CHAPTER 7 - Valerian
The sprites of Schwarzee, nestling beside the dark waters of their lake on the Austrian side of the Brenner Pass, like to boast that sprites knew about the pass long before humans did. There is no way of knowing that for sure, but one thing is certain, Schwarzee itself is one of the most ancient and famous colonies in the realm. Their written records only go back to the seventeenth century, but they know the names of their senior sprites back to 1212, and according to legend, their first Ally had a Latin name.
Kiefer Schwarzee was keenly aware of all this as he jumped off the train at Brenner before it entered the pass. More aware than he had been when he lived here… he had a quiet pride now at coming from such a distinguished place. All the same, he had mixed feelings about coming home while he was on duty. To be home, but not free to do what he wanted, felt strange. And besides that, Kiefer was worried what would happen if any of the older fairies spotted him. The colonies of the high alpine valleys always have more fairies than elves. And when you’re an extremely small elf, you do tend to get mothered rather a lot. He wouldn’t have put it past some of them to come clucking round if they heard he was there.
But he needn’t have worried. There were elves here from every section of Austria 1, all volunteers, for now under the command of a captain, a likeable larch from Hungerberg near Innsbruck. As soon as they’d all pulled together outside the station, the captain turned to Kiefer with a friendly grin.
“We’re in luck today, we can get the best campsite with Kiefer to show us where to go. There’s a lot of other people coming, I heard. Where d’you think, any good spots?”
“Yes,” Kiefer grinned back. “A sunny ledge, with an easy jump down to the path through the colony. We’ll be able to see everything that’s going on from up there.”
“Sounds great, lead the way,” said the captain.
Best of all, thought Kiefer, with a bit of luck, our fairies won’t even notice I’m here.
Austria 1 wasn’t a huge section, and they were nearly half of it. Some of them had had very long journeys, and Kiefer felt happy to see the weary faces look so glad at the sight of the pleasant camping place.
“Fantastic,” said Captain Hungerberg. “Rest now, you’ve earned it. I’m just going down into the colony, let someone know we’re here and see if Colonel Pesentheim is here yet.”
When he’d gone, Kiefer helped his new friend Eichel to enlarge their tent and sleeping bags, and then to gather firewood. They had to climb up quite high to do that, and stopped to admire the view. Kiefer found himself looking with fresh eyes at all he’d once taken for granted. How beautiful it was, the wide upland pastures stretching for miles towards even higher peaks, still snow-capped and gleaming in the sun. Around the mountains, bands of dark pine like ribbons, and far below, the still black waters that gave their lake its name.
“It’s hard to believe anything could happen here,” said Eichel. “It’s too peaceful.”
“When I volunteered for action,” said Kiefer, “this is the last place I expected to come.”
“But something must be going to happen, or why would they have asked for volunteers? I can’t wait to find out what it is. Come on, let’s hurry up and get the wood, then we can get down again and watch out for clues.”
When their work was done, they lay flat on the ledge, looking over it, watching everything that was going on below them. The next to arrive, flying in perfect formation, was a section from First Squadron. You could tell they were local by the way they skimmed every angle of the mountainside, and landed on a ledge that elves would have struggled even to reach. Kiefer got very excited then, hoping Sizzle was there, but before he could go and look, there were more arrivals. He saw their colonel, probably coming from the next train, and then a small group of elves travelling very slowly and looking footsore, who seemed to have come north through the pass. Last but not least, just as the light was beginning to fade, flying in impressive state with an escort from Fighter Squadron, came General Széchenyi herself.
“Oh, wow,” said Eichel. “This is big. I knew it. This is going to be so big. D’you think we’re going to attack?”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it? This is so exciting! I have to tell Ace about this.”
“Who’s Ace? Was he your team leader?”
“No, he wasn’t even in the same team. He was leader of the England team, and he wasn’t my best friend or anything. It was more like he was everyone’s friend. And whenever anything happens, he’s the one I want to tell.”
“Oh, I know,” said Eichel. “He’s your touchstone. Every year has one. In my year it was this great big oak from France called Pierre. He wasn’t a great leader or even very clever, but he was just so friendly and so nice to everyone, he’s the one we all keep in touch with.”
“It makes sense,” said Kiefer. “A person like that will pass the news on too, so everyone gets to hear what everyone else is doing.”
As soon as it was fully dark, Captain Hungerberg returned.
“Sorry I’ve been so long,” he said. “I suppose you saw everyone arriving? Had to stop to say hello. We have to be down there early tomorrow, the general’s got things to say. So up early, Kiefer! You’re the youngest, so get a good fire going. But for now, just look what the colonel gave me!”
“Schnapps!” yelled Eichel. “You are going to share it, aren’t you?”
“Of course,” grinned the captain. “That’s what it’s for.”
Kiefer didn’t know if a time had been set for General Széchenyi to address the troops, but if it had, the general took no notice of it. Kiefer had barely finished pouring out tea before he first saw her, striding towards the centre of the colony, like a moving flame. Her streaks were red and orange, and so were her clothes. The contrast with the greys and greens of the mountainside was striking. She didn’t call for attention. She didn’t need to. She just stopped to talk to the first person she met, and her loud, bright voice soon attracted an audience. Soon, sprites were pouring out of well-camouflaged houses to see what was going on.
“She’s started already!” laughed Captain Hungerberg. “Come on, let’s go and join in.”
“They wouldn’t dare!” someone was saying as they got nearer. “Immindingen? Under parliament’s control?”
“It’s true enough,” said General Széchenyi. “Little by little, chop chop chop, they won’t stop now until the whole realm is squashed like a beetle under a goblin’s foot. Well, I’m on their stupid list and I daresay some of you are, too. And I’m not hanging around to be re-educated, no fear. I’m going to march right up to their door and tell them to stop it.”
“What, from here? It’s along way, General!”
“725 kilometres,” said the general calmly. “As the imp flies. But I’m not going to fly. I’m going to walk. And I’m going to call in at every colony on the way and invite people to come along with me. And I’m starting right here. Where better?”
Kiefer stared at Eichel.
“I wasn’t expecting to walk to Poland!” he whispered.
Eichel turned his head to look at him, a dazed expression in his eyes.
“She’s crazy,” he whispered back. “Wonderful, but still crazy.”
General Széchenyi had paused to give people time to think, and now she continued more quietly.
“I’m deadly serious. You have hosted the rendezvous, and the army thanks you very much for that. But this isn’t just an army thing, it’s for everyone. I’m starting out in the morning. Think about it… if you’re angry, and you think you’re fit enough to do it, then I want you, and I’ll be proud to walk by your side.”
There was a moment of utter silence, then an outbreak of loud clapping. There were no sprites shouting out that they would come, and Kiefer hoped that the general realised that that didn’t mean they weren’t interested. His people thought about things before they made their minds up. She nodded briskly, as if she was pleased, so perhaps she did. As the sprites of the colony thoughtfully dispersed, the general beckoned the army sprites towards her, and one of the imps ran forward to hug the general. Kiefer grinned with pure happiness to see that it was Sizzle.
“Hello, Sizzle,” said the general warmly. “Hello, everyone – great to see you. Now, let’s get to work.”
“That is the most beautiful imp I ever saw,” said Captain Hungerberg dreamily.
“What, General Széchenyi!” spluttered Eichel.
“No, dummkopf, the young one.”
“She was my team leader,” said Kiefer proudly. “She’s very, very clever.”
“Great, you can introduce me,” said the captain, trying to smooth down his bushy hair. But he didn’t get a chance. As soon as Sizzle had finished greeting the general, she spun round.
“Kiefer!” she yelled. “Oh, this is brilliant!”
She hugged him so hard that Kiefer couldn’t get any breath to say, ‘Sssh!’ And then it was too late. Some of the Schwarzee fairies had heard her, and when they heard that name, they turned back. In no time at all, Kiefer was being swamped with hugs and kisses, and inundated with solicitous questions. Kiefer looked pleadingly at his captain, but the mean thing was laughing his head off.
“I’m so sorry, Kiefer,” he got out. “Here you are, at home, and no chance to talk to your friends. Off you go, take the rest of the day off.”
The fairies beamed with delight and bore Kiefer away. Kiefer pulled a face and mouthed his feelings.
“You are so dead, Captain.”
By the time Kiefer escaped it was nearly dark. As he was climbing up to the campsite, he saw that the others had been very busy. A large heap of equipment had been made ready for the long journey, and propped up beside it was a banner. Neatly painted in bright green letters were the words, March of 100 Sprites. It had been a long time since Kiefer had got up to any mischief, but he’d had a very trying day. He picked up the paintbrush that was still lying nearby, added an extra zero, then carried on up to the campsite looking completely innocent.
Sizzle was there, talking to the captain, and Kiefer saw his chance for revenge.
“Hi, Sizzle,” he called out. “I heard from Ace last night.”
“Oh, great,” said Sizzle. “Excuse me, Captain. It’s been really nice talking to you, but I have to hear this!”
Sizzle hurried to Kiefer’s side, and when she wasn’t looking, he stuck his tongue out at his captain. Honour was satisfied.
“A thousand?” said General Széchenyi. “Well, okay, fine by me. A thousand it is, then. Who wants to help me carry it first?”
She had plenty of volunteers, so she chose one of the Schwarzee sprites who had decided to come, and the banner was raised. Everyone lined up behind it, eager to be on their way. Kiefer’s senior sprite came to see them off.
“We haven’t all got the strength to do this, but we will be with you in spirit every step of the way,” she said. “Parliament has gone too far, and they must be told. The army and the colonies together, you are making a stand. May they have the sense to listen. Good luck for your journey.”
Kiefer was feeling immensely happy as they set off. He knew – they all did – that this was a big step to take, and that what they were doing would go down in history. To be part of it, and starting off from his own home, gave him a strange feeling he’d never had before. An older and wiser sprite would have known to call it a sense of responsibility. Kiefer had no name for it, he just knew it made him feel very grown up. Eichel grinned at him as they marched smartly side by side.
“Do you really think we’ll get a thousand?”
“How did you know it was me?”
“Oh, I don’t know… I just guessed, somehow.”
“I think I meant it as a joke,” said Kiefer. “But now, it seems right. Why not?”
“Why not, indeed,” said Captain Hungerberg. “We might get even more. You don’t know how deep a wellspring is until you crack into it.”
“I hope we go to my colony,” said Eichel. “Some from there will come, I’m sure.”
“Even if we don’t, they’ll be able to join us along the way,” the captain explained. “The general’s not decided on the whole route yet – it depends what happens on the way – but once a section is decided, it will appear on a website. I have no idea how they do this. It seems like a miracle to me. But any colony that has an Ally, or keeps in touch with Fjaerland, will easily find out the route and join in.”
Kiefer didn’t know how it was done, either, but he knew who did, and he knew that this was one piece of news that he wouldn’t need to pass on to Ace. Meanwhile, the new grass was soft underfoot, there were flowers nodding by every rock and stream, and the music of the cowbells was floating up from the lower pastures. Kiefer knew he couldn’t really walk all the way to Poland, but right now he was too happy to worry about that.
In the middle of the afternoon, when they stopped by a stream, and some of the fairies were ruefully examining blisters, Kiefer heard more about the general’s plan.
“You’ve walked far enough for today,” she told the footsore fairies. “Fly on to the next colony – it’s near Steinach, take someone who knows the way – and rest there until we catch you up. Then, some of the elves can rest while we march on, and then they can catch up by jumping.”
“That’s a good plan!” said a fairy gratefully.
“Of course,” said General Széchenyi. “It’s mine, so it’s brilliant! But the march itself will never stop for more than an hour or two, and I’ll be marching every step of the way. Because to me, this is personal. Parliament haven’t just done wrong by the whole realm, they have insulted every imp and goblin. Have you ever noticed that their troops are made up of only elves and fairies? Well, they are, and I for one am pig sick about it. They have treated us as second class for too long. We’ve no goblins here yet, but I’m sure we’ll pick some up as we move further north. My aim is to show parliament just what imps and goblins can do.”
“I will do the same as you, ma’am,” said Sizzle fervently. “If you’ll let me. I’ll only rest when you do.”
“You bet I’ll let you,” said the general. “Good for you, Sizzle.”
“Three cheers for the army imps!” yelled Kiefer, and no-one was too tired for that.
They were soon on their way again. The fairies flew off north, and the rest of them set a good pace, keeping to the highest and loneliest places, where they weren’t likely to meet any humans. It was late at night before they reached the colony, but the forward party had done a good job, and a rousing welcome awaited them. General Széchenyi thanked their hosts warmly and explained what they were doing.
“As you can see,” she finished, “we haven’t got a thousand yet, so if any of you would like to help us get closer, that would be fantastic.”
Lots of people wanted to talk to her, but she didn’t mind. She was too fired up to feel tired, and even when she did finally lie down to rest, she didn’t try to sleep, but instead got through to Fjaerland.
Commander, General Széchenyi. The march of a thousand sprites is under way.
A thousand? I thought you were going to get a hundred?
It seemed better, somehow.
It won’t be easy, hiding them, but you know what you’re doing. Where are you now?
Steinach. Off again at first light. What’s the news over there?
Elves sighted at Otta Station.
Ah. D’you know, I bet Gran was pleased to hear that. The waiting is nearly over.
I think you’re right, he did sound quite excited! Anything I can do for you?
Just one thing, ma’am, please – send a message for me to Captain Vidilica with our location, and get his for me. I’ll be in touch again tomorrow night.
Will do. You get some rest now, Dizzy. You’ve made an excellent start, but there’s a long way to go yet.
Kiefer had fully intended to send a message to Ace when they stopped, but he found that the distance was too much for him when he was exhausted. Ace and Will heard it all the same, though, because Dale had to email David with the information for the website. They also heard about the elves at Otta. Gran Starheim told them that, and they felt sure he was only gloating. By the time they’d put all the latest news on their map, they got so depressed that even Clover told them to go off to the pub and cheer themselves up.
So they put on their most fashionable human clothes and strolled through the quiet streets that were soaking up the last of the sunshine. The pub was peaceful and welcoming. The after-work drinkers had gone and the evening customers had barely started to arrive. The sunshine followed them in, making pools of light on the quarry-tiled floor, and glancing off well-polished brasses.
The landlord smiled at them, recognising them.
“Evening, lads. Two pints, is it?”
“Yes please,” said Ace, “and one for yourself.”
“You’re getting good at this,” Will whispered as they sat down at a bench behind a table.
Ace took a long swig of beer and then licked the foam from his lips with his tongue.
“It’d be more fun if we weren’t missing more important things,” he sighed. “Ace Foxfield patrolling Owler Tor night and day. Dan tracking Special Squadron. Kiefer and Sizzle walking to Poland with General Széchenyi, and Droz, Kes and Vin trying to join up with them. Stella and Bella whizzing about with important messages. Betch and the others moving north, and probably heading for Owler Tor, and even they probably don’t know that yet. Ross has been in action, so’s Lauro, and as for Wayne, he’s just awesome. Even Gran Starheim is in Vingen with General Herdalen. It just doesn’t seem right that we should be in a comfy pub drinking beer.”
“I know,” groaned Will. “Takes all the fun out of it. But at least we know what’s going on. We probably know as much as anyone does. It would be even worse if we were stuck here and we didn’t know anything that was happening.”
“Hi Ace, hi Will!”
They both looked up to see two young men they’d met before, Sam and Bobby, calling over to them from the bar.
“Dartboard’s free, fancy a game?”
“Why not?” said Ace. “Something different to think about.”
Ace found his gloomy mood lifting and his worries being pushed to the back of his mind as he gave all his concentration to the game. Sam and Bobby were builders, they said, in town for a few weeks working on a new house, but they seemed to have been playing darts all their lives because they were very good and hard to beat. They won the first game, with Bobby, who had the most devastating accuracy, just beating Ace to the final treble he needed to win.
Then they got some more beer, and Bobby bought some crisps. He offered them round.
“Funny that, how you’re never hungry,” he remarked, as Ace and Will shook their heads. “Strapping lads like you, can’t even manage a crisp?”
Ace was very careful not to meet Will’s eyes.
“All I’m hungry for is revenge!” he said lightly.
This time, he and Will took the lead at first, perhaps because they were concentrating so fiercely, to take Bobby’s mind off crisps. But it was very close, and the lead went to and fro right up to the last round. Sam, whose beefy hands seemed to cover the whole dart, threw his last shot with loving delicacy.
“Double eight,” he said. “Two short… but you’ll need a treble to beat that now, Will.”
He was grinning, as if he thought Will couldn’t do it, and Ace had to admit he was probably right. Will could throw difficult shots beautifully, except when he had to. Will licked his lips and tried to look as if he wasn’t worried at all, then took careful aim. The dart flew straight and true, but the placing was just a fraction wrong. The dart hit the wire and clattered to the floor.
“Hard luck,” Bobby sympathised, chalking up the final scores. “Two games to us… good game, though.”
They picked up their pints and wandered out into the little courtyard garden behind the pub. It was a beautiful spot, surrounded by high walls that were covered with climbing flowers, and no-one else was around. The four of them sat down at a table.
“So, how’s the house going?” asked Ace.
“Oh, pretty good,” said Sam with a grin. “We’ll be moving on again soon. Nearly finished what we came for.”
“That’s right,” said Bobby. “Sick of ladders, I am. Much quicker to jump up to a roof, isn’t it, Ace?”
Ace’s heart went bang in his chest, and he felt a rush of fear and excitement. Did that really mean what it sounded like? Yes, by the way they were grinning, it did. Somehow, they’d been rumbled… but that meant that these two weren’t really humans either. The most important thing here, Ace decided, was to sound cool and not at all bothered, no matter how he was feeling inside.
“I believe it can be, under certain circumstances,” he said. He finished his beer, just to look unconcerned, though he could feel how tense Will was by his side, and that Will’s hand was on his knife. “Why don’t you stop fooling around and tell us what you really want?”
“No hard feelings,” said Bobby. “Nothing personal – you’re good company, and you play a mean game of darts – but I slipped a little dose of something into that beer. The Premier wants you alive, you see.”
“But you’re a bit big to carry like that,” said Sam, ”even though you’ve only done half a job. We’re only going to shrink you, but I really do advise you to keep very, very still, unless you want to end up with a foot coming out of your ear.”
Ace yelled into Will’s mind, and Will jumped, right when Ace did, but he cried out in pain as he did so. He teetered dangerously on top of the wall. Ace steadied him, and they both leaped down and ran for it.
“Where to?” gasped Will. “We can’t lead them back to the fairies!”
“To the forest – maybe we can outrun them.”
Ace and Will tore through the quiet town, with Sam and Bobby quickly in pursuit, and gaining on them. A few elderly people out walking dogs stepped hurriedly aside out of the way. They didn’t know if they were seeing horseplay or a race, but either way, it didn’t worry them too much.
If only you knew! thought Ace. Oh, if only we can reach cover, ambush them, turn the tables…
His mind was racing ahead, making plans, when he realised that Will was falling behind. Bobby had outpaced the lumbering Sam and in a few seconds he’d have caught up with Will. Ace turned at once and instantly changed all his plans. He was getting very worried now about what they’d done to Will, but first they had to get away, and they weren’t going to be able to do that now without a fight. Ace ran past Will and drew his knife.
“That’s enough!” he yelled. “Back off, now, and get out of here.”
They took absolutely no notice. He hadn’t thought they would, but at least he’d warned them. He glanced at Will. He was pale and sweating, he looked terrible, but he’d drawn too and was ready to fight. Ace ran at Sam, determined to tackle the big one himself if Will was feeling rough. Sam had drawn his knife too, and was looking slightly wary.
“Not laughing about half a job now, are you?” Ace taunted him. Sam was lashing out at him, but Ace was too quick for him, constantly jumping out of the way. He was almost enjoying this. But then he heard Will, far too faintly.
Ace, I can’t hold on… we have to transform, get out of sight…
OK, Will. Just get some cuts in, not deep, just messy…
Ace could almost sense Will making a final great effort, and by the sound of Bobby’s yells, he was succeeding. The trouble was, Will was making a lot of similar noises himself. Ace knew he had to end this quickly, and he was having trouble getting in close enough. Judging by his human size, this elf was probably some massive Polish evergreen with a reach that would have made even a goblin struggle. There was nothing else for it… knowing that they wouldn’t dare kill him, Ace moved in close and took a slash to his face that nearly made him scream, but he’d got what he wanted. His knife slashed across Sam’s face right above the eyebrows. In a moment, he was too blinded by blood to see a thing. Ace jumped back to Will, pulling out his mobile phone, and keyed in 999. He went for Bobby in a flurry of blows, keeping him off Will, and spoke into his phone at the same time.
“Police,” he said. “There are two men fighting with knives, they’re hurting each other. Someone needs to stop them, fast. They’re on the A5, just west of Llangollen.”
He snapped his phone off and turned to face Will.
“Now!” he said.
It was slower than he’d hoped it would be, but they managed it just in time. Ace could feel Bobby’s hand on his neck as he rapidly lost height. The instant they were elf size again, he grabbed Will’s hand.
They soared off the path and into long grass. It would be enough. It was starting to go dark, Sam and Bobby would never find them now, so long as they could keep still and quiet. Will couldn’t speak or message, his face was screwed up with pain, but he understood what was happening, Ace could tell that by the way he was trying so hard not to let out a sound. He held Will close, not realising how much his own face was bleeding, and that he was getting blood over both of them. He was trying to think what to do next, but somehow, it wasn’t working as well as usual and he was feeling a bit dizzy. Then he heard the ominous wail of a police car’s siren.
“One of your very best, Ace,” Will whispered.
Ace cautiously raised his head, and when he saw the police approaching the two blood-stained men blundering about in the grass, he smiled, thinking that maybe Will was right. The police would think they’d been fighting each other, and there wouldn’t be a thing they could say to deny it.
All it meant, though, was that they’d shaken off their attackers. They still had a lot to deal with.
“Can you walk?” asked Ace.
“Not all the way back to town,” said Will. “And neither can you. You’re losing too much blood.”
“We need some help, then. I’ll phone Clover.”
“Ask her to ask Val to come and get us,” said Will.
“Brilliant,” said Ace. “Great idea. Let’s see if we can get to the roadside then, so they can find us.”
“Are all elves like these two?” asked Val with concern, as she drove her van back towards her house as fast as she dared.
“Yes and no,” said Clover, trying not to sound as worried as she felt. “All elves are completely insane, reckless and guaranteed to get into trouble if you let them out of your sight for a moment. But these two break all records.”
“Oh, be fair, Clover,” said Rose gently. “They’re the bravest and cleverest too.”
“This is true,” Clover admitted. “I just hope we can heal them. They look in a bad way to me.”
“Here, have some more tissues,” said Primrose, passing some into the back. “It’ll help stop the bleeding at least, until we can get them into a good light.”
Clover was horrified at first, when they got them into the house. They seemed to be covered in blood. Val and Primrose hurried to bring cloths and hot water, and Rose and Clover started to wash the blood away.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” said Clover with relief. “Ace just has this one big cut, I can fix that. I think.”
She concentrated with all her might, and slowly, so slowly, the edges of the cut began to pull together. Ace shook his head, tried to sit up, then fell back onto the kitchen table.
“They need some milk,” said Rose.
Val brought a bowl and filled it with milk, and Rose filled a little cup.
“Sit up a little bit, Ace,” she said. “Try and drink this.”
At first, he couldn’t do it, and milk spilled down his blood-stained shirt, but then he managed to raise his head, and drank the whole cup in tiny sips.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “Wow, that was bad. How’s Will?”
“More cuts than you,” said Clover, taking a break from fixing them. “But not as deep. Something else is wrong, he seems in terrible pain.”
“He was in pain before the fight started. Special Brigade slipped something into our beer. Whatever it was, it’s affected Will badly. They were going to shrink us. What do Special Brigade use to shrink people? And what’s the antidote?”
No-one knew, but Rose had a suggestion.
“Major Gourdon would know. I’ll get on to Signals.”
She went out into the hall, thinking of the distance to Norway and trying to concentrate. The connection seemed so very faint, but it got better as her confidence grew.
Rose Moseley, Search and Rescue, with an urgent request for information from Major Gourdon.
I can hear you, Rose, said Poppy. You’re doing fine. Keep calm, think slowly.
It’s Will, Special Brigade made him drink something and we don’t know what, but it’s made him very ill. He’s in pain and clutching his stomach. All we know is that they were trying to shrink him.
And you need to know the antidote? Major Gourdon is in the mess. Stay right there, Rose, I’ll go and ask him myself, it will be quickest.
It wasn’t Poppy who came back, it was Major Gourdon himself.
Time is critical, he said. How long is it since Will took the poison?
I don’t know… I’ll ask Ace… just a moment, sir.
She went back into the kitchen with her eyes closed. Everyone understood, and kept quiet, listening to her comments and only speaking to answer her questions.
Nearly two hours ago, Rose told the major.
What’s his pulse rate?
Very high, over 150.
This is not good. Great speed is needed. Do you have valerian?
“I have some in my garden,” said Val.
That could save his life. Pick the flowers, not the leaves, crush them into milk and make him drink it. He’ll be sick, but you must make him keep on taking it until his pulse comes down to normal, and for a willow, that’s about 80.
Thank you, sir, we’ll get right on with it.
I’m staying here in Signals, said the major. That young willow is the finest elf I ever met. Message me again, Rose, at the slightest change.
Primrose had already gone outside to pick valerian, and making the medicine was soon done. Will drank the first dose uncomplainingly, but after he’d been sick, he didn’t want to take any more and he was too ill to realise that he needed to. Will was strong and stubborn, and the fairies had no chance of being able to hold him still and force him to drink at the same time. Ace could have done it, on a good day, but Ace was very far from his own full strength yet. He tried – he tried desperately hard, because Major Gourdon’s comments had made him very frightened – but it wasn’t enough.
“I can do it,” said Val.
She picked Will up and settled him in the crook of her arm. Then with her left hand she calmly pinched his nose, and with her right hand she poured the medicine down his throat. When he was sick, she sat him up, held a bowl for him, then gently wiped his mouth and his sweaty forehead. Then she started again, lovingly implacable. After six doses, Will started to mutter.
“This is the nastiest cure I ever heard of.”
After eight doses, his pulse was down to 100, and Rose, Clover and Primrose left the room so he wouldn’t feel they were staring at him. Once his pulse was down to 80, Val came out into the hall to speak to the fairies.
“He’s himself again now,” she said. “Fast asleep on a cushion, and so’s Ace.”
“I’ll watch over them,” said Clover, as Rose got through to Fjaerland with the good news. “Just in case.” She smiled at Val. “Thank you, so much. We couldn’t have done it without you.”
In the morning, when the fairies got the full story, everyone realised that they were going to have to move on. Special Brigade had blown their own cover too, but the police weren’t going to hold them for long, and they could turn up at any time and start causing more trouble.
“I bet it was the Porsche,” Ace groaned. “It’s my fault. Too easy for them to follow us.”
“You couldn’t have guessed they would try a stunt like that,” said Rose consolingly. “But don’t worry, because we’re as ready as we’ll ever be, aren’t we?”
She looked at Primrose, who returned her smile quite sadly.
“Yes, we are,” she said. “And I can’t thank you and Clover enough, you’ve done so much for me. But now it comes down to it, I’m not sure I can go through with it. It’s you, Val, you see. How can I go back to my own world and leave behind the best friend I ever had?”
“Oh, Primrose,” said Val. “I feel the same, and I’d miss you dreadfully, but you mustn’t give up all of this for me.”
Primrose shook her head, and a tear rolled down her cheek.
“Unless…” said Val uncertainly. She looked at Clover. “Could Primrose transform me into a fairy? Permanently, I mean. Is it legal?”
“Yes, it is,” said Clover seriously. “It’s happened before. But are you sure? You’d be leaving a lot behind.”
“I am sure. I’ve no family, and the best friends I have ever had are all in this room now. I’ve said no to too many adventures in my life, through caution, or duty, or fear. This time, I say yes.”
Primrose jumped up and hugged her. They were both in tears.
“Oh, thank you!” she cried. “This is wonderful! It’s going to be so exciting!”
“It certainly is,” Clover laughed delightedly. “But it’s going to take a bit of time, and we shouldn’t stay here any longer. I think we ought to go back to Cheadle.”
“If they’ve been following the Porsche, you’d better leave that here,” said Val. “I’ll take you in the van.”
Val made a few phone calls and closed up her house. She and Primrose packed a few belongings into backpacks like the others had, and in a very short time they were all on their way.
“Let’s go to the lodge first,” said Ace, who’d spent the whole journey thinking.
The lodge was just as they’d left it, and the trees were in full leaf now, and the ground was thick with lush new growth. Moseley Wood was looking its best.
“Will and I are going inside,” said Ace quietly. “Take your time, take all the time you need. But when you’re ready, come inside too.”
First inside were Rose and Clover, looking exhausted but triumphant. Ace and Will were ready with cups of tea for them.
“Thanks, Ace,” said Clover gratefully. “She looks terrific. So much younger-looking as a fairy, of course… forty-four isn’t much at all for a sprite.”
“She went straight from being transformed into transforming,” said Rose. “She wasn’t tired or tearful at all, just fizzing with energy and happiness.”
“You two must have done a brilliant job,” said Will. “Your first mission safely accomplished, I bet that feels good.”
“It feels magnificent,” said Clover happily, and stretched out her legs. “More tea, please.”
In less than an hour, Primrose stepped through the door of the lodge. Her face still had the same wistful sweetness, but now her pale cheeks were brightened with softly curving yellow streaks, and her hair was longer, thicker and the palest yellow.
“What a lovely house!” she exclaimed.
“Make yourself at home,” said Ace warmly. “It’s wonderful to see you looking your real self at last.”
Then the door opened again and another fairy came in. A little taller than Primrose and broader-shouldered, and a little older, but still younger and stronger-looking than when they had last seen her. Her streaks were like a brushing of freckles, and her hair was glossy and intensely red.
“Wow!” said Rose, and she and Clover started clapping.
Ace stepped forward and clasped her hands.
“You were transformed to a fairy here at this colony, and we give you our place-name,” he said. “Valerian Moseley, welcome to the realm.”
“Thank you, Ace,” said Val gently. “Thank you for everything.”
Will just hugged her.
“I’m so glad you’re small now. I can thank you properly for saving my life.”
“After last night,” laughed Primrose, “and with Valerie being her old name, there was only one choice for her flower.”
“It’s perfect,” said Ace. “You look stunning. Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go and see the Allies!”
That turned out to be a bit optimistic, as it was a Wednesday and only David was at home. He was delighted to meet Primrose and Val, but explained he couldn’t stop to chat right now because of a deadline. His final assignment had to be in tomorrow, he said, but after that he’d be free all summer. So they left him in peace at once. The fairies went off to Abney for a flying practice, and Ace and Will went into number six. As usual, Will scoured the internet for news and Ace got on to Signals. Then they sat in the garden to compare notes.
“Droz’s unit has joined up with the march,” said Ace. “And a load of refugees with them, that they’d just liberated from a camp. He’s seen Kiefer and Sizzle, and he says that people are coming to join them from miles around, not just the colonies they’re marching through.”
“That’s fantastic. They’ll be up to a thousand in no time at this rate. Anything from Betch yet?”
“No, still not a thing, but lots from Ace Foxfield. Colonel Pentreath is at Owler Tor now, so that must mean that Betch and the others are too. Fighter Squadron are there, ready and waiting, so I sent a message to Dan to see if she was there too. She is so hopeless at keeping in touch!”
“I bet she is there,” said Will. “But where are Special Brigade?”
“Ace didn’t know that, but we do, because Bella and Stella are still tracking them, along with a couple of fairies from Intelligence. They’re supposed to be helping with local knowledge.”
“Local knowledge! Neither of those two had been off her colony before she came to Fjaerland!”
“They’re probably keeping quiet about that,” laughed Ace. “Wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose they’ve learned a fair bit since February, whizzing about taking messages,” Will conceded. “So where have they tracked them to?”
“Staffordshire, place called Lud’s Church, which is apparently a maze of limestone chasms, all overgrown and miles from anywhere. Their squadron is there too, and they’ve been there for three days now.”
“So they’re waiting for something?”
“Or someone.” Ace’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “I bet it’s General Huskvarna. Unless he’s gone to Norway. Dale said every available goblin had been sent up to Vingen, so things must be happening there at last.”
“Ah, that’ll be why we haven’t had any messages from Gran telling us off for getting caught by Special Brigade,” said Will. “He’s got a lot on his mind.”
When Tony and Laura got home from school and saw the van outside number six, they came knocking at the door. Ace and Will went with them to Laura’s house, and gradually everyone else came home and joined them, and the fairies came back too. The noise was amazing, with Sally and Gary calmly making tea for their family and friends in the midst of it all. Nobody mentioned that Val had woken up that morning as a human. It was as if they all instinctively felt that it would help her to be accepted without question as a fairy by humans who didn’t know she’d ever been anything else. One day, if she wanted to, she could share her story with them herself.
Finally, David arrived, looking completely shattered.
“Finished,” he groaned.
Everyone cheered, and Rowan gave him a can of beer and a little kiss on top of his head. He looked a lot more alive after that, especially when Rowan perched on the arm of the chair beside him, really close, to listen to the elves’ news. David was very concerned about Will’s reaction to the potion.
“Are you sure you’re all right now? Why did it do that to you and not to Ace?”
“No-one knows,” said Will. “People have tried to spot patterns, but it seems to be totally random. You never know who’ll have a bad reaction, and that’s why we’re not allowed to use them.”
“I’m surprised you’ve not been taught the antidotes, though,” said David. “I’m getting a feeling of someone in the army letting heart rule head on this one.”
“You could be right,” said Ace. “It is strange, now you mention it. But I’m going to ask Major Gourdon for a full list, I’m not getting caught like that again.”
“It’s a bit scary how they caught you in the first place,” said David. “Is that why you transformed the Porsche into an old white van?”
“Oh, we didn’t !” laughed Ace. “The van belongs to someone in Wales who doesn’t need it any more. But we can’t use the Porsche again, you’re right.”
“Just a minute,” said David. “Are you saying that parked in Llangollen is a fully taxed and insured brand new Porsche that no-one wants any more?”
“Here’s the keys,” grinned Ace. “She’s all yours.”
As David sat there in a happy daze, the fairies called over to Ace.
“So what’s next, Ace? Everyone wants to know the plan.”
“Ah,” said Ace. He tried very hard to keep his face straight and look totally innocent. “Well, our mission is completed, and that means we’re on leave until we get further orders. I know it’s not very exciting, but we do have a new member of our colony, and we ought to register her. I think we should go to Owler Tor.”