The sun rose over a green valley in Loganshire, casting shadows on the rich farmland as it peeked around the clouds. Rivers and streams rabid with white froth raced between the hills, anxious to be free of the mountains to the north. Winter was arriving late, explaining why the grasses clung to their green hue. Despite the unseasonable warmth, the trees had completely let go of their leaves. Their shed foliage danced in the brisk wind that rolled down the mountain into the valley.
Loganshire was a quaint farming region nestled between the kingdoms of Fjorik in the north, and Eston which lay to the south and west. Once, long enough in the memory of the old-timers, the valley was the focus of countless raids from the northern men. Those fierce raids signified the end of fall and the start of winter to the anxious people of the valley. For the past ten years, under the stability of the Esterling Empire, the raids had stopped completely, and the people enjoyed peace and prosperity.
One farmhouse had enjoyed a tremendous comfort, and Mauri hummed and danced as she washed the family laundry, hanging it on lines to dry in the breeze. That same wind tossed her red hair gently, nipping at her rosy cheeks as she spun and hummed. Her husband, Thom, baled hay with his brothers Franque and Jean on this day, and she had a stew warming on the hearth for their return from the labor.
Mauri and Thom had two children. Anne was three years old, and she resembled her mother with red hair and freckles from a life spent mostly outdoors. Anne played in the grass with a doll her father had fashioned out of straw and burlap. Occasionally she would lean over and talk to her baby brother, Clauvis, as he cooed in his basket. He was a perfect baby, hardly cried, never fussed, and brought so much hope to the family for the future of the farm. Boy babies were lucky, at least that’s what Mauri’s grandmother had told her.
A hawk flew overhead, circling the field. Mauri took a moment to watch as it glided against the clouds and then as it dove. With grace it swooped toward a group of men riding horseback up the lane. It rested on the gloved hand of a tall man riding in the middle of the formation and Mauri froze. Wearing a hood with a feathered collar he sat high in the saddle, glancing sideways around him and darting glances like the oversized falcon perched on his arm. Abruptly, the hawk squawked a shrill, high piercing sound and the man focused his eyes directly at the farmwife. Her load of laundry fell onto the grass and she screamed a blood curdling sound that brought Thom running from the field.
He reached his wife just as the riders halted their beasts in front of Mauri and the children. His brothers, still wielding scythes from the harvest, dropped the blades in the grass as Constable Wembley, local magistrate and leader of the group, spoke, “Thom and Mauri Thorinson. The Falconer claims you delivered a living child sometime after the fifth day of the month of fall planting.”
Wembley should have been a military man. He was prim and proper, and, unlike other constables and their deputies, he wore his uniform clean and pressed, with his black beard and hair closely cropped. His harsh eyes narrowed on the family as he asked, “Why did you fail to report the birth to a midwife or a constable?”
“We … We were afraid, Shon. You know we lost our second child after the beast examined her.”
“Nonsense and superstition!” The Falconer behind the constable bellowed. The man was a hideous specter, one whose eyes seem to pierce through the hood and into another’s soul. “The examination is a blessing, and infant mortality is a natural occurrence, not to be blamed on our ministrations.”
The constable tried to keep everyone calm. “Thom, all you have to do is allow him to look your child over. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”
Thom’s face was scarlet with anger. “Shon, you of all people should understand!”
“Let him work, Thom. Otherwise I’ll have to hang the both of you.” Wembley rode his horse between Mauri and the baby, forcing her and her husband to step backward. “I’m sorry about this. Really, I am. Just do as he says, and all will be fine.”
Dismounting, the Falconer approached Clauvis in the basket lying on the grass. Anne, still clutching her little doll, scurried away from her brother’s side. Terrified, she hid behind the legs of her father. The Falconer paid her no mind and knelt beside the younger child. The bird of prey on his shoulder stared intently at the baby, switching his head back and forth to view him with each eye. Mauri watched as her child made no sound while staring intently at both the man and the bird.
With a squawk, the bird spread its wings and flew up into the air to resume circling. The hooded man pulled out a small jar of oil and removed the blue lid. He rubbed two fingers into the mixture, and placed it under the tongue of the child before standing to address the family. “I find your baby healthy and free of defect. Enjoy a long life with the child.” Turning, he added an admonishment. “In the future, report your offspring to the authorities.” The man strode back to his mount and swung into the saddle.
The constable looked intently at Thom, who was grinding his teeth and seething with anger. “Your penalty will be an extra percentage of taxed goods when payment is due.” To Mauri he added, “Be happy your child’s healthy. Some of your neighbors weren’t so lucky.” He tipped his hat to the couple, and the group rode back down the lane the way they had come.
As soon as the riders had turned their horses, Mauri rushed to the basket and swept her child into her arms. Holding him tightly, she ran back into the house with Anne chasing behind, her doll swinging wildly in her hand as she sprinted up the walk. Thom turned to his brothers, who picked up their scythes. He shook his head and cursed the hooded man, rejoining his brothers as they walked slowly back to the field to finish their duties. The laundry lay in a heap upon the grass where his wife had dropped it, but that task was long forgotten after the tense meeting.
After Thom and his brothers had finished in the field, they washed in the stream before making their way back to the cottage. Dodging chickens on the ground, they walked and talked about the earlier event. Thom, although relieved that his baby was healthy, still worried over the incident. Their other child, Grace, had been two weeks old when another Falconer had come. Like today, he had blessed their child and proclaimed her healthy and whole. The young parents had considered themselves luckier than most, as other families had had their sickly or mal-formed babies taken from them.
They both felt she was a special infant. Like Clauvis, she never cried nor fussed. They felt generally happier and more connected around their little Gracie and also thought of her as a lucky child. Thom remembered vividly awakening to the sobs of Mauri on the night of the last visit. Grace had died in her sleep. Crib death, the old-timers had called it, but he and his wife had distrusted their visitor and attributed the sudden death to his blessing.
A scream from within the cottage sent Thom and his siblings running the final steps toward the door. Thrusting it open, they halted at the display within. Mauri knelt over the crib, clutching the infant close to her breast. She wailed in grief as little Anne stood in the corner, also crying and squeezing her little doll in fright as she watched her inconsolable mother.
Thom broke free from the invisible grip that had held him, and stepped forward, placing a hand on his wife’s shoulder. As Mauri turned to look up at her husband, he saw that Clauvis was lifeless and completely blue. The farmer’s brothers took in the scene, then headed outside with grief. But this time the job was to dig a deep little hole.
A few days later, in the city of Logan, Constable Wembley sat in the corner of the Mangy Dog tavern. The tavern was noticeably empty on this day, despite that the city was bustling with activity. The constable was not alone. Across from him sat the reason the tavern was empty, in the form of the cursed Falconer.
Shon Wembley loved his job as constable, and it had been his desired career since childhood. As a young man he served as a deputy to his brother in Brentway where they had fought against northern marauders during the most recent raids. He loved his duties and served them well, but his two least favorite tasks included tax collection and overseeing the child blessings. Those blessings were the reason he had been stuck escorting this Falconer for an entire week.
Shon frowned at his mug of ale, unusually bitter for the season. “Are you sure that you don’t want a mug?” When the beast-like man did not respond, he answered himself, “No, of course not.” Then, under his breath he muttered, “You never do. You don’t drink spirits; you don’t eat rich foods or sweets and you don’t look at the tavern wenches.” After he had said his piece, the two men again sat in silence, the Falconer staring straight ahead, the constable’s hard green eyes focused on his mug.
Shon found solace in the thought that he was nearly finished with his current duties. They had three more children to inspect in the city and had planned to begin at first light. So far, the blessings had gone smoothly. Only two farmhouses had produced children with defects, and those had been removed to the Rookery with little resistance and with only the expected grief by the parents. Since the Empire had gained a foothold in Loganshire, the tradition of culling the lame had become more widely accepted, possibly since more families were birthing healthier children with their newfound prosperity.
Only a few had tried to hide births, one of those being the Thorinson farm. How the Falconer had discovered the child was strange. It was almost as if he could communicate with his bird, or worse, see through its eyes. The thought unnerved Shon, almost as if the creatures shared foresight. But that theory was impossible, since all religions, regardless of belief, strictly prohibited telling the future or working magic. Both crimes were rewarded with the penalty of death in the Esterling Empire. Of course, magic did not exist, so that part of the edict never made sense to Constable Wembley. He chalked it up to superstitious nonsense.
Still, something about the Thorinson exchange did not sit well with the constable. So far, fifty children were inspected during the week, but Shon had noticed the blessings had included two jars of oil. Every other child had been anointed with the jar with the red lid, but that baby had received the substance from a jar with a blue lid. When he had asked the administrator why he had used a different jar, the beast-like man had lied and stated that he only has one jar.
Abruptly, the Falconer cocked his head to one side, suddenly alert. “Post men by the door. Trouble is coming.”
Shon looked up from his ale, incredulous and feeling somewhat suspicious given his recent thoughts. He motioned his deputies, who stood from the table and moved into position like bookends on the inside of the oak frame. After posting the guards, the constable asked, “Did you hear something?”
Just then, the door burst open from the force of a large man kicking it in. Thom Thorinson charged through, wielding an axe and rushing directly for the Falconer. When he reached the chair, the hooded figure, who had never turned around, leaped from his seat and sidestepped a blow from the hatchet. The head of the tool sank deep into the table, spilling the plate of food and mug of ale that Shon had been working on.
Suddenly, with a screech a dark winged blur swept through the opening, sinking its talons in the back of the raging farmer. With its strong beak it tore at the man’s flesh, ripping out chunks as it tried to peck out his eyes. Thom screamed and the bird squawked until the constable intervened. “For Cinder’s sake restrain the man!” Only once they controlled his arms and pinned him face down on the floor did the raptor release its grip and return to perch on the arm of its master.
Thom Thorinson bled onto the floorboards, weeping and sobbing in pain of both body and spirit. The deputies stood him up and fastened manacles on his wrists. Shon approached and demanded explanation. “What the hell are you about, Thorinson? Explain yourself!”
Thom sputtered, “That abomination killed my wife and child!”
“Nonsense! Both of them were very much alive when we left your spread, and he’s been with me the entire time! You know damned well that he had no hand in their death!”
“Clauvis died mere hours after his blessing and Mauri slit her wrists in grief that very night!”
“A coincidence, I assure you!” Shon was very disturbed by this exchange. The blue jar, he thought and silently wondered if Thom was correct in his accusation. He stared up at the ghoul with an expecting glare, watching for any change in demeanor but none came.
The Falconer spoke from where he now stood in the corner of the tavern, bird roosting on his arm. “Attacking an agent of the Queen Regent is a hanging offense. This was attempted murder.”
Shon shook his head. Turning to look at the hooded man, he said, “Thom is grieving. I’ve known him and his entire family since their births. He’s no murderer.” He leaned in close to the farmer, and grimaced. “Smell him, he’s drunk and acting out of grief.”
“Death by hanging.” Turning to look at the constable, the beast-like man added, “Certainly you will not disobey an administrator in his duties? Men have hanged for that as well.”
Shon muttered under his breath, “Well, shit.” After pondering for a moment, he shook his head and faced the others. “Take Thorinson to the jail. I’ll speak to the magistrate and turn him over to the city officials for a trial.” He placed emphasis on the final word as if willing it would ensure justice.
The next day, Shon wrapped up his duties, finally able to part ways with the eerie hooded beast. None too soon, he packed his saddle bags, mounted his mare, and spurred her flanks to a fast trot. As he rode out of the city, he tipped his hat to the swinging corpse of Thom Thorinson, the ripped-out portions of his face hidden within a hood of his own. The once stalwart lawman unpinned his badge and tossed it in the river as he crossed the bridge out of town.