#Africa, 6500 BC
Denger knew that he would end the coming day with either overwhelming pride or unbearable sorrow.
He leaned against the trunk of an acacia tree and watched the sun rise from behind the cow dung huts' roofs. The sunlight baked his dark mahogany-brown body, which had only an antelope's hide around his waist as its garment. Filling his nose was the pungent odor of cattle milling in their brushwood-fenced boma. If only Denger could feel as secure as those animals right now.
Joining his worries was a loss of patience. The stars were still faintly visible in the sky when he had started waiting here, but even long after that, his son Sabef still had yet to show up. Denger guessed that the boy was deliberately sticking to his sleeping mat to postpone the day's events. He had done that himself when he was Sabef's age; it was a common trick for youths worried about their passage into manhood.
As strongly as he could feel his son's dread, Denger wanted more than anything to get things over with. He marched into his hut and saw that Sabef was indeed curled up on his reed mat.
"Time to get up," Denger said as he rubbed Sabef's shoulder.
Sabef did not budge. Groaning with irritation, Denger rocked his body with greater force.
"I don't feel so well, father," Sabef moaned.
"Sure, you fell sick right on your big day," Denger muttered. "Now please get up. You can't run away from it forever."
At last Sabef pushed himself off the mat and onto his feet. The youth shared his father's tall and lean figure but his curly hair was pure black whereas Denger's was streaked with gray. A nervous frown crossed Sabef's face.
Denger smiled. "I feel your fear, but remember, you are my son, the son of the Nsu of Heru's clan. You can do it."
Sabef's frown did not relax. Denger wondered if the boy's status as his eldest son and heir actually worsened his anxiety. All young men in the Rometu nation had to undergo the coming rite after seeing their twentieth rainy season to be sure, but the Nsu's heir was special in that he had to go by himself instead of working with the rest of his age-set. This, combined with all of the other responsibilities that he had to learn in order to lead his people, must have crushed Sabef with merciless pressure.
"I will be watching you the whole time," Denger said. "If you cannot handle it alone, I will come to your aid. You have my word."
Sabef finally beamed. "Thank you, father."
He and Denger each grabbed a flint-tipped spear and cowhide shield and left the hut together. They passed more huts and bomas until they left their village. Before them stretched tawny grassland with scattered acacia, doum palm, and sycamore fig trees. A herd of gazelles hopped away from grazing as the two men neared.
Denger ignored the spooked antelopes. Neither he nor Sabef were interested in them, for they were not embarking on a normal hunt. They had something much more dangerous in mind today.
A dim roar repeated over the buzzing insects. Denger grinned. There was no mistaking that sound, the call of a male lion.
"It's coming from the south," Denger said.
"What if he has his lionesses with him?" Sabef asked.
"All the more reason to hurry before the pride regroups. Come on!"
The hunters lowered their torsos to the grass and began to steal southward. As the roaring grew louder and clearer, Denger's spine chilled in spite of the day's heat. He scanned his surroundings carefully as he walked. Although he was focused on the lion today, he knew the savanna had many other dangerous animals that he needed to watch for.
Sabef froze. "I saw something move," he whispered.
Denger's heart pounded like the hoofbeats of stampeding buffaloes. He stared at the grass in the direction Sabef was pointing, scrutinizing every blade. A brown flash within the vegetation seized Denger's attention.
"I saw it too," he said. "Show yourself, lion!"
The brown flash returned. Sabef and Denger raised their trembling spears. The grass rustled closer to them.
A sandy-furred cat emerged. It was not a lion. It was as big as a lion cub, but lankier, and it had black tufts sticking from the tips of slender ears. The cat bared its fangs and hissed at the humans before scurrying away.
"Only a caracal," Denger said after a relieved sigh. "Let us continue."
As the sun neared its peak in the sky, it broiled the savanna with greater cruelty. The encircling horizon blurred into a fluid haze. Denger's throat dried up like a puddle, but sweat beaded his face.
"By Heru, I could use water," Sabef said.
Nodding in agreement, Denger searched around until he noticed a nearby dip in the terrain. Upon closer examination the depression had a brown pool at its bottom. He and Sabef ran to the waterhole's bank, scooped up its water with cupped hands, and sipped it. The muddy water's taste made Denger grimace but he suppressed his revulsion, pouring the liquid down his mouth. On the other hand, when he splashed the water against his face, he savored its cool respite much more.
A booming roar stunned him. He and Sabef twisted around to face another tawny cat bounding towards them. This one was much larger than the caracal, and there was no mistaking its thick, flowing mane.
The lion sprang at Denger. He thrust his shield forward but the cat knocked him down. It scratched all over the shield as Denger pressed upward against it. A jab to the belly finally drove the lion off.
"Over here!" Sabef shouted to the lion. "It's my rite!"
The lion spun around and leapt at him. Escaping with a sidestep, Sabef then thrust his weapon towards the feline. The lion swiped the spear out of his hand. Sabef bolted for the spear only for the lion to block him. The cat slashed across his chest. A shrieking Sabef fell to his knees and covered his wounds.
The lion sprung up again, but this time Denger grazed its underbelly with his spear while it was in mid-air. The feline crashed onto the grass with a shrill roar. Once it had rolled back onto its paws, it lunged one of them at Denger. He parried the lion's strike with his shield.
Sabef, now with his spear back, pierced the lion's thigh. The beast twirled and slapped him across the shins. He fell onto his back. Denger ran for his son but the lion beat him to it. The cat slammed onto Sabef's chest, cracking his ribcage, and then chomped onto his gullet. Sabef's agonized shrieks broke up into gagging as the lion thrashed him.
Denger hollered. He drew his spear as far back as he could and hurled it at the lion. The weapon went so deep into the animal's flank that its head erupted from the other side. The lion let out one final but deafening roar as it collapsed.
After waiting until the lion's breaths faded into silence, Denger ran to Sabef and knelt over him. Denger shoved his body back and forth, as if trying to wake him up, but the young man did not even stir. His face was completely still, without any of its muscles twitching, and his eyes stared vacantly upward. Denger's own eyes leaked tears that flowed down his cheeks and dripped onto his son.
"Please don't let it be true," he repeated to himself. "Please let this all be a nightmare!" However, deep inside he knew that he was not dreaming.
Denger had always hoped that someday Sabef would bury him and his cattle in a great mound next to those of past Nsus, but that would never come to pass. Instead it was the father who had to bury his son. Even worse, Sabef had died on the very lion hunt that should have graduated him into manhood. What could have been a day that ended with joy for Denger instead ended with grief.
#The sun was drifting towards the western horizon by the time Denger returned to the village with Sabef in his arms. The village bustled not only with cattle being herded back to their bomas after a day's grazing but with people murmuring and gasping as their Nsu passed them. He overheard them but was too absorbed in his own mourning to address them.
When Denger reached his quarter of the village, every one of his wives and children had gathered together to meet him. All had eyes widened with shock, but none had a face more contorted with horror than Baktre, his first and highest-ranking wife. It did not take long before she broke down into tears every bit as potent as her husband's. Joining her was their daughter Ruia, who had seen eighteen rains that were all drier than her eyes.
"What has happened to my son?" Baktre said as she stroked the youth's corpse.
"The lion took him," Denger said. "Now he rises to Heru in the sky." He put Sabef down by his hut and hugged Baktre and Ruia. "This is a loss not only for our family, but for our whole clan. Now I have no heir."
He glanced around the rest of his family and noticed that two people did not share the others' sorrowful frowns; if anything, they were almost grinning. They were Senet, his second wife, and her seventeen-rain-old son Ineni.
"Oh, you have a heir, all right," Senet said, tapping Ineni's shoulders.
Denger's face darkened. "Even so, you should show more deference. Where is your empathy?"
"It's not a question of empathy. I merely ask that you look on the bright side of things. You cannot wallow in grief forever, my Nsu."
Denger was tempted to punch the woman senseless but decided against it. He took a deep breath. "Give me some time to consider which of my children will be my next heir. It may be Ineni, but then again it may not. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to have a private word with Baktre."
Senet's eyes became sharp knives aimed at him. Denger led Baktre away from the remainder of the family to behind his hut.
"What do you mean, you are not sure whether to make Ineni your heir?" Baktre asked with a raised brow.
"If he is anything like his mother, I would not trust him as a Nsu," Denger said. "I would prefer someone more mature anyway?"
Denger whispered a name into his first wife's ear. Her forehead wrinkles curved upward with surprise.
"You cannot be serious," she said. "It would go against our people's tradition!"
"Sometimes traditions must be broken for the good of the people," Denger said. "Of course, the one I prefer must agree to my selection. If my choice is refused, then Ineni shall be Nsu whether I like it or not."
"All right, but do not be surprised if things do not work out the way you want them to."
#Ruia ignored her rumbling stomach. She had spent the whole evening resting on her sleeping mat inside her mother's hut, her head buried in her arms. Baktre had requested her daughter to join the family for supper, but Ruia had refused. So painful was her older brother's loss that it had suppressed her appetite.
Memories of her time with Sabef ran through her mind. She remembered how, when they were small children, they would race together through the grass, competing to see who could run faster. She remembered how they would once mischievously place stones atop the buttocks of sleeping rhinoceroses, with the winner being the first to wake the animals up. And she remembered how they would stare at the night sky and search for figures among the stars.
Sabef was more than another playmate for Ruia. Whenever either of them got into a fight with other children, they would run to each other's defense and then comfort each other after the fight. On one occasion, Sabef had lost a tooth while protecting Ruia from another girl who had stolen her clay doll. Losing a tooth to a girl had made him the target of snickering from both the other girls and boys, but he was willing to sacrifice his popularity for his sister.
Those memories still felt like yesterday for Ruia, but she knew intellectually that they were distant. In fact, once Sabef had been circumcised at twelve rains of age, he had spent much less time with her. He was too busy training to be a warrior and hunter with the other male youths in his age-set. Had he survived his first lion hunt, he would have ended that training, but then he would spend most of him time guarding their cattle and hunting.
None of that relaxed her sorrow. No matter how often he could play with her, Sabef was still her brother.
"Are you all right, Ruia?" she heard Baktre ask. Baktre entered the hut with the moonlight pouring in after her.
Ruia gently shook her head. "I cannot stop thinking about Sabef."
"Maybe some leftover bread will take your mind off him." Baktre knelt beside her daughter and handed to her a flat, circular loaf of sorghum bread.
Ruia shrugged and bit off a piece of the loaf. It was cool and a little stale but she continued to eat it nonetheless.
"Maybe this will make you feel even better," Baktre said, patting her daughter's braided hair. "Your father and I talked together and we have considered that perhaps you could be the next Nsu."
Ruia gulped down the last hunk of bread. "Really? Are you serious? I thought Ineni was to be next in line."
"Your father doesn't completely trust him. I know it goes against our people's tradition, but as he put it, sometimes traditions must be broken for the good of the people. Besides, you should feel honored."
Ruia shook her head again. "It doesn't feel so honorable to replace someone you loved."
Baktre paused briefly and then sighed. "I miss Sabef as fiercely as you do, but as much as I detest her, Senet was right: we cannot wallow in mourning forever. Maybe we will feel better once the sun comes back."
She and Ruia bedded down on their mats for the night. No matter how much she struggled, Ruia could not drift into sleep. Instead her memories continued to stream.