CHAPTER 10 - From a Different Point of View
When Will had told him that they had to go back to Harpsden and join up with the rest of England 3, Ace had kicked up a fuss. He’d been so patient! He’d stayed in Wales all that time, and after the excitement of Owler Tor, he’d felt sure that General Herdalen would let them do something interesting next. But after moaning at Will for half an hour, he’d said no more about it, and on the morning after Gran had left for Norway, they’d set off too.
True, travelling in Val’s old van was not as exciting as the Porsche, but it was still a lot faster than travelling elf-sized, and they arrived the same day. And after they’d got there, Ace found his feelings began to change. For one thing, everyone was so delighted to see them again. Colonel Harpsden, Captain Thurlgrove, all the youngsters, who were avid for the latest war news, and most especially the other lieutenants, Douglas and Lance. And for another thing, Ace began to sense what Gran really wanted. It was just like at Owler Tor… he’d had no instructions at all, but somehow Gran had known what he’d do, and it had been the right thing to do.
That was a terrific compliment when you thought about it, and it gave him confidence now. The more news he told, the more he noticed that England 3 had a lot of strengths that Gran could use, if someone took the time to explain things to them. This was a big section, with a lot of young and strong elves. Ace didn’t know what their fighting skills were like, but he did know they were completely in harmony with one another, and worked very well together as a team.
Once Ace had seen what was needed, he threw himself into it. The first thing to do was make some spare time, so he and Will worked desperately hard and fast at the daily litter collecting. Everyone else speeded up too, keen to match them and impress them. The second thing was to get to know everyone better, and that was easy to do while they were working.
Douglas and Lance were a few years younger than Ace and Will, but had been in the army much longer, having joined up at sixteen, straight from the School for Homeless Young Sprites. Douglas was a fir, of course, and as tall and handsome as you’d expect, but Lance’s tree they couldn’t guess.
“I’m an amelanchier,” he told them. “Try saying that when you’ve had too much mead. Born in a garden miles from any colony, I was very lucky to be found.”
Chatting like that, they soon learned everyone’s names. They were from all across England. A couple of pines from the Kielder Forest, a black poplar from Birmingham, a holly from Knightwood, who knew Fran, and no fewer than eighteen different beeches. That didn’t surprise them, though they were too polite to say so. Beeches have a bit of a reputation for being nice but dim. So many of them were called Gus that only Captain Thurlgrove used the name. The rest of them had nicknames. But in England, beeches are the giants of the forest, and some of those elves were ten inches tall. Brains mattered, but brawn was useful too. And they were loyal. When the message had come through that parliament had ordered the army to disband, not a single elf had left. They were all proud about that.
The faster they worked, the sooner they got to play. And when they’d finished playing, they were happy to sit on the grass in the dappled sunshine, and that was when Ace got his chance to talk. The first day, only the keenest listened, but they talked so much about what they’d heard, that on the second day, there were twice as many. On the third day, even the officers stayed.
Ace was telling them all about the operations that were already going on. All things that the officers, at least, could have found out for themselves, but hadn’t. They’d been living in a world of their own down here, but now they were hearing about the march of a thousand sprites, the counter-offensives to defend home colonies, the push north through Germany and the plans to track down the re-training camp, until everyone was getting very excited.
“Chill out,” said Colonel Harpsden, not without sympathy. “They won’t use us. They never do. Or at least, they’d have to be desperate.”
“And if they were desperate, it would be urgent,” said Captain Thurlgrove. “We could never get anywhere quickly enough. Unless something happened round here, which isn’t very likely.”
“Well, as to that, the Allies would help,” said Ace. “But yes, it might still be too slow.”
“We could transform each other into fairies, and fly!” someone suggested, provoking lots of laughter and silly comments.
Ace laughed too, but had to point something out.
“It takes fairies a lot of practice to get fast,” he said. “We couldn’t cross the sea like that. It’s very frustrating, isn’t it? Just imagine if England 3 was suddenly needed, and then, suddenly, there we were, how impressed everyone would be.”
They were imagining it all right, and they liked the idea a lot, Ace could tell.
“You’d need an aeroplane,” said the colonel. “Far out, man. Not possible.”
“Or one of those clacky things,” said Lance.
“What, a helicopter?” said Ace. “That’s a thought. No problem, with all your metal-working skills.”
“Don’t say that!” said Lance.
“Don’t say ‘your’. Say ‘our’.”
“You’re absolutely right,” said Ace. “Our metal-working skills are well up to that.”
“Now, hang on a minute,” smiled Captain Thurlgrove. “There’s more to things like that than metal work. To fly, they have to be the right shape, they have to have things called engines. It’s impossible, we don’t have those kind of skills.”
When a beautiful sycamore smiles a smile of pure joy, he doesn’t need to ask for attention. No-one can look away.
“With respect, sir, I think we do,” said Ace.
“They do look difficult, it’s true,” said Will. “But the basic design is incredibly simple…”
That evening, artistic creation was set aside in favour of engineering. Will explained how a helicopter flies and is controlled, and the elves quickly grasped the idea of air flowing over the parts. The actual engine baffled them, but Will didn’t really need help with engines. The teamwork was needed most on the larger parts. The fabric-lined room beneath the beech roots was humming with activity, as steel was expanded, shaped and curved. Before they went to bed, they had their first rotor blades. No-one wanted to stop, they were far too excited, but it was nearly midnight. While they were reluctantly packing up, Captain Thurlgrove had a private word with the colonel.
“This is too important for just one section,” he said. “Why don’t you pull the whole regiment together, then they could all learn this?”
“I could, couldn’t I?” said Colonel Harpsden, almost as if he had forgotten he was in command.
“You could,” said the captain firmly.
“All right, then. I will!”
That same evening, Rose and Clover found their first lost sprites, a mixed party of youngsters from a big garden in Cornwall. However, it wasn’t quite what they’d been expecting. Hoping desperately that they had made the right decision, they sent their report in to Colonel Basa.
Colonel Basa, head of Search and Rescue, was very young and very pretty. In fact, she was the youngest colonel in the army, and it made her feel quite nervous that just now, she had an in-tray in Signals, just like the generals did, because of the volume of messages coming in for her. But when she read Clover’s message, all shyness was forgotten, and she leaned against the wall, laughing hysterically.
General Stalden, coming in to collect her own messages, looked at her with concern. Had she piled too much work on her young colleague? Was she cracking up?
“Gilly!” she exclaimed. “What’s wrong, dear?”
Colonel Basa tried to speak, but couldn’t. She wiped her eyes feebly and passed over a yellow Signals form.
To Colonel Basa, she read, from Clover Moseley, Unit 7.
We found some lost sprites! Saw a fire, landed, did everything properly. But then they said they wanted to go to Poland. Oh, Colonel, we didn’t know what to do! Should we have fought them, do you think? In the end we decided that Search and Rescue shouldn’t leave anybody lost, no matter where they were going, so we set them on the road for the east coast. But if that was wrong, we are very sorry.
General Stalden had a lot on her mind right now, but even she had to smile.
“Oh dear,” she said, “poor Clover, what a dilemma! She’s quite right though, isn’t she? Search and Rescue can’t abandon lost people.”
“I think she and Rose did well. They helped, but not too much. Set them on the right road, but didn’t escort them to the coast.”
“It’s not surprising that such a thing should happen. Half the realm seems to be on the move. I think it might be worth sending out a message to all your units, advising them what to do, because it could easily happen again.”
“Yes, ma’am,” smiled Colonel Basa.
General Stalden gathered up her own messages and walked to her house. She was very tired, because she had flown a long way today, but more than rest, she wanted to talk to her friends. She knew that now the work of the day was over they would start to gather. Her assistant, Heather Rhaeadr, and Poppy Rhaeadr from Signals, Arda Svir, Cam Bruach, the colonel of First Squadron, Madge Arley, and Gia Biagioni, all the most senior fairies in the army. But they weren’t thinking of rank tonight, just of helping and consoling each other.
“Hello, Nella,” said Gia, hugging her. “Saw you were back. How were things at home?”
“Very bad,” said Nella. “There was a death. Not intentional, I am sure… a very old fairy, whose time would soon have come, but still… far too old to be suddenly turned out into the cold.”
She bit her lip, too sad to continue.
“Who did the attack?” asked Madge quietly.
“If it was Special Brigade, they were not in uniform,” said Nella. “But all the same, my people thought it was them. Too well-organised and too methodical for a gang. Homes that had withstood a hundred winters, burnt to ashes. It was not a random choice of target.”
“No,” said Gia. “Not at all. But it was not your fault.”
“No… but it is hard not to feel guilty,” said Nella. “What happened at Arley?”
“Much the same,” said Madge. “Wanton destruction. There, it was a gang, there are several in the area, happy to do Special Brigade’s bidding if it gives them a chance to cause trouble.”
“Did you go yourself?” asked Cam.
“No, the information came from Rosemary Arley at Owler Tor. She went on our behalf, for solidarity. She said that everyone was shocked and disgusted when they realised why it had happened, because at first they thought it was just random. Such things do happen, in those parts. But when they knew, their fighting spirit was up. They vowed to rebuild, and sent a message of support.”
“That’s good,” said Heather. “Special Brigade may be able to count on help from gangs, but we can count on the help of better sprites than that.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Gia. “It was a nasty plan, but if they hoped to demoralise us, they have not succeeded, despite the damage caused.”
“What else?” said Arda. “And what of your own home, Gia?”
“Saal was untouched. Inula is on their side now, and they do not know Urzica Ormul, his replacement. Széchenyi, of course, was destroyed years ago. In Herdalen, they did not have much success. The place is remote, the colony widely spread. They sent too few, and those were seen off before they could cause much damage. But in Biagioni… they set fire to the whole hillside. They’d never have found the houses, the forest is too thick and steep. So they burned the lot. Only a deluge of rain put an end to it, but not before huge areas had been destroyed. Twelve elves lost their trees in a single night. My people are devastated. And they are demanding revenge.”
“Which brings us back to our problem,” said Madge. “How to respond. Do we send help, and try to track down the perpetrators? If we do not, we risk alienating the very civilians who support us.”
“And if we do respond, we split our forces, waste our energy on little actions, and lose sight of the big picture,” said Cam.
“I know that Gran wants to follow the leads to their re-training camp and liberate it,” said Gia. “But I feel that is a distraction too. He feels as emotional about that as we do about our colonies.”
“He feels responsible,” said Madge. “I was in Signals when he was following the messages from Betch Knightwood. You should have seen his face as they marked up the places Betch was sending clues to… Nürnberg, Regensburg, Radidorf, Straubing, Plattling and all the rest of them.”
“Plain to see where they were going,” Gia agreed. “The Bavarian Forest. Betch was amazing, and even sent a clue to the tiniest forest station, the last on the branch line, and even when they finally went on foot, he knew he was heading east. His signals stopped abruptly, so we knew they must have used blocking, but that in itself told us the distance to their perimeter.”
“So you know exactly where they are now?” said Cam. “I do see what Gran means, that’s a very tempting target.”
“I know, Cam, it certainly is, but parliament has to be the main objective. We can easily send help to the affected colonies, and we’ll do that at once. Stalden needs practical help. We’ll send a party from Supplies to help them rebuild. Arley needs more defence from gangs, and that is tied up with the re-organisation of the police. I’ll tell General Ormul to get more people in there as fast as he can. And Biagioni shall be told that the best way we can avenge their wrongs is by defeating parliament, who gave the order in the first place.”
“Very wise,” Nella approved. “We must not lose sight of our objective.”
“Exactly,” said Gia. “Ordinary sprites will not feel free until Wielkopolska is no more. I know it’s not as simple as all that really, but we must strike parliament. Soon, fast and hard.”
“Somehow, you know, I don’t think Gran will have too much trouble with that,” smiled Madge.
“I want this over,” said Gia. “If we must fight, then the sooner we win, the better.”
Older and wiser sprites might be hoping the war would be over quickly, but that feeling was not shared by the second years. Their only concern was that it would last until they had chance to play their part. All the same, Fjaerland was not untouched by the war. The mood was serious and not even the first years fooled around. The training sergeants were keeping everything going as smoothly as they could, but already the Race Around the Mountain had been cancelled, and you never quite knew who would take a lesson, as senior officers got tied up with more urgent business.
There were no units coming home on leave, because no-one was getting any leave, and people in transit came and went again more rapidly than usual. But there were still lots of new faces around, because of all the volunteers who were arriving.
The Commander had sent for a dozen sprites of great experience from several units, to train the volunteers, and already that was well-organised, with another camp, under canvas, nearly as large as the main one, up on the combat training ground. Retired army sprites were being tested for fitness and refreshing their training. There were veterans too, who cheerfully admitted that their fighting days were over, and they had joined Signals where they were greatly needed. Raw recruits were being assessed for their natural talents, then trained to make the best use of those, for now, with the promise that, once the war was over, they could return if they wished and learn everything properly.
One of them, a fairy from France called Lisette, had already been assigned to help Dale with the computer, when they heard that she was an expert at using the internet. Now that sprites with divided loyalties had left, there was no need to keep the computer a secret any more. They’d made a new room especially for it, down by the bridge over the stream, and a generator to power it as well.
Phil Royden was too busy to be worrying, but he knew that some of the other elves were worried that the volunteers might get sent into action before they did. They even spoke to Sergeant Kopec about it, and his reply was as brisk as Phil would have expected.
“That’s a bad attitude,” he told them. “Doesn’t matter what you want, or what I want – all that matters right now is what the army needs. Now up that mountain with you in unison, and let’s see if we can’t get a bit more speed. Who knows where you might be needed? Moving fast is crucially important.”
Everyone was really focused, Phil thought, as they lined up. The war was affecting everything. Even now they were helping more than they thought. It wasn’t just that people were working harder. Every class was making useful things. Only yesterday, he and Rob had spent the whole afternoon in Advanced Science making lenses, to be sent on to Technical HQ, who’d been inundated with requests for binoculars.
But then he had to stop thinking and give everything he had to the unison, as the elves moved in a blur of speed up between the trees. Higher and higher they went, and as the ground grew steeper, they dug in harder, so they were going faster, not slower.
Oh, that was brilliant! he thought, as they shuddered to a halt and he looked down at camp, so far below them now. Sensational.
He grinned at Rob and slapped hands with him, and with the rest of his team, delighted to see that Sergeant Kopec was beaming with pride.
“That’s more like it,” said the sergeant. “Work hard, and be patient. I read a lot of history, human history as well as sprite history, and I’ll tell you one thing – there’s never been a civil war yet where there wasn’t a pause after it started. The dam bursts, but then people stop and think, are we really going to do this, fight our own kind? And it happens on both sides. There’s never one side completely right or completely wrong, not even now. So remember this, your enemy is just you, looking at the world from a different angle.”
Phil knew they were playing their parts already. And so was everyone else. All across the realm, sprites were doing exactly what they needed to be doing, efficiently and speedily. It gave him the feeling that the Commander knew exactly what she was doing. But it still all felt like preparation. What he wanted to know was, when was something going to happen?
One thing that had not changed – except perhaps to get worse – was the Fjaerland rumour mill. Every day, someone would get a bit of news from home, or from a friend in the field, and before you knew it, it had spread across camp, wildly exaggerated. Madge had tried to put a stop to this, by announcing that she would post the latest news every morning, and if it wasn’t on her notice, then it wasn’t true.
It helped a bit, but not completely. Everyone knew that there would be some things that were so top-secret they wouldn’t want to tell everyone, at least not straight away, and who knew what bit of news might be a clue to something like that?
The victory at Owler Tor had cheered everyone enormously after the defeat at Vingen. It was even rumoured that General Herdalen himself had visited Moseley Wood after the battle. Phil knew that one was true, because Ace had told him all the news from home, but it still made him giggle to hear the respect in people’s voices – to hear the dear, scruffy place where he’d spent some of the happiest months of his life mentioned with bated breath in the hushed tones people used when they were speaking of Immindingen.
After that, there’d been no more attacks on Hills – at least, not so far – just four fast, vicious attacks on colonies. Arley, Stalden, Herdalen and Biagioni… anyone could see why they’d been chosen. The interesting thing was, there had been no retaliation. Phil was pretty sure the army council weren’t just sitting back waiting to see what parliament would do next. They were planning something, he was sure… something big. But what would it be? He could hardly wait to find out.
As General Stalden had said, half the realm seemed to be on the move. An ever-swelling crowd was marching relentlessly north towards Wielkopolska, whole units from both sides were moving openly or secretly, individual volunteers were staunchly making their way to where they wanted to be. Unnoticed and unremarked, a small English fairy from Fighter Squadron set a new record for endurance flying, covering the thousand miles between England and Poland in four days. Not that Dan knew or cared about records; she just felt pleased to have made good time. Carda’s colony, she knew, was in the far south of the country. She’d been there before, on a visit, but now she was heading north, to where the Polish section of Fighter Squadron were guarding the local Hill at Kamieniece. They weren’t expecting trouble there, as the judge was firmly pro-parliament, but it was the nearest Hill to Wielkopolska so the army was keeping an eye on things. Dan’s colonel had told her that, as well as giving her directions, when General Herdalen had put in a request for her and Carda especially.
It was just, only just starting to go dark as Dan lost height, knowing she must be near her destination. Then she spotted a signal, a mirror reflecting the last rays of the setting sun. Journey’s end… she landed, stiffly and clumsily, suddenly feeling very tired. And there was Carda, beaming with happiness, hugging her, and taking her away to meet the rest of her section. They must have been well up to date with the latest news, because when Carda mentioned her name, Moseley, they looked rather impressed. But when they heard she’d left only four days ago, they looked stunned. Even for Fighter Squadron, that was astonishing. They gave her cool drinks, and a sleeping bag in a grassy nest, and Dan wasn’t complaining about that at all. Leaving Carda to contact Signals for her, she went straight to sleep.
Early next morning, Carda’s captain, Krokus Zawoja, explained to them how to get to Mosina, where Janusz lived.
“It’s easy to find,” she said, “and not far away at all. The difficulty will be getting in unobserved. It’s that close to Wielkopolska, you see.”
“They patrol the skies then, do they, ma’am?”
“That’s right. Their squadron is huge now. I wouldn’t say they had a lot of quality, but they’ve certainly got numbers. From what we’ve heard, though, their patrols always keep to about 300 feet. I suggest climbing a lot higher than that – say, 800 – while still a long way north. Then, once you’re overhead, hover and check the lines below you. Once they’re clear, dive to rooftop level and weave between the houses until you find the one you want.”
“That’ll be the hardest part,” said Carda. “I bet he doesn’t have a star on his roof. Round here, he’d only get his windows broken. What beats me is how he ever became an Ally at all in these parts.”
“Oh, that’ll be someone in Rogalin, for sure,” said the captain. “It’s a very divided colony. Half of them work for parliament, half of them can’t stand the place.”
“That’s right,” said Dan. “David did tell me whose Ally Janusz was. It was a fairy, and I can’t remember her name, but Rogalin was definitely the colony. And Janusz told David that we should look for a house with blue gates in the road that’s closest to the forest.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” said Captain Zawoja. “Take care, and good luck!”
Flying more slowly now, so as not to blunder into the enemy unawares, Dan had time to look at the land below her. Poland was such a big country, and so uncrowded compared to home. Once you’d passed a place, there were miles of trees and meadows before you came to the next one. To the southwest, a huge area of wild and unspoiled country was opening up, stretching further than Dan could see. This was Wielkopolska National Park, she knew, and the place that sprites called Wielkopolska, the parliament complex, was really just a speck in all that immensity, a tiny island in one of its many lakes.
But that speck was near the park’s eastern border, and so was the village of Mosina. And that, Dan hoped, was going to be their downfall. In good time, she and Carda soared, approaching Mosina from further east, so as to keep as far away as possible from parliament. Once they were directly above the village, they hovered, and it wasn’t long before a patrol flew across below them. Dan’s heart was banging in her chest, wondering if the enemy fairies would spot them.
“If they see us, we’ll have to fight,” said Carda. “There’s only six of them. We can take out six.”
“You bet,” said Dan, hoping that was true. “If they do see us, dive right away, so we get the speed advantage.”
“Sure thing, partner,” said Carda.
But the enemy fairies did not look up, and as soon as they were out of sight, Dan and Carda dived until they reached the cover of the rooftops of Mosina. They knew they were at the wrong side of the village now, so quickly they flew up one roof and down the next, and up again, until Dan saw something that frightened her so much, she simply forgot to move her wings.
“Aaargh!” she screamed, and slid down the roof into a gutter full of cold, dirty water, then stood there shivering and staring.
It was a bird – she supposed it was a bird – as big as a human. Sitting on a nest. A nest on a chimney. And it was looking at her disdainfully, as if she was far too small to bother with. That suited Dan fine. Carda landed beside her and patted her shoulder.
“What?” demanded Dan. “What is that?”
“A stork,” said Carda. “They are pretty big, aren’t they? I’m not surprised it startled you if you’ve never seen one before.”
“Pretty big? It’s enormous! I mean, why? Why does it need to be that big? How big are the cats round here? And how does it even fly?”
“Search me,” said Carda. “You’ll have to ask Will.”
“Hmm… well, assuming Janusz would have mentioned it if he had a flying elephant on his roof, this isn’t the right house. Let’s fly off very quietly to the next one.”
The right house was in the very next street, and Janusz was leaning out of the window looking out for them. Dan was still suffering from shock, so the first he saw of the English computer expert who had come all this way to help him was a soaking wet fairy with wild, staring eyes.
Dan saw a handsome young man with long fair hair and an optimistic moustache, and hoped he wasn’t going to be like Ace. She wasn’t feeling strong enough for that. He and Carda immediately started talking in Polish, which only made things feel more surreal to Dan, because she could understand Carda but not Janusz.
Carda was mentioning the stork – explaining why Dan was all wet – and at this Janusz looked concerned, spoke quickly and left the room.
“He’s gone to get you a drink,” said Carda.
Janusz came back with a proper sprite-sized glass and an enormous bottle, frowning as if trying to calculate the correct medicinal dose for someone who was only six inches tall. Dan accepted it gingerly. It looked like water, but it probably wasn’t, in a bottle like that.
“Wow!” she gasped, as soon as she could breathe again. “What’s that?”
“Vodka,” said Carda. “It’s quite strong, isn’t it?”
“You’re a master of understatement, you know that? It’s awesome.” She smiled at Janusz. “Dziękuję,” she said. She knew that much. “Thank you.”
She rested then while the other two talked about the webcam, where it needed to go, and that although the place was close by and easy to walk to, they would have to wait until morning, though Dan hadn’t picked up why.
Then Janusz looked apologetic as he started explaining something else, and Carda started translating.
“His little sister, Dorota… loves fairies… so excited that we were coming… uh-oh. She’s made pretty beds for us, with rose petals… and a tea party… and baths. But now he’s met us, he can see we don’t much care for pretty things.”
“Tell him not to worry,” said Dan, thinking fondly of Laura and Gemma. “For a girl who loves fairies, we can handle one night of pretty. Besides, I’d love a bath.”
When Dorota got home from school, she came rushing up to see if the fairies had arrived, and if she was disappointed that they were wearing camouflage gear, she certainly didn’t show it. She told her brother off for keeping Dan in wet clothes, and took her and Carda off for a bath. Her bedroom was tiny, but she didn’t let that stop her from producing everything a fairy could need. Baths she had made from some kind of sauce boat, and they kept the water really hot. What with soft towels and then hot tea, Dan felt as if she hadn’t just washed away the stork and the gutter, but all the miles from England too. She and Carda dozed happily for a while, because Janusz and Dorota had gone downstairs to have a meal with their parents. But then they got dressed and ready for action, they had a lot to do this evening, and Dan knew she was on her own. It was her own fault, she knew. If she’d worked harder at messaging, she’d have been able to contact Will but she was way out of her range now. If they were desperate, they could email David, but Dan didn’t understand David’s explanations as well as she did Will’s, so she was feeling rather apprehensive.
Janusz showed them his computer. It was a very good machine. He hadn’t set it up himself, he told Carda, his older brother had done it for him, and he was away just now, at university. So from that, Dan gathered that it had been himself Janusz had little confidence in, not his computer, so that was one worry fewer. He also showed them the webcam, still in its box.
“Great,” said Dan, “it looks really good! Carda, tell him that first we have to install the software.”
“Huh?” said Carda.
“OK, don’t worry,” said Dan. This was going to take a long, long time. She flew down and pressed hard on the release catch for the disc drive. “Just tell him to get the disc out of the packaging and put it in here.”
Once messages started appearing on the screen, Janusz got the idea, and between them, he and Dan managed it.
“Now the computer knows the webcam is there,” Dan explained, keeping it simple. “Let’s try it out.”
They took it in turns posing, laughing delightedly to see themselves appear on screen. Dan let them play. She had to concentrate on the next bit. Once Dorota had gone reluctantly to bed, Dan carefully followed Will’s instructions step by step to get the images online. That meant emailing David with a link, and he was very encouraging.
“Great work, Dan!” he typed. “If you’ve got this far, you’ll have no problems now. Give it half an hour, then log on to Sprite Allies and see what you can see.”
And there it was. Dan could hardly believe her own eyes. The images of Janusz’s bedroom could now be seen by any of the Allies… and most importantly, by Dale and his team at Fjaerland and by General Herdalen himself. Only the webcam was not going to stay in here. Tomorrow, camouflaged inside a bird nesting box that Janusz had made at work, it would be placed right on top of parliament’s main access point.
Janusz emailed David himself to say it had worked.
“Then that’s all we can do for tonight,” said Dan sleepily. “Let me at my rose-petal bed.”
In the morning, Dan and Janusz set out alone. Janusz was carrying the nesting box with the webcam hidden inside it. Round his neck he was carrying a magnificent pair of binoculars. Dan was riding in his hood, to keep well out of sight. Immediately beyond the village lay the boundary of the national park. They simply strolled along a footpath and they were there. There was a vastness and solitude about the place. Mist was rising from the lakes, shot through with the rays of the sun, still low in the sky. But it wasn’t quiet. The world was full of birdsong. Janusz raised his binoculars to his eyes.
“Birds,” he said. “Every day, I do.”
“Brilliant,” said Dan. “So they’re used to seeing you, watching the birds. And if they see you put a bird box on a tree, they won’t be surprised. And they certainly won’t think it has a webcam inside it.”
She hoped it wasn’t too comfortable inside that box. She could imagine what General Herdalen would say if his view of the enemy was obscured by a couple of nesting bluetits.
It took nearly an hour to reach the right place, because Janusz was not heading straight to it, but ambling around as he usually did and stopping to look at things.
“Bocian!” he said at one point, and Dan could hear he was grinning. Stork… that was one word she’d never forget. She looked up and hastily looked away again.
“So long as it stays up there, fine,” she muttered.
Slowly, casually, Janusz arrived at the tree he’d already chosen, then pulled out a hammer and nail. While he was working, Dan peered cautiously out and looked around. The parliament buildings themselves were not in sight – they were way out across the marsh, Janusz had said – but sprite paths were plain to be seen, if you knew what you were looking for. Dan could see the spot had been well-chosen. Several paths converged here, and seemed to lead out to a causeway. What she had to do now was get inside that nesting box and make sure the lens was angled to get the very best view. It wasn’t going to be easy. It was a tight fit in there, she knew. Janusz’s big hands gently cupped her, so she was completely out of sight as he lifted her towards the hole.
She wriggled inside as he pretended to be making final adjustments. It was so dark in here! Well, she’d got in, but she was now upside down and facing the wrong way. Slowly and painfully she managed to squirm around the back of the camera and then at least she could see daylight again. She looked carefully out of the hole then moved the camera slightly so that it could look down directly onto the paths. Now all she had to do was get out without knocking it out of position again. Before she climbed out, she looked across the marsh. She thought she could just make out the top of a tall building. It sent a shiver through her. Over there, completely hidden from sight, hundreds of sprites who wanted nothing better than to destroy the army and everything it stood for. And if she was caught here, she’d be sent away to the awful place they’d sent Betch. That was a terrifying thought, and she crawled out again into Janusz’s hands as carefully as she could. Not many things frightened Dan, but the thought of missing out on the action did.
Janusz started walking back. It was now just gone seven o’clock. He would go back to his house now, and email David, and then go off to his work. Dan just looked back towards parliament.
If only you knew, she thought. Why can’t you understand how much humans love us, how much they do for us? You’ll never win. You won’t. Because you don’t deserve to.
At the other end of the causeway. Lars Huskvarna and Klethra Diolkos were having breakfast together. A silver teapot sat between them at a table in the Special Brigade canteen. If you wanted to have a really private conversation, they both knew that a public place was a sound choice. Who could possibly suspect you of plotting in the canteen at breakfast time? They knew that no-one would presume to approach them unless invited, and they took care to keep their voices low and their body language relaxed and casual.
“The Premier is pleased?”
“Very pleased,” said General Huskvarna. “All these volunteers turning up – he says it shows how much support there is for us. Which is true. But he also says that there’s no rush to use them. Train them properly, he says. Then they’ll be ready when we start the real war.”
“Against humans. Hmm…”
“Exactly. You know it’s nonsense, and I know it’s nonsense. But if anyone else does, they’re not going to say so. D’you know, it’s the army that has got the right idea.”
Major Diolkos frowned, then smiled as he understood.
“Ah… the queen. One person ruling the realm.”
“But not a queen, of course. That’s laughable. Turning the clock back – it’s just as stupid as thinking we can return to the days when humans were frightened of us. Little by little, our population is going down. A few more centuries, and we’ll be wiped out. The only way to stop the rot is strong leadership.”
“Such a leader would need a free hand. No envoys bleating.”
“Nor even cabinet, always arguing over details. He – and it would have to be an elf, of course – would need to command the loyalty of the army. Oh, not the current army – the one we’ll have by the end of the war. The Brigade, plus all the volunteers, and all the re-trained prisoners. It’ll be a sizeable force!”
Major Diolkos leaned back casually and sipped his tea.
“This re-training is a good idea. The Premier is right about that, we have to get everyone on the same side. Just not to go off fighting humans!”
“It’s an excellent idea, and they’ve made a good start. I’m glad you and the Renegades are going to be guarding it, though. Some people are sure to try to escape, so it needs the best. But when the work is done, we’ll have a great force, and we’ll use it for good, to make sure everyone lives where he’s told to. It’s the only way to keep them safe.”
“There was an envoy, couple of years ago, who had the same idea. Wanted to make himself king. Mecsek, that was the name. Thought he’d take a short cut by killing Herdalen and avoiding war. Not a chance. Take more than him to sort out Herdalen. And he could never have commanded the loyalty of the troops. But you could.”
Their eyes met, and they laughed as if sharing some light jest, for the benefit of anyone who was watching.
“We have to win the war first. Though that shouldn’t take too long. But we do need to look ahead.”
“We don’t need this place. We need a new base, more central, better placed for the railways.”
“Yes, you’re right. And for troops only. We won’t be needing envoys any more. Well, I’ll be making a start tomorrow. I have to address full session on progress so far. Oh, I’ll be everything they want me to be. But if you listen carefully and read between the lines, it could be quite entertaining!”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
“Klethra, I couldn’t do this without you. You’re the one person I can trust completely. And when I make it, I won’t forget who helped me. You’ll be up there, right by my side.”
“I know you’ll make it, Lars. And that’s not just because it’s the right – the only – thing to do. It’s just because of who you are.”
When news of parliament’s decree had gone round, that the army was to disband and join Special Brigade, Wayne Langdon had been the first to respond. For one thing, being there at Wielkopolska meant that he didn’t have a lot of choice. For another, it would look impressive and make them sure he could be trusted. As a reward, he had now been officially enlisted in the unit he’d been attached to, the Wielkopolska Unit. He wore the same uniform they did now.
But all the army sprites who had obeyed had been treated very well. They hadn’t been put with the volunteers, but allocated to good units straight away. No-one was suggesting the army’s training was inadequate. The contingent led by General Saal had arrived together, but as days went by, Wayne had seen other old friends arrive, people who had left their units and travelled alone when the call had come. Crocus and Margherita, Lilje and Revebjelle, Noyer, Lys, Pioppo and Cor… Wayne had been so glad to see them that he hadn’t had to pretend much. He had to remind himself what a loss they were to the army. There were some good people here now, especially Crocus, with her leadership skills. They weren’t daft here, either; they’d spotted that right off, and put her into Special Squadron as a lieutenant.
Not that the rest of the Wielkopolska Unit were interested. They were the elite, they didn’t even bother much with the rest of Special Brigade, let alone ex-army sprites. But they were polite, in a distant sort of way.
The Premier had said that all the new people were to be allowed to attend the full session of parliament to hear General Huskvarna’s speech - they’d fit everyone in, somehow, even if some of them had to sit on the floor – and Wayne’s unit had been a bit sniffy about that, they being usually the only unit to attend. And then it turned out that they themselves wouldn’t be going at all. Wayne was nearly hopping with frustration, because whatever the speech was about, General Herdalen would have been very interested. But there didn’t seem to be anything sinister about it. They’d been ordered to the Czech/Polish border, and it was an order they’d been expecting, that could have come any day now. It was just a really annoying coincidence.
Wayne’s captain came to give them their orders. He was an elegant oak from Wilanów, the grandest palace in Warsaw, and he managed to make the marchers sound simply tiresome.
“This silly protest march is nearly at the border. A good number of them, but only about a quarter of them army. The rest are imps, goblins and other riff-raff. Our orders are to halt their progress – no more, no less. They don’t cross into Poland until we say so. We’ll split into four, and go cross-country, so line up for your doses and collect your gear. We leave in one hour.”
Wayne and Stan were in Silver Company, under a brawny lieutenant from Russia. Even when they’d just taken hawthorn berry they couldn’t make out what he was saying, but so long as he was smiling, they reckoned they must have guessed all right. Right now, he was holding his arms in a V-shape and seemed to be shouting ‘Goose’, which seemed to Wayne to be highly unlikely, even for the lieutenant, but Stan understood.
“He means, V-formation, like geese in flight,” he grinned. “Don’t tell me… you’ve never seen geese in flight.”
“Can’t say I have,” Wayne grinned back. “But just you wait. One day my amazing urban survival skills will come in useful, and you won’t be laughing then.”
The lieutenant took the head of the V. Wayne and Stan were on the same side, at the tail, and Wayne quickly realised that this was an extremely fast formation. The last long journey he’d made, to the Black Forest, had been slower. There, the intention had been that they should be seen. Here, only speed mattered. At this speed, even another sprite would have trouble seeing them. Fortified with laburnum and completely streamlined, the first mile disappeared beneath their feet in a few minutes. At first, Wayne was exhilarated, enjoying the novelty of being able to move so fast, but his enjoyment froze as he suddenly realised he was last in line. Stan had disappeared.
“Lieutenant!” he yelled. “Lieutenant, stop, stop!”
At first, Wayne thought the lieutenant simply hadn’t heard him, but it wasn’t that. It was almost as if he didn’t want to know. When he eventually looked round, his face was sad, but he shook his head.
What on earth is the matter with you? thought Wayne.
With a conscious effort, he made himself stop moving, and the simmering V-shape was out of sight in seconds. Wayne was alone, completely alone, in the middle of a field. This was going to need some thinking about. Obviously Stan had fallen, maybe even broken an ankle, and he would need help fast. But if Wayne veered off from the course they’d taken, he could miss him, even if he was only out by a few yards. Blessing Sergeant Olt and his interminable tracking lessons, Wayne marked the spot where he was standing. Then he zigzagged across the field, backwards and forwards across what he thought was the right line until he found what he was looking for, the bent blades of grass where seventeen pairs of elf boots had briefly landed. He marked that spot too, then walked back to the first marker, counting his steps. Nearly two hundred paces in one jump, that was phenomenal! Unfortunately, it meant that Stan could now be a long way behind him. He jumped to the second marker, then, checking his line, he walked north for another two hundred paces, and searched for bent grasses again. Over and over again he repeated his actions with dogged patience, until, finally, he found him.
For a moment, Wayne stood still with shock. It was clear that this was no fall, no simple break or strain. Stan was ill… very ill indeed. He was curled up in a ball, shivering uncontrollably and fighting for breath.
“Stan!” gasped Wayne, crouching down beside him. “Can you hear me? Do you know what’s wrong?”
“Wha… what? Wayne? Oh, no, you shouldn’t have, you’ll get in terrible trouble!”
Just saying that much caused Stan to have a coughing fit, and then he stopped shivering and his muscles seemed to go into spasm, freezing him in a rictus of pain. Wayne held him until the spasm passed, and he started shivering again. His skin felt clammy to the touch, yet he was very cold. If you didn’t know what was wrong, treat the symptoms, Wayne knew that much. Quickly he looked around. This was going to take a while, but there didn’t seem to be any reason why they shouldn’t stay exactly where they were. This meadow was vast, the grass was long and there were no animals around. He pulled Stan’s sleeping bag out of his backpack and soon got him zipped up inside it.
“Nice,” sighed Stan. “Bit warmer now. So kind. Didn’t want to die alone.”
“You’re not going to die!” said Wayne.
“People usually do,” whispered Stan. “It’s the laburnum – if it gets you, you shiver yourself to death.”
Suddenly, it all made sense. Just why the army didn’t use these doses, and why only eighty-nine elves had arrived at Immindingen when ninety had set out.
“It’s a chance you take,” said Stan, then coughed again. “No-one says anything, but everyone knows. You can be all right so many times, then suddenly it’ll get you. I’ll be dead by morning.”
“We have to get you the antidote!”
“Not allowed. Don’t know them. If you fall behind, you fall behind. Operations must not be jeopardised.”
In a frantic hurry, Wayne searched his pockets. Somewhere, he still had that list. In his haste, he missed it the first time, but as he made himself slow down and search methodically, he found it. He ran his eyes down the list… so many things, and nearly all of them potentially lethal. He was angrier than he’d ever been in his life, and right then he could have killed the Premier, and General Huskvarna too.
“I know them,” he said. “The army told me before I left. They were worried about me, and I’m beginning to see why.”
“You know them?” said Stan, with hope in his voice for the first time. “What is it?”
“Believe it or not, it’s just caffeine,” said Wayne.
“Caffeine? What plant is that?”
“Lots of plants,” said Wayne, feeling more cheerful now, and rummaging deep inside his own backpack. “Including Camellia sinensis. Which does not grow in Poland. But can be found inside the backpack of nearly every sprite, in dried form – the humble teabag.”
He’d found the small tin he was looking for, and opened it right under Stan’s nose. Maybe even the smell would help him.
“I’m going to have to leave you for a few minutes,” said Wayne. “To get firewood. There’ll be something in the hedgerow, for sure.”
“Thank you,” whispered Stan. “We’ll both be kicked out for this, but I’m so grateful.”
“Don’t even think about it,” said Wayne. “I’m going to cover you up with my sleeping bag too, and this camouflage blanket. Keep warm, keep calm, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Ten miles further north, General Huskvarna rose to his feet in the crowded Chamber of Envoys. He was looking forward to this. He was no orator, he knew that. When he had finished, sprites would say to one another, ‘A fine speech, but he can’t match the Premier, not at all’.
But the Premier could only disguise his real meanings from the simplest. No-one, not even the Premier, would be able to see through this speech. For subtlety, he flattered himself, he had no equal.
“Envoys and members of the Brigade,” he began. “It is now twenty-seven days since the army declared war on the rest of the realm. I am here to report to you on what has been achieved so far, and what we are aiming to do next. The army’s action came as no surprise. They have long felt themselves to be above the law. It was clear they had no intention of obeying the recent decrees, because they had taken action to garrison various Hills long before we moved to arrest the sprites on the proscribed list. Nevertheless, I am pleased to announce to you that we have arrested forty of those sprites so far, and of those, over half were numbered higher than fifty, meaning they are notorious rebels and trouble-makers of long standing. At least, that is one way of looking at them.”
Several heads jerked up at that, and the general knew he’d startled them there.
“Another way would be to recognise them as sprites of character and determination, who are just looking at the whole world the wrong way round. We don’t want to destroy our enemies, we want to help them. That is why they are all now safely in our new re-training centre, a very pleasant facility where they can truly learn a better way. For, as the Premier rightly said, if we could unite – if all sprites were on the same side – what we could achieve!
This is the true goal, it is for this that we endure the hardships and inconveniences of war. Our first aim, therefore, is to win the war as quickly as possible. Volunteers of outstanding calibre have flocked to join us, and this will be the greatest possible help.”
Here he remembered to flash a winning smile at the hordes of youngsters crammed into every available space, and they responded with shouts and applause.
“I also pay tribute to those ex-army soldiers who, when choices had to be made, chose to honour the law and the freedom of parliament, rather than harping back to romantic idealised visions from ancient history. United now, we go forward together, into a future realm that will be better ordered than ever before.
Since declaring war, the army has actually done very little, other than attempting to assist those resisting arrest. We, however, have taken immediate action, to make sure that those who bear the greatest blame suffered first. The colonies of Herdalen, Stalden, Arley and Biagioni have been destroyed. True, this causes no lasting damage. That was not our aim. We showed that we can strike hard and strike fast. The army has some good troops, it is true, and we would be wise not to underestimate them, but they are no match for us!”
More applause, and stamping of feet… this was going well. Even the Premier was clapping his hands.
“Still, they do have one tactic which we cannot, we will not stoop to. Almost impossible to believe, but they have deployed humans – so-called Allies – in action against fellow-sprites. This occurred at one of the Hills in England, named Owler Tor, where fifty-seven elves of the Balkan Unit were taken prisoner. I make no doubt they are being well cared for. Our enemies are not monsters. But that is not the point. Freedom-loving elves are being held captive miles from home, and I tell you now that their liberation is one of our highest priorities, and this will be achieved without the assistance of clod-hopping giants!”
Good, they were laughing. They were all with him now. Now for the punch.
“Our immediate concern, though, must be to deal with the so-called march now approaching our borders. Clearly, they are heading here. Although sponsored and organised by the army, it is mostly civilians. It started off as some kind of protest, and we have seen a similar thing before, a couple of years ago. On that occasion, there was some damage and vandalism, easily suppressed. Now, their numbers are far greater, in fact I believe there are over a thousand of them. One quarter army, well-trained and armed. Three quarters an undisciplined rabble. I have no wish – the Brigade has no wish – and I am sure you have no wish, to set soldiers against civilians, especially here at the heart of the realm. Yet if violence were offered to Envoys, that is what we would have to do. The honour of parliament must be defended at all costs.”
He lowered his voice, deadly serious now.
“They are getting nearer. Even now, the Wielkopolska Unit, though heavily outnumbered, is resisting their progress. I can send out more troops, but the enemy is strung out and keeping to populated areas. Pitched battle is impossible. Besides, I must not leave parliament undefended. For all we know, this march may be a ruse to distract us. Who knows whether superior troops are not even now in waiting further north, to strike as soon as our backs are turned? No, that must not be allowed to happen. My advice, Envoys, is that you should evacuate. Return to your homes – it would only be for a few weeks – and with you safe, no sprite who does manage to break through need be harmed. If they break a few windows, what of that? Easily mended. A dead Envoy, however, would be a loss too grievous to contemplate. And a dead young hot-head would be a loss for which the realm would not readily forgive us.”
They were beginning to murmur now… sidelong glances, serious expressions. They were thinking about it.
“I’m not here to tell you what to do. That’s just my advice. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to bring you all up to date. Are there any questions?”
There were. A great many questions, and he answered them all smoothly, reassuring the worried, disarming sceptics with frankness, and accepting plaudits with modesty. But all the time, underneath, he was just longing to get rid of them all. Still, he noted who asked what. Those who asked clever, probing questions were dangerous and possibly disloyal. Some were petty and trivial… concerned only with their own regions, they couldn’t see the big picture. Useless. When it was over, he announced he was getting back to work, organising defences, and the volunteers followed him out. Behind him, the debate about evacuation began.
Later that day, just as the sun started to sink and cast long shadows of trees across the lake water, the Premier walked out from the complex of parliament buildings. Unseen by any sprite or webcam, he walked away from the paths until he was hidden deep inside a vast thicket of willow. As far as he knew, he was the only one who ever came here. Certainly, he had never met anyone else. And right now, he craved solitude. He needed to think. He was feeling shaken. He’d always known he couldn’t completely trust Lars Huskvarna. Well, you couldn’t completely trust anyone, but especially not someone who smiled all the time. But he’d never suspected him of anything more than ambition. Now, though, it was different. The general had set out his stall for anyone with the wits to see it. Oh, he wanted to beat the army, all right, but not for the advantage of parliament. Quite the contrary. The Envoys had been taken in, and the evacuation was already underway. They had voted to return in two month’s time, having visited their regions and rallied support in the meantime. Oh, it sounded good. It was meant to.
The Premier was not as agile as he used to be, but he could still climb. With economy of effort, he climbed slowly up a long curving branch until he could see sunlight again, and feel a cooling breeze. His thoughts turned to Calla Babele. How she’d looked when he’d first met her, over a century ago. Her scarlet skirt, her deep brown eyes, her gay headscarves and her silver wings.
“Calla,” he whispered, and then he didn’t need to speak out loud at all.
Calla, what does the Enlightener have to say?
Joy to you, Vinco, my friend. Be at peace. Rest your mind, so I can enquire for you.
The Premier kept perfectly still and tranquil. Calla would interpret. He did not let any superficial thoughts cross his mind at all, even though it seemed a long time before he heard Calla’s thoughts again.
This is what the Enlightener says to you: You have never been in more danger than you are now.
Whether that referred to him alone or to parliament, he was not sure, but neither way was it good news.
What is his advice?
Follow the path of wisdom.
The Premier thanked Calla and let his thoughts return slowly to the present. The path of wisdom? Well, to let Huskvarna know that he had seen through his cunning would probably be the path of foolishness. To defy him right away would be the path of courage. The path of wisdom was undoubtedly to feign ignorance, while preparing a counter-attack. Deciding what that would be could wait. His decision was made, and he relaxed.
Far in the distance, he could see the sun glinting on the wings of two fairies, just dancing about in the warm air. Carefree, they were probably young volunteers, thinking the current crisis exciting and their duty clear, a simple choice between right and wrong. The Premier sighed, feeling the weight of his years. The battle for the soul of the realm was only just beginning, and the real enemy was not the army.
All day long, Wayne had been fetching wood from the hedgerows, keeping a small fire burning and boiling water. He had steeped his few tea bags again and again, at first spooning the healing brew between Stan’s clenched teeth. Stan had got worse before he had started to get better. At one point his breathing had been barely there, and the convulsions had been horrible to watch. But slowly, very slowly, the cure had begun to work. His breathing had grown easier and the convulsions less severe and less frequent. He didn’t have the strength to move, but he could rasp a few words, even though the tea was by now little more than hot water.
“We need more tea,” Wayne worried. “I’ll go and steal some. I think there’s a village not far away, I can see the spire of a church.”
“Wait till morning,” said Stan. “Too dangerous for you at night. We don’t know where we are.”
“But what if you’re taken worse again?”
“Pessimist,” said Stan, with a ghost of a smile. “The worst is over. Sleep now, you must be exhausted.”
“All right,” said Wayne, admitting to himself that that was very true. “I’ll put the fire out and we’ll try to sleep.”
Breathing easily again at last, Stan was soon fast asleep. Wayne watched him carefully for a while, then closed his own eyes too. He didn’t know what was going to happen, and whether he’d ruined all his chances of spying for the army, but he did know that General Herdalen wouldn’t blame him for one second. He’d have done the same thing himself, of that Wayne was absolutely sure. And that, when you thought about it, was the whole of the difference between parliament and the army.