Authors: Kathryn Lasky
Tags: #Ages 9 & Up
oren crept up onto the nest he was sitting in the hatchery. Underneath him there were three eggs that had been snatched from the nest of a Barred Owl in the Shadow Forests. It was a miracle that the members of the Chaw of Chaws were all in the hatchery, either as broodies or moss tenders. It had taken a lot of work, especially on Otulissa’s part. They were all shocked when she had told them about the double agent. Over the course of a few days, she had been feeding Skench and Spoorn a steady flow of false information, and thus had gained many privileges for herself. Through a combination of her sly wit, privileged position, and still more false information, she had managed to procure all of them positions in the hatchery. And it was from the hatchery that they planned to escape.
It would have been better to escape at night, but the moon was full now, so they were required to be in the glaucidium for moon blinking, the effects of which they
had all resisted through their strategy of concentrating fully on the cycle of legends of Ga’Hoole. And now in this dawn they were going to have to fight their way out. Remembering the legends would not help. They had only their talons, their beaks, and their powerful wings. If all really went well, they might be able to escape without too much of a fight. They had planned to create a distraction under the cover of which they would slip away. Soren tried to quell his fears. He had to remember that, unlike the first time he had escaped from St. Aggie’s, he now knew how to fly. He and Gylfie had never really flown before when they had escaped from the library a year ago. Their wings had barely fledged, and the only way out of that library was straight up. Here in the hatchery it was still straight up, but there was a little bit more room to spread one’s wings and gain a grip on the air.
Their plan was simple. As soon as Otulissa had told them about the double agent, Soren, Gylfie, and Ruby had begun to sniff out other spies. Otulissa had told them to watch out for the double agents—the turnfeathers—who were helping Uklah by taking the flecks out of the nests. When they had figured out which owls those were, they could launch their escape plan. Just two days ago, they had figured out who all the turnfeathers were. And now they planned to expose them. A major fight would
break out. Barn Owl against Barn Owl. Agent against double agent. The blood would splatter, the feathers would fly. It was under this cover of blood and feathers that the Chaw of Chaws would escape.
Soren swept his head about in an almost complete circle. Everyone was in place. Martin, Digger, and Otulissa were plying the well-worn paths with their little bundles of moss and tucking them into the nests for cushioning and insulation of the eggs. Soren, Ruby, and Twilight were sitting on nests. Of all the owls, Twilight had been the most challenged by St. Aggie’s. Independent by nature, proud of his experience in “The Orphan School of Tough Learning,” St. Aggie’s required just the opposite—complete submission, humility, and unquestioning obedience. Yet Twilight had proved himself to be a superb actor. Now, tonight he was going to be an actor no longer. It was Twilight who would instigate the fight by uncovering the turnfeather agents.
A Barn Owl moss tender was making his way toward the nest on which Twilight sat. It was one of the turnfeathers.
Soren thought. They had been waiting for just this opportunity: One spy had just put flecks in, and now another, a double agent, was ready to pull them out. Twilight would expose them both.
“You Barn Owls!” Twilight yawned and then a snarl
seemed to curl his voice. “Your pal over there, 78-2, was just here stuffing in new moss and now you’re here taking it out.”
A silence seemed to fall over the hatchery. “What did you just say?” the turnfeather asked, forgetting the rule of never asking questions.
“Hey, same thing over here,” Ruby piped up. “Give a broody some peace. These Barn Owls…” She couldn’t finish her sentence. The Barn Owl who had poked moss into Twilight’s nest minutes earlier suddenly flew back across the hatchery. With a rake of her talons, she slashed the head of the double agent Barn Owl.
“Fight!” Twilight screeched.
In an instant, the hatchery was an explosion of feathers. At first, it was just Barn Owl against Barn Owl, and Soren himself had to dodge plenty of blows as he made his way up to the rim of the hatchery. But the owls who were not Barn Owls felt betrayed as well. So they joined in the fight. They didn’t care which Barn Owl they attacked, for they were all spies and enemies of St. Aggie’s.
Finny was now flying directly toward Soren. “82-85, you’re in on this, too!” The voice creaked in the manner of huge, rotten-timbered trees in winter storms. The jagged scar, like a bolt of black lightning across her pure white face, flickered ominously.
“Got me a taste for Barn Owl, I do, I do.” Now her voice seemed to seep out thickly with relish at the very thought of such a taste. Soren remembered that she had an appetite for unhatched eggs and freshly hatched chicks. He could smell it on her, and it made him nauseous. She was advancing directly on him now, her talons spread for attack, her beak pulled open.
“Egg eater!” Soren screamed, and dodged in flight. She kept coming. The sweet nauseating stench rolled through the still air of the hatchery. Soren felt a slash to his tail-feathers as another owl flew by and struck him from the rear. He saw specks of blood fly through the air. Finny was backing him into a corner. There would be no flight space. She was twice his size! Suddenly, a voice rang out, a rhythm seized the air. It was Twilight. A taunt blistered the hatchery as the Great Gray flew straight in toward Finny.
Oh, Auntie this and Auntie that,
You ain’t nothing but a white-feathered rat.
I got something else in store.
You’re about to meet your fate.
Oh, great Glaux, you sure do smell!
A special place for egg suckers like you,
Yeah—you’ll make a tasty stew!
Auntie had gone into a yeeplike daze. She drifted to the ground, her eyes glazed in a kind of fascinated terror as Twilight danced in the air above her. Soren flung out his talons, toppled her over, and rose in flight. “Let’s get out of here!”
“Wait,” Twilight cried. “I haven’t finished. I feel another verse coming on.”
“Are you yoicks?” screamed Otulissa.
“Come on, Twilight!” Gylfie swept by and then suddenly Finny seemed to regain her senses. She stared at Gylfie, reached out with one talon, and knocked the little Elf Owl flat. Gylfie trembled in a corner as the huge and now truly enraged Snowy Owl came toward her.
“I know you, I know you!” she kept saying. “And I know your friend there, too, 82-85, except that Barn Owl was 12-1 when he was in my pit before.”
Soren, hovering above, could not believe what he was seeing. Auntie had now reached out to grab Gylfie by the throat with her talons. Without thinking, Soren folded his wings and, with a breathtaking velocity, plunged downward. The force alone sent Finny sprawling. A dusty blur flew upward. With one rake of his talons, Soren opened
the old scar on the Snowy’s throat. The pure white feathers ran red.
“Behind you, Soren!” Otulissa called.
It was Skench. “So, you are an imposter! The owl who escaped from the library,” she screeched. Spoorn was soon there, too, along with three other immense Great Horned guards. Four against one. A taunt from Twilight wouldn’t be enough. It was hopeless. This was the end for Soren. He could only hope the others would go on without him. They had to save themselves. They had to!
But at that moment, just above him, he heard the voice of Gylfie. “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 North Waters and his name was Hoole. This is the first legend of Ga’Hoole and how that great tree came to be. You see, some say there was an enchantment cast upon this owl called Hoole at the time of his hatching.”
Skench and Spoorn and the other two owls stopped. Their wings fell to their sides. If they had been flying they would have plummeted to earth, but they were yeep standing up.
Gylfie is doing just what we did in the moon-scalding chamber reciting this, the most powerful of all the Ga’Hoolian legends,
Look at them flinch each time the word Hoole or Ga’Hoole is uttered!
Soren’s voice now joined that of Gylfie’s. “This owl called Hoole was said to have been given natural gifts of an extraordinary power. But what was known for certain of this owl was that he inspired other owls to great and noble deeds. Although he wore no crown of gold, the owls knew him as a king. In a wood of straight tall trees he was hatched, in a glimmering time when the seconds slow between the last minute of the old year and the first minute of the new year, and the forest on this night was sheathed in ice.”
Ever so softly, Soren flapped his wings and rose in the dawn light. He kept reciting the first legend, the one known as the Coming of Hoole.
And then they were gone—seven owls faded into the breaking day. St. Aggie’s was behind them. Ahead lay the great Forests of Ambala, then due north were The Barrens, then turning two points east of north was Silverveil, out across the Bight to Cape Glaux, then straight over the Sea of Hoolemere to the island of Hoole and the Great Ga’Hoole Tree.
small lake glittered in the sunlight of the crisp winter morning. The seven owls were flying over Ambala but it was too dangerous to continue in the broad light of day. They could be mobbed by crows. And although Soren’s tail had stopped bleeding where it had been slashed, it was painful. It felt like the shaft of one of his tail feathers had broken off. Whenever Soren tried a ruddering maneuver with his tail feathers, it hurt, and his turns were sloppy. He spotted a large sycamore below that grew at the edge of the lake.
“Prepare to land, sycamore below,” Soren called.
The owls began to bank. Soren wobbled as they circled down. Finally, they were all perched on one long limb that extended out from the trunk of the tree and hung over the lake. There was a large hollow that could easily accommodate the seven of them for one day. But just as they were about to move into it, a young Spotted Owl appeared and hovered overhead.
“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you,” he said.
“Why not?” asked Gylfie.
“Haunted by what?” Otulissa asked in a testy voice as she stepped forward.
“By the scroom of a Brown Fish Owl,” he said.
“Smells like fish all right.” Twilight had poked his beak into the hollow.
“He was murdered,” offered the Spotted Owl.
“Murdered?” they gasped.
“Who murdered him?” Digger asked.
At the sound of Kludd’s other name, Soren nearly toppled off the branch. If Digger hadn’t quickly extended a wing to steady him, he would have. The Spotted Owl continued to hover, seeming to enjoy the fact that he had impressed these rough and wordly owls. “It was really a racdrop sort of deal.”
“What do you mean?” Gylfie asked sharply.
“Well, this Brown Fish Owl tried to help Metal Beak. That owl flew in here almost burning up, feathers smoking, his mask melting, more dead than alive. The Brown Fish Owl nursed him back to health. Soon as he was well, he turned around and killed the Brown Fish Owl. How’s that for gratitude? Can you believe it?”
Unfortunately they all could.
“So it’s the Brown Fish Owl’s scroom that haunts this place?” Otulissa asked.
“That’s what they say,” the Spotted Owl replied in a casual tone.
“Well, let them say,” Otulissa continued. “I don’t believe in scrooms. And besides, if such a scroom exists he must be a nice one, and perhaps he can nurse Soren here, who has a broken tail-feather shaft.”
“Ouch! That must hurt,” said the Spotted Owl.
“You’re darned right it hurts,” Soren said, somewhat revived from the shock of hearing his brother’s name. His whole body seemed to be throbbing with the pain.
“What’s your name?” Digger asked.
“Hortense,” the Spotted Owl replied.
“Hortense!” Soren and Gylfie both shouted at once. Soren forgot his pain entirely.
“You can’t be Hortense, that’s a female name. You’re a male,” said Ruby.
“In the forest of Ambala, it doesn’t matter if you are a female or male. It is a great honor to be named Hortense. She was a hero beyond compare. A hero is known by only one name in Ambala—Hortense.”
The little Spotted Owl had settled down on the branch as he spoke. Now, perhaps moved by his own words, he felt
he should try to do something heroic to live up to his name. “I know where there are some fat worms that might feel good on that broken tail-feather shaft. Would you like me to get some?”
“Oh, that would be very good of you,” Gylfie said.
“I’ll go with you,” Digger offered. “The more worms, the better.”
Haunted or not, the hollow felt good—even with the fishy smell. Soon Digger and Hortense were back with the worms. Otulissa and Gylfie arranged them as best they could at the base of Soren’s tail feathers.
“I wish Mrs. Plithiver were here.” Gylfie sighed. “Nest-maids are so much better at this than we are.”
Although the worms relieved the pain, Soren seemed to grow feverish as the day continued. An infection had set in. When night fell, he was thrashing about and certainly not fit to fly. It would simply be too dangerous for him to journey in this condition. So they decided to stay. Toward midnight, Soren’s breathing became uneven and labored. He seemed to be straining for each breath. The six owls were scared now, as scared as they had ever been. An unspoken thought swirled among them:
Is Soren dying?
This could not be happening after all they had been through. They had fought Metal Beak and the Pure Ones.
They had been to St. Aggie’s and escaped. Soren himself had slashed Finny’s neck wide open. No, Great Glaux, it simply could not be happening. But the sound of Soren’s breathing was terrible. It seemed to shake the entire tree. They watched as his breast heaved with each breath. His eyes would blink open and closed, then blink open and look out, not recognizing anything. The owls were desperate. When Hortense came back with a new supply of worms, Twilight stepped out on the branch.
“The worms aren’t working. Is there anything else we can do? Are there any nest-maid snakes around that could help us? Anybody at all?”
The owl thought for a moment. There was one place he could go, but it was scary. It was the aerie where two strange eagles lived with an even stranger owl named Mist. They were not particularly welcoming and Hortense’s parents said it was best to leave them alone. A lot of crows lived up that way as well. And there was a grove of trees on the way to the aerie that was infested with flying snakes. They did not have wings or even wing flaps like certain flying squirrels, but they could sail through the air in spectacular leaps and coils, twists and turns, gliding from treetop to treetop. And they were considered terribly venomous. But there were some who said that small doses
of their venom could have curative powers. Still, it was risky, for they were known to be hungry and mean. The eagles had made their peace with the flying snakes. But they were the only birds who had.
“Isn’t there anything you could do to help us?” Gylfie had stepped up to Hortense. She was shaking with grief and fear. “We have to save him.”
Hortense shook his head. “I…I…can’t do anything.” He turned away and flew off. He knew that the Barn Owl would be dead by morning.
Hortense flew around and around though the forest. For some reason, he could not face going home just yet. His parents had a new set of hatchlings who would be yip-ping away, demanding food and attention. He kept flying about. He wondered if one of the new hatchlings would be named Hortense. That would be hard to take. He thought again about the dying Barn Owl. He blinked his eyes open and shut.
The young Spotted Owl would never know exactly what made him do it, but suddenly he was carving a wide turn and climbing upward, higher and higher and higher. He was above the forest now and heading for the aerie on the very tallest peak of the mountain of Ambala. His gizzard quivered, and he could hardly hold his wings steady.
Suddenly, an eerie luminous green scrawl slithered out of the night.
I am not going yeep. I am not going yeep,
the Spotted Owl repeated to himself. He quickly dodged the flying snake.
Three more snakes came out of the night, but Hortense continued. Then he felt a presence flying near him. It was not a snake, but he could not quite see what it was. It seemed as if a corner of a cloud had been torn off and was drifting in a lazy way sometimes in his wake, sometimes off to one side, sometimes just ahead. But since it had arrived, there had been no more flying snakes.
As he approached the aerie, he saw the two immense eagles. He lighted down on the edge of the nest, which seemed as huge as the treetops over which he had been flying.
“What brings you here, young’un?” It was the male who spoke. There was a rumor that his mate couldn’t say a word because her tongue had been ripped out in a battle.
“There’s a Barn Owl down there,” the Spotted Owl flicked his head in the direction of the lake. “He’s with six other owls, and I think he’s dying. His friends are really upset. Worms aren’t working.” He thought he heard a soft churring sound come from where the patch of cloud had settled. He looked in that direction, but there was nothing there now. He could have sworn it sounded like the churrs of a Spotted Owl.
“Tell me a little about this Barn Owl and his friends,” the male eagle said. Hortense could tell that the female was listening intently, and in some wordless way, signals were passing between them.
“Well, they’ve fetched up in the hollow of that old sycamore, the haunted one.”
“Ah-hem, so they say,” said the male eagle. “The one where that poor owl Simon met his end. Simon, who only wanted to do good.” The male eagle sighed. The Spotted Owl could have sworn he heard another sigh, like a dim whisper. It wasn’t the female eagle but when he looked around, he saw not another soul.
“There’s the wounded Barn Owl, his best friend, a little Elf Owl.” He felt some sort of current go through the air. “Then there is a Burrowing Owl, and a big old huge Great Gray who looks really tough.” The two eagles exchanged glances that seemed to say
Could it be?
Hortense continued with descriptions of the other three owls, but the eagles weren’t interested.
“Fetch Slynella!” the male eagle blurted out to his mate. The female was immediately airborne, and then once more the Spotted Owl saw a wisp of fog, no bigger than an immature owl drifting beside her.
Was it a scroom?
No, the harder he looked, the clearer the shape became.
It was a Spotted Owl, but a very pale one who flew a crooked path. This must be the one they called Mist. Finally, he could see her.
The female eagle and Mist returned with a flying snake. It was glowing like a scroll of green lightning.
“Meet Slynella,” the male eagle said.
The young Spotted Owl began to quiver uncontrollably. If he had been flying instead of perched on the edge of the eagle’s nest, he would have gone yeep. His wings hung at his side like two stones. The snake twisted her flat head toward him. Her glittering turquoise eyes fixed him in her gaze. A bright, forked tongue slipped out. It was the strangest tongue Hortense had ever seen. One side of the fork was a pale ivory color, the other was crimson.
“Enchanted, I am sssssure.” The words slithered off the odd-colored tongue.
“Relax,” the male eagle said to Hortense. “She won’t hurt you.”
“Relax,” he says. He must be yoicks.
Hortense knew that inches away from him was a creature with enough venom to wipe out an entire owl kingdom.
“Slynella will fly with us to the sycamore. With a careful application of her venom to the wound, this Barn Owl might be saved.” The eagle paused. “If it isn’t too late.”
Gylfie was weeping quietly in a corner of the hollow. The other five owls crouched in the shadows, helpless and too stunned with grief to move. Hortense did not hear any deep rasping breaths. He was sure that the Barn Owl must have died. But then he detected a faint movement in the sick owl’s breast feathers. The hollow was not big enough for the eagles. The female merely stuck her head in and surveyed the situation. Then, in that soundless way she had, she communicated something to her mate.
“Get to work, Slynella, this is a fine owl,” said the male eagle.
At that moment Digger, Gylfie, and Twilight blinked. These were the eagles who had saved them in the desert.
“Zan! Streak!” Gylfie gasped. “What are you doing here?” Then there was a huge flutter. The owls all pressed themselves against the sides of the hollow as Slynella, in one sinuous movement, slid in and hung herself in an S shape from a wood spur that projected directly over Soren.
“Calm yourselves. This snake is Soren’s only hope. Only one side of her forked tongue bears the poison. If she mixes it with the contents of the other side, she can provide a powerful medicine for an infection.”
The six owls stepped back.
The snake lowered herself until her head was directly above Soren’s battered tail feather. Flicking madly, her
tongue sought out the broken shaft. “Firssst I mussst pull out the shaft. No ssssense having a broken one. Then I can get to the wound with my tongue.” Gylfie sank back against Twilight. The thought of that tongue probing Soren’s wound made her knees weak.
In his feverish state, Soren saw something green and luminous swaying over him. Had that terrible scar of Finny’s become green? Was it a green bolt of lightning now? He was fascinated. But why were all the others backing away? There was nothing to fear. Of this he was sure. His mind filled with thoughts.
Come on, pals. Nothing to fear here. Hey, Hortense! Hortense, I thought you were dead. No, not that Hortense. The real Hortense. The one Finny threw off the highest cliff in the hatchery. Hortense, how did you survive?
Streak caught me. He flew in at the last minute.
Hortense, please don’t tell me you’re a scroom. I met the scrooms of my parents. It was too sad. Please, Hortense, you can’t be a scroom. It’s really going to frink me off if you’re a scroom.
My, my, you have developed quite a coarse vocabulary since we last met.
Hortense, I’m serious. This conversation isn’t just happening in my head is it—like with the scrooms?
“Definitely not!” It was Gylfie’s voice piercing through the miasma of pain and fever. “I can’t believe it. It
“How many Hortenses are there around here?” Martin asked.
“Just one, the true one, the original,” Streak said, poking his head into the hollow. “But now she prefers to be called Mist.”
“Yes, that’s true,” the real Hortense said.
“What happened to that other Hortense?” Twilight asked.
“We sent him off. Brave little fellow, wasn’t he? I’d say he did a fine job of living up to the name,” Streak said.
“Brave fellow,” said the real Hortense. “I think that’s why he was able to see me even in my faded, somewhat tattered condition. But I wanted this to be a true reunion among old friends,” Hortense said, looking at Digger and Gylfie, Twilight and Soren.
“Is Soren going to get better?” Gylfie asked.
“I think he’ll make it,” Streak said.