Josh was raised from his nightmare-plagued slumber of the British Army, led by Burton, conquering and burning the Pride Lands, by a certain mischievous lion cub tugging painfully at his ear. Nursing his now very red ear, he sat up, glared incredulously at little Rosa, who gave him a wide, childish grin. Despite the rude awakening, he couldn’t get mad at this little monster and returned the greeting by patting her little coconut head.
Rosa giggled, “Good morning, Mister Josh!”
“Morning,” muttered the Texan, turning to look at the horizon. It was barely after sunrise, “Aren’t you up a little early?” Beside him, Denzel and Chen had also been awoken by Josh’s cry (and in Chen’s case, by Rosa accidentally hoping onto his face as she had rushed over to wake Josh). The cub continued to jump excitedly between the three explorers.
“I couldn’t wait to play!” she squalled, tugging Josh by the sleeve, “Come on, you promised you’d play with me today!” Josh stifled a yawn. When it came to playful youngsters, you either played by their rules or you broke their heart.
“Okay, okay, hold your horses, sweetie pie, I’m up!”
“Rosa, where are you?”
At that moment, Kiara came running down from the side of Pride Rock, calling out with worry for her daughter, but relaxed as she spotted her playing with their three guests. Cubs sure saw grace in everyone, not unlike her in fact, when she had been her age. Too bad her father didn’t see eye to eye with his granddaughter… Nonetheless, Rosa should know better than to run off alone like that.
“Rosa, how many times have I told you not to leave the den on your own? Your father and grandfather would be furious if they knew!” she scolded her daughter, pulling her into forepaws. Rosa’s ears drooped, “Sorry, mom.” Kiara smiled, remembering her own mischievous nature as a cub. Sometimes, she just couldn’t get mad at her daughter, even if she crossed the lines. However, someone else apparently had entirely different ideas.
“ROSA! KIARA! WHERE ARE YOU?!” Before the explorers knew what was happening, a roaring Kovu had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, growling like someone who had woken up to find his mate and daughter had been kidnapped, maybe killed, by a trio of distrustful strangers. His expression softened with relief when he saw Kiara sitting peacefully and unharmed beside the three humans, Rosa curled up in her embrace.
“Relax, Kovu! We’re here, everything is fine!” In her mother’s lap, Rosa grinned at her father, “Good morning, Daddy.”
“You shouldn’t be here alone with them, Kiara,” he said, “Who knows what they might do to you when we’re not looking…” Josh felt his heart sink, realizing the Pride was no more trusting of them than what they had been yesterday, except maybe for Kiara, Rosa and Nala. Kovu, obviously, was no happier about their staying here than Simba was.
Kiara, on the other hand, seemed utterly annoyed with her mate’s overprotective concern as she rounded on Kovu, “Oh, Kovu, will you please stop acting like my father? I can watch out for myself and our daughter on my own, thank you very much!”
“Kiara, I really don’t feel at ease with you and our little girl hanging around with them,” the dark-maned lion said, glaring at the three explorers with distrust, not unlike Simba’s, “Not after what happened to Vitani...” Josh was curious to ask who this Vitani was, but seeing how it was causing the massive lion such distress, decided against it. Little Rosa, meanwhile, was interested in other things.
“Mom, can I show Mister Josh the Pride Lands,” the youngster squealed with delight, running in-between their legs, “I could show them the herds, the gorge, the Elephant Graveyard, the Outlands...”
“You’re too young to be out there on your own,” said her father sternly, “What’s more, those places are strictly off-limits. You keep away from them, you hear?” Rosa half-heartedly nodded, “Yes, Daddy.”
Kiara gave her daughter a loving lick, “My father was guilty of such escapades when he was her age.”
“So were you, if I’m not mistaken.” Turning, the explorers saw an aging, good-natured looking lioness approaching. Despite her well advanced age, the unknown lioness had an air of great wisdom and energy. As Josh correctly deduced from the similarities, this had to be one of the most senior members of the royal family. Sure enough, Rosa jumped in delight.
“Good morning, Bibi,” she said, rushing over to greet her. The old lioness trembled slightly on her legs from arthritis, as she lowered her head to nuzzle the cub. Kiara smiled, “Hi, grandma.” Beside her, Kovu also greeted the newcomer warmly, “Morning, Sarafina.”
“Your grandmother?” whispered Josh in surprise to Kiara, “Simba’s mother?” Kiara shook her head.
“No, my mother’s mother; my paternal grandmother has been dead for a long time now.” Realizing his blunder, Josh silently cursed himself, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up…”
“That’s all right, it was before I was born,” she said, turning to nuzzle Kovu, whose face had fallen at the mention of the late Queen Sarabi. Clearly, there was something fishy going on, Josh thought. Meanwhile, Sarafina was staring through her cataract-lined eyes at the three explorers.
“I’ve always wondered what humans looked like,” she said curiously, yet the explorers were pleased to see that her ancient face was gazing at them with a warm expression, unlike Simba or Kovu, “Mufasa always said that, where there’s evil, there’s always good too.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment – Sarafina, yes?” said Chen, reaching forward to gently pat the old lioness between the ears. Josh had to give credit the little Chinaman’s courage; after all, given that Chen had nearly ended up as Kovu’s supper yesterday, nobody could blame him if he didn’t dare lay a hand on a lion for as long as he lived, and yet here he was.
Sarafina purred happily, “Thank you, that does feel good for the old bones,” she muttered, craning her neck, so Chen could scratch her lower still. “Now, did I hear something about taking a tour of the Pride Lands?”
“Oh yes, we’d like that very much,” said Denzel, “Could you take us?” Sarafina looked at her granddaughter, “Well, my dear?”
“I’d be happy to, Grandma, but I’m still on the hunting party with Mom,” said Kiara, “And Kovu will be doing his morning rounds with Dad…” The older lioness smiled, “Don’t worry, I can take them if you like.”
Kovu looked at the old lioness in surprise, “Sarafina, are you sure about this? You could get hurt or get lost and there’d be no one to help you…” Josh could tell the burly lion had great concerns about leaving her alone in their company, where she’d be unprotected and vulnerable, but decided not to push it, fearful of challenging the precious little trust they had established between them. Kiara, too, seemed to want to protest against it, but Sarafina calmly turned to face her granddaughter.
“My boy, when you reach my age, you come to realize the spirit of the mind is a far better judge of character than ever before. I may no longer be a champion huntress, like your grandmother Sarabi was, but I have full confidence there will be no need for engaging in any aggressions.”
“Just as long as you don’t eat my horse when I’m not looking,” said Josh half-jokingly, turning to glance at Marigold, grazing in peace out on the plains, now almost fully recovered. The mare had adjusted to being so close to lions, but would still grow tense whenever a member of the pride got too close to her. Sarafina turned to give him a trusting smile, which greatly warmed up Josh’s heart for the lioness.
They set off across the plains, which the Pride called their homeland. Despite her advanced age, the lioness seemed to have a bottomless pool of energy within her, as she kept moving ahead of the three humans, without showing the faintest indication that the long trek was wearing her out.
From the explorers’ point of view, the Pride Lands seemed vast and endless, the size of New York state itself, as Denzel put it. Even Josh, who practically lived out in the wild plains of Texas, felt a sense of awe at the lions’ massive natural domain.
“My family came from a tiny village on the edge of the Gobi Desert,” said Chen to the others, “To them, that little valley and its Tibetan monastery was the world – when I laid eyes on my first western megalopolis as a boy, I’d thought I’d seen it all...”
Soon, they came to a large watering hole, where different herds were gathered, taking their drinks. To the explorers’ utmost amazement, who had been expecting all hell to break loose amongst the animals at the sight of a lioness approaching, Sarafina calmly bent down beside a baby elephant to quench her own thirst. The adult elephants turned to look at her, apparently unconcerned, but froze as they laid eyes on the humans following her.
Seeing the tension suddenly mounting, Sarafina turned to face the herd leader, “Be at peace, they mean no harm. They’re guests to the King.” Josh could have applauded the old lioness, as he and his companions also approached the water’s edge to refill their canteens. He whispered to Sarafina, “How on earth do they not…well, fear you? I mean, aren’t they suppose to be your prey?”
“Only on hunting ground,” she explained, “All the animals in the Pride Lands are under royal protection. After all, like the late King Mufasa used to say, we’re all part of the great Circle of Life and need to respect the balance created by every living thing on this earth.”
As they settled down on the edge of the watering hole to rest, Sarafina tried to get to know the three humans better, “So how do you like it here?”
“Well, let’s put it this way,” said Josh, “If there’s Heaven, I’m fairly certain it will now seem second rate, compared to this place. Good Lord, all these animals roaming freely, co existing in such a peaceful balance under your watch...”
“But surely there are herds back in your homeland?” asked Sarafina, looking puzzled, “I mean, don’t humans also have to hunt to eat?”
Denzel uttered a hoarse laugh, “Where I come from, in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, the only ‘herds’ you find on the filthy streets are muggers and the mob’s networks harassing people day and night...” Sarafina didn’t elaborate on this; although the human world was obviously far from what she thought, she realized it had to be a touchy subject for Denzel.
“So how long has Simba been King?” asked Josh, trying to change the subject.
“He’s long outlived the reign of his father, who’d be proud of him to this day, if he were still alive,” said Sarafina proudly, “He and my daughter have done so much for this Pride together.”
“Has your Pride always been Kings of these parts?” asked Chen, interested in learning more about the Pride Lands’ origins.
“The legendary great King Mohatu – Simba’s great-great grandfather – first discovered the Pride Lands as a rogue lion; he and his followers started our Pride and made these lands their kingdom. They learned how to restore the peace between competing herds, banished any poachers, and created the laws of government dictated by the Great Kings of the Past. His descendants, leading all the way up to Simba, have all served their duty well – well, except maybe for just one.”
Josh realized this bad egg in the royal family had to be that traitor Lebo had mentioned, the one who had banished Simba to seize the throne of the Pride Lands. Although part of Josh felt he had no business prying into something which obviously wasn’t his business, his curiosity was eating him alive. Finally, he turned to Sarafina.
“King Lebo told us something about this guy,” he said, trying to be as discreet as possible, “He was that traitor, right?” Sarafina nodded, the smile fading from her face. Obviously the story of this Scar fellow wasn’t a very pleasant one around here.
“What did he do, Sarafina?” asked Chen, who, like Josh was curious to learn more about how Simba and Lebo’s traitor were related to each other.
“Come with me,” the old lioness said, “I’ll show you where it all started. Mind you, Simba wouldn’t want me showing you this place, so I’d appreciate we kept this little detour between us.” After the three explorers had promised to keep their silence, their guide led them away from the waterhole towards the north. They walked for a long time in silence, the explorers wandering just where the old lioness was taking them.
Sarafina led them towards, what Josh figured, was the northern border of the Pride Lands. There, just beyond the edge of the savannah was a shadowy-looking valley engulfed in a cloud of mist created by steam and smoke coming from a number of hydrothermal vents dotting the landscape. Through that muck, the explorers could just make out the outlines of dozens of skeletal husks lying in scattered piles around the valley. The place looked creepy and foreboding and, as they soon found out, very rightly so.
“That’s the Elephant Graveyard,” said Sarafina, who had noticed Josh staring curiously in the direction of the hellish valley, as if tempted to approach for a better look, “But I’d stay clear of that place if I were you,” she added, rather sternly, “That’s hyena territory, off limits to everyone. Those scavenging, mangy ruffians in there still give us trouble to this day - poaching, stirring up stampedes, even plotting acts of transgression whenever they get too bold... They were once part of a traitorous conspiracy to assassinate Simba’s father, Mufasa...”
“Lebo mentioned something about this conspiracy,” said Josh, recalling his talk with Lebo, which now seemed a lifetime ago, “I take it was this traitor who murdered your former King and banished Simba, to steal the throne for himself...?”
“Yes. Mufasa’s brother, Scar,” said Sarafina, “He and his hyena minions controlled the Pride Lands for years with tyranny and oppression. The hyenas laid waste to the whole kingdom, almost leading us all to starvation, before Simba returned and reclaimed what was rightfully his. Scar met his demise at the jaws of his own hyena minions who turned on him – but his dark legacy wasn’t finished yet.”
They turned and left the Elephant Graveyard behind them. As they walked, Sarafina told them the story of Scar’s fiendish rise to power, his era of tyranny, his downfall at the hand of his own minions, and how his remaining supporters sought to overthrow Simba and reinstate Scar’s supposed heir as the new king after his death.
“…Zira remained Scar’s last loyal supporter to the end,” Sarafina told the explorers, “That mad lioness hated Simba from the moment he became king and swore she’d destroy him. Simba’s eldest son, Kopa was the first victim of her hate.”
“Princess Kiara had a brother?” asked Denzel in amazement. That particular piece of information sure was new and totally unexpected.
“Little Kopa was supposed to be the heir to the throne of the Pride Lands,” explained Sarafina, “Then he and my good friend Sarabi – Simba’s mother – were ambushed one night during a walk by Zira. Both were ripped to pieces and the bodies left as a warning.” Josh remembered something Kiara had said that morning to Kovu, about him being as protective of her as her father was. The killing of her brother might explain a few things regarding Simba’s distrust towards them.
“The killing tore the Pride apart,” the old lioness went on, “Zira was banished under pain of death if she returned, spared only because she had cubs. In the light of Kiara’s birth, Simba was willing to take no chances and also banished any other members of the Pride he suspected of being sympathizers of Scar, to join her in exile. Unfortunately, that still didn’t stop her.”
As they continued their walk, they came to another majestic bit of scenery: an immense gorge, several miles long, cutting across the southern side of the Pride Lands. The three explorers and their lioness guide stopped on the edge of the cliff, admiring the view. Looking down, Josh could see a river running along the bottom, now semi-dried up from the dry season.
“This is where Mufasa died,” said Sarafina, “It’s also the same place where Zira met her doom, by letting herself fall to her death after her followers deserted her on the battlefield.” On the way here, the explorers had been listening to Sarafina’s story of the final battle against Zira and her Outsider followers and how Kiara and Kovu had been the ones to finally end the animosity between the two Prides.
“Kovu was an Outsider?” piped up Chen, “But what is his connection to Zira?”
“I’m sorry, Chen,” said Sarafina gently, “It’s not my place to tell.” Getting the message, Chen didn’t push it further and swallowed his tongue. At that moment, Simba’s major-domo Zazu appeared overhead, landing on Denzel’s head, as if he were a perch.
“What it is, Zazu?”
“His Majesty requests you return to Pride Rock. The lionesses have returned from the hunt with the kill. Prompt if you please.” Without another word, he took flight, leaving an utterly annoyed Denzel to brush a couple of loose feathers from his hair. “Well, thank you very much…”
“Come on,” the lioness told them, “The food has arrived.” Josh, who was trying hard not to snicker at the memory of Zazu perched on Denzel’s head like a pirate’s parrot, followed Sarafina back to the Pride’s dwelling.
By this time, Kiara, Nala and the other lionesses had returned with their kill, which included two plumb and really appetizing wildebeest.
Simba and Kovu, as per the lions’ custom, had already made a start on their meal, ripping open the wildebeest’s lower belly, the innards spilling out all over the ground like spaghetti, as they had their fill of the more tender parts. Josh, figuring they also had a place at the lunch table was about, was about to cut a large, juicy chunk for the fire Denzel and Chen were building, but Simba angrily growled at him before he could touch it.
“Don’t expect us to cater you as well,” he snapped, “If you want food, you’ll have to hunt for it yourselves!”
“Oh…I’m sorry,” stammered Josh, caught by surprise, “Didn’t mean to intrude…” However, some others had a very different idea about Simba’s dismissive behavior.
“Simba!” said Nala incredulously, “That is no way to talk to our guests!” But Josh, who didn’t want the lions to start fighting amongst themselves over him, reminding himself that he had indeed promised Simba just the other day that they would hunt for their own food and not be a burden to the Pride, calmed them down.
“It’s all right, we can do our own hunting if that’s what you want. There is no need to make a fuss over it.” Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to appease the lionesses, particularly Kiara, who had brought home the bacon.
Simba, apparently realizing he had taken things a bit too far, muttered apologetically, but no less firmly, to Josh, “Look here, - Josh did you say your name was? - I didn’t mean to be rude, but… It’s just that here at Pride Rock, every decent Pride member has to earn his keep, and with his own labor.”
True to his word, Josh took his two companions aside and explained to them that they would have to hunt for themselves for the remainder of their stay in the Pride Lands. Denzel and Chen, as he had suspected, weren’t too keen on the idea.
“How are we supposed to hunt? We gave up our guns to Lebo, remember?”
Although Josh had carefully saved aside his prized service Colts for emergencies, their tiny bullets would be of little use when it came to shooting anything big from afar, unless it was a direct head shot and at close range. To make matters worse, he only had twelve rounds left, six in each chamber, far too insufficient for long-term hunting using fancy pistolero tactics. This left them with only one choice.
“It’s simple: we make our own weapons, starting with bows and arrows.” Denzel snorted; what kind of 19th century man, born to the comforts of modern civilization, would know how to make a bow and arrows? Josh however, who had spent half his childhood living with one of the few people left on the earth who survived on the traditional ways of their distant ancestors, had a rare advantage.
Using a length of thin leather strip wrapped around a strong cord, they managed to fashion a strong bow-string. As for the bow itself, Josh had found a patch of young trees nearby, similar to the type used by the Apaches for making bows. By cutting the trunk into shape and heating it over the fire until the outer layer was sweaty enough to form the proper curve and string it, an hour later he had a brand-new bow ready.
For arrows, he cut some of the branches of the same tree and, after heating them over the fire to straighten them out into shafts, he fitted them with fletching made out of some trimmed flamingo feathers he had picked up down by the waterhole. For the arrowheads, he used some triangular fragments from a broken ammonia bottle from the medicine chest, which he had carved into shape on the rocks.
Helping his inexperienced companions, who had been doing a lousy job, with their own bows, the hunting party was soon good to go. After getting directions of where to find the nearest herds from Kiara and Nala, the first ever hunting party of humans ever in the Pride Lands was on the game trail, seeking their next meal…and their chance to prove their worth to their lion hosts.