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 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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.
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