A Shining New Era
A Rainbow-Face, Resting His Palm On The King, the Night Of The King's Fall:
The King remained still like he had been instructed, yet the stubborn lion managed to continue with his rage, labouring without moving an inch. Breathing in big gasps up and down, his chest expanding under the baboon's old hand.
"Damn them!" Rafiki shushed him and continued stroking his fur. It had dried into a crusty coat of knotted hair, the blood and dirt not yet cleaned off. He dare not ponder the state of Taka's mane. "A curse on them all!"
"Best reserve your energy for living Your Grace, you have precious little left."
"Of living or energy?" The angry lion snorted, tail twitching in annoyance as furiously as leaves spin in the winds of a twirly-whirly. Rafiki was aware this was one question he best leave unanswered.
Gently he located another cut in Taka's hide and prodded at it. Picking up a bowl of healing water with one hand, he kept the other on the wound so not to lose it again. This wound felt like broken skin in the perfect shape of a hoof. Rafiki carefully rationed his water use, cleaning the wound carefully before applying bucha oil. Taka hissed at him but did not flinch. This was hardly the first wound dressing of the afternoon.
The King's most life threatening wounds had been given much more attention, inflicting more pain. The deeper the wound the deeper the water had to go to clean it and the slathering of the antiseptic oil always burned. For the particularly vicious or worrisome looking wounds Rafiki gave them extra care. The leaves of healing plants he had dried out weeks ago were pressed over the gashes. Then he glued the whole thing together with plaster made from a mixture of boophane roots, honey, and a few secret ingredients.
The end product was an unrecognisable lion. If he was not darkened into near-blackness by the dried blood, then the dirt had turned him grey, and to break it all up smears of beige plaster showed throughout his fur, desperately plugging the King up and stopping him from bleeding out.
I barely saved him in time, scarce more minutes and he would have bleed beyond salvation before my eyes. It is a miracle he has recovered enough to shout curses on others. In such a short time too. He fought through midday and succumb to his wounds in the afternoon, and here he lays holy undeterred by evening. The sun has not even fallen yet on this... chaotic day.
These damn kings and their unkillable attitudes. If he was not such a long-lived creature, he would have concluded it a mixture of extreme luck, stupidity and raw strength. But far too many times had he held witness to King's coming back from death like it had just been a nap.
Mohatu did it thrice, Uru survived longer than any mortal beast had business doing without a drop of water, Mufasa once and then once more during the stampede tragedy, now Taka taps into some kingly power before his very eyes, seemingly without realising it.
It must be some gift from the ancestors, a blessing of healing power, or may perhaps an inheritance of stubbornness so willful their hearts would never dare stop beating.
"The rebels want the Pridelands surrendered during the night, so that the sun will rise on their new kingdom." Taka's eyes rolled as they searched for a glimpse of Rafiki. "Meditate on this, if you're able to nap then do so. You have a long night in front of you, facing something none of your ancestors have done before." The medicine-beast pulled clods of dirt from under Taka's fur, nearly jumping as the lion's whole body bounced with a scoff.
"Give up the lands. Your quite right, no other king has managed that." Rafiki would have scolded him harshly for such talk, had the situation not been what it was. He might be right.
"Surely you can negotiate. What interest do they have in ruling? Obviously they have demands that can be met and desires that can be played against them."
"No." Rafiki got the distinct impression that in the lion's mind he was being called stupid. "These ones are not some bandit group. Well, perhaps half of them are bandits, but the ones in charge are not."
The two fell into silence. Even if Rafiki wished to leave, he could not. They had bound his legs and placed guards outside the den. If he overcame one, there would still be the issue of the other. Even then, what point was escape when his most important priority was before him? Rafiki continued to try and fix the King to distract him from a feeling of uselessness.
Taka gradually become so quiet and relaxed that the old baboon thought him napping per his instructions. Shuffling closer to the den entrance so to peer outside, Rafiki saw that the sun was close to gone, turning the sky a spectrum of lilac purple. A heavy layer of clouds had dropped from the atmosphere, lingering just enough that they avoided becoming fog. Perhaps this was the last the sun would ever see of Pride Rock. It might only be a rock by morning.
The sound of the King's voice startled him from deep thought.
"I don't have a care for fighting them. Let them have the damn throne. Why shouldn't they be allowed to rule themselves, choose their own leader and own laws? Sure the whole thing is ripe for corruption and will likely lead to the downfall of the Pridelands, but at least it will be their fault." The King sounded so terribly sad.
"You would rather the Pridelands burn then give an effort?" Was this really a lion that lay before him, speaking these words?
"Effort? I toiled and toiled for nothing, every day as King all I did was make sacrifices. All our pride did was sacrifice time and lives. For who? For them?!"
Rafiki was disturbed that Taka was already speaking of his kingship in past tense.
"For the grasses and the trees, for the calves, hatchlings and the cubs. For the land your ancestors were given by the grace of the animals. A burden it may be, but it is a responsibility your blood is worthy of." Again Taka fell into a long silence. Rafiki busied himself organising his healing supplies.
"You're wrong. My ancestors knew no lands to love and were cruel beasts, drifters most likely with low-"
"Your Queen Mother governed here, your King Grandfather ruled from this very rock!" Rafiki's fists hit the ground with every dead relative he mentioned. "Your King Great-Grandfather and Queen Great-Great-Grandmother and two hundred years back until the records stretch no further, but know this, your ancestors were ruling this very kingdom long before the records begun." Rafiki circled around to argue directly at Taka's face. Those vivid green eyes were dull and empty of all fight. Taka spoke softly, his voice just a whisper into the earthen floor.
"It is the way of things. Rocks weather down and rivers divert. Nothing deserves to stay the same, especially not an ideal as presumptuous as a ruling family. Let it go back to Old Ways were animals roamed free." This child presumed to tell him of the Old Ways?
"In the Old Ways beasts kept to their own kinds, the strong bullied the weak and there was no one there to uphold any manner of justice. Schools of medicine were impossible to set up because life was so dangerous; predators targeted children instead of sickened adults because it was simply easier. Animals were born, lived and died without knowing what it felt to feel safe." Taka shifted his head a little bit, so he could avoid looking directly at Rafiki.
"I hardly think the new order is going to absolve all hunting lore. They might make a few improvements."
"And starve one out of ten of their subjects?"
"Was that not what Mother did to the hyena? Enforce crippling sanctions? Or Mufasa, exiling them? We are no better." Rafiki felt like screaming. The hyena were driven out because they were killing for sport. It was the injustice of the Old Ways in action, where the strong did what they pleased to all others. But the pride ruled here, and they were driven out. It was a perfect example of what being King stood for, yet he saw it as a flaw?
"Aye, she banished them. And many years past, a generation came and went, and an insightful King amended it. The guilty served their rightful punishment, and blameless children were returned to the lands." It was justice. Both his mother's actions and his own. Why could he not see that? Taka lifted his head for the first time, and snarled at him.
"We're not this perfect, ideal family who always make perfect, ideal choices. We're not infused with magic blood thanks to our ancestors, the fairy tree and the golden lion. Gods don't kiss our foreheads at birth. It's just you rubbing red dirt and shimmering us up with oils. You paint on what you want to see and cover up the ordinariness. What is so hard about admitting that I'm just a normal lion?" Oh dear. Not this phase. Rafiki remembers when Uru spent a time thinking similar, planning some sort of government where she would spread responsibilities over a number of species. Nothing about it was plausible. To try and share power was to ignore the very reason for lion leadership in the first place. Protection. Safety. Stability.
"I never said you were more than a normal lion. I simply acknowledge that you were raised to be better. Besides, the ancestors do bless you." Here Taka rolled his eyes and sneered. Rafiki barely resisted the urge to drag a hand across his face in frustration.
"The ancestors. Your hallucinations. Dust on the wind and leaves in the bottom of your potions speak to you, do they? Watch down over me, right? Please Rafiki. I liked legends as much as the next cub, but there must come a time when the harsh reality of life takes its place." He has lost faith. Rafiki knew it was bad, but never entertained that it had gotten this bad. Playing with the ropes that bound his legs together, Rafiki called with desperation for the ancestors to aid him.
"You put a lot of effort into denying yourself the throne. It is where you belong."
"I belong nowhere." Ergh, so sullen and moody. Rafiki looked around the empty space of the den searching for a sign. There was nothing. The bastards were leaving this all up to him. Arranging himself into a neat sitting arrangement, Rafiki clasped his hands and prepared to tell the King a story.
"In the Era of War, where the grasses burned and Gods killed beasts in the droves, and chaos reigned all around, the hyena became loyal to only one beast. Their chosen lion. Loyal to no other, not even their own kin. They saw the strength of the lions and their prides as the only force that would save the lands from the dark time." For awhile after his words, it was quite. Rafiki dared hope Taka had taken the historical fact to heart.
"More myths," the King croaked out, his voice tired and empty of all fight.
"Every myth holds a core of truth. And with this a truth holds. Lions are the only major predators that protect and care for one another. When war comes, it is not the size of a beast that saves them, or else the elephant would rule. It is not the strength of a beast, or else the buffalo would rule, nor is it even the most deadly, where the leopard out rules you with stealth and ability. It is in the instinctual ability to form a society and rule that society."
Rafiki realises most of what he knows is myths and folk-histories. That is his role, after all, as a rainbow face. He keeps the history of the land, along with all the knowledge. The medical knowledge and worldly knowledge. He knows that on the other side of the Great Lake is dense rainforest home to bizarre creatures. He knows that thousands of years ago, even before the current era, the Dynasty Era, or even the Era of War: in the Old Times, there was a shard of the moon that fell from the night sky and landed in the Wasteland. It created a valley so dramatic clouds were caught on its mountain peaks and water pooled inside the crater. He knew of oceans, though he had never seen one, and knew of corals, fishes, sharks and whales. The spirit of a whale had visited him once, as she swam on by through the night exploring a world as bizarre to her as the ocean was to the land beasts. He knew once no one could speak, instead they all ran around grunting and growling, nothing more than large ants crawling about.
He knew about the Era of War, because spirits who had lived then told him. About the Gods, black creatures with coats as smooth as stone, that roamed on two legs and crafted nests big enough for cows to sleep inside. About their spears, knives, and will to kill whatever crossed their path. The Gods were strange and bloodthirsty idols to be worshiped from far, far away. Some served them. The cattle, the peasants, the dogs - and a handful more - they thought the Gods merciful beings who looked after their earthly children. Even the mice thought them loving and made their homes near so as to be close to their Gods and the gifts they gave them. They drove families off their lands, bled bloodlines dry, sparked fires that burned for nights on end. Their nests spread like disease across the lands. Only with the lions could the lands find the bravery, and most importantly, the organisation to rise against the Gods. It took a lion to keep so many in line.
"Do you remember the Nine Kingdoms?"
"The Nine Collapsed Kingdoms, that is what I remember." Why was Rafiki not surprised?
"The kingdom's have shifted and weathered time as do the rocks, you are right. But their lion rulers remain."
"The Ngorongoro bloodline is as dead and dry as the wasteland that used to be their Kingdom. The Floodwealth clashed with forces in the Bastardlands and fell to war, losing their Kingdom and becoming the Lakelands. The Nairobi Kingdom's many kings sort independence, and the royalty were exhiled. The family fled to the Maasai Mara Triangle and have for generations lived as normal lions, no subjects to concern themselves with anymore. To their great delight I'm sure." Yes, Taka would know about that. He had been quite close to the mother of his cub when she had been staying on 'diplomatic service' within the pride.
"Aye, there has been shifting, but the kingdoms that fell and lost their lions have suffered ever since, and those that remain continue to prosper. The Nation of Tsavo, Taragine, the Biliga Lands, the Usamabara Alps," Rafiki swallowed and noted that what he was about to say next was one of the most controversial legends of all. "All those places still have Royal Families who reign with peace - as does the Serengeti."
"The Serengeti? The truth of what happen to those kings disappeared long ago in the Pride Wars. What became of them changes with every species you ask." Taka's low opinion of this particular topic was toxic, and Rafiki almost regretted bringing it up.
"Protecting the Holy Birthlands from invasion was undoubtable a harrowing task, and yes, it is believed among some that all those of Serengeti Royal blood lost their lives in battle. Where is the shame in such a legacy? Fighting to the last breath, trying to protect their subjects from poaching and the lands from conquest. But Taka does this not sound familiar? The Kingdom collapsed after the disappearance of their royals, everyone knows this, and the lands descending into a hundred years of chaos. Even the Great Migration lost strength and scattered, getting lost and walking thousands of leagues in the wrong directions as they tried to avoid the infestation on their Holy Birthlands. Would you forget all this? All that your ancestors saved, and see the mistakes remade without a fight?"
The Pridelands. Once it had been nothing but a hundred prides battling over any scrap of land they could claim. The rivers ran with blood and the refugees poured across the borders. But that time ended when the Kings returned – these saviours are undisputedly Taka's direct ancestors. They threw the other prides out, they returned peace. They kept the name Pridelands as it was called by all the animals, so they could always remember the lessons learnt then.
Of course that was a very bastarised summary of the Pride Wars. The true identity of the saviours who brought the gang wars to an end was one of the most debated subjects in history. The original kings returning or simply the strongest gang claiming their prize? They were nothing like the Serengeti kings, they were too quiet and moved with unparalleled grace, yet their size and strength was unmatched, and their fur shined golden like no others.
"I will see the mistakes remade without a fight? There you go again acting like everything is so black and white. What if they don't plunge the land into civil war? What if they herald a new era? Like the crowd did that day at the foot of Pride Rock."
The Golden Kings, the New Kings, the Holy Kings, strange spirits that arrived when the land needed them most. They claimed Pride Rock as their centre of power, a throne to which animals could look to and know that whoever occupied it was their protectors and not simply their hunters. Ever since the christening of the outcrop as Pride Rock, the lands retained tentative peace. More tentative then most knew. The Pridelands were only a quarter of what was once known as the Serengeti Kingdom, but all that mattered in the end was that the Great Migration returned. The circle of life continued to cycle. Their Holy Birthlands under guard once more. What used to be a part of the Serengeti fell away into ungoverned territories, the Shadowlands and Grassylands, Canyonlands and Sunlands.
This was more than a lion's right for a kingdom. In a few years time everyone would come to realise this. This was so much more. If the Kings did not hold Pride Rock, and did not protect the Holy Birthlands, than the very being that drove these lands, the Great Migration, stood to shatter into disarray.
"What did it mean to you, to be King?" Silently Rafiki prayed for the right answer. Protection. Safety. Stability.
"To prove them wrong." Luckily Taka was facing away from Rafiki when he admitted this. Self-guilt forced the king to glare at the dirty ground and never dare look up into the face of the royal confidant. "My family... that they could be proud of me."
"They are." Rafiki whispered, saddened by the realisation that all Taka wanted was to be worth something.
"No their not. Their dead."
"Mufasa is proud of you."
"Mufasa lost half his memory in the stampede. Sarabi tells him to be proud so he is, but I know what he thinks deep down... a part of him that remembers... he is not proud of me."
A long moment of silence stretched out, where Taka seem to shrink with unease at his own confession and Rafiki scrambled for something reassuring to say that wouldn't be shot down immediately. In the darkness of that den, Taka murmured to himself as tears started to well silently in his eyelashes.
"I wish Simba was here."
Taka had not meant for him to hear that, Rafiki was sure. The little cub's death left a quiet ache inside Rafiki too, but he did not think of the cub in dire circumstances such as this. The realm faced collapse, yet Taka whished for his late nephew? The heir's presence would not have changed any of this. The cub would not have been able to inherit the Pridelands until he came of age. So Taka would have been King until Simba fully matured, which was still two or three years away. It would have been no different.
"What of your daughter?" Taka stirred, and Rafiki could see that the lion had truly forgotten about the new discovery in the turmoil of today. He remembered like beasts did after waking up, where they were blissfully unawares of tragedy until their mind kicked back with the memory.
"If she becomes anything like her mother, than the loss of royal responsibility will be a relief." Like her father too, Rafiki thought darkly.
"What of Sarabi and Mufasa? Leave your brother with no home to return to? Hand your good-sister to her enemies?"
At that Taka remained quiet. This silence was not broken like the last one. It seemed to stretch for hours.
Eventually they came for Taka. Rafiki watched the two foreign lions order him up and march the King away, one on each shoulder, sneering whenever the injured king wavered and slowed in his walk. No matter how terribly he was in need of someone to lean on, the King never lost balance or braced himself against the two enemies either side.
It was then Rafiki knew the fight was not gone from Scar yet. If there was hope to be won, King Taka would win it, he was sure.
As the three lions disappeared and the gnu bull who had come along with them walked along behind them, Rafiki had an idea. The gnu was hiding his limp well, as all prey species instinctively did, especially in the presence of predators.
The reason for the gnu rebellion was obvious, they had no other sore spot with the lions other than the Massacre. The death of their Lord and Lady along with the seeming slaughter of the Lord's unborn prophecy child. This was one faction easily turned, simply by revealing the truth Taka had, for some reason, refused to make public.
Yes, there was hope. Rafiki would fight for it too.
A Numb Lioness, Watching Her Pride Dissolve, the Night Of The King's Fall:
Benji was no coward, but there was only so long you could remain so blatantly hostile in enemy territory. After protecting the body of her mentor through battle and defeat, she was forced to realise that her task had become pointless. Hoppi's family wasn't coming. Her brother would be under tight security, and her two nieces, Nala and Berta, were in no position to step up to the duty, in fact Nala...
She was aware of the situation. With her brother using Nala as a guise. Grandmother and Mother had come to her a moon ago, to explain. At first she had been excited by the prospect of a father. The delight did not last long. If the dangers of what Grandmother and Mother described were not enough to sober her, then the deeds of today stood to plunge her into terrible realisation.
She needed to protect her family. As a young female with a powerful lion as a father, she was as safe as could be when in a defeated pride. But Ulan was in trouble, he was on a razor edge, if his true parentage came out he could be conscripted into the gang per tradition law. It was considered weak to hold onto cub ties within the gangs. All family ties were forcefully severed. Ulan would likely never see them again, and die in some stupid battle in the middle of nowhere, in a stupid swamp with no one to care whether his spirit made it to the ancestors. If not killed in a fight, he would be murder by disgruntle gang members, who would despise him as a foreigner. No matter that both his mother and father were Lakelanders through and through, Ulan knew nothing of wading through swamps and swimming across rivers. They would eat him alive. Mother told them that Father would not understand this. He would see the conscription into the gangs as a good thing; after all it was where he grew up, in the camps of the guerrilla lions. Their father would think it the best for a young male, to go off and learn to fight, to become brothers with his fellow soldiers.
On the other side of this razor edge was execution. If his identity as Mother's son was to come out, then they would know he was of Grandmother's blood. No male descendent of Sarabi was allowed to live and breathe.
The best Ulan could get was to be grouped in with the other Pridelander males and be exiled from the lands before anyone realised something was out of sorts. He could remain with the survivors of the pride and gain the ability to one day return to liberate Pride Rock. It was the best line of action for her brother - it was the best for her too. The quicker this rebellion was fought back, the less danger she would be in of having to whelp litters for some brute. Grandmother had explained the attitude most of the Lakelanders had towards lionesses, and she was not interested in getting a firsthand experience of the infamous treatment. She would prefer her idiot betrothed over the likes of that. At least Enam had been making an effort at be kind to her of late, and they had known each other since cubhood so there was nothing strange or scary about him. They had even started exploring each other's bodies, which was gloriously wonderful, and she would dearly miss the boy, his temper and tongue both.
Benji pressed her forehead to Hoppi's one last time, the body now cold and the blood throughout her coat dried and dark. Night had settled over them, leaving everything silvery and grey. The loss of her mentor would change everything – well, the loss of the pride would change even more. But now what? Would the conquerors keep the lionesses per traditional rules of combat? Surely their antelope leader did not want lionesses staying about. However, she was sure some of the gang lions would have designs on taking the lionesses as spoils of war, and that was most likely where the fate of the female Pridelander's led.
Somewhere off to the side, her father waited. Sulking and licking his wounds she hoped, but that was hardly likely. No matter how angry, a small, mediocre apprentice-huntress like her barely stood a chance against a fully grown male considered one of the best warriors the Lakelands had to offer.
Fuck. And now comes the hard part, remembering that Nala was her 'sister' and Ulan was nothing to her. There could be no slips. No matter what becomes of the pride, she needed to protect her brother. Give him the little safety he stood to get.
"If you don't come with me now, someone else will fetch you." Her father's voice rumbled behind her. Loathe as she was to respond to the gently issued threat, she was better off going with him.
Maybe she could make a run for it? The enemy was so busy here, making sure the Pridelanders were subdued and trying to pick their injured off the battle ground. She might run for a league, but father would be on her tail. A raven would track her. Lions were not endurance animals. Exhaustion would set in soon, and some gnu or antelope would catch up to her. Where would she run to? What hope was there for a lone apprentice?
She could scarcely make a successful hunt, and that was with Hoppi helping her. Without the security of a pride to protect her, she would be attacked by roaming males, mated with, abandoned to deal with a litter should their seed take root. She would have to birth them and watch them die because she can't feed herself let alone them, she can't protect them from beasts who would try to trample them dead or lions who would kill them then mate her and abandon her once again to watch more newborns die. And the carrying, birthing and milking would weaken her so much death was inevitable for her as well. Obviously the best possible outcome was joining another pride, the price of which was likely to take a mate, at least this one would provide for her and any litters to come. The pride lionesses would complete her training and then what? A life spent as a reluctant mother with no real family to speak of.
No. Running away was unthinkable for a Pridelander. And that was what she was. She was born on Pride Rock, and like all Pridelanders, she was raised to believe in something bigger than herself. She believed in the peace of the land, and her life will be spent and sacraficed ensuring that. No matter what.
Her father snorted in bemusement at her words.
"You speak like you're the one making the decisions."
What an idiot. I am.
If anyone could hack it, Nala could. The girl knew how to hunt and hide. She would have Mufasa and Zazu with her in the beginning, but the male was crippled and slow. She would be forced to leave him behind before long. And then it would just be her and three cubs, fleeing into strange lands.
"You'll be put with the lionesses. They are using ropes to immobilise you, it's one of the cleverest things I've seen, but don't panic. The binds should be off soon enough, once the Pridelands are officially passed over the Queen wants you all released.
The mention of the female ruler perked her interest, a slight bit of admiration growing for her enemy. Perhaps there was a possibility there, safety in serving the new ruler who could protect them from the Lakelanders.
"What's this Queen like?" What did it take for one to mobilise such a miss-mash army, and keep it from falling to pieces?
"Shrewd. There is actually two of them, the Queen of Horns and the Queen of Thorns. Ones got horns and the other doesn't, and it's confusing because the one without horns is the Queen of Horns. It's easy to mix their names up, and they don't like it."
"So two queens? Sounds ... interesting." Were they just allies? Or sisters? Lovers? Now that would be something she could get behind. Who needs the males?
"They actually plan to have a council of leaders, so in all there will be two queens and three or so kings. All different species too. Obviously it will dissolve into shambles within a handful of seasons and then we'll-" her father cut his words short unexpectedly. Benji smirked to herself, amused that he had been spilling details that where most likely very high on the secrecy spectrum.
"Well, I guess time will tell." They plan to betray the Queens. She tucked that information away, determined to stew over it later when no one was around.
After that she was escorted in silence. Often the lion threw secretive little glances at her, which she pretended not to notice. She might have thought him suspicious of her, but Benji understood what they were. Now that emotions had settled, it was hard to take her eyes off him. This was her father, her sire, and this was the first time in her life they stood before each other. He was muscled and strong, but not monstrously big like some Pridelanders got. His coat was that wet fawn of all Lakelander, but his had shades to it, almost dark silver in patches. Deep brown like rich soil made up the bulk of his mane, but the topmost layer that fanned around his face was lighter. Once again making him full of varying shades as the sandy and swampy colours intermingled. Softly, he guided her up Pride Rock and around the far side of it, to where she knew multiple unused den's lay. There was no boisterous or confident trait to his body language, he was almost telegraphing shyness, something she never expected. He was gentle natured. A gentle and shy warrior. What a paradox.
"My mother's name was Benji." It was a sudden admission, the words sounding like they were thrown out before he had the chance to take them back. Benji frowned at the Lakelander who was busy paying close attention to the ground.
"She died giving birth, ah, she was too young and her body couldn't..." She remained quiet as their walking slowed and they drew to a stop between slabs of towering rock. This was something he felt needed to be said. She could hear it in his voice. Like a guilt that had been bottled for too long. "I was the only one to survive out of the litter. I was the first born, and a sister came after, but if there was any more they suffocated inside her. My sister died the next day... she wasn't strong enough." Pity was the first reaction she had, but that was not why he was telling her. For pity. It was history, his family – their family – her namesake. A strange feeling struck her then. Benji. Her in another life time. Her grandmother.
"Do you know anything else... about your mother?" Benji. That Benji died young, maybe at the same age she is now, even younger most like.
"Just her name and how she died. That she came to the rebels because she had nowhere else to go. She was too young... just a cub."
What did you say to that? To a lion you have never met before, but was all of a sudden spilling his guts to her because he was her 'father'. It was an empty word when one grew up without a single father to speak of. No male ever stepped in to become a father figure, maybe her grandfather-in-choice would have, but he was never there, away ruling the Kingdom. Any free time he got, it was devoted to Simba and Sarabi, and she could hardly begrudge him that.
Family did not happen overnight. Her father was nothing to her right now, no matter his status as her sire. And he might never be. Trust will be hard for him to earn after the events of tonight. But she will tolerate him, because having him onside will benefit her. Already he was proving his uses, like revealing that the Lakelanders had ulterior motives.
Her father coughed and walked on, leading her in awkward silence to where a guard detail of antelope and some monkeys sat around a den entrance. They were ever gracious to her, instead of roping her up on the spot and dragging her inside, they led her in and sat her down amongst her fellow lionesses, tying her up there with dignity intact. With a fleeting look at her and the others in the den, her father left.
Silence entombed the den as the lionesses patiently waited for the monkeys to walk out of ear shot.
"Was that him?" Whispered the lionesses bound beside her. It was Berta, Nala's sister. She was in on the cover-up, since she needed to know not to refer to Nala as her sister. Benji nodded glumly.
"Better than I expected." The fellow apprentice (were they even apprentices anymore?) observed bluntly. Catching Benji's sour expression, she amended her statement. "He looked kind. Genuinely worried about you. I can only imagine what's going to happen when he realises Nala is nowhere to be found." That caught her off guard.
"He's been looking for her?" She hadn't thought about the effect it would have on him, a part of her assumed he would dismiss his disappeared second child. But that was when she thought of it from her perspective, where Nala didn't mean much. A fellow Pridelander, sure, but not blood. For him, genuinely believing her to be his daughter...
"He was in here an hour ago, looking for you both. I thought he was going to start trying to beat answers out of us, but he's not like that." He's not like that. What was he? Berta's old friend? What did she know about what her father was like? And why couldn't he have just been a jerk. It would have been easier. Now she was catching herself doing disgusting stuff like imagining from his perspective.
She looked around the den for the first time, noting who was here. And who wasn't.
There was her, Berta and Sade. All the female apprentices expect for Nala were accounted for. Sade's mother was here, as was Benji's own mother, she realised with surprise. For some reason she expected the lioness to be elsewhere, bargaining or catching up with old friends.
Berta's mother was not in the den. Sarafina was never the same after taking an injury in the Gnu Massacre, losing her position as Deputy Huntress. Maybe she got caught in the battle just like Hoppi did. Maybe not. Berta didn't look too worried, but maybe the lioness hadn't seen anyone die out there, not like Benji did, and hadn't comprehended the situation yet.
Whatever the reason, Nala and Berta's mother was nowhere to be found among those in the den.
The old war lioness Lea was here, looking more red than fawn sleeping her blood loss away beside Hono, her adult daughter.
And that was it. Her beside Berta, Lea down the back beside Hono. Diku staring at a wall and sulking in the corner, while Dwala lay out beside her seeming to be trying to offer silent comfort. And beside Dwala was her daughter Sade, who was currently looking Benji's way with a searching expression. Seven.
There were twelve lionesses in the Pride.
Nala was on the run, hopefully far away by now. Hoppi she knew was dead, having watched it happen and guarded the downed lioness until she died and went cold. Only once the body was cold had the spirit safely found its way to the ancestors. Like hell she was going to let one measly hoof get near her and interfere with the delicate process of the afterlife. She had been determined not to fail her mentor in this last task, and cold fury suited her. Killing came easier than ever before, she brought down four, maybe five, big beasts all on her own. It had created a sort of death ring around Hoppi's body.
Sarafina was gone, unconfirmed as dead but Benji had a sick feeling about it. Naanda was gone, the mother to her betrothed Enma, a lioness she got along well with due to their shared love of sleeping the days away on the sunning rocks. Most concerning of all, Grandmother was gone. She tried not to think of all the things that could have happened to Sarabi. Or be happening.
Benji wanted to shout at them, about what the plan was and how they were going to get out. If they knew the fate of anyone else. Ulan, was he okay? She hadn't seen him since the battle preparations.
But she didn't.
Benji knew when to keep her head down and mouth shut. Leaving it to the senior lionesses to decide when and where was the best time to plot. Obviously when immobilised without any facts or idea of the full situation, with a guard detail who possessed sensitive hearing just metres away, was not the best place or time.
They sat in silence for what felt like hours. Shuffling, coughing, and the odd whisper were the only sounds. Whenever the guards had a conversation, their words carried into the den. The silence was all encompassing then, as everyone strained to listen in. They talked about how scared they were before the battle, brave acts they accomplished, how dangerous the adrenaline felt when staring death in the face. When guards swapped they started it all over again, getting to know each other and how 'crazy this all was'.
There was one animal, who seemed a lot older and bigger by the sounds of his rough voice, who asked better questions. How was the count of the dead coming along? Had they gotten all the Pridelanders? What was happening with King Scar? Had they found Mufasa yet?
At one point a troop of monkeys came back in to tighten the ropes until they pinched and ached. They even added another layer of knots for the older lionesses, binding them in yet more rope. A pair of big males went to adjust Lea's ropes, who was still asleep. They tried to adjust them without disturbing her, but eventually they realised she needed to sit up for them.
"Wake her up," one of them ordered her daughter, who had been watching the whole procession with growing distraught.
"Mother's not going to wake up, she stopped breathing awhile ago."
The monkeys exchanged a panicked look and squatted closer to inspect Lea, watching for any hint of breathing or movement. One went to listen for a heartbeat, but putting himself in such proximity to the apex predator scared him off. Benji watched for a sign of life too, but there was nothing.
How long had Hono been sitting beside her mother's dead body, thinking god knows what?
"Shit, he didn't want any dead." one monkey whispered urgently, pulling at the others fur to get his full attention.
"There was nothing we could do," the other scoffed, "we needed our medics to give priority to the troops or it would have been -" trailing off and squatting down close to the body, the monkey reached out and stroked Lea's cheek. His weird hands, with alienating long fleshy fingers, sunk through her fur. The sight of it twisted her gut with an emotion she couldn't name, not revulsion or disgust, not anger or shock either. It was a strange cousin to them all.
"We could use the rope. They are running low since he went crazy and ordered that one encased."
There was silence as the other picked up a rope and inspected it.
Quickly the two pulled the ropes off Lea, their nails scratching and easing the knots apart like magic. With their combined strength they managed to shift Lea an inch over and get all the knots they needed. Winding the rope up into loops, they threw the bundles over their shoulders and hopped out of the cave.
A short while later they learned about 'that one' who got 'encased'. It was the biggest gossip of the hour, with every animal that came past the guards stopping to discuss it. Apparently one of the males had managed to escape his binds, nearly killing a guard and almost clawing a fellow lion free before they managed to subdue him.
'He' snapped, beating the escapee until his face was a bloody mess and ordering him bound in so much rope not a scrap of fur could be seen. They dragged him into a different den, this one small and dank, and left him there with no guard. They were sure he was going to die within the hour from the beating, why waste a guard?
Benji closed her eyes and fought back a wave of tears as the words washed over her. Someone she knew was going to die bleeding and beaten, strangled by enough ropes to restrict all movement. It was a bad death. Terrible. Slow and torturous.
Please don't let it be Ulan.
Till her dying day, she would always clearly remember her first thought upon learning of that male's torture.
Please don't let it be Ulan.
It wasn't Ulan. It had been Kalifa. A fact she wouldn't learn until season upon season later. And Kalifa survived against all odds, fighting to breathe as his own blood threatened to drown him in those hours in the dark, trapped like a mouse inside a snake's throat.
Rafiki Of The Bloodline Baobab, On The Night Of The King's Fall:
When it was announced that Taka had surrendered the Pridelands, there was a great party that lasted throughout the night. In the middle of which, Rafiki was fetched by three little monkey medics. They led him to a bundle of rope and blood that had been stashed away in the back of a cave. With a knife one of them carefully cut at the ropes, freeing a lion.
They tended to his wounds, discussing how it happened, who did it, why the monkey's leader sort to help the miserable lion who by rights should have been dead by now.
Rafiki would sigh and ponder what was to come. As his hands applied pressure to the bleeding, he thought about how the same hands held this lion as a newborn, the same hands that drew his image in the branches of the Bloodline Baobab tree. The main line of royals were drawn onto the trunk, ruler to ruler to ruler. But Kalifa was there too, as a descendant of King Mohatu's younger sister, recorded on the tree's oldest branch. Her descendants had no less magic in their blood and so they were all there, Magnar, Naanda, Enma and Kalifa. He even had Hono drawn there, hidden in the bow of the branch, Magnar's secret daughter.
He remembers proudly showing them to Sarabi when she was investigating a heir for Scar, then childless. Proudly his hands ghosted over the art, hovering over the one that represented Kalifa, the powers drawing him there. Those hands now hovered over the broken body, and bitterly he cursed the ancestors. Why had they drawn his hands to Kalifa that day?
For the second time in so many hours, Rafiki watched the legendary fight of the Pridelander blood take over. He recovered, enough to walk away with the males in the early morning as the Queen exiled them and penalised them all with death should they ever be caught on her lands again.
Rafiki climbed high up the rock and sat, watching the males go, escorted out by enough beasts to dam a river.
The moon was bright, and the stars were out. He watched their silvery outlines disappear, Kalifia among them, keeping pace as the beasts stopped doing less escorting and more chasing. He wondered if that was the True King, a lion he found bound and dying in the dark corner of a forgotten cave, steadily recovering even before Rafiki arrived to heal him. The wind circled around him, the scent of another time coming to him, the sounds of another battle. Rafiki cleared his mind feveriously and tried to listen, praying it would bring him hope – or at least something, anything.
Kalifa, peering out of his single working eye, turned around and gazed on Pride Rock for what the lion suspected would be the last time.
Dust flew into Rafiki's eyes, clouding them with a blurry vision of the next time Kalifa lay his eye on his home. It would be with a great lion stalking ahead of him and a hunkered hyena shuffling at the shoulder of that beast. The sun has just begun rising, making the world black with night but red with dawn. Words drifted in, snatches of warm conversation between two friends. Rafiki felt it, the presence of others behind them. The conversation was distant, too far in the future to be clear. But Rafiki closely followed the masked words anyway, listening to their tones and their voices, hoping that one day he would hear those voices again and know...
Know that one of them was the True King.
Rafiki sat up there high on the Rock, running the voices through his mind again and again, memorising every dip and dive. Only three words appeared perfectly clear to him, repeated twice over.
Pobell landed next to him just as the horizon started to lighten into a pink.
"I'm leaving." She croaked through a voice hoarse from overuse. Rafiki grabbed her wing, holding her tight while trying to read her expression.
"Do you sense it?" Her raptor eyes searched him.
"The True One," she gasped. "I can sense him now." Now they stared in excited disbelief at one another. "A lion."
With that simple statement, the world was made right again.
"A lion, nearly grown" Rafiki giggled, the disaster of the night making the good news of the sunrise intoxicate him with hysterical relief. "He is coming."
"We are not done yet, old friend" She chirped. "I am not needed here anymore, now that Taka has given up. I will go and find this lone lion."
"No, I will," he argued. He didn't want to be here anymore, watching all this turmoil and sadness. He would rather be out there, chasing hope. She swatted his hand off her wing, a scolding look on her face.
"Rafiki, no. Your fate is to tend the Bloodline Baobab and record the history. This new leadership is monumental. Now of all times in history, you need to be recording it." Rafiki considered this darkly and nodded. She was right.
"I am leaving to make sure Taka escapes the Pridelands alive, not a small feat. Then I'm going to track down Mara and her protectors, which could take me moons if the girl does her job right. I promise to find the True One, this lion. But it will take time."
"Not what I wanted to here, but if he is only reaching puberty now, perhaps time is what we should be giving him."
They shared a look, a heavy one, weighed down with the trials of the night and heavy with understanding that the future only held more.
"May we meet again, Rafiki."
"May we meet again."