will always be remembered that way by me. He agreed to bring us to this pride, where we have all discovered new friends and another type of family that I only ever knew in my days as a very small cub. Maybe if we had not joined the pride, Kingiza would still be alive. But I do not regret his decision. And neither would he. Here, thanks to Kingiza, we have found a true home. Though Kingiza is no longer with us to confirm it, I know that he was happy to see us fitting in here."

There were some murmurs of praise and respect. Nurisha felt her heart swell with loyalty towards her pride. They all seemed good, good at the core. Nurisha moved backward, rejoining Macheo and Ajali. She was surprised when Kimeta, a lioness with a rumpled buff-colored coat who had never made too much of an impression on her, spoke. The lioness met her gaze with amber eyes that seemed to sparkle. "Your speech was admirable, Nurisha," she complimented. Her voice was clear and high-pitched. "But I would like to correct you on one point. At one point you said that Kingiza is no longer with us." Unsure where this was leading, Nurisha nodded in confirmation. Kimeta inclined her head slightly. "I am sure that is what you believed, but you are wrong, strong cub. Kingiza is still with us."

Nurisha tilted her head to one side, confused. Kimeta, probably seeing her bewilderment, hastened to continue. "Kingiza is with us. Listen and you will hear him speak." She fell silent and Nurisha listened. She knew that Macheo and Ajali were doing the same. However, all she heard was the night breeze rustling the plants.

"I hear only the wind in the grass," she told Kimeta.

"That is more than wind. Listen more closely," Kimeta insisted. Nurisha strained her ears, but it still sounded the same to her.

"I hear it!" Macheo suddenly cried. Nurisha tried harder, and suddenly she felt like she could hear more than a wind. It sounded like a whisper of a voice. She told Kimeta what she thought she was hearing.

"Yes. That is Kingiza's spirit, cubs. It speaks to us," Kimeta explained. "He will always be around us, whispering." They all listened in silence for a minute. Then King Hodari approached the body, his paws not making a sound. To Nurisha's surprise, Zoelesha and another lioness, Ntulivu, hoisted it onto his back. Hodari staggered but managed to steady himself.

"Let's go," the king called out to the pride in a voice that seemed somehow both quiet and loud.

"Where are we going?" Macheo inquired. "Are we finding somewhere to bury him?"

"Bury?" Askari asked, confused. "Why would we bury him?"

"I have heard that in some older prides, burying the dead was customary," King Hodari answered.

"It isn't here?" Macheo queried.

"No. Instead, we find a place- usually somewhere that the deceased enjoyed going- and deposit the body. Then we cover it with foul-tasting plants to keep the jackals, vultures, Cape dogs, and hyenas at bay. That way, the body is protected, and the spirit can return to it if need be," Hodari informed them.

Nurisha found herself awed by this. "Has that ever happened?"

"In legends, yes. Not in recent times. But it is the tradition of the Wandokufa, the death ceremony."

Wandokufa. Nurisha recognized the word to mean 'they have died'. A suitable, if straightforward, name for a funeral. Macheo began walking after Hodari as the king turned and padded down the slope. Nurisha started to follow, then turned around to see what Ajali would do. To her surprise, he moved to her side, tears glittering in his eyes. It seemed that the shock was starting to wear off.

King Hodari halted at the bottom of the hill, bringing the pride to a stop. Twisting his head around, the king looked at the three cubs. "Where should we go?" he asked.

They all looked at each other for a while. Nurisha thought hard; where would Kingiza want to be? Not the gorge where they had stayed for some time, it was too desolate and uncomfortable. A thought struck her. Maybe not inside of the gorge, but on the land near it. The flat area there offered a view of the distant Mkondo River and the nearby ravine. Kingiza had always liked high places.

She told Macheo and Ajali her idea, and they both nodded in agreement. Ajali spoke up in a tremulous voice, thick with tears, to tell King Hodari. Though his sorrow pained Nurisha, she was glad that he had told Hodari rather than her or Macheo, since it made her hope his self-possession was returning. Speaking for all of them was typical of Ajali; he liked to be the one in charge.

"Good idea," Hodari praised, and they set of for the gorge. There was murmured conversation, gentle and soothing, that made Nurisha feel like falling asleep. The nap she had taken with the others on the Poromoko Cliffs had been short and fractured. But she could not sleep until she had seen the rest of the Wandokufa take place.

When they reached the gorge, Hodari gently laid Kingiza's body down. They all looked at it for a moment, and Nurisha once again took in the glassy sightlessness of his once-bright eyes. The image blurred in her vision, and she shook away a tear to clear it. "What now?" she and Macheo asked at the same time.

"As I explained, we cover him with plants that taste revolting. They also happen to be highly poisonous, ensuring that those who dare disturb the body shall meet unpleasant ends." Hodari began sniffing around the grass, evidently searching. The pride copied him, rustling around in the grass. Nurisha, not sure what she would be looking for, stayed put.

Kubali, King Hodari's mate, returned first. She carried a branch between her teeth, adorned with pink flowers. Askari and Hodari walked behind her, also clutching branches in their jaws. The trio dropped their burdens near Kingiza's body, and Hodari began expertly stripping the branches of their blossoms. One by one, the rest of the pride returned, one or two of them bearing more flowers. Soon, the king had a large pile lying in front of him. Nodding his approval, he used his paws to gingerly transplant the blossoms onto the carcass, never using his mouth.

After about ten minutes, Kingiza's body was sufficiently covered. Hodari inclined his head in a respectful gesture before stepping back. Nurisha closed her eyes, letting more memories rush through her mind; bittersweet fragments of smiles, games, hunts, romps, rests, conversations. When she lifted her eyelids, most of the lions had left, but King Hodari was waiting, watching Nurisha, Macheo, and Ajali. Macheo left first, then Nurisha. She moved slowly until she heard the sound of her brother's pawsteps behind her.

Assured that he was indeed following, Nurisha caught up to King Hodari. He glanced down at her, and it struck her for the first time that he was tall, far taller than Kingiza and Uzito had been. "I'm so sorry this happened," he told them. "I think you three should know . . . I was going to choose Kingiza as my heir."

"Your heir?" Macheo exclaimed.

"Yes. Listen, I know this must be very difficult for you to go through. But I need to know exactly what happened."

Nurisha swallowed, feeling as if the temperature of the air around them had dropped. Tell him what happened. Can I do that? Can Macheo? Does Ajali even know exactly what went on, up on those cliffs with the storm raging around us?

Hodari's ochre gaze hardened when they did not reply. "Listen to me, you three. I have a daughter with her legs broken in who knows how many places and a potential heir dead. I am your king and I am telling you that you must explain precisely what happened."

His intensity frightened Nurisha a little. She ducked away from his eyes, feeling the heat of his gaze scorching her fur. "We went to the Poromoko Cliffs," she began in a breathless tone.

"Whose profoundly foolish idea was this?" King Hodari demanded.

"Lubaya suggested it," Ajali answered in a hollow voice. "Her idea."

"But we all agreed. Except Kimbilia. Kimbilia stayed behind, said it was a bad idea," Nurisha reminded her brother. "So we all went, climbed up the cliffs."

"Cold," Ajali put in, voice breaking into a whimper. "Rain colder than anything ever. And it was loud, too. Thunder like mountains splitting apart."

King Hodari nodded, something like sympathy flickering into his eyes. "And then Darahani, Magharibi, and Kingiza went to look for you. I was not informed; I'm sure they thought that you had simply wandered a little during your play."

"Yes, Kingiza and Magharibi came up and found us where we had all dozed off . . ."

"Darahani must have stayed on the ground. She's no climber. But let me get something straight: you fell asleep on top of a cliff during a thunderstorm?" Hodari's voice was laden with disbelief.

"We were all so tired and miserable . . . we just dropped off . . ." Macheo responded.

"I see," Hodari muttered.

"Kingiza gave Chekesha and Lubaya to Magharibi. He took us. Then there was this noise, a low rumbling sound. And then . . . it was a mudslide. An avalanche. Stone and mud everywhere. I was torn away from Kingiza and flung onto the ground. I saw Kingiza being carried towards a cliff . . . there wasn't anything he could do to save himself. He fell." Nurisha swallowed painfully. "So I went and found Magharibi. She still had Chekesha and Lubaya with her. I brought her to Ajali and Macheo, and we all went down together," Nurisha continued.

"Chekesha was injured at this time?" Hodari queried.

"Yes, she was," Nurisha confirmed.

Hodari nodded again, slowly. "Thank you for telling me."

Nurisha hardly heard him. She had her eyes trained on the slope, where a few stragglers were still climbing up onto the top. Their home. No longer Kingiza's. She felt a jolt in her heart. But as the breeze whispered into her ears, some of her sorrow seemed to fade away.

Chapter 10: A Long Night

Ajali tossed and turned, unable to sleep. His eyes felt tired and heavy, but when he closed them, his mind filled with thoughts that he did not want to be thinking. Peaceful oblivion refused to sweep over him, so rather than lying immobile as he usually did if he had difficulty sleeping, which was rare, he stood up and began pacing. His vision was still slightly blurry with lingering tears. He could not stop them from falling and did not try.

Kingiza was dead. Kingiza had been like a father to Ajali; the only father that he had ever had, really. He had only a few hazy recollections of his real father- he had been tall like Nurisha, with dark tawny fur and eyes like Ajali's. Ajali didn't even remember his voice, or anything that he had said to him. For some reason Ajali felt that he had liked Nurisha better, but he wasn't sure if he had just imagined that or not. Strangely, Ajali could remember his mother better, though she had died before his father. She had looked a lot like Nurisha- thin, honey-eyed, and pale-coated- but with a round muzzle like Ajali's. She had loved him; he knew that. But she had died before he could really know her.

Ajali sighed and began pacing faster. Why was he even here still? What was left for him? Kingiza's spirit? Ajali knew that the pride was wrong- the sounds were nothing but wind song. Nurisha? She had always looked out for him . . . and would probably be happier if she were rid of that burden. And Macheo was not even his real sister. Why would she care? With these thoughts in his mind, Ajali turned and walked down the slope, careful not to awaken anyone.

Where will I go? Ajali wondered. It did not matter- he had to get away from here. Get away from the Drylands and its wretched cliffs and deserts and danger. Why had Kingiza even brought them here? If he had not, he would still be alive now.

Suddenly, Ajali felt a paw fall onto his tail, pinning it securely. With a squeak of terror, he turned around to see Zoelesha looking down at him, her pale turquoise eyes like chips of ice in the darkness of the night. She let him go, and wild thoughts of running away chased each other through Ajali's mind. But he knew that the lioness would be far faster than him. She would catch him without any difficulty.

"Where are you going?" she questioned.

"Um, I just had to go. You know, go," Ajali lied quickly.

Zoelesha nodded. "Okay, but stay close," she told him, turning and walking back up the slope. Ajali exhaled slowly. He had completely forgotten that King Hodari always had a couple of pride members on watch every night.

The cloud-streaked night sky was stone and ebony, the moon nothing but a claw-shaped slit shining through one of the thunderheads. The stars were nowhere to be seen. Ajali kept his eyes turned upward, not paying attention to where he was going. It did not matter. In fact, it did not matter if he walked all the way to Towe Gorge and fell in. He did not care anymore.

He stumbled over a rock and sprawled onto the ground, his muzzle colliding with the earth rather painfully. "Ow," he whined. "Ow, ow, ow." Running his tongue over his lips, he realized that he had cut himself. The blood tasted sharp, and he winced. It doesn't hurt, he lied to himself, spitting onto the ground. The bloody saliva gleamed scarlet in the weak moonlight, and he looked away. Ajali was very perturbed by the sight of blood, even that of prey.

He moved on, strangely aware of his surroundings- the dry grass brushing against his fur and crunching beneath his paws, the touch of the wind on his whiskers, the undeviating chirping of the crickets. It bothered him a little, and he tried to tune it out by humming tunelessly. Just keep moving . . . I'll be outta here by dawn. At least, I think. How big are the Drylands? They seemed big when we came here.

"Ajali?" Hearing the sound of his name being spoken, Ajali jumped high, landing ungracefully. With his fur ruffled and his claws extended, Ajali glanced around until he locked eyes with his sister. He dug his nails into the ground, trying to steady himself and slow the rapid pounding of his heart.

"Don't do that, Nurisha, you scared me," he gasped, taking deep breaths of the cold night air. Nurisha, however, did not appear to be amused at having frightened him. Her expression remained serious, worried, and Ajali wondered if she would try to stop him from leaving. "Did you follow me?" he asked, realizing about five seconds later that the question was asinine. Of course she had followed him.

Nurisha responded anyway. "Yes, I did. I knew you were up to something when you lied to Zoelesha. You're a terrible liar, Ajali, you always have been.

Ajali bristled, but tried to hide the prickling irritation. "I am not a terrible liar. And . . . I'm not up to anything." He sat down, fidgeting a little and swishing his tail from left to right.

"Are you trying to leave?" Nurisha asked him concernedly. Her honey eyes demanded an answer, despite the level calmness of her voice.

"Where would I go? Of course I'm not trying to leave." Ajali gave a shaky laugh. "I'm just going for a walk . . . to help me deal with the . . . grief."

A cold note entered Nurisha's tone. "Oh, you're not dealing with the grief, as you put it. You're running away. I can see it in your face." Ajali blinked and gazed at his paws. Nurisha plunged on, but the chill fell away from her voice, to be replaced by a gentle warmth. "Ajali. I know that what happened is . . . awful. Terrible. But you can't just take off."

Ajali shook his head and took a step back. "Why not? There's nothing left for me here."

A new expression crossed Nurisha's face. Pain. "What about me? And Macheo?"

"You have the other cubs."

"They're your friends too, Ajali. I know you are feeling alone right now, but you aren't."

This only made Ajali feel confused. He was alone. Wasn't he? He tried to walk forward, but Nurisha blocked his path. "Ajali. You're my brother, and I love you. Stay. We'll support each other. It will be far better than solitude, I promise."

Ajali tried to sidestep her, but she moved with him. "Please answer me Ajali, and stop dancing around," Nurisha told him softly.

"I . . . I don't know," Ajali murmured.

"Listen to me, brother. I will never stop missing Kingiza. Neither will you. But we will both go on with our lives, because that's what he would have wanted, and there are others who care for us and would miss us if we were to leave. Did Kingiza run away after Uzito died?"

"He had to take care of us," Ajali responded.

"Exactly, Ajali. He stayed, even though his best friend and brother had been killed, because he had us. Now Kingiza is dead, but you still have Macheo and me, not to mention Lubaya, Chekesha, Kimbilia, Darahani, Hodari . . ."

Ajali inclined his head. He felt like crying, but no tears came. "I know. But I'm . . . I'm not as strong as you think I am."

Nurisha stepped closer to him. "You are strong, Ajali. And if you are not . . . try to be. You can be, I know you can."

"Can I?" Ajali queried.

"Yes. Just try, right now. Think about how strong Kingiza was," Nurisha encouraged.

"I'm not Kingiza."

"No, but that does not mean you can't be strong like he was."

"All right. I'll try . . . but . . ." Ajali wasn't certain what she wanted him to do.

"Just come back with me. Please. Stay in the pride, where we belong," Nurisha pleaded, her voice kind.

Ajali turned around slowly, facing back towards the slope. "Okay," he breathed.

"Thank you." Nurisha strode to his side, so close that her upper foreleg was touching against his shoulder. Ajali smiled, and together they walked back to the hill. He kept the grin on his face, not caring that it made the cut on his lip sting painfully. Ajali focused on the distant shapes of his dozing pridemates, watching them draw closer and closer. Suddenly, they were obscured by a wall of pale orange fur. Looking up, Ajali met Zoelesha's gaze. She did not look happy.

"Nurisha and Ajali, what are you doing?" she demanded.

"Walk," Ajali responded. It came out like a question.

"Cubs aren't allowed to go on walks in the middle of the night without supervision," Zoelesha scolded. Fortunately, she did not seem to feel like punishing them. "Go back."

Ajal started to tell her that they were, but Nurisha pushed him forward lightly. "Come on." She led the way up the slope, glancing back once at Ajali. He quickly caught up to her, stumbling once. Together, they ascended the hill. Here Nurisha paused and looked at him, her eyes brimming with affection. "Thank you," she told him. "I'm glad you decided to stay."

Ajali took a deep breath. "I am, too."

They both curled up next to Macheo, who had her paws pressed against her chest and her tail drooping over her muzzle. One of her eyes flickered open as they laid down beside her. "Hi," she greeted them in a thick, sleepy voice before resuming her slumber. Closing his eyes, Ajali was soon lost in thought about what the pride had said about spirits. He wondered if maybe Kingiza's spirit was actually whispering in the wind.

"Nurisha?" he whispered, eyes still shut tightly. He struggled to muster the strength he needed to stay awake.

"Yes?" came the reply.

"If Kingiza's spirit is really . . . real . . . why didn't he tell me everything you did about belonging in the pride?" Ajali questioned.

There was a long silence before Nurisha answered him. "Ajali, I think there are some decisions that you have to make on your own, or with your family. This was one of them."

"So you really think that he still . . . exists? As a spirit?" Ajali asked.

In the darkness, he could see Nurisha nodding. "Yes. I do."

"You think he can he hear us now?"

"Yes, I think so."

Ajali felt Macheo stirring next to him and lowered his voice. "If he can hear us and see us, do you think he would be mad at me?" he inquired worriedly.

"No," Nurisha responded. "I think he would be proud of you."

"Huh . . ." Ajali tried to ponder this, but he fell asleep before he could finish his thoughts.

He dreamed that he was back in Towe Gorge, sitting down. In front of him stood Hodari and Kingiza, only they were not fighting like they had the last time Ajali had been at the gorge. Instead they were talking quietly. Ajali tried to hear what they were saying, but it sounded like wind. He asked them to speak up, and Kingiza turned to look at him. The lion's aeneous eyes were kind and full of wisdom as they regarded Ajali. He stopped speaking and began to ripple and distort. Before he vanished, Ajali thought he heard four words, spoken with the slightest breath of a voice. Take care of yourself.

He desperately wanted Kingiza to reappear, but suddenly he was standing on the top of the slope, with his pride members all around him. He felt fur pressing against him and knew that he had Nurisha and Macheo on either side of him. The grief he had felt when Kingiza vanished was replaced by hope. Nurisha was right. I'm not alone. I never will be. I'll always have my pride and my family at my side . . . and Kingiza when I need him.

When Ajali woke up, he was wearing a smile.

Chapter 11: We Stand United

Hodari stood stock-still, watching the sun creep over the horizon and bathing the Drylands in its light. His teeth were clenched, and his claws grew dull as he scraped them repeatedly against the dry earth. The grief he felt for Kingiza was like a weight in his heart, dragging him down. But there was more than grief- there was also a sense that he had been robbed of his peace of mind.

Kingiza would have been a good heir. He was one of the few lions with the true strength of heart that was required of a ruler. Perhaps he was not perfect, but then again no one was. Now what was he going to do? What was he even doing now, shutting himself up in his den and watching the sun rise? Not hiding, he reminded himself. Thinking. I need to find out what I must do now.

Elewa. Ushidi. Machungwa. Nguruma. Askari. Nyembaba. Kimbilia. Ajali. He had eight choices. For the third time, he reviewed them in his mind. Elewa did not have the intelligence. Ushidi was a solid pride member, but he lacked the sense of authority befitting a king. Machungwa did not care about the pride enough. Nguruma was too old. Askari did not have the maturity. Nyembaba was antisocial and evasive, not the kingly sort. Kimbilia and Ajali were both too young, and he did not think that either of them would fit into the role. No one is perfect, Hodari reminded himself. I am being overly critical of my pridemates. He was aware that, with Kingiza gone, he was set on choosing someone just like him. But there were none, for every lion was different and had their own flaws.

It's not like I have to make the choice now, Hodari thought. But this was not entirely true. He knew that from the moment when the pride had first laid eyes on Kingiza, they had realized why he had admitted the young male into the pride. He needed an heir. And though Kingiza was now dead, they still were waiting for him to make his decision. He was the oldest male in the pride, save Nguruma. Though it was not yet his time, he would die eventually. Would he leave his pride without a new king?

He decided to go on a walk. Perhaps complete solitude would help him think. Getting up, he exited his den, the heat of the sun washing over his fur. Incredible that it had been wet and stormy such a short time ago. With a shake of his mane, he started down the slope. To his surprise and annoyance, Madoa moved in front of him. Her green eyes were sharp, and Hodari realized immediately that this was not going to be good. He seated himself, though the incline was not a particularly comfortable place to do so. He closed his mouth tightly and waited for Madoa to speak.

The lioness's slender tail lashed angrily, and the sun glinted off of her teeth as she pulled her upper lip to her gums. "Wait just one minute," she snapped at him. "You've been avoiding us all morning, holed up in your den. Now it's time for you to tell us what exactly you are going to do."

"I will tell you when I wish to, not before," Hodari replied quietly, trying not to make a scene.

Of course, Madoa instantly raised her own voice, attracting the attention of the few pride members who weren't already watching. "You call yourself our king, and yet you don't tell us what your plans for the pride's future are!"

Hodari did not bother to answer. He needed time to himself- she could stir up all the trouble she wanted to in the meantime. He dodged around her, blocking her with his shoulder when she tried to place herself in his path. Though he was tempted to break into a run, he abstained, deciding it would be viewed as a cowardly move. Keeping a measured pace, he walked the rest of the way down the slope and into the Kavu Sana Plains.

The land around him buzzed with life. He saw the grass moving as rodents fled his approach, and grasshoppers watched him from the stalks on which they were perched. He stopped and sighed, a wave of worry sweeping over him. What am I going to do? Trying to chase these thoughts out of his mind for the time being, he strode forward and nearly trampled a hare that suddenly popped up in front of him. Sikiza.

"S- sorry, Your Majesty!" the hare apologized, pressing his ears against his small skull.

Hodari was not in the mood to hear Sikiza's stuttering babble unless it was important. "Out with it."

"Well, a serval was seen lurking around the Kavu Sana Plains, I thought you should know . . ."

"Right. I'll take care of it." Later, Hodari thought, walking past Sikiza. He needed a place where he could think with a clear head.

A half hour of aimless strolling somehow led him to Kingiza's body, still covered in flowers. However, the reek of decomposition was beginning to penetrate the pungent smell of the blossoms, and Hodari stepped back until the scent was less powerful. Silence dominated the area; nothing seemed to be stirring except for the grass as the wind touched it. This was just what he needed.

Hodari lay down on the ground, feeling the blades of dry grass poking through his fur and prickling against his skin. He sighed and let his muzzle sag onto the earth. He knew that he was probably an easy target for predators, but he did not want to be glancing around while he was trying to get his thoughts in order. I can fight off anything that bothers me, he told himself.

He reviewed the laws of the pride in his head, specifically the ones regarding the choosing of a new heir. There was nothing that would help him there. The laws only instructed the age minimums for being chosen, and, after the death of the old king, taking over. He delved into the memories of his own choosing. "I trust you to lead this pride, Hodari. Toka mwanzo hadi mwisho," the king had said, his expression grave as he incorporated one of his favorite phrases into the selection speech. Had he given any advice to Hodari about choosing his own heir? Hodari could not recall, but he was fairly sure that no such words of wisdom had been passed onto him.

The wind whispered through the grass, but Hodari could not make out any words. Quite abruptly, he stood up. What am I doing, listening to the wind and thinking about kings dead and gone? This is a decision that I will have to make by myself . . . with the support of my pridemates. He needed them to believe in him. They were a pride, and without them he was nothing. With this thought in mind, Hodari turned and walked back to the hill.

They had clearly been awaiting his return. Now they regarded him, some neutrally, some sympathetically, others hostilely. Hodari moved to the center of the slope and cleared his throat loudly, drawing the attention of the mothers tending to their cubs. But before Hodari could speak, Fahari piped up. "Did you make your decision? Have you decided who will succeed you?"

It was all that Hodari could do to keep from groaning out loud. Fahari's spontaneous words were not a good way to start off this meeting. The golden lioness did not seem to sense the tension in the air like Hodari did. "Well . . ." he began, trying to collect his self-possession. "Not yet."

"Not yet," came Madoa's low voice. "Then when, Hodari? You are not a young lion. Life in the savanna is short and harsh. Any day now, you could be swept away in the river during a flood, attacked by a clan of hyenas, caught in a sandstorm in the Imeatuka Desert . . . impaled by a Cape buffalo . . . pushed off of a cliff by a mudslide."

Hodari stared at her, fury washing over him. The depth of his rage surprised even himself, but this was to much. The reference to the deaths of his father and Kingiza hit him hard, and as Madoa's lips curled into a triumphant smirk, he found that he could not listen passively any longer. He tensed, muscles growing so taut that it felt as though they would break. Sinking into a crouch, he locked eyes with the pale-furred lioness, watching the smile dissolve from her features as she realized she had gone too far.

Pushing off of his hind legs with all of the force he could apply, he launched himself at Madoa. He collided with her even as she tried to step back, his paws wrapping around her neck. "You don't understand!" he roared, the thunderous sound tearing through the air. "You know nothing about being king!" In a blind rage, he snapped at her shoulder, but by rapidly flattening herself to the ground, she was able to unbalance him. He cried out in a combination of fury and pain as her sharp claws reached upward to tear at his underbelly. Landing heavily on top of her, he struggled to turn himself around in order to pin her down, but she slipped free and pounced on him. Her weight was such that Hodari felt his legs beginning to give, but with a burst of effort he flung her off. She rolled over in the dust, rumpling her immaculate creamy gray coat. Hodari prepared to attack again, readying himself for another spring. But just as he launched himself into the air, there was a flash of reddish fur as another lioness moved in between them. Kubali.

By twisting himself in midair, Hodari was able to avoid crushing him mate at the last second. He landed in an ungraceful heap, his body crushing his hind paws painfully. Rising somewhat unsteady, he blinked at Kubali, trying to clear his head. After a moment, Kubali's sister, Ntulivu, stepped beside her. "Calm yourself, King Hodari," she murmured.

Hodari slowly took a deep breath, expelling the air in a large gust. He met Kubali's eyes, allowing her bright carmine gaze to strip him of his bloodthirsty fury. When that was gone and only raw anger remained, he realized that the core of his rage was grief- weighted, thorough grief that dragged at his heart like some dark, viscous substance. By neglecting the duty of appointing a successor, he had failed his pride as a king- and himself. "I apologize," he told Madoa. There was no reaction from her- she seemed to be shocked.

"Hodari, listen to me" Kubali ordered, her tone far more severe than Hodari had ever heard. "We are your pride. We will always stand alongside you." She spun around to face Madoa. "Madoa, your comment was uncalled for. What you said was partially true- our lives are harsh, and anything could happen. But I have faith that Hodari will make his choice soon."

"Does that mean anything, though? I mean, no offense, Kubali, but you are his mate. Of course you trust him. The rest of us, however, could use some reassurance." Hodari quickly located the speaker- Nguruma.

Hodari met his gaze, not sure how to respond at first. He quickly composed himself. "I will make my choice . . . I promise you that."

"Hodari. I love this pride. I cared deeply for your predecessor, as well as your own father. Both of them trusted you, and I trust you, too. I know that you will do the right thing . . . but, as Madoa pointed out, death may come to you sooner that you expect. I've seen lions die before. Old, frail ones who can hardly walk . . . and cubs who have not yet opened their eyes. Happens every day. Tragic. But all in line with Maisha Urari- the balance of life. The pride goes on, even as we lose those we care about. However, the pride will not go on unless you are succeeded. Maybe you will choose that successor, as declared by the laws of the pride. Maybe, if you are too late in your choice, we will be forced to make the decision ourselves. A pride needs a ruler, King Hodari, and right now you are in the position to appoint our next ruler. A big decision. But I trust that you can handle the responsibility. For the sake of the pride, prove me right."

Looking into the old lion's steady blue glaze, Hodari suddenly realized that nonspecific words were not enough. He owed it to them to make a promise that he would keep. "I will make my decision by tomorrow night," he announced. "I swear it to you."

The throng of lions dispersed, except for Kumbufu and Kubali. The former stepped forward and lowered herself to the ground, examining Hodari's belly. He could feel the blood soaking his fur and heard it drip softly onto the ground. Madoa's claws had dug in deeper than he had originally expected. Kumbufu did not look surprised to see the amount of damage that her pridemate had inflicted. She sighed softly and led Hodari to an area where the grass was green enough as not to pain him why he lied down. Thanking her, Hodari curled up, instinctively placing her paws between his injured belly and the healer. Kumbufu shook her head, and Hodari quickly drew back his paws so that she could work.

"Hold still. This will hurt." Kumbufu leaned in and pulled her tongue along her wounds. Hodari clenched his teeth hard, forcing himself not to wince. Fortunately, relief soon came, and Hodari relaxed his muscles.

"Thank you, Kumbufu," he told the lioness. Looking at her, he remembered Chekesha's injury with a jolt of shame. He had not thought about it all day. Some father I am. "How's my daughter?" he asked, the words blending together in his rush to get them out.

Kumbufu's expression turned worried. "I . . . well, she's better. She's talking, the shock is wearing off, and there is no sign of an infection. One of her legs is healing up nicely. However . . . I fear that the other was beyond saving."

"Beyond saving," Hodari echoed hollowly.

"Yes. She's still be able to walk, but running will prove difficult. Therefore, hunting would be too dangerous for her," Kumbufu declared, lowering her voice.

Kubali stepped close to them. "Please speak up, Kumbufu. I want to know what will happen to my daughter."

"I'm just repeating what I told you earlier, Kubali," Kumbufu assured her.

"Kubali, I'm sorry that I neglected to visit her today," Hodari apologized, ducking his head in mortification.

"I know you had other things on your mind. Why don't you come visit her now?" Kubali suggested.

Hodari nodded his agreement and, without saying anything else, let her lead the way to the area where Darahani sat watching the cubs. Before reaching Darahani, Kubali turned. Following her gaze, Hodari saw Chekesha and Ugonjwa sitting together. For once Ugonjwa was sitting up straighter than Chekesha. The smaller lioness's unblinking carmine eyes never left her sister. Hodari felt a surge of love for both of his children.

"Hey there, you two," Hodari greeted them, lightly touching his nose to the tops of their heads.

"Father," Ugonjwa replied solemnly.

"Dad!" Chekesha lifted her head and nuzzled him. "I'm feeling better now, I really am!"

"No, Chekesha," Ugonjwa objected. "You're still hurt bad."

"Yes, your sister is still injured," Kubali asserted gently. "But she's on the path to recovery. Thank you so much for staying with her, Ugonjwa, dear."

"Well, when she dies I don't want her to be alone," Ugonjwa responded.

"She's not going to die, Ugonjwa," Hodari told his daughter, startled.

Ugonjwa eyed him with bloodshot red eyes. "I hope she doesn't die."

A smile flitted across Chekesha's muzzle. "Aw, I bet you don't mean that, Ugonjwa. I know you want all of the food!" she accused jokingly.

Ugonjwa's returning grin was brief, coming and going almost before Hodari registered that it was there. "That isn't true, sister," she argued, but her tone was light.

"Speaking of food," Kubali interrupted. "Who wants some yummy kudu?"

"Me!" Chekesha responded immediately. Ugonjwa only nodded. Kubali nuzzled each cub before turning and walking over to the kudu carcass, mostly eaten away but still with traces of meat clinging to the bones. Pulling off some scraps, Kubali brought them over to her daughters and dropped them. Ugonjwa nibbled at the edge of her portion, while Chekesha gobbled down hers with surprising speed. However, Hodari noted that she did not eat more than her fair share.

Before the two finished, Hodari swiped a piece of meat and raised it slightly above their heads. "Reach for it with a forepaw," he instructed. "See who gets it first."

Both cubs stretched their paws, Ugonjwa more slowly. Chekesha claws fastened into the meat first, and Hodari released it. "I got it!" she exclaimed exultantly, her eyes shining.

"Good job, Chekesha," Ugonjwa congratulated. Hodari noted a trace of condescension in her tone. He realized that the little cub had allowed her sister to get the meat, and felt his heart swell with pride. He had witnessed, many times before, Chekesha pretending to lose so that Ugonjwa could enjoy victory. Now, it seemed, it had reversed.

Gazing at his two daughters, Hodari knew that he would be true to his word. Ugonjwa, Chekesha, Kubali, and the rest of the pride would always have a king to look up to. He would not fail them.

Chapter 12: Reason and Responsibility

Hodari went to his den and fell asleep early that night. His slumber was undisturbed, but he woke up earlier than usual that morning. Upon rising, he gnawed on a kudu bone for a short time, acutely aware that the eyes of the entire pride were resting on him. Trying to ignore it, he dug his teeth deep into the bone, resulting in a loud cracking sound. After licking at the marrow, he cleaned himself up and walked back to his den. Once again, he had some thinking to do. His gaze roamed over his pride, finally stopping as he looked at the slumbering form of Nguruma. Next to him lay his niece, Kimeta, pulling sharp pieces of dried grass out from between her toes and occasionally checking to see if her uncle had awoken. He remembered his promise to the old male lion and felt his resolve harden. I will make this choice.

Well, first thing is first. Waiting until all were awake, Hodari walked to the center of the hilltop and began arranging the patrols and hunts. "Ushidi, Machungwa, with me. We're going to the Uotaji Woods and Mkondo River. Elewa, Askari, and Nguruma will cover the Imeatuka Desert- if conditions are good, try Inchi Valley." The lions all nodded their assent, and Hodari continued. "Lionesses, the kudu and the rats that were successfully hunted last time are both finished. It is time for another hunt. I would like you to go east of the Kavu Sana Plains."

Badilifu responded that that suited her just fine, and Hodari joined Ushidi and Machungwa. They set off for the Mkondo River, where the kudu and zebra herds were grazing and drinking. Hodari ignored them all, though they paid him wary glances. After a moment of thought, he did brief counts of the herds, information that he would relay to the huntresses.

The lush green grass was soft beneath his paws, and the earth that it grew in was rather damp and yielding. By the time they were standing at the edge of the river, mud dappled the lower half of each of his legs. He did not bother to clean it off, knowing that crossing the river would undertake that responsibility. As he waded into the shallows, pebbles pressing into his toes, he heard Machungwa mutter a complaint behind him.

"You know we have to go across to reach Uotaji," Hodari told the orange lion irritably. Machungwa did not reply, slowly stepping into the current. Ushidi did the same, though with less reluctance. In fact, the lanky lion seemed almost eager. Good. Hodari inhaled sharply as he strode deeper into the river- the water was colder than he had remembered. Hodari was not much of a swimmer himself; he had always regarded water with wariness as a cub. He forced himself to move quickly, kicking his paws and holding the tuft at the tip of his tail above the water. Machungwa, drifting to his side, copied his motions. Ushidi swam ahead of them more gracefully, his thin form easily parting the current. Concealing a prickle of jealousy at his pridemate's grace, Hodari paddled with more vigor. He bit back a sigh of relief as the round pebbles tickled his paws once again. He splashed back to shore, slipping once on a flat, mossy rock. His claws scrabbled for purchase on the sand and he kicked away a shower of small stones. Finally, all four paws were on flat, dry ground. He sighed, relieved, then turned towards the Uotaji Woods.

Beckoning his pridemates, he entered the forest. The sound of birdsong filled his ears, echoing from one tree to another. Galagos and other small animals peered at him from the safety of the high branches, staring with large eyes. The ground was an uneven network of knobbly roots, making progress difficult. A stream cut a clear, winding path of water through the vegetation, but Hodari was reluctant to get his paws wet again. Every so often, a heap of boulders, piled haphazardly, blocked their way, adding to the arduousness. But the patrol struggled on, doing a brief check of the woodland before turning around and heading back.

They crossed the river in silence, moving more slowly than they had the first time. Hodari was fairly tired by the time they had made it all the way back to the hill. It was noon now, and they were the only ones back save Darahani and the cubs. The lionesses were still out hunting, and the other patrol had yet to return. Hodari settled down and began cleaning the muck off of his paws. He shook his mane to rid it of the water that was causing it to hang down in dark bunches. To his disdain, he was not very successful. Deciding to let the sun do the job for him, he stretched out on his side and closed his eyes.

"Ouch!" Hodari awoke with a start, his eyes flying open. Five guilty pairs of eyes greeted him: one bright orange, one melichrous, one light tilleul, one saffron, and one clear green. He felt around the top of his head until his claws sank into a piece of dry twig that the young ones had been playing with. Hodari sighed, gave it back to them, and stood up, deciding that he'd been dozing for long enough. The sun had moved, and it was now sinking slowly towards the horizon. Hodari once again thought about the decision looming ahead of him. He had to be reasonable about it . . .

"Sorry, King Hodari!" Kimbilia apologized, interrupting his train of thought. Nurisha hastened into an explanation as to how the stick had ended up hitting his head, but Hodari waved his tail dismissively.

"That's okay, cubs," he told them, turning to walk away.

"Are you really going to choose the next king tonight?" Nurisha's voice inquired quietly as he began to walk away.

The question halted him. Slowly, dragging his paws a bit, he faced the pale-coated cub. "Yes."

The five cubs gaped at him. Finally, Lubaya asked another question. "Will we have to address the boy you choose as king?" The cub's mouth was set in disinclination.

The question was so superficial that Hodari actually laughed out loud. That, he thought. Is the very last thing on my mind. He considered what to reply before he answered her. "No. Until I'm dead, I'm the only one you call king."

Before Lubaya answered, Hodari caught the distant scent of the lionesses mingling with the delicious aroma of fresh prey. He bounded to the base of the hill, just in time to help them with the zebra they were carrying. But before he could offer his assistance, he saw they were already being helped by the second patrol. Nodding his approval at Badilifu, he returned to the hilltop and waited until the zebra was dragged up. "Good catch," he praised, feeling unusually complimentary.

"Thanks," the khaki lioness replied, already burying her muzzle into the kill. The rest of the pride joined her, feasting until they were up to their eyes in blood. The meat was good and rich, the bones lined with swatches of muscle, the flesh edged in fat. Hodari's belly filled quickly, and he laid down with a contented grunt.

The lions all chatted amiably for the rest of the evening, though a few of them did not seem in the mood to talk. They would look at Hodari, then glance at the sky, gauging whether or not Hodari should have announced his decision by now. This caused Hodari to realize, with an immense inflation of emotion, that he still did not know. His eyes flashed from lion to lion, passing from Askari, to Elewa, to Machungwa . . . moving to Kimbilia, Nyembaba, and Ajali. As Hodari's eyes flickered past the male cubs, but quite strangely, he found his gaze latching onto the cubs between them. Macheo and Nurisha.

It's against pride law, he reminded himself immediately, turning back to Askari. But as he stared from lion to lion, he found himself drawn to the two female cubs. Both had displayed courage, determination, and dependability. Macheo had not shown a single sign of fear or hesitance when being brought into the pride, a strange place full of strange scents, sounds, sights, tastes, and lions. Nurisha had seen Kingiza die horribly, but had still found the strength to seek out Magharibi and bring her to the others. Though brave, loyal, and dutiful, none of the male members of the pride had ever shown that kind of courage. What if . . .

Against. The. Pride. Law. he insisted to himself. But why? another voice in his mind nagged. Why is it against the pride law? As he gazed at the two cubs, reviewing their journey from that moment in the gorge to the present, he suddenly knew what to do. Rising to his paws, he walked to the center of the hill and roared as loudly as he could, just as he had when announcing Nurisha, Ajali, and Macheo. The amount of force he put into the sound was unnecessary, but Hodari wanted to appear strong, certain, and unafraid. The pride soon gathered around his, watching expectantly. Hodari briefly met the water-blue gaze of Nguruma. He was doing just what the old lion had requested . . . but somehow Hodari was not sure Nguruma would approve of the choice that he planned to make.

After a brief silence, Hodari cleared his throat very quietly. "You all know what I am doing . . ." He was in no mood for small talk and dramatic openings. ". . . so I will waste no time. I have made my decision as to who will succeed me as . . . ruler."

The pride waited with baited breath.

"When I am gone and she is ready, Nurisha will take my position."

There was a stunned silence. Hodari's eyes moved across his beloved pridemates, taking in the looks of shock, disbelief, anger, and- unless he was imagining it- surprised pleasure. Then Ajali broke into a high-pitched cheer that was quickly taken up by the other cubs. After a moment, the other cubs all joined in, then Kubali, Ntulivu, Askari, Magharibi, Darahani . . . slowly, each member of the pride took up the joyous call. Madoa made no sound as her pridemates yelled and roared. The louder the cheering became, the stonier her expression. When the din finally died down, she was the first to speak, causing Nurisha and Nguruma, who had both opened their mouths, to fall silent.

"What is this, Hodari? Can you do anything right?" Fury blazed in her green eyes. "We ask for a king, you choose an outsider lioness cub who knows nothing about being in a pride!"

Hodari did not know- or care- how to respond. In lieu of replying, he smiled at her. Though he valued the opinions of his pridemates, at the moment he did not care what the rebellious lioness was thinking of him. He knew he had made the right choice.

Kubali was the one who actually replied to Madoa. "As I recall, Madoa . . . you were the one to express the opinion that the law restricting heirs to males was idiotic, and that Hodari was a big fool to abide by it."

Hodari felt as though his heart would burst with the respect, admiration, and love he was currently feeling towards his mate. He stepped forward and, pressing his muzzle into the curve of her neck leading up to her cheekbone, nuzzled her, the sweet scent of her fur filling his nose. He allowed himself an instant of peace and stillness before withdrawing. She grinned at him, pleased by his show of affection.

Around them, the rest of the pride burst into conversation. Congratulations- mingled with uncertain, disapproving, and skeptical remarks- were thrown Hodari and Nurisha's ways. Hodari saw Ajali practically bury his head in the chest fur of his sister while Macheo eagerly brushed against her shoulder. Hodari saw approval gleaming in the eyes of many of his pridemates, though many were looking at Nurisha rather than him. The new heir herself appeared shocked beyond words, but a wide smile was creeping across her muzzle. With a paw, she gently ruffled the fur on Ajali's head, sending the young tawny cub into a fit of giggles. She murmured something to Macheo that Hodari did not quite catch before meeting his own gaze. There was a pause before she spoke, but when she did her voice was quite steady.

"Thank you," she told him. "I am honored . . . and admittedly surprised. I never expected this to happen to me."

Hodari looked at her, admiring the firmness of her posture and stare. He knew he had to say something to her . . . and automatically, the words lined themselves up in his mind, flowing freely from his mouth.

"Traditions can change, the law can be wrong

I know that you are just as brave and as strong

As all of the past kings that have ruled this land

I'm certain enough to be taking a stand

Against the tradition, against the pride rules

Those who object are most certainly fools

I know you can do it; why not prove me right?

You have all the courage, the wisdom, the might

You have the strength in your body, the strength in your mind

But the strength in your heart is what really shines

You can do anything when you put effort in

You can do it all with the strength you've within

So what that you will be the very first queen?

You're the finest of all of the cubs that I've seen

I have been searching for quite a long time.

Never has a young lion struck me as prime.

You are the first now that I have seen past

The wall of tradition holding me back

I've witnessed the leadership that you display

I'm sure you can do it, so what do you say?

It still is your choice, you're allowed to deny

But you are the only cub to qualify

You have the strength in your body, the strength in your mind

But the strength in your heart is what really shines

You can do anything when you put effort in

You can do it all with the strength you've within

So what that you will be the very first queen?

You're the finest of all of the cubs that I've seen."

Nurisha, still returning his gaze, rose slowly to her paws. Eyes unwavering, she sang out in response, startling Hodari with low, vibrant tones distinctively different from her usual quiet monotone.

"Thank you for the faith that you have put in me

I won't disappoint you, just wait and you'll see

I'll do what I can to be wise, brave, and fair

I would be quite honored to become your heir."

Hodari approached his new heir, the lions between them parting like grass in the wind. They all moved back, leaving Hodari alone with Nurisha. He dipped his head and lightly touched his nose to the space between her ears. The pride once again burst into cheer, this time all at once. Nguruma spoke above the shouts of joy, and Hodari was surprised to see respect glowing in his blue eyes. "You chose well, Hodari," he declared. "You chose very well."

Epilogue

"Am I disturbing you, Queen Nurisha?"

Nurisha paused in her grooming and faced her brother. He stood before her, a smile on his muzzle, his tail held high. Though it had taken quite some time, he had grown into a decently sized lion, if still rather smaller than average. His ears, however, still appeared too large for his head, a detail Nurisha observed fondly. She stood and approached him.

"Not at all, Ajali. How are you?" she asked him. She was still somewhat worried about him. His love, the ever-ill Ugonjwa, had recently died giving birth to their daughter, and the loss had struck Ajali forcefully. She had witnessed his efforts to stay strong for the cub, and was proud of him for it, but feared that he felt far worse than he acted.

"I am well, thank you. However, Shibli is quite a pawful," Ajali responded, love for his daughter shining in those yellow-tinged green eyes of his.

Nurisha laughed, happy to see that his cub was keeping him busy. "I'm sure she is." She hid her relief that Shibli had quickly recovered from the bout of feverish sickness that had greatly weakened her mother and ultimately killed her when she gave birth to Shibli. Now the little cub showed no signs of the malady that her mother had carried with her all her life.

"Care to come and see her?"

"Certainly, I would be glad to." Nurisha followed Ajali out of the ruler's den- her own den. The bright sunlight caused her to glance down at the brittle yellowish grass until her eyes adjusted. Raising her head, she was greeted by the sight of Shibli frolicking at Macheo's paws, trying to grab a stalk of grass that the plump lioness was holding over her head. Macheo lowered it almost imperceptibly, allowing the tawny cub to seize it between her teeth and pull it out of Macheo's grasp.

"Hello, Macheo!" Nurisha called, approaching her adoptive sister.

Macheo exhaled, purring lightly as she did so, and greeted them in return. "Hey, Nurisha! Ajali, this cub of yours is going to be a great jumper!"

"I'm sure she is," Ajali responded proudly.

"So, why'd you come into my den in the first place, Ajali?" Nurisha inquired.

"I don't know, I just wanted to see you. You're so busy now that you're queen. I like it, though, 'cause I know you're doing just what Hodari would have wanted."

"And Kingiza," Macheo added, smiling softly.

Nurisha inclined her head, feeling a mixed respect and grief for the two lions, whose influence on her life had been massive. King Hodari had died peacefully in his sleep almost two seasons ago. She still missed him. Kingiza, too. But the ache in her heart was less fresh now, less painful.

"Grrrr!" growled Shibli, gnawing the grass into thin strips of dry plant matter. She looked up as Ajali approached and bounced into her father's paws. He leaned down and licked the top of her head, smoothing an unruly strand of fur with the papillae of his tongue. Shibli giggled and stepped back, smiling cheerfully at her father.

Looking at the cub, Nurisha felt a tug of recognition. Something seemed vaguely familiar about Shibli, but it was not stirring up memories of Ajali or Ugonjwa. Suddenly it dawned upon her. Nudging Ajali's shoulder with her own, she asked him, "You know who she reminds me of?"

"Who?" Ajali questioned curiously.

"Mother. Our mother."

Ajali stared at his cub, surprise blossoming over his features. "You're right." He nuzzled his cub quickly, then looked at Nurisha, a glint of sadness flickering into his eyes. "We never knew her well, did we?"

"No. But we had Kingiza. Without him, we would not be here right now," Nurisha reminded him.

Ajali glanced down the hill to the Kavu Sana Plains, where the wind rushed through the grass. "He gave us so much. I'll always be grateful to him."

"Me, too," Nurisha told her brother.

"Me, too," Macheo echoed.

The three of them sat side by side, watching the newest member of their family play. Though none of them said anything about it, all three of them felt as though there were two other lions standing behind them, silently observing with hearts full of strength and pride.

Characters(In Order of Mention)

Locations(In Order of Mention)

Songs(In Order of Occurrence)

Trivia

  • Originally, there was going to be a single protagonist of the story: a cub born and raised in the pride.
  • In earlier drafts of the story, Nurisha and Ajali were not related.
    • In this same draft, Kingiza was younger than he appeared in the current version. He was only slightly older than Nurisha, Ajali, and Macheo, with a tuft of on his head being the only trace of a mane.

Gallery

Ad blocker interference detected!


Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.