StrongHand looked up from his meal as he heard a fl urry of wings.
‘Hail, ThunderWing my brother,’ he said, bowing as to a great warrior.
‘Welcome home to our eyrie once more. You bring both shame and fame to yourself, but honour to our eyrie. Who but you would be both valiant and fool enough to challenge the realm of the Black Storm and draw him out to his doom.’
ThunderWing glanced at his brother as he landed. There appeared to be both mockery and admiration in his brother’s greeting. He, however, was not in the mood for the amiable squabbling that they used to indulge in, so he settled in his old corner and lay down.
‘Come now, little brother,’ pursued his elder, teasingly. ‘Are you still so shattered that you cannot play Mawharagh with fat brother StrongHand?’
But ThunderWing would not be drawn, so StrongHand, after looking for any signs of permanent damage to his sibling, shook his head and resumed his favourite pastime.
‘You have heard, no doubt, that NightFlyer is now…..?’
‘Yes!’ was the curt reply. ‘Indeed, all the eyries of the mountains know of his victory. I stayed only to see and hear SilverSong the Fair. But she came not, so I would not wait for the race.’
StrongHand grunted sardonically, but kept his peace and laid down.
Silence reigned for a while and ThunderWing watched the sun slowly setting behind the Western Mountains. He nibbled on some meat his brother threw to him. He saw the last of the hunters and gatherers flying home to their own eyries. A few of the solitary lesser eagles also returned to their eyries in the cliffs, tiny dots in comparison.
After a while, ThunderWing lifted his head.
‘It is said that you are the greatest of the hunters and gatherers, brother.’
StrongHand grunted, still absorbed in digesting his large meal.
‘It is of little moment to me. Perhaps it is because I feed many that it has been noticed. Had I my own war-cry, it would be: “Feed your stomach, feed the eyries.” It goes well. I build my hunger in the service of the eyries and therefore eat more. So I am content.’
A hissing laugh escaped his brother’s throat.
‘I now envy your lack of ambition, brother. Yet you are honourable in your service, little though you relish the honour.’
StrongHand looked up, surprised.
‘You are courteous! If your pride and presumption has been shattered in your fall, as it now seems, then maybe it has not been loss, but gain. Have you surrendered your dream to be Windlord of the Mawh’eyri?’
‘Perhaps,’ his brother replied evasively. His vow to his love was a private matter now. ‘But for now I seek a lesser, but maybe better honour.’
StrongHand just blinked at him in bafflement.
‘I know not your meaning. What is this honour you speak of?’
‘To aid the hunters and gatherers to feed the eyries.’
This surprised the elder brother so much, he took wing and almost flipped over. The sudden movement swept the last scraps of his meal off the ledge, but he made no effort to retrieve them.
‘You, my brother! A hunter and gatherer? But...do not all warriors despise us?’
‘Not this warrior! Nor have I ever done so, save in our banter and word-battles. But is there need for other wings? Can you use my hands in your task?’
For once, StrongHand’s enthusiasm showed, despite his outward profession of self-interest. His eyes brightened. This was his passion. He became even rhetorical.
‘More and more eyries are birthed in the mountains, and more and more eaglets are born to the wingfolk of the Mawh’eyri. The mothers are hard pressed to feed them at times, and there is sometimes great dearth in the season of storms, when the mountains wear the Cold White Down. The Watchers of the Marches guard the outer hills, so they cannot hunt, but must also be fed as do those in the Windlords in Council. It is hard labour and long, at times. Yet we are a merry band, we of the Mawharùn. We sing as we gather, and sing when we catch our prey. We dispatch the fruits of our labours quickly and quietly, and are fully content when we see that hungry mouths are fed. When times allow it, we feast all together and share our tales of the hunt.’
His face darkened.
‘But many more strong young eyrion think less of the eyries and more of their own glory. They choose to be warriors, and play eaglets’ games of war, feeding only their own bellies! Do we have need of more hunters? I tell you, many would starve if we, the despised Mawharùn become weary of our task!’
ThunderWing now looked at his brother with new eyes.
‘Truly, I have not given you the honour that is due. Let me come with you, then, at sun-arise next. You, elder brother, must show me the ways of the Mawharùn.’
So it was that ThunderWing joined the hunter-gatherers for the rest of the season.
He learned to respect the skill of his pragmatic but great-hearted brother. StrongHand knew the best areas for hunting and where the best berries and herbs could be found. He had developed a system of herding and culling their prey without exhausting their resources. He directed the hunters to find food in areas of plenty.
ThunderWing soon learned that speed and strength were not always helpful when hunting. He was surprised at the patience and skill StrongHand showed while stalking his prey. He watched and sensed the changing of the winds so he was rarely detected until the final moment, and it was too late. His speed at the final swoop could rival that of the fastest warrior. He was not named StrongHand the Master Hunter for nothing.
He found his fellow hunter-gatherers to be good-hearted folk. A few were surprised to find a warrior among them, and astounded when they were told it was none other than ThunderWing, formerly Swiftest in the Mountains—he who defied the Black Storm.
He showed no sign of superiority, however, so they soon accepted him into the fraternity.
Indeed, the goodwill and brotherhood of all members were something of which ThunderWing took note.
There was nothing glamorous or elegant about them. Few took the trouble to groom themselves beyond basic hygiene. They came from many eyries, often as the weaker siblings, the more fearful, the less attractive members of the family.
Many of the eagle-maids among them, the eyreira, were either too old, too disfigured, or just too plain to be considered as nest-mates by the warriors. Yet they were content to be among the fraternity.
There were no pretensions or airs about them. They took pride in their work, and carried the fruits of their labours to the farthermost mountains, without complaint.
StrongHand had a very egalitarian policy when it came to delivering their catch.
‘While I am Master of the Mawharùn,’ he said belligerently to his hunters, ‘We shall deliver our first catch to those who are in greatest need, first of all. If warriors, or even Windlords call for prey for their feasting, they must await those that are hungry and destitute—or catch their own prey. I have spoken!’
He would sometimes mutter the occasional remark about certain injustices that occurred among the Mawh’eyri.
‘Open your eyes wherever you are sent, my brother,’ he advised in an undervoice. ‘For not all is well in the mountains of Mawha.’
ThunderWing thought his brother took too pessimistic a view of the state of affairs, a reaction to the low esteem in which the Mawharùn were regarded. Nonetheless, he watched and wondered at some situations in some of the poorer eyries he visited.
He experienced the satisfaction of seeing hungry beaks fed, and the gratitude of many harassed mothers, whose nest-mate had gone to the Mawh’ree, the tournaments of the warriors in the Southern Hills, or had fallen through their attempts at the peak, or died fighting the Hrah’eyri raiders.
He had even heard of cases of domestic violence and forced marriages, where the eyreira had fled into the wild. It was a very patriarchal society. ThunderWing began to feel a little ashamed that he had spent so much of his youth at the Mawh’ree, forsaking his mother in her loneliness.
Sometimes it was a thankless task, being a hunter.
A hunter arrived at one eyrie, hardly recognizable, covered in dust and splashed with a little blood, bearing two hares and a branch of mountain berries.
The eyrie-mother was rather stressed and a little cross. She had three small wailing chicks and an aspiring young warrior-to-be to feed.
There was no sign of the father (presumably, he was at the Mawh’ree in the Southern Hills).
‘You are late, hunter!’ she snapped. ‘I cannot leave the nest and my lord is delayed. My chicks are starving!’
The hunter cast his catch before the hungry chicks and waved genially at the eldest of them, who was staring hard at him.
‘I cry pardon, eyrie-mother.’ replied the hunter, patiently. ‘There have been so many demands upon us, now the Mawh’ree trials are at their height. Prey is becoming scarce in the southern central valleys, so we have to venture beyond the outer borders. It is a long flight.’
The eyrie-mother merely grunted, tearing at the meal and carefully depositing morsels into wailing mouths.
The eldest youngster stared intently at the hunter, while munching on berry and flesh, so the hunter kindly asked him questions about his aspirations.
‘I know not if I be a hunter or a warrior, master hunter,’ the youth replied. ‘I like to be both, but cannot.’
‘Why will you not be both…?’
‘Because his father will not let him so demean himself!’ interjected the mother, irritated by the question. ‘If you have no more food to offer, pray go and leave us in peace. Do not be late next time!’
The hunter effaced himself hastily, winking at the young aspirant as he went.
‘Why you talk to him so, mother? I like him. I see him before at the Mawharhipi trials.’
‘If you are to be a warrior like your father, youngling, you do not befriend mere hunters.’
The young eagle gasped. He remembered who the hunter was.
‘Mother! It was ThunderWing, son of Windlord HighSoarer!’
The mother closed her eyes in exasperation.
‘Do not be so foolish, youngling! A champion of his stature would never join the Mawharùn! Eat your meat and berries and go to your nest!’
ThunderWing also met some of the older warriors, the Watchers and Guards of the Marches, as he brought meat and fruits to their posts on the outer crags of the outer mountains. Some had known his father, so his sons were held in high honour.
‘Hail, son of HighSoarer the great!’ said StrongEye, a battered and tattered old watcher, as ThunderWing bowed and laid his meal before him. ‘You have my thanks. Your eyrie has served me well. Your father saved me in times past in battle with the raiders. Your brother keeps me from starvation so I may keep my post. Because of you, the Black Storm is banished from the mountains, and we may live with less fear.’
He cocked his head sideways at his young visitor, who laid the meat out for him.
‘Yet this is a thing unheard of. Have you so demeaned yourself as to have joined the Mawharùn fraternity?’
‘I am a warrior still, father-warrior,’ ThunderWing replied stiffl y.
‘But I have learned that there is much honour among the Mawharùn, little though we warriors could see it. There is much I could learn from them. Proudly do I serve the eyries of the Mawh’eyri.’
‘Very well, son of HighSoarer. But surely warriors are called to a higher calling. It is written upon the Stones of Judgment.’
The old warrior was still too set in the caste system of the mountain eagles to fully see ThunderWing’s viewpoint. Then he changed the subject.
‘Have you heard what has happened at the Great Peak? The news is spreading from eyrie to eyrie.’
ThunderWing’s heart sank.
‘Has NightFlyer, son of Windlord SwiftSlayer, has he attempted the Great Summit of Mawharikhan?
The old warrior snorted. ‘He has done so, and failed. But that is not the sole news.’
‘NightFlyer has failed??’
ThunderWing’s heart soared again.
‘Yes, he has failed, the arrogant young fool,’ the watcher replied with a scornful laugh. ‘And his pride will not let him forbear. But now there is a new enemy upon Mawharikhan for a warrior to conquer before he gains the summit itself.’
‘Surely it cannot be that Mawharikhὺn has returned! The rumour of his coming would have left a swathe of destruction in his wake! And he greatly fears the wrath of the Great Spirit-Wind!’
‘No, son of HighSoarer. Rather it is many enemies, but not so black, nor so evil, or so it seems. They are the Khriki winds of the Wailing Hills who, it is said, have heard of the banishment of the Black Storm, and have come to take residence in his place within the high black caves of Mawharikhan.’
‘The Khriki? The Raven-Winds? Do they do harm to the warriors that attempt the peak?’
‘Well…. they have less hatred in their hearts as had Mawharikhὺn, but they are proud. They harass you like the crows of the valleys, but are far stronger. Our folk are as playthings to them, if we wander onto their territory—or so they call it. They will not slay you, but they will buffet you with breath and wing. They will cause you to be consumed with fear so you lose heart. So it came to pass upon NightFlyer, son of Windlord SwiftSlayer, when he made his attempt, and upon LongFeather, son of StoneWing also. Their thought was that they would have an easy victory over the Great Peak, and great is their consternation.’
Both laughed aloud.
The garrulous old warrior would have chatted for quite a while, having had a long and lonely vigil, but ThunderWing had much to do and to think about. He politely extricated himself from the conversation, bidding farewell, and then facing his beak into the wind and driving rain.
‘SilverSong, my wing-love, you are safe for the moment!’ he sang to the air as he winged his way back to the hunting fields. ‘But Oh! That I may look upon you again, to hear your voice and to speak of this news! Where have they hidden you?’
He continued his work, but his head was full of these new developments at the peak, and their implications. If there was call for meat at Windlord’s Crag or at StrongFeather’s eyrie, he begged to be the one to take it. StrongHand good-naturedly allowed it a few times, but as Hunter-Master, he had to send the strongest flyers to the furthest reaches.
ThunderWing was the strongest flyer, and could carry just as much meat as StrongHand, so he was often chosen for the remotest marches.
On the occasions when he was allowed to visit StrongFeather’s eyrie, there was no sign of his beloved. On casual inquiry, he was told by a young family member that she was still in the Northern Mountains.
When he finally arrived in the Northern Mountains, bearing food, it was reported that she had flown back to her eyrie. He fretted, wondering if she had grown cold toward him.
He humbly approached her father when he visited Windlord’s Crag.
Windlord StrongFeather looked a little grim, but he took him aside and spoke to him.
‘Son of HighSoarer, my daughter is in hiding. It seems that Night- Flyer, Mawharhipi as he now is, already considers her his property. She is safe at my eyrie while I remain, but my duties often call me forth. He has been hovering, my son. Hovering as though she were his prey! I have spoken to his father, Windlord SwiftSlayer, but he is proud and will do nothing to restrain his son. They do not speak to one another, father and son, these sunflights. But I have warned his father that if NightFlyer should touch my daughter unlawfully, I will call Mawharagh upon him, as is my right. But so says Windlord SwiftSlayer: “Then may the strongest win!”’
ThunderWing was shocked.
‘Oh, that I were a champion again, that I may challenge him in your stead, O Father-of-Many!’
‘That time may come yet, my son,’ said the older eagle, prophetically. ‘I am old, and may not prevail as you may. True, you must become a champion again. Perhaps even, as Windlord? I know your mind and that of my daughter.’
He turned away and gazed at the great cloud-covered peak in the distance, disregarding ThunderWing’s embarrassment.
‘Mawharikhan sleeps. But the new enemies sleep not, and they are strong and unpredictable, as dark winds are.’
He turned back and stared at the strong young warrior before him, his stern eyes softening.
‘But you are stronger in many ways, I think, my son. But await the right season, for only the Great Wind-Spirit can tell when it is so. The Raven-Winds play havoc with all who come to challenge the peak, even at times with the elders at Windlord’s Crag, but they merely play and do not slay. They shall hide in the Black Caves upon the peak during the season of storms, for they fear the Warrior Storms. Go, my son, for so I shall call you. Your time shall come. But wait for it. Your wing-love, my daughter, waits for it also. She is safe for the present. May the Great Wind-Spirit bear you upward!’
There was a lump in the young eagle’s throat, so he could not reply. Bowing low, beak to stone, he departed and returned to his own eyrie.
He could not see her! But she was safe. That was all that mattered.
He returned to his work, which kept his mind occupied. If he became idle, he felt he would go mad. He sang to the Great Spirit-Wind, beseeching him that his time may be soon.
And there was enough to keep his mind occupied.
It would be unfair to say that he became as skilled as his brother, but his superior flexibility in flight proved to be a bonus at times. His strength and skill developed through this training, and his new feathers grew longer. He was becoming a formidable foe.
A few crows, competing for prey, found themselves out-flanked and out-maneuvered. Some paid with their lives if they became too pertinacious, and tried to steal the meat from under ThunderWing’s beak. They swore at him in their own uncouth tongue, but left him alone.
Respect for the brothers grew among the fraternity, but when a crisis arose, it developed into full admiration, even deference.