by Christine Morgan
FirepeltScar was dead.
Scar was dead, and his hyena army dispersed. The new king spent the first day of his reign fulfilling a lifelong wish. Those slobbering mangy stupid poachers had been chased from dawn 'til dusk.
The rains had come. The herds had returned.
Prosperity had returned to the Pridelands.
And everybody was thrilled.
Well, _almost_ everybody.
A mouse skittered into the pallid light, its whiskers trembling.
This way and that, maybe a crumb, maybe over there, and then it paused to scrub its tiny hands over its nose.
A claw slammed down.
The mouse squeaked once in terror as the scabrous, chitinous talons wrapped around it. A fine rain of grit sifted onto its caged body as feathers rustled and shifted.
"Life's not fair, is it?" Harpy asked, lifting the mouse to dangle in front of her yellow eyes. But she dispensed with the rest of the speech and scythed the mouse in half with her beak.
Blood, disgustingly fresh, coursed over her tongue and dribbled onto her dusty grey-brown plumeage. Brittle bones crackled with the same satisfaction that they always did, but the meat lacked the spicy flavor of decomposition and the squirming texture of maggots.
"Bleah," she mumbled, but gulped it down and followed with the other half. "A girl can't be too choosy these days. What I wouldn't give for a nice haunch of antelope, just beginning to stink under the sun." Her audience was a row of skulls lined up on a rocky shelf, regarding her with wide and vacant stares.
Let them look. It wasn't like she was vain. Far from it! The other vultures didn't call her Harpy for nothing.
Finished with her meagre meal, she waddle-hopped to the ledge and peered out.
The savannah stretched in all directions, golden as a lion's pelt except where it was dotted green with trees or cut by the winding blue ribbon of the river. The herds moved leisurely, in even larger numbers than in the days of King Mufasa. Everything reeked of order and balance, the great Circle of Life revolving in its eternal harmony.
"Bleah," Harpy said again, coming very close to sicking up her mouse. She watched as a half-dozen lionesses slunk through the tall grass, closing in on some zebras.
The hunt was swift, and the kill was clean. The lionesses raised their reddened jaws and roared, bestirring their king from his lazy doze.
The cubs that had been pouncing at his idly-twitching tail tumbled over each other in their eagerness to follow.
King Simba. He was young yet, not to his full growth, but he had an easygoing handsomeness and aw-shucks grin that the lionesses in his pride seemed to find immensely appealing.
It had been less than a year since he'd overthrown his usurper uncle and reclaimed his place as the one true king -- the One True King, as his sire Mufasa would have said, so that you could hear the emphasis in his voice. Less than a year, and already a lively brood of cubs gotten upon his queen and consorts.
Queen Nala bumped her muzzle affectionately against Simba as he reached the kill. The rest of the lionesses fell back, nudging their cubs away as the king gorged himself on the choicest bits of the fallen zebra.
When he was sated, he nodded to Nala and she began daintly tearing off strips and offering them to a boycub whose pelt was the same pale sunrise gold as her own, while a rambunctious shecub jumped in headfirst. The others took this as their signal, and soon the whole pride was feasting. Harpy saw other vultures, her relatives and ... well, perhaps _friends_ wasn't the right word ... they regarded her with revulsion for her appearance and wary respect for her age and her power. They soared in spirals overhead, waiting for the lions to be finished. On the ground was a similar ring of landbound scavengers. No hyenas, certainly ... they had learned their lesson.
Harpy shuffled her talons and shifted her wings, thinking about flying over to join the others, then deciding it would be a waste of effort. There would be precious little by the time she got there, and she would have to battle for her share.
The respect the other vultures had for her did not mean much to the landbound creatures. No, it never had. They looked to Rafiki, that peculiar old wizard, for their wisdom and answers. In all of Harpy's long years (and long they were indeed; she had seen nine lion kings reign and die before Simba), only one landbound beast had ever sought her advice.
Yes, it had been she who first suggested to Scar that he cultivate the hyenas as his allies. She who worked a charm to bind them to his will. Though, to give credit where it was due, that charm had only been secondary to his innate smug charisma.
But even charisma and the promise of endless feeding could not hold such a large group of hyenas together for so long. It had been Harpy's spell that summoned the far-ranging tribes and bound them here until the dethroning of their sovereign.
She chuckled a little. Her error had been, perhaps, in the wording of the spell. "For so long as Scar is king," she'd said. And the hyenas had realized, when Simba put in his dramatic reappearance that storm-tossed night, that Scar was no longer king.
Her spell had been undone, and Scar had chosen the crucially wrong moment to simper and grovel in the face of his newphew's wrath.
So much for charisma.
The hyenas had attacked the lions gladly, driven by hunger and hatred, but when it came right down to the marrow of the bone, they fought Scar just as fiercely. If she'd made the spell to last for so long as Scar lived, well, that might have been another matter altogether.
Ah, but the scavenging had been good during Scar's reign! The hyenas used to leave half-eaten carcasses from here to the elephant graveyard. A vulture could eat until she was fat and happy! Even when the herds moved on and Scar stubbornly refused to leave, the vultures still ate well as the hyenas squabbled and killed each other in their frustration. True, the meat had grown thin and tough, but a little ripening took care of that.
But then destiny had to go and assert itself. All because Scar hadn't wanted to get his paws dirty. Harpy had been high over the gorge that day, and though her eyes were old, they were still keen. Scar could have swatted that obnoxious cub, broken his neck, blamed it on the stampede. But no, he'd left it up to the hyenas, and Simba survived.
Simba, Simba, Simba. He was becoming an efficient ruler, thanks mostly to his willingness to listen to Sarabi's wisdom. The pride hunted only that which they needed, letting the herds replenish. The scant meat they left on the bones of their kills sent many a vulture to bed with empty bellies.
And on the few occasions when a tasty herdbeast might catch its hoof in a burrow and fall with a broken leg, lying and dying and rotting until it was just nice and tasty, just as the vultures would settle in for a nice meal, the king's two annoying sidekicks would inevitably decide it was time to play "Bowling for Buzzards." Harpy herself had lost a few tailfeathers to those two, and would be more than happy to see them turned inside out.
It was all the fault of the king. Without Simba, Harpy knew, the Pridelands would fall easily back into the pattern of chaos and unbalance.
The cheetahs had bred out of control during Scar's reign, since he couldn't be bothered to slaughter their young in the time-honored tradition of ridding the savannah of the competition. They roamed the fringes now, many of them, slat-thin and desperate. Simba prevented them from hunting among his herds. If Simba wasn't around, it stood to reason that a plague of cheetahs might descend. And cheetahs were known for eating only what they could hold and abandoning the carcasses. Good for the vultures, certainly! And let us not forget, Harpy thought to herself, the hyenas. Out of sight and out of mind and all that, but the lions were fooling themselves if they thought the hyenas were really gone for good. The elephant graveyard was teeming with them.
Shenzi had seized dominance of the matriarchal society on the strength of her claim that she had issued the death-bite to Scar. But even Shenzi couldn't keep them long with little food, and she had her paws full with her new litter.
Yes, if something was to be done, it should be done soon, before the cheetahs and the hyenas gave up and truly did leave the Pridelands. Harpy was too old and set in her ways to follow them. She intended to stay right here in this same crude cave just below the topmost plateau of Pride Rock, where she'd heard king after king give the same speech to their sons. All that rubbish about everything the light touches.
She stalked back and forth along the ledge, her tailfeathers dragging dustily on the stone, talons clicking and scraping.
Simba had ruined everything. Simba was the problem.
If only something could be done about Simba!
"Checking in with the morning report, sire!" Zazu said briskly.
"Can't it wait, Zazu?" Simba glanced up from his sunning-spot, a flat rock whose back rose above the grass like that of a grazing rhino.
Below him, two lionesses preened and vied for his attention while pretending not to notice him noticing them.
"If I wait much longer, young master, it will be the noon report," Zazu remarked dryly.
"Fine." Simba flopped over onto his side and rolled his head to regard his majordomo. "Fire away." Zazu landed on the rock and folded his wings smartly. As he started his usual chatter, which was more of a "Gossip of the Pridelands" than any serious report, Simba glanced back at the lionesses and winked.
The shy one ducked her head and suddenly found something fascinating to look at in the grass. The bolder of the two met his golden gaze and twitched her tail flirtatiously.
Simba rumbled deep in his throat. "It's good to be the king." Zazu cut off mid-spiel. "I beg your pardon, sire?"
"Nothing. Carry on." He saw one of the cubs -- it was getting so he couldn't keep track of which cub belonged to which lioness anymore, except for Nala's two. Tanabi and Kiara were his heirs, and Nala never let him or anyone else in the pride forget it.
At any rate, one of the cubs was creeping through the tall grass, rump quivering in anticipation, eyes fixed on Zazu.
Simba hid an amused smirk, remembering all the fun he'd had when he used to pounce on the dignified hornbill. He deliberately looked away so as not to tip Zazu off to the fact that he was being stalked. As he did so, his gaze was drawn to something in the sky, high and far off.
"And the hippos -- ack!" Tawny fur and bright blue feathers rolled past Simba. He reflexively shot out one paw and stopped the rolling pair just before they went over the edge of the rock.
"Gotcha, banana-beak!" the cub crowed triumphantly.
"I do wish you wouldn't encourage this, sire," Zazu groused, righting himself and shaking dirt from his wings. "In fact -- sire? Sire, what is it?" Simba rose, his lips curling away from his teeth. "Vultures."
"Oh, dear," Zazu fretted. "Shall I fetch Timon and Pumbaa?" Simba shook his head without taking his eyes from the distant specks spiraling, spiraling. "They've left already for meerkat valley. I'll handle this." He leaped down, aware that Zazu and the lionesses were exchanging looks behind his back. He didn't care. So he had a thing about vultures, so what? Hadn't he been nearly eaten alive by them? Didn't that give him the right to be a little touchy about it? His father might have pointed out that the vultures had their part to play in the great Circle of Life, cleaning up after the predators.
But as far as Simba was concerned, vultures were just hyenas with wings, and he'd had enough of both to last him a lifetime.
"Sire ..." Zazu began.
"Tell Nala I'll be back soon." Simba loped through the grass, past the waterhole, barely acknowledging the greetings of other lionesses and herdbeasts.
He knew what a spiral of vultures like that meant. Something was wounded, and they were waiting for it to either die or stop moving.
Then and only then would the cowards land. They'd go for the soft tissues first. The eyes, the belly.
"Not if I can help it," he growled.
The fallen animal was on the far side of the river, in a place where the grassland had given way to an expanse of cracked, dry mud.
Beyond was the gorge, the thorn thicket, and the shifting dunes that lay between the Pridelands and the lush green place where Simba had spent his adolescent years.
One of the vultures uttered a harsh, angry cry as he approached the body. He stopped and roared up at them, letting there be no mistake as to who he was. The vulture squawked again, disgruntled.
The animal lay half in the shelter of a dead tree whose sunbleached branches curved like bones against the sky.
A chill swept Simba despite the heat of the day. It wasn't the tree in the gorge, the air was clear instead of clouded with the dust of a thousand stampeding hooves, but he was suddenly a cub again, timidly approaching his father's battered body.
He stopped and got ahold of himself. That had been many years ago. He was an adult now, king, and blameless in his father's death. Scar had done it all. If Simba was guilty of anything, it was only of inspiring such love in his father that Mufasa had risked his life to save him.
He moved closer, then froze as another, deeper chill set his bones to shaking. There under the tree lay a lion, a lion with a stark black mane.
No. He looked again, and saw that what he had mistaken for a mane was the shadow of the tree, falling across the lion's head and neck.
In fact, it wasn't even a lion, but a lioness.
A lioness. She was so thin that he could count each individual rib beneath her hide, but those ribs rose and fell shallowly. She breathed. She lived.
A flapping fluttering sound caused Simba to whirl. An old and amazingly ugly vulture had landed behind him, a horrendous beldame with a patchy piebald head.
"Are you _that_ hungry, noble king, that you'd eat the carrion of your own kind?" she asked peevishly. "Leave it for us!"
"Never!" Simba jumped forward, teeth bared, and the vulture stumbled back. One of her talons snagged in a crack in the earth and spilled her onto her tailfeathers. "Well, fine!" She indignantly launched herself. "Keep her, then!" He took a swipe at her as she left the ground, succeeding only in dislodging a stringy feather. Her laughter was like claws skidding down a rockface.
Simba turned back to the lioness. She hadn't moved.
She was unfamiliar to him. Not one of his pride, and not any of the rogues he'd ever met. As he stared, he realized he'd never seen a lioness quite like this one.
The lionesses of his pride had pelts that ranged from toasty brown to Nala's champagne gold. But this stranger had fur the color of the setting sun. A deep, rich fire-red. Her ears were dark-tipped, like Sarabi's, like his own had been as a cub.
Simba lowered his head and bumped her chin with his muzzle.
Her head lolled limply, and then she stirred. Her chest rose as she drew in a full breath, then let it out in a pained sigh.
Her eyes opened and looked directly into his, and Simba gasped. He'd never seen a pelt like fire before, and he'd never seen eyes as velvet-black as a moonless night.
"Who are you?" she gasped. Her voice was smoke, the words an echo of Nala's when they'd been reunited in the lush land beyond the desert.
"I'm Simba." Belatedly, entranced by the depth of her eyes, he thought to add, "King of the Pridelands. Who are you?"
"I'm called Firepelt." She struggled to rise, but when she faltered weakly and would have fallen, Simba was there.
He chivalrously leaned against her, supporting her. "I can see why. You're a stranger here?"
"I didn't know I was intruding. I'll leave your lands, I promise.
I just need some water ..."
"You need more than that! You're half-starved! And I never said you were intruding. You don't have to leave. Please don't leave." He realized he was babbling, unable to get his thoughts in coherent order with the warmth of her pressed against his side. There was something about her scent, not the heat-scent of a lioness in the mating season, no, but something evocative and compelling nonetheless.
"You're very kind, King Simba. But I must move on. There's no place for me here."
"Where did you come from?"
"Far away. I'm an outcast. I have no pride, no home." Firepelt's head drooped sadly. "They thought I was bad luck."
"I can't imagine anyone thinking that. Not in my pride. Come and meet the other lionesses." She backed away from him, her strength regained in her sudden fright. "No, I can't! Not lionesses! They'll attack me!"
"Not in my pride," he repeated.
"They will!" she insisted. "They'll hate me for the color of my pelt, think me a freak, blame me for any bad things that happen! I won't go through that again!"
"Where's Rafiki with his stick when I need him?" Simba muttered, glancing around. He wouldn't have been surprised to see the wise old baboon, but he didn't. "Listen, Firepelt, I know the past can hurt. Believe me, I do! You can either run from it, or learn from it, but running doesn't work for long. It always catches up."
"You don't understand." She turned her head away, but not before he saw her expression of heartfelt anguish. It pierced him like a fang.
He moved closer, and butted his head gently against hers. "I do understand. I once thought I had done something so terrible that my pride would never want to see me again, that I'd be better off dead." She looked up, wary but wanting to believe. "What happened?"
"Come with me and I'll tell you the whole story. Not to my pride --" he said hastily, seeing her about to protest, "-- just someplace out of the sun." She hesitated, then bobbed her head and padded softly after him. He glanced back, marvelling at how light on her paws she was, almost as if she didn't disturb the sand as she walked across it. And silent as a breeze, even when they entered a stand of tall dry grass that rustled and crackled at Simba's passage.
He led her to a small spring in the shade of a grove of trees, a place not usually frequented by the pride because it was too small to attract the herds. Firepelt gratefully collapsed at the water's edge and drank her fill, each swallow seeming to restore life and health to her body.
"Wait here," Simba said, even though she showed no signs of moving.
Strange, he'd never hunted to feed a female before. Even when Nala had been near to term with the cubs, slowed and made overly cautious by her belly, the other lionesses had hunted for her, provided for her. His job was protector of the pride, not provider.
It was an odd feeling, but as Firepelt murmured her thanks and began to eat the fine plump kill he'd brought her, Simba found he liked it.
"There he goes again," one of the lionesses said. "Where do you think he goes? What do you think he does?"
"It's his business, not ours," another replied. "He's the king."
"Maybe we should ask the queen," a third chimed in.
All three of them looked toward Nala, so Harpy looked too.
From her perch, she had an excellent view of the young queen's suspicious expression. Nala masked it quickly when she realized she was the object of curious scrutiny from three of her older huntmates, and affected an air of unconcern that for the fifth day in a row, Simba was going off alone without a word.
"Probably, they've had a fight," the first lioness said, flicking her tail to shoo away flies droning about the face of her sleeping cub.
"She is pretty bossy," the third admitted. "And so much younger than the rest of us. Why, I've even heard her get uppity with Sarabi."
"Sarabi encourgages it," the second said. "She means to groom Nala into her replacement."
"Nala already is her replacement, as mother of the next king," the first argued.
"No, as the power behind Pride Rock," the second explained.
"We all know that no matter how glad she was to have her son back and everything restored to the proper succession, Sarabi's never really trusted Simba to do a good job as king."
"How could she?" the third asked. "He was raised by a warthog and a meerkat! If it wasn't for Sarabi's counsel --"
"Exactly!" the second cut in. "And that's what she means for Nala to do, when she's no longer able."
"I think Simba's sick of it," the first said. "Bossed around by his mother and his queen, and little Kiana's going to be just as pushy a female, wait and see! No wonder he's happy to get away for a while. I just wonder where he goes." Harpy, having heard enough, took off from her perch on the spur of rock high above the lioness' favorite sunning-spot. They barely noticed her, and had no idea that she'd been able to hear their every word bouncing up the stone.
She couldn't have been more pleased if she'd found a dead hippo on a sandbar. Everything was going perfectly. Simba was distracted, well on his way to becoming obsessed, over Firepelt.
Surrounded by strong-willed females, he was easy prey for a seemingly vulnerable, broken flower who could tip her dark eyes up to him and make him feel like a true lion.
Yes, he was distracted, and already it was causing some ripples of discontent among the lionesses. Soon, the rest of them would start to blame Nala for not keeping the king happy, or blame Sarabi for pushing him too hard. Bickering among the lionesses would divide them. They wouldn't hunt as well, they'd get hungry.
Maybe they'd even fight! The older ones would remember the tradition by which a female could challenge the queen to take her place.
It hadn't been done in the reign of six kings or more, but was a valid means under pride law.
Maybe Firepelt herself would be the one to fight for Nala's place! Wouldn't _that_ be something! Harpy laughed aloud just thinking of it. Firepelt, queen of the Pridelands! Simba's doom, sitting at his side! And then, when they found out who Firepelt really was ...
_what_ she really was ... it would be the end of everything.
Yes, indeed, this was all as satisfying as a day-old carcass!
Simba dropped the leg of zebra at her feet. "Hungry?"
"You shouldn't hunt for me," Firepelt demurred. "I'm feeling much better now, much stronger."
"I don't mind," he said. "It's good for me. I'd gotten used to sitting around letting others do the hunting. And I want to help you." She smiled, then shyly licked the blood from his muzzle. He stood stock-still, eyes closing, letting her clean him of the residue of the kill. Those long, slow, languid licks ... he shuddered and uttered a low growl of pleasure.
When she stopped, he couldn't help himself but had to rub the side of his face along the top of her head. "Thank you." Flustered, she couldn't meet his eyes. "You're welcome." He reclined in the shade to watch her feed. In just a few days, she'd filled out so that her bones were no longer standing out against her hide. Her pelt was shiny, glossy, and each time he saw it he was awed anew, as if he hadn't remembered just how rich and red it was. She was a bit smaller than the lionesses in his pride, but as well-shaped as any of them, with sleek flanks and lovely haunches.
He drew a deep breath, meaning once again to ask her to join his pride. But he didn't get that far, because now he detected something new about her scent. New and familiar.
She glanced up then, saw the look on his face, and shrank back. "Is something wrong?" Then she knew, and bowed her head.
"Yes. My season will be upon me soon. I'll go, I promise. Far away, and you needn't be troubled with me." Go? A fine healthy lioness just coming into season? "But ...
Firepelt, I don't want you to go!"
"Simba, you've been such a friend to me! My first, my only real friend! You've done so much for me already, helped me so much.
But this ... this is too much for me to ask. I want to leave with that perfect memory. Not of you lowering yourself, demeaning yourself --" He stared at her, puzzled, then understood, though understanding didn't stop him from being incredulous. "You think I'd be doing you a favor by mating you?"
"And I would never want to put that obligation on you!"
"Obligation!" He couldn't help but laugh. "Firepelt, have you got it wrong!"
"It's not as if I haven't noticed what a fine male you are," she said fretfully, distressed. "I have! Too fine a male for the likes of me to even dream of! Handsome and strong, a prideful of lionesses ... you'd never want someone like me." Simba quit laughing, serious now. "But I do."
"You don't have to say that --"
"I wouldn't unless I meant it. I've never met anyone like you --"
"I know," she said bitterly.
"-- and I like it!" he continued, paying no mind to her objection. "I like _you_. And I think you're beautiful. I want you to join my pride."
"Oh, Simba!" For a moment, her ebony eyes seemed to light up, the way the sun sometimes gleamed on glossy black stones. But then the light dimmed. "They would never accept me, even if you do. I wouldn't want you to always have to defend me, defend your decisions.
It's best that I go away."
"You don't even know them. They'd welcome you." He nuzzled her affectionately. "I promise."
"I want to believe you. I really do." She laid her head on his back just below the shoulders, and buried her nose in his russet mane.
"Then believe me. Come and meet them." She sighed, stirring his mane with her warm exhalation. "How can you like me when I'm such a coward? I feel safe with you, but I'm terrified of meeting the others. No matter how much I ... need." He craned his neck to look back at her, pulse quickening from the yearning she'd put in that one final word. He could smell her scent, stronger than ever, intoxicating. Her _need_ became his own, and the only thing that kept him from mounting her right then and there was his worry about pride law.
For lionesses, mating with outsiders was frowned upon. He didn't know if or how the law applied to males, and he couldn't very well ask his mother! If Firepelt would only agree to join the pride! Then he'd be not only allowed but expected to mate her and give her cubs.
Cubs! If he mated her outside of the pride laws, and got a cub on her, what would that make it? An outcast, a prideless wanderers? Could he do that to his own offspring? He'd only known her a short time, but already couldn't stand the thought of her leaving. Let alone leaving and taking his cub away! Maybe she'd see it that way. She'd realize that concern for the cub's future would have to come before her groundless worries about the other lionesses.
As he tried to find a way to put that into words, she rose and walked away from him. "I'm sorry, Simba. I've offended you. I'll go now."
"Firepelt, no!" He loped after her, coming around to block her path. "I'm not offended! You have to believe me!" She searched his soul with her gaze. "You ... you want me?" He nodded fervently.
"Oh, but we shouldn't ..." Her actions belied her words as she rubbed her side against his in one slow caress, curling her tail beneath his chin as she moved around him. Her scent was overpowering, forcing all other thoughts from his mind.
He set his paw heavily on her back, the first move in the dance, knowing that she would shift teasingly away and make him approach her a few more times at least.
Firepelt didn't shift away. She quivered as she was pushed to the ground, and looked up at Simba both timidly and trustingly.
"Don't hurt me," she pleaded.
A surge of tenderness mingled with his desire. "I won't," he promised, and lowered himself gently over her.
"You haven't touched your hippo," Nala ventured.
"I'm not hungry." Simba turned away from the kill.
"But you're getting so thin --"
"Would you leave me alone?" he snapped. "I'm a grown lion; I can take care of myself!" The rest of the pride fell silent at his outburst, strips of dark meat hanging from their jaws as they raised their heads from the carcass. Even the tumbling riot of cubs playing in the cavernous ribcage hushed and scuttled to their mothers.
Only Sarabi dared speak. "Simba, what's the matter? You haven't been yourself lately." He whirled on her. "And who have I been? This _is_ myself, Mother! I'm not my father, and I wish you'd quit trying to make me into him!" She drew herself up with queenly dignity. "This is not the Simba I remember. For most of the turn of the moon, now, you've been neglecting your pride and your duties. And yourself. Look at the nettles in your mane; when was the last time you had a decent grooming? When was the last time you had a decent meal?"
"I'm fine!" he roared, sending birds flocking wildly to the sky.
Sarabi flinched but stood her ground, and Nala joined her.
"You're not fine," Nala said. "Can't you see that we love you and we're worried about you?" He bared his teeth at her. "What do you need me for? You've got your cubs. Your place is secure!"
"How can you be like this?" she cried. "What's happened to you?"
"I've had it up to here with both of you! If you need someone to boss around, there's Zazu!"
"Ahem, excuse me, sire?" The hornbill looked unhappy at being drawn into this.
"We need a king to look after the pride!" Sarabi said sharply.
"You are the one true king, Simba, or have you forgotten?" He chuffed in disgust. "I'm not going to stand here and listen to this! Like you said, I'm the king, and I can do as I please!" Sarabi's gaze went very cold. "You sound like your uncle." Simba's lip curled. "Then maybe I should start acting like him, too!" He cuffed her with all his strength, sending her rolling in the dust.
A collective gasp of horror rose from the throats of the lionesses and cubs. Simba froze, staring down at Sarabi as she weakly struggled to raise her head.
"Get away from her!" Nala leaped between them, a fury of gold fur and flashing teeth. "At least she's looking out for this pride!" Simba faltered, shaking his head. "No ... I didn't mean ..." Two of the lionesses herded the cubs into a frightened cluster, while the rest formed a silent and defiant line behind Nala. Though they wore expressions of fear and confusion and dismay, there was also an overlying determination.
"Nala, please ..."
"Maybe you should go for a while, Simba," she said, sounding like her heart was breaking though her gaze remained firm. "Go see Rafiki; maybe you'll listen to him if you won't listen to us." His anger roiled in him again. "I don't need his advice either! Doesn't anyone in the Pridelands think I can run my own life?"
"If this is how well you do at it," Sarabi said as she rose unsteadily, "then, no."
"Fine! I don't need this, or you, or anyone! I can go where I'm appreciated!"
"No, papa, don't leave us!" Kiana broke from the cluster of cubs and dashed to him, propping her little forepaws on his chest.
"Kiana, get away from him," Nala ordered tensely.
Simba looked at her with wounded contempt. "Do you think I'd hurt my own cub?"
"You hurt your own mother," she countered, and swept the struggling, protesting Kiana behind her.
"You're all against me! Every one of you! I'm out of here!" He turned his back on them, tail lashing furiously. "You can all feed the buzzards, for all that I care!" High above the showdown, Harpy smiled. "Sounds good to me," she chuckled to herself.
Sarabi and Nala put their heads together in hurried conference, then dispatched poor hapless Zazu to follow their errant king.
The rest of the pride, their appetites apparently squelched, quickly abandoned the nice fat hippo carcass. Harpy settled onto it with a contented sigh and began tearing off choice bits. A girl needed to keep her strength up.
Zazu tried to be inobtrusive, not that it mattered. Simba mightn't have noticed if his major domo was accompanied by dozens of singing and dancing animals. So he didn't even glance around at a single hornbill gliding above him.
Simba didn't seem to be wandering aimlessly. No, he was traveling with purpose, and Zazu saw that there was a tamped-down trail leading toward a tiny shaded waterhole, telling him that the king had come this way many times recently. Now he'd find out where Simba had been going all month, what he'd been do -- Doing. Or _who_ he'd been doing, as the case may be.
"Oh, dear! Oh, this is not good," Zazu muttered as he turned around and started flying back to Pride Rock as fast as his wings would carry him.
"No, little one, he hasn't come to me," Rafiki said, plucking a leaf and examining it critcally.
"Where could he be, then?" Tanabi wondered worriedly.
Rafiki studied the cub. His sister might be brash and forthright; the future king was quiet, contemplative. He would make a wise king, if not a bold one. But this news of Simba ... Rafiki hoped this didn't mean Tanabi's ascent to the throne was almost upon them.
"He'll come back," Rafiki said. "I know your father. He learned he can't run from his responsibilities."
"But he had such a fight with Mama and with Gran Sarabi! He even hit her!" Tanabi's lip trembled, though he was visibly trying to be brave. "And he hasn't eaten in forever, and he's all dirty and scary- looking. Can't you do something? I brought you some hair from his mane, and a bone I found near his sleeping place." Rafiki laughed and ruffled the tuft of fur that persisted in sticking up on the back of the young prince's head. "You cubs have funny ideas about me. Still, here." He swung into his tree, grabbed his tortoise shell, and swung back down. He scooped a handful of savannah dust and scattered it inside the shell, then added some seeds and stones and the hair Tanabi had brought, then stirred it with the bone.
Tanabi crouched at a respectful distance. Kiana would have been bounding all over the place, questioning everything he did, but Tanabi said nothing to interrupt Rafiki's thoughtful humming.
Rafiki swirled the shell around and around and was about to start a third pass when his eyes were stung by smoke. Fire lapped in the bowl of the tortoise shell, licking at his fingers. Noises rang in his ears -- crackling, howling, roaring.
He yelped in surprise and dropped the shell, and watched in dread as dark blood crept over the rim to stain the earth.
Then it was gone. The smoke, the fire, the blood, the sounds, all of it. Only the shell, tipped in the dirt so that the objects inside spilled out. And Tanabi, staring at him in alarm.
"What did you see?" Tanabi's voice quavered.
"What did _you_ see?' Rafiki asked.
"Good." He sent the cub on his way, with instructions not to let his sister talk him into doing anything rash like going off alone to look for their father -- Kiana, Tanabi said, had already headed for the gorge because she knew Simba spent time there when he was sad -- and began picking up the tools of his trade.
A dry, scabrous laugh cackled from above, and Rafiki looked up in time to see a dingy bag of feathers settle onto the tree nearest his own. "Interesting visions, shaman?"
"Harpy?" He'd thought she was long dead, had to be, because she'd been old when he was a youngling.
One leathery lid dipped over one yellow eye in a sly wink.
"The very same." He let his hand rest on his staff. "What sorcery have you been up to?" She cackled again. "You'd like to know, wouldn't you? Well, I suppose it would be nice to have someone appreciate what I've done.
Seen as how there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing anyone can do about it. Simba's ruined, the pride will fall, and there will be feasting for my kind until the rainy season and beyond."
"Tell me what you've done!" Rafiki demanded.
So she did.
Scar leapt, and Simba fell back, his powerful hind legs digging into his uncle's chest. He thrust up and over, propelling Scar off the ledge.
Down he plunged, landing with a solid crack on the stony ground, ringed by blazing tinder-dry boughs. Broken and in pain, the deposed usurper pulled himself upright as three hyenas appeared on the rocks, their features made more monstrous by the shimmer of heat rising from the flames.
"Frie-eh-ends?" Shenzi laughed. "I thought we were the enemy!" Her compatriots agreed with her, and they fell upon Scar in a storm of savage jaws. Simba, peering down from Pride Rock, turned his head away sickly as more hyenas joined the fray. They only left off when the spreading flames reached the lion's body, devouring what was left of the lush black mane.
The rains came, dousing the fires and drenching the battle- weary lionesses as the last of the hyenas fled toward the north. Simba wearily but triumphantly ascended Pride Rock and roared his dominance to the entire Pridelands.
The lions then retreated to the caves, licking their wounds and nuzzling each other in congratulations, where they were treated to the tale of just where Simba had been all those years, with many a comic witticism from their new court jesters, Timon and Pumbaa.
Harpy heard what of it she could stand to listen to. Hakuna matata, my tail feathers, she thought sourly. But when they started _singing_, it was too much for her to bear, and despite the rain she flapped down to see what was left of Scar.
Not much. The hyenas and the flames had been thorough. She found some scraps of fur, some shards of bone. But what was most interesting was the news brought to her by her keen sense of smell.
She'd seen the whole fight, and knew Scar well enough to know that it was power that aroused him, more than any lioness. He'd been in a state of tremendous arousal the day he'd hurled his brother into the stampede-mad gorge, and the same was true of his confrontation with his nephew.
And when death had claimed him at the bottom of the rocks, that arousal had spilled onto the ground along with his life's blood.
Harpy scratched her talons through the muddy soil, releasing stronger scents. Seed and blood, smoke and fire.
She dug up as much as she could carry in both claws and bore it to her nest high above, just thinking to herself that it might come in handy someday.
Nearly a year later, that day arrived. She took those old clumps of earth, now dried into reddish-black clots, back to the site of Scar's violent finish. Cracked them apart and let them fall onto the barren place from which they'd come, where nothing would grow even after the rains.
"Eyes of smoke, pelt like fire, made to be a king's desire. Born of blood and seed and flame, put the Lion King to shame. Rise and obey my commands, be the end of the Pridelands." The ground began to churn, and rise up and take on leonine shape.
And Scar's death-daughter was born.
"Simba!" Nala's voice tore through him like a claw.
He jumped up from where he'd been laying, side-by-side with Firepelt as they watched the sky go from red to violet. And now here was Nala, seeming to glow like the dawn.
Sarabi was behind her, reproachful and disappointed. "A rogue, Simba? You've ignored your pride in favor of a rogue?" He stood over Firepelt, shielding her, knowing that this was what she'd most feared. Being confronted, hated, by other lionesses. Yet she rose without a sign of concern and stood beside him, her face calm and mildly expectant.
"Get away from my mate," Nala snarled, every muscle trembling with rage.
"Nala --" Simba began, but then Firepelt silenced him with a saucy, insolent lick. He gaped at her, unable to believe she'd done that in front of anyone else. She should be cowering, terrified. Instead, she met Nala's gaze with a smirk.
In that meeting of eyes, a challenge was given and accepted.
"No!" Simba tried to throw himself between them, but Sarabi slammed her shoulder into him and knocked him aside.
"This is between them now, Simba," she said coldly.
"I won't allow it!"
"You may be the king, but you know nothing of the ways of lionesses. This won't end until one of them is dead." He stared in horror at his mother, then at Nala and Firepelt as they faced each other.
"No! I didn't know --"
"Then you should have taken the time to learn." Sarabi spoke mercilessly, heartlessly. "If you'd come to me at the beginning, instead of sneaking around, it might have been different! We could have made a place for a rogue in our pride, you know that!"
"But she didn't want ..." He shook with dread and self-loathing as he realized what his passion for Firepelt was going to cost. Her life or Nala's, and all because he had been so captivated that he'd gone along with Firepelt's wishes.
The two lionesses, one pale gold and the other deep red, circled each other. The way Firepelt slunk, low to the ground, head moving slyly in the manner of a serpent, made a thrill of alarm run through Simba. That was exactly how Scar had moved during their final fight.
Nala lunged first, her claws scything. Firepelt dodged and snapped, tearing loose a tuft of fur but not breaking the skin. Nala's next slash caught Firepelt across the flank, leaving four parallel gouges.
And Simba, Sarabi, and Nala all stopped to stare, because no blood welled from the wounds.
Firepelt took instant advantage of their distraction and leaped at Nala, tackling her and tumbling her across the grass. Nala came up on top and drove her forepaws down, just as she'd done against Simba since the time they were cubs. But even as she did, her claws puncturing more bloodless holes in Firepelt's strange hide, the smaller lioness' hindpaws came up to gore Nala's belly. Nala scrambled off Firepelt, keening in agony, blood flowing freely to stain her golden fur. Firepelt seemed to feel no pain whatsoever, and darted in to rake her claws at Nala's face. Nala jerked her head to the side in time to save her eyes but a ragged tear split her cheek from ear to chin.
Her teeth sank into Firepelt's foreleg and tore out a piece. But where savaged flesh and white bone should have been revealed, there was only a spongy, ashy substance. Nala spat and coughed out a mouthful of the stuff, now bewildered as well as hurting.
"What _is_ this?" Sarabi gasped. "She's no lioness!" Firepelt, not even limping, her black eyes now seeming to flicker with flame, came in low with the purpose of going for the kill.
Simba sprang between them, and this time Sarabi did not intervene. "Firepelt, stop!"
"Stand aside, Lion King," she purred huskily.
"You're not like this!" he protested desperately. "You're sweet, kind --" Her laughter was the crackle of flames, and the only answer she gave before swiping at him. The movement was so quick, so unexpected despite what she'd done to Nala, that Simba couldn't evade.
Four searing brands streaked across the side of his neck.
He reared up, roaring, and she reared to meet him. Their forepaws pummeled each other, then his greater weight overbalanced hers and they somersaulted down the incline to the waterhole. She landed beneath him, tilted her head becomingly with a come-hither gleam, then her jaws gaped wide and went for his throat.
A length of wood crashed into her mouth, preventing the bite from reaching its mark. Simba spared a quick glance up and saw Rafiki, his expression grim, at the other end of the staff.
Firepelt gnashed at the staff, trying to wrench it from Rafiki's grip. With a convulsive heave of her body, she threw Simba off of her and scrambled to her feet. She retreated from the old monkey, panting, wary.
"Tell me what you see," Rafiki ordered Simba, not taking his eyes off Firepelt.
"A ... a lioness," Simba stammered.
"Look harder." He poked Firepelt with the end of his staff, though she tried to sidestep.
She rippled, and now Simba saw a conglomeration of soil in the shape of a lioness. He cried out in revulsion and horror.
"The spell is broken," Rafiki said, and the thing that was Firepelt fell apart into a heap of earth and ash.
"Hey! We're back!" Timon trumpeted.
"Didja miss us?" Pumbaa asked.
Timon looked around, taking in the somber pride of lionesses, the uncharacteristically quiet cubs, the way Nala and Simba were lying yards apart and not looking at each other. Then he did a double-take, seeing the barely-healed wounds scrawled across the queen, and the ladder of scars on Simba's neck.
"Geez, I guess we came back at a bad time," he muttered in an undertone to Pumbaa.
"Maybe now's not the time to mention the buzzard lady," Pumbaa agreed.
"What's not to mention? We were doing our good deed for the day, that's all!"
"But, Timoooon," Pumbaa whined. "You're _never_ nice to vultures! I still don't know why you let her go."
"Awww, she was all tangled up in that vine." Timon shuffled his feet, abashed. "It almost looked like someone tied her up on purpose. And she rewarded us, didn't she? Look at this neat amulet she gave me!"
"It's just an old piece of rock with some soot on it," Pumbaa argued.
"Weren't you listening?" Timon bapped him on the snoot. "It's a magic charm! Just wait! Great things are going to happen, Pumbaa, great things!"