Wol lived on an island of floating reeds in the middle of the largest swamp in Africa. He sat throwing straw stalks from the banks of the murky river and watching them drift away. Teardrops rolled from his huge white eyes over his dusty black cheeks. His mother had died and his father had left one day in a small canoe with a man in a multi-coloured robe.
They had gone away downstream without a word of explanation, leaving Wol in the care of an old woman who had no time for him. Wol still remembered the sad look on his father’s face when his curly red head turned at the bend in the river. Wol often asked when his father would return, but the old woman just shook her head and grumbled to herself.
Wol wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand. His stomach rumbled. He stood up to go to the old woman’s hut in search of food. But before he could take a step, he fell down on his knees in shock. The patch of reeds he was on had broken away from the bank, and already it was too far for Wol to jump across. He clung on with his tiny fists and wailed with fear, but nobody came to help. Soon Wol was floating round the bend and out of sight of his home. A look of terror came over his face when he looked down at the swirling waters which carried him away.
Crocodiles slipped into the river to investigate, their greedy eyes peeking above the murky water. Wol had to curl up in the middle of his little island of reeds to avoid their snapping jaws. Soon the island bumped up against what looked like a rock leading to the shore. Wol was about to step across to safety when the rock moved. It was a huge hippo. Wol shivered with fear when the animal opened its big pink mouth to yawn. He pushed himself away and his tiny island drifted on downstream.
Before long he was sinking. Little by little the reeds floated apart until the island disappeared altogether. Wol knew how to swim, but the current was too strong for him to reach the riverbank. He gulped in mouthfuls of water, choked, and waved his hands wildly in the air. Just as he thought the river would swallow him up, his hands dug into the mud on the bank. Clinging onto some roots, he pulled himself half out of the water before he collapsed from exhaustion. In his dizzy state, he felt himself being picked up by his soggy shirt and dragged up onto the bank.
When he came round, he found himself face to face with a lion. Wol had never seen a lion before. Its wrinkled eyes seemed kind and its fur shone a dull gold. It had a flame-coloured mane which stood out in a great circle around its neck, rising to a peak of deep red above its head. The lion stood over Wol, licking away the mud and weeds from his hair. Without thinking, Wol reached out and stroked the bushy mane. Then he got to his feet. The lion lowered his back and with the flash of his eyes signalled Wol to climb on. Wol pulled himself up onto the lion’s back. His short legs were buried in the warmth of the fur and his eyes peered out from the above the flowing mane.
The lion made his way along the path by the riverbank. Wol dug his hands into the mane and smiled as he bounced up and down. The sun sank fast and the grass shone almost as red as the lion’s mane. Soon they came to a small clearing by the river where a giant tree stuck its bare branches out like reaching arms against the evening sky. The lion stopped and Wol climbed down, his rumbling stomach reminding him of his hunger. He looked around but found nothing to eat.
Then he saw the lion clawing at the earth and went to see what he was doing. The lion pushed some dirty roots across to him and glanced at the river. Wol washed off the roots and chewed them hungrily. He went back to the patch where the lion had been digging and found some more. Again he rinsed them in the river and sucked at the juicy roots which he had never tasted before. Then he followed the lion into the hollow trunk of the tree and snuggled up against the warmth of its fur to sleep.
In the morning Wol climbed onto the lion’s back again and they set off along the river. Wol longed to arrive at a village where he might hear news of his father, but all day they met nobody, no sign of houses or people. Towards evening, they were walking through an area of low hills covered with trees and big boulders. Suddenly a net fell from the branches above, trapping Wol and the lion. A group of tribesmen came out from behind the trees and rocks, waving spears. Wol struggled with the net. He was terrified of these men who seemed as tall as trees, their faces painted and patterned with stars, circles, and stripes.
They dragged the net into their camp, the lion roaring, Wol screaming. A crowd of people shouting and drinking surrounded them. All the men were painted in bright colours while the women’s bodies shone with oil. One of the men stepped towards the lion with a knife, but Wol screamed out: “No! Don’t kill him; he won’t hurt you. He saved me when I was lost and hungry—please let us go!”
”Let you go?” the tribesman laughed. “Why, this mane would make a perfect headdress for me as chief of the tribe. Everybody would fear me. But you deserve a chance.” He squeezed Wol’s thin arms. “Today we’re celebrating our wrestling championships, our favourite sport. If you beat out boy champion, the lion goes free. If not, he stays.”
They made their way to the wrestling grounds. The whole camp was wild with excitement. A group of men beat out a fast rhythm in the shade of a tree, while the women danced, kicking up the dust under their feet. In the small area, the painted wrestlers fought under the watchful eyes of the villagers. Blood streamed over their faces when their heads cracked together. At last the winner was lifted to the men’s shoulders and carried around the camp in triumph.
Then it was Wol’s turn. He looked around at the lion, who was roped to a tree, pawing the ground. Wol trembled when he saw the boy he was to fight. He was a few inches taller than Wol, with a white-painted face and red diamonds on his cheeks. The boy rushed at Wol, grabbed his arm and spun him in a somersault. Wol looked up to see the ugly white face grinning at his friends. Jumping to his feet, Wol swung his arms around the boy’s waist and wrestled him to the ground. The tall boy worked his way on top and raised his head to smash it down on Wol’s face. Wol pulled his arms up to protect himself and the boy’s nose cracked into Wol’s elbow. He collapsed at Wol’s side.
The crowd was silent for a moment. Then the chief came over and raised Wol’s hand. The crowd burst into a cheer and came to carry the new champion on his victory walk. From above the crowd, Wol saw the chief cut the lion loose. The furry stub of his tail swung back and forth as the lion raced towards Wol. The crowd scattered, but soon gathered around again when they saw the lion was peaceful.
Then came the feast. And ox had been roasted to celebrate the winning wrestlers, and the villagers tore at the meat like wild beasts after the day’s excitement. A whole leg was given to the lion, who carried it off and chewed contentedly under a tree. Young boys from the village surrounded Wol and gazed at him wide-eyed while he worked his teeth on the meat. The chief came over and squatted down beside him.
”You’ve proved yourself today,” the chief said, patting Wol’s shoulder, “and as the champion boy wrestler we invite you to stay here with us. We’ll take care of you and one day you may become the chief yourself.”
Wol glanced around at the lion in the shadows. ”Thanks, but I can’t stay. I have to find my father. Did he ever pass through here? He was with a man in a coat of many colours”
The chief’s raised his eyebrows. ”The dervish? Yes, he passed through here with a tall, redheaded man. Was that your father?” Wol nodded. The chief went on, ”They stayed with us here a few days. But they were going to Assimbel, the desert city. That’s weeks away from here.”
”Where he’s gone, I’ll follow,” Wol said. He sighed and walked over to the lion. He nestled against its fur and watched with half-closed eyes as the drumming and dancing started up again. Soon Wol fell asleep against the lion’s soft fur. As his eyes closed, the shining bodies still jumped about in the firelight. The drums pounded on all through the night.
At sunrise the lion began to fidget. Wol woke up with a jump, remembering the fight, the feast and the dancing. He looked around. A few tribesmen lay about the fire. Others had disappeared into the small mud huts with pointed straw roofs. The lion nudged him away and stood up. He looked around and lowered his back. Wol climbed on. He buried his face into the red mane, soft as a pillow, and let the rhythm of the lion’s steps carry him off to sleep again.
Wol woke when the sun began to burn his back. He couldn’t see the hills or the river, and started to panic. They were moving across a dusty plain. Nothing grew except for a few dry bushes, which waved in the hot and heavy air. Feeling dizzy, Wol let his head fall back into the lion’s mane.
The lion stopped suddenly, sniffing the air. Wol looked up. They were at the edge of small clearing in a thicket. In front of them was a dome-shaped hut. It was all quiet. The lion walked around the back while Wol stepped to the door. It was empty. Inside it was dark and cool. The only thing there was a small bed. Wol settled down onto it, sighing with relief to get out of the burning desert.
Wol jerked awake. A screwed-up black face stared down at him, a long knife in the man’s hand. Wol tried to push back into the bed as the angry face came closer to his own.
”So, you think you can just walk into any house you like, do you?” the man snarled, ”Well, I’ll soon teach you a lesson.” He pushed the knife blade up against Wol’s neck. Wol’s eyes open wide with panic.
”I…I’m sorry,” Wol spluttered, ”I didn’t mean to sleep here, but I was so hot and tired from the sun…”
A terrifying roar filled the hut. The dark face swung round. The lion stood in the doorway, his long teeth bared and his mane bristling. The man backed away, holding his knife in a shaky hand. The lion began to stalk him around the wall. In a flash, the man jumped for the doorway and ran off into the trees as fast as his legs would take him. The lion seemed to smile at Wol. Then he chased after the man with another frightening roar. When he came back, the lion nudged the bed playfully as if to say, ”Come on, let’s get going.” Wol slid from the bed onto the lion’s back and hugged his neck as the lion raced off.
Soon they entered an area of enormous sand dunes. From the top of each dune Wol saw nothing but more dunes in every direction. Then out of nowhere a strong wind blew up and the sky suddenly darkened. Wol was terrified. He could see the grey wall of a dust storm hurtling towards them. Hard grains of sand stung his cheeks and there seemed to be nowhere to escape, but then he saw what looked like a low wall among the dry bushes near them.
He jumped down to take a look and waved the lion over. They got their heads down just as a screaming wind flew over them, tearing down bushes with its driving dust. The storm raged on, smothering Wol and the lion with a thick blanket of sand. But they kept their faces pressed to the wall and managed to breathe, though their mouths and noses were clogged with dust.
At last the storm moved on. They pushed themselves out of the deep mounds. The lion sent out an arc of sand as a shiver passed through its fur. Wol brushed himself down, and spat out lumps of sand. He dabbed his fingers in his ears and eyes to clean then, then clambered onto the lion’s back. But before the lion moved, he saw something that the storm had cut out of view before.
They were on a ledge, looking out over a mud-walled city which stretched into the distance, bigger than anything Wol had ever seen. The roofs of splendid houses rose above the city walls. The lion puffed out his chest, and stepped gently down the slope towards the city. His mane fanned into a great circle, so that Wol had to lift himself up to see the strange sight that welcomed them.
A large crowd stood outside the gates, gathered around a group of drummers and men dancing in multi-coloured robes. They cracked whips above their heads and spun round so fast he couldn’t see their faces. The lion walked right into the middle of the dancers, who stopped immediately. Then Wol was almost deafened by a roar from the crowd, even louder than the lion’s. He was lifted off the lion’s back and into the air. They welcomed him like an old friend, but Wol recognised nobody. They whirled him around with great cheers, then put him down among the dancers.
Wol felt frightened. He was crowded in by strangers and had lost sight of his friend, the lion. Then a shock ran through his body when he looked up and saw his father’s face among the dancers.
”Yes, Wol, it’s me,” his father said simply,” I wanted to come for you long ago, but the Sufis wouldn’t let me leave until I had proved myself a true magician. That took many years. Then they demanded that I come to you in a different form. So I came as a lion.” Wol’s mouth dropped open in surprise. His father picked him up by the armpits, pulled him close, and went on. ”Out there, you showed yourself worthy of the magic lore of this city. Now I can pass on my wisdom to you, and we need not be parted again.”
He squeezed his son tight while Wol clung to his neck, still unable to believe his father’s words. Then his father began dancing, spinning from foot to foot, round and round till Wol felt dizzy. The happy crowd pushed them towards the city gate. Wol’s smile spread wide as his father carried him through the gates into the ancient city of magic. There Wol lives to this day, a magician like his father.