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.”
“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.”
“See?” Squint asked.
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
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