Back in the days when a man could wander free on the roads there lived a man called Old Jem. He’d always seemed ancient, with his beard slowly turning from brown to snowy, shaggy white and his hair hanging long over his shoulders.
His clothes were older than he was, and even in summer he wore a long coat that trailed almost to the ground. Its buttons were long gone, and in winter he held it together with a belt made from rope.
He’d been coming through Leeds even before Richard Nottingham was a boy, finding a place on Briggate to set down his pack, put out his hat and tell his stories for a penny or two. People would crowd around to listen, carried off by his voice and the magic of his words.
Jem would often stay with Richard and Mary Nottingham at the house on Marsh Lane, grateful for a bowl of stew and a place by the hearth to roll out his blanket for the night. He’d entertain Rose and Emily with his tales of kings and princesses and times when magic was still strong in the land.
This is one of the stories he used to tell.
You know, there were a time – aye, long before you or me or anyone as is alive now – where there were magic all over England. Grand as that might sound, it weren’t always good, even if it somehow stirred some mighty deeds.
I’m minded to think of a lad called Roland. He was an earl’s song, the youngest of four children, with two other brothers and a sister called Ellen. One day they was out playing in the churchyard and the oldest brother kicked the ball over the church roof. Now Ellen, she was a lass full of energy and playful and she ran off to fetch it. The boys waited but she didn’t return, and when they went looking, there weren’t hide nor hair of her.
The oldest brother, he went to the wise man in the village who said that Ellen must have been taken by the King of Elfland because she hadn’t gone widdershins round the church – that is, t’opposite way to’t sun. He told the young man what to do to bring her back, and off her went.
And he didn’t come back, neither, and nor did the second son when he tried.
That left Roland. His man didn’t want to let him so, but she knew he needed to do this. So she gave him his father’s sword that never struck in vain and cast a spell to give the blade victory.
Then Roland went to the wise man.
‘I’ll tell thee what I told thy brothers,’ he said. ‘There are twa things, one you do and one you don’t. After you reach Elfland, whoever speaks to you, you must take your sword and cut off their heads. And the thing you must never do is eat or drink anything in Elfland. Now.’
Roland walked and walked and finally he reached a strange meadow where horses grazed. Elfland horses, he could tell it by the way their eyes glowed red as fire.
‘Where will I find the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower?’ Roland asked.
‘I don’t know,’ one of the horses answered. ‘But go down the road until you find the cow-herder.’ He might be able to tell you.’
Roland lifted his sword and took off the horse’s head in a single blow , then carried on along the road.
He found the cow-herder and said,
‘Where will I find the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower?’
‘I don’t know,’ the cow herder responded. ‘But go down this road until you see the hen wife. She might be able to say.’
Roland struck off the cow-herder’s head and walked on until the saw the hen-wife with her fowl.
‘Where do I find the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower?’ He asked.
‘Look for a round, green hill that’s terraced from top to bottom,’ the woman answered. ‘But tha’s got to walk widdershins round the hill and say three times: Open door, open door, and let me come in.’
Well Roland looked at her, and for a moment he didn’t want to chop off her head as he’d been so helpful. But he knew what was needful, so with a single swift blow he did the deed and walked on until he came to hill. He walked three tines around it, the opposite way to the sun, and said the words she’d given him. And happened, but a great door opened in the hillside and Roland went in.
Inside it were like twilight as the gloom seemed to seep through the earth. The were corridors and rooms, arches made of gleaming feldspar. The fittings gleamed like gold and Roland followed the ways until he came to a great hall, where Ellen sat on a settle with a black velvet cushion, pulling a silver comb through her long fair hair.
‘Roland,’ she said. ‘I’m full happy to see you. But you’ve made your journey in vain. Both our brothers tried but they fell to the King’s enchantments and you’ll do the same.’
He told her what he’d done, and how he was footsore and weary and hungry, and asked her for summat to eat and sup.
Ellen was under her own spell. She was forbidden to warn him of the dangers. All she could do was bring him bread and wine and look sadly as he raised it to his lips. But before he could taste a morsel, he remembered the wise man’s advice and threw it to the floor.
And then he heard a shuddering of the tower and the door to the hall was thrown wide as the King of Elfland entered. Roland rushed at him with the sword that never struck in vain, and the pair fought for an hour or more. Then, with a blow, Roland forced the King to his knees, and demanded he released his sister and his brothers in exchange for mercy. With a bowed head, the king agreed. He took a small vial from a chest and poured drops of a liquid red as blood on the eyes of the enchanted brothers who’d been placed to sleep in a room. They awoke, claiming their souls had left their bodies but had now returned. Then the king whispered some words over Ellen, and suddenly the bright, happy girl returned.
Troland granted the kind his mercy. With Ellen and his brothers he left the dark tower and returned to their home, never to go back to Elfland – and never to run widdershins round the church, neither.