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Authors: Kathryn Lasky

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BOOK: The Siege
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The Watcher in the Woods

ome might have thought her a scroom, a ghost owl, but she was not. Her feathers had turned a misty gray color with spots of white. She was, indeed, a Spotted Owl, but an odd one. She had perched in a tree not far from the sycamore. Her wings, slightly crippled, made long flights difficult and, when she did fly, her path was often crooked. Nonetheless, she went out scouting every day.

She was almost invisible to the others in Ambala. When they saw her, which was seldom, they called her Mist. But although she was not often seen, she seemed to see all. When she sensed danger or saw something disturbing, she flew to the eagles with whom she shared a nest. In the past, there had been slipgizzles to keep an eye on such things. But since the Barred Owl who had watched in the borderlands between The Beaks and Ambala had been murdered, there had been no one. Now the owl called Mist sensed that there was great peril nearby.

She had watched the strange sight a few nights before
when a smoldering owl had plunged into the lake. She had seen the pilgrim owl rescue it and had been amazed when she observed the pilgrim flying out to fetch leeches. She could not imagine how that owl had survived its plunge, let alone the embers that encrusted its face. But it must have, for the next day, she had seen the good pilgrim go out hunting, and had heard him fretting over finding a vole. He was muttering to himself in a taut voice that the injured owl had demanded meat and not fish. Mist could not imagine how that owl could be so demanding of the pilgrim who had saved his life. And now she watched as the pilgrim went out several times each day and always for red meat—rat, vole, squirrel, but never fish.

She had become more and more curious about the owl recovering in the hollow of the sycamore. How close did she dare come? Most animals in this forest, especially owls, never really saw her. They looked through her. To them she appeared like fog or mist. But even when they did see her, they never seemed to recognize her as an owl, or as any creature they knew. And this was fine with her. The only ones who did know her were the eagles with whom she lived, Zan and Streak.

So she crept forward on the branch of the fir tree where she perched. It was a short flight to the spruce that grew next to the sycamore where the wounded owl was
recovering. A few minutes later, she lighted down onto the spruce. There was one branch that extended farther than the others and nearly touched the sycamore. From this branch she had a perfect view into the hollow where the wounded owl rested. The Spotted Owl gasped at what she saw. The injured owl was immense and his face was hidden behind a metal mask that made him appear horrifyingly brutal. She felt her gizzard twitch and a slow dread begin to build. She must get back to the eagles. There was something about this owl that was more evil than anything she had ever seen. But just then, she heard the approach of the pilgrim. Suddenly, the entire world seemed to turn into a blizzard of bloody feathers. A terrible shriek shattered the forest. And then it was over. In a matter of seconds, the Brown Fish Owl lay dead on the forest floor. One wing ripped off, his head nearly split open. As the blackness of the night gathered in the forest, the huge owl with the metal mask raised its wings up, then flapped and lifted into the sky.

The Spotted Owl’s gizzard turned to ice as the owl settled on the very same limb upon which she perched. She had survived so much. Was she now to die in the talons of this monster owl? The monster turned toward her. The Spotted Owl dared not breathe. Never had she perched this close to an owl and remained imperceptible. The
monster blinked.
Incredible! He sees straight through me. I am indeed mist.

The branch shook as Kludd flapped his wings again and rose into the night to seek his Pure Ones. With this murder finished, the time for revenge had arrived. Vengeance and glory would be his. His gizzard quivered in exultation. A silent scream filled his brain.
Kludd Rules Supreme!

At the Great Ga’Hoole Tree

he big limbs of the Great Ga’Hoole Tree shook with the blasts from the first winter’s gale. It was the season of the white rain, when the vines that hung from the tree turned a glistening ivory. The best of the milkberries had all been harvested weeks before in the time of the copper-rose rain, when the vines were burnished a deep copper-rose color. The weather chaw to which Soren belonged had just returned from an interpretation flight led by Ezylryb, captain of the chaw. It had been Ezylryb’s first flight since his rescue from the Devil’s Triangle. And it had been wonderful—a loud, boisterous mission with plenty of wet poop jokes and singing. But they had come back with good information despite Otulissa’s dire prediction that they would learn nothing if they didn’t stop all the gleeking about. Gleeking was the owl word for messing around and not being serious. Some chaw leaders such as Strix Struma never permitted such gleeking, but Ezylryb
was different. He believed that gleeking was good, building trust and fellowship.

Otulissa, however, a serious and proper young Spotted Owl, abhorred gleeking about in general, and wet poop jokes in particular. It was a never-ending debate between her and Soren.

“Soren, I just don’t believe that exchanging wet poop jokes with seagulls should be part of any mission.”

Otulissa and Soren, both members of the weather chaw, perched on a branch just outside the dining hollow waiting for Matron to announce that breaklight was ready. Breaklight was the meal the owls enjoyed at the end of the night, just before the break of dawn. After this, they would sleep for the rest of the daylight hours until the evening shadows began to creep over the earth and darken the sky.

“You can learn a lot from seagulls, Otulissa,” Soren was saying.

“I beg to differ. All that churring and guffawing and giggling over their pathetic humor interrupts the pressure-front vibrations.” Spotted Owls were known for their extreme sensitivities to atmospheric pressure that came with changes in the weather.

“Well, you picked up on the fact that a blizzard was behind
this gale, and look, it’s starting to snow now. So I don’t see how it damaged your prediction.”

“Soren, I could have predicted a lot more precisely when and how much snow we would be getting if there hadn’t been all that gleeking about. Also, I just don’t find wet poop jokes funny. As owls, we should be proud of our digestive system and our unique manner of eliminating waste.”

“Oh, it’s
for Glaux’s sake.” A large Great Gray Owl named Twilight had just lighted down onto the branch next to them. Twilight was one of Soren’s closest friends.

“It’s not simply yarping, Twilight. That we pack the bones and fur of our waste into neat little packets for excretion is quite extraordinary in the bird kingdom. That so little of our waste is liquid is exceptional. Yarping pellets through our mouths is magnificent,” said Otulissa.

“Seen one pellet, seen them all,” Twilight growled.

“I’m getting cold,” Soren said. “When is breaklight going to be ready? I, for one, am ready for something hot.”

Before a mission, the owls of the weather chaw were not permitted to eat their food cooked. Ezylryb insisted that they eat their food raw and with all the “hair”—as he called it—on the meat. Of course, the owls of the
Ga’Hoole Tree were special in that they often ate cooked food. Most owls ate their food raw and bloody because, unlike the owls of the great tree, they did not possess the extensive knowledge of fire. The owls of the Great Ga’Hoole Tree enjoyed a civilization unrivaled by any of the other kingdoms of owls. With their knowledge, they tried to protect the lives of owls in other kingdoms. Lately, however, the dangers had increased alarmingly. Not the least of these dangers were the evil owls of St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls where Soren had once been imprisoned. At St. Aggie’s, he had met his best friend Gylfie, an Elf Owl. And now there was an even more destructive group, the Pure Ones. It had been on the mission to rescue Ezylryb that Soren had discovered that his own brother, Kludd, was the leader of this group.

Matron, a bunchy Barred Owl, poked her beak out of an opening near the branch where Soren and the others perched. “Breaklight!” she announced cheerfully.

“At last!” Soren said.

“Ooh, bats! I smell roasted bat wings!” Gylfie suddenly swooped in.

“Where’ve you been?” Soren turned to the Elf Owl.

“Helping Octavia in the library,” she replied.

“Octavia in the library? Why?” Soren asked.

“Orders from the top, I guess. We were supposed to organize all the books on higher magnetics and flecks.” Soren felt his gizzard lurch. He would never get used to hearing the word “flecks.”

“But Octavia? Why Octavia? What use is a blind snake in the library? No offense, Mrs. P.,” Otulissa asked as they crowded around Mrs. Plithiver, another blind snake.

“None taken, dear,” the rosy-colored snake replied.

For centuries, blind snakes had served as maids in the nests of owls, keeping them free of vermin and pests. In the Great Ga’Hoole Tree, they served in other tasks as well. Among such tasks were providing the dining tables upon which the owls ate. They could easily and quickly extend their bodies to accommodate more diners.

Answering Otulissa’s question, Gylfie replied, “Why Octavia? Well, she might be blind, but she has served Ezylryb for so long that she knows which books he wants on the special reserve shelf for higher magnetics. And it was too much work for just the book matron. She doesn’t know the collection as well as Octavia—at least not these books. But then, of course, Dewlap came in and started bossing us around.”

There was a sigh from the owls. Dewlap was the most boring teacher, or ryb, of the Great Ga’Hoole Tree.

doing in the library?” Soren asked. “Higher magnetics has nothing to do with the stuff she teaches.”

Otulissa plumped up her feathers. “Oh, never mind. I am just so excited about studying higher magnetics, I can’t tell you.”

“Then don’t,” said Twilight.

“Yes, spare us, learned one,” Gylfie said under her breath in a barely audible whisper to Soren, who laughed. Otulissa was a very smart owl. No one would deny that. She had been the one to figure out how the Devil’s Triangle worked, and how to destroy it with fire. And she knew of the protective qualities of mu metal that guarded against the hazards of the magnetic flecks. But she wasn’t shy about flaunting her knowledge, and sometimes it became boring. Especially now as she began talking about her long list of distinguished relatives who were all scholars, in particular the genius, long gone, great-great-great-aunt of hers, Strix Emerilla, who had written countless scientific books. It was always Strix Emerilla this or Strix Emerilla that. After a little while, the other owls at Mrs. P.’s table ignored her and went on with their own conversations.

Gylfie again turned to Soren and whispered in his ear, “You notice that Ezylryb and none of the other parliament members are here?”

Soren nodded.

“Well, big doings,” Gylfie said, then blinked with one eye. Soren felt a surge of excitement. Gylfie must be onto something. Soren needed a distraction. Life had been, well, not quite the same since the appalling revelation that his own brother had trapped Ezylryb in the Devil’s Triangle. And his own brother had vowed to kill him. Soren spent entirely too much time remembering those dreadful images of Kludd flying off, his face molten as the hot metal mask melted, screaming, “Death to the Impure! Death to Soren!”
My own brother. My very own brother is Metal Beak and he wants to kill me.

After breaklight, the owls departed the dining hollow and made their way back to their respective hollows. Outside the great tree, the blizzard lashed. The gale-force winds had turned the sky white. It had been on a night like this in the thick of a blizzard that Soren, Gylfie, Twilight, and Digger had first arrived at the great tree. Now as soon as the four friends and Soren’s sister, Eglantine, were alone, Gylfie spoke in a low voice.

“As I said to Soren at breaklight, something big is going on.”

“How do you know?” Digger asked.

“Not one of the parliament members was in the dining hollow. There’s an important meeting taking place.”

“Getting ready for war, I bet!” Twilight said. “I’ll bet they’ll put us each in charge of a division.”

“It’s not war, Twilight. Hate to disappoint you,” Gylfie said.

disappointed. He loved fighting, and with his amazing quickness and ferocity, Twilight had proved that he had no equal.

“No, no war,” repeated Gylfie. “It’s higher magnetics.”

“Oh, for Glaux’s sake,” Twilight growled. “How boring. As if we don’t get enough of HM, as she now calls it, from Otulissa all the time.”

“It’s important, Twilight. We have to learn about this stuff,” Digger said.

“That’s just the problem,” Gylfie said in a low hiss. “This stuff is spronk.”

“Spronk?” the three other owls said at once.

“What’s ‘spronk’?” Soren asked.

“Spronk is forbidden knowledge,” said Gylfie. There was a deep silence in the hollow.

“Forbidden knowledge? No, Gylfie,” Soren said, “You have to be wrong. Nothing is spronk in the Great Ga’Hoole Tree. That’s just not the Guardians’ way. They would never forbid knowledge. They only want us to learn.”

“Maybe not forbidden forever, but at least some things are spronk for right now,” she replied.

“Well, I don’t like it,” Soren said firmly. “I’m completely against things being declared spronk.”

“Me, too,” Twilight said.

Digger blinked and then in that slow way he had of speaking when he was considering a problem, he said, “Yes, I think it’s awful when they keep knowledge from young owls. Just suppose that Otulissa had not been permitted to read that book about the Devil’s Triangle. We might never have been able to free Ezylryb.”

“I think we should go tell them that this is all wrong,” Eglantine spoke up for the first time.

“Before we do anything,” Soren said now in a firm voice, “I think that we have to find out for sure.”

“To the roots, Soren?” Gylfie asked.

“That’s how you found out, isn’t it, Gylfie?” Soren asked.

Gylfie nodded. She was a bit embarrassed, for this was an acknowledgment that she had been engaged in the less-than-admirable activity of eavesdropping on the parliament.

Thousands of inner passages wound their way through the Great Ga’Hoole Tree and, some months before, Gylfie, who often had trouble sleeping and would rise for a wander through the tree, had discovered a place deep in the
roots where there was a strange phenomenon. Something happened to the timber at a certain point so that the sounds coming from the owl’s parliament chamber resonated within the roots. Entering the root structure itself was a challenge, for the roots were huge and tangled, but Soren and his friends had found an ideal place where they could listen.

“Oh, I’m so excited!” Eglantine was nearly hopping up and down. “I’ve heard you talk about going to the roots but I’ve never been there. I’ve been dying to go.”

There was a sudden silence as the other four owls exchanged glances. “You’re not thinking of leaving me out. You better not leave me out. No fair!” Eglantine said in a desperate voice.

“I’m just not sure, Eglantine,” Soren said. “I mean, first of all you would have to promise not to tell Primrose.” Primrose, a Pygmy Owl, was Eglantine’s best friend, and she told her everything.

“I won’t, I won’t, I promise. Listen, if it hadn’t been for me, none of this stuff with higher magnetics would have started,” Eglantine said.

This was true. If it hadn’t been for Eglantine, who had been captured by the Pure Ones, imprisoned in the stone crypt of a ruined castle, and exposed to the destructive
powers of the flecks, none of this would have ever happened.

“Well, all right,” Soren finally said. “But not a word of this to anyone. Promise?”

“Promise.” The young Barn Owl nodded her lovely heart-shaped face solemnly.

BOOK: The Siege
11.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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