Zezuru anticipated the fight when she peeked around the curtained entrance to her daga hut.
Nguni’s fists clenched, smoky wisps escaped his human lips, belying their unseen tannin, that is,
dragon nature. Did his pacing drum courage up in his heart or shake dust off from his feet?
Sunshine had not yet caressed the eastern enclosure on the high veld. And the Anah
didn’t have to answer, didn’t need to defend his policies. But despite four centuries of conflict,
An-Mbire desired peace with his younger brother.
Grasping her husband’s hand, she shook her head. She spoke to him with her thoughts,
shielding them from the upstart outside. Ignore him, Anah. No good ever comes of your trying to
satisfy his demands.
He kissed the palm of her hand, acknowledging her concern. But he would not acquiesce.
The provider for the dual-natured tanninim and the protector of their long-lived humans, the
Longevity, shepherded even his most obstinate sheep. He would hear what Nguni had to say.
The quivering in her stomach refused to settle. At least make him wait until witnesses
gather in the lower veld for judgment.
His younger sibling’s confidence announced itself with several bold claps. An-Mbire
embraced her, kissed her lips, and brushed aside the curtain.
“What is it?” Like steel, his voice lacked warmth. Perhaps he would dismiss Nguni after
“I’d like to call a council meeting. We tanninim need to talk about our situation.” No
shred of respect laced his demand.
“Our situation is strong.”
Zezuru pictured her husband drawing himself up to his full height, several inches above
Nguni. Her doubts fled before his confident tone, one that dared his brother to continue.
“We play a vital part in this region’s trade and stand to gain control over the gold mines
as well as the fields. We receive great tribute without oppressing or provoking our neighbors.
They keep a safe distance from us, and we from them. What is it that you see?”
“I see the ruler of the tanninim lives in a daga with no windows. He dresses in the
common garb of his people and receives little remuneration for his oversight. You are Anah.
Why do you not live like it?”
Hair rose on the back of her neck. Nguni would provoke a fight. What would that solve?
“If I am content with my station, then it should be of no concern of yours.”
“Next you will be herding your own cattle and paying for your zviyo millet.”
“Am I cramping your ambitions, Nguni? Are you afraid that, if I make the position of
Anah too humble, it will not be good enough for you when you challenge me for it? Am I
cheapening your prize?”
Her heart pounding, slender fingers shaking at the angry voices, Zezuru pulled back the
curtain as Nguni’s voice crescendoed to a shout. “You’ve already cheapened everything I’ve
desired! I’ve come to claim everything”—he paused to glance at her and lowered his voice—
“and everyone I ever wanted.”
Zezuru, go inside.
But she stiffened her shoulders, determined to be an eyewitness to the developing fight.
Nguni leaped at An-Mbire, shifting form to a black tannin with a narrow red marking that
traced his right shoulder and back, coming to an abrupt end at his ankle. Although he had caught
the Anah off guard, An-Mbire lowered his shoulder, keeping his brother from ripping open his
stomach. The claws raked his back but barely broke the thick skin or the gold markings running
down his side.
Also in his tannin form, An-Mbire soared to the loose rocks, his golden marks glinting in
the first ray of morning light.
But after she changed, Zezuru flew to the pointed daga roof to watch the fate of the
tanninim of Great Zimbabwe and await her fate.
When Nguni raced after his brother, various images in his thoughts startled her. Her
grandfather refusing to allow Nguni to marry her. Bashat being named ambassador to the coast
instead of Nguni. Her son marrying a tannin whose hand Nguni had sought too late. All these
things and other perceived injustices blinded him to the consequences should he kill the Anah.
How could he believe he’d lead the tanninim to greatness?
An-Mbire didn’t wait for Nguni to reach him but plunged to meet his ascent. The black
tanninim clashed as Nguni’s claws sought to rake An-Mbire’s chest, but the Anah had aimed for
a smaller target, Nguni’s head. His claws striped the younger tannin’s face but failed to blind his
Zezuru’s hopes sank. If An-Mbire’s attack had succeeded, then the fight would have
ended without death.
As momentum hurled the Anah past his brother, claws tore at his chest.
Cringing, Zezuru shifted back to her human shape. She hid her face at his frustrated cry
and shared the pain provoking it.
Nguni, streams of blood blinding him, slammed into the rocks comprising the veld’s
highest summit. A boulder groaned, and cracks widened in its middle. But the craggy hill refused
to relinquish either half of the stone.
Nguni flew higher.
“He’s stalling,” Zezuru murmured, seeing his mind and eyes clear while her husband
settled on a pile of loose stones below, breathing heavily.
From the heights, Nguni’s thoughts penetrated to both Zezuru and his brother. He
surprised her with memories of their early friendship.
Life is a game. It is like shatranj, is it not, Zezuru?
Could it be that he, unlike her, failed to perceive death would not be thwarted this day?
No, responded her husband. When I would play you in shatranj, many a time I’d warn
you when you were about to make a fatal error. You didn’t heed my warning at first, and in a few
moves, you lost. You were more careful afterward, and I hoped you’d learn your lesson. But you
Lesson? Nguni scoffed. What lesson? That you are always right?
No, my brother, but that I have no desire to harm you, not in games and not in life. Let us
stop this fight.
Nguni began his descent, targeting the Anah’s head as if to crush it, not to blind. An-
Mbire flew under a stone arch, giving Nguni little choice but to pull up. Following this strategic
retreat, Nguni flew over the rocks as if acknowledging a failed move and landed on the stone
he’d recently hit. It jiggled but failed to fall.
Before Nguni had landed, An-Mbire shot out from behind the arch and tried to bite him.
The rock tilted, throwing Nguni’s balance off, and the Anah closed his mouth around his
brother’s neck. But the acid venom failed to pour into the wound.
Was he still offering his brother forgiveness? Zezuru threw her hands up. Why did her
merciful husband insist on refusing the advice of Melchaiyim, the tannin king?
Nguni’s claws screeched against the rock as he slid, bearing his brother with him. Both
plummeted to the stone pile below. The Anah beat his wings fiercely, lessening the fall that
offered him a second chance of killing his younger brother.
Recognizing the thwarted opportunity, Zezuru slammed her hand against the roof she
knelt upon, vibrations shaking the thatch. When would her husband learn?
Nguni hit the ground with enough force to loosen An-Mbire’s grip on his throat, but not
enough force to convince him to stop fighting.
I recall—Nguni peered up at his brother—when I utterly defeated you in a game of
I remember that game as well, An-Mbire responded. It was the first and last time you
won. You bumped the board, and I told you the pieces were not back in their original positions.
You refused to start over, and I agreed to finish the game, although your accident put my farzin
queen in jeopardy. You took her, and I lost. However, your victory was a result of your
clumsiness. You have never tasted true victory over me. So yield, brother.
As her husband reasoned in his calm but pleading tone, a chill shivered through Zezuru’s
body, an evil omen. Flapping his wings, he rose off his brother and allowed Nguni to get off the
You will have to kill me. Nguni flung himself off.
The hill, unseen by either brother but caught in Zezuru’s widening eyes, loosened its hold
upon the shaken rock. Half of the mass toppled fifty feet.
An-Mbire shrieked even as the sound of wings breaking and ribs snapping cracked the
air. His younger brother stood, savoring the undeserved defeat of the Anah, when the larger half
of the loosened boulder above him tottered and crashed onto An-Mbire’s helpless form.
Nausea overtook Zezuru. She toppled to her knees and vomited as An-Mbire’s echoes of
pain washed over her. His pelvic bone and hind legs, crushed—how could it be?
Zezuru stared, fixated on the macabre scene until the new Anah’s confusion reached her.
He’d imagined himself lording his supremacy over his brother for years to come, never believing
the one he had both worshiped and envied could die.
Sensing this reluctance and forgetting herself and her unborn baby, Zezuru felt the warm
air and smelled the hint of myrrh that always came when she shifted. She flew to Mbire’s side,
but he was already dead, his gold markings dim in the dull light. She cringed beneath An-
Nguni’s disdain as his eyes devoured her enlarged stomach. Any regret he might have
experienced melted at the sight of her—the diminutive golden tannin he’d lusted after for so
“Ah.” He smiled as she returned to her human form to kneel by the dead. “This is the
reason you no longer attend Amidah.”
Too late, her grandfather’s warning flashed upon her, his frame towering over her as he
prepared to depart for the East. “Lovely one,” he had said in his deep baritone, “keep your
pregnancy secret as long as you can. Nguni can only kill your husband—you are another matter.”
An-Nguni’s stern voice pulled her back into the nightmare. “Do not turn from me, tannin.
I would speak plainly to you.”
Tears flooded her eyes as she met those of her husband’s Cain.
“The Keeper of the Tanninim Lore is on his way. You have a decision to make.”
She raised her chin and crossed her arms, a throbbing in her chest pushing against the sob
that must not escape her throat. “What do you want of me?”
“What I have wanted for these past four hundred years. You will agree to marry me.”
“And if I refuse, you will kill me?”
“Kill you? What good would that do?” He inched forward in his human form, his steps
not making a sound. Not yet ready to abandon her husband’s corpse, she didn’t attempt to evade
him. “I would still be alone. No, I have a different idea. Manyika is young and almost as
beautiful as her mother-in-law.”
Zezuru squinted, her lip curling. Using both hands to push herself off the ground, she rose
and threw her shoulders back. “What are you saying? Manyika is married.”
A smile opened his mouth. Was that humor in those mocking eyes so unlike Mbire’s?
“Her husband is not very strong.”
Closing her eyes, she grabbed two fistfuls of her hair. What was he saying? Manyika’s
husband? “You cannot challenge Karanga. He is not Anah.”
“Of course he is not Anah. Only the strongest tannin ever is.” When Zezuru again met
An-Nguni’s gloating gaze, he stood an arm’s length away.
Understanding came slowly to her dulled mind. But when it came, her heart skipped, and
her jaw dropped. She collapsed to the ground and buried her face against her husband’s
stiffening shoulder, the sobs threatening to overwhelm her words. “You would kill my son?”
“It doesn’t have to be that way.” Did he think he could appease her? “I have killed your
husband in lawful battle. I claim you as my own. Do you accept?”
“Accept?” Accept, accept, accept. The word reverberated in her aching head—his
thoughts not hers.
An-Nguni knelt beside her and took her dark hair with its markings of thick, golden
strands into his hand as if in a caress. Then he clenched his fist and yanked her head back,
forcing her to stare up into his face, inches from her own. His hot breath entered her flared
nostrils. “You will marry me, or I will kill your son, take his wife, and exact revenge for Mbire’s
twice robbing me of my chosen bride.”
She dare not gag, not now. “Are you so cruel, Nguni?”
He pulled again, harder, until the tears poured down her face, and a cry escaped her lips.
“I am Anah! You will address me as such.”
“Choose”—his breath like a bellows thrust the words into her mouth—“choose before the
Choose, choose, choose! Again, the word echoed within her aching heart and pounding
head. Choose? There was no choice. “To save my son and to spare his wife, I will marry you,
With her promise, the Anah kissed her lips, released his hold, and stood. Then, as if it
were an afterthought, he added, “Mbire’s unborn child either dies here in Great Zimbabwe by
your hands, or I will kill it myself when we return to Kilwa. I will let you make that decision,