A matter of pride
by Christine Morgan
A matter of prideThe hyenas descended from the rocks, first a few, then a dozen, then more than the lionesses had ever seen. Scar smiled grimly as their expressions of grief turned to shock and horror.
Sarabi looked at him with such outrage that he nearly flinched, but he did not. Was he not now the king? She was nothing now, a former queen, a widow. All she had ever done for the pridelands was to produce a son, and that son was now dead. Her only value was as the leader of the hunting party. She no longer had the authority to defy or disobey him. If he commanded it, she would have to surrender herself to him.
He opened his mouth with just that intention in mind, but fear stopped his words before they were more than half formed. Sarabi met his gaze evenly, as if she knew what he was thinking, knew that he was remembering the secret they had kept for many years.
He had been known as Taka then. Taka the weak, Taka the coward, Taka the lesser prince. He had been cheated of his destiny by only a matter of minutes, by the pure coincidence that their mother had squeezed Mufasa first from her laboring womb.
Mufasa had been first in everything. First in their father's favor, first in the eyes of the rest of the pride. First to hunt, first to roar, first in line for the throne. Taka, darker and possessing more cunning than strength, had also been cursed with bad luck. Mufasa's daring exploits as a cub had won him glory and approval from their father. Taka's own attempts had always ended in disaster.
Worst of all, Mufasa had been promised Sarabi, the loveliest lioness in the pride. Did Ahadi, their father, know that Taka had been secretly fascinated with her since cubhood? Would he have cared if he had known? It didn't matter. All Taka knew was that his heart filled with bitterness when the betrothal was announced.
A few days after the announcement, Taka saw Sarabi alone, by a secluded water hole. He crept closer, spying, coveting the prize that would soon be Mufasa's. When he caught her scent, he froze. Her mating time, her heat, was upon her.
Here, at last, was something at which he could be first! He would have Sarabi! Taka approached. She kept her head down, her tail swishing provocatively, as he rustled through the tall grass. He could see her red and swollen opening, and felt himself growing ready.
He sniffed and nuzzled her under her tail. His excitement built until he was about to mount her. He rose up, forepaws over her back.
Sarabi looked coyly back over her shoulder, then her eyes widened.
She twisted out from under him, spilling him awkwardly to the ground.
"Taka! I thought you were Mufasa!" He righted himself, burning with rage at the mention of his brother's name. "He's off with Father, chasing hyenas." He rubbed his body alongside hers and nipped at the back of her neck, but again she jerked away. "He's neglecting you. You're in heat, Sarabi. You need it. You want it."
"Not from you!"
"Mufasa doesn't have to know. Nobody has to know." He paced around her, sniffing, panting. "I may not be a warrior, but at some things I am as much the lion as he."
"No! Go away!"
"Curse you and your defiance, female! I will have you!" He sprang upon her, snarling. His teeth sank into the loose folds of skin at the nape of her neck. He thrust, but the angle was wrong and instead of entering her he collided painfully with her flank.
"I said no!" She whirled. Her paw flashed out, quick as a striking snake, but somehow slow enough for him to see the sun shining in a crescent on each smooth claw. It struck him high on the face. One claw ripped across his eye.
There was an immediate gush of blood. Taka recoiled. Sarabi gasped and looked at her paw, then in horror at Taka.
He gingerly opened his eye. He could see nothing through it but a red haze. The sizzling pain had dulled to a throb. "You she-hyena! You've blinded me!"
"Taka ... I'm sorry," she stammered, backing away.
The flow from the wound was slowing. Blinking several times, he realized with relief that his eye was still intact, only filled with his own blood. The skin above and below the eye was split. It would soon heal, but he would carry that scar, and a new name, for the rest of his days.
Scar shook the memory away, still feeling the shame and embarrassment now as keenly as he'd felt it then.
The law said that whoever spilled royal blood was punished with death. Though only the younger son, he was still a prince. Sarabi, betrothed of Mufasa or not, should have been executed. She knew this as well as he did, and must have waited many days in terror for him to accuse her.
He could not. Had he done so, everyone in the pride and indeed everyone in the kingdom would learn how and why she hit him. He would become even more of a laughingstock. It was intolerable. He made up a story about driving off a vicious cheetah that had been intruding on the pride's hunting grounds. While nobody ever fully believed him, it at least kept them from guessing the truth.
As for Sarabi, he knew that she would be none too eager to confess her crime, or the circumstances leading up to it. So they had gone along as if nothing had happened. She married Mufasa, and when in the course of time Ahadi died, she became Mufasa's queen.
The secret had burned between them over the years. He had come to hate her with as much passion as he had ever desired her, while still desiring her. The birth of Simba had been the final blow. The mate, the queen, and the cub that should have been his were all Mufasa's, just as everything had always been Mufasa's.
Now Mufasa was dead. He, Scar, had attained his rightful place as king of the pridelands. All that had been Mufasa's should now be his. Sarabi should be his.
She returned his gaze with unflinching golden eyes. In those eyes he could read her thoughts, asking him if he wanted to lose the other eye or even his life. She had lost her mate and her son; she had nothing more to fear. He looked away first.
The rest of the lionesses were still staring at the hyenas, who were making themselves comfortable on the rocks or devouring the remains of the lionesses' most recent kill. Cowering among them, her encounter in the elephant graveyard doubtless still fresh in her mind, was young Nala.
He let an evil grin spread across his face. There was an old custom that it was time to invoke. He padded down the slope to Sarafina.
"No," Sarafina pleaded, shielding her cub with her forepaws.
"Please, Scar, no."
"It is custom," he said in a tone of sorrow. "When a new male takes charge of the pride, all the cubs must be slain. It grieves me to do so, but alas, I must." All of them were looking at him now, in renewed horror. They knew his words to be true. Some of the older lionesses had lost their cubs when Ahadi's father seized the throne from an aged and infirm king.
"Scar, no," Sarabi said. Had she begged, he might have relented, but she dared speak to him in a tone of command.
"I am king!" he growled. "It must be done."
"She is all that remains of Mufasa," Sarafina said. "Your brother's own cub! Your own niece! Please, spare her!" He cuffed her aside and stood over the she-cub. Nala cringed against the ground, shivering, her blue-green eyes turned up pathetically to him.
"Poor child," he said. He rested one paw heavily on her ribcage, feeling it give slightly beneath his weight. "You've lost a father, a king, a brother, a playmate, and your future mate. All in one day. And now you must lose your life. A tragedy." Zazu, that damned bird, flapped down. "Sire, I encourage you to reconsider," he said. "There has been too much death." Scar showed Zazu his teeth. "When I want you to perform your duties, advisor, I will inform you. Until then, be silent or I'll eat you." Zazu gulped. "Yes, sire." Nala was mewling and whimpering. She licked his paw. He could hear her mother's sobs, and Sarabi's low murmur as she urged the other lioness not to watch.
He looked down at Nala, prepared to snap her little neck, when he saw her as if for the first time. Always before, she had been a little nuisance, nothing more than Simba's friend, not a male and no threat to his succession, just an irritating little thorn in his paw. Now, he saw how truly pretty she was. Her pelt was a light shade of cream and gold, her eyes large and innocent. Most of all, she was little and helpless. She feared him.
The rest of the lionesses would obey him because he was their king and the law bid them do so. But they accepted him only because he was the last of the line. They did not respect him, they would never fear him.
Sarabi would never yeild her body to him, and he doubted that he would be able to perform even if she did. The other lionesses might, but their confidence and assurance unnerved him. If he failed to perform, they would never openly ridicule him, but he would know. They would know. In time, all the savannah would know that Scar might be king, but he was no true lion.
Nala, on the other paw, was young enough to know fear. Pretty, helpless, and afraid. That was what Scar liked best in a female. Her life was in his claws. She was waiting to die, not fighting as Sarabi would have done.
He released her. She blinked up at him, confused.
"Custom or not, I cannot abide by it," he said, letting his voice break as if burdened by terrible grief. "When so much death has been served today, I cannot be a party to any more. I will not harm you, little Nala. In fact, I shall make you a promise. I cannot bring back Mufasa or Simba, but I can still give you your destiny. When you are of age, you shall be my mate, and queen of all the pridelands!"
"No!" Sarafina breathed.
Scar glowered at her. "You should be grateful. Now, go and hunt! My hyenas are hungry!"
Nala awoke shivering. She did not shiver from the cold, for indeed she was too warm from the heat of Scar's body next to hers. His forepaw was draped possessively over her.
She shivered from her nightmare. In it, she had been hunting a zebra that grazed unconcernedly at the edge of the herd. Strangely, she had been two places at once, in herself and watching herself, seeing the adolescent lioness crouched in the tall grass. The watching Nala had cried out to the stalking Nala, wanting to warn her, but the stalking Nala hadn't heard. She had pounced, made the kill. Her first unassisted kill. In the eyes of the pride, she would be adult.
Becoming an adult was supposed to be a time of joy, but Nala dreaded it more than anything else in the world. Once she became an adult, she would be Scar's queen. Scar's mate. She would be expected to produce an heir to the pridelands.
She shivered again, and Scar stirred. She held still, not even daring to breathe, until he subsided into sleep again. His muzzle twitched. He snorted, mumbled.
"Mufasa ... long live the king ... run away and never return ... it's to die for." Whenever he spoke that way, in the grip of whatever dreams filled that black-maned head, Nala felt her skin tighten. There was something malevolent about Scar, something evil. The other lionesses sensed it, but they did not spend as much time with him as she did. They did not know the depth or intensity of his malice.
"Long live the king!" he snapped, thrashing and rolling onto his back. Nala, released, reacted for an instant like a frightened gazelle and froze, then scrambled away from him.
Scar's cave was dark and quiet. The large, homey place where the pride had dwelt belonged to the hyenas now. The lionesses slept awkwardly in trees, not trusting their scavenger allies enough to stay near them. Scar himself disdained their scent and squalor, staying in the cave that had been his since Mufasa's reign began so many years ago.
Against the back wall was a cage of wildebeast ribs. Within, Zazu huddled in a pathetic ball of blue feathers. His beak was tucked beneath one wing. He did not look up, lost in his own restless dreams.
Nala sat on the cold rocky floor, head down. She licked idly at her pelt. It had not darkened much since cubhood, staying the same pale gold.
She was almost the size of her mother, physically mature. Only her lack of a successful kill had kept her from attaining adulthood.
She looked at Scar. How vulnerable he was as he slept! His throat was revealed, his belly exposed. She was young and strong. She could leap upon him, bite and gouge and tear until Scar was dead and she was free! She would be free, but the pridelands would be without a king. She sighed. If only there were other lions about! But the few times rogue males had come about, the packs of hyenas had mustered to drive them off. Her first responsibility was to the pride. Stars knew she had failed them enough already.
The herds, hunted to depletion by the demands of the hyenas, had moved on. The dry season was the worst in years, leaving the riverbed empty and the grasslands barren. It took all the skill and cunning of the lionesses to keep themselves fed, let alone their king and the others. Nala was the worst hunter of them all.
She knew it to be true, no matter how Sarabi reassured her. She was a terrible hunter. A terrible fighter. It shamed her, but she purposefully had neglected her training. The sooner she became a hunter, the sooner she would have to submit to Scar.
In all ways but one, she was already his mate. He had forced her to share his cave since that dark day he had claimed the throne. He ignored all of the other lionesses, not that they minded. Nala was the one that brought Scar his food. Nala spent long hours grooming Scar's luxuriant black mane.
Nala cleared away the gnawed bones. Nala slept beside him. And someday soon, Nala would be mounted, mated, and made to bear his cub.
Silent tears rolled down her face. Most soaked into her fur, but some splashed on the stones at her paws.
"Simba," she mouthed, remembering her brother/playmate. He had been so brave, so fun. She thought of the day they had gone to the elephant graveyard. Zazu had told them of their betrothal. They had reacted as children, thinking it icky. Strange. Unwelcome. Oh, how she wished for a second chance! Simba would have grown to be a mighty king.
Scar twisted again, muttering. His coarse tongue slid over his whiskers. "Sarabi ..." Nala's eyes widened. Why was Scar calling for Sarabi in that tone? It mixed longing and hatred. His claws flexed. His tail lashed across the stone.
"Sarabi," he breathed. He rose and began moving toward her, sniffing.
"Taka. Call me Taka. You're in heat, Sarabi. You need it."
"Scar!" He was sleepwalking, she realized. He did not know who she was, where he was, what was happening. She backed away from him.
"You'll find me more than a match for my brother," he snarled. He lunged, snapping at her neck.
Nala yipped and ducked away. He cuffed her, sending her rolling to the floor. As she righted herself, she saw that Scar was aroused, his angry red organ jutting stiffly from its furred pouch. Her heart seemed to stop.
Scar stalked her. She retreated, until she was cornered. She pressed against the wall of the cave. Zazu had awakened, and was blinking confusedly at her.
"Zazu! Help me!" she pleaded.
The hornbill looked at Scar, and knew his intent. He forced his beak between the bony bars of his cage, but it stuck. Nala inched along the wall. Scar rubbed his side against hers. His pelt was shaggy and loathesome.
He nipped lightly at her neck.
"Do not defy me, Sarabi," he said.
Panicked, Nala flung herself past him. He grappled her, climbing onto her back. She tucked her tail between her back legs. He bit her ear.
Scar was trying to mount her now. Thrusting, biting. His front claws dug painfully into her back. She squirmed and struggled, hunching low to the ground. Her muscles were all clenched. She prayed to all the kings of the past to make him stop, to not let him enter her.
Zazu covered his eyes with one wing.
Nala suddenly knew that nobody was going to help her. The kings of the past were not with her. The lionesses could do nothing. Zazu was trapped. She was the only one who could save herself. If she did not, she would be pierced, raped.
Terror and hate gave her new strength. She wrenched herself from under Scar just as he rammed forward. His erection jabbed her in the hip.
His eyes flew open, shocked, pained, and wide awake.
For an instant, lion and lioness stared at each other. Scar's lip began to curl. His eyes narrowed in rage.
Nala moved faster than she had ever moved in her life. Her paw rose and fell, claws out. She struck him full in the face.
Her claw snagged just over his eye, where the scar that gave him his name marred his pelt. She yanked it back, ripping flesh, drawing blood.
He roared. "You will die for that!" He sprang.
Nala threw herself to the side. Scar missed, landed awkwardly.
Before he could right himself, Nala attacked him again. All of her young strength went into the blow. She hit him on the side of the head, knocking it into the cave wall.
Scar crumpled. His eyes rolled back, then closed.
She stood in place, shaking with reaction. He lay motionless.
"Nala?" Zazu whispered. "Nala, what have you done?"
"He's dead! Zazu! I've killed the king!"
"No." Zazu pointed, and she saw that Scar's thin chest was rising and falling in shallow but steady breaths. "He's alive." She padded softly over to him, tense, ready to leap away if he moved into sudden deadly life. She prodded him with a paw, then nosed him. "He's unconscious." She raised her paw over his neck and slowly extended her claws. "I have to! He'll kill me if I don't! What else can I do?"
"Run away, Nala," Zazu pleaded. "Run away and never come back."
"Yes. Run away. I'll run away. Oh, but Zazu! Run away? Leave my home? Leave everyone? My mother, what will she think?"
"Maybe you can find help," Zazu suggested. "If something doesn't change soon, we'll all die." Scar groaned.
"Go, now! Hurry!" Zazu urged.
Nala fled the cave. She sped swift and silent through heaps of sleeping hyenas, under the tree where her mother dozed, and out into the plains. Nobody saw her leave except one very old and wise monkey.
Rafiki nodded. The wind was changing. Nala was going to meet her destiny.
"It is time," he said.
She was panting. Her feet felt cracked and blistered. The sands had seemed to go on forever, a golden blur domed by the unforgiving blue sky.
Many times, she had been tempted to lie down and let the desert finish what Scar had begun.
But now, at last, grass. Trees. Where living things grew was the promise of water, and possibly food.
She found a small stream and drank from it thankfully. For the first time in days, she felt hope. All she needed now was a bit of ...
A scent. Her nose wrinkled. A warthog, a particularly gassy one.
But meat was meat, and she could always hold her breath while she ate.
She saw him now, fat and juicy, waddling along without a care in the world. Good. He was slow, and not particularly fierce. Even a poor hunter like Nala should be able to bring him down alone.
She crept through the grass, freezing a time or two when he seemed to hear something. Closer, closer.
He saw her, panicked. The chase was on! Nala plunged headlong after her prey. Between trees, over logs, under bushes, at one point a wild looping pursuit along the trunk of a massive giant. And then, conclusion as the warthog wedged tight under a root.
She could almost taste the hot blood! A tiny creature was springing hysterically around. No matter. She would snap it up in one bite and get on to business. Her jaws stretched wide.
From out of nowhere, the lion came. She skidded, recoiled. Her shock was so great that she could barely think. He crashed into her.
The first male of her kind except for Scar, and he was trying to kill her. Young, strong, deeply chested, fully-maned, handsome. She was battling for her life, expecting to die any moment, but his hunting and fighting skills were on a level with her own.
Slash! Snap! Bite! Cuff! Claw! Snarl! He jumped. She gave at first, rocking, then slammed him to the ground. She stood on his chest, growling into his face. She should have torn out his throat as he lay stunned, but she could not bring herself to do it. She had come seeking help, and what other help was there for the pridelands than a male to challenge Scar? He was a chance, a hope.
And then he spoke her name.
Simba. After all these, years, Simba. Alive.
She had told him that he didn't know what this would mean to everyone, what it would mean to her. How could she tell him about Scar? About what had almost happened? She almost couldn't believe it. Part of her mind insisted that she was lying in the desert, dying, hallucinating her fondest wish.
Simba lapped at the pool. She glanced at him, caught him looking at her. She raised her head slightly, water dripping from her muzzle. He was hiding something, holding back. What? Why? She was the one with the secrets, with the shame.
Looking at him was like looking at a memory of Mufasa. But she could see glimpses of the cub she had onnce known still lingering in his face. When he swung past her on a vine and splashed into the pool, she knew it was all true. He was Simba. Her brother. Her friend.
She had told him he was the king, and that was true. He was also her rightful betrothed! Scar's claim to her was now as meaningless as his claim to the throne. She felt a great weight falling from her soul. She was free, free! Simba erupted from the pool, grabbed, her dragged her in. The water was cold and deep, driving any last doubts that this might be a dream from her mind. She scrambled out, gasping. When he came after her, soaked and grinning, she playfully shoved him back in.
The chase was on again. This time, she was the prey and he the hunter, laughing, charging through the grass, scaring up flocks of birds and startled animals. Together, they brought down a plump bird and shared it, blood and feathers and warm pale meat, then groomed each other, rough tongues and soft fur.
In the cool shade, they played some more, cub games, stalking and hiding and pouncing, and all the while she was increasingly aware of how much they had both changed. As cubs, they had found the idea of marriage repulsive, but now, adults ...
He pounced again, but this time she turned and rose on back legs to meet him. They swayed, lost their balance, and tumbled heads over tails down a grassy incline. He landed atop her and lifted his head, chuckling.
She couldn't resist. She held his face with one gentle paw and licked his cheek, not a grooming lick but a passionate one.
Simba blinked, startled. He looked down at her.
Nala lay back in the grass, her eyes filled with promise and invitation. She watched as Simba's expression underwent a change, as understanding dawned. In that brief span of time, he took the last step between cub and lion.
She rose, rubbing her head against his, both of them purring. His mouth reached the nape of her neck and he hesitated. She could feel his hot breath. She arched her neck, pushing it against the hardness of his teeth.
He nipped. She sighed. How could it be so different? When Scar bit her like that, all she felt was fear and shame. But with Simba, she felt vibrant and alive.
"Nala," he said. "Nala, this is..."
"This is right, Simba. This is meant to be. Don't you want me?"
"I do," he said.
She moved a few paces away, swishing her tail, presenting her sleek flanks. "Simba ..." He braced his forelegs on her back, uncertain and excited. "Nala, are you sure?"
"I love you, Simba. Mate me. Make me yours." He nodded and she felt his stiffness nudging her sensitive opening.
She pressed back and he pressed forward, and he slid smoothly into her.
"Oh!" he said.
Nala couldn't stop purring. Simba thrust rapidly, eagerly. She moved with him. It would be quick, this their first time, but she knew with a wisdom beyond her years that there would be many more times, all sweet and wonderful.
His back claws dug up tufts of grass and earth. Nala crouched low, bracing herself against the ground. Her haunches quivered. Simba was panting in her ear. Faster now, faster, and waves of intense feeling were washing over Nala.
It happened like a sunrise. First a growing light, a spreading warmth. Then the first dazzling rays shooting skyward, one after another, more and more, until the rim of the glowing ball of the sun rose over the horizon and burst forth in blazing, blinding flash.
Simba roared and drove against her in one hard, final push. His claws raked her back but even that brief pain was good. Nala echoed his roar with her own.
He sank to the grass. Nala twisted and licked his face again. His golden eyes were wide and awed.
"I never knew what was missing from my life until now," he said.
She draped her paw over his neck. "I am so glad I found you, my king." His smile faded. "I'm not the king," he said.
"Simba ..." He jumped up and stalked away. "I don't want to talk about it, Nala."