Hero Historia: Jericho Rising 5

Hero Historia: Jericho Rising 4
Hero Historia: Jericho Rising 6

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.

Michael Coorlim

Michael Coorlim is a teller of strange stories for stranger people. He collects them, the oddballs. The mystics and fire-spinners, the sages and tricksters. He curates their tales, combines their elements and lets them rattle around inside his rock-tumbler skull until they gleam, then spills them loose onto the page for like-minded readers to enjoy.
Michael Coorlim

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