Leo lay languidly under the acacia tree, picking at the morsels of meat caught between his molars. He thought about nothing in particular and especially not about Jack (just the sound of that name put him out of sorts). The sun warmed his back and from the great river a faint breeze breathed over the leaves with a sensual sigh. Leo rolled over, the soft grass cushioning his body like a Babylonian blanket. And it’s true that nothing, absolutely nothing, pleased Leo more than peace and quiet; that and a full belly of course. The meal had been easy and tasty, and (he had to admit) still only half eaten. A little nap, a dream, a good belch, and he would devour the rest.
A distant cry made Leo look up. Far above the acacia, a falcon flew.
It was a dark speck in an immense cerulean sky. As he focused on the falcon it wheeled westwards away from him in the direction of the desert. It cried once more. No doubt it had news to bear. Foul or fair?
The visit by the bird of prey did not upset him at all. It was after all a thing of great beauty; he suspected it was a sign that Horus was with him today. As long as someone like Jack didn’t interrupt him, Leo could lie like this for a lifetime.
As his eyelids drooped the papyrus parted. Leo sprang to his feet in alarm at the stranger – then, cursing, he lay down, despondent.
It was Jack.
Jack always took the joy from Leo’s life. He was the cloud that cloaked his sun, the untuned string that spoiled his song, the dust-storm that dried his well. There could be no-one more opposite to Leo than Jack. Whereas Leo was big, Jack was small; whereas Leo enjoyed the quiet life, Jack was noisy; but of most concern to Leo, was that while he was simple, Jack was cunning.
Jack stayed at the edge of the acacia’s shade not venturing too far from the papyrus thicket. Although dim-witted, Leo was much the stronger, and Jack stayed out of reach, his nose twitching at the scent of meat. Jack had a queer uneven look about him, due to having half his right ear bitten off in a brawl.
‘Lovely day, Leo. What would say about sharing your food with an old friend,’ said Jack.
‘You’re not my friend, and why ask when I know you’ll sneak some as soon as I drop my guard?’
‘But your leavings are too light. You know I have fifteen in my family to feed, whereas you are just happy to catnap all day under the acacia.’
Leo flicked at a flea crawling across his belly. ‘Your family is of no concern to me. And why do you procreate so profusely?’
Jack winked. ‘It’s not my fault every Jill loves a Jack and none can resist my charm and chutzpah. Please Leo, my gut growls.’
‘Oh, go on then. I’ll oblige you with some offal and no more. And be quick about it.’
Jack pulled at the carcass and came up with a bloody morsel.
‘The liver! Yuck,’ said Leo sinking his fangs into some flesh. ‘You can have that all to yourself. I could never stomach that.’
‘Of course, you couldn’t. It’s brain food.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Leo, stopping mid-chew.
‘Liver makes you clever, which is why I love it. Flesh is only good for filling fat stomachs, which is why you fawn over it,’ said Jack wiping blood from his chin and grinning mischievously. ‘Why don’t you try some, big fellow? Maybe it could loosen some of that desert sand from inside your skull?’
‘Hmmm…’ Leo said, one giant eyebrow raised.
‘Admit it big man, you would like to be smart like me wouldn’t you?’
‘Well … I… suppose.’
‘Of course, you would,’ said Jack, not taking his eyes off Leo. ‘Wouldn’t you like to forecast the flood, or know how many blocks it takes to build a pyramid, or,’ he said, lowering his voice to a whisper, ‘wouldn’t you like to master the mysteries of hieroglyphics?’
‘Oh, Oh, yes please, I definitely would like to know all that. But I’m not very bright. How much liver would I need to eat?’ asked Leo.
‘You have to start somewhere. How about this, I’ll swap you half of my liver for that haunch. Seem fair?’
It didn’t feel very fair to Leo. A small sliver for a huge haunch. But the look in Jack’s eye unsettled him. He was sick of being forever outsmarted. Leo swapped the haunch for the liver and was about to speak when he caught wind of something.
Both of them sniffed it before they heard it. People. Lots of them, judging by the sounds they made. Trumpets! They must be important people. Royalty?
* * * *
Jack loped off to the edge of the papyrus thicket and peered into the fertile fields of the floodplain. As his eyes took in the spectacle of a royal hunting expedition something took root in his mind. When he came back to the acacia tree he had formed a plan that if brought to fruition would free him of Leo forever. No more waiting on the big fellow’s leavings – he would have never have an empty tummy again.
Jack scratched something on a bare patch of ground. Leo looked at the drawing, his expression typically blank.
‘Can you read these hieroglyphs, Leo?’
Leo shook his head. ‘You know I can’t.’
‘If you were smart like me you would be able to make sense of them. What if I told you that there was a shortcut to intelligence that doesn’t involve eating loads and loads of liver. Would you like to know what it was?’
Leo tipped his leonine head to one side and replied, ‘Of course I would. This liver makes me sick. Please, tell me.’
Jack looked deep into Leo’s sandy-coloured eyes and explained: ‘these three figures I have drawn represent The Riddle of Thebes. The riddle explains how someone like you can become smarter than someone like me.’
Leo swallowed his sliver of liver and stared stupidly but intently back at him.
Jack continued: ‘You see this first figure here?’
‘It’s a jackal. And it is first because it is the cleverest of all the creatures.’
Leo nodded slowly.
‘And the next?’
‘I know, it’s a lion,’ said Leo.
‘Good. And the third?’
‘Yes,’ said Jack. ‘But not any man. This one is special. See the strange adornment on the head? This man is Pharaoh.’
Pharaoh! Leo’s body stiffened, his eyes widened and his ears twitched.
‘There, there, Leo. Don’t let your legs go to jelly. Simply put, The Riddle of Thebes is this: if the lion kills Pharaoh, he will rise above the jackal until the end of time.’
‘Can it be true?’ said Leo, a look of doubt on his face.
‘Would I tell you false? Pharaoh is out there just beyond the papyrus thicket, easy prey for you. Limitless knowledge is but fifty paces away. Do you have the courage to attain it?’
When Leo had left, Jack couldn’t help laughing. He rolled on the ground and slapped at his sides. The thought of Leo getting anywhere near Pharaoh was preposterous. The royal guard would scythe him down like a sheaf of wheat. For a moment he felt a pinch of remorse. But no, the prospect of never having to share this part of the Nile with Leo again was too good. He settled down under the acacia and went to sleep.
* * * *
Leo tried to pause his pulse even as his instinct told him to run back to the Nile and swim to the other side. But he couldn’t get the cunning face of the jackal, with its half-bitten ear, out of his mind. I’m no craven coward, he thought. I’ll show Jack what’s what. He squared his shoulders, turned, and bounded out of the papyrus thicket to kill Pharaoh.
Humans shouted on every side, some screaming others yelling. Any that he came near ran away like wildebeests. The humans threw spears that flew past him, one just grazing his brow and drawing blood that trickled into his mouth. The bitter taste spurred him on. He licked his lips and was nearly driven mad by it. More of that please. Up ahead he could see his prey. A man with a headdress of gold and lapis lazuli was getting to his feet. Pharaoh.
Pharaoh stood to his full height, the sun gleaming off the headdress with a golden disc in the middle. The light coming from it was dazzling, unearthly, and the blood running down Leo’s lips began to sour. For the first time he felt the throbbing pain of the wound. Pharaoh seemed bigger and more powerful than any human he had seen. He raised a spear and shouted in a voice that boomed like thunder. ‘I am Pharaoh. Go no further! By the power of Horus I command thee to halt.”
Leo’s legs turned to jelly and he knelt down whimpering in front of the mighty Pharaoh.
Gesturing to the humans near him, Pharaoh said, ‘Men, put down your weapons and leave us. The King under heaven wishes to talk to the King of the animals.’
When the humans moved away, Pharaoh spoke. ‘Before I inform you of your fate I need to know something. Could it be at all possible that you were set up to carry out this carnage by a certain Jackal, with a half-bitten ear?’
Leo stammered in the affirmative and meekly extended his neck to await the blade that would surely bite.
* * * *
‘Oh Jill, Jezebel, yes, yes, I’m begging you…. What the?’
Jack woke in a foul temper and looked around for the source of the noise that interrupted his delicious dream. Something emerged from the papyrus thicket that made him start.
‘This cannot be. Surely this is a different dream. If not a ghastly ghost, who could it be? Leo, is that you? I thought you must be …’
It was Leo. A bit bloodied around the eye and limping slightly as he moved, but very much alive.
‘Dead? Surprised I see,’ said Leo. ‘Don’t fear Jack, I managed to solve The Riddle of Thebes.’
‘The Riddle…? Are you saying you’ve finished the Pharaoh? Killed the King?’
‘Yes. And I apologise for my tone before. I would be more than happy to share the kill with you and your pups. Come down to the river, I have brought Pharaoh so we can feast.’
Leo walked to the Papyrus thicket and beckoned him to follow. Jack’s tummy grumbled at the thought of tasting human flesh. And not just any flesh, this was royal flesh, the most exquisite of all.
‘Leo, wait up. I can’t see where you are. I am following you.’
‘Come on,’ he heard Leo say.
Jack heard the lapping of water and he came to the bank of the Nile. Leo was nowhere to be seen. ‘Leo, Leo, where is Pharaoh?’
‘I’m right behind you.’
Jack froze. ‘What? It can’t be. Where’s Leo?’
Jack turned and saw Pharaoh standing there, spear in hand, Leo at his side. Other humans stepped out from the papyrus thicket, spears and bows drawn. He started backing towards the water.
‘Leo, how could you betray an old buddy like this? Please tell them to put their weapons down.’
An arrow thudded into his shoulder and a spasm of pain ripped through his body.
‘Betray an old buddy? Two can play at that game,’ said Leo.
Jack appealed to Pharaoh. ‘Please Pharaoh, have pity on a poor harmless jackal.’
‘Pity?’ said Pharaoh in a voice with the power of a waterfall of the Nile, ‘like you showed my infant son before you slayed him?’
Another arrow struck Jack between the ribs and he fell, blood spilling from his side.
‘What proof do you have it was me?’
Pharaoh held up a black leathery object the size of a dried date. ‘This is the other half of your ear my infant son bit off before he died.’
Jack scrambled backwards and slid into the river.
‘Why don’t you just finish me off?’ Jack croaked.
‘Not I,’ replied Pharaoh. ‘Sometimes it’s best if justice is meted out by the gods. I think I’ll leave it up to Sebek.’
Sebek? Jack racked his brains for the name. Sebek? Sebek? Sebek? A pair of eyes peered at him from the surface of the Nile. The crocodile-god!