Part 1 – A shadow in the night
The howling of the wolves shook the stillness of the night.
Yarim awoke with a shock, threw off his lambskin blanket and groped blindly for his spear. Silently, he eased himself towards the entrance of the hut and pushed the reed mat aside. A pale moonlight shone on the flat, desolate fields. The raw wolves’ howl tore through the night again, this time closer by. Yarim shivered. He heard the hooves of the sheep skimming over the ground. They ran towards the darkest corner of the corral. The frightened animals huddled together under the date palm. Then there was a soft baaing, and, again, all was still.
Yarim waited. Now that the drought had lasted so long, the wild animals were coming closer to the houses to search for prey. Wolves circled around in packs. They followed the flocks by day and attacked as soon as one animal seemed to stray. And, more often now, they sneaked closer to where the sheep spent the night.
Did something just move by the dam? Were there dark shadows slipping silently over the sand?
Yarim clutched his spear even tighter. Without blinking, his eyes pierced through the darkness over the fields. Normally, the rivers and canals protected the people. But now that they were only filled with a yellow-brown mud, the predators could wander into the village. There was nothing to hold them back.
Yarim locked his hand over a sacred charm that hung from a cord around his neck. His fingers followed the lines of the eagle. He felt the sharp claws, the powerful wings. “If I could fly,” he thought, “I would let the wind carry me and circle round until I saw the killers. Then, like an arrow, I’d drop out of the sky, and thrust my claws into the neck of a wolf and climb off again. Higher and higher. The beast would howl in horror while I flew over the fields towards the Euphrates. I would pull in my claws and let the whimpering wolf slam into the muddy riverbed, as a sacrifice to the river god. Maybe then the water would finally rise. Maybe then the river would accept my offering and overrun its banks so that, as in other years, the fields would be flooded.”
Yarim heard something move in his hut. He turned around. “Are the wolves here again?” asked his mother.
Yarim nodded. He leaned against the palm wood door post. It was smeared with red paint to protect the inhabitants against the angry spirits which roamed around at night…Suddenly, he heard the cry of the wolves again. The ominous sound spread sickeningly over the wasted land. Yarim felt his mother’s hand shut tight on his wrist. Her grip was tightening when a heavy voice called out, “Yarim, did you get up?”
“Answer quickly,” his mother whispered.
“Yes, father,” Yarim said.
He heard soft swearing in the darkness and then a large shadow jumped up. A heavy hand fell on his shoulder. Yarim cringed.
“Why are you just standing here?”
“I heard a howling wolf,” Yarim said, “here, very close…”
“Do you have your spear?”
“So, what are you still doing here?”
Yarim stared in disbelief at his father. Could he have understood him rightly? Was he to go out into the compound while the wolves were still prowling around? “But, it is still night,” he said and swallowed hard, “I…”
“Who is shepherd of this flock?”
“Then, what are you waiting for?”
Yarim knew that it was pointless to protest. He wanted his mother’s support, but she turned her head away. She dared not do anything for him. She was, after all, only a slave.
“The night is so dark,” Yarim tried for the last time. But his father shut him up.
“You’re not afraid of that. You who go out and challenge the gods themselves. Wasn’t it you who dared to spit into the holy water of the river god? So?”
Yarim sighed despondently. Every day, his father threw that again into his face. Ever since his friend, Zakir, had betrayed the secret after their quarrel, it seemed as if his father blamed him and him alone for the drought in Sumer and Akad. “That creep, Zakir,” Yarim thought. “But he forgot to say that he himself had also spit into the holy water. Perhaps the gods are even angrier with him. Perhaps they will only give us back our water after Zakir confesses what he has done and asks forgiveness.”
Yarim ran in a crouch through the compound. Carefully, he headed towards where the sheep were standing. A shudder went through the flock, but they stood their ground. Yarim clambered agilely up the rough trunk of a tree. “Here, I will be safe,” he thought, “about four meters off the ground.”
Suddenly, the sheep began to move. They ran along the broken earthen wall. Yarim saw five dark shadows sliding along the field. Wolves. Slowly, they came closer. Noiselessly, Yarim took his spear, which was resting on his shoulder. Why didn’t the sheep remain in the shadow of the trees? Surely, that is the safest place. Or, are there even more wolves? Have they surrounded the flock? Or, are there ghosts prowling around?
One of the wolves made a penetrating howl. Yarim shivered and climbed higher in the tree. Now he could see clearly the leader of the pack. It was a large, mangy beast that repeatedly ran a few paces through the sand and then pressed itself motionless into the ground.
The wolves came to a halt fifty meters from the earthen wall. Ready for the attack. Would they leap between the sheep? Yarim fixed his legs against the trunk of the palm tree, but the wolves didn’t come any closer. It seemed as if they hesitated. They stuck their snouts into the wind and cried mournfully.
Instead of standing still or fleeing towards the farthest corner of the corral, the sheep moved restlessly up and down. Yarim didn’t understand. His eyes hunted around. And then he saw between the shadows of the palm trees a dark silhouette slipping low over the ground. His breath caught in his throat. At that moment, the wolves leaped up, ran back towards the dike by the canal and disappeared.
The stillness of the night hung menacingly over the land.
Yarim was scared to death. He heard his own heart thumping. He didn’t dare to jump out of the tree and run towards home.
What crept through the trees? An evil ghost? The shade of someone dead who was not yet buried and lay utterly exposed in the desert sand? It must be really terrible if it had scared away a whole pack of hungry wolves.
Yarim’s legs trembled and he broke out in a sweat. Again, he saw something moving. He stared with fierce concentration at the ground and then began to laugh with relief. It wasn’t a ghost. It was a lion.
Then the animal jumped suddenly over the earth wall and the flock scattered. But one of the lambs was too late. The lion landed on his back. The claws drilled into the tender skin. The hopeless bleating was stopped when the mighty lion’s jaws snapped shut. The lion shook the lamb savagely through the air and Yarim heard his neck breaking. Triumphantly, the lion looked around. He opened his mouth wide and growled. The sheep huddled closely together. Yarim looked on breathlessly. Was the animal going to attack again? Suddenly, he heard his father’s voice. “Yarim, are you there? What happened?”
Yarim couldn’t say a word. His eyes followed the lion. The beast wandered gracefully towards the earthen wall and sprung over it easily with the lamb between his teeth. “Luckily, he is going away,” Yarim thought. But then the lion came back towards the palm woods. He dropped his prey in the sand near the tree where Yarim was hiding. Yarim smelled the sweet fragrance of fresh blood. Shivers went up and down his spine. “If I fall, I’m lost,” he thought.
Noiselessly, he turned his head. His father’s shadow slipped off the wall. Step by step he slipped through the compound, a spear in one hand and a whip in the other.
“Where are you, boy? Answer me.” His father had just come up by the sheep’s pen and looked carefully around. The lion followed all his movements. His tail swung silently from left to right.
Yarim looked for some way to warn his father. But if he called out, he would draw the attention of the lion to himself. And that was the last thing he wanted. He got a cramp in his foot, but didn’t dare to move it. When his father came even closer the lion stood up slowly. He glided on velvet paws through the darkness and stopped right under Yarim. His muscles tightened. His tail now lay motionless in the sand.
Yarim saw what was going to happen next. He had to prevent it, and there was no time to lose. From where he stood, the lion didn’t look so awesome. And in a flash he saw how he could stop the animal. He clenched his spear with both hands and without another thought swooped out of the tree like an eagle. His feet kicked the lion’s hind legs out from under him. Then with great strength he drove the flint spearhead between the shoulders of the muscular body.
A savage roar ripped the night. Astonished, the lion thrashed around with his paws. Yarim rolled through the sand, away from the knife-sharp claws. With bloodshot eyes, the lion looked around. He staggered after Yarim, his hind legs dragging along the ground. With a last blast of strength the lion rose unexpectedly and lurched forward with a gasping, rattling roar.
Yarim wanted to jump aside, but he reacted too late. A brutal, burning pain shot through his left arm when the lion fell on him; and then all was black.