Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Six

“We witnessed their fall,” concludes the foreigner in his sorrowful, lofty tone, “and we alone were left to tell the tale.”

The air around Council Rock titters with the busy translation of the Mynas, then rumbles as the other animals consider the speech they just heard.

Shere Khan’s soft purr compels them all into silence. “So you are telling us,” prods the great tiger, “that the Man and the Man-cub are dead.”

“I’m afraid so,” says the speaker, very small and alone in the center of Council Rock. In the shadows beyond, Baloo weeps.

Everyone watches, but does not speak, as Shere Khan circles the perimeter of the wide, flat stone. It is forbidden to shed blood on Council Rock. That is the Law, and it is upheld by all animals. But there is more than one form of combat in the Wildlands.

“They failed,” says the tiger. His voice has dropped to a whisper, and the animals must cringe forward to hear his words. They know he is ready to attack.

“They failed,” he repeats, louder. “And now the Wildlands are burning. And you,” he bares his fangs toward the King of Lions, “were the one who allowed those pathetic Men to gather red fire and bring doom upon us all.”

With a triumphant snarl, the tiger finishes, “The Wildlands are burning because of you... your highness.”

The King of Lions remains poised throughout these accusations, regally ignoring the murmurs and grunts from the shadows. He will uphold the Law. But in his heart he knows Shere Khan will only be silenced in death.

“The Wildlands have burned before and will burn again,” says the King. He draws himself up to his full, majestic height. “It is the Circle.”

“Oh, stop spouting philosophy, boy,” sneers the tiger. “We’re surrounded by a circle of red fire. And beyond that, a circle of death.”

The King’s eyes flash at the insult, but he refuses to be provoked. Nor is he foolish enough to step into whatever trap the striped killer has prepared. “What would you have us do, then?” he asks.

An unexpected move, and Shere Khan considers for a moment before answering. “What would you have us do?” he asks back, but then answers for the King. “Flee to the Lands Beyond?”

The tiger shifts his head toward the visitor, and Owl realizes he’s been given a cue.

“That wouldn’t be wise, ah, your highness,” he says, and the Mynas immediately begin to translate his odd, formal language. “We - that is, my young ward and myself - come from the Lands Beyond. Far beyond, in fact. We’ve been through many Doorways, and... the dead are already there.”

“Where?” says Shere Khan.

“Everywhere,” says Owl.

As this piece of news is translated, the tiger controls his cruel smile. It was quite a bit of luck to come across this foreign bird and his young rat-like companion, and very wise to not eat them outright. Their tale has proven ever so useful.

“So if we have nowhere to run,” says the tiger, loftily, regally, in the voice of the true leader of the Wildlands, “we must fight!”

“Is that truly what you want, Khan?” says the King amidst the roars, for and against, the tiger’s proposal. “You cannot kill them. This is madness.”

“Oh, quit being such a coward,” retorts Shere Khan. He no longer plays the game of diplomacy. “You may stay and hide, if you wish, whelp, but no corpse will ever defeat me. I will bring us all to victory.”

The King of Lions reminds himself of the Law, and he will not shed blood. Not here. Not now.

Instead, he looks toward the visitor. “You’ve seen them in the Lands Beyond? You swear it?” he asks.

“I do,” says Owl. He begins to wish he’d never come to this savage land, or at least never crossed paths with that foul tiger.

“And the Man and young Mowgli? You swear that you witnessed their death at the hands of the invaders?”

Shere Khan looks bemused at this repeated questioning, though it concerns him that he cannot tell what the young King is thinking.

“No, your majesty. They died in the fall,” says Owl. He cannot help but elaborate. “They were surrounded. They tried to descend, to escape, but... they fell from the cliff. I’m proud to say they took many with them, though. It was a... most noble end.” The great apes grunt in somber agreement.

The King presses forward before the Mynas can finish translating. “There was an army of them,” he says, “all hunting the Man and the Man-cub. How did you survive?”

“Your majesty?”

“How were you able to escape?”

Confused at the obvious answer, Owl spreads his wings and says, “Why, I flew, your majesty.”

Satisfied, the King nods. “Thank you,” he says, and Owl bows humbly.

To the assembled animals, the King of Lions announces, “We will attack at dawn.” Without another word, ignoring the outraged cries, he leads his procession from the stone and disappears into the night’s darkness.

Still debating, the other animals disperse, leaving Shere Khan alone on the great stone, his moment of triumph somehow stolen.