ThunderWing´s sense of exaltation was short-lived.
A few days later, a strong young warrior appeared in the entrance of the cave without giving the customary cry of entry.
He was a little larger than ThunderWing, his plumage a rich combination of olive and metallic bronze, with black markings. Perfectly proportioned, he was considered the handsomest of all the warriors of his tribe. He was also the proudest and most arrogant, with the tongue, so it was said, of the serpent.
He stood there for a moment, beak held high, his very stance an insult.
ThunderWing glanced at him from his recumbent position and looked away again, not even bothering to greet his unwanted visitor. The Mawh’eyri code of civility was seldom practiced between bitter rivals, although the warrior´s code of honour was normally strictly adhered to.
‘Hail, Winglost ThunderWing, the broken, the fallen, the presumptuous fool!’ the visitor cried, mockingly. ‘Did you trip and fall upon your beak?’
Stony silence was all the answer he received.
‘What is this?’ continued the sarcastic voice as he hovered over the wounded eagle.
‘Did the dark wind take your tongue also? Very well. If you would attempt the peak before your time, little eaglet, and awaken the evil wind in your blundering, it is little wonder that you lie naked and broken before me. You are a fool to even think of challenging me: NightFlyer, son of SwiftSlayer, lord of hunters, fairest and strongest of the warriors of the mountains!’
There was still no answer or even movement from his rival, so Night-Flyer prepared to leave.
‘So! It is fitting to keep respectful silence before me, featherlost little egg-chick, for I am destined to be both Mawharhipi and Windlord when the season of the hunt comes again. There shall be none to rival and cheat me of victory in the wing-trials then.’
He spread his wings wide and his voice filled the caves and thevalley.
‘I shall then conquer Mawharikhan, and claim SilverSong the Fair as my own! I shall be the lord of the mountains of Mawha!’
This was too much for ThunderWing to take. He roused himself to some semblance of dignity, spreading his ragged wings in challenge.
‘Will the fair SilverSong take you for nest-mate? I think not, O NightFlyer Wind-Beak, boaster of great boasts! Your very arrogance shall be as rotting meat in her nostrils.’
‘Oh, will you challenge me still, robeless one?’ sneered the other, turning back to face him. ‘Your loss upon the peak has not given you wisdom? She cannot resist NightFlyer the strong, fairest of warriors, greatest of hunters, Swiftest in the Mountains and Reigning Windlord-to-be. Do not forget that a Windlord who conquers the peak has the right to choose—nor you, nor even she can gainsay it. If she is unwilling, I shall take her by force, and not even StrongFeather, her father, can gainsay our laws, nor the will of Windlord NightFlyer Mawharhipi.’
Something exploded inside ThunderWing’s breast.
He hopped and hobbled over and stood beak to beak with his rival, his remaining feathers fully extended in fury.
‘You will have neither title, proud and cruel wind-beak boaster! Am I not ThunderWing Mawharhipi by right of victory? Have I not escaped the clutches of the Black Storm? And caused him to be banished from our mountains? And if you take the fair SilverSong by force, I shall call Mawharagh upon you!’
Such was NightFlyer’s astonishment at this challenge, he sat back upon his tail feathers. He threw his head back and laughed aloud.
‘Mawharagh?? Mawharagh between us? There are no bounds to your boasting, your folly, little quail! Look upon your image when you drink from the pools, little featherlost fool. Even had you the armor and the strength to do battle, by our laws you cannot challenge a champion warrior.’
It was seldom among the Mawh’eyri that such warrior rivalries ever ended in these terrible mountain duels to the death, the Mawharagh. The Windlords that presided over these disputes generally did their utmost to settle them peacefully. Occasionally, some warriors would contend by non-combative contest over the choicest eyrie or the fairest lady among the eagles.
No one, especially the eldest among them, ever wanted to return to the barbaric days when they first settled in the mountains. Eyrie had fought eyrie over territorial rights. Many fine eagles fell in battle until wisdom prevailed. Laws were agreed upon and then scratched on the Stones of Judgment upon Windlords’ Crag. Spontaneous squabbles
that turned to blood-letting were dealt with ruthlessly, both parties summarily expelled from the mountains for a season. If one was determined to be at fault (confirmed by the testimony of witnesses), he or she was sometimes banished forever. If the crime was considered by the Council to be worthy of death, the offender was set upon by designated warriors.
ThunderWing had to acknowledge the truth of NightFlyer’s response, and sank down in a despairing heap again.
A champion named Swiftest in the Mountains was held in such high honour—a Windlord even more so—that he was immune from any challenge of that kind by an inferior. It was law.
If NightFlyer won the racing trials that season, he would be considered a champion. If ThunderWing had his feathers and strength intact, and he still attacked NightFlyer for fair SilverSong’s sake, he would be cast out of the mountains forever, if not executed. What use would he be to the Fair One then?
‘Farewell, pathetic little raven-chick,’ jeered the serpent’s tongue.
He swung one of his wings, knocking ThunderWing to the floor, then laughed out loud again.
‘Grovel for worms if you must. I go to my destiny as Windlord and to claim SilverSong as my own.’
He filled the cave with his eyrie’s war-cry, and swept away into the distance.
The moons passed.
ThunderWing wearily and sadly watched from the cave’s entrance as the mountainsides slowly shed their white down of winter and clothed themselves with the green feathers of spring, tinged with the colours of the blossoms. He watched the lesser birds come and go in their endless hunting and gathering. He even befriended a pair of doves, sharing scraps of his meat with them.
The Mawh’eyri normally ignored lesser birds, though they protected them. That is, unless they became a nuisance.
He was healing rapidly, being exceptionally strong amongst the young warrior-eagles. He was gradually shedding or pulling out his older, damaged plumage, and beginning to grow new, stronger feathers. His shoulder was still tender, but it had been well treated by a skilled healer, and he could fly short distances. He had even begun to hunt and gather for himself again, to a limited extent.
He meditated much on the wise counsel his mother gave him on her frequent visits, and felt comforted by the honour in which he was held by the Mawh’eyri Windlords and his own eyrie. Yet all this honour was nothing to the loss of any chance of winning the eyreira who had become an obsession to him ever since she had returned from the Northern Mountains.
Without her, he had lost all motivation to strive for greatness. He felt he could do little else than serve the eyries as hunter and gatherer like his brother did, removing his warrior’s mark. At least that had some true honour in itself, little though it was regarded by tradition.
However, to his surprise, his mother still spoke of a future conquering of the great peak.
He just shook his head.
‘I am no longer as high of heart as my father, O my mother. I will join my brother in the hunts to serve the eyries, if he will. That is honour enough for one such as I.’
‘It is true that before greatness comes lowliness, even as a bird must swoop downward to soar the highest. Remember that the caves of the Great Summit Mawharikhan are clear of the great enemy because of your attempt. But also mark this: To soar the highest is indeed your destiny, my son. I have heard it on the voice of the Great Wind.’
He could only shake his head in sad disbelief.
His mother did not press him, but paid a visit to Windlord’s Crag and spoke privately to StrongFeather.
This resulted in a surprise visitor to Healing Cave.