Chapter 3; Amsalegenet
Gabriel sat back in his chair.
Charles looked startled at the sudden silence. “You’re not going to stop there, are you? What did you do next?”
Gabriel sat back and bowed his head; he observed Charles through his thick eyebrows. “Forgive me for having interrupted the tale mid-stream,” he said, “but I needed to collect my thoughts before I continued.
“You’ve known me for a while now, Charles, and I daresay I’ve said and done and said many things that might seem, well, a bit odd. But, over the long years I’ve walked this earth, I’ve discovered much, some of which is not considered quite respectable, nor even believable, amongst modern folk. So, when I tell you what happened next, I fully expect you to be incredulous. For that reason, I should like to propose, if you request it, a demonstration.”
“A demonstration? Of what?”
“That you shall see. But, will you agree? That is, if what I tell you — and, by the way, this applies to anything in my tale that might strike you as difficult to digest — if what I tell you strains your faith in any way, do say so, and I’ll be happy to do my best either to explain further or to demonstrate what I mean. Is that agreed?”
“Good. Then, let me pour myself another cup of tea, and we’ll dispatch the lions.”
“Dispatch them? You mean you killed them?!”
“That, you shall see. Now, is your cup in need of refilling? There we are, then.
“Yes, the lions. As I mentioned, they had surrounded us. My camel had bolted once he caught sight of them, but he could not go far, and he was soon back by my side, trembling and spitting. I had my gun on the ground beside me; happily I had kept it in hand when I dismounted. But I knew that I was not capable of reliably stopping all three lions; I doubt if even an Allan Quatermain could have managed that feat, and I am no such marksman as he.
“I thought that the sound of the gun’s retort might give the beasts pause, however, so I fired several rounds into the air. This doubtless terrorized my camel further, but its immediate effect on the lions was as I’d hoped: they were startled, and they hesitated in their charge, at least for a few moments. Those moments were all I needed.
“I grabbed the reins of the camel and pulled his head down toward my own. Camels, like horses, have an intuition about their circumstances beyond what we might otherwise assume, and after I spoke a few words to the frightened creature, he became calmer and ceased his trembling. At the same time, I took from my pack a vial containing a small amount of powder, the nature of which will become apparent. With this in hand, I walked around the camel, committing a thin circle of the dust to the air around him. Then, just as the lions once more roared and continued their charge, I completed the circle and stepped within it.
“The predators were nearly upon us, but instead of lunging straight at the camel, or at me, they halted, confused, and began pacing around the spot on which we stood. The body of the mauled man was near us, but outside the circle. They sniffed the corpse, and then lifted their noses in the air, wrinkling them as they attempted to detect our scent; for, you see, for all practical purposes we had become invisible to them, and scentless as well. Provided we remained absolutely silent, they would be unable to detect our presence, even though we were literally within a very few feet of them.”
“Now, wait a minute,” said Charles, “you did this with some sort of powder?! So you’re saying that you have a way to make yourself disappear…just like that?” He snapped his fingers.
“Indeed, I do, Charles, and I’ll be happy to demonstrate, as I promised. The effect does not last long, and it is most satisfactory when the light is not too strong, as in our situation with the lions. But, as you can see, having such a tool at hand proved invaluable. Shall I demonstrate?”
“Yes indeed, if you don’t find my skepticism insulting.”
“Not at all! I quite anticipated your incredulity. So, as it happens, I have a bit of the powder in question upon me, as I expected I might need it.”
“What’s it made of? It sounds like something that could come in mighty handy at times….”
“Indeed, it is, but it is not easily come by. Another time, perhaps, I can tell you the long tale of how I came to discover it.
“But, for now, a tiny demonstration. Here is the vial.” Gabriel stood and drew from his waistcoat a small green bottle. He pulled the stopper from it and poured a pinch of the powder into the palm of his hand. Then, after pushing his chair back from the table, he sifted the powder between his fingers, circumscribing the chair. The dust, which appeared to be golden in the lamplight, drifted downward slowly, describing wild swirling patterns as it sank toward the floor. Once the circle was complete, Gabriel looked up at Charles and said simply, “Observe.”
He stepped within the settling circle of dust, and it seemed to Charles that Gabriel’s tall figure became gauzy, as if seen through a dense fog, and then it was gone. The chair, too, had vanished.
“My God!” Charles said.
“No, not God, Charles,” came Gabriel’s voice, seemingly, out of thin air. “It is just a unique combination of scent, visual confusion, and, with people anyway, the power of suggestion. The effect will not last long, perhaps a few minutes; but it persists with animals, which are often completely confused and troubled by the effect for quite a half an hour or more.”
Gabriel again stepped outside the circle, and to Charles it appeared as if he had materialized before him.
“I…I’ve never seen anything like it before….” Charles placed his teacup back upon the table, and as he did so noticed that his hand was shaking.
“There is quite a rational, if somewhat esoteric, explanation,” said Gabriel, “but I won’t belabor you with it now. Suffice it to say that, in my situation with the lions, this was a tremendous aid.” He held the vial aloft, and then tucked it back into his waistcoat pocket.
“But, to continue the tale. The lions were confused, and they were none too happy to have been deprived of an easy — and quite substantial I might add — meal. But, the dead man was still near
them, and after some mewling on their part, the three great beasts gathered around the corpse and one of them, the largest, began dragging it away. Presumably they had had quite enough of my tricks, and wanted to find a quiet corner within their lair in which to dine.
“I was troubled by their taking of the dead man’s remains, but knew there was little I could do in the situation other than to allow them their feast; I could not retrieve the corpse nor bury him without once again endangering my life. So, I stood silently and waited. The lions dragged the man into the thorn brake, and once more they were lost from view.
I replaced my rifle in its holster and remounted my camel. I tugged at the reins to guide the beast around the thorns and toward the east once again, and we left the magic circle behind us. But just then I heard a high-pitched call, like that of a bird. I was startled; the arid wilds, excluding the roaring of the lions, had been deathly quiet thus far. But, looking around, I saw a small figure, appearing to be that of a young girl, calling out to me in the distance. But what was truly astonishing was this: she was standing at the opening to the thorn thicket, the very one through which the lions had just passed!
“You were clearly startled, Charles, by the effect of my little demonstration, and rightly so. But I have never been more dumbfounded than by the sight of this girl emerging, apparently unharmed, from the den of those fearsome predators!”
“Had she been there all along?” Charles asked.
“No, certainly not, else I’d have seen her when the lions departed. But, I had no time to ponder the issue. I beckoned for the girl to come to me, and I dismounted so that I could help her onto the camel. She came, and I put her in front of me on the beast. She was quite small, but I could not make out much else about her in the dim light.
“I urged the camel eastward, and he needed little convincing, I can assure you! For safety’s sake, we travelled in silence for many miles before I ventured to speak. Then I asked the girl who she was.
“‘I am named Amsalegenet,’ she replied, ‘and the Mistress of the Mountains bids me tell thee to heed the manner in which thou foundest me; for, many years hence, thou shalt find me so again, though changed.’
“I asked her who her mistress was, and Amsale, for so she was called, said ‘she whom thou seekest: Yeshi of the Brethren.’
“And so it was that I came to know the one who was to be my guide to Yeshi. And, truth to tell, Amsale was not mistaken in the words with which she greeted me. Many, many years passed before I came to understand them fully, but it is true that I met her once more, and in nearly identical circumstances. But, that you shall come to hear.
“The rest of my travels with Amsale were, with one exception, without major incident. Yeshi lived, as it happened, much farther east than any of my sources knew. Amsale guided us around Asmera and northeastward, up, up into the high range of the mountains that separate Samhar, along the coast, from the Hamasen and Senhit wilds. There, between the peaks of Zagher and mighty Fagena, a fair valley stretches; one that is easily missed. The passage into that realm is nearly impossible to discover without a guide, as I came to discover in later years. But there Yeshi made her home.
“And of Yeshi I shall speak, but first I must acquaint you further with Amsale. It took us two days more to reach the valley of which I spoke, and in that time I learned much of how Amsale came to be in the lion’s den.
“It seems that Yeshi knew of my coming and had sent the girl to guide me. Amsale was – how shall I say this? – a messenger of sorts. She was no servant of Yeshi’s by any means, but simply a willing herald and helper.
“Amsale appeared, to all who beheld her then, to be a maiden of perhaps 12 or 13 years of age. She was breathtakingly beautiful, beyond even the normal comeliness of the Ethiopian women that I had known, with delicate, ethereal features and a figure that just hinted at approaching womanhood. I must confess that, even after all these years, I still recall the astonishment I felt when first I saw her clearly in the morning light. It made her subsequent story all the easier to appreciate.
“For, as I said, she had been sent to guide me. But Yeshi did not know my exact route, only where I was to be found when she dispatched Amsale, along with the path I was most likely to tread. So, Amsale came first through Asmera. There, she could not help but be noticed by a headman of a powerful clan, a yagosa mari, and he desired her for himself. So, after she passed through the western gates and out into the lawless reaches, this yagosa mari sent a band of men to capture her, knowing that she was alone and unlikely to be able to prevent her abduction. There he was wrong.
“The mari’s men caught up with Amsale not far from the lion’s den. But just as they were closing in, the lions erupted from the thorn brake and surrounded her, protecting her as if she were one of their cubs. The men halted, and the lions, after a protracted stand-off, retreated into their lair with Amsale in their midst. The men followed at a distance, and were just in the process of storming the thicket when I arrived. How they hoped to overcome three full-grown lions without firearms, I cannot fathom, but I believe fear of the consequences of their returning to Asmera without Amsale must have played a large part.
“‘They, and the yagosa mari they serve, are evil men, and they bear the mark of evil,’ Amsale told me, pointing to her forehead. Then I remembered the curious glyph I had seen on the dead man’s corpse. ‘But, when next we meet,’ Amsale continued, ‘they shall seem to thee as saints.’”
Gabriel sighed and shook his head. “Truer words, I fear, were never spoken.”