The day the lion came to Lugan, the sun was high in the sky, and the dun sands of the desert lapped against the dun walls of the town.
The lion was a creature of the desert, as brown and sunburnt as the sand itself, with a ragged mane and sinewy limbs which had not a morsel of spare flesh on them. And he was as pitiless as the sun itself, his teeth as sharp as the wind, and his victims as many as the stars that shone in the sky during the long, freezing nights.
In vain did the elders of the Council have thorn barricades built atop the walls and post armed guards at all the gates. Each evening, when the darkness cloaked the streets of the town with shadow, the lion leaped over the entanglements, or broke through one of the armed cordons, and by morning yet more of the population had been claimed.
“It is a devil lion,” the priests said, “and we must make sacrifice in the temples, so that the gods destroy it on our behalf.” And they prayed to all the gods in the name of the people, but the gods answered not.
Then the people of the town fell to despairing, and told themselves that they had but two choices, to leave their homes and wander the desert, or to perish at the beast’s fearsome fangs.
“Save us,” they said to anyone who might listen. “Save us from this cruel devil, and we will make you a god, greater than any of the gods who have failed us in our hour of need.”
Now among them dwelt the hero Dawoosh, a man so great that tales of him were told in towns all over the desert, in Ramok and Shalot, and even in far Haram. And when he heard the people crying, he took up his great spear and his shield of leather, and he put on his feather war-bonnet, and he went down to save the people of his city.
And when the people saw him coming, they raised a mighty cheer; for they surely thought their deliverance was at hand.
And Dawoosh the hero strode out along the battlements of the city, behind the barrier of thorns, and waited for the lion to appear, so that he could slay him.
But the lion was more astute than Dawoosh himself; and when the night lay freezing cold and the blood of men was thick and sluggish in their veins, he squeezed through a crack in the outer wall where it met the ground, and he climbed up to the battlements, where, coming upon Dawoosh from behind, he dealt the hero a mighty blow, wounding him with a most fearsome wound. And, leaving the hero for dead, the lion fled the city.
Then were the townsfolk filled with terror and despair; for, if even the great hero Dawoosh could not conquer the lion, what hope had anyone else?
Then Dawoosh’s son, young Mepal, came where his father lay abed, nearly dead from the wound he had received, but with the fire of life still burning in his eyes. And Mepal looked at Dawoosh, and he said, “Father, I will up and chase the lion, and I will avenge your spilt blood, even if I have to chase him across the great desert until the sun falls out of the sky.”
And Dawoosh looked at Mepal, and he said, “My son, think a while, for you do not know the desert. If you set out across it, you will find dangers that you have never met before, dangers to which a lion is nothing. You will pass the fair city of Irab, with its tall columns of marble, and from its tall towers maidens of breathtaking beauty will call you to tarry. But if you do, you will surely be lost, for they will take you for their own. No man has ever returned, who has once set foot in fair Irab.
“And if you pass Irab, you will mayhap find red-walled Tollum, where the wizards toil ceaselessly over their cauldrons of magic, and they will throw spells at you, to enchant you and make you their slave. Strong is the magic of red-walled Tollum, and no man can pass it by without being drawn towards it by the charms of the warlocks who dwell therein.
“And if you pass Tollum, you will come to the oasis of Ghuddup, where the waters are clear as air and cool as the mountains of Paras. But if you dare to drink from them, you will turn instantly to stone, to wait in that form until the sun and the moon are no more.
“But if you pass Ghuddup, in the course of time, you will come to far Khabbar, which was once so filled with wonder that people came from across the world to see it; but today it is a forsaken ruin, filled with only the lamentations of a million ghosts. And if you listen to their voices, you will be lost utterly, and become one with them.
“And what lies past Khabbar, nobody knows, for no man hath ever gone that far yet. Mepal, my son, think of these dangers, and reflect, before you go down to the desert.”
Then Mepal the son of Dawoosh bowed his head. “I have listened, my father,” he said. “But I have vowed to track down the devil lion and avenge your wound, and this I will do, despite all the dangers of the desert.”
And Dawoosh raised his weary hand in blessing, the hand which had once done so many deeds of wonder, and he said, “Go, then, my son, and if you ever return, may it be rejoicing.”
So Mepal donned his father’s great war-bonnet with the plume of feathers, and he took up his father’s spear and his shield of leather, and he strode out of the city. And his feet smote the desert with such force that far and wide the message went, “Mepal is walking the desert, and he passes like the wind.”
And the lion saw Mepal, and he loped off across the sands, his tawny form merging with the dun of the dunes; and Mepal saw him from afar, and followed.
Day followed day, and the sun rose high in the sky and sank unto her rest; and the lion moved on relentlessly, not pausing a moment to eat or drink. And Mepal followed, not pausing either, for he knew that to rest was to lose the trail. All he saw with his eyes was the lion’s distant form, and all his ears listened for was the beast’s panting breath.
And when the night lay freezing on the land, and the desert was dark but for the cold gleam of the stars and the slice of the waning moon, still he followed; for the lion’s roars allowed his ears to be the guide of the direction in which the beast was moving.
And so he came to the fair city of Irab, and maidens of surpassing beauty sang to him from atop the columned towers; but his eyes only sought the lion, and his ears only listened for its noises, and, heedless of the songs of the women, he passed them by.
Then he came to red-walled Tollum, and the warlocks who dwell therein hurled spells and enchantments against him, to muddy his mind and dull his thoughts until he might turn aside and be their slave. But his mind was fixed only on the lion, and he moved on, with the magic falling uselessly on the sands of the desert.
And then he came to the cool oasis of Ghuddup, and the wind called to him with the invitation to rest under the swaying date palms, and to slake his thirst from the water clear as air. And perhaps he might have forgotten his father’s words and turned aside, for he was weary and thirsty; but the lion moved on past the oasis without a pause, and Mepal followed him into the desert.
And then he came to the great ruined city of Khabbar, which once was so beautiful; but the lion moved past, not approaching the tumbled stones. And the voices of the myriad of ghosts were just sighs in the winds of the desert.
And then Mepal the son of Dawoosh and the lion were alone in the desert, for they had come where no man had been before; and still the lion fled towards the setting sun, and the man followed behind him.
And then the time came when even the great strength and determination of Mepal was no longer enough against his thirst and exhaustion, and his limbs moved slower and slower. But before him he could see the lion moving, too, slower, and the beast’s ragged mane drooping in the desert heat.
Still the chase went on, across the desert; strange things of monstrous shape grew out of the sun and the air, and wavered and gibbered at man and beast alike. And mountains rose and fell on the far horizon, like waves of rock from a stony sea.
And then came the day when Mepal’s legs could take him no longer, and he stumbled and fell on the sand. And yet he tried to drag himself with his hands after the lion, until he could go no further, and he lay on the floor of the desert, helpless to follow even a hand’s span more.
Then the lion turned back, and the man’s ears heard the beast approach; and he gripped his great spear, hopeful even at this hour to strike a fatal blow.
But the lion stopped short of the reach of the spear, and when the young man looked up, he saw the beast sitting on the sand and looking at him calmly; and overcome by weariness, he slept.
And in his dream, the son of Dawoosh saw the lion, standing before him on a field of stone. “What manner of beast are you?” he asked the creature. “Are you truly a devil?”
And the lion replied, his voice sounding inside the young man’s head. “Son of Dawoosh, I am no devil; my only purpose was to bring you here, into the desert beyond the knowledge of man; for here it is that you will find the truth about yourself. Strike at me with your spear, if you desire, but it will gain you nothing but your death. Even if you chance to kill me, you will never find your way back to far Lugan, for while you have been chasing me, more years have passed than you can imagine, and the dunes of the desert have long buried that city’s bones.
“But if you choose to put your spear down at your side, and forswear revenge for union, you shall find that the friendship of one such as me is of greater worth than the sun and the stars can give. It is your choice to make, and only you can make it.”
And Mepal awoke, and saw the lion, which was lying by his side, watching him through yellow eyes; and he threw down his spear at his side, and the lion drew nigh unto him. And for long they looked into each other’s eyes, the man and the beast.
And thus is told the tale of Mepal, Lord of the Desert; and if ye go out into the sands when the sun is high, mayhap ye will see him in the distance, the feathers of his war-bonnet floating in the wind, and his leather shield and great spear in his hand; and if ye look closely, by his side goes the lion, ragged of mane and tough with sinew.
And if ye do see them, know that ye are safe, and no harm will ever come to you, as long as you travel the desert; for the shield of Mepal protects you from all danger, and the lion will keep watch to make sure all perils pass you by.
This is the tale of the God Mepal, and the lion who calls him friend.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014