Fiction Excerpt: “Two-Skins”

Fiction Excerpt: “Two-Skins”

By Shawn L. Johnson

Illustrated by Chris Pepper
from Black Gate 5, copyright © 2003 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.

After the humans had slaughtered all but a handful of the two-skins, they herded the boy and the other survivors into iron cages to cart them back to the city. As the boy — a thin, naked, hairy child of only twelve summers — rode through the filthy streets in a horse-drawn wagon, scores of humans gathered beside the road. He couldn’t understand their shrill gibbering, but he could tell by their hairless, jeering faces that they were mocking him and cheering for the procession of soldiers leading the captives.

Some of the humans threw food at him, most of which glanced off the bars of his cramped cage. Old women spat at him, and children pelted him with rocks. He huddled in the corner, shielding his face, but still the tiny missiles stung his hands and arms.

All the while, he told himself, I will not cry. I will not despair. My father was a Child of the Bear, and I was born of Wolf. I will not cry, now or ever…

If only he had his second skin, then he would show the humans what it meant to anger a Child of Wolf.

But he didn’t. It shamed him as he took their harassment in silence.

Soon the humans lost interest in him, and the procession continued unhindered through the city. The tall buildings and walls made the boy feel as cramped as his cage. There were too many people; their combined stink overpowered all other scents.

The procession ended at a tall, stone structure, whose walls dwarfed even the tallest buildings. From inside, the boy could hear the sounds of battle — the clanging of metal, the roar of a crowd. The human-scent was strongest here, like a thousand people locked in a single room.

The soldiers led the wagons inside through a pair of enormous double-doors. After traveling down an enclosed hallway lit by sconces and torches, the procession passed a barred window which overlooked a circular battlefield. From within, the boy heard a multitude of people cheering, and when he looked up he saw rows of seats full of screaming humans, rising so high that they almost seemed to disappear into the sun.

On the miniature battlefield, a human man was fighting a bear. He fought as best he could with his spear and shield, but the bear was obviously winning.

A breeze blew across the field, carrying the scent of the crowd’s sweat and excitement. Beneath it lingered the coppery odor of blood.

And then the cart went on and the scene passed from view.

The boy thought, A bear, my father’s spirit animal, winning a battle against a human. Was it an omen?

Next they traveled into a dimmer area. Numerous cages, filled mostly with pitifully thin human men, rested on the straw-covered floor. The stench of bodily wastes was the strongest scent, though there were others — hate, despair, fear. The boy knew this was a place of suffering and death.

The cart came to a stop. The boy growled a warning as four humans lifted the cage from the cart by two attached wooden poles. But they only laughed and dropped the cage roughly on the ground beside the others. Then they left.

The caged humans stared at him, some pointing, some whispering to each other as if fearing he might understand. Even with the soldiers gone, it was a long time before the boy settled down to rest. His body ached in a dozen places, where he’d been prodded with spears and pelted with rocks. His ankle hurt and wouldn’t move right; he thought he’d broken it earlier while searching for a hiding place among the caves.

Ignoring the human captives, the boy looked around for familiar faces but saw none. However, he’d seen at least half a dozen other two-skins taken alive by the humans — none of them shifters, of course. The humans had killed them first. The only ones allowed to survive had been children too young to have earned their second skin, and old men and women who’d forgotten how to call upon theirs.

Were the humans keeping the others somewhere else? Or had they already killed them?

The thought almost brought the boy to tears. He couldn’t be the last of the two-skins, he couldn’t! Others would have survived, fleeing into the woods or mountains as he’d tried to do.

Several rooms away, he could hear animals — dogs, buffalo, wolves, bears, and others — rustling nervously in their cages. Occasionally one would let out a roar of anger. The boy didn’t blame them. He didn’t like being caged close to so many humans either. His people were meant to roam and hunt the forests and plains, not to be imprisoned. Death would be better.

The guards didn’t return that night with any other two-skins. Eventually the dim hallway grew darker and darker, and the humans settled down for sleep. There was precious little sleep for the boy. Instead, he thought about his father — he would have known what to do.

He knew all about the ways of the humans…

“Father, will you tell me about the humans?”

The boy had asked that question almost two summers before, while the two of them were sitting on an overturned tree beside a mountain stream. The tribe had been camped at the foot of the mountain range for almost a week now, so the boy knew they would be moving soon. Knowing that made him sad. He loved the mountains.

His father had spent most of the day showing him how to fish, and now the sun was beginning to set behind the peaks.

Still gripping the fishing line tightly, his father turned to him with narrowed eyes and a wrinkled brow. “Why do you ask about the one-skins, Ranu?” he asked gravely.

The boy’s father was a large man, broad-chested and hairy — even for a two-skin, like all Children of Bear — and though his expression was usually very kind, he could be threatening when angered.

The boy did his best to stand tall and unafraid, as a future Child of Wolf should. Meeting his father’s harsh gaze, he said, “Because I want to know. They cannot shift, they cannot fight without weapons — so why do we fear them? Why do we avoid them above all other creatures?”

His father lowered his head, nodding. “Yes, you should know. You are old enough now.” He starting pulling the fish-line in slowly, winding it up on a small stick.

The boy scooted closer. As his father finished winding up the string, his expression was still troubled but there was no anger in his eyes. The scars on his chest, the ritualistic marks of bear claws, were clearly visible in the fading sunlight.

“The one-skins,” he said, sighing. “What you must understand, Ranu, is that the one-skins are dangerous for a reason different than other animals. The bear, the wolf, the great birds…” He gestured to a hawk flying overhead. “…all of these fight with what the spirits gave them — their claws, their talons, their teeth, their cunning.

“But the one-skins are different. Though they look most like us of all creatures, they are the least. You see, once there were no two-skins, only the one-skins. Like all things living then, they were one with the spirits and the earth, and with their cousins the animals. Like the bear and the wolf have their weapons, so did the one-skin. He had his cunning and wiles, which were greater than any other creature.

“However, it led to arrogance. Many one-skins thought they should be the masters of all animals, since they were the most cunning. They fashioned spears and swords and arrows and other weapons to make their kills easier, and they slew other animals even if they did not need to hunt. In doing so, they lost their oneness with the spirits.

“The spirits realized they must do something. So five Great Ones approached man, to remind him of how he should be — Owl, the wise one, the prophet; Snake, the great healer; Raven, the trickster and far-traveler — and the two great warrior-spirits: Bear, the protector; and Wolf, the hunter and warrior. These Great Spirits offered the one-skins their gifts if they would only respect the earth and live as one with the spirits.

“But the one-skins were divided. Some wanted to stay with the ways of the earth, but most still believed they should be its natural rulers. Those who remained aligned with the Great Spirits received one as their patron, and were taught how to bring forth their second skins. In exchange, we swore to use only the weapons provided by the spirits, and never assume the ways of our lost brothers.

“The ones who didn’t agree to the spirits’ pact kept only their first skin, and never learned of their second. They grew further apart from their brothers, the two-skins, until they forgot they were ever brothers at all. Eventually they treated us as they did other animals, hunting us almost to extinction. Now, many ages later, the two-skins are no longer a single tribe, but scattered to the wind like grains of sand.”

His father looked out across the river, toward the mountains. “They hunt us because they fear us, Ranu. They do not understand us. That is why we must forever keep moving, staying to the wilder areas far from the humans’ settlements, lest they destroy us all.”

Then his father paused. The boy waited for him to continue, but he did not. “But father,” the boy said, frowning, “you still haven’t answered my question. Why do we fear the humans so?”

His father laughed loudly and deeply, tossing his head to the sky. “Oh, to be so young again! Of course I answered you, young Ranu. You just did not listen.”

His father leaned close, smiling broadly. “Now, I ask you — why do we fear humans?”

The boy had shaken his head, saying over and over, “I don’t know, I don’t know. Please tell me.”

But his father wouldn’t tell him. He had only kept laughing and told his son it was time to return to camp.

Now, sitting in the humans’ cage, the boy thought he did know why…

The last time the boy had seen his father had been the day the humans stormed their camp and captured him. It had begun when a Child of Raven spied human soldiers in the distance and warned the tribe. Since there hadn’t been enough time for everyone to get away, the Children of Wolf had gone out to meet the enemy.

The boy had been ashamed that he couldn’t go with them. Instead he’d remained with his mother and the other tribespeople who either weren’t warriors or were too old or young to fight.

Everyone had been worried, because the prophesies of the Children of Owl had been dark for the past weeks. The boy’s father had said nothing as he and the other Children of Bear grimly prepared for the humans’ coming. They stood at the four corners of the camp, watching, waiting.

The boy had tried not to worry, telling himself that there was no way a group of one-skins could survive an attack by the mighty Children of Wolf. But he had been wrong. By the time the scouts returned with the news that humans had outnumbered and destroyed Children of Wolf, the humans were already swarming into the camp.

The Children of Bear did their best to keep the humans away from the other members of the tribe, but the boy saw the battle well enough. His father had given a roar, as mighty as any true bear, and shifted. The change was so fast — one minute his father looked as he always did, and the next he was an enormous brown bear, towering over the soldiers.

For almost a minute, his father tossed aside the humans like they were children with toys instead of warriors with weapons. And then an arrow from an unseen archer struck him in the eye.

The boy had cried out, trying to rush into the melee. But his mother dragged him back.

He could hear her crying even over the sounds of battle and the deathwails. “We must run,” she sobbed. “To the mountains. Hurry!”

“I will not leave my father!” the boy had screamed.

By then his father was completely surrounded by humans, and though he continued to swat them like flies, his blows were becoming slower and less powerful. The nicks and cuts of the humans’ weapons were weakening him. He wouldn’t last much longer.

So the boy continued to struggle, trying to get to his father. He begged his mother to shift to owl-form and flee, but she refused to leave him.

And then his father had turned. The boy could see the bloody stub of an arrow protruding from the dribbling socket. The single good eye bore down on him, and his father roared, “Leave now! Go!”

While his father was distracted, the humans continued their attack. One jammed a spear deep into the Child of Bear’s belly, making him roar in agony.

In other parts of the camp, the boy could see other Children of Bear, the great defenders of the two-skins, all suffering similar fates. It would be over soon.

“Come!” his mother pleaded, pulling him by the arm. Most of the guardians were dead now, and some of the humans were heading their way.

The boy hesitated but went. He didn’t want to violate his father’s dying wish, even if it would make him a coward. So they fled – the boy, his mother, and a handful of other tribe members. They made for the mountains, hoping the humans wouldn’t follow. But they did.

After their capture, the boy had been separated from his mother. Now he had no idea what had happened to her. Maybe she was dead, he thought, like most of the others. But he liked to think she had gotten away, shifting to owl-form and flying to the mountains.

Either way, the boy was sure he’d never see her again. And that, more than anything else, made him feel truly alone.

The humans came for him the next day.

It had been daylight for hours, though little sunlight filtered into the prison. He hadn’t recognized the food they brought him, but eating it had made him feel better.

The pair of guards entered the prison-area, each wearing the uniform leather breastplate and a bright red cloak, and unlocked his cage. They gave him only moments to stretch his sore joints before prodding him toward the door with their spears.

The guards followed closely behind as the boy hobbled through the corridors. Each step sent needles of pain through his shattered ankle. Pushing and prodding him whenever he limped too slowly, they eventually led him to a more brightly-lit room.

There were two other guards at the door, watching over a half-dozen prisoners, some of them shackled to the wall, others in cages. The death and fear scents were strong here.

Joy filled the boy when he recognized one of the prisoners. It was Tian, one of his people, a boy about his own age. Tian was a Child of Raven, a trickster — or would’ve been if he hadn’t failed his initiation.

“Tian,” the boy blurted out, causing the other to turn his head. Before he could go to Tian, however, one of the guards shouted something and struck him. The boy sprawled face-first onto the floor.

The guards laughed. Glaring at them and wiping blood from his mouth, the boy rose to his feet, ready to be struck again. But the humans paid him no more attention. They were looking out of a nearby window, which seemed to burn with sunlight. Outside, the boy saw the same battlefield from the day before, only from a different view. No one was fighting yet, but the stands looked nearly full. He could hear the crowd’s excited murmuring.

He looked back at Tian, and the other boy smiled weakly at him.

The guard apparently in charge pointed first to Tian, then to the boy, and shook his head. After speaking to the others, he threw a set of keys to a soldier beside Tian.

Before the boy had time to wonder what was happening, the guard unlocked Tian’s chains and shoved him roughly toward a nearby door. The human opened the door, filling the room with light and momentarily blinding the boy.

But the boy knew what was beyond the doorway — the battlefield. And Tian’s death.

The crowd broke in a roaring cheer.

The boy realized that the humans had chosen Tian to fight on their battlefield because he was bigger and a little older than himself. But Tian was a Child of Raven, not of Wolf or Bear. He wasn’t a warrior, he wasn’t trained to fight.

The boy was the Child of Wolf, the warrior, not Tian. Enraged, he lunged at the soldier holding Tian, screaming his friend’s name. But the man shoved him away and pulled the other boy through the doorway with him.

Tian glanced back once, his smile faltering, and then the door slammed shut.

Two guards caught the boy by the shoulders and dragged him back. When he continued to struggle, they beat him into unconsciousness.

The complete version of “Two-Skins” appears in Black Gate 5.

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