Category Archives: Hero Historia

Hero Historia: Jericho Rising 6

Clay’s palms stung with the table’s impact, a vibration that seemed to go all the way up his wrists and arms to his heart.

The drunk who had kicked it stared at him, bloodshot eyes wide, a furious sneer on his lips. Clay’s gaze was drawn to the man’s teeth, the whitest and straightest he’d ever seen. Other than that, he looked almost normal. Taller than the residents of Jericho, the height of one of the Smoke Mountain Tribe, but paler of skin, with narrower features, lighter hair, and eyes the color of the midday sky.

“You want some of this?” he slurred through many mugs of strong beer and a thick accent, advancing with his arms wide.

The others in the hall had hurried away, out the door or towards the walls. Only Broad, Dawn, and Dawn’s father Squint stood behind Clay.

“They call him Mad Words,” Squint said. “He is a troublemaker.”

“Why do they call him that?” Broad asked.

“He speaks madness when he drinks. It upsets people.”

“You let him stay?”

“He is strong and powerful, but hasn’t been violent… none of the guards have wanted to risk trying to exile him.”

Mad Words stopped, looking past Clay. “You call me mad? I say you are ignorant. I am trying to save you, but you mock me!”

“You will be cast from the city for this!” Squint called.

“I am the least of your troubles.”

Seeing the man becoming agitated again, Clay stepped forward, speaking softly. “You must calm yourself. We are guests in this city.”

Mad Words moved, standing toe to toe with the young hunter. “You telling me what to do, boy?”

Clay could smell the sour beer on his breath, and didn’t know quite what to do. It reminded him of the play of children, the way they’d push and shove each other to establish their places in the clan, but it was not a thing that men did. When children grew up, they put away the games of youth to take on the roles of providers for the tribe.

It was the way of Champions, he realized. The tribesmen supporting them would shout and jeer, puffing themselves up, and then the champions would fight. His mind flashed back to the violence he’d seen his father commit, long knock-down brawls so unlike the clean quick kill a hunter made, breaking your foe’s body until they couldn’t fight any more.

Mad Words was staring hard into his eyes, and Clay could feel the gazes of the others in the hall as well. If he backed down now, Mad would continue bullying the city, and the men sent to exile him would be killed. Worse, Clay would look weak in front of Dawn.

He tried one last time to calm the man. “Please. Go. Sit.”

Mad’s face reddened, and he swung a sudden loping overhead fist towards Clay. The blow was clumsy but it caught the young hunter off-guard, smashing into his neck and shoulder. Clay staggered from the powerful impact, pain shooting along the back of his neck.

The pale man struck him again and again, fists pummeling his chest, his cheek, his jaw before Clay even fully realized what was happening. The rich taste of copper enveloped his tongue as his teeth cut the insides of his mouth, and the world gained that same sort of crystalline clarity it had when the lion had attacked him on the Sea of Grass. He felt like he was floating, and even the pain from Mad’s blows was a distant curiosity.

Dawn’s screaming sounded like it was coming to him through a tunnel, and Clay reasoned that it might be prudent to stop the man from hitting him.

His vision snapped into focus around Mad, and he was aware of every line and crease in his attacker’s face, even as the rest of the dining hall faded from him. Clay wanted to react, wanted to strike back, but his hands felt numb, his limbs moved so slow.

Mad was throwing another punch, but Clay’s hands were already in motion, already swinging out, so he just lowered his head and took the side of the other man’s fist on the crown of his head, driving his own into Mad’s gut.

It was the first time he’d struck another person. Clay stepped back, hoping the strike had stunned his opponent.

It hadn’t. Mad grunted and brought his other hand around to strike Clay’s face.

The open-handed slap nearly spun him around.

He’d failed to stop the fight, but something about that was oddly freeing. Clay no longer had a responsibility to stop Mad. He no longer had to put on a good show for Dawn’s father. He didn’t have to worry about repercussions or exile. It was too late. There was nothing left but battle, and no way to avoid it.

There was a freedom in that, and Clay let his thoughts fall away, replaced by a hunter’s instincts. All that mattered was stopping Mad, hurting him so bad that he couldn’t continue.

Clay crouched, lowering his shoulder, ignoring the blows raining on the back of his head and neck and slammed forward into the mad drunk. He didn’t stop, kept pushing forward, wrapping his arms around Mad’s middle to carry him along. He felt a shudder as he rushed his foe into the hall’s wall, cracking the mud-brick.

Mad gave out a wheezing groan, limbs stiff as the air was driven from his lungs.

Clay did not hesitate. Arms still wrapped around his opponent, he stretched and bent backwards, hauling the other man off of his feet in a short arch that ended with Mad’s face slammed against the clay floor. The sounds of impact echoed in Clay’s ears, and he twisted around to catch the other man’s legs as he slumped to the floor.

He’d hurt Mad, stopped him temporarily, but it wasn’t enough. He had to hurt him enough that he would be too afraid of Clay to cause more trouble.

Clay spun up and to the side, lifting Mad by his legs fast enough that his upper body folded over Clay’s shoulder, then turned and slammed his torso down across the nearest table. The mugs and platters atop it went tumbling to the ground.

The hunter stared down at his fallen foe, breath rattling, watching and waiting for him to move. He felt the pain from the many blows he’d taken, but they didn’t seem to matter.

Mad didn’t move. Clay couldn’t tell if he’d killed him.

The hunter felt suddenly tired, exhausted, his hands trembling. He felt sick and apprehensive.

Broad was beside him, pulling on his arm with some urgency.

“Come,” his brother said. “We must go!”

Clay looked around. There were a handful of locals staring at him, but both Squint and his daughter had departed.

“Clay!”

Clay nodded, numbly, and followed his brother to the darkening streets.

***

“This is not good,” Broad said once the brothers had returned to the isolation of their room at Forkbeard’s home.

Clay didn’t respond. His heart had calmed, but now his body was letting him know how badly he’d been hurt. Most of Mad Words’s blows had struck his head, shoulders, and neck, and the muscles were seizing up. His lip had split, his nose was intense agony if he so much as wrinkled it. Worst of all, he felt dizzy, nauseous, and his whole face was swollen.

He sat with his head between his knees, breathing slowly, trying hard not to vomit.

“Are you okay?” Broad asked. “That man’s fists looked like they could split stone.”

“Head hurts,” Clay said. Talking was effort. If he let too many words out, he felt like his dinner would follow. “Dizzy.”

“Maybe you should rest,” Broad said. “I will find a healer.”

Clay didn’t respond, focusing on his breathing.

***

Broad returned some time later, and Clay hadn’t realized that he’d been gone. Forkbeard was with him, along with a woman of the same age, possibly his wife.

“Tilt his head back,” she said.

Clay let Broad move his head, refusing to wince despite the spasm of pain running through his neck.

“Close your eyes,” the woman said.

He complied and she placed something cool and wet over the top of his face.

“Will this heal him?” Broad asked.

“It will keep the swelling down.”

“Is he dead?” Clay asked through swollen lips.

“Mad Words?” Broad asked.

“Guards were taking him from the hall. He was staggering, but on his own feet,” Forkbeard said.

“He may want revenge,” Broad said.

Clay didn’t care. He was in such pain — if the man came to fight now, he would let him kill him. He would just lay down and die. At least then he wouldn’t feel so ill.

“Just worry about your brother,” Forkbeard said. “How is he, Bright Eyes?”

“Dizzy,” Clay said.

“Spirits can get trapped in your skull when you take a heavy blow,” Bright Eyes said. “One is trying to find its way out. If it cannot by morning, we will have to help it.”

“How?” Broad asked.

“We will make a hole so it can escape.”

Clay groaned.

“Doesn’t his head have enough holes?” Broad asked. “Eyes, nose, mouth, ears?”

“Not on top.” Her cool hand pressed against his scalp. “Trust me. It is good medicine. If he survives.”

Once they’d left, Clay felt Broad crouch next to him. “Do not worry, brother. I have seen Father recover from far more severe wounds. Once the Elk Champion gored him through the throat – we thought he would die for sure, but in a week he was able to speak again.”

Clay wanted to feel comforted, but he just wanted to be left alone with his misery. He’d scared off Dawn, confirmed her father’s prejudices about outsiders, and probably gotten himself and his brother exiled from Jericho for their violent ways.

He just wanted the spirit in his head to swallow him up so he could disappear.

***

Clay slipped into a dreamless sleep at some point during the night but, much to his dismay, did not die. When he woke his head felt clearer, as did his problems. His vision remained blurry, and it was painful to keep his left eye open for more than a few seconds. He hoped he would not lose it.

“You did what you must,” Broad said.

“I’ve convinced Dawn Spring that I was a monster.”

“Mad Words is the monster,” Broad said. “You were protecting her. How does your face feel?”

“Swollen. How does it look?”

“Ugly. You must be healing.”

Clay laughed, then groaned in pain.

“The poultice Bright gave you was good medicine,” Broad said. “We must thank her.”

“If they do not exile us,” Clay said.

“You worry too much, brother.”

“One of us has to.”

Broad smiled. “Then I’m glad it doesn’t have to be me.”

***

Clay’s vision had largely returned to normal by the time Spring Dawn came to check on him in the early afternoon. Broad had gone to the field for the day’s labor once it had become clear that Clay was not going to die in his absence. He’d made the case for staying to watch over his brother, but had relented once Forkbeard had informed him that if he did not work, he would not earn any beer.

“Your clan totem must be powerful,” Dawn said, examining his head. “Bright will be disappointed she won’t have to cut into your skull.”

“Her medicine was powerful.” Clay was glad the girl hadn’t been scared off. “For a people with no shamans, you have good magic.”

She chuckled. “Ways passed from mother to daughter. But even so, you have healed fast.”

“Forkbeard is lucky to have such a skilled mate.”

Dawn cackled. “Bright is his sister, not his mate. He is not the sort that will have one, nor children. It is not his way.”

Clay was confused. “I have seen him with a man my own age. I took him for his son.”

“How do pairings work in your tribe?”

“Women leave to join the other Smoke Mountain clans.”

“Do men pair with men or women with women?”

Clay blushed. “I do not know the ways of women’s secrets, but I do not think that men can make children.”

Dawn blinked. “What?”

“Childbearing is one of women’s secrets. They go into the birthing hut alone and swollen, and come out with a new life.”

She stared at him. “You really… don’t know.”

“Do you?” Clay asked. “In my tribe the secrets of birth is something known only to mothers. Is it different here?”

“I raise sheep, Clay. I see them birth every year. So do the boy shepherds.”

“We do not keep animals in my tribe.”

Dawn laughed. “I do not believe I have to explain this to you.”

“Explain what?”

Dawn laughed again, a sound like bells in the spring.

***

Clay’s face was ashen. “Really?”

“Yes, really. What did you think mating was for?”

“I don’t know.” Clay’s voice was an octave higher than normal. “I don’t have a mate.”

“But you will one day, yes?”

His skin felt hot, and his scalp prickled, particularly where Mad had been striking him. “Some day. I don’t know how that works here, without a tribal moot to decide pairings.”

Dawn was sitting close to him. “Let us say, for purpose of example, that you wanted me as your mate.”

“Okay.” Clay was feeling dizzy again.

“You would go to my father and tell him this. If he found you worthy, he would accept you as his son.” He was very aware of her hip touching his. “And I would be yours.”

“You would?”

Her breath was warm in his ear. “I would be yours.”

Clay found himself trapped in her eyes.

A grunt came from the door, where Forkbeard stood, arms folded.

Clay stood abruptly. His head spun.

“Men are here to see you,” Forkbeard said. “In the courtyard. Elders.”

Clay nodded, face burning, and left without turning back to look at Dawn. He would face the consequences of his actions like a man.

A trio of old men — older than any in the Bear Clan, older than Bluetooth — were waiting outside.

Forkbeard followed. He put a hand on Clay’s shoulder. “Elders, this is young Clay, the tribal from Smoke Mountain. Clay, this is Darkbeard, Snakespit, and One-Eye.

“You are Clay?” the tallest, Darkbeard, asked.

Clay nodded. His gut felt like he’d left it back with Dawn, sunk behind him with foreboding, sure that they’d come to castigate him for his violent ways. They would exile him from the city, him and his brother, and he’d never see Dawn Spring again.

“You defeated the troublemaker Mad Words?” Snakespit, the shortest and eldest, asked.

“I did not want him to hurt anyone,” Clay said. “I did not mean to fight.”

“He saved Father and I,” Dawn said.

“That is not how Squint tells it,” One-Eye said. “He asked that we exile you as well.”

“Please,” Clay said. “I will not fight again.”

“Then you are of no use to us,” Darkbeard said. “For we have need of your strength.”

Clay looked between the three of them and could not find words to say.

“Jericho brings a great bounty to us,” Snakespit said. “She brings us food. Beer. The safety of her walls. We live lives that you tribals cannot imagine.”

“I have seen this,” Clay said.

“But trouble comes as well,” One-Eye said. “If you would listen to Squint, every tribal refugee is a menace. He forgets that we all come from tribes, even those of us whose ancestors built these walls.”

“Trouble in the form of clan Champions like yourself,” Darkbeard said.

“I am no trouble,” Clay said. “And I am no Champion. My clan… my brother and I are all that remain.”

“And what would you do with your strength?” Snakespit asked.

“The shamans say that the Champion’s burden is to serve and protect his clan. His strength is not his own. It belongs to the clan.”

“And with no clan?” Snakespit asked.

Clay looked up at the midday sun, then back at the elders. They were watching him, judging him, like Dawn’s father. He was who he was, and he would not hide it, no matter what they thought of him.

“I am grateful for the hospitality of your city,” he said. “Jericho is my home now. You are my people, even if you call me outsider. I would use my strength to protect you as I would my own clan.”

The three elders exchanged a look.

“Good,” Snakespit said. “For Jericho needs your strength, young one. Mad Words was only one of the troublemakers she faces. If you would stay, then we have a task for you more important than farmer.”

Clay looked from Dawn to Forkbeard. “What do you ask of me?”

“Will you serve Jericho as her Champion?”

Archtypical Patterns Among Superhumans

Excerpt from Supersociology by Adrian Parker (Chicago, 1998)

The ancient Greeks called their superhumans Heroes, simply enough. The meaning of the word has changed over the millenia, for the Greek it lacked any specific moral quality, and instead was taken to mean someone who was more than a man, but less than a god.

The Greeks also gave us the first considered taxonomy of superhumans based not on their gifts, but on the roles they filled in the life of the polis. Aristotle codified these roles in his survey of his age’s Heroes in his History of Heroes, providing the basis for a taxonomy that is still in common use today. The reason for his classification’s longevity is that, consciously nor not, superhumans find themselves following in the archtypical paths blazed by their predecessors.

The Protector: The Protector seeks to serve as champion for a people, seeking to prevent harm to endangered populaces. France’s Scarlet Pimpernel might be seen as a protector, rescuing doomed aristocrat’s from the guillotine.

The Avenger: Where the Protector tries to help the innocent, the Avenger seeks to punish the wicked. Sometimes this is an attempt to exorcise inner demons, or it might be a desire to protect proactively; motivation is less important than the role they play.

The Outsider: The Outsider does what he does, often protecting or avenging, from the fringes of the polis. Often the Outsider (called by Aristotle the Barbarian) just wants to be left alone, but this is not always in the cards.

Hero Historia: Jericho Rising 5

Clay stalked his prey with the focus and intensity of a lifelong hunter. He moved low to the ground, hunched, almost crawling, one foot crossing over the other as he crept across the recently tilled field.

He was bigger now that he was a Champion, but he felt like he was moving with more grace. Further, the wind was in his favor, and his approach lead directly through the shadow of Jericho’s walls, so his advantages more than made up for his larger profile.

The sheep didn’t appear to have noticed him, placidly grazing in the strip of grass between fields. They didn’t range over the Smoke Mountains, and those that he’d seen since his arrival in Jericho had remained largely oblivious to the locals that walked among them. Was this magic cast upon the sheep, to make them dull and easy to kill, or was it cast upon the locals, to make them invisible to the sheep?

Clay didn’t know, and he didn’t want to take chances. Farmers — that’s what he and Broad were now — were well fed with plenty of bread, porridge, and beer, but very little of the meat that that the tribesmen were used to eating. Meat that his new Champion body seemed to crave. He needed this hunt, this kill, this sheep. It was all he could do to keep from salivating at the prospect.

Closer and closer he drew, moving when the sheep lowered its head to graze, freezing when it lifted it to look around.

Broad had spotted the animal, and it’d been his older brother’s idea to hunt it down. Clay had readily agreed; in addition to missing the taste of meat, he missed the thrill of it. Farm-work might suit his brother, but Clay was a hunter, and hunters hunted.

The sheep lowered his head and began grazing once more. Clay moved.

It wasn’t that he was ungrateful for the hospitality of the city and the opportunity to work. The labor had become a trifle since he’d used the Old Ones magic. He could have easily tilled a field on his own each day, but had refrained when Broad had pointed out that that’s exactly what would have become expected of him.

If their supervisor Forkbeard had noticed Clay’s increased strength and size he hadn’t said anything, though the hunter did catch the older man eying him speculatively a few times. If asked, Clay would have told him the truth, that he had taken some of Bear’s power into himself, that he was now more than most men.

But nobody had asked. That was just as well. It would have meant more questions, questions about what he intended to do now, and Clay didn’t know. He wanted revenge upon the tribe that had killed his father, but how he could accomplish such a feat short of leaving the city and tracking them down — an endeavor doomed to end in failure and death for one who had no experience in hunting men — he had no idea.

But now was not the time for thoughts of the future. He was hunting. All that mattered was the kill, and the meat that came from it.

Clay was close now. Close enough to smell the sheep, its scent of grass and mud and wet cloth. He hefted the till-stick, the only weapon on hand, and rose from his couch, ready to close the distance and crush the animal’s skull.

He was halfway through his lunge when the stone hit him in the forehead, smashing his sense away, knocking him off of his feet into the mud.

***

Spring Dawn didn’t know whether to be relieved that she hadn’t killed the tribal farmer or disappointed. On the one hand, he was trying to kill one of her sheep, and no one would think ill of her for stopping the theft, particularly from one of the city’s recent immigrants. On the other, she’d never killed anyone before, and wasn’t terribly keen to start.

There was a large welt on his forehead where she’d struck him, but he was breathing. He was lucky. She was no slouch with the sling; her missed shots could chip stone and crack mortar.

She realized that he was the tribal she’d seen coming through the gates the other day. He was larger up close, lanky but not as skinny, and almost unbelievably tall when he was laid out and not slouching. The tribal immigrants in the streets were all tall, but this one — it was almost hard to trust her eyes. His life as a hunter must have been a healthy one, for there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him.

Not so lucky, perhaps. He had several large scars, one on his shoulder that looked like two jagged semi-circles, and a thinner line across his chest.

Dawn’s breath caught in her throat as his blue-gray eyes opened. She scampered back as he sat up, holding her knife out, pointed at him, like a protective talisman.

“What hit me?” His voice was deep and bass.

“I did,” she said. “You were going to kill my sheep.”

“Your sheep?”

His eyes focused on hers, and she was instantly and entirely aware of the difference in them that her father had spoken of. They were wild and alert in a way that she couldn’t quite articulate, savage and untamed. Her stomach fluttered.

“I am sorry,” he said. “I did not know anyone else was hunting it.”

She broke eye-contact to look back towards her sheep. “I wasn’t hunting her, she’s part of my flock.”

“Your flock?”

“Don’t your people keep animals?”

“That is not a magic we possess.” He lowered his eyes. “Forgive me, shaman, I saw the one alone and did not know it had been bound to you.”

“Shaman?” Dawn said. “I’m not a shaman. I’m a shepherd.”

His eyes rose. “I don’t know that word.”

She couldn’t break away from his gaze. “I… it means one who cares for the sheep. I watch them. They are my flock.”

“Your children?”

“No. Not… sort of.” She tried to figure out how to explain the concept. “The sheep belong to the city. I watch them, and keep them safe from wolves and… people who shouldn’t take them.”

The tribal nodded, seemingly satisfied with the answer. “You watch them the way Forkbeard watches the plants to make sure they grow right.”

“Sort of.”

The tribal looked back over at the sheep. “Can I have one?”

She was startled by the question. “What?”

“I am of Jericho now. Do you mind if I take one of the sheep? Forkbeard doesn’t give my brother and I much meat.”

“You can’t just… take what you want,” Dawn said.

“It is of the city? I am of the city. And I need meat. Why can’t I take one?”

“You can’t just take what you want,” Dawn said. “Do you know how many people live in Jericho?”

“Many,” he said. “So many more than I have ever seen.”

“Then you realize that everyone cannot just take what they want when they want?”

The tribal glanced towards the walls. Dawn took the opportunity to look away.

“There are more men than sheep. Men would fight over who gets to eat them.”

“Yes! So you see why you cannot just take them?”

He rose to his feet, towering over her, almost half as tall as the city walls themselves. She felt small, tiny, like a rabbit in the shadow of a hawk, and it was exhilarating.

“How is it known who gets to eat sheep?”

She swallowed. “The elders decide how much meat, beer, and grain to give each household.”

“I see.”

“What do they call you?”

He looked down at her. “Clay.”

“I am Dawn Spring. My father said that that my eyes are the color of the rising sun reflected in the spring’s water.”

Clay stooped and looked into Dawn’s eyes with an intensity that almost stopped her heart. “Your father is a clever man.”

She clenched her fists, nails biting into her palms. “Why… why do they call you Clay?”

He grinned. “When I was a child I used to play in the stream alongside our camp, and would come out covered in mud. When it dried, my mother said it looked like I was turning to clay.”

Dawn realized from his smile that she was falling into a deep infatuation. She sighed in resignation. There wasn’t anything to be done for it. She held out her hand, and the tribal hunter helped her up.

Her hand felt enveloped by his rough warmth. “My father is important among the shepherds. We have meat. Maybe I can ask that he invite you and your brother over for dinner?”

Clay brightened. “That would be… my brother and I would be grateful.”

His excitement burned in her chest. “I will ask. Where do you live?”

“Broad and I are staying with the farm supervisor Forkbeard.”

She nodded. “You had best get back to your field, then, before he notices you are gone.”

Clay picked up his tilling-stick. “Thank you, Dawn. You are very kind.”

She felt her face redden. “You are welcome.”

She watched his long strides as he loped away, letting the color slowly flush from her face, and began leading the flock back towards the city gate. The further she got from Clay, the further she got from his smile, his scent, his muscles, the more acutely aware she was of the task ahead of her. Many men came to court her, both because of her looks and the power her father held with the city elders, and always Squint had refused their offers. They were not, he maintained, good enough for his daughter.

Privately she agreed, having never been particularly interested in any of her suitors. They were always rich but ugly, or coarse, or cruel, or boring. None had thrilled her in such a short time as the tribal refugee Clay had, and none had a more difficult path with her father. Squint had never made his disdain for the immigrants a secret.

Convincing him to host for the tribal brothers wouldn’t be easy. Convincing him to let Clay court her would be nearly impossible.

Dawn didn’t care. Her heart had found what it had wanted, and she wasn’t going to let mere impossibility deter her. She would have Clay.

He would be hers.

Oh yes.

He would be hers.

***

Broad wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the meal invitation at first.

“Don’t you want meat?” Clay asked while the pair walked back through the city towards Forkbeard’s home.

“Of course I want meat,” Broad said. “But good honest hunted meat, not magic shepherd meat. They don’t have shamans here. Who will tell them what the spirits say is taboo? Is eating magic meat safe?”

“All of the grain in the bread and porridge is magic, too.”

“Ah,” Broad said. “But there is a difference between bad meat and bad plants. Eat bad meat and you get sick and die. Eat bad plants and the spirits send you on a terrifying vision quest.”

“I am sure that if the meat was bad half the city would have died,” Clay said.

“That is only my first concern. This girl. She likes you.”

Clay tried not to smile. “Do you think so?”

“Brother, she is giving you meat.

“She likes me.”

“Of course she does. The weakest Bear Clan hunter is more man than the strongest Jericho guard.”

Clay nodded, watching as an old woman carrying a bundle of sticks on her back passed them in the street.

“Are you ready to take a mate? Have children?”

“Is that not what Champions do?”

“Yes, but think. Your plan. You want revenge on the men who killed Father?”

“Of course.”

“And they will come here.”

Clay looked towards the western wall, towards the Sea of Grass, towards Smoke Mountain, towards where the foreign tribe lay. “Eventually. So the Old Ones told you.”

“Then would you bring a child into this world, only to be slain by your foes if you fail?”

Clay set his jaw. “I will not fail.”

“Father failed, and he was stronger than you. He had more experience fighting than you.” Broad put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Clay, all I am saying is that you should tackle one impossible task at a time.”

Clay shrugged the hand off. “We are meeting for a meal, Broad, not to mate with her.”

His brother grinned. “So you say, but who knows how these Jericho women do things.”

Clay laughed and gave his brother a playful shove, almost sending the man sprawling.

***

Forkbeard met the brothers in the courtyard. “Squint, one of the shepherds, has invited you to dine with him at the communal hall.”

“That is good news.” Broad grinned. “They serve beer there.”

“There would be beer with the meal no matter what,” Clay said. “But to meet there instead of his home. Does this mean that he does not trust us?”

“Squint does not care much for tribesmen,” Forkbeard said.

“That is a good thing,” Broad said.

Clay turned to his brother. “How is that a good thing?”

“It means it will take longer for you to win his daughter. You have more time to…” his eyes flicked to the overseer. “More time to settle in.”

“You aim to court Dawn Spring?” Forkbeard asked.

“The invitation was her idea,” Clay said.

Forkbeard frowned. “You had best be careful, young one. Squint is a powerful man with much influence. And he has tried to get the city elders to close the gates to newcomers.”

“I understand.”

“I do not think that you do. He will be watching you carefully, looking for any excuse to exile you and your brother from the city. Or worse.”

“Worse?” Clay asked. “But why?”

“Does a father need a reason to be protective? But there are many who would court Dawn. If you return her affections, you may make many enemies.”

Clay bowed his head. “I thank you for your wisdom, elder, but it is just dinner.”

“You are in Jericho now, tribal.” Forkbeard turned away. “Dinner is never just dinner.”

The brothers watched him go.

Clay turned to Broad. “What do you suppose he meant by that?”

“Maybe there will be beer with dinner?” Broad said.

Clay pushed into the brothers’ room, laying his tilling stick near the door. The girl was pretty, and she had been kind — after hitting him in the head, anyway — but was she worth risking his and Broad’s place in the city for? He had enemies to the West, he did not need more. The last thing he needed was to get himself or his brother exiled. The girl was trouble.

Turning her down would be trouble, too. His only real hope was to build a rapport with her father, this Squint. Perhaps if he made it clear that he had no interest in Dawn, the old man would take to him, give him a sheep. A highly placed ally would be useful.

A delicate matter, turning down the girl without hurting her, for that too would anger her father.

Clay sighed. Things were so much easier on the mountain.

***

Clay’s resolve lasted until he and Broad entered the dining hall, and he got a good look at Dawn Spring. She’d been pretty enough out in the field, but in the candlelight of the hall, in clean crisp linen, adorned with bronze and silver bands on her arms, her lips rosy, color on her cheeks, she was beautiful.

Broad looked at him. “You, brother, are in trouble.”

Clay walked between the long tables of the hall, acutely aware of the stares from the other diners as he passed.

“You are the one my daughter spoke of?” The man next to Dawn spoke, glaring up at the young man with a mixture of distrust and annoyance.

Clay bowed his head briefly in the manner he’d seen of the residents of Jericho, a sign of greeting or respect. “I am Clay.”

Broad cleared his throat. “You honor my brother and I with your invitation. We have heard that you are a great man in Jericho, and we come to you with respect, bearing gifts.”

Clay was in sudden appreciation of the way his brother was picking up the manners of Jericho.

“Oh?” Squint turned his gaze on Broad, seeming less impressed.

Broad gestured at the nearby table. “May we sit?”

Squint grunted and sat on the bench. Dawn sat next to him.

Clay’s brother still had the older man’s attention. “Clay may be bigger, but I am the elder brother. His only kin. He is my responsibility, and I want you to know he is a good man.”

Squint snorted. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”

Broad’s smile didn’t fade. He put the basket he’d brought onto the table, effectively creating a divider between Squint and his daughter.

“What’s this?” the elder asked.

“Your gift,” Broad said. “To show our respect.”

Dawn leaned forward behind the basket, eyes on Clay. “You groomed your hair.”

“Broad thought it was a good idea,” he whispered back. “We wanted to make a good impression.”

“It looks nice.”

“You look nice. You smell like flowers.”

“Thank you. It’s perfume.”

“Perfume,” Clay said.

Broad pulled a pair of horns out of the basket. “Gazelle antlers. Collected by my brother and I as we hunted through the Sea of Grass.”

“Antlers?” Squint sounded taken aback.

“The only goods we came to Jericho with,” Broad said. “Clay insisted we give them to you, as a sign of respect.”

Squint picked one of the antlers up, with a grunt that might have been appreciative.

Broad winked sidelong at his brother.

Dinner went surprisingly well. Squint largely ignored the younger hunter, and instead spent his time talking to Broad. Clay felt like what they were saying was important, like he should be paying attention, but he was finding it difficult not to focus entirely on Dawn and her smile. She wasn’t anything like the women of the Bear Clan.

They’d brought roast mutton as well as strong beer, and Clay realized he must have consumed both, for his platter was empty, but he didn’t remember that either. All he could think about was Dawn’s eyes, the way they seemed to burn into his, and the shy smile she would flash him.

“Clay.” He realized that his brother was talking to him.

“Whu?” He turned and saw that both Broad and Squint were staring at him.

“Clay, tell him about the lion.”

“What lion?”

Broad’s eyes shifted to Squint, then back to Clay. “The one you killed. The one whose skin you took.”

“Oh, right,” Clay’s face burned and his scalp pricked. “The lion. Yes. I was tracking it through the Sea of Grass. Only it turns out, it was hunting me too.”

Dawn gasped, and Clay smiled at her, then turned back to her father. “It jumped out at me — bit me, scratched me, broke my spear, but I was able to wound it with the tip. The beast ran, but I followed it until it had lost too much blood. Skinned it and made a fine wrap.”

“Hunting a lion is dangerous business, boy. Some might say foolish,” Squint said.

“If I had known what a lion was, I would not have tried,” Clay said. “But I thought from the tracks that I was following a leopard.”

“The tracks are very similar,” Broad said. “And we had no lions in the mountains.”

“Do you have the skin?” Dawn asked.

“We gave it to the men at the gate as a gift,” Clay said. “And they sent us to Forkbeard.”

“That’s terrible,” Dawn said. “You should have kept it.”

“What brought you from the mountains?” Squint asked.

Clay exchanged a glance with his brother.

“It… is not a good story,” Broad said.

Squint chuckled. “Some say that any tribal coming to Jericho is an outcast from his tribe. Is that so?”

“It’s not that at all,” Clay said. “Our tribe—”

His words were cut off when a man across the room suddenly stood, knocking a wooden platter out of a servant’s hands. He was tall, like a tribesman, but his features were strange, and he was dressed like one of the locals. He snarled something in a language that Clay didn’t speak, then pushed the servant back.

“Please—” the servant said. “The brewmaster says you have had enough to drink—”

“I will tell your brewmaster when I have had enough.” The stranger’s voice was thick and slurred, heavy with a deep accent. “Bring more beer.”

Squint stood up and pointed at the man. “Be quiet, barbarian. Leave if you cannot drink like an honest man.”

The stranger focused on Dawn’s father. “Who are you to tell me what to drink? Don’t you know who I am?”

“You’re a drunken fool,” Squint said.

Others in the crowd agreed, loudly. “Get out of here, tribal.”

Clay looked at Broad, hoping his brother would know what to do.

Broad stood. “Please, let us calm ourselves. Shouting doesn’t help.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.” The drunk kicked the heavy wooden table away from himself. It easily weighed hundreds of pounds, and even as a Champion Clay would have been hard-pressed to lift it, but it went skidding across the room towards them like it was made of feathers.

Clay was out of his seat instantly, grabbing it and stopping its slide before it could strike them. His hands stung with the impact.

“Clay,” Broad hissed.

Clay glanced at his brother.

“He’s a Champion! And he’s drunk!”

Clay looked at the table he’d stopped, at the approaching drunk, then at the shocked faces of Dawn and her father.

“Great.”

Ancient Beer

  • 2 cakes (8 oz each) sprouted barley
  • 2.5 quarts water
  • 1 3/4 cup barley, crushed
  • 2 cup spelt flour, crushed
  • 1 cake (7 oz) sprouted wheat
  • 1 1/2 cup pulverized sprouted barley gruel
  • 2 quarts barley rinse
  • 2 cups cracked wheat

Break up the barley cakes and let them soak in a pot with the water, crushed barley, and crushed flour, slowly heated to boiling. Break up the wheat cake and let it soak in a second pot at room temperature with the gruel, sprouted flour, sprouted barley, cracked wheat, and barley rinse. When the first pot has come to a boil, add the wheat cake soak to the barley soak and return them to boiling, mixing the contents. Once boiling, push the mash aside and collect the liquid and transfer it to another pot.

Add a quart of boiling water to the mash, stir, and repeat collecting the excess water until you have collected several quarts of brown liquid.

Boil the collected wort to sterilize it, let it cool, and pitch it with a wild yeast.

Rack into bottles. Ferment.

Hero Historia: Jericho Rising 4

The stone spire of Jericho’s tallest tower was a source of awe and wonder within the hearts of the Bear Clan tribesmen. Even hours distant across the plains it stood proud and tall, an architectural wonder far beyond the simple huts the Smoke Mountain clans built. It stood as tall as the tallest trees, with a glimmer atop, as if a second sun burned at its pinnacle.

The journey through the Sea of Grass had been uneventful, despite Broad’s hope of encountering a lion to hunt for a skin of his very own. They found none, though plenty of game along the way, felling two fast-moving antelopes, and the meat would serve to sustain them on their journey.

Broad had taken the horns. Gifts for their new hosts, gratitude to the people of Jericho for taking them in.

Drawing closer, the scope of the city became clear, as impossible as it seemed.

“It’s as big as a forest!” Clay said.

“The entire Tribe could camp inside,” Broad said. “All four clans.”

“Five clans,” Clay said.

Broad didn’t respond, putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder, and Clay remembered. His excitement died a little, but only a little.

At first Clay had taken Jericho to be one massive hut, an unbroken structure of unbelievable size, but when they were closer he saw that the camp was surrounded by a great wall, hundreds of feet on a side. Surrounding the wall was a steep-walled ravine deeper than a man was tall, further across than any but a Champion could leap. He wondered, briefly, if the people of Jericho had built their wall at the edge of the ditch, or if they had somehow managed to dig something so impressive around their walls.

It seemed impossible, but there it was.

“Look.” Broad pointed with his chin.

In the distance a couple stood among a herd of some kind of small animals, goats or sheep. The beasts ate placidly among them, not acknowledging the humans in their midst.

“Their magic is strong,” Clay said.

“It is as the Old Ones said.”

The brothers were rewarded with a closer look at Jericho’s inhabitants when they reached the gates. Two men stood at the entrance to the city, spears in hand. The warriors were shorter than the hunters of the Smoke Mountain tribe, with similar features, close-cropped short hair and well-groomed beards. What stuck out most to Clay was how clean they were, how well kept their flax garments, and the wariness in their eyes.

“We come from the Smoke Mountain,” Broad said. “We want to join your people.”

The two men exchanged a glance.

One spoke, and there was a strangeness to the way he made his words, though Clay could not place it. “Why should we let you? Two more mouths to feed.”

“Two more bellies,” the other said. “And you know how much a tribal can eat.”

“We bring gifts,” Broad said, holding up the antelope horns.

“What do we care for your trinkets?”

“We are hunters.” Clay lifted the paw of his lionskin. “We can bring meat and furs for Jericho.”

The two men were interested in the skin, reaching out to touch it. “Where did you get this?”

“My brother killed a lion in the Sea of Grass,” Broad said. “We are both mighty hunters.”

“We do not need hunters,” the first man said. “But your backs look strong. If you give us the lion’s hide, you can come in. If you are willing to work.”

“What kind of work?” Broad asked.

“Farming. Repairing the wall. Carrying stone. Does it matter? Or is that beneath such mighty hunters?”

Clay hesitated. The fur was his, a hunter’s prize, the rightful trophy of his prowess. He’d almost died there, in the Sea of Grass, fighting a beast of tooth and claw. He had intended the skin to be passed down to his eventual son, along with the story of how he had killed it.

But now the Bear Clan had fallen. Broad and Clay had nowhere else to go. Jericho was the last chance they had to live among men, instead of wandering like beasts in the wilderness.

It was not a good choice, but it was an easy one.

Clay pulled the skin off of his shoulders, bearing them to the sun’s heat, and handed it over to the guards.

They looked pleased. “Welcome to Jericho.”

“What do we do now?” Broad asked.

One of the guards elbowed the other. “Take them to Forkbeard. He’ll put you to work, give you a place to sleep.”

The other guard nodded and led the way through the walls.

The city was beyond anything Clay could have imagined. Massive structures of clay brick and mud lined narrow streets, up against one another like trees in the forest, like the huts his clan had built but on a much grander scale.

And the people. So many people. A crowd, walking, talking, staring at the new arrivals. There were as many as Clay had seen at one of the tribal moots.

“There must be hundreds living here,” he said to Broad.

Their escort laughed. “Many hundreds, tribal. Wait until all the farmers come in from the fields.”

Hundreds. How could so many live in a small space, without killing all the game, without gathering all the plants? They didn’t move with the seasons as the clans did. It didn’t make any sense.

Clay felt small. Insignificant, compared to the accomplishments of the people of Jericho. They had a mastery of the world the Bear Clan had never even thought to achieve. This was a powerful magic indeed, and he would try his best to become part of it.

***

“What do we do?” Clay asked, looking at the furrowed dirt stretching out before him.

“It is almost the time of planting,” Forkbeard said. He stood tall for the men of Jericho, older and wiry in the way of an experienced hunter, and had a split down the middle of his beard. “But first the soil must be prepared to accept the grain.”

Clay felt a certain trepidation at the man’s words. He didn’t understand what they meant, but it sounded like magic. “Are you a shaman?”

Forkbeard laughed. “I am a farmer. We have no shamans here.”

Broad looked uncomfortable. “Then how do you know what the spirits want?”

“Jericho has no need for spirits, for we are wise in our ways. Look at the city, and all you will see was created by the hands of man. Here, in the fields, we have learned the secrets of the soil.”

Clay shivered. A powerful magic. But to discount the spirits?

Forkbeard handed sticks to the brothers. “Here. You must till the earth. Make it ready. Turning the soil will make the crops grow all the more, so that when we harvest there is more food for the city.”

Clay held the stick at arm’s length, peering at it, wondering at the magics it possessed to accomplish such a feat.

“What grows here?” Broad asked.

“This field?” Forkbeard craned his neck. “Wheat or barley.”

“I don’t know those,” Broad said. “This seems like much effort. Our gatherers just find food growing all over the place.”

“And they gather it, and it is gone,” Forkbeard said. “Farming is a way of telling the earth what plants to give us.”

So it was like being a shaman, Clay reflected, even if the men of Jericho didn’t think of it that way.

Forkbeard walked to the field, dragging his stick through the earth, stirring it up. “You see? Like so.”

Clay copied his actions. It seemed simple enough.

“Where is the food?” Broad asked, sifting through the dirt Clay had churned with his big toe.

“First we till the fields. Next week we make holes and drop the seed. When the time of harvest comes and the plants are tall, we reap the grain.”

Broad started. “That is long to go without eating.”

“There is plenty of food, tribal. We grow enough to last until the next harvest. And more, for trade to those who come for it.”

“That is… that is so much food!”

Forkbeard smiled. “Do you see why we do not hunt? Why send a hunter out to bring back a day’s worth of meat, when the same man can feed many by working the land?”

The older man left the younger with their sticks, and the brothers did their best to shift the dirt like they’d been shown. It soon proved more difficult than it had first appeared, and by midday the brothers were covered in sweat-streaked dirt.

“Broad?” Clay asked.

“Yes?” Broad had been humming tunelessly.

“If Jericho does not hunt, where do they get their meat?”

Broad paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, smearing mud across his forehead. “Maybe they grow it from the ground. Another magic.”

“I do not think that that is a thing that happens.”

“Maybe not.” Broad said. “Maybe that is why they are all so small.”

“Not enough meat,” Clay said.

“Or maybe they trade for meat.”

“It would be simpler to hunt.”

“We are their guests,” Broad said. “We want them to take us in. Accept us into their tribe.”

“I know.” Clay picked up a heavy stone and rolled it out of the field. “I would rather be hunting.”

Broad’s words had wisdom. They had arrived without kin to speak for them. No one knew their deeds. Their voices were small. Clay resolved to do what it took to gain their acceptance.

“Maybe we would do better on our own,” Broad said, rolling his shoulders. “We can leave. Live in the woods, live like hunters. What does Jericho have to offer that we cannot acquire ourselves?”

Clay spotted Forkbeard returning along the wall and elbowed his brother to quiet his complaints. They redoubled their efforts to look busy until the overseer reached them.

“You did good work, for your first day,” Forkbeard said. “It is enough for now.”

“Thank you,” Clay said, jamming his stick in the soil.

“Come in, cool off, and have some beer. You can stay at my home until we find a more permanent place for you.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” Broad said. “What is beer?”

Forkbeard smiled. “Beer is the greatest magic. It is why Jericho was built.”

***

“I like beer!” Broad grinned, holding his mug high. “This is the greatest of magics!”

Clay didn’t disagree.

***

Forkbeard’s home was a structure built around a flat clay courtyard large enough to have fit the Bear Champion’s hut comfortably. The overseer walked the brothers over to one of the curtained doorways.

“This was a supply room. I hope you don’t mind.”

Broad was in high spirits. “Of course not! We’re grateful for your generosity.”

Forkbeard grinned. “I’ll come get you in the morning, and we’ll head back to the fields.”

“Is planting next?” Clay asked.

“Not for weeks yet,” Forkbeard said. “There’s more tilling to do.”

“But we finished the field,” Broad said.

“You finished that field,” Forkbeard said. “But there are more. When the growing season is upon us, you will see the fields’ verdant growth extending from the city to the horizon in all directions. It is a beautiful sight.”

“Such a task,” Clay said. “How do you finish?”

“You never finish,” Forkbeard said. “There is always something to do. It never ends.”

It never ends. The words echoed in Clay’s ears as their overseer left them.

Broad lead the way into the storeroom.

Sleeping furs had been laid out near stacked clay jars, and Clay fell back upon them, forearm covering his face. “I would rather be hunting.”

“It’s not so bad.” Broad stood in the doorway, watching the courtyard. “Hard but honest work. And beer is good.”

“It makes me sleepy.”

“Good,” Broad said. “You haven’t been sleeping.”

“I’m surprised you can. Every time I close my eyes I see Father’s body. I see the clan, scattered to the winds. But you? You were there.”

Broad sat alongside his brother. “It is not healthy to hold on to that which is past.”

“You sound like a shaman. It’s not past for me,” Clay said. “The foreign tribe is still out there. Unpunished for their dishonorable ways.”

“Our laws are not their laws.” Broad lowered his chin to his knees.

“There are some laws that all must obey,” Clay said. “They did not need to kill our hunters, to take Father’s skull, to end the lines of Champions.”

“Clay.” Broad sighed and lifted his head. “I have not been entirely honest with you about what the Old Ones said.”

Clay sat up. “What do you mean?”

“They did say they could not call back Bear to make me the Champion. At first.”

“What did they say?”

“They did say that the Way of Champions was over, but they gave me these.” From his furs he produced a pair of clay spheres.

Clay took one. “What are they?”

“The essence of Bear. What could be given without the skull. One for each of us.”

Clay held his ball up into the moonlight coming through the door. There was a marking on it, though he couldn’t make out what it said.

“With these we can become Champions. Not as great as Father, but greater than normal men.”

Clay closed his fist around it. “Why did you not tell me sooner?”

“I wanted to give you the chance for a peaceful life, Clay.”

Clay shook his fist. “That was not your choice. These are our birthright, Broad. They are all that remains of Bear.”

Broad turned away. “I know now. And the Old Ones said that someday the foreign tribe would come here, to Jericho. You will want to fight them. Maybe, with the power of Bear, it will not be your end.”

Clay opened his hand again. “How do I—”

“Crush it in your fist.”

Clay took a deep breath, then clenched his hand around the charm. He felt its shell shatter, felt something warm and wet inside.

“It’s—” he began.

The pain stole his words as it felt like a thousand fire-ants were burrowing into his palm. Clay screamed and fell on his side, clutching his fist to his chest. All he knew was the fire as it spread up his arm like a swarm of tiny arrows, exploding in his heart.

The world whited out.

***

Clay woke to Broad shaking him and calling his name. He opened his eyes, groggily, and rolled to sit up.

Broad was staring at him.

“Did—” His voice sounded deeper. His hand went to his throat. “Did it work?”

Broad nodded.

Clay looked down at his hands. They seemed larger. There was a fading redness in the palm that had crushed the charm.

“You’re bigger,” Broad said. “Not as big as Father. But bigger.”

Clay felt bigger. He felt stronger. Powerful. He stood, his head almost reaching the roof of the storeroom.

“Shoulders, chest are broader,” Broad said. “You look a mighty hunter.”

Clay looked at his shadow. He wasn’t as barrel-shaped as the Bear Champions had been, still skinny of proportion by their standards, but he was easily the size and stature of the other clans’ Champions.

“How does it feel?” Broad asked.

“Good,” Clay said. “Strange. But good. I can feel the power of the ancestors humming in my blood.”

Broad grinned. “Working the fields should be easy tomorrow.”

Clay laughed. “The way I feel, I could till them all in one day on my own.”

“Shh! Don’t let Forkbeard hear you.”

“Okay, now you. Crush your charm.”

Broad’s smile faded. “Now?”

“Why not?”

He looked at the charm. “I don’t know. I think I just want to be Broad.”

“I don’t understand. You were going to be chosen to replace Father.”

“I never wanted to be Champion, Clay. I just wanted a simple life. Eventually Jericho will discover they have a Champion in their midst, and they will ask things of you.”

“Do you think so?” Clay asked. “Champion of Jericho… that is a position of respect.”

“And responsibility,” Broad said. “I don’t want responsibility. I just want to farm. It suits me.” He held the charm out to his brother. “Here. Break it yourself, maybe you will grow more powerful. Or give it to your son, so that he too may know that life.”

Clay didn’t take it. “Broad—”

Broad put the charm in Clay’s hand. “No, take it. I don’t want it.”

Clay put a hand on his older brother’s shoulder. “I will hold it for you. Only for now. Until you change your mind.”

Broad smiled. “If that makes the choice easier for you, brother Bear.”

Clay shook his head. “Bear is no more. Just call me Clay.”

A serious look crossed his brother’s face. “You will fight when the foreign tribe comes to Jericho?”

“I will fight. If they have kept Father’s skull, I will take it.”

“Then you must learn to fight men.”

“I am a hunter.”

Broad shook his head. As am I, but when they attacked us… none were ready. None could help Father. Killing men… is not the way of killing beasts.”

“How do I learn?” Clay asked. “If I just started killing men, they would exile us. And I don’t want to kill the innocent.”

“I do not know,” Broad said.

Clay frowned. “You aren’t much help.”

“I am a great help! I gave you the power of Champions!”

“You mean you stopped hiding the power that the Old Ones told you to share with me?”

Broad laughed. “Hold on to that cleverness, brother. You will need it.”

Prospectus

Excerpt from On the Origin of Extra-Normal Capabilities by J. Wainwright (Cambridge, 1892)

While no chrononaut has, at the time of this writing, managed to travel back through time beyond the origins of the Roman Empire, and no immortal can make a legitimate claim to living any earlier than Babylon, the evidence clearly supports the theory that capabilities transcending the human date back to the New Stone Age at the very least. Malformations of skeletal remains recovered in the Near East, Africa, and Orient lead one to the conclusion that some men exhibited a range of grotesque adaptations similar to what we see in the modern world, though perhaps not to the same degree.

Without a concrete written language we must turn to legend and apocrypha.

While the media treats these supernal individuals as a new development, we cannot deny the mark they’ve left on history. Physical evidence clearly indicates that figures such as Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Achilles not only did possess the legendary traits we attribute to them, but that so did many others.

Returning for the moment to the New Stone Age, we see a potential origin for these unique talents at sites such as Jericho and Çatal Hüyük in the graves discovered there. Being closer to their source, did these ancients have an understanding of these capabilities that we ourselves lack?

This thesis will examine that question.

Hero Historia: Jericho Rising 3

The long walk up Smoke Mountain gave Broad plenty of time to think about how he did not want to become the Bear Champion.

It wasn’t that he was lazy. Broad did not mind hard work. He was well suited to it, with big shoulders, a strong back, and a mind that did not easily bore.

It was the violence. Champions lived often short and brutal lives, warring with the champions of other clans, fighting them, killing them. Broad had watched his father rend limb from limb many adversaries, had seen the hidden toll that each death levied upon his soul. And at that last battle, he had seen enough men killing men to last him the rest of his life.

He didn’t want to fight.

He didn’t want to die.

And, if he wanted to be honest with himself, it was the responsibility. Was a simple, happy life, really so bad?

And now, with the Bear Clan scattered to the winds, what was the point?

Broad stopped, gazing up the path to the skulls placed in carved alcoves along the way up the mountains. They were the skulls of generations of ancestor-champions, from all the clans of the Smoke Mountain Tribe, emptied of their totemic essence and left to guard the path. The Bear skulls were easy to identify, broader than the others, with thicker brow. He could feel them watch him as he trudged past, wondered if they were judging his reluctance.

Movement ahead. The tall form of the new Elk Champion was returning down the path towards him. This one was a woman, a bare and slender torso extending above beast’s legs, horns rising above a feminine face. She stopped when she saw him.

“You are Bear,” she said.

“Yes.” He stood tall. The way up to the Old Ones was sacred. It was taboo to fight here, but the recent troubles between the Bear and Elk clans was heavy on Broad’s mind.

Elk advanced, and Broad stepped aside.

She stopped when she had drawn level with him. “I am sorry for the loss of your clan. Elk will sing your memory, and wreak vengeance upon these foreigners.”

“Thank you.” Broad didn’t know what else to say.

Elk walked on, and Broad watched her go before continuing on up the mountain.

***

Broad had only been to the Cave of the Old Ones once before, when he was a child, traveling with his father. They’d brought the skull of his grandfather. Bright Spear had disappeared into the depths of the cave with one of the strange-looking Old Ones, and had returned as the Bear Champion. It had been very exciting for little Broad, but he didn’t remember much of it.

The cave’s exterior was decorated with more skulls, piled high, said by some to be ancient Champions, said by others to belong to failed candidates. He didn’t spare them a glance, ducking into the dimness of an entrance that looked almost like a mouth.

One of the Old Ones met him at the entrance. He was tall, taller than Broad, perhaps as tall as his brother Clay, with bone-white skin and straight white hair. Broad remembered having thought that they must truly be ancient for their skin to have bleached so pale, and the thought stayed with him still, though the Old One’s skin was smooth and unwrinkled.

More-so, as an adult they reminded him of the pale bugs you found deep in caves and under stones. Maybe the Old Ones never left the darkness of the Cave for the light of the sun. Maybe that was even worse than tremendous age. The clothes he wore were even more unusual than Broad had remembered, like no furs or weaving he had ever seen, perhaps woven out of the webs of cave-spiders.

“What is your Clan?” the Old One asked.

“Bear,” Broad said.

The Old One nodded, turned and walked into the cave. Broad followed him.

The tunnel had a steep downward slope, and Broad found himself putting a hand out to the wall to steady himself. Strange luminescent fungus lit the passage from high on the wall, and untold years’ worth of footfalls had worn the bottom of the tunnel smooth.

It opened into a vast cavern illuminated by distant torches. In the center was a subterranean lake sprouting ancient carved pillars from its center. His guide led the way to where another Old One stood.

“What clan is the supplicant?” the taller and more ancient-seeming Old One asked.

“Bear,” his guide said.

“Present the skull of your fallen Champion,” the taller said.

Broad turned his palms out. “I don’t have it.”

“You did not bring it?” The guide’s brow furrowed.

“It was lost,” Bear said.

The Old Ones looked at one another.

“Can it be retrieved?” The guide asked.

Broad shook his head. “It was taken.”

The taller one scowled. “Which clan dared break the law? No matter how much hatred burns, none may keep another Champion’s skull.”

“It was none of our brother clans,” Broad said. “Foreigners. They came with many men. Killed our hunters. Killed Bear, mighty as he was. Killed them all like prey, and took Father’s head with them.”

The taller Old One staggered as if struck. “No. It is too soon.”

The guide grabbed his arm. “We knew this was coming. It was inevitable.”

They spoke to one another, in their strange lilting tongue, and Broad wondered if he should leave. The language was so strange to his ears, he wondered if it was taboo to hear. Then again, maybe it was taboo to leave, or to interrupt. So many things could be taboo. Such a bother.

He decided to just stay and wait to see what happened.

The taller Old One staggered away, towards the lake. The guide called to him, but was waved off.

He stared at the ground for a long time, then seemed to remember Broad. “I am sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Broad said. “The shaman said you might not be able to help without the skull.”

“No,” the guide said. “This… the outsiders’ arrival means that the Way of Champions is over.”

“How can a Way be over?”

“It was never meant to last. We thought we had more time, but…”

“No more Champions,” Broad said. “What do we do?”

“Learn new ways.” The Old One put a hand on Broad’s back and walked with him back towards the cave entrance. “We hoped… it doesn’t matter what we hoped. You must learn the new ways of war to protect yourself from this new tribe.”

“It is too late.” Broad said. “The strangers killed our hunters. We sent our women to their kinfolk tribes. All that remain are my brother Clay and myself.”

The Old One stopped. “I am sorry.”

Broad found that strange. It was not the Old Ones that killed his clan. He simply nodded.

The Old One took a quick look out through the cave entrance, then grabbed Broad’s shoulder. “Wait here.”

Broad waited, wondering what he would tell Clay, where the brothers could go. Maybe Elk would give them a home. Their Champion seemed honorable. Maybe she would need mates. The parts of her that weren’t an elk were certainly attractive enough. That would be an easy life, consort of a clan Champion.

The sound of the Old One’s steps brought him from his daydream. The pale-faced ancient had a furtive expression as he pressed two clay balls into Broad’s palm.

“These. For you, for your brother. The last of the Bear totem.”

“How did you manage without Father’s skull?”

“There are ways. Choices that are easier, now that it is the end.”

Broad looked at the clay spheres, each marked with a tiny indentation. “But your elder said the days of clans and Champions have ended.”

“They have,” the Old One said. “And I am sorry, but there is nothing you can do about that. The foreign tribe is here, and they will kill the other Champions and enslave or murder their people.”

Broad couldn’t believe his ears. “Our women will warn them. They will be ready!”

“It matters not. Your ways of war cannot stand against theirs. The Champions do not know how to fight together. They will die.”

Broad let out a frustrated groan, punching the wall. “Why did our ancestors learn such an inferior way? One so easily defeated?”

The Old One did not meet his eyes. “Even the spirits make mistakes, young one. Sometimes great plans change the world. Sometimes they lead to tragedy.”

Broad could see that his words had stung the ancient. “Old One, I did not mean… the Ways were taught generations upon generations ago. It is not your fault.”

The Old One looked steadily at Broad. “Take these charms. They contain the essence of Bear. Give one to your brother. When the time comes to wear the mantle of Champion, then break it in your fist. Neither is as strong as the old totem, not without the skull, so you must learn new ways yourself.”

“With no clan, who do we protect?”

“Those ways are over. And do not think about revenge… your enemy is too numerous, too strong, even for two half-Champions.”

Broad hadn’t been thinking about revenge. “Then where do we go?”

“You go West. To the Sea of Grass. You go West, each day, following the sun from dawn until noon, and after one cycle of the moon you will come to a great camp surrounded by cliffs of stone. The people that live there call it Jericho.”

“Jericho,” Broad said.

“Said to be a land where no man has kin nor clan. They have a powerful magic, one that brings the very beasts of the field to heel to present their throats, one that makes the good plants grow where they are needed.”

“That is a powerful totem.”

“Of a different sort. Go there, and learn a new way. You will need it, for some day, your enemy will come, and if you are not strong enough they will tear down Jericho’s walls just as easily as they killed your father.”

Broad looked down at the clay charms in his hand.

***

Dawn Spring stood with her flock near the gates of Jericho, watching a pair of tribal savages make their way towards the city.

“More and more come every day,” she said.

“Fortunately, most of them won’t be staying.” Her father spat on the ground. “Their kind are ill suited to civil life.”

“Why?”

“Look at them,” Squint said.

To Dawn Spring’s eyes, they were a desperate couple. Clothed in mangy animal skin, they were much taller than the men and women of Jericho, but walking stooped. They brought little with them, bundled furs, a spear or two. Fatigue from their journey seemed to war with near awed shock at Jericho’s walls as they approached.

“Why aren’t they suited to the city?” she asked.

“It’s honest work they’re not suited for,” Squint said. “The savage spends all morning sleeping in the sun, spends a few hours hunting rabbits or gathering food — from honest men’s fields, if you let them — then spends the rest of the day lazing about some more. Give them beer, and they don’t know how to handle it, acting great drunken fools in the street.

“Most of them leave the city once they discover they’re expected to work. As if they’re too good for farm work.”

“Maybe they just don’t know how,” Dawn said.

“It’s selfishness. Each savage gathers enough food for himself. A farmer grows food to feed the whole city.”

Dawn wasn’t convinced. They didn’t look lazy. They just looked… sad. Her eyes were drawn to one of the young men, tall and lanky, with a wild mane of unkempt hair.

Squint was looking at her. “And they’re not safe.”

“How are they dangerous?”

“Look at them. Look at the eyes.”

Dawn looked.

“See?” Squint asked.

“No.”

“The eyes. Look at my eyes.”

Dawn looked into her father’s gaze.

Squint held her by the chin. “You and I. The civilized people of Jericho. Our eyes are like Jump-Up’s.”

Dawn glanced over at the young dog they’d raised to help them with the sheep. He wagged his tail.

“Peaceful,” Squint said. “Serene. Civilized. Tame.”

“Okay,” Dawn said.

“Look at the savages.” Squint said. “See? It’s in the eyes. They live like beasts. Their eyes are like the wolves who come to take our sheep. There’s that edge of menace. You can’t trust a wolf. You can’t trust a savage. Feed them, and eventually they will bite your hand.”

Dawn looked again at the young man, and had to admit that she saw a difference in his slate-gray eyes. Under the weariness, under the wonder, there was an alertness, an activeness, a life that filled her with a strange sort of fear. They were dangerous, and she felt intimidated… but also strangely drawn to them. He knew something, she suddenly felt, that the civilized people of Jericho had forgotten. He could teach her things.

Squint’s mouth had drawn itself into a fine line. “Do not let your guard down, daughter. They will savage you as the wolves seek to savage our sheep.”

“I understand, Father.”

He looked back towards the savages. “Do you?”

“Where do they all come from, Father? Why so many, these past weeks?”

“North. South. West. Everywhere. They are savage, but still human, daughter. Part of them craves the order the city provides. Their souls sing for it. The tower calls them. Some rare few are tamed, become farmers, work the wall. The rest? Either drink too much and die, cause trouble and are cast out, or return to the barbarian wilderness from which they come.”

She returned her gaze to the pair at the gates, watching as they tried to bargain with the guards, studying the curve of the young man’s spine, the breadth of his shoulders.

“Come,” Squint said. “The hour grows late. Let’s return the sheep to their pen.”

Dawn gave the young man a long last lingering look before reluctantly turning to help lead the flock back to where they belonged. It was long that night before she could get the savages out of her head.

The Last Old Ones

Peribo watched the young tribal leave, clay charms in his hands, not really sure how to feel. He didn’t turn when he heard Mantino coming up the tunnel behind him.

“You gave it to him.”

“Two of them.” Peribo’s shoulders slumped. “It’s really over. Isn’t it?”

“For us, perhaps.” Mantino’s hand fell on his shoulder. “But the experiment goes on.”

“No, it’s over.”

“The other enclaves–”

Peribo cut him off. “We have our answer, Mantino. We’ve had it for generations of subjects.”

Mantino closed his eyes, looking every bit as tired as Peribo felt. “Haste makes for bad science.”

Peribo almost laughed. “When was the last time you heard from any of the others?”

“Number Nine still has its signal.”

“The beacon is live, but when was the last time Nine posted a report?”

Mantino did not answer.

“When was the last time any node was active?”

“It’s over, then.”

Peribo nodded. “It’s been over. We’re ghosts of a dead culture. Remnants.”

Mantino straightened. “It’s funny. Now that the decision has been made, that the truth has been accepted…”

Peribo managed a small smile. “I know, father.”

“I’ll tell the others.”

Peribo sighed and dusted cave grit off of his hands. “Are you going to stay?”

“Aren’t you?”

“I’m not done yet.”

Mantino blanched. “But we just decided–”

We’re done. I’m not. I’ve got a few loose ends to tie up. There are isolates – they deserve to know, so they can make the choice. And that anomaly we saw last year…”

Mantino coughed a laugh. “You never would shut up about that.”

Peribo slipped his hands into his robes. “I’m not done yet.”

“I understand,” Mantino said. “No, that’s a lie, but I respect your choice.”

Peribo glanced towards the cave exit once more. “Do you think they’ll make it?”

“The tribe?”

“The species?”

“Who can say? Their genetic code is too unstable to make any firm predictions. The catalyst’s effect is too variable.”

“Their genetic code might stabilize.”

“Or it might not.”

“Maybe they’ll do better than we did.”

Mantino snorted. “This new tribe should be proof enough that they won’t.”

“Maybe.”

“Are you going to stick around and find out?”

“Hell no,” Peribo lied. “I’m too old. Too tired. No, I’ll be joining you as soon as I’ve wrapped up these loose ends.”

Mantino clasped Peribo’s forearm. “I’ll be waiting for you in the Light, my son.”

“In the Light of Eternity, Father.”

They separated, Mantino returning into the depths of the mountain, Peribo out onto its surface, both liars, neither believing the other.

Hero Historia: Jericho Rising 2

Last Time, young Bear clan hunter Clay witnessed his first battle and learned the way of his people.

Three winters later, Clay found a leopard print the size of his own hand. A man’s hand, not the hand that had nervously clung to the spear at his first battle so many seasons ago. He had grown into his adult body, tall and fit, though still skinny by the standards of the Bear Clan.

Hunter’s lore told that a leopard could be hunted with difficulty if one were hungry enough or far from home, and Clay had ranged days from the hills his people traveled, all the way to where the trees ended and the Sea of Grass began. Hunting had become his second nature. It was rare that he didn’t return with meat to share, and he never failed to find enough for himself, not even in the deep of winter. He strayed from camp for longer and longer periods, returning with more and more to show for it, passing it around freely like the older hunters did.

In his basket he already had the butchered meat from two voles, a rabbit, and a small boar. Enough to return with, if he found nothing else.

He put his hand down alongside the track, comparing them again, then stood, a gleam in his eyes, senses straining.

This leopard had to be twice as large as any he’d ever seen. They usually weren’t dangerous, not when you hadn’t injured them, more apt to flee than hunt the flesh of man. If he could find it, if he could kill it, if he could drag its carcass back to camp, it would not only feed the clan, but it would be a feat worthy of being told around the fire every night, worthy of being taught to his children’s children. Worthy of reaching his father’s ears.

He crouched again, feeling the mud alongside the print. Still wet. It was fresh.

Clay set off, spear gripped tightly, eyes casting along the ground for more spoor, and along the tips of the long chest-high grasses for ripples of movement. More than anticipation for the kill, he felt the exhilaration of the challenge to his skills. It was only while hunting that Clay felt truly alive, and the promise of such a crafty and dangerous prey was particularly exciting.

***

The Sea of Grass was a strange place, unlike the forested hills that the Bear Clan called home. There were trees but they were few and far between, and there was no canopy above to shade Clay from the harsh sun. As the afternoon wore on he had been compelled to leave his furs near a boulder shaped like a wolf’s skull, and now walked only with his spear and knife.

He felt exposed. He could see much farther than he could in the forest, and the Sea of Grass seemed to flow on, unbroken, until it met the cloudless sky. There were no trunks to hide behind, no ridges to crouch along, no higher ground from which he could survey. The leopard, even one as big as this, would have no such problem, crawling low through the tall grass, hidden from a hunter’s senses.

Clay tried to use the grass to his own advantage, crouching low to follow the tracks as he spotted them, but this only further limited his vision and created in him a terrible anticipation of the unknown and unseen. He tried several times to mimic a cat’s crawl, but each time was compelled to rise and look around himself.

Of course he was. He was no member of the Cat Clan. He was a Bear.

The tribe had fought another battle since his first, against that very foe. Cat had not invaded their territory, but word had come that one of the Bear women, exchanged at the last moot, was being mistreated, beaten by her husband. Though living among the Cat, Slenderfoot was a Bear, and would always be kin. The Bear Clan had demanded she be returned, the Cat Clan had refused, and there was nothing left to do but raid their camp and rescue her.

The Bear Champion had engaged the Cat Champion in a battle that seemed to take hours. The faster Cat harried Bear, slicing into the man’s flesh with cruel curved claws, tiny cuts that were individually no threat, but when applied repeatedly drained the massive man’s strength.

Try as he might, Bear couldn’t get a clear grip on the wily Cat, and it looked for a moment that the only prize the Clan would return with was Clay’s father’s skull.

Just as the lithe Cat Champion seemed to tire of the game, moving in for the kill, Bear revealed his weakness to be a ruse, sticking the broad of his hairy forearm into Cat’s needle-fanged maw. He pressed his advantage, driving Cat back through the crowd of his clansmen to impalement on a jagged tree-branch. The Bear had taken Slenderfoot and a sizable war prize.

Cat was no match for Bear, and no leopard — no matter how big — was a match for Clay’s hunting skills.

He stopped and dropped into a crouch. Scat, near another set of prints. Fresh. His scalp prickled.

It was close, now. Very close.

Clay rose, watching the grass, and the way it moved in the wind. Nature spoke to the hunter in a hundred small ways, if he had the wisdom to listen.

He saw its words in the pattern of the grass’s shadow, knew its secret only moments before the beast leapt from hiding, jaw wide.

It wasn’t a leopard. It was so much bigger than a leopard. It wore no spots, but instead sported the wild mantle of a dark blond mane framing its furious face.

Clay brought his spear up, but couldn’t orient it to strike before the beast was upon him. He shoved the shaft into its mouth, sideways, past the deadly snapping teeth. The weight of the creature hit him hard, bearing him to the ground, driving the wind from his lungs. The powerful jaws snapped his spear in half.

He grabbed the short end by the flint tip as it fell, arching his back, straining to keep the animal from tearing out his throat. It lunged and he moved, and the beast’s massive fangs tore into the muscle of his shoulder and bicep.

Bear does not scream. Clay roared, straining, and brought the flint spear-tip around, jabbing it into the great cat’s neck. The beast let loose a terrible shriek and recoiled away, clawed paws pushing off of Clay painfully, tearing a line open across his chest.

The hunter rolled to his feet in time to see the beast scamper off through the underbrush.

Clay watched the grass it had disappeared into for long moments before deciding it wasn’t going to suddenly come leaping out at him again. As soon as he knew that surety, his limbs began to shake, and he fell to his knees. His thoughts felt distant and unimportant, and he could do little but resist the overpowering urge to go running blindly in the opposite direction.

Never had he faced a beast so formidable. Never had he felt such terror.

It had hurt him, and all Clay wanted to do was recover his furs and his earlier kills and go home, back to the forest, back to the clan.

But, as he discovered as he touched his shoulder, it hadn’t hurt him badly. The wound looked bad, but it wasn’t bleeding heavily, and the scratch on his chest was superficial. He had no doubt that the creature could have killed him.

But it hadn’t.

Bear had been watching over him, and he had hurt his prey, stabbed it in the neck.

He knelt again, near where the cat had vanished, and saw that it had left a heavy blood trail.

Clay’s hunter instinct took over where his fear left off. The creature wouldn’t last long, with a wound like that.

He picked up the fallen spearhead, wiped the blood off of his brow, and set off after the dying beast.

***

The beast’s pelt was heavier than it looked, but Clay’s steps felt lighter than air as he returned to the Bear Clan’s camp. The clan hadn’t moved from its site at the foot of the Painted Caves, which made finding his way back much easier.

A group of young boys playing in the mud pool on the outskirts of the camp were the first to spot the returning hunter, stopping and staring in wonder at the golden-blond hide he wore wrapped around his body. He gave them a brief wave before walking into the camp proper.

Right away he saw that something was wrong.

While many of the women were by the pool, making pots from clay, or amid the huts weaving baskets and tending cooking fires, he saw none of the men. While some would be out hunting, others remained behind, guarding the camp, making spears, tanning hides.

He walked past the women and children towards his father’s hut. While it was as temporary as any other, it was easily twice as large, the outside decorated with the clan bearskins.

Bluetooth, the clan shaman, was outside sunning himself. It was the surest sign that the Bear Champion was out; he couldn’t stand the old man’s odd ways.

Clay walked up to him. “Where is father? The other hunters?”

Bluetooth sprang to his feet, hands reaching for Clay’s new hide wrap. “Such color!”

Clay stepped away, careful not to come in contact with the shaman’s person. “I hunted a great beast, a giant bearded leopard in the Sea of Grass. I have its meat, its head, its hide.”

“No, no.” A broad smile crossed the shaman’s face. “Not a leopard. This was lion, the largest of cats. Like father like son, ha! There is a painting of it in the cave, you want to see?”

“Lion,” Clay said.

A group of women and children had gathered, admiring the hide he was wearing. Clay pulled the beast’s head from his basket and held it aloft, to the delight and amazement of those present. It had been hard work cutting around to preserve the mane, but very much worth it.

He turned back towards Bluetooth. “Where is my father?”

“War.” The shaman took the head, turning it over in his hands. “You know, they say the she-lion is the more deadly of the pair.”

“War?” Clay dropped his basket. “War with who? Elk?”

“A foreign tribe.” Slenderfoot took Clay by the arm, pulling him away and pointing to the south. “Hunters saw them camping near the Redflower Swamp. Bear went to chase them off, and the men went with him.”

Clay tossed aside his broken spear. “I should go to them.”

“They are not gone long.” Slenderfoot touched the mending wound on his shoulder. “You’re hurt.”

He didn’t wince and pull away. “It’s fine.”

She let go of his arm. “Then go. Support Bear.”

Clay grinned, grabbed a new spear, and ran into the woods, leaving the camp behind.

He held the lion-skin around his body, a giddiness bubbling up with each long stride. The atmosphere surrounding a battle between Champions was wild, masculine, and powerful. It was the perfect place to recount the story of his triumphant hunt, to show off the hide, to show off his wounds. After Father’s victory, of course. Maybe he would even be able to sit next to the Champion at the feast afterward.

And a foreign clan — the Elk, the Cat, the Bear, the Fox, the Sparrow — all members of the Smoke Mountain Tribe, all living in relative harmony in the woods around the mountains. Sure, sometimes they fought, over land, over honor, but they were cousins, blood-related by generations of intermarriage.

But a foreign clan would be something else, an unknown, like the lion. His brother Flatnose had told a story about meeting a foreigner in the Sea of Grass once; the man had had a nose on his forehead, and ears like a mouse.

Who knew how strange an entire clan would look? What kind of Champion they’d have?

***

Clay stopped short as he cleared the tree-line, trying to comprehend the carnage before him.

The clearing was littered with the broken bodies of the hunters of the Bear Clan, the grass slick with their spilled blood. They lay sprawled, eyes wide and unblinking, food for the flies that had started to gather.

There was Stumble, his skull crushed. There was Quickstep, a gash torn through his gut. His brother Flatnose had taken a wound so severe to the throat that it looked like he’d almost been decapitated.

And there was father, the Bear Champion, his massive form unmoving, splayed out in the center of the field, wooden shafts of dozens of spears bristling from his flesh like the spines of an enormous porcupine.

Clay ran to his side. The mound of flesh was cold. His head was gone.

“Father,” he said.

He heard a groan, and turned to see Broad collapsed among the dead. Clay fell to his knees next to his wounded kin, and saw that the bigger man had a large gash along his forehead.

“Clay?” Broad wiped the blood from his eyes.

Clay felt numb, distant, as he had when the lion had attacked him. “What happened?”

Broad sat up, a grimness on his face that his younger brother had never seen before. “The foreigners. They do not understand the Ways of War.”

“They did this?”

“Father challenged them.” He shaded his eyes, gazing at the dead, speaking in a strange flat tone. “They did not speak, but fell on him, like ants on a wounded bird. He fought them, slaying many for their dishonor, and we ran to his aid.”

Clay helped his brother up.

Broad staggered slightly. “That’s a nice wrap. Where did you get it?”

“What happened, Broad?”

“A thrown spear — too blunt to break skin, hit me in the head. That was all I knew.”

Clay was shaking again. He dropped the spear he’d brought. “Let’s see if any of the others yet live.”

None did.

***

“He will survive,” Bluetooth said, carefully lining wet moss along Broad’s brow. “The skull is unbroken.”

“That is good,” Broad said, lying on a log lined with furs, staring up at the roof of the fallen Bear Champion’s hut.

It had always been dark and cozy, filled with furs, a cave of hide and wood. Now, to Clay, it just seemed empty, even with the three of them in it.

“You will have a good scar, though,” the Shaman said, wiping his hands on a fur.

“What do we do now?” Clay asked.

“Tough choices,” Bluetooth said. “First, we must choose a new Champion. Take the skull to the Cave of the Old Ones.”

Clay started. He’d forgotten all about father’s skull.

“We don’t have it,” Broad said, his voice calm.

“What?” Bluetooth stood. “Where is it?”

“The foreigners took father’s head.”

“That is forbidden!” The shaman clutched at his wiry hair.

“Yes.” Broad’s voice was oddly mild. “They seemed quite ignorant of the proper ways of war.”

Bluetooth rocked on his feet, whining. “Forbidden.”

The shaman paced back and forth, muttering and prying at his beard.

“They took father’s head?” Clay asked.

Broad’s eyes shifted to his younger brother, and his voice lost its calm as he spoke in a haunted whisper. “They were savage. Merciless. Killed us like they were hunting deer, like we were animals, not men. Where did you get that skin?”

Clay fingered the hide. “In the sea of grass. Bluetooth called it a lion. It was as big as three leopards.”

Broad nodded. “It is a good skin.”

“Why do you keep on about it?” Clay fought the urge to shake Broad. “It doesn’t matter!”

The shaman sighed and returned to the hunters. “The women and children. All have kin in the other clans. Places to go. And the rest of our tribe should be warned of these foreigners and their savage ways.”

“What about us?” Clay asked.

“The other clans might take our women, but they would never let a hunter of the Bear clan so close to their own hens, ha.” Broad said.

“We are to wander alone, then?” Clay asked. “Bear clan dies with us?”

“We have no Champion.” Bluetooth sat heavily. “No one to stand for us in the Tribal council. No one to war for us.”

“And only two hunters,” Broad said.

Clay stared at the dirt beneath his feet. “This is how it ends.”

“There may be a chance,” Bluetooth said, lifting the edge of Clay’s lion skin. “Maybe the Old Ones can do something. Call back Bear without the skull. Broad will go there. Petition them.”

“Oh, good.” Broad closed his eyes.

“Do I go with him?” Clay asked.

“No,” Bluetooth said. “He goes alone. You wait here until Broad returns. If the Old Ones can help, you will continue the Bear Clan. Gather mates. Have many children. Raise new hunters.”

“Many mates,” Broad said. “I like this plan.”

“So much to do,” Clay said. “Will you help us?”

“No,” the shaman said. “No. It is a task too long for these old bones, and the loss of so many kin… I will spend my last days in the Painted Caves, leaving pictures for those who come after. Even if the Old Ones cannot help Broad, the Bear Clan will endure in the paint of the cave.”

Clay felt a deep sorrow settling upon himself. The death of his father, the death of the hunters, the destruction of the clan… he kept hoping that it was all some torture dream sent by the spirits. The decisions made it real. And when the shaman painted the clan legend — that would make it more than legend. That would make it history. It would make them the ancients, gone from this world.

There was a despair in the hunter so deep, that for a moment all he wanted was to curl up in the cave with Bluetooth and hibernate in death, waiting for the end of the world. He looked away from the others, gaze falling on the great paw of a bearskin hanging from the wall. The curve of its claw gleamed in the day’s fading light, slowly disappearing.

Broad reached out and grabbed his wrist. “Hey.”

Clay couldn’t look at his brother.

“Even if the Old Ones cannot help,” Broad said. “We are still Broad and Clay, yes?”

Clay’s eyes lifted.

“We will endure. We will take wives. We will have children. The clan will live on.”

Clay opened his mouth, but couldn’t speak. The words were not there.

“We will live on.” Broad tightened his grip.

Clay looked at his brother’s earnest face, and found it difficult not to smile, not to hope. “Okay, Broad.”

“Do not give up.”

“I won’t.”

Broad let go of Clay’s wrist and closed his eyes again. “Good.”

Préhistoire de la Guerre

Excerpt from Guerre à Travers les Ages by Alan Paul (2007)

Translated by Harold King (2009)

Warfare between pre-literate tribes took a very different form than what we view as contemporary armed conflict. The stakes were different; raids to seize territory, goods, and women were more common than full-fledged battle. The fighting itself was closer to what violence professionals have termed the “monkey dance,” when groups of adolescents will engage in almost ritualistic group bonding behavior, starting fights they know will be interrupted to prove their willingness to fight for their honor.

Tribal warfare was likewise ritualistic, with long lists of rules governing proper behavior, from nearly chivalrous codes of behavior to the counting coup of the indigenous American plains peoples. And like the indigenous American peoples, when a tribe met a people who did not honor the same codes of war, they found themselves overmatched.

Hero Historia: Jericho Rising 1

This is the first episode of the first season of the historical superhero serial Hero Historia.

Clay stood on the forest ridge alongside his brothers, wooden shaft of his spear gripped nervously, awaiting the enemy that would herald his first battle.

He was a hunter of the Bear Clan, and had been since the day he’d danced the totem and earned his manhood two seasons ago. Warfare did not often come to his people, but when it did all hunters were expected to rally to support their Champion, no matter how thin their beards, no matter how little experience they had in the ways of killing men.

Clay was tall for his fifteen summers, taller even than his older brother Flatnose, almost as tall as his eldest brother Broad. He’d long outgrown the habit that had earned his own name among the clan, but not the name itself; to the others, he would always be the child with one foot stuck in the muck of the riverbank, crying for his mother.

He was struck with fear now, but he wouldn’t cry.

Not now, not with so much at stake.

His first battle.

What would it feel like, he wondered, to kill a man? Would it feel like killing a boar? To pierce his flesh with the sharp fire-hardened tip of his spear, to feel his blood run warm and sticky down its shaft?

He looked down at his own flanks, imagined his skin torn and bleeding, and felt a little ill.

A hand on his shoulder steadied him. Eldest brother Broad was smiling his sleepy grin. “Do not look so worried, little brother.”

Clay shrugged the hand off, not wanting to appear weak. “I’m not worried. I am just eager. For battle.”

“Oh ho!” Broad said without malice. “Lucky us. Here come the Elk. Get ready to show them how fierce you are!”

Clay’s eyes riveted to the bluff across the ravine, eyes widening as the Elk Clan seemed to materialize silently out of the woods. He recognized their pelts and the antlers they wore from the Tribal moots held every few years, but now, away from the sanctity of the gathering of Clans, away from the promise of peace, they bristled a new menace.

Where before the Bear Clan had mocked the Elk for being skinny, Clay saw them as dangerously graceful. Where before they had laughed at their horn-tipped spears, Clay saw weapons capable of slicing his flesh.

“Go home Elk!” Flatnose yelled, raising his spear. “This is Bear land. You are not welcome here!”

“You go home!” one of the Elk called back. “If we can take it, it was never yours!”

A fierce cry rose from the Elk warriors, and Clay almost dropped his spear.

“When do we fight?” he asked Broad.

The ways of War were one of men’s secrets, known only to those who had met the enemy. Tales told at camp focused on the deeds of Champions like Clay’s father. The lore of killing other men was unknown to him, but so far it seemed more like the dominance games played with the other youths than it did hunting.

Broad, along with the other men, were hooting and jeering a response to the Elk war cry.

He stopped and regarded Clay. “So very eager. We wait for Father.”

One of the Elk threw a spear, and for a moment Clay was afraid that it was headed for him, that it would strike him despite the vast gap of the ravine. He stared at it, feeling both foolish and relieved when it fell far short.

“We don’t need your poorly made horn-spears!” Flatnose called back. “Perhaps you could use some real weapons?”

He threw his own spear, and a pair of other Bear hunters followed suit.

Several of the Elk flinched, and were met by fresh jeers from the Bear line. Clay couldn’t help but join them, caught up in his clan’s exuberance.

His voice caught and the noise died down as an imposing figure — standing almost a head above those of the other Elk — pushed through the line to stand at their fore.

The newcomer stood tall and proud, tips of his antlers gleaming in the sun. With shock Clay noted that they weren’t a headdress like those worn by the Elk Warriors, but actual horns that sprouted from his head. Likewise, his lower body, his legs were not clad in fur, but rather they appeared to be a beast’s legs.

As quiet as the Bear Clan had become, the calls and jeers from the Elk grew in volume.

“What is he?” Clay asked.

“The Elk Champion,” Broad said, hand on Clay’s back to steady him.

This time he did not shrug his eldest brother off. “But those horns — Father doesn’t look like that.

“Of course not,” Flatnose said. “Father is Bear’s Champion. Why would he have horns?”

Broad chuckled. “Don’t tease the boy.”

Clay stared at the inhuman Elk Champion, fear turning his blood to winter’s ice. There was an unnaturalness to it, like one of the sacred cave’s paintings come to life. Something in Clay’s soul wanted to flee from it, wanted to run like a coward, not from the danger it presented, but from its sheer wrongness.

He could tell that the other hunters, while not as surprised as he was, were just as uneasy. Maybe most of the other clan Champions were more like Elk than Bear, more animal than human. Maybe that was the nature of the mystery of war. A truth of the world, a burden that he, too, now shared.

He ground the butt of his spear into the loamy earth, using it to steady himself.

***

The Elk Champion raised both fists, resulting in a fresh wave of cheers from his clan. Several more spears were thrown.

The noise died down as the Bear Champion pushed his way through the ranks of his hunters. While Clay’s father lacked the animalistic features of the Elk Champion, he was no less impressive, built like the animal the tribe drew their spirit from. He towered over the men, standing half-again as tall, and twice as wide. It was obvious in the way he moved that under the layer of fat were slabs of pure muscle. His face was broad, almost like their totem’s. To the Bear Clan, he was the ideal of male power and beauty.

Bear’s jaw was set grim as he gazed across the ravine towards his foe. Behind him, the line of Bear hunters were cheering, raising their spears, roaring their support.

Elk’s hunters did the same, and their Champion pointed his spear across the gulf.

Bear’s fists balled, and a rumbling began, deep in his belly. It erupted from his mouth in a tremendous roar that seemed to shake the very air, rip leaves from the trees, and send the Elk hunters sprawling or cowering in fear.

Only Elk Champion stood firm, his eyes widening, lips drawing back in a grimace.

When Bear’s roar had ended, Elk took a few steps back, then ran forward, leaping across the ravine.

Clay watched in shock as the enemy Champion seemed to almost float through the sky, as if everything had slowed down. A creature that size, with so short a run, should not be able to leap that way, should not be able to make it all the way across the gap between the clans.

He felt frozen, unable to move, as Elk sailed closer and closer.

Bear alone did not seem transfixed. He grabbed an evergreen sapling the thickness of Clay’s arm out of the ridge and used his tremendous strength to tear it from the earth, roots and all. As Elk neared landing, Bear leapt to meet him, knocking his spear aside with the young pine while driving the side of his fist into his opponent’s jaw.

Elk plowed into the earth shoulder-first, and the Bear hunters backed away rapidly.

Clay hefted his spear with uncertainty.

Broad grabbed his wrist. “No.”

“I can help father—”

“We do not interfere with the Champions.”

“But—”

“It is the Way.” His harsh look softened. “We stay back so the clan does not lose any hunters. With winter approaching, we cannot afford it.”

Elk stood, shaking his head, sharp horns slashing at the air. Bear approached calmly, almost casually, tossing his sapling into the ravine.

“Besides,” Broad said. “The Way is that he does not attack us.”

“Only father,” Clay said.

“Father can take care of himself,” Broad said. “He is the Champion.”

Bear and Elk had squared off, Elk’s fists balled, Bear’s opening and closing. They circled one another, eyes locked. Bear’s hunters called support from a dozen feet away, cheering and growling, while Elk’s warriors yelled and shook their spears from across the ravine.

Elk took a skipping step forward, head lowered, slashing with his antlers. Bear stepped back, but found himself on the edge of the bluff. He set his stance low to the earth, and when Elk slashed again, batted the sharp horns aside with his massive calloused hands. The sharp horn cut into his skin, but he didn’t hiss, didn’t flinch away.

He followed up with a powerful sweeping double-handed blow to Elk’s chin, fingers of both hands laced together, that sent Elk reeling to the ground. Bear wasted no time in grabbing his foe’s bestial ankles, holding them fast while he spun towards the ravine. He let go at the apex of his arc, and Elk went sailing through the air to crash and tumble down the slope.

The Elk Clan’s cheering had grown silent, their hunters still.

Clay howled along with his kin as he watched in morbid fascination, eager to see what his father would do next.

Bear leapt into the air, a flung boulder compared to his foe’s earlier elegant swan-flight, and crashed to the ground next to Elk. The groggy beast-man tried to rise, but Bear was faster, kneeling atop the small of his back.

He grabbed hold of Elk’s antlers, one in each hand, and pulled back on them.

Elk’s back arched, and he scrabbled to get a grip on Bear’s wrists, but the angle made it impossible. A long, impossibly loud, desperate bellow issued from his mouth.

With a sudden savage twist Bear snapped Elk’s neck, cutting off his mournful cry.

After a moment of stunned silence the Bear Clan erupted into wild victory cheers. All Clay could think about was that he’d just seen his father brutally kill a man.

Their Champion stood with one massive foot on the Elk Champion’s back, fists raised, and roared another impossibly fierce bellow at the defeated warriors. He then reached down, grabbed Elk’s head by the crown and chin, and with a further brutal twist ripped it from its neck with a horrible meaty sound.

He held the head aloft by its antlers, then lobbed it towards the Elk Clan hunters. It sailed over their heads to land in the woods behind them.

They melted back into the woods once more, presumably to retrieve it.

“The Champion always returns the skull.” Broad answered Clay’s question before he could ask. “It is part of the ritual to choose a new Champion.”

“Why?” Clay asked. “If they had no Champion, they could not fight.”

“What fun would that be?” Flatnose said. “With no Champion, our hunters would have to fight their hunters.”

“I don’t want to fight,” Broad said.

“When Father dies you will have to fight as the new Champion,” Flatnose said.

“Not if someone else is chosen.” The eldest tousled Clay’s hair.

Flatnose laughed. “You are halfway to looking like Bear already, Broad. A head start on the rest of us!”

The other nearby Bear Clan hunters laughed, but it was true — Broad’s physique was much like their father’s, in a miniature, more human-reasonable way. Broad himself merely grimaced.

Bear returned to the ridge, his chest and arms splattered with the blood of his fallen opponent.

He spoke with a deep, rumbling voice. “Come, hunters, children, sons and nephews. Let us return to camp. Fighting makes me hungry, and there is a feast to be had!”

The cheer rose up from the hunters anew, but Clay’s contribution was reflexive. His chest was feeling tight, and he had no appetite for feasting. Warfare was nothing like he’d expected it to be.

He lagged behind the others until the sound of their good cheer echoed distant and dim. As always, walking alone through the woods helped him to put his thoughts in order.

Only each clan’s Champions fought, only they risked death for the good of their people. It made sense, in a cold and distant way, for while his father was also a great hunter he more than offset the extra meat he brought in with what his size demanded he consume. The loss of several hunters would hurt the Bear Clan’s ability to find meat, and losses would render a victorious invader unable to take advantage of any hunting ground they had won.

It definitely made him appreciate the true nature of Champions and why the tribe elevated them so. They were given many honors — first choice of any hunt, the biggest hut, and priority when the clans met during the tribal moot when it came to trading brides, but what they risked, what they gave up…

He stood for a long time on the ridge, staring at the headless corpse of the Elk Champion, watching while Elk’s kinfolk descended to collect it. One of the young hunters spotted him, staring up the side of the ravine at him.

Clay turned to walk rapidly back to the camp, face burning.

***

“I am afraid that today you must learn the meaning of sacrifice,” Dawn Spring’s father told her.

The girl didn’t look at him, eyes focused on the wolves. “We can save all of them.”

They weren’t far from the Walls, only two fields distant, near a brook where the grazing was good. The sheep had been gathered into two groups, split by the four wolves who had come to kill them. Squint, her father, faced them with his walking stick, while Dawn stood back, slowly swinging her braided flax sling, dyed dark to match the color of her hair.

One of the wolves started towards the smaller group of sheep and she let fly her stone. It caromed off the ground in front of the animal and he drew back, padding away towards his pack-mates.

“I am surprised you missed.” Squint sidestepped rapidly to stay between the pack and the larger half of his flock.

“I don’t need to hurt them, just chase them away.” Dawn picked up a stone, pale amber, the color of her eyes.

“They won’t be scared off,” her father said. “Every meal is a matter of life and death to the savage. And don’t underestimate them. They may be animals, but they possess a hunter’s cunning. And now they know about your sling.”

Dawn spun the weapon overhead. “Must we take life to preserve it?”

Her father looked over his shoulder at her. “It is the way of the world, my daughter. Perhaps you are too kind for such a place?”

She narrowed her eyes and let the rock loose. It struck one of the wolves on the shoulder and the beast yelped. It loped off towards the smaller group of sheep, which bleated and danced away nervously.

Dawn cast about for another stone, found one, and began to load it.

One of the wolves ran right through the smaller herd, scattering its members. The others darted in after two of the sheep, driving them further from their brethren. Squint threw a stone, hard, driving off one of the wolves.

Dawn began to swing her sling, but the other wolf had tackled a ewe before she could summon up the spin to set loose her stone. The lithe beast clamped down on the helpless animal’s neck, stifling its panicked cries. There was a crunch, and then silence.

The other wolves joined in on the kill, and Squint gathered the errant sheep back into one flock. He lead them away from the slaughter.

Her throat felt thick and painful, her chest tight. She couldn’t believe that she’d let one of her flock be taken, that she couldn’t protect it. She felt like a failure, the worst sort of creature. The sheep looked up to her, trusted her. How could she call herself a shepherd?

She didn’t look at her father when he joined her, couldn’t face the judgment she knew was in his eyes. Though she’d been helping him watch the sheep for almost a year, this had been her first real test.

“You did what you could, my daughter. Losing sheep is part of this life. If it isn’t the wolves, it’s sickness. If it isn’t sickness, it’s a flood. Nature takes her tithe, the same way that the city takes its own.”

She couldn’t face his understanding. “Someday I will protect them all.”

“Maybe you will,” Squint said, gazing back at the pack.

One of the smaller wolves was watching them, but soon went back to its meal.

Her father continued. “But today’s lesson is sacrifice. If you cannot save them all, then accept that. Let one of your flock give its life to save its brothers. The health of your flock matters more than any one member.”

She nodded, silently. She would remember. But it was a lesson she was determined to never need.

Burial Habits of Pre-Pottery Neolithic A

Excerpt from PPNA: Origins of Agriculture by Soren Calvin (Brown, 1989)

The unique burial practices of PPNA cultures in the Levant have been described as “Living With the Dead.” Excavations have found buried dead under floors, in foundations, and in walls. During the followup PPNB period bodies were often dug up and reburied, with the skulls reoriented or mottled with clay.

Of particular interest are often misshapen skeletal remains found in places of honor throughout PPNA settlements. Frequently larger of frame and with thicker bone structure, they often feature other anomalies, including spines or additional limbs. These honored dead are almost always found with the skulls detached and having been adorned with floral arrangements.

While these special skeletons often bear nicks and breaks typical of early hominid warfare, the remains of those found in the same settlements are almost always devoid of tooled violence, leading to theories of a tradition of single combat between elites.