Darkbeard, the tallest of the Elders of Jericho, lead Clay to the other side of the city. They’d offered him much honor in exchange for serving the city as her Champion, evicting troublemakers like Mad Words and standing fast against the raiders who sometimes came to harass the walls. He would be given his own home, food, beer, and the respect of those he protected, without needing to farm or perform other labors.
Clay wished he could have consulted with his brother, but Broad was off at the fields, and he didn’t want to give the Elders the chance to change their minds. Even though his injuries still ached from his battle with Mad Words, the hunter had agreed to prove he was worthy of the task by evicting another troublemaking Champion, Long Fang.
“Fang comes from the river plains to the southeast,” Darkbeard told Clay as he escorted him across the city. “A clan of snake-worshipers. He came to Jericho some months ago, telling the same story you did — a foreign tribe arrived and killed his people.
“They will empty the world at this rate,” Clay said, hands restless on the spear they’d given him to complete the task.
“He was strong, a good worker,” Darkbeard said. “We were glad to have him. At first.”
Darkbeard let out a long sigh. “He began to tell stories. Tales of his people, of his exploits as Champion, of his deeds. The boasting that men do. But your kind… the young of Jericho find tribal ways, the ways of their ancestors many generations ago, fascinating. And the way of the totem-touched doubly so.”
“Did his stories lead them to misdeeds?”
“Lured them into his own misdeeds,” the elder said. “They began to see him as their leader, a separate tribe within Jericho. They left their families to move into a granary he took at his own, and they have been demanding tribute for the grain.”
“An inconvenience, but it wasn’t an important storehouse. The city can do without. It is the children that concern us.”
“What has become of them?”
“We cannot tell. They never come out. Their parents demand their return, but any any who go to retrieve them — you know what a Champion can do.”
Clay nodded. A grim situation.
“Go. Kill Fang, or force him to flee the city, and Jericho will adopt you as Champion.”
“And the children?”
“We do not know if they are his prisoners or willing allies. Save them if you can, and their parents will be grateful.”
“If he has killed them?”
“Show no mercy.”
Clay and the elder watched it from a nearby storehouse doorway. “What do I do?”
“Do what it is your kind do.” Darkbeard stared past him towards the structure, lip curled. “Fight him until he submits, or until you’ve killed him.”
Clay nodded. This was the life of a Champion. “Will your warriors support me?”
“Jericho has no warriors, no army. The men take up weapons when raiders attack, and we take turns at the gates, but we are farmers. Brewers and laborers, clothmakers and herdsmen.”
“So I face him alone.”
“It is why we need you,” Darkbeard said. “It is the only reason.”
The hunters never helped the Champions fight, back in the land of the Smoke Mountain tribes, but their presence at the battlefields was important. They reminded the Champions of the stakes, of their loyalties, and let them know they would not die alone.
The people of Jericho were not Clay’s people. Not yet. Would any mourn his passing if he lost? Broad. Dawn, perhaps. That was it. Clay was nothing to the others. And he would risk much for them, to save their children?
Taken in by the Snake Champion. Taken from their families to assist him in extorting the city.
It was not their fault. They knew no better.
Fang had broken one of the sacred laws of Clay’s people. You did not harm another clan’s children. It was unthinkable. As unthinkable as the new way of war the foreign tribe had brought to the Mountain, and just as worthy of being punished.
Fang had to be shown that one did not do such things.
“Are you ready?” Darkbeard asked.
Clay nodded. He might be hurt, but he was ready, in his heart, for the task.
“Then I wish you luck, Champion.”
There was no immediate response from the granary.
“Long Fang!” he called again, shaking the spear overhead. “Stealer of children! Hoarder of grain! I challenge you.”
The silence boomed in Clay’s ears after his proclamation. He felt exposed in the middle of the street, not only to Fang’s eyes, but to the eyes of the nearby residents of Jericho. More and more were appearing in doorways and on rooftops, watching him with a mixture of curiosity and fear.
He slowly lowered his spear, feeling a bit foolish.
Movement caught his eye. A young boy, filthy, his clothes in rags, moving the boxes in the granary doorway aside. He was thin, but not starved-looking.
“Boy!” he hissed. “Come!”
The boy finished moving the boxes out of the way and turned, waving to Clay briefly before dashing back inside.
“You going in after him?” a stout man asked from a nearby rooftop.
“I have to save the children.”
The man nodded. “A good thing. I wish you luck. None of the others who tried have come out again.”
“The Elders have sent others?”
“No. Fathers. Older brothers. Your son in there?”
“No kin of mine.”
“Then why do you risk yourself?”
Clay hesitated. Champions fought, it was what they did. They did it for honor. They did it because it was what they did, it was how they served the clan. Jericho wasn’t a clan, but they would honor him. They would give him comforts. But Clay hadn’t been a Champion long enough to think like one. He was a hunter, and hunters who took big risks didn’t last long.
But he wasn’t going into the granary because he wanted to be Jericho’s Champion. He was doing it because Fang held these children from their families. Living in the dark with a monster was no life.
“Because someone must.” He choked his grip up on the spear and set off across the street.
The granary was dark inside, and it took Clay’s eyes several moments to adjust. The crates and jars had been arranged to create a single path for the Champion to follow. It made him nervous, reminding him far too much of the hunter’s tactic where game was flushed towards men with spears. There wasn’t much to be done for it… if he tried to divert by climbing the crates, they’d just collapse on top of him.
Clay would be ready for Fang’s trap.
He came to the center of the granary, a wide area surrounded by boxes and jugs. Little light filtered in from cracks in the roof overhead, mote-filled beams of light that enabled Clay to see the children watching him. They came in all ages, from those who could barely stand to those who would soon be men, both boys and girls, sitting on high stacks of crates and on shelves high on the walls.
They all watched Clay in silence.
“Where is Fang?” He brandished his spear. “I have come to defeat him and free you.”
“We are free,” a little girl said.
A younger boy pulled himself up along the wall on a rope. “Fang lets us do what we want.”
“We love him,” the first girl said.
“He has poisoned your mind,” Clay said. “You must return to your families.”
There was a soft sound from behind the hunter, and he spun to see the Snake Champion emerge from between two boxes that seemed far too narrow for a grown man to fit between. “You are the one who comes spewing venom.”
Long Fang was taller than Clay, but slender, like a normal man stretched out. He was bald, with narrow eyes, and a thin pointed beard. His arms and legs seemed too long for his body, and as he stepped through a shaft of light his skin glistened like scales. “You would come to kill me? Take my children?”
“They are not your children.” Clay watched, transfixed, as Fang moved with a sinuous grace towards him.
“You think not?” Fang raised his eyes to the children, pointing towards Clay. “Show him.”
The children moved, standing and reaching into their crates, coming up holding stones.
“Children–” Clay began.
The first stone struck him in the thigh. The second, his chest. He deflected the third with the shaft of his spear, but then they really started to rain down upon him.
The stones were more startling than painful, an unexpected barrage from an unexpected source. They might have been lethal to a man without the blood of Champions running through his veins, but to Clay they were merely a distraction.
A distraction was all that Fang needed.
The Snake Champion was upon him, long fingers wrapping around his neck, sharp fanged maw snapping at his face. Clays scrabbled at the smooth dry grip cutting off his airflow, anxiety pushing up from his chest. He grabbed Fang by the throat just under the Champion’s jaw, doing what he could to keep those terrible teeth from slicing his flesh.
Clay could hear the children shouting and jeering from above them, but dared not take his eyes from his opponent. Fang’s jaw lengthened as he watched, his mouth stretching impossibly wide, lower teeth hooking towards Clay’s forearm.
The hunter strained to keep his elbow locked, but felt his foe’s sharp teeth scrape against his flesh, felt a burning in its wake. With a strangled gurgle of revulsion the hunter kicked a foot up into the snake-man’s gut and shoved him back.
Clay barely had time to draw breath before Fang was moving again, darting like an asp to swing a whip-like arm. It moved faster that Clay could react and struck him a powerful blow across the face.
Pain exploded from his not-yet-mended nose, and Clay gave a howl of rage and pain, staggering back to clutch himself.
Fang brought both of his limbs down across Clay’s shoulders, knocking him to his knees. The Snake-Champion twisted at the waist, slamming both of his arms against the side of Clay’s head, sending him spinning into a pile of crates.
“Should I kill him, children?” Clay could barely understand Long Fang’s words through the ringing in his ears.
The children shouted a motley of replies, clamoring against each other.
Clay felt himself lifted by one arm, dangled in front of Fang’s grinning face.
“You are lucky, outsider. The children bid me let you go, that you warn any who would press us.”
Pain lanced through Clay’s shoulders as he tried to lift his head, to meet his foe’s gaze.
Fang flicked his wrist, sending the hunter sprawling into the jars near the path to the granary’s exit. They shattered, sharp shards cutting his flesh.
“Go, weakling. Tell them to send more Champions. We could use meat in our stew.”
The children’s jeers echoed in Clay’s ears long after he’d crawled from the granary, long after he’d left the city. He hadn’t gone to the Elders to report his failure. He hadn’t even gone to Forkbeard’s to tell his brother all that had occurred. He’d just crawled to his feet and limped his way out of the city, broken, beaten, defeated in body and spirit.
He was no Champion. He was barely a man. What right did he have to live among others?
What right did he have to live?
Clay limped East, away from the city, through grassland that gradually gave way to sandy wastes. It was like nothing he had seen before, an endless stretch of sand and stone, but it fit his mood. Bleak. Empty. Worthless.
A place a man could go to die.
The sun bearing down on his back and shoulders seemed particularly cruel. In less than an hour his muscles were screaming from the thrashing Long Fang had given him. His throat burned with thirst. The sand below his bare feet seemed like it singed with each step.
He did not stop. He would not, until his legs could no longer carry him forward.
The sun had begun to set, finally, when he passed the cave. It wasn’t much, just a narrow gap between two stones above the earth. He would have walked right past it, had he not heard the grunting.
Human sounds, though not the speech he knew. More like the sounds Bluetooth had made when the clan shaman had left his body behind to commune with the spirits.
The idea that there might be a shaman within gave him pause. A shaman could help him. A shaman could tell him where to go, what to do… or at least, give him peace with his ancestors until he died.
Clay made his way towards the cave.
“What are you doing here?” Mad Words barreled out of the deeper cave, a heavy stone club in hand. “You have come to the desert to finish killing me?”
Clay skidded back along the sandy cave floor, hands raised. “No!”
“You thought you would sneak up on me?” Mad Words darted forward. “Steal my secrets?”
Clay retreated, feeling the warm stone against his back. “No! I have come to the desert to die.”
Mad squinted at Clay and cocked his head. “Eh? You make no sense.”
Clay kept his eyes on the man’s club, noting that it was unnaturally straight, with sharp corners. “I have failed as champion. I deserve death.”
“Failed?” Mad asked. “You defeated me fairly.”
“Not you.” Clay hung his head. “After we fought, the council came and offered me the role as Jericho’s champion.”
“Hold on.” Mad lowered his weapon. “This sounds like a tragic story. I never listen to tragic stories on an empty stomach. Go wait for me above in the shadow of the stones, and I will bring us soup.”
“I don’t deserve to eat.”
“Then I will eat for both of us. Now go. This cave is taboo.”
It smelled delicious, but the young man had no appetite.
“Tell me your story.”
Clay did, slowly, starting with the Elders’ offer to make him Champion. At Mad’s questions – which were both insightful but also focused on strange details Clay didn’t consider important – he also spoke of the events that had brought the Bear Clan brothers to Jericho.
“Why did you head out into the desert?” Mad asked.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Clay said. “I cannot go to the mountain. There is no home. And I do not think I will find my answers in the past.”
Something about the words apparently struck Mad Words as funny, and he chuckled. “No. The past holds no answers. I know that now.”
“There is nothing left for me but death.” Clay stared hard at the bowl in his hands.
“That is stupid and you are stupid.”
Mad finished his soup with a loud slurp, then gestured towards Clay’s bowl.
The hunter handed it over wordlessly. Mad could not help him, but it felt… right that he should tell the story before he let himself die.
“Your death is your own choice, Clay. I will not convince you otherwise. I may be mad, but I am not a busybody. If you want, I will kill you.”
Clay looked up at him.
“It will be quick. It will be clean. You will not suffer. Your pain will end.”
Clay twisted to look back towards Jericho and his brother. He could barely see the city’s great walls in the distance. He nodded once, curtly.
Mad grunted, slapping his club against his palm. It did not look like stone in the fading daylight. The sun shone on it like water. “First, though, I will tell you why you have failed.”
Clay looked down at his hands. He knew why he had failed. He was not half the man his father had been.
“You are not a Champion.”
“You spoke of your Champions. Big brave warriors who fight head to head, beating each other down, surrounded by cheering allies. Yes? It is that way with my people, too. It is a stupid way.”
“The Old Ones say it is a dying way.”
“Your Old Ones are stupid, too. But listen. It is not your fault you are a poor Champion. Men like myself and Snake Face–”
“Long Fang, we have done this for years. Longer. You only defeated me because I was drunk.”
Clay didn’t argue the point.
“You are a hunter. A hunter does not fight. A hunter kills.”
Clay looked up at him.
“Does a hunter call out to his prey, challenging it?” Mad asked.
“No,” Clay said.
“Does a hunter give it time to ready itself?”
“Does a hunter fight toe to toe against a dangerous foe?”
“What does a hunter do, Clay?”
“A hunter stalks his prey.” A cool wind blew across Clay’s face. “A hunter strikes from hiding. A hunter wears it down.”
“Then why would Clay the Hunter try to fight like Clay the Champion?”
Clay didn’t have an answer.
Mad held out the bowl in one hand, his club in the other. “Choose, Clay. Die here in the desert a failure, or return to the city as Clay the Hunter.”
Clay hesitated for only a moment before reaching out.
Snake in the Grass
“Tell the story?” one of Long Fang’s children asked.
“You already know the story.” He smiled, sitting on one of the crates in the storeroom.
His children had gathered below him, staring up with adoration in their eyes. “Tell it again!”
“Long ago, when I too was small, I lived in a tribe far to the south, near the endless river that always flows and never dries up.” Long Fang loved telling the story as much as the children loved hearing it. “My people were small minded, afraid of anything that was different.”
“Were they afraid of you?” A girl asked.
“They feared you because you strong!” A small child offered.
“When I was small I was not so strong. Like you.” He ruffled the girl’s hair. “I was Sandhair’s age when my teeth started to grow long, when my body became flexible, when I started turning into a snake.”
“Snake Champion!” the small child shouted.
Long Fang shook his head. “My people did not call me Champion. It was not an honor. They called me a monster and drove me out into the desert.”
“Why?” the girl Sandhair asked.
“Because I was different.” And, he had to admit, probably because he had killed his mother. That had been an accident, though, so he did not think it counted.
“Tell us about the snakes!” the smallest child shouted.
Long Fang chuckled. “Are you telling this story, or am I?”
The small child pointed at the snake-man.
“When I was in the desert, I had no one, like you. I still had a father, like some of you, but he was mean. Cruel. He helped chase me out. Are all fathers so cruel?”
“My father yelled at me,” one child said.
“I was beaten for breaking a vase,” another said.
“I never got any honey,” the smallest said.
“See? Parents are cruel.” Long Fang grinned. “And do we need them?”
“No!” the children chorused.
“Because you take care of us!” Sandhair leaned against Long Fang.
“Snakes!” the youngest cried.
“Okay, okay. The snakes. In the desert I thought I would die, but the snakes came to me. They taught me their wisdom. Their tricks. To hunt. To survive.”
The children did not need to know that Long Fang had survived by hunting and killing traders and wandering tribes. They did not need to know that he’d returned in the night and poisoned each one of his former tribe. They did not need to know the way of anger, revenge, killing. Not yet.
Someday, though, there would come a night of blood. Someday he would teach his children the way of murder. When they were ready.
“When I was older,” he continued, “I came to Jericho. I thought that here, where there were so many, maybe I could find peace. I could find friends. What did I find?”
“Betrayal!” the children chorused.
“That’s right. They tried to kill me, because I love children and wanted to make sure you were all safe. So we moved here, into this granary.”
The children cheered. They loved this part.
“And now WE are family. Without talk of monsters. Without bedtimes. Without beatings. And all the honey you want. And what do we do with bad men who want to take me away from you?”
“Kill them!” the smallest replied. “Poison them with our venom!”
Long Fang smiled. Maybe the night of blood was coming sooner than he thought.