Autumn has come.
Already, the grasslands are vibrant. The old and weak taste their death in the bitter cold. The unprepared panic, scrambling for food. Like ripples on a pond, the sounds of my subjects make patterns in the dusk. Some are so desperate they crash through the grass with no instinct for stealth.
Better to take them than let them suffer.
But this coming night is strange. The chill digs through my feathers, and I shudder. Unpleasant memories are stifled.
Will I see another summer?
Preposterous to think. Though I grow older, and though the cold bites deeper, I am no weak prey. Nothing in my domain can challenge me.
Emerging from the hollow of my tower, I count the copper leaves left stuck to its branches. Fewer than yesterday. Winter will soon come. Death rides the wind with me.
I am death. My shadow is the God of Dead Rodents. My talons and beak are weapons no creature of these fields can stand against. And when I descend, my hearing detects the final hammering heartbeats of my prey.
I soar from my tower, wings wide, catching the wind. Still, the cold drags at me. My subjects scuttle in the gloom. They sense my coming. Their lord, their god, their destroyer, looks down on them tonight.
As I glide, the idea of my own mortality becomes more absurd. I am feared even among my species. I alone hold these fields, and no other predator dares encroach on my territory.
Not since the example I made of the crows…
Something scurries blind through the grasses. Its movement is a cacophony. It senses the coming of autumn, with winter’s scythe close behind. It has been lazy and arrogant, neglecting to fatten itself. Let it learn from me.
I slow, spreading my shadow over the poor vole, wings keeping me over its hiding place. By her frightened squeals for mercy I learn her struggle. That she is out to find food for her young is of no concern.
Her squeaking turns strangled as I descend. She tries to dart away. My talon closes around her squirming body, and I squeeze until her bones crackle like breaking frost. I tear the creature to pieces and swallow it down.
A cackling cry alerts me to my audience. Flapping my wings, I hover over the site of my kill. All that remains is a small patch of blood. Overhead, the coward crows circle.
I have dealt with their kind before. In the dark hours, they usually retreat.
Hovering, I watch them, and the frantic shrieks of my mate echo through time. Their kind took her from me. They dare return?
I dart up among them, lashing out at the nearest and rending its wing open. Black feathers erupt. With squawking alarm, the crows flap about. They are not true predators, only scavengers.
Then something crashes into me. Another buffets my side. Talons rake at my white underbelly. I wheel to engage, but find myself lost in black feathers. Beaks stab into my flesh. My own claws rip bloody furrows. Another crow falls from the sky.
But there are many of them. They have no honour. They claw and peck madly, laughing all the while.
They would depose their lord. They would send me to the ground where they’d pick apart my bones like I was common prey.
Why are they here?
With a burst of strength, I beat them away with my wings. My beak snaps around a neck. The captured crow writhes and kicks.
As I fly from their flock, I release prisoner, gashing open his flesh so he plummets to the ground. The scavengers should learn from him.
Blood drips down my face, staining white feathers. I keep flying, letting the cackle of the intruders drop further behind. I am not retreating, but showing mercy.
Landing at a post, I survey my lands. Preening my coat, I shudder at the memory of the suffocating press of black feathers. Was it what my mate felt in her final moments?
The rage is tempered by wisdom. The crows are still cowards, unable to face me alone. They do not think for themselves. They feed on my scraps. I am still the greatest hunter to grow from this earth.
As I rest, the cry of a distant barn owl comes through the dusk. Panic, shock, a lack of comprehension. It is pathetic how even one of my own kind can submit to the hysteria of lesser animals.
The cries change. I look out in the direction of the other owl. The chill rests under my feathers again. I have only heard an owl make that shrieking call once before. I know only too well what it means.
The grasslands are hushed now. Somewhere, one of my own kind lies dying. Does he die hearing the cruel mockery of the crows?
No. He warned of something else: something he did not understand.
What is this skittishness? I am lord here. Nothing can oppose me. The lesser owl met a foul end, but I have proven I can handle challengers.
I soar from the post. Rippling sounds punctuate the night, mapping my dark domain beneath me. A mouse brushes through the grass. Another vole sucks up a beetle from the soil.
But there is something beyond. A better prize.
I hear a young rabbit trampling around. It barely bothers to conceal itself. Another sound overlaps it, something clumsier and much larger. No matter.
I glide over the fields, approaching the edge of my territory. The rabbit continues to stamp around, hitting against something. Strange. But perhaps it is succumbing to the cold or disease, throwing itself against the ground. Kinder to take its life now.
The closer I fly, the more I hear. The larger creature is still, but its breathing is ragged. Perhaps it too hunts the dying rabbit.
Something is wrong. I know it, as I knew when my mate fell under attack from the crows.
The strange creature stomps unwieldy feet. Beside it, the rabbit flings itself again, hitting something unyielding. A trap?
I have the frightened thump of the rabbit’s heart churning in my ears. Hovering over it, I can almost see the blood burning through its body. The mountainous breathing of the bigger creature matters nothing. It isn’t even moving in this direction. It probably sleeps.
The rabbit makes pathetic attempts to ward me off. It tells me I’m not the first of my kind to come for it.
Prey will say anything for freedom. But I peer down at the little square the rabbit is confined in, confused. No owl could have designed such a trap.
The rabbit batters against the trap again, screaming for help. It drags a crippled leg. Something has bitten into it already, so it smears blood through the soil.
I flap down onto the top of the strange trap. My talons close, but the bars, only as thin as twigs do not bend.
Fear finds me again. I see something laid out next to the rabbit’s strange prison. The stupid beast does not cease its whining as I look down at the dead body of another owl.
A huge noise rises from the creature away from us. The sound of its body shifting is enough to stun me. Nothing so large can live here in my domain. How can it?
I flap my wings to rise. Even as I go, the rabbit screams for help. From a distance, the cackling of crows draws nearer.
The strange creature blunders through the grass. A light suddenly flashes from it, and I reel, blinded. I glimpse the giant beast standing on two legs. Two more legs jut from it, something clasped between them.
Monstrous sounds come from its mouth. I spring up into the sky as fast as my wings will allow. The light spears me though, keeping my focus. The dusk has become day by this beast’s meddling.
The migrating birds tell tales of this thing. They whisper in frightened voices of its ability to make night day. They call it the ultimate hunter. I always dismissed their stories.
Terror pounding through me, I cannot dismiss the stories now. My wings seem slower. The sky draws away from me. Crows are gathering nearby.
No, I will see another summer.
A deafening call splits the night. Pain rips through my body, worse than any crow’s peck.
My wings refuse to flap. They drop limp at my sides. My body plunges down towards the grasses I terrorised for years. The monster’s light follows my fall.
How can this happen? I am the supreme hunter.
A final push, but my wings flap only once. I lurch towards the grass. Blood flows warm over my feathers, and I know my insides have been shredded by the strange creature’s weapon.
But, no, I rule this realm. I cannot die to an imposter.
My body slams against the ground. A wing splinters, and I shriek in pain, humiliated.
Moments trickle by. The cold gathers a cloak around me, yet I live. The hole in my body continues to weep, and the blood will draw scavengers.
Already, the crows caw to one another, spreading the news of their tyrant’s downfall. My body shudders, though I barely feel it. My thoughts go to my fallen mate.
My eyes fail, but my hearing remains. Crow talons clack on the cold ground. Their feathers rustle with anticipation.
And I can hear a faint owl’s call.
The crows draw in closer, beaks snapping. They are still wary of this old hunter, even as my life leaks away. But I pity them, for they must now share this land with the new creature.
The owl’s call comes again, closer. It is her.
And I go to her, before the crows begin their feast.