As the day of the
exams approached, Ajay practised harder than ever before, rising
long before the sun and doing his triple rolls and back flips over
and over in the predawn light, making sure his slightest movement
was flawless, exactly timed, and in consonance with the fickle air
currents. His techniques had become instinctive with him; he played
with the winds as with close but mischievous friends, anticipating
their tricks and vagaries, laughing with them when he outwitted
them. At times he screamed with the sheer joy of the game, not
thinking that this might alert his fellow birds to his early
practice in the empty sky. Sometimes he flew so high that the sun,
still below the horizon at the College dorms, flashed on his wings.
From beneath he looked, then, like a small erratic comet. This, too,
was observed. But there was no sense of secrecy in Ajay's heart; in
his rapture all thought of competition was erased. When he was not
concentrating on some exceptionally intricate maneuver, he felt only
elation at the rhythm and freedom of his flight. This was his
element, his God-given way of living. He was flight, wedded body,
mind, and soul to the art.
Then it happened.
One early morning, as he was resting on the wind, after practicing
quadruple twists followed by a pinwheel, something slammed into him
from above, striking him with the force of a hurled missile. He felt
bladelike talons rip his back. Instinctively he faced whatever it
was and saw Ahmad flying rapidly upward in preparation for another
plummeting attack. He turned over, his legs extended skyward, and as
Ahmad struck him, screaming, he raked the falcon's belly. An anger
ignited him with total violence. The two birds flung themselves at
one another in a fight to the death, feathers flying. He was aware
that Ahmad was trying to strike at his eyes, but retreat did not
occur to him; he struck back with all the strength he had. Not
wounded as badly as Ahmad, quicker in his rapier like slashes and
dodges, he was winning.