CHAPTER 4 - The Proscribed List
Once, many years ago, Private Wayne Langdon of the sprite army, currently on secondment to Special Brigade, had plucked up his courage and gone to a football match at Upton Park to see West Ham play. The size of the crowd and the steeply-rising banks of seats had made a vivid impression on him, and he was reminded of it now as he sat for the first time in the sprite parliament. His place, among the Wielkopolska Unit, was at floor level, and opposite him the rows seemed to go up to the ceiling.
The sight of parliament in full session was quite daunting, and for the first time, Wayne felt a sense of just what they were up against. For over an hour, he sat listening to speeches, as one envoy after another rose to his or her feet and made a short speech about damage and destruction caused by humans in their locality. To Wayne, it sounded exaggerated and over-indignant. Okay, so humans built supermarkets, but there was nothing new about that. Why were they making such a fuss about it today?
In the centre of the chamber, where the pitch would have been in a football ground, sat the twelve important sprites of the central cabinet. Wayne didn’t know all their names yet, but he knew General Huskvarna, whom he’d met on his first day. The general’s smile had been one of the most frightening things Wayne had ever seen. He knew Envoy Yantra, he’d seen him at Fjaerland, and he knew the Premier. Wayne watched him now, as he sat listening with apparent deep concern to all the speeches, and he got the feeling that the Premier was hearing exactly what he wanted to hear.
When the first round of speeches was over, another round started. Wayne shifted in his seat. These were even more vehement, coming out with ruthless and quite violent ideas for what they ought to do to humans in retaliation. Again, the Premier listened gravely. Towards the end, the speakers seemed to grow in importance, and a few of the cabinet spoke too. Finally, the Premier himself rose to his feet, and a hush fell over the chamber.
“How much I sympathise with all I have heard, I can scarcely begin to express,” he said. “Tragic is not too strong a word for the disgraceful losses caused by human carelessness, human rapacity, human greed. The wish for vengeance is understandable… indeed, it is a worthy aim. They do not own the earth, which is home to all, and it is time they learned that. I can promise you now that some retaliation will be authorised, and the worst excesses shall not go unpunished. Yet I wonder if there might not be an even better way?”
The premier paused, and looked around the chamber, his expression mild and thoughtful, then continued.
“Their powers of mind and body may seem greater than ours, but they are not. They are simply different. If we wanted to, we could defeat them. If we wanted to, we could seize the initiative, we could defend the natural world, we could – oh, sprites, if your hearts were in it! – we could make war upon the whole over-sized murdering race, and pummel their glories to the ground, until they were cowering in hovels and afraid to go out in the dark. How can they fight an enemy they can’t see? How can they defeat an enemy they don’t believe in?”
His voice, quiet to start with, had risen in volume until it filled the chamber, and when it stopped, it was a shock to your ears. Wayne was stunned at the power of his oratory, stunned to realise that for a moment there, he’d almost been caught up in it. He wasn’t surprised when a cheer rose up like a great swell of sound, accompanied by thunderous applause.
The Premier stood quietly, as if he was listening carefully, then raised his hand. At once, the chamber fell silent, and he carried on, in a more moderate tone.
“We could do so much. It would be an almost unimaginable effort, but we could do it, if only all sprites could work together. Sadly, this is not possible. Even now – unbelievable, but true – there are sprites who support humans, help them and befriend them. Unless they join us, unless we all work together, the devastation will continue unchecked.”
“Ban the army!” shouted someone.
“It’s all their fault!”
“Close them down!”
Wayne stared around as the shouts rang out from all sides. He was astonished at the hatred in the voices. He felt a bit out of his depth, not understanding why the army was getting the blame. There were plenty of anti-human sprites in the army – he was supposed to be one himself – and plenty of pro-human sprites who weren’t army and never had been.
“Peace, peace, friends!” called the premier with a smile. “Your vehemence is understandable, but the army does its best, in its limited way. The problem is sprites who will not see the truth, whether they are army or not. Our duty is clear. What we must do, and what we must do first, is help them. They must be brought to understand, and once they have, imagine our power! The realm united with a common goal, every sprite, together, against our oppressors! Victory achievable, and the balance of nature restored. Sprites, a great journey lies ahead of us. It is so great, we cannot yet imagine its end. But we can see its beginning. Every great journey begins with one step. Our first step is now clear. There must be no more fraternising with the enemy. Sprites, I propose a motion – from this day forward, that it be illegal for any sprite to talk to or consort with humans, and that the so-called status of Ally be banned and extinguished as if it had never been.”
The motion was approved by a thumping majority. Wayne wondered if he was the only one who could see how orchestrated it had been. He watched people’s faces carefully, and was interested to note a few who had worried expressions. Surprisingly, one of them was General Huskvarna.
It wasn’t so bad once the session was over. Wayne went into the bar with the rest of his unit, and found that their attitudes were mostly sceptical.
“All talk,” said one. “It’ll never happen, war against humans.”
“I agree,” said another. “We haven’t got the numbers. You’d have to get every single sprite into the Brigade, and even then it’d be a struggle.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said a more cheerful one, by the name of Stan. Wayne rather liked him, and felt he was the closest thing to a friend he had in this place. “Politicians… whatever happens, they’ll do the talking, and we’ll do the work.”
Wayne laughed, taking comfort from the universal attitude of soldiers. Even here in Special Brigade, it was the same.
Late that night, lying on his back on his bed in the barracks, Wayne got through to Fjaerland.
General Herdalen, Private Langdon.
Go ahead, Wayne.
Oh, sir, it’s awful! You won’t believe what they did today.
Wayne explained everything he’d heard and seen, while the general listened carefully.
Well done, Wayne. You’re so observant, it’s as good as being there. I like how you appreciate how the Premier operates. Clever, isn’t he? And Huskvarna… he’s being outmanoeuvred, and he doesn’t like it. He thought he was pulling all the strings, but he’s beginning to find he’s underestimated the Premier.
When the Premier was talking, he almost made me believe what he was saying, said Wayne.
That’s his greatest strength, said General Herdalen. But once he shut up, your own common sense took over again, didn’t it? Watch what happens tomorrow. He’s not just a great orator, he’s a slippery operator. He’ll slip something important through tomorrow, while everyone’s still too excited about this to scrutinise it carefully.
The next evening, General Huskvarna sent for Wayne. The general seated him comfortably, gave him a drink, and flattered him. Wayne appeared to be lapping it all up.
“You’ve heard about the new laws, I’m sure?” said the general conversationally. “Of course you have – big news, isn’t it?”
Wayne’s mind churned with terror at the general’s smile. For one panicky moment, it seemed to him that the general was accusing him of passing on the news. He pulled himself together as best he could.
“Everyone’s talking about it, sir,” he said. “It’s just – excuse me if I’m talking out of turn – it seems a bit drastic.”
“I know,” said General Huskvarna. “I agree with you. But the Premier’s right. We have to get everyone on the same side, and it won’t be easy. Yes, we’ll be arresting a lot of people. They’ll thank us for it one day. But there are too many to arrest all at once, so we’re making a list of the ones we want first. A proscribed list, of sprites who hold any kind of official position, and who are now classified as lawbreakers. Senior sprites, officials from the Hollow Hills, members of the army… which brings me to why I’ve asked you here to help me. What I need now are names, the names of every officer or recruit who’s ever criticised parliament.”
“You’re asking me to betray them?”
“No, not at all!” The general looked shocked. “You mustn’t see it like that. What you have to understand here is that it’s for their own good. They’ll be re-trained, and once they understand properly what we’re trying to do, it’ll be so good for the realm… for everyone. Now, we know about the Commander and the generals. They were already wanted, for breaking other laws. But what about the other officers? Tell me the ones who had it in for you, for being a loyalist.”
Wayne didn’t feel sure what to do for the best. It could be that they already knew, and were testing him. It could be that they genuinely wanted to know. He thought fast, and decided that General Herdalen would want him to tell them. He could almost hear his advice… they’ll find out anyway, and we can keep them safe. What matters here is the long-term, and you being trusted.
“The training sergeants have so much influence,” Wayne began. “I never heard Sergeant Olt express any opinions. But Sergeant Kopec, he’s another matter.”
“What’s his first name?”
“I think it’s Modřín.”
“Modřín Kopec.” The general wrote on his list. “Excellent. Any more?”
The following morning, the first laws of the new year went out to the Hollow Hills. From Wales in the west to Russia in the east, from Finland down to Greece, the communications officers stared at the new laws, astonished, and showed them to their colleagues. Some nodded in approval, others began to pass the news out to the colonies, wearing worried frowns. Some decided it would be safer to disappear for a while, and a few simply laid down their pens and walked out, unable to stomach this nonsense any longer.
When the news reached Fjaerland, the indignation was immense. Just about the only sprite in the realm who wasn’t surprised was Gran Herdalen, and he found himself feeling quite cheerful. He’d seen this coming, and if he’d been right about this, maybe he’d be right about some other things as well. There were two other sprites who weren’t surprised, but that was because they hadn’t even heard the news yet, having had Police and Porsches on their minds.
When Ace and Will finally located Bat’s Castle, they looked with admiration at its imposing height.
“We could get up there in a few minutes, this size,” said Will. “I suppose there’s no chance of leaving the transforming until we get to the top?”
“Can’t see how,” said Ace regretfully. “There’s no cover at all.”
So they parked the car in a sensible place, locked it carefully and slipped away into some woodland. Then they covered the steep slopes at their own proper size, and soon found the entrance. The main shaft was steep and dark, but they arrived at a wide reception hall, which seemed surprisingly busy. Sprites of all kinds were scurrying to and fro with files and boxes. On the reception desk was a red-headed elf who seemed rather harassed, and didn’t notice them at first.
“Oh, I’m sorry, er, lieutenants,” he said. “I’m Mickle, what can I do for you?”
“It’s official army business,” said Ace. “All we want, if you can tell us, is how many Daffodils you’ve got here, because we’d really like to talk to them.”
“Oh, right… yes, I think I can find that out for you. Please, take a seat. Normally, it would only take a moment, but right now the files are all over the place.”
He crossed the wide open space to a place where tables had been set up, and things were being dumped.
“What’s going on?” Will wondered. “Do they look like they’re in a bit of a panic to you?”
“They do,” said Ace. “Yet there’s method to it. Over there, they’re going through everything, and over there, they’re tearing things up.”
Mickle had with difficulty retrieved a file, and brought it back to the desk.
“I’ll have to be quick,” he apologised. “I’m holding them up, over there.”
He rapidly scanned the pages, and started writing down the full names.
“Here you are,” he said. “There are only six. They’re not in any special danger, are they?”
“No, not at all,” said Ace. “Why would they be?” Then he noticed that in the file lying on the desk, nearly half the names were underlined in red. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Haven’t you heard?” gasped Mickle. “The whole realm’s talking about it. All these people are on the new proscribed list. We’re trying to protect them if we can.”
“Proscribed list? Is this parliament’s doing?”
“Who else?” he sighed. “You really haven’t heard? First thing the new session did was pass two new laws. Over there, on the board. You can read them for yourselves.”
Ace and Will hurried over to the notice boards and started reading.
The following orders have the force of law, by order of parliament:
That the status of Ally is hereby abolished, and that from this time forward, no sprite shall speak to, consort with, or help a human.
That no sprite shall criticise, demean or otherwise disparage the parliament, for the honour and safety of the realm. All sprites who break, or have in the past broken this law, shall have their names proscribed and be brought in for re-training.
It is the duty of every loyal sprite to arrest the sprites named in the list, here following.
“What?” said Will. “They can’t do that!”
“Bad move,” said Ace with relish. “The worse it gets, remember, the closer it gets to its end.”
The list went on and on, headed by Commander Biagioni, followed by dozens of names they knew, and dozens they didn’t.
“Thank goodness we’re on it,” said Ace. “I’d have been so ashamed if we weren’t.”
“So why isn’t anyone being arrested?” said Will, as they went back to the desk.
Mickle answered him.
“The police aren’t here,” he said. “They got summoned to their HQ for a roll-call. Bit of luck, that, because no-one else would dare. Our judge is on that list. We reckon we’ve got two days before the police get back, so that’s why we’re destroying the paperwork, anything that they’d call incriminating. They can’t be arrested without evidence, can they, list or no list. It’s taking an awful long time, though.”
“You need a shredder,” said Will.
“What’s one of those?”
“Give me a bit of scrap metal, and I’ll show you.”
While Will was working, Ace stood watching thoughtfully. If anyone here approved of these new laws, they were keeping very quiet about it, and helping with the work. But how much good was it going to do? He had a feeling that once your name was on that list, it wouldn’t matter much whether there was written evidence or not.
Will came back, with a nod of fierce satisfaction that the work was going even faster. The only problem now seemed to be that everyone wanted a go of the shredder.
Meanwhile, Mickle had been sending some messages, and one after another, Ace and Will interviewed four of the fairies called Daffodil, all with bright yellow hair but an interesting variety of streaks, shapes and sizes. Four times they explained the situation, four times they asked if the fairy remembered meeting a human who said she used to be a sprite, but all four of them were sure they hadn’t. As one of them remarked, it wasn’t a thing you’d be likely to forget.
Finally, they were approached by a fairy of such imposing height and stately bearing, that Ace was shaking with nerves. They could tell she was someone important by the way Mickle stood up straight instead of leaning across the desk, listening.
“I am Daffodil Hestercombe, judge of Bat’s Castle,” she said. “How may I help you?”
“Oh,” said Ace. “You’re the judge? Crumbs. Er, thank you for talking to us, then. We’re trying to find a missing fairy. She was transformed into a human against her will, and abandoned. She managed to get a message to the army, but she was beginning to lose her memory and didn’t tell us enough to find her. All she said was, she’d been to all the Hollow Hills, and that a fairy called Daffodil was the only one who believed her.”
“It was not I,” said the judge. “I only wish it had been. Poor fairy. What is her name?”
“And when you find the right Daffodil, you’re hoping she’ll be able to give you a clue as to what Primrose did next?”
“That’s it exactly, ma’am,” said Will. “We’ve been to Hogtrough Hill, and our fairies have gone to Emmet Law, and now we’ve come here.”
“I wish you luck,” said Daffodil. She looked worried. “Your task may be harder than you think. Have you spoken to all the possible candidates here?”
“All but the one who’s a corporal of police,” said Ace.
“Ah, I know who you mean. If I were you, I would not linger here to question her upon her return. A fairy less likely to address a human kindly it is difficult to imagine, and while you wait here, who knows what may be happening at the other Hills.”
“You mean Daffodil might have been arrested?”
“That, or gone into hiding. She sounds as if she has pro-human sympathies, so she may well be on the list.”
“Then we should get off to Meon Hill at once?”
“I would advise it. Where was Primrose abandoned?”
“Wales? Have you considered that the fairy you are looking for may be at Garrey-y-Gwynt?”
“Is that another Hollow Hill?” asked Ace. “In Wales? Oh, of course there would be one there too, and I never even thought to ask!”
“We must check there too, then,” said Will. “Where is it, exactly?”
“Draw them a map,” the judge told Mickle. “Make haste. Owler Tor will be all right, I am sure, but the others… it’s hard to say.”
“If there aren’t enough arrests, parliament will come and do it themselves,” said Ace. “But at least it will take them a while to get here.”
“You are a shrewd elf, lieutenant,” said the judge. “What’s your name?”
When Ace told her, she noted it carefully.
“Moseley. Not heard that name before, but I have a feeling I’ll be hearing it again.”
She shook hands with them both and walked briskly back to her work. Ace could hardly think what to say first, his mind was so full of thoughts and concerns.
“If Special Brigade come in force, maybe we could help,” he muttered. “But where will their first targets be? What’s Gran doing about this? D’you think the army council know?”
“As to that, definitely,” said Will. “I know, it’s frustrating not knowing what’s going on. But it’s no good getting excited, Ace.”
Will gave him an understanding look, and Ace got it.
“Right,” he said heavily. “Stick to the job. You’re right.”
“Cheer up,” said Will. “Our job is even more urgent now. We have to hurry, and I bet even David would say it was worth breaking the speed limit for. How fast d’you think you can get to Meon Hill?”
Ace’s face lit up.
“Just watch me,” he grinned.
While Ace and Will were heading north at eighty and then ninety miles an hour, General Madge Arley was making her way across Fjaerland camp. She was flying just above ground level, to keep her feet dry. She’d just been to one of the new huts, to cheer up a Spanish fairy with a bad case of homesickness, but now she was going to lend a hand in Signals, where they were getting seriously over-stretched.
Collen Dolfawr greeted her with relief.
“Thanks, Madge,” he said. “Help yourself to a desk, and I’ll send old Tulpan off duty, she’s nearly asleep.”
Madge worked for hours, until the daylight had faded, and by then she had gained a good understanding of what was going on. The interesting thing was just how many people, in this sudden crisis, were turning to the army for help and advice. They were going to have some hard decisions to make, but that would have to wait until Gran got back. As soon as the news had come through, he’d gone to Vingen, to the local Hollow Hill, to see for himself what was happening.
The next day, the messages were coming in even faster, and Madge helped in Signals again. In the evening, she went into the officers’ mess, smiling at the second year who served her, Maig Aberchalder. The Commander waved her over.
“Have you heard from Gran?”
“Not since yesterday,” said Madge, sitting down.
“He must be on his way back, then,” said Gia. “Once he’s here, we’ll hold a meeting.”
“Things are very edgy out there,” said Madge.
“I’ve never known them worse,” said Gia. “I hope events don’t overtake us.”
The summons to the meeting came very early next morning. It was still dark when Madge left her house. There was a light on in the snowplough’s garage – probably Rob up early again – but most of camp was still asleep. As soon as she saw Gran, Madge knew he hadn’t been to sleep at all. He was sitting at the table in the Conference Room, warming his hands on a mug of tea, his eyes red with tiredness.
“How was your journey?” she asked quietly.
“Long and cold!” said Gran. “But no other problems. Everything all right here?”
“No worse than when you left,” said the Commander. “More news in, though.”
More and more sprites arrived, and Madge quickly realised that the Commander had called for every pro-human officer based at camp, regardless of rank. Not just the Commander and the five generals… there were now sixteen sprites seated around the table.
“I have posted a notice,” the Commander began quietly, “to say that from now on, until the situation improves, the army council is extended to include all of you. I have made a point of saying that all officers and recruits are completely free to comment on and disagree with this decision if they so wish.”
That raised some grim smiles. Every sprite there was on parliament’s list, now criminalised, and in some cases merely for voicing opinions.
“However,” she continued, “I don’t actually expect to hear any disagreements. The news that even some recruits are on this proscribed list has shocked everyone, and even Sergeant Grybow has been looking a bit thoughtful. But you all want to hear the news, so I’ll hand over to General Herdalen.”
Gran rubbed his face and smiled.
“I must say, it gives me great encouragement to see you all here, together. For things are just as bad as we feared. At Vingen, they were in a state of shock. All their most senior people are on the list. The judge intends to carry on regardless, but some have left and gone home, to avoid being arrested.”
“I sympathise with them,” said Madge. “The threat of prison would be bad enough, but re-training? What on earth do they intend to do to people, brainwash them?”
“Something like that, I suspect,” said General Stalden. “A more appalling thing I never heard.”
“Well, some of the Vingen sprites didn’t want to stick around to find out,” said Gran, “and I don’t blame them.”
“Excuse me, sir,” said Corporal Dwingeloo diffidently. “What are the police doing?”
“Good question,” said Gran. “The answer is, nothing – yet. Because none of the police who are usually based at the Hills are there just now. We heard recently of unreported defections, and on February 2nd, General Saal ordered a roll-call across the whole realm. Every police sprite was to report to local HQ to be counted, by independent observers from First Regiment. But now it’s the 7th, and they’ll be on their way back.”
“That’s right,” said General Saal. “The figures are beginning to come in, and we’ve lost more than we thought. But that’s another problem.”
“It is,” said the Commander, “and it’s one we will give thought to, but right now, the urgent question is how to respond to the requests for help. When parliament authorised these arrests, did they know that the police wouldn’t be there, and that it was most unlikely that anyone else would take action in their absence?”
“Sorry, ma’am,” said Sergeant Olt. “What difference does that make?”
“It’s all right, Luke,” said Gia. “It’s just that If they knew, yet still released their list when they did, then their main objective is not the arrests, but to provoke us into hasty action and paint us as the aggressors.”
“Ah,” said Sergeant Svir. “So rushing to help may not be a wise move.”
These subtleties were frustrating General Széchenyi.
“Commander, couldn’t you just order the police to have nothing to do with this nonsense?” she said.
“I could, Dizzy – and I will, if things look like getting out of hand – but it would just be called criminal defiance and again make it easy for parliament to put us in the wrong.”
“There are a lot of goblins in the police,” said General Saal. “The ones who work at the Hills, they’ll have some loyalty to the judges in charge. My guess is, that when they get back, the first thing they’ll do is message me to ask me what they should do.”
“Good point, Inula,” said Gran. “And what are you to tell them, that’s the thing. My own feeling is that they can’t have known the police wouldn’t be around. We only sent out word about that on 2nd, and they sent out the new laws and the list on 4th. My instinct tells me they’ve been cooking this up for quite a while.”
There were a lot of nods and grunts of approval, and Gia looked around the table.
“You all feel this? Then in that case, we can make good use of this fortunate coincidence, if we choose to take action.”
“Judging by the messages we’ve received, what they want is protection,” said Major Inari. “Yet to protect the Hills is to help parliament, because it’s parliament’s work they’re doing, for the most part. If they want to destroy it, why should we stop them?”
“On the other hand,” said General Stalden, “the sprites who work there are good, honest sprites doing their best for the realm, and it will be the very best of them who are under threat. They need our help.”
“I agree,” said Madge. “In this emergency, people are turning, not to parliament, but to us. Don’t forget it’s not just the Hills that have sent for help, but some of the larger colonies, too.”
“Have any of these places taken any action themselves?” asked Sergeant Kopec.
“From Holland, we’ve had reports of attempts to organise themselves for defence,” said Major Inari. “In France, the smaller Hills are thinking about closing their doors, and sending their safe people to work in the bigger places, while the rest go into hiding. In England, they’re destroying evidence, which is ingenious, but probably won’t work.”
“No, indeed,” said Gran. “When have parliament ever cared about evidence?”
“They care nothing for justice,” said General Stalden. “To criminalise those who broke a law before it was passed! It’s preposterous, and most of the judges will be saying so.”
“Yet they can’t speak out now and say so, without breaking it,” said General Széchenyi. “Very cunning.”
“That’s the Premier,” said Gran. “We have to be as cunning as he is, and ask ourselves what he really wants, here. Re-training? No. To him, it’s just the perfect opportunity to get rid of anyone he doesn’t like. And the judges in the west have always been far too independent for his liking.”
“Then he’ll install new judges, loyal only to him,” said Gia, “under a semblance of restoring order.”
“Then we lose the Hills,” said Madge. “And parliament has a network of power bases in every country.”
“I think we have to take action before they do,” said Gran. “Because if they don’t get the arrests they want, they’ll take action for sure.”
“Is your mind working the same way mine is?” said Gia. “Great excuse to send in Special Brigade, isn’t it?”
“Exactly,” said Gran. “What’s at stake here isn’t just the freedom of certain individuals, important though that is. It’s the independence of the judiciary in the west, and ultimately, whether the Hills are in the hands of pro-human or anti-human sprites.”
“Just what do you have in mind, Gran?” said General Stalden. She sounded alarmed. “Pre-emptive action of any kind is going to make us look like the aggressors.”
“That’s true, Nella, but this will happen whatever action we take,” said Gia. “If we do take action, I would rather it were strong and decisive, rather than half-hearted and cautious.”
“I propose mobilising the army to defend the Hills – and in particular, the judges – and if that means fighting Special Brigade, so be it,” said Gran.
“In favour?” asked Gia.
Everyone raised a hand, though General Stalden was slow to do so.
“I agree it’s the right action to take,” she said, “but I do wish we had some strong legal pretext for doing so.”
“There must be something,” said Sergeant Svir. “Isn’t there some ancient law that says a judge can only be arrested by order of the queen?”
“Is there?” said Gran, pleased. “That’s terrific, Arda – what a memory.”
“I’ll look it up,” said the Commander. “So – we are agreed on our course of action. It will be slow work. We are still in the depths of winter, and this is no time for long journeys. But Special Brigade’s strength is in the east, and they’ll be just as snow-bound as we are. I can’t see much happening before the thaw, but we must be ready before that. Gran, assemble First Regiment to defend the Hills in every country west of the Rhine. Nella, draw all you can from First Squadron to help Intelligence watch the roads and railways and ferry ports. We must know when they move. And liaise with Fighter Squadron to send everyone they can possibly spare to assist in their home countries. Inula, inform the police that no arrests are to be made in relation to the new laws, and Dizzy, use the computer to get the news to David. All Allies to be informed of the situation, and kept in touch with developments in their locality. Pice, get everyone in Signals answering the calls for help. Message to read, The army is behind you, help is on its way. Make sure everyone uses code, and let’s get this organised quickly and quietly.”
Madge felt a sense of relief, combined with an ominous dread. At last, they were taking a stand.
Later that day, an email from General Széchenyi came through to David. He read it twice, realising that this was a big step they were taking. Signals, he knew, would be passing the word out to the sprites, and his job was to get the news out to the Allies. He tried to get on with it, but he was getting very frustrated, because his mum kept coming into his room.
“I need your sheets,” said his mum firmly.
“I’ll do it, Mum,” said David, hastily minimising his screen. “Just let me finish this, and I’ll strip the bed and everything.”
“That’s what you said last week,” said his mum, and proceeded to start pulling at the bedding.
Seeing there was going to be no stopping her, David came to help, casually throwing a jumper over Aesculus’ bed. At least he was out playing. With his hands behind his back, David hung a red scarf out of the open window, to warn Aesculus that it wasn’t safe to jump straight back in.
“Honestly, David, it’s such a mess in here. What are all these dried up old conkers doing on the floor?”
“Oh, left over from an art project,” he said. It was his usual excuse when his mum found anything odd in his room. “It’s okay, leave them, you never know when they might come in useful.”
Aesculus was always bringing bits of his tree into the house, but David never had the heart to throw any of it away.
“Still, it’s looking a bit less cluttered in here,” said his mum. “You got rid of all those old games, then?”
“Yeah, I gave most of them away,” David smiled.
When she’d gone, he knelt down and looked under the bed. There, safely out of sight, were lots of old games, Connect 4, Buckeroo, Kerplunk, Hungry Hippos, beautifully shrunk to sprite size and now being played with by Aesculus and Viola.
As soon as David took the scarf away and sat down again at his computer, Aesculus’ head peeped in at the window.
“Come in, she’s gone,” said David. “Come and have a look at this.”
Aesculus jumped onto his shoulder and looked at the screen.
“It’s an email,” he said. “Who’s it from, Ace and Will?”
“No, it’s come from army HQ.” David quickly thought how to simplify it for Aesculus. “The bad elves are causing trouble at the Hollow Hills.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, it means we could have a day out in Derbyshire,” said David. “Tomorrow’s Saturday. No harm in seeing what’s going on, we might be able to help. Why don’t you go and ask Mal and Viola if they’d like to come?”
“Yay, go to Derbyshire and fight the bad elves!” shouted Aesculus, and jumped out of the window.
Not likely, titch, thought David fondly, and turned back to his computer.
Aesculus knew the fastest way to the new house now. Straight across the car park, along the railway line, down through the trees and across the footbridge. Once he was down into the wood again, he jumped through the winter-faded undergrowth and burst in at the door.
“Whatever’s the matter?” said Mal.
“We can go to Derbyshire, fight the bad elves! David says, do you want to come?”
“What, to Owler Tor? It’s a long way. Did David say why, Aesculus?”
“They causing trouble. Are you coming, Viola?”
Viola was standing by the dresser, drying cups.
“It sounds scary,” she said. “I’d rather stay here.”
“Well, let’s go and see David, and find out more about it,” said Mal.
He guessed there was more to this than David had mentioned to Aesculus. Holding hands with the two young sprites, he set off to walk to David’s house. They’d only gone a few yards when a blackbird that had been rooting under a bush, suddenly squawked and flew up. For no reason that he could think of, Mal suddenly felt nervous. What had startled the bird? Holding hands more tightly, he looked around. When he looked forward again, two fairies stepped out in front of them.
“Who are you?” Mal demanded.
He didn’t recognise either of them, and he didn’t like the look of them. One was scrawny-looking, with a long, sour face and orange hair. The other was short and sturdy and wearing a black and green jacket that looked suspiciously like a uniform.
Ignoring Mal completely, the orange-haired fairy spoke to the little ones.
“You must come with us at once, please,” she said briskly. “It’s not safe for you here.”
“Why not safe?” demanded Aesculus. “It’s OK, David’s here.”
“Don’t let go,” said Mal. “Back to the house, fast!”
They wheeled round, ready to run, when two elves dressed in green and black dropped down out of the hazel thicket. They were grinning, and they had sticks in their hands. Viola screamed.
“Mal, run away!” she pleaded.
“Not without you two.” He tried desperately to think what to do for the best. He decided to attack the fairies first, to give Viola a chance of getting help. He let go of her hand. “Viola, fly! Get David, go now, now! Fly as fast as you can!”
She did hesitate, but only for a moment. Mal jumped on the scrawny fairy who looked the faster, and pinned her to the ground. At once, Aesculus jumped into the attack against the other one. It didn’t take her long to get her arm round him, but she couldn’t take off, because he was squirming, kicking and struggling as hard as he could.
All Mal had been able to do was give Viola a few seconds lead. Any moment now, the elves would overpower him. He felt hands on his shoulders, dragging him back, and he was thrown to the ground. At once, the scrawny fairy took off in pursuit of Viola, and Mal desperately lunged towards Aesculus, trying to pull him from the other fairy’s grasp. A blow on his head made him fall, but he didn’t try to defend himself, just kept trying to crawl towards Aesculus.
“Mal!” shouted Aesculus. “Look out!”
Another heavy blow landed on his head and Mal nearly passed out from the pain. Blood began to trickle down his face. Despairingly, he raised a hand, but he couldn’t move his legs. He saw one of the elves blindfold Aesculus and tie his hands. Even then, he didn’t stop kicking, so they bound his ankles too.
“Stop it!” gasped Mal. “Leave them alone… little ones… done you no harm.”
“Shut it, traitor,” said one of the elves. “They’re going to a better place than this.”
The sturdy fairy took off with Aesculus under her arm, unable to move. Mal raised his head and saw, with his heart breaking, that the scrawny fairy had caught Viola. He’d failed completely and his head sank in despair.
“Sorted,” said one of the elves. “Let’s be off.”
Almost casually, he swung his stick again against Mal’s head, and then the two of them jumped off in the direction of the railway line.
Mal couldn’t understand why it seemed to be going dark. He’d thought it was morning. But then, he’d thought it was winter too, and yet the hazel thicket seemed to be full of green light, as if the sun was shining through leaves. He felt as if he was floating, and the pain died away. He twisted his head and tried to focus.
Surely that was… but it couldn’t be… but it was… Cory, just as he used to be, young and strong, his quiet, serious face smiling at him.
“My twin,” said Mal wonderingly.
He reached out, and then felt Cory’s arms around him. They lifted him into the green light, and left his lifeless body lying on the leaves in Moseley Wood.
When Aesculus didn’t come home at midday, David thought nothing of it. He often stayed out with Mal and Viola, playing in the wood. But when it started to go dark, and there was still no sign of him, David became concerned. He’d really expected Mal to turn up at some point too, to find out what was going on at Owler Tor. David took a torch and went straight to the wood, half expecting that he’d find that they’d all just lost track of the time. Yet somehow, he could sense emptiness as soon as he got there, and when he found the house dark and empty, he started getting very worried indeed.
“Mal!” he shouted. “Aesculus! Viola!”
He prowled around, getting more and more frantically worried by the minute. They could just have gone to the other end of the wood, but there was no reason, really, why they would have done, and one of them would probably have told him. Something was wrong, he just knew it.
Quickly, he texted the others to come and help. Everyone met up by the footpath, and by then David was too worried to think straight. Gary and Sally organised everyone to search the whole area properly, and they searched without giving up, constantly calling the names. No-one heard or saw a thing, and finally it was too late and too cold. Sally took the younger ones home, with Laura fighting back tears. David, Gary and Rowan stayed out all night, and in the morning it was Gary who found Mal.
“David, come here,” he called softly.
David knelt down and reached out with trembling hands.
“Oh, no,” he groaned. “Oh, no, no!”
“He’s dead?” said Rowan.
“I’m afraid so,” said Gary bleakly. “But where are Aesculus and Viola?”
“Gone,” said David, in a voice that the others could hardly recognise. “Look at the ground. There was a big fight here, the leaf mould’s all scuffed up.”
“There’s Aesculus’ cap!” said Rowan. “The one the general gave him.”
“They’ve been captured,” said David. “Ambushed, here – and Mal gave his life to try to save them.”
They all crouched in silence, looking at the scene. David was so upset he could hardly move.
“This is my fault!” he burst out. “I should have thought – I should never have let them out alone!”
“No, David, don’t blame yourself,” said Gary. “You couldn’t have kept them locked up. And – I know this is small comfort, but still – I don’t think they’ll come to any harm. Hostages, that’s my guess.”
“Ace will just freak out,” said David. “I don’t know how I can face him. He trusted me, and I’ve let him down.”
“He won’t blame you, and he’ll know who to tell, so that we can get them back,” said Rowan. “What must we do for Mal?”
“We must lay his body in fallen leaves, and each say goodbye,” said David. “The others will want to be there too. Let’s take him home for now, so we can wash his wounds and comb his hair.”
As the news went round, everyone gathered as usual at Sally and Gary’s, and their grief at losing Mal was just as great as their worry for Aesculus and Viola.
“I’m going home,” said David. “I have to tell Ace and Will, and I can’t think straight. I’ll text them, I think.”
Rowan came to the door with him.
“Try and get some sleep,” she said. She squeezed his hand. ”The army know they can rely on us to do anything to get them back. We have to be ready for that.”
Feeling slightly calmed by that, David walked home, hoping his mum wouldn’t be in and start asking questions. She was, but she didn’t.
“Rough night?” she enquired sympathetically. “You’ve got a letter, and it looks important.”
David stared at the thick, white envelope, and pulled out the imposing letter inside. He read it, shook his head, and then, to his everlasting embarrassment, started crying. This was all way, way too much.
“What’s wrong?” said his mum. “David, what is it?”
“It’s Cyril,” David managed to say. “He’s left me his house in his will.”
Though Ace and Will had driven north as fast as they could, there was nothing they could do about a tailback on the M6, and once again they’d had to camp out. Early on Friday morning, they entered Meon Hill, and found it in chaos. All the desks said Closed, and though there were sprites all over the place, no-one was working. Some of them were crying, and others were standing around in groups, whispering.
“Things look pretty bad here,” said Ace. “D’you think they’ve had some arrests?”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it? I can’t see anyone rushing to help us. But that’s okay – they use the same system in all these places, and I’ve sussed it now. I’ll just find the right record books and figure it out.”
“Brilliant,” said Ace. “I’ll try and get chatting to someone, see if I can pick up any news.”
They split up. Will disappeared into the records office, and Ace sat himself down next to a fairy who was sitting on the floor by herself, just looking worried.
“Hello,” said Ace. “I’m Ace Moseley, who are you?”
“Hi,” said the fairy, in a gloomy voice. “Petunia Elmdon. You’re army, aren’t you? Have you come to help with the arrests?”
“No chance,” said Ace. “I’m on a mission, actually, but if I got the chance to help anyone avoid arrest, I’d take it. I’m on that list myself. Are you?”
“Not yet,” said Petunia. “But I’ll probably be on the next one. Parliament are a load of bullying tossers, so there!”
“Good for you,” said Ace. “So some people have been arrested here, have they?”
“As soon as the police got back,” said Petunia. “Ten people – that was all they could manage in one go. I don’t know where they’ve taken them. But one of them was the judge, Sambucus Wensum. So what’s going to happen now, nobody knows. They say he messaged for help from the army, but no-one knows if they’re coming or not. And even if they do, they’re not going to fight the police, are they?”
“They might,” said Ace, thinking of Gran and wondering desperately what was going on back at camp. “Depends on the orders.”
“It’s too late now,” sighed Petunia. “The ones who weren’t taken have all run away. Our work’s over.”
“No, don’t say that!” said Ace. “It’s more important than ever that you keep going. You’re part of what binds us all together, the colonies will be looking to you for a lead.”
“But it’s hopeless. We’ll all just get arrested, if not now, then sooner or later.”
“I don’t think you will,” said Ace. “Not my place to say, and I’m only guessing here, but the army won’t let that happen. You say the judge sent for help? Then you can bet that help’s on its way.”
“You really think so?”
“I do,” said Ace. “What you need to do now is rally behind the deputy judge, keep calm and carry on. Who’s the deputy judge?”
“I am,” said Petunia.
“Oh,” said Ace. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“Don’t you dare be sorry,” said Petunia, getting up with fire in her eyes. “You’ve helped more than you’ll ever know.”
While she was striding about, giving orders that the desks were to be re-opened, Ace made himself scarce, before she started wondering what he was doing there, and he had to explain that his twin was raiding her records room. But Will came back then, with two bits of paper.
“These are the Daffodils who work here,” he said. “Only four. And these are the ones on parliament’s list. One overlap.”
“And she’s the most likely to have helped a human,” said Ace. “I bet she’s been arrested.”
“This place looks livelier,” said Will, looking around.
Ace was doing his most insouciant grin.
“What’ve you done?”
“Oh, just cheered up the deputy judge,” said Ace. “Optimism’s very infectious. Look, the desks are open again, we can go and ask.”
It all took a very long time. Whether Meon Hill was a laid-back, dithery sort of place at the best of times, or whether they were all still suffering from shock, Ace and Will couldn’t tell, but it was late afternoon before they’d seen the three Daffodils who were still around. None of them was the right one, but that made them more excited about one who’d gone home. They felt they were hot on the trail now. Unfortunately, it took even longer to find anyone who knew where her colony was. But they were trying, you could tell – there was a more positive attitude around – and eventually they found someone. Will had no problem translating the sprite directions – follow the river north until it joins a railway line, then take the second valley to the west – into ones you could follow in a car – come off the M5 at Junction 6 and follow the A449 towards Kidderminster – but by then it was far too late to leave. They slept that night in the dormitory, and were on their way again at dawn.
When they presented themselves at the Wyre Forest colony, they had enormous trouble persuading the senior sprite there that they had nothing to do with the arrests, and meant Daffodil no harm. But fortunately, the senior sprite did know about emails, and when he’d read the one Primrose had sent, he believed them, and sent a young fairy off to get Daffodil.
And after all that, she wasn’t the right one either. Ace was bitterly disappointed, because he’d had a really good feeling about this one.
“I’m sorry I can’t help,” said Daffodil. “You’ve just come from the Hill? What are things like there now?”
“Deputy Judge Petunia Elmdon is pulling everyone together,” said Ace. “Trying to keep things going, and hoping for help from the army before anyone else gets arrested.”
“Yes,” said Will. “I think she just realised that it’s really important to stand up to them.”
“I bet you’re on that list, aren’t you?”
“Eleventh and twelfth,” said Ace proudly. “You going back, then?”
“Yes,” said Daffodil. “I think I am.”
Ace and Will transformed each other back to human size, then wandered down to the river bank and sat on a bench.
“Now what?” said Ace.
“Tricky,” said Will. “We’ve been assuming that the Daffodil worked at the Hill, whichever one it was, but I suppose she might just have been a visitor.”
“Cheer me up, Will, why don’t you?”
“Just saying,” said Will mildly. “Anyway, it’s Saturday, isn’t it? Rose and Clover might have some news by now.”
“Of course!” said Ace, brightening. “That’s more like it.”
Ace said he was too fidgety to get through to Norway, so Will tried. Even he had to make a real effort to calm his mind and concentrate, but he did get through, and was soon talking to Poppy.
Three for you, Will. One’s from the Commander, she’s sent this to everyone on the list – message reads, All army sprites on parliament’s proscribed list have permission to use any force necessary to resist arrest.
Oh, good, said Will. It’s nice to have permission, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t have occurred to me not to.
Good lad. Next one’s from Betch Knightwood. Message reads, Weird stuff going on here. What do you know about Colonel Pentreath? Will, I would very much like your permission to show that message to General Herdalen.
Go ahead, ma’am, I don’t think Betch would mind. It does sound worrying. Reply to read, All I know is that senior officers aren’t too confident of his loyalty. But I’m very sure that General Herdalen would want to hear about anything that was worrying you.
Got that, said Poppy. Very good reply, if you don’t mind my saying so. Third one’s from Gran himself. Message reads, Desperately sorry to hear the awful news, but you and Ace are not, repeat not, to take action. Leave it to me.
What? said Will. What’s that about?
I’m afraid I don’t know. Want me to contact him?
No, it’s all right, thanks, ma’am. It must be something he thinks we’ve already heard. Is there anything for Ace?
There is, but to be honest, they’re exactly the same as yours. If you decide you need clarification, just say, and I’ll get onto Gran for you.
Thanks, said Will. Give our love to Madge.
With a worried frown creasing his face, Will turned to his twin.
“Something bad?” said Ace.
Will explained Gran’s cryptic message, and then Ace looked just as worried and puzzled, until he suddenly gasped and pulled out his phone.
“We forgot about these!” Rapidly, he checked for messages. “Clover… nothing from Emmet Law, and where should they go next? Oh, drat, will we never find this Daffodil? And one from David too…”
Ace froze into unaccustomed stillness as he read the text, and he made a strange noise, like a whimper deep in his throat.
“What?” said Will. “What is it? Tell me, Ace.”
“It’s Aesculus,” said Ace. “He’s been kidnapped.”