It is bitter cold and thin here, too thin to hang on and too thin to breathe. It was never meant for anyone to come so high. The little one's heart rattles, his lungs burn, he is blinded in cloud; he can hear nothing but the freezing wind that will strip and break him if he tries to hurry home. He has no choice but spiral. Let him plunge as the eagle does, even now vanished through a fraying raft of cloud, and his little wings will never have the strength to check his speed again.
We know the story: how the birds agreed they would choose their king by contest, and one after the other swept up to show how high it could fly. The eagle waited, proud and sure, to fly last; the birds quietly observed him, knowing, their heads flicking to weigh his confidence first with one eye and then the other. We have heard how the wren, smallest of all, conceived his reckless gambit and crept unnoticed into the plumage of the mighty back. Perhaps when at last the eagle decided his time was come, and leapt so mightily into the air that the little one nearly lost his grip, he began to see how deadly the scheme might prove. Eyes pressed shut--committed--he clung for his life.
Not meanly did the eagle aim to win his crown: he paid no heed to the heights achieved by his kinsfolk but strove to climb as high as ever he had and more. The wren had never known the air would grow so cold, or the wind so violent on a fair day. The eagle shrieked, deafening, and with every stroke gathered a tithe of air only to cast it down to earth.
What is too seldom told is how the king half earned his kingdom, and how maybe made a better king for the ordeal. At last the eagle, wings straining, was exhausted, and leveled off; the wren was roused all at once from his cowering panic. Was it time at last? Was it safe to try? Slowly he felt the terrifying tilt as the eagle began to bank; yes, this was the peak, and in a moment they would turn back. All at once he sprang up to fly just a little higher, an insectivore's fragile flutter upward, and laughed his twittering laugh, thrilled as he was with his own cleverness.
In the same moment the eagle wheeled round and dropped like a stone. No one could have caught him again.
Down on the ground, the wren has at last been missed. No one has seen him fly; maybe they were anxious to mock his efforts after their own were surpassed. The eagle, for a long while lost even to hawks' eyes, reappears; the wind streams up between his pin feathers as he wafts home to earth, the sun on his back. He was born to wear the crown; he is the picture of a king.
But the chatter in the trees is all rumor and speculation; some have begun to guess what the wren has done.
High above everyone, now, he breaks through the passing mist to see the earth. It is still further than his eyes can comprehend. Accustomed to a flurry of strokes, he is slow to dare gliding. It is a fitful descent. Again and again it comes into his battered mind that he has dreamed, that he is merely perched with his eyes shut, that this is only an oracular vision of his plan, the vision that will lead him at last to decline to try it. But wish as he will he has come: he is high in the realm of raptors on unfit wings, and to weather this downward odyssey, hurtle intact to the ground, and be king, is the only way he will ever relieve his anguished shoulders.
The wren looks fearfully at all the land laid out below, the land as he never could have imagined; he sees it as the eagle does. There is the dark carpet of the green wood, there rolling fields and farms of men, receding into the highlands. And there far off he can see the sea--he has never seen the sea--as it breaks forever and ever over the rocks of Tintagel Head.