Telemakos could not speak this aloud without laughing at it. “I am—I am—” He leaned his face against the window frame, shaking with laughter. “The Python,” he managed to gasp.
Goewin did not laugh.
“I, the Python!” Telemakos repeated. “Oh, go on, laugh.”
Goewin said seriously, “It worries me to hear you mock them.”
“It is funny, Goewin.”
“It is, a little,” she agreed. “But it means they hate and fear you, and I do not like that at all.”
She looked up at him, then, and smiled a little. “Do you know what we call you?” she asked softly. “Gebre Meskal’s special name for you is ‘sunbird.’ Little sunbird, so bright and energetic, so small it can hide in a flower. This will be my next message to the emperor: The sunbird is flying to Afar.”
She touched the floor beside her. “My sunbird, sit here by me a minute. I want to talk to you.”
He made his way carefully around the equipment spread over the floor and sat cross-legged beside her, his hands on his knees.
“Do you understand what they will do to you if they take you, and they think you are a spy?”
Telemakos closed his eyes for half a moment, his heart fluttering. What he thought of in that moment was not himself, but the black caracal: how it had stretched so languidly in the sun, flexing its mutilated paws, trying to knead the ground with claws that were no longer there.
He opened his eyes and answered in a low voice, “I think I do.”
“I don’t want to scare you,” Goewin said. “But I don’t want to betray you, either, by sending you all unwitting into hell. No one will treat you gently if you are caught. Only if they discover you are a spy, they will—they will deal bitterly with you, and show you no mercy. They will—” She faltered, her pale face oddly gray. She said abruptly, “They will break you open like a bird’s egg.”
Telemakos looked down at his hands. The thorn marks had nearly gone.
“Now, listen, Telemakos. You may be caught,” Goewin said, her voice low and passionate. “You may be caught, but you must not be discovered, do you understand? No one must ever guess why you are there, or learn your name. Your hope will lie in making your captors think you are something else. An escaping exile, say, or a bond servant. I have thought hard about this, and if you will agree, I would like to mark you, in a way. You know your father’s tattoo, how he uses it to tell people of his skill?”
“Yes,” he said.
“In Britain the Saxon invaders mark their bondsmen with a thrall ring, an iron band about their necks. My brother was so bound after the battle of Camlan, before he died. I want to band your neck like this, but in gold, not in iron. No one will know what you are this way, but if you are seen, they will know you are royal or royal property, and maybe that will make them think again before they harm you. I thought of just a gold chain or a torque; either of those would be easier for you to wear, but then it might look as though you had stolen it. This will have to be fixed on you at an anvil, and taken off the same way.”
“All right,” he said readily.
“Won’t you mind?”
“It won’t hurt, will it? Why should I mind?”
“It is a badge of servitude.”
“It’s only a disguise.”
“It will not be a disguise,” said Goewin. She clasped one of his slim brown hands between her white ones. “I am marking you as mine.”
The winds changed. The new year brought Adulis the fresh air of the sea, blowing bright summer to the highlands.
His mother took Telemakos to the goldsmith’s where the ring was fastened around his neck. No one but she could take him without attracting attention or being recognized. Telemakos had to pretend he was her servant. In truth, it was Turunesh who had to carry out the greater pretense, as she explained to the smith the nature of the work that was required; Telemakos himself spoke no word throughout the ordeal, except at the end, when he raised his head from the anvil and put up his hands to feel the thick collar that was locked about his throat. His mother asked then, in a low voice, “Does that hurt? Will it raise a blister? Is it too heavy?”
“I’m all right,” Telemakos said, and knelt with his head bowed before her. “My lady.”
Turunesh touched his hair gently. “Come then; let’s go home.”
In the dark before dawn on the day Telemakos left Adulis, Turunesh cut off his hair and carefully shaved his scalp clean. It was the last way they could disguise him.
“I wouldn’t take care of it anyway,” he murmured, thinking his mother needed solace.
“It will grow back,” she answered calmly.
When she had finished, she kissed the top of his smooth skull. Goewin kissed him as well, on either cheek. Then she kissed the tips of her fingers and touched the gold band at his throat. “Ready?” she said.
Telemakos set out from the governor’s house feeling strange and not himself, with the hard gold pressing at his neck and his head bare and sleek. Medraut paced silently at his side. They were southbound on the Salt Road before the sun rose.
In a way it was the most exhilarating outing his father had ever made with him. Medraut, testing Telemakos, let him do everything. Telemakos chose the way; he found the water; he set their camp; he caught their food. The land immediately south of Adulis was harsh and rocky, but not barren. Low acacia thorn trees grew everywhere, and reeds like grass, and aloe. Game was plentiful. The wayward rivers were full of catfish and crocodile. Even when the land grew less forgiving, Telemakos was still able to shoot tough little sandgrouse and occasional gazelle.
Telemakos and Medraut traveled a little away from the road. They would stay together as far as the last well before the Salt Desert, and then they would wait for a caravan, which Telemakos would continue with alone.
Once, coming to the top of a rise, Medraut shielded his eyes and pointed east. At the edge of the plain lay the first of the salt flats. White as the moon, dazzling as the sun, the salt stretched like a shining sea before a rim of jagged black mountains.
“It looks like snow,” Telemakos said.
Medraut turned to stare down at him.
“It snows in the Simien Mountains sometimes. You can see it from Aksum.”
Medraut ground his fists into his eyes to rub out the brightness of the salt. He touched Telemakos’s shoulder lightly to set him walking again.
After a week they were well away from anywhere. All that told them this land was inhabited were the waidellas, the stone monuments to the Afar dead that littered the increasingly barren landscape. It was chilling at night. When dark fell, Medraut pointed toward the stars, and Telemakos told him their names and drew their paths in the dust, until Medraut was satisfied that his son was able to find his way by night as well as by day. In this empty place Medraut let Telemakos build a fire, and Telemakos was glad that Goewin had made him take the flint. He touched the gold band at his throat, remembering her kiss.
Telemakos was cold. He crouched by the fire with his knees drawn up close to his chest, his hands in tight fists beneath his chin. Medraut held out an arm so that Telemakos might sit against his shoulder; Telemakos curled himself into the hollow between his father’s arm and chest. Medraut pulled his shamma around them both, and Telemakos closed his eyes. Warm now, and happy in this wasteland with his father guarding but not guiding him, Telemakos fell asleep.
He woke in the deep of night to the sound of Medraut’s voice. His father was muttering to himself in Latin:
“What makes you shiver so? Get up. You’ve no cloak. You’ll freeze. Don’t, don’t, ah, don’t cry. You cling to me so—do you still trust me, after all this?”
Telemakos could almost believe his father was awake. He was desperate, desperate for Medraut to be speaking to him. He wound his arms about Medraut’s neck and whispered in his father’s ear, “I have always trusted you.”
“Little brother—” Medraut murmured, his voice anguished. “I can’t. I can’t kill you. I love you.”
Medraut was not talking to Telemakos. Medraut was lost in a dead British winter with his dead British brother.
Telemakos buried his face in his father’s shoulder and sobbed, very quietly, because it was so unfair. Medraut reached up to touch Telemakos’s shaven head, as if to soothe him. The long fingers fluttered in bewilderment when they found no hair to gentle there. But Medraut did not wake up.
They arrived at the desert well and stopped for several days, hidden in a camp among the red rocks above the water. At last there came the caravan Telemakos was waiting for. He spotted the camels when they were still nearly a mile off, a train of black spots lurching against the skyline where the road crested a ridge.
“I’m going to fill my water bag before they get here,” Telemakos said. He scrambled down the slope. The well was deep; you had to climb down a series of wooden ladders to reach the bottom. But the water was good, and surprisingly cold. Telemakos filled his skin and climbed back to Medraut.
They knelt and watched together as the caravan arrived. It was small, no more than fifty camels. The men climbed down into the well and tossed up jars and skins of water. They watered their camels, rested, built a fire, baked injera. At last they began to lead the camels on through the rocky desert. Telemakos waited until they were some distance away before he followed.
He touched Medraut’s shoulder in farewell. “I’m going now,” Telemakos whispered, although there was no need to whisper.
His father bent to kiss him on the forehead.
And then: “God go with you, Telemakos,” Medraut said quietly.
Telemakos fell back on his heels, staring astonished at his father. He reached for Medraut’s hands, but Medraut sank his face in his folded arms, leaning over one bent knee, and choked with hopeless tears.
Telemakos was suddenly cold and afraid.
“Ras Meder?” he whispered. “What did you say?”
“I said, God go with you.” Medraut did not look up. “Go now, Telemakos. God provide for you. Go now.”
“So with Telemachus now. His father’s gone. No men at home will shield him from the worst.”
IT WAS FOUR DAYS’ journey before they found water again. Telemakos, unseen, slept with the camels. They were warm, if bad-tempered; they all lay with their knees bound together, hobbled so they could not wander off during the night. Telemakos could smell that one of them was in milk, and he sought her out. He was sorry to discover that she was nearly dry.
“Ah, bless you, sweet lady,” he whispered almost soundlessly in her ear, gentling and coaxing her so she would not make a noise. She saved him one night’s water. Even so, his small half-skin was empty by the time they made the next well. It worried him a little, but not much, because he knew the first reach was the longest.
He found the caravan’s pace wearing. His legs were not as long as a man’s, or a camel’s. The Salt Desert was below sea level; it seemed airless, until wind like a furnace raised a dust storm, and then you could not breathe at all. Telemakos thought it must be the hottest place in the world. Even his sweat evaporated without a trace.