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The Spell and the Story

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Burd Ellen went round the church for the third time, and it seemed to her that she was not where she expected to be.

This must, she thought, be the old churchyard, for there were gravestones scattered about over the rough ground, the inscriptions upon them so worn as to be illegible. At the far end was a stone wall all overgrown with tangled grass and covered in grey lichens the size of dinner plates. She found the ball lying in the grass at the foot of the wall, but she could no longer see or hear her brothers. She thought perhaps they were outside the churchyard. There was a gate in the wall before her, and she went through it and set out down the narrow, winding path beyond.

The path led across a green meadow where there were cows grazing. Beyond the meadow Ellen could see people working in the fields and a line of distant hills against the sky. It was an ordinary enough countryside scene—though those dark hills looked far higher and colder than the Cheviots ever did.

After a while it was no longer a path she walked upon, but a broad road paved with rude cobblestones, hard and jagged beneath her feet. The road seemed to be leading up into the hills faster than it ought to have done, for the green grass of the meadow had given way already to rough brown moor-grass and dark heather. Above her all was grey cloud, but from somewhere in the mist came the high, bubbling cry of a curlew in flight. The air smelt of snow.

Now Ellen was afraid. She must have been walking for an awfully long time, and surely her brothers were not here.

Some horses, fine-looking beasts (although Ellen did not remember horses ever having eyes like that before) were grazing upon a patch of shorter grass beside the road, and watching over them was a man. He looked a friendly sort of person; she would ask him the way.

'Please, sir,' she said, 'can you tell me the way back to St Mary's Church?'

The horse-herd smiled, and said he did not know the way. 'But, my lady,' he said, 'if you ask my friend the cow-herd, who is watching over his animals in the field just beyond that ridge, he is sure to be able to tell you.'

Ellen was dismayed. The ridge to which he pointed was terribly steep, and she had no wish to go any further into this strange land. But, lost and alone, what else could she do but follow the road onwards? So she climbed up the ridge, the hard cobblestones biting at her feet in their thin-soled shoes, and went on until she saw the cow-herd tending his animals in the field below. She went up to him and asked him the way to St Mary's Church.

'I do not know that place, my lady,' he said, 'but my friend the hen-wife knows all the roads in these parts. She is sure to know the way, if you go on through that wood and ask her.'

And what could Ellen do then but keep going?

(Somehow, the thought never occurred to her to turn around and go back. Perhaps she felt, instinctively, that there might no longer be a way back behind her.)

So she went on, and passed through a wood of tall trees, standing incongruously on the otherwise bare hillside. This place frightened her very much, for she thought she heard the trees whispering to each other about her; they said unkind things, and debated amongst themselves whether they should throw out roots to trip her up or tendrils of ivy and briars to ensnare her. She ran onwards, that she might get out of the wood before they made their decision.

Finally she emerged back onto the cold hillside: it seemed even more closely shrouded in grey mist than it had been before, and the sharp scent of snow stung her eyes and nose. By the side of the road was a little hen-coop where a few birds were running about and pecking at the ground, and watching over them was a woman in a grey cloak. Ellen went up to her and asked her the way to the church.

'Of course I know the way,' said the hen-wife. 'Just go on a little further, and you will come to a round, green hill. Go in there, and you shall be taken back to the place you seek.'

Ellen thought to herself that this seemed a very strange way of getting to St Mary's Church, and she wondered if the hen-wife was trying to deceive her. But what else could she do but go on?

So she went on, and the hen-wife smiled after her.

The way did not lead Burd Ellen back to the church.

Nothing in Elfland can be trusted, for nothing in that land is ever what it seems. By Ellen's trust in those three people of Elfland, the spell was made which bound her and forced her, when she came to the Dark Tower within the high green hill, to remain there. In this way the spell was made; or, if you like, the story was begun, for in the Kingdom of Elfland a spell and a story are very much the same thing.

*

It was a hundred years later, by the reckoning of Elfland—for our well-ordered days and years mean as little to the good people of that land as their wild and strange magic means to us—when Burd Ellen's eldest brother went to seek for her.

He went to a certain wood, about which a strange story was told in those days. A child, it was said, had once wandered into the wood and fallen into a pond there, and this child was stolen away into Elfland and was lost to her friends and family for seven years. Because of this story Burd Ellen's eldest brother supposed that the pool in the wood would lead him into the other world too, and so he set out one summer's day to find it.

He soon came to the place. The trees that drooped their branches over the pond were weighed down by deep green leaves, and glimmers of blue sky showed between them. Beneath them in the water were other leaves, other branches and another sky just like them, for the day was so still that no breeze disturbed the perfect reflection. The eldest brother of Burd Ellen stood there for a moment, between the real wood and the mirror at his feet. Then he took his knapsack on his back, fastened his sword at his side and jumped into the water.

One moment he was falling down into the pool, and the next, it seemed to him, he was rising out of it, falling upwards away from the water and into the trees. As he staggered to his feet upon the bank, the scene around him shimmered and changed as though great water-drops were falling all over it, and waves and ripples passing over its surface. But the surface of the pool behind him remained still.

We are never so far from Elfland as we might think. Perhaps the little, distorted reflection in your water-glass, or in the puddle which you stepped over upon the pavement this morning, is likewise an image of the other world.

The world around him, however, appeared far wider than it had done when it was only a reflection in the pond: the tall green trees continued for as far as he could see, and a path wound away between them. He set out along the path, and soon lost sight of the place from whence he had come.

As he walked, a strange feeling grew upon him that something was not quite right about the wood. By his sight he saw that he walked upon a narrow dirt track between tall trees clothed in the deep green of midsummer; but when he closed his eyes it was quite different. When he closed his eyes, he felt a sudden chill, and smelt the sharp, cold scent of snow upon the air. When he closed his eyes, his feet in their light summer boots felt the hard surface of roughly hewn cobblestones beneath them. And when he closed his eyes, the sleepy silence of a summer wood was broken by the high, eerie call of the curlew.

Nothing in Elfland can be trusted; nothing in that land is ever truly what it seems.

The eldest brother of Burd Ellen began to suspect that the scenes around him were no more than the picture they had seemed when he first saw them in the surface of the pond. But he kept going—it never occurred to him that he might turn back—until he came upon a group of ponies grazing calmly on the lush grass that grew amongst the trees. (Or was it a group of wild, shaggy horses, picking their way amongst the moor-grasses upon a high hillside? His eyes told him one thing, and every other sense said they were wrong). Watching over them was a horse-herd, and he stopped to speak to him.

'Can you tell me the way to the Elf-King's Dark Tower?'

And the horse-herd said that he could not, for which he was sorry, 'but you must speak to my friend the cow-herd, good knight, and he will surely know the way.'

Now the eldest brother of Burd Ellen was a kind-hearted young man. He remembered the instruction of Merlin, that he must strike the head off any person to whom he spoke in Elfland; but he looked at the face of the horse-herd, friendly and guileless, and could not imagine doing him any harm. He thought that perhaps Merlin had meant only to refer to bad fairies, those wicked people who set out to trick innocent travellers by leading them astray with false directions and will-o'-the-wisps. This horse-herd was surely not one of them. And so his sword remained at his side.

It was a great pity, for the young man's kind-heartedness was a rare strength, and would have brought him good in any other circumstances than these.

He spoke to the cow-herd, and then he spoke to the hen-wife, and each time it was the same: he could not bring himself to strike off their heads, and he persuaded himself that Merlin's instruction had not been meant to apply to them, and he left them alone.

In this way he was caught up in that spell which was made when his sister first spoke to those three fairies, and he became another part of the story.

And when at last he came to the Dark Tower beneath the high green hill, he found the three of them waiting there for him, and they no longer appeared friendly or guileless.

They led him into the Tower, and he did not leave it.

*

A hundred years later, by the fairies' reckoning, the second brother of Burd Ellen came into Elfland.

Now, the second brother had heard that he might get to Elfland by walking at dusk in a certain meadow beside the river, in April when the snakes' heads were in flower; for, it was said, the fairies collected the pink-chequered cups of those flowers and wore them as hats, and thought themselves very fashionable. And so there he went, and walked down towards the broad river, through the waving new-grown grass of the meadow, and looked about him to see where the snakes' head flowers might be growing.

When he had found them—the deep pink of their petals was already fading in the sunset, amidst the yellow gold of buttercups and cowslips that surrounded them—he looked again towards the river. There, under the swaying curtain of a weeping-willow, was a rude stone bridge, worn and ancient in appearance. From its far side, a path led away into the fields above the opposite bank.

And so he knew that he had found what he sought, for there had been no bridge there when he came to the meadow.

He stepped onto the bridge, half fearing that it might prove nothing more than an illusion and dissolve away beneath his feet; but it held him, and he crossed over into Elfland.

It seemed to him that the path on which he walked led through fields much like those he had left, with grass growing under the hedges and the chill of a spring evening in the air. But something was amiss. When he closed his eyes the evening suddenly seemed far colder; and he felt rough cobblestones beneath his feet that were not there to his sight; and, drifting down as if from far hilltops that he could not see, he heard the lonely voice of the curlew.

The meadow of the snakes' heads and the bridge was a long way from St Mary's Church, where Burd Ellen had vanished, and a long way again from the wood where the first brother had gone. But the spell which was made when Burd Ellen was led into Elfland, and which had caught up the first brother in its snares, was now working on the second. Wherever he might have gone, and however the place disguised itself to his eyes, he must have come to this same place in Elfland. Wherever he might have gone, he would have felt the cobblestones sharp beneath his feet, and smelt the snow on the air, and heard the curlew's song above him.

In a field some way beyond the river—he must believe that it was so, whatever his ears and feet and nose told him, for his eyes said it was a field beyond the river—the second brother found some horses grazing. It would have been a peaceful picture, had not their eyes shone with a strange fire in the deepening gloom. Keeping watch over them was a horse-herd, and the second brother went up to this person and asked him the way to the Dark Tower.

Just as the horse-herd had told Burd Ellen and the first brother that they must go and speak to the cow-herd, so he now told the second brother.

Now the second brother was a proud and valiant knight. He too remembered what Merlin had said to him before he set out for Elfland, and he believed, as his brother had not, that these people were his enemies; but he thought it more honourable to face his enemies as though in battle, and stab them to the heart like a brave knight, than to strike their heads off like an executioner. And so he drew his sword and stabbed the horse-herd.

The horse-herd did not fall down dead, as a man would have done, but stood smiling at the second brother; then he faded away, blurring into the shapes of the world behind him like a shadow in the sun. And the second brother, not knowing what to make of this, supposed that he must be dead.

The second brother spoke to the cow-herd, and then to the hen-wife, as his sister and brother had done before him; and then he stabbed each of them to the heart, and saw them fade away in the same manner.

In this way he too was caught up in the spell, and took his own place in the story.

When he came to the Dark Tower, there were the three fairies awaiting him; the people of Elfland, after all, are not easily killed, nor are its spells easily broken. The sword-wounds that he had made were still upon them, and a terrible enough sight they were, standing and walking and smiling, bearing wounds that ought to have been mortal.

They led him into the Tower, as they had led his brother before him, and he remained there.

*

And so the three of them, Burd Ellen and her two brothers, went round the story, and the spell tightened its hold upon them. But Merlin was wise, and he knew that even the strongest enchantments of Elfland may be broken in the end; and the good queen, the mother of Burd Ellen, was wise also, and she knew what magic might break them. And so it was that Childe Rowland set out into Elfland, with the good brand upon which his mother had placed a spell of victory.

He did not seek any special place where Elfland might be found, as his brothers had done; he did not need to, for the spell was already pulling him in, trying to work on him, and wherever he had gone, sooner or later the enchantments of Elfland would have drawn themselves round him. As it was, he set out northwards along the road to Edinburgh, and kept walking. The road did not lead him to Edinburgh; it led him to the only place it could, with the magic of Elfland all about him.

As Rowland walked, the scene around him changed fitfully, as though the land could not decide what it wanted to look like. Now he walked through a pleasant scene of summer fields, now through a forest of tall pine trees with grey heather and willow at their feet, now along a silent and empty village street lined with little slate-roofed houses. But the air grew always colder, until the sharp smell of snow stung his nose; and all the while he felt the rough surface of a cobbled road beneath his feet. And he walked for a while with his eyes closed, thinking as hard as he could of those hard, sharp-edged stones, willing himself to believe that they were real. From time to time the curlew's call echoed above his head.

When he finally opened his eyes he looked up, and saw the bird, flying on its long pointed wings above him, and watched as it came to settle amongst the moor-grass on a grey hillside.

The cobbled road ran over those hills for as far as Childe Rowland could see, disappearing into the grey clouds that hid the higher slopes from view. Below, grazing at the foot of the slope, were a group of horses, and in their eyes was a strange fire. This, then, was the true appearance of Elfland. A bleak enough picture it made.

Nothing in Elfland can be trusted; and Childe Rowland trusted nothing there. He approached the horse-herd who watched over the animals with wary steps and his hand on the hilt of his sword.

And when, as has been told elsewhere, he spoke to the horse-herd, and then to the cow-herd, and the hen-wife, and asked them the way to the Dark Tower just as his brothers had done, he was not deceived by their kind faces, and he heeded the wisdom of Merlin's words. So he drew his good brand and struck off the heads of each of the fairies in turn, horse-herd, cow-herd and hen-wife.

In this way Childe Rowland, with the help of Merlin and the good queen, freed himself from the spell that was made when Burd Ellen first became ensnared in Elfland. The story which had been written in that spell might have an ending at last.

The cobbled road still led away into the grey mist over the hills, where the hen-wife had told him to go. He hurried off along it to find the Dark Tower, and to complete the undoing of the magic that still held his sister and brothers there.