“Am I big enough for a spear today?” I asked Mother and carefully balanced the basket of giant yams atop my head. She and I walked beneath the interlaced shady branches of the Jwalwala Forest. An aching cry—perhaps from a goat caught in a panther’s jaws—tore through the quiet murmur of the green. The forest of sandalwood and ebony thrived on bones as much as rain. I wanted to crawl into the brush to see if a panther indeed hauled its kill away but Mother deserved better from me.
She called me her dangerous boy though not on that morning when I turned fourteen. Mother touched my shoulder and smiled, which was enough to keep my gaze on the path ahead in spite of a curious commotion that rose.
Echoing booms of a leathery drum song rumbled through the trees yet Mother remained silent.
“Someone’s army is on the march,” I said. “We’d be safe if I had a spear.”
That someone was likely my father chasing gold and any other sparkling pebble that washed downriver. He never rallied his warriors for our sake.
I hoped Mother would believe I was brave enough for a spear, skinny as I was. Though she gave no answer I knew she heard me. She defied my father again when she brought me along to gather yams. I dressed for the work in my red waistcloth; smudges hid easily in its folds. Cutting peat from bogs and yanking massive yams from vines was not work for a man, so my father said. He hunted bushpigs for his dinner. He was a man.
“I should guard our door,” I said and prayed Mother did not hear the quiver in my voice. “This fight might come to us.”
That was a sad lie. Our mountain was not worth the steep climb when the river shimmered like a gilded road. Mother maintained her silent gait.
“A lynx has been sniffing about,” I said. “I saw tracks outside the storehouse. It might poke its nose in our hut and what then? What then, Mother?”
She raised an eyebrow as if I was some dead tree stump that blocked her path so I shouted. “A man must watch over our beds!”
Mother stopped and propped her wide basket of yams against her right hip. She loomed very tall, even for a woman born of the east. She wore an orange and white wrap-dress with her hair wound up in a spiral of golden silk. The soil dared not touch her.
“Has your father taught you how to make a spear?” The curve of her smile vanished from her high brown cheeks.
The main lesson my father, Hossi, taught me was to expect his absence. A son must first learn to build a spear with his father according to Hossi’s people.
“No,” I said.
“Then you have your answer, Jagantha,” Mother said and picked up a brisk pace.
A coppery scent trickled through the forest and turned sour in my mouth. I knew the smell. I looked to the trees north of our path and saw red wailing faces painted on the pale bark. They were markers for the Okkip territory, a place I did not wish to return to.
My father had brought me to such trees when I was ten to show me the sign of his enemy. Okkip were worse than phantom Leopard Men clawing through a child’s nightmare. The Okkip were of flesh and blood with real spears. Hossi would not take me back to our village until I embraced one of their trees. I wept with my face against the sticky bark while mosquitoes swarmed over me and Hossi relieved himself in the shrubs. When he saw the wetness of my cheeks he slapped me for being craven.
I set aside the memory to focus on the path before me. Powerful thumps shook the yams atop my head. It almost sounded like thunder but the beats were too neat.
A raggedy, vine-tangled man erupted from the brush.
Panting hard, the man stumbled into Mother’s way and clumsily ripped away the vines and roots coiled around his long, sweat-streaked arms.
“How far is the sea? Which way are the silk houses?” he asked in the gruff tongue of the Ubaiyu, my father’s people. The man’s bare chest rose and fell with deep breaths that parted an oozing gash along his ribs. A gold necklace, its clasp twisted apart, dangled from his right fist. He had a lanky build with clumps of mud and blood splattered on his damp loincloth. His simmering gaze lingered over Mother like he was some roving dog.
“Show me the way to Splendor, good sister,” he said. His smile revealed the yellow petals of dizzying yonja flowers stuck between his few remaining teeth.
Mother walked straight at him in long strides. She leaned to his ear with her lips moving slower than dripping rain.
The man twitched in place as if she tugged out all the tiny hairs from his skin. When Mother stepped away the smile sank away from his cheeks. He shuddered then sobbed as he teetered on his feet.
Mother often said in jest she could kill with a word like a witch.
“If you can cross the river faster than the crocs,” I said, passing the man, “you might reach the coast about this time tomorrow.”
“Already swam the river, didn’t see no crocs,” he said and sucked the sticky petals from his decrepit teeth. Stroking his cheeks he got caught up in his own laughter. I did not care where he went as long as he stopped leering at Mother.
“West is that way,” I said, nodding to my left, “on the other side of the river.”
“Spare some meat and I’ll be off,” he said.
War drums struck loudly before I answered. The raggedy man clutched the broken necklace to his chest. His teeth rattled as if a cold stream trickled down his spine.
“We only have yams,” I said, taking the man for a deserter from Hossi’s army. “I can offer you that much.”
“Might as well eat rocks, you worthless dirt picker,” he said, then hobbled south.
I could have warned him that the crocs mostly lived along that southern stretch of the river but we dirt pickers do not speak of such things—unless asked politely.
I inhaled the sweet embers of burning sandalwood in the forest then caught up with Mother. If I could not have a spear she would answer another question. “When will Kagari and Erasto get here? Are they on their way now?”
“My brother is a late riser,” she said as her smile returned. “And he’s never come this far west before.”
“But how soon?” I asked. “Erasto can tell me about my spirit naming–day and Kagari and I can pick more yams after he arrives.”
“Do not bring that child to this forest!” she shouted. I stumbled back and watched her for the slap that often followed when she bellowed. She was Queen Ayada the Uncrowned then. That was the name the washerwomen used though not when she might hear. She was born from Lurago kings but her court only consisted of baskets and urns.
“Late afternoon perhaps,” she said and waved me back to her side. “Erasto might rest at Yellow Brook for horned melon cakes. But certainly before dusk.”
“That long?” I asked, slowing my steps to keep just out of her reach. “I can cross the plains to Lions Glade much faster than that.” Kagari promised to come even if it meant he must walk alone. He always kept his word.
Until I was seven, Mother walked me down to the plains at least once each season. We loudly played tunes such as “Wrens in Springtime” on our flutes when we entered that sea of green grass. King Erasto’s own flutists remained silent when we traipsed into his house. Everyone gave way to Mother. She was like a griot, a wandering musician, sent by heaven to spread news.
I did not know the proper names for the drum songs of my father’s people. I called the heavy thumps in the valley “Echoes of Ash” because I often saw smoke rise from the trees soon after.
“You do not have to race across the plains,” Mother said and tugged on her dress, raising the hem as we walked up the mountain. “Erasto and I used to stand there and listen. Everything sounds clearer on the Nahali Plains. Whether it was lightning crackling between storm clouds or the oop-oop-oop song of the hoopoe birds in the low grass, Erasto and I would simply stand, shut our eyes, and listen.”
Large white rocks jutted up through the ground and farther up the slope the trees thinned out, long cleared away for our meager grain fields. I heard the woosh of Temm’s blade as it cleaved the brown stems of teff grass and stalks of pearl millet. The big clubfooted man worked fast with a score of boys sweating to catch up to him. Nikesa, a woman at seventeen and Temm’s daughter, sang winding rhythms along with the girls who carried away baskets of grain to be winnowed. Our meals were sparse but at least there would be yams, flatbread, and porridge this time.
“If Round General comes for my feast, he can tell us a story tonight,” I said. He knew about the demons that hid in the valley where the Gods of Splendor dared not walk.
“Round . . . General?” Mother’s voice rang with tired displeasure. “Sweet misery, must you always call people such names?”
“He likes being round,” I said. “He told me so.”
“I do not think the general is coming today, Jagantha.”
The heavy basket on my head kept me from shrugging. My father sometimes sent his generals to look after our village. I called the fat one Round General. He let me carry his white cowhide-covered shield while I asked questions about the valley’s secrets.
Swampy pools of black juju lay beyond the Okkip trees, he said. Witches bathed in those shadowy waters where fallen stars died. Only brave men dared look upon such women or perhaps they lacked the wits to run from their pale, rotting hands.
“Thought he’d come for a look at me today,” I said. “Round General tells me to grow taller so I can become a general, too.”
“That explains much,” Mother replied in tepid distaste.
I glanced back at the valley. Smoke rose from huge fires like strips of grey cloth woven in the wind. I was too far away to tell if the drummers played “Echoes of Ash.”
Our village, Beruwacha, sat in the gap between a stairway of mammoth, black granite steps to the north and a bulging southern dome of lavender where honeybees buzzed. Beruwacha was the only sure passage from the valley to the plains in the east.
While we lived on the mountains, Hossi kept two other households I knew of in the valley with his other wives. He also traded gold to cave hags who cursed his enemies with dark juju. Mother never told me such things but I heard Temm speak of it.
My father’s warriors came to our huts just long enough to replace broken spears and soften their beds with women. Warriors who fathered boys in Beruwacha tested their sons’ strength with wrestling matches. Daughters seemed of no concern no matter how long the girls smiled up at their fathers.
Neither Round General nor my father came to Beruwacha for my birthday.
Kagari and his father, King Erasto, however, brought the music of the Nahali Plains. Their flutists played “Heroes Going Forth” at the head of a procession of fifty warriors. Bands of blue feathers fluttered on the spearmen’s arms with each step they took. Mother said the king plucked those feathers from his own turaco birds only for his bravest men. The warriors looked like dizzy blue hens circling around Erasto and Kagari.
Behind them followed a score of women in long hooded shawls of pale blue Kaltaran silk that shined even brighter than Ayada’s. They took floating steps as if born of the sky but did not join the warriors’ frantic dance.
“Where is Den Thunda? Den Thunda!” Mujahl cried petulantly. He wrapped himself around Mother’s left leg. When Mujahl glared at Erasto I knew a tantrum was about to blossom and I had planted the seed.
The world quaked under the footfalls of Ten Thunders, Erasto’s mighty war elephant. At least that was the story I had told my little brother. Mujahl always wailed at bedtime unless I told him a new story about Ten Thunders stomping among the clouds blowing lightning from his trunk. Erasto’s arrival without the legendary elephant bull would not please my brother at all.
“Ten Thunders is too big to fit between the mountains,” I said to Mujahl. “We’d all be crushed under his feet if he came here.”
I tugged at the bright orange robe of delicate Kaltaran silk Mother forced me to wear. It sagged in big folds and slipped off my narrow shoulders too easily. I think she bought the robe for Hossi but he never touched it.
Erasto stood one hand shorter than Mother and his shoulders looked overly fleshy compared with his lean warriors. While the spearmen were beardless with shaven heads, King Erasto wore his hair in a thick thatch of black curls crowned by a spray of droopy black ostrich feathers. A large, tear-shaped diamond of rippling clarity—spoils from a war Erasto never fought—shimmered clear as water above his brow.
Zebra skins hung from his right shoulder and wrapped around his exalted waist. The king looked like one of the Giants of Midnight come to gobble me up.
Erasto pushed his flutists aside before for their fanfare ended.
“At last we see our sister Ayada, the Dancing Crane of Lions Glade, again,” he said. “She has been absent too long from our songs.” He grinned with his black-bearded maw as he approached with his arms wide as if to seize the whole village.
“Send him back, Mama,” Mujahl said. His plump cheeks puffed up at the very elephant-less king. “Send him back.”
“And this is why I keep your hair cut,” Mother whispered and pat my smooth head. She had dabbed sandalwood essence on her shoulders, a gesture Mother typically saved for Hossi’s visits, making her smell fresh as spring.
“My brother is quite shaggy,” she said. “He looks like an overgrown chimp, hm?”
I covered my mouth as Mother tickled me, her way of setting me at ease.
“No, Mama. Chimps clean up after themselves,” I said and giggled behind my hand. “I think your brother is wearing his dinner on his head—Ai, ai! Mama, ai!”
She pinched me very hard, probably to keep herself from laughing, as she spoke through her teeth. “That man is King of the Six Plains of the—”
“Seven plains, Mama,” I said. “Last summer Kagari and I watched the Crash of Night chase the Dunyarweh into the North. It’s all Lurago land now.”
Erasto’s elder brother Reshuzu commanded the black rhino cavalry known as the Crash of Night. It chilled me to remember the white fear on the Dunyarweh men’s faces, screaming to Reshuzu for mercy. The Crash of Night collected bones in battle, not prisoners.
“Boy, Erasto can wear whatever he likes,” Mother said. “Go welcome Kagari.”
Released from her grip, I ran first to King Erasto and stopped just long enough to allow him the chance to pat me on the head.
He did not.
Erasto’s smile retreated the closer I came until his face became a featureless slate.
Usually when Erasto saw me he made jests about my giraffe-like feet. But Erasto did not speak to me that day. He just flicked his hand in the direction of his entourage.
I plunged into the nest of the blue feathers and elbowed warriors in their hips.
“Greetings to my Mother’s Brother’s Son!” I shouted in an ear-twisting squeal as I squirmed through the spearmen. “Thank you for coming to share in the day of my birth!”
“Greetings back to my Father’s Sister’s Son,” Kagari said in an equally loud, steel-scraping reply as he emerged with a smile. We always said hello to each other that way before we clutched each other tightly. In some distant lands people used short words such as “uncle” and “cousin” to describe their relations.
That sounded like a sad, stunted way to speak of one’s family.
While hugging Kagari I glimpsed a cold scowl from one of the hooded maidens. She was taller than me, of dark skin with owlish eyes that flickered from light brown to gold-tinged amber. A plains girl perhaps but her flowing, lustrous shawl made it hard to be sure. Quick as her glare appeared her brow smoothed over serenely like the other maidens. They all stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the first yet each young woman was a different complexion from ruddy brown to bright sandstone. Their cold grace stilled me.
Kagari wore a new leopard skin and a headdress topped by shorter feathers than his father’s crown. Kagari and I shared the same lean frame and what my father called “That Damn Lurago Egg-Shaped Head” but in some ways I was Kagari’s ghost.
Years under the sun gave Kagari a much richer brown than my skin. Kagari’s fourteenth birthday would come three moons after mine and people from across the Nahali would march to Lions Glade to pay homage to him.
“I hope your mother grinds plenty of honeyed yams for us,” Kagari said and gripped something poorly hidden in his right hand.
“And who says I am going to share?” I asked.
“As much as you eat when you visit Lions Glade, you are lucky I bothered to bring you a gift,” Kagari said, clucking his tongue. He handed me a small parcel wrapped in the tanned hide of an impala.
A smile overtook my face as I unfolded the hide until I revealed a section of cleanly cut ivory the size of a man’s open hand. The piece felt too heavy and solid to come from some ancient hippo tusk. My hands went cold as I held it.
“You cannot bring this here. This cannot be here,” I said and stared at the soft creamy glow cast by the polished ivory. I tried to wrap it back up before the Blue Feather warriors turned their spears on me.
The promise that ended the war between my father’s and my mother’s peoples almost slipped from my lips: The Ubaiyu cannot own ivory while they keep Lurago wives.
My father repeated those words to Mother the last time he came to the village. His voice then felt harder than the piece of contraband in my hands.
“They found an elephant bull hamstrung on our western lands not far from here,” Kagari said and gently reopened the hide. “The poachers ran off without the tusks as soon as our warriors spied them. The onbas blessed the bull and begged his spirit for forgiveness. Father fed the meat to the warriors to make them stronger and brought the tusks home. He said you might like to have some of it.”
A tickle in my head told me Kagari was anxious for me to look upon this evidence of the slaughter. “Who—”
“My father says it was the Dunyarweh seeking revenge.” Kagari’s response sounded too practiced. Mujahl told more believable lies. The Dunyarweh had scattered in panic and dared not touch an elephant in Lurago territory.
The ivory was a warning for Hossi and Erasto meant for me to deliver it.
“My mother’s brother’s son is very kind to bring this gift,” I said.
“I give it in kindness to my father’s sister’s son,” Kagari said, with a proper smile.
Our village dined that night on the fleshy haunches of two giant elands that the Blue Feathers carried up from the plains. Mujahl’s nursemaid Kemsi roasted the meat saving the thinnest slices to be dried later into qwant’a strips. We dirt pickers—as the people in the valley called us—burned bricks of peat cut from the bottom of the swamp forests to cook our food because Hossi demanded the best wood for making spears.
Kemsi spiced the meat to hide the taste of the bog that sometimes got burned in.
Onba Chellu sang praises to our ancestors around the smoky fire while the women danced and rattled calabashes. The sky maidens sadly did not join us. A dance with me, shaking themselves free of their hoods, might relax their scowls. I wanted to see shadows at play between their long legs. Mostly I wanted to see the first maiden’s amber eyes gleam by the fire.
Kagari laughed when I asked about the maidens. He kept cackling as the people of my village tore off pieces of soft injera flatbread to jealously snatch up meat. We usually ate the tough flanks of goats that lived on the higher slopes. Erasto and Ayada sat huddled among the washerwomen, peat cutters, and woodsmen who grabbed cubes of tenderloin. Hanou, Kemsi’s sister, smacked Erasto’s hand away from a steamy morsel.
“I don’t think you earned that piece,” Hanou proclaimed.
The king stole the next bite before she could stop him. Temm grabbed three helpings that the general of the Blue Feathers frowned over. Everyone was an equal at Lurago feasts but no one had to share.
Kagari and I devoured dollops of fufu—mashed from the yams and sweetly honeyed—with peanut soup until we ached. Erasto’s flutists played “Wrens in Springtime” perfectly around the fire. Mother insisted I perform regardless.
“You still let your notes fall flat,” Kagari said as I sat back down next to him. I wrinkled my nose at him and let Mujahl unwrap my gift. The ivory took on a golden hue by the firelight. Hossi had not come to our village in more than two years so I let myself believe for a moment the Dunyarweh rather than my father had killed the elephant.
“It is a talisman from a brother of Ten Thunders,” I said to keep Mujahl preoccupied through the night. “The elephant’s spirit will watch over us. There is enough here to carve the faces of the Gods of Splendor for both of us.”
While Mujahl ran his stubby fingers over the ivory, Mother folded her arms as she sat next to Erasto. The king spoke rapidly, his lips wet with lavender-hinted honey wine. Mother’s gaze turned downward the more his voice rose.
“Because there is blood to answer for,” Erasto said too loudly.
“He can come to you on his spirit naming–day and sit by your hand,” Mother said with the same firm voice she used whenever I got caught playing too far down the valley.
“The son of Hossi will never see that day,” said Erasto. “You know this.”
A score of boys older than me moved away together from the fires and spoke in clipped words to each other while glancing at Erasto.
“I know nothing of never,” said Queen Ayada the Uncrowned.
I turned to Kagari who sat with his eyes wide and lips trembling. Mother clenched her teeth and rose. Erasto grabbed her shoulder but she shook free of him.
“This will not serve!” Ayada looked around as if to find guardsmen to rally to her side. Nikesa caught Temm’s hands as he reached out. An uncrowned queen, who commanded no spears of her own, ruled only at the leisure of those who lorded over her.
“I may not have the father in hand yet but the son I will take,” Erasto said thickly and laughed with his general.
“As part of your household.” Mother said, quieter than before.
“To serve my household!”
The Lurago-born women at the feast clutched their own small children to them.
Nobuyan, the big-shouldered eldest boy in our village, gave me a hard look. He nodded to the rest of the older boys and they marched back toward the fire.
Tatajay, his lean cheeks drawn in, whistled deeply. Two hounds with fur brushed into coppery flames bounded to his side and watched his hands. With his left pointer and middle fingers, Tatajay made a slashing motion in the air. The dogs’ muzzles curled up to reveal bristling white teeth—their glares fixed on Erasto.
Other boys followed. Chellu’s son Mieko and Temm’s twins, Onif and Aoka, pulled themselves from the shadows. Tall Zuji, the goatherd, rose as well. Sleepy Feitho, who often stole puffs from Chellu’s pipe, had to be kicked to his feet by Tatajay.
All the elder boys looked very, very strong in their mountain lynx vests. They rolled their shoulders the way they loosened up before wrestling matches. Each of them smiled at me and then turned as one, scowling at Erasto.
Ilsou, Nobuyan’s mother, stepped into the boys’ path. Nobuyan stared at me and mouthed a command I dared not repeat.
Icy shards twisted inside my stomach. As eager as the other boys looked there would be no fighting the king. Blue Feathers carried the only spears around our fire.
Everyone should have been laughing that night. I did not like to hear Mother’s angry voice. She sounded prettier when she laughed. I stood up unsure what to say.
“If King Erasto wishes me to come to the plains, I would be most happy to go,” I said. “He can teach me to play the flute much better and . . . I can mind his herds. I am tall enough now I think to do that.”
Nobuyan snarled at me but relented as Ilsou pushed him and the rest of the boys back. Mother let out a nervous laugh and shook her head. I wanted her to smile but she covered her mouth and blinked as the tears flowed.
She looked past me to Mujahl.
Mother’s eyes told me that Erasto did not want me. He never wanted me. Mujahl was smaller and easier to control, far less trouble than Mother’s dangerous boy.
My little brother sat cooing over the lump of ivory. Tightness crept up my chest. I needed a spear. I wanted to grow up then and be a general.
“My mother’s brother has not yet done me a kindness for my birthday,” I said and hoped I might find some tenderness in Erasto that Mother had not.
The king chewed a few low words to himself and then spoke aloud. “For Ayada’s hospitality, I’ll grant you a thing if you have the means to keep it, boy.”
“You arrived too late in the day for us to play. All I ask is that you stay another day so Mujahl, Kagari, and I can have our time together,” I said. “Just one day.”
Mother sank down next her brother with her hands in her lap, truly uncrowned at last. As much as I did not like her angry voice I hated her silence more.
Erasto nodded but did not look at me. “You may have your day.”
I forced a smile, walked over to Mujahl, and picked him up. I squeezed him so tightly he yelped. I let him carry the piece of ivory with him to bed and told him one last story of Ten Thunders stomping on the crocodiles and snakes that slithered along the rivers of the Nahali Plains.
Mother silently knotted Mujahl’s red robes at his shoulders, poring over the outline of his smiling cheeks. Her clenched calm was fragile as Anjoru’s urn, doomed to shatter if toppled from its mantle. Mother liked to say Anjoru became a lion spirit that guarded our hut better than any man’s spear. But dozing lions had no place in the Moa River Valley.
Mother needed Mujahl to look fit to walk proudly into Lions Glade even as he sputtered a rhyme made from lyrics only he understood. She walked him outside pressing his right hand into my left. I knew the robes she so carefully wrapped around him would quickly fall down to his waist.
“Give Mujahl the best of days,” Mother said, doing her best to flatten any tremble in her voice.
“Brothers mean everything,” I replied with steadfast comfort.
“How’s that?” Mother asked, her eyes awaking briefly from her despair.
“Just one of Nobuyan’s rules. Says brothers mean everything but he still twists my arm around when Ilsou isn’t watching.”
“Pity he can’t twist the arm of a king,” Mother said as she stepped back into the hut.
Erasto kept his word and gave us the day. Mujahl, Kagari and I played handclapping games and sang with the other children. At least one sulking Blue Feather warrior always kept watch on Mujahl. We tried to get the younger warriors to play with us, or at the very least laugh. Stern looks from Erasto and his general, Mowendo, kept them from joining in.
As the day grew late, Mother came out to watch us. She leaned against a nearby hut with her arms wrapped herself the way a husband should. She did not complain at the dust on Mujahl’s silk robes. Mother just tilted her head against the wall and rocked herself slowly. Mujahl grew tired and ran over to fall asleep on her lap.
Kagari whispered a new game in my ear, one that straightened my back as he spoke. Mother and the Blue Feathers kept their eyes on Mujahl as he slept. I nodded and stole down into the valley with Kagari.
The forest seemed eager for our company. The first tufts of twilight fog wriggled out from the trees. Drums softly thumped from the direction of the river, a call to march on another village. Jwalwala reached out to its bold new arrivals.
Kagari reminded me I promised to show him where the Lost City of Umbul lay though Mother would surely have firm words later for me. It was another game to stretch out our day. Leading Kagari into the forest meant giving Mother more time to hold Mujahl. Erasto could not take my brother away until I returned his son.
“Which spirit do you think will give you his name when your day comes?” I asked, as we walked under the thickening trees with layers of white mist gathering among the damp boughs.
“The lion. It is always the lion for the king,” Kagari said dismissively.
“You are not the king.”
“I will be one day and my father says that means I am the Lion Who Roars.” He waved me on to lead him.
“That is silly,” I said, slowing my pace in defiance of his commanding gesture. “You might be the tree frog. That would be fun I think.”
“The King’s Blood are always lions.” With cold purpose he spoke, like snowstorms clinging to the white Chimae Peaks.
“Eh? All of them?”
“Ever since Majalod brought my people to Lions Glade. And so it will be for my sons. Mowendo’s already brought me a wife for my birthday. She’s a Sokeno, from the southern lakes. She’s got big doe’s eyes. Father says I should take several lake girls to bed once I’m king but there are many girls on your mountain to pick from. My sons can keep the Sokeno quiet like you’re supposed to do with the valley.”
I did not like the way Kagari said “my people.” The Lurago honored any child born to their daughters as one of their own. “So my mother must be a lion, since she is of King’s Blood. And me and Mujahl, too.”
Kagari laughed sharply. “You are not going to be a king.”
“I am King’s Blood on both sides,” I said, climbing over a moss-sheathed dead tree pushed out of the ground by the bloated roots of a great kapok.
“Not really. You are just the eleventh son of a bloody warmonger.”
My head snapped around, eyes fixing on Kagari. He continued, speaking carefully.
“It is just what my father says. Hossi is not really a king, just a warlord to a few river clans. My father says Hossi has too many sons, gives his seed to any woman he catches. There’s been no true king in this valley since the house of Ethekis fell and the last of the Kharans hid at the Crest of the Moa. Hossi has no legacy for any of you and that is why he battles all the way down to the ash swamps. Do you even know who Hossi fights today? He’s a rabid menace that needs to be put down, so my father says. Everyone on the Nahali remembers what he’s done.”
They may have been Erasto’s words, but Kagari spoke them with conviction. He never clouded his feelings, always so forward and sure of himself. Kagari would make a great king one day, wearing a big dead black chicken on his head just like Erasto.
“Then the Lion Who Roars will have no need to run back to his father when the sun goes down,” I said, my toes pulling hate from the forest’s soil. My chest tightened with ardor, not worry. Muggy air filled the forest like a sweating hut with its door shut.
Kagari gave me a queer look that fawns make after realizing they lost their mothers in the scrub. I sneered back and continued. “You said you wanted to see the lost city. Armies of men have searched for it and never came back. Bronze riders from the Kharan desert in the north. Ghost-skinned men from across the salty seas. They wanted to see Tokumbo’s eyes. The panther’s eyes.
“You want to see them, too, I believe. A pair of perfect round black diamonds. Eyes that pull in all the light. That is worth a look for a prince such as you. One who strolls about with his own parade. You came here with your Blue Feathers and your music makers, dressed as if it was your birthday day! This is not the Nahali. You are in the deep of Jwalwala and it is my time, Kagari. Mine! I roar bigger than you!”
“We are to feast together tonight before we–”
“Before you steal my little brother away!” My chest hurt powerfully worse than before. I tried to crush down my angry voice, suddenly uncertain of my hate. Something shook off me and I felt naked to my own rage. I was scared of me then.
A single leathery note, a hard beat on a drumhead, struck near the river. The echo filled me and my doubt faded. I was the son of a warlord and Kagari looked very small.
“You could never find the lost city anyway. Only the real Leopard Men know where it is. You are just dressed up like one,” I said pointing accusingly at Kagari’s skins. “Lions have no cause to come to my forest. They just get lost here. Even the Blessed and Tall fell in this valley. Gloaming crickets and black beetles fed on the rot of those giants and there’s not even bones left of them.”
Kagari looked about, noticing the last light of day slipping away. The trees rolled and shifted with the growing shadows. Twig Shamblers, splintery woodland children of the Giants of Midnight, teased the air with wisps of jasmine. The panic I saw in Kagari emboldened me to taunt him further.
“Real Leopard Men will swing down from these trees and slash open your throat with their claws if they see you wearing those skins,” I said, savoring the shivering awareness dawning in Kagari’s princely eyes. His terror tasted like overly sweet honey trickling down the back of my throat. I swallowed it whole nearly choking upon it. “Tokumbo will cut open your head, to snatch out your soul and march your bones around like a doll.”
“And you, too,” Kagari said, his face shaking.
“No, Kagari. Not me. I can run through this forest when it is midnight dark. I can leave you here and no Leopard Man will see me,” I said. The trick of telling convincing lies was to talk down to the other person as if they said something foolish and needed to be taught a lesson. My father left me with that skill at least.
“Jagantha, I want to go back. Let us go back.”
“After you give me another gift for my birthday,” I demanded.
“You are going to take my little brother away so you owe me another gift,” airs of entitlement filled my breath as I took a step toward Kagari. “So when you take Mujahl with you, I want you take him as your brother.”
My voice cracked as fear splintered my anger. “Promise me you will let him have a spirit-naming ceremony when he comes of age. Teach him how to play ‘Wrens in Springtime’ good for Mother. And you let him ride on Ten Thunders whenever he wants.”
“Mujahl must ride Ten Thunders!” My fists clenched up shaking at my sides. I felt hot with sweat, or maybe tears, streaming down my cheeks. Through Kagari I would twist Erasto’s arm back until it snapped at the shoulder to win my treaty. Hossi would do no less. The men of the plains needed to be taught the way of the valley and pay the full price for snatching my brother.
“Mujahl rides Ten Thunders or I am leaving you here, Kagari. And no one will ever find your skin.”
I turned my back mostly to hide my face. I did not like what my angry voice said. I wanted Mujahl to be treated like real King’s Blood if they took him away, not as the son of Hossi.
The forest grew darker as I waited for Kagari to reply. I heard crickets chirp awake when he finally replied in desolate agreement.
“He can ride Ten Thunders. I swear.”
“Not like that. A lion would not say it like that,” I said, scolding his lack of sincerity as I faced him again. “You swear it by the Gods of Splendor. You do it right!”
Blackness dripped down from the trees making it difficult to see Kagari’s face, but I heard him clearly.
“I swear by Andanbal, the Keeper of the Sun and Kunluwa, the Messenger. I swear by Odasa, the Falcon and Shenraga, the Lightning Spear. I swear by my father’s line back to Majalod, the King Who Saw Heaven and became the Lion Who Roars: Mujahl will be my brother. He shall have his spirit-naming. And he shall ride Ten Thunders.”
Kagari spoke with prideful precision, a scion of the Lurago kings in their sun-gilt youth. Even Erasto would feel bound to such words. He would pour great bowls of wine for Splendor’s sake each night to keep peace with the spirits. It sufficed for me, though I doubted Mother would be content with a little prince’s promise.
“May we go back now, Jagantha? I do not want to see the lost city anymore,” Kagari said, humor sapped from his breath. I nodded, not wanting to look him in the eyes anymore, and began to pick our way through the forest.
Kagari and I did not speak as we walked back. He kept two strides behind me, just close enough to follow my path. Mujahl may have gained Kagari’s brotherhood that day, but I knew I lost it.
I heard a raw cracking in the trees ahead like dry branches twisting apart. A thirsty slurping followed the cracking. I crept closer to see what moved in the forest with us. Real leopards and golden cats might have been at the hunt. A fearful quiver, a chord from a tautly-strung lute, burred up inside me. My mouth tasted of pungent sap. Something in the forest ate with desperate want.
The slurping became thicker, mixing with a slow dull grinding. Kagari stopped moving when the sound grew louder. I pressed onward to show him roaring lions knew nothing of bravery.
Stepping around a tree, I saw a hunched over heap of tattered anguish with a painfully bowed back under the first rays of moonlight. The crest of its horribly bent spine rose in the fog taller than I stood. It was bigger than most men and if it stood upright could have rested its hand on the top of Hossi’s head easily if not for the cruel twisting of its weird bones.
Rags smudged grey and brown to mock the forgotten whiteness of its dress, drooped from the figure’s elongated lean arms. It knelt down, thrashing at something I did not see. Clumps of mud and red gore speckled its white matted hair. The head bobbed up and down as it tore at the flesh of what I supposed was some poor creature.
Round General told me river witches who ate the skin of their own tribesmen became Blood Crones. Kemsi said they were barren women who stole children from bad mothers.
I crept closer and saw that the Blood Crone feasted on a pile of assorted limbs torn from men and beasts. Kagari moved to my shoulder to see, shuddering in my ear. Hoofs, long whippy tails, and arms, many strong looking arms that once held spears along the riverbanks tumbled from the slippery pile. Round General said the Crones fed carelessly claiming any scrap within reach. This one feasted on the collected parts of warriors, baboons, and even a few rats.
Blood Crones ambled about slowly, Round General said, because of their crooked backs. If they surprised you on the quick, they drank your blood through barbed tendrils protruding from their fingertips like long mosquito suckers. The Crone in front of me let her fingers slither under the skin of the smaller bits in her hands while her teeth shredded what looked like an eland’s thigh.
Enamored with her meal, the Crone never noticed me staring with my stomach swirled up. Nor did she hear the softly padding trot of another creature that also stalked the night in Jwalwala Forest.
A growl seeping with musky spittle clawed the air. A massive black shape, shocked with bristling hairs from foreleg to its flicked up tail, leaped on to the Crone’s back. Moon-yellow jaws caught her flinching head in one cavernous bite nearly drawing out my pity for the hag.
Wild high shrieks of hate and fright ripped from the Crone as the attacker thrashed her about. It whipped the Crone from side to side against the sturdy tree trunks, her spine splintering loudly on the third lash. Her flailing sinewy arms could not beat away the powerful beast. The swarthy frenzy of fur looked too large to be a leopard, yet it moved with the nimbleness born to cheetahs. The beast let the Crone fall limply from teeth mottled brown by blood.
“Kipsuka’s plague on you,” sputtered the dying Crone, clumps of recently chewed fat frothing to her lips. She pulled herself up against the base of the tree that shattered her lower back leaving her legs splayed as flaccid vines. “Midnight twists–”
“That wither-titted bitch can choke on her plagues,” the beast said speaking with the deep contemptuous voice of a Lurago man tipping back the last swallows of sorghum beer. “I should be angry about this sad pile you left me. But I can smell your marrow flowing. That shall do quite nicely.”
With crunching chomps, he snapped off the Crone’s deadly fingers and ripped through her rags, his muzzle plunging into her breast. The Crone’s head nodded jerkily as she gulped for each lost breath. The beast planted his paws on her ravaged chest and sucked on the cracked ribs jutting from her flesh, turning his head sideways to let his tongue flick between the split bones.
When the moonlight broke through the trees again beaming through the fog, I groaned. The talking beast lacked a face. The blood of the dead Crone streaked the beast’s sharp white cheekbones. It possessed the shape and form of a full grown jackal of the Nahali, but was more than thrice the normal size. Tall, pointy ears rose above its exposed skull where a furry muzzle should have been.
I knew the black creature’s name, but dared not speak it. Round General’s stories were not real. To give the name would make him real and that could not be. I bit my bottom lip as fright squirmed through my bowels. My knees felt ready to burst apart from the tension binding me.
I grabbed Kagari’s hand to find the courage to crawl away, but the beast spoke before we made our escape.
“Boy. You, in the saggy robes behind the tree . . . come to me,” the creature ordered between smacking bites, not bothering to look up. “Come here!”
The thought of two boys without a spear between them attempting to flee from the swift beast seemed a stupid way to die. I took a half step from the tree squeezing Kagari’s hand. He tried to pull himself free but my fist turned to stone. I shivered and winced getting the full view of the Crone being gnashed apart effortlessly by her attacker.
Grinding the bones into soft brown porridge, the beast spoke as it chewed. “Heard some proud chatter in my forest. Tiny boasting voices. Was this you?”
The beast lacked flesh from his upper jaw to the top of his head. I did not look close enough to see if he still possessed his eyes. Round General called the beast Ghenalu Enzo, the Bone Jackal, one of the rankest Giants of Midnight.
“I brought Kagari . . . to see the lost city,” I stammered with half a mind of fright to piss myself then and there.
Ghenalu looked me over. He snorted through his nostrils making a shrill sound like the whistle of a poorly crafted flute. “You are standing among the wrong trees, boy. Never mind about Umbul. This Kagari had better be bigger than you with your scrawny bones,” Ghenalu said, taking a displeased measure of me by starlight. He spoke aloud to himself then.
“So small. Soon I will be eating rodents like this wretch.” The Bone Jackal pawed the Crone’s tattered carcass. “Though I wouldn’t mind a nice young baboon.”
“You cannot eat Kagari! He is the Lion That Roars!” I shouted, backing away and clapping my free hand over my mouth. Fear had robbed me of common sense.
“Ha, King’s Blood!” Ghenalu growled in elated discovery. “I am sure he tastes of ginger and salt. I will lick apart his ribs in the morning. Leave him and go, boy.”
I felt Kagari shaking behind me, straining to break my hand’s grip.
“This is tiring,” Ghenalu said, sniffing the air for his quarry. “Come out, Kagari, or be brought out.”
Amber light smoldered stubbornly in sockets that once held large peering eyes. His teeth scraped against each other with a piercing ringing as if razor-quick iron, not bone, lined his mouth.
The sound grew agonizingly sharp scouring the forest down to its hidden cracks where mites twitched in pain. I clasped my ears and collapsed to the ground. Kagari came stumbling forward from where he hid. Ghenalu’s teeth continued squealing against each other faster and faster tearing through a range no flute could match until Kagari fell to his knees next to me clutching his head as well.
Ghenalu spoke urgently at me but my ringing ears remained deaf to his next words. The beast seemed pleased to converse with himself as sound eased back to me.
“He’s not much, but it will stop my stomach’s morning grumbling at least,” Ghenalu said slowly inhaling Kagari’s scent.
“You cannot eat him!” I shouted over the subsiding ringing. Kagari sobbed but would not cry in front of me.
“I heard you. The owls heard you. The knots of wood in my forest heard you,” Ghenalu said looking about for the named witnesses to suddenly appear. The Bone Jackal slowly licked his blood-sodden teeth, curling the tip of his tongue around his right upper canine. “You meant– mmm, it’s like syrup. You meant to leave him here. So…go.”
“No,” I said, hiding my eyes against the ground. “He gave his word.”
The Bone Jackal gave a caustic laugh through his nose. “I know treachery and you reek of it.” He crept forward sniffing the air again. “Come then, tell us a new lie that we might have cause to eat you too.”
The beast’s sickly damp breath mixed with the sweat on the back of my neck. I pressed my face into the soil; terrified to stone I would be devoured slowly from the toes up.
“Tell me a lie!” barked the Bone Jackal, popping my ears. He shoved my shoulder with a strong paw. “Just one small lie. A tidy fib like the ones you tell that fat little brother of yours and set me loose on your rancorous heart. Do it quick and you can meet your ancestors before the moon sets! Hm? No? Kagari, my tender prince, tell me what words lured you here and you can watch me eat this one now.”
As I shuddered to understand why we were not already frayed to the bone, Kagari spoke.
“I wanted to see the city,” he mumbled. I turned my head enough to see Kagari, his face tear-streaked, glaring back at the beast. Though weeping he would not grovel. “I will keep my word.”
“A fool’s promise,” the Bone Jackal said with a frustrated toss of his head, lacking eyes to roll at us. “You all promise and beg. The warrior gashed and crumpled on the hill, the new mother wailing to her stillborn child, the thief caught with his prize in hand. You all swear to the sky but I have feasted on the tongues of such liars and surely I will enjoy yours.”
The Bone Jackal stepped back and padded around in a circle, crushing the mangled body of the Crone beneath him. He sat down on his haunches facing us. Ghenalu cocked his ever-grimacing head to his right and regarded each of us in turn. “I’ll lay your skeletons together like a pair of straw poppets. That would be nice, yes? Save me the bother of hunting you later. Chasing prey is for cheetahs.”
“I free him from the promise then,” I said sitting up, wanting to lean on Kagari for a drop of his courage.
The Bone Jackal snarled squarely at me, thumped his tail against the ground and pounced, knocking me backward in one bound. He pinned my shoulders down with his forepaws and leaned into my face. The beast’s awful, blood-dewed pant made my eyes water.
“You’re not dealing with some washerwoman!” Ghenalu said taking bites at the air between us. “Kagari will be judged, every hour, by his word. And the Bone Jackal shall render punishment when he breaks it. I will bite off his feet and drink the sweet red core from his ankles! Am I understood?”
“Yes.” I squirmed under Ghenalu’s great weight.
“Are you sure?” His bony snout pressed sharply into my cheek. “Be certain. I cannot stand repeating myself to stupid little boys! I would not want there to be any tears when I mangle your good Kagari into moist pieces!”
“Yes, I understand!”
Ghenalu sprang off of me and returned to the Crone. “Leave then, both of you. I will come for you, Kagari, the moment your promise fails. Oh, I will come for you with all the aged fury of broken trusts to tear that Liar’s Tongue out of your small skull.”
The Bone Jackal waggled his head ripping more bits from the carcass, ignoring me as I slowly sat up. The sound of his teeth tugging apart the flesh tumbled the yams in my stomach that I stole two after the midday meal.
Kagari stood next to me and nudged my shoulder.
“Get on your feet,” he commanded, syllable by syllable.
I remained sitting until Kagari yanked me up by my robes.
“I am sorry for–”
“Do not speak,” Kagari said, leaving no room for sympathy within his tightly packed words. “Lead us away from here while the thing eats itself sick.” He moved past his fears, planning his next move. I knew I would never be a lion such as him.
“Let us go,” Kagari said refreshing his voice as if I did not understand him the first time. “I do not wish to see your old city anymore, Jagantha. Take me back.”
I found our path out of the forest quickly. We started up the slopes of the mountain greeted by a dozen torches moving through the trees. Only hasty fools walked by torchlight in Jwalwala letting true hunters spy them. The Blue Feather warriors shouted for Kagari. He stepped ahead of me, calling out to them with his shoulders back and level, shivering just a little. I lingered at the edge of the forest watching Kagari hurried off by the men. Erasto stood the crest of the village pointing and shouting once Kagari stepped beside him.
Mother would be more anxious the longer I remained in the valley. It would be her last night to have both of her sons at her side. If I learned to play “Wrens in Springtime” better on my flute, she might keep some of her smile in the days to come.