This is as good a way to get your mind off your own troubles as anything I’ve ever found – and a jarring reminder that we have turned away, and are so in need of forgiveness. †
I want people to know that this is NOT an ambassador of my writing abilities. This is one of the more mediocre things I have EVER WRITTEN. If you would like to see one of my decent books, I would love to show it to you and could probably email it to you. In the meantime, one or two people had shown an interest in reading this, which I wrote based on The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride. Please comment with any spelling or grammar errors you find in the text and I hope this does not reflect badly on my capabilities. :) Blessings from Meriwether
This story was told to the young Princess of Pride Rock about how her family began – how Simba became the king of lions.
There was a time when the pride of Pride Rock, the greatest lion pride on the Savannah, was all young lionesses. The pride had existed through generations of new cubs, but most of the older lionesses had died, leaving a female named Sarabi to be matriarch. Sarabi was much admired, and took her position very seriously, carefully leading the group to and from water sources across the golden African Savannah. Their way was aimless for a while before Sarabi finally settled them at a massive cliff-and-kopje, which towered over the flatlands and cast a terrifying shadow. There, no predators could touch them; the rocky face rising above the sunburnt grass was too intimidating to all except lions. Sarabi called it Pride Rock.
Sarabi was a magnificent lioness. Her head was heavy and wedge-shaped with a firm hard jaw. Her body was thick and sleek with muscle, her paws large and padded. She and her pride sisters made up the most powerful group of hunters for miles; under Sarabi, they were always fat and sleek. When they did move from Pride Rock, usually during the dry season to look for water, male lions followed them like vultures.
Every lion matriarch of the time knew that it was she who must keep her pride going, with dependence on males usually lasting only during breeding season. Sarabi was discerning. She knew what male would be allowed into the pride, to be her mate especially, and it wasn’t going to be some dusty-coated, scrawny, ugly creature. Though some of the lionesses were content to fall for any male at all, Sarabi just shook her great head and moved on. The rejects skulked on behind the group.
Sarabi waited four years for a lion good enough to sire her cubs. But when Mufasa finally caught the scent of her group and joined the crowd of suitors, she had eyes only for him—this huge male with the heavy stride, the deep, hard voice, the tawny coat and red mane, the jaws heavy and strong enough to throw off any contenders, and paws whose resonance frightened elephants.
Oh, yes, Sarabi fell. Hers was not the usual quick infatuation with the sole object of producing cubs. She loved Mufasa deeply, deeply enough to surrender control of the pride to him—not just for a short mating period, but forever if he wanted to, as long as he would stay with her. This wasn’t normal. Very few lionesses knew that kind of love.
Mufasa did stay. He grew powerful, but not cruel. He was exactly the lion he should be, exactly what Sarabi wanted. He was king, and Sarabi his queen, whom he loved just as she loved him. All the lionesses loyal to Sarabi revered him – really, every creature of the savannah now revered him.
There was, of course, the occasional lioness who wasn’t loyal to Sarabi, and these mated with the skinny rejects who had been scorned by the queen. One male drew females as a carcass draws flies. That male was Mufasa’s brother.
The male’s real name had been lost who knew how long ago, and he was now called Scar, after the slash over his left eye. He couldn’t have been more different from Mufasa – his coat had too many black hairs, and looked dull gray or brown rather than gold; he had none of Mufasa’s broadness, either, and was in fact barely a skeleton – but he did share one thing with his brother, and that was a kind of magnetic power. The strength of being that made Mufasa so feared and so loved made Scar a tempting prospect for those lionesses who did not care for the king.
At first, Sarabi and Mufasa just ignored Scar; no one told them how many lionesses he was already winning over, and he posed no violent threat. So Scar hung around. He was there when the prince, Mufasa and Sarabi’s first cub, was born.
The cub, of course, was Simba.
And for some reason he was small. At five months old, when cousins of his own age were rollicking around and starting thin manes, he looked like a kitten. He could fit under Mufasa’s paw. The other cubs of the pride disliked him; he had a good deal of arrogance for his age and size, all full of the idea that he would someday be king. Sarabi humored him; he was, after all, her only cub. He had one friend, and probably just because she was as small as he was. Her name was Nala. She was a spritely little character, with a lily-pale coat and an impish look to her. She was always Simba’s favorite.
Then one night in the dry season, Scar came before the group of lionesses with dust and blood in his coat. He rose upon a rock and told them that their king had been trampled by a wildebeest stampede. The great Mufasa was dead.
Sarabi doubted him. She, the mighty huntress, knew that this wasn’t the time of year when the wildebeest moved. Something had to have provoked the stampede.
But then Scar said Simba’s name too, and Sarabi’s ears didn’t hear any more. Simba was dead.
The prince. Her son.
Sarabi shut down.
Of course, Scar was lying. He had taken the unassuming young prince to a great dry gorge, miles away from Pride Rock, and left Simba down there between the canyon walls. While Simba played in the sunlight, Scar chased a herd of wildebeest into the gorge, watching them thunder along the floor of the ravine. Simba’s tiny golden form disappeared beneath the roiling mass of dark bodies.
Then Scar ran to Mufasa and told him to come quick, because his son was caught in a stampede.
Scar had always been afraid of Mufasa, at least a little, in some corner of his black heart. But Scar’s fear didn’t win out, because he knew that if his time was to come, if he was to step out of Mufasa’s shadow, he must weather the king’s rage.
Mufasa made it into the gorge, while Scar remained on one of the outer cliffs. The wildebeest jostled in their fever, running over each other like a mad river. Mufasa descended into the dust cloud caused by the beasts, calling for Simba; then, a long time later, to Scar’s astonishment, the king came struggling back up alone—but he was badly hurt and couldn’t hold on to the steep rock walls of the ravine.
As Mufasa was about to climb out of the gorge, Scar leaned down and latched his black claws into his brother’s forepaws. And he said, in a low growl, “Long…live…the king.”
Then with a heave, he launched Mufasa back down from where he had come. The cliffs echoed back the thump as the king’s body landed, a hundred feet down the cliffs, in the heart of the gorge where the stampede still roared. No lion, no creature, could survive a fall like that.
When the gorge had emptied, Scar went down the cliff, to check that the job was done. He found Mufasa, stretched out in the gorge, unmoving. But he also saw – or thought he saw, for surely it was impossible – a flash of tawny fur disappearing along the ravine floor.
Simba, hiding on a ledge above the river of running wildebeest, had seen who had killed his father. He fled – vanished.
Scar didn’t bother going after his nephew to silence him, too. It was the middle of the dry season and Simba was a young, runty cub. Scar knew that the severe heat of a waterless Savannah would finish off Simba for him.
Now Scar reveled in the broken sobs of Sarabi, and little Nala cowering against the queen’s side. Then he called a few lionesses, his lionesses, to him. One was Zira, an angular female who never retracted her claws.
But, unbeknownst to all, Simba lived. He ran for a long time, miles and miles and miles, impossibly far for such a small cub in such heat – but his thirst and exhaustion were nothing compared to the driving fear of the uncle who had murdered his father. When he stopped running, he taught himself to hunt the game in a wilderness far from Pride Rock, until he was no longer small, and his jaw was strong and his paws were heavy and his mane was thick and red and he could hide the unknowable suffering that had remained in his eyes since he was a cub.
He never stopped being afraid. Never.
Scar, left alone, was the king. He made it so. He had that power that kept his lionesses loyal to him, and if any of the others tried to leave, he was strong enough to kill them or silence them. Sarabi was queen still, a silent queen, completely apart from Scar. As the herds of game ran away from the Savannah like Simba had, spurned by their migration cycle and the overwhelming terror of the dust-colored lion, Sarabi sent one other creature away—to save itself, or to die in the heat of the rainless land, or to find help.
She sent Nala.
It was Nala who found Simba after weeks of hungry searching. Unlike Simba, Nala was still smaller than a normal lioness, and paler, and very thin. As lionesses went, she was not very pretty, and her lovely impish grin was almost gone. Living under the tyranny of Scar and his lionesses had forced her to be strong, and overly wise at a young age.
Simba saw her for the first time in years, and he just stared at her, chattering constantly to cover the fact that he was staring. She had thought he was dead, so she was staring, too. And somewhere along the path of that stare she started smiling again.
Nala was loyal to Sarabi, though. She wouldn’t stay with Simba, however much safer it was. She had to go back to Pride Rock.
Simba followed her. Seeing her again, oppressed, no longer the beautiful little cub he had known, had forced him to realize that he was the only one who could take back Pride Rock and make Scar pay. It was a terrifying knowledge.
At night the two travelers rested in the cool of a cave, halfway home on a barren landscape that had once been rich with wild grass and game. Nala couldn’t find rest, but Simba fidgeted terribly in his sleep. Nala suspected nightmares. The prince woke up at some point, and croaked her name and told her to come to him. Nala didn’t say anything back, but she curled beside him on the stone floor of the cave and held him in her forepaws and pressed the side of her face against his to keep the fear away.
She was always Simba’s favorite.
Storm clouds were gathering when Simba approached Pride Rock with Nala beside him. Nala slipped toward the cave at the back of the rock to find the lionesses that were still loyal, but she couldn’t find Sarabi. That was because Sarabi was on the kopje, facing Scar as the tyrant hurled insults at her for the unsuccessfulness of the hunts. Simba was watching, and shivering in horror and rage.
The prince rose up and roared. The heads of the lionesses out on the kopje turned in shock toward where he stood on the cliff. Everyone staggered back. Scar cowered, crawling backwards into the shadows. In Simba’s fiery mane and terrible face, he saw Mufasa.
Simba rushed down onto the flat face of the kopje. And before the whole pride, before even Scar’s own lionesses, Scar exclaimed in terror that HE HAD KILLED THE KING.
Then Scar fled. Simba pursued him up the side of the great cliff, cornered him on a ledge. Scar’s fear and hatred gave him one last advantage; for just a moment he flew at Simba and rolled him onto his back, intending to shut him up forever. Simba gave a heave beneath Scar with his back legs, throwing the usurper off the edge of the cliff, a hundred feet to the bed of flames beneath.
It was over. The pride struggled to get its breath. Simba dragged himself down to where Nala waited, and then passed her and stood at the edge of the kopje.
He was king, just as he had always wanted.
The lionesses had loved Mufasa more than they could ever love his son. Simba became a strong king and was famed for his size and the size of his pride, but he didn’t make good decisions, and none of the females who had served Sarabi really respected him. But they remained loyal to him for Nala’s sake. They respected Nala as a queen.
One of Scar’s lionesses had given birth a little while previously. It was Zira, whom the young king looked at with distrust, who never retracted her claws. She had given Scar one cub already, a male, a good few months earlier. This most recent pregnancy had produced two cubs, a male and a female. Neither litter had been fathered by Scar, but by some unknown, which made Simba warier. Whenever Simba cast his tortured glance toward Zira, she glared back with a hatred that burned hotter than the fires that had consumed Scar.
Simba drove away all the lionesses that had been loyal to Scar. He exiled Zira, and watched her stalk out of his sight with three young cubs following. No one questioned him, but no one was sure he was right, either. None of his lionesses really cared. They had a queen again, Nala, who was pregnant.
Sarabi died before Simba or Nala told her of the coming cub.
Mother told Kovu the story of his birth many times during the first months of his life—when he wasn’t being trained. How he had been born in the dry season, brown as the dust, brown as Scar. He had been chosen by Scar. He was Scar’s heir. He was a prince.
“But then,” Mother’s voice would growl, cupped by Kovu’s ear, “Simba. Scar’s enemy. He took everything from us, my son.” Mother’s gaunt paw with its black claws curled tighter around Kovu’s body. “Do you know what happened next, Kovu?”
Kovu stared at her claws enclosing him and shied away. “Yes,” he whispered.
The claws closed around Kovu’s ribcage. It was the closest thing Mother had to a hug. “Simba is a murderer,” she hissed into Kovu’s head.
Kovu shut his eyes against the eager red glare of hers.
Ever since forever, Mother would croon him into slumber with a strange lullaby. It wasn’t until he was two months old that he began to realize what the words of her lullaby meant. She sang things like death, and suffering, and pain, smiling with the visions of her revenge. There was nothing Kovu could do but cuddle closer to her body and bury his face in her sandy coat and try to get to sleep quickly. At least she was warm.
When he woke, Mother wrapped her jaws around his middle and carried him out of the termite mound where they lived, out over barren, sun-baked sand, to train him. Usually Vitani was waiting for them.
Vitani was Kovu’s sister. He tended to like her in general; after all, she was his sister and she wasn’t all bad. But Mother had made it so that Vitani and Kovu had to fight each other. It was good training. She pushed them together and threatened them until they fought, and it was real claws, real teeth, real blood, real tears. If either of them didn’t want to fight, Mother would smack them into the side of a termite mound and tell them if they didn’t want to fight each other, they could fight Nuka. Nuka was their brother, but he was twice their size and age, and if Mother said so he would have killed either of them. Kovu knew it. Nuka adored Mother.
Then Vitani had to hurt Kovu. Any fights that didn’t end in wounds were considered unsuccessful, and earned them a punishment by Mother.
Vitani no longer whined when Kovu hurt her. She met him with hard, glittering eyes and said, “Want to fight?” in an evil little purr. Kovu got so scared and brave in front of her that he was angry.
When he growled at his sister for the first time, Mother smiled encouragingly. “You see, Kovu,” she said, “it’s the anger, the hatred, that’s important.” And that time, she didn’t punish them after the fight, even though there were no wounds.
Perhaps that was what Vitani had been hoping would happen all along, so they wouldn’t have to hurt each other anymore. It was hard to know just what went on in Vitani’s mind sometimes.
By the time he was five months old, Kovu knew Vitani only as Mother’s tool for training him—it was a struggle to call her his sister, or his friend. However awful the fights were, though, they were still the one thing that Kovu and Vitani shared. So when Vitani said, “Want to fight?” he growled and smiled and batted at her like she was a field mouse he was going to eat. And sometimes Kovu himself said it—sometimes it was he who advanced on his sister and growled, “Want to fight?” He knew that was what Mother would want.
Vitani looked a lot like Mother. They both had the same dusty-blond hide, sharply lined face, and angular body. And even though Vitani was just Kovu’s age, a cub, she was as scrawny and gaunt as Mother. Nuka was, too, and all the lionesses that Mother commanded. Only Kovu was allowed to be fat and healthy. He was given the largest share of the food, always. For all the difficulties he had to endure, Kovu had always had the best of everything in the Outlands. He must. He was the prince. This, too, Kovu had become accustomed to. At each meal of dead termites or harpies or field mice or scrub bush or other Outland food, Kovu crammed it in and no one stopped him. He knew it was what Mother wanted. So he ate, and Vitani and Nuka didn’t.
For a while, Kovu always slept right beside Mother, protected in the curve of her bony frame, while Vitani and Nuka were shoved to one side. Now, though, he had his own sleeping place, apart from Mother and Vitani and Nuka and the rest of the lionesses who slept in the termite mounds—a gouged-out stump, right in the middle of the biggest mound, where the sunlight from a hole in the roof could fall on him. Every night, Mother dropped him right in the center of the stump, where a hollow had been made perfectly shaped to his small body. He could look out over the edges of the stump and see the lionesses milling around in the shadows inside the termite mound, like a bunch of snakes.
Kovu did not like Nuka as much as he liked Vitani, and it was plain to Kovu that Nuka thought him just about the worst slime that had ever deigned to walk the earth. Nuka was scrawny, ugly, dusty and had termites burrowing in his skin—no female would ever choose him. Apparently, Kovu got under his skin some, too, because Nuka never missed a chance to call him a little termite. Not to his face, though; more often to Vitani. “I can’t believe that little termite is the Chosen One!” “The termite Kovu wandered off again. Wasn’t it your turn to babysit him?” “Why does that little termite get his own sleeping place? It’s not fair!” Always in a harsh little whine. Nuka was generally Kovu’s babysitter; Vitani did it at first, but she said she thought it was weird that she and Kovu were the same age and she was looking after him, so she dumped him on Nuka.
Kovu was very familiar with the Outlands, where Mother’s pride lived. It was all the same—sand hot and cracked underfoot, sky gray or yellow or red overhead, and termite mounds towering up as far as the eye could see. Kovu could remember, vaguely, when there had been a distinction between land and sky, but that was long ago. By now, all he saw when he looked out over the land was a wash of dust. For water they had to venture uncomfortably close to the Pridelands, so Mother would deprive Kovu of water for days to teach him to adapt. For food, there was only so much to be had, even though all of it went to Kovu anyway. And none of it—Mother insisted none of it—could ever come from the Pridelands. Not until it was their Pridelands again.
It was a dead land. Mother told Kovu with a proud smile, “Love it, my little prince. It’s yours. All yours.” So Kovu had to love it. But it was dead.
Mother filled him with battle information, like how to make sure the high ground is yours and where to strike in order to hurt most. Vitani, sitting beside Kovu, would nod as if entranced. Kovu knew she was tucking away all the things that Mother told them. But Kovu had always told himself that compared to Vitani—wise, obedient, clever Vitani—he was stupid, so he just said, “Yes, Mother.”
Training was Kovu’s life. His slumbers were deep and tired, penetrated by Mother’s lullaby. He was afraid, but if he ever told Mother that she would call him a coward, and that was worse than a wound. So he was brave. Sometimes he was so brave that he decided to wander off all by himself. He didn’t need anybody to look after him. He would sit near the creek that bordered the Outlands and look at the grass beyond it, and the beautiful acacia trees that still had their leaves, and the massive pointed rock. The rock was always on the horizon, always in the same place, as if waiting for him to look at it whenever he could. So by the time Kovu was five months old, he would escape often to the bank of the creek and stare at the land with no termite mounds, the Pridelands, and try to think about Simba and be angry about him. The kind of thoughts Mother would want him to have: Simba killed Scar. Or, Let him have the stinking Pridelands. Or, They’re cowards, staying on their side of the creek.
But each thought came with a question he didn’t want to answer.
If Scar was so powerful, how could Simba have killed him?
If Simba is such a monster, why is he in the beautiful Pridelands and we’re in the Outlands?
If they’re cowards because they stay on that side of the creek, what are we?
Kovu nurtured these thoughts all by himself. He didn’t really consider anything else to be his own achievement; the words in his head were the only thing Mother couldn’t touch, the only thing that she didn’t know about, that didn’t belong entirely to her. Mother honed Kovu’s body and his skills, but she couldn’t touch his head. His head was his.
It was a beautiful morning. Kiara darted through shafts of sunlight, chasing a little beetle out of the den of Pride Rock. She looked delightedly out from the kopje across an indescribable span of hot golden land.
“Wow,” she said, and giggled when she looked down and saw the path her father had flattened out for her in the grass.
“Whoa, whoa,” said Simba, following her out into the sun.
Kiara didn’t want to whoa. She wanted to run and jump and explore. With practically the whole Savannah to do it in!
She was bounding down the side of the kopje toward that glorious wide-open space when Simba’s big paw swooped down and pulled her back up onto the rock.
“Daddy,” she groaned, giggling.
“Where do you think you’re going in such a hurry?” he said, depositing her on the stone in front of him.
“Far,” Kiara answered. “Let me go!”
Simba shook his head. Kiara’s daddy had a big head, surrounded by the red sea of his mane. Kiara woke to it every morning; it was more familiar than the sun. Which meant she had seen it a gazillion times. There were other things to see.
Like that butterfly!
She turned and rushed toward the insect, batting at it, until Simba’s paw came down on her tail.
“Kiara, are you listening?” said Simba, a little wearily.
Kiara was listening. Simba had promised her that today, she could go out all alone and play. Ever since he had made the promise, he had gone back on it, tried to save himself. Mom had laughed at him. Kiara had laughed at him. He had promised and he was stuck! Sort of. Really, he was the king, and about four times her size, so whatever he said now would determine whether or not Kiara would go out today. It was as easy as him saying “Wait until tomorrow”, and Kiara was stuck in the den for another full day. She wanted so badly to get out. She had to listen to him.
“Now, accidents can happen,” said Simba. “You could easily get—”
“Hurt,” said Kiara, “or stepped on, or lost.”
Simba sighed, whuffing a strand of his red mane out of his face and keeping a paw near Kiara. “Now, remember. I want you to stay in sight of Pride Rock—”
“At all times,” said Kiara, rolling her eyes. “I know. And if I see any strangers, I don’t talk to them. I come straight home. Okay, okay, can I go now? Please?”
Simba made another whuff noise.
Kiara’s Mom walked up beside her Daddy. “Mind your father, Kiara,” she said.
“And stay away from the Outlands,” said Simba, last of all and very sternly.
“Why?” said Kiara.
“It’s safer in the places where the light touches, sweetheart. Trust me, the Outsiders would stab you in the back if you turned it on them.”
“Why would they do that?”
Simba looked tired, like it was something he didn’t want to talk about. “Never mind that, Kiara. Just run along now.”
“But, Daddy, why don’t I turn my back on them?” said Kiara. She wanted to know everything. Just a moment ago Simba had been trying to keep her on the rock as long as possible. Now he was shooing her away because he didn’t want to tell her something? Well, that was just cheating.
“You’ll understand someday,” said Simba. He said that a lot.
“Dad…” Kiara stepped forward insistently, but Simba just ran his big orangey paw over her back and made her fur stand up, which was annoying, so off she went.
“Stay on the path I’ve marked for you!” Simba called after her.
Kiara jumped down onto the multicolored grasslands. The sky was blue-gold, and the earth green-gold, scattered with flat-topped trees. Summer wind, warm and bright and so full of scents she almost couldn’t stand it, flowed in currents over the ground, filling her up. She walked out from under the shadow of Pride Rock and faced the path she was going to go down. The grass grew up above Kiara’s head. She took a deep breath—and then she saw the butterfly she had been chasing, going in a completely different direction. She followed it.
She had wanted to go out like this ever since she was tiny, but she hadn’t been allowed to because she was a girl. She had heard every lioness in the pride talk about it at some point. Daddy had been expecting a boy, a prince. What he got instead was Kiara, who had to be watched every second she was so troublesome. No one seemed to notice that Kiara was perfectly big and normal and healthy for a cub, because it would have been more convenient if Kiara had been a boy. That way there would have been someone to carry on looking after the pride the way Simba always had.
She’d show them what a girl could do. She followed the butterfly.
The red wings fluttered in loops beneath the hot sun. Kiara ran around under cover of the grass, lunging upwards toward her quarry whenever she felt like flying too. She felt so free, with no one watching her, no one telling her what to do. How delicious it was.
She went farther and farther.
Her father’s Savannah was beautiful. Exquisite. Green and gold and blue and perfectly smooth. Every color was saturated and rich, and reminded Kiara of the taste of the game her mother brought home after a hunt—deep and yummy, and never enough. She waved her forepaws in the air at the butterfly. “Come back!” she giggled, panting and growling as she bounced around. She liked bouncing. “I just want to play!”
The butterfly fluttered down and rested on a boulder just ahead. Kiara saw her chance.
“Ah,” she whispered, lowering herself to the ground. “The mighty hunter has cornered her prey…”
She moved forward, very slow, growling quietly to herself. Then she pounced.
The butterfly flew away.
Kiara flopped down in good-natured defeat, watching her winged friend flutter off into the sky before looking over the rim of the boulder.
She had to look down, because the boulder where she lay was on a raised crest of grassy earth that ran in a wide ring around Pride Rock. What she saw beyond wasn’t green or gold or blue. It was brown, shrouded by brown clouds, covered in brown pointy things.
“Whoa,” she whispered.
She moved forward on the rock and sat down.
“Cool,” she said.
That had to be the Outlands. The place Daddy said she mustn’t go.
She looked at it for a while. I wonder what’s out there, she thought. Well, technically, Daddy had already told her what was out there. Outsiders. You can’t turn your back on them. Though she wasn’t sure why.
A small voice in her mind whispered, There’s only one way to find out.
She looked quickly over her shoulder. Pride Rock was still in sight, as it was supposed to be. At all times. She hadn’t really disobeyed. Not really.
She’d just put a toe inside. She’d just take one step into the Outlands, then go straight home. The stories she’d tell everyone, who thought she couldn’t be as good as a boy! It would be wonderful.
She jumped down off the rock, under which a creek bubbled that ran straight toward the brown, misty lands. So she followed the water. That way she could take a drink whenever she needed.
She followed the creek a long way, hopping on grasshoppers and other things when she came across them. It was a beautiful day for insect hunting. What was she doing again? Oh, right. The Outlands.
It was already getting dusky when she found a log that had fallen over the edge of the creek, spanning it. She wondered if it was at all different on the other side. She climbed up onto the log and trotted across. The Prideland bank of the creek was a good deal higher than the Outland side, so the log sloped at an angle, like going down a hill.
Then Kiara tripped on a knot in the log. All she remembered after that were a bunch of somersaults into the dark dust and bumping something that made a surprised ugh noise when she rolled into it.
She lay sprawled on the ground for a while before lifting her head and sneezing the dust away. She looked around for whatever it was that she had bumped into, and to her shock saw a skinny cub lying nearby, with a dull coat and strands of black scattered over his high forehead. He raised his head, and his green eyes looked at her in confusion.
Kiara gasped. An Outsider.
The cub’s expression changed in an instant. He leapt up, crouching onto his chest and snarling.
Oh, no. Don’t turn your back on them. Kiara scrambled backwards on her belly.
The cub came closer and closer. Kiara darted desperately to one side. The cub jumped toward her, and she hopped to the other side. Was he really going to stab her in the back? Were his claws big enough for that?
The cub stopped growling and narrowed his eyes in puzzlement, coming out of his crouch. He was just playing! Well, what did he have to go scaring her for? Kiara straightened up, scowling, and took another quick hop away just to be safe.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“My father says to never turn your back on an Outsider,” she said crossly.
The puzzlement became spite. “You always do what Daddy says?”
“Bet you do! Bet you’re Daddy’s little girl, aren’t you?”
Kiara didn’t like him.
The boy cub smiled an awful smile, all arrogant. “An Outsider doesn’t need anybody,” he said. He walked onto one of the logs in the creek, what looked like an extension of the log that Kiara had walked across, and plunked himself down proudly. “I take care of myself.”
“Really?” said Kiara. She stepped onto the log behind him. A cub her age, all alone and independent. “Cool.”
Then the log started moving, and the other cub screamed.
Kiara whipped around and saw a great maw opening on its hinge, and rows of perfect triangle teeth inching toward her. She let out a shriek, lunging backwards.
The crocodile’s body moved wildly, darting out from underneath the two cubs. Kiara and the other cub toppled into the murky creek.
Kiara surfaced coughing. The water was green and made her sick. She saw the other cub paddling desperately past her, followed by the lightning coils of the crocodile. She felt sicker, and struck out for all her life, swimming in the same direction as the cub.
They clambered onto a couple of rocks that stuck up out of the water. Kiara couldn’t get her breath. She dragged in air over her panting tongue and watched the crocodile disappear with a swish of its tail under the water.
She looked at the cub, both of them wheezing, and smiled with the relief of getting away.
The other cub coughed. He looked at her and gave a desperate little laugh. “That was a close one,” he choked out.
Kiara giggled, “Yeah.”
Then the rock beneath their paws uncurled into many scaly tails. Kiara looked down with a scream as the crocodiles they were sitting on reared up; she had to latch her little claws into the back ridges of one of them, or she’d be thrown off. There were so many crocodiles milling around them in the water—she couldn’t see where one ended and another began—how many were there? She was going to die!
The other cub started screaming. Kiara would have screamed again, too, only she couldn’t breathe she was so scared.
“We gotta go! Run!” she got out.
More and more massive heads came snapping up at them, lunging out of the green. The sunlight burned through the sheets of water thrown upwards by the crocodiles. The other cub hung on desperately, but Kiara knew they had to get away. She unlatched her claws and leapt from the head of one crocodile to the back of another, bouncing like an antelope to avoid the thrashing reptiles, until she reached a branch sticking out of the water. She clambered up onto it and dug her claws in experimentally to make sure it wasn’t another crocodile. Then she turned around, gripping the wood.
The other cub was still slipping and sliding on a pile of crocodile backs. The crocodile holding him started writhing and snapping, and as if on cue the rest started writhing and snapping and snarling and Kiara felt sick again. She yelled to him.
The cub let go. He fell onto the head of another crocodile and ran as fast as he could across the slippery backs of the others. Snakes! Monsters! Then he ran right past her branch. He had missed!
“Hey! What about me?” demanded Kiara, stranded in the middle of the creek and continuing to cling as he passed.
“I’ll distract them! Run!” he said, before he shot off the end of a croc tail and plummeted into the water.
Kiara had to turn away from him because one of the crocodiles was getting dangerously close to her branch. She swatted furiously at it, but it quickly lost interest in her, curling away through the water to where the other cub was only just now surfacing, spitting green water out of his mouth and floundering to the base of another tree growing in the creek.
“Look out!” shrieked Kiara as the crocodile made towards him.
The cub yelped, splashing, and ground his claws into the wood of the tree he was holding.
Kiara leaped through the air and landed on top of the crocodile’s head. Her weight made its jaws slap shut; she crouched between its eyes, holding the mouth closed. “Move it!” she yelled to the cub.
He flailed upwards and started crawling up the tree branch he was holding. It sloped to join the Pridelander bank of the creek. The cub climbed and grappled, and Kiara jumped up behind him.
They had both clambered up the precariously swaying branch and the other cub had already leapt from the tree branch to a ledge on the opposite bank of the creek when Kiara felt their bridge begin to move. She hung onto the end, looking down to see a crocodile tugging on the tree, flinging it back and forth.
“Come on!” yelled the cub. “Jump! Jump!”
Kiara released the branch, and her fat little body flew through the air before she thudded onto the ground beside the cub with a grunt. She dropped her head, panting, and just wondered for a while if you could die from your heart beating too fast or your breath coming too slow.
That was awful. She never wanted to do that again.
Do what again? What had she done?
When she could breathe again, she crept to the edge of the bank, and the other cub came after her, and they both poked their heads over and looked down at the creek, and saw all the crocodiles, gurgling and rasping hungrily through their jaws.
What had she done? She had done that.
“I did it,” she murmured. “I did it!” She blew a raspberry at the crocodiles and started home.
Then she remembered the cub, who was still next to her.
“Did you see what I did?” she demanded, turning and looking at him. “Did you see the size of those teeth?” She wanted to scream her achievement to the world! She hopped around and played leapfrog with the clouds for a minute, starting to tell everyone how hard she had bopped that crocodile, before she remembered that he was the only one there.
“Well, did you see?” she said, getting eagerly up in his face. She dropped into a crouch. “They were like, rawrr!” And she snapped her teeth with a funny growl and rolled all over herself. “Rawrr, rawrr, rawrr, rawrr!” She lay on her back with her legs in the air and hugged herself, giggling and giggling. “He totally—ate me!” she gasped, and then screamed with laughter. “And he ate you! And I jumped on his head, and I bopped him so good—bop!” She wheezed.
“You okay?” said the cub doubtfully.
Kiara caught her breath after a minute, and then she said, “We make such a good team!”
Then she stopped.
They did make a good team. It sort of surprised her.
She looked right at him, remembering how he had yelled I’ll distract them!
The cub narrowed his eyes.
“You were really brave,” Kiara said, softly and admiringly.
The cub blinked. “Yeah?” he said uncertainly.
“You were pretty brave, too,” he said.
She grinned. Well, of course she was.
“My name’s Kovu,” he said.
“What?” said Kovu, frowning.
“That is Our Word for scar,” said Kiara. She laughed, because she remembered the stories Daddy and Mom had told her. “Is that you? Scar?”
Kovu didn’t say anything.
Kiara giggled again, and then said really softly, because she was proud of it, “I’m Kiara.”
“What’s that…Our Word for?” said Kovu.
Kiara giggled. “Nothing!” she said, and spun around. Then she wanted to play, and realized he was right there, so she smacked him. He shied backwards, but she did the same, crouching with a big grin. “Tag!” she said. “You’re it!”
Kovu stared at her.
She lunged forward and swatted him again. “Tag!” she cried. “You’re it! You’re it!” She launched into a spat of giggling, looking innocently at his face, until she stopped smiling all of a sudden.
“What?” said Kovu uncomfortably again.
“What?” she echoed. “Well, what’s the matter? Don’t you know how to play?”
But he didn’t. He just looked at her blankly.
“Oh,” she said, very quietly.
There was silence for a minute, as Kiara looked at him solemnly. What was wrong with this Outsider? If he didn’t know tag, what did he know?
Maybe they could playfight. Kiara invited him by crouching and growling.
A look of recognition crossed his face, and he lowered himself with a big smile, snapping his teeth.
Suddenly, Kiara heard Simba’s voice. Not distant and vague, as it should have been from Pride Rock, but right at her shoulder, so loud it would break anything’s ears.
And then a skinny lioness appeared behind Kovu, meeting Simba with her red mouth dragging open into a violent roar.
Kiara shrank down into the earth at Simba’s paws. The lioness wasn’t so ugly, but Kiara felt the horrible cold sickness that she had felt with the crocodiles.
She looked up at Simba. What had happened to her soft-spoken father? Now his mane stood out, dark and red and bristling, and his muzzle was wrinkled in rage, and his ears were folded backwards so tightly they disappeared into the terror of his mane, and folds of skin narrowed his eyes into bright, glaring slits, and his head was held low and threatening, and his voice was scary and growling.
“Zira,” Simba growled.
The lioness’s black lips smiled eagerly. “Simba?” she said, like he had just made all her dreams come true. Her voice was deep and curling like a snake. She crouched, and Kiara, hidden behind Simba’s leg, saw claws as curved and black as harpy talons stretching from Zira’s paws. Kovu cowered between the stranger’s forepaws.
Kiara screamed as she realized that Zira was going to fight Simba.
But she heard more roars, and turned around to see what it was. Mom stood near Simba. “Mom?” whimpered Kiara, sinking deep into the grass.
Nala sent her a small nod. Behind her mother, Kiara could see the lionesses of the pride gathered all up in ranks, heads low, shoulders high, glaring and growling at Zira.
Kiara felt safer. She turned back to Kovu and saw Zira retreat, sliding out of her crouch.
“Nala?” said Zira, with the nature of a bored question.
“Zira,” growled Nala.
There was silence for a moment.
“Get out of my lands, Zira,” Simba said. “Do as you’re told.”
“Your lands?” said Zira, her eyes glinting. “The Pridelands belong to Scar.”
“I banished you from the Pridelands! Now, you and your young cub, get out!”
Kiara saw Kovu cringe.
“Oh,” said Zira, and all of a sudden she was purring. Her gaunt figure circled the huddled brown mound that was Kovu, as if displaying him. “Haven’t you met my son, Kovu? He was chosen by Scar himself…to carry on in his pawprints, and become…king.”
Scar. Our Word.
I want to go home, thought Kiara.
“You know the penalty for returning to the Pridelands,” said Simba. “Did you come here to hunt, or what? A pound of that meat belongs to us.”
“But the child does not!” snarled Zira. “However…if you…need your pound of flesh…” she circled back around Kovu, smiling because of course the Pridelanders didn’t need any extra flesh, “here.”
And she lowered her head and pushed Kovu toward Simba.
Kiara could hear Kovu’s teeth chattering. The brown cub’s eyes were stretched wide and his lips were slack, showing his teeth, so afraid.
But Zira was still smiling. She probably knew that Kiara’s Daddy would never ever kill, never ever eat, a cub.
Simba glared down at the shaking Kovu. Then he said, “Take him and get out. We’re finished here.” He bent and picked up Kiara by the scruff of her neck. Kiara dangled a couple of feet in the air, her ears pressed flat against her head, in full view of Zira.
“Oh, no, Simba,” purred Zira. “We have barely begun.”
She looked down at Kiara, and she chuckled. Then she turned, tucked Kovu’s body into her mouth, lifted him and started back toward the brown haze of the Outlands.
Simba started walking in the other direction. Kiara struggled to keep Kovu in sight until he and Zira disappeared in the direction of the creek.
Vitani was happy to find a bit of scrub bush to chew on. Scrub bush was a covetable snack out here. The roots were chewy and supple and, depending on how deep down they went into the soil, had some traces of resin in them—leftovers of whatever moisture the tree had been able to suck from the ground. The resin was sweet and got the juices in Vitani’s mouth flowing, and the root gave her something to gnaw on. A good ways away, two of Mother’s lionesses were having a vicious tug-of-war with a small twist of it. Not me, though Vitani with hot pride. I’ve got a whole root for myself.
Now, if she could just get it out of the ground.
This root was almost as big as she was. Which was great, except she had been struggling to break it off the rest of the tree for several minutes now. She might as well have been playing tug-of-war, and though her jaws were delighted to grip the root, the tree was winning.
She heard Nuka coming up, with his usual uncaring lope and his usual mutterings. “Kovu, Kovu, Kovu,” he was saying. “Scar wasn’t even his father. He just took him in.”
Nuka pulled up at the sight of Vitani and the root. Vitani growled louder. This was her scrub bush.
“Oh, hey, Vitani,” he said in his lethargic voice. “Where’s the little termite Kovu? The Chosen One?” He flicked out a black claw and sliced Vitani’s root in two. The root stopped resisting Vitani, who was unprepared and rolled backwards, holding one end of the root.
Vitani sat up and bared her teeth at him. “Nuka! Where’s Kovu? Did you leave him out there on his own again?”
“Hey, I have things to do,” said Nuka, raising a hind leg to scratch termites out of his thin, discolored mane. “It’s every lion for himself out here, that little termite’s gotta learn to be on his own.”
He was so stupid. “Mother’s going to be mad, she told you to watch him!”
“Who cares?” demanded Nuka. “I should have been the chosen one!” He shuddered his coat and backed up to the dead trunk of the scrub bush. Scratch, scratch, scratch. “I’m the oldest—” rub against the trunk “—I’m the strongest—” gnaw on his shoulder “—I’m the smartest—Gah, these termites!” He whirled around idiotically, like a hyena or a dog, snapping at the bugs that had buried themselves in his skin.
Nuka dragged himself away from the scrub. “I could be a leader,” he said furiously, “if she’d just give me a chance!”
“Yeah, right,” scoffed Vitani. “Why don’t you tell that to her?”
“Don’t think I won’t,” growled Nuka.
Vitani heard Mother’s deep, thudding footfalls approaching. “Here’s your chance.”
Nuka did an about-face. Mother was striding up behind him, holding Kovu in her mouth.
“Mother!” Nuka exclaimed. “Oh, Mother, hi!” He giggled. Nuka tended to giggle when he greeted Mother.
Vitani glanced up at Kovu as Mother carried him over. Kovu had the look on his face that he had after a fight, when he was hurt, like something was wrong, something had happened that wasn’t right. Something had happened.
“Mother, I caught some field mice for your dinner,” said Nuka eagerly. “They’re over by the—”
Mother walked right past him.
“…okay,” said Nuka, looking at Mother’s back.
Vitani heard Mother growling, deep in her throat. But Mother couldn’t talk with Kovu in her mouth. She dropped Kovu in front of Vitani.
Vitani growl-smiled at her brother. “Hey, Kovu,” she said. “Want to fight?”
Kovu looked at her, crouched and smiled, a corner of his mouth lifting to show his teeth.
Then Mother started making her terrible noises, the growling and the roaring. She swung her black nose toward Nuka. “You were supposed to be watching him!”
“I-i-it’s not his fault!” cried Kovu, looking away from Vitani and up at Mother. “I went off on my own!”
“What were you doing?” Mother shoved into Kovu’s face.
Vitani stumbled away, backwards.
“Who has made us Outsiders?” cried Mother, advancing on Kovu.
“Who killed Scar?”
“Simba!” Kovu fell over onto his back.
“What…have I told you…about THEM?” Mother roared horribly, baring her teeth, staring down into Kovu’s face.
Vitani knew she couldn’t do anything; she had to stay back. Mother’s rage was frequent and terrifying, but at least she wouldn’t hurt Kovu.
Kovu cringed away. “I’m sorry, Mother! Oh, she—she didn’t seem so bad,” he stammered, looking up supplicatingly. “I—I thought we could be—”
“FRIENDS?” roared Mother.
Kovu curled up on the ground like a kitten, his ears flat against his head, his eyes huge.
“You thought you’d get to the daughter, and Simba would welcome you with open arms?” Mother drew a breath. “What an idea!” She rolled her eyes, breathing hard.
There was silence for a second. Vitani stared as Mother’s eyes widened, her mouth twisted into some kind of a smile, her whole face changing as if lighting up.
“What,” said Mother, looking again at Kovu with a huge smile, “an idea!”
This was new. Certainly scarier in a way than the anger.
Mother bent over Kovu and curled her claws around his tail in an excited grip. “You brilliant child!” she exclaimed, her eyes huge and shining. “I’m so proud of you.” She let Kovu to his feet, crouched beside him and ran her paw over his back, looking up at the hot gold-gray sky. “You have the same conniving mind that made Scar so…powerful.”
In the span of a second Zira reared away from Kovu and snapped, roaring, in Nuka’s ugly face. Nuka quivered and giggled nervously.
Vitani still couldn’t get close to her brother. She wanted to protect him somehow. But Zira bent toward Kovu again and took his body in her mouth, still growling at Nuka. She lifted Kovu, turned and went toward the largest termite mound. Vitani and Nuka followed. Vitani heard Nuka muttering about “the chosen one”.
The inside of the termite mound was a maze of hidden crawlways, cliffs and paths, with the stump right in the center. Several times, in the beginning, Vitani and Kovu had tried to hide in some of the crevices, but Mother was smart. She learned the layout of the inside of the mound almost as quickly as the cubs did. And they were punished.
A small chink of sunlight fell through a hole in the top spire of the termite mound, lighting up Kovu’s stump right in the middle of the cavern within. Vitani followed Mother through the wide hole that served as the entrance into the mound and joined the groups of scrawny lionesses moving in the shadows. She leaned against the wall of the mound; it was riddled with holes, opened by termites and widened by the pride digging.
Kovu gave a small grunt as Mother dropped him on the stump, into his little hollow in it. Zira leaned over him with her snake smile. She said, slowly, “I now see the path to our glorious return to power.”
The lionesses surrounding Vitani lifted their heads and leaned forward to catch their matriarch’s words. Vitani was swallowed by their rumbling, eager growls.
Vitani saw Kovu shaking in his little hollow. “But I don’t want—”
“Hush!” snapped Zira, her voice echoing in the spire of the mound. Then she was all sweetness. “Hush, my little one,” she repeated in a whisper, pressing her face against Kovu’s. “You must be exhausted.”
She curled around Kovu’s stump and lay down with her body encircling it, resting her chin on the edge of the hollow where Kovu lay. The pride turned away and went about their business, still growling in suppressed excitement. Vitani edged into the light near the stump. She could see Nuka, neglected near the entrance, watching Mother from glaring eyes.
Mother was singing her favorite song, the one she always sang Kovu to sleep with. “Sleep, my little Kovu,” she crooned, with a soft smile and her eyes closed. Vitani sat down to listen.
“Sleep, my little Kovu,
Let your dreams take wing.
One day when you’re big and strong,
You will be a king.”
Nuka growled quietly. But Mother continued, as Kovu curled up on the stump,
“The sound of Simba’s dying gasp
His daughter squealing in your grasp
His lioness’s mournful cry—
Son, that’s my lullaby.
The pounding of the drums of war
The thrill of Kovu’s mighty roar
I can hear the cheering
Victory is nearing
And then our flag will fly
Against a blood-red sky—
That’s my lullaby.”
Vitani was pretty sure Kovu hated that song. But whether he did or not, he was asleep, breathing deeply. What on earth had happened to make him so tired?
“Good night, my little prince,” murmured Mother with a dangerous smile. She ran her tongue over Kovu’s small form. “Tomorrow, your training intensifies.” She stood, still humming that song as she slunk out of the mound.
Once she was gone, Vitani jumped up onto the stump and sat near Kovu. Even if she couldn’t really protect him, she could stand by him and pretend.
“Yeah,” muttered Nuka, slipping from his corner. “I’ve got one, Vitani. ‘Sleep, you little termite’”—he jumped, pretending to be shocked at his own nerve—“Oh, I mean, ‘You precious little thing’—”
“Get lost,” growled Vitani.
“Oh, that’s nice,” he snarled back. “Thanks, Vitani.” He turned tail and loped out.
Vitani stretched out next to Kovu on the stump and smoothed the black tuft between her brother’s ears. Vitani didn’t love Mother, but Mother was a good leader and a ruthless general, and she wanted nothing more than for Kovu to be king. That was what Vitani wanted, too. After all, he was her brother.
“One day when you’re big and strong,” she sang softly, “you will be a king.”
And then, everything would be better.
Kiara bumped gently along in Simba’s jaws, wondering where Zira was taking Kovu at that very moment.
They were about halfway home, at the rim of the valley where Pride Rock was, and it was sunset, when Simba stopped walking. Nala continued to walk a little ways ahead of him. Then when she realized the king wasn’t following them anymore, she turned with a questioning look. “Simba?” she said.
Kiara listened glumly for any interesting conversation to distract her from how bad she felt. But Simba just cleared his throat, lifting Kiara a little higher. Kiara didn’t know what that meant, but Nala seemed to. She gave a small smile and moved on toward Pride Rock.
I’m in trouble, thought Kiara.
Simba set her down on a boulder and sat facing her. Kiara didn’t want to look at him, though.
“Kiara,” he said, almost growling. “Look at me now.”
Kiara couldn’t help but remember what Mom had told her, about what Simba had done. How he had thrown a lion off the top of Pride Rock once. He shouldn’t be disobeyed—even though that was exactly what Kiara had done. She turned slowly and tried to smile at him, but he looked angry. Daddy was so huge and bright. What would he do to her?
Kiara looked down at her paws. The bouncy feeling from earlier that day was all gone. She wanted it back.
“Kiara, what were you thinking?” he demanded. “You could have been killed today.”
Kiara began miserably, “But, Daddy, I – I didn’t mean to diso—”
Simba didn’t listen. “I’m saying this because I love you,” he said slowly, as if he thought she couldn’t understand big words. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“I know,” said Kiara.
“If something happened to you, I don’t know what I’d do,” said Simba.
Kiara knew what he’d do. He’d have another cub. Probably a boy. Anyone could have told him that.
Simba didn’t stop frowning. He sat down in front of the rock where Kiara sat, so they were eye level. “One day, I won’t be here,” he said, “and I expect you to carry on in my place. You are part of the great—”
“Circle of Life, I know,” said Kiara, rolling her eyes wearily. Daddy was gazing overhead as he often did when he spoke of the Circle of Life, his expression watchful as though someone would reply to him. But that wasn’t really something Kiara believed in.
“Exactly,” said Simba. “And that means you need to be careful.” He laid one of his huge golden paws across her back. “As future queen—”
“What if I don’t want to be queen?” Kiara burst out angrily. She shrugged off the weight of his paw and glared at him. “It’s no fun,” she muttered.
Deep down inside, Kiara knew that the only real way for her to find out if being queen was fun or not was to wait around and become one. But she also knew that Mom was queen, and Mom never had time to play or bounce or chase bugs with her—there was too much to do, what with leading hunts and keeping the den clean and offering counsel to Simba.
But Kiara’s daddy wasn’t having any of it. “That’s like saying you don’t want to be a lion,” he said. “It’s in your blood. As I am. We are part of each other.”
Kiara turned away and gave a little hmph. But when Simba pushed her playfully off the rock into a patch of dandelions, she couldn’t help laughing. She looked up at the orange sunset sky and laughed at the funny-shaped clouds skittering across it. There was too much in the world to laugh at.
Simba dropped into a crouch, teasing his tail-tip in front of her face. Kiara pounced in his direction, and he laughed and ran down into the valley. Kiara gave chase, panting to keep up; Daddy made sure he kept stopping and doublign back, so there were a few moments when she almost got him. They weaved between acacias and clambered over rocks and uprooted trunks.
It wasn’t long before they were climbing up the great heap of red boulders surrounding the home kopje. Kiara looked up and paused. She had seen Simba stand on the tip of that huge pointed stone so many times, looking out over his kingdom. She liked to play there herself sometimes, or just lay in the sunlight and dangle her forepaws over the edge. But now, suddenly, it scared her, and she stopped laughing. She didn’t want to stand there as her father stood there, as a ruler. She couldn’t find that in any part of her, no matter what Simba said.
Her Daddy saw where she was looking and bent down, cupping her in his great paw and holding her against him. “As long as you live here,” he said gently, “it’s who you are.”
Kiara tried to understand.
“Now, come on,” said Simba, and for the first time he gave her a little forgiving smile. “Rafiki will play with you at the den.”
Not the baboon again, thought Kiara. But she smiled at Simba and followed him home.
Rafiki, an old blue-grey mandrill that Simba refused to eat, watched Kiara often. His name was Their Word for friend. Kiara was tired that night, but she didn’t want to cuddle into Mom’s foreleg to sleep as she usually did. She chased Rafiki around and made a lot of noise, pretending she was going to eat him. That always freaked him out.
“Princess!” he said wearily, having jumped to the highest rock he could find in the cave. “You have so many things to chase—why old Rafiki?”
Kiara growled playfully.
Daddy and Mom were already asleep among the rest of the pride, which was grumbling at the noise Kiara made. Finally, Simba raised his head. “Kiara!” he hissed.
“What, Daddy?” said Kiara innocently, standing up against the rock where Rafiki hid.
“Okay.” Kiara slipped off the rock. “Come on, Rafiki.”
“Thank you, boy,” Rafiki muttered in Simba’s direction. “Ah, poor me. Kiara! Worthy huntress!” He threw his long, naked paws in the air as if in praise. Kiara giggled and scampered out of the den, onto the kopje.
The night was warm black velvet, and the land glowed under a sickle moon. Kiara wanted to run down into the grass and hunt some insects, but Rafiki caught her in both paws.
“Hey-hey-hey!” he laughed creakily. He stood up on his hind legs, tucked Kiara under his forelimb and tapped her nose. “And where are you going?”
“Let me go!” said Kiara, flailing and laughing as he tickled her stomach. “I want to catch bugs!”
“Ah,” said the mandrill mournfully, setting her down on the stone face of the kopje. “Rafiki feels for these bugs and their families. But, Kiara, ha! I have a better idea.”
Kiara doubted how much better his idea could be. Adults tended to say things like that to distract her from whatever she was doing.
“How would you like,” said the mandrill, leaning forward with his ugly face vividly smiling, “to find star pictures?”
Kiara blinked up at him in the darkness. She waited a while for him to say “Gotcha” or something.
“Really?” she said doubtfully.
“Oh, really,” said Rafiki, nodding. His face was full of truth and moonlight. “You follow old Rafiki, he knows the way.” He hurried past Kiara toward a ledge that ran up the side of Pride Rock, right to its highest point.
The thought of star pictures set things shaking in Kiara. Excited, and a little nervous, she followed the old mandrill up through the night air, toward the top of Pride Rock.
The great cliff was flat-topped. Kiara saw the mandrill stretch out unceremoniously on his back on the rock and happily did the same, looking up at the great blue-black sky.
“See any star pictures?” said Rafiki.
Kiara frowned at the glittering expanse. “There aren’t any pictures up there,” she said. “The stars don’t make a picture, Rafiki, they’re just all over the place.”
He reached a long finger over and tapped her forehead. “You’re a smart girl,” he said insistently.
Thank you, thought Kiara. No one really called her smart. Pretty and bouncy, yes, but not smart. She wondered if it was true—Rafiki’s was only one opinion.
“You’re a smart girl,” repeated the mandrill. “Look harder and try to find shapes up there.”
Kiara squinted at the sky. “I see clouds,” she said disinterestedly.
“Any pictures?” urged Rafiki, tapping her head again.
“Well, they’re not really any shapes,” said Kiara. “And it’s too dark.”
“Then look at the whole sky,” said Rafiki. “Clouds and stars and sky. What do you see?”
Kiara looked up again. She couldn’t see the whole sky, though, not in one look. So she just held her eyes as wide as they would go and craned her neck around.
A cloud front was skudding in from the east. Kiara squinted at it, watching a hole in the clouds through which the stars glittered. There!
“Look!” she cried eagerly, pointing with her forepaw toward the hole in the clouds. “That place where you can see the stars through the clouds! It’s shaped like—like—a bird!” She looked at Rafiki. “A picture?”
He tapped her forehead with a cackle and a grin. “Smart girl!” he said. Then he pointed a slender finger upwards. “But look here, at the cluster of stars. What do you see?”
“Fruit,” said Kiara.
“Fruit?” said the mandrill, cackling good-naturedly. “Why is that?”
“Because it’s all together, like how dates grow on a tree.”
“I see.” Rafiki nodded. “Yes. Good! And there?” He pointed.
Kiara looked at the glimmering sky-shape he indicated and thought about it for a second. He says you’re smart, she told herself. What do the stars say?
“A river,” she said, “splashing over a stone. Or maybe a cub falling into water.” She glanced at Rafiki. “Did you hear…?” she began, half wanting to show off her feat of boldness that day, half hoping he didn’t know about it.
“Yes,” said the mandrill gravely, closing his eyes and nodding his head up and down so that his chin hit his chest. “I heard.”
“Oh,” said Kiara. “Well, I saw an Outsider. I didn’t turn my back on him. Not once. His name was Kovu. He was fun!” She closed her eyes too.
“But there was someone else,” said Rafiki, sitting up and facing her with a patient expression on his wizened old face. “Who was not fun.”
“I don’t want to talk about her,” she muttered. Zira was too frightening. She looked at the sky again. “We can’t touch the stars, can we, Rafiki? Because they’re too far away. No one can ever touch them. They’re all by themselves. They’re free.”
“Must be lonely,” remarked the mandrill.
Kiara looked at him. “Oh,” she murmured. “That’s true. Do you think Kovu’s lonely?”
“Kovu?” said Rafiki questioningly.
“He’s the Outsider.”
“Oh. No! Outsiders are not alone. There’s too many of them. Like flies.”
“Really?” said Kiara. “But he said an Outsider doesn’t need anybody.”
“Oh?” Rafiki scratched his head. “Well. That’s too bad. No one to talk to. No one to help you.”
“No,” said Kiara. “He just didn’t have anyone hanging over his shoulder.” She hugged herself. “Does everyone think I’m dumb because I’m a girl?”
“No, Kiara,” said Rafiki, almost laughing. “You take after your mother. In that you are not stupid.”
“And Daddy is?” Kiara hesitated, then giggled.
There was a pause.
“I can’t see any more pictures,” said Kiara.
“Don’t worry,” said Rafiki. He stood up on the pads of his back feet and scooped Kiara up in his long forelimbs. “You will.” And he toted her back down to the den, where she fell asleep, wondering what was happening with Kovu. If he was all right. If he was safe with Zira.
Simba was having the dream again. He was panting in his place beside Nala, his legs twitching, watching his father die.
It started as it always did. Every time. He was running downhill into the gorge, every muscle and vein aflame with fear, knowing he would, he must, reach his father before he fell.
There he was, his claws dug into the sheer wall of the gorge, the rest of him hanging in dark, unknowable space. Far below the wildebeest charged in an endless wild river, eyes glowing like lamps. Simba skidded to a halt on the edge.
“Help me…” said Mufasa, slow and echoing off the gorge walls.
“Father,” said Simba, stretching forward and down toward him.
Scar’s laughter sounded, somewhere behind Simba.
“No,” said Simba. He shook the sound out of his ears and turned toward the king, dangling on the cliff face. “Dad…just a little farther…” He reached his forepaw as far as it would go toward his father.
Then something bit into his other paw. Simba turned toward the pain, and there was Scar, steeped in shadows, claws buried in the back of Simba’s paw.
“Trust me,” hissed Scar. His teeth and eyes gleamed out of the blackness of the rest of him.
“Simba…” Mufasa groaned. The king’s claws were losing their hold on the stone, scraping further and further downwards.
“No,” said Simba, shaking uncontrollably.
He watched his father fall. And Scar still gripped his paw, cackling madly until Simba was jarred out of sleep by Nala’s paw shaking him.
Simba opened his eyes and looked at his queen. She said his name once. He had to focus on her for a few seconds before he could speak.
“Where’s Kiara?” he said.
“She’s here, asleep,” said Nala, nodding toward another part of the den. “Rafiki just brought her in.”
“On his way out.”
Simba let out his breath. “All right,” he murmured.
Nala rested her head on her forepaws, and Simba lay his chin across her back and tried to breathe.
“Sandstorm!” The cry flurried around the Outlands.
Lionesses stormed past Nuka. He ignored them and squinted into the distance. The sandstorm was a fuzzy blob. You’d think it would be a little freakier than, say, a dust bunny. He couldn’t see the point of panicking now when it was still at least a mile away. For goodness’ sake, he lived in a pride of cowards.
But he muttered, “All right, I’m coming,” and followed the crowd at the slowest pace he could manage.
The wind was blowing over and around Mother’s termite mound by the time Nuka got there. He rose up on the pads of his feet as he went in to scratch his back against the top of the entranceway—today, the termites were targeting his spine, leaving awful itchy sores under his fur. Stinking mites. He slunk inside.
It wasn’t long before the blowing sand blocked the sunlight coming through the hole in the top spire. The termite’s stump in the middle was left in darkness.
The layout of the inside of the mound was clearly meant to bring as much attention to the termite as possible. The crusty earthen floor sloped up and in, with the stump capping the hill, right where the light showed fullest. Nuka wasn’t sure if the termite even realized this yet—he was such a stupid little cretin—but because Kovu had been chosen by Scar, Mother gave Kovu the best and the most of everything. Treated Kovu like all their hopes depended on him.
Which they didn’t.
The termite was getting too big for his stump-bed-throne. Seven months old now, curled up in it, his legs stuck out over the edges. He looked like a doofus. Which, Nuka mused, was exactly what he was. Vitani, who apparently had nothing better to do, hung around the base of the stump, occasionally reaching up to swat Kovu’s nose and annoy him. But the moment Vitani put her forepaws against the stump to sharpen her claws, Mother leapt down from a terrace high above somewhere and roared in her daughter’s face.
“What do you think you are doing?” spat Mother.
“Sharpening my claws.”
“You should find a better use for them, Vitani!” Mother turned away, pressing her nose against Kovu’s brown fur as she passed just to show Vitani who it was she cared more about.
When Mother had stalked away up one of the ledge paths carved by the termites, Kovu looked down over the edge of the stump. “Don’t be upset, Vitani. No one really cares about the stupid stump.”
“She does,” said Vitani, looking after Mother with a shrug.
“Well, it’s not her stump,” said Kovu.
“Anyway,” said the termite, quietly so Mother, up above, wouldn’t hear, “rather the stump have a few scratches than your claws get left unsharpened. You need to be fit for battle. You should be queen, anyway. You’d be a heck of a lot better than me.”
Stupid termite! Nuka snarled, “Anyone would be a heck of a lot better than you.”
The roars echoing around the termite mound shook him to the core. The loudest, of course, was Mother, telling him to shut up. He launched almost involuntarily into a spat of giggles. Mother had noticed him!
The termite’s face rolled into a soft growl. “Actually, I don’t know why Mother doesn’t just become queen herself. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m king.”
“But Scar chose you,” said Vitani gravely.
Well, nobody could argue with that. “Yes,” said Kovu proudly, the stupid insect.
The sandstorm rushed over them from outside. Grainy plumes rushed from some of the holes in the wall. Nuka ducked away from one, yelping. The rest of the pride dodged the blasts. The wind howled, as bitter as Nuka was. He saw the termite jump off the stump, out of the path of the wind pouring through the entrance.
“Let’s tell the Scar story again, then,” said the termite, swishing his tail irritably. “Nothing better to do.”
“You’ve heard it,” said Vitani dismissively, crouching beside him.
Kovu shrugged. “All I remember is his face, sometimes—and what Mother told me about how he died.”
Vitani started speaking in a carrying hiss. “His brother was the king. He mated with the queen of the Pridelands, while Scar was rejected. Everyone knew Scar would have made a great father for the queen’s cubs, but instead, the queen took his brother and made him king for years. Scar was forgotten. The land went wrong under Scar’s brother. None of the hunted animals knew their place anymore; they’d practically walk up and ask to be killed, and more often then not the king wouldn’t touch them. Can you imagine that? When food was right under his nose? He believed the animals were too precious to be killed. The pride practically starved. But all the lions who went to Scar were all right. And then Scar’s brother was killed in a stampede, and so Scar was king at last. But it didn’t last very long. You know the rest, Kovu.”
“Simba murdered him,” growled the termite. “And stole the Pridelands.”
Vitani nodded gravely. “Yeah.”
“I’ve seen Simba, Vitani,” said Kovu, his eyes dark. “He’s so huge. He’s like a mountain. He was going to murder me, too, because Mother went into the Pridelands.”
“I know,” murmured Vitani.
I wish Simba had eaten you, thought Nuka.
Several times, when he was younger, Nuka had considered killing the termite. But he knew if that ever happened, Mother would kill him. Nuka was the only one in the Outland pride who resented Kovu—Mother would know immediately who had killed the blessed Chosen One.
“I bet you think you’d be a great king, Nuka,” growled Vitani.
“Don’t I?” he snarled back. “I’d kill Simba myself…but I think he’d be too strong for somebody like me.” He yawned.
“I wish you could do it instead of me, Nuka,” said the termite.
Nuka lowered his head against the sand and crept toward the stump with a big, grimacing smile. “I would do it for you, Kovu,” he said sweetly through his teeth. “I’d do anything for my king. If only I had the muscle. If only I could take the burden from your shoulders.” He grinned right in Kovu’s face.
The termite bared his teeth and started a little growl.
“Forget muscle,” muttered Vitani. “You just don’t have the guts.”
“I could crush you like a termite,” snapped Nuka.
Vitani shoved into his face with an evil look. “I’d love to see you do it.”
“Enough!” cried Mother.
She leapt down in front of the stump. Nuka immediately flattened himself onto the ground and started smiling at her, so widely that drool fell from his mouth. But she went right past him.
“Kovu,” she growled, “it’s time for your training.”
The termite didn’t even cower in front of her anymore. “Yes, Mother,” he said very softly as Mother took his gangly body in her jaws.
Nuka watched as Mother carried Kovu toward the entrance.
“Where are we going?” he heard the termite whisper.
Mother set him down. “We are going outside,” she growled, “and I will teach you to survive the sandstorm, as I have.” She shoved him outside and bounded after him.
Nuka listened to Kovu yell as sand blew into his eyes and mouth. He smiled and laughed. Vitani growled.
There was a hollow in Rafiki’s tree, covered by leaves and surrounded protectively by an orb of branches, where he conducted most of his daily activities—excluding the babysitting of the princess. That was a while ago, though, he reminded himself. He had forgotten for a moment how old Kiara was.
“Ah,” he said contentedly this night, looking around at his hollow in the branches. He was talking to himself—what self-respecting crazy old monkey would deign not to? “Every day,” he said, “Kiara grows more beautiful, into a queen that will someday make us all very proud.”
He turned to the paintings he had made on one thick, smooth limb. There was his picture, made from berry juices and chewed-up leaves and indelicate things left behind by birds, of Sarabi in her prime—a dusky-coated, heavy-bodied female with kind dark eyes. Beside it was Mufasa, his back arched nobly, his mane full and flowing. And beneath them, Simba, an almost playful figure with knobs for legs and a soft body, slightly smudged. The only thing that gave away the king’s majestic bearing was the red mane. They were primitive depictions, lacking detail or finesse. From far off, they were vaguely outlined blobs. But close up, Rafiki thought they had a nice presence.
“And what can a mad mandrill be expected to make, if not primitive paintings? A masterpiece? Never!” he mused happily.
Kiara’s painting was just being completed—full of soft angles like her father. “Smart girl,” said Rafiki, streaking a blue sky over the princess’s head. “And a good thing she is. Only a few months ago, she would have turned the whole Savannah upside down and laughed at it before putting it right!
“Her father may keep too close an eye on her,” he said thoughtfully, running the flat of his paw through his mane. “This, Rafiki knows. But she is a strong girl. A clever girl—if a funny one, ha ha! Yes, she will make us very proud.”
Tonight, there was another painting in the works. “It’s a good one, too,” said Rafiki, cackling his mandrill cackle as he smudged his thumb along the back of another young lion, close to Kiara. “Going to be a good one.” This one, he already knew, was a male. But he couldn’t be certain who it was until he saw the color of the halo-like mane he was drawing—dark, with black streaks. Yes, for whatever reason, it was Kovu whom he had the urge to paint tonight.
“But this cub Kovu grows stronger,” he said with a solemn frown as he finished the mane, “and Zira fills his heart with hate.” And he left a streak on Kovu’s picture, beneath the mane, where his chest would be.
“I’m very worried,” he murmured, running his berry-stained paw through his mane again. “Things are…not going well. No.”
Mother slunk from the shadows at the edges of the termite mound. Kovu, sitting up still and straight on the stump he had slept on as a cub, didn’t have to look at her face now to know her expression, because he had known her face for two years and more—her thin black lips stretching, pulling away from her dagger teeth; her sharp black nose and muzzle wrinkling as she smiled; the slits of her black eyes glinting, cruel and excited; the ear with the round hole in it held back against her skull; the powerful muscles of her shoulders working beneath the dusty fur as she circled the stump slowly. Besides her weaselly, pointed face, Mother’s sinewy shoulders were her most prominent feature; all of the rest of her was thin and tight. Her hip bones stuck out on either side of her spine. All her ribs showed. She seemed to have no stomach. Her elbows jutted out from her forelegs. Her tail moved lazily as a snake, but her eyes were intense and mad with excitement.
“You are ready,” she said with a chuckle.
Kovu knew none of her pleasure was in him. It was in herself. She had raised such a grand prince. She had trained him, made him fat.
Still, Kovu didn’t have to look at her. He could feel her excitement as she paced in a circle around the stump. The air around her shook with the heat of her.
Zira chuckled deeply. “You have the same strength in your soul that Scar had.”
Kovu looked straight ahead, pride blooming hot in his stomach.
“Well, Kovu?” Zira growled.
It had been two years. And now it was his time. The moment was electric, boiling around him. Again, he would meet the princess of the Pridelands—but this time, it would be to start a war. And only the Outsiders knew. It was the secret they had harbored so long. It was Kovu, their tool to get to Kiara, and from her to Simba.
“What is your destiny?” hissed Zira, in the same way she had once asked Who killed Scar, walking faster around the stump.
Kovu breathed out. “I will avenge Scar. Take his place in the Pridelands.”
“Yes!” she said eagerly. “What have I taught you?”
“Simba is the enemy,” he said.
Her voice was breathless now. “And what—must—you—do?”
Kovu knew. He was ready.
“I must kill him!” he snarled.
Around him, on the terraces ringing the walls, stretching delightedly from all the hidden places, and teeming in the shadows, the pride echoed back the snarl.
It was the morning of Kiara’s first hunt.
The Pridelands were in the height of the dry season. Kiara had stood on the tip of the kopje as dawn saturated the landscape in gold. With a deep breath she had smiled at the day, and whispered over the boundless Savannah, “I’m coming.” Her heart quickened with the light until her blood coursed with excitement.
Her first hunt!
It would be the hardest, she knew.
The rest of the world roused itself, too slow for Kiara. She sat by the entrance to the den in the hot sunlight as the pride filed out. Freedom was closer now than it had ever been, but again, her father had the last say in it. The whole of today hinged on whether Simba would finally just let her go. She had never been able to convince him that she didn’t need him hanging over his shoulder. He was still her Daddy, who, after Rafiki had gotten tired of babysitting her, had looked for star pictures with her from the top of Pride Rock, and told her that her ancestors watched her from the stars.
He sat now at the foot of Pride Rock’s extending kopje. Kiara couldn’t see him from where she sat, but she could see everyone else going down to join him—Nala, pale and glistening in the light, moving confidently toward where he sat; the rest of the lionesses lining up to see their princess off toward the Savannah; and Rafiki, leaning on a stick, waiting to present her to them all.
When she knew the den behind her was empty and they were all waiting for her, Kiara took another deep breath and walked to where Rafiki stood on a boulder. She walked slowly, feeling light as air; the wind could have moved her along all by itself.
“Kiara,” smiled the mandrill as she passed. She smiled back and passed among the lionesses, heading toward where her parents both sat. The lionesses murmured happily, admiring her among themselves, clearly proud of what their queen had produced.
Nala rose to meet her—Simba seemed to be concentrating on taking deep breaths. Kiara let her mother rub against her. “You’ll do just fine,” Nala promised.
Kiara knew she would. She faced her father. “Daddy,” she said.
Simba looked up as if he hadn’t noticed her before.
“You have to promise to let me do this on my own,” she said, feeling very grave about the whole thing. “Promise?”
Simba didn’t say anything for a minute. Kiara waited while he flashed a helpless look at Nala.
He had to say yes. This was something all her own, something she had to do alone.
Finally he relented. “All right,” he said. “I promise.” For a great and majestic king famous for his vengefulness—whom Kiara could still remember roaring at Zira—he could look very meek when he wanted to.
Freedom was hers! Kiara rushed to Simba and rubbed against him joyfully. He was letting her! After all this time!
“Just be careful,” he murmured.
Kiara nodded quickly. But she didn’t waste another second—as soon as she had said her goodbyes, she raced down onto the grasslands, into the heat, as fast as her legs could carry her. The air rushing in and out of her lungs was delicious, scented with grass and game, flavored with birdsong. The grass moved with a rush-rush sound as she bounded through it.
It would be easy to find animals to chase; the herds were moving around in search of water, and their scents drifted from all around the Savannah. If Kiara brought down anything that day, it was a successful hunt. And that was what she planned to do. She stopped and lifted her nose into the golden air, caught a whiff of living meat, and headed in that direction through the acacias.
It wasn’t long before she reached the source of the scent and had to crouch deep into the grass so they wouldn’t notice her. It was a herd of topi antelope, their hides dark and shining with sweat and rippling with muscle. The creatures were stoic, almost sluggish under the burning sun. Such a large group couldn’t find enough shade for all, so they weren’t even trying; they just scraped their small hooves in the dry earth and picked at whatever scrub and grass they hadn’t already pulled up. They were fat as anything. Kiara didn’t stay long in her hiding place in the grass before she began to move forward, breathing shallow and quick. Today was the day to prove herself.
The topi moved around warily as she approached—perhaps they heard her or smelled her. But the wild of the Savannah only fled when danger was certain; perhaps they thought she was just passing by. Kiara went more quickly, more eagerly, until a dry twig snapped under her forepaw.
Her head shot up as she realized she had given herself away, but the topi had done the same thing. Horns quivered for a moment, and then before Kiara could take another step, the entire herd started running.
Kiara’s heart fell to her paws. She leapt out of the grass and raced after the thundering troupe of topi, but the closest she could get before her strength expired was a couple of yards. And then all she could do was sit down, panting, while the antelope disappeared over the grasslands.
I’ll just have to get one next time, she thought. When she had caught her breath, she set off again toward another scent.
As Simba watched Kiara disappear, he remembered Zira. He remembered what had happened the last time Kiara went off alone. He couldn’t lose her.
When Nala had gone into the den, Simba intercepted Rafiki. “Please,” he said quietly, “go after her. Make sure she doesn’t get hurt.”
Rafiki regarded him for a moment. “That is not wise, Simba,” he said slowly.
Simba didn’t retreat. “Make sure,” he said.
Rafiki shook his white-maned head, set down his long stick, and went in the direction Kiara had gone.
It’s for her own safety, Simba assured himself. He went into the den, fear for Kiara rumbling inside him.
The plan was laid out in Vitani’s mind. She knew what was happening today. Kiara, Simba’s daughter and princess of the Pridelands, whom Kovu had played with once, was two years old—Vitani knew because she and Kovu were almost exactly two months older. And today the princess had her first hunt.
She would never catch anything.
Nuka stood beside Vitani on a dark outcropping in a cavern, just on the edge of the Outlands. It was a moist place of jagged rock. The creek that separated with Pridelands and the Outlands flowed from a place near the back of the cave, splitting in opposite directions. One flow went out the cave entrance, becoming the green, slow-running creek that Vitani knew. The other flow disappeared down a channel, coming out a broad river.
A gush of dry heat came suddenly from a geyser below the outcropping where Nuka and Vitani stood. The hole in the ground flashed orange light on the dank walls for a little while before dying out.
“That’s what we need,” muttered Vitani through the sticks in her mouth.
Nuka gave a distasteful shudder.
Vitani glared at him. “Oh, sheesh,” she said.
Nuka scoffed, “I’m not scared, okay? It’s just this place is creepy.”
“We’ll get out of here soon enough,” growled Vitani. She wanted to spit out the sticks she was holding—the bark was nasty against her tongue—but this was crucial. She jumped down onto the floor of the cave. Unlike the outcropping where she had been just a moment ago, the ground here was dry and dusty from the heat beneath—heat that had come up from the middle of the earth, Vitani supposed, for a million years. Looking into the burning hole, Vitani sent a thought down the heat geyser—Don’t worry, we’re only borrowing your fire—before setting the sticks down on its rim.
“I don’t know why we have to be here,” growled Nuka. He skulked around behind Vitani in his usual manner—back arched, hind legs far out behind him and moving lethargically, head bent in down in front of him, scowling—while she waited for flame. “If Kovu’s so special,” he continued, “why does he need us? I never even had a chance—”
Heat flared from the hole in the ground. Nuka yelped. Vitani rolled her eyes, watching the sticks shiver in the gush.
The reason Vitani and Nuka would be taking care of the fire part of things was that Kovu couldn’t be directly at the fire when Kiara ran into it—or when it ran into Kiara. It would be too easy for Kovu to get burned if he were the one who started the fires. And Kovu must not be hurt. Kovu must be perfect, even if it meant the rest of the Outsiders suffered. It was Mother’s decree.
With luck, the Pridelanders wouldn’t suspect anything. It was the dry season. Anything might start a fire. But not just anyone would rescue their princess from it. That honor, such as it was, would belong to Kovu.
If everything went well.
The sticks Vitani had set on the edge of the heat geyser began to twist strangely, like living things. A second later, she heard a splitting, a cracking—and then, as the heat receded to its bed, the ends of the sticks burst into flames.
“That’s it!” said Vitani. She snatched up one of the sticks in her teeth again, careful to grab the end that wasn’t burning, and turned to Nuka, who slunk forward to pick up the other stick. “Come on! Kiara has started her hunt. We have to move quickly.” She hurried out, balancing the burning stick in her mouth as carefully as if her own life were clutched in the dry wood.
Just like Kovu, Kiara must also be perfect. Kiara must not die in the fire. Vitani had no problem with a Pridelander dying, of course—but everything depended on this fire and who came out of it alive.
Both Kovu and Kiara would go into the fire. And both must emerge safely. Kovu had to save Kiara. It was Mother’s plan.
Kiara was sneaking up on another herd. It was the oryx, currently in possession of a small water hole. Their black-and-white heads were bent over the water. Kiara crept toward them from around a small sandbank.
Quiet, she thought. She saw a loose stone in front of her and stepped over it carefully—only to knock it over with her back foot a second later, and hear it rattle against other stones.
The oryx alerted instantly. One minute they were all hunched together, perfectly still; the next they were flowing in a thundering mass away from the water hole.
Kiara dashed after them, but she already knew it was hopeless. They were gone in an instant. And practically out from under their feet, in a little hollow, stormed a mandrill, a very angry mandrill, who hollered after them, “Can’t you leave a crazy old monkey in peace?”
Kiara walked up to him. “Rafiki,” she panted, “what are you doing here?”
She looked him in the face. No longer was she a cub who had to stretch up to look at him; like Simba, she stood a foot higher than the mandrill.
He didn’t back down at all. He gave her a smile and a cackle. “What am I doing?” he said. The laugh was rather sad. “You’re a smart girl, Kiara.”
Kiara blinked at him and felt something crush her heart. “My father sent you,” she growled. “Didn’t he? After he promised to let me do this on my own, he lied.”
The mandrill just looked at her a while with his yellow eyes. He didn’t smile or stammer or try to apologize. Kiara felt as if she had been left hanging in space; what she wanted was for him to wrap his scrawny forelegs around her neck and tell her that Simba hadn’t lied, that he would never lie to his daughter. But he just stood there.
“He doesn’t want you to get hurt, Kiara,” said Rafiki. “He wants to be your father. Old Rafiki,” and he tapped his head with a long, slender finger, “thinks you should let him be that. You should forgive him, eh?”
Kiara stared at him for a minute.
When she stared at things, the lions of Simba’s pride usually looked at her strangely, returning her stare with uncomfortable smiles. They thought she stared like that because she didn’t comprehend, because she was stupid. But she was thinking. And Rafiki knew that perfectly well. She could tell from the way he looked back at her, with a patient expression on his bare, wrinkled face.
“I should have known he’d never give me a real chance,” said Kiara.
Rafiki raised a paw, but she pushed past him, and the next thing she knew she was running. “I’ll do this one my own,” she called angrily over her shoulder, “away from the Pridelands!”
The dried-out grass of the Pridelands was where they had been planning to go to light the fire. Obviously, that would be where Kiara was hunting. But when Nuka and Vitani topped a rise halfway to the boundary creek, Vitani noticed a yellow-gold shape, still a good distance off, moving into the Outlands’ territory. She had crossed a log that spanned the creek and was heading upstream, toward where Nuka and Vitani had just been. She would hit the geyser cave and then the river in a few minutes.
“Look,” said Nuka, his voice muffled by the burning stick in his mouth. Vitani glanced at him and watched, somewhat bored, as the flame started to burn the tips off his skewed whiskers. “She’s coming right to us. We won’t even have to go that far.”
“Well, we better get ahead of her,” said Vitani. “We’ve got to get to the river and light it near there. It’ll spread to her quickly enough.” She started along the rise at a bound, with Nuka right behind her. Kiara was going at a leisurely pace, and soon enough she disappeared from their sight.
Vitani pulled up when she saw the broad, slow-moving band of the river shining at the foot of a steep cliff, about a hundred yards away.
Nuka cackled. “Let’s light some fires!” he rasped, and ran down the hill, cocking his head to trail the stick through the dry grass. Here, the grass had never been green; the soil wasn’t rich enough to feed color into it. It was brown, dead, and perfect kindling.
Vitani made sure she couldn’t see Kiara yet, bent down and ran the burning end of her stick along the rise. When all the fire had transferred from the wood to the grass and was beginning to send up smoke, she hurried away.
She looked back for Nuka; they had to get out of there before the fire got too uncontrollable, or they’d be stuck like Kiara. Nuka, like the dunce that he was, seemed to have trapped himself in a ring of burning grass. As she watched, he dropped his stick and looked around him with satisfaction—until he realized he couldn’t get out.
Idiot, thought Vitani with a growl.
Nuka leapt clear out of the circle with a yowl, landing a few feet from Vitani. She grabbed his shoulders with her paws and dragged him off as fast as she could.
They met Mother and Kovu on a bluff of stone, red like the termite mounds. “It’s all set,” said Vitani. “It’s closer to home, but it’ll reach her, all right.”
The firelight was already flickering off Kovu’s brown coat and Mother’s glinting eyes. Mother nodded, didn’t even look at Vitani. Neither did Kovu.
“Kovu,” said Vitani quietly.
He turned toward her.
“Be careful, all right?” said Vitani. “Don’t get hurt. Don’t get her hurt.”
He blinked, like she confused him. “Don’t worry, Vitani, I’ll be fine. The smoke’s not so different from sandstorms. Go home.”
Vitani headed toward the termite mounds, and sat up very still beside Kovu’s stump while outside the holes the endless white-hot sky choked with black smoke, and the sun died.
Kiara stood on the shore of the green, misted-over creek for a moment and breathed in the moments of long ago when she had bumped into the brown Outland cub. Some things she remembered perfectly, and others seemed new. She had forgotten how much darker the Outlands were, right up to the creek—the infertile soil dry and brown, the few bits of dead grass dusty, the one tree bent over and graying like an old lion.
It was so strange. It brought back good memories and bad. When Kiara looked back over her shoulder at the golden Savannah, and the open sky stretching forever over the rustling grasslands, and the occasional graceful bend of an acacia’s trunk, all of it buzzing with life and familiarity—well, it seemed that this place on the edge of the boundary creek constituted some kind of dreadful horizon. An end to what was known.
But still, there was the creek, full of crocodiles that she had somehow managed not to get eaten by at the age of three months. And as good and wholesome and golden as the Savannah was, it was her father’s domain.
She walked a little ways inland from the creek and hurried along through dead grass, searching for the scent of prey as she got farther and farther from the creek, until it was way behind her and she was deep in the lifeless land.
The Outlands were getting darker. Kiara could find nothing. There was a light coming from somewhere far to her left. She had just turned toward it in confusion when things started appearing around her—things she hadn’t smelled or heard.
Just over a rise in the direction she was facing, a cloud of birds was lifting and crying. And a lone zebra, thin and patchy, breezed by her, wailing its unintelligible, chuckling wail. Kiara dodged around it, staring at the light source over the rise. Was it late enough for the sun to be setting?
But she couldn’t see the sun at all, she realized.
And then the glow grew to a forest of peaking orange lights, flickering up and down at the tips, breathing out air black enough to snuff out the African sun.
Kiara shook. She allowed herself one breath, one breath already tasting of burning and death, before she started running.
The wall of flame ran faster than the zebra. Ran faster than Kiara. She heard it eating madly at the dead landscape, rushing up over the rise like a living thing. She didn’t leave it behind for long. Its layers of searing gold, orange, red and yellow suddenly leaped at her from the darkness of the burning plain, right in front of her. She stopped short with a cry. The fire now blocked her escape to the creek.
She looked around wildly. Just by stopping she had wasted precious seconds. Without a thought, she ran in the other direction.
Above her, over the deathly crackling, she could hear birds—the only ones getting away fast enough.
The flames were leaping astonishingly high as Kiara ran for her life. Smoke flowed from the fire in all directions, blowing dry, ashy air into her lungs. She felt herself slowing, trying to draw one clean breath out of air that was becoming less clean by the second.
“No!” she gasped through clenched teeth. Kept running. Just a little farther.
But there was no way of telling how far she really was.
She wasn’t sure how much time passed as she struggled onward. She did know that once the sky filled up with black, the ground started filling with it too. She ran through a maze with walls of fire. It felt like she herself was cooking from the outside in.
She slowed. The smoke on the ground drifted so thick, right up to her chest, it seemed she could stumble over it. She had to stop. She was shaking horribly. She coughed to get rid of what had gone into her lungs, but what she breathed afterwards brought it all back. She stood there, kept coughing, again and again.
“Okay,” she panted. Cough.
The fire had spread so fast, fed by the dead grass. It blocked her off everywhere now. All she saw was bright, terrible light, rolling off smoke.
Then, cutting through the middle of it, she saw a cliff, rising from a bunch of jumbled rocks. She drew another breath, ran in a last spurt towards it, and leapt.
She didn’t make it all the way. Her claws struck the very edge of the cliff, the rest of her body slammed into it, and she was hanging. A bit of the rock sheared off from her weight. She struggled for a moment, grinding her hind paws against the cliff face to push herself over the edge to the top. Then she made a last desperate leap, her muscles too exhausted to feel.
She made it.
On top of the cliff, there was nothing but more blackness.
Kiara felt her body swinging dizzily, though she stood on all fours on a flat surface again. Pictures of Simba and Nala and Rafiki raced through her head for a fraction of time. She tried to breathe in. And then she collapsed.
“The plan is in motion,” said Mother quietly, her pointed face stretching out over the field of flames.
Kovu took a breath.
Mother said, “Go!” as if wondering why he was taking so long.
Kovu snapped to obedience. He jumped down from the bluff and headed into the fire.
The smoke really wasn’t very different from the sand. When Mother had carried him outside that first time, when he was crying with the sand flying against him and into him, she had growled, “Close your eyes. Shut your mouth.” She had worked him from there, until he knew how to hold his head at an angle to the windflow, keep his eyes barely slits, keep his lips sealed and the teeth behind them gritted, breathe through his nose so he could smell any means of escape, hunch down. Now there was no wind. There was no sand. In a way, it was infinitely easier than a sandstorm, except he couldn’t really breathe.
He tried not to think about that.
He knew how to find the princess. Hers would be the only scent that didn’t burn. No other creature besides the two of them would be stupid enough to go into a blaze like this.
It had registered slowly on him that his time was finally coming. And now that he had realized it, that was all there was to it: His time had come, and it all depended on him now.
He ran along the rocks, where the fire couldn’t go and where a thin, pure thread of Pridelander scent led west from the bluff where he had left Mother. It was like he was in a blazing tunnel. There was fire on either side of him, but though the stones he ran on were hot, they couldn’t burn. He didn’t speak or call for Kiara. He just went toward her smell.
She lay on a cliff. Flames played around the base, but up here there was only a shroud of red-black smoke. Kovu approached her slowly, waiting for her to respond to the thud his paws made, but she didn’t stir. When he reached her, it was obvious she was unconscious, either from smoke or exhaustion. Or both.
He took her in for a second, standing over her limp form. She was stretched out, full-grown now, her gangly legs curled inward. Her fur was dusky with ash; from that alone, it was impossible to tell whether she looked anything like he remembered her.
But that didn’t matter. She must not die. With his forepaw he tilted her jaw up and back, so that whatever air she took in could go straight down to her lungs.
He growled slightly. Her eyes opened for a second, and she made a noise like a wounded antelope before they closed. She wouldn’t be going anywhere.
He hadn’t anticipated finding her unconscious, but there was no time to work on bringing her back to life. Not if he didn’t want both of them to be roasted. He looked around briefly, growling deep in his throat. Then he bent down, took hold of the loose skin at the back of her neck—her fur tasted of smoke—and hefted her up, so the front part of her dangled like a cub from his mouth. He flung her over his shoulders, then slung her around until she was draped over his back. He could feel her heart beating between his shoulder blades.
Then Kovu ran.
His nose that could smell anything through a sandstorm smelled the river, many yards in front of him. Several times he almost bucked Kiara off his back, but she never fell.
A burning tree collapsed in his path. Kovu roared in fear. The flames were growing hotter and more out of control. All he could see was red or black. He realized that by now, the fire would have spanned the creek and be reaching toward the Pridelands. His only hope, if he was to finish the mission, was the river.
A second later he tumbled over a cliff. He knew it led to the river, but he couldn’t gain a foothold; he rolled, and rolled, and Kiara separated from him. Then his body met the water with a splash.
When he surfaced, he saw the princess’s head, barely above the water, before she went down. He went in after her, dragged her up toward air, and broke the surface. Then, with her scruff in his teeth again, he began to swim backwards toward shore.
He was sick and tired of dragging this cosseted Pridelander around by the time he reached dry land. Was she still breathing? He saw, far in the distance, the flames beginning to crawl into the Pridelands, but they were diminishing. It was designed to be a flash fire, and crossing the creek had about killed it. It would rage for a while in the Outlands, but it would never reach as far as Pride Rock.
When he was standing on all fours, he dropped Kiara right there on the ground. The impact knocked her to her senses.
Kiara spluttered awake to a glowing red-black sky and ashy goo streaked through her fur from being carried through water. Vaguely realizing there was someone with her, she murmured, “Where am I?” and looked up.
The male standing in front of her had the relatively full mane that was far more black than gold, and the dirty tannish-brown-gold pelt, that she had come to associate with Outsiders. Except this Outsider happened to be wet along with everything else. He grinned a rueful grin at her for a second and said, “You’re safe…” and then his grin disappeared as if he had a bad taste in his mouth “…in the Pridelands.”
Kiara remembered what Simba had done and felt her face warm with embarrassment. And for her, just then, there really was no place worse in the world to be.
“The…Pridelands? No!” She rose up angrily, shoved right in the face of the stranger. “Why’d you bring me here? Who do you think you are?” she demanded, in the most savage voice she could muster, her tail lashing her flanks.
The stranger looked stunned. “I think, I’m the one that just saved your life!”
“Look, I had everything under control!” said Kiara with a furious snarl.
“Not from where I’m standing,” he said. Smug, self-satisfied brat.
“Then move downwind!” she growled, and moved away from him.
The stranger leapt in front of her with a snarling frown.
Kiara, exasperated, tried a different direction, but he met her there too.
She wouldn’t turn her back on him. Scowling, she tried a third time to get past him—all she wanted was to go. But he jumped in front of her again.
He said, “What are you doing?”
Something about his tone when he said that made Kiara flick her ears. Made her lift her head. He was looking at her with his mouth twisted up, like he thought she was the weirdest thing he had ever seen.
Kiara, almost whispering, tried the name she associated with every brown Outsider: “Kovu?”
He smiled at her. A supremely arrogant smile with his brow folded and smug, but it was a smile.
Kiara smiled back in wonderment.
Then she heard Simba shout, “Kiara!”
Simba jumped down onto the riverbank like a red tornado. When he caught sight of Kovu, he let out the most deafening roar Kiara had ever heard from his throat. Which was saying something, considering Zira.
Nala came running up behind. “Kiara!” she cried, her face relaxing into joy. “You’re all right.” She hurried to Kiara and rubbed against her.
Kiara hardened against her mother’s affection, though her body was still quaking with the fear and smoke the fire had left in her. She just glared at Simba. “Father, how could you break your promise?” she said angrily.
“It’s a good thing I did,” said Simba. “I almost lost you. No more hunts for you, not ever.” The king was looking daggers at Kovu, his head leveled and his mane standing up along his back.
“But I was doing just fine!” exclaimed Kiara, quivering with outrage. “Even before Kovu—”
“Kovu?” said Simba, and roared anew.
Kovu’s black mane stood on end. He sent a growl back to match Simba’s roar, but the king just roared louder.
“Simba!” said Nala.
There was a polite throat-clearing behind Simba. Kiara saw Rafiki rising out of the grass on the edge of the river. “Hey!” he cried; he was pointing over Simba’s shoulder, at Kovu. “Hey! You! How dare you save the king’s daughter?”
Kiara blinked. The mandrill was smiling broadly.
Simba leveled his stare at Kovu.
“You saved her?” He growled. “Why?”
Kovu stood for a minute. His growl stopped. He lifted his head and said, “I humbly ask to join your pride—”
“No!” said Simba, advancing on him. “You were banished with the other Outsiders.”
“I have left the Outsiders,” retorted Kovu. “I’m a rogue. Judge me now, for who I am.” He released a breath, as if it had been difficult to say, and then frowned at Simba, growling, “Or am I to be blamed for a crime I didn’t commit?”
Kiara stared at her father. Even she didn’t know Simba well enough to know what he would do with this.
Simba glared long and hard at Kovu. Then he turned and paced in a furious circle. Kiara wasn’t used to him like this.
“Simba,” said Nala disapprovingly, “you owe him your daughter’s life.”
Simba just growled.
“Yes, boy,” said Rafiki, leveling a finger right at Simba’s nose and pulling him up short. “You are in his debt. Mufasa’s own law demands that all debts be paid. Doesn’t it?”
Kiara held her breath and looked at Kovu, taking him in. It had been so long since she had seen him. She had no idea why he wanted to join the pride, but she wanted Simba to let him.
Simba’s eyes were on Kovu.
Finally, the king growled out, “My father’s law…will prevail. For now, I reserve judgment. We’ll see who you really are.”
He looked at Kovu for a long time after that, before finally turning his back—Simba turning his back on an Outsider!—and making his way away from the river. Nala and Rafiki took this as their signal that it was time to go home. Kiara, though, caught the smile Kovu sent her. He really had an awful smile, like he had forgotten how to actually look happy. He just looked proud, as if he had had some kind of victory. There was a hungry look to the smile. Kiara tried to return it, but she didn’t like the way it looked. She came very close, as she led him to Pride Rock, to not trusting him, but she was glad he came.
Grey twilight covered the cliff-and-kopje. The lionesses were going inside the den when they got there. One of them was saying, “Why do we have major cataclysms every time Princess Kiara is unleashed on the world?”
Kiara just smiled and sat down away from the den.
Kovu was heading into the den with a confident stride, but Simba jumped in front of him, snarling. Kiara watched from the edge of the kopje as the pride filed into the shelter, and Kovu stayed outside. He was growling to himself. Then he turned around, walked to a boulder and lay down in its shadow.
Kiara didn’t go inside. She looked up at the darkening sky. The red-black smoke from the Outland fires was dispersing across the heavens.
Kiara made up her mind. She walked to Kovu and said awkwardly, “Hey.”
Kovu looked at her and didn’t look away. There were irritable frowns written all over his brow. Kiara wondered how much he could possibly have changed since they had been friends for that one day. Then again, she wasn’t exactly the same as she had been.
“Thanks for saving me today,” she said, trying a smile.
He scoffed. “What kind of hunter are you anyway, princess? You almost got yourself killed out there.”
Kiara knew she should’ve been able to come up with a snappy response to that. But all that came out of her was an incredulous “What?”
“You wouldn’t last three days on your own,” Kovu said, and turned away.
“Oh,” said Kiara, recovering, “and I suppose…you could teach me?” she waited for his response, mimicking that smile.
He scoffed again. “Uh, yeah,” he said dismissively.
“Kiara!” called from inside the den.
“Coming,” Kiara called back.
Kiara knew Kovu wanted to be rid of her by now. He probably wanted to sleep, and to tell the truth, so did she. But she leapt in front of him. He looked totally stunned, as if he still couldn’t believe there was a lioness abjectly bizarre enough to keep jumping like that. Kiara grinned.
“All right,” she said, bouncing on her round foot pads and leveling her head with his. “Impress me. We start at dawn.”
And she sauntered past him into the den. Before he was out of earshot, she heard him give a dry, dead laugh and say, in a weaselly voice without an ounce of conviction,
“I look forward to it.”
Under cover of darkness, Nuka watched with Mother from a small, shadowed stone. It was here that the Outsiders spied on the Pridelanders. They were always gone by morning.
Nuka watched Kiara traipse toward the den at the back of Pride Rock. He watched Kovu watch her go. Couldn’t Kovu have murdered the plush princess at any point in that conversation they had just had, whatever it was? “Oh!” he sputtered to Mother. “Did you see that? He let her go! If that were me—”
“Hush!” hissed Mother, grinning. “The fire rescue worked perfectly, and Simba fell for it.” She rose and began to circle Nuka excitedly. “Now, the closer Kovu gets to the daughter, to closer he gets…to Simba.”
Nuka stared up at the Chosen One, standing on the kopje, looking out over the Savannah. Probably already imagining himself as lord over it all.
“And,” said Mother, “once he has Simba alone…” She flexed the claws of her forepaw once, and then, out of nowhere, flashed out at the dead tree behind Nuka, breaking off the end of the shriveled trunk with a ravenous growl.
Nuka pressed his belly to the rock and giggled.
The dream came to Simba again, the night of the fire that spread ashes through the sky and wiped out nearly a mile of his territory.
His father was hanging from the cliff again, the wildebeest running below. Simba reached down, trying wildly to grasp Mufasa’s paw, and maybe this time he could—
Then Scar grabbed him. Stopped him from reaching in time.
Simba heard the scraping of his father’s claws. “No!” he cried, long and hollow, as the king disappeared toward the wildebeests.
“Scar!” snarled Simba, turning around to the pair of evilly glinting eyes and flashing teeth.
But now Scar came out of the darkness, laughing in Simba’s face.
And it wasn’t Scar.
It was Kovu.
With one more vicious “Ha!” Kovu flung him down the cliff…
And then Simba woke, with Nala beside him as always. He didn’t hear Kovu laughing anymore, but he remembered that Scar’s heir was sleeping just outside the den. The thought made his entire coat stand on end.
A nervous little sound was coming from near the entrance, where Kiara lay separated from the pride. Simba looked at her. She was shivering, though it was warm enough in the den, and licking feverishly at her coat to get the gobs of liquidized ash from it.
“Are you okay, Kiara?” asked Simba.
A shaky shrug. “I was in a fire,” she said blankly. She looked up at him and narrowed her eyes. “Yes, I’m fine,” she said, and lay back down.
But Simba was her father. He could tell when she was scared.
Kovu rose early and was walking away from the kopje, wondering what he was supposed to be doing now. It wasn’t long, though, before he realized that Simba had left the den and was coming off the rock behind him. Kovu watched from a far-off vantage point as Simba shook his great red mane, stretched, and went toward a watering hole some distance off. Keeping far to Simba’s left so he wouldn’t be seen, Kovu followed.
He saw Simba reach the water hole and bend down to drink, his mane trailing in the ripples. Kovu found a boulder many yards away and crouched beside it, and the things his senses picked up boiled around him until his heart sped—the casual flick of Simba’s tongue into the water, his breath, the shine of his coat, the weight of his head as he raised it from his drink.
Kovu stretched out his front legs and flexed his claws deep into the soil. The feelings of rage and revenge that his pride was built on, that Mother had instilled in him, heated his blood. He glared hard over the Savannah at Scar’s murderer, letting the growls well up inside him, letting everything tumble madly until he had to close his eyes against the falling sensation. The muscles in his legs tightened.
It would be easy to kill him. It should be as easy as killing a piece of prey.
Prey didn’t speak.
He flushed that thought out of his mind and prepared to run.
And then Kiara popped up in front of him.
“Good morning,” she said with a big old smile.
What? Kovu stared up at her, tried to look past her.
“I’m ready for my first lesson,” said Kiara. She was laughing with an easy air. She bounced around him—what was she, an antelope?—and landed on his other side, her eyes twinkling. “Surprised you, huh?”
Now he remembered. Hunting lessons. Impress me, she had said.
Kovu looked at her for another second before turning rapidly to see if Simba—but Simba was gone. He had already walked away from the water hole.
He looked at Kiara again. She was the only thing to look at now. Her fur, he realized, was the same as he remembered after all—honey and sunshine. She had become long and sleek, full of gentle curves and angles, but just as fat as she was when she was a cub. Her grin was bright-eyed and hearty, full of eagerness.
She smiled at him. Kovu wanted to yell at her for distracting him from his quarry, but he found that he couldn’t stop staring at her, searching for something that had changed since he was five months old and had played with her, something that had altered her, turned her into the kind of arrogant monster he was supposed to be fighting for his throne.
“You haven’t changed,” he said quietly, not smiling at her.
She dipped her head good-naturedly. “You have,” she said, and laughed.
Kovu looked nervously over his shoulder at the water hole again. The only thing there was the cream of sunlight on water, and the grass rushing away from it.
“Hey, come on,” said Kiara, grinning. “Let’s go.”
Kovu let her walk ahead of him toward the Prideland hunting grounds. He stared at the water hole once more, felt the stare become a glare, and growled once. Then he followed Kiara.
“Don’t think you can back down,” said Kiara, turning and walking backwards so she could talk face-to-face with him. “You said you were looking forward to this.”
Kovu growled between his teeth, “Ecstatic.”
“So,” she said, planting herself in the grass, “where do we start?”
Kovu tried to concentrate on her, even though there were a million other things he’d rather be doing than teaching an incompetent princess how to hunt when she should already know, but something behind her distracted him. She looked confused, until he saw realization dawn on her face, and she turned to look where he did.
Across the plain from them, just on the horizon, was an expanse of grey that Kovu felt shouldn’t exist. It was utterly out of place—an area of no grass, and twisted black trees, and clouds of dry, dead dust drifting thick over the bare ground, lit by the morning sunshine. The only thing Kovu could describe it as was a field of ash.
So that was where the fire had reached the Pridelands. It was like a patch of grey nothing on this land teeming with golden life. Then Kovu realized that much of the Outlands looked like that, just without the ash—though they’d have plenty of it now, since the fire had mostly stayed on the Outland side of the creek. Everything would be destroyed. But that was what Kovu was used to. How could he have come from a place of hunger and ruin for one day into a place of light, and now he looked upon something so similar to home as an abomination?
He looked at Kiara for a second—after all, it was a portion of her own home that had been destroyed, and almost her with it. She was eyeing the ash fields with a hard look, which she quickly transferred to Kovu’s face.
“I guess I’ll start, then,” she said coolly after a minute. “You sit here. I’ll stalk you. I’m betting I’ll shock the skin off you the first time.”
“So I’m your hapless prey?” said Kovu.
“Yup. Sit. And face that direction.”
Perfect, thought Kovu. He lay down in a patch of dust and faced east while Kiara disappeared, rustling, into the long golden grass. He could see neither hide nor hair of her.
He didn’t know why he had to do this. It was so pointless—all he was doing was sitting there.
He heard Kiara moving after about five minutes. She was breathing deep and slow and about as loud as an elephant. Kovu switched his tail as her rustling got closer and closer; and then he rolled neatly out of the way as she flew out of the grass, over his head and onto the ground with a thump.
She whirled and looked at him, panting. “How’d you know I was there?” she demanded.
“You mean besides the boar breathing?” he muttered irritably. He wasn’t even supposed to be talking to her.
Kiara shut him up with a glare. “I’m going again,” she said, and scuttled off.
Kovu resumed his position. This was stupid.
Kiara came within hearing range pretty soon; she had chosen a different route toward him which must have been littered with sharp stones or twigs or something, because he kept hearing her hiss to herself, “Ow!” and then, a second later, a muttered “Ow!” between breaths. He turned his back toward the direction he heard her coming, just to humor her by showing he couldn’t see her, and glanced over his shoulder as the grass moved with her.
This princess was hopeless. He turned away and huffed.
“Three, two, one,” he muttered, bored, and ducked.
“Gotcha!” she cried eagerly, sailing over him. This time she tucked her head under before she landed; she rolled over herself and landed hard on her back. Kovu stood up over her, his shadow falling onto her face.
“You could hear me, huh?” said Kiara, and chuckled ruefully.
“Only…a lot,” said Kovu.
Kiara stood up and dusted herself off.
“You’re still breathing too hard,” said Kovu. “Relax. Feel the earth under your paws so it doesn’t shift and make noise.”
He saw her put her claws out and test the ground.
Kovu looked for some way to demonstrate what he meant. He saw a flock of birds winging over a hill a little ways in front of them and lowered his head.
“Shh,” Kovu said, his eye on the blue sky topping the hill, grinning and growling. “Watch the master…and learn.”
He began to move forward, with Kiara stepping along behind him. He could hear her testing the ground with her claws at every other step. At least she was concentrating so much on that she couldn’t breathe very hard.
Kovu crouched at the foot of the hill, listening to the wings flapping on the other side of the slope, feeling the dull prickle of movement in the earth as the birds pecked the ground. It was all down to instinct for him now; he was a lion, and as a lion he was a hunter. And in the Outlands, you just didn’t find a flock of birds pecking around over a rise, waiting for you to lunch on them. That didn’t happen.
He sprinted up the hill, over the top, and dived into the flock of oxpeckers. They exploded up and around him, and for a second there was just a wild squawking, and feathers dashed madly against his face and body. He shut his eyes until the hubbub ceased, and when he opened them he expected to find at least one of the birds held under his forepaws.
But there wasn’t. And the birds had resumed pecking a foot away from him.
He turned around, his body unexpectedly heavy and tired from his run up the hill, to see Kiara staring at him from the rise. Her face was twisted unnaturally, and every other second she gave a snort or a gasp. She was trying very, very hard not to laugh.
“What?” Kovu demanded, annoyed that she was laughing at him.
She drew a ragged breath, grinning. “Jump,” she gasped.
“Jump!” she said delightedly.
Kovu, feeling exceptionally stupid, tried a hop, knowing it was ridiculous. He heard a squawking right around his ears, and felt a rush of air and the weight on his back release before it returned abruptly, along with the feeling of a bunch of beaks pecking angrily on his head, neck, and spine.
Instinctively, he flumped onto the ground and rolled over. About ten oxpeckers floundered off of his back and flapped away, squawking angrily.
Kovu ran over to the hillside, kicking birds out of his way. Kiara was rolling on the ground laughing.
“What kind of birds are these?” said Kovu angrily.
“They’re oxpeckers,” said Kiara, covering her muzzle with her paws to hold the laughter back. “Notorious. And they’re just as stubborn and fearless as you are.”
Kovu didn’t like being laughed at. “Quit it,” he growled, looking away from her at the sea of grey birds.
“Okay,” gasped Kiara. She stood up, cocking her head mischievously at him. “I bet you wish they’d get out of here.”
Kovu glared at her.
Kiara gave him a challenging grin, closed her eyes and split her jaws in a roar that made Kovu jump. The birds did more; almost two-thirds of them lifted off then and there, scolding Kiara, and flew away.
Kiara drew a breath. “Ah, I’ve been doing that ever since I could roar,” she said with self-satisfaction. “It’s the only thing that scares them.”
“I’ve heard that the prey here just walks into your jaws,” growled Kovu.
Kiara looked at him. “Well, I bet you can’t do it that loud,” she muttered, turning away.
Kovu growled aloud. Kiara barely reacted, just looked at him sideways, daring him to open his mouth. Seething, he looked out over the birds and roared as loud as he could.
A cloud of oxpeckers lifted off, giving cackling cries. Kiara laughed delightedly and rushed down among them. Don’t lose her! thought Kovu, for whatever reason, and he ran after her.
“Why are we doing this?” he cried helplessly as they ran through another pool of grey feathers, startling the birds into the air. “Is this what you do for training? What’s the point?”
“Training?” Kiara called back. She ran so fast Kovu could barely keep up. She gave a great laugh and another roar, and birds rose all around. “This is for fun, Kovu! You know, I’d forgotten you didn’t know how to play!” She rushed along in front of him, throwing her golden head back with laughter.
“Fun?” whispered Kovu, struggling to keep up with her running pace.
Kiara was now chasing the birds down into a shallow red gorge. Kovu felt his heart rush into his stomach as he flew down the steep walls after her, the thumps of their pounding paws echoing against the walls of the gorge, dust that Kiara kicked up flying into his face. Sunlight turned the tops of the gorge walls to flame. A few of the oxpeckers were flying ahead of them through the gorge, banking to turn a sharp corner. Kiara ran after them, laughing, and Kovu ran after her. He was hardly controlling his own legs now; it was only momentum that carried him forward. The constant motion was wild and crazy, and Kiara’s flicking tail in front of him suddenly gave him the strange feeling of wanting to laugh, too.
The oxpeckers fluttered down onto a group of large grey rocks at the end of the gorge. Kiara yelped and skidded to a halt. Kovu stopped in surprise, wondering why she had pulled up so quickly.
Then one of the boulders turned small, wrinkled black eyes toward them, hefting a great grey horn, and made a terrible noise.
“Rhino!” screamed Kiara, and turned tail and ran the other direction. Kovu, thrilled with fear, bolted after her. A sound like a landslide behind told him at least one rhino was charging after them.
“Can’t catch us!” shrieked Kiara gleefully, her voice echoing. “In here, Kovu!” She swerved abruptly to one side, diving into a cleft in the wall of the gorge. Without thinking Kovu squeezed in next to her.
There was dead silence and darkness for a second, and then Kovu heard the wild trampling of three rhinos charging past, blowing and snorting furiously. The oxpeckers flapped after them, cawing.
When they had passed, Kiara, forced into an upright position by the narrowness of the cleft, burst out in wild laughter. Kovu, shaky with relief, found himself laughing too.
“Were you scared?” laughed Kiara, leaning against him in the close darkness to try to get her breath.
“Are you kidding?” said Kovu crazily. “That was—that was—”
“Insane!” cried Kiara, and loosed a fresh gale of laughter.
Kovu waited until his heartbeat and breathing became a little more normal and Kiara had stopped shrieking. The cleft they had crammed themselves into was too shadowy for Kovu to see Kiara’s eyes, but, pressed close to him, she suddenly gave another laugh, this one sheepish and awkward.
“Can you get out?” she said.
Her body so close to his was making Kovu uncomfortable. “Um, yeah,” he said, struggling to get his front half worked out of the crack. “Sorry—”
“Sorry—” said Kiara, struggling.
They both popped out of the cleft at the same time. Kiara heaved a breath. “Oh,” she sighed, smiling at him.
Kovu resisted the urge to smile back. She was his quarry, same as Simba was.
Kiara started walking along the gorge.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“Out,” she said. “My father will be going nuts. You coming or what?”
Kovu nodded and followed her.
Simba could see Nala coming back with the lionesses she had taken on the hunt. They were dragging a zebra with them; they had killed it not far from Pride Rock. Simba had watched them. It was such a short distance to the rock anyway, so they were dragging it with them. Simba couldn’t see Kiara with them.
He ran up to Nala. “Was Kiara with you?” he demanded.
She had the zebra’s leg in her teeth. She shook her head.
“Have you seen her?”
Nala narrowed her eyes with an exasperated growl. Simba moved back in annoyance until she and the others had gotten the zebra onto the kopje. Then he hurried to her again. “Well?”
“I haven’t seen her,” said Nala calmly.
Simba looked out over the Savannah. Kovu was gone too. He was ready to go after Kiara and find her when Nala said, almost laughing, “I can smell her coming, Simba. She’s fine. She’ll be here in time to eat.” She smiled at him.
Simba relaxed. He looked around at the other lionesses, who were sitting around the zebra and waiting for Nala’s command.
Nala nodded to them. “We’ll wait until they get here,” she confirmed.
The lionesses moved a little ways from the zebra. They were all respectful females; they knew the leaders ate first.
“They?” said Simba, looking at his queen.
“Yes, they,” she said coolly, beginning to pick apart the kill. She made Simba wait before continuing, “She’s with Kovu.”
“Kovu—” Simba almost shouted in outrage.
Nala glared at him. “You’d know she was with him, if you bothered to use your own nose,” she said. “Now be quiet, here they come.”
Simba moved to the edge of the kopje and saw his daughter trotting to them over the grass, the Outsider trailing behind.
“Kiara!” he said angrily as she began climbing up toward him. “Where were you? Don’t you have enough sense to know by now you shouldn’t go off alone?”
“I wasn’t alone,” said Kiara good-naturedly. “Oh, I’m starving. Mom, did you hunt?” She hurried to the zebra.
Kovu climbed up onto the kopje. Simba started growling at him the moment he saw his hateful Outsider face. Nala hissed at him, a warning not to say anything, but Simba kept the growl rumbling warily until Kovu bent over the zebra.
Simba snarled, leaping between him and the kill. “Not you. You eat last.”
Kovu bared his teeth, but he made no sound. He cast a longing look toward the zebra before slinking to the boulder he had slept under and sitting in its shadow again.
Nala nodded to the lionesses, one at a time. Kiara was already ripping into the carcass. Simba sat beside his queen and ate slowly, his eye on Kovu all the while, and Kovu’s eye on the meat.
“Kiara,” said Simba, but Nala glared at him.
He could tell his queen had something to talk to him about, so he finished what he wanted to eat and waited until Nala had had her fill. Then she took him aside for a moment, saying only, “You need to let Kiara alone once in a while,” before she went back to stretch out near the carcass and sunbathe.
Simba guarded the meal, sitting near Nala. It was nearly an hour before all the lionesses had had a chance to eat; it was only then that, when Kovu stood up and came cautiously forward, Simba grudgingly let him.
Kiara, who was taking an after-meal nap, blinked one eye open when Kovu approached what was left on the zebra’s bones. There wasn’t much, barely enough for a young male; Simba had made sure of that. Kovu had no high position, and Simba was determined not to let him abuse what privileges he had. It was only with great reluctance that Simba allowed this Outsider to live among them at all.
Kovu stared wide-eyed at the meat as he approached. When he was still a couple of feet away, he suddenly rushed forward and down with an explosive growl of hunger, driving his muzzle into the zebra’s gut with such force that the carcass rocked back and forth. Kovu didn’t bother to sit down for the first five minutes; his jaws opened and shut rhythmically, not even stopping to breathe, buried in the meat and cramming it down his throat madly. He reached one paw onto the carcass, using his claws to pull more muscle and cartilage towards him and shove it into his mouth.
Kiara and Nala both sat up. Nala, her jaws parted and her muzzle wrinkled, looked bewildered and somewhat disgusted; Kiara looked frightened. Simba understood both reactions. What kind of hunger could make a lion eat like that? In times of drought, Simba had seen lions with all their ribs showing, tottering and faint from starvation, and even they never ate like this—as if they would never eat again, though for some of them that was the case. Kovu was neither thin nor weak, and yet look at him.
“Kovu,” said Kiara suddenly.
Kovu raised his head, but Simba growled at Kiara before she could say another word to him. Kovu, his entire muzzle stained red up to the eyes, looked at both Simba and Kiara for a moment before tucking in again.
Finally he looked up. Simba heard him swallow. By now most of the pride was staring at him, all different expressions written on their faces—astonishment, anger, distaste, nausea, repulsion. Several lionesses stood up and stalked into the den.
“I’ve never had meat like this,” said Kovu, looking down at the carcass and apparently ignoring the pride. He glanced at Nala, wide-eyed. “Does it—does it come straight to you? Walk into your jaws?”
“No,” said Nala, frowning deeply. “Hunting is always work. The chase completely exhausts some of the lionesses. It’s not easy, and of course the animals run away. The only time the animals ever come to us is when something happens. They gather around Pride Rock, and then it’s us who don’t touch them; the elephants protect them from us. There’s no such thing as not needing food.”
“Ah,” said Kovu, with a slight breathy chuckle.
Kiara’s eyes were large and dark. “Kovu, stop,” she burst out when Kovu bent his head toward the food again, and Simba growled.
Kovu didn’t even look at Simba; his eyes met Kiara’s with surprise.
Kiara stood and went into the den. Simba went after her.
Nala caught him as he was lying down. “He’s just a boy, Simba,” she said.
“No cub would eat the way he did,” Simba answered.
“Consider where he’s lived all his life,” Nala murmured. “How he’s been raised. The Outsiders can never bring down any big game out there; whatever they can gorge on, they do it. You can see they’ve favored Kovu all his life, being he was…well, Scar’s heir. But he’s just used to being hungry by now.”
The darkness in the den was warm and soft, interrupted only by a beam of light from a cleft in the top corner of the den. Kiara paced in and out of the light, intentionally looking away from the zebra skeleton lying in the entrance, half buried in the shadows of the den, the other half illuminated by the hot yellow sunlight on the kopje. She didn’t look at it, even though she knew Kovu had retreated to his rock by now, and the sun was setting. She ignored the fact that she was feeling sick.
The den was full of the lionesses that had retreated here to sleep out the day—having spent their four hours hunting, they were ready to nap the other twenty. Kiara didn’t much like sleeping twenty hours—Rafiki had always said she was an unusual lion. As for Kovu, she doubted he had ever been allowed to sleep twenty hours out of the day. Kiara still remembered what his mother was like—the menacing, gaunt creature that had stood over little Kovu and dug her long black claws into the earth and drawn her black lips back from a wide, dagger-filled smile.
Kiara lay down and thought again of Kovu, as he had been—comparatively skinny, with a brown coat that lay flat against him and a confused frown. She would have to stop using that as a basis. Kovu had grown and changed, just as she had. It was time to know him now.
After a little while, Kiara saw her mother rise from the warm, slow-breathing heap of sleeping lionesses and make her way back to the corner where Kiara was. “Kiara?” whispered Nala.
“I’m awake,” said Kiara, looking up at her.
Nala sat down next to her and ran her heavy forepaw with gentle, long strokes, over Kiara’s head and along her back. Her paw was warm and comforting.
“Don’t be too frightened of Kovu, sweetheart,” said Nala quietly. “It’s just his lifestyle. They never have very much to eat out there.”
Kiara looked up at her and narrowed her eyes. “That’s not right,” she muttered.
Nala just nodded. She brushed a tear from Kiara’s cheek and made her way back to where Simba lay.
She lay down and squeezed her eyes shut. But she opened them again. Closing her eyes had only sunk her back into visions of the fire. It was strange; she hadn’t been so frightened at first, after Kovu had saved her. But now, when it was all over, she was terrified. Nala had told her how Simba suffered from nightmares. Kiara had always pitied him. Well, she thought wryly, at least now I can empathize.
Eventually, she did drop off from sheer exhaustion, and woke with no memory of any dreams. She lay for a while listening to the voices of the lionesses she knew. They were talking softly to each other, as she could remember them having done for a long time, their smiles and occasional animated moments like sunlight in the cave, protecting her from anything bad.
She got up and went out, and there was Kovu, still sitting on the kopje. She supposed he had little else to do. Males were often less useful in a matriarchal pride; Simba, of course, was king, and he had tasks aplenty what with leading the pride and heading up the lionesses at Nala’s side. But Kovu was an Outsider. Frankly, he didn’t have a place here.
He noticed her. “Good morning,” he said.
Kiara nodded. The sunny day made her feel like smiling again. “So,” she said, grinning at him and leaping off the kopje. “Lessons?”
She pulled him away from Pride Rock, back toward the ash fields. She stood looking at the fire site for a moment out of respect, and then left Kovu lying in the sun again and snuck up on him. He heard her just about every time, so he claimed, except once—just once—she caught him before he ducked. And this time he didn’t go running after birds. The lesson continued pretty much all day, and Kovu kept sniping about breathing and feeling the earth and how about shutting up once and a while. It wasn’t as fun as when rhinos had almost killed them, but Kiara was beginning to think that, considering her, that might be a good thing.
Kiara didn’t stop until nighttime, when Kovu said, “I’m tired of this, Kiara,” and flopped over sideways with an air of extreme lethargy.
Kiara sat down and tilted her head back, looking up at the night sky. It was a deep, blue-black velvet, with soft veils of cloud muting the starlight. Looking at it made her feel as if she could lift off and float away in it, easily as a dream.
“What are you looking at?” said Kovu, frowning.
Kiara looked at him and smiled. “Have you ever looked for star pictures?”
Without waiting for an answer, she smacked him on the shoulder and darted away from him, giggling. She heard him coming after her, and he was laughing. It was good to hear him laugh.
She found a small, grassy bluff beneath a bending acacia, not far from the boundary creek, not far from the ash fields, and they both lay down on their backs, and she started pointing out patches of stars that might be a picture if you looked at them that way.
Kovu gasped at a shooting star. “Wow!” he said softly, lifting a forepaw as it glided along and disappeared. “Did you see that? It’s really pretty.”
“Yeah!” said Kiara, blinking at the image it left on her eyes. “You’re right. Oh, look!” She pointed like he had. “There’s one that looks like a baby rabbit. See the fluffy tail?”
“Yeah,” said Kovu slowly, nodding. “And hey! There’s one that looks like two lions, killing each other for a scrap of meat.”
Kiara winced, but he was laughing so innocently she couldn’t insult him.
“I’ve never done this before,” he said. His eyes and his smile were big.
“Really?” said Kiara. Only a little sarcastically. Then she said, “I did this with a friend of my father’s. And then my father used to do it with me all the time. He says…all the great kings of the past are up there.” She chuckled.
Kovu stopped smiling. “Do you think Scar’s up there?” he said wonderingly.
Kiara grimaced again at how strange the words were. This time, he saw her looking at him. He looked back for a few seconds, then turned away and got to his feet, sitting up. Kiara rolled onto her belly, watching him a little guiltily.
“He wasn’t my father,” said Kovu, his head hanging, “but he was still…part of me.”
Kiara felt his hurt deep in her chest. She got up and went to him. “My father,” she said slowly, “said there was a…a darkness in Scar that he couldn’t escape.”
He turned slightly, not meeting her eyes. “Maybe there’s a darkness in me, too,” he whispered.
Kiara pressed against him, tucking her nose under his chin and shook her head.
They stayed close together.
Simba watched his daughter from a hill many yards away. Perhaps on any other occasion, Kiara would have noticed him; but she was with Kovu, her head nestled into his mane, a gentle frown on her face. And the Outsider’s eyes were closed. He leaned into Kiara as if she were his shield.
Oh, this girl. This remarkable daughter of his.
Simba looked helplessly skyward. “Father,” he attempted, searching for Mufasa among the constellations, “I am lost. Kovu is…one of them. Scar’s heir. How can I accept him?”
“Simba?” asked Nala’s voice behind him.
He turned to meet her as she climbed up the hill towards him. “I was seeking counsel from the great kings,” he said, sighing at the sky.
“Did they help?” asked Nala, her voice gentle but knowing.
Simba shook his head. “Silent as stars. My father would never—”
“Oh, my Simba.” She pressed against him. “You want so much to walk the path expected of you. Perhaps Kovu does not.”
Simba looked at her in surprise, but she only chuckled.
“I can see them down there just as easily as you can,” she said. “Get to know him and see.”
She smiled at him, turned and headed back toward Pride Rock. Simba looked once more at his daughter and Kovu before going down the hill and following his queen.
Kovu cleared his throat suddenly and shifted his weight so Kiara couldn’t keep her head under his chin. “What is it?” she asked, looking at him in surprise.
He took a few steps away, closing his eyes. “Nothing.”
It had felt…warm, and natural, to have her head pressed to his chest and hear his heartbeat and not feel him shying off. She had liked him that way, familiar and close.
Then he turned and looked at her, wide-eyed. “It’s – my whole life,” he faltered, “I’ve been trained to—”
He stopped as if he had been strangled. “Nothing,” he said darkly. “I gotta go.” He started moving away.
“Kovu,” said Kiara. She felt like she was losing him.
“I can’t – do this,” said Kovu haltingly, turning one more time.
Kiara looked at him, at the beautiful confusion on his face. “Kovu, you’re not one of them anymore. I promise.” She smiled, and felt all light inside when he smiled back.
He was still smiling as they made their way home.
When they reached Pride Rock, Kovu turned towards Kiara, and Kiara was glad to rub against him, pressing the side of her face to his and closing her eyes.
“Good night,” he said quietly.
“Good night,” she said, smiling as she pulled away.
She mounted the kopje with joy warming her paws. But she felt guilty, as she went inside the warm, crowded den and Kovu had to sleep out under his rock.
She lay down in a corner. Simba’s eyes were open and glowing. He was probably having trouble sleeping.
“Daddy,” said Kiara, quietly so she wouldn’t wake anyone, “why did you banish Zira and the others?”
A long, hot sigh came from Simba. “They could have turned on me, Kiara. Could have turned on any of us. And your mother was pregnant with you; what if Zira had hurt her so Kovu could—?”
“It was wrong,” said Kiara.
Simba huffed. “They were Scar’s followers. You know what Scar did. You know what Zira’s done to your Kovu.”
“I don’t know what Zira’s done to Kovu,” she answered coldly. “And it was wrong.”
She lay down and fended off sleep.
Kovu’s blood was warm from being so close to Kiara. He was waiting for it to cool down, so he could start berating himself for pulling everything apart. He couldn’t be doing this. Kiara was a Pridelander, the daughter of his mortal enemy.
He was still sitting, agitated and sleepless, in the shadow of his rock, when he heard Simba’s heavy paws leaving the den. He looked up in surprise. Simba seemed just as huge as he had been when Kovu was a cub.
Simba didn’t look angry. He looked around and puffed out his breath on the air. “It’s kind of cold tonight, huh?” he said. “Come on in.”
Kovu stared at him. Simba was there, in front of him. There was no one to see. He had a chance to kill Simba now, before he went back into the den.
Simba turned and went back into the den.
Kovu stood, and followed him.
Simba went to his place among the many bodies crowding the den. Kovu wasn’t sure where to sleep; he knew the Pridelanders thought of him as carrying a disease or something. But he could see a small empty space near the back, where only one lioness lay, and picked his way over there. He heard Simba snoring.
When he stepped on the stone at the back, he felt the lioness shivering into the rock, even though it was warm in here from all the lions. It was Kiara. Why on earth would Kiara be back here alone?
Her eyes opened, then widened when she saw him. She raised her head, her face lighting up. “Kovu, he let you in!”
“Are you okay?” he whispered.
She shrugged, her smile still bright. “Bad dreams,” she said. “But I’m all right now.” She snuggled against the wall, closing her eyes.
Kovu went to the opposite corner of the cave from where she was and curled there.
Vitani was watching from the stone where the Outlanders could see Pride Rock. Late at night she saw Simba come out onto the broad kopje. He and Kovu were the only lions there. They were alone.
“Get him,” she breathed.
Kovu stood and walked into the cave behind Simba.
“What are you waiting for?” she hissed. He couldn’t possibly hear her. “Kovu, get him!”
Vitani growled furiously. Didn’t Kovu know this was his only chance – their only chance?
She knew Zira would punish Kovu if she knew; but if Vitani didn’t tell her what she had seen, Vitani would be punished too. Vitani ran back toward the Outlands with her report.
Mother roared to split the sky. “You’re sure?” she demanded, leaning forward desperately.
“Affirmative,” said Vitani. “I saw it with my own eyes.”
“No,” snarled Mother, wrenching her body to one side in anger. “Kovu cannot betray us.”
Kovu sat on the kopje in the morning light, feeling as if his intestines had twisted somehow during the night. Everything was tangled. He had had the monster Simba practically between his forepaws. He had been training all his life for the moment when he would kill Simba.
Instead, he had followed the king of the Pridelands into the den that his pride shared. What did that mean?
“Okay,” he breathed into the sweet yellow air of dawn. But it was the farthest from okay he could imagine.
I have to tell her today, he thought.
What was he supposed to tell her? Kiara, Zira had a plot and I was part of it…He wasn’t just part of it, he was it. But that was the last thing he wanted now, because…
Because he was in love with Kiara.
She’ll never believe me, he thought, turning back shakily to the den, trying to reconcile the two parts of him that were breaking each other apart inside, but I have to try.
“Kiara?” he said aloud, struggling to get the words out.
She met him at the entrance, shining in the morning light with her good-natured smile. She had rose early, just as he had.
“I need to talk with you,” he said.
And then, as if on cue, Simba showed up on one side of the den entrance. “Kiara!” he said, all stern. “I don’t want you talking with him.”
With his faculties so muddled, Kovu found himself more wary of Simba than ever. Gone was the part of him that had snarled in the king’s face.
Then Simba smiled. “I want to talk with him,” he said. “Kovu, I’m going to tell you something. Come with me.”
Kovu wasn’t about to do anything of the sort. This Simba was the one he was unused to. He looked at Kiara, but she was smiling broadly. Her eyes twinkled at him and she was jerking her head for him to go with Simba. So he did, trailing in the great king’s wake with his head low. He was so confused.
Simba led him off the kopje and over the grasslands. “Do you know,” he said unexpectedly to Kovu, “how old I was when my father was killed?”
Kovu wasn’t sure how to answer. Simba’s words sounded like a foreign language. And why did he say “killed”? Kovu knew how Mufasa had died, and it was from falling down a gorge. An accident.
Kovu shook his head.
“I was five months old,” said Simba. “The wildebeest were stampeding around me through a gorge I had been playing in. I could have been crushed. But my father appeared suddenly, flying toward me. He caught me in his mouth and rushed me to a ledge in the gorge walls. Then he disappeared, pulled back into the stampede. When he came out again and started climbing up toward the cliff edge, he could barely pull himself along. I saw him go up, and then I saw him fall.”
They were nearing the ash fields. The air was stained grey from the deep layer of dust on the ground between the blackened acacias. Kovu found himself headed toward it; the place commanded respect. Simba looked around at all the destruction, didn’t stop walking, didn’t stop his story. He walked right into the ash fields at Kovu’s side.
“A long time later,” he said, “I challenged Scar. He had made himself king and mistreated the lionesses until they couldn’t hunt well. All the game got away, so he sent them on more hunts. The animals learned to stay away from the pride. All the food had disappeared by the time I returned to take back the pride.”
This was different.
“Scar overpowered me and threw me over the tip of Pride Rock,” said Simba, “the highest part of the kopje. It’s about a hundred feet from the ground, and a fire had started underneath. Scar was holding me over the edge.” Simba turned his golden eyes on Kovu. “It was him that had killed my father, throwing him off a cliff as he was about to do with me.”
Kovu’s feet moved mechanically under him, following Simba, but he wanted to stop dead and deny it. Simba was the murderer, not Scar. Didn’t everyone know that?
“Scar said it to me himself,” said Simba, “growled it in my ear for the pleasure of seeing my anger one more time before he threw me down. But I got so angry when I heard it, I struck up at him. I ended up back on the kopje, with him underneath me. I made him say it to all the lionesses assembled on the kopje.
“It was clear Scar was afraid. He escaped from me, threw hot coals from the fire into my face to distract me. He would have sliced me open then. He was leaping at me. He knew perfectly well, Kovu, how close he and I both were to the edge, but all he cared about was making sure I was dead, making sure he wouldn’t be defeated.
“He had knocked me onto my back. When he jumped on top of me, I shoved him off…to keep his claws away from my throat.” He released a breath that stirred the ashes. “Scar couldn’t let go of his hate, and in the end, it destroyed him.”
Kovu was still. It wasn’t true, surely—but he could see shadows of pitted scars on Simba’s face, from where the coals had been thrown. He looked away. He couldn’t hold on to what Mother had taught him.
“I’ve never heard the story of Scar told that way,” he whispered, almost wretchedly. Everything he had known was falling apart. “He truly was a killer.”
Simba stopped and looked over the gray land. “Fire is a killer,” he said, turning to Kovu once more. “Sometimes, what’s left behind can grow back better than the generation before…”
He swiped a puddle of ash away from the ground with his paw. Kovu bent his head to see a small, green shoot growing where there had been only dust.
“…if given the chance,” said Simba quietly.
Kovu closed his eyes as if in pain.
Then he heard it. Coming out of the smoky billows of ash drifting off the ground was a deep chuckle, almost a cackle. It had no joy in it, just a zealous, evil pleasure.
His and Simba’s heads shot up. “Oh, no,” whispered Kovu, staring into the grey mist.
Lionesses, dirty and skeletal, their yellow eyes glowing, were advancing slowly on them. Kovu turned wildly in the other direction, and saw more of them coming from the side, their teeth glinting through the clouds of ash.
“No, no!” said Kovu desperately, whirling around. Simba turned with him, his dark red mane standing on end, growling. The lionesses that Kovu had known all his life were coming toward them, ever closer, muzzles wrinkled and eyes narrowed and paws thumping ominously on the ground.
Nuka, Mother and Vitani walked out of the darkness. Nuka was slinking and cackling, his black mane short and patchy; Vitani was looking at Simba and smiling her evil smile; and Mother had a delighted grin.
“Simba,” said Mother. “What are you doing out here, and so…alone?”
“Watch yourself, Kovu,” said Simba, moving in a circle to take in the many, many Outland enemies surrounding him.
Kovu could only stare at Mother. He moved, only slightly, in front of Simba.
Mother’s smile never slipped. She looked at him with a wide white grin, and Kovu realized suddenly that she knew he had missed his moment last night.
But what she said was, “Well done, Kovu…just like we always planned.”
The words hung in the air, guarded by the snarls of Zira’s pride.
Then Kovu felt the red rush of Simba’s mane as he whirled and turned to him. “You!” The king’s face became a raging snarl.
“No!” cried Kovu. “I—” He looked around at the lionesses come to ambush the king. “I didn’t have anything to do with this!”
Zira took a step forward and hissed, “Attack.”
The lionesses ran forward and converged on Simba.
Kovu was pushed out of the way. There were so many of them—the whole pride, swarming over Simba like termites, battling to be the first to land a scratch on him.
“No!” cried Kovu. He rushed at the teeming mass of lionesses – a few of them bucked off by a roaring Simba, but all rushing back gleefully – and flung a few of them aside in desperate anger before he was smacked away by Mother and felt his head thud against a rock.
So Kovu had failed. He lay dazed against the stone where Mother had thrown him, his paws twitching with the effort to revive himself, like when you try to escape a bad dream.
Nuka had been waiting for this all his life. He looked at Simba, the king overcome by Mother’s pride, and smiled.
But Simba was bigger than the lionesses. He roared to burst Nuka’s ears and threw the pride off like a flock of birds, again and again. This time, when Simba slashed through the air and the lionesses fell away with snarls of rage, Simba ran. Nuka saw him flying for a second, and then he disappeared.
“He’s fallen!” cried Mother. In an instant she was at the place where Simba had vanished. Nuka ran up to her and looked down eagerly. Simba lay far below them in a dry, deep canyon, where dead trees had fallen over the edge or been pushed here from further upstream, and piled up in a heap of hundreds, holding back the river that bounded the two territories.
“Yes!” said Mother with relish. “We’ve got him! Remember your training—as a unit!”
Simba rose slowly, shaking his head. Nuka, growling with delight, followed his mother and the pride as they all drained down into the canyon after Simba. They skidded down the sides and jumped from boulder to boulder until all of them were on the canyon floor, facing Simba, giving chase. Now, the king would die.
Simba ran right up to the great heap of logs. “There he goes!” cried Vitani.
Simba couldn’t go any farther.
But then the king turned and leapt, scrambling on the logs. Nuka stared in bewilderment, while the lionesses loosed frustrated cries. They all scurried after him, but slipped on the steep tower of logs.
Nuka looked up and saw a brown shape at the top of the gorge, just above the logs. Simba would climb straight out – and there was Kovu, conscious, waiting for him.
“Simba!” Kovu yelled into the canyon.
“Get him, Kovu!” Zira was screaming. “Get him! Do it now!”
Instead, Kovu turned tail and ran.
Nuka watched Simba climb, struggling upwards over the logs, and saw his chance. He leapt onto the teetering pile, and the logs held under him. “I’ll do it! For you, Mother!” he yowled, joy bubbling up from his stomach. He ran up after Simba. The king couldn’t move quickly; he had just fallen fifty feet into a canyon.
“Mother, are you watching?” Nuka laughed gleefully. “I’m doing it for you—and I’m doing it for me,” he muttered, crazed with delight as he climbed higher and higher toward Simba, until the king was barely a foot from him.
Nuka flashed out a paw and snagged the claws into Simba’s hind leg. He felt Simba’s body jerk with pain and ignored it, drunk on a soaring feeling.
“This is my moment of glory!” he cried through his grinning teeth.
Simba struggled, pulled away from him—Nuka felt his claws tear out of the king’s flesh. It took one leap from Simba to send a log thudding down, toward the earth—
Nuka felt his joy flush out of him. He turned, skidding down the unsteady tower, but he felt the shadow of the log leap over him just before it landed across his body and lodged there.
The pain and pressure were horrible. Nuka yelped, shoving at the weight pinning him into a hollow in that tower of toppled logs. He heard Mother cry, “No!” and looked back at Simba.
The king leaped without caution now, desperate in his escape, nearing the top, shoving logs out of place with every step. Nuka saw him scramble out of the canyon, saw another log coming down on top of him and screamed as loud as he could.
Kovu was yards away from the canyon when he heard Nuka scream.
He doubled back and sprinted into the canyon, skidding on the steep walls. For a moment he drowned in the cries and roars of his pride.
Nuka was nowhere to be seen. Kovu climbed as fast as he could to the place where his brother had fallen and heaved a log down, shoving others furiously out of the way. But a moment later, Mother threw him aside.
Kovu came crashing back down the log tower. He rose, staring up at Mother. Vitani glared at him, but the traitor wasn’t worth her attention.
Mother was wrenching logs away with strength that Vitani had never seen, taking quick, shallow pants and whining as she searched for Nuka. Vitani climbed up slowly toward her, poised to hear Nuka say from some safe hollow beneath the landslide of trees, “Well, it’s about time!” and giggle.
Instead, when Mother flung a last log away with her head, there came a feeble coughing. Vitani froze, couldn’t look down into the hole in the tower where he was.
“Nuka,” murmured Mother in a broken voice.
He was rasping something. Vitani wondered in amazement if he was giggling up at Mother. “I’m sorry, Mother,” he said in a cracked whisper. “…I tried…”
“Shh,” said Mother, reaching down toward him. Vitani, listening for Nuka to speak again, heard the soft noise of fur on fur as Mother slipped her paw beneath Nuka’s jaw.
Nuka was struggling to say something, and then there was nothing. Mother stood rigid, her thin body balanced on the logs. Slowly and gently, she drew her paw out of the hollow, and Vitani realized she had waited too long. She wrenched herself up beside Mother and looked down into the hole in the pile.
Nuka’s limp form was buried between layers of logs. Vitani could only see the front of him—his scraggly dark head and a forepaw, slung over a trunk. He didn’t move. He didn’t breathe.
Mother panted wretchedly. Vitani stared at her brother. Move, you idiot, she thought, but he was still. So still.
“Nuka,” murmured Vitani, and dropped her head.
Mother was speaking. “Scar,” she said over her son, “watch over my poor Nuka.”
Vitani slipped down the tower of logs, back to the stone floor of the canyon, and stood there shaking. The pride had their heads bent in respect, even though none of them had ever cared about Nuka. But Mother, coming behind Vitani, began to growl.
Vitani lifted her head, just in time to see Mother reach Kovu and whip her claws across his face with a shriek of rage.
Kovu cried out. It was all Vitani could do not to do the same.
Kovu’s black mane fell over his face. He was breathing hard and slow, like he was trying to choke something down. When he turned back to Mother, his face was twisted with deep hatred. Vitani saw the cut Mother had left on his face, slicing into the ridges above and below his left eye.
Vitani saw Mother’s eyes grow huge and furious, her mouth gaping. Kovu kept giving hot, ragged breaths as a trail of blood cut down his face.
“What…have…you…done?” snarled Zira into her son’s face.
Vitani couldn’t move.
“I didn’t…” struggled Kovu, slow and halting, fighting to draw enough breath to speak. “I…I didn’t mean to, it wasn’t my fault, I—” His gaze hardened, and his voice blossomed into a growl. “I did nothing!”
“Exactly!” cried Mother, circling around him. “And through that, you betrayed your pride…betrayed Scar!” She spoke as if Kovu had committed sacrilege—which, in her mind, he probably had.
“I want nothing more to do with him!” roared Kovu, whirling in Mother’s face. Vitani watched blood leak from his scar.
“You cannot escape it!” said Zira. She advanced on Kovu, pressing him backwards against the logs. “Nuka is dead, because of you!”
“No,” whispered Kovu.
“You’ve killed your own brother!” Zira snarled.
“No!” Kovu made a terrible noise. He tore out from underneath Mother and ran, shoving his way past Vitani and the other lionesses, his shape growing smaller as he disappearing out of the gorge.
Vitani started forward to follow him, but Mother stretched out a foreleg to block her way. “Let him go,” she growled.
At some unspoken signal, the pride gathered around Mother. Vitani faced her with the heat of tears trailing down her cheeks. She couldn’t make herself stop crying.
“Simba has hurt me for the last time,” said Mother, her wide white grimace on her face. “Now he has corrupted Kovu!”
The lionesses around Vitani groaned as if in actual pain.
“Listen to me,” said Mother, leaning toward them eagerly. “Simba is injured and weak. Now is the time to attack! We will take his entire kingdom…by force!”
And Vitani was deafened by roars. She welcomed them, and welcomed Mother’s ultimatum. She wanted nothing more than to kill Pridelanders tonight.
Simba hadn’t come home. Kiara worried about him first; it was a while before she realized that Kovu, too, was missing. It had been hours.
She left Pride Rock and trotted nervously in the direction they had gone. Halfway through her search, she found Rafiki, leaning on his stick.
“Something is…not right, girl,” he said slowly. He lifted a paw to his forehead and looked over the Savannah. “There, Kiara!”
Kiara rushed in the direction he pointed, hearing him hopping along behind in the awkward gait he had. She could see Simba now, coming in from the direction of the ash fields, going terribly slowly.
“Father?” she said uncertainly, grinding to a halt. “Father!”
And then she was running again.
She put her head under his chin when she reached him. “Daddy,” she said, feeling his harsh breathing.
Rafiki ran up to the king and took hold of his red mane. “What happened?” he demanded.
Simba struggled to speak. “Kovu,” Kiara heard him say, and then, “Ambush,” before he fell over with a groan.
Kiara stared down at him. “No,” she said in shock.
Before she even had time to process, she found herself turning to Rafiki. “Get help,” she said.
“Princess, I am the help,” said Rafiki sternly. He bent over Simba. “Now, boy, you must get up. You are scaring your daughter.” He tugged on the lock of Simba’s mane he still held, then dropped it and pulled on one of Simba’s ears. “Eh? You hear me? You must get up now. You are frightening Kiara. You hear me, boy?”
Slowly, Simba struggled upright. Kiara let him lean on her, though she was cold with fear. Kovu. Ambush.
“Come on, Daddy,” she said, beginning to walk him toward Pride Rock.
“Now,” said Rafiki, “I will get the queen.” He scampered off and was lost to sight.
“Daddy, talk to me,” pleaded Kiara. Simba had found his feet and was at least limping again without collapsing, but his face was stony and he said nothing.
Nala ran up to meet them in minutes. “Simba,” she whispered.
He said her name back to her. Then Nala walked to his right side to support him, while Kiara had his left, and they brought him home.
It was only when Simba was lying on the sun-baked brown stone of the kopje in the evening light, with the pride surrounding him and his proud head finally lifted, that Simba spoke. “It was Kovu,” he said roughly.
“What?” said Nala.
“Daddy, it can’t be true,” said Kiara.
“They were waiting for us at the fire site,” he growled, as she had known he would. “Kovu has betrayed us.”
Suddenly the other lionesses began to speak, hissing, moving toward the edge of the kopje to look out. Kiara looked down toward the Pridelands and saw something she would never forget.
The herds were moving inward. The topi moved in a mass, cringing into each other, the zebra and wildebeest and other grazers close to them. The cheetahs slunk together in small knots, glaring up at the kopje from their black-streaked faces. And the elephants, the only animals who had no fear of the lions, pounded toward the foot of the kopje.
They were all headed for Pride Rock. And among them, moving slowly and cautiously, was Kovu. The grazers shied away from him, yipping nervously. He walked within a few yards of Pride Rock and stood there in full sight below the kopje, a very small brown shape. The animals, their many forms clustered around the rocks, stirred agitatedly.
Kiara could sort of make out what the cheetahs were saying, in their throaty dialect. They were saying exactly what all the lionesses were saying, their eyes on Kovu: “Look at the scar on his face.”
Kiara looked down at Kovu. It was true. A stream of blood, dried and red, masked one side of Kovu’s face, and there was a sharp nick crossing his left eye.
Still, Kiara was relieved to see him. “Kovu!” she said, hurrying toward him; but then Simba started up and roared in her face. She shrank back with the surprise of his anger, and watched him stride to the tip of the kopje and look down at Kovu.
“Why have you come back?” Simba called angrily to the Outsider.
“Simba,” said Kovu, “I had nothing to do with—”
“You don’t belong here!” cried Simba.
“Please,” said Kovu, his face twisted with grief. “I ask your forgiveness.”
Kiara said, “Daddy, please! Listen to him!”
“Silence!” Simba snarled over his shoulder at her. He turned back to Kovu. “When you first came here, you asked for judgment. And I pass it now!” he said in a thundering voice.
The animals responded with furious din. Kovu looked fearfully around at them. Kiara’s breath caught.
“Exile!” roared Simba.
“No!” cried Kiara.
Kovu’s eyes were on her.
The lionesses began to roar, forming ranks along the kopje behind Simba. The cheetahs down below stepped toward Kovu with their hackles raised, yowling their throaty cries. The zebras chuckled and yipped. Pride Rock quivered with the threatening pound of the elephants.
“No!” Kiara wrenched away from her mother and ran forward, but snarling lionesses of her father’s pride leapt to block her way.
“Kovu,” she said desperately.
Simba was raging. Kovu was silent, pained.
The Outlander hesitated, looking warily at the hordes of Savannah creatures coming towards him. A group of oryx had their horns lowered like a barricade and were walking toward Kovu, pressing him back. Kiara stared at him, trying to fight away from the females who held her back.
Kovu inched farther and farther back away from the oryx. Finally he turned and ran. In moments, though Kiara struggled to keep him in sight, he was gone. A seething throng of animals, with teeth bared and feet thundering, were converging on the place where he had stood. Hearing a screeching, Kiara looked up to see dozens of birds lifting off the very top of Pride Rock. They looked like nothing so much as a storm cloud.
Kovu stood at the base of Pride Rock, in Simba’s shadow, the words of the king ringing in his ears. What he saw now was the oryx advancing toward him from the boulders around the kopje. They moved in greater numbers than any lion could kill, a wall of horns pointed at Kovu.
He backed up slowly as the antelope forced him to the edge of the stone platform where he stood. But he had to jump down and run.
A rhino with a thick gray hide was waiting for him on the next level of rock that led down to the grasslands. The creature snorted and pounded on the ground. The elephants, massive shadows at the base of the kopje, pounded even louder.
At one point, rocks began to rain down around him. He fled the blows and risked a look behind him to see where they came from. Monkeys from the acacia trees around the Savannah were shrieking at him and hurling stones down from ledges around the cliff-and-kopje. A few struck Kovu’s head or back before he could escape out of their throwing range.
More animals tormented him as he ran. A line of zebras flailed out their hooves and chuckled shrilly as he bounded past them. Further on, the ostrich came at him and began to poke him hard with their blunt-edged beaks. Even when he reached the plain and was running as hard as he could, panting in his effort to escape, the vultures followed. He felt the rush of their wings seconds before they descended on him, darting their beaks at his head and eyes and beating his shoulders with their clenched talons. When he looked back, he saw the animals forming a wall in front of Pride Rock, but more than that he saw Simba, huge and terrible, red mane billowing out from his face like beams from the sun.
At one point, he thought he saw the mandrill Rafiki staring at him from a tree. But he couldn’t be sure.
Kovu stumbled wildly into the green water of the boundary creek, where the vultures wouldn’t follow, and looked over his shoulder. Pride Rock, surrounded, looked like an anthill, and the chorusing din of the creatures in their rejection was terrifying.
Kovu kept his eyes on the great cliff in the distance, hating himself for betraying Kiara. He bent his head over the water in pain, and saw his wide-eyed reflection staring up at him from the surface. Misery twisted his face and the cut leaked blood down his cheek. A single ripple was enough to make him think he wasn’t looking down at himself, but at Scar.
He turned and fled his reflection. Behind his eyes, he saw the logs fall again.
The lionesses finally moved out of her way. Instead of leaping down from Pride Rock, she ran to Simba. “Father, please reconsider,” she said, with soft desperation. She would try to talk to him, really talk to him, just once more.
He turned to her with a snarl. “You will not go anywhere without an escort from now on.”
“No, that’s not—”
“He used you to get to me!” snapped Simba.
“No!” she snarled, outraged. “He loves me! For me.”
“Because you are my daughter!” Simba turned and advanced on her, backing her toward the cave. “You will not leave Pride Rock. You will stay where I can keep an eye on you, away from him.”
“You don’t know him.”
“I know he’s following in Scar’s pawprints,” said Simba. He turned away, facing across the Savannah, deeply uncaring of her. He said, almost to himself, “And I must follow in my father’s.”
Kiara screamed, “You will never be Mufasa!”
Simba gave a noticeable shudder. He half-turned; Kiara saw his face, his eyes wide. She had stunned him into silence.
Kiara took a shuddering breath, turned and ran into the den. The lionesses that had barred her way now stood aside with big eyes.
“Kiara,” said Nala as she passed, but Kiara ignored her. She knew any moment she would start sobbing—she, Kiara, who hadn’t really cried since she was a cub because Rafiki had called her a smart girl and smart girls didn’t cry, choking on a lump in her throat because, with Kovu pulled away for the second time in her life, it felt like something was being ripped out of her.
She lay down in the thread of light at the back of the den, choking.
She looked up suddenly, drawing breath, staring at the place near the roof of the den where sunlight shone in unprompted between a few reddish stones.
A moment later, Kiara was squeezing out between loose rocks onto a ledge at the very back of Pride Rock. She climbed out and down.
It seemed Simba couldn’t understand, would never understand. But at least now Kiara did. She understood that Simba couldn’t confine her. She stopped once at the edge of an acacia forest at the back of the cliff and looked over her shoulder at her home, dark-souled. Right now, she wanted nothing to do with Pride Rock. It had no part in her.
Then Kiara ran, whisking and rustling through the grass under the blaze of a setting sun that turned the whole of the flat, grassy Savannah to fire.
As dark was falling she reached the bluff where she had found star pictures with him. “Kovu?” she said, standing up on it.
Kiara leapt down into the part of the boundary creek that flowed right past the bluff, and whispered his name again. When she looked down at her reflection, the shadow over her face made it seem like only half of her was there.
She wound back toward the hunting grounds, near the ash fields, and found the cleft in the wall of the gorge where Kovu had been pressed against her, shaking with laughter. “Kovu,” she said uselessly into the crack.
She searched at the watering hole, too, and then looked out over the boundary creek toward the Outlands. The night was so quiet, aching with the sheer lonely peace that the Savannah had on a warm evening.
Kiara reached the ash fields, and amid the graveyard of acacia trees she gave up.
He came to the ash fields within minutes. He was staring at the dusty ground, silver in the moonlight, panting and wretched with loss, when he looked up and saw a golden shape.
He suddenly knew it was her. He walked slowly, wondering if he could stand to approach her again, almost too afraid to tell her he was there. And then he shouted over the ashes, “Kiara!”
She turned. Her face lit up into a huge smile like daylight breaking through the blackness of sky, and she ran towards him.
He was running, too.
She collided with him beside the twisted corpse of a burned acacia tree. For a few seconds he just held her wrapped in his forepaws and buried his face in her golden pelt, stroking her along her back. He could feel her breathing rapidly and joyfully into his mane.
“Kovu,” she said softly.
“It’s okay,” he said, pulling back to look at her grinning face. “I’m fine, Kiara.”
She touched her cool nose against the side of his face still tacky from the blood that had dried on his fur and started licking it away.
“Are you all right?” asked Kovu.
She didn’t answer, just kept cleaning him. Kovu stayed with his head bent into her neck. Far more than the termite mounds, far more than either the Outlands or the Pridelands, she felt like home, where he was supposed to be.
“We’ll both be all right,” she said, wiping his cheek with her forepaw when she had finished licking. She leaned against him.
When they drew apart, Kiara was looking down at the pawprint Kovu had left in the ash. The wind was already blowing the silver-grey dust away in drifts, but Kovu had time to see the little green plant he had unearthed before it joined the million others being revealed as the ashes swept away.
Kiara broke away, heading down a hill after the swirling wind, toward the small bluff overlooking the boundary creek, laughing her laugh. Kovu ran after her, and they bumped into each other again, laughing, rolling down the hill together, their combined voices thick with joy. They came to a slow stop, resting in the soft grass on the Prideland side of the creek.
Kovu kissed Kiara’s cheek and looked into the creek again, bracing himself for what he would see. But all he saw was himself, with Kiara stretched out close to him, smiling at their reflections. “Hey, look,” said Kovu, watching their faces merge and unmerge on the surface of the water. “We are part of each other.”
Kiara closed her eyes and chuckled, then stopped suddenly. Kovu didn’t pay attention. He turned to her eagerly, getting up, and said, “Let’s get out of here, Kiara. We’ll run away together—start our own pride.”
Kiara smiled, shook her head and giggled. Kovu didn’t see what was so funny. They could do it, couldn’t they? They could leave Zira and her hatred, and Simba with his rules, far behind.
“Kovu,” said Kiara gently, getting up and putting her head under his chin, “we have to go back.”
He pulled away in shock. “You’re kidding,” he said.
She shook her head.
“But we’re together now,” Kovu protested, but looking at her he knew he was losing already. She was smiling at him, the saddest of smiles. What had happened to the bouncing, grinning Kiara – suddenly grown up now?
“Our place is with our pride,” said Kiara gently. “If we run away…they’ll be divided forever.” She watched him knowingly.
She was right, of course. Kovu knew that. But still, he wondered where the sweet antelope in her had gone.
She touched his forepaw to his for a moment, looking intensely into his face. And then she clung to him again with her head against his shoulder, pressing against him as fiercely as if it was their last time. Kovu held her against him. There was nothing to say.
Storm clouds were gathering.
Mother went at a steady pace to the boundary creek where it broadened almost into a river. She went in without stopping, swimming in green water up to her chest. Vitani followed, and the pride of starving lionesses followed in a crowd. When they emerged, they were drenched from their lower jaw down. The dust they kicked up as they ran clung to their wet coats. Mother was streaked with mud.
It had begun to rain. Rafiki ran down from his tree, leaving his pictures under broad leaves to protect them. He knew where would be the driest place to seek shelter. Plus, he had something to tell Simba. Might turn out to be important.
He pulled himself onto the kopje of Pride Rock. Sheets of rain were falling from a dark sky, and the herds were still dispersing slowly from their places at the foot of the rock. The zebras yipped nervously. “Oh, shut up!” Rafiki hollered to them, scruffling a paw through his mane to get some of the water out.
He could see inside the dark den. The pride was crowded together in the least damp corner, the lionesses watching Simba move around frantically, nosing in empty corners, calling Kiara’s name.
“So,” said Rafiki into the rain, watching from the entrance. No one heard him. “So, Kiara is gone, then.” He wasn’t surprised.
“Simba, she’s gone,” Nala was saying. “Looking for her here isn’t going to fix anything.”
“What do you mean, fix?” snarled Simba, on edge. “If she’s not here, where is she?”
Temper, temper, Simba, thought Rafiki.
Nala’s gaze grew hard. “I think you know perfectly well,” she said.
Rafiki, having heard enough and figuring his ultimatum wouldn’t keep, hopped into the den and stood before the two monarchs. He shook himself briskly, fanning water droplets over the stone walls, and then paused to smack it out of his ears.
“What are you doing here?” said Simba.
Rafiki looked up at him in disinterest. “Have you seen my tree?” he said. “No cover whatsoever! I barely had time to cover my pictures.”
It was clear that Simba didn’t know what he was talking about. But for Rafiki, that was nothing new.
“Also,” said the mandrill, “you will find that the Outsiders are on the attack. Heading this way.”
“What?” demanded Simba.
“What?” echoed the mandrill. He sat up on his back legs and poked the bridge of Simba’s nose. “What do you mean, what? It’s war, you crazy boy! And what are you going to do about it?”
Simba whirled, his red mane flying out. “Nala, everyone, get yourselves together. We move out. Now!”
The pride stood and started toward the entrance. Rafiki watched them—all the lionesses, looking startled, or afraid, or angry, or poised for battle, muttering worriedly as they went out into the rain—and was unimpressed.
“Rafiki,” said Simba just before he left.
“Oh, yes?” said Rafiki coolly.
“Find Kiara,” said Simba, and disappeared.
“Oh, yes,” said Rafiki after him. “Yes. Finding Kiara.” He plunked himself down solidly in the den and chucked a rock against the wall. “Finding Kiara. Searching fit to drop dead. I wonder where she could possibly be.”
The scent came to Simba on the wind. The Outsiders weren’t heading for Pride Rock. They were heading for the canyon—the place where he had been injured. Pain rocketed up his body from his wounded hind foot as the rain dribbled over it. The pride went through the soaking Pridelands, past the fire site, and Simba heard the growling of the river, held back by the tower of trees that had at one point or other fallen into the canyon, that he had climbed up to escape from Zira. The prey animals scattered through the grasslands seemed to sense the impending danger and fled away from the river, passing Simba’s group.
He saw the Outlanders in the distance. They stood, some of them pacing slowly, near the place where the dusty plain dropped into the canyon. A few steps in the wrong direction, and they would have gone over the edge. Zira stood on a stone, her pelt weighed down by rain. Mud dripped from her jaws and striped her body up to the ribs. Her troops looked the same. It seemed somehow as if the lower part of them were melting.
Simba wondered, his eyes on the rainclouds, if this was what his father had wanted.
It was Kovu who realized that he could smell his mother. Kiara was running ahead of him, back toward Pride Rock through splashing mud. He shouted to her through the rain, “No!”
“What?” she said. She skidded, dirty water spraying around her paws, and turned to him in bewilderment.
“They’re here,” said Kovu. He stared at her through strands of his black mane that the rain dragged across his face. “They’re going to the river.”
“The river,” said Kiara. She took a quick breath through the rain, and Kovu knew she smelled it too.
It was a smell that terrified Kovu. Zira smelled of anger and hatred, blood and dust and death. She smelled like her lullaby.
He sprinted toward the scent of his mother, with Kiara at his side. Running. All that mattered now was running.
“It’s over, Simba!” Zira’s voice shrieked, rumbling with heated anger and delight. “I have dreamed of nothing else…for years.”
Simba faced her from yards away, staring down her bony muzzle to her madly glittering eyes. He limped a straight line in front of his pride. The sensations in his brain alternated – fear and pain, anger and pain, fear and pain.
“Last chance, Zira,” he said. “Go home.”
“I am home,” she rumbled.
She had been waiting for this. The ghosts of Scar and Nuka would rest now.
Lightning shattered the sky. Vitani looked across an empty span of mud at ranks of Pridelanders. Her heart throbbing for Nuka, and the lost Kovu, she counted the ones she would kill, that she had dreamed of killing for years.
“Attack!” roared Zira.
Simba, the ruler with his red mane dripping against his neck, roared back, and his ranks of females began to walk forward.
Vitani led the Outsiders in the advance.
She saw Simba guide his lionesses into a trot.
She did the same.
Then the Pridelanders were running.
Vitani snarled, “Move!” and the Outsiders ran.
And like this, the two lines collided.
The turmoil of bloodthirsty roars from her pride members drowned out Vitani’s battle cry. In moments, a Pridelander had barreled into her chest and knocked her into the sucking mud. The dripping golden body on top of Vitani must have weighed twice what she did, but Vitani’s training had melded to her brain. For Nuka, she thought, and the next thing she knew she had struck the lioness aside like some oversized termite from her brother’s coat and was standing upright in a sea of screams.
“Go for the eyes!” shrieked Mother from her pedestal.
Vitani rushed into the fray, bodies smacking together around her, screams, roars, cries of triumph, lightning crackling, vultures screaming wraithlike overhead. From out of the roiling mass of fighters, every one with a death wish for some other, another lioness came snarling toward Vitani, her pelt dark with rain and night. Vitani reared up just before her enemy reached her and ripped her claws across the Pridelander’s face. The female fell away, snarling in pain, and was hidden by the crowd of others—trying to get their first taste of Outsider blood, Vitani thought.
“Break his jaw!” was Mother’s next decree to her fighters, and Vitani was surrounded by smacks of bone against bone, tooth to flesh. She lashed out at every fat Pridelander that came close, her paws shoving at enemies seemingly of their own will. Vitani wasn’t in control of her own body; the training that Mother had beat into her sang commands in her mind, and her body responded blindly, moving into position to kill whoever she saw.
“Hit him low!” cried Mother. “Kill them! Do what you must!”
Vitani charged up to a bluff above the mud pits and saw another Pridelander lioness below her. But this one was different. Vitani recognized the lily-pale coat from a day years before, when she and Kovu, tiny cubs trailing behind Mother, had been pushed from some cozy darkness they had known into a harsh, glaring light, stumbling on their chubby paws. And this lioness had been there, delicate and small but with her stomach hanging with the weight of an unborn cub. Two years of motherhood had rounded and mellowed her; now she was powerful enough to knock any Outsider into the mud.
Vitani cackled down at her. “Where’s your pretty daughter, Nala?” she hissed spitefully.
“Vitani!” snarled Nala.
Vitani didn’t wait to hear the next words. She leaped at Kiara’s mother and rolled her into a puddle.
They reached the canyon. On the other side Kovu saw the two prides. Vultures circled over the battle beneath undulating black clouds.
Kiara didn’t lose a moment. Like the antelope she was, she leaped straight down onto the logs spanning the rift in the earth. Kovu rushed down after her, the layers of dry wood creaking under him, sending up thunderous cracks into the rainy night. Somewhere down there to his right, Nuka lay in a tomb of logs. To his left, the river battled the trees that held it back.
He was still a yard behind Kiara, running across the top of the logs, halfway to the other side of the canyon. Suddenly the path bowed in front of him. A few logs shuddered loose and crashed down the right side; another, shoved by a fresh burst from the furious river, stuck up in front of him with a creak. He had no time to stop. He leapt onto the log, dangled off it for a dangerous second, clambered over it and spurted after Kiara again.
Something was happening at the core of the battle, something that made the vultures scream in excitement and raised desperate cries from both sides. Simba was again at the heart of a teeming anthill of Zira’s fighters; whenever he flung them off, they came back.
But then Zira growled, quiet and crisp, “Simba,” and at last Vitani, looking up from Nala’s claws, saw Mother descend into the battle.
“You’re mine,” said Mother in a dangerous voice.
Immediately, as if the earth itself had spoken, all the Outlanders stilled. Vitani crawled off Nala. Around her, she saw her scrawny fellows raise their heads toward their leader, abandoning whatever skirmishes they were in. All the Pridelanders rose up, confused, and helped fallen pride members to their feet, taking a couple of seconds to lick their wounds—surprised by the end of movement from their enemies, perhaps thinking the battle over. Vitani, growling eagerly through her teeth, knew better.
Then all eyes were turned toward the center, where a circle was evacuating of all fighters except two—Zira and Simba. Simba stood, a great mountain of gold and red.
Vitani watched Zira. The queen of the Outsiders had her dagger teeth bared; she was streaked with mud and dripping rain and she shone with the fulfillment of her vengeance.
Zira began to walk in one direction around Simba. Simba glared at her from beneath his red mane.
Zira, growling, tried another direction, and now the advance began—the two circling around each other, wet fur standing out in spikes, feet thudding into mud puddles, Simba limping on one back foot. Vitani watched, waiting, her muscles still trembling from the rush of instinctive battle commands that had scrolled behind her eyes as she fought to this moment.
Then Zira took a step, her paw with black claws lifting, Simba’s lifting to counter.
And Kovu and Kiara leapt between them.
Kiara faced her father, glaring through the rain, turning her body to one side to protect Zira. She knew that Kovu, at her back, faced his mother in the same way; she could feel his coldness radiating through the lesser cold of the rain—all the hatred directed at his mother.
“Kiara?” said Simba, and lowered his paw.
Kiara hardened her eyes toward him.
“Kovu!” Zira’s savage voice said behind Kiara. Then, growling, “Move.”
And Simba said to Kiara, growling now as he had on the kopje, “Stand aside.”
“Daddy, this has to stop,” said Kiara.
Simba’s eyes widened.
Zira was saying to Kovu, “You’re even weaker than I thought. Get out of the way!”
“You’ll never hurt Kiara,” replied Kovu. “Or Simba…not while I’m here.”
Thank you, Kovu, thought Kiara.
Simba’s eyes narrowed at her. “Stay out of this!” he hissed.
She looked straight at him, almost smiling—he was so blind, this king who carried the bitterness of all days on his shoulders. “A king once told me,” she said, “that we are part of each other. I didn’t understand him then. Now I do.” And she really did smile. He was still her father.
Simba’s eyes darkened. She could tell she was only bewildering him more. “But,” he said, “they—”
“Them?” whispered Kiara. “Us. Look at them; they are us.”
Oh please, just this once in his whole life, would he listen to her?
She watched his eyes. They fixed on her, for another long and silent minute, as Zira fumed across the field of battle.
Then Simba’s eyes began to move, slowly, slowly—Kiara looked around with him, smiling at the warriors who had frozen in their places, and now looked wonderingly and fearfully toward Simba as he looked toward them. He looked over the whole of them, his loyal females and those whom he had banished, and they all raised their heads in confusion—some thin and sunken-in, others muscular, all tired, looking for someone to trust in this war, some with lips still curled from the battle. A gaunt, young-looking Outlander with blond fur plastered to her body lifted her head as if startled at Kiara’s words, and the bared-teeth smile dropped from her face.
A little watery moonlight reached down from behind the curtaining rainclouds and touched them for a moment. Kiara turned back to her father, trying a smile. Like all the rest of them, she felt suddenly quite tired.
Simba was staring up at the quavering light, as if it would speak to him. Then he looked at Kiara and smiled gently.
Kiara pressed herself against her father with a glad heart, feeling the tension surrounding them drop with the rain.
Zira spat on the ground, snarling anew. The next thing Kiara heard her say, in a voice that scalded the air, was, “Vitani! Now!”
Kiara looked around, staying close to Simba. Zira was looking right at the thin blond lioness.
But Vitani shook her head. “No, Mother,” she said, as if the words were surprising, even coming from her own mouth. Her large eyes flicked across the blank muddy expanse, where Kovu watched her with puzzlement, and she said, “Kiara’s right.”
Slowly, she turned to the Pridelanders, to Simba, and walked over to them. She stood beside Kiara and said earnestly, “Enough.”
Kovu glanced at Vitani and moved a few steps toward her, as if closing ranks.
Zira’s face flowed into a mask of rage, with just that terrible white smile to break it in two. Kiara saw Kovu’s stance harden.
“If you will not fight,” said Zira, slowly, with a kind of dark pleasure, “then you will die as well.”
The two prides stood frozen. Kovu growled, very quietly.
Kiara braced herself one more time in the face of fear, ready to fend off the monster that was Zira. Then suddenly she saw two lionesses on the Outland side look at each other, their eyes wide. Watching Zira carefully, they both walked over and stood behind Vitani, their loyalty to Zira’s daughter greater than to Zira herself. Kiara felt the heat of their shaking bodies.
One by one, lionesses began walking away from Zira, turning to face her only when they reached Simba’s side. Zira looked wildly around at them. “What!” she cried, her smile disappearing. “Where are you going? Get back here!”
The last of Zira’s pride left her, and now they all looked at her from the folds of the Prideland group. Finally, Kovu gave his mother a last growl, and moved to stand just a little ways from Kiara and Simba. Zira stood alone, on a plain of mud where now even the rain was deserting her. The moon, low in the sky, shone full onto what had once been a battle.
“It’s over, Zira,” said Simba with the voice of a king. “It’s time to put the past behind us.”
Zira’s face contorted. “I’ll never let it go!” she snarled. She was shaking from head to toe, her claws dashing against the ground.
Kiara tensed. There was an ominous noise from the rain-swollen river; Simba looked warily toward the canyon.
“This is for you, Scar,” Zira hissed into the emptiness, and she leapt, full over Kovu’s head, straight at Simba.
A cry wrenched from Kiara’s throat, and she reached out as Zira knocked Kovu to one side. Kiara was caught in the leaping curve of Zira’s body, shoving her back, rolling her across the battlefield, the sky and wet earth spinning wildly past.
She realized, as Kovu screamed “Kiara!” and Simba’s paws began to pound after them, that they were going to fall over the edge of the canyon, into the shifting, sliding tree trunks that she and Kovu had run across. A second later, the ground disappeared, and she and Zira were falling.
A surreal moment fluttered by in the empty space. Kiara, for a second, imagined that she had wings.
Then she was grinding her claws deep into the wall of the canyon, which seemed to sink deeper every second below her. She scraped to a halt, her claw nibs smarting as she hung, and felt Zira’s weight fall away. The queen of the Outland pride screamed, and the scream grew a degree fainter, before Kiara heard Zira’s claws catch on a ledge a few feet below.
Kiara clung to the rock face. She heard Kovu shouting her name from the top, and her mother, crying, “Hold on, Kiara!” and then, “Simba – Simba, the river!”
Kiara heard the terrible smashing and falling of the log dam that spanned the canyon and strangled the river, falling, falling before a wall of water swelled with rain. She looked up the river and saw the logs shattering, the noise echoing up the walls of the gorge like thunder. The splash of the unimaginable weight of water sounded as if it didn’t belong to this world. Kiara closed her eyes and pressed herself against the sheer stone face, afraid to open them again.
Simba shouted her name. She looked up to see him making his way down the wall of the canyon towards her. He skidded down to a ledge, then leapt from boulder to boulder, still a long way above. Kovu and Nala, too, were hanging over the top of the canyon, still yelling to her to hang on. The lionesses of the two prides looked down in fear.
Kiara dared to look down. In a second she made a decision, and dropped to the ledge below, where Zira hung. The impact knocked the wind out of her, but she rose without a pause, looking over the edge at Zira’s dangling body. The river coursed below, an angry blue-brown, with massive logs careening in the current. Zira’s face was stretched with terror.
The sight of this creature swinging by her forepaws over a canyon that was filling with rapids struck Kiara’s heart. She leaned over the edge, reaching down toward the monster.
“Zira, give me your paw,” she said.
Zira looked up at her and snarled over the rush of the river. She released one paw from its hold on the rock to swipe unsheathed claws at Kiara’s, who had to pull her paw out of the way. But she reached down again as Zira’s claws skidded further.
“Zira, come on,” she coaxed, her voice growing desperate. “I’ll help you!”
Zira slid, further and further, her body swinging from side to side with her efforts to get back up. The Outland queen’s eyes glared up at Kiara, dark with refusal.
A moment later she dropped. Kiara heard her scream echo before she splashed and was lost beneath the tumbling logs pushed downstream by the torrent.
Kiara stared for a long time at the place where Zira had fallen. The torrents of water pouring over the logs began to decrease. After a while the current was gentle and the river was quiet, deathly quiet.
She slowly moved her paw back up onto the ledge, and lay there looking blankly down at the river until she heard her father’s voice gently say her name. She turned and saw him above her, smiling sadly, reaching down to pull her up.
“Daddy,” she said, wearily laying her paw in his. She tried to speak, and found that she only had two words left:
Nala met them at the top and held Kiara to her. Kiara could only press against her mother’s warmth, looking over her shoulder at Kovu waiting. Once or twice, Kovu looked down into the canyon, releasing his breath with a grimace as the gully filled peacefully with water.
“Kovu,” said Kiara when her mother released her, going towards him.
He said her name as Simba had, and let her tuck her head under his chin.
Kiara looked over at the group of lionesses. Nearly everyone was bleeding, someplace or other, Pridelander and Outlander alike—Kiara felt guilty that she had been the only one to avoid a wound. Vitani headed up her scraggly group, their eyes on Simba.
The king nodded toward Kovu, then turned to his lionesses. “Let’s go home,” he said quietly, looking at Vitani. “All of us.”
Vitani dared to smile.
Ripples of bright gold light were beginning to flow over the stone of the cliff-and-kopje; the sunrise lay in a pool of purple on the horizon. Rafiki stood near the den entrance of Pride Rock, and there he could see the pride returning – the whole pride, unmarred, as it might have been if Scar had never become king. Simba and Nala led the group of Pridelanders, and behind them Kovu and his yellow-furred sister. The Outlanders trailed behind Vitani, all very thin indeed, their sun-bleached eyes great and hollow as if they were just now stepping into the light. There were expressions of astonishment, almost fear – shyness – at the soft grass, the blue sky, and the rich air. They never looked back over their shoulders. Clearly, the exiled lions had learned what Rafiki, and Kiara too, had always known: that Sarabi’s pride were all part of each other in the end.
It seemed, though, that Zira had been lost for good.
Kiara trotted at the back of the group, shining like a sun. So, princess, thought Rafiki with a self-satisfied smile. You’ve indeed fixed everything, eh? Well done.
Simba brought his pride up onto the kopje, where the lionesses made a circle on the red stone. Kiara came close to Kovu and leaned on his shoulder. Kovu looked peaceful. Rafiki looked skyward, just in case anyone up there dared to scorn the lovebirds, and stretched out his long stick over Kovu and Kiara’s heads in affirmation.
Across the circle of lions, Simba and Kiara shared a look. And then Kiara, whose victory it was, kissed Kovu once more.
Crazy kids, thought Rafiki.He gave Kovu a tap on the head with his stick, for good measure.
Then Simba and Nala, the king and queen, both stood and walked down the middle of the circle toward the tip of the kopje. The lionesses, including Vitani, bowed their heads as their leaders passed. Kovu and Kiara processed a little ways behind, until the two princes and their mates stood on the edge of the rock, their silhouettes rising over the glorious span of Africa.
Simba split his jaws in a great roar. The rest of the pride joined him. It was as it should be.
Nala kept an eye on her daughter and Kovu. The two young ones seemed full of hope and deeply in love. That, too, Nala mused, was as it should be.
She wasn’t sure whether Kovu and Kiara would stay with the pride after this. There had never been two males upon Pride Rock before. More importantly, Kiara must make her own way. That was how she had always been.
Simba, whom Nala loved, was gazing up at the sky, where light poured between sunrise clouds, his ears erect as if listening to something. Nala nestled against him, and wondered if he was finally hearing what he had waited to hear.
Alternate title: Bramble’s Journal, Sunday the 19th of August, 2012
Ah, my hearts. It has been too long.
I bet you are wondering what I was doing for that period which was too long.
I will tell you.
I was getting skinny.
And after that transpired, what was I doing?
I’ll tell you.
I was being skinny. I was existing on that plane known as No Fat. Zero Adipose. Low Caloric Intake.
Do you know how this came to pass, my adoring readers?
Over the winter, I had spent months at my mistress, Fairyfeather’s, side. That side being inside, inside the house. I dwelt in a magical land known as the Upstairs, where I slept on memory foam, poached chili off the coffee table, coasted blissfully on tile floors, cultured my beautiful nails for just such a typing spree as this, practiced the art mastered by Cats of walking on counters, eating whatever was left out on said counters, snacking on pizza out of Fairyfeather’s hand, and tormenting pet chickens.
I was livin’ the life. I was also growing…well, I was healthy. I had what you might call a paunch. I took up half the couch, which is impressive for a terrier who is supposed to be the size of a small cat and under 20 pounds.
I, of course, saw nothing wrong with this at first. I had food. I was happy. But then I began to notice that no one paid attention to me anymore without commenting on my size. I began to realize that I was fat.
Then came the part where everyone started singing “Deception! Disgrace!” That is, I was banished to the Downstairs, there to spend a good chunk of time working off my fat.
And did I ever work it, my numerous fans. I rediscovered the joy of running, of playing “Steal the Toy” with my fellow packmates, of chasing and then killing hapless rodents and the occasional escaped chicken. I reveled in the…er, rustic life of a Downstairs dog.
So, after a period of time, Fairyfeather was playing outside with me and said the fateful words, “You are so skinny!”
She said it. To me. I tell you, my hearts – if a philosophic/blog hacking terrier could blush…
Then came the day when my instincts took over and I realized that the wooden fence protecting the tiniest, most precious and plump chickens in the family’s estate was four feet high. Only four feet. I am a go-to-ground, agility-obsessed, skinny-as-heck, chicken-fixated rat terrier, fools. Don’t you give me four feet.
I am sorry to say that the family suffered the loss of somewhere around seven chickens that day. I don’t know what came over me – well, forgetting the “go-to-ground, chicken-fixated” stuff I just wrote up there. I didn’t even pause to eat them. I just plowed through them, enjoying a series of quick crunches of chicken bone before looking around and seeing several feathery shapes on the ground.
A great wail went up from the house that day. Oh, yes. I am what I am, and that “am” is a chicken murderer.
I am sorry.
But not sorry enough to not do almost the same exact thing the next day – along with escaping the Dog Yard and savoring my unleashed, unfenced freedom before going home. The fact was, the fences posed no challenge to me anymore. It was All Too Easy.
And so, to protect the chickens from further carnivorous killing sprees, I was brought Inside. And Upstairs.
I was again happy – happy to steal everyone’s food off tables and curl up next to Fairyfeather on hot summer nights when the last thing she needed was a warm-bodied terrier beside her.
But the vicious cycle began again. As I type this, I look with shame in the general direction of hind toes which, I fear, are invisible to me past a large tum.
What is to become of me, my precious readers? I could’ve been a contender!
So, I am afraid of the dark.
This stems, probably, from the shows I watch. I can just see it: TEENAGE GIRL WALKS OUTSIDE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, ABDUCTED! Technically, you could replace ABDUCTED! with anything. MURDERED! EATEN BY RABID TURKEY! TAKEN BY ALIENS! SURPRISED BY CHILD MOLESTER HIDING IN THE BUSHES! THE ONLY ONE OUTSIDE WHEN BOMBS STARTED FALLING!
Obviously, none of these things are at all likely to happen, at least not in the area where I live, and not just because I had the nerve to go outside. But my phobia is not exactly an advantage, as I am the one in my family who has to shut our chicken flock in the barn for the night, every night. I just have this doomsday feeling when it’s dark, like the moment my toe touches grass, APOCALYPSE!
So, often, when I am going outside to shut in the chickens, I am saying in my head, God, please protect me. Which makes me feel guilty, because God has a whole lot more important things to be listening to than the worries of Fairyfeather.
Anyway, between three and five nights ago, I went out as usual to shut the barn door. We had a few lodgers – dogs my mom was looking after for friends, including a sweet little boy puppy named Corduroy and a sweet big boy dog named Gus. Most of the time, our house is home only to a bevy of girl dogs, but there are many recent exceptions, including Bramble, my dog; my sister’s service dog; and Milo, my mom’s sweet puppy. So with Gus and Corduroy, we had a total of five boy dogs around, which is a higher boys-to-girls ratio than we’ve had for years.
On this night, Gus, Milo and Corduroy were the ones out – the girl dogs were in the house for the night. So I steeled myself and went to the chicken pen, which is adjacent to the dog pen, separated by a line of fencing and accessible from the dog pen by a gate. Gus followed me to the gate and sat there when I opened it and shut it behind me. Then I started moving along the fence line.
And Milo and Corduroy were following me, all along the fence line on the other side from me, so I could see them through the wire fencing. I shut the barn door, turned and went back toward the gate. Milo and Corduroy followed me all the way back to the gate.
And Gus was waiting there outside the gate for me.
I was totally astonished. A long time ago, we had a different lodger, also a boy dog, who used to follow me to the barn and back, but that hadn’t happened since – the girl dogs showed no interest in it. But Gus and the two boy puppies had waited for me, and escorted me through the dark. I realized this was God’s answer to what I had prayed.
And the next night, the boy dogs did the exact same thing. And the next night.
After that, the boy dogs swapped places with the girl dogs, and the girl dogs basically said, “Oh, suck it up, wimpy human,” and took a nap as far away from the chicken pen as possible. But Gus was out on our deck, which overlooks the yard, and he had stuck his head way out under the rail and was looking at me while I shut the chickens in and made my way back to the house.
Boy dogs – or, at least, boy corgis, which is what we have – tend to not be as intelligent or individual as the girl dogs. But man, boy dogs are so awesome.
Tessa Emarat of Tarisson under Lord Skath Amarinth of the Provinces.
But please call her Tessa.
This is her favorite song:
Four saddlebags on a white mare’s back,
Treasure glimmering in every sack;
A band of thieves upon the mare come
And take any shiny toy, from sword to drum.
One saddlebag is stolen today –
What did they take, take away?
Can be sung while clapping.
This is me, Fairyfeather.
My entire family is Protestant Christians, which means we pray before meals, read the Bible before bedtime and celebrate Christmas and Easter based on the actual events which instituted them. The photos give you a glimpse of me at my best. I recently got a haircut and glasses, but these give you an idea. I love to read and write and draw and paint and speak. I don’t like algebra. Someday years from now I hope you walk into my house to be greeted by heavily muraled walls, a spiral staircase and me in outrageous clothes, with paper and pen in my hands. When a stroke of satire hits me, I count it as a blessing, because it stops me from always writing sappy things. For example, despite my idealistic dreams of the future, I think there’s something definitely wrong with me – I’ve been around dogs more than around people. And you know you’ve been around dogs too long when you start making kissing noises at your siblings for them to come to you.
This is Bramble. He is a modern philosopher. Due to the shameful negligence of his owner – that would be me – and the fact that he was displaced for nine months in a boarding kennel due to a house fire, he is a total brat. He barks at anyone he is not familiar with and dislikes most small children. But he is such an enormous suck-up that somehow I ended up being very fond of him. He flatly refuses to have his nails trimmed and swoons bonelessly over my arm when I do so, complaining of woes unbearable and the apocalypse – something he picked up from me, actually. Because of his carefully cultured nails, he has the ability to type and commonly hacks my blog using what he calls neurolinguistic programming to get my passwords. That, apparently, is something to do with my brain. As he aptly put it in a previous post, “Terriers know plenty about psychology. Just ask those eighteenth century guys who hired us to de-rat their houses. They’ll tell you how much we cost them in therapy.”
These are some of the dolls that one of my sisters and I have had over the years. You can easily find more about them by searching the blog. I don’t play with them anymore, but they were and are special, and I still think of them as being conscious.
This is Lotus and Tauran. They are the two main characters in what is currently my best novel. They are also two of my favorites. Maybe you’ll meet them too someday. Only the Lord knows.
This is a portion of my life. My parents are wonderful and, in my opinion, two of the most completely unique people in the world. They manage to complement each other in an astonishing way. I have three sisters total, and we house an ever-changing variety of dogs, cats, chickens and puppies. The chickens in particular are an ever-changing value because Bramble keeps killing them. But he tries. And I am trying. And that is important in a small way. But trying is not as important as doing.
I heartily invite you to look through this blog, and comment if possible. I cannot promise regular updates. I cannot promise anything even close to that. But I have archives reaching back a very long way almost to my first book. And that book stank. I may have deleted all of the content I posted of it. So don’t consider it a treasure hunt; consider it an egg hunt, because a couple will be rotten.
And I do hope you come back.