Once in a Blue Moon

By: Simon R. Green


ONCE IN A BLUE MOON, SOMETHING MAGICAL HAPPENS . . .




It’s been a hundred years since the Demon War. Since Prince Rupert and Princess Julia of legend rode into the Darkwood to defeat the terrible Demon Prince and banished him from the world of men. A hundred years since the Blue Moon shed its awful Wild Magic over the Forest Kingdom.

Many things have changed, and many have not. But we all know: fate does so love an anniversary.





ONE


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.

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