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Gr 7 Up
This lyrical and complex tale of adventure and betrayal set in sixth-century Africa continues the story of 12-year-old Telemakos, who is recovering from the mental and physical abuse he suffered as a government spy in The Sunbird (Viking, 2004). His troubles are nowhere near done-he's attacked by one of the emperor's pet lions and loses an arm. His cover may have been blown as well. He and his baby sister are sent to live with Abreha, ruler of Himyar-once the enemy of the Aksumites, now possibly an ally, but definitely not to be completely trusted, as the young prince soon learns. Much of this story is based on events in The Sunbird and earlier stories in the saga, and names, places, and relationships are sometimes difficult to understand. That said, the writing is powerful and the characters are strong and memorable. Telemakos is a fascinating character: intelligent, loving, deeply scarred, and yet almost extraordinarily brave. There's a fairly graphic description of a crucifixion midway through. This is a challenging story complete with a cliff-hanger ending. Readers who make the effort (and start with the earlier book) will be richly rewarded.
—Mara AlpertCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
THE HARSH CRIES OF his mother's birth pains were too heartrending for Telemakos to bear, and he had fled the house.
He spent the morning in the lion pit at the New Palace with Solomon and Sheba. Telemakos had caught the emperor's lions himself, as cubs, six years ago. He had no responsibility for them; Nezana, the royal lion keeper, saw to that. But they knew Telemakos better than anyone, and he loved them.
Today the great gold-and-black-pelted male, Solomon, was restless too, which was unlike him. Telemakos thought the lion must have picked up his mood. Usually Solomon never did anything but sleep, though on a good day he would indulge Telemakos like a cub; he would let Telemakos sit astride his back and cling to his mane as he loped gently around the pit's perimeter, or would chase colored wooden balls through the sand, retrieving them and dropping them at Telemakos's feet like a dog. Today Solomon would not stay still from one half minute to the next. This was frustrating, because Telemakos wanted comfort. Sheba was always an aloof and independent creature and would tolerate attention only a little at a time, but Telemakos counted on lazy, doggish Solomon to return his affection.
Telemakos wandered away from his disloyal friend, unconsoled. He leaped lightly onto the first of the stepping-stones that wound across the lions' trout pool. Telemakos often practiced here a small, private challenge to himself. He stood for a moment breathing carefully and finding his balance, and then he shut his eyes. He could walk the whole trail now, without looking, but he could not yet do it without faltering. The minor perils of tame lions and missed footing were distractions from his real fear, which was of covering his eyes.
It was more than half a year since he had been freed from the salt smugglers who had held him in slavery all last summer, but after having his eyes taped shut for two exhausting, appalling months, he still had a horror of being blinded. It was a trial of courage for him to pull his shirt over his head in the morning; the touch of the soft cotton on his face made his skin crawl. He had to dress and undress with his eyes and teeth clenched shut. It was such a little thing that he was ashamed to speak of it.
So he practiced covering his eyes. He could negotiate the stone path in the lions' fish pool with his eyes closed, and when his balance was perfect, he was planning to attempt it with a length of his shamma shawl pulled across his face.
But not today. Today he could not concentrate on his feet. He kept thinking about his mother, and the baby. He missed his step twice, and the second time he ended in water to his knees. Trout leaped and fled from him among the reeds and pebbles, and the lions came padding over to see what was going on.
Solomon paced at the water's edge, chirruping queries at Telemakos.
"Never mind the stepping-stones today," Telemakos said, talking aloud to set Solomon at ease.
He sloshed his way across the pool and tried to tickle Solomon behind the ears. The lion sniffed disdainfully at Telemakos's wet feet, shook himself free of Telemakos's hands, and went back to his pacing.
Telemakos sat down among the reeds at the water's edge, his toes in the shallows and his knees drawn up under his chin. I'm too excited, he thought. Solomon won't calm down as long as I keep splashing about and making the fish jump. And pretty soon Sheba will catch it, too, and then she'll snap at me.
He knew he ought to go somewhere else. He hated it when Sheba began snarling. Once, he had had to face her down until Nezana arrived with his whip and distracted the lioness long enough for Telemakos to escape up the keeper's rope.
They're lions, Telemakos reminded himself. They're tame and overfed, but they're lions. They just do what lions do. They can't help it.
He drew his feet back from the edge of the pool and watched the water shrinking from his skin as it dried. His feet were golden-brown, soft-hued as old honey, something in between his dark African mother's and his fair British father's. Telemakos wondered if the baby would be like him, a strange crossing of cultures, with skin the color of cinnamon and hair the color of salt. His heart leaped with pleasure and apprehension when he thought of the baby. Girl or boy? Girl, I know it. She will be a girl, and they will name her—
Telemakos looked up. His father and the keeper stood side by side, leaning over the wall where the rope was.
"Is my sister here?" Telemakos demanded, scrambling to his feet.
Nezana and Medraut laughed.
"Yes, O child oracle, your sister's here," Medraut called down. "Come home to the house of Nebir and meet her."
In his delight and excitement, Telemakos made the mistake of his life.
With the emperor's restless lions at his back, he ran toward the wall where his father stood.
"Telemakos!" Medraut bellowed in anguished horror, and Nezana cried out, "Beware!"
Telemakos had time to turn his head, and to glance behind him over his left shoulder.
Solomon, Solomon, lazy, gentle Solomon, had seen in Telemakos's sudden flight the moment he had dreamed of all through his narrow, pampered existence: a small, sweetsmelling, slender-legged animal racing away from him, calling him to hunt. It did not matter that he was not hungry. It did not occur to Solomon, in that moment of wild instinct, that the creature fleeing across the lion pit was the same creature that brushed his mane and rode on his back. Solomon crossed the pit in three long, low leaps.
"Solomon! Back!" Telemakos shouted, and was daring and desperate enough that he tried to turn and shout his vain command in Solomon's face. But Solomon only gave him time for that first glance, and for Telemakos to throw his arm up and try to shield his neck. Solomon was sevenfold Telemakos's weight. Telemakos went down beneath him like a stem of barley to the blade of a scythe, his hand clutching frantically at the back of his neck, his arm bent double and trapped, nearly from wrist to shoulder, in the brutal, sawtoothed vise of Solomon's jaws.
For what seemed a very long time, Telemakos thought about nothing but protecting his neck.
Then his father was bundling him into his arms and weeping as he ran, and Nezana was rounding on Solomon with his whip to hold him at bay while Medraut carried Telemakos out through the tunnel. The jolting of his father's strides tore his equilibrium apart, and Telemakos was sick all down Medraut's shirt and then again all over his own arm when Medraut laid him on the paving stones of the court outside the lion pit's lower walls.
"You monstrous, thankless child!" his father wept. "Give me half a chance to put you back together before you go about polluting yourself!"
The keeper came running out to them. Medraut held on to Telemakos with iron fingers that bit into his arm more pressingly, it seemed, than Solomon's teeth had.
"Get me the emperor's physician," Medraut ordered. "And at least two attendants. A brazier, searing irons, a full kettle of clean water. Spirit, salt, a bolt of cotton, and needles, and a spool of fine gut. Opium. Now. Bring all of it out here, now. If I let go of him, he'll bleed to death."
Oh, Telemakos thought.
He lay quietly and stared at the sky, waiting for what would happen next.
Medraut bent over him as they waited, his fingers cutting into Telemakos's arm like knives. "Telemakos? Stay here."
"I am here," Telemakos whispered. He tried to focus on his father's face and the silver-fair hair that was like a reflection of his own, but the sky pulled back his gaze. It was the beginning of the season of the Long Rains, and though it was not raining yet that day, the air was thick with mist. The far winter sky soothed him, bright and gray and soft.
Desperate for time, they burned shut the wounds that were killing him even before they gave him the opium. No matter what they did to him, his vision never went entirely black, his mind never entirely unaware, until his inability to lose consciousness and shut it all out made him want to scream and scream and scream, except that he had no strength to do anything but stare dazedly at the sky.
His father and another man worked over his arm and shoulder with needle and thread. It was like being eaten alive by a flock of tiny birds. Something occurred to Telemakos suddenly, and he spoke through his father's endless, endless stitches.
"Oh, please—sir," Telemakos gasped. "Solomon! Please ... Don't—kill—Solomon!"
"Hush, child," Medraut murmured at his ear, never hesitating in his work. "Foolish one. Would that punish Solomon, or you? The emperor won't allow his pets to be executed."
Telemakos said clearly and abruptly, "Because when she is bigger, I want to show the baby."
"Oh." Then for the first time, Medraut faltered. "The baby!"
Telemakos saw that his father had utterly forgotten her.
Medraut bent his head over his son. His hot tears scorched Telemakos's arm. "Better she had never been born," Medraut whispered.
After a time, with great reluctance, Telemakos realized it was easier to lie with his eyes shut than with them open.
But he stayed awake. For hours he remained aware of all that was happening to him, and dimly aware of all that was happening around him.
Gebre Meskal, the young emperor of the African kingdom of Aksum, had on several occasions let it be known publicly that he was indebted to the house of Nebir. He gave up a suite of rooms in his palace so that Telemakos would not have to be carried home in his drugged and blood-dazed stupor. Long past dark, long after there was nothing more his father could do for him, Telemakos lay conscious of Medraut kneeling with his head on the cot by his shoulder, watching the shallow rise and fall of Telemakos's chest as he breathed.
It seemed late at night when the emperor came in.
Gebre Meskal used Medraut's Ethiopic name and royal title, Prince Meder, as Telemakos did when he addressed his father. Telemakos felt his father come to attention.
"Be at ease, sir," said the emperor, and sighed. "Please. Take my hand. Sit. Never have I known a birthday smutted by a grimmer cloud. Will he heal?"
Medraut's answer was no answer. "He bore our surgery like a soldier."
"So he would. His mettle bests the better part of my army. Telemakos Lionheart, Beloved Telemakos. Few men could have endured the punishment he suffered in the hands of the smugglers at the Afar mines, when he sought to discover those who would sabotage my plague quarantine. And he was only a child."
In gentle affection, the emperor brushed his cool, dry palm over Telemakos's forehead.
"Beloved Telemakos," he repeated.
Even so innocent a touch, so close to Telemakos's eyes, made him shudder. For one endless, confusing moment, Telemakos thought he was there, back in Afar. The brutal foreman that he never saw was tightening the blindfold—Telemakos was lost again in a dark, constricted world of thirst and exhaustion, labor and torment, where his eyes were always covered and his arms always bound, and his legs were locked in iron while he slept. If he lay blind and unable to move like this, where else could he be but in Afar, in the Salt Desert?
But, but. The emperor was still talking.
"—he was only a child. What age is he now?"
Medraut answered with dull, mechanical politeness. "He will be twelve at Trinity next month."
"I have kept my eye on your lionhearted son this past half year," the emperor said in a low voice. "I would not use so young a servant as a spy another time. It was a season before he had his full weight back after the captivity. And I have lain awake some nights regretting how publicly I involved him in the trial that followed. I should not have risked bringing anyone's wrath against the boy."
Medraut let out a sharp breath of dismissal. "Wrath!" he said hoarsely, his voice rough with unhappiness. "Majesty, what does any of that matter now? What more evil could be done to him than this? If any one of these wounds should fester, only one ... Tooth and claw. There are so many. I dread their infection."
"It is past curfew, Ras Meder," the emperor said quietly. "I am holding the Guardian's Gate open for you. I want you to go home."
Medraut let one hand fall on Telemakos's chest, and Telemakos gasped faintly. His torn ribcage throbbed beneath the pressure of his father's touch, but it was a relief to feel its firm reality. He was not in Afar.
"I myself will keep your watch this night," said Gebre Meskal. "You, Ras Meder, have the boy's grieving mother and newborn sister waiting for your comfort. Your son is at rest for the moment. Please go home now."
There were not many who could command Telemakos's father, Medraut the son of Artos the Dragon, Medraut who would now be high king of Britain if he had so desired. "I should do this for no other man," Medraut said in a low voice, rising to his feet.
"Do it for no man's sake. Do it for Turunesh your wife, and your new daughter. Ras Meder—"
The emperor spoke steadily. "Ras Meder, I have a question to put to you before you go. Let me ask it quickly, for I do not like to consult you on matters of policy when you are so pressed with hope and fear for your children. But it cannot wait. A dispatch has come this morning, and I must send an answer before rain makes the roads impassable. My cousin the king of Himyar, Abreha Anbessa, whom the Himyarites name Lion Hunter, wants me to lift my quarantine."
Telemakos's mind went suddenly keen, clutching at this distraction. Even only half-conscious, he was fascinated as always by the complicated adult world of power and influence that surrounded him.
"Why do you consult me?" Medraut said. "Consult my sister, the princess Goewin, your so-called British ambassador. She is your Mentor, not I; your Athena, your queen of spies."
"Do not ever call her that," the emperor said sharply, "even though we are alone."
"Your pardon, sir," Medraut muttered. "But why consult me?"
"Because you are a doctor. I want to know what risk I run of bringing plague to Aksum if I lift my quarantine and resume trade in the Red Sea. Abreha has his eye fixed on the Hanish Islands, and I fear he will try to secure them if I do not exercise my right of dominion there. He has been my ally these six years, and I do not want to wake the ghost of my father's conflict in Arabia."
Oh, the wealth of intrigue you heard when no one imagined you were listening.
Telemakos tried to divest himself of his ruined arm and the numbing, flashed return to last summer's captivity, to concentrate on the low voices over his head.
"What do you lose if you lose Hanish?" Medraut asked.
"A colony of exile and our first port of entry from the Orient to the Red Sea, since plague took Deire. A vast mine of obsidian. Rich pearl-fishing grounds."
"Majesty, run the risk of losing Hanish. Have you condemned whole cities and plunged nobles into poverty with your quarantine, to be tempted by a handful of obsidian and pearls? Throw wide your gates before time, and your people will fall to plague like corn to locusts; they will have no hardiness against a disease they have scarcely encountered."
Medraut drew a long breath. But he finished firmly, "Ask that your cousin forgive you for refusing his request. Abreha Anbessa is a forgiving man. Show him that you trust him. Hold your quarantine another year."
It took every fragment of Telemakos's will to understand and remember this exchange.
"So. The quarantine holds. Thank you, Ras Meder."
"It is advice easily given. It is not so easily enforced."
"The quarantine holds."
This assertion seemed curiously reassuring. Telemakos opened his eyes.
"You prying young demon. You never miss a word." Medraut drummed his fingers against Telemakos's chest, his touch fond and feather light, so that Telemakos hardly felt it. "Look at this, my lord, he is awake. He is hanging on our every syllable."
Medraut bent near him, searching his face. Telemakos watched but could not move his head.
Telemakos made the word with tongue and teeth, but no sound came out. With a great effort, he gathered himself.
"Queen of spies?" he whispered.
His father and Gebre Meskal glanced at each other over Telemakos's still form. Then the emperor leaned close to him as well, with one finger raised to his own lips.
"It is a secret," he said. "No man must ever know the true name of my Mentor"—his voice was gentle—"or that of my sunbird."
That had been Gebre Meskal's name for Telemakos himself, when Telemakos had moved in listening secrecy, alone in Afar among the salt pirates, the year before.
But no one knows my name, Telemakos thought. Our ports are closed, the black market was stopped six months ago, the men who ran it are all exiled or dead. Why then, he thought, and this time found himself shaping words without meaning to: "Why now, if all is finished—?"
It was utterly exhausting to try to speak aloud. Telemakos closed his eyes again.
"All is not finished," said the emperor Gebre Meskal.
Excerpted from The Lion Hunter by Elizabeth Wein. Copyright © 2007 Elizabeth Gatland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 13, 2010
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