The water had dried to mud in the morning heat of the plains. Flies and ants swarmed round the empty lake; attracted not by the mud, but by the dead bird. The creature had crawled – dying – needing just a drop of water to survive. Moments later it returned to the sky.
The young Amoudia saw there was nothing, and ran back, unburdened by the water-bucket. Over the dry grass, over the rocks, past the dead tree, and back to the village she travelled. The village looked up from its breakfast to see the child running with an empty bucket.
It was time to move again.
Days passed as the village walked across the plains, searching for a lake. It stumbled, its body drier than the sand. The village was a good hunter, and food was plentiful, but they would be prepared to exchange all its game for a bucket of water.
When the village could only crawl, it at last found a lake. It drank until the water lapped waves in its stomach, and it dined on vultures. At night, the village sealed its tent shut with twigs. It slept with a knife by its side, and it slept soundly.
It knew the Lion was following, but it was prepared.
When Amoudia awoke the next morning, she went to collect any water left in the lake under the tree. Again, it was mud. In the wet sand she saw a paw-print, and she dutifully ran to inform the village that there was no water again. The village sighed as it was shaken awake, and it wearily stirred. It shook its head at the mud and it picked up what little belongings it possessed, to travel for many more days along the plains. To keep the Lion away, it sang chants of toil that wore the land down. The grass crumbled and blew away, the trees coiled, the water dried, and the Lion rested.
But they could only chant whilst awake. Amoudia was often disturbed at sundown by a gentle growl, and the pawing of feet. A stout, powerful body brushed against the tent, and she pulled her sheets closer. The village, however, slept soundly.
They found another lake. In the lake they found two crocodiles, locked in each-other’s embrace. Their scales glistened, and their mouths were slack. They were full from a luncheon of wandering travellers. The village let out a cry that promised death; and impaled the two with a single javelin, caught by surprise, the creatures’ mouths remained open in rigor mortis.
The village rested, and Amoudia collected all the water she could carry – still soaked with the blood of the crocodiles. In the evening, the village skinned, gutted, cooked, and ate the two, gorging on their flesh before retiring to their tents. She ate grudgingly, the meat tasting of bitter murder to her.
That evening, the Lion returned. Amoudia was again awoken by the Lion’s growl and the pawing of its feet. It brushed against the tent, and as it did, the girl pressed her hand against the flap. She felt the softness of the mane through the stained linen. The Lion growled, and passed the tent again. Amoudia felt the muscle of the leg, and how powerful it was. She felt the paw of its feet, and its smooth pink skin underneath. The Lion pressed its face against the linen, and she felt its wet nose, and its pointed teeth. At its touch, she withdrew suddenly – as did the Lion. It stalked off, purring lightly, into the moonlight. Amoudia looked down to see the teeth had drawn blood. She sucked her finger, the blood still tasting of crocodile.
Early the next morning, Amoudia walked silently to the lake, leaving the village still sleeping. She used the skin of the crocodile as a bucket, filling it with the bloody water. Once she returned the village awoke, and used the water to wash their faces. They then drank. They drank so much Amoudia filled the bucket again. Once they settled for the afternoon, the girl strayed away, walking across the plains alone. She laid stones as she went, to find the way back.
Across the plains she saw a cheetah hunting alone. It prowled across the dry land, searching for game. It stopped, seeing Amoudia in the distance. She crouched, but there was nowhere to hide. The cheetah stared across at Amoudia. Amoudia stared across at the cheetah. They both fled.
As she returned to the village, retrieving the stones as she went, Amoudia saw a pack of cackling hyenas gathered by a rock. They laughed together, their voices as one, in the afternoon. As they spied her, their laughter ceased. The echo died, leaving a silence across the plains. They stared as one, their faces no longer filled with mirth. Then, one by one, the hyenas left the rock, skulking away into the distance, their eyes still fixed on Amoudia.
Enraged, Amoudia threw a stone. It landed by the last hyena’s feet. It turned to face her, before bowing its head and following the pack away.
She threw another stone. It continued to walk away. She threw yet another stone. It struck the hind leg. The hyena cried in pain, and ran – a line of blood tracing its flight. The rest of the pack watched their brother run, before bowing their heads and continuing back to their camp. Amoudia dropped the last of the stones and returned to the village.
That night, Amoudia left the linen flap open. She waited for the Lion to arrive. The night air was bitter, and she pulled her sheet over herself. As she lay shivering, the Lion returned. It walked silently around the tent, sniffing. It smelt Amoudia’s fear. Its damp nose smeared her face. It lifted its paw to gently rest against her shoulder.
It was blind.
Her fingers ran along the pair of scars that sealed the eyes shut. Her hands moved up and stroked its mane, smoothing its mighty head. The Lion began to purr, and saliva dripped from its mouth. Once it had enough, it turned away from the tent to look out over the plains, its head raised. Its ears heard the silence, its nose smelt the sand, and its paws felt the hard ground. Amoudia watched as the Lion roared a lonely, mourning roar.
A tear ran down her cheek. The village slept soundly.
The sun rose and burned the land. Amoudia awoke in a hot sweat, her sheet still draped over her, and the tent still open. A bird looked in, but flew away when she rose and shielded her eyes from the morning sun. She picked up her bucket and walked to the lake, to find it was gone.
Across the dry lake Amoudia saw the paw prints. They lead through the yellowed bushes to a clearing surrounded by dead trees. In the clearing was a tent. A tent draped in the skin of a Lion.
She approached the tent, pulled the entrance back and looked inside. Inside was a young naked man, his body curled into a ball. He jumped awake.
“Who are you?”
His eyes were shut – sealed by a scar across the eyelid. Amoudia had nothing to fear.
“My name is Amoudia,” she croaked, speaking for the first time in months. “I am from the village.”
The blind man relaxed.
“Ah, the village,” he said, as he covered himself with a rag.
“Do you know of my village?” Amoudia asked.
“I have followed it for generations,” he replied.
“But I have not seen you before…”
“You may have heard of me.”
“What’s your name?”
“Once I was called Lekan,” he said, shaking his head, “but I have no name now.”
“Why? What happened to it?”
“I lost it when I was exiled from the village.”
Amoudia had never seen the village exile anyone.
“Why were you exiled?
The man who used to be Lekan did not immediately reply.
“Because of my nature. The village was frightened.”
“They accused me of crimes I did not commit. They said I stole the water, and refused to hunt. They called me a leech, and kicked me. Then they banished me and left me to die.”
He looked down. It took the man a while to shed himself of emotion.
“Do you know of the Lion?” Amoudia asked once the man had recovered.
“Yes. The village have no need to fear him. He isn’t the one stealing the water.”
“Why is there a lion pelt on your tent?”
The man paused. He thought about the question.
“It is for warmth.”
Amoudia watched the man stand, wrap a loincloth round himself, and exit the tent, using his hands to feel the way out. He stood alone, his chin raised, his face absorbing the sun.
“I smell the village. It gathers by the lake, discussing the mud.” The man stretched his hand out. “You should return to them. They will fear the Lion has taken you.”
She touched his hand, but said nothing.
“You wish to ask one more question?”
“Yes,” she confessed.
“Ask, Amoudia. Ask.”
“Why are you blind?”
The man’s hand fell.
“My eyes were taken many years ago.”
“By birds? Vultures?”
“By the village.”
Amoudia returned to the lake to find the village stood beside the mud.
“The Lion!” It cried, “it has drained the lake again! It even drank the crocodile blood!”
The javelin was brandished.
“It’s a beast! It must be slaughtered or else we will die!”
“How do you know the Lion drained the lake?”
“Look!” the village replied; “look at the paw print! The Lion was here! He follows us and takes our water! We must master our fear. He must die tonight!”
That evening, the village lay in wait, its tent flap open and the moonlight streaming inside. Few moved. Few breathed. They knew the Lion was blind, but they had no need to mask their scent. As long as they lay still and kept their breath slow and even, the Lion would think they were asleep.
The plan worked. The Lion emerged from the edge of the plains, purring. It smelt the villagers resting, and heard their steady breathing. As before, they would be no trouble. It also smelt Amoudia, and heard her rapid breathing. The Lion walked slowly towards her, its ruined eyes trying to meet hers.
Amoudia stood and ran out of the tent, crying for him to leave. The village lunged forward to silence and restrain her, but the Lion now knew. It followed its nose and sprinted back towards its camp, but the village was after him. It threw the javelin, and the tip struck the Lion’s leg. It collapsed, but then shakily rose to its feet. As it did so, the village reached the Lion, and managed to slash the beast in the chest before it could run again. Roaring with pain, the Lion sprinted away – the village following, screaming cries of war. Amoudia followed, keeping back.
The village found not the Lion’s den, but the man who used to be called Lekan’s tent. On the ground was the man, clutching a wound in the chest that was bleeding through his fingers. The village pulled the javelin from his leg, and instead impaled his shoulder. The man growled as more blood cascaded from his body.
Next to him was the Lion pelt, covered in blood. Amoudia picked the discarded skin up to see it had been slashed open at the chest, and its leg stabbed. She watched as before her eyes the shoulder of the fur tore and blood flowed from the open wound.
The village turned and observed this, looking maliciously at the pelt as it concocted a vicious fantasy. It tore the fur from Amoudia’s grasp, and carried it back to their camp. The man heard their cries of triumph and, following their voices, tried to stop the village, but he was weak from his wounds, and a few more kicks to the stomach floored him. Once he stopped struggling; he was dragged along by his foot, towards the fire, leaving a stain on the sand.
The village reached the camp, and, using dead twigs and flint, ignited a fire. They let the flames burn high and bright. The man felt the heat on his face, and knew it was strong.
The village laughed, and threw the fur onto the fire. As it blackened and smouldered, the man’s skin blackened and smouldered also. Flames burst from his body, and the village released him, watching in glee as their foe ignited and screamed as the flesh burned through to bone. The village then removed the pelt from the fire, so he would die slower.
Aflame, the man ran away, twisting and contorting – trying to extinguish the flames. He fled far into the distance, the fire cutting the night, before keeling over. He writhed on the ground one turn more, then stopped.
The Lion’s body became a burning beacon; a signal to all nature: Beware. Beware the human.
The village rose early the next morning. It followed the sunrise east, walking away from the Lion’s charred corpse, and travelled non-stop all day. Amoudia delayed behind, salt tears making mud on the plains, clutching what remained of the pelt. The village left her to become a perusing speck in the distance, walking as if sleeping.
When the village felt sure it would die, it found paradise. An oasis. Surrounded by dark green trees, with brightly coloured fruit, and birds resting in their tops.
The village, in delight, threw itself into the oasis and bathed in the cool water. It washed the filth on its body away, making its skin gleam anew in the sunset.
Amoudia approached the oasis, where the village still bathed – floating – their bodies completely relaxed. The village saw the girl at the bank, and beckoned for her to bathe – to wash the dirt away.
Amoudia picked up one of the villages’ abandoned knives, still stained with the blood of the Lion. She held it up towards her face. The village stirred. It watched in horror as the tip approached Amoudia’s retinas, and the last thing she saw was their faces contorted as she gouged her eyes out before them. The remains fell into the water, and soon the oasis was stained red. The village fled from the blood, scampering back to the plains, away from the paradise.
She felt the handle of the knife slip away, and heard it fall. Then there was silence. She fell backwards into the grass, its brisk tips tickling her skin. Her fingers stroked the Earth’s hair. An ant climbed up her leg, and a fly landed on her hair, but she didn’t disturb them. The ant circled her knee, looking for something. The fly rested, tired from its journey. They both lingered for a few moments, savouring the green landscape around them, before carrying on.
Alone, blood flowed from Amoudia’s eyes. She wrapped herself in the ruined pelt of the Lion and fell asleep.
She awoke, growling.
By Max Butcher