Once In a Blue Moon
Twice upon a time, Prince Rupert and Princess Julia saved the Forest Kingdom.
They have earned the right to live happily ever after.
But there’s a blue moon on the rise....
Hawk and Fisher, famous for their years of keeping the peace in Haven, are really quite happy being legends. They gave up the hero business when they decided they’d grown too old for it. Now they run the Hero Academy, training young hopefuls to be heroes.
Legends never die, but it seems they cannot retire, either. Hawk and Fisher’s adult children, Jack and Gillian, have been kidnapped. They were taken by the Demon Prince, an old enemy from the Forest Kingdom who challenges the couple to one final battle for their lives. But Hawk and Fisher believe there’s another motive behind the abductions, one connected to a case they worked in Haven many years ago—a case they refuse to discuss.
They have no choice but to return to the Forest Kingdom, to be Prince Rupert and Princess Julia one last time in one last story—of the kind of things that happen only once in a blue moon....
The Dutchy of Lancre’s greatest pride, problem, and most profitable tourist attraction is the Hawk and Fisher Memorial Academy. Also known, less formally, as the Hero Academy. Founded some seventy-five years ago by Captains Hawk and Fisher, late of the City Guard in some less than salubrious city port down in the depths of the Southern Kingdoms. There are many stories about Hawk and Fisher, apparently the only honest guards in that city; all of the stories are of a resolutely heroic nature, though not always particularly nice, or suitable for mixed company. But apparently these two venerable warriors reached an age where they preferred teaching to doing, and so—the Academy.
Hawk and Fisher spent many happy and informative years teaching young men and women how to be warriors, got everything up and running, and then they moved on and were never seen again. Presumably they went back to being heroes, and died alone and bloody in some far- off place, fighting for some cause they believed in. Because that’s what usually happens to heroes. The Hero Academy kept their names, and many of the traditions they established, including that all the married warriors who came in to run the place took the names Hawk and Fisher for as long as they stayed. Out of respect for the original founders, or possibly to simplify merchandising rights. Either way, there have been a great many Hawks and Fishers through the years.
For decades, hopeful parents have sent their more troublesome sons and daughters to the Hawk and Fisher Memorial Academy, from all sorts of countries, cities, and stations in life. To learn how to be heroes. For a great many reasons—fame and fortune, of course, duty and honour . . . and sometimes just because the hopeful applicants feel they have something to prove to their parents. Of the many who feel called, only a few are chosen every year; but it doesn’t stop them coming, by the hundreds and sometimes thousands. Some are hopeful; some are hopeless. The Academy holds regular Auditions at the beginning of each term to sort out the wheat from the chaff, in a similarly destructive process. The Auditions are bloody hard, and often very bloody, and no one gets to moan about the decisions. Even if the applicants leave with less dignity or fewer limbs than they arrived with. Because the Hero Academy believes that if you can be dissuaded or frightened off, it’s better to find that out right at the beginning. The Academy’s tutors are strict but fair . . . but strict.
The Hawk and Fisher Memorial Academy teaches people how to fight, and what to fight for, and how to stay alive while doing it. The Academy provides classes in weaponry, magic, lateral thinking, and really dirty tricks, and every year it turns out a whole bunch of highly motivated young people determined to go forth in the world and make it a better place. The world shows its appreciation every year by sending assassins to kill the current Hawk and Fisher and their staff, and if at all possible burn down the entire Academy and salt the earth around it.
But that’s politics for you.
On a day that at first seemed much like any other day, Hawk and Fisher were out taking an early-morning constitutional, strolling unhurriedly across the great open plain that surrounded the Academy. Most of it was dry, dusty ground, studded with just enough awkwardly protruding rocks that you had to keep your eyes open and your wits about you, and punctuated here and there with optimistic outbursts of grey-green shrub. Thick woodland marked the western horizon, and the DragonsBack mountain ridges the eastern. Not much to look at, and even less to do, out on the plain, which helped concentrate the minds of the students wonderfully.
On that particular morning the sun was barely up, the sky was an overcast grey, and the air was so still that even the smallest sound seemed to carry forever. Hawk and Fisher wandered along, side by side, their movements so familiar to each other they were practically synchronised. They looked like they had a long history together, most of it concerned with organised violence. They looked like they belonged together, and always would be.
Hawk was well into middle age, a short and stocky man with a broad face, thinning grey hair, and a spreading bald patch he was growing increasingly touchy about. He wore a simple soldier’s tunic over smooth leather leggings, and rough, functional boots. His cool grey eyes were calm and steady, and gave the strong impression that they missed nothing. He limped slightly, as though favouring an old wound, but given that the limp had a tendency to transfer itself from one leg to the other and back again without warning, no one took it particularly seriously. He carried a great axe at his side instead of a sword, by long tradition. He studied the world with a thoughtful, watchful gaze to make sure it wouldn’t try to jump out and surprise him. Everything in the way he moved and held himself suggested he’d been a soldier or mercenary in his previous life, but he never spoke of it. Tradition demanded that all the Hawks and Fishers leave their pasts behind, along with their original names, when they took over control of the Hero Academy.
Fisher was also advancing into middle age, and with even less enthusiasm than her husband. She was of barely average height and more than average weight, with short-cropped grey hair, a jutting beak of a nose, and a brief, flashing smile. She wore the same simple tunic and leggings as Hawk, and carried a long sword in a rune-carved scabbard down her back. She studied the world with fierce green eyes, in a way that suggested the world had better not give her any trouble if it knew what was good for it. A potential student who claimed to be a Bladesmaster, and therefore unbeatable with a sword in his hand, once told Fisher to her face that a woman’s place was in the home, and especially the kitchen. Fisher laughed herself sick, and then duelled him up the hall and back down again, beat the sword out of his hand, kicked him in the nuts, and rabbit-punched him before he hit the ground. And then sent him home strapped to a mule, riding backwards.
No one messed with Hawk and Fisher.
Stumbling along behind them, grumbling constantly under his breath, was the Administrator. He was not a morning person, and didn’t give a damn who knew it. Normally at this very early hour of the day, he would have been sitting alone at a table in the kitchens, holding on to a mug of mulled wine with both hands, as though that was all that was holding him up, and giving the sudden-death glare to anyone who tried to talk to him. But it was the first day of the new autumn term, the Auditions were to be held at midday, and Hawk and Fisher had been very insistent that they wanted to talk to him somewhere extremely private; so here he was. Taking an early-morning stroll that was undoubtedly good for him, and hating every moment of it. Birds were singing happily in the sky above, and every now and again the Administrator would raise his weary head and look at them with simple and uncomplicated loathing.
If the Administrator had ever been blessed with anything as common as a real name and a proper background, no one knew about it. He’d arrived at the Academy some forty years earlier as just another student, bluffed and bullied his way onto the staff, and lost no time in proving himself invaluable at taking care of all the dull, soul-destroying but unfortunately wholly necessary administrative work that no one else wanted to do. All he had to do was threaten to leave, and he was immediately awarded a substantial pay increase and a straightforward assurance that no one gave a damn what his real name might be or where he’d come from.
The Administrator was tall but heavily stooped, and tended to stride through the Academy corridors as though he personally bore all the cares of the world on his narrow shoulders. And wanted everyone to know it. He wore stark black and white formal clothes, comfortable shoes, and an old floppy hat that didn’t suit him. Though given the appalling state of the thing, it would be hard to name anyone it would have suited. He was a long and stretched-out gangly sort, all knees and elbows. His face was grim and bony, he frowned as though it were a competitive sport, and on the few occasions when he was seen to smile, everyone knew it meant someone somewhere was in really big trouble.
He basically ran the Hero Academy, from top to bottom, and had done so under many Hawks and Fishers.
He raised the volume of his grumbling, just to let Hawk and Fisher know he hadn’t forgiven them, kicked noisily at the dusty ground before him, and scowled around at the world as though daring any of it to get too close. Hawk and Fisher finally came to a halt, at the top of a long ridge giving an uninterrupted view out across the plain. The Administrator crashed to a halt beside them, and let out a loud groan that might have been either simple relief or a plea for sympathy. He put both hands in the small of his back and straightened up slowly, while his spine made loud protesting noises. Hawk and Fisher exchanged amused glances. They made a lot of allowances for the Administrator. They had to; it was either that or run like fun every time they saw him approaching. The Administrator rotated his shoulders, slowly and individually, and they made ominous creaking noises.
“All right,” said Hawk. “You’re just showing off now.”
“You know nothing about backs! Nothing!” snarled the Administrator. “They should give you a handbook, the moment you hit forty, warning you of all the terrible things that are going to go wrong with your body as you head into middle age. It should be full of useful diagrams and helpful advice, and detailed notes on which drugs are the best and have the least embarrassing side effects. I’m a martyr to my spine.” He sniffed loudly, and looked coldly out across the open plain. “Why are we out here, at this indecently early hour of the morning? God created hours like these specifically to break the spirits of people dumb enough to get out of bed before they were meant to. Everybody knows that.”
“There are things we need to discuss, you miserable old scrote,” Hawk said cheerfully. “Important things.”
“The kind of things best discussed where there’s absolutely no one around to overhear,” said Fisher.
“You haven’t killed anyone important again, have you?” said the Administrator, wincing. “You know how much extra paperwork that means.”
“We’ve been good,” said Hawk. “Mostly.”
“Right,” said Fisher, scowling. “It’s been ages since I got into a decent scrap. I must be getting old. Or civilised. Don’t know which of the two disturbs me more.”
“Then what is so important I had to be hauled from my nice warm bed and thoroughly disgusting dream?” snapped the Administrator.
“What brought you here, originally?” said Hawk. And there was something in the way he said it, that made the Administrator give the question more than usual attention.
“My parents thought I had the makings of a master swordsman,” he said gruffly, “because I had a habit of getting into trouble and then cutting my way out of it. They thought I might be Bladesmaster material. I knew better. I knew I wasn’t a warrior, let alone a hero —just a man with a short temper and no real sense of self-preservation. I said so, loudly, but no one listened. My father put me on a horse, handed me a bag of silver, and sent me out into the world to find my place. Maybe he did understand about me, after all.
“I came here after I’d tried everywhere else. The previous Administrator had let things get into a real mess, so I pushed him down some stairs, several times, and took over. The Hawk and Fisher back then knew exactly what I’d done, but they gave me a chance. Told me I had six months to prove myself, or they’d have the Magic Tutor turn me into a small green hopping thing. Took me less than three. Now, some forty years later, I’m still here, and I’ll be here till they carry me out feet first.”
“Are you happy here?” said Fisher.
The Administrator looked at her for a while, as though he didn’t quite understand the question. “I never wanted anything else. I’m part of a legend, and that will do me.”
“Did you never want marriage, family, children—things like that?” said Hawk.
“Marriage isn’t for everyone,” the Administrator said firmly. “People just get in the way when I’ve got important lounging around to be getting on with. My fellow staff are all the family I ever needed, or wanted.” He looked at Hawk and Fisher thoughtfully. “You’ve been here, what, ten years now? As Hawk and Fisher? And you never once showed any interest in my personal life before. So why now?”
“Because it’s time for a change,” said Hawk. He looked out across the plain. “Look at the Tree. Isn’t it magnificent?”
The Administrator felt like saying a great many things, but the conversation seemed important enough that he played along. For the moment. They all looked out across the open plain, at the one thing of importance it contained: the ancient and mighty Millennium Oak. The biggest tree in the world; a thousand feet tall and probably more, with a trunk very nearly half as wide, and massive layers of branches reaching out a lot farther than was naturally possible. Just one of many clues, if its sheer size wasn’t enough, that the Millennium Oak was a magical thing. Its cracked and crinkled bark glowed a dull golden, and so did its massive bristling foliage. The Tree dominated the landscape, as though its overpowering presence had sucked most of the life out of the dry and dusty plain. It rose up and up into the sky, its topmost branches disappearing into the clouds. There were climbers of renown who’d tackled every mountain in the world but who wouldn’t dare attempt an assault on the Millennium Oak. And not just because of its height. The Tree had a presence, and perhaps even a personality, and it didn’t want to be climbed.
You could tell.
All around the Millennium Oak, the plain swept away for miles and miles, alone and deserted and untouched. If you travelled far enough to the west, you reached the wild woods. Perfectly ordinary trees, packed closely together, all the natural shades of brown and green, slamming right up against the edge of the plain as though the trees had met an invisible fence. All kinds of wildlife roamed the wild woods, but none of them ever ventured out onto the plain. They knew it wouldn’t be healthy.
To the east, even more miles away, stretched the DragonsBack mountain ridge, tall and brutally ragged, marking the border between the Dutchy of Lancre and the Forest Kingdom. There were a great many stories about these mountains. Once, it was said, dragons made their homes in caves up and down the long ridge. Long and long ago. The caves were still there, unnaturally large and worryingly dark, but no one had seen a dragon in ages.
“The first Hawk and Fisher made a point of checking out the caves,” said the Administrator. “They didn’t find any dragons. Looked rather disappointed, or so I’m told. Long before my time, of course. There are songs and stories from the Demon War that say Princess Julia rode a dragon into battle against the demon hordes. The last sighting of a dragon in the world of men.”
“You can’t trust minstrels,” said Hawk. “Never was a bard who wouldn’t sacrifice the facts for a better rhyme.”
“There are a hell of a lot of stories concerning the origins of the Millennium Oak,” said Fisher. “Some of them so old and so strange they might even have some truth in them. When the wind moves between the branches, the leaves seem to move with a life of their own, and sometimes it sounds like voices. Something the Tree heard, long ago. But the words are from a language no one speaks anymore, or even recognises. A language of a people who no longer exist. So no one now can understand what it is the Tree is remembering. The Tree is old . . .”
“And birds of every species come here from all over the world,” said Hawk. “Every shape and size, and all the colours you can think of, including some specimens long thought extinct . . . just to perch on the golden branches and sing to the Tree. They sing a thousand different songs, yet somehow they’re always in harmony.”
“Though you never see a woodpecker,” said Fisher. “I think they sense they’re not welcome.”
“None of them are, when they’re sounding off outside my bedroom window first thing in the morning,” growled the Administrator. “Bloody dawn chorus. I’ve had to move my bedroom three times. I swear the bloody things are following me.” He glared at Hawk. “Have we indulged in enough whimsy yet? Can I just say I don’t give a damn about any of this in a loud and carrying voice, so we can finally get to the damned point?”
“The Millennium Oak is a wonder and a miracle,” Hawk said firmly. “Haven’t you ever wondered who it was that originally hollowed out the Tree’s interior, to make hundreds of rooms and halls and interconnecting corridors, so long ago that no one now remembers who or why? Seventy-five years the Tree has been home to the Academy, and we still haven’t occupied half the available rooms. A Tree with a city inside it. Who would have thought?”
“Not forgetting the city of tents that surrounds it,” said Fisher. “All the student population, set out in ranks and circles round the trunk. I can see a dozen different flags from here, from countries near and far, flapping proudly in the breeze . . . Though I’m glad to see everyone is following tradition, and no one flag is set any higher than any other. I’d hate to have to go down there and punch someone. I really would.”
“I did enjoy it when you set fire to the last flag that tried to flout tradition,” said Hawk solemnly. “And the way you set fire to the flag’s owner when he objected. In the end they had to wrap him in his own tent and roll him back and forth in the mud to put the flames out. He cried real tears.”
“The Millennium Oak has never flown a flag,” said Fisher. “The Tree is in the Dutchy, but not of it.”
“Go back a couple of hundred years,” said Hawk, “and there is the story of one Duke who tried to occupy the Tree. To make a point, over who was really in charge here. The Duke led his army of some three hundred heavily armed men inside the Tree; and none of them ever came out. We’ve never even found a trace of the bodies. The Tree’s roots dig deep, and no one has ever sought to discover how deep, or what nourishes them.”
“I think we should take a tour through the tent city on the way back,” said Fisher. “Show the students we take an interest. I mean, yes, they’re expected to provide for and look after themselves; that’s the whole point of not letting them take it easy inside the Tree. Self-sufficiency starts at home, and all that. But it wouldn’t hurt to remind the students we’re still keeping an eye on them.”
“Someone’s started a still again, haven’t they?” said Hawk, “What’s the matter? You not getting your fair share?”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” said Fisher.
“Won’t be long now before the Auditions begin,” said Hawk. “Look at the shadow.”
The thousand-foot Millennium Oak cast one hell of a long shadow, and the tents that lay within it were always markedly cooler than those without. So the older and more experienced students struck their tents inside the shadow during the hot summer months, and outside it during the winter. All the newer students thus had no choice but to do the exact opposite, and dream of better times to come as they sweated through the summer and shivered through the winter. And of course once a year there was a mass migration and re- setting of tents, as the two sides swopped places to follow the shifting seasons. This usually involved a certain amount of armed skirmishing, as certain individuals disagreed as to which side they were properly a part of. It was all very good-natured, and usually ended at first blood. Because students who couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the rules and traditions of the Hawk and Fisher Memorial Academy didn’t last long. Hawk and Fisher saw to that.
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