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The Lost Falcon

By Sarah Das Gupta


Scene: The Manor of Farleigh 1475


Alaric sat up in bed to the raucous sound of the cock crowing. The straw mattress resting on rough planks of wood was uncomfortable enough but he had known nothing else during his fifteen years of a grinding, peasant existence. The light was already flooding through chinks in the poorly fitting shutters. Beyond the flimsy partition, he could hear his father finishing a meagre breakfast, slices of black rye bread washed down with weak ale. It hardly seemed possible but summer had returned. The sun rose earlier and set later. The work in the fields was hard and gruelling but at least warmer. Pulling on his boots, Alaric sat thinking of that fateful day last midsummer. Yes, it had been the celebratory Feast of St John the Baptist.

Alaric had been walking through the village, the air hot and humid even in the morning. An early mist lay over the great open field of the Manor of Farleigh. Even the meanest of cottages were adorned with wreaths of green birch, interwoven with Trefoil, a symbol of the Trinity, its flecks of red a reminder of martyrdom and the yellow flowers of St John’s wort, all in the Baptist’s honour. His father had sent him to their four acres in the open field to check the progress of the barley and oats, essential to their supply of bread in the coming winter and to dig a few turnips for a festive dinner.

Alaric was walking home through the hazel wood, his mind on the celebrations of midsummer’s day. Suddenly, he noticed a fluttering in the long grass beside the well-worn track. He thought at first it might be a pheasant. He walked quietly up to the quivering grass. To his surprise it was a young falcon flapping its wings helplessly and falling back into the undergrowth. Alaric picked it up cautiously, wary of the sharp, curved beak which could deliver a painful bite. The bird was either too exhausted or too petrified to attack. It lay quiet and pitifully submissive in Alaric’s hands. Running his fingers carefully up the bird’s right leg, he could feel the damage to the damage.  He put it gently into the sack of turnips and made his way up the flinty lane to the cottage.

He came through the sprawling garden at the back of the thatched house with its chimney smoking, whether summer or winter, leaving the thatch black and sooty under the eaves. The garden produced food not colourful flowers. Rows of beans, peas, cabbages and onions filled the half- acre. Apple, pear and damson trees formed an orchard. Nearer the cottage, hen coops, hutches and a small thatched barn provided shelter for poultry, goats and the invaluable ox, essential for ploughing. Alaric picked up a light wooden coop. He carried it to the back of the orchard. Carefully, he lifted the wounded falcon into the hutch, fixing the door securely.

‘Those turnips need boiling. The sun’s already high in the sky.’ His father’s voice bellowed down the garden.

‘Coming, father.’ Alaric hurriedly shouldered the sack of turnips.

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 All through that hot Midsummer Day, Alarik thought about his falcon. He watched the dancing round the leafy pole, but took no part in the teasing and joking of the village boys as the young girls held the colourful ribbons, winding them in intricate patterns round the pole. He stood in the background as the bonfire was lit from the charred remains of last year’s fire. His mind was back in that wooden coop in the orchard as the smoke drifted over the cattle, like incense blessing the beasts before the approaching winter. Even the blazing wheel, rolling down hill, tracing the sun’s annual course through the heavens, barely caught his attention.

Alaric slipped away after the festive village feast. He knew his father would be asleep in his chair by the fire for an hour or more. The midsummer ale had been stronger than the daily brew. Alaric had visited the mouse traps earlier, collecting enough dead mice to satisfy the bird which he guessed by this time must be starving. He opened the door of the coop carefully, throwing the dead mice to the back. The falcon stood over his supper, his wings outstretched, to defend his food. Alaric sitting on the grass under the shade of the damson trees, watched the peregrine and whistled softly to it. He knew it was a male bird by its relatively smaller size, the narrower yellow ring around the eyes and fewer spots on its breast, compared with the female. He had also heard of a royal law that forbade the peasantry from catching falcons. All lost birds must be returned to their noble owners. Alaric knew from experience the beating he would receive from his father if he were caught hiding the raptor.

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Each day, Alaric managed to spend time with the falcon which he had named ‘Orion’, the hunter of the skies.  He massaged the damaged leg, applying a poultice made from crushed leaves of St John’s Wort. Within two weeks, the falcon was hopping around the coop, his keen eyes looking out longingly to the trees and blue skies above.

Every day, except Sunday, Alaric worked with his father on the Lord of the Manor’s land with the other bonded peasants until the sun had passed midday. Only then were they free to work on their own few acres. Often in the hot summer months, his father would rest before tending his crops in the open field or the vegetables in the garden. Sir Gilbert de Gernon was not a popular landlord among the villeins who often found themselves appearing before the local Manorial court.

It was while his father slept in the early afternoon, that Alaric could spend time with Orion. The bird soon recognised him as a source of food, lying quietly in the coop while Alaric leant in to massage and poultice the wounded leg. He had made makeshift jesses from broken pieces of oxen harness he’d found in the old barn. These straps attached the falcon securely to his arm. Alaric practised standing in the orchard with Orion on his arm that was wrapped in thick sacking, a protection again the bird’s sharp talons. Each day he rewarded the falcon with small pieces of meat – pieces of dead mice, scraps from the occasional dinners of chicken or rabbit. Soon Orion was eager to perch on his arm and be rewarded with a tasty morsel. The next stage was to drop the meat on the ground. Alaric then persuaded Orion, secured by a thin rope, to eat the food from the ground, rather than from the arm. Soon the hawk had learnt to fly, returning to Alaric’s call, to eat the meat at his feet. As yet the bird was still secured by the long rope.

Orion was quick to learn and the bond between the bird and boy was deepening. Alaric made a lure using a small, horseshoe-shaped piece of wood and a strip of rabbit skin. Orion would return to the improvised lure to be rewarded once again. Alaric could see that the exercise had improved Orion’s

leg which now seemed completely healed. He had grown stronger, his feathers sleeker, his sharp eyes, two hundred times more powerful than the human eye, alert and watchful. The time had come to let him fly free.

Alaric tossed and turned all night on his straw mattress. It was a warm August night and the fire, burning all day in the small cottage, left the air stuffy and smoky. He dreamed of letting Orion fly free for the first time and then the bird disappearing over the trees. The falcon had become the centre of a harsh, monotonous life. The rough, handmade jesses were strapped to the boy’s heart as much as to his arm. The high point of a gruelling day digging and hoeing, was holding Orion on his arm, the bird’s head cocked to one side as he listened to Alaric’s voice.

Time went so slowly, digging turnips in the hard, sunburnt clay. For the hundredth time that morning, Alaric gazed up at the sun which looked no closer to midday. At last, his father signalled the time had come to return home. Alaric almost ran to the back of the orchard. Strapping the jesses to Orion’s legs, pocketing the lure, Alaric walked through the hazel coppice to a heath well beyond the village. Here he hoped he would not be noticed.

It was past midday but the sun was still high in the sky. Orion was excited by the space and the chance of flying. He was looking around restlessly as if surveying the heathland stretching out to the far horizon, beneath the bluest of summer skies. Alaric’s heart beat faster. He could feel it pounding against his chest. Talking quietly to the falcon, he slowly unstrapped the jesses. Orion hesitated a moment, turning to look at the boy. Then, for the first time, he flew freely.

Shading his eyes, Alaric watched spellbound, as the falcon wheeled and swooped against the azure sky. Then he would catch a thermal, resting for moment, before turning into the wind. Alaric had never seen anything so masterful and yet so entirely, perfectly beautiful. He took out the lure with its rabbit skin, swinging the string from side to side so the skin bobbed to and fro. At the same time, he called the falcon to him. The bird folded back its wings, diving faster than a bullet through the air. In a second, it was hovering, wings outstretched, guarding the mangy rabbit skin. Alaric reached in an old leather bag for Orion’s prize- a mouse plundered from a neighbour’s traps. Stroking the smooth plumage, the boy and the peregrine turned homeward.

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Alaric’s days centred round Orion’s daily flights. The bond between them grew ever stronger. The falcon seemed to know when Alaric was coming. He would be ready at the door of the coop, ruffling his feathers as if limbering up for the flight. When the morning’s work had been especially hard, the boy would pour out all his troubles to the falcon who would listen head on one side looking sadly at Alaric. On such days, Orion would fly ever more spectacularly as if trying to comfort him.

It was one such day, when scything barley in the hot sun, had exhausted Alaric. He was watching Orion sweeping across the sky and resting on the currents of air. The days were shortening and the sun already low. The western sky was blazing red and orange; the effortless elegance of the peregrine in full flight, silhouetted against the setting sun made the boy’s heart dance.

Suddenly, Alaric heard the sound of horses’ hooves at the side of the heath. He quickly called the falcon back to the lure. Too late, just as he dropped scraps of rabbit on the ground, Alaric found himself confronted by a nobleman and a young girl, followed by two knights. They were surrounded by clouds of dust as they pulled up in front of him. Strapping the falcon to his arm, Alaric bent low before the horsemen.

‘A fine peregrine you have there, boy. What falconer has trained it to come to the lure?’

‘I have trained the bird myself, my lord.’ Alaric kept his eyes to the ground, not even glancing at the young girl.

‘Have you never heard the King’s decree concerning falcons and hawks? No bondsman may keep such birds. They are to be handed over to the local lord;’

‘Pardon my lord. I found the bird with a wounded leg and rescued it from foxes or hounds.’

‘The falcon can be handed to my daughter who takes an interest in such creatures. As for you boy, you will be summoned before the Manorial Court. Royal decrees seem to be increasingly ignored since the horrors of the Black Death.’

Alaric felt suddenly cold. What was the local court, what was the King’s law compared to the loss of the falcon? As if from far away, the voice of the girl intervened.

‘Sire, this boy has saved a handsome peregrine. The bird would not have survived a night in the forest. You promised I could hunt with you this winter. This bird is well trained. I claim it as a favour, my lord. As for the boy, you should reward him. Spare him the court judgement, father!’

‘Very well. You are your mother’s daughter! Unstrap the jesses and hand the bird over to Lady Matilda.’

The girl pulled on a jewelled gauntlet and Orion was handed over. The crudely made jesses looked oddly out of place, strapped to the emeralds glittering in the dying sun.

The cavalcade cantered off. Alaric watched until his falcon disappeared into the gathering dusk.


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