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It was a glorious day.
Well, that was one opinion; the falcon didn't seem to share it. In fact, the hooded bird was annoyed, but that didn't annoy Mordred, despite the way it gripped his glove. He'd known that the saker was by nature irritable, and that the bird was more trying to claw through the thick leather glove than simply holding onto it wasn't surprising, and in fact he found it charming.
The rebuke was appropriate. Falcons were amazing creatures, all of them, each special in its own way, not just as breeds but as individuals, as well. This saker was perhaps a touch larger than most, almost twenty inches long, and its dull brown color was relieved by the pale head, which emphasized the two dark brown stripes running down either side of its beak, which looked like mustaches even more than similar markings on the peregrines.
This one was a particularly tempery bird, and it was not happy. Even through the leather glove, even hooded, the bird could tell Mordred's hand from another, more familiar, one. This griping was just a mild reminder that he hadn't been handling the bird enough himself, leaving it to the old cadger and his apprentices. Falconry was, of course, the sport of kings, but kings had many demands on their time,and of the dozens and dozens of nights spent walking the birds, all but one of them with this bird had been left to Old Thomas and his apprentices.
It wasn't that Mordred V, by the grace of God Pendragon King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, among other places-as well as a score of other titles, including the obligatory Defender of the Faith-avoided the privileges and pleasures that came with the crown, any more than he skimped the responsibilities.
It's just that the responsibilities left him little time, and falconry, done properly, took much time.
Falconry had been a passion of his youth-no; it had been the passion of his youth-and these days he barely found time to occasionally hunt with the birds, and almost none for the endless work of raising and training them, which, truth to tell, as tedious and unpleasant as many found it, he had always enjoyed, as both boy and man. Perhaps that's why he kept the mews and the birds under the care of the old cadger who had been with him since youth, rather than acquiring a formal Master of the Mews, as even a newly made colonial land baron would almost certainly have, if he could have afforded it. Mordred didn't know of a duke, and of few earls, who hadn't acquired a Master of Mews-usually a Spaniard.
The best Spanish masters came with an appropriately high price, which would not have been a concern to Mordred, of course, but typically, they also came equipped with not only great skills with the birds, but a hot Castilian temperament that Mordred would have found just a shade less intolerable than the suppression of that temperament would have been.
It wasn't a matter of the "common touch" that Mordred was, he knew, sometimes disparagingly spoken of having-at least, when nobody was thought to be able to hear. The ordinary scutwork of falconry was purely a matter of pleasure, every bit as much-no, more so-than sipping from a glass of icy tokay aszu on a hot day.
He loved it all. Every bit of it. Walking the birds; working with leather, shears, punch, and awl to make the hoods; winding the creances carefully around the spindles so that they could unwind smoothly and easily without pulling the bird out of the sky. Mucking out the mews, even, as strange as that would have sounded to anybody else.
A man had to have his pleasures, after all, and if others would have found some of those pleasures of his too common, well, that was a matter of contempt to Mordred, and he sometimes lied to himself that when Eric turned twenty-five or so, he would abdicate in his son's favor, and spend the rest of his life mucking out the mews and handling the birds. And, of course, hunting with them on every fine day, and a few foul ones.
It was a lie, and he knew it.
The Crown would pass to Eric upon Mordred's death, and with the traditional cry of "The king is dead! Long live the king!" and not some comical "The king has abdicated to go play with his birds."
Old Thomas frowned at the saker. "Not quite out of the molt, you know." He glanced back over his shoulder at the rest of the entourage, most of whom were back at where the woods broke on the clearing, and Mordred repressed a grin.
Old Thomas was worried about the damage to the King's dignity if the bird failed. Charming.
"I'm passingly aware of that," Mordred said, giving the gentlest of tugs at a loose neck feather, which immediately came away, and drifted off in the wind. "Tickle his feet a little, I think?"
"Bowse him a bit, I think," Old Thomas said, already pouring water from the lambskin water bag into the wooden bowl. He didn't wait for Mordred to nod assent before raising the bowl to just below the bird's beak. The saker drank greedily; quite the little bowser, he was; Thomas quickly took the bowl away, lest he overdo it.
"And if anybody were to be asking me," the old cadger went on, "I'd say that he should best be flown on the creance today, and not hunted."
"Ah, yes, but then how would you expect him to get me a conie?"
Thomas smiled. "Well, there is that. But a conie caught by another bird would taste every bit as good, I'd guess."
"Not to me," Mordred said, smiling. "Not today."
This clearing in the King's Preserve, north and east of Pendragon castle, was for obvious reasons devoted to the king's own use, and the rabbits-although not the deer, probably for the reason that Mordred suspected but had deliberately decided not to take notice of-had become unwary and brazen. Even now, he could easily make out half a dozen munching on the greens that had been planted as bait at the far edge of the clearing, and while occasionally one would raise himself up and take a look at the humans hundreds of yards away, the rabbit would quickly go back to his foraging.
Thomas jerked a thumb back toward where his apprentices were situated, halfway back toward where the woods broke on the clearing. Three of the king's other birds were already hooded and perched on their blocks, and a half dozen more waited in their wicker cages.
"I'd still say," Thomas said, "that if it's a conie you're wanting, one of the peregrines would do as well, and quite likely better at that. Or the goshawk, the merlin-"
Mordred stopped him with a quick frown. "I've never had much affection for merlins."
"Your father didn't mind the name."
"My father wasn't named Mordred."
Thomas just sniffed, as though to say that only the most superstitious twit would worry that the handling of a bird with the same name would somehow bring to back to life the legendary wizard of Arthur the Tyrant, and enemy of Mordred's ancient namesake. Mordred was the fifth Pendragon king to bear the name, and if he was the first such to find merlins not his favorite of falcons, that was among his many prerogatives.
Mordred would tolerate the sniff, but it was just as well that Old Thomas hadn't taken further liberties with his words. As his cadger, Mordred was far more interested in Thomas's opinions on the birds than he was in a private lack of decorum and proper acknowledgment of his station. After all, the late, unlamented Duke of York-Mordred's uncle-so history had it, had always been studiously respectful of his brother the King, to the point of obsequiousness ... up until the moment that he'd tried to have Father and the then-infant Mordred assassinated, so that he could take the Crown for himself. He had come perilously close to success.
Had it not been for two knights-one of the Table Round, the other of the Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon-Mordred wouldn't have reached his third birthday, and would have missed not only the endless responsibilities and duties that came with the crown, but, far more tragically, a gorgeous day like today, with nothing more to think about, at least for the next while, than whether the new saker would stay with his kill, return to the lure, or have to be chased into the forest.
As with the birds, dogs, and his servants-from the meanest of indentured serfs to the Crown dukes, even though the latter were Pendragons themselves- Mordred was far more interested in them doing their job well than in how much bowing and scraping they did while doing their job.
Still, the borderlines of propriety were sometimes fuzzy, and sometimes sharp-but Thomas had come far too close to taking a definite step over.
Mordred met his eyes for a quick moment, and Old Thomas looked away.
"Begging your pardon, Your Majesty," he said.
"Accepted, but not necessary," the king said. The gentle lie was not only a useful tool of state, but of other interactions, as well. Real steel always waited inside the velvet glove, after all.
Others were behaving much better. A short troop from the House Guard waited patiently just within the shade of the road leading into the clearing, as did the much smaller party accompanying Mordred's uncle, William, the Duke of New England-no soldiers, just a few servants, and, of course, Sir Joshua.
Patience was a virtue, but like all virtues, it could be overdone. Mordred had waited far too patiently for William Pendragon to take time away from colonial affairs to pay a call on and homage to his king; keeping Uncle William waiting, yet again, while Mordred enjoyed the morning seemed both fair, and a reminder.
It wasn't as though the duke had to wait alone, after all, or in discomfort; a small table and chairs had been set up, and since Mordred was far enough away that Uncle William wasn't officially in The Presence, he had chosen to sit, rather than to stand. If the wind had been blowing in the other direction, Mordred would have been irritated with him smoking his pipe, but it wasn't, so he wasn't. Besides, it was unlikely that tobacco smoke would startle these conies; they were very brazen.
The four Order Knights that served as the king's personal bodyguards were nowhere in evidence, which was to be expected. Assassination was always a possibility, and while the king made a point to take his excursions randomly, there were always concerns. A quick skulking through the woods at the edge of the clearing would serve better than the knights standing at the king's side to see if his back began to sprout bolts or arrows, after all.
Mordred tickled the bird's feet, just a little. It seemed to calm him, but not as much as Thomas's frown said that he would have liked to have seen.
"I always want your opinions," Mordred said, "about the birds. And that opinion would be that this one won't come back? That we-" He stopped himself. "-that you and the boys will have to go chase him down? Or that he might fly away altogether?"
Thomas took a long moment to consider his answer. "There's that risk." He seemed to want to say more, but only went on when the king made a beckoning gesture.
"Out with it, man. With no due respect for my station." After all, the borders of propriety might be fuzzy or sharp, but they were, after all, Mordred's to set, his and to move at will.
"It's just that, well, a saker is a common knight's bird. Seems unseemly that the king would have such an interest in it-particularly if it flies off. And never mind the kestrels, for the moment, much as I know you love them."
Has there been talk of that? he didn't ask. If he didn't know, he didn't have to deal with it. Backstairs gossip was, of course, commonplace, and unremarkable-as long as it wasn't brought to his attention.
Mordred actually preferred kestrels, particularly the New World one, which should probably have been named something else, although it would have been much to expect that the naturalists of New Eton would have thought that falco sparverius would have been of interest to a royal falconer, anymore than falco tinnunculus was. Falconry had never seemed to take on in the New World, or most other of HM possessions, in the way that it had in Inja, say, and, besides, kestrels were considered appropriate for servants and children. Small, easy to keep fed, although the New World ones were a challenge to train-but they couldn't handle prey larger than a field mouse. But they were bright, clever, and easy to hand, and ...
Enough woolgathering. The morning was getting no younger, and the claque of ministers and secretaries waiting back at Pendragon castle were probably doing just that-waiting. And then there was Uncle William.
"Different birds for different prey," Mordred said. "And I'm curious to see if this bird is ready. The only way to find out, I think, is to try him."
He unhooded the saker, and gave it a moment to settle. After a quick look around, its eyes locked on the conies across the field, as he had hoped. A good sign.
He raised his glove and released it. Its wings pinioning, beating hard against the air, the bells from its jesses jingling in a mad fandango, it beat its way high up into the air, then spread its wings, circling over the clearing, high above the west end of it, where the rabbits waited.
It was always an exciting time when you released a new bird, and the king could feel his heart thumping hard in his chest, as he readied himself for the stoop, and the kill, and the run.
The king's big Arabian gelding stood waiting patiently, a servant holding the reins, but Mordred had no intention of mounting it and riding just a couple of hundred yards across the clearing when he could run across the clearing as quickly as he could ride-yes, the horse was faster, but it would take precious seconds to mount-and retrieve the bird and its prey without assistance.
It would be every bit as fast and much more personal to dash ahead of Old Thomas-who wouldn't be able to run as fast-and the apprentices-who wouldn't dare run faster than the king-and get his hands on the bird himself, without the aid of a horse.
For a moment, the saker seemed to hesitate in the air, as though debating whether or not to flee, but then it dropped into a gorgeous stoop, and dove down-
"And now ..." Thomas murmured.
And the bird swooped low over the ground, then beat its wings, climbing back into the air, its talons empty. It had missed.
It circled again, tentatively, as though considering making another try, but then it banked off and away; the jingling diminished in the distance as the kestrel flapped away, out of sight, over the huge elms that rimmed the far side of the clearing.
Mordred gave Old Thomas a look, and then clapped his hand to the old man's shoulder. "Well, it seems that my eagerness will cost your apprentices some work this morning."
Chasing down and luring an escaped bird was time-consuming, and the king, alas, had no time for it, although he would have loved to have spent the rest of this beautiful morning in that pursuit, or anything else involving the birds.
The old man had already turned to where the apprentices were standing, and pointed two fingers; the two boys he'd indicated took off at a run for the far side of the clearing. "Don't think I'd trust that bunch of thumb-fingered dolts to coax the bird down. But they'll find him, soon enough, and I'll see what I can do. I don't think I'll lose the bird for you."
"It was too soon to turn him loose," the king said.
"Perhaps." The old man nodded. "But it had to be done sooner or later. And there's always the risk, no matter how long you've trained him. We'll work him some more, and hunt him again. Maybe next month, or the month after?"
Without a word, the king walked back to where the others were waiting on the road. Unsurprisingly, as he reached the shade and cover of the tree line, the four Order Knights known collectively as His Own had quickly surrounded him, although remaining a respectful distance. Etienne of Marseilles looked much the worse for wear-it looked as though he had forced his way through brambles and nettles, which spoke well for his dedication, if not his woodsmanship. But, like Walter and the Beast-more formally, Sir Walter Davies and Sir Sebastian Cooper-he was where he belonged, and it was only a matter of moments until John of Redhook joined them, stepping out of the shrubbery as though he was walking out a door.
Mordred repressed another smile. Big John knew that section of woods better than most; even a woodsman with his skills wouldn't have been able to make it through the blackberry brambles beyond the stand of elms without doing some damage to his clothing. While the others had been making their way about the circumference of the clearing, Big John had stationed himself near where the Duke of New England was, able to get quickly between him and the king, if necessary.
The Order Knights didn't speak to each other or to anybody else, and their eyes never even met the king's.
Excerpted from Paladins II-Knight Moves by Joel Rosenberg Copyright © 2004 by Joel Rosenberg. Excerpted by permission.
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