“Steady on, old boy,” mutters Owl, though his words are drowned out by the steady shuffling of the invaders.
They draw ever closer, patiently, patiently. And with them comes the fear.
Owl tells himself he should be used to this feeling by now, yet it still buzzes and ripples through his body. Worse, he can see it spread throughout his army. Unused to combat, they tremble and hop from foot to foot. One little spark could ignite a fatal panic.
“Steady on!” he calls. His voice, low and sonorous, carries across the plain. Perhaps that is why he was chosen to lead.
The dead approach. Now the soldiers can recognize the familiar, half-eaten faces, and the fear grows stronger. Some begin to cry as they see their friends and family. Only Owl is spared this pain - they’re strangers to him, after all. Perhaps that is why he was chosen by the King of Lions.
It’s difficult to breathe. They stink. Hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, fermenting in the sun. It takes every bit of willpower to simply endure the smell. And the dust, they’ve kicked up a dust cloud that seems to span forever.
Blinking the specks from his eyes, Owl keeps his gaze steady. Keen eyesight, he thinks. Another feather in his cap.
They stumble closer. The soldiers look to Owl desperately, but he shakes his head. The time is not right. “Use your judgment,” the King of Lions had said, and Owl had smugly smiled, for he considers his judgment very accurate, indeed.
Surely the soldiers – volunteers all - would flee if they could, but there is nowhere to go. Instead, they are pressed back, step by step, against the edge of the cliff. Mowgli’s Cliff, as it is already being called. And it is no coincidence that Owl had been the witness to the boy’s death.
That’s why he decided to volunteer. He’d seen another child die in the Great Wood. And yes, though he has an orphan of his own to protect, the tiny kangaroo is much safer with that gray sloth bear. And after having been given refuge in these lands, as a scholar and a gentleman he simply could not have stood back and refused to help the king.
A movement from the dust cloud shakes Owl from his reverie. A ragged panther rears back on its twisted legs. It’s ready to attack.
But so is the army.
“Now!” bellows Owl, and he spreads his wings.
And the army of the Wildlands takes to the air.
The young king, in his wisdom, realized that the enemy could never be defeated by strength. And so he’d asked for volunteers, but only amongst the birds.
The sky darkens, dust whipped into a storm by the many beating wings. They shriek and caw and fly over the edge of the cliff, and the invaders blindly follow.
The dead do not hesitate, they leap and pounce, calmly trying to catch a mouthful of feathers and flesh. Two or three are successful (and those poor birds will be remembered, promises Owl), but the rest fall empty-handed.
Like a waterfall, the broken bodies of the invaders flood over the cliff. They fall hundreds and hundreds of feet to the sharp, unforgiving rocks below. The flock watches them die.
For hours, the slaughter continues. Soaring on the updraft, the army flies over the cliff, agonizingly close, and the enemy is content to follow and fall.
Their silence, though, is most disturbing, and Owl joins in the celebratory caws and shrieks of his troops, if only to drown out the lack of noise caused by the invaders as they die for a final time.
Part II will begin on Wednesday, July 15, 2009.