As Clay and Mad Words neared Jericho’s East gate, they saw a figure waiting for them, standing among a flock of sheep.
Dawn Spring. She was standing. Watching. Waiting between them and the city, only a few hundred yards from the walls.
Clay’s feelings were mixed. He had gone into the desert to die, never thinking he’d see her again, so was overjoyed to think that he might once more. On the other hand, there was a good chance that even with Mad’s help he could not overcome the venomous Long Fang. He walked with his spine straight, showing no fear, unwilling to worry the girl he’d grown to love.
“You return,” she said.
He stopped in front of her, spear’s shaft across his shoulder-blades. “You knew I was gone?”
“I saw you go. You went to get him?”
Mad Words stared up at the walls, a sour look on his face, seemingly ignoring the two youths.
“I did not go searching for him, but he is the answer I found.”
“He is mad. And dangerous. Maybe more dangerous than Long Fang.”
“She’s not wrong,” Mad said.
Clay wasn’t entirely sure why Mad had accompanied him back to the city. He had made the choice to return and face his foe as a hunter, and the hermit had wordlessly accompanied him back through the desert. Unstable while drunk, Mad Words seemed sober to Clay, and he was truthfully grateful for the help.
“A wise hunter does not hesitate to accept help once offered.”
“Good,” Dawn said. “Then you will take my help as well.”
Clay shook his head vigorously. “Absolutely not. Long Fang is a dangerous monster. Mad and I are Champions, and you–”
“Are a shepherd,” she finished for him. “And a wise shepherd does not abandon her flock to predators.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Clay said. “This is a battle between Champions.”
“And if you are wounded?” Dawn asked. “Poisoned? Do either of you know the healing arts?”
“I don’t,” Mad said.
“Do you?” Clay asked.
Dawn scowled. “I care for the sick and injured in my flock all the time. When the wolves attack, or when an asp bites.”
Mad lay a calloused hand on Clay’s shoulder. “This is one of those battles you cannot win toe-to-toe, hunter. If you refuse her, she will follow. And resent you for it.”
Clay slapped the hand away. “What if I were to allow you to wait outside? Out of danger, but nearby if we are hurt.”
The shepherd’s eyes narrowed. “If that is how it must be.”
“So it is,” Clay said, striding towards the city.
The men at the gate didn’t question Clay’s return or why Mad was with him. Perhaps they didn’t want trouble from the dangerous hermit, or maybe they just saw the dark look in the young man’s eyes. He had slipped into the hunter’s mindset, gaze sweeping everything that came into his sphere of personal awareness, evaluating his environment and everything in it for threats and opportunity. That which was neither was ignored.
Except for Dawn.
The girl’s presence worried him, concerned him, kept him from slipping fully into his role as hunter. Knowing she was close was a distraction, and potentially a lethal one. Even if she was outside, his thoughts would remain with her.
And yet, her nearness was a comfort. She made him feel less alone than he had been since his clan had been destroyed, in a way that even his brother Broad did not. She was a reminder of why he had to win, why he wanted to stay in Jericho.
Clay and Dawn exchanged a look and a brief caress of hands when they reached the granary, but no words.
Mad Words went in first, smashing through crates, shattering pottery, sending children screaming and scrambling from him. The paths inside had been arranged into a narrow maze, but he disregarded it, clearing a straight path to the center.
Clay took a slower, quieter, more circuitous route, crouched low, keeping his eyes on his companion.
“I am Mad Words!” Mad shouted when he reached the center. “This is my territory now! You children and your snake-pet must leave, or I will destroy you!”
“Long Fang will kill you!” A young boy had climbed the side of the granary to one of the higher shelves. He threw a stone towards the challenger.
Mad Words caught it in his fist and squeezed, crumpling it to dust. “You think I will not kill you because you are a child?”
There was the slightest of sounds before Mad Words had his legs swept out from below him. He crashed to the ground, and Long Fang rose from his hidden crouch.
“Two challengers in one day,” the Snake Champion said. “Children, we are blessed, for the city elders have sent us fresh meat.”
A cheer rose from the children surrounding the sides of the granary.
Having spotted his quarry, Clay slunk down, between the boxes, and began to creep closer. He could barely see the top of the serpent-man’s head over the edges, but it was enough to stalk him by.
He could hear Mad Words. “Nobody sent me, snake. I will reclaim this granary not for Jericho, but for myself.”
“Only a fool tries to steal a serpent’s den.”
“My name is Mad Words! It says I am mad, right there in the name!”
Long Fang darted back as Mad Words struck out at him. Clay could not see the attack, but he could hear the wind of its passage.
“Your madness will find only death.” Long Fang’s head dropped out of view.
Clay resisted the urge to rise to spot him again. He trusted in his instincts, in Mad’s ability to keep the Snake Champion occupied.
There was the heavy sound of flesh striking flesh.
“Someday,” Mad said. “But not today, monster.”
“You, who would invade my home, threaten to kill my children, call me monster?”
The hunter reached the end of the crates and saw that Long Fang had wrapped his long torso around Mad. The madman’s face had reddened, and it was all he could do to keep the Snake Champion’s fangs from his throat. If he used his spear, there was a good chance he’d pierce through the snake-man’s scaled body and strike his ally.
Clay leapt through the air towards the entwined pair, bringing his fists down on Long Fang’s spine, feeling the impact, feeling a give.
The snake man recoiled, twisting and sliding away from Mad Words to try and face this new attacker.
“You took your time, hunter!” Mad grabbed for Long Fang, getting a hand around his ankle. “Do not let the snake back into his hole!”
Clay grabbed one of the snake-man’s arms and wrenched it back, pulling it behind his back at an angle that would have snapped a normal man’s shoulder. The limb writhed in his hand, sliding through his grasp and almost escaping. With his free-hand he grabbed Long Fang by the bony hip, a surer grasp.
“Kill you!” Long Fang bellowed, snapping his jaws inches from Clay’s bicep.
Mad Words slapped him on the back of the head.
“Kill you both!”
Clay remembered, once, seeing wolves hunt a much larger water buffalo. Half the pack would snap at it from one side, and when it turned to confront them, the other half would attack. They would go back and forth, harrying their prey, until it was worn down.
When Long Fang snapped his head towards Mad, Clay grabbed him by the neck and shoulder, below where the Snake Champion could comfortably bite.
Mad planted his feet and caught Clay’s eye, then darted his gaze towards the wall.
Together the men hefted the taller Snake Champion and began running, rushing with him, smashing through crates and jars towards the wall.
“Jump!” Mad yelled.
Clay obliged, and the two leaped, putting their weight against Long Fang as they smashed into the wall.
The clay-brick walls of the granary were no match for the might of the Champions, and the Serpent Champion hit the wall with enough force to break through it in a great cloud of clay-dust and brick fragment.
Through the great cloud of dust he could see the Snake Champion’s death spasms, his spine twisting and snapping like a whip, fanged maw biting at whatever it came near, powerful limbs thrashing.
Clay backed away carefully, not wanting to be struck.
“His spine is broken.” Mad Words watched Long Fang carefully, then lashed out with his hands. He grabbed the Snake Champion by the sides of the head and smashed his skull against the clay street once, twice, three times until he was still.
The dust cloud settled, and Clay could see that a crowd had gathered, most likely due to the commotion in the granary. Dawn Spring stood among them. He started towards her with a smile, flushed with adrenaline and victory, and noticed she was clutching her arm.
Blood dripped from between her fingers. “Clay, I–”
He rushed forward, grabbing her arm, adrenaline spiking again. “What happened?”
“I don’t know.” Dawn looked into his face, but her eyes seemed glassy, unfocused. “You came through the wall, and Long Fang… I felt a sting…”
Clay lifted her arm and saw a pair of puncture wounds near the wrist. “You’ve been bitten!”
“Oh, Clay,” Mad Words said quietly.
The hunter felt a strong spike of fear lance through his chest. “We must get her to a healer!”
“I don’t think–”
Clay grabbed Mad by the shoulder. “I do not care! Get her to a healer!”
Dawn swooned, and collapsed into his arms.
“Help me bring her back to Forkbeard’s,” Clay said.
Mad seemed to search his eyes for a moment before nodding once, curtly.
“Thank the spirits,” Squint said, nearly collapsing.
Clay, Forkbeard, Broad, Mad Words, and the three Elders had been waiting in Forkbeard’s courtyard with Dawn Spring’s father while the healer-woman had done what she could for the poisoned girl. Squint had been enraged with grief, yelling at Clay, striking him, blaming him for the condition of his daughter. The hunter hadn’t objected or moved to defend himself, not even when the furious shepherd had bloodied his nose. Forkbeard had restrained Squint after that, but silently Clay agreed with the older man.
Dawn Spring’s condition was his fault. He had allowed her to accompany them. He had failed to keep her safe. The old man could have him exiled, tortured, executed if Dawn died. It would be no less than what he deserved.
Before Bright’s words could give him any relief, she continued. “The venom spirit is strong. Very strong. Even the small amount she took… I am sorry.”
“What?” Squint said, his voice a child’s.
“The healing arts cannot save her. I can make her comfortable in her last moments, so her death is as a dream, but that is all we can do.”
Squint fell to his knees, hands clutching at his face, a terrible wail emanating from his lips, a sound of sorrow more pure and more true than Clay had ever heard. The Smoke Mountain Tribefolk mourned their dead, but lived with the prospect too closely to be so hurt… yet Squint’s keening reverberated the sorrow in the hunter’s own heart.
Darkbeard stepped quietly to Squint’s side and helped him to his feet. “Forkbeard, do you have a room–”
“Of course,” Forkbeard replied quietly, leading the grief-stricken father and the elders inside.
“Clay–” Broad said quietly, stepping to his brother’s side.
Sympathy was the last thing Clay needed, or deserved. He turned his head quickly to Bright Eyes. “May I see her?”
“Yes,” Bright Eyes said. “But she is beyond us, now. She won’t recognize you.”
“Do you need…” Broad trailed off.
Clay shook his head, pushing past the beads into Dawn’s sick-room.
When Clay had returned with Dawn to Forkbeard’s home, he’d brought her to the room he shared with Broad. He hadn’t thought about it. He hadn’t been thinking about much of anything, just dwelling in the fear that he might lose the girl. It was where she had cared for him after his battle with Mad Words. It wasn’t more than a storage room, but it was cool and comfortable.
She lay on his furs, sweating in the darkness, small breaths coming from her mouth.
Bright Eyes put a hand on her forehead. “It won’t be long.”
Clay nodded, staring at the girl.
The healer stepped back to the door. “I will let you say your words alone.”
Dawn Spring looked so small, so fragile now, a shell of the girl he had been falling for. Her biggest part, her best part, that spirit, that Dawn-ness was locked away inside her fever dream.
What good was a Champion if he could not save the one he loved? What good were any Champions if all they could do was hurt and kill and fight? The Old Ones had said their time was over.
The world did not need more of this. More innocent shepherds hurt in their battles.
Clay knelt next to Dawn, taking her clammy hand in his own. “I am sorry, beautiful one. You deserved more than this. You deserved more than me. More than a Champion’s life of battle. More than a hunter’s life of death.”
Tears stung the corners of his eyes. The obscenity of it was almost unbearable. This was not life. Champions’ battles. The world and its petty conflicts.
If only Long Fang had killed him during their first battle. What did it matter that he survived, to fight another day, to fight more pointless Champion battles? The world needed more shepherds, more healers. A Champion’s powers were good only for fighting other Champions.
His hands felt heavy, leaden.
Clay looked up past Dawn towards the shelf where his few meager possessions lay. The bauble the Old Ones had given them, the one Broad hadn’t wanted. Broad had been right. The power was wasted on him, when the good people, the useful people, died all too soon.
Clay stood, reaching for the clay sphere.
He glanced down at Dawn.
Would it work?
He knelt by her side once more, looking from the bauble to Dawn’s clay face.
It might save her.
No normal person could withstand Long Fang’s venom, but a Champion. A Champion might.
And if not… well. He would have no children to bestow the gift on anyway. He wanted no wife but Dawn Spring.
Clay crushed the sphere gently against Dawn Spring’s forehead.
Clay, Mad Words, and Dawn Spring stood in the courtyard below the great tower before the Elders of Jericho. Several days had passed since Long Fang had been defeated, and all three had recovered from the ordeal. With her new Champion’s power, Dawn Spring had fought off the venom spirits and recovered stronger than ever.
“Particularly as we had ordered Mad Words exile,” Snakespit said.
“Mad Words helped me defeat Long Fang,” Clay said. “I could not have done it without his help.”
“Be that as it may,” One-Eye said. “He is Mad Words.”
Mad Words offered the council a grin. “If it helps, I am not drinking. Much.”
“You now have three Champions where before you had one,” Dawn Spring said. “I do not see the problem.”
When Clay had crushed the Old Ones’ bauble on her forehead, Dawn had gone into terrible convulsions, such that Clay feared he had killed her. He ran to fetch Bright Eyes, and in the moments he had been gone from Dawn’s side, the shepherd had calmed, her fever had lifted, and awareness had returned. Bright had declared it a powerful miracle, and Squint had been summoned.
Clay hadn’t seen Dawn in the days that followed, not until he found himself summoned by the Elders. He had tried to catch her attention, but Dawn had kept focused on the old men before them.
She looked good. Better than good. She was taller, as tall as any of the wild tribesfolk, more solidly built, but with a greater grace. Clay could not quite articulate it, but her power went beyond that, beyond her body, into a nearly physical force of personality. Dawn Spring’s presence extended well beyond her flesh.
“Problem?” Darkbeard said. “No problem. Just… some concern.”
Mad Words snorted.
“It is not concerns for you,” Snakespit said. “Not Dawn or Clay. Clay has proven himself. Dawn is well known to Jericho. And if you say you vouch for Mad Words, then the council trusts you.”
“And will hold you accountable,” One-Eye added.
“Then what is the concern?” Dawn asked.
“The people of Jericho do not fear you – in fact they hold much respect for your defeat of Long Fang – but they fear what Champions mean.”
“They are not your way?” Clay asked.
“A good way to put it,” Darkbeard said. “You are not farmers or crafters or shepherds–”
“I am a shepherd,” Dawn said.”
“You are more than a shepherd now,” Darkbeard said. “But we have had shepherds and farmers for generations. Champions are new. They do not fit.”
Clay began to see the problem. “We are like Shamans. Useful. But dangerous.”
“So how do we make us fit?” Mad Words asked.
“That is our second concern,” Snakespit said.
One-Eye folded his hands. “We trust you. Dawn and Clay. But as more and more come to Jericho, more and more Champions arrive from far off lands. Champions who might lack self-control, like Mad Words.”
Mad Words shrugged.
“Champions that might want to take what’s ours,” Darkbeard said.
“Like Long Fang,” Clay asked.
“Yes,” One-Eye said.
“You need Champions to protect you from Champions,” Dawn said. “I am no warrior.”
“It’s all we’re good for,” Clay said.
“More than that,” Darkbeard said. “We need Champions to protect Jericho. From armies that covet our crops. From the thieves who steal bread. From what dangers we face.”
One-Eye looked at Clay. “We need hunters.”
He looked at Dawn. “We need shepherds.”
He looked at Mad Words, and closed his mouth.
Dawn looked down at the cracked clay courtyard, then up at the Elders. “If Jericho will be my flock, I will be her shepherd.”
“I will protect your city,” Clay said, “If you accept me as your own.”
Mad Words shrugged. “I have nothing better to do.”
“Then you will be our Champions,” One-Eye said.
Snakespit turned towards the tower behind them. “In ages past, the shamans of the tribes that settled Jericho built this tower as a beacon to the spirits. We give it to you now, that you may live there and keep a watch over our people, and see danger before it comes.”
“The tower?” Dawn’s mouth gaped.
“Your tower now,” Darkbeard said. “May you prove worthy of it.”
Clay found words to speak. “We are flattered by your generosity.”
Mad Words laughed and clapped his fellow-Champion on the back. “Don’t worry, Clay. I am sure they’ll make us earn it.”
Dawn Spring’s Awakening
There was very little time between when the snake man bit Dawn and her collapse, but in those few precious moments she noticed that something was definitely wrong. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, breathing got very difficult, and her vision faded to white.
After that, everything turned into a nightmare fever dream of impressions and emotion.
If she was capable of rational thought, Dawn would have been convinced that she was going to die. There was no room for thought. Only confusion, and fear.
And then, suddenly, her fever spiked beyond the toxin’s hold. Something had changed, and for a few moments, she knew everything. She was everything. She was the venom, she was the blood, she was Clay, she was the earth, she was the sky, she was the City. She knew everything. She knew that she had been poisoned, she knew there was no cure, she knew that her blood would cleanse itself, she knew what changes she had undergone, and she knew why. She knew what Champions really were, and the idea was too big to even be terrifying.
She knew what they would become.
All of time and space compacted in that single instant when Clay broke the charm over her head, and for that brief shining moment, Dawn Spring was God. She knew that the universe was perfect, a delicately balanced machine, and while she had ultimate dominion over all, she changed nothing.
For she was Good.
She let it go. There was no need to be a god, and no meaningful distinction to be made between one soul-state and the next, anyway.
Her sense of self contracted back into her singular body, into a brain too small to contain everything she’d learned. What remained was a tattered collection of images and impressions, rapidly fading. They filled her, swirling in what space her mind allowed.
It took her three days to get everything in order, to make sense of the world again. She remembered very little. Who and what she was. Who Mad Words really was. What would become of Clay. How she would die.
Other things. Small things. Memories she would present as visions; it was simpler that way. Less terrifying, to herself, to her father, to Jericho. By the third day, she’d forgotten that they were things that she knew, and thought of them only as fragments of prophetic dream.