Monday, 11 February 2013

A Story. Part One.

The dawn sky is lightening in the east; pale lilac fading into a gentle orange glow over the grey blue Pyrenees mountains on the horizon. Lazy wisps of mist rise from the verdant carpet of forest and disperse in the clear morning air.

Imagine we are looking through the sharp eyes of a hawk as it hovers on high. We are searching for a tasty breakfast in the patches of rock and deep red brown soil that are scattered here and there amongst the trees. We hold still in the cool, fragrant air, keenly watching for movement in the scrub below. Swifts and house martins scoot above the tree line, but they are too quick for this hungry hawk. After a while, with no sign of rabbit or mouse, we move on.

Lazily we soar, gliding over the acres of lush Occitan woodland. We can see the sun rising behind the mountain silhouettes.

Coming nearer is a large clearing among the trees from which radiates a jumble of tracks and paths winding into the forest. In the clearing we can see a serene medieval village. There are squat straw-coloured buildings with tiled terracotta roofs surrounding a high square tower with a bronze bell hanging within it. We approach the little town following one of the rutted tracks which is riddled with puddles of muddy water from recent rains that briefly reflect the sky as we pass.

The air is not as fresh now, there are scents of man; woodsmoke, cooking and a tang of hot metal. We are so close now that we can hear the ting-ting sound of a blacksmith's hammer echoing through the quiet streets.

The trees fall behind us and we are over the first buildings. The air feels slightly warmer here as it rises from the sun baked tiles below. We are pushed upward on a lazy thermal.

The town is criss-crossed with tight cobbled streets. The stone houses jostle together; their red roofs almost touching; their fronts adorned with flowering hanging baskets or clad in clinging ivy. Most of the buildings have brightly coloured shutters covering the windows and doors waiting to be opened when the sleeping townsfolk wake.

We fly above a wide street and follow it with the tower straight ahead of us. The cobbles are bordered on either side by lines of shady olive trees. A row of ornate troughs sprouting colourful flowers and fragrant lavender runs down the middle. We see a stocky bearded man turn onto the main street carrying two pots of lumpy vegetables chained to a yoke over his shoulders. From his simple clothes we can see that he is a farmer or a labourer.

The street in front of us widens into a great open square with the tower at its centre. The man is trudging towards a market set with wooden stalls with all manner of fruit and bread and meat. The stall holders have set them out early ready for a morning of business before the hot Meditteranean afternoon.

We pass over the market towards the bell tower in the central square, flying low enough to see that the bronze bell has been dulled by years of weathering. It has a date engraved upon it, 1036. The tower is not part of a church as you might expect, but is connected to a wide building with a jutting wrought iron balcony which could be the town hall. The building's main door is painted the colour of lavender and stands open.

Waiting on the cobbles a few paces from the door are two black stallions. The early morning sunlight gleams from their well groomed coats. They have ornate leather saddles with bright brass buckles and studs. One is drinking from a stone trough at the roadside. It must be thirsty after the long ride through the night. The horses have brought strange visitors from out of town. The riders must be inside the town hall with the local officials.

We glide over the street towards the sun, now fully risen.

Behind us, the dull bell tolls, a deep mournful sound. Our hawk is startled and reels noisily in alarm. In that brief moment we catch another glimpse of the horses behind us. One is still drinking but the other is rearing up in surprise.

Our hawk swoops lower, gaining speed. We are almost touching the leaves of the trees lining the street as we race past.

The bell tolls and tolls again. Ragged people begin sleepily opening their shutters and peering out towards the sound. We hear shouts from behind us and somewhere a woken baby wails. A shopkeeper with a huge moustache drops the wicker basket of lettuces he was carrying and begins to run up the street towards the square. The metallic hammering abruptly stops.

The gloomy tolling continues and there are more shouts. A woman shrieks, a high pitched, piercing sound not unlike that of our hawk. The locals are coming out of their houses onto the streets. We can see their dazed expressions and hear them murmur worried questions.

We are approaching the other side of the town now. There are fewer buildings on the street below and more trees on either side. The cobbles begin to merge into a muddy lane and we see a small donkey pulling a cart of melons led by a shabby young boy. He has a half eaten slice of melon in one sticky hand and the weathered rope that serves as the donkey's harness in the other.

We glance back and can see a woman running down the cobbles towards the donkey boy. She is wearing a lacy pinafore and has her hair in a pale red scarf. Behind her the crowds of people are slowly shambling their way to the centre of town.

Our hawk glides on, carrying us once more over the lush forest and away from the haunting sound of the town bell.

The riders have brought news and it warns of doom.

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