For the next two weeks, the moon had shrunk away one swath at a time. Siddo and Skrill had learned much about fending for themselves, preparing for flight and foraging on the point that marked the top of the island. Most fascinating to Siddo was to learn of the land that lay beyond the beach.
Their home was known as the Green Isle, laying near the southern end of the bay. The Great Bay gained its name from its massive size and deep channels, black and cold. But what lay at the bottom of these dark underwater valleys, Siddo would never know, for not even cormorants could penetrate their depths. Cormorants were master divers, fishing beneath the surface for minutes on end as they pursued their prey. Landmasses, different species, his mind darted back and forth, taking inventory.
The cool sea breeze of dusk ruffled his feathers as Siddo swiveled his head, looking in the direction of each of the names that he recited in his head. Newport. To the southeast, the massive settlement was home to many shorebirds, laying on the isle that hooked into the channel. Jamestown. It was a smaller place that lay directly across from the bay from Newport on its own isle. Between them, the two islands divided the southern half of the Great Bay into thirds, with the Green Isle laying in the center of it all. To the south, the Atlantic.
The idea of an ocean, of endless water, was awe-inspiring to the young gull. But then there was the North. Gulls always spoke of it with dread and disgust. The other half of the Great Bay darkened the horizon, where the land closed in and the channels narrowed and clogged with islands.
It was the “black talons which hung over them all,” as his father had told him. South and North had gone to war many a time.
It was all so difficult to keep track of, yet so fascinating. His home had a long and rich history, as did his species, and it was all his father could do to keep from spending whole days answering Siddo’s questions. Skrill just rolled his eyes at the stories, impatient to learn more skills, more “practical things.”
Yes, there’s the look now, Siddo thought. Both brothers were laying within the nest on either side of their mother, the black of night streaking through the murk of twilight. It provided a dramatic entrance for his father.
“Listen closely, children of Providence,” his father began. He spread his wings wide, gazing up towards the silky darkness as it overtook the final reservoirs of daylight. Siddo’s heart stilled as he saw no moon rising on the eastern horizon. “For they say the Mother of all gulls was born on a night such as this. There was no moon, only a single star to welcome her into this world.”
Skrill sighed, but a light cuff from his mother silenced his attitude. This was nothing to be taken lightly.
His father’s eyes fixed them all again, bright as he continued the tale. “She had no mother, no father, none to guide her, for there had never been such a species as She. Yet She was strong, as we are. She learned to survive and thrive by her own intelligence and instinct. She grew to be one of great beauty and wisdom. This brought admiration and praise from the other creatures of land, sea, and air.
“But it also brought envy. Dark eyes watched her with darker desire. In this time, the world had only just been created, and there existed only one of each of the many creatures we see today. The first of the crows, Gokkep, wanted her as his mate. Providence sensed his black lust, refused his false charms. When his overtures turned violent, she raised her talons to defend herself.
As his father continued to tell the tale, Siddo realized he could no longer just hear the vivid words, but see them playing out before his eyes. The crow Gokkep perched upon a dying pine tree, his feathers turning jet black as his longing grew. With hunger, he swore that if he would not have his prize, none would. Black eyes looked out toward the shore and ocean beyond.
Siddo watched as the villain sought out the Eagle, the Falcon, the Hawk, all four masters of air and land swearing allegiance against the Gull. These three allowed the Crow’s words to convince them of the threat to their nobility. There was only one thing that could be done.
The four avian masters descended towards the beach as the sun retreated. Providence did not notice the Sand Piper flee for the cover of the dunes as the shadows passed over its tiny form. The Osprey fell back to her tree on the estuary to defend her nest. The Cormorant dived, the Pelican took to the waves, the Heron watched from the tall reeds. All could sense the darkness of the union.
Providence was caught completely unaware, confusion turning to shock as the unexpected visitors turned their talons and beaks upon her without a word. To their surprise, she fought back fiercely. Pecking and jabbing where she could, Providence beat a fighting retreat out to sea.
The land birds were hesitant to brave such air, for they feared the mysterious ocean, but Gokkep pushed them on. As they pursued the Gull, a strong wind met them, kicking up a towering wave. This wave caught the Falcon in its clutches, smashing her back onto the shore.
The other three pushed on over the boiling ocean as the wind only grew fiercer, wings struggling against the gale. Yet Gokkep shrieked and flew harder than any of them. Providence flew onwards, feathers unruffled by any wind.
Next came a rain storm, a downpour that smashed down upon their backs. Sight blurred by sheets of rain, the Hawk squawked in panic as his wings grew heavy, dragging him into the sea.
The Eagle, strongest and largest of them all, carried on even as his doubt grew. Gokkep would not be denied. Emerging from the squall, he approached like a wraith in the black of the night. The wind died as he neared his prize, the jewel that made his throat thirst.
His father’s words were gone now, no longer dim narration in the background. Siddo heard the shriek of the Crow, piercing his heart. “My love, my blackest love! You shall not deny me again!”
He dived towards her, beak pointed straight for her heart. Despite her fear, Providence held her ground until he was just paces away. In the final moment, she lashed out with her talons, sending Gokkep spinning past her. But not before his black talons reached out, scoring Providence’s chest. She squawked as blood ran from the wound.
Gokkep caught one of the red-spattered feathers, holding it in his talons. “A symbol, a symbol,” he cried to her as they both hovered. “A symbol of our love!”
“Your heart belongs to power and deceit, Gokkep,” she spoke calmly, pointing her talons towards the Eagle, who had watched from a distance. “I only served as your means to dethrone him and the other rulers of the air.”
Gokkep opened his beak to retort, but then a massive shadow fell over him. His heart stilled as the Eagle fixed him in his yellow glare, a crushing blow from his sharp talons sending the usurper plunging towards the sea.
“Forgive me, Providence,” he said, bowing his head to the Gull, for he was not worthy of her presence. “Forgive us all. We allowed that villain to convince us that a noble bird was our enemy, when the real evil was beneath our beaks the whole time.”
Providence started to reply as a black shape loomed behind her. Opening his beak to warn her, the Eagle watched as the dark beak flashed down.
“No,” he shouted, flying forward. A searing bolt of lightning struck down in front of him, knocking him back as the air shook.
Gokkep’s beak continued to stab at her flesh, his lust only growing as the intoxicating blood filled his beak and covered his talons. The star that had welcomed her that first night had arisen, gentle yellow now dark red.
Flying faster than he ever had, the Eagle squawked as the lightning pursued him across the waves, bolts arcing and branching out to block his path. The Hawk’s panicked cries died in his throat as the rain struck down like rocks, the waves towering over him as they closed in. Bubbles burbled from the Falcon’s beak as she was spun about by the vicious breaker, thrown into the hard sand with barely a moment to gasp for air before she was seized once more.
White and dark-gray feathers stained with blood, Providence turned to the star, crying out, “Forgive them, for they knew not, know not-”
Her words were cut off as Gokkep’s beak flashed down, piercing deep into her throat. Her shriek was heard across the globe. It was the shriek of defeat. Of extinction. Of the Crow’s victory.
Blood pouring from her limp beak, Providence’s wings drooped. Gokkep followed the Gull’s fall, laughing madly. In that moment, the fiery bolts ceased, the Eagle turning to witness something extraordinary.
The star grew brighter, and brighter, until a beam of starlight traveled down, catching the body of Providence. Diving after her, Gokkep cried out as his beak touched the beam. The Crow was thrown back by a pulse of light, forced to watch as his prize was cradled away towards the far sky. Too stunned by what he saw before him, the Eagle did not lift a talon to stop Gokkep as he charged towards the star.
“None shall have her but I,” the Crow roared in his rage, diving into the stream. Ignoring the pain, the growing heat, Gokkep could only think of the Gull he saw before him, always just out of reach of his talons. The heat was boiling. Her wounds vanished, her eyes opened once more, gazing back towards Gokkep. It was a look of pity.
Gokkep roared, his body bursting into flame. Before him, the Gull was welcomed into the folds of the star, but he would not be denied. The screeching fireball flew into the surface of the star, exploding into a thousand pieces of fire.
Plunging back towards the world, the flames fizzled out, no more than sparks when they finally touched the ground. But from each spark rose black figures, spreading their wings into the night. And so Gokkep’s legacy survived.
The world was not without protection, however. The Eagle, the Hawk, and the Falcon, recovering from their ordeals and their mistakes, watched as the creatures dotted the sky, an unspoken pact passing between their eyes.
And from that moment on, these noble species had been locked in a battle between light and dark. Neither side had ever won, it was a war for balance. Still, the Eagle, the Hawk, and the Falcon lamented the loss of the Gull, knowing she had no heir. After all, it was their actions that had allowed Gokkep to succeed.
“…and so the three noble birds gathered upon the shore where Providence’s nest had lain empty for so long. They had fought the crows into the twilight of their lives, duty leaving them scarred and graying. On that night, they came together one final time, for the Hawk was sick with disease and would see few sunrises more.”
Siddo watched as the moonlit shore faded away before him. His father’s words grew louder.
“Though seasons of war had seen the mistakes of the past paid in full, the three still cast their heads down when they thought of the absent Gull. The shores were quieter without Her song, and they came to beg forgiveness to that star into which she had ascended. All three voiced their guilt, but much to their despair, the northern star vanished behind the clouds as they spoke. They thought it a sign of her anger.
“But then their eyes turned to the east, where the moon had emerged from behind the clouds. Its face brightened, until a path of white light stretched across the black waves to the shore. From the waves emerged two figures, then two more, and still more. The three witnesses blinked in astonishment as they recognized Her in each of them. All Her kin, yet each a slight bit different.”
“Was that where we came from,” Siddo asked, looking at his father’s black wings and his own gray, speckled plumage. Skrill yawned.
“Yes,” his father nodded. “The Black-backeds were among the pairs that rose from the waves that night, as were the Herrings, the Laughing Gull, and all others that fly over the waves. And then, as the birds of prey welcomed Her kin, they understood that She was still with them. She is in the moon, She is in the stars. She sends the tides, conjures the storms, brings the seasons.”
“Why, then,” Skrill spoke, catching everyone off guard, “is there a Winter? Why send the storms? If She,” his emphasis on the word brought a deep glare from his father, “cares at all for her descendants, why not grant them eternal Summer?”
It was a fair point, Siddo had to grant his brother that, but it sounded as if he was discounting this sacred tale of their very creation.
“Balance, boy,” his father responded. “She seeks balance. How would we know the bright day if we didn’t experience the black night? How would we learn to love the warmth and abundance of Summer if we didn’t experience the biting frost of Winter? For everything good, there must be a challenge, otherwise we would not know when we are blessed. But when that balance is lost, when one outweighs the other, that is the gravest threat of all.”
“So, the crows are still around today,” Skrill asked, a strange curiosity in his eyes.
“Yes,” his father nodded. “They inhabit the lands beyond the beaches which we shorebirds inhabit. Wherever there is a forest, they are thick within the trees, their numbers beyond imagine. Beware, my sons, of the Crows. The story of Gokkep is told to their chicks, and that villain is held as their savior. And his dream to wipe out the Gull of yore has become theirs.”
Siddo could still see the vision of the bloodthirsty Gokkep in his mind, imagining an army of him stretching to the horizon. He shuddered.
It seemed that there was much to be wary of as he settled down beneath his mother’s wing. Skrill adopted his typical haunt on the far side of the nest, closing his eyes, though Siddo could still feel his glare.
His eyes focused on the human bridge on the horizon, its white lights shrouding the northern star. Not much further beyond that, the bay belonged to the North, their next crusade awaited with fear. He looked to the Western horizon, knowing that that air could be thick with crows, black as night, awaiting their next victim.
And then there was his own island, the threats that hid in plain sight. Siddo eyes drooped. He slid into the realm of Nightmare, the same memory that plagued him each night sinking its fangs into his mind.
Every low tide, the retreating waves revealed a long sandbar. This meant that once a day, the desolate Northern Point swelled in size. The sea about the sand was calm as Providence summoned her forces elsewhere.
The silence was eerie. Normally, the sandbar was full of gulls from all across the island. They came to share news, gossip, and have a good time, and here shorebirds of all kinds could be found mingling, native and traveler. But barely a feather stirred, for the dawn mists were thick and the air cold. None left their warm nests at such a time, save two groggy seagull fledglings.
Siddo fluffed up his down against the chill and the breeze. Both brothers had grown much. Their first flight feathers were coming, their pink beaks replaced by hard, black ones. Nothing, however, had grown quite like Skrill’s temper. He paced back and forth, swearing and scraping his talons.
“Salt-scum, what a load of empty shells! ‘Wait here, and don’t move.’ He just wants us to freeze to death, that’s it! I don’t believe it, just drown me now.”
“I dunno, that water looks pretty cold,” Siddo said absently. The darkness of his brother’s eyes made him fluff his feathers up even more. “Besides, I don’t think Providence would ever say those things, Skrill. She’d try and think it through without becoming angry.”
Siddo tried to channel his hero, Dorbez the Explorer, but he couldn’t summon enough courage to keep his voice from faltering once.
“Providence this, Providence that,” his brother mocked him.
Looking towards the sky where the moon had been, Siddo didn’t see his brother rush him. A knock sent the him flying onto his back. “She. Is. Dead.” Skrill spat the words into Siddo’s face. “They’re all dead! Dorbez the Explorer, dead. Manfred the Valiant, dead. Swor the Boisterous, dead.”
“Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean the tales aren’t true,” Siddo replied, still on his back.
“It doesn’t matter whether they’re true or not! Tales don’t matter.” Scrambling back up onto his talons, Siddo only watched on in dismay as his brother’s tirade continued. “History can’t teach you to fight, stories can’t teach you to fly. I’d like to see any of your ‘heroes’ rise from the dead and show you how to hunt.”
“But, Skrill,” Siddo said, feeling the words deeply. “History teaches us what we were, what we as a species can be. To ignore the lessons of the past is only to repeat it.”
“And what’s so wrong about that? The past had its glorious moments, didn’t it? You know them all by heart.” There was a different light in Skrill’s eyes as he extended and dragged his talons through the sand. “A war with the North. What a grand way to learn and prove myself. It’s time the South did more than defend itself. We need to strike first!”
Siddo’s plumage was twice its normal size from shivering. He recalled his brother’s bored expressions for most of the stories his father told. Yet he always seemed to perk up at the mention of battle, just a tad.
“Is that how you feel about it, son?” Both gulls took a step back as their father appeared out of the mist.
Skrill looked away, avoiding his father’s gaze. “There hasn’t been a major conflict with the gulls of the North for over twenty seasons. I was only a chick when the last war was nearing a close, but I can recall the suffering.”
“But war is how the strong are revealed,” Skrill broke his silence. “We would never have known Manfred the Valiant if he had not fought.”
“I grew up seeing gulls missing talons, watched orphaned chicks struggle, heard the sobs of mateless gulls in the stillness of the twilight. My own father lost a part of his starboard wing, never could fly right,” his father shook his head at his son. “You think you know war? You know nothing.”
Father and son locked eyes for a long moment. The tension grew thicker than the gray mists about them, until Siddo’s eyes focused on his father’s talons.
“What’s that fish for, Father?”
“Oh, this,” he held up the rather small-sized cod in his talon. “It’s for eating, but only of one of you gets it.”
Two stomachs rumbled. Skrill shot Siddo a long dark look. His eyes widened as the fish struck the side of his head, landing at his talons.
“No, it’s not for him,” his father shook his head. “Now, Skrill. You caught that fish with your own talons, spent the time tracking it across the surface. It’s yours, isn’t it?”
“Er, yes,” Skrill said, his voice growing firm. “Yes it is.” His talons tightened around the cod.
“But along comes a marauder.” A large wing nudged Siddo towards his brother. He took a step forward, slowly. Then another as his eyes focused on the fish. And another. “He doesn’t care about the effort it took for you to catch that fish. He doesn’t think about the consequences of stealing your prey. All he sees is an opportunity, and all he knows is what he wants.”
Siddo was under a trance. His mind was silent, there were no thoughts about the ways of Providence. His heart beat rapidly, the fire in his stomach spreading. With each step, the fish dominated his sight more. Only three paces separated the two.
“The marauder spreads his wings. A challenge!” His father spoke with dramatic effect. Skrill inched backwards. His brother hadn’t even needed the cue, his wings were already opening! Siddo’s head rose, their eyes locked. The flames surged.
“The charge!” Siddo rushed forward, smacking Skrill’s head between his wings. The blow disoriented his brother, a blow from his beak upon his chest causing Skrill to release the fish as he drew back instinctively. Talons firm upon his newly-won prize, Siddo backed away, wings still prepared to fight.
Skrill was stunned. His brother had completely overwhelmed him in only two moves. Granted, he’d never had any training in fighting, but neither had the other.
His father had noticed as well. “Well done,” he nodded to Siddo. Well done, indeed.
For his part, Siddo felt the warmth of pride and victory swell through him, cooler than the fire of battle that had burned through him. The fish in his talons looked like a long, fat bass to him as he lifted it. And best of all, it was his now.
Instinct took command as Skrill took a step forward. “But lo, the hunter is not defeated yet,” their father’s voice narrated. But neither fledgling took heed of him. Their eyes were locked.
Siddo’s own instinct banished the final faltering cry for thought and wisdom, the teachings of Providence forgotten as the familiar voice issued orders. Spread those wings, lad. Cement that stance. We’ll give this blighter what for! His talons dug into the sand, gripping the fish tightly. His fish.
Rushing forward, Skrill brought his wings together in a loud whack, but they only hit empty air. Expecting the move he’d used before, Siddo ducked and shuffled to the right, fish still beneath his talons. Angered, Skrill charged after him.
Siddo’s mind instantly identified his brother’s mistake. He left his wings folded at his sides! The headlong advance had nothing to shield its flanks. Siddo moved minutely to the left, Skrill’s momentum not allowing him to correct in time. The pointed black beak passed by Siddo in slow motion. All it took was a shove from Siddo’s chest to send his brother tumbling.
Jeriko watched in awe as the battle unfolded, for it was a battle now. The gray and brown form of Skrill rolled by, nearly knocking him over as sand flew. The boy’s a natural. He looked at the still standing form of Siddo.
But the other son wasn’t finished yet. His fall had left him on his back, but it had given him an opportunity. In an instant, he’d spun over, lunging himself at the exposed flank of Siddo. The air filled with his angry screech and a squawk of pain.
Failing to turn in time to bring his wings and beak to bear, Siddo was knocked onto his side by the beak’s strike. Skrill seized the cod from Siddo’s loosened talons, his fire momentarily cooling. Then his neck rose as he prepared to attack again. The beak moved like lightning, breaking through the layers of protective feathers and penetrating the flesh.
In the next moment, a sharp set of talons shoved Skrill back. His father strode up to him, eyes dark. “This fight is over,” he said. “It was over the second you got back what was yours. Never, ever, think that you can go beyond that.”
His father turned back to help his brother up with his wing. Skrill stood on his own. “I was making sure he knew to never steal from me again.”
A spot of blood dripped from the part in Siddo’s feathers. “You defended yourself, defended your right to that fish, Skrill. But to draw blood, to purposefully maim and injure another gull? It is the most vile way you can violate everything our species stands for. It is to condemn them to death.”
His father walked with the injured Siddo up the sand bar towards their nest on the outcropping, promising Skrill they’d talk more about this. Skrill didn’t care about whatever punishment his parents would cook up, whatever scolding they would throw at him. He only thought of his father’s final words. “I know,” he answered on the windswept beach.