CHAPTER 6 - Bat's Castle
Aesculus missed David. He missed him so much he cried sometimes, but only at bedtime, and then Viola would cuddle him and sing him songs until he fell asleep, and that was nice. In the daytime, it was easier to be brave. It was great fun playing at being in the army, and helping Betch and the others. And when the work was done, Betch would tell him funny stories of all the naughty things Ace and Will had done in Norway, until Aesculus laughed so much his insides hurt. And he was living outside, and doing lots of sprite things, and growing big and strong, and that would make Ace so proud of him.
He understood now that Betch and Fran and Peter were Ace’s friends, and that they would look after him no matter what the scary colonel said. And he understood that they’d be able to go home soon, but that General Gran had said it would be a really good help if he could be a brave elf and stay with Betch for now.
So that was all right, and even Viola had cheered up when little purple violets, her very own flower, had started to carpet the forest floor. Then birds had started singing more loudly, and tiny green shoots appeared on every branch, and new grass started sprouting through last year’s dead brown stalks. It really was spring now. Aesculus was missing his tree too, longing to see its new leaves coming out, but having to make do with stroking a sweet chestnut and hoping that his own tree would know he was thinking of it.
Betch’s lieutenant, Tivo Waterperry, came to talk to him. He was a sweet chestnut himself, and told Aesculus a lot of interesting things about the differences between their trees. He stroked the tree, too.
“I understand,” he said. “But don’t be sad, because things are happening at last. The colonel’s given the order to march west.”
Aesculus understood enough now to know that this meant they were going to Bat’s Castle, which was like Owler Tor but in a different county, though he wasn’t sure which one. He was pleased and rushed off to find Viola, who had already heard the news.
“Betch looked worried,” she whispered. “Why did he, Aesculus? Is something horrible going to happen?”
“No! No, don’t worry, Viola. Probably just lots of fighting, that’ll be exciting, won’t it?”
“Fighting! Will I have to fight? I don’t want to fight, I don’t know how!”
“They’ll probably let you just watch, then. It’ll be all right. But I’m going to fight, just watch me. Ace will be so proud of me, won’t he? The bad elves are coming, the parliament elves, and we’re going to stop them!”
Viola stopped and twisted up her pretty little face in thought.
“If the bad elves are parliament, then the bad fairies who captured us must be parliament too, mustn’t they?” she said.
“Yes, that’s right, that’s what Betch thinks,” Aesculus agreed.
“Then why did they bring us here, to the army elves?” said Viola. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I,” said Aesculus. “I wish we could ask David.”
“Maybe not all the army elves are nice,” said Viola. “Be careful, Aesculus, and don’t trust anyone except Ace and Will’s friends.”
That made sense to Aesculus. It seemed to explain why Betch had told him to keep it a big secret that General Gran knew he was here, so it didn’t really worry him. There were far too many exciting things to look at to be worrying, anyway. The scary colonel and the oldest elves had gone off, jumping fast in a big group, leaving Betch and the rest of the unit, with the lieutenant, to come behind more slowly with him and Viola. They let them walk sometimes, but most of the time they had to have piggybacks. Aesculus thought that was great fun, but Viola said it made her feel dizzy and sick.
Once they were out of the forest, Aesculus saw mile after mile of little lanes, with high hedges, and fields beyond them. He saw farms and villages and pubs and schools and herds of cows, and one night, he even saw another colony, because they stayed the night there. None of it was like home, but it was all very interesting, and Aesculus was taking it all in.
Finally, just after he’d lost track of how many days it had taken, they came in sight of the Brendon Hills, and Lieutenant Waterperry said they were nearly there. The country looked different now. There were not as many trees, and the ground kept getting steeper and steeper. Aesculus did his best to do long, fast jumps and keep up, so no-one had to carry him in such a difficult place. Just before noon, on the warmest day they’d had so far, the lieutenant called a halt, and even Aesculus could see why. They’d been jumping along a ditch, to keep out of sight, but ahead of them was a car, parked on the grass, with two of its wheels right in the ditch. They couldn’t get past, not even by crawling under the car, because the humans, two young men and their girlfriends, were lying on the grass right next to it.
“We’ll have to wait till they go,” said the lieutenant in frustration. “Keep low, and keep quiet. You hear me, Aesculus? Not a sound.”
“We’ll never get there today now,” murmured Fran.
“I don’t know why the colonel left it so late to get started,” said the lieutenant. “At this rate, we’ll miss out on the action.”
The elves were tired, and some of them fell asleep. All of them were dozing, and Aesculus started to get bored. He wished the humans would move their car, and started to think if there was anything he could do to make them. Then he had the most brilliant idea. Inching away from the others, he started to crawl through the grass under the car, knowing he was small enough to get away with it, then jumped up into the engine. He knew where the wire was that controlled the car alarm, because he’d helped Will one day to fix the same wire on David’s mum’s car. All he had to do, he knew, was break it. Patiently, he bent the wire backwards and forwards until it snapped, and then the most terrific noise started. It made him jump, and he was used to it and had been expecting it.
Very pleased with himself, he hurried back to the others. The humans were all on their feet, exclaiming, and the car was still blaring out its alarm, and its lights were flashing too.
The lieutenant grabbed Aesculus.
“Where have you been? Did you do that?”
“Yes! Isn’t it great? They’ll soon move now.”
Sure enough, after only five minutes of unsuccessfully trying to stop the noise, the humans all jumped into the car and drove off. Aesculus grinned happily.
“I don’t believe it,” said the lieutenant weakly, looking round at his unit. “He’s only two, isn’t he?”
“Well, yes,” grinned Betch. “But he is a Moseley.”
During the final steep climb of Bat’s Castle, Betch found his feelings changing rapidly from excitement that they were there at last, to concern about what was going on. He had a feeling they were the last to arrive. Elves from England 1 were standing guard around the entrance to the Hill. It wasn’t the whole section, but it was an impressive number. The trouble was, the guards were encircled by fairies. Who were they?
“Down!” hissed the lieutenant. “Keep low. So it’s true, then. Special Brigade have got a squadron.”
“And we’re on the wrong side of it,” said Fran. “What do we do now?”
“Good question,” said the lieutenant. “It looks like a stand-off, doesn’t it? The squadron aren’t attacking, and until they do, our lot aren’t going to make the first move. If we just tried to walk through, they’d probably let us. But might we be more use where we are?”
“Not just us to consider, either,” said Betch, with a meaningful glance towards Aesculus and Viola.
“The guarding has to be our first priority,” the lieutenant decided. “Make some camouflage sheets, in case of humans coming by. I’ll send a message to the colonel with our location, and until we hear otherwise, we stay put.”
“But why aren’t that squadron attacking?” Peter wondered out loud. “What are they waiting for?”
“More people to arrive?” Betch guessed.
“Here another fairy!” shouted Aesculus.
“Where?” said the lieutenant, straining his eyes to see where Aesculus was pointing. “I can’t see her… oh, wait a minute, maybe I can. You’ve got good eyes, young Aesculus!”
They could all see her now, flying low and fast, circling the hilltop, assessing the situation. Betch recognised her, and waved. At once, she landed beside them, but at first she couldn’t speak, because she was gasping for breath. Peter pulled out his water and passed her the bottle. After she’d gulped a mouthful, she smiled at her friends, but spoke first to the lieutenant.
“Stella Knightwood, Messenger Squadron,” she said. “I have a message for Judge Hestercombe from the judge of Hogtrough Hill. D’you think I can get inside their cordon to speak to her, sir?”
“I wouldn’t chance it,” said the lieutenant. “They won’t want anything useful getting through. Will you tell me the message, so I can help you decide what to do?”
“Hogtrough Hill has fallen,” said Stella. “The judge’s message is, ‘We can’t hold out here, there are too many of them. I expect to be arrested within the hour. Estimate one hundred of Special Brigade, equal number of fairies in support, on their way to you next, escape while you still can.”
“What!” gasped the lieutenant. “What were the army units doing? You mean they let Special Brigade beat them?”
“From what I heard, there just weren’t enough of them. But I don’t know any details. I was sent to the judge with news from Intelligence – elves at Dover – but by the time I got there it was already too late.”
Betch was stunned and worried. He hadn’t expected that, and by the looks on the faces around him, neither had anyone else.
“So they’re waiting for their elves,” said the lieutenant. “What we really need to know now is when they’re going to get here.”
“My partner, Bella, is onto that. She’s tracking them, and messaging their location to Signals. They’re travelling very fast, because they don’t stop to rest. They just pour drops of some stuff into their water bottles and off they go again.”
“Laburnum sap,” said the lieutenant. “It’s poisonous, but they reckon it does them no harm.”
“Last I heard from Bella, they were near Salisbury, and that’s over half way here.”
“When was that?” asked the lieutenant eagerly.
“Noon, yesterday,” said Stella. “And they left Kent at dawn the day before that.”
“Then they could be here at dawn tomorrow,” said Betch.
“We have to get this to the colonel,” said the lieutenant. “I’ll try Signals, first.”
Everyone kept quiet while he tried, but he shook his head.
“No reply to my first message yet. Either Signals is very busy, or the colonel isn’t checking in. What can we do?”
“I’ll go!” said Aesculus. “Creep through, no-one will notice.”
“Oh no you won’t,” said the lieutenant, grabbing Aesculus by his collar. “You’re staying right here.”
“How about writing it all down?” said Betch. “Then soar, dive, drop the message and soar again. That’d be too fast for them to take offensive action.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Stella.
“It is,” said the lieutenant. “Go for it. You’ll be away before they have time to react.”
Stella took a few more minutes to get her breath back and drink some more water, while she wrote the message down, with the lieutenant helping her to include all the details the colonel and the judge would want to know. Then they all watched as she completed her mission with stunning speed. Aesculus and Viola were open-mouthed with excitement to see her soar and dive, then streak away again. Some fairies did take off in response, but they were called back, and Stella was safely away.
“Who was that, Betch?” said Aesculus.
“That was our Stella,” said Betch with pride. “Another one of Ace’s team, the team that some people are saying was the best team ever at Fjaerland.”
“So where is Ace?” asked the lieutenant. “Which Hill’s he at?”
“None of them,” said Betch with a wry smile. “They put him in England 3.”
“I know. Crazy, isn’t it?”
“Seriously? The leader of the best team ever, in England 3? So what’s he doing?”
“Cooling his heels in Wales, on guard duty on a Search and Rescue mission. It makes you wonder if the people in charge really know what they’re doing.”
“Being in this section certainly makes you wonder that,” said the lieutenant. “Has our amazing colonel done anything yet?”
“Yes, he’s sending people off to rest,” said Fran, standing up so he could see.
“Good. Let Special Brigade’s fairies stand there all night if they want to. At least he’s had the sense to see that we don’t need to do that too.”
Betch was woken from a light doze just before dawn, by the lieutenant shaking his shoulder.
“I’ve heard from the colonel via Signals,” he said. “I have to take the unit through the cordon – all except you.”
“Huh? Oh, great. I have to miss out on the action?”
“I’m afraid so. Sorry, Betch, but he specifically said you were to stay with the little ones and guard them.”
When you’ve trained for two years, missing out on your first chance of seeing some real action is never fun, and Betch was feeling a bit glum as he helped the lieutenant to wake everyone else up. But even he had to smile at the expression on Aesculus’ face when the lieutenant told him firmly that he was not going to be doing any fighting.
“You’re mean, you are,” said Aesculus, glaring at him.
“Tough,” said the lieutenant. “You want to be a soldier, you take orders. Stay with Betch, and behave yourself. That’s an order.”
Watching his unit slip away from him through the grass, Betch tried his best to stay cheerful.
“I know, Viola, you don’t want to see fighting,” he said. “That’s fine. Wrap yourself up in this camouflage blanket, try to go back to sleep if you can. It’s far too early to be awake, really.”
Once she was settled, Betch looked Aesculus in the eye.
“I’ve got terrific hearing,” he said, “but my eyes aren’t as sharp as yours. How about if I let you sit on my shoulders, and you tell me everything you can see?”
“Yes!” said Aesculus. “Yes please, Betch.”
For a long time, nothing happened, but when it did, it was very fast.
“Here they come!” yelled Aesculus. “Oh, wow, lots of big elves. They not jumping, they’re marching, tramp, tramp, tramp, like soldiers in Antz.”
“It’s a film. Look, they’ve got knives!”
“Have they drawn them?”
“No, they wearing them, like swords. Have you got a knife, Betch?”
“I certainly have. Concentrate, now. How many do you think you can see?”
“Lots. A very lot. Too many to count.”
“Their fairies are parting to let them through.”
“More fairies, army fairies!”
“I see them. That’s Fighter Squadron, but there’s not many of them.”
“The army elves are standing together. They’re blocking the way in, aren’t they, Betch? I can see Fran, he so tall. The parliament elves are marching straight at them, pushing, shoving, everyone’s fighting, now! Fran punched someone, that was good!”
“Their fairies are taking off.”
“They throwing stones! All at the army elves… oh no, they’re getting hit, they can’t fight as much. The bad elves are getting inside, look!”
For a moment, as the crowds parted, Betch caught a glimpse of several burly elves in black and green jumping down into the Hill.
“This doesn’t look good,” he said.
He wondered what to do. Aesculus and Viola had to be his priority.
“I think we ought to take cover,” he said. “Head down into the valley below, and we’ll go up the biggest tree we can find.”
Though he was desperate to know what was happening, Betch was following General Herdalen’s orders rather than the colonel’s, and he was prepared to do anything to keep Aesculus and Viola away from Special Brigade. So he picked Viola up, still wrapped in the blanket, and told Aesculus to run and jump alongside him. That way, they reached the valley, though they were now soaking wet from the dewy grass.
“Don’t worry, Viola,” said Betch, as the sleepy fairy opened her eyes. “Do you think you could just fly up into this tree? Nice big ash, that’ll do fine. Come on, Aesculus, up we go.”
They lay on the highest branches, watching. The view wasn’t so good from here, but at least it felt safer. The fairies struggling together in mid-air were clear to be seen, but their fight didn’t last long. Fighter Squadron were seriously outnumbered, but they would have known that for sure, and yet they had bravely fought in defence of the Hill. Those fairies just didn’t know the meaning of fear, thought Betch with admiration, wondering if Dan was there.
Once the fairies had landed, there was nothing to be seen for a long time. Patiently, Betch waited. In the end, he saw the one thing he didn’t want to see – fourteen sprites, some of them quite old, being escorted down the Hill. Here, too, they’d got the arrests they wanted.
Betch was sharper than most, and picked up on things that were left unsaid as fast as any Guidance fairy. The one thing no-one knew was where the arrested sprites were being taken. Torn between his duty to keep the little ones safe, and his duty to get sound intelligence if he could, he had to make a fast decision. Urging Aesculus and Viola to keep absolutely silent, he picked them both up and jumped very cautiously from tree to tree until he was right over the arrested sprites and the guards. They stopped in a clearing right below him. He could hear the murmur of voices, but he couldn’t see a thing, there were too many branches in the way. He caught a tone of voice that sounded as if it was giving orders, and then loud protests and violent scuffling.
“Stay here! Guard each other!” Betch told the little ones, then jumped silently a couple of branches lower.
Special Brigade were trying to force their captives to drink something, and it was pretty clear that the captives knew what it was and didn’t want to. He had to do something to help, he just had to… but what? He had no stones, nothing to hand except bunches of dried ash keys. But the ash was Fran’s tree, and it brought a memory back. Working desperately fast, Betch transformed half a dozen bunches into solid wood, and threw them hard, using an almost vertical pelt that Sergeant Olt would have been proud of. Two of them missed, but four of them didn’t, and the elves they hit were dazed long enough for their captives to run off and hide. Betch lay low then, knowing that someone would be trying to see where the missiles were coming from, while he transformed more bunches. As soon as he fired off another volley, the remaining captives struggled even more fiercely. Some of them managed to wrench off their blindfolds, and once they’d done that, they too ran for cover.
Whoever was in charge down there seemed ready to cut his losses, because the rest of the captives were suddenly tightly surrounded, and then they seemed to disappear. The clearing was filled then with an ominous silence, and Betch, trembling with tension and exertion, returned to Aesculus and Viola. He stroked Viola’s head and told them both they’d been so good, so brave. They sat quietly, listening as Special Brigade began to march away, then very cautiously moved lower down the tree. One by one, the sprites who had escaped came limping back. But there were only seven of them. Special Brigade had got away with the other seven.
“Who’s there?” one of them called into the trees. “Who helped us?”
“I did,” Betch called back. He jumped down. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, but my orders were to keep these two safe.”
“Thank you,” said an awe-inspiring fairy. “It was a big help. They have now got away with only half the number they wanted, and more than that, we now know what they are doing.”
“What did they do to them?” asked Betch. “Was it that laburnum sap thing?”
“Nothing so innocuous, I’m afraid,” said the fairy. “From what they concoct that foul tincture, I do not know, but its effects are clear enough. Our friends have been shrunk, and carried off as easily as a human could carry me.”
“We have to get back to the Hill,” said another fairy. “Maybe the colonel can provide a search party.”
There was just one goblin there, and now he spoke up too.
“I don’t want to worry you, Judge, but I can smell burning.”
Betch was startled to hear that he’d helped free the judge, but the goblin he recognised. He’d been to Bat’s Castle before, it was his local Hill, and this goblin, Rumex Tavy, police captain, had been head of security as long as Betch could remember. The judge trusted him, you could tell. Her face fell, and she suddenly looked older. But she didn’t waste a word.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Everyone stuck together for safety, moving fast and keeping good cover. Betch and the little ones tagged along behind, and they hadn’t gone very far when they met up with Colonel Pentreath, heading in the opposite direction with ten elves, in pursuit of the captives. He had a hurried consultation with the judge, then carried on his way. The first thing the judge’s party saw when they came out from the trees was a thin column of grey smoke rising into the morning air. The second was a wave of sprites coming down towards them. The workers from the Hill, many of them in tears, a couple of Fighter Squadron, walking, with prisoners to escort, and bringing up the rear, the rest of Colonel Pentreath’s section. No sign of Special Brigade or their squadron. Got the people they wanted, set fire to the place, and then off to the next Hill, was Betch’s guess. The rest of Fighter Squadron must have gone after them. As soon as the sprites from the Hill saw the judge, their faces lit up.
“Judge, you’re safe!”
“Where are the others?”
A babble of questions broke out as they clustered round her, and Betch and the little ones were caught up in the middle of it. He heard her trying to calm everyone.
“First things first. How bad is this fire, and is everyone out?”
“Everyone accounted for,” someone told her. “Sheer vandalism. They started fires on every floor, but they did chase everyone out first.”
“Years of work destroyed,” said someone else. “Why have they done this? Why has parliament turned against us?”
No-one had any answers for her, but Captain Tavy had a suggestion to make.
“Fire goes out with no air,” the goblin pointed out. “I think we need to seal the entrance. The fire will burn itself out then, and maybe not everything will have been destroyed.”
They decided stones would be the best thing for the job, but it was late in the morning by now, and the judge said they couldn’t all go running up and down the hill in broad daylight when humans might be out walking.
“We’ll do it, ma’am,” said Lieutenant Waterperry. “If people could take cover in the wood, and gather stones, my team will do the rest of it.”
Once again, Betch found himself left out, but at least this time, he and Aesculus and Viola could help by finding stones. Captain Tavy stayed at the top of the Hill, expanding stones and heaving them down into the entrance. Once that was done, smoke started emerging from several air vents dotted all over the Hill, but those were soon stopped up too.
It was Viola who made an interesting discovery. Following the rocky bed of a stream to its source, she found that it was coming right out of the Hill. She showed it to Betch, and Betch, greatly daring, showed it to the judge.
The judge was deeply moved.
“A new entrance,” she said. “It is providential, and a clear sign of what to do next.”
It was late in the evening when Colonel Pentreath returned. By then, everyone had settled down in the wood, and there were a few fires going. The judge herself urged the weary elves to sit down by a fire, and someone brought them hot drinks. Everyone crowded round to hear the news, sad to see that the rest of the arrested sprites had not come back too.
“They were travelling fast, but so were we,” said Colonel Pentreath. “They couldn’t outpace us, but we couldn’t catch them. We followed them as far as Minehead, but then there were too many humans about. We had to take cover, and we lost them. But I don’t think there can be any doubt that they were heading for the railway station.”
“You did your best,” said the judge. “It’s not your fault. But we must resign ourselves to the fact that we have lost seven of our people, and we don’t know where they have been taken. It won’t do any good, but I shall send a formal protest to parliament – as soon as I can find anything to write with.”
“And I must report in to army HQ,” said the colonel. “I’ll contact the Commander herself, I think. Excuse me, ma’am.”
He wasn’t away long. When he came back, he called all the army sprites together and told them to make camp for the night, spaced out to protect the civilians. He said nothing at all, Betch noticed, about the day, of what failures had led to the arrests, or what brave things had been done. He mentioned nothing, either bad or good, so it didn’t seem fair to Betch that the one thing he did decide to harp on about was how Betch had come to be rescuing judges when he was supposed to be guarding the little ones.
“I never stopped guarding them, sir, honestly,” Betch defended himself. “I had to do something to help, finding myself the only one in a position to do something.”
“Oh yes, quite the little hero, weren’t you?” said the colonel. “I’m not as easily impressed as Judge Hestercombe. You had no business disappearing off into the woods in the first place. You’ll take an all-night watch duty for that.”
“Yes sir,” said Betch. He kept his face as neutral as he could, but it wasn’t easy.
There are worse things than staying awake all night in a forest in springtime. Betch knew nothing would happen. Special Brigade were long gone. All he had to watch out for was foxes, and they were so heavy you could hear them coming in your sleep. So he just tuned in to the rhythms of the forest, listened to the trees stretching and the little insects scurrying about their business, and watched the moon rise over the tree tops. Now and then he fed the fires, or pulled someone’s blanket up, but mostly he was in a sleepy sort of trance, and in that state, it was very easy to message, even as far as Norway.
He had a long, long chat to Dale, and that left him feeling peaceful, because he missed his friend a lot. But more than that, telling Dale the news helped him get it clear in his own mind, and reading between the lines of Dale’s news helped him even more. He thought he was beginning to see what General Herdalen was doing, and that actually, things were not as bad as they looked. He just wished he could message another friend. He didn’t know for sure what Wayne Langdon was doing with Special Brigade, but he had his suspicions, and he could imagine that for Wayne, life just now was lonely and dangerous.
When Wayne had travelled from Fjaerland to Wielkopolska it had been the longest journey of his life, but he’d been too unhappy then to care about the discomforts of the journey. Every train, every ferry had been taking him further and further away from everything and everyone he loved towards a place whose very name was ominous and terrifying. But now, he’d lived there for four months, and discovered that the inhabitants were only sprites, like any other sprites.
There was just so much to find out, so much useful information that the army needed to know, that he could feel he was doing a very important job. And the more he messaged Fjaerland, the easier it got, though he had to be really careful to use code now, as General Herdalen was off camp. So he was happier than he’d been at first, and consequently suffering much worse on the journey he was taking now.
South from Poznan to Prague, stuck at the back of a luggage compartment with Stan’s foot in his ear, ten hours of it, a revolting journey. Outside Prague, they’d had a rendezvous with troops from Hungary and Slovakia, and it didn’t surprise Wayne to find that doses of potion were doled out. Hawthorn berry for perception, so you could understand each other, laburnum for endurance, extract of oak bark for calmness… Wayne knew them all now. They all tasted exactly the same – rank – but they didn’t seem to be as frightening as General Herdalen had made out. They were only natural juices as far as he could tell, and probably not as dangerous as the chemical-laden fizzy stuff the Moseleys drank whenever they could get their hands on some. The general had given him a long list of natural antidotes, but so far, Wayne hadn’t used any.
He was going to need the laburnum now, anyway, as they had a terrible journey ahead of them. He hadn’t heard yet where they were going, only that it was hundreds of miles, and they’d be jumping, because there were too many of them now to use trains and keep together. Carefully, without making it obvious what he was doing, Wayne counted everyone. Ninety, plus twelve officers, including General Huskvarna himself. General Herdalen would want to know that. Wayne just hoped fervently that they weren’t going any further south, because that could take him out of range.
“So where d’you think we’re going?” Wayne asked his friend Stan.
“Search me,” Stan replied. “West, maybe. That’s where the trouble is, breaking all the new laws. Wish we were going by train, though. If you ask me, they want us to be seen.”
“Show of strength?”
“Yes, something like that. Oh well, at least we’ll be at the front. We’re the Wielkopolska Unit, we’ll take the lead, and we won’t get dust in our eyes.”
No, thought Wayne, and we won’t get any advantage of slipstream, either. This is going to be a killer.
His mind went back to a day last summer, just the six elves on Ace’s team coming up the mountain from the fjordside, in unison. So sweet, so easy, so beautiful. They didn’t seem to have heard of unison here. But the memory was very cheering.
The journey took five days. It seemed long at the time, but looking back later, Wayne was astounded at the distance they’d travelled, and that he’d been able to keep up. They’d headed south-west at first, then crossed into Germany in the middle of the Bohemian Forest. On the second day, they’d crossed the Danube at Passau, then skirted the foothills of the Bavarian Alps until finally they came to the shores of Lake Constance. On the last day, they entered a forest bigger than any Wayne had even imagined. Mile after mile of pine and spruce, it covered whole mountains and wide valleys, with villages and towns completely hidden inside it. For hour after hour you could hear nothing but birds, see nothing but trees, until it began to seem that the whole world was forest. Stan told him it was called the Black Forest. Then Wayne guessed where they were heading, and he was right. Immindingen.
There’d been some good reconnaissance done, he had to admit that. Someone knew exactly where the colony was, and about a mile from it, they were halted and given precise instructions about how to surround it. While General Huskvarna was speaking, Wayne counted everyone again. There were only eighty-nine this time, but he thought nothing of it just then, he assumed he’d made a mistake.
“Our squadron is in position,” said General Huskvarna. “Don’t worry about flyers, they’ll deal with them. But no elf or goblin is to break through your cordon. Containment is the aim. Keep pushing to the centre, until they are completely surrounded, and then we will make the arrests.”
They had to move fast. Wayne desperately wanted to contact Signals, to give some kind of warning, but it was no use. He just couldn’t get through, not while jumping and trying to concentrate on what he was doing. But then, to his relief, he saw that the place was defended. Not heavily – the army elves were thinly spaced – but they looked alert. Germany 1, probably… General Herdalen must have known which places were the most likely targets.
It felt horrible, and strange, to draw his knife and fight against the army, but he had to do it, because the army elves rushed to attack as soon as they saw Special Brigade. Somewhere, someone was ringing an alarm bell, and other sprites were running out to help the army. Wayne’s knife flew from side to side in front of him as he concentrated really hard, trying to make it look as if he was doing as much damage as possible, while really doing as little. But then something horrible happened. A large, red-headed elf leaped in front of him, his knife in his hand, and Wayne saw that it was Ross.
“Wayne!” gasped Ross. “Why are you fighting with them? Come on over to this side!”
Grimly, Wayne shook his head, and fought as hard as he could. This was going to hurt – he knew he didn’t stand a chance of beating Ross, and he didn’t really want to – but it had to look good. He held on for a few minutes, but then Ross got him with a clever hand cut. Not dangerous at all, but the sort of injury where you just couldn’t fight on. Ross patted him on the shoulder as he sank to the ground, his left hand clutching his right, in very real pain.
He’d have to wait now, until the fight was over, and then someone would help him, but at least now he could watch what was happening. Unfortunately, it was looking very good for Special Brigade. The army elves were fighting brilliantly, but there just weren’t enough of them. Each of them now had three or even four of Special Brigade trying to disarm him, and of course they were succeeding. The local elves, untrained and unarmed, were just being kicked and pushed out of the way.
Wayne tried not to look any more. It was breaking his heart. He staggered to his feet and blundered forward, where an officer pointed him towards a shady corner where a surgeon was already opening his bag. There Wayne queued up and was given another dose of something. The surgeon asked him a few questions, and then briskly and efficiently healed his hand.
“There you go,” said the surgeon. “Just don’t try to tell any lies for about six hours!”
Wayne smiled thinly at the joke, but inside he was reeling. Laudanum, of course, even the army used that. He was going to have to be really careful now, and decided to say as little as possible. He hung back, leaning against the wall of a hut as if he was tired, but he kept watching.
General Huskvarna was now genially greeting an elderly fairy who seemed to be the senior sprite. Wayne could see at a glance that she was a daisy, like his Bella.
“Gänse Immindingen, I presume?” grinned General Huskvarna. “You’re under arrest.”
Wayne couldn’t catch the German fairy’s spirited reply, but the sprites surrounding her did, and they all cheered. General Huskvarna was unmoved.
“You can defy parliament all you want to,” he said. “It won’t do you any good. This place never learns. But unfortunately for you, you’re famous, and people will be watching to see what happens here. This colony is now under the direct control of parliament. Special Brigade will provide you with a new senior sprite, and we’ll be leaving a number of people to look after you and make sure you behave yourselves. Any arguments? Good. Because anyone who argues will join the ones who are being arrested and taken away for re-training.”
Later that night, catching a few hours’ rest on the forest floor, Wayne had to admit to himself that he was frightened. That had just been too easy, too ruthless. Special Brigade had just walked over the army. And it hadn’t just been because of numbers. They were more deadly, more earnest about everything they did. Finally, he got through to Signals, laboriously spelling out everything he wanted to say, letter by letter, in code. Little details could wait until he could message the general direct. For now, it was enough to pass on the main story, that Immindingen was now garrisoned by Special Brigade. But he didn’t go to sleep in despair, because Signals had a message for him, a long chatty one from Ace, telling him all the latest about what their friends were doing. Things were happening out there. It wasn’t all bad news.
It didn’t seem that way to Gia Biagioni. When she had finished listening to Colonel Pentreath, she frowned, made some notes, and added them to an ever-growing file. She had to assimilate and assess every piece of news, and to do that, she had withdrawn a little from the day-to-day life of camp, relieved beyond measure that this year at least, that was in the very safe hands of General Arley. The generals did a lot of work, of course, but even they needed support, and it was her job to provide it. General Saal, for all his goblin strengths, still had goblin limitations, and him she refused to overload. She’d been encouraging him to concentrate on one thing only, stiffening the resolve of his troops out in the field, and most especially at the Hills.
Once he knew what he had to do, the average police goblin would stick unflinchingly to his task. Gia wanted them to know that, if something was baffling them, it was more important to do the right thing than to keep rules or loyalties. That wasn’t an easy concept, but they had to use it, because every situation was different, and the only way to do that was by a constant flow of encouragement from the top.
General Nella Stalden was by far the oldest general, and for her, the problem was the sheer volume of messages. Fairy messages tended to be longer at the best of times, but even now, there was no use asking for brevity, for who knew what bit of gossip, whose significance was unknown to the sender, might just be a useful hint to those desperately trying to organise things. As well as that, because her troops could move so much more rapidly, it took hours of work and concentration just to move everyone to where she was needed to meet the ever-growing demands. The problems were only going to get worse, but Gia had arranged for Major Rhaeadr from Intelligence to come back to camp and act as an assistant to the general.
As far as General Dizzy Széchenyi was concerned, it wasn’t help Gia needed to provide as much as restraint. The fiery imp general was impatient for action, and thought they were all being far too cautious. Every piece of news that came in had her coming up with excellent but risky plans for exploiting the situation.
Gia sometimes felt as if she was juggling, trying to keep her eye on several balls without letting any fall to the ground. She had complete faith in all her generals, but she needed to know what each of them was doing, and why. She had to be able to put the pieces together, to see the big picture, discern the pattern of events as it unfolded, and make the right decisions about priorities, direction, focus and timing. She was barely sleeping, but she didn’t begrudge it. And besides, she had one more general, who wasn’t on camp right now, but he wasn’t far away. She could easily have messaged him, but she needed exercise, and sometimes it was good to talk in person. After a few hours’ sleep, she left word with Madge where she was going, and set out for Vingen to see Gran Herdalen.
“Frankly, Pentreath made a mess of it,” she told him. “He explains carefully how outnumbered he was, and how they couldn’t draw their knives against elves who hadn’t drawn theirs, but he just wasn’t ready. He didn’t know the layout, he had barely spoken to the judge, and he didn’t even have the targets under extra guard. He had police goblins there, who could have brought down a good number of the Special Squadron, but he didn’t use them. He left it to Fighter Squadron, and they took a battering. Why did he leave it so late to arrive? Was it because of the hostages, do you think?”
“Almost certainly,” said Gran. “He didn’t want to take them into danger – or be encumbered with them – so he hung on, hoping Envoy Pentreath would come for them. But she didn’t, and he wouldn’t let her down either, so in the end he had to take them with him.”
“And didn’t leave himself enough time to do a good job.”
“No. But even that may just have been an honest error. He can’t have expected the arrest party would be so big or act so ferociously. No-one expected that.”
“I expected a bit more negotiation,” Gia admitted. “But their tactics were thuggish and brutal.”
“Indeed, but the situation’s not entirely bad, thanks to Betch Knightwood.”
“How did you hear all those details? Colonel Pentreath never mentioned them. Did Betch message you himself?”
“No, Dale did. He was full of it, and I don’t blame him, I feel very proud of Betch myself. I thought we might hold Bat’s Castle – and we have, in a way, because Daffodil Hestercombe’s not giving in – but there’s no denying they’ve suffered bad losses. Seven rescued is good, but they still got seven clean away.”
“And now we know how they are moving people.”
“More of their foul potions,” said Gran bitterly. “Clever and ruthless. What we need now is to find out where they’re being taken.”
“We’ll find out,” said Gia. “There’s an arrogance about their actions, a casualness that infuriates me, but sooner or later it will lead to carelessness.”
Gran smiled wickedly.
“Oh, Gran, it’s so good to see you,” said Gia. “You always cheer me up.” She stretched out her toes and warmed them at the hearth. “What’ve you heard?”
“Three things,” said Gran. “Not much in themselves, but added to what we already know, significant. Thanks to Intelligence, we know that the troops they sent to Immindingen had a rendezvous at Prague. The Wielkopolska Unit joined up with troops from the Czech Republic, and very likely Hungary and Slovakia as well. We think the ones now rampaging through England came up from the Balkans through the Sava Valley. And the ones that were spotted at Rostock, who are undoubtedly on their way here, came from all across Poland.”
“I agree with all that,” said Gia. “Very economical use of troops, and it means they’re still strong in the east.”
“But not in the centre,” smiled Gran. “Look at the map – from the Balkans, north, they’ve left a whole swathe of territory short of defence, all the way to Wielkopolska. The three things I’ve heard seem to confirm it. First was a message from Captain Vidilica in northern Croatia, asking if he could act to liberate a refugee camp that appeared to be defended by only six guards. Second was a piece of news from an Ally in Brno, who went to see how things were at her local Hill and noticed that Special Brigade weren’t around any more. Third was a piece of gossip to Poppy Rhaeadr from someone in Guidance, who said she’d travelled from Venice to Innsbruck by train and not seen a single other sprite on her journey.”
“So they’re not even guarding the Brenner Pass any more?” said Gia. “Gran, this is looking exciting.”
“All it needs is a match to the tinder,” said Gran. “It’s time to encourage civilians to let their voices be heard, and when they hear that the road to Wielkopolska is standing open, they might just do it.”
“And if parliament listened, we might even avert war,” said Gia softly. “Oh, may it be so! This is an action we can and must take.”
“I think it’s time to unleash Dizzy Széchenyi,” said Gran.
“No-one better,” said Gia. “I think you’re right.”
Gran and Gia weren’t the only ones drowning in information. So was Nella Stalden, and so was Pice Inari in Signals, and so was Dale Knightwood, who looked after the sprites’ computer. The senior officers were discretion itself, but Dale hadn’t begun to understand the meaning of the word. Maybe Gran knew that Dale was talking to Will every day, or maybe he didn’t, but Dale had had no orders to keep anything to himself. But then, even generals can’t think of everything.
Ace and Will were not the sort of elves to let the grass grow beneath their feet. Once they realised they were going to have to stay in a quiet Welsh town for two months with very little to do, they set about making sure their days were packed with as much excitement and interest as they could manage. Every morning, they got up at dawn and transformed each other to human size, then helped Miss Longson with the flowers, so that Primrose could spend as much time as possible with Rose and Clover. If there were a lot of deliveries to make, they did some of them in the Porsche. Once all the work was done, they went for a run, out to the forest and back, and once they were out of sight among the trees, they practised drawing their knives and jumping from branch to branch, just to keep their skills finely honed.
In the afternoons, Will worked on the laptop and Ace got through to Signals. The more messages they sent to their friends, the more they got back, and they phoned David every day too, so they were getting news in from all over Europe. In the evenings, when the fairies were deep in talk and Miss Longson was watching television, they took themselves off to the Star Inn on Queen Street. Not to drink beer, of course not, Ace had protested to Clover, just to practise passing themselves off as human men. And before they went to sleep, on a pillow in Miss Longson’s spare bedroom, they changed each other back to their normal sizes. It was getting very easy indeed now. Not quite instantaneous yet, but it was getting close.
It wasn’t long before they were getting so much news it was hard to keep track of it all. They made a big map and pinned it to the wall, and every day they added what they knew, and tried to work out everything that was happening.
“Droz is on the move again,” Ace told Will, drawing a line moving Croatia 2 further north. “He’s ecstatic because he’s heard a rumour that General Széchenyi's heading out that way.”
“Is she, now?” said Will, looking up from the laptop. “I wonder… I bet Gran’s spotted what you did, Ace, that Special Brigade have moved an awful lot of troops out of that area. Have you heard any more from Wayne?”
“Not since that night in the Black Forest. But Ross said that Wayne’s unit had gone back to Wielkopolska, when all the other troops stayed in Immindingen.”
“Right, so it takes him all his time to message Gran from Poland, that’s got to be his priority. But Bella said he’d told her that he was getting sent out on more long-distance patrols.”
“That sounds as if they’re short of regular troops, doesn’t it? I wonder what General Széchenyi’s going to do? Take the fight to them, d’you think? Strike behind enemy lines?”
“Could be,” said Will. “Kiefer said he was going to his own home. And Schwarzee is a really important colony, from all I’ve heard. Right near the Brenner Pass, loads of people stop off there.”
“Maybe she’s going to go round the colonies, put a rocket under them while Special Brigade’s backs are turned. And Droz is in the thick of it, and so’s Kiefer. And all this time, we’ve got Special Brigade in England, and we can’t do anything about it!” Ace screwed his face up and banged the wall with his fist. “I can’t stand this, Will, I just can’t. I never really took in that being in Third Regiment meant that we’d never get to do anything exciting.”
“Well, going off in the Porsche was pretty exciting,” said Will. “But I do know what you mean.”
“If only we knew what was happening! It’s crazy that we know more about what’s happening in Croatia than we do about what’s happening in Dorset. Why doesn’t Betch answer my messages? What’s going on down there?”
Ace was ranting on for a whole minute before he realised that Will had gone quiet.
“What? Will, what do you know? Or think? Come on, out with it. I can see when there’s something you’re not telling me.”
“I’ll tell you if you promise not to do anything mad,” said Will. “It’s only a hunch, anyway.”
“OK, OK, I promise, now tell me!”
“I think Betch is looking after Aesculus.”
“What? How come, why?”
“Because Gran knew where he was only two days after he was captured, and he said they were still in England. Up till then, we’d heard from Betch every day, and one of the things he was saying was that weird things were happening. I told him to tell General Herdalen. The next thing we know, Gran knows where Aesculus is, and we haven’t heard a squeak out of Betch since, nor Fran or Peter either.”
“That could be just coincidence,” said Ace slowly.
“Yes, it could. Except that – and these are Gran’s own words – someone realised what was going on and had the sense to tell him. How did that someone realise? Aesculus has got a tongue in his head. He told them his name. How many sprites in England know the name Moseley? Not a lot.”
“But Betch would. And he’s sharper than most. But why? Why would Special Brigade take him – take them – to Colonel Pentreath?”
“I don’t know,” said Will, “but it fits in with something else Gran said, about a fine officer who might not know he was being used.”
“One of these days,” said Ace furiously, “I am going to strangle Gran Herdalen with my bare hands! And of course he told Betch not to tell us! But what do they want Aesculus and Viola for? Are they at Bat’s Castle now?”
“There’s one way to find out,” said Will. “Ask Dale if he’s heard from Betch recently. He can’t say no, because that would be insane. So he’ll have to say something. And no matter how carefully Betch has warned him not to tell us what he’s really doing, he’ll let something slip.”
“It’s a bit hard on Dale, but we have to find out. Message him, not an email, that way he hasn’t got so long to think what to say.”
“OK,” said Will. “I’m going out in the garden.”
When Will came back, he marched right up to Ace and looked him in the eye.
“You just remember your promise,” he said.
“It’s true, then?”
“I think so, yes. Dale was cagey, you could tell he was choosing his words carefully. But one thing he did say was that Betch had been in trouble, for helping to rescue the judge.”
“The judge we met? Daffodil Something? Good for Betch. So what was so bad about that?”
“He was supposed to be looking after someone, not taking part in the action.”
“I see,” said Ace.
His eyes wandered across the map, and his face was full of yearning. Will felt torn in two. He could sense Ace’s feelings so sharply, but his compassion was tempered by concern.
“It doesn’t mean we can do anything about it,” he said.
“I know,” Ace groaned. “I trust Betch – it’s not that – and I’m sure Aesculus is having the time of his life. And I can see what Gran’s doing. If Colonel Pentreath isn’t loyal, then we need to know, and fast. I don’t want Betch and the others under the command of a traitor any more than Gran does. But why isn’t he letting us help?”
“I think Gran’s trying to protect you.”
“I don’t need protecting!” shouted Ace.
“Huskvarna wants to kill you,” said Will. “All of us, even. He may have gone back to Poland. But for all we know, he may have come to England. And the Premier… you know he still wants you, Ace, because of that prophecy. Whatever they’ve taken Aesculus and Viola for, it has to be tied up with that.”
To Will’s surprise, Ace smiled.
“They haven’t told Colonel Pentreath why. So he put them in the care of his youngest, not knowing it mattered that they were the only ones who knew our name! Oh, we’ve got a great advantage there, we’d be crazy to throw that away.”
“Now you’re thinking like Gran,” smiled Will. “So come on, genius… they must be aiming for some kind of showdown. What, and where, and when?”
“Different to Germany,” said Ace. “There, they went for one major colony, to make an example of. Like a message to everyone – toe the line, or this will happen to you next. Here, they’re going for the Hills, one after another.”
”We know from Stella what happened at Hogtrough Hill. And we lost at Bat’s Castle too, but according to Dale, we wouldn’t have done if Colonel Pentreath had got there sooner.”
“So that was supposed to hold,” said Ace. “Gran must know he can’t hold everywhere. Meon Hill, the damage is already done, the arrests have been made. Special Brigade may not even stop there. Emmet Law, why would they bother? No one lives there, I bet it’s deserted now.”
“Owler Tor, then,” said Will.
“It’s got to be.”
“And that’s why there weren’t so many troops at the other places!” said Ace. “Gran’s decided that Owler Tor is the one we mustn’t lose. This is making more sense now. We have to be there!”
“I know,” said Will. “But we need to be talking to someone who’s there already. We want to know when Special Brigade arrive, and Colonel Pentreath’s section, and anybody else who turns up there, too.”
“Who’ve we got?” said Ace. “There’s always Daffodil and Rosemary, but they didn’t look like ex-army so they probably can’t message. So that’d mean getting David to go there for the news, which is a lot to ask.”
“It’s all England 1, isn’t it? Who else do we know besides Fran, Betch and Peter?”
“There must be…” Ace began, then his face lit up. “Ace Foxfield! He’s bound to be there!”
“Sorted,” grinned Will.