Telemakos knelt beside him. “There’re two.” The lions were padding in parade, one behind the other. “Look here—they passed this way within minutes of us, and marked this place—can you smell it? They’re marking their territory, not hunting.”
“Two lions prowling this close to the city!” exclaimed Tharan.
“Worse than vermin,” agreed Alim the local governor, Malika’s uncle, who came along as their guide. “Chase them for sport, if you like, Abreha the Lion Hunter. Otherwise it will be a job for the city guard to kill them or drive them off.”
Hunting together, the najashi’s gazelle hounds were said to have taken lions, Telemakos knew. He stood trying to quell his excitement. He had not hunted lions before; at least, not looking for a fight, not with a sharpened spear to call his own, and not with anyone’s permission.
“Will you lead us, Morningstar?” Abreha requested decisively, as though it were a formality, as though there were no one else to ask.
Telemakos’s heart vaulted with gratitude and excitement. “My najashi, of course.”
Abreha refixed the scarf that muffled Telemakos’s charm bracelet, and reached to Tharan, who handed him one of the light spears for Telemakos to take.
“You are better balanced holding a lance. Are those on your back in readiness? Good. Lead on.”
Telemakos held his head up for a few moments, gauging the wind. He breathed deep and choked on sand. He put down the spear for a moment, and kneeling with the neck of his shirt pulled up over his nose, took another deep breath. He was trying to catch the lingering trace of the lions’ bodies beyond the stink of cat that they had left about; but Menelik padded at the najashi’s side, and the only scent Telemakos could make out was Menelik’s familiar smell of oil and honey.
It’s this, he thought, his mouth dry and his pulse beginning to race. I love this. This is my favorite part of the hunt, the tracking, the finding. The kill is nothing to the chase, nothing. If I had never to do anything else but this, I would be happy.
He picked up his spear and set out in the direction pointed by the tracks, falling into a light jog that he could easily check when he needed to confirm the trail. Argos and Selene trotted one on either side of him, and the najashi’s host followed behind. It was not the first time the najashi had let him lead them in their tracking; Telemakos could scent the quarry nearly as well as the dogs and was better at reporting it.
They overtook the lions high in a barren gully carved by years of seasonal rains. Telemakos fell back and let the hounds close in. A dozen of them concentrated their effort on the smaller of the lions, and overwhelmed it, though it put up a furious fight; its heavier companion came snarling to its defense from outside the fray. The bigger lion killed a saluki in one single snap of its jaws, crushing the back of the slender creature’s head and neck. One of the men let out a cry of sorrow then, and the huntsmen waded in among the dogs with their spears. The defending lion turned tail and leaped silently away among the rocks, trailing blood.
“It’s taken a spear thrust in the thigh,” someone called. “It won’t get far.”
Telemakos heard Abreha give a command, in his gentle speaking-to-the-hounds voice. “Go, my beauty. Take him.” In a flash of tawny gold and black, Menelik loped after the vanished lion.
That thing is a quarter again Menelik’s size, Telemakos thought in alarm, and enraged with a superficial wound.
He ran. He leaped up the gully as lightly and nearly as swiftly as the young lion, leveling himself with the short spear, but he was not quick enough to stop the fight before it started. Menelik and the wild lion were going at each other with abandon when Telemakos arrived. They snapped and bellowed, rolling and whipping their bodies in the sand with such lightning speed Telemakos could not follow their fight.
“Menelik! Menelik! Hold!”
What Telemakos did next he did without thinking. He gripped his short spear tight against his ribs and launched himself at the lions.
The wild one took its teeth out of Menelik’s neck and lunged toward Telemakos; its own momentum carried it right into his spear. Telemakos held the lance fast and thrust it straight back through the lion’s open mouth and down the growling throat. Selene went for its throat also, and clung there with her jaws locked shut, relentless and determined as a mosquito. As the lion fell at his feet, Telemakos hauled his second spear out of its brace, over his back, and threw all his weight into a final blow between the lion’s shoulders. He could feel the blade grinding against that of his first spear as he drove them together inside the terrible neck.
Selene still held on. Telemakos, too, held himself there for a moment, bent over and panting, half expecting the lion to leap up again and devour him. When nothing happened, he dared to look up. Menelik lay choking on blood that streamed from his mouth and nostrils. The wild lion had torn out his throat.
For a few moments more Telemakos stood still, knowing he could give Menelik neither help nor any comfort. Then, in bitter grief and fury, he braced himself with his foot against the carcass of the lion he had just killed, wrenched free the spear in its back, and drove it between Menelik’s ribs, through his heart.
“Morningstar!” The rest of the hunters had caught up with him. “Hai! Morningstar! Are you hurt?”
“What’s the boy done? Mother of God!”
Men lifted Telemakos away from the dead animals. There was jubilation in their gibbering voices. He found himself standing before Abreha, who held open arms to him; Telemakos never afterward knew whether Abreha meant to congratulate him or to comfort him. He had no chance to do either: Telemakos flew at him and slapped him across the face.