A Story of Altiva
Teel James Glenn
Ccopyright 2005 by Teel James Glenn
“It’s circling for another pass,” Tee Kay screamed. “Hug stone!”
It was good advice, but useless. The firehawk was already wheeling back toward the cliff face, and there was nothing for any of them to do but ‘hug stone’, considering they were hanging by their fingers two hundred feet up the sheer wall of the cliff.
Tee Kay, Ke’wn, Kwa ln and Ku’zn were the only ones left alive of the ten who had started the climb. The others had either fallen in their haste to reach safety when the firehawk had first been sighted, or had been burned alive by the flame from the majestic beast.
“You mean this firehawk is like a fire-breathing dragon?,” Tee Kay had asked when he had first come to the island of Zn Sa, home of the furred Zn race and heard that a firehawk had nested near the Zn village. “You know, leathery wings, scales, big red eyes and all that?”
T. K. Mitchell was tall, tanned and lanky with salt and pepper hair cut shaggily over steely eyes that crinkled perpetually in a grin.
Ku’zn, her blue fur rippling in annoyance, looked at him as if he were as complete a furless idiot as most mainlanders. “Dragons are stories created by Dreamspeakers to frighten children.” She said grimly, “Firehawks are the stuff of nightmares and frighten adults. They are very real.” Her tone stopped Tee Kay’s usual glib comment and made him ask instead;
“ But what is a firehawk and why is everyone in the village so concerned?”
“My village is Firehawk Clan,” She said patiently,” because the small hawks, the F’kara, nest in the cliffs on this part of the island and bring us luck.”
“I’ve seen them,” he interjected,” those orange and yellow birds about the size of a small dog that hunt at dusk.”
“Just so,” she said,” and some of them even spit the T’pala, the paste that flames. But they are not the F’kaza, the firehawk.”
“But what is then?” he asked on the edge of being annoyed.
In answer, she reached into her kitbag and removed two soft leather medicine pouches that hung on long thongs. He had seen the same sort of pouches on the neck of the village Dreamspeaker. She handed one to Tee Kay, who could feel the dampness of the herbs and the hardness of small carved stones through the soft tvekhide.
“Once in a grandfather’s life, a F’kaza is born of the F’kara. Then there is danger; for the firehawk is the end of my village, unless we can find its nest and purify it so that the creature will move on.”
“Why not just kill the thing?” He asked.
She looked at him in amazement, then smiled as one would at the simple question of a child. “A firehawk can not be killed; there is not even a legend of one being killed. When a firehawk comes, only people die.”
And die horribly, Tee Kay soon saw. The first attack by the horse sized bird had come unexpectedly as ten of the hunting party were scaling the sheer wall of the cliff on which the firehawk nest had been sighted.
The climb was a difficult one without equipment beyond the clawlike hook and rope belt klath-ku the locals used. It was mostly a case of finger strength and courage. When they were a little over half the way up, one of those still on the ground yelled, “F’kaza!” and real hell began.
The huge firehawk had come screaming out of the sun, it’s red and orange feathers a ghastly omen of the death it brought.
Ka’ln and Kwa zun, being younger and stronger than the rest of the group, were fifty feet ahead marking a trail. It bore down on them first, spitting T’pala on them both. The thick gelatinous paste clung to whatever it struck, Z’n, rock, or stunted cliff shrub, like a devil’s glue. Both warriors panicked when they were hit and tried to scrape the T’pala off their backs.
Ka’ln fell, passing close enough to Tee Kay for the mainlander to see the unrestrained terror in the young Z’n’s eyes, terror that Tee Kay didn’t truly understand until moments later, when the T’pala burst into white hot flame. Kwa zun ignited seconds after that and fell to Tee Kay’s left, his death scream over before his body was halfway to the ground.
Those on the wall of stone could do nothing but keep climbing frantically for the top and pray.
The warriors below tried to draw the beast off with taunts and chants, waving their war lances and playing sar natta music, but to no avail.
In repeated attacks, death had taken all – by ones and twos – all but the four who remained.
“Tee Kay,” Ku’zn said from off to his right and ten or so feet above him. “If the Windmother calls me, I want you to know that my heart—”
“Stop that,” Tee Kay yelled back,” We’re still alive; back home the great guru of the sacred art of baseball said,’ It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’ and he ought to know.”
“What a liar,” Tee Kay admonished himself, “You’ve hit the end of the line; at least Ku’zn is realistic. There are no options; I’m hanging on a rock over a hard place.”
Then there was no more time for thought, only for fear, as the flaming death was upon them again.
This time Ke’wn died screaming in a flash of agony. Tee Kay, right cheek pressed against the cool stone of the cliff, the medicine bag he wore around his neck pressed wetly into his chest, saw it all. The firehawk always followed the same pattern. Once it picked its target, it fixed its black oval eyes and over-wide triangular head at him and flew down straight at him, opening its wide flat beak at thirty yards away. At ten yards it spit the T’pala at its victim, abruptly veering upward. This time Tee Kay actually saw the T’pala glands at the sides of the hawk’s throat open to expel the paste.
The T’pala flew true, covering Ke’wn’s head, shoulders and right arm with an audible Thwop! Some of it splattered onto Tee Kay’s left arm and he stared at it with rapt fascination.
The T’pala was cold – actually cold to the touch – and felt rather like tapioca pudding. Tee Kay let his klath-ku hold him to the wall while he drew the spade he used for widening crevices to attach the klath-ku. He used the spade to remove the hand-sized gob of T’pala (and most of the first two layers of skin) from his left arm. Immediately, the T’pala burst, white-hot, into flame. He dropped the spade and shielded his eyes.
Ke’wn ignited moments later.
“What a way to go,” Tee Kay whispered,” Bird spitballs.” But then his expression changed from solemn to excited.
“Ku’zn, Kwa ln, climb down to me before it comes back,” Tee Kay shouted. “I have an idea how we can stop this thing, but we have to be in a tight grouping.”
“You can not stop a firehawk, Mainlander,”Kwa ln said. “Your mainlander ideas can not change what is real.” Kwa ln, stocky and with a pinched face, looked like a giant furry beetle clinging in the lee of an overhang.
“Just do it, Kwa,” Tee Kay yelled. Ku’zn was already climbing down to him, though her expression showed that she had no thought that anything they could do would change their fate.
The firehawk had reached the apex of its soaring flight and was wheeling to pick its next target.
“Please Kwa,” Tee Kay pleaded again,” If I can’t change anything, there’s no harm in humoring me, is there?”
Kwa ln had nothing better to do, so he decided to humor the stranger he was going to die with.
“I come to die beside you, My Warrior,” Ku’zn said when she was an arms length from him.
“Where’s all that Z’n-are-the-rock-that-can-not-be-crushed philosophy that you’re always spouting,” Tee Kay asked Ku’zn.
“Do not mock me, Tee Kay.” She admonished.
“Right, like annoying you at this moment is going to shorten my life expectancy!” They glared at each other as only lovers can for a long moment. Above, the firehawk’s shrill cry announced it had begun to dive.
“I will not die angry with you.” Ku’zn finally said.
“If I’m right, you’re not going to die today.”
“I am here, Mainlander,” Kwa ln said from Tee Kay’s other side. “You have been a brave companion on this hunt; when the Windmother takes us, I will be honored to stand beside you.”
Tee Kay repositioned his klath-ku, running the coiled rope that connected him to it to its full length. “Stop with the death talk.” Tee Kay demanded.” Just give me your medicine bag, Ku’zn, I’m not sure mine will be big enough.” She looked at him as if he had truly lost his mind.
“Please, Peachfuzz,” he added,” The clock is running.”
The whining screech of the firehawk’s descent filled the air now, so that Ku’zn had to raise her voice to say:
“Go with the Windmother.” as she placed her pouch in his hand.
“If I have to,” he said, “but hopefully not today.” He wound the neck thongs around the two pouches to make a mass the size of a child’s head.
He was watching the firehawk bear down on him now, the eyes bright, the adjustments of the head as it sighted in on him as the center of the cluster of soon-to-be roasted flesh.
Eyes locked in direct challenge. Tee Kay began to talk softly to no one in particular. “It’s just basic high school chemistry, really. It produces T’pala as flaming hockers in an airtight gland sack-then expels it-”
The hawk was a hundred yards away now.
“…and when they hit, they don’t ignite until the outer coating evaporates.”
“That’s why it flames at different times.”
Ku’zn and Kwa ln had begun their death chants. Tee Kay could see the T’pala glands beginning to open.
Tee Kay swiveled on the rock face to confront the firehawk, holding himself with his left arm and planting his heels on a small crevasse.” ‘Love you, Peachfuzz.” he said.
“Yogi Berra!” Tee Kay yelled as he propelled himself off into space, directly at the firehawk, trying hard not to think of the rocks so far below or the thinness of the rope.
Ku’zn screamed in shock.
The glands were fully open, and for a second Tee Kay could see down the dark throat of the approaching leviathan, feeling like an aerial Jonah.
He felt the fetid breath, saw the open windpipe and the two separate gland tunnels with their lining of muscle propelling the T’pala out.
Then the klath-ku rope snapped taut and he hurled his medicine-bag missile straight into the gaping maw.
Tee Kay lost sight of the firehawk as he swung back toward the rock face and slammed painfully into it.
He could hear the powerful wings beating the air and a strange muffled sound like a distant drum being struck just once. Then the world went first white-hot, then black.
Tee Kay awoke on a palette in the healer’s hut in the Z’n village. He was bandaged and in pain, but he was alive, which was more than he had expected.
“The Windmother doesn’t seem to want you,” Ku’zn smiled from beside him.” She keeps sending you back to me.” He could see tear tracks in the fur of her cheeks.
Tee Kay smiled at her weakly, “Did it work?”
“It worked,” she said,” the medicine pouches blocked the T’pala and it seemed just to burst into flame at the firehawk’s beak. It consumed itself in a ball of flame.”
“Fire gives way to water, Peachfuzz,” Tee Kay said. “I’m sure the T’pala was some substance, sodium perhaps, that was ignited by the moisture in the air once the outer coating evaporated.”
“You just would not give up,” Ku’zn said,” perhaps you are more Z’n that I.” She gripped his unburned right arm. “You certainly are Z’n enough for me.”
Kwa ln spoke from the other side of the palette in an awed voice. “You have done what has never even been imagined; you have killed a firehawk.”
“Yeah,” Tee Kay laughed painfully, “And I did it with a spitball!”