Chapter 2; The Lions
Charles paused for a moment, holding his paintbrush aloft. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“Not at all,” said Gabriel. “Yeshi meant what she said, and, what’s more, I believed her then and I believe her now.”
Charles rested his palette on the table beside him, attention now fully upon Gabriel’s face. “So, you’re telling me you think the world is about to end?”
Gabriel chuckled and stroked his full, grey beard. He turned his head for a moment and gazed out the window. The spring sky was a deep cerulean, with mare’s tail clouds riding high in the atmosphere. “Rain is coming,” he thought.
“I think, if you’ll allow me, it might be best to discuss Yeshi from the beginning; that is, with my journey to find her. That may take some time, so what would you say to a spot of tea?”
“Sure, we could use a break.” Charles put down his brush, wiped his hands, and started into the kitchen, never once looking back at his canvas. Gabriel rose and followed him.
Once the kettle was singing and the cups, plates, spoons and biscuits were laid out, Gabriel picked up his tale.
“I know this will strike you as very odd indeed, Charles, but I’m not relating this tale as a diversion. I’m quite serious about what I’m going to say, and, frankly, I was at a loss as to how I might bring any of this up without…well…startling you a bit. Because, you see, the very fact that I believe what Yeshi told me isn’t the most compelling part of this tale. What will most strain your credulity is yet to come, and that is that you yourself are part of what I am about to tell you. Yeshi told me about you long before we ever met.”
“I am a part of it? But how could this person have even known about me? Didn’t you say that all this happened a long time ago, before I was even born?”
“It did, and it was just as you say. But, that is not as surprising to me, perhaps, as it will seem to you. As I told you, Yeshi was an extraordinary creature, and everything she has ever foretold has come to pass, and in just the way she anticipated.
“But, let us take things in their proper order. May I pour you some tea? Good. Now, sit back and I’ll continue….
“When I began my journey, I was led to believe that Yeshi lived in the upper reaches of the Nile, so I traveled the river by boat, sailing up the ancient river on a merchant barque. In a port along the way, I met another member of the Brotherhood. This was long after we had left modern day Egypt, at the town of Atbara. This Brother claimed that news of Yeshi had come to him from folk traveling down the Atbara river. So, I continued, still by boat, upstream to the Tekeze, deep within the interior of Ethiopia, and then to the Adama river. At that point, I lost her trail once more.
“There were herdsmen in those arid lands, people of great faith, yet still in touch with the pagan spirits of the land, the rivers, and the air. None of them had heard of Yeshi. Yet, one very old man, leather-skinned and wizened, spoke to me of a sorceress who resided near the Red Sea, saying that, if this woman was not the one I sought, perhaps she might yet bring me tidings of her.
“So, I left the waterways. I purchased a camel, water skins, and other supplies; then I struck out across the flatlands northeastward toward the town of Barentu. The Nama and Kunama tribesmen inhabited this area only sparsely, and as I rode eastward, I encountered only the occasional herders of goats outside of village walls. The people of these regions were lithe, dark-skinned, and tall, and the thin, dry air of the higher elevations that so saps the strength of lowlanders such as ourselves bothered them not at all.
“But, over the next week, I was hard pressed on several occasions, as I and my camel, which I came to regard fondly, sought to sustain ourselves in a region filled with bandits and wild predators. I had little fear from the former; they regarded me as a griot, or azmaris. These are wise men, perhaps even wizards, and they are treated with great respect and deference in the rural wilds of Africa. Thus, I had no great concern for my safety from brigands; but the hyenas, jackals, leopards, and even the occasional lion, were quite another matter.
“As I said, I set off toward Barentu on my camel, striking out in the late afternoon. That night we travelled until the moon set. Then I gathered brush and lit a fire to deter predators and to ward off the chill night air. For, although it was springtime and the sun was strong in the afternoons, the thin air and the height of these lands makes the nights bitterly cold. I heard hyenas frequently as I dozed, and more than once saw cold green eyes wink on and off in the gloom beyond the reaches of the firelight. Thankfully, none came close enough to cause me great concern.
“The next morning I broke camp and continued toward Barentu, arriving there late in the day. I spent two nights in the town and made the innkeeper with whom I stayed know that I was seeking an azmaris named Yeshi, a wise woman who was believed to live in the Gash-Barka wilds, or perhaps further east. He asked friends, family, and customers over the course of the next day, but by the morning after my second night in Barentu, I was still none the wiser as to Yeshi’s whereabouts.
“I had been warned in Atbara that I would find no more members of my order or the Brotherhood in the region, nor anywhere else in Ethiopia, until I came upon Yeshi, so I was at a loss what to do. But I still had a strong intuition that I should proceed east, even if I ultimately reached the Red Sea with no new tidings. So, I packed my things once more and left the town, this time heading toward Asmera.
“Asmera is now a very European city. In those days, too, Italian colonials had settled there in preference to Massawa, on the coast, and its population was considerable. But, I knew it would take at least four days to reach the city, and that those days would be wearying both for myself and for my camel. We would be climbing the entire trip, and the air would get ever thinner with each passing mile. Worse still, there were virtually no habitations along the path I chose, and although that meant less concern with the banditti, it also meant that there might be much more to fear from the hyenas, jackals, and leopards.
“I had purchased a gun in Barentu. I have rarely used guns in all my long years, and I am but a middling marksman, but I thought that having one in this instance might prove prudent. The noise alone, it seemed to me, would ward off all but the most persistent of carnivores, and if I found it needful, it might at least provide some protection if I was charged, or if my camel was threatened.
“In any event, all proved tranquil until the third day. On that evening, after traversing a seemingly endless grove of baobab trees, I was startled to hear the sound of lions roaring ahead of us.
“The male lions of Ethiopia and Eritrea are very striking, with black, unruly manes that sprout from behind a coronet of golden fur. The gold frames the face and ears, lending them a regal appearance. But, as striking as they are, and as famous, there are but few of them, and I had encountered none thus far on my journey. Yet, now I heard the roar of more than one.
“I removed my rifle from the pack on the back of the camel, and urged my camel forward toward the sound. The poor creature was none too happy with this, but he did not balk. We came to the end of the baobab copse, and ahead I saw a group of men on foot clustered near a thorn thicket. They bore clubs, swords, and spears, and were clearly agitated, gesticulating wildly and circling the thicket, which, from the sound of things, must have been the lair of the lions that I had heard.
“Before I could get closer, this seemed to be confirmed, as from separate openings into the thicket, two enormous male lions appeared and charged the men. One of the tribesmen had his spear knocked from him, after which one of the beasts sprang upon him, grasped him by the neck, and shook him like a rag doll. The second lion circled the tribesmen on the far side, and then a third beast emerged from the thicket and roared. At this, the men, who numbered about eight, turned and fled, dropping spears and shields in their haste to save their skins.
“I had reined in my camel as soon as the first lions appeared, and although I had hoped to aid the tribesmen, I was neither near enough nor fast enough to save the first man that had been mauled. Now that the remainder were fleeing, I was perplexed as to what to do. Prudence seemed to dictate that I give the thorn thicket a wide berth and follow the tribesmen, who were headed in the direction I wished to take. Yet, I felt a sense of obligation to wait for the lions to retire so that I could make sure that the man that had been mauled was indeed dead. I also hoped to discover, if he had miraculously managed to survive the attack, what might have caused this confrontation between man and beast.
“So, I waited. The sun began to set behind the baobab grove. The three lions did not pursue the fleeing men, but soon returned to their thicket, leaving the mauled man lying motionless on the ground. As soon as dusk settled, I urged my camel forward, trying my best to proceed as silently as possible. The wind was from the east, so I was reasonably sure that our scent would not attract the predators.
“We reached the man, but it was clear he was dead; his eyes were already glazed over. I dismounted and searched through his clothing to see if I could discover whence he and his fellows had come, but there was nothing to identify him other than a tattoo on his forehead. In the dim light, it was difficult to make out, but it appeared to be some sort of a glyph. It reminded me of an open umbrella, but with two straight handles descending from it. I later came to learn that the sign is called “Amenta”, and that it represents the underworld.
“At this point there was nothing more I could do to help the man than to bury him. Yet I knew that doing so would almost certainly alert the three lions to my presence. Night was falling; the beasts were liable to leave the thorn brake at any moment and begin their evening hunt. So, I decided to try to lift the body onto my camel and get as far from the lions’ den as possible.
“But, it was already too late. While I considered how best to raise the corpse, my camel screamed and bolted. All the while I had been searching the man’s clothing, the lions had crept from their thicket. Now, to my horror, I saw that I was surrounded, and that the three fearsome predators were closing in fast.”