Tremors shook the earth each time his brother swung his oversized sword and sent a head flying, followed two or three seconds later by the thump of a headless body on the stony ground. Hector’s roots detected the tremors and carried them up through his slender trunk into the branching channels of his thirsty brain. He’s coming, the wooden synapses whispered. He’s coming to save us, Roland the assassin, Childe Roland with the killer’s eyes and the heart of iron. Hector spread the roots of his toes, feeling for additional clues as to Roland’s whereabouts. He’s coming quickly.
The henwife. The child was approaching the henwife’s hut, and he was tired.
Alexander, now; Roland was surely no Alexander. The eldest brother had only got as far as the henwife’s hut before he gave in. The instructions had been unambiguous – kill everyone you meet in Elfland by chopping off her head – and Alexander had known full well what would be the consequences of failing to follow them. Not only had he heard the stories, he had told them himself in the winter evenings beside the fire, his harp trilling out the tunes that gave them life. But knowledge is one thing, action another. The henwife had undone Alexander, with her crinkled face the colour of fallen leaves and the quizzical look that came into her eyes when she finished giving directions and he raised his sword.
In retrospect it seemed inevitable. How could Alexander possibly kill the henwife, that inexhaustible fund of the songs and stories that filled his dreams? As soon kill his mother, his grandmother, the wizened old wives of the village – collective mothers to his father’s people – who taught him all he knew. As soon kill himself…
And kill himself he did, at least as a storyteller and a musician. Now Alexander’s claws pinched Hector’s branches as the bard, now bird, hopped lugubriously through the thicket of his brother’s thoughts. Pinching was now his only language. He couldn’t speak or sing, only croak like a toad and dance his ungainly dance when the wind got up and Hector swayed. The elves were both cruel and cunning in the punishments they meted out for disobedience.
Hector, on the other hand – Hector the second brother – Hector was made of sterner stuff. He had killed the henwife, as he had killed the goatherd and the tinker and the tinker’s dog. He had killed the tinker’s dog when it barked at him, just to make sure, though the old man had never said anything about beheading dogs or birds or insects. After that Hector had made it all the way to the Dark Tower, blown the slug-horn, seen the girl running out. Even now he remembered the sense of exultation he had felt as she ran towards him, because he too knew the stories, knew from the start that he would have no chance in this one. The eldest brother sometimes prevailed, the youngest brother often, but the middle brother never, not in any version of the story he’d ever heard told. He had had no chance at all. Yet he had come. And here he was, the conditions fulfilled, the last test passed, his sister running towards him. Against all odds he had won her back. In his triumph he dropped his sword, stretched out his arms to catch her, laughed and cried. And even as the sword hit the ground he had felt the changes coming over him.
His boots split open, his toes burst wriggling out of them and started to burrow into the stony earth like eels burrowing into the carcass of a horse. His outspread arms forked and forked again, each bifurcation wrenching apart his bones and sinews. His head split, too, sending tender new twigs of thought in all directions. The last thing he saw as the bark spread over his eyes was the look of horror on his sister’s face as he exploded into vegetation. There had been plenty of days since then to remember that look, as he stood at the entrance to the Tower, a rowan tree rooted among the rocks with a useless raven hopping around among its leafless branches.
There had been plenty of time, too, to think about what he had done wrong.
Kill everyone you meet in Elfland, the old man had said. Not every elf, as Hector had assumed. Kill everyone you meet without exception. For Hector, Burd Ellen had after all never really been in Elfland – she had come here under duress, she belonged in the fields and woods of Daddy’s estate. That was his assumption, based on an understanding of the riddling words of bards and elves. But he had been wrong, for all his wiliness (he was the wiliest among the brothers, the middle brother nearly always was). And now…
Here came Roland, the youngest brother, a child of twelve, armed with the same instructions, those riddling words. He too didn’t stand a chance. For one thing, he was carrying the oldest sword, the blunt one from the back of the stables. His body and limbs were unprotected by cold iron, because there had been no armour in the house small enough to fit him. How to warn him? How to let him know? It couldn’t be done. A tree has no voice, or what voice it has is only ever borrowed – the hissing of leaves in a rising wind – and is in any case only available at certain times not of its choosing. No hope of warning there. But the bird? It’s a bird of omen, the raven, isn’t it? Could his brother give some sort of hint at the old man’s trickery? Could Alexander save Childe Roland, absent-minded, gullible old Alexander with the misty eyes?
From the feel of its claws, the raven was jumping up and down in agitation, croaking no doubt if Hector could have heard it. Flapping its wings as well, he shouldn’t wonder. He could see it in the twigs of his mind, jumping up and down, croaking. Pathetic. The boy wouldn’t see it in a month of Sundays. Childe Roland only ever had eyes for the task in hand, he couldn’t be distracted, that was part of his coldness. Nothing short of a peck on the ankle would get his attention, and then it was more than likely that the boy would strike, with deadly accuracy, at the raven’s head, with his big blunt sword, and Alexander would lose his life all over again.
There was nothing his brothers could do to help him.
And now the footsteps, pounding, pounding on the granite flags of the Dark Tower’s floor. Coming closer at frightening speed. Out into the open. He could feel her presence through his silvery bark, a kind of glow, like the touch of the sun on his woody skin in the afternoon. She had stopped in front of Childe Roland. The boy must be looking her up and down with his killer’s eyes.
The boy would strike.
And suddenly Hector had lost all doubt. The boy would strike, it was who he was, it was what he did. Childe Roland had known from the moment the old man issued his grim instructions what he must do, and he had known too that he could do it, that he alone of Ellen’s three brothers had the eyes, the arm, the steel-cold heart to complete the task. This was what the boy had been born for, after all: to make up for the fatal flaws of his elder siblings. Everything would be all right. The boy would strike, and the head would roll.
Hector held his breath, or would have held it if he’d been human. Instead he stood tall and slim and rigid, waiting for the blow.
And waiting still.
A thump. The ring of steel. In two or three seconds, the louder thump of the headless body on the stony ground…
But the second thump never came, and slowly it dawned on the waiting Hector that the weight and quality of that first thump did not in fact tally with the weight and quality of a person’s head. The boy hadn’t struck. Instead – it was obvious now – he had dropped the sword, the big blunt sword from the back of the stables. He had dropped it; and now another light thump sent reverberations through Hector’s roots.
Could it be possible? Had Roland dropped to his knees? Was he crying, for the first and only time in his life?
A wave of relief ran through Hector’s body, from the tips of his roots to the topmost twigs of his forking arms and his branching mind. A gust of warmth, a tremor like an earthquake, as if instead of the Dark Tower the slender rowan tree that had once been Hector, the second brother, were about to fall. Childe Roland had not struck. The boy was human after all.
And then a wave of cold, from roots to twigs and back to roots.
Childe Roland had not struck, and Burd Ellen was doomed.
There was no one left to save her. No one left to defend her person, body and soul, with a ring of steel. No armour, no swords, no warriors. His sister was finished, and her house was too.
A strong wind blew in from the west. It brought a spray of brackish rain tainted by the sea, and the cries of seabirds, cold and high and far, as if in mockery of human grief. The rowan bent before the wind, its grey bark darkening as the raindrops lashed it. For an hour or so it tossed back and forth, but it wasn’t uprooted. Rowans are resilient, despite the shallowness of their roots.
When the storm was over the tree grew still, and the three ravens on its branches cautiously relaxed their grip and began to look about them. They were getting hungry – they had no idea when they had last eaten – and it seemed to them that there was plenty of carrion nearby.