Hill and sky clash in mighty battle!
|Every sinew in his lean body strained as Teke-tili, mighty warrior of Hill People, gripped the stony face of the cliffside and heaved himself skyward. Two thousand feet beneath the soles of his leather moccasins spread the gentle hills and treetops of the lands where dwelt his tribe. Two hundred feet above perched the stony eyries of the Bird Men.
And between—nothing, save the vertical wall of white rock, crossed-hatched with the cracks and fissures into which Teke-tili pressed iron-strong fingers, and up which he pulled himself with his mighty thews!
"Hark! The matrimonial drums!" called a voice behind and above him, and out of the corner of his eye Tiki-tele saw the swooping form of his friend, Khwawri-rey, noblest royal of the Bird Men. His glistening plumage was the color of blood, and his yellow beak glimmered in the sun like washed gold. Beneath the emerald feathers of his crest glittered his ebon-colored eyes—eyes so keen that from a thousand feet above he could yet spy a huddled rabbit, and plunge to snatch it with claws like steel knives.
"Peace, featherbrain," Teke-tili hissed through gritted teeth. The raw mountain air sawed at his lungs like a knife as he clambered painfully up the cliff face. "I cannot hurl myself into the air, and let the currents carry me like a leaf!"
Khwawri-rey laughed. "Nor could I catch and carry you if you did! But you must hurry, if the usurper is to be thwarted!"
Teke-tili spared himself no more breath. He heard the drums, which had commenced their beat some minutes before, and knew that time was rapidly ebbing.
Handhold over handhold he made, concentrating only on finding the next crack he could grip, and thrusting away the knowledge of the fatal plunge beneath. Painful hours he had poured into clambering the face of the cliff, up and across which no stair or ladder was visible save those that Nature herself had carved into it. Teke-tili kissed it with his mighty chest and rippling abdomen as he drew himself up it.
At last, the slope bent and shallowed and curved inward, and when Teke-tili at last stood again upright the ground was but a stony shoal spilling toward the edge of the cliff. But above him rose still more cliffs.
It was, fortunately, not his fate to clamber these, for into them, carved like beehives of stone, stood the houses of the Bird Men. Empty on this day and at this hour they stood, for the tribe to a one—save for the noble Khwawri-rey—were gathered in the circular amphitheater wherein they conducted their most sacred and savage ceremonies.
Teke-tili paused only to gulp down some few restorative breaths before plunged up the broad staircase that from this lowest lip of the Birdmen's dwellings.
"Aery-rey!" called a voice like thunder as he climbed. "Men of the Air! Your new king takes today his bride!"
Teke-tili bristled all over as he looked down into the amphiteather. At the feet of the bloody-hued Bird Man who held the stage cowered a golden-haired girl dressed only in torn silks. It was the Lady Ederra, long-beloved of the warrior Teke-tili.
"The empyrean is our empire!" exulted he who had lately claimed the Bird Men's throne. "The sky our kingdom! And now!" He seized Ederra by the wrist and wrenched her to her feet. "The hills and grasses below shall wither beneath our wings!"
A rustle ran through the feathered onlookers. But a crimson flush flooded the gaze of Teke-tili, and with a great cry and leap he threw himself into the amphitheater and landed on the stage.
"I call you usurper!" he challenged the new monarch. "Traitor! Imposter! I call you the thrice-cursed—!"
"They call me king!" the would-be King of the Bird Men bellowed. He beckoned to his subjects.
An uneasy murmur rose from the stadium, and the Bird Men huddled there shivered. "He is strong," said one. "The strongest!" "None ever so strong!" "The neck of Rwey-kitiki the Great he broke in single combat with a blow!"
"And it is for that reason I call him imposter!" Teke-tili riposted. "If he can best me, then will I join you in kneeling before him!" The warrior drew a knife of fell sheen.
The feathered crests of the onlookers rose in a wave.
"No Bird Man ever bested a man of the hills!" went up the cry of horror. "Cheat! Unjust! Your bones are not hollow! Your flesh too dense!"
"That is why your great king fell before him!" Teke-tili cried. "Behold!"
For even as the one who claimed kingship crouched and glared, Teke-tili leaped at him. With one blow to the chest he cut down his enemy. Then, pulling the smoking blade from the breast, Teke-tili fell to hacking at the neck of his fallen adversary. A cackling cry of despair rose from the Bird Men as Teke-tili lifted the severed head.
For behold! The beak and crest came away like a hood, and beneath, his eyes dulled and fixed in death, was the head of a man of the Hills—Menil-tili, a criminal forsworn of society and exiled.
"Prince! O Prince! O King!" called the Bird Men as Khwawri-rey swooped down to join Teke-tili on the dais, for he was the nephew of the old king and his lawful heir by blood.
"Let cry the drums!" Khwawri-rey proclaimed, and for one moment only Teke-tili froze in angered bewilderment, for it was from the drums and the marriage they propounded that he had hastened to save his beloved.
But when his friend lifted the girl to her feet and pressed her hand into his, then Teke-tili understood for whom they rang out now.
Prompt: Cover image