CHAPTER 3 - A White Porsche
David led the way into 6 Cherrytree Close, and Ace and Will followed him, looking round curiously. The house was furnished, but very plainly and simply, and compared to the other houses it seemed big, cold and echoing.
“I’m not stopping,” said David. “I know you need quietness and privacy. I don’t know what you do, exactly, but it’s dangerous, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Ace. “We keep trying harder things, so it keeps being dangerous.”
“When you’ve finished, text me, will you? Just so I know you’re all right.”
Colonel Kinnekulle had seen to it that Ace and Will were well-supplied with human money for their assignment, so they both had shiny new phones, though they hadn’t used them much yet.
“We will,” said Ace. “Don’t worry, David. It’s only a size change, it’s not that difficult.”
“See you in the morning, then,” said David. “Good luck.”
When he’d gone, quietly closing the door behind him, Will started pacing about.
“I’m not ready for this,” he muttered. “It’s come round too quickly! We have to do this. And the more you know you have to, the more you don’t want to.”
“Come and sit down,” said Ace, “or at least stop pacing about. You’re making me nervous. What is it? What’s bugging you? This should be easy enough.”
“Nothing to it,” said Will. “It’s just… I think it’s just too much like the first time. I hated it when you were a different size, it just freaked me out.”
“I remember,” said Ace. “You couldn’t look. Would it help if I did you first?”
“Maybe… one of us has to go first. But then how am I supposed to watch your eyes while I’m doing you?”
“Lie on the floor?” Ace suggested.
“I’ll be just as freaked out, being bigger than you. I’ll never do it in that state! This is too dangerous.”
“Will, please don’t get worked up. We’ve got all night, and no-one would dream of interrupting us. There’s something we’re missing here, it should be easier than this.”
“I don’t know,” sighed Will. “We blithely made a plan without even thinking of the practicalities.”
“Simultaneous,” said Ace.
“Sergeant Olt did say we should feel free to push the boundaries.”
“Yes… it’s a thought. It’d solve a lot of problems. But can we?”
“The actual transforming, yes… clearing the barriers, probably not. We’d have to get that out of the way first.”
“All right,” said Will. “Let’s try it. There can’t be that much.”
“Hold hands,” said Ace. “Pool our thoughts, then come into my mind. We know now how far we can safely go. Whatever you find, absorb it and contain it, so you can calm your mind enough for me to do the same.”
Ace felt confident that Will could do that, because of the strength of his concentration. Will felt fairly relaxed about the idea, because he thought there wouldn’t be much they weren’t already aware of, but he was quickly stunned. He sensed in Ace’s mind a maturity he’d never sensed before.
General Vandenesse… a fear of what vanity could do to you… and winning, just how much being the winning team had meant to Ace, and yet it wasn’t pride, it was humility. Deep down, it made sense, and though Will knew he wanted to think about this, he had no problem locking it down, storing it away to think about later.
Just before their pooled thoughts got too entangled, Will mentally pulled back and broke the connection.
“That’s all good, Ace,” he said. “All secure.”
Ace’s smile was so beautiful.
“It’s working, isn’t it? This is going to be so good. Have a breathe, Will, try and relax.”
Ace seemed to know the exact moment when he was calm enough. He couldn’t be sure what Ace was picking up, but he just looked deep inside himself and let all his worries float into his mind. That was one of the problems with transforming, sometimes you found out more about yourself than you really wanted to know, and Will certainly hadn’t realised quite how many things he’d been worrying about, but he trusted Ace to cope with it.
“My Willow, your burdens,” said Ace softly, shaking his head. “All safe.”
“Thank you,” whispered Will. “Let me re-focus, now.”
Will brought Ace back to the front of his mind, and pushed himself to the back.
“Can we stand up?”
“Yes, good idea.”
Instinctively, they stood far enough apart to see each other all the way through the transformation. They didn’t need to speak now. Their connection was so strong, they didn’t know if they were messaging or sensing, but it didn’t matter. Together, they focused, and changed, and grew. The only thing that slowed them down was their own awareness that it wasn’t a pleasant sensation, growing so fast, so neither of them let the pace get too uncomfortable.
Ace finished first, because Will was lingering over Ace’s face, cautiously making sure his features were perfect. As soon as Will lowered his arms, panting for breath, Ace pulled him close and hugged him, so the familiar feeling would take away the shock of the size change.
It had been sweet and painless, and they had the peace of mind that came from knowing there were no barriers between them of any kind. Better still, thought Will, was the feeling that the worst was over and now the fun could start. All the same, it was still tiring, and Will was in no hurry to let go. It was nice just resting his head on Ace’s shoulder. Gradually, their energy returned, and they stepped back and had a good look at each other.
“Are you OK?” said Ace.
“Yeah… it’s going to take a bit of getting used to, though. We look so weird with plain skin!”
“We’re still elves,” said Ace reassuringly. “Just big. Are you thirsty?”
“I’ll say… oh, did we bring any water?”
“Don’t be daft,” said Ace, “we can turn the taps on now!”
Their eyes lit up and they dashed for the kitchen.
“Are there any cups?”
“No, but there’s some empty milk bottles.”
They filled a bottle each from the cold tap, splashing each other happily, and drained them in one long draught.
“I hardly noticed that,” said Ace, and filled another one.
Then he stood with his shoulder next to Will’s.
“Stand still a minute. Just checking you’ve not made me smaller than you!”
“Rats, I could have done, I never thought of that. Just did it by the book, factor nine.”
“Six feet tall,” said Ace happily. “Taller than David.”
The garage at number six had hardly been touched since Stefan Kowalski died, and it was full of useful tools and wonderful junk. Ace was looking forward to driving the car more than making it, but he threw himself into the work. After an hour, the chassis was taking shape, and the squat sports car tyres sat promisingly four square. Will was on his back on the floor, adjusting the axle.
“Spanner,” he said, and Ace passed him one.
“Right size, too,” said Will. He fixed a bolt more tightly then wriggled out. “You’re doing a good job of that sump, especially when you don’t like getting dirty.”
“It’s a shame oil has to be so messy,” said Ace ruefully.
“There’s tons of good rags over there,” said Will. “Why don’t you make some overalls?”
“Not a bad idea,” said Ace, and he did.
Then they started on the engine, layer by layer, shaping the fat pistons with loving care, and threading the complex electronics through it all.
“Wow,” said a voice behind them.
“Hi, David,” said Will. “Looks good, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” said David, “but I meant you two. Let’s have a look at you.”
Laughing, they turned round, and David hugged them both.
“You look great! Still you, even without your streaks. It’s going to be hard getting used to being smaller than you, though.”
“Not by much,” said Ace. “You’re growing fast, you are. Where’s Aesculus today?”
“Gone to the shops with the girls and the fairies. Rose and Clover wanted to look at the fashions, and when they asked Viola if she wanted to come, Aesculus wanted to go too.”
“That’s insane,” muttered Will, turning back to the transmission system. “Going to a shop that sells clothes? When you don’t have to?”
Ace laughed and wiped his hands on a rag.
“You can drive, can’t you, David?”
“Yes, I passed my test last year. Mum lends me her car, sometimes.”
“Test? What test?” said Ace.
David perched on a box of scrap.
“Just how legal – human legal, I mean – are you going to be with this car? You’re supposed to pass a driving test and have your licence, and road tax and insurance.”
“Bother. Yes, we have to keep all your laws. Will it take long to sort it?”
“Not if you get cracking and make some phone calls. I’ll come and help you.”
Ace went off with David then, and Will worked on, blissfully happy to be creating something so intricate and special. The morning had gone, and he was getting thirsty, when he realised that Ace had been gone for a long time. He walked down to David’s and found them practising Highway Code questions.
“Hi Will,” said David. “I just saw something I thought I’d never see.”
“Shut up laughing, David,” said Ace.
“What’s he done?” laughed Will.
“Bottled out. I never thought I’d see either of you two bottling out.”
“Damn, and I missed it,” said Will.
“I couldn’t do it. I just lost it. When I realised I was talking to a human who didn’t know I was a sprite, I just dried up. David had to take the phone off me.”
“You’ll get used to it,” said David. “You’ll have to. We’ve fixed up the theory test – cancellation – it’s this afternoon.”
“I don’t know what you’re grinning about,” said Ace, throwing the book to Will. “You’re coming too. Learn that. You’ve got half an hour.”
In a few days, the car was finished, and even the fairies said it was beautiful. Gary and David sighed over its powerful engine, and Aesculus simply wouldn’t get out of it. He’d been really quite disconcerted by the sight of Ace and Will looking so big, which Will totally sympathised with, but it had been the car that had won him over. Clearly, any elf would want to be big so he could drive that, and once he understood that Ace and Will hadn’t turned into humans, he was happy again.
When 2nd February came, Ace and Will got ready for their journey south, and Rose and Clover for theirs to the north. They said goodbye to everyone at home, but no-one was sad this time, because they’d be coming back. For now, as Ace said, home was base. It was only just light when they left, on a grey, overcast morning. Ace and Will threw their backpacks into the car, and settled into their seats. His hands almost shaking with emotion, Ace gripped the wheel.
Gary and David watched them go.
“They’ve got the roof down,” said David.
“In February. That’s going to be conspicuous. Did you warn them about not rooting through rubbish bins for useful junk?”
“Very firmly,” said David. “Also about not drinking out of milk bottles.”
“And you reminded them about keeping the speed limit?”
“Very firmly indeed. If they have a blood test, the police will pass out with shock.”
“And about not sitting so close and touching so much?”
“Less firmly. I mean, no reason why they shouldn’t.”
“I know what you mean,” sighed Gary. “But whether we like it or not, it does attract attention. I mean, this General Herdalen’s promised to kill them within a year, hasn’t he?”
“No, no, Gary! General Herdalen’s the good guy. It’s the other one that wants to kill them. General… something else beginning with ‘H’.”
“See, you can’t remember either!”
“Well, it wasn’t General Herdalen,” grinned David. “I’ve met him, he’s great.”
“I hope they’ll be all right,” worried Gary.
Once, Ace had felt that he only ever got to go in cars when something horrible was happening. Today, as he cruised south down the M6 – being careful not to go above 70 mph – he felt as if that jinx was broken for ever. It couldn’t get better than this. The wind was in his hair, the sun was shining, and the car was going like a dream, drawing admiring glances from all sides. Will was at his side, with a road map in his lap, and he was looking pretty happy and excited too.
“This is fantastic!” Ace shouted above the road noise.
“I’ll say,” said Will. “You’re doing really well, terrific driving.”
“Better than clinging to the top of a lorry, isn’t it? I love the way the windscreen keeps the wind out of your eyes.”
“It’s luxury,” said Will. “I could get used to this.” He folded his arms behind his head happily. “Don’t even have to hold on.”
“D’you want a go of driving?”
“Yeah, when you’re ready for a rest.”
“OK, let’s pull off soon and we’ll swap. I could do with a drink, and David said you could always get drinks at stopping places.”
They came off at the next services and had a look round. It seemed pretty clear where you had to go, but they suddenly felt a bit nervous.
“Are you ready for this?” asked Ace.
“I’m terrified,” said Will, “but we’ll have to, if we don’t want to die of thirst, or else drink out of that duck pond, which would be the easiest thing, really, except that I feel pretty sure that David would say that that’s something grown men wouldn’t do.”
“No, that’s out,” Ace agreed. “I don’t think even children would drink out of that.”
“I wonder what they’ve got,” said Will.
“And I wonder how you get it,” said Ace uneasily.
They stood defensively in the doorway of the restaurant, wondering what to do.
“’Scuse me, pet,” said an old lady with her friend, and Ace and Will clumsily moved aside. The old ladies picked up a tray each from a pile and started walking round the counters, looking what there was. Ace and Will looked at each other and copied them.
“It’s all food!” whispered Will.
“It can’t be,” Ace whispered back. “Humans drink too, you clot.”
Ace spotted where the cold drinks were.
“Come on,” he said happily, “this is more like it… coke, lemonade, water… what d’you fancy?”
“Hey, they’ve got milk! I’ll have some of that.”
“Where? Oh, I see, in those cartons. They’re only little, aren’t they? Better have two each.”
“Good idea. I wouldn’t mind something hot, though. D’you think they have hot drinks?”
“Hot drinks are at the end, near the till,” said an assistant, overhearing them.
“Oh, thank you,” said Ace, and they moved off.
There was a queue at the end, and Ace was watching carefully what people did. You said what you wanted and they poured it out for you, then you moved on to pay, then found a table to sit at. Easy. He didn’t know why he’d been worried. There was nothing to it. Except he couldn’t make his mind up what he wanted.
“Tea or coffee?” asked the girl on the machines.
Ace screwed his face up, thinking.
“Could I have tea and coffee?” he asked.
“Yeah, if you want,” said the girl. She saw the milks on Ace’s tray. “Thirsty, are you?”
“Not half,” said Ace.
She passed him the two cups. He put them straight on his tray without picking any saucers up.
“And d’you want tea and coffee as well?” she demanded, seeing milks on Will’s tray too.
“No thanks,” said Will. “Just two cups of coffee, please.”
“Right,” said the girl.
It seemed to the elves that she was trying not to laugh.
“Together?” said the cashier.
“Yes, we’re together,” said Ace warily, wondering why she wanted to know.
“I mean, d’you want to pay together,” she asked, and Will got it.
“Yes, we do,” he said, getting the money out.
“That was very clever,” said Ace, as they walked off. “Very quick. I didn’t know what she was on about.”
“Never mind,” said Will, “we survived. Let’s sit down.”
They found a table by a window, and were delighted to see that it looked out over the duck pond. The ducks were swimming about really close to them.
“Incredible how small they look,” said Will. “When you think about how often we’ve had to swim for our lives from beaks like that.”
“D’you feel, you know, a bit edgy still, looking at them?”
“Yeah, a bit. Nervy, and you tell yourself not to be so daft.”
“That’s it. I’ve never noticed before how beautiful they are. Just look at the colours in their feathers!”
“Well, you wouldn’t hang around to look, normally, would you?” said Will, starting on his second cup of coffee. “Even now, if one moved fast, I’m not sure I wouldn’t jump. I think we should steer clear of them when we go outside again.”
“Might be safer,” Ace agreed. “I’m sure that David and Gary would say that men aren’t usually frightened of ducks.”
By the time they left the motorway, it was dark, but Will had memorised the route, and navigated to a lane where he thought they’d be able to park. Sure enough, there was a little lay-by, so they left the car safe and headed into Harpsden Wood. Once they were sure they were out of sight, they stood very still and concentrated, and transformed each other back to their normal sizes. They had just enough energy left to get up into the trees, and start moving towards the centre of the wood, where they’d been told they’d find the colony of Harpsden and the HQ of England 3, side by side.
They saw a house first, and here they got friendly directions to look out for a huge old beech. They soon found the right tree, but at first they couldn’t see where to go, until Ace caught a gleam of candlelight coming from between the roots. Once they were down among the root tangle, they saw a half-open door, and slipped inside. They weren’t surprised to find themselves in a large underground room, but everything else surprised them so much that at first they could only stand and stare.
The whole room had been lined with swathes of rich fabric that were hung from a central point in the roof, so you got the impression you were in a jewel-coloured tent. On the floor was a circular carpet, and on the carpet, also in a circle, sat about twenty elves. They were sitting cross-legged and making a low but musical humming noise, almost a chant, while their hands were busy with whatever it was they were doing. No-one seemed to have noticed them, so Ace and Will crept forward to take a closer look.
One of the elves was pulling pieces of scrap metal out of a basket – it looked like old steel cans that had been shrunk – and changing the colour back to silver. He passed a piece on, and the next elf smoothed out the shape, making it into a solid lump. After that, it got even stranger. As it was passed on from one to another, the shape was changed again and again, until it ended up long and thin, with a curve at one end and a spiral twist at the other. All around the circle were old cans at different stages of transformation. When the strange shapes were finished, they were placed in the centre of the circle. It seemed that they’d been working for some time, because there was quite a collection of shapes there already.
Ace looked at Will, and saw him looking baffled but intrigued. Then he looked more closely at the elves, wondering if one of them was Colonel Harpsden. It was hard to tell. He couldn’t see anyone’s wristbands under the layers of strange clothing they were wearing. There was one who looked a little older than the others, so maybe that was him. If it was, his clothes were the strangest of all. He was wearing flared purple trousers and a red cotton top with long wide sleeves. Around his neck was a necklace of tiny seashells, and his long brown hair was held out of his eyes by an embroidered headband. The only other possibility was one who stood out from everyone else there, including Ace and Will, by his short neat hair.
“Er, hello,” Ace ventured quietly, not wanting to interrupt, but not wanting to stand there for ever, either.
The oldest elf looked up, startled, but when he saw them there, his face broke into a welcoming smile. He didn’t speak or stop humming, but he instantly waved at some of the elves sitting down to widen the circle, and he beckoned to Ace and Will to come and sit down and join in.
“What’re we supposed to be doing?” muttered Will.
“Search me,” Ace whispered, smiling at an elf who was passing him a long rectangle with a hole in the middle. “Make it up as we go along?”
He screwed his face up and added a ripple effect to one of the edges, and passed the piece to Will. Will looked completely at a loss, but then he changed the texture, not the shape, so it had little grooves running across it, then handed it to the elf on his right. It must have been satisfactory, because the other elf didn’t look at all surprised.
Ace found that he soon settled into the rhythm. He didn’t start humming, but he did find the whole thing very relaxing, and he was soon absorbed in reacting to the shape he got and sending it on even better. After a while – Ace wasn’t sure quite how long it had been – the humming died away, and he realised that the last piece was making its way round the circle. Once it had joined the heap in the middle, the oldest elf held out his hands.
“Bless the work,” he said. Then he looked directly at Ace and Will, and raised two fingers, palm outwards. “Peace, brothers. Welcome to the tipi.”
“The tipi?” said Ace. “Er… we have come to the right place, haven’t we? England 3? Colonel Harpsden?”
“That’s me,” smiled the elf. “Bjørk said you’d be coming, but I wasn’t expecting you tonight. Fast journey?”
“Very fast, thanks,” said Ace.
“It’s easy to see which is which,” smiled Colonel Harpsden. “Thank you for joining in. I’ve never seen anyone tune in that quickly. I expect you’re wondering what it’s all about, aren’t you?”
“Dying of curiosity would just about cover it, sir,” said Will.
“Chill,” smiled the colonel. “None of that ‘sir’ stuff when it’s only us. My name’s Rowan.”
“The colonel likes to be mysterious,” said the one with the sensible haircut. “Ace and Will, right? I’m Gus Thurlgrove, captain. This section works on recycling.”
“And very good they are at it too,” said Colonel Harpsden. “Making something new out of things the humans leave lying around.”
“Litter,” said Will.
“I mean, you take litter and transform it? That’s a useful thing.”
“Litter,” said Captain Thurlgrove. “Nice word. Is that what you call it in the north? Lit-ter. Litterlitterlitter.”
“I like it,” said the colonel.
“Fairly common word, I think,” said Will cautiously. He was expecting a wind-up, Ace could tell. “Well, anyway, that’s what the humans call it.”
“Really? They have a word for it? That’s amazing.”
“Haven’t you got bins? In lay-bys and picnic areas? Don’t they say ‘litter’ on them?”
“D’you know, Rowan, I rather think they do,” said Captain Thurlgrove.
“Oh, those collecting boxes! You’re right. I’ve often wondered why they have those. Do you know?” he asked Ace and Will.
Is this for real? thought Will.
I think so, Ace replied.
“I’m sure you’re just teasing us, sir… I mean, Rowan,” said Ace. “But yes, they have a concept of litter. They know they’re not supposed to leave it lying around. If they’ve finished with something – like an empty can – they’re supposed to put it in a bin, then lorries come and empty the bins and take the rubbish away to be recycled or buried.”
To Ace’s astonishment, everyone just stared at him.
“But… but… then you’ve solved the mystery!” one of them burst out. “The one thing we’ve always wanted to know – why the collecting boxes were sometimes full and then suddenly empty.”
“Far out, man,” said the colonel. “I can’t get my head round this. Bjørk said you were clever, but I never expected anything as brilliant as this.”
Will, thought Ace, don’t mention the computer. Or the car.
I think you’re right.
“This changes everything,” said the captain. “Do you see, elves? If the stuff in the collecting boxes will be taken care of properly, by the humans, then we can concentrate on the rest of it, without worrying!”
“That’s great,” said Ace. “Ease the workload a bit, won’t it? But tell me, because I’m really intrigued – what are all the weird shapes for?”
“This is what we do,” said the colonel with quiet pride. “We take… litter, and turn it into art. No-one knows what it will be, until it is. Everyone used his own imagination, one after another, and now we have the pieces, we’ll put them together. It’s so exciting, seeing what we get. Then we put the art back in the wood, for everyone to look at. Come on, let’s get creative!”
Everyone gathered around the heap of shapes and started holding pieces up, putting one next to another to see the effect.
“Oh yes, that’s good… join those two, and then balance them… what else have we got?”
“This piece is long and thin, too.”
“Join them with this flat piece…”
It was when someone held up the grooved piece that Will suddenly thought it looked like a mane.
“It’s a horse!” he said, astonished.
The colonel rushed round to where he was standing, to look from that angle. He nodded with deep satisfaction.
“It is, it is… a horse galloping, long legs bent, flowing mane. Well seen, Will. He needs a magnificent tail. Who’s got a spare piece?”
“This’ll do,” said someone. “It’s too spiky for such a flowing piece. I’ll change it into a tail.”
When he’d joined it to the horse’s body, they had the basic shape, and everyone was excited. Ace and Will joined in as they worked hard on little refinements, and after another hour’s work, everyone was satisfied.
They had music then, to celebrate their work, and it was very simple and rhythmic, someone slapping a fat drum with the flats of his hands, and a couple of people playing penny whistles. After that, someone brought round beautiful pewter tankards full of a strange sweet kind of beer.
“Your metal work is fantastic,” said Ace, admiring the cup. “What’s this drink, though?”
“Mead,” said the captain. “Very traditional. Have you never had it before?”
“Never,” said Ace. “It’s kind of unexpected, but it’s got a nice flavour.”
“Groovy,” said the colonel. “Nice balance. I’m glad we could give you a new vibe in return. I wish you were staying with us. But Bjørk said you’d only be calling in to say hello. On special assignment, he said.”
“That’s right,” said Will. “We’re trying to find a missing sprite who was turned into a human.”
“Oh, I heard about that. That was a bad thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with humans, but sprites shouldn’t suddenly be turned into them against their will. I like humans. I’ve talked to them, even.”
“Have you talked to any recently?” asked Ace.
“No, sadly… it must be nearly forty years ago, now. Why d’you ask?”
“Oh, no special reason,” said Ace airily. “I just wondered. Are you here in Harpsden most of the time then?”
“That’s right. I don’t like rushing about. I leave that to Aberchalder in Scotland 3, he likes it.”
“Oh, we’ve met him!” said Ace. “He’s great, isn’t he?”
“Very sound,” said the colonel. “I shouldn’t boast, but I don’t think any regiment works together as well as Third does. More co-operation, less rivalry. I’m glad you like him, he’s a great friend of mine. Very pro-human too.”
“Bjørk says parliament will make it illegal to talk to humans,” said Captain Thurlgrove sadly. “D’you think it’s true?”
“Yes, I do,” said Ace. “I don’t think they’ll stop now until they’ve cut us off from humans completely.”
“I’d do anything to stop that happening,” said the captain. “We have to get the old ways back, we have to work together. Humans didn’t used to make such a mess.”
“Things are changing,” said Will. “At least, in some countries they are. People trying to save the planet.”
“They need to listen to it more. Remember they’re just part of the whole, man. All they do now is drive cars. I hate cars.”
“It’s easy to see why you would.” Will answered the colonel diplomatically. “There are just too many of them. Sometimes it seems as if the more roads they build, the more cars they get.”
“But don’t be too sad,” said Ace. “From what I can make out, forty years ago, things were just getting worse and worse. It’s not like that now. People are stopping to think, shocked at the damage they’ve done.”
“Really? Truly? You give me such hope.”
“The litter is a good example,” said Will. “They used to burn it or bury it. All of it, even useful stuff. They don’t any more. They recycle everything they can now.”
Colonel Harpsden had a dreamy, rapturous look on his face.
“Far out,” he sighed. “Can you imagine what we could achieve, if they let us help them?”
“I’m imagining it,” said Ace. “You’re giving me hope too, because you know what? I’ve only been thinking of all the things I’ll be fighting against. You’ve made me think of things we could be fighting for – get the old ways back, and fit them into the modern world.”
“I hope I live to see it,” said the colonel. “You youngsters will. It’s the pattern. Things won’t keep on getting worse for ever.”
That night, Ace and Will slept on beds of moss with brightly-coloured blankets. As usual, many messages were crossing the realm. Before he went to sleep, Ace sent one, received one, and was mentioned in one. The one he sent was to Clover.
Arrived safely, the colonel’s a hippy, where are you?
Clover’s reply came through very quickly.
Tucked up in Gemma’s new house. Think I’m camping out when there’s a friend with beds nearby?
The one he was mentioned in was more formal, and it didn’t go through Fjaerland Signals Unit. It was sent from Envoy Marigold Pentreath to the Premier’s private secretary.
Observations of target colony completed. Colony ancient but insignificant. Heavily built up area, some woodland remains, one communal home building. Ally stars on three houses, level of contact with humans extremely high. Saw five of six army sprites, remaining fairy possibly not on colony at the present time. Other colony members number three only, one elderly elf, one young fairy, one very young elf. The young elf appears to be in the care of a human by the name of David. Army sprites left today as expected, Ace and Will Moseley transformed to human size and travelling in a white car. Recommended action – remove young sprites at once to a place of safety.
In the morning, Ace and Will spent some time out in the wood with the younger elves, just chasing about in the beautiful beech woodland, and gathering up litter as they went. They had a wonderful time, and made a lot of new friends, especially the two other lieutenants, Douglas and Lance. They knew they’d get bored if they had to do this all the time, but it had been good fun. After that, they thought they’d better be on their way, and thanked Colonel Harpsden and Captain Thurlgrove for the welcome.
“England 3 take care of each other,” said the captain. “It’s been a real pleasure to meet our newest members. I hope you find the missing fairy.”
“We won’t give up till we do,” said Ace. “England 3 stick to the job, right?”
“Dead right,” said Colonel Harpsden approvingly. “Goodbye, and good luck. Call in any time you’re passing, and we’ll think of you every time we look at the horse.”
Ace and Will walked a long way, and made sure they were completely alone before they transformed each other back to human size. Once again, it went slightly differently. They found they could absorb each other’s reactions to the previous night, without having to look at them too closely.
“I think we did a bit more boundary-pushing there,” said Ace, pleased. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, I am,” said Will. “Not even tired, but then, we have just had a good night’s sleep. Are you okay?”
“Fizzing,” said Ace, jumping up to touch a branch. “So happy… I tell you what, though, now I’m human-sized I feel grubby, when I didn’t before. My hair’s full of bits of moss and my hands are dirty.”
“We can stop at a service station again,” said Will. “The big ones have showers.”
After a hot shower and two cups of tea, Ace was feeling even better and ready to tackle the long drive around London to Hogtrough Hill. This Hollow Hill was just into Kent, and they thought it wouldn’t take too long to get there. They soon realised what Wayne could have told them, that the traffic around London was terrible, and their journey would be slow. Ace tackled the huge and fearsome roundabouts with great style, and Will navigated faultlessly, but for all that, it was late at night before they arrived.
They knew there’d be no-one there to answer their questions until morning, and they didn’t think they’d be able to find the entrance in the dark, anyway, not on a strange hill in a place they’d never been to before. That was frustrating, because if they could have got inside, there would have been a dormitory for the use of sprites on long journeys, where they could have got a hot drink and a bed. If it had been life-or-death urgent, they’d have combed the hill until they found the door, but just for their own comfort, it wasn’t worth the effort. They made do with water, and sleeping bags, under the seats of the Porsche.
Even in the morning, it took quite a while to find the entrance. This was the least remote of all the Hollow Hills and you could see that humans often passed close by, so the security was impressive. When they finally got inside, they were puzzled by what seemed like an air of preoccupation, as if everyone was worrying about the same thing, but they were received very courteously. The trouble was, everyone on the reception desk was certain of one thing – there was no fairy called Daffodil working at Hogtrough Hill.
Will asked if there might have been one at any time over the last two years, and explained why he was asking. They thought carefully, and went so far as to check in their register of workers, but the answer was the same. Wherever Primrose had found her Daffodil, it hadn’t been at Hogtrough Hill.
“Never mind,” said Ace, as they walked down the hill again. “The answer’s going to be ‘no’ four times out of five, and I still think Emmet Law’s the most likely.”
“Let’s check in for messages then,” said Will, “and see if there’s anything yet from Rose and Clover.”
Once they were human-sized again, Will went to get some petrol, while Ace sat quietly on the hill, sending messages and waiting for replies. A toot on the horn told him when Will was back, and he ran down the slope and jumped into the car without opening the door.
“They had the same problem we did,” Ace told Will. “Got there yesterday, but too late to do anything. Had to camp out… Clover said she had to break the ice off her wings this morning, but that may have been an exaggeration.”
“Any news yet?”
“They’ve got a long wait ahead of them. The good news is, there’s definitely a Daffodil, the bad news is, she won’t be there until Saturday.”
“Oh, boring!” said Will with sympathy. “Why not?”
“According to Clover, it’s so remote, no-one works there all the time, they have a kind of rota. It all sounds quite free-and-easy up there, they’ve invited them to join in with the work while they’re waiting, so they won’t get bored.”
“That could be useful,” said Will. “It’d be good to know a bit more about how the Hills operate. Was there anything else for us?”
“Just a message from Betch. They’ve joined up with their unit, and they have to visit every police HQ in the south-west, to do a roll-call. Special request for assistance from General Saal.”
“Interesting. The request may have come from General Saal, but I can guess whose idea it was.”
“Me too,” grinned Ace. “Gran’s checking the extent of the damage. Well, are you ready to hit the road again?”
“Yes,” said Will. “Swap sides, take the wheel and give me the map. I’m a great believer in everyone doing what he’s best at.”
Ace really was a good driver, with a natural flair for judging speed and distance, that helped him overtake and change lanes as if he’d been doing it for years, not a few days. It seemed to be a little easier getting out of the London area than into it, so before midday they were on the M4 and heading west. After that, the driving wasn’t quite so exciting, mile after mile of straight bits, and it was then that Ace started getting distracted. A pretty girl in a red car kept overtaking them, and smiling at him, then slowing down so that he had to overtake her. She was doing it on purpose, making a game of it, and at first Will didn’t mind. But when Ace took too much of a chance, aiming to keep up with her, and got hooted at by a big lorry, Will decided enough was enough, and made him pull off the motorway and change places.
“Flirt or drive, Ace, not both at the same time,” grinned Will. “Here’s the map. We have to come off at a place called Bridgwater. After that, it’s going to get tricky. Little roads in the dark – we’ll probably get lost.”
They did get lost. Having worked for the last two years with sprite-scaled maps, they were over-compensating, and by the time they realised it, they’d gone miles south of the A39 and were somewhere in the Brendon Hills. It was very dark and very cold, and when they realised there wasn’t a single light in sight in any direction, they stopped.
“Now what?” said Ace, hoping Will wouldn’t blame his navigator.
“Nothing for it now but wait for daylight,” said Will. “We’ll have to camp out again.”
“A fire and a drink would be good,” said Ace wearily. “It’s amazing how tiring it is, doing such long distances. Are we transforming?”
“Might as well,” said Will. “It’s easier to keep warm that way. If we don’t sleep under the seats, we’d have to make a tent, and that’d be just as tiring.”
They remembered to get everything they wanted out of the human-sized backpacks before they transformed, and they felt pretty pleased with themselves about that. They had their drink, and put the fire out, and by then they were too sleepy to do anything else. They went to jump back into the car, and it was only then that they realised that they’d forgotten to close the door and take the keys out of the ignition.
“That’s a bit risky,” Will worried. “What if someone comes along and drives it away?”
“Are you crazy?” said Ace. “This isn’t Stockport, this is the middle of nowhere. Who’s going to come along here at this time of night?”
“OK,” said Will. He was too tired to do anything about it anyway. “Fair enough.”
They crawled into their warm nest of sleeping bags and blankets under the seats, and were fast asleep as soon as their eyes closed. What neither of them realised was that this was the main road through the hills, and that as soon as it was light, a white Porsche with its door open and the keys in the ignition was bound to attract attention.
Sergeant Alan Jones of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary was feeling a bit guilty about driving this beautiful Porsche while PC Chapman was driving the squad car, but he told himself it was only fair. He’d walked half a mile in every direction from the abandoned vehicle, looking for the driver, who might have fallen or been taken ill, while the constable had been sitting in the warm, calling it in on the radio, to see if it had been stolen.
No driver had been found, and there was nothing odd about the car, except that it had only been registered last week. An import, probably, and its owner perhaps touring the country, trying it out. Very mysterious… but one thing had been clear, they couldn’t leave it there like that, or it really would have been stolen. Beautiful car… handled like a dream. The sergeant smiled happily. Maybe one day, he’d make superintendent, and be able to buy a car like this.
Ace and Will had woken up as soon as the car started moving. Ace crept out to see who was driving, then dived back under the seat. He tried to talk, but Will couldn’t hear him, and he didn’t dare shout.
It’s the police! Now what?
We should have taken the keys out, said Will, biting his lip. I suppose they’re taking it to a police station.
Ace screwed his face up. Police stations brought back too many bad memories, but he got a grip on himself. This was no time to get distracted.
We can’t do anything till it stops.
Good job you chose a convertible, said Will. At least we’ll be able to get out.
In a way, it didn’t help that there happened to be a magnificent sycamore tree at the bottom of the police station’s car park, but in another way, it did, because it gave them good cover while they decided what to do. Ace thought they should stay small, sneak in, get the keys back and drive off. Will thought they should transform, walk in and ask for the keys back. They couldn’t decide whose plan was best, so they phoned David.
David took the call while he was on the bus to college, and once he’d got his head round the story, he came down firmly in favour of Will’s plan.
“If you just take the keys, the police will think the car’s been stolen, and every police car will be looking out for it. You’d get stopped and questioned. All you have to do is think of some story for why you left it there with the keys in the ignition, and they should give them back to you. Don’t worry about it – act confident but apologetic and you’ll be fine.”
Once that was sorted, they transformed each other and climbed down out of the tree, hoping very much that no-one was watching, then went off to find a café. They’d realised that they’d have to leave a plausible amount of time for them to have got into town from the hills, so they sat there drinking tea and perfecting their story.
When they were ready, they marched down the street, trying to look confident. Ace pushed open the door of the police station. He didn’t know if the officer on duty had been in the car – he’d only seen his boots, really – but Ace gave him what he hoped was a cheerful and apologetic smile.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “We’ve lost our car, and we’re kind of hoping you’ve got it. This chap who gave us a lift, saw a policeman driving it, it’s a white Porsche you see, a bit noticeable.”
“We can see why you’d take it away,” added Will helpfully. “We were really daft to leave the keys in it like that. Went for a walk – see the dawn breaking over the hills, really nice – and got a bit carried away, went further than we thought.”
As it happened, it was PC Chapman, who’d been driving the squad car, who was on the desk now. He thought it was a bit strange that they’d seen no sign of the young men earlier, but it did seem to be a solution to the mystery. He gave no sign whether he believed them or not, but asked for the registration number in his usual professional way.
Will told him, and they waited while it was checked on a computer screen.
“Who’s the registered owner?” asked PC Chapman.
“I am,” said Ace. “Ace Moseley.”
“That seems to be in order. Can you just confirm your address?”
“6 Cherrytree Close, Cheadle, Cheshire.”
“That’s fine. Right, if you can just show me some ID, you can take it away.”
“ID?” said Ace. “Er, I don’t think I’ve got any.”
“Oh, yeah… it’s in my bag, in the car.”
“Nothing else on you at all?”
At that point, Sergeant Jones went past, and stopped to listen.
“I’ll bring the bags in,” he said. “If they can tell me what’s in them, that’ll do for proof of ID.”
Ace and Will shared worried glances as the sergeant returned.
“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” he said, “but you’d want me to be careful, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, absolutely,” said Ace. “Yes, that one’s my bag. In the back section, mostly clothes… my best jeans, some shirts and socks, mobile phone charger, bottle of water, bag of human money… I mean, bag of English money, shampoo, hairbrush and a pen. And in the front section…”
Ace closed his eyes as the sergeant stared into the front section with disbelief.
“Lots of little stuff,” Ace faltered. “Loads of clothes… towels… my guitar, I mean, a little guitar, matches, blankets… oh no, the blankets are still under the seat, aren’t they…”
Ace’s voice faded away. He felt he wasn’t doing a very good job of this.
“All the doll’s stuff,” said Will brightly. “We make it. Good, isn’t it?”
“You like dolls?” asked the sergeant.
“Oh, yes,” said Will. “They’re great, aren’t they?”
Will’s brilliant explanation didn’t seem to have reassured the sergeant as much as Ace expected.
“Are you foreign visitors?”
Realising he was seeking a reason for their oddness, Ace quickly decided to give him one. Hoping he wasn’t insulting the inhabitants of his second home, he spoke up confidently.
“No, but we’ve spent a lot of time in Norway.”
It seemed to do the trick.
“Well… fair enough. No-one but the owner could have guessed what was in there. Here’s your bags back… here’s your keys. If you could just sign here…”
Ace signed his name, and thanked the officers profusely as Will bundled him outside. Both of them still felt bewildered.
“Fast thinking, Will!” said Ace. “Doll’s stuff, you were brilliant!”
“We must have said something that wasn’t quite right,” said Will. “They looked baffled, as if we puzzled them. Still, could have been worse, at least they didn’t look in my bag.”
“Yes, a half-finished doll’s size laptop might have taken a bit of explaining,” grinned Ace. “Text David to tell him we got the car back, and we’ll be on our way.”