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A Sparrow Falls

A Novel by Wilbur Smith

..This story is an unusual fit into the Wilbur Smith scheme. I rarely have anyone report that this is their favorite Wilbur Smith novel, and this may be because it is right smack in the middle of the Courtney series, and is chiefly about Mark Anders, his contributions to the continent of Africa, and his association with the Courtney family. This does not mean it is not an incredible read, or that it does not deeply involve the Courtney's, it just swerves around the everyday life of the family for a few years. I believe 'A Sparrow Falls' has one of the most entertaining, action-filled, surprise endings of any of Wilbur Smith's novels, and it is well worth the time spent reading it.

..Mark Anders is a bright young man who is taken under Sean Courtney's wing and hated by Sean's son Dirk. Mark is very interested in the preservation of the wildlife on the African continent and is thrust into his dream job when given the chance to explore and take an animal cencus in wilderness which is being considered for protection. Mark packs up his few belongings, clears some access roads, and brings his dutiful wife, Marion, into the wilderness to share his dreams. As they begin to consider a family, their plans are forever altered by the very creatures they strive to protect.

..Marion had never been this far from the cottage alone, but it was such a lovely warm clear morning, peaceful and still, that she wandered on in a mood of enchantment and happiness such as she had seldom known before.

..She knew that if she followed the river bank, she could not lose herself, and Mark had taught her that the African bush is a safer place in which to wander abroad than the streets of a city-as long as one followed a few simple rules of the road.

..At the branch of the two rivers she stopped for a few minutes to watch a pair of fish eagles on top of their shaggy nest in the main fork of a tall leadwood tree. The white heads of the two birds shone like beacons in contrast to their dark russet plumage, and she thought she could just make out the chirruping sound of the chicks in the cup of the hay-stack nest.

..The sound of the young heightened the awareness of the life in her own belly, and she laughed and went on down the branch of the Red Bubezi.

..Once a heavy body crashed in the undergrowth nearby, and there was a clatter of hooves on stony earth. She froze with a fleeting chill of fear, and then when the silence returned she regained her courage and laughed a little breathlessly and went on.

..There was a perfume on the warm still air, sweet as full blooming roses, and she followed it, twice going wrong but at last coming on a spreading creeper hanging over a gaunt dead tree. The leaves were dark shiny green and the dense bunches of flowers were pale butter yellow. She had never seen the plant before, nor the swarm of sunbirds that fluttered about it. They were tiny restless darting birds, with bright, metallic, shiny plumage like the little hummingbirds of America, and they dipped into the perfumed flowers with long slim curved beaks. Their colours were unbelievable in the sunlight, emerald greens and sapphire blue, black like wet anthracite and red like the blood of kings. They thrust their beaks deep into the open throats of the yellow blooms to sip out the thick clear drops of nectar through their hollow tubular tongues.

..Watching them, Marion felt a deep pervading delight, and it was a long time before she moved on again.

..She found the first batch of mushrooms a little farther on, and she knelt to snap the stems off at the level of the earth and then hold the umbrella-shaped fleshy plant to her face and inhale the delicious musty odour, before laying it carefully, cap uppermost, in the basket so that grit and dirt would not lodge in the delicately fluted gills. She took two dozen mushrooms from this one patch, but she knew they would cook down to a fraction of their bulk.

..She went on, following the lip of the steep bank.

..Something hissed close by and her heart skipped again. Her first thought was of a snake, one of those thick bloated reptiles, with the chocolate and yellow markings and flat scaly heads, which blew so loudly that they were called puff-adders.

..She began moving backwards carefully staring into the clump of first growth wit-els from which the sound had come. She saw small movement, but it was some seconds before she realized what she was seeing.

..The lion cub was flat on its belly in the dappled shadow of the thicket, and its own dappled baby spots blended beautifully against the bed of dried leaves and leaf mould on which it lay.

..The cub had learned already the first lesson of concealment, absolute stillness; except for his two round fluffy ears. The ears flicked back and forth, signaling clearly every emotion and intention. He stared at Marion with wide round eyes that had not yet turned the ferocious yellow of full growth, but were still hazed with the bluish glaze of kittenhood. His whiskers bristled stiffly, and his ears signaled wildly conflicting messages.

..Flattening against the skull: "One step nearer and I'll tear you to pieces."

..Shooting out sideways: "One step nearer and I'll die of fright."

..Coming up and cupping forward: "What the hell are you anyway?"

.."Oh," exclaimed Marion. "You darling little thing." She set down the basket, and squatted. She extended one hand and made soft cooing noises.

.."There's a darling. Are you all alone then, poor baby"

..She moved forward slowly, still talking and cooing.

.."Nobody's going to hurt you, baby."

..The cub was uncertain, its ears rising into an attitude of curiosity and indecision as it stared at her.

.."Are you all alone then? You'll make a lovely pet for my own baby, won't you?"

..Closer and closer she edged, and the cub warned her with a half-hearted apologetic hiss.

.."What a cheeky darling we are," Marion smiled and squatted three feet from the cub.

.."How are we going to take you home?" Marion asked. "Will you fit in the basket?"

..In the river bed, the lioness carried the second cub through the shallows, and was followed by one of the heroes of the litter, struggling along gamely through the thick white sand. However, when he reached the edge of the shallow stream and tested it with one paw, his new-found courage deserted him at the cold wet touch, and he sat down and wept bitterly.

..The lioness, by this time almost wild with distraction and frustration, turned back, and dropped her burden which immediately set off in clumsy gallop for the jessie thicket again, then she seized the weeping hero instead and trotted back through the stream and set off determinedly for the far bank.

..Her huge round pads made no sound in the soft earth as she came up the bank, carrying the cub.

..Marion heard the crackling spluttering explosion of sound behind her, and she whirled to her feet in one movement.

..The lioness crouched on the lip of the bank fifty yards away. It warned her again with that terrible sound.

..All that Marion saw were the eyes. They were a blazing yellow, a ferocious terrifying yellow-and she screamed, a wild high ringing, rising sound.

..The sound launched the lioness into her charge, and it came with an unbelievably fluid flowing speed that turned into a yellow rushing blur. She snaked in low, and the sand spurted beneath her paws, all claws fully extended, the lips drawn back in a fixed silent snarl, the teeth exposed, long and white and pointed.

..Marion turned to run, and had gone five paces when the lioness took her. She pulled her down with a swipe of a forepaw across the small of her back and five curved yellow claws cut deeply-four inches through skin and muscle, opening the abdominal cavity like a sabre cut, crushing the vertebrae and bursting both kidneys instantaneously.

..It was a blow that would have killed even a full-grown ox, and it hurled Marion twenty feet forward, but as she fell on her back the lioness was on her again.

..The jaws were wide open, the long white fangs framed the deep wet pink cavern of tongue and throat. In an instant of incredibly heightened perception, Marion saw the smooth ridges of firm pink flesh that covered the arched roof of the lioness' mouth in regular patterns, and she smelt the meaty stink of her breath.

..Marion lay twisted under the great yellow cat, she was still screaming and her lower body lay at an odd angle from the shattered spine, but she lifted both arms to protect her face. The lioness bit into the forearms, just below the elbows and the bone crunched sharply, shattering into slivers and splinters in the mangled flesh, both arms were severed almost through.

..Then the lioness seized Marion's shoulder, and worried it until the long eye teeth meshed through broken bone and fat and tissue-and Marion kept screaming, twisting and writhing under the cat.

..The lioness took a long time to kill her, confused by her own anger and the unfamiliar taste and shape of the victim. She tore and bit and ripped for almost a minute before she found the throat.

..When the lioness stood up at last, her head and neck were a gory mask, her fur sticky and sodden with blood.

..Her tail still lashed from side to side in residual anger, but she licked her face with a long dexterous tongue and her lip curled at the sweet unfamiliar flavor. She wiped her face carefully with her paws before trotting back to her cub, and licking him also with long pink protective strokes.

'A Sparrow Falls' Smith, Wilbur. Published byDell Publishing Co., New York, New York, 1979.