Jakharo knew, the moment he placed a paw inside the circle they had drawn on the dirt, that this would be his last fight. Every hair on his fur was weighing him down, and every time he took a breath he felt his chest tighten more and more. He was ill, dying probably, and that fight would but put an end to his life more quickly and mercifully than the ill that afflicted him and with which he had suffered in silence for so long.
He made an effort, however, to raise his head proudly as his rival entered the circle, snarling and baring his teeth. The one towering before him was a massive wolf, with thick gray and white fur covered in scars and bright amber eyes. Jakharo could sense on the ground the power of its muscles with every step it took in a wide circle around him. He followed, avoiding turning his back on him, but did not growl back; he felt he had to save his strength.
Jakharo was also huge, in his prime taller and stronger than Daichi, but illness had drained his energy and made it difficult for him to maintain a firm stance. His coat was longer and thicker, with fewer battle marks than his rival's, and the dark brown color of the forest floor. His eyes, which used to be a bright greenish blue, now stared dullly at his former friend. And yet, to all those present, Jakharo stood dignified and serious, without a hint of doubt or weakness.
"You can still withdraw, Daichi", he said, but circled around to avoid showing him his back. "It shouldn't have to be like this. This is barbaric."
"This is the tradition of our pack, Jakharo," he snarled, "and you have ignored it for too long. It is time for a true Rainwind, someone who respects the laws of our ancestors, to lead the people."
"Will we fight to the death instead of discussing our differences?", Jakharo tried to argue. He felt a sting in his heart that did not go away until he took several deep, painful breaths.
Around them, at a safe distance, dozens of wolves of all sizes and colors surrounded them. Some watched the situation with excitement; most, uncertain and hesitant. A few had absolute horror in their eyes. Jakharo looked at them: all had sworn allegiance to him, most had fought by his side and won under his orders. They had honored and respected him, they had followed him into battle, they had come to him for advice. What had it taken for them to now stand still, expectant, waiting for their leader to die before their eyes?
Only a challenge. The invocation of a law as old as their people, engraved on the rocks of the wall so many years ago that no one remembered it.
"This is our law!", Daichi snarled, furious, "You can ignore it, but I can't. We have let this go on for too long. Areghan made a mistake when he chose you, and we made another when we allowed you to insult our traditions for so many years. You are unfit to lead us! You are weak and disdainful of the laws of my people! That is why I challenge you, Jakharo Rain Heart. Fight for your title and your life or surrender and die."
It was a challenge one could not escape. They would fight in that circle of dirt, by claw and fang, until one of them stopped breathing, and Jakharo knew, with a deep pain in his heart, that it would be him.
He dared not to look at his mate or at his children. Shame and grief gnawed at him. He wished he had had time to say goodbye, to prepare them, but only now did he know he had overestimated the time he had. There were no tricks left, no secret resources or ingenious solutions of the kind that had made him famous. Only one last card: the certainty that Daichi believed he was ignorant of the law.
Maybe he deserved all that, he thought. Maybe it was true, after all, that the pack couldn't accept change, even if he had brought it with the best of intentions. Maybe it was better that they clung to their traditions, to the laws carved in the stone walls. Perhaps Jakharo had been living on borrowed time for too long, and it was time to pay all his debts.
"So be it, then" he said, sad, and as he closed his eyes with a sigh he heard Daichi's paws kicking up sand as he jumped on him. So be it, he thought too.
But it would not be said of him that he fell without a fight.
It was not his first time against an opponent who was stronger and faster than him, but he had never been at such a disadvantage. He noticed his slow reflexes and tired body, reluctant to obey his orders, but he forced it to roll over itself to dodge Daichi's first attack. He threw a bite at his rival's ears and his mouth filled with blood, but received as an immediate response a violent shove that cut off his breath and he suddenly found himself trapped under the weight of the gray wolf. A flash of fangs and the pressure of its powerful jaws on his neck. He noticed it had wounded him, but the thick fur in the area acted as armor, saving his life and allowing him to twist violently to escape the grip.
He watched him, panting, from the edge of the circle. Even if Daichi was the best of the pack's warriors, Jakharo knew his technique was superior. If he wasn't so weak, if he wasn't so slow, and if his chest wasn't burning with every breath... Daichi wouldn't have stood a chance if it weren't for his illness. He knew him: he was a powerful warrior, with immense strength, who unloaded his strongest attacks early on to shorten the fight as much as possible. Under normal circumstances, he could dance with him, wear him down, use his superior endurance to let him exhaust his energies and then subdue him, but those weren't normal circumstances. If he dragged the fight out too long, he would be the first to fall. He had to use Daichi's style: fast, furious and ruthless.
He lunged at the gray wolf with all his weight, seeking the back of its neck with his fangs, but Daichi swiftly dodged it by ducking to the side and shoved him again. Jakharo staggered, but kept his balance and pounced again, bloody jaws ahead.
They went for each other's throats for a long time, kicking up dirt around them amid furious growls and yelps of pain. There were moments when Jakharo thought he could win, but Daichi was an experienced warrior in full physical strength and always managed to force him to defend himself. They covered each other on minor wounds, none serious enough to prove fatal in themselves, but they were piling up. He felt his vital force leaving him through the blood that stained his coat. The circle of dirt was already covered in red, dappled with torn pieces of fur. In any battle, an enemy in such a state would be allowed to retreat, but there was no retreat in a formal duel. Only death or victory. That was barbaric, worthy of the times when the law had been written.
Jakharo was running out of strength, and Daichi, who still showed no signs of exhaustion, would soon realize it. He had to get it over with as soon as possible. With adrenaline coursing through his veins, the smell of blood dulling his senses and his heart pounding in his ears, he was acutely aware that he was risking everything on his next move. After that, his body alerted him, he would have no strength left.
The next chance he had to position himself over his rival, he charged forward as if to bite his throat, but unloaded his full weight, paws first, on his head, drawing a grunt of pain and surprise from Daichi. An opportunity opened up then, a brief window of time that he was ready to seize. As the gray wolf's jaws closed around his foreleg with a snap of broken bones, Jakharo lunged for the unprotected jugular to deliver a killing blow...and then his chest exploded in pain, snatching his breath and what little strength he had left.
One shove was enough to knock him to the ground on his side as he struggled for breath. His vision blurred at times, and he struggled to remain conscious despite the pain coursing through him. A dark figure loomed over him, and he felt the pressure of a paw on his numb shoulder.
"Wait", he muttered, and instinctively tried to move, but the broken paw erupted again in pain and the force that pinned him down redoubled. "Wait! I want to make a wish. I can make a wish. It's... it's in the law", he managed to say in a high, raspy voice, with an effort that obscured his vision even more. The darkness was calling to him, pulling him down. His life was slipping away, but he couldn't let it without doing his duty one more time. One last time.
Daichi's snort made him blink. He was too close. Warm blood, his blood, dripped from the gray wolf's fangs, dripped down his face, but he hadn't moved. He had heard it. And probably so had the others.
"Don't hurt my family," he gathered his strength to say as loudly and clearly as he could. He wanted everyone to hear it, to bear witness to it. Somewhere in the blurry cloud of color and movement around him he knew his mate was screaming in horror. His heart wept for her, for all they had shared and could no longer share; that was all he could do to protect her from now on.
I'm sorry, my love, he wanted to tell her, but he didn't know where she was, nor did he have any voice left. I'm so sorry...
Over him, Daichi grunted again, a nod, and Jakharo closed his eyes, grateful.
And he relaxed at last, knowing he was going to die and that nothing mattered anymore.