Fish Tale

by Owlharp

I should not have done it. It was contrary to the nature of all my kind. We do not plunder others' kills - it is a point of pride that we kill what we eat and eat what we kill.

But the fish looked so fat and succulent, twisting and flashing in the molten rays of the setting sun. And it was not as though the fisherman would have to go without! Several others, equally plump, lay on the bank beside him.

I had watched him at his sport, all through that warm autumn day. It is held that my kind are blind in the daylight, but this is untrue. We can see perfectly well, if we choose to awaken while Helios is overhead.

It was the noise of his coming that had roused me from my sleep.

From my snug bower within the storm-blasted oak that overlooks the lake, I saw him walking through the forest in a blaze and a shower of gold. Golden was the sunlight that poured down from above; golden, the autumn leaves that blew and swirled about him as he went; and golden was the tangle of his hair, blown by the selfsame wind.

Whistling like my lesser cousins do, he made his way down to the pool that mirrors the sky. He settled himself on the grass, threw a line into the water and grew motionless as do all hunters awaiting their prey. I watched him for a while longer, and then slept again.

Twice more were my slumbers disturbed that day as, with a splash and a shout of triumph, the man hauled a flapping, dripping fish up onto the shore.

It was towards dusk when I at last awakened fully, hungry as I always am at that time of day - just as he pulled forth yet another fat, silvery prize from the depths of the pool.

Without thinking, I spread my wings and launched myself.

The fish had slid off the hook and lay flapping on the shore, when I swooped down and snatched it up, right out from under the fisherman's nose.

"Hey! Come back here with that!"

At the instant my talons fastened on the fish, I looked full in the man's face and nearly dropped my catch in astonishment.

He had my Mother's eyes.

Everyone knows that my kind are the beloved of the goddess Athena - we are Her children, and She, our dear Mother. Few have looked upon Her face, as we are permitted to do, and few have warmed themselves in the fire of Her eyes. But those few mortals who have, glorify Her as "the flashing-eyed one". Her eyes are blue-grey, a clean, grave color, and when She turns them upon you, the light within them pierces your soul.

Such were this man's eyes.

I bore my prize off to my nest as the fisherman hurled words in my wake. "No fair! Catch your own fish, you - you - you - owl!" What might have been a curse ended in a burst of laughter as golden as his hair. I looked back. He was shaking his head ruefully as he picked up the remaining fish and drew his dagger to clean them.

All through the evening I watched him as I fed upon my catch (which proved to be fully as succulent and tasty as it had looked!). He built a small fire and set the gutted fish on sticks to roast, while he went down to the edge of the lake.

had thought he would simply dip his hands - covered with scales and fish-blood - into the sun-warmed water, but instead he shed his outer layer of skins and slipped into the lake as though he were a fish himself. Or, perhaps not a fish, but an otter, sleek and lively, swimming about with no apparent purpose but the sheer joy of moving in the water.

The last red-gold beams of sunlight wrapped him as he arose from the lake, droplets racing down his skin, tracing the lines of his body. He drew his outer skin back on, and settled down to feed upon his own catch.

At last the dark settled comfortably over the lake. The fisherman's fire burned itself out and he prepared himself, in the strange way of mortals, to sleep in Helios' absence.

Having fed so early in the evening, I was no longer hungry, but I set forth into the night sky nonetheless.

Blessed indeed are my kind, who have no need of Helios' fire to see all that transpires in the night. As I sailed in the company of the other night fliers, I watched the dance of life and death below me in the forest, the prey and the hunters who become prey in their own turn, those seeking food and those who are fed upon. It was the same great drama which has been played out since the beginning of the world.

But this night, some new players suddenly appeared upon the stage. There were three of them, all clad in outer skins of black and metal. I watched them as they came stalking through the forest. To their own eyes and those of their kind, doubtless they were invisible and silent, but I could see and hear them clearly.

"He's down by the lake?"

"Yeah - we saw the fire.It's got to be him!"

"He must think he gave us the slip!"

"Fool!"

"We'll gut him like a trout!"

It came to me that they surely must be speaking of the fisherman whose catch I had stolen, and who now slept beside his dying fire, unaware that he was the prey of these hunters.

It is not the way of my kind to disrupt the balance of life that the gods have set up in the world. But these hunters were not driven by hunger, which is the only proper reason for making a kill. Instead, it was evil that drove them. It shone from them, as a rotting carcass will shine in the dark.

Silently I floated along above their heads, unseen and unheard, as they made their way among the trees, helped by the faint light of the rising moon.

How to warn the fisherman?

With a flip of my wings I surged high into the sky above the trees, travelling far faster than those cursed with legs could ever hope to do.

The silver moon - my Mother's sister - shimmered above me, while her reflection danced below in the waters of the lake. Her light was caught too, in the tangled hair of the sleeping man on the shore.

I plummeted down to land on a branch nearby and called out to him in my loudest voice, wishing with all my heart that I was one of my smaller cousins whose screeching could shatter the very air. But all the came forth was my own call..."Whooo - ooo... whoo - oooo."

It was not enough. The fisherman simply turned over and grew still again. I began to hear the faintest sound of approaching feet, and I called out again.

"Whoo - ooo ... whoo - ooo...."

This time he stirred, and I heard him mutter ..."Damn bird. Steal my fish, and now my - " the words stopped suddenly.

In the silence the footfalls of the three who hunted him came clearly.

His head came up and he grew still as the trees that loomed over him, staring into the dark. Then, silently, he laid his head back down on the soft grass. To other mortals, perhaps, it would look as though he slept, but I could see that every muscle was coiled, ready to spring. He would be both the bait and the trap itself, for those who hunted him.

The three came stealthily onto the shore. The moonlight glittered off the weapons that they drew. Closer and closer they approached, and I could see my fisherman quiver from the tension of lying still, waiting for his moment.

It came.

With a screech fully worthy of one of my cousins, the fisherman exploded into motion, catching the first hunter with a kick in the stomach. The man went over backwards into the lake, shattering the silver reflection of the moon. The other two hastily circled round, as wolves do, seeking to flank their prey. My fisherman dropped down into a crouch and put his back against a tree. The two charged at him, and he whirled, one foot flying out to brush against the head of one attacker, while a fist went into the belly of the second. But they were undeterred and came at him again.

In the meantime, the hunter who had gone into the lake succeeded in crawling out again. His sharp dagger glittered with water droplets as he hauled himself up onto the shore and staggered up behind my fisherman.

Busy fending off the other two attackers, and swamped in the sounds - the shouts, grunts and gasps for breath - of the fight, my fisherman was heedless of the danger that crept up the shore behind him. He sent one of them spinning into the forest where he collapsed and did not rise again. The other attacker hurled himself upon my fisherman and the two rolled upon the soft grass of the shore. My fisherman flipped his attacker over and rose up, straddling him, trying to break free of the fingers that clutched him by the throat.

Meanwhile the dripping hunter from the lake raised his arm to drive his dagger down into my fisherman's back.

This was the moment of the kill. I sensed it. But not the clean kill of hunger - it would be a kill that would foul the killer.

And my fisherman would be its victim.

I launched myself from my perch, and as I did so, I thought I heard the voice of my Mother urging me on.

I swooped down, faster than the hunter could bring his weapon down upon the fisherman's back, cleaving the air as silently as does a shaft of moonlight. My great talons tore into the flesh of the murderer's arm and the dagger went spiraling into the air, to impale the moon's reflection on the water before disappearing beneath it. His scream likewise pierced the night.

My fisherman gave a leap, much like a salmon's, and broke free of the murderous grip on his throat. He hurled himself backwards and grappled with the bloody-handed hunter. Two quick thrusts of his fists sent his opponent reeling back down the shore, to land in a motionless heap. At the same time he kicked out at the other and this time his boot connected solidly with a face.

Sudden silence.

I settled on a nearby branch.

My fisherman slumped back against the tree-trunk for a moment, wiping the sweat that glittered on his face.

His three attackers were huddled black smudges on the ground.

Several times he took a deep breath of the cool night air, and then I heard him laugh - a sound bright as sunlight.

With surprise, I saw that he was staring right at me.

"It was you, wasn't it?" he said aloud. "You're the one who stole my fish!" The bright laugh came again. "And that was you hooting, too!You woke me right up!"

Suddenly he stepped forward into the moonlight and held up his leather-clad right arm.

Understand that my kind do not seek the company of men, nor permit our wills to be bent to theirs, as do the falcons. Nonetheless, I knew what he wished, and for that single time, I obeyed.

With a soft cry, I spread my wings and glided down from the tree to land on the proferred perch. Carefully I gripped the thick leather, taking pains not to pierce it.

In the silver light his eyes seemed to shine just the slightest bit.

His other hand came up,slowly, delicately, and I permitted him to lightly stroke the feathers of my wings and back. His touch caused me to shiver and fluff the down on my breast.

"You saved my life, child of Athena." His voice was as gentle as his touch. "I think your mother would approve. I met her once, you know." Another careful stroke, down my back. "She offered me wisdom - perhaps I should have taken it! Then I would've been smart enough to know those guys wouldn't give up on me so easily!" He looked around at the three dark heaps on the ground. "Speaking of which, I should be going, before they come to!"

His eyes met mine, and again there came that sunlit smile. "I don't suppose you know a quick way out of this forest? I mean - a quick way for those of us who DON'T have wings!"

In answer I stretched my own wings, and he caught my meaning. With a strong and graceful motion, he cast me aloft.

For all the rest of that night, I flew before him as slowly as I could, ever keeping him in sight, leading him in the deep ways of the forest, where no pursuer could follow.

At last, when dawn began to touch the grey clouds with blood, we came to the edge of the forest. Before us stretched a meadow filled with flowers just awakening. Their scent hung heavy upon the still morning air.

Once again my fisherman held out his arm, and once again, I perched upon it.

He stroked the feathers on my head. "I can find my way from here," he said softly. "You paid me back for the fish, my friend! Thank you. I'll never hear the hoot of an owl again, without thinking of you, and being grateful!" He flung me up, into the brightening sky, and as I flew off, back towards my home, I heard his voice behind me.

"Your Mother will be proud of you!"

End

Go on to the next story in the challenge.


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