Once in a Blue Moon(6)

By: Simon R. Green

“Show-offs . . .”

• • •

They went back into the Millennium Oak through the main entrance, a massive arch carved deep into the golden trunk. Centuries’ worth of intricate carving and decoration covered the inner walls, from a dozen countries and even more cultures, transforming the whole entrance hall into a magnificent piece of art. Other, less decorated arches and corridors led off to rooms and halls and storerooms. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling were all the same pear-coloured wood. No stone or metal had been used in the Tree’s interior. Like a single gigantic piece of intricate scrimshaw. Though in fact there was no indication of human workmanship anywhere—no signs of tools, no markings. The only human contributions were the carvings and decorations, and a few examples of human ingenuity. Like the single elevator that carried people from the base of the Tree to the very top, for when there just wasn’t time to take the curving wooden stairway that wound round and round the interior walls of the Tree. The elevator was just a flat wooden slab that rose and fell according to an intricate system of counterweights. No one had ever been able to find them. The Tree liked to hold some of its mysteries close to its chest.

The Administrator stomped off to his very private office, to rest his feet and his aching back, and prepare for the new term. He grumbled loudly about his workload every year, and didn’t fool anyone. Everyone knew he lived for his paperwork.

“You know,” said Hawk, heading straight for the elevator, “given that we will be leaving soon, I think it is incumbent on us to do one final tour of the various departments. Make sure all the tutors are up to the mark, all the students are working hard, and . . .”

“And just generally put the wind up everybody, one last time?” said Fisher. “Sounds good to me.”

So up the elevator shaft they went, standing right in the centre of the wooden slab because there weren’t any handrails. To discourage people from using the thing if they didn’t have to. Hawk and Fisher were looking forward to seeing how the many and various departments of the Academy were doing. The Hero Academy didn’t teach just the basics of soldiering—sword and axe and bow . . . There were also serious studies in magic, High and Wild, and all sorts of classes in such useful skills as infiltration, espionage, politics, information gathering, sneaking up on people, and general underhandedness. As Hawk was fond of saying, A properly prepared warrior has already won the fight before he’s even turned up. And as Fisher liked to say, When in doubt, cheat.

Hawk and Fisher started their casual and entirely informal inspection with the main training hall, on the second floor. A huge open area, with light falling heavily through the many circular windows. There was no glass in any of the Tree’s windows, just openings in the wood. But somehow the Tree was always cool in the summer and comfortably warm in the winter. Which was just as well, because no one was ever going to be stupid enough to start a fire inside the Millennium Oak. Except for the kitchens, on the ground floor. Where the cooks were often heard to murmur that they always felt like someone was watching them. When it got dark, foxfire moss lamps shed safe silver light.

Roland the Headless Axeman was in charge of Weapons Training. A tall man, originally, presumably; it was hard to be sure now that he didn’t have a head anymore. His neck had been neatly trimmed, just above the shoulders, and the tunic he wore had no hole for where the neck should have been. Roland was a large and blocky sort, with muscles on his muscles, and arms so heavily corded that he could crack walnuts in his elbows (for other people; he had no use for the things himself). He wore steel-studded leather armour that had been beaten into a suppleness smooth as cloth, over functional leggings, and battered old boots with steel toe caps. He had large hands, a soldier’s stance, and was so impressively imposing that he all but sweated masculinity. He had a deep, booming, authoritative voice. No one was too sure exactly where it came from, though people had come up with some very disturbing and even unsavoury possibilities. Roland may not have had a head, but he saw all and heard all, and absolutely nothing got by him. Unbeatable with his massive war axe in his hand, Roland was a patient and demanding and very dangerous tutor who never failed to get the best out of his students. Whatever it took.

Some say he cut his own head off . . .

Many sorcerers and witches had run extensive, though carefully unobtrusive, tests on Roland the Headless Axeman down through the years. From what they hoped was a safe distance. They were sure he wasn’t a ghost, or a lich, or an homunculus, or any of a dozen other unlikely things. But as to who or what he really was? No one had a clue. Not even Hawk and Fisher; or if they did, they weren’t talking. An awful lot of people had asked Roland, right to where his face should have been . . . but no one ever got the same answer twice. Roland always made a point of telling these people exactly what they didn’t want to hear, so they’d go away and stop bothering him. The Administrator made a point of asking each new Hawk and Fisher to get rid of Roland, because he wouldn’t take orders from the Administrator, and had been known to do very painful and destructive things to students who disappointed him. Usually for having the wrong attitude . . . The Administrator kept pointing out that Roland the Headless Axeman scared the crap out of the students, and most of the Academy staff; and every Hawk and Fisher in turn said the same thing: that this was the best possible reason for keeping Roland around.

Because if the students could face him, they could face anyone.

And it had to be said: Roland did turn out first-class warriors. All just packed full of the right heroic attitude.

Hawk and Fisher stood at the back of the practice hall just long enough to make sure all the students were giving it their best shot, and then they nodded to Roland. He made a brief movement of his shoulders that suggested he might be nodding back. (Hawk had once let his hand drift casually through the space above Roland’s shoulders, where his head should have been, just to assure himself that there really was nothing there. Roland let him do it, and then said, Never do that again. All the hairs stood up on the back of Hawk’s neck, and he decided right then and there that he had no more curiosity in the matter.) The students duelled up and down the hall in pairs, stamping their feet hard on the wooden floor, thrusting and parrying in perfect form. The clash of steel on steel was oddly muffled, as though the wood of the Millennium Oak absorbed some of the sound, to show its disapproval of so much steel inside the Tree.

• • •

Hawk and Fisher were heading unhurriedly down the long, curving corridor that led to the Alchemist’s laboratory, when there was a sudden and very loud explosion. The floor shook ever so lightly beneath their feet, and the door to the laboratory was blown clean off its hinges, flying across the corridor to slam up against the far wall, while black smoke billowed out through the open doorway. Followed by howls, screams, and quite a lot of really bad language. The Alchemist didn’t take failure well. The black smoke smelled really bad, and dark cinders bobbed and floated on the air. Hawk breathed in a lungful of the smoke before he could stop himself, and for a moment wee-winged bright pink fairies went flying round and round his head, singing in high-pitched voices a very suggestive song about someone called Singapore Nell. Hawk shook his head firmly, and the pink fairies disappeared, one by one. The last one winked, and blew him a kiss.