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The Fire That Burns So Blue

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From somewhere in the deep darkness a faint light was burning. Burd Ellen could not see it from where she lay upon the stone floor, but she saw the misty white glow that it cast upon the stone ceiling above her head, and the stone walls which she could touch with an outstretched hand. Stone and earth, and strange lights, and the darkness behind them, and an eerie warmth all through the air: such were the things of this place.

Ellen did not know how long she had been here. She thought perhaps it was not the right question; she had been here for ever, and yet had only just now left the churchyard and the ball game behind her. But she was certain indeed that those things were far behind her, for she was dead—killed, or drained of life, by the King of Elfland's magic—and buried under the earth.

Her mind was quite clear. She could remember what had happened, and she could think like the rational person she had always been. It was something else that was missing—something the magic had taken from her.

But—it was a terrible cruelty of the King's cruel magic—though dead, she could still rise and move and walk about like a living person. She rose now, getting up from where she had been lying as one in her grave, and went into the big hall beneath the hill.

There was someone there. From the far side of the hall, in the dull red light that was like the setting sun—but yet not like it, no more than the dull warmth of the air was like the warmth of the sun's rays—Ellen saw him looking warily round him, picking his way carefully as though the ground was somehow treacherous. She heard him cry out. 'Hi!' he said. 'Is anyone there?'

But she knew him; it was John, her eldest brother. Ellen thought perhaps she wanted to go to him—it was difficult to think such things, but she was quite sure that if she had not been dead she would have wanted to see her brother. She had loved him, once.

'Ellen!'

He had seen her, and came running across the width of the hall, flickering in and out of sight as he rushed across the falling shadows of the great high pillars, towards her. She walked forwards slowly.

When he was a few paces away from her he slowed down—his footsteps sounded dull and heavy upon the stone floor—and said, 'Ellen? Is it really you?' He sounded as though he thought it might not be, and he went hesitantly to her side.

She found her voice then—though dead, she could still speak. 'Yes,' she said. 'Oh, my brother, I knew you would come here!'

He frowned, as though the voice were not quite what he had expected to hear; but then he said, with a little shake of his head, as though casting off his worries, 'This is the King of Elfland's Dark Tower?'

'Yes,' said Ellen. 'The King has—'

'You must tell me what happened—'

'There is a spell—'

John smiled then, and Ellen tried to smile back, for they had begun talking over each other as they had always used to do when they were excited about something and eager to share their excitement with each other. But again there was something hesitant in her brother's smile. He took her hand, and said, 'Dear Ellen, how cold you are!' in a puzzled tone.

But she told him what had happened, in as much detail as she could remember, and then he in turn told her of how he had set out to look for her, with the Warlock Merlin's help, and found the Dark Tower at last.

And all the time the King of Elfland's magic was working upon them both; and Ellen knew what she must do. She could not stop it, any more than she could raise herself back to life.

'Ellen, is there such a thing as food here? I'm famished after that long journey.'

And she answered that there was, and she went to fetch some bread and milk from the pantry behind the hall, and brought it to him. And he ate and drank.

'I don't like what this magic has done to you, Ellen,' said John, when he had finished the last of the bread. 'You look—I don't know, perhaps it's this light. I suppose it's magic too? It makes everything look awfully strange.' In the dim sunset light, his own golden hair had turned the colour of rusting iron or of falling autumn leaves, and his eyes were dark against the glow. Yes, it was magic too.

'We must get out of here,' suggested Ellen. She wanted to get out—she knew that, though she knew just as well that it was impossible.

'We must,' said her brother. 'Kiss me, then—I feel all out of courage in this dreadful place—and we shall go.'

Surely the magic was working; for that was just what she must do. It could not be otherwise. So she kissed him, just as she used to kiss him in greeting or in innocent gladness when they were little children together; it was quite a natural gesture now, in what should have been their joyful reunion. But her hands were cold as they reached out to him, and her lips were cold upon his cheek—cold as the clay above them—and already, when she pulled back and looked at him, the change in him was more than could have been made by the light of the carbuncle alone.

Something faint within Ellen shivered at the sight, and almost as much at the knowledge that she, too, must look like that.

It was only a faint shiver; she knew that she ought to feel something more, ought to have torn her hair and cried out in anguish and pain at the horror of what the magic made her do. But she could not really feel such things, for she was dead—dead as the brother who had come to join her.

Brave John; he had been wrong. It was not Burd Ellen he had found in the Dark Tower—not, she thought now, something worth calling Ellen. But it did not much matter now...

*

The high green terraced hill, beneath which the King of Elfland built his Dark Tower, stood lonely in a desolate country. On the far side of the hill there was a wide expanse of bog: a treacherous place of uneven, mossy ground and sudden deep pools of black water, with a cold wind always blowing, whispering across the mire and stirring up little ripples on the surfaces of the pools. Low above the ground, in the darkness of the starless night, a small flame was burning. It moved constantly, now leaping up as if to follow the wind in its wanderings, now dipping down almost onto the water. This little, vivid, flickering light, moving restlessly and insistently, was not something that belonged to the Dark Tower.

It was Burd Ellen's soul, cast out of her undead body by the King's magic. It was lost, and could not find its way back to its home.

The lights burned often over the waste ground on nights like this, for there were many poor souls caught in the magic of the Dark Tower. Their bodies walked dead beneath the earth, in the King of Elfland's magic—some became his servants, and even the horse-herd, the cow-herd and the hen-wife, who watched over the King's horses, cows and hens, were dead as Ellen was dead—and their unquiet souls were left to wander and to mourn.

And sometimes, in their wanderings, they would stray into the upper world.

It was a dark night in the living world when Burd Ellen's second brother, whose name was Lionel, set out for Elfland to find his sister and brother. A dark night in the living world was a different thing from the gloom of the Dark Tower: the air was clear, sharp and fresh, and the stars shone bright above the young knight's head. But he came to the edge of a wide marsh, and over the water a flickering blue flame was burning. He tried to follow it, and forgot to notice whether there were still stars above his head, or how the air smelt, or where he placed his feet.

And poor Burd Ellen saw another brother arrive in the Dark Tower, and meet the same fate that awaited, it seemed, everyone who ever came there.

'Oh, spare me one thing,' she said to the darkness, with lips grown dry and cold without breath to pass between them. 'Do not let my brother Rowland come too. Let him bide at home. Woe if he does come here to seek us!'

Perhaps the little bright flame that danced out there over the mire heard her. And perhaps, out in the cold and the dark, it hoped.

*

The King of Elfland had been awaiting Childe Rowland's arrival with a sort of eager anticipation, for it was not often that he managed to ensnare so many victims all at once. But, when he did arrive, the King made no great show of it. There was no need, after all, to go out and fight him or to make any impressive display of magic; and Rowland never got a chance to wield the good brand which he carried with him. The King's magic had turned more subtle. His sister and brothers were all there to welcome him, talk to him, lead him into the Tower and kiss him, as if in joy and gladness.

*

Burd Ellen wandered restlessly through the hallways and caverns. There were many in the Dark Tower, whose name belied its real extent; when Ellen had first arrived under the earth she had supposed that the great hall with the carbuncle lamp was a sort of hollowing-out of the hill above it, but as she saw more of the Tower it became clearer that it was vast far beyond the hill. She was now in another of the little rooms leading off that great hall. Its walls were of stone and earth, the rough, unworked look of them contrasting oddly with the intricate and beautiful ornaments, made with the strange skills and crafts of magic, with which the Elfin King adorned all the rooms of his dwelling-place. Beneath the ceiling was strung a delicate silver chain, decorated with tiny white gemstones that shone like stars; but here the decorations got into a downright disagreement with their surroundings, for halfway across the room the chain had got tangled up with a tree root which was growing down through the ceiling. The light from the gemstones threw deep shadows onto the ridges and grooves of its woody surface.

Ellen reached up and touched the root, trying to picture the tree growing somewhere far above her. Perhaps it was an oak tree; there had been a tall, ancient oak tree growing in her mother's garden, a long time ago, and she could remember what they looked like.

She had been wandering round the rooms for some time (if it was time), thinking about what had happened to Rowland. Somehow her enchanted mind could not rest. There was something she ought to remember—but what was it?

Now she came to a familiar room: a great, shadowy chamber, with a roof of stone held up by high arches carved with lions, eagles and other such brave animals. This was the room where Childe Rowland lay, as one in his tomb.

His sister went towards him. The dreadful pallor of his face was made more dreadful by the steady whitish light which shone upon it from the lamps on the walls, each lit by a brilliant enchanted gemstone. But the lights shone on something else as well—something lying beside him, which made the light more brilliant in its reflections.

It was the good brand, that never struck in vain, but which had never struck at all in the Dark Tower. Ellen reached her cold hand out towards the blade and touched it; it was clean iron, free of the rust that covered all the swords and battle-axes in the Elfin King's armoury. And then she remembered.

She remembered her three brothers, as children, laughing and playing together in a summer garden, under the spreading oak tree. John and Lionel had been tossing a ball to each other over Rowland's head, but then Lionel took pity on Rowland and let him catch it; and herself, running to join in the game, leaping for joy over the short grass dotted with clover and dandelions. When the children tired of their game they went back over the lawn together, and there was their father the king, and their good mother the queen, waiting for them. She had with her a great brand, shining iron with never a speck of rust or dirt upon it. Rowland ran forward to admire the weapon, but Ellen was afraid and hung back.

'Don't be frightened, Ellen,' said her mother the queen. 'It's a good sword—I've made sure of that, with my spells. Your father uses it to fight monsters. You see'—she bent down towards Ellen, smiling a confiding smile, as though Ellen could be trusted to know about things like her magic—'he may be in awful peril from some fearsome monster, but he takes the brand and strikes off the monster's head! And the monster is defeated,' she said. 'It never struck in vain.'

So Ellen, amazed at the clarity of her memory—she had not realised until now how, under the enchantment, she had never thought of such things as dandelions, or bright summer days years ago, or her mother's smile—knew what she had to do. She took up the good brand. Upon it was the spell that would bring it victory: her mother's spell.

And out over the mire the dancing blue flame, which had also remembered, saw its way back.

And then the hilt was cold beneath fingers grown warm with the blood flowing through them again. Burd Ellen stumbled against one of the high stone arches, almost overcome by the weight of feeling and memory rushing back upon her. She was alive.

But, in taking the sword from his side, Ellen had disturbed the undead sleep of her brother. Dead still, he now rose and came towards her. The pallor of his face beneath the glow of the stone-lights had not changed at all; his sunken eyes were far too bright, glinting as he looked towards the lamps, and he moved in little shuffling jerks not like the walk of the living Rowland she remembered.

Her soul and its feelings, sensations and will were returned to her in all their sharpness. Ellen knew only too well what the enchantment was that the Elfin King had cast over herself and her brothers, but now she saw it for the first time in its true horror.

'Ellen, give me back that sword,' he said, and the voice was not Rowland's voice. 'You shouldn't have taken it. Give it back.'

He moved towards her where she stood beneath the stone arch, the carved lions and eagles on either side of her, and he smelt of damp earth and dusty crypts and rotten things. He reached out a cold hand towards the sword. Ellen knew just what would happen if he took it from her—she had done the same thing to him, after all, when he first came here and tried to save her.

She thought furiously. She remembered again what her mother had told her: the good brand, with its magic, never struck in vain. It could defeat any monster. And the dear brother who was not her brother, who stretched out a hand that was not his living hand towards her—must she take the sword, and strike off his head, like the monster in the story?

It was a terrible thing, to have a soul and to be faced with that.

But then she thought of something else.

'No, Rowland,' she said. Her words echoed among the stone lions and eagles; before, under the enchantment, her voice had been dull and cold and had not echoed, and the sound was strange now. 'I won't give it back. But come here.' With her free hand she grasped his fingers, cold as the clay, and with the other hand brought the sword round towards him. Her mother's magic was still in the good brand, and it had saved her; perhaps—oh, if only—she could use it.

The magic flowed through the brand and through Burd Ellen's living blood. With it she touched Rowland's ears, eyelids, nostrils, lips, and finally the finger-tips that had been extended towards the sword. And then Rowland's soul also returned to him.

He looked round him in amazement, and saw his sister standing beneath the stone arch with an expression of mingled uncertainty, determination and grief, grasping the sword, not sure but that she might still have to use it in the other way. But when he looked at her all doubt was gone. This was the same brother who had laughed and played in the garden all those years ago. It had not been in vain.

'Ellen!' he cried, and they embraced.

'Where are John and Lionel?' asked Rowland, when the first gladness of reunion was over. 'And where is the Elfin King? Does he know what you've done?'

Ellen nodded. 'It's his magic that I have broken,' she said. 'He must know. He will—'

But already the King of Elfland had decided what he would do. As he had always done, he would use the horror of his enchantments to do his work for him. The magic of the Dark Tower was strong; it had never failed him before.

And so Ellen never finished her sentence, for the oaken door of the burial-chamber swung open, and the dead John and Lionel, moved by the Elfin King's magic, came in.

'Ellen,' they said, as Rowland had done, 'give us the sword. You should not have taken it—should not have broken it...' They spoke in a sort of dull, half-stumbling way, both together, as though tripping over each other's speech.

'Get back, Ellen!' said Rowland, and made as if to take the sword from her. His living face was pale now with fear, but he stood courageously before his dead brothers.

'No,' said Ellen, although she too was scared. 'No—I know what to do. She gave me the magic—and I did it for you, didn't I?'

And so she stepped forward, holding the good brand, and went to meet her brothers. They were now moving towards Rowland, perhaps aware in their enchanted minds that he, without the sword and its magic, would be easier prey. John put a hand on his shoulder; Rowland grasped the hand and tried to push his brother away from him, his face changing from revulsion to a sort of bewildered terror as he realised that he could not. Though dead, John was far stronger than he was.

But Ellen stepped between them, holding up the good brand, and calmly—there was a great deal of effort in that calmness—pulled John away. Casting her mind away from the pain and confusion of this moment, she remembered her mother in the garden, and the good magic that was in the sword. And once more she took the sword and touched it to their ears, eyelids, nostrils, lips and finger-tips; and their souls too returned, and they were alive.

That was a glad moment indeed.

But they were not safe yet, and soon they turned to discussing together how they were to escape from the Dark Tower. 'I know the way back to the great hall,' said Ellen. 'We must go there first. Follow me.'

So they went, and they came to that vast room beneath the hill, with its sunset light and its pillars rising almost out of sight towards the earthy roof. The good sword in Ellen's hand, clear and shining, gave back the light of the great carbuncle, and it looked almost as though the iron were beginning to rust. Ellen remembered how the light had shone on John's hair when he first arrived here.

'We have to go quickly,' she said. 'He's trying to work more magic on us—'

But at that moment the King of Elfland himself entered the hall.

He was much taller even than Lionel, who was the tallest of the siblings, and he was dressed in armour which, though as ill-cared-for as all the arms and armour in the Dark Tower, was none the less daunting in appearance. 'Who are you,' he said to Burd Ellen, 'to try to undo my magic? I have lived beneath the earth these many thousands of years, and cast thousands of souls into my enchantments. What is this magic that you do?' All the time he was walking towards them, and he held his sword in his hand.

'It is the Warlock Merlin's wisdom that has brought me here,' said Rowland.

'It is my mother the good queen's magic that I did to free myself and my brothers,' said Ellen.

At this the King grew more angry still. 'Merlin—the queen—do not speak these names to me!' he said. 'I will crush their magic—I will crush you—' And he raised his sword above Ellen's head.

But all the time, John and Lionel had been creeping round behind the Elfin King, unseen by him as he spoke to Ellen and Rowland. Now they tried to grab hold of him. Startled, he shook them off; but for a moment he had to look away from Ellen, so that when he turned back towards her she was standing ready with the good brand raised. And, before he could make another movement, she struck.

It never struck in vain.

'I think he will lie there under the earth for ever,' said Burd Ellen, as she and her brothers went together from the Tower. The enchantment was no more, and the Dark Tower would no longer be what it had been; it would be merely a grave beneath the earth.

They walked on for a long time, out of the perilous marshes and then over wide brown fields, and at length they began to see green things around them, daisies growing at the side of the road and hawthorn hedges putting out bright new leaves. The air was fresh and sweet. High above the fields to either side of the road the skylarks were singing.

At last they came to a hill where the grass grew high in tussocks, and where the road wound between tall hedges festooned with bindweed and dog-roses. Suddenly John ran a little way off the road through a gap in the hedge, and bent towards the ground with an exclamation.

'Look at this!' he said, beckoning his siblings towards the place.

They crowded round to look. Lying in the grass was the ball they had lost in the churchyard. Rowland picked it up; the grass beneath it was green and only a little crushed. And so they knew that they were back in the living world once more, and the Dark Tower was behind them for ever.

They walked on, free and light of heart and together again, and at last they came to their own home, and returned to their father and the good queen their mother.