The Prince's Stutter

Long ago in the Serengeti, there was a great land where the sun touched all creatures big and small. Some stood in the sun's light to feel its warmth, while others dwelt in the shadows of the day, but they were connected in a circle. Every one of them.

And one fine day, the sun had risen high over the savanna. A mountain appeared on the horizon, not a tall mountain or a small mountain, but a castle. And a castle it was—built, according to legend, by the trickster god Anansi. It was a home for a pride of lions who'd done much to earn his favor.

High on the top of Pride Rock was a rather small creature. A lion cub with golden fur, a little tuft of a red mane, and broad shoulders that trembled like a tree in a thunderstorm.

"Little lion?"

"Yes, F-F-Father?"

Beside him was a much grander lion. His mane was the color of a starless night, his eyes bright green. His fur was not a pale gold, but bright and fierce and full of courage. His name was the Just King. He was the Lion King, the ruler of the land.

To his family, his name was King Ahadi.

"Yes, son?" The king had learned to be patient with him.

The prince turned his gaze to the land spread before them. He saw plains of green and gold, scattered trees and curved rivers and rolling hills. It looked as though the land spread to the four corners of the earth, but the view only made his heart thump faster. "Wh-Wh-What if I'm n-n-not ready to rule the Pr-Pr-Pridelands?"

"Oh, Mufasa. You've plenty of time to be ready. One day, when you're much older, you'll reign over everything you see. Everything the light touches is your birthright."

Mufasa put on a smile, but it wasn't very convincing. His father had the broadest shoulders, the blackest mane, the purest gold fur, and the greenest eyes in the whole kingdom. It was these features, along with the deep and confident voice Mufasa was sure he'd never have, that made Ahadi the perfect king in his son's eyes.

Ahadi watched his son shuffle his paws. "You still doubt yourself?"

"I've been th-th-thinking maybe I'm n-n-not the right one to be k-k-king."

"Are you speaking for your brother?"

Mufasa nodded. Ever since they'd been told only the eldest would inherit the throne, Mufasa had been doubtful and Taka jealous. His younger brother used to play with him all the time, but from that day forward, Taka refused to do anything with him, be it a mock fight or a game of tag. Perhaps Taka was right. Perhaps he was unfit to be the Crown Prince.

"I love you both very much, but the tradition is clear. You're my firstborn, and you will succeed me to the throne. Taka is next-in-line until you have a son of your own."

"But T-T-Taka is really smart, F-F-Father! A lot smarter than m-m-me. He t-t-told me it wasn't fair that I st-st-stole his chance to be k-k-king." Mufasa gasped. He wasn't supposed to say that, especially not to Father. "Please d-d-don't get T-T-Taka in trouble." Mufasa looked over the edge and wondered how painful it would be to jump off.

"Don't worry about your brother. I'll speak to him later today." Ahadi nuzzled his son on the head. "And if you still have doubts, there's something I'll tell you later tonight. I think it might be just what you need, little lion."

Ahadi pulled him into an embrace. Mufasa could've hugged his father forever, but the Lion King had a full day of work ahead of him. Before they left, Mufasa looked back at the sunlit land and tried to imagine giving an address from the Promontory. He hoped his father had some incredible advice for him that night.

Being the Lion King, Ahadi rarely had time to spend with his wife, so he reveled in the chance to slip into the Royal Den and catch her before she left for the morning hunt. "How was he?" she asked. He licked her cheek and flopped down beside her. "Same as always, love. He still doubts himself, and he still talks with a… well, you know."

The queen of the Jua Pride was the eldest daughter of the previous king, the wise and revered Mohatu. Uru had inherited her beautiful orange fur from Mohatu's own mother. Some said his mother had been burnt as a cub, but instead of harming her, the fire dyed her fur with its striking color. "He's still young. I'm sure he'll come around."

"You're always sure, aren't you, love?" But as much as Ahadi loved her fur, he'd always thought its beauty paled in comparison to Uru's bold smile.

"As a matter of fact, I am." There it was now.

"I'm just worried Taka's giving him a hard time about it." Ahadi rested his head on her shoulders. "Apparently, he told Mufasa that he'd stolen his chance to be king."

"That does sound like our Taka," Uru laughed.

"You know who else it sounds like?" That got her to stop laughing. "We both remember what happened with you and your sister. I can't help but worry—"

"Then stop worrying. They're going to be fine." She stared out of the Royal Den. Ahadi could almost see two little lionesses reflected in her red eyes. "Ara blamed me till the end, but she dug her own grave. That won't happen with our sons. I'm sure of it."

Ahadi rolled around on the cave floor, giving a huge yawn. "You think I could just stay with you, love? Skip out on border patrol?" She answered by pinning him down and licking his nose. "If any rogues take over the kingdom, I'll say it was all my queen's fault."

"Don't be stupid. I'd die before letting some nasty rogue be my king."

"Perish the thought," Ahadi chuckled.

Most lions spent their mornings dozing off or sunbathing, but one little cub preferred the shade. Taka's favorite spot in all of the Pridelands was a cliff dwelling on the far side of Pride Rock. He figured Anansi had put it there just for him.

He'd gotten to his cliff extra early, but Taka's nap was disturbed by some oafs climbing down the mountain. Taka groaned and looked to see who'd ruined his beauty sleep. "Ah, but of course. Daddy and Daddy's favorite. Who else would it be?"

He rolled over and slept well into the afternoon. This time, Taka was woken up by his mother calling out, "Taka! Taka, time for your bath!" There were few things that roused Taka's interest, but looking fabulous was one of them. He dashed down Pride Rock and ran to her side. Uru was lying in the shade of acacia tree. "There you are, silly!"

She licked him clean, starting at his ears and finishing with his paws. "You're awfully quiet today. Something troubling you?" Taka stared at the grass and mumbled, "It's nothing." She raised an eyebrow. "Well, Daddy promised to take me to the top of Pride Rock and show me the kingdom. But this morning, he took Mufasa instead. I heard them."

"He will take you, my love, but Daddy promised to show Mufasa, too, remember? Does the order he takes you in really make a difference?"

"He likes Mufasa more than me. He likes him because of his stutter."

"Well, that's nonsense. We love you both just the same." Uru ticked his stomach with her wet nose. Taka laughed and squirmed around in her arms. Taka loved to rub his fur against hers. When he did, it was impossible to tell where her orange ended and his began.

"Now, Taka, your father and I were talking this morning. Why did you tell your big brother that he stole your chance to be king?"

"That blabbermouth! He promised not to say anything!"

"You're avoiding the question, my love."

"Well… because it's true." Taka's face fell at her tone of voice. "I know I'd make a great king, but thanks to him, I'll never get to. Him and Daddy both."

"That's just the way our pride works. The oldest son inherits the throne." Uru's eyes suddenly lit up. A grin spread across her face. "It could always be worse. When I was your age, I was betrothed to a cub from another pride. Oh, it was terrible! I wanted to run away."

"What did you do, Mummy?"

"I ran away. Err, on second thought, don't be like me."

Taka laughed and crawled out of his mother's arms. She kissed his head, licking a hair that wouldn't stay down. "I think you're all better now. Why don't you play with Mufasa? I don't think he likes when you ignore him."

"Okay, okay. Sheesh." He rolled his eyes and ran off to find his brother. His perfect older brother, always so polite, so humble, already more muscular than he'd ever be. Taka stopped before going any further. He wanted to show up Mufasa, but how would he do it?

Well, Mufasa might've been stronger, but Taka was sneakier. He grinned to himself and snuck through the savanna grass, quiet as a snake on the hunt, until he spotted his bumbling big brother. Taka locked eyes on him. He waited… waited… then reared back and pounced.

"T-T-Taka!" Mufasa tumbled to the ground, laughing wildly.

"Gotcha! Some king you'll be if I can sneak up on you that easily."

"I w-w-wasn't on the l-l-lookout for a surprise a-a-ambush." Luckily for Mufasa, his little brother was impossibly frail. All it took was a light shove to knock him off.

"And that was your mistake. If I were the king, I'd always be expecting an attack," Taka said smartly. He'd spent whole afternoons planning out every detail of his kinghood. He wasn't good at much besides planning and sneaking. "I'd always be prepared."

"It's n-n-not all you m-m-make it out to be. F-F-Father showed me the whole k-k-kingdom, and it just goes on f-f-forever! Imagine having to r-r-rule it all."

"I do imagine it! But thanks to you, I'll never get to." Taka swiped at the dirt with his paws. "You could at least act a little grateful that Daddy picked you as his heir."

"H-H-He didn't p-p-pick me. It's tr-tr-tradition that the oldest son is—"

"Yes, yes, I've heard it before. But a king can do whatever he wants." Taka heard his voice rising. "If Daddy wanted me to be his heir, he would've made it so. If he wanted us to rule together, that's what we'd do. They call him the Just King? Please." He felt tears forming in his eyes. "Why do you deserve it, huh? Because you were born a few minutes before me? You can't be king. You couldn't give a single speech without embarrassing yourself."

And at that, Mufasa burst into tears.

"What's going on, you two?" The brothers jumped at the booming voice of their father. He ran through the grass to stand between them, but when Ahadi saw his eldest son in years, he turned on the younger. "What did you say to him?"

"I—I didn't say—"

"H-H-He didn't say a-a-anything." Mufasa sniffed back his tears. "We were about to p-p-play, and I st-st-stubbed my toe on a r-r-rock." He rocked back and forth on his back paw.

Ahadi looked at the ground and saw no rocks in sight. "I see. Well, son, try to be more careful in the future." The cubs nodded and began to walk off, but before Taka took two steps, Ahadi called out, "Stay where you are, Taka. I need to speak with you."

"What? Why am I in trouble? It's not my fault he hurt himself."

"I never said you were in trouble. We just need to talk."

Taka hung his head and sulked after his father, but not before giving Mufasa a look that said exactly what he thought of him. He followed their father far from Pride Rock and well out of the pride's hearing range. They were alone save for the birds, the bugs, and the early evening sky. He laid his big black mane in the grass and broke the silence. "Taka, what's the matter? If you don't tell me, I can't help you." His green eyes met a smaller, matching pair.

"Why, whatever do you mean? Nothing's the matter."

"You made your brother cry, and please don't bother denying it."

"Well, he lied to me."

"I find that hard to believe, son."

"He did! He said you didn't pick him as your heir. Said it was tradition."

"Then he spoke the truth." Ahadi gave a great sigh. They were finally at the crux of the issue. "Your mother was Mohatu's heiress because she was older, not because he loved his younger daughter any less. It's the same with you and Mufasa. I love you both dearly, but as my second-born, you have a different future in store for you." Ahadi touched his paw to Taka's left shoulder. "Mufasa is older, and tradition clearly dictates that—"

"And I find that hard to believe." Taka yanked his shoulder away from his father's paw. "I'm just not good enough for you, am I? You've always favored Mufasa, probably because of his little speech impediment. Makes him awfully sympathetic, doesn't it?"

"Your brother is sensitive about the way he talks. I don't want you making fun of it."

"So you do sympathize with him. Of course you do," Taka snarled, then added under his breath, "That stupid stutter. I bet it's not even real."

"He has a problem. Would you act this way if he'd been born lame?"

"Would he be your heir if he'd been born lame?"

Ahadi opened his mouth to say something, but he stopped himself. He looked at the sky and saw the first stars of the night twinkling overhead. "No, he wouldn't. But he isn't lame. One day, Mufasa will learn to overcome his problem, and he'll speak perfectly fine. But you said something else just now, and you couldn't be more wrong."

Taka raised a dubious eyebrow.

"You are more than good enough for me."

He couldn't help bursting into tears and throwing himself around his father's legs. Ahadi wrapped his paws around his son and pulled him close. "You're my perfect little son, and I love you more than a cheetah loves to run. More than a zebra loves his stripes."

Taka sniffed back tears and snickered. "More than a dung beetle loves dung?"

"Yes, that too," Ahadi laughed. He buried Taka in his mane and rolled on his back, throwing Taka in the air. Taka landed on his father's belly in a fit of laughter. "I love you more than Africa. Don't you ever forget that."

He didn't see his brother again for the rest of the day, so he supposed Taka was avoiding him. It wouldn't be the first time. And since none of the other cubs much cared to play with the Crown Prince, he had to spend the evening alone. When Ahadi approached him that night, he found Mufasa lying on the shore of the watering hole.

"E-E-Everything the l-l-light touches… No, that's not it. E-E-Everything the l-l-light t-t-touches…" Mufasa was staring at his reflection in the water. "Oh, why c-c-can't I say it?"

"You will, son." Ahadi nuzzled his son's back. There was a gentle breeze across the land that night, stirring the waters forwards and backwards, on the shore and off. The king and his cub stood there with their paws soaked. "Come with me. There's something you must hear."

He'd almost forgotten his father's promise. Mufasa followed his father away from the waterhole, and without saying a word, they made their way through the swaying yellow grass into an open field, nothing on the horizon but the occasional acacia tree and, far in the distance, Pride Rock. His father sat down in the grass, and he sat beside him.

Mufasa noticed his father's eyes had gone to the endless stars overhead, hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights that showed themselves when the day went dark.

"My son," Ahadi spoke quietly, his eyes still on the stars, "you asked this morning whether you'd ever be ready to rule, even if you're the right one to be king."

Mufasa swallowed hard. He shuffled his dripping paws, turning dirt to mud.

"You could never disappoint me, son. But you must stop being disappointed in yourself." Ahadi leaned down to whisper in his cub's ear. "Let me tell you about a time I doubted myself. Now, you know I'm not of royal blood, not like your mother. Many years back, when I was just a wandering rogue, your mother and I fell in love. She wanted me as her king, but I never thought I could rule this land. I didn't think myself worthy of any of it. Even her."

"Wh-Wha-What did you do, F-F-Father?" Mufasa's eyes went wide.

"It's not what I did, but what she did. Your mother told me something that her father told her when she was a small cub, just like yourself. That's what I'm going to tell you now."

Mufasa was quiet. These words had been passed down the royal line, from father to son, from mother to daughter, from Uru to Ahadi, and now, from Ahadi to him. Mufasa took a deep breath. He would say the words, same as his father, and he'd say them right.

"Look at the stars. These are the Great Kings of the Past. They watch over us, guide us, and help us through the obstacles we face in life. One day, my time will come to an end, and you'll be the new Lion King… but I'll always be with you, watching over you from the night sky till it's your time to join me."

"The Great K-K-Kings of the Past. They w-w-watch over us… Oh no, that's not right. The Great Kings of the P-P-Past. They help us through the ob-ob-obstacles we face… watching from the night sk-sk-sky." Mufasa felt his breaths coming quicker, his chest heaving. "I-I-I can't say it! I'll n-n-never say it r-r-right."

"You will. I have faith in you." The king pressed his nose against his son's chest, feeling his breaths slow to a normal pace. "I believe in the Great Kings, and if you believe them, too, they'll do great things in your life. Let them in. Let them live in you."

"So the k-k-kings will f-f-fix how I t-t-talk?"

"You're not broken, son." Ahadi closed his eyes. The wind billowed through his mane, seeds and petals swirling in the breeze and making the air fragrant. "Breathe. Let them in."

Mufasa's chest had stopped quaking, his tail no longer thumped. He closed his eyes for a moment, listening to the sounds of his father's heart and crickets chirping on the rocks. Then his heartbeat came quieter, the insects were hushed, and the Serengeti was silent to his ears. Mufasa opened his eyes when he felt a flash outside his eyelids, and he saw a brilliant streak of light burst across the night sky. It fell beyond the mountains, on the farthest horizon.

Some lions said that shooting stars were the great gods, like Ngai the creator and the Lion in the Moon who guided the night, coming to visit their earthly creations. His father then told him that shooting stars were the Great Kings falling to the ground, or so it was said. Mufasa couldn't be sure. He wondered if he'd prefer a god or a king visit them.

"The Great Kings will help you all your life, son, but the confidence to rule comes from within." Ahadi pressed his cub into his warm black mane, licking the top of his head. "And I do believe it's already there. You just don't realize it yet."

Mufasa thought of shooting stars and tricksters and hundreds of lights dotting the heavens. "It is there," Mufasa said slowly, "and I will be king one day."

"Well, how about that?" Ahadi laughed. "You didn't stutter."

He buried himself in his father's mane, and Ahadi fell on his back, throwing Mufasa in the air and catching him on his belly. He was the happiest cub in the world for a few precious minutes, until he heard a rustle in the grass several feet away.

Mufasa could've been mistaken, but he thought he'd seen a glimpse of orange fur lingering behind the savanna grass, and heard a few muffled sobs from a lion cub no older than him. He wanted to say something, but when he looked next, the orange was gone.