Chapter Three

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The long walk up Smoke Mountain gave Broad plenty of time to think about how he did not want to become the Bear Champion.

It wasn't that he was lazy. Broad did not mind hard work. He was well suited to it, with big shoulders, a strong back, and a mind that did not easily bore.

It was the violence. Champions lived often short and brutal lives, warring with the champions of other clans, fighting them, killing them. Broad had watched his father rend limb from limb many adversaries, had seen the hidden toll that each death levied upon his soul. And at that last battle, he had seen enough men killing men to last him the rest of his life.

He didn't want to fight.

He didn't want to die.

And, if he wanted to be honest with himself, it was the responsibility. Was a simple, happy life, really so bad?

And now, with the Bear Clan scattered to the winds, what was the point?

Broad stopped, gazing up the path to the skulls placed in carved alcoves along the way up the mountains. They were the skulls of generations of ancestor-champions, from all the clans of the Smoke Mountain Tribe, emptied of their totemic essence and left to guard the path. The Bear skulls were easy to identify, broader than the others, with thicker brow. He could feel them watch him as he trudged past, wondered if they were judging his reluctance.

Movement ahead. The tall form of the new Elk Champion was returning down the path towards him. This one was a woman, a bare and slender torso extending above beast's legs, horns rising above a feminine face. She stopped when she saw him.

"You are Bear," she said.

"Yes." He stood tall. The way up to the Old Ones was sacred. It was taboo to fight here, but the recent troubles between the Bear and Elk clans was heavy on Broad's mind.

Elk advanced, and Broad stepped aside.

She stopped when she had drawn level with him. "I am sorry for the loss of your clan. Elk will sing your memory, and wreak vengeance upon these foreigners."

"Thank you." Broad didn't know what else to say.

Elk walked on, and Broad watched her go before continuing on up the mountain.

***

Broad had only been to the Cave of the Old Ones once before, when he was a child, traveling with his father. They'd brought the skull of his grandfather. Bright Spear had disappeared into the depths of the cave with one of the strange-looking Old Ones, and had returned as the Bear Champion. It had been very exciting for little Broad, but he didn't remember much of it.

The cave's exterior was decorated with more skulls, piled high, said by some to be ancient Champions, said by others to belong to failed candidates. He didn't spare them a glance, ducking into the dimness of an entrance that looked almost like a mouth.

One of the Old Ones met him at the entrance. He was tall, taller than Broad, perhaps as tall as his brother Clay, with bone-white skin and straight white hair. Broad remembered having thought that they must truly be ancient for their skin to have bleached so pale, and the thought stayed with him still, though the Old One's skin was smooth and unwrinkled.

More-so, as an adult they reminded him of the pale bugs you found deep in caves and under stones. Maybe the Old Ones never left the darkness of the Cave for the light of the sun. Maybe that was even worse than tremendous age. The clothes he wore were even more unusual than Broad had remembered, like no furs or weaving he had ever seen, perhaps woven out of the webs of cave-spiders.

"What is your Clan?" the Old One asked.

"Bear," Broad said.

The Old One nodded, turned and walked into the cave. Broad followed him.

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