The time of the Copper-Rose Rain had draped its colorful blanket across the Southern Kingdoms.
During that transitional season between the lush Silver Rain and melancholy White Rain, the S'yrthghar transformed into a carpet of cinnamon, burgundy, and golden majesty.
The Great Ga'Hoole Tree radiated a unique splendor, its countless limbs clad in bronze and auric leaves.
As dictated by tradition, the Milkberry Harvest Festival was in full swing. Celebrated solely by the Guardians since time immemorial, it was one of the most exciting holidays of the year.
For seven full nights, all chaw classes and educational endeavors were suspended and the members of the Guardians' ruling body cast aside their official administrative duties.
The majority of the Great Tree's residents even roused a few hours before sunset. During the first three labor-intensive, yet important, days, all the milkberries and the vines from which they dangled were stripped from its branches.
On the third night, the grand festivities commenced in earnest.
The Great Hollow was festooned with decorations and countless candles were ignited to provide endless light and warmth.
Illuminated from within, the Great Tree glowed like an uplifting beacon against the velvety blackness of the night sky.
The Guardians' home could easily be seen from the mainland, a luminous smudge in the distance.
Owls young and old feasted, sang, and danced to their hearts' content. Batches upon batches of smooth milkberry wine and its spiced variant, milkberry mead, were brewed for all willing adults to savor.
The Ga'Hoolian king and queen partook in the festivities to pay homage to tradition and relieve the stress associated with their sovereign obligations. Their daughters ate and conversed with them in the Great Hollow for a short while, then hurried off to gleek about with their friends.
The remaining members of the Chaw of Chaws, save for Otulissa, soon rendezvoused with Soren and Pellimore.
The scholarly owl dined on roasted vole, then retreated to the library to pour more knowledge into her brain. Her mate, Cleve, accompanied her.
She preferred not to immerse herself in a horde of loud, clumsy, and obnoxious owls who'd drank a bit too much liquor. He didn't either.
"Uncivilized conduct," she'd called it. She meant no disrespect towards her peers or superiors, mind you, she was simply describing their behavior in technical terms.
In less than a quarter of an hour, several more owls joined their group: Kalo and Grom, Wensel the talented Tyto artist, Gemma, the mate of Martin, Flinn and his daughter Fritha, Primrose, Sylvana, the tracking ryb, and Bubo, the skilled blacksmith.
While stuffing their gizzards with cooked rodent meat, they imbibed just enough doses of fermented milkberry juice to render themselves tipsy.
Fritha, Eglantine, and Primrose elected to stay sober.
One or two nut cups of milkberry wine left the more diminutive owls inebriated, whereas the larger owls became mildly intoxicated after drinking four or five cups. Unsurprisingly, alcoholic dizziness set in for Bubo and Twilight only after they downed seven cups of spiced mead.
All of them were sensible enough to cease consumption before becoming totally drunk. However, a strange fog clouded their minds, impairing them to some extent.
"That wine was delicious… wasn't it?" Gylfie stammered, her question directed at no one in particular.
"Yes… I'd forgotten how pleasant it tasted," the queen replied.
"The mead… was equally delightful," said the king.
"I agree, my dear."
Pellimore sighed contentedly.
"This mead is… rather unlike bingle juice, the staple beverage of the Northern Kingdoms," Flinn statedd. "It has a satisfying kick… hence why I enjoyed it."
The grizzled great-horned owl nodded in affirmation of the pygmy owl's statement.
Gylfie swayed, bumped into Twilight's starboard flank, and plopped onto the floor in a seated position. The huge great gray affixed her with a dull glare.
"You should've avoided… the wine completely. Any amount is too much… for your tiny body to handle," he deadpanned.
She narrowed her eyes at him.
"Are you… making fun of… my small stature?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
She staggered to her feet and administered a weak kick to his starboard foot.
"Stop it you… you oversized buffoon! You know… those kinds of jokes… rub my feathers the wrong way."
"Buffoon? The audacity! You sure are brave… despite your size."
She gave an arguably cute snort of disdain mixed with appreciation.
"Hmph. I suppose I'll take that… as a compliment."
The female short-eared owl piped up next: "I can't say… I'm a spectacular flyer anymore. If I attempted one of my fancy tricks… I'd fail miserably!"
"You aren't alone, Ruby. I'd end up… embarrassing myself as well!"
Their comrades couldn't prevent themselves from chortling.
"We won't be doing any colliering tonight… will we Soren?"
The short-eared owl and Tyto chuckled at their own expense as well.
"One night in the Barrens… Grom here spotted a mouse and tried chasing it down on foot. He tripped over a tuft of grass… tumbled head over tail… and hit the ground face-first. The mouse escaped, of course. I'll never forget that hilarious incident!"
"I wasn't happy about it then, but now?" He gave a mellow hoot of amusement. "Mice are agile creatures, I'll say that much."
"As are squirrels," Wensel began. "In my youth… I've almost slammed head-on into a fir tree… on more than one occasion while trying to catch them. Their meat is delectable… but it comes at a price."
Soren locked eyes with his mate.
"I confess… I love the way your tail sways… when you walk. I am… guilty of staring."
"Go ahead, my dear. I don't mind."
Without warning, she kissed him passionately for ten drawn out seconds.
"There is nothing as powerful as true love…" Gemma remarked.
Following Pellimore's example, she kissed Martin squarely on the beak.
Kalo did the same to Grom.
When Pellimore broke the kiss, a dreamy smile manifested on Soren's beak.
"Ahh… that was wonderful. I love you, Pellimore."
"As do I, Soren."
"Not to change the subject… but does anyone… have any jokes to share?" Sylvana inquired.
"Hm… oh, I've got one!"
Martin cleared his throat and said, "What do you call an owl that has a sore throat?"
Being as they couldn't think clearly, none of them could conjure up the correct response.
"I'm not sure, Martin," said Fritha. "Tell us the answer."
"An owl that doesn't give a hoot!"
The owls' altered mental state meant that the punchline turned out to be more amusing than normal. They all laughed heartily, their unique vocalizations swirling into the cacophony filling the Great Hollow.
They caught their breath and settled down in a few seconds.
"My turn!" exclaimed Primrose. "What do you call an owl that's wearing armor?"
Eglantine said, "That's a good question."
"I don't know either… and I'm supposed to be wise!" quipped Soren.
Primrose inhaled and said: "A 'knight' owl."
They belted out more laughter.
An exasperated Ruby said, "I can't believe… I couldn't figure that out!"
"I just… thought of another."
"Let's hear it, Sylvana."
"What do you call an owl… that has been caught… doing a questionable act?"
"Wait… I think I know the answer: a 'spotted' owl?"
"That's right, Wensel, a 'spotted' owl!"
"That sort of pun… would've bothered Otulissa," Twilight hooted.
"A shame she isn't here. Her annoyance… would be very amusing."
"I agree completely, Digger," Gylfie replied. "No offense to her… of course."
On a whim, Gemma clambered onto the table. Extending her wing to her mate in an inviting manner, she tooted, "Get up here, Martin. Let's dance."
He obeyed and the plucky pair moved to the center of the table.
They proceeded to dance the glauc-glauc; their less-than-ideal coordination made the spectacle that much more entertaining. They stepped on each other's talons and bumped into one another multiple times.
Their slapstick display culminated in Martin tripping over his own feet. He brought his mate down with him, ending up on top of her in a comical-yet-suggestive pose.
"Silly owl," she said in a half-serious, half-playful tone.
"Sorry," he replied sheepishly.
She grinned and nuzzled the rim of his facial disk.
"It's alright. This mishap… was partly my fault as well."
The saw-whet owl pair churred in unison and got to their feet.
"Would you like to dance with me?" Kalo asked her mate.
"No thank you. I am a terrible dancer."
She gave him a pat on the upper back with her port wing.
"I understand. I'm hardly… a skilled dancer myself. The milkberry wine… hasn't helped."
"Well then, how about we share some riddles?"
"A swell idea, brother."
"Let's see… ah, here's one: what rises without legs, whispers without a voice, bites without teeth, and dies without having life?"
His comrades fell silent while they pondered the brain teaser.
"That is a puzzling riddle. Then again… I am most likely overthinking it," Flinn said flatly.
"Hmm… I've got it! It's the wind."
"Correct, Fritha. Well done."
"That's my daughter, as clever as always."
"I doubt I would've been able… to figure that out. Well done indeed."
"Thank you, Wensel."
"Here's another: what lives without food, stands without legs, wounds without force, and is harder to fight than kill?"
"Good Glaux… I have no idea, Digger," Ruby said.
"That's a tough one, lad."
"I expected you… to know the answer, Bubo."
The blacksmith wracked his muddled brain.
"Hold on… is it fire?"
"I knew it."
The rest of the owls shook their heads in halfhearted dismay.
"That was even more difficult than Soren's."
"You said it, Gemma," Eglantine responded.
"I can't think of any other riddles worth mentioning," the king admitted.
"No worries, Soren. I am… out of riddles as well," the male burrowing owl said.
"Here's a humorous statement… I've heard kraals say several times in the Northern Kingdoms: 'I couldn't figure out why the ice splinter was getting larger… but then it hit me.'"
The owls seated at the table burst into laughter, including Flinn himself.
"That one… is my favorite so far, despite the bloody implications," boomed the great gray owl.
"Why… am I not surprised?" Gylfie said shrewdly. "How typical of you, Twilight."
As soon as they quieted down, Flinn spoke again: "A blind owl flies into a grog tree… and a tree branch… and another owl… "
Primrose, Martin, and Sylvana churred so hard they toppled onto their backs.
"My Glaux… that was too funny!" the pygmy owl blurted out. "I shouldn't be laughing… but I can't help it!"
"All in good fun… right Primrose?"
"I suppose it is, Martin."
The fallen owls were helped up by their friends and managed to calm themselves down.
"I don't mean to be depressing… but if Ezylryb was here… we'd be having a grand old time," the king proclaimed.
"Indeed. Many of his jokes were questionable… but gratifying nonetheless," his partner replied. "Glaux rest his soul."
"I can't say the same… for Boron and Barran. They were rather old-fashioned… and not too fond of such crude humor, especially her… not that that's a negative thing."
"Very true," Pelli said.
"Anyhow, I digress."
"The previous moon… when Soren and I were sparring with swords… I remember accidentally slicing… one of his tail feathers in half."
"That was an 'accident' alright," Soren said in mock frustration.
"I promise it was," Pelli said defensively, "you simply dodged… in the wrong direction."
"That was because… you tricked me!"
"Did you expect me not to, dear? I used not only my strength… but my wit… to gain the advantage."
Pelli flashed a proud smirk.
"At least… you didn't slice all of my tail feathers in two. You were a clever opponent… that much is certain."
"I won't deny… that you were a clever fighter yourself."
The king smiled and the queen mirrored his expression.
"I once slashed the tail feathers… of a long-eared owl kraal clean off. She conceded the fight and fled."
"Now that is one humiliating defeat," Twilight said.
"I pitied her, but then again, I didn't. She shouldn't have… underestimated my agility."
"Physical ability means nothing… if you can't outsmart your rival," Digger commented studiously.
"Spoken like a true warrior," Wensel said. "My artistic skills exceed my combat skills, yet even I know that."
"I don't regret being a kraal… but I prefer to live here with my daughter. Teaching the young ones about the kraal lifestyle… is no less rewarding."
Flinn wrapped his starboard wing around Fritha tenderly.
"Your contributions are greatly appreciated," declared Pelli.
The pygmy owl dipped his head in humble acknowledgement.
"This is why I love being a pygmy owl."
Primrose spun her head completely backwards, revealing her eyespots.
"I'm watching you…" she said in a subdued, spooky timbre. Her fellow Guardians chortled softly.
"Sometimes I wish I had them too, just so I could fool and unnerve others. No matter, Glaux has given each of us unique gifts."
"That is a reasonable state of mind to have," said Kalo.
"I suppose the same could be said of our ability to yarp up pellets," Ruby intoned.
"Otulissa feels the same way," Gylfie quipped.
Doing her best to imitate the spotted owl's intellectual tone, she continued, "Yarping up pellets… is a most dignified way to eliminate digestive leftovers. The fact that owls… unlike primitive birds such as seagulls… must pass so little liquid waste… is marvelous."
Her comrades chortled jubilantly.
"That… was a very accurate portrayal… of Otulissa's mannerisms. I'm impressed."
"Thank you kindly, Pelli."
"I'm not sure if she would've applauded your interpretation, or been flustered by it," Eglantine put in.
"She would've agreed with you, but might not have enjoyed being mocked," Primrose said.
Twilight asserted, "What is said in the Great Hollow… stays in the Great Hollow."
"That's the safest course of action," Digger hooted.
"Hm, the night is still young. Why don't you offer us more insight into your life as a kraal, Flinn?"
"It would be my pleasure, Pelli."
The male pygmy owl fell silent while gathering his thoughts. He then wove a number of emotional tales regarding his past exploits as a pirate.
His companions posed the occasional question, but for the most part, they concentrated on listening, not speaking.
Afterwards, the coterie of owls whiled away the night telling their own stories, as well as conversing about whatever topics came to mind.
As the night dragged on, they momentarily stepped outside in ones and twos to cough up pellets and pass droppings.
By the time the night was half over, they had all grown somewhat weary, despite the boisterous environment of the Great Hollow.
Still disoriented to an extent by the milkberry wine and/or mead they'd imbibed, the owls bid each other farewell and retired to their hollows.
While most of them settled down into their nests, the three couples weren't keen on surrendering to unconsciousness just yet.
The six owls in question, overcome with inebriation-induced lust, resorted to amorous displays of affection for their respective partners.
Simply put, they shamelessly kissed one another using more than just their beaks.