It was February 29 again, and I was wondering which member of my family would try to kill me this time. Four years ago today, I fought tooth and nail to survive. My eldest son came for me with the fading light, death his grim purpose. Our battle was bloody and brutal. When darkness fell, my son Gabral lay dead. Though I mourned his loss, I gloried in my victory. Four years ago, I yearned for life. Not this year. This year, I craved death.
Reluctantly, I crawled from my bed and went forth to face the day. My summer home, high on the stony slopes of mighty Tanakara, provided a view to the east. Dawn light was shining bright upon the mountain top, the surrounding rocks and stones gathering the early morning heat, while the lowlands were still shrouded in mist and shadow. Many seasons past, I had cleared away dense stands of grey-barked photara and tall umir that grew near the front entrance. Wildflowers and soft grass now filled the open space. Here and there, a few of the larger trees remained, providing cool shade at midday. I came here now to sit and to consider my death.
The rising sun warmed my face as I watched the slow tide of golden light illuminate the landscape, perhaps for the last time. Scanning the horizon, I scratched my brow with a long bony finger. Pain laced through my shoulder as I moved. I was accustomed to such pain by now and would hardly have given it any thought, but, today, it was a reminder of why this year was different. Today, this small pain aroused thoughts of the larger pain, the pain that had become too great to bear.
Whence the pain came, I knew not. It began as a mild annoyance but grew steadily from season to season. I felt it now as an ever-present ache. Each small movement brought sharp stabs of discomfort. Larger exertions resulted in blazing agony. My nights were wracked with fevered dreams and offered little restorative sleep. By day, my thoughts were slow and dull.
In the beginning, I was ever hopeful of recovery. By the end of the third winter, hope had melted away like snow in spring. I began to consider the release of death. At first I thought to bring about my own end. Then it struck me. Soon enough, the most ambitious of my family would be plotting to kill me anyway. I had but to let nature take its course.
Leadership of the family bloodline was my primary focus. Whoever became Virka needed to be someone strong, someone who could fight off challenges for the next few cycles at least, someone who could win rich territory at the Wyrding Council. My sister Avral was my first choice. Unfortunately, she was perhaps the most peaceful member of my closest kin. I could give her cause to hate me, of course, something vile enough to rouse her to deadly anger. But then, she might turn on my progeny after I was gone. I also feared that, despite her great wisdom, she lacked the viciousness needed to be the Virka our clan needed.
Rasa was the most clever and cunning of my siblings, but she was busy hatching plans of her own and vying for power within her mother’s clan. My younger brothers, Olvar and Adran, were large and strong. Countless times they had fought, one against the other, though seldom in true anger. I had often wondered if they were preparing for an eventual challenge to my rule, but nothing ever came of it. Though both had matured in recent years, they still lacked the focus and ability to think about the future. At least not in the way being Virka required.
From its hidden nest deep among the boughs of an umir, a piwakeke sang out a sweet song, greeting the sunrise. The sky had brightened as my mind wandered in search of answers. The dawn light revealed a thousand jewels scattered among the wildflowers. Soon enough the little folk would gather them up and hoard them deep within their secret halls. Warm rays were burning off the morning fog, revealing shades of emerald and gold in the landscape. Fields and scattered woods stretched out from the foothills below to the distant coast. A light haze from the morning fires hung above Seltspraw and lay curled atop the hills that sheltered the harbour.
I gnashed my teeth as I tried to shift my body into a more comfortable position. The constant pain made it hard to keep my thoughts focused. I must think. My mother, comfortable in her northern retreat, was an unlikely threat. While she had been formidable in her younger years, she was no longer in fighting shape. I had already killed my father, of course. Once he became too weak to hold his position on the Council, I had no choice but to challenge him.
The battle had been brutal. I attacked from the east, the blinding light of the morning sun behind me, hiding me from view as he made his way toward the sea. Perhaps he merely wished to swim or to fish. Or perhaps he planned to spend the day away from land, thus making it hard for others to track him down. If so, it was a sure sign he lacked confidence in his ability to fight off challengers.
It was my initial blow that led to my final victory. A staggering strike to the head, blinding my father in one eye. We struggled up and down the wide stretch of golden sand. Waves crashed upon the shore as we collided and broke apart. The cries of the gulls mingled with our roars of pain and fury. Great blows were struck, no quarter given. Once the challenge was made, neither could suffer the other to live. Slowly but surely my father’s strength eroded; the tide of battle turned in my favour. Then, at last, the body of my sire lay broken upon the shore. I gazed upon it for the final time. The light of the rising sun was reflected briefly within his remaining eye, then faded away to darkness.
Eventually my sisters found us, taking us both for dead at first. Discovering I still drew breath, they dragged me home to recover. My injuries were extensive, blood seeping from a dozen wounds. Several ribs were broken. It took many months to fully heal, part of the reason a new Virka cannot be challenged until the next day of ascension.
I shook my head to clear memories of past suffering. Stretching my neck, I attempted to clear my current stiffness and discomfort. Focus. Who else might offer challenge? I had many grandchildren, all far too young to pose any threat. By Wyrding law cousins were not given the right to challenge. Most of my grandparents, uncles, and aunts were already dead. Two were in exile. Only one uncle remained. Suffering from his own grievous injuries, the legacy of past battles, he would offer no challenge this year.
Five of my six children yet lived. Along with my brothers and sisters, they were the most likely threat and my best chance for release. My silver sons, Aagar and Doran, taking after me in appearance, were full- grown and strong. My golden daughters, Roshin, Vaki, and Rakell, took after their mother, full of energy and endless endurance. I could seek any of them out and attack. Simple self-preservation would force them to fight back. But, if they lacked the confidence to initiate a challenge, I doubted they would have what it took to claw their way to a place within the Council. Confidence and strength of will were vital to hold a place among that den of vipers. Ruthless cunning and bargaining skills were required in the never-ending quest for rich territories. Lush and verdant islands, such as those my clan now ruled, were won through intimidation and guile.
My nieces and nephews totalled seven in number. Often we had wrestled playfully when they were small. They had wriggled and squirmed all over me with much delight. I recalled how they would squeal in gleeful terror as I growled and roared in mock anger. Olvar’s oldest daughter, Pendra, was the most precocious of them all, constantly stirring up trouble. She had a nasty habit of biting me with her sharp little teeth when I least expected it. Now, of course, they had grown much larger and more dangerous. Though not yet full adults, any one of my seven nieces and nephews might decide the day had come to attack. The fresh vitality of youth, combined with a growing sense of potency, often made the young feel invulnerable, able to conquer anything. Lacking the prudence that came with age, they tended to bite off more than they could chew. Still, I felt it unlikely any of them would seek to challenge me this year. While it was true they might have a chance of defeating me in my current state, I had taken pains — Ha! — to hide my condition from the world at large. For all my family knew, I was as potent and lethal as ever.
I rested my chin on my forearms and huffed in frustration. So far, I had uncovered no gems of wisdom. Just then I glimpsed a flicker of movement on the trail below. A flash of ruby light where a switchback emerged from shadow. Alert for any threat, I focused my attention on the motion instantly. As two small forms became clear, I relaxed. It was only Yeoman Gardener and his young wife, slowly making their way up the path. Allying ourselves with the people in the towns and villages of the archipelago had been one of Pendra’s schemes. The Yeoman, as usual, was dressed in drab greens and browns. His copper hair was cropped short above the sharp features of his hatchet face. His body was grizzled and lean, leathery skin tanned nut brown from long days in the fields. The woman had platinum hair, worn in a long braid down her back. Her round face matched the plump juicy curves of her tender young flesh. Both were bearing large bottles showing enticing ruby sparkles as they passed through slanting shafts of sunlight. The weekly delivery of wine. The local vineyards produced a delightful red, fruity with a hint of golden honey, burnt spices, and an earthy tang of iron. I recalled cracking open the last bottles to share with Olvar. It was likely the last time I would enjoy his company or the taste of that fine vintage.
“My Lord,” called Gardener, the bittersweet smell of terror he gave off tickling my nose. “We come with gifts and to wish you well on this glorious day.”
“I accept your offerings,” I growled. “You may leave them and depart.” I waved them away impatiently. While I seldom spent much time in conversation with the townsfolk, today I was especially keen to avoid distractions. The two villagers placed their cargo on the ground. They moved with haste, but also with great caution, taking care not to break any of the bottles. Once done, they bowed briefly, turned, and fled back down the trail. By the time their footfalls had faded from hearing, the breeze had cleared away the reek of fear.
I ignored the wine. If any of my family did perchance slay me this day, they would inherit it, along with whatever other treasures I had hoarded over the years. I needed to keep a clear head. The wine might provide a welcome dulling of pain but would also further dull my thoughts. Although, the more I looked for a solution, the less clear my options became, sober or not.
I remained sitting as the sun crawled across the crystal blue sky. An errant gust of wind harried small clouds about the peak of Tanakara. A falcon spiralled and dove as it hunted nimble hare and bright-eyed prossa in the fields far below. I wondered, if any among my kin came, would it be in open challenge, or would they strike like the falcon: silent, swift, and sudden?
All through the long day I waited, the tension building. It gripped my mind like a shadow, setting in my limbs as molten iron cools into rods. The great fire of the heavens was bleeding crimson into the clouds when my ears perceived faint footfalls. I recognized her lithe movements and soon picked up the familiar scent of sulphur that seemed to follow her like a malodorous shadow. Quiet as a cat, she stalked up the trail, moving quickly from tree to tree, not hidden, but stepping softly, as though stealth was her natural mode. The dark bulk of the mountain cast her face in shadow, large eyes and teeth gleaming within the darkness.
“Greetings, Virka Moldaga,” Pendra whispered softly, white teeth showing further as she grinned wickedly. “How are you this fine evening?” she asked, a mocking tone to her voice. I eyed her sharply, puzzled by her behaviour.
“I am as good as gold, young Pendegara,” I replied, using her full name in echo of her formality. “And yourself?”
“Oh, I’m feeling excellent, Uncle. It has been a beautiful day, and I feel perhaps tomorrow will be even better. Wait, what’s that?” Pendra suddenly dashed behind a large boulder and out of sight. I glanced warily about the clearing. What was that scoundrel up to?
Normally a youngling such as Pendra would offer little chance of defeating me in battle. It was true that, given how rapidly I fatigued and how much each movement pained me, she could indeed win. But unless she knew of my condition, it would be folly for her to attack. Her presence and behaviour were making me suspicious, but I could not fathom her intent. From the corner of my eye I caught a flash of movement. Pendra had clawed her way several feet up the slope of the mountain and was now surveilling me from above. “Let’s wrestle, Uncle,” she cried, launching herself down toward me.
She landed heavily on my back with a laugh, driving the wind half out of my lungs. My back muscles spasmed as they absorbed the impact. Sharp spikes of pain, like the strikes of a dozen swords, ripped through my body. I clenched my teeth and hissed. I rolled, trying to trap her under me, but she was too quick. Slithering to the side, she turned with a smirk. Quick as a snake, she leapt for my neck. Her momentum spun me around. It took some effort to throw her off and prevent myself from crashing into the wide trunk of a nearby umir. In a flash, she charged back, forcing me to keep moving. The effort of trying to conceal the agony I was in continued to grow. I was tiring fast, but, so far, Pendra had not drawn blood nor attempted any lethal strikes. It seemed a poor time to play-fight, but I was still reluctant to attribute malicious intent.
Finally, Pendra dealt me a wicked blow. Using her full body weight, she drove me onto a rocky outcrop. Small creatures fled deeper into the woods as I let loose a bellow of agony and frustration. Pendra moved back, an evil gleam in her eye.
“Why Uncle, surely I have not managed to hurt the mighty leader of our great clan?” she purred, her breathing still smooth and unlaboured. I tried to conceal my desire to gasp for breath and wondered if she could hear the pounding of my heart.
“I have been feeling a little under the weather,” I growled. “It will pass soon.”
“That is a shame; after all, today is the day of challenge. Ascension day! But perhaps it’s something you fed upon?” Pendra looked slyly toward the large pile of bones that lay nearby, all that was left of the kine I had recently consumed.
“What do you mean, child?” I asked, a sense of unease beginning to coil within my gut.
“Perhaps there was something wrong with the herd. Perhaps they ate something unwholesome?”
“What would cause you to suspect such a thing?” I stared at her intently but, otherwise, stayed quite still. I wanted nothing more than to lie down and try to let the pain fade, but I had to remain motionless. If I moved, I would be unable to conceal the stiffness and cramping that had begun to set in. My gaze was locked on her, unblinking.
“Well, Uncle, on the island where I live there are certain pools: pools fed by hot underground springs. The water in these pools is a beautiful aquamarine. The rocks nearby are coloured like jewels: topaz and turquoise, amethyst and emerald. But alas, no fish live in these pools, no flashing of silver scales, no tasty morsels to eat. For the water you see, is noisome. There are certain minerals dissolved in the water that... But perhaps this is boring for you. I see your eyes beginning to glaze over. Perhaps you would like to wrestle some more instead, yes?”
“On the contrary child, this is most interesting,” I said, both curious to hear where this was leading and reluctant to engage in further combat. I knew that drinking fouled water could make one ill. I had also seen pools like those of which she spoke. Among the emerald isles of the Sapphire Sea there were several regions that vented steam and noxious fumes from time to time. Like most of my kind, I had given them little thought.
“Well,” Pendra continued, sitting at ease and looking pleased with herself, “these minerals can also be found in the soil near the pools. I found through experimentation that if I fed too much of these minerals to a small animal, it would sicken and eventually die. But if I fed it just a little at a time, the creature survived. But even more interesting, if you feed a little of the mineral to lots of animals, squirrels perhaps, and then a wolf eats the squirrels, the wolf begins to sicken and eventually dies. Most interesting, don’t you think, Uncle?”
I looked over at the pile of bones again, the shape of her scheme beginning to form. The kine came from the villagers, part of their monthly tithe, along with payments of wine, gold, and silver. A payment in return for which we agreed not to raid the herds at will, taking what we wanted. Nor would we attack the villages and towns as we once did, simply for the joy and chaos of it. And it was Pendra’s idea to form this agreement. Pendra with her experiments. Pendra with her new ways of thinking. At some point she must have convinced the nearby villagers to poison the cattle they brought me. Over time the toxins had accumulated within my flesh. Over time my agony had grown and my strength faded.
I glared at her through slitted eyes. I knew then she planned to challenge me. The wrestling had been another ruse, designed to tire and enfeeble me further. She had counted on my restraint, on not seeing her as a true threat. Only two questions remained. Could she defeat me, and did I want her to?
“Your tricks may have weakened me, you deceitful snake,” I growled at her. “But how will you gain a place within the Council? Or perhaps your mind is so twisted you wish to see your clan doomed to ruin and starvation?”
“Don’t worry about your dear Wyrdmates,” Pendra snarled. “I have plans for them, those old fossils, so stuck in their ways. They deserve to be extinct!” I felt a heat building within me, a fire fuelled by anger and horror. A growl arose from deep within my chest.
“You meddle with our ancient ways and traditions. You will bring our clan, and all our kind, to ruin!” I roared at her.
“Bah! You simply fear change,” she scoffed. “I see a glorious future ahead one in which we rule the world!”
“You mean where you rule the world?”
“Yes, and why not? Why should it be the strongest in muscle and limb and not the strongest of mind and thought who rules?”
“And what of the villagers and townsfolk? What will stop them from using what you have taught them against others of our kind? They fear us now, but their numbers are great, and they too can be cunning.” I saw the tiniest spark of doubt ignite in her eyes. For a brief moment hope kindled within me. But then her greed and self-confidence rose up, fanning the spark into the flames of ambition. My hope vanished like smoke. I knew I must try to destroy her, even if it meant another four years of suffering and misery.
I took a deep breath. My lips curled back, baring my teeth. My eyes narrowed, and my nostrils flared. Muscle and sinew erupted in searing fire and stabbing pain as I tensed myself to leap. This would be a desperate attack. There would be no subtlety to it. Pendra could see it coming, knew I was hurting and exhausted, but knew also I had nothing to lose. She was braced, ready for me, trying her best to appear calm and confident, but I saw she feared me yet. I was larger, older, and more experienced. Muscles along her jaw twitched involuntarily, but her gaze remained steady.
I raised my head and roared long and loud, the echoes reverberating from the mountainside, small stones shaking loose and clattering down. Further down the valley, I heard deer startle and flee. Flocks of piwakeke rose from the canopy and whirred off in all directions. My tail lashed back and forth, once, twice, and then I leapt, wings snapping wide, tooth-filled maw open, diving for Pendra’s scaled neck.
Pendra hissed and dodged, quick as a viper. My jaws snapped shut on empty air, but the weight of my body caught her. There was a wet cracking sound, like that of a bough breaking, as bones snapped in her shoulder. She let out her own roar of pain and defiance. Her wedge-shaped head swung around and she bit, long teeth sinking deep into my forewing. Compared to the agony I was already in, I barely felt it. I twisted as her claws raked at my underbelly and her razor sharp talons skittered off the thicker scales on my chest. Wrenching to the right, I felt her front claws shred the delicate membranes of my wing. I was heedless of the damage, uncaring if I never flew again.
Sinews screaming in protest, I struggled to bring my greater weight to bear. Finally, I managed to wedge her against the trunk of a large umir, trying to stay clear of her hind legs as she attempted to rake at my underbelly once more. I bit down hard on her shoulder, hearing broken bones grate together, tasting the hot iron of her blood.
Pendra let out a shrieking howl as she thrashed desperately, trying to break free. With a horrific tearing sound, the great trunk splintered. Several scales tore loose as Pendra ripped herself from my grip and coiled around to strike again. I struggled to stay close, drive her forward, and pin her against the rocks on the opposite side of the clearing. I tore off more scales and left four great gouges down her side, but she slipped away again.
My heart was thudding in my chest, lungs on fire, muscles burning, breathing ragged and hot. Every movement was torture, but I drove myself to keep going, for the future of my bloodline and of all the clans.
I scrabbled about, but I was too slow. Pendra hunched and sprang, jabbed her talons into the softer hide below my forearm. With a jerk, she ripped open a deep wound, sending great gouts of blood onto the stony ground. It spread like wine from a shattered cask, the sticky blackness steaming slightly in the cool evening air.
Exhausted I collapsed,, the last of my strength draining rapidly. Pendra backed away, watching me warily as she slipped from my sight in the twilight gloom. I felt I had failed my kin. I hoped that I was wrong. I hoped our great clans would continue to rule the lands, seas, and skies for many generations to come. But all I could see was the long night approaching. The shadows seemed to stretch out along the ground, the blackness clawing its way toward me. I felt cold, colder than I had ever felt before. The sky was swiftly darkening to shades of deep blue and bruised purple.
A furtive motion drew my eye, almost directly beyond Pendra’s large horned head. Beside a tall buttress of rock further up the mountain I glimpsed a flash of copper and platinum. The Yeoman and his wife. Returning to witness how effective Pendra’s poisons had been. My niece would become Virka, but how long would her reign last?
As the last light faded, I felt immersed in a great enveloping warmth. All the pain slowly lifted away like the breaking of a fever. A sweet euphoria washed over me in a long silver wave. The heavy beat of my heart became a soft, slow pulse.
Slower and slower.