Egypt, 4000 BC
Although bright morning sunlight poured through the entrance of Buikhu's mud hut, he still lay asleep on his cowhide mat. The reason why was that the boy, who had seen twelve rainy seasons since his birth, had exhausted himself dancing and chanting his clan's songs along with the other boys in his age set the previous night. That night, according to the tradition of his people, was to be his last as a child.
"Buikhu! Wake up!" his father Kemnebi whispered in a scolding tone while pushing the boy's body back and forth. "The morning of your test has come!"
After being rocked for enough times, Buikhu finally opened his dark eyes and yawned. "Can you let me sleep for one more moment, father?"
"No! We are already almost late. Get up now!" Kemnebi yanked his son's arm up until the child was on his feet and then led him out of the hut into the daylight.
Buikhu was of medium height for a boy of his age. Like most of his people, he had a lean figure, with long limbs and dark mahogany brown skin. The black braided sidelock he had worn for most of his life, a symbol of childhood, had been shaved off, leaving his scalp completely bare. Unlike his father, who donned a loincloth cut from tanned gazelle hide, he wore no clothing at all.
Kemnebi led his son across the village of Nekhen until they reached its central dirt plaza, where all the other boys in Buikhu's age set stood in a straight row. Also present was Mhotep, the village's wabsekhmet or healer, a middle-aged man with a shaven scalp and a leopard's skin draped around his torso. Buikhu spotted in the wab's right hand a flint knife, the sight of which sped up his heartbeat. He remembered exactly what the knife would be used for this morning.
After Buikhu joined the line of boys, Mhotep began, "Today marks a major turning point in your lives, young ones. Today your boyhoods shall all be cut away and you will become men. Now promise me that you will not scream or flinch during your cutting. Show me that you are ready for manhood! Now, let us begin with this boy who had just joined us."
The wab was facing Buikhu when he said that. The boy's heartbeat accelerated even more and his back chilled. His test was less than moments away! He looked around as if searching for an escape route, but his conscience told him to stay put lest he shame himself. He had no choice but to undergo the cutting.
"What is your name?" Mhotep asked the boy.
"B-buikhu, of the Mesha clan," the child said after a quick hesitation.
"And what is the name of your father?"
"And what was the name of his father?" On this the wabgrabbed a hold of Buikhu's penis and lowered his knife towards it. The mere feeling of Mhotep's hand on his organ made Buikhu tremble.
"Uh…my father's father was Senbi."
"Good. And who was Senbi's father?" Now Mhotep was rapidly rubbing his blade's edge against the boy's foreskin. After enough sawing motion, Buikhu was struck by the sharpest, most intense pain he had ever felt in his life. He knew that he had been told to be silent, but the pain was so maddening…
"DJER!" he shrieked so shrilly that it almost sounded like it would have come from a girl's mouth.
There was silence. Blood dripped from where Buikhu's foreskin had been. Looking around, he noticed that everyone else was staring at him. The other boys were grinning, as if ready to burst out in laughter, but the wabwas frowning with disapproval. So was his father, except his glare was even sharper and heart-piercing.
"That will be enough," Mhotep said. "Now on to the next boy."
And so the wabproceeded to circumcise the rest of Buikhu's age set, with each of the boys reciting the names of his ancestors during the procedure. A couple of other boys screamed just like Buikhu had, but most did not. That made him feel even worse. Had all the boys reacted to their cutting the way he did, he would have thought himself normal, but instead their stoicism contrasted sharply with his lack thereof.
Once every boy had been cut, Buikhu turned to face his father. "Father, I am-"
"You screamed like a girl," Kemnebi said. "You have shamed our family with your cowardice. Now you will never be considered a man."
Until then, the boy had thought the circumcision he had just undergone had been the most intense pain he had ever suffered. Now even that paled in comparison to what he felt right now inside.
After a few days' passing, the summer rains arrived. They swelled the Nile River until it submerged the papyrus-lined floodplain which Nekhen bordered, and they changed the grass of the savanna beyond from golden yellow to green. This signaled the people of Nekhen to leave their village and the floodplain farms they tended during the winter for the plains to the west, bringing with them the herds of long-horned cattle that were their main economic assets.
Buikhu was used to these seasonal migrations between the savanna and the village, but he had once looked forward to this summer more than most. He had anticipated that, as a newly initiated man, he would no longer just watch and milk his family's herd of four cattle while his father went out hunting with the other men. Instead his father would bring him along and teach him how to hunt. Alas, that was possibly never to happen. Having declared his son a coward, Kemnebi refused to entrust the boy with any weapon or let him leave their summer camp of thatched hovels, so Buikhu was stuck with his usual responsibilities.
In previous summers, Buikhu didn't mind his duties so much, as he understood their importance. But now, as he watched his cattle drink from the waterhole near which his people had set up camp, he fumed with resentment.
"Why aren't you hunting with the other men, Buikhu?" he heard a boy two years his junior ask. Buikhu recognized the child as the son of Khenti, the nsu-rainmaker king-of Nekhen, but that did not make him feel the slightest bit deferent.
"You ought to know why, Sokkwi," Buikhu grumbled.
"You're afraid to tell me, aren't you? Coward!"
At first Buikhu silently told himself to not mind that taunt, but then he felt something soft splat onto his back. Jerking his head around, he saw that Sokkwi's throwing arm was coated with cow dung. A little flame of anger flickered inside the older boy's head, but listening to his conscience, he did not show a reaction.
"So you're just going to stand there and let me throw dung at you? Coward!" Sokkwi said. He continued to pelt Buikhu until the pile ran out, but still his attacks were ignored. Then, with a wicked grin on his face, he picked up a small rock and chucked it in the same direction.
Buikhu yelled in pain when the stone smashed into his spine, and then his flame of anger blossomed into a full-blown wildfire. Grabbing a large stick, he spun around and lunged after the puny brat.
"You'll have your skull smashed in when I'm done with you!" he roared, brandishing the stick.
"Bet you can't catch me!" Sokkwi replied as he dashed away.
Buikhu left his herd behind as he raced after his tormentor across the savanna. His rage continued to burn and was intensified by frustration, for Sokkwi proved to be incredibly swift for a ten-year-old. He was definitely going to carry out his threat if he ever caught up with the evil little demon.
The two boys had run quite far from their waterhole when a yellow shape flashed out of the bushes with a roar. Freezing in terror, Buikhu saw that it was a leopard! Immediately he reversed direction and sprinted away with his heart beating frantically. Then he heard the shrill scream of a child followed by choking sounds. He looked back and saw that the big cat had Sokkwi by his blood-soaked neck.
For all the violence that he had wanted to inflict upon the younger boy moments earlier, Buikhu did not feel the least bit delighted that Sokkwi had just been killed. Instead he was horrified beyond belief and also burdened with guilt. How on earth was he going to explain to the nsuthat his son had been driven into the wilderness and killed? And how would the whole of Nekhen react to the loss of their future rainmaker?
As if these thoughts weren't enough to make the boy miserable, he was to find something to add to his woes once he ran back to the waterhole. There, he discovered that all four of his family's cattle were nowhere to be seen. Apparently they had run away in his absence.
Buikhu muttered to himself, "Great! My day has now been ruined even more than it was before!"
Actually, he knew that what was ruined was not merely one day, but possibly the rest of his life. Although people in his culture ate beef only during certain religious ceremonies, to them cattle were the living incarnations of wealth that could be traded like money. To lose an entire herd meant instant poverty for anyone from Buikhu's race.
Buikhu had gotten the nsu's son killed and lost his family's whole wealth. His guilt was now even more painful than his father's calling him a coward.
The sun was sinking behind the acacia trees of the western savanna when the men of Nekhen returned to the camp from hunting, bringing with them some hartebeest carcasses. Buikhu, who stood by the campfire, had a knot in this throat and trembled with dread, but he knew what he had to tell everyone.
"Is something bothering you, my son?" Kemnebi asked Buikhu when he saw the fearful expression on the boy's face.
"Two really terrible things happened today," Buikhu finally admitted. "Sokkwi has been killed by a leopard and our cattle have run away."
Everyone in the camp gasped.
"My son is dead?" the nsu, a towering middle-aged man who donned a tall white crown, exclaimed with shock. "How did the leopard catch him?"
"Well…I…got angry with Sokkwi and chased him into the wilds. The cattle abandoned us while we were gone."
The faces of both the nsu and Buikhu's father were hideously distorted by anger.
"You little fool!" the nsuroared like a lion. "You got my beloved son killed andyou have denied the next generation their nsu!"
"And you let our herd leave us!" Kemnebi added. "Because you could not control your temper, our family is now poorer than sand!"
"But Sokkwi was pelting dung and rocks at me!"
"My son would never do that!" the nsusaid. "But even if he were, you did not have to chase him. You could have reported him to one of the women. Instead your wrathfulness has doomed not only your family but all of Nekhen! What do you have to say for yourself?"
Tears cascaded from Buikhu's eyes down his cheeks. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause such grief."
"Sorry is not good enough, boy. I cannot let someone as destructive as you live among us. I have no choice but to have you…exiled!"
No…the nsu could not have just said that...this all had to be some horrible nightmare…but it wasn't. Buikhu looked at his father, hoping that he would defend his son. Yet not even the slightest hint of mercy appeared on Kemnebi's face.
"I concur with his decision," he said. "You are no longer my son…coward."
That tore the boy's already injured heart into tiny, bloody shreds. After staring at his father with both incredulity and overpowering sadness, he disappeared from the camp into the black depths of the wilderness.
Only the pale light of a waning moon, reflected on grass blades and acacia leaves, allowed Buikhu to see anything. Although it was balmy and humid that night, the exiled child felt cold with fear. Nighttime was when the savanna's many predators were most active, he knew, and they could conceivably be hiding anywhere in the pervasive shadows. His awareness of how dangerous this time was grew even more when he suddenly heard the eerie whooping cries of spotted hyenas.
His heart pounding furiously, the boy jerked his head side to side in search of something he could use as a weapon lest the hyenas find and attack him. He finally found a long stick with a sharp point and held it as if it were a spear. He clutched it tightly and mentally prayed to Heru, Nekhen's patron deity, that the hyenas would never find him. Then he heard more whooping, this time along with the bleat of some dying antelope, and then the ripping of flesh and the crunching of bones. The hyenas had made a kill! Buikhu was relieved that he was not on the menu tonight, but at the same time his neck hairs prickled when he listened to the meat-eaters' feasting.
People often likened the hyenas' whooping to human laughter, and after listening to it for a while, the youth could understand why. It did sound vaguely like cruel cackling. In fact, it painfully reminded Buikhu of the jeering about his cowardice that he had suffered from Sokkwi and the other Nekhen boys since his circumcision. No, not more memories of how his people had rejected him!
Buikhu scrammed away until he could no longer hear the hyenas and then burst into tears again. He would not survive more than a few days out here, he was certain, and he would spend the rest of those days haunted by what he had left behind. He cried himself to sleep.
The boy was pleasantly surprised to wake up alive to a rosy-hued dawn. How he had managed to avoid being eaten by some nocturnal carnivore, he didn't know. Perhaps Heru had taken pity on him and somehow protected him.
But there was little time to wonder about his miraculous survival, for Buikhu's thoughts turned to food. His stomach felt hollow inside and grumbled. The child scanned the surrounding savanna, hoping to chance upon fruit or dead animals he could scavenge. Eventually he spied a shrub which had bright red berries hanging from its branches. To see those berries made his mouth melt. Nothing could be better to eat in the wilderness than sweet, juicy berries.
Wait-what if these berries turned out to be poisonous? Upon considering that possibility, Buikhu realized how little prepared he actually was for living alone in the wilderness. He had no idea how to tell which fruits were safe and which were not! If only his mother had taught him that knowledge…
Then again, he was probably going to die out here anyway. Maybe it would be better to get his death over with than suffer more misery. Buikhu decided to pluck the berries off the bush and stuff them into his mouth. He had to admit that they tasted every bit as delicious as he had hoped earlier, certainly more delicious then something he would expect to be lethally poisonous. Still, he waited a few moments in anticipation of his death. That never came.
He sighed in relief and continued to consume more berries. He had just changed his mind about whether or not he wanted death; life just had too many pleasures, however small, to be worth losing.
A branch snapped. Grass rustled. Again Buikhu felt cold inside and his heart rate sped up. Something was lurking out there.
Then there was silence. The boy surveyed his vicinity and saw nothing. Apparently he was just hearing things. Shrugging, he resumed his breakfast.
When he finally felt like he had eaten enough, the child turned around to face, to his shock, the tawny-furred face of a lion. Its golden eyes bored into his, sending him vibrating with horror. Then the large feline opened its jaws, releasing a putrid stench of rotten meat and exposing a pair of five-inch fangs. It was ready to eat him.
Buikhu fled screaming through the grass. However, the lion's muscular legs pushed it closer and closer to its quarry until it was almost a leap away. The boy realized in a short time that he had no hope of outrunning the beast, so he twirled around, picked up a long staff-like stick, and swatted it at the lion. With one swipe of its paws, the cat broke Buikhu's weapon into half. The predator had done that with so much force that the youth recoiled with a groan.
So the stick method wasn't going to work-what choice did the boy have now? None that he could think of, for terror completely scrambled his thought processes. Only by lucky dodges was he able to avoid the lion's wrath. Even then, he was tiring and his muscles were getting sore…
The lion opened its mouth again, but a roar did not come out. Instead there was a piercing warlike cry that sounded almost human. Wait, it was human!
Three dark figures ran from some nearby bushes towards the lion. Although they moved with enough speed to be blurs, Buikhu could tell that they were men armed with spears. These warriors placed themselves between him and the lion and thrust their weapons back and forth at the latter. Initially the lion stepped backward to avoid the spearheads, but then it jumped and pounced onto the middle man, pinning him down. The cat's antagonist used his spear's shaft to block its fangs from his neck while its claws slashed across his chest, spilling scarlet fluid.
Another of the men helped his friend by penetrating the lion's back with his spear. That killed the feline at last. Buikhu stared in disbelief at the trio who had just saved his life.
"Thanks," he said after a moment of speechlessness.
"Wait, your accent-you are of Nekhen!" one of the men responded, aiming his spear's point at the boy and wearing a wary expression on his face.
Buikhu recognized the man's accent too; it was the accent of the people from Abedju, a village that lay to the north of Nekhen. His gratitude faded into apprehension, for he recalled that Abedju and Nekhen were chronic enemies that always fought each other and rustled each other's cattle.
"We should have left you to be eaten," the Abedjuan continued, "Instead we will have to kill you ourselves!"
"Restrain yourself, Merti!" his wounded companion groaned after he scrambled back up, "This youth looks no older than one who had just been circumcised. He is harmless."
"But if we spare him, he could report our presence to the rest of the Nekhenians."
"Actually, I have been exiled," Buikhu interjected, "My people want nothing more to do with me."
"Is that so?" the third Abedjuan asked. "Then we have nothing to fear from you. I am Wakare, and these are my hunting partners Merti and Imenjui. Since you clearly cannot survive all by yourself here, would you like us to take you back to our camp?"
The boy did not say anything for a while. Wakare was right that he was poorly suited to a solitary life on the savanna, but he couldn't help but mistrust the people who were his own people's enemies. By joining their ranks, he would betray Nekhen.
But then, was Nekhen really worth his loyalty? They were the ones who declared him a coward and exiled him. People who had torn his insides apart as savagely as they had might as well have been his real enemies.
"Yes," he said at last.
Buikhu clung closely to the Abedjuan hunters as they traveled northward across the grassland. Wakare and Merti carried the lion carcass on their shoulders while Buikhu and the injured Imenjui followed. Although he was glad to be in human company once more, the Nekhenian boy began to wonder whether the people of Abedju would really be more accepting of him than his own village. Didn't they undergo circumcisions to test their manhood too?
"Wakare, there is something I must admit," he said. "When I had my cutting before this rain, I screamed like a girl. I was called a coward by the other people of Nekhen for that. Do Abedjuans consider boys who scream to be cowards too?"
"It does reflect poorly on you for a while," Wakare answered. "But that should not mean you are doomed to a life of shame. You always have the chance to redeem yourself and prove your true worth."
"Will the Abedjuans give me that chance?"
"I'll see to it that they will. Rest assured that you will not suffer the name of a coward with us."
The morning faded to noon and then to dusk. Buikhu was led into a small, shallow valley where the little thatched structures of the Abedjuan camp stood. When he entered the camp, he was greeted by curious stares and gossiping from the locals. To be at the center of so much attention made him shudder with nervousness.
"Who is this strange boy you have brought here?" a white-crowned man who was without doubt the nsu of Abedju asked suspiciously.
"He is from Nekhen, but he has been exiled," Wakare replied. "We rescued him from this lion."
"Why was he exiled?"
Buikhu narrated his story to the nsu, whose facial expression then melted from wary to sympathetic.
"I am very sorry to hear that," the nsu said. "If you speak the truth, you seem to have been very unlucky yesterday. Please accept the people of Abedju's hospitality."
"Thank you, O Beloved of the Gods," the boy said back. "But I must ask one more thing: will I have to watch and milk the cattle like boys do, or can I participate in the activities of men?"
"We will give you the chance to redeem your name and prove yourself a man. But know that if you do not, you will receive the same treatment from us that you received at the hands of your people. Understand?"
The former Nekhenian nodded with a smile. His spirits flew higher than they had since last night. No longer would he be the coward of Nekhen, he was certain of that. He would create a whole new name for himself and earn the respect he had always wanted. When he went to sleep that night, he dreamed of the new life he would begin the next morning.
The next morning, Wakare lent to Buikhu a flint-tipped spear and a shield cut from tanned cowhide. The child was absolutely elated to receive these weapons, the weapons he should had received after his circumcision. A feeling of great power surged into him when he touched the spear and shield. It felt like he had transformed from a mere youth into a fearsome warrior, but he knew that he had to train first.
Their first session of training began awkwardly. When Wakare thrust his spear at Buikhu for the first time, the youth dodged.
"No, that's not how you counter a spear thrust," Wakare said. "You block the point with your shield. Let's try again."
He made two more moves with his weapon. His student tried to block these attacks with his shield both times, but while the boy missed the first time, he was more successful with the second. The spear's point bounced off the hide. Then Wakare thrusted for a third time, and then a fourth, both of these deflected.
"That's it! You've got the idea, Buikhu! Now you try attacking. Remember to keep your eye on my shield so you can get past it."
Buikhu tried to strike his tutor several times. His first few attacks were repelled, but later his success rate increased.
"You're getting better," Wakare said after they both tired from the training. "If we do this every day, you'll almost be ready for a real fight by the season's end!"
The two continued to practice fighting as days passed. During those same days, Wakare also taught Buikhu how to use a bow and arrow. The Nekhenian progressed more slowly with this weapon than he had with the spear, but still he improved over time.
The summer had almost half passed when Wakare invited the boy to his first hunt. The youth almost exploded with excitement when he received this opportunity. Finally he would test his weapons on real living creatures! Attentively he listened to his tutor's instructions on how to stalk and track prey and what parts of an animal's body he had to attack. The first few hunts were nothing spectacular, for they went after small game such as duiker, warthog, and gazelle, but Buikhu still beamed with pride over each successful kill.
Then came the morning when Wakare asked him, "Do you want to be challenged like never before today?"
"What do you mean?"
"We have spotted a rhinoceros roaming to our northeast, and I feel that you should have the opportunity to tackle larger and more dangerous prey for once. Do you want to hunt this animal?"
Buikhu blinked incredulously and said, "Has some evil spirit driven you mad? I have seen only twelve rains! I couldn't bring down a rhino even if I tried."
"Yes, you can, with the help of these." Wakare lent to Buikhu a bow and quiver full of arrows. "These arrows are tipped with poison so strong that they can kill an elephant within a day. As long as you are brave, quick, and accurate, then a rhinoceros will be little trouble for you. Nonetheless, my friends and I will join you if you need help."
Buikhu quivered upon receiving his weapons, in part because of fear, but also because of eagerness, for this would be the event of his redemption. Either way, he knew he was in for an exhilarating experience.
Buikhu's previous experiences in the wilds had taught him to examine his surroundings very carefully as he moved, and so the boy did when he and his party searched for the rhinoceros. As he moved, he inspected every bush, tree, and patch of grass for both danger and signs of his quarry. His trained eyes were not the only organ of sense he used, for he also sniffed the air for the pungent odor of dung and listened for the slightest rustle. Every footstep of his was carefully calculated to make the least noise possible.
Morning had halfway passed when the hunters detected large gashes in the fat trunk of a baobab tree. The knowledge that only a rhino sharpening its horn could have left behind those marks raised the youth's heartbeat. Lowering his head, he noticed round, shallow depressions in the grass that were almost certainly the beast's fresh footprints. They were getting close!
The boy and his companions followed the footprint trail until they could make out a pale gray animal in the distance ahead of them. This creature, as they saw when stealing towards it more closely, had two horns projecting from its snout and browsed from shrubbery with a pointed, prehensile lip; this was definitely the rhino they had sought.
"We will hide in these bushes while you shoot at the rhino, Buikhu," Wakare whispered. "Call for us if you need help. Now go."
Buikhu's heart rate went up again as he snuck towards the beast. Looking at the rhinoceros's sharp horns and smelling its stink only worsened his anxiety. The thought of scramming from this monster grew tempting, and the thought of being crushed into a pulp by its feet grew chilling. The boy was about to turn and run when he reheard these words in his head:
You have shamed our family with your cowardice. Now you will never be considered a man.
The heart-ripping power of those words had not dulled since his father first said them; if anything, they were even more intense. The tears returned to fill up Buikhu's eyes...
No! He would not let his past haunt him anymore. Now was the time to prove his father wrong! The Nekhenian tightened his grip on his bow and raised it, nocking an arrow and aiming it at the rhinoceros. His fear having been swamped by his determination, he drew the bowstring far back until it was as taut as it could be.
Then he let go.
The arrow whistled through the air until it pierced just behind the rhino's shoulder. Instantly the animal shrilly cried out its pain and then burst into a charge towards Buikhu, causing the ground to quake with its thunderous footsteps. The youth screamed as he raced from his enraged prey, wind brushing against his body.
His flight was broken when he stubbed his toe against a rock and crashed onto his chest. So hard was his collision that he felt too weak to push himself back up. Then he heard the rhino's stomping loudening. A sense of urgency coursed through his veins and gave him enough strength to roll out of the beast's path.
When Buikhu finally got back up, he ran towards an acacia tree and scrambled up its crooked branches. The tree's coarse bark cut through his skin, drawing blood, but he was too consumed by terror to pay these scratches any heed. Suddenly he felt the tree shake violently, which he knew was caused by the rhino.
Again and again the beast thrust its bulk against the acacia trunk. The boy clung onto a bough as hard as he could, but still his hold loosened with each vibration. At last he slipped off and plummeted until he landed onto the rhino's tough-skinned back.
Buikhu did not stay long on his quarry's back, for the rhino bucked its body until it threw him up into the air. Agony racked the boy when he landed on the ground again. He tried to crawl away from the scene, groaning and grunting with every movement, but then he heard the animal's feet pounding the soil in his direction. Despair halted him, for he knew there was no hope of escape this time. The rhino would ground him into paste, he was sure of it.
Then there was a loud whine and an earthshaking thud.
Looking over to where the rhino was, Buikhu saw that it lay still on the ground, breathing heavily. Its flanks rose and sank more and more slowly until they finally stopped. The boy was confused by the creature's sudden death at first, but then he remembered that Wakare had told him that the arrows were poisoned. That meant that Buikhu had killed the rhino by himself.
Pride like he had never felt before swelled inside the youth and pushed him back onto his feet.
The appetizing aroma of roasted rhinoceros flesh radiated from the Abedjuan campfire that night. Men, women, and children clapped and chanted praise to Buikhu while musicians pounded on drums. The boy had never seen even anyone except for a nsureceive such adulation by himself, so he could barely believe what he was seeing and hearing before him, yet he beamed anyway. The coward of Nekhen had become the hero of Abedju.
Wakare walked up to Buikhu with a necklace from which a brown rhinoceros-shaped amulet hung.
"This amulet was hewn from one of the rhino's horns," he said. "I want you to have it as a reminder of your deed."
The child looked down at his new gift, admiring how it shone from the firelight, and then strung it around his neck. For a moment he wondered what his father would think if he were here to see his son so triumphant. Would Kemnebi recant how he had disowned Buikhu?
Then again, Buikhu recalled that part of the reason his father was mad at him was that he had let their cattle run away. No rhinoceros would redeem him of that error…but what would redeem him instead?
Buikhu woke up slowly the next morning, so tired he was from last night's celebration. Just as he exited the hovel Wakare had built for him to sleep in, he met another man who had an errand for him. This man said, "Excuse me, great rhino slayer, but I need your help. My son is not feeling well today, so he can't watch our cattle. Would you kindly take his place?"
After Buikhu said yes, he was led to the pasture where Abedju's cattle were kept, and when they reached the man's herd, he noticed that four of his six animals looked somewhat familiar. The Nekhenian studied the animals' spot patterns more closely until he realized the shocking truth.
"I recognize those cattle," he said. "They were my family's back in Nekhen. How did you find them?"
"We didn't find them, young one," the Abedjuan said with a laugh. "We tookthem."
Buikhu glared at him with burning rage. "How dare you! Now my family has nothing because of you!"
"Don't get so upset, young man. You're one of us now, aren't you?"
The youth hesitated. Yes, the Abedjuans had taken him in, and he may have gained their respect, but there was no denying that a big hunk of his past misery was their fault to begin with. The feeling that he had been betrayed by his adopters fuelled his fire.
"I want nothing more to do with you!" he yelled. "I'm going back to Nekhen. You all will be sorry for what you have done to my family!"
And with that, he sprinted out of the valley and into the wilderness.
This time, travelling across the savanna between the Abedjuan and Nekhenian camps did not intimidate Buikhu the slightest. Rage took up the space in his head where fear would have been before. Only when he was sure he was near his former people did he begin to worry. Even then, it wasn't fear of wild animals that scared him, but rather anticipation of how he would be received by those who had exiled him so many days ago. Still, if he had any chance of redeeming himself in the eyes of his own people, this was it.
The sun was setting by the time Buikhu reached the camp of Nekhen, and his father was the first to meet him again. The boy had expected Kemnebi to be livid with anger at his return, but his expression was one of wide-eyed incredulity instead.
"You came back…how did you survive out there so long?" Buikhu's father gasped.
Buikhu related to him everything that had happened, beginning with his rescue and adoption by the Abedjuans, continuing with his killing of the rhinoceros, and ending with his discovery of how the Abedjuans had stolen their cattle.
"I can barely believe it…but you have been gone for so many days," Kemnebi said. "And you say that you know where our cattle are...let me tell the nsu."
They ran to the nsu of Nekhen and recited Buikhu's story to him. The nsu then said, "If what you say is true, then we shall attack the Abedjuans tomorrow and get your cattle back. Thank you for sharing this information with me…and Buikhu, since you have shown yourself to be braver than we thought, you may join our war party."
The youth was elated to hear that. He did not mind one bit that he was going into his first battle. He would do anything to retake his family's wealth and avenge their robbery, no matter how much blood had to be spilled. Not only that, but he would further prove his courage before all of his people by fighting. It was with burning excitement that he chanted the songs of war that night along with the other Nekhenian men, an excitement which continued into his dreams.
The men of Nekhen, grabbing their spears and shields, were sorted into formations based on age set the next morning. As they marched northward across the plains, they chanted more songs to maintain their morale at a high level. Animals, even fierce ones like lions and elephants, fled out of the army's way.
The sun rose to its zenith and then sank towards the western horizon as the warriors traveled. By that point, they were quieter, as many of them had worn their throats out with singing. Buikhu was among these, and his feet and leg muscles also ached from all the walking. Not that these minor pains were enough to quell his bloodlust. Nothing could do that.
That said, he was in for a shock. When dusk had begun to redden the sky, men jumped out of bushes and from trees and charged towards the Nekhenians, shrieking like demons. A terror-stunned Buikhu realized what had just happened: the Abedjuans, having predicted the Nekhenian invasion, had ambushed them!
A great din of spears banging against shields and death cries drowned out all other sounds. The boy found himself surrounded by horrific sights: men thrusting spears into other men, blood gushing out of hideous wounds, corpses being trampled into pieces. Never when he had trained with Wakare had he imagined battle to be so violent and chaotic.
And yet he knew he had to apply what he had learned during those sessions. Again and again he jabbed his spear back and forth at Abedjuans. Again and again he fended off their attacks with his shield. This was all exhausting, coating him with sweat, quickening his breath, and wearing out his muscles. Yet again he did not mind these. Only two emotions reigned in him: terror and bloodlust. He just wanted to survive.
"You! Buikhu!" the boy heard Wakare's voice shout at him. Then he felt a sharp pain as a spearhead's edge cut across the side of his neck. Shrieking, Buikhu spun around to see Wakare tower over him with anger burning in his eyes.
"You little traitor!" Wakare roared as he drove his weapon towards Buikhu. Although the youth parried his former tutor, the latter had attacked with such strength that he successfully pierced the shield. Buikhu, after stepping back, thrust his own spear at Wakare, but the Abedjuan evaded this with sidestepping.
From that point on the two warriors exchanged attacks, but each was able to escape the other with only small cuts. But even these injuries were taxing. Buikhu found himself tiring even quicker than before, and he also grew dizzier from all the dodging. The whole world seemed to spin around him, people turning into blurs. Only a slash across his chest brought him back to full consciousness.
The boy dropped his weapons and collapsed onto the grass. The agony that tore his chest apart leaked out much of his strength along with blood.
"Merti was right to demand your death in the beginning," Wakare said. "Now comes the time I vindicate him." He raised his blood-soaked spear over his injured opponent, ready to drive its head into him.
Then Buikhu remembered something he had done when hunting the rhino. His sense of urgency sparked again, giving him just enough power to roll away and let Wakare's spear plunged into the ground. Next, scrambling back up, he grabbed his own weapon and drove it through his enemy's stomach. His attack knocked the Abedjuan down and left him gagging to his death.
For a moment the child felt a tinge of sorrow for the man who had taught him how to fight and hunt and helped him realize his inner courage. There was a tragic irony in such a man being the victim of his own teaching.
"Thank you, Wakare," Buikhu said under his breath.
Just before night had fully fallen, the Abedjuans routed, fleeing from their enemies towards their camp. Most of the Nekhenian warriors brandished their spears and roared victoriously. Buikhu did not join this, for he was too worn out by fighting and blood loss. Nonetheless he smiled, partly from relief that the carnage was over, partly from joy that his side had won, but most of all from pride in his own performance as a warrior.
The next morning, when Nekhen's army marched into the Abedjuan camp, the nsu of Abedju conceded to his Nekhenian rival that he would return Kemnebi's cattle. Afterwards, on the way back to the Nekhenian camp, Kemnebi said to Buikhu, "My son, I am sorry for how I have disowned you. I should have given you a second chance to prove your bravery. Will you accept my apology?"
"Yes, father, but what about the nsu's son?"
"Do not mind that," the nsu of Nekhen interjected. "In truth, I had spoiled that boy too much, so I do not blame you for getting angry with him. I promise I will raise my next son with greater wisdom. You are forgiven, and welcome back to Nekhen."
Buikhu had never felt more proud or happy in his life. Perhaps now he had become a man at last.