I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
- William Blake
They were walking through the grounds in step, soles of their shoes crunching across worn gravel. The sun was beginning to set, the western skies shot through with orange and pink and gold. And in the distance, in the trees that grew in a perfect square around the perimeter, the staccato chirps of the evening chorus began to accompany the rustle of leaves.
“There was a maze here, once,” said the elder of the two. The father. All salt-and-pepper hair, pipe, and brogues. “Right where we’re walking.”
“A maze?” replied the younger, the son, eyes widening behind his horn-rimmed glasses. “Here? At school?”
St Hildred’s stood a little way behind them, sat atop a rolling hill. Once the keep of a great castle, it rose squarely from the landscape, towers at each corner of its high stone walls, and leaded glass in the arrow slits. In the centre of the northernmost tower, a flag fluttered half-mast in the breeze.
“Oh yes. A big one that wound round and round like a snake. One with walls made of box that stood so high even the tallest of men couldn't see over the top. Walls so thick that no light could shine through them.” A grin played at the edge of his lips. “Walls that moved when you weren’t looking.”
“Don’t be silly, Father,” said the boy, who was eleven, and clever for his age. Precocious. “Walls don’t move.”
“How do you know if you’re not watching them?”
“Because they don’t.”
“But how do you know that, Rupert?”
The boy thought about this for a moment, standing stock still in the middle of the path, hands in the pockets of his shorts. It was hot. Hotter than any summer the boy could remember, and it hadn’t rained in weeks. The grass that grew beside the gravel path had become brown and brittle, the England of poetry and hymn a shadow of its former, verdant glory.
“Because,” he said, his tongue slow and thick in his mouth as he thought about his answer, “ if I turn around, they’re in the same place as they were before. So they couldn’t have moved, or else they would be somewhere else.”
His father’s eyes were alight with mischief. One green, like moss, and the other a deep brown. Warlock’s eyes. Watcher’s eyes.
“Ah, but there will still be a moment when you aren’t looking,” he said. “A moment when they can moved unobserved.”
“And move back? Like a game of grandma’s footsteps?”
“No,” said the boy with conviction, and he began walking again, his strides long and purposeful. “That would be silly. Walls don’t move.”
“Most walls don’t. But the ones of this maze did.” The sound of one set of footsteps became two. “Did I tell you they were magic?”
“Well, they were. The walls of the maze that stood here were tall and wide and magic,” said his father, gesturing at their surroundings with the stem of his smouldering pipe. “And they moved.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Whether you believe me or not doesn’t make it any less true,” he said. “The fact is, there was a maze here, a magic maze built for training Watchers, with walls that moved and enemies to defeat lurking around every corner.”
“And demons. Ghosts. Ghouls. Barghests. Bogles. Redcaps. Wights. All manner of things that go bump in the night.”
“Now I know you’re lying,” said Rupert. “A dragon is far too big to fit in a maze.”
“Only if it’s a Welsh one. English dragons are much smaller,” his father replied. “In fact, the ones that live in this valley are about the size of a teapot. When I was your age, the prefects would have to chase one out of the pantry here at least once a week.” He gave his son a conspiratorial nudge. “They have quite a taste for toasted teacakes.”
“I’ve never seen a dragon,” Rupert said, smartly. “And I’ve been here for nearly a month.”
“Oh, they don’t come out in summer,” countered his father. “It’s far too hot; they’d spontaneously combust, the poor creatures. One poorly-timed hiccup and ‘poof!’, cinders! No, they wait for the autumn, when the temperature drops and it rains. No chance of accidental immolation. It’s why they like to live in wet places, like Scotland, and England, and Ireland.”
“And Wales,” he confirmed.
The conversation ebbed a little as they walked along the path, passing the school’s cricket field and associated pavilion, the wicket a lonely island of green in a sea of toasted grass.
“Where did they come from?” Rupert asked after a minute or two.
“No, you said there were things in the maze. Creatures.”
“The Watchers captured them. The ones who weren’t given a Slayer of their own to train or a place in the library with the scholars. They set their traps and brought the creatures back half conscious and reeking of magic. Kept them in cages, chains, until they were needed. Kept them hungry. Dangerous.”
“And then they put them in the maze?”
“When the ones already there were dead, yes. The maze was never left empty. Its demons were are much a part of the maze as its walls. You see, the magic that made the walls move came from the creatures that inhabited its depths. It leached out from their bodies, infusing the plants that made the maze with magic, giving them a mind of their own.
“The Watchers who planted the maze many, many centuries ago designed it that way. They fed the young box plants potions made of blood and bones and grave dust. And as the plants grew tall and strong, they gained a sort of sentience, and the ability to draw magic from their surroundings. All things have some small magic. The water. The soil. The stone. But living things have more; the monsters more still. And as the inhabitants of the maze grew in strength, so did the maze itself. Not only could it think, it could move. It could make its own paths and puzzles.”
“Couldn’t they get out, the monsters?”
“No.” His father shook his head. “At the entrance was a great portcullis made of silvery metal. It was as tall as a house, with sharp spikes and spells for strength and protection woven like string into the lattice. Only Watchers could move freely across it. The barrier flowed around them like water when they walked through it, granting them entry.”
The rustle of dead and dying leaves filled the air as a breeze whipped its way across the lawns that stretched out from the left of the path. It brought with it the scent of dust and smoke.
“Did all the Watchers have to go into the maze?” asked Rupert.
His father nodded. “On the first new moon after their eighteenth birthday. It was traditional. The way things had been done for centuries. They would be given a torch, a sword and a pack with provisions, and they would walk to the centre, to the Wishing Tree. Begin in darkness and walk until the moon became full and round in the sky. Until they had seen Death’s shadow. Until they stood beneath the boughs of the tree at the centre and asked for the wish they made to be granted. Then, they would walk back.”
“What did they wish for?”
“Many things. Wealth. Power. Influence. Some wished for love. Or for peace. But most wished simply to make their way back through the maze unscathed.”
“And the wishes were granted?”
His father smiled. “Of course. It wouldn’t have been much of a Wishing Tree if they hadn’t been; just an old oak in the centre of a maze. Entirely unremarkable.”
They walked a little further. Rupert fiddled with the handkerchief in the pocket of his shorts. His father repacked his pipe. Overhead, the sky darkened.
“Did people die?” asked Rupert, already sure of the answer, but almost afraid to hear it.
“Oh yes. Hundreds. Thousands.” His father frowned. “Most who entered the maze did not come back.”
“So why didn’t they stop it?”
“The Watchers? The school? The Council?”
“Because it was traditional,” replied his father simply. He puffed on his pipe. “It was the way things had always been done.”
“That’s doesn’t make it right.”
“No. It doesn’t.”
“But the maze is gone now.”
“So, what happened to it?”
“It caught fire. Right in the very centre, where the Wishing Tree stood. Burned for seven days and seven nights, until there was nothing left but charcoal and cinders and a puddle of silver shaped like the moon.”
Another pause. Longer this time, punctuated by the sound of birdsong and the crunch of gravel.
“Did you ever go inside?” Rupert said.
“And did you get to the centre? Make a wish?”
“What did you wish for?”
His father stood still for a moment, his gaze fixed upon a point in the middle-distance. A point where a grassy hillock stood. Where the suggestion of roots could been seen in the soil. Then, he blinked and said, “I think it’s high time we made our way back, don’t you? It’s almost supper time. Wouldn’t want to miss that.”
“No, Father,” Rupert replied, shaking his head as they turned back towards the school.
The sun had almost set. The sky was deep red. The moon was new.