CHAPTER 11 - Into Poland
All through April, the March of a Thousand Sprites had been heading steadily north-east across Germany. At first, only sprites from the colonies they’d passed through had joined them, but once news of the outbreak of war had spread, the trickle had become a flood and new marchers had come from far and wide. They’d reached a thousand soon after they’d crossed the Danube. At the end of the month, at the border with the Czech Republic, they had been joined by the whole of Germany 1.
General Herdalen had sent them, knowing that by this point, the march would likely need a bit more weight. They’d been working their way in this direction for weeks, and had seen many skirmishes already as they moved through gang-ridden areas.
Kiefer, Sizzle and Jenny, along with Droz, Kes and Vin, had watched them march in, cheering for Ross and delighted to have another one from their year to join them. Eichel, too, had a friend in Germany 1, and the army elves, imps and fairies had drunk and talked late into the night.
But the next day they had been on their way again. General Széchenyi’s plan was working well. Always some behind and some ahead, the edges flowing back and forth but always moving forward, as an incoming tide does, around the steady pace of the imps at the core.
Not everything had gone smoothly. In a fierce downpour outside Muhldorf, everyone and everything had been soaked, and some fairies had been washed into a stream and nearly drowned before they were rescued. Captain Vidilica had been the hero of that night, diving underwater in the dark to cut through weeds with his knife. That had led to fairies whispering how brave and handsome he was, and he didn’t mind that at all.
There had been colonies that wouldn’t let them stay, and others where they’d had to run the gauntlet of stone-throwing hostility. There’d been strained muscles and broken bones and blisters beyond counting, but nothing dinted the general air of optimism. A lot of that was due to General Széchenyi herself. She was inspiring and dauntless, an indefatigable tower of strength and encouragement, that always made the weary feel they could carry on. And she treated everyone with equal respect, whether they’d been marching for twenty minutes or twenty days. Her attitude caught on, so the sense of unity was very strong.
Besides that, they all knew they were doing something important, something that had never been done before and might never be done again. But to many of them, it was an exciting adventure, and the hardships they’d endured so far no worse than they might have encountered on any long journey. The oldest and wisest knew that they were not going to reach their destination without a fight. Without a doubt, parliament was tracking their progress just as keenly as David and the Allies were. The question was not whether Special Brigade would attack, but where and when.
At the beginning of May, just after the battle of Owler Tor, their first goblins joined them south of the River Vltava. It wasn’t that there were no goblins in the southern countries – there were always some – but there were far more in the north. The addition of half a colony of Czech goblins reminded everyone just how far north they had come. The thought that they were getting near to Poland sobered them, and so did the fact that the goblins were carrying just about every weapon imaginable, and didn’t look as if Sergeant Olt would have found much he needed to teach them about fighting. It was at that point that the mood began to change.
On 14th May, as Ace and Will were celebrating their birthday in Harpsden Wood by test-flying the first sprite helicopter, Kiefer too went flying. He was so small, it was easy enough for Jenny to lift him, and they were both keen to see the ancient city of Prague from the air. They were both entranced by the castles and palaces, the towers and domes and bridges, but they were cautious and didn’t stay up too long.
“Oh, thank you!” sighed Kiefer as they landed. “That was glorious. But we’re back to the Danube again, and it’s a lot bigger here.”
“Don’t worry,” said Jenny. “The general will have a plan.”
They continued following the orders, to make their way in pairs across the wide suburbs and meet up in the centre. As long as they could keep out of sight, they were safe from attack in the middle of a city. Kiefer and Jenny reached the rendezvous point, in the shelter of a large bridge, with hours to spare, but it was hot enough for the shade to be welcome, and they were glad of a rest while they waited.
General Széchenyi kept them all together until everyone had arrived. Then, at midnight, she led them out onto the great bridge. With the banner, slightly battered now, ahead of them, the sprites marched across the Danube. It was exciting and breathtaking and Kiefer loved every minute of it. They were breaking dozens of parliament’s rules and they didn’t care. No-one could stop them, because they were an army. The moon glinted on the tranquil water, and great statues towered high above them. No living creature saw them but a solitary cat, which turned tail and ran for it, to the sprites’ great delight. Yet for all that, it felt as if the whole realm was watching.
“Top speed now!”
The general gave the order as the end of the column came down from the bridge, and the message was passed along. Everyone speeded up and before dawn they were out of the city. That night they stopped at the colony of Čelákovice, and over the next two days even more sprites came to join them. They took a detour at Mladá Boleslav to avoid the local Hill, which was in enemy hands, then crossed the River Jizera on rafts, on a hot afternoon. They gained the shelter of a pine wood on the northern bank, and here General Széchenyi called everyone together.
“We’re only two days away from the Polish border now,” she said. “It’s possible our enemies will try to stop us there, so we must be prepared. We’re going to spread out in sections into a longer line, so they can’t surround us, and we’ll keep close to villages to make it harder for Special Brigade to start anything. And I’m going to spread the army units out along the line, so every section is defended. I’m not telling anyone else what to do, but if you do come under attack, then following the lead of the nearest army officer will be a very good plan. And no-one should walk alone. If you’re tired and can’t keep up, take cover and rest, while waiting for the next section to come along, then carry on with them.”
The elves from Croatia 2 took the lead first, and Kiefer looked with admiration at Droz, Kes and Vin, out in front with their captain, looking deadly serious and professional with their knives drawn. He hoped he would look that good when it was Austria’s turn. That day was a hard journey, because of fierce heat and a lack of streams to drink from, but they saw no signs of any other sprites, and not even that many humans. That night, the general insisted that everyone rested properly and also set a guard. In the morning, they would be entering the Liberec National Park, a wild and uninhabited place where anything could happen.
Droz’s unit, who’d provided the guards, fell back to have a restful day bringing up the rear, and Kiefer’s unit moved up to take the lead.
At first, Kiefer simply forgot all about the war, because the place was so beautiful. They were following easy paths through a pine forest, and beyond the forest they could catch tantalising glimpses of a blue lake. Vivid butterflies were fluttering around, nearly as big as the fairies and just as colourful, while the warm, sweet air was full of birdsong. The Swiss fairies, perhaps remembering how Special Brigade favoured attacks in bird form, stopped flitting about and landed. Jenny came to walk with Kiefer and Eichel. They were right at the front when Kiefer suddenly stopped dead and smiled for joy.
“Zirbelkiefer!” he exclaimed.
Beside the path grew a tiny, perfect pine tree.
“So?” said Eichel. “It’s nice, but it’s pretty small.”
“It’s my kind,” said Kiefer dreamily, going to stroke it.
“That’s his name, properly – Zirbelkiefer,” Jenny told Eichel.
“Really? You kept quiet about that!”
Eichel laughed out loud, but then he too stopped dead as a missile hit the ground in front of him. It was a sharp wooden stake, and it that had hit him, it would have been very nasty indeed.
“Who’s there? Show yourselves!” yelled Eichel.
Kiefer ran forward, trying to see up into the trees, when more stakes pattered down in front of him, quiet but deadly, one… two… three. He felt thrilled and terrified at the same time. This was it. Captain Hungerberg came running over to see what was happening.
“Keep calm,” he said. “Might just be a local colony that don’t like us. But it might not, so be careful. Up into the trees – try and force them down.”
The trees grew thickly together and the canopy was dense. Kiefer leaped immediately into the tree above him, but although he could hear someone moving, he couldn’t see a thing. He kept moving higher, looking all around him for the tell-tale jiggle of a branch, but he spotted nothing. All the same, they had to be up here somewhere.
Beneath them, the civilian marchers had caught up and were themselves being edged back by the same kind of stakes. Then Kiefer caught a glimpse of an elf he didn’t know – in the next tree. As fast as he could, he climbed out across a branch that would have been too thin for most elves and let it tip him down. He tumbled into the next tree, and pounced. It wasn’t a scientific move. Kiefer knocked the elf off his branch all right, but he went with him, grappling together as they fell, banging on branches until they rolled in the soft leaf mould on the ground. They came to rest right at the feet of General Széchenyi.
The general hauled the other elf to his feet.
“Wielkopolska Unit, my, my,” she said. “Excellent work, Kiefer. You OK? Back to the fray, then!”
Kiefer didn’t need telling twice. This wasn’t frightening, this was the most exciting game he’d ever played. He wasn’t the only one thinking that way. As the march sections started piling up together, unable to go forward, the army sprites hurried to join in. If General Herdalen had been there, he would have banged his head in frustration to see them leaving their rear unguarded like that, to respond to what could well have been a diversion. But General Széchenyi just didn’t think like that, and the most senior elf present, Colonel Pesentheim of Austria 1, was a sycamore, so no-one stopped them.
“Kiefer! Where did you find that one?”
It was Droz, rushing to join in.
“In that big larch,” yelled Kiefer.
“Come on!” said Droz. “Right to the top and work downwards!”
It might have looked disorganised, but nearly all the elves there had been trained by Sergeant Olt and Sergeant Kopec, and they knew what to do. The imps and fairies soon realised they could contribute best by acting as spotters, and used a whistling signal that all their elves knew. The trouble was, Special Brigade were not keen to fight. If they were spotted, they jumped away into another tree. As a game of tag it had its merits, but as a battle it was not going anywhere.
General Széchenyi could see by the waving branches what was going on, but she dared not lead the marchers under those trees. There were just too many of them, and sooner or later, one would be hit by those deadly missiles. She flew up and surveyed the scene, and hovered temptingly, but no missiles came upwards. There didn’t seem to be any air support in the area. She also noted the exact area of the activity below her. She landed and gathered the marchers around her.
“Fairies, fly above the canopy and rendezvous north shore of the lake. Imps can too, if you want. But if you’re determined to walk every bit of the way, then come with me. Elves and goblins, you come too. We only need to take a detour west, then we can cross north while our army elves keep the enemy busy. Come on!”
Special Brigade were keeping tightly to a certain block of trees. South of it, they could move freely, but if anyone ventured too far north, he became a target, despite the efforts of the army elves. It seemed to General Széchenyi that if she could reach the western edge of their patch, she could lead on confidently. The elves and goblins followed eagerly, anxious to be on their way again, and tackled marshy ground and thick undergrowth with no complaints. When the general judged they’d gone far enough, she herself turned north, testing the reaction. No missile came down at first, but then she heard an elf shouting.
“Over to you, Silver Company!”
He was speaking in Polish, but General Széchenyi could understand Polish. Her heart sank. Another company of them, and no doubt holding another wide section. Nevertheless, she led her marchers on, even deeper into the forest. But the same thing happened again, and then she realised that their way forward was blocked very effectively indeed. Beyond this third company could easily be a fourth. And if they walked so far that they outflanked four, they would be so far west that there would be nothing to stop the easternmost company from moving further west still, overtaking them through the canopy. The enemy had the numbers to spread out east or west, responding to their every move. Fuming with frustration at the delay, she realised they were going to need a better plan. And the army elves must be called off from wearing themselves out chasing the first company.
“Colonel! Pull your elves back. This isn’t going to work.”
By the time Kiefer got to the ground, the rest of the elves were milling around breathless, excited but exhausted. The general pulled everyone back a bit, out of earshot, and Special Brigade sent a contemptuous volley of stakes down, that clattered across the paths like a fence. Sizzle ran across to the lake shore to fill her water bottle, and then came back looking thoughtful.
“What about just swimming past them?”
“It’s a good thought,” said the general, “but I think they’d move if we did that, and they’d be lined up to stop us landing.”
“At least then we could fight them!” said Colonel Pesentheim.
“But we don’t want to fight them. We want to get to Wielkopolska. And they don’t want to fight us. They want to delay us.”
“I wish Ace was here,” Kiefer whispered to Droz.
“He’d think of something good,” Droz agreed.
Then he started thinking. Think outside the box… all they really wanted was to get past, uninjured.
“Shields!” he yelled. “Held above our heads!”
“Give that elf a medal,” said the general. “Well done, Droz. Come on everyone, scrap metal and be quick about it.”
The shields were every colour that metal could be, and every shape and size, depending on the imagination of their bearers. It wasn’t neat or tidy, but it worked. The stakes made a terrible noise as they came pounding down, and a few people did stumble and fall under the weight of the assault, but no-one was injured, and it only took another hour before they were out of the forest and onto open country beside the lake.
As soon as the tail of the march came out from the trees, General Széchenyi sent Croatia 2 to take the rearguard, a solid defence against the enemy now behind them. Not that anyone was dawdling. The knowledge that Special Brigade might change tactics and launch a sudden attack was enough to make even the slowest keep up a good speed. The general herself marched up and down the line, giving out reassurance, encouragement and information.
“We can’t send anyone ahead tonight,” she explained to some weary fairies. “It would mean people crossing the border in small groups – very dangerous.”
“Don’t worry, General,” called an elderly elf who had sore feet. “If this is where it starts to hurt, then this is where we grin and bear it.”
All the rest of that day they plodded on, mile after mile, through the wild beauty of Liberec. At dusk they rested for a couple of hours, but then they marched on through the night. Kiefer never forgot it. The tight group of elves around him, elves he knew and trusted. The long line of the march, the thousand sprites and more, ahead of him, and the bright stars overhead in a totally black sky. Peaceful, and purposeful… yet the sense of menace was growing, and getting stronger by the hour. Then came the swish of elves jumping at high speed, with nothing to be seen. One by one, they passed them and they knew they were being surrounded. They sent word forward to the general, but there was nothing else they could do. All their job was to keep on marching north. If anyone tried to stop them, that was different. But until they did, they would keep on marching.
The attack came at first light, and it was so swift and sudden that Kiefer was stunned, even though he’d been expecting it. The whole column was bombarded with missiles, big stones, heavy and dangerous, and small sharp pebbles, fast and deadly. No-one panicked, and the army sprites quickly moved to the edges to defend the civilians, but they were being pressed closer and closer together as they tried to avoid the missiles, and the tighter the column became, the closer Special Brigade moved in. Kiefer was fizzing with impatience, longing to charge to the attack, but obeying orders to stand firm.
Suddenly, Special Brigade came under attack themselves, from a very well-aimed volley. It was the Czech goblins, and the army imps, including the general, were preparing ammunition for them. As soon as the volley died down and Special Brigade were trying to regain their line, the general flew up, right above the centre of the column, and waved hand signals in various directions. Colonel Pesentheim got one of them.
“Austria and Croatia, to me!” he shouted. “Formation in twelves, get behind them, attack in pairs, two on one, take prisoners!”
That was more like it! Austria 1 moved in a mass, so fast that they didn’t even finish grouping before they started moving. They landed badly in boggy ground, but they didn’t let that stop them. They dragged their feet clear, ignoring lost boots, and launched themselves at the enemy. Kiefer and Eichel got one who was so much bigger than they were, they forgot all their training and just acted on instinct. One went high and one went low. Eichel stabbed him in the foot and Kiefer landed on his shoulder and pulled his hat down over his eyes. It was just enough; he couldn’t react fast enough to shake them off, and between them they wrestled him down to the ground. They had to sit on him, but the unarmed fairies were coming along with rope and blindfolds and taking charge of prisoners. Joyfully, Kiefer and Eichel leaped off to find someone else to attack, but they weren’t so lucky this time. The element of surprise had gone, and the rest of Special Brigade – at least, the ones they could see – were drawing together and advancing.
“Uh-oh,” said Kiefer.
But they didn’t hesitate for a second, just kept moving forwards, knives drawn.
“Kiefer! Eichel! Get back here!”
It was Droz’s officer, calling them – Captain Vidilica. They saw he was rallying the elves to meet the new threat, so they ran back to him.
“The colonel’s down,” he said. “Stay with me for now. Let’s have a look at this lot – hmm, pretty big and strong. Look a bit dim though, don’t they? Let’s give them Sergeant Olt’s famous oblique line jump. Lead off, Kiefer!”
Brimming with excitement, Kiefer, as the smallest, jumped first, knowing the others were lining up behind him, knowing the enemy would see the line and keep facing forward. What they didn’t know was that each jumper would go 15° to the left of the one ahead, but all jumping an equal distance. Then they would turn and attack, completely side on to the enemy.
A quick glimpse of a line of astonished faces and they were on them. Suddenly, the world had shrunk to a heaving, panting mass of elves, knives drawn. Kiefer knew now he had to concentrate like never before. Only speed and skill could compensate for his lack of strength. He could almost hear Sergeant Olt’s voice in his head, telling him to have confidence, telling him that strength alone couldn’t beat clever knife work. Then there was only him and the elf in front of him. He got in first, knowing that was his best chance, stabbing with all his strength into a thigh, then ducking under the enemy’s arm as he raised his knife with an outraged bellow of pain. Before he could twist, Kiefer got him behind the knee, and he went down. Before Kiefer could even draw breath, someone else grabbed his hair and pulled his head back. Kiefer saw blue sky, then a stern face and a knife dangerously near his throat. He couldn’t move his own right arm, so he didn’t waste time trying to pull free. Instead, he jumped and tried to pull the elf over by unbalancing him. It worked, but only by them both falling over together, and Kiefer was underneath. Winded and sore, he couldn’t move at all, and then someone stood on his hand and he felt something crack. Any moment now, then, this oaf would heave himself up and Kiefer felt there wouldn’t be anything he could do to defend himself. The weight lifted, but no-one stabbed him. He turned dizzy eyes to see Eichel heaving an unconscious body off him and helping him to sit up.
“Are you OK?” gasped Eichel.
He was wounded himself, blood was trickling down his face from somewhere near his ear.
“Broken fingers,” said Kiefer. “That’s all, though.”
“Don’t worry, sit still a minute, we’re winning. And look!”
Kiefer looked up to see General Széchenyi in the air again, giving directions. And the whole centre of the column, all the unarmed civilians, moved forward at her command, simply walking across the battlefield. Every one of Special Brigade was either down and out, or fighting too hard to stop them.
“Beautiful,” said Kiefer. “But if they really wanted to stop us, why didn’t they send more?”
“Good question,” said Captain Hungerberg, coming to see if they were all right. “You can walk? Come back into the shelter of the trees. No-one who’s been injured is moving on till he’s healed and rested – and that includes Special Brigade, we’ll have to look after them.”
“Maybe they’ll know why they only sent a few companies,” said Eichel.
“Maybe,” said the captain. “But maybe not. From all I’ve heard, their leaders are stingy with information. And even if they do know, they aren’t going to tell us. But don’t worry about them now. We’re in Poland! Great fighting, both of you. They didn’t stop us crossing the border.”
Their own senior officer, Colonel Pesentheim, was not at all stingy with information. With his arm in a sling, he explained that the four companies they’d seen, Gold, Silver, White and Red, were the whole of the Wielkopolska Unit. They had sent their very best, yet knowing that they were likely to be outnumbered and taken prisoner, as indeed they had been. What had they been hoping to achieve? True, the march had been delayed, but it hadn’t been stopped. All the army elves were baffled. Sergeant Olt would have been very proud of their fighting, but General Herdalen would have been proud of them too, for wondering, What are they really up to?
None of them was asking himself why two members of the Wielkopolska Unit were missing, because none of them knew that they were. Only a few army sprites knew that Wayne Langdon was now in that unit, and none of them was there in Poland.
Wayne and Stan knew that they had no chance of finding the rest of their unit. They didn’t think they had much chance of staying in their unit, either, but they thought they’d better get back to HQ and face the music. It was a hard journey with neither potion nor unison to help them, and it was two very weary and bedraggled elves that plodded across the causeway on the evening of 21st May. To their horror, the first person they encountered was General Huskvarna.
“What!” he exclaimed. “Only two of you? Where are the rest? Don’t tell me that you’re all that’s left of that fine unit?”
“Er, no, sir,” said Stan. “As far as we know, the rest of the unit is fine. We dropped behind, and then we came back here.”
“I see,” said the general, frowning. Wayne was watching him carefully. It was so unusual for him not to be smiling. It seemed to Wayne that he was regretting his outburst. “Bad reaction? Who?”
“Stan, sir,” said Wayne. “He didn’t do anything wrong. I was the one who broke the rules.”
“Stupid. Selfish. Thought better of you than that. Sloppy, sentimental army thinking – you need to get rid of it. Yes, if you had obeyed, Stan would have died. But you weakened your unit. A battle may have been lost because of it. Other lives may have been lost. And If I can’t trust you to obey orders, I don’t want you here any more. You can leave tomorrow with Major Diolkos. Demoted to Renegades for two years.”
“Yes, sir,” said Wayne, his heart breaking at the thought of disappointing General Herdalen.
“Can I go with him?” said Stan.
“What? Are you serious?”
“Deadly serious, sir. He saved my life. No-one ever had such a good friend.”
“Once and for all, get it into your heads, this is not the army. I will not tolerate this mush! If you’ve been infected with it too, then I don’t want you either. Yes, you can go too, but I doubt that either of you will survive more than a month with that lot.”
Everyone at Fjaerland knew that General Herdalen was tense. It was the middle of May, the temperature was soaring and he hadn’t complained once about the heat. It was as if he hadn’t even noticed. He paced between Signals, his office and the new computer room, unsmiling and deep in thought, rubbing tired eyes. But his kindness never wavered. He had not snapped at anyone, not even once, and when Wayne contacted him to explain what had happened to him, the general was quick to reassure him.
You did the right thing, he told Wayne. And the right thing is always the right thing to do. Besides, if you hadn’t dropped out, by now you’d be General Széchenyi’s prisoner, which wouldn’t be a lot of help. Don’t worry about it for another moment. Where are they sending you, what’s the Renegades Unit doing right now?
Some kind of guard duty. All I know is we have to go to the Bavarian Forest, and the railway station is called Bodenmais.
What! Wayne, that’s wonderful news. I think you’re going to be guarding the re-training camp. Some of our best people are being held prisoner there.
Oh, sir! Really? Is that where Betch is?
I think so. So cheer up, and remember that everything happens for a reason. You’re doing just fine.
Glad though he was to have helped Wayne, Gran couldn’t help wishing that someone would do the same for him. He couldn’t stop worrying, and there was so much to worry about. In a few hours, he’d be leaving. What he really wanted, he admitted to himself, was to know that he’d thought of everything, covered every eventuality. And that wasn’t possible, not really. And even if it was, you still had to make choices. Spreading yourself too thinly was just as dangerous as making a wrong choice.
He walked back to Signals, where the Commander was, still taking updates from General Széchenyi. That had gone well, and the marchers were now moving on. But the words too easy kept niggling away at the back of his mind. Parliament had sent so few. Their best, but not enough for the job. Why? A misjudgement on their part? Or something more sinister? A token action, perhaps? But if so, why sacrifice the Wielkopolska Unit? He just didn’t know. He was about to speak to the Commander when a little French fairy, not too well-versed yet in army etiquette, flew in through an open window and tugged at his jacket.
“Come and see!” she said. “I mean, Dale says, please come sir, something looks important.”
“Thanks, Lisette, I’m on my way. The webcam, Gia… you coming?”
“I certainly am.”
Gia followed Lisette’s example and flew through the window. Gran followed at top speed and was soon looking at the screen over the heads of Dale and the fairies. His mouth dropped open. The camera was showing an astonishing sight. A column of sprites filled the causeway, all heading out. They didn’t look frightened or sad. They didn’t look happy or excited. They did look heavily-laden, as if they were heading off on long journeys. And none of them was in uniform, and most of them looked quite old.
“It’s the envoys!” exclaimed the Commander. “Evacuating? Before the marchers get there?”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it? But why? They surely don’t think we’d offer violence to the envoys?”
“Well, you wouldn’t, Gran, but it’s not you that’s there, is it? It’s people like Dizzy Széchenyi, Ornus Vidilica and Droz Zlatni. All the same, I don’t think the envoys would leave unless Special Brigade had encouraged them to do so. My guess is they don’t want the envoys to see just what level of violence they themselves are planning to offer to the marchers.”
“If that’s their plan, they’ve got another think coming. The sooner we get there, the better.”
“We’ll leave as soon as the ceremony is over,” said the Commander.
Full moon at Fjaerland was always wonderful. But to see it in May, with fresh growth all around you, and the Nordic summer sky still light, was transcendently beautiful. And if you were saying goodbye for you didn’t know how long, because you were going off to battle, then it added a layer of sweet poignancy. Gran found all his worries slip away as his feet trod the familiar path, keeping time with all the other sprites around him. Love and joy were like things you could touch, tonight. It was far beyond the need for talk or laughter. A serious kind of peacefulness settled all around as the sprites took their places in the Tree’s glow. Gran relaxed and let the peace sink deep inside him. All the sprites here, and he knew every one of them by name, yet tonight he was conscious of them not as individuals, but as a whole, as if for this moment, they were all one. And not just them, but the whole army, far and wide across the realm. No matter where they were, everyone would look at the moon tonight and remember. When his turn came to step forward and touch the Tree, he almost rocked on his feet at the thrill of power that went through him. And then the Tree spoke to him.
“We fall only to rise, so have no fear, for she is chosen.”
As always, Gran stored those words away in his mind, to bring out and look at again later. There was a lot to think about there, but now wasn’t the time. Now was the time to listen and accept. Then, faintly, just at the edges of his hearing, one more word, in his own language.
“Thank you,” whispered Gran.
When they returned to camp, there was no drinking tonight, no merry-making, or music. The mood was quiet and purposeful and the pace brisk. Gran went to his house. He went into his bedroom, and touched an old tinderbox that he kept by his bed, looking lovingly for a moment at the name etched on it, Ket Herdalen. But he didn’t take it with him, just left it there in safety. Then he picked up his backpack, ready packed and waiting, and walked back to the Concourse. There he took his place at the head of the lines of Norway 1, under Major Maridalen and Norway 2, under Major Sauherad.
The Commander was there waiting for him, dressed in camouflage. She spoke to the elves.
“You look terrific,” she said. “Have a good journey, and we’ll see you in Poland. Parliament don’t know what’s going to hit them!”
They gave her a rousing cheer and she turned and spoke to Madge, General Stalden and General Ormul, the new head of Police.
“I don’t know when we’ll be back,” she said, hugging Madge. “But I know I’m leaving camp in safe hands.”
She shook hands with General Herdalen, then flew off towards the fairies’ landing ground, where first and second squadrons were waiting for her.
General Herdalen watched them go, then spoke to the Norwegian elves.
“Right lads, let’s be off.”
They were in Otta by dawn.
Major Diolkos was extremely pleased that two new Renegades would be accompanying him to Germany. It meant that they could carry his bags for him, enabling him to slip inside the trains and secure a comfortable spot for each long journey. Wayne and Stan had no chance at all of doing the same thing. With a bag each of their own, plus two of the major’s, they had to content themselves with the roof. The first train, the one out of Poland, hadn’t been too bad. It had been fairly slow, and even better, had had plenty of shelter and things to hang onto on its roof. But now they were on the Frankfurt to Vienna express, which was streamlined and extremely fast, and they were clinging on with every finger. Wayne idly wondered if this journey was worse than the one they’d taken from Poznan to Prague, and decided that, on balance, it probably was.
By the time the train stopped at Nürnberg they couldn’t move. It was as if their fingers had been set in concrete, and the major had to come and help them. This he did in a matter-of-fact sort of way, offering no sympathy, but no annoyance either.
“Only two more trains now,” he said.
Wayne and Stan just groaned.
“Don’t worry, only little branch lines. We’re nearly there.”
The next train was so slow that Wayne just lay on his back, gazing thoughtfully up at the full moon.
“No regrets?” said Stan quietly.
“Hmm? Oh, no. You can put that thought right out of your mind. No, was just thinking about the army. Full moon is a special night, you’re meant to remember the Tree wherever you are.”
“Really? I bet General Huskvarna would say that was mushy. But I don’t. I think it’s nice.”
“You would like it, Stan, I think. It’s very hard to describe, but it’s got the kind of depth and strength that would make the roots of an oak look a bit flimsy. But General Huskvarna, he thinks everything is mushy unless it works like a machine. I wonder if he even loves his own tree? Well, I do, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”
“Where is your tree?”
“In London. A great big plane tree in a very small park in the east end. How about you?”
“My beautiful chestnut,” said Stan dreamily. “Back in Gruski, which is in an ancient forest on the border between Poland and Belarus. Not much like London,” he grinned. “It’s so wild, there are still bison roaming around.”
Wayne wasn’t at all sure what a bison was, but he felt pretty sure he didn’t want to meet one. What did strike him was that during all the time they’d spent together at Wielkopolska, they’d never felt able to talk about their trees. Escaping its tight control felt like freedom of a kind.
“Are people there all for parliament?” asked Wayne.
“Oh, yes. They were a founder colony. They were so proud of me, getting chosen for Special Brigade. I hope they don’t hear about this, at least not until I get a chance to explain properly.”
“At least we weren’t kicked out,” said Wayne, getting to his feet ready to jump. “That was a quick one, we’re here already.”
They were now at Plattling, where the branch line put out an even smaller branch, and here they came unstuck, for the last train had gone.
“Never mind,” said the major. “It’s not far. We’ll jump it down the track. Easier than waiting for morning.”
Wayne did not agree with that, thinking that nothing would have been nicer than going to sleep and waiting for morning, but the major had been right that it wasn’t far. In less than an hour they reached the end of the line, the tiny forest station of Bodenmais. And then even the station was behind them, and there was no light but the moonlight and no noise but the calls of hunters and hunted.
“Watch the route now, and learn it,” said Major Diolkos. “And another word of advice – stick up for yourselves, right from the start. Then you’ll be all right.”
Stan and Wayne glanced nervously at each other.
“Everyone is here for the same reason as you – breaking rules. Thing is, for most of these lads, it was rules like not assaulting senior officers, and not attempting to murder your team mates.”
“Ah,” said Wayne.
“Act scared and you’ll get bullied,” said the major. “Say what you did and why you did it, boldly, from the start and you’ll find they respect that. They’re good lads really. Younger than you, mostly, and a bit dim. You made decisions and took the consequences. They just lost their tempers. It’s a big difference.”
“Thanks for warning us, sir,” said Stan. “We get the idea.”
“You’ll be very useful to me,” said the major. “I could do with some people with a bit of intelligence. Ah, see this little glade with the four big pines… turn sharp east here and it will lead you directly to our base camp. Soon be there now. In the morning, I’ll show you round myself and explain what we’re doing here.”
Wayne could hardly keep his eyes open any more. He got a vague impression of a collection of huts, heard a badly-hung door squeak as the major showed them where to go, heard some muttered grumbles as sleeping elves were disturbed, then saw some empty beds. He kicked off his boots, dropped his bag and let himself sink quietly down. The bed was hard and the blankets scratchy, but Wayne didn’t care a bit.
When he woke, Stan was still asleep and everyone else had gone out, so Wayne tried to get through to General Herdalen. He was surprised to get no response. It could just have been the distance, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt more as if the general was off the mountain. There was no response from Signals either. That was puzzling; they’d come a long way south, he knew, but also a fair way west. The distance to Fjaerland couldn’t be that much different. Frowning, he tried again, calming his mind more, concentrating more deeply, but he didn’t even get the faint tremor you got in your ears when you had nearly got through but not quite. That was all he had time for. The major stuck his head round the door.
“Can you speak German? No? Then washblock is waschraum and canteen is kantine. Meet me at the main gate in half an hour.”
Wayne woke Stan and they hurried up. The major had been surprisingly friendly but they didn’t dare keep him waiting. They found everything they needed, but it was all very basic compared to Wielkopolska. Maybe it was part of the punishment, but Wayne liked the simplicity. It reminded him of Fjaerland. He liked the dappled shade too. Although the little base camp was in a clearing, the great oaks that surrounded it sheltered it with their spreading branches and their fresh yellow-green leaves.
“It’s not bad here, is it?” said Stan, looking round with approval.
“You can hear how big it is, by the silence,” said Wayne. “There… hear that cuckoo? So faint, it must be miles away, yet nothing’s drowning it out.”
“It feels like we’re right in the middle, like this was the heart of the realm.”
It felt disloyal to admit it, but Wayne had to agree. It did.
Now he was rested, Wayne quite enjoyed himself jumping through the ancient forest as the major showed them round. He took them to an outer guardpost, high up in the branches of a tree. There were four of these, he said, and their job was to give advance warning of any human activity in the area.
“Most unlikely,” he added. “But not impossible. So if any stray hikers or loggers wander this way, we want to know about it before they get to the inner sector.”
The inner sector, roughly circular, was clearly marked. The trees that formed its perimeter had small dots of yellow paint on their bark, about a foot off the ground, and around these trees was a well-trodden sprite path.
“This is the line we hold, by constant patrolling,” said the major. “We’ll wait here, and within two minutes, two of our lads should come past.” He took out an old-fashioned pocket watch to check. “There have been a few escape attempts. Bound to be, until the re-training takes effect. It doesn’t really matter if they break out of the camp, so long as they don’t pass this perimeter. To help with re-capturing, the inner sector is divided into eight segments - you’ll see more lines of coloured dots coming out from the centre, to help you work out where you are. Ah, here they come, excellent.”
Two elves came into sight, ambling along, but keeping a good lookout all the same. When they saw the major they marched more smartly.
“Morning,” he called to them. “Good work, keep it up.”
He turned back to Wayne and Stan.
“That’s what you’ll be doing, most of the time. But we’re not just here to stop people getting out. Sooner or later, the army’s going to try something, so no-one gets in, either. You have good whistles? Blow them if you see an intruder or an escaper. Now, let’s go and see the re-training centre itself.”
After seeing the little base camp for the guards, Wayne was expecting something maybe four or five times bigger than that. It wasn’t. It was forty or fifty times bigger. The major had taken them up one of the tall oaks so they could look down and get a good view.
“It’s massive!” gasped Stan.
“It may need to be,” said Major Diolkos. “It’s not full yet – nowhere near – in fact there are fewer than a hundred sprites in there at the moment. But what no-one knows yet is how long the re-training will take. We can’t be certain what the turnover will be like, so we had to be ready for large numbers, because prisoners of war will be brought here too.”
“So there must be guards inside,” said Wayne. “Do we do that sometimes?”
“Sorry, no. We gave that job to elves from the local colony, get them involved, keep them on our side. The trainers are all Brigade officers, mostly people who are slightly out of favour right now, like ourselves.”
Wayne stared down, trying to absorb as much detail as he could. A solid wooden gate, a wide main path with no cover, leading to a big building in the centre. This looked important and well-built, even luxurious. There was glass in the windows and it was easily as good as anything at Wielkopolska. Other buildings fanned out behind it, no doubt things like sleeping huts and canteens, but all new and sturdy.
“It looks nicer than I expected,” said Wayne.
“There’s a reason it’s so nice,” said the major. “Policy, decided by the premier himself. Harsh treatment will confirm them in their prejudices, turn them even more against us. Comfort and kindness are the weapons we use to make people stop and think – and then, they will begin to listen to what we say.”
“Clever,” Stan commented. “But how are you going to keep the location secret? All these army people, they’ll just message the information, won’t they?”
The major shook his head.
“They don’t know where they’ve been taken. And they can’t message out… no-one can, not even us. The whole area, right out to the outer guardposts, is protected by hedging, certain plants together that inhibit messaging most effectively. Works like a potion – sorry, sore point, I know – but in the air itself.”
Oh, great, thought Wayne. This is gold I’ve got here, pure gold, and exactly what General Herdalen needs to know. And I’ve got no way to tell him any of it.
A fairy walked along a polished corridor, her heels clacking with every step. On the walls of the corridor were brightly coloured posters, showing scenes of destruction. Here the site of a new motorway, there a half-built office block, followed by a litter-choked stream, an endless field of wheat and a hillside covered in new houses. They weren’t photographs, they were paintings, and luridly done. Each scene was surrounded by smaller images, chopped down trees, lost wild flowers and weeping sprites.
The elves following the fairy barely spared them a glance. Most of the posters had been scrawled on anyway.
Oh, please! one message sighed.
One good Ally could have stopped this, said another.
Dawdling along at the back, Betch Knightwood pulled out a pencil and added another comment.
Serve the Queen!
He smiled to himself. It seemed just the thing today, after all the optimistic things the Tree had been saying last night, at full moon.
To one of Betch’s peculiar sense of humour, life in the re-training centre was an endless source of amusement. To him, Special Brigade’s tactics were so transparent, it seemed impossible that anyone would be taken in by them for a moment. But still, it was easy to become downhearted when you were effectively in prison, so Betch took every opportunity he could to scrawl encouraging messages. He had already cheered up the sprites from Bat’s Castle, by assuring them that Judge Daffodil Hestercombe was not dead as they had feared, and he had been cheered himself too, by finding a firm friend in Ace and Will’s colonel, Bjørk Kinnekulle.
Bjørk had been certain that General Herdalen would now know exactly where they were, from the messages that Betch had been able to send on his journey. But as messaging from inside Special Brigade’s hedge was impossible, they were on their own now. Gran might have all the information he needed, but it was the Commander’s decision on when to take action, and Bjørk was of the opinion that she would not see the task as urgent, she being very unsentimental even for a fairy. That being the case, he argued, it was his and Betch’s duty to escape with all speed. It was fine for judges and elderly Hill workers to sit and wait to be rescued, but army elves were needed elsewhere, right now.
Their first attempt, to make a hole in the fence of their exercise yard, had gone well at first. Special Brigade’s methods involved being very nice to their prisoners, so there were no blindfolds or ropes, making security difficult for them. Difficult… but not impossible. The elves had to wear special jumpsuits when they went outside, and the day they broke out, Betch and Bjørk discovered why. The suits had fluorescent patches on the back, and the would-be escapers had soon been rounded up.
The second attempt had failed, too. The fairies were allowed to exercise in a place like a giant aviary, and Betch and Bjørk had decided to sneak outside amongst the fairies and then crawl out under the netting. That was when they had discovered that the netting was covered in something very sticky, probably aphid sap.
Today, they had a much better plan.
The fairy had stopped by the door and was handing out the jumpsuits.
“Dear fellow-sprites,” she cooed, “please put on your outdoor clothing before going out for exercise.”
“Thanks, Blanche,” grinned Betch.
Lieutenant Hakarp hated it when he called her that, he knew, but there was nothing she could do about it. Policy – decided by someone much more senior than she was – dictated that the prisoners, sorry, guests, were to be treated kindly at all times. She screwed her face up in a contortion that was meant to be a smile.
“Any messages for Ace?” said Betch.
“Now, Betch, you know you can’t message from here,” said Blanche.
“That’s what you think,” said Betch as he stepped outside.
“Have you really messaged Ace?” whispered Bjørk.
“No, no, that was just a wind-up."
Bjørk was a bit slow to catch on sometimes, but he had plenty of shrewdness and cunning and loads of common sense. He was the one who’d seen that two elves trying to leap the fence together might succeed if they used a zigzag to disorientate the guards.
“Let’s just go over the pattern again,” said Bjørk. “I turn right, you turn left…”
“… ten paces forward, then jump back and up, touch down on the first floor windowsills…”
“… then one big leap over the fence. If I don’t make it, go without me.”
“OK,” said Betch, “but I hope you do. If we get split up, meet at the station. Ready?”
“Let’s go!” said Bjørk.
Before anyone had a chance to notice their purposeful movements, they were in the air. Their lines crossed as they aimed for the windowsills, and they were spotted then. Blanche blew a whistle and at once two elves jumped onto the perimeter fence to stop them. But they weren’t expecting another zigzag, and as Betch and Bjørk crossed their lines again, their opponents weren’t in the right position to stop them.
“Whee!” shouted Betch as he cleared the fence in one leap and the ground came rushing up to meet him. Bjørk didn’t clear the fence, he had to land on it, but he treated it like a branch, let it sink and rise then kicked down hard. He felt a hand grabbing at his ankle, but he shook it free and then he was on the ground too. Betch helped him pull himself up and they ran for it into the thickest cover, with the other prisoners cheering behind them.
“Very ingenious,” said Blanche to the crestfallen elves who hadn’t stopped them. “Don’t worry. The Renegades will pick them up. They are the real walls around this place.”
Major Diolkos was delighted when he heard Blanche’s whistle.
“A breakout attempt! Excellent, see if you can be the ones to stop it.”
“Oh,” said Wayne, “right, let’s see… the centre is south-east of us, the railway station is south-west of us, but directly west of them. So if we go due south we might intercept them.”
“That would be green sector, yes?” said Stan. “Come on!”
“Excellent,” muttered Major Diolkos as he followed them. “These two are good.”
He was also impressed by the way that Wayne and Stan, once they were in what they hoped might be the right sector, didn’t waste time looking at ground level. Their necks were back, they were focused on watching for movement in the canopy. Then Stan touched Wayne’s arm and pointed. It had been quickly stilled, but a branch of pine had moved for no apparent reason. A few hurried hand signals to each other and they were up in the canopy themselves, moving stealthily then hiding ready to pounce.
The escapees were good too, thought Major Diolkos. They’d seen their pursuers and had at once split up, there was movement to the north and south now, so there were probably only two of them. Behind them all, to the south, other Renegades were arriving. Wayne and Stan kept together, homing in on the one moving north. They were forcing him lower and lower, and when, in desperation, he came down to ground level and tried jumping south again, he jumped right into the path of Major Diolkos.
The elf was tall, but slender and not powerfully built, and the major had no trouble flattening him, panting and exhausted as he was, and handcuffing him. Wayne and Stan came jumping down to join him just as the major hauled the captive to his feet.
“Betch!” exclaimed Wayne.
“Huh?” said Betch, staring. “What? Wayne Langdon?” He stared again, then sighed. “And I thought this jumpsuit was ugly. But it’s not as ugly as that uniform you’re wearing.”
“We’re not the enemy,” said Wayne gently. “Try to understand, Betch. If we don’t stick together, humans will wipe us all out.”
“Even that might be better than making promises and then breaking them. You were army, Wayne, and now you’re a traitor.”
“The army is needed too, all of you,” said Wayne. “You are highly valued! But we need to work together.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” said Betch. “But not under your Premier! Under our Queen.”
Wayne jumped forward and laid an earnest hand upon Betch’s arm, and seemed to be looking right into his eyes.
“We are in a dark place,” he said. “I believe in the one who can find a path out of the dark.”
Betch never moved a muscle in his face as they led him away. No-one, certainly not Major Diolkos, would have guessed that inside, he was jubilant. He knew exactly what Wayne had meant, he was one of only six elves who would, because they had both been there when Ace had found the path out of the dark flooded mountain. Betch had never quite believed in that row between Ace and Wayne, and now he knew it for the put-up job it had been. Wayne was loyal, always had been loyal. He was no traitor, he was the bravest of them all, a spy. That was very good news for the prisoners, but the thing that was really making Betch happy was knowing that he had got a friend back again.
He wished he could think of something to say as clever and subtle as Wayne had done. It came to him just as he was being handed over to Blanche at the main gate and saw that Bjørk had been rounded up too, despite their great teamwork. His mind went back to a phrase Wayne would know well and would show that Betch had understood and that all was well between them. He was looking at Bjørk but his words were for Wayne.
“What a team,” he said.
He didn’t look back, but he just knew Wayne would have understood and his heart was light as he followed Blanche back into captivity. Things were looking up for them now.
Wayne hardly heard Major Diolkos’ words of praise, or his information about what they would be doing next. Stan was looking at him very strangely, with a yearning sort of sadness. Somehow, he had understood something of what had been going on there, and Wayne wasn’t at all sure whether he should be glad about that, or worried.