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?
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.”
“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.”
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.