There is confusion among common names for the peregrine. J.A. Baker in The Peregrine uses ‘a peregrine’ for any bird of the species, ‘a falcon peregrine’ for a female, and ‘a tiercel peregrine’ for a male. That is the usage in this story. Everyone agrees that the formal name is Falco peregrinus.
The use made, in this story, of the iron stand found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial is fictional.
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There is so much which might be said. I will speak only of my current distress. For introduction, I am the Eagle of Gwernabwy and oldest of my race.
My days begin slowly as the sun rises. I greet him and fluff out my feathers a little to warm them. If there are clouds in the way it takes more time. Then I go to bath in a stream to get rid of my lice. There are several favourite high rocks, any of which I fly to and have a long relaxing preen and dry. By this time, if the weather is with me, thermals will be gently rising and I soar out and rest my wings on them. So, I have a lovely day circling and watching to see what’s going on. Nothing I hope, though I might eat if I see a really tasty-looking carcass.
But how often is it like that? There’s always someone who wants me to solve their problems. And they always seem surprised that I don’t know who they are. They say they are my children, or my children’s children. I suppose they are but there are hundreds of them. Well, I recognise two or three of them, they were trouble right from the egg. So they tell me their names and I do try to remember. Quite often it’s two of them - then there’s all the ‘He said this..’ and ‘She said that..’, on and on it goes. And they always arrive just when I was going to bath. Well, I take each one aside privately, sympathise with them and we have a little chat. Usually it’s all smoothed over and off they go. In fact there was one last week that was so successful that I went to tell the Owl about it.
“Well, they had something in common by then, didn’t they? They’d both had to listen to an old fool blathering on for hours.”
That was unkind, it wasn’t like that at all. She has a sharp tongue.
The most common problem though is when four of them arrive. Then I know it’s a dispute over an eyrie site. This pair had it first, no they didn’t the other pair did. This pair’s parents had it first, no the other pair’s parents did. So then it’s hours and hours about all their ancestors. That kind of problem can go on for days as we find all the witnesses and get them to agree. I can normally settle it, but some are still ongoing, some have been for years.
The problem I’m so bothered about at the moment can’t have been going on for more than two years, three at the most. It’s not about priority at an eyrie site though. However long ago it was, this couple arrived, on a lovely warm afternoon when I was just having a nice doze. They were shrieking and banging about so I couldn’t tell what they were saying at all. It eventually became clear that they were screaming
“Our daughter has been stolen.”
Well, of course I assumed they were insane.
You can imagine my confusion. Who could possibly want to steal their daughter? So I said
“She must have been about to leave the nest? Well, she has done, that’s all”.
“No. No, you don’t understand. Several of these couples of horses and humans arrived below our eyrie. Two of the humans climbed up. She fought back well, but they overpowered her, put her inside some thing they had and they all went off with her. Stolen!”
At this point Krek appeared. He’s one of the two or three I told you about. Trust him to stick his beak in.
“Yes, yes, I was watching. That’s just what happened.”
So it must have been as they said, but what… I’ve seen these couples often from the sky. Why do humans and horses marry each other? It’s… well, it doesn’t matter, they are insignificant creatures and may marry who they will. No good will come of it. It could explain though why they might need to steal other people’s babies. But then why would several couples steal only one baby?
Speaking of marrying I have been giving it some thought recently. It is several years since my dear wife, of so long, died. Loneliness is a hard thing. I have been thinking that I should marry the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd. She has a sharp tongue - yes - but I would not want a wife who just went ‘Yes dear, no dear’ at me. My good old wife was not a ‘Yes dear’ wife at all. No. When I have mentioned this (marrying again I mean) to one or two people, they have said things like
“But, Eagle, she is very clever you know.”
Meaning, I suppose, that I am not (which is true) and that she would show me up. But I look at the positive side of it. She would probably know who all my children are. Then, when one appeared, she could whisper to me what it was called (she could pretend to be preening my head). Then I could address it by it’s name - it would be really impressed. But, best of all, they say that she is the oldest of all the Ancients. So she must be past breeding age mustn’t she? No more children. Think of it, an eggless marriage to a beautiful bird like that, how comfortable that would be!
I’ve wandered off my story though. The stolen baby, Kalla I think her name was. We sent out a search, all high-flying strong young birds, but they saw nothing. And I’ve sent out more searches since, every time her parents come to see me about it in fact, which is frequently.
They came to see me about it again today, that’s what I’m all upset about. They got all agitated and said they wouldn’t leave until I produced a plan to get her back. Well I looked at them and they looked at me. I think I probably said “What? … what?..” a few times. You see my problem? What can possibly be done about it? Then I found myself saying
“I’ll go down to Cwm Cawlwyd and ask the Owl what she thinks. I’ll go this evening when she wakes up.”
They looked very pleased, too much so to be altogether polite, I thought. But they went at once, so that got them out of my feathers. That just leaves me to face the Owl. She won’t be pleased, she’s always so busy doing something. I’ll have to flatter her - and I’d better take her a dead mouse.
My name is Cadwallon and I am under-falconer at court. Shall I speak of the love of my life? Only since my mother died, though, nearly three years ago now, she filled my heart before then. I wish I had not said that, it makes her death more real. Without saying it I can half-pretend she still lives. She is with her ancestors now, that will make her happy. Her father will have greeted her with delight. He was dead before I was born but she often spoke of him, I am named Cadwallon after him. I remember less than I could wish about my own father. He died when I was young, eight perhaps. But, luckily for the family, my older brothers were well-grown and strong by then and could help my mother with the farm. Though I call it a farm, it was but a small piece of land. And not good land either or the incomers would have taken it. They say that here in the Fen Country we got some of the first of these latest incomers, Angles they are. We carry on much the same, though Mother used to say we had quite a bit of good land before the Romans came. I don’t know if that’s true though, everyone likes to think their ancestors were grand.
Well, I grew bigger, but it didn’t help much, I could still do no farm work. It was my leg you see, my right leg doesn’t work properly. They say it was because my birthing was difficult and it got squashed somehow. I seldom use a crutch, though it might be better if I used one more. My right leg drags the ground and slows me down. At the farm I used to hunt game though. I was always good with the hawks and dogs. With two good legs I bet I would have been the best hunter in the area. But when I got to be twelve or thirteen I realised I was eating more than I could ever bring in, and that didn’t sit right in my head.
And there was talk I didn’t like about our family. My youngest brother was born quite a while after my father died. There’s always those malicious few who deliberately can’t add up. His hands are slightly mis-shapen, and he has got very big feet, but it was just lies to say they are webbed. The story was that my mother had lain with a selkie. How stupid it was. The farm’s miles from the sea and they say you hardly ever see a seal there anyway.
So I left home and went down to Rendlesham to try to find work with the incomers. I speak their language, of course, they never learn ours. They’re not Christians, but then we’re not really either. Farmers think more of the gods of earth and water who can help them to stay alive. It went much better than I thought. I talked up how good I was with hawks and they set me on as apprentice to the royal falconer at the court. It was hard work as you would expect and only for board and lodging, but that was what I was in need of. The falconer was a very quiet man so I learned more by watching and copying than any instruction. He was never unkind to me though. One look at the mews here showed me what an amateur I was. I pretended I knew all about things but the falconer must have seen through that. Cormorants they had, for fishing. I’d never even seen one before. That’s where he put me first, to see to the cormorants. A smelly job, with rotting fish, but they are nice enough birds, no harm in them.
The years passed and I learned my job well. It wasn’t really a job to me. They were paying me by then, but they didn’t really need to. I’d have worked all day every day for nothing just to live in that mews. Those birds meant everything to me. They still do, although one the most, oh that one. It’s the peregrine, Strica. She’s a falcon, naturally, only the best for the king. Strangely his favourite is the gyrfalcon. She is very beautiful but I think she has a nasty disposition. Tiercels can be trained too, but, with being that much smaller, are never as strong. My Strica (if only she were mine) is perfect. Beautiful as well, though in a different way from the gyrfalcon, but it’s her spirit that I love. When we look into each other’s eyes I see everything a man could want. It sounds strange even to me. But if you could see her stoop. Even in level flight she’s glorious, when she dives down in a stoop she’s a goddess. Her wings go back and down she comes. The excitement of it, my heart thumps harder and harder and I’m with her in my mind, the air rushing past us in a gale. I can’t believe there’s anything faster in this world.
When I go to find her on her kill (on horseback), she stands off it while I collect it, then comes straight to the fist. She’s perfect in every way, as I said the love of my life. Though I half-wish when I see her flying free that she would not come back. She shouldn’t be cooped up in this mews. But she was too well trained, she will never be free.
I said the gyrfalcon is the king’s favourite, but I meant of the hunting birds. His favourite of all is the golden eagle, but she is never allowed to hunt. I exercise her every day on a long line, but she is never flown free. It would be a disaster for people’s perception of the king’s rule were she to desert him.
Everyone knows, I suppose, that the Wuffingas are descended from Woden. On ceremonial occasions the king holds in his left hand the symbol of his ancestry. I would have thought it would have been his great sword, Mugan, but it is one step more symbolic. It is a very large whetstone meaning, to my eyes anyway, that it is the power behind all great swords. There are portraits of his forefathers carved on it. Maybe one is Woden.
But in his right hand he holds the symbol to show that he is the bretwalda. It was a new word to me but the falconer told me that it means that he is the overlord of all the kings of the incomers. It is an iron stand, covered in gold leaf, with a point at the bottom which can be pressed into the earth. On the top are two hoops, covered in the softest buckskin, for the golden eagle to perch on. There is also a complicated apparatus, at the top, for tying her jesses and line to and a wooden box to catch her mutes. The falconer told me that she symbolises the king’s wider power as bretwalda. He claims to hold Britain as heir to the Romans. As each legion had its gold eagle, we all march behind our bretwalda with his golden eagle.
She has to be lightly drugged for her appearances. It would be a bad omen if she bated while the king was holding her. Even worse if he lost control of her. She’s always fed the finest meat and we hide a little valerian in it when she is to appear at a ceremony. The king will make a very good impression, with Mugan and the eagle when he goes to Valhalla. I shan’t see it, there’s no place for me in Valhalla. Even with two good legs - no, you have to be a warrior with a great sword to go there. It’s the underworld for me. But I don’t know whether Strica will be there with me. It sounds a dull place anyway, their underworld, and if Strica weren’t there I wouldn’t want to go. And to be parted forever from my mother and all our ancestors, that would be hard. They are all in Tyr na nOg where my mother will be waiting for me. I have been having strange dreams about this recently. I hear a woman’s voice asking me about the eagle. At first I thought it was my mother, impatient for me to join her. But it wasn’t her voice, and she never showed any interest in eagles when she was alive. Anyway the voice said it was an owl, which I accepted as you do in dreams. She wanted to know about how the eagle was fed, watered and execised and how big the bowl she baths in is. The voice made me feel so calm that I told her all about all the birds and myself too.
The next time I dreamed of her I asked her if she were one of the gods, because I know they contact you in dreams. But she said she was not, she claimed to be the spirit of all owls. I wonder if there is a spirit of all falcons, and tiercels too of course.
Well, I’ve talked to the Owl and I’m totally amazed.
I gave her the mouse and while she ate it I told her all about my problem. She listened until I had finished speaking, that was the first surprise.
“Thank you Eagle, that was a delicious mouse.”
That was so unexpected I couldn’t say anything, so she went on.
“Why ever didn’t you come and tell me this sooner?”
The truth was that I hadn’t thought of it, but I could see that was uncomplimentary so didn’t reply. That was when she completely confused me by saying
“I know where Kalla is, Eagle, and have done ever since she was taken. She is at the far edge of the land, where it meets the sea. Towards the rising sun.”
“How do I know you mean? The rooks told me, of course.”
“I know you think they are a waste of air, but rooks have many talents and a lot of curiosity. They live in groups, but each group speaks to the next. Succeeding groups watched the humans take her right across the island to the far coast.”
When I mentioned that horses were also implicated she tutted and said with her usual sharpness that the horses were nothing to do with it, it was all a plan of the humans.
“She’s alive then, she’s all right?”
“Very much so. She is very well fed, much larger than you might expect her to be, and protected from the weather in a building. She’s kept warm and the humans never let her get wet. It was because she was doing so well that I assumed you and her parents must have thought that she was better where she was. It didn’t occur to me that you thought she was lost.”
“Oh dear…oh dear. But, Owl, why do the humans feed her? What do they want her for?”
“Now you have asked an impossible question. I don’t know. The annoying thing is that the ravens do understand but can’t explain. They tell stories of her, they think her a great hero.”
“Yes, they are like rooks only more so. If it helps, they told me that the humans do not see her as an eagle, but as the power of their king.”
“What? She’s an eagle.”
“Yes, I know, they are very strange.”
“Owl, what am I to do?”
“It’s possible I may be able to do something. I can sometimes contact a human that lives in the building with her. Only when he’s asleep. He seems a sad person. One of his legs is damaged but I don’t think it is only that which saddens him. He is kind to Kalla, he likes her, but not as much as a falcon peregrine which lives in the building too. I think I see the beginning of a plan to get Kalla back. Go away, Eagle, I must think.”
The dreams are getting more intense. Every night I hear the voice of this spirit owl. Perhaps it is because I lead a lonely life, but I feel no reservations with her and tell her such things. I even find myself telling her of feelings I didn’t know I had until I hear myself telling her. Three nights ago I almost thought I could see her, there was a pair of yellow eyes looking at me. But I couldn’t be sure because we had been talking about Strica and her eyes are yellow.
The owl suddenly said
“If you flew, instead of walking, your leg would be no hindrance. Shall I show you what it feels like to move as Strica does?”
She didn’t wait for an answer, there I was flying up and up. At first I only saw the sky, but at perhaps two thousand feet I looked down. People would say it is only a dream. There was no ‘only’ for me, it was the best experience of my life. To see so much at once, miles and miles across the land and the same out to sea. The most astonishing thing to me was that things on the ground appeared perfectly clear, as if they were just a few feet away. I saw a mouse, my wings went back and I automatically went into a stoop. The exhilaration of going at that speed was another thing I shall never forget. Then I crashed onto the ground. I’d missed the mouse. I woke up.
That experience felt so real, way beyond my stumbling imaginings of flying like a falcon. But I don’t know what to make of these dreams. Grateful as I feel to the spirit owl for giving me that experience, I don’t at all like what she has been suggesting that I should do. She tells me that the eagle and Strica should be free. And I agree that, in a perfect world, it would be much better for them. But, from there, she goes on to say that I should take them from the mews and journey across the whole island to a place called Gwernabwy where the eagle came from. It’s clear that she thinks it would be the right thing to do. But does she really exist or is my mind playing tricks on me?
I told her that I’ve got a comfortable living here and can’t imagine what I might do in a strange place on the west of the island.
“You should have no trouble getting food with a falcon peregrine to help you. And Kalla will soon learn to hunt. She would be so grateful to you for returning her to her family she would probably give you more rabbits than you could eat. You can surely catch fish, even without cormorants. Nuts and berries don’t appeal to me but I understand your species likes them. It’s true you would need a shelter with having no fur. There are a couple of ruined shelters. You might repair one of those if building a new one was too much for you. Though it may never come to that. I have a good plan for you. It depends on others though, so I won’t tell you of it because I can promise nothing.”
I was left wondering who these others were as dawn had come and it was time to start work.
The following night she re-appeared with plans for my getaway as she calls it. Getaway indeed! I don’t want to get away.
“You will need a horse. The one you usually ride would be the best because he knows you and wouldn’t raise a commotion in the stables when you take him in the middle of the night. And you will have to make a bow perch to attach to the saddle, for the birds.”
I went along with her, as you do with a story, knowing it wasn’t going to happen.
“Pad the perch well. It is a long journey and they musn’t get sore feet. You must take their hoods too. They are tamed birds, particularly Kalla, and would be very frightened without them.”
You can just imagine me stealing Kalla’s hood. It’s for the grand ceremonies they hold and covered with gold and garnets. That is going to stay in the strongbox.
“You could take the gold and garnets off it and buy food and shelter, if necessary, on your journey. The hood will work perfectly well without them. But you had better start with plenty of food, for Kalla and Strica, as well as yourself. Then you’ll have a few days to see if you can get across the island without help from other humans. I can tell you where the bridges over rivers are. Will the humans at this place chase after you to recover the birds and horse?”
“Mostly for Kalla’s hood, oh yes, they would chase me. Even for the falcons they would chase hard. Not for the horse. They might even be glad to see the back of him.”
“You will need a good start then. You must judge when you can get that, and I must practise contacting you awake. Is it a good time to go now? I mean while the king and warriors are away. Where have they gone?”
“Up north, somewhere they call Deira. They have gone to fight another king.”
“Do you understand their constant fighting? I know it is for power. But so many are killed. It is a big risk to take.”
“They do not think so. Some want to be killed in battle to go to Valhalla. No chance of that for me of course.”
“You surely don’t want to go to Valhalla?”
“I’m in several minds about it. Most I would like to stay alive. When I do die I want to go to my mother and father, and my ancestors. They are in Tyr na nOg. But now I have joined the incomers I think I shall go to their underworld which I don’t like the sound of.”
“No, that’s not good. But surely you don’t think Valhalla would be any better? It’s just drunken men fighting all the time.”
“Well, if you put it like that, no!”
“I do put it like that. Have you asked any Anglian women what they think about it?”
“No. I hardly know any incomer women. Well, one or two serving girls will come to my bed occasionally. But I think that’s only out of kindness. I imagine they would think Valhalla no worse than here.”
“But where would Kalla and Strica go? You might be parted from Strica.”
“Yes, I’ve thought about that. What I really want is to live in the land of youth, Tyr na nOg, with Strica and my family for ever. But there is no chance of that. I think I shall go to the underworld, but I can find nobody who can tell me what will become of Strica. Kalla is all right, of course, she will go to Valhalla with the king. They will be buried together, with his horse and all his weapons, so he can make a grand show in Valhalla.”
“I see. But they would not kill Strica to be with him in Valhalla?”
“No. She is an important bird, but she does not symbolise his power and ancestry.”
Barely two days later I made up my mind. It was a hot afternoon and Strica was flying free, normally just the conditions when I felt happiest. But I was agitated and couldn’t tell why. My full attention should have been on Strica’s movements, instead I felt distracted and bothered. She had returned to my glove and when I tried to fly her again she refused. That was something unheard of, so I looked closely at her to see what could be wrong. Then there was a very welcome cool wind and I was looking at an unknown valley, the most beautiful place I had ever seen. And there was a yellow-eyed owl looking at me, I could almost sense her smiling.
“It’s Cwm Cawlwyd, where I have been trying to persuade you to come.”
“Owl, I can’t believe there is anywhere so lovely.”
“Indeed there is. But I must speak to you urgently. It was very hard for me to contact you and I don’t know how long I can keep it up. Just listen. It has become very urgent that you get Kalla away from there. Your king has been killed in battle in the north. The warriors are retreating home with his body right now. I have asked some rooks to watch them. It gives you very little time. Even if you won’t come away yourself, at least please release Kalla. They will kill her you told me. Don’t let them.”
With that she faded and I was looking at Strica standing on my wrist. But she was also looking at me. She seemed to know what I was thinking, and I wondered if the Owl had spoken to her too. She had never looked at me in that way before and I felt a jolt of love for her in my midriff. I knew in that moment that I would do what the Owl wanted. I saw what it would mean for Strica to be free, and thought that surely I would get by somehow in the west. Then it came to my mind that she would pair with a tiercel peregrine. The jealousy almost changed my mind - but I couldn’t be that selfish. But when to go? With so few people here, my absence would be soon noticed if I left now. If the king were really dead, the first thing the warriors would do on their return would be to hold a wake. Everyone would have to attend. I decided the best plan would be to appear at it and let people see me there, then slip quietly away as they all got more and more drunk. The next morning they would be sleeping off the drink and, when they did rise, they would have more to think about than where I might be. With luck I would be miles away by the time I was missed.
Also it was a check for me. Though almost convinced by the Owl, I thought if the king really had been killed in battle then I could be sure I wasn’t just dreaming this.
Oh, dear, oh dear. I had thought with Kalla back home I’d get some peace. But now her parents are here nearly every day to tell me how wonderful I am to have got her back. You can only stand so much of that. I’ve pointed out repeatedly that I did nothing, it was all the Owl, but nobody ever listens to me. And the other thing is, I keep puzzling over how she managed to do it. The first I knew of it was when one of these horse-human couples, like the ones that took her, arrived here bringing her back. They had a peregrine with them too, but I’m certain they hadn’t stolen her from here. Everyone is very pleased to see Kalla home. She seems to be a nice bird, though rather timid. The Owl looked very smug when I asked her how she could possibly have done such a thing. She did explain, more than once in fact, but I found it hard to follow. She says the key to it all was rooks. But she may just be teasing me because she knows I don’t like them.
Now the human and the falcon peregrine have arrived to see me. The horse must have gone off somewhere. The human is an odd-looking creature, there seems to be something wrong with one of his legs. But he looks as though he admires me. Well he might, I am a very large eagle, much bigger than him anyway. And with the sun shining on my feathers I look - oh, I suppose I shouldn’t say.
But I said to the peregrine
“This human looks very impressed by me.”
“Yes he does. He should be too, I am myself.”
That showed good sense anyway, but the way she spoke of him struck me as strange.
“Can you not speak to him then?”
“No, nor he to me, but we can understand each other in some ways. The Owl and he can speak to each other, but only with difficulty.”
“Well, welcome to Gwernabwy. I would welcome the human too, but there is no way to do it you say. You travelled with Kalla from the east. Did you know her before your journey?”
“Oh yes, we lived together for a long time, and with this human, he was very good to us.”
“Do you understand any of it? Why did the humans steal Kalla?”
“No, I don’t know why they wanted Kalla. They captured me to hunt for them. I don’t believe they can kill prey for themselves.”
“It doesn’t look like it, no. His eyes are following our conversation, he must be trying to understand. Did you bring him here for a particular reason?”
“Yes, I did. The Owl told me that you are a very powerful bird and I wanted to ask you to do something for this human. When we were in the east he did everything he could to help me, and Kalla as well. Then he got us away and brought us here. I know the Owl persuaded him to it, and I have thanked her of course, but it was he who did it. With no way to thank him, I asked the Owl what I could do for him. She said I should ask you to turn him into a tiercel peregrine.”
“He wants to go to Tyr na nOg at some later time, she says.”
“Oh, that’s easy, you just keep flying west, it’s not very far.”
“But he has no wings. And one of his legs is no good. That wouldn’t matter if he were a peregrine because he could strike with his good leg, he only needs one killing claw. The other thing is that humans have a pecking order, and apparently he’s rather low in it so doesn’t have a good life. As a peregrine there would be no pecking order, everyone knows raptors are top birds.”
“But a human becoming a peregrine, it’s not natural is it? This business they have with horses is bad enough….Here…wait a minute… you want to breed with him!”
“No, no…well I don’t know, you never know what might happen.”
“No, you don’t. But it always does anyway.”
“The Owl thinks it would be the best thing for him.”
“Does she? Well - if the Owl thinks it’s the right thing to do - there you are it’s done. But I don’t want you coming here complaining…”
It was no use talking, they had flown off. Though I must say the tiercel made a shaky start. I’m going to have a bath.