The Sunbird

The Sunbird

by Elizabeth Wein

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A deadly plague rages through Aksum, and only one boy can uncover the traitor who spreads the disease and threatens to destroy the kingdom
Telemakos, a descendant of both British and Aksumite rulers, has always been an outcast, but his resolve, loyalty, and bravery have never failed his royal heritage. When a plague spreads through the kingdom of Aksum, his


A deadly plague rages through Aksum, and only one boy can uncover the traitor who spreads the disease and threatens to destroy the kingdom
Telemakos, a descendant of both British and Aksumite rulers, has always been an outcast, but his resolve, loyalty, and bravery have never failed his royal heritage. When a plague spreads through the kingdom of Aksum, his aunt Goewin, British ambassador to Aksum, calls upon Telemakos to travel to the Afar desert and discover who has been a traitor to the crown, spreading the plague through the shipment of salt from port to port.
Traveling in disguise as a deaf-mute slave, Telemakos is captured and subjected to cruelty and suffering. Now more than ever, he must call on his extraordinary courage and his gift for silence—for if he fails, it will cost him his life.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Elizabeth Wein including rare images from the author’s personal collection.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Elizabeth Wein's third entry in her post-Arthurian saga, The Sunbird, young Telemakos, skilled in stealth and subterfuge, is enlisted by the emperor to travel to neighboring Adulis. As the author profiles the lives of sixth-century Ethiopian royalty and their interactions with their British colonials, plague spreads across the land, which has led to quarantines. But someone in Adulis is defying the blockade in order to establish a black market to trade salt. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
In this sequel to A Coalition of Lions, the focus of Wein's stories of Britain and Aksum shifts from Goewin, who has become the British ambassador to Aksum, to her nephew, Telemakos, the son of Modraut and his Aksum wife Turunesh. Telemakos's natural curiosity, combined with his ability to spy on anyone without their knowing, lead Goewin and the Aksum emperor, Gebre Meskal, to ask the youngster to undertake a difficult mission for them: infiltrate the salt mine of Afar and find out who is using the salt trade to spread plague throughout the (ancient) world. Telemakos agrees to embark upon what he thinks will be the adventure of a lifetime, knowing that if he is caught, his royal status will not keep him from dying at the hands of the traitor. However, nothing has prepared Telemakos for the absolute humiliation and pain he will endure when he is forced to work in the mines as a servant. This is a strong third book in Wein's Arthurian/Aksumite cycle, especially in the manner in which Modraut finally comes to terms with his past in a way that allows him to look to his—and Telemakos'—future. A highly recommended read. 2004, Viking, Ages 11 to 16.
—Jean Boreen, Ph.D.
This third book in the series that began with The Winter Prince (Atheneum, 1993/VOYA December 1993) is as dazzling as the Salt Desert that young Telemakos travels across on his dangerous journey. Wein continues her fascinating vision of the Arthurian story in which Medraut—son of Artos the High King and his sister Morgause—lives in Askum (Ethiopia) and has married the daughter of a court noble. His son, Telemakos, is the Sunbird, bright and clever. Telemakos's natural gifts for listening and tracking are put to use by the Askum emperor as he is sent, disguised, into the desert. The boy's task is to discover the identity of the traitor who is ignoring the quarantine and bringing plague to the cities of Askum. This outstanding book has many elements that set it apart. The innovative twist on the Arthurian legend is extremely intriguing. The setting, in both place and time, is unusual and beautifully developed. The suspenseful adventure is nail-bitingly tense. But the real strength of the book lies in the intelligent and engaging characters. Telemakos is vividly realized, and his courage and relentless curiosity shine from the pages. His Aunt Goewin, Ambassador from Britain, is a fascinating woman, strong and determined. His father, troubled silent Medraut, adds mystery, and the irrepressible Sofya is a charmer who deserves a book herself. Booktalk this winner by describing the scene in which Telemakos has his eyes glued shut, and middle school boys will be begging for more copies. The complicated cast of characters is more easily sorted out if the previous books in the series are read first. A helpful family tree, map, and glossary are included. VOYA Codes: 4Q 4P M J (Better thanmost, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2004, Viking, 224p.; Glossary. Map., Ages 11 to 15.
—Lynn Rutan
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-Wein once again takes her readers back to Aksum, Africa (present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea) during the sixth century as she continues the family saga that began with The Winter Prince (Puffin, 2003), followed by A Coalition of Lions (Viking, 2003). This third book is told through the eyes of Telemakos, the grandson of two noble men, one British and one Aksumite. When a deadly plague decimates Britain, Aksum's emperor declares a quarantine in order to keep the kingdom safe. Yet there are some, driven by profit motives, who defy this order and continue to trade with infected areas. Telemakos is called upon by his aunt, Britain's ambassador to Aksum, to discover who is responsible for defying the emperor. Doing so almost costs him his life. This book has it all-honor, loyalty, intrigue, betrayal, brutality, spies, family dynamics, love, and hate. Wein's attention to detail results in descriptions that are masterful and characters who are strong and memorable. Following the story may be challenging for some readers in that there are many foreign names, and some characters are referred to by more than one name. The novel starts a bit slowly, but then the intensity quickly picks up and readers become mesmerized. To fully appreciate the depth and scope of this installment in the ongoing series, it is recommended that the first two books be read first. A remarkable and unique story.-Mary N. Oluonye, Shaker Heights Public Library, OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Wein is expertly mining a commingled Arthurian and African sixth-century history here, as she did in A Coalition of Lions (2003) and The Winter Prince (1993). Although a sequel, this can be read without knowledge of the other two. Goewin, British ambassador to Aksum (Ethiopia), learns that plague has come to Britain. She sets quarantine on the ports of Aksum, yet the plague comes through. She turns to Telemakos, young son of her brother Medraut and his wife the Aksumite Lady Turunesh, naming him Sunbird. The boy is wary, knowledgeable, and gifted. Overlooked because he's a child, he has learned much of importance. Goewin sends Telemakos on a terrible journey in the hope of keeping plague from the land. The boy's suffering, capture, and servitude, and his discovery of the traitor who defies the quarantine and thus allows plague free rein, are harrowing. So are his return and his pronouncing sentence on the traitor, his captor. This riveting tale also illuminates Telemakos's growing and complex relationship with his father Medraut and his aunt Goewin. Intense, absorbing, and luminously written. (Fiction. YA)

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Open Road Media Teen & Tween
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Lion Hunters Novels , #3
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Read an Excerpt

The Sunbird

A Lion Hunters Novel

By Elizabeth Wein


Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth Gatland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-6007-2



Ready Telemachus took her up at once.

The Odyssey, 1:267–68

TELEMAKOS WAS HIDING IN the New Palace. He lay among the palms at the edge of the big fountain in the Golden Court. The marble lip of the fountain's rim just cleared the top of his head, and the imported soil beneath his chest was warm and moist. He was comfortable. He could move about easily behind the plants, for the sound of the fountains hid any noise he might make. Telemakos was watching his aunt.

She, Goewin, ought rightfully to be queen of Britain, queen of kings in her own land. Everyone said this. But she had chosen to send her cousin, Constantine, home to Britain as its high king, and she had taken his place here in African Aksum as Britain's ambassador. Goewin was young, barely a dozen years older than Telemakos himself. She often held informal audiences in unofficial places, like the Golden Court. She said she liked the sound of the fountains. Telemakos sometimes lay in his hiding place for hours, listening, listening. He did not understand all he heard, nor did he talk about it. But he loved to listen.

These men were not taking his aunt seriously, Telemakos could tell. They were talking about the salt trade. One of them was an official from Deire, in the far south beyond the Salt Desert, and one was a merchant, and one was a chieftain from Afar, where the valuable amole salt blocks were cut. The men were supposed to be negotiating a way of sending a regular salt shipment to Britain in exchange for tin and wool. But their conversation had deteriorated into a litany of complaints, and they spoke to one another without acknowledging Goewin's presence, as if she were a servant or an interpreter. If they did acknowledge her, it was to make some condescending explanation, as though she were a child.

Telemakos knew how this felt. It was one reason he had become adept at keeping himself hidden. People taunted him for his British father's hair, or they touched it superstitiously as if it would bring them luck; it was so fair as to be nearly white, incongruously framing a fine-drawn Aksumite face the color of coffee. And everyone hated his stony blue eyes, for which he could not blame them. "Foreign One" was the least offensive name they gave him. It was something Telemakos had lived with all his life, and he thought he did not mind it. But it was not something to which his aunt was accustomed, and he knew that it made her angry.

She dismissed the party of merchants and officials. They were listening with enough of an ear to her that they heard her dismissal.

Goewin sat for a moment in the quiet court then, empty of all life except the bright fish that darted through the water around the fountain. She drew a long breath, not so much a sigh as the noise she might have made before steeling herself to tease out a splinter of glass lodged in the palm of her hand. Then she said suddenly, "Telemakos, come here."

He had never been found out before, by anyone.

He was so surprised that for a long moment he did not move or answer her, expecting her command to have been a mistake, or believing himself to be dreaming.

"Telemakos," Goewin said, in a voice of dreadful imperial frost that brooked no argument, "I will not be disobeyed by you."

Telemakos crawled out from among the palms, silently, and knelt before his aunt with his head bowed.

"Do you make some use of your practiced espionage," she said. "Follow that party of dissembling tricksters and see if you can discover what tiresome plot they were hiding from me so carefully."

"Lady?" Telemakos asked tentatively, not sure that she could be serious, or why she was not angry with him.

"Follow them," said Goewin, "and listen."

So he did.

He stalked them like a leopard through the halls of the palace, gauging their attention, and watching the interaction of their servants even more closely than he watched the men themselves. They had a large number of attendants among them, from porters carrying sample bars of salt to children looking after exotic pets. The Deire official had a huge black cat on a lead. It was muzzled, and the merchant's clutch of half a dozen tiny monkeys were making it crazy. A tall boy with a thin moustache hung on to the cat's lead; four boys of about Telemakos's age seemed to be in charge of the miniature monkeys.

Telemakos, their shadow behind benches and pillars and potted trees, could not hear what they were saying. He needed to be with the party to hear them. Before he could frighten himself with the possible consequences, he slung a pebble at the leg of one of the monkeys.

He did not like to do it. But he did not trust people to react as predictably as animals. He would rather have dealt with the cat than the monkey, but there were four boys of varying shades and ages in the monkey retinue, and only the one older boy in charge of the cat. Telemakos needed to pass unnoticed.

His marksman father had never managed to sharpen Telemakos's aim, and it took Telemakos three quick shots before he struck his mark. Then there was a little explosion of temper and chaos as the monkey whirled and screamed and tried to bite back, striking out at the unfortunate child who held its lead. Telemakos ran up to the monkey, caught it by the scruff of its neck, and shook it. He gentled it while running with the other boys, who were all leaping to still the eruption and not draw attention to themselves from their masters. Telemakos stepped aside so that it looked to the monkey band as though he had momentarily crossed over from the cat band, and the haughty cat boy paid him no attention because Telemakos was obviously with the monkeys.

There was a moment, then, when he realized with a thrill through the pit of his stomach as though he were swooping from the boundary wall to the roof of his grandfather's stables, that he was standing in plain sight of twenty people and no one saw him.

The worst that could happen was that he would be chased off or reported to his grandfather, Kidane, who sat on the emperor's council. And his grandfather would not punish him. He would scold him, perhaps, but he would assume that Telemakos had been attracted to the cat, which was almost true. The roaring in Telemakos's head quieted, and he began to listen.

They spoke in Greek, and Telemakos could understand it, because it was the common language of the Red Sea. At least, he could understand the words they said, but he doubted their meaning. The men did not trust one another, and Telemakos's Greek was imperfect. He paid as much attention as he could to the sound of the words, so that he could repeat them accurately.

Cutting himself away from the group was even simpler than joining it had been. The owner of the fabulous cat suddenly turned around and snapped at his animal keeper in an incomprehensible language: "Go feed that creature!" or more likely, "Get that stinking feline away from us!"—the big cat smelled very strongly of big cat, and must have been intolerable when it was in heat. The thin moustache headed off in a different direction, pulling the cat with him. Telemakos peeled away from the party with the cat, and left its haughty keeper before he bothered to look down his long nose at the strange boy trotting at his heels.

Telemakos hugged himself into a granite alcove and stood still there for a moment, breathing lightly and trying to calm the roaring that had surged again in his ears. With most of his mind he dutifully repeated the words he needed to recite to his aunt; but with a small, delighted portion of himself he whispered aloud his new talent:

"I am invisible."

"Are you sure that is what he said?"

Goewin did not doubt that Telemakos was repeating to her what he thought he had heard. But she doubted that he could have heard it.

"'Plague will raise the price of salt,'" repeated Telemakos.

"There is no plague."

"That is what the Afar said. And the official from Deire—Anako?—Anako said that it had spread from Asia along the trade routes into Egypt, and across Europe as far as Britain and Byzantium to east and west, and that no one cared to buy cloth or spice or grain in any Mediterranean port, but wine and salt were dearly sought and dearly bought."

Goewin drew Telemakos down to sit by her on the fountain's rim.

"And what more did you hear?" she asked slowly.

"Alexandria ... Alexandria? Where the abuna, the bishop, comes from. Alexandria is considering a—a curfew? They used a different word, but I think that is what they meant. No ships allowed in or out. And the merchant said that if there were such a law passed, it would make no difference to the African and Asian traders on the Red Sea, because they would take their goods to Arsinoë and sell them there for a dearer price. It wasn't curfew—"

"It was quarantine," said Goewin. "Quarantine."

She put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him against her. "You are a bold hero. I have told you that before."

He longed to look into her face, so pale and foreign and stern, but it would have been rude. Goewin sometimes commanded him to look at her, when she wanted his attention, but he did not dare to do it without her permission.

"Go on, then." Goewin tilted her head in the direction of the Golden Court's portal. "Go lose yourself. I've got another meeting in a minute, and I don't need you lurking at my feet."

Telemakos wandered through the busy halls of the New Palace and out to the lion pit. The emperor's lions were dozing in the shade of the young pencil cedars. Telemakos climbed down the keeper's rope.

"Hey, hey, hey, Sheba, you big bully. Get away from my feet."

Telemakos landed lightly in the grass at the foot of the pit. Sheba, the lioness, buffeted her great golden head against his; Solomon, the magnificent black-maned lion, yawned and did not move from his spot beneath the trees.

"La, my lovely, I'm glad to see you, too." Telemakos buried his face in Sheba's sun-heated fur. She smelled like frankincense. "What have you been rolling in, you pampered creature? What a waste of good spice!"

The lions' bodies belonged to the emperor, but their hearts belonged to Telemakos. He had captured them himself, as kits, and given them as a coronation gift to Wazeb, now the emperor Gebre Meskal, negusa nagast, the king of kings of the Aksumite peoples. By day they lived in the lion pit of the New Palace. They wandered freely over the grounds at night, too fat and lazy to bother the pet elephant and giraffe that wandered there also, but daunting enough to any would-be thief or assassin. Telemakos was no more in awe of them now than he had been when he plucked them, small and golden-spotted and squirming, from the nest of rocks where their aunties had left them while they went hunting.

He liked to play with the lions when his mind was empty, and to snuggle with them in the sun when he had something to think about.

Plague in Britain was what he was thinking about now. He had never been to Britain, but he felt connected to it, living daily with his British aunt. Telemakos shared Goewin's rejoicing when packets arrived from Ras Priamos, the emperor's cousin, Aksum's ambassador to Britain. It was four years since they had seen each other, but Goewin's heart was in her homeland with the Aksumite envoy, Telemakos knew; he knew how she treasured Priamos's letters, how devotedly she answered them. If plague was in Britain, Priamos might be lost to her; and if plague was in Britain, Telemakos was sure his father would never take him there.

But if it had spread through Egypt already, then might it not end in Aksum itself, and who would then waste time worrying about distant Britain?

Goewin will tell the emperor, Telemakos thought, if I know Goewin. She'll tell him this afternoon, because there's a meeting of the bala heg this afternoon; that's why Grandfather came up to the New Palace this morning. He never comes up here unless the council is meeting.

Lying in the sun with his face against Sheba's spicy fur, Telemakos conceived an intrigue so elaborate it verged on folly.

He contrived to gain entry to that afternoon's meeting of the bala heg, the parliament of twelve nobles who gave private counsel to the young emperor Gebre Meskal. Telemakos hid himself in plain sight, just as he had done with the salt traders. This time he made Grandfather believe that he was attending the council as Goewin's unlikely companion, and he made her believe that he was there with Grandfather.

Telemakos walked between them as they entered the council room, his head held high, his eyes on the floor. He could sense Kidane and Goewin glaring at each other accusingly, not daring to start a personal argument in the emperor's presence. Telemakos kept his gaze trained on the floor. He bowed to the emperor with Kidane and Goewin, lower than either of them because he was younger and had no place here. He lay on his chest on the floor with his face in his arms until Gebre Meskal acknowledged him.

"Lij Telemakos."

That sobered him. It was very rare that anyone called him by his title, which was something equivalent to "young prince." Telemakos's mother and grandfather only ever introduced him as Telemakos Meder, his own name and his father's Aksumite name. Yet his mother was a noble and his father a prince, and though Telemakos was Aksumite by birth, by blood he had more claim to the British kingship than did Constantine, Britain's high king.

For one uncertain moment Telemakos feared the emperor would ask why he was there. Then Gebre Meskal said, as though in warning, "All right, Telemakos," speaking in tones of dismissal.

Telemakos stood up, his eyes still trained on the floor. He moved to stand aside with his face to the wall, to show how well he knew his place; he was sure that this was a courtesy Grandfather would have required of him if he had truly brought him to this meeting.

Gebre Meskal acknowledged his councilors with no more of a greeting than he had given to Telemakos, and called for their silence.

"Princess." Gebre Meskal was always as respectful to Goewin as he was to anyone, and it was partly this that kept Telemakos in awe of her. "You have news from our ambassador in Britain?"

"Thank you for allowing me entry here today, Your Majesty," Goewin said coolly. "Yes, only this noon I've received a letter from Priamos."

"I await my own," said the emperor. "The despatchers are erratic as ever."

"There may be good reason for that," said Goewin. "May I read this aloud?"

And there it was again, the evil word, plague. Priamos's letter confirmed that it was in Britain. Priamos apologized that he would not return to Aksum that year, as planned and expected, because he did not think it safe to travel. He also advised that Goewin stay where she was: "For to move from one land to another is to drag the pestilence from place to place, and to leave a wake of death and uncleanness in one's path."

There was a long silence after Goewin finished.

She spoke grimly, into the heavy silence, "I am going to write one more letter to Constantine the high king, and tell him to shut down Britain's ports. And I entreat you, Your Majesty, to do the same here in Aksum."

The council chamber exploded into outrage. Telemakos turned his head, very quietly and carefully, so that he could see over one shoulder a little of what was going on.

There was old Zoskales, who was deaf and always asleep, starting and blinking; his neighbor, Karkara, yelled an explanation at his ear. The warrior Hiuna and the priest Kasu, from the ancient city of Yeha, had broken into angry argument with each other; while Ityopis, the emperor's young cousin, slapped the rail before them with one open palm to try to calm them or get their attention.

Telemakos found himself shaking with bottled laughter. Each one of the bala heg was behaving exactly as he did in court or in the street, Telemakos could not believe they were so predictable.

Goewin leaned an elbow against the rail in front of her own seat, her head tilted a little, her eyes hidden behind one hand. She waited in disgusted silence for the council to come to order. Telemakos moved his head imperceptibly, straining to get a better look, and found Goewin watching him from beneath her hand. She held his gaze for a moment before he could duck back toward the wall. His heart hammered; he was sure she had discovered him again.

Well, there was no doubt Grandfather would have him whipped this time, for this was the most outrageous thing he had ever done. But he would not give himself up until he was called out.

It was Danael who brought them to order. He was their leader, the agabe heg, the king's closest advisor.

"Have you so little regard for the British ambassador?" he thundered. "Sit down. Would you question Caleb's choice of her any more than you question his choice of Gebre Meskal as his heir? Sit down and be quiet and let her speak."

Danael turned to the negusa nagast. "Your Majesty?"

"Come to your feet, Princess Goewin, and address them again," said the emperor.


Excerpted from The Sunbird by Elizabeth Wein. Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth Gatland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Wein (b. 1964) is an author of young adult novels and short stories. After growing up in New York City; England; Jamaica; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she attended Yale University and received her doctorate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. While in Philadelphia, Wein learned to ring church bells in the English style known as change ringing, and in 1991, she met her future husband, Tim, at a bell-ringers’ dinner-dance. She and Tim are also private pilots who have flown all over the world. She lives with Tim and their two children in Scotland.
Elizabeth Wein (b. 1964) is an author of young adult novels and short stories. After growing up in New York City; England; Jamaica; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she attended Yale University and received her doctorate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. While in Philadelphia, Wein learned to ring church bells in the English style known as change ringing, and in 1991, she met her future husband, Tim, at a bell-ringers’ dinner-dance. She and Tim are also private pilots who have flown all over the world. She lives with Tim and their two children in Scotland. 

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