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Authors: Kathryn Lasky

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BOOK: The Siege
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To Fear the Moon

he moon had dwenked, and the nights were completely black. It would be four days until the newing began. Then the first faint glow of moon would appear like the thinnest white strand of down, a mere wisp. But each night it would grow fatter and more brilliant. They would hope for cloud cover, but the skies in the St. Aegolius Canyons were usually clear, as it rarely rained. Their mission, of course, had been planned with this in mind. If they arrived near the end of the dwenking, the Chaw of Chaws would have four dark nights before the moon would, as it began once more to fatten and grow bright, batter their exposed heads, dull their brains, and make still their gizzards. These four days would give them some time to figure things out.

It was different being an almost mature owl as opposed to an owlet, as Soren and Gylfie were when they had last been at St. Aggie’s. There were only two stone pits for
newly arrived larger owls, whereas there were least a dozen pits to accommodate the hundreds of owlets. Four members of the Chaw of Chaws were together in one pit, and three in another. Twilight, Soren, and Ruby were in a stone pit watched by an Eastern Screech who had just received his name, Mook, and had dispensed with his number. He was quite full of himself, strutting around snapping commands and making dire threats about the consequences of asking questions.
what, why, when, where,
or any question at all—were strictly forbidden at St. Aggie’s. But that did not prohibit Skench from calling the seven owls out of their stone pits at various times day or night to ask them endless questions about the Northern Kingdoms. During these sessions, Soren noticed Otulissa’s struggle to contain her vast knowledge of those kingdoms and their ways.

Soren had been given the number 82-85. He couldn’t remember what his previous number had been. He did remember, however, his old pit guardian Finny, or Auntie, as she had insisted on being called. She had turned out to be the most brutal owl Soren had encountered at St. Aggie’s. He dreaded meeting up with her again.

Finny had caused Hortense’s death. Hortense was the most courageous owl Soren and Gylfie had ever met, but
when they had first arrived, it appeared that Hortense was the most perfectly moon blinked of all the owlets. Her number had been 12-8.

Soren thought. He could remember Hortense’s number and not his own. It had turned out that she was not an owlet at all, but a fully mature Spotted Owl, small for her years, with slightly crippled wings. And she was a double agent. Assigned to the hatchery as a broody, she had been sneaking some of the eggs snatched by St. Aggie’s patrols and delivering them secretly to two huge bald eagles who returned them to the forest kingdoms—in some cases, the very nests from which they had been taken. But then she had been discovered. From a split in the rock where Soren and Gylfie hid, they had witnessed the terrible battle that had raged between one of the eagles against Finny, Skench, Spoorn, Jatt, and Jutt. They could not see it all, but they could hear the horrendous fight. Soren would never forget the voice of Hortense growing dimmer and dimmer as she fell from the high outcropping, pushed, they knew, by Auntie. And then Auntie’s words in her cooing voice, “Bye-bye, 12-8, you fool.” The last two words had become a snarl that scalded the night.

Oh, Glaux! Soren did not want to see Auntie ever again.

But that was not to be the case.

Four days passed. Then came the first evening of sleep marches. Along with the hundreds of newly snatched owlets, the older owls were herded into the glaucidium. Each member of the Chaw of Chaws knew by heart and by gizzard his or her own saga of the Ga’Hoolian legend cycle. They knew, perhaps not as well, the sagas of others. Martin stood near Soren and looked up at the newing moon.

That I would ever fear the moon?
Martin thought.
How extraordinary!
He tipped his head up. There would be new constellations in this part of the world, for they were far to the south of Hoolemere and the Island of Hoole. He had learned about these constellations in navigation class with Strix Struma, the navigation ryb, but had never actually seen them or traced them with his wing tips as they did in class with her.

It did not seem long before the sleep alarm sounded and the owls were required to march.

Just as Soren and Gylfie had warned, the owls were told to repeat their names as they walked. But the Chaw of Chaws very quietly did just the reverse—they repeated their numbers. This was perhaps the easiest part of their resistance strategy, for there was such a babble of voices that no one really knew what anyone else was saying. If a
sleep monitor did come near the owls, each had a fake name that he or she would say for that moment.

“Albert!” Soren blurted out as a monitor approached. It was a Boreal Owl with dim yellow eyes.

“Excellent, excellent,” the Boreal Owl said as he lighted down next to the block of owls that Soren had been grouped with for the sleep exercises.

When he passed by, Soren resumed repeating his number very quietly. He did not want to attract anyone’s attention, especially the Barn Owl two rows in front of him. Soren had planned to move his way up toward that Barn Owl. Every Barn Owl in St. Aggie’s, except possibly the ones that had been snatched as owlets, was suspected of being an undercover agent, a slipgizzle, for the Pure Ones. And this was perhaps the most important part of their mission: to find out if the Pure Ones were infiltrating St. Aggie’s.


Soren thought. He was right next to the Barn Owl.

“Assume the sleeping position!” The head sleep monitor barked from an outcropping several feet up from the floor of the glaucidium. Hundreds of owls instantly stopped repeating their names and tipped their heads back so that the small scrap of moon shone down on
them. Soren stole a glance at the owl next to him as the beginning of his portion of the Ga’Hoolian legend cycle began to whisper in his head. His gizzard seemed to tingle with delight.

Flint was the Barn Owl’s name. Soren had heard him say it right before the halt was called. But now Soren had a disturbing thought. If Flint was an infiltrator, how was he supposed to resist moon blinking? What use would a moon-blinked owl be to Kludd and the Pure Ones? He would have to discuss this with Gylfie when he got a chance. He stole a glance at Flint. How could he tell if this owl was an infiltrator? He was a Tyto alba, which was the only possible clue. But not all Tyto albas belonged to the Pure Ones, and certainly very few believed this ridiculous notion of owl purity. Well, Soren could not think of that right now. He must remember his part of the Ga’Hoolian legend cycle. He had chosen the very same saga that he had repeated when, as a young owlet, he and Gylfie had been taken to the moon-blazing chamber to be scalded by the light of the full moon. It was the one that began “Once upon a time, before there were kingdoms of owls, in a time of ever-raging wars, there was an owl born in the country of the Great North Waters and his name was Hoole…”

Flecks in the Nest

ow that their first moon blinking had occurred, the owls in the Chaw of Chaws were considered ready to be assigned to their first task. Soren was bitterly disappointed that he had not been sent to work in the pelletorium, or at least the inventorium, for these places would have provided him with the most access to activities connected with flecks. Instead, he had been assigned to the eggorium, along with Martin. Ruby had been assigned to the hatchery as a broody. Gylfie was in the pelletorium, which was good because she knew her way around there. Digger was in the inventorium along with Otulissa, and Twilight was in the armory—a seemingly perfect match. He was to learn how to polish the battle claws.

As they were about to enter the eggorium, Soren turned to Martin. “Nothing I can say, Martin,” he whispered, “can really prepare you for what you are about to see.”

Martin gulped. Soren had told him about the hundreds upon hundreds of eggs that patrols from St. Aggie’s snatched from nests to bring to their own hatchery and raise in captivity. Soren had said that one of the worst things he had ever witnessed was a hatching of an owl chick at St. Aggie’s. It was loveless, unnatural, despicable, and cruel. Martin gave a little gasp now as hundreds of white eggs of all sizes glistened in the dark. But then he felt Soren freeze beside him. A scarred old Snowy had waddled up to them. One of the Snowy’s eyes wept continuous tears. It was cloudy so that its yellow color seeped out pale and foggy. There was a nasty gash that ran down her face and across her beak at a steep angle. It had healed jagged, and the scar was very black in the stark white feathers of the Snowy’s face. It appeared to Martin like a bolt of lightning in reverse—black on white.

But despite the mangled face, Soren would recognize this owl anyplace. It was Finny.

“Call me Auntie,” she spoke now in a creaking voice as she inclined her head toward them. She had an odd smell about her. Soren wasn’t sure what it was. But now Soren saw that the reason her voice creaked was that there was another large gash like a black necklace around her throat. He hadn’t seen her after the terrible battle on the outcropping
when the eagle had tried to save the egg that Hortense was delivering.
Great Glaux,
thought Soren.
Finny might have killed Hortense, but the eagle certainly did a job on Finny.

Is she looking funny at me?
he wondered.
Does she recognize me?

“Another Barn Owl,” she was saying. “Well, we can use them. Got a passel of Barn Owl eggs.” She then explained the procedure for sorting the eggs according to their types. Soren was familiar with this and although his gizzard was quivering madly, he managed to pretend to pay attention and nod as she explained that they were to look for eggs of their own species and roll these eggs into a designated area.

Martin and Soren’s plan was to do their work so well as to be promoted to the position of moss tenders. Being moss tenders would give them greater range of movement. They would not only spend time in the eggorium, but in the hatchery where Ruby, as a broody, was sitting on a nest. Soren and Martin worked hard and efficiently for several hours, rolling egg upon egg to the designated areas.

“82-85! Report to main station,” a Barred Owl had come up to Soren and, in the hollow tones of the truly moon-blinked, had issued this command. Sore’s gizzard stirred and then gave a joyful little leap as he saw the Barred Owl
head in the direction of Martin and repeat the same command.
Maybe we’ve been chosen!
he thought.
Maybe this will lead to something.

None of the seven had yet discovered anything substantial about Barn Owl infiltrators. They had their suspicions, but so far there wasn’t any real evidence.

“82-85 and 54-67.” Auntie stared at them. The jagged scar gleamed darkly on her face. “You have proved yourselves efficient as egg sorters. You shall now be permitted to work, on occasion, as moss tenders. You shall begin tonight. With the additional duties, you have earned additional dietary supplements.” She paused and Soren’s gizzard turned squishy as the pale light in her eye hardened. “My sweeties, you may have a bit of vole. I think it will be a treat. That will set you up just fine, dearies.” And she gave Martin a little tweak with her beak. Soren saw him flinch.

Oh, Glaux,
Soren thought,
it’s the old Finny.
There was something even scarier about Finny when she was being all honey-beaked and charming because Soren knew it was false. And there was always a price to pay. She might slip you an extra piece of vole, or one of the plump rock rats that scurried through the canyons, but then you were expected to give her something in return—information, or perhaps to spy and report to her. That was the way it
worked and, little by little, an owl dug himself in deeper, owing her more, making himself more vulnerable to her power, deceit, and brutality. Nonetheless, they had no choice now. This is what they had wanted and this is what they got. At least they would get to see Ruby in the hatchery. But it would not be until their third day as moss tenders that they would have a good opportunity to speak with Ruby.

“Moss tender! Moss tender! Attention, please!” It was Ruby. She was broody on a nest of Barn Owl eggs. There was never any attempt to match up the species of the broody with that of the egg. Therefore, Barn Owls might be sitting on Barred Owl eggs, or Short-eared Owls, such as Ruby, might be sitting on Great Gray eggs. It seemed that they tried their best to avoid matching up the broody with the type of eggs. Soren supposed it was because when an egg finally hatched, they didn’t want the chick to have the least sense of anything familiar—like a true parent. Love was not part of hatching. These chicks were not supposed to love; they were supposed to obey.

“I was just there,” another Barn Owl said. “You don’t need anything more.”

“Oh, I just thought a nice fat worm would do. Don’t you worry about it. There’s two moss tenders right nearby,” Ruby said, looking in Soren and Martin’s direction.
“One has a worm in that wad of moss. And the other, I know, will fetch me that rat from the crack over there where I just saw the tail of one disappear.” Martin blinked, for he did not have a worm in his moss. Soren had been next to the crack, and he hadn’t seen a rat disappear into it.

He and Martin had managed a few fleeting conversations with Ruby before the end of this third day as moss tenders. But this was the first time that she had actually called them over. The previous day she had been sitting on Spotted Owl eggs. But they had hatched out, and she had been assigned to a new nest.

The other Barn Owl seemed relieved to not have to fetch anything for the broody. Broodies were treated well. They were constantly being offered a great array of delicacies and nutritious foods that the other owls hardly ever saw.

“I have to make this quick!” Ruby spoke in a whispery hiss. “Listen! They’re doing something funny to the nests of Barn Owl eggs.”

“Who?” Soren asked.

Ruby nodded toward two Barn Owl moss tenders who were tucking in bits of moss and dry grass into some nests on the far side of the hatchery.

“What do you mean?” Soren asked. Oh, the sound of those
words were like honey in his beak. He could almost taste them!

Ruby stirred in her nest. “Shield me so they won’t see.” It was strictly forbidden for a broody to climb off her nest, but now Ruby moved to one side. Because she was such a superb flier, she was able to loft herself very quickly into a low hover inches above the nest.

Martin and Soren gasped. Deep amid the woven twigs and grasses of the nest were three eggs. Between them, in the strands of moss, glinting fiercely, were small sparkling bits.

“Flecks!” Soren said.

The truth suddenly broke upon Soren like a clap of thunder. There were infiltrators. They had somehow escaped being moon blinked. They had gained control of at least some of the flecks—but why were they weaving them into the moss that they poked into the nests? What could flecks do in a nest with unhatched eggs? Soren felt his gizzard grow still and cold.
They’re doing something dreadful,
he thought.
I am sure! I must get to Gylfie. Racdrops! If only we were in the same pit!

And there was still so much of the day left. It would be hours until tween time, when they could return to their pits.

“And there’s another thing,” Ruby said. “It’s worse.”

Soren couldn’t imagine what could be worse.

“You know that old Snowy Owl down in the
eggorium—Auntie Finny?” Soren nodded. “You know how she has kind of a weird smell about her?”

Soren nodded again. “But how would you know that? She’s not up here in the hatchery.”

“She comes up here a lot. She’s an egg eater!”

“What?” Soren and Martin asked.

“Yeah, I think it’s easier for her to sneak them up here than in the eggorium. She does it just before a new broody has been assigned to a nest, and not only that, she eats hatchlings—the ones that aren’t quite perfect.”

Soren and Martin were dizzy with nausea. Their gizzards twisted painfully, and they both thought they might yarp.

BOOK: The Siege
12.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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