The night of the Elephant Graveyard incident, Nala listened as her mother and Sarabi talked together in low tones about what should be done with their children. Nala heard words like teaching and supervision and self-defense. She tucked her nose under her paws and tried not to stare at Simba all the way across the sheltered area of Pride Rock. He was sleeping soundly.
Apparently, whatever his father had done or said hadn't been half as frightening as all of them expected. Simba had come back practically dancing, running circles around Mufasa just like normal. Nala snorted. She'd probably gotten a worse lecture from Zazu on the way home.
"I'll send Zazu with a message to Rafiki tomorrow," Sarabi said, and Nala felt her nose wrinkle.
Rafiki? That weird old monkey? Gross. He's… weird. And he smells funny.
But the next day, there was a stampede, and that night there was no talk of Rafiki, no talk of teaching and supervision and self-defense. Sarafina just kept Nala tucked securely into her all night long, twitching awake every so often to check that Nala was still there. That she hadn't suddenly disappeared like Sarabi's son. Like Nala's best friend. Simba.
A few days passed in a haze of dark clouds and mourning before Nala heard her mother and Sarabi talking again.
"It would probably be good for Nala. It might get her mind off things. We have the hunt… she has nothing."
So two days later, Sarafina took Nala with the lionesses when they went hunting, and when they were far enough away from Pride Rock that Scar wouldn't see them, they cut away from the pride and went to a gigantic tree in the middle of the savannah. Nala's feet hurt and she was out of breath by the time they got there, but Sarafina nudged her forward, and Nala could see the fear and desperate affection in her mother's eyes.
It made her shut her mouth against her complaints of Why him? and He's weird, Mom. Instead, she nuzzled into her mother's concerned face and met Rafiki with politeness instead of recoiling.
"I wondered if you would still bring her," Rafiki said, and Nala thought his voice sounded funny but didn't say anything about it.
"I'll be back to get her when we return from the hunt," Sarafina said, bowing slightly to the baboon. "Thank you."
"It is my pleasure," Rafiki said. "Nala, come inside, child. We will begin."
The inside of Rafiki's tree-house smelled weird, like he did. Dry and cool and a little musty, it was soaked with the scents of herbs and odd food. Things Nala didn't eat. Things she hoped he didn't try to feed her.
"Sit down." Rafiki gestured vaguely at the room, and Nala tried to figure out where he meant for her to sit. She finally settled on the woven-grass mat, as it seemed like a good place to sit, and Rafiki folded himself into a comfortable position at the other end of the mat. "Now," he said. "Tell me your troubles."
"My…?" Nala was taken aback. "I thought Mom said you were gonna… teach me stuff, or something."
Rafiki nodded very deliberately, and Nala thought he looked strange doing it. "Yes, but I cannot put new things into your mind while it is still so full of other things, can I? They would just fall right out again!" He put a bowl of some kind of nuts between them and took one for himself, cracking it open and popping it into his mouth. "So. Tell me about these things and we will make room for the new things you will need to learn."
For just a minute, Nala wasn't sure about telling Rafiki all the things she thought about when she tried to sleep at night—about Simba being there one minute and gone the next, about Mufasa leaving early in the morning and Scar coming back that night, about the way her mother looked at her now like she was afraid Nala was going to disappear in a puff of smoke. But Rafiki just sat there, not saying anything, not asking her any questions or demanding she tell him anything at all. He just sat, and ate one nut after another, and watched her.
And finally Nala opened her mouth, and it all came spilling out of her, even things she didn't know were in there—like how afraid she was that something else was going to happen soon, that she would disappear or that her mom would, or that something even worse than Scar would take over Pride Rock.
Through it all, Rafiki sat and listened and ate, until little broken nutshells were scattered all around them on the grass-mat and Nala felt exhausted by everything she'd said. She felt curiously lighter, though. Not like everything was better—no, Simba and Mufasa were still gone, her mother would still hold her much too close when they tried to sleep, and Scar still ruled Pride Rock—but like she could at least breathe a little now.
When she had run out of words and the silence stretched out past a few breaths, she asked, "Aren't you going to tell me anything now?"
Rafiki just reached for another nut in the bowl, cracked the shell open, and withdrew the pale meat inside to give to her. She took it cautiously, unsure if she would like how it tasted, but it felt good in her mouth and tasted good, too.
"I know you are made to eat meat," he said, handing her another nut he had extracted from its shell. "But you can live on other things when you have to. That is your first lesson."
Nala chewed the nut and thought that it was an easy enough lesson to learn, but that Rafiki had been right. If he had told her that before she told him everything that bothered her, she wouldn't have remembered it very long at all.
When Sarafina came back to get her and take her back to Pride Rock with the rest of the lionesses, she waved goodbye to Rafiki and thought that it wouldn't be so bad having to see him after all. He nodded wisely to her as she left, and she was glad when her mother told her she would be going back to see him again, as often as they could without raising suspicions from Scar.
The pride had had a successful hunt, and Sarafina had saved some meat for Nala. As she took her first bite, her mother standing over her to deter any hyenas who might try to steal Nala's dinner to have an extra snack, she thought, I am made to eat this, but I can survive on other things if I need to. I can find ways to live if I look for them.
She didn't know if it would always be true, but it made her feel better to think about it. She wouldn't just disappear; she would look for other ways out.
By the time Nala was old enough for her first hunt, the Pridelands were almost completely abandoned. Most of the herds had moved on, and it seemed they had taken the rains with them. The savannah was bare and desolate, the ghost-whispers of dead grasses rustling in the wind. Trees grew barren, leaves barely clinging to twisted branches.
The lionesses took her out anyway, with all the ceremony due a first hunt. They weren't sure they would find anything, but Sarabi told her gently that if they all returned, the whole pride together, it would be a successful hunt even if they were still hungry at the end of it.
They pounded across the savannah together, one graceful organism of death, but there was no prey to be found. Two small rabbits burrowed into their hole when the pride approached, but the lionesses left them alone. Two rabbits now were not enough to feed a pride; they would wait and hope there would be more soon.
At the end of several long, fruitless hours, Nala remembered the first of many lessons Rafiki had taught her all those months ago. You can live on other things when you have to.
She stepped a bit away from the other lionesses and lifted her nose to the wind, scenting. She moved off toward the faint odor she could smell, and the other lionesses followed. After all, this was her hunt. She led them to a tree that bore small, green fruits. The fruits were a little unpleasant to taste, but Rafiki had taught her that they were not poisonous. More than that, in the bark of the tree lived all manner of bugs and larvae. She scraped the bark away and licked up a mouthful of the grubs within.
She shuddered as she swallowed them and then stepped away to let the rest of the pride do the same. It wasn't antelope and it definitely wasn't zebra, but at least they had food in their empty stomachs and maybe enough energy to make the trip back to Pride Rock.
The lionesses gorged themselves as much as they could on the fruits of the tree and the creatures that lived within it, and then they sat in a circle, washing their faces and licking the last traces of food from their paws.
"We will keep these things for ourselves," Sarafina said. "We will not share these with the hyenas."
"The hunters eat their fill first," Manyara said. "This has always been law. Those who do not hunt eat what is left."
"You have done well, Nala," Sarabi said. "You have found food where there was none. We are all returning together, and none of us is hungry tonight."
Nala could only bow her head to accept her pride's praise, and when they got up to go back to Pride Rock, she slid close to her mother and said, "Do I have to return with the pride? Is that part of the hunt?"
"Why?" Sarafina seemed amused. "Do you have somewhere else you would like to go?"
Nala nodded. "I owe Rafiki thanks. I would like to tell him."
"Off with you then," Sarafina said with a lick to Nala's ear. "I will tell the others."
Rafiki's home inside the tree was still cool and dry and musty and still smelled like strange foods. But now they were foods Nala had eaten, foods she knew how to find when the hunger became too much. Now the smells were comforting.
"You have had your first hunt." Rafiki's voice greeted her as she was crawling through the root-tunnel toward the main room. Rafiki himself swung down from a branch to land in front of her as she made it into the room and sat on the woven-grass mat. The root-tunnel had gotten more difficult to get through as she aged, but the inner room had become even more precious to her.
He leaned in close to her, and she fought the instinct to back away. Even if she had become used to him over time, even grown to trust him, he was still a weird old monkey. Baboon.
"You did not find enough."
The words stung, and Nala did finally jerk away, scowling. "I did! We all ate, all of us, from what I found."
Rafiki shook his head. "You did not find enough to last to your third hunt—or your fourth."
"There isn't anything else! I found all there was! And I'll find more again next time!"
"Where? The Pridelands are empty. Where are you going to find food in emptiness?"
"I—I don't know. But I will."
Rafiki shook his head again and walked away, pulling himself up into the branches inside the baobao tree. "You must make your own food," he said, and Nala scowled up at the branches.
"How am I supposed to do that?"
Rafiki swung back down, hanging from a branch by his legs, grinning at her upside down. "Do not ask me! I am not the lion here."
Then he pulled himself back into the branches and was gone. Nala frowned, but he did not return and she couldn't even hear him moving through the rest of the tree. She crawled back through the roots and took herself home, Rafiki's words tumbling over through her mind. She had gotten used to his riddles. After the first couple of lessons, he had made her work for what she learned. He hadn't just told her things anymore.
By now, she should be able to figure out what that crazy monkey was talking about, but this time, he had her stumped.
Her mother welcomed her into the lionesses' den with a nuzzle, and she curled up between Sarafina and Manyara, Sarabi cuddled against Sarafina's other side. Nala lay awake long after the other lionesses had begun snoring and purring in their sleep, unable to relinquish the mental puzzle Rafiki had given her.
When Manyara started snoring in her ear, Nala gently disentangled herself and crept out of the den, padding out into the night to look over the desolation of her home.
He's right, she thought, seeing the dead and withering trees near Pride Rock. I may have found food today, but the trees are dying, and soon we won't even have those. But how do I "make" food? I can't just "make" antelopes out of grass.
"You can almost see the shadows of what used to be."
Nala turned her head, watching as Sarabi walked out of the den, her gait still powerful but showing the exhaustion of the famine.
"What are we going to do, Sarabi?"
The lioness's long sigh faded into the howling night wind. "I do not know. Saving a kingdom from its own king is a difficult prey to bring down."
"Scar is not king." Nala had been saying it since Mufasa and Simba died, and she planned to keep saying it until it was true.
Sarabi smiled a little. "King enough to destroy our home."
"Well, we'll—" Nala stopped, surprised at what she'd been about to say. We'll just have to make a new home.
"You must make your own food."
"Sarabi," she said quietly, determination washing over her as she realized this was what Rafiki had meant. "I am going to find the herds. If I can't bring them back, we'll follow them to where they are. Without Scar."
"And leave the Pridelands?" The surprise in Sarabi's voice was subdued under something else, something like hope.
"They're not our Pridelands anymore."
Nala felt Sarabi's nose against her temple, a motherly kiss of blessing, and bowed her head to accept it.
"Be careful, Nala. We will wait here for you."
"Sarabi…." Nala looked out at the dark horizon and then back at her best friend's mother, her mother's best friend. "Don't let my mother follow me. Tell her… tell her."
"Don't worry about your mother, Nala. Just go. We will take care of each other."
The night was a torrent of darkness as Nala slipped away from Pride Rock, and she breathed deeply of the wind, determined not to look over her shoulder, determined not to weaken at the thought of leaving her family behind. She focused on the road ahead and prowled out of the Pridelands, thinking only of the path that lay ahead.
And if a hyena happened to cross that path out where Scar couldn't see her? Well, it never hurt to eat well before starting out on a journey.
When Nala found out Simba wasn't dead, she wasn't even sure how to feel at first. Giddy surprise tangled with doubt and some resentment in her until it was unavoidable that they spent the evening of their reunion in an endless cycle of affection and arguments.
He tossed and turned, restless and uncomfortable, while she lay still in the grass and pretended to be asleep. It wasn't a surprise when she felt him lurch to his feet and pad off into the night, tormented by his thoughts and by what she'd said to him. She didn't go after him but watched as his form grew smaller with distance, a silhouette against the stars.
She frowned, hoping he wasn't running away again but knowing he probably needed time to think about everything. Somewhere in her heart, she knew Simba would do the right thing. He had too much of his father in him to do anything else. Something had happened back then, something to frighten him and send him off to this place where he'd remained hidden, his secrets caged inside and tormenting him. She didn't know what they were, but she could see them gnawing at him like hyenas at a bone.
It might take him a while, but she knew he would go home. And once he went home and word went out that the rightful king had returned to Pride Rock, that the Pridelands would be treated with respect, and that the herds wouldn't be overhunted and resources spread too thin, then the others might want to come back. The antelope, the zebras, the elephants, the giraffes, and all the other creatures would return, and everyone together could begin to heal and repair the damage that had been done by Scar's slovenly, wasteful rule.
She fell asleep to visions of the Pridelands as they had been in her cubhood, green and gold and bursting with life of every vibrant shade, and when she woke in the morning, she was still alone.
Worried, she rose to her feet, calling for Simba. Surely he hadn't run away again. Surely he wouldn't abandon her out here all alone, abandon his friends…. Wait. Turning swiftly, she followed the path they'd taken the night before, tracing their mingled scents until the smell of the other two became stronger. They still smelled like prey to her, but they were Simba's friends, and that would be enough. Unless they'd left with him, in which case they would make a tasty snack and Simba would make a nice throw rug.
That thought may have still been showing on her face when she woke the two troublemakers, or else the meerkat was just oversensitive. Explaining to them why she was looking for Simba took about fifty times as long as it should have, and she was rethinking her commitment not to eat them for breakfast when she heard a familiar voice.
"The king has returned."
Rafiki disappeared as quickly as he'd materialized, and Nala didn't even bother to wonder how he'd gotten there. That was just Rafiki. Timon and Pumbaa, on the other hand, were so unnerved by the popping in and out that Nala was almost out of the oasis before they caught up with her, huffing and puffing.
"Now wait just a minute!" Timon ranted, breathing heavily, bent over, paw on his chest as if he was having a heart attack even though he was riding on Pumbaa's back, not doing any of the work. "What makes you think you can just waltz in here, pull the googly-eyed wool over our buddy's eyes, and then run off again without so much as a by-your-leave, Mata Hari!?"
Two bites, she thought, but she didn't say it out loud. Pumbaa was nice enough, for a warthog, and she didn't want to upset him. Timon, on the other hand.... "He wouldn't be going back if there wasn't something there for him," she said instead, and Timon opened his mouth silently and then shut it again. "His mother is there. His home is there. His whole life is there."
"But we're part of his life too," Pumbaa said, looking crestfallen.
"Well, then," Nala said slowly, "maybe you would want to help him get the rest of it back."
Timon huffed and turned his back, sitting with Pumbaa's tail right in front of his face. Pumbaa looked undecided, and Nala decided she didn't have time for that. Simba already had a head start on her, and she couldn't let him face Scar on his own. She turned and took off in the direction of the Pridelands, her mind focused only on getting home before her mother and Simba's bore any more of the brunt of Scar's wrath than she was sure she'd brought on by her departure.
She was only a few strides away when she heard two voices behind her, Timon shrieking, "Hey, wait for us, Yoko Ono!" and Pumbaa calling out, "We are coming with you! We are coming to help!"
Nala didn't stop to wait for them, but she did shorten her stride. Running side by side took longer than it would've taken her by herself, but they arrived at the Pridelands not too far behind Simba, who had half a night's head start on them. Seeing his silhouette on the ridge put more speed in Nala's gait, and she left Timon and Pumbaa behind in a cloud of dust, hiding a smile at Timon's exaggerated coughing and Pumbaa's stoic silence.
She stopped beside Simba, their desolated homeland stretched out before them, and looked at his profile. He looked as devastated as the land itself.
Welcome home, she thought, but it was only with relief and joy.
Long months later, Nala stood beside him again, and again their friends were with them as they looked out over the Pridelands, and from behind them, her old teacher and ally ascended the pinnacle, their future in his hands.
As he presented the cub to the kingdom, Rafiki turned to Nala and smiled.
"Well done, Your Highness. Well done."