1

No One Ever Escapes the Past

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 from 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 on 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 kinds 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.

It had to be said: the students didn’t seem to mind living in the tent city. It was all very communal, with lots of eating and drinking and singing, and giggling under canvas. There were the wild woods to hunt in, several streams in which to fish and wash and perform necessary functions (and woe betide anyone who didn’t keep those uses strictly separate), and several towns beyond the woods, for more sophisticated fare. Often at dirt-cheap prices—the merchants indulged the students because they attracted the tourists. Who were, of course, quite properly soaked for every penny they had. That was what they were for.

No tourists ever approached the Tree, or even the tent city. The Tree didn’t allow such over-familiarity.

The Administrator sighed deeply, and massaged his lower back with both hands. It was clear that whatever Hawk and Fisher had brought him all the way out here to discuss, they were determined to take their own sweet time about getting to the point. So he gritted his teeth, plotted future revenges, and played along.

“I have often wondered why the original Hawk and Fisher came to the Dutchy of Lancre,” he said, “to set up their Academy. We’re not exactly a big or famous country, after all.”

“I think that was probably the point,” said Hawk. “The DragonsBack ridge does a very good job of separating Lancre from the Forest Kingdom, and there’s only an ocean on the other side.”

“Far from everyone else, and protected by perfect natural defences,” said Fisher. “They couldn’t have picked a better bolt-hole if they’d tried.”

And that was when they both stopped and looked directly at the Administrator, who felt a sudden chill run through him as he found himself the target of their cool, thoughtful gaze. The Administrator decided that whatever it was they wanted to tell him, he almost certainly wouldn’t be better off for knowing.

“It’s time,” said Fisher.

“Time we were moving on,” said Hawk.

The Administrator nodded slowly. “Of course. That’s what this has all been about. Looking at things for the last time, and saying goodbye.”

“It’s the first day of the new term,” said Hawk. “Which means the biggest Auditions of the year. Our last before we move on, to make way for the next Hawk and Fisher.”

“Will you miss us?” said Fisher.

The Administrator did them the courtesy of considering the question. “I suppose so. You’ve been here longer than most, almost ten years now. You’ve done good work. I was starting to think . . . Do you have to leave?”

“Yes,” said Hawk. “People are starting to get too used to us.”

“A new Hawk and Fisher will shake things up,” said Fisher.

“All these years we’ve worked together,” the Administrator said slowly, “and I can’t say I know either of you any better than the day you arrived here to take over from the previous Hawk and Fisher. Of course, I can’t say I really knew any of your predecessors any better. You always keep yourselves to yourselves.”

“All part of being Hawk and Fisher,” Hawk said easily. “We’re here to be role models, not friends or family. It would undermine the legend and authority of the names if people could see just how ordinary we really are.”

“And we did come here, after all, to leave our pasts behind,” said Fisher.

“Except . . . you never really do escape your past,” said Hawk. “It has a nasty habit of sneaking up on you from behind, when you least expect it.”

Fisher looked at him. “You feeling your age?”

Hawk was looking out over the plain, his gaze far away. “It’s cold early, this autumn.”

Fisher moved in close beside him. “Are you . . . feeling something?”

“I don’t know,” said Hawk. “Maybe.”

Fisher waited until she was sure he had nothing more to say, and then turned back to the Administrator, her face artificially cheery. “So, are you going to miss us?”

“Not if I aim properly,” growled the Administrator. “I’ve seen Hawks and Fishers come, and I’ve seen them go. And all that matters is that they leave me alone, to get on with the work that really matters. Running the Academy efficiently. I will say . . . you have been less of a nuisance than most.”

Fisher surprised him then, with a sudden bark of genuine laughter. “You soppy sentimental old thing, you. We know you do all the real work. And don’t think we’re not grateful. We’ll authorise another raise for you before we go. Throw you a party, with a barrel of ale and a whole bunch of loose women. What do you say?”

The Administrator shuddered. “No. Thank you. Really. And if I want a raise, I’ll just fix the books again.”

“We’ve already arranged for our replacements,” said Hawk. “They’re on their way. Fisher and I will be leaving at the end of the week. We wanted to break the news to you first, so you can set the necessary procedures and protections in place, before the news spreads all over the Tree.”

“Once the Auditions are over, we can start setting our affairs in order,” said Fisher. “And then we’ll be off. No point in hanging around. I hate long, drawn-out goodbyes.”

“We’ve been here too long,” said Hawk. “People are . . . getting used to us.”

“I trust you’ll make our replacements welcome?” said Fisher.

“Of course,” said the Administrator, back on his dignity. “I always do. Got a special speech prepared, and everything. Mostly about staying out of my way, and what forms they have to fill in whenever they find it necessary to kill someone. I pride myself on having a good working relationship with every Hawk and Fisher. Do you . . . know where you’re going?”

“We’re still working on that,” said Fisher. “But it’s time for a change. You’re right, Hawk. It is cold, for this early in the autumn. I can feel it in my bones.”

Hawk and Fisher looked at each other, for a long moment. The Administrator could sense something moving between them that he wasn’t a part of.

“I have this feeling,” said Hawk, “that something bad is coming.”

“Yes,” said Fisher. “Something really bad.”

“Well, yes,” said the Administrator. “New students.”

He didn’t normally do jokes, but he felt a sudden need to change the mood.

They all managed a quiet laugh. Only to break off abruptly as a whole flock of dead birds fell out of the sky, plummeting to the ground all around them. The soft, flat sounds of small dead bodies hitting the ground was like a round of heartless applause. The Administrator almost jumped out of his skin as he realised what was happening, and then his heart lurched again as Hawk and Fisher drew their weapons with almost inhuman speed and moved to stand back-to-back, weapons held out before them, at the ready. But there was no attack, no obvious enemy. Just dead birds, dropping out of a calm and empty sky for no obvious reason. And then that stopped and all was still and quiet.

The Administrator realised he was wringing his hands. He could feel his heart beating painfully fast. Hawk and Fisher looked carefully around them, and only when they were sure there wasn’t an enemy anywhere in sight did they relax, just a little, and put away their weapons. The Administrator got down on one knee, painfully slowly, ignoring the harsh creaking sounds from his joints. He was careful not to look at Hawk and Fisher. He tended to forget, until it became necessary for them to demonstrate, just how fast and dangerous they could be. That they were, in fact, highly experienced trained killers. He made himself concentrate on the bodies of the dead birds before him. He sniffed the air carefully but couldn’t detect any scents out of the ordinary. He leaned forward and looked the small bodies over as thoroughly as he could, while being very careful not to touch anything. Their eyes were open, dark and unseeing, not a breath of movement anywhere, not a mark of violence on any of them.

“Not predators,” said Hawk.

“Not natural predators, anyway,” said Fisher.

“It’s almost like someone’s gone out of their way to give us a sign,” said Hawk.

“They didn’t have to shout,” said Fisher.

“I’ll send some of the witches out here to take a look,” said the Administrator, straightening up again with a minimum of fuss. Exaggerating his various infirmities seemed small-minded in the face of so much casual death. As though some force or power had reached out and slapped the birds out of the air. Just because it could. He looked out across the plain, at the city of tents grouped around the Tree. “It could be one of the students, I suppose, showing off, but . . .”

“Yes,” said Hawk. “But.”

“Let some of the more advanced magic students investigate,” said Fisher. “Be good practice for them. If nothing else.”

The Administrator looked around him, at all the dead bodies scattered across the stony ridge. Dozens of the things. And then he looked sharply at Hawk and Fisher.

“Is there any chance this could be connected with your decision to leave so suddenly?”

“I don’t see how,” said Hawk. Which wasn’t really an answer, and they all knew it.

“Some old enemy, caught up with you at last?” said the Administrator.

“Unlikely,” said Fisher.

The Administrator glared at both of them. “There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there?”

Hawk grinned broadly, a sudden but very real moment of affection. “More than you ever dreamed of, old friend.”

“I think we should get back to the Millennium Oak,” Fisher said briskly. “We have to prepare for the Auditions. Get ready to sort out the potential heroes and warriors from the deluded and the wannabes. One last time.”

They turned away from the dead birds and made their way back down the stone ridge and onto the dry and dusty plain. The mystery of the dead birds would have to wait until after the Auditions. Because some things just couldn’t wait. But it was silently understood among the three of them that this . . . matter wasn’t over yet. The Administrator never let go of a problem once he’d sunk his teeth into it. Particularly if it posed any kind of threat to his beloved Academy.

“You don’t always produce heroes,” he said roughly. “Even the best students can let you down. The Black Prince of Land’s End—he was one of yours, wasn’t he?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Fisher. “Hawk and I had to go all the way down there to sort him out personally.”

“I know,” said the Administrator, just a bit pointedly. “You were supposed to bring back an erring student, not a collection of bits in a box! We’re still getting dunning letters from the Land’s End Council, demanding we pay for all the damage you caused, taking the Black Prince down!”

“You’re not actually planning on paying them, are you?” said Fisher.

“Of course not! I’m just making the point that your problems don’t always stop just because you’ve killed your enemy.”

“Exactly,” said Hawk.

The Administrator decided he really didn’t like the way Hawk said that.

* * * *

Hawk and Fisher made a point of walking back through the middle of the tent city surrounding the Millennium Oak, instead of sticking to the main paths, so they could talk with the students one last time. The Administrator would have preferred to hurry back to the Tree so he could make his report on the dead birds and set wheels in motion. But he made himself slow his pace to that of Hawk and Fisher's because he wanted to hear what they had to say. It wasn’t that he suddenly distrusted them after so many years of working together; it was more that the Administrator didn’t trust anyone.

The tents came in all sizes and all colours, like a ragged rainbow lying scattered around the base of the Tree. There were small cooking fires all over the place, and the delightful smells of a dozen different cuisines wafted through the early-morning air. Heavily laden washing lines flapped between the tents, displaying more kinds of underwear than the mind could comfortably cope with so early in the morning. Students ran back and forth, laughing and chasing, or sat in small circles lacing up each other’s armour, or ran through exercise routines of exhausting thoroughness. No one ever missed first class in the Millennium Oak. They’d all worked too hard to earn their place.

Hawk and Fisher moved easily among the students, greeting a surprisingly large number by name, inquiring how they were doing and seeming genuinely interested in the answers. The Administrator didn’t join in. Partly because his people skills were strictly limited, as he’d be the first to admit, but mostly because he didn’t give a damn. He cared about the Academy’s successes only after they’d left and were off doing suitably heroic things at a distance and were no longer his responsibility. He had been heard to say, quite loudly and in all apparent sincerity, that the Academy would be a lot easier to run if it weren’t for all the damned students getting in the way.

Hawk and Fisher could feel his brooding presence at their backs but refused to be hurried. They kept moving, never actually stopping, because they knew if they did, a crowd would soon gather and they’d never get through. A large number of the newer students saw their presence as an opportunity to show off their various skills. An archer casually shot an apple off the head of a trusting friend, only to be immediately upstaged as another archer targeted an apple set between the thighs of an extremely trusting friend. The look in that particular young man’s eyes was frankly terrified, but give him his due—he didn’t flinch. Possibly because he didn’t dare to. The archer made his shot successfully, and the friend left the apple pinned to the tree and walked quickly away. Probably to have a nice lie-down. Hawk and Fisher made a point of congratulating him as well as the archer.

They did pause briefly to observe an exhibition bout between two top-rank swordsmen, who courteously stopped at regular intervals to explain to the watching crowd exactly what they were doing, and how.

A young sorcerer, barely into his mid-teens, sat alone at a table, staring fixedly at the single piece of fruit set out on a platter before him. He concentrated, scowling till his eyebrows met and beads of sweat popped out on his forehead, and the apple before him changed into a lemon. And then into a pear. The piece of fruit transformed itself over and over again, but the student was clearly making hard work of it. Though basic transformations were always impressive, they often took more effort than they were worth. Practice does make perfect, however. Eventually. Hawk paid the young sorcerer a vague compliment, whereupon the sorcerer blushed happily, lost his concentration, and the apple exploded. Messily. All over him. Hawk and Fisher moved quickly on.

It seemed like everyone had some speciality they just had to show off. Students hovered uncertainly in midair, or juggled balls of flame, and one young witch danced a decorous waltz with an animated scarecrow. Hawk and Fisher smiled and nodded, and kept moving. They passed one young man struggling to set up his tent but making a real dog’s breakfast of it. He finally lost patience with the whole flapping mess, stood back, and snapped his fingers sharply. The tent immediately set itself up: canvas stretched taut, wooden pegs digging deep into the ground, ropes twanging into place. Hawk nodded to Fisher.

“He shows potential . . .”

The tent burst into flames. The student burst into tears.

“Or perhaps not,” said Fisher.

And that was when a cocky young bravo pushed his way through the crowd to stand before Hawk, blocking his way. The newcomer was a big, muscular sort, wearing chain mail that had been polished to within an inch of its life, and hefting a massive double-headed battleaxe. He struck an arrogant pose and looked Hawk up and down, his gaze openly contemptuous. Clearly he’d heard all the stories about Hawk and decided they were far too good to be true. He wanted to make an impression in a hurry.

“Time to show what you can really do, Hawk,” he said loudly. “I am Graham Steel, of the Forest Kingdom, warrior from a long line of warriors. I don’t need to hide behind the legend of another man’s name. You want me to Audition for you? Well, I say let’s do it right here, right now, where everyone can see.”

Hawk looked at him thoughtfully. People were already starting to back away, if only to make sure they wouldn’t get any blood on them. Hawk glanced at Fisher.

“There’s always one, isn’t there?”

“Make it quick,” said Fisher. “You don’t have time to play with him.”

Steel raised his axe and started to say something provoking, and Hawk lunged forward so quickly he was just a blur. His axe was suddenly in his hand, and he was upon his opponent before the young man could do more than lift his axe up before him. Hawk’s axe rose, came flashing down, and sheared right through the other axe’s wooden shaft. Steel’s hands were jarred open by the sheer force of the blow, and the two pieces of his axe fell from his hands and dropped to the ground. Hawk set the edge of his axe against Steel’s throat. Steel stood very still, his empty hands twitching, as though they couldn’t believe they were empty. His face was slick with sweat, and he would have liked to swallow, but he didn’t dare, not with the axe at his throat. He’d never seen anyone move so fast . . . He tried to meet Hawk’s eyes, so close to his, but couldn’t. Hawk stepped back, put his axe away, and moved on, without saying anything. Steel flushed angrily at being so coldly dismissed. He whipped a slender dagger from a concealed sheath in his sleeve and went for Hawk’s turned back. Fisher clubbed him down from behind with one blow from her sword’s hilt. Steel crashed to the ground, and didn’t move again, and Fisher walked right over him to catch up with Hawk. Who hadn’t even glanced back. The Administrator hurried after them, shaking his head.

“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.

The fairies might actually have been there, temporarily. The Alchemist could do amazing things with unstable compounds.

“I see our Alchemist is still hard at work,” Fisher said solemnly, batting at the black smoke with one hand as it curled slowly on the air, before being quickly sucked out the open corridor window. The Tree could look after itself, though the Alchemist tried its patience more than most. “Is he still trying to turn lead into gold? I keep telling him, if gold becomes as common as lead, it won’t be worth anymore than lead; but he won’t listen to me. I think it’s all about the thrill of the chase, myself.”

“A surprisingly good cook, though,” said Hawk. “I suppose all that messing about with potions gives you a feeling for combining the right ingredients . . . Is he still banned from the Tree’s kitchens?”

“Damn right he is,” said Fisher. “That macaroni pie of his had me trapped in the jakes for hours.”

“It was very tasty,” said Hawk.

“Strangely, that didn’t make me feel any better,” said Fisher.

“It cured your hiccups.”

“Only because I was scared to.”

Hawk sniffed deeply at the last evaporating swirls of black smoke. “I smell . . . brimstone, mandrake, and . . . is that cardamom? That mean anything to you?”

“It means we’re going to have to have another hard word with him,” said Fisher. “I don’t mind him blowing his lab up, because the Tree always absorbs the damage, and clears up after him, and the Alchemist always bounces back . . . but it does take a lot out of the students.”

“He doesn’t blow things up nearly as much as he used to,” said Hawk. “And it does do wonders for the students’ reflexes. They can duck and cover and jump out a window faster than anyone else in the Academy.”

“But when he does go wrong, it all goes very wrong,” Fisher said sternly. “And parents really don’t take kindly to having their loved ones sent home in a closed casket because we couldn’t find all the pieces.”

“You’re exaggerating now,” said Hawk.

“Only just!”

“All right, all right. We’ll pop in just long enough to put the hard word on him. But only because I hate having to write letters of apology to students’ next of kin.”

* * * *

The Alchemist wasn’t in any mood to be lectured. So Hawk knocked him down and sat on him, while Fisher lectured him very sternly until he agreed that they were right and he was wrong, and would they please let him up now as he still had some fires to put out.

* * * *

Hawk and Fisher walked on through the long, curving wooden corridors, going up and down stairs as the mood took them, peering into any room that attracted their attention, and even a few that were trying really hard not to. All the Tree’s ceilings were marvellously smooth and polished, even though no one ever polished or waxed them. The Tree looked after itself. Whoever originally carved out the interior of the Millennium Oak had done an excellent job. Current scientific theory was that the Tree allowed it to happen, and probably even cooperated in the process, on the grounds that it was hard to conceive of anyone powerful enough to enforce their will upon the Millennium Oak. Various sorcerers had tried, in very small ways, because some sorcerers just couldn’t resist a challenge, and usually ended up with headaches that lasted for days. One had been heard to wail plaintively, Dammit, the Tree’s realer than we are! Before someone led him away for a nice lie-down with a damp cloth over his eyes. The latest thinking was that the Tree had allowed its hollowing-out because it was lonely and wanted to be occupied, for the company. A theory that was really disturbing only if you thought about it too much, so most people tried very hard not to.

Many people had lived inside the Millennium Oak, and used it for many purposes, down through the years. The Tree didn’t discriminate. The original Hawk and Fisher found the Tree deserted and abandoned, and just moved in. The Tree must have approved of them, because nobody stays for long inside the Tree if it doesn’t approve of them. They either depart at great speed, or they don’t leave at all and no one ever sees them again. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that the Tree is quite definitely awake and aware, in its own ancient woody way. A few deeply mystical types have claimed to be able to talk with the Tree, but only after ingesting truly heroic portions of the local mushrooms.

The original Hawk and Fisher founded their Hero Academy with a cellar full of treasure they’d brought with them from the Forest Kingdom. Presumably stolen. There was still more than enough left to keep the Academy going, even after all these years, added to by very generous donations from grateful alumni. Presumably tribute. The original Hawk always said it was vital that the students got everything they needed to help them develop their various talents, irregardless of their previous backgrounds. The original Fisher said he only said that so he could use the word irregardless .

The warrior students looked down on the magic students, who looked down on the alchemy students, who looked down on the political students, who looked down on everyone else. All the Hawks and Fishers encouraged healthy rivalry, whilst at the same time coming down hard on anyone who descended into bullying. Which very thought was enough to add a certain preoccupation to their step as they approached a particular sword-practice hall. They’d been hearing reports about the secondary Bladesmaster, Anton la Vern, for some time. And not the kind of reports you wanted to hear about a man entrusted with the teaching of impressionable young souls. Hawk and Fisher had listened carefully, watched even more carefully, given Anton la Vern a lot of room and as much benefit of the doubt as they reasonably could . . . because he was a Bladesmaster, after all. Supposedly unbeatable with a sword in his hand. Such people were rare, and even harder to acquire as tutors of the Hero Academy. They brought prestige to the Academy, and helped attract the very best kind of student.

And la Vern was a good tutor—everybody said so—turning out many great young swordsmen and -women. But there comes a point when you just have to stop making excuses for someone. Because, as Hawk quite rightly pointed out, the only thing lower than a bully was a worm’s belly.

They stopped in the open doorway of the training hall and watched silently as dozens of grimly determined students went head-to-head with steel in their hands. The air was full of the clash of blade on blade, heavy breathing and harsh grunting, and the stamp of booted feet on the wooden floor. No practice blades here, and no protective armour. Real danger, and the occasional spurt of blood, speeded up the learning process wonderfully, and helped weed out those students who weren’t really committed, or suited, to the warrior’s way. It did help that there was always a medical sorcerer at hand to heal wounds, stick severed fingers back on, and deal with everything short of mortal wounds or the more severe forms of decapitation.

Hawk and Fisher watched from the doorway, so still and silent that no one even noticed they were there. And all too soon they saw what they were looking for. La Vern moved back and forth across the hall, watching all the fighters closely, dropping a word of commendation here, a sharp reprimand there, but always moving on, looking for something in particular . . . the one thing he really couldn’t stand. He watched two young men duel each other up and down the hall, lunging and parrying, leaping back and forth and attacking each other with dizzying speed. And then la Vern moved in and stopped the fight, and called for everyone else to stop. The hall fell suddenly still and silent. Dozens of young men and women stepped away from each other and lowered their swords, sweating hard and breathing heavily, to watch Anton la Vern shout and sneer at the better of the two swordsmen before him, mocking and humiliating him in front of everyone. Doing his best to destroy the young man’s confidence and break his spirit—because that was the one thing Anton la Vern couldn’t bear. That someone in his class might become as good as he was. La Vern had to be the best, whatever the cost. He quickly worked himself into a spiteful fury, shouting at the white-faced student before him so loudly he didn’t even hear Hawk and Fisher enter the practice hall.

He realised something was wrong only when he looked around and found no one was listening to him anymore. No one was even looking at him. Every student in the hall was looking past him, and when he turned to find out why, his face went suddenly pale, as he saw Hawk and Fisher heading straight for him. He didn’t need to ask why; he saw the answer in their faces. Knew from the way they looked at him that he hadn’t covered his tracks as well as he’d thought he had. For a long moment he couldn’t find anything to say. He could have defended himself, could have sought to justify his behaviour . . . but he had only to look in their eyes to see there was no point. So he just drew himself up, looked them both square in the face, and silently defied them. Hawk and Fisher crashed to a halt before him, and something in the way they looked and something in the way they held themselves had the watching students decide this was a good time to start backing away. Because whatever was about to happen, they really didn’t want to be a part of it.

“Anton,” said Hawk, “I didn’t want to believe it. I had no idea you were so . . . insecure.”

“I had no idea you were such a small-minded, mean-spirited little prick,” said Fisher.

“You’ll have to go, Anton,” said Hawk.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said la Vern. His voice was flat and firm, his gaze unwavering. “I’m not going, because you can’t make me. I’m a Bladesmaster. You know what that means. Unbeatable with a sword in my hand. I’m a master of steel, while you’re just two burned-out mercenaries hiding behind the reputation of someone else’s names.”

Hawk kicked him really hard in the groin. Anton made a low, shocked noise, and then his eyes squeezed shut. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He tried to suck in a new breath, and found he couldn’t. He dropped to his knees. One hand scrabbled numbly for the sword at his side. Fisher leaned over and rabbit-punched him with vicious force on the back of his exposed neck, and Anton la Vern crumpled unconscious to the floor.

“Unbeatable, yes. But only with a sword actually in your hand,” said Hawk. “You really think you’re the first Bladesmaster I’ve had to deal with?” He gestured to the two nearest students. “Pick that piece of crap up and haul him out of here. Hand him over to security, and tell them to take away his sword, strap him onto a mule facing backwards, and then send him on his way.”

The students moved quickly forward, and gathered up the unconscious Bladesmaster. One of them looked uncertainly at Hawk.

“What if he comes back?”

“If he’s dumb enough to show his face here again, we’ll let the sorcery students practice on him,” said Fisher. “There’s a reason we keep that big lily pond of frogs down on the basement level.”

Hawk and Fisher wandered on through the gleaming wooden corridors, not headed anywhere in particular, thinking their own individual thoughts. Hawk had approved la Vern’s position as tutor, and he hated to be wrong about people. Fisher was thinking about what was for dinner. She’d never been much of a one for self-recrimination. People passed them by in the corridors, nearly always with a nod and a smile. The current Hawk and Fisher were popular, respected heads of the Hero Academy, though they would both have been surprised to hear it. They liked to think of themselves as cool and distant governors.

“How long have we been here?” Fisher said finally.

“Longer than I ever expected,” said Hawk. “What’s the matter? You getting tired of all this?”

“You know I’m not,” said Fisher. “I like it here—doing good work, changing the world for the better, one hero at a time.”

“It was either this or retire and run a tavern somewhere,” said Hawk. “And that always seemed far too much like hard work to me. This . . . suits me better.”

They paused by a large open window to watch a line of rather nervous-looking students file uncertainly out along a broad branch of the Tree. They took their time getting into position, checked that they were an arm’s length apart, and then looked glumly down at the long drop below. A gusting wind tousled their hair and plucked at their clothes with a rough hand. To a man and a woman, the students all looked like they’d much rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else. A few were quietly praying, a few were quietly whimpering, and several had their eyes squeezed firmly shut. Their tutor, the Witch in Residence, Lily Peck, walked along the branch behind them and briskly pushed them off, one by one. They plummeted swiftly out of sight, leaving only their screams behind.

“It’s the only way to teach them to fly,” said Hawk. “Ask them to jump, and they’d still be there at dinnertime.”

Fisher sniffed. “If we really wanted to motivate them, we should take away the safety nets.”

* * * *

They moved on. Some time later, they paused before a very firmly closed, locked, and bolted door. Various sounds of an extreme nature drifted past the heavy wooden door, which bore the sign Exams Under Way.

“I see the magical tantric sex classes are still very popular,” said Hawk.

“For those who survive them, yes,” said Fisher.

They lingered for a while outside the door. They had no business there, but still . . . Sudden raised voices from the base of the Tree travelled up the open elevator shaft behind them and caught their attention, and they reluctantly decided that they’d better check them out. They shot down the shaft on the flat wooden slab, just a little more quickly than they were comfortable with, and made their way to the entrance of the Millennium Oak, where a Famous Name had turned up, demanding entrance.

The Tree’s security guards were blocking the newcomer’s way, politely but very firmly, with closed ranks and drawn swords; but Warren Wulfshead wasn’t the kind to be easily impressed or intimidated. He just stood there, his fists planted solidly on his hips, glaring right into the guards’ faces, loudly demanding to be allowed to enter. Demanding that he had a right to enter the Academy, because of who and what he was, and that he had every intention of tutoring all the students, teaching them everything he knew and recruiting the best of them for his own purposes.

Everyone had heard of the Wulfshead, of course, though for many this was the first chance they’d had to see the outlaw legend in the flesh. He was tall and darkly handsome, lithely muscled, and even standing still he burned with barely suppressed nervous energy. He looked like he’d much rather be killing a whole bunch of people, and only basic politeness was holding him back. He looked down his prominent nose at everyone present, his mouth set in a flat, determined line. He had a high, bony forehead, a receding hairline, and cold, cold eyes. It was hard to believe he could have done all the heroically violent things he was supposed to have done, and still appear to be only in his early thirties. Just looking at him, you got the impression he was quite prepared to walk through and over absolutely anyone who got in his way. You could also tell that he quite clearly saw himself as a Born Leader. Such men are dangerous. Especially to those they lead.

Warren Wulfshead, legendary bandit and brigand of Redhart, wore clothes of green and brown, for camouflage, so he could blend into the scenery and shoot his enemies in the back, from ambush. And then run away. Though that was rarely mentioned in the many widely circulating stories and songs based on his exploits. Warren Wulfshead was a professional outlaw, a renegade by choice, and if the rumours were to believed . . . he was also the author of most of the stories and songs about him.

Hawk and Fisher had heard of him. They didn’t approve of him at all.

They shouldered their way through the crowd that had gathered in the entrance hall, eager for a look at a living legend and maybe even an autograph, and then they eased their way through the ranks of security guards, to finally stand before the Wulfshead. Who looked Hawk and Fisher up and down, curled his lip briefly to show how unimpressed he was, and then went for the bluff and hearty approach. He gave them both a quick, manly smile, nicely calculated to demonstrate that he was officially pleased to meet the current heads of the Hero Academy but that they weren’t on his level and so shouldn’t use the opportunity to take advantage. The Wulfshead was always the hero of the story, wherever he happened to be, and no matter whom he was speaking to. But before he could say anything, Hawk got in first. Because he was never impressed by anybody.

“Yes, we know who you are, and no, we don’t care,” he said bluntly. “You’re not welcome here.”

“We don’t approve of you,” said Fisher.

“Whyever not?” said the Wulfshead, honestly taken aback.

“Because we’ve talked with people who’ve actually met you,” said Hawk.

He took a careful, deliberate step forward, so he could plant himself directly in front of the Wulfshead and block his entrance to the Tree. The Wulfshead didn’t budge an inch, and the two men faced off. The Wulfshead made a point of playing to the eagerly watching crowd. He was famous, or perhaps more properly infamous, for leading a pack of political outlaws that liked to be called the Werewolves, in the darker and more primitive woods of Redhart. The country was ruled by King William, who was, in turn, very strictly advised by the elected Parliament. But the Wulfshead saw growing democracy as too slow a process. There was a certain amount of support for his cause, but not for his methods. Which tended to be brutal, murderous, and self-serving. You were either on the Wulfshead’s side or you were dead. The Wulfshead had never actually said who or what should replace the King, but no one would have been at all surprised if Warren’s name turned out to be at the top of the list. He was, after all, a Born Leader.

“We’d heard you’d been doing badly,” said Hawk. “That your vicious activities had undermined your cause and turned most of Redhart’s population against you.”

“Lies, spread by my enemies,” said the Wulfshead, still playing to the crowd.

“Most of your followers have been killed, arrested, or just deserted,” said Fisher. “Because you treat your people worse than the King does.”

“And because you don’t know a thing about strategy,” said Hawk. “Hiding in the deep woods, attacking from ambush and then disappearing, is all you know. Last I heard, you’d been chased right out of Redhart, with your few remaining followers. You tried to set up business in the Forest Kingdom, but since that’s mostly a democracy these days, with just a constitutional monarchy, your brand of outlaw politics never stood a chance. The Forest army kicked you out before you’d even had time to write a song about being there. And now here you are; with a mere seven followers, none too impressive, I might add, demanding the right to tutor my students in your own brand of extreme politics, so you can carry them off to be battle fodder in your own private war. Like I’m going to let that happen.”

“I need a new base, and a new army,” the Wulfshead said calmly. “And I have found them both here. You can’t stand against me. I have destiny on my side. They’re not your people anymore. They’re mine.”

“Over my dead body,” said Hawk.

The Wulfshead smiled happily. “That’s the idea, yes. A ship can’t have two Captains.” He looked at Fisher. “I’m here for him. The man in charge. You don’t get to interfere.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Fisher. “My Hawk may not be as young as he used to be, but there will never be a day when he needs my help to take out a jumped-up little turd like you.”

The Wulfshead gestured imperiously to his followers. “Seize her!”

Fisher stepped forward and glared right into the faces of the seven Werewolves. They backed away despite themselves, huddled together and shifted their feet uncertainly, and didn’t make a single move to go for their weapons. They didn’t know what to do with people who weren’t scared of them. Fisher let loose with a harsh bark of laughter and set herself firmly between the Werewolves and their leader. She nodded briskly to Hawk, who looked thoughtfully at the Wulfshead for a moment before drawing his axe and hefting it meaningfully. In a simple, straightforward way that showed it was something he did every day. Something he was very good at.

The Wulfshead stepped back, looked quickly about him, and realised he’d lost the attention of the crowd. He pulled open the front of his brown and green tunic to reveal a preserved wolf’s paw hanging on a silver chain over his very hairy chest. Some people in the crowd made impressed noises, but not many. They’d all seen stranger things, studying at the Hero Academy. The Wulfshead drew his long sword, making a real production of it. He swept the blade back and forth before him, the burnished steel shining bright and sharp in the golden ambience of the entrance hall. He smiled mockingly at Hawk, who hadn’t moved an inch.

“See the wolf’s paw, little man? I cut it off a werewolf I killed in Redhart, when I was just starting out. Hacked the paw right off and had it made into this useful charm, so I can share the wolf’s strength and speed. No one gets in my way and gets away with it. I have a destiny to fulfil! I’m going to carve you up and cut you into little pieces, little man.”

Hawk said nothing. Just stood where he was, in his experienced fighter’s crouch, axe at the ready, looking like the solid, skilled warrior he was. Students were running into the hall from all directions—not to interfere, but to watch and learn. News of the two clashing legends had spread quickly through the Millennium Oak, and now students and tutors alike were pressing forward to watch the fight. Because some lessons are best observed firsthand. Hawk didn’t move, or even look around, but he did smile briefly at the Wulfshead.

“Don’t mind them,” he said easily. “They just like to watch me work.”

The Wulfshead laughed theatrically, and swept his blade back and forth. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, flexed his muscles ostentatiously, and sneered at Hawk. “Pay attention, everyone!” he said loudly. “And I will show you how it’s done. And when it’s over, Fisher, you can take me on a guided tour of my new home.”

He surged forward while he was still speaking, an old trick, and Hawk went forward to meet him. The Wulfshead stamped and danced around Hawk, darting this way and that, moving almost too quickly for the human eye to follow. He laughed at Hawk, taunting him, darting in and out, his sword seemingly everywhere at once . . . without actually committing himself to anything, trying to provoke Hawk into making the first attack. But Hawk just held his fighter’s crouch, shuffling slowly round so he was always facing the Wulfshead, no matter how quickly the outlaw tried to catch him off balance. For all the much younger man’s speed and fury, somehow Hawk was always in the right place at the right time.

Finally the Wulfshead realised he was getting short of breath to no purpose. He roared deafeningly and hurled himself forward, his sword flashing in for the kill . . . and there was Hawk, waiting for him. His axe lashed out in one simple, brutal movement and buried itself in the Wulfshead’s chest. There was a loud cracking sound, as the heavy steel axe head slammed right through the silver chain holding the wolf’s paw, through the outlaw’s breastbone, and deep into his heart. Blood coursed down from the terrible wound, and the Wulfshead stood very still. His hand slowly opened, and the sword dropped from his numb fingers. The blade made a loud noise as it hit the floor, but neither Hawk nor the Wulfshead looked down. They only had eyes for each other.

The outlaw’s mouth moved. Blood came out of it, and spilled down over his chin. “How . . . ?”

“The High Warlock made this axe, for the original Hawk,” said Hawk. “It can cut through anything, including magical defences. Like the disguised charm hidden inside a wolf’s paw. This axe was handed down to me through all the other Hawks, just so I could deal with dangerous little shits like you.”

“Oh,” said the Wulfshead.

Hawk jerked the axe head out of the outlaw’s chest, in a flurry of blood, and the Wulfshead collapsed and fell to the floor, as though that had been all that was holding him up. Hawk looked down at him, and then raised his axe and brought it swinging sharply down again, to cut off the Wulfshead’s head. Just in case. There was a great burst of applause, and not a little cheering, from all those watching in the entrance hall, from students and tutors alike. Some money changed hands here and there, but not a lot; most people had more sense than to bet against Hawk.

“Nice work,” said Fisher, moving forward to stand beside Hawk. “I knew you could take him.”

“But you would have cut him down from behind, if it looked like I was losing?” said Hawk.

“Of course,” said Fisher. And they shared a quiet grin. Then they turned unhurriedly to look at the Wulfshead’s seven followers, standing very close together and doing their best to appear completely unthreatening.

“All right,” said Hawk. “There’s a place for you here, if you want it. Stay here as students, learn how to be real fighters, and how to atone for all the things you did before you got here. Or you can leave. Now. Your choice.”

“We’d like to stay,” said one of the former Werewolves, and the others nodded quickly in agreement. Fisher signalled the security guards, who moved forward and disarmed the outlaws.

“See they get a good meal,” growled Fisher. “They look half-starved.”

The guards led the ex-outlaws away. A student in the watching crowd held up his hand to ask a question, as though he was still in class.

“Excuse me, sir Hawk,” he said diffidently, “but according to all the old songs and stories we heard in the Forest Kingdom, the original Hawk’s axe, the one made specially for him by the High Warlock, was lost during Hawk and Fisher’s visit to the otherworldly realm of Reverie, home to the Blue Moon, where they finally confronted and destroyed the Demon Prince.”

Hawk waited a moment, to be sure the student had finished, and then nodded briskly. “Even that couldn’t keep the axe from its rightful owner.” He paused for a moment, to clean the last of the blood from his axe head with a piece of cloth, then tucked the cloth back into his sleeve and put the axe back at his side. He realised the student was still looking at him. “The axe turned up again, when it was needed. As such things have a habit of doing.”

“It just goes to show,” Fisher said cheerfully, turning her back on the dead body lying on the floor, “never believe everything you read in a story or hear in a song.”

“And never trust a minstrel,” said Hawk.

* * * *

The Auditions started at noon, but long before then the massive Audition Hall at the heart of the great Millennium Oak was packed from wall to wall with willing hopefuls, heroes-in-waiting, and desperate last-chancers. They came from far and wide, from every country and background, and some from cities and cultures no one had ever heard of. There were no entrance fees and no conditions. By long tradition, if you could find your way to the Hero Academy, you would get your chance to show what you could do and demonstrate your worthiness to be accepted. There wasn’t even a limit to the number of students admitted to the Academy every year; if you could prove you had what it takes, the Academy would make room for you. Of course, every potential student had to show their stuff right there, when called on, in front of everyone, and tough luck if you froze. The Audition process wasn’t for the faint of heart, but that was part of the challenge. If you couldn’t deliver in front of an audience, what use would you be in a battle?

Hawk and Fisher got there early. They always liked to make a point of that, taking their seats on the dais at the rear of the Audition Hall, so they could watch the place filling up. Long experience had taught them that if they didn’t, potential students would look in, see the empty chairs, and go away again. Because if Hawk and Fisher weren’t there, it meant the Auditions weren’t anywhere near getting started, so there was no point in showing their faces. Besides, Hawk and Fisher liked to sit back and watch the students gather, study their hopeful faces, and make quiet side bets on which ones would faint or wet themselves, or have a fit of the vapours, the moment they were called on to perform.

Some tutors turned up to watch and some didn’t. Because some were people persons and some most definitely weren’t. Some weren’t even people, strictly speaking. You didn’t get on staff at the Hawk and Fisher Memorial Academy by having a pleasant manner; you secured your place by demonstrating extraordinary skills and sheer force of will. Roland the Headless Axeman turned up for every Audition, standing beside Hawk, disdaining anything as soft and comfortable as a chair. He stood unnaturally still, his back perfectly straight, seeming to observe absolutely everything. Even though he didn’t have any eyes. Or ears.

He doesn’t miss anything, Hawk said once.

Oh, he must do, said Fisher. It was a very old joke, even then.

I heard that, said Roland. I’m not deaf.

Then what are you? said Hawk.

Complicated, said Roland.

Fisher then said something extremely rude, and everyone present pretended not to have heard.

The Alchemist would slouch in whenever he felt like it, glaring around at everyone else as though they’d kept him waiting. He wore a grubby white lab robe, with many colourful stains and scorch marks. He’d been wearing it for years, and on bad days you could smell it coming long before you ever saw the Alchemist. He could have had it cleaned, or even bought a nice new one, but apparently he considered the various signs of hard use as battle scars or marks of honour. It made a statement, he liked to say, though of what exactly, no one was too sure. Survival against the odds, probably. And it did help to put his students into a suitably cautious state of mind.

The Alchemist himself was painfully thin, jumpy, and a decidedly testy sort, with a number of nervous twitches that chased one another round his body. He had an ascetic scholar’s face, with a haunted, preoccupied look. There were always a great many bets among his students as to whether he’d actually make it to the end of term. But somehow he always did. Even if his laboratory sometimes didn’t. There was no doubt he knew his stuff, and a whole bunch of other stuff that nobody else knew; and he was an excellent teacher, as long as you paid careful attention, and hit the floor when he told you to. He might not be able to turn lead into gold, yet, but he could blow shit up with great skill and never-ending enthusiasm. Many a battle had been won with one of the Alchemist’s little helpers. It was just that his extensive knowledge was accompanied by a wide-ranging curiosity and a complete lack of self-preservation instincts. At all of his lectures, there was always a scuffle between those who were going to sit up close, where they could see everything, and those who just wanted to stay safely at the back, near the door. And it was standard practice that if the Alchemist should say “Oops,” it was every student for himself.

Jonas Crane the Bladesmaster, head tutor in all the soldiering skills, sauntered into the hall at the very last moment and stood at parade rest next to Fisher. He was the Academy’s only Bladesmaster, now that Anton la Vern was gone. He didn’t say anything, as he stood glaring out over the Audition hopefuls; he didn’t have to. His whole stance, wrapped in gleaming chain mail armour, spoke volumes. Fisher sighed, heavily.

“You’re not happy, are you, Jonas? I say this on the grounds that your stance is disapproving so loudly it’s giving me a headache.”

“La Vern was a Bladesmaster,” said Crane, in his harsh soldier’s voice. “We don’t grow on trees. Even if some of us teach in them.” That might or might not have been a joke. Crane wasn’t exactly famous for his sense of humour. In fact, some said that if he did smile, it meant it was going to rain for forty days.

“We’ll get you another assistant Bladesmaster as soon as we can,” said Hawk.

“I want a raise,” said Jonas Crane.

“It’s nice to want things,” said Fisher. “Now stop moaning, or I will slap you one, and it will hurt.”

Crane snorted loudly but had nothing more to say. For the moment. In Hawk and Fisher’s experience, Crane was never short of things to say, in his own good time. He also had a tendency to loom, in a meaningful sort of way. Crane was a large and blocky man in his late forties, as ugly as a cow’s arse, and strangely proud of his great barbarian’s mane of long blonde hair. He dyed it, and only thought no one else knew. He had a certain kind of animal magnetism, which attracted a certain kind of student, and his bed was rarely empty. If any of his conquests started getting too possessive, Crane would let them fight it out in a public duel.

Lily Peck, the Academy’s Witch in Residence, was always the last to arrive. A gifted and highly experienced adept at every kind of magic you could name, and some best not discussed in front of the easily shocked, Lily was short and dumpy, defiantly middle-aged, in a sweet and cosy way, who turned people into small, smelly snot creatures only when they really annoyed her. She was always ready to lend an ear, because she loved gossip, and she could brew a lust philtre that would blow the top of your head off. This sometimes led to complaints, particularly when she drank the stuff herself, and then there would be loud recriminations, and tears before bedtime, and before you knew it . . . it was small-hopping-thing time again.

Lily Peck preferred to stand at the very back of the dais, half-hidden behind the other tutors. Not because she was shy, but because she didn’t believe in making a target of herself. You don’t get to be a really powerful witch without making many enemies, among the living and the dead. She always carried a dead cat balanced on her shoulder, which hunched and spat at everyone and observed the world through malevolent fused-over eyes. Hawk winced as Lily took up her usual position, just behind his chair.

“I do wish you’d get yourself a new familiar, Lily. That cat is getting decidedly whiffy.”

“You’re just prejudiced against the mortally challenged,” said Lily. “Spot’s a good cat.”

“He is not mortally challenged, he is dead,” Hawk said firmly. “And he stinks! I know he’s dead because my dog keeps trying to roll on him, and I can tell he’s decaying because my eyes start to water every time you bring him anywhere near me. Why couldn’t you settle for a parrot on your shoulder, like most people?”

“Because I am not like most people!” said Lily. “And I am not a pirate! I’m a witch, and some traditions you just don’t mess with. I’ll get a new familiar when this one falls apart, and not before. That is one of the traditional tests for how your familiar’s doing; if he nods his head and it falls off, it’s time to upgrade.”

“I remember Cook talking to me once,” said Fisher, “about how you can tell when a game bird is ready to eat.”

Hawk looked at her suspiciously. “What?”

“You hang it up by the head, and when the neck rots through and the body falls to the floor, that’s when it’s ready to eat,” said Fisher. “And she also told me that when she had to deal with game meat, she was always careful to grease her arms up to the elbows, so that when the maggots came crawling out of the meat, they couldn’t get up her arms.”

“I am never eating game meat again,” said Hawk.

“You are so unadventurous,” said Fisher.

By now the massive Audition Hall was packed with row upon row of hopeful prospects, squeezed so tightly together they could hardly breathe. The only space left open was the demonstration area, before the dais. It was marked out with white chalk lines on the floor, with guards standing by to enforce them, the guards were hardly ever needed. No one was stupid enough to risk being thrown out before they’d even had a chance to show what they could do.

The crowd didn’t contain just hopeful young things; unfortunately, there were parents too. There to be supportive, or protective; to cheer or cry or pick arguments with the judges, as necessary. There were always some parents determined to live out their dreams through their children, to make them the heroes and warriors they’d always known they could have been . . . if only they could have found the time. And some parents (usually but not always mothers of a certain age) were there to fight to the death over any decision that didn’t favour their particular offspring. The heavily armed security guards drew lots in advance to see who got this duty, because the hazard pay was never enough to justify what they had to go through.

When it finally became clear that you couldn’t cram one more Auditioner into the hall, even if you greased them from head to foot and used a crowbar, Hawk and Fisher rose to their feet and the whole hall fell silent. The crowd was hushed, wrapped in an almost unbearable tension. Hawk and Fisher gave their usual brief speech of welcome and warning (Give it your best shot, but don’t waste our time) and then sat down again and gestured for the Auditions to begin. They kept the speech short because they knew everyone there was so on edge, and so caught up in themselves, that they could have announced the imminent end of the world and no one would have noticed.

The Administrator appeared, apparently out of nowhere, and jabbed his blackthorn staff at the first petitioner, and just like that, the Hero Auditions began.

First up was a really impressive performance from a would-be sorcerer. He was still in his late teens, though the black robes and white face paint made him look older as he produced clouds of billowing black smoke, shot flames from his hands, and pulled a dead rabbit out of his hat. Given his reaction to the rabbit being dead, and the speed with which he stuffed it back into the hat, presumably the dead part hadn’t been intentional. He got some applause, and bobbed his head quickly in all directions, until Lily Peck stepped forward and fixed him with a cold glare.

“Nice try,” she said, “but that’s not sorcery. Those were all tricks and illusions. The quickness of the hand deceives the mind, and all that. Come back when you’ve learned some real magic, and not before.”

The young man disappeared back into the crowd before she’d even finished talking. Bunny-killer, murmured some sections of the crowd.

An archer was the next to step forward, longbow in hand. He then made a long and tearful speech about what an honour it was to be there, and how much this would have meant to his poor dear dead granny, who had always believed in him . . . and how he was doing this for her . . . Until Hawk leant forward and shut the archer up with a cold look.

“Sorry,” said Hawk, “but we don’t do sentiment here. There’s a target off to your right. Hit the bull’s-eye or piss off.”

“Right,” said Fisher. “What are you going to do in the middle of a battle, make the other side cry so hard they can’t see to shoot straight?”

The archer swallowed hard, took careful aim, and hit the stuffed target every time. Unfortunately, nowhere near the bull’s-eye. The archer glared at Hawk and Fisher.

“You put me off! You made me nervous! I demand a second chance!”

“We don’t do demands, either,” said Hawk.

The archer slunk back into the crowd, close to tears again. No one paid him any attention. Partly because everyone there knew it was all about the performance, but mainly because they were all too wrapped up in their own moment of truth. None of them would allow themselves to be put off, or need a second chance. They were the stuff of heroes and warriors, and they were here to prove it.

Next up was a bright-eyed young swordsman wrapped in flashing silks. He nodded and grinned at the judges, and put on an extraordinary solo performance, dancing and stamping and thrusting, his sword whipping back and forth in flashes of gleaming steel. He was fast and graceful, and undeniably skilled, and when he finally crashed to a halt and saluted the judges with his sword, breathing hard, his face covered with sweat, there was a grudging but real ripple of applause from the crowd. Hawk nodded slowly.

“Impressive. Bladesmaster Crane, if you would . . .”

The Bladesmaster stepped down from the dais, his long sword already in his hand, and launched a vicious attack on the young swordsman. Crane didn’t say a word, just cut and hacked with brutal skill. The swordsman almost fell over himself backing away, and had to use all his strength and speed just to fend off the attacks. The Bladesmaster beat the sword out of the young man’s hand and set the point of his sword at his opponent’s throat. The young swordsman stood very still but wouldn’t back away. The Bladesmaster nodded briefly to him, turned away, and sheathed his sword, then resumed his place on the dais. He wasn’t even breathing hard. Hawk looked sympathetically at the wide-eyed young swordsman.

“Nice skills. Very practiced. But playing with yourself won’t get you anywhere. Go away and learn some duelling skills, fighting real people. And come back again next year, when you’re ready. You’ve got potential, but sword-fighting isn’t about the thrust and parry; it’s about killing the other man before he kills you.”

The young swordsman nodded, just a bit shakily, and put a hand to his throat where the Bladesmaster’s sword point had cut the skin. He looked at the blood on his fingers, picked up his sword from the floor and sheathed it, and marched out of the Audition Hall with his head held high. Several other swordsmen went quietly with him.

The next would-be warrior was an axe-man. Tall and blocky, heavily muscled, wearing well-used leather armour, he strode forward and planted himself firmly before Hawk. He brandished his axe fiercely and demanded in a loud and carrying voice that he be given the opportunity to demonstrate his skills by going head-to-head with Hawk. Roland started to step forward, but Hawk stopped him with a raised hand.

“There’s always one, at every Audition. Someone always wants to take me on, to see if I’m worthy to teach here. Best to get it out of the way now. Everyone got a good view? Then let’s do it.”

He came down from the dais with his axe in his hand, and it seemed like everyone drew in a sudden shocked breath. Hawk was smiling a cold and disturbing smile, and he didn’t look like a stocky middle-aged man anymore. He looked every bit the fighter and warrior everyone knew he must have been before coming to the Millennium Oak to be Hawk. The young axeman suddenly looked a great deal less sure of himself, but to his credit he stood his ground as Hawk advanced on him. They surged forward at the same time, going head-to-head and toe-to-toe, swinging their great axes with vicious strength and speed, throwing everything they had at each other. They stamped and grunted loudly, slamming their axes together, crying out with the impact of each blow, beads of sweat flying from their faces. Hawk never stopped grinning for a moment.

The young axeman was good, but in the end his skills came from practice and his knowledge was mostly theoretical. Hawk had experience. He fought the young axeman to a standstill, his axe seeming to swing in from every direction at once, until finally the axeman disengaged, and fell back several steps. He was gasping for breath, and soaked in sweat, and hardly had enough strength left to raise his axe. He still had some fight left in him—everyone could see that—but he knew he was outclassed. He lowered his axe, and bowed his head to Hawk, who bowed briefly in return. He was breathing hard too, but he hadn’t lost that disturbing grin.

“You’ll do,” said Hawk. He put his axe away and resumed his seat on the dais. Fisher smiled at him fondly.

“Show-off.”

“They get faster every year,” murmured Hawk. “Nearly got me, several times. But I’ve still got the moves.”

Guards led the young axeman away, to begin his new life as a student of the Academy. He was smiling dazedly, as though he couldn’t quite believe it. He got a round of good-natured applause from the crowd.

A quite ordinary-looking teenage girl shuffled forward next, and professed herself a witch, in a quiet, mumbly voice. No one even suspected she was a Seductress, until she mouthed a few words and suddenly every man in the hall was in lust with her. And not a few women. The smell of musk was heavy on the close air, and everyone’s eyes were fixed unblinkingly on the still very ordinary-looking young woman, as though she was the most splendid thing they’d ever seen. She laughed happily, turned to Hawk, and hit him with everything she had.

“Aren’t I lovely?” she said breathily. “I think I belong here, in this silly little school, don’t you? In fact, I think I should be running it. Don’t you?”

She was quite taken aback when Hawk laughed at her, not unkindly. And just like that the spell was broken, and all the spectators in the hall shook their heads in bewilderment, as though they’d just had a bucket of cold water thrown in their faces. They looked at the ordinary teenager and wondered what they’d ever seen in her. There were a few angry murmurs, cut off when Hawk glared at the crowd before giving his full attention to the Seductress.

“You’ve certainly got one hell of a gift,” he said cheerfully. “And there is a place here for you, if you want it. But listen to me, young lady, and be warned: you ever pull that trick again, outside of your supervised classes, and you will be expelled.”

“And we’ll cut your tongue out before we let you go,” Fisher said flatly. “Lily, if you would . . .”

“She is a one, isn’t she?” said Lily, stepping down from the dais. “But I think she’s more Richard and Jane’s sort. You come with me, dear, and I’ll escort you to the tantric people. Sink or swim, that’s what I always say.”

She led the Seductress away, while the young girl was still trying to make up her mind as to whether she’d got what she wanted.

A young man stepped out of the crowd, at the Administrator’s instruction, and stood diffidently before the dais. He too looked pretty ordinary. He wore rough peasant clothes, he didn’t carry a sword, and he didn’t have the look of magic about him.

“I’m a shape-shifter,” he said quietly, his eyes downcast. “I’m Christopher Scott, of the Forest Kingdom. I . . . change shape.”

“You’re a werewolf?” said Hawk.

“Not a werewolf, sir, no,” said Scott, still not raising his eyes from the floor. “I’m a were demon. You must have heard, sir, that back in the day, during the Demon War, when demons broke out of the Darkwood and roamed the Forest Land, they didn’t always kill their victims. Some of them were human enough that they . . . wanted human women. Raped them. That was what happened to my grandmother, when she was still just a girl. I am descended from a demon. I can . . . change, back and forth. And when the moon is full, I change whether I want to or not.”

Hawk and Fisher looked at each other for a long moment. Hawk looked suddenly older. “No,” he said finally. “I hadn’t heard.”

“Show us,” said Fisher.

Scott bobbed his head quickly. He looked around him, to make sure he had plenty of room, and smiled briefly, understandingly, as he saw the front rows of the crowd already backing away from him. He didn’t seem to concentrate, or make any kind of effort; but just like that he was gone, and in his place stood something that was in no way human.

It was a good eight feet tall, covered in night-dark scales, while a long barbed tail lashed eagerly back and forth behind it. It had fangs and claws and cloven hooves, and a horrid fright mask for a face. Just looking at it made you want to kill it. The demon was not a natural thing, and its very wrongness raised the hackles on everyone’s necks. It wanted to break loose, to tear and kill and do horrible things, and everyone could feel that.

The demon put back its hateful face and howled gleefully, a vile sound that reverberated in the Great Hall and sickened everyone who heard it. Hawk and Fisher were on their feet, axe and sword in hand, ready to throw themselves at the demon . . . But it just stood where it was, and made no move to attack. It wanted to kill men and women and glory in their slaughter; but something held it back. Just standing there, it was the most dangerous and deadly thing in the hall, and you could tell that the thoughts that moved in its misshapen head, and the emotions that stirred in its demon heart, had nothing of humanity in them . . . and yet, still, something held it where it was.

It changed again, as easily as a man might shrug off a cloak, and Christopher Scott was back, standing before the dais. His face was white and drawn, and he looked sick, and shaken. He hugged himself tightly, as though afraid that what was inside him might come out again. Hawk made himself resume his seat, and after a moment Fisher did too.

“Impressive,” said Hawk, in a surprisingly steady voice. He looked out across the unhappy crowd, many of whom were still shocked and disturbed. He didn’t know how long they would stay quiet, so he hurried on. “A were demon. Well. You see something new every year. How much control do you have over your . . . other self, Christopher Scott?”

“Not as much as I would wish,” Scott said steadily. “I can feel it inside me, straining against the bars of the cage that holds it. Growing stronger every day. That’s why I came here, sir. Because I just can’t do this anymore. Not on my own. Please, sir Hawk. Tell me you can help me.”

“You’ve come to the right place,” said Hawk. “We have tutors for everything. We’ll find someone who can help you.”

“But,” said Fisher, “we reserve the right to chain you up in a cellar every full moon.”

“Thank you,” said Scott. “Oh, thank you.” He was still saying that when the guards led him away.

Next up was a dark magician. He made no bones about what he was; in fact, he gloried in it. Emboldened by the rapt attention he was getting from the crowd, he struck a practiced pose before Hawk and Fisher, all the better to show off his dark robes, swirling night-dark cape, and the many kinds of demonic amulets hanging from chains over his chest. He’d even cultivated a nicely trimmed goatee and added some subtle dark makeup around his eyes.

“All the dark arts are mine to command!” he said grandly. “I can summon up spirits from the vasty deeps, strike down the living and command the dead. All the powers of the night bow down before me . . .”

“Oh, get on with it,” said Hawk. “We haven’t got all day.”

“Right,” said Fisher. “Amateur dramatics are auditioning next door.”

And somehow, in the face of their entirely unimpressed attention and the fixed gaze of the crowd, it turned out the master of dark forces couldn’t do a damned thing. He tried to chant and curse, but the words just wouldn’t come, and his hands shook too much to manage the scary gestures. He grabbed at one of his demonic amulets, but it came off in his hand and he dropped it onto the floor, where it shattered into a hundred pieces. He finally stamped his foot, said a few baby swear words, and strode out of the hall without looking back.

“Try again next year,” Hawk called after him. “Only next time, leave the nerves at home.”

“Nice speech, though,” said Fisher.

“I’ve heard worse,” said Hawk.

The next Auditioner claimed to be able to fly, but when pressed, could only hover a few feet off the floor.

“Is that it?” said Hawk.

“That’s why I’m here!” said the young witch, dropping heavily back to the floor. “I need training!”

“Come back when you can touch the ceiling,” said Fisher ruthlessly.

The young witch had barely moved out of the way when a mature woman of a certain age and bearing, wearing a gown of so many gaudy colours that they were practically fighting it out for domination, strode forward; dragging a resentful young man along with her. She scowled at Hawk and Fisher, sniffed loudly at the other tutors, and pushed her tall, skinny son forward.

“Show them what you can do, Sidney!”

“Oh, Mum!” said Sidney, staring at his feet. “I don’t want to. Leave me alone! You’re embarrassing me!”

“Don’t be silly, Sidney! This is your big chance. Now show them your miracles!”

“Don’t want to go to the Hero Academy,” muttered Sidney, still stubbornly staring at the floor. “Don’t want to be a hero. I told you. I want to be a tailor, and do interesting things with fabrics.”

“Where’s the money in that?” said his mother, grabbing his arm and giving him a good shake. “Where’s the fame and glory? If your father was still alive he’d be very upset with you. Now show them your miracles, or there’ll be trouble!”

Sidney heaved a very put-upon sigh, and pebbles fell from the ceiling like a hard rain, appearing out of nowhere. There were various shouts and curses from the crowd, packed too closely together to dodge out of the way, but none of the pebbles were large enough to hurt anyone or do any damage. The hard rain stopped abruptly, and Sidney made it rain properly. Though it was more like a drizzle, and didn’t last long enough for anyone to get wet. He made people’s clothes change colour, temporarily, cured a few headaches, grew hair on a bald man’s head, and made it feel as though it might thunder, if you just waited long enough. He then folded his arms tightly across his sunken chest, sniffed moistly, and glared firmly at the ground.

“Is that it?” said Hawk, quite politely under the circumstances. Because even the smallest of miracles was, after all, a miracle.

“Don’t you speak to my Sidney like that!” snapped his mother. “He’s going to be a great man one day, whether he likes it or not! He can do anything, if he just puts his mind to it.”

“You’ve already done one great thing, haven’t you, Sidney?” said Lily Peck, recently returned to the hall. Something in her voice made Sidney raise his head and look at her, and she smiled kindly on him. “Tell me, Sidney, how long ago did your mother die?”

“It’s been four months now,” said Sidney. “I missed her so much, being on my own, so I brought her back. Except it isn’t really her. Just her body, raised up, saying all the things I remember her saying. And now I can’t get rid of her. Can’t make her lie down again and leave me alone. That’s why I finally let her bully me into coming here. Because I hoped someone here would be able to teach me what I need to know; to make her dead again.”

“Sidney!” snapped the dead woman. “That’s no way to speak about your mother!”

“Allow me,” said Lily Peck. She snapped her fingers, and Sidney’s mother crumpled to the floor and lay still. Sidney looked down at his dead mother, prodded the body with his boot, just to be sure, and finally let out a long sigh of relief. And then he started to cry. Lily leaned in close beside Hawk.

“He really does have a great power. You should see his aura. Better let me keep him here, under training, where we can keep a watchful eye on him. And take measures, if necessary.”

“Agreed,” said Hawk. He raised his voice to address Sidney. “All right; you’re in. But no more raising the dead without expert supervision.”

“Of course,” said Sidney. He stopped crying, and blew his nose loudly on a spotted handkerchief. “Trust me—some mistakes you only have to make once.” He looked down at the dead body again. “My mother wasn’t like that. When she was alive. Not really.”

He went quietly with the guards. It took four more guards to carry out the body.

That was the last of the excitement. After that, it was just ordinary fighters, pedestrian magic-users, and a whole bunch of wannabes. Hawk dealt with the fighters by saying they’d have to duel with Roland the Headless Axeman before they could be allowed access to the Academy. Which was more than enough to scare off the insufficiently dedicated. Some departed so fast they left skid marks on the floor. And even after everything they’d seen, a lot of the potential students failed some quite basic tests when they finally got their turn. A potentially very skilled swordsman duelled Roland to a standstill, and then annoyed all the judges by looking down his nose at them. So Hawk said, “Bring in the goat.” Everyone looked on, in a puzzled sort of way, as a guard brought in a very scruffy-looking black goat on a strong leash. The goat looked around, entirely unfazed by the crowd, obviously used to people. Probably some sort of pet, or mascot, murmured the crowd.

Hawk looked at the snooty swordsman. “All right. Go ahead.”

“What?” said the swordsman, looking from Hawk to the goat and back again. “I don’t understand.”

“Yes, you do,” said Hawk. “Kill it. Kill the goat. Now.”

The young swordsman looked at the goat again. The goat looked back, in a quite amiable way. And the swordsman lowered his sword.

“I can’t,” he said almost pleadingly. “I can’t just . . . kill it. Not just like that. Not in cold blood!”

“You can’t turn to your commanding officer in the field and say you can’t kill the enemy because you’re not in the mood,” Hawk said sternly. “Now kill the goat.”

But the swordsman couldn’t. He tried several times to nerve himself to the sticking point, but he couldn’t even look the goat in the eye.

“It’s all right,” Hawk said finally. “You’d be surprised how many people just don’t have the killing instinct. Even when it’s only an animal. They’re just not killers. It’s a useful thing to find out about yourself in a peaceful setting rather than on a battlefield.”

* * * *

The surprise came at the very end of the Auditions, at the end of a very long day. The hall was almost empty, pretty much everyone who wanted to be seen had been seen, and judged, and Hawk and Fisher and the other tutors were just sitting it out through the last stubborn few and getting ready to call it a day, when a striking young man strode forward and bowed gracefully before Hawk and Fisher. Tired as they were, there was something about this one that made them both sit up straight and pay attention. He smiled easily at Hawk and Fisher, calmly confident, and there was just something about him . . . He had that easy charisma, that not-quite-cocky charm, and the assured stance of the experienced fighter. He was tall and elegant, handsomely blonde and blue-eyed, and he wore his chain mail with the ease of long familiarity. He carried a sword at his side, and looked like he knew how to use it. In fact, he looked a hell of a lot more like a hero than anyone else they’d seen that day. Hawk immediately decided he didn’t trust him, just on general principles. No one had any right to look that impressive at that young an age.

“I have travelled a long way to be here, my most noble Lord and Lady, Hawk and Fisher,” he said, in a crisp, commanding voice. “All the way from the Forest Castle, and the Court of King Rufus, of the Forest Land. I was raised there, and have spent much of my life studying the Castle records of what happened during the legendary Demon War. I think I can safely say I know all there is to know about the heroic Prince Rupert and Princess Julia, and their glorious exploits in that time.”

“Really?” said Hawk. “Bet you don’t. You do know you can’t trust everything you read in official reports?”

“But I have been allowed access to more than just the public accounts, sir Hawk,” the young man said smoothly. “Because I am the grandson of Allen Chance, once Questor to Queen Felicity of the Forest Land, and his wife, the witch Tiffany. I am Patrick Chance.”

Hawk and Fisher looked at each other, and then back at the young Chance.

“They were good people,” said Hawk.

“According to all the stories,” said Fisher.

“Their names assure you of our full attention,” said Hawk. “So make sure that whatever you’ve got to say is worth hearing.”

“You’re a bit late for the Auditions,” said Fisher.

“Oh, I didn’t come here for that,” said Chance. He smiled briefly but dismissively at the few remaining Auditioners, and then turned his back on them. He didn’t look at the tutors, either. His gaze was for only Hawk and Fisher. “I am here to speak privately with you, Lord and Lady. I bear grave and important tidings, from King Rufus himself. And my words are for your ears only.”

Hawk and Fisher looked at each other again, and a silent communication passed between them. And then they both stood up and looked thoughtfully down at Patrick Chance. Hawk glanced at Roland the Headless Axeman. “You take care of the last few hopefuls. We’ll abide by your judgement.”

“I should bloody well hope so, after all these years,” said Roland. “You wander off and have a nice chat with young snotty boots here, and I’ll finish off the real work.”

“Graceful as ever, Roland,” said Fisher.

“It’s been a long day,” said Roland. “My head aches.”

Hawk beckoned to Patrick Chance to follow him and Fisher, and they led the way out of the Audition Hall, down a few corridors, and into a quiet side room. Hawk sat down at the only table and gestured for Chance to take the seat opposite him, while Fisher firmly closed the door. Chance politely declined the offered chair, and wandered round the room, looking it over. Fisher came back to stand beside Hawk. Chance turned abruptly, to smile briefly at the two of them. He didn’t look charming any longer. He looked cold and focused, as though he had a necessary but unpleasant duty he was determined to perform.

“Time,” he said. “So much time . . . Did you really think you could escape your past, just by running away to another land, to become someone else? Did you really think you could ever be forgiven for what you did? No. It’s time . . . for you to die.”

He didn’t go for the sword at his side. He raised both his hands in the stance of summoning, and an ancient and awful Word of Power issued from his distorted mouth. A change spell manifested on the air around Hawk and Fisher, spitting and crackling, designed to reshape their bodies, their flesh and bone, and remake them into something entirely incapable of surviving. A slow and nasty way to die. Except . . . the spell couldn’t reach Hawk and Fisher. It howled and coruscated on the air around them, unable to get a hold on them or affect them in any way at all. Strange lights flickered and flared, strange energies beat frustrated in the room, and none of them worked. The spell fell apart and dissipated harmlessly and was gone, leaving Patrick Chance to look stupidly at the unchanged Hawk and Fisher before him.

“That’s not possible,” he said numbly. “The charm of unmaking is one of the oldest there is; nothing in this world can withstand a change spell of that magnitude!”

“It was a nice try,” said Hawk. “But change spells are no use against us.”

“Not after everything we’ve been through,” said Fisher.

“The lesser magics can’t touch us,” said Hawk. “We have been touched by the Wild Magic, and we will always be . . . what we are.”

“Damn right,” said Fisher.

Hawk rose unhurriedly to his feet and looked coldly at Patrick Chance. “So. You’re not really the Questor’s grandson, are you? Who sent you?”

“Who is there who still knows who we really are?” said Fisher.

Chance drew himself up and sneered at them both. “You’ll never know. You can’t make me talk.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find we can,” said Hawk.

“No,” said Chance. “You can’t. This moment was prepared for, before I left. The price of failure was made very clear to me.”

His back arched suddenly, his face contorted by an awful agony. He fell to the floor and lay there convulsing, trying to force a scream through clenched teeth. Hawk and Fisher hurried towards him, and then stopped abruptly as what had been Patrick Chance changed its shape into something not in any way human. It was a demon. Not the huge and dark-scaled thing they’d seen in the Audition Hall earlier, though; this was just a squat, distorted shape, with needle teeth and scarlet eyes and jagged claws. It kicked a few times, lashed out at them once, for spite’s sake, and then it died. The flesh melted quickly from its bones, which dissolved in their turn, until there was nothing left but a dark stain on the wooden floor and an unpleasant smell on the air. Hawk and Fisher moved over to the open window and breathed deeply.

“Well,” said Hawk. “That was . . . interesting.”

“Interesting, hell!” said Fisher. “Someone knows who we really are!”

“It had to happen eventually,” said Hawk. He turned to look back at the dark stain on the floor, already being absorbed by the wood. “A hundred years since the Demon War . . . and we encounter two demons in one day. If I didn’t know better, I’d say someone was trying to tell us something.”

“Not forgetting the flock of dead birds that landed on our heads first thing this morning,” said Fisher. “What was that? A threat, or a warning?”

“It’s late,” said Hawk. “And I’m tired. Let’s go to bed.”

* * * *

It was late evening and already dark outside by the time they finally got to bed. They hadn’t realised how long the Auditions had dragged on. They sat side by side in a large four-poster bed, on a goose-feather mattress they could sink right down into. Their backs were currently supported by a padded headboard, and a warm golden light glowed from the walls. The Tree looked after its own. Hawk had a nice mug of steaming hot chocolate. Fisher had a large glass of brandy. With a paper umbrella in it. Both of them warming the inner self in their own ways.

They were both wearing long white nightshirts, complete with their initials picked out tastefully on the left breast. They never used to wear anything to bed when they were younger, but they’d reluctantly agreed to wear the things because otherwise it shocked the students when they went to the jakes in the early hours of the morning. And besides, the winters were a lot colder these days. Their room was comfortable, even cosy, though, and absolutely nobody bothered them.

Hawk and Fisher sat slumped together, the bedclothes pulled up round their waists, quietly discussing the day’s events. At the foot of the four-poster, on a pile of really smelly blankets, their really smelly old dog lay curled up, snoring loudly. He was a great, long-legged, high-shouldered brute of an animal, of no particular breed, old now, as they were old, but still active enough to get into his own fair share of trouble. His fur was grey, and white around the muzzle. He twitched restlessly, chasing rabbits in his dreams. He farted loudly.

Hawk shook his head slowly. “He’s getting past it.”

“Aren’t we all,” said Fisher.

“At least I don’t lick my privates in public,” said Hawk.

“You would if you could,” said Fisher. “Actually, I think I’d pay good money to see that.”

The dog let loose with a quick series of bubbling farts, like a miniature rumbling volcano and almost as explosive. Hawk and Fisher both winced.

“I’ll have the Alchemist whip up some more of those little blue pills,” said Hawk.

“It’s either that or a bung,” said Fisher.

“Are we really not going to talk about the demons?” said Hawk, putting his empty mug down on the bedside table.

Fisher emptied her brandy glass and tossed it casually into a cushioned chair. “What is there to say? It’s just a coincidence. Has to be. There’s no one left alive who knows what we did. Who we used to be.”

“Someone must have sent that demon assassin, pretending to be Patrick Chance,” Hawk said stubbornly. “They knew just the right name to get past our defences. Someone wants us dead!”

“What can we do?” said Fisher. “Run? I don’t think so. No one chases me out of my own home.”

“We were planning on leaving anyway,” Hawk said carefully. “Perhaps our mysterious enemy wouldn’t go after the new Hawk and Fisher. Our replacements.”

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” said Fisher. “I thought we were safe here. I thought . . . all that was over.”

“The past is never over,” said Hawk.

And then they both sat up sharply and looked around them. Something was wrong. They could feel it. Something bad was coming, coming right at them, from a direction they could sense but not identify. Something forcing its way into the world, from Outside. And then suddenly there he was, standing right in the middle of the room, grinning nastily at them from the foot of their bed.

The Demon Prince.

He looked something like a man, close enough to human to mock and discredit humanity with the comparison. He was unnaturally tall, and slender to the point of emaciation. His pale flesh had a lambent pearly gleam, unhealthy as leprosy, and he dressed in rags and tatters of purest black, as though he’d wrapped himself in snatches torn from the night itself. He wore a battered, broad-brimmed hat, pulled down low over his fiery crimson eyes; and from what could be seen, his features were blurred, uncertain, as though they could never settle on just the one face. He held his pale hands up before him, as though in mocking prayer or entreaty, and his long delicate fingers ended in vicious claws, from which dark, clotted blood dripped constantly. There was nothing human in his stance, in the way he held himself. He looked like a man because it amused him to do so. Once, he had looked like something else, and might again, but for now he lived in the world of men and shaped himself accordingly. If the word lived could ever be properly applied to something that had never been born.

The Demon Prince, lord of all the demons in the Darkwood. Who had tried to wipe out all humanity in the Demon War and rewrite the living world in his own awful image.

His presence seemed to bruise the air, and stain the light, to foul the room just by being in it. Slow creakings moved through the wood of the room, as though the old Tree was disturbed by the Demon Prince’s very existence. His feet burned through the rugs on the floor, and scorched the wood beneath. The Demon Prince smiled slowly at Hawk and Fisher, showing pointed teeth, and when he spoke, his voice was the one you hear in your very worst nightmares.

“Well, well . . . hello again, my sweets. It’s been such a long time, hasn’t it? Did you like my little assassin, my calling card?”

“How did you get in here, past all the Tree’s defences?” said Hawk. His voice wasn’t quite as steady as he would have liked.

“You invited me in,” said the Demon Prince. In a voice like babies crying, like children dying, like a scream in the night. “You let me in, with your precious applicants for the Auditions, and no one saw me. I live inside people now. You saw to that. You’ll never find me, and I’ll be long gone anyway. Aren’t you glad to see me again, my most treasured enemies, my dearest rivals? You’re as much a legend as me now, Rupert. Julia.”

“What do you want?” said Fisher.

“Your grandchildren are in danger,” said the Demon Prince sweetly. “They will die, slowly and horribly, unless you return to the Forest Kingdom to save them. A war is coming. Country against country, army against army . . . Farms and towns and cities burning in the night, blood and slaughter in the woods, terror on the march. The darkness is rising, the Blue Moon is coming back, and you and I will play the game of Fate and Destiny one last time. And I will finally have my revenge . . . when the Wild Magic is loosed in the world of men forever. Stop me, my dear ones, if you can.”

He vanished, gone in a moment. Nothing left to show he had ever been there, except for the scorch marks his feet had left on the floor. The old dog at the foot of the bed raised his great grey head.

“Oh, bloody hell. Not again.”

“Hush, Chappie,” said Hawk.