Ring of Flames – chapter 1

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RING OF FLAMES
Book 3 in The al-Andalus Series
CHAPTER 1

Ahmad couldn’t believe his eyes. He always came straight to the Falcon House after he’d been to the mosque. Being with the falcons prolonged that feeling of peace he got from his early morning prayers. But not today. He looked at the empty perches, at the feathers covering the floor, at the drops of blood that led to a dirty sack in the corner of the room. Who had done this? Who had killed his beautiful birds? His legs felt weak with shock. He squatted on the floor and looked around him. If he were a woman he’d weep and wail, he would tear at his clothes and howl his grief to the skies. But he was no woman. All he could do was hold his grief inside himself and feel it turn to anger.

A whirring of wings made him look up. A peregrine falcon flew in through the open door and landed on its perch. So some of them had got away. Thanks be to Allah. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as he’d first thought.

He held out his hand and the bird flew straight to him. ‘Good boy,’ he said, pulling a titbit of meat from his pouch and handing it to the bird.
The bird held it in its claws and regarded it quizzically before gulping it down. He’d been hunting for his own breakfast today. Carefully Ahmad placed the falcon on one of the perches and tied his jesses to it. He should check on the rest of the falcons to see if they’d been attacked too. But where was everybody? It was well past dawn.
He unlocked the door to the inner part of the mews, where they kept the rarest of the royal falcons and the most expensive. Everything seemed as it should. Some of the birds started making a fuss at the sight of him, the morning’s harbinger of food. Others stretched their wings or were busy cleaning themselves. Whoever had caused the devastation in the first room hadn’t been able to get in here.
‘Ahmad. I’ve just heard. Young Dirar brought me the news. So there’s been a break-in. Have they done much damage?’
A rotund man in an expensive white djubba and wearing an Arab style turban, bustled into the Falcon House. It was the new Grand Falconer, Abdul Nasir. Ahmad didn’t like him very much. He hardly ever came near the Falcon House and was reluctant to even touch the birds. Al-Mansur had appointed him when the previous Grand Falconer, Ahmad’s grandfather, had died. It had been a most surprising appointment; the falconers had talked about nothing else for months. There were many better candidates, himself included, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. Nobody argued with al-Mansur. However if there was one big advantage in having Abdul Nasir as their boss it was that he left them completely alone.
‘I haven’t checked right through yet, but it looks as though there are about thirty birds missing. Some of them may have escaped. If so, they’ll turn up again when they’re hungry,’ Ahmad replied, locking the door behind him. ‘Luckily they didn’t manage to get this door open, although it looks as though they tried.’
He pointed to the long scars in the wooden door, where someone had attempted to prise off the heavy iron padlock.
‘Well clean up this mess, and let me know exactly how many birds have been taken. We need to inform the Palace Guard to be on the lookout for anyone trying to sell the royal falcons.’
‘Do you think they stole them to sell them?’ Ahmad asked. ‘Look at this.’ He pulled the dirty sack out of the corner for the Grand Falconer to see. ‘They’ve killed some of them. Now why would they do that if they wanted to sell them? And why would they leave them here for everyone to see?’
The Grand Falconer tipped the birds out of the sack onto the floor. How insignificant they looked lying there, their magnificent plumage blood-stained, their bodies, normally so graceful in flight, limp and motionless, and their piercing eyes, vacant. Again Ahmad felt the anger burn inside him.
‘Maybe it was an accident. Maybe they just couldn’t handle them,’ continued the Grand Falconer.
‘I’m sure you’re right. They obviously didn’t know what they were doing. That’s why I think some of the birds escaped. But why kill them? If they wanted to sell them then why kill them?’ Ahmad repeated. He still couldn’t believe that this had happened.
‘Is it a message? A warning perhaps?’ Abdul Nasir asked. He looked uncomfortable. ‘Remember that falcons symbolise the power of the Khalifa.’
‘What? A sign that something will happen to the Khalifa?’
‘Or to the caliphate.’
If this was the case then it was much more worrying than the death of a few falcons, however beautiful they were.
‘No. It’s probably nothing more than some drunken louts thinking they could make some money by stealing the Khalifa’s falcons,’ the Grand Falconer said, kicking the sack out of his way. ‘Just get it cleaned up and I’ll speak to the Chief of the Guard.’
As Ahmad watched him leave, he thought about what the Grand Falconer had said. It wasn’t as unlikely as all that. Times had been turbulent lately. Al-Mansur had been a ruthless ruler it was true, but his strength had held the caliphate together. He’d removed all power from the Khalifa, al-Hisham, but he’d let him keep his title.
Now that al-Mansur was dead there was no strong man to rule the caliphate. His son, Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar, had succeeded his father and for six years had reigned uneventfully, but he was nothing like his father.
Ahmad groaned. What was he going to tell al-Hisham about the birds? The falcons were the only thing that the Khalifa was interested in these days, apart from his harem of young men and the forbidden wine that he drank in his secluded palace. Would he too see it as a sign that something awful was going to happen?
If the death of the falcons was a warning then it could only be against the ruler of al-Andalus. But which one? Abd al-Malik or the Khalifa? Whichever it was Ahmad knew that troubled times lay ahead.


The Ring of Flames is available for pre-order from:
Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com at a discounted price.

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Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.

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