CHAPTER 1 - Viola
If Daffodil couldn’t remember the day she’d met the senior sprite of Moseley Wood, the same couldn’t be said of the senior sprite himself. For Ace Moseley, the encounter was vivid in his memory as one of the most embarrassing moments of his life, when he’d had to admit he couldn’t remember his own full name.
All the same, he wouldn’t make that mistake again now. That had been over two years ago, and a lot had happened to him in that time. Ace was now twenty-nine years old, and a lieutenant in the Third Regiment of the sprite army. If he’d met Daffodil today, he wouldn’t have found her so intimidating. He’d just have seen a hard-working middle-aged fairy, who was good at her job and was rather concerned about the way things were going.
She wasn’t alone in that, of course. Ever since the night when Special Brigade had tried to arrest the generals by force, the words going too far had been on many people’s lips. Ace had had more chance than most of knowing for himself how true that was, but he was refusing to let it spoil their leave.
Five precious weeks at home… he and Will, Rose and Clover had got back to Cheadle just in time for Christmas, reunited with Aesculus and all their friends. There’d been times, usually when he’d been up to his waist in snow, or in detention, that Ace had dreamed of home. It hadn’t been Wildside as it used to be that he’d dreamed of, nor even of his tree, but just of sitting round a fire with his friends, and now it had happened and he hadn’t been disappointed. Night after night they’d shared their news. Sally and Gary, and their lovely daughters Rowan and Laura; David and his brother Adam; Dominic, Joseph and Tony… it had been wonderful to see them all again. The children were all so much bigger, but he’d soon got over the shock of that, and listened with interest to what they’d been up to.
Not all the news was good. Sally told them that Cyril had been in hospital again, and that now he had been moved to a hospice, and when she’d explained what that meant, everyone was sad. They hadn’t even seen Mal – the old elf was staying devotedly by Cyril’s side, and Ace was glad of that, at least. They’d known Gemma was going to move house, but it was sad to realise she’d really gone. She was living in Durham now, Laura said, but at least that was on the way to Newcastle, a place they were sure to have to go to regularly.
They heard more about the little refugee fairy that Sally had found in the summer. Her name was Viola, and she was very scared and shy and wouldn’t come in the house. She lived under a plant in Sally’s garden, and would only let herself be coaxed out by Sally, Rowan and Laura, and then only when it was really, really quiet. All the sprites felt sorry for her and were keen to help her, but Ace knew he didn’t have to make any plans for that. Clover would do it much better than he could.
They’d shared plenty of news of their own too, of course, and told everyone about Kulsukker, and where Hogweed had gone, and how Dan was off to Milan with Fighter Squadron. They’d talked about Gran Herdalen, and about Madge being made a general, and about all their friends, and what units they were all in. And they talked about their first mission, to find Primrose Delamere. It wasn’t nice to think of their leave being over, but at least they’d have an exciting job to tackle when it was.
Aesculus had listened to all of this with rapt attention, lying on his stomach on David’s leg, with his chin in his hands, wide-eyed. He’d demanded to know when he could join the army, and when they told him you had to be at least sixteen, he was disappointed, because he was only two. Ace had cheered him up by telling him he’d have much more fun when he got there if he learned some things before he went, and that he could start learning exciting things right now. As soon as the holidays were over, and their friends had gone back to work and school, Ace told him, they were going to spend a whole week in Moseley Wood, just doing sprite things.
That day had come now, and Ace wasted no time in getting cracking on the exciting stuff.
“No point having a motorway running through your colony if you don’t make the most of it,” he grinned. “Let’s go for a ride.”
“I can ride on a car now?” said Aesculus. He was so excited, he spoke in a quiet, awestruck voice.
“Well, top of a lorry to start with,” said Will. “You can’t really miss that. But that’ll be just as exciting.”
The sprites were all carrying bags full of useful things, but they hid those under a bush for now.
“Race you,” said Rose.
Ace’s eyes lit up.
“You’re on,” he said. “M60, then the M56, turn around at Altrincham.”
“Got you,” said Rose. “Come on, Clover, we need the exercise.”
“I suppose so,” said Clover.
“Elves will win!” shouted Aesculus, bouncing up and down.
“Oho,” said Rose, “we’ll see about that. Ready, steady, go!”
She and Clover soared into the air with a beautiful vertical take-off, making Aesculus jump with their speed. He looked up into the sky, twisting his head to follow them as they angled their climb towards the motorway. Then he looked at Ace and his eyes were a bit sad.
“They’ll win,” he said.
“No, they won’t,” grinned Ace. “Their top speed is fifteen miles an hour. Lorries go a bit faster than that. Come on!”
He jumped across to a beech tree, then turned to watch as Aesculus followed sturdily behind. He was a bit slow, but he was giving it all he’d got. Will brought up the rear, so Aesculus wouldn’t feel they were leaving him behind.
“Now up into the tree,” said Ace, and jumped straight to the branch he wanted to go to.
Again he watched carefully how Aesculus tackled it and how many jumps it took him. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t bad at all. Going out with Mal this last year had got him jumping properly. But Mal was old and a bit slow. It was time for Aesculus to see just what a young elf should be able to do, and by the keen look on his face, he was going to have no problem rising to the challenge.
“Hold hands with us both,” said Ace. “That’s it. OK, when Will says jump, hold on tight and jump downwards.”
Aesculus nodded excitedly, already squeezing their hands. Meanwhile, Will was watching the traffic as it came onto the roundabout. Ace knew he’d be looking out for something really easy.
“Ah, this’ll do nicely,” said Will. “The one with the grey top, Aesculus… here it comes… get ready… jump!”
The air rushed past them as they leaped, and landed in a heap. Aesculus hadn’t let go, and Ace and Will helped him wriggle across to the edge. The lorry was picking up speed fast as it left the slip road and joined the motorway, but Aesculus didn’t look frightened, just thrilled.
“Very good!” Ace shouted over the rushing wind. “Are you all right?”
“Cold!” shouted Aesculus.
“Yes, it’s cold, it’s like being out in the wind. See the straps, there? You can let go now, and hold onto one of those instead.”
Aesculus tackled it very sensibly. He let go of Ace’s hand, but he was still hanging tightly onto Will until he was sure he’d got a good grip on the webbing strap.
“Can see everything whizzing!” he shouted. “Faster than a train!”
“Not now, Will,” grinned Ace. “You can explain that one later. Anyone seen the fairies yet?”
“Not yet,” said Will, “but we’ll be catching up fast. Look, Aesculus, see that tower? That’s a landmark – when we see it, we have to watch what the lorry does. Another motorway starts here, and we want to go on it. We want the lorry to change lanes and go onto the M56. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to jump off, fast.”
But the lorry slowed down and moved onto the M56. The elves cheered. It only took a few minutes from there to the junction they wanted. Ace was watching out for the fairies, and Will was watching for the right moment to jump off.
“There they are!”
Ace tried to point, while still hanging on. Ahead of them, and very high up, Clover and Rose were circling, exactly following the road the elves would have to take. Ace felt pretty sure they’d been spotted themselves as they jumped off, because the next time he looked, one of them was waving.
“Ha! We’ll get them yet,” he said. “Roll, Aesculus! It’ll slow you down. That’s it, well done!”
“Wet and dirty now,” said Aesculus, as if it was all part of this exciting treat. “I get it now, we catch different lorry back home?”
“Very good! Yes, that’s right,” said Ace. “We have to get across to the right slip road now, and that means crossing the bridge. Short jumps, very fast – follow Will, do exactly what he does, OK?”
He was doing very well. He was copying Will, but he seemed to be thinking for himself as well, and noticing where he was going, and why. This time, they jumped onto the first lorry they saw, because the cover wasn’t as good and they couldn’t afford to hang around. This one had a more rigid top, and they showed Aesculus how to stop himself sliding and how to find something good to hang on to.
“If you do fall off, go straight into a jump,” Ace advised. “Never stay on the road or you’ll get squashed.”
Aesculus nodded, holding on tight. He was looking around carefully. Already they were back at the M60, and Ace could see that he was taking it all in.
“Can see Clover!” he suddenly shouted.
“Where? Oh, yeah, I see her! We’re going to pass them now… any second… yes, we’re in the lead!”
Ace made sure he was lying on his back, looking relaxed and comfortable as they passed under the fairies, even though in reality he was shivering, being shaken, and clinging on with every finger.
“Next watch-out point!” said Will. “Up there, that slip road, that’s the way home. If we’re really lucky, the lorry will go off that way, but more likely it will stay on the motorway and we’ll have to jump off… yes, it’s staying on, get ready…”
This time, they showed Aesculus how to jump from one vehicle to another, and balanced on top of a van for a short distance, as it took them around the curve of the slip road. From there, it was an easy jump into the roadside bushes, and with a scramble under a fence, they were into Abney Park.
“Perfect,” said Ace. “Remember this place, Aesculus, because from here we can jump all the way home.”
“Let’s be quick, then, or fairies will win!”
“Good point,” said Ace. “Come on!”
Keeping to the fence, they jumped as fast as Aesculus could go, glancing behind now and then to see where Rose and Clover were. They’d be catching up again now. Just as the elves reached a steep bit, the fairies came into sight, flying directly above the fence line, looking out for them. When they spotted each other, Aesculus screeched with excitement and started trying to go faster, but he was getting tired now. It didn’t matter. Ace could see very well that Rose and Clover had slowed down a bit on purpose.
As the elves reached the place they’d started from, Aesculus was red in the face, and even Ace and Will were panting. The fairies swooped down to land at the exact same moment.
“A draw!” said Aesculus. “Oh, that was so exciting!”
“You did so well!” said Rose. “I saw you doing big long jumps and keeping up, that was brilliant.”
“You can fly so fast,” said Aesculus with respect. “Viola can’t fly fast.”
Rose and Clover exchanged worried looks.
“Viola’s been so poorly,” said Clover, though that was a tame description of the injuries she’d suffered before Sally had found her. “She’ll be able to fly fast one day, you’ll see. She’s got to do a bit more growing too, like you. I don’t think she’s very old.”
“She likes singing,” said Aesculus unexpectedly. “I so thirsty. Can I have a drink now?”
“Yes,” said Ace, “but not here. This part of the wood is way too close to a footpath. We’re going to cross the motorway on the footbridge, it’s really quiet on the other side.”
Ace and Will made sure Aesculus learned how to cross the bridge safely and carefully, because he’d need to do that a lot. Once they were down into the wood again, Aesculus looked around with interest. He’d never been here before.
“This is Moseley Wood too,” Ace explained. “A company owns this bit, so people can’t just come for a walk here. But they don’t use this corner, they’ve let it get all overgrown, so you’re as safe here as you could be anywhere.”
It was more overgrown than he remembered it, Ace thought. In between the tall beeches and pines, there were thickets of hazel, alder and hawthorn, with plenty of tall grasses and nettles around the edges. Even now, in the middle of winter, they had their pick of places where they’d be completely out of sight.
“Over here, Ace,” called Clover.
“Oh, yes, this is perfect.”
A slight mound under a wide-spreading hazel gave a patch of ground that was smooth and dry. A gap in the canopy high above gave it plenty of light.
“Well spotted,” said Ace, pleased. “Could you unpack the supplies now? And Will, could you show Aesculus how to light a fire? I’m going to scout round and check there are no foxholes.”
Jumping slowly, looking and sniffing carefully, Ace covered the whole patch, then joined the others.
“Looks good,” he said. “Right at the north corner there’s a fox path, but you can see they only pass through. There’s nothing else living here but mice and birds.”
“Good,” said Will, glancing up at the hazel with a smile. “Cory would have liked this spot. Here’s your tea.”
“Thanks, Will. OK, Aesculus, here’s the plan. We’re going to have a busy afternoon. We’re going to build a sprite house here, big enough for eight people. It’ll be home for anyone who’s on leave, and you and Mal and Viola can live here whenever you want to.”
“I can?” said Aesculus. “Even on my own?”
“Yes,” said Ace. “It’d be a bit lonely on your own, but whenever you feel like it, you can. Just tell David first, and it’ll be all right. It’s a good idea to get used to being outside and coping with night time and bad weather. Can’t live in a comfy human house all the time!”
“Can Elfcat come?”
“Yes, if he wants to. But tell him he has to cross by the bridge. He must never try to run across the motorway, he’d get killed.”
“I’ll remember,” said Aesculus. “Can we start now?”
“Yes,” said Will. “Come and help me find some nice bits of pine.”
When they’d finished, Ace had to admit they’d all learned a lot while they’d been away. This house was much nicer than any they’d had back on Wildside. The sturdy roof would never let a drop of rain in. It even had a gutter to catch the rain water and store it in a water butt, as they were a long way from the brook here. The walls were strong and straight, and the windows had glass in. Wide steps led up to a veranda, and the front door led into a big sitting room with a stone fireplace, a table, and some chairs. On each side of the sitting room was a bedroom, and each bedroom had four comfortable beds. There wasn’t much else yet, but that didn’t matter. They could do some more tomorrow, and right now it looked as if it was going to rain.
Ace put his hand on the front door.
“I name this house Moseley Lodge,” he said. “May it be a real home to anyone who lives here, however long or short their stay may be.”
With that, the first drops of rain began to fall, and the sprites went inside and closed the door.
By morning the rain had stopped, and Aesculus was keen to get out there and jump on some more cars. Last night, he’d been too tired to do anything but clamber into a cosy bed and fall asleep, but now he was raring to go again.
“You might as well, Ace,” said Clover. “Rose and I can finish the house off, and then we want to go and see Viola.”
“OK, if you’re sure,” said Ace. “Thanks. We’ll tackle some ordinary roads today, then.”
“We could go to the station,” said Will. “Wouldn’t do any harm to start learning the way to important places.”
“I been to station!” said Aesculus. “Been on a train with David, beat the bad elves!”
“Oh, of course, so you did,” laughed Will. “Come on, then. Let’s see if you can remember the way.”
When they’d gone, Rose and Clover worked hard. They gathered moss to cover the roof so it would be well-camouflaged, then they turned their attention to the inside. This was their home now and they wanted it to look good, even if they wouldn’t be here for long. So they made curtains for the windows, rugs and cushions and armchairs. Each bedroom had a washstand, with towels, and the sitting room had a kitchen corner, with a big dresser just like the one in Sally’s kitchen, with a row of hooks for mugs, and drawers to keep things in.
“Maybe we should have let Will do the drawers,” said Rose dubiously, trying to get one to close properly.
“He’ll be well impressed,” said Clover. “I wanted to make the effort, when he worked so hard yesterday making sheets. What else do we need?”
They looked around thoughtfully.
“Basket for firewood,” said Rose.
“Good thinking. You do that, then, and I’ll gather some wood to put in it, ready for tonight.”
When they were satisfied that everything was as nice as they could make it, they closed the door carefully and flew off the short distance to Cherrytree Close.
They didn’t go into Sally’s house. Sally had gone back to work now that Laura was older, and there wasn’t anyone there in the daytime any more. Instead they landed in the garden, and sat quietly for a while on a stone by a little pond, just talking. After a while, as they’d hoped, Viola crept out from beneath a big hellebore plant.
“Hello, Viola,” said Rose gently.
She saw a little heart-shaped face with scared, violet eyes that were looking at her so thirstily.
She’s craving for company, thought Rose. Poor little soul, she must have been so badly treated, to be so frightened.
Clover smiled at the little fairy, but didn’t say anything. She just started talking to Rose.
“I am so pleased with our new house,” she said. “So comfortable and warm – and so safe.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Rose. “I almost wish I could live there all the time. It’s a shame it has to be empty when we’re all on duty.”
“That is a shame,” said Clover. “It’d be so nice to know someone was living in it and taking care of it. I know Aesculus will go there sometimes, but it won’t be often, he’s too fond of David for that.”
She’d crept a little closer. She was listening intently, they knew.
“Clover, why are you wearing two cardigans?” said Rose innocently. “It’s not that cold.”
“You’re right,” said Clover, pulling one off. It was no coincidence that it was new, violet-coloured, and very pretty. “Just habit, I suppose.”
Viola crept a bit closer. She was wearing a thin cotton dress with a bit of plastic bag tied around her shoulders like a shawl. She looked pinched with cold. Clover held out the pretty cardigan.
“Would you like it?” she said. “You can have it… honestly, I don’t really need it. Look, I’ll just put it on this stone, so you don’t have to come too close if you don’t want to.”
Viola crept forward as if she could hardly believe her luck, to pick up this treasure. As soon as she’d put it on, she kept very still, not coming closer, but not backing off either. Rose and Clover smiled at her, but they didn’t try to make her talk. Not yet… instead, they started singing, an old fairy song that they hadn’t known before they went to Norway. It was a funny song, all about flying through different kinds of weather. Viola didn’t join in, but she did start mouthing the words, as if she wanted to. That told Rose and Clover a lot. Wherever she came from, it had been a good colony, so it probably wasn’t there that she’d suffered so much.
Just then, a magpie flew across the garden, squawking, and Viola scurried away in terror and hid under the plants again.
“She won’t come out again now,” said Rose softly, pulling a face at the magpie.
“Never mind, that was good progress,” said Clover. “The light’s going now, anyway. Let’s go and see if the elves are back.”
They flew straight up, very high, until all the familiar places were spread out below them… their friends’ houses, the flats and their car park that had once been Wildside, the horse chestnut and the brook, the motorway and Abney Park.
“You know, you can see from up here, just how far Moseley Wood once spread. The patches that are left seem closer together, somehow.”
“They do,” Rose agreed. “And I can see our new home, now. Angled descent at 120?”
“Go on then,” grinned Clover. “I suppose we ought to keep in practice.”
They got back to find Will getting the fire going and trying not to laugh, and Ace sitting on the floor wearing a pair of purple boxer shorts, trying to mend his jeans.
“Ace fell off!” chortled Aesculus.
“I did not fall off,” said Ace with patient dignity. “I sort of accidentally-on-purpose slid off, to show you what not to do.”
Aesculus wasn’t convinced, they could see, because he couldn’t stop giggling. Ace looked up, nearly cross-eyed from squinting so hard at the fabric.
“There, that’s better.” He wriggled back into his jeans and stood up. “How did you get on with Viola?”
Clover took pity on him and helped him change the subject.
“She came closer. She didn’t talk, but she accepted a cardigan, and she knows the words to Don’t flap your wings when the rain pours down.”
“Then a magpie frightened her away,” added Rose. “I wish we knew where she came from. It must have been a proper colony. We could go there, see what’s happened.”
“We’d have to do it before we’re back on duty,” said Ace, “but we could do that all right. It can’t be that far away.”
Will got Aesculus to stop bugging Ace and carry the cups to the table, then carried the teapot himself.
“I bet it’s on the railway line,” he said. “Sally said she looked like she’d fallen, as well as getting beaten up.”
“Fell off a train,” said Ace, “then Gromwell found her and brought out his favourite line about not being off your colony after dawn… it fits. Has she ever told you her place-name, Aesculus?”
“You know, the place you come from. Like, yours is Moseley, Madge’s is Arley, Phil’s is Royden.”
“Fox,” said Aesculus. “Viola Fox.”
“Is that it?” said Will. “Just Fox? It wasn’t Foxfield, was it?”
“Don’t think so,” said Aesculus, wide-eyed.
“We need a map,” said Will, “and I haven’t got one here. I’ll go and borrow one, then we can look along the railway line and see if we can spot a likely place.”
When Will had gone, Aesculus jumped down from the table and looked around as if something was missing.
“No television!” he said. He seemed worried about that, but then brightened. “Will can make television!”
“I’m sure he could,” laughed Ace, “but we’re not having a television here. This is your chance to learn sprite things, and we’re not having you grow up all ignorant like we did. Rose is going to tell you a story.”
Aesculus looked far from convinced that this was going to be very exciting, but once he was curled up beside Rose on a rug, listening to a story about Queen Gisela and the wolves, he looked perfectly content. By the time Rose had finished, his little chestnut head was nodding and he was smiling happily. Ace picked him up and carried him to bed, and when he crept out again, Will was back, taking his jacket off.
“David wasn’t there,” said Will. “He and Sally had gone to the hospice to visit Cyril.”
“I wish there was something we could do,” said Ace.
“I told Adam to let us know if there was anything,” said Will. “He found a map for me, so we can be working on this problem in the meantime.”
He spread the map on the table and they all pored over it. They searched along the railway line without finding anything that looked likely, but when they spread their search a little wider, they found a big wood near Chester.
“Foxwood!” said Rose. “That’s more like it.”
“Yeah,” said Ace, “look at the size of the place! Sure to be a colony in a place like that, and probably a nice traditional one, too.”
“So what went wrong?” said Clover. “Humans in this country wouldn’t build in a place like that, not nowadays.”
“No,” said Will, “but look at the map. Good country – but not wild country – close to so many big roads and motorways, close to the railway, and in between two huge cities… tempting, isn’t it?”
“Gangs,” said Ace. “That rings true. Exactly what happened in Delamere – which isn’t far away.”
“Rose and I could fly there and back in a day. D’you want us to go and check it out?”
“I think that’d be a good plan,” said Ace. “See if you can find out who’s in charge. And Will and I will take Aesculus to play in Sally’s garden, keep up the good work with Viola. And with a bit of luck we might see Sally, and we can ask how Cyril is.”
“Then in that case, I’m going to bed,” said Clover. “I’ve got a lot of flying to do tomorrow.”
“I’m going out again first,” said Will.
Ace thought he knew why, and it struck him that that was a very good idea.
“D’you want some company?”
“Yours,” said Will, “yes.”
Somehow it was easier in the dark. It softened the edges, making the great block of flats loom less large, hiding the fact that all that was left of Wildside was the brook and the horse chestnut. It was the first time they’d been on here since they came home, yet it had been at the back of their minds all the time. Ace and Will jumped down off the railway embankment and walked across the car park, its tarmac hard beneath their feet.
“First chance we’ve had, really,” said Will lightly. “So much going on. I know there’s nothing to see, and it’ll only hurt, but I had to come.”
“It feels right,” said Ace. “Even if it’s just paying our respects, at least we can do that.”
They walked past the flats, almost to the main road, and stopped exactly where Ace’s tree had been. For a long time, they stood still, remembering, then Ace just stooped and touched the ground.
Without a word, they walked next to the brook and followed its bank to the place where Will’s tree had once grown. Will knelt down and felt around, then sighed.
“Couldn’t help hoping, you know, that a shoot might have survived,” he said. “But there’s nothing.”
He stroked the ground, then clenched his fists as if he was trying to contain the hurt, but only for a few moments. He smiled bravely up at Ace, and they went to sit side by side on the bank of the brook, as they had done so many hundreds of times before.
“That brook is so mucky,” said Ace. “We used to drink out of that all the time.”
“Yep,” smiled Will. “Bit of a contrast to Norway’s clean streams, isn’t it? But it’s home, and it’s good to be home. It feels a bit weird, though.”
“I know what you mean,” said Ace. “Like we’ve stepped back in time. In Norway, I was a soldier, but now I’m here, that seems so far away. Yet the me that used to live here seems so far away too.”
“That’s it, exactly,” said Will. “Like I was two different people, and one of them’s in the wrong time and one’s in the wrong place.”
“It’s very strange,” said Ace. “It’s not as if things have stood still here. We’re not the only ones who’ve changed.”
“No, but we’re seeing all the changes at once,” said Will. “And besides that, we’re meeting our memories of ourselves at every turn. We’ll get used to it.”
Suddenly, Ace blinked as a light flashed along the brook, like a reflection. Just for an instant, a glimpse of a golden-green light that he knew very well.
“Did you see that!”
He twisted round, half-expecting to see the Tree behind him, but there was nothing there. All the same, he was sure of what he’d seen, and by the look on Will’s face, he was sure too.
“You no longer walk alone,” said Will.
Ace jumped up, brimming with happiness and confidence. The two halves were pulling together.
“Hey, look!” he said. He pulled Will up. “Another light. Torch on the railway line.”
“Gromwell,” said Will with relish. “Shall we have a word with him about what a bad idea it is to beat up small fairies on our patch?”
“Definitely,” said Ace. “Pull your sleeve down to cover your wristband. This is going to be fun.”
As they’d suspected, it was their old opponent Gromwell, and as they marched smartly towards him along the railway track, Ace wondered why he was patrolling here tonight. Did he know they were back, and was looking out for them, or was it just coincidence?
“Sergeant Gromwell!” called Ace. “Nice to see you again. Have you missed us?”
“Who’s there? Oh, it’s you. Back again, are you, and still breaking laws? What are you doing off your colony?”
“It’s night time,” said Ace, shaking his head almost in pity. “Let’s get one thing straight, Sergeant. No, actually, let’s get three things straight. Number one, we are on our colony right now, and so are you. Moseley Wood stretches from Parkway to the back of the High Street, and from Stockport Road to the path through Abney. OK, it’s lost a lot of trees and gained a lot of buildings, but that doesn’t make a scrap of difference to the colony’s boundaries, got that?”
“I say,” said Ace, “and I should know. Number two, police are supposed to report to the senior sprite as a courtesy before engaging in operations on colony land. So in future, you want to come onto our patch, you come and ask me first. If I’m not here, message me via Signals.”
“You heard. Number three, any refugees finding themselves on this colony are automatically welcome guests, and therefore just as free as any Moseley to go anywhere they like.”
“There was a refugee, a very young fairy, got beaten up on almost exactly this spot last summer,” said Will. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, I suppose?”
“Refugee scum need keeping under control,” snarled Gromwell. “You trying to teach me my job? Just because you’re in the army now doesn’t mean you can tell me what to do.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” said Ace. “Show him, Will.”
They pulled their sleeves back and showed him their black wristbands. They had to try not to laugh when he stared, then shone his torch on them to check the colour, as if he could hardly believe it.
“Lieutenants? Is this some kind of a joke?”
“Not a bit,” said Will. “We really are lieutenants now. So if you try and fight us, you’re not going to win. Why don’t you try co-operation, and see if you like it?”
“You seem to be struggling to understand,” said Ace kindly. “If you like, we’ll escort you off our colony, and wish you goodnight – unless you have a real reason for being here. Or you can come to our home, as our guest, sit down by the fire and chat over the latest news. It really is that simple. What do you say?”
Gromwell stared and stared as if he simply couldn’t believe his ears, and was silent for so long they were beginning to wonder if he was in shock. But then he spoke, and he sounded completely overwhelmed.
“All right,” he said. “Things have changed around here. You’re not daft youngsters any more, and I’m not stupid. I’ll accept your hospitality.”
Ace was just following his instincts. He hadn’t planned to do that; all he’d wanted, at first, was to teach Gromwell a bit of a lesson. But when he’d seen the sergeant’s face, he hadn’t seen the bully of their younger years so much as an ageing goblin who’d been working in the same way for too long, with not much support or guidance. What he heard, once Gromwell was sitting in an armchair with a mug of tea, only confirmed it. Encouraged to talk, he talked for hours, as if he’d never had anyone who’d listen to him before. True, a lot of it was moaning, but Ace and Will learned a lot by reading between the lines. How they hadn’t had reinforcements for years, how their major was a lazy so-and-so who stayed in his office all the time, how there were only six of them to cover every colony in Cheshire, and how he hated working on his own.
“How come?” said Ace, when he could get a word in. “You used to have helpers.”
“Spread too thinly now, since the fairies left,” said Gromwell sadly. “Used to be better. You remember Montbretia? She was a character. But when the invitation came, she upped and offed, and four others with her.”
“Well, don’t tell the major I told you,” whispered Gromwell. “I don’t think he’s reported it yet. Doesn’t dare, is my guess. But they’ve gone to join Special Brigade. Word went round, last autumn – they’d never bothered much with fairies before, but they were starting a big squadron. Any police fairy who joined them was guaranteed immediate promotion.”
“Why d’you think they did that?” asked Ace, trying to find out how much Gromwell understood.
“Search me. Don’t see much of them round here. Which is good – got enough trouble with gangs, without that lot poking their noses in. I just try and keep things under control, same as I’ve always done.”
Ace found he could begin to see things from Gromwell’s point of view. Unsupported, jaded and overworked, he’d pared his job down to the minimum, and made his life as easy as he could by bullying everyone into staying at home, and frightening refugees as far away as possible. He wasn’t a pleasant character, but it was easier now to see why he was like that, and he wasn’t unwilling to co-operate. Ace agreed that he could continue to patrol the railway line, and in return, Gromwell offered to let Ace know if any gangs moved into the area.
“Ah well, I’d best be off,” he said finally. “Ought to get over to Cheadle Hulme before dawn.” He got up, slowly. “Nice place you’ve got here,” he said. “Thanks for the tea.”
“Thanks for coming in,” said Ace. “We’re all on the same side.”
“That’s true,” said Gromwell, as if he’d almost forgotten. “Goodnight to you both.”
“Very interesting,” said Will when he’d gone. “I don’t like his methods, yet for all that, he’s doing exactly what Madge said we should do. He’s lost all confidence that anything will ever get better, his job seems impossible, yet he keeps on doing his duty. Makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“I’ll say,” said Ace. “And you know what, I’ve stopped feeling like two people. I never thought I’d have Gromwell, of all people, to thank for it.”
“Bad news about Montbretia and the other fairies. Never heard a whisper about this before, have you?”
“No,” said Ace. “I think we ought to let someone know.”
“It’s just the kind of thing Gran would want to know,” Will agreed.
“I’ll send a message to Signals,” said Ace. “I can check if there’s anything for us at the same time.”
It took Ace quite a while to calm his mind enough to get through, but when he did, the connection was strong.
You’re through to Signals.
Message for General Herdalen, said Ace. From Lieutenant Moseley,
Lieutenant Moseley, got that… which one?
Ace. Is that Major Inari?
It is, indeed. How are you, Ace? Enjoying your leave?
Excellent, thanks, sir. How are you?
Just back from leave myself. Nice and warm here, after Finland! What’s your message for the general?
Well, I don’t want to bother him if he already knows about this, but we’ve just been chatting to the local police, and heard that all their fairies – five of them – have left to join a new squadron Special Brigade have set up.
Very interesting, said Major Inari. News of this has begun to trickle in, but never the police themselves admitting to the losses. This is the first report from England, and General Herdalen will definitely want to know. Thanks very much, Ace. Want me to see if there’s anything for you?
Yes please, sir.
In seconds, Ace was scribbling down a message from Droz.
Hi Ace, Will, congrats on the promotions, that’s more like it! Just got back to Croatia, long journey, lots of fun. Met our new officer, Captain Vidilica, he’s great. Kes and Vin send best wishes to you all too, cheers, Droz.
Brilliant, said Ace. Is it OK to send chatty messages then, sir?
Positively encouraged for new troops out in the field. Don’t worry about that – good practice for you all!
Oh, great – in that case, can I send a reply?
Ace passed on their own news, then said goodnight to Major Inari and told Will what he’d heard.
“Special Brigade’s squadron isn’t going to be up to much if it’s full of fairies like Montbretia,” said Will. “But I’m not worrying about it now. It’s nearly three o’clock in the morning, and Aesculus will be awake in three hours.”
“So he will,” groaned Ace. “Time for bed.”