from The Book of Kings – Michigan Quarterly Review

from The Book of Kings

Published in Spring 2024 Online Folio

The following is an excerpt from The Book of Kings, a novel by Mahtem Shiferraw


AXUM, 1370 B.C.

The soldiers showed up unannounced, at the break of the night. They lurked quietly, shadows only at first, then lumps and lumps of them – their armors shimmering in the moonless sky, long, coarse braids trudging from their helmets. She didn’t see them coming, but she heard it – the silence of the night, the sudden change in the air, the lulling of cicadas, the astonishing flight of owls – it all came to a halt. Their beasts awaited, each arranged in a perfect line along the outer perimeters of The Monastery, motionless.

She knew it: they were here for her. No one would come to her rescue, not The Monks, with whom she had been staying, not The Keeper of Ghion, her teacher, and the only one who knew who she really was.

Someone sneaked through the window and grabbed her; their cold hands on her mouth. Before she knew it, they were out the door, and she saw them: so many, standing on the edges of the cliff, and many more climbing the steep altitude towards The Monastery. The children were still asleep inside when she was dragged out of the quarters, strong hands upon her shoulders pushing her through. They didn’t speak, but she could hear the huffing and puffing – the beasts were now awakened, as if they all heard the same command.

When she heard his footsteps, she turned around as if by instinct. He was there, The Keeper, his hands thrown in the air and the wrap on his head undone. It was too dark to see his expression – the lanterns had all been dimmed, but she knew. She knew. Beside him stood another soldier, taller, holding a sharp blade.

She could hear only her breathing now; where were they taking her? Didn’t they know that The Monastery was built on top of the highest mountains in the outskirts of the city? She didn’t have to wait too long; she was pushed from one soldier to another as if she was an object. It took only one of them to flip her upside down, her head hanging in a new vacuum, her feet unknowing the kindness of the land beneath them. Her single braid dangled, a soft curtain unpeeling from her back.

There was no wind that night.

Only her, only the soldiers, and a moonless night.

She heard them mumbling something; they spoke a language she could barely understand.

What do they call you, they said.

She did not respond.

There were no explicit threats made, but she could hear someone extracting a blade slowly, and a new dread slid into her bones.

What do they call you, they asked, over and over again.

Again, she did not respond. She had never seen the mountain like this before; suddenly, it seemed to have grown teeth. Perhaps it would have been easy to them who she was, perhaps saying she was the future queen would have meant salvation. But she was not meant for salvation.

She opened her arms, as if in flight. This was not the first time she had been unhinged like this.

The blade moved closer, its shimmering a small moonlight between them.

Then: fires everywhere. Someone letting go of her feet. The air was sweet on her cheeks.

She could smell the smoke, the honeyed scent of ripe dates, hanging in clusters from the trees in the valley beneath.

She was only nine years old.

She would not remember the fall itself, or someone catching her mid-flight, adrift from the burrowing of the cliff on top of which The Monastery stood, its structure carved upon the skull of the mountain itself. She would not retain the memory of the blades being extracted, or the fluttering of other-worldly beings beneath her, flashes of fire and waves of water in crashing sounds. Instead, she would remember the wind on her cheeks, the distinct scent of the night – honey-eyed, she would say; honey-eyed. She would not recall the soldiers descending down the mountain either, or assembling their beasts in the valleys beneath, where the rustling sound of a small river overflew its banks. Yet, there they all were, gathered as if they had been there all along, waiting, waiting.

She noticed the blades were not out any longer, something simmering under the helmets of the soldiers. Two of them were assigned to accompany her; they did not ask who she was any longer, perhaps her refusal to give up her identity had been enough to persuade them.

She was dismayed to find out how vast the world was outside of The Monastery, how magnificent looking her surroundings, how The Firmaments looked both close and far at the same time. She drank the endless blue-black of the skies brimming with constellations, she counted the different manes of the acacia trees, she marveled at the howling of wild dogs and white wolves. The night was just settling in. The air was cool and crisp; the moon gibbous and new, the wind whispering into a soft, soft breeze. A new secret to her yearning ears.

The neighboring villages of The Monastery were not too many, sprawling at the feet of the mountain; she delighted at the sound of people coming and going, the yelping of children, families retreating for the day back into their homes, a pleasant thing to her ears, a sweet thing to her eyes. She was embarrassed by how quickly she had forgotten about The Monastery and The Monks, how marvelously obsessed she became about the new things instead. So quick to forget memories she didn’t yet have.

A flash of guilt crossed through her body quickly, and she realized she was cold, having left with the only tunic she possessed, and the wrap around her head, which she had put on earlier that day when The Keeper of Ghion paid her a visit.

When he came to see her, she was tending to the garden, her hands buried deep into the earth to find the heads of potato fingerlings buried into the darkness of the loam. She stood up immediately and wiped her hands off. He had dates with him, small, shrunken dates; the warmth of his calloused hands nestled them deeper. He placed them upon her palms, as if he was sharing a small treasure, which, of course, he was. He must have been.

Something sweet, she thought, before meeting his stern eyes. She was being summoned, though she would never know it to be as such.

Lij Makeda, he said, a quiet, strong presence about him calling her out of the solitude she delved in.

Yes, Abate. She bowed quickly, the dates warm in her palms.

Don’t be afraid, he said.

I will not, Abate.

Remember what you were taught, he said.

I will, Abate.

Look up, lij Makeda.


Look up.

She did. Something more than him showed up: not just any man, not just The Keeper of Ghion, but multiples of them, standing behind him, beneath him, before him, all looking at her with the same, stern look.

Abatoche, she said; humbled.

They handed her something else too, something she would need to keep hidden from others.

Remember us, they said. You are the mother of all things. Find us.

The mother of all things. But she was still a girl; she did not yet know the weight of bearing The People of Two Worlds into a doomed future throughout The Earthly Lands.

But that had been then, and this was now. Now carried so much she couldn’t yet comprehend. She knew better than to ask for clarifications then; The Memories would reveal themselves when they deemed fit.

It seemed like they had been traveling at night, and just when she thought she couldn’t take it any longer, they came to a stop. The soldiers were anxious, though the threat they had identified was no longer among them. They didn’t speak to her directly, but they were courteous with one another, chatting and laughing quietly in a language she couldn’t understand. At some point, she thought she’d heard the guttural sounds of Sabaean being spoken in quiet whispers, the language of her people, but she couldn’t make anything out of their conversations. They spoke quickly, taking short and abrupt pauses between the phrases, breathing deeply into the night.

The rest stop was unexpected; the soldiers had been traveling as if they were running out of time, trying to reach their destination before sunrise.

The sound of the stream was calming. For the first time, she saw them, all of them, lined up, each standing with their beasts, drinking from the same waters, their faces glimmering and moon-lit. It must have been about forty of them, all women, looking radiant and armed to their teeth. They lit a big fire by the stream, which kept turning blue. They sat around in a big circle, with a couple of sentinels placed in the outskirts of the posting. When they took off their helmets, the braided hairs emerged, long, dark, and beautiful. Makeda had always been surrounded by strong women throughout her life, especially when she was staying at The Monastery, but in that moment, she felt particularly different, as if their collective strength was upon her too, summoning her into becoming who she was meant to be. It didn’t matter that they had threatened her on top of the mountain, it didn’t matter that they had held a sharp blade against her. She’d never seen anything quite like this, these brilliant, blue-lit faces, with such confidence, such fearlessness, and there was lightness about them too, as if they had done this many times before, an ease to their laughter, an ease to their chatter, a strange familiarity she couldn’t quite point to. They were soldiers first, but perhaps they were something else too – armed, beaming, magnificent.

If I ever am to become a queen, I want to be surrounded by soldiers like these, she thought. That was the first time she thought about it like that – the queendom, looming between her and her people like a thing that remained unspoken, unclaimed.

The two soldiers closest to her looked at her then, as if they had heard her thought, speaking in Sabaean, their tongues making melodious, melancholic sounds, addressing her as if she was already one of them. They asked questions about her life at The Monastery. What was the most intriguing manuscript she’d read recently? Did he know about the names of the stars upon the vast, vast skies? Did she know anything about The Keeper of Ghion? Makeda answered each of their questions carefully, though she didn’t really know what else there was to say about The Keeper of Ghion; he was who he was, and at times, he was many.

She asked her own questions too, careful not to focus on them too much, and instead speaking about The Earthly Lands, The People of Two Worlds, The Masters of Time. What else had they seen throughout the different timelines? What were the spices they used in the stew she was eating; how did they climb the hill to The Monastery so easily; could they also teach her how to wield a weapon like that, with such unflinching prowess, with such unquestionable grace? She was, by nature, a curious girl, and living at The Monastery meant that she’d never had the opportunity to engage with any soldiers of the kingdom before. They were pleased to see her like this, so carefree and inquisitive; they answered her questions carefully, they spoke of faraway lands where Time stood still. They identified themselves as The Dusk-Dwellers, which almost made her jump out of her seat. The Dusk-Dwellers! Here! She thought, the excitement still visible in her eyes.

The rest stop did not last long, and soon they were out on the road again, the beasts leading the way, including her own, a bright streak adorning its beautiful, dark coating. They rode in silence, listening to the sounds of the night; Makeda could hear only the howling hyenas, and owls batting in the dark. Before sunrise, they had already reached the dwellings that surrounded the palace. The formation of the army opened wide, to make room for her and her beast, pushing them slowly to the front, so that by the time they reached the gates of the palace, it looked like she had been leading them all along, a girl-soldier returning to claim her queendom.

Here, no soldier would make themselves known before sunrise. Two of the soldiers who accompanied her approached the gates first, speaking in hushed tones. With the exception of the guards, the palace was immersed in utter silence. There was pointing towards her, and she looked stern, as if she already knew her purpose was to be there all along. The skies were clearing slowly when the gates of the palace finally creaked open from the inside; Makeda walked in alone, dismounted from her beast, carrying with herself only the weapon the soldiers had given her earlier that night, and the plump weight of warm dates inside her pockets. She knew better than to turn back; gather yourself, she said; gather yourselves.

This was her all along.

The dwellings of the Sabaeans were almost always constructed out of stone, molded together with the collagenous mud that came from The Bleeding Sea or The Blue River, which served to build more and more structures under the surfaces of the lands, where it was easier to carve out entire cities out of the existing landscapes. The Sabaeans, whose predecessors dated back to the People of D’Amat, were known builders; within a few generations, they had constructed the entire kingdom, and beyond, beyond The Earthly Lands, nearing The Outer Worlds, where it was said The Remnant People had settled. Though they must have been a warrior people too, the Sabaeans were known for the rich cultures they brought into the kingdom; they thrived with trade and travel, they exchanged lavish goods, spices, and fabrics, which brought the longest period of peace throughout The Earthly Lands. They specialized in ancient arts and welcomed people from neighboring kingdoms into their homes. They built strong and sleek vessels to travel on water and land; they bred different animals, they imported and exported gold, silver, and other precious metals and stones; they learned how to grow new fruits with new seasons, how to train their young ones to become apprentices in the various trades. They were a vivacious, boisterous People, who prided themselves in their inherited lands, who spoke about their lineage, who awaited eagerly for The Bestowed Ones to intervene in their lives.

When she first walked into the palace, it was really the noise of things that displaced her; The Monastery had been so quiet, so far away from everything, and now here she was, among the people, the bustling of the palace as loud as ever, and she found herself longing for the solitude of The Monastery once again. Along with the noise, the palace also brought with itself things she wasn’t accustomed to, small luxuries she was allowed to have, like a room of her own to sleep in and do as she pleased, access to various members of the court through whom she would learn more about the nature of the kingdom, and their different professions. Among them were The Elders, The Scribes, The Judges, The Merchants and Traders, The Time-Keepers, The Story-Tellers, and many, many more. She saw herself amongst them too, perhaps a different version of herself she hadn’t known to be this strong, but there she was, nonetheless. So when she asked for a Scribe to be assigned to her, it wasn’t really out of necessity, rather the request was made out of a longing for a self she had been waiting to embody. Her request, though modest, was still unusual, as the Scribes were assigned only by The Council of The Elders, tasked with capturing only the official and agreed-upon events of the kingdom. It was perhaps by pure luck then, that Makeda was first introduced to The Twins; by then, three years had passed since The Dusk-Dwellers had dropped her off at the palace, and she had spent most of her days in training – readying herself to take over a queendom that was somehow still operating without an official ruler.

Like any other children, The Twins had taken a liking to the way she told stories of faraway lands, stories she had often heard from the journeying of The Monks when she was growing up at The Monastery, stories about ancient kings and queens, stories about beasts bound to Future Timelines, stories about prophets stuck in New Worlds. She was expressive in her face, and filled in as many details as she possibly could, intonating her voice up and down, billowing and hissing as if she had witnessed the occurrences herself, and she would take the children with her, and they would ask questions, and laugh, and gasp, and run after her when she was done. The Twins were not that much younger than her, perhaps they were nine or ten years old by then, quick and intuitive in their ways, always willing to learn any new skills they were taught.

Like many other children living in the neighboring villages, The Twins spent their days at the palace; soon, Makeda grew fond of them, of their determined faces, their unwavering attitude. They were always filled with a curiosity for things that fascinated her; with them, she would question the ways of the queendom, unpacking things one by one, taking them all on a journey she was not readied yet to take. With them, she became a child again, no longer pressured to take over a vacant throne; with them, she did not need to have all the answers, she did not need to know how to wield a weapon properly, she did not need to learn how to negotiate with the rulers of neighboring kingdoms. With them, she was only a girl, and together, they were always in a path of discovery, always seeking to learn new things, always advancing towards a knowing that would set them into similar paths.

Makeda taught them how to read and write, how to speak eloquently, how to be inquisitive and how to speak up, especially when they were not spoken to. Sometimes she would send them to stay in the bustling quarters of the merchants, where they would learn to be versatile, to be free, to speak different tongues. They learned the art of trade too, and to distinguish the provenance of different merchants. They learned the names of different products – oils from the Far East, expensive dyed cloths from the Far West, spices and leather from the North, caramel-scented beans from the South. Every item had its purpose in the queendom, and they delighted in their inquisitive learning. They memorized the routes of the ships coming and going from the ports of Adulis and learned how to track Time, how to forecast the weather, how to talk their way out of difficult situations. They came across the bulbous substance that would later come to be known as The Meridian; they became Time-Keepers and Scribes and Traders and Artists and Messengers themselves.

By the time the unknown malady showed up, most of the children throughout the queendom had already met their perishing, one way or another. Until then, the rumors about the malady throughout The Earthly Lands did not seem to affect the life of the palace at all. But this was Makeda’s first time experiencing it in such proximity. The malady seemed to have spread to all the corners of the queendom; there were rumors of children disappearing, some taken by the malady, some claimed by soldiers in fiery armors, neither of which seemed to be plausible to her. But then the longest night of the year arrived, and she knew, as the People knew, that the malady would come knocking at her door, and the thought of losing The Twins at such a young age was utterly unbearable to her.

Perhaps it was the quietest night she could ever remember; the palace had ceased its usual raucous bustling and feverish evenings. Outside, there was no chatter that was carried through the walls, and the lanterns had been dimmed, the hallways darkened. Makeda had hurried both girls into her private chambers, reassuring them they would be better off with her than outside the gates of the palace, where she could not protect them from any kind of perishing or malady they would encounter.

The walk back to the palace was grueling, though not long; the three of them could smell the smoke before they saw the fire; they could see the skies darkening quickly, as if The Elements themselves knew what was coming. No living being was out and about at that hour; the entire palace seemed to have been shut down, all the doors closed, the gates secured.

But before they reached her chambers, The Twins fell ill. Makeda grew additional limbs then; her strength accumulated all at once, and she picked up the girls as they were collapsing, as if she’d done it before, dragging them back to her chambers without anyone’s help. The Twins were at the cusp of unconsciousness; soon, they wouldn’t know themselves or their surroundings, their falling will grow deeper and deeper. Makeda put them next to each other, dragging their cots closer. She touched their foreheads; she poured water upon their feet. They were unusually warm, their skin brimming with new droplets of sweat. She tried calling for help, but no one seemed to be in the palace; even the sentinels who usually stood by the gates were no longer there.

The evening became night, and the night was dark and rapacious.

Makeda tried to remember what else she’d heard about the malady; it seemed as if The Earthly Lands had been brimming with it.

There were rumors of fire-soldiers who came to take the children at dusk; rumors about a mysterious malady that affected the children without their knowing. On a night like this, when the smoke announced itself before the fire-soldiers showed up, People would lock their homes and refuse to open it for anyone. Protect your beloveds, they said; protect the children. No one really knew why it happened; some of The Elders said it was because of a bargaining done with The All-Seeing Eye from a world where Time stood still, but Time was still passing in this queendom, so it was difficult to understand what that even meant.

 Makeda ran back and forth to make sure that her chamber doors were closed, surprised she couldn’t find any servants or other children around. By then, the smoke had already seeped in; its thin shadow rested placidly upon the ceiling, then descending slowly to hover over The Twins. Makeda flailed her arms up and down, up and down, as if to blow it away. But it didn’t move.

Instead, it rested there, like a living, pulsating thing, until the screams in the palace subsided, one by one. Makeda ran frantically back and forth again, pouring water over The Twins’ burning bodies, now this one, now that one, cupping her hands upon their lovely faces, pulling their coarse hairs away. Their eyes were now shut; they were in the depths of somewhere she dared not imagine.

Then, the silence. The stillness. Her thinking that perhaps this would be over soon.

The silence interrupted by the knock. Delicate, but firm, as if someone knew she was harboring the girls there.

Makeda looked up, surprised. Did she hear that right? Was it someone who had come to her aid?

Then she heard it again.

She stood up, now remembering the rumors about the malady. She looked up to the ceiling. The smoke was thick now, blackened in a few spots. The smell of it – everywhere, everywhere.

Then, she remembered: the fire-soldiers. Of course.

By the time she heard the third knock, Makeda had pushed her grip around the limb of the sharp blade given to her by The Dusk-Dwellers, the only blade she’d kept on her person at all times, the blue-green emblem now swiveling, come alive. She walked towards the door slowly, keeping an eye out for The Twins.

Who would dare knock upon the doors of a future queen on such a treacherous night?

There seemed to be no other sounds, as if the night had devoured all the screaming, all the scuttering away towards closed doors. Then the lantern in her chambers dimmed, as if acquiescing to the smoke, now a dense, dense cloud, filling the entire space, unraveling itself on top of The Twins.

The last knock had been more forceful; surely the door would swing open now and someone would come to take away the girls.

Makeda took her wrap and covered their bodies, binding them together; they were shivering now, both cold and hot at the same time.

“Make your return, beloveds,” she whispered quietly.

She stood in front of the door, waiting. It was dark in her chambers now, and when something was lit on the other side, she could see it clearly. It seemed to be moving – was it something, or someone advancing towards her?

Makeda moved closer; her fists wound tightly around the weapon.

They are mine, she said, her voice trembling. Do you hear me? They are mine. Leave; there is nothing for you here.

On the other side, someone was dismounting from their beast, the flames already flickering upon their person. They touched the walls, and instantly, the chambers were all lit on fire too, smoke and ash thick as clouds, long-licking tongues of new fires appearing everywhere in the quarters.

Makeda had been watching from a peephole, horrified; her chambers were completely on fire now.

She held her breath. What were they doing now? They mounted the beast, and then … they combusted on fire! How was that possible?

Makeda tried to open the door, pushing the blade between the locks, but it was jammed, and the flames were already advancing quickly, where the dense cloud of smoke had settled.

The Twins were shaking in their sleep, as if they knew their taking was happening.

If there was a time to give up, this would have been it. But Makeda was stubborn; she pushed the door once, twice, three times, and when it flung open, she was thrown all the way to the back, landing between the volcanic bodies of The Twins. Their shaking was incessant now, and she could feel it too.

The flames were strong and entered her chambers, pushed by powerful gusts of wind. The smoke had distributed itself throughout the ceiling, devoured by the new flames.

Makeda felt a chill on her body, and she jumped up, now furious. She held her blade high and advanced towards the open flames, uncovered and unshielded, pushing through them until she reached the threshold. She looked outside, and there they were: soldiers and beasts, all lined up, knocking on different doors, retrieving the children one by one.

Makeda’s eyes were bloodshot. She looked directly at the soldier in front of her, but the flames were too strong; she could only make out their eyes, two wells of voracious brightness, staring back at her.

Makeda looked away, suddenly understanding who was standing in front of her.

Little girl, the soldier said. What do they call you?

Makeda fought back tears from her eyes, the smoke seemed to have gathered all around her, and the chambers were too hot. How were The Twins breathing through all of this?

Makeda didn’t answer the flaming soldier, but she bowed quickly.

I have not claimed my nomenclature yet, she responded.

She did not need to raise her voice; she knew she would be heard exactly like that.

What do they call you, asked the soldier, their brilliance illuminating the entire chamber.

They call me Makeda, of the Sabaeans.

The soldier lifted their sword, which was lit too, a long, slick tongue with sharp edges. The soldier held the weapon like that, between them, a new threat ready to take her out.

That was not her name, and perhaps the soldier knew that. Makeda saw them then: the rest of the soldiers, gathering slowly behind. An army of flames.

The Twins are not yours to claim, said the soldier.

They are mine, she responded. They are mine, she repeated.

We have come to retrieve them.

There is nothing for you here.

Little girl …



If you take the girls, you’ll have to take me too.

The soldier huffed and puffed; its beast huffed and puffed. All the other soldiers lined up behind seemed ready to jump with their swords and burn the palace to the ground.

Makeda couldn’t take her eyes off the soldier, but she knew The Twins must still be unharmed. Although the smoke was too much now … did they know how to breathe underwater? Why hadn’t she taught them that yet?

Makeda of the Sabaeans, called out the soldier.

All the soldiers lifted their weapons. The beast was looking right at her, its eyes vacuous, and for the first time, she felt cold amidst such burning flames.

Makeda gathered all her strength; she lifted her weapon, its swirling emblem now brighter than ever. She would not go down without a fight. You’ll have to take me, she said.

They saw her; they saw her weapon. They saw its shining blue-green, her chambers filled with smoke. The bodies of The Twins shaking, shaking, shaking.

The soldier gave the signal, and they bowed. The army of flames dispersed quickly. Only the soldier and her beast remained, looking at Makeda.

Makeda, said the soldier. Queen of the Sabaeans, Seeker of the First Order, mother of all things.

Makeda was breathless. What did the soldier say?

Is this really your wish? To claim The Twins on the day of their taking?

It is, she said, her arms trembling more than she could admit.

The Twins’ paths will be intertwined with yours. But their stories have already been written. They will always meet their perishing unbound.

It may be so. But they will not perish because of me.

The soldier looked at her now. Her stubbornness, her fearlessness. Perhaps she had a chance after all. A girl raised at The Monastery, a Monk herself, now returning to claim her queendom.

So it shall be, Makeda, said the soldier. Go back inside; do not leave The Twins’ side. Your portal will be marked by my soldiers; you shall henceforth be known as the origin of their stories, the origin of their new paths. May they claim their nomenclatures because of you, may their paths be enlightened, may their purposing be renewed.

My grace, said Makeda, finally.

The soldier retreated their weapons. Makeda returned to The Twins, relieved, but the chambers were filled with smoke and flames now. The soldier pointed their weapon, and all the flames responded to it, running out of the chambers quickly as if they had been summoned in silence.

The smoke remained, dense, black fog, hovering over them.

A new portal had been restored, built with flames, and her name marked upon it, along with the names of The Twins.

She pushed them gently away, and slipped between them, putting her arms around them, lulling herself, and them, softly, softly, the blade still burning, placed at arm’s reach. She knew nothing of where they may have fallen, and perhaps someone else would come to claim them, but she refused to let them go anyway.

Now and always.

She looked at her feet and noticed the bleeding from the punctures had bloomed all over her skin, little jasmine blossoms upon her entire body.

The signs of a new marking.

This piece is from our Spring 2024 African Writing Online Folio, an online-exclusive extension of our special issue, “African Writing: A Partial Cartography of Provocations,” guest edited by Chris Abani. You can read more from our Spring 2024 issue, available for purchase in print and digital forms here.

Mahtem Shiferraw is a writer and visual artist from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Her work has been published in various literary magazines, including CallalooPrairie Schooner, Poets.orgThe 2River ViewLuna Luna MagazineDiverse Voices Quarterly, and World Literature Today. She is the author of three books of poetry: Fuchsia (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), which won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets; Your Body Is War (University of Nebraska Press, 2018); and Nomenclatures of Invisibility (BOA Editions, 2023). She is the founder and executive director of Anaphora Arts, a nonprofit organization that advocates for writers and artists of color. You can find her at

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