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.”
“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.
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