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After the death of virtually all of her family in the battle of Camlan, Goewin&150Princess of Britain, daughter of the High King Artos&150makes a desperate journey to African Aksum, to meet with Constantine, the British ambassador and her fianc?. But Aksum is undergoing political turmoil, and Goewin's relationship with its ambassador to Britain makes her position more than precarious. Caught between two countries, with the power to transform or end lives, Goewin fights to find and claim her place in a ...
After the death of virtually all of her family in the battle of Camlan, Goewin&150Princess of Britain, daughter of the High King Artos&150makes a desperate journey to African Aksum, to meet with Constantine, the British ambassador and her fianc?. But Aksum is undergoing political turmoil, and Goewin's relationship with its ambassador to Britain makes her position more than precarious. Caught between two countries, with the power to transform or end lives, Goewin fights to find and claim her place in a world that has suddenly, irrevocably changed. . . .
After the death of Artos, High King of Britain, and his sons, his daughter Princess Goewin journeys to Aksum to meet Constantine, her intended husband, but finds the country in political turmoil.
Naming the Animals
Six years after Medraut returned to Britain, and a bare season after he and my twin brother Lleu nearly killed each other over which of them should be the high king's heir, our father's estate at Camlan was destroyed in a battle that began by accident.
Camlan shattered Medraut. He began the battle: he drew his sword to kill an adder at my father's heel, and the host mustered by Cynric of the West Saxons fell on our own soldiers at the flash of light on metal. When sickness attacked the nearby village of Elder Field in the battle's wake, and my mother waited on the stricken without stint until she, too, was killed by the fever, Medraut blamed himself for not relieving her. Then Medraut killed our father. Artos asked it of him, rather than lie waiting to die of his battle wounds. Before that final damning act of courage and mercy, Medraut had spent a day and most of a night limping on a broken knee through the frozen, bloody fields around Camlan, searching for Lleu. It was not three months since Lleu had kissed and forgiven him his last winter's betrayal. Medraut would have given his own life to spare our brother's. All he found of my twin after Camlan was the golden circlet Lleu had worn.
Then Medraut disappeared. He lost himself in the caves at Elder Field, where we buried my parents and cousins. When I discovered he was gone, I felt my way in panic down the tunnel that led beyond the crypt, beyond the reach of the little light burning at my father's head, until I was afraid to go any farther. I stood there, calling and calling my elder brother, until I had to shut up because I suddenly so hated the sound of my own voice in that deep, quiet dark.
I and my father's soldiers searched and waited for Medraut for a month. But then came the rumor that the Saxon lord Cynric had offered a bounty for me, and my father's treacherous sister Morgause announced she would pay my weight in silver for proof that I was dead. I knew she meant it. I had seen the scars she left on Medraut, and he and I had spent half of the last summer battling to keep her from poisoning Lleu. Now only I stood between my aunt and her lost sovereignty. I panicked like a hunted doe. In fear and grief I turned my back on my own kingdom, with all the forethought and resolution of a gazelle flying before a crouching lioness.
I fled first to Father's capital in Deva. In the garrison there waited confirmation of Cynric's bride price; as his messenger he sent me Priamos Anbessa, my father's African envoy. Priamos, too, had sought for Lleu after Camlan, and had found him torn with spear and ax, and was made prisoner with him. He sat awake with Lleu through the night before Lleu died. Cynric sent Priamos back to me bearing the news of my brother's death, and the offer of Cynric's protection and dowry if I agreed to marry one of his grandsons.
Seriously, quietly, my father's dark ambassador from the Red Sea kingdom of Aksum delivered me his message from the Saxon lord, then offered me the sanctuary of his own empire.
As far back as I can remember there had always been an Aksumite ambassador in my father's court, an aloof, reserved young man with skin the color of peat and eyes that never met your own. They saw to it that we received ivory and papyrus, salt and spices and emeralds from the lands of the Red Sea, and that my father sent their king tin and silver and wool in fair exchange. I knew I could trust Priamos's offer. My cousin Constantine had long served in Aksum as our own ambassador there, in Medraut's place. My father had named Constantine as my future husband, and as his heir after my brothers. If I traveled to Aksum I could call Constantine home myself. I let Priamos lead me.
Three months later I sat in the New Palace in the imperial city of Aksum, at the edge of the big fountain in the Golden Court, seeking sanctuary, and waiting an audience with Constantine.
It was Constantine who was making me wait. I found, on my arrival, that my cousin had somehow so ingratiated himself with the Aksumite emperor that Caleb had abdicated in Constantine's favor. Constantine was no longer Britain's ambassador to Aksum; he was now viceroy of Aksum. So although half my father's soldiers had got in the habit of calling me queen of Britain since the high king's death, I had to sit in the Golden Court and wait for my cousin to grant me an audience.
The Golden Court echoed with the sound of running water and the chattering of colobus monkeys. The monkeys were a strange and beautiful highland breed, with flowing white tails and long fur that draped about their shoulders in a black-and-white cape. They crouched on the floor and in the potted palm trees, tethered by slender gold chains fixed in the sides of the fountains. The sound of the water was soothing; the chattering of the monkeys was not. They shook their chains and screamed whenever anyone walked through the hall.
"They make me think of that boy we saw in Septem, when you made us change ships a day early," I said to Priamos, sitting at my right hand. "Do you remember the child servant on the yacht berthed next to ours, that they led on board by his bound wrists?"
"Except these creatures strain against their bonds," Priamos answered, "and that boy did not."
Priamos touched the side of my hand, briefly, as he had done at the time. "You would." His dark, narrow face seemed all sharpness and severity behind his pointed black beard, but I knew that his serious frown hid humor and kindness. He was only a little older than I. "I would, too, Princess."
"And they make me think of my aunt." But everything made me think of Morgause. "She kept a menagerie of exotic creatures, all bound and caged."
At my left, Kidane, the counselor who had once been Medraut's host, held out his hands in a gesture of peace and welcome. "Be at ease, Princess Goewin," he said. "A death sentence is a chilling burden, and must be especially so for one who is scarcely past girlhood. How unfortunate that a thing so harmless as a pet monkey should remind you of your flight. Try to be at ease. You are safe, here, for a time."
All the events of the cold, sad spring just past had led me to this meeting with Constantine, yet the only thing I could think of was my aunt. And what I kept thinking about was not the vicious cruelty she had inflicted on my brothers, nor the harm she wished on me, but with what desperation she battled the men around her who sought to keep her power for their own, who strove to hold her helpless.
There was a sudden commotion among the monkeys, as four or five of them scampered toward a single point on the other side of the big fountain. The rest stretched out at the limit of their gold chains, screeching with jealous longing. A small person of about six years stood camouflaged among the palms, holding out his hands to the monkeys. In this land of dark-skinned people, his hair was a shocking white-gold blaze, nearly as pale as that of an albino. I stared at him and bit my lip, my heart twisting within me. He had my elder brother's hair.
Kidane stood up and turned around, gazing toward the clustering monkeys.
"Oh, that wretched child," he said. "He has been told not to feed these creatures." Kidane strode around the fountain. "Telemakos! Give me that. Come away now, or I will see to it you do not leave the house for a week."
Kidane came back to us, with a branch of dates in one hand and the child led cruelly by the ear in the other. The small boy bore this abuse stoically, his lips pressed together in a tight, thin line, his eyes narrowed in contained anger.
"I thought you were in council all this week, Grandfather," he protested. "No one else minds if I feed them."
"They mind the havoc it creates." Kidane released the child's ear and gripped him by the shoulder, as if he expected his grandson to try to slip away from him suddenly.
The boy was neatly slender, foxlike in his movements. His skin was the deep gold-brown of baked bread or roasted wheat. And his hair, his hair: it was thick as carded wool and white as sea foam, like a bundle of bleached raw silk. It was Medraut's hair.
Kidane spoke quietly and severely to him in Latin: "How unseemly ! Questioning me before a guest, and she the princess of Britain! Speak Latin so that the princess can understand."
The child ducked his head in apology. He spoke in Latin, but only to repeat what he had said in Ethiopic: "Why are you not in council, Grandfather?"
"The bala heg does not meet until this afternoon. You are an embarrassment," said Kidane. "Stand still, bow properly, and be introduced. Princess Goewin, this is Telemakos Meder. He is the issue of my daughter Turunesh and our former British ambassador, as you may guess. He takes his second name from his father: Ras Meder, Prince Meder, is how Medraut's son thinks of him." He pushed the child forward.
"Telemakos, this is the Princess Goewin, who arrived in the city this morning. She is daughter to Artos the dragon, the high king of Britain. She will be the queen of her own country when she goes home, though she is dressed humbly enough for traveling; and she also happens to be your aunt. You must treat her with appropriate respect."
Telemakos bowed low at my feet, on his knees, with his forehead just touching the ground. His movements were all light and quick and efficient. No one had ever bent before me so submissively.
"Welcome, lady, welcome to Aksum," Telemakos said demurely. "I am your servant."
"Look up," I commanded him, because I was wild to see his eyes again. "Look at my face a moment."
He raised his head. His eyes were blue, such a deep familiar blue, like slate or smoke. His skin was the color of ale or cider, his front teeth were missing, he was very little; but by heaven, he looked like Medraut.
He asked me abruptly, "Why are you my aunt?"
"I am your father's sister," I answered.
"Oh," Telemakos said, and looked me up and down before lowering his eyes again, still on his knees. He glanced at his grandfather. "You said she is a princess."
"Your father was a prince. We have told you that. Ras Priamos is a prince, also," Kidane hinted.
Telemakos lowered his head again. It was not so deep a bow as he had made to me; but I sensed that there was more sincerity, or at any rate more intensity, in this reverence. "Peace to you, Ras Priamos," he said. "I remember you."
"You cannot be old enough to remember me," said Priamos. He had left Aksum nearly a year ago.
"I do remember you. I remember the parade, after the war in Himyar, when you led your beaten warriors through the cathedral square."
Telemakos spoke with deep and unfeigned devotion.
"I was little, but I won't ever forget, my lord. Your uncle the emperor called you anbessa, his lion. Your warriors stood so silent, holding their spears upside down, their clothes all bloody. And you were naked to the waist to show how sorry you were. The emperor took your sword back, and hit your shoulders and face with its flat side because you had lost the battle, but he called you lionheart."
Priamos went very still. I had seen him unhappy before: quiet and frowning when my father's estate was under attack, and choked with stoppered emotion when he had to tell me of Lleu's death; and quiet again, but acting with determined purpose to get me aboard a different ship, when he had suspected I was being tracked by a spy of Cynric's or my aunt's. Priamos was always quiet when he was disturbed. But I had never seen him this still. His brow was so heavy that he always seemed to scowl, even when he was calm, and it could have meant nothing; except he was so still.
I had known of his army's defeat, but he had kept his personal failure closely guarded. I looked away, at the fountain, at the chattering monkeys, so I should not seem to notice the shameful scars on his soul stripped bare like this.
Priamos said at last, "My uncle only called me by my name."
"Lionheart," Telemakos insisted. "Priamos Anbessa, he called you."
"We are all called Anbessa, I and my brothers and sisters. My father's name was Anbessa, and we are called Anbessa after him, as you are called Meder."
Kidane cleared his throat ominously. Telemakos swallowed, and contained himself. He managed to say, "Welcome, most noble prince, welcome to your homeland."
"Get off your knees," Priamos said gently.
Telemakos moved to sit at my feet, and winningly clasped one of my hands between his own small, brown ones. "Stay with us, Princess Goewin," he said. He said to me: "'Greetings, stranger! Here in our house you'll find a royal welcome. Have supper first, then tell us what you need.'" I stared down at his bowed head. He was reciting from Homer's Odyssey.
His grandfather did not recognize it. "That is the most polite string of words you have ever uttered," Kidane remarked.
Priamos burst into his rare, sweet and merry laughter, like a child. "What a gifted grandson you have!" he exclaimed. "The young charmer! He's quoting his namesake, Odysseus's son Telemakos. Greeting you with winged words, Princess! Those are Telemakos's first words to the goddess Athena."
"I know." I spoke softly.
"I meant it, though," Telemakos said, unabashed. "Will you stay in my grandfather's house in Aksum, Princess Goewin, and become my mother's friend, as your brother did?"
Kidane had already made me this offer, but coming from Telemakos it suddenly made my throat close up and my eyes swim. I had come four thousand miles, in fear of my life, hoping to find sanctuary among strangers; and instead here I was offered a home by my brother's son, as he sat at my feet clasping my hand in his, greeting me as a goddess.
"Thank you," I answered. "Yes, I would delight to stay in your house."
"That is all right, isn't it, Grandfather?"
"For the moment," Kidane told him. "The princess may decide to stay in the palace, after she meets the viceroy. She is to be married to Constantine."
Kidane laughed. "Not today. Next year, when they return to Britain. The monsoon is beginning; they cannot travel until winter is over, and even then they may postpone their journey until the Red Sea winds blow in their favor. Now go away, if you are going to ask impertinent questions."
"I will be polite. Let me get my animals, and I will come and wait with you." Telemakos scrambled to his feet again.
"My Noah's Flood animals," he explained over his shoulder, in case any of us thought he might mean the colobus monkeys he had been illegally feeding.
Kidane settled by me, lowering himself onto the wide stone lip of the fountain as though his grandson's high spirits weighed too heavily on his shoulders for his body to endure. He laid the date branch at his side and smoothed flat the embroidered edges of his white robe. I asked quickly, under my breath, "Did Medraut know about Telemakos?"
"He did not. He left us many months before the child was born."
Telemakos returned with a canvas satchel slung over his shoulder. He knelt before me again and began to take a series of lovely wooden figurines from his bag; these he ranged across the floor at my feet.
Priamos said, "Look at those animals!"
Telemakos glanced up and gave a respectful nod. "Pass them up here," Priamos directed. "The princess has never seen creatures like these. You will have to teach her their names, so we can take her hunting when the rains end."
"I don't know the Latin," Telemakos said.
"Latin's no use to anyone," said Priamos. He had been trained as an interpreter. He was not boastful, but he was given to flaunting his gift for languages. He had spent the long hours aboard ship telling me stories in his native Ethiopic and in Greek, the common language of the Red Sea, that I might learn a little of his speech before arriving in his homeland. "Use Greek or Ethiopic."
Telemakos pressed the wooden animals into my hands: rhinoceros, leopard, ostrich, ibex.
"Do you like hunting, Princess Goewin?" Telemakos asked. "My mother rides in the hunt, but she does not shoot."
"I like hunting," I said.
"Do you shoot?"
"I am a terrible shot. I'm a good tracker, though."
Kidane laughed at him again. "You'd be lucky, boy. The gazelle of the Great Valley are a deal faster than those fat and lazy things the emperor keeps as pets. We'll take you along some day and see how close you get."
Telemakos lowered his gaze without argument, and I could see that he did as much stalking outside the palace walls as he did within them, only no one was supposed to know that. I thought to myself: His grandfather has no idea what this child's limits are.
Excerpted from A Coalition of Lions by Elizabeth Wein. Copyright © 2003 Elizabeth Gatland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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