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.”

“Stand steady.”

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.

“Lion against lion!”

Telemakos’s voice cracked, sounding as babyish as Athena’s in his own ears.

“Against his own kind! A lion against his own kind! You would not set a dog against another dog, oh never, not one of your precious salukis, but you would so despise a lion?”

The huntsmen had fallen silent now.

“And not one of your guard had wit enough to stop it happening! Ah, God, I am ashamed to be gifted with your damned dogs. Give me next time a pair of songbirds, so I won’t have to be party to another such murder!”

“Quiet, child, calm yourself,” Abreha said. “Calm yourself.”

Telemakos screamed at him, “What am I going to tell Athena?” He burst into tears.

They tried to make him drink water that was bitter with the taste of some added sedative. Telemakos spat this out in fury and struck the man who had offered him the drinking horn. They pinned Telemakos by the shoulders while Tharan pinched his nose shut until he gasped for breath. When Telemakos opened his mouth, Tharan jerked his head back in one swift movement and poured the drink straight down his throat.

“You are a damned pack of hyenas!” Telemakos wept, spitting and coughing. Abreha caught him gently when he fell.

He was lying on his back beneath the willows. Stars appeared and disappeared above him through the shifting leaves. Athena slept with her arms around his neck and her head against his shoulder, a warm, affectionate bundle of banked energy pressing him against the ground. The salukis were curled beside him as well, one tight against each leg. One of them had its head propped on his stomach.

He was still immobilized by the sedative and battled for consciousness. Someone else was there, someone awake, touching his head: combing his hair, so gently and lightly it did not hurt, even when the quick hands pulled through the snarls.

“He doesn’t like being put to sleep,” Muna said. “His father spends more on opium for him than the Scions are allowed for their clothes, and he disdains it. Rasha has found unopened vials of the stuff tied in his shirttails. You should not force it on him, even to calm him. You deal harshly with him, my lord.”

She was picking the sand from Telemakos’s scalp and plaiting his hair in tight rows against his skull, in the neat style of the Himyar warriors. He knew that she was using clarified butter to oil his hair, because he recognized the smell, but he could not remember where he was or why he had been drugged. It was all right; Athena was there.

“I dare not spoil him with any softness,” murmured the najashi’s voice. “For a prince of his stature, he is flawed severely enough as it is. Old enough to train as a warrior, and afraid to sleep alone! I hoped the dogs would come to substitute for the child as his comforter. Why should he need anything at all, this half-grown youth who killed two lions today all unaided? In Aksum, in my homeland, killing a lion is the ritual test of a king. If you can kill a lion, you are deemed fit to rule a kingdom.”

“He can’t light a lamp,” said Muna. “He can’t comb his hair. He can’t drink from a waterskin. He can’t sharpen his pens. He is healing, only healing still, and you deal harshly with him.”

“He has slain a lion,” the najashi said. “He could kill a man. He shouldn’t need help with lamps and combs! He doesn’t need it, any more than his sister needs to be carried about like a lap dog. She’s three years old. When will she learn to walk?” He sighed. “Neither one of them is whole. Neither one of them sleeps peacefully without the other near.”

They talk about us as though we were their own children, Telemakos thought, and fell back into his drugged sleep.

He woke again shortly after dawn, still unable to govern his body, and found himself trapped in the illusion of imprisonment that had scarred his mind in Afar. If he tried to move his legs, they were chained. If he tried to move his arms, they were bound. If he tried to open his eyes, they were held shut by the dreaded, hated blindfold. He struggled until he began to weep aloud. And then out of nowhere the najashi was holding him, clasping him firmly hand in hand and stroking his hair.

After a little while Telemakos murmured unhappily, “You must hate it that I am alive and your son Asad is not. I think that is why you are so strict with me.”

“I was not strict enough with Asad,” the najashi answered gently. “He had neither your will nor your endurance. God forbid you should grow to be so soft and submissive. Your aunt Goewin took him for a servant the one time she met him.”

“I am soft. I am a coward. I am always so afraid, sleeping and waking, it never gets any easier, any less cruel, any lighter. I am always so afraid!”

“So are we all,” Abreha said. “You learn to master it. Or you pay it no heed, as a lion pays no heed to the dangers of the life he leads. He lives from kill to kill, from drought to drought, from pride to pride. What safety is there in his life? He is always afraid, and never knows it. It does not ruin him.”

“Where is Athena?”

“Breaking her fast with my queen, like a good girl.”

“I want my dogs, then,” Telemakos said.

“They’re here.”

Telemakos had not noticed them, lying against him.

“Master it,” Abreha repeated. “Do not be afraid.”

Telemakos spent the morning watching the men working over the hide of his golden lion. The lions he had known in the highlands of Aksum were black maned, but this one that he killed in Himyar was all over a molten, burnished gold, from mane to tail. He could not believe how big it was. Its skin was bigger than the one that hung in Kidane’s reception hall at home, which Medraut had caught for Turunesh before Telemakos was born. Copyright 2016 - 2024