CHAPTER 2 - The First Victory
The fairies had left for Foxwood before the elves woke up. Ace and Will were a bit bleary-eyed when Aesculus started bouncing on their beds to wake them up, but he soon settled down when Will told him to light the fire by himself. You could see he was thrilled about being trusted and he was concentrating hard on doing a good job. Will was even more impressed when he banked the fire safely without being told, before they went out.
“Very good,” said Will. “It’s easy to see what a clever elf you are. Well done.”
“I like learning sprite things,” said Aesculus happily. “This is good fun. Are we going out to play now?”
“Yes,” said Ace. “We’ll play in Sally’s garden, and maybe Viola will come and join in.”
She didn’t exactly join in – Clover would probably have asked what fairy in her right mind would join in a game that involved jumping off a bird table with your eyes closed and seeing where you landed – but she did watch, and Will was pretty sure he’d heard her laughing. She didn’t look so cold today, she was wearing the cardigan that Clover had made for her, but she still had bare feet, and that gave Will an idea.
The game finished when Aesculus fell in the pond. Will emptied his pockets and found something to make a blanket, then showed Aesculus how to spread his clothes out to dry, and how to keep warm while he was waiting. While they were doing that, Viola had crept nearer. She went to Will.
“Willow,” she said, and curtsied.
“Huh?” said Will, quietly. He was seriously bemused, but he didn’t want to startle her.
She held something out to him.
“For Clover,” she said.
“Oh,” said Will, and accepted the gift gravely. It seemed to be a glass bead, that by the way Viola was holding it, was very treasured. “Thank you. Clover will be so happy. Please, don’t go,” he said, as she seemed to be about to run off again. “Stay and talk to us. Why did you curtsey, Viola? Did you have to do that at home?”
She stared at him, and her eyes filled up with tears.
“They hit his head,” she whispered. “Bang, bang, bang with a stick. ‘Run away’, he shouted.”
“He was your senior sprite,” Ace guessed. “And he was a willow. And when the gang came, he stood up to them. They attacked him, and he told everyone to run for it. Is that right, Viola? Where did you run?”
“I flew,” said Viola. “Followed the big fairies, but I couldn’t keep up. Then I saw the train, going faster than I could. I sat on the train, but then I was cold. I fell off and I was lost.”
“And then you saw a big goblin, and you thought he would help you, but he just hurt you instead,” said Will. “Poor Viola. You were very unlucky. But not all strangers are mean. We’re not. We’re nice, and we’ll help you. Don’t worry about it. How old are you, do you know?”
“That’s right, how many birthdays?”
Viola carefully folded down one finger, and held up all the rest.
“Nine?” said Will. “Right. Much too little to be on your own!”
He looked at Ace, and saw all his own questions there too. How come no-one had helped her, when they all flew off? Had anyone missed her, was anyone looking for her, and where were they all now?
“We’ll maybe get some answers when Rose and Clover get back,” said Ace quietly.
“Let’s take her mind off it,” said Will. “I’m going to make Aesculus some new shoes. He’s been expanding these for so long, the leather’s worn really thin. Here’s a nice new piece. First I’ll split it in two, then I’ll make the shape, very dainty, with nice round toes. Very fashionable, that, I hear. Then I’ll change the colour – oh, yes, that’s a lovely shade of purple. Little bit of heel… little bit of sparkle, and a nice shiny buckle… oh yes, they’re pretty! What d’you think, Aesculus?”
Aesculus just stared at Will as if he’d gone mad.
“Now some for Viola. I see your feet are bare, I expect they’re cold, aren’t they? Here we go, with another bit of leather. Let’s make these black. Nice and thick and clumpy, just right for kicking footballs and landing in puddles and patches of nettles… there you are! What d’you think of those?”
Viola stared too, then burst into a fit of giggles, which started Aesculus laughing as well. Will pretended to be very confused.
“What? What’s the matter, what are you both laughing at?”
“Wrong way round!” giggled Viola. “You made fairy shoes for Aesculus and elf boots for me!”
“Did I?” said Will. “That was very silly. What shall we do, then?”
“Swap!” said Aesculus.
He held out the little purple shoes, and Viola gladly swapped with him.
“Oh, pretty!” said Viola. “Thank you!”
“You won’t be frightened of us any more, will you?” said Will. “Everyone here is very nice. You really don’t have to live under that smelly hellebore in the middle of winter.”
“Sally said I could live inside,” said Viola. “But everything is so big.”
“Sally’s house is easy!” protested Aesculus. “All tidy. David’s house not. Look for socks, ha! Big sock, big sock, dirty shirt, big sock… where little sock? All get lost.”
“So what do you do?” laughed Ace, half-suspecting the answer.
“Shrink big socks,” he said. “David not mind. David’s mum know. She shouts, Where socks, David? Why no pairs, shout, shout. David says, Oh, elves have taken them!”
“But he knows she doesn’t believe him,” laughed Will.
“That’s right, very funny, good joke!”
Aesculus stated jumping about then, even though he was only dressed in a blanket, making Viola laugh even more. Between the fairies’ kindness and the elves’ silliness, she finally forgot her fears. They stayed in the garden all day. When Laura came home from school, she came to the window and looked thrilled to see Viola playing so happily. She gave Ace a thumbs-up, but she didn’t come out.
Everyone had agreed that what Aesculus needed most of all was the chance to live just as a sprite, and manage without television, central heating and constant hot water. That was why they were keeping apart for a whole week, but they were all going to meet up again on Saturday for Rowan’s birthday party.
So far, Aesculus was doing very well. Even when it started to go dark and cold, he didn’t complain. He leaned against the Elfcat, who had stopped by to see what was going on, and kept warm that way. By then, Will had managed to explain to Viola that Ace was the senior sprite, not him because of his name, and that she definitely didn’t need to curtsey here, though Ace had said he thought it was a great idea, and he was planning to ask Clover what she thought of it.
Rose and Clover were very much on Ace and Will’s minds now, because they’d been gone a long time. The street lamps were glowing orange before they got back, and they came first to Sally’s garden, pleased to see the elves were still there, and even more pleased to see Viola with them. She was sitting next to Aesculus, snuggled against the Elfcat’s furry side.
“It’s a long story,” said Clover evasively, in answer to a questioning look from Ace. She glanced meaningfully at Viola. “Fill you in later. Probably needs to go on the website.”
“Understood,” said Ace. “Time to go home, then?”
“Got something here for you, Clover,” said Will. He handed over the bead with great respect. “This is for you, from Viola.”
Clover exclaimed with pleasure, then crouched down, not too close, to talk to her.
“Thank you,” she said. “What a lovely present. We must be friends now, mustn’t we? That makes me very glad. Now, Viola Foxwood, we are going to our house. It’s beautiful and warm and cosy and we’re going to have a happy evening there. You can come too, if you would like to. It’s not far. Or you can stay here and shiver all night and be lonely. It’s up to you, of course – no-one’s forcing you – but we’d love you to come.”
“She gets more like Madge every day,” muttered Will.
Clover glared at him.
“Will you come?” she smiled at Viola.
“Yes, please,” said Viola shyly. “I can’t fly very fast, though.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” said Rose. “Say goodnight to Elfcat – he probably wants to go in for his dinner – and we’ll be off.”
The elves watched them take off, Rose and Clover carefully shepherding the little fairy, then Ace and Will did the same for Aesculus, guiding him safely through the dark, back to the little house in the wood.
They had a merry evening, keeping off all sad topics, and just telling stories, making jokes and keeping warm by the fire. When Aesculus and Viola started nodding off, they tucked them up in bed and closed the doors.
“We found Foxwood, no problem,” said Clover. “It’s amazing how easy things like that are now, after all our training. But it’s a sad story. She’s almost certainly from there. We found the remains of the colony, right in the middle of the wood. You could see it had been a big place, well-organised, but it’s a real mess now.”
“All the houses had been smashed up,” said Rose sadly. “There were a lot of sprites there – mostly elves and fairies – but they were just living rough. Not the original inhabitants.”
"There were a few elderly elves camped out on the margins of the wood, and they told us what had happened.”
“Viola mentioned something of it today,” said Ace soberly. “She saw the senior sprite being attacked.”
“They killed him,” said Clover. “When he gave the order to evacuate, he was dying. Those elves we met wouldn’t leave him, but they couldn’t save him. And now, they won’t leave their wood, even if it’s dangerous there for them.”
“Everyone scattered so fast,” said Rose. “No-one knows where anyone else is.”
“Did you mention Viola to them?” asked Will.
“We did, but they said that to be honest, they hadn’t known all the little ones. One of them said he thought they had a viola, but he wasn’t sure. But when we explained when and where she was found, they seemed to think she must be one of theirs.”
“They implored us to keep her for now,” said Clover. “It’s not safe there for little ones.”
“We can do that all right,” said Ace. He glanced protectively at the bedroom door, and threw another log on the fire. “We think we know how she got lost. She tried to follow the ‘big fairies’ and couldn’t keep up. They probably thought she was with another group. It sounds as if it all happened really quickly and no-one had time to make plans.”
“And that’s why it needs to go on the website,” said Rose. “Let word get round – then other colonies can think, if that happened here, what would we do?”
“I’ll get onto it first thing in the morning,” said Will. “But why is this happening here? You don’t hear of gangs much in other countries, just refugees.”
“I remember Sizzle talking about this,” said Rose. “In some countries, refugees get rounded up so quickly, they’d never have a chance to form gangs. Countries that have mile after mile of forest, where sprites could just disappear.”
“And that wouldn’t suit parliament,” said Ace. “They’re not interested in peace and order, just in control. If you live in a small, overcrowded country like this, they don’t care if you run wild, because they know where you are. But out in the east they clamp down and make sure they round everyone up."
"Most gangs were refugees to start with," said Clover. "Just sprites who lost their homes. There are probably sprites in gangs who don’t even know they’re refugees, because they don’t even remember ever having a home.”
“That is sad,” said Rose. “They do horrible things, yet I do feel sorry for them. And yet, you know, if other colonies had taken them in and welcomed them, it might never have got so bad.”
“I think you’ve got something there, Rose,” said Ace thoughtfully. “Colonies that weren’t affected withdrew into themselves, perhaps. Closed the doors, kept away from humans and from other sprites. Maybe Foxwood did that… it sounds a very old-fashioned place.”
He told the fairies about the curtseying, and as he’d expected, Clover snorted.
“Dream on,” she grinned. “Still, it’s not a completely silly idea. It may have been something only the little ones had to do, and it’s a big advantage growing up in a well-ordered place. I want Aesculus to grow up with good attitudes, and I don’t think you should let him be cheeky to you, Ace. He ought to show you some respect.”
“I see what you mean,” said Ace. “It’s hard not to spoil him when we don’t see him all the time, but I’ll try not to let him grow up rude and boisterous.”
“The best way to do that,” said Will, “is for us to set a good example. Say what you want in private, but in front of the little ones, watch what we say and how we say it.”
“Agreed,” said Rose. “When you think of Cory, he didn’t teach us much, but he made sure we respected him.”
“Moseley Wood has its own traditions,” said Ace. “We’ll keep those up whatever happens, but we won’t turn our noses up at other traditions, because sometimes formality can be a useful thing. And when it comes to refugees, we’ll set the best example. Our doors are open.”
“They may have done that in Delamere,” Clover pointed out. “And look what happened to them.”
“Ah, but they didn’t have David,” said Ace cheerfully. “I don’t think we’ll have any problems there.”
By the end of the week, Viola had a boxful of warm and pretty clothes, and a happier look on her face. Aesculus had passed a jumping test Ace had devised for him, and had a badge to prove it, and both of them had learned their way round Moseley Wood, right to its ancient boundaries.
A week away from humans had been good for Aesculus, he’d learned a lot, but he’d missed David, and by Saturday night he was hopping with excitement at the thought of seeing him again. The others weren’t much better, they’d all missed their friends, so early in the evening they went to get ready for the party. They’d decided to dress like they did at Midsummer, in honour of such a special occasion. Rose and Clover were wearing long dresses of green silk, and so was Viola. She looked so pretty and so in awe of her lovely dress that even the elves had to smile. As for Aesculus, he looked so proud of his leather waistcoat and his green elf boots. He kept looking at Ace and Will, then looking at his own clothes, as if somehow he’d grown a step closer to his heroes.
“Aesculus!” exclaimed Rose. “You darling… you look so grown-up, and so tall! Goodness, you’ll be catching up with Ace and Will in no time.”
That was true, Will thought with resignation. Aesculus was going to be big and sturdy, built on the same scale as their friend Ross. He was already past their waists.
“I think we all look great,” said Ace. “This is so going to amaze everyone, seeing us look so smart.”
“I didn’t use to care much about tradition,” said Clover, “but I do now. It matters. It doesn’t just link the colonies, it links the generations, too.”
Looking at Aesculus and Viola, Will had to agree with that. They looked as if they’d never forget their first time of wearing formal clothes.
“You got the present, Rose?” said Ace.
They’d made a beautiful handbag for Rowan’s present, intensely fashionable, copied from a picture in a magazine.
“Great, let’s be off!”
All the lights were on in Sally’s house, and music was coming out through the open door when the sprites arrived. They went in cautiously, in case there were any other humans around, but it was all right, it was just the family so far. The fairies flew up and kissed Rowan, and the elves jumped on the table and wished her a happy birthday. She opened her present and gasped when she saw it.
“Oh!” she said. “Oh, thank you! It’s fantastic. Mum, just look at this!”
“Wow,” said Sally. “That is so beautiful.”
“It wasn’t just us, either,” said Clover. “Ace and Will did the silver buckles, and Aesculus did the tiny beads, and Viola did the fringe.”
“Then I’ll treasure it so much I don’t know how I’ll dare use it,” said Rowan, “except I will, so I can show it off to all my friends. And look at you all! You all look so great. That’s a beautiful dress, Rose.”
The conversation veered off towards clothes then, but Gary came over and asked the elves what they’d like to drink. He gave Ace and Will some beer, and coca-cola for Aesculus, then sat down at the table they were sitting on.
“I can’t believe I’m the father of such a beautiful young lady,” he said. “Sixteen!” Where have the years gone?”
“You don’t look old enough,” said Ace. “How’s the car? Do the windscreen wipers work now?”
“Yes, thanks to you. You got in where I couldn’t reach. Oh, and I had a word with Mrs. Kowalska, and she’s happy for you to use her old house for your plan. She’s in no hurry to let it out again yet, and she remembers you from when you were trying to save your tree – ‘such a handsome young man’ – so that’ll be all right.”
“Oh, brilliant,” said Ace. “Thanks very much, Gary. I must admit I’m a bit nervous of living like a human. I’m relying on you and David to tell us honestly if we do anything wrong. We have to be able to pass as grown-up men.”
“I promise to be honest,” said Gary. “But I don’t think you’ll have much problem. You’ve done a lot of growing up while you’ve been away.”
Dominic, Joseph and Tony arrived then, with a heavy present, a big book all about plants. It grew very noisy in the room, with everyone talking at once and catching up on the news. As he always did in a big crowd, Will drew back a little, watching and listening, so when Adam and David arrived, he noticed how Rowan looked at David. There was something different about it. He gave her something in a little box, and he looked pretty sheepish about it. Will’s view was obscured then, but the next time he saw Rowan, she was wearing a silver heart-shaped pendant around her neck.
David talked to Sally for a while, and by the serious looks on their faces, Will knew they were talking about Cyril. Then David came and sat down near Will, with a big glass of beer in his hand.
“Want a refill?” he grinned, and dipped Will’s little glass into his big one to fill it.
“She really likes you, you know,” said Will.
“D’you think so?” said David. “I wish I knew. It’s hard to tell. Sometimes I think she’ll never see me as anything but a friend.”
“Yes, I really do think so,” said Will. “She looks at you differently. Different to how she used to look at you, and different to how she looks at the other boys. Dominic, she just grins at – he’s the same age as her, and he really is just a friend – but you, her face goes all gentle and quiet, like Ace looking at a sycamore. And talking of Ace, even though he is looking pretty neat tonight, Rowan isn’t looking at him – don’t turn round – she’s looking at the back of your head.”
“She’s looking at me?”
“You know what I think,” said Will. “In her heart, you’ve grown into more than a friend. It’s just that her head hasn’t realised it yet.”
David smiled dreamily.
It was a long and lovely party, but it wasn’t a large one. Rowan had only asked the people who knew the sprites, saying she’d celebrate with her school friends another night. So after the humans had eaten their party food, and done their traditions of candles and singing, Ace said he had an announcement to make. Will knew what it was, because they’d discussed it, but he was looking forward to hearing it.
“You know what we told you about Allies,” he said. “How some sprites in Germany were murdered for making Allies, and how no-one dared make any after that – until Sally, Cyril and David. How the whole realm got the rumour, really impressed, thinking we were so brave, when really it was because we were so daft we didn’t even know. And now, our useless parliament has said it’s illegal to make Allies any more. But parliament didn’t invent Allies, it’s ancient. All they did was make lots of rules and complicated forms. But we don’t need all that. We’re going back to how it used to be, and this time we’re doing it with our eyes wide open. In the old days, you had to be fourteen, that’s all. That counted as grown up then. No daft forms – if a sprite asked you if you wanted to be an Ally, and you said yes, that was it. So, here goes – Gary, would you like to be an Ally?”
“I’d be honoured, Ace,” said Gary.
Gary reached out for Sally’s hand and smiled at her.
“Thank you,” said Ace. “Dominic, you’re old enough now too, how about you?”
“You bet,” said Dominic.
“And our beautiful birthday girl, Rowan – we would be very honoured if you would be an Ally too.”
“I’d love to,” said Rowan.
She looked so lovingly at Ace that Will was a bit worried, but then she looked at David and smiled, so that was all right.
“Thank you,” said Ace. “You are now all sprite Allies, and I’m sure David will put the news on the website.”
“I certainly will,” grinned David. “I think it’s brilliant.”
He broke off then, as his phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket and moved aside to talk, and when he came back, his face was very sad.
“That was the hospice,” he said quietly. “They said, if I wanted to say goodbye to Cyril, to come now, tonight.”
Everyone was quiet, looking at each other with sad eyes. They’d known it was coming, but it was still hard to face.
“Oh, damn, and I’ve drunk too much to drive!” said David.
“So have I,” said Gary. “We could phone for a taxi?”
“No, it’s all right, I can do it,” said Sally.
“I’ll come too,” said Rowan. “I’ll get my coat.”
The party ended quickly and quietly. Rowan thanked everyone for coming, and Dominic took the younger boys home.
Ace looked at Will, and his eyes were asking a question. Will nodded.
“Laura,” said Ace, “please would you look after Aesculus and Viola for the night? We’ll go too.”
The hospice wasn’t far away. When Sally, David and Rowan hurried inside, the sprites followed them, flitting and jumping fast from shadow to shadow, but when they came to the right room, they all entered very quietly. A nurse was sitting by Cyril’s bed, holding his hand. She got up when the visitors arrived, and spoke softly to David, then left them, with an encouraging smile.
Will felt numb with shock to see how tiny Cyril looked in that big bed. When he remembered the hale and hearty old gentleman he’d seen on Wildside, he could hardly take it in that this pale, frail figure was the same man. It was frightening to see how fast humans aged. Their courage was awesome. Then he saw Mal, crouched on the bed, close by Cyril’s side, looking so old and tired himself. How he must be suffering, too… if ever a sprite had made up for past wrongs, Mal had.
David sat down beside Cyril and took his hand, and after a while, Cyril opened his eyes.
“David…” His voice was like a whisper. “Such a good lad. Won’t be long now. See Betty again. Don’t be sad.”
“I’ll never forget you,” said David. His voice was breaking. “And neither will the rest of the sprites. Look, they’ve come too.”
Ace and Will jumped lightly onto the bed and stood where Cyril could see them without having to move. Rose and Clover landed beside them.
“Oh,” said Cyril, a long drawn out sigh, made up of yearning and contentment. One hand squeezed David’s fingers, and the other reached out. The sprites moved closer so he could touch them.
“Look after Mal,” said Cyril.
“We will,“ said Ace.
“So glad. See sprites again. Never forgot them… my Mal, my Cory…”
“When you see Cory,” said Mal, “give him my love. Tell him I won’t be long.”
“Yes,” said Cyril, and again it sounded like a sigh. “Soon be morning.”
He closed his eyes, and after a while, his hand relaxed and sank onto the blanket.
“He’s gone,” said Sally softly.
No-one moved. Rowan and the fairies had tears in their eyes. David seemed frozen, not moving, and not wanting to let go of Cyril’s hand. Sally put her hand on his shoulder.
“It’s all right to let go,” she said. “All his pain is over.”
Slowly, very slowly, David released Cyril’s hand.
“I must tell the nurse,” said Sally. “Ace and Will, can you help Mal outside?”
Mal seemed so crushed, he could hardly move, and Ace and Will had a hard time, practically carrying him between them. By the time they got to the car, the fairies were waiting for them, and watching David uneasily. He was standing a way off, leaning against a wall, and his shoulders were shaking. He was crying his heart out and no-one was sure what to do. Finally, Sally and Rowan came outside. When Rowan saw David, she went straight to him. She put her arm round him, pulled his head onto her shoulder and held him tight while he let out his grief.
Every end is a beginning, thought Will. There was something so right and so beautiful about it. He just knew it would have made Cyril smile.
That same night, Signals passed on the sad news to the other sprites who had known Cyril, and three days later, a sturdy young goblin stepped confidently off a train at Stockport station. He marched through the streets towards Cheadle until he came to Cherrytree Close. The first person he saw was Adam, who’d just got home from school.
“Hogweed! Is it really you? It’s great to see you!”
“Hello, Adam! My, you’ve grown! Yes, when I heard the news, I thought I’d come. Pay my respects to a good friend. Where are the other sprites, do you know?”
“Probably at their new house, other side of the motorway bridge.”
“Oh, I know. I can find that, then.”
“I’ll tell everyone else you’re home,” said Adam. “Come round tonight, won’t you, and see everyone?”
Hogweed promised that he would, then walked a little further, deep into Moseley Wood. There, he saw a tiny fairy who scurried away at the sight of him. Guessing who this must be, he followed her, hoping she would lead him to the others.
“Goblin!” cried Viola, and hid behind Clover.
“It’s a bit early for Gromwell,” said Will.
Ace jumped up.
“Maybe it’s not him…”
He rushed outside, and when he saw who it was, he reached out his hand.
“Welcome home, Hogweed,” he said.
He ushered Hogweed into Moseley Lodge, and while everyone was exclaiming with delight, he crouched down and spoke to Viola.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said. “This is the nicest, kindest goblin in the whole world. Come and say hello.”
Aesculus was squawking with delight, and hugging Hogweed’s legs. Then he rushed off to fill the kettle, and when Hogweed was comfortably settled in an armchair, Aesculus brought him a mug of tea that he’d made himself, carrying it very carefully so he wouldn’t spill a drop, then sat on Mal’s knee to listen to the news.
“Oh, this is nice!” beamed Hogweed. “A sad reason for the journey, but it’s so good to see you all again.”
“What’s the school like, Hogweed?” asked Rose. “Do you like it there?”
“I love it,” said Hogweed simply. “It’s an amazing place. It’s on a farm – the same family have lived there for generations, and they’re Allies – and that’s how it’s kept secret. But even they haven’t seen the school, it’s so well-hidden. You cross a stream, then go through a crack in some rocks, that’s only six inches wide. Only a sprite could get through. But once you’re through, it opens out, a big wide grassy place, surrounded by rocks, with trees growing high above, sheltering it. You’d never guess it was there, if you didn’t know.”
“And what’s the famous playground like?” asked Clover.
“Unbelievable,” said Hogweed solemnly. “The whole of the flat part – nearly as big as camp – is the playground. I could never have imagined so many exciting toys and games. Hundreds of them. The little sprites play there nearly all the time, it helps them grow strong and skilful. They only do lessons when it’s raining. I can see now why Madge wanted to send Aesculus to school. He’d have been all right there,” Hogweed smiled.
“Not as good as being with David and Mal,” Aesculus piped up loyally, but everyone could see he’d been very interested, especially in the toys.
“So where does everyone live?” asked Will.
“All the buildings nestle on the rocks,” said Hogweed. “Lots of different ones. D’you know, when we got there, there was a whole room waiting, just for me, with a nest in it, and a cot waiting for Kulsukker in the nursery, with his name on it. They made us so welcome. It’s so nice, I almost felt guilty for having such an easy job, when other people have hard things to do. But then I remembered what my colonel said to me: ‘No-one’s safe, these days,’ he said. ‘You’re going to be the youngest and strongest there. If there’s any trouble, they’ll be relying on you to defend them’. Will you talk it through with me, Ace, how you’d defend a place like that, if you had to?”
“Sure, no problem,” said Ace. “We’ll draw a plan, and think it through. Sometimes the best defence is preparation.”
That evening, Hogweed had to go through all his news again, in Sally’s house. Everyone had come round. David was the last to arrive, and Rowan made room for him beside her on the couch. He was still looking sad, but he said that Cyril would have been honoured that Hogweed had made such a long journey for him.
“Dan would have come too, if she could, I’m sure of it,” said Hogweed.
“Oh, have you heard from her?” asked Laura. “Gemma was asking.”
“Not directly,” said Hogweed. “You know she’s in Poland just now, with her friend Carda? That’s a long way off, and too far for them to send a message, but Carda’s senior sprite sent a message for her. She sent her love to everyone. She had an exciting journey, and she’s enjoying her leave.”
“Tell her that Gemma says well done for getting into Fighter Squadron,” said Laura. “I wish you could have brought Kulsukker, Hogweed. He sounds lovely.”
“Oh, he is,” said Hogweed. “Sorry, Laura. I hope you’ll see him one day, but he’s so little. Still a baby… I didn’t want to take him away from his new home when he’s just getting used to it.”
“Good thinking,” said Sally. “Human babies like routine, and I bet sprite babies do too.”
“I think they do,” smiled Hogweed. “He seems very happy. I don’t look after him – the nurses look after the babies – but I see him every day. I have my own class of young goblins to look after. I teach them their lessons and look after them when they’re playing.”
“Bet you’re teaching them football, aren’t you?” said Adam.
“Now you mention it, we did have a bit of a kickabout the other day,” said Hogweed. “The little elves and fairies all learn instruments, but not all goblins want to do that. I thought it would be nice for them to learn a sport instead.”
“Fantastic,” said Ace. “And you’ve been working so hard already, while we’ve just been lazing around.”
“Lazing around!” said Clover. You could see her struggling between her desire to express her feelings, and her wish to be careful how she spoke to Ace in front of the little ones. She took refuge in long words. “I’m not entirely convinced you’ve even grasped the basic concept of lazing around.”
“I think I agree with that,” laughed Will.
“I was lying on my back the whole of Friday afternoon!” Ace defended himself.
“You were finalising the plan!” said Will.
“True,” Ace conceded.
“You’ve finished your plan?” said Sally. “Let’s hear it, then. All I know is that you’re hoping to find a missing fairy called Primrose Delamere.”
“That’s right,” said Ace. “The only one still missing from this area, which gives us even more of an incentive to find her. The plan’s based on speed, on getting the job done as fast as possible, in case… in case anything else happens,” he finished, remembering the little ones were listening.
He rooted in his pocket for a copy of the email.
“The trail had gone cold on this one, until somehow Primrose got online. This is what she said:
I don’t suppose you’ll believe me, but I used to be a sprite, once. I wish I could remember. Miss Longson doesn’t believe me. She thinks I’m crazy, I can see it in her eyes. But Daffodil believed me. I went to all the Hollow Hills, but everyone hid from me, except her. It’s all fading now, like a dream. This wonderful website reminded me that it’s all true, and that even when I’ve forgotten completely, you will still be there. That makes me happy. I wish you all good luck, from Primrose Delamere.”
“That’s heartbreaking!” exclaimed Sally. “She’s been a human so long, she’s forgetting she was a sprite?”
“Horrible, isn’t it?” said Clover. “Thank goodness she managed to send that message before it was too late.”
“But it doesn’t help much,” said Laura. “Poor Primrose! How are you going to find her?”
“I think they’re going to start by finding a fairy called Daffodil,” said Dominic thoughtfully.
“Dead right,” said Will. “This Daffodil must surely be at one of the Hollow Hills. And she said she went to all of them, so we’re guessing it was the last one she went to.”
“The one thing we’re sure of is where Primrose was abandoned,” said Rose. “It was Llangollen, and we know that because Phil was there. You remember he was undercover then, and had to help. So we think that the first thing she would have done would be to make her way back to Delamere, to see if there was anyone there who would help her.”
“But by the time she got there, everyone had gone,” said Ace. “Her own people scattered by the gangs, and then the gangs themselves arrested or scattered. So then she’d have tried the Hills, and the nearest is the local one, Owler Tor.”
“How many are there?” asked Rowan.
“Only five,” said Clover. “One’s miles north of here, at Emmet Law in Northumberland, and we think that’s the one she’ll have left till last. Rose and I are going to that one.”
“Will and I have been told to go and see our colonel first,” said Ace. “And he hangs out in Oxfordshire. So when we’ve done that, we’ll visit the other three Hills, while we’re down that way. Colonel Rowan Harpsden, he’s called.”
Everyone laughed, and Rowan smiled.
“I hope he’s nice,” she said. “But I thought the Swedish elf was your colonel? Colonel Kinnekulle?”
“Elves have to make everything complicated,” sighed Clover.
“It’s perfectly logical, Clover,” said Ace. “Take no notice of her, Rowan. You see, Colonel Harpsden is colonel of England 3, and Colonel Kinnekulle is colonel of Sweden 3. But he happens to be the longest-serving colonel in Third Regiment, so he’s its senior colonel, and in charge of the whole regiment, really.”
“Oh, I see,” said Rowan. “Yes, that does make sense. But… you’re going to see your colonel, and visit three Hollow Hills, in the time it takes Rose and Clover to fly to Northumberland? That bit doesn’t make sense!”
“Aha,” said Ace. “This is the cunning part. We’re going to transform each other. We’ll be travelling human-sized, in a car. Actually, Will, we’d better do that soon. Even you will need a few days to make a car.”
“True,” said Will. “What sort of a car d’you want, anyway?”
“A Porsche,” said Ace dreamily. “A white one.”
“That figures. I don’t know why I asked. You don’t think a white Porsche might be a bit conspicuous?”
“Maybe a little bit. But they’re so beautiful.”
“All right, then,” said Will. “Let’s live dangerously. A white Porsche it is.”
Two days later, Cyril’s friends gathered at the little brown church on the corner, with its roof like an upturned boat. David and Mrs Kowalska, Mr and Mrs Connolly, Sally and Gary and half the inhabitants of Hilton Street, came to say goodbye to the kind old man who’d never been too busy to talk to anyone. High in the rafters, the sprites watched with solemn eyes.
After the service, as everyone stepped outside again, the mourners saw a sudden swirling shower of fallen leaves. Most of them assumed it must have been a trick of the wind, but some of them looked more closely and saw that the leaves were apple and hazel. Then they knew where the leaves had come from, and why.
Later that day, just as the sun was setting, and the people from Hilton Street were making their way home, they stopped and listened, hearing very faintly the sound of beautiful singing. They were puzzled when they realised that it sounded as if it was coming from Cyril’s house. They stood listening, wondering if they were imagining it, and saw a shimmer in the air, as if it was a very hot day. When they looked, there was no-one there, but their hearts felt lighter as they went into their homes.
That evening, it was quiet in Moseley Wood, as the sprites and their human friends stayed together, taking solace in each others’ company. No-one saw the arrival of a slender fairy with bright orange hair, who reported in to Wielkopolska, and started taking notes.
A few days later, Hogweed left to return to the Lake District, taking everyone’s love to Kulsukker, and a toy cat that Aesculus had made for him. Aesculus didn’t have a lot of experience yet of other sprites, but he had a lot of experience of human brothers. He seemed to have decided there was a new sprite in the family, and he was its big brother, so he was going to be a kind brother, like David.
It was now the third week of January, and hopeful new first years were making their way to Fjaerland from every point of the compass. All over the realm, army sprites on leave were beginning to think of their journeys, especially the ones who’d just graduated and were excited about their first jobs. Some of them were so excited, they’d already started. Hogweed had, of course, and so had Droz, Kes and Vin. As Hogweed climbed down from the train at Burneside station, a captain from Croatia 2 was anxiously watching a road.
Captain Ornus Vidilica didn’t like bullies. His senior sprite, when he was a youngster, had been a bully, and when the colony had been scattered, he’d been glad to get away. His tree was still there, the magnificent manna ash in Zadar, in Croatia’s Dalmatia region, and he went back sometimes just to see it, but it was years since he’d seen anyone from his colony. When the fighting had started, he hadn’t cared. He’d been young and silly then, he’d thought it was exciting, and he’d just joined in whenever he felt like it, fighting anyone who tried to tell him what to do.
It was when there was peace again that more trouble had started. New roads sliced through ancient woodland, and even more sprites became homeless. But this time, those damned bullies from Special Brigade had been there, rounding people up. Young Ornus had been furious, but powerless to help, until the day he’d met the imp. Dizzy Széchenyi, her name was. She’d been a colonel, then, and when she’d seen Ornus leaning against a gate, she’d roped him in to help carry a baby fairy. Too stunned to protest, he’d done as she asked, and found out on the journey that she was helping a colony move, and keep together, before they could get rounded up.
When the work was done, she’d said to him, ‘You – get to Norway, and join the army’, and he’d done it. There, he’d met Luke Olt, who’d taught him the difference between sensible orders and bullying. And he’d never regretted it, even though sometimes it had felt as if they were never going to win. But this time… this time it felt different. Something had changed, and it was the spirit of the refugees themselves, willing to bear any hardship in their determination to escape. This time, they could have a real success story, if only they could get across this road.
Behind him, the bedraggled column of sprites was sheltering beneath some thin bushes from a bitter wind. In front of him lay the road, wide and grey in the shadowy light of early evening. Avoiding traffic wasn’t the problem. The road was a quiet one. The problem was who was watching it… and where they were. This was Special Brigade’s last chance to stop them, because beyond the road the forest started, and the forest went on for miles, growing thicker and deeper as it rose towards the mountains.
The captain decided that the answer was a decoy. Behind him, the sound of a cheerful young voice made him smile, and it gave him an idea. It was a lot to ask, but he thought they could do it.
“Droz,” he called. “Come here a minute, will you?”
The young private didn’t need telling to keep low. He threw himself down flat beside the captain.
“We’ve had an easy journey today. I mean, I know everyone’s tired and cold, but we’ve had no enemy attacks. Yet they know where we are, and to me, that adds up to one thing.”
“Ambush,” said Droz.
“Exactly. Something tells me they’re watching this road, and I want to lure them out. Ambush the ambushers… it’s the only way we’re going to get into that forest with no losses. D’you think you and Kes and Vin could act as the decoys? Limp very slowly across the road, looking dejected. If they think you’re refugees, they’ll pounce. I’ll have the rest of the unit standing by to attack, of course.”
“We can join in, can’t we, sir, once the fighting starts?”
“You certainly can,” laughed the captain. The keenness of these youngsters was lifting his own spirits.
In a very short time, Droz, Kes and Vin, dressed in borrowed overcoats, began to trudge across the road. They were being careful not to look around, doing nothing that would give away their level of alertness. They got halfway across before the attack was launched, and it came from the direction they were least expecting – from above.
Captain Vidilica cursed as he saw four pairs of fairies flying with ominous slowness towards the young elves. Each pair was carrying an elf between them, and each elf had his knife drawn.
“Troop, attention!” he hissed. “Get ready to jump!”
They’d have to be fast. Those fairies were strong, and he didn’t want anyone getting whisked away. Hardly daring to breathe, he strained his eyes against the murky gloom.
Droz was perfect. As the enemy dived, he appeared to notice them, and broke into a shambling trot, with Kes and Vin close behind. At the very last moment, they flung aside the heavy coats and drew their knives.
“Jump!” shouted Captain Vidilica.
It was so hard to see what was happening. Rapidly, he scanned the sky, worried about reinforcements, but so far there was nothing. Droz, Kes and Vin had tackled down an elf each as they’d landed, but the fourth had grabbed Droz just before the rest of the troop landed at their side.
“Stupid trick, and you’ll pay for it!” The harsh words rang out across the road. “They’re army. Search the area, see who’s with them.”
The captain flung a signal back to the refugees. One of them, a doughty fairy called Rosa, got the rest to lie low and keep as silent as possible. But whoever that order had been given to, never managed to carry it out. The captain watched with pride as his team moved fast to surround the enemy, driving them together. Scuffling footsteps… the sharp ring of steel knives clashing together… it was easier to hear than to see, but the captain knew this was the moment to get everyone across, while the skirmish was at its height.
“Rosa, get everyone moving!” he called.
At once, the strongest elves from the party were at his side, ready to help the old and the young to cross. The captain moved out into the middle of the road, twisting his head to see what was happening behind him, and beckoning the refugees on, urging them to move as quickly as they could. Taunts, and laughter… shouts and cries of pain… his team weren’t stupid, they might be suffering, but they knew to hold out as long as they possibly could. He looked round again, and a great smile spread across his face as he saw the enemy elves on the ground. The fairies looked around at the devastation of their attack, and decided to take off. But before they did, two of them grabbed Droz, and lifted him into the air. Retaliation for the trick… this could be nasty. If they got away, then by the time they found Droz again he’d be bloodied and battered. Droz himself seemed to think it was a bad idea, because he was struggling fiercely. This gave one of the older elves just enough time to jump to his rescue. The captain couldn’t see who it was, but he did a spectacular jump and grabbed Droz’s ankles, ripping him from the fairies’ grasp. The two of them landed painfully in a heap, with much groaning, but they were safe, and the fairies sped away.
“Great work!” shouted the captain. “Get those elves to safety in the ditch, then into the forest yourselves!”
He had no worries about the unconscious elves. Their fairies would come back for them. Now the fight was over, he turned back to the column, and gave his arm to an ancient goblin who was walking with the aid of a stick.
“Very pretty work,” cackled the old goblin, who was ex-army himself. “You youngsters aren’t bad, not bad at all!”
He could see Rosa at the head of the column, because her white hair shone through the gloom. She had a basket on her back with two buds in it, and she was holding the hands of two small elves. She was into the forest now, climbing sturdily, and behind her, sprites of every shape and size were still moving as quickly as they could. Captain Vidilica was delighted. Miles they’d come today, and not a single sprite had been re-captured. He’d got his reinforcements just when he needed them most. Only three, true, but what quality. Well-trained, fast thinkers and fast on their feet, patriots and rebels to the core. Those three had tipped the balance in their favour.
Everyone was across the road now. The captain breathed a sigh of relief, and moved to the head of the column, smiling modestly as people patted him on the back, and winking flirtfully at a very pretty fairy. Well, he was feeling very happy and cheerful right now. As the steeply rising ground grew more and more thickly overgrown, he led them on, with rising hope in his heart. These sprites, all of whom he’d come to know and love over the last few weeks, would soon be safe forever.
Not long afterwards, they camped for the night, and as the captain rolled up in his blanket, his mind went back over the whole operation. The night parliament had attacked Fjaerland, that’s when it had all started. The very next day, this intrepid band, furious at the news, had simply flattened the fences of the Marjan refugee camp, and flattened every guard that tried to stop them. They’d been scattered at first, but General Széchenyi had had the news, and Captain Vidilica had at once had orders to help pull them together and escort them to wherever they wanted to go. These were the remnants of the lost colonies of the Dalmatian coast, and they knew there was no going back. Every eye had turned longingly to the higher ground, to the thickly-forested mountains.
So many weeks it had taken to get here, so many slow and cautious journeys through the worst of the bitter weather, harassed and followed by Special Brigade the whole time. But they hadn’t recaptured anyone. Captain Vidilica was full of quiet pride about that.
Next morning, they set off again, safe from the fear of being followed. What they were looking for now was a place to make a new home. And in the afternoon, they found it. They’d just crested a steep rise when a lovely valley came into sight. A little lake, its edges crusted with ice, reflected the grey sky. Its shores were thick with dry grass, mosses and reeds, and it was entirely surrounded by trees. Even in the depths of winter it looked welcoming, and it was easy to imagine how delightful it would be in summer.
There was a soft sound, as if everyone had sighed with satisfaction at the same moment. Smiling happily at each other, the army sprites and the refugees made their way down to the shore. One of the young elves said what everyone else was thinking.
“We’ll not find a more perfect place than this, however long we search.”
“I think you’re right,” said Rosa. “Feels like home already, doesn’t it?”
Croatia 2 helped them set up camp. One day, they’d spread out a bit, build houses and become a real colony. Just now, after all they’d been through, they needed to stick close together a while longer.
“Thank you, Captain,” said Rosa. “And all you dear army elves… thank you for all you’ve done for us. We’d never have managed it without you.”
“It’s been a pleasure.” said Captain Vidilica. “I really mean that. To see you all here, free at last… I know it doesn’t make up for all you’ve lost, but it gives me real pleasure to see you safe in a place of your own choosing. You’re a colony, now. What are you going to call it?”
Several suggestions were called out, but in the end they chose Sivjezero, in English, Greylake.
“We need a senior sprite,” said the ancient goblin. “As I’m the eldest here, I’m going to make a suggestion. I think it should be someone not too old and not too young, canny and kind and strong. I say, Rosa.”
The cheers and shouts that greeted that showed that everyone agreed with him. Rosa looked a bit stunned, but answered firmly.
“If that’s what you all want, then I’ll do it, of course. Thank you. Then the first thing I’m going to do, is change my name. Rosa Markarska I was born, but Makarska colony is gone now. I keep my memories, locked safe in my heart. But for the sake of the future, for the little ones who will grow up here, I now take the name Rosa Sivjezero.”
One by one, all the sprites there who were old enough to understand, rose to their feet and claimed the place-name as their own. The unity of purpose almost brought a tear to the captain’s eye.
“Congratulations,” he said to all of them. “It’s not often you get to see the birth of a new colony. I have a feeling it’s going to be a great place.”
That night, no-one had to be quiet, and they could have as many fires as they liked, to keep warm.
In the morning, the captain and his team said goodbye. It was hard to part, but it was exciting to think they might be able to repeat this success somewhere else, and help more sprites.
At the top of the ridge, they turned to wave one last time.
“What a great job,” said the captain happily. “How about that, Droz? The first victory.”
Droz grinned back at his captain.
I saw the first victory, he thought, exultant. I can’t wait to tell Ace.