The city gate opened onto a paved square surrounded by elegant, stone houses, three stories high. Their ornately carved doorways were reached by short flights of shallow steps, and shaded balconies, in which heavily curtained doorways hid the rooms beyond, lined the upper levels. Riders dressed in anything from the beautifully crafted leather uniform of a Kataur warrior, to a Fath merchant's cloak of flowing velvet, or the dusty garb of a long-distance messenger, kept to the middle of the streets leading away from the square. People on foot kept out of their way, hugging close to the buildings. The atmosphere was lively and busy: peasants and city folk mingled easily, each going about their own business. Ahead, a straight avenue lined with ancient trees dressed in pale spring-green led into the centre of the town; while two narrower streets took off to either side, running along the inside of the city wall. Bardelph turned the wagon to the right, and after a short while, the sunshine was left behind. They made their way between more simple houses on the one side and traders selling their wares at a haphazard assortment of stalls on the other. In spite of the lateness of the day, the street was still quite crowded and the mule's progress slow; but Alduin did not mind at all. His sense of smell was overwhelmed by a rich blend of spices, roasting chestnuts and perfumes mingled with the less savoury odours of rotting vegetables, tired bodies and dust. At the same time, his eyes drank up the colourful variety of all he saw: a man with a strange, long-haired animal sitting on his shoulder; another selling curiously shaped bottles of something he claimed would cure any kind of ailment; three women striding by – dark-skinned Wunand like his mother, dressed in close-fitting black trousers and matching over shirts, trimmed at the waist by a woven leather belt from which an unusual whip hung; children darting here and there, laughing and pinching a nut or piece of fruit from an unwary vendor; a woman carrying an enormous water jar on her head. Every time he turned his head, Alduin was confronted with something new and exciting; but in the moment he saw a young man hurrying by with a falcon perched on his leather gauntleted fist, everything else faded into the background. He twisted round, eyes following the falconer's progress till he disappeared into a narrow alley-way they had just past. Alduin sighed deeply, only then realising that he had been holding his breath. He wondered where the young man had gone.
“Here we are,” Bardelph said, interrupting Alduin's reverie. He guided the mule under an archway in a building on their left and passed into an inner courtyard, reining it and pulling the wagon to a halt. Just then a chime, sounding to Alduin like a mighty smithy's hammer tempering a horse's shoe, rang out over the city, followed by six more.
“What was that?” he asked once the ringing had stopped.
“That was seventh bell,” Bardelph explained. “In the city time is measured by bells. Eight for the working day, eight for the night. Fourth bell is at both the sun's zenith and in the middle of the night.”
“That way there's a bit of order in how the day is divided,” Aranthia added. “People usually rise around seventh or eighth bell at the end of the night, and start working at first bell. The midday meal is usually between fourth and fifth bell, and so on.”
“Sounds confusing,” Alduin said.
“I can imagine. But you'll get used to it soon enough! Anyway, let's see if they have any rooms here.”
He stepped down and headed in through a back door, while Aranthia climbed down and stretched her legs. Alduin followed close behind, and then ran back out through the archway, eager to peer into the street again. he was joined there by his mother.
“It's been a long time,” Aranthia said sighing and laying a hand on his shoulder. “There seem to be so many more people; but maybe it's just me. I'm not used to it anymore.”
“Did you see the falconer?” Alduin twisted round, excitement filling his face.
She smiled at him before replying.
“Yes, I saw him. He seemed to be in a hurry.”
“He turned up a side street.”
“It would be quieter there. All this noise and bustle could make the falcon nervous I imagine.”
In that moment they were joined by Bardelph.
“Good news,” he said. “They have two rooms left. One's quite small, but it's enough for me. The other will be fine for the two of you. It's quiet and looks onto the courtyard.”
Alduin would not have minded a room looking over the street, he was so fascinated by everything he saw; but he realised there was no use in complaining and helped Bardelph and Aranthia carry their belongings up to their room.
“I hope you don't mind,” Bardelph explained as they climbed the stairs, “but I traded one of the daggers for a seven-day lodging and breakfast for us all. That will give us time to get our bearings and look for other alternatives if we prefer.”
Seeing the spacious and adequately furnished room that Bardelph had arranged, Aranthia was quite content with this plan. She preferred anyway to put her attention to the main purpose of their journey. Alduin was so excited he would have slept anywhere. The Raiden left them to unpack and settle in saying that he would head up to Falcon Hall shortly to find out if Calborth was still there, and see what could be done for Alduin. He promised to give them news at breakfast the following morning, asking the boy to be patient a little longer.
“I'm rather tired,” Aranthia confessed to Alduin after Bardelph had left. “I'd thought I would show you around, but I must admit I'm not up to it. Go and ask the landlord if he might bring us a meal. Don't mention Reesha. We still have some meat that we can give him.”
Alduin darted off and, after opening the shutters wide, Aranthia set about unpacking their few items of clothing, storing them in the top drawer of a large chest tucked in an alcove at one end of the room. On the top was a carafe of water and large earthenware bowl for washing. Hanging on the wall above was a polished sheet of brass in which she could see her reflection. The unexpected sight made her catch her breath. The last time she had looked at herself in a mirror of any kind was so long ago that she did not recognise the person she saw in front of her. She replaced her shocked expression with a tentative smile and pulled her dark hair loose from the thick knot she always made at the nape of her neck, shaking her head and running her fingers through her curly mane. She was not displeased with what she saw. The memory of the young girl she had once been was so faded that she felt no disappointment at the traces the seasons had etched on her features. She grinned at herself and then turned her back to the mirror. A large, heavy-curtained, four-poster bed, wide enough for the two of them to share without the risk of getting kicked during the night, was placed in the back corner furthest from the door. A large chest stood at the foot. Under the window was a simple wooden table with three sturdy chairs, sitting on a floor rug of woven rushes.
“The landlord said he would send up something shortly after sunset,” Alduin said when he returned. “He gave me these candles to put in the wall brackets, and an oil lamp for the table.”
While Alduin set up the lights, Aranthia lifted Reesha and his nest out of the basket and placed it by the open window. The golden glow in the sky told them that the sun, though hidden from their view, must be lowering rapidly towards the horizon.
“Moisten some of the dried meat and feed him if he's hungry. We'll have to put him away before they bring our food.”
As Alduin took the meat she handed him and began chewing small pieces to soften them for his falcon, Aranthia finished sorting out the rest of their things. She put most of them in the remaining drawers, except for the valuables they had taken from Carto, and which Bardelph had insisted she keep. These she hid under a heavy wool blanket in the bottom of the chest. Tomorrow she would see with the Raiden how best to trade them for usable coins.
Alduin had just put a sleeping Reesha back into the basket and placed it over by the bed, when a knock came on the door and a young boy brought in a tray of food. Steaming bowls of soup, a small loaf of dark bread and some goat cheese, along with two large mugs of light mead, were quickly set on the table. The boy disappeared again with a quick, curious glance at Alduin.
The two sat down at the table to eat. It was a simple, mildly-spiced vegetable broth and the cheese was on the salty side; but after the long journey, they were grateful not to have to go further afield to get food. When they had finished, Alduin asked if he could go exploring.
“It will soon be dark. I'm not sure if the streets are safe at night,” his mother cautioned. “Why not wait till the morning?”
“I won't be gone for long. Nothing will happen to me, don't worry,” he assured her with such conviction, that Aranthia could only smile.
“Alright, but keep to streets that are well lit.”
In answer he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and then ran out of the room.
On the street, most of the stalls had closed down. Brightly painted shutters announcing the merchant's name and the nature of the wares, presented a colourful and intriguing front; however, Alduin ran past without paying any attention, heading for the alley where he had seen the falconer disappear. It was empty. The houses on either side appeared to be quite old. Bare patches where the plaster had fallen off, revealed rough hewn stones where little flowering plants clung tenaciously between the cracks, giving the walls unexpected splashes of life. The cobbles were interrupted various times by flights of wide steps. The street gradually climbed till it was cut off by a high wall, forcing Alduin to turn either way to follow it along a narrow replica of the market street below. He guessed this was the wall that encircled the inner city where Falcon Hall was located, and wondered how he might get inside. He chose randomly and turned right, though the way was sparsely lit. A deeper shadow in the stone façade further along caught his attention. It turned out to be an arched doorway barred by a locked, iron gate. Alduin leant against it, peering into the gloom beyond, which barely revealed a large courtyard of hard-packed earth, surrounded by arched walkways. It was completely empty, except for stone benches at regular intervals around the perimeter, giving the impression that this would be a place to watch some kind of performance or game. Deeply engrossed, Alduin tried to pick out the smallest feature among the shadows, pushing his head as far as he could through the bars, at serious risk of getting stuck.
“And what are you up to?” an aggressive voice asked behind him.
Two hands grabbed him roughly by the shoulders, pulling him from the gate and spinning him around. It was a young man dressed in similar fashion to the falconer Alduin had seen earlier, with dark, straight hair held firmly in place by a leather strap around his brow, and a beard neatly braided in two plaits. His pleasant features were marred by a deep frown, as his fingers dug into Alduin's flesh.
“Answer me, you little urchin!” he said menacingly, moving his hands down to Alduin's upper arms and giving him a shake. “Up to no good I’ll warrant.”
Alduin's shock was so complete, that he was incapable of coherent speech.
“I... nothing... I was just looking...
The man's intense glare shocked Alduin to the core, but he gradually managed to regain his composure and courage. His voice was not submissive.
“I've done you no harm; and I've done nothing wrong!”
“Looked to me like you were trying to get into Falcon Hall,” the other countered. “Planning some sort of mischief with the fledglings? The compound is forbidden to any but falconers… and their masters. You must know that!”
Alduin decided the truth – or at least part of it – was his best option, and he adopted his most reasonable voice.
“I've just arrived in Sanforan with my mother. I was exploring, nothing more.”
“A likely story. I doubt you even know who your mother is. You're obviously not a pure blood. Look like a half Wunand bastard to me!”
Reason was forgotten as Alduin felt pure anger rising inside at the unfair accusations and intolerable insinuations. The man might be a Raiden falconer – at least he looked like one – but that gave him no right to deal out insults so glibly.
“How dare you!” he shouted. “Who do you think you are saying something like that? I’ll… I’ll…”
The Raiden was a good head taller than Alduin; and stronger. Though the boy struggled in his grip, he soon realised he was in no position to fight. He would have to think of something else... quickly.
“You will not speak to me like that and get away with it,” the man retorted. “You're coming with me. We'll sort this out with the night watchmen!”
Letting go with one hand, but strengthening his grip with the other so much that Alduin winced in pain, the man dragged the boy along beside him. At first Alduin did all he could to resist. He dug in his feet between the cobbles, but to no avail, the man was just too strong; then he tried a different strategy. He sighed as if capitulating and started shuffling along.
“Honest I didn’t mean no harm,” he said in a repentant voice. “Falcon Hall sounds like such a magic place. I just wanted a glimpse.”
“That’s all very well,” the other replied, in a whispering but no less aggressive voice. “We can’t have the rules being blatantly flouted!”
As though suddenly realising that he may have exaggerated the issue beyond anything reasonable, the man changed his tone and loosened his grip a little before continuing.
“The guard will sort it out. If you’re innocent you’ll have nothing to worry about.”
“Yes sir,” Alduin answered in his most demure voice.
He would definitely prefer it not to go that far, but was still wracking his brain to find a way to get out of the situation. Finally the chance arose. As they passed the mouth of the alleyway that Alduin had come up, he saw a possibility and reacted immediately. He threw against the Raiden as hard as he could. The unexpected movement caught the man unaware and he loosened his grasp further for an instant. It was just long enough for Alduin to slip out of his hand and dash off down the way he had come. After his initial surprise at the unexpected move, the man started off in pursuit. He quickly gained on Alduin as the boy reached the first steps. The boy took them with a great leap, feeling fingers pulling briefly on his hair. His pursuer jumped too, but landed short, twisting his ankle on the bottom step and falling heavily to the ground. Alduin paused briefly but decided against returning to see how badly the other was hurt. He sped off to the safety of the inn and his bed, relief making him laugh out loud as he went.
“You'll pay for this...” he heard the threatening voice shout from the distance.
“Catch me if you can!” he yelled back.
The following morning Alduin and his mother met Bardelph for breakfast in the common room. The boy had not told Aranthia about the unpleasant encounter the evening before, saying only that he'd been as far as the inner city wall, where a locked gate had stopped him from going further.
“Did you find Calborth?” he asked Bardelph as soon as the man approached their table.
“And a good day to you too, young man! Did you sleep well?” the Raiden responded with a twinkle in his eye.
“I... er... yes... I'm sorry... did you sleep well?”
“That I did.” Bardelph nodded and turned to Aranthia, raising his hand to his chest.
“And you, ma'am?”
She gave him a wide smile, joining in his teasing.
“Never better – considering it wasn't home. Would you care to join us?”
“Don't mind if I do,” he responded, indicating to Alduin to make space on the bench beside him, and sitting down.
“A pleasant morning, don't you agree?” Aranthia continued.
“Most certainly. A clear sky promising a beautiful day.”
Alduin decided he could play the game too and, after the innkeeper set a mug and plate on the table in front of Bardelph, put on his politest voice.
“May I offer you some hot calba, kind sir?”
“Thank you, young master.”
The Raiden grinned, picking up the mug once it had been filled and taking a healthy draught. Alduin watched, adopting his sweetest expression as though completely unconcerned about anything. Finally Bardelph put the mug down and looked at him.
“Doing anything particular this morning?”
Alduin shook his head.
“Good. I have someone who wants to meet you.”
“Calborth?” Alduin burst out, unable to contain himself any longer.
“That's right. He's still around and mighty curious to see you and Reesha. We're lucky that the falcons also hatched here two seven-day ago. Most of the boys are taken up with their own birds; however, there might be trouble with one or two who didn't bond this time round.”
“Can we go straight after breakfast?”
“Nothing stopping us.”
A short while later, the three left the inn with Alduin carrying Reesha in his basket. Bardelph lead the way, taking them along narrow back streets that brought them to the main entrance to the inner city. Two Onur guards, dressed in the deep burgundy, silver-trimmed uniforms of the citadel, questioned anyone seeking to go inside. Their manner was easy-going, their task being to direct people in the right direction rather than bar their passage. Bardelph stated his business and quickly convinced them that he knew the way.
The roads and buildings on the other side were laid out in a random manner, as though straight lines had been deliberately avoided and open spaces encouraged. The structures were built of ochre-coloured stones, hewn into small square blocks, which had become smooth with age and the beating of sun and storm. Every now and then, a covered walkway would span in a high archway joining two buildings. If Alduin had already been able to see with the eyes of his falcon, he would have realised that a person could move around a large portion of the town without having to go outside at all. Falcon Hall and its dependencies was, however, a proud exception. Standing within its own enclosure, the main structure was made up of a large, circular inner hall, with gently peaked, red-tile roof standing higher than the extensions that jutted out in various directions around it. Adjacent buildings partly encircled it on the right and left, leaving a wide open forecourt where a bronze statue of a man stood, arm raised to a falcon clasping his fist with wings spread wide. Alduin could not decide if the bird had just landed or was about to take flight; but the image somehow conveyed the very essence of falconry, and filled his heart with excited anticipation.
“Over here, follow me,” Bardelph said, striding towards a large wooden door in the front of the main building.
They stepped inside and were immediately struck by the unusual smell. Bardelph took a deep breath and sighed.
“There you have it lad: falcon nectar! Nothing like it.”
Alduin sniffed tentatively. “It smells musky... and sweet.”
“What did I tell you? No perfume to match it.”
“What nonsense be you telling him!” a deep voice called from within the inner hall.
“Calborth,” Bardelph whispered to Alduin and Aranthia. “He's in the hatching chamber.”
“Stop whispering and come in here!”
The three entered what was considered Falcon Hall's sacred sanctuary: the circular part of the building where the falcons were bred, hatched, bonded and spent their first weeks. It was warm and slightly humid inside, dusty rays of light slanting in through the eastern window as the sun climbed in the morning sky. The centre of room was dominated by a large, round stone table and the outside walls were lined with number of large cages. Falcon chicks slept inside in groups of three and four. A man was sorting some jars into a cupboard, but turned as soon as he heard them come in. It was Calborth, the master falconer of Sanforan, who had been around for longer than many could remember, and had the looks to confirm it. His hair, tied back into a long tail with a green leather thong, bushy eyebrows and neatly braided beard were silver grey, surrounding a face weathered with deep lines, and eyes that twinkled blue. He strode over to them with the light step of a younger man, placing his hand to his chest in the customary greeting. The other three immediately responded to in kind.
“Master Calborth. Good day to you. May I present Aranthia and her son Alduin,” Bardelph said.
The older man bowed slightly to Aranthia and then looked at Alduin with friendly curiosity.
“I hear you be Cal's son. Sorry he no longer be around... be a good falconer.”
“Cal disappeared nearly fourteen years ago,” Aranthia explained sadly. “He didn't even know he was going to be a father.”
“Well, that sure be a pity, no question. But now the son be following in the father's footsteps, I hear.”
An appraising smile lifted one corner of the master falconer's mouth.
“Let's be seeing your falcon then,” he said, indicating that Alduin could put the basket on the stone table. Removing the lid, the boy carefully lifted the sleeping Reesha out and held him up for Calborth to see. The golden sunlight streaming into the chamber bathed the chick in a soft glow that highlighted the impression of the deep colours that would clothe him in a few seven-day's time. It was already clear to see that he would be very different from the Ithils commonly used by Sanforan falconers.
Calborth was silent for a fair while, pulling gently on one of his braids, deep in thought. Finally he nodded his head and spoke again.
“I see what you be meaning Bardelph: he be a beauty. Big too. Only two seven-day old? Course, Marvens be bigger than Ithils by a good hand span. And a wild one. Never be hearing of that before. I wonder...”
“Is it really a problem?” Aranthia asked, breaking into his monologue. “I'm sorry... I realise this is all rather unusual, but it seems to me that Reesha has chosen Alduin for a reason, and...”
“It be the right thing you be coming here, ma'am,” Calborth assured her. “I be happy to be helping Alduin and Reesha, but there be difficulties. Most boys be bonding at fourteen or fifteen. How old be you, lad?”
“Just thirteen,” Alduin answered, beginning to get an inkling of some of the problems that might lie ahead.
“At eleven the recruits already be learning archery, rune scribing and reading, how to be making bows and arrows. Later on there be astronomy and herb lore. Alduin will need be training all disciplines at the same time. The days be long.”
“I don't mind! I want to learn to be a true falconer. I'll work really hard to be the very best.”
The three adults smiled at his enthusiasm. In that moment Reesha woke up and opened his beak wide, demanding loudly for food.
“Be bringing him over here,” Calborth said, motioning for Alduin to follow him. He opened the cooling cupboard and pulled out an earthenware jar sealed with a fat plug of hard wax.
“This here be fresh fowl.”
Whilst Alduin fed Reesha, the master returned to Bardelph and Aranthia.
“Can be some won't be happy. Alduin be mixed blood and that be rare in a falconer as well; but I still be thinking it best that he be moving into Falcon Hall as soon as possible. I be speaking to the other teachers and the house mother this afternoon. Best Alduin be coming here this evening with his things.”
“So soon...?” Aranthia could not disguise the impact of Calborth's suggestion.
“He need be catching up with his training. There be a lot for him to be learning.”
“Yes, yes, I understand,” Aranthia allowed, “but does he have to sleep here? It's so sudden.”
“If he doesn't share the dormitory with the other boys, it will simply add distance between him and them,” Bardelph explained to her. “His only chance to be fully accepted is to live the same life as the rest.”
Aranthia understood all too well; yet she longed to plead for a few more days with her son.
“Once every seven-day the boys be having visits with their families. That be in four days, and you can be having the whole time with him,” Calborth assured her. “You be feeling better when you be seeing all is well.”
Aranthia realised that however sad her heart was feeling, the course of action laid out by the master falconer was, undoubtedly, the best. When Alduin rejoined them, she put on her bravest face for his sake, and spoke gaily.
“What do you think, Alduin? You can move into the hall this evening – start training straight away. And in a few days we'll spend some time together and you can tell me all about it.”
“So soon!” he exclaimed unknowingly echoing his mother.
“There be no time to waste. You soon be so busy, you be forgetting you ever be living anywhere else. Your mother be close by and you be seeing her soon enough.”
Alduin nodded, looking at Aranthia and Bardelph for reassurance. Glancing down at the sleeping chick in his hand, he felt a strong wave of love sweep over him, as if Reesha, though fast asleep, was aware of his distress and wanted him to know that there was nothing to fear.
“There be an empty cage where we can be putting Reesha right now,” Calborth said. “He be safe enough in here and I be feeding him till you be getting back.”
“I... er... thank you... Master. I know he'll be safe here,” Alduin said with a mixture of hesitation and gratitude.
Together they settled Reesha in a cage and quietly closed the door. Calborth patted the boy on his back, and then gave him a light push towards Aranthia.
“He be well here. Be going off now with your mother, and be sorting things out.”
Bardelph decided to stay behind with his former master, leaving Aranthia and Alduin to make their way back to the inn – in silence the whole way. Both wanted to say so much, yet neither knew where or how to begin. What words could ever convey the depth of their love for each other, or quell the vaguely defined apprehension they both felt about the days ahead?