For the first time in months, Trip was smiling while plowing the soil outside the south gate. It did not go unnoticed.
“You are in fine spirits,” Bignose said, stopping to watch his fellow farmer work.
“The sun shines bright on my back,” Trip said. “The breeze is cool and crisp. The work is hard, but feeds my family.”
“Your family,” Bignose turned back to his own task.
Trip stopped and stood straight, stretching back to crack the stiffness from his spine. “Did you not hear the news?”
“Long Fang has been killed.”
Bignose stood. “Really?”
“Can you not see why the sun smiles?” Trip’s grin was wider still.
“Returned to me!” Trip spun in place, arms outstretched. “My family is whole.”
Smiling was not Bignose’s way, but he couldn’t help but grin for his friend’s good fortune. “That is good news. How did it come to pass?”
Trip caught the eye of the overseer across the fields and quickly returned to his labors. “You have heard of the Hunter?”
“THE Hunter. The tribal hunter-Champion.”
“Oh yes. The one who sent Mad Words into the desert.”
“The same. The Hunter saw that Long Fang had taken children, and saw fit to slay him.”
“It is so.” Trip said. “All of the children have returned to their families.”
“I would not expect a tribal to care about the children of Jericho.”
“I would not have thought anyone to care,” Trip said. “But this is a world with some good people in it.”
Baldy the overseer arrived, a grim look on his face. “Why is it you two keep stopping?”
“We are talking about the Hunter, the one that killed Long Fang,” Bignose said.
“Oh, I heard about that,” Baldy said.
“How did he withstand Long Fang’s venom?”
“My brother was guarding the east gate.” Baldy turned towards the desert. “He says that the Hunter went into the desert, tamed Mad Words, and returned with him.”
Trip whistled. “Truly a great man, to force the insane to his whim.”
“He is a Champion,” Baldy said. He looked to the sky. “It’s almost noon. Come, to the drinking hall, we can talk of this and drink for some time.”
Trip squinted up at the sun. “Would you mind if I worked through and went home early?”
“His son was returned,” Bignose explained. “But I will drink with you.”
Baldy slapped Trip on the back. “Of course, of course. You can go home when Bignose and I return.”
“Thank you, sir,” Trip said.
Bignose shouldered his plow-stick, and departed with the overseer towards the gate.
It was with an almost unbearable glee that Trip returned to his labors. For the first time in months, he was feeling positive about life in Jericho. He had lived in the city all of his life, as had his wife, but when the monster Long Fang had taken his son, he had started to hate the place, with its small streets, with its well-meaning but nosy neighbors, with its Elders who could not protect the children. He was a farmer, his sweat fed the city, and for what? They could not even keep his boy safe.
And his wife, his poor Redpalm, she could no longer work her wheel, could no longer make pots, so deep was her grief. Every day he came home to see her paler, thinner, more shadowed of eyes. All he could do was watch while she, too, was taken from him.
But now? But now with a protector like the Hunter, Jericho was a safe place, a place a child could grow without being taken. His wife was lively, and maybe, soon, they’d have another child to raise. Their family would grow, and with it, their joy.
Trip was happier than he’d ever been in his life, and remained so right up until the point where he was eviscerated by an unseen claw.
The Tower of Jericho stood tall above the flat-topped clay storehouses and homes of the city, rising above its grand walls to the height of the tallest trees. Standing there below the stars of the night sky, Clay could see the cooking fires of the city laid out below, and off beyond its walls, the occasional campfire of a traveler or hunter, on his way to, or away from, the gates.
Dawn stood by his side, watching silently. He was acutely aware of her body’s heat even through the thickness of his lionskin pelt, returned to him without comment by the gate guard he’d bribed with it what felt like a lifetime ago.
“It’s so peaceful.” Her hand closed on his in the darkness. “I’ve never seen the city this way.”
At first the height had made the hunter uneasy, but now his companion filled his awareness. “You’ve never been up here?”
“No,” she said. “It is not forbidden but… as a girl I was encouraged not to. Father said it was unsafe.”
“Safe is not the word I would use to describe the stairs we climbed to come up here.”
“It has not been much repaired since the days of my father’s fathers’ fathers,” Dawn said. “No one remembers what it was for anymore.”
“Now it is for us. But Squint was right. We should get someone to repair it, the way is not safe.”
She moved closer to him, pressing herself against his body. “Daughters are often attracted to what their fathers tell them is unsafe.”
“You will be safe with me.” Clay’s mouth went dry as he put his arm around the shepherd. “I won’t let anyone harm you again.”
Her slender fingers found his arm. “I believe you.”
“If I could convince your father of it…”
Dawn’s laughter was musical. “You saved my life! Father sings your praises to the council.”
Clay stepped away and turned towards her. “Saved. You are a Champion now. Your old life is over. Does he not understand?”
She pulled him back. “He understands that I yet live. That is enough for him. If you were to ask him for his daughter, he would not hesitate.”
“You are no longer Dawn Spring the shepherd.”
“Just as you are no longer Clay the hunter?” She rested her head against his shoulder. “I am stronger, but now Jericho is my flock. You continue to hunt those who would harm the people of our city, and I will protect them as I did my sheep.”
Clay was silent, not entirely agreeing, not wanting to spoil their closeness with an argument. If Dawn did not recognize what she had said – that naming Jericho her flock placed her outside it, as a shepherd herself was not sheep – she would come to that understanding soon enough.
But the night was cool, and she was warm, and that was enough for now.
He changed the subject. “I have never heard of a clan with three Champions. You, me, and Mad.”
“Can we trust him?”
“Mad?” Clay considered. “Maybe. He… in the desert, he helped me to understand that I was a hunter and a Champion both.”
“Is that such a secret?”
“It is a new thing, I think.”
“What were Champions before?”
Clay’s eyes swept the stars, watching their twinkle, wondering which was his father. “In the Smoke Mountain Tribe they were the clans’ protectors. The essence of the spirits’ favor.”
“Your totem was Bear?”
“Does Jericho have a totem?”
Dawn shook her head. “We do not deal with the spirits here.”
“I cannot understand that. How do you know when they are displeased? Who tells you what to do about them?”
“It is not something we are taught,” Dawn said. “When our ancestors built the city, they were tribes like yours. Father says they were tired of wandering the world like animals.”
“Broad thinks you built the city because it is easier to make beer that way.”
Dawn giggled. “Your brother places all importance on beer. But maybe he is not far from right.”
“So they forgot the spirits?” Clay asked. “Your ancestors.”
“We know of them,” Dawn said. “Some say we learned to do without them. We learned the arts of medicine. Of farming. Of making walls.”
“Still,” Clay said.
She wrapped her arms around him. “I do not say it is the best of ways, just that it is our way.”
And now, with the three Champions, Jericho had a new way. With Dawn at his side, Clay would have to learn a new way, too. One that he did not mind discovering, not if it was with her.
“I will talk to your father in the morning,” Clay said.
She squealed and clung to him, hands laced around his shoulder, lifting herself to nuzzle his ear.
New ways were not all bad.
The tower was large enough that each of them had their own floor. Mad slept at the top – not on the open roof, but just below it. Clay slept on the middle floor. Dawn’s floor was below his, though he hoped they’d be sharing it soon enough.
There was, after all, plenty of room. While it was wider at the base than at the top, even counting for walls as thick as the average man was tall, each floor was as large as any hut in the village Clay had grown up in. It was true that the structure was in poor repair, but the council had promised to send over workers to make the place more safe.
Clay didn’t mind, as long as the tower didn’t collapse in on itself. The walls were drafty, but he had plenty of furs to keep himself warm.
For now Clay’s brother Broad was living at the base of the tower. No one had asked him or invited him to move in, he just sort of had, and neither Mad nor Dawn had objected. Indeed, all three Champions appreciated the way that Broad greeted visitors, accepting their gifts and their gratitude for removing the threat of Long Fang from the city without disturbing those that lived above him.
Clay had been thinking of paying Squint a visit to ask for his daughter’s marriage when Broad came up the stairs to see him.
“The city Elders are here to see you,” Broad said. “I tried to get them to leave, but they say it is important.”
“See if they will come back after lunch.”
“They want to talk to the others too,” Broad said.
Clay hesitated. The Elders had been content to deal with him in the days that had passed. If they wanted to speak to all three of them, it had to be important. “Mad is out in the city, but I will fetch Dawn. Tell them we will be down soon.”
Broad disappeared back down the stairs.
The expressions on the Elders’ faces were grim when Dawn and Clay descended into the tower’s base to see them. It had been bare when they had moved in, but Broad had turned the ground floor into a welcoming greeting room where visitors could wait to meet with Jericho’s Champions.
Darkbeard, One-Eye, and Snakespit, the Elders of Jericho sat on comfortable straw mats before a round wooden table across from Broad. They half-rose when the Champions joined them, but Clay gestured that they stay seated.
Broad stood up when he neared, and Clay took his place, Dawn sitting next to him.
“We trust you are settling in well?” Darkbeard asked.
“Well enough,” Clay said.
“Have you recovered from your battle with Long Fang?” One-Eye asked.
“We heal quickly.”
Dawn had been near death due to the Snake Champion’s toxin, but the power of the Old Ones’ charm had restored her almost instantly. Clay and Mad had been bruised and bloodied, but in the few days that had passed they had returned to a state of ready health.
“That is good,” Darkbeard said. “There is another troublemaker we need you to take care of.”
“Who is he?”
“We don’t know,” Snakespit said. “Someone or something is preying on the farmers in the south and west fields.”
“Preying?” Dawn asked.
“Killing them. Mutilating the bodies. Maybe eating them,” Darkbeard said.
“Eating them?” Clay asked.
“We cannot tell. They do not come home from the fields at night, and in the morning are found torn apart.”
Dawn’s hand flew to her mouth. “That’s awful!”
“Very,” One-Eye said.
“And it is a Champion?” Clay asked.
“It might be,” Darkbeard said. “Or a rogue lion from the Sea of Grass. Or an angry spirit.”
“Whatever it is,” One-Eye said. “It is preying on Jericho, and we need you to stop it.”
“How long has this been happening?” Dawn asked.
“Three nights,” Snakespit said. “One man killed each night.”
“Three nights, and you only now ask us to stop it?”
“One night is a roving dog or crime of passion,” Darkbeard said. “Two murders may be coincidence. Three? Three we need you to stop.”
“It is awful, whatever the cause,” Dawn said. “We are your Champions. Your protectors. You should have come to us sooner!”
Snakespit stood. “We trust you to serve the city in your way. You must trust us to serve it in ours.”
Clay put his hand on Dawn’s, under the table.
“If this killer is a Champion, stop it.” One-Eye stood as well. “Drive it away. Kill it.”
“And if it is a beast? Or a normal madman?”
“If it is other than a Champion, let us decide how to stop it,” Darkbeard said. “You must save your energy for things that we cannot handle ourselves.”
“We are your protectors,” Dawn said.
“You are our Champions,” Darkbeard said. “And we trust you will remember the difference.”
Clay walked to the tower’s entrance and watched them go.
Dawn wrung her hands. “What difference? Men are dying. We must help them.”
“I don’t know,” Clay said, moving to her side. “Jericho still confuses me sometimes.”
“They fear you,” Broad spoke quietly.
“What?” Clay asked.
“They fear you. Fear your power. I could tell.”
“I thought they trusted us?”
“They trust you as far as they can control you,” Broad said. “While you have been running around fighting snake-men and being Champion, I have been watching and listening.”
“I don’t understand,” Clay said.
“I know,” Broad said. “But we were wrong. This place has its spirit, its totem, its taboo. Even if the people who live here have forgotten. The spirit of the city. The will of the people who live here.”
“You sound like a shaman,” Clay said.
Broad grinned. “I should have been a shaman. Easier than hunting or farming. I guess I am now.”
“What?” Clay asked. “How are you a shaman?”
“The shaman strides between worlds.” Mad spoke as he walked into the tower, basket full of bread over one shoulder. “He keeps the balance. Your brother brings Jericho’s words to her Champions.”
“You make it sound like we’re not of the city,” Clay said.
Mad pointed with his chin. “Dawn knows. A shepherd is not part of the flock. It can’t be.”
“I still don’t understand why the Elders don’t trust us.”
“They’re part of the flock. And even if the sheep knows the shepherd protects her, part of it knows it is destined for the stewpot.”
Clay’s face twisted with disgust. “Have you been drinking?”
“No.” Mad handed his bread to Broad. “I have just been a Champion for a long time.”
“How long?” Broad asked.
“Long enough. And I have traveled far. Further than you can imagine.” Mad Words looked away. “Just know that it is always this way. The Elders. First they will want to use you. Then they will fear you. Then you must either defeat them or move on.”
“Is that what you have chosen?” Broad asked. “To move on.”
Mad started up the steps. “Sometimes. I will meet you by the fields.”
Dawn watched him go. “Clay…”
“Do not worry.” Clay picked up his spear. “They call him Mad Words for a reason.”
“He was right about you fighting like a hunter,” Broad said.
“Get your sling,” Clay said to Dawn. “I will wait outside.”
He did not trust the Elders, but not because of Mad Words. He did not trust them because they had not come from one of the tribes, because they did not venerate the spirits, because their ways seemed centered around a belief in their own superiority. It was this way, he had seen, with all of those of Jericho. They lived their lives, they worked hard, but they lacked a true understanding of what it meant to be one season away from survival. What it meant to hunt besides your brothers and sisters.
They had easy lives. As long as they worked hard, they were guaranteed survival. Where Clay had come from, where Broad had come from, where Mad Words had presumably come from, there was no such surety. Men like them understood that to live was to court death, that the end could come from any misfortune.
Men who walked knowing that death was postponed were men he could trust. He loved Dawn Spring, but she had never learned this lesson. He hoped she never would have to. He hoped that the children they shared would never need to know the honor that came with living with the harmony of a life lived heartbeat to heartbeat. He hoped they would be men and women of Jericho, knowing soft easy lives. He could, he believed, teach them some of the Champions honor.
Men like the Elders, though… it was too late. They could never be taught.
Clay hoped, for their sake, that they had as much wisdom as they believed themselves to hold. That they had the sense to understand that Clay served the city, but he was not their creature. He hoped they would not test him, or he would have to teach them the difference between free men and the men of Jericho.