Since early childhood, Adenzi had been friends with Kattego. As boys, they did everything together and often in equal ways—each would’ve been the best disc-tosser if not for the other, the best bowman, the best spear-carver, the fastest runner. As men, they were much the same, and if Kattego had a leveler head, while Adenzi fueled great passions in his heart, then no one bothered to judge those traits. They had one last thing in common, which they both discovered one unfortunate day as they returned to their village from the tall grass, each carrying a slain gazelle.
“I should tell you before anyone else, my friend,” Kattego said. “I’ll be married soon.”
Adenzi laughed. “Funny, I was about to say the same. Who’s the poor girl?”
“I’ll show you,” Kattego said, reaching the edge of the village. “And you’ll show me which woman will bear the burden of having you.” He pointed and Adenzi did the same, and it took a moment for the two to realize they were pointing at the same girl.
Wars have begun and worlds have ended when two men loved the same woman. This happened in the sunset lands.
Emmaya was the flower of the village. She was beautiful, graceful, and kind. Her cooking was to die for and a look from her eyes could stir a man’s blood with desire. Though she never seemed to glance at any one man in particular, she made it no secret that she wished to be a mother and surround herself with children’s laughter. Adenzi thought this was a beautiful dream for a happy life.
He didn’t ask Kattego what he thought. “Well, it isn’t for us to decide,” Kattego said, lowering his hand. “The elders will judge who should wed Emmaya at the trials.”
Their village elders didn’t let just any man take the best of the village’s women. Those women’s husbands were chosen by passing a number of competitions against each other, and sometimes even the winner of the trials would not win the girl if the judges deemed he had poor character. Adenzi had thought he was the best among those who would compete for Emmaya’s hand until Kattego’s declaration. He predicted there would be no easy victory against his friend.
His prediction came true in the weeks to come. Every man tossed clay discs, and while no man could toss one farther than Adenzi or Kattego, neither could toss discs farther than each other. Every arrow the two shot hit the same target, in nearly the same place, and they’d have gone all day splitting each other’s arrows if the elders hadn’t decided this would be wasteful. Each one’s spear was cut equally sharp, and each proved himself to be an incredible hunter, bringing home a gazelle, a zebra, and even a crocodile. If there had been a competition for working their farmland, each man would’ve likely shown equal skill.
Despite their similar worth, Adenzi saw the elders’ eyes looking toward Kattego, and he even saw Emmaya glance the same way. By the end of the hunting trial, all other men had dropped out of vying for her hand. Had she been any other woman, Adenzi might have left her to Kattego. “A good friend would do this,” he said to himself. “But then, a good friend would understand the dream of a house full of children’s laughter and how much that woman’s dream means to me.”
Illustration by Falineowlight.
Three days before the elders were set to decide Emmaya’s husband, Adenzi approached Kattego and tested their friendship. “Kattego, I’ve loved Emmaya for a great deal of time. I want to give her the children she longs for and to be their father, to teach them with her and to build her a strong house where we’ll raise them. I’ve dreamed of her eyes falling on me. Please, my friend, abandon this competition.”
“I can’t,” Kattego said bluntly. “I love her too. We have the same dreams. Is that so surprising?”
“I’m only surprised that my friend can’t see my pain.”
“I’m surprised as well.”
The two stared bitterly at each other for a moment, and then parted. Kattego returned to the village, but Adenzi went wandering into the tall grass. At first, thoughts of despair haunted his mind and he fantasized a suicide as the supper for wild beasts. Despair transformed into fear when he thought there actually were animals behind him, chasing him, and as he ran, the determination to live twisted into a determination for winning the girl. He remembered what place lay a day to the east, and whether there were wild beasts or not, he walked.
None of Adenzi’s people traveled to the Gray Coast anymore. Terrible war had stained the sunset lands with blood and ash a hundred years ago and it stemmed from the city on that forsaken coastline. No city remained anymore. Great stone blocks littered the sand, worn down by the tide, and stone foundations hid in the tall grass, sinking slowly into the earth. Only one structure stood now and the elders forbid anyone from going there. Stories were sometimes whispered as to why there was a terrible war and while Adenzi didn’t have a clear answer, he knew it began with the power in that surviving temple.
The tall grass dwindled and parted as he neared, for nothing would grow close to his destination. The elders said a thousand bodies once lay heaped in this place, cursing the land to make no life, and probably the number of corpses had been far greater. The stone steps appeared clear of any bones, as a hundred years had likely seen many animals eating the remains, but they were the same steps where the dead had been left in offering or sacrifice. Small stones decorated the floor of the entrance, as if a wall had been torn down. The outer walls appeared firm and intact, from the foundation all the way to the top of the entrance, where a clay mask with curved horns protruded from the stone, declaring this the temple of Death-Face.
Adenzi stood at the bottom of the steps, gaping at the face above, and then fell to his knees. “Great god of life and death, I need help.”
A dry wind whistled from within the temple, as if someone was taking his first deep breath after a long sleep, and then the voice emerged. “I haven’t heard those words in a long, long time.” The voice sounded neither male nor female, and while raspy with weakness, it rang through all of Adenzi’s bones as if it trembled from inside him. “Who have you lost?”
“I’m about to lose the woman I love to my friend,” Adenzi said. He nearly choked on the next few words. “I need him to die.”
The voice of Death-Face lingered quietly, pensive with thoughts no mortal could understand. “I do not grant wishes or death. Those who lost people they love once brought them to me, and for three deaths, I would grant a life. Many people once knew of this gift, yet you are the first man who’s come to me in a century and you did not know.”
“I need a death. You can’t give it to me?”
“No.” Death-Face was quiet for another stiff moment. “Perhaps you are more in need of my friend, if he’s willing to help you.”
Two white eyes lit up in the darkness of the temple. Their glow reflected over a lion’s face, covered in coarse black and white fur, and under two long antelope horns that protruded from the lion’s head. The creature crept down the steps on powerful legs and paced a circle around Adenzi, sniffing and growling.
Adenzi knew this creature from the stories of the village’s witch woman and elders. “You are Bokoraru,” he muttered, standing as tall as he could. “The Devil-Lion.”
“Friend to Death-Face and kin to Death,” the lion said. “I may take a life where my friend cannot—for a price. I sense the gift of life in you, as it lies in many strong, young men. You will make many children.”
“You want my child?” Adenzi asked.
“A son. A first-born is too commonly demanded and a second is nothing special. Bring me your third son, here at the temple of Death-Face. Swear to do this and I will grant you a death.”
Adenzi knew that Emmaya would love her children, but she wanted many children and it wasn’t uncommon that one died at birth, or shortly after. They would grieve and make more sons, he reasoned, and though he worried what would become of the boy, if he didn’t act now he would never give her any child. “I swear,” he said, and the Devil-Lion’s eyes gleamed.
“Lead the way,” Bokoraru said.
Adenzi turned his back on the temple and the clay mask of Death-Face, and returned to the tall grass with the black and white lion on his heels. They traveled, rested, and traveled again, and when they neared the village in the evening, Bokoraru dove away. A roar and a yelp echoed through the grass and the Devil-Lion emerged with a wounded gazelle in his jaws. His paws opened the small creature’s mouth as it kicked and cried, spread its throat wide, and all of the Devil-Lion slipped inside.
“Bring me into the village, hidden like this, so no witch woman will spot me,” Bokoraru said from the gazelle’s mouth. “Lay me at the doorway of the man you wish dead and by morning, Death will have taken him.”
Adenzi carried the gazelle into the village. Despite the huge Devil-Lion’s wearing its skin, the creature looked no different than any other fresh kill and hung limply from Adenzi’s arms. He waited for the village to quiet, for the villagers to return to their homes in the evening, and then found Kattego’s stone house, where he laid the gazelle, its heart still beating—or perhaps he felt only the breath of Bokoraru against the creature’s skin.
When he returned to his own home, he dropped onto his bed and wiped sweat and tears from his face. His heart pounded with anguish, but also with love. He would have Emmaya. “I’ll treat her right and do well for her in all things,” Adenzi promised quietly. “Kattego’s death will not be in vain.”
When dawn came to the land, the villagers found blood splashed on the outside walls of Kattego’s house. A crimson trail began with a slain gazelle discovered on Kattego’s floor, and led out the doorway, over the earth, and into the long grass, where many blades had tasted blood. The elders spoke in hushed tones, too quiet for Adenzi to overhear, but rumors ran through the village and he heard those aplenty. Some believed a wild predator had followed Kattego into his home, having tracked the gazelle’s scent. Others said it was an omen, believing Kattego had been punished for some secret evil. Adenzi argued vehemently against these, claiming his friend was the best of anyone in the village and had fallen for bad luck, not judgment. The elders looked fondly on him for defending his friend’s good name.
Emmaya looked fondly as well.
“I know Kattego would have made a good husband for you,” Adenzi said. “I will do all in my power to be at least half as good as he would have been.” Emmaya took his hand and kissed his brow, and the elders chose Adenzi to be her husband. He held her close, his heart thundering against his chest and rattling hers, and he swore to himself the same promise he’d made Emmaya. After what he’d done, living a life of good deeds and selflessness was the only way he could forgive himself. He would be the best man of the village, not only in hunting and sport, but in helping, caring, and his duties to his wife. All his future actions would be righteous, he swore.Except one. Soon after the wedding, Emmaya’s belly swelled with child.