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.
About 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.
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A Lion Hunters Novel
By Elizabeth Wein
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Elizabeth Gatland
All rights reserved.
THE SALT TRADERS
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.
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.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI. The Salt Traders,
II. Invisible People,
III. The Caracal,
IV. Doves for the Poor,
V. In the Lion's Den,
VI. Goewin and Her Brothers,
VII. A Dogfight,
VIII. Abraham and Isaac,
IX. Telemakos Alone,
X. The Lazarus,
XI. Light and Water,
XIII. The Harrier Stricken,
XIV. Odysseus Bends His Bow,
Preview: The Lion Hunter,
A Biography of Elizabeth Wein,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Third book in Wein's series of Artos' descendents. Also set in Africa, this one follows the point of view of Medraut's young son. I didn't expect to enjoy it much, as I prefer an older point of view. But it is actually my second favorite in the series, as the narrator is (like his father), a very compelling character!
I thoroughly enjoyed The Sunbird, the third installment in Elizabeth Wein's Arthurian series. I hesitate to even call it Arthurian at this point, and apparently the author had the same qualms; the next two books are part of the Mark of Solomon cycle, though they deal with the same characters as The Sunbird. Artos's part in this saga was pretty much over in the first book, The Winter Prince, and the story has settled itself firmly in the African kingdom of Aksum.This story really sets the direction for the next several novels, focusing on the character of Telemakos, the son of Medraut (Mordred) of Britain and Turunesh of Aksum. The plague has come to Africa and the Aksumite emperor Gebre Meskal and his British ambassador Goewin (daughter of Artos) have closed down the ports of the country. The quarantine is ruthless, but the plague is more ruthless still. And yet someone is flouting the emperor's command, smuggling precious salt around the quarantine and risking the desolation of plague to spread across the entire country. Goewin needs to find out who is at the heart of the conspiracy, but an ordinary spy doesn't stand a chance. But a child like Telemakos might. Thus begins a terrible quest, not the least terrible for its long stretches of futile inactivity. But there are moments of terror too, torture and pain and the kind of wounds that don't heal when the body does. Telemakos travels to the salt mines of Afar and works as a blindfolded slave carrying water to the workers. How will he ever escape? And does he even want to, when he hasn't learned the identity of the man they call the Lazarus?Telemakos's name is from Telemachus of Greek mythology, who was the son of Odysseus and Penelope. Wein weaves little references to The Odyssey into her narrative and it gives the characters a touchpoint with an older mythology. Wein also starts making little references to Christianity. Religion and its role in Aksumite culture is ambiguous, but the characters' occasional offhand allusions to things in the Gospels are fascinating. It also helps ground the story within a particular historical period. The characters are excellent, believable in their motivations and utterly compelling. Telemakos is a young narrator at ten or eleven, but he deals in the adult world of intrigue and power. He is fiercely loyal, intelligent, and resourceful. And yet he is also vulnerable at several points, not least of which is his relationship with his father Medraut. Medraut is distant, silent, and withdrawn, punishing himself for his inability to save his younger brother Lleu at the Battle of Camlann in Britain. There is even a hint that Medraut killed Lleu himself (perhaps a mercy killing?). But just a hint, just words spoken at the edge of a nightmare. Just one more piece of the puzzle that is Medraut. That's one of the things about Wein's writing that I appreciate. So much is packed into each word and phrase. It reminds me of Megan Whalen Turner's style; everything is there, but hidden until you need to see it. And even then, nothing is clumsily explicit. I think I will savor rereading. Once again, Wein delivers a fantastic story of adventure, intrigue, and sacrifice. I couldn't wait to start the next one, and that, I think, is the highest compliment an author can be paid.