Pride Lands Online

THE SPOTTED LION:
A Story of Life in the African Bush

by
John Burkitt and David Morris
with Ian Layton


LEGAL NOTE: This is an original work by John Burkitt, David Morris and Ian Layton. Copyright (c) 1997. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American copyright conventions. For use permissions, write the authors at:

John H. Burkitt: john.burkitt@nashville.com
David A. Morris: damorris@wilmington.net
Ian Layton: rama@pridelands.org


DEDICATION:

This work is affectionately dedicated to Virginia McKenna. Her work in the fields of wildlife conservation and animal welfare is an inspiration to us all.
By Aiheu's waters sweet and clean
A herd of wildebeests is seen
Relieving thirst, and by their side
The members of a lion pride.

A cub and calf engage in play
As side by side their elders lay
And Aiheu kneels with mercy mild
To touch the calf and lion child.
-- John Burkitt

PROLOGUE:

__________The hyrax picked his way slowly across the rough surface of the kopje, tiny ears flicking at every nuance of the world around him. A rustle in the grass made him pause momentarily, then he relaxed and continued to the ground, immersing himself in the tender grass and nibbling a few shoots.
__________The noise returned, and he glanced fearfully at the lioness heading through the golden strands.
__________But he had no reason to worry. Amana was after a different quarry--a lion with a russet mane and crystal eyes whose nuzzle made her shudder.
__________Amana ached to bury her face in Utamu's mane and sleep with his strong arm about her shoulder, but Utamu was a rogue, a lion with no rights or privileges, and so their love was forbidden. She had to be content with a few passionate moments at a time in the comforting protection of the kopje.
__________"Darling?" she asked gently. "Are you there?"
__________A dark-maned lion peeked around the edge of the kopje. "Yes, Amana. I am here."
__________She gasped. "Mabezo!"
__________It was the pride male. He jaws were stained with blood. "Call me darling again. Tell me how much you want me!"
__________She could detect her lover's scent mixed with the tart fragrance of blood. Looking about in a panic, she cried, "Utamu! Utamu! Oh gods, answer me!" But the only answer she got was Mabezo's glare. Her stomach knotted. "What did you do to Utamu??"
__________"Don't worry about him."
__________"WHAT DID YOU DO TO HIM??"
__________"As if you DESERVED to know!" A few russet strands clung to his chin. Mabezo spat a few hairs and some bloody saliva on the kopje and a red stream oozed down the rock face. "You have rejected me, and now you have betrayed me. Yet even now, I can forgive you. Even now, with your passion nearly past, I could find an hour of comfort next to your beautiful body and learn to overlook your weakness. I asked you before to make love with me. You said you would when you felt better. You seem all right now, so crouch for me Amana!"
__________Mabezo drew close to her. His muzzle, still red with her lover's blood, drew close, and his pink tongue flicked out and touched her cheek. She closed her eyes tightly and became rigid. Utamu's blood stung her nostrils and made her tremble, not with passion but with disgust. "Sweet little face, so beautiful and fine." He rubbed her full length, sighed, and then very indelicately nosed her rump. "How long I have waited for you! When I saw you first, you were a yearling, all legs and paws. But even then I saw that you were not like the others! I waited patiently for the day when you would be a lioness. The day when you would be mine at last." __________She clamped her tail down firmly, her claws extending and digging into the ground. "Please don't do this."
__________"Were you that nervous with HIM?" He reached up and pressed down on her hip with his paw. "Get down! Pretend I'm him--I don't care. Cry out his name if you like! But I want you, girl! I want you badly and I'm going to have you here and now!"
__________"No! Not while his blood is on you! Go wash in the stream!"
__________"While you run off to check on your lover?? Do I look like a fool??"
__________"Did you kill him??"
__________"Make love with me and I'll tell you!" He shoved her down with his great weight and sought to pin her there. She struggled, and his arms wrapped about her waist. "Give me a chance! I can make you happy!"
__________"Let me go!"
__________"I'm a good lover! Really I am!" He felt her slowly but surely breaking his hold. "Be still, you tramp! You promised me! Damn you, hold still! What does he have that I don't?? At least let me try ONCE to please you!"
__________"HELP!" she screamed. She turned and cuffed him violently, breaking his hold. "Don't touch me!"
__________Several lionesses looked into the clearing from the surrounding brush. A few cubs stared at the scene in disbelief. Mabezo sat panting, the blood on his face and paws, the musky scent of his excitement still lingering in the air. "Oh great! This is just great!"
__________"What happened here?" one of the lionesses asked.
__________"Isn't it obvious?" He looked at each of the pride sisters one by one. "This lioness had the nerve to warm the belly of a ROGUE! A lion who never lifted a PAW to help you! She promised me her love. But her promises are footprints in the sand, one gentle breeze and they are swept away!"
__________"Is this so?" one of the lionesses asked Amana. "Tell me it is not so, and I will hear you out."
__________Amana said nothing, but looked away.
__________"Amana! Is this so??"
__________Still, there was no response. The lionesses murmured among themselves and glared at Amana.
__________Mabezo gnashed his teeth with rage. "Yes, her lover's blood is on my jaws! He was so worked up that he wouldn't run from me! Who knows what she promised HIM!" He took in a deep breath, then let it out. "Well I promised him something, and I kept that promise!"
__________Amana shrieked. "Oh gods! No, no!" She sobbed. "What have you done with Utamu??"
__________He looked at her and smirked. "It's not my word against hers! She admits it! And knowing her guilt, I STILL asked her to make love to me! Maybe I was a little rough! Maybe I felt she should keep ONE promise in her life!" He spat again.
__________"Have mercy!" she stammered, looking at the lionesses. "Don't let him force me! Please!"
__________"Amana, you made me look like a brute and a fool before my own pride! Don't worry--I wouldn't have you now if you were the last lioness on earth! Not if you rolled on your back and BEGGED me!"
__________Amana bowed her head.
__________Each of the pride sisters came up and nuzzled Mabezo. Several of them glared at Amana and made hateful remarks.

__________"Look how you've hurt him, you hussy! He loved you the most! Don't you even care??"
__________"You led him on! You should be ASHAMED! If you were my daughter, I'd cuff you senseless!"
__________"How could you not love that dear, sweet, handsome lion??"
__________"Why don't you just GO AWAY!"

__________The last statement carried a certain weight. One by one each of the lionesses turned their backs to Amana. Then Mabezo stalked around behind her and joined the other lionesses, looking the other way. Amana knew what it meant, but even in the moment of her rejection, she cried out, "Mabezo, did you kill him??"
__________He said, "If you're still here when I turn around, I'll kill YOU!"
__________Amana was shunned. She had become a rogue lioness.


CHAPTER 1: NOT LIKE US

The leopard's family got the gout
From eatin' too much speckled trout;
His Mammy dreamed of polka dots,
That's how the leopard got his spots
-- "Song of the South"
__________Amana's forbidden love had borne fruit. She wandered the hinterlands with three hungry cubs. Tending them alone, she had to scramble to hunt and protect them from danger while teaching them lessons they needed to survive. She considered herself unfortunate.
__________In the same area was a leopardess named Jaha with three hungry cubs. She took her position for granted, tending them alone, scrambling to hunt and protect them from danger while teaching them lessons they needed to survive. She considered herself blessed.
__________Nature destined the lioness and leopardess to have an uneasy relationship. Amana and Jaha competed for much of the same prey. Whenever Amana saw a carcass hanging in a tree, she would say, "May your teeth fall out!" And when Jaha saw a carcass lying on the ground, she would say, "May the jackals gnaw your bones!" Still Amana and Jaha were large cats, a tie they could not ignore or depreciate, and from time to time, the two would banter gossip from a safe distance. Often on the hunt Jaha would call out from her perch in an acacia tree, "Where is the prey tonight?"
__________"Do you think I would tell you?"
__________It was their little joke. But when food was involved, the jokes stopped.
__________One day, Amana smelled carrion. She cautiously led her cubs forward to a point, then told them to hide in the grass and not move. There was no telling what had made prey, or if it was still around.
__________Jaha saw the lioness coming. She raised the fur on her back and tried to look large and threatening, but she only weighed half as much as Amana. For honor's sake, she fought a brief one-sided tussle with her mighty opponent, but her determination was not as strong as her common sense. Jaha could not afford a crippling injury.
__________Amana waited till she was sure all was safe, then she called to her cubs who sprang out of cover. They did not eat meat yet, but they understood it meant life to their mother.
__________"Why did we take her food?" Jamili asked.
__________"If I don't eat, there's no milk for you."
__________"How about the leopardess? Does she have cubs?"
__________"Probably so."
__________"Are they going to go hungry?"
__________"Probably not. She'll hunt again."
__________"It doesn't seem fair. I mean, you could hunt again."
__________"Jamili! That's not very kind! Don't you want me to eat?"
__________"Yes, but...." Jamili looked down. "I mean, you always tell us to be fair. Like when I pushed Kata down and wouldn't let her up. You said...."
__________
"I know what I said. Sure, we have to be fair to each other. But honey, that's a leopard. It's different with her."
__________"Why?"
__________"Well--if we were in a pride, we'd be able to do lots of things we can't do now. I told you all about living in a pride. You'd have someone to take care of you when I went hunting, and we could afford to be more fair to other people."
__________The cub thought for a moment. "Why don't we join up with the leopardess and make a pride??"
__________"Yes!" Kata said. "Please, Momma! Let's do it!"
__________Amana saw a small insurrection forming. "Honey, don't talk nonsense!"
__________"But it would work! Really! She could be our auntie, and we could play with the cubs."
__________"That sounds very sweet. And I love you all for thinking it. But leopards are different from us--they wouldn't want to run in groups even if you asked them. They just don't care for others the way we do."
__________Jamili sulked. "It just doesn't seem fair."
__________The mother, in an attempt to be lighthearted said, "OK, so it's not fair. I'm bigger than she is and I wanted it. Satisfied?" She stopped eating long enough to fence with the cub, gently pawing him as he took his best swats at her. Then she shoved him down firmly but gently. "I'm bigger than you are, too! But with time that will change. I love you, you little squirt!" Kata and Hamu pounced on her and began to tug at her ears.
__________
Her patient humor had saved the day and peace had been restored.


CHAPTER 2: HUNGRY

__________Jaha the leopardess finally returned to her cubs and collapsed with a hare in her jaws that afforded her precious little strength to produce milk. Her cubs mobbed her, nursing her and rubbing her face, bringing a laugh of affectionate mirth from her tired features. A low grunt of contentment welled up from inside her, and her eyes half closed.
__________"Did you behave yourselves while I was gone?"
__________"Sure did," the young male said, not releasing her teat. "We saw this funny monkey...."
__________Jaha winced. "Don't talk while you're nursing! That hurts!"
__________The male cub padded over to her face and snuggled under her chin, rubbing his small face on hers.
__________"All right, Honey! I'm not upset. Really. You go get your milk before your sisters drain me."
__________He kissed her, then hurried back to his place, shoving aside his two siblings who grunted with irritation.
__________With care not to disturb her cubs, Jaha drew what nourishment she could from her small prize, and thought about the large kill she had been driven from. "May your bones crack," she muttered half-heartedly. It was hard for her to feel very angry with their tiny mouths gently caressing her stomach.
__________A leopard passed by and saw her there. "How are you doing, Little Mama?"
__________
She smiled. "Fine, Little Papa. You wouldn't happen to have some meat to spare, would you?"
__________He nodded. "Just a little. What's the matter? Game wasn't scarce last time I looked."
__________"Neither was that rogue lioness. I was close enough to taste that antelope, but I didn't get a single bite.... She cut my shoulder."
__________He nodded gravely. "I'll see what I can do. That may be precious little." He nuzzled her, then went on his way.
__________The rogue Amana was too wary to wait for the leopard's response. If he attacked her on the ground, she would have the advantage, but if he attacked from above, he could come hurtling down on her from the trees like a vengeful thunderbolt. The only things that frightened her more than the leopards were the lions. And so she stayed in the edge of the forest, rarely venturing onto the savanna of her birth. A few times she had taken her cubs into the marvelous expanse of grass to acquaint them with their heritage, but it was always done quickly and with fear. Survival in the forest was their main priority.
__________She surveyed her small territory with a light tread and a firm stare. Amana was a kindly soul and a good mother. She wanted her cubs to have fun and feel loved before their youth slipped away forever. She always took time to play with the cubs, but offered them special attention to reward good behavior. She would play a game with them or tell them a story. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it did not, and the cubs discovered that a miserable whine and a downcast face could reap the same reward.
__________As quickly as she could, Amana bolted down large chunks of meat while the cubs sat patiently nearby.
__________Jamili, the more adventurous one, crept up and looked at the warm meat suspiciously. Then he ventured to sniff of the raw, tart smell of antelope blood.
__________"How do you eat that stuff?"
__________"It's not bad. Someday you'll like it too."
__________He cautiously flicked out his tongue and touched it. His nose wrinkled. "Ugh!"
__________"Maybe you're too young for it. Later when you're more grown up, you'll like it."
__________It was a challenge he could not turn down. He bit into the red flesh and pulled at it. Using his back teeth like shears, he freed a large bite. And overcoming his reluctance, he chewed the musky wad and eventually swallowed it.
__________"Oh, look at my big boy!" Amana cooed. "How was it??"
__________"It was...." He sat a moment with blood running down his chin. "....not half bad."
__________Amana laughed gently. "Well now, you've taken a big step today. Someday you won't nurse anymore. You'll just eat meat like your father did."
__________"For the rest of my life??" he said, disgusted.
__________"But for a while you can have all the milk you want. OK?"
__________He smiled a relieved smile. Then he saw his mother's ears flick upright. "What's wrong??"
__________"Hsssh! Listen!"
__________The distant sound of hyena laughter was beginning to get closer.
__________"We have to get out of here," Amana said. She did not have to repeat herself. As she rushed away from her bounty, the antelope was destined to feed a third owner. Indeed, as Amana had told her cubs, there is no fairness between species.


CHAPTER 3: SUMMER LIGHTNING

__________There was a storm cloud gathering. The sky was leaden gray and the restless wind smelled damp.
__________Jaha called softly to her cubs. "We need to head for the shade tree. It will ward off the worst of it."
__________"Can't we go to the cave? That tree drips!"
__________"You know there's a ratel in there. It's too dangerous."
__________"But he's littler! You can run him out!"
__________"Smaller," Jaha corrected. "And smaller doesn't always mean weak. The tree will do just fine."
__________Amana also called to her cubs. "It's going to rain," she said.
__________Her cubs complained--they didn't like getting wet. But the lioness was delighted. Rain meant new green grass, and that meant more game.
__________Lightning began to strike in the still-dry air. Her cubs came and huddled against her as the terrifying flashes were followed by loud, hollow booming. It struck the ground in several places. Amana herself was not fond of lightning. Well she might not be, for one of the bolts struck dry dead grass..
__________A zebra colt walked over to the growing golden flame. He started to prod it with his hoof, but his mother called out in alarm. "Keep away! Keep away!"
__________
The dry season had left the grass parched and turned the stalks to tinder waiting to explode into flame. The strong wind fanned the fire and carried sparks far afield to spawn new patches.
__________Jaha the leopardess sniffed, then looked at the sky. "Oh gods," she gasped.
__________"What's wrong, Mother?"
__________"We're going to have to get you to safety! The fire is coming!"
__________The leopardess grasped one of her cubs by the back of the neck. In a heart-stopping ascent, the cub was whisked off the ground and up the trunk of the tree. The shrieking cub was deposited in a high fork of the tree and left there. "Now don't you move a muscle!"
__________"I won't! I p-promise!"
__________Jaha turned to head down the tree for the others.
__________The flames quickly spread, driving all kinds of wildlife in a panic run before its deadly embrace. Amana had lived through brush fires before, but she noticed with panic that the fire was all around them. There was no knowing where was safe to go in the confusion. Then she thought about the water. The fire would not go there.
__________"We can make it to the river," she said, trying to remain calm. Fire was all around her and to reach the water she would have to lead the cubs through a maze of small fires lit by wind blown sparks. She could not afford to look too worried.
__________"In here!" Hamu shouted. He ducked into a small burrow under a mass of thorn bushes.
__________"Get out of there!" Amana shouted. "Come out at once!"
__________"But the fire's coming!"
__________The other two cubs ducked in behind him. Amana went to the hole and looked inside. "We have to get to the water!"
__________All she heard in reply was frightened whimpering. She was about to call them again, but noticed with horror that the wall of fire was closing around on all sides. The thorn bushes caught flame on one corner.
__________Weaverbirds fled shrieking from nests within their old fortress. It had been a safe haven for them, but within seconds, the entire huge mass of dry vegetation was an inferno.
__________"Come out!! Oh gods, come out!!" She tried to force a reassuring tone to her voice. "We can swim to safety, but you have to hurry. Come out-NOW!"
__________The heat from the dry vegetation was overwhelming. Firmly she said, "Come out right now or I'll give you a good cuffing! Do you HEAR ME??" Suddenly, the mass of material made a cracking noise, and in a shower of sparks, began to collapse. Amana turned to face the oncoming flames. She sprang high and far, reaching a gray, smoky patch. Picking her way from patch to patch, she avoided the flames and made it to the safety of the river.
__________Jaha lay on the ground where she had fallen, whimpering. It was not the pain from her injured hip that made her cry out, but the oncoming wall of fire. Kaharabu was safely in the crown of a tree, but the two females where huddled next to her. She took Tamani by the scruff of the neck, and with a supreme effort struggled to a half-crouch. She looked at the tree and with a desperate lunge sank her front claws into the bark. Her hindquarters answered with an agonizing denial, and she dropped the cub to shriek. Her hip was broken.
__________"Momma! The fire's coming! Momma!! Help us!!"
__________"I'm trying, Tami! I'm trying very hard!"
__________"But it's coming closer!" Tamani began to squeal. "Oh gods! We're going to die! We're going to burn up like grass!" She began clawing ineffectively at the trunk in a desperate attempt to climb. "Mommy, Mommy! Help me up!"
__________Jaha attempted to boost the struggling cub upward, but Tamani just slid back down. "Use your claws, honey! Dig in and hold!"
__________"I'm trying! I'm trying! Help me, Mommy! Help me!"
__________Tamani lunged desperately and tried to sink her claws into the tree bark. For one moment she remained suspended vertically, then she panicked and lost her grip. Halima climbed on her recumbent body and tried to use it like a step, but she had no better luck.
__________Jaha worked herself around where she was lying on her side. In a calm voice, she said, "Tamani, Halima, come here my darlings. Just lay down and nurse me. You have time for a quick meal."
__________"No we don't! We have to get out of here!" Tamani said.
__________"Everything's going to be fine. Lay by me and I will wish the flames away for you."
__________"You can do that??"
__________"It's very hard, but I can. I did it before, once long before you were born."
__________"Really??"
__________"Yes, really."
__________Her calm voice reassured them, and they reluctantly settled down to nurse. A tongue of flame drew close to her forepaw, and she moved it away. "Don't look up now, but I think it's working. The fire's going back in the other direction." She stroked them with a paw, flinching slightly as a couple of glowing sparks landed in her fur. "Yes, it's going to miss us. Everything's going to be OK." She looked about at the wall of flame closing in on her. "Just nurse for a while and let me feel you close to me. I love you so much. So very much." She looked up in the crown of the tree and saw Kaharabu's small face staring at her wide-eyed. His small mouth was open to speak, but she shook her head. A tear ran down her cheek and she silently mouthed, "Don't watch, my love. Look away."


CHAPTER 4: THE BURROW

__________It took a long time for the flames to subside. Probably not as long as it seemed to Amana, however. She went to the burrow site. The hole was covered with ash and charcoal where the thorn bushes had collapsed and burned. She worked furiously to clear away the rubble and locate the hole. "Hamu? Jamili? Kata??"
__________No sound came from the burrow.
__________She called louder. "Hamu! Jamili! Kata!! For the gods' sake, answer me!!"
__________For a moment she wondered if they were still in there. Maybe they had fled at the last moment. But her hope was dashed by an odor coming from the hole. Mixed in the strange odor was the recognizable trace of her cubs and it was strong.
__________She began frantically digging. "Hamu!! Jamili!! Kata!! Come out!! Oh gods!!"
__________She saw a tiny leg. Tenderly but urgently she grasped it in her jaws and pulled a cub from the hole. It was Jamili, sooty and reeking of ash. And he was terribly still. "Jamili!! My little baby!!"
__________She licked his face and nudged him in a vain attempt to get his small eyes to open. "Jamili!! Wake up, dearest!! Wake up!! It's your Mommy!!" She finally nipped him--hard--bringing a small trace of red blood. It was no use; Jamili was dead.
__________The other two cubs were still trapped. As much as it hurt, she had to leave him behind and attend to his littermates.
__________Frantically, she returned to the hole and dug. She worked quickly, throwing brown dirt onto the gray pall of ash. Before long, she brought out tiny Kata's body. She still had a look of fear frozen on her face.
__________
"Kata?? Darling??" Amana licked the tiny face with desperation and shook her with a paw. There was no response.
__________
In shock, she turned at once to the hole and looked at the small golden tail that protruded. With a sudden yank, she sent Hamu tumbling out of the hole onto the scorched ground. His eyes were open, and for a brief moment Amana's heart skipped in a rush of hope. "Hamu! Oh my dear sweet Hamu! Wake up, sweetheart!" She nudged him. "Hamu?? Look at me, Hamu!!" The small face stared unblinking, but it was the motionless stare of the dead.
__________
Amana backed from the three cubs. There they lay side-by-side in death as they had once been in life. "Oh my gods, they're all dead! All of them!" She ran back and shoved them with a paw. "Wake up! Oh gods, please!! Wake up!!"
__________They lay unmoving.
__________She fell to the ground and shrieked. "Oh gods, not my children!" She rolled on her back and sobbed. "How can you do this to me!! They were all I had!! Gods, help me!! Don't leave me like this!!"
__________Maybe this was her punishment for leading on the Pride Male and then crouching with a rogue. Even if she had once let Mabezo take her down, her cubs might have been spared. In looking back, she could remember the many kind and loving things Mabezo had done for her. Indeed, he was smitten with her once. How he had humbled himself before her, promising her the moon and sun if only she would let him make love to her! And she had said, "Soon." She delayed him time and time again with, "soon."
__________Apparently she did it once too often.
__________She did not want Mabezo as a lover. Was that enough reason for her to do what she did? Might she have learned to love him? Perhaps that very moment she might have laid in the grass beside her husband and heard his loving voice as the cubs played around them. The more she thought about it, the worse she felt.
__________Utamu was gone. Now his children were gone as well. But surely the gods would not have punished the innocent children?? No, she had to deny it or lose her faith in them.
__________She laid for a while in the barren ash-covered field looking at the empty hole. Pulling Jamili's still-warm body next to her, she stroked it tenderly and felt her sobs die down to an occasional spasm. Only that morning he had tried his first meat. Still, he was too young for such a grown-up thing as death. Too young to be away from his mother on long, lonely nights. Who would tell him stories? Who would reassure him when he cried?
__________Amana was waiting for something to happen--what it was, she did not know. How long she spent there, she could not tell. It may have been minutes or hours, but eventually the warmth went out of his small body and he began to feel cool. It was a sign-it was time for her to go.
__________When she could finally stir, she kissed their small faces one last time and left them for the scavengers. She had no romantic notions about death, and she left while they were still intact.
__________Wandering about in a daze, Amana saw that the fire was a fickle mistress, one who burned large patches with her ardor, but left others completely untouched. And in the burned places were other small victims. A palm squirrel lay huddled in a small ball, moaning from the huge gaping fly-infested burn on his back. Possibly if she looked long enough there would be something large enough to interest her.
__________She smelled a strong reek of burnt fur and flesh, and headed for the source looking for a meal. What she saw was the leopardess Jaha, her scorched lips still pulled back in the hideous snarl of her death agony. Beside her were huddled two dead cubs.
__________Vultures had also arrived. They lost no time in heading first for the delicacy of her eyes which they fought over before ripping open her belly. They showed mild interest in the two cubs, but once their eyes had been pecked out, they turned and concentrated on their large prize.
__________Wandering about aimlessly was a third leopard cub, a small male. Ironically he was untouched. He watched with a blank stare as the large birds dismantled what was left of his family. Mercifully he was too stunned to feel the full measure of grief.
__________Amana started away in horror, but the cub, seeing her, tried to get her attention. "I'm hungry," he said rather directly, sitting in the ash of a grass tussock. "Do you have any milk?"
__________No one would be feeding her cubs that night. She felt a surge of pain penetrate her numbness and knot her stomach. She turned and fled sobbing across the ash-strewn desolation.


CHAPTER 5: THE DEVASTATION

__________By herself, Amana collapsed into a ball of misery and reflected on her loneliness, now all the greater. First her mate had died. Then her pride had rejected her. Now her cubs were gone. Tears came like rain, and with them the soot-darkened clouds opened as nature wept, washing down the landscape and fertilizing the dry ground with its life-giving power.
__________Amana wallowed in self-pity, as well she might. The faces of death would haunt her the rest of her days. "There was nothing I could do," she said, more as if she were trying to convince herself than as if she believed it. "There was nothing I could do. The fire had come, and they wouldn't leave the hole! I had no time to dig them out!"
__________Just then, having trailed her, the leopard cub said, "I'm hungry." She turned and saw him, his spotted pelt soaked with rain and marked with ash-fed mud up to his belly. "I'm so hungry! Please help me! Momma's dead." He began to sob. "Please help me!"
__________"I'm sorry, I just can't. Go away and leave me alone!"
__________She fell to the ground and began to count her options. She could try to go home. Mother would be glad to see her, at least. Maybe after the fire they would have pity on her and all would be forgiven. She would see if she didn't still have the power to melt Mabezo's icy wrath with her smile and charm as she once did.
__________But the leopard cub would not stay silent. "I'm so hungry! Please help me! I'm scared!"
__________She looked at the cub. Her cubs were fair, he was black spotted. His nose was black. He even smelled different. Still, she saw the tears in his eyes. She wanted to block out the sight. After all, he was just a leopard. A lioness would never suckle a leopard cub. Leopards were enemies, competitors. They didn't even behave like decent cats. Living in trees, stalking about alone without a law or a structure. Kind of like her for the past few months, to be sure.....
__________She looked at the cub, and tears began to run down her face for her own cubs. She patted the ground with her paw, then laid on her side. "Come here, Chui ("leopard")."
__________The cub came reluctantly at first. The lioness was as strange to him as he was to her. Still, her voice was gentle, and her look was motherly. He trundled up to her, crouched by her belly, and seized one of her teats, drawing the warm milk into his wet, shivering body. She was soft and warm and the gentle fondle of her paw on his back soothed his jangled nerves. He nursed for a long time, kneading her abdomen to keep the flow coming, then when he was sated came and lay with his head tucked under her chin. The lioness never told him she would adopt him-- she didn't have to. He lay pressed against her body and wept softly. The lioness began to sob, holding the tiny furball to her with a paw as her body shook with grief.


CHAPTER 6: NIGHT TERRORS

__________By that evening, the sun had come out. The smell of fire had been washed out of the air and Chui began acting like a normal leopard cub, assuming that Amana could guess how one acted. Chui took to her right away, showering his savior with all the affection he could muster. In return, Amana responded like a normal lioness, becoming protective of her spotted ward and answering his calls with patience and kindness. There were some adjustments in store for both of them, but for the unlikely pair life clung stubbornly to the same pattern it had followed before the fire.
__________But the night brought with it time to contemplate the new order of things. Time came for Jamili to ask for his usual bedtime story and for the first time he had failed to do so. Chui snuggled next to Amana's soft belly to sleep, but two awful gaps were left unfilled. For a moment, Amana felt absent-mindedly to pull her other cubs close to her but her paw explored only open air. She rested her paw on the leopard cub and idly stroked his soft spotted fur until she could fall into a troubled sleep.
__________Amana's brief courtship with sleep did not last long. Her sensitive maternal awareness was pricked by the soft sounds coming from the leopard cub. She awoke to see him moaning, his paws twitching and his eyelids fluttering.
__________Amana gently shook him. The moaning got louder, and his eyes opened with a start. He sprang on her screaming, "They're on fire!"
__________"It was a dream," the lioness said.
__________"Mom's on fire!!" The cub ran about in tight, frantic circles in the moonlight. "We gotta get away!"
__________"It's too late," Amana said. "It's over. She's gone."
__________He looked at her and remembered where he was and what had happened. His desolate eyes began to puddle with tears. He took in a deep breath and wailed, "I want my Momma!" As quick as he could take breaths, he let them out in high-pitched protracted shrieks that pierced Amana's heart and startled a flock of ravens into raucous flight.
__________The lioness came and lay next to him, pushing him to her side, rocking his tear stained face with a paw, and fondling him gently. "I know you're lonely. That's OK. We're both sad now, but the gods are going to help us through this." Tears began to stream down her cheek and she was wracked by sobs. "Please oh gods, help us through this!"
__________"I want my Momma!"
__________"I know, Chui! I know!" She kissed the leopard cub. "I want my cubs! Honey, you can't have everything you want, so you have to learn to be happy with what you have."
__________"I'm trying," Chui stammered, "but I want my Momma! It's not fair!"
__________"Few things are," Amana said, nuzzling him desperately. "But you need another Momma and I need another cub. Somebody out there brought us together, and we should go on with our lives and be glad." She rolled on her back in anguish and moaned plaintively. "I hope they went to a better place. Somewhere that they're not hungry or frightened or alone."
__________For a long time, they huddled together and wept miserably. In a sad sort of way it felt good to express their anguish rather than keeping it bottled up inside. Then when the sobs died down to an occasional sniffle, he looked at her. "What were their names?"
__________"My sons were Hamu and Jamili. And I had a little girl named Kata. That was my mother's name. No one else knew what their names were. I was afraid I'd die someday and it would be like they never existed, but they DID exist and they were beautiful and funny and loving and soft and they deserved better than to choke to death in that hole!"
__________The cub kissed her and snuggled closer still under Amana's paw. "I saw my Mom burn up," he said in a halting voice. "She fell out of the tree, and she couldn't climb anymore." He shuddered. "My sisters were screaming."
__________"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
__________"Momma told me not to look, that I'd have nightmares, but I had to look. I just had to." He began to cry. "Will the dreams ever go away?"
__________"Poor Chui!" Amana began to give him an affectionate grooming with her warm pink tongue. "The dreams will go away. But they won't always be bad. I dreamed about my cubs, and it was a very happy dream. They were nursing and it was so real I swear I could feel their little mouths pressed against me." She paused a moment and said, "Chui, what was your mother like? Was she like me?"
__________"Yes. She was nice--like you. Her name was Jaha."
__________"Jaha," she said softly. "That's a beautiful name. I wish I had been kinder to her."

__________Tears began to run down her face. "What did she call you?"
__________Timidly he said, "Kaharabu."
__________"I love you, Kaharabu." She cleaned behind his ears, kissed him again, then said, "Let's get some sleep, my little Chui. And don't worry- if you have nightmares, I'll wake you up."


CHAPTER 7: THE CONFRONTATION


__________The next day started off on a positive note. The light of the sun dispelled the powers of the night terrors, and there were lots of things to do to take their mind off grief.
__________Beyond the burned places were other patches of grass that remained untouched. It felt good to leave the ash behind with its unpleasant associations. Chui--for she could remember the name better than Kaharabu--turned out to be a little chatterbox, just like her lion cubs were, and Amana lost herself in answering his many questions.
__________"Why don't you have any spots?"
__________"Because I'm a lioness, and we don't have spots."
__________"But why?"
__________"Because we live in tall grass. This way we blend in better."
__________"Why do you live in tall grass?"
__________"Because we eat the animals that live there."
__________"But why? Mom always hunted here."
__________"But she was smaller. Bigger cats like me don't do as well in a forest."
__________"But why?"
__________Amana looked down and kissed him. "We were made for two different lifestyles-leopards for the forest and lions for the grassland. That's so we could both have a home and not get in each other's way too much."
__________"Then why are you here?"
__________"Because I did something very bad and I was punished."
__________Chui gasped. "YOU did something bad??"
__________"Yes. But I made up for it. I did something very good. You see, if I had stayed home, I wouldn't be here right now, and you'd be all alone and very hungry. Aren't you glad I came here?"
__________"Yes!"
__________Chui's curiosity stopped at once. He was a cat like Amana, and he understood that after an error was punished, it was not spoken of again.
__________Just as Amana's own cubs had been before, Chui was fascinated by the tuft on the end of her tail. He batted at it as it swung back and forth. Then suddenly, her tail stopped swinging and stood out tensely. Chui froze.
__________"Chui," she hoarsely whispered, "don't answer me. Be completely still. Don't move."
__________Chui was obedient, but without moving his head he scanned the trees with his eyes, trembling in fear.
__________Amana looked about and sniffed the air. Her hackles rose, and she whispered, "I don't like this place. We're going to walk away calmly when I say. Don't run. Don't move fast. Just turn and we'll.."
__________One of the trees shook and a burst of golden fury sailed vertically down the trunk and with awful momentum surged toward them. The leopard halted only a couple of lengths before Amana and roared, fire in his eyes and light glinting off his white daggers.
__________"Leave this forest! This is MY land! Go back to your grassland, lioness!"
__________Amana snarled loudly and terribly. "I go where I please!"
__________"Then prepare to.." The male leopard caught sight of the small spotted body that watched him terrified from the bushes. He was so surprised, he barely had time to duck when Amana aimed a vicious cuff at his face. "Truce! Truce! Lioness, what are you doing with him??"
__________"He's mine," she said. "His mother is dead."
__________He approached the cub and his harsh expression softened. Amana snarled again, but stopped when he gently sniffed the cub. "Oh gods! Kaharabu! I thought you were dead!"
__________She cautiously drew closer. "You're his father, aren't you?"
__________"What if I am??" He glared at her, but there was fear lurking in his aggressive stance. "I want my son. He's all I have left. If you hurt him, there'll be hell to pay!"
__________She motioned him away from the cub to talk privately. "Look, I've been feeding him. What will you do with him? Nurse him?"
__________"You've been feeding him??" The leopard looked down. "I didn't realize.I mean.you're a lioness. I thought.." He looked at her. Chui had left his place and snuggled against her side, looking at his father and back at his new mother. "It seems I'm at your mercy," the leopard said. "So what happens now?"
__________She said softly, "If I'm to raise him, I'm to be under your protection. You will not drive me off my kills. No more claws and fangs from you. And if there is any decency in you, you might want to provide some meat for your remaining cub."
__________"I resent that," the leopard said. "You lions think you're so much better than us. I was a good husband and a good father. I bear the scars of my duty. Lions, other leopards, cheetahs, hyenas. I couldn't fight the fire."
__________"Neither could I." She looked down. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you like that."
__________"Look, as long as you're taking care of my son, you're my mate. It's time you realized what that means."
__________She snapped back to attention. "Don't you even THINK of pulling me in the bushes!"
__________"I don't want to pull you in the bushes, don't worry. But you will recognize my authority here. I have the right to check up on my son and see that you're doing your job. And may your gods help you if you mistreat my boy!"
__________"Or you'll WHAT??" She raised herself to full height and growled. She presented quite a terrifying stance. Then she looked back at her cub who was miserable and afraid. "Look, let's not argue in front of OUR son, agreed?"
__________The leopard came up quietly, glanced at her uneasily, but nuzzled her. She touched his cheek with her pink tongue. "We have an understanding then?"
__________"Yes," the leopard said, kissing her back stiffly. "Well then, if you're going to be my mate and raise our son, what is your name?"
__________"Amana. And you, my `mate'?"
__________"Fahari."
__________"Honor, eh?" She half smiled. "It fits."
__________"Thanks--Amana." The leopard went to Chui and sniffed him, then nuzzled him gently. He crouched sphinx-like, and Chui sat between his forepaws, snuggling tightly under his chin. "Have you kindled before?"
__________"No. This was my first litter."
__________"Unfortunate. If you need advice, please come to me any time."
__________"That's very nice, but I remember what my mother did when I was his age."
__________"Bring your other cubs out. Let me see them and I will protect them as well."
__________"They're all dead," Amana said, a tear running down her cheek. "Little Chui is my family now."
__________He came and kissed her again, this time with feeling. Pawing her face gently, he said, "I'm so sorry. From now on, it's the three of us."
__________"The three of us?"
__________He nuzzled her again. "I hope you'll be happy here."


CHAPTER 8: CAT IN A TREE


__________Chui's heart enshrined a pure and deep love for his natural mother that would endure forever. And from time to time, he paused in his play to sit sullenly or even softly weep for his dead family. But his young heart could not deal with the weight of grief all the time. He began to think about the present more and more, and the past less and less, till by the end of the first week, his life had practically normalized.
__________Amana had experienced some healing as well. Between Chui's love and the demands of hunting, most of the time she could deal with the death of her cubs by not dealing with it. She would smile and lavish affection on Chui, then she would go in pursuit of large game with focus and determination. Once in a while when she could not crowd out her grief, she would make the pilgrimage to the burrow where they spent their final moments and lie quietly as the tears stained her cheeks. But those moments were getting further and further apart with the passage of time.
__________Without siblings, lion or leopard, Chui spent most of his time with his mother or in solitary play. That made him look all the more forward to his father's visits. And it made him prize all the more the one thing his mother couldn't give him--climbing lessons. Fahari gracefully stepped in to Jaha's role, coaxing Chui up the tree with praise and cajoling. Amana watched the full grown leopard with amusement as he pranced about on the branches shouting, "Whee! Boy, isn't this fun! Come on up, Kaharabu!"
__________Chui huddled against his mother, watching his Dad's apelike antics in the tree with mixed fear and longing.
__________"Why don't YOU come up?" Fahari called down to her. "See, son, even your Mom likes to climb trees." He motioned at Amana. "Show him how much you like to climb, dear."
__________Amana had not climbed but twice since she was a cub. She sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and lunged at the trunk. Her foreclaws sank deeply into the bark, and she pulled up, scrambling for purchase with her hind feet. As soon as she could plant them firmly, she shoved with her hind legs and grasped again at the trunk with her forepaws. Half a length off the ground, she clung to the tree in a panic.
__________Fahari came to her in a disconcerting vertical posture, head down. They met vertically, nose to nose, and he smiled at her. "You're doing wonderfully," he purred softly, kissing her gently on her nose. "Keep your eyes on me. Don't think about the ground. Just look into my eyes and follow me up."
__________With supreme skill, Fahari backed up the tree, keeping his eyes on Amana's face. The lioness took his advice, taking heart from the compassion that radiated from his eyes and the half smile that blossomed more fully with each gain of altitude. Before she knew what was happening, she had reached a hefty branch and pulled herself upon it. Fahari's smile was full and heartfelt, and he nuzzled her softly. "I'll make this up to you. I'll bring you an antelope."
__________"No need. I feel so proud of myself! I haven't seen a view like this since.." She looked away from him and scanned the distant horizon through the branches. Then she looked down at Chui far below. She gasped.
__________"Don't fall apart on me," Fahari whispered. "Call to him."
__________In an unsteady, thin voice, she said, "Chui! Come on up! It's fine!"
__________Fahari shouted, "Isn't it fun up here!"
__________Amana stammered, "Yeah, right. Uh-Chui-uh-I bet you could climb up easily. You're a leopard. Show Mommy how leopards climb trees."
__________Chui forgot his fear and ran to the base of the trunk. He began to ascend with an almost casual series of grasps with his needle-sharp claws. Fahari smiled and said, "That's my boy!" He moved on up the tree to make room for the cub.
__________Amanda panicked. "Stop it, Fahari! You're shaking the whole tree!"
__________Moments later, Chui joined her on the limb, swelling with pride and nuzzling his mother's anxious face. "We did it! We did it!"
__________"Sure we did, honey! You're my brave little leopard!"
__________Chui beamed and nuzzled her again. "Now show me how to get down!"
__________"It's just like getting up, but in reverse." Amana looked down, then tensed. "Fahari, why don't YOU show him how to get down. And do it real slowly so he'll catch on the first time."
__________Fahari smiled. "Anything you say."


CHAPTER 9: UPS AND DOWNS


__________Chui's first halting effort to climb soon led him to discover a leopard's obsession with vertical space. Someday he would literally rule his territory from side to side, front to back and top to bottom. He became a master of the art of climbing with a speed that both astonished and dismayed his lioness mother. She liked to keep him close by, but there were times when that was not possible, and her attempts to climb usually ended in disaster.
__________Chui understood her limits all too well, and being a cub he was inclined to test them on occasion. Once when Amana was very angry with Chui-and that happened rarely-he quickly went up the nearest tree.
__________"Come down here this instant!" she cried. "I said you were going to get cuffed, and you are!"
__________"No way!"
__________She locked eyes with him and glared harshly. "It's going to happen sooner or later, and if it's much later, it will be much harder."
__________Chui had picked a tree that stood alone. There was no quick escape route from tree to tree, and anyhow he was too young to run away from home. He knew he was done for.
__________He crept down reluctantly and stepped before her, his eyes closed in an agony of anticipation, his teeth gritted, his tail high, his legs shaking. "Go ahead. Let's get it over with."
__________His pathetic expression of fear and agony touched her. She said, "Chui?"
__________"Owwww!"
__________"I didn't cuff you yet!"
__________"Go ahead. Let's get it over with!"
__________"I'm not going to kill you, you know. You just have to realize that bad deeds have bad consequences. When you're on your own, you won't have me to make everything all right when you're in trouble."
__________"I know," he said through clenched teeth. "I learned my lesson, Mom. Do I still have to get a cuffing?"
__________"I promised you that if you didn't stop, I'd cuff you. I always keep my promises."
__________"Even if I tell you it's OK not to?"
__________"Even if you do. Someday you'll thank me for this."
__________His eyes were still closed. His teeth gritted. "Please make it quick."
__________She drew her paw back and gave him three of the lightest possible taps. "Ohe! Ow! Oww!!" His eyes opened. He realized that she actually was patting him. Chui saw the smile on his mother's face, and love surged inside him. He came and put his small paws around her face and nuzzled her. "Thank you!"
__________"I love you too. But the next time you do that, I'm going to wear out your backside."
__________Amana left for the stream to quench her thirst, her little leopard cub in tow. It was a beautiful day, a slight breeze ruffling the trees, and the chirping of weaverbirds filling the sky.
__________"What's that?" Chui asked, glancing in the bushes.
__________"That's a flycatcher."
__________"Do they really catch flies?"
__________"Yes, dear. In a way they are like us. They hunt to survive."
__________"Next time you have a kill, do you mind if I try some meat?"
__________"Sure, Hon. It's about time you did. Jamili had eaten.."
__________Chui knew not to press his mother for details when she suddenly stopped like that. "I'd like to," he said quickly.
__________"Well today you'll learn something new." Amana recovered her cheerful mood gracefully. "I hope we catch something good. Different kinds of prey present a variety of flavors. All of them are pretty good when you're hungry, but some are better than others. My personal favorite is-SNAKE!!"
__________"What??"
__________Amana stopped in her tracks, looking at the long black and tawny ringed form that dangled its head from a low branch. A little further down the branch, Fahari looked up and grinned with innocent amusement. "Look out, leopard tails are deadly!"
__________Chui giggled and rolled on the ground. Amana merely gasped, not sure if she was more angry, relieved, or frightened. "Don't DO that!"
__________"Don't be cross. I have a kill nearby."
__________"How near?"
__________"Very near." He pushed aside a branch, revealing a full grown gazelle cached in the fork of a rather tall tree.
__________"How do you do that??"
__________"It's just a natural talent. We all have our gifts."
__________"May I have a haunch?"
__________"You may have more if you need."
__________Amana purred deeply and licked out her tongue quickly in his direction. The meaning of her gesture was clear to him, and he responded in kind. "My dear."
__________"You're really very sweet, Fahari. I wouldn't take your kill, but a haunch would be nice. Little Chui wants to try some. Well, I shouldn't call him LITTLE. He's starting to act so GROWN UP."
__________"Great! And isn't he growing like bunchvine! I bet he's a paw taller if he's a day older!"
__________Chui beamed with pride and strutted about.
__________"I'll pull it down for you," Fahari said. "I'm sure you'll want to haul it away."
__________"Not really, dear." She enthusiastically sprang for the trunk of the tree and sank her claws into the bark. With much huffing and puffing, and more than a couple of missed toeholds, he still managed to do a respectable job of climbing to the low branch. With pride and more than a little affection, she headed out along the branch to her protector. She drew near to him with the pretext of grooming his face, but whispered, "Fact is, it's nice to have someone more my own age to talk to. I can't talk with Chui when I get worried, you know. We mustn't worry him."
__________"What do you worry about?"
__________"Right now I'm raising a small cub all alone."
__________"All alone?" Fahari asked, a little reproachfully.
__________"Well, not all alone. But when I have to leave him to hunt, I'm terrified. There are so many dangers out here. Cheetahs, hyenas and leop...."
__________"Leopards?" Fahari nuzzled her softly. "Amana, I patrol this territory. I wouldn't let anyone hurt my son. Or you." He touched her cheek with his tongue. "Right now you're facing a greater danger."
__________"Oh?" She looked around quickly. "What's wrong?"
__________"One branch is a bit much for a leopard, a lioness and a gazelle, don't you think?"
__________She gasped. "My gods, I didn't think about that. I'll get down right now."
__________A deep cracking sound shook the trunk of the tree. Amana held perfectly still, hardly daring to breathe, and the sound stopped. "I'll take this very slowly," she whispered. "Don't move till I reach the trunk of the..."
__________The branch popped again, and with a sudden crackle it gave way, dumping Fahari, Amana and the antelope to the ground.


CHAPTER 10: WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE


__________Amana was going hunting one day, afraid to leave poor Chui alone but knowing that Fahari's watchful eye would be on him.
__________Then she saw something. A male lion! He was not walking about with the watchful look of a rogue but rather the masterful stride of a territorial male walking his boundaries.
__________"Oh gods, I'm in someone's territory!" The sight of another lion, something that should have filled her with joy, now instead made her tremble with fear. Quietly, she turned to leave, but she heard him say, "Stop! Who are you??"
__________If she had been a lion instead of a lioness, she would have been terrified. But he was male and she was female-she could charm her way out of a good cuffing, or worse. When the lion got close, she felt a surge of joy and relief. "Utamu! Oh gods, you're alive!"
__________He smiled. "Well Amana, how are you! You look great!" She nuzzled him fervently. "So you are a landed fellow now! I knew your time would come!"
__________"And you?"
__________"Well, I've been banished from my old pride."
__________"Because of me, I gather." Utamu frowned. "I'm sorry."
__________Amana licked his cheek warmly. "Out of my love for you. I'd do it again."
__________He smiled. "You could come live with us, I guess."
__________"You guess?"
__________"Bring the cubs too. You did kindle, didn't you?"
__________"Yes, but they died in the fire."
__________"Oh that's too bad." He almost sounded relieved. "I must be honest with you. We're a small pride on a small kingdom. But we will be able to support you and protect you. Don't worry--everything's going to be all right."
__________"You need to know about Chui."
__________"Chui?" He smiled. "That's an odd name! You managed to save a cub?"
__________"Well, yes."
__________"Don't listen to what I said before. We'll take care of our cub in grand style. But for heaven's sake, why name him Chui?"
__________"He's a little leopard."
__________Utamu laughed. "I always did like your sense of humor, Amana."
__________"No, he's really a leopard cub. He's a few moons old."
__________"A leopard cub?? For the gods' sake, a leopard cub??"
__________"I couldn't just let him die!"
__________"Oh yes you could! Every antelope he takes out of our mouths starves our own children! Think of THAT!"
__________"You said there was enough for all!"
__________"Yeah, but still...a leopard??" He looked at her crossly. "If you want to come in MY pride, you won't bring him with you!"
__________The lioness stared at him in shock. "But I can't just leave him to die!"
__________"Oh yes you can! For heaven's sake, he's a LEOPARD! A dirty thieving LEOPARD!"
__________The fur rose on Amana's neck. "Whatever happened to the idealistic, kindly lion I once knew?"
__________He seemed genuinely shocked. "I'm still the same person. Maybe my feet are on the ground now--out there I had time to do some thinking. I won't be a rogue again--I've been there and I don't like it. The pride sisters won't tolerate a leopard--they'll end up driving me out."
__________"You were willing to come away with me alone once."
__________"I know. But not now. Chances like this don't come every day."
__________She asks him point blank. "If you had known I was out there before, would you have come for me?"
__________He thought a moment and hesitated. "Yes, of course I would have. But I'd never take in a dirty, stinking LEOPARD."
__________She didn't know whether to be angry first or sad. Sadness won out, and a tear ran down her cheeks. "I thought the lion I loved was dead. Oh gods, I was right."
__________She turned without looking back and headed deep into her territory. Fahari was with Chui waiting for her. "How was hunting?"
__________She looked into his eyes and stalked up to him lithely.
__________"Is everything OK, Amana?"
__________"Everything is just fine," she purred, kissing his cheek.
__________"Glad to hear it," he purred, nuzzling her softly. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
__________"I just did," she replied. "And I'll never lose sight of it again."


CHAPTER 11: COMING TOGETHER


__________Fahari made regular visits to Amana and Chui. He always maintained that he was checking on his son's progress, but the friendliness he showed to Amana grew more obvious with each visit. There was no pretense on Amana's part, for she hungered for adult companionship. As a lioness, she enjoyed a few moments alone from time to time to reflect on the day and its deeds. But she had spent enough time by herself to last a lifetime.
__________In fact, Fahari's visits were becoming much more frequent, often two or more a week, and the leopard was beginning to worry that his "constant interruptions" would get on Amana's nerves.
__________One day Amana was in a particularly dark mood. She was sitting in front of the hole where her cubs had died, thinking about them, but also thinking about Mabezo. She was still a cub in her mother's eyes when Mabezo came into her life, but already she was showing signs of approaching maturity. The sparkle of her innocent young eyes and the smile that came so easily and warmly clung to his heart like vines and trapped it.
__________Mabezo respected her youth, but as days passed into months, he knew her first period would come upon her and she would seek him out. He plied her with attention and gifts, so much so that the older lionesses tended to be jealous of her. They would speak harshly of her behind her back and glare at her from a distance. But when they were ready to speak openly of their disapproval, Amana would smile and greet them with such sunshine and innocent mirth that they melted like mist in the morning sun. All would be forgiven and forgotten.
__________Amana had loved the attention Mabezo paid her, and she would kiss him and rub him full length. Often she was tempted to satisfy her secret longing, to roll on her back before him and paw his face and tell him, "I love you father." For such was her love for him.
__________Had Mabezo known this, he would have been dismayed and deeply offended. For the love she bore him was deep but bore no trace of passion. Everything she knew of passion she learned from Utamu.
__________Utamu! The very name sounded like a murmur of passion. The musky softness of his mane was her pillow, and the liquid depths of his hazel eyes satisfied a thirst no waterhole could reach. Trembling and shy, she had knelt for him in the soft grass and felt the glories of his passion, making his pleasures her own. Shuddering beneath his golden body, she knew that she could never let Mabezo take her in the grass. It would be a shameful thing, an almost unnatural act. Poor Mabezo! How disappointed he would be! Yet still her shame could not break her bonds of passion and tear her from her lover's side.
__________Cut off from her own kind and her own land, she now languished in exile. Her loneliness was more than she could bear, and the loving attention Chui paid her was merely adequate to keep her from collapsing into complete despair.
__________Fahari's arrival broke the somber mood. He smiled warmly and said, "How's my favorite girl!"
__________"Much better," Amana said with a surge of emotion. "I've missed you so much, Fahari. I wish you would spend more time with me."
__________"You do? I thought I was getting on your nerves."
__________"What a foolish thought!" she said, pawing at him and kissing his face. "How are you? Tell me what's been going on in the west."
__________"I don't really have much time. I was headed to Crescent Rock."
__________"Then let me come with you."
__________"I can't. I have to move quietly when I'm observing."
__________He started to leave, but Amana blocked his path. Trying to hold her emotions in check, she still looked at him with desperate eyes. "I would move several steps behind you. I wouldn't say a word!"
__________"What's wrong with you?"
__________Amana said, "Nothing! I'm a normal lioness, and I'm going out of my mind with loneliness!"
__________Fahari pawed at her. "Chui is your companion--that is the order of things. I come by rather often, you know. It's not like I neglect you. I see more of you than I ever saw of Jaha and I loved her dearly."
__________"Fahari--my dear--I could stay with you every day. I would do anything to please you. Give me a chance. I can rub your back, I can groom you."
__________The leopard looked at her thoughtfully. "Look, I'll tell you where I take my naps. There's a different spot each time, depending on the day. But if you remember the schedule-and you are nice and quiet-you may lay next to me.
__________After pressing her case so strongly, Amana did not come to him that day, nor did she seek him out the next. But on the third day when naptime came she stalked in quietly and laid next to him.
__________"Fahari, I sure appreciate this. I know you like to have some time alone."
__________"You're quite welcome."
__________"I'll try not to be much of a bother."
__________"You're not." He yawned, and added gently but firmly, "Still, this IS a naptime for me. Please be nice and quiet so I can sleep, OK?"
__________"Sure."
__________Amana was anxious to pass time talking with him. She used to gossip with the lionesses in her home pride, and she held her tongue only with the greatest effort. Still it felt good to have his warm body next to hers. She was grateful.
__________The next day she showed up promptly at mid-sun. She laid next to him without even a hello, but her soft, warm presence bore mute testimony to her feelings. It took a while before she felt sure he was deeply asleep, but when she dared, she began to stroke his shoulder softly with her paw. "I know this is a sacrifice for you," she whispered. "I know you like your time alone, but I just want to keep you with me forever. I want to groom you and lie next to you to watch the sunrise. I feel so safe when you're around. If only you knew how much I needed you I wish I could tell you to your face.."
__________She sighed and closed her eyes, putting her paw over his shoulder in a gentle embrace. One of his eyes half opened and a subtle smile formed on his lips.
__________Over the days ahead, her attentions began to become an expected part of his day. She would always put her paw on his shoulder and give him a little pat. He began to answer that gesture by breaking silence and saying, "Rest well, my dear."
__________He always left while she was still asleep. She tried to wake in time to bid him good bye, but he always very quietly and very gently eased out from under her paw, kissed her, and watched her for a moment before leaving.
__________Amana dared not bring Chui along on these visits. She would leave him sleeping peacefully in nearby bushes, his spots wonderfully concealing him from any enemies. It was enough that he was within range of her hearing. But one day Chui had been stung by a bee, and he was fearful and in pain. There was no leaving him, so she missed her appointment with Fahari.
__________When the sun had slid past its zenith and it was early afternoon, the leopard came to her, worried. "Oh, there you are! Thank the gods!"
__________"Fahari?"
__________He came and nuzzled her warmly. "I was worried. I thought something had happened to-Kaharabu."
__________"I missed you too," she answered, nuzzling him back. Then she batted at him with a paw, playfully challenging him.
__________He sprang up, wrapping his paws around her neck and wrestling her for all he was worth. He was small but wiry, and he knew he might win if he worked at it hard enough.
__________Chui was elated, watching the battle from the sidelines. "Come on Dad, you can do it!"
__________Amana glanced at Chui. "Silence, you little traitor!" She put up a struggle for a while, but finally, laughing, she let the smaller leopard pin her to the ground.
__________Fahari bent down panting to gloat about his victory, but she kissed him on the cheek, a warm smile on her face and the light of the sun in her hazel eyes. "Fahari, I think you're wonderful."
__________He smiled and touched her with his warm pink tongue. "My favorite girl."


CHAPTER 12: PLAYMATES


__________About the time that Chui was six moons, he and Amana were having a tussle together. After they played and tired each other out, they curled together, panting happily. Chui looks to her, "Mom, will you get me something next time you are out hunting?"
__________Amana nuzzled him and smiles, "I would get anything for my little leopard."
__________He smiled, "Can you find a brother or sister?"
__________Amana started with a blink, "Dear.why do you think that I can find you a sibling?"
__________"Sibling?" He laughed. "I just want a brother or sister!" The amusement soon gave way to curiosity. "Well, you found me, and my Mommy found me...." He stopped and nuzzled her. "Sorry. I mean Jaha."
__________"Oh no, Chui! You mean your Mommy. I don't mind that you love her and that you miss her. I'd be very disappointed if you didn't!"
__________"You would?"
__________"Sure. If you just forgot her that fast, you'd forget me that fast."
__________He smiled. "I'll never forget you fast. Or even slow." He nuzzled her again. "Yeah, I still miss her. I miss my sisters too."
__________"I know," Amana said tenderly--and with a certain relief. Another successful parental diversion to her credit!
__________"Well, I just wish--I mean--every time we wrestle, you always win."
__________"Not always."
__________"Yeah, but you let me win. You're bigger than I am. In fact, you know what? You're bigger than daddy! You're probably the biggest cat in the whole world!"
__________"Not THE biggest."
__________"Anyhow, I just want a brother or sister to play with. Find me one- -please??"
__________Amana sighed. So far leopard cubs were as single-minded as lion cubs--perhaps more so. "It's a little more complicated than that. First you need a Mommy and a Daddy...."
__________"Why?"
__________"Because the Mommy can't do it alone. She needs the Daddy to keep the land safe and bring her food once in a while. Till a Mommy and a Daddy come together and decide to have cubs, there won't be any cubs."
__________"Oh.."
__________Amana silently prayed that would hold the cub.but the silence only lasted a few seconds, "So what do they do when they come together, Mommy?"
__________She coughed a moment and straightened herself, trying to remember how her mother introduced this topic to her. "Well, you see, sometimes a Mommy and a Daddy feel a special love for each other. A special love that makes them want to be a family. They eat together and sleep together and hunt together and tell stories together. Sooner or later, everyone realizes that they are a pair, a very special pair that makes them a family. Then when they are ready to have cubs, the Mommy gets down on the ground and the Daddy comes and touches her in a special way that makes her feel very safe and happy and loved. In fact she feels so full of love that a miracle happens."
__________"What kind of miracle?"
__________"Love is a very powerful magic, Chui. And when a Mommy and Daddy love each other that much, that's what makes the cubs appear. Cubs are made out of love. Love, and lots and lots of milk and games and naps and grooming. That's why cubs are so beautiful. At first a Mommy and Daddy love each other, but it's just a feeling in their heart that no one can see or smell or touch. But when they have cubs, everyone can see it, smell it and touch it." She kissed him. "You are made of the love Fahari and Jaha felt. Your Mom is not here any more, but the love she felt for your Dad still lives on."
__________Chui smiled wistfully. "Really?"
__________"Really. Fahari really misses her. But when you're around, it doesn't hurt so bad. Someday I want you to settle down with a beautiful leopardess and have lots of beautiful cubs. I think you'd make a very nice Daddy."
__________Chui nuzzled her. "Why don't you let Daddy touch you in that special way so I can have brothers and sisters??"
__________Amana had to fight her first reaction to answer the question. She caught her breath and smiled to the cub. "Chui, I love your father dearly, but he's a leopard and I'm a lioness. It would never work."
__________"Why?"
__________"Because he'd be trying to make leopard cubs while I'd be trying to make...."
__________Amana realized the awful thing she had just said. She stopped, but not before her meaning was clear. She looked at Chui's hurt face and said, "What I really meant to say was...."
__________"Daddy wants leopard cubs, but you want lion cubs."
__________"Oh no, sweetie! No! I love all cubs alike! But you are my special little boy and I love you so much it hurts!" She groomed him frantically, working the last doubts from his mind that he was her small treasure. "Honey, I just don't know HOW to make a leopard cub. And your daddy doesn't know HOW to make a lion cub. We couldn't work together very well. I would need a real lion to have cubs and he would need a real leopardess. That's why there are different kinds of animals-- we can only have young that are just like us. Believe me, Chui, I love your Daddy. If I could, I'd have cubs with him, and if it made you happy, they would all be leopard cubs!" She kissed him. "Honey, please don't mention this to Fahari. He wants cubs too, and it would make him sad thinking about it."
__________Chui nuzzled into Amana's fur and looked up again, "Will you ever be touched by a lion in that special way?"
__________She smiled and nuzzled into him, "Maybe. But I'd have to find someone I love that special way. And right now, I love your Dad." She sighed. "He still loves your Mother. And I still love Utamu--in a way. But we have each other. When we're lonely, we can come together and we feel better."
__________"That's very sad," Chui said, looking down. "You want something you can't have."
__________It was a remarkably accurate assessment. Amana kissed him and said, "You can't have everything you want. I'm just glad to have the truly important things--and that I have sense enough to know it."
__________"I wish there was something I could do."
__________"Do you really want to cheer me up?"
__________"Yes, Mommy! Really!"
__________"Then roll over!" She shoved him on his back and nuzzled his belly until he giggled helplessly. "That's my little squirt! Yes, that's Momma's little squirt and I'm going to get you!"
__________Chui batted at her and giggled, "I love you Mommy."
__________"I love you too."


CHAPTER 13: A DIFFICULT SPOT


__________Fahari was significantly smaller than Amana. That posed certain problems in their relationship. While Amana always treated him with respect, she knew that she could best him in a fight the way she once drove his mate off a carcass. He knew it as well.
__________As the stronger party, Amana felt an extra responsibility for keeping peace in the household. She wanted Chui to respect his father and she wanted Fahari to respect himself, so she always made an effort to defer to his authority on most matters.
__________Once when Chui had turned nine moons old, Amana was walking through the hinterlands when she sighted a familiar form in the distance. Thinking it was Fahari, she moved to greet him, only to be brought up short by the fierce stare the leopard threw her way, her surprise at his belligerent attitude turning to dismay as she realized that this was a stranger. Terrified, Amana had beat a hasty retreat and sought out Fahari's favorite resting spot where he customarily took his naps in the midday heat, wishing she had some way of discerning his location. Fahari's patrol routes were endlessly varied however, and she only hoped she could catch up with him before he set out again.
__________As she was padding along a well known track, her mind frantic with the thoughts of what the intruder might be up to, a burst of snarling rose up from the direction she had come, pierced by an unearthly yowling sound. Groaning in terror, she rushed toward the source, but she was wise enough in the ways of the savanna that she knew better than to barge right in. She made the final approach quickly but cautiously, peeking from cover to see two leopards fighting.
__________She had once thought all leopards looked alike. She found that not to be the case, and she had very little trouble spotting Fahari--literally. Not only was the face she had grown to love different, but his pattern of spots, like those of any leopard, was unique.
__________"Stay here, Chui," she whispered firmly. Then she broke from cover.
__________The trespasser looked about, surprised. "What the hell...."
__________A golden lioness barreled down on him, knocking the wind from his lungs. She quickly pinned him to the ground and looked into his face with a full snarl, showing her instruments of death. "If you EVER touch him again, I'll KILL you!"
__________"Yes Ma'am," the stranger stammered. "Oh gods, please let me go! Please!"
__________"Apologize for the intrusion."
__________"I'm sorry! Oh gods, I swear it!"
__________"Very well. Now GO!"
__________She didn't have to wait long. The moment she released him, the stranger bounded off wild-eyed.
__________She looked about at Fahari, expecting a warm rush of affection. Instead he glared at her.
__________"Did you have to humiliate him like that? Leopards, winners or losers, walk with a certain dignity. You just stripped him of his."
__________Amana gaped at him, her mind struggling with his unexpected reproof. "But I.... Fahari, please don't be angry. I just love you so much, I don't want to see you hurt!"
__________"I was winning," he said. He finally relented, his face losing its tight harshness. "Still, thank you for saving me a few bruises." He looked over and saw Chui peeking out of the shrubs. He sighed. "Oh gods...."
__________"Chui was with me. You should have known I wouldn't just leave him."
__________"I know." His ears flattened back and his head hung. "You're so strong and masterful," she said, a little forcefully. "I just didn't want to see you get hurt. I love my big, strong leopard!" She stepped a few lengths away and fell to the ground, covering her eyes and making sobbing sounds.
__________He rushed over. "Are you all right?"
__________She said very theatrically, "I know you keep Chui and I safe. I hope I didn't make you angry! I just get so scared!"
__________Fahari nuzzled her and whispered, "You're a terrible story teller."
__________"I know. But is it working?"
__________"I think so. Thanks."
__________"I really meant it. I DO appreciate you, and I WAS afraid. And I'm sorry I embarrassed your rival. Tell me about your honor and your customs--I'll try hard to understand them, really I will."
__________"Did you really mean it when you said you love me?"
__________"What a foolish question! I don't say what I don't mean."
__________"Even about the gazelle last night?"
__________"Well, not very often."
__________She began to groom him, removing a few specks of blood on his shoulder and forearm. Then she glanced up and met his shining hazel eyes. He said, "Your eyes are shining." He reached over and touched her cheek with his pink tongue. "I love you too."

CHAPTER 14: AGE OF ACCOUNTABILITY


__________Amana shifted lightly and yawned, pausing to lick Chui affectionately behind an ear as he slept. The two were sprawled out together, enjoying the shade offered by the low scrub as they sought respite from the midday heat. Amana had hunted the night before and caught a meal for the two, a young gemsbok that now resided comfortably in their bellies and added to their drowsiness.
__________Suddenly, Amana sensed they weren't alone. She turned her head, looking through the underbrush. Chui was disturbed by her movement and looked with her.
__________"Mother?"
__________"Sss..someone is out there." She paused and looked hard at one particular section of greenery. She suddenly smiled and relaxed. "Oh.it's just you."
__________Fahari appeared out the undergrowth. "Hmph..just me, eh?" He walked over and nuzzled her gently in greeting before going to his son, "Do you know what today is, son?"
__________He shook his head, "No father.what is it?"
__________Fahari smiled, "Today.you are an adult."
__________Chui gasped, "Wow.really? Cool."
__________His father interrupted him, "But only in the eyes of the gods." He nuzzled him gently, "You will always be my little cub." Suddenly, Fahari drew a claw down his son's shoulder, drawing a small amount of blood and a quick gasp from the young leopard. "Now don't be getting a big head, son. You are still not an adult in the eyes of your parents. You are only mature in your faith."
__________Amana stared at Fahari in disbelief. "What in hell are you doing to your son??"
__________Fahari turned quickly as Chui started to lick the small wound on his shoulder. "It's our custom.he has shed his mother-blood and will make blood of an adult male." He turned a bit to show her his scar, "See.my father did this for me when I was his age." He looked at her, sorrowfully. "I'm sorry.I told Chui to expect it.but I couldn't tell you. I was afraid you would try to stop me. This is very important to me. Please understand." He looked to his son who nuzzled him.
__________Amana sighed. "I'm sorry.I know very little bit about your customs. I try being a good mother to him.but I can't be a good leopardess mother to him. I can show him how to hunt in the open.but it does him no good because of his color. I can't show him properly how to hunt here for the same reason. I feel like I'm holding him back. Maybe I should just leave him to you and let you finish his education."
__________Fahari and Chui nuzzled her. "Dear.without you, he would be dead. You have done so much for him.and me. He is all I have left of my mate now."
__________"Mother.please don't go."
__________Amana looked up slowly and smiled, "You really mean that?" They nodded. She nuzzled them both, "Thank you.I thought I was a failure after I was thrown out of my pride.but you two are proof that I'm not." She smiled and gave them both a kiss, "Any other surprises that I should know about?"
__________Fahari chuckles, "Hundreds.but that is for another time. Come.I brought some food to celebrate our son's achievement."
__________Nights went on.and Fahari told Amana stories that his mother, and her mother before her told their cubs. Slowly she began to understand her spotted cousins. One morning, she awoke to find Fahari gone. That didn't surprise her, but then she noticed that Chui was gone also. Was he with his father? She didn't know. She searched for him high and low, with growing panic. She finally intercepted Fahari. "I can't find Chui," she said out of breath
__________Fahari smiled. "Don't panic, love. Look, he's fine."
__________Suddenly Chui appeared from out of the jungle, standing proud next to his father. "Hi mom! Me and dad have been doing some cool things"
__________Fahari smiled a bit. "Yes. Cool things." He nuzzled Amana gently, "Don't worry. It's part of being a leopard. You have raised him well and with love. But you are not a leopardess. There are certain things a young leopard must know. Things fathers have passed to their sons since the world began."
__________She smiled and nuzzled him back, "Of course." She winked at Chui, "Don't forget about your poor mother when you are doing all these 'cool'. things with your father. Don't forget who will bathe you tonight."
__________"Aw, Mom! Again??"
__________"Yes, Chui."
__________Chui looked at his father. "She's trying to lick my spots off."
__________Amana nuzzled him, and Chui grunted with contentment. When Amana disappeared into the jungle, Chui said, "Isn't she great?"
__________He nodded, watching the golden form disappear into the greenery. "Yes she is. Now come on.there is much to do."


CHAPTER 15: GOOD FRIENDS


__________Many a moon had passed since Fahari and Amana's somewhat awkward relationship had begun. Over time as the two had adjusted to each other's differences, they sought out and found many things they had in common. Eventually, the two began to look forward to sharing time with one another as the rough trail of their mere association became the smooth path of real friendship.
__________Amana's time as a rogue had accustomed her to endless hours of padding across the endless savanna, but it was only when Fahari invited her on one of his jaunts that she began to appreciate the real beauty of the land around her. The leopard took great care to comment on the passing landscape, pointing out various features as they passed with obvious relish.
__________"Look there," he said one day, nudging her and pointing with his chin. "See that hollow underneath those rocks?"
__________Amana paused, Chui curling about her legs as she squinted for a moment, then nodded. "I see it."
__________Fahari grinned. "I was born there. My Mom used to lay just beyond the hollow...see where the ground is flattened out? She'd lay there and nap, and my brothers and I used to climb on top of the rocks and pounce on her."
__________The lioness giggled. "Oh gods! I bet she was furious!"
__________He laughed. "To see her, you'd think she was going to eat us all alive! Oooh, she could growl fierce enough to make a cub quiver in his skin. But there was always that little spark in her eyes." Fahari smiled absently, his gaze far away in the past for a moment.
__________Amana stole a glance at his face and smiled secretly inside. "She must have been a good mother to raise such a wonderful son."
__________Fahari cocked an eye at her and crinkled his whiskers upward in amusement. "Like someone else I know." He shook himself briskly and led them away, pretending not to notice the look of mild embarrassment on Amana's face.
__________Later that evening, Fahari scaled down the trunk of a young and wiry baobab and dropped lithely down to the ground, landing with a muffled thump. Shaking an offending leaf from his ear, he stretched with a grunt of contentment and moved towards a clump of bushes still visible in the last of the twilight. He had taken perhaps two steps when a soft voice from behind him caught his attention.
__________"Fahari?"
__________He turned to see Amana curled comfortably at the base of the tree. "What are you doing here?"
__________"Oh, nothing," she said mildly. "Just relaxing. Care to join me? You've been in that tree for awhile yet; that has to be terribly uncomfortable."
__________"Not really," Fahari shrugged. "I'm used to it."
__________"You're not tired then?"
__________"Well, I..." Fahari glanced back at the bush, then looked again at Amana, her eyes glowing softly in the dim light. Feeling a bit awkward, he padded over slowly and sat down next to her. "Just for a moment then. I could use a breather."
__________"I thought you might."
__________He stretched his forepaws out and slowly lowered himself next to her, sliding over a bit until his back was curled along the curve of her belly, the soft warmth feeling delightful on his fur. A soft purr emanated from the lioness as she slid a forepaw around his shoulders, feeling the rippling muscles underneath tense and then relax at her touch. "Poor Fahari...you must be terribly sore."
__________He grunted softly as her paw moved over his foreleg. "Mmm...that feels wonderful. Wherever did you learn to do that?"
__________"Mabezo used to do that for me when I would come back from hunting with no prey." Amana flexed her paw absently as she looked out at the darkening sky, the stars beginning to gleam brilliantly. "I felt terrible, you know, coming back with nothing to show for it."
__________Fahari began to purr slowly, his eyes slitted halfway. "I know the feeling. You don't want to let down the people you love."
__________"Exactly." The gentle rubbing of her paw had turned into a soft caress. Feeling him shift under her grip, she glanced down to see him looking at her in the darkness, the starlight reflecting from his eyes, obsidian pools that threatened to drag her down.
__________"Amana?"
__________"Yes?"
__________"You remember when we first met...how angry we were with each other? Remember what you said? `You'll never drag me into the bushes?'"
__________"I remember." She giggled slightly, unable to tear her eyes away from his face.
__________Fahari stood slowly. "It was funny then. It's not funny now." Bending down, he nuzzled her cheek, sliding his own across it and nibbling at her ear. Amana lay frozen, her blood pounding through her as he kissed her face and pawed her shoulder tenderly, a deep purr rumbling from her chest at his touch. "Oh girl, I want you. I've wanted you for the longest time but told myself it was wrong." Drawing back for a moment, he met her gaze. "I might not have a mane...and I may be short and spotty...."
__________She lifted her face to his. "Fahari...I want to kiss each of those spots." Her warm tongue flicked out and kissed the tip of his delicate black nose. "Starting with this one..." she smiled at him, starlight gleaming from her eyes, "and then I'll work my way back."
__________Fahari drew a shuddering breath. "Crouch for me, Amana! Oh gods, I want you!"
__________"Not here," she said. "Follow me."
__________She swatted playfully at him and darted off, her sweet laughter drifting back to him as he gave chase. Amana loped along effortlessly, shortening her stride as she ran...she was easily capable of outdistancing him with her longer legs, but that would not do here. She was the prey and he was the hunter in a hunt as old as time itself, and the joy ended not in the satisfaction of the kill but in the sweetness of the pounce.
__________Fahari sprinted after her, his heart pounding with more than just the exertion of his muscles as he neared her. He slowed up as she paused just ahead and turned to face him, eyes ensnaring him once again with their hunger. Drawing up close, he rubbed his cheek on her flank, and she answered with a deep purr.
__________"Mom! Mom! There you are!"
__________Amana and Fahari gasped in concert and turned to see Chui scrabbling towards them awkwardly, something dangling limply from his jaws.
__________"Uh, what is it, Chui?"
__________The youngster drew up close to them, panting as he set his burden, a newly killed rabbit, down in front of him. "Check it OUT! I caught it Mom! All by myself!" Chui puffed out his cheeks in relief. "Jeez, I thought I'd never catch you guys. Why were you running around like that?"
__________"Uh, it's nothing, Chui...we were just checking out some odd noise we heard over here. Everything's fine." Fahari made a move as if to leave, but Chui padded over to Amana and set the hare down in front of her.
__________"Here you go, Mom." He beamed up at her, the pride threatening to burst from him like a sunbeam from behind a cloudbank. "I brought it for you."
__________"Oh, Chui..." Amana looked over at Fahari, whose pride in his son's accomplishment was clear enough, but whose eyes cried out to her in need. Looking down at the smiling cub in front of her, she saw a need that, while no less real, mattered much more in her heart. Sighing, she bent and nuzzled the smiling Chui tenderly, then sampled the hare. "Mmm...delicious."
__________Chui wriggled with delight. "You think so?"
__________"Oh of course I do, you marvelous hunter you!"
__________Unseen, Fahari slipped away into the night behind them, heading off silently on some errand known only to him.
__________Much later, Amana lifted her head to see the leopard emerging from the underbrush, another hare gripped in his jaws. Rising quietly, she moved away from Chui, who lay asleep, and padded over to nuzzle her mate. "Hello, love."
__________He dipped his head and deposited the hare before her, a purr emanating from his chest. "Hello indeed. I've brought you something as well," he grinned, "but I thought perhaps we could share it....later." He nuzzled her neck and ear gently, immersing himself in her scent, wild and lovely.
__________To his surprise, she pulled away. "No, Fahari...not now. It wouldn't be right."
__________He blinked in shock. "What did I do wrong?"
__________"Nothing love....nothing." She sighed. "Perhaps for one moment back there...but not now." Amana looked in his eyes and ached at the confusion and hurt she saw in them. "Please, love...it's for the best."
__________"Yeah." Fahari nodded stiffly, then paced away out of her sight. Jaw clenched with frustration, he waited until he had passed out of earshot and then growled, ripping at a nearby tree with his claws, sending the bark flying in a shower.
__________Drained, he stood back, panting, and sighed miserably. "Yeah."


CHAPTER 16: LEOPARD AND LEOPARDESS


__________The passage of time was both fleeting and deceptive, eventually coming home with all the shocking force of an unseen pounce. So it was with Amana one day as she returned from a having a drink to discover her son nowhere in sight. Somewhat restless, even though his comings and goings as such had been increasingly common of late, she set out to find him, bending now and again to sniff at the trail of scent he left behind, faint but unmistakably his.
__________As she neared a small line of dense scrub, she heard faint voices from the other side. Curious, she eased quietly up to the hedge and peered through, taking in a sudden breath at the sight before her.
__________Chui stood near her, chuckling and laughing as another leopard, a female, neared him and then darted away, stopping after a short distance to peer over her shoulder with a sly grin. Crouching, Chui sprang after her with a playful growl, darting near the leopardess likewise, then moving away again. The bout continued for a short time, all the while the distance ever decreasing between the two until at last they were only a length away from each other, both out of breath from laughter and their exertions. Quietly, Chui stepped toward her and nuzzled her shoulder, purring softly in the still air. Her pink tongue flicked out and kissed his cheek as she returned the caress, the two standing quietly and leaning comfortably on each other.
__________Embarrassed, Amana stepped away as furtively as she could and moved off, heading back the way she had come. She barely saw the familiar landmarks around her as she thought of the small cub she had found in the desolation of that ruined field so long ago. The thoughts filled her head, overcoming her as she eased down next to her favorite spot and sat quietly, tears burning her eyes.
__________A speckled face pushed through the hedges and blinked at her. "Amana? Love, what is it?" Fahari pushed through the rough scrub and moved over to where she sat, craning his head down to kiss her cheek. "What's wrong?"
__________"Nothing," she smiled dutifully. "It's nothing."
__________"If nothing makes you that miserable, you ought to think of something!"
__________She sniffed again and nuzzled him abruptly, surprising him with the suddenness. "It's Chui, hon. He's all grown up and all...did you know he has a girlfriend now?"
__________Fahari smiled. "No, but I'm glad to hear it. Is that what's bothering you?"
__________She nodded. "Oh, Fahari, I can remember back when he was small...he used to pounce and scrape himself, then he'd come running for me to kiss him and make it all better...or the time he caught that rabbit...he was so happy, he just had to show me, you know..."
__________Fahari laid down and caressed her shoulder with a paw. "Love, he's grown now. He has to go. It's the way things are made to be."
__________"I know. It's going to be so quiet without him around though...and you off on your patrols and all...Oh gods, I'm so tired of being alone!" She wrapped her forepaws about her face, the tears coming in a hot flood now as Fahari patted her consolingly, murmuring low words of comfort in her ears and trying to make himself believe them.
__________Later that night, a timeless ceremony took place under the glow of the half moon.
__________Chui stood utterly still as Fahari circled him three times, careful to note his scent. "What is your name, son?"
__________"Chui, father."
__________Fahari shook his head. "No. For on this night you are Kaharabu, the name which your mother and I chose at your birth. This is your night, my son. Run free with the wind. Dance under the stars. Enjoy our company to the fullest. For tomorrow, you are a leopard, free to make your own destiny...nevermore to be intertwined with ours." Fahari ended the ritual blessing and warning and stepped close to his son. "May your bough never break, my son," he said, his voice breaking. "Spring true, and live well."
__________Kaharabu stood trembling, and nodded. He looked over at Amana, who stood back respectfully, and paced over to her. She bowed her head, and he touched his own to hers.
__________"Mkombozi, my savior. I will always remember you, mother." A tear spilled down his cheek, catching in the fur.
__________Amana rubbed his cheek, her voice trembling. "Be careful, my son. You will always be my little Chui. And you will never be alone, for wherever you go, my heart will be with you."
__________He nodded wordlessly and stepped away. A low yowl sounded from the darkness, and he answered it, moving away into the brush, his spotted form blending softly into the cloak of night.


CHAPTER 17: AMANA'S LOSS


__________The changes in Amana were subtle at first, but after a week Fahari was very worried about her. She came to lie with him during naptime as she always did, but her tiredness was no longer the casual sleepiness of a lion. She drew beside him gaunt and silent, then collapsed. When he put his paw over her chest, he could feel the ribs.
__________"Are you all right, dear?"
__________"I suppose so."
__________"That's not an answer."
__________Amana sighed. "My heart is not made of stone, Fahari. I'm worried about Chui."
__________Fahari laughed gently. "Worried about him? I know he's with a leopardess now, but I had a little talk with him about his heritage. He'll hold his own."
__________"That's not what I meant. For three years I was there for him, helping him and loving him and...sharing a life together."
__________"And you're lonely? Jaha was depressed after our first litter left."
__________She had never thought about his age before. "Just how many litters did you have with her?"
__________"Kaharabu was from my second. Bless her heart, she was a good mate." He looked around into her eyes. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be saying this before you."
__________"Oh no, please. What was she like?"
__________"Beautiful and funny and serious all at once. And let me tell you, girl, she loved her children as much as you love...Chui." He pawed her face. "Sometimes you make a very good leopardess. Not right now, Amana-penda. Now you are a lioness grieving for your pride. You expect me to be a kind of spotted lion, but I'm not. Out here in the trees, you have to hunt alone to survive. That doesn't mean I'm a loner--I'm just realistic. I am as my father was, and in being just like him I am showing him the deepest love."
__________"That's very sweet of you, Fahari. Still, Chui was my life. Once when I said I was lonely, you said that's what Chui was for. Now who keeps me company, love?"
__________"If I were any closer, I'd be sharing your blood." He patted her with a paw.
__________"Yes, for this moment. You know what I mean."
__________"I sure do. And I've given the matter a lot of thought." He rolled over and looked her right in the eyes. "I love you. Not just a little. There are three great loves a leopardess has--her mother, her cubs, and her lover."
__________"Her lover?" She smiled, embarrassed.
__________He reached with his paw and gently rubbed her chest. "With your beautiful body lying next to me, I must admit I've had fantasies. I bet your pleasures make the sun and moon smile."
__________A long, slow purr escaped her, and she touched his paw with her own. "You sure know how to cheer me up. Maybe you ARE a spotted lion."


CHAPTER 18: THE COURSE OF THINGS


__________Fahari's life was difficult but he enjoyed it. He kept a watchful eye on his territory, and his duties made the time pass quickly.
__________However, Amana's time passed slowly. Chui's absence had stripped her life of meaning. Without pride sisters or cubs to love, she was desperate to fill the desolate hours of her lonely life.
__________One evening Fahari was shocked to find her marking the border with HER scent. It took Amana some fast explaining and a great deal of patience to satisfy Fahari's honor, and she headed home agreeably to keep the peace.
__________Her desperation was such that she sought out the badger that lived in Jaha's old cave. She watched him for a while. At first he thought he was being stalked. For a whole week, he wondered if she was seeking to tangle with him. Finally he came out and asked her, "Why not have a go at it?? I can take you on!"
__________"But I don't want to!"
__________"Coward! You want to catch me unaware!"
__________It took two more days to convince him that she didn't want to eat him, and even so, he was little company. "I just want to talk," she would plead. "Well, who's stopping you!" the badger would reply before going back to his digging. Finally she discovered the knack of talking to a badger is finding out what HE is interested in.
__________"How far does that burrow go?" she asked one day.
__________That got his interest. "Do you really think I'd tell you?? Find my other exit, would you?? I knew you wanted to eat me!!"
__________Amana broke into frustrated tears. "My gods, I didn't mean anything by it!! Oh please just talk to me! You did all that work-surely there is SOMETHING you can tell me about it?? I'm so lonely I'm going crazy! Just talk-I don't really care what you say, but say something!"
__________The badger saw her tears. "Don't come apart, Missy. It's most unbecoming to see a large carnivore crying like a little kit."
__________He came forward cautiously, and looked her in the eye. She reached out and touched him. Imagine, touching another living being in her loneliness!
__________He backed back sharply. "Let's not rush things! I'm still not sure I trust you. This might be a trick." He saw her face and added, "Or maybe not."
__________There was hope after all! She could always find him, and he was intelligent. Sharp witted, even in his gruff way a little charming. That night she smiled for the first time in a while.
__________The next day she brought him a small rabbit. She put it outside of his hole.
__________"What is this??"
__________"It's for you! See, if I wanted to eat you, I could have eaten the rabbit instead. It's fresh-try it!"
__________He nibbled at it. "Not bad. Thank you." Then he said, "I don't have long to talk. Tunnels to dig and rooms to clean out."
__________"I see." She started away.
__________"Come back tomorrow. I'll have more time then."
__________She looked back and smiled.
__________The next day, she came back. "Hello there!"
__________The badger poked out his head and smiled. "Hi! Just a minute!"
__________He went back in his burrow and came back out bearing something odd. "It's a neck thing!"
__________"A neck thing??"
__________"Yes! A rare neck thing! The humans put them around their necks! I found one once. I guess he dropped it."
__________She looked at the carved ivory beads in wonder. "Why do they wear them?"
__________"I don't know. But I think it brings good luck."
__________"Isn't that something!" She wanted to sniff of it or touch it, but she saw his anxious look so she did not.
__________"Why do you live in that hole?" she asked.
__________"Why do you live on the ground?" he asked. "This hole keeps me dry when it rains. At least when I keep the drain clear-that's what I was doing yesterday. And I have a nest chamber to prepare."
__________"A nest chamber?" She looked at him and smiled. "Are you finding yourself a lady friend?"
__________"Found one," he said, with a slight smile. "This is our third litter."
__________"Why you little rascal you!"
__________"How about you? I bet you have a lot of strong cubs."
__________Amana bit her lip. Her eyes began to redden. "I kindled once if that's what you mean."
__________The badger understood at once. "You're pretty. You'll have more."
__________"Thank you. Your a good friend..I don't remember your name."
__________"I never told you. Sorry, but I have to go."
__________"Did I offend you?"
__________"No. She awaits." He looked back at her. "Ibrahim," he said.
__________"Ibrahim?"
__________"That's my name."
__________"Oh. Amana."
__________"Glad to meet you, Ohamana."
__________"No, it's just Amana." She smiled shyly.
__________"Tomorrow, Amana."
__________Brief as they were, those chats were important to her. Between the badger and the naps with Fahari, she had built a sort of life for herself.
__________She tried to speak with Fahari on those naps, but he did not want to spend much time talking. He was sleepy. She could paw his shoulder, however, and slept embracing him. She would sometime speak with him as he slept.
__________Early the next morning she went to pay a call on her friend the badger. "It's me! Amana! It's all right, Ibrahim! I just want to say good morning!"
__________That's when she heard the rustling in the bushes. There was a jackal feeding hurriedly on a carcass. It was all that was left of the old badger.
__________"What are you doing??"
__________The jackal looked up. "Go away! It's just a little badger! Not enough to interest you!"
__________"Leave him alone, damn you!!" She charged the jackal, her heart full of rage. "I'll kill you slowly!! I'll kill you!!"
__________The jackal was swift and savvy, and before long, he made her continued threats merely empty boasts.
__________That day, Amana clung to Fahari during his nap and try to make him stay with her. For her efforts, she ended up irritating Fahari who reminded her that he was not a spotted lion after all.


CHAPTER 19: LOVE


__________Eventually, her emptiness was eventually compounded by the restless stirrings that began inside her body as she entered her season. What should have been a happy time for her was sheer misery. Her emotional needs grew along with her physical needs, and she found herself weeping with frustration when she would miss a kill, or even slip crossing a creek.
__________Fahari's prolonged absences, which were previously acceptable, now became unbearable, and she spent many long hours awake, thinking guiltily of how his spots rippled as he moved, and how strange and lovely his eyes were when he smiled at her. She was curious, and tried to imagine herself beneath his lithe and passionate body, but she could not. She had no idea what to expect, even if he still thought of her as a mate.
__________She slept fitfully that night. She dreamed of her mother, lying on her side and moaning softly and reassuringly. She trundled up and snuggled to her abdomen, finding a teat and taking it in her small mouth. The milk was rich and creamy, and she kneaded her mother's abdomen to increase the flow. A paw stroked her softly and she smiled and grunted contentedly.
__________The dream ended. She awoke to the empty blackness of the night, her paws kneading nothing more than the earth in front of her. Tears rolled down her face. "Oh gods, I'm so alone! Help me please! Oh gods, help me!!"
__________When day returned, she waited anxiously for the usual midday nap time. The hours seemed to drag by, and when the sun finally approached its zenith, she sought Fahari with her mind made up to use whatever excuse-any excuse-it took to keep him by her for more than an hour or two.
__________"Hello, Amana." He yawned and headed for a soft place in the grass to lay, a place from which the sticks and stones had been removed, and where no ants had rudely built a mound.
__________"Fahari!" His beauty warmed her heart, and in a rush of emotions she leapt up and nearly flattened him with her affectionate greeting. Only at the last minute did she restrain herself and nuzzle him firmly. "I'm so glad to see you, Hon!"
__________"I gathered that," he grinned amiably, touching her cheek with his tongue. "How have you been?" He looked at her oddly, struck by the intensity of her greeting as she purred loudly and rubbed him full length down his side, her head weaving slowly as she nuzzled his flank. "Here, girl, what gives?"
__________Her tail coiled about his chest and forelegs as the realization struck him full force. Her fragrance was affecting him, and he squirmed like he was going to jump out of his own hide. "Here, girl," he said awkwardly. "I wish you wouldn't do that. I mean, you and I, we're-well, didn't you say you thought we shouldn't act on.."
__________"Don't you enjoy it?" she said, a small smile curling about her cheeks as she saw his reaction. "Don't you like me?" She curled about his hindquarters and rubbed back up the other side. "Don't you think I'm attractive?"
__________"Well, of course, I do, it's just--you said.."
__________"Listen closely, Fahari. I remember SAYING that I'm so glad to see you." She nuzzled his cheek and breathed softly in his ear. "VERY glad. I fill myself with the musky softness of your fur, and I am drunk with it. Love me, Fahari!"
__________He shuddered at her touch. "Oh gods! Are you sure, love?"
__________In answer, she batted at him gently, lifting herself slightly and wrapping her forepaws about his shoulders as she licked his face passionately. Purring in answer, he grappled with her gently, the two swaying about in a haze of love. Amana giggled lightly, then shifted her weight slightly and nibbled his ear. Startled, Fahari gave way and sank down, the lioness's paws pinning him to the earth with a comfortable weight.
__________Grinning, he licked her nose lightly. "Cheater."
__________"No, darling." She smiled back as her paw trailed slowly down his chest, tracing light circles as it neared his belly, lighting fires inside him as it moved. "My wonderful leopard. My spotted treasure."
__________His eyes gazed questioningly up to her own, which showed no trace of humor...only love and need. He drew his paws about her strong neck and pulled her close, kissing her soft cheek. "My lovely lioness."
__________She pawed his face gently, then sat up, moving a few feet away and then sinking to the ground, crouching low and then looking back at him, her meaning clear. Nervously, he stepped close and mouthed her neck with feeling, then paused awkwardly, keenly aware of just how small and powerless he felt.
__________Amana noticed his uncertainty and craned her head up to lick his throat lovingly. "Don't try to be a lion. Just love me in your own way as you see fit. Love me like a leopard."
__________He nuzzled her, then walked about behind her. "Whatever happens, just remember how much I love you."
__________"Whatever happens, I'll just remember what they say about leopards."
__________"And what is that?"
__________She looked about and winked. "You know."
__________A big grin blossomed on his face. "Yeah?"
__________"Ask anyone."
__________He closed his eyes and took in a deep, languorous breath, his lips parted to intoxicate himself fully with her fragrance. The breath escaped him in a long, exhilarated sigh. Trembling with anticipation, but no more fear, he embraced her soft golden body


CHAPTER 20: BUILDING A FUTURE


__________Fahari kissed Amana's cheek. "Tell me the truth--how was it?"
__________She rolled on her back. "Come here, big boy. The rumors are true." She patted on her chest with a paw, and he fell next to her, exhausted. She locked her soft paws around his neck and kissed his panting face. "The Mama wants The Daddy to get some rest. They have a long day ahead!"
__________A tired but satisfied grin spread across Fahari's face. He was pleased by her soft golden body, but even more importantly in that moment his dignity--and the reputation of leopards everywhere--was still intact. "I'm so glad I met you, girl."
__________"We'll always be together, my spotted lover. Every day, every year, and I will love you with all my heart and soul."
__________"Well, yes and no."
__________"What does that mean?"
__________"I've given my life to you. I'll be yours till I die. But lover, I have rounds to make and hunting to do. I don't have lionesses to do my hunting for me."
__________"Maybe not. But you can't blame me for wanting it."
__________She had passed it off casually. But when Fahari managed to slip into a contented sleep, she lay awake and disturbed. For a while, there would be pleasure and company. But where would she be left? Alone and without hope of cubs? Like an evening shadow, her dark feelings were magnified along with her affections. She saw her fears looming over her and they terrified her. Alone! Alone and hopeless!
__________She quietly disengaged herself from his embrace and left, going to the edge of their territory where the broad savanna began. She knew exactly where she was heading.
__________Utamu paused and bent his down to sniff the bushes warily, then deposited his own mark, proclaiming his ownership of the lands. Sighing, he shook himself from head to tail and resumed his patrol, ears turning restlessly at each little sound, cataloguing them and dismissing them as non threatening. As he became accustomed to owning his own territory, he had learned to tune out the birdsong, the pleasant hum of bees, and the gentle sighing of the breeze, sounds that, engrossing as they were, only distracted him from his duties.
__________He paused suddenly, curling about and staring. THAT sound did not belong. His ears perked to full alert and he growled. "Who goes there? Come out, NOW!"
__________A face framed in gold appeared, one he had seen in endless dreams. "Utamu?"
__________"Amana!" He roared in delight and ran to her, nuzzling her cheek and pawing at her affectionately. "I'm so happy to see you again!"
__________She looked at him, searching his face. "Are you really?"
__________Utamu stepped back, his face becoming serious. "Look, I've been thinking of what I would say if I ever saw you again, so don't interrupt me--just listen. I've done a lot of thinking, and I want you to bring your leopard son along. I am not wild about them, but if you love him, I should give him a chance."
__________"Really? Do you really mean it??"
__________"Yes. I mean it more than anything else I've ever said."
__________Amana smiled sadly. "I'm glad...but he's not with me any longer."
__________The lion's face fell. "Oh gods...I'm sorry. When did he die?"
__________"Oh no, he's not dead. He's just grown. He's grown now, and working on our first grandchildren."
__________"Has it been this long?" Utamu shook his head, then nuzzled her softly. "Come...let me show you your new home."
__________Amana stroked him with a paw. "Later...I have something I have to do first."
__________Fahari was in a near state of panic when she returned. "Where did you go? I was worried sick!" He nuzzled her tenderly and nibbled her ear. "Are you ready, hon? I can wait if you're still nervous."
__________"I'm doing what I feel is right for both of us. I'm leaving you--you will not see me again."
__________He gaped at her in shock. "Did I do a poor job?? I'm sorry! I thought it was good for you too!"
__________Amana licked his cheek and sighed. "It was good. It's not that at all. It's that I'm a lioness and I want...."
__________"A lion??"
__________"No, darling! Cubs! And some company. I'm alone out here. I have nowhere to turn." A tear wended its way through the fur on her cheek to splash on her paw. "You're a leopard. You can't live like a lion, and I understand and respect that. And while I love you I could never be happy here."
__________Desperate, Fahari felt his heart floundering as his whole world seemed to cave in on him. "I will stay with you. I will be your pride. But don't leave me, Amana! Please!"
__________Only she among lions knew what a sacrifice he was making. "But you could not give me cubs. Fahari, I'm young. I want to be a mother again. Find yourself a good leopardess and treat her as well as you treated me. The gods will make you a father again."
__________Fahari stared at her, his gaze shifting from disbelief to anger. "Fine. You want to leave me, go back to your friends. I was afraid you would try to change me anyhow. I like me just the way I am. Free, unattached, a leopard!"
__________Stung, she glared at him tightly. "If that's how you feel, you can have your life! Good riddance!" She spun on her paws and paced off, shoulders stiff with anger. Each step away from him tore another piece from her heart, her limbs beginning to shake with the effort it took to keep moving. Finally she paused, taking in a shuddering breath, and looked over her shoulder.
__________Fahari was several lengths away frozen in mid-stride, peering over his own shoulder at her, his eyes flickering like a dying fire. Uttering a mewling cry, Amana turned and ran to him, meeting him halfway and burying her face in his shoulder. "I love you just the way you are, too. Oh gods, this is killing me! The cubs father is still alive. He still wants me. Please wish me happiness."
__________Fahari nodded, his eyes glistening as he fought to keep his dignity and not weep like a cub in front of her. "I do. I have no choice. But please consider this your home. Come back when you remember who really loves you." Trembling, he kissed her throat and rubbed his cheek with hers. "Amana, I want you. Just make love with me one more time. Just once more to remember what real love feels like when you walk the dark trail!"
__________Sadly, she shook her head. "I must save myself for my lion. Once I was driven out for looking afield. Not anymore." She licked his cheek tenderly, then drew away. "Goodbye, mpendwa."
__________He rubbed his cheek softly with a paw as he watched her fade into the grasses. "Gods, I love that girl!" He shouted after her, "As long as I draw breath, this shall be your home. Come back to me."


EPILOGUE:


__________Amana crouched sphinx-like in front of the spot where her cubs had died. The hole itself was no longer visible-without an owner, the rains had gradually filled what was left of it with dirt and leaves. The large thorn bushes had not grown back, but the area was covered by green growth. A stranger seeing it for the first time would never suspect that a fire had seared that ground, but Amana was no stranger. She felt close to Kata, Jamili and Hamu, her first cubs. With time came healing from the sharper pains of grief, and it had become more of a regret. That freed her to remember the good times once again, to smile as she thought about Jamili's tender heart, Kata's shyness, and Hamu's boisterous play. Jamili would have loved Chui and Fahari. Jamili was so full of love, he could see no ugliness in anything. "My special little boy," Amana whispered. "I haven't forgotten you. Any of you."
__________Fahari was headed on his usual rounds. His predictable habits had not changed, something Amana was counting on.
__________"Amana??"
__________"Fahari??"
__________She watched the look on his face carefully as it changed from surprise to mild disapproval. "I thought you were gone for good. What are you doing so far from your pride?"
__________"We were taken over by a rogue male. Utamu is dead. I know it for sure this time." She hung her head. "I lost him twice."
__________Fahari nodded gravely, but his eyes showed no great grief. "Sorry. I guess you didn't quite get what you bargained for."
__________Amana said, "I can understand if you feel a little resentment toward me."
__________"You're darned right, I do!"
__________"You said I could come back. I came here in the hopes that your offer was good."
__________"I always keep a promise. You may hunt here--I won't try to stop you."
__________Amana slumped. "Aren't you the least bit glad to see me??"
__________"Once I was glad to see you. And look what it got me." He gruffly snorted. "So your lion is dead and I get the honor of filling the gap he left in your life?? I guess I should be thrilled."
__________Amana sighed. "Fahari, I have always loved you. I'm back for good. This time things will be different."
__________"I wish I could believe that. Really I do. But why should I? What could you possibly say to make me believe things will be different this time?"
__________Amana started toward them, her heart breaking as she saw him step back carefully, the distance between them more now than just physical. Tears ran down her cheek. "Oh Fahari! I didn't want to tell you till I knew we would be welcome here...."
__________He saw her tears and softened. "We?"
__________She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm pregnant." Her chin trembled. "I was hoping you'd love them because they're mine. You wanted us to have cubs again. But whether you love me or not, I have no choice. I have no where else to go."
__________He brightened. "You say that like it's bad news. You're going to kindle? I think you should be happy!"
__________Amana looked up and met his glance directly. "Fahari, could you ever forgive me? Could you ever love me as you once did?"
__________He straightened proudly, his chest swelling. "Now look here," he said authoritatively. "As long as you're raising my cubs, you're my mate, and I reserve the right to stop by from time to time and make sure you're doing a good job. You will recognize my authority, and in return, I'll protect you and your territory from....."
__________She suddenly pounced on him, bearing him to the ground. Pinning his slender, spotted body to the grass, she kissed him repeatedly. "Fahari! I'll never leave you again, I swear!"
__________A smile came to Fahari's tired features for the first time in months. He reached up with a paw and caressed Amana's cheek. "Welcome home, old girl."


THE END: THE SPOTTED LION

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